Teaching

Tarrant County College suspends astronomy instructor who talked about the Koran in class in the dark

Tarrant County College suspends astronomy instructor after he talked about the Koran in class in the dark, his face covered by a scarf.

A professor explains why she offers extra credit in her classes (opinion)

Teaching Today

To offer extra credit or not to offer extra credit? Deborah J. Cohan explains why, after years of not offering it, she's changed her mind.

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How engineering students can learn through improvisational theater (opinion)

A few years ago, Northwestern University alumnus Stephen Colbert spoke to our graduating seniors about improvisation. He said one of the first rules is that “you are not the most important person in the scene. Everyone else is.” He explained that your job is to pay attention and serve the other people in the scene.

He added that there is good news: “You’re in the scene, too, so hopefully to them you are the most important person and they will serve you.” In other words, if everyone is doing their job, each is focusing on serving the other.

Out of that thought came one of the more unusual and highly popular courses available to Northwestern’s engineering students: Engineering Improv. And I became one of its unlikely teachers.

For the past 23 years, a big part of my work at Northwestern has been helping struggling engineering students think and act productively when facing moments of intense uncertainty. It’s hard to imagine a cohort of young people more focused on getting things exactly right than engineering students. So when things seem to be going wrong, or success is not certain, it can knock them off track and make some of them feel as if they are losing -- especially those who arrived at college never having tested the limits of their abilities.

My challenge is helping them turn obstacles into opportunities. It seemed to me that an art form designed to help a person focus on the needs of others might be just the thing.

So I hired someone with a background in improv instruction to help me develop a curriculum to get us started and let the adventure begin.

If you’re unfamiliar with the principles of improv, they include “Just say yes,” “Start anywhere” and “Embrace your mistakes.” As it happens, these are also essential skills for the effective problem solving and design innovation that is central to the study of engineering.

All successful improvisation -- and effective engineering -- begins and ends with paying attention. I tell students to think of their attention as a flashlight. It creates a beam of light, and whatever that light illuminates represents their awareness. In addition, wherever they shine that light represents their intention. For many students, the flashlight is constantly being jerked back and forth by deadlines, crises or failed expectations, leaving them feeling ungrounded and exhausted much of the time.

Early in the course, we introduce the idea of the flashlight, telling the students that when they realize they are the one holding it, they will come to understand that they also hold the power to be intentional. By deciding where to direct the light, they can choose to illuminate things that feed their energy rather than consume it with thoughts that haunt or distract.

I ask my students if they have ever wondered why we use the verb “pay” in reference to attention. The act of attending is a transaction, in which the currency is energy and the product is awareness. For example, when I walk around my house and shine my attention on all the unfinished projects and broken appliances, I feel a burden in terms of time and resources: “It just isn’t right -- when will it be right?” If, in contrast, I can redirect my attention from a desire to have everything be right to simply saying, “Yes, it’s a mess” and just getting started, I become open to opportunities to practice creative problem solving. And it’s that kind of creative problem solving they need to learn to embrace as engineers.

Just saying yes is more difficult than it sounds. Engineering Improv students learn the difference between figuring it out and letting it out. Improv isn’t about winging it. It actually requires enormous structure, as participants commit to a character and to a common set of assumptions and boundaries before committing to each other as they enter a scene. Agreeing on the context of the scene allows the players the freedom to let the content emerge through connection, which is the true joy of improv and an extraordinary thing to witness. The same thing happens in engineering, but the context is the problem, the commitment is to the team and the process of user-centered problem solving, and the content that’s allowed to emerge consists of the users’ underlying needs and interests -- which leads to a user-centered solution.

One evening in class, the students were engaged in a group scene exercise that began with one student starting an action and another joining that action with the intention to be helpful. I observed one of the students gently shoving a teammate into the scene while saying, “I got it. You start and I will come in.” Imagine how hard it must be for a perfectionist to trust that a scene will organically develop and work. And imagine the group discussion that follows. Why is it so hard for us to avoid the need to always be right? What gets in our way? Think about the continuous stream of judgments and feelings flooding each moment: “You better not blow this.” “Don’t embarrass yourself.” “Think of something funny.”

