Saturday, February 6, 2016

In Praise of HBCUs

A recent article on the Fisher case currently before the Supreme Court to determine the legality of college affirmative action admissions guidelines responds eloquently to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ questioning of the value of diversity and “why the U.S. needs more Black physicists.”  (Thanks to Neal Carlson for bringing the article to my attention.) 
Dr. M. Christopher Brown II, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs for the Southern University system, reminded Justice Roberts that “many of the best scientific discoveries and inventions emerge from the lived experiences of [those who] are transgressive outliers from the general norm.” 
Dr. Lisa Aponte-Soto, national program deputy director of New Connections, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program that works to increase opportunities for early and midcareer scholars of color in STEM fields, agreed, pointing out that scientists of color “add a sensitivity to the ‘impact of cultural values’ on the application of science… that is critical to the effectiveness and accuracy of outcomes.”
What caught my eye as a teacher was a follow-up assertion by Dr. Aponte-Soto that “faculty of color tend to encourage more student input, which enhances the students’ connection to the material.” What are we doing at Lincoln that shows this teaching/learning principle in action, in our STEM courses in particular, but also in all the other disciplines?  How do you encourage more student input in your course, helping your students to try on the shoes of the experts and get excited about walking in that path?  Can you share an example that has worked well in your classes, whether physics or philosophy, mathematics or mass communication?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

An Engaging and Exhilarating Introductory Activity

by Guest Blogger Malcolm Bonner

Years ago, as Director of The University of Pennsylvania McNair Scholars Program, I invited Dr. Mary Heiberger from Penn’s Counseling Department to make a presentation to our McNair scholars. Dr. Heiberger opened with a unique and engaging introductory exercise thatI continue to employ on the first day of class. (Dr. Mary Heiberger departed this life in November 2003.)
After students have settled in and you have taken roll, assign (or have students choose) partners. Students should be prepared with pens and notebooks. Show instructions on the Smart Board or blackboard:
Please interview your partner in order to glean information which will allow you to introduce your partner as the Keynote Speaker at a (relevant) National Conference Ten Years from Now.
I have found it useful to make it clear that the activity is an interview process; much of the richness is lost if students scribble their own information and push it across the desk at their partners and say “read this.” Some of the information will be factual; a good deal will be flights of optimistic fancy.  I usually do a brief demonstration with a student, which could proceed thusly:
“Good Afternoon. Welcome to the 2025 National Conference for Family Professionals in sunny Orlando, Florida. I am honored to introduce our Keynote Speaker for this evening, Dr. Bill Blank. Dr. Blank earned his BA at Lincoln University in 2017, went on to earn his Master of Human Services Degree at Lincoln in 2019, and earned a Doctor of Human Services degree at William and Mary in 2022. Dr. Blank has established Family First, a network of counseling services and family therapy centers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He is the author of Love is the Answer (2024), which was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 67 consecutive weeks. He was named Time Magazine Man of the Year, and has been prominently mentioned as a candidate for a Cabinet post in the administration of President Elton Brand. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Bill Blank.”
Following the demonstration, the student returns to interview and be interviewed by a partner. Once each pair has completed interviews, I call the class to order and the first pair of presenters to the front of the class. I have found it important to emphasize that each student is to be given “our most courteous, most rapt, and completely undivided attention” while speaking. I remind students that it is not crucial to have introductions written perfectly; since the future remains unknown, presenters can ad lib and have fun. Some students will be more relaxed and confident than others. It is probably better to permit the occasional stumble, and allow the process to flow as it will. Inevitably, one or two pairs of presenters will generate raucous laughter and much applause.

What has been consistently gratifying has been watching the beaming faces and proud postures of students as wonderful statements are made about their achievements – real and projected.  The interviews and introductions help students to learn about one another, and set a positive and energetic tone for the class.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What? Your Students Are Reading Their Textbooks?!

