Trial and Error: Lehman and Hunter Colleges boost chemistry course passing rate to 80 percent

Students taking general chemistry at Hunter and Lehman Colleges were passing at 60 and 35 percent rates, respectively. A new course format that includes videos, podcasts and no textbooks quickly improved outcomes.

First-year writing classes can teach students how to make fact-based arguments (essay)

Perhaps the greatest challenge to academe in the current political environment is the ascendancy of a “post-truth,” “alternative fact,” “fake news” culture, in which claims are detached from evidence and words do not necessarily bear any relation to reality. In the culture of post-truth, social institutions formerly seen as mainstays of objective information -- the judiciary, news media and, not least, the university -- are widely regarded with skepticism, if not hostility, and their adherence to fact-based argument dismissed as elitism. Indeed, the very concept of a fact may have already become a casualty of the post-truth era.

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes declared on Diane Rehm’s NPR show in December. “And so Mr. Trump’s tweets amongst a certain crowd,” Hughes continued, “…are truth.” Hughes was widely reviled for her assertion, but she appears to have correctly assessed the temperature of the times.

How should those of us in academe respond? How do we prepare our students to respond?

I offer here a modest suggestion: support your local first-year writing program.

For much of its history, the first-year writing class has been an arena for teaching values and virtues like honesty, accountability, fair-mindedness and intellectual courage that serve as the foundations, indeed, the essence of academic argument. Moreover, the first-year writing class promotes those values in thousands of institutions across the nation, serving tens of thousands of students each semester by introducing them to principles of ethical argumentation. In so doing, the first-year writing class offers a robust defense against the post-truth culture and provides a model for constructive, fact-based public discourse.

Consider, for example, the teaching of argument in the first-year writing class. While by no means uniform in their approaches, first-year writing courses commonly teach argument as a social practice, a discursive relationship between reader and writer. For that relationship to thrive -- or to borrow Aristotle’s term, to flourish -- readers and writers must be confident in making certain assumptions about one another.

The first of these is mutual honesty. Readers must be confident that claims made by the writer are not intended to deceive or manipulate; you will not read much further in this essay if you conclude I am lying to you. The author, in turn, writes in the expectation, or at least the hope, that readers will not willfully distort the writer’s message but will offer a fair hearing of the argument.

Reader and writer may be skeptical of one another’s claims, and they may disagree vehemently about given policies. Yet if each enters the argument trusting in the basic honesty of the other, there is the possibility of dialogue between them. In the first year-writing class, accordingly, students are taught that successful arguments begin with relationships of trust grounded in expectations of honest exchange.

The honesty of claims, however, takes us only so far. Students in the first-year writing class learn that assertions made in an academic argument are but one part of a pairing, the first line of a couplet. When writers make an assertion, first-year writing students are told, they must supply evidence to support that claim. They must be accountable for the things they say and the language they use in saying it. “Accountability,” the philosopher Margaret Urban Walker has written, “means a presumption that someone can be called to answer, to stand before others for an examination of and judgment upon his or her behavior.” When students in the first-year writing course are taught to provide evidence appropriate to their claims, they are learning they will be called upon to answer, to stand before others, to provide the proofs by which their claims may be judged. They are learning something of the commitments that accountable writers make to their readers and themselves.

Nor do such commitments end with providing evidence. While the culture of post-truth seeks to quash competing truths, students in the first-year writing class learn that successful arguments include a healthy consideration of other views. To be credible in an academic argument, students learn in first-year writing courses, writers must attend to evidence and opinions that contradict their own.

What's more, they must do so equitably, generously and fearlessly -- always willing to be one of those, like Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, “quite as ready to be refuted as to refute.” To acknowledge the views of other people in an essay -- the practice first-year writing teachers typically call the counterargument -- is more than simply a convention. Rather, it is the rhetorical expression of the virtues of fair-mindedness, respectfulness and intellectual courage -- the qualities so conspicuously absent in the culture of post-truth.

Finally, argument in the first-year writing class teaches practices of intellectual humility. Many people have noted how academics represent argument in the language of conflict and war. We attack others’ ideas. We gain and lose territory. We are victorious, or we are decisively defeated. This is the language of intellectual domination.

But argument can equally be understood as a practice of radical humility, in the sense that to argue is to submit ourselves to the judgment of others, offering up our ideas for scrutiny, criticism and rejection. Moreover, while argument in the first-year writing class is frequently taught as the practice of persuasion, it is just as often represented as a process of inquiry, exploration and the reconciliation of diverse views. Understood this way, argument functions not as a truncheon for dominating others but rather as an invitation to collaborate, to reason together and, perhaps, to find and inhabit common ground.

