Feelings of learning in active learning versus lecture settings

Earlier this month, the article, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom”, in PNAS garnered a lot of buzz. In a carefully controlled classroom environment, researchers gathered direct measures of student learning in an introductory physics course, as well as student self-reported perceptions of learning. They found that students learned more in the active learning classes (as would be expected based on much existing research), but students’ perception of learning was lower in active learning environments than in passive learning environments. This suggests that when instructors try to evaluate teaching based on students’ perception of learning, they might mistakenly find themselves lecturing more because students will self-report that they are learning more from lectures than in-class activities.

What’s going on here? The paper notes that the cognitive fluency of lectures can lead students to believe that they are learning more than they actually are. Active learning requires more cognitive effort, and as students struggle with activities, they become aware of what they don’t understand, which can lead to diminished feelings of learning. The paper suggests that instructors should discuss with students the research showing that perceived fluency and feelings of learning can be misleading as compared to actual learning. As always, explaining to students the “why” of the pedagogical choices we make is important.

Reading the PNAS paper reminded me of other discussions I’ve seen that explore how students are poor judges of the effectiveness of various study strategies. For example, students believe that massed studying is more effective than interleaved studying, although students actually perform better after interleaved studying. This once again seems to be a case of students assuming that feelings of fluency reflect actual learning.

For faculty who are looking to help students develop better self-monitoring skills, there are a variety of different approaches. Saundra McGuire’s book Teach Students How to Learn is available in the LTC library, and a number of faculty have found its suggestions for fostering metacognition to be useful. This recent blog post at Improve with Metacognition provides some suggestions for smaller activities to incorporate into classes to help students develop metacognitive skills. And this blog has highlighted Chico Zimmerman and his approach to using learning assists as a way to foster metacognition in the classroom. What are some of your approaches to encouraging students to become better a monitoring their own learning?

Information literacy in the age of disinformation

Recently, Serena Zabin, professor of history, brought to my attention the Washington Post piece by Karin Wulf titled, “Could footnotes be the key to winning the disinformation wars?” After spending time this summer with Carleton’s reference and instruction librarians exploring how we might assess the development of students’ information literacy skills, I am convinced that this is an area where faculty can do better in being intentional in their instruction and more clearly scaffolding learning about choosing and using sources. Both Wulf’s article and Barbara Fister’s Inside Higher Ed essay “Learning Why, Not How” from early August provide lots of food for thought.

Fister’s article highlights some concerns about how students typically approach citations. I regularly see students get so wrapped up in the rules of formatting citations or so concerned about using citations to avoid charges of plagiarism that they entirely miss the point of citation as a way of engaging ideas to produce an ethical, responsible argument. Although Wulf’s focus is on footnotes, she acknowledges, “[T]he format is not the point: It’s the principle and function behind the reference tool that’s so essential. It allows us to weigh evidence against assertion.” Fister notes that teaching the why of citation requires us to ask students to reflect on the process of finding out and how they decide who or what to trust. And Wulf reminds us that this skill is important for anyone who aims to be a knowledgeable citizen, particularly in the current era of fake news.

For those who are interested in thinking more about how to teach information literacy, the the reference and instruction librarians have compiled relevant readings and resources on the Information Literacy Core Program website. If you are thinking about how to make expectations for information literacy more explicit for students, you might consider adapting the  information literacy rubric developed by the librarians. And I’d encourage faculty members to talk with their liaison librarian to hear about lessons learned from their work assessing information literacy.

Slow teaching debrief

Following their LTC presentation this fall, Neil Lutsky and Janet Lewis Muth along with Donna McMillan at St Olaf gave out mini-grants to faculty who wanted to experiment with slowing down their courses in order to encourage more meaningful engagement with the course material and foster student wellness. Last week, mini-grant recipients got together to debrief their experiences. The results were mixed, but I appreciated hearing about the range of things that faculty tried, as well as some of the challenges. Barbara Allen (political science) started each class period with two minutes of breathing/meditation to give students the opportunity to center themselves in the classroom before diving into course material. Kim Huynh (chemistry) reduced the number of problems she assigned for homework. She provided students with a list of suggested practice problems from the book but only required students turn in a handful of problems (similar to what they might find on an exam) for each assignment. A couple of faculty asked students to turn off their phones in the five minutes before class started and use the time to engage in face-to-face conversation with their peers — with varying degrees of success.

A number of participants admitted some trepidation when they initially began their experiments. What would students think? What would colleagues think? What do you choose to do less of? I walked away with the sense that it was important for faculty who were engaging in slow teaching to explain to students the choices they were making in their teaching and why they were making those choices. These weren’t choices designed to make a course less rigorous, rather they were choices designed to foster student well-being.

