Ten Ways to Use Your Time (now that the semester is over)

Steve Volk, December 11, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

L’Illustration, Issue 769. Paris: Dubochet et Cie, 1857

In a survey conducted earlier in the semester at Oberlin and among the GLCA colleges and universities, I posed the question: What are the most difficult, perplexing, or problematic issues you face as a classroom teacher? The response most often repeated, not surprisingly, was lack of time.

With the semester concluded and exams, papers, and performances left to evaluate, we surely can be allowed to imagine the time, our time, when the semester past and the one to come haven’t yet collided. I figure that somewhere between the eight nights of Hanukkah and the twelve days of Christmas, there must be a top-ten list of ways to use the time that has just opened for all hard-working teachers who have fought to gain even a minute of “down-time” during the semester. So here are some suggestion for spending the delicious time that rests between fall and spring semesters; use them as you will. (If you’re on the quarter system, sorry. I have no help for you!)

While the soundtrack for these proceedings is still under development, John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” works for me.

10 are the hours of extra sleep you’ll now have to enjoy, or maybe just time to allow your thoughts to meander: small beer given the deficits you have built up, but lovely, nonetheless.

9 are the stories, poignant or funny, sad or inspirational, which you heard during the semester and that you’ll write down to share with your friends and colleagues; record them before they depart to some far-off island at the outer reaches of your consciousness.

8 are the episodes of “Stranger Things” that remain to be watched; feel free to substitute for “The Crown,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” “The Great British Baking Show,” or the second season of “The Grand Tour.”

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark: Illustration: Peter Newell, London: Harper and Brothers, 1903.

7 are the books stacked by your bed that you promised to read over the holidays, mysteries and histories, poetry and plays: the only question is where to start?

6 are the measures you will take to stay calm and focused while the torment swirls around you. Illegitimi non carborundum (or for the Latin-speakers among you, Noli nothis permittere te terere.)

5 are the checks waiting to be written (does anyone write checks anymore?) before the year ends to the organizations that need your support.

4 are the colleagues owed a note of thanks or an invitation to dinner, the ones who have lightened your load over the past semester by lifting your spirits, taking over a class, or helping you restore your computer to life.

3 are your teachers, the ones who helped make you the teacher you are. Each year you think: I should write Mrs. Simmons, my 8th grade social studies teacher, who believed in me when no one else did. Nu? What’s wrong with now?

Optical illusion disc – Wikimedia commons.

2 are the new paths you’ll walk down in the future, not the ones that diverge in a yellow wood, but the ones that will help you keep head and heart together in the semester to come.

1 is a reminder about what you do by way of Parker Palmer: “Education at its best – this profound human transaction called teaching and learning – is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world.”

I Can Get Some Satisfaction

Steve Volk, December 8, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Arabesques : mosquée cathédrale de Qous : décoration en faïence (XVIe. siècle); 1877. All images from New York Public Library, Public Domain

  Earlier in the semester I surveyed  the faculty as to what you considered to be your greatest accomplishments as classroom teachers and what you drew the most satisfaction from. As the semester draws to a close today, I am publishing some of what you offered as an end-of-semester gift.  I hope you’ll take a moment to think about all you have accomplished over the course of the semester, and, indeed, over the course of your careers, whether just begun or long in the tooth.  In a somewhat bleak moment, you still have much to be pleased about, and your students much to be thankful for.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishments and satisfactions as a classroom teacher?

  • Students falling in love with my language.
  • [The] personal connection [I make] with the students; seeing students improve over time; occasional light-bulb moments in class.
  • I’m a tough grader. [I see on evaluations that] my students appreciated this.
  • Engaged learning — project based approaches in which students directly engage in projects that (in some small way) change the world, or engage in research in which they ask and answer important questions for which answers are not already known.
  • Creating new courses, and making changes to existing courses, that keep [Oberlin’s] curriculum near the cutting edge.
  • I’m never satisfied and I really hope that my greatest accomplishments are ahead of me. However, if I had to choose one thing that I think I do particularly well it is my application of the science of teaching and learning to my own teaching in the service of my students’ learning.
  • Small things. A discussion that goes particularly well, a student who improves her writing over the course of a semester.
  • Creating an engaging classroom environment, delivering interesting lectures and creating in-class demonstrations/exercises, introducing students to the power of statistics, and encouraging students who think they are “bad at math” to succeed.

    Mosquée de Qaytbay : ornementation des portes et des armoires (XVe. siècle), 1877. New York Public Library, public domain.

  • Getting students excited about seeing the world differently.
  • Knowing that each of my students has received personal attention tailored to their individual learning.
  • Seeing students develop over the course of a semester. Hearing from students that a course truly helped them in later courses and even non-academic endeavors. My field gives me the privilege of getting to know and work with each student individually as the basis of the learning we accomplish in collaboration, and that is the most rewarding part.
  • Over the years I have arrived at (what feels like) a sense of clarity about what liberal arts education is for, and what the specific role of the humanities is within that education. This clarity has in turn clarified my teaching goals in the classroom and in individual conferences, the setting in which I spend about 75% of my teaching time.
  • Teaching students to become better writers & thinkers, and contaminate them with my love of the subject matter (language, lit, film, history).
  • Finding a way to combine lecture with discussion on a daily basis.
  • (1) Getting students to have great confidence in speaking a new language such that they learn it faster and more readily than in many beginning language classroom contexts; and 2) providing a context for undergraduates to engage meaningfully and purposefully in their college community.
  • I am not a classroom teacher, but when I coach groups, I would say it is when the kids get excited by the music and start to work hard on their own.

    Arabesques. Incrustations en stuc sur marbre blanc (du XVIe. siècle au XVIIIe.), 1877, New York Public Library, public domain

  • My upper level studio classes. I enjoy the subject matters [I teach] and have found ways to teach them very effectively.
  • Getting students to think differently and become excited about quantitative skills.
  • Teaching problem solving skills.
  • Inspiring students.
  • When students work hard and “get something,” figure something out that they hadn’t thought they could or never imagined would work out in such a way.
  • The success of my students, though I am not a classroom teacher.
  • Getting students excited about course material.
  • Meeting students ten years or more after
    graduation who tell me how valuable my classes were to them as a performer or scholar.
  • It is rewarding when students tell me that the class has been their favorite course at Oberlin or that it has changed their life for the better, but perhaps my favorite moment was after giving a guest lecture in [another professor’s] class, when a student told me how refreshing it was to hear a professor say that they didn’t know something.
  • People being excited about learning.
  • When students tell me that I have changed how they see the world; especially when they come back years later and say my lessons have stuck with them.
  • When the learning becomes a group project and you can feel the energy in the room explode with enthusiasm.
  • Serving as a positive role model for women in STEM; helping students to gain confidence in their own mathematical abilities.
  • When I orchestrate a situation in which I can see a student come to a realization or ignite a new passion.
  • Flipping an intermediate language course.

    Arabesques : mosaïques murales (XIIe. & XIVe. siècles), 1877. New York Public Library, public domain

  • Finding a way to connect with students of different backgrounds and skill sets.
  • Getting students interested in the topics and helping them grasp difficult concepts.
  • Creating an environment where students can feel comfortable asking questions.
  • When students email me apropos of something they have seen, heard, or read outside of the classroom that they relate to things we’ve talked about.
  • Actually changing the way a student thinks, and fostering true self esteem, critical thinking and confidence in young people.
  • Learning from my students and watching them and me grow.

Republicans to Mrs. Nelson: Drop Dead

Steve Volk, December 4, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

“What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade”

by Brad Aaron Modlin
(reprinted from Krista Tippett’s “On Being”) 

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

Photographer: Howard Lieberman, 1942. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

Poor Mrs. Nelson, I thought as I contemplated the tax bill recently passed on near party-line votes in Congress (Senate and House versions remain to be reconciled as of this writing). Combing through the bill, looking for something to suggest that the future that was being created by the tax bill included all the Mrs. Nelsons of the country, I could find nothing to give me hope. Indeed, all indications are that quality public K-12 education has been consigned to the dust bin, and that higher education has become just so much road kill.

In a House bill filled with an abundance of shameful initiatives, the removal of one small benefit stood out for me as the embodiment of the Republican Congress’ disdain for teachers. First, here’s what teachers are currently allowed to deduct from their taxes, according to the IRS:

If you’re an eligible educator, you can deduct up to $250 ($500 if married filing jointly and both spouses are eligible educators, but not more than $250 each) of unreimbursed trade or business expenses. Qualified expenses are amounts you paid or incurred for participation in professional development courses, books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment, and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom.

Let’s be clear: this is not a tax credit (where tax liabilities are reduced on a dollar for dollar basis), but a deduction. Most estimates suggest that it puts about $40 a year into teachers’ pockets. Does it matter? According to a 2013 estimate, teachers spend about $1.6 billion of their own money each year on school supplies, on average $945 per teacher. This matters because schools have long since stopped supplying things like paper towels, tissues, and cleaning products for classes, expecting teachers, parents or PTAs to cough up the items. Districts have also stopped buying books, software, and even chalk. Does it make a huge difference to the teacher’s family budget? Probably not a lot, and it is my guess that teachers being teachers, they will continue to provide for their students with or without the deduction. But yanking away the deduction speaks volumes about the low regard in which the Republican-passed tax bill holds teachers and education. Perhaps the tax writers in the House were just looking for something to make up for their doubling of the estate tax exemption (currently paid by the top 0.1% of tax-payers, some 2,200 individuals) which will cost the economy $151 billion over the next decade. Let them eat cake.

What does one say about a tax bill that eliminates a provision allowing low- and middle-income student debtors to deduct up to $2,500 in student-loan interest? At a moment when tuition at public and private colleges and universities is painfully high and growing?  At a moment when total student loan debt stands at $1.3 trillion and more than two-thirds of college graduates must borrow to go to school? And what does it say about all this given that cutting the corporate tax rate from 35-20% will cost $1.5 trillion?

