Study finds limited impact of blind marking at a British university

Study by British university finds the practice does little to eliminate achievement gaps.

Learning outcomes that help students translate classroom learning into life tools (essay)

Just the other day, a friend of mine, a superb cultural anthropology professor, was railing against her university’s imposition of a requirement that every faculty member provide “learning outcomes” for their courses. It was the end of the semester, and she’d worked hard to provide a meaningful class for her students, and it felt cynical to then tack on a bunch of meaningless outcomes.  Who hasn’t felt anger at this increasingly frequent, seemingly cynical tendency of institutions to reduce the complexity of learning to a metric, productivity and outcomes? 

That was certainly my response when, some years ago now, my own institution debated requiring faculty members to include such outcomes on their syllabus. I protested. Then I happened to be keynoting a conference that included a workshop for beginning faculty members, intended to help them design a syllabus, including identifying meaningful learning outcomes. I asked if I, a senior faculty member, could attend.

One of the young professors leading the workshop read out loud from a student course evaluation where the student noted that, until her professor had included learning outcomes on a syllabus, she had no idea why she was taking a given class or why her university thought this course (but not some other) should be required for general education distribution or for a major. She compared college to a child asking “Why?” and the parent responding, “Because I told you so.”

You don’t need to go very deep in the pedagogical research to know that the key to successful learning is for the learner to be aware of what the given knowledge will add to their goals and their life.  As professors, departments and institutions, we tend to do a poor job connecting the lofty language of our “mission statements” to our actual practices: what we require, how we organize knowledge, how we facilitate learning and what we hope our students will gain from what they learn-- not just as job preparation (a shortsighted goal in a changing world) but also as preparation for a complex world where nothing is stable. We do a poor job helping students translate the specific content or knowledge gained in our classrooms into a tool (informational, conceptual, methodological, epistemological or affective) that will help them thrive in life. If higher education doesn’t do that -- if it isn’t geared to helping students succeed beyond the final exam and after graduation -- then why bother?

That workshop for beginning instructors helped me understand how I could turn learning outcomes from a cynical exercise into a key component of institutional change, starting in the realm over which I and other faculty members have control: how we run our classrooms. Borrowing from the long tradition of progressive education that extends from John Dewey and Paulo Freire to bell hooks and Carol Dweck, I challenge my students to take the lead in their learning. In the case of learning outcomes, I now often leave that section blank on the syllabus and use part of the first or second class meeting to have students challenge themselves, thinking up the most aspirational, world-changing outcomes they can imagine.

I do this with a simple, traditional think-pair-share exercise. First, I ask students to take 90 seconds to jot out responses to an open-ended question: “What are the three most important things you hope to take away from this class and into the rest of your life?” That’s the “think” part of the exercise. I then give them another 90 seconds to turn to “pair” with the student nearest them, introduce themselves, and take turns, with one person reading her three things and the other listening. This allows everyone a chance to express an original opinion without interruption or critique.

Once they have heard one another, I ask them to then work together to choose or craft one item that they will “share” with the class. In a small group, I have them read those out loud.  In a large one, they might add them to a Google Doc. I once did a Think-Pair-Share with 6,000 international teachers in the Philadelphia ‘76ers arena.  I try to do one TPS (as it’s known in the pedagogy business) every class period in every class.

It is my conviction that we need thoughtful, active collective engagement and participation -- by both students and faculty members -- to transform not just our classrooms but all of higher education.  We don’t need more edicts from on high or technocratic solutions, but we desperately need engaged, participatory rethinking about what we really want for and from our students -- and for and from ourselves and our institutions.

Aspirational Learning Outcomes

Here are 10 of my favorite learning outcomes, including some used by various other students and colleagues over the last several years. 

 “In this course I hope that we will  . . . “

  1. Learn to respect intellectual life and education as a precious gift that no one can steal from us.

  2. Be challenged by a scholar who maintains the highest standards of her profession to succeed educationally to our own highest standards in college and beyond.

  3. Learn to absorb and transfer knowledge and wisdom from lectures, readings and class discussion into own cogent thinking and writing.

