Mary-Ann Winkelmes: Teaching Expos as Engines for SOTL

Mary-Ann Winkelmes

Mary-Ann Winkelmes

Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes is nationally recognized as the founder of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Project (TILT Higher Ed), which she shared with the ACUE Community in 2016. As a faculty developer, Winkelmes is also passionate about initiatives to promote teaching and learning on campus, including an annual Best Teaching Practices Expo that kicked off at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 2017. This month, Winkelmes started a new job as executive director of Brandeis University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, but she was still excited to talk to the ACUE Community in a Q&A about UNLV’s Expo and showcase her colleagues’ work.

What originally inspired you to organize a “Best Teaching Practices Expo,” and how has it evolved?

While UNLV has a tradition of excellence in scholarship and teaching, the UNLV Best Teaching Practices Expo in January 2017 was the first of its kind as a large, campus-wide event to call attention to scholarly, evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning at the institution. That first iteration was a poster exhibition, and we reached out to lots of faculty to recruit posters and generate interest in attending. This year’s event attracted many poster proposals, selected 34 posters, and drew hundreds of faculty who came to participate, talk with presenters, attend the panel presentations, and enjoy a buffet lunch together. The posters are published online on UNLV’s Best Teaching Practices site, making them widely accessible and easy for poster authors to cite in future publications or grant funding proposals.

The poster session is usually followed by panel sessions on shared themes like increasing students’ metacognition, engaging students across difference, and apps and tools to enhance learning. This year we added real-time voting by attendees, who used their cell phones or tablets to identify which practice they are most likely to adopt this term (The People’s Choice Award went to the poster on Dynamic Lightboard Videos for teaching online mathematics courses by Kristina Schmid, Peter McCandless, and Eddie Gomez).

What have you learned from the experience? What’s surprised you?

I had high expectations for this event, but I think even I was surprised by the large extent to which it is an engine for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at UNLV. Some of these posters can lead to peer-reviewed publications and even external grants. For example, Jen Utz’s poster for increasing formative assessment and engagement during labs is related to her National Science Foundation grant, while Tiffany Howard’s poster from the 2018 Expo developed into a publication, “Transparency Teaching in the Virtual Classroom: Assessing the Opportunities and Challenges of Integrating Transparency Teaching Methods with Online Learning,” published in the Journal of Political Science Education.

What advice do you have for CTL directors or faculty developers who may want to bring similar events to their institution?

For colleagues undertaking a similar event, I’d suggest involving faculty, staff, and students in the organization, as we did. I’d also advise explicitly aligning the criteria for selection with the focus areas of the final posters and with the call for proposals. Our four criteria/focus areas were:

1. the practice and the significance of the need it addresses

2. evidence the practice benefits UNLV students

3. resources and where to find them (including state of research)

4. how other UNLV teachers might adopt this practice

This ensures the community sees the criteria multiple times, and they know that all posters will address these key points. This alignment gives some structure to a visitor’s experience when they visit the Expo, and it establishes criteria for excellence and even for voting during the event. An event like this is a great way to generate cross-campus conversations around evidence-based practices for improving teaching and learning experiences across the institution.

Behind the Poster

Dr. Tiffany Barrett, a Distinguished Contributor from the 2019 Best Teaching Practices Expo, shares a summary of her poster on the Categorization of Exam Questions to Improve Metacognition.

Tiffany Barrett

Tiffany Barrett

Students often employ memorization as a study strategy when preparing for an exam.

This can create an inability to apply the knowledge in a complex or different scenario. Students don’t often identify a need for a change in study habits and a deeper level of understanding, especially if their exam score is considered passing. By categorizing your exam questions by cognitive domain, you can accomplish two objectives: First, create a well-balanced exam with equal distribution of questions from each domain in order to fully encompass the students’ performance. Secondly, improve students’ metacognition by providing feedback on performance in each domain to encourage changes in study strategies to reach a higher level of learning. UNLV students receive individual feedback on their score in each of the three cognitive levels after each exam. It was shown that students improved not in their score, but in their depth of understanding from the first exam to the final. By providing feedback to students on their depth of understanding, we allow them to be reflective in what they understand and do not understand, strategize about how to resolve their confusion, and improve their self-efficacy.

Dr. Tiffany Barrett is an assistant professor-in-residence at UNLV. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Nevada, Reno and her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from the University of Colorado.

