Faculty Focus-Personal Narratives: Perfect for Summer Reading

 May 4, 2016
Personal Narratives: Perfect for Summer Reading

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

Right before the end of the academic year when the promise of summer stretches warmly ahead, many of us are making lists that anticipate other kinds of tasks. If you’re considering some pedagogical reading, I’ve got just the recommendation.

I am a huge fan of personal narratives—those first-person, experienced-based pieces of scholarship in which faculty explore what they’ve learned from an experience (or several of them). Narratives aren’t all that popular right now. We’re preoccupied with all things evidence-based. I do heartily endorse empirical explorations of various sorts, and I recognize that a lot of experience-based scholarship didn’t used to be all that scholarly.

But a good personal narrative has a lot going for it. It provides an in-depth analysis of an experience. In the best narratives the author looks deeply at what happened, with brutal honesty.  Personal narratives show how understanding why or how something happened, and what can be learned from it, has great value. Those who write them benefit tremendously, but personal narratives are equally beneficial to those of us who read them.

As readers, we get to see models of how experience can be analyzed—the questions that need to be asked, how answers must be subjected to logical analysis and verified with evidence. They encourage us by demonstrating that even negative experiences can be faced and learned from. If you’ve had a class that went poorly, discovered a policy resting on questionable assumptions, received a set of rank ratings, your personal narrative lets us as readers borrow the questions asked, the methods of analysis, and the ways of dealing with the results. We find ourselves using your methods to explore own our narratives.

Personal narratives fuse the personal and the professional, the emotional and the analytical. They touch us because emotions are a part of meaningful teaching experiences—we respond to them as humans and follow up as professors. It concerns me that the affective dimensions of teaching are so overshadowed by the rational and the intellectual. Both have a place in teaching, and the absence of one diminishes the power of the other.

While you’re putting together your post-semester to-do list, we do hope attending the 13th annual Teaching Professor Conference makes the cut. Whether you’re a first-time attendee or among the many who join us every year, it’s energizing to be together with a large group of faculty—all committed to teaching, all wanting new and better ideas to promote learning, and all willing to share freely. Learn More »

And finally, good personal narratives are fun to read, and that can’t be said of a lot of scholarship. Summer and personal narratives seem made for each other. Some of my favorite narratives you’ve seen in previous posts. I’m opting here to recommend ones mentioned less often, and I’ll let the authors introduce their own work.

Delgado, T. (2015). Metaphor for teaching: Good teaching is like good sex. Teaching Theology & Religion, 18 (3), 224–232.

“I know it is unconventional to equate teaching and sex, much less good teaching and good sex. However, this teaching metaphor emerged from a real experience in the classroom that became revelatory: about the incongruence of my teaching approach to the subject matter, the assumptions I made regarding my students, and the need to examine my pedagogy regularly as a matter of practice. Here’s the story of that experience” (p. 224).

Mulnix, A. B. (2016). What my cadaver dog taught me about teaching and learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27 (1), 5­­­–21.

“College educators need to tell more stories about their own learning experiences, not just to their students but also to other faculty. Personal stories that describe learning are rare in my experience, yet I think they have real potential to help faculty intellectually grab hold of the new realities in teaching and learning” (p. 8).

Cohan, M. (2009). Bad apple: The social production and subsequent re-education of a bad teacher. Change Magazine, November-December, 32–36.

“I have a confession to make. I was a bad teacher. I was not mean or abusive to students, and I didn’t make capricious demands, ignore my syllabus, grade while under the influence, or test students on material I had not taught….” But a clear sign of bad teaching, Cohan says, was the way he thought about students. “They were enigmas to me, and I didn’t know how to deal with the varying levels of interest, commitment, and ability they brought to class. All I knew how to do was to expect of them what I had always expected of myself—not perfection, exactly, but something close to it” (p. 32).

Albers, C. (2009). Teaching: From disappointment to ecstasy. Teaching Sociology, 37 (July), 269–282.

“Unintended outcomes can derail the best of intentions in the classroom. Designing a new course for Honors students provided an opportunity to change my traditional teaching style. I envisioned a classroom where students enthusiastically became more self-directed learners. I was perplexed with mixed reactions from students; while some joined me and adopted the model of teaching and learning I proposed, far more than I expected resisted the change” (p. 269).

Posted in CETL Teaching Institute, Education: Research and Reflection, Faculty Consultations, Faculty Focus & Workshps, News, Uncategorized | 1 Response

Innovation Abstracts last issue till Fall


Download PDF versionVolume XXXVIII, No. 15 | May 6, 2016

Economics: The Not-So-Dismal Science

Economics has a reputation for being a dismal science. You can make the argument that any subject matter is dismal, and that how it’s taught is what makes all the difference. I think economics is anything but dismal. Economics is the study of choices. Individuals, businesses, and the government make choices on a daily basis, and those choices can be very interesting. Over the years, I have created thought-provoking assignments for my students, and I have been willing to update my teaching style by incorporating new techniques.

If students have trouble understanding a particular concept such as inflation, for example, it is my responsibility to present the concept in a new way and develop an assignment that helps my students identify inflation in the economy. Unfortunately, the majority of the U.S. population does not understand the concept of inflation. Most people assume that when the price of a good or service they buy increases, that must mean there is inflation occurring in the economy. By definition, inflation occurs when the overall level of prices rises in the economy. The overall level of prices is referred to as the aggregate price level. If the overall level of prices (or the aggregate price level) rises, then inflation is occurring. However, if the price for a gallon of milk or the price for a gallon of gasoline rises, that is not inflation.

Price Journal

I recently developed an assignment called a “Price Journal” for my students to help them understand and realize that in the short run, prices are slow to change. Prices are generally slow to change because of negotiated price contracts and/or menu cost. When the price of a good or service is changed, that is referred to as menu cost. Menu cost is a cost associated with inflation. Economists say that prices are “sticky” in the short run. However, in the long run, all prices can vary.

For the Price Journal assignment, students track prices for at least 10 different goods or services in the economy over the course of a 16-week semester. By the end of the semester, students realize that the list of goods and services they tracked actually did not change very much, if at all. Students tend to track the price of gasoline, milk, eggs, electronics, and various commodities such as gold. They identify outliers in the data, calculate the average or mean price for each good or service, and provide a detailed analysis to help explain why prices did or did not change over the course of the semester. Additionally, students apply the laws of supply and demand to price changes. The law of demand states that price is inversely related to quantity demanded. The law of supply states that price is directly related to quantity supplied.

Graphing is Hard
Graphical analysis is another concept that students often struggle with in economics courses. An economics course without graphs is like a textbook without words. Graphing is a necessary component in teaching Principles of Economics courses, and for that matter, in all economics courses. Students often struggle with the graphing element in micro and macro courses. Graphical analysis requires strong critical-thinking skills and a basic understanding of mathematics. Over the years, I have started offering several graphing workshops outside of class for students who may require additional attention with specific graphs. Graphing workshops are designed to practice real-world graphing scenarios with students. Examples of graphs presented in a workshop include graphically illustrating what happens to the new equilibrium price and quantity when supply and demand curves decrease, or what happens to the aggregate demand curve if consumer wealth decreases in the economy. Some students automatically understand that when the government raises taxes on households and businesses, this causes the aggregate demand curve to decrease.

