Tag Archives: higher education

Yale Graduate Students’ ‘Microunit’ Unionization Strategy Could Have Nationwide Implications

A quarter-century-long fight for a graduate-assistant union at Yale University has taken a new twist that could make it easier for unions to gain a foothold on campuses.

Unite Here Local 33 has filed petitions for union elections in nine academic…

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Navigating the Perfect Storm

Higher education faces a perfect storm.

The product of low graduation rates, increases in tuition, mounting student debt, and employer dissatisfaction, this storm is placing institutions under enormous pressure to make college more affordable to middle-class families, cut time to degree, and ensure that graduates have real-world marketable skills.

Also contributing to the coming storm are disruptive changes in the educational landscape. Increasingly, students are acquiring education in ways that undercut university’s current business models. A growing number are earning credits in high school or community college, or from various online providers. Meanwhile, master’s programs, a traditional cash cow, are losing ground not only to lower cost online programs, but to alternate purveyors of credentials, including industry-branded certificate programs and non-profit providers of technical skills.

This perfect storm is deeply disruptive, but it also brings opportunity. Already, universities are using digital modes of communication to make higher education far more accessible than ever before.  Data analytics will allow faculty to personalize the learning experience in ways never before possible, diagnose and remediate areas of confusion, and target interventions in near real time.

The biggest opportunity is to radically rethink our educational models in order to bring more students to a bright future while containing costs.

Our current university model melds together a student life component, an academic component, a credentialing component, and a research component. These four functions co-exist uneasily, with many students prioritizing coming-of-age experiences and many institutions incentivizing faculty research above teaching. As many complain: Students’ academic engagement, demonstrated learning, and acquisition of real-world competencies are neither measured nor given precedence.

Within the University of Texas System, we are thinking long and hard about new models that will optimize time to degree, better prepare students for a rapidly shifting workforce, and ensure that students graduate with the skills, knowledge, and problem-solving abilities expected of a college graduate. Underlying our thinking are four models.

Model 1: Seamless Pathways and Crosswalks
In recent years, a new educational lexicon has emerged, featuring such terms as “exploratory majors,” “guided pathways,” “verticals,” “meta-majors,” and “crosswalks.”

Linking these terms together is the notion that many students would benefit from a more coherent, intentional, integrated curricula, with synergies across courses, and from much more seamless transfer of credits.

Certainly, the guided pathway approach would offer fewer electives; and certainly such pathways need multiple on- and off-ramps. But for those students who choose to pursue such paths, the route to a degree would be more direct, transparent, and quicker.

At the same time, crosswalks – between military training programs and the academy or between high school, community college, and four-year institutions – would ease one of the big impediments to graduation: The loss of credit hours when students transfer from one institution to another.

Model 2: Integrating the Curricular and the Co-Curricular
For many students, the most meaningful, transformative educational experiences occur outside the standard curriculum: in mentored research, internships and externships, study abroad, or service learning.  Yet for the most part, those experiences count little toward graduation.

To be sure, students need to acquire core knowledge and facility in critical listening, reading, and writing – precisely the kinds of education found in lecture halls, discussion sections, and seminars.

Yet if those fundamentals could be taught more cost-effectively and efficiently , then many faculty members would be free to participate in high impact learning experiences, which could then become integral parts of degree paths.

Model 3: Stackable Credentials
A bachelor’s degree generally requires four (or more) years to vest, and too many full-time, first-time-in-college students never reach the finish line.  Many of those students would benefit from stackable credentials – professional or academic certificates, badges, specializations, micro-masters, and the like – but only if these have real value in the marketplace.

Model 4: Co-Location
A new model of education is gradually taking shape: A campus that includes multiple educational institutions, research institutes, start-ups, and established industry.
Medical centers have long pursued this model. Multiple hospitals, medical schools, laboratories, and synergistic industries serve as research hubs, education centers, and incubators for new inventions, industries, and technologies, training workers, driving knowledge creation, and developing applied innovation.

Global cities such as New York and Paris understand that such a model is critical to ensuring their future prosperity and successfully competing in the global economy.

New York City has invested more than $500 million in the applied science and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island, while Paris is bringing 19 universities, polytechnics, and institutes together in order to compete with Silicon Valley.

UC-Berkeley had similar ambitions for a global campus in Richmond, which was supposed to bring together an international coalition of leading academic institutions and private sector partners.
 

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Getting Names Right: It’s Personal

Diverse group of university students in classroom

Editor’s Note: The following article was excerpted with permission from To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching, a new book that brings together student experiences and opinions with advice from master educators and experts. The book was written by students at Michigan State University under the guidance of Joe Grimm, visiting editor in residence in the MSU School of Journalism since 2008.

