Thursday, May 31, 2012

(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 6)

by Rai Farrelly, PhD
I don't consider myself to be 'one lacking voice' by any means, but sometimes I can't seem to find it. The ideas will be swirling around somewhere - in my mind or my heart or coming to life in my emotions, but without voice they just swirl, which makes things a bit muddy. Recently, I've been finding my voice in the words of others - and it makes me happy!

I'm not new to teaching in an institution of higher education. In fact, thanks to the power sharing of my early mentors in the academy, I've been teaching classes for over a decade - dating back to my years as a green Masters student. However, it wasn't until this past semester with the class that I've been writing about in this blog series - (Em)Power in the Classroom - that I have actually 'negotiated curriculum' in this way. But it was always in me!

In this negotiated class, the final power sharing act was the grading. At the beginning of the class, we decided on a qualitative grading scale, relying on carefully crafted rubrics with clearly defined criteria that would guide them. Even though we set the grading policy together and it was going to be difficult to get less than an A given the opportunities for multiple drafts and revisions with peer and instructor feedback, they still asked the usual questions toward the end of the semester: Am I in good standing? Do you think I'll get an A? Is there anything else I could do to make sure I have an A? I assured them that if they were slated to receive a grade they wouldn't be happy with, I would be in touch and we would negotiate a plan to help them reach their goal, even if that meant assigning an 'I' (Incomplete) which they would have a year to remedy. You could see the shoulders relax as I said it. I still had a couple of students visit me to make sure they were on track for the A they so desired. We worked together, made some revisions here and there and embarked on our summer vacations worry-free (with relation to this class, at least).

I didn't always operate this way.

Previously, I taught from syllabi that I inherited and I taught with a style that I emulated. I put into practice what I thought to be the 'better' elements of my own learning experiences, supplemented with new techniques and strategies gleaned from my second language teacher education classes. Having taught many English as a Second Language courses followed by teacher education courses for teachers of English language learners, I acquired a large toolbox from which to draw when working away in the classroom. The inklings of 'Atlas Shrugged' - not the book, but the literal shrugging of the world on my shoulders - were also in me, planted by early readings about The Atlas Complex, the teacher as transmitter of knowledge, as 'sage on the stage', the students as empty vessels waiting to be filled - the 'banking method' of education. These were all concepts I was encouraged to discard as I adopted more student-centered approaches where the teacher is the facilitator, the architect, the gardener - cultivating opportunity for rich student experiences and deep learning.

I always viewed myself as a facilitator. I crafted beautiful lessons that promoted student-centered instruction (or so I thought). There was an abundance of collaborative learning opportunities and formative assessment. I was rarely the 'sage on the stage' talking at them, but rather I engaged them in discussions and projects and presentations. Didn't I?

To whatever extent my instruction embodied a student-centered approach, I had to admit at some point - I was still in charge. I was still the one with all the power. I determined the topics before meeting my students. I chose the assignments before knowing how they learned. I crafted a syllabus that read like a contract with policies that were handed down to me by my Department. I assessed them with numbers and percentages that confused even me at grading time.

And then it happened. What many of you have known for years - I discovered Power Sharing in the Classroom. I discovered in reverse chronological order the works of educators who said with their words what had been burning in me ... perhaps since I was a learner planted in a uniform, in a classroom, in a row, at a desk in front of a nun. As I read Stephen Brookfield, MaryEllen Weimer, bell hooks, Susan Hyde, Ira Shor, Garth Boomer, Norma Gonzalez, Nancy Lester, John Dewey, Paolo Freire and many others, I found that they were saying exactly what I was feeling.

I sat with When Students Have Power by Ira Shor and wanted to read every sentence aloud to my colleague. "On the first day, if I had enacted traditional rhetoric as a unilateral authority, I would have begun by narrating the syllabus ("reading the riot act") and by lecturing on the course material (the pre-emptive didactic presentation)" (p. 30). Yes! Exactly, Ira!

bell hooks was like music to my ears as I turned the pages of Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. "It is rare that any professor, no matter how eloquent a lecturer, can generate through his or her actions enough excitement to create an exciting classroom. Excitement is generated through collective effort" (p. 8). Absolutely, bell!

