Mid-Semester Evaluations: The Whys & Hows

Steve Volk, October 10, 2017
Contact: svolk@oberlin.edu

(Note: This is a slightly edited version of an article that was published on Oct. 7, 2013.)

Unidentified Women’s College (Boston Public Library) – Flickr Creative Commons

Mid-semester evaluations are not required, but precisely because they are formative in nature and relate to an on-going course, they can provide valuable information that allows us to make small changes to a course to improve student learning. These formative evaluations can also warn us of things we’re doing that might actually get in the way of student learning. And, finally, they afford another opportunity to discuss our pedagogical objectives and learning goals with our students.

Here are some suggestions: 


Probably the best time to hand out mid-semester evaluations is during the week (or two) before break. The last class before break is usually not a good time (students might have already left for break in mind, body or both). It is also nice to have the break to read over the responses and come to the first class after break prepared to discuss the evaluations with your students.

The Evaluation Instrument

There are a wide variety of questionnaires that you can use. You’ll find examples from 2-8 questions in length at the end of this article. In general, however, I’d advise you to:

(1) Keep it simple.

(2) Try to elicit narrative rather than relying on quantitative (1-5) scales. Getting, say, a “4” on a particular question really doesn’t tell you what you need to know in the middle of the semester (other than that you’re doing “ok”), and these evaluations are designed to give you different kinds of information.

One example of a simple evaluation is to ask just three questions:

  1. What has helped your learning in the course so far? (Prompt the students to be specific: think about lectures, reading assignments, written works, instructions given for any or all of those, discussions, etc.)
  2. What has gotten in the way of your learning so far? (Encourage the students to focus only on those things that you, the teacher, can actually control, not class time, chairs that are stapled to the floor, or dreary lighting.)
  3. What, if anything, would you like to see changed in the second half of the course?

You can also ask self-evaluative questions that are intended both to give you a sense of what the students in your class are doing to prepare for classes as well as helping them think about their own learning:

  1. How much time do you spend on the class, on average, per week?
  2. Are you getting to all the reading? Do you feel that you are spending sufficient time doing reading (or other homework)?
  3. How do you feel about your performance in the class so far? If you are not satisfied, how can you approach it differently in the second half?

billsoPhoto (Flickr-Creative Commons)

Handing out the Evaluation Form

Unlike end of semester SETs, there are no specific requirements for how you distribute the mid-semester evaluation, but some simple rules can help:

  1. Reserve in class time for students to fill out the evaluation form. Forms that they take with them to complete outside of class largely won’t be returned. It should take 10-15 minutes of class time.
  2. Tell students what the mid-semester evaluation is about: a chance for you, as instructor, to take the pulse of the class and for them, the students, to evaluate their own learning. It’s not a popularity contest (you’re not asking if they like you), and it’s not an end-of-semester “how-did-it-all-go” survey.
  3. Hand it out and then leave the class, having arranged for a student to pick up the forms, put them in an envelope, and either give them to you or drop them with a department AA. Even mid-semester evaluations should be anonymous. Since most work in most classes is done on computers, there is very little likelihood that you will recognize any student’s handwriting. If your class is very small (e.g. 5 students), you might just ask them how they think such an evaluation process should go.

Alternative Modes to Gather Mid-Semester Evaluations

Because the Squeaky Wheel Should Not Always Get the Grease: A Different Way to Conduct Mid-Semester Evaluations

Analyzing Mid-Semester Evaluations

The central issues with mid-semester evaluations are figuring out (a) what you can change now and what will have to wait until next semester; and (b) what you should change that students find problematic and what you should keep because they’re are important to what you do.

When you read the evaluations, I would recommend first reading the positive comments (what’s going well) before the negative comments because it is too easy to be swayed by the negative and not be able to see what is going well.

Depending on the size of the class, either certain themes will emerge right away or you will need to break the comments into categories in order to track them. For each comment a student has written that is about a specific aspect of the course – e.g., the instructor gives no guidance as to how we should be doing the reading; discussions are extremely well organized, etc. – make a check, and then see which categories have the most checks.

Separate the suggestions for improvement into three categories:

  • Those you can change this semester (e.g., the amount of reading; the lead time between when you hand out an assignment and when it is due; etc.)
  • Those that have to wait until you next offer the course (the books you have assigned, etc.)
  • Those that you won’t change because they are an important part of your pedagogy or approach to the course.

It can help to bring in colleagues to help you think about your options for making changes. These can be departmental colleagues if you feel comfortable with that; colleagues from other departments; or CTIE. You have no obligation to share these evaluations with anyone; but if you have any questions or concerns, it is good practice to bring in another set of eyes to take a look and give you advice. 

Dan bull / Tim Dobson / CC BY-SA

Reporting Back to the Class

The key part of the mid-semester evaluation is letting your students know what, if anything, will change as a result of your consideration of their evaluations. Thank your students for their comments and for their ongoing participation in helping you develop the course. It is always useful to help students understand that our classes are ALWAYS works in progress, that good classes always grow and change. 

Respond quickly. If you haven’t already done so, it is important to respond in a timely fashion to the evaluations, usually within one or two classes after they have completed them.

Give a brief summary of the comments that have appeared most often in their responses; you can also mention a few areas in which there were wide differences of opinion (e.g. one student responded that the professor moved too quickly through the material while another wrote that the class was going too slowly). Again, it is useful to let students know that just because they think something is true, it doesn’t mean that others share their observations.

Talk about which of their comments you have decided to act on this semester (and why), which critiques you agree with but can’t act on this semester (and why); and which of their comments you have decided not to act on (and why). This last point is particularly important in that it lets you return to your pedagogical approach and revisit why you designed the course the way you did and how your course design (present in the syllabus) aligns with your understanding of how students learn.

Be sure as well to let students know what they can do in the second module to increase their learning. If some students reported being confused about the content, invite them to your office hours, make sure they are in study groups or taking advantage of the many peer instruction, peer mentoring or other support services we offer.

Faculty respond to mid-semester evaluations in different ways: some only report to the class as a whole; some provide a handout of salient responses; in very large classes, some faculty design a graph or chart of the responses or post summary responses on Blackboard so students can see what others have written (always removing anything that could identify the student).

Whatever you do, try to do it in a timely fashion, avoid being defensive, indignant, or unduly apologetic, and use the opportunity in the way it was intended: to help you think about how to improve student learning, and to help students understand better how to think about the course in terms of its design and objectives and their responsibilities to their own learning.

[A tip of the hat to Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass), 2009, and teaching centers at Berkeley, New Mexico State, Cornell, and elsewhere.]

Midterm Assessment – Some Models and Suggestions

There are a variety of models you can use (some given below, others you can find at the CTIE website). The ones below are come from Brandeis University, Carleton College, and on Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svincki, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).] .

You will likely want to include some introductory language, such as:

  • I would like you to complete the following midterm assessment for use in instructional analysis and improvement for this course. A midterm assessment is more likely to affect how this particular course is being taught than one administered at the end of the semester. Please try to be both thoughtful and candid in your written responses so as to maximize the value of feedback.
  • You comments should reflect that type of teaching you think is best for this particular course and your particular learning style. Try to assess each issue independently rather than letting your overall impression of the instructor determine each individual section. If you need additional space please use the back of this sheet.
  • The purpose of these feedback questions is to help me understand how the course is going from your perspective, so that I can make adjustments, if necessary.
  • It has been fun working with you these past “x” weeks and I would like to ask you for a favor. I’d like to know what you thought about our course. Please fill out the following questions and return the form to me at … Your feedback is very important and I really value your input and ideas. Thanks!
  • Help! I need feedback. Since this was a brand new course I would like to know your impressions about it. What worked for you and what didn’t? Do you have any suggestions for the future?

The Form:

Two Questions (NOTE: 2 question formats can be done most easily by handing out 3×5 cards and then collecting them. This can be done at midterm or at other times, as you think is needed)

  1. Please identify those aspects of the course you have found most helpful or valuable for your learning.
  2. What suggestions would you make to me for improving the course?

Two Questions

  1. What is helping you learn in the course?
  2. What is getting in the way of your learning?

Three Questions

The above two questions plus: How can I help you learn better?

Four Questions

  1. What aspects of the course have been useful for your learning so far?
  2. Is there anything about how the course is organized that gets in the way of your learning?
  3. Are there any aspects of the course (lecture style, content, reading, discussions, etc.) that you think I should consider modifying?
  4. Is there anything that you need to do to improve your learning in this class?

Six Questions

  1. So far, what are the three most important ideas, sets of facts, concepts, skills, theories you’ve learned so far in this course?
  2. What classroom activities (lecture, discussion, etc.) have been effective ways for you to learn?
  3. What classroom activities have been confusing, or not especially helpful?
  4. What 3-4 things are going well for your learning in the course so far (please be as specific as you can)?
  5. What 3-4 things are not going well for your learning?
  6. What can I, the teacher, do differently, and what can you, the student, do differently to improve the second half of this course?

Eight Questions

Please assess my specific classroom behaviors for use in instructional analysis and improvement for this course.

  1. Clarity of teaching
  2. Effectiveness of teaching style
  3. Course organization and structure
  4. Pacing of course presentations and activities
  5. Clarity and appropriateness of course assignments and grading criteria
  6. Quality of interpersonal relations between you and me
  7. Quality of interpersonal relations between you and the other students
  8. Please identify those aspects of the course you have found most useful or valuable for learning.

Classroom Discussions: From “Civil Attention” to Real Participation

Steve Volk, October 9, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Why Discussions?

From a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. Public domain.

Because research over the past 30 years has demonstrated that student learning (from retention to student confidence to higher order thinking) is facilitated by active learning and student engagement. [Chickering and Gamson 1987; Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005; Kuh et al, 2005]

Because the person who is doing the work is the person who is learning.

Because the participating classroom is a place where students learn citizenship skills, including how to articulate their positions, how to discuss with those with whom they disagree, how to take responsibility for their actions.

Because even in the best lectures, delivered by the most entertaining faculty at the very top of their game, student attention will flag at a certain point and students will mentally check out.

Because we’re doing more than preparing students to be good at going to school. Learning is more than “making deposits” in our students’ brains [Freire]; learning involves helping students become aware of their learning (metacognition) so as to be able to transfer knowledge and skills to other domains.

Because all students, even the most shy, will have to find their voice when they graduate: they will have to learn to advocate for themselves, to speak up and, often, to speak out.

Need More Why’s? 

if you’re still looking for reasons why discussions are a valuable classroom practice, here are fifteen further benefits of discussions as gathered from S. D. Brookfield and S. Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2005), pp. 21-22.

Discussion, they argue:

  1. Helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. Increases students’ awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.
  3. Helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. Encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. Develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. Increases intellectual agility.
  7. Helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. Shows respect for students’ voices and experiences.
  9. Helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. Affirms students as co-creators of knowledge.
  11. Develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. Develops habits of collaborative learning.
  13. Increases breadth and makes students more empathetic.
  14. Helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. Leads to transformation.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, The Wise Boys: or, The Entertaining Histories of Fred Forethought, Matt Merrythought, Luke Lovebook and Ben Bee (New York, Edwd. Dunigan), 1842.

Some Cautions and Challenges 

  • Talking/discussion does not automatically lead to or result in learning, as we well know. If we allow it, discussions can lead nowhere and serve no learning purpose. A recent article by Amber Finn and Paul Schrodt (2016) identifies five factors that characterize effective discussion facilitation on the part of faculty. Good facilitation provokes discussion, organizes discussion, questions students, affirms students, and corrects students. (You can download their “Teacher Discussion Facilitation Instrument” here.
  • Facilitating good discussions isn’t easy, but neither is it impossibly difficult.
  • Accept that promoting effective discussions requires working through contradictions: think of them dialectically:

          Students don’t much like it when a few students absorb all the class’s air time by constantly           talking; on the other hand (see below), they are often willing and even happy to let others talk,           and even talk constantly.

          Discussions require a classroom environment where students feel – dare I say it without           provoking a “precious snowflake” attack – safe, yet learning demands that we challenge           assumptions and preconceptions, which can make students uncomfortable.

Consolidation of Responsibility

In Discussion in the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015), from which much of this article is fondly and gratefully lifted, Jay Howard writes about the difference between students “actually paying attention” in class versus those who pay only “civil attention.” Just as we know the normative rules of behavior in specific spaces (don’t touch the paintings in a museum, move to the back and face forward in an elevator, etc.), so our students know how to create the appearance of paying attention in class: they look at (or toward) us, take notes (or at least pretend to), and try not to make it totally obvious when they check their phones. Such behavior, identified by Karp and Yoels [1976], is called “paying civil attention.” (I once had a student with a head of long and curly hair. Occasionally, as I droned on, he would attach his pen to the locks of hair falling over his face and “take notes” by moving his head around, letting the pen make marks on the paper below. Now that was really pushing the boundaries of “civil” attention!)

