Essay on the problems created by students who are too informal with professors

I am not your friend; I am not “Miss.”

Is it just me, or are we witnessing an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates?

They’re all calling me by my first name. Is this happening in your classroom too?

I’m not that much older than a lot of my students, generationally (I’m apparently just on the cusp between being an echo-boomer and a millennial, for those who keep track -- but old enough I don’t think they’re mistaking me for a fellow undergrad). However, I feel like their grandmother when I receive their emails, and clutch my pearls when I get a message addressed to “Hi Katrina” (or just “hi”) from students I haven’t even met.

Perhaps this has struck me particularly as I went from living in Germany, where even to colleagues I was “Frau Gulliver,” to teaching in Australia where students seem surprised I even have a last name.

As an undergraduate I never addressed my teachers by their first names (and I walked 10 miles a day, neck deep in snow ... believe me, I KNOW how fogeyish this all sounds); for me becoming a grad student and getting onto first names with my adviser was a big step. I’ve felt it sends a message to graduate students that they are more like colleagues than undergraduates.

I address my undergraduates as Ms. or Mr., in the classroom and when I reply to their emails. Some get the hint but many are apparently oblivious. I’ve tried joking about it when students use my first name in class, or writing in emails that I do not do first names with undergrads. It’s hard not to come off as uptight, and some students seem genuinely surprised. Other times it’s clearly an attempt to rile me with some disrespect (typically coming from male students who like to undermine female authority).

But I understand that students are often confused about how to approach their teachers at university. The world of academic ranks is all pretty confusing to anyone outside it, and the various titles on people’s doors doesn’t really help (Do any associate professors and vice presidents people get emails addressed to “Dear Associate” or “Dear Vice”?).

Add to that the fact that many undergraduates will be in classes led by T.A.s who tend to go by first names (and are themselves graduate students). I think this is where part of the confusion starts for undergraduates. They’re not clear on all of the respective statuses of the teachers they encounter.

Into this mix too there is of course a gender dimension. I’m often addressed in class as “Miss.” I recently asked students about this, and I was told it was a habit from high school, where they were used to addressing their teachers in high school as “Miss” or “Sir.” I pointed out that these terms are hardly equal, and that they are quite welcome to call me Sir (nobody took me up on that one).

I’ve always been of the view that I don’t want to undermine my own authority in the classroom by dressing like the students, inviting them to use my first name, or making any other gestures towards “being down with the kids.” I find many other female academics also take this approach.

To add to the confusion, in most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.

(For those who are going to slam me for being uptight, watch your privilege).

I also feel it’s our job to teach students how to behave in a professional setting, and not sending the kind of emails that are all lower-case is part of it. (Lisa Wade quoted the hilariously awful email she received from a student when she was visiting another university to give a talk -- read it here.) Addressing someone you don’t know by their first name is also something that won’t always win you any prizes in the real world.

So I’ll keep insisting on formality from my students, even if they make comments about my being pedantic or bossy on their student evaluations. And I thank goodness I’m not the friend of mine who received an email from a student that started “hello kitten.”


Katrina Gulliver teaches at the University of New South Wales.

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The wonders of the traditional college classroom (essay)

Why do they come? Thirty-seven smiling young faces in a classroom look up at me, oozing confidence that I will teach them successfully and help them pass the course. I confide in them: the course should really have 24 students for an optimum presentation. Nobody moves. And the smiles stay fixed.

I tell them that everything I teach is available online, and the jokes there are probably funnier than the ones I use. They sit still. As they do in the classes of almost two million other faculty members.

They will continue to come, the 14 or 15 million students who can’t or won’t learn by themselves. Yes, there are two million or so students who can master difficult material on their own, and there are mature individuals whose life circumstances makes it necessary to learn essentials, to pass a course, and to move on.

But for the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.

And so they come….

