Saturday, February 18, 2017

Music and democracy in Burma

On February 3rd, the Student Anthropological Society and Undergraduate Archaeological Association hosted a presentation from Dr. Gavin Douglas from UNCG's College of Visual and Performing Arts. As an ethnomusicologist, Dr. Douglas explores music as a product of culture and how people make use of, and impart meaning onto, music. As he stated to us, this means that his interests are often more closely aligned with folks in an anthropology or sociology department than they are with those in a music department.

Dr. Douglas has conducted research in Myanmar, or Burma (there is an interesting, and complicated, history on the country's name) for nearly 20 years. I admit that I knew almost nothing about this country before the presentation, so I learned a ton. In the 20th century, the country was under colonial rule until 1948, when it secured independence from Great Britain under the leadership of General Aung San. A military coup in 1962 overthrew the government, and the country was ruled by a military dictatorship until 2011. While the country's single name suggests that it is a unified Burmese cultural entity, it is in fact home to ~135 ethnic minorities.

Map of Burma. From the Centers for Disease Control.
The thrust of Dr. Douglas's presentation revolved around the use of music in Myanmar as a way to both legitimize and undercut the military dictatorship. In the former case, the government threw funding (even though it was essentially bankrupt) into institutions that revived the court music of the kingdom that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. This can be seen as a mechanism of national defense: the ruling regime built up its own legitimacy by supporting music (and other customs) that was disassociated with, and thus untarnished by, Western colonial oppression, The state-run media was quick to publicize the attendance of the government's military leaders at every event that showcased this music (essentially, they were proclaiming "look at us, we support 'real' Burmese culture!").

Music was also used to destabilize the regime. An underground movement of hip-hop artists, some of them smuggling tapes into Burma from Thailand, used music to protest and undercut the government's legitimacy.  One of these artists, Zayar Thaw, is now a member of the Burmese parliament. General Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was educated in the West, became the unofficial leader of a pro-democracy movement during her 15 years of house arrest (U2 was among her biggest supporters). Her instrument of choice, the western piano, also became a symbol of defiance and resistance.

The power of music... 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Teaching students how to learn

On December 6, 2016, UNCG's University Teaching and Learning Commons (UTLC) sponsored a workshop entitled "Teaching Students How To Learn." The workshop's keynote speaker was Dr. Saundra McGuire, a Professor Emerita of Chemical Education at Louisiana State University. She has over 40 years of experience teaching chemistry, and has more recently become interested in student learning strategies. Dr. McGuire is a wonderful speaker, and I learned so much from this workshop, some of which I'll share below.

Her first presentation was entitled "Metacognition: The Key to Intentional Learning." Metacognition is, in short, thinking about thinking. It is, of course, more than that, and includes things like:
  • Being consciously aware of yourself as a problem solver (this helps get students out of the "victim," and into a proactive, mentality). 
  • The ability to monitor your mental processing (e.g., do I actually understand this, or am I just memorizing it?).
  • Accurately judging your level of understanding. 
  • Knowing what you know and what you don't know.
The problem, Dr. McGuire argued, is that these skills often are not required in high school, so incoming students simply do not have them. She showed some data from 2008, 2013, and 2014 showing how incoming freshman answered the following question: "At what level of Bloom's Taxonomy did you have to operate to make an A or B in high school?" There was some variation between years, but a majority (anywhere between 81% and 94%) never progressed beyond Level 3 (Application), and over 50% never progressed beyond Level 2 (Understanding). So, only a minority of students were required to analyze, evaluate, or create anything in order to receive an A or B in high school. What was interesting, though, is that when these students were asked at what level they would have to operate to make an A or B in college, well over half responded that they would need to at least be able to analyze (if not evaluate or create). They know, in other words, what they need to be able to do in college−they just can't do it!