  4. Form an appreciation of the importance of critical and creative thinking and problem-solving and use these to guide my future life and work.

  5. Gain the highest respect for intellectual rigor, including self-respect.

  6. Fight for the dignity and justice of all peoples, regardless of race, religion, national background, gender, ability or sexuality. We’re all learning together.

  7. Come to understand how everyday incidents -- the small victories as well as the constant abrasions of life and politics -- are grounded in histories and cultural practices, including those of racism or other inherited and structural forms of discrimination that are sometimes invisible to those who perpetuate them.

  8. Become a lifelong advocate for public higher education that can change lives and improve society.

  9. Learn to masterfully control chaos whenever we are faced with a complex web of ideas and results.

  10. Stay alert to surprise. Many times -- in class and out -- the best learning outcomes are the ones we never expected.

What are your aspirations for learning, in the classroom and out?  What’s missing here? If you are inclined, I hope you will use the “Comments” section below to add your own aspirations for learning.  Everybody learns when everybody is learning.


Cathy N. Davidson directs the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University To Prepare Students for a World in Flux being publish next month by Basic Books.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Advice for handling a difficult student in the classroom (essay)

Teaching Today

Maria Shine Stewart provides some advice for dealing with particularly difficult students in the classroom.

Job Tags: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 

Beloit releases annual mind-set list to help us understand new generation of freshmen

This year’s freshmen …

Georgia professor whose syllabus was mocked and criticized says he was aiming to start a conversation in class

Conservative websites publicized and mocked a syllabus offering to let students grade themselves. Syllabus was pulled. But professor says he never intended the statement as more than a way to start a conversation.

A president regularly meets with students to candidly discuss controversial issues (essay)

The most meaningful conversations often begin when I say to a student, “Why don’t you tell us more about that?”

I serve as a mentor to a group of young men of all backgrounds and experiences at the University of Richmond. My wife, Betty Neal Crutcher, similarly mentors a group of young women. We each meet monthly. We also convene several times per semester as a united team. Betty has a doctoral degree in cross-cultural mentoring; I try to keep up by leveraging my experience as a university president.

I have long believed in the potential of mentoring. Mentoring connects us as educators to our students in a manner that is spontaneous, timely and genuine. As higher education is increasingly scrutinized for its value and relevance, mentoring provides us the opportunity to share wisdom across generations; foster candor, respect, collaboration, resourcefulness and understanding; and help our students in the transition to future lives of meaning and purpose.

At first glance, it’s easy to clump mentees into stereotypical groups by gender, race or nationality. A student’s religion or political affiliation may emerge within candid discussions; class is often harder to discern. In my groups, students choose the topics they wish to discuss, and nothing is off-limits. Since my arrival in 2015, we have grappled with race and class in our community, the affordability of education, and our collective response to sexual assault, among other important campus issues.

When students volunteer to tell us more, their stories transcend all lines of commonality and difference. For example, an international student didn’t understand the barriers faced by a first-generation American college student until the latter poignantly shared her shame in not having parents or siblings to guide her transition, as so many of her classmates did.

Several students of color debated the ease and challenges of acclimating to the university’s social culture, as two majority-race classmates -- one from a populous East Coast city and the other a small, rural town in the Southwest -- articulated nearly identical enthusiasms and concerns. Two young scholars, vocally committed to different political ideologies, united to promote a shared cause for environmental stewardship.

In their emerging intellectual lives, students sometimes cling to familiar social structures -- engaging only with individuals who look or talk like them, consuming media that reinforces their own beliefs, or avoiding conversations that cause discomfort. Homogeneous thought, lingering indifference and even fear of failure have a dynamic pull.

But the college campus pulls in another direction, offering an ideal environment for abandoning existing biases and seeking out people of different backgrounds and perspectives.

