Monday, April 27, 2009

Is the university just another corporation

I just read an opinion piece in the NY Times, just one of many articles over the past few years that has criticized higher education of being focused on money and not truly on education. This particular piece focuses on the role of graduate students, arguing that we are preparing them for jobs that won't exist once they graduate (either due to overspecialization or tenured professors already taking up all of the positions), and taking advantage of them as cheap resources for teaching and research. Other pieces have argued that undergraduate students are treated, or at times demand to be treated, as customers or clients. Does this mean that assessments of our programs should focus less on learning outcomes and more on customer satisfaction?

I find myself very torn as I think about these issues, as in some ways I want to strongly defend higher education (certainly I chose an academic career path and believe in what I am doing), yet at the same time I can see flaws in the system as it currently operates. Especially in a time when we are under such economic strain, it can become easy to focus on the business side of the institution - being able to keep everything running and protecting job security. But are we losing sight of the mission of higher education?

What do you think?

Photo courtesy of Steve Wampler.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Evaluation season is upon us

At the end of each semester, many students dread their upcoming finals. Many instructors dread the ratings and comments that students provide as evaluations of the course. But fear not - student course evaluations can be our friends!

The purpose of end-of-term evaluations is to give students a chance to provide constructive feedback about the course and the instructor's approach to teaching it. These comments can be used for a variety of purposes, such as RPT (retention, promotion, and tenure) reviews. My hope is that they are also being used to inform future offerings of the course, the instructor's teaching, and students' decisions about course selection.

Now of course, to be able to use student feedback in this way, students need to be motivated to provide feedback, and educated as to how to provide feedback that will be useful to instructors. How often have you seen "This course is great!" (or "This course sucks!"), but have had no idea what was so great (or so awful)?

Having an open discussion with students about what comprises quality feedback may help improve the utility of end-of-term student course evaluations (for both the instructor and future students). You can also provide students with practice, through midterm evaluation opportunities and asking students to evaluate one another's work in class. (After all, this is a great educational opportunity, and the ability to provide useful feedback will likely come in handy for students in the future.) It also is beneficial to let students know how the evaluations will be used, and what the implications are for students like themselves. One of this year's TA Scholars, Tim Edgar, worked with CTLE team members Darrell Coleman and Jill Stephenson to create a project designed to help instructors with some of these issues.

So once you get feedback, what do you do with it? How do you interpret the results? How do you make sense of all those written comments, many of which seem to contradict one another? Well, we're hosting a workshop on May 29 (with a repeat on June 5) that will help you answer some of these questions. You can learn more and register to attend (for free!) here. Look here for a video of the workshop a few weeks after it has been presented.

And how do student course evaluations help students? Currently, students can access evaluation results to help them make decisions about course selection. Unfortunately, sometimes these can be hard to find and to interpret, so many students prefer to use services such as (Read what students have to say here.) But we are doing something about it! Stay tuned for news about how a working group comprised of students and faculty are planning to address the problem, and put student course evaluation results to better work for all of us!

Photo courtesy of Gideon Burton.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

TA Scholars

Here are the 2008-09 TA Scholars posing just outside their poster session last week at the Academic Senate meeting. We had an amazing group of people this year!

Top row (L-R): Jana Schurig (Film Studies), Tim Edgar (Geography), Danielle Ballinger (Music Education), Holly Rau (Clinical Psychology)

Third row: Russ Askren (Philosophy), Rachel Eddington (Sociology), Steve Elmer (Exercise & Sports Science)

Second row: Keri Schwab (Parks, Recreation, & Tourism), Lin Sunthonkhan (Economics), Alfred Kalyanpu (Civil & Environmental Engineering)

Front Row: Rebecca Blais (Clinical Psychology)

You can learn about their projects on the TA Scholars website.They've done some innovative things like implementing virtual labs in traditional classes, creating peer mentorship programs, comparing online and face-to-face teaching, and assessing the effectiveness of an entire program of study.

