Reflection and the First Week of Classes

Steve Volk, August 23, 2015 (edited, augmented, and revised from Jan 31, 2014)

One of the things that I most enjoy about a life in teaching is the semi-annual prospect it provides to start anew. Whether we follow through on them or not, the resolutions we make at the start of each new semester offer an opportunity to reflect on what went well and what went pear-shaped during the last semester, as well as a chance to institute some changes to address the shortcomings.

Pete Seeger, 1964 anon for BBC Tonight In Person. Carl Guderian, CC-Flickr

Pete Seeger, 1964 anon for BBC Tonight In Person. Carl Guderian, CC-Flickr

There’s a boat-load of hopefulness built into this semi-annual reset button, and I was reminded of the importance of this when reading the 2014 obituary of Pete Seeger, a personal hero who visited Oberlin many times during his long career. “The key to the future of the world,” he observed in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” This doesn’t feel much like a time for optimism, but I’ve long believed that to be a teacher is in its essence to be an optimist. I’m not sure what we’re about if not preparing our students to take ownership of their learning and craft their own lives, so as to make a better future for themselves, their communities, and the world we inhabit. And that is an act of optimism.

So, how to begin…again? I often post “first-week-of-the-semester” advice at the start of the semester, and clicking back to some of them now might provide some ideas. For example, how to make plans now to manage the stress you know is coming; how to create an inclusive classroom in which all of our students can listen to and hear each other in the midst of very difficult conversations; or how to create an active learning environment in your classroom.

First Day VideoA few years ago I prepared a short (10 min.) video on the First Week of Classes, and although a few points are dated, you still might find some good advice there.

While thinking of what to say in this article, I awoke to something this morning in one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, and it struck me as immensely useful as we prepare our classes. Popova was writing about the artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose massive spider sculptures (among her many spectacular creations) caught my attention some years ago. In a 1938 letter Bourgeois advised her friend and fellow artist, Colette Richarme, that “You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.” Not a bad bit of advice about teaching: we try to put the essence of what we need (not want) to teach into the course, and that always involves elimination. We choose with discernment,  but we have to put the essence of what we want to say into our classes.

Louise Bourgeois. Photo by Topyti, "Shadow of a Doubt," CC-Flickr

Louise Bourgeois. Photo by Topyti, “Shadow of a Doubt,” CC-Flickr

Expectations and Reflection

So, returning to the first week of classes, here’s a suggestion. Sometime during the first week of classes, hand out an “Expectations Reflection Paper.” Many of us do this, or engage in a similar exercise, both to help students think about their expectations for themselves and the course and for us to learn more about them (and what they think they have signed up for. It can be a sobering experience to realize that their expectations and your syllabus aren’t in any particular alignment.)

You can set aside some time in the class for students to respond to the assignment; I have them work on the assignment outside of class. they are required to turn it in at the start of the next class. Some faculty ask students to put their names on the assignment, others explicitly don’t. If you want to use the exercise as a way to get to know your students, you’ll need to know who authored the papers.

I always have them put their names on the paper, and make the reflection paper a course requirement, for another reason. I collect and read the reflections at the start of the semester and then hand them back to the students at the end of the semester. This time I ask them to think about what they wrote earlier and to reflect on what they feel they have accomplished, where their expectations might have fallen short, and what they learned about their own learning in the process.

Mimo Paladino, illustration for 1998 folio edition of James Joyce's Ulysses

Mimo Paladino, illustration for 1998 folio edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

What to ask? Here are some starting ideas:

  • Why are you interested in this subject, or what prompted you to take this class? (Don’t be afraid to admit that you need it to fulfill a requirement.)
  • Have you taken other courses in this area or have you had other experiences (in classes or outside of the classroom) that you think are relevant?
  • What content knowledge do you hope to gain by taking this class?
  • What skills do you hope to gain by taking this class?
  • How do you learn the best? Formal lectures, class discussions, small group discussions, readings, assignments, practical engagement, group work, other?
  • Do you know of anything that might get in the way of your full participation in this class and which you can disclose? For example: Is this a particularly busy semester for you? Health issues? Family issues? Part-time work? Worries about your community or events in the world beyond the college? Lack of particular skills? Shyness? Please list anything that you feel comfortable listing, anything you think I can help with or should be paying attention to.
  • Do you have any particular worries about this class that derive from these concerns? Anything about the reputation of the class or what you have heard from other students?
  • What can you tell me that can help me remember you? (E.g., “I’m the one with pink hair who loves Bach and always sits in the back row.”)
  • In this class, do you expect to work more, less, or the same amount as in other courses?
  • Are you doing anything else this semester (or in general) that relates to or corresponds with the subject of this course (either in terms of what you are studying or things that you are doing outside of your classes)?

Finally, there are two questions that I always include:

  • What one thing can I do to help your learning in this class?
  • What one thing can YOU do to help your learning in this class?

Do you have other suggestions? Send them along.


Black Lives Matter and the Start of Classes

Steve Volk, August 16, 2015

At the beginning of yoga practice, we often sit for some time in virasana. With eyes closed, we begin to clear our minds – although mine usually just keeps trucking along. As we sit, we are often encouraged to think about the space in front of us, on our sides, and behind us. At my practice today, I began to think more about what occupies those spaces.

The semester will begin soon, just a few slim weeks since the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. What is more, we’re coming off a summer which, for many of us and our students, was an appalling, angering, and disheartening period, filled as it was with so many Black bodies cut down by racist violence. As we tried to cope with Charleston, our thoughts were quickly forced to ask why Sandra Bland was pulled over for not signaling a lane change…and ended up dead a few days later; why Samuel DuBose was pulled over for not having a front tag…and was promptly killed by a white University of Cincinnati officer; why Christian Taylor was gunned down by a white police trainee in Arlington, TX. The Washington Post recently reported that 24 unarmed black men have been killed by the police so far this year, that’s 40% of all the unarmed deaths. And that’s likely an under count. Sam Sinyangwe of the Mapping Police Violence project reported that 179 African Americans have been killed by the police so far this year.

"The Shooting," Peter Strain for the Washington Post

“The Shooting,” Peter Strain for the Washington Post

“Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?” the BBC asked back in May as our students were leaving campus. Perhaps that question only remains alive for foreign journalists still trying to figure out why racial carnage in the United States is so endemic. Sinyangwe writes, “In the aftermath of Ferguson…there was this big question ‘Is this a pattern, is this an isolated incident?’ What [my data] shows is that Ferguson is everywhere. All over the country you’re seeing black people being killed by police.” He notes that “Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that’s taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.” Perhaps, as I have come to realize, what was appalling about this past summer was not that it was unusual but rather that it was all too common. What has changed is that we’re hearing about this racial violence since body cameras and social media have become our nation’s paper boys, ready to drop this news on our doorsteps every hour.

This is not the time or the place to answer the BBC’s question, but it is a time to recognize that for many of our students, faculty, staff, and community members, the maddening crimes of this not-yet-concluded summer occupy all the spaces around them. These events, and what they imply for their own lives and the society we live in, are never far from their thoughts.

This may not be true for all of us, but whatever space Ferguson and Baltimore and Prairie View and Cleveland does occupy in your mind, as we prepare for classes and the return of our students, we would do well to recognize that for many in our community, our students above all, an education that doesn’t provide the tools to think critically about the BBC’s question as well as the set of skills needed to change the reality that calls forth such a question in the first place, is not an education.

What does this mean for how we teach our classes or engage our students? Beyond a doubt, it will mean different things for different people, and that’s as it should be, for there is no one way to approach this. But I have found a few important articles that give some good advice, and surely more are out there. I would recommend Dan Berrett’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Year of Racial Tumult Brings Potent Lessons – and Risks – to the Classroom,” as well as Colleen Murphy’s article, also in the Chronicle, “How a St. Louis HBCU, Deeply Touched by Ferguson, Handled a Difficult Year.” Do check out a Penn State website, “The Fire This Time: Understanding Ferguson. Learning from Faculty, Students, and Community Members, from Penn State and Beyond as they Engage the Events in Ferguson, MO.” For those on Twitter, I’d strongly recommend the #FergusonSyllabus and the follow-up #CharlestonSyllabus that was put together by Chad Williams at Brandeis. See, as well, the #Charlestonyyllabus produced by the African American Intellectual History Society. You can also find a list of New York Times articles on Charleston and its aftermath here.

However we think about this past summer, and year, we need to be aware of the fact that many in our community are hurting and we need to begin this year with a recognition of the pain that they suffer. We should understand that even if these events don’t take up all the space around us, and even if these are subjects what we don’t directly teach, they are events that have deeply impacted many in our community.

Here’s another timely resource. If you’ve ever hiked in the UK, you’ve likely encountered stinging nettle, and not in a friendly way. A slight brush against the plant produces a burning sting that goes on and on. As luck (or some other intention) would have it, the crushed stem of the jewelweed which grows right next to the stinging nettle, can be used to sooth your irritated skin. If the events of this summer were like a stinging nettle, than the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (NY: Spiegel & Grau), a short memoir-polemic, is the nearby jewelweed. Coates’ is a massively important voice, his insights stunning, disturbing, unforgettable. This is a book that must be read. A few faculty, led by Pam Brooks, have been planning some discussion groups to explore Between the World and Me, and the A&S dean’s office has agreed to provide interested faculty with copies. We’ll get out more information on this soon.

Peter Strain, "Black and Unarmed," for the Washington Post

Peter Strain, “Black and Unarmed,” for the Washington Post


The Dual Life of a Syllabus

by Steve Volk, August 4, 2015

Shark Syllabus - Jack Dowell - CC/Flickr

Shark Syllabus – Jack Dowell – CC/Flickr

If you’re ahead of the game, your syllabi for the fall semester are finalized and ready to go. If you’re like me, they are hardly ready for prime time and you’re probably feeling like the guy in the photo. In either case, particularly if you’re new to syllabus writing, here are a few things to think about as you prepare, revise, or tweak your syllabi.

The syllabus is a strange animal: it is conceivably the most important (and complicated) teaching document you will prepare each semester and yet, after you hand it out, most students use it for one thing only: to find out the readings assignments or when papers are due or exams scheduled.

The root of the problem is that the syllabus is really two different documents serving two different purposes. On the one hand, it is the most comprehensive guide that you will prepare detailing how you plan to organize a body of information in such a way as to reach your educational goals while having the greatest impact on student learning. On the other, it is seen as a quasi-legal contract that sets out your responsibilities to the students and what they must do in order to successfully complete the course. The first purpose is most often invisible and implicit; the second needs to be explicit and unambiguous.

