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Introducing Change Workshop: How can we better serve first-year students?

Introducing Change Workshop: How can we better serve first-year students?
This weekend, I spent three days at the Macalester College campus in St. Paul, MN as part of an “Introducing Change” workshop.  The project summary on the ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) website poses the following questions: “How can introductory courses change in order to enhance students’ higher-order thinking skills (e.g. problem solving, critical thinking, and abstract reasoning)? What are the current institutional barriers that have prevented trying and implementing such changes?”

The workshop emphasized the use of incremental change, based on assessment and backwards design, to improve the first-year seminar experience.  You can see the project proposals and find links to resources at the Introducing Change project website.

Speakers included Daniel Bernstein (U Kansas), who talked about the value of collaborative course design; Karl Wirth (Macalester College), who specializes in meta-cognitive strategies, and Ashley Finley (AAC&U), who talked about action plans and assessment.

I’ve summarized the workshop below into three categories: happy thoughts, resources, and questions.  If you are interested in taking small steps to becoming a better teacher, I hope that you will find the information below useful!


On defining the Liberal Arts:
The liberal arts is the “liberation of the mind.”  It is a "philosophy of learning that empowers & prepares individuals to deal with complexity, diversity and change…  To help students develop a sense of social responsibility, strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge" (Finley).  In a lot of ways, this definition makes a general education curriculum the heart of a liberal education.

On defining Critical Thinking:
There are a lot of lengthy, complicated, nuanced definitions of critical thinking… and they may not be all that helpful for students.  But, it is valuable to share a variety of bulky definitions with students, to share contrasting perspectives and talk about different understandings of what critical thinking might be.

On defining Learning:
Learning is iterative and intuitive... it doesn’t always follow the scientific method or linear paths.

On Collaborative Course Design:
What if we included support staff, librarians, writing center staff, the teaching & learning center, and even students in our course design process—including goals, assignments and scaffolding?  And—what if these same partners, along with potential future employers, helped to assess student work?  

On Backwards Course Design:
  1. Articulate major concepts that students need (what is my discipline and how do students learn to “think” within it, etc)--what are our broad goals?  Then,

  2. Restate these concepts as outcomes: for example, “student can articulate in their own words what science is as a discipline.”  Reframe concepts as things that students can do.  Then,

  3. Think about how we can assess these outcomes/objectives.  Can these outcomes be measured? How? And only THEN do we

  4. Design the course, with our original goals and major concepts in mind.  And finally,

  5. Assess students at the beginning and end of the course to see what they actually learn.  What is their prior knowledge? Are we improving on it?  

On Faculty Workload:
We're good at working hard... but working together isn't easy for faculty.  How can we help faculty collaborate more effectively, and give them the time and resources to do so?

On Assessment:
Collect only as much information as you need to have a productive conversation about improving student learning.  (Otherwise, you’ll quickly become bogged down in data!)

On the Scholarship of Teaching:
Our teaching deserves the same rigorous questioning and analysis that we afford our research. 

On Metacognition:
We should allow students to make connections on their own; we should be explicit with students about our course goals; and we should remember that self-efficacy is the most important quality of a good learner. (See resources below on reading reflections, exam wrappers, and knowledge surveys).

On Collaborative Learning:
Students often say that the most impactful learning experiences happen in groups, but they simultaneously resist group work--they piece together projects Frankenstein-style, and we don't talk with them about what it looks like to do collaborative work.  We need to make sure that the kinds of group projects we assign require collaboration and are improved by teamwork.

On Metadisciplinary Reasoning:
It’s useful for students to learn about how different disciplines reason.  We should teach students how to reason, not what to know--critical thinking, not content.  For instance, science literacy is often measured as knowing content: boiling milk makes it safe, early humans lived with dinosaurs, etc.  But, this isn't the goal of a science general education course.  We need to help students become engaged and informed citizens, and general education curriculum should give students the tools to do that.  What would it look like for students to be scientifically literate?

On Good Teaching:
We should remember that incremental change will allow us to be more purposeful; things don’t have to be broken in order for us to make them better; and you're not done preparing a course when you can't fit any more in--it's when you can't throw any more out.


Reading Journals: daily writing assignments help students prepare for class
  1. What is the main point of this reading? (summary helps them identify and retain key ideas)
  2. What did you find surprising? Why? (students identify their own misconceptions and their personal connection to the text, and make the information their own)
  3. What did you find confusing? Why? (helps students monitor and evaluate their own reading process and learning process... how did they attempt to resolve this confusion?)

Knowledge Surveys: inventories of students’ knowledge help identify what they know and what they have left to learn

Reading Survey: learn not only what students learn, but how they learn it--it is simultaneously an assessment tool and a way to teach students better learning strategies.  (see a section of Karl Wirth's reading survey in attached image...)