Now picture a full colored photo on glossy paper of college students, gathered happily at graduation. Idyllic, but misleading. Look closely, very closely at the picture and find that the picture isn’t a picture at all, but an assemblage of thousands of individual dots. Separate, and often strikingly different from each other. Now take away the color and a further grim graininess appears.

That’s the real-world picture a faculty member sees in the classes s/he teaches. A group of individuals, each with different life experience, family circumstance, personal growth pattern, goals, and course selections.

Pretty pictures are for people who look at higher education from the far periphery; it is they who dare make general statements, universal predictions and global pronouncements about what will take place in college. I know better. I know that every one of the 2200 or so minutes I will be with this particular group of individuals will present its own challenges, its own opportunities for teaching and learning, and its own possibilities for failure.

I am alert to the pressures and influences that divert so many young people, and am no longer surprised at the number of hours many of them spend online. Nor do I express disappointment at the number of students who expect to be taught, who expect to know – but who will not do the work involved in learning. They are, after all, the children who learned the alphabet painlessly on Sesame Street, and grew up one click away from the world’s store of knowledge.

For the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.

My students need hand-holding, human-hand-holding, to become engaged, and focus on the depth of material rather than on obtaining a quick, superficial answer. They live in a digital world, but remain analog beings and must learn to acquire and assimilate great bodies of knowledge, comprehensive, continuous, and coherent.

Fortunately, they don’t face this task alone. Together with their 30-odd peers, they begin to form a class. Even though this class will not reach the level of a community of scholars, the collective plays its role. Students begin to share notes, discuss homework, assist each other in understanding difficult material, and interact during class. There is argument, shared humor and collective disappointment; a sudden scurry when an exam is announced, a flurry of conversation just before the exam takes place, and consultation right after it ends. Every one of these interactions enhances student engagement.

There is something about the structure of the classroom that contributes to the learning process, perhaps akin to a group of musicians whose joint effort is so much more effective than it would be were they to play their instrument at a separate location with an expert mixing the sounds. People do interact and college students better than most.

Fortunately, too, there is the faculty member who knows that teaching is more than presenting information and that learning is a very complex process, difficult and unusual for most people. A whole range of strategies is needed to keep students striving and stretching for a whole period, let alone a whole term. Students must be induced, sometimes with humor, to concentrate. There must be challenge, repetition, surprise and praise.  

A successful teacher can offer spontaneity, immediacy, and instant, interactive feedback. He/she knows that a question is not just a request for information. A question can signal to the teacher that something is wrong with the presentation. Often, it can enable a teacher to involve all the others in the class, becoming part of a different, sometimes unanticipated learning experience.

Teachers learn to walk the aisles, to watch faces, to orchestrate discussion and stimulate questions. Eye contact and a smile – or lack of it – can guide the next part of the discussion, and one student’s difficulties can be used to address those who can’t even formulate their lack of understanding.

Some teachers know how to seize on a recent event and weave it into the discussion, or look at a student’s notebook to determine whether the student was following properly or not.

Depending on the course and the class, a faculty member will help students overcome anxiety, shyness and diffidence. College teachers will use connection and analogies to get a point across. And alert students will follow as a scholar approaches a new problem or situation to understand how an expert thinks.

Listening, correcting, suggesting, modeling, prodding, affirming, critiquing, reflecting, admitting, weighing, arguing, and guiding are but some of the other strategies faculty will use to move students along on a trajectory of learning.  

For many there is nothing as effective as face-to-face teaching, and the five-minute explanation at the chalkboard after class has rescued many a student.

There is so much more. Experienced instructors know how to address the blank stare, and are able to evoke expression from students who seat themselves at the back of the room. Reinforcement, encouragement, constructive argumentation all help develop patterns of thinking and behavior which will long outlast the specific topic being taught.

A traditional college education usually comprises 40 or so separate courses offered by as many different faculty members, each of whom will bring to bear those qualities and strategies appropriate to the subject, reflecting his/her character and talents. Students will be brought into discussions where they will venture opinions – and defend them without anger. Most will learn to evaluate disagreeable perspectives and remain friends with both proponents and opponents.

