Author Archives: ssvolk

Teaching with Tenderness

Steve Volk, February 19, 2018

Always start with the names:

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird and Mallow Flowers (ca. 1842), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College



Alyssa Alhadeff
Scott Beigel
Martin Duque Anguiano
Nicholas Dworet
Aaron Feis
Jamie Guttenberg
Chris Hixon
Luke Hoyer
Cara Loughran
Gina Montalto
Joaquin Olivier
Alaina Petty
Meadow Pollack
Helena Ramsay
Alex Schachter
Carmen Schentrup
Peter Wang

Victims of the Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. Since Adam Lanza killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been more than 140 school shootings in the United States. And, of course, those were preceded by Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and too many others.


How do we respond?

The appalling toll of gun violence in this country should need no reminding. But when we, as teachers, read of school massacres, it is a kick to the gut. Again. As individuals, we feel anger and sadness, rage and compassion all at the same time. Our empathy with the victims is strong. But as teachers, our response is direct and visceral; we feel a need to hold our students, a deep desire to protect them even as we know we can’t.

How do we respond?

Do we talk to them about Parkland? Do we talk to them about Albert E. Morton, a 31 year old Black man who was shot and killed by police while driving in his car in Harrisburg, PA, one of 123 people shot and killed by police in 2018? Do we talk to them about 20-year old Alexis G. who was deported to Mexico, a country he doesn’t know, in June 2017 after having lived almost his whole life United States? “If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be the Star-Spangled Banner,” he said before being deported.

We shouldn’t be surprised if our students preferred to get on with their French lesson or hunker down in the biology lab, totally reasonable responses. And, since I never know what approach students would choose, I always check with then, and then follow their lead. So, I asked some students I’m working with how they reacted to the news of the Douglas High shootings. They all said the same thing: they have grown numb, anesthetized to events that have become commonplace in the United States. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.  Since Sandy Hook, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide in which 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed. I had forgotten the date of the Columbine massacre, so I looked it up: 1999, which means that school massacres have been part of our students’ reality for their entire lives.

That was the end of our conversation. They wanted to get down to the work at hand. But I continued to think about how we respond to these criminal moments that crash into our daily existence. I refuse to call these events “tragedies.” As Simone Weil once pointed out, tragedy arises from a situation where one absolute obligation comes into conflict with another. Being in this country without documentation is a tragedy; massacring school kids is a crime. But how do we respond? How do we react to these continual horrors without always talking about them? Is there is a way to answer the violence around us without being overtaken by it? How can we help our students cope with trauma without forcing them to continually reflect on traumatic events?

“We are not all that is possible,” June Jordan, the remarkable poet wrote in “Outside Language.” “None of us has ever really experienced justice. None of us has known enough tenderness.”

“None of us has known enough tenderness.” The answer suggested in Jordan’s poem led me to Becky Thompson’s most recent book – which opens with Jordan’s poem as an epigraph. Thompson, who describes herself as anti-racist and feminist, a sociology professor, and yoga instructor, invites her readers to practice a “pedagogy of tenderness.” In Teaching with Tenderness, she suggests how we might adopt “gentler ways” of teaching. For those whose new-age bullshit antennae have begun to waggle uncontrollably, stay with this, at least for a few more paragraphs. I’m not going to talk about sitting in a circle and holding hands – although I could and she does. And I’m not going to suggest that our fundamental purpose as teachers is to make our students feel better. Teaching with tenderness, Thompson offers, is about locating our teaching not just in models of intimacy, but also in forms of intensity and intellectual depth. Teaching with tenderness is about improving student learning, as well as their mental health, by lending attention to emotions as well as cognition, body as well as mind.


Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Flowers on the Otsuki Plain in Kai Province, no. 31 from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
(1858), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Rituals are important in life events, from birth to death, and, Thompson argues, in class events, from first class to last.  She begins the semester with her students’ names (one reason why I began this article with names). I’ve written before about the importance of learning names at the start of class, and, when possible, taking steps to help everyone remember each other’s name. I’ve always thought of this as a form of simple politeness and inclusion. But Thompson suggests that there are deeper reasons than courtesy for this practice. We start with names because unnaming, removing names as was done through enslavement or during the Holocaust, and as is done in prisons today, is a radical form of dehumanization. Naming, then, is a step toward recognizing each other’s humanity by calling attention to the fact that names matter, “they hold stories to people’s heritage, to what they know or don’t know about their ancestors, to gender. It is a start in seeing each other” (42).

Thompson starts each semester with all the students sharing their whole name, where it came from, what it means, and how they feel about their names. The process begins with the first student, and each student thereafter has to repeat the names of all who preceded them.

Naming is one ritual, and Thompson’s classes are marked by others, such as checking-in at the start of class, and reflection at the end. It is her way of always honoring the students as individuals, as humans who stand at the center of her practice of teaching. It is a means of teaching with tenderness. 

Embodied Teaching

After many years of teaching, Thompson came to the realization that she “was passing on to my students some of the same costs I had paid to become an academic. When I was finishing one of my earlier books…I began to realize that the academy asked people to trade in their body parts, anything below the neck, in order to be successful. I remember feeling like I had ransomed off all of my body parts, except my head, in order to finish the book…After I finished, I realized that I wanted my body parts back – my legs, my arms, my core, my feelings especially…” (pp. 36-37). Tyrone Simpson, one of her colleagues at Simmons College, speaks of the academy as a “decorporealizing process.” Holding a Ph.D., he observes, is the proof that you have been “willing to be out of your body for an extended period of time.”

Utagawa Hiroshige, Akasaka, no. 57 from the series Sixty-nine Stations on the Kisokaidō (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Which is kind of weird, when you think about it, because both learning and teaching are fundamentally embodied practices. Stephen Cope writes that mind and body are “different points in the spectrum of subtlety…The body is a gross form of consciousness. The mind is a more subtle form of consciousness.” But we know this on a more obvious level: the process of imagining, studying, planning, analyzing, and creating continually bump into and interact with the limitations of our physical selves. We are tired, hungry, suffering various aches and pains. Thinking has embodied limitation. As does teaching: since we haven’t yet been replaced by robots, we still teach in our bodies, whether standing or sitting, whether we want to or not.

When Thompson remarked that the academy “asked people to trade in their body parts,” other than the brain, in order to succeed, she was speaking not only to the fact that most of us live extraordinarily sedentary lives, parked in chairs, staring at computer screens. And even if we move around class when we teach, our students remain largely stationary. (Indeed, one frightening aspect of the state of education today is that young children, beginning in the pre-school years, are required to spend more and more time glued to their desks, toiling away at “paper and pencil” tasks.)

Does “disembodiment” really matter for us, who teach college students who (generally) know how to stay (relatively) still for 50 or 75 minutes or longer? Absolutely. Consider the following: It’s Tuesday afternoon at 1:45. Class has been going on for 45 minutes and your students’ eyes have begun to glaze over; even you are feeling the energy leaving you drop by drop. What do we do? If I’m any example, we probably just soldier on, ignoring the tired or restless bodies. Or, we could take approximately 1 minute to have the students stand up and “shake it out.” Now, which approach will have the greatest impact on student learning? You can answer that.

Thompson was one of Maurice Stein’s graduate assistants at Brandeis University. Stein, a sociologist, was already a legendary instructor 50 years ago when I was an undergraduate there (he retired in 2002), and he evidently got even better over time. He always resisted the notion that there was one specific model for good teaching, suggesting that “there are probably as many possibilities as there are varieties of human beings doing the job of teaching.” When Maury felt a lull in the class’s energy, Thompson reports, he would insist that everyone get up and do the hokey pokey. “People thought that was hilarious, embarrassing, and silly,” she writes, “allowing them to roll their eyes at him as they twirled around. Perhaps because Maury is a serious scholar, and chose seriously intense books, he could get away with this frivolity, knowing that tenderness is a quality that balances between joy and rage, despair and hope” (35).

Utagawa Hiroshige, Catching Fireflies on the Uji River, from the series Famous Places in the Provinces (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Embodied teaching, of course, is neither easy nor straightforward. Tyrone Simpson, Thompson’s aforementioned colleague, is a “six-foot-one Black man with dreadlocks” who teaches in the “white space” of Simmons College. He can neither deny his body (“I am a walking limb,” he remarks), at the same time that his context requires him “to render invisible his own thoughts and experience of embodiment.” Further, the important feminist work to politicize sexual harassment has been used to render problematic attention to the body in the workplace. Nevertheless, keeping these in mind, there is pedagogic value in recognizing our own embodied ways and those of our students.

Emotional Amplitude

Thompson’s teaching-with-tenderness pedagogy is conscious of the impact of emotions on the learning process. She is a sociologist, not a psychologist, but significant psychological research has confirmed the links between emotions and learning/memory (in both positive and negative directions), and suggested that students’ emotions influence self-regulated learning and motivation, and these, in turn, impact academic achievement. Maury Stein, Thompson’s mentor, argued that it was important for students to develop both their intellectual and their emotional amplitude, and it is a lesson that Thompson uses in her approach to “teaching with tenderness.”

