Thanks for attending our “Why we fail our students” faculty workshop, 10-11-12

Our speakers today were Drs. Casey Due-Hackney (MCL), Donna Pattison (BIO), and Andrew Hamilton, our new Executive Director for Academic Innovation. The panel was moderated by Prof. Jim Garson (PHIL), who led off discussion with his own comments.

Garson noted that when he arrived here some time ago, he was surprised by the atmosphere surrounding instruction, which was dominated by cheap credits ($30/course) and “shopping for courses.”  And he suggested that the student culture has not moved sufficiently beyond that attitude.  He also noted that faculty attitudes then and now focused on aspects like students’ lack of preparation, which were essentially out of faculty control, rather than aspects of instruction that were in our power.  And he concluded with a call for faculty and students to change the prevailing culture of low expectations, and build together a culture of high expectations and success.  This cultural shift, however, would demand that both faculty and students embrace the risks and uncertainties of genuine learning.


Hamilton’s presentation, “Rethinking the Large Lecture” was organized into two parts: Problem and Solution.  The large lecture has been in use ever since medieval lecturers found it the cheapest way to disseminate information from big, expensive, hand-produced books, as we can see below with the variously distracted and sleeping medieval students might suggest.

According to Hamilton, the large lecture represents a problem because it demands a level of engagement and private study time that contemporary students are simply unable or unwilling to provide.  This, along with grade inflation and state and federal disinvestment in education, means that students will continue to fail in these important introductory courses in ever-growing numbers.

Hamilton did not propose any single “solution” to this mismatch of teaching approach to students, but instead offered a few design principles that would make success likelier than in teaching with conventional lecture models.

  • restructuring time on task, so that students must do practice work and receive feedback while still in class, instead of passively listening to content-materials
  • teaching intellectual skills, so that students can learn not just a particular content, but intellectual and critical skills (active reading, better writing, critical thinking, etc.) that could be developed further and used in other classes and contexts
  • teach students how to collaborate and work together better, so they can accelerate the pace of their own learning
  • support innovation structurally, so that systemic issues can be addressed in a similarly comprehensive way (this would include enhanced TA training, multi-use classroom space, new faculty orientation, and targeted faculty development)

Due-Hackney spoke from her 11 years’ experience in Classical Studies, and noted that her students had a very different schedule than she had when she was an undergraduate: they often work full-time, have family commitments, face significant commutes, and sometimes have responsibility for aging parents.  They are also much less prepared than she was in school, particularly in their writing.

Due-Hackney made her own recommendations about “what works for her”:

  • her enthusiasm for the material: this might seem obvious, but her evaluations have consistently shown that students enjoyed her classes because they could recognize her love of the material, and learned more because of her engagement with poems like the Iliad
  • keep your class on students’ radar, by regularly assigning weekly, engagement-oriented assignments like brief, informal writing responses to their assigned readings, and providing equally regular, timely feedback to their writing, which could be done online or in-class
  • student confidence grows with consistent encouragement and feedback, and with confidence comes better, more accomplished writing
  • stand up and be willing to be seen as a human being who makes mistakes, sometimes needs to look up answers, or can learn things from your students
  • acknowledge that the material is challenging, and that it should be hard for them to learn, and let them know that some of this material was difficult for you to learn, too
  • Finally, even in the largest classes, try to model the kind of approachability, compassion, and flexibility you have periodically needed in your own life, career, and education.  This can make an enormous difference for someone struggling with an issue in- or outside your course.

The third and final speaker, Dr. Pattison of Biology, outlined the comprehensive approach to student success that Biology Chair Dan Wells (a CTE board member) has directed in conjunction with a THECB grant, with the assistance of Pattison, Dr. Larry Williams, and Dr. Medrano, among others.  The Biology student success program, which Pattison described as “tackling every problem all at once,” included the following features:

  • tracking attendance through clicker questions
  • increasing engagement through strategic use of clicker questions followed by think/pair/share activities for questions that caused confusion
  • live demonstrations, with physical props, if necessary, to help students remember key concepts like meiosis/mitosis
  • having undergrad TAs patrol the back of the lecture hall, and make sure students are not texting, on facebook, etc.
  • arranging a dual syllabus, so that students scoring below 70% on a diagnostic must take a recitation-section version of the course with required attendance for recitations
  • field trips and other activities, including a Biology talk/dinner that allows undergrads to hear current research topics discussed
  • faculty workshops on pedagogy

Afterwards, the group discussed the problems of “disappearing students,” and the sometimes puzzling fact that students in difficulty will be able to finish classes they are engaged in, but fail the large lecture courses that are not motivating them.  We also discussed the possibility of mandatory prerequisite checks, which are being instituted in a number of courses and departments, but which are complicated by our very large transfer population, whose courses sometimes require significant time to process. Finally, the group agreed that all of these changes would require structural changes that would encourage faculty development and continual reflection upon, and improvement of, one’s teaching and courses.