Using Instagram in Economics Courses

I have always loved photography, and believe in the power of images in learning. Students have many different learning styles. Visual learning is one type of learning style that students appreciate and find useful. Today, students are using various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram more than ever before. This led me to create an economics account on the social media platform Instagram for my students and for economics enthusiasts alike. What is Instagram? It is a social media application/website designed for photo and video sharing that has become increasingly popular among millennials. To use Instagram, students download the free Instagram application on their smartphones. The name of our Instagram account is “insta_graph,” and it’s a new and interesting way to learn and study economics. My objective is to get students interested in economics using their smartphones.

According to the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of Americans rely on a smartphone for accessing the internet, and 15 percent of young adults (millennials) ages 18-29 rely on their smartphones for internet access. I was motivated to start the project because students in introductory economics courses struggle with the graphing portion of the course. Graphing is a foreign concept to most students. In order to be successful in economics, students need to feel comfortable with graphing, and be able to relate economic concepts to the real world.

One way to students feel more comfortable with graphing is to take pictures of graphs and real-world economics examples using Instagram. To date, I have posted more than 550 pictures on the account. In addition, students post comments underneath pictures. Many of the pictures are of various graphs covered in the course, which are then used as a study guide for students. My students often tell me they use the Instagram account to help them prepare for a test. One thing is for sure, students keep their smartphones close by. By using Instagram in my courses, I make it more convenient for students to study on-the-go.

I also like to incorporate and photograph real-world events and then relate such events to the course. In such cases, students are able to make the connection very quickly. For example, I took a picture of a group of employees working at a fast food restaurant and related the picture back to the concept of diminishing returns to inputs. The question I posed to students was to determine the appropriate number of employees needed during a lunch rush.

Blogging for Students

Blogging has become increasingly popular, especially over the last decade. Anyone can create a blog, and many blogs are targeted to a specific audience. Blogging is a creative outlet for individuals and an alternative to writing books. They can be political in nature, depending on the topic. My goal has always been to remain unbiased in my personal beliefs. If a student cannot decipher whether I am a Republican or a Democrat, then I have achieved my goal. A particular topic or concept is only political if you make it political. Pure economic principles should not be viewed as political, but rather basic economic theory. The majority of my ideas are designed to help students progress in their Principles of Economics courses. As the popular 1990s sappy Bryan Adams love song goes, “Everything I Do, I Do It for You.” That’s how I think, because everything I do is for my students.

My courses meet twice a week for only one hour and 20 minutes each. I make the most of every second of class, but sometimes I still feel like I forgot to provide a real-world application of the concepts taught that day. I decided to expand on concepts taught in each class by creating a blog about related real-world scenarios. The name of the blog is “Obvious Human: Economics is Ubiquitous.” Economics is so applicable to daily life that blogging about it is relatively easy. My blog is designed specifically for introductory economics students, but any economics enthusiast may find it enjoyable. There are several free website builders available for individuals interested in creating a blog. So if you are interested in expanding on any topic outside of class, blogging is a creative solution.

Conclusion: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

I have shared many techniques and best practices for teaching introductory economics courses. As noted above, economics has a reputation for being a dismal science. My goal has always been to change that perception and make economics fun and interesting for students to learn. So far, I have received excellent feedback from my students regarding the Price Journal assignment, graphing workshops offered, using Instagram in my courses, and creating an economics blog geared toward my students. All of these techniques and best practices take time to implement and create, but the extra work has certainly made a difference in my courses. Do not be afraid to try new techniques in your courses. Any discipline lends itself to creativity.

Kristen Zaborski, Assistant Professor, Economics

For further information, please contact the author at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, 8000 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice, FL 34293. E-mail: zaborsk@scf.edu

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NISOD webinars free to NOVA faculty



Contact Robin Muse ( rmuse@nvcc.edu)  for the Password to Register!


May 11, 1:00-2:00 p.m. (CST)

An Entrepreneurial Mindset for Student Success

This webinar offers an inside look at a promising new approach to student success designed to harness the power of entrepreneurial thinking as a skill all students need to thrive in the 21st century, regardless of their chosen path.

May 12, 1:00-2:00 p.m. (CST)

The QUEST: The Completion Project for Males of Color in Community Colleges

This webinar highlights the design, development, and delivery of a quality educational program for males of color using a zero-dollar budget.

Webinar Archives

All webinars are recorded and available for later viewing on the members-only section of our website.

Posted in CETL events, CETL Teaching Institute, Education: Research and Reflection, Faculty Focus & Workshps, News, Presentation Materials, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovation Abstract – week of April 28

Volume XXXVIII, No. 14 | April 29, 2016

Download PDF version

Innovation Abstracts

Educating Through Coaching: Defining Your Role and Instilling a Dynamic Classroom Environment

“Pressure Is a Privilege.”—Billie Jean King

Think back to the very first moment you received confirmation that you are officially a “teacher.” Whether that was an affirming call from your department’s dean, an email from your college’s human resources department, or a handshake with the person who just finished interviewing you, each of these moments signify the split second your world has changed forever. Aside from the hustle and bustle that comes from needing to fill out freshly-printed new employee forms, scheduling orientation sessions, and developing your course syllabi, the most important element you need to meticulously plan, develop, and prepare is YOU!

What kind of teacher will you be—the “strict one” who rigorously challenges students, or a “pushover” who gives out easy A’s to keep your class numbers high? How will you dress—what type of image do you want to portray to your students? How will you ask your students to address you—by your first name, “Professor,” “Mr./Ms.,” something else? What kinds of rules will you enforce within your classroom? Sure, your college has specific guidelines for everyone to follow, but what will be your specific attendance policy or procedure for handling it if a student breaks the cardinal rule of educational professionalism: plagiarism/cheating? How will you create a classroom environment that not only captures students’ attention and fosters learning, but most importantly, allows your students to retain the information you teach them?

While one can methodically attempt to prepare for every little detail leading up to the first day of class, nothing will prepare a teacher for the rollercoaster ride of student-related factors that stem from aspects outside of your classroom that you cannot control. As a former head coach for an NJCAA Division 1 Women’s Sports team, I learned—fast—that the title you have after your name does not even scratch the surface of the role you play in your students’ lives. You see, while the plaques in my office read “Coach of the Year,” they actually should say: “Coach/Parent/Friend/Disciplinarian/Listener/Mentor/Educator of the Year.” Think about each of these words; think about their role, connotation, and effectiveness. Now think about a teacher who has made a difference in your life. Would you apply any of these words to him or her, or would you just limit that person’s role to the term “teacher?” More likely than not, the teachers who are standing out for you embody some, if not all, of the abovementioned words.

With this in mind, I would like to digress for a moment to share a story about my first two weeks at the helm of a collegiate sports team.

