Use this year’s lessons to improve next year: Free webinar!

FYI, folks… the end of the academic year will be here before you know it. We will all want to sprint toward the beach, the bookstore and/or the bars, but how are you planning to use the aftermath of the year to your advantage for a better next year?

I’m not sure, either: that’s why I’m going to check out “Effective Strategies To Help Faculty Achieve New Semester Goals & Improve Their Teaching“, a free webinar from Innovative Educators (who, while a source of expensive paid webinars, has generous offerings of free resources to check out!).  It’s on Friday, April 11 at 2:00 PM CDT.

Check out the description after the jump!


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The path to super genius: Failure!

The Road Runner aggravates me.

He’s (she’s? I’ve never been clear) naturally fast and monumentally lucky. RR zooms through life effortlessly, without care or consequence… and never does anything new. No risk, no reward.

Wile E. Coyote is the quintessential perennial failure: always hunting RR (and occasionally Bugs Bunny), never succeeding… but the creative and innovative spirit of the guy just amazes me. He is truly a Super Genius.

As academics it is easy for us to stick to a predictable, risk-free routine — in our course content, in our pedagogy, in our research agenda, in our campus activities. We can stay safe and sane that way. But no guts, no glory. Innovative change requires change and risk… and invites failure.

I’m loving Buffer these days. In another great insight on productivity, Belle Beth Cooper shares thoughts from a number of professional high achievers on why embracing failure can be valuable. Let us all be confident enough to take professional risks, make mistakes and learn from them…

…and take some inspiration from Wile E. Coyote: what else but failure has made him a (self-described) “Super Genius?”


The Science of Failure: Why Highly Successful People Crave Mistakes

Posted on Thursday, March 6th, 2014

“I’m delighted to admit that I’ve failed at more challenges than anyone I know.” — Scott Adams

A friend told me recently about a colleague who is entirely open to feedback. When she’s told that she did something wrong, my friend said, she just starts over. She doesn’t take feedback personally, and she doesn’t feel upset about getting anything wrong.

When I heard that story, I thought to myself, “I wish I took feedback that well.” I can’t imagine anything better than an attitude like that, especially when I’m trying to learn new things.

I’m not at that point yet, but I know a lot of successful people are. I love to learn from the advice of others, so I thought I’d take a look at what some successful people say about failure and why they seek it out.

[…all is revealed after the jump!]

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Tracking the Elusive Engaged Student: “Daydreaming or Deep in Thought?” (Faculty Focus)

Those of us who try to cultivate an active, engaged learning environment in our classrooms can sometimes feel like frustrated big game hunters: While some of our prey make their presence known by jumping out of the bushes frequently, hands in the air and answers to questions at the ready But our ultimate target? the elusive Quiet But Engaged Student (intellectus introvertus).  Tracking this rare best down and confirming its identity can be tricky, because s/he looks a lot like a copycat species, the prolific Quiet Because Unengaged Student (attentionus outtolunchus).

Of course, our classes endeavor to capture the QBUS herd and transform them. But while the QBES is worth particular attention, we want to be able to identify, nurture and reward them. How do we do that?

I’m trying a couple of new strategies this trimester, which are also designed for additional benefits: (a) to make the evaluation and grading of class participation less murky, and (b) implement formative assessment for my class more regularly to identity tricky spots that need more attention. I’ve incorporated three such experiments:

  1. Student-generated criteria for participation: On the first day of class I had my students brainstorm different criteria for in-class and online participation (e.g., asking questions, answering questions, contributing ideas, activity in group exercises, posting to blogs or Twitter hashtags, etc.), and how each might be assessed for C-level, B-level and A-level participation. This makes the process transparent, gives students some ownership of the course, and puts them on notice that participation is taken seriously.
  2. Student self-assessment of participation: I’m having my prey track themselves! They are supplied a form each day where they can keep track of common participation elements (see above) with tally marks. This way not only can I identify the active players later on more easily, but I can also see who is more reserved / less engaged and tease out their presence in class more intentionally.
  3. Student self-assessment of learning: On the same form, I’m asking students each day to take the last few minutes of class to write down the most important idea they got out of the day’s lesson, and what 1-2 “muddiest points” of the day’s lesson they are still struggling to grasp fully. Just one day in, I’ve already noticed how much more easily I can key in on the areas of student confusion and provide a helpful follow-up in the next class period.

