Teaching Newsletter: Welcoming Students to Your Discipline

The Chronicle of Higher Education | October 5, 2017 - 

A Culture of Collaboration

Swing by Hamilton College’s math department in the late afternoon, and you’ll find a swarm of activity.

Math homework is usually due at 4:30. As that hour approaches, some 50 students work in groups in the department’s home, on the first floor of Christian A. Johnson Hall, known as “CJ” on the campus.

That’s the scene Richard Bedient, a professor of mathematics, describes in a message that he and a colleague shared with us.

Math departments may not spring to mind when you imagine welcoming places for students to gather. Many students (and plenty of journalists) simply don’t see themselves as math people. Combating that attitude is one aspect of an emerging movement to reinvent college math, which our former colleague Shannon Najmabadi wrote about here. Among the strategies explored in Shannon’s article — which focuses largely on teaching math to nonmajors — is an increase in group work.

Collaboration is important to Hamilton’s math department. When CJ was renovated, in 2012, its faculty offices were placed around — and designed to open into — a large student study area. Students don’t just work on homework with one another; they also have easy access to their professors.

That’s a good reminder that the arrangement of physical space has implications for teaching and learning. As it happens, Shannon wrote a good article about that, too — you don’t want to miss her examination of the “humble circular table.”

Not all faculty members, however, want to work so closely with students. For Hamilton’s math professors, the setup provides a gauge of whether a prospective hire will fit the department’s culture. Interviewers pay close attention to candidates’ reactions when they hear descriptions of those busy afternoons.

“The upshot of all of this,” Mr. Bedient writes, “is that students get to see how math is really done.”

Part of that is seeing who’s doing it. Students may arrive at college with stereotypes about math majors, but at Hamilton, those stereotypes will be challenged. About a tenth of the college’s seniors major in math, and around 40 percent of those majors are women. “It's a lot easier to see yourself as a math major,” writes Courtney Gibbons, an assistant professor in the department, “if you can actually see someone a lot like you who is planning to be (or already is) a math major.”

Math is hardly alone in being intimidating to students. How do you combat stereotypes of your field? What does your department do to make your discipline more welcoming?

Write me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and your response may appear in a future newsletter.

Collective Course Design

In 2011 the Association of American Universities started a multimillion-dollar project to improve the quality of STEM teaching. This week it released a review of these efforts, which continue. Among the conclusions: Success is more likely when departments take collective responsibility for introductory course curricula. Other findings emphasize that course design is more than a one-person job. Colleges showing the most improvements used instructional-design experts, data analytics on student learning, administrative supports like teaching-and-learning centers, and creative-learning spaces. That got us wondering: Do you see a shift in your department(s) away from courses designed by a single professor toward more collaborative efforts? Email me with your experiences at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com

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In Brief

  • Tufts University has received $8 million from the James S. McDonnell Family Foundation to establish the Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction, which will conduct research on teaching methods and educational tools, with an initial focus on STEM fields.
  • The Online Learning Consortium announced the formation of the OLC Research Center for Digital Learning and Leadership. It houses annual reports on the state of online learning as well as research on teaching and learning, instructional design, and other subjects.
  • The Association of American Colleges and Universities conference on Transforming STEM Higher Education will explore ways to improve teaching and learning in these disciplines. It will take place November 2-4 in San Francisco.

Separating Feedback From Grades

Last week we asked whether you’ve tried to emphasize giving descriptive feedback to your students instead of focusing on grades — and, if so, how it worked out. Stacy Landreth Grau, a professor of marketing practice at Texas Christian University, told us she started doing this a few years ago, “to provide feedback to a millennial group who craves it.”

For students in her senior-level elective courses, Ms. Grau offers qualitative feedback on assignments — but not, at first, a grade. Instead, in class, she will review overall themes and issues, give students written feedback, and then wait a day or two to provide grades on their assignments. This time lag separates the evaluation from the grade.

“It allows them to digest the feedback and not tie into a grade,” she told us in an email. “I do this because — let’s face it — when they go to work, no one cares about grades. That is not how they are evaluated.” Future employers won’t care if these students can regurgitate material on an exam; they care what the students can do and how well they think, Ms. Grau said.

“It takes a lot of my time — I will be honest, but I do think it is worth it.”

-- Beckie, Beth, and Dan

SOURCE: The Chronicle of Higher Education