Allowing, let alone welcoming, emotions into class is complex and often fraught. It is difficult both for classes like macroeconomics or statistics, where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself as a “natural” outlet for emotion, as well as in classes whose subject matter foregrounds issues of social justice, particularly, she writes, as “colonialism, militarism, racism, and patriarchy remain structural impediments to tenderness” (15).  Yet the emotional life of students in either context will not be denied. Teachers need to be aware of our students’ anxieties, their feelings of being imposters in intense academic settings, or the emotional turmoil that may undermine their ability to concentrate, even as we know that we will not be privy to the specifics of their emotional states. We need to be conscious of how emotions can be launched by the subject of the class, and of our own role in dealing with the consequences. Thompson describes how she often “back[ed] people against the wall” when teaching about power and privilege, setting people apart from each other. “What I didn’t know early in my teaching,” she writes, “is that creating multiracial communities required finding ways to teach about power and privilege that loosened people up rather than hardened them, that countered defensiveness, that helped people get to a soft place with each other” (36).

Over time, she became more aware of how to deal with student anger and intensity, and the “complicated emotions that surface when examining oppressions, including how they are reproduced in class dynamics” (46). She now addresses these in a variety of ways, often through ritual, reminding students of their shared humanity by repeating part of the “Who Am I” naming procedure in every class, by changing her mid-semester evaluations (students evaluate teacher and course content, and their own participation and work of class as a collective; these are passed out randomly and, protecting student anonymity, students then read aloud their classmate’s commentary), and by introducing more literature into her classes. In this she took a lesson from the Puerto Rican poet, Martín Espada, who realized in his own work that the more horrific an event was that he was writing about, the more beautiful the language needed to be, to “keep the readers’ hearts open as they read.”

Nor are these lessons only for our students. “Teaching with tenderness,” Thompson writes, “involves a promise we make to each other, and a way of living, requiring consistent and radical acts of self-care…Tenderness opens us up to grieving, to ambivalence, to anger, to confusion…not easy feelings for sure.”

Slow Pedagogy

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bridge at Tsurumi, from the series Interesting Rest Stops at Towns Between the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1919), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Teaching with “tenderness” demands that we slow down the pace, helping to pull students out of the frantic rhythms of the news cycle that technology dumps into our laptops, and into more deliberate and contemplative modalities. Practices that slow our students down can help them resist the temptation to jump after every shiny thing that comes across their screens, to focus, and to engage with each other and with the subjects of their study with depth and respect. Holding them in front of a painting in the museum so they can become trained at careful observation, whether for use in their labs or in their daily lives; cultivating the patience they need to read a text closely, whether they are reading the news or a novel: these are practices that can help our students respond to the world around them with resilience and compassion. But above all, teaching with tenderness requires helping our students develop as respectful and active listeners.

“In academic culture,” Mary Rose O’Reilley writes, “we tend to pay attention only long enough to develop a counterargument…In society at large, people only listen with an agenda… Seldom is there a deep, open-hearted nonjudgmental reception of the other…By contrast, if someone truly listens to me, my spirit begins to expand.”

The same theme is woven through Anna Deavere Smith’s review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel, she writes, which “honors paying attention: seeing, listening, and, finally, singing. The novel inspires me to think that we need new songs, new ways of seeing, new ways of listening.” The importance of fashioning new ways of listening was, for me, the most important lesson of Thompson’s book as I tried to answer the question of how we respond to these continual moments of anger, frustration, sadness, and loss. “In the face of individual and collective deaths,” she writes, “we may not be able to fix anything. The most we can often do is listen.”

Digital Distractions? Technology, Teaching and Learning in the Contemporary Classroom

Steve Volk, February 12, 2018
Contact at:

In my current day job, leading Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am frequently asked to observe colleagues’ classes to offer some “formative” feedback, remarks that go to them alone, not to department chairs or deans. (Let me know if you would like me to sit in on one of your classes, by the way.) Many of these classes are relatively large, and I park myself in the back of the class where I have a clear view of the class, including the students’ laptops and phones. Oh, the things I have seen! Chats and texts, Amazon purchases, sporting events and Netflix movies, emails and emoticons.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the disruption and distraction that digital devices introduce into the classroom, adding to the potential for a wandering attention that was already present in a pre-internet age. Reporting on the dangers of digital distraction is no longer confined to academic journals or the education press. Articles in Forbes (“Students spend nearly 21% of class time using a digital device for an unrelated activity like email or social media…They also check a digital device 10.5 times per class day on average”), the New York Times (“A growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures”), Fortune (“Score one for the Luddites. Taking notes with pen and paper may be more effective than with a laptop or tablet, studies show”), and myriad other sources have reported on the research findings (usually citing the same research study).

While I’ll go over some of these research findings in this article, let me summarize them here for those who are just about to stop reading so they can look at that text that just came in…

Digital technologies (cell phones, tablets, and laptops) have been shown to have a negative impact on a student’s ability to concentrate in class. They can prove almost irresistible both for the user and for those sitting nearby – a “second-hand smoke” effect. On top of this, some persuasive research suggests that even “legitimate” technology use, taking notes on a laptop, for example, can impede learning when compared with taking notes by hand. All of this provides a cogent argument for banning (with some exceptions) digital devices in the class room. My point in this article is to encourage you to think twice before adopting such bans.

In this article – which is based on the research literature and a recent CTIE workshop on the topic – I’ll  summarize some of the research about the impact of digital technology in the classroom, suggest some unintended consequences of outright digital bans, encourage you to consider policies that stop short of banning all devices, and, above all, suggest that encouraging your students to design a technology policy for the class, based on an informed discussion, may be the best approach of all.

What is Distraction?

Henriette Browne ( pseudonym for Mme Jules de Saux, née Sophie Boutellier), “A Girl Writing” (1870), (c) V&A Museum

Let’s begin by addressing the question of what is distraction. (Much of this is drawn from James Lang’s review in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Adam Gazzaley (neuroscientist) and Larry D. Rosen’s (psychologist), The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT, 2016). Lang recommends the book as “required reading for every teacher today.”) Distractions, the authors suggest, are about something blocking our efforts to achieve a goal that matters. Multitasking (texting, listening to music, watching a video, making a cup of coffee, reading email, etc.) on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not a distraction. Doing the same when studying for a calculus exam is.

Distraction, Gazzaley and Rosen argue, is the result of a conflict between our brain’s ability to conceive and plan long-term goals and our ability to control our minds and our environment as we work to complete those goals. To understand distraction, picture a huge wave (our goals) crashing into a sea-wall represented by the limitations to our cognitive control which “diminish our ability to direct and sustain our attention, to remember things, and to switch back and forth between tasks.” Barriers to sustained attention will always be there, but they don’t always defeat the pursuit of our goals. Further, what these barriers (limitations) are change over the course of our lives: they were different when we were children, are different for our students, and are different for us now.

OK, hold on to that thought (if you can!), as we’ll come back to it when talking about how to develop new approaches to digital distractions in the classroom that focus on helping our students (and ourselves) set and pursue goals.

When Digital Is Distracting: Cell Phones

It’s so annoying when I’m giving a lecture and half the students are talking on their mobiles! Well, duh! No one (at least no one I know) permits students to talk on their phones in class. And we don’t allow students to check their phones for texts, email, or interact with social media while in class. Of course, the fact that we don’t allow this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. (I’m always amused by student who are convinced of their own superpower: invisibility. They don’t think that we can see them looking down toward their laps while we’re talking away at the front of the class.) A study in 2012 found that 53% of undergraduate students at one university reported texting during class; a 2014 examination of 99 college students during a 20-minute lecture found that the average amount of texts sent and received among each student was 26.29 (14.10 sent, 12.69 received). Let me say that again: a 20-minute lecture, so, for each minute of class, students were sending or receiving more than one text.

According to a recently released survey conducted by Top Hat, 94% of students said they “wanted to use their cell phones in class for academic purposes,” and 75% believe using personal devices in the classroom improved their ability to learn and retain information even though more than half reported using their cell phones to text friends or browse social media. And these are among the more “optimistic” numbers. Other studies report 86% of students sending text messages in class, or 94% of students using their cell phones for non-academic purposes in class, or 125% of students using their cell phones to play Candy Crush in class. (OK, I made up that last one just to see if you were still paying attention.) But you get the idea.

Is this distracting? Of course, particularly when it comes to the ability of students to do well in their classes. Researchers at Kent State University surveyed more than 500 students, controlling for demographics and high-school GPA, among other factors. They found that more daily cell phone use (including smartphones) correlated with lower overall GPAs. (Correlation is not causation, but the findings are concerning in any case.) A number of other studies have also reported on correlations between cell phone usage and test scores (as usage goes up, scores go down).

