via ProfHacker: An Open Letter to Grad Students

The always useful ProfHacker this week features an open letter to grad students with lots of good advice for those at this stage in their careers.  Even if you disagree with the advice, the points here are worth thinking about.

Of all the points, this was my personal favorite:

Understand that you’re not locked into a particular field, project, or personality. When you arrive at grad school, you will likely have a sense of what you want to work on. After all, this is what you discuss in your statement of purpose. You’ll hear that some people change their topics or even fields, but you might think that that will never happen to you. It might not, but it’s absolutely okay if it does. Likewise, you’re not obligated to work with the faculty members you initially thought would be your mentors. Be open to the new subjects that your coursework will provide you.

I think that one of the stresses we always feel in grad school is the sense that we are locked into what we intended to do when we arrived on day one.  Grad school does not work like this.  It is always about the gradual evolution of one’s thoughts and the discovery of how a career might arise from that process.  Being open to what you find, and curious about what others are doing, is the whole point of the enterprise, in my opinion.



Using Social Media in the Classroom — An Introduction

UH Digital Archives

Consider the following — you’re lecturing in Agnes Arnold Auditorium 1, about three weeks into the semester. Students have settled into a routine where they show up (generally) on time, sit peaceably, watch your slide presentation and dutifully take notes. You’ve got an exam scheduled for next week and now would be a good time to informally assess student understanding. So, what do you do?

You could remind students of study groups available.

You could remind them to ask questions of their lab instructor.

You could give them a study sheet to prepare for the exam.

Or you could ask them to immediately tweet short replies to a pertinent question you pose, and have those tweets display on the video projector. You can immediately get a sense of what students are thinking en masse and see variants of responses. Within one minute you can have dozens or hundreds of real ideas from real students for everyone to review and comment on, even after class.

If you choose the latter option, you’re using social media in the classroom to engage students in their own learning — low (or no) cost, simple interactions between you, the course material, and the students

Definition, examples
Social media is the use of technology to build, sustain, and improve communities and to communicate interests and information within the community. The best-known examples of social media include Web 1.0 applications such as AOL and most Web pages (including most course Web sites), as well as Web 2.0 applications such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and on-line discussion forums.

Your Teaching Philosophy — Why Use Social Media ?
Technology per se and social media in particular should only be used to support the presentation of course content, assess student learning, and facilitate student inter-communication. As with any technology and any media, social media should be used to engage students in learning, not to detract from it. This sounds obvious, but is often overlooked. For example, there is a world of difference between using a PowerPoint presentation to read to the students, and using one to illustrate content to students.

Instructors choose to use social media not because they find it intimidating (it’s not) or because they can’t find time to use interactive media in their instruction (they can). They utilize social media to enhance the classroom and lab as students participate more, vocalize their understanding more often, and engage with their peers in learning scaffolding strategies.

UH Digital Archives

Why Not to Use Social Media in the Classroom
As with any technology, social media can be abused and grossly misused if the larger purpose of engagement is forgotten. Sometimes we see professors use response technology as a “gee-wiz” toy — just to show the students something different without enforcing actual learning. Other misuses of any technology include making the students busy just to keep them busy. It would be a mistake to believe that just because “this generation expects technology,” we must use it outside the real purpose of learning. Technology should only be used for real engagement — wherein the student is actively learning with measurable results.

Problems with Using Social Media in Learning
The immediate concern with using social media in the classroom is the digital divide — some students having easy access to devices, communication, or software that others do not. This is an important consideration at the University of Houston with our students — many come from homes that simply do not have all the gadgets that others have. To insist on using technology outside of the classroom that some students cannot afford would be incorrect — though we can require students to purchase a text book or a clicker, we cannot require them to purchase a new smart phone or Mac. This series of blog postings, however,  will focus on social media tools which are free or so easily accessible on campus that every student can participate.

Again, it’s about student engagement — really involving the student in his own learning using tools that he is likely already using for other facets of his social or academic life, but to strengthen his learning in your classroom.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using social media in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.

Next: Class Engagement in 140 Characters or Fewer

Highlights from the DTAR TA Symposium

80 Graduate students came together on Thursday, August 18 in the Rockwell Pavilion with the goal of improving their teaching as UH TAs. The TA Symposium was hosted by the CTE’s Division of TA Resources, staffed by Aymara Boggiano, Bruce Martin, and Allison Wright, as well as CTE Co-Director Dave Mazella.After a short presentation by Cengage rep Janlyn Reed and a lunch provided by Catering on Cullen and Cengage Learning, TAs listened to presentations on teaching, focusing on pedagogical principles from How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Good Teaching. In addition to discussing research and theory about effective teaching, TAs had the chance to work together to plan lessons and activities that would engage their students and improve learning.