Syllabus as Contract

Signature: Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Signature: Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Since it is the second purpose that often gets the most attention, I’ll turn to it first. The syllabus traditionally serves as a contract setting out rules, regulations, and expectations: when assignments are due, how they will be graded, what is allowed and what is prohibited. To the extent that faculty want to use the syllabus-contract to cover every eventuality, from policies on laptop use in class to the rules for acceptance of late papers, the contractual part of the syllabus can take a lot of space and, often, become both intimidating and unwelcoming: Is your syllabus a long list of what students can’t do or will be penalized for?

Further, as David Parry points out, students will “read” that part of the syllabus about as thoroughly as we “read” the End User License Agreement that comes with new software. Still, the contractual part of the syllabus is important and thinking it through clearly can help you avoid headaches down the line. Kate Susman, a biology professor at Vassar, offers some additional useful advice on the syllabus as a contract. The syllabus divides the course into weekly, daily or other units, informs students what they are responsible for in each session, when assignments are due, where they can find required readings, where they can get help, and how to contact you, as well as college policies on academic integrity, accommodations and matters concerning class conduct.

[How you actually get students to read the syllabus so that they will be aware of all of these issues is a different matter altogether, and I’ll save it for a later post.]

Syllabus as Course Architecture

But it is the first, invisible, part of the syllabus, what has been called the “learning syllabus,”  that is more important both for you, the instructor, and ultimately for the students. As teachers, we develop a set of goals and objectives for every course, and the syllabus should not only state these goals clearly, but embody them in the basic design of the course. The goals set out what we want our students to have accomplished over the 15 weeks they are taking the class. To be sure, we want them to master a body of knowledge, become more skilled in a variety of ways, develop a greater awareness of themselves as individuals, members of a group, and as thinkers. The syllabus is both the road map guiding your students to achieve these goals (and therefore it needs to describe your responsibilities toward the students: this is what I will do to help your learning) and they yardstick you will use to measure whether they have met the goals: this is what you, as a student, must do to succeed in the class. (And, when the course is over, if you find gaps between your expectations and the students’ success rate, you will want to think about ways of changing the course the next time you offer it.)

Residence "Belltrees" for Messrs M. E. A. and V. White - Cultural Collections - CC/Flickr

Residence “Belltrees” for Messrs M. E. A. and V. White – Cultural Collections – CC/Flickr

A good way to approach the syllabus, then, is to start at the end, with your course goals and objectives. Backward planning is a central concept in learning design. It suggests that you start with where you want your students to be at the end of the course (what they should know, be able to do better, have thought about, etc.). I modify that somewhat and imagine what I want my students to have retained from the course some ten years after they took it. I have found this to be an important exercise in thinking about student learning and recall in the digital age where so much information is available instantly on your smartphone. Concepts, approaches, and skills have become so much more important than memorization.

With your goals specified, the next question is how you will know if the students have met the goals you have set. For example, if one goal is the ability to analyze and evaluate conflicting secondary sources and you only give exams in which memorization is the key component, you will have a hard time assessing student learning vis-à-vis your goals. So the next step is designing assignments to flow logically from goals.

Scaffold - Andreas Levers - CC/Flickr

Scaffold – Andreas Levers – CC/Flickr

But how can you assure that your students are best prepared to succeed in meeting your final goals and that these goals are scaffolded appropriately, moving from easier to more difficult tasks, providing opportunities for recovery after failure? Perhaps one of your goals is to develop greater skills at collaboration. We know that our students will have to collaborate productively if they are to succeed when they leave school. How do we best prepare them? If collaboration is one of your goals, but the only activity you have that requires collaboration is a co-authored final research paper, it’s quite likely that many will not succeed. Collaborative writing is difficult, and unless students have more low-stakes practice at it, they will have an unreasonably hard time with that final project. Go back over the syllabus and find those occasions where you can insert more group work, opportunities when the students can write short, non-graded collaborative memos, etc.

With your goals determined and your assignments properly scaffolded, you can then go back to the task of determining which content best fits into which week and how that builds on the learning from the previous week.

The thought that goes into your syllabus, the architecture that supports learning in your course, will remain largely hidden from the students. What they see are the contractual elements and their weekly obligations. Because of that, I have always found it useful to make explicit what is hidden: tell them why that assignment is scheduled when it is, what its purpose is at that moment, and how it will help them achieve the course goals. Continually engaging students with the underlying structure of the course helps them both understand the work that went into preparing it and what its goals are beyond the transfer of knowledge.

Back to the Document

A few more thoughts on syllabus preparation:

Carry On, Marc Johns, Serious Drawings:

Carry On, Marc Johns, Serious Drawings:

Paper or Digital: We are required to provide our students with a syllabus for the course, but that can be either in paper or online. Many faculty have moved to online syllabi as a way of saving paper, permitting direct access to online materials, allowing instructors to make alterations in the course as it evolves, and sharing it with a wider world. (Many of these points require further discussion, but I’ll save them for a later discussion.) There are numerous web-building sites (or here, or here), for example, beyond Blackboard, that can allow you to develop an attractive online syllabus with no technical skills. (If building a digital site, make sure that it is fully accessible to students with disabilities.)

Putting it all together – here are some things to keep in mind, many of which come from Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.

  • Use accessible, inclusive language. Students may not yet be versed in your field, so avoid unnecessary jargon and technical terms.  Make sure your syllabus (and your course) is accessible to students from diverse backgrounds and does not inadvertently make some feel excluded.
  • Set the right tone. Think about the learning environment you want to create in your course and use your syllabus to help you do this. Consider whether you want to include language on preferred gender pronouns in the syllabus. Try to avoid writing a syllabus which is largely a list of things that students can’t do in your class.
  • Articulate the course goals and communicate what students can expect to learn. Communicate to students what they will know, understand and be able to do upon completion of the course.
  • Make your syllabus is visually appealing. Make it easy for students to skim the syllabus and find key information.  White space, indenting, bold, italics, underline and large/small caps can help make your syllabus easy to read.
  • Think about questions and concerns students might have about your course.  Use the syllabus to answer as many of these as you think appropriate.
  • Include basic information about the course and the instructor. Syllabi typically include the course title, course number, meeting times, classroom location and URL for the course website.  They also include the instructor’s name, office location, office hours, phone number and email address. I strongly recommend that you also include how you prefer to be contacted (email, text, in person) and when  (e.g., “The best time to reach me by email is before 9:00 PM. I cannot guarantee that I will read any messages after that time”).
  • Use the course description to provide a brief introduction to the course. Clarify the scope, purpose and relevance of the topic.  Introduce the course format and organization.
  • Let students know – in detail – what you expect of them. Have explicit course policies that communicate – again, positively if possible – what you expect in terms of attendance, tardiness, laptop use in class, class participation, missed exams, etc.  This will save you time later in the semester.
  • Let students know what materials are required and where they can buy or access them. Beyond these required materials, you may also wish to provide students with recommendations of additional resources for those who are interested.
  • Explain how students will be evaluated. Build in opportunities for low-stakes feedback and scaffold assignments carefully.  Explain how final grades will be determined.  Clarify how grades will be weighted or if you grade on a curve.
  • Include a section on Academic Integrity and the Honor Code: Provide a link to Oberlin’s honor code.
  • Clarify the kinds of academic support available. Make sure students know about campus resources that support their learning.
  • Include a statement about disabilities and accommodations: For example: “If you have a documented disability and wish to discuss academic accommodations, please contact me as soon as possible.”

The Blank Syllabus

There are other possibilities to syllabus writing, which I’ll just raise here and return to in a later post. Some faculty co-create a syllabus with their students. This can involve only parts of the syllabus, for example selecting readings from an anthology, inviting students to submit a number of units that students would like to see covered but aren’t on the syllabus (and what they would replace by adding new material), information on contract grading (also here), an invitation to students to establish their rules of conduct, etc. For those interested in co-curating a class with their students, the syllabus can be a great starting point.

Other advice? Send it along.

(Modified on August 5 to add information about digital syllabus preparation.)

Endings and Beginnings: Thoughts on Finishing the Semester

Steven Volk, May 3, 2015

Hundreds of silhouettes gradually light up over 90 seconds. Alfredo Jaar, "Geometry of Conscience," Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile. Image at:

Hundreds of silhouettes gradually light up over 90 seconds. Alfredo Jaar, “Geometry of Conscience,” Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile. Image at:

A few weeks ago, the Chilean-born, New York-based artist, architect and filmmaker, Alfredo Jaar, was on campus to give a lecture which he titled, “It Is Difficult.” The title comes from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/of what is found there” [Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and Other Love Poems: That Greeny Flower].


Jaar has often taken on the difficult task of turning news into poetry, and his own poetry into news. He is well known for memorializing victims of the “dirty wars” in Chile and Argentina. He designed a deeply moving installation at Chile’s Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights called “Geometry of Conscience.” His contribution to the Parque de la Paz (Peace Park) in Buenos Aires, “Punto Ciego (Blind Spot),” commemorating the thousands of victims of the Argentine military juntas, is a landmark work among those who labor to construct an architecture of memory that goes beyond history and into conscience.

Alfredo Jaar, "Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born)," Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX

Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX

While these are themes Jaar has explored extensively, it was his last project, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, that came to mind as I sat down to write this semester’s final “Article of the Week.” The Nasher invited Jaar to install a work in its garden to mark the museum’s 10th anniversary. The artist contemplated a number of related themes while puzzling over the project: anniversaries and the passage of time, the nature of the museum and its particular (often exclusive and exclusionary) audience, the city of Dallas and its changing populations, endings and beginnings.

With these in mind, he examined a map of Dallas with the Nasher highlighted at its center. He then located all the hospitals with maternity wards within a certain distance from the museum, and underscored those that served predominately African American, Latino/a, and undocumented populations. He ended up visiting three wards where, with the permission of the families involved, he audio recorded the sounds of the babies at their moment of birth – their very first cries.

Alfredo Jaar, "Music (Everything I learned)," Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX:

Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I learned),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX:

Back in the Nasher’s Sculpture Garden, he constructed a pavilion of pine and plastic in shades of green, four translucent walls reaching up perhaps 20 feet. Inside the structure, captains’ chairs are placed around the perimeter, and one sits in the quiet, listening to the murmur of the visitors outside until, at the same time every day, there is a sound, recorded and amplified: the sound of a child being born. It is played at the exact time that a specific baby was born. As part of the project, “Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born),” all the families that participated in the project were given a year-long membership to the museum. All the new-born babies were given a lifetime membership, Jaar’s way of addressing the fact that contemporary museums rarely serve all the populations that are closest to them.

