Today’s DCAL conversation, “Professing Our Deepest Convictions,” co-sponsored by the Tucker Foundation, took up the question of how (and whether) professors should incorporate their own convictions into their teaching, especially when the subject matter is controversial. As Richard Crocker, Dean of the Tucker Foundation framed it, What parts of ourselves should (and should not) be left at the classroom door?

The faculty panel of Irene Kacandes, Russell Muirhead, Annelise Orleck, and Don Pease expressed variously nuanced opinions. However, they did concur that controversy should not (and perhaps could not) be avoided in their classrooms. They further agreed that their convictions are, in one way or another, present in their teaching—what one chooses to include or exclude on a syllabus can be understood as an expression of one’s values, after all. And yet, the faculty also acknowledged that an over-zealous expression of conviction could have a disastrous effect, in that students either mimic the professor’s convictions for the sake of the grade, or close up around their own deeply held convictions, so that no real learning can occur.

Each of the faculty brought to the table some very thoughtful observations about how we might engage students and their convictions. For me, the most interesting observations came at the end of the discussion, as the participants joined the panel in considering methods for encouraging students to examine or construct belief. Some at the table thought that we best teach students by asking them to suspend their beliefs as they encounter texts, ideas, or value systems that are new to them. Understand first, we tell our students, and then evaluate in terms of how these texts confirm or challenge your convictions. Others at the table argued that students should not be asked to suspend their beliefs—rather, they should be asked to come to class with their convictions fully present, thereby engaging fully with the texts and the ideas that they encounter. In this latter scenario, all convictions are welcome and all are tolerated (even, one professor pointed out, intolerance)—but all are subject to rigorous inquiry as well. Students will have to defend their convictions, reflect on them, and perhaps even come to change them.

The session closed without a conclusion being reached—and perhaps without convictions being changed. But the discussion was lively, and participants walked away with considerable food for thought.

This term’s TWIT (Teaching with Information Technology) session focused on ways in which teaching and learning is facilitated through technology, but the technology itself takes a background seat to the task at hand. Often, we appear to be showcasing the technology over the learning, when what we prefer is the usually the opposite.

Prof. Tom Jack, from the Biology department, and Christiane Donahue, from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, kicked off the session with a dual-class collaborative wiki activity designed to increase Biology students’ ability to communicate science to a lay audience and increase non-scientists’ ability to interpret science.

Tom teaches BIOL99, a Senior Honors Thesis class, in which students work on preparing their senior thesis. In this particular assignment, the students are asked to write their scientific abstract, then an abstract for a lay audience and also to prepare a two-minute video describing the thesis for the lay audience.

Students in Christiane’s WRIT7, a first-year writing course, have been developing their ability to read and provide feedback to peers in a process designed to improve their own writing. For this assignment, they become the audience for the BIOL99 students. They read the abstracts, watch the videos and then, as someone almost certainly unfamiliar with the senior topics, provide insightful critiques and feedback on the materials.

The process is designed to strengthen the skills of everyone involved, and it is all mediated through the wiki tools available in Blackboard, the campus LMS. The videos that the BIOL99 student make are filmed in a studio space within the new Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center, against a green screen. The senior students then select a representative image of their work to insert via post-production.


In the second presentation, Prof. D.G. Webster, from the Environmental Studies Program described the development of a webpage using text written by students and images they shot during a trip to the New England Aquarium in Boston. Students in D.G.’s ENVS17 Marine Policy class documented their visit to the aquarium with an eye toward sustainability and seafood. After writing up their reports and submitting their images, D.G. worked with the department administrator to add the pages to the department website using OmniUpdate. The work now stands as an effective advertisement for the course the next time it is offered.

Prof. Webster also presented the work of students in her ENVS16 Business and the Environment course. In the course, the students explore “green” businesses and D.G. provides a series of writing prompts for the students to use after selecting a business for research. The students respond to the prompt by writing blog postings to a private GoogleSites webspace. By the end of the term, the students have sufficient material to organize their blog postings into a more formal final report, which is also assembled using GoogleSites. Unfortunately, due to litigation risk, the students’ final projects are only made available to the instructor and to each other, although we were able to see a few during the presentation.