If the next four years of the current administration are anything like the first months -- and the president has provided no reason to think otherwise -- we can look forward to a rising tide of alternative facts. As those in the academic community -- including college presidents, provosts, trustees and deans -- consider how best to meet such challenges, one site that may stand as a model of principled resistance is the first-year writing class, where post-truth finds no purchase and the commitment to fact-based discourse is unwavering.

John Duffy is an associate professor of English and the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame.

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ID2ID peer mentoring program for instructional designers

First-of-a-kind program will pair designers from around the country and globe to share experiences, solve collective problems and learn new skills.

Why the essay is integral to teaching (essay)

Teaching Today

Being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher, argues Caitlin McGill.

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eReady Learn helps instructors learn about their online students

A free web-based program created by professors shows students’ skill levels at the start of an online course. 

When teaching, how you look is important (essay)

Teaching Today

Teaching is a form of performance art, contends Bruce Fleming, and those watching us judge us as physical beings.

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Essay: Improving student success may mean fixing subpar courses

Not long ago, San Francisco investor and entrepreneur John Greathouse penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal claiming he found a solution to the tech industry’s diversity problem. Because of rampant bias in the tech industry, Greathouse suggested female job candidates should “create an online presence that obscures their gender” in order to improve their employment prospects.

The response was swift and vicious. Concealing one’s gender in response to bias addresses the symptom rather than the disease (biased hiring managers/employers and biased hiring practices). Greathouse, critics contend, offered a “Band-aid”: a superficial and ephemeral solution that avoids dealing with a deep-seated systemic challenge.

The temptation to optimize the path that people take through dysfunctional systems isn’t, of course, limited to hiring practices. It is a familiar pattern in a higher education discourse obsessed with predictive analytics -- one that all too often avoids tough conversations about poor instruction and outdated pedagogy.

This temptation to fix people rather than dysfunctional systems reminded me of current conversations in education technology around how new technologies can improve student success. Specifically, the interplay between two powerful new approaches: predictive analytics and adaptive learning technologies.

Using predictive analytics as an early warning system to predict which student is likely to fail is becoming commonplace. The goal is as clear as it is noble: reduce the number of college dropouts by intervening early.

The New America Foundation recently published “The Promise and Peril of Predictive Analytics in Higher Education,” a report detailing ethical concerns involved in using data to make predictions and its impact on underrepresented students. (I served on the advisory board for the project.) Yet the report overlooks the fact that, despite well-intentioned efforts, early warning systems put the responsibility to change on the student when what those of us whose job is to improve student success -- educators, administrators and policy makers -- really must do is change the system.

To illustrate, consider this example: in 2007, my colleague Ganga Prusty, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia, inherited a course in first-year engineering mechanics that had a 31 percent failure rate. The high-enrollment, introductory-level course teaches students concepts and techniques to solve real-world engineering problems. Success in engineering mechanics is a prerequisite for most engineering-related majors. The high failure rate meant that nearly a third of students couldn’t live up to their dreams of becoming engineers. And this, mind you, in an economy that’s starved for STEM graduates!

At the time, I was doing my Ph.D. building something I called the adaptive e-learning platform -- years later it would become the technology behind Smart Sparrow, the company I founded -- trying to find ways to create digital learning experiences that are more than PDFs and PowerPoints. I was introduced to Prusty because our dean thought it would be useful to try to apply this new technology to real-world problems. I found myself for the first time trying to find new solutions for what is essentially a very old problem: student success.

Yes, Prusty could have intervened with at-risk students and advised them to consider another major, but is that what he should have done? Should he not instead have discovered why the course was failing one in three students, and tried to fix it?

Prusty and his team did the latter and started by identifying “threshold concepts,” a term Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land introduced in 2003 that refers to core concepts that, once understood, transform perception of a given subject. After identifying the course’s threshold concepts, Prusty and his team designed adaptive tutorials to teach engineering students what they needed to know.

Prusty’s adaptive tutorials are a form of smart digital homework. They take students about an hour or two to complete as they work on solving problems with interactive simulations and receive feedback that is based on what they do.

For example, students learn how to analyze the mechanical forces that act on beams of a bridge by designing a bridge and driving simulated cars on it, measuring in the environment whether the forces they calculated were accurate. The system is “intelligent” because it can provide feedback based on the specific mistakes the student makes (called “adaptive feedback”). If the tutorial detects that a student would benefit from more examples or content, it dynamically changes the activity to show that content (called “adaptive pathways”).

Prusty and his team designed four adaptive tutorials in all, delivered weekly to students and targeting the threshold concepts and common misconceptions students had.

