VIA Reality-Based Community: A Report on the Politics of Teaching Quality from UC/Berkeley

“Quality and Politics”

Michael O’Hare, a Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley, has an interesting post about the UC system’s self-defeating response to repeated budget cuts. He writes,

As is well known, the California legislature is slashing state support for higher education, forcing us to raise tuition again and again.  One response at Cal has been a consulting project from Bain and Co., called Operational Excellence (perhaps because the words quality and excellence hardly occur in any of their product, which is about saving money and doing almost as much almost as good work).

The project had a big show-and-tell event on campus today, with posters and folks answering questions about this and that initiative.  I came away pretty discouraged, because I think our leadership has got the politics of this wrong and we will keep getting our nose bloodied if we think our problems are all in the administrative zone.  There is low-hanging fruit here. For example, we don’t charge units for their energy consumption so we have no incentive to fix our windows (we have to pay for stuff like that) or even turn the lights off.  But our problems are bigger, and more at the core of our business.

My take – anecdotal at least in part, YMMV – is best characterized by remarks at least one colleague and I have heard more than once from our wonderful public policy minor students: “This is the first course I’ve had at Cal in which  I really had to think/I raised my hand in class!” To hear that from a junior is frankly heartbreaking.  I know my students are strongly socialized to flatter my ego, to try to guess “the answer” I have in my head, and not so much oriented to teaching each other, and it takes some serious effort every semester to get them in a mode where real learning is possible.

O’Hare thinks that part of the problem is the profound isolation of higher education professors (“we never see each other work and never talk about what we do in this area”), and suggests a far more collaborative environment with far greater opportunities for peer observation and review. I think that’s a great idea, and a much better use of our time as faculty than most accountability initiatives we hear about.  Best of all is O’Hare’s description of the intellectual challenges of improving one’s own and one’s peers’ teaching:

Teaching is intellectually challenging, complicated, and fun to get better at.  Learning is really complex and hard to understand; many things we know about it are not true.   Intellectually challenging, complex, demanding, refuting errors…that’s catnip for this work force!  We would start to learn that the naches provided by actually increasing student learning per hour, per course, and per degree awarded is actually much more rewarding than the ego trip we get from hearing ourselves say the most interesting things we know to a room full of students writing it down so they can try to say it back to us on the final.  We would start having fun and feeling smart and competent; nothing wrong with that.

No, nothing wrong that I can see.


Teaching Excellence Award-Winners Conversation: “How do you learn from failure?”: Breakout Session and Summary, Oct. 14, 2011 (Dave Mazella)


Doug Eikenburg, Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences;

Stuart Long, Electrical and Computer Engineering;

Susan Collins, Political Science and Honors College

David Mazella, Moderator (substituting for Frank Holt, History)


After an initial discussion of the value of failure in the classroom, as a spur to reflection and rethinking of one’s presentation of the material, the panelists made the following points:

  • Using an example of a student who “didn’t get it” until it was explained four times, Eikenburg stressed the need for young instructors to learn how to describe and explain difficult concepts multiple ways.  Students have a right to express frustration when a faculty member cannot explain things intelligibly to them, and faculty need to make that effort, especially when dealing with critical, and sometimes consequential, matters, such as pharmacologic reactions.
  • After reminding us of Apple’s numerous commercial and engineering failures, Long emphasized the need for keeping failures in perspective, and to remember that they represent part of the process of learning and innovating.
  • Collins talked about the value of a very visible and public failure that occurred while she was learning how to lecture, and how that mortifying experience taught her never to make certain assumptions about her presentations.  She used this to discuss these kinds of experiences as invaluable for arriving at one’s own style as a teacher, and the value of collaboration for improving one’s teaching.
  • The group as a whole discussed with the audience the value of team-teaching, and how it might become more prevalent throughout the university.
  • The group also discussed how failure is only the most visible evidence of risk-taking in the classroom, and embracing failure necessarily meant accepting a certain degree of informed risk.  This linkage needs to be understood by both students and administrators, if proposed innovations in teaching are to be tested and eventually accepted more generally.  In this as in other aspects of teaching, the modeling of the instructor is crucial: if we expect students to take risks, practice new things, and learn by doing, then we must expose ourselves at times to this kind of risk of failing.