Students learn best when they’re challenged to tackle hard questions and have tough conversations, and when they have these conversations in thoughtful ways. Academic institutions are unusually positioned, and have a distinct responsibility, to model substantive and civil disagreement. But civility must not be code for quieting others’ opinions. Rather, it must be a call for an energetic exchange of ideas within our richly diverse academic communities. What we have found in our mentoring groups is that, given the opportunity, and supported by faculty, staff and peers who care about them, students are often eager to share and willing to change their minds. The experiences we provide our students in laboratories of all sorts offer a rich environment for constructive disagreement that yields new insights that can benefit our nation and world.

In a recent survey of prospective students, which we commissioned, engaging in active discussion with people who represent a variety of experiences and perspectives emerged as a particularly desirable characteristic for any college or university. That affirmation from our students is significant and, considered most optimistically, may indicate that the time is right for a more courageous approach to difficult conversations on all of our campuses.

I believe strongly in education that exposes our students to new experiences as a means of better understanding themselves, their fellow citizens and the knotty and complicated facets of our democracy. As educators and institutional leaders, it’s important to model the behaviors we wish to inculcate in our students. I don’t think there is a simple answer to address the complexities we encounter -- on our campuses and in our world -- but mentoring groups such as ours are easily replicable and represent a clear path forward that is rife with possibility.

Today, at Richmond and across the nation, students are ready to have candid and civil conversations across lines of difference. In our mentoring groups, and on our campuses, they are acquiring the knowledge, skills and dispositions to lead us effectively in the future. At a time when stridency threatens to replace civility as normative in our public discourse and our debates, no lesson may be more timely or important than this one.

Ronald A. Crutcher is president of the University of Richmond.

Image Caption: 
President Crutcher with students at the University of Richmond
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Newsletter Order: 
Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Thursday, August 3, 2017
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Email Teaser: 
The President as Mentor for Tackling Hard Questions

Helping diverse learners navigate group work (essay)

Teaching Today

Does group work really help all students? Margaret Finnegan explores how to help diverse learners navigate it successfully.

Job Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Newsletter Order: 
Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Email Teaser: 
It’s Good Till It’s Not

The intellectual value of texting (essay)

Literacy experts have for decades recognized that periodic hysteria over so-called literacy crises in the United States is based largely on myths. Nevertheless, the most recent crisis framed in the media names millennials’ overdependence on technology as somehow to blame, with texting especially suspect.

We can’t deny our SMS language (our “textese” or “txt-speak”) varies considerably from the sentences we write for work or school. Portmanteau words, ellipses, abbreviations, neologisms and emoticons aside, texts frequently carry what many academics would deem errors -- slips in punctuation and spelling that texters may overlook for the sake of quick communication. But while instructors may have by now wrapped their heads around the inevitability of texting and its role in evolving the English language, relatively few have acknowledged that texting is neither ruining English nor hindering individuals’ literacy or academic writing practices and abilities.

As we embarked upon a small-scale study of 10 multilingual undergraduate students’ everyday literacy practices at CUNY’s City College, we expected texting to come up as a regular practice of undergraduate students. What we had not anticipated was the range of valuable uses and substantive gains afforded by texting. We came to realize that we as educators are long overdue in exploring some of the advantages afforded by SMS language, although, of course, many of us already have. Texting, for instance, is proving to be a useful tool in higher education and for communicating in the classroom.

Preliminary results from our study, however, show that beyond offering opportunities to communicate quickly with friends, family, classmates and even teachers, texting also provides some intellectual benefits. Participants used texting to process feelings and ideas, and their texting practices seem to foster both an open-mindedness to language differences and a willingness to more actively negotiate communicative obstacles like unfamiliar language uses and errors.

A few examples from millennial texters themselves (whom we refer to throughout this article with pseudonyms) will help illustrate. When asked about her home literacy practices, Anne, 18, admits most of her daily reading and writing revolves around one mode: “I text. That’s all I do.” A freshman at City College, Anne sends texts to her friends and three sisters about her day, her observations on the commute to school and whatever pops into her head. There is often no response, but that is OK. She just wants to get her thoughts and intentions out there. Anne’s texting serves as her journal.

