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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are exams about testing or can they be about learning?

Using individual as well as group exams in two classes this semester has taught me that exams can be about more than just regurgitating facts.

Research has shown that the use of group exams in college classes has three positive outcomes: group work promotes deeper understanding of the material; groups outperform individuals; and group tests are less stressful.

I could spend a lot of time on the first positive outcome, 'promotes deeper understanding,' and how its my belief that deeper understanding and the integration of learning into the brain is really what teaching and learning is all about for me. But I'll spare you.

Rather, I want to share the additional positive outcomes I have seen in the two classes where I have introduced individual plus group exams. First, students show up and stay in the class. If you think that's not important, just look at statistics regarding retention, and talk to college instructors on attendance rates. It's a really, really big deal!

The second additional positive outcome is that students are much more engaged and open with each other in those classes. Even more than in classes where we do a lot of group/team activities - there seems to be something about sharing the anxiety and the pressure and the success of an exam that deepens the bonding.

Just one example: before the final exam in one of the classes, one student brought 'good luck' necklaces for the team members. They all wore them proudly during and after the exam, and even stayed on after everybody else had left. They talked about how they didn't want the class to end. When have you heard that the last time from a student?

I will try to implement individual and group exams more, and will continue to watch for the impact it has on student success and learning. But, equally important to me, I will watch for retention and engagement in those classes.

Millennials live and learn differently. It is our job as college instructors to provide an environment where they can learn and be successful.

Change, the only constant!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Whistling Vivaldi - should community college teachers care about stereotype threat?

Is stereotype threat just one more thing to worry about, or is it just one more thing to not worry about in the community college classroom?

Claude Steele defines stereotype threat as the pressure one experiences in a challenging academic setting as a member of a group - woman, black, Asian, old, etc. - because one's performance could confirm a bad view of that group and of oneself, as a member of that group. (p. 59)


For example, a woman in an advanced college math class knows that she could be seen as limited because, stereotypically, men are perceived as being better at math than women. So, her performance in that math class puts that extra pressure on her: she is not only performing to achieve her own goals, but also to proof or disproof something about the whole of women studying math.

Makes sense? Can you relate?
But let's see where that takes us.

Steele set up experiments where the subjects were reminded of their group membership before a difficult task; for the woman in the advanced math class, it could be something as trivial as seeing a picture of a woman holding a child. Steele showed over and over, across many group membership possibilities, that subjects showed depressed performance under those circumstances.

Now for the good news.

If the woman was given the same math test, but the test was presented as gender neutral - for example, by reading a statement that this test previously showed equal success by men and women alike, or maybe even that women showed to be especially successful on this test - the subject demonstrated a statistically significant increase in performance on the math test.

How can I apply this in my community college classroom?

Depending on the specific group membership I am concerned about, I could make a statement that, in previous semesters, students did equally well on this test.

What will it take for me to do this? To be more aware of stereotypes and how they might show up in my classes. By paying attention and giving consideration to stereotype threat, I might be able to get one step closer to leveling the academic success 'playing field.'

Friday, August 27, 2010

Building community in the online classroom - I have to go first

This summer I took several classes that involved social media in one way or another. The last one focused on social media for online teaching. Now, at the conclusion of that class, I can say that I had three major ‘aha’ moments that changed my understanding of the online class community.

First, that it takes time to build community: the forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning phases are vital; they cannot be hurried of skipped if one’s goal indeed is to build an online community. Yes, this takes time. It’s an investment of resources that currently are not captured in any SLO, yet they can make or break the learning success in a class.

The second main point for me is the fact that participation is key. I read in “Stages of Group Development” that collaboration is, essentially, interaction. This means that I have to make a change in how I facilitate my online classes. I have been very tolerant of lurkers - the lurker, the person who is around but not visible through contributions – and I now realize that the lurker is not part of the community. Hence, I will privately encourage lurkers to participate, and set minimum requirements for all.

Third, that I, as instructor, should model the process, and actively engage in the collaboration. Until now, I had considered the instructor’s presence as a distraction (at best) or as a pace setter, not to be overtaken. I now realize that my participation in the activities and on discussion boards will increase the feeling of “all of us are in this together,” and that my mantra, we are all learning together, can become a reality.
I already recorded a welcome message using VoiceThread for my late-start online class. I am not using a new toy just to use the new toy, I am starting with the end in mind: Building community, increasing social presence, and engaging as a whole person.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I am in the transportation business?

