On getting a sense of perspective…or not

This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.

I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.

But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.

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Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.

At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.

Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*

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Making office hours more accessible: should we be calling them student hours and recording them? What else can we do?

Recently, I’ve been involved in a few discussions related to office hours and how to make them more accessible. There are many instructors, myself included, who would love to have more students come to office hours—I think lots of students would benefit from coming, but most don’t come (and that’s even though we have a relatively good turnout at office hours for a class our size). There are many, complex reasons why students do not come to office hours, but probably some key things are:

  • Not realizing what (or who!) they are for
  • Not feeling safe showing up to them (e.g., out of fear of looking bad in front of the instructor)
  • Not being able to make it to them (e.g., because of work or childcare)

The solution to the first one seemed so obvious once I saw this tweet:

https://twitter.com/amy_nusbaum/status/1100440431500775424

From the twitter reactions, I know I am not alone in wondering how this never occurred to me—it’s a great idea! It, along with having some more information in the syllabus about what student hours are for, starts to address the second point, too. But that point and the following one can’t be fully addressed by a name change. When I was emailing about this with a colleague, she jokingly replied that maybe we should call them “FREE ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTION THAT SOMEONE ALREADY PAID FOR WHY DON’T YOU COME???”, then immediately added: “Just kidding – I never went either. I always had to work and was too shy to ask someone to adjust around my work schedule.”

So, I was really intrigued to learn recently that a colleague of mine at Michigan, John Montgomery, records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”). Michigan has a lecture capture system set up in classrooms. I use this for my lectures, which are all recorded and made available to students via the course website. Recording my lectures helps students review material, plus makes it easier for students who need to miss lecture (e.g., because they are sick) to catch up. It had never occurred to me to recording office hours/student hours, but, imilar to the “student hours” solution, it seems obvious in retrospect.

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On listening and responding to students: A small shift I made to be more encouraging to students who ask questions

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had a piece that focused on “How to Listen”. When I saw the title, I immediately clicked on it because I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and how to help people build skills that will allow for better mentoring relationships. Communication skills are clearly important for mentoring, and obviously communication is only effective if someone is listening. But while I clicked on it in that context, what ended up striking me the most was how it relates to a teaching challenge I had faced.

Near the beginning of the piece, the author, David D. Perlmutter, says,

Don’t just listen — show you’re listening. Many people have habits that betray us when we are not paying attention: wandering eyes, fidgeting, tapping fingers, and, everyone’s favorite, cutting off the speaker in midsentence. In administration, almost as important as listening is that people perceive you to be.

Here lies the rub for academic administrators: Most of the concerns brought to us are remarkably limited in variety. Often the answer or solution is evident long before someone has finished explaining the problem. Nevertheless, good listening involves steeling yourself to silence.

Sometimes what we learn from a conversation or a public forum is less a set of facts and figures than a confirmation of emotions and feelings. If you jump in too quickly, you risk coming off as brusque, inattentive, and, yes, a poor listener — even if you deliver the wisdom of Solomon.

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Engaging students by increasing curiosity: have I actually been making students *less* engaged with some of my in class activities?

As I wrote about last week, I recently attended a seminar given by José Vazquez from the University of Illinois. He gave a talk in the Inclusive Teaching seminar series that has been hosted by the Foundational Course Initiative at Michigan. Clearly it got me thinking, since it’s a few weeks later and I’ve written multiple blog posts about it! The first was on how students mostly aren’t reading the textbook, and the ones who are might actually end up less prepared as a result. In this one, I want to focus on what was the main theme of Vazquez’s talk: that one of the most important things an instructor does is to motivate our students, and a key way to do that is by making them curious. The main method he talked about to achieve this was to ask questions that focused their attention on a gap in their knowledge or understanding, being careful not to open a gap that is too big.

Early in the seminar, he started by showing us a video of what is apparently a common demonstration used in physics:

still from a video showing someone putting two small metal balls each on two tracks, one of which is flat except at the very beginning, and the other of which is wavy

Source of video

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Are our students reading the textbook? And, if they are, is it helping them?

I recently went to a really interesting seminar hosted by Michigan’s Foundational Course Initiative. The seminar was given by José Vazquez from the University of Illinois. He raised a couple of issues that I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar, and that I thought would be worth blogging about. The first is: students are not reading the textbook, even when you try to force them to, and, if they are, it might actually make them less prepared. The second, which I’ll explain more in a future post is: one of our main roles as instructors is to motivate our students, and curiosity is a really important motivator; we can motivate our students by focusing their attention on a gap in their knowledge or understanding (as long as that gap isn’t too big).

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Should we aim to leave students feeling empowered to tackle climate change? Should we try to give them hope? And, if so, how?

As I’ve blogged about a few times recently, I have been working with a couple of collaborators, Susan Cheng and JW Hammond, on a project aimed at understanding student views on climate change. As part of this, I’ve been thinking about what we teach and how we teach it, and also about a common challenge faced by instructors who teach about climate change: how do we convey the severity of climate change without leaving students feeling depressed and hopeless?

As I was working on the manuscript describing the first set of our results, I typed a sentence to that effect, and then just sat and stared at the computer for a bit, wondering “Is it my responsibility as a biology instructor to leave students empowered and with a sense of purpose?”

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