It was the first day of August, and the weather was, as expected, warm. I had just returned to the office after walking off the courts from the first day of tryouts. I had just seen a diligent group of college freshmen working very hard outside in the August heat. No complaints; all raring-to-go attitudes. I remember thinking to myself, “This is a good group of recruits. We will do alright this season.”

The next day I get to practice and find out that one of the athletes will not be there. After lecturing about a strict attendance policy just the day before, I was quite unnerved by the seemingly blatant form of disrespect. However, I shook it off and focused on the people who were standing in front of me and waiting to begin the second day in the heat. To my surprise, by the end of practice, the player (who originally did not attend) showed up completely disheveled—she had gotten into a car accident the day before. Thankfully it was not too serious, but my heart still sank for her. We began the process of unrattling her nerves and focusing on school and the upcoming season.

A couple of days later, I received a phone call that two more athletes would not attend practice. A bit more prepared, I expected the worst, but hoped for the best. As it turned out, these two players had also gotten into a minor car accident. Three student-athletes, three car accidents, and all in a span of about a week.

Just when I thought our team’s luck could not get any worse, the day before our first game, I received another phone call that a fourth player had gotten into a minor car accident. Mind you, I only had seven athletes on my squad. And four of them had been involved with car accidents—all in the initial two-and-a-half weeks of my first season as a head collegiate coach. I thought for sure someone had a voodoo doll out for our team. Despite all of this, I had to learn to no longer be the coach who made my players run laps and do drills. They—the ones who had suffered from the car accidents and the three who were left wondering what could possibly happen next—needed more from me than that. The events made me more empathetic as a coach, and us more unified as a team. We went on to lose only one game the entire season.

While on my resume it does not look like “Head College Coach” is relevant for a “Professor” position, it is this very title that has shaped my entire teaching pedagogy. I do not consider myself as a coach-turned-teacher, but rather as a teacher who coaches her students. With the notion of simultaneously being a coach, parent, friend, disciplinarian, listener, mentor, andeducator, I shape my teaching style in a way that can be adaptable to all my students. Here are some simple, yet highly effective, ways that you can, too.

  • Be a coach. I often tell everyone—yes everyone—that when I coached, I never “coached” two athletes in the exact same way. While yelling in one of my player’s faces might motivate her, this same strategy may make one of her teammates shut down and start crying. Likewise, using a talk-things-out-with-long-detailed-explanations approach may get through to an athlete better than if I physically show this player the specific technique through hand gestures and body language. The same principle absolutely applies in the classroom. I do not teach two of my students in the exact same manner. Some students can only handle small bits of information at a time. For them, I focus on succinct, bullet-point outlines. Likewise, some of my students are more visual when it comes to learning. For them, I use images, videos, and diagrams. There are also students who obtain and retain most of their information from speaking. For these learners, I implement a dynamic class dialogue that is catalyzed by a Socratic method of questioning and even small-class debates. I strive to implement at least two or three of these learning strategies in every one of my lessons, because the more I can diversify my teaching, the more likely I will be able to get through to my students—in their own ways.
  • Be interactive. I think back to when my athletes used to say, “Put me in, Coach!” whenever they had to sit on the sidelines during a game. I know as a former student-athlete, sitting back used to make the game seem boring because I was not part of the action. Well, in my classroom, the learning is the action. So, why would I ever want my students to sit on the sidelines! I encourage their involvement by calling on my students to answer questions or have them administer their own small-group (and eventually whole-class) discussions. But wait, what about the students who are more introverted? I respect them immensely and never make them feel like they have to orally contribute. Of course, I do not let them totally off of the hook when it comes to class participation, either. Online Discussion Boards (on Blackboard) and Twitter conversations using a class hashtag have been wonderful ways for all of my students to “get off the sidelines” and become engaged in the discussion. I have found that the quieter students are often the ones who have the most to say when it comes to this type of format. I and my students especially like Twitter, though, because it is more of an informal, “social” outlet for them to become engaged.
  • Skill Drills. When I coached, at the beginning of practice I would always do a “skill drill” that reinforces a concept/technique/strategy the players had recently been working on. The same can be applied to your classroom. For my more basic level composition courses, I implement skill drills in the form of team board races. Students go up to the board and answer grammar-related questions based on a unit we just finished learning. Their teammates are allowed to help them out so everyone becomes involved at the same time. This is also a great way to promote collaborative skills. For my more advanced writing courses, I incorporate skill drills in the form of things like scavenger hunts where students look up different ways to cite specific sources in MLA format, and the first team to find all of the items and provide written examples wins the scavenger hunt. I have found that using skill drills takes away the angst of a formal test or exam, yet simultaneously promotes learning because the students are applying their knowledge in a dynamic format.
  • Practice Makes Perfect. This concept can vary based on ability and subject content, but basically the principle of repetition comes into play. For instance, if we are working on a lesson that emphasizes the literary device of imagery, I will have students focus that unit’s set of journal activities on applying adjectives and adverbs to really “paint a picture” through their writing. Likewise, if our lesson is focusing on applying quotations, then each workshop leading up to the due date of the unit’s final paper will involve not only applying quotations, but writing in-text citations, effective quotation lead-ins, and even explaining the research that was used. The point of my “practice makes perfect” mentality is that, through repetition, my students become more comfortable applying the skills I teach. The more comfortable a student is, the likelier it will be for him or her to remember my lessons and hopefully apply this knowledge to other courses or events outside of academia.

I began this piece with a quote from tennis legend Billie Jean King. She stated, “Pressure is a privilege.” For me, this phrase is the epitome of our role—from professors to coaches to administration—in education. We are under a great deal of pressure to not only teach our students, but also to retain them. Think about the dropout rates of colleges across America, or even on a smaller scale, the number of classes that get cancelled due to low student enrollment. Especially in higher education, we are under a great deal of pressure to make sure our students succeed. With this pressure comes great responsibility. But you know what, with our jobs—especially as educators—we are privileged to have the opportunity to work with our students and see them use what we teach them in society. After all, isn’t that the point of why our students go to college in the first place: to get some type of degree or obtain a certain skill set so they are prepared for the real world? It may be game time, and there may be pressure on the line, but consider yourself privileged to be in a position to be there, at the very least, as a coach who is motivating your students by speaking to their diverse set of learning styles. But more than likely, as a person who is applying diverse roles as a parent, friend, disciplinarian, listener, mentor, and educator for your students to succeed.

Nicole Selvaggio, Adjunct Professor, English/Composition

For further information, please contact the author at Moraine Valley Community College, 9000 W. College Pkwy, Palos Hills, IL 60465-2478. Email: selvaggion@morainevalley.edu

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Innovation Abstracts- week of April 22

  Innovation Abstracts

How Students Can—and Should—Contribute to the Rubric Creation Process

Volume XXXVIII, No. 13 | April 22, 2016

I was in a kindergarten classroom a few weeks ago and was mesmerized by a rubric that was detailed on a large flipchart at the back of the room. It was titled “My Star Paper” and was a set of expectations for coloring. Yes, coloring. Using this rubric, students are assessed on a variety of factors such as number of colors used and whether or not there is white space left over once they are finished their work. On each of these factors, students can earn a smiley, neutral, or frowny face.