Some faculty noted a tension. If students still have lengthy problem sets or readings in their other courses, they may not choose to engage more deeply with the assignments or readings in a class that is designed with slow teaching in mind, but simply move on quickly to other assignments. For example, Clara Hardy (classics) replaced several required class prep assignments with opportunities for students to engage in any activity that they thought would help their learning for the class and then asked students to report on what activity they chose, but some students didn’t effectively use this flexible learning opportunity.

I applaud all of the faculty who participated in the slow teaching experiment. Trying new things in the classroom is often more stressful than sticking with the familiar, but hearing the energy around some of the successes and the thoughtful reflection around some of the less successful experiments made me appreciative of how committed this group of faculty was to supporting student wellness in the classroom.

More ideas:

Teaching toolbox: Creating classrooms that are brave spaces

Last term, the LTC teaching toolbox lunch tackled the topic how to create classrooms that are brave spaces, and how to calibrate students expectations about classroom environment. Diana Ali’s NASPA policy paper on safe spaces and brave spaces provided important historical context for the meaning and development of safe spaces, within movement-building, academic theory, and student support services. While the word has somewhat different implications in each context, one of the key takeaways is that using the terminology of classroom as “safe space” can lead to a mismatch of student expectations and the reality of the classroom environment. The alternative? Referring to classrooms as “brave spaces.” As Ali notes, “By using the term brave space, faculty are able to distinguish an inclusive classroom discussion from programming on campus that commonly provides respite space for traditionally marginalized communities.”

The term “brave spaces” was originally proposed by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens in 2013 in the context of social justice education to describe mechanisms for creating supportive environments so that all students may participate in challenging dialogue. Brave spaces are not “safe”; the risk of discomfort exists, but there is an effort to provide support for those who are vulnerable. There are five key elements to a “brave space” set out by Arao and Clemens and summarized by Ali in her NASPA paper, but we also discussed a 2018 article by Lynn Verduzco-Baker that highlighted the need to consider that the principles of “brave spaces” were developed with social justice contexts or dialogic courses in mind. Faculty must be mindful of the differences in the goals, power dynamics, and formats of conventional courses and may want to modify the brave space framework accordingly. For example, the faculty member can make it their responsibility to integrate personal experiences of people with marginalized identities through videos, blogs, essays, and qualitative research. That lifts some of the burden from students with marginalized identities who otherwise have to make difficult choices about when to step in or step out of a challenging conversation.

Verduzco-Baker lays out a framework that she presents in the first week of her class to “call in” a student in a conventional classroom who makes a problematic or offensive comment. Assuming that everyone engaged in a classroom discussion is making a good faith effort to understand an issue and that comments are made of ignorance rather than intent to harm, Verduzco-Bakers uses a five point strategy that includes repeating the problematic statement in a revised (and more appropriate) manner, once again stating the assumption that no harm was intended, explaining the misconception in the comment, describing the harm caused by the comment, and drawing on class content to reveal the flawed assumptions underlying the content. She also notes that instructors need to let students know that they can call in instructors when they make mistakes. 

The discussion provided lots of food for thought. Here are the relevant references for those who want to explore more:

Helping students provide more useful feedback on teaching

Hearing student perspectives about what they experience in the classroom is important for faculty members as they revise their courses and try new teaching strategies. To get the most out of student feedback, it is worthwhile to help students understand how to frame their comments in a manner that is helpful and respectful. McGill University has developed an excellent website aimed at students that discusses how to give constructive feedback on course evaluations. With the freedom to develop our own course evaluations, as opposed to using a standardized course evaluation form, Carleton faculty members already have the benefit of being able to probe students about particular aspects of their courses or their teaching.  If you want to provide some direction and examples to your students about how to provide better feedback on their course evaluations, I’ve adapted the resource from the McGill website and created a short document that you can share with your students:

For students — Constructive feedback for faculty members

If you have other ways that you encourage students to give you helpful feedback, feel free to share them in the comments.

Efficient and effective feedback workshop

Although winter break workshops seem like they occurred many lifetimes ago, reviewing my notes this week I was reminded of all the great conversations and ideas shared at the various workshops. The LTC and CELT (Committee for Effective Learning with Technology) collaborated on a workshop about ways to provide feedback that is helpful for students without creating an unmanageable workload for faculty members.

While written feedback on papers is what often comes to mind when someone mentions feedback, the workshop kicked off with a panel discussion by Bob Carlson (PEAR), Fred Hagstrom (Studio Art), Marty Baylor (Physics), and Susannah Ottaway (History). For Bob and Fred, much of the feedback that they give students is given orally during class or practice. In such situations, there isn’t any delay in the students getting feedback on what they are doing. How might we be able to structure other teaching and learning environments to provide that same immediate feedback? We didn’t answer that question, but the workshop provided an opportunity to hear about the variety of different approaches faculty take.