Research also suggests that cell phone use has a differential impact on students. A recent study on student phone access and the achievement gap by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy for the London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, found that banning mobile phones “improves outcomes for the low-achieving students … the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

In short, we likely have enough data to suggest, at the very least, that instructors need to show some concern about cell phone use in class for other than allowable uses (e.g., taking photos of white boards or PowerPoint slides, looking up facts when requested, etc.)

When Digital Is Distracting: Laptops

The impact of laptops on student learning (or, to keep it accurate, on student grades) was equally troubling. In an experiment conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point, faculty teaching multiple sections of an introductory economics course found that when they took away computers and tablets in the classroom, student grades rose. The difference wasn’t monumental, but enough to tip students into higher or lower grades. Similar research, using experimental, semi-experimental, and anecdotal data, yields the same results (see here, here, and here, for example).

zakiakhmad, Flickr cc

Researchers have also studied the impact of taking notes on a laptop versus taking notes by hand. The most frequently cited study was conducted at UCLA and Princeton where students using laptops to take notes were compared with students who took notes by hand. The researchers found that laptop note-takers performed worse on conceptual questions than longhand note-takers. The thought behind this is fairly evident: students taking notes on their laptops are essentially transcribing the lecture, whereas longhand note-takers, since they can’t write at the speed of the talker, must do some mental processing to isolate those parts of the lecture that seemed most relevant. (Of course, it is also possible that students can capture the less pertinent points rather than the most important ones, or that the laptop note-taker will go over her “transcription” to pull out the more relevant points, but we’ll let the observations represented in the study stand as the most likely outcomes.)

Equally troubling, researchers have found that, in the words of one article on the topic, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” Psychologists at two Canadian universities discovered not only that “participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask,” but also that “participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not.” Their results, in fact, indicated that the consequences, in terms of comprehending a lecture, were even worse for nearby students than for laptop multitaskers themselves. In other words, the impact of “second-hand smoke,” so to speak, was greater than the impact on the smoker.

Finally, studies of both workers and students have found that the impact of breaking away from a main task lingers even if you only spend a few seconds “away,” to check email, a text, or responses to the latest Tweet from the WH. One study cited by Gazzaley and Rosen in The Distracted Mind, found that it took research subjects almost 30 minutes to refocus and fully engage with the original task.

When Digital is Distracting: Challenges to Authority

I have taught more than one class where a student asked a factual question for which I didn’t have an answer. Look it up, I suggested, and they always did. Smart phones can give us immediate answers, provide needed information, and allow discussions to advance where the lack of information might have been stymied an important line of inquiry. But in-the-moment access to information can also raise issues that we need to be aware of. Two examples.

(1) Two years ago I was teaching a summer course for high school students on morality and decision making. I had posed, as a purely hypothetical, what was an actual British case from the 19th century (R v Dudley and Stephens) dealing with a shipwreck, cannibalism, and eventual charges of murder when the survivors were rescued. As the students were discussing whether the (still hypothetical) survivors should be charged with murder for the death of a young crew member who had, after many days without food, lapsed into a coma, one student was busy on his cell phone. He finally raised his hand and reported that my example wasn’t hypothetical at all, and he informed the class of the results of the actual trial of the surviving seamen. I didn’t feel undercut, since it didn’t matter if the case were an actual one or purely hypothetical. But the student’s Googling set the discussion off in an unwanted direction as students now wanted to know the outcome of the trial rather than putting themselves in the place of the jurors.

(2) A faculty participant at a recent workshop (female, fairly new to campus) reported that a student had looked up something she said and noted that it was incorrect. While her response, as reported to us, was welcoming and non-defensive, I have little doubt the student would never have challenged a senior (male) faculty member in the same way. In other words, in the context in which newer, female, or under-represented faculty need to be more concerned with establishing their authority in the classroom than more senior, male, or white faculty, access to information via classroom digital technologies can be a means not just of distributing classroom knowledge and participation (something I would see as positive), but of challenging the authority of specific categories of faculty.

Pedrik_BioModLat-2012. Flickr cc

Hold On; Wait a Minute!

Enough, you’re probably begging by now. Ban laptops, confiscate cell phones, turn tablets into cafeteria trays and get them out of the class. There is a lot of evidence that more and more faculty are doing just that, minus the cafeteria tray suggestion. But there are reasons to think again about the unintended consequences of a total digital ban, and there are reasons to turn the conversation around and think of potentially more productive approaches to digital distractions in the classroom.

In terms of unintended consequences, the issue of note-taking accommodations is an important consideration. Students with the proper documentation can apply to Office of Disability Resources either for a note-taker, or for permission to use a laptop in a “no-laptops” class as an accommodation. The problem with this should already be evident: if you’re the only student in class who has a laptop open in a no-laptop class, you have just been outed. Other possible options: Assign note-takers for the class, to rotate among students for credit or extra credit. The note-takers can take notes by hand or laptop, but if the latter, they should be encouraged to go over their “transcriptions” to prepare a summary of the class, not a textual recording. Note-takers would have one day to post their notes to Blackboard.

If you have been to a professional conference in the last decade, you’ll have noticed the large number of audience members who pull out phones and tablets to take pictures of the PowerPoint slides, particularly the ones that contain way too much textual information. Other possible options: Put less on your slides, allow each slide more time, or, better yet, make your slides available after the lecture. And allow cell phones for students to photograph white boards, the blackboard, or sheets of paper that have been put up, so that that can capture some of the discussion that occurred. (Or you can take a photo and post it to Blackboard.)

And, finally, we have been encouraging our students to read articles we have posted to Blackboard, rather than printing them out. But if they can’t use their laptops to access the readings during a class discussion, it forces them to print out the articles or not to bring them in. Without laptops, you can’t ask your students to quickly find the reading from two weeks ago and compare Hobbes to Locke. Other possible options: Allow laptops for discussions of readings, having gained an understanding from students that the pdf’s will be the only tabs open.

But beyond potential fixes to specific issues, there are many other reasons why we should think twice about an absolute ban on laptops or other digital technology use in the classroom. Obviously, technology, when used well, can add a lot to classroom learning, engagement, and interaction. I’ll just mention one way I have used laptops in the class to very productive ends. I’m sure that you have many others. I’ve found that one of the trickiest aspects of conducting small group discussions in class occurs when the groups are asked to report back on the insights they have gained or the questions that have been raised. If there are many such small groups, student report-backs can grow tedious and time consuming. I began to use laptops to solve this problem. I would split the class into smaller (5-7) groups, making sure that one student in each group had a laptop. Before class, I set up a Google doc, and I would give the laptop students access to it. Then, as the discussion in each group occurred, I would have the student with the laptop to record their answers to questions I had posed directly into the Google doc. This document would be projected onto a screen at the front of the class. I got a sense of what was going on in each group by simply looking at the unfolding Google doc. When I called the discussions to a close, I already knew what points they shared, where the differences were, and how to direct my remarks or questions. Finally, I would preserve the document and make it available to the whole class. (I did a “how-to” video on this which you can find here.)

The Bigger Issues

Let’s return to some larger issues before we join the rush to ban digital technology in the classroom.  We can start with perhaps the most important issue: our students’ ability to succeed in the future will depend to a significant degree on their ability to use contemporary technology responsibly and to their advantage, not to pretend it doesn’t exist. In that sense, it is better to encourage a conscious, targeted use of technology in the classroom than to banish it altogether.

One of our standard approaches to the issue of technology in the classroom is to wonder about why students don’t (can’t?) seem to control their behavior around its use. While many students report that they think that multitasking can improve their ability to learn, results of a study by Tassone et al (2017) indicate that a majority of students were aware that multitasking was detrimental to their grades. So, it’s not like they don’t know of the consequences of disruptive technology use.

New research points to the fact that students are increasingly anxious when away from their cell phones. A University of Illinois study found that high engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students. A review of 23 studies of the impact of cell phone use, anxiety and depression, confirmed this finding, although noting that the impact of increase cell phone use was weak to moderate. A psychology professor who wrote an “autoethnographic reflection” on his students’ cell phone “addiction in the classroom,” quoted one student, who observed that, “For just about everybody, their phone is their life. That is how they keep in contact with everyone; that is where all their pictures are, and so on… I do not think one could imagine life without technology and social media.”

We could benefit from more research on what appears to be a correlation between the amount of cell phone use and student anxiety (again, correlation is not causation). But the take-away for me when thinking about technology use in the classroom, is this: if, as the emerging research suggests, some students are tied to their cell phones in a way that is not beneficial for their mental health, simply banning them in class won’t address the underlying issues. Perhaps we should engage, as teachers, in a different way?