First Year Experience Panel: Breakout Session and Summary (Simon Bott)


Richard Walker – VP Student Affairs.
Libby Barlow – Exec Director Academic and Institutional Information
Shirley Yu, Assoc. Prof. Ed. Psyc
Cathy Horn, Assoc. Prof. Ed. Psyc


  • Richard Walker gave an overview of First Year Experiences around the country.  He listed several institutions that were known to have outstanding programs – particularly IUPUI.  He emphasized that a FYE requires collaboration across campus, particularly between areas typically included in Student Affairs and Academic Affairs.
  • Libby Barlow discussed the academic aspects of an FYE, particularly the Core curriculum.  She discussed soon-to-be-made changes in the curriculum, outlining the challenges and opportunities that these provide.  She stressed that there would be full university support for changes within core classes that include the incorporation of high-impact practices and other modifications that will benefit the students.
  • Shirley Yu discussed need for faculty to support students in developing self-regulated learning strategies (i.e., effective study habits and motivation) through a range of in-class and referral methods.
  • Cathy Horn talked about her day as a faculty-in-residence and the importance of engaging students outside the classroom.

Given the truncation of the session, we had no time for questions or discussion.

Upcoming CTE faculty workshop: “Creating Learning Communities in Cyberspace,” this Friday Oct. 28, 1:00-2:30, in 306 MDA library (Jim Garson)

This Friday at 1 pm Jim Garson will be moderating the following panel in the Faculty Senate offices at 306 MDA library:

Creating Learning Communities in Cyberspace

This workshop will explore information technologies that can be used to bring students together in the learning process, whether inside or outside in the classroom.


Workshop participants and topics are as follows:

  • Simon Bott (Chemistry) will talk about his use of Facebook;
  • Ana Medrano (Biology) will explain her use of Twitter;
  • Jami Kovach (Information and Logistics Technology) will provide a summary of a variety of methods for supporting learning communities.

If you have experience with social media, or if you are just interested in hearing about how it might work in different kinds of classrooms, please consider attending.  If you have any questions, email


Diversity and Global Learning: Breakout Session and Notes, Oct. 14, 2011 (Miguel Ramos)

[This file was made by Thomas Bredøl, and should be credited as such. (The name can be used as a link to the webpage (ie.: Thomas Bredøl)).  [CC-BY-2.5-dk (], via Wikimedia Commons]]


Guillermo de los Reyes, Associate Professor Latin American Culture and Literature, Department of Hispanic Studies

Joy Tesh, Director, The Language and Culture Center at the University of Houston

Martha Wong, Former Texas State Representative, Houston City Council Member, and Distinguished Alum of the University of Houston College of Education

Miguel A. Ramos (Moderator), Assistant Dean for Assessment and Accreditation, College of Technology



The panel discussion on diversity and global learning encompassed a wide range of issues and ideas. Some of the more prominent strands of the conversation touched on the following topics.

  • The University of Houston has done a good job of establishing a diverse student body that is reflected by national rankings. However, beyond ethnic and racial diversity there is still work to be done in terms of supporting other underrepresented groups including but not limited to the GLBT community. There have been strides made but there is still room for improvement.
  • The University of Houston has been less successful historically in establishing similar levels of diversity among the faculty ranks. However, recent statistics indicate that while overall faculty diversity is still a work in progress, great gains have been made in the associate and assistant professor ranks in terms of diversifying the population.
  • Visible diversity on campus helps provide role models for students. One area where the university has been proactive is in the creation of faculty-in-residence positions. These are faculty members that live in one of the four undergraduate dorm facilities. The current residents represent a vital link between undergraduates and the larger UH community.
  • The Language and Culture Center is at the forefront of diversity issues on campus as it tries to help international students learn English and adjust to life in the United States.
  • The role of study abroad programs in helping students expand their cultural experiences was also discussed. This led to a broader conversation about the ways US born citizens perceive and think about culture and differences relative to other global communities. The concept of cultural relativism provided a framework for this discussion.
  • The panel ended with a conversation about some of the more practical ways in which cultural knowledge and awareness plays a role in real world interactions. For instance, the group discussed why businesses with international interests often provide training on local norms and customs.