In spite of the variety of ways to provide feedback, effective feedback usually has three elements. It contains clarity about goals, responds to progress being made towards goals, and suggests how to make better progress towards goals. For assignments that will be used more than once, developing a rubric is usually time-saving in the long run, although the initial rubric development can be quite time intensive. Rubrics also help students identify the important aspects of an assignment. Hence, rubrics serve the dual purpose of clarifying goals and making it quicker for the instructor to respond to the progress towards meeting those goals. George Cusack (Director of WAC) provided an excellent discussion of different types of rubrics that one might choose to employ, depending on context. In particular, if you are a faculty member who worries that rubrics tend to make students too focused on earning points for particular aspects of an assignment, there are many options for holistic rubrics.

A second panel of faculty shared the tech tools that they use to enhance the feedback that they give to students. Kim Hyunh (Chemistry) shared how she used Kahoot! for quizzing at the start of each class — both to gauge basic understanding and for a quick emotional check-in. Polling (via phone apps or via clickers), minute papers, and online quizzing are low-stakes ways to help students check their understanding, and these approaches give the faculty member a quick snapshot of where students might be struggling. Vera Coleman (Spanish) highlighted how Language Lesson, a module in Moodle, creates new ways to provide students feedback on their Spanish pronunciation. Sandra Rousseau (French and Francophone Studies) talked about her approach to having students to submit writing assignments through Google Docs, allowing for more interactive conversations between her and her students via the comment feature of Google Docs. Instead of providing feedback via writing, Clara Hardy (Classics) shared her use of recorded oral feedback to students. My takeaway from this panel was that technology opens up new avenues for giving feedback, some of which are time saving and some of which do not increase efficiency but allow for richer feedback than more traditional approaches.

As a reminder, the LTC document with suggestions for feedback can be found here. And the bibliography below provides some further reading.

Feedback — General

  • Ambrose, S.A, Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K. (2010).  What Kinds of Practice and Feedback Enhance Learning. In How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 121-152). Jossey-Bass.
  • Bean, J. (2011). Reading, Commenting On, and Grading Student Writing. In Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (pp. 267-336). Jossey-Bass.
  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.
  • Lang, J.M. (2016). Practicing. In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (pp. 113-136). Jossey-Bass.
  • Stevens, D. D., & Levi, A. J. (2005). Introduction to rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback, and promote student learning. Stylus Publishing.

Feedback to support particular populations of students

  • Gabriel, K.F. (2008). Interweaving Assessment and Teaching. In Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education (pp. 87-102). Stylus Publishing. 
  • Verschelden, C. (2017). Growth Mindset. In Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization (pp. 61-71). Stylus Publishing.
  • Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Williams, M.E., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804-824.


Supporting student mental health

Mental health challenges are a common concern facing Carleton students. A number of the winter workshops, including the new faculty winter workshop, the winter workshop on feedback, and the advising workshop, included consideration of how to support students facing mental health challenges. While it would be difficult to summarize all of those discussions, the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) has a resource “Supporting Students Facing Mental Health Challenges” that includes a number of excellent suggestions for faculty and staff.

Tips: Among other things, the CRLT paper suggests that instructors:

  • Include a syllabus statement about supporting students wellness and mental health. A syllabus statement from our very own Office of Health Promotion (OHP) can be found here.
  • Explicitly promote self-care and wellness — by highlighting wellness activities on campus, by encouraging students to take care of themselves at stressful times of the term, etc.
  • Normalize academic challenges and encourage a growth mindset by highlighting how mistakes and failures can help with learning, creating opportunities for students to reflect on the challenges they have encountered (through minute papers or exam wrappers), and by designing courses with lots of low-stakes assignments that provide opportunities for frequent feedback to students.

The resource paper also includes some great suggestions for talking with students who are experiencing mental health challenges, including some cautionary suggestions of what not to do. Faculty members are not expected to play the role of mental health professionals, but they can play a key role in make students aware of the resources that are available to them. OHP and SHAC have put together information about resources available and a flow chart to help faculty and staff understand what to do when working with students who might be in distress.  In addition, faculty should encourage students in their courses who are struggling with mental health issues to work with the Office of Disability Services so that they can get accommodations.

On January 29, Marit Lysne will present an LTC lunch that will provide context for understanding the nationwide increase in demand for counseling services on college campuses as well as presenting statistics about the demand and utilization of counseling services here at Carleton. Hopefully, many of you will be able to join us for that presentation.

Teaching fast and slow

Last week, Neil Lutsky (psychology) and Janet Lewis Muth (Office of Health Promotion) along with Donna McMillan of St Olaf presented an LTC that encouraged faculty to think about how to slow down courses in order to foster deeper engagement, more learning, and improved student well-being. Slowing down our teaching isn’t about watering down the rigor of our courses, but rather organizing our courses differently. In his work with students, Neil has noted that students aren’t interested in working less, but they want to be able to work well. Often, the shear amount of work assigned prohibits students from being able to fully engage with the material.

