Saturday, March 25, 2017

On the Edge of Comfort

I have a magnet in my office that says “Life starts at the end of your comfort zone”. It is situated to be easily noticed by anybody who comes to visit. The other day, I pointed to it as I was trying to convince one of my students that she did the right thing when she accepted the summer internship at Harvard Medical School, where she will be far outside her comforts zone away from her family and friends. She was uneasy. We talked about growth and what it means to remain open to opportunities that you know will propel your career and change your life, even though they make you feel like a fish out of water. We talked about how she has the entire Biology department backing her, how we will support her and be there for her, how her family will do the same, how to find the strength and grounding to go out in the world and to be who she is with confidence in her abilities to navigate through obstacles. To truly grow you have to push boundaries. Most of the time, when I try to share some wisdom with students, I know that they don’t listen or take my advice to heart, but this student wrote down those words from the magnet (she didn’t just take a picture!) and has come back to thank me. Each time she enters the office I see her eyes wandering over to rest on that sign.
Learning new things can take you outside of your comfort zone. Writing this blog is definitely way outside of my comfort zone. Ever since I failed a writing assignment in Swedish class in high school, I have doubted my writing skills. In addition, I’m not one of those people who likes to post things on social media to share with the world. I’m not sure why – I just don’t have a need to put my life out there. So, this blog is an opportunity for me to grow and push boundaries. I’m trying to stick with it just to force myself to write more and share more of who I am with you. But back to learning: Maryellen Weimer, who is a fantastic blogger, shared her thoughts on the subject last Wednesday in a post titled Learning Outside Your Comfort Zone. She writes:
“I wonder if learning outside the comfort zone isn’t especially difficult for faculty. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be. We’ve devoted years to learning, but most of what we know resides in one area. We’re experts at learning more about what we already know and love. And we’re used to having our learning expertise recognized—by students, colleagues, and sometimes even at home. However, plop us down in a discipline unlike our own, task us with learning a skill we don’t have, and suddenly, we look and act exactly like our students. And that’s the very reason this kind of learning has all sorts of positive implications for teaching. It’s good every now and then to be reacquainted with feeling stupid.”

I especially like the last sentence “It’s good every now and then to be reacquainted with feeling stupid.” Our students may move from classroom to classroom feeling stupid as we get to stay in our comfort zones orating “wisdom” all day long. When was the last time you put yourself in that place? On the other hand, maybe our students are too comfortable with our usual, predictable ways of teaching, how we always do the same things in our classrooms (I’m definitely guilty here – why fix what ain’t broke?). The most comfortable students may be so comfortable that they sleep through your classes or spend the entire class in the digital retreat provided by their phones without engaging with any of the class material. Moving towards the edge of that comfort zone could change the classroom experience for both you and the students. Are you ready to try? What would you do in your class to take students outside of their comfort zone? When did your teaching and learning last provide the opportunity to push boundaries and approach the edge of comfort?
Here is the link to Dr. Weimer’s post:

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Your Classroom Story

Learning through story-telling is likely to be as old as humanity; long before we had pen and paper, we learned through listening. Stories were passed down through generations and generated knowledge that helped us survive and flourish. As a result, our brains are wired to engage through stories and with the story-teller. In the preface of their book Learning through Storytelling in Higher Education, McDrury and Alterio make a compelling argument for why storytelling is an enduring learning tool:
      “Stories are everywhere. We hear them, we read them, we write them and we tell them. Perhaps on occasions we feel them. We use them to motivate others, to convey information and to share the experience. We tell stories to make sense of the world around us. As we tell stories we create opportunities to express views, reveal emotions and present aspects of our personal and professional lives. Frequently we engage in this uniquely human activity in creative ways and in doing so stimulate our imagination and enhance our memory and visualization skills. Our ability to communicate not just our own experience but the experiences of others enables us to transcend personal frameworks and take on wider perspectives. This attribute, together with its international, transhistorical and transcultural usage, makes storytelling a powerful learning tool. It is therefore no surprising that it has endured.” 

