Program evaluation for program improvement

bar graph_program eval blog

Are your numbers giving you meaningful information? (Photo:

Evaluating an educational program can mean anything from distributing a “smile sheet” (“How much did you like our program?”) to launching a multi-year, mixed-methods study on the effectiveness of your intervention. The former won’t tell you much of value, and the latter is well out of budget for most initiatives. Good program evaluation takes some time and resources, but doesn’t necessarily need to resemble a full-scale research project. Even if your evaluation is a modest one, following some basic rules can help produce data that contribute meaningfully to improving the program.

Rule #1: The first rule of evaluation is that it should be part of the original program setup. It’s not uncommon that a program is developed and then, months later, somebody says, “Gee, we ought to evaluate it!” By that time, it’s too late to collect any pre-program data, meaning that measuring participants’ change over the course of the program may be impossible. As you develop your program, be thinking about the program objectives you expect to achieve (see Rule #2), and how you will know at the end of the program whether you have achieved them. Another reason to plan from the start is that you’ll want to include money in the program budget for evaluation – the staff who will perform it, any materials needed, incentives for participants, and so on.

Rule #2: Evaluation should be linked to program goals and objectives. The words goal and objective are often used interchangeably, but in evaluation-speak, goals are broader aims of a program, while objectives are more concrete, measurable hoped-for outcomes. So, for instance, a math-education program might have as its goal to increase student interest and improve performance in math; the more specific objectives might be to increase participants’ confidence in grade-level math, to enhance understanding of particular concepts, to improve scores on final exams, and so forth. For each objective, there should be a measurable question to be addressed in the evaluation (see Rule #3). You may want to use a logic model to help ensure that your evaluation plan aligns well with your program plan.

Rule #3: Measures should be designed to answer questions that align to program objectives. The “smile sheet” approach is OK as a small part of a larger evaluation, but it’s not going to tell you whether you have met all of the main goals of a program. Once you’ve articulated goals and objectives, you can state key evaluation questions. Staying with the math-education example, for example, a key question might be “To what extent did participants’ math confidence levels change over the program period?” When possible and appropriate, make use of existing, validated measures to help answer key evaluation questions.

Rule #4: Feed evaluation results back into the program. Too often, evaluation gets done more to check it off the to-do list than to actually make improvements in the program. Take the time to analyze evaluation data, and consider what the results suggest about where and how the program is, or is not, meeting its objectives and goals. Use the data to support recommendations for program changes where appropriate. And perhaps the most important advice of all: Resist the temptation to see only the data that support initial program expectations and to ignore findings that point to the contrary.

Marina Micari is an associate director at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching.


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How can we keep students engaged in science?

Making ScientistsRecently, we struck up a conversation with a Northwestern undergraduate.  This young woman had been a top student in high school and had excelled in science.

After a quarter of college science courses, though, she was discouraged.  She felt lost in a sea of hundreds of other students in class, overwhelmed by the sheer number of facts she had to memorize, and depressed by the intense competition among her classmates. She foundered and watched her grades sink. Along with them went her innate enthusiasm for the area of study she had chosen.  “I used to love science,” she told us.  “Now, here, I can’t love science anymore.”

In reality she was introduced not to science but rather to a poor facsimile under the same name: a science course in which no scientific thinking or genuine science experience was provided. The encouraging news is that increasing numbers of teachers and institutions are attempting to reverse course.

We have run a decade-long learning program in the sciences, engineering, and math that engages students in authentic scientific practices – and which has produced impressive academic and experiential outcomes for its students.

Through a study of that program (the Gateway Science Workshop program), we’ve drawn on thousands of student voices and the experiences of many dozens of faculty to identify 6 principles of effective teaching for a more authentic science experience.

1.     Learning deeply. Deep learning is what scientists engage in throughout their careers, but it is often absent in large lecture science courses. Deep learning happens when faculty go beyond teaching content, when they include opportunities for students to actively work with the course content, rather than simply hearing or reading about it.