L. A. Vaught, Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, 1902.

Anyway, the problem, as Howard points out, is that as long as students adhere to these norms, our assumption (except for hirsute note-taking) is that they are actually paying attention. They’re not, or at least, many aren’t, and the challenge becomes how to move students from “civil” to “actual” attention. We all know that discussions are an excellent way to do this. So, what are the best ways to do engage all our students in productive discussions?

Who speaks up in class? Well, actually, very few students, if the research is any indication. Karp and Yoels [1976] found that, in a “typical college or university classroom,” a small number of students accounted for 75-95% of all interactions. Perhaps things have changed for the better lately since their research is a bit musty? We should be so lucky. Howard, Zoeller, and Pratt [2006] reported similar findings more recently. They studied 15 sections of an introductory sociology course taught by 9 different instructors at “a large Midwestern university.” In a “typical” 75-minute class, they found 49 instances of student verbal participation. Fantastic, no? Not really. In an average class, 70% of the students didn’t intervene at all. Of those who spoke, 6 of the 39 students in class accounted for 92% of all student interactions.

Many colleges and universities created First Year Seminars to give entering students a small-class setting in which the skills of discussion could be encouraged. When Sheryl Baratz Goodman, Krista Bailey Murphy, and Mia Lindquist D’Andrea of Ursinus College (2012) studied a First Year Seminar course with only 15 students enrolled, they found that a majority of students adhered to “a norm of silence.” In other words, they didn’t see themselves as obligated to participate in the conversation. In the literature, this is called “consolidation of responsibility,” meaning that the majority of participants turn over the responsibility for engaging in discussion to a few of their peers. (This can produce the contradiction I flagged at the start: students are both annoyed with their peers who talk all the time and are grateful that they are there.)

Why does this happen? There are probably a lot of reasons why this happens from the perspective of the student, including the possibility that they aren’t prepared for class. Factors of gender and race clearly enter in, although not always in the ways that one might imagine. I’m more interested in locating what we are doing as instructors to actually make it easier for students to bow out of a discussion and turn over the responsibility of talking to others. And, of course, I’m interested in what we can do to make the classroom a more participatory environment that encourages actual attention through discussion. First, what we might be doing wrong.

What We Do That Makes It Easier for Students to Sit on the Sidelines

There are a number of things we do, consciously or inadvertently, which signal to students that we’re not actually interested in what they have to say. For example, we:

  • Don’t leave much time for discussion during class;
  • Shoehorn discussion into the last few minutes of class when everyone’s attention has moved on;
  • Don’t prepare students for discussion or hold them responsible for what is discussed;
  • Keep calling on the same 3-4 students, the ones who are quick to raise their hands, or turn to those same students when no one else responds (“Josh, you should know the answer to this!”);
  • Do nothing to rein in the dominant talkers;
  • Respond sarcastically or curtly to students whose answers are incorrect or not the best;
  • Ignore certain students because, consciously or unconsciously, we don’t expect much of them.

Illustration from The Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus (1847)

Making Student Participation Both Valued and Welcome:

More positively, we can encourage a broad base of student participation in discussions by:

  • Stressing the importance of student discussion to student learning. As we begin to align our syllabi to class, departmental, and college learning goals, it is important to be able to articulate why we do what we do, i.e. why we structure classes as we do; why we assign the readings we do; why we have specific assignments, and why we encourage discussions in class. Bringing students early in the semester into a “discussion on discussions” can help them understanding the impact on learning that (well-prepared) discussions can have.
  • Emphasizing the social nature of learning and stressing the evidence that the fact that they have a lot to learn from each other; indeed, that’s why they are in our liberal arts colleges and not just reading a textbook at home.
  • Helping students become aware of the ways they learn, and how discussions are one aspect of that.
  • Having standards for discussion and, if you choose, well defined rubrics by which you grade classroom participation. Some discussions can be loose and unstructured, a kind of “throat clearing” form of engagement before getting down to the business at hand. But for important discussions, students need to know that they are taken seriously, and that they need to pay attention to their peers. (You can do this by having students take notes of their discussions and report back to the class.) In Q&A type discussions, ask students for evidence to back up their arguments or to highlight the experiences that have generated their comments. The best way to have productive discussions is to establish a model of good discussions and to keep students to it.
  • Making discussion a part of our classes, not an afterthought intended only as a break from the lecture.
  • Demonstrating from the beginning class that we won’t allow a “consolidation of responsibility” to happen, that we won’t let a few students carry the conversational burden – even if those few are happy to speak up and the others are happy to let them do so.

Supporting Productive Discussions

There are lots of things to be done. Here are a few, many of which you probably know already – but it never hurts to review!

  1. Modify any classroom geography that discourages discussion: No matter how “bolted down” the classroom setting (e.g. theater seating, chairs nailed to the floor, etc.) you can improve discussions by hacking the room to encourage communication.
  • Pull the chairs into a circle or horseshoe, where possible;
  • If you can’t move all the chairs, have students cluster in groups of 3-5 students;
  • If you can’t move ANY of the chairs, have students sit on their desks to face and talk to those sitting around them. When students can look at other students, we increase the chances that more will talk.
  1. Take your time: Students, particularly those who aren’t quick to raise their hands, need time to think about answering, particularly if the questions are complex.
  • Pause for 30 seconds (it will seem like an eternity) before calling on anyone;
  • Give students a minute to write their comments before calling on them;
  • “Think-pair-share” – the “go-to” method here: a minute to write; 1-2 minutes to share with the person sitting next to you; 1-2 minutes to report back. (More on this here.) These methods also allow you to call on the quieter students rather than only calling on the ones who raise their hands: “I saw your writing away, Yolanda. Can you share it with us?”
  1. Provide feedback that can build and expand student confidence. Research [Fassinger 1997] has suggested that the variable that best explained student participation was student confidence: not an overvalued sense of their own worth, but the confidence that their input is valuable, will be taken seriously, and won’t provoke peer disapproval. (This last point is critically important but deserves a separate article!)
  • Supportive feedback is not just the “great job, Sonia,” type of comment. If other students don’t know why Sonia’s comment was awesome, they won’t learn from it, nor learn from the discussion. Reveal why you thought it was a good answer: “Great job, Sonia. You connected Weber’s notion about the state and the legitimate use of violence with the conversation we’ve been having about the Kurds.” [For more, see here.]

    Andrew Comstock, A System of Elocution, with Special Reference to Gesture, to the Treatment of Stammering, and Defective Articulation (1846).

  1. Help the class learn from mistakes.
  • If a student serves up an incorrect answer, you can either correct the information (“No, it was actually in 1917”), or ask someone else (“Nice try, Ellen. Anyone else?”).
  • When dealing with more complicated concepts, not just facts, it can help everyone, including the student who answered, to probe a bit further to see where their answer came from, since many could harbor the same (incorrect) idea: “Hmm, not sure I get that, could you add more?” “What makes you say that?” “Can you point to some evidence to back up your argument?”
  • When the answer has little to do with what you’re discussing and you want to keep the student, and the class, on track, you can ask the student to describe how it connects to what you’re discussing. (This approach can at times produce startlingly interesting insights, as students, not experts in our fields, may make different connections than we do. And sometimes, of course, it’s just off base.)
  1. Control the “compulsive communicators” and increase the confidence of quieter students to support their entry into the discussion. As argued above, most instructors and students have come to expect and even accept that a small number of students will dominate discussions. Sometimes these are students who have taken the responsibility to prepare for the discussion; sometimes they are students who dominate discussions by either preventing others from entering in or by driving others out. In both all cases, you want make sure early in the semester that it’s not OK for a few students to be doing all the talking.
  • Help all students prepare for discussions and hold them responsible.
  • Encourage other students to speak up and don’t let compulsive communicators dominate discussions: “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t yet spoken;” “I’m waiting for someone in the back row to speak up;” “John’s already answered twice: I need someone else.”
  • Walk over to different parts of the class and pose questions from there.
  • Encourage quieter students by giving them time to think (one-minute papers, etc.).
  • Avoid getting into a back-and-forth with a compulsive communicator: “Who wants to respond to John’s argument?”
  • Talk to compulsive communicators after class (in your office) and explain why you appreciate their comments (if you do), but you’d now appreciate it if they could to sit on their hands for a bit to let others talk. If you think there are different issue involved (e.g., a white student who continues to dominate the conversation and is oblivious to the indications that students of color aren’t talking and are becoming frustrated, etc.) explain what you think is happening and why it’s important for them to be aware of how their domination of the conversation impacts the class.

    Tiago Ribeiro (Braga, Portugal), 2009. Public domain.

  1. Experiment with well-established approaches.
  • “Muddy Point papers”: Reserve the last 2-3 minutes of class for students to write on a slip of paper what they found most confusing about that day’s class. Collect them, and begin the next class with some of the questions raised, particularly if a lot of students wrote the same thing. “A number of you found my explanation of recombinant DNA less than enlightening. Can someone try their hand at explaining it?”
  • “Most Important Point papers”: As with the muddy points, ask students to write what they thought the most important point covered in the class was. While these are usually anonymous, you can ask that they sign the slips they handed in and, in that case, begin class by asking a student to explain why she thought the specific point she raised was important; it’s a good opening to call on the less talkative students. The added value of this approach is that students can always duck the “muddy point paper” by saying that everything was crystal clear, no problems at all.
  • Online discussion boards: Similarly, have students answer questions online, collect them before class, and ask some students – again, the least talkative – to go over the points they raised in the homework. (More on this here.)
  1. Attend to the needs of students for whom English is not their home language. Fast-paced discussions, cold-calling, and a culture that favors hand-raising can silence or confuse multilingual students.
  • It is particularly important to understand that students for whom English is not their home language can benefit from all the approaches outlined above, particularly giving students time to think before they answer, putting them in small groups to discuss specific questions before the group reports back to the class, and using on-line forums outside of class and short writing opportunities in class. This is yet another indication of the value of universal design principles: when we think about how to make our classroom environment fully inclusive, we benefit all the students.

By Way of Conclusion: Forms of Silence

Paul Goodman

I just came upon Paul Goodman’s discussion of speaking and silence in Maria Popova’s most wonderful “Brain Pickings” blog. In Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry (1973), Goodman  enumerated nine kinds of silence, reminding us that silence itself can be productive, and that the goal here, as always, is student learning, not student talking. There are forms of silence, just as there are ways of talking, that we want to encourage.

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.



Brookfield, S.D. and Preskill, S. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” AAHE Bulletin, 1987, 7 (39), 3-7.

Fassinger, P.A. “Understanding Classroom Interaction: Students’ and Professors’ Contributions to Students’ Silence.” Journal of Higher Education, 1995, 66(1), 82-96.

Finn, A. N. and Schrodt, P. “Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement.” Communication Education, 2016, 65 (4), 445-462.

Freire, Paolo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.

Goodman, S.B., Murphy, K.B., and D’Andrea, M.L. “Discussion Dilemmas: An Analysis of Beliefs and Ideas in the Undergraduate Seminar.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2012, 27(1), 1-21.

Howard, J. Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Karp, D.A. and Yoels, W.C. “The College Classroom: Some Observations on the Meaning of Student Participation,” Sociology and Social Research, 1976, 60(4), 421-439.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H. , Whitt, E.J., and Associates. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Athletics, Academics and Liberal Arts Learning

Steve Volk, October 2, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

I left the discussion that Yago Colás organized on “Integrating Athletics and Academics” last Monday (the first of three) with much to think about (and many reasons to recommend the future gatherings). The conversation touched on a number of themes spurred by Yago’s initial questions: Do faculty think more positively of Conservatory students who practice their instruments many hours a week than of student athletes who spend an equal amount of time on the practice fields? Does team sports generate a toxic masculinity? Does the left-leaning culture at Oberlin make “team spirit” a source of suspicion or derision? Are individual competitors looked at critically for being, well, competitive?

These are great questions, and I found the discussion they generated both informative and challenging. But the theme that most caught my attention was the central organizing question around which these conversations are being framed: What can we do to better “integrate athletics and academics”?

On the way out of the meeting, I caught up with Nusha Martynuk from Dance, who also had attended. As a dancer, she didn’t have to be convinced of the importance of athletics and physicality to what we do at a liberal arts college. But she also gave me a brief history of dance at Oberlin, detailing how it migrated from Physical Education into “academics,” via the Theater Department. The conversation encouraged me to look into it a bit more.

While manual labor (more on “Learning and Labor” shortly) was all the physical activity most people needed in the early 19th century, the development of sports and gymnastics became a part of the extracurricular programs that sprang up in schools and colleges in the later part of the century. Dance itself, however, was viewed a bit more cautiously. Either it was “praised as conjoining the physical and the metaphysical, or damned as downright immoral,” according to Stephanie Woodard, an assistant professor of dance at Oberlin from 1979 to 1984.