I am so grateful to have worked with this bright, creative, fun bunch of graduate students!

If you or someone you know is a graduate student at the U and would like to become involved with the TA Scholars program, please email me at

Here I am with this year's Scholars:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Are you facing grading hell?

Maybe you want to try the stairway method of grading, demonstrated here. Just throw everything down the stairs, and then determine the grade based on where it lands. According to the creator of this photograph, to stay current with grade inflation the top stair should be a B-, the bottom stair an A.


We are rapidly approaching the end of the semester, and many of us are about to receive dozens, or hundreds, of papers, exams, and other assignments, which will need to be graded - and rather quickly. How can you do this efficiently, and without resorting to tactics such as throwing papers down the stairs or shooting exams out of a canon?

Probably the most important thing you can do is to ensure that you have a clear set of grading criteria and a rubric that you can use to assign grades. You can learn more about how to do this here - this article also includes a great reference list of other resources on rubrics. Another way to make grading more efficient is to avoid procrastinating - we've all done it, and then spent an entire night frantically trying to finish entering grades before they are due. Make it a pleasurable experience - pick a coffee shop or some other environment you enjoy, get yourself a snack and a comforting beverage, and give yourself a reward when you get done. maybe even throw a grading party, and get together with colleagues so that you can take breaks and refresh yourselves before diving back in. Aim to grade in several shorter sessions instead of one all-nighter - this can help to make sure that you keep your sanity, and that you don't take your frustrations out on your students.

For the future, I strongly recommend avoiding a pile of grading before it happens. One way to do this is to spread assignments across the semester. Instead of a midterm and a final, try 4 shorter exams, or even weekly quizzes. Instead of a final paper, try providing topics with staggered deadlines (e.g., Topic 1 papers are due in October, Topic 2 papers in November). This means you have less grading at any one time. In my evaluations, students report liking the flexibility these types of assignments allow, and appreciate that the material is broken down into smaller chunks. Students also seem to respond well to getting feedback earlier than may be typical. This gives students a chance to improve, and an opportunity to discuss the material and ask questions after receiving feedback - something that rarely happens after the end of the semester.

What do you do to make the grading process more efficient and less painful? Please share your stories and tips!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Have you got game?

From a young age, Millennial students have been exposed to video games. (This picture is courtesy of Sean Dreilinger.) Some of them have spent almost as much time gaming as they have in class. Can we use this to our advantage, and incorporate games into our classrooms?

Of course we can. Even for non-Millennial students, adding games to your classroom can make learning more engaging and fun, and as long as you can connect the game back to the material, students are likely to remember the lesson much longer than a dry lecture on the same topic. Although there are many ways to incorporate games into the classroom, here are just a few ideas...

1) Using a "Jeopardy" type game for review. You can download a PowerPoint template for the game on the internet (here is one such site). All you do is enter the categories and the answers (remember, contestants must answer in the form of a question). You might want to consider Bloom's Taxonomy as you match questions to the increasing dollar amounts. This game works best with a small- to medium-sized class. With my classes of 40-50 students, I split them into teams and each team member takes a turn being the contestant. The team with the most points at the end of the session wins a prize (e.g., bag of candy).

2) Although I am a newbie to SecondLife, I've been hearing a lot about the innovative ways in which it can be sued in the classroom. SecondLife is a virtual community. Students can join for free, and create their own avatars. You can create a virtual classroom, hold office hours, or create scavenger hunts (where the clues are related to your course material). SecondLife has its own economy and social networks that students can study. For a list of examples of ways SecondLife can be used, see this handout, created by a computer sciences professor.

3) Although not a video game, Barnga is a great game to help teach intercultural awareness. It's great for use in classes where you will be discussing these issues, and should not be overlooked as a community-building tool in any class, especially those in which students will be doing a lot of group work or participating in discussions.

To read some research on the use of the games in college classrooms, check out this article from the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

How do you use games in your classroom? Please share your ideas!