"How I got an A": help students set goals
At the beginning of the semester, ask students to write you a letter as if it’s the last day of class, telling you what they did to earn an A.  How are you a different person?  How do you think differently? How do you study differently?  Return letters at midterm to help students assess their progress.  What are you achieving? What changes do you need to make?

Exam Wrappers: help students reflect on their study habits
Before Exam:
  1. What time of the day are you most alert?
  2. What study strategies are most effective for you?
  3. What inspires you to think?
After Exam:
  1. What did you do?
  2. How well did you do it?  
  3. Was it effective?
  4. What would you do differently next time?

Portfolios: ideas and examples for student portfolios (science)

Logic Model: a template to help create backwards design

Student Action Plan: a template to make a more intentional assessment plan

Rubrics: shared rubrics on key elements of student learning
AAC&U Value Rubrics
Washington State University Critical Thinking Project

Opened Practices: Open-Source Teaching Tools

Further Reading:
  • Randy Bass, “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the problem?” (1998)

  • Pat Hutchings, Opening Lines: Approaching the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (2000)

  • Gwynn Mettetal, “The What, Why and How of Classroom Action Research” (2001)

  • Daniel T. Willingham, Why don't students like school? (2010)--see esp. transference

  • Wiggins and McTigue, Understanding by Design (1998)--see esp. backward design

  • AAC&U Report, "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning" (2002): The goal of higher education is "to help college students become Intentional Learners who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources, and continue learning throughout their lives."

  • John D. Bransford, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000)--see esp. the Three Principles of Learning

    • recognize/address preconceptions

    • develop expert knowledge (deep foundation, contextual framework, and organizational structure of that knowledge)

    • metacognition is essential

  • Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: the new psychology of success: How we can learn to fulfill our potential (2011)--People either have a fixed or a growth theory of their intelligence, which affects motivation to learn and persist.  But, by teaching students about brain plasticity and study skills, students with fixed ideas of intelligence begin to perform better.  


For students:

  • What is learning?  What does it mean to be engaged in learning?
  • What is the relationship between critical thinking and argumentation?
  • How would different disciplines answer questions differently?  Which disciplinary knowledge is helpful to address this or that question?
  • What is an intentional learner?
  • Metacognition: What kind of problem is it? What is the best strategy for solving it? How will I know if I solved it correctly? Could I do it better next time? What other info do I need? What use is this new info? How can I use my new understanding to solve different kinds of problems in the future?
  • Metacognition:  how well am I doing? how well did I do? what can I do better next time?
  • Knowledge survey: What is rhetoric? How do I assess a rhetorical situation? What can I learn by writing about my writing? How do I choose an appropriate form/genre for a rhetorical situation?


For ourselves:

  • When do "aha" moments happen? how can we make them happen more  often?  (is this something we can make happen more often?)
  • How does being more intentional make us better teachers?
  • What do you MOST wish your students understood about their own thinking and learning?
  • How do you make this work (which is time-consuming) worthwhile for faculty?
  • How will you know if you have succeeded in making progressive, incremental change?
  • How do we get information about what we're doing in our classes "out there" for other people to draw on?
  • When we work to improve our teaching, does that fit in the category of research, teaching, or service?  How should it be rewarded accordingly?
  • Who is the audience for our students’ work?  How can we make these audiences more authentic and meaningful?
  • Most faculty agree that disciplinary reasoning is most important for majors.  How do we engage with faculty who think that content coverage is more important than disciplinary literacy in general education curriculum?  How do we have this conversation?
  • Are students aware that the value of their college experience is to improve their reasoning? Are students aware of their reasoning processes? How can we help them to be more reflective about their reasoning?
  • How do you give students feedback on critical thinking skills? How do you assess critical thinking? How can we make our teaching of critical thinking more explicit & specific? How might we attend to the issues of sensitivity and inclination (ie, recognition of and willingness to consider other points of view--sympathetic imagination) within this assessment?
  • Making an action plan: What is my goal? Why is it important? Is it achievable? What are the roadblocks? How will I know if I have achieved it?
  • How are students reading in your course? How do you know?
  • How can we use metacognition to help students think about time management?
  • What “aha” moments have your students had?  How would you describe them? Is there a way to make them happen more often?
  • Who are you as an institution? How does institutional identity shape the way you teach?
  • What do we want students to know about their own learning and thinking?  And, how can we help them to get there?
  • What is the role of assessment in student learning? How can you use enough assessment to improve teaching and learning without letting it limit or predetermine your course goals?  

Thanks to Elizabeth Ciner, Cara Pickett, Daniel Bernstein, Karl Wirth, Ashley Finley, and all the other great folks at the ACM and Teagle Foundation for a thought-provoking workshop!


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