Sunday, February 21, 2010

Generating Student Discussion: TLI Panel Wrap-Up

Dear colleagues,
On Wednesday at noon, the TLI sponsored its first panel, on the ever-popular question of generating student discussion. Our panelists were Stephanie Mackler (Education), Becky Jaroff (English), and April Kontostathis (Education). Thanks to many of you for spending your lunch hour with us! Below, some of the highlights:

Stephanie began by exploring the big questions: why would we ever think discussion is worth having? What would it mean to say "discussion is a way of teaching"?

Here were some potential answers:
*Discussion shifts from disseminating information to developing powers of reasoning, to democratic deliberation. Discussion helps students gain the ability to talk through ideas.
*Discussion helps students practice speaking the language of the disciplines.
*Discussion shifts the discourse for students--it helps them tolerate ambiguity, see that there are differences in perspective, makes clear that for many questions, there are no right answers.

After this introduction, Becky offered some ways to prepare students for discussion. As she noted, students (especially on the lower level) often do not realize that they are responsible for their own learning. Generating knowledge is a communal practice, and we all share responsibility. To help students get started, she recommends:
*study questions--homework; get students writing and thinking before they enter your classroom
*have students bring things in to make the material relevant for themselves (objects from their own lives relevant to your course material)
*give students their day--debates and in-class projects where we be quiet and let the students organize the discussion
*push a little bit (do not be afraid to challenge students--to call on them if a class is silent, to question silences without being humiliating)
*make students grade participation; everyone evaluates the participation habits of others twice over the course of the semester (it was noted that this takes the pressure off professors, allowing for a more productive use of faculty time

April then followed up by explaining how and why she brings discussion into the science classroom.
*as others have mentioned, it shifts pressure from dissemination of information
*connects science to real world issues, making clear to students how the technology they study is used in society.

April mentioned some projects that sounded fascinating to this nonscientist: putting popular science articles on the syllabus, making students experts on these topics in advance, emphasizing creativity (how could you write a compiler, for example?).

In the large group, we discussed some of the challenges of discussion, and everyone had their own ways of dealing with them. The first--what do you do with students who dominate discussion? There were many responses, which included:
*flatter students on their oral skills, ask them to let others speak first
*limit students to a certain number of contributions per class
*ok to ignore someone constantly raising his or her hand
*use a roulette wheel that he spins to choose the next participant (so it really is by chance!)
*both Becky and Stephanie play a game called "popcorn," in which the first participant who answers a question gets to call on the person of his or her choice

The next big question--what do you do when discussions go bad? how do you salvage a failed discussion? This is perhaps the lingering question for many of us--cultivating discussion is linked to larger questions of student engagement. As Lew put it, "What is the magic? When does it happen? How do you cultivate a culture where it is ok not to be bored?" These are big questions, speaking to general problems of generating enthusiasm for students emerging from the K-12 system. We discussed a variety of approaches: "being the magic," as Erec put it--letting our own enthusiasm bubble over the students; exercises that allow students to take a stand through adopting a role; and the barometer exercise, in which students have to move around the class to physically inhabit a position they have taken. Our discussion Wednesday began by considering the value of discussion writ large, and ended with a burst of spontaneous enthusiasm, as faculty around the room offered their methods of getting students excited. Perhaps "Generating discussion" and generating enthusiasm can be mutually constitutive, one leading to the other and back again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thursday Link Round-Up: Focus on Student Learning at Ursinus

So it is week 4 of the semester, and as we dig out from the snow, it might be a good time to remind ourselves why we take on this onerous task of teaching. Cultivating our own best practices improves student learning, and reflecting on our own goals can help students articulate theirs. The links you will find below are all part of national efforts to develop stated, attainable, and assessable goals for best practices in undergraduate liberal education. A bit of information follows each link.

Many people on campus know that we are currently involved in a Teagle Foundation cross-campus study on teaching and diversity. However, the Teagle does much more.
The Teagle Foundation, according to its mission statement,

"provides leadership for liberal education, marshalling the intellectual and financial resources necessary to ensure that today's students have access to challenging, wide-ranging, and enriching college educations. We believe that the benefits of such learning last for a lifetime and are best achieved when colleges develop broad and intellectually stimulating curricula, engage their students in active learning, explore questions of deep social and personal significance, set clear goals, and—crucially—systematically measure progress toward them."