We could probably debate for quite some time the ramifications of using a rubric like this. But whether or not you agree with assessing a child’s coloring skill, it is likely that you agree with the longstanding belief that using rubrics can help students be successful. Rubrics provide a clear outline of what is expected, along with a breakdown of points possible for each component of a given assignment. They are essential when designing summative assessments, which are meant to highlight the extent to which students understand overarching or fundamental course concepts. The question becomes, then, how should we create these rubrics, smiley faces aside?

Before we can answer this question, it’s important to consider what else we know about student success. Providing students with the opportunity to choose—to decide for themselves what will be the most effective means for expressing their knowledge—makes them more involved in the process and much more persistent in the face of setbacks. Engagement is another widely researched component of student success. The more connected students feel to their classrooms or campus, the more likely it is that they will achieve their goals. Taking these two additional factors into consideration, I’d like to make a case for the argument that students themselves are the best resources for creating rubrics. We can get students engaged by having them make informed choices about how they will be assessed.

Over the past year and a half, I have worked with students in my Educational Psychology classes to beta test an assignment that I had been musing about for quite some time. It started as an extra credit opportunity around the time we were discussing the multitude of different approaches to teaching. The idea was for students to use one of the pedagogical techniques covered in our course to teach the class how to perform a task. Some of the earliest teaching demonstrations were the most fun—we learned how to make origami frogs, fold a kitchen towel into a swan, throw a spiral football, be a server at a steakhouse, speak Mandarin, and so much more. However, to make this activity an official points-bearing component of the course in future semesters, I needed to create a clear means for assessing students’ demonstrations.

With best practices and models of similar coursework as a baseline, an initial group of educational psychology students and I set out to design the “Teaching Demonstration” assignment. (Incidentally, this activity coincided well with our unit on “Classroom Assessment” and was an excellent means for applying their growing knowledge of how to observe and sample student knowledge.) These students were very interested in helping me determine the length of the demonstration. They were mindful of providing enough time for students to teach without being rushed, but they were also cognizant of the need to encourage demonstrations that were rich with detail, thus requiring more time. They settled on a timeframe of no less than five minutes, but no more than seven minutes. These students were also integral in discussing how much the length of a teaching demonstration should be worth on the rubric. We talked about how time is related to more qualitative factors such as the logical sequencing of the demonstration and the means by which the students would “assess” their classmates’ understanding.

Several of my classes involved in the testing process were interested in helping to shape how “presentation style” would be assessed. Given the performance anxiety that can accompany speaking in front of a group, students had a lot to say about the role that eye contact, body language, gestures, and clear pronunciation would play in how teaching demonstrations would be assessed. A significant by-product of the co-creation process was that this stress seemed to be significantly reduced. Through carefully structured discussions about the rubric for this assignment, students were able to understand the fundamental reasons why teachers need to develop a comfort level when speaking to their students.

Through these discussions it also became clear to me that practice really would make perfect. The feedback students gave seemed to indicate that one of the biggest stressors about speaking in public is that students aren’t required to do it all that often, so when they do, it’s anomalous and uncomfortable. A subsequent educational psychology class was the sounding board for creating the “Teacher Spotlight” assignment, which became a lower-stakes course requirement at the start of the semester designed to give students a chance to exercise their oratory skills. Students choose a teacher who had a significant impact on their life and/or learning and are responsible for highlighting the characteristics and competencies that made that teacher so influential. Through some actual testing, we found that an appropriate time requirement for this assignment would be no less than two but no more than four minutes. This assignment, then, was designed with the help of current students to ensure that future students could feel more comfortable at the front of the classroom.

Knowing that past students were involved in creating the “Teaching Demonstration” and “Teacher Spotlight” assignments seems to have demystified these course requirements for current students. Those who take Educational Psychology now are apprised of the co-creation process via discussions with me and former students, which serve as a foundation for their understanding why such assignments are a necessary component of the course. For the future teachers taking the course, the answer is really quite relevant to their personal and career goals and, as a result, somewhat easier for them to appreciate.

Arguably more important is what these assignments mean for the students who are not going into teaching. It means the answer to that question needs to be even more carefully constructed. Most teachers are well aware that students often want to know, “When am I ever going to use this?” Armed with a rubric that is constructed with best practices for teaching and learning in mind along with input and feedback from students just like them, I can be confident in explaining how these assignments contribute to their personal and professional futures. Each component of these assignments—like eye contact, body language, and the logical sequencing of a presentation or explanation—are invaluable tools for student success in any course and in most relationships.

Engaging students in the rubric creation process has lead to several profound and even some unexpected outcomes. Just prior to this most recent semester, I had the chance to talk with several of my former Educational Psychology students, which prompted me to consider one final alteration to these assignments. We will now dedicate class time to practicing the teaching demonstrations. We will break into small groups and everyone will get to rehearse their teaching demonstration for a handful of other students. This aspect of the “Teaching Demonstration” is intended to give students the opportunity to refine their presentation well before they officially teach the class their skill, and to get specific feedback in the form of reviews from at least two of their peers.

The former students who came to visit mentioned how much they appreciated the feedback they were given after their demonstrations. They also commented about how they have used the suggestions to inform their work in subsequent education classes. Famous psychologist Jean Piaget believed in the importance of peers for providing a safe means for critique, as they can talk with each other and incite disequilibrium (a moment when the way a person understands the world can change), which is less possible between a teacher and student due to the “power differential.” As such, I added a peer review component to the “Teaching Demonstration” so students can talk openly with each other about what could make their presentations match with the rubric requirements.

My students have served as an invaluable resource for curriculum design, and I would argue that this is not a unique phenomenon. All of our students can make valuable contributions to course assignments given the appropriate guidance. They are willing and capable of telling us what would be most beneficial for their futures as long as we lead carefully managed discussions about specific rubric items. Moreover, this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Students are able to actively engage with their courses, which increases their chances of success, and faculty are able to create course assignments with rubrics that are clear, pedagogically sound, and endorsed by their students.

It’s hard to say if kindergarteners would support a rubric for coloring. They would likely wonder why they have to follow rules for an activity that they typically complete for fun and on their own terms. Maybe they could better understand and appreciate the educational reasons behind a coloring rubric if they were involved in its creation. Seems like a good question to ask.

Elizabeth A. Mosser, Assistant Professor, Psychology

For further information, contact the author at Harford Community College, 401 Thomas Run Road, Bel Air, MD 21015. Email: emosser@harford.edu

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FYI NOVA_ Local Conference Notice-The 13th Annual Teaching Professor Conference

If you’re serious about teaching and want to learn how to stay sharp, effective, and confident, you’ll be joining the ranks at The Teaching Professor Conference.

This three-day conference, June 3-5, 2016, offers hands-on workshops, plenary sessions with captivating keynote presenters, dozens of concurrent sessions, and emerging research poster presentations.

