Designing Assignments for the New Semester

Steve Volk, January 25, 2015

(Creative Commons; Amorparamipatria)

(Creative Commons; Amorparamipatria)

As we prepare to return to classes (speaking to my own institution), I’ve been putting some final thoughts into my syllabi, and particularly to the design of my assignments. I will admit that more than once over the years, I have “place-held” my assignments on the syllabus with a vague notation (e.g. “Midterm essay due on March 13”) and left the actual work of figuring out what it would consist of until, well, pretty late in the game.

For those who follow the good advice of backward design, assignments are a critical early step for overall course design: if we begin with the kind of learning outcomes we want to achieve in the course (and want to make those transparent to our students), than assignments are the necessary assessment tools by which we can determine whether they are achieving some mastery of those goals. (I’ll not address grading here, other than to say that there has been some interesting discussion lately generated by Linda B. Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Sterling, VA: Stylus , 2015). See, for example, here and here.)

What, then, should we be thinking about when designing our assignments. Here I am drawing from the excellent resources provided by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and the comments from a terrific set of panelists at the recent meetings of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U): Pat Hutchings, Natasha Jankowski, George Kuh, and David Marshall. What follows is drawn both from NILOA’s “Features of Excellent Assignments” which they have pulled together from faculty working on a specific assignment design project, from comments made at the panel, and from my own experiences as well as those of colleagues at other teaching and learning centers.

Here are some characteristics to keep in mind when designing assignments:

Queensland Classroom, 1940. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland (Creative Commons)

Queensland Classroom, 1940. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland (Creative Commons)

How the assignment’s fit into your overall course:

  • How is the assignment related to course goals?
  • How is it related to larger program goals (learning outcomes of your major, or in gen ed)?
  • Does it try to do too much (hit too many goals) or too little (essentially require student work on issues which are tangential to your goals)?
  • What will the students be learning from doing the assignment? If assignments are opportunities for learning and not just regurgitation, than we need to be clear about what our students will be learning? Think about this in relation to Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy and use the appropriate verbs in the assignment.

Assignment design:

  • Is the assignment clear to students? Think about the number of times you have written a question and gotten back responses that were not what you wanted because, strangely, your students couldn’t read your mind! Think about sharing your questions with a colleague: ask them what they think you’re asking for before sending out the assignment to your students.
  • Does it engage their interest? Will it motivate good work? Is there a way to link your assignment to some real-world application? Assignments that have a wider circulation than the student and the instructor almost always bring out better work.
  • Identify the audience for the assignment
  • Does it allow for originality and creativity (when called for)?
  • Is it unbiased in terms of student backgrounds and circumstances?
  • Can it allow for partial victories within the overall assignment, a sense of progress rather than only success or failure?
  • Does the assignment provide opportunities for feedback and correction?
  • Pay attention to the length of the assignment description. Cryptic one-line descriptions can leave students guessing, while assignment hand-outs that are longer than what they are expected to produce can overwhelm them.
  • Specify the criteria you will use in evaluating their writing. Try connecting the criteria with the assignment’s overall purpose. State the criteria at the outset, reinforce them through activities, and then grade on that basis.
  • Will you actually want to read it? Often we are our own worst enemies, designing assignments that we don’t particularly want to read, and certainly not 50 of them! How can you construct an assignment that can keep your as well as the students’ interest?
Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg (Creative Commons)

Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg (Creative Commons)

Level of challenge:

  • Is the assignment pitched at the right level, given students’ preparation and experience?
  • Does it ask more of your students (cognitively speaking) than the last assignment? Referring back to Bloom, are you making your assignments reflect higher orders of thinking as you move through your course?

As part of the DQP (Degree Qualifications Profile), the good folks at NILOA have been developing an interactive library of assignments that align with their Degree Qualifications Profile work, a set of broad learning outcomes. You can get to their library on line and, following a simple registration process, access assignments organized by content field and assignment type (e.g. History, Health Sciences, Group Projects, Capstone, etc.), DQP proficiencies (e.g., Use of information resources, intellectual skills, applied and collaborative learning), and by degree levels.

For other advice on assignment design, see Oberlin’s Library on Research Assignments, DePaul’s Teaching Commons, Yale’s Writing Center, and Minnesota’s Center for Writing.

Let me know if you have other advice for assignment design.

“Teaching as Possibility”: Lessons for Teachers

Steven Volk, December 7, 2014

Semesters can feel like ocean journeys. Sometimes the seas are choppy, sometimes calm. Sometimes you’re relaxing on an ocean liner, sometimes pulling the oars of a rowboat. And when land is once again in sight, it often feels that it’s you, your teeth gripping a tow-rope, who hauls the ship into port. I was reading something the other day, don’t even ask me what, that called attention to the words we use to talk about what it is we do as faculty. When asked about our “load,” we understand the question to be: How many courses do you have to teach each semester? When asked if we’ve had a chance to get to our “work,” we know we’re being queried about our research, writing, or creative production. Outsiders could ask why we have developed that vocabulary to talk about what we do, but we know the answer, so I won’t bore you.

Wellcome Library, London. "A large mule carrying a heavy load," Etching by J. E. Ridinger. Creative Commons License.

Wellcome Library, London. “A large mule carrying a heavy load,” Etching by J. E. Ridinger. Creative Commons License.

Teaching, of course, is far more than a load, an 80-pound pack that we hump up endless hills, and the end of the semester is always a good time to remind ourselves what we can and should be about. Teaching, as Maxine Greene once put it, is possibility. My wife, a professor of early childhood education, turned me on to Greene a short while ago, amazed that I didn’t know her writing. As much a force of nature as a human being, Greene, who died a few months ago at the age of 96, taught for nearly 50 years at Teachers College (Columbia University). TC proudly claimed her as their “Philosopher Queen,” and a rightful heir to John Dewey.

In a 1978 essay, Greene observed that too many people in modern society feel dominated and powerless. But rather than become pessimistic,  she suggested that “such feelings can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them, to interpret the experiences they are having day by day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life.” She called this sense, “Wide-Awakedness.”

So this is my end-of-semester, caffeinated-edition of the “Article of the Week,” some words designed to keep us wide awake as we pull into port after a semester on the open waters of teaching and learning.

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello,

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello,

Maxine Greene inaugurated the Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice in 1997 with an article titled, “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times.” She opened the piece with a quote from Hannah Arendt (Men in Dark Times), who observed that even in the darkest times, we still “have the right to expect some illumination,” although it will likely come less from theory “than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under all circumstances…” (p. ix). Greene described those dark times (times that we still share) as follows: “I view our times as shadowed by violations and erosions taking place around us: the harm being done to children; the eating away of social support systems; the ‘savage inequalities’ in our schools; the spread of violence; the intergroup hatreds; the power of media; the undermining of arts in the lives of the young.” We could, of course, add to the list. But she also observed that she “thinks of the ‘light that some men and women will kindle under almost all circumstances,’ and that makes me ponder (and sometimes wonder at) the work that is and might be done by teachers at this problematic moment in our history.” To reference what we do in this fashion is to talk of teaching as possibility, not load.

Teaching, for Greene, means imagining “not what is necessarily probable or predictable, but what may be conceived as possible. All of those who have parented children or taught the young may resonate to this on some level, particularly when they recall the diverse, often unexpected shapes of children’s growing and becoming. Many may find a truth in Emily Dickinson’s saying that ‘The Possible’s slow fuse is lit/ By the Imagination.’ Imagination, after all, allows people to think of things as if they could be otherwise; it is the capacity that allows a looking through the windows of the actual towards alternative realities.”