Alfredo Jaar, "Music (Everything I learned)," Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX:

Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I learned),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX:

For someone whose work has so often dealt with the memories of crimes against humanity, Jaar’s recent (2013-14) project reminds us of that there are no endings without beginnings, all of which is an (admittedly) round-about as well as extravagant way of signaling that as we come to the end of the semester, we also begin to think about new beginnings and where we go from here.

It was a difficult semester in many ways, often demanding that we address issues that were occurring far from campus (as well as some that are very much at home), and it is important not to ignore the toll that these events have taken on us as well as many of our students. So how do we end the semester in a way that also signals a new beginning?



A previous “Article of the Week” (Closing Time, Managing the End of the Semester, April 28, 2014) offered a number of suggestions for closing out the school year:

  • Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your students, helping students think about why the course was structured as it was and the ways in which they can examine their own learning from that perspective.
  • Encourage students to think about how they have worked to achieve their own goals set at the start of the semester: have your students write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation of their learning, reflecting on their participation in the course.
  • Have students create a summary concept map of the course that visually traces main themes and subsidiary branches.
  • One instructor has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since teaching a subject is often the best way to learn about it.
  • Students in small groups can discuss how their understanding has changed over the course of the semester, focusing perhaps on critical moments in their learning.

David Gooblar, at, suggests having students write letters to those who will take the course in the future. They can reflect on its high and low points, offering advice to those who will sit in their seats the next semester, addressing in particular what they wish they had known going in to the class, what they would have done differently, and what future students might want to know about the course and the instructor. As Gooblar adds, “Try including specific questions in your prompt. The idea is to turn the letter-writing exercise into a kind of course review that could be useful in helping students prepare for the final exam. Ask: What are the most important aspects of the course subject? What were the most insightful readings, and why? What remains unclear at the end of the semester? Having students answer such questions is a great way to get them to review the material. Writing the letter naturally encourages students to think back to where they were at the beginning of the semester. It puts into their head the distance they’ve traveled between then and now, asking them to take stock of exactly what they’ve learned.”

uneduex-along the lines of a legacy of goodbyes. CC-Flickr

uneduex-along the lines of a legacy of goodbyes. CC-Flickr

Finally, some advice for you, the teachers:

End of semester reflection from your point of view: this is a good time to write down (while you still remember it!) what worked and what didn’t; what you should reword or redesign in your assignments, what parts of the class produced just the results you had hoped for and what was confusing or disorganized?

Terri Givens, writing in Inside Higher Education, offers 10 points to help new faculty cope with the end-of-semester stress (with some of my own comments added), but they seem just as appropriate for old-timers as well:


1: Clearly communicate to others that it is crunch time – some things will have to wait;
2: Relax your standards in non-essential areas of life – let the laundry pile up; let local restaurants take care of your dinners;
3: Say no to every service request from now until the end of the semester – if administrators or chairs haven’t figured out all you have to get done, they should!
4: Every day needs a plan – lists are always great, even better now: checking off tasks you have done can bring a sense of accomplishment – you are making progress;
5: Write for 30-60 minutes each day – don’t drop your writing completely, even if it tails off;
6: Only check e-mail one time per day (max) – OK, you’ll need to pay attention to some student requests, but limit your time answering email.
7: Eliminate unnecessary electronic distractions – unplug.
8: Take care of your body: walk, exercise, eat well, sleep!
9: End every day with gratitude and a treat.
10: Did I say: take care of your body? Walk, exercise, eat well, sleep!

Send me your own methods for closing out the semester.

The CEMUS Project – Lessons for Oberlin?

Steven Volk, April 26, 2015

A colleague recently introduced me to CEMUS, the Center for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. CEMUS is a unique student-initiated and primarily student-run university center with the explicit ambition to contribute to a better world. Since the early 1990’s, it has offered interdisciplinary higher education and been a creative meeting place for students, researchers and teachers from Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The three main principles that define it are Student-Led Education, Collaboration & Partnership and Transdisciplinary Research. Interestingly, at least for us at Oberlin, its founding was at least partially inspired by a lecture given by our own David Orr in Sweden some years earlier in which he set out “six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them.”

Transcending BoundariesCEMUS published a short book about its history, principles and goals in 2011. Transcending Boundaries: How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn is available as a free download. This “Article of the Week,” is a condensed version of the chapter: “What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström, one of the center’s student founders. The Center is centrally focused (as its name would suggest) on questions of environment and “development” (which they discuss in a very specific manner), and responds in one way to David’s challenge that the task of rethinking education must be undertaken in the context of the urgency of human survival. Further, the CEMUS project offers a number of lessons for a college, our own, as well as higher education in general, which is deliberating over its larger curricular and educational goals and the ways that students can take ownership over their education.

(NOTE: I have emphasized those parts of the text I found particularly relevant to our own process. Also note that the references to “senior faculty” would, in our context, better be read as “faculty” or anyone with a teaching or mentoring function.)

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“What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström

The Beginnings
It is the fall of 1988. Classes are starting for Biology majors at Uppsala University. Fifty freshmen, full of expectation and a little bit nervous, are seated in the “The Svedberg Hall”; in the old, worn premises of the Chemistry Department…Finally, I am here, where all the action is supposed to be; at the center of thinking and change—the university.

My images of the university were so vivid and clear: frenetic activity and enthusiasm; continuous debates and discussions; students with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, who attend lectures beyond their fields of study according to interest rather than course plans and requirements; idealism and the power to bring about change coupled with knowledge and thoughtfulness; demonstrations, actions, and protests; the courage to challenge and change the status quo. The core of social change and the triumph of reason over the follies of the world.

Where did I get these images? I don’t know—but they were certainly very real. And thus the disappointment and frustration at the reality that confronted me was just as real. A sense of disillusionment. Was this it? Was I missing something? Where was the dedication to causes and the ability to bring about change? […] Here, every year, thousands of students appeared to flow through the system without ever having been compelled to place their education in a broader context; without having been forced to challenge themselves and their educational and career choices in relation the major issues of global survival… and the global injustices that troubled not only me, but also a growing part of the world.

An essay by David Orr, titled “What is Education For?”—originally a speech to the graduating class of 1990 at Arkansas College— crystallized our thoughts but also ignited a spark to act. It was the first of several formative and deeply inspiring factors on the road to what would become Cemus. “The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climactic stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity,” Orr stated, and concluded, “It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.” In other words, the university is indeed a big part of the problem.

Orr continued, “My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound the problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival—the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.”

[…] We must learn how to manage ourselves and our social systems. New knowledge does not automatically yield good values, and the amount of total knowledge hardly increases…An increased amount of disciplinary and reductionistic teaching and research will not provide the holistic and integrated understanding of the world that we need the most. Education should not primarily be a career tool. And finally, Western culture is not some kind of apex in world development, but is rather, in many ways, the opposite.

[…] The importance of these moments of “homecoming,” of making connections with people and thoughts that strengthen your own possibly unformulated but deep insights, but which also challenge you and stretches your imagination, should not be underestimated. In fact, that is probably a foundational element of Cemus’ origination as well as an important dimension of its pedagogical approach. The merging of dammed-up frustration and moments of constructive inspiration can yield unexpected results!

Universal History-Johannes Buno 1672-Cartographies of Time

Johannes Buno, Universal History (1672) in Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time

Yet another important point of departure: the Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich visits Uppsala University in 1989… His lecture is dazzling [and] the conclusion is challenging: which university will be first in the world to require an introductory, cross-disciplinary semester in matters of global survival for all students? And which university will be the first to allow—and to expect—everyone, regardless of discipline, to set aside at least 10% of their time to get involved in exactly these kinds of issues?

Imagine a lecture series, a course, an introductory semester with only lectures like this; lectures which affect you and which force you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives. The seed for the course Humanity and Nature was planted—and the vision of another, different university became a little bit more concrete.

A third departure point: An entire wall of empty tea cans inside the old stone house in the Observatory Garden. Facing us, the Astronomy Professor that so many people have told us we simply had to meet. Our idea: an interdisciplinary course aimed at all students, which takes on the great issues of global survival. A model for a required introductory course inspired by Ehrlich’s challenge. Over the course of one semester, we have been experimenting and thinking about a course design. […] We are encouraged [by Prof. Bengt Gustafsson] to go beyond what we thought was possible…Perhaps the foundation for a fairly uncommon model of respectful and straight-forward collaboration between young students and senior faculty is laid there in the stone house among the tea cans.

From Idea to Completed Course
We are now four students who are wandering through the hallways of the university in search of support for the course proposal. One person leads to another, and we discover that there are in fact many people who share an interest in global issues, people with similar outlooks and a desire to bring about change…The common meeting place and the critical mass seem to be lacking—and the disciplines reign, mirroring the situation that we as students are experiencing…

[…]We are impressed by the professors’ command of their own disciplines, but soon realize that nobody has the whole picture; that they, just as we, are truly grappling with the complexity of the issues. We realize that our common sense and curiosity go a long way, and that we are part of a common project of attempting to define and understand the integrated areas of environment and development, or “sustainable development.” One of the significant aspects of Cemus is exactly this breaking down of exaggerated respect for authority while at the same time making active use of the senior teachers and researchers in order to construct one’s own understanding of the whole—one’s world-view—and to do so on one’s own terms.

No.11 King St, W Toronto, Canada. Brian Carson. CC-Flickr

No.11 King St, W Toronto, Canada. Brian Carson. CC-Flickr

[…]We…finish polishing the course idea and send in the proposal to the University Board. We place a lot of emphasis on the need for an interdisciplinary approach and on the importance of the students’ own active participation and their communication and interaction across disciplines, but we remain silent on the topic of who is to run the course. A few months later, we receive notice that the Vice-Chancellor…has decided that the course will be [developed and carried out by the students] in collaboration with an interdisciplinary group of senior faculty [and] placed as an unusual, freestanding entity… floating above all departments… Developing the course was a way of reflecting on what gives real knowledge and deepened insight—and what triggers the joy of discovery and exploration.

The course development became a relieving experience and great fun—we were fully absorbed in the work and nothing seemed to limit us. We pondered and experimented with new interdisciplinary constellations; with modes of examination in which the writing of group papers across disciplines also became a continuous dialog with the lecturer; we made sure we always ate dinner with the lecturer before the evening’s lecture in order both to build relationships and to provide a context for the lecturer; and we developed detailed, ongoing course evaluations as an explicit, pedagogical tool.

In the full-time follow-up course, Humanity and Nature II we had the opportunity to experiment even further because we were no longer limited by the large lecture hall format, and the course was offered exclusively to advanced students with at least two years of study

[…]The most highly qualified and advanced education is not found in the course catalogue—it consists, rather, in having the opportunity to take own responsibility for development, coordination and teaching of a real course for other students.

