faculty

Uncertainty for grad students as tax bill goes to conference

Key area of concern is House plan to tax tuition waivers, which some have said would make it impossible for them to afford to stay in their programs.

States mandate OER and affordable textbook labeling, but challenges remain

Institutions in several states are now required to label courses with OER and affordable materials. Proponents cheer the move toward transparency, though some challenges remain.

The importance of friendships for furthering scholarship (opinion)

Personal relationships can provide untapped creative spaces for boundary-spanning work, writes Jeffrey Nesteruk, and the silos we most need to overcome might be ourselves.

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The need for a theory of learning (opinion)

Few professions are “revolutionized” with such frequency as teaching -- and with such minimal impact on actual practices. As veteran teachers, we’ve seen many teaching practices and technological advances that promise to transform (or disrupt) education, including programmed instruction, clicker questions, discovery learning and on and on. They follow a similar pattern: initial excitement with reports of strikingly positive results, followed by the growth of doubts and negative results, leading to a mixed picture of success and failure, and then descending into inconsequentiality or practice by only a limited number of adherents.

Are we being cynical? If we were to synthesize current trends in pedagogy, we would conclude that the best teaching practice is: high impact, student centered, engaging, hands-on, just-in-time, technology enhanced, flipped, blended, hybrid, transformational, cooperative, collaborative, reflective, authentic, situated, guided, integrative, supplemental, reciprocal, gamified, experiential, adaptive, disruptive and active. It is also brain based, peer based, inquiry based, group based, team based, project based, case based, community based, discovery based, competency based, evidence based, mastery based, research based, service based, problem based and data driven, not to mention massive, open and online.

In other words, teaching and learning are lost in a buzzword wasteland. “Cutting-edge” pedagogy changes often but results in little actual progress in terms of promoting student learning. There has been an explosion of pedagogical research in the last 20 years, but it has yet to translate into widespread, substantive innovations in teaching practices. As a result, many teachers simply ignore teaching trends.

How did teaching get this way? More important, what can be done to move teaching forward?

The problem stems from viewing innovations as magic bullets that will work for everyone. Indeed, the focus on innovations diverts attention from the everyday reality of education: teaching and learning are complex and hard. They are complex and hard because we don’t know the exact conditions in which student learning will occur. How people learn depends on multiple interacting factors that defy any one-size-fits-all solution. Yet we keep trying to find a simple solution to this complicated problem.

We pursue simplistic solutions to teaching for a number of reasons. In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie provided a major empirical one. After synthesizing more than 800 meta-analyses of different factors affecting learning, he concluded that virtually all learning innovations work, noting that one only needs a pulse and a belief that an intervention will work, and it likely will. Teachers become excited when they try something different and students notice and respond to it. The problem is that the effects are transient; they fade as the shiny new pedagogy becomes routine.

The fundamental theoretical reason for our pursuit of simplistic answers is the lack of a comprehensive, empirically validated model of how students learn. Such a theory will be complex, stipulating all the elements that contribute to learning and specifying principles of how these elements interact with each other. Such principles could guide the design, implementation and assessment of effective pedagogy across different situations.

Without such a theory, teachers must make their own assumptions about how students learn. Unfortunately, many teachers base their pedagogy on simplistic ideas, untested intuitions and faulty assumptions. The lack of a validated model leads to a profusion of different teaching methods based on various assumptions. Fads emerge (or re-emerge in an altered form). Teachers with different assumptions often talk past one another, and people outside teaching believe they are qualified to “fix” teaching.

How do we break out of this unproductive cycle and move teaching forward? The solution is to develop a comprehensive theory of how people learn. A good theory would guide both research and practice by organizing existing pedagogical knowledge, allowing it to accumulate and advance. Teachers could use such a theory to guide the development and assessment of effective pedagogies. Researchers could use the theory to guide progressively more advanced and germane research.

To be effective, any pedagogy must mesh with what we know about how the mind learns and thinks. Cognitive research shows the mind is good at some aspects of learning and limited in others. We know conditions and strategies that can enhance learning and ones that hinder it. If a teaching strategy doesn’t leverage the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of the human cognitive system, it will fail. For example, digital textbooks with embedded links for students to explore can help learning by providing a richer encoding, but they can also cause distractions in attention that hurt learning.