“Interpretive dance pose,” Oberlin College’s Memorial Arch, 1917; Oberlin College Archives, papers of Delphine Hanna

Oberlin permitted dance on an informal basis until its status was elevated with the appointment of Delphine Hanna, a medical doctor with dance training, who had studied with teachers from Harvard’s physical education program. At Oberlin, she intended to “make the body responsive to the mind and a more delicate instrument of expression.” In the late 1890s, she set up one of the first four-year degree programs in physical education, later becoming the first female professor of physical education in the United States. Fast forward to 1970 when dance was more widely recognized as a performing art and Betty Lind moved it out of Phys Ed and, into the theater program, where it remained until it formed its own department in 2013-2014.* (In the 1960s, African American students associated with the Black Arts Movements, had organized their own dance collective.)

Well! I bet you didn’t expect a history of Dance at Oberlin! Yet a look into this history helped me better understand why the challenge of “integrating athletics and academics” could better be addressed when it is reconceived. Hanna’s quote provides a hint to the answer: dance, organized physical activity, would “make the body responsive to the mind…”

Let’s see if I can explain further.

Unhelpful Binaries

Many scholars challenge the binary oppositions that are central to how the West often organizes its subjects of inquiry. While the scholarship of gender and sexuality is critical in disclosing this, other binaries equally come to mind: body/mind, cognitive/affective, learning/ labor, and academics/athletics.

Without engaging the substantial work done in this area, I would only say that not only do binaries negate additional possibilities, but the polarities expressed in binaries discount the ways in which each pole is present or implicated in the other, the way that dying is a part of living, for example, or how emotions can shape cognition, and labor magnify learning. In the same sense, to frame the discussion as “academics” and “athletics” can get in the way of understanding how they have, and can continue to, supporting learning, not in separate domains but together.

My argument is not that “athletics” and “academics” are the same and interchangeable. Training for basketball is not the same as taking a class on race and the NBA.  This is why is why many colleges, including Oberlin, have edged away from giving “academic” credit for participation in team sports. This is true even if, for many students, the lessons learned on the soccer pitch or the baseball diamond may continue to shape their lives long after the facts they learned in a history class have drifted away.

Rather, I’m suggesting that we think beyond the binary when we pose questions of “athletics and academics.” There are certainly things we can do within our more traditional, binary, framework to better “integrate” the two: adding more courses on sports and society (a need that has only been magnified by the tweets pouring out of the White House in the last week), continuing discussions of gender and sexuality among our student-athletes, bringing elements of “north campus” athletics to the “south campus,” and visa versa.  All of these steps are important, but significant integration will remain marginal unless we actually confront the binary itself by focusing instead on the work of learning that defines us as a liberal arts college.

Women’s Gymnasium and Field Association, Oberlin College, early 20th century; Oberlin Archives

Our Work at Liberal Arts Colleges

Colleges and universities produce new knowledge, revise what we previously valued as knowledge, preserve and enhance cultures and cultural literacies, address difficult social problems, socialize 18-22 year olds, shape the nation’s citizenry, perpetuate or challenge inequalities, and much else. But there is one task that remains central to our existence as liberal arts colleges: we are here to enhance our students’ learning. Now, what that means has changed in the last few decades, and requires some unpacking.

If I were asked to selected only two contributions that have most influenced thinking about teaching and learning in higher education in the last many decades, I would point to “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives” (first published in 1956, and later revised in 2001), which helped us distinguish between “lower-order” thinking (knowledge/remembering, understanding) and “higher-order” thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and, in the revised taxonomy, creation). The second contribution comes from Robert Barr and John Tagg, whose 1995 article in Change Magazine, “A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” observed that “A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education.” “In its briefest form,” the authors argued, “the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning.” And, they add, “This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted.” 

Bloom (and the revisions to his taxonomy) foregrounds the importance of helping students become higher-order – critical – thinkers. Barr and Tagg argue that we do this by shifting from teacher-centric (“sage on the stage”) to student-centric approaches. The work of the college, then, is to promote and advance student learning everywhere we encounter an opportunity: in classrooms and laboratories, practice rooms, concert halls, and studios, in libraries and museums, residential halls and coffee shops, and in the gym, locker rooms and on the courts and athletic fields. As the Higher Education Commission (the independent corporation that oversees accreditation in the North Central region) has recently specified, “A focus on student learning encompasses every aspect of students’ experience at an institution: … how well they are informed and guided before and through their work at the institution; the breadth, depth, currency and relevance of the learning they are offered; their education through cocurricular offerings; the effectiveness of their programs; and what happens to them after they leave the institution.”

When we foreground the “learning proposition” underpinning liberal arts colleges, we will better challenge and then reconfigure the binaries that have put much of what we do in different, and often oppositional, domains. For example, between cognitive and affective: research has shown that the emotions can have a profound impact on how we learn and how much we retain of what we have learned; between the body and the mind (think back to Hanna and dance): research has shown how learning is embodied, how physical well-being can boost learning; and between learning and “labor”: we probably know from our own courses that assignments that are “real-world” oriented, geared around real-world problems, produced for a “real-world” audience, or carried out in actual communities, will produce more student engagement and, more often than not, more significant student learning outcomes than assignments whose audience is limited to a single professor.

Academics and athletics must be integrated at the level of learning. What students are learning via physical activity, team sports, or individual competition not only impacts their learning in other domains, but the dispositions they can develop via athletics will increase their chances for success when they graduate: resilience, self-awareness, communication, collaboration, empathy, discipline, self-control.

These lessons seem to be well understood by student-athletes. As just one case among many, we can point to Kate Frost ’15, currently enrolled in Vanderbilt’s med school. Frost, a double major in biology and neuroscience with a minor in chemistry, was a dual-sport athlete: soccer and lacrosse. She says she often talks with other student-athletes in her med school classes about how the lessons learned in sports have “been extremely helpful in transitioning into medical school… A lot of medicine these days is collaborative,” she observed recently, “working in groups with others of different backgrounds and skill sets, and I think my experiences in both athletics and academics helped me to become an effective team member and leader.”

If our student-athletes understand this, perhaps what is still needed is a more purposeful approach to the fundamental integration of academics and athletics on the part of instructors. The Dean’s office has recently requested that College faculty specify their courses’ learning goals in their Spring ’18 syllabi. We could usefully ask coaches to engage in a similar exercise. Then faculty and coaches, working together and based on specified outcomes, could concretely plan for the ways that the skills and dispositions gained in the classrooms, and those acquired on the athletic fields and courts, might be more purposefully leveraged for student learning. This doesn’t mean giving “academic” credit to team sports, but rather that both coaches and classroom teachers need to consider for themselves and discuss with their students the learning goals that scaffold their instructional designs. For a math teacher, these might include both the knowledge needed to solve differential equations and the patience, perseverance, and planning needed to get there. For a soccer coach, it might be corner-kick techniques, but also the importance of team members being able to encourage their peers to work cohesively on the pitch. Those involved in “mind” skills and “body” skills need to talk to one another about helping students adapt and transfer the skills learned in one area to other domains.  

Learning and Labor at Oberlin

In conclusion, I want to return to one of the binaries that defined Oberlin at its founding, learning and labor, but was gradually ignored. (Berea College, strongly influenced by Oberlin, retains this orientation to this day.) What I find so interesting about this foundational “binary,” is that it truly showed the way that the two elements were constitutive of each other, supported each other’s work, in a way that we can imagine “athletics and academics” working together today.

The implementation of “manual labor principles” at Oberlin’s 1833 founding are fascinating. [See Paul Goodman, “The Manual Labor Movement and the Origins of Abolitionism,” Journal of the Early Republic 13:3 (Autumn 1993): 355-388. Thanks to Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser for pointing me to it.]  Oberlin, according to Goodman, illustrated “the link between manual labor and a critical attitude towards conventional hierarchies of race, class, and gender… In upholding the nobility of all forms of toil, manual laborism rejected both class hubris and caste prejudice, North and South. And by arguing, as at Oberlin, that manual labor ennobled women, too, manual laborites challenged the conservative tendencies inherent in the ideology of separate spheres that sought to sustain patriarchy through the creation of a bourgeois ideal of womanhood that sheltered ‘respectable’ women from manual labor and the market” (p. 362-63). At Oberlin, Goodman continues, “manual laborism nurtured a matrix of ideas and experiences that helped” foster abolitionism (364). Learning and labor, conceived together and as a part of an educational and social project, were seen as essential elements in the formation of students who would “devote[…] themselves to the common good, submerging individual aspiration in millennial enterprise and invest work with a higher purpose than advancing personal fortunes” (380). 

There’s no need to adopt the utopian fervor that marked Oberlin’s founding to make the point – although exceptional fervor might be welcome in this moment of national buffeting. What’s needed is a determined effort to reframe our conversations about “athletics” and “academics” by advancing a discussion of how we can reach our goal of supporting student learning by taking advantage of the lessons that take place in all parts of the campus and community. And that means a serious discussion on all parts of campus about what we are doing to help students take ownership over their learning and reflect on what they are learning, how they are learning, and where that learning takes place. We would all benefit from a reexamination of what is the best “matrix of ideas and experiences” that can spur learning.

*Updated Oct. 10, 2017

To Whom It May Concern: Writing Letters of Recommendation

Steve Volk, September 25, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

“Hey, Professor,” the email began. (What’s with the omnipresent “Hey.” Even on “Morning Edition,” it’s “Hey, Rachel” and “Hey, David.” OK, stay focused!) “Hey, Professor. I’ve been thinking a lot about next year and have decided to go back to school. I understand if you don’t have time, but I’d be hugely grateful if you’d write me a letter of recommendation.”

We’re rapidly moving into the recommendation-writing season. If you’re new to your position, you’ll only get a few entreaties. After you’ve grown old at your post, the requests can multiply into dozens or scores. And take it from someone who has put in some time here: the requests don’t stop after a student has graduated. (Two requests materialized in my inbox this morning; I’m still asked for letters from students who graduated in the 1990s.)

We all know that we’re not evaluated on the number of letters we write, and certainly not on their quality or impact. Feel free to put those metrics in your tenure file, but you can be confident in the knowledge that the peer reviewed articles you could have written in the same time will “count” more.

And yet I’m not alone in arguing that the letters of recommendation we write are among the most important of our tasks as teachers, that the time we put into them can be vital. They are about our students’ future.  Now, an enthusiastic letter will likely not win an unqualified student a fellowship – nor should it – but a poorly written or meh letter can damage the prospects of a highly qualified student to get into the program that can make a huge difference in her future. These letters, then, can be critically important.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind when writing letters of recommendation.

Getting to No

The first thing to consider is actually whether you can or should be writing for the student who has requested your support. There are bundles of reasons why we need to make every possible effort to aid those students who deserve our support. But there are also reasons to respond, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t.”

  • At the end of the day, we’re only human. If you are utterly overwhelmed with work, personal issues, or both, haven’t had time for a shower in 2 weeks and you’ve forgotten what your kids look like, it’s better to say no than to write a letter that will be lukewarm or sound insincere. Better to be honest with the requester and say that, at this moment, someone else could do a better job.
  • When students demand that you drop everything and post a letter — deadline TOMORROW — on their behalf, it probably doesn’t say a lot about their ability to plan ahead and isn’t considerate of your time. “Sorry, next time you need to ask sooner.”

Saying “no” in certain cases can be the best approach for the applicant as well:

  • If you think you shouldn’t write a letter for a student because she isn’t qualified or deserving, the best approach is to sit down with her (if still on campus, or by email if not) and say why you don’t think you can write a letter. It’s not easy to say these things, but it is much better for the student to know than for you to write a letter that would seriously damage her chances while she was left thinking that you were writing in her support. Further, if it’s your reasoned belief that the student won’t likely succeed in an intended field, he should know. A note of caution: Try to be aware of any implicit biases that might be behind your assessment – at least ask yourself some questions in that regard – but at the end of the day, you are the one being asked to write and if you don’t think you can write a strong letter, you need to say so and inform the student as to why you’re declining the request. The purpose of writing a letter of recommendation is to help students get what they are applying for, not to undermine them.
  • In very high-stakes competitions (e.g. national fellowships, etc.), it is no favor to the applicant to write a letter on their behalf when you don’t know them well and can’t speak fully about their work. I can’t write a strong letter filled with the needed evidence of excellence for a student who was in a 50-person survey three years before. Sometimes I’ll invite students to return if they haven’t been able to find someone else who knows them better to agree to write for them. But at least the student will know that the letter I write will be limited.

NOTE TO ADVISERS AND FIRST YEAR SEMINAR INSTRUCTORS: It’s never too soon to let students in on the fact that, some day, they want their instructors to write recommendation for them. They need to be cultivating relationships with the faculty that will facilitate this. This is particularly important for first-generation or under-represented students who may not be familiar with ways of leveraging their undergraduate education toward their future success.