“I spend a lot of money to go to school here. It would be nice if a professor knew my name.”

“I appreciate the fact that you asked me what I wanted to be called because my name has various pronunciations in different languages.”

There are so many ways a simple and personal thing like a person’s name can lead to problems. The first student quoted above felt more like a number than a person because she felt none of her professors bothered to learn her name.

The second is an international student who was used to mispronunciations and questioning looks and appreciated a professor’s extra effort.

Mishandling names can lead to awkward moments. For many students, name problems come on the first day of class. Here’s a tweet with the hashtag #GrowingUpWithMyName. “Knowing the pause on roll call in school was my name. I would just start saying ‘Here’ before they even tried.” Everyone knows what it is like to have their name mispronounced sometimes. But imagine what it is like to have it happen almost every time—and with an audience of new peers.

While some students might offer a name that they feel will be easier to remember or say, it is not OK for instructors to rename students to make it easier to call roll.

There are those times when the professor calls a student by another student’s name. Somehow, the professor has made a connection. Maybe these are the only students of their race or ethnicity in the class. It seems like a little thing, but it carries big implications and it can make others in class feel uncomfortable.

One American college student reported feeling uncomfortable for Asian students when professors stumble over their names—and then turns the mistakes into jokes or ditties. It can humiliate the student and, if they are new to U.S. culture, it can be bewildering.

International names do not have universal spellings or pronunciations across cultures and societies. The student who appreciated a professor’s patience in learning the pronunciation of his name is French African. Where he is from, his name has a different intonation and spelling. The student felt very good about his class after this encounter because he perceived that his professor took the time to be personal with her students.

One international student said that she can always sense when professors are about to make a funny attempt at pronouncing her name. “They never ask first but they want to act like they know already, which doesn’t usually always end well.”

Because names are an important aspect of our identity, acknowledgment of a person’s name and its correct pronunciation can signal acceptance of that person into a new culture. Since acknowledgment leads to acceptance, many international students adopt English names to better assimilate. By doing so, they avoid the potential mispronunciation of their names and feel like they fit in. Fitting in can enhance learning.

Strategies
There are almost as many reasons why it is hard to get names right as there are students in a class. Professors have scores or hundreds of students in a term, and new ones every term. Some professors have more than a thousand students in one term. There are a lot of names to learn.

But learning and using student names improves teaching.

Daniel F. Chambliss, Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College, wrote “the best thing I do to improve students’ work in my courses is … I will learn and use their names. It’s easy, and it works. Using those names in class is uniquely powerful.”

Here are some strategies:

  • Read a class roster out loud before meeting the class. Note potential difficulties. If the class list has photos, try to match them with the names. Print out the pictures and bring them to class.
  • Take attendance on the first day in a consistent way with each student, even the ones with seemingly easy names. Use a standard question such as, “What do you like to be called?” One professor sends out a survey before classes begin and asks students for their name preferences. One student seemed delighted when, at the first roll call, she was called by her preferred name, which was not the name on the attendance list.
  • Write phonetic spellings down when you need to. When you get to a name that might be difficult, ask the student to say it, using the part of the name you feel more comfortable with. Don’t joke. Don’t rush. Spend a little extra time if you must to understand, but don’t make a big deal. If you need to ask the student for more help, do it after class. If you make a mistake, apologize but don’t make an excuse.

Many international students adopt American names to fit in. But at the same time, there are also instances where foreign students have American names. Whatever the case may be, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor Phil Huelsbeck in the department of International Education, advises that professors be actively aware of these differences. He wrote, “Without an audience, ask (repeatedly if necessary) how to pronounce the international student’s name and make a note of the proper pronunciation. Some international students take on an ‘American name’ but it is often appreciated if the instructor takes the time to learn the student’s native name, as well.” It can also teach classmates something.

Marian Kisch, a freelance writer in Maryland, wrote in the November/December, 2014 issue of the International Educator: “Even a short conversation after class about the student’s home country can help the student feel more comfortable and can build rapport. Do your best to learn how to pronounce students’ names, even if it takes a few attempts.”

Dustin Carnahan, who teaches in the Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences, suggested customized rosters, which can accommodate extra columns for chosen names and pronunciations. Students should be able to tell the professor what they want to be called, “no questions asked,” he said.