Luiz Carlos Cappellano, detail, "Painel Paulo Freire" Creative Commons. Paulo_Freire,_detalhe_4.jpg

Luiz Carlos Cappellano, detail, “Painel Paulo Freire” Creative Commons. wiki/File:Painel_Paulo_Freire,_detalhe_4.jpg

All fine and good, Greene would add, but poetry and possibility can’t do their “persuasive work” in “what strikes many of us as a backward leaning, inhumane tendency in our society today…Yes, there are distinctive moments made possible by the poetic imagination; but the social and ethical imagination is concerned for using ideas and aspirations to reorganize the environment or the lived situation.” This is what Paulo Freire meant when he wrote that “Imagination and conjecture about a different world than the one of oppression are as necessary to the praxis of historical ‘subjects’ (agents in the process of transforming reality) as it necessarily belongs to human toil that the worker or artisan first have in his or her head a design a ‘conjecture,’ of what he or she is about to make.” For Freire, Greene notes, a democratic education “required enabling ordinary people to develop their own language, derived from their readings of their own social realities, their own namings, their own anticipations of a better state of things.”

If the only things we are teaching are technical efficiency, abstract skills, or knowledge without context, even if we pride ourselves at having met “world-class standards,” we will not be teaching as we should. “Teachers,” Greene reminds us, “may well be among the few in a position to kindle the light that might illuminate the spaces of discourse and events in which young newcomers have some day to find their ways.”

Great Day in Harlem-Kane

“A Great Day in Harlem,” 1958 photograph by Art Kane,

“…Teachers concerned about illumination and possibility,” she continued, “know well that there is some profound sense in which a curriculum in the making is very much a part of a community in the making…The common world we are trying to create may be thought of as a fabric of interpretations of many texts, many images, many sounds…In a classroom, this would mean acknowledgment of and recognition of the different biographical histories that affect the shaping of perspectives. More than in previous times, teachers are asked to confront and honor the differences even as they work for a free and responsible acceptance of the norms marking whatever community is in the making: concrete responsibility for one another; respect for the rights of others; solidarity; regard for reflective habits of thought. At once, there are the ways of thinking and seeing that enable various young persons to decode and interpret what is made available: the ability to distinguish among the discourses in use, to have regard for evidence and experience, to be critically conscious of what is read and heard, to construct meanings in the diverse domains of their lives.”

hooksIn Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (Routledge 2003), bell hooks warns that “One of the dangers we face in our educational systems is the loss of a feeling of community, not just the loss of closeness among those with whom we work and with our students, but also the loss of a feeling of connection and closeness with the world beyond the academy. Progressive education, education as the practice of freedom, enables us to confront feelings of loss and restore our sense of connection. It teaches us how to create community” (p. xv).

Greene concluded similarly: “…teaching as possibility in dark and constraining times… is a matter of awakening and empowering today’s young people to name, to reflect, to imagine, and to act with more and more concrete responsibility in an increasingly multifarious world. At once, it is a matter of enabling them to remain in touch with dread and desire, with the smell of lilacs and the taste of a peach. The light may be uncertain and flickering; but teachers in their lives and works have the remarkable capacity to make it shine in all sorts of corners and, perhaps, to move newcomers to join with others and transform.”

How we do this, how we transform “load” to “possibility” is a question we face in every semester and every class. It is about community, hope, democracy, empowerment, illumination. It is about affirming, with Walt Whitman, that “By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” It is about, as Toni Morrison wrote of the child Claudia in The Bluest Eye, asking our students what they want to feel, not what they want to possess.

Jane Tompkins, in her memoir, A Life in School (Addison-Wesley, 1996), reminds us, ultimately, that it is about what we share with our students: “What I would like to see emerge in this country,” she writes, “is a more holistic way of conceiving education – by which I mean a way of teaching and learning that is not just task-oriented but always looking over its shoulder at everything that is going on around. Such a method would never fail to take into account that students and teachers have bodies that are mortal, hearts that can be broken, spirits that need to be fed” (xiii).

Teaching Ferguson

Steven Volk (November 29, 2014)

“How should academics respond to the death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of his killer,” David Perry, a history professor at Dominican University asked in a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education? “If you teach critical race theory, criminology, modern American history, African-American studies, or any number of other subjects explicitly linked to Brown’s death, then I suspect you already have a plan. But what about the rest of us?”

Street Art, Ferguson:  Sebastiano Tomada (

Street Art, Ferguson: Sebastiano Tomada (

In previous “Articles of the Week,” I have discussed the challenges of bringing contemporary events into the classroom, particularly if their lessons don’t easily “fit” into your subject matter. [Among others, see March 11, 2013 (“One Big Motrin”), Nov. 12, 2012 (“Personal Convictions and Teaching”), and Sept. 27, 2010 (“Rove and Responsibility”).]

As I thought of Perry’s question, two contradictory approaches sparred in my brain. On the one hand, we know our classes – and ourselves – the best. What if it feels uncomfortable to raise issues that (seemingly) have little to do with the subjects we are teaching? And what if we feel completely unprepared to speak to the issues raised by Ferguson? Should we continue as if nothing happened? On the other, we are not only teaching our students macroeconomics, discrete mathematics, intermediate Spanish, or Chinese history. We are teaching them to engage in the world in a broadly positive fashion, to be the citizens who will not ignore what Ferguson has to teach us.

That means, at the very least, acknowledging that these events are shaking their world and ours, that they are occupying our thoughts, even if we don’t have time to fully pursue them in class. It means helping our students find resources if we can’t provide them ourselves. Even admitting that we are uncomfortable raising the topic can signal to students that learning often springs from a place of discomfort –  and that we are willing to go there with them.

Ferguson Protest (

Ferguson Protest (

“Ferguson” – now a signifier not only of police violence against unarmed African American young men, but of a legal system that allows impunity for such actions – is one such event.  “Ferguson,” Chaedria Labouvier wrote, “is a wake up call. Black mothers are being told to prepare their sons for second class citizenship. We cannot do that. We cannot go quietly into the night on this one. And we need other mothers, other women that love their families and have the privilege to know that their sons, if stopped by the police, will make it home, to stand with us. Because we have been left no choice but to stand.” Nor can we, as teachers, be quiet.

As Roy Sanchez made clear in a piece that appeared on CNN, “The rage echoing across the nation after a grand jury’s conclusion in Ferguson, Missouri, goes far beyond the decision not to indict white police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.”

For us at Oberlin, the refusal of the grand jury to indict comes only a few days after 12-year old Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by Cleveland police literally two seconds after they arrived at the scene, having been alerted to a “black male with a gun” by a local resident. (The added information that it was probably a “fake gun” was never passed on to the police.) Reportedly upwards of 75 Oberlin students joined a large protest in Cleveland after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision and Rice’s death.

Cleveland Protest (

Cleveland Protest (

The question, then, is how to use this moment to “teach Ferguson.” Probably the best starting point is a Twitter feed #FergusonSyllabus, which has a substantial number of links and resource suggestions for all grade levels, including college students.

Dan Krutka of the Texas Woman’s University Department of Teacher Education has developed a document of instructional resources on Ferguson submitted by teachers, many of whom included a description of how they used (or plan to use) the material.

The Graduate Center at the City University of New York has compiled a number of discipline-specific resources for teachers that look at how the events in Ferguson can be related to criminology, art history, literature, and more.

Here are a few other sites that I found particularly helpful:

Demonstrators display signs during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson (Reuters)

Demonstrators display signs during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson (Reuters)

Finally, four more articles that appeared recently, each of which eloquently points to the conversations we need to be having.

Monday morning, we will be in our classes once again after the long Thanksgiving break. We have two weeks until the end of the semester and way too much to get done. But if we don’t stop and acknowledge this moment of great pain and anger that so many of our students, and we, are feeling, we will not be the teachers that we need to be. And if we don’t address how we, as a college, are preparing our students and ourselves to address the broad issues raised by Ferguson, we will not be the college that we must be.

Thinking and Doing: Going with the Flow

Steven Volk, November 23, 2014

“Sometimes you just want them to do what you ask them to do and not question it.”

This was one of many comments that emerged from a conversation when nearly 30 coaches and faculty sat down last Friday to break bread (actually, pita) and talk about how we think about student learning on our different ends of the campus. I had never been in this kind of a discussion in nearly 30 years at Oberlin. And I don’t think that anyone else who was there had, either. The hour-long conversation was not only truly pleasurable; it opened a window on the benefits of bringing all parts of our residential, liberal arts campus together in dialogue while also helping me think differently about what we do as teachers.