More than that, this conference gives you the opportunity to interact with your peers from around the country (and world) who are facing the same challenges and wrestling with the same issues that you know well.

It brings like-minded, teaching-focused instructors and academic staff members together in a positive, supportive environment that generates optimism and enthusiasm.

It doesn’t matter what you teach. It doesn’t matter if your classroom is on campus or online. It doesn’t matter if you just wrapped up your first year on the faculty or if you’ve been a fixture for decades.

The Teaching Professor Conference generates insights and spurs inspiration that can invigorate your teaching and generate greater learning for your students.

Each year, The Teaching Professor Conference features sessions around these seven topical areas:

  • Instructional Design
  • Activities that Engage Students
  • Teaching Specific Types of Students
  • Instructional Vitality: Ways to Keep Teaching Fresh and Invigorated
  • Teaching and Learning with Technology
  • Creating Climates for Learning
  • Faculty Development

If you’d like to discover tools, strategies, and ideas that will make your teaching better, more relevant, and more fun, then join us at The Teaching Professor Conference.

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Faculty Focus – April 20th

What We Learn from Each Other


When teachers tell me about some new strategy or approach they’ve implemented, I usually ask how they found out about it and almost always get the same response: “Oh, a colleague told me about it.” I continue to be amazed by the amount of pedagogical knowledge that is shared verbally (and electronically) between colleagues.

And I’m equally impressed by the spirit of sharing. Even if it’s an idea I thought up myself, one I’ve spent time and energy developing that I could ostensibly copyright or patent, if you want to use it—go right ahead. It’s yours. There are no intellectual property rights on good teaching ideas, and that’s a beautiful part of our culture.Teaching Professor Blog

Some new and impressive research verifies the strong role social interaction plays in our exchange of pedagogical knowledge. The study has a very specific context involving an elaborate interview design. The researchers collected data from 35 physics faculty members at a range of institutions. They were asked about their understanding and use of Peer Instruction, capitalized because it refers not to generic student collaboration but rather to the protocol of individual answer, discussion, answer again, developed by Harvard physicist and educator Eric Mazur (and highlighted in a previous Teaching Professor blog post). Almost 60% of those interviewed said they had first heard about Peer Instruction via an informal discussion with a colleague. Only 8% said they had found out about it by reading, however many of those interviewed noted that they turn to written materials and presentations to deepen their understanding.

The researchers report that “Informal, social interactions among colleagues are a key mechanism of communication about reforms” (010110-14). But there are some downsides to learning about teaching through conversations with colleagues. The researchers identified nine features that characterize Mazur’s brand of Peer Instruction, and they queried faculty about each. They discovered that almost half of their cohort, who had been selected because they reported familiarity with Peer Instruction, “did not indicate awareness of any specific features of PI [Peer Instruction] beyond getting students to work together.” (101011-9)

When pedagogical innovations are passed from someone who got the idea from someone else, the fidelity of the information is bound to erode. The point isn’t that faculty must use an instructional approach exactly as it was originally prescribed. We teach different content and different types of students in unique instructional settings. But as these researchers point out, when an instructional intervention, such as Peer Instruction (or team-based learning, or cooperative learning, or lots of others), has been studied but some of its essential features are modified or removed, the results identified in the research may not occur. It’s now up to the teacher to ascertain whether the new form of the intervention is producing the desired effects.

Three final points: We can and do learn from each other, but when it comes to implementing something new, we should look beyond what we’ve heard about from others. Fortunately, there’s a treasure trove of information on almost every instructional intervention. It’s fine to go ahead and adapt these different approaches to teaching—to do what we think needs to be done to make the change work—but as the researchers discovered, the faculty in their cohort was making changes pretty much willy-nilly. True, there probably isn’t going to be a readily available study that explores the changes exactly as you’re proposing to make them, but there is likely more to be learned from others who implemented the innovation as well as from those who’ve studied it.

We often get after our students who try to participate in discussion without enough background knowledge, related experience, or having done the reading. The lack of preparation affects the quality of the discussion. The same critique could be leveled against us. If all our pedagogical exchanges happen on the fly as we pass each other in the hall or pause in the mailroom, we’re not having conversations that match the caliber of what we’re trying to accomplish in the classroom. We can and should be learning more from each other.

And finally, here’s a point I’ve made previously. We need to choose pedagogical colleagues carefully. We select our research partners by employing high standards, but pedagogical colleagues? Too often we exchange ideas with and obtain information from whomever happens to be nearby. But not all teachers have the same level of pedagogical wisdom. You will learn more from someone who knows more.

Reference: Dancy, M., Henderson, C., & Turpen, C. (2016). How faculty learn about and implement research-based instructional strategies: The case of Peer Instruction. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12, 010110.

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Innovation Abstract- week of April14


Volume XXXVIII, No. 12 | April 15, 2016

Too Many Screens? Try Collaborative Note-Taking  

There are two major problems that face the modern professor. The first is students who are underprepared for note-taking or who, worse still, have no conception of it. The second is students who are distracted by multiple screens. Finding a way to break through the multiplicity of screens constantly bombarding our students with micro distractions is an unending battle for the contemporary professor. The increasingly typical response to the second has been to ban or limit laptop and tablet use in class. Recent research has popularly encouraged this approach. To the first problem there has been no unified response.

After pondering the problem for some time it occurred to me that maybe I could force myself onto that tiny screen. Be a distraction to the distractions instead of trying to unendingly and unsuccessfully pry those tiny screens from addicted hands. How could I get students engaged with technology? What if I told them to bring it and use it? What if instead of eliminating it, I just owned it? But how? Discerning how to break into that real estate was my new goal.

The Idea
The same year I was wrestling with the problem of student engagement, I was also serving on a college-wide committee that was tasked with rewriting some of the procedures for the tenure process. It was a complicated document, and there were many of us working on it. We ended up turning to Google Docs because of two features: a single unified file that was always updated and the ability to edit together in real time.

We could have the master document up on a projected screen, while on our own screens we could then work on the text simultaneously. The committee was one of the most productive on which I have ever served. It took hours of labor, but I was deeply proud of the document we produced. What made the document so unique? It was a completely collaborative effort. We had quite literally written it together—all in the same room. Nobody was checking student email. Nobody was texting. We all wrote together. There was not the normal “single author, everybody nods” issue that plagues so many committee-produced documents.

Then it dawned on me: why not use that same tool, or type of tool, to help students engage? Could I get students using Google Docs to take notes together? Couldn’t the same forces that got a room full of professors on task or off email and a mess of other micro-distractions work for a classroom of social media obsessed students? I thought it was at least worth a try.

The Setup
I had students group together to take notes on Google Docs collaboratively. At the beginning of the semester, I offered a single form of extra credit for participating in what I called collaborative note-taking. Students would be put into small groups and and each would bring a device with them to class every period. They would create a unified document, and I would get access so I could track progress. Students who participated for the entire semester received extra credit. In short, I was encouraging students to bring those potentially distracting devices along with them.