They will learn how to change their minds, to deal with mistakes, and to respect the rights of others.

Faculty members know how to jostle students into active learning. As often as not they are enthusiastic advocates as well as practitioners of the subject at hand, and students will experience the passion as well as the process of a presentation.

Learning from a scholar enables a student to acquire knowledge in an organized framework from someone who has assimilated so much, and knows how to provide a roadmap that is uniquely effective for each particular group.

A scholar knows how to form connections with other courses and plant ideas and insights that will bear fruit in a subsequent course, or later in life. Students must be taught how to approach the unknown, the impossible, the unanticipated and the future. It is the competent, confident scholar/faculty member who will see the need for this kind of learning and have the ability to present it.

Only after the usual 1,800 hours (over 100,000 minutes in the classroom) and the hoped-for 3,600 hours of after class assignments have been completed is it possible to compose the glossy, colored picture. Only then do the thousands of interactions, lessons, topics, and learnings combine to make the graduate and the graduating class.

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and a former accreditor.


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Essay on making midcourse changes in teaching plans

Instant Mentor

Even if students don't remember a lot of what we teach them, instructors can refine their teaching by considering what they hold on to, writes Rob Weir.

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Father Guido Sarducci

Pulse podcast explores use of ePortfolios in higher education

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This month's edition of The Pulse podcast features an interview with Claudia Reuter, founder and CEO of SchoolChapters, which produces the Pruvalu electronic portfolio.

Reuter talks with Rodney B. Murray, host of The Pulse, about how colleges and universities are using Pruvalu for such purposes as institutional accreditation, assessment of student learning and faculty development.

Flipping the classroom isn't the answer -- let's scramble it (essay)

The “flipped classroom” is the idea of the moment, advocated by everyone from Bill Gates to Eric Mazur, the pioneering science educator. This educational innovation is exciting and promising – but I’d argue for a slight revision to the discourse to make sure we don’t replace one rigid format with another. My suggestion: let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom.

Educause, a leading organization for advancing the effective use of instructional technology, defines the flipped classroom “as a model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed." In the well-known Khan Academy model, students view short video lectures at home, freeing up class time for heads on and hands on engagement with course content, guided by the instructor. Proponents are definitely on to something – why did practice so often happen as “homework”?

Isn’t it better for a student who is stuck on a problem to have access to an instructor who can ask the right questions, offer feedback or explain difficult concepts or processes? Isn’t it better for students to analyze texts and images together in a community of learners, taking in new perspectives as they build understanding, rather than going it alone and then coming to class to hear what the professor thinks? 

The “flipped” classroom seeks to be an antidote to the traditional model in which content is delivered in class by a lecturer, and homework becomes the site for students to practice. Some of the excitement is due to recognition of the power of active learning, and suspicion about the effectiveness of long lectures. Lecture can be a useful teaching tool, but we now know that lecturing for 50 to 90 minutes straight is money into an incinerator, so to speak. Given limits to students’ attention spans, there is a law of diminishing returns when lecturers persist in “covering the material” past the 20 minute mark. The flipped classroom model uses short, more digestible, lectures.

"If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity."

Yet I believe the lexicon for this change – flipping, reversing, inverting or overturning -- is problematic, and might encourage some to stop short of conceptualizing a more promising transformation.  Manifestations of the “flipped” could become as rigid as the 19th century “all lecture, all the time” mode being critiqued.   

Faculty should not stop lecturing to assembled students in favor of “all active learning, all the time” in classrooms. In the 21st century, the lecture plays an important role in helping students find a path in the avalanche of text and information.  How does a disciplinary expert organize and evaluate this information? What ideas rise to the top and what are the relationships among them?

The best lecturers clarify key concepts with concrete, relevant and sometimes timely examples. They also inspire students, by investing their delivery with passion and enthusiasm.  The bottom line: lecture has persisted because students need to hear from teachers. When trimmed down substantially and used intentionally in combination with other methods, lecture need not be relegated to video clips.