Contrary to perceptions that view virtual social interactions as inherently transient, Jessica, also 18, feels differently. “If I were to send a text, they [friends] would read and understand. But later on if they feel bad, they could look at it again, and be like, let me calm down again. It’s like reading writing later and having it to look back on. They are there with you,” she says. Jessica and her texter friends take advantage of texting as a written mode of communication to negotiate their gut responses to information with the more tempered interpretations that they come to with time and further reflection.

Nearly all students we interviewed expressed a preference for texting over speaking in person because, as Cindy, 25, puts it, “I can stop and think; how can I say this better, more correctly?” Text messages are not as spontaneous or heedless as we might assume. As an act, texting provides opportunities to process experiences, as well as communicate and maintain relationships. In addition, texting offers communicators regular practice with brainstorming, drafting, revising and editing. For instructors who emphasize treating writing as a process involving critical thinking and reflection, this is welcome news.

Nardin Sarkis, a student writer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains here that texting may call for increased attention to grammar and punctuation, not less: “When a simple period can mean the difference between an aggressive or inviting tone, more and more users will be punctuation conscious. This delicate focus on punctuation enriches communication and celebrates its intricacies.” Sarkis reminds us of the focus needed to switch effectively between registers and languages, as all speakers and writers do at one level or another.

Being multilingual calls for code-switching and, at times, a more hybridized language. Linguistic processes like these are becoming publicly known for enhancing cognition and social relations. And we can understand SMS language as one “code” to which writers switch. With this in mind, we instructors could be encouraging students to see value in texting and, yes, to enhance those communicative acts. The more students are cognizant of their own literacy practices, the more equipped they’ll be to build on their linguistic repertoires and the better they’ll be at navigating discursive expectations, including those of edited standardized English.

Of course, it is also the case that conventional spelling and punctuation errors are commonly overlooked in text messages and social media posts, a communicative norm that may not sit well with fellow teachers. But our participants help frame this practice as a benefit. Brooklynn, 18, explains that her texts to friends sometimes “… don’t even look like words … [but] random letters inserted into words where they shouldn’t be, with letters missing.” She attributes this brevity to typing too fast or to excitement. But, of interest, the errors do not matter all that much to her since people will get what she is trying to say.

Linguist and compositionist Suresh Canagarajah has emphasized the value of communicative approaches like Brooklynn’s in his discussion of strategies multilingual writers draw on when negotiating English in conversation and writing. One relative feature of multilingual communication, he explains, is that it is typically consensus oriented and supportive: “Multilinguals devise strategies to help each other achieve their interests by working with each other positively to achieve intelligibility.” This means that “if an interlocutor comes across an item that she feels is incorrect or unintelligible, she moves on with the conversation rather than attempting to correct, judge or walk away from the interaction.”

Texters like Brooklynn apply this conversational quality of open-minded negotiation of meaning to written communication. That is remarkable, at least in part because a movement toward more accommodating and concerted communication styles seems necessary to ensuring effective communication in increasingly diverse contexts, like that of our classrooms, the workplace, our neighborhoods and far beyond. Brooklynn’s perspectives on texting suggest there’s much hope for more widespread approaches to consensus-orientated communication.

Meaning and Openness

All that said, it is important to note here that Brooklynn’s openness to errors does not transfer into the formal classroom. Referring to participating in peer-review activities in her second-year composition course, Brooklynn admits to being a “mean person” about other students’ writing: “I’m like, this is wrong and this doesn’t make any sense and this is terrible … I had this long list of what was wrong with it.” Brooklynn is willing to negotiate and work through errors and omissions in texting contexts, and the norms guiding interactions over text and social media invite such a collaborative approach to receiving and interpreting communication. But her response to receiving information in an academic setting is one of dismissal and judgment.

As a reader in academic contexts, Brooklynn’s expectation is that the responsibility for effective communication lies solely on the shoulders of the author; thus, her willingness to work through communication, as an equal collaborator, disappears. Academic discourse offers its participants a variety of cognitive and rhetorical skills, but Brooklynn’s attitudinal shift from one context to the other reflects how expectations in academic discourse may foster closed-mindedness to language differences, nonstandardized communication practices and the presence of errors.