Which brings me back Gazzaley and Rosen’s The Distracted Mind as reported on by Lang. Gazzaley and Rosen, you will remember if you weren’t playing on your phones, suggested the conflict in our brains which goes on between two separate neural processes: the first directing our attention to goal-related activities, and the second blocking out irrelevant distractions. (Gazzaley’s experiments have also suggested that, as we age, we don’t lose the ability to focus our attention, but we do have a harder time blocking out distractions, which could be why older adults have a harder time focusing on conversations in a noisy restaurant.).

If this is the case, the challenge  – which Lang raises in his review – should not focus on modifying this second neural process, banning digital devices in order to block out distractions, but on the first, i.e., by helping students focus on goals.  As Lang put it, when thinking about one of his students who was a cell-phone-offender: “What goal had I established for Kate’s learning that day? How had I created an environment that supported her ability to achieve that goal? And perhaps most important — assuming that the class had a learning goal that mattered for her — did she know about it?”

Can Democracy in the Classroom Remove Digital Distractions?

No. We should be about what we can do. But the creation of transparent, student-centered classrooms can go some way to threading the needle between outright technology bans and an anything-goes approach. Again, we start with the assumption that students, to succeed, will need to know how to manage their technology use, and that just telling them to turn off their phones won’t give them practice, direction, or motivation for how to act when they are outside of class, studying, writing a paper, or doing their reading.

So, some suggestions:

(1) A technology use policy in the classroom is, in my mind, like any other policy one creates for a class: it can serve as an opening for a discussion as to why such a policy has been adopted (note the passive tense). Better yet, it can serve as a springboard for a discussion in which you would invite your students to come up with their own policies governing technology use in the classroom. Students may or may not think that a glance at a text in the midst of a lecture is distracting, but they likely don’t know the research that concludes just how problematic it can be. They probably don’t know that their watching of a music video on their laptops will negatively impact nearby peers even more than it will impact them. In other words, use this discussion to provide information (you’ve got all you need just in this article!) and help students develop their own classroom technology policy. And don’t expect that such policies will immediately solve the problem or that everyone will obey the class rules that they have established for themselves. Public health experts know very well that telling young people that smoking is bad for them doesn’t do the trick (nor have students stopped smoking on campus now that we have banned it). But, in the context of digital uses in the classroom, the rules have the potential of constructing a new social contract that might give students pause before they text in class.

(2) To the extent that you can, create an active classroom. Long lectures without breaks of any kind will make digital distractions much more likely as attention begins to flag. Cut down the time between the lecture and a task that engages students directly: asking questions, polling them, breaking them into group discussions. Digital distractions decline when students shuttle between short lecture segments and discussion groups or think-pair-share activities.

(3) Help students focus on the goals for that class, and remind them to stay focused on the goals. To rephrase Lang’s question, do students know what your goals are for the day? Distractions will win the game if the only goal a student has is making it to the end of the class.

The literature on the impact of that new technology is having on our brains, or better said, our students’ brains, is already large and will continue to grow, particularly with the advent of high quality virtual reality. Probably the most honest thing to say is that we don’t actually know how digital intrusions are shaping the lives of our students. But we do know that one of our greatest responsibilities as teachers, regardless subject matter, is to help students develop the capacity for deep and undivided attention as a means of problem solving, reflection, sustained engagement, and mental calm. Inviting our students into a discussion about digital distractions, and giving them the shared authority to establish policies, is at least a beginning.  

Your experiences in this regard? Please share!

Ground Control to Major Tom: Supporting Music Across the Curriculum

Steve Volk, February 5, 2018
Contact at:


Here I am sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

            David Bowie, “Ground Control to Major Tom” (1969)

David Bowie memorial in Brixton, London, 2016. Photo: Steve Volk

Could you use David Bowie’s songs to teach a cultural studies class? Certainly. How about English, History, Environmental Studies, Physics or Math? The question was answered at the “Music +” workshop which unfolded Friday in StudiOC. Kathryn Metz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, crafted the session designed to help us think about the whys, hows, and with-whats of using music across the curriculum. If the lessons learned can apply in literally any liberal arts setting, it wasn’t hard to understand why the appeal of using music across the curriculum seemed particularly opportune for Oberlin, which has a unique (in the true sense of the word) set of resources that faculty and instructional staff can tap into. These include, of course, everything that a world-class Conservatory brings to the table: faculty, staff, a superb library that features a massive collection of books, scores, and music, streaming options, instruments, photographs, art works, and an impressive archive. Further, there is the opportunity to attend over 500 live performances a year including an Artist Recital Series that brings some of the most revered musicians as well as many rising young performers to campus each year (Sleep? Pfff, that’s for the weak!). Finally, we have an often overlooked but unparalleled resource: our students. Whether in the Conservatory or the College, a substantial number of students not only have come to Oberlin because of the music, but are at home with music from Bach to Beyoncé.

But, as much as I love bragging about how Oberlin’s musical button is bigger than yours, the central message of the workshop was that any teacher in any school can leverage music to increase student learning with access to a simple sound system and the internet.  

For me, the workshop stressed the learning potential of using music across a liberal-arts setting, both in the curriculum and in a broader, extra-curricular fashion, explored the resources one can use to make this happen, and provided a methodology that can be applied for teaching popular music in a variety of contexts. And it asked one important question: Why the hell aren’t more or us making use of this unparalleled resource?

The Role of the Arts in Learning: Arts Across the Curriculum 

A fantastical musical machine as imagined by Athanasius Kircher in his Musurgia Universalis (1650). Public domain.

Oberlin can be justly proud of two outstanding artistic institutions that bolster teaching and learning across the campus: The Conservatory of Music, as I’ve already indicated, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Let me turn to the AMAM as an example of the potential of using art to scaffold an entire curriculum.

In the past decade, based on an outstanding staff headed by the Curator of Academic Programs, Liliana Milkova, and a well-conceived and designed outreach program, the AMAM has become an important pillar of instruction in the college, reaching far beyond the art history or studio art curriculum. In the 2016-17 school year, for example, over 6,000 students visited the museum as part of 368 class visits from 33 different disciplines in the College and Conservatory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we now have in place a significant art-across-the-curriculum program at Oberlin.

The Music + workshop was intended to encourage a process that can replicate the AMAM’s success in the context of music.

Of course, one question to ask is why? Why leverage the arts to support learning? Fortunately, there is a substantial body of research on the impact of the arts (music, visual, performance) on student learning. If you are interested, I would recommend the following, among many others:

One of the most influential studies in the field, highlighted at the workshop, was the 1999 study commissioned by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (Sigh. Remember when we had a White House that cared about … ? Sorry, must stay on task!). “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” edited by Edward B. Fiske, argued that the arts, when well taught, “provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies.” I probably don’t have to convince you, esteemed readers, of this, but just in case I’m bullet-pointing some of their conclusions. The arts, they argue,

  • Reach students who are not otherwise being reached;
  • Reach students in ways that they are not otherwise being reached;
  • Connect students to themselves and each other;
  • Transform the environment for learning;
  • Provide new challenges for those students already considered successful;
  • Encourage self-directed learning;
  • Promote complexity in the learning experience;
  • Allow management of risk by the learners.

So what, in particular, can music add to the mix, and what is the best way to go about integrating music into the curriculum? The question was answered through a wonderful demonstration, “What’s Music Got To Do With It?,” presented by Metz and Jason Hanley, the VP of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.  The interactive discussion was based on a model for studying popular music developed at the Rock Hall. You can read more about the approach in Susan Oehler and Jason Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy in Practice: An Introduction,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 21:1 (April 2009): 2-19. Oehler and Hanley explore a set of guiding questions that can be used to help students to dig more deeply into different genres of popular music. The authors organized them into three categories: context, sound, and meaning. And that’s where we went in the workshop.

From Oehler and Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy”

Ground Control to the Workshop

We examined the value of using music in a variety of ways through the work of Major Tom, aka, Ziggy Stardust, aka David Bowie, although his name was only revealed (to the unenlightened few who didn’t already know it) towards the end of the session. Our engagement with Bowie helped us think about how the investigation of a single musical example can lead students down multiple avenues, exploring aural experiences, the importance of historical context and cultural reception, repetition and creativity, and so many other things.

stratopaul, “David Bowie New England- Music News,” Flickr cc.

Begin with “Meaning.” We dissected the lyrics to “Ground Command to Major Tom.” (You can find them on, but here they are in any case if you’d like to try this at home.)

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
And put your helmet on
(10) Ground Control (9) to Major Tom (8)
(7, 6) Commencing (5) countdown
Engines on (4, 3, 2)
Check ignition (1)
And may God’s love (Liftoff) be with you

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Within no more than 5 minutes we had generated dozens of questions and observations about the lyrics. We discussed issues of communication (Can you hear me?), technology (I think my spaceship knows which way to go), environment, religion, shirts, relationships, allegory, history, and oh so much else! And while it’s true, as a colleague pointed out, that we are more expert at pulling meaning and questions from texts than our students, the exercise highlighted the potential of using popular song lyrics as a gateway to a variety of subjects as well as different pedagogical practices (close reading, evidence and analysis, etc.).