The last part of that sentence is, indeed, "crucial." In browsing around the Teagle web site, I've been impressed by the movement toward action that marks all their activities--discussions move to publications, publications to campus action, campus action back to cross- and inter-campus discussion. From what I have read so far, their materials are of a high quality, well-written, stimulating, and refreshingly free of jargon. The questions they grapple with are the ones we struggle with daily: what is the purpose of a liberal arts education? how can we advance student learning so that all students can be as empowered as possible? how can we use the unique qualities of the small college environment to advance student learning, yet encourage students to make connections to the larger world?

Here are some selections from their site:
The National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a three-year series of workshops on (guess what?) the future of liberal education

Here's a link to the Teagle White Papers, including a new one on civic engagement.
Note: you must download these documents from the White Paper link.

You may also wish to examine the LEAP (Liberal Education and America's Promise) blog--written by guest bloggers from educational institutions around the country. It is dedicated to a reflective discussion about "'liberal education' - how it is changing, why it is so important in today's world, and what people are saying about it around the country and the world.

There are also some forthcoming conferences you might find interesting, two of which are just down the road in Philadelphia:

Faculty Roles in High-Impact Practices, 25-27 March 2010, Philadelphia (Hyatt Regency Penn's Landing), sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. From their web site:

The conference calls attention to "high-impact practices"--including undergraduate research, service-learning, first-year and capstone projects/programs, and learning communities—that by their nature require students to be actively involved in their own learning. This conferences brings together "faculty members seeking innovative, robust, and practical designs for learning, teaching, and assessment approaches proven to deepen student engagement, and a network of engaged colleagues" and "administrators and others on campus looking to support and partner with faculty to advance the use of high-impact practices" throughout their campus communities.

Highlights include a Keynote on "Academic Excellence and Civic Engagement: Constructing a Third Space for Higher Education," and (my favorite title so far): "How Teachers Need to Deal with the Seen, the Unseen, the Improbable, and the Nearly Imponderable." Reading the AAC&U's discussion of "high-impact teaching practices," I'm struck by how nay of these we are already doing. The conference sounds like a great opportunity to learn how faculty at other institutions are engaging with similar questions, and to share what we have gleaned with the larger educational community.

Deadline for registration: March 1.

The AAC&U is also sponsoring the 20th anniversary meeting of the Institute on General Education and Assessment, 40-9 June 2010 (at U of Vermont-Burlington). The Institute focuses on helping institutions develop clear, coherent goals for general education, and includes a special emphasis on assessment. The deadline for this one is coming up soon!: February 19, 2010.

Greater Expectations Institute, 15-18 June 2010 (Vanderbilt U, Nashville TN)
aims to make teaching excellence inclusive, as colleges help "prepare far more Americans for success in a globally interdependent society." This institute underscores efforts to "make excellence inclusive," focusing particularly on underserved populations--students of color, of low-income backgrounds, of the first generation of their families to attend college. Given the changing demographic of American college students and our historic commitment to egalitarian education, Ursinus faculty might find this institute very productive. Deadline for team application submission: March 12, 2010.

Engaging Departments Institute, 7-11 July 2010, Philadelphia. The Institute "offers campus teams intensive, structured time to advance plans to foster, assess, and improve student learning within departments and acorss the institution." Bringing together teams of deans, department chairs and faculty members in collaboration, it aims to "advance integrative and engaged learning across disciplines." Deadline for team application: March 19, 2010.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Many of us have spoken to our students about their not-so-successful (and admittedly, often annoying) efforts at multi-tasking. Some of feel like we might have to multitask, all too often, ourselves. And then there's "texting-and-driving." This weekend, the Chronicle of Higher Ed took up the issue. As David Glenn writes,

"Students' minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has" ("Divided Attention," CHE 1.31.10).

Citing a study by Stanford psychologists Clifford Nass et al., Glenn worries about whether students' attentional habits have fundamentally changed. But there are opposing views. According to contemporary literature scholar N. Katherine Hayles,

"One of the basic tenets of good teaching is that you have to start where the students are....And once you find out where they are, a good teacher can lead them almost anywhere. Students today don't start in deep attention. They start in hyper attention. And our pedagogical challenge will be to combine hyper attention with deep attention and to cultivate both. And we can't do that if we start by stigmatizing hyper attention as inferior thinking" ("Divided Attention").

Read the rest of the article here. And here's a little quiz on how well we multitask, courtesy of the New York Times. What do you think? Should we attempt to stem the tide, forbidding laptops from our classrooms among other measures? How do we adapt to students who conceive of attention, work, reading, and communication in fundamentally new ways? I'd love to hear your comments, as we eat, prep, and grade our way to this morning's faculty meeting. And please don't text-and-drive...