  • Finally, and returning to the “we’re only human” theme: Let’s face it:  for whatever reason, there are some students who have rubbed us the wrong way. They can be smart, accomplished, and probably deserving of our support. But if you feel that you can’t let go of whatever it was about that student that pissed you off, better to say no than to sabotage their chances of success.


Getting to Yes

Not all requests are the same, and you should take the “ask” into consideration to try to get to yes.

  • Low-stakes recommendations (e.g., for study-abroad program, non-technical summer internships, etc.) can be written relatively quickly. These letters mostly should stress that the student is responsible, mature, works well in a group setting, can be expected to take initiative, etc. If you can say any of these things, just say yes.
  • Medium-to-high stakes recommendations (e.g., for graduate or professional schools, service programs such as Americorps, some on-campus jobs such as in the Admissions office, etc.), will require more of your time, and your decision can be determined by the kind of program to which the student is applying. I would write a strong letter for students applying to an MA programs even if I couldn’t support them for top-of-the-line PhD programs. Competition to get into good doctoral programs (particularly those which carry full financial support), law schools, or med schools is intense. Letters for these programs will take more time to write and imply that you expect the student to succeed if accepted. As suggested in the previous section, if you’re disposed to write for a student but have doubts or questions, discuss them with the student or consider talking with a colleague in your department who might also know the student.
  • Very high-stakes recommendations (for major national or international scholarships or fellowships, for former students who are applying for academic positions or graduate fellowships, etc.) can take a serious amount of time and require not just whole-hearted and sincere support, but evidence of a special knowledge of that student. Particularly in writing for the most competitive fellowships, you need to be able to say, and provide evidence to back it up, that the applicant is exceptional. Faculty who are writing for students applying to these fellowships should get advice from the faculty advisers for those programs or the Fellowships and Awards office.


Getting Ready to Write

Make sure you have what you need before sitting down to write, particularly if you’re working on a tight schedule. Among the important information to have:

  • Undergraduate transcript (which, at Oberlin, you can usually access via PRESTO);
  • Statement of purpose or at least a late draft of the essay/s they will write for their applications. If the student is applying to a variety of different programs, make sure you have statements for each area so you can craft their letters accordingly;
  • Resume, particularly if the student has already graduated;
  • Application details: names of the schools, programs, departments, or fields within the discipline to which they are applying; deadlines; format: online or (increasingly rare) hard copy, etc.
  • Copies of papers or other work completed in your classes. Many of us keep electronic copies of students’ work, but if you don’t have this, ask for it.
  • For very high-stakes competitions, I’ve found it useful to sit down with the applicant and go over goals, intentions, prospects for the future whether they are successful in the application or not.
  • Ask the applicant if there are any aspects of their work with you that they would like you to stress in the letter of recommendation.


Writing a Good Letter 

Gear your letter to the specific school, program, fellowship, etc., to which the student is applying. Generic letters or letters written without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed could hurt, and certainly don’t benefit, the applicant’s chances. You can use the same letter if a student applies to many different schools; just try to gear them to the specific school or program in question.

  • Provide some context of how long and in what capacity you have known the applicant.
  • Show that you know the applicant personally: The strongest letters are filled with specific examples that highlight the qualities the student possesses: Cite evidence from the brilliant papers they have written, how they took responsibility for class discussions, interactions with peers and faculty, how they overcame adversity, evidence of leadership, etc., particularly as these points relate to the goals of the fellowship or the proposed course of study.
  • For graduate school, address the applicant’s knowledge of the field of study: depth and breadth of knowledge, skills, methodology, research, languages where applicable, etc.
  • Communication skills: Is the applicant an effective writer? Does the written work submitted demonstrate a mastery of disciplinary conventions? Is the written material clear, well-organized and forceful? Is the applicant an articulate, clear, and effective speaker? Does the applicant have other communications skills, particularly as pertains to technology-related communication.
  • Personal dispositions: Industriousness, discipline, persistence, ability to reflect on mistakes, to take criticism, to work independently, empathy, commitment, maturity ability to adjust to adverse circumstances, etc. Does the applicant enjoy the trust and respect of fellow students and the faculty?
  • How does the applicant exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship or graduate program? Specific examples are crucial.
  • Place the student in a larger context. Compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors in the past or who have succeeded in such competitions, to others who have gone on to graduate or professional programs. She is “among the three best students I have taught,” “in top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching,” etc.


What Can Hurt? 

Letters that do no more than summarize information available elsewhere in the application; that provide more information about the letter writer than the applicant; that consist nothing but unsupported praise; that damn with faint praise (it is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected of all students: completed the reading assignments, came to class on time, etc.); that may be read as implying veiled criticism or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than have been stated elsewhere.

Letters should be honest—and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance the force of a letter—but committees take critical comments very seriously. It is best to be cautious when making critical remarks, particularly when you have an overall positive regard for the applicant.

Does Size Matter?

Yes. Most high-stakes recommendation letters should be around 2-pages long; only the most important should be longer (i.e., if you really have something exceptional to say). A 2-3 paragraph letter is sufficient for very low-stakes recommendations, but can do more harm than good for very competitive application processes.



Some No-no’s: 

  • Asking students to write their own recommendations for you to sign: sorry, just plain unprofessional. Better to say no.
  • Taking a recommendation that you wrote for one student and using it for another. When you have written enough recommendations, they will tend to develop a bit of a “boiler-plate” feel to them. That’s probably unavoidable. But using the same letter for different students, particularly in very important applications, can be damaging, especially if those reading the letter find them very familiar sounding.
  • When writing a batch of letters for the same student or when reviving a recommendation written sometime earlier for a new request, always double check that you have addressed the letter to the proper program, the proper school, etc. Make sure that you don’t write a letter recommending your student for a public health program when that particular recommendation is supposed to be for graduate school in epidemiology.

Finally: Faculty advisers in specific professional fields (health-related, law, business), specific graduate programs, the fellowships and awards office, and the Career Development Center, among others, can provide much more specific and useful information as to what can help in writing certain kinds of letters of recommendation. Consult with them and take their advice!

Late addition (9/24 at 7:39 PM): Erik Inglis reminded me of Julie Schumacher’s (OC ’81) epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014), “composed of a year’s worth of recommendations that our anti-hero — a weary professor of creative writing and literature — is called upon to write for junior colleagues, lackluster students and even former lovers,” as Maureen Corrigan writes for an NPR review. Maybe you’ll get further tips there!

Help One, Help All: Universal Design in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 18, 2017

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d'histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d'après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d’histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d’après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

The headline immediately caught my attention: “Atmospheric scientist at Illinois is on leave after refusing to provide lecture slides to student with disabilities.” Not exactly the Kardashians or the latest scorched-earth quote from Sebastian Gorka, but striking to a pedagogy-nerd like me. As I clicked through to the article, I found that the scientist in question wasn’t just “any” teacher, but a Nobel laureate with 41 years of teaching to his credit.


Although I’m more interested in this article for what it says about the state of “Universal Design” thinking than for the actual controversy at hand, some facts in the case are still in order.

  • The faculty member in question is Michael Schlesinger, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2007, he was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in building and disseminating greater knowledge about man-made climate change. Conservative bloggers, for their part, prefer to see him as an “environmental extremist.”
  • According to a report in the Daily Illini, Schlesinger refused “to provide a student with electronic lecture notes, even after Disability Services confirmed the need for accommodation.” Further research reveals that the real issue was Schlesinger’s refusal to share his slides with the student. In fact, he is quoted as saying that he offered to pay for the student to have a note taker in the class, but that he opposed sharing his slides because he was unwilling to give one student an “advantage” over others taking the course who couldn’t access the slides.
  • According to the University of Illinois, Schlesinger was “not currently teaching.” Schlesinger insisted that he hadn’t resigned and did not tend to resign. Rather, he wrote, “I intend to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

The story can be read as an example of “nanny state” administrators stepping in to tell faculty how to teach their courses, or of crotchety faculty members who refuse to change their moth-eaten ways, even if it means noncompliance with university rules and federal legislation (Americans with Disabilities Act). For my part, I have no idea whether Schlesinger is the world’s best teacher or the world’s worst; I have no ability to judge him on the basis of a single act reported in the press. What did catch my attention was Schlesinger’s statement that he intends “to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

364Universal Design for Learning

At the heart of Schlesinger’s statement is a belief that by accommodating one student (in this case a student with reported disabilities), an instructor is ipso facto disadvantaging all other students in the class. The clearest response to this pinched understanding came from James Basham, an associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas, who suggested that “if the professor has such strong beliefs about sharing slides with an individual student, he should simply share with all of his students.” Basham’s approach is the essence of what has been called “Universal Design for Learning.”

Universal Design for Learning took its inspiration from the architecture and product design processes pioneered by Ron Mace of North Carolina State University in the 1980s. A universal design approach aims “to create physical environments and tools that are usable by as many people as possible.” The curb cut is a perfect example: it was designed so that people in wheelchairs could more easily access sidewalks. But, if curb cuts proved beneficial for wheelchair-bound individuals, they were no less a boon for parents pushing strollers or shoppers bringing home the groceries. Curb cuts equally served old people with walkers and young people learning to skateboard. And that was the point. The idea of universal design is that by planning a design that takes account of the needs of everyone at the beginning of a process, rather than waiting to modify designs later when such needs become more visible or vocal, everyone would benefit.

Universal Design for Learning operates in precisely the same way. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 offers the following definition of Universal Design for Learning:

The term UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and

(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

By eliminating barriers to learning without eliminating challenges, everyone in the class can benefit, not just those who may have documented disabilities or who enter with different strengths than those traditionally valued by the academy. [On this, see Judy Marquez Kiyama and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, Funds of Knowledge in Higher Education: Honoring Students’ Cultural Experiences and Resources as Strengths (Routledge 2018).] Universal design for learning in higher education recognizes that what needs to be “fixed” is not the learner but the the way in which teaching and learning occurs.

How It Works: Using Visual Materials

390I have little doubt that colleagues can provided many examples of how they have used universal design for learning principles in their own classes, sometimes without even knowing that this is what they were doing. I encourage readers to supply further examples from their own practice that I can use to update this article. I include the specific examples below as illustrations of universal design for learning approaches that have worked in my classes. Each instructor will decide what works best for your own classrooms.

This first example, using visual materials with a sight-impaired student, comes from a class I taught many years ago. It was probably the first time that I thought of a universal-design-for- learning approach, although I had no idea it was called that or that such an approach existed.

Matt was a student in one of my Latin American history surveys. (I use his real name because he later wrote a memoir and referenced the incident.) He enrolled in my course having spent the previous Winter Term in Guatemala. Matt was born with cataracts, developed glaucoma as a baby, and soon lost all vision in his left eye while retaining only partial sight in the right. So he came to my class with limited vision: he could read with the help of a computer and got around campus without a guide dog or cane. I made sure he was assigned a note taker and that the readings were available far in advance so they could be recorded for him. Soon after the semester started, however, his limited eyesight vanished completely when a corneal ulcer in his “good” eye became infected. As he was sitting in my class, he later wrote, “Suddenly the lights seemed really bright. Then it got really painful. By the end of the hour I could barely see well enough to get myself to Academic Services.” Matthew had become totally blind.

He returned to class surprisingly soon after, and I had to consider whether to ignore Matt’s new disability, to change my approach to a class that depended substantially on slides with visual (illustrative, not textual) content, or to accommodate him in some other way. I considered asking a classmate to sit beside him, describing the slides as I cycled through them. But the continual, if hushed, commentary would have foregrounded Matt’s disability, making him the center of class attention day after day. I could have sent him the slides ahead of time, but slides without commentary made little sense and I would been have constrained from changing  slides at the last minute to respond to issues that recently arose in class.

The solution I finally hit upon was actually quite consistent with universal design principles, as I later learned. I was forced to think about why I used slides in the class, and when I considered that I realized that some were relatively unimportant, a kind of visual filler designed to hold the students’ attention, and some were critical to the issues we were discussing. By treating each of these two variants the same (i.e., having them up for the same amount of time and not commenting further on the important ones), I was missing an opportunity to enhance everyone’s learning. I decided that when I got to an important slide, I would ask for a volunteer to describe what they saw on the screen; then for a second and a third student who would add depth to the description. Finally, as a class which including Matthew, we could discuss the visual representation and they ways that it helped us understand the subject we were studying. There was no need to call attention to Matt’s visual impairment or to provide him “special accommodation,” and all the students benefited by being made more aware of visual content, by developing their powers of observation, and by hearing others discuss the slide. By leading me to focus more on my goals, Matt helped me redesign my class in a way that helped everyone. The approach didn’t “advantage” Matt or “disadvantage” the sighted students: it helped everyone.