Peasants breaking bread. ''Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio'', 14th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

Peasants breaking bread. ”Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio”, 14th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

The coach’s comment, which initially sounded so jarring to me, sunk in quickly among faculty who teach in performance areas of the curriculum: music and dance, as well as among the coaches. It soon opened two different conversational paths. One related to a challenge we face as instructors in liberal arts settings. Our bread and butter is helping our students question perceived wisdom, to “display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others,” as Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University recently put it. “For many students today,” he continued, “being smart means being critical,” always asking questions. But there are limitation to that, not just (as Roth pointed out) that our students in being too “critical” can become unwilling to engage with material they might otherwise ignore or find problematic.

To reference a seemingly mundane point, I have also found that moments arise when I just want students “to do and not question” further. I can, and do, tell my students how historians cite sources, why it’s different from the way that biologists cite their evidence and what the intellectual rationale is that helps explain our particular format. (For those interested, Anthony Grafton has written a marvelous book on the “curious history” of the footnote.) But, at a certain point, they need to stop questioning and just use the proper style. But I’ll leave that particular path for another posting.


I’d rather focus on a second aspect of the coach’s statement, the notion that when athletes are “doing” they will only succeed when they stop “asking questions,” stop second-guessing themselves. This moment of engagement is what is meant by being “in the zone,” it happens when you are fully present in the moment, when the little voices in your head stop telling you that you need to pick up the broccoli for dinner or that your book review is now six-weeks late.

Creative Commons public domain

Creative Commons public domain

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee, for those, like myself, who have stumbled over it for years), calls it “flow.” He describes “flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Csíkszentmihályi explored this concept in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (reissued in 2008 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics).

He became interested in the topic when he read of artists who would get lost in their work, so absorbed were they that they didn’t eat and barely slept. There is good evidence that Michelangelo, when working in the Sistine Chapel, would paint for days on end without stopping.

Csíkszentmihályi and his colleague, Jeanne Nakamura, identified six factors characteristic of flow:

  1. intense concentration on the moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. feeling that one has control over the situation or activity
  5. temporal distortion, an alteration of one’s experience of time
  6. feeling that the experience is intrinsically rewarding.

[Jeanne Nakamura and Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow Theory and Research,” in C. R. Snyder, Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez, eds., Handbook of Positive Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 195–206.]

My knees no longer allow me to run, but I still vividly remember those outings when I was in “flow.” I ran miles past my previous barrier and came back exhilarated, almost as if I had been…OK, we’re not going to go there.

So, when the coach said that he just wanted his players to “do” and not question, it made sense. Athletes and other performers are operating at a point when skills and training have become so engrained, and the challenge or opportunity so immediate, that they don’t think of how they will bring the ball down from chest to foot and then drive it into the net. They just do. When you listen to John Coltrane or McCoy Tyner so deeply absorbed in “A Love Supreme”, you will know what “flow” is.

Neff Connor, "Sunday Spins" -

Neff Connor, “Sunday Spins” –

Flow and Intellectual Work

Does flow only gush forth from the North or South ends of campus, only among our student athletes, conservatory, dance or theater performers? Even more, does flow mean that the brain is turned off while when one is removed from the question-asking mode? Scroll up to  the six indicators of flow. They point, above all, to moments of intense concentration, a merging of “action and awareness,” not to mindlessness but to mindfulness. You probably recognize similar feelings of flow when you are deeply engaged in your work, writing an article or working through a problem. It’s not the deadline that drives you, it’s the intrinsic engagement. (OK, so it’s also the deadline!) I tend to think that the absent-minded professor shtick originates with this perception of teachers who are so fully absorbed in their thinking that they walk right by you with nary a sign of recognition. Or we might just have a abundance of rude instructors.

In any case, the question is how can we bring our all our students, and not just those who perform before audiences, into “flow”? People who design video games, and certainly the best among them, know all about this. See here and here, for example. Game designers, if they’re on their game, are always trying to design flow into their products by avoiding boredom (too easy) and frustration (too hard). They, like many of us, are looking for Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” where engagement occurs, and engagement is a path into learning.

John Ingham serves the ball vs. Wittenberg University. Photo: Oberlin Review.

How do we move students into a “flow” state? We probably try to do the same things that our coaching/performance colleagues have been doing, whether in tennis or piano. Students have to have a high level of both knowledge and skills before they can reach flow. What that means concretely will be different in physics and history, but we are all working to structure our classes, homework, and assignments to provide students with the skill sets they need to succeed: knowledge, procedure and inquiry. Once there, what can we do to get them into flow, to move motivations from extrinsic (it’s all about the grade) to intrinsic (it’s all about the learning)?

Csíkszentmihályi argues that three conditions have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. The activity you design must have clear goals and allow students to see their own progress. The task must have direction and structure.
  2. There must be an opportunity for clear and immediate feedback, so students can negotiate changing demands and adjust their performance.
  3. And there must be a balance between what students see as the challenges of the task and how they understand their own skills. In other words, they need to be confident that they can complete the task. (This brings us back to “mindsets” and “mindfulness.”)

(Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, Sami Abuhamdeh, and Jeanne Nakamura, (2005), “Flow,” in A. Elliot, ed., Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: The Guilford Press, 2005), 598–698.)

Challenge vs. skills. Public domain.

Challenge vs. skills. Public domain.

As the graphic (left) suggests, flow can happen where skill levels and challenges are both high, which is why performance, with its test of acting before a “real” audience, can most often lead to flow. But some of our colleagues have also designed assignments that can bring students into “flow” types of engagement. Taylor Allen (Biology) and Liliana Milkova (academic curator at the Allen Memorial Art Museum), describe a set of activities in Allen’s first-year seminar (The Body in Health and Disease) and upper-level physiology class (Animal Physiology) which focus on understanding the biology of love. A central part of learning in the class involved bringing students to the AMAM where they explored a set of prints and paintings (and created their own mini-exhibitions) in order to decide 1) whether portrayals of love in art align with the growing understanding of the biology of love and 2) whether the bodily experience of love was universal or culturally influenced.

(Liliana Milkova, Colette Crossman, Stephanie Wiles, and Taylor Allen. “Engagement and Skill Development in Biology Students through Analysis of Art.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 12 (2013): 687-700.)

When students evaluated the assignment in a well-designed end-of-semester survey, the words they used to describe their experiences (engaging, stimulating, original, welcome, refreshing, fun, enjoyable, longing for more) were “reminiscent of those associated with the experience of flow in a creative endeavor” (p. 697). Flow in the art museum and biology.

Do you think about how to calibrate skills and challenges to bring students into “flow-like” contexts? Are there other ways that we can consider how to adapt approaches to learning in one part of campus to strengthen student learning in other parts?

Athletics & Academics: Building a Co-Curricular Future

Steven Volk, November 16, 2014

Division I Athletics have experienced a particularly thorough (and well deserved, in my opinion) thrashing of late. From bogus courses for athletes at the University of North Carolina, to the involvement of high profile athletes in (unpenalized) sexual assaults, to the NCAA’s recent granting of de facto autonomy to sports teams in the “Super Five” conferences, athletics as practiced in the most powerful Division I conferences continue to raise questions about why they are housed in institutions of (one hopes) higher education. If I don’t get upset by these revelations (and often I do), it’s only because I find it nearly impossible to draw comparisons between, say, the Ohio State football players just two hours down I-71 and the students in my classes. No criticism intended of particular Ohio State players, but we don’t seem to inhabit the same world of undergraduate education. And yet, of course, we do. So, what’s different about athletics and student athletes at Oberlin and other Division III, liberal arts colleges? And, more importantly, are we taking advantage of the differences?