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and wife. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

And are there words to adequately convey what it means to conjure up, let alone pass into law (on the House side) a measure that would treat the unpaid tuition of graduate students as income while giving millionaires a $1,650 child tax credit? (OK, let’s be fair: those earning minimum wage would see a whopping $75 credit which they can use for, um, wipes for their daughter’s kindergarten class.) Writing recently in the New York Times, Erin Rousseau, a grad student in health sciences at MIT, reports that she earns about $33,000 a year as a stipend for the 40-80 hours a week she works as a research and teaching assistant; she is also waived from paying tuition, which is about $50,000 a year for her program. This is not money that goes into her bank account, that she can use to pay her rent or medical expenses (of which she has many): it’s an expense that she is freed from paying. Under the House plan, with the waiver counted as income, she would have to pay an extra $10,000 in taxes each year, a burden that would likely drive her out of grad school. Well, at least the top 1% of tax payers, according to the Institute on Taxation on Economic Policy (ITEP), will get a  tax break worth the same $50,000 that Erin will now be paying taxes on. That’s $50,000 that stays in their bank accounts to be used for whatever they need.

Look, I will be the first to admit that I’m not an economist and likely should stick to what I (perhaps) know the best, teaching, learning, and maybe even history. But taxes, who pays and who benefits, are more than numbers; they speak to our values, and the Republican tax bills in both houses of Congress record at deafening volume the disregard with which they hold public education in general and higher education, in particular. So, no. Now is not the time to remain silent in the face of a massive assault on the educational foundation that we, as teachers, struggle to maintain, improve, and respect.

From Public Good to Private Consumable

A recent article in the Atlantic by Erika Christakis provides ample details of the attack on public education that has been building for years and now threatens to be frozen in legislative concrete. George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, called the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the United States, a “terrorist organization” in 2004. President Obama criticized the nation’s schools for falling behind in the world. And Trump used his inaugural address to charge that (“beautiful”) students had been “deprived of all knowledge” by our nation’s schools. (He sought to rectify that by proposing to cut $9 billion from the education sector). His Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, referred to public schools as a “dead end” and a “mundane malaise” for too many kids.

Two arguments stand out in Christakis’ article: the consolidation of the belief that the public education sector, which serves 90% of the 51 million students in pre-K through 12th grade, has been failing students for decades, and the notion that education is not a public good but rather “private consumable.” In terms of the first, she notes that:

Since the early 1970s, when the Department of Education began collecting long-term data, average reading and math scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen significantly. These gains have come even as the student body of American public schools has expanded to include students with ever greater challenges. For the first time in recent memory, a majority of U.S. public-school students come from low-income households [and, I would point out, public schools are now majority minority]. The student body includes a larger proportion than ever of students who are still learning to speak English. And it includes many students with disabilities who would have been shut out of public school before passage of the… Individuals With Disabilities Education Act…

As for the second point, Christakis observes that “Americans have in recent decades come to talk about education less as a public good, like a strong military or a noncorrupt judiciary, than as a private consumable… “[T]he current discussion,” she continues, “has ignored public schools’ victories, while also detracting from their civic role. Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole.”

The tax bill steaming towards reconciliation strengthens the war on public education in ways both petty and monumental, but all of which suggest the low regard that congressional Republicans hold for the public K-12 system and higher education in general. Senator Ted Cruz’s late-night amendment to the Senate tax bill, a measure that would allow “529’s,” special tax-free college savings account, to be used to shield income to pay up to $10,000 a year in tuition for private and religious K-12 schools, falls in the first category.  The Cruz amendment, a provision that would largely benefit wealthier families who can already afford private schools, was welcomed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who called the plan, “a good step forward,” in that it reflected “that education should be an investment in individual students, not systems.”

Further, in a move whose only logical intent seemed to be the destabilization of public school financing, the tax bill would prevent school districts from using  tax-free “advance refund bonds” to refinance school bond debt, a move that will raise costs for local school districts.

Starving Public Education

Both House and Senate versions of the bill curtail the federal deduction for state and local taxes, a measure which likely will have the most severe and destabilizing impact on all public education, from pre-K through university. This is the most poisonous of all the tax bill’s provisions because public educational institutions receive nearly all their income from state and local tax revenues, which individuals will no longer be able to deduct from their individual tax bills. If the measure seems modest, consider how it works. Eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes raises an individual’s effective tax rate, particularly in high-tax states (which just so happen to be Democratic states, like California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.). How likely do you think legislators will be to raise taxes again to make up for this shortfall in education dollars – particularly when states will also have to shoulder a larger portion of health care costs that the Federal government seems intent on sloughing off? Of course, low-tax states (e.g. Alabama or Mississippi or Arizona) don’t provide a lot of funding for their educational systems to begin with.

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities focuses on what has been a long-term trend in states cutting back on educational funding, particularly at the higher education level. In the 2015-2016 school year, 46 states — all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — were spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession. In response, at the higher education level, public colleges and universities across the country have increased tuition to compensate for declining state funding and rising costs.  Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen by 33% since the 2007-08 school year, by 90% in Arizona, and by more than 60% in six other states, including California. And at the local level: it’s back to Mrs. Nelson buying supplies for her class.

What can we expect in the future, given the tax bill and experience from the past? According to the CBPP, states will rely disproportionately on cutting budgets rather than raising taxes or fees in order to deal with the budgetary shortfalls to come; that’s what they did in the last recession. And budgets were being slashed between 2008-09 and 2013-14 at a time when enrollments increased in public higher education (by nearly 900,000 full-time-equivalent students) and in public K-12 schools (by 803,000 students). When you add to this state and local expenses for a prison population that tops out at nearly 1.6 million and is expected to grow under a “lock-’em-up” Attorney General, and exploding health care costs as the ACA is driven into the ground, it is not a stretch to imagine a consolidation of the shift towards a privatized educational system that serves only those who can afford it.

Higher Education? Don’t Count on It

While the pressure on state and local budgets will be the biggest driver moving education costs from the public sector to private individuals, other elements in the tax bill hone in with laser-like precision on the education sector. Besides the elimination of the provision that allows low- and middle-income student debtors to deduct up to $2,500 in student-loan interest each year, mentioned earlier, the new bill would:

  • eliminate the tax-free status of employer tuition reimbursements, up to $5,250 a year;
  • repeal the Lifetime Learning Credit, available for low- and middle-income families (which offsets 20% of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses, reducing a tax bill by as much as $2,000) and which typically allows workers to deduct the cost of part-time classes; and
  • axe the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit (which allows taxpayers a credit of up to $2,500 per student, per year, if they paid qualified tuition and related expenses for the first four years of post-secondary education).

And then there’s the endowment tax, a levy on endowments over a certain amount of endowment per student (the precise amount has been batted around between the House and the Senate). This proposal even offered a stunning midnight amendment that would have exempted just one college, Hillsdale, a tiny conservative Christian college in Michigan, from paying the new tax. Hillsdale has been a pet project of the DeVos family. Ultimately, this morsel proved to be too much for four Republican Senators (just four) to swallow. Now, it seems reasonable to me to debate the tax status of endowments that, at institutions like Harvard ($36 billion) or the University of Texas system ($25 billion), have grown to gargantuan proportions and are often used to gobble up local properties while driving out low-income renters from Cambridge, New Haven, and Harlem. But to tax large educational endowments as a means of paying for corporate tax cuts and billionaire pass-throughs  is an act of exceptionally distorted values, and one that, cynically, will bolster the chances that the wealthy who benefit from the tax bill will continue to send their children to those same universities.    

Education as a Partisan Food Fight

Arguments can be made to promote the theory that the corporate tax rate is too high in this country, that the tax structure is too unwieldy, complex, and counterproductive. These can be reasonable arguments (although one would also have to note that annual corporate profits, both gross and net, are near historic levels). What doesn’t seem sustainable, according to the most economists, is that the tax bill rocketing through Congress with nary a hearing, let alone the time to decipher the illegible notes handwritten into the bill at the last minute, will produce a well-funded, publicly supported, high quality educational system. In fact, it seems perversely designed to do just the opposite: to dismantle the public K-12 system, to make it harder to finance both public and private higher education, to discourage low- and middle-income students from completing college without absorbing enormous debt, and to dissuade workers from going back to school for further training.

It’s fair to ask why are the Republicans pushing a measure that is so hostile to higher education. Perhaps it’s because a majority of Republicans, according to a recent Pew Research Center report say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Perhaps it’s because liberal arts colleges and elite universities have become favored punching bags for conservative writers, bloggers, and journalists. Perhaps, as Nate Silver argued, “education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump,” and Republicans sense that college-educated voter aren’t their strongest supporters. Or perhaps, as David A. Graham recently argued in the Atlantic, Trump has decided to simply ignor colleges while offering blue-collar workers a return to the good-paying, non-degree required jobs that they held in the 1950s.

I don’t know which is most accurate, or perhaps all are. What I do know is that the tax bill racing to Trump’s desk will make educational achievement at all levels more difficult for the great majority of the population while eroding a central pillar of civic life in the United States. In the end, it remains up to those of us who care about creating an equitable, inclusive, and high-quality educational system to step up to the challenge.


Studying for Exams: Self-Regulated Learning

Steven Volk, Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, Oberlin College
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu
November 20, 2017

Students at Hamline University take an exam, 1930s. Wiki commons, public domain

Let’s stay with the theme of helping students learn how to learn for another week. Two weeks ago, I offered some ways to support student metacognition; last week, the “Article of the Week” explored six ways for faculty to reflect on their own teaching.

This week, I want to focus on helping students develop strategies to prepare for their upcoming exams. Yes, the season is upon us. But a word of warning and remorse: some of the methods I’ll suggest have the best chance of succeeding if implemented earlier in the semester – before the midterm at least. But don’t touch that dial – there are suggestions for everyone and you can also mark the article for retrieval at the start of next semester. Still, keep in mind that strategies to help students become more knowledgeable about how they prepare for exams can take time to sink in. So, let’s dive in.

For students, preparing for exams involves a considerable number of variables, not just the amount of time spent studying. In fact, the literature suggests that there’s a fairly tenuous relationship between how well students do on exams and the time they spend studying. This can be a revelation for many students – I know it was for me. During my undergraduate years, I was sure that there was a direct relationship between studying for more hours and getting a better grade, and the fact that the empirical evidence in my own case didn’t bear this out never dissuaded me from this way of thinking. 

To talk about adopting more strategic approaches to studying for exams in order to get better results (and I will stipulate from the start that getting better grades is not an automatic marker for learning more) is to move from the area of metacognition to one which has been called “Self-Regulated Learning” or “Strategic Resource Use for Learning.” I’m going to look at these approaches, particularly as they are discussed in two papers. The first, “How Should I Study for the Exam? Self-Regulated Learning Strategies and Achievement in Introductory Biology,” was written by Amanda J. Sebesta and Elena Bray Speth, both of the biology department at Saint Louis University. The second paper was co-authored by a team including Patricia Chen (psychology), Omar Chavez (statistics), Desmond C. Ong (computer science), and Brenda Gunderson (statistics), “Strategic Resource Use for Learning: A Self-Administered Intervention That Guides Self-Reflection on Effective Resource Use Enhances Academic Performance,” Psychological Science (2017).