Historically, we have used global theories of development and learning, such as Jean Piaget and John Dewey, but those theories are too broad to be of use in specific teaching situations. What’s more, our understanding of learning has advanced considerably. At the other end of the spectrum, cognitive psychologists have discovered individual, specific factors that aid learning, such as retrieval practice and interleaving, but those single elements often do not easily translate into the complex context of the classroom.

What would such a theory of student learning look like? Looking only at cognitive factors, research has identified multiple factors that interact to influence student learning. They include:

  • Mental mind-set: how students view their ability to learn through their own efforts influences their willingness to take on challenges and their perseverance.
  • Prior knowledge: the more students know about a subject, the easier it is for them to learn more about that subject.
  • Misconceptions: misconceptions are common in any field and remarkably resistant to correction.
  • Ineffective learning strategies: students often prefer the least effective study strategies for long-term learning.
  • Transfer of learning: students often fail to generalize learning beyond the immediate classroom context.
  • Selective attention: students overestimate their ability to learn while multitasking or in the face of distractions
  • Constraints of mental effort and working memory: students can concentrate and consider only a limited amount of information.
  • Metacognition and self-regulation: students are often overconfident in their level of understanding, and this misconception influences their study habits.
  • Fear and mistrust: students who believe that their teachers want them to succeed and design assignments that will help them succeed will work harder and persevere longer than students who see their teachers as indifferent or trying to “weed them out.”

This extensive list of factors makes clear why effective teaching is so difficult to achieve. Any valid theory of student learning has to address all these issues.

For example, a teacher may try to help students by correcting their poor learning strategies, but if the problem is with misconceptions and prior knowledge, the approach will be unsuccessful. Moreover, all these factors interact and influence each other. Greater prior knowledge, for example, reduces the mental effort required to learn new information.

The most important consequence of this interaction is that it means there is no single best way to teach across all situations. A valid theory of learning would have to capture this complex interaction.

Having a theory of how people learn would allow teachers to plan pedagogy more effectively and to examine all factors relevant to learning. Note that these are only the cognitive factors and do not even address social or other important aspects. Developing such a theory will require the collaboration of researchers who understand the mind, educators who understand the classroom context and teachers who must put the pedagogy into practice. Many fields contribute to teaching, and it will take a concerted, multidisciplinary effort to develop a valid theory.

Ideally, the people leading this effort will have mastery in their field, in pedagogical research and in teaching that addresses all the cognitive challenges to achieve student learning. Most disciplines have an organization dedicated to conducting pedagogical research on teaching that field effectively. The members of these organizations are likely to have the closest combination of expertise needed to move teaching forward. These organizations could also bring researchers and practitioners together to focus on research that examines cognitive challenges in authentic educational settings.

It may seem counterintuitive to argue that in order to achieve practical improvements in teaching, we need to develop a theory, but that is exactly what is needed to transform teaching into a coherent set of effective practices. Currently, faculty development consists of presenting teaching techniques with no theoretical framework, as if procedure equals pedagogy. As a result, techniques are interpreted and enacted in a wide variety of ways. Grounding practice in an accepted theory would bring much needed clarity to the definition of terms.

Educational buzzwords often encompass ill-defined categories of practices and mean different things to different people. Take “active learning,” a term that has been in circulation at least 25 years. It seems to include all instructional practices except lecturing and is used interchangeably with other equally ambiguous terms such as “hands-on learning.”

If our analysis is correct, we are approaching the development and assessment of pedagogy all wrong. Instead of judging pedagogies to be good or bad, we should be asking, “In what situation is this pedagogy appropriate to use?” and “What kind of learning is likely to result?” We are not arguing that all pedagogies are equal. Some pedagogies are more widely applicable and more likely to succeed than others. But all pedagogies have their limitations.

We should not be looking for the single best teaching method. What works for one section of a class may not work in another. We need theory-driven pedagogy to achieve desired goals. To develop such a theory would be huge undertaking, but it would certainly beat wandering aimlessly in a buzzword wasteland.

Stephen L. Chew is a professor of psychology at Samford University. William J. Cerbin is a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.