While not all proponents are advocating for a simple inversion that places all lecture online and all active learning in class, this reversal is the dominant way of discussing the phenomenon. If we name this innovation more precisely, we could lead some faculty to adopt it in more nuanced and effective ways.

Words matter. If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity. I think it is time to update our vocabulary, guiding the dominant conceptualization toward a more nuanced practice for the good of our students. What is good for our students is a scramble or mix of direct instruction and practice and feedback. The beauty is that technology affords us opportunities to provide for both needs in both online and face-to-face contexts. We need to use these two teaching approaches -- direct instruction versus facilitated practice -- intentionally to help students meet our learning goals.

What does this look like? Students in a scrambled class might start in the online environment by watching a short lecture or reading a course text, before engaging in an online discussion with fellow students.  After engaging in these learning activities (which entail direct instruction and practice with the course material) they might complete an assessment that would enable the instructor to evaluate student learning and identify areas of difficulty or misconception.

This model of regular assessment before face-to-face class meetings is a key component of Eric Mazur’s version of the flipped classroom, known as “Peer Instruction.” (Indeed, Mazur has been experimenting and writing about his own robust and flexible version since the early 1990s.)  Assessment activities online might include inviting students to submit questions, take a quiz or write a response to a targeted question.   

Instead of coming into a “flipped” classroom for the engagement and practice, the mix of content transmission, practice and assessment has already begun.

The scrambled classroom enables a variety of approaches for the face-to-face environment as well. Class meetings in this model could include short lectures which introduce new concepts or address misconceptions that were revealed by online assessment. Direct instruction can then be mixed with active engagement, giving students the opportunity to practice new skills like applying, evaluating or synthesizing course concepts. Ideally, students will have opportunities to collaborate with each other. Students can also take advantage of the instructor’s presence as a responsive facilitator, as they wrestle with new ideas or skills. 

The instructor might end face-to-face class sessions by assessing for understanding, using low-tech classroom assessment techniques like the “one-minute paper” or “the muddiest point” or with technological tools like classroom response systems, better known as “clickers.” If questions or misconceptions are revealed, the professor might use that knowledge to build his/her next lecture, to be delivered in either the virtual or face-to-face environment.   

We are at an exciting moment in education, with an abundance of technological tools to use for delivering content and engaging students. Wherever we teach on the continuum from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online instruction, we can and should be using technology in accordance with best practices. 

With the scrambled classroom model, we are challenged to learn new possibilities, but also to design instruction based on principles we have known about for some time.  In the scrambled classroom model, the innovation is not so much “online learning,” but “human learning” supported by all that the 21st century brings to the table.

Pamela E. Barnett is associate vice provost and director of the Teaching & Learning Center at Temple University.

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U. of North Carolina Wilmington

Essay on teaching writing intensive courses

Instructors who embrace this educationally valuable approach need not let grading consume their lives, writes Andrew Joseph Pegoda.

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AACU conference shows plenty of uses for e-portfolios, but also the pitfalls of hype

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Presenters at the Association of American Colleges and Universities' annual meeting see plenty of uses for e-portfolios -- as long as institutions look beyond the hype.

The Pulse podcast features popular iTunes U. chemistry course

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This month's edition of our monthly technology podcast features an interview with Ohio State University's Matthew W. Stoltzfus, whose chemistry course enrolled 100,000 on iTunes U.

Essay on how faculty members can respond to unstable students

Tyro Tracts

Faculty members need to know college rules and resources, writes Nate Kreuter.

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Essay arguing that major changes are coming to higher education

That college you have your eye on for your teenager? It may be going out of business. Your alma mater, too.

Here’s why: we keep seeing reports that the financial model undergirding much of higher education is weak and getting weaker. The way colleges are financed is out of date with the demands of a much larger student population. Few people outside higher education are aware of this, but college and university leaders are deeply concerned.

