vote

Today is election day in the U.S. On college campuses across the country we see a direct connection between the purposes of universities and active and engaged citizenship, as many campuses serve as polling places, and many semester-long student, faculty, and university initiatives to increase knowledge of and participation in our democratic process today bear fruit. But even though a day like today clearly reminds of this connection, today also reminds us that this connection is not meant to be a one-time event, every four years. Our universities do have obligations to contribute to a healthy, functioning democracy, and to prepare students to become active citizens and knowledgeable leaders and participants in our democracy. While these obligations are met in many ways across the campus, nowhere is this role fulfilled more directly and effectively than in service learning.

Secretary of Education John B. King recently noted a need for a, "broader definition of civic duty.... I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color."

Thus, we see the need for one's education to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our communities and our national society codified in our national discourse, from the top down, in ways perhaps unprecedented in our history of education. While these purposes may have been imbedded in our educational system at some point long ago, we see now a renewed focus and urgency, as the challenges presented by globalization, wealth and income inequality, systemic racism and oppression, mass incarceration, and climate change are recognized as the existential threats they are.

Yet at this time of renewed focus and conviction, we are faced with a decline in the civic knowledge of of our incoming freshmen. Heather Loewecke, a senior manager at Global Learning Beyond School, notes in a recent blog on the website Education Week, that Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. What's more, a college education isn't necessarily rectifying the deficiency. Loewecke also points out that "a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government."

In a way these disparities between our goals for civic education and our results mirror, or perhaps are just another indicator of, the myriad social inequities we now face. Either way, the situation is cast into stark relief on a day like today, when what seems to be a high-functioning democracy is observed in the bustling and frenetic energy of a presidential election day on college campuses nationwide. And while the spectacle and pageantry of Election Day can fill even the most cynical among us with a certain sense of hope, we must hold fast and remember the difficult challenges that lay ahead once the confetti settles. Today is a time to participate, but also a time for we as educators to recommit ourselves to the civic education of our students, and to fully teaching the critical skills in thinking, communicating, reasoning, and problem solving such an education entails.

-Jeremy Tuman

by Tiera S. Coston

As teachers, we all want to encourage the development and enhancement of the problem-solving skills of our students.  However, we may have to tap into some problem-solving skill of our own when attempting to create a classroom environment that is engaging, informational and effective in meeting the objectives of our courses.  Many times, this is easier said than done.  But, fear not.  The Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University has created an excellent resource that may help you to effectively address teaching issues that are commonly encountered in the classroom.  This Solve a Teaching Problem tool works as an easy-to-use, three-step process.  First, you identify the problem that is occurring in your teaching from a listing of issues that are divided into broadly-themed categories.  These categories include: Attitudes & Motivation; Prerequisite Knowledge and Preparedness; Critical Thinking & Applying Knowledge; Group Skills and Dynamics; Classroom Behavior & Etiquette; and Grading and Assessment.

Step 1.

Step 1

Once you identify the problem, the second step is to identify the possible reasons that the problem is occurring.

Step 2.

Step 2

Once you understand why the problem may be occurring, the final step is to explore the strategies provided to determine what may be effective in addressing the problem.

Step 3.

Step 3

It is important to note that these strategies are both evidence-based and practical.  However, as with any strategies, certain ones may work for some while being ineffective for others.  The idea is to think critically about what is happening in your particular class and use the strategies as a guide to create a plan of action for your specific situation.  Happy problem-solving.