Dr. McGuire then outlined a number of learning strategies and how we, as teachers, can help inculcate them.
  • First, students need to understand the difference between studying and learning. There was some variation among faculty in how this distinction is made. Everyone agreed, though, that they are fundamentally different and that the ability to apply knowledge outside of the strict context in which it was presented is key. 
  • For which task, Dr. McGuire then asked us, would a student work harder: to make an A on an exam or to teach the material to the class? Everyone agreed that students will typically work harder for the latter scenario. Therefore, assignments or activities that require students (individually or in groups) to review and present material to the class is often a very successful learning strategy (consider the skills from the above metacognition list that such an exercise requires). 
  • For those students that have trouble with reading comprehension and retention, Dr. McGuire suggested a strategy called "Active Reading." Here are the basics:
    1. Preview. Scan the text for section headings, boldface print, italicized words, and any charts or graphs. Why? This gives the brain a preview of what's about to be read and provides important context for what is to be learned.
    2. Questions. Come up with questions that the reading should address. Why? This provides motivation, or a reason, to do the reading that taps into a student's (hopefully) inherent curiosity. 
    3. Paraphrase. Now that that the brain knows what to expect and is sufficiently curious, begin reading. Read the first paragraph, then stop. Now, paraphrase that single paragraph in your own words. Move on to the second and do the same thing, except this time, when you paraphrase, add in the information from the first paragraph. Continue this process for each paragraph. Why? This breaks the information down into manageable chunks. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. However, this strategy takes less time than the alternative, which typically involves the reading of entire chapters only to realize that nothing was retained and thus must be read again (and again...). 
  • Dr. McGuire presented some pretty impressive data showing test scores before and after these strategies were taught (either to individuals or to entire classes). The timing of this workshop turned out to be quite good: I just completed a short (5 1/2 week) online Winter Session course here at UNCG, and I almost immediately had the opportunity to implement some of these strategies. After the first exam, I received e-mails from several students who were concerned with their grades and wanted some advice on how to better retain information. Well, well, I said, I just so happen to have learned about a strategy called "Active Reading." While I can't be sure that each student followed the strategy entirely, the before and after intervention scores are pretty interesting:
    Student Exam 1 (before) Exam 2 (after)
    1 43% 69%
    2 75% 80%
    3 61% 88%
    4 67% 66%

  • It is important to provide these interventions after a comprehensive assignment or exam, since students will not listen until they've received grades well below their expectations!
  • Strategies for studying, doing practice problems, and group work were also summarized, although I have not yet implemented them.
  • Dr. McGuire concluded this session by asking who is primarily responsible for student learning: the student, the instructor, or the institution? While there was quite a bit of discussion of this among the faculty, she argued that "when all three of these entities take full responsibility for student learning" significant increases in learning and graduation will result. What does that mean? Well, students should learn within an environment that (1) teaches them how to learn; (2) makes learning visible; (3) does not judge potential based on initial performance; (4) encourages persistence in the face of initial failure; and (5) encourages the use of metacognitive tools.
Her second presentation was entitled "Increasing Student Motivation: Strategies that Work." In the context of education, "motivating" means stimulating interest in a subject to produce a desire to learn it.

One of the biggest roadblocks to student motivation is "Learned Helplessness," which is the feeling that, based on prior experience of failure, no amount of effort will bring success. The figure below, which Dr. McGuire also used, nicely illustrates the problem:


It is therefore important to recognize that perception of ability has the most influence on the amount of effort a student will expend on a task (this meshes nicely with the "Growth Mindset" made so popular by Carol Dweck and others). Dr. McGuire then outlined three "levers" that influence motivation:
  • Value. The importance of the goal.
  • Supportive environment. The instructor is approachable and support is available from peers and others.
  • Efficacy expectancies. Students believe that they are capable of identifying and executing a course of action that will produce a desired outcome. 
As Dr. McGuire conceded to the audience (composed mostly of faculty), most or all of this information is well known to student outreach centers on university campuses, including the Student Success Center at UNCG. Great workshop. Here are some useful online resources:

Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University
HowToStudy (this one even has some anthropology specific resources)
Var-Learn (a self-quiz on learning styles)

Check out, too, Dr. McGuire's recent book on the subject (I won the raffle for a free copy!):

McGuire, S.Y. (2015). Teaching Students How To Learn. Stylus Publishing: Sterling, VA.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bioarchaeological perspectives on societal "collapse"

On November 30th, 2016 (yes, I'm that far behind on my posts...), UNCG's Student Anthropological Society and University Archaeological Association sponsored a talk by Appalachian State University's Gwen Robbins Schug, a bioarchaeologist who, among other things, explores social change in first and second millennium BC South Asia.

The idea of societal collapse, and how past societies either fail or succeed has, thanks to popular works from scholars like Jared Diamond, entered the mainstream media in recent years. Gwen argued that these works (which are often written not by anthropologists who study human-environment interactions but by non-specialists) perpetuate misconceptions or even outright myths about the "collapse" of societies. One of the most pervasive is that the process of societal disintegration invariably results in competition and violence. Gwen also questioned the use of the word "collapse." If, by invoking this term, we mean the total collapse of a political structure, then history and archaeology tell us that true "collapses" are actually not that common at all. What is needed, Gwen went on to argue, is a shift from the idea of violent collapses to human resilience in the face of major socio-ecological change. What happens, in other words, to those people who remain, and how do they do it?

Gwen used her work with human skeletal material that dates to just after the "collapse" of the famous Indus Valley Civilization as an example of this approach. Just before 1000 BC, or about 1,000 years after the Indus "collapse," skeletons in the area showed statures (a proxy of overall health) comparable to historical populations with access to sophisticated health care. She then showed that while there were exoduses from major settlements after 1000 BC during times of environmental degradation, many people also remained. Life expectancy plummeted, skeletons showed signed of stunted growth, wasting, and more porous bones, and economies shifted from agriculture to hunting and gathering−but people survived.

The most interesting aspect of her presentation revolved around leprosy in the ancient city of Harappa. During the Early Urban period, the burials of people with leprosy differed little or not at all from the burials of unaffected individuals. However, during the later, Post-Urban period, people with leprosy were buried without their feet. Gwen suggested that those suffering from the disease during the Early Urban period were not seen as social outcasts, while during the Post-Urban period a process of "othering" emerged as people with the disease were recognized as different but, perhaps, not yet treated as unclean social outcasts. Much of these ideas are laid out more fully in a volume that Gwen recently co-edited.    

I also learned that night that Gwen was promoted to Full Professor. Well done and well deserved!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Network analysis in archaeology: post 1

The Archaeology Program here at UNCG applied (largely through the suggestion and hard work of our program chair, Dr. Maura Heyn) to host an Ashby Dialogue for the 2016-2017 academic year. The purpose of these endowed dialogues is to bring together students, faculty, and the community to investigate an interesting topic in an informal setting (I've was involved in another one of these in 2014). The archaeology faculty thought it might be interesting to explore network analysis in archaeology, largely because none of us had any idea what the heck it really was. Essentially, it gives us an excuse to get together and informally discuss something that is currently hot and that might inform our own research. The official theme: "Exploring Connections in the Past: Archaeology and Network Analysis."

For our first session, held on Friday, Nov. 4, was meant to introduce everyone to network analysis. Dr. Heyn, who moderated the session, chose an article by Tom Brughmans (2010). We had a great turnout, including many students and our colleague Art Murphy, who utilizes network analysis in his work on the responses of contemporary human populations to disasters. We spent a lot of time discussing what network analysis actually is and defining basic parameters like m-slices (apparently, this is a smaller network within a larger network). A couple of key points that arose:
  • Network analysis, contrary to what I had originally thought, is not really concerned with space (in the geographic sense). Social networks, shared artifact types, and other data types are more common in the approach.
  • It's important to remember that once you throw your data into a network analysis, the resulting pattern is not meaningful in and of itself: what it all means depends on a host of other contextual data.
  • Several different types of networks can result from the same data; it all depends on the parameters originally put into the construction of the model. It is up to the researcher to decide which one makes the most sense.
  • While it may seem a bit unscientific, it can be valuable to just throw your data into a model and see what emerges. It is certainly possible that otherwise obscure, fuzzy, or unknown relationships may emerge from a so-called "exploratory analysis." 
Looking forward to the next session!