Oberlin College Football Team, 1892 (Oberlin College Archives)

Oberlin College Football Team, 1892 (Oberlin College Archives)

Two books published by Princeton University Press in the early 2000’s brought the subject of athletics and academics at selective colleges and universities into wider discussion. The first was William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001), and the second Bowen and Sarah A. Levin’s Reclaiming the Game (2003). Both considered the role and place of intercollegiate athletics, the latter’s relationship to liberal arts colleges’ educational mission, and the importance of evaluating athletes’ overall educational experience and contributions on our campuses. To be sure, these studies received their share of criticism. But what I see as the basic question raised by Reclaiming the Game, in particular, is whether we are showcasing athletics (and our student athletes) as one of the best examples of the kind of cross-domain, expansive learning that can happen at residential liberal arts colleges? (And here I’ll consider only the question of organized sports, both varsity and club, not necessarily the much larger question of wellness.)

I revisited that question when I came across an article by Craig Owens (“Bringing the Locker Room into the Classroom”), published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 7, 2014 which, in turn, led me to a September 9, 2014 interview on Iowa Public Radio with Owens and Sandy Hatfield Clubb. Clubb is the Athletics Director at Drake University and Owens a Professor of English there. It’s well worth the 20-minute listen.

John Henry Wise, Oberlin College 1892, the first Hawaiian to play college football in the United States

John Henry Wise, Oberlin College 1892, the first Hawaiian to play college football in the United States (Oberlin College Archives).

Quite briefly, Clubb considers the importance of creating an environment in which student athletes are getting more out of their sports than (only) an athletic experience, coaches are teaching to the whole person, not just the skill set needed in the sport or activity, and faculty are taking advantage of the skills and dispositions learned on the playing fields within their own classrooms.

Let me develop this last point a bit more. Intrigued by the question of how coaches approach teaching (an issue, by the way, developed brilliantly by Atul Gawande in a 2011 New Yorker article, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?”), Owens began to sit in on locker-room sessions and to talk with coaches and student athletes, something I’ve also tried, to great benefit. I think I understood more about my own learning in a one-hour coaching session with Constantine Ananiadis, our women’s tennis coach, than in reading countless books on the topic.

But, back to Owens. What he saw in the locker room were students who took responsibility for developing strategy and for determining how the game would be played. They were vocal and active learners, listening closely to critiques from their teammates and willing to share their comments in ways they felt could be heard most productively by other students. He found that the student athletes were taking the lead in directing themselves and one another. In particular, he came to the conclusion that student athletes were extremely skilled at dealing with critiques because they got a lot of them and, at least for a majority, they had learned how to build productively from the critiques. (The same skills are undoubtedly deeply engrained in the creative arts on campus: performance in music and theater, studio art, media production, and creative writing, and are also present in those areas such as game design in computer science which are “tested” in real time via the internet.) In short, what he found were the kinds of approaches and dispositions that he was looking to develop in all his students, approaches that were developed in these high-impact learning situations.

Creative Commons. Francisco Osorio:

Creative Commons. Francisco Osorio:

For her part, Clubb addressed the importance of coaches who were able to integrate leadership learning into their sports in an intentional and intensive way. She spoke of how sports teams that travel abroad to compete in “friendlies” used their leadership skills while abroad, and outside of the competitions, and how they could be transferred back to campus.

The word that came up the most in these interviews was intentionality, which I’ve used many times myself. At the end of the day, while our world of learning and athletics occupies a different universe from Division I, “Super Five” campuses, we can hardly claim a high ground if we don’t act in intentional ways to build a co-curricular approach to all aspects of learning on campus. Our students are continually integrating lessons from the various domains that they traverse on campus, from the classroom to the residential halls to the athletic fields. We need to provide the structures and conversations that can allow this to become more intentional and visible.

“I Can Grab On To That”: Helping Students Learn in Uncomfortable Places

Steve Volk, November 9, 2014

WQXR, a classical music station in New York, runs a program called “Meet the Composer,” hosted by Nadia Sirota and produced by Thea Chaloner and Alexander Overington (by the way, an Oberlin grad).  Not long ago, the composer they met was John Luther Adams. Now, we know this wasn’t the mysterious third John Adams to become president of the United States only to fall out of the history books and our memories. But neither was he the guy you’re probably thinking about, the minimalist composer John Coolidge Adams much in the news of late as his Death of Klinghoffer recently opened at the Met. Rather, John Luther Adams is a composer inspired by nature who won the Pulitzer this year for his breathtaking composition, Become Ocean. (Click here for a free listen to its premier at Carnegie Hall.) Sirota’s interview with Adams was picked up and showcased for Radiolab’s  October 3, 2014 edition, a program produced by some of my favorite Oberlin grads, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

Back to the story: In the interview, Adams talked about one individual who who had a huge influence on his own work, a composer with the impressive name of Edgar Victor Achille Charles Varèse (1883-1965).

Edgar Varèse -

Edgar Varèse –

Adams discovered Varèse only because Frank Zappa’s early LPs had a quote from him on the back of the album covers, and Adams loved Zappa: “The present-day composers refuse to die,” he proclaimed, somewhat mysteriously. Intrigued, Adams finally found one of his albums (“Music of Edgar Varèse, Vol. II”), and played it…over and over and over.


Frank Zappa

But it wasn’t easy going. When Adams first fastened his ears on Varèse’s music, he was lost. “It all sounds…just like a bunch of noise to me,” he lamented. He remembers thinking, “I’ll never be able to know where I am in this. I don’t know what to hang on to.”

What did he do? His response was to immerse himself in it, “Gimme more,” was how he put it, his typical response to any new material. After throwing himself into Varèse’s work, he began to hear what he hadn’t heard earlier: “Oh, there’s that repeated note on the oboe; OK that’s a landmark, I can grab on to that. And here’s this place where there’s sort of this tattoo figure with the snare drums…” And gradually, he said, he began to hear the forbidden deserts of Edgar Varèse.

Listening to Adams’ account of how he grappled with something he found to be totally inaccessible resonated deeply in me in terms of my own work in museums, work which led me to think of museums, and our own Allen Memorial Art Museum, as a remarkable resource that could be used by everyone on campus, not just art historians and studio artists. But only if only we brought an open perspective to it.

Jackson Pollock, "Untitled," ca. 1945. Watercolor and gouache over engraving and drypoint. Copyright: Allen Memorial Art Museum

Jackson Pollock, “Untitled,” ca. 1945. Watercolor and gouache over engraving and drypoint. Copyright: Allen Memorial Art Museum

I love museums – they are some of my favorite places on earth. But I often found that if, during my rambles through an encyclopedic art museum, I wandered into a room filled with abstract expressionist works, or something done in felt and lard by Joseph Beuys, a mild panic clouded my vision. My first impulse was precisely the opposite of Adams’ – it was to walk faster until I relocated myself back in a more comfortable landscape.

Perhaps I was stymied by my own credentials: I’m a smart guy but I couldn’t make heads or tails of this. And that only ratcheted up my always-lurking imposter syndrome, so I quickly high-tailed it down the hall until I was in a place where I was no longer uncomfortable.

So where is this all going? Four things struck me about Adams’ approach to Varèse, my own nervous reaction to contemporary art, and what it might mean for student learning:

In the first place, what Adams described as his first encounter with a “bunch of noise” and what I saw as an impenetrable wall of paint splotches, is what our students often see, hear, and feel. And the more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that this is not actually a bad thing.  Listening to Varèse’s Density 21.5 for flute, coming to terms with Paul Klee’s Kettledrum Organ, understanding the interaction between viral capsid proteins and specific receptors, taking apart a regression function…these are zones of discomfort into which we should place our students. The question that is raised for us as teachers is how do we most productively open the potential for self-directed learning that is latent, even imminent, in that zone?

Roadsign in Nubra Valley, northern Ladakh, India. Photo: John Hill. Creative Commons.

Roadsign in Nubra Valley, northern Ladakh, India. Photo: John Hill. Creative Commons.