As director of the Postsecondary Success Strategy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I have spent the last year talking with chancellors, provosts, faculty, policy makers, and education technologists. Pretty much all of them recognize that higher education is at a tipping point, and that it will soon look nothing like it does today, except perhaps at a few ivy-covered, well-endowed institutions.

This is not hyperbole.

Bain & Co. looked at hundreds of colleges and universities and found that about one in three is on an unsustainable financial track. “A growing percentage of our colleges and universities are in real financial trouble. And if the current trends continue, we will see a higher education system that will no longer be able to meet the diverse needs of the U.S. student population in 20 years.”

The report found that, at a time when college revenues and cash reserves are down, too many institutions face bigger debt service bills and ever-increasing expenses. Colleges were once able to make ends meet with annual tuition hikes, new fees and by securing more government support. Those days, though, are gone. Too many students now must borrow heavily just to keep pace with tuition increases, and government coffers are bare.

Last summer Inside Higher Ed and Gallup surveyed campus chief financial officers on their thoughts on the sustainability of their higher education institutions. Only 27 percent of them expressed strong confidence in their institution's financial model over the next five years. When asked to consider a 10-year window, the number expressing strong confidence in the financial health of their institutions dropped to 13 percent.

Improvement is needed on the academic side, as well. Data shows that our higher education system currently serves only about a third of students well, any most of those come from generally well-off families. Institutions of all types–two-year, four-year, public, private and online–need to adapt to the realities of today’s students even as they grapple with shrinking resources and increasing demand.

Only one student in four graduates from high school ready to succeed in a postsecondary program. Too many of the rest end up stuck in remedial programs that drain their resources and don’t prepare them to successfully complete postsecondary coursework.

Many of these students are from low-income families, or they are older, juggling life, jobs, and family as they pursue their educations. They are often first-generation college-goers who lack the support and guidance crucial to navigating the thicket that is higher education. As a result, too many students end up leaving college with a lot of debt but no degree.

We used to call these students “nontraditional.” Now they are the “new majority.” And their struggles were highlighted recently in data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that showed U.S. adults have below average literacy, math and problem solving skills when compared to their peers in the world’s richest countries. We have to make the system better for these students — but how?

Technology is often looked at as an answer. Yet, it has to be more than just bolting new technology on an antiquated platform. Technology-driven innovation has the potential to help colleges and universities address some of these challenges while helping faculty do their jobs by helping them offer students more personalized instruction and academic support. Done thoughtfully and well, technology can help faculty provide a more personalized learning experience for their students and ease some of the financial pressure on colleges and universities.

Today’s students need highly personalized coaching, mentoring, and other supports tailored to their individual needs and goals. Technology holds huge promise for making this kind of personalization possible by enabling colleges to effectively target the most costly and most important aspect of any education – the interactions with instructors and advisors.

Too often, we are debating the wrong things about technology and higher education. For example, we can’t just compare online or in-person classes. We need new business models that include technology and allow colleges and universities to put scarce dollars where they matter most. For today’s student, what can make a big, positive difference is access to an education tailored to their needs, their learning styles, and their goals, with appropriate coaching and advising.

Look at the State University of New York, which plans to add 100,000 new students over the next three years through its Open SUNY initiative. It will make online classes at each of its 64 campuses available to all of the system’s 468,000 students. Personalization will be an important part of the initiative, combining on-site and online academic support. Arizona State University, for its part, combines face-to-face learning, hybrid classes, and online instruction to increase enrollments, even as it faces severe physical space limits.

The cause is urgent. For higher education to fulfill its historic role as an engine of social mobility and economic growth, we must continue to seek big technology breakthroughs. This means thinking creatively about how to serve students as individuals, while also ensuring that many more students get the learning opportunities they deserve.

This might sound paradoxical, but investments in education technology will be increasingly crucial to humanizing and improving the student experience. And it might just keep your alma mater – or your child’s future alma mater – in business, and more purposeful and student-centered than ever.

Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @dan_greenstein.


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