Turn, next, to “Sound,” listening to the song itself.  The exercise brought me back to museum pedagogy. Much as the “Visual Thinking Strategies” (VTS) approach employed by the curators in the AMAM and other museums is launched by asking the simple question, “What do you see?” the “Rock Hall” pedagogy of popular music, which I’ll here officially name as the “Aural Thinking Strategies” approach, begins by asking, “What do you hear?” And, just as VTS follows up by asking “What more do you see,” ATS did the same: “What else do you hear?” Those with training in music theory or who can boast a performance background will certainly hear different things than the lay listener, but we all heard – and reported on – what the aural experience was for us. (While I won’t cover this point here, both VTS and the ATS approach can be modified and used with those with visual or hearing impairments.)

Investigating the “sound” layer opened new areas for discussion: instruments and instrumentation, tone of voice, employment of instrumental bridges, shifting narration, use of base, reverb, harmony and chaos, all of which suggested different meanings for the lyrics than those we had discussed previously. Adding visuals to the music added yet another layer. We watched the original 1969 video of “Ground Control,” and suggested how the visuals either supported or undercut understandings that we had developed before as well as how the music in the video different from the original audio performance, and why the changes were made.

We continued along the visual path by examining the album covers from the original UK edition released in 1969 and the U.S. release (“David Bowie: A Space Oddity”), highlighting the impact of Op-Art on the UK edition and considering the impact of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the second (“A Space Oddity”), moving – as with VTS – from “what do you see?” to interpretation: why?

David Bowie – Phillips:

Then to “context,” as we followed the reappearance of themes raised for the first time in “Ground Control” (1969), to Bowie’s reimagined appearance as Ziggy Stardust in “Starman” (“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars,” 1972), and on to “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), “Hallo Spaceboy” (1996), and, ultimately, sadly, following some of the religious themes (“And may God’s love be with you”) through to his last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, two days before he died. Intertextuality, the continuities and disjunctions of artistic lives and themes, the opportunity to see an artist reprocess central images over 40+ years of creativity, the historic meaning of Bowie in 1969 and at his death… So many themes to explore!

David Bowie, “Space Oddity,” 1972 RCA LP;
Fair use

But the discussion didn’t end there. We considered how “Ground Control” was taken up anew in the work of other artists, viewing Peter Schilling’s video, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1996). One could go on and on: we could have checked out K.I.A.’s version (“Mrs. Major Tom”) from 2002, in which Larissa Gomes narrates the story from the perspective of Major Tom’s wife who has been left at home. Or Sheryl Crow’s cover of that version on William Shatner’s Seeking Major Tom album from 2011. But my hands-down favorite was a version of “Ground Control” recorded, mixed and produced on the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013. Promise me that you’ll look at that, not to mention the original. (And I’ll leave it up to you and your students to discuss among yourselves what is original, or the meaning of authentic, or how we understand creativity itself in the context of remixing, sampling, or reimagining.) All of this by looking at one song and its history.

acb, “ZIGG’/ ST’-.|/DUST,” Flickr cc.

Where do you fit in?

If you haven’t figured out by now, I was incredibly energized by the workshop, not only because it featured the artistry of David Bowie, but because it offered teachers, particularly in liberal arts colleges, another way to integrate our students’ learning and their lived experience. Much as with (visual) art, and the value of the Allen Memorial Art Museum to students’ learning across the campus that I referenced earlier, music can provide a link into virtually any course.

At my “breakout” table, for example, we discussed the distinctions that different people or cultures make between “sound” and “music,” and just how critical these distinctions can be. Fredara Hadley, who teaches an “Introduction to African American Music,” among other courses, in the Conservatory, reminded us of the case of Jordan Davis, an African American teenager, who was shot and killed in Florida in 2012 because his white, middle-aged killer, Michael Dunn, was “offended” by the loud hip hop music that came from his car.

Much as we peeled off the various levels of engaging with “Ground Control,” so we can think of the many ways of deploying music across the curriculum. As with art, the most straightforward approach is through its content or subject matter: Medieval European history can be enriched with medieval music, either in live performances (and we are fortunate to have the exceptional Collegium Musicum, directed by Steven Plank), through recordings, or by viewing the instruments of the period. Courses on U.S. history in the 1960s or a study of social movements will easily find ways to use music as a text in their courses. Nor is this limited to social science or humanities courses. Our massive 4,014 pipe Kay Africa Memorial Organ in Finney is a perfect instrument, pun intended, for a physics lesson. But content or subject matter aren’t the only ways in when thinking about music across the curriculum.

As Professor Hadley observed, so many of our students traverse the campus with headphones on or ear-buds firmly in place, surely listening to music. But, are they listening or just hearing? Is the ubiquity of music actually getting in the way of listening (and not just because they don’t take out their ear-buds when they’re talking to you).  Bringing music into a class can be a method for helping students become careful, discerning listeners which, I would argue, is a skill that we could all use more of today. In a similar way, music can be used to bolster dispositional outcomes, ways of being in the world, that we hope to foster in our students. We know quite well that students (as well as most of us) are hyperactive; moving rapidly between various operations. “Empty” time that previously existed between tasks has basically disappeared since technology provides us with something to do to fill quiet spaces. What deliberate listening, as a learned disposition, can provide, much like close looking or careful reading, is a means of slowing students down, moving them out of hyperactivity – which has its place, to be sure – and into a modality where deep analysis and reflection can occur. While it is unlikely that most classes will find the time to play an entire album that students can listen to collectively, even 5-6 minutes of thoughtful and close listening can help students slow down.

Music to Unite

At the beginning of the Music + workshop, Dean Andrea Kalyn talked about music as a “thing” and a “mode”. In the former sense, music, she argued, is an experience that can awe us, an artifact that stands in its own right and in relation to the culture around it, and a set of skills to be learned whether via performance or as a new language, a different way of understanding. In the latter sense, it operates as a mode of creation (composition), re-creation (performance), and collaboration, a mode of listening, synthesis, and practice (discipline). Each of these aspects holds out potential to further engage and activate student learning by weaving together cognitive and affective, what they study and what they experience across the campus and the community. Music, then, has the potential of crossing barriers, both imagined and real.

Let me conclude, then, by referencing one of my favorite composers, John Luther Adams, who has been featured in these pages a number of times. Music (its study, composition, performance, reception, discipline, magnificence) offers us the potential of speaking to everyone on campus. But, in the wider world, it can unite those who have been separated. In late January, Steven Schick, a percussionist and conductor, peered through the fence that separates San Diego, California, from Tijuana, Mexico, and proclaimed, “Con la música nunca se puede dividirnos”: “With music, we cannot be divided.” He proceeded to lead a group of musicians located on both sides of the border in a performance of John Luther Adams’s hour-long percussion work “Inuksuit.” Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, observed the event from the Tijuana side of the border.

“The performance began almost inaudibly,” he wrote, “with musicians breathing into paper and plastic tubes. Then Schick let out a foghorn tone on a conch shell. This was a signal for a gradual crescendo, building to a gaudy roar of drums, gongs, cymbals, and sirens…Only performers were allowed in the adjacent strip; for security reasons, Border Patrol kept the audience behind the second fence. Some two hundred and fifty Americans showed up, having hiked nearly a mile to reach the site.”

Ross had seen “Inuksuit” a number of times but this performance, he wrote, “was overwhelming in its impact, for obvious reasons. As I listened, I couldn’t help registering the messages inscribed on the [Mexican side of the] wall: “What God has joined together let man not separate”; “Stop family separation”; “How many hearts must bleed?”; “La poesía es gente con sueños” (“Poetry is people with dreams”); “Love trumps hate.” Yet, as at other performances of Adams’s remarkable creation, the sheer volume of the climax had the effect of wiping my brain clean of concrete thoughts. I closed my eyes and found myself unaware of the wall’s existence: the wire mesh did nothing to stop the flow of sound.”

Music has the power to do so much. What are we waiting for?

Added Feb. 5, 2018 (1:06 PM)

A few additional resources:

Christy Thomas, “Active Listening: Teaching with Music,” Yale Center for Teaching and Learning (November 30, 2015).

Ronald A. Berk, “Music and music technology in college teaching: Classical to hip hop across the  curriculum,” International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 4:1 (2008), 45–67.

Janelle Monae f., “Hell You Talmbout,” Wondaland Records.

Mentoring: Small Acts That Go a Long Way

Steve Volk, January 29, 2018

All images from the Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus (commonly known as the Fables of Bidpai in the West) a Persian version of an ancient Indian collection of animal fables called the Panchatantra. Public domain.

I’m pretty sure that my primary work in the “Article of the Week” is to remind educators of what they already know. I know that I certainly could use frequent and repeated reminding. All this by way of reporting on one of the many sessions I attended at the just-concluded annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Washington DC. (Truth be told, I escaped at one point to visit the Renwick Gallery’s absolutely marvelous exhibit of 19 miniature crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee. Not to be missed!).