We also realize at an early stage that the “meeting place” is at least as important as relevant courses. A physical center is needed not only to provide a formal base for interdisciplinary courses, but also to function as a magnet for all those individuals who, like ourselves, are in search of community, inspiration and a platform for taking action together with others. And such a center has to be genuinely interdisciplinary—it has to float above all the individual disciplines and departments so that it would not over time become distorted and shaped by the narrow conditions and interests of one particular discipline. The initial course proposal hence outlined the formation of a real, interdisciplinary center as a desired and logical next step.

Cemus is Founded
[…] In 1996, Cemus—the Center for Environment and Development Studies—is finally born…Throughout the years a fundamental principle of Cemus there has been the ambition to provide a meeting place for extracurricular activities and to actively encourage students to act on their knowledge as an integrated part of the teaching process. It should be easy to move from theoretical insights to real engagement on the basis of one’s new insights, points of view, and values—whatever they may be. In a deeper sense, Cemus should probably be regarded as a democratic project, rooted in the academic ideals of knowledge-seeking and critical thinking. It urges students to take responsibility by acting on their knowledge and conviction—through the support of other students, a building and infrastructure, and an attractive social environment…

Key Characteristics of Cemus
The Subject Area: Environment and Development
One basic principle from the very beginning was that issues of global survival should be approached in an integrated manner, where both environment and development are fundamental components; but more importantly, that the study of the very interface between these areas is the most central of all. “Environment and development” is here viewed as “one” integrated concept and not as two separate areas that are studied in parallel. Many institutions that offer courses in sustainable development have a disciplinary basis in either the area of environment or the area of development studies, and it can then easily happen that the courses get a bias towards one of these areas. The strength of Cemus is that the focus—and the curiosity—is almost always directed towards the interface and integration of environment and development.

Helen Keller and the Martha Graham Company. Photo: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind (1954)

Helen Keller and the Martha Graham Company. Photo: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind (1954)

The Interdisciplinary Approach
The interdisciplinary approach of Cemus has been a self-evident point of departure since the very beginning… The concept, however, is by no means unambiguous and can be used in many different ways. At the core of Cemus, I believe, there has been an urge to get to a more profound “transdisciplinary” quality, beyond the more common “multi-disciplinary” dimension, even though this is certainly quite a challenge. For some people, moreover, the ideal of a “strong” as opposed to a “weak” interdisciplinary approach is important—that is, an attempt to fundamentally re-evaluate and break new epistemological ground in relation to one’s view of knowledge and one’s understanding of the search for knowledge (and its limitations).

Critical Thinking and Disrespectfulness
“Critical thinking” is probably one of the most commonly used concepts within education and pedagogy and often used in very generalized ways that in the end devalues the concept. Yet, it is without doubt a foundational element of Cemus. This deliberate emphasis on critical thinking takes place at many different levels, with some approaches that seem to be particularly distinctive of Cemus’ courses. First, there is the often explicit ambition to explore alternative and more radical, unconventional ideas and points of view, that is, the “counterpoint” in addition to the “mainstream.” Secondly, the courses challenge students to critically question their own deep assumptions, world-views, and values, something that can make some of Cemus’ courses quite overwhelming and have a profound effect on students. Thirdly, students are encouraged to maintain a critical stance toward the pedagogical process itself and to continually provide feedback and actively influence the courses while they run (and, for some, contribute further by taking responsibility for the course as course coordinators the following year). Critical thinking is also closely connected to the culture of “disrespectfulness” (in a positive sense) for authorities, senior faculty, and researchers that permeates Cemus.

It is the student that stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge; the lecturers pass by, and the student takes advantage of them in the pursuit to synthesize his or her own knowledge—in contrast to an educational situation where the lecturer’s agenda and the query, “What will appear on the exam?” stand in focus of the learning process.

The Focus on Active Involvement
The urge to become actively involved and engaged in the struggle for social change and a sustainable and more equitable world was the departure point for Cemus from the very beginning and is likely just as important today. A basic conviction has been the belief that if people are exposed to and inspired to think more about issues of global survival, then one will somehow change, draw conclusions, and likely also want to actively do something about those problems.

This conviction captures the idea of knowledge as an eye-opener and alarm clock. Whatever political conclusions one may draw from the knowledge one gains, and whatever form of involvement one ends up pursuing, is however something Cemus as an institution should not have any opinions about. It is of course also acceptable to choose not to act, as long as one does so with open eyes and truly stands behind one’s decision. The mission of Cemus is to facilitate and encourage as much knowledge gain, as much critical thinking, and as much reflection as possible—and to make it easier for students to act on these insights if such an urge arise.

The Pedagogical Methods
To improve teaching and pedagogical practices has, as already mentioned, been a central concern of Cemus since the very beginning. However, one may ask whether there is a distinct pedagogical approach at Cemus?… I think one can still discern several features that have distinguished teaching at Cemus through the years. One of them is the focus on norms, values, and students’ own assumptions and sense of responsibility; another is the ambition to supplement reading and theoretical discussions with practical exercises; a third is to whenever possible link theory to concrete, location-bound examples and go on field trips; a fourth is to place great emphasis on social events (scheduled coffee meetings and parties, overnight excursions and field trips); a fifth is the ambition to actively provide a sense of continuity and coherence in courses through, for example, the course coordinators’ presence at every lecture, seminar and discussion; and a sixth is provide opportunities for gaining and improving a number of skills of general importance (different kinds of writing skills, methods for problem structuring, analysis of arguments and debating techniques, communication skills, public speaking skills, and project management).

Duality at No. 664 Bay St, Brian Carson , CC-Flickr

Duality at No. 664 Bay St, Brian Carson , CC-Flickr

Students at the core—the Relation between Senior Faculty and Students
Without students as the driving force, Cemus would not be what it is. Student leadership is simply a fundamental element that must be preserved and cultivated in the best way possible. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the basic principle has always been the trustful, straightforward interaction between students and senior faculty; not the idea that students should have maximum freedom to do whatever they want. Cemus’ approach clearly demands a good dialogue between students and faculty…and who possess the ability to let go, to not micro-manage and to dare let students prove themselves and learn from their experiences. This goes for not only teachers and researchers, but also for the administrative staff of the university.

The Road Ahead and the Bigger Picture
[…] What about the university as a whole? A key incentive from the beginning was to change the entire university and its educational process in the larger sense…Can the experiences gained at Cemus somehow be converted so as to expand the debate—and moreover, can these experiences be shared and spread to universities in other parts of the world? What would be the next natural step to take? What are the great challenges of today’s students?

As the educator Myles Horton says in his inspiring autobiography, “Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. Either you choose to go along with the way things are or else you reject the status quo.” How should the university be changed? What is education for? How will Cemus continue to contribute to a sustainable and just society?

Niclas Hällström actively contributed to the creation and development of Cemus and has, over the years, collaborated as course coordinator, lecturer, Board member, and work group member. After several years of work on environment and development issues, he is now in the process of building a new organization—the What Next Forum.

Page dividerCEMUS was founded within the context of a large Swedish university, but its example contains much that we at liberal arts colleges should be thinking about. How do we build transdiscipinary approaches to the greatest challenges of our time, the “wicked problems” that we face? How do we insure that it is the student who stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge? How do we welcome students to take leadership in their own learning? How do we build “trustful and straightforward” relations between students, faculty, and staff? Can we build a lecture series which “affects you and forces you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives?” The answers are in our hands.

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Steven Volk, April 19, 2015

Our colleagues in the Office of Disability Services recently sponsored a “Light it up Blue” event as part of a worldwide effort to raise awareness of autism. Mudd Library, like the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Pyramids, and other sites around the world, was bathed in blue on April 2, part of a month long Autism Awareness (also called Autism Acceptance) project.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, Cairo (NBC News:

The Great Pyramid of Giza, Cairo (NBC News:

As our colleagues noted, Oberlin is one of many colleges and universities where the number of students on the autism spectrum has been growing. I’ve attended a number of sessions sponsored by the Office of Disability Services as well as by Elizabeth Hamilton’s Faculty-Staff Learning Community, and they have been remarkably useful in providing attendees with a clear sense of how best to create a classroom in which all our students, including those on the spectrum, can learn.

Today’s “Article of the Week” reproduces an article I found particularly useful on how to support students with an autism spectrum disorder, as well as providing some additional resources. This is not an area in which I can claim any expertise, so if you know of better sites or different approaches, or if I have put my foot in it inadvertently, please let me know and I’ll add to this post.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The National Institute of Mental Health writes that Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by:

  • Persistent deficits* in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts;
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities;
  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (typically recognized in the first two years of life); and,
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

ASD is referred to as a “spectrum” because it refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment or disability that individuals can have, with some being mildly affected by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled.

Teaching and Supporting Students with an ASD

A large and growing literature offers advice on how college teachers can best support students with an ASD. I found one article, “Academic Supports for College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Overview,” by Marci Wheeler, to be particularly useful. She is part of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her article, which originally was posted in 2011, was generated by input from the Students on the Spectrum Club at Indiana University – Bloomington. I have included most of it below.


“Academic Supports for College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Overview,” by Marci Wheeler

Cuddle Bud Kids Autism Awareness Decoupage Earrings - CC

Cuddle Bud Kids Autism Awareness Decoupage Earrings – CC

There is a wide range of functioning and abilities seen across individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Generalities are hard to make except to say that communication and social skills deficits are present. There are also neurological differences that affect everyone on the autism spectrum. However, each person is affected in different ways. The sensory perceptions, motor skills, learning styles and coping strategies are often affected and may cause “hidden” challenges that are not understood by those supporting these students. As a result of these challenges the observable behaviors of students on the autism spectrum may make them appear inattentive, bored, rude, defiant or possibly even on drugs. Ritualistic or repetitive behaviors, an attachment to incongruous objects and additional unusual communication and social skills (especially under stress) can make some of these students seem odd and bring unwanted attention to them.

Some students on the autism spectrum may experience sensory overload and/or be distressed by the social and communication demands of a class. They may have learned “acceptable” strategies to cope and have the ability to stay focused on their intellectual pursuits such that they can navigate through their classes (at least the classes in their chosen major) and pass as “normal”. Some students expend a lot of energy, at all costs, to blend in and not be detected. Unfortunately, for some, this may result in them leaving the university without finishing a degree as the stress is too great. Also, on any college campus be assured that there are students who have not been formally diagnosed or students that are not diagnosed until their college years.

Professors and other instructors need to be aware of possible supports that a student on the autism spectrum might find necessary to participate in class and complete classwork. The following six sections briefly state a common concern for most students and list some possible issues and accommodations. Each student on the autism spectrum has unique needs and should work closely with instructors and other college staff to design an individualized plan of proactive support and response to challenges if they arise.