The second realization is one that I’ve discussed before: as experts in our fields, we reach roadblocks in our research or creative work at relatively high levels and have generally worked out how to approach, if not always resolve, the problems we face. But we have forgotten that novices hit roadblocks at a much lower level. Yes, we know that they can’t do calculus until they have studied algebra. But are we using concepts, even terminology that students find impassable because they’re simply not there yet. “The ontological predetermination that is implied in the following…”

Third, one step, perhaps the very first, in making productive use of the discomfort zone, broadly speaking what Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” is by literally or figuratively stopping our students in front of the problem they confront. Adams’ response to the barricade of Varèsian “noise” was to say, “Gimme more,” to immerse himself in it. My response to Jackson Pollock was totally different: I ran away. And I think the latter response is more common.

What do we do to root our students in the challenges they confront? I’ve found in my work in the museum that one way to do this is quite simply to slow them down, give them the time they need to contemplate the problem, pair them with another student, let them discuss what they are seeing and then talk about it with the rest of the class. Helping them take time in solving problems can work to counteract the hyperactiveness of their contemporary lives where (as Google will tell you) those 31,000 results took 0.25 seconds.

In the classroom, the best technique for this is the standard “think-pair-share” approach. Give students a challenging question, but don’t ask for an immediate answer, an answer which propels the same set of student hands up time after time. Instead, give students 5 minutes to work on the question: pair them up, have them share their thoughts and come to some conclusions, and then report back to class.



John Luther Adams (Chad Batka for The New York Times)

John Luther Adams (Chad Batka for The New York Times)

The final point is what really struck a chord for me in the Adams’ interview. What he found after repeated listening was a way in to Varèse’s music : the oboe repetitions, the snare drum tattoo. When we teach, I realized, we are trying to scaffold student learning so that they find a way in, something they can grab on to. This is a complex process, but one we often do without thinking: (1) we lead our students into a zone of discomfort where we (2) give them sufficient support so that they are neither threatened nor made to feel that they don’t belong there. Then (3) we provide them with the time and collaborative framework through which they can think most creatively and productively. Finally, (4) we may suggest how we have found our own “way in” to the problem, but ultimately we encourage them to find their own entrance points because when they do, they will have taken ownership over their learning. And it won’t be long before the Pulitzers start rolling in!

Added Nov. 10, 2014: Unbeknownst to me, it appears that John Luther Adams was appointed to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1998. Looks like Oberlin’s fingerprints are all over this one!

Lids Down!

Steve Volk (October 5, 2014)

Once again the issue of laptops in the classroom has nosed its way onto my radar screen. I’ve presented materials before to help faculty think about developing a policy for laptop use in the classroom [e.g., the “Articles of the Week” on Oct. 28, 2013 (“Paper or Screen”), which offers research suggesting that people often understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen, and that screens may inhibit comprehension by preventing people from intuitively navigating and mentally mapping long texts; or from Oct. 15, 2013: (“Use of Laptops in the Classroom”), which highlights some general research on the best practices of laptop use in the classroom.

No! Not THAT lid!

No! Not THAT lid!

I’ve also referenced the research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer which appeared in Psychological Science (April 23, 2014) on note taking on a laptop vs. by hand, suggesting the gains to learning that occur when students take notes by hand, a procedure that requires more processing, are more significant than (essentially) taking dictation on the computer.

Now (thanks to a note from Jeff Witmer) I was led to a new (September 9, 2014) entry on the topic by Clay Shirky titled, “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away.” If you don’t know Shirky, he’s a Jedi warrior for the use of technology who teaches interactive telecommunications at NYU and a dynamic proponent of crowdsourcing collaborations. His 2008 book (Penguin), Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations discusses the impact of the internet on group dynamics. (Here is the first chapter.) Anyway, when Shirky says “lids down” to his class, it has a different resonance than, say, if Mr. Chips recommended it.

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Not surprisingly, a lot of research informed his decision. He references the work on multi-tasking, which uniformly suggests how harmful it is to the quality of cognitive work,  and, in particular, how detrimental it is for those engaged in college-level work. He discusses the research that concludes that when we multi-task, rather than doing more in a specific time frame, we actually do less. But we continue to multi-task even in the face of declining efficiency because of the emotional gratification provided by the “other” tasks we’re “taking care of.”

He also shines a light on what we have known for a long time but have tended to ignore, something that software developers and social media entrepreneurs have used to build their networks into the hundreds of millions of users. Simply put: It’s much more compelling to find out from a “friend” what he thought of the party you both went to than to understand the G protein couple signal transduction pathway. Guess which one is going to win the student’s attention? As Shirky argues, getting a visual alert that you have just received a message on Facebook is really (“actually, biologically”) impossible to resist. “Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect,” he notes. For this reason, Shirky argues, he’s “stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction.”

"Crookes Tube Xray Experiment," from William J. Morton and Edwin W. Hammer, The X-ray, or Photography of the Invisible and its value in Surgery (NY: American Technical Book Co., 1896), fig. 54. [Public Domain]

“Crookes Tube X-ray Experiment,” from William J. Morton and Edwin W. Hammer, The X-ray, or Photography of the Invisible and its Value in Surgery (NY: American Technical Book Co., 1896), fig. 54. [Public Domain]

The final piece of evidence that pushed him into the “lids-down” mode was the research published in Computers and Education in 2013 by Sana, Weston and Cedepa. They found not only that “participants who multi-tasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask,” but that “participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not” (my emphasis). This “second-hand smoke” argument (“nearby-peers”) suggested to him that adopting a laissez-faire approach to laptop use in class was pretty much the same as saying that you can choose to smoke in class if you want since it’s only the smoker who is harmed by that action..

Not surprisingly, there has been some significant internet push back against Shirky’s argument, often of the personally-offended variety that greets a strict vegan who has just recommended that his friends tuck into a 16-oz T-bone. While the arguments vary (look at the great things that you can find on the internet; the problem is in teachers who lecture too much, not in laptops; we have always had distractions of different kinds in the class, why is this different; technology makes it possible to do things, not necessary to do them), they all argue for the positive benefits of laptop use in student learning. For my own part, I’ve long been a believer that if you engage students sufficiently and have them continually moving around the class in smaller group discussions, you can overcome the multi-tasking problem that comes with laptop use. But I’ve also always admitted that this is not really an approach that those who teach in larger lecture-style classes, particularly in those classrooms with fixed, amphitheater-style seating (a whole other issue – don’t get me started!) can take.

Creative Commons (Sailor Coruscant) []

Creative Commons (Sailor Coruscant) []

In the end, though, two elements of Shirky’s argument have led me to rethink my own laissez-faire approach: (1) programmers and software producers spend millions, if not billions, developing programs that are specifically designed to capture your eyes and to keep your attention focused on what they have to offer. How easy is it to compete with that when what we offer is an invitation to our students to crack their brains open thinking about Kant or game theory? (2) I can no longer ignore the peer-effect literature, which is compelling.

So, give it some thought – I’d be interested to hear responses from colleagues on either side of the argument (or in the middle).

Student Evaluations of Teaching: Once More into the Debate

Steve Volk (September 21, 2014)

A slight detour this week from the daily business of the semester to a look towards its end. This Article of the Week was spurred by an article which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week. In “Scholars Take Aim at Student Evaluations’ ‘Air of Objectivity,’” Dan Berrett reports that a new examination of end-of-semester student evaluations has found that they “are often misused statistically and shed little light on the quality of teaching.” Other than that, they’re probably OK. (That’s just me being snarky, so disregard.) More seriously, the draft study by Philip B. Stark, a professor of statistics at UC Berkeley, and Richard Freishtat, senior consultant at Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning, repeats some of the critiques that have been leveled against Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) for a long time and raises some new ones. [NOTE: You can access the Chronicle via the library’s website; other articles will be posted to CTIE’s Blackboard site.]