Having students decide on what type of community action they wish to engage in is a great way to generate that elusive "buy-in." Student-designed community actions instill a sense of ownership in the project for students, and the learning outcomes for the course may become more deeply instilled, more effective, and longer-lasting. But even in the best-designed service-learning courses, the degree of student involvement, of student choice, in the shape and nature of the community action may be limited. Somewhat counterintuitively, as service-learning courses get refined after numerous semesters, the degree of student involvement in the design of the project may decline, the parameters of the action becoming more rigid and prescribed. This phenomenon presents a key conundrum in service-learning: As our courses strengthen over time and our relationships with community partners smooth, students may become more excluded from the thinking and the process that led to the initial design of the course. As each year we as teachers want for students to understand the purpose behind the actions we design, students become further removed from early days of the course, when our passion for causes melded seamlessly with the design of the project as it took shape.
Students coming into a well-honed service-learning course may find an organized and efficient experience, with community partners who are familiar with the purpose of the course and who know exactly how to funnel service-learners into areas of greatest community need. As any of us who have built courses, and particularly have cultivated community relationships from the ground up, know, students in early versions of a course may have felt a great sense of excitement, but community sites may have been scenes of chaos, with partners busy doing good work, and students left feeling confused, under-utilized, or ineffective in contributing toward that work.
Thus, it's important that we as teachers revisit our initial thinking behind a course each time that we teach it. I recall an early teaching experience (not service-learning) as a graduate teaching assistant, working under a brilliant mentor and teacher, in a literature class. My mentor had a keen sense of the purpose in the course, but I did not. And when I asked him one day what it was that he wanted students to take from the readings, he said that that was a question whose answer he hadn't thought about in a long time. Of course he knew the answer, and over the course the answer would become clear to students as well. But the point is, he hadn't thought about the answer at the outset, and thus hadn't elucidated it to either himself or the students. The purpose was there, just as it almost always is there in these courses that we put our hearts and minds into designing. But without active revisitation, the purpose can fade from its place of centrality. And with a successful service-learning course, the relation between the community action and the course content must be present throughout.
While much literature on service-learning is written toward an audience of teachers, administrators, even community groups, there is less written toward an audience of college students on what service-learning means. One excellent text toward this end is by Christine M. Cress (et al), called Learning through Servi

by Jeremy Tuman

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Having students decide on what type of community action they wish to engage in is a great way to generate that elusive "buy-in." Student-designed community actions instill a sense of ownership in the project for students, and the learning outcomes for the course may become more deeply instilled, more effective, and longer-lasting. But even in the best-designed service-learning courses, the degree of student involvement, of student choice, in the shape and nature of the community action may be limited. Somewhat counterintuitively, as service-learning courses get refined after numerous semesters, the degree of student involvement in the design of the project may decline, the parameters of the action becoming more rigid and prescribed. This phenomenon presents a key conundrum in service-learning: As our courses strengthen over time and our relationships with community partners smooth, students may become more excluded from the thinking and the process that led to the initial design of the course. As each year we as teachers want for students to understand the purpose behind the actions we design, students become further removed from early days of the course, when our passion for causes melded seamlessly with the design of the project as it took shape.

Students coming into a well-honed service-learning course may find an organized and efficient experience, with community partners who are familiar with the purpose of the course and who know exactly how to funnel service-learners into areas of greatest community need. As any of us who have built courses, and particularly have cultivated community relationships from the ground up, know, students in early versions of a course may have felt a great sense of excitement, but community sites may have been scenes of chaos, with partners busy doing good work, and students left feeling confused, under-utilized, or ineffective in contributing toward that work.

Thus, it's important that we as teachers revisit our initial thinking behind a course each time that we teach it. I recall an early teaching experience (not service-learning) as a graduate teaching assistant, working under a brilliant mentor and teacher, in a literature class. My mentor had a keen sense of the purpose in the course, but I did not. And when I asked him one day what it was that he wanted students to take from the readings, he said that that was a question whose answer he hadn't thought about in a long time. Of course he knew the answer, and over the course the answer would become clear to students as well. But the point is, he hadn't thought about the answer at the outset, and thus hadn't elucidated it to either himself or the students. The purpose was there, just as it almost always is there in these courses that we put our hearts and minds into designing. But without active revisitation, the purpose can fade from its place of centrality. And with a successful service-learning course, the relation between the community action and the course content must be present throughout.

While much literature on service-learning is written toward an audience of teachers, administrators, even community groups, there is less written toward an audience of college students on what service-learning means. One excellent text toward this end is by Christine M. Cress (et al), called Learning through Serving. I've included a section of this book as a link here. The book speaks plainly to students about key concepts in service-learning including notions of civic responsibility, reciprocity, global citizenship, and how service-learning differs from volunteerism and other forms of community engagement. Assigning this text or one like it at the beginning of a course might prompt us to revisit our thinking behind the design and purpose of the course from all those years ago. And the more of this information that we share with students, the better chance we have of getting that "buy-in" that we so covet and is so crucial to the success of our course. As a teacher of rhetoric and composition, I stress the importance of clear thinking to my students and the reciprocal relationship between clear thinking and clear writing. As a service-learning teacher, my students may benefit from me applying this idea to myself and to the course, and to sharing the results at the outset.