Of course, students should be aware of the values placed on “correctness” in academic discourse, and Brooklynn’s experience suggests that students are already privy to the demand for edited standardized English prose. But in this globalized era when students are bound to engage in intercultural communication, shouldn’t instructors and students alike be privileging making meaning over grammatical correctness? Openness over intolerance to difference? Collaborative negotiation of communication over idle reception of information? We say yes.

As educators, disavowing the red pen ourselves would be the first step toward teaching students to focus on meaning and accept differences. A second challenge lies in figuring out how to bring into our classrooms the openness our students already exercise in their everyday communication practices. We see promise in going beyond merely tolerating the inevitability of widespread texting. We should be celebrating the affordances of SMS language and treating texting as one of many ways to work with students to enhance their abilities to communicate effectively across different registers, languages and discourses.

Missy Watson is assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the City College of New York. Her research lies at the intersection of composition and second-language writing and revolves around seeking social and racial justice. Madhuri Karak is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation explores issues of resource extraction and development in central India's indigenous corridor.

Image Source: 
Multiple Authors: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

The importance of the unsparing reprimand in students' learning and growth

A couple months ago, I got in the mail something that members of the graduating class of 2017 will start receiving soon, namely the alumni magazine from my undergraduate institution. In a moment of nostalgia some years back, I made a small donation and now have a correspondence for life with Gonzaga University, a small liberal arts college in Spokane, Wash., run by the Jesuits. In its commitment to a broad liberal arts education, Gonzaga is a lot like the place I have spent most of my academic career, Brandeis University -- though with different religious holidays.

Anyway, the latest edition of the Gonzaga magazine contained some sad tidings. A professor I remembered quite well, Reverend Frank Costello, S.J., had passed away. When I did the subtraction and figured out how old he was when he taught me, I was little startled to learn that he was two decades younger than I am now -- and of course he seemed as old as Methuselah to my classmates and me. Father Costello exemplified the best in old-school Jesuit rigor, the kind of man who took both of his vocations -- as priest and professor -- seriously. And he did not suffer foolishness gladly.

I learned just how ungladly during the first semester of my freshman year. I forget the class and the book we were talking about, but during the discussion of the assigned text, some guileless freshman raised his hand and said, “I haven’t finished the book yet, but I think --”

At which point Father Costello cut him off and said, “If you haven’t finished the book yet, then you should remain silent and listen to those of us who have.”

That guileless freshman was me. It was a public dressing-down, and I didn’t feel good about it, but I remember that from then on I tended to come to class a lot better prepared -- and if I wasn’t, I kept my mouth shut. To my credit (if I do say so myself) I was old enough to receive the rebuke not in a spirit of resentment -- which probably would have been my response a couple of years earlier -- but as the adult I was becoming. I took it to heart as fair warning. I wasn’t in high school anymore; this was a university seminar, not a place of unconditional love and support. I was in the big leagues.

Father Costello was not a mean-spirited man, and he delivered the rebuke matter-of-factly because he had been coping with similarly guileless freshmen throughout his teaching career. At the same time, in laying down the law, he wasn’t particularly concerned with my feelings or the post-traumatic emotional stress that may have been triggered by his remarks.

If you are over a certain age, you may remember a similar moment from your own education -- a sharp reprimand from a teacher, a coach, a boss -- and if, like me, you were of a certain age, you responded not with petulance but by trying to get your act together.

You can probably see where I am going with this. I wonder if the current atmosphere on American college campuses encourages or even tolerates the kind of unsparing rebuke from a professor that many of us remember as necessary and salutary. Lately, throughout higher education, the face-off between intellectual rigor and emotional sensitivity has tilted decisively toward the second half of the equation.

Traditionally, American universities have always celebrated and nurtured the first half: smarts over sentiment. They prided themselves on sharpening the critical intelligence and cultivating a free-floating exchange of ideas. At Brandeis, that dedication is emblazoned in the school motto: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.” The key word there is “even” -- as in, even if it is unpleasant, even if it challenges your preconceptions, even if it really hurts your feelings and even if it makes you feel spatially unsafe.