Carolyn Ives from MacEwan University just provided this discussion in Faculty Focus of how similar formative assessment moves can help the class participation big game hunter. Enjoy — it’s Student Season!

Rabbit Season, Duck Season


March 24, 2014

Daydreaming or Deep in Thought? Using Formative Assessment to Evaluate Student Participation

By: in Effective Teaching Strategies

Many instructors will argue that student participation in class is important. But what’s the difference between participation and engagement? What does good participation or engagement look like? How can you recognize it? And how can you tell if a student is not engaged?

Typically, instructors see a student who willingly participates as one who is engaged, and research shows that students who are engaged often take active roles in their own learning (Weaver and Qi, qtd. in Rogers, 2013, p. 11). However, research also debates whether we can actually see engagement: there isn’t always a clear relationship between mental and physical engagement. Meaningful engagement may be happening, even when it isn’t visible (Mayer, 2009, qtd. in Rogers, 2013, p. 12).

This is just one of the many challenges that faculty face while trying to evaluate class participation. Other factors can also make this difficult:

  • Difficulty in assessing engagement or participation by observation alone;
  • Attendance issues, particularly in large classes;
  • Varied emphasis on participation from course to course;
  • Varied types of participation;
  • Difficulty of documenting student participation in a reliable way;
  • Concern about biases; and
  • Concern about unfair penalization of shy or introverted students.

With all these challenges, some instructors opt not to assign grades to participation at all. In fact, Bean and Peterson (1998, p. 33) note “assessment and measurement scholars almost universally advise against grading participation” (Rogers, 2013, p. 11) because of the difficulty in creating consistent methods of evaluation. Other complicating factors include the fact that the promise of a higher grade does not necessarily ensure greater participation, and some forms of participation are more desirable than others. Some kinds are even disruptive: students who speak simply in an effort to achieve high participation grades are not always assets to classroom discussion.

Formative assessment strategies
So, then, how can instructors facilitate student engagement and helpful participation?

[…find out after the jump!]

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Sleep Your Way to Creativity And 9 More Proven Methods For More Ideas

I have to tell you, I felt a (virtual) spring in my step when I read this title from Belle Beth Cooper at Buffer, a blog platform that is rapidly becoming one of my favorites! Of course, nothing is ever really quite this simple… but these tips emphasize helpfully the connections between physiological condition, environment and the capacity for creativity in our professional work.

We often speak about being creative as something important to professional academic lives, from course design and pedagogy to scholarship to an number of administrative problem-solving scenarios. But we often don’t examine and reflect on what makes creativity more possible. So check this out!

In addition, you should really check out Buffer: not only does this service regularly provide great info on productivity and life hacking, but you can sign up for an e-mail update to get good stuff pushed right to your inbox. And it’s not so much a blog as a social media publishing service: you can sign up and use it to publish to multiple social media at once… if that’s your outlet for creativity. 🙂


Sleep Your Way to Creativity And 9 More Surefire Methods For More Ideas

Posted on Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Written by Belle Beth Cooper

We’ve written about creativity a few times on the Buffer blog, but it’s hard to keep track of everything we learn about it. One day I’m adjusting the temperature in my workspace, and the next I’m trying to put off creative work until I’m tired.

If you’re in the same boat, and you find it’s difficult to remember what will improve your creativity and when you should do your most creative work, hopefully this list will help you get it all straight.

1. Your brain does better creative work when you’re tired

Unlike solving an analytic problem, creative insights come from letting our minds wander along tangents and into seemingly unrelated areas. Though many of us identify as morning larks or night owls, peaking in our problem-solving skills and focus at particular times of the day, creative thinking actually works better at non-optimal times. So, if you’re a morning lark, your brain will be better at finding creative insights at night, when you’re tired.

The reason behind this is that a tired brain struggles to filter out distractions and focus on one thing. It’s also more likely to wander off on tangents. While that seems like a bad thing when you’re working, creative thinking actually benefits from distractions and random thoughts. Research has shown that we’re better at “thinking outside the box” at our non-optimal times.

[Read more of this good stuff at  Sleep Your Way to Creativity And 9 More Proven Methods For More Ideas]

“Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings?”