The presenter at this particular session was José Antonio Bowen, the president of Goucher College. I’ve heard Bowen speak a number of times before and knew that I would be in for a treat. A former jazz pianist who has appeared around the world with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck, leader of the José Bowen Quartet, composer of symphonies (one nominated for a Pulitzer), multiple recordings (including a “Jazz Shabbat Service,”) a degree in chemistry from Stanford, the inaugural Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown, Dean of Fine Arts at Miami, author of hundreds of scholarly articles, and numerous books, including the award-winning Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student LearningOK, you get the idea. No matter what you’ll do in your entire career, he’s already done more. On stage – and he’s often on stage even when he’s not – he’s part carnival barker, part preacher, part your favorite high school science teacher.

Combining personal stories and insights drawn from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, Bowen’s talks are filled with broad observations about where we are (and where we should be headed) as educators, and specific tips on how to improve teaching and learning. What makes his observations more fun is that, as president of a small liberal arts college, he actually has a place to bring his ideas to life.

Example of former: Learning is all about change and readjusting assumptions, not about accumulating information. At the end of the day, your smart phone is still smarter than you are. 

Example of latter: When returning papers to students, hand them back with comments on them, but not the grades. Post the grades to Blackboard (or whatever LMS you use) a few hours or a day later. It’s a simple way to help students focus on the comments you have written rather than having them immediately turn to the last page, look for the grade, and ignore your input.  (Not, I’m sure, that any of our students would do that!).

Bowen also happens to be a data freak: Goucher has done away with standard distribution requirements but, among the courses that all students must take are two semesters of data analytics. His action directives, not surprisingly, are data driven even as his argument in Teaching Naked is all about not letting technology get in the way of teaching and learning. Teaching, he argues, is a design process. Whereas we, the faculty, begin with content and a love of our subject, students are on the outside, and our first task is to motivate them, encouraging them to “fall into our content” by helping them become more relaxed and engaged around our content. Anyway, to get back to the point, as the president of a college he vacuums up every piece of data he can get his hands on to make informed decisions designed to augment student success at Goucher. Like these:

Question one: Which first-year student do you think is least likely to graduate on time: the one assigned to live in a single room, or the ones in doubles, triples, or quads? The answer is upside down on the bottom of the page. No, actually it’s here (and based on the date he collected): students living in single rooms in their first year are less likely to graduate on time than the other students. Why? Loneliness is among the most frequently reported mental health issues of incoming students. This is a problem that has increased year by year. There are many reasons for this but one, referenced by Bowen, is that today’s students “take their friends with them” when they leave high school, i.e., they remain in constant communication with their high school buddies either by text or voice. Those students in singles are least likely to make new friends and, therefore, are at risk of being most isolated and lonely, something that will impact their overall well being and chances at success. (It’s also why those in quads are most likely to finish on time.) So, as a college president, do you try to drive admissions by acquiescing to parent demand that their children be given the single rooms they desire (since they have never had to share a room) and therefore increase single-room inventory? Or do you respond to what the data says about student success and reduce the number of single rooms at the risk of crimping admissions? (For Bowen, you do both: educate parents and reduce the number of singles.)

Question two: Who is more likely to graduate on time? A student in a dorm room at the end of the hall from the bathroom or one who is closest to the bathroom? By now, you know the answer: the one who is farthest away. (Oh, the joys of data!) Why? No one knows for sure, but Bowen suspects it’s because those at a greater distance from the bathroom have more opportunities to meet their hall-mates and make friends as they drip their way back to their rooms from the shower.

Student Outcomes and Faculty Inputs

It’s interesting to think of how small, data-driven changes (“nudges,” he calls them) can improve student outcomes. But the main point I want to stress from Bowen’s talk is the importance of two factors that, students report, have had a very strong impact on their lives after graduation:

  • having a professor who cared about them as a person, one who made them excited about learning, and,
  • having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams,

A variety of different studies have come to similar conclusions, the Gallup-Purdue polling from 2014 being the most frequently cited one. Gallup-Purdue created an index to examine the long-term success of graduates as they pursue a good job (understood as the degree to which they were “engaged at work”) and a better life (degrees of “well-being”). They defined the latter as “the combination of all the things that are important to each individual… how people think about and experience their lives,” and to get at these factors they posed ten questions in each of five areas:

  • Purpose Well-Being: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.
  • Social Well-Being: Having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life.
  • Financial Well-Being: Effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.
  • Community Well-Being: The sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live, liking where you live, and feeling safe and having pride in your community.
  • Physical Well-Being: Having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis.

I’m not here to judge the validity of their conclusions – they based their findings on interviews of 30,000 graduates – and I won’t presume to evaluate the nature of the “well-being” categories they have constructed. But from a layperson’s perspective, they seem adequate for the task. So, what do they find?

In the first place, they found that the odds of being engaged at work are:

  • 2-times higher if the student had a mentor who “encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”
  • 1.9-times higher if their undergraduate professors “cared about me as a person.”

Finally, if employed graduates (the study only examined graduates who were employed) had professors who cared about them as a person, who made them excited about learning, and they also had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled. (A troubling data point: only 14% of graduates could claim all three.)

In terms of well-being, college graduates who felt “supported” during college (i.e., they experienced professors who cared about them and made them excited about learning, and they had a mentor) were nearly three times as likely to be thriving as those who didn’t feel supported. (And now for the depressing news: in the 2010-2014 cohort, only 3% of those interviewed claimed to be thriving in all 5 “well-being” areas (as compared, for example, to 26% in the 1960-1969 cohort).

In case you were wondering, it hardly mattered what kind of college or university one attended: results were almost exactly the same in every category (public, private not-for-profit, selective, US News top 100, etc.) except for being significantly lower in the private for-profit sector. (And, not to overlook a very important factor, only 2% of those who graduate with more than $40,000 in debt were defined as “thriving”.)

Gallup-Purdue polling.

Small Interventions, Big Differences

The authors of How College Works (Harvard 2014), Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, reported very similar results based on a longitudinal (1999-2010), multimethod study of just one college, Hamilton. Consistent with the Gallup-Purdue study, and quite similar to Bowen’s argument, one of the authors’ central conclusions is that “relationships are central to a successful college experience.” The most important relationships are those of friends (house them in triples and quads – and far away from bathrooms!! – rather than isolating them in singles), good teachers, above all in the students’ first years in college (“when good teachers are encountered early, they legitimize academic involvement”), and mentors.  Chambliss and Takacs define mentorship as a “significant personal and professional connection,” that lasts more than just one course or semester. Mentors cannot be assigned and are not the same as advisors (although they can overlap), most often are teachers or coaches, come about only by mutual consent (this is a relationship that both mentor and student want), and often “blur the distinction between professional and personal concerns.”

The authors further explored the importance of the impact of personal (outside-of-class) connections  between instructors and students, relying on a study by Shauna Sweet that looked at seven years of Senior Surveys (2,018 respondents) compiled by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium of colleges. The surveys asked if students had ever been a guest in a faculty member’s home and if, given the chance, would choose again to attend their college. Sweet found that a positive response to the first question was correlated to a higher response in the second. Not content with correlations, the authors subjected the data to more rigorous statistical analyses, ultimately concluding that visiting a professor’s home had a greater statistical impact on whether they would choose again to attend the same college than if their GPA was raised from a B- to an A-, and that this result persists years after the student graduated.

So, should we all be inviting students to dine with us? “Our point,” Chambliss and Takacs write, “isn’t that all professors should be inviting students to their homes. It’s that remarkably small actions can at least potentially produce huge results, noticeable even years later.”

José Antonio Bowen covered the same ground in his presentation at the AAC&U. In his case, he argued that that faculty should try to be at their students’ lacrosse games or theater performances. I don’t disagree, but what Bowen seems to overlook (and what Chambliss and Takacs better account for) is that as much as faculty and staff would like to do these things, the reality of their lived lives has changed exponentially from 50 years earlier (when, you will remember, student “thriving” was much higher). Today’s faculty, and here allow me some over-generalizations, are less likely to live close to campus, are more likely to be in a family or relationship where all the adults work, and surely are facing an increased work load. I would have loved to go to more field hockey games, or to have invited many more students over to dinner. But where does the time for these come from?

This is where I think that a stiff drink of Bowen needs to be followed by a Chambliss-Takacs chaser: the point is not that you should beat yourself up because you couldn’t get to a student’s recital (after all, you’re teaching 80 students that semester) it is that:

  • small actions can produce huge results;
  • having a professor who cares about students as individuals, and who can make them excited about learning is so critical; and,
  • mentorship is essential for all students: being the person who believes in you, the student, who will give you the honest advice you need, who will tell you that you have what is needed to succeed when so much is in doubt.

