Spring Cleaning

spring cleaning checklistIt was spring cleaning time at my house last weekend, complete with an elaborate 30-point color-coded checklist taped to the refrigerator that was pleasing to no one in the family but me.  By the end of the day, though, we all noticed how much the quality of light in the living room had been improved just by washing windows that hadn’t been cleaned in years for a while. Here’s a modest checklist for spring cleaning your courses:

  • Review and update Student Learning Outcomes. Of course, some of these are determined by departmental and/or General Education requirements, but where you have options, consider what you really want students to remember from the course when you run into them five years from now. Is the course set up to focus on and achieve those most meaningful ends?
  • Replace outdated materials. Readings and films that were cutting-edge in the 1990s can be hard to give up, especially with limited budgets for replacing them.  But a couple of hours spent seeking out fresher content pays off well in student engagement and our own sense of currency. (And eliminates those cringe-worthy moments in class watching videos with Clinton-era soundtracks.)
  • Improve accessibility.  Whether it’s reformatting an article PDF, or adding a statement about accommodating students with disabilities to a syllabus, making our courses more universally accessible is the right thing to do, and it’s not very difficult. Help is available from both TLP’s accessibility guide and the Accessibility Resource Center’s faculty support services.
  • Plan ahead for funding next year’s projects. There are good campus sources of faculty funding for course innovation, conference travel, and research, but you have to be ready when the calls come.  Don’t get caught by unexpected deadlines. We’ve put together a handy one-page Faculty Funding Sources at a Glance; post it prominently and get the jump on next year’s proposals.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


These students want off the bus

It’s Week 12 and tomorrow is tax day Tax Day; we may be forgiven a certain lassitude.  At this point in the semester we and our students can feel like travelers stuck on a bus trip that is taking way too long.  No matter how fascinating we all found each other at the beginning of the journey, things may have gone a bit stale. Here are few quick tips for re-energizing your semester.

  1. Try something unexpected in class. One instant way to change the energy in the room? Music.  Choose a piece of music to have playing as students enter the room—to hint at the topic of the day, to reduce anxiety before a test, or to reboot after a unit break.  When I team-taught a super jumbo version of an introduction to religion class a few years ago, my colleague and I selected pieces to set the tone for our alternating lectures, David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” for my religion and gender session, k. d. lang’s “Constant Craving” for his on the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. It was a great way to build an affective relationship with so huge a group.  Or ask your students to build a musical soundtrack for the topic under discussion, as this high school history teacher does.
  2. Shake up your relationship with classroom technology.  If you regularly use clickers, video, live Tweeting, or even just humble PowerPoint, try going dark for a session.  Or the reverse: fold one digital element into an otherwise low-tech class. (The incomparable and indefatigable Instructional Technology Consultants in TLP would be glad to help you think though an activity.)  How would learning be reshaped by changing the way you, the students, and the course material interact?
  3. Feed your mind. We work at a university, where smart and creative people are doing smart, creative things every day.  This is the forest all around us, but too often we can only see the giant task-shaped tree right in front of us.  Check out the University Calendar, which you can conveniently filter according to your own proclivities: arts, athletics, lectures, tours, you name it. Tomorrow’s Middle East Studies Symposium and next week’s Turner Print Museum Student Print Exhibition do not relate directly to my area of teaching or research, but I suspect they will make me proud of our students, teach me something new, and help me remember why I chose an academic life—all of which are likely to make me a better teacher.

* Authored by Dr. Kate McCarthy.



Final Presentations

When they return from spring break, many of our students will begin work on final projects that they will present to the class. These can be remarkable works of creativity and collaboration demonstrating powerful learning outcomes. They can also be grueling exercises in PowerPoint reading that make the semester end with neither bang nor whimper but with “I already gave my presentation, do I still have to come to class?”

When done right, final presentations—by individuals or groups—are an excellent way for students to synthesize and extend learning and practice the real-world skill of getting a group of people to understand something important.  There are many resources for designing good final project assignments; this overview from Stanford’s Teaching Commons lays out some good guidelines and creative ideas.  And since you have been modeling good presentation techniques all semester, your students know what an effective presentation looks like.  But how useful are these final presentations for the rest of the class?  Too often the rest of the class checks out, literally or mentally, from sessions devoted to presentations other than their own. But those last class sessions need not be a waste for all but presenter and instructor.  If the presentations are good—and should we presume anything else?—they should be just as valuable to the students as any other class session.  You may need to help them see this, though.  Here are a few possible strategies:

  • Make completion of a response to the other presentations a required component of the student’s own project. This can be as simple as asking them to fill out a feedback form with “One thing I found interesting in this presentation…” for each project, or as elaborate as requiring peer feedback on each presentation.  If you score the presentations with a rubric, consider having the students complete one for each other.
  • Beyond attaching points to paying attention, try giving added legitimacy to student presentations by entrusting them with real course content. With adequate guidance, students can do the heavy lifting on key course concepts or applications, which makes real the students’ transition from novice to something-beyond-novice learners.  If appropriate, you can use material from the presentations in a final exam.
  • Foreground the importance of interacting with other students’ projects by moving the presentations online and devoting class time to responding to and connecting the projects. PowerPoint, video or other presentation formats can be attached to blogs or discussion threads in Blackboard to facilitate responses. Students might also post viewing guides or follow-up questions for their presentations, so that in-class discussions are primed and ready. Here’s an article from Faculty Focus that lays out this process.

This time next week you may have toes in the sand, hands in the garden, or at least a triple latte at your side while you move through the next stack of papers.  Keep your eyes on the prize.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

Ever fail spectacularly in front of your students?

Ever fail spectacularly in front of your students? Now that our lectures can be fact-checked in real time, it’s harder to maintain the illusion of omniscience, and sometimes we just plain blow it: the syllabus with the mysterious missing week, the tech-focused class with the colossal tech fail, the carefully crafted exercise that leads students to the exact opposite of what we hoped they’d discover.  These episodes are awkward and embarrassing, but they may have pedagogical benefit.  It turns out that one of the most powerful things we can do to promote long-term learning in our students is to make it safe to make mistakes along the way.  How better to do that than to model failure and resilience ourselves?

You’ll be hearing more from CELT in the coming months about academic tenacity or “grit” and the “growth mindset” that fosters it; this is an area of research led by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, whose TED Talk you might enjoy.  If we believe intelligence is a fixed attribute, that we have a certain amount and that’s that, we tend to be discouraged by setbacks and avoid challenge, Dweck’s research shows, as failure seems only to demonstrate lack of intelligence. With a growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can grow over time, failures are simply instructive steps along the way to a larger goal.

What if we could not only share this idea with students but demonstrate it? Surviving the classroom mishap good-naturedly is a beginning, but we might also let them in on our own learning processes and their many blind alleys and dead ends.  Our students, I suspect, believe that we were born knowing all we do about our subjects, that our disciplines’ citation formats are coded in our DNA, and that we produce research by sitting down for two hours of cheerful typing and pressing “publish.”  Opportunities to bring students in on the two-steps-up, one-step-back nature of academic work might be easier in the graduate seminar, but it can be done in other settings as well.  Rather than one giant all-or-nothing assignment, try assigning challenging projects in scaffolded steps, any one of which might involve a useful mini-failure. Or pause mid-lecture to let students in on the errors of your own—or the field’s—prior understanding of a concept, or limitations of current theories.  In one course I still trot out an embarrassing “how I used to teach this concept” handout that students love, that makes me cringe, and that, once we identify the problem, always cements their understanding of the idea.  Here’s a summary article on academic tenacity if you’re interested in reading more.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

Faculty Presents

From “The Flipped Classroom: Not Just for STEM:” Flipping a class isn’t an all or nothing affair.  Turning just one lecture into a set of activities students do before class—typically reading and/or watching a video presentation of the day’s material—frees up class time for hands-on activities that require students to dig more deeply into the material using higher-order thinking skills—applying, analyzing, and evaluating, not just remembering.  Students might work in teams on a case study or analyze data using material or theory introduced in the pre-class activity.  In all of this work, the instructor can circulate among the students, checking for comprehension and helping deepen reflection. Keys to the success of a flipped session are that the pre-class activity have a scored component both to ensure students will do it and to set up the in-class activity; and that in-class work both use and extend the out-of-class material.  Many instructors require the students to generate a question based on what they’ve viewed, or open the class with a quiz.  It takes time and care to build an effective flipped class, so taking it one session at a time makes sense. And those of us who love our lectures needn’t give up all or even most of them to take advantage of this powerful technique.  Our TLP Instructional Technology Consultants are available to help create flipped classroom activities, and have put some resources together here. Thanks to faculty presenters Denise Minor and Sarah Anderson!