2.     Engaging problems. Effective teachers invite students to engage with problems in the same way scientists do: by offering problems that help elucidate key concepts, by requiring application of more than one concept for solution, and by encouraging students to think beyond the familiar problem setting and transfer knowledge to different settings.

3.   Connecting peers. While competition can drive discovery in authentic science, collaboration is also critical. Faculty can discourage unhealthy competition by helping students collaborate with their peers. Just tossing students together, though, is not enough: Groups need clear goals and ground rules to ensure that all participate and view the experience as meaningful and connected to course content.

4.     Mentoring learning. Faculty can mentor students in office hours, but students often do not come. Some faculty hold group office hours, helping students feel less intimidated and ensuring more students have a chance to engage with the professor. Peer mentors can be especially useful because – somewhat ironically – they don’t have the level of expertise of the professor.

5.     Creating community. Faculty can promote inclusion by inviting students to participate with them in science, for instance by holding occasional “science tables” at the cafeteria, by engaging student science groups, particularly those including underrepresented students, by talking about their own research interests, and by helping students learn more about science careers.

6.     Doing research. Effective teachers help students discover a passion for research, for instance by building in assignments which require research skills, by bringing real-life research experiences into lecture, and by talking frankly about the challenges and disappointments of research.

These practices don’t require a major reworking of the curriculum, but they do require faculty to radically rethink deeply held assumptions about teaching science in higher education. They are relatively simple practices that promote meaningful learning and – perhaps more important – create a welcoming and authentic science environment out of an uninviting and unscientific one, an environment in which students can learn to “love science” once again.

Greg Light is the Director of the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, and Marina Micari directs the undergraduate programs, including GSW. Their book, Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, was published by Harvard University Press in 2013.
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It’s in the syllabus…isn’t it? How a syllabus quiz can help students learn

its in the syllabus cartoonThis comic perfectly sums up the frustration that instructors often encounter in regards to answering routine questions from students. Long ago, some brilliant instructor probably came up with an ingenious method for dealing with the questions that he kept getting asked over and over.

“Ah ha!” he said as the light bulb flashed over his head. “I will write down the answers to all of these commonly asked questions, and give them out to students at the beginning of the term. That way they will have a simple way to get the information, and will never bother me with questions again!”

And so the syllabus was born.

[Well…actually… According to A Brief History of The Syllabus with Examples by Jeffrey Snyder, the syllabus first made its foray into academics in the eighteenth century and was little more than ledger list of topics to be covered.  It was not until the twentieth century that the syllabus emerged in its current form.]

Regardless, unfortunately, as many of us know, even the most detailed syllabus cannot save an instructor from being deluged with the same questions from students over and over.

This is because, of course, even the most detailed information is useless to a person who does not take the time to read it. And few things are less read than the average course syllabus. There are obscure scrolls from the Middle Ages that have had more eyeballs on them than the average freshman year syllabus. This thought should not discourage instructors; instead it should motivate to think about the overall purpose(s) of a syllabus, as well as the creative and effective ways of constructing a syllabus.

But what is it about the syllabus that makes it such undesirable reading?

I believe you could sum it up with one pithy cliché: ignorance is bliss. What could be more demoralizing to a student than to take in with one reading all of the work and expectations they face for the entire semester? It’s a page or two of text that can fill the student with dread, a daunting to-do list that, well…they’d rather not even know about if they don’t have to. And so they take it day by day, getting by as best they can without peeping at the syllabus.

Until something comes up.  A question…They can’t proceed until they get an answer. They dare not gaze upon their mortal foe. And so we hear the knock on our doors, and a familiar refrain: “Professor, I uh…have a question.”

And then we must summon our most saint-like patience, as we calmly say the words that have exited our lips a hundred times before: “It’s in the syllabus!”

If most students do not get it, that will be the instructor’s responsibility to help them understand it better.  Only students should not be blamed!