Look for the next TWIT session in April.

Often times the largest barriers to learning are the preconceived ideas or mis-conceptions that we as learners bring into the classroom. While this is true for many subject areas, it seems most pervasive in learning science and mathematics. Given this knowledge, it is important to address these misconceptions and provide the students with the opportunity to unlearn and relearn these concepts.

During the February 9th Teaching Sciences Seminar in DCAL, Professor Chandrasekhar Ramanathan presented on the active learning teaching practices he was exposed to during the American Association of Physics Teachers workshop for new physics and astronomy faculty. In keeping true to the topic, those in attendance at this TSS were not passive recipients of the knowledge but active participants in the session.

After reviewing the philosophy behind Active Learning, Sekhar engaged the group in the practice of Peer Instruction. Made notable by Harvard Professor Eric Mazur, Peer Instruction involves students in their own learning during lecture by focusing their attention on underlying concepts.  In modeling Peer Instruction, Sekhar presented the group with a variety of common Physics questions and first asked the participants to answer as individuals. After answering individually, we broke off in groups of two to three to discuss the reasoning/thinking behind our answers. The group was then re-polled and the answer revealed with explanation/clarification as necessary. Not only was it fun to learn this way, but it allowed each individual to share their knowledge and become active participants in their learning. Find one of those who attended the session and ask them about the Car vs the Train.

Professor Ramanathan then discussed to the technique of Interactive Lecture Demonstration (ILD).  During ILD students first make predictions about the results of the demonstration. Once the demonstration is completed, the students discuss the results compared to their predictions. Reflection is key as it is through reflection that we can work through our misconceptions. Unfortunately, as noted by many in attendance, often times the traditional lab does not allow for reflection and that a standard “solution set” while often reproducible with that same set, does not afford students with the opportunity to reflect upon the process of solving the problem set and then applying the knowledge to other solution sets/situations.

The third active learning technique presented in the session was that of JITT or Just In Time Teaching. JITT engages students in learning activities before a class meeting. The type of activities can vary but may include video tutorials, simulations, and problem sets. The goal is to have students engage in the content and concepts outside of class and submit questions or reflections about the assignment to the instructor before class. This practice allows the instructor to focus on the knowledge gap and potential misconceptions the students bring to the content as he/she prepares for the next class meeting.

The session was fun, informative, and full of important takeaways. While incorporating Active Learning practices into the teaching and learning experience are extremely valuable; implementation is key.

  • Align Outcomes with Assessments, Assessments with Activities, and Activities with Outcomes.
  • Provide a supportive environment within the active learning classroom.
  • Explain to the students what you are doing and why.
  • Meet students where they are; don’t try to predict what they will have problems with.
  • Recognize that students may feel that their intelligence is being questioned when their understanding (misunderstanding) is challenged.
  • Provide opportunities for reflection for both the students and for yourself.
  • Consider how you will evaluate the success of the teaching techniques.

John Pfister (Psychological and Brain Sciences) and Leigh Remy (Assistant Dean of Undergraduates) led a lively discussion on Tuesday, January 24 about how well students take responsibility for their academic success and how faculty instructors can help them.

John prompted the group to construct an inventory of what we consider success-driving kinds of student behavior:

  • when students appear “3 steps ahead” of classroom discussion
  • showing up
  • asking questions
  • motivated by something other than grades
  • enjoying themselves in class discussions and assignments

Next we constructed a list of behaviors that indicate lack of success:

  • not showing up
  • neglecting to pick up graded work
  • passive, exhausted, invisible, miserable
  • deflecting responsibility onto instructors or circumstances
  • asking frequently for extensions

Finally, we brainstormed about things faculty instructors can do to promote success-driving behavior and discourage unsuccessful behavior:

  • design class time to be active and engaging—make class about what students do more than what instructors do
  • invite students to office hour conferences
  • require students to produce questions and insights before class
  • make the first day of class exciting/use pre-course surveys to cover syllabus material
  • ask students to generate class material and activities
  • give students time and opportunities to use feedback to improve their work
  • invite students to articulate their own goals and expectations
  • expect students to be actively engaged in each other’s success
  • make class time enjoyable
  • involve others when you see negative behaviors—call a dean!