I can’t comment on the research design or reliability of these studies, and there are certainly arguments in favor of SETs, but the following data has been reported over the years:

  • Some research found a correlation between  SET scores and students’ grade expectations although revenge (“I’m going to get back at that teacher”) was not found to be an important element.
  • Effectiveness scores (faculty rated high for being “effective” teachers and enjoyment scores are related.
  • Students’ ratings of instructors can be predicted from the students’ reactions to 30 seconds of silent video of the instructor; first impressions may dictate end-of-course evaluation scores; and essentially represent nothing more than a snap judgment by students. [Pamela Ann Hayward, “Students Initial Impression of Teaching Effectiveness,” PhD dissertation, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, 2000).]
  • Gender, ethnicity, and the instructor’s age and physical attractiveness matter in SET ratings.
  • SETs don’t tell us anything about the quality of the teaching.
  • They can be used by some students to get back at faculty for not teaching the course that they, the students, wanted.
  • SET scores correlate with the lecturer’s charisma and other factors unrelated to teaching.
From Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, Open House for Butterflies (Harper Collins 2001)

From Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, Open House for Butterflies (Harper Collins 2001)

The Berkeley authors add a new critique based on the how the numbers generated by SETs are understood. For one thing, response rates can seriously skew the data. Has anyone else felt that same sinking feeling when, on the day you hand out teaching evaluations, the three students who you knew were loving the class were absent? Raise your hands. Non-responders are not the same as responders and the higher the rate of non-response on the day student teaching evaluations are distributed, the less useful is the final average – and yet that’s the number that just stands there nakedly, without further clothing or explanation.




It almost goes without saying that the averages of small samples are more susceptible to what the authors call the luck of the draw. If two students out of 8 are missing on evaluation day, does the final average tell us anything? And this goes along with the fact that anonymity is almost always lost in classes under 6-7, making the findings much less reliable. At the very least, we need a policy for collecting SETs in courses of 10 or under.

The authors also point to some common statistical errors that are made when the one number we focus on is the average.  “Academic personnel review processes often invite comparing an instructor’s average scores to the departmental average,” they write. “Such averages and comparisons make no sense, as a matter of statistics. They presume that the difference between 3/7 [a score of 3 on a 7 point scale] and 4/7 means the same thing as the difference between 6/7 and 7/7. They presume that the difference between 3/7 and 4/7 means the same thing to different students. They presume that 5/7 means the same thing to different students and to students in different courses. They presume that a 3/7 ‘balances’ a 7/7 to make two 5/7s. For teaching evaluations, there is no reason any of those things should be true.”

Now, I’ll leave it to my colleagues in statistics to fully evaluate the case the authors make, although it seems right to me on a basic level. Using the Oberlin 5-point scale, if an instructor received one “5” and one “1,” would we have learned that he was a “3”? Or, to put it a different way, what would we have learned? (I can’t resist repeating the authors’ statistics joke: Three statisticians go deer hunting. The first shoots and misses a yard to the left; the second shoots and misses a yard to the right; the third yells “We got it!” Is this what statisticians do when they get together???)

Anyway, there are more issues to consider. A lot of teaching is incommensurable in a quantifiable way. Teaching a “service-oriented” introductory course is not the same as teaching an upper-level seminar; teaching at 9:00 AM is not the same as teaching at 1:30 PM, etc. These are common issues. None of them are meant to suggest that we shouldn’t be doing our best in all of these courses or that there is absolutely no way to figure out what any single instructor is doing since we’re all different. We should and we can…but SETs are a relatively thin thread on which to hang the evaluation of teaching, something we hold to be massively important.

We have done a number of things to improve Student Evaluations of Teaching at Oberlin. Some years ago we put every department on the same 1-5 scale and made sure the “description” for each number is uniform across campus. We removed those questions that students aren’t competent to answer (e.g. does the instructor know the subject matter?), have made the questions as straight-forward and clear as possible so that when students answer them we know what question it is that they are answering (validity). And we designed our SETs based on research that has found which areas of inquiry are likely to produce reliable data (i.e., do different students – say a first-year and a junior – give the same instructor similar marks; would the same student give the same instructor the same mark later, etc. In short, do students often agree.).

Still, the literature in this area is abundantly clear, and this new study out of Berkeley only makes the point more persuasively. SETs can tell you certain things. They can tell you: (1) about student engagement with the class and whether engagement has changed over time; (2) who are the outliers in different categories – who seems to be consistently at the top or toward the bottom of the ratings; and (3) some information from a careful reading of written student comments  – but such comments are usually not comparable across classes.

What they don’t tell you is the effectiveness of the instructor as a teacher or whether the students are learning. (Grades and exam scores don’t do that either since we don’t know if exams are “hard” or “easy,” let alone the value added by the course to the students’ learning.)

So what do we know about evaluating teaching? We know that:

  • SETs, as stated above, can provide valuable information about student engagement and student evaluation of their own learning … but only in a few areas, and that it is more useful to read the comments and see changes over time than to generate a set of averages, let alone – please, no! – combining all the numbers into one big “average” for the instructor: He scored 3.8 in that History class.
  • There is no such thing as a perfect measurement of teaching effectiveness, but that shouldn’t stop us from putting more effort into what can produce better information that can help us understand more about the kind of teaching that is going on in our classes.
  • We need to be using multiple measures of teaching effectiveness, particularly when talking about high-stakes evaluations (reappointment, tenure, promotion in rank). These include:
  1. SETs, when used as suggested above, from which we can learn whether the instructor is engaging students in class in ways that are important, not just entertaining.
  1. Peer observations of teaching by trained observers, not just colleagues who know the subject matter. These observations need to be made uniform across departments and programs, including training for the observers, a pre-observation interview to get a better sense of what the instructor is intending to get at in the class that will be observed, and a post-observation interview to allow for further clarification of what went on. Here’s one example of this process from the teaching center at the University of Southern California.
  1. A “forensic” examination of course syllabi, usually by colleagues in similar fields outside of the college to determine whether the instructor’s teaching is keeping up with the field.
  1. Finally, and most importantly, I would argue, is a teaching portfolio which allows the instructor to discuss her approach to teaching and how it has developed over time. A teaching portfolio would include examples of teaching materials and samples of student work and would indicate how an instructor has used earlier critiques to refashion and rethink her teaching. Teaching portfolios are geared to helping the instructor and those reviewing the portfolio see the dynamics of teaching and how/if the teacher is looking for ways to incorporate valid critiques of teaching or new information and research about pedagogy into her courses. [Peter Seldin, The Teaching Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions, 4th Ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2010).]

Stark and Freishtat pose the following questions, which I think are good ones to ask. When you come right down to it, we need to have a system of teaching evaluation that can help us answer them.

Is this a good and dedicated teacher? Is she engaged in her teaching? Is she following pedagogical practices found to work in the discipline? Is she available to students? Is she putting in appropriate effort? Is she creating new materials, new courses, or new pedagogical approaches? Is she revising, refreshing, and reworking existing courses based on feedback and on-going investigation? Is she helping keep the curriculum in the department up to date? Is she trying to improve? Is she improving? Is she contributing to the college’s teaching mission in a serious way? Is she supervising undergraduates for research, internships, and honors theses? Is she advising and mentoring students? Do her students do well when they graduate?



Evaluations of teaching that can help us answer these questions would, indeed, be valuable.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively

Steve Volk, September 14, 2014

Compared to our colleagues at most universities, our classes are blissfully small. Computer Science 61A enrolls nearly 1,100 students at Berkeley; Economics 10 topped out at more than 800 at Harvard. Still, many of the classes we teach are beyond the comfortable-discussion size of 10-15 students regardless of what our faculty-student ratio may indicate. That doesn’t mean we should abandon small-group discussions as a pedagogic strategy, but it does require some planning, especially in the critical step of socializing the information gained in smaller groups among the whole class. How can we use small discussion sections most effectively in classes that enroll 30, 50, or more students?



Why Discuss?