Higher ed faculty angst often about student course evaluations, and with good reason — while they are an important source of data, both for formative and evaluative assessment of teaching — there are serious limitations to what evaluations can tell us and what they can’t. I appreciate being on a faculty that requires assessment of evidence of student learning independent of student evaluations… because the evals should be opne of several data points, not the be-all, end-all.

For instance, many of us have groused at one point, “my evals stink because I push my students to work hard.” And there’s something to that: many students conflate ease of activity with increased learning and difficult struggle with less learning — when the best evidence suggests the exact opposite is likely the case.

Many thanks to Facebook friend and Augie VP Kent Barnds for the heads-up on this blog post from Nate Kornell’s “Everybody Is Stupid Except You” on the Psychology Today website.  I need to think about this one a while… there are lots of things unexplained that perhaps the underlying study of USAF cadets could reveal (e.g., what kind of student evaluations are being used? what kind of teachers are teaching the follow-up course?). And the speculated explanation — older and more experienced, but less charismatic and polished professors instill deeper learning then less experienced, more polished profs who get better student evals — needs serious follow-up study. But this is a great place to start!


Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings?

Do students give low ratings to teachers who instill deep learning?
Published on May 31, 2013 by Nate Kornell, Ph.D. in Everybody Is Stupid Except You

My livelihood depends on what my students say about me in course evaluations. Good ratings increase my chances for raises and tenure. By contrast, there is no mechanism in place whatsoever to evaluate how much my students learn–other than student evaluations (and, here at Williams, peer evaluations). So is it safe to assume that good evaluations go hand in hand with good teaching?

Shana Carpenter, Miko Wilford, Nate Kornell (me!), and Kellie M. Mullaney recently published a paper that examined this question. Participants in the study watched a short (one minute) video of a speaker explaining the genetics of calico cats. There were two versions of the video.

  • In the fluent speaker video, the speaker stood upright, maintained eye contact with the camera, and spoke fluidly without notes.
  • In the disfluent speaker video, the speaker stood behind the desk and leaned forward to read the information from notes. She did not maintain eye contact and she read haltingly.

The participants rated the fluent lecturer as more effective. They also believed they had learned more from the fluent lecturer. But when it came time to take the test, the two groups did equally well.

As the study’s authors put it, ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Instructor Fluency Increases Perceptions of Learning Without Increasing Actual Learning.” Or, as Inside Higher Ed put it, when it comes to lectures, Charisma Doesn’t Count, at least not for learning. Perhaps these findings help explain why people love TED talks.

What about real classrooms?

The study used a laboratory task and a one-minute video (although there is evidence that a minute is all it takes for students to form the impressions of instructors that will end up in evaluations). Is there something more realistic?

A study of Air Force Academy cadets, by Scott E. Carrell and James E. West (2010), answered this question (hat tip to Doug Holton for pointing this study out). They took advantage of an ideal set of methodological conditions:

  • Students were randomly assigned to professors. This eliminated potential data-analysis headaches like the possibility that the good students would all enroll with the best professors.
  • The professors for a given course all used the same syllabus and, crucially, final exam. This created a consistent measure of learning outcomes. (And profs didn’t grade their own final exams, so friendly grading can’t explain the findings.)
  • The students all took mandatory follow-up classes, which again had standardized exams. These courses made it possible to examine the effect of Professor Jones’s intro calculus course on his students’ performance in future classes! This is an amazing way to measure deep learning.
  • There needs to be a lot of data, and there were over 10,000 students in the study in all.

The authors measured value-added scores for each of the professors who taught introductory calculus.

The results

When you measure performance in the courses the professors taught (i.e., how intro students did in intro), the less experienced and less qualified professors produced the best performance. They also got the highest student evaluation scores. But more experienced and qualified professors’ students did best in follow-on courses (i.e., their intro students did best in advanced classes).

The authors speculate that the more experienced professors tend to “broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material.” (p. 430) That is, because they don’t teach directly to the test, they do worse in the short run but better in the long run.

To summarize the findings: because they didn’t teach to the test, the professors who instilled the deepest learning in their students came out looking the worst in terms of student evaluations and initial exam performance. To me, these results were staggering, and I don’t say that lightly.

Bottom line? Student evaluations are of questionable value.