The book is a guide of how to use stories and storytelling as a compelling teaching tool in higher education. I often wish that I had the natural skills of a great story teller. Story-telling for me is work, but every time I’m intentional about it and tell some tale, real or fictional, to my students, I know that they are listening and exams often show that it was one of few things that they recalled nearly verbatim about a topic.  
Besides using stories as a teaching tool, I am always curious about the story that each student brings to the classroom. Story is what makes us different from each other. We each have our own individual story – in a sense, we are our stories. Our unique stories were shaped by our life experiences, but we also become who we are because of the stories we were told. If you tell children that they are worthless and will never be able to read, write or excel at math, those words often turn into the children’s own stories – stories that they tell themselves and the world. Ultimately, many projections of worthlessness or failure conveyed to children, turn into life-stories of underachievement.  In your classroom, you are likely to have students who bring diverse stories. The stories that you tell them about who they are – and can be – also make enormous differences for who they become. Our classrooms are filled with these stories; the stories that our students bring, spoken and unspoken, the ones that you bring, and the story that is woven when your story blends with those of the students’ and becomes the whole classroom’s story. I would love for my students to remember how to solve genetic linkage problems, when in reality, I know that they are more likely to remember the story I told them about a friend who had a late miscarriage because her baby had a genetic disease – if only I had a compelling story about linked genes!
It goes the other direction as well; the stories that I will remember from my favorite class may not have to do with mastery of learning outcomes, but instead the compelling life-stories about students’ struggles with tuition bills and imprisoned boyfriends, or the jubilant success stories of students accepted to summer internships and medical schools.

What are your classroom stories? Do you use story-telling as a teaching tool? What is the story that you tell your class about yourself and the world? What story do you tell the world about Lincoln?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Honoring the past - Charting the future

We are about to embark on our decennial self-study that is required for membership in and accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The process should take about two years and we are just in the “design” phase at this point. One of the first tasks of the Self-Study Steering Committee is to come up with a theme that will guide us and frame the context of our self-examination.  After some deep thought and deliberation, the committee has agreed on the theme “Lincoln University: Honoring the past – Charting the future”.
We talk extensively about legacy at Lincoln, probably because, as the nation’s first HBCU, this institution has educated numerous notable people who went on to impact our country and the world. It is easy to be proud of our past – and I think we should be. But we also need to look beyond the present and understand what it means to chart a viable and vibrant future for our institution. We need to be an institution that does more than honor its legacy; we need to actively transform that legacy into greatness now and prominence for the future of both Lincoln and for all the students that are being and will be educated by us. To chart the future can be both exciting and humbling; it is a tremendous undertaking, yet we do it every day in our classrooms. In small or great ways, we collectively help to plot the future for our students. With this blog post, I’m hoping to tap into that collective wisdom of the Lincoln faculty community to find out what charting the future means to us and to you.
You can read more about my thoughts around this topic, or, without further influence, go to: to answer the question: What does “charting the future while honoring the past” mean to you? How do we, as faculty, chart a future for both our students and for the institution? How is this work anchored in the Lincoln legacy?
My hope for the future Lincoln student experience includes more experiential learning across disciplines. I think we are at the cusp of breaking out of the traditional three hours a week classroom monotony to enter a world of learning that is less scheduled but more relevant to the world for which we are trying to prepare our students. Experiential learning encompasses all types of schooling in which the students are active participants, or learn through experience and then reflect on their learning. This can take many forms; we could add service learning projects to more of our classes and have our student body contribute to the planning, designing, resource allocation etc. of running a university. Pre-nursing students could shadow in health services, the business students could analyze resource allocations and help fiscal affairs find savings, environmental science students could work with Aramark to implement more sustainability practices, computer science students could contribute to IT. We could take service learning outside the gates of the University and become more involved in the surrounding community organizations and schools. Experiential learning can also take the form of research projects that contribute to knowledge generation through publications. Science students have several opportunities to participate, both through classes and independent research projects, in experiential learning. To give student more time to work on their research projects we have had to re-think class scheduling to include longer but less frequent blocks of time in the classroom. This model may not work for all subjects, but it does lend itself to field-trips and interactive learning projects that take the students out of the classroom and into the real world, where students have a greater chance to learn through experience. Charting the future may mean that we need to push some boundaries and become a little uncomfortable, but in the end, we would honor our past by continuing to produce graduates that are well-prepared to take on the world.
What are your hopes for the future of Lincoln and how are those hopes anchored in the past?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Success vs Access and the Role of the Writing Portfolio

In a recent conversation with Lincoln faculty about the success and struggles of our graduates, the issue of success vs access came up. We help our students succeed in college, but how well do we do when it comes to giving our students access to job opportunities beyond the borders of Lincoln? Case in point: the writing proficiency program with its required writing portfolio.
Every story may have a beginning, but many beginnings are borne out of stories. The story behind Lincoln Writing Proficiency Program goes something like this: Once upon a time, a member of the board of trustees read a resume or job application written by a Lincoln student and was so alarmed that s/he convinced the board to issue a directive designed to ensure that all Lincoln graduates are proficient writers. A few years later the Lincoln Writing Proficiency Program (WPP) was conceived. 