Students respond well to anything we do that signals we are invested in their success.

During the first Teaching Science Seminar of 2012, graduate students Jennifer Taylor and Morgan Thompson, in Chemistry and Molecular and Cellular Biology respectively, discussed the highlights of the 2011 National Science Teachers Association Conference in New Orleans, LA and shared a hands-on activity.

One of the sessions they attended that raised discussion was about using argument papers in science classes to encourage students to apply the writing skills they have learned in other disciplines and to encourage critical thinking.  Some faculty participants in the Teaching Science Seminar use similar assignments in first year seminars but there were questions about how something like this could be used in more traditional science classes.

Most of the session was spent with participants working in pairs or groups of three to experience the hands-on lesson created by 3-D Molecular Designs acting as students engaged with the “Insulin mRNA to Protein Kit©.”  Participants discussed the possibility of replacing a more traditional laboratory experience with the hands-on modeling activity to reinforce the central dogma of molecular biology.  The kit also seems like a great outreach activity that graduate students and postdocs could bring to a local school classroom to give our future faculty more teaching experience with a vetted lesson.

Laura Braunstein (Library), and Karen Gocsik (Institute for Writing and Rhetoric) facilitated this session on focusing our students’ research processes. At the start, everyone present introduced themselves and shared a question about or challenge they’ve encountered in teaching students research. Those topics/challenges included helping students develop questions of an appropriate scope, finding a balance between instructing students on the writing process and giving them time to practice their writing, and guiding our students in identifying topics that are of interest to readers (not just of personal interest to the writer).

We then divided into pairs and, with Laura Braunstein’s guidance, worked through a very effective activity based on one developed by Aimee Bahng, Assistant Professor of English. This activity, “Levels of Questions,” provides a scale by which to rate “levels of arguability” of research questions.

  • Level 1: Questions that can be answered with knowledge you have right now.
  • Level 2: Questions that can be definitively answered with scholarly research.
  • Level 3: Open-ended quesions to which an answer can be proposed based on scholarly research but that cannot be answered definitively.
  • Level 4: Questions that cannot be addressed with scholarly research, either because of lack of evidence or because they ask something that cannot be answered by citing evidence.

In our pairs, we used the scale to rate a list of sample questions we had been given. As level 3 questions are the ideal level for student papers, being that they are debatable, we rewrote all the level 1, 2, and 4 questions to meet level 3 criteria.

When we reported out, we found that many of us had rated our questions differently. Some of these discrepancies were due to disciplinary differences. “How did language evolve?” is a level 2 question in some disciplines, while in others it may be a level 3 question (and perhaps even a level 3 question that needs to be narrower in scope, depending on the course.) We noticed that sometimes subtle changes in vocabulary moved a question from one level to the next. Some rated the question “Should parents be worried about giving their children too many vaccines?” as a level 2, while some rated it a level 4 due to the use of the word “worried”.

The discussion was lively and interesting. All present seemed to be in agreement that the activity is a valuable tool to use in classroom instruction.

After completing this activity, we looked at a student paper on “The Great Gatsby” from a past WRI2-3 class. Karen Gocsik introduced us to a strategy for helping students hone their research questions in their writing. Referencing Aristotle’s topoi, she explained to us how she aided a student by asking her “What question is each of your paragraph’s answering?” By doing this, we (as had her student) saw that some whole paragraphs answered level 1 questions such as “What are the personal attributes of the female characters in the Great Gatsby?” By reading the paper in this way, we saw that each paragraph of the student’s paper addressed a level 1 question….until the very end. The student’s closing sentence was, in fact, a level 3 question. Her conclusion was actually the ideal starting point for her paper.

In summary, this was an engaging, thought-provoking, hands-on session–the kind I like best. I encourage you to look at the adaptation of Aimee Bahng’s assignment, and considering using it, or modifying it, in your classes.

