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The spring semester has drawn to a close and the summer is upon us! Although there are fewer classes to teach in the summer, that doesn’t mean one must forget about teaching for three months. As you prepare for fall classes and continue your professional development as a teacher, consider taking advantage of the many resources the Kaneb Center has to offer this summer:

  • Reading Groups. The Kaneb Center purchases books on teaching and learning for small informal reading groups. Faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars are all welcome and invited to sign up for a prearranged group or to propose their own group. These groups are a great place to gather new ideas on teaching and to meet colleagues from across the university who are interested in teaching and learning.
  • Graduate Courses on University Teaching and Learning. Short credit-bearing summer courseson teaching and learning in various fields are available to all graduate students. Enrollment is now open, and be sure to submit a tuition waiver Contact Joanna Sherbun with any questions.
    • Course on Teaching and Learning Online. Whether you are on campus or off, consider taking a four day course in July on teaching an online course, appropriately, taught entirely online. This course is especially helpful for graduate students on the job market who may be asked to teach online courses at their new institutions. Learn more here and sign up by following the links above.
  • Teaching Well Using Technology Certificate. The summer is an excellent time to complete one or all of the badges required for the Kaneb Center’s Teaching Well Using Technology certificate – available to all graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and staff at Notre Dame. If you are available in May (the week after finals end), consider attending one of our hands-on sessions to jumpstart the certificate. Contact Chris Clark with any questions about the certificate.
  • Individual Consultations. Schedule a one-on-one (confidential) consultation with a member of the Kaneb Center staff to discuss any teaching needs. We are happy to help you review CIFs, discuss your course plans for the fall, develop new types of assessments or other learning activities, or consider the integration of technology into your course.
  • Kaneb Center Library. The Kaneb Center library holds hundreds of books, videos, and other materials on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Visit our library and check out some great selections for your summer reading!

From all of us at the Kaneb Center, best wishes for a happy and productive summer! As always, let us know if we can assist you with any of your teaching needs.

During the summer, it’s easy for teaching to take a backseat to the research duties that have been piling up all semester while you have been busy grading. Taking a break and switching gears is healthy and can bring you fresh focus upon return to teaching, but it is also important to schedule some time for reflection and fall semester prep. Don’t add stress to your fall by cramming all your planning into the week before the semester starts!

Most importantly, reflect on your semester as soon as possible. Doing so while the semester is still fresh in your mind will enable you to pinpoint more accurately and honestly what did and did not work for you this semester. If you have time and need to make relatively small changes, make sure to get to them right away. Nothing is worse than having an assignment not meet expectations, only to remember that you had a fantastic idea for solving this issue last semester but forgot to implement it. At the very least, jot down a to-do list and place it in a spot that you are sure to check when prepping for the next semester. Place it on the fridge next to your kid’s finger-paintings, add it as a google calendar event in August, or add a document to your class folder with a prominent title.

It is best to complete this self-reflection before you receive your course instructor feedback (CIFs) from students. This way you can focus solely on your own instincts and then supplement your initial reactions with those received from the CIF reports. CIFs can never provide a full picture of a class, nor do students always appreciate your pedagogical intentions or their own significant learning. Reflecting before and after the CIFs can help you better understand and contextualize the feedback that students provide.

Next, make a schedule that paces out your workload and stick to it, even if you can only afford a day a month in June and July. A consistent schedule will make sure that you don’t leave everything until the last minute. Spacing out future semester planning will provide you with time to reflect on your choices in between planning sessions so that you can be as intentional about your pedagogy as possible. We discourage students from cramming and should always follow our own advice. Come fall, you will be grateful for your proactive reflection and early planning.