Bringing the critical lens to reflective practice in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield had me nodding out loud in my chair. "When we practice critically, we regard curricula as constructed and tentative, as framed by human agency and therefore capable of being dismantled and reframed by teachers and students" (p. 40). Amen, Stephen!

I literally couldn't have said any of that better myself (yet). I'm a young faculty with my Dr. title newly awarded and my voice is growing stronger by the day. As I continue to 'find my voice', I will also find ways to 'make a noise' so that I can continue to promote Power Sharing in the Classroom.

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Shor, I. (1996). When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

"Believe that you can change the world. Find your voice. Make a noise." -Katie Herzig, Make a Noise

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

So many students, so little time (Part 1)

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by Beverly Brehl, PhD

For a variety of reasons, many college instructors are finding themselves faced with the daunting task of teaching larger classes with fewer resources. At the same time, we are also expected to maintain or increase productivity in other areas, especially research. So how do we do this, while maintaining high academic standards and providing our students with a meaningful learning experience?

In this blog series I will be exploring some of the ways that this can be done. This summer, I am teaching over 160 students in two fully-online courses*, without the help of a TA. I am trying to view this as an opportunity to try out some of the tricks of the trade that I have shared with others in my time as an instructional consultant, and perhaps invent a few of my own. I don't promise to have all of the answers, but I intend to share resources I have found useful as well examples from my own experience.

To get started, I think it would be helpful if I outline the basic structure of my courses. One course is an introductory survey course in Human Development (clicking the link will bring you to the course syllabus), and the other is a senior-level course in Adolescence. Each week, students in both courses have assigned readings from a textbook, online lectures to review, supplementary materials as appropriate (e.g., video clips, external websites), and a discussion forum to participate in (more on this in subsequent posts). In the lower-level Human Development class, I am using a portal created by the textbook publishers to assign homework and exams. (I've been very impressed by the quality of activities provided in this resource, so I will likely discuss this further in an upcoming post.) In the upper-level Adolescence course, students take weekly quizzes and submit a final paper.

Yes, a final paper in an upper-level course with 75 students and no TA support.   

In the next installment of this series, I will outline how I have adapted the final paper in this course to allow me to continue to complete all of my responsibilities, as well as maintain my personal life and sanity (what's left of it!).

*Although both of my courses this summer happen to be fully online, most (if not all) of the approaches I will discuss can be used or modified for use in a face-to-face (F2F) classroom.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Teaching and Learning Online series - Part 6

by Dr. Vanae E. Morris

As I have been writing this series about teaching and learning online, I have constantly reviewed and reflected upon my own experiences as both a student and an instructor in various online teaching and learning environments at different institutions.  I started with Outlook Express newsgroups, then into a web-based online learning system, then Blackboard, moved to WebCT, Angel, e-learning by Pearson, and finally Canvas by Instructure.  In each of these online learning environments, I created materials that students could interact with, provided ways for me to interact with the students (f2f or online), and finally ways that students could interact with each other. 

Most of that interaction was asynchronous with few (actually quite minimal) synchronous activities included in the process. Working within Canvas for the past few months, I have discovered many more opportunities for interactions that could occur synchronously; however, what I have also discovered is the limitations of students (and myself) to meet all together at a specific time and place. After all, isn’t the flexibility of the asynchronous classroom one of the reasons we teach and learn online?   

So, what exactly does the online teaching and learning environment look like that promotes active learning and critical thinking?  Can this be done? My response is, yes and no! The reason that I respond with both a positive and negative is because the outcome depends on both the instructor and each individual student in the course. Is the instructor an active, but not intrusive, participant in the course? Are the students engaged with all three aspects of the course (content, instructor, and learning community)? According to Tan, Wang, and Xiao (2010), the instructor should:

a) encourage contact between students and instructor (e.g. encouraging students to use the online communication tools within the course, soliciting input from all students through specific questions, and asking for feedback on interaction-related course conduct), b) develop reciprocity and cooperation among students (e.g. group projects, group discussions, establishing learning communities,  peer reviews), and finally c) use active learning techniques (e.g. reflective and open-ended tasks to encourage application of theory to practice and apply what they have learned, and locating and sharing relevant online resources), (pp. 122-125).
As part of the ongoing mission of the Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence (CTLE) and the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center (TACC) at the University of Utah, a course has been developed to assist instructors with quality course design that encourages instructors to use six elements of excellent course design:

1.     Course and lesson outcomes in the form of measurable objective statements
2.     A course organization and structure that facilitates student learning
3.     Teaching and learning activities that engage students in the process of learning
4.     A Variety of course content, media, and materials in appropriate web formats
5.     A sense of learning community, communication, and student support
6.     Assessment, feedback, and evaluation strategies that measure student learning outcomes as well as overall course quality

In order to promote active learning and critical thinking in an online teaching and learning environment, an instructor should examine these six elements and design a course, which has  assignments that require students to substantiate their ideas, invite responses, ask questions, and discuss and reflect upon the content.  Will this encourage the adult learner’s approach to learning and provide opportunities for self-direction?  Yes! By designing a course that encourages the three types of interaction (content, instructor, learning community), and assignments that require students to participate and substantiate their learning, will encourage and promote active learning and critical thinking in the online learning environment! 


Boettcher, J.V. & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (7th ed.). New York: Elsevier.
Ko, S. (2005). Student-centered online teaching: Best practices. Retrieved from
Moore, M.G. (1989). Editorial: Three Types of Interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education (3)2.
Tan, L., Wang, M., & Xiao, J. (2010). Best Practices in Teaching Online or Hybrid Courses: A Synthesis of Principles.  Hybrid Learning, Lecture Notes in Computer Science (6248)2010, pp. 117-126. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Since I last updated this series (see Part IV), a lot has happened. The teams have completed and presented their posters, they have given one another feedback, and grading has been completed for another year. So how did things turn out?

In general, the posters were pretty good, and students seemed to be fair in both the peer reviews of fellow group members, as well as in their assessments of the posters created by other groups. Students for the most part provided both positive and critical feedback (thanks, in part, to the prompts on peer evaluation rubrics asking them to do so). There were some students who didn't pull their weight, and the scores and comments they received reflected this. 

So what were the surprises? The two highest scoring posters (based both on my grading and the reviews from their peers) were from the two groups I had been most worried about. The first was the group who were placed together because none of them had submitted their topic preferences (see Part I in the series). I had been concerned that this was a red flag indicating that these may be students who were less committed to the class, and unlikely to show up or contribute. This turned out to be true for some members of this group, but the others pulled together and were determined to create a high quality project, despite their other group members (or the fact that I had, from their perspective, doomed them to failure). Several of these students demonstrated strong leadership skills, and their poster turned out wonderfully.

The other group that surprised me was a group that had been placed together based on a common interest in moral development, broadly speaking. Their first task was to decide what in particular they would focus on. I have to say I was quite shocked when they told me that they had chosen to investigate the development of serial killers. I had my doubts (as did another group member, who I allowed to switch groups), but ultimately decided to allow them to pursue this topic. And I am so glad that I did! Their poster was thoughtfully researched, had more connections to course material than some on topics I had actually taught and tested on, and was very professional. It just goes to show what can happen when you allow students to pursue their own interest, no matter how odd they may seem to be on the surface!

One other issue I encountered that I hadn't expected, and wasn't sure what to do with, was that one of the posters contained sections that were clearly plagiarized. It seemed obvious to me that this was a group who had worked individually and then slapped it all together, rather than truly collaborating. So this was likely the handiwork of only one student. Yet, this was a group project, and thus in some senses this was the responsibility of the team as a whole. Ultimately, rather than asking the team to identify the student who had contributed the plagiarized sections, I chose to severely dock the team (but chose not to fail them) and explain to them my reasoning. None of them has yet responded, so although they may not be happy with my decision, they don't seem to feel that it is one that deserves to be challenged.

In all, this was a great semester, and having the poster session on the last day of class allowed all of the students to show off their hard work and learn from the projects presented by their classmates. Certainly I would do some things differently next time around, but I can assure you that this will not be the last time I incorporate group work into my large classes.

Ah, the end of another semester. No more classrooms, no more books! (At least until next week!)