In “Learning Student Names,” posted on the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Joan Middendorf and Elizabeth Osborn at Indiana University wrote: “A professor who does not know his or her students’ names may be perceived as remote and unapproachable. … In large classes, the task of learning student names can seem daunting, but even if the professor learns the names of only a portion of the class, a caring, inclusive atmosphere will be established.” They gathered more than 25 strategies for learning and retaining students’ names. They included name tags, tent cards, flashcard drills for the instructor, association and student introductions. There is probably something for most circumstances.

At the end of the day, it is always better to call students by the names they like. As Czech-born writer Milan Kundera wrote in his novel “Immortality,” “We don’t know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don’t understand our name at all, we don’t know its history and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity, we merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it, as if we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration.”

Resources
Chambliss, Daniel F. “Learn Your Students’ Names.” Inside Higher Ed, Aug. 26, 2014. June 12, 2016 http://ift.tt/1laRPOX

Huelsbeck, Phil. “Awareness Points for Educators with International Students in the Classroom.” University of Wisconsin. June 12, 2016   http://ift.tt/2e02hfT

Kisch, Marian. “Helping Faculty Teach International Students.” NAFSA: Association of International Education, International Educator, November/December 2014.

Middendorf, Joan, and Elizabeth Osborn. “Learning Student Names.” Bloomington: Indiana University, 2012. June 12, 2016 http://ift.tt/2edJIQA

Mitchell, Charles. “Short Course in International Business Culture.” Novato: World Trade Press, 1999.

Nichole Igwe is a journalism major and a public relations and French minor at Michigan State University.

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Online Discussion Forums as Assessment Tools

student on laptop in library

Classroom Assessment Techniques, or CATs, are simple ways to evaluate students’ understanding of key concepts before they get to the weekly, unit, or other summative-type assessment (Angelo & Cross, 1993). CATs were first made popular in the face-to-face teaching environment by Angelo and Cross as a way to allow teachers to better understand what their students were learning and how improvements might be made in real time during the course of instruction. But the same principle can apply to online teaching as well.

Impact and Examples

There are many types of CATs that work well in the online classroom. The KWL CAT stands for “What you Know, what you Want to know, and what you Learned” (Ogle, 1986). Steele and Dyer (2014) found that KWL CATs increased student participation in online discussion forums. These authors implemented KWLs in their discussion forums and give the following example of how a KWL may be implemented:

Timeline: One week or module

Monday: Create and post additional question, “What we know,” under DQ (Discussion Question) 1.

– Example: “What do you know about a thesis statement?”

Wednesday: Create and post additional question, “What we want to know,” under DQ 1.

– Example: “What do you want to know about a thesis statement?”

Friday: Create and post additional question, “What we learned,” under DQ 1.

– Example: “What did you learn about a thesis statement?”

Wrap-up: On the next Monday, copy and paste a list of responses students shared relating to what they learned regarding the topic and objective. This is a choice opportunity to validate student learning and understanding regarding all the ideas they discovered. This type of positive feedback will help students continue to engage in future weeks and create a personal accountability for learning. This can also be an opportunity for instructors to reteach key points that the students did not pick up on or indicate in their “what we learned” post.

After implementing this style of CAT in the first half of their test classes and not in the second half, Steele and Dyer found an increase in the average number of student forum postings for those classes that used the KWLs over those that did not.

In my own study of CATs, my coauthor and I found that using simple practice problems as CATs in undergraduate math class discussion forums can be helpful. Several sections of 100-level math online classes were used as a test case. Half of the sections employed CATs that asked students to solve problems in the discussion forum and document their steps, and then discuss their solutions with their classmates and instructors. The CATs were simple postings of sample problems in line with the material from the week’s unit. The students were asked to complete the problems in an open discussion forum where all students could see their attempts. In one version of the CAT, students were asked to document their steps. In all cases, students were encouraged to comment on each other’s solution posts and to add correction and/or commentary. We later compared sections of classes that used these simple CAT interventions with those that did not, and found an increase in both frequency of student posting and subsequent mean quiz scores in the CAT sections (Cross & Palese, 2015).

CATs are easy wins that can have a real impact in the online classroom, especially when used in the discussion forum space. These small checks for understanding not only deliver increases in participation and possibly learning outcomes, but can help us all adjust our teaching style or tools on the fly to better help students learn.

References

Angelo, T., and Cross, K. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

Cross, T., and Palese, K. (2015). Increasing Learning: CATs in the Online Classroom. American Journal of Distance Education, 29 (2): 98-108.