A solution that has helped bridge the communication gap, particularly in online teaching settings, where it may be more challenging for an instructor to speak to his or her students directly, is the implementation of a required, but ungraded, syllabus quiz.

The purpose of the syllabus quiz is to give students the opportunity to digest rules and expectations pertaining to academic work, and to help them identify areas they may not understand about the course.  At the same time, the quiz can also be a tool to convey a learning-focused approach to teaching, by allowing students and instructors to better understand how the syllabus (and course) have been designed around learning.

A syllabus quiz won’t guarantee an end to repeated questions about the syllabus, but at least now the students will know: IT’S IN THE SYLLABUS!

What do you think? Have you ever used a syllabus quiz?  What other methods have been helpful for you in facilitating your students’ understanding of course expectations?

Muveddet Harris is the program associate for faculty programs at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. She also teaches graduate level online courses in the Master’s Program in Medical Informatics for Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies.

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An interview with Owen Youngman–MOOC pioneer

Owen Youngman

Owen Youngman

In Fall 2013, Northwestern University launched its first three MOOCs–the Massive Open Online Courses that have been reshaping long-standing ideas about what it means to learn and teach in higher education.

The very first MOOC at Northwestern was taught by Owen Youngman, the Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. We are delighted that Owen was able to join us on our blog to share his experiences and insights about teaching the MOOC.

Thank you so much for joining us today.  Could you tell us a little about your professional background and what you usually teach at Northwestern?
I was an editor and executive at the Chicago Tribune before coming to Northwestern, focusing largely on new product development, interactive initiatives, and cross-company project management.  I first began using online services in 1983 and almost immediately introduced the first personal computer to the newsroom, an Apple II on which I trained sports department clerks in VisiCalc so we could update batting averages and get them into the paper more quickly. I was the Tribune’s first director of interactive media, with business and editorial responsibility for the creation of Web sites including and; later I directed the creation and launch of RedEye, and still later directed the newspaper industry’s first social media strategy after drawing it up on my office whiteboard. At Northwestern, I generally teach graduate and undergraduate courses that focus on the impact of technological change on the journalism and media businesses, with a goal of helping our students to emerge from Medill equipped to lead the next round of change, whatever that might prove to be.

What motivated you to teach a MOOC?
My 30 years of direct experience online has shown me that the best way to understand not just a new technology or tool, but also its potential impact on people, culture, and business, is actually to get deeply and directly involved rather than rely on second-hand reports. When Northwestern announced its involvement with Coursera and Semester Online, I proposed adapting my on-campus course, “American Media through the Lens of Google,” for either platform; Jake Julia in the provost’s office thought it sounded like a MOOC, and so with the support of Medill Dean Brad Hamm I proceeded with what became “Understanding Media by Understanding Google,” in essence a “digital literacy” course designed to help enrollees to evaluate the intersection of their own habits and behavior with media enterprises and technology companies. My first subsequent act was to take a MOOC from Penn so that I could understand the student experience; that proved to be an invaluable part of understanding how I might approach this challenge.

Your MOOC was the very first course of its kind launched at Northwestern. What was the experience of teaching thousands of students like for you?  Was the course as you expected?  
Thanks to the assistance I got from across the University — the School of Continuing Studies, the Searle Center,  NUIT, the provost’s office, the Medill administration, and my team of on-campus students who helped me monitor the course for a couple of months — the class came off largely as I might have expected.  It was interesting to observe how the enrollees interacted with one another around this topic, how fervently they engaged with the ideas that were presented, and how motivated they were to excel on the quizzes and homework assignments, even though it was essentially a “pass-fail” course (score 70 out of 100 points and you earn a certificate; score fewer than 70, you don’t).