The goals/objectives of the WPP are:
  • To create an environment at Lincoln University in which writing skills and writing instruction are given the highest priority
  • To ensure that Lincoln University students graduate with a high standard of competence in formal English writing as reflected in course work throughout the disciplines
  • To provide Lincoln University students with writing skills that will ensure the achievement of their lifelong personal and professional goals

We accomplish the first two parts by requiring the students to pass a “blue-book” essay in the first English composition course (ENG 101), through the writing intensive major courses, and the writing portfolio requirement. The latter specifies that each student must create a discipline-based writing portfolio that passes department approval for graduation. The requirements of the writing portfolio are stipulated by the department and can be found here:

Through all of these requirements we prepare our students to be proficient writers and to be successful at Lincoln and beyond, but we do very little to provide access to actual job opportunities. What good is success with limited access?

Other universities offer students access to online portfolios that are mined by employment agencies and all types of large and small companies. By allowing students to showcase work through electronic portfolios, Universities help their students to find employment and move on beyond college. There are many ways of doing this, but in this day and age, any portfolio that can be shared online is likely to attract much more attention than a physical paper portfolio and thus lead to greater access for student to succeed. Currently, most departments at Lincoln use writing portfolios that are stored as paper or computer files – never to be shared by anyone but the student and the advisor or department. Wouldn’t it be great if we required our students to make those portfolios online where they can be share by the world, ultimately giving Lincoln graduates greater access to success?

What is your view of success vs access? In your opinion, what is the role of the student writing portfolio beyond Lincoln? Do you have a favorite portfolio platform that you recommend? Should we work towards using a common portfolio platform or let each department choose a platform that works best for that department?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Choosing Moodle

Guest Blogger: Brenda Snider

Four years ago, Lincoln University implemented a new learning management system, MOODLE (Module Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment).  The vendor we currently use is Moodlerooms, which is owned by BlackBoard.  In this blog, I want to discuss personal and professional change and some reasons to use Moodle for your courses.
Have you heard of ADKAR?  ADKAR is used by businesses and for personal use to change habits. The acronym is Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement.  So, as the New Year has begun, I have been thinking about applying this model to some of my personal issues as well as learning more about Moodle. I noticed that I did not want to learn Gradebook and was having a difficult time picking up all of the concepts. I only wanted to learn one aspect of the tool. After looking at the ADKAR model, I realized that I am aware of the features, I know where to obtain the knowledge, I have the ability, but I did not have the desire to learn all of the features. It seemed overwhelming. In my position, I need to know all aspects of Gradebook since each instructor has their own grading scheme. I had to force myself to change my attitude.
Let’s consider applying the ADKAR model to our usage of Moodle. Think about your awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and where you can obtain reinforcement. What is prevents you from using Moodle?  Or, if you are using the learning management system, why do you continue to use it?

Awareness:  Are all of Lincoln’s Professors and Adjunct Professors aware that we have a learning management system?  Are you aware of the many features of Moodle?

Desire:  Do you have the desire to change or add to your method of sharing information and communicating with your students?

Knowledge:  Do you have the knowledge or do you know how to use Moodle?  If you are not aware or you do not have the desire to use Moodle, then participating in Moodle training and workshops will probably not connect with you and the training will be futile.

Ability:  Do you feel you do not have the ability to use Moodle?  ATS staff can help with this. We can offer one-on-one training and give you the opportunity to practice Moodle in the Faculty Lab, Library Room 116.  I am a firm believer in chunking. I break learning down and learn one tool at a time. If you think Moodle is overwhelming, you can use this method, too.

Reinforcement: Nancy Evans, Director of ATS, offers LU-MUGS meetings (Lincoln University-Moodle User Groups). The group meets frequently to discuss Moodle issues, which reinforces your learning.  In addition, ATS offers workshops and recently started teaming up with CETL Director, Anna Hull, to offer workshops that demonstrate Moodle features along with Anna’s perspective and pedagogical benefits.

So, what are some reasons to use Moodle?
·     Course enhancement
·     Students always have their course materials available if they have access to their computer or phone. Consider the students who miss class, for whatever reason, i.e. athletics, band, illness, or if the university is closed for some reason, the students can still access their courses and even participate in a forum.
·     Transparent grading (students do not have to ask you about every grade, they can see all of their grades)
·     Easier quiz grading
·     Attendance
·     Ability for students to take their quizzes wherever they have access to the Internet
·     Students can no longer use the excuse, I lost the assignment or I was not in class to get the assignment
·     Reports (i.e., logs: do the student access the class as stated, student engagement)
·     Export data for other uses
Are you ready or are you already using Moodle?  We would appreciate your comments. Why are you using Moodle?  Would you encourage others to use Moodle? Are you ready to start using Moodle?  If not, what are your hesitations?

Brenda Snider
Instructional Support Specialist