Such stern principles were not unique to Brandeis. The mottos and mission statements of most American universities expressed a clear-eyed commitment to the life of the mind, not a doe-eyed celebration of the emotions, still less the elevation of personal feelings as a moral absolute, the trump card that defeats all other arguments: “That offends me.” Presidents, provosts, deans and faculty members dedicated themselves to open inquiry, spirited debate and, as per the Declaration of Independence, a decent respect for the opinions of others. They understood in their bones that the corruption of a culture begins with the corruption of public discourse -- and they believed that the university was the designated custodian of critical thinking, congenial dialogue and, on occasion, the speaking of unpleasant and unpopular truths.

As anyone with cable news access or a Twitter feed knows, the American university is not in particularly good odor right now on matters of tolerance and free expression. Neither is the present generation of undergraduates, who tend to be portrayed as waspish scolds or delicate snowflakes. While the bad reputation of both is partly a news-media construct, there is enough on-the-ground confirmation to make anyone committed to the values embedded in the Brandeis motto a bit apprehensive. Some of the surrender to rigor and the accommodation to sensitivity is merely silly, such as the infantilizing “trigger warnings” that junior faculty feel compelled to put on their syllabi by way of CYA: (“Students who have been whipped by their father may be disturbed by certain passages in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”).

Some of it, however, is more sinister and corrosive, manifesting itself in a refusal to engage minority opinions or hear out the people who express them. The mobs of know-nothings at Middlebury College, where a controversial social scientist was shouted down and his faculty escort assaulted, and at Evergreen State College, where a biology professor has been hounded out of his classroom for objecting to exclusionary practices based on race, are two recent, and sadly not atypical, examples.

For what it is worth, I have never confronted in my own students any of the fierce anti-intellectualism that seems to be have afflicted at least some of their peers. But lately I have begun to encounter a new degree of trepidation -- and maybe the whiff of fear -- in the classroom.

For years, I’ve been teaching the 1939 MGM epic Gone With the Wind. Of course, the film is a hallucination in Technicolor, awash in offensive stereotypes and Confederate revisionism. Still, as perhaps the most popular film in the classical Hollywood canon, it warrants attention in the undergraduate curriculum. Besides, I’ve always found GWTW a surefire catalyst for animated discussion and impassioned essays.

After the students have absorbed the nearly four-hour tour through David O. Selznick and Margaret Mitchell’s version of the Old South, I focus on two scenes calculated to raise the classroom temperature: one highlighting the issue of race, the other of gender. The first features Hattie McDaniel, who plays the slave/servant Mammy, in dialogue with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. I explain that the critical reaction to McDaniel’s character tends to divide along two lines: first, that Mammy is a racist and offensive caricature, period; and second, that McDaniel so powerfully controls her screen space that the performance undercuts the demeaning role she is required to play.

The second clip unspools the famous scene where Rhett claims his then-lawful prerogative as a husband, overpowering a struggling Scarlett O’Hara and carrying her upstairs to the marriage bed and a presumably coerced consummation. But the next morning, Scarlett is aglow in postcoital satisfaction. What gives?

As a teacher, all I want is for the students to look at the film, engage the questions and venture an opinion. In the past, they have always done so. Yet the last time I taught the film and asked for reactions, I got silence -- a nervous, queasy silence. They seemed afraid to talk lest they say the wrong thing and offend -- another student? A campus consensus?

They certainly weren’t afraid of me. I would never snap at a student for venturing an opinion. But, in the future, I think perhaps I should rebuke them for being so sensitive -- even if it might hurt their feelings.

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Does cellphone use in class encourage active learning? (essay)

Teaching Today

Perhaps faculty members’ conflicting views reflect that academe is made up of people who hold different paradigms related to authority, writes Aubree Evans.

Job Tags: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 


Subscribe to RSS - Teaching
Back to Top