Self-Regulated Learning: Notes from an intro-level biology class.

While researchers have defined “Self-Regulated Learning” (SRL) somewhat differently, I’ll go with our team of biologists who base their approach on the social cognitive perspective of Barry Zimmerman. They suggest that self-regulation of learning is best seen as an application of metacognition, and that self-regulated learners systematically engage in three separate if overlapped processes:

(1) Metacognitive – including, among other things, planning, goal setting, monitoring learning, and self-evaluation;

(2) Motivational – demonstrated by high levels of self-efficacy; an intrinsic interest in one’s studies (rather than being motivated by extrinsic factors); an ability to assume control of one’s learning; and the willingness to accepting responsibility for outcomes; and,

(3) Behavioral – processes such as seeking out information and advice, selecting and structuring the best study environments; or adopting effective study strategies for any particular task and in a variety of contexts, among other things.

We know that students can do better when they have more resources at their disposal, or, to put it more accurately, what we know is that students at poorly resourced colleges and universities are at a disadvantage. But when we look at learning through the lens of “self-regulated learning,” what becomes clear is that “providing students with all these resources hinges on the assumption that they know how to select and use their resources wisely” (Chen et al). Empirical studies suggest that they don’t.  

Bell Examination, 1792. New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection

Similarly, it’s not hard to recognize that students who come to college academically under-prepared will struggle to succeed, carrying the load not only of inadequate academic grounding (including poor planning or monitoring skills), but also often shouldering greater social or psychological burdens such as low self-esteem. But even higher-achieving students who breezed through high school are often not well situated to take control of their own education, particularly when the responsibility for learning is intentionally shifted to the student.

So when students appear at your door to ask, “How should I study for the exam?” we should be thinking about a more substantial answer than: reread the text and go through your notes.  

Sebesta and Speth sought to develop more useful answers to that question by examining which Self-Regulated Learning (see the table below) strategies their introductory biology students reported using most often when studying for their first exam. They then went on to determine which of these were associated with higher achievement on exams, higher grades in the course, and continued use in the future. They selected 15 learning strategies and asked students which they used and how frequently. (Details of their research design and data analysis can be found in the cited article).

Sebesta and Speth, “How Should I Study for the Exam?”

Of these, the most widely used (based on student self-reporting) were:

  • Seeking information
  • Environmental structuring
  • Reviewing the textbook or screencasts
  • Seeking assistance from peers
  • Keeping records and monitoring.

The two items that were employed the least were seeking the instructor’s assistance, and seeking assistance from other resources (tutors, etc.). So, if you’re wondering why students aren’t coming to your office hours…you’re not alone, evidently.

When the researchers correlated the learning strategies with the grades the students received on their exams, six strategies in particular had a statistically significant association with greater academic success on the exams:

  • Self-evaluation
  • Seeking information
  • Keeping records and monitoring
  • Seeking instructor assistance
  • Reviewing exams (when they were available)
  • Reviewing graded work

The fact that “seeking instructor assistance” came out near the top of the list in terms of its impact as a strategy for exam preparation probably shouldn’t boost our self-regard too significantly. Not that we can’t be of some help, but it is likely that those students who come to office hours are probably the higher-achieving students who are motivated to maintain their high grades and are more confident in coming to us with questions. In fact, one of the great benefits of a well-designed peer instruction program, such as Oberlin’s CLEAR program and the OWLS peer instructors in the STEM fields, is that they are more likely to attract students who are embarrassed to disclose their confusions to a faculty member.

Omrihayu, 2017. Flickr Creative Commons

Sebesta and Speth are clear that theirs is not a causal study, and that there are obvious limitations to self-reported data, but this doesn’t lessen the importance of their conclusions. As they note:

Most students entering introductory science courses…are not expert learners, and they need practice and feedback to develop robust cognitive and metacognitive strategies. It is critical that instructors, who are disciplinary experts, become cognizant that 1) students are still developing their learning strategies and 2) self-regulation can be fostered in concrete ways. There is, in fact, evidence that learners – regardless of their academic ability – can develop SRL habits and, concurrently, improve their academic achievement. With appropriate instruction and training, or by participating in learning environments that are designed to promote SRL, students can acquire and strengthen self-regulatory processes.

So, what can we do to foster self-regulation? There are a number of suggestions presented below, but here I’d suggest the use of what some have called “exam wrappers” (post-examination surveys) to help students think about how they prepared for the exam, explore the errors they made, and revise their study approach for the next exam.  Similarly we can provide students with regular homework assignments, particularly low-stakes assignments designed primarily for formative purposes whereby students can learn not just from their mistakes but from how they prepared their homework; and we can report back frequently to students about their learning (admittedly easier to accomplish in a smaller class than a larger one). Also, think about administering the survey (available at the end of this post) that Sebesta and Speth prepared.

Strategic Resource Use for Learning: An intro-level statistics class.

The research into self-regulated learning led by Patricia Chen of Stanford’s psychology department, unlike the Sebesta-Speth work, involved two randomized controlled trials among college students. The team was interested in determining whether one specific component of self-regulated learning – strategically reflecting on how to use one’s resources effectively for learning – contributed in a causal way to students’ performance on exams, and if it did, how. Central to the study was the realization that while many colleges provide a significant amount of resources to their students (not just libraries and study spaces, but academic support systems, counseling, etc.), if the students aren’t using them, or aren’t using them in an optimal fashion, they won’t have the desired impact. The authors studied two separate cohorts of an introductory level statistic class at a large Midwestern public university. [Again, those interested in the research design and technical findings will find them in the article which was published earlier this year in Psychological Science, 28:6 (2017): 774-785.]

Briefly described, here’s their approach: Students were randomly assigned to a “treatment” group or a “control” group. All students in the class were given the opportunity to participate for homework extra credit points. Students were given pre- and post-exam surveys to complete. At the start of each pre-exam survey, all students were reminded that the test was worth 100 points and were asked to enter their desired grade and answer three questions: how motivated were they to get that grade; how important was it to them that they received that grade; and, how confident were they that they could achieve their desired grade.

Students in the treatment group got the same exam reminder and then a brief Strategic Resource Use exercise, prompting students to consider the upcoming exam format, think about which resources would help them best study for the exam, describe why they thought each resource would be useful, and indicate how they were planning to use each resource. The students indicated which class resources they wanted to use out of the 15 choices they had. These included lecture notes, practice exam questions, textbook readings, instructor office hours, peer discussions, etc. Students were then asked to describe why they thought each chosen resource would be useful for their exam preparation and then to describe the “specific, realistic, and concrete” plans they had for using these resources, including when, where, and how they would use them.

Cian Ginty, “Study,” Flickr Creative Commons

At the end of the semester, the instructors gave the students in the treatment group an 8-item Self-Reflection on Learning scale, assessing the extent to which they adjusted their studying to the class, thought about how effectively they were learning, changed the way they were studying when their approaches were ineffective, and reflected on their performance. They were also asked to list those resources they actually had used and rate them.

The researchers also measured students’ emotional and motivational effects, asking about the degree to which they were nervous or stressed about an upcoming exam (from “extremely” to “not at all”), and whether they thought that they had some control over the process by asking them to respond to the question: “My exam grades are affected by the way I choose to study for this course” (with choices ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”).

So, spoiler alert, I’m just going to jump straight to their conclusions (drum roll, please):

In both studies, our intent-to-treat analyses found that students in the treatment condition outperformed those in the control condition on their final course grades by an average of one third of a letter grade.

As students chose their resources when preparing for an exam (studying their notes, working with a peer, visiting the instructor’s office hours, etc.), those who had been given the brief, self-administered intervention that guided them to make strategic use of their available resources were more engaged in reflecting on what was expected of them and tended to do better. The intervention fostered greater self-reflection about how best to approach their learning in class which allowed them to use resources more strategically when preparing for exams and, thereby, do better.

What I found to be the most significant result of the study was that, for students, the act of strategically planning which resources would be useful — admittedly a highly important first step — did not by itself boost students’ grades. Also needed was a process by which the students would put their strategic plans into practice in a clear and reasonable manner. So, here in non-technical terms, are what the Chen study suggested to me:

  1. Having resources is better than not having resources;
  2. It’s important to think about, and plan for, how those resources will be used, and to consider the extent to which students will actually followed through and use them;
  3. Plans for the use of strategic resources should be practical and not overly ambitious or indiscriminate.

While these findings related to success on exams and in the course in general, the researchers also found that, relative to the control group, students in the treatment group both had a “lower negative affect” toward the upcoming exams (they were less anxious or fearful about it), and they also felt that they had more control over what would happen. Undoubtedly, these results played an important (if undetermined) part in the greater success of the treatment group, and we could expect that such understandings on the part of students would impact how they approached all their classes.

In the end, the authors report that four elements of the intervention “significantly and consistently” related to the students’ final performance in the course:

  1. Explicitly tailoring one’s choice of resources to the exam questions anticipated;
  2. Focusing resource use on building better learning and understanding of the content;
  3. Planning when to use the resources; and
  4. Planning how to use their resources to study.

Dasnake, “dsc01429,” Flickr Creative Commons


At first glance, it could appear that the two studies reached different, even contradictory, conclusions. Sebesta and Speth concluded that instructors can employ a variety of instructional approaches to help students generate more strategies to self-regulate their learning in terms of three critical processes: metacognitive (planning, goal setting, self-evaluating), motivational (developing an intrinsic interest in the subject, assuming greater control over their learning), and behavioral (structuring optimal study environments). They found that these processes could be fostered through the administration of a relatively short questionnaire, and they concluded that there were some important correlations between administering a self-regulating learning questionnaire and better performance on exams. The Chen team went further, arguing that going beyond the SRL questions to help students actually reflect not just on their resource choices but on how they will use specific resources strategically is the essential element. I actually don’t find the studies to be contradictory – especially since the first was not intended as a valid and reliable measure of students’ self-regulated learning abilities. If anything, the two studies go well together, suggesting how we can improve student outcomes by first helping them approach studying for exams strategically, and then by helping them consider which of the resources that we offer will be of most help in the specific circumstances they are facing (exams, homework, papers, etc.), and how they plan to use those resources. In either case, it’s a lot more than telling students to re-read the text and go over their notes!