See, I told you that all I really do is remind you of what you already knew. So, as you approach the beginning of a new semester, think about the small actions you can take that can produce big results in your students’ future. If it’s attending a basketball game, great; if inviting some for dinner, also good. But support and caring can be shown in a myriad of ways, and they make a difference. The research, and our own observations, tells us that.

2017 – The Year in Higher Education

Steve Volk, January 22, 2018
Contact at:

It is stock-taking time; time to think about where  higher education stands one year after “45’s” inauguration, time to figure out how we as educators at liberal arts colleges have weathered what all agree was a very stormy year. Attempting to draw meaningful conclusions as to how our sector has been impacted by events in Washington, and how current developments will play out in the long run, or even next year, is challenging. But with this in mind, let’s look at the past year in higher ed, at where we stand on January 20, 2018 compared with January 20, 2017.

Attacking the Foundations: Alternative Facts and Fake News

Antonio Marín Segovia, “El asesinato de la verdad (No fue el mayordomo),” Flickr CC

When beginning to think about the year past, I recalled Antonio Gramsci’s often repeated remark about  “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”  The essence, the very heart, of what we do demands to some degree that we never abandon an optimism of the will. But it is fair to say that the year heaped yet more challenges on to higher ed’s already over-loaded plate. Perhaps the most serious challenge faced by educators came with the Administration’s on-going attack on facts, evidence, and truth. Two telling moments book-ended the year. The Trumpian year began, in case we’ve forgotten, when senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway defended on NBC’s Meet the Press, Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration two days earlier had drawn record numbers. This, despite all evidence, photographic included, to the contrary. What could have been ignored or laughed away instead became a cornerstone of the the new Administration’s approach to information when Conway defended Spicer’s assertion as “alternative facts.” (Within 4 days of her linguistic rebranding, sales of Orwell’s 1984 had jumped 9,500%.)

The year ended with Trump’s “highly anticipated” (ahem!) “Fake News Awards,” which were intended to blast the media by pointing to some of its miscues and factual errors, mistakes which are typically corrected and updated. As everyone knows, the “awards” were fundamentally about branding as “fake” any news that challenged Trump’s view of himself or the world and casting the media as an “enemy of the people.”

Many commentators have analyzed the Administration’s continual and often bewildering resort to lies (PolitiFact is among other news organizations keeping count). The most perceptive, in my opinion, is Masha Gessen. In comparing Trump with Vladimir Putin, she argued that “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” While it can test one’s patience (and sanity) to hear denials of charges for which evidence (including photographic or audio) is readily available (“Who are you going to believe,” another of my favorite Marxists, Groucho, once questioned, “me or your own eyes?”), the point of the lie is not to demonstrate the accuracy of one’s own “alternative fact,” but to cast doubt on all facts; not to suggest that one’s own favored news source has better access to information, but that all “news” sources are the same – so just pick the one you like. In the end, as Gessen suggested, lies are often about the power of the speaker.

As this approach rolled out over the course of the year, it has presented a huge obstacle to educators.

The task of helping students research, analyze, and argue on the basis of reliable evidence in a world already staggering under a mountain of information is formidable. It goes beyond a simple affirmation that you can trust this source and should be wary of that. We are faced with working with students to help them understand that information is shaped within and by social and historical contexts, that neither science nor history, for example, are fields of inquiry intended to produce definitive and timeless truth. But when the Administration’s approach to information would make all facts fungible, transactional, and based on the knowledge that your political base will agree with you when you say that day is night and black is white, it means that our task as educators, and as citizens of a democracy, is complicated by magnitudes of order.

Traveller_40, “Alternative Facts,” Flickr CC

One indication of what such an environment can foster is on display in Wisconsin, where, last June, a legislator introduced a bill to the Assembly ostensibly intended to protect free speech rights on campus (more on this below). The bill stated in part, “That each institution shall strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day, and may not take action… in such a way as to require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.” When the sponsor of the bill, Jesse Kremer, was asked whether a geology professor would be allowed to correct a student who believed the earth to be 6,000 years old, he replied, “The Earth is 6,000 years old. That’s a fact.”

And still, thanks to physics, we know that for every action there is a reaction (even if it’s not always equal, at least in the world of politics and power). Faculty and researchers have begun to address the demand to help students develop their understanding of information, to distinguish reliable sources from questionable ones, and questionable sources from invented ones, and to approach evidence with a critical eye, aware of its contextualized production. (See, for example, here, here, here, and here.)

Access to Data, Control of Language

One of the most immediate challenges introduced by the Trump Administration was its seeming determination to remove or limit access to certain sources of government data which it found to be incompatible with its policy goals. Officials took down the data and websites providing scientific information about climate change that were maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Most alarming, the EPA removed its two-decades old website of data on climate science, threatening to undermine current and on-going research. The Republican leadership in Congress, for its part, has blocked attempts to measure accurately the effects of its health care and tax cut legislation. The Census Bureau is being starved of funds, and even the F.B.I. has cut back on its publicly available crime statistics.

Gita Wilén, “När DATA brukade vara framtiden,” Flickr CC

Most recently, according to the Washington Post, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “forbidden” to use specific words in budget proposal documents that circulated in the administration and Congress. These included “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.” The CDC denied that words were banned, but did acknowledge the importance of being “sensitive” to the impact of certain words when building a case for congressional funding or White House support. Fair enough, but educators must recognize how thin is the ice on which we skate when the mere mention of “evidence” or “science” is thought to raise political hackles.

But here, too, action produced positive reaction. The Sunlight Foundation began keeping track of federal open data sets removed from government websites, posting updates to a spreadsheet hosted on their site. Protesting against the disappearance of the EPA website, officials in Chicago posted the site online as it existed under the Obama administration. Fear of the loss of decades of valuable environmental and atmospheric data led some universities, UCLA among others, to begin a large-scale, professional data harvesting operation. And run-of-the-mill citizens were encouraged to participate in a nation-wide effort to save, store, and upload government reports using a tool kit that required nothing more than a downloadable plug-in program and internet assess.

Free Speech…

Media discussion of higher education in the past few years has focused to a considerable extent on free speech issues. A substantial amount of media coverage has been taken up by incidents on liberal arts campuses such as Middlebury and Claremont McKenna, colleges where invited speakers were prevented from speaking. The media also widely reported incidents of students disrupting faculty from teaching their courses at Reed, as well as the tumultuous year at Evergreen State. While those events provoked a reaction in the national debate on higher education, they also encouraged a deeper discussion on many campuses of the complexities involved in balancing free speech rights (particularly on private campuses where there is no obligation to host everyone who demands a platform) with an appreciation of the emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical toll on students of color or marginalized students caused by “invited” speakers whose primary intent is to denigrate them. It is understandable that these discussions have become more widespread in the Age of Trump as examples of the corrosive power of racism at the highest levels lends urgency to the task. While the disruption of speakers cast students and liberal arts institutions in general in a negative light, it also opened a discussion of the very devastating impact words can have on historically marginalized populations. For every action…

Walt Jabsco, “Free Speech for the Dumb,” Flickr CC

This past year has also seen a critical evolution in the direction the free speech debate on campuses has taken. Spurred by last year’s election, the so-called “alt-right,” white nationalist, movement saw a fertile moment to move out from the fringes. Particularly following Trump’s equating of white nationalists (“Jews will not replace us!”) with counter-protesters at an August rally in Charlottesville, alt-right spokespeople such as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Matthew Heimbach, Mike Enoch and others hijacked the free speech debate to insert their hate-filled messages on campus. Their purpose was as much to disrupt the academy (forcing it to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in security fees) as to find willing acolytes. Universities including Berkeley, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Penn State, and Florida, among many others, have been forced to negotiate this territory, which they increasingly see as difficult to manage, with some banning speakers (Ohio State, Penn State), and others allowing them (Florida).

Media reports of the disruption of Charles Murray and “snowflake” students seem as plentiful as ever, but the debate has broadened and become more nuanced as universities and colleges have had to consider the impact on their students of speakers whose main purpose is to traffic in hateful messages targeting specific and vulnerable parts of the community.

The issue has taken on added urgency as the incidence of hate crimes grew over the past year. According to FBI data released in November, more hate crimes were carried out in the United States last year than in previous years, with an uptick in incidents motivated by bias against Jews, Muslims and LGBT communities, among others. Racial incidents and hate crimes were also up on college campuses. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education keeps a tally of reports of the latest incidents, listing dozens and dozens of events in the past year alone.