When the students recognize that they are having an unhelpful thought or feeling, they can redirect the flashlight of their attention to what is happening outside their own head, allowing them to notice what is being offered so they can say yes without piling on more judgments and expectations. Improvising is responding with generosity and expressing optimism, while giving the benefit of the doubt to yourself and your team.

That is an important lesson that translates directly into a highly challenging curriculum like engineering. Having self-critical thoughts or doubts is human. The students come to understand that those thoughts are not necessarily accurate and thus don’t need to be resolved or even pursued. That allows them to be pragmatic with their intentions as they choose how best to invest their energy through their attention.

A student who took the class last year recently told me that the Engineering Improv is the only course he has taken that has changed how he lives his life. This past quarter, the overall course rating was six out of six among the students who completed the evaluation. Some sample student comments:

  • “This course challenged me to throw all my preconceived notions on what it means to be an engineer and student at Northwestern out the door. When we entered the room, we entered a judgment-free zone where everyone had a clean slate. The course challenged us to reconstruct ourselves by focusing our intentional attention on the present moment. After I left the classroom, I was able to use my new control over my focus throughout my life and in other classes.”
  • As an engineer, we rarely have the opportunity to think critically or question our own convictions, but this class forced me to begin to pay attention to my surroundings and behavior and the behavior of others.”
  • “Improv walked a beautiful line between the creative expression of theater and the purposeful, collaborative involvement of engineering. I think every engineer should learn to ‘share the stage’ by taking this class.”

It may not seem as if there is a big difference between the intention to succeed and the intention not to fail, but when considered through the flashlight analogy, those two intentions produce very different outcomes in the form of awareness. If your intention is to not fail, you focus your flashlight on what failure looks like, what threatens your success, how you have failed in the past and the consequences of failing now. Shining your light on such things produces an awareness of fear, rumination and threat, which is unproductive when you are seeking to say yes and achieve your best performance. Setting the intention to succeed in the form of curiosity, excitement and connection allows you to shine your flashlight on opportunities to learn and find common purpose and authentic connection as you work with others to find a mutually beneficial solution.

Setting one’s sights on success doesn’t eliminate potential threats or risks, but it does trigger a fundamental shift from reacting defensively to responding proactively with optimism. For the students in Engineering Improv, applying these principles to their work as engineers helps them worry less about getting it right and encourages them to just get started. It helps them realize that making mistakes isn’t losing but learning. And it can be the best part of the scene.

Joseph Holtgreive is an assistant dean and director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.

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Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically entitled students

Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically "entitled" students.

Why experiential learning often isn't as good as classroom learning (opinion)

In his classic 1963 study Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter convincingly argues that Americans’ suspicion of purely intellectual pursuits extends even to our thinking about how to structure and value higher education. He might not have been surprised at the currently popular movement on college campuses that goes under the banners of “experiential learning,” “service learning” and “engaged learning.”

I’m not referring here to perfectly legitimate collaborations between communities and higher education institutions in such areas as research centers, clinics or legal programs. My concern is with how the experiential learning movement affects how administrators, some faculty members and the public think about what is most valuable in undergraduate education. Over the past 15 years, in my roles as faculty member and then dean of arts and sciences at two different universities, I have observed proponents of this movement gain more and more credence in their assertion that what undergraduate students need most is more “real-life” experience as a part of their college education -- often at the expense of important academic work.

This admonition to give undergraduate students plenty of real-life experience is justified by a high-minded claim that it is in the service of a higher good. Such experience, it is argued, will help students by giving them a leg up in their careers and making them more useful people. And although that may often prove true in the short term, I am convinced it is not reliably the case when we consider a longer time frame -- particularly for students in the foundational arts and sciences disciplines.

Take, for example, the following three situations. In each one, the student must select between an “academic” and a “real-life” experience, each offered for college credit. My examples do not represent false dilemmas. In an ideal world, one would want to select both, but time is limited, and students, in an understandable desire to graduate on time, are forced to make such choices.