Another important element of the Symposium was the introduction of DTAR’s Google+  page, giving TAs a place to talk about their fears, excitement, concerns, and successes. In addition to providing a way to unite the TA cohort, DTAR is also preparing a module on using Google+ and other social media in the classroom as ways to engage students, hold virtual office hours for those that cannot make it to campus, and bring course content into thee 21st century.

At the end of the Symposium, three TAs in Economics–Teodora Stoica, Shreyasee Das, and Michael Clark–were awarded the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) for their work this summer reading, discussing, and practicing effective pedagogy with TA supervisor Ruxandra Prodan.

The Symposium answered President Khator’s call for wider implementation of high-impact practices by showing TAs how to put such practices into effect in their own courses.

The principles of learning discussed on Thursday, along with the Certificate of University Teaching, and the Symposium, are an important part of recognizing the role that TAs play in undergraduate education. As instructors of small sections, labs, and introductory classes, TAs often provide the most direct contact first-year students have with instructors. Research shows that relationships formed with instructors in a student’s first year will directly impact whether she will persist with her degree until graduation.

Training TAs to teach effectively well doesn’t just impact the TAs–preparing them for future careers in the academy and providing them with credentials for the job market–it’s also vital for undergraduate students and the university as a whole.

How do you see the relationship between TAs and retention at UH, and how can the university help TAs do more to improve the quality of undergraduate education?

Allison Laubach Wright

How Learning Works (ch. 1): Using the first day of class to discover your students’ prior knowledge

As promised, here is a link to How Learning Works, the text discussed at last Thursday’s Orientation for TAs. This publisher’s website offers pdfs of excerpts, along with links to order the book for yourselves.

Chapter 1 (which is available for free as Excerpt 1)  features a good discussion of students’ prior knowledge, and describes in some detail how it affects their understanding of your course material.  As the chapter reminds us, it is very risky to assume that you know what students know, or think they know, on the first day of a new class:

Students do not come into our courses as blank slates, but rather with knowledge gained in other courses and through daily life. This knowledge consists of an amalgam of facts, concepts, models, perceptions, beliefs, values, and attitudes, some of which are accurate, complete, and appropriate for the context, some of which are inaccurate, insufficient for the learning requirements of the course, or simply inappropriate for the context. As students bring this knowledge to bear in our classrooms, it influences how they filter and interpret incoming information (13)

The whole chapter is worth thinking about, but for now I’d simply recommend that you take a few minutes in your first class to ask your students about their prior knowledge of your subject-matter.  This can be done informally, with a show of hands to a few questions, or more formally, by responding in writing to a brief survey or series of questions.  Your questions could cover the following:

  • Earlier courses taken in the subject, and the institution where these were taken (an important detail at a transfer-heavy school like UH)
  • Their familiarity with a few key concepts in your subject area (ask them to elaborate on what they’ve learned about it from earlier courses)
  • The distinction between ordinary language and your subject matter’s technical terms

Your job will be to assess where they are in their understanding of your subject matter, and then begin to the areas where they need to build, refine, or correct what they already know, or think they know.  The first day is just the beginning of what will be a semester-long process of helping them to learn how to recognize and address their own gaps in knowledge.

Have a good first day,


Does teaching help TAs develop their research skills?

Welcome back, everyone.  Hope you had a relaxing yet productive summer.

For the first post of the semester, I’m linking to a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on the importance of teaching to research for graduate TAs.

For me, this is the most important passage in the whole piece:

Mr. Feldon cites two reasons that teaching seems to improve research skills. The first is that a graduate student who teaches, for example, 20 undergraduates how to develop a laboratory study ends up practicing those same skills him or herself. “It’s a straight practice effect,” he says. “You’re getting more opportunities in more situations.”

The second reason is that people who have to explain to someone else how to carry out a task are quicker to develop their own abilities to do that same task.

Teaching’s benefit to research depends on a certain kind of educational experience, Mr. Feldon continues. The educational experience for both instructor and student must involve what he calls “active inquiry,” the investigation of open-ended questions, in which students must figure out which areas deserve exploration and what data to collect.

So teaching has the potential to refine and consolidate one’s research skills, but the effect seems to be greatest where the teaching itself involves open-ended inquiry.  This means centering the class on the generation and pursuit of authentic questions, rather than just transmitting a predefined “content.”

To get the full intellectual and professional benefit from your teaching, however, you must also think about how to make your own teaching more open to your students’ questions, and more responsive to their needs.  Listening to your students in this should help you learn many more ways to solve the “same” problems, while forcing you to really master the material as you address their specific concerns.

The whole piece is worth reading, and the comments are valuable too.