The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence


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What Are We Doing and Why? Transparent Assignment Design Benefits Students and Faculty Alike

Photo of Kasey Christopher at microscopeBy Kasey Christopher, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University

As a biology professor, I like to imagine that the relevance of my subject matter is indisputable. Don’t we all? Unfortunately, I don’t always clarify how the focused exercises I ask students to do will translate into the “big picture” learning objectives I expect them to meet. It may be obvious to a student why abilities to hypothesize or interpret experimental data are useful in any career; it is decidedly less clear how writing about the appearance of worms in a petri dish serves these goals.

When I joined the Duquesne faculty in Fall 2015, I had little experience designing assessments. My instructions were rarely as clear as I thought. I failed to provide a context for what I was asking and for what students could hope to gain from completing the assignment, other than a grade. I tweaked assignments to increase clarity, but lacked the tools for dramatic improvement until I attended a 2016 Duquesne CTE workshop on Transparent Assignment Design presented by Mary-Ann Winkelmes.  This workshop revolutionized my approach to assignments, with little additional effort on my part. The tenets and inclusive nature of Transparent Assignment Design have been discussed on the Flourishing Academic before, so I won’t rehash them here. Briefly, transparent assignments are constructed with three key components: purpose, task, and criteria for success. This lies in stark contrast with the more traditional approach of providing only the task, perhaps with a rubric attached for higher-stakes assignments.

At the workshop, I practiced applying these principles to an assignment in which I asked students to examine mutant roundworms and speculate as to the developmental basis of their defects. When I gave the original version of the assignment, many students struggled with understanding how to guess the cause of the worms’ appearance. I refined the new “transparent” version of the assignment and put it into practice the next semester.  (The original and redesigned assignments have been submitted to the TILT Higher Ed project and are accessible here: https://www.unlv.edu/sites/default/files/page_files/27/Example-E-Biology.pdf.)worms from assignment

I was shocked at the results; by simply mentioning that learning to make observations and hypotheses was part of the key goal, and providing a successful sample response, I avoided the vast majority of confused student questions. Concurrently, the depth of thought that students put into their hypotheses increased noticeably.

Since attending Dr. Winkelmes’s workshop, I have incorporated this paradigm into every assignment I give. I believe the benefits to students are twofold: (1) Detailed criteria for success lead to improved clarity of expectations, showing students what I am asking them to do. (2) A specific purpose fosters deeper appreciation of the value of the assignment, explaining why I am asking them to do this and motivating students to spend more time thinking about their work. In particular, breaking the purpose into knowledge and skills  (Figure 1) emphasizes that the activities are useful not just for learning this specific content, but for honing skills that will be broadly applicable throughout college and postgraduate careers.

TAD Christopher figure 1 revFrom my perspective, the perks to faculty are impressive. It has made grading easier: fewer students completely miss the mark, while more adhere to the appropriate formatting and style. Coupled with demonstrated evidence of the student outcomes (Winkelmes et al., 2016), this would be sufficient motivation to use this assignment structure. However, I have noticed further indirect gains. First, by removing the confusion about basic requirements, I find that students worry less about what their assignment should look like, focusing more energy on content. I relish responding to questions about the impact of various mutations rather than about whether they must re-type the questions. Additionally, putting the purpose into writing forces me to think carefully about designing assignments that truly help students meet learning objectives. Creating specific criteria for success helps me anticipate common problems, thinking preemptively about what constitutes a good response.

Dr. Winkelmes and her colleagues have published strong evidence about the positive learning impact of showing students what you expect of them and why you are asking them to do specific tasks.  My experience suggests that as educators, asking ourselves the same questions can have a deep impact on teaching without drastic changes to our courses or large impositions on our time.

Works Cited:

Christopher, K. (2016) Sample E: C. elegans Mutant Phenotypes Assignment. Retrieved from TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources. https://www.unlv.edu/provost/transparency/tilt-higher-ed-examples-and-resources

Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1), 31-36. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1805184428?accountid=10610.

 


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Lynn Hertrick Leavitt – Effective Teaching Through Caring

MarkPrestopnikBy Mark Prestopnik, Assistant Director of Online Teaching and Learning, Duquesne University

We honor the memory of Lynn Hertrick Leavitt (1965-2017) who taught part-time for 11 ½ years in the Duquesne University MS in Leadership Studies.

 

Lynn Hertrick Leavitt was a strong and kind-hearted woman. I first met Lynn when I was working in the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement many years ago. In my role, I helped to on-board faculty and acclimate them to our processes and standards, as well as connect faculty with the resources and services that the University offered.

Lynn was enthusiastic and eager from the start. Her work-ethic was apparent. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions and to give a great deal of energy to her adjunct teaching for Duquesne. Even though Lynn had several other professional responsibilities, she always carved out time to provide more than enough attention to the courses she was teaching for Duquesne.