The Teaching Sciences Seminar on October 13 was an informal discussion with Dean of the College, Charlotte Johnson, and Inge-Lise Ameer, Associate Dean of the College for Student Academic Support Services. The goals of this session were for Charlotte and Inge to meet the science faculty and for all in attendance to discuss the role student support services plays in promoting student success in the sciences at Dartmouth.

To facilitate this discussion, attendees were provided with the following readings, which focus on the latest research on first-generation college students, stereotype threat in education, and new research focusing on how to shrink the college minority gap.

  • Cushman, K. (2007). Facing the Culture Shock of College. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 44-47. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Ferenstein, G. (2011). How to Shrink the College Minority Gap. Fast Company. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from http://www.fastcompany.com/1741530/shrinking-the-minority-college-gap-for-free.
  • Steele, C. (2010). Conclusion: Identity as a Bridge Between Us. In Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. (pp. 211 – 219). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Dean Johnson opened by outlining her vision of anchoring students in the intellectual life of campus and the importance of connecting what goes on outside of the classroom with what occurs in the lecture hall or lab. In particular, she noted the importance of building the faculty/student relationship outside of class and ensuring that the work of the Dean of the College feeds into and augments the Academic experience.

On the topic of student recruitment and retention in the sciences the message revolved around expectations and modeling. Students who have the opportunity to engage with and be mentored by diverse faculty and graduate student populations have a greater likelihood of success. Students are also more likely to thrive if they perceive that they are held to the same high expectations as others and that faculty are invested in their success. The key is to communicate this in a way that does not threaten a student’s identity.

When asked how a faculty member might address diversity issues in class without threatening student identity, both guests suggested faculty use silent signals such as

  • Letting the entire class know that you are aware of the variety of differences among the students experiences and preparation leading up to this class and that you are invested in each student’s success in the class.
  • Creating working groups, study groups and teams with a range of diversity in race, gender, experience, knowledge, etc.
  • Crafting critical feedback to include statements of encouragement and directing student to the support services available at Dartmouth.
  • Engaging the student in academic pursuits outside of class.
  • Communicating directly with Student Support Services at the first sign that a student may potentially need support.

Many faculty in attendance voiced a desire for improved communication and involvement between the Dean of the College and the faculty when it comes to student support and recruiting in the sciences. From the conversation that ensued around this topic it was clear that both Charlotte Johnson and Inge-Lise Ameer are committed to a developing a collaborative relationship with faculty in advocating for student success at Dartmouth.

The Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble (CITE) once again visited campus to present a couple of workshops. On October 5th, DCAL hosted “It Depends on the Lens,” a workshop exploring the topic of unconscious bias in employment search committees.

Our facilitator, Tine Reimers, began by asking attendees to watch a DVD scene created by CITE actors displaying the last 15 minutes of a faculty search committee meeting. Five faculty members of varying tenure status discuss a pool of six candidates for the position. Following the viewing, the search chair, David Delay (played by CITE Director and actor Dane Cruz), entered the room to take questions from workshop participants about the behavior of members of the committee and that of even the chair himself, and also provided addition information about the search process up to the start of the video.

The video and the discussion that followed helped to highlight a number of issues related to unconscious bias. At the very least, all people are proved to have certain stereotypic unconscious biases that can affect their decision making. However, through awareness activities, we can reduce reliance on these biases to conduct effective searches. The interactive theater approach gives participants an external view of the situation, encourages self-reflection, and helps to expose these biases.

What can be done? Some of the strategies recommended include:

  • devote adequate time to the search process and to meetings
  • avoid premature ranking of the applicants
  • read candidates work rather than relying solely on support materials
  • be transparent with the criteria, ensuring that it is the same for men and women
  • consider using a candidate evaluation form

Stereotypic biases disadvantage women more than men but both men and women are prone to biases regardless of how well-intentioned and non-sexist the individuals are. Biases can be reduced, however, and this CITE workshop provided a number of tools to help. The discussion was lively and interesting, and an accompanying handout provided additional resources for participants to take away.

We look forward to CITE’s next visit to Dartmouth.