The end of the semester has a reputation for sneaking up on teachers and students alike. While the students are busy with finals and term papers, teachers can be equally preoccupied with finishing the course, submitting grades, and filing paperwork. But we shouldn’t forget to stop and try to make sense of all the ground we’ve covered in the last few months. Here are some tips on making the most of the last week of classes:

 

  • Engage students in reflection: Take the last class to reflect on the syllabus with your students.
    • Ask them how well each topic was covered, what they were most interested in or excited about, and what they noticed in their own learning. Focus on the large concepts and goals of the course. Ask students how they feel about where they are now compared with the beginning of the semester.
    • Push them to articulate the connections they’ve found between topics within the course or between the course and their other coursework or their lives.
    • Share what you’ve learned from teaching this course with the students; have they changed any of your outlooks in the course of the semester?
    • You might consider asking some of the students to write letters to future students in this course. How can they get the most out of it? What was the most challenging aspect and how could they best benefit from this?
  • Point to the future: help your students understand that their learning and benefit from your course need not end after the final.
    • Remind your students, as they continue working on those end of term papers and projects, to think of these assignments as potential portfolio material for themselves. These assignments could have a future beyond the grade they’ll receive in this class and go toward their future professional development.
    • Encourage them to learn from this semester; not just the goals of this course, but from the habits they’ve discovered as students, so they can apply what they’ve learned about themselves as students to courses they take in the future.
    • For those interested in continuing their education in this area, compile a suggested reading list from your own bookshelf on the materials covered. Encourage interest in pursuing the questions you’ve been asking.
  • Celebrate: You and your students have bonded over this last semester, and it can be fun and satisfying to discuss what you’ve all learned in a more relaxed setting. Whether you go to a meal together or bring treats to share in class, this is a nice final touch for a course. Don’t forget to thank your students for their contributions and engagement with the course!
  • Think ahead: It might be the end of one semester, but this is the perfect time to plan for your next course.
    • Set aside 30 minutes to reflect and write yourself notes on changes you’d like to make next time you teach this course, while it’s still fresh in your mind.
    • Mark up your syllabus – or better yet, update it now – to reflect those classes and assignments that worked best, and those that could use revision.

With finals approaching, you may be planning to distribute review problem sets or study guides to your students.  But in addition to providing resources to review course content, it is equally important to ensure that your students have the necessary study strategies to prepare and practice for high-stakes exams.  The following guest post, provided by Dr. Maria A. Taydem, Interim Dean of Math and Science at McHenry County College, provides some strategies for discussing studying techniques with students:


When I was teaching chemistry, one of the hardest things to hear from a student was something like this: “I studied so hard and really thought I understood the material, and I still bombed the exam.” This was often followed by a diagnosis: “I just don’t do well on tests.” In my current role as Dean, I hear similar frustrations from students who need my permission to repeat a class they’ve failed (often math.) They’ve worked on the assigned problems, visited the tutoring center regularly, and still struggle.

What can we say to these students? I’ve found that I can often give new hope to students by talking with them about how they study, and how that might be hurting them. I first check to be sure that they are working on the sample problems scattered throughout the chapter. Often they are, but they generally do it with the book open, following the pattern of the worked example. I point out to them that while this may allow them to complete the problem successfully, it does not mean they understand how to do the problem – it just means that they can follow a pattern. Further, it creates a false sense of accomplishment that can lead to that earlier statement (“I thought I understood, and I still bombed…”).

I suggest that it is essential that they work the problem just like they will have to work problems on the quiz or exam – with the book closed, and no reference to notes. In effect, they need to test themselves. At this point, I like to encourage them along this path (which will almost certainly be more challenging to them) by throwing in a bit about the testing effect (in short, that just the act of taking a test can help learning) and on Robert Bjork’s work on “desirable difficulty” (again in short, that struggling with a problem enhances learning).

Next, I encourage them to work the problems at the end of the chapter, but warn that there is a danger here as well – textbooks frequently group like problems together, which amounts to “blocked practice.” Blocked practice is shown to produce less learning than “interleaved practice,” where problems of different sorts are randomly mixed. Here again I warn them that studying this way will seem more difficult, but that this is a “desirable difficulty” that has been shown to produce greater learning gains. Interleaved practice helps students learn to discern between types of problems and to select the correct strategy needed to solve that type of problem. I point out that it is also more like what they will experience on the test, where there’s no bold type announcing what sort of problem is next.

While I haven’t yet collected even anecdotal results on whether students put this advice to use, or if it helps (writing this is prompting me to follow up with the students I’ve talked with!), I do know that many of them acknowledge that they have fallen into these “traps” and leave with renewed enthusiasm for studying with this approach, and a bit of hope that maybe in fact they can learn to test well. That, at least, is a start!