Brughmans, T (2010). Connecting the dots: towards archaeological network analysis. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 29, 277-303.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Plants in space

The RISE Network at UNCG periodically hosts STEM-based presentations, and I was able to attend one recently (9.27.16) on "Space...the final frontier...for plants" by the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, John Kiss. Kiss spoke about his work with NASA on plant biology. The highlights:
  • He started off by describing the importance of space as a laboratory for plant biology. Long distance (and long-term) space travel will likely require some sort of bioregenerative ecosystem, so it is critical to understand how plants grow in space. What's also interesting is that plants, by providing a tangible connection to Earth, appear to have a positive psychological effect on humans in isolated contexts (like space). 
  • While the space travel angle is all well and good, Kiss's academic interests lie in the effect of zero- and micro-gravity on plant physiology. More specifically, he and his colleagues are looking at a phenomenon called "red light induced phototropism." Phototropism is simply growth in response to light; we see this all the time when plants grow "towards" a source of light. As I understand it, most modern plants, especially flowering and seeding plants, are sensitive to the type of light that they respond to (light in the blue area of the spectrum seems to be preferred). Ancient lineages, on the other hand, appear not to care much about the wavelength. The effect may be very slight, however, and can be confounded by gravity. Kiss and his colleagues are using Arabidopsis in a zero gravity environment to determine if red light induced phototropism is present (it appears as if it is).
Fun stuff...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Zika: public health, fear, and ethics

UNCG's Lloyd International Honors College sponsors a "Food for Thought" series each semester where experts from around campus speak informally to a small audience about provocative and/or timely issues. This past Wednesday (September 14), Dr. Rob Cannon and Dr. Janne Cannon, both experts in microbiology, stopped by to talk about "Zika: A virus at the intersection of public health, fear, and ethics." I admit that my knowledge of Zika was limited, basically, to the following: (1) it's transmitted by mosquitoes; (2) it can cause birth defects; and (3) that its pretty bad. What I didn't think much about was, as the Cannon's theme indicates, how this related to broader issues. Some highlights:
  • The Zika virus, which is carried by mosquitoes of the genus Aedes, is not new. In fact, it was first isolated in the mid-20th century. We have not paid much attention to it largely because very few human cases were reported until 2007. The range of these mosquitoes is expanding northwards as the warmer climates that support them also shift northwards. There are now confirmed cases in south Florida, which makes it an American issue now.
  • The scariest thing about Zika is that it can lead to devastating defects in the developing fetuses of infected women, including microcephaly. Even more unsettling, though, is that there simply aren't enough data to determine the probability that the fetus of an infected woman will actually develop serious developmental defects.  
  • In February, President Obama requested 1.9 billion dollars to fight Zika. While one might expect this to be a no-brainer for Congress, a number of hangups have emerged about how the money would be distributed. Republicans have requested that the funding be tied to budget cuts elsewhere and, in addition, do not want clinics associated with Planned Parenthood to get funding because of the the abortion services they provide. The latter sticking point doesn't make much sense because, although the legislation is complex, federal funding can't be used for abortion in most cases. Regardless, Democrats have vowed to block any Zika funding that includes such restrictions. Seems pretty short-sighted on all fronts... 
  • Part of that funding package would include monies to use genetically modified male mosquitoes to breed with, and shorten the lifespan for any offspring of, Zika carrying female Aedes individuals. Although the strategy has been successful elsewhere, and despite FDA approval, some residents of southern Florida, where Zika cases have now been reported, have been resistant to the the program.
  • There is also a socio-economic dimension to this issue. While the best way to avoid the virus is to stay inside, this is easier said than done for poorer people living in humid tropical environments without air conditioning. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Lilly Teaching Conference