Communication Skills

By definition (following diagnostic criteria) all students with an autism spectrum disorder have some problems which may interfere with receptive or expressive communication. Some of these differences are very subtle and can lead to misunderstandings that are misinterpreted as volitional acts on the part of the student. Students with an autism spectrum disorder may be very articulate and have a large vocabulary which may “hide” their communication challenges. Those supporting students on the autism spectrum should become aware of each individual students weaknesses in this area. Some of these are listed below along with possible accommodations.

Receptive difficulties often experienced by students on the autism spectrum include processing verbal exchanges more slowly, misunderstanding sarcasm, idioms and jokes, very literal interpretation of words, and misunderstanding gestures and body language.

The expressive difficulties of individuals on the autism spectrum may include problems initiating communication; even for those students who at first glance may seem very articulate and even very talkative. Those on the autism spectrum may have trouble staying on topic, turn taking and following conversational “protocol”. Some may be slower to organize thoughts and speak, and/or their voice tone and volume may be unusual. Idiosyncratic use of words and phrases may be present.

Accommodations for a college student with an autism spectrum disorder might include providing the instructor’s lecture notes or a note taker to help key in on important information, providing study guides for tests, allowing a longer verbal response time from the student and allowing for important exchanges of information to be done in written form. It would also help for instructors to be clear, concise, concrete and logical when communicating as well as asking for clarification; don’t make assumptions about what students truly understand.

Social Skills

Social skills (also included in diagnostic criteria) might not seem important in a class setting, but, in fact social difficulties can and do impact the classwork of many students on the autism spectrum. Many college courses require class participation and group work as part of earning a grade. Just going to class with peers necessitates the use of social skills. Some social difficulties and possible accommodations are discussed below.

Phoney Nickle: v2.263: November 18th (My Little Perfection) - CC

Phoney Nickle: v2.263: November 18th (My Little Perfection) – CC

The social challenges for a student on the autism spectrum include problems understanding others perspectives, sharing space and making eye contact. Many high functioning individuals with an autism spectrum disorder have extreme social anxiety and have difficulty negotiating with others, and interacting and working in pairs or groups. These students likely will not understand the “unwritten” classroom etiquette and will often misinterpret facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. Possible accommodations for students on the autism spectrum include allowing for short breaks to leave class and/or allowing the student to have a “social buffering” object which might include a computer, book or other object that initially might seem distracting or “out of place”. Honoring the student’s chosen level of eye contact w/o judgment can be helpful. If there is group work assigned for class the instructor might assist in the formation and monitoring of pairs or groups of students to assure the proper inclusion of the student with an autism spectrum diagnosis. Also providing written rules for asking questions and other classroom logistics (as needed) may support students with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.

Sensory Differences

When the DSM-5 was released in May 2013, reactivity to sensory input was added as part of the diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder.  Sensory processing issues seem to affect the majority of these individuals. Some on the autism spectrum have an extreme over sensitivity or under sensitivity to input, from the environment to the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. A significant number of persons experience synesthesia. Synesthesia may affect any of the senses. Synesthesia is phenomena in which the actual information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. Listed below are some common sensory differences and accommodations that may be important in a class setting.

Common visual and auditory sensory difficulties experienced by students on the autism spectrum include florescent lights that may appear to flicker and certain “bright” colors that may produce “overload”. Someone may see better from a “different” angle or may hear low level frequency sounds emitted by florescent lights. Also certain “typical” classroom sounds may be perceived as “painful” such as the movement and use of desks, people and other objects in the room. Often a person on the autism spectrum may not filter out extraneous sounds and/or may hear sounds in the next room.

Sensory issues related to the sense of touch and/or the sense of smell may occur. For example, certain textures may be “painful” and/or individuals may crave certain textures. Students on the autism spectrum may be disturbed by people accidentally bumping them or the feel of a particular desk or chair. They may wear “unusual” clothing, footwear or accessories because of sensory differences. Also students may be sensitive to certain odors and certain smells may cause “overload”. Some who are very sensitive may be affected by scents from certain perfumes, deodorants and soaps.

Possible accommodations to support a student with sensory differences include allowing hats, sunglasses and tinted lens glasses to be worn and allowing ear plugs or ear phones. Also allowing the student to choose their seat and helping to assure it is always available may be important. If requested by the student, an alternative writing instrument for tests and assignments and/or a computer for in class work, tests and assignments might also be an appropriate accommodation.

A student with an autism spectrum diagnosis may find that a small sensory item brings comfort in class. It is likely, if a student uses a sensory item, that it is inconspicuous but this may not always be the case. Be aware that a student may make a last minute request for a seating change and/or to leave abruptly due to sensory overload. Help devise an acceptable plan to address urgent sensory issues for the student.

Motor Skills

Autism Awareness Ribbon - Wikimedia

Autism Awareness Ribbon – Wikimedia

Both fine and gross motor skills may be affected in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. In addition motor planning and poor awareness of body in space are two areas that often affect motor skills for these individuals. Often fine and gross motor skills as well as motor planning skills are very uneven. Listed below are possible problems in these areas along with possible accommodations.

Fine motor challenges for students on the autism spectrum might affect writing, drawing, turning pages, using utensils, playing an instrument, using locks and keys, and manipulating small objects. Gross motor challenges may affect walking (may have “odd” gait), running, sitting and balancing. Motor planning and the awareness of the placement of their body in space can affect the ways in which an individual moves their body and is able to navigate themselves to accomplish all motor tasks.

Possible accommodations for students on the autism spectrum with motor skills difficulties include allowing a computer for in class work, tests and assignments, providing a note taker, allowing work assignments done at a slower pace, providing models and step by step instruction, providing extra time to take tests and providing readers and scribes (or technology that reads and takes notes). Further accommodations might need to be considered for students taking physical education courses in which motor skills differences might provide further complications.

Learning Style

Students with an autism spectrum disorder often have a very uneven learning profile. They often excel creatively in a non-conventional way. Students on the autism spectrum tend to have excellent long term and rote memory abilities. Executive functioning deficits cause these students many problems. Many are thought to be right-brained thinkers. Most need to like and trust an instructor before they can perform in a class. Some common learning challenges, strengths and possible accommodations are listed below.

Executive function challenges experienced by students with an autism spectrum diagnosis include general organization and planning skills, problems with impulsivity and problem solving and the ability to monitor themselves in the completion of a goal.

Along with the executive functioning deficits, common learning barriers include poor sequential learning, easily bored with repetition once something is learned, attention problems, literal thinking, nebulous sense of time and as mentioned previously, perspective taking deficits. Other issues that impacts learning for students on the autism spectrum are the fact that they need to understand why something is important, relevant or meaningful to them and they may not realize they are having academic difficulty until it may be too late or too difficult for them to rectify on their own.

The strengths of students on the autism spectrum can sometimes help them compensate for their weaknesses. These students can do quite well academically, especially in their chosen field, and their strengths should be respected and used whenever possible. For example these students may have extremely good visual and visual-spatial skills. They often learn best from whole to part (complex to simple) and they can be very creative; out of the box thinkers. These students can also show an amazing knowledge on topics of interest which is most often their major field of study at the university.

Possible accommodations for students on the autism spectrum to support their learning style include providing review sheets, work checklists, and “sub” deadlines and/or intermittent “check-ins.” If possible provide hands on learning, models, demonstrations and other visuals. If possible, pair with peer mentors who might help with feedback and provide “proof-read” opportunities and ongoing structure to keeping on target with work assignments.

Instructors can help support students on the autism spectrum by providing reinforcement at every opportunity. Other accommodations that might be helpful for some students are allowing advanced negotiation of deadlines, extra time for tests, and/or a separate “quiet” place for tests.

Instructors and other college staff can also encourage the use of calendars (computer, traditional, phone w/alarms). Most likely the student has experience with using an organizational tool or tools, of choice, before coming to college. However, sometimes in a new environment the tools and skills used and learned to compensate for executive function deficits do not transfer easily to a new setting. Because the setting has changed, the student may need time “extra” transition time to begin the use of these tools and to maintain routines in the new environment.

Coping Skills

Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder frequently describe themselves as dealing with a lot of anxiety and stress. Sensory sensitivities, social and communication expectations as well as transitions and unexpected changes often trigger this anxiety and stress. It is during these times when these students may display behavior that can seem bewildering, rude or disruptive. Most often when a student displays these behaviors they are doing what they know to do to cope. In fact, these sometimes “confusing” behaviors are often experienced as calming. Included below are examples of coping behaviors in which students with an autism spectrum disorder may engage and possible accommodations.

When under stress, students on the autism spectrum may engage in stress relieving activities which look odd and may even make others feel uncomfortable. These activities may include body rocking, pacing, waving or flapping hands or fingers repetitively, chewing on their clothing or body, “lecturing” on a topic of interest or they may display the “opposite” emotion for the situation. They also may abruptly leave the situation with no explanation before or afterwards.

A possible accommodation in helping the student cope, in the moment, might be to discretely ask the student if something is overwhelming and/or ask if the student needs help or wants to leave. Do not discourage or interrupt behavior unless truly disruptive and understand that student does not intend to be disrespectful. Allow sensory items and/or other “comfort” objects. A student, who is having a hard time coping, might not realize when s/he is being disruptive and needs to leave. The instructor and student can agree on a cue that the instructor can give to signal to the student that it is okay/time to leave. They can also agree on a signal, to inform the instructor when the student is overwhelmed or confused.

Ideally, preparing young adults with an autism spectrum disorder for the demands of college has started years earlier. With a proper diagnosis, individualized early intervention and careful transition planning, college students with an autism spectrum diagnosis, will be better prepared to advocate for themselves. At the same time college professors and other staff at post-secondary colleges and universities need to be prepared for students on the spectrum who are seeking to be a part of these institutions in greater and greater numbers. These students must be given reasonable accommodations to provide an equal opportunity for pursuing a college education. Many great minds and opportunities for society could be lost if individuals on the autism spectrum are not supported in their post-secondary academic pursuits.

Divider Check that Metaphor

Another useful article was Lee Burdette Williams’ nicely titled “Rethinking Everything…Literally,” which appeared in Inside Higher Ed (Dec. 12, 2014). Burdette works with in a residential and academic support program designed to help high-functioning autistic students or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. These students, he writes, “can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam. What they can’t do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.”

So, when she cajoled a student not to “throw in the towel,” or advised another to not let his adversary “get his goat,” she was met with everything from alarm to blank stares. She realized that figurative language, which is so central to how we think, feel and act, had to be, well, rethought in his new teaching context. She concludes, “I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, ‘I’m going to make a comparison between two things’ (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum). I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself.” Most of us are not teaching in Williams’ circumstances, but “re-thinking” our teaching strategies in light of our changing classrooms is never a bad idea.