What was the most surprising thing you learned from teaching the MOOC?
Perhaps the most surprising thing was something that I learned from a post-course survey that I administered to the 1,196 students who “passed” (73% of them returned it): that contrary to my expectations as well as to early indications in online chatter, the students found that the homework grades they received from their peers were “mostly fair” (on a 5-point scale, the average response worked out to 4.47, with more than 700 respondents agreeing at the “4” or “5” level). Early on, I had seen peer grading — necessary at this scale of enrollment — as a potential business model issue for the MOOC companies, especially as they try to identify paths to revenue generation; this may indicate that, at least for those students who persevere and complete a course, it actually works.  There was a lot else to learn both from creating and teaching it, and I have written quite a bit about my observations and inferences in places like The Guardian, The Atlantic, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Would you teach this (or any other) MOOC again? What if anything would you change or do differently?
There’s plenty to do differently — provide a clear “frequently asked questions” list ahead of time; communicate expectations for each component even more clearly; in particular, work to identify Northwestern alums among the enrollees and provide them a tailored experience. So sure, if the University and Medill and I agree on how teaching it again can advance our joint and individual goals, it would be good to do it again and see how we can make MOOCs even more valuable both to the students and the institution.

Thank you! We look forward to hearing more about what you learn after teaching the MOOC for the second time!

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Down with the college essay?

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons

Last month in Slate, Rebecca Schuman made a modest proposal: let’s stop assigning essays in required humanities courses. Schuman, an education journalist and a professor of German, believes that students hate writing papers as much as professors hate grading them. Undergraduates, she claims, often prefer to “buy, borrow, or steal” an essay than to sit down and grind one out. “It’s time to declare unconditional defeat,” she says, and time to “return to old-school, hardcore exams”: “With more exams and no papers,” students will “at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded.”

Plenty of readers took umbrage with Schuman’s characterization of undergraduates and with her ideas about teaching and learning. On Twitter, she clarified that her Slate piece should be read as “Viennese satire,” “exaggerated but true at the same time.” Still, she stood by her basic argument: “The pedagogy of required lit courses stinks & I want it dead.” In her own courses, she uses what she calls an “un-essay essay pedagogy,” which replaces conventional papers with various “peer-to-peer, in-class, out-of-class, one-sitting, single-issue, highly focused smaller writing assignments.”

Here Schuman sounds far less like an iconoclast. For decades teachers have been expressing dissatisfaction with the standard five-paragraph essay, and have explored a multitude of alternatives. Yet many undergraduate humanities courses, especially introductory surveys and lectures, continue to be built around traditional paper assignments. So Schuman’s article is a timely intervention.

But her solution – a return to “rigorous, old-school” examinations – makes more sense as a provocation than as a practical suggestion. (Of course, given Schuman’s use of hyperbole, the “solution” she proposes might not be one she would genuinely endorse.) If we were to swap exams for papers, line IDs for close readings, we would be forced to admit that we teach content – literature itself, historical fact itself, art itself – and not modes of critical thinking. We would no longer be in the business of showing a broad population of undergraduates how to observe, analyze, and make arguments about social and cultural phenomena. We would, in other words, lose one of our best explanations for why our disciplines should continue to exist.

What we teach in general-ed courses, and how we assist 18-year-olds who struggle to write, reveals how we define our scholarly mission. For instance, when we are teaching an introductory course in literary studies, we are not, properly speaking, teaching literature; we are training students to think and talk about literature. As Gerald Graff puts it, “we are looking for curricular coherence in the wrong place when we seek it in the primary texts to be assigned rather than the culture of ideas and arguments, the intellectual forms of talk and writing students need in order to make a literate response to a text or anything else” (xvi). To participate meaningfully in the “culture of ideas and arguments,” students must write. Sometimes at length. Perhaps poorly.

But do they need to write expository essays? With introductions, bodies, and conclusions? With theses, examples, and analyses? Not really, the research tells us. Scholar after scholar has concluded that the “five-paragraph theme” (FPT) is outdated and ineffective, and one even argues that it “stunts the growth of human minds” (Wesley 57). The FPT tends to convince students that form precedes content, and that writing is an act of “slotting information into prefabricated formulas rather than a complex process of meaning-making and negotiation between a writer’s purposes and audiences’ needs” (Brannon 16). In this way, the FPT “forces premature closure on complicated interpretive issues and stifles ongoing exploration” (Wiley 61).