Everyone involved agreed with the idea that any slice of the discussion could have been expanded into a series of panels. Ultimately, we left the session with a better understanding of some of the complexities and challenges associated with global learning and diversity issues in both the academy and the real world.

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: Breakout Session Notes, Ppt, and Summary, Oct. 14, 2011 (Jim Garson)

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Break Out Session:  Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking


Richard Armstrong, Associate Professor, Modern and Classical Languages, and Fellow in the Honors Program

Rebecca Forrest, Instructional Assistant Professor, Physics

Lonny Hoffman, George Butler Research Professor of Law, UH Law Center

Maria Solino, Associate Professor of Spanish Literature and Film

Department of Hispanic Studies

Moderator: James Garson, Full Professor, Department of Philosophy


The panel began with an exercise asking all the participants to write out answers  two questions (exercise and other ppt visual materials can be found here):

1. Give an example of an intellectual skill that qualifies as an example of critical thinking.

2. How do you help students master that intellectual skill?

Three or four answers to the first question were briefly discussed, and as expected, they illustrated very different intellectual abilities, among them, artistic creativity, seeing the value in another’s point of view, problem solving, and the ability to distinguish cause from mere correlation.

Then the panelists introduced themselves and explained how their own interests are connected to critical thinking.

At that point a brief, and then a very wordy, definition of critical thinking was offered as a way to try to focus on exactly what we are seeking when we hope to promote critical thinking.  Almost every cognitive skill other than rote memorization has been classified as critical thinking by someone, and even memorization drills are classified as critical thinking in some websites. So the puzzle over what critical thinking is remains.

However, a discussion of specific critical thinking skills and how they can be promoted brought out some interesting themes related to aims in the classroom:

*  to welcome asking and answering questions of the form: “What if?”, “How do we know?” and “Who cares?”

*  to have the flexibility to suspend ones own beliefs, and to see the world from another’s point of view

*  to be creative and voracious readers, with nuanced appreciation for ambiguity and novel context

*  to be endlessly curious

*  to welcome and to profit from being wrong

*  to be able to evaluate the accuracy of sources of information, for example information found online

*  to slow down, to see the wider view, to be circumspect and thoughtful

A common thread in many of these ideas is metacognition, or executive functioning, the ability to consciously evaluate one’s own learning process.  Organizing classroom goals around opportunities to practice such talents is a great way to improve teaching effectiveness, and to promote valuable higher level thinking skills.

Jim Garson

Teaching for Academic Integrity, James Lang’s Plenary Summary, Slides, and Notes, Oct. 14, 2011 (David Mazella)

Well, this video, which Jim Lang brought to our attention last Friday, explains why we need to pay close attention to his topic, “Teaching for Academic Integrity”:

If you’re a teacher or a parent, you probably find this video to be pretty sinister.  I think most teachers, like most parents, want the educational process to succeed. But that is not how everyone views the educational process.

As a former high school student, however, what I remember from those days, and what this video demonstrates, is just how much energy I used to expend to avoid doing my assignments.  Much more energy, in fact, than what I would have expended simply doing my work. This is an important point, because it tells us that cheating is not simply, or always, “the path of least resistance,” but in some cases represents a spillover of what we might call “misdirected energies.”  In other words, some portion of the energy and intelligence of the students is not being addressed by the teacher or curriculumt, and these are getting directed instead toward counterproductive forms like cheating.  And in other instances, rampant, out-of-control cheating within a system can be seen as a symptom of much broader and more problematic attitudes towards education held by students, teachers, administrators, and the public.

Speaking from my own experience as a teacher, however, cheating can be a result of a number of things going on with students:

  • laziness (the student is unwilling to do the necessary work, and coolly finds others’ finished-looking work to hand in instead), or
  • confusion (the student does not know how to do her own work, and frantically gathers up scraps of others’ work to hand in instead), or
  • outright resistance (the student will not acknowledge the value of the assignment, and deliberately deceives the teacher by superficially “satisfying” the requirement instead).