  • A junior majoring in political science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division course in statistical analysis (taught by a professor of statistics, not a political scientist) or (b) do a service-learning experience with a state legislator.
  • A junior majoring in environmental science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division laboratory course in the biochemistry of water-based environmental toxicity or (b) work with the Fish and Game Department monitoring the impact of pollution on the local duck population.
  • A senior history major can either: (a) spend the summer at the Middlebury College Language Schools to become competent as a reader, writer and speaker of French or (b) work with an archivist at a local historical library.

Although each of the activities listed above is worthy, it is clear to me that, in the long term, the (a) options will serve the student much better than the (b) options. Each (a) option provides the student with the opportunity to study and learn a difficult subject matter, something valuable that can’t easily be learned “experientially.” But in the climate that currently exists on so many campuses, the student will likely be pushed toward taking the “real-life” option that has short-term, rather than long-term, benefits.

Around the country, numerous higher education institutions boast that all of their students have had at least one “experiential learning” experience, sometimes in the form of an extended internship. One of the current goals of the State University of New York System, for instance, is “to ensure that every SUNY student has the opportunity to take part in at least one applied learning experience before they graduate.” Other institutions trumpet their experiential learning approach in their marketing materials as a distinctive, overarching characteristic that sets them apart. Drexel University highlights the “Drexel Difference” on its website, proclaiming, “Our interdisciplinary approach to applied education is part of what makes us stand out, in Philadelphia and around the world. At Drexel, we value experiential learning, which is a process through which our students develop knowledge, skills and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.”

These experiences are, of course, valuable, but they should not be done at the expense of credits that could be devoted to learning difficult intellectual skills within a traditional academic setting. Many of the same programs that require or strongly recommend “engaged learning” also allow students to graduate who are unable to read or speak proficiently any language other than English, whose quantitative abilities don’t allow them to understand even midlevel mathematical analysis, and who are not demonstrably able to write clearly and persuasively about complex topics.

Undergraduates are enrolled in our colleges for usually about 120 credits hours, and before we stress too emphatically the value of “real-life” engagement, we should have the intellectual commitment and confidence that we can offer students many things in our classrooms that are even more valuable than what can be learned on the job.

Almost all of us will eventually have to work for a living, and that will always require sustained “real-life, engaged learning.” It will also call for immersion in interactions with average minds (like most of our own) working toward mundane ends. As educators, we should be proud that we give our students, while they are students, the opportunity to interact -- through their reading and writing, their laboratory work, and our instruction -- with what the best minds have discovered and developed within our various disciplines. This is something the “real world” is unlikely to offer them regularly once they leave college.

Oscar Wilde once said (contradicting Goethe) that it is much more difficult to think than to act. The most valuable thing we can teach students is the ability to think through, with patient focus, demanding intellectual challenges. Solving a difficult linear algebra problem, working to understand an intricate passage from Descartes, figuring out how, exactly, the findings of evolutionary morphology explain the current human stride -- all these are examples of the sort of learning that we should be proud to provide our students. And not one of them features “real-life” engagement.

John Kijinski teaches English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Before returning to the classroom, he was the dean of arts and sciences at Fredonia and at Idaho State University.

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The benefits of an Ed.D.

If we’re in higher education to educate, Jillian Joyce asks, what keeps college teachers from learning more about teaching?

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Co-editors discuss new book on teaching the literature survey course

Editors discuss the way a key teaching role has evolved -- and should evolve.

The value for students of rereading a book (opinion)

Teaching Today

Students may resist it, but rereading a literary text offers many benefits, argues Rachel Wagner.

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A college measures how much a course has transformed its students (opinion)

Social justice is embedded in the mission of the University of Scranton, based on the principles of discernment first articulated by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. The university strives to help each student discover his or her values, beliefs and path in life, and that outreach includes students of all faith traditions, as well as those who identify as agnostic or atheistic.

We are always gratified to learn that our students are being deeply impacted by the learning experiences we offer them. But why are they so affected? Is the key the experience or the required reflection after the experience -- or a combination of the two? Can we measure this kind of education, and can such measurement be applicable to all types of institutions of higher education?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. We are studying outcomes of an honors course that includes a summer trip to Europe and a fall follow-up course. We have found a way to assess the value of reflection and contemplation, and how this leads to a transformational learning experience -- particularly vis-à-vis the mission of our university. And we believe this kind of assessment is transferable.