On one count, then, the research vindicates Rebecca Schuman: if we have the best interests of our students at heart, we need to explore alternative writing assignments in humanities courses. Instead of requiring three or four FPTs per term, we might ask our students to write, say, a review of an academic book or article. Or have them compose a “keyword” essay, modeled on the examples in Raymond Williams’s Keywords. Or engage them in a collaborative wiki project. The possibilities are manifold – and well documented.

Schuman herself appears to have generated a number of exciting alternatives. We would like to hear more about the eclectic array of “highly focused smaller writing assignments” she has developed: What are they, exactly? What kinds of directions does she give her students? How does she perform and justify her assessments? Perhaps we can convince Schuman to publish a more in-depth article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The headline offers itself: “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy.”

But in the meantime we would suggest that, while the five-paragraph theme deserves to be challenged, the undergraduate essay itself – the sustained exploration of a text or a topic – should not be abandoned. Yes, we need to alleviate pressure on graders, many of whom are graduate students and contingent professors. (We might consider keeping most writing assignments short – not to mention pushing for structural changes in the academic labor system.) Yes, we have to demonstrate to our students that a scholarly essay can take many forms, depending on what it seeks to accomplish. (Easier said than taught.) But at least once during a required class, undergraduates should have the opportunity to compose an extended piece, to make a complex contribution to the “culture of ideas and arguments.” To do so remains the richest way to take part in the academic humanities. What more valuable experience could an introductory course provide?

What do you think of the five-paragraph theme? Have you used (or been assigned) workable alternative forms? Do you have any strategies for saving time on grading papers without sacrificing student learning? Above all, do you think the essay should remain a staple of introductory humanities course?

Garrett Ford Morrison

Garrett Ford Morrison

Garrett Ford Morrison is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching.

He has recently begun blogging about higher education at

References: Brannon, Lil, et al. “The Five Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education.” The English Journal 98.2 (November 2008): 16-21; Campbell, Kimberly Hill and Kristi Latimer. Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2012; Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. 1987. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007; Wesley, Kimberly. “The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme.” The English Journal 90.1 (November 1999): 57-60; Wiley, Mark. “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist).” The English Journal 90.1 (November 1999): 61-67.
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Designing a course with your learners in mind


Is your course aligned around learning?

I frequently sit down with faculty who are in varying stages of panic concerning their syllabus for an upcoming course.  Sometimes it is a brand new course, or  one inherited from a colleague.  Often,  they have already taught the course once or twice and are seeking to make it better.  Many times the instructors tell me that they are aware that “something is not working” (unfortunately, often because of poor student ratings) but they are unable to pinpoint the problem.

Understandably, when I ask them about how they designed the course, many faculty will tell me that they constructed the syllabus by focusing on the content they wanted to teach, rather than thinking about what they wanted their students to learn. 

So I might ask them, “Well, why do you have the students write these five papers?” or “What is the purpose of this final presentation?” or something similar about the course. I’m not judging their choices, I’m just trying to understand their pedagogical rationale.  Very often they reply, “This is what I had to do in grad school or as an undergrad,” or “This is how my colleague does it,” or “I’m really not sure. I thought X would make the course more rigorous/interesting/compelling.”

This is often where the challenge lies.

Certainly content and course themes are important, but we recommend that instructors take what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have called a Backwards Design approach to constructing their courses: Beginning with the end–learning outcomes–in mind. This means that the instructor would have a clear purpose and reason for every aspect of the class, and can make that rationale transparent to his or her students and others.

To do this, we recommend that faculty think through these fundamental teaching questions in designing a course, to better align the course around learning:

(1) What is it I want my students to be able to do or know, by the end of the course/module/term/session?  This question will help you think through the learning objectives, which will ideally promote higher order thinking and learning. We recommend Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy or Bigg’s SOLO Taxonomy to help you think through the levels of thinking you might like your students to achieve.