…And Academic Freedom

As alt-right speakers sought to “weaponize free speech,” in the words of Joan W. Scott, and as conservative organizations such as “Professor Watchlist,” established by Turning Point USA, encouraged students to publicize any professor who advances what they called a “radical agenda in lecture halls,” more faculty began to reflect on the relationship of free speech to academic freedom. If the former references the constitutional right of speakers to deliver any and all messages in public settings – including public universities – academic freedom protects the right of faculty to teach as we determine, free from outside interference, yet within well established professional guidelines. Speech in an academic context is guided (at least aspirationally, if not in every instance) by evidence-based argument and critical thinking. That, Scott insists, is “not a program of neutrality, not tolerance of all opinion, not an endorsement of the idea that anything goes.” Rather, it is about “how one brings knowledge to bear on criticism; it is a procedure, a method that shapes and disciplines thought.” The past year, then, has produced a much richer debate on how we, as educators, struggle to balance these two ideals, cautioning those who would silence unpopular viewpoints rather than debating them, and refusing attempts of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and others to slip their racist agenda into academia under the cover of free speech protections.

Viewminder, “Strange Bedfellows,” Flickr CC

In many ways, the shoe has been on the other foot in 2017. Those who criticized students for shutting down speakers on liberal arts campuses in 2016, a critique which was often well deserved, are now silent when protests are aimed at progressive guest speakers. Chelsea Manning’s invitation to speak at Harvard was rescinded in September, with some Republican politicians going so far as to suggest that Harvard should lose all public funding for its decision to invite Manning (they had nothing to say when her invitation was withdrawn by Harvard). The Reverend James Martin, author of several books arguing that the Roman Catholic Church should find ways to interact positively with gay and lesbian Catholics, was disinvited from an engagement at the Catholic University of America; California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was shouted down at Whittier College in October.

Challenging the rights of faculty to speak as citizens by targeting them with online harassment became a more common, and deeply dan­gerous, practice over the past year. Faculty of color are over-represented among recent examples of those on the receiving end of internet attacks: Johnny Williams at Trinity College, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton University, Lisa Durden at Essex County College, Dana Cloud at Syracuse University, Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa, Tommy Curry at Texas A&M University, and George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University. Dr. Laurie Rubel, who examined the relationship between race and the notion of “merit” in an article which appeared in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education in December, has been the target of daily email threats of physical and sexual assault after her article was crudely caricatured by Campus Reform, a conservative website.

Legislators have been particularly active in attempting to influence campus debate. Consider the following bills introduced and other actions taken during the past year:

  • A Republican legislator in Arizona proposed a bill that would prohibit state colleges from offering any class that promotes “division, resentment or social justice” without defining what he meant by those words – Arizona earlier banned the teaching of ethnic studies in grades K-12.
  • A state senator in Iowa introduced a bill that would allow the use of political party affiliation as a test for faculty appointments to colleges and universities.
  • A Republican legislator in Arkansas filed a bill to ban any writing by or about the progressive historian Howard Zinn, author of the popular A People’s History of the United States.
  • In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker tried to remove all references to the university’s commitment to the “search for truth,” and the legislature stripped state workers and professors of their collective bargaining rights.
  • A leader of the College Republicans at the University of Tennessee intent on “protecting” students from intimidation by “the academic elite,” proclaimed that “Tennessee is a conservative state. We will not allow out-of-touch professors with no real-world experience to intimidate 18-year-olds.”

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League observed that white supremacists have stepped up their recruiting in more than 30 states.

The Public and Higher Education

I was not shocked (shocked!) in the past year to learn that the polarization that underscores the public’s view of most institutions has now divided popular opinion as to the utility of higher education as well. Pew Research Center polling in 2017 indicated that 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents felt that colleges and universities were having a negative impact on the way things were going in the country, while just 36% thought that their effect was largely positive, according to Pew’s survey. More striking, only two years ago, attitudes were reversed with 54% of Republicans and Republican-leaners expressing the opinion that colleges were having a positive effect on the country, and 37% claiming a negative impact. Gallup polling revealed a sharp partisan divide in terms of institutional confidence in higher education. In 2017 only 33% of Republicans expressed a “great deal” of or “some” confidence in higher education while 56% of Democrats showed support.

Obviously, these distressing numbers are driven by many factors, not least of which is a sense among Republican legislators that colleges and universities have become progressive encampments where privileged young “snowflakes,” fawned over by their tremulous teachers, spend all their time railing against Trump, cultural appropriation (which they would put in ironic quotes), or any requirement that has them reading Homer or Shakespeare. Even Democratic legislators have backed away from enthusiastically supporting higher education in the face of climbing tuition, mounting student debt, and concerns (sometimes accurate, sometimes ill-informed) that the academy is too stodgy, too protective of its own interests, and too implicated in deepening social and economic inequalities in the country. As a result, the huge majority of the 20.4 million higher ed students in 2017 who are struggling to do what students have always done – get an education and get ahead in the world – are more and more left out in the rain.

The unwillingness of government at all levels to fund education was fully evident in 2017. Education is increasingly seen as a private consumable, not a public good, by which we mean something that is not simply “good for the public” but which benefits many people, including those who do not pay for it. The growing lack of confidence in higher education, combined with a dominant neoliberal suspicion of the public sphere in general, has underscored the decreasing support by legislators for funding higher education. As Secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos continues to demonstrate her disregard for the public K-12 sector and willingly overlooks the often predatory activities of for-profit institutions in higher education. In June, for example, she suspended Obama-era regulations designed to make it easier to forgive loans for students who had been defrauded by for-profits and intended to prevent future abuses.

At a time when the benefits of a college education have never been greater, state policy-makers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to those most in need. State spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historic levels. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-17 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, adjusting for inflation. The downward-spiral that this places many institutions on is obvious, as administrators see increasing tuition or reducing educational quality as the only way to balance their budgets. They have turned to limiting course offerings, closing departments and programs and, most frequently, reducing full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty and replacing them with well-qualified but immensely over-worked adjuncts and part-timers who simply lack the time to provide students with needed guidance and instruction. The percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty and contingent faculty has essentially flipped since the 1970s, with the proportion of tenure-line faculty now at less than 30% of the total.

The recently passed tax bill is likely to deepen the challenges faced by the higher education sector;  perhaps that was its intention. With the move to limit deductions for state, local, and property taxes, the tax bill raises the effective tax rate for individuals in high-tax states (which just so happen to be blue states: California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.). Even in states that support public funding for education, it is now less likely that legislators will raise taxes again to make up for a shortfall in education dollars. Furthermore, the bill, by increasing the standard deduction and making itemization less likely, will probably negatively impact charitable giving — one study estimates that it will decline by 4.5% next year — particularly by middle-income households.

Title 9 and #MeToo 

In September, Secretary DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on Title IX, allowing universities to modify the standard of evidence in campus sexual assault cases. The department’s Office for Civil Rights will use the new guidance document to assess institutions’ compliance with Title IX until a promised federal regulation dealing with campus sexual misconduct is finalized. The new guidance from the department grants colleges the ability to set their own evidentiary standard for misconduct findings, to pursue informal resolutions such as mediation and to establish an appeals process for disciplinary sanctions. The rules-change was challenged by a lawsuit filed in October by a national women’s rights group and three Massachusetts women.

Alter1fo, “[25 Octobre 2017] – Un jour, une photo… Agresseurs, violeurs… à vous d’avoir peur!” Flickr CC

These changes are generally seen as providing more protections to those accused of sexual harassment, and they come in the midst of one of the most significant developments in higher education in 2017, the spread of the #MeToo movement from the world of entertainment and the arts, to politics, and, now, higher education. As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted in November, “Higher education had already had moments of confrontation with harassment, assault, and the cultural and structural forces that underlie them. Women have described the cultures in some disciplines, including philosophy and astronomy, as corrosive and hostile. Campus officials have struggled to determine how to punish abusive employees — and how to avoid simply passing them on to other universities. Scholarly societies have taken a more vigilant approach to conferences that have long been seen as incubators for misconduct.” In the past year, accusations of sexual harassment in higher education have led to numerous firings and resignations, as well as some denials. (The Chronicle maintains an updated list of such charges here.)

Optimism of the will

While most commentators would credit the women who revealed Harvey Weinstein’s predations with opening the floodgates to the #MeToo movement that soon reached academia, it is certainly no coincidence that this opening took place with an admitted sexual predator in the White House.

Similarly, the upsurge of hate crimes in the nation and on campuses this past year, targeting people of color, Muslims, Jews, and the LGBTQ community, has produced vigorous movements to defend the rights of all students and a growing awareness of what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive institution. The demands for inclusion and equity have been growing on campuses in the past few years, spurred since 2013 in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement. That there is still a long way to go in this regard is beyond doubt. But the fact that these issues have been given greater consideration during the past year is probably another indication that actions produce reactions, if not equal in force, then at least significant.

It is hard not to conclude that the year past was massively challenging for those of us in higher education. And yet, if we maintain an optimism of the will, we can more readily address those areas in which we can have an impact, certainly by creating more equitable and inclusive institutions, challenging them to be true to their missions, and developing practices and honest narratives that better explain what we do to a skeptical public.


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

Steve Volk, December 11, 2017
Contact at:

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:

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:

“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:
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

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.