Lynn was proud of teaching for Duquesne. She really believed in the University, its mission, and the education of adult and professional students. She participated in retreats with the Center for Teaching Excellence, and was always seeking to further enhance her teaching and mentoring abilities. She made it a point to travel from Virginia multiple times to celebrate with her students at commencement. She was as much a part of the team as other faculty who lived in the immediate Pittsburgh area.

Even though it was outside of the realm of her responsibilities, Lynn constantly sought to promote Duquesne and its online leadership programs. She would relate stories about being at conferences and events and espousing the value of these degrees to those whom she sensed would benefit from them. If there was something that our administrative team would ask of the faculty, she would be one of the first to offer her hand and time, and to share ideas on how we could make things work more effectively.

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On a personal level, Lynn was very kind and thoughtful. She always took the time to ask how I was doing, to encourage me professionally, and to reconnect if it had been several months since our last conversation. I could tell that she also had a similar impact when interacting with and motivating her students. She was authentic, and simply put, she cared. Even though most of our interaction was through phone or email, it was clear the type of person who Lynn was, and the positive impact that she had upon others.

The lesson that I’d like to impart to others inside academia, the lesson that I will take with me from knowing Lynn, is to put your heart into your work and your interactions. Take time to care about people on a genuine level. Look for ways that your interaction with others can make them better off, and in turn leave you more fulfilled knowing that you helped them. Get to know people, understand what matters to them, and you will find that this allows for a greater range of possibilities in your teaching and mentoring. It’s not always about knowing the right answer, or knowing the ideal solution to a problem. Sometimes it’s just listening a little bit more, and putting in that extra effort that can make the difference.


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Happy New Year…

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Erin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence
at Duquesne University

 

It’s not too late to wish everyone a happy new year, right? Of course not, especially with the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat being celebrated this week.  My children and I are learning together about this festival. Tu B’Shevat, also called the New Year for Trees, celebrates the initial awakening of the earliest blooming trees, which have been dormant in the winter. It provides an opportunity to appreciate what the trees provide us: beauty, clean air, fruit — the list goes on. While we in Pittsburgh are still very much in the thick of winter whites and greys, thinking of the green that will emerge in the months ahead is energizing. After the hustle and bustle of the winter holidays and the start of a new semester, reflecting on what is to come can help put and keep our goals in perspective. The buds on the trees will surface and we will celebrate the longer, sunnier days;  however, pausing to think about that eventual emergence is pretty inspiring, too.

Don’t worry — The Flourishing Academic won’t be dormant for too long. We’re on a break right now as we at CTE settle into our new location in Duquesne’s Fisher Hall (where we have a view of the trees gearing up for the spring from our new conference room!).

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a sneak peek of CTE’s new space!

We are also busy preparing for this semester’s micro-workshops and for the first Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium on Friday, March 16, 2018. In April, we’ll be ready for our annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence, where we recognize winners of teaching awards for faculty and graduate students, recipients of the Certificate of University Teaching, workshop presenters, committee members, faculty near-peer mentors, blog writers, and orientation volunteers. Checking out the Undergraduate and Graduate Student Research and Scholarship Symposiums is on our agenda, too.

These upcoming events are comparable to seeing those beautiful trees in bloom, as this is a time to showcase and appreciate the hard work of our faculty and students alike.

It’s an exciting year ahead, and we look forward to sharing it with you.

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Winter Break: Rediscovering What Brings You Joy

Steve-Hansen-Duquesne-2016

 

by Steve Hansen, Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University

 

 

Duquesne’s new Strategic Plan envisions “a vibrant campus community” through making “available to faculty and staff ample and fulfilling opportunities for personal and professional growth.”  While this is a worthy institutional commitment, we need to remember that personal and professional growth also takes place off the Duquesne bluff by discovering what enriches us in our private lives away from work.  Current research shows that time spent away from campus plays a crucial role in your overall wellbeing.

The time you spend socializing, playing and sleeping reduces burnout

In a study of faculty burnout at doctoral institutions, Padilla and Thompson (2016) say, “As expected, more social support, hours spent with family, hours spent on leisure activities and hours spent sleeping are related to a decrease in burnout.”

Among faculty, the temptation to let work replace everything else is pervasive

Sorcinelli and Near (1989) recount one faculty member’s recollection: “Since I’ve come here I’ve worked all the time and I can’t even remember activities I used to take great pleasure in, because it’s so long since I’ve let myself do that . . .  I don’t like particularly what it’s done to me and I feel very strongly that I need some balance in my life.”