(2)What activities or methods will I use to help my students achieve these learning objectives?  What activities will help students think critically or communicate ideas clearly or whatever the learning objectives you decided on? Is it small-group work? Interactive lecture? Discussion? Do these activities and methods clearly align with your learning objectives?

(3) How will I–and my students–know whether my students have met these objectives?  How will I assess my students’ learning (achievement, performance, progress towards learning objectives)?  What projects, assignments, homeworks, exams etc will I assign? What formal (e.g. grades, rubrics)  and informal methods will I use? (e.g. surveys, ungraded quizzes, peer and self reflections, student feedback, classroom assessment techniques).  Do these assignments clearly align with my learning objectives?

(4) And finally, How do I know if and whether my teaching has contributed to my students’ learning outcomes? Do I need to change the readings or tweak the assignments? Do I need to change the order of assignments? Do I need to clarify my expectations more? Did my activities and assessments align with my stated learning objectives?

Designing a course around learning, especially for the first time, is not easy. Certainly, it takes time to do well. However, beginning with the end in mind may make it easier to pinpoint challenges and lack of alignment, and ultimately to improve a course or make it your own. But what do you think?

References: Light, Cox, & Calkins (2009). Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional. Sage; Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Susanna Calkins is an associate director at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching and regularly consults with faculty about issues related to learning and teaching.

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Peer Learning: Getting students to work together meaningfully

peer learningWe may all have memories of group projects gone bad … you’re the only one who does any work, one person freeloads, the group can’t agree on a direction, and so forth.

Our students have these memories, too, and as a result can be reluctant to engage in group work.  But there are so many potential benefits of learning together – including improved problem-solving and critical thinking skills, enhanced understanding, improved communication skills, and social benefits like increased empathy and reduced competitiveness –  that it’s worth the effort to make peer learning happen well.

Structuring the peer-learning environment effectively means ensuring that all students are meaningfully engaged in their group’s work. Often, students are not well prepared to do this, and so spending some “training time” upfront will save time and frustration later.  For instance, discussing with students what a good group experience looks like, and having them develop guidelines and group goals not only provides shared groundrules, but also increases students’ personal investment in the project.

Assessment is another tricky area in group work. If students are truly working collaboratively, it’s impossible to pull out any individual’s work in order to assess and grade it. One very popular, and useful, practice is to have each member of a group assess all of the other members’ work – as well as their own.  Instructors will need to provide rubrics that address the expected behaviors of group members (for instance: to what extent did this person contribute useful ideas to discussion/help you clarify your own ideas/meet group deadlines/etc.). Teachers can also use “debrief” kinds of assignments – for instance, reflection papers or “lessons learned” papers – to suss out what each student took from the group experience.

Sometimes, teachers are reluctant to use peer learning in the classroom because they feel it’s a cop-out on their part – they’re not teaching if the students are doing all the talking. In reality, though, designing effective peer-learning environments and activities takes a lot of planning, creativity, and hard work – probably more than the standard lecture prep – as any teacher who has tried and tried again with peer learning can tell you.

Image: Fabi Fliervoet,
Marina Micari is an associate director at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. She is co-author of Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2013).

What are the potential pitfalls of peer learning? What have you tried and succeeded (or failed) at?  What works well? What possibilities do you see?

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Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, we at Searle would like to extend our thanks to all the wonderful teachers at Northwestern.

We appreciate your hard work and dedication to learning and teaching.

Hope you have as much fun as these NU students did in the 1940s! Image: Northwestern University Archives

Hope you have as much fun as these NU students did in the 1940s! Image: Northwestern University Archives

And we also thank our students–we think you’re pretty great too!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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Helping all students learn in a diverse classroom

We’ve probably never had an instructor say,  “I feel totally comfortable teaching in a diverse classroom.” 

Image: University of the Fraser Valley,

Teachers can feel worried about saying something that could be construed as biased, about underrepresented students not feeling comfortable speaking, about inadvertently doing something that might make some students lose confidence and any range of other concerns.