For a critical review of the literature on “Self-Regulated Learning,” see Sharon Zumbrunn, Joseph Tadlock, and Elizabeth Danielle Roberts, “Encouraging Self-Regulated Learning in the Classroom: A Review of the Literature” (2011).

Below are the questions that Sebesta and Speth asked after they administered the first exam:

TABLE 1. Survey 1 (administer after exam 1)

For each of the following learning strategies, please mark how frequently you used them in preparing for exam 1.


Survey Item








Very Often

1.       I evaluate the quality or progress of my work. For example, I check over my assigned work to make sure I did it right; when I get an answer wrong, I try to understand why the correct answer is right. 1 2 3 4 5
2.       When I study, I rearrange and organize the information to improve my learning (by making outlines, diagrams, summaries, etc.). 1 2 3 4 5
3.       I set goals and a timeline for studying the material and I plan how to meet those goals on time (e.g., plan to review a chapter a day in the week before a test). 1 2 3 4 5
4.       When I’m uncertain about the answer to an assignment question, I look up the information I need to answer the question. 1 2 3 4 5
5.       I take notes in class or when I study, and I mark what I don’t understand. 1 2 3 4 5
6.       I arrange my studying environment so I can learn more effectively (for example, I move to a quiet place or have background noise). 1 2 3 4 5
7.       I reward myself when I reach a learning goal (for example, I go out after doing well on a test). 1 2 3 4 5
8.       When I study, I practice or rehearse important facts in order to memorize them (for example, using flashcards). 1 2 3 4 5
9.       If I don’t understand something, I ask a friend or classmate for help. 1 2 3 4 5
10.     If I don’t understand something, I ask the instructor for help or clarification. 1 2 3 4 5
11.     If I don’t understand something, I ask a TA, SI leader, tutor, or another knowledgeable person for help. 1 2 3 4 5
12.     I reread my notes. 1 2 3 4 5
13.     I practice answering previous years’ exams. 1 2 3 4 5
14.     I review the textbook readings and/or Tegrity screencasts. 1 2 3 4 5
15.     I review my previous assignments (homework, clicker questions, class worksheets) critically (meaning, in an effort to understand the correct answer and/or explanation). 1 2 3 4 5
16.     Briefly explain any other strategies (in addition to those listed above) you used when studying biology. 1 2 3 4 5
17.     What was your grade on [course name] exam 1? (drop-down menu to choose letter grade: A B C D F) 1 2 3 4 5
18.     How satisfied are you with your exam grade?                                      1 = strongly dissatisfied  2 = dissatisfied  3 = neither satisfied or dissatisfied  4 = satisfied  5 = very satisfied 1 2 3 4 5
19.     Think about your study strategies, and whether you think they have worked well for you. Perhaps, you may want to consider trying some different approaches if you wish to improve your outcome. If you are happy with your performance, it may help to think about what approach(es) has (have) been most effective for you, and continuing with them. Either way, it is important to have a plan. What will you do to prepare for the next exam?  

Reference: Sebesta, A. J. and Bray Speth, E. (2017). How should I study for the exam? Self-regulated learning strategies and achievement in introductory biology. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 16 (Summer).


Metacognition II: Six Ways for Faculty to Reflect on Teaching

Steve Volk, November 13, 2017
Contact at svolk@oberlin.edu

Last week, the “Article of the Week” focused on ways to help students be more aware of how they think – to engage in metacognitive practices – in order to develop self-aware approaches that help them transfer what they learn from one course to the next, from one discipline to another, and from school to life. This week I’ll focus on six ways that we, as teachers, can reflect on our own practice so as to improve our teaching and student learning outcomes.

All images from “The Comical Hotch Potch, or The Alphabet turn’d Posture-Master” (1782)

t the start of the semester I surveyed Oberlin’s faculty on a variety of teaching issues, asking questions such as what aspects they derived the most pleasure from or what gave them the greatest heartburn. Among the questions I asked was one concerning what faculty considered “the best way/s to get help or feedback that could address the issues you face in the classroom?” Of the many possibilities, ranging from attending workshops to talking to deans or department chairs, the winner was “on-the-fly” conversations, those quickie chats squeezed in after you’ve discussed the plot lines that will emerge in Season 3 of “Stranger Things.” These most often unfold in the hallway, parking lot, around the copier, or when walking to or from a faculty meeting. “On-the-fly conversations” was almost always listed among respondents’ top three preferences.

As someone who organizes teaching and learning workshops and “brown-bag” discussions, I would have preferred a different answer, but I get it. Most of us want, or even crave, time to talk about what just went down in our classes, but we don’t have time for the 2-hour workshop or even a 45-minute chat over lunch or tots in the Feve. So “on-the-fly,” Keurig-centered conversations (often much to the annoyance of our AA’s) fill a real need.

Granted that some of these fall into the “can you believe what a student just said” mode; but many more arise from our desire to talk about something that just happened in class so that we can figure out what just happened and learn from it. These incidents could be troubling – a moment when the class seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control – or wonderful, when the semi-magical happens and the class digs down to a deeper level of understanding, a more cohesive way of interacting. The point is that as teachers, we reflect continually on what we’re doing in class, most often in the internal conversations we carry on inside our heads. But these reflections less often take place in ways that can be captured, considered, and fed back into our practice. It’s often not until the train derails at precisely the same place the next semester that we remember and wonder why we didn’t do something about it?

Reflection and Change

Lynne McAlpine and Cynthia Weston, from McGill University’s teaching and learning center, suggested that there are at least five different ways to conceptualize the role of reflection as it pertain to our teaching:

An academic orientation focuses on the organization of subject matter, a social efficiency orientation on how well practice matches what research says, a developmental orientation places priority on understanding students’ thinking, a social reconstructionist orientation sees reflection as a political act, and finally the generic orientation is one in which any reflection is good because teachers can then be more intentional and deliberate in their thinking about teaching.

The lest-costly, generic model is good for me, seeing the point of reflection as relating more to praxis than to philosophy; reflection as a way of thinking about what is off-kilter and what can be done to fix it.

As I was thinking about this kind of reflection, I remembered an essay by Atul Gawande that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago. In “Personal Best,” Gawande considered his own practice as a surgeon. He describes how, after many years, thousands of surgeries, and results that always improved (measured by a decreasing rate of complications following operations), he leveled off. His performance rate was quite good, but it didn’t get any better. He began to wonder what professionals in other fields did to get off the plateau and keep improving. What about those who everyone would consider at the top of their game, top-ranked tennis players or singers, for example. Are they still coached or mentored in order to continually improve? Surgeons weren’t; teachers aren’t.

ondering if a violinist of the caliber of Itzhak Perlman was still getting coaching, he called him up. (“So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.” Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Pick up the phone and call Itzhak!) Anyway, it turns out the answer is yes. Perlman’s coach for the past 40 years has been his wife, Toby, herself a concert-level violinist whom he met at Juilliard.

“The great challenge in performing is listening to yourself,” he said. “Your physicality, the sensation that you have as you play the violin, interferes with your accuracy of listening.” What violinists perceive is often quite different from what audiences perceive. “My wife always says that I don’t really know how I play,” he told me. “She is an extra ear.” […] Her ear provided external judgment.”

Now, none of us, I’m fairly certain, is a teacher with Perlmanesque talents, but his statement about “listening to yourself” sounded so familiar that I could change “performing” to “teaching” without doing damage to his argument. One of the great challenges in teaching is that we have a hard time judging our own performance. Carrying out internal conversations about how that class just went is not likely to get us where we need to be. We need a deeper mode of reflection.

Which takes us back to Dewey. John Dewey argued that real learning comes from reflection on experience more than from the experience itself. And reflection, as Carol Rogers usefully summarized, is a “meaning-making process” that can move the learner – us, in this case – from one experience to the next “with deeper understandings of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas.” Serious reflection relies on a systematic, rigorous, and disciplined way of thinking. It requires attitudes that value the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and of others. And, above all, it needs to happen “in community, in interaction with others.”

So, here are some suggestions for helping us think more reflectively about our teaching, ways to take the conversations out of our heads by putting them on paper or, better still, by reflecting in community  with others.

  1. Quick Notes:

When you return from a class, quickly jot down some notes on those aspects of the course that you think went well or poorly. Be brief, or you’ll find that it takes up too much time and you’ll soon stop doing it. Note the issue and, if a solution is easily available, add that: The students couldn’t figure a way into the reading: give them better prep questions next time. The energy drained from the room halfway through: break up the session with some activity. Amazing discussion, all initiated by Sam’s statement […]: try prompting the discussion next time with Sam’s observation.

I usually write notes on a copy of the syllabus I keep on my computer for just this purpose. It makes it much easier to locate them when I’m preparing the next iteration of the class. I can add comments the next time through to see if something made a difference.

  1. Self-questions to promote faculty metacognition about teaching.

ancy Joseph, an English professor at Oakland University, over 15 years ago began helping students think metacognitively about their writing projects, urging them to note their thoughts at every step of the writing process: when they wrote a first draft, received peer review comments, and read her comments.  But, she observed, “most responses were void of meaningful reflection, and… I detected no changes in their writing behaviors.” She thought about on what was happening and decided to teach by example, stressing the importance of reflecting on the pre-writing (planning) stage as well as the writing process:

I distributed pages of my own writing from a professional article that had proceeded in fits and starts over the previous half year…I candidly shared my thoughts as the author of this work in progress, indicating what I had been thinking when I added explanations, reorganized paragraphs, and rewrote passages. I wanted to expose my students to the decision-making strategies that writers use to address the needs of their readers. This method enabled me to understand that helping students develop metacognitive awareness requires direct instruction and demonstration, a step-by-step journey into the cognitive process of writing.

Kimberly D. Tanner, author of the article on “Promoting Student Metacognition” that I drew from last week, suggests the following ways to think about your own classes in a form that can increase their potential for metacognitive approaches to teaching.

Activity Planning Monitoring Evaluating
Class session *What are my goals for this class session?

*How did I arrive at these goals?

*What do I think students already know about this topic?

*How could I make this material personally relevant for my student? Why do I think this?

*What mistakes did I make last time I taught this and how can I not repeat these?