 

Resources

For more on the testing effect, and how to make use of it in education: http://www.retrievalpractice.org/

To learn more about Robert Bjork’s ideas on “desirable difficulty”: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-addiction/201105/desirable-difficulties-in-the-classroom

And for an overview of the work on interleaved practice: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-interleaving-effect-mixing-it-up-boosts-learning/

In our Faculty Feature series, the Kaneb Center interviews teachers around campus to learn about what motivates them, discuss techniques they use in their classrooms, and share bits of wisdom with others in the Notre Dame community and beyond! This edition, we feature Mike Seelinger from the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am an Associate Teaching Professor in the Dept. of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. I grew up in North Palm Beach, Florida. Back in 1990, when I left Florida for my freshman year at Notre Dame I had no inkling that I would spend so much of my life at Notre Dame. Like many first year students I chose to study engineering because many of the people in my life thought it would be a good match: I was good at math and science and enjoyed learning how things work. They were right; mechanical engineering has been an excellent match. In the summer before my senior year at Notre Dame, I had the good fortune to befriend one of my professors who has served as an excellent mentor over the years. He opened my eyes to the possibility of graduate school and a career in academia. I earned my B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering all at Notre Dame. Upon graduation I spent a number of years in the entrepreneurial world as a part owner of a small business engaged in research and development in the area of robotics and automation. I also spent five years on the faculty at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a visiting instructor and course coordinator. I returned to the South Bend area in 2006 and joined the faculty at Notre Dame in 2009.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

As far back as high school I knew I really enjoyed teaching. During high school and college I served as a volunteer tutor. I enjoyed the interaction with students and the empowering moment when a student understands a new concept and begins to gain confidence. During college I developed my passion for learning how things work and grew to love engineering. It seemed a natural fit to try to combine my passion for teaching with my passion for engineering. Fortunately, during my senior year several of my professors gave me the confidence boost needed to pursue a career in academia. Even when I stepped out of the academic tract, I managed to satisfy my passion for teaching as a part-time visiting instructor at the University of Illinois. Over the years I realized that the work I found most meaningful was teaching. I am thrilled that I now get to carry out this work full-time.

In what ways do you find teaching rewarding or meaningful?

I find that the friendships I have built with my students have been the most rewarding aspect of teaching. I think that the years that a person spends in college are some of the most interesting and formative years in one’s life. The students have such energy, enthusiasm, and passion for pursuing their ideals. I find it very rewarding to try to have a small, positive role during such a meaningful time in their lives. I enjoy teaching the students during their first two years at the university. In addition to helping them build a solid foundation in the knowledge that they will need for their upper-class engineering courses, I hope that I help them develop the good habits that students need to be successful in their studies, but more importantly in their future lives. Every time a former student reaches out to me to tell me how their life is going or how some lesson they learned in college has helped them in a particular way I am filled with a feeling of deep satisfaction that my educational efforts have borne fruit.

Describe one teaching technique you like to use in your classes.

I certainly would not claim that this practice is unique to me, in that I was inspired to develop my current practice of class exercises by one of my mentors. I find that a student does not really understand and learn a concept until they have had to wrestle with it themselves. Applying the concept on their own to a new problem often accelerates the learning process.  This is one of the main reasons for assigning homework problems. Often the lag between when a student learns a concept in the lecture and when they have to apply it in their homework is so great that the two learning opportunities are not linked together. Many years ago I started the practice of having the students engage in “class exercises” during some of the lectures. Right after new material is presented, the students must apply the concept to a new problem. My class exercises are graded only on effort: so long as a student tries to do the class exercise they receive full credit. I find this engages the student in a learning opportunity without the stress that comes with a graded quiz. During the class exercise the students can talk to each other and work on the problem together, which usually facilitates learning. In the many engineering courses I have taught (and even taken as a student), I find that students often disengage half-way through the lecture. So the class exercises have the added bonus of breaking up the class and helping students to re-engage. I have found this practice of class exercises to be a way of promoting learning retention, increasing classroom engagement, and motivating students to be present and attentive during lectures.

What advice would you give to a new teacher?