VIA Insider Higher Ed: Mike Rose on “The Missing Element in Student Success”

Mike Rose, a UCLA faculty member, pinpoints the “missing element” in most discussions of student success: teachers.  He writes:

An unprecedented amount of attention is being given to student success, to benchmarks and milestones (such as completing remedial courses), to transfer rates, to degree completion. Both state and federal governments as well as philanthropies are supporting structural changes in course sequences, requirements, and pathways toward degrees and offering financial incentives for new methods of measuring success.

How interesting it is though that, except for a flurry of activity around computerized assessment and instruction and distance learning, we hear almost nothing at the policy level about the classroom itself, about teaching. And the classroom is exactly where our attention should be.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed
Rose argues persuasively about the indispensable role of the classroom instructor in ensuring student success.  His piece (an excerpt from his recent book, linked above) deserves to be read in full precisely because he does not shrink from its implications.
Faculty at all but the most elite institutions, and the elite and non-elite graduate programs that produce them, will all need to look at their role in fostering learning among students: this will entail creating a “learning environment” that fully communicates and explains the intellectual challenges of the material at hand, and encourages students to seek out help when they need it.
Rose also shows how much of this work is accomplished through modeling the intellectual dispositions and attitudes we want our students to develop:
Central to these issues is the kind of atmosphere faculty create in their classrooms. This is not simply a question of personal style, persona, or the way one organizes a room – though they all can be factors. I’m talking about the sense students pick up from the way a teacher addresses them, responds to questions, deals with requests. The bottom line for students remains: Is this a safe place and do I feel respected? If so, students will be more willing to answer or ask a question, participate, take a chance. And in turn, students pick up on the way a teacher responds to them and tend to replicate it in their interactions with others. I witnessed a striking negative example of this pattern years ago when – to prepare to teach a creative writing class – I sat in on a workshop taught by a well-known local poet. We weren’t halfway through the first class, and he had diminished three participants into silence with haughty and snide comments about their work. By the next class, some had dropped, but the telling and disturbing thing is that by the third class those who remained interacted with each other in similarly nasty and unhelpful fashion. The best way to foster civil, thoughtful, intellectually rich discussion is to model it.

Well worth reading. And if you have any responses to this argument, we’d love to hear about it.


VIA Inside Higher Ed: “When Black Men Succeed”

This article about the research of Shaun Harper into the academic success of black men at college, and this cogent response from the Dean Dad blog, got me thinking about how we usually talk about “student success,” and how even the most well-meaning programs and services are organized around the presumed deficits or failures of the students.  I should say that even the baldly stated title of the IHE article unwittingly reinforces this set of assumptions.

Harper’s counter to this deep problem in framing and background assumptions about black male students was to look closely at successful students’ histories, to see what they might be able to tell us.  Unsurprisingly, the story is largely about the enormous impact of parents can have on their kids’ academic attitudes, largely in terms of setting expectations, and also about the surprisingly large impact of the conscious mentoring that these students received at some critical point in their education. Though these mentoring moments were felt by the students as “serendipitous” and unplanned, they had a considerable influence on students’ later directions:

Parents weren’t the only supporters who pushed and encouraged them. “The participants’ early schooling experiences almost always included at least one influential teacher who helped solidify their interest in going to college,” often going beyond simply teaching them to help get them information or access to services that would help them prepare for college.

Many of the research subjects “considered themselves among the lucky few to have had teachers who, for some reason, thought they were worth the investment” —  and often for reasons that were unclear to them. It was not, most believed, that they were academically high-achieving; fewer than half had taken an Advanced Placement course in high school, and fewer than one in five had participated in a gifted and talented program.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed
From a teacher’s perspective, the challenge then becomes how to reexamine one’s attitudes towards mentoring.  Who have we reached out to in this fashion, and could we do this kind of mentoring work more consciously, and more broadly, since the stakes are so high for our students?