The happiness you find in an activity determines its contribution to your recovery from stress

In a study examining work-related, household, social and physical activities, Oerlemans, Bakker and Demerouti (2014) found that “it is not just time spent on off-work activities but the subjective experience of such activities that plays a pivotal role in the way they are linked to recovery.”  In other words, the personal joy that an activity brings you contributes to the reduction of stress and the promotion of your well being.

As winter break approaches, try to spend a little time doing things that bring personal pleasure to you. Give yourself permission to play, sleep, and socialize.  You will find that discovering joy in your private life will help you ultimately in your personal and professional growth.

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10 activities that might bring you joy over the winter break…

  1. Sleep in! Your grades are finished.
  2. Read a book unrelated to your academic work.
  3. See a movie with a friend or loved one.
  4. Get outside. Take a walk, ski, snowshoe, window shop, walk the dog, take a bike ride, etc.
  5. Do something unexpected for someone. Visit a shut-in, give to a food pantry, etc.
  6. Spend time with family and friends.
  7. Be realistic about your work agenda. You can accomplish a lot by regularly setting aside brief times for writing, grant proposals and projects.
  8. Simplify holiday preparations by remembering that things do not need to be elaborate to be enjoyable.
  9. Take time to look at the holiday decorations.
  10. Revisit an abandoned hobby, talent or interest!

The staff at the Center for Teaching Excellence

wish you an enjoyable winter break and happy new year!

Resources
Oerlemans, W. G., Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2014). How feeling happy during off-job activities helps successful recovery from work: A day reconstruction study. Work & Stress28(2), 198-216.
Padilla, M. A., & Thompson, J. N. (2016). Burning Out Faculty at Doctoral Research Universities. Stress and Health32(5), 551-558.
Sorcinelli, M., & Near, J. (1989). Relations between Work and Life Away from Work among University Faculty. The Journal of Higher Education, 60(1), 59-81. doi:10.2307/1982111


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Just a TAD – Transparent Assignment Design

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by Laurel Willingham-McLain, Director, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University


Imagine
a simple practice you can do that strongly promotes student performance on assignments.

In several national studies of courses using transparency in learning and teaching, students report in pre/post surveys significantly increased academic confidence and sense of belonging compared to students in courses not using the transparent assignment design.  This finding is statistically more significant for students from underserved populations. Prior research connects academic confidence and sense of belonging with student persistence and grades (Winkelmes et al., 2016).

Transparent assignment design is a systematic way to be transparent about the purpose, task and criteria of assignments to promote students’ learning.  It can apply to all kinds of assignments, small and big.  Focusing on these three components of assignments is beneficial to both faculty and students.

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We invited Duquesne faculty who have implemented transparency over the past year or so to provide insights.  Rebecca Cepek reflected on it in a recent post, Parallelograms and Poetry.

Some faculty told us they embrace transparent design because it builds on what they already do: “Smaller changes seem far better! They don’t lead to destroying things that are here, but build upon them. It’s not the ‘throw out’ culture and making change just for change sake.” “I can utilize the ideas I have and combine them with things others have already tried and validated. [This] gives me the language to discuss and understand the techniques I try in class.”

Transparent assignment design can help instructors develop confidence because it provides both structure and flexibility. One faculty member said this is “a very practical method to structure assignments.” Prior she had just been “trying to replicate assignments that other instructors had created.” By using the transparency framework, this instructor began to find her own teaching identity.

Students want to connect learning to their lives. One instructor noted that by explicitly calling attention to “how an assignment will relate to [students] now and in their future careers,” she can better demonstrate the meaning, value, and relevance of assignments. Another wrote: “Transparent assignment design has helped me make clear how exactly the assignments they complete in my class will prepare them for the future.”

Faculty noted that the exercise of implementing transparency helped them recognize how sometimes they weren’t even sure themselves what they expected students to get out of an assignment: “I haven’t always consciously stated (to myself) exactly why I want students to do certain assignments/tasks. […] I have come to better understand how each individual assignment I give contributes to the course’s learning goals.”

Respondents talked about imagining student perspectives: one person reported trying “to escape my own perspective more when designing even ‘straightforward’ (or so I think!) assignments.”  Another reflected that “This design process has really helped me put myself in my students’ places so that I can make it crystal clear what I’m looking for in their work.”

Transparency surfaces confusion and knowledge/skill gaps. For instance, “when students complain about something I ask them to do, it isn’t necessarily because they don’t want to be challenged to learn new material; rather, it’s more likely they don’t understand either how to do the assignment or how the assignment contributes to their learning.” At first the instructor equated transparency with hand-holding, but she now sees how being more explicit in helping students with the what, how, and why of an assignment can foster more rigorous learning, because transparency has “removed the obstacle of figuring out why an assignment is important and opened the door to the real obstacle of learning the material.”

Finally, re-writing one or two assignments and seeing the resultant changes in students’ attitudes and performance energizes faculty to integrate transparency into other assignments, as well as into their communications with students during class, lab, and lectures.