Thoughts after the 2010 Convocation at Diablo Valley College.

During one of the speeches at yesterday's convocation, somebody, I think it was President Judy Walters, stated, "We are in the transportation business." That stuck with me.

I get it - it's a metaphor for education. Taking people from where they are now to where they want to be.

But the way my brain works, it latches on to this metaphor, and creates a whole movie around it. The transportation business as a metaphor for community college education, for me, means public transportation. Let's make it a bus.

We have established routes and schedules, fees and types of buses. We desperately are trying to create a system that serves the most people most of the time. But there are some people that just can't make it in this cookie-cutter system.

Let's see. There are those passengers who take really long to get on the bus; those who get on but then want to get off right away; those who get on the wrong bus; those who don't have the money to pay; those who wait on the wrong side of the street; those who don't correctly identify a bus station as such, and wonder why the buses pass them over and over again...

Then there are those passengers who get on the wrong bus, but don't know it. Those who get on a bus because their parents make them, because their friends get on that bus, because they have nothing better to do...

And then there are changing patterns and needs. One bus line used to be crowded all the time - and now it's running almost empty. Or at certain times, the bus is really, really full, and at other times it's a ghost bus. And on the other side, passengers have to walk a long, long distance to get to the nearest bus station, even though more and more people are having to make that long walk.

Ok, I'll stop milking this metaphor totally dry - the bottom line: If we community college educators are indeed in the transportation business, then, "Because we've always done it this way" just isn't good enough. We need to be in touch with passengers' needs, and change routes, create new schedules, offer a variety of buses, and place bus stops where the people need them.

"Trans" - a prefix indicating "change." For us as educators, too.

Monday, August 9, 2010

From Zappo's to the Community College Classroom

I just finished reading Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappo's. Why I read that? Well, it was mentioned in a UC Berkeley marketing class I took this summer, but also because I teach entrepreneurship, and I am always looking for good stories students can relate to.

Here's what I got out of reading the book: Yes, as expected, I am inspired and impressed by Hsieh's entrepreneurial spirit, instinct, commitment, and success. I am also intrigued by the emphasis he places on nurturing the Zappo culture, and the many interesting and entertaining stories. Very appealing, and I will definitely talk about it in class.

But what really got me was at the very end of the book. Hsieh talks about happiness. Yep, touchy-feely happiness. He actually studied happiness, and the different frameworks for happiness. And here's the one that really, really got to me.

  1. Perceived control
  2. Perceived progress
  3. Connectedness
  4. Vision/Meaning
This framework states that if we have those four things in our lives, we feel happy. So, I thought of the classroom culture I endeavor to create. Why? Because there is a direct connection between the emotional engagement of a student in a class, and academic success. Now, what if I call that emotional engagement "happiness"? Let's see...

  1. Control: In as many areas as possible, the students get to have a vote/voice on what happens in the classroom. Who are your group members; what will be the consequence when a cell phone goes off during class; when will the homework be due; how many questions on the exam; students create exam questions...
  2. Progress: Rather than designing assessments for the class to be limited to one midterm and one final, assessments happen at least weekly, and in several formats. Also, all grades are available 24/7 through the CMS.
  3. Connectedness: We spend time to get to know each other, and mix up groups for team projects. We use the CMS to stay in touch outside the class meeting time, and put on at least one pot luck. We laugh, talk, teach, and learn together.
  4. Meaning: What happens in the classroom has a larger meaning for each and every student's life. That will not be the same for every student, rather, it means that we talk about the many facets how our classroom learning applies to 'real' life. Also, it means that students bring in their experiences, current situations, and dreams to make those connections.

I am so glad I read this book. How perfect is the timing, too: As I am starting the new semester, I am reminded that community college teaching is about so much more than checking that students are retaining facts. It's about meaning-making, about the emotional connection with the subject and the class and then college. The process is the destination.

Did I mention that I am so glad I read this book?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The new face of marketing - communicate, communicate, communicate

So, we think we are so cutting edge and hip these days - revolutionizing marketing, right?

Well, here's some food for thought.

Jerry Della Femina, the advertising legend, wrote:
"The 22-year old is like an old man next to the 18-year old, who is really far out ... It's the kids who are really revolutionizing the advertising business today. The kids are pushing ahead, mainly because the communicate to consumers like we've never communicated before." (Della Femina, 2010, p.108)

Sounds like relationship-era marketing alright, doesn't it?