It worked. Not only did students begin to enjoy doing homework -- an achievement in its own right -- but they also performed better in the course’s assessments. Prusty’s team did not stop there, however. They analyzed the way students learned using these adaptive tutorials, noticing what worked and what didn’t, and then improved the tutorials. Over time, Prusty’s team built and introduced eight more adaptive tutorials.

The result? After a few years, the failure rate dropped to 5 percent. That happened while using the same course, syllabus and final exam, and while growing the number of students by 70 percent. The only difference was the number and the quality of adaptive tutorials used.

Prusty replicated the process in another course (a more advanced course in mechanics of solids), and the failure rate dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Now let’s imagine that instead, we could have used predictive analytics to identify failing students. What would we have done? We probably would have found a clever way to identify students likely to fail the course and gently suggested alternative degree programs. But would that have been the ethical thing to do?

Put another way, if you have a course with a high failure rate, should you use technology to predict who’s going to fail and alert them? Or should you fix the course? The former will improve your institution’s graduation rates, and the latter will have you try to convince your faculty to address the issue.

Which one is easier? Which one is more ethical? What happens when student success and institutional outcomes conflict?

It is all too easy to design Band-aid solutions to higher education’s completion crisis while ignoring more complex problems -- such as courses that are simply not good enough when we have an opportunity to redesign them entirely. Predictive analytics and adaptive learning are two sides of the same coin. But we will fall short at true improvement if we stop at analytics.

Dror Ben-Naim is founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow, an educational-technology company that helps faculty members create better courses by making them more active and adaptive. He is also a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and an adjunct academic in the University of New South Wales Australia’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, where he co-supervises research students in intelligent tutoring systems and learning design.

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How professors can get students to put down their cellphones in class (essay)

Teaching Today

How can you get students to put down their cellphones and engage in class? Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer offers some suggestions for helping them give up their addiction.

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All students, including underserved populations, should be taught the Great Books (essay)

In December, some 250 students, professors, university administrators and other citizens attended a daylong conference organized by Columbia University’s Center for American Studies on the theme of “Democracy and Education.” The event took the centennial of the publication of John Dewey’s classic book of that title as an occasion to consider how schools, colleges and universities might reinvigorate civic education with new pedagogies and partnerships with community organizations.

The stakes could not be higher. As Dewey wrote, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” The recent election added urgency to the day’s discussion, throwing in relief the question “What does democratic education mean today?”

Years ago our keynote speaker, the political philosopher Danielle Allen, grappled with that very question as she taught Great Books courses to night students at the University of Chicago. The Declaration of Independence became the sole text for one of those seminars, as she invited the students to join her in parsing each line of the country’s founding document. Allen explained in her book Our Declaration, “I wanted my students to claim the text …. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves …. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”

Ownership of the democratic tradition is key to a civic education. Allen understood that if students formed a personal relationship with a text, if they acquired it as a work that awakened their own civic intelligence, they would move from passive recipients of a heritage that they didn’t believe was theirs to active participants in shaping their country’s democratic future.

Allen is not alone in this insight. Programs across the country have begun to teach Great Books to underserved populations, be it:

The students in these programs -- whether prisoners, the homeless or first-generation college applicants -- have mastered major works in this country’s literary, moral and political traditions and in the process mastered themselves as thoughtful individuals and citizens. The aim of such an education is what Allen has elsewhere called “participatory readiness”: “verbal empowerment; strategic and tactical understanding of the levers of political change … and the ethics of their use; and democratic, associational know-how.”

The “Democracy and Education” conference took place the day before the publication of a New York Times op-ed by Molly Worthen on Great Books camps sponsored by conservative foundations and other right-leaning groups. Worthen noted the different emphases and syllabi of those Great Books courses but added that all “seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.” She suggested that liberals should learn from the example of these conservative efforts and reminded readers of the intellectual traditions that shaped generations of progressive activists and thinkers.

The search for wisdom is not the same as the search for partisan advantage, however. The age-old goals of humanistic education are character formation and training in the civic arts, not the creation of political cadres. In a historical moment like our own, when many of the values that underpin our democracy are under threat, it is the responsibility of educators of whatever political disposition to introduce students to the history of ideas that have shaped our contemporary world. It is a self-destructive myth -- for conservatives as well as liberals -- to believe that an education in philosophical and literary classics is an education in political partisanship. And it is a grave strategic mistake for progressives to cede the study of political theory and the history of ideas to conservative boot camps and think tanks. Instead, we should all invite students to lay claim to the history of free thought, debate and the quest for justice that is the very foundation of our political tradition.