*What do I notice about how students are behaving during this class session? Why do I think this is happening?

*What language or active-learning strategies am I using that appear to be facilitating learning? Impeding learning?

*How is the pace of the class going? What could I do right now to improve the class session?

*How do I think today’s class session went? What evidence do I have for thinking this?

*How did the ideas of today’s class session relate to previous class sessions? To what extent do I think students saw those connections?

*How will what I think about how today’s class session went influence my preparations for next time?

Overall course *Why do I think it’s important for students pursuing a variety of careers to learn the ideas in my course? What are my assumptions?

* How does success in this course relate to my students’ career goals?

*What do I want students to be able to do by the end of this course? 5 years later?

*In what ways am I effectively reaching my goals for students through my teaching? How could I expand on these successful strategies?

*In what ways is my approach to teaching in this course not helping students learn? How could I change my teaching strategies to address this?

*How is my approach to teaching this course different from the last time I taught it? Why?

What evidence do I have that students in my course learned what I think they learned?

*What advice would I give to students next year about how to learn the most in this course?

*If I were to teach this course again, how would I change it? Why? What might keep me from making these changes?

*How is my thinking about teaching changing?


  1. Seeking Feedback: Once and done

Arrange for a formative observation of your course. Ask a colleague or, better yet, someone from CTIE, to visit a class, take notes, and talk to you about what went on. CTIE has developed a specific protocol (pre-observation, observation, post-observation conversation) to guide the process. As you would expect, the process works best if you have a few things that you would like the observer to pay attention to.

on’t mistake a “formative” observation – one where you invite someone to observe a class and give you feedback – with a summative observation, where you are being evaluated by a member of your department, the chair, or someone else whose job it is to make a formal assessment of your teaching. Formative observations stay with the instructor and aren’t reported to anyone else (unless you choose to include the observation in a personnel file, but that’s your choice alone). Their whole purpose is to help the instructor reflect on what is happening and, if needed, address those issues. It’s all about the fact that we can’t “hear ourselves” when we teach.

  1. Seeking Feedback: A few times is better

Teaching pairs, triangles, squares. No, not an exercise for geometry teachers. These are arrangements in which you invite a colleague (from your department or any other) into your class for a few observations and return the favor by observing their classes. It can be done, as the names imply, with 2, 3, or 4 colleagues. A central aspect of the process is that these are always formative observations that are entered into voluntarily and eagerly. They usually take place between 2-4 times a semester, and feedback is generally offered in a social setting: over lunch, coffee, a drink, or dinner. They groupings can be of “equals” (e.g., all junior faculty); mixed (pairing that bring together junior and senior faculty); colleagues from the same or different disciplines, etc. People in the arrangements can agree on how they would like to see the process develop: an initial meeting; note-taking or not; written observations or not. In short, whatever makes the process more likely to happen and more enjoyable for everyone.

How to get started? Talk to the people you want in the group now in order to begin in the spring semester. If you want some help forming a group, talk to CTIE.

  1. Seeking Feedback: All semester is best

Yes! This gives me another opportunity to talk about the Faculty-Student Partnership.  (I sent around a “recruiting” note earlier this week for those interested in joining the program in the spring; here it is again in this new context.)

One of the faculty participants in the program recently said that, “Reflection is the biggest piece [of the FSP program]. The conversations make you stop and think about what went well and what didn’t.” The research on this is utterly convincing. McAlpine & Weston stress:

“[…] Multiple, repeated observations and interactions … may be necessary [but it is] the analysis of these multiple experiences through reflection which enables one to detect patterns that then lead to knowledge.”

We don’t get that kind of feedback, or the opportunity to reflect on our practice, from the student evaluations collected at the end of the semester. But this kind of extended process of interaction is available through the Faculty-Student Partnership program. The FSP program pairs a student with a faculty partner over the course of an entire semester. The student participants cannot be enrolled in any courses taught by their faculty partners (although they may have taken courses with them in previous semesters). The students attend their partners’ designated classes once a week over the course of the semester, taking detailed observation notes of the class sessions, and meeting weekly with their faculty partners to discuss the class, often focusing on specific issues issues suggested by the faculty partner. Students also meet biweekly with the program’s coordinators to encourage the students to discuss their experiences collectively, and as an opportunity for more training and reflection. Students receive training in ethnographic note taking at the start of the semester, and discuss ways to make discussions with their faculty partners most productive. Program coordinators also meet monthly with the faculty partners to get their feedback on the progress of the partnerships. (Faculty and students engaged in the program last fall discussed it in an article in the Oberlin Review.)

The emphasis of the FSP program is on dialog, stressing the concept that teachers and students mutually benefit from seeking out one another’s perspectives and discussing how these might inform teaching and learning contexts. The goal of partnership work is not change for change’s sake but precisely to open the kind of reflection that is central to a metacognitive approach to teaching.

(My pitch, one more time: If you are interested in applying to the program in the spring 2018 semester, please contact CTIE by filling out this form.

  1. Faculty Learning Communities

aculty Learning Communities (or Faculty-Staff Learning Communities) are another way to develop a collaborative reflective practice. While there are different models for building a learning communities, the most straightforward is for 6-8 faculty (or faculty and staff) to get together over the course of a semester or year to discuss a topic of interest and concern to the group. Some are funded by the dean’s office to provide reading materials, food, or other things that can support the group. Some require the group to produce some work at the conclusion of the process that can be shared with the larger community. As Martha C. Petrone and Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens write,

FLCs provide a collaborative arena in which colleagues have the time and opportunity to reflect on their teaching, their discipline, their institution, and themselves. By creating a safe environment for the honest engagement of ideas and feelings, the FLC facilitator helps to move the faculty outside of their disciplinary comfort zones and into the realm of intellectual and interpersonal connections. Through this process, teaching and learning are meaningfully enhanced and often transformed. [Martha C. Petrone, Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens, “Facilitating Faculty Learning Communities: A Compact Guide to Creating Change and Inspiring Community,” in Milton D. Cox and Laurie Richlin, eds., New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Building Faculty Learning Communities (Spring 2004), Volume 2004, Issue 97, Pages 1–157.]

The best way to initiate a Faculty (or Faculty-Staff) Learning Community around teaching and pedagogy is the most straightforward: talk to a colleague, define a theme, find others who would be interested in joining and talk to them. CTIE would be delighted to help either identify faculty or staff who would be interested or to provide a bibliography that can inform and orient your inquiry.


It has been said many times, but is probably worth saying it again: College and university faculty are among the very few professionals who aren’t actually trained in what we spend most of our time doing: teaching. We are experts in our particular domains and subfields, but few of us have read extensively in the literature on pedagogy, theories of learning, or child and adolescent development. That’s how it has always been. And while there are many developments that can help instructors think about their classroom practices, often coming from teaching and learning centers such as CTIE, we learn most from our own experiences. We can get the most out of that by reflecting on our experiences, by ourselves, but especially in community with others.


“What Am I Doing? Is It Getting Me Anywhere?” Scaffolding Student Metacognition

Steve Volk
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Illustration from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color (1878)

Hands up those of you who have had students come to your office hours anguishing over the poor grades they received on an exam. I’m not talking about the student who thinks his grade should be higher, rather the student who can’t figure out why she got such a low grade since she worked really hard preparing for the exam:

I studied all Saturday night and Sunday; I re-read all the assigned textbook readings and went over my notes. I even took the time to memorize all the words bolded in the text. I worked really hard, but still got a C-. I don’t know what to do!

So, what’s your advice, dear reader? Tell the student: “It looks like you’re not studying hard enough. You need to work harder; you need to figure out how to apply yourself better”?

Or what about the student who has done well on all the quizzes and exams you have given but seems to struggle when asked in class to explain the reasoning behind her proofs or the concept from which the equation is drawn?

Or what about the student who took the entry-level physics class, and did very well, but doesn’t appear to have carried over what he learned in that class to the next level?

It’s not surprising that the great majority of our students have learned to be good at school – they know how to take tests, draw between the lines, memorize what they are told to memorize, and give us what we seem to be asking for. They probably wouldn’t have been admitted if they weren’t good at school. But that doesn’t mean that they have learned how to be good at learning, that they know how to make learning their own, or have gained some insight on how they learn, not just what they learn, and can transfer what they have learned in one domain (say the close attention to detail that helps them excel in art history) to other domains (perhaps psychology, or a close and critical reading of texts). And, ultimately that would be a shame because the latter are the students who will better apply what they have learned in school to help them succeed in many fields after they graduate.

The historian Brook Adams, writing in the Atlantic in 1879, observed: “Knowing that you cannot teach a child everything, it is best to teach a child how to learn.” Adams charged that the Boston school system, on whose board he served, was failing miserably at this. Francis W. Parker, the superintendent of the Quincy, Massachusetts system around the same time, wanted all students to, as he put it, make their learning their own, to gain from their schooling a resource they could rely on throughout their lives. Le plus ça change?

If the tension between being helping students be good at school and helping them be good at learning is an old one, it’s probably also one that each of us continues to confront in our classes. We are trained as scholars and creative artists in specific fields, analytic philosophy or printmaking, hydrogeology or contemporary Hebrew poetry. We probably wouldn’t have made it as far as we have if we hadn’t become experts not just in the content of our subjects of study, but also in understanding – explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously –how we best could approach our own learning. And yet, probably for most of us – and I’d certainly include myself here –we couldn’t, or can’t, articulate just what it was that we did to achieve this. Nor did we have many (any?) grad school professors who stopped us along the way to ask: do you know what you did to get over that roadblock, to make learning your own?

Phrenological chart, public domain.

As instructors, we are hired to teach students the content that we have become expert in. And, except for some in psychology or those in the field of education, we don’t necessarily think about whether we should make our students aware of how they can also master learning, and not just history or music theory. And even if we did, would we know how to go about this?

We’re now in the realm of metacognition and helping our students think about their own metacognitive strategies. In this week’s article, the first of two on the topic, I’ll discuss some approaches to how we can help our students become better learners by focusing on metacognitive strategies in class sessions, on exams and papers, and after they have finished a course. The research literature on metacognition is rich and quite deep, and I’ll include a short bibliography at the end for those interested in  pursuing it further (and I am sure that our colleagues in Psychology can be of much greater help than I in this regard). This essay draws from a number of research publications, but it is primarily indebted to Kimberly D. Tanner, “Promoting Student Metacognition,” which appeared in Life Sciences Education (American Society of Cell Biology) in 2012.