Ogle, D. M. (1986). K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text. Reading Teacher, 39 (6): 564-70

Steele, J., and Dyer, T. (2014). Use of KWLs in the Online Classroom as it Correlates to Increased Participation. Journal of Instructional Research, 3 (1): 8-14. DOI 10.9743/JIR.2014.3.10

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 15.7 (2015): 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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Author discusses new book on attacks on philosophers during Cold War

Many academics were victims of McCarthyism during the Cold War, and philosophers in particular were among the key targets in the early days of the Red scare. The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (University of Chicago Press) explores how and why philosophy was a target. The author is John McCumber, a professor of Germanic languages at the University of California, Los Angeles. Via email, he answered questions about his new book.

Q: Why do you think philosophy was an early target, as opposed to fields that might have been easier for politicians to understand?

A: There were a couple of things that put philosophy front and center as the Cold War began. Religious conservatives had for a while been openly targeting philosophy as the only discipline in the university where atheism might be taught (this cost Bertrand Russell a job at City College of New York in 1940). There was also a feeling that capitalism did not have a philosophical basis to rival the prestige and vigor of Marxism, especially in Western Europe. Philosophy, some felt, should supply it. Philosophy was also at an institutionally weak moment. Its long alliance with American religion was coming to an end, but it had retained from that relationship a critical relationship to science. It was without powerful academic allies.

Q: How did Max Otto’s appointment become a controversy? What was the significance of the attacks on Otto?

A: Max Otto was a prominent Wisconsin philosopher whose appointment to a visiting professorship at UCLA came to the attention of The Los Angeles Examiner, a major newspaper. They published a prominent article on it, highlighting Otto’s open atheism, which led to a letter-writing campaign against him. This may have cost him the job, and in any case was traumatic for him and for the UCLA philosophy department’s chair, Donald Piatt.

This affair and others seem to have led philosophers and philosophy departments to act in “stealthy” ways not easily discernible to outsiders. Philosophers published less in public places. They hid atheistic (or “naturalistic” views) under a technical discourse on the structure of science (“reductionism”). Philosophy departments tended to hire people they already knew personally. Course descriptions in university catalogs — the main way outsiders could discover what was being taught in a given department — were edited to make people seem more theistic than they were.

Q: Many academics were attacked during the Cold War. Was the response in philosophy similar or different to the responses in other disciplines?

A: The study of how different disciplines reacted to Cold War political pressures is in its infancy, so we cannot know in detail. We know that the overall pattern in California showed first regents and upper administrators (presidents and chancellors) ceasing to defend intellectual freedom in their universities, followed by capitulation from lower-ranking administrators (deans) and from the faculty itself. There is no currently known case of effectual response, and no reason to think this was not the pattern throughout the country. More research, however, is needed.

Q: What types of philosophy were most damaged during the Cold War?

A: Cold War pressures favored a philosophy that absolutized individual freedom of choice, instead of seeing individuals as situated in a social order and bound by duties to others; that underplayed or disregarded the nontheistic tendencies of modern thought; and that could facilitate Red-hunting by espousing a single, monolithic view of rational method, so that anyone not following such a method could be condemned as “incompetent” and quickly fired without raising issues of censorship. Marxism obviously could not conform to these demands, but two other paradigms, existentialism and pragmatism, also suffered. Both viewed philosophers as having moral obligations to society, were openly atheistic and — while many of their adherents allied themselves with science — did not view science as following any single method. Pragmatism fell into decline in American philosophy departments, while existentialism made few serious inroads into them.

Q: How can we see the impact of these Cold War attacks in academic departments today?

A: Cold War philosophy and the reactions to it affected the entire nation. Within universities, the ’60s saw a visceral reaction against the Cold War view of reason as the “objective” (i.e., dispassionate) deployment of a single method, but all kinds of departments, schooled in what suddenly became the old ways, could only see the newly concrete concerns and particularist strategies of African-Americans, feminists and LGBT people as abandonments of reason itself. The result is that the newer approaches found other homes, in programs such as African-American, women’s, Jewish and LGBT studies, while Cold War philosophy persists today in many traditional departments. With the Cold War now decades in the past, it may be time to revisit this arrangement.

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Choosing and Using Group Activities in the College Classroom

By Claire Howell Major

Small group learning is learning expressly designed for and carried out in pairs or a small, interactive group. Why should we use small group learning in the college setting? Small group learning provides a practical rationale. Most of us have seen the surveys of employers who are looking for a specific set of skills in their new employees, among these are teamwork, emotional intelligence, global citizenship, communication, and leadership. These are the kind of skills that small group learning can give students practice with and help them develop in.

There’s also a very strong pedagogical rationale for using small group learning. My colleagues and I looked at these reasons in this body of research in the book that we wrote together. And it suggests that learning outcomes are improved in courses that use small group learning when compared to more traditional, stand and deliver courses.