This post is more of a “how to” than a “why to,” but it’s still important to touch on the importance of discussion in student learning. A constructivist notion of learning, simply put, holds that understanding is gained by experience and reflection. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with previously held ideas or experiences, figuring out how to make sense of the new knowledge. In that process we become the active creators of our own knowledge rather than sponges just absorbing what others tell us. While our students can (usually) reproduce what we tell them, learning is not the process of hearing-remembering-repeating, even though repeating and remembering may well be a part of ultimate learning. To learn means to ask questions, challenge ideas, explore unfamiliar territory, come to clarity in our own terms. As Ruth Tringham, a Berkeley anthropology professor put it, traditional teaching models are like banking, “where you pour knowledge into a student and hope to get some interest back,” whereas what we really want is for students to come “to grips with the questions themselves and learn to evaluate information.”

There are a lot of ways create an environment in which students can do this, not just one “best” practice. Most of these approaches involve active learning techniques such as experimentation, problem solving, and, of course, discussions. We all probably have experienced students who express (usually on their evaluation forms) a dislike of small group discussions. Since instructors “know” the answers, we should be doing the talking, not their peers who only read the stuff (or not!!) last night.

Round-table-discussionDiscussions are valuable for us in a number of ways: we can hear what questions (or answers) students are posing and propose ways for them to restate questions more usefully, They can help us suggest more fruitful questions, draw out important conclusions, underline misconceptions. Discussions can also be valuable ways to help students become more careful listeners, note takers, or observers, as well as learning to engage productively in a conversation with their peers.

Setting Up Discussion Groups

OK, enough of the theory; time for practice. Having decided on the utility of discussion in class and having decided to break the class into smaller sections rather than to have a faculty-directed “discussion of the whole,”  what are some ways to go about it? Some faculty have decided to divide up their larger classes and meet in smaller groups one day a week; that can work, but, like labs in the sciences, it requires a lot of time on the part of the instructor.

Alternatively, many divide the class into smaller discussion groups during the class session, sending the groups to different parts of the room. This obviously works best in classrooms with flexible seating where chairs/tables are easily movable (speaking of which:  Shouldn’t we have more of those?) Arranging small-group discussion in fixed seating amphitheaters often turns into an exercise in gymnastics.

Dividing the students up

For a very quick discussion (3-5 min), it’s a lot easier just to have students turn their chairs to those sitting next to them. For longer discussions, it’s better to mix them up since our restless students most often will sit in the same seat every class. Try counting off with all the #1’s in one part of the class; #2’s in another, etc., is an easy way to go. There are others.

You also need to decide whether all the groups will be discussing the same question or if each group will have a different question or problem to address. Decide on any rules or goals for the discussion: everyone must speak; there will be one note-taker, a different person must report back, each student is responsible for thinking about a different aspect of the question, etc. I’ve generally found it useful to have all the students write up a summary and some conclusions to their discussion both as a way of consolidating their learning from the discussion and as a way of helping them listen to their colleagues and take their ideas seriously.

Socializing Learning from Small Group Discussions

For me, the question of how you socialize the discussion that has been generated in the groups is both the most important aspect of small-group discussions and logistically the most persistent challenge. To get the most out of a discussion, the information gained in each of the groups needs to be shared. That’s the way that instructors can, in good constructivist fashion, help students restate questions in useful ways, underline relevant concepts, point to useful avenues for further research. You can sit in on each of the groups, but that often upsets its dynamic and, particularly when you have a lot of groups, you’ll only hear a small part of what’s going on. Here are some other suggestions:

  • The most obvious point is to make sure you leave enough time for the whole-group discussion; how often we simply run out of time before bringing the groups together!
  • Ask one person in each group to report out the group’s discussion;
  • Have one person from each group write/draw some conclusions on the board as the discussions are coming to an end. As they do this, you can look at what is being written, find commonalities, differences, points you want to take up. You can also take a picture of the board with your phone and post it to Blackboard, which will allow you to refer back to what was written or start the next class with slides from the board.


Google Docs to the Rescue [Click on this link for short video on how to make and share a Google Doc]

I’ve found one other way to be extremely useful, although it requires some modest technology and that some students in your class have brought their laptops to class. You can generally count on this in large classes. (If you don’t permit laptops as a policy, you’ll have to plan ahead and ask some students to bring theirs. As a sidebar – if you want something useful on laptop use in the classroom, check out this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education from a few weeks ago).

  • Before class, open a Google Doc, give it a title (Discussion Sept. 21, 2014), and create as many columns as you will have groups. You can just label the columns 1, 2, 3… or you can give them a short description if each group will be talking about a different topic (#1-State; #2-Religion; #3-Civil Society…)



  • Break the students up into groups, making sure that the groups contain at least one student with a laptop. Invite one student in each group, the one who has the laptop, into the Google doc you have created. This can be done quickly since they are all registered to addresses and once you type in a few letters of their email addresses, you will find them. They should soon be able to see the Google Doc that you have prepared.


  • Assign that student with the laptop to make note of either the group’s main points or its main conclusions as the discussion develops.
  • Make sure your own laptop connected to the classroom projector and is displaying the Google doc that you have created.
  • As the discussion unfolds in each group, you will see what is happening in each of the groups.


  • When you call the class back together, you can synthesize their discussion and conclusions since all the groups are writing on the same Google Doc (although only in the column they have been assigned). Because you can see the discussions “develop” in real time, you can quickly find commonalities and differences, points that were missed, misunderstandings and fruitful avenues to pursue.
  • Finally, you can save the document, which the whole class has produced, and make it available to the students (via Blackboard). You can have the students think about it the same way that you have begun in class. You can bring up the document at the start of the next class, or just archive it for the next time you offer that class.

In short, it’s a great way of socializing the learning that’s going on in the different groups, particularly as it allows you to “sit in” on each of them without changing their dynamic at all.

[Again, if you need a short video on how to create and share a Google Doc with your students, just click on this link.]


Mindsets: “I’m not really good at that…”

By Steve Volk (September 7, 2014)

My mother (who taught Spanish and French), my sister (quite competent in French), and I (Spanish) used to tease my father mercilessly about his inability to speak a language other than English. We drove around Mexico when I was young and laughed with great zest when, after each meal, he would try to ask, in Spanish, for the check (“La cuenta, por favor”). What emerged from his mouth were strange sounds that had quite literally become lost in the translation. The server would look at him in puzzlement until one of us stepped in to the rescue.

Can I Have the Bill

For my own part, I still remember the “D” I got on my drawing of an American eagle in the 4th grade from Mrs. Simmons, who (I thought) was a lovely teacher and was just pointing out a reality: I couldn’t draw, never could, still can’t. My father’s problem was that he just couldn’t learn another language. (He often told the story of how, when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin – he became a lawyer; no slouch, he – his Latin teacher gave him a “C” instead of failing him if he promised never to take a foreign language again.)

So, where are these familial stories going? To the mindset research of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, which is the subject of today’s “Article of the Week.” Those in psychology or neuroscience will surely know her work. To boil it down drastically: through decades of research, Dweck (and her co-investigators) came to the conclusion that most people have two very different understandings about intellectual abilities and where they come from. Some think that people are just naturally talented in certain areas (foreign languages, art, math, music, etc.), and if you weren’t born with those abilities, there’s not much you can do to change that. Others think that intellectual abilities can be cultivated and developed if you apply yourself to the challenges at hand. It’s not that people don’t differ in their current skill levels, nor that with hard work everyone can be a Serena Williams, a Yo Yo Ma, or an Albert Einstein, but this second group believes that they can improve their underlying abilities if they work at it. (Interestingly, Einstein once wrote, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.”) Dweck called these approaches “mindsets,” and labeled the former a “Fixed Mindset,” and the latter a “Growth Mindset.”


Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Now, for those who are about to tune away thinking, “why is he peddling this pop motivational claptrap?”, don’t leave just yet. The research is solid (Dweck is a renowned scholar), but more importantly, her research contains implications for how we teach and interact with our students. Consider this. According to “mindset” research, those with a fixed mindset see evaluations (grades, comments written on papers or spoken in class, etc.) as appraisals of their intelligence, how “smart” they are, not as an indication of how much work they put into the paper, or how much reading informed their question in class, or what they learned. To get a “B” on an exam essentially means that they not smart enough to be “A” students. (Or that we, the teachers, got it wrong!)