But no matter what the motivations underlying student attitudes and behavior towards cheating, teachers, administrators, and parents need to look at how these responses occur within educational systems that may be doing their best either to promote or discourage cheating.

In keeping with the CTE’s focus on helping faculty negotiate these problems, Lang’s talk focused on the pedagogical side of this question, to show how different kinds of teaching could either promote or inhibit cheating.

[As promised on Friday, here is the link to Lang’s powerpoint presentation, including his references]

Lang began by reminding us that academic dishonesty is as old as the practice of grading examinations, and that it remains an irreducible aspect of the learning environment.  Rather than trying to make it impossible to cheat, or to devise ever-more sophisticated technologies to detect cheating (which tend to spawn still more sophisticated systems designed to evade detection), Lang proposed that we abandon the arms race (which often assume a naive and moralizing mode of error detection) and reframe the question around the question of learning.

Instead of asking, “How do we stop students from cheating,” we should ask instead, “How do we ensure that students are learning?” (to use Tricia Bertram Gallant’s formulation) Reformulating the question in this way realigns the imperatives of being a good teacher with that of being a good student.

Lang then used developments in recent cognitive theory regarding short- and long-term memory to talk about the need for teachers to build up students’ ability to practice retrieving what they have studied in a variety of contexts and in a variety of ways.  To retrieve material stored in long-term memory, students need to accumulate increasingly rich, multiple, interlocking contexts that allow the material to be retrieved. These contexts can take the form of information about how the material studied relates to their own lives (e.g., “Shakespeare knows about teenage angst, and you might, too”), or information about how this or that skill or information might serve them later (e.g., “you will need this skill to pass this course/complete your major/get a job”).

As it turns out, switching the emphasis towards learning results in a classroom practice that looks pretty much like what we already know about active learning and teaching for engagement.  Lang sums up his program in the following way:

Frequent low-stakes testing and active, test-like classroom practices are far more effective than passive learning and infrequent, high-stakes testing in helping students develop multiple cues and improve retrieval skills.
This kind of teaching, moreover, brings with it the additional benefit of removing some of the usual motivations, incentives, and opportunities to cheat.  In Lang’s words:
  • Frequent, low-stakes testing reduces the pressure on individual assignments, reducing the temptation to cheat.
  • Frequent, test-like classroom exercises reduce last-minute cramming or cheating
Lang closed his discussion with an example from his own teaching, which took an initial, conventional (and therefore easy-to-plagiarize) essay assignment about Romantic poetry [cf. slides 12-14] and revised it so that students might organize, select, and organize the content for themselves, and finally justify their organization.  The assignment begins:
Identify and explain three major principles or practices of Romantic poetry, using evidence from the Romantic authors we have studied,
and then argue whether or not those principles or practices (should) remain important to us today.
In the course of justifying their arrangement of the materials, however, students must also commit themselves in one way or another to the values represented by their selection and organization. This forces them to develop an argument choosing from multiple, plausible alternatives; critique and select from these alternatives; and, finally, adopt and articulate a synthetic argument explicitly related to others’ arguments.  This is a much more demanding task than simply recalling something heard in a lecture or read in a textbook.

So why aren’t teaching and instruction organized around this kind of interaction between teacher and student more often?
As for myself, Friday’s talk was thought-provoking and reflective, but I was immediately mindful of some the questions that have recurred at UH since we started the CTE 16 months ago.
My biggest question was about how this model of low-stakes, high-frequency, authentic assignments might be brought to the STEM fields, for example, or more research-oriented classes in the humanities.  And frankly, the question of how appropriate feedback can occur in large, lecture-style classes is one that we in the CTE have been tackling in workshops ever since we were created last year.
So I would ask all the readers of this blog if they have devised successful ways to incorporate this kind of high-practice, low-stakes writing, and argumentation into their classroom practices, regardless of class size or discipline, and whether you have tracked the effect of such practices on academic dishonesty in your classes?  Any and all suggestions, comments, or further discussion are welcome.
Many thanks to James Lang for sharing his research and his thoughts with us last Friday.  I learned a great deal from our discussion.