To be an effective teacher one has to promote an environment conducive to learning. I believe that the single most important factor to creating this environment is that teacher must truly care about their students and the students must perceive that the teacher cares about them. When a student feels that their teacher really cares about them as a person, that student tends to be much more engaged and invested in the course, even if they do not particularly enjoy the material. The challenge for the instructor is how to convey the care and concern in a meaningful yet not ostentatious way. On a personal level this is manifested in treating each student with a great deal of respect and refinement. During office hours it is important to really listen to students and make them feel comfortable. In the classroom it means making policies that the students find fair. Sometimes it means changing the due date on a homework assignment because you recognize how many other assignments the engineers have due during the same week. Most teachers would be amazed at what message such an action sends to their students: that the professor understands the students’ predicament, cares about their perceived hardship, and wants them to have the time to complete their homework well (meaning it will be a better learning opportunity).

In your opinion, what makes a great teacher?

A great teacher is one who truly cares about their students and is fully invested in the educational experience. A great teacher should always remain a student in that the teacher is constantly looking out for how to improve their teaching skills, be more effective at explaining concepts, and willing to try new things in the classroom to improve their courses. A great teacher feels deep satisfaction at seeing their students grow and mature, knowing that they have played their small but important role in the lives of so many people.

Thanks, Mike!

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In the days when teaching evaluations involved filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil on the last day of class, evaluation response rates were entirely dependent on who showed up to class on a given day. Now, Notre Dame and many other colleges and universities collect student feedback online, meaning response rates are no longer based on attendance, but on whether students are motivated to complete the online surveys. Online surveys have many benefits – a streamlined process, easier-to-interpret results, flexibility to add your own questions, and reduced paper use, to name a few – but raise concerns for some about reduced response rates. Evaluations are one of the primary means to get feedback on one’s teaching and are also valuable for career development, so generating an appropriate response rate is an important task, and one which instructors have some control over too! Administration of online Course Instructor Feedback (CIFs) at Notre Dame begins soon (April 25th – May 7th for Spring 2017), so now is a good time to consider implementing a strategy to increase CIF response rates. Whether you are teaching at Notre Dame or elsewhere, try mixing several of the following techniques to ensure an adequate response rate:

  • Demonstrate the importance of evaluations. The number one thing instructors can do to increase response rates and ensure students take evaluations seriously is to communicate (and demonstrate) to students that they personally value the feedback, intend to use it, and that it is important to their career.
    • Create a feedback-oriented environment. If you seek feedback from students throughout the semester, such as by administering an informal early-semester feedback form, it signals that you value student opinions and are willing to change elements of your course based on the feedback you receive. Building a general rapport with students also encourages them to care about you and the course.
    • Discuss previous evaluations. Mention to students something you have altered in the course based on previous semesters’ evaluations, or discuss something that previous students have commented on as being valuable (like a difficult assignment that turned out to be especially fruitful).
    • Add your own questions (and tell students you did). Encourage student participation by actively gauging opinions on something that is important to you. To reap the full benefits, be sure to tell students ahead of time that you are specifically asking for their help with these questions.
    • Tell students how evaluations are used. Academic hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions are a mysterious process even to some in the world of academia, and even more so to students. Explain to students that administrators weigh student evaluations in personnel matters and that they will be seen and taken seriously by others too – not just the instructor. Remind them too that they are completely anonymous and not tied to their grades in the course.
  • Give frequent reminders or include CIFs in your course design. Students are busy people, and even if they intend to fill out evaluations, the activities and stress of the end of the semester may move CIFs to the low end of the priority list. By personally reminding students on top of the reminders they receive from the university, it will be less likely that forgetfulness will be the cause of low response rates. Even better, consider building CIF completion into your course.
    • In-class reminders, email reminders, personal reminders… As long as done within reason, any type of personal reminder will signal to students that you take evaluations seriously. If only 1/3 of the class have completed their evaluations halfway through the CIF administration period, thank the 1/3 and kindly ask the remaining 2/3 to fill them out.
    • Note it on your syllabus. Place the dates of CIF administration on the syllabus, or even list CIF completion as an “assignment.” For example, make the last problem on the homework assignment to fill out CIFs and provide instructions on how to do so.
    • Devote class time to completing CIFs. Just like the old days of #2 pencils and paper evaluations, set aside the first 10 minutes of class to go to a computer lab and have students fill out their evaluations. (Doing so at the start of class instead of the end ensures that you have their full attention.) For privacy, be sure to step out of the room as they fill them out.
  • Explain the benefits…or provide additional ones. Evaluations can benefit a number of people: the students themselves (expressing their opinion, seeing grades earlier), future students (seeing basic info on the instructor, improving their class experience), the instructor (improving teaching, using evaluations for job advancement), and the university (ensuring instructors are doing their jobs effectively). Remind students of these benefits, and consider whether you are willing to provide additional nominal benefits for completing CIFs.
    • Offer additional benefits. The most controversial method of increasing response rates is to offer students additional incentive to fill out evaluations, either individually (by having students print confirmation of their evaluation submission) or collectively (if a certain percentage of the class completes their CIFs). These nominal benefits might include a bonus extra credit point on a homework assignment, the ability to use an index card with notes on the final exam, or doughnuts on the last day of class. If you are concerned about walking the fine line between incentive and bribery, you might also tell students they will receive a personal thank-you note if they confirm that they filled out their evaluations (as an added signal that you care about their thoughts on the class).