Here's the thing: Della Femina wrote this in 1969.
Yep. Caught my attention, too.

We 'old' people need to lead, no doubt about it. We still carry the responsibility to show the ways that have worked before, to move some obstacles out of the way, and throw some others in that are useful.

And then we need to have an open mind, and follow. Those 'kids' really do have their fingers on the pulse of what's going on out there, and not just when it comes to useful tools for marketing and advertising.

As a teacher interested in learning theory, I know that learning needs an emotional connection. I have a great opportunity to meet the students where they are, connect to their lives, help them help me make their life experience real when I invite their realities into the classroom.

Communication, communication communication - that's still where it's at. Today, it's texting, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and the next thing that will be invented just about NOW.

Standing still means going backward, even in teaching. Oh, go ahead, enjoy the wild ride forward!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thoughts after reading Broke, USA

One of my 'favorite' topics in business math: Payday lending.

Quick question: How many Payday lending stores are there within a 3 miles radius around DVC?
Answer: 9
Quick, what are you thinking?

Payday lending is a relatively new industry, started in the 1980s. Before that, if somebody needed a bit of quick cash for a short time until the next paycheck, one had to go to a local pawn shop. There, the pawn broker determined the price they could get when selling the item in their store, divide that by 3, and that was the dollar amount the customer could borrow. For example, if I were to take my mom's gold watch to the pawn broker and they determine that they can sell it for $300, then I can borrow $100.

If I then can pay the $100 (plus a fee!) back within an agreed-upon time, I get the watch back.
If I can't, then the watch gets sold by the pawn broker.

Bottom line: the pawn shop makes money whether I pay back the loan or not. But I digress - I really wanted to talk about payday loans.

No gold watch needed. In its place is a higher fee. Let's say I borrow the same $100, let's say for one week, since I just need to get a couple of tires for the car, and I have no cash or other resources to borrow from. No family, friends, credit card, etc., that could help tide me over. At the payday loan store, I would get the $100, cash, and agree to pay $115 back in a week.


It's good that it's there, since I had nowhere else to go, and I needed my car to go to work.
There is just one problem. In this scenario, the annual percentage rate of this loan comes to 391%. (Yes, we calculate that in class. But you can try if you want to check it out yourself.)

See the problem? This is called usury (Merriam-Webster: "an unconscionable or exorbitant rate or amount of interest; specifically : interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money.")

Before I forget: Most payday loan customers are repeat customers. This means that they either don't pay the original loan off, but rather take out a second loan to cover the first loan... you get the idea. Or that they use more than one payday loan company to take out loans. Or that they use payday loans on a somewhat regular basis. All to the tune of 391% APR.

Don't get me wrong: That there is a business that makes it possible for the 'un-banked' to get a short-term loan is a good thing.

That the business model is based on interest rates that would make the Mafia blush is a bad thing.

As Alan Greenspan said, "Of concern are abusive lending practices that target specific neighborhoods or vulnerable segments of the population and can result in unaffordable payments..." (March 2000)

Finally, in 2010, the financial reform package and its Consumer Financial Protection Agency to investigate abuse, was passed.

I love teaching business math. Experiencing the Aha! moments when the business world around them starts making more sense to students is the most rewarding feeling. Plus, an educated consumer is an empowered consumer.

Teaching is about empowering learners.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Community college summer school class - thoughts after a 3-week session

Can there be too much of a good thing?

I finished teaching a three week summer class that squeezed a full semester into 4.5 hours a day, Monday through Thursday. That was, to say the least, intense.

I don't mean to say that I was surprised by the amount of work it took to prepare the daily session, or the time I spent on assessments. I am a professional - I knew all about that. No, what was so intense was the human connection part.

A class of just about 30 students and one instructor together for 4.5 hours each day. We started at 7.50 am, so we basically woke up together. Plus, it was an introduction to business class, by its nature a completely new topic to most. Just the new vocabulary was practically like learning a new language. The way this class dealt with these stressors: We drew closer.

We shared about ourselves, we shared food together, we shared silly outdoor activities together, we had heated discussions with assigned side-taking - and then we switched sides. We shared what we did on the days off, and we shared what we did after class, we shared what it was like to take the tests, and we shared about reading the textbook in reading journals.

And on the last day, we said thank-yous to our fellow learners. We took a group photo. And we slowly, almost hesitantly, left the classroom.