Very few of us have any expertise in this area, but we are fortunate that good information is available and that we can always seek the reasoned and informed advice of our Office of Disability Services as well as some of our colleagues such as Elizabeth Hamilton.

Here are a few sources that you might also find useful:

Kathy DeOrnellas, “Teaching College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Faculty Focus, April 17, 2015.

The College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders at Marshall University

Abigail Sullivan Moore, “Students on the Spectrum,” New York Times (Nov. 5, 2006).

Chantal Sicile-Kira’s “Autism College” blog is also valuable. Sicile-Kira is an autism consultant specializing in adolescence and transition to adulthood who has authored a number of books on autism.  Her most recent book, A Full Life with Autism: From Learning to Forming Relationships to Achieving Independence (Macmillan, March 2012) was co-authored with her son, Jeremy, who was diagnosed as severely autistic when he was an infant. Her first book, Autism Spectrum Disorder, was recently updated by Penguin.

National Autism Center

Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 2007.

John Harpur, Maria Lawler, and Michael Fitzgerald, Succeeding in College with Asperger Syndrome: A Student Guide (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers), 2004.

Dawn Prince-Hughes, Aquamarine Blue 5: Personal Stories of College Students with Autism (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002).

Lorraine E. Wolf, Jane Tierfield Brown, and Ruth Bork, Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel (Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company), 2009.

Michael R. Dillon, “Creating Supports for College Students with Asperger Syndrome through Collaboration,” College Student Journal 41 (2007): 499–504.

Ann Palmer, Realizing the College Dream with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publisher), 2006.

*A very good point has been raised as to whether a word other than “deficit,” with its connotations of something lacking (as opposed to something different) exists to discuss people with an autism spectrum disorder. The same term was often used to describe those who were learning English, whereas now the preferred term is an “emergent” bilingual. Suggestions? [Added April 20, 2015: 7:59 PM]

Teaching Students How to Use Images Responsibly

Steven Volk, April 12, 2015

Luis Korda, photographer: "Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos in Havana," January 8, 1959.

Luis Korda, photographer: “Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos in Havana,” January 8, 1959.



Like most of us, I use a lot (A LOT) of images in my teaching. Many of the images I show are for what I would call “background purposes.” Nothing like a photo of Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos riding into Havana on January 8, 1959 to give students a sense of what the Cuban Revolution felt like at its moment of inception.





West coast of South America prior to War of the Pacific (Createaccount (Own work) [GFDL (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

West coast of South America prior to War of the Pacific (Createaccount (Own work) [GFDL (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


Maps provide a visual presentation of data that tells a stronger story than words alone, as when talking about how Bolivia lost its access to the sea in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883)


I use other images in very specific fashion, presented as a form of historical evidence that comes to us in a very mediated form and therefore needs to be questioned and explored. (In the shameless self-promotion category and should you be interested, I’ve just published a chapter on using images in the history classroom in “How to Navigate an ‘Upside-Down’ World: Using Images in the History Classroom,” in Deandra Little, Peter Felten, and Chad Berry, eds, New Directions in Teaching and Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), New Directions in Teaching and Learning 141 (Spring 2015): 53-65)].

Anytime I use images in my publications, I of course either have to obtain the copyright or insure that they reside in the public domain or are otherwise out of copyright. Similarly, as I look for images to use in my various on-line interventions, such as CTIE’s blog, I’m much more conscious (and conscientious) about only using public domain materials, and will search in particular through the Creative Commons image collections.

The question of using images in public presentations, particularly educational or scholarly conferences is an area where the issue isn’t open and shut. “Fair use” based on the teaching exemption (see below)? Probably, but is a conference room in a New York hotel a “classroom”? I’m not going to be sued for an unauthorized image I put up, but I will often try to use images in the public domain when at all possible.

On the other hand, I don’t think as much about copyright issues for images that I use in my teaching, either the slides that I show or in class or put on my syllabi or other handouts. I pull those images off the web, scan them from books, or otherwise appropriate (or expropriate) them from whatever is source is at hand. I mean, they are “fair use” in the classroom, aren’t they? Well yes, they almost certainly are. But what if you post your syllabi or class handouts to the (open) Web and not just on Blackboard? Are the images that you grabbed sill in the “fair use” category?  The Visual Resources Association has the following to say on the subject:

“This Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study describes six uses of copyrighted still images that the Visual Resources Association ( believes fall within the U.S. doctrine of fair use. The six uses are: 1) preservation (storing images for repeated use in a teaching context and transferring images to new formats); 2) use of images for teaching purposes; 3) use of images (both large, high-resolution images and thumbnails) on course websites and in other online study materials; 4) adaptations of images for teaching and classroom work by students; 5) sharing images among educational and cultural institutions to facilitate teaching and study; and 6) reproduction of images in theses and dissertations.”

You can find the VRA’s entire 16-page statement here, or you can consult the College Art Association’s statement on fair use and their (as one would expected) excellent infografic on the topic to really get into the topic, but I don’t recommend sitting down with either if your class is to begin in 5 minutes and you are unsure as to whether to put in that Durer woodcut of the rhino. [Albrecht Durer, The Rhinoceros, 1515, woodcut, 23.5 × 29.8 cm (9.3 × 11.7 in; Wikimedia]

Albrecht Durer, "The Rhinoceros," 1515, woodcut, 23.5 × 29.8 cm (9.3 × 11.7 in; Wikimedia.

Albrecht Durer, “The Rhinoceros,” 1515, woodcut, 23.5 × 29.8 cm (9.3 × 11.7 in; Wikimedia.

Teaching with Images: Helping Students Use Images Responsibly

This post won’t necessarily help you answer these legal questions, but I do hope to raise another about how we use images in class. Lately I’ve begun to think about the fact that when we are teaching with images, we are not just teaching by using the images, or teaching about the images we use. We are teaching students how to handle images responsibly: how to find them, caption them, cite them as sources, understand their associated metadata. And with that comes the fact that we need to be teaching students how to use images responsibly within a world of copyrights and the use of materials created by others. While my collectivist tendencies whisper that all images belong not just in the public but to the public, I also know that that isn’t the world we inhabit, and that those who produce the images deserve to be recognized and (when the occasion arises) compensated. But, above all in the context of teaching, students need to know the proper protocols for using images.

So, I’ve tried to change my classroom practice to incorporate two things. The first is to include, to the extent possible, the appropriate metadata for the images I’m using: artist/photographer/sculptor; name of work; original date produced; medium used; size of artifact, and location where it can be found. If the work is someone’s property (e.g. a museum, book, etc.), I will also include that. I am fairly sure that the copyrighted images I use fit within the “fair use” standards set out above.

John Leech, "Alarming Effects," Punch (1853):

John Leech, “Alarming Effects,” Punch (1853):

Secondly, I try to take images from public domain sources, and then to indicate to the students that these vast treasure troves are available to them as well, that they can be much more fruitful than a standard Google search, and they will learn a lot by a careful search for specific images if they plan to use them in their papers or presentations.

With these points in mind, here are just a few of the very large number of image archives that now lives on the web. Most of these advertise themselves as repositories of images that are in the public domain, although, as you search through them, you will find that either that’s not always the case or that some of them can be quite unclear as to whether they are free-use images or not.

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (1838 - 1857). Holotropis microlophus, Dum. et Bibron. Retrieved from

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (1838 – 1857). Holotropis microlophus, Dum. et Bibron. Retrieved from

Art Images for College Teaching

Arts Institute of Chicago

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (Yale)

British Library

Cal Photos (Natural History)

Creative Commons Images

Flickr: Creative Commons

George Eastman House – The Photography Collection

Google Art Project

History of Medicine

Internet Archive Book Images

John Leech Sketch Archives from Punch

J. Paul Getty Museum: (Thousands of images of artworks are available for download, without charge, under the Getty’s Open Content Program.)

Basawan, "Akbar," ca. 1586 - ca. 1589, Painted in opaque watercolour and gold on paper:

Basawan, “Akbar,” ca. 1586 – ca. 1589, Painted in opaque watercolour and gold on paper; V&A:

Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs

Life Magazine photo archive hosted by Google

New Old Stock

Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York Public Library Digital Collections

Old Book Illustrations

U.S. Government Photos and Images

V&A Collections

Visible Earth, NASA





Visual Collections: Images of Art, History, Culture

Wellcome Images

Wikipedia, Public Domain Image Resources

Yale Digital Content

As I say, there are a huge number of sites out there; these are some of my favorite. And you? What do you do to make your students more aware of the responsible use of images?

Image taken from page 359 of 'Estella. A novel. By Elma', 1836, British Library

Image taken from page 359 of ‘Estella. A novel. By Elma’, 1836, British Library

Educating the Whole Student: Personal Dispositions and Student Success

Steven Volk, April 5, 2015

In late January, nearly 90 faculty and staff gathered to begin a discussion about curricular priorities and whether we could be more articulate and intentional in guiding our students toward the learning objectives we feel are essential for their education. In one of the activities of that mid-winter workshop we asked participants to reflect on what things were critical for “success” at Oberlin. We designed the exercise to be an open one, neither defining “success” nor indicating whether the “success” we referenced was theirs (i.e., what did faculty or staff need to do to encourage student success) or their students (what are the factors that determined student success, or, in their absence, prevented it). Participants jotted down their ideas, shared them with others at their tables, and finally transferred them to sticky notes which were placed on large sheets located around the meeting room.

Monica Brown, Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People

Monica Brown, Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People

We collected them after the meeting and quickly discovered that almost uniformly, participants commented on those factors which they felt defined student success, not their own. So we began to map the comments to common learning outcomes: knowledge and intellectual skills, broad and integrative knowledge, engaging diverse perspectives, creating civic capacity, applied and collaborative engagement, creativity, and personal growth and reflection. Not surprisingly, many participants saw as indicators of success the students’ ability to recognize competing epistemologies, ask really hard questions, revise work, navigate their way through new materials, understand from multiple perspectives, transfer and apply skills, focus on process, make connections and synthesize.

But, by far – outpacing the category for intellectual skills and knowledge by more than 2 to 1, were indicators of personal growth and reflection. These behaviors and dispositions were seen to be critical to students’ success, or in their absence, causal factors underlying their inability to succeed.

So what are they? I have clustered many of them into broader categories, although, as you will note, many of them could be placed in more than one category. Many of these appeared multiple times.