Students can tell throughout the whole semester whether instructors value their opinion, and one need not wait until the last minute to frantically email students encouraging them to evaluate their teaching. Look for ways to signal that you value feedback, to demystify the evaluation process, and to explain to students why evaluations are important. Once you have received the results of your CIFs, check out our resources on interpreting your scores, or make an appointment to stop by and discuss them with a Kaneb Center staff member.

For Further Reading:

The Kaneb Center fully encourages thinking of your class sessions and course schedules in terms of digestible blocks that employ diverse engaged learning exercises and techniques and are transparently connected to course goals. However, in practice it is sometimes difficult to ensure that each separate block of content throughout the semester connects not only to course goals but also directly to each other. In his 2016 book, Small Teaching, James Lang uses the term interleaving to demonstrate how one might best put these smaller chunks of information disseminated throughout the semester in constant conversation with one another so that students experience a consistent flow of information and better understand how each piece of the class fits together.

Interleaving is most easily understandable in the context of courses or situations that require memorization of a large body of knowledge.  Lang successfully introduces the concept of interleaving through a personal anecdote about learning Spanish. He underscores that he did not truly start learning Spanish until he abandoned the linear model of trudging forward toward more advanced vocabulary terms and grammatical concepts and replaced it with a method that combined this forward progression with consistent review of older material. Doing so meant that he moved much more slowly through new material but ensured that he retained the information he was learning. Lang defines such a learning method as interleaved learning and suggests that implementing this mixture of review based and new concept based learning will dramatically increase student retention of material.

Since interleaving necessitates constant reinforcement , there may be some anxiety about it taking time away from learning new content. That said, more complex ideas or information are not necessarily valuable if it is not properly understood.  Many of us are guilty of trying to cover as much new material as possible, sometimes at the expense of remembering to provide proper context. Perhaps we are already implementing best practices such as previewing material at the beginning of class, using different teaching methods throughout class-time, and spending time on a direct review of class material. But do we spend enough time reinforcing previously-taught material in later class periods, or do we just expect students to have a handle on it thanks to our excellent scaffolding of the material when we taught it? Lang argues that “If you want them to learn content or skills that stretch across the entire semester, and even beyond the confines of your course, interleave” (56). Retention is increased because students are able to directly make connections between each part of the course. If, per Lang, we increase the scaffolding to include frequent review of older material, we might have to spend less time on each individual concept because students will be able to activate their prior knowledge and directly apply it to new information and ideas.

Interleaving can even work in a course that is not linearly constructed, such as a humanities class that might focus on process more than product and may not necessarily require a direct progression of ideas in the same way a math or science course might. In a more process based class, one may revisit frameworks for thinking about issues or specific discussions that uncovered faulty assumptions about course material. I normally frame my courses with a chapter from Bell Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress that develops a theory of performative and transgressive pedagogy that emphasizes student engagement and encourages students to think more deeply about their agency in the classroom. When reading future texts, we continually return to an interpretation of Hooks’ work that functions as a lens through which to contextualize our conversations and interactions and therefore leverage student participation. The result is that students feel more involved in the work as they are continually encountering Hooks’ pedagogy as a frame for interpreting and interacting with texts and one another. As I hope my experience demonstrates, interleaving does not just benefit information consumption but also “mastery of complex skills like writing, speaking, and problemsolving”, as students are asked to make connections across units of the course and synthesize their thoughts throughout the semester (56).