366How It Works: Note Taking

One of the more common accommodations faculty are asked to make is providing students with note takers. Indeed, Prof. Schlesinger, it would seem, volunteered to “pay the student” to hire a note taker in his class (something which led me to wonder whether he ever had prior contact with the Disability Services office at his university, since it undoubtedly would have provided, and paid for, a note taker). In any case, instructors generally ask students to inform us confidentially at the beginning of the semester if they require a note taker and are registered with Disability Services. Sometimes we’ll get a letter later in the semester if a student only recently registered or has sustained an injury that impedes note taking. I doubt that anyone thinks that the student who requires a note taker because she has broken her arm in a field hockey match is now getting an unfair advantage over the other students.

But let’s look at this a bit more broadly. I have no doubt that there were students in my class who had more trouble than others taking notes in class. Perhaps it was because English was not their first language; perhaps because they never developed good note-taking skills; perhaps because they just processed what was being said (often at a rapid clip) somewhat more slowly than other students. I also had no doubt that it would have benefited all students to read a set of notes taken by another student, just in case they missed some important in their own notes.

Thinking of the needs of all students a bit more closely, I decided to assign class note takers for my courses. Two students in each class were asked to take notes that they would share with the other students by posting them to Blackboard. (Students were excused if they qualified for a note taker via the Disability Services office.) Note taking became a (small) part of the final grade. I doubt that having class note takes dissuaded any individual student from taking notes, nor did it encourage absences, and my advice to students who had missed class was always to “get the notes from another student.” What had I accomplished? Many more benefited from this approach: students who didn’t qualify for a note-taker from Disabilities Services and yet could have profited from one; students who could have qualified for a note-taker but felt constrained from asking for one for a myriad of reasons; students who suffered a temporary physical problem but didn’t find the time to get themselves to Disability Services; students who wanted to complement their own notes with those from other students. No one was disadvantaged and everyone was advantaged.

How It Works: Assignment Design:

438When we think about universal design in terms of assignments, we often think of students who require additional time on exams. The clear design of assignments is another aspect of universal design that serves all students. Mary-Ann Wilkelmes, the principal investigator of the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project, has developed a simple protocol for assignment design based on explicitly answering three questions when creating assignments.

  1. The Task: What are you asking your students to do?
  2. The Purpose: Why do they have to do it?
  3. The Criteria: How will their work be evaluated?

Often we think that our assignments are clearer than they actually are because students don’t complain about them. But ask the reference librarians who are called upon to help students figure out what we’re asking for, and you’ll discover something different. Many seem to do perfectly well without these particular prompts. Maybe those who are better able to read our minds are just smarter and deserve a better grade. Um, no. They’re not any smarter, but they might be able to suss out what we’re asking for because they have a greater grasp of these “unwritten rules” of higher education. They have what Tara J. Yosso, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, calls “navigational capital.” Students who have had strong preparation through high school, who have taken a boatload of AP or IB courses, attended college courses while in high school, or whose parents are college teachers know the unwritten rules of the game: they know how to read a syllabus, how to locate the unwritten assumptions of an assignment, or – most importantly – have the confidence to ask the professor for guidance if the assignment isn’t clear to them. First-generation students, low-income, or historically underrepresented students, on the other hand, have come to college with all the “smarts” needed to do well in their classes, but they may lack the “navigational capital,” not to mention the self-confidence, to succeed.

But it also happens that the best prepared students really can’t figure out what we’re asking them to do because we haven’t been clear. In this case, universal design in terms of assignment design serves everyone, ourselves included. By being specific about task, purpose and criteria, we can be clearer in our own minds as to what we’re asking for in an assignment while helping all students, those with a strong academic preparation and those who are newer to the game, do well on the assignment. Once again, everyone benefits, no one is disadvantaged.

How It Works: Extra Time on Exams*

One of the more difficult issues logistically is arranging for extra time for exams or quizzes. Here’s an approach from Erik Inglis of the Art Department:

In my intro class, I used to give an in-class quiz, which meant it was limited in time, and cut into content. Now I have the students take the quiz at home–which revealed to me that I didn’t care if it took them 15 minutes or 30 minutes to come up with the answer–instead it was a more a matter of the appropriate length of the essay.  So, instead of students having to request an accommodation, everyone can have as much time as they think necessary–and I give a word-count, not a time-measure, to set parameters.  I tell students that this is one of the many benefits of the honor code (although he worries that students might be tempted to use outside sources for a closed book exam).

Another colleague added the following:**

During my…years at Oberlin I have never given any student a timed assessment. To me the issue of how fast a student can produce information or analyze a problem is seldom a good assessment of what they are learning in class. Given that Oberlin has an honor code, it also seems to me to be a waste of valuable class time to have quizzes or tests during class — I have them all outside of class. I assign them pairs that vary on each quiz so that they DO proctor each other. I actually make half the quiz something that they complete working together and half something that complete alone but in the presence of the other student. I believe that the collaborative discussions they have about answers are useful pedagogically.

This colleague further noted that he had been diagnosed as dyslexic as a child and that he was always disadvantaged by timed exams in high school. When he reached college, he found many of his professors more sympathetic, giving him more time on exams. But, he added, “As a student I also felt like I had an unfair advantage [getting additional time] and I always made it a point to try to convince my professors…to allow all students to have more time on tests. I am pleased to say that many DID where it was feasible to do so. And I felt like my grade was fairer in classes when they did.”


When Professor Schlesinger remarked that he intends to “fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students,” a universal design for learning approach could be what he is looking for. By encouraging us to design a learning environment that can serve all students, such an approach can move us away from a concentrated focus on students who require “accommodation,” and towards a consideration of changes that can aid all our students. In the end, all students will profit from a classroom in which all needs, spoken or unspoken, certified or not, are taken into consideration. Such would be the case if the professor, so demonstrably wise in matters of atmospheric science, simply shared his slides with all students.

NOTE: For more on this topic, see Elizabeth Hamilton’s article, “Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching” (Oct. 16, 2016).

354* Added on Sept. 17 at 12:07 PM

** Added on Sept. 18 at 10:07 AM

Documents and the Undocumented

Steve Volk, September 11, 2017

LicenseWhen I was growing up our social studies teachers firmly inscribed a line between “history” and the “prehistoric.” The prehistoric, we were instructed, was the time of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and “Indians.” (Unprepared or unwilling to teach about one of the numerous Native American cultures that inhabited California before the arrival of Europeans, my Los Angelino classmates and I learned about a fictional indigenous tribe, a sort of cultural composite that mashed together north and south. No need to worry our elementary school brains over the differences between Chumash and  Payómkawichum.) The dividing line between “history” and “prehistory” was not animal vs. human, but those who inscribed their past in a written form and those who were “pre-literate,” another troubled term of the time. Prehistory was the time of the people who didn’t write. In short, we were taught to distinguish between those with “papers” and, well, the undocumented.

Eric Wolf, a path-setting anthropologist, was one of the first to challenge my California-befuddled brain in his 1982 monograph, Europe and the People Without History (University of California), proposing that people without formal writing systems were not by any means without history, although waves of European colonization had rendered them prehistorical.

When I went on to study history in college, and then made the decision to become a historian, my desire, part and parcel of the rebellious 1960s, was to inhabit an academic discipline that would reveal the history of those who hadn’t written their own in the form of monographs or journal articles. My first efforts, exploring the history of the Bolivian tin miners union, brought me to the archives and in contact with the octogenarian founders of the first Bolivian sindicatos. In my romanticized imagination, I would give voice to the voiceless, documents to the undocumented. Further study clarified that, while doing nothing of the kind, I was at least part of a larger historical process that searched the archive for traces of those who previous generations of historians had ignored.

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

As a teacher of history, my colleagues and I challenged students to “read between the lines,” or “listen to the silences” when studying a past that seemed quite determined to ignore the vast numbers of people who had inhabited the earth. Silence itself could, perhaps, reveal a hidden documentation when asked the right questions. If we couldn’t provide a voice to the voiceless, we could attempt to read the shadows and listen for the murmurs as a means of crafting a history of the “prehistoric.” This was not an act of magic, nor really of imagination: we just became attentive to spaces we had previously overlooked. If the pre-conquest history of the Nahua and Zapotec was largely written by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, we could still read the complexities of a colonial history inscribed in the maps Spanish administrators ordered their indigenous artisans to draw, or in the court records that charged them with a variety of misbehaviors and misdemeanors. The documentation that makes up a history comes in many forms, but only if we value the people who have lived it. To render a people “undocumented” is to endeavor to remove their history.

DACA and Documentation

I have been thinking a lot about documents, documentation, and history as the Trump Administration first threatened, and then, disgracefully, sent out Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program on September 5. DACA was created by President Obama in June 2012 to provide modest but important protections for some young people who had been rendered invisible because they lacked documentation. When it was announced, DACA won the support of nearly 2/3rds of the U.S. population according to a Pew Research Center report. Once approved for the program, DACA recipients would (generally) be protected from deportation, could work legally, and obtain a driver’s license. To qualify, DACA applicants had to have entered the United States before 2007, be younger than 16 when they arrived and not older than 31 when the program began. They were required to maintain a virtually spotless criminal record, and needed to be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or the equivalent.

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP - Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP – Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

One key to the program is that they had to apply, which meant giving the government information that could easily put them at risk: fingerprints, addresses, biometric information. They had to make themselves even more vulnerable to a government that had betrayed them so often in the past and now said, “trust us.” Of an estimated 1.3-1.7 million individuals eligible for DACA, close to 800,000 ultimately applied.

To be clear, DACA status didn’t provide them with a “path toward citizenship” or permanent residence in the United States; it gave them a temporary way to come out of the shadows and at least momentarily put aside some fears, for they still faced the possibility that their parents could be deported. And they had to reapply every two years.

It is not easy to research this undocumented group of young people, but according to study by Tom Wong of UC San Diego, DACA recipients were, on average, 6½ when they arrived in the U.S. In other words, for a great number of these individuals, the only life they have known is in the United States. While we don’t know how many DACA recipients are undergraduates, the University of California system, for example, has approximately 4,000 undocumented students, a substantial number of whom have DACA status. Harvard enrolls perhaps 65. In all, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from college each year.

Acts of Erasure

There are many ways to analyze Trump’s demented decision to terminate DACA: as yet another indication of his determination to re-impose the white, patriarchal, straight, Christian America of his Queens upbringing in the 1950s, the New York borough represented so subversively by Archie Bunker, as Jelani Cobb recently observed; as another piece of candy offered to his political base equally rattled by its own ethnic anxieties; or as a further measure of his determination to break anything that President Obama built. Whatever else this decision shows, it is more evidence that the man is devoid of empathy. He will not or cannot allow himself to imagine the life of an 18-year old brought from Honduras as a child, who, with much effort, became a young woman who danced with joy at her high school prom, proudly joined the military to serve “her country,” and now is encouraged to “self-deport” lest she find herself with a one-way ticket to a country whose language she no longer speaks, a town she doesn’t remember, and a family that no longer lives there. For Trump and his anti-immigrant backers (a faction which has been active since the nation was founded but which modifies its targets over time), she lacks documents and therefore neither her past nor her future is of concern. She does not exist in history. She has been rendered prehistoric.

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images - Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images – Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Frankly, I’m not interested in understanding why this man does what he does; my concern is for those who will suffer from his actions. There is no time in this short essay to explore the historically sour welcome given migrants, both “sanctioned and subjugated,” into this country. Nor can I explore the virtual lack of citizenship that has been the reality for African Americans living here. But some brief background is needed to understand, in particular, the existence of millions of migrants from Mexico and Central America.

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

For more than a century, the United States has depended on the labor of those coming from south of the border. They came when their toil was needed, and returned home when conditions turned. A purposefully porous southern border encouraged both an inflow of low-cost labor to U.S. farms, mines, and other industries, and the opportunity of a return home to their natal communities.

But in the 1990s a trap door fell. As the U.S. beefed up its border enforcement in response to conservative political pressure, those workers who had previously moved back and forth across the border no longer could risk leaving the United States to return to what most still considered their homes. Further, as Washington began toughening its immigration laws in response to the same pressures, those who were already here found that they had no way to legalize their status (or that of their non-U.S. born children) if they stayed, and virtually no legal way to return to the States if they left. So while the decision to terminate DACA is particularly cruel for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have known no other life than what they have experienced in this country, U.S. immigration laws are no less punishing for the millions who have come here to pick our crops, tend our gardens, and care for our children, who, in short, have taken jobs that others don’t want.

Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is above all an act of erasure, an attempt to remove those without documents from “our” history. Iowa Representative Steve King was quite explicit about this. DACA recipients, he argued, should either self-deport or “live in the shadows,” where they can, presumably, provide cheap labor for Iowa’s meat packing firms. The question, though, is what can we do to protect the tens of thousands of DACA (and non-DACA) students who attend our classes and graduate from our universities?

