SOTL Commons Conference 2012, Georgia Southern U, pt I

[whiteboard image from my 3/7/12 presentation]

This is the first of a series of posts about the SOTL commons conference I attended last week, which featured a lot of work that I think UH faculty would find of interest. The talks there offered some fine examples of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) as a specialty in and of itself, but would also appeal, I think, to everyday faculty trying to improve their own teaching, and students’ learning, in more systematic ways.

This post is a summary of the interactive workshop I led regarding “Threshold Concepts,” a theoretical framework pioneered by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, and later taken up by a wide variety of disciplines for curricular and pedagogical improvements. Before the workshop, I distributed a useful summary sheet prepared by Glynis Cousins, and asked participants to write down the single most troublesome concept for novice learners in their home disciplines.

These examples were to be saved, shared, and discussed a little later first by pairs, and then by the larger group, after I had given a brief theoretical overview Threshold Concepts (henceforth, TCs) and their peculiar characteristics.

I began by discussing the origin of the TC framework with Meyer’s and Land’s research into the pedagogy of economics, and how certain concepts in any discipline seemed to demand a disproportionate amount of time and energy to be learned.  These “liminal” moments in pedagogy represented not just a barrier to understanding, but also an opportunity to understand the latent structures of a discipline. The key shift is to use learners’ difficulties with particular points in the curriculum to discern the discipline’s most counter-intuitive concepts and practices. These particularly “troublesome” points then become the privileged point of entry (what Cousins calls the “jewels in the curriculum”) into a disciplinary field, and the community it serves.

“Liminal” also follows Victor Turner’s famous anthropological arguments about the importance of liminality for entry into a community (think: bar or bat mitzvah, hazing rituals, etc.), in this case a disciplinary community. I also stressed how much TCs confirmed the experienced teacher’s insight into the non-linearity of learning, the moments of slowdown, frustration, or interruption that somehow get transformed into Aha! moments of recognition and integration at some key moment, at least for successful students.

I added that there were three key metaphors for the TC: Roadblocks, Wheel-spinning, and Portals, each of which is characterized by the frustration and anxiety of the learner shuttling back and forth between disciplinary and pre-disciplinary understandings, only to be brought to the other side eventually by practice and repeated explanations.

At this point, I asked participants to pair off, share their concepts, then discuss with the group their TCs. As we discussed the examples, I tried to relate them to the major features pointed out by Cousins and Meyer and Land:

  • “transformative” (causing a significant shift in the learner’s perceptions or identity),
  • “integrative” (exposing the previously hidden interrelatedness of a field),
  • “troublesome” (disrupting commonsense or pragmatic understandings), “irreversible” (unlikely, once learned, to be forgotten), and finally,
  • “bounded” (subject to continual debate).

As the whiteboard image demonstrates, we discussed examples from teacher’s training (lesson plans); agricultural education (implementation of concepts); dance (space and spatial relationships); psychology (reliability and validity); literature and writing (plagiarism); and faculty development (prior knowledge).

We had some discussion of how to recognize TCs, and especially how to distinguish TCs from more conventional approaches, such as the “key concepts” that are conventionally “covered” in introductory or survey courses; unlike “key concepts,” TCs need to be singled out and emphasized, but only after the student has gathered enough information to see how the TC helps to organize and integrate, often in a counter-intuitive way,  once-scattered phenomena.

There was also a suggestion that we consistently switch up our forms of classroom assessment (sometimes process-oriented, sometimes product-oriented), so that we could catch the mental processes of students as they struggled with the TCs.

Finally, there was also some questioning whether this approach was sufficiently student-centered, since it focused so much on the instructor-as-expert diagnosing the error-ridden novice learner.  The response was that there was nothing in this that prevented a student-centered approach, since it demanded careful listening to students’ formulations to see where their misconceptions were leading them.  Nevertheless, this approach did in fact allow disciplinary instructors to focus not so much on general learning theory, but specifically and concretely on how students encountered a discipline and attempted to master it. This return to disciplinary terms and a disciplinary vocabulary made it more likely to gain hold among higher ed teachers who must always keep the disciplinary perspective in view.

TCs represent the primary point of contact between the novice learner and the expert disciplinary community she is attempting to enter. Novices begin this process with only the vaguest understanding of the tacit knowledge embedded within the disciplinary culture they aspire to, or draw from. The TC framework holds a lot of promise as a way to refocus both pedagogical practice and curricular structures.



Midterm Course Correction (conference TA panel), Oct. 14. 2011

Despite the fact that I look forward to the fall in Houston–that giddy thrill that comes the first time I step outside in the morning and have to race back inside for a sweater–I always dread this time of year: the middle of the semester.

Every year, I tell myself that this semester I’ll be ready for the inevitable rush. This semester I’ll plan ahead. This semester I won’t take up papers when I know I’ll have papers due in my own classes. But this semester, just like every semester, I’ve got a stack of grading in addition to my own work, and because it’s the fall, this semester, I don’t have a week-long break to give me time to catch up.

And I know it’s just as bad for my students, who are mostly freshmen adjusting to college coursework in addition to balancing their own family obligations and jobs. With this kind of stress, for both me and my students, it’s easy to see why disengagement grows this time of year. Students who have been performing very well are overtaxed, and their preparation for class slides downhill along with their daily grades.

Dealing with the middle of the semester is difficult. As we were reminded at the UH CTE Teaching Conference Panel on “Mid-semester Course Correction” on October 14, the middle of the semester is a time when it’s important to keep your head on straight–setting clear, achievable goals to make sure you get everything done. It’s a time to rededicate yourself to staying healthy for the push to the end of the semester. And it’s a time to reflect on what’s going well and what could be going better in the classroom.