From “Approaches to Learning and Teaching (Through) Writing:” Involve students in the process of defining good writing before they begin writing. Deb McCabe (CMAS) invites the class to generate a list of traits they admire in what they read and puts them on the board—understandable, engaging, easy-to-follow, etc.  Having done this before, she knows that the traits are likely to fall into certain categories so she lists them in columns (without identifying headings). At the end of the exercise, she turns to the columns of traits and notes how clearly the students have identified key areas like structure, purpose and audience, clarity, mechanics, content richness, and voice.  Not only are students now aware of the complexity of what makes for good writing (it’s not the same in a science journal and a political blog), but because they have been engaged in setting the terms, they are also more likely to think about these traits as they begin their own writing processes. Thanks to faculty presenters Deb McCabeChris Fosen, and Kim Jaxon!

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


Get a Grip…on Time Management

You’ve heard of running with scissors? At this point in the semester it can feel more like spinning with butter knives:  So much activity, so few things actually completed. The relative of autonomy of faculty schedules is something we should be thankful for every day, but it can also make it challenging to distribute our energy to the right things in the right proportions.  Having spent literally hours on a PowerPoint presentation for a single, not-that-complicated class session (thank you, Google Images), and then wondered why I never finished that grant application, I wear my own scarlet P for Procrastination, or maybe Prioritization-ineptitude. get a grip
Here are three tips for getting a grip on time management.

  1. Identify your biggest time vacuum and find a way to fix it. For instance, if each incoming e-mail chime is a Pavlovian stimulus, silence the alerts while you’re working on important tasks.  Or try limiting your attention to e-mail to one or two blocks of time each day. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review calls this approach “e-mail budgeting” and offers good advice for how to make it work. Maybe your biggest time sink is, like mine, class prep. Try setting a time limit on that, too. When time is up, it’s time to teach, ready or not. Odds are, you really will be ready, even if the more perfect PowerPoint graphic has to wait for next semester’s iteration.
  2. Adopt a time management system. Options include David Allen’s massively popular Getting Things Done; the procrastination-targeting if unappealingly titled Eat That Frogand The Five Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivityreviewed yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education. If you’re a fan of digital tools, you might like timing apps designed to maximize your focus on given projects like 30/30 and Tracking Time.
  3. Protect at least 15 minutes a day for the work that fuels your passion for your discipline.  Truly, just 15 minutes. That’s the theory behind Laura Belcher’s Write Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, currently in use by two faculty writing groups on campus, and it appears to be working.  Whether it’s writing a book or article, developing a grant proposal or conference paper, or working on a project with disciplinary colleagues across the country, set aside inviolable blocks of time to attend to it, even if the longer blocks are few. Just opening the file every day will keep your head in the project and nourish this vital but easy-to-lose aspect of your professional identity.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.



This might be awkward. Let’s consider that painful moment (or two or infinity) between when we ask the class a discussion-launching or comprehension-checking question and when (a) we give up in despair of ever hearing a human voice again or (b) that nice kid in the front row finally offers something up out of plain desperation.  We all know that good teaching involves getting our students to actively connect with the material, and the discussion prompt is a tried and true means of engagement. But we’ve all also experienced the blank stares, the down-turned heads, the aimless shuffling through notes that all say “I would rather die than form an out-loud sentence right now.”

For your consideration, I recommend some version of the Think-Pair-Share


technique for getting past the awkward silences to real discussion and improved learning. This is when you ask a question and give students a few minutes to think about their responses, then they discuss their ideas with a partner, and then each pair shares a response with the whole class.  There are countless varieties of this popular method: Write-Pair-Share (students do a solo quick-write before discussing—gives you something to collect if desired); Think-Pair-Square-Share (students discuss in pairs, then in groups of four before sharing—shortens the reporting-out period in a large class); and of course there are a variety of tools for pairing and sharing, both synchronously and asynchronously, in online classes.

The benefits of this technique are many: Cautious students have a smaller, safer space to try out their ideas, confident students get practice in the skill of explanation, novice learners gain critical processing time, faculty get a window into students’ understanding, and we all are relieved of that soul-killing awkward silence.

But it turns out the key to the success of the Think-Pair-Share is in the details.  For instance, the question has to be big and hard enough to generate real thought, but focused enough that students can get a handle on it.  Projecting the question (and/or an image/graph/chart) is helpful. It’s also critical that students are given enough time to actually process the question and assemble their thoughts. Even if not every pair gets the opportunity to share, it’s probably more important to give adequate time to the thinking and pairing. Of course, it’s also vital to signal that what’s been shared actually matters—by revisiting a concept that has been shown to be tricky, by praising an insightful contribution, by connecting ideas across the groups.

Here’s a great 10-minute video explaining and demonstrating the Think-Pair-Share technique in an introductory Biology class at San Francisco State—relevant to any discipline.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.