Click on the summit logo above for more information, to submit a proposal or to register for the conference.
Click on the summit logo above for more information, to submit a proposal or to register for the conference.

Looking for a conference that is exciting, collegial and a great value? Consider submitting a proposal to the Research on Teaching and Learning Summit. Formerly known as The Georgia Conference on College & University Teaching, the Research on Teaching and Learning Summit has been renamed to underscore the commitment to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, with an emphasis on research and evidence. Now in its third decade, the Summit is designed to provide college and university faculty the opportunity to discuss and share experiences and innovative teaching techniques. It offers concurrent sessions on cutting-edge issues in pedagogy and higher education in a relaxed, congenial atmosphere. There are also opportunities for participants to network with fellow educators.

The deadline for proposals has been extended to December 12, 2014, and the conference will be held on February 20-21, 2015, at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA.

There's a harrowing scene in chapter 1 of this year's common read, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, in which young, shaloq-weilding Taliban "enforcers" beat a woman in the street for appearing in public without a proper chadri, the full-length garment that covers the head and face. This and other descriptions of the Taliban in the early parts of the book bring to mind images of an oppressive totalitarian regime more similar to 1984 or Farenheit 451 than to the free society in which most of our freshmen have grown up. That is, these images should remind students of the vast gulf between life in the U.S. and that in a strange, far-away place halfway around the globe. Unfortunately, these images instead bring to mind other images that happen to be saturating the news at the start of the semester: those of heavily armed and armored police confronting protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Timing here proves to be everything, as a poll of my Freshman Seminar students on what they feel are our most pressing social problems reveals police brutality, racial profiling, and racial bias in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems at the top of the list. And with numbers like 1 in 12 black males age 18-64 spending time in prison, compared to 1 in 87 whites, blacks overall incarcerated at a rate of 6 times that of whites, and blacks comprising 40% of the total prison population, while making up 12% of the U.S. population, it's easy to see why our students are concerned.

In order to work toward social justice, we must first identify where social injustice exists. And with disparities based on race, gender, class, ethnicity existing across the spectrum of our social systems, from education to health care to employment to criminal justice, identifying injustice is as easy now as at any point in our history, and, unfortunately, as easy as idetifying it under systems like the Taliban. But while these gaps are easy to see, to those who simply wish to open their eyes, they also remain equally difficult to address, to reconcile, to alleviate, to end. For every pious organization out on the streets fighting to alleviate suffering, to mend communities, to help people, there are powerful historical realities, political forces, and financial interests at work to keep the status quo in place, to keep reality fixed and unchangeable.

A discussion of life under the Taliban is a perfectly suitable way to begin a dialogue with students about the society in which we are preparing them to inhabit roles of leadership, our own society. And as we move toward our service learning projects in the sping, it's worth remebering the underlying imbalances at the heart of any attempt to help improve our community. Ultimately, if our service is effective, then we will have eliminated the very need for our services. Those being "served" will inhabit their rightful place as equals in our society, wanting for nothing that others have only because of the conditions of their birth. This type of transformation, both of our society and within the mindset our students, can never come solely from doing, but through thinking as well. Hence, the learning in service learning. Learning comes through teaching, and fortunately for them, that is what we are here to do.

J. Tuman

by Bart Everson

What is the connection between gambling, cocaine, and your classroom?

No, wait, I'm serious!

The answer is a little thing called dopamine, and it's released in the brain when we are rewarded.

Dopamine

Dopamine accounts in part for the thrill of gambling, the euphoria of certain drugs, the rush of adventure, and even — yes, it's true — the pleasure of learning something new in a college course.

It has to do with memory. Simply put, when dopamine is present, we remember; when it's not, we don't. We remember and return to the things that we find rewarding, the things we find pleasurable, the things that stimulate the release of dopamine.

So clearly, we want our students to have massive amounts of dopamine coursing through their brains as they participate in the classes we teach. How can we do this? By making the class fun, by presenting the content in an interesting fashion, by making the whole experience new and interesting and exciting.

Many of the best teachers already do this, of course. It's sheer instinct. If you are reading this post, there's a very high probability that you are already devoting effort in that direction.

Dr. Martha Burns uses the mnemonic NEAR as a key to successful teaching. NEAR stands for "New, Exciting And Rewarding." These are the keys to keeping dopamine levels high, which correlates with better memory and increased retention.