For those of you who would like to hear Lang speak in person, please check the Kaneb Center website or join our mailing list for updates on his upcoming (rescheduled) appearance this spring at Notre Dame.

Further Reading:

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

Lang, James. Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

James Lang’s Blog

It’s virtually guaranteed that, no matter how energized a discussion facilitator you are, or how exciting the material you’re covering is, you will have a few silent students in your classroom. This can be demoralizing, especially for a new teacher, since it often appears that students who don’t respond aren’t as interested in the subject matter. Additionally, it can be hard to gauge how well those particular students are following your lecture or the classroom discussion. Here are some tips on how to engage students who are habitually quiet in class:

  • As is so often the case, planning ahead can save you trouble later. A simple way to learn about your class is to have every student fill out a note card at the beginning of the year with their name, background, reasons that they’re taking your class, as well as anything else you may wish to know about them.  Include an open-ended question like “What else would you like your instructor to know about you?” This will still give students a chance to communicate with you and let you know more about what they are looking for.

 

  • Since part of the challenge with quiet students is getting to know them and their needs as a student, if your class size allows it, consider asking everyone in class to drop by your office hours at the beginning of the semester. This gives you an opportunity to ask about their interests and relevant background; knowing the makeup of the classroom in this way is always helpful for class preparation.

 

  • Try to avoid calling on quiet students when they aren’t expecting it, even in a well-intentioned effort to hear their input. If you have students who are quiet because they are shy or unused to speaking in front of others, forcing them to speak extemporaneously will probably only reinforce their discomfort.

 

  • If you do establish a policy of calling on students unprompted, make sure to do so only after 1) giving fair warning that this will happen and 2) giving students a chance to think and write about their responses before they are asked to share them with the class.  You may give all students 2 minutes to consider a prompt or tackle a problem before calling on someone to share their answer.  You may even give them a chance to discuss their answer with a neighbor before asking anyone to speak to the whole class. These techniques allow all students, and particularly the quieter ones, to gather and consider their thoughts before being put on the spot.

 

  • Calling on students after giving time to write and even discuss answers with neighbors can work particularly well if you ask questions that are don’t require a strict right or wrong answer. If the question is sufficiently broad, you can incorporate the wide variety of answers into something productive for the whole class. The benefit for your quiet students is that it introduces a positive environment where all responses are taken seriously and drawn into the main theme of the class. If a student’s answer does need some correction, make sure to include positive feedback as well; the main point is for your students to see that there should be nothing to fear in venturing their opinion.

 

  • Finally, a good way to ensure that you are hearing the thoughts of your quietest students is through writing assignments. Whether reacting to the reading before class or reflecting on the discussion after class; short, low-stakes writing assignments allow quiet students time to gather their thoughts and formulate their answers away from the pressure of the classroom, and allow the instructor insight into those students’ thoughts and progress in the course.

 

Students are quiet for all kinds of reasons, from their personalities to their educational or cultural backgrounds. Your job is not to change them into talkative people, but to build a classroom environment conducive to the learning of all students.

Additional Resources:

http://www.chronicle.com/article/Whats-the-Problem-With-Quiet/124258

http://www.teachhub.com/10-teaching-strategies-making-quiet-class-talk

As instructors, we play critical roles in promoting a supportive and motivational learning environment for our students.  Below is a survey of strategies suggested by recent research for promoting a positive classroom environment:

 

Building rapport with students

In a study of students’ perceptions of their rapport with their instructors, the strength of this perceived relationship appeared to be most important for students’ motivation and satisfaction, outweighing their attitudes toward the course content or recommended course behaviors (Myers & Bryant 2002). These results suggest that even if your students are unenthusiastic about your subject, you can promote positive experiences in the classroom by personally empowering and motivating them.

 

Improving attitudes toward diversity

A study on student attitudes toward diversity found that even a basic intervention had lasting effects. A senior white male faculty member gave a presentation on diversity to a group of white, male engineering students. In comparison to the control group who received no diversity presentation, the students who listened to the presentation expressed stronger positive attitudes toward diversity in engineering.  The message, delivered at the beginning of the semester, had a measurable effect three months later, which underscores importance of setting the tone for respect and civility at the beginning of the semester (Bennett & Sekaquaptewa 2014). The study also suggests that even if you are not part of a marginalized group, you can effectively deliver messages of inclusivity to your students.