I recently received an Online Learning Course (Re)Design grant from UNCG's University Teaching and Learning Commons (UTLC) to upgrade our department's Statistics for Anthropology course for online delivery in the Summer of 2017. To help me with this transition, I attended on Online Learning Incubator workshop at UNCG this past June. Expertly facilitated by Brian Udermann, who is Director of Online Learning at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, I learned a ton about how to put together, deliver, and assess an online course.

UTLC's Coordinator of the Learning Innovations Office, Laura Pipe, then contacted me about joining a group of UNCG faculty that were attending the Lilly Conference on Designing Effective Teaching, held on August 1-3 in Asheville, North Carolina. Boy, am I glad that I accepted the invitation−there were some fantastic presentations, everyone was extremely pleasant, and the meals were outstanding. One of my main goals was to continue learning about online course delivery, but I also took part in a variety of other workshops. As usual, the highlights from my notes:
  • The first session that I attended was Taking the Flip: Plans, Tools, and Assessment Strategies for Creating a Flipped Classroom, by Jayme Swanke of Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. I had heard of a flipped classroom before, but I really didn't know much about it. As Swanke explained it, the "Flipped Triad" consists of: (1) content delivery (readings, online lectures, etc.) outside of class; (2) assessments such as quizzes, either outside or at the beginning of class, to ensure student readiness and/or identify deficiencies in student understanding; (3) creative activities in the classroom that apply the course content. Here is a figure from her presentation:
The Flipped Classroom model. From newlandstandl.files.wordpress.  
This model, because most of the "homework" is conducted in the classroom with the instructor, is supposed to encourage peer-to-peer collaboration, independent learning, individualized attention, and overall engagement. Swanke talked about her experience using this model in her social work courses and found that it works best when organized around themes or units rather than individual topics. She also stressed the importance of clearly defining the objectives for the units and for each class session. Her recommendations for presenting content online were: GoAnimate (for creating animations; not free), CamStudio (for recording lectures; free), and Windows MovieMaker. To ensure and/or assess student readiness, she suggests Socrative for in-class quizzes, Canvas quizzes of the online lectures, and discussion board posts. Finally, for in-class activities Swanke uses discussions, problem-based learning, collaborative learning (VoiceThread, for example, allows students to post audio files to facilitate collaboration), and case studies.
  • Sally Blomstrom (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) and her colleagues summarized a project whereby student digital literacy is developed and assessed in a communications course through "audio tours." In this case, students choose a fish from a museum collection and record themselves discussing the species's movement from a biomechanical perspective (this is an engineering school, after all). One of the goals is to teach students how to engage an audience with vocal variety and enthusiasm. Blomstrom utilizes Sing&See, which is software designed to analyze singing voices, to actually visualize students' voices. I've had trouble tracking this skill objectively in my own speaking courses, so I was excited to learn about this new tool. Blomstrom had the students take before and after self assessments of their digital skill set and found that many students did notice a significant increase over the course of the project. The most important aspect of assessing this project is, as the presentation's title Using Structured Reflection to Improve Digital Literacy suggests, the formal reflection that students write at the end. This exercise forces students to identify what worked, what didn't, and what they truly learned from the experience. One interesting finding: many students not only became better users of digital tools but recognized the relevance of digital literacy.  
  • The first plenary presentation was given by Terry Doyle (Emeritus at Ferris State University) on Understanding How Students Learn: The First Step to Improving College Teaching Practices. Doyle is an advocate of Learner Centered Teaching, and his website is a fantastic (though overwhelming) resource for this approach. He began by asking us, as teachers, to ask ourselves the following three questions about our classes: (1) What do we want students to retain and apply from our classes A YEAR AFTERWARDS? The answer, he says, should guide decisions about content delivery: if you don't expect students to retain and apply a fact or concept for the long term, then it's probably best to spend more time on other things; (2) What can students do on their own, and what can they not do on their own? Information is EVERYWHERE