The basic question is whether educators and institutions are truly committed to undergraduate education designed to help students make positive contributions toward making the world a better place. If the answer is yes, you do not have to be Jesuit or religious to tailor our formula to your institution’s distinct mission and identity.

Our long-standing Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program recently began offering students a mission-driven trip to Spain and Italy that puts them up close and personal with the spiritual journey of St. Ignatius. And we have added a fall course that is academically rigorous and writing intensive but also highly reflective.

We created the course because we realized students wanted more. They kept coming to our offices to talk about the trip; they asked to discuss it over a meal. They wanted to think and talk more about how the trip related to what they were reading, movies they were seeing, how they shared the experience with their friends and families, how it deepened their understanding of the mission behind the education -- and how it helped them learn about themselves.

Thus, we began the process of assessing one of the university’s signature honors programs not only from a hard-data standpoint -- collecting statistical information, such as grade point averages and classes taken -- but through the softer lens of personal reflection.

A survey of alumni of the honors program from every class since 1980 drew a 40 percent response. More than 90 percent of the respondents credited the program with honing their critical-thinking, writing and speaking skills. The survey also told us that alumni believe the key to deeper learning is not only study but also reflection through personal writing and group conversations that lead to greater insight.

A Holistic View of Student Transformation

We recently presented our findings at a conference at Drexel University, and participants were eager to learn more about how they might use our methods to integrate their missions into student learning, and assess outcomes. Here is a brief summary of the process we followed.

Working with our Office of Educational Assessment, we identified our program as a high-impact practice, or HIP, meaning it is rigorous, helps students develop meaningful relationships and encourages them to engage with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. HIPs also provide rich feedback to students to develop important skills and provide for reflection.

We use direct measures such as exams, essays, papers, projects and portfolios. In this course, we also assigned students to create a PowerPoint presentation on the trip’s connection to our mission. Students presented this in class and across the campus and even produced a documentary film.

The key was linking these direct measures with the goal of transformative learning, so we measured student understanding of our mission before and after the trip and course. We found that their understanding had been advanced, and that was exciting, since evidence of transformation typically is indirect.

We also did use indirect measures like student attitudes, perceptions, values and feelings, which also capture transformational outcomes. The documentary and PowerPoint presentations were both direct and indirect measures, since they included interviews with students who were expressing how their perspectives changed as a result of the experience.

In addition, we encouraged students to keep journals, so they could review the trip prior to class, which enriched class discussions. After class, they were encouraged to record new insights.

One student wrote that he finally grasped what social justice was, and he was moved to discern an appropriate personal response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Another wrote that her understanding and appreciation of the Jesuit mission in education started with the trip and came together in the companion course, and that the university’s mission had become her personal mission in life.

We also interviewed each student to help them process and express what they had experienced. In all, we gathered what we believe was a holistic view of not only student learning and achievement but, moreover, of student transformation, as well.

We are conducting comparative analysis, too, through pre- and posttrip surveys, and we’ve found that students in the first survey were tentative about sharing Jesuit values, while the posttrip surveys show that students have come to embrace those values personally.

We have also found that the trip and course have influenced faculty members, too. In one instance, English literature, philosophy and theology professors linked courses in their disciplines to show students how the subject matter in each could be bridged with common themes.

An academic course that is also transformative might make some educators and institutions uneasy about considering adopting our approach. Some might think that transformation only belongs in institutions with religious identities or military academies.

We beg to differ. Transformation is a natural expression of an institution’s commitment to its mission and identity. Secular institutions are committed to values like civic engagement, leadership in a global context or a diverse and inclusive culture of learning, innovation and discovery. Why not infuse that commitment into undergraduate learning?

Rebecca Haggerty is assistant dean of assessments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Scranton, and Daniel Haggerty is professor of philosophy and director of the Special Liberal Arts Honors Program.

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A professor resists departmental attempt to add a female author to class reading list for sake of gender balance

A departmental committee told a professor he had to teach Judith Butler in his class in the name of gender balance. He refused. As for Butler, she doesn’t want her work forced on him.

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