What do you wish your students knew about college before they arrived? What would you tell them?

I was at a Student Success meeting today, and one of the questions that came up was, “What would you tell students about college before they arrived on campus?  If you could give them some crucial bit of information about UH, about classes or programs or any other aspect of the school, what would you tell them?”

That’s when we learned that Admissions would be interested to know what information, advice, or even warnings faculty would like to communicate to potential students. And the top few suggestions could be incorporated into our Orientation sessions for students and their parents.

So what do you think: what would you tell prospective students about UH–or college more generally–before they arrived?

We’ll publish the most popular responses on the blog after a week or so.



Using Google+ Hangouts for Video Conferencing with Students

Google Plus debuted this summer as an alternative social media platform to Facebook. Because of its hundreds of millions of registered users in other Google platforms, such as Gmail and Google Docs, Google Plus quickly enrolled over 40 million users. Some users were simply tired of Facebook’s lax privacy policies, others tired of the games, and many others simply eager to see their other Google apps integrated into one central hub, which is apparently what is happening, gradually, at Google Plus. Immediately as it was released, professors began seeing the advantage of Plus in their classrooms.

Here, I’d like to discuss the most obvious tool within Plus for teachers — the Hangout feature. Hangout is a simple video application that allows users to conference with up to ten users simultaneously, with additional tools such as text chat and YouTube sharing that can help teachers, especially, connect and conference with their students.

Overview of Hangouts

Why Use Video Hangouts

Consider one of the primary influences of student success — out of class contact with her professor. Establishing regular office hours is standard for all of us, but the reality is that often our schedules do not work with student schedules, especially UH students, who often work and most often commute to campus. Getting to a professor’s office for the one or two hours she’s available can be not only very inconvenient, but also imposing, especially for our large-class sections.

Instead, I can use Google Hangouts to establish either a fixed time every week to video conference with one or more students or even set small-group supervision meetings with them. The student needs only create the Google Plus account (with any e-mail address), and with a PC with camera, will be able to consult with me from wherever she is, and from wherever I am — office, coffee shop, or back porch.

One immediate concern is privacy — just as we would not discuss a student’s grades with a group of people, we need to maintain strict privacy with our Hangout conversations as well. I first establish the simple rule, then, when using video conferencing with my students:

In any group setting, I will not discuss grades. Period. I can discuss lecture notes, assignments, and give feedback, but not specific scores.

This is no different than a meeting in the office — we can discuss grades individually, but if two or more students are present, we simply won’t. Using video conferencing is no different here.

One advantage of Google Plus, however, is that the Hangout can be open to all in your circles, a smaller circle of just class students, or individuals. This is immediately one of the advantages of using Google Plus over other social networks — you control who sees what and who you talk to. So, I could start a Hangout with just one class, all class sections, or a small student group of five students working on a group project. Google Plus allows you to control all this.

Some Quick Homework Before You Begin

When using Hangouts, review the Help section first, to understand the (simple and free) technical requirements, and how to limit your hangout to your selected audience.

And finally, consider other uses of Hangouts for engaging students, encouraging collaboration, consulting with experts, and otherwise strengthening the learning environment of the course.

VIA Inside HigherEd: “Student Success, In the Classroom” by Vincent Tinto

Vincent Tinto describes the current state of “student success” at most institutions:

Over the past 20 years, if not more, colleges and universities, states and private foundations have invested considerable resources in the development and implementation of a range of programs to increase college completion. Though several of these have achieved some degree of success, most have not made a significant impact on college completion rates.

This is the case because most efforts to improve college completion, such as learning centers and first-year seminars, sit at the margins of the classroom and do not substantially improve students’ classroom experience. Lest we forget, many students, certainly those in community college, commute to college and work and/or attend part-time. For them, if not for most students, the classroom is one, and perhaps the only, place where they meet with faculty and other students and engage in learning activities. Their success in college is built upon classroom success, one class and one course at a time. If our efforts do not reach into the classroom and enhance student classroom success, they are unlikely to substantially impact college success.

I agree with almost everything written here, but wondered why the learning efforts of faculty members seemed almost like an afterthought in this piece.  We hear about “professional development programs,” but very little about why faculty would want to learn how to do this work, or might resist it.  Is that a problem? Take a look at the comments and decide for yourself. DM
Read more:
Inside Higher Ed