nowadays, and teachers, as experts in their fields, need to concentrate on things that students need our help to learn rather than on things that they can look up and learn themselves; (3) What teaching actions optimize students' opportunities to learn and master course content? There is only so much time, and we want to ensure that this limited resource is being used well. We as teachers are obligated, he contends, to pay attention to and follow where the research on learning takes us, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Ultimately, we can't make informed decisions without knowing how people learn, which is what the bulk of his presentation was about. One thing that resonated with me is that teachers cannot control a whole slew of variables that impact a student's readiness to learn: genes, family life, sleep, stress levels, diet, hydration, and so on. What we can control is our own readiness to teach, the quality of our learning activities, the quality and timeliness of feedback, and accessibility to students. So, what does the research tell us about learning? Well, first of all, it is clear that, to quote Doyle, "It is the one who does the work who does the learning." No work, no learning. It is also becoming increasingly evident that movement (walking, running, or other forms of exercise) encourages thinking and learning. Can't solve a problem? Get up and go for a walk. Attention is also key. When you attend to a task, it physically alters the brain and prepares it to learn. This is why active engagement is so important−it helps maintain attention. Attention is also affected by the type of task (new and unfamiliar vs. old and automatic) and, perhaps most importantly, the relevance or meaningfulness of the task. A learner, in other words, needs a clear rationale for learning something. I think we all know this, and in our classes we try to tell students why its important to learn what we're teaching them. Doyle provides some excellent rationales that apply to any course in any discipline. First, learning how to learn is critical; the rapidity of technological advances and ever-changing requirements in expertise, even within industries, will require people to literally remake themselves, perhaps several times, throughout their working lives. So, students must become life-long learners. Second, most classes teach writing, reading, problem-solving, collaboration, and the like, all of which are foundational skills that help students gain and keep employment. Finally, learned skills help meet survival needs (paying rent, buying food, etc.). There was a lot to digest from the presentation, but it really forced me to think about my teaching actions.
  • Steven Benko and Julie Schrock (Meredith College) facilitated a session entitled Redefining Participation: How Well Did You Do? How Much Did I Help? This workshop forced teachers to ask a very important, but often poorly defined, question: What is "good" participation? Like most teachers, I have an amorphous and, usually, presumed idea of what I consider to be good participation. While I consider participation to be important in my courses, to be honest I've never really sat down and thought deeply about the actual "deliverables" of participation, which is a prerequisite to any reasonable rubric for evaluating it. It is not unusual for instructors to informally gauge participation and use that impression to determine if students on the edge are bumped up or down on the grade scale. Most people in the session agreed that participation includes attendance, class preparation (by doing readings or exercises before class), and contributions to in-class discussions, and a balance should be struck between quantity, dependability, and quality. Benko and Schrock designed very detailed rubrics to measure these items. Contribution, for instance, was graded as Novice (did not raise questions about he readings, did not state a position during class discussion), Developing (rarely, i.e., no more than once, contributed), Proficient (occasionally, i.e., at least twice, contributed), Accomplished (regularly contributed), or Mastery (answered multiple follow-up questions, explained a position and provided reasoned justifications). This rubric was implemented through self-assessments. I admit I was a bit skeptical when I first heard this−allowing students to assess themselves? They found, however, that students were surprisingly honest about their participation, or lack thereof, and that the rubric, which was made available to the students, influenced how they prepared for and participated in classes. Importantly, the rubric included and valued behaviors beyond just oral participation, which allowed students who, for whatever reason, are reticent to speak up, to be rewarded for participation. Now, their class sizes at Meredith are no more than about 30 students, which makes it easier for teachers to track participation and thus call students out if needed, so this strategy may not be very successful in larger class settings. They have also used a token system whereby students are given a token each time they participate, with different colors representing different levels of contribution (comment, question, well-developed idea, etc.). Again, probably best for smaller classes. Nonetheless, this highlights the importance of setting clear expectations for participation.