Next week I’ll focus on how we, as teachers, can use megacognitive strategies to improve as instructors.


Without getting too deep in the definitional weeds, we could use some working concept of metacognition. In its simplest sense, metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” But we can also push it a bit further. Any process that helps us think about how we got to an answer, rather than the answer itself, can probably be thought of as a metacognitive process. The Socratic method would qualify as a metacognitive one in the sense that it focuses on a guided set of questions that can produce an answer. Math problems that require the student to record step-by-step reasoning rather than just writing the answer are in the metacognitive mode, at least in a broad sense. My go-to guy, John Dewey, who argued that students would learn more from reflecting on their experiences than from the actual experiences themselves, introduces a metacognitive approach – and we’ll return to him shortly.

Metacognition, according to John Flavell, the psychologist credited with the developing the term, “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes…the learning-relevant properties of information or data.” Flavell divided metacognitive processes into three categories, summarized here.  The divisions are useful as we think of methods that can support our students’ metacognitive understandings.

  • “Knowledge of person variables” concern general knowledge about how we process information and our own awareness of this, i.e. “learning about learning.” The first example I gave, that of the frustrated student who can’t figure out why she’s doing poorly on exams, probably has a fairly low awareness of how she learns the best. Perhaps she’s studying while listening to music, checking her text messages frequently, or trying to study when she’s just too tired.
  • “Knowledge of task variables” refer to our deeper understanding about the task that we are given. Students who leave as much time to read a short story as they do for a 40-page article by Judith Butler or a chapter in a physics text could easily be in trouble because they haven’t properly assessed the task at hand.
  • “Knowledge about strategy variables” include understanding cognitive and metacognitive strategies as well as conditional knowledge about when and where it is appropriate to employ such strategies. “Knowledge,” Jennifer Livingston writes, “is considered to be metacognitive if it is actively used in a strategic manner to ensure that a goal is met. For example, a student may use knowledge in planning how to approach a math exam: ‘I know that I (person variable) have difficulty with word problems (task variable), so I will answer the computational problems first and save the word problems for last (strategy variable).’”

 Supporting Student Metacognition: Student Self-Questioning

While there has been more research on the impact of metacognitive thinking on K-12 students than on college-age students, one clear conclusion from the research is that students with low metacognitive abilities generally can’t evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses appropriately. (Remind you of anyone?) They quite often overestimate their abilities and therefore are less likely to prepare well for assignments. James Lang, who writes frequently on teaching and learning for the Chronicle of Higher Education, some years ago referenced the cringe-worthy opening episodes of each season of “American Idol” calling them a mashup of lousy singing and dreadful metacognition: Don’t they know that they have no talent as singers? Returning to higher education: students who over-estimate their knowledge, skills, or level of preparation are unlikely to do well for the assigned task.

“Convolutions,” : Dr Alesha Sivartha, “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man,” 1898.

Paul Pintrich, on the other hand, has argued that “students who know about the different kinds of strategies for learning, thinking, and problem solving will be more likely to use them.” So how do we teach metacognitive strategies to our students and what can we do to help them?

Tanner’s article provides a wonderful place to begin, starting with prompting questions that students should ask themselves as they prepare for class, assignments, exams, or other tasks. For each type of activity (class session, active-learning task and/or homework assignment, quiz or exam, overall course), Tanner provides a set of questions-to-self that students can explore when planning an activity, monitoring their progress, or evaluating the outcome. (Here’s a great idea for an app to all you programmers out there: A metacognition app that prompts students, as in: “Siri: What do I already know about this topic?” “Alexa: What strategies should I use to study?”)

I’ll include a few of Tanner’s questions here. You can find the whole chart at the linked article.

Activity Planning Monitoring Evaluating
Class session *What are the goals of the class session going to be?

*What do I already know about this topic?

*Where should I sit and what should I do (or not do) to best support my learning during class?

*What insights am I having during this class session?

*What am I confused about?

*Can I distinguish important information from details? How will I figure this out?

*What was today’s class about?

*How can I get my remaining questions answered?

*How did the ideas of today’s class relate to previous classes?

Active-learning task and/or homework assignment *What is the instructor’s goal in having me do this task?

*What are all the things I need to do to be successful in this task?

*How much time will this take me?

*What strategies am I using that are working well or not working well to help me learn?

*What is most challenging for me about this task? Most confusing?

*To what extent did I successfully accomplish the goals of the task?

*When I do an assignment or task like this again, what do I want to remember to do differently? What worked well for me that I should use next time?

Quiz or exam *What strategies will I use to study? Study groups, problem sets, etc.

*How much time should I be studying? Over what period of time?

*What should I be spending more or less time on based on my current understanding?

*Am I taking advantage of all the learning supports available to me?

*Am I struggling with my motivation to study? Do I remember why I am taking this course?

*Which of my confusions do I have to get clarified? How will I do this?

*What about my exam preparation worked well that I should remember to do next time?

*What didn’t work so well so that I should not do next time or should change?

*What questions did I get wrong and what confusions do I have that still need to be clarified?

Overall course *Why is it important to learn the material in this course?

*How does success in this course relate to my larger goals?

*How am I going to actively monitor my learning in this course?

*In what ways is the teaching in this course supportive of my learning? How could I maximize this?

*How interested am I in this course? How confident am I in my learning? What could I do to increase my interest and confidence?

*What will I still remember 5 years from now that I learned in this course?

*What advice would I give a friend about how to learn the most in this course?

*What have I learned about how I learn in this course that I could use in my future courses?

Supporting Student Metacognition: Other Approaches

Providing significant formative feedback to students can also help them more accurately assess their knowledge about a topic. Many of these ideas will be familiar to loyal “Article of the Week” readers: minute papers, muddy point writing, clicker questions, etc. Here are a few others:

ConcepTests: Developed by the legendary Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, ConcepTests focus on a single concept; can’t be solved using equations; have good multiple-choice answers; are clearly worded; and are of intermediate difficulty. Stephen Chew, chair and professor of psychology at Stamford University (Birmingham, AL) describes how he uses them: After putting up a multiple-choice question, “Students select their answers individually, and I poll the class. They can then discuss their answer with other students, after which I poll the class again. Finally, we discuss the answers as a class. This gives me a sense of how well students understand the material. I can identify and address problem areas.” (Chew also offers a 6 short videos on metacognition and “how to get the most out of studying,” including a final one: “I Blew the Exam, Now What?”

Retrospective Post-assessments as a means of pushing students to be aware of conceptual change: Cognitive psychologists often define “learning” as “a student-centered activity in which students change their ideas about a topic” (Posner et al, 1982). Approached in this way, learning doesn’t happen until students examine how their understanding of a concept or idea has changed. This insight is reminiscent of Dewey’s argument that reflection on experience is more important than the experience itself. The learning happens in the reflection. Again, the question is how to help our students be reflective. One way is to engage students in a post-assessment exercise in which they are asked to discuss how they thought about the topic or concept before the assignment or other activity and to compare that with how they think about it after having completed the assignment.

Memo to Self: What did I learn? A relatively simple way to help students reflect on their learning is to have them write a letter or memo to their “future selves” after they have completed and been graded on an assignment. Encourage them to note what about their preparation for the exam or paper or other assignment worked well enough that it should be repeated the next time they take on a similar task. Did they work with a study group? Go to a peer instruction session? Attend office hours? Get two hours extra sleep the night before? Have a good breakfast? Similarly, they need to think about what didn’t work so well and shouldn’t be repeated?

Prompts to use in Class: Finally, again borrowing from Tanner’s excellent article, here are a list of questions you can ask students after standard classroom activities as a way of supporting their metacognitive thinking.

For “pairing-up” types of discussion after a ConcepTest, clicker question, or other multiple choice question posed to the class:

  • What did you think the question was asking?
  • What process did you use to arrive at your answer? Why did you choose “b,” for example?
  • What were the main reasons you didn’t chose “a” or “c”?
  • Compare your ideas with your discussion partner.
  • What most confused you about this question?
  • How confident are you in your answer? Why? What more would you need to increase your confidence?

For homework or active-learning tasks:

  • Pose three questions you had about the concepts you explored in this assignment that you still can’t answer.
  • Describe at least two ideas related to this assignment that you found confusing.
  • Do you agree that you “learned a lot” from the assignment? Why? Why not?
  • Think about how you approached completing this assignment and compare it with the way that you completed the last assignment.
  • What advice would you have for yourself based on what you know if you were just beginning the assignment?

Preparation for Quizzes and Exams:

  • How do you plan on preparing for the upcoming exam? Why?
  • What resources are available to support you? How will you make sure to use these?
  • Compare your exam preparation strategy with three others enrolled in the class – ask them how they are preparing.
  • What concepts have you found most confusing so far? What has been clearest? Given this, how could you best spend your time preparing for the exam?
  • Based on your performance on the first exam, write a memo to yourself with advice about preparing for the next exam.

Conclusion: It’s OK to be Confused

The final point, again from Tanner, is that we need to create an environment in the class where students know that they are both allowed and encourage to share their confusions as well as their brilliant insights. We can do this by recounting for students what happened when you taught the course before: “Students in previous semesters really seem to hit a speed bump when they got to this concept, so please share your questions and confusions; that way the whole class can benefit from the discussion.” In a previous article I suggested that, when addressing students who answer questions in class, it is as important to spell out why a particular answer was correct as why it was wrong. Pulling out the conceptual or procedural reasoning behind a question helps students as they think about their own thinking. Help your student not just to be good at school, but to be good at learning.

Next week: Modeling metacognition for students.

Some beginning resources on metacognition and teaching and learning:

“Odors and Flavors,” Dr Alesha Sivartha, “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man”

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Lovett, M.C., DiPietro, M and Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Short summary here.)

Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chew, S.  Five-part video series on learning.

Coutinho S.A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate 7, 39–47.

Kruger J, Dunning D (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how differences in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. J Personality Soc Psychol 77, 1121–1134.

National Research Council (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pintrich P. (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory Pract 41, 219–226.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild N., Su T. T. (2009). Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions, Science, 323 (5910), 122-124.