 

Dealing with difficult situations

A survey of teachers’ and students’ responses to microaggressions found that instructors report a greater willingness to ignore incidents, but students feel it is important that their teachers address these situations. In this study, microaggressions took the form of statements or actions that conveyed subtle or unintentional racism in the classroom. Students rated all possible interventions as more effective than instructors, including strategies such as privately addressing the issue outside of class, holding a class discussion, and immediately addressing the unacceptability of the behavior (Boysen 2012). If you find yourself in a difficult situation in the classroom, do not let your uncertainty about the perfect response be the enemy of the good.  Whatever thoughtful and genuine intervention you make is better than no response and likely will be more effective than you imagine.

 

The Take-away

As the instructor, you probably have more power than you give yourself credit for to positively influence students’ attitudes and experiences in your classroom.  Take opportunities to connect to your students, develop an inclusive atmosphere early in the term, and use teachable moments throughout the semester to make your classroom a more welcoming environment.

 

References

Bennett, J. E., & D. Sekaquaptewa (2014). Setting an egalitarian social norm in the classroom: improving attitudes towards diversity among male engineering students. Social Psychology of Education, 17, 343-355.

Boysen, G. A. (2012). Teacher and Student Perceptions of Microaggressions in College Classrooms. College Teaching, 60 (3), 122-129.

Myers, S. A., & Bryant, L. E. (2002). Perceived Understanding, Interaction Involvement, and College Student Outcomes.  Communication Research Reports, 19 (2), 146-155.

In our Faculty Feature series, the Kaneb Center interviews teachers around campus to learn about what motivates them, discuss techniques they use in their classrooms, and share bits of wisdom with others in the Notre Dame community and beyond! This edition, we feature Amanda Hummon from the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I am an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and a Researcher at the Harper Cancer Research Institute. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and fell in love with chemistry as a high school student. I loved the simplicity and universality of the periodic table. I studied chemistry in college and graduate school. After I finished my Ph.D., I decided to apply my chemistry background to cancer research. I spent four years as a post-doctoral researcher at the National Cancer Institute before coming to Notre Dame in 2009.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

I really enjoy interacting with students. As a graduate student, I mentored undergraduates in the lab. Then as a post-doc, I mentored graduate and medical students. In all these cases, I found that I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the project. It is incredibly rewarding to help someone else understand a difficult concept. I also find that teaching others is one of the best ways to determine whether or not you really understand a topic.

In what ways do you find teaching rewarding or meaningful?

Chemistry is a subject that gets a bad rap. It can be perceived as difficult and unapproachable. In my classes, and in particular, in my Chem 10101 class, I aim to make chemistry approachable and enjoyable. It is such a central, important science but many people are intimidated by it. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to have a student tell me that they anticipated disliking my class but actually found it instructive/meaningful/enjoyable.

Describe one teaching technique you like to use in your classes.

I use a lot of chemical demonstrations and YouTube videos. The availability of wonderful demos is a huge advantage for chemistry teachers. In my Chem 10101 class, I do a demo in every lecture. For example, when we discuss the periodic table, I explain how adding one more electron can make a huge difference in chemical reactivity. We discuss the difference between Hydrogen (1 electron) and Helium (2 electrons). We then watch a YouTube video of the Hindenburg exploding. The Hindenburg was supposed to be filled with inert helium, but because of a global helium shortage, it was filled with reactive hydrogen, with deadly consequences. After we watch the YouTube video, everyone dons earplugs and I put on Personal Protective Equipment. Then, with the students a safe distance away, I light balloons on fire. While the helium balloon sounds like a regular air-filled balloon exploding, the hydrogen balloon produced a huge boom and a substantial fireball. There is nothing like a fireball in class to help students remember a key concept.

What advice would you give to a new teacher?

You have to be respectful with your students. Treat them fairly and explain why your class policies are the way they are. Also, don’t feel that you need to cram a ton of material into a lecture. I find that less is more when it comes to teaching. I tend to emphasize one or two major concepts in a lecture. Asking your students to absorb a ton of information is unrealistic and does not promote retention of the material.

In your opinion, what makes a great teacher?

Great teachers are invested in their students. They do their job because they enjoy it and they want to pass their love of learning on to others. They are also willing to invest time and energy into their students.

Thanks, Amanda!

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