Teachers spend a lot of effort and time on making sure their lectures are polished and clear. That’s probably a good thing, if it inspires students to pay attention, come to class, and stay motivated. But it’s also important to keep the goal–learning–in sight. In fact, some argue that students need to fail a lot more if they want to learn.

I had a teacher in college whose lectures were so incredibly clear that it made me think physics was the easiest thing in the world. Until I went home and tried to do the problem set. He was truly amazing, but sometimes I think he was TOO good. I didn’t struggle to understand his lectures–but maybe I should have.

It’s OK to be “less-than”: When professional humility is helpful

As you may have read on my “About” page, I am finishing up six years at my college’s tenure and promotion committee, and preparing to start a position next year as a faculty development director. So I have read countless faculty portfolios, observed numerous classrooms, and discussed pedagogy with scores of colleagues. I am now reading lots of stuff on teaching practices, attending webinars, and thinking about how to share state-of-the-art with my colleagues (and faithful readers).

I have discovered that there are lots of teachers who are better than me. There are lots of scholars who are better than me. Of course, I always had a sense of this, but the past six years have made the realization more, well, “real,” concrete and humbling.

But it has also been an invaluable learning experience that will help me be more effective as a teacher and researcher. Nicola Winstanley from Humber College shares a similar sentiment, as well as good advice on how to make “self-doubt” work for you, in Faculty Focus.


What Can We Learn from Self Doubt?

by Nicola Winstanley, Humber College

March 17, 2014

I would like to be able say of my teaching: this is clearly good; this is clearly not good. I would like to be able to think: I always do things right. I would like to be certain.

I would like to watch exemplary teachers and think: I do that! That’s me! I know exactly what I’m doing! Look how great this class is—mine is just as engaging.

Certainty is comfortable, after all—a soft cushion to sink into and relax.

But I don’t think those things. Instead observation magnifies my self-doubt, self-questioning, constant anxiety. Is this right? Is this good enough? The feeling I get in my stomach immediately after the intense transaction of the class itself is over: I’m not sure.

Observing Exemplary Teachers
As part of my professional development, I observed two classes. They were great classes—the students were learning; the teachers clearly liked the students; the students were engaged; the teachers were prepared. I could see the correctness of the structure, methods, and atmosphere. First-year students worked together to understand a Browning poem and, despite its complexity, recognized and named pathetic fallacy, enjambment, and misogyny. I was impressed. I could see their learning; it was clear, concrete. And, it felt good to be in the classroom. Comfortable.

Except that …

It felt terrible.

[resolve the cliffhanger after the break!]

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When to write? Finding the best time for your intellectual workout

I work out early in the morning. At times this decision feels like a painful one — usually in the 5-10 minutes after the alarm goes off. Once I’m past that pernicious obstacle, I can (usually) get it done, and then I feel a lot better the rest of the day. On those occasions when I’ve “postponed” the workout until the afternoon or evening after work, it pretty much never happens. I feel more tired, and/or other activities (family, work, Netflix, PlayStation) win my attention, and next thing you know the conductor of my evening train has punched my ticket to Rationalizationville.

As many of us likely feel, writing can feel like exercise: it’s good for us, and we feel great after a successful attempt, but it’s difficult to “find the time” and feel emotionally ready for the biggest obstacle: making the decision to commit to the first 5-10 minutes of the workout.

Jolie Jensen, a communication scholar (excellent!) from the University of Tulsa writes in Vitae about how to think about the relationship between our personal energy levels and work productivity, and provides some tips for finding the best time for your intellectual workout. Feel the burn!


The Hidden Key to Productivity: Getting Smart About Energy

Jolie Jensen, University of Tulsa

March 14, 2014

Want to swap writing strategies? We’re starting a discussion group on scholarly writing. Join us! Start a discussion of your own.

If you’re like most academic writers, you don’t pay much attention to the way your energy levels fluctuate as you work. Instead you just keep pushing yourself to get through the day.

What you may not realize: Protecting your energy is key to academic productivity. Sure, it is important to use techniques to connect effectively with your project and to schedule frequent, low-stress, high-reward times to write. And it helps to have an inviting, orderly workspace with “a door that closes.” But once you’ve tamed your project, and secured writing time and space for it, you still need to learn how to make the most of those periods of the day when you tend to be most productive.

[concrete good stuff after the jump]

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