  • While online courses permit a good deal of flexibility for learners, there are also a wide range of misconceptions among students about the format: they are easier, they take less time, etc. Saginaw Valley State is now implementing a "Digital Badge" system to encourage students to take an online tutorial to prepare them for the online learning environment. Students that successfully complete the tutorial receive a badge that appears on their Learning Management System profile so that instructors know that they have some background. UNCG has an optional set of modules called Ready to Learn that serves our community in this capacity. (I should point out, too, that online instructors−myself included−assume a level of technological savvy among millennials and post-millennials that often doesn't exist.)
  • Nearly everyone acknowledges the importance of team-based learning (i.e., group work), largely because it models the setting in which students will find themselves in the workforce. Students typically dislike these types of assignments, however, largely because they lose some control over their performance and, thus, their grade. The fear, of course, is to be placed in a group with a slacker (or, to use the apparently technical term, "social loafer"). Completely understandable. A round table discussion I attended on Tuesday morning attempted to address this issue through the use of task management applications that track the contribution and workflow of group members. Here is a list of the discussed applications, some of which are free: Asana, Droptask, Trello, Teamweek, KanbanFlow, Meistertask, Freedcamp, Wrike, Teamwork, allthings, Zoho, Realtimeboard,and Stormboard. Several people mentioned that students are uncomfortable outing each other as social loafers, and when they do it is usually when the assignment is ready to be turned in. This puts the instructor in a difficult position when trying to modify grades and assess contribution. Because contributions can be tracked with these applications, it makes it easier for the instructor to identify social loafers early on. Michael Howell from Appalachian State University, who facilitated the roundtable, suggested that instructors take a class session (or shoot a video) to familiarize students with the use of the applications.
  • In How to Facilitate Engaging Discussions Using Research-Based Techniques, Kevin Kelly from the Association of College and University Educators provided a number of useful tips for discussions. He first stressed that discussions, just like any other assignment, should have specific objectives, what he called a "mission statement." We should also try to allow students to write down (individually or in groups) their response to a prompt before answering orally, which lets them stew and thus increases the chances of a meaningful response. He also suggested the "Hatful of Quotes" technique. I had never heard of it, but it goes like this: before class, select five or six passages from the text or an article and transfer them to small slips of paper, ensuring that each quote appears at least twice. Once you get to class, have individuals or groups draw a quote and give them several minutes to consider their response. Then, have them share with the class. I might try this one. Ever heard of a "Google Jockey"? Me neither. An example from Marsha Ratzel and Shelley Wright's post on the Voices from the Learning Revolution blog:
I facilitate the discussion by asking questions, while my students Google, looking for the information we need. As they come across links and videos that explain what we're learning about, my students send me links that I add to our Wiki. This process allows us to talk about the information, including how to research and find reputable information.
This example actually made me think of Terry Doyle's point about what students can and can't do on their own. Often times, looking up information is not something they need our help with−it's determining what is reliable (and why) that they need help with.
  • The coolest session I attended was run by Michael Meyer, who directs the Center for Teaching and Learning at Michigan Technological University. Meyer, who also teaches physics at MTU, covered Seven Strategies for Seven Principles, the "seven principles" referring to the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. While we actually covered more than seven strategies, they were all very interesting. There is a movement among educators towards the integration of technology in the classroom. This is all well and good (I am one of them), but Meyer's first strategy was the use of good 'ole fashioned white boards. In his physics courses, he divides the students (typically 70-80 of them) into groups of three and asks questions that can be answered collaboratively and displayed to the rest of the class. This method works great for graphs, diagrams, and