Kat N.L.M., "I Can" Flickr-CC

Kat N.L.M., “I Can” Flickr-CC

Resilience: confidence, ability/willingness to take risks, willing to “make a mess,” letting go of fear of not knowing, overcoming insecurity;

Enthusiasm: emotional involvement, taking pleasure/joy in learning, personal      engagement, finding one’s passion;

Ownership of learning: self-guided learning, active participation in learning, awareness of learning process, identifying what one needs in order to learn, making learning visible, total investment in learning, clarity about what is possible, self-learning, initiative, taking ownership over material, and finally: success is when teachers make themselves superfluous;

Reflection: ability to reflect critically, knowing what one knows and doesn’t know, recognizing “light-bulb” moments;

Maturity: taking/gaining responsibility, independence, finding one’s own voice, being OK with being uncomfortable, humility, integrity.

When we step back and look at these indicators generated by the faculty and staff, we find that we have listed the characteristics which in many ways define not just what we think of as an Oberlin education but what is at the basis of a liberal arts education. This is what we want our students not just to have when they graduate, but to be: resilient, enthusiastic, reflective, mature, lifelong and independent learners. Significantly, the education we want for our students (the education we would want all students, everywhere, to receive even as we know that they don’t) goes beyond content mastery and skills development to include essential dispositions which significant research has found to be the best predictors of later success in life.

None of this diminishes our critical orientation to increasing students’ knowledge and intellectual skills (critical thinking and analysis, quantitative reasoning, communication skills, etc.). Nor should we ignore our important role in helping students develop their capacities as prosocial actors in the world (making connections, working collaboratively, understanding the world from multiple perspectives, seeing oneself as an engaged participant in a broader society, reasoning ethically and morally, etc.). But the dispositions disclosed at the workshop speak more broadly to the ways that we should be helping our students flourish and find their purpose in life.

Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor of the New York Times who gave a masterful, thoughtful and compelling talk on campus last week, advised students to pursue the passions they have discovered at college into their later careers, and there is much to say for that approach. But we might better (or also) be thinking of helping students find their sense of purpose, what one group of researchers defines as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and is of consequence to the world beyond the self” [William Damon, Jenni Menon and Kendall Cotton Bronk, “The Development of Purpose during Adolescence,” Applied Developmental Science 7:3 (2003): 119-128]. Purpose speaks to the students’ sense of self-efficacy, an understanding of who they are, what skills they have (or lack), and the point at which their skills and abilities meet the world’s needs.

Seth Sawyers, "Purpose," Flickr-CC

Seth Sawyers, “Purpose,” Flickr-CC

When we write syllabi for our courses, we are reasonably sure that we can help students get at the content we want them to come away with, and we scaffold in the thinking and reasoning skills that are an important part of the course. But how do we get at the dispositions that seem so central to our students’ future success?

Certainly, there are ways we can more intentionally plan to help our students develop a sense of resiliency (taking risks, “making a mess”), find their joy in learning, and reflect and grow. But if these dispositions provide the foundation for a holistic education, then their development becomes the responsibility of the entire campus community. And that takes us from the question of how we deliberately integrate such outcomes into our individual syllabi to the challenge of how we develop a capacity for broad and holistic mentoring.

Mentoring the Whole Student

Sharon Daloz Parks is Principal of “Leadership for the New Commons” and Senior Fellow at the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, WA. She holds a doctorate in divinity from Harvard University and has held faculty and senior research positions at Harvard’s Schools of Divinity, Business, and Government. She has written for some years on how to help young adults find meaning, purpose, and faith, which was the topic of one of her books, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, rev. ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2011). In an interview in 2007, she described the challenges faced by young adults today, in particular the pervasiveness of technologies that, while contributing to heightened productivity and a greater connection to the global community, can also lead to an increased sense of loneliness and isolation, a feeling of “being lost” in the human experience; the economic realities of working in a “brittle economy” where young people are burdened with a huge educational debt, commodified, exploited by consumerism, and encouraged to focus more on their resumes than on their ability to “discern and claim a worthy dream;” and by what it means to live in an “increasingly religiously variegated world,” where one may find a community of practice that offers belonging and support but does not invite critical inquiry or staying power over time, thus creating vulnerabilities to various fundamentalisms. (For a powerful spoken word poem by a high school student which addresses many of these concerns, click here.)

I found her discussion of the development of mentoring communities highly useful when we think of how to provide students with the dispositions we think are essential for helping students face these challenges and develop the kinds of dispositions that we have identified as critical to their success. Here are some relevant parts of her interview.


As we think about creating the kind of intentional support for the development of the personal dispositions that are essential for our students’ future success, we should think about how we build broad mentoring communities that can engage this task.

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills

Steven Volk, March 29, 2015

Reading (Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome; Stefano Corso), CC

Reading (Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome; Stefano Corso), CC

The “Article of the Week” has considered issues of reading a number of times [e.g., here and here], most often dealing with how much should we be assigning in our classes as well as the technologies of reading. The articles also addressed problems of novice vs. expert reading in disciplinary fields. This last issue has been quite noticeable in my own field, history. The goal of history reading in high school – most often assigned from textbooks – is usually intended to encourage memorization. As such, it is considerably different than the skills we are looking to strengthen at the college level. So, I’m always on the lookout for appropriate ways to scaffold reading assignments to help students read both for comprehension and analysis.

I recently found one such method discussed in the current issue of College Teaching [63:1 (January-March 2015:27-33]. In “Active Reading Documents (ARDs): A Tool to Facilitate Meaningful Learning Through Reading,” Justin M. Dubas and Santiago A. Toledo, respectively an economist and a chemist, present a practical tool that promises to develop student understanding of assigned material incrementally through reading. I’ll summarize their findings in this “Article of the Week” and encourage those of you with access to the journal to read it in its entirety.

We assign reading as either general background to inform broader understandings or as an essential element that will lay the foundation for specific class discussions. Faculty have expressed considerable frustration that students aren’t reading as much or as closely as “they used to” in a past (real or imagined) golden age. In any case, many instructors are trimming the amount of reading they assign (which is not always a bad idea) or preparing for class in the expectation that students haven’t done the assigned reading (which is a significant loss). Given the importance of developing careful reading as a central skill we aim to cultivate, giving in to a student’s weak reading abilities seems an unfortunate move. So, how can we insure not only that students are reading, but that they are reading for comprehension (something we can always check with a simple quiz at the start of each class), and, even more, reading at higher cognitive levels?

The Active Reading Document (ARD)

The Active Reading Document (ARD) was developed at Texas Lutheran University, a small (1375 enrollment) liberal arts university where over half the students are first-generation, and a quarter are Latino/a. It was created for students taking economics and chemistry in classes where a textbook was the primary reading assignment, but as I read through the document it seems perfectly useful for many genres of reading in the sciences and social sciences.

Marzano's Taxonomy

Marzano’s Taxonomy

The ARD asks students to develop a document that creates reading tasks at various levels for each of their textbook chapters (See Table I below). These tasks map onto Marzano’s Taxonomy (see above), a theory of human cognition that modifies Bloom’s Taxonomy in a number of useful ways. Robert Marzano’s scheme is composed of three “systems” and one “domain”: a Self-System (which addresses the reality that before learning begins, learners confront their own beliefs about the importance of knowledge, issues of self-efficacy, and, perhaps, assorted emotional issues connected with learning); the Metacognitive System (in which goals are set and monitored), and the Cognitive System (which processes the necessary information). The Knowledge Domain is about content: information, mental procedures, and physical procedures. [For more on this, see Robert Marzano and John S. Kendall, The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 2nd ed. (Corwin, 2006)].

The ARD works specifically with the four levels that comprise the Cognitive System and are differentiated hierarchically by the degree of cognitive control required to accomplish a task: retrieval, comprehension, analysis, and knowledge utilization. The lower-order levels (retrieval and comprehension) are about accessing and making sense of existing knowledge; the higher levels (analysis and utilization), concern the creation of new knowledge. The higher levels are dependent on having developed good skills at the lower levels.

Table 1The first task (with two component parts) has as its goal the student’s ability to reproduce the hierarchical structure of the reading, using visual representation as a method of presentation. This is a way to help students learn the content of the reading and determine what was most important in terms of vocabulary, concepts or theories. Visual representations can take a number of forms: mind maps, concept maps, structured note taking, or outlines. The second task has students vet the information through their personal experiences. Considerable research suggests the value of these steps in helping students remember and understand. Both are within Marzano’s “comprehension” level: making sense of existing knowledge. Proficiency at these tasks involves accurately breaking down the reading into sections and subsections, replicating the author’s structure, and presenting it with visual clarity. The goal is to create a concise display of the hierarchy of ideas in the chapter or other reading, not to include every piece of information that is presented. Task 1b helps this process by requiring students to discriminate between relevant information and that which is less important. These understandings are further strengthened through the 2nd task which asks students to present the key terms or concepts in their own ways (through their own definitions or visual representations).

Tasks 3-5 help students create their own knowledge, discover new ways of organizing information, and appreciate the interconnectedness of ideas, concepts and skills. They are related to Marzano’s higher order thinking skills (analysis and knowledge utilization). In the 3rd task, students are asked to uncover original connections within the reading and explain the rationale behind the connections. Task 4 requires that students tie new information to information previously covered in earlier readings or activities. The final task broadens this out, asking students to look for connections to skills or knowledge gained from other classes or subjects as well as for personal connections to the material. Once again, the research is quite conclusive about the positive impact personal resonance can have on learning.

Scaffolding the Introduction of ARD’s

Raaka, "Palm Reading Card" (CC)

Raaka, “Palm Reading Card” (CC)

The authors point out that such a set of tasks can be daunting for students with little exposure to active reading, and suggest that faculty carefully scaffold the ARD assignment so that students benefit the most from it. They recommend two approaches: 1) allow revisions to the original (draft) ARD, and 2) offer feedback before recording grades on the assignment. Instructors ask their students to bring their ARD drafts to class, which both strengthens class discussions and allows the students to further clarify their understanding of the material and to revise their ARD’s accordingly. It also allows more class time to be spent discussing higher order analytical issues. Students further revise their original ARD’s based on feedback from the instructor. While this can prove time consuming, particularly in very large classes, this feedback can be particularly helpful in introductory classes, for novice learners, and more at the start of the semester than in the second half. Draft ARD’s can be graded on a simple check/check-minus basis, with the lower grade only if there are glaring omissions. The final drafts can be graded in a traditional fashion, using a contract grading system, or, again, with a check/check-minus system.

The authors note that, “[t]ypically, after four fully-graded ARDs (six total), students will fall into two camps. Some will have realized the usefulness of the tool and have a strong incentive to continue completing them in a conscientious manner. Others have chosen not to pay attention to the feedback provided earlier in the semester and continue neglecting certain tasks (usually those that require higher order thinking skills). Either way, the benefits of additional detailed feedback are outweighed by the costs associated with requiring faculty to spend valuable time providing that feedback.” They suggest that, while they give regular letter grades to final ARD assignments earlier in the semester, by the end of the semester, they only assign check/check-minus grades, with the check grade for a conscientious engagement with the reading and check-minus if students don’t engage with any of the analytic tasks.