Steve Hansen, Erin Rentschler and I recently submitted a chapter expanding on these perspectives for the forthcoming book,  Transparent Design in Higher Education Teaching and Leadership (edited by Mary-Ann. Winkelmes, Allison Boye and Suzanne Tapp, Stylus Publishing).

Learn more


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Giving Thanks

Dear Colleagues,

We at CTE all have a lot to be grateful for as we approach the season of holidays, but this thankfulness is also part of our every day. From our house at 20 Chatham to your classrooms, offices, and homes —

Thank you

for being committed to student learning. 

for bringing your ideas and energy to CTE.

for serving as peer leaders.

for taking risks in your teaching.

for reflecting on your own learning.

for being dedicated teacher-scholars. 

Perhaps most importantly, thank you for walking alongside one another and helping us all to learners. 

Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving break,

Laurel, Steve, Erin, Christina, Nikki, and Kiara

 


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What makes the military and veteran population students unique?

Lee Wagner casusl photo
 Lee Wagner, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran
This blog post is a collaboration between Lee Wagner and Erin Rentschler.

Over the past year, I have had the honor of learning from Lee Wagner, Duquesne University School of Nursing’s out-going Veterans to BSN Academic Coach. Lee also chaired the Veterans’ Engagement Consortium, a group of faculty and staff from across the University who are interested in helping to better serve our veteran and military students through targeted engagement focused on academic success and career preparation.

I asked Lee to reflect on how instructors can enhance the learning experience of this population of students—whose pathways to higher education and future directions both have a lot to offer both within and outside of the University. Over the course of the year, we hope to continue reflecting on how military and veteran students contribute to and diversify our campus community.  Lee’s thoughts are below. We wish him well in his new role as Veterans Program Outreach Specialist for the White Oak Vet Center.

I am often asked by faculty, “What makes the military/veteran population students unique?” That seems like a simple question to answer, but it can quickly become a rabbit hole of assumptions and speculation.  There are two simple answers, one is, “their life experience” and the other is that a majority of veteran students are first generation college students.  This unique life experience and a lack of exposure to traditional university life can leave the veteran student feeling isolated and confused.  In order for an instructor to understand this student population best, they must first have a better understanding of what that unique life experience is, what it is not, and how it differs from traditional college life.  This post will focus on the military experience, but a later post may center on the intersection of first generation and military and veteran students. 

Let us start with what it is not.  Not all military and veteran students have a service-connected disability, have seen combat trauma, or want to talk about their time in the military. There are hundreds of military occupation specialties that a man or woman can serve in.  Some members serve in the infantry, which has a higher likelihood of experiencing combat, while others serve in clerical administration positions that have a lesser chance of seeing action.  However, both can serve in a combat zone. Other occupation specialties include cooks, medics, reporters, truck drivers and helicopter mechanics–the list goes on.  Having assumptions about one’s service can limit the potential of the student and can greatly diminish the connection they make with the faculty member or University. 

Second, what it is.  Military experience, is just that, experience!  Our society often places an unnecessarily high value on military service. Today’s military services members are all volunteers who have willfully entered into a contract with the US government.  Of course, their service needs to be respected and honored; however, it should not lead us to blind patriotic beliefs that all military and veteran students are the same.  Those are assumptions that should not be made.

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Lastly, how does military service experience differ from traditional college life?  The best way to understand this question is to ask the student veteran directly, yourself.  My point being that all service members are people (individuals) first and how they see their experience is based off their core values and beliefs, not our own assumptions or generalizations about what military life is/service is like. 

Here is a tip to help get you started: when speaking with any veteran, not just a student, incorporate these kinds of opened-ended questions into your conversation.

  • Can you tell me more about why you decided to serve in the military?
  • Why did you choose the branch you served in?

The answers to these questions will give you insight into how that particular student’s military experience shapes who they are as a person and how they differ from a traditional college student. From there, you can begin taking steps for engaging this unique individual in an engaging learning experience.

Lee’s reflection begins thinking through how we might both serve and be served by our veteran and military students in our teaching and learning endeavors. I hope you’ll join me in considering this population as one of many that make Duquesne University a unique place to teach, learn, and work.

One place to continue this conversation is at the upcoming talk by Elizabeth R. Barker, who will present Military and Veteran Culture across the Education, Practice, and Research Continuum.” Details and additional resources below.

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For more information about how Duquesne engages and supports military and veteran students, see the following resources.
Miller, R. S., Accamando, D., & Wagner, L. (May 12, 2017). Collaboration between an Academic Library and Campus Partners to Connect with Military and Veteran Students. Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice, 5, 1, 35-41.
Support Services for Military and Veteran  Students at Duquesne University