Rubrics: A Best Friend for Teachers & Students

Jessica Greenfield, PhD
Director of the Cooper International Learning Center and Lecturer in Italian
Contact at: jgreenfi@oberlin.edu

Rubrics are not a new-fangled teaching device designed by some evil assessment gurus who thought we didn’t have enough hoops to jump through as is. They’ve been around for years and, far from being a burden, are, in my opinion, a teacher’s best friend and a frequent lifeline.  As focus continues to grow on student evaluation of teaching effectiveness, and as we continue to reflect on our own teaching practice, it is important to ensure that the expectations we have for our students are clear and that we are evaluating them fairly and in a way that is explicit and obvious to them. Most of us do this as a matter of course; but rubrics are a fantastic tool to make this process as transparent as possible.  


A few years ago, I became obsessed with assessment and feedback.  I noticed that my grading would often shift from lenient to harsh within a single class, leading me to grade and re-grade each assessment several times as I tried to be equitable.  I began to worry about fairness in my grading and clarity in my assignment design and explanations.  Furthermore, I discovered that I often was assessing too many elements within one formative activity.  And so, I began to search for better methods of assessment, which led me to the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA).  While there are many elements of the IPA that I love, I was particularly enthralled with the rubrics provided in the guidebook, since they offered me a clear and compelling solution to the problems I had been experiencing.  I now use rubrics in a number of ways: as a tool to help students evaluate themselves, as a guide for designing and grading assignments, and as a method to bring students into the assessment process when we create rubrics together, specifically for summative assessments that are more creative in nature.  

Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/holistic-analytic-single-point-rubrics/

While there are a lot of different rubric forms, I use two kinds most of all: ANALYTIC RUBRICS which are descriptive, finite, and exhaustive in the consideration of component parts, and HOLISTIC RUBRICS which use a single scale to apply an overall judgment in a specific area. I create “analytic” rubrics for each of my formative assignments, and “holistic” rubrics as a way of evaluating student participation or, often, for end-of-unit or end-of-course summative assessments.  One can also create a SINGLE POINT RUBRIC in which you have a given standard you are assessing, and the instructor then adds comments during the performance. For example, in an oral presentation single point rubric, the instructor might have a standard such as: student links the presentation to reading materials from the course syllabus. The instructor would then evaluate that one element by providing comments on where the student succeeded or failed in meeting that standard. To provide a clearer sense of these various kinds of rubrics, check out some examples and further definitions here.

Analytic Rubric Example

Analytic Rubric (Greenfield)

Holistic Rubric Example

Holistic Rubric (Greenfield)

Single-Point Rubric

Single Point Rubric: Jennifer Gonzalez: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/holistic-analytic-single-point-rubrics/

The research is definitive in showing that rubrics not only provide a clear and fair framework for evaluation of student work, but also is conclusive that the most effective rubrics follow certain steps (considering learning objectives, deciding upon the elements to be evaluated, and then weighing each of those elements as it contributes to the overall evaluation). Personal experience reinforces the research: good rubrics are clear, descriptive, and avoid generalities.  They use such objective terms as “student uses…”; “student chooses…”; “student is successful in…”, rather than the more subjective, “I felt that…,” or, “it seems that…”, in order to provide as factual and objective feedback as possible.. The best rubrics are also context specific.  I never use the same rubric for two different kinds of assignments and I always make sure to review and adapt my rubrics from semester to semester to check for appropriateness.  Often, I will find some recurring area for improvement among student performance or an area that I did not describe well, which I update for the following semester.

Interpretative-Novice (Greenfield)

While the process of creating rubrics from scratch can be time consuming (and, rather than reinventing the wheel, consider building off of the many resources available online or from our own CTIE), the payoff is large; you can reduce time spent grading and confusion among students as to what you’re looking for, and you will also be providing more transparency for students throughout the coursework.  My teaching has definitely improved since adopting rubrics as my primary evaluation tool, mostly because I can spend more time focused on lesson preparation and less time reading and rereading student work. Some of the biggest improvements in my instruction since using rubrics include the following:

  1. My grading has become more uniform and fair.  I no longer need to worry about whether I’m being too lenient or too harsh; I write explicit descriptions that allow me to grade fairly.  It’s also cut down on grade inflation, which is always something at the back of my mind.
  2. In giving students the evaluation rubric at the same time that I introduce the assignment, I can be sure that students understand the elements within the assignment that I’m most interested in. I remember the day I discovered that the point values in rubrics don’t have to be equal across columns and rows, and that has allowed me to show students where the bulk of their energy should go in a given assignment. If I want to focus on vocabulary over style, I will give that column more points.
  3. Feedback is easy to give within the framework of a well-developed rubric as you are commenting on that specific aspect of the assignment.  Not only is evaluation time greatly reduced, but also the time an instructor spends writing comments and critiques.
  4. The very process of creating a rubric also helps me ensure that I’m clear on what the assignment is asking students to do. Developing a rubric is often a metacognitive process which prompts the instructor to reflect on the task that she will present to students, and encourages her to take the necessary time to determine if the instructions are clear and appropriate.

Finally, I’m so grateful for the rubrics tool in Blackboard.  Several years ago when I flipped my class, I discovered that I could recreate my rubrics right within the LMS and make them available to students.  You can also copy them from one semester to the next, so once you’ve done the work, it’s easy to utilize them again.  This feature also allows students to revisit the tool from the gradebook function and reflect on their performance before coming to you to discuss how they did on a certain task.

Composition with revisions (Greenfield)

If you are interested in making your own rubrics, my recommendation is to follow these steps for success:

  1. Reflect on the task and content for which you are creating the rubric.
  2. Create Student Learning Objectives for the assignment with an explicit set of expectations.
  3. Group and label the elements so that students can see what you will evaluate and you are clear on what elements you want to look for.
  4. Apply the rubric form and add descriptors in each box.  If you are applying points to the assignment, this is the time to weight the distribution of points as well.  
  5. Discuss with colleagues and/or students and make appropriate adjustments.

Some useful online resources:

Deliberative Pedagogy: Practicing Democracy in the Classroom

Steve Volk, October 23, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Michel-Vincent Brandoin, Le magasin pittoreseque, Vol. 5 (Paris, 1837).

You don’t need me to tell you that it feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Not to mention the windows, doors, and crankshaft. White supremacist blowhards wrap themselves in First Amendment flannels while forcing universities to cough up serious cash in security costs to defend their rights (money that, you can be sure, could have gone to more beneficial ends). Leftists at the College of William and Mary disrupt an ACLU speaker for defending the First Amendment rights of obnoxious organizations, while,  at Reed, they berate a mixed-race lesbian lecturing on Sappho, branding her as a “race traitor” for participating in a Eurocentric introductory Humanities course. Pro-Trump students at Whittier College drowned out  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra with chants of “Lock him up!” and “Build the Wall!” Meanwhile, state legislators in Wisconsin, North Carolina and six other states pass legislation silencing student activists in the name of — what else? — free speech. Faculty are placed on leave to “protect” them after exercising free speech rights on social media. And all this is taking place during the watch of a “president” who uses his free speech rights to deliver falsehoods, fabrications, and fictions that would make Charles Ponzi gasp.

Sigh. One only wishes there were some space where these complex challenges, these “wicked problems,” could be discussed, if not dispassionately, than at least with evidence, insight, and the goal of reaching greater understandings as we move to address them. Wait! There is! It’s called “the college.” But if colleges and universities have become the grinding stone on which “speech” issues are milled, to what island do we retreat in order to hold these conversations? No retreat, and no island, I’d argue, but to the classroom itself, the space where democracy should be practiced and not just studied.

Democracy and Higher Education

The connection between democracy and education, in the United States at least, has long been regarded as self-evident. Modern democracies can’t exist without a well-informed electorate, citizens who are able to separate truth from lies, humanists from hucksters. Maybe. But we also know full well that educated people are fully capable of electing hucksters and liars, and that advanced degrees don’t inoculate one from anti-democratic tendencies. (According to exit polls Trump won white men by a 63-31% margin over Clinton; among college-educated whites, he won by 61-39%.) Education can produce engineers whose applications are capable of transporting us across town in the shortest time in rush hour traffic; they can also design algorithms that, in the hands of party operatives, will shave unwanted voters from a toss-up district and pack them into a guaranteed-loss district thereby making a mockery of democratic promises of “one person one vote.”

Is education, then, irrelevant to democracy? Not at all, but, lest we give into outright cynicism, we must push harder to identify what are the crucial interactions between education and democracy that can make a difference in the direction of producing more democracy.

Tony Beltrand, L’Image, Paris, 1897.

We would do well to turn here to those who have written so persuasively about this association: John Dewey and Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Silvia Hurtado. Instead, I’ll round up a less likely suspect, Harry Truman – or, at least, the “Commission on Higher Education” that he appointed in 1947 to study the “principle goals” for higher education. Of the three that the Commission singled out, the first was that education should serve to bring about “a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.”

Now, there are endless ways to think about what exactly this means and how those of us in higher education can help bring about a “fuller realization of democracy.” Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, recently implored “the nation’s colleges [to] join in preparing students to become active and informed citizens,” by providing them with a curriculum in civic education. For Bok, whose thoughts on higher education I have long admired, the issue is both one of instilling students with a sense of responsibility and equipping them to perform their civic functions more effectively. (“If a democracy is to function well, citizens need to be willing to express their preferences by voting…[and to] be reasonably informed and cognizant of arguments for and against important policy questions.”) This, he continues, is best done by offering a modest core of courses in U.S. government, history, and politics, basic economics, political theory, and “Great Books.”

The American Association of Colleges & Universities’ 2012 “National Call to Action” (A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future), also urged institutions of higher learning to “reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education.” But their call went further than Bok’s, and, to my mind, got closer to the crux of the matter.

In addition to designing curricular pathways through general education and through a student’s major or technical specialized field of study, how civic issues are taught and in what venues delineate yet another arena for enhancing civic literacy, inquiry, and collective action (p. 55, emphasis added).

To those who argue that the bus is about to hurtle off the cliff because we have failed to provide our students with a proper civics education, I would counter that you don’t learn to play the piano by reading a book about it; you don’t learn to practice democracy by taking a course on it.

George Du Maurier, Tribly, a Novel (NY: 1895)

This is not an argument against reading books on piano playing (start with Tim Page’s The Glen Gould Reader, Knopf 1984) or against taking courses that explore U.S. history or politics. I am arguing that if the link between education and democracy is to have a more consequential end than informing students how a bill gets to be a law or motivating citizens to vote (where they are as capable of electing scoundrels as saints), than what colleges need to provide is a pedagogy of democratic practice. For, in the end, it is the practice of democracy in our essential laboratories of learning, the classroom, that can best help us reroute the wayward bus.