Students experienced an initial learning curve. The common perception of lecture notes is they are private things—if students think about them at all. They enjoyed the ability to cross-talk and to “get everything.” But now all those micro-distractions were actually extensions of what was happening in class. If nobody in the group knew how to record what was happening, or if nobody else had an answer in the chat bar, then a hand would go up. Students asked bolder questions, asked questions in conjunction with each other, and were more present in the classroom.

Collaborative note-taking also helped students take fewer notes individually. Instead of trying to write down everything I said, each member of the group focused on a specific task. This was one of the very things that Muller and Oppenheimer were trying to accomplish in their study “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard”—getting students to take fewer notes when using a digital device. Even more fascinating was what was happening behind the scenes. Students were discussing how notes should look. Note-taking was out in the open.

The Results
The results were positive. Students deeply appreciated taking notes collaboratively. They also loved bringing those devices more openly to class. But what did it achieve for the classroom? The data points to a number of important improvements.

First, students had to have discussions with other students about note-taking. They had to agree on what would be a good set of notes, an issue they would never have addressed alone. Students further had to figure out if they were going to traditionally outline or use some other method. It outed all those previously unspoken strategies. In the qualitative feedback I discovered how much students had learned about what good notes look like. Poor students often never realized how inadequate their note-taking was. Why? Because they never thought about it or saw a better functioning model.

Second, students who participated performed better across the board in terms of grades. Students who took notes collaboratively did a half-letter grade better than those who did not when compared both to others in the same class or in those classes that did not participate.
Additionally, I compared how students performed on independent learning scales from grade. On these tests collaborators, again, did better than their isolated peers. Whether measuring by grades or by independent measures of knowledge, the collaborators outperformed their peers. In both instances, it was approximately a half-letter grade improvement.

Finally, having students take collaborative notes allowed for new insights into student performance. How often does a professor wish he or she knew how well a concept was understood by a class? With collaborative notes—because they were shared with the professor—I could actually peer into what was happening. Did every group seemingly not understand what social media was? It might mean I need to revamp how I am presenting my material. Or it could help me recognize when I had an off day. This real-time feedback was highly useful. Student notes offer far more insight into learning than waiting for the best student to come visit you during office hours.

If you are trying to wade through the mountains of distractions facing students, then you may want to consider collaborative note-taking. It is low- to no-cost. Google accounts are free, and many schools today use Google for their email and storage functions already. Any device can be used, and students are already eager to bring and use those devices when they come to class.

My recommendation is to keep the groups small—three to four students. Larger groups tend to have issues and two-person teams are often no team at all. Students will struggle early on in the process as they adjust to working together. Most of this is the issue of outing the process of note-taking. Give them a chance to struggle with the collaboration.

Finally, remember to check the notes yourself. Even if you don’t peer behind the laptop wall too often, the fact you can will motivate students to have something there. Even poor students won’t want to leave at the end of the day with nothing if they know you might peek at what they did. Take advantage of that fact.

Do students still look at Facebook and Twitter? Do they still send text messages? Yes. But the frequency is down. There just isn’t time for such distractions when students are taking notes and interacting with fellow classmates. You can try to keep the screens out of your classroom, but what you are really doing is sending them underground. My advice: bring them out into the open. Put students in small groups so they hold each other accountable. Force yourself onto that screen instead of trying to wish the screen away. I made myself and my material the biggest “distraction” on my students’ screens and it has made all the difference in the world. And the greatest part was, students don’t recognize what a coup d’état it really is.

Harold Orndorff, Associate Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences

For further information, contact the author at Daytona State College, 1200 W. International Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach, FL 32114. Email: harold.orndorff@daytonastate.edu

If you are interested in the technical and scientific details you can read the full published article in the Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

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Innovation Abstracts- week of April 8, 2016

Volume XXXVIII, No. 11 | April 8, 2016


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In Their Own Voices: Community College Students Address “Revolution”   

In our country there needs to be a revolution. This revolution must start with our thinking. We are a society of boastfulness, when very few of us really have anything to be boastful about. We hang onto our capitalist ideas and ideology as if any other way would surely send us spiraling out of control. We very rarely see or care about the needs of others or the needs of the whole. We are a ‘me first’ society and a ‘look at me’ society. This manner of thinking has taken us down the rabbit hole.

—Young African-American female community college student

Four- and two-year educational matters are frequently in the headlines these days. A regular topic is whether higher education should be tuition-free, much like it is with public schools. While I believe it should be free, for the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the content of that education.

The concept “critical” seems key here. We pay lip service to critical thinking; yet perhaps the Bernie Sanders political campaign, popular with students, should prompt us to reconsider what counts as being critical. Surely the hallmarks of being critical about something include being able to question premises, to turn a question around, and to refuse drop-down choices. To illustrate, let me go back two and a half years to what I call my “revolutionary semester.”

“Feel the Bern” may have arisen swiftly and unexpectedly. However, in 2013-14, there were already precursors of the movement in my community college classes. If other professors at that time were conducting their classes as I was mine, maybe our combined student populations were the start of a ripple toward the tide we see today. During that year, I tried radical experiments that I hadn’t dare try since my first years of teaching. (See “Remediation for a Democratic Society,” Innovation Abstracts, NISOD, The University of Texas at Austin, Vol. 5, No. 28, Oct. 7, 1983.)

By spring 2013, I couldn’t go on. I was entering into what would become my last year and a half of teaching, and I had lost the sense that I was contributing to something good. Convince my students to work hard in liberal arts to join the elite? How distasteful, especially in the year of Robert Reich’s film Inequality for All, a seemingly endless war, ecological alarm and impasse, and the year Elizabeth Warren said in an interview on CNN Tonight, “Let’s just be real clear—the game is rigged and it’s rigged in favor of those who have money and who have power.”

Moreover, community colleges have changed. A few decades ago community colleges were in significant ways intellectual spaces. Several features made this possible: pluralist educational philosophy, empowered faculty, adequate public funding, organic administration, and less severe income inequality. However, a “culture of outcomes” was imposed as structural re-adjustment. Contrary to classical and critical pedagogy, learning was narrowed to workforce preparation, faculty were disempowered, public funding was gutted, and administration was corporatized. As a result, inequality widened.

My last year and a half would, as it happened, be a young administrator’s first year and a half as our liberal arts dean. As a result of our respective positions, we should have been on opposite sides of many issues. One of us “reported to” the other, in the language of corporations. However, our personalities and characters were very similar. Our collaboration was based not on political, but humane agreement.

The approaching fresh air of retirement made me about as free as a person can be under a neoliberal regime, protected from the market’s unregulated brutality four different ways, which included tenure, the union, civil service laws, and by being able to say at any time, “I’m out of here.” However, whereas I felt I could say and do what I wanted, our liberal arts dean was restrained. At the beginning of her professional career, for which she had gone back to school after a Ph.D. in literature, she was hemmed in by the full onslaught of “professional correctness” rules that had descended upon community colleges in the anxiety-ridden period of “outcomes,” “accountability,” “uniform goals,” and “standardized syllabi.”