The canon is not a set of eternal doctrines once given and done with, but an ongoing argument that elucidates both the insights and the foibles that have shaped our public life. Entering into that argument gives students, in Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, “a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present.”

Understanding the Great Books as a debate -- and not a settled dogma -- is hardly a new revelation. When Frederick Douglass rose on July 5, 1852, to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, close to 14 percent of the inhabitants of the United States was enslaved. Douglass seized the opportunity to uphold the ideal of American independence while excoriating the political heritage of oppression and hypocrisy: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.” Douglass, like all of our great leaders, from Lincoln to King and beyond, framed his moral argument in a shared tradition of foundational texts and essential values -- in his case, the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment idea of individual liberty.

A Transformative Power

Those of us who have taught a classical curriculum of political thought to students from so-called disadvantaged backgrounds can attest firsthand to the transformative power of such an education. For eight years, Columbia’s Center for American Studies has partnered with the university’s famed Core Curriculum initiative and the Double Discovery Center, an outreach organization for high school students from low-income families who hope to be the first in their families to attend college, to offer a yearlong program to rising high school seniors that combines Great Books education with research into contemporary public issues.

The students begin with a three-week summer seminar on classics of political philosophy in the ancient, Enlightenment and American worlds. As they make their way from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Hobbes and then the American founders, Douglass, Jane Addams, Dewey and Martin Luther King Jr., they enter into the centuries-long debate about the meaning of freedom and the promise of civic democracy.

They explore how the arguments at the heart of the tradition they are studying inform their own lives and the lives of other Americans who do not look or think the way they do. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois. These students take a seat at the table with Du Bois and those great thinkers who came before and after him. They hear echoes of Pericles’s Funeral Oration in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, of Plato’s Apology of Socrates in King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail and realize they are not lone travelers on the road to a more decent society.

One morning last July, our students conducted a debate on the political principle animating the familiar term liberal. Rather than a partisan attempt to ingrain a certain set of ideas into the minds of our students, our syllabus presents the term as an argument embodied in two pivotal works in our modern canon: Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

That day, the students split the class in two and asked whether liberty is best advanced by limiting state oversight over economic development or by expanding government policies to ensure that every citizen has a basic income. Which approach, they asked, is the greater threat to liberty? Is it government intervention in economic affairs, which might conceivably limit citizens’ ability to create new businesses and invent new careers, or the profound fear and lack of choice that comes from poverty?

Our students did not come to an agreement. Rather, they spent the morning and the following week putting these arguments in terms that mattered to their lives. They referenced Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech and reminded one another that, despite different approaches, both sides cherished the values of personal freedom and communal responsibility.

After the summer seminar, students in the Freedom and Citizenship Program reconvene in their senior year to embark on a research project on an issue in contemporary public life. Over the years, they’ve examined debates over immigration rights, access to voting, mass incarceration, human trafficking and other topics. Needless to say, they have voiced strong opinions about such issues and have often taken strongly partisan stands. That’s to be expected, especially at this historical moment. But their experience with the humanities offers them the skills they need to transcend sloganeering. They learn to weigh different positions with care, to step out of the immediacy of the daily news cycle and set conflicting policies in a larger historical context, and to see how different visions of the good life animate particular political positions. Above all, they learn the arts of persuasion and civil disagreement.

In a meeting after the election, the students offered different explanations for Donald Trump’s victory. Some saw his campaign as driven by racism. (Many of those students expressed fear about an impending wave of hate crimes against people like themselves.) Others countered that Trump’s supporters had many different motivations, and that some gave him their vote because of economic grievances. That is a familiar debate to those who have followed commentary since the election, but what was remarkable was the degree to which the students were able to express their convictions with passion and precision yet still listen carefully to their peers’ differing positions. They practiced the skills they had learned in conversations with past thinkers who had struggled with issues of civic belonging, personal freedom and social justice. They owned their political tradition.

Our Declaration of Independence holds that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The third president understood that consent would be the activity of an informed and educated citizenry. Today, colleges and universities have an obligation to educate students beyond their walls in civil discourse and our shared national arguments and traditions. Institutions of higher education should collectively commit to creating an informed citizenry by democratizing the Great Books and connecting our least-enfranchised citizens with the challenging, fraught and majestic tradition of self-governance.

Casey N. Blake is director of the Center for American Studies and Mendelson Family Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. Roosevelt Montás is director of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. Tamara Mann Tweel is a seminar instructor in the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Report urges data science course work for all undergraduates to close growing skills gap

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Employers are struggling to hire workers who understand data science, and report says the growing challenge requires fixes by both higher education and businesses.


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