Deliberative Pedagogy

The AAC&U’s Crucible Moment calls attention to three “civic pedagogies” that research has found to be particularly effective: (1) intergroup and deliberative dialogue, (2) service learning, and (3) collective civic problem solving. The “Article of the Week” has examined service learning (more appropriately termed community-based learning) previously. Oberlin has an outstanding set of community-based learning opportunities convened through the Bonner Center, and I would recommend anyone who is interested in serious, effective community-based learning and research to contact them.

Here, however, I want to focus on the AAC&U’s first point, addressing a specific approach known as “deliberative pedagogy.” My understanding of this pedagogy was informed by a recently published volume on the topic, Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017), edited by Timothy J. Shaffer, Nicholas V. Longo, Idit Manosevitch, and Maxine S. Thomas.

Deliberative pedagogy – the editors begin – is a democratic educational process and a way of thinking that encourages students to encounter and consider multiple perspectives, weigh trade-offs and tensions, and move toward action through informed judgment. It is simultaneously a way of teaching that is itself deliberative and a process for developing the skills, behaviors, and values that support deliberative practice. Perhaps most important, the work of deliberative pedagogy is about space-making: creating and holding space for authentic and productive dialogue, conversations that can ultimately be not only educational but also transformative (xxi).

When reading about the approach, I identified what I think are its three central theoretical and practical roots. The first derives from the tradition of deliberative theory, an approach that discards both adversarial and expert models of decision making in the context of highly complex (“wicked”) problems. Both approaches are critiqued as being “overly focused on certainty, and both clearly avoid the necessary engagement with values and value dilemmas.”  Instead, deliberative theory supports arriving at decisions through a social process of deliberation characterized by reason giving in which careful consideration of all options and their trade-offs is undertaken in a context in which all are given an equal opportunity to speak and be heard in an environment defined by the mutual respect given all participants.

Adon, “Lays of Modern Oxford” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1874).

The next two origins of the process speak quite specifically to its utility within a higher education setting. Deliberative pedagogy involves engaging students as partners in the process of learning and teaching, creating a context in which authority in the classroom is shared and in which both teachers and learners come to a deeper understanding of ways to “make our practice more engaging, effective, and rigorous” [See Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2014)]. These are the principles that underpin our Faculty-Student Partnership program.  Finally, the concept of deliberative pedagogy is closely aligned with theories of “high-impact educational practices” examined by George Kuh and others. These are educational approaches that have been shown to produce significant learning in students (e.g., first-year seminars, undergraduate research, community-based learning, internships, etc.) [see, for example, Five High-Impact Practices (AAC&U 2010)].

What ties these three elements together and generates the distinctively democratic quality of deliberative pedagogy is the importance given to group communication and social interactions. The process of addressing highly complex problems can engage students in the act of investigating, deliberating, and deciding, a process whose success depends on the students ability to communicate with one another across difference and in a context where decisions often require trade-offs between competing sets of goods. As such, it is an approach that is designed to address questions that raise competing values or benefits, and not one where available evidence only points in one direction. For example, the deliberative pedagogy methodology wouldn’t be useful when addressing the question: Is climate change happening? This is a question which has largely been answered, and deliberative pedagogy is not an invitation to introduce false equivalences or to pose adversarial approaches “for the sake of argument.” Rather, the approach is ideally situated to approach complex questions where positive values can be in play, for example: How should public policy address the challenges of a changing climate?

Michael Briand put it this way in Practical Politics (University of Illinois Press 1999, p. 42):

Because the things human beings consider good are various and qualitatively distinct; because conflicts between such good things have no absolute, predetermined solution; and because to know what is best requires considering the views of others, we need to engage each other in the sort of exchange that will enable us to form sound personal and public judgments. This process of coming to a public judgment and choosing – together, as a public – is the essence of democratic politics.

Methodology: A Brief Overview

There are three stages to deliberative pedagogy (stay with me, now: don’t let their names turn on your cynicism switch): divergent thinking, working through the “groan zone,” and convergent thinking. The best step-by-step introduction to the deliberative pedagogy is in Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Jossey-Bass 2014), which is available as an E-book on OBIS or Ohio-link.)

From Sam Kaner, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, p. 13.

  1. Divergent thinking: The process begins by having students generate a wide variety of alternatives to the proposed question (or in the selection of the question to be examined in the first place) based on research, reading, interviews, surveys, and small-scale discussions. Students are cautioned to avoid “false certainties,” practices that lead us to avoid challenges to our way of thinking (selective thinking, confirmation bias, egotism) while questioning and disputing assumptions. Divergent thinking processes require that we become aware of competing sets of values, encourage dissent and question dominant perspectives. To engage this approach in a classroom means insuring that those who are still at a more tentative stage in their reasoning process are given the space to come forward and speak, and that the process not be directed at an early point of its deliberations by those who can command attention and express more certainty in their views.


  1. Working through the “groan zone”: So, now you’ve got a bunch of different propositions, approaches, suggestions, alternatives. How do you develop a meaningful way to pick through the “messiness of multiple competing positions” without either coming to a conclusion quickly or throwing up your hands in frustration, worrying that you’ll never come to any conclusion? The process requires much more than simply setting out positions and then voting to determine the most popular. Working through a set of ideas to come to a decision point requires considering “all the potential consequences to action, whether they are positive or negative, intended or unintended… [it] requires genuine interaction and discussion across perspectives,” which takes time and is, well, messy. The process is best undertaken by framing issues in a way that can foreground central tensions and trade-offs among perspectives, developing viewpoints clearly, and providing space and time for deliberation. Consider some of the major issues dividing U.S. society today: Should there be restrictions on gun sales? What should immigration reform look like? How should free speech issues be handled in educational settings? Imagine each of these debates as they have been carried out in the public sphere (in social media, pubic meetings, on television), and then think about how you would set them up for discussion in the classroom where your goal is understanding the competing perspectives and values involved rather than scoring points.


  1. Convergent thinking: This is where the conversation begins to move towards a decision point, and it involves “clarifying, consolidating, refining, innovating, prioritizing, judging, and choosing among opinions.” You won’t be surprised to hear that this is really hard. Students (as well as instructors) can become “paralyzed by analysis.” When faced with too many choices and a desire to remain open to unexplored possibilities, the easiest action could be no action at all, no decision, stasis. Engaged in a process whose main methodology is an openness to competing values, students may be unwilling to accept that decisions emphasize the “ultimate inequality of ideas and potential actions.” But this is also where thinking about deliberative pedagogy in terms of democratic praxis can help. Democracy can be best understood as an ongoing conversation rather than, fundamentally, a way to make decisions, as John Dewey (The Quest for Certainty, 1929) argued. Engagement with civic education can encourage students to vote. Not a bad thing. Deliberative pedagogy and similar methods of democratizing the classroom can help students learn to practice democracy in their lives. Probably better in the long run.

Deliberative Pedagogy on Campus

Martín Carcasson raises some interesting perspectives about the functioning of deliberative pedagogy in liberal arts colleges in his chapter, “Deliberative Pedagogy as Critical Connective: Building Democratic Mind-Sets and Skill Sets for Addressing Wicked Problems” (pp. 3-20). Colleges, he offers, seem to be “doing a nice job of providing opportunities for divergent thinking.”  But he suggests that in many ways they aren’t, as they are often hobbled by two factors. In the first place, “dominant epistemological perspectives” usually favor the search for certainty through scientific methods. It’s not that scientific approaches don’t provide valuable input, but a recourse to “scientific certainty” can close down exploration of different value propositions before different approaches are raised. I would add that they can also sideline other epistemological approaches that retain cultural and historical value. Secondly, he suggests that what is a strength of the liberal arts approach – introducing students to a variety of disciplines, epistemologies, and ways of asking and answering questions – occurs in different classes and departments. The problem, he suggests, is that “divergent perspectives [are] often [only manifest] between classes rather than within them, leaving students disconnected and ill equipped” to understand how to evaluate competing approaches. Biologists may foreground empirical methodologies which don’t take account of the values and histories introduced by critical race theory; artists can define community in a way that frustrates economists.

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

The good news is that we are beginning to develop integrative approaches to address the challenge of epistemological divergence: cluster courses, first-year seminars, community-based learning, and other pedagogical innovations that help students assess divergent values while still understanding the importance of drawing conclusions and taking action. Investigating deliberative pedagogical approaches in our classrooms, thinking about “deliberation across the curriculum,” as some have suggested, and integrating on-going community practices such as those provided by the “Dialogue Center”, add important layers to addressing the challenge of divergence.

Deliberative pedagogical practices, like other educational approaches which emphasize the creation of democratic classroom environments in which students are invited to become co-creators of their own learning, can offer some paths out of the current impasse on college campuses. The potential of these practices rests not on the belief that what is needed is a return to a time when all propositions were rigorously examined in the classroom. We know quite well who was excluded from even entering those classroom, particularly at elite universities, let alone who could participate in the discussions that took place in them during in those so-called “golden” years. Rather, the potential of deliberative pedagogy lies in its ability to create a new democratic praxis in our classes that both responds to current challenges, including the rise of intolerance and bigotry at the national level, and takes advantage of new possibilities created by increased inclusion and a deeper belief in the importance of equity for the future of higher education.




Mid-Semester Evaluations: The Whys & Hows

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

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

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

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

Here are some suggestions: 


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

The Evaluation Instrument

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

(1) Keep it simple.

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

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

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

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

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

billsoPhoto (Flickr-Creative Commons)

Handing out the Evaluation Form

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

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

Alternative Modes to Gather Mid-Semester Evaluations

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

Analyzing Mid-Semester Evaluations

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

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

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

Separate the suggestions for improvement into three categories:

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

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

Dan bull / Tim Dobson / CC BY-SA

Reporting Back to the Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midterm Assessment – Some Models and Suggestions

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

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

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

The Form:

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

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

Two Questions

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

Three Questions

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

Four Questions

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

Six Questions

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

Eight Questions

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

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

Classroom Discussions: From “Civil Attention” to Real Participation

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

Why Discussions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need More Why’s? 

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

Discussion, they argue:

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

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

Some Cautions and Challenges 

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

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

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

Consolidation of Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Student Participation Both Valued and Welcome:

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

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

Supporting Productive Discussions

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Way of Conclusion: Forms of Silence

Paul Goodman

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

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



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