So, during the week of the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, I was teaching Philosophy 101 for the 75th time. Our liberal arts dean was conducting a routine professional classroom observation, and 100 students, whose names by mutual agreement were to remain confidential, were sharing drafts of an in-class essay. I first shared my own draft of a possible letter to the editor that raised critical questions about JFK’s death. Then 100 students—ethnically diverse and majority lower-middle class—discussed their own drafts. My handout stipulated that they write a philosophy for a revolution that would bring about more liberty and justice for all. The guidelines were as follows:

  • Interpret the word “revolution” broadly. It could refer not only to the old Marxist change from a capitalist society to a socialist society, but also to:
    • Deep-reaching cultural change;
    • The process of decolonization;
    • The emergence of the feminine;
    • Deep changes in a particular institution, such as education;
    • Scientific or epistemological revolution (i.e., revolution in the classic sense);
    • Deep nonviolent social change;
    • Small radical steps, such as civil disobedience; and
    • Even to a renewal of the original revolution of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, such as in the way libertarians have used the word revolution.
  • Feel free to fight with the word itself; perhaps you prefer “revolt” (a more postmodern word), “rebellion,” or “resistance.”
  • Feel free even to reject the whole premise of the question. In other words, you might want to argue that we now have plenty of liberty and justice for all. However, don’t change the topic completely.
  • Realize that you have been offered this question, appropriate to philosophy, as an invitation to step outside some of the boundaries you may usually set for yourself. You may think you are supposed to investigate carefully what “they” want you to say and then just say it. This is your chance to go beyond that. You may transgress, but be civil.

Later that week, students in three sections penned two- to three-page responses. What follows is a representative sample of their work.

Many focused on the socioeconomic system:

‘A’: Society under capitalism, or any other suppressive system, is like a wounded dog that is so obedient to its master that it will hide its ailments, or wounds, to continue its life as it already is… Many people today are sick and tired of the current system of a life of servitude to the super rich, but at the same time most people are too scared to show it. They are scared of change. They are surrounded by slogans, commercials… More people must realize that it is in our makeup that we are a cooperative species….

‘B’: In this era, there is a growing gap of inequality in everything…. I believe that all should be more equal by making the start of life be at the same level… use small radical steps to initiate a gradual rebellion…. The people in society must be allowed to become accustomed to the changes gradually… a person should be given the same education as everyone else, and as Marx wanted it, it is to be a free education…. Ultimately I know that as humans we cannot be equal all the time… So, after you had been given all equal education, the equality would come to an end…. As Mill and Locke pointed out, to you would be given the liberties to do what you want…. You will have to earn everything you believe you deserve.

Some focused on education:

‘C’: Although there are many issues within America that I would like to tackle, I firmly believe it all begins with education. It is apparent to me that our society has taken the delectable fruit of knowledge and smashed it down to be spoon-fed to our youth. I observe our youth today, sitting in their square desks as their teachers rant about Columbus, the great hero who “found” America…. Our educational system is nothing more than a cave of darkness…we are fooled by the shadows which our government places before us. Today we measure the knowledge of our young students in numbers and test scores…. Students should be taught to utilize their problem solving, creativity, and comprehension skills without heavy aid from the teachers….

‘D’: My personality or determined mindset did not get me to the place I am today, only my GPA did…. The educational system alarms me…ever since Descartes’ idea of mechanical thinking…this quantitative and/or mechanical way of thinking has turned potentially honorable students into stressed-out, overworked human beings who will never feel good enough…. My soul does not belong to the average of how many A’s and B’s I’ve received…. With enough people and time, this could be the end of numbers, and the beginning of a soulful generation….

Others focused on gender:

‘E’: The disempowerment of women not only harms the quality of life of women, but men and non-binary genders as well…. A feminist social revolution can cure our world of female oppression and allow for everyone to have liberty and justice.

Women have been wrongly accused of being irrational and thinking not with logic, but with uncontrollable emotions. As (feminist epistemologist) Allison Jaggar points out, “Women appear to be more emotional than men because they, along with some groups of people of color, are permitted and even required to express emotion more openly….” The patriarchy has taught everyone that feminists are man-hating radicals. Much to the contrary, a feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of all…. Actual feminists can be women, men, or anything in-between.

Some focused on race:

‘F’: Racism has really not (disappeared) over the years. There are so many children suffering because of it…people are so ignorant and keep revoking certain rights away that people thought they had…. My neighbors won’t let their grandchildren play (with) my children because their stepfather is black…. When they go to school the black girls pick on my two white daughters…. I do not see color. My children do not either. So why are parents still teaching children this? The other issue is the cops always pick up Spanish and black people before they will arrest a white person. This is ridiculous and unacceptable….

Our liberal arts dean in her official observation that day commended me by saying, “Dr. Conroy’s compassion is palpable; students respond well to his supportive, safe classroom environment,” and “Dr. Conroy utilizes open-ended questions throughout his lesson, encouraging students to apply critical-thinking skills. His examples from the assigned readings helped students understand how to build support and lines of reasoning for their essays.”

Is such a “revolutionary semester” replicable? Millennial instructors, of course, do not share the luxury of being near retirement. Yet, imagine not only philosophers, but sociologists, political scientists, geographers, historians, and writing teachers uniting in a movement to create problem-oriented courses like “Interdisciplinary Seminar 101: Systemic Change,” which perhaps are not as shrill, but are even more effective. Imagine such a course at every community college.

Remaking community college along such lines—call it public critical—might actually rekindle “a future we can believe in.”

France H. Conroy, Professor Emeritus, Philosophy

For further information, contact the author at Rowan College at Burlington County, 601 Pemberton Browns Mills Road, Pemberton, NJ 08068. Email: rustyconroy@gmail.com

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Innovative Abstracts – Week of April 1

Volume XXXVIII, No. 10 | April 1, 2016

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If You Can’t Beat It, Integrate It: Using Smartphones and Polling Software to Create an Interactive Learning Environment

A common complaint among educators is the number of distracted students in their classes. Many of us bemoan students in our classes engrossed in their smartphones instead of listening to our lectures. In fairness, distractions in class are nothing new. I must confess to doodling in my notebook when I was a student. Indeed, in whimsical moments, I envision Socrates admonishing his students to put away their scrolls and pay attention.

Some of my colleagues ban students from using their cell phones in class, calling out students caught checking their phones or even asking students to leave the class for multiple offences. Unfortunately, forbidden fruit is often the most tempting. Instead of complying with the ban and concentrating on class, students tend to merely hide their phones in their laps or behind a textbook and merrily continue being distracted. In the spirit of “If you can’t beat them, join them,” I decided to integrate the use of smartphones with the material I cover in class by using Poll Everywhere.

There is a vast array of polling and survey applications available on the internet. It should be noted that this article is not intended as an endorsement or advertisement for Poll Everywhere, but simply a description of how I use the application as a means to incorporate smartphones into my instruction and keep students interested and engaged in the course material. Similar applications include Survey Monkey, Polldaddy, easypolls, and a host of other online and downloadable tools.