Even teachers with years of experience teaching in diverse environments tell us they have many moments of uncertainty.

There are no magic formulas, but the advice seasoned teachers give is to get to know your students, to let each of them know you are interested in them as people, to set ground rules but encourage open discussion, and to be willing to take risks but also to help students recover from difficult encounters.  A good first step is to try to create an inclusive classroom, which essentially means that you are striving to set up an environment that does not work against any students’ ability to learn.  Following the principles of universal design in developing courses helps ensure this sort of inclusivity.

All teachers should also be aware of stereotype threat and how it is triggered.  In a situation of stereotype threat, performance is hampered performance caused by worry that one might confirm a negative stereotype about one’s group.  The theory has been tested in a wide range of circumstances, and the effect appears to hold for any group (even majority groups), when there is a risk of that group being perceived as less capable at some particular task – for instance, women taking math tests, men taking a social sensitivity “test,” African American students taking standardized tests, and older adults doing memory tasks.  Sending the message to all students that you, as the instructor, believe they can succeed can dampen the effects of stereotype threat.

Image: University of the Fraser Valley,
Marina Micari is an associate director at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. She is co-author of Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2013).

What is the hardest thing for you about teaching in a diverse setting?  What is most rewarding?  What strategies have helped you teach more inclusively?

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What does it mean to teach?

There’s an age-old question that people will sometimes debate:  “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it fall, did the tree make a sound?”

Broken Tree in Forest

Broken Tree in Forest: Can you hear it?

A similar question could be posed about teaching:  “If an instructor is standing in front of the room “teaching,” but students are not learning, is he or she really teaching at all?”

This question gets at the heart of what it means to teach.

Several decades of research suggest that there are three broad ways that instructors understand teaching: teacher-focused (transmission), student-focused (acquisition), and learning-focused (conceptual change or engaged).

For many instructors, teaching refers to the  transmission of  a teacher’s content knowledge, skills and expertise to (hopefully receptive) students.  This orientation is often referred to as teacher-focused (sometimes called teacher-centered), because the process is essentially a monologue by the teacher.  Due to an emphasis on covering material, the instructor may ask for little to no input from students.  Instructors holding this orientation might say: “I will teach them this material so my students will have (at least some of) my knowledge.”

Other instructors take a student-focused approach to teaching,  viewing teaching as a process of helping students acquire the teacher’s content knowledge and skills. Their focus is on helping students acquire the course content (tools, knowledge and skills). For many holding this conception, teaching is a process of explanation.  Such instructors might say, “I’d like to give my students the tools  that will help them solve problems.”

In contrast, a third group of instructors conceptualize teaching as a process of facilitating student learning.  Instead of simply transferring their knowledge to students,  these instructors seek to help students construct knowledge for themselves. The process of teaching is a dialogue, as the instructor seeks to help students engage with the material and one another.    This orientation is referred to as learning-focused (or learning-centered), because it focuses on the learners’ generation of knowledge. Instructors holding this orientation might say “I’d like my students to be able to generate questions and ideas of their own.”

We know, from research on student learning, that students learn more deeply when they are able to make connections among ideas, look for patterns, create their own links, reflect critically on course content, and be given the opportunity to ask meaningful questions.  (For a more thorough explanation of deep and surface learning, see Noel Entwistle’s well-regarded explanation of the terms).

So the question is: Are you teaching in order to cover material and give your students knowledge that you’ve already learned, or are you giving them the opportunity to make sense of knowledge and find connections among ideas for themselves?

Consider how you understand teaching. What does “teaching” mean to you?

[References: Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham, UK: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press; Light G, Cox R, Calkins S. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional. Sage Press; 2009; Entwistle,  N. (1997) ‘Contrasting Perspectives on Learning. In: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. pp. 3-22.]

Susanna Calkins is associate director of faculty programs at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching. She is co-author of Learning & Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional (Sage, 2009)

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