DACA and Higher Education

Institutions of higher education and their associations have been uniform in their condemnation of Trump’s actions. Shortly after Trump’s election, more than 600 college and university presidents, including Oberlin’s president Krislov, signed a statement urging continued support for DACA. This week, Carmen Ambar, Oberlin’s newly installed president, circulated a letter to the campus linking the institution’s support for DACA to its historic mission of inclusion: “Today,” she wrote, “we are called to continue that legacy as we fight for the rights of young, undocumented individuals who have benefited from [DACA].” Going a step further, on September 8, the University of California filed suit in federal court against the Trump administration for unconstitutionally violating the rights of the university and its students by rescinding DACA on “nothing more than unreasoned executive whim.”

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to protect the privacy of student records, provide DACA students with legal aid and, in some cases, financial support, establish offices to provide targeted support and counseling, enroll students without regard for their immigration status, insure that campus security and police forces do not make inquiries regarding any student’s legal status, advocate in the name of their institutions for new laws to protect DACA recipients and all undocumented students, and lobby their legislators to pass legislation to reform an immigration system that has grown increasingly punitive and threatens to spill back into a racially exclusionary system.

But what do we, teachers of these threatened students, teachers of all students in our classroom, do? The issue, as Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities recently noted, is not a partisan one: “We do have values to serve, and these are not partisan values.” For obvious reasons, we are unlikely to know which students in our classes are DACA students or who lacks legal status. This is all the more reason to make known to all our students that we are part of an educational community that is formed by the values of equity and inclusion, that all our students are equal members of that community regardless of any aspect of their identity or status, that all are deserving of a quality education, and that we will work with them to insure they receive it. It is also important to indicate again, that if any student is in need of special consideration and feels unable to communicate that need directly to us, they should work with the Dean of Students’ office, which can bring the matter to our attention.

One of the consequences for our DACA and undocumented students who have been forced to live a life of intense vulnerability is that we do not know, we cannot know, their histories; we do not know, we cannot know, the effort they must put in just to keep up with our classes, let alone excel in them. Preparing for an exam or writing a 10-page paper is hard enough given the complexity of our young students’ lives. Concentrating on those tasks when you don’t know if your mother will be put on a plane and sent to El Salvador when she reports to her next meeting with ICE agents, planning what courses to take for a future which may crumble at any minute, requires more focus and effort than most of us can muster. And yet, we do not know, cannot know, about it because their vulnerabilities have rendered them silent.

And this is where we come in. We must be clear that in our classrooms and in our communities, our students will not be made voiceless; they will not be made invisible; they will not be stripped of their past and turned “prehistoric” because it matters to us, deeply. If our students can’t speak up, we need to become better listeners who can be aware of the silences. If our students can’t ask for our support, we need to offer it without their asking. DACA and the undocumented have a home in our colleges and universities, and we need to make sure that they know it.


Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus.

This “Article of the Week” will present some of HERI’s data for students entering in 2016 which were published a few months ago, as well as figures from a few other sources. The HERI data were compiled from a survey of 137,456 students including 80,000 students at baccalaureate institutions, of whom about 49,000 were from private 4-year colleges. While HERI and other sources I’ve examined report on a multitude of topics, here I just including a few snapshots that I found most informative.

Political Orientation

It will come as no surprise to learn that the entering cohort of full-time, first-time college students in the fall 2016 semester was the most polarized in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey, in general and by gender. (Any guesses as to what the results will show for the 2017 entering class? I shudder in anticipation.) Fewer students than ever before (42.3%) categorize their political views as “middle of the road,” while an all-time high of 41.1% of women self-identify as “liberal” or “far left” with respect to their political views. This compares with 28.9% of men who consider themselves in the same categories, yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported political orientation to date.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

More broadly, here is how incoming first-years thought of themselves politically:

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Openness to other viewpoints:

The fact that more students nationally are moving away from a “middle-of-the-road” self-definition is not, it itself, either surprising or necessarily troubling. It could suggest that entering students are more aware of political issues and more willing to define themselves in relation to on-going debates. What IS troubling – you thought I’d skate away from this one, didn’t you? – are the findings regarding the degree to which politically defined students profess that they will “tolerate” others with different beliefs. (What “tolerating” other beliefs means isn’t fully defined.) Somewhat less than one-third of self-identified right-of-center students indicated a low tolerance of others with different beliefs. This compared to 82.0% of “middle of the road” students and 86.6% of left-of-center students who said that they “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” would “tolerate others with different beliefs.” The complexities of teaching in an environment where those who hold different political beliefs aren’t “tolerated” are enormous.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Why are students going to college?

For many years after the financial crash of 2008, students focused on economic criteria as the primary reasons for going on to post-secondary education. As the unemployment rate began to decline from 2012 to 2016, the trend was paralleled by a decline in more purely job-related or financial reasons expressing why a high school student wanted to continue on to  college – although such reasons are still very important. The percentage of students concerned about going to college to get a better job has modestly declined from an all-time high of 87.9% in 2012 to 84.8% in 2016, hardly a dramatic decline. First-time, full-time college students in 2016 were ever-so-slightly less likely to consider “making more money” as a very important reason to attend college (72.6%) compared to their peers who started college in 2012 (74.6%). It’s heartening (at least from my perspective, others might disagree) to see a rise in the desire to gain “a general education and appreciation of ideas” and learning “more about things that interest me,” as reasons for going on to college. But we be foolish to neglect the underlying economic considerations when thinking about our students.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Here’s a chart listing the “top objectives” that in-coming students named as  essential or very important goals they wanted to achieve by going on to college or university.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

First-Generation Students:

Of course, there are significant variations among student cohorts. First-generation students, for example, are more likely to consider the cost of their selected institution and being offered financial assistance as very important factors in selecting their college (56.1% and 58.2%, respectively) compared to continuing-generation students (45.1% and 43.9%).

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of first-generation college students enrolling full-time in four-year institutions has hovered around 20%. In 2015, approximately 17.2% of incoming first-year students self-reported as first-generation, the lowest proportion of first-generation students in the history of the survey. In 2016, roughly 18.8% of the cohort of incoming students identify as first-generation college students.

If it’s hard to understand exactly what these numbers suggest, the demographic composition of first generation students is striking and suggests the changing racial and ethic composition of higher education which is already strongly underway. Only 10% of first generation students were white, whereas 27% were Black and 57% Latino.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Mental Health Concerns:

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such conditions. Distressingly, the number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. According to studies published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 33% of students in the past 12 months felt so depressed that it “was difficult to function.”

The trends are likely to continue based on data on incoming students. More than one-third (34.5%) of incoming first-time, full-time college students reported frequently feeling anxious. Students identifying with any of the disabilities, psychological disorders, or chronic illnesses listed on the instrument have a greater likelihood than other freshmen to have frequently felt anxious in the past year.


Last year Oberlin graduated 178 students who had been registered with the Disabilities Services office. This number included students with regular accommodations (i.e., those whose documentation was in order), students considered as “provisional” (those whose documentation was not up to date or incomplete); and temporaries (about 3-5% of students with broken arms, concussions, etc.). By the end of the spring 2017 semester, the office had seen about 700 students, or approximately 23% of the student body. Think about it, people. That’s a very significant number.

The Oberlin figures are generally in line with national trends. Overall, nearly 22% of incoming first-year students identified as having at least one disability/disorder. All reports indicate that the figure is increasing. A decade ago (2007-08), 11% of undergraduates reported a disability.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

For those interested in reading more about students on the autism spectrum, I can recommend two recent articles: Jan Hoffman, “Along the Autism Spectrum, A Path Through Campus Life,” New York Times (Nov. 19, 2016), and Paul Basken, “Colleges Are Trying a Broad Approach to Autistic Students. What Will That Cost?Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2017). [Note: “premium” content available via the library.]

Gender Identity and Sexuality:

The HERI survey for the first time in its history asked students to identify themselves by gender identity, and then used this data to ask about levels of confidence in specific skills or attributes. Compared to the nationally normed sample, students identifying as transgender have far greater confidence in their artistic ability (52.0% vs. 30.7% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”) and creativity (64.0% vs. 52.6% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”). By contrast, transgender students rate themselves lower than first-time, full-time students in the areas of social self-confidence, leadership ability, and physical health.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered an overview of the sexual orientation or identity as self-reported by in-coming first year students.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Social Media Use:

I found it both interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive that increased social media use on the part of in-coming students didn’t reveal any decline in the amount of time they spent with face-to-face contacts. Full time, first-year students entering college this fall do not seem to substitute more frequent use of online social networks for in-person interactions with friends. Three-quarters (75.2%) of students who spent at least six hours per week using social media during the past year also spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends in person. By contrast, roughly half (48.2%) of students who averaged less than six hours each week connecting in online social networks also spent six or more hours socializing with their friends in person. More time online = a greater likelihood of more face-to-face interactions? I need to think about that one more.

If you, like me, wondered where all this time was being spent, here’s some indication.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Wait — one might say at this point — students are spending more (or the same amount) of time on average socializing, exercising, and hanging out online as studying? Obviously, the data need unpacking, and will vary widely by the type of institution. But when we think despairingly of “today’s students” (as in “what’s the matter with students today”), I’d strongly recommend reading Gail O. Mellow’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Mellow, the president of La Guardia Community College, observed in “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students” (August 28, 2017), that “Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full-time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.” Four in ten students work at least 30 hours per week; 25% work full time and go to school full time. My guess is that they aren’t the ones exercising or socializing with friends during their “free” hours.

Whatever the numbers and the trends suggest, we all know that all students bring their own stories, strengths, and concerns to college and that, if the statistics can help us better comprehend the state of higher education, only by getting to know our own students can we provide them with the support and guidance they deserve.


What’s in a Name?

Steve Volk, August 28, 2017

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

–Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

After a summer that has quickly scurried away into some dark corner from which it will only emerge, like a baby newly born, nine months from now, we return to our classrooms. At least for those who didn’t spend the summer teaching or are not teaching this semester. As we reengage, hopefully refreshed and ready to go, I’m reminded of what the poet Nikki Giovanni once remarked when asked what she would miss most when she retired from teaching. (Lord knows, it wasn’t grading exams or sitting through department meetings!)

I’m going to be sorry when I retire — she wrote — because… if it’s one thing that I definitely enjoy, it’s my 8:00 class. My 8:00 class, they come to me, 8:00 AM, they come to me from their dreams, and I come to them from mine. And I would give up a lot of things, in terms of teaching; I really don’t want to give up my 8:00, because I like the freshness that they bring. And the other word would be, I like the love that we have for each other as we come into that class.”

Good to keep in mind.

Graduates, Oberlin College. 1973 Hi-o-hi Yearbook. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Graduates, Oberlin College. 1973 Hi-o-hi Yearbook. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

When I began teaching, I was sure I’d never forget a student’s name. A few years in, and it became quite evident that wasn’t going to happen. OK, I don’t remember their names, but I was sure I’d never forget a face. Fast forward — maybe a few weeks? — and I realized no guarantees there, either. As the years went by, I was embarrassed to admit that I greeted returning alumni as if they were still in my classes (“So, how are your other classes going?” “Er, I graduated 5 years ago”) and, occasionally, currently enrolled students I bumped into at the gym as former students. I soon switched to a more noncommittal, “So, what’s going on?” when I saw a familiar face.

While my face and name forgetfulness is more likely due to advancing years, and not anything as dramatic as prosopagnosia, it concerned me that students would think I didn’t care who they were. Students are (justifiably) upset with faculty who haven’t learned their names, more so if it appears that instructors are not putting any effort into it. (This reaches another level altogether if faculty consistently, and perhaps pointedly, mistake one minority student for another, what has been called the “cross-race effect”. That’s not my subject here, although I’ll return to it in a future article.)

For all the discussion of the importance of remembering names, there has been little research on the impact on student learning of faculty members’ ability to remember their students’ names. At least until now. A study recently published in CBE – Life Sciences Education by Katelyn M. Cooper, Brian Haney, Anna Krieg, and Sara E. Brownell (“What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom”) tried to measure the impact of “name-knowing” in a 185-student, upper- level biology class. Among the findings:

  • Over 85% of the students who responded on a post course survey thought it was important that the instructors knew their names.
  • When asked why, many wrote that it made them feel valued, that it helped them feel that the instructor cared about them.
  • Students also indicated that having an instructor know your name made them feel more invested in the course and likely impacted their behavior in the course; it made them more comfortable seeking help from the professor.
Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1960. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1960. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

So, while the researchers couldn’t determine whether name-knowing was linked with an improvement in student performance, it’s not a stretch to imagine that students who are more invested in their classes, and more willing to get help from the instructor, are likely to learn more and do better.

These findings are also broadly consistent with the conclusions reached by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takas in How College Works (Harvard 2014) which argued that “personal connections are often the central mechanism and daily motivators of the student experience” (p. 4, italics in original). While there’s more to “personal connections” than knowing a student’s name, calling a student by name can help pave the way for such a connection to form.