My In-Class Activity
I use the smartphone activity in my External Auditing course. The course is offered in the third year of our baccalaureate degree in accounting. It introduces students to the concepts, standards, and procedures related to conducting an annual financial audit of a company.

For four weeks during the semester, we examine how an auditor conducts an audit of various business processes, such as reviewing how sales are recorded, how payroll is conducted, and so forth. In a typical audit, the auditor will have a long list of evidence to gather. Rather than simply lecture on the process and bore students with long lists of details, I decided to make the activity interactive and get the students to create the lists themselves.

In my class, I project a question on the screen at the front of the classroom. The application I use allows for multiple-choice and open-ended responses, and it displays the results in real time in the form of bar graphs, word clouds, or simple scrolling text responses. Students text their responses to a short-form cell number, which is set up specifically for text messaging and which carries no charges beyond standard text messaging rates. In the case of open-ended questions, students actually see their text appear on the screen. In the case of multiple-choice questions, the bar graph updates in real time in accordance with their choices.

The free version of the application I use allows for up to 40 responses per poll. This is sufficient for my courses, as our institution limits registration to 40 students per class. In addition, since the students in my class typically collaborate with their friends and respond as a group, I rarely hit the 40-response limit. Paid subscriptions allow for more responses, filtering of responses, and a much wider range of data analysis tools. The features are very similar across the various applications.

To introduce the students to the application, I first create a generic, “just for fun” poll, which I display on the screen when students arrive in class. The poll simply asks students a multiple-choice question:

How are you doing today?

  1. Awesome!
  2. Pretty good.
  3. Not bad.
  4. Pthhhhrrrrppp!
  5. What’s today?

As the poll is intended to be humorous, I am not too surprised when the majority select “Pthhhhrrrrppp” or “What’s today?”

As the class progresses, I pose a question such as, “When testing the ‘authorization’ control objective, what evidence would you gather?” or, “What audit procedure would you use to test if transactions were valid?” These particular polls are “open-ended,” meaning that students can type any response. Students then text their responses to the question, and their responses appear on the screen at the front of the class. The activity typically lasts five to ten minutes, during which time a list of possible audit procedures or evidence is generated in the form of the students’ text responses. When the maximum number of responses is reached, or when it seems there are no other responses forthcoming, I stop the poll. I then go through the list generated by the students, expanding on some responses and explaining why some responses might be more appropriate or successful than others. This allows me to focus my explanations on areas where students needed clarification, rather than lecturing on topics they already understand. Once I have review the responses to a particular poll, I move on to the next topic, and after a brief introduction, repeat the process with another poll. In a typical three-hour class, I conduct three to four such activities, interspersed with discussion on the subject.

One key result is the level of participation in the activity. Virtually every student has their cell phone out, or is discussing a possible response with a neighbor who has his or her cell phone out. Not only are students engaged, they discuss the response amongst themselves as they appear on the screen. The room is abuzz with discussions about the subject material.

Another important aspect is the insight polling provides me into students’ comprehension of the material. If a number of students provide the same or similar correct ideas, I know that I do not have to elaborate on that concept. I can then customize my discussion of the list, focusing only on the areas where clarification is obviously needed. This allows me to make class time much more focused and efficient.

Students can sometimes be reluctant to speak out during a class activity for fear of answering incorrectly and appearing foolish in front of their peers. Since the responses are anonymous, students can respond to a question without fear of ridicule, as no one in the class knows who sent which text.

An initial concern I had about using text messaging in class was the possible cost to students. I spoke to a few of my students beforehand, who indicated that unlimited texting is included with their smartphone plans. No students expressed concern over paying for texts. The only concern raised was with cell coverage. Because my class takes place in the basement of one of our campus buildings, some students are unable to get a signal in the classroom, depending on their service provider.

In addition to the texting option, students can access the poll on their laptop computers. Students access a specific website (instructions are given on-screen), and can reply via their computer. This allows students who have to pay for texts or who are unable to get a cell signal to participate in the poll. As a final step, I bring additional whiteboard markers to class, and indicate to students they can make their lists on the whiteboard as an alternative to texting or using their laptops. Unsurprisingly, not a single student has made use of this option.

With open-ended questions, students have the opportunity to type whatever they wish, raising the potential for students to send frivolous, inappropriate, or offensive messages. For the most part, my students are very well behaved, and conduct the activity the way it is intended. There are, of course, some exceptions. Some write “hello” to a friend sitting across the room. In my Friday afternoon class, owing no doubt to the end of a long and difficult week, several students take the opportunity to share reviews of the latest movie. So long as the majority of students are texting responses to the poll question, I allow the occasional digression. Since polls are a five-minute activity, the off-topic conversations don’t last long and are usually not a great distraction. When the messages have less to do with auditing and more to do with irrelevant topics, I simply end the session and continue the class. I find that by ignoring the inappropriate messages and focusing on the relevant ones, the class (for the most part) remains focused and professional.

This type of activity can easily be adapted to other subject areas. Allowing students to generate their own lists of information can be an activity for almost any subject. Specific questions related to the subject material with multiple-choice responses can be used to gauge the class’ understanding of the material.

In a large classroom setting, it can often be difficult for students to ask questions or interact with the instructor, simply due to the size of the room and the difficulty of hearing questions. An open-ended poll can be used to allow students to text their questions to the instructor, which allows for some interaction between the instructor and a large audience.

It has been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. A few weeks after I first used the application in my class, the same students were assigned a group presentation on corporate sustainability in another instructor’s class. A requirement of the presentation was to involve the audience. One group of students, having experienced using smartphones in my class, decided to do the same as part of their presentation.

The students shared with me that they find using smartphones in my class to not only be fun, but also effective, as it ties directly into the material we discuss in class. They also tell me that when they look around the room, they see their classmates participating and enjoying the activity, which does not happen in other classes. This inspired them to create their own smartphone activity as part of their presentation. The students shared with me that the entire class, including the instructor, participated in the activity, and the group felt the activity had a lot to do with the A+ grade they received for the presentation.

Recently, illness caused me to cancel a class. Not wanting the students to fall behind in the course due to my absence, I offered to conduct a “make-up” class outside of normal class time. In a matter of a few minutes, I created a survey offering the class four choices of alternate times, and let the students vote on which time fit their schedules best. Since the students were already familiar with the application after using it in class, I was able to rapidly gauge the class’ feelings about the best time to make up the lost class. This made for an efficient way of gathering feedback from a class and in an enjoyable format for my students.

Distracted students in the classroom are not a new phenomenon. Smartphones and the various social networking apps that accompany them have added even more classroom distractions. Rather than fight a vain battle against distractions, there are opportunities for instructors to take advantage of students’ fascination with their smartphones. By integrating smartphones with the material being covered through the use of websites such as Poll Everywhere, it is possible to keep students entertained and engaged.

Stephen L. Bergstrom, Faculty, Accounting

For further information, contact the author at SAIT Polytechnic, 1301 16th Avenue NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2M 0L4. e-mail: stephen.bergstrom@sait.ca

The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of his students J. Bains, H. Gill, T. Sharma, and K. Toor for sharing their experiences for this article.

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