mental maps in addition to traditional true/false, short answer, and multiple choice questions. Nearpod is a cool application that allows you to pose a variety of questions, including "draw-it" questions using a digital whiteboard, to students on mobile devices. If you want to pay a bit, the upgrade also allows the instructor to add "virtual field trips" and to control the screen of other digital devices so that, for example, everyone can be on the same webpage (and not on Facebook). Piazza is a nice (and free) online Q & A platform that allows, among other things, instructor endorsed answers, customizable polls, and full integration with an LMS like Canvas. PhET has hundreds of interactive simulations for STEM concepts, and TagCrowd creates word clouds. A word cloud, I learned, is the number of times a word appears in a section of text and a list with the font size of the word representing its frequency occurrence. This is especially useful when you want to track student responses to a question: put all the responses into a single text, paste it into TagCrowd, and look for patterns in their answers. This can help you identify whether folks are on the right track.
  • Lisa Martino, also of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, spoke about online course culture. While the number of online learners is growing extremely rapidly, students continue to struggle with social isolation, coursework confusion, and the lack of teacher presence. Martino highlighted some ways in which teachers can create a culture within their online courses that can help alleviate these challenges, including introduction videos from the instructor, ice breakers for the students, regular office hours (yes, even online), and weekly video announcements. 
  • The second plenary presentation was by Claire Major (University of Alabama), who has written extensively on research-based assessments of various teaching strategies. She summarized results from the most recent meta-analyses and found that: (1) Students actually like lectures, as long as they are done well; (2) Knowledge retention in lectures is increased with guided note-taking, frequent in-class quizzing, active learning break-outs, and instructor sign posts (e.g., "I need 500% of your attention, because this concept is important); (3) In terms of information transfer, lecture-only classes are no better than other class models for short-term retention, but fall behind in skill development (critical thinking, for example) and long-term retention; (4) Courses that combine lecture with active learning activities result in higher exam scores that courses using a lecture-only format; (5) Failure rates are higher in courses using a lecture-only format than they are in courses that combine lecture with active learning activities; (6) Students in courses that use discussion outperform the critical thinking (synthesis and evaluation of information) of students in courses that are solely based on lecture; (7) Students who participate in courses with collaborative learning have greater gains in team skills, self confidence, and higher order skills like problem solving than students in lecture-only courses; (8) There is no difference in exam performance between students who participate in games than students in lecture-only courses. She also argued that collaborative learning can be improved by ensuring that the activities have structure, mechanisms for individual and group accountability, and appropriately sized groups (five seems to be the magic number). There is no doubt that games are good motivators for students, but they can also be improved by making them collaborative and including instructor feedback.
  • Hands-down the most thought-provoking session was Fostering a Decolonized Education in an Inclusive Liberal Arts Education, hosted by Tiece Ruffin, Agya Boakye-Boaten,Trey Adcock, and Jeramias Zunguze, all of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. It was pointed out that much of the university (and especially K-12) curriculum in the U.S. is biased towards the Western (and, thus, White) tradition of knowledge and knowledge production. They also argued that it is time to "decolonize" education by considering alternative perspectives not only as "window dressing" for universities purporting to be inclusive, but as truly immersive experiences that force educators to step outside their cultural comfort zone. Tiece Ruffin related a story from one of her teacher education courses in which a student attended the Asheville Goombay Festival, which celebrates the African diaspora and Asheville's African American Community. When asked to reflect upon her experience, the student, who was white and raised in rural North Carolina, wrote that she felt extremely uncomfortable and even expressed fear that she would be shot. This highlights the need among teachers for more exposure to diverse cultures (take an anthropology course!!). I would recommend the following articles, both of which speak to this issue in the context of white teachers and black students: What I Learned Teaching Black Students, and White Teachers I Wish I Never Had.