“Zach is in the gifted-and-talented-and-you’re-not class.”

The repercussions of this kind of thinking are serious. Most critical, in my mind, is that students who show the characteristics of the “fixed” mindset will try to avoid challenges. Think of it this way – and this is particularly true for our students who have done well throughout their pre-college careers. Receiving a “B” in a course proves that the student is not as intelligent as the “A” student. Now that’s the last thing students want to disclose, so they will avoid challenges and stick to areas where they are (more) convinced of their abilities. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, have a greater tendency to take on challenges, persist in the face of adversity, and learn from criticism, largely because (at some level), they have accepted that their brains are just another muscle that needs to be exercised in order to develop.

Dweck summarizes this in the following way. If you have a fixed mindset:

  • Your goal in the classroom is to not look dumb.
  • Having to exert effort makes you feel dumb.
  • If you have a setback, you really feel dumb.

But if you have a growth mindset, then:

  • Your goal in the classroom is to learn.
  • Having to exert effort makes you feel like you’re learning.
  • If you have a setback, you see it as a learning opportunity.

Some years ago, Dweck brought some students into the brain-wave lab at Columbia University to study how their brains behaved as they answered difficult questions and received feedback. She found that those she tagged as having a fixed mindset actually were tuning out information that could help them learn and improve. They were only interested in hearing feedback that reflected directly on their present ability, and didn’t even show an interest in hearing the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong, because they had already failed and it just proved they weren’t able to answer those questions. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, were quite attentive to information that could help them expand their existing knowledge and skills, regardless of whether they’d gotten the question right or wrong — in other words, their priority was learning, not the binary of success and failure.

Dweck-MindsetThis should raise the question of whether anything can be done to address mindsets that are already “set in place.” I will never be a Picasso, but will I be able to think of myself as someone who can, with practice, draw? I’m reminded of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment that showed that young children who could delay gratification (by not eating the marshmallow when the tester left the room) would do markedly better in myriad ways later in life than those with low self-control who gobbled it down after a few seconds. (A new study has suggested other variables are equally critical.) Anyway, I was always left thinking that the poor 4-year old who wolfed down the marshmallow was doomed for life and nothing could be done about it.

Actually, that’s not the case with self-control (“Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it,” says Walter Mischel, who devised the experiment), and it’s not the case with mindsets. And that’s where we come in.

What We Can Do

1. With advisees: Mindset research suggests that we need to encourage students to think of learning as a challenge they can take on in areas they are convinced they are “not really good at.” How do we respond when an advisee says that she’s really bad at math so will try to satisfy her QFR requirement some other way? Or when a student says that he’s just not a good writer and so will try to avoid classes that have a lot of writing? We could say that these courses are “good for you,” or that you should go beyond your comfort zone, but that doesn’t give the student any sense of why it’s “good” to go beyond one’s comfort zone since they haven’t succeeded in math or English in the past and, not succeeding again will only confirm that they’re dumb, which is the last thing they want to be revealed about them. What if we talk about Dweck’s research when these moments come up, which can give them a better idea of why challenges aren’t just “good” for you, but are at the basis of learning?

2. With students in our classes: We need to give students a sense that doing well is not a question of having an innate ability in the subject, but of hard work. When we talk about feedback and grades, we should insist on high standards and at the same time give assurances that our students can do it if they apply themselves, although there’s a caveat here. We can help students with advice on effective study and test-taking strategies, but, as Dweck pointed out, “Study skills and learning skills are inert until they’re powered by an active ingredient.” Students may know how to study, but won’t want to if they believe their efforts will be futile, that they are not good at biology and the class they are in will just prove how dumb they are. You need, as well, to “target that belief,” as Dweck puts it, and then you will “see more benefit than you have any reason to hope for.”

Think about adopting some of the following strategies in your classes:

  • Talk about how learning occurs (a little bit of brain science never hurt), and what the research has shown about different mindsets. You can tell stories about former students who thought they would never learn the subject but who, with persistence and effort, ended up being successful in the course or in their later careers.
  • Talk about what it will take to learn the course material effectively —make explicit your expectations for the amount of time they should be putting in and the types of activities they should be engaging in outside of class.
  • Emphasize that “fast” learning, getting assignments or exams done quickly, is not the same as “deep” learning. Often students who take longer to “get it” learn the material more deeply. Faster can at times produce the right answer, but often at the expense of learning.
  • Break difficult or complex tasks down into their component parts so that students will see for themselves their own skills building up over time.
  • Think of how you respond to students in class. For students who answer correctly (or with good insight), just delivering praise (“Great answer, Alexa!”) doesn’t give them or those who didn’t have the right answer any sense of where that great answer came from or where to go from there. Perhaps this might help more: “Good answer from Alexa…she was able to look at the evidence from the last experiment [filling in what that was] and apply it to the new circumstance. Where else can we go with this? What’s still missing?”

3. In terms of our curriculum: Think, for a moment, of the structure of our curriculum. Its premise is the same as that of all liberal arts curricula: depth (major) plus breadth (“general education” requirements). But why the breadth? We have a new “Curriculum Exploration Requirement” that requires students to “complete a number of courses distributed across the curriculum,” and “engage the curriculum broadly from the time they arrive at Oberlin.” We do this “to encourage students to become familiar with a range of scholarly approaches in different subject areas by exploring the curricula in each of the three broad divisions of the College (arts and humanities, social and behavior sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics).” This is not a bad goal, but what if we were to think about it in terms of what mindset research tells us. The point is not just or only exposure to different scholarly, disciplinary or epistemological approaches for the sake of exposure, but an insistence that students challenge themselves in order to build the growth mindset that will serve them well later on. If we require students to take courses in areas they feel “dumb” in, they will often try to satisfy the requirements by essentially avoiding them (“what can I do to satisfy QFR without taking math?”), or, if they do enroll, will not really engage in them (pass/fail?) since to do so and do poorly will only prove how stupid they are. (And, perhaps we enable that: take that philosophy class pass/fail if you’re worried about the grade!) Instead, how do we build challenges into the curriculum?  How do we provide a curriculum that encourages students to realize that they can learn in areas that previously they had closed off? How, to return to Einstein’s quote, can we construct a curriculum that helps all our students stay with problems longer? If we think about our curriculum through Dweck’s research, it suggests that the basis of curricular decisions should not be on breadth for the sake of breadth, but challenge for the sake of challenge. We can do that by engaging the various divisions of the College and Conservatory, but why we do that now becomes clearer.

It should also be clear that everything about mindset research that applies to students in the classroom, applies equally to what they do outside of the classroom: in athletics, leadership, artistic endeavors, etc.

A final point on teaching via mindset research. We set high standards, expect our students to meet them, and will provide them guidance for doing just that. But are we inadvertently introducing cues into the classroom that needlessly (and quite likely unintentionally) tell some students that they don’t belong? We need to think of the examples we use, the posters on our walls, the pronouns we employ. Will they tell some students that math, or computer science, or creative writing is just not for them? I think of a quote from Justice Sonya Sotomayor, in her recent biography.  She said that when she reached college she “felt like a visitor landing in an alien land.” “I have spent my years since [college],” she continued, “while at law school, and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit.” What can we do to insure that all our students not only feel that they belong, but understand that, if they work hard, they can grow.

OK, then. Back to my drawing of the American eagle!


Some additional resources:

Carol Dweck’s homepage at Stanford links to more than 40 pdf’s of her articles.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine Books, 2007).

Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Essays in Social Psychology) (Psychology Press, 2000).

Marina Krakovsky, “The Effort Effect,” Stanford Alumni Magazine (March/April 2007).

Maria Popova, “Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets that Shape Our Lives,” Brain Pickings (Jan. 29, 2014).

“Mindset and Math/Science Achievement (2008),” National Numeracy (Nov. 21, 2013). The article links to Carol S. Dweck, “Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement.”