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How to write a good cover letter (essay)

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Pallavi Eswara gives tips on how to put your best image forward.

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Advice Newsletter publication date: 
Thursday, December 7, 2017
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Creating a Good Cover Letter

Journal's Editorial Board Resigns in Protest

The editorial board of the International Journal of Occupation and Environmental Health resigned last week in protest of various editorial decisions, according to Retraction Watch. The board has for months criticized actions taken by the journal, including its appointment of a new editor with ties to industry and what the board has described as the “unilateral withdrawal” of a 2016 paper critical of corporate-sponsored research. A previous editor oversaw the withdrawal, but the board in its resignation letter said it did not wish to follow the journal as it pursues an “apparent new direction.”

Taylor & Francis, the journal’s publisher, told Retraction Watch this week that it was sorry the board “did not wish to take the opportunities offered by ourselves and the editor in chief to discuss the journal’s future.” The publisher said it had no plans to make major changes to the journal and denied that any paper had been “unilaterally retracted.” Rather, it said, the paper in question was withdrawn because it was “published inadvertently, before the review process had been completed.”

Former board member Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant, said in response that Taylor & Francis “continues to refuse to provide information on how and why [it] took it upon itself to withdraw a paper that was peer reviewed, accepted and published” in a scientific journal.

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Columbia College-Chicago Part-Time Instructors Strike

Adjunct instructors at Columbia College in Chicago are expected to return to the bargaining table today after a two-day strike over contract negotiations. The strike was supported by 88 percent of the independent part-time faculty union in a recent vote, according to the Chicago Tribune. Reportedly at issue is an administrative proposal that adjuncts say would contractually strip them of job security, seniority in class assignments, a paid sick day and academic freedom. The college says it wants to consider other factors than seniority in class assignments, such as outside professional expertise.

Adjuncts are also fighting for bigger pay increases than what have been proposed thus far, saying they don’t amount to a living wage. The union’s last contract expired in August. Some 50 classes were canceled due to the strike, the Tribune reported.

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Anthropologists consider challenges of teaching in a red state

Scholars talk strategy, setbacks on teaching in a field that often aligns with progressive policy goals.

Strategies for minimizing plagiarism (essay)

As long as students put off doing writing assignments until almost too late, do not study the course material as well as they should, have low confidence in their academic abilities, settle for doing less than their best in their schoolwork and just don’t feel like putting out the effort and instead grub for grades, there will be plagiarism.

In other words, we professors cannot eliminate it entirely, no matter how hard we try to design the perfect assignment or develop/find the ultimate originality-checking software or online testing environment. Students’ desire to cheat cannot be planned out of our assignments, because it is outside the curriculum. We design our course work under a basic assumption: people who want to learn will be willing to do what we ask them to do to learn it. When that cooperation is not present, learning breaks down.

We can only take several steps to minimize plagiarism. We can make cheating more labor-intensive or costly than the effort involved. We can also try to make the assignments so interesting that students want to explore the subject as deeply as we want them to or so unusual that a response doesn’t already exist out there. Yet hard as we work to make the assignment one on which students don’t want to bother plagiarizing, someone will always try to take the shortcut.

An analogy occurred to me: speeding. We have traffic speed limits to regulate automobile traffic flow, mainly for safety reasons, and we have penalties for ignoring those limits. We all understand why the limits are there, and most of us agree to them, but some people still exceed the limits anyway. Fortunately, the bad consequences for others (accidents and deaths) are a comparatively small percentage when we ignore the limits. But when we know the police are there, most of us follow the law most of the time. It seems to me that students also know that we want them to do their own work and understand our rationale for why we do not want them to plagiarize. But if they think they can get away with it, some try.

Discussions of the different software solutions often go into the details of how they work and how effective they are at detecting, but such discussions seem off the mark -- they are the mechanism by which the cheating happens, not its motivation. We have to explain the value of doing one's own work and that one must actually absorb the information for any real learning to occur.