The May 17, 2011 session of Teaching With Information Technology (TWIT) was dedicated to presentations and discussion of LiveScribe Smart Pens for use in teaching and learning. Andy Van Schaak from Vanderbilt University and one of the developers of the LiveScribe Smart Pens joined Jon Kull from Chemistry to detail the wide range of purposeful applications of this technology in higher education.

Jon Kull explained how he used a Smart Pen to completely re-design the way he teaches Chem 5, a first-year course in general chemistry. He has long been a devoted user of the chalkboard when lecturing in Chem 5, but he wanted to experiment with a way to deliver his lectures between class meetings and use the valuable face-to-face class time to focus on students’ questions and solve the longer, more complicated problems that he never had time for during his lectures in the past. Since these were the kinds of problems more likely to appear on his exams, he wanted to clear classroom time to devote his students’ energies to working together on those problems.

After considering several kinds of lecture-capture software, he settled on the Smart Pen because it allowed him to lecture in much the way he always has—by writing and talking his way through the material. Sitting at home, he wrote with his Smart Pen on specially designed paper and talked as he wrote. The pen recorded his voice along with his writing, diagrams and formulas, kind of like an asynchronous chalk-talk. Then he posted his pencasts, in 10-15 minute segments, on Blackboard and assigned students to read and listen to a set of these pencasts as preparation for class. Kind of like reading the play before going to a Shakespeare class. Students then came to class with specific questions about the pencast lectures and valuable class time was now available to really concentrate on the problems that most troubled them.

Smart Pens, according to Any Van Schaak, were designed with student users in mind, but Professor Kull managed to apply the technology to allow him to do the kind of excellent teaching he is known for in a more efficient and effective way!

Smart Pens were designed for students to take notes and capture lectures and discussions as they did so. The pen allows students to playback whatever portions of a lecture they wish just by tapping on their notes, or by reading the notes and playing the audio on their laptops. On a laptop, pencasts boasts an excellent search tool, even for really bad handwriting! Accompanying software also allows for text conversion, insertion of other digital material and instant sharing of notes among students. Applications for blind and hearing-impaired students, as well as students whose disabilities make note-taking difficult or impossible, abound. Imagine a team of excellent note-takers in every class sharing their notes along with an audio recording indexed to the notes!

Van Schaak also demonstrated how to use the Smart Pens for commenting on student papers with voice recordings to supplement brief notes. Students can actually hear an instructor’s comments, complete with voice inflections and a more personal touch. Finally, Van Schaak previewed a new use of the pens as a very easy-to-use and inexpensive alternative to a tablet computer, allowing an instructor to write on the special paper and have the writing digitally projected—like a white board that doesn’t require you to turn your back on your students!

In this session, which was co-sponsored by the Library and the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric (IWR), participants explored the the challenges faced by students and faculty when integrating audio, video, images, and text into student research. Karen Gocsik, IWR faculty, shared that a student of hers once wanted to use two YouTube videos in a paper he was writing on house churches in China. The videos he selected were personal videos that appeared to be made by members of the churches, and they showed scenes that contrasted sharply with each other. Karen shared some of the problems these videos presented:

  • How does one understand the content of the videos? How do we sufficiently contextualize them in order to read them accurately?
  • Are the scenes shown in the videos representative of house churches in China, or are they anomalies?
  • How could the student incorporate the clip in his paper, similar to a block quote from a textual source, rather than just citing it as evidence?

The workshop participants contemplated these, and other questions, about incorporating multimodal sources into research papers. During the discussion, we looked at the Journal of e-Media Studies. This  freely available online journal, which is published at Dartmouth, incorporates text, audio, video, and still images in its articles in unique ways. (Example.) Participants discussed the benefits and drawbacks of this type of publication, and the ways these methods might be effective employed in the classroom.

Lastly, in an academic tradition that relies heavily on writing as the means of communication and assessment, do students have the technical and intellectual skills to effectively incorporate multimodal sources in their research? And, likewise, do faculty have the skills to assess them?


yeah, it's long -- I didn't have time to make it shorter

Feral Librarian

Research libraries & higher education. Sometimes music, sports, & other stuff.