The Office of Faculty Development

March 2015 Tuesday Tips

3 March 2015:

Ever fail spectacularly in front of your students? Now that our lectures can be fact-checked in real time, it’s harder to maintain the illusion of omniscience, and sometimes we just plain blow it: the syllabus with the mysterious missing week, the tech-focused class with the colossal tech fail, the carefully crafted exercise that leads students to the exact opposite of what we hoped they’d discover.  These episodes are awkward and embarrassing, but they may have pedagogical benefit.  It turns out that one of the most powerful things we can do to promote long-term learning in our students is to make it safe to make mistakes along the way.  How better to do that than to model failure and resilience ourselves?

You’ll be hearing more from CELT in the coming months about academic tenacity or “grit” and the “growth mindset” that fosters it; this is an area of research led by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, whose TED Talk(opens in new window) you might enjoy.  If we believe intelligence is a fixed attribute, that we have a certain amount and that’s that, we tend to be discouraged by setbacks and avoid challenge, Dweck’s research shows, as failure seems only to demonstrate lack of intelligence. With a growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can grow over time, failures are simply instructive steps along the way to a larger goal.

What if we could not only share this idea with students but demonstrate it? Surviving the classroom mishap good-naturedly is a beginning, but we might also let them in on our own learning processes and their many blind alleys and dead ends.  Our students, I suspect, believe that we were born knowing all we do about our subjects, that our disciplines’ citation formats are coded in our DNA, and that we produce research by sitting down for two hours of cheerful typing and pressing “publish.”  Opportunities to bring students in on the two-steps-up, one-step-back nature of academic work might be easier in the graduate seminar, but it can be done in other settings as well.  Rather than one giant all-or-nothing assignment, try assigning challenging projects in scaffolded steps, any one of which might involve a useful mini-failure. Or pause mid-lecture to let students in on the errors of your own—or the field’s—prior understanding of a concept, or limitations of current theories.  In one course I still trot out an embarrassing “how I used to teach this concept” handout that students love, that makes me cringe, and that, once we identify the problem, always cements their understanding of the idea.  Here’s a summary article on academic tenacity (PDF) if you’re interested in reading more.

  •  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

10 March 2015:

When they return from spring break, many of our students will begin work on final projects that they will present to the class. These can be remarkable works of creativity and collaboration demonstrating powerful learning outcomes. They can also be grueling exercises in PowerPoint reading that make the semester end with neither bang nor whimper but with “I already gave my presentation, do I still have to come to class?”

When done right, final presentations—by individuals or groups—are an excellent way for students to synthesize and extend learning and practice the real-world skill of getting a group of people to understand something important.  There are many resources for designing good final project assignments; this overview from Stanford’s Teaching Commons(opens in new window) lays out some good guidelines and creative ideas.  And since you have been modeling good presentation techniques all semester, your students know what an effective presentation looks like.  But how useful are these final presentations for the rest of the class?  Too often the rest of the class checks out, literally or mentally, from sessions devoted to presentations other than their own. But those last class sessions need not be a waste for all but presenter and instructor.  If the presentations are good—and should we presume anything else?—they should be just as valuable to the students as any other class session.  You may need to help them see this, though.  Here are a few possible strategies:

  • Make completion of a response to the other presentations a required component of the student’s own project. This can be as simple as asking them to fill out a feedback form with “One thing I found interesting in this presentation…” for each project, or as elaborate as requiring peer feedback on each presentation.  If you score the presentations with a rubric, consider having the students complete one for each other.
  • Beyond attaching points to paying attention, try giving added legitimacy to student presentations by entrusting them with real course content. With adequate guidance, students can do the heavy lifting on key course concepts or applications, which makes real the students’ transition from novice to something-beyond-novice learners.  If appropriate, you can use material from the presentations in a final exam.
  • Foreground the importance of interacting with other students’ projects by moving the presentations online and devoting class time to responding to and connecting the projects. PowerPoint, video or other presentation formats can be attached to blogs or discussion threads in Blackboard to facilitate responses. Students might also post viewing guides or follow-up questions for their presentations, so that in-class discussions are primed and ready. Here’s an article from Faculty Focus(opens in new window) that lays out this process.

This time next week you may have toes in the sand, hands in the garden, or at least a triple latte at your side while you move through the next stack of papers.  Keep your eyes on the prize.

  •  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

24 March 2015:

It’s your turn.  Instead of a teaching tip today, I’d like to invite you to share your own expertise by submitting a proposal to next year’s CELT Conference, scheduled for October 8-9, 2015.  The conference will focus on Academic Tenacity, or “grit,” the resilience in the face of challenge that turns academic potential into academic success. Recent work on the psychology of learning indicates that non-cognitive factors—motivation, habits of self-discipline, self-perception, and beliefs about learning itself—are vital to academic achievement.

In “Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills the Promote Long-Term Learning,” (PDF) (2014) Carol Dweck, Gregory Walton, and Geoffrey Cohen identify proven interventions that increase academic achievement by developing tenacity.  These include teaching students that intelligence is not fixed but can be developed, helping them feel that they belong and that the curriculum is relevant to their lives, and helping them to set goals and learn self-control strategies. Faculty can foster academic tenacity in their students by making their courses challenging and setting high expectations; scaffolding learning with feedback, support, and opportunities to fail and retry; and fostering the students’ sense that they belong and are valued by their instructor and peers.

I have learned this year that our campus is full of creative and effective teachers; surely you are building grit and resilience in your students.  Won’t you share with us? We are specifically looking for presentations on the following:

  • Setting high expectations and maintaining academic challenge
  • Fostering resilience and persistence, especially among underserved students
  • Linking learning to real-world interest and long-term goals
  • Sustaining effort and motivation
  • Developing a “growth mindset”
  • Meta-cognition, self-awareness, and self-reflection
  • Risk-taking and safe failures in the learning process
  • Formative feedback to promote persistence
  • Processes of revision and iteration
  • Fostering a sense of belonging in the classroom and beyond
  • Building an institutional culture of creative risk-taking
  • Other innovative pedagogical research and practice

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.