Tactics we can take to reduce plagiarism include:

  • Discussing forms of plagiarism and examples from outside academe -- and the penalties that violators paid.
  • Talking with students about the intellectual laziness inherent in plagiarism and how true learning takes work. Part of this can include how we develop thinking and work habits that do not include cheating.
  • Setting up assignments so that no one assignment will fail a student for the course. That can take off some of the pressure to get a really high score on that one assignment that assures a passing grade.
  • Developing the kind of assignment that makes it more time-consuming to try to find an answer online than to just write it oneself.
  • Designating specific points to cover. We can spend time working out the instructions for the assignment to get what we want from students. We can ask specific questions to get students to provide proof that they read our course materials.
  • Changing up the assignments every few semesters. This can make previous “banks” of assignments irrelevant.
  • Limiting students to only certain sources or give them only specific sources to use.
  • Making students do the assignment in person -- and requiring that it be handwritten, no devices needed.
  • Assigning a heavier weight on process over product by checking drafts and work along the way to the final product.
  • Getting to know students' ways of expressing themselves. Collecting short samples of their writing in person to compare with writing in the longer pieces can give an idea of their writing style. It can also reassure students that we know their ideas and understand their perspective on the subject.
  • Modeling proper research and citation form for students. Sharing with students some of our efforts at writing for publication and how we go about exploring the field of study.

Not all of these are needed, but using several of them in combination can keep students guessing as to whether it is worth their effort to cheat.

We also have to clearly indicate the penalty for plagiarizing and enforce it. After a few instances of catching and penalizing students, the word will get out that we mean it, and over time, fewer instances will occur. (Just like those pesky speeding tickets.)

I use an originality checker. I do not make plagiarism accusations on the basis of a hunch or a gut feeling. When it gives a positive result for plagiarism, I send that report back to the student as my proof with the failing grade on it. My institution gives professors latitude to handle incidents. As long as it is in the syllabus and clearly communicated, the professor is in the right. Of course, the other half of this is whether the students have read the policy in its numerous locations. As long as the professor has provided ample warning, the student is responsible.

Besides changing our tactics, we need to adjust our emotional response. As I read articles in Inside Higher Ed and other publications and interact with colleagues who have caught students, the emotional timbre of the conversation is growing more intense. With millennials not identifying as “adult” until their 30s, sometimes part of it is that adolescent defiance that teenagers have: "I'll show you." Colleagues have told me of extensive email exchanges and in-person confrontations with students about what are or are not plagiarized passages. We, the professionals in the room, have to defuse that. Sometimes the more we make of it, the more we inadvertently throw down the gauntlet as a challenge to students.

We have to set the tone for the interaction a good deal lower. I understand the frustration: after umpteen different disclaimers on the penalty from us, students still cheat. We also have dealt with it over the many years of our careers, and students still cheat. But we have to control that frustration and go for the teachable moment: no, the student is not a bad person; yes, the student believes they have a good reason for the action; no, I will not allow a second try; no, I will not “make an exception this time”; yes, the penalty stands. Almost every time, the student does not plagiarize for me after that. But I also understand that is no guarantee that they won’t try again in a subsequent class for another professor.

I do not advocate simply shrugging our shoulders, acquiescing to the inevitable and dropping the whole activity. Students need to learn solid research processes, valid sources and proper documentation formatting. They only learn so much in a multiple-choice quiz. Doing the project is the way to learn.

All of what I’ve said is relative, not absolute. Notice my use of qualifiers: “reduce,” “fewer” and “minimize.” The technology makes plagiarism faster and sometimes harder to detect. A recent article described a paraphrasing software that, ahem, “adjusts” the phrasing into a more student-sounding expression. I understand that the originality checkers are not perfect, but they signal students that I am paying attention.

Sometimes a student will pull one over on the old professor. This does not mean I have failed and the student won. It means the student was exceptionally clever. You win most and lose some, but eventually the cheaters who get one past me will get what is coming to them when they get caught by another professor. The penalty for that instance might be more severe than mine was. What goes around, comes around. And the remainder who have not plagiarized often find that they have actually learned something by doing their own work.

Wayne Stauffer is an English professor at Houston Community College. He teaches zombie essay hunting skills to his composition students.

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Ways to operate more thoughtfully in cyberspace (essay)

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Maria Shine Stewart gives advice on how to avoid imploding on the Net.

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