An interesting discussion has been taking place on one of the listservs I belong to, focusing on what we can do to encourage students both to read their textbooks and to make sense of what they read.  Below are a few of the suggestions.
  • Try “JITTs” (Just-in-Time Teaching), an approach that involves asking deep questions or questions that you think will be hard for students to answer and ending with something like “What did you find especially puzzling or especially interesting in the reading?”  Student answers are graded (to encourage participation) and turned in before class, so that the teacher knows what to focus on in class  (Bill Goffe, Penn State University)
  • Don’t like JITTS?  Try SPUNKI, which stands for questions asking what was Surprising, Puzzling, Useful, New, Knew it already,  and Interesting.  Rebecca Clemente (North Central College) has students use a rubric that involves them finishing sentences like ““When the article stated … this was surprising because …“  Then they talk over their responses in groups at the beginning of class to set the focus for the discussion to follow.
  • Another way to stimulate motivation for reading recommended by Jen Lara is going through an upcoming assignment, writing important quotes down on individual note cards, and having all students at the beginning of class pick a quote that is of interest to them and then discuss it with a partner. 
  • A variation of this was suggested by Jill Dahlman (University of Nevada, Reno ): “I am going to ask people to note on a piece of paper (no name!) where they had difficulty and a list of words that they didn't fully understand and turn these in. I'm going to start our discussion with going through those areas of difficulty, and then see if any of these areas spark a discussion. Reading academic language is difficult, and the more students can see that it's ‘not just them,’ then I think more people will become engaged.”
  • A number of listserv members recommended online discussions as a good way to motivate students to read and clarify reading assignments.  Charles MacArthur (University of Delaware) pointed out that “one good angle for questions is about the value or meaning of the reading for students' own lives. How would you use this? How is it related to your experience?”
  • Lynda Harding (CSU Fresno) assigns students to online discussion groups and gives them some credit for posting a question and some for answering a colleague’s question or for helping to select one or two questions for the group to submit to her.
  • Jon Mueller (North Central College) has students write just a couple sentences about two or three questions he poses on the reading assignment.  Credit is given not for accuracy but just if the student has made a good-faith effort, so it only takes 5 -10 minutes to assign credit to a stack of papers.  He added, “I was initially surprised that virtually all of my students, including the weaker and less motivated ones, complete almost all of the assignments. They are much better prepared for class.”
  • Lee Torda (Bridgewater State University) has a different approach, a “top 5 document”:  “One page. Single spaced. Top Five Things You Think Are Important for Other People to Get from this Reading. It's a living document in class. Students read each others'. They battle over their choices in a friendly way. They write back and forth about it so I don't really do a ton of evaluation of it. Mostly if they do it and it's not absolutely wrong and phony, they get the credit. And it's 15% of their final grade.”
  • And finally Irv Peckham (Drexel) reminded everyone of the importance of giving reading assignments that students will enjoy reading, that they can feel connected to, since, as he put it, “Reading and writing should be a pleasure for students.”
Have you used any of these?  Did they work?  Do you have tips to add to the list? 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Those Important First Five Minutes

If you missed “Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class” in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s worth checking out.  In the article, James Lang argues that rather than using up the first part of class with logistics (taking attendance, getting technology up and running, etc.) we should use that time to focus students’ attention and get them ready for learning.  He offers four suggestions:

  1. Open with a question or two that today’s class will answer (and perhaps return to that question at the end so that students can see how their understanding has changed);
  2. Have students talk about what went on in your last class (asking them to retrieve information places it more firmly in long-term memory);
  3. Reactivate what students learned in previous courses by asking them what they already know, or think they know, about the day’s topic (so that what you add can be fitted into their existing knowledge structure more easily);
  4. Have students write for 3 – 5 minutes on a question of your choosing (such as any recommended in items 1 - 3).

Lang claims that these kinds of short activities have major payoffs for students in terms of increased motivation, memory, and engagement.  Furthermore, they help teachers understand where students are at any given point, so that class instruction can be appropriately challenging, filling in foundational knowledge as needed and correcting any misconceptions that may be present.

I typically start by posting a list of the class objectives on the smartboard and asking if anyone has questions or additions, but my new year’s resolution, since reading this article, is to add at least one general discussion question to that list so that students know right from the start that they’ll be doing more than just listening passively to what I decided they should learn.

How about you?  I’d be interested in hearing what techniques you use to start your classes.  Any suggestions to share?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Why We Teach

To those caught up in the chaos that is the beginning of a new year and a new semester, some thoughts that may help you remember why teaching, and teachers (you especially), are so important.  The words are taken from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay by A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities, London.  The essay is part of Grayling’s new book The Challenge of Things.
Good teachers … inspire, guide, and give their students a broader sense of life’s possibilities. Aristotle thought that teachers are more important than parents because whereas parents (merely, he said) give their children life, teachers give them the art of living.

[T]here is even more in the educational process that cannot be taught, only caught; and the chief of what a good teacher can achieve… is to give students the desire to know more, understand more, achieve greater insight. In short: The good teacher inspires.

If one were to analyze what goes into being an inspiring teacher…the list would include enthusiasm, charisma, a capacity to clarify and make sense, humor, kindness, and a genuine interest in students’ progress.

Almost everyone can point to a teacher…who was inspirational and helpful.… It is an amazingly potentiating thing to have someone believe in you; whether they are right to do so because they recognize a genuine capacity in you to succeed, or whether their attitude is itself the prompt to acquire such a capacity, is neither here nor there. It has the right outcome either way.

Students’ questions and doubts compel one to think and rethink, often prompting one to see things that had not been noticed before. For this reason it is never boring to teach the same subject repeatedly. Like rereading the classics, or revisiting familiar places, new insights always offer themselves, and better ways of doing things with them.

Education is for all aspects of life…. If education is this important, and if education starts with teachers, then teachers are this important too. True, we can learn from others, from nature, from books — all these things might teach us more, and more deeply. But at crucial junctures education needs teachers; the better they are, the more fruitful will be all the other forms of education that life affords.