And, let's face it, learning is probably better for our overall well-being than gambling or illicit drugs.


You can read more from Dr. Burns in the article, "Dopamine and Learning: What the Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators." Photo credit: Work found at Dopamine / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I recently attended the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) conference on Transforming STEM Education: Inquiry, Innovation, Inclusion and Evidence. It was an information-rich conference which highlighted the amazing initiatives currently taking place in the field of STEM education.To give you a taste of the veritable smorgasbord of information provided at the conference, I have prepared a summary of the sessions I attended in the whirlwind two days that I was at the meeting.

Please feel free to contact me if you want to discuss or learn more about any of the topics included in the summary. Bon appétit!

The science of teaching and learning on math education is crystal clear – there is an undeniable and intimate link between reading comprehension and math achievement. Back in 1998, middle school math teacher, Peter Fuentes, enlightened us to the fact that effective reading, and all of the behaviors that go along with it, is a fundamental skill on the road to success in mathematics.

We must acknowledge that reading in a mathematical context (i.e., word problems, mathematical textbooks) is inherently different than other types of reading. The content presented in a math setting is often information-dense and compact. Additionally, math concepts can be abstract and difficult to concretize. Another complicating factor is the fact that math has its own language that some students may find difficult to master. Some terms are unique and students must become conversant with terms and symbols that are new to them. Some terms are familiar, but used with completely different meanings. In these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why some students view math as a frightening and mysterious subject that they have little chance of understanding.

Fortunately, the math education literature has provided a variety of instructional techniques to improve students’ math reading comprehension and retention skills. These include math journaling, math-specific vocabulary exercises, and integration of math vocabulary and concepts into other subjects (e.g. language). We can look to a middle school ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher to see one of these techniques in action. In a journal exercise, she provides the students with a list of lesson-related math vocabulary words. Students are then required to write a paragraph using as many as the words as possible. This exercise requires students to demonstrate a level of understanding of targeted concepts sufficient to construct meaningful writings.

The example above is seen in a middle school context, but the idea can be expanded and scaled to any level of math education. It is important to for us to help students to embrace the language of mathematics. With fluency, students can approach math problems (word and otherwise) with an understanding and confidence that leads to improved math performance. The following sources may be useful for a better understanding of the relationship between reading and math.

  • Fuentes, Peter. (1998) Reading Comprehension in Mathematics. The Clearing House, 72(2), 81-88.

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When I think of teaching, I think of classrooms filled with eager students who are ready to absorb the knowledge saturating the room. I further envision students using that knowledge to advance humankind to new and exciting heights. Okay. My vision may be somewhat fanciful, but we, as teachers, have the ability to spark a curiosity and a desire to learn in our students that no one else can. The quality of our teaching is a powerful factor in maintaining the interest of our students and supporting their achievement in their chosen fields of study and beyond.

We take seriously the influential power that we have over our students’ educational experience. We read about, and meet to discuss with our colleagues, those teaching tools and techniques that will be most effective in helping our students to learn. We learn about all of the latest pedagogical approaches being used in classrooms around the world. We hear phrases like “flipping the classroom”, “problem-based learning”, “team teaching” and “integrative learning”, and we willingly conduct the research necessary to determine if these ideas can be successfully incorporated into our teaching process. Then, we begin to incorporate the practices that we believe will work. We find that some work better than others, some work only for a finite period of time and some don’t work at all.

Our willingness to see what works, and what doesn’t, makes us better teachers.  At a given time, any of a number of pedagogical strategies can work in a classroom, but it is important to understand that their effectiveness can ebb and flow. Students may transition from or outgrow a particular method of teaching or a particular method may lend itself to one discipline and not another. The important part is to try. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t work, then try something else. In either case, always share the hits and the misses with others so that they can benefit from what we’ve already learned. Ultimately, it is the students who benefit.

It is a safe assumption that some form of the old tried and true lecture will always be a part of teaching, but never be unwilling to transform the learning experience with new and innovative practices. Conversely, appreciate when a practice is not supporting the goal of educating students. In The Flip: End of a Love Affair, we are reminded of the power of pedagogical tools and the even greater power of understanding when we should move on to the next one.

William Buskist

"It's just so much fun to live on the edge. And I think that's what you do as a teacher. If you take it seriously and you're excited about it and you want your students to do well, it is living on the edge."

A conversation with Dr. William Buskist of Auburn University about master teachers.

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