Maybe you’ve reached the middle of the semester only to realize that your students don’t know as much as they should. Maybe your students seem to be disengaging, coming to class unprepared, or even not coming to class. Maybe you’re all bored with the same-old learning activities. Below are some of the strategies we talked about with TAs Geneva Canino (English), Al Bernard (Atmospheric and Earth Sciences), Chris Nicholson (Political Science), and Veronica Sanchez (Atmospheric and Earth Sciences), along with moderator Dr. James Lang (On Course).

Some strategies we discussed for when your classroom needs a little kick, or even a complete overhaul:

  • Introduce activities that engage students in different ways. For example, try kinesthetic activities instead of lecture and writing.
  • Don’t be afraid to go back over “old” material if your students don’t seem to be getting it. If you TA for a professor who doesn’t want to change the syllabus, tell him or her about the problems you’re seeing and see if you can’t address them in labs or discussion sections. As Dr. Lang reminded us, there’s little point in going forward over new material when the knowledge foundations are shaky.
  • Try some activities that invite easy grading (that can be done in a few minutes right after class) or that get students to grade their own or each other’s work. In-class grading has the added benefit of introducing time to discuss mistakes that might otherwise be forgotten.
  • Remember that studies have proven than minimal feedback, especially on writing assignments, is the most useful. You’ll save time by only writing down two or three things to improve on, and students will get more out of your more focused comments.
  • Hand out a simple mid-semester evaluation that asks students to evaluate and reflect on their learning over the semester–this can help you as you make changes, and can also inspire students to make changes to their own learning habits. Dr. Lang suggested three simple questions for a midterm evaluation: 1) How are you doing in this class? 2) What could you be doing to improve your learning? 3) What could I be doing to help improve your learning?
  • If you can adjust your syllabus so that you’re only taking up assignments when you have time to deliver prompt feedback, both you and your students will be better for it. Remember that the more time passes between an assignment and your feedback, the less valuable your comments become.
  • Finally, remember that taking time to do things you enjoy isn’t a waste of time–it’s necessary for your health.

What are your strategies for handling the stresses of the middle of the semester?

Allison Laubach Wright

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.

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)

[image from,+learning+styles+and+thinking+organisers%5D

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

How Can Effective Teaching Be Taught? Breakout Session Notes and Summary, Oct. 14, 2011 (Tamara Fish)

[image from TEFL Teachers Blog]


Barry Lefer, Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Lawrence Williams, Instructional Associate Professor, Director of Academic Advising, Director of Undergraduate Research, Department of Biology and Biochemistry.

Flavia Belpoliti, Instructional Assistant Professor, Director of the Spanish Language Program, Department of Hispanic Studies.

Melissa Pierson, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Teacher Education, College of Education.

James Kastely, Associate Professor, Director of Creative Writing, Department of English.

Moderator: Tamara Fish, Instructional Associate Professor, Coordinator of the Core Teaching Fellows Program, CLASS


The following questions were provided as prompts to panelists prior to the session, and to the audience for reflection during the session:

  • How do people learn to teach?
  • Are good teachers mostly born or mostly made?
  • What is “effective” teaching at this time, in this place, and how can we facilitate it?
  • What is the role of each of the following in teaching teachers: Models? Books/research/scholarship? Experience/trial and error? Mentoring/feedback?
  • What is the role of failure in learning to teach?
  • How do we best convey what we know about excellent teaching to a new generation of teachers?
  • Is the term “best practices” meaningful? Helpful?
  • In what ways do standard methods of evaluating teaching either promote or discourage good teaching?
  • What kinds of institutional infrastructure are needed to maximize teaching effectiveness?
  • In what way does the University, as an institution charged with developing standards that seek to measure teaching effectiveness, work either for or against teaching that understands its role in a more complex and nuanced way than can be measured by narrowly defined criteria?

Summary of Discussion:

Each panelist offered a 5-10-minute talk on the question, “How can effective teaching be taught?” After a brief period of reflection, the audience was invited to question or comment. Major points and ideas proffered during the breakout session included the following:

  • Professors often learn to teach on the job, through trial and error, and model instructional practice upon those of favorite professors. Failure has a prominent role in learning how to teach. Perhaps graduate students who want to teach should be required to take a class in teaching.
  • We must think of ourselves as educators, not just subject matter teachers, who both respect and lead students. A good professor must want to teach, and must be constantly receptive to ways to improve, striving to teach with relevance to their students and bringing the classroom to life.
  • Teachers must constantly reflect on why they do what they do; without reflection, not much can improve.
  • Teaching is a balancing act that occurs at the intersection of content knowledge and pedagogy. Part of teaching good teaching is making the components of good teaching explicit. Variables include how long students have wanted to teach and their family or cultural experiences of school, curriculum standards, individual idiosyncrasies, prior experience of a content area vs. a new model they may be asked to adopt as teachers, and affective vs. cognitive qualities—e.g., we want smarter teachers, but we also want qualities such as “grit”—persistence, perseverance—and “with-it-ness.”
  • There are limits to methods, which must be synthesized into a meaningful, discipline-specific approach. We need a plurality of styles to suit a plurality of students.
  • Teaching is a complex, cooperative, human practice, which teachers enter indirectly; only those already inside the practice are able to articulate what the rewards are. Effective teaching is hard to evaluate and is learned by watching a plurality of teachers; we try on moves, replay performances, and think about how to make them available to others.
  • Teachers ideally bring students inside a practice of thinking; the classroom is an arena for the “performance of mind.” Good teachers explicitly address “how to think” for their classes, subverting learned behaviors

Tamara Fish