Here are six approaches faculty might take in their courses to foster student well-being:

  1. Experiment with the idea that less is more when designing your course. For example, consider reducing the length of reading or writing assignments. Or you might choose to cover less content, but that allows students to dive into more depth with the content that is covered.
  2. Acknowledge the pressures that students experience, and be explicitly flexible. For example, you might allow students to turn in two assignments up to 36 hours after the due date during a term, or you might only require students to respond to 90% of the discussion prompts that are posted on Moodle in order to earn full credit.
  3. Encourage student reflection.
  4. Encourage student connection. For example, you might want to say that students may not use electronic devices in the five minutes before class starts in an effort to get students in the class to talk with each other as opposed to checking their phones.
  5. Explicitly promote student wellness. For example, consider setting assignment deadlines before 10 pm; then even if students work on an assignment until the last minute, they won’t be staying up to meet a midnight deadline. Or you might want to include a student wellness statement in your syllabus.
  6. In your midterm and final course evaluations, seek feedback on how you might make changes in the course to support student well-being.

In a culture where people sometimes talk about how much work and how little sleep they have as a badge of honor, slowing things down is a challenge to cultural norms, but the benefits to both students and faculty can be immense.

Here’s a handout from last week’s session with some more ideas to try in your classroom: Fast & Slow LTC

Helping students engage with course readings

I have heard quite a few faculty thinking about how to help students engage with readings for their courses. In some cases, students don’t have any reading strategy, or perhaps students have a strategy that works in one context, but they don’t understand that different contexts require different types of reading strategies. Clearly conveying our expectations for reading, as well as disciplinary conventions for engaging with reading, is important. Explicitly discussing strategies that we use when reading in our own fields can help students identify when they will need to develop new strategies.The Brown University Sheridan Center for Teaching Learning has a resource page about how to help students develop as critical readers

Even for students who have effective reading strategies, sometimes the amount of reading that faculty assign doesn’t allow students to use the strategies they have developed and cover all assigned readings in a timely manner. Cognitive psychologists have researched how fast people read depending on the difficulty and purpose of the readings. Some concerns about student engagement with reading may reflect that, as faculty, we are assigning more reading than is feasible given the amount of time available and the amount of comprehension we want students to achieve. The Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence developed a course workload estimator, and the portion of the workload estimator that has the most solid research basis is the portion about estimating workload for reading assignments. You can plug in how many pages of reading you assign per week, the word density on the page, the difficulty level of the reading, and the level of engagement you hope students will have (survey material, understand material, engage material), and the estimator will tell you how many hours your students would have to spend to complete and engage with the readings at the level you hope. In addition, the workload estimator website provides information about the research underlying the estimation of how long it takes people to read.  This tool is an eye-opening reminder that sometimes what seems to be low student engagement with course readings may be the result of how much reading we assign.

What are some of your favorite strategies to help students engage with course readings? If your reading assignments grow long, how do you help students prioritize how to engage with readings?

Teaching toolbox: Giving Feedback That Supports Students

Last week’s LTC lunch discussion considered how to provide feedback that supports students without taking too much faculty time. Although the focus was on feedback, immediately grades entered the conversation. Many students come to college from high schools that provide dashboards that are updated daily showing students their grades. For students who are familiar with evaluating their progress via real-time quantitative updates on work completed, the transition to college where each faculty member has a different approach to evaluating work and providing feedback requires some adjustment. The group discussed the importance of helping students recognize that feedback is something different than a grade, and feedback is often more valuable in terms of long term growth and learning than a grade. Yet faculty can’t ignore that grades are important to students because course grades may impact eligibility for scholarships, auto insurance discounts, etc. Particularly in Argument & Inquiry Seminars, faculty should consider helping students understand how to be intentional about receiving and working with feedback in their courses.

Feedback early in a course is important, and faculty shared several approaches to doing this that didn’t connect feedback with grades. For example, providing a number of small, low stakes assignments early in a course is one way to provide students feedback without taking a lot of faculty time to grade. Using a rubric to quickly provide feedback on written work without assigning a grade is another way to help students separate grades from feedback and focus on how they can use feedback to improve their work going forward.

While much of the focus was on written work, the topic of providing feedback on class participation did come up in some of the table discussions. If class participation is a significant portion of a class grade, then being clear about how participation will be evaluated and providing feedback on students’ participation throughout the term is important.

The LTC is putting together a brief resource on effective feedback that will be housed on the LTC website. A draft version is here. If you have suggestions for how to improve this, leave a comment on this post or e-mail me directly with suggestions.