Pronunciation: First (try to) do no harm…

And while we’re at it, we should also stress the importance of correctly pronouncing a student’s name. For all students, and especially the children of immigrants or those who are English-language learners, having a teacher who not only knows their name but can pronounce it correctly signals respect and inclusion. I always call role on the first day of class. Some time ago, after the first class, a student came up to tell me it was the first time that a teacher had correctly pronounced her name on the first day of class. Ever. Her first year in college and no teacher had gotten it right before. She still remembered that some years later when I saw her at a reunion. I was able to do this because she had a Spanish-Mayan name, but I often find myself linguistically challenged with names that aren’t in my language wheelhouse. Asking for help is always the best way forward in such circumstances. I was teaching in China over the summer and, quite sure that I would do serious damage to their names, I had the students pronounce their names – and asked them to correct me – until I finally got it right. [For a good article on this in the early childhood classroom, see: Mariana Souto-Manning. “Honoring Children’s Names and, Therefore, Their Identities.” School Talk (NCTE) 12.3 (April 2007): 1-2.]

Tricks of the Trade

So, how can you remember all those names? There are lots of suggestions out there. For example, try these from the University of Virginia, these from Carnegie Mellon, or these from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Without claiming any originality, I’ve compiled a squadron of suggestions (in no particular order), including some old favorites and some newer approaches.

Use a seating chart for the first 2-3 classes: Ask students to sit in the same place for a few classes to help you learn their names more quickly. (You’ll find that, even without asking them, most students will sit in the same seat all semester long.)

Photos: use the “Photo Roster” tab in Blackboard: Blackboard, and many other learning management systems, will provide you with photos of students enrolled in your classes. This is probably the best way to learn the names of many of your students before the first class even though I’m always staggered by how different many students look when seated in front of me from when they took the photo. But it’s a good start.

Keep in mind that some students may have changed their names since enrolling, and even though Blackboard allows students to change their preferred name on this platform if they wish, you will want to make sure that you have updated the necessary information.

Photos: use your phone. If you want current photos, you can have students come up, maybe three at a time, write their name on the board (and any pronunciation guides if needed along with their gender pronouns), and snap their photo with your phone.

Help the students learn each other’s names: One of the best methods of learning student names is to make sure that they know each other’s names and use them in class when referring to each other (“I agree with Julio, who argued…)

Arrange students into groups of two and have them introduce themselves to each other, coming up with three interesting facts about their partner. Then have them introduce their partner to the class as a whole, which is a boon for students who are reticent about introducing themselves.

Alternatively, you can have students write something about themselves, put it on a card, and give it to you. (You can then attach a photo to the card from the Photo Roster or draw a quick, 20-second sketch of the student.)

Have students say their name each time they speak in class, at least in the first few weeks of class or until everyone (instructor and the students) feels they know everyone’s name. This will require that you remind them frequently, but it pays off.

Pick one thing that says something about you: Have students pick out one item from their backpacks, purses, wallets, etc., that says something about them, and then introduce themselves to the class: “Hi, I’m Shang. This is a Metro card from the Beijing Metro which I took to get to my high school.” “I’m Amy, and this is my mouth guard – I play field hockey.”

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1968. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1968. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

“Tent” cards: Hand out 5X8 cards, have students write their names on them, make a “V” out of them, and put them on the front of their desks. This helps everyone learn names (unless you’re assigned to the purgatory of a fixed-seating classroom). Collect them at the end of the day, and have your students pick them up as they come in for the next class. (You can also use this as a handy way to keep attendance, at least at the start: students who didn’t get their cards are marked absent.) Here is one student’s comment about using name tents from the biology class study referenced earlier:

“I had my name tent out a couple weeks ago, and the person sitting next to me called me by my name. I turned around. It makes me respond better, because they call you by your name instead of like, ‘Hey.’ Some random person is talking to you, and they just want to discuss a worksheet question. When they call your name—I don’t know what it is—it makes me want to have more communication with them, better communication since they call you by your name.”

Easy does it: For very large classes, try to memorize a row of students per day. In the few minutes before class begins, review what you’ve already memorized and then add another row of students to that list.

Create visual associations. James Paterson, a psychology teacher in the UK and finalist in the World Memory Championships, suggests creating “a visual association between the student’s name and their face, no matter how weird or illogical it might seem. If your student is called Oliver for example, you could imagine him begging for more marks, like Oliver Twist – it’s incredible how easily the full name can be recalled with only the most tenuous of associations.”

Ask for help: Particularly during the early weeks of a course, ask for the students’ help in remembering their names. They usually appreciate the effort you are taking.

Names and assignments: Often, as hard as I try, it’s not until I start reading assignments (and passing them back) that I finally remember all the names. I have found it really important to hand papers back to students as a way of learning their names (although that’s not going to help you if you do everything electronically!).

Challenge yourself: After introductions the first day (particularly for seminars), see if you can remember everyone’s name in the class. Try doing it at the start of the next class as well.

In the end, I still have problems remembering student names when I see them in something other than a classroom context, but it then it never hurts to say, “Can you remind me of your name? Sometimes I can’t even remember my cats’ names!”

Sandra Cisneros, 2009. Creative Commons.

Sandra Cisneros, 2009. Creative Commons.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday morning when he is shaving, songs like sobbing. […]

At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name Magdalena – which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least- – can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza. I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do. (Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street)

Assignment for the First Day of Classes: Define What Makes Us a Community

Steve Volk, August 21, 2017

Clip BoardLate August, for those who have been on campus, has been a time of frenetic activity, particularly for those charged with insuring that the buildings and grounds, torn up by myriad summer construction projects, are put back together before the students return. Project managers race around campus on golf carts and bikes, check lists in hand, fretting over what remains to be done in order to reopen buildings, unblock parking lots, and return pedestrians to their regular byways.

Faculty, too, consult our punch lists as the new semester approaches: finish the syllabi, read the books we just assigned our students, get the manuscript out the door. But this year our lists seem longer and more intimidating. Besides constructing classes to teach students calculus and creative writing, French and physics, we must prepare to help them cope with the madness spilling out of Washington, Bedminster, Pyongyang, and Charlottesville, from challenges to Title IX and affirmative action, to threats of nuclear war and the hatred radiating from an increasingly aggressive white nationalist movement. We must prepare to say something coherent about a “justice” system that, in the short time our students were away, saw fit to acquit the police officers charged with killing Terance Crutcher (Tulsa), Philando Castile (Minneapolis), and Sylville K. Smith (Milwaukee). After two hung juries, charges were dropped against the officer charged with the shooting death of Samuel DuBose (Cincinnati).

And we will need to prepare, with patience and passion, for the activism these provocations will surely generate, understanding how to support our students when they target injustice and inequity, and how to critique them when, in the process, they inadvertently undermine what makes us a community.

We return to classes in what is surely the most challenging time for higher education in generations. Without even discussing our financial tribulations and the disturbing findings that highly selective colleges and universities are perpetuating, if not increasing, social inequality, we find ourselves plying our trade in a country in which, for the first time, growing numbers question the value of what we are doing. In July the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey which found that the hyper-partisan divide that characterizes almost every policy dispute in Washington now shapes the public’s regard for higher education as well. For the first time on a question asked since 2010, a majority (58%) of Republicans say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country; only 36% of Republicans found higher education to have a positive effect. In contrast, 72% of Democrats held a positive view.

Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center

Think about it: in a deeply divided country, a significant percentage of the population feels that as a society we would be better off without higher education. And if those views, as I’ll argue in a moment, are shaped by events at a few elite colleges and universities, they inevitably carry over to legislators’ decisions to cut funding to the Cleveland State universities and the Pima County community colleges of the country.

Speech Issues on Campus

There are many reasons for this divide, and many which are worthy of serious consideration (with the almost unimaginable cost of a degree at the top of the list), but only a few are central to the national debate. David Hopkins, co-author of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats (Oxford, 2016), recently argued, that the negative view of colleges and universities is an “expectable manifestation” of increased coverage of protests over speakers and issues such as cultural appropriation, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. All are complex issues that tend to be flattened (and most often ridiculed) by the media, and not just at Fox News. Further, these stories are then magnified by higher education’s internet outrage machine led by Campus Reform and The College Fix.

A Heckler at Cooper Union (Jay Hambidge, artist). New York Public Library, Art & Picture Collection, Public Domain

A Heckler at Cooper Union (Jay Hambidge, artist). New York Public Library, Art & Picture Collection, Public Domain

More than other issues, the national conversation about higher education in the past few years has largely focused on student disruptions of campus speakers. To be sure, the issue is a serious one, but, if facts still matter, the actual incidents are few in number. The student-led commotions that shut down Charles Murray at Middlebury and Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna are well known, as are the protests that prevented Milo Yiannapolous and Ann Coulter from speaking at Berkeley. Leaving aside the cancellation of speaking engagements where honorifics were involved (commencement speakers, by and large), which raises a different set of issues, I could find only one or two other instances in the last year in which students prevented speakers from delivering invited lectures.

Even if there were more examples of disruptive student behavior, it would still be deeply troubling to learn that legislators in a number of states have used these cases to muscle through measures to discipline students “who interfere with the free-speech rights of other students on their campuses.” Certainly, from the standpoint of academic freedom, this is a case where the “solution” promises to be far worse than the issue it seeks to address.

But the intense focus on Murray or Yiannapolous has raised substantial problems for faculty and others who are deeply concerned with the way in which inquiry and difficult discussions are pursued on our campuses – what has come to be called “campus climate” issues – largely because it has levered the discussion of complex matters into a free speech/First Amendment box. In fact, the conversations we need to be having are much broader and they have to do with the very particular kind of community we aim to establish on our campuses. The conversation we need to be having is about defining, at this moment, the social contract that stipulates how we will behave towards one another, and how that aligns with what we hope to accomplish as institutions of higher educational.

The Goals of Higher Education

While institutions of higher education have many objectives (the production of new knowledge, the perpetuation and enhancement of culture, the socialization of 18-22 year olds, the creation of an informed citizenry, etc.), our central purpose, particularly at liberal arts colleges, is to support student learning. Our mission statements often reference other goals – to “foster…effective, concerned participation in the larger society” (Oberlin), to help students become “engaged members of society” (Pomona), or to engage “with the central issues of our time” (Denison). But these broad mission objectives are always built around what we hope our students will do with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that they have acquired during the time spent with us. In other words, these critical goals of engagement and a commitment to social justice always presuppose the learning necessary for the formation of effective, aware and informed members of society. In that sense, the primary understanding that underlies all others, the pledge that defines our interaction with others in our community, whether students, faculty, staff, or administrators, is rooted in one central principle: What promotes student learning is to be valued; what hinders it, is to be questioned, challenged, and if needed, rejected. As hazy as this formulation is – for student learning will involve uncomfortable challenges as well as embracing support – such a starting point can add clarity to discussions that are muddled when approached as First Amendment or “free speech” issues.

Saul Alinsky speaking at the Symposium on Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Society, Oberlin College, December 1965. Oberlin College Archives

Saul Alinsky speaking at the Symposium on Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Society, Oberlin College, December 1965. Oberlin College Archives

Student Learning and Campus Speakers

So, how does this approach help anything? Let’s take the issue of invited campus speakers (and here I’m principally referencing private colleges and universities that are outside of specific First Amendment requirements). Speakers whose primary intent is to demean members of our shared educational community and who have made it abundantly clear that what they have to say will not contribute to student learning, should not be invited. As Stanley Fish recently put it, the university’s “normative commitment is to freedom of inquiry,” not to freedom of speech, and those whose vicious bigotry would deny that freedom to members of our community, speakers such as a Milo Yiannapolis or a Richard Spencer or a Jared Taylor, are not welcome. To believe that freedom of speech is at the center of what we do is to displace our obligation to student learning.

For these very same reasons, speakers who can contribute to student learning, even if their approaches make some students intensely uncomfortable, and who locate arguments within the conventions of academic inquiry, even if their outcomes are obnoxious and their methodologies subject to question, must be considered as guests who can further student learning. They should not be denied a platform, as tiresome as it may be to hear repeated arguments that have been refuted many times before. The best response, particularly for students who may not have heard the arguments previously, is to refute them again. The Charles Murrays and Heather MacDonalds of the world fit into this latter category. How these talks are organized, what space is given for Q&A, alternative discussions, preparation, venue, etc., are all important points that must be considered and addressed before the speaker comes.

By suggesting that some speakers must be allowed a platform while others can be denied, I am arguing that cases must be decided on their merits and judged by the standard of whether student learning is to be served. To sidestep that process either by arguing that all speakers must be given a platform or that any controversial speaker should be prohibited avoids what can be learned in such a discussion. I don’t suggest for a moment that these are easy conversations, but they are necessary and presuppose that we have a shared understanding of the social contract that unites us as a community.