Research suggests that providing students with practice at ever-increasing levels of challenge tied to low-stakes feedback improves the chances of persistence and ultimately mastery of learning goals.

Dubas and Toledo’s article provides a sample rubric for evaluating final Active Reading Documents, which I won’t reproduce here. They also note the challenges associated with using this method to scaffold the development of students’ reading skills, not the least of which is a considerable time commitment on the part of faculty. They point out that “[w]hile the [time] burden is significantly reduced by introducing the gradual release of responsibility to students…it can still take away from other objectives.” Nevertheless, they argue that the tool was essential “in fostering meaningful reading of class material and well worth incurring the costs of implementation.”

Do you have other replicable tasks that you use to increase your students’ reading comprehension? Share them by commenting on this post or send them along to me and I’ll post them for you.

Putting the “O” Back in MOOC: Collaborating to Solve Problems

Steven Volk, March 15, 2015

This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Horn, the co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation who was speaking at Oberlin on “Disruptive Innovation and Higher Education.” The following day, I was privileged to moderate a discussion between Horn and Bryan Alexander. Alexander was, for many years, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and a leading advocate for education-driven, liberal-arts focused technology. He describes himself as a “futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education.”

Gus Gordon, Herman and Rosie (Roaring Book Press, 2013)

Gus Gordon, Herman and Rosie (Roaring Book Press, 2013)

Finally, I hosted Alexander at a CTIE workshop where we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation on how technology, particularly the ubiquitous use of digital platforms and media might be impacting how our students learn, what that means for teaching strategies, and whether the structure of emerging labor markets (including the fact that our students will be occupying a multitude of jobs in the future suggests that we need to be preparing them in different ways than we have in the past. (Our students are entering what many call the “gig economy”. The “gig economy” is about many, temporary, part-time jobs. It implies not only that we have moved past what I would call long-term employment monogamy, where people hold one or two jobs for their whole lives, but that we have also moved past serial employment monogamy, where individuals spend 1-2 years at a job and then move to another. Instead, it seems, we have moved to employment bigamy (my terms, blame me), where people will find multiple part-time and temporary jobs out of which they will attempt to put together a living wage – think Uber or Alfred).

∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫ ∫

There are aspects of the “disruptive innovation” paradigm that, quite frankly, curl my toenails, particularly when applied to education, whether K-12 or higher education. In a moment in which the concept of education as a public good is under concerted attack in statehouses around the nation, the “disruptors,” in my humble opinion, not only seem uninterested in speaking to the larger purposes of education in a democratic society, but have adopted an instrumental approach to “solving” the “problems” of education which largely caters to the same market forces which are devouring public education systems across the country and beginning to nibble away at private liberal arts colleges. I wonder why legislators who have shown an increasing unwillingness to invest state funds in education, and governors who have disparaged the notion that education is for anything other than preparing students for entry-level jobs (viz. Wisconsin and Florida) will be interested in investing in “disrupted” classrooms that promise to produce critical thinkers, independent minds, and an inquisitive and informed citizenry – even if it promises to save costs by increasing classroom size?

So, while I’m not a fan of disruptive innovation, these folks do get some things right. (We can, by the way, trace the intellectual roots of “disruptive innovation” to the economist Joseph Schumpeter who theorized about the “creative destruction” inherent in a capitalist economy in his 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. For his part, Schumpeter drew heavily upon the first two volumes of Marx’s Kapital.) There is plenty to criticize about education in the United States today. College degrees cost way too much; the size of the debt load that students carry should be a source of national shame. We know all too well that the kind of education we can (and most often do) provide at liberal arts colleges is not available for the great majority of students at community colleges or many larger state institutions, not to speak of the for-profit sector. And while a considerable amount of the reported failure of the public K-12 system seems intentionally designed to provide cover for the shift of funds from public to private charter schools, there is abundant evidence that the public K-12 system fails all too many poor or marginalized children and their families.

Average Debt per Borrower in Each Year's Graduating Class

Average Debt per Borrower in Each Year’s Graduating Class

The problem, of course, is that to the extent that the disruptors focus on what is creating these failures, they most often get it wrong. Problems in the educational system are not rooted in teachers who don’t care or union rules. Public school instructors at all levels swim against currents that would drive most of us back on shore in a second. (Thank you for your service!!) K-12 and higher ed are in trouble for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the U.S. has one of the highest childhood poverty rates among nations that we commonly compare ourselves with; that we live in a society of “Gilded Age” inequality where the rich have a better chance of succeeding without a college degree than the poor with a college degree; that state legislators, particularly in “red” states, have drastically cut support for higher education (Arizona has recently decided to zero-out support for many of its community colleges), etc, etc. One central factor underlying the increasing inability of parents to pay for their children’s college education is that wages have been essentially flat since 1979. These are factors not normally identified by disruptors, and so the solutions they propose at least insofar as there is a reference to the economic and political system in which educational delivery unfolds, are unlikely to work to the advantage of those who have been marginalized by this same system.

Chicago school closing - "Success is..." Nitram 242 (CC)

Chicago school closing – “Success is…” Nitram 242 (CC)

We won’t fix what needs fixing in K-12 and higher ed by ignoring the real issues that are undermining education in this country, but we can pay attention to some of the innovations that “disruptors” have encouraged, and in some cases sponsored, particularly in the field of educational technology. “Online education,” Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn recently wrote, “can effect the transformation not only of curriculum but also of learning itself.” I agree, but we need to get one thing straight before can happily march on.

Throughout the educational spectrum, from early childhood to adult education, one can find technology that supports the learning process in a remarkable fashion, providing stimulation, appropriate scaffolding, culturally relevant instruction, and dynamism. It can be used to foster collaborative learning and critical literacies, and it can under-gird creative pedagogy when in the hands of skilled and caring teachers. At the same time, certainly not all, and probably not most educational software does this. Most is based on older models of content delivery and as such is often more about revenues than learning.

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MOOCs are one example of both sides of this. MOOCs (Massive Open, Online Courses), promise content delivery and free access to anyone with a digital device and connectivity. It foretold, David Brooks breathlessly announced in 2012, a coming “campus tsunami” which would sweep away all of traditional higher education. “Online learning,” he wrote, would “give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers. Already, hundreds of thousands of students have taken accounting classes from Norman Nemrow of Brigham Young University, robotics classes from Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and physics from Walter Lewin of M.I.T.” The fact that Sebastian Thrun, who left Stanford to found the online education firm Udacity, recently admitted that “we have a lousy product,” suggests that delivering content is not necessarily the best way to think about technology in education, particularly on a mass scale where the main people drawn into these courses are what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls, “roaming auto-didacts,” “self-motivated, able learners that are simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets.”

In the rush to provide online content, many overlooked what is probably the more important “O” in the MOOC acronym – “Open.” What if, instead of thinking about one very smart and successful person providing content to millions, you have millions – well, let’s start with hundreds or thousands – developing knowledge and solving problems collaboratively? That’s the premise behind the “Inverse MOOC” which Allison Dulin Salisbury wrote about recently in Inside Higher Education. Salisbury, who works in the President’s Office at Davidson College on partnerships and initiatives around entrepreneurship, K12 education, and education technology, wrote of one project linking Davidson, Middlebury College, and OpenIDEO, a collaborative online platform which brings people together to address pressing issues. OpenIDEO’s projects always ask “how might we…” as in: how might we make urban areas safer and more empowering for girls and women? How might we gather information from hard-to-access areas to prevent mass violence against civilians? How might we equip young people with the skills, information, and opportunities needed to succeed in the world of work?

Design Thinking/Human Centered Design

Design Thinking/Human Centered Design

Davidson piloted a 10-week human-centered design curriculum in conjunction with an OpenIDEO Challenge. The question: How might parents in low income communities ensure children thrive in their first five years? A small group of Davidson students — the Davidson Design Fellows — worked through three phases, including Research, Ideas and Refinement, with a focus on the City of Charlotte, North Carolina. (The information below is a slightly edited version of Salisbury’s post.)

  1. In the Research phase, students got out of the classroom to talk to people, learning to conduct interviews and focus groups, shadowing organizations working with parents from low-resourced communities, developing global contexts through formal, peer-reviewed research, and, through weekly workshops, reflected on how to develop empathy — how to listen without judgment and avoid assumptions based on intuition. Throughout the process, students shared insights, case studies and success stories on the OpenIDEO platform where the global community could comment, applaud and upvote the most useful posts. Meanwhile, thousands of participants from around the world were doing the same in their communities. Collectively, the community created — and curated — a collection of empathy building stories and resources to be leveraged by both the local and global community.
  1. In the Ideas phase, the students generated specific questions unique to the opportunity areas they discovered in Charlotte, such as: How might we use community spaces to connect parents to pre-existing resources?
  2. During the Refinement phase, the students broke down their big ideas into bite-sized pieces that could be quickly prototyped for feedback. They built physical models and created digital mockups to uncover insights. Students then facilitated sessions with end users for feedback, focusing on testing assumptions and generating insights to inform future iterations of prototypes. They learned to fail safely, receive (and facilitate!) criticism for their ideas and value iteration as a prerequisite for innovation. One student noted that failure is only failure if it’s an end point, but as part of the process, failure is a tool for testing assumptions and building greater empathy for an end user. The prototyping provided an opportunity for students to celebrate their creative works in action. They also learned to bypass traditional metrics of success— how much content you know, for instance—and instead measure success by their ability to co-create a solution that solves a real problem. And, again, they were engaging in the giving and receiving of feedback within a global community of participants online.

Salisbury concludes by observing: “In our globalized world, the community that constitutes the object of study may be increasingly as important — or more important — than the dissemination of information about the object itself. MOOCs could be a democratizing force still by facilitating this participation.”

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In Experience and Education John Dewey wrote, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”

It strikes me that the “disruptors” and most MOOC enthusiasts are most interested in winning “prescribed amounts of information about geography and history.” But the real innovators, the “inverted MOOC-ers,” those who care about a democratic future, are much more concerned with our students’ values, their ability to appreciate “things worthwhile,” and a worry about what exactly they will carry with them into the future. We now have the opportunity to use technology to connect us and our students to a larger world in which collaborative, open platforms can help us take advantage of everything we are privileged to enjoy at face-to-face liberal arts colleges to answer the burning questions which many of us share.

So, my question is:  why exactly is it that we aren’t piloting these “inverted MOOCs” with our students?