Harry Brighouse

A Game-Changer in Accountability: Using Online Discussion Boards (Even in Face-to-Face Classes)

By Harry Brighouse

Harry Brighouse

I often start my smaller classes with an icebreaker, mainly so the students start to learn each other’s names and are more ready to talk to each other. I recently asked, “Name a book you haven’t read that you think you ought to have read,” and one woman immediately said, “That would be all the novels from last semester’s English Literature class.”

It’s a familiar story. The lecturer isn’t confident that the students have read and understood the material well enough to talk about it. She delivers the content herself, so the students know that they will get everything they need from the lecturer without reading and will not be accountable in class for having done the reading. They can cram for the test from their notes, and a good essay prompt focuses students on particular reading which they might, reluctantly, have to do, but not while it’s being discussed in class. So, no reading.

At least that was the dynamic in my classes prior to the emergence of discussion boards. I eschewed a solution some of my colleagues use, which is a ‘pop quiz’ with simple, factual recall questions about the reading, because I didn’t want to signal that what I value is factual recall. I want students to learn how to think critically. But, even in smaller classes, I couldn’t trust that they had done the reading.

The game-changer has been the online discussion board.

My first lecture of the week is on a Tuesday, and most of the reading is assigned for that class. Thirty-six hours before class, the students must respond to a prompt about the reading—one that is impossible to respond to coherently without having done the reading. Settings allow you to prevent them from seeing other students’ responses until after they post. Then, they have until the beginning of class to respond to a classmate.

If students post, they get credit; if not, they don’t. Literally (and I mean that in the old-fashioned sense in which it actually meant “literally” rather than the modern sense in which it seems to mean “not literally”), if they submit a paragraph of nonsense, they’ll get credit. But they don’t. Their writing is public to me and their peers, and they don’t want to be embarrassed.

In smaller classes, the effect has been astonishing. Almost all my students do almost all the reading for almost every class. In my upper-level classes, the total word count for 20 students is often 15,000 or more. (Remember, one incoherent sentence would be sufficient for credit.) Some comments form the basis of papers; many are, themselves, rough (and, occasionally, not-so-rough) papers. The students feel accountable to me and one another. I know what they are thinking, what they understand, and what they don’t, which has transformed my preparation for class. It hasn’t made it easier or less time-consuming, but it has made it more interesting. Instead of guessing what might be useful to students, I can make well-informed judgments about what they need. I can talk much less in class than I used to, and my talk is more useful than it was.

In addition, they can each know what the others think before they come to class. In combination with a policy of making them learn each other’s names, it seems to make them much more engaged with one another. Students routinely refer in class discussions to ideas other people have posted online.

The board provokes the students to read more and makes the time in the classroom more focused on them. The fact that I know what they are thinking allows me to spend more time in class making them accountable for having done the reading—which they have actually done. Ironic, isn’t it?

Large lectures are different. I read many posts, and so do my TAs, but we don’t read everything. Typically students write a paragraph, and the response posts are often little more than a few sentences expressing agreement. I’m not a fool, and I don’t believe for a minute that all the students do all the reading. But I have evidence that many more do it than used to. (In particular, two of the readings should provoke outrage in many of the students, and, whereas before I adopted this policy, most students came to class on those days impassive, now many arrive in class steaming.) And, as with the small class, I have much better evidence than I ever had before of what they are thinking and what they do and do not understand, which enables me to prepare more relevant lectures and better prompts for in-class discussion.

This semester I’ve been personalizing the process for the large lecture more. I require students to sit by discussion section in the lecture hall, and the Canvas (LMS) settings make it easy to organize the online interactions by discussion section—so that each student interacts only with the posts of the other 20 students in their section (whose names they already know, after just a few weeks). Maybe this will prompt more reading and more elaborate discussions.

For a long time, I assumed that everybody else was doing this, partly because it is obvious and partly because, being basically a technophobe, I am usually 5 to 10 years behind everyone else for any given technological innovation. Some readers probably think it’s hardly worth mentioning. I’d agree if it weren’t for the fact that so many colleagues express surprise and curiosity when I describe it.

What to read next: “Navigating the Need for Rigor and Engagement: How to Make Fruitful Class Discussions Happen,” by Harry Brighouse