Supporting the Learning Environment

A more difficult question arises when addressing the campus climate that supports learning, i.e., dealing with the daily, not the transient. The need here is to prevent the consolidation of an environment that permits orthodoxy – any orthodoxy – from becoming hegemonic. I have heard too many stories from students who say that they don’t speak up in class because they fear repercussion from some of their peers, and from faculty who worry that a few students seem intent on setting intentional trip wires for them to fall over, to imagine that this is not an issue. Indeed, if we fail as educational institutions intended to challenge students to think in complex ways about difficult issues, allowing this climate to continue unchallenged will be one road to failure.

ABUSUA protesting the lack of black theater and dance, early 1970s. Oberlin College Archives

ABUSUA protesting the lack of black theater and dance at Oberlin, early 1970s. Oberlin College Archives

Some perspective is needed here. I understand, but have little patience for, those who recall with nostalgia a “golden age of inquiry” when they were students, when “everyone was challenged to think critically,” when discussion wasn’t stifled by campus orthodoxy. Jonathan Haidt, the NYU social psychologist who, with Greg Lukianoff, gave us the “Coddling of the American Mind,” recently observed that, “When I went to Yale, in 1981, it said above the main gate ‘Lux et Veritas,’ Light and Truth. We are here to find truth.” While some aspect of Haidt’s (and others’) concern might be reasonable, no less true is the fact that Yale’s commitment to “Lux et Veritas” was based on a thoroughly Eurocentric canon that limited what students were given access to as either “Light” or “Truth.” (And I won’t even mention – OK, so I will – that African Americans only made up 6% of Yale’s student body in 1984, when Haidt graduated, and that the university only admitted women 11 years before he arrived on campus.)** In short, we can’t address what is a real concern – creating a climate that supports learning by challenging all orthodoxies – by posing a mythic golden age to which we should return.

Further, I do not hesitate to ally myself with the many students (and faculty and staff and administrators) who feel a desperate urgency to confront racist, misogynistic, or homophobic views, particularly as they have been given a platform in the White House. While some of those views certainly exist in the academy, and while it is incumbent upon whites in particular to examine the basis of our privilege, the problem posed for our institutions is not that such issues are raised, but that the methods sometimes used to raise them can undercut our identity as educational institutions based on inquiry and discussion.

Our central approach to such challenges remains in supporting student learning as best we can, in ways that are culturally relevant and sustaining and that foster equity as well as inquiry. And we know that this is not accomplished through intimidation, explicit or implicit, by calling out those who are asking for conversation and clarification, and it’s certainly not done by labeling or shaming. Just as our students must be encouraged to critique, criticize and challenge, so, in turn, they need to be open to critique, criticism, and challenge. Faculty must be responsible for creating an environment in their classrooms where difficult questions can be raised and discussed, and where students who feel more insecure in these conversations are made to feel that they can raise questions, express opinions, and challenge arguments without fear of shaming in class or social reprisal (in person or via social media) outside of class.

Faculty should be encouraged to help students see themselves as teachers as well as learners. If they have disagreements or think viewpoints are racist, discriminatory, or ill-informed, they should be encouraged to act as they would hope their teachers would act, persuading through arguments backed by evidence and experience, by drawing others into the discussion, not by intimidation or silencing.

The First Day of Classes

There are many ways to begin to address these challenges, but I’d put just one on our late summer check list. On the first day of classes, rather than discussing the syllabus, assignments, or how many absences they are allowed, think of starting in a different way, regardless of what you teach. We all know that, as a country, we are going through a difficult time marked by sharp divisions. Perhaps it’s unprecedented – but as a historian I’d only say that it is surely unprecedented in the lives of our students. At this time, as we come together as a community, we need to ask ourselves: What is this education for? How does or should the college support the learning and well-being of all students? How do we envision, and then implement, an environment in which such learning can take place? What makes us a community? What do we need and expect from each other? And, finally, what is the nature of the social contract that binds us together and what does that mean in terms of how we treat each other?

The answers can help us build campuses that protect our students, move us toward greater equity, and promote the learning that is at the foundation of our existence.


** Just to be clear, my critique here is of Haidt’s nostalgia, not of the many students at Yale at the time who saw the invitation to find in “Lux et Veritas” a way to “change the system,” as one grad put it to me. I apologize for any misunderstandings. [Added Aug. 22, 2017, 12:41 PM]

And, We’re Back…

Steve Volk, August 17, 2017

(Note: A version of this article appeared on published August 22, 2016; this is an updated, expanded version.)

The summer is over (at least as far as the “Article of the Week” is concerned), and we’re back in business. It’s been an eventful three months, and we’ll have much to talk about as classes approach. But first, here are a few of the themes covered over the past few years, organized by topic, that you might find useful as you finish off your syllabi and plot your classroom adventures for the semester. We will soon be sending the faculty a survey that we hope you’ll fill out and return. It should help CTIE better plan events for the coming year.

For those of you on campus, my office has relocated (with me in it!) to the new Gateway center next to the Hotel. I’m in 213, second floor in the back. Stop by and say hello and grab a cup of coffee while you’re here.

Thinking About the Syllabus

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

Backward Design: From Course to Class (Feb. 27, 2017). Applying syllabus-level backward design to the class level.

In Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching (Oct. 10, 2016) Elizabeth Hamilton discusses the principles of universal design as applied to teaching.

The Dual Life of a Syllabus (August 4, 2015) discusses the syllabus as both a “legal” contract and a learning document and suggests approaches to both aspects.

Sharing Syllabi (March 7, 2016) introduces a syllabus sharing project run out of Columbia University and evaluates the pros and cons of making your syllabus publicly available.

In the Classroom:

Active Learning

In Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques (Oct. 25, 2015), Marcelo Vinces looks at the research on the positive impact of active learning techniques in STEM fields.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning (Feb. 8, 2015) explores the concept and theory of active learning and offers advice on how to help prepare students for collaborative, communicative classroom practices where they can learn as much from each other as from the instructor.


Wendy Hyman, in ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’: New Approaches to Assignments (April 17, 2017), suggests ways to incorporate student voices to the design of assignments.

In Designing Assignments for the New Semester (Jan. 25, 2015), I discuss the elements of “backward design” and how to craft assignments that are aligned with an instructor’s learning goals.

Secret HandshakesRevealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design (Sept. 27, 2015) argues that there are a variety of ways in which academic success has always been an “insiders” game, and that if we are to give all our students the best chance of success, we need to design assignments clearly, explicitly, and in a way that all can understand.

Beginnings and Endings

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community (Aug. 29, 2016) explores how to use the first day of class to talk about something more important than the syllabus.

In The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins (Feb. 8, 2015), I argue for the importance of using the few minutes before class actually begins to help create an environment where students are at ease and attentive.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning (April 20, 2014) examines relatively traditional ways to end a class (e.g., talking faster to get in everything you wanted even as the students are packing their bags and heading for the door) and suggests better ways to make productive use out of the last five minutes of class.


Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom (Sept. 26, 2016): How to help students talk about difficult or controversial topics.

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Inksheds and Eggshells (April 10, 2016) explores a technique whereby students free-write on a topic, then pass their comments to a second student, and so on for about 20 minutes until the discussion moves to the class as a whole.

Let’s Talk about It: Fostering Productive Classroom Discussions (Sept. 6, 2015) considers ways to set up a class so that discussions have the greatest chance of supporting student learning. In particular, it provides approaches to help students be responsible talkers and listeners when working with their peers.

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class (Sept. 20, 2015) offers ways to structure student discussions of course material outside of the class.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively (Sept. 14, 2014) argues why discussions are an important pedagogy for learning, and offers advice on how to set up discussion groups, structure small-group conversations, and bring the learning occurring in the break-out groups back to the class as a whole.


Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia? (Nov. 8, 2015) looks at grading practices and asks if there are better, or at least fairer, ways to evaluate student work. The article explores, in particular, “specification grading,” a form of “contract grading” (see below).

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading (March 27, 2016) contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment. There are a variety of ways to engage in “contract grading” (three are discussed in this article), but all attempt to clarify the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions.

Group Projects

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Group Projects: It’s Better Together – But Only if You Plan (April 10, 2017): The benefits, and common pitfalls, of group projects, as well as information on how to grade them.


The Sound of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening (Feb. 20, 2017): On the role of silence in the classroom.

Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand (Feb. 1, 2015): A synopsis of Lee Knefelkamp’s (Teachers College, Columbia) technique for helping students listen for understanding: i.e., for meaning, the impact of affect, communication, and response, in a responsible fashion, and in order to expand the complexity of one’s own understanding.

Presentation Software

PowerPoint: Let’s Make a Meal of It (Oct. 3, 2016): Best practices when using PowerPoint in your classes.


Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Reading: A Short Guide to Contemporary Practices (and Problems) March 27, 2017: towards an ethics of reading.

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills (March 29, 2015) provides an introduction to the “Active Reading Document” approach developed at Texas Lutheran University as a way to help students at all levels of reading get a better grip on the practice.

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables) (Sept. 23, 2012) considers the question of how much reading should be assigned, offering some tips on how to figure this out for your specific classes.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr (March 1, 2015) addresses the question of how much reading is too much reading (tl;dr = too long, did not read) and how to help students be better readers.


Image from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

Image from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

Cortney Smith, in Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking (Dec. 5, 2016), presents some strategies to help student speaking and methods for evaluating their speaking.

Good Job! Responding to Student Answers in order to Spur Learning (Sept. 19, 2016) suggests that how one responds to students’ classroom comments can help (or hinder) their learning.

A Teacher’s Identity in the Classroom

The ‘Us’ in Teaching (Oct. 31, 216). What parts of you do you leave outside the classroom; what parts do you bring in?


Lids Down! (Oct. 5, 2014) summarizes some of the research on laptop use in the classroom concluding that they probably do more harm than good except in specific contexts.

Visualization Strategies

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization (Feb. 14, 2016) points to the evidence that links image and understanding, particularly in the sciences, where visualizations can be integral to the teaching of complex concepts. Visualization, teaching students to illustrate concepts, can be an effective way of helping students understand complexity in a variety of fields and communicate with clarity.

The Honor Code

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation? (Nov. 22, 2015) traces the history of the honor code at colleges and universities and argues that there are a variety of assumptions built into this traditional pledge that need to be unpacked and discussed. The article also suggests that we need to be paying particular attention to how international students, who may have very different understandings of “honor,” understand and observe the code.

Equity and Specific Student Communities

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias

Child.Jade.braindrainMarcelo Vinces, in From “Between the World and Me” to “Whistling Vivaldi”: How implicit bias trips up our brains…and what we can do about it (Nov. 21, 2016), offers strategies for identifying and getting beyond implicit bias.

The Stereotype Threat (Feb. 28, 2016) discusses research on the ways in which we carry around sets of implicit biases that can negatively impact our students’ ability to learn and reach their full potential.

Students on the Autism Spectrum

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (April 19, 2015) lists some approaches for teaching students who are on the autism spectrum.

International Students

In Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges (Nov. 1, 2015), I take account of the fact that the number of international students enrolled at liberal arts colleges is increasing at a rapid pace. The article provides specific advice for how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the remarkably diverse population which is now present on our campuses, and explores specific approaches or practices that may prove difficult for international students: working with open-ended assignments, receiving feedback on assignments, class participation, etc.

Information Literacy

Women's March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

Women’s March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

With Rosalinda Linares, The New Information Literacy (Jan. 23, 2017): Working with librarians to separate fact from fiction, fiction from politics.

Finding Our Voice in a ‘Post-Truth’ Era (Dec. 12, 2016). “Post-Truth” and our responsibilities as teachers.

New Pedagogies, New Approaches

Stand and Deliver: (March 6, 2017). The pedagogy of movement in a classroom

In The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom (March 12, 2016) Sebastiaan Faber argues that the ability to take risks with one’s teaching in order to make classroom teaching a collaborative endeavor where students take ownership over their own learning and become accountable for it as well, depends on building trust, accepting one’s own vulnerability, and suspending one’s authority in the classroom.

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time (Oct. 4, 2015) discusses techniques for slowing down so as to help students build their capacity for deep analysis, the basis of slow pedagogical techniques.

Tania Boster, in Community-Based Learning at Oberlin: Democratic Engagement Plus Significant Learning (Feb. 13, 2017), discusses the pedagogy of community-based learning and research.

Listening to Smart People (Feb. 6, 2017). What we can learn from different kinds of learners.

Office Hours

Office Hours: The Doctor is In (Sept. 13, 2016): How to make optimal use of office hours – and how to get students to come.

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo http://www.eurweb.com

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo http://www.eurweb.com

Teaching in Troubled Times:

Student activism has been a major part of the higher education environment in the last few years. You’ll find some of my remarks on this in New Student Activism: Stops on the Road to New Solidarities (April 24, 2017).

The Past as Way Forward: Finding a “Useful History” (March 13, 2017): How learning communities joining different campus communities can help us build trust on campus.

You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back” (Nov. 14, 2016). What difference teachers can make in a difficult world.

My take on Bertrand Russell’s “Decalogue” for teachers, presented in an article I title, “Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism” (May 8, 2016).