The kinds of learning that increase are both content knowledge and the development of higher order skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. And students who participate in small group classes are more likely to improve these skills at a higher rate than the students in traditional counterpart session.

In their grand synthesis of their research on how college affects students, Pascarella and Terenzini have noted that retention and persistence are improved in courses that use collaborative learning and collaborative learning in other forms of small group learning. And the idea behind this is that students make social connections in academic courses that help them. And they want to stay in those classes because they have an obligation to come to class to see their fellow students.

Student satisfaction is improved in collaborative courses or small group learning courses over traditional ones. And that may be something of a surprise, because I don’t know about you, but sometimes my students groan when I say, “get in your group and work.” But the research is pretty clear that students who participate in small group activities value their learning in these courses more than they do in traditional courses.  They appreciate the opportunity to apply knowledge in new ways. There’s also increased comfort with diversity in courses where students participate in small group learning. And this makes sense, because they have the opportunity to work with people who are not exactly like them, too.

If you look in the literature, the terminology is really a confusing mess. Some people use the term “cooperative learning.” Some people use the term “collaborative learning.” Some people use “peer teaching.” Some use “peer learning” or “peer inquiry.” There is a range of terms to describe this thing that we call group work. And some people use the terms almost interchangeably or completely interchangeably.

Types of group learning

Some instructors insist there is a big distinction between the different approaches. And some people’s distinctions disagree with each other. So it can really be quite confusing when you look at the literature. So today we’re going to talk about three specific kinds—cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and peer teaching and learning. I tend to see these as different but related and overlapping approaches.

So these three types of group learning share some things in common with each other. For example, they all involve putting students in small working groups. But they have some distinct differences that make them different instructional methods. Let’s start with cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning is students working together in a group small enough that everyone can participate on a collective task that has been clearly assigned. So they are working together. That’s a key part of the definition. They’re supposed to do the same thing or the same task and it is a teacher-assigned task. The goals of cooperative learning are to accomplish the task together.

The work must be done together. They must all contribute to the overall project. And they all learn the appropriate content. And they do learn it together, and the goal is that they all learn it deeply and well and about the same degree of learning. For it to be cooperative learning as opposed to some of the other forms of group work, they must engage in positive interdependence.

And that’s the notion that the group must think or swim together. They will be successful or not based on the group’s work. And they’re tied to each other. But there’s also individual accountability. And in my work with students, that’s been the key thing, making sure that they all must demonstrate that they have done work independently to contribute to the group.

There has to be promotive interaction. So they have to help each other and they have to support each other. There has to be teamwork skills. And this is an area that not all students come to higher education with already. They have to learn those skills and develop them. And there has to be group processing. So they have to think through what they did well and what they could improve on for next time.

An example of a cooperative learning technique is the “think pair share.” Most people know this one, but it’s great. It’s a really good one. I’ve used it in almost every class I’ve ever taught. The first step is giving students a question and asking them to think for a minute about their responses individually. Then you ask students to turn to a neighbor and share their responses with each other. It could be to convince each other of their responses, or to come up with a collective response. But the idea is that they are talking about their responses to each other. And then the last step is sharing the information with either a slightly larger group than the pair– maybe two pairs pair up—or with the full class so that they all get the same kind of information from the activity.

Collaborative learning asks students and faculty to work together to create knowledge. It’s breaking down traditional structures of authority and control in the classroom. And the goal is to create knowledge. It involves people making meaning together in a process that is intended to enrich and enlarge them both.

The key goal is that they’re creating knowledge and they’re creating it together. But it’s not all the same knowledge and it doesn’t have to be equally distributed. For collaborative learning to be collaborative learning, there must be a shift in authority and control in the classroom. So couple of examples of collaborative learning techniques are the group co-authored paper and peer editing.

Peer teaching can be likened to a tutoring situation. The goal of peer teaching is to help students learn critical content. So in peer teaching, students must take on the teaching role themselves. A couple of examples of reciprocal peer teaching techniques—one of them tends more toward cooperative learning and the other leans little bit more, in my opinion, toward collaborative learning.

The first is a jigsaw, when students form base groups and they study some content very carefully in their base groups and they try to learn it well enough to teach it to the other students in the class who are not in the base group. Then students are redistributed into new groups, with one member coming from each of the first base groups. So you have four or five expert members in the new group who are teaching the rest of the students the original content. They are learning the same content, they’re learning it together, and they’re learning it in similar ways.

Another example is microteaching. And I use this a lot in my college teaching class, where students take turns actually teaching the class. So they will have maybe a 5 or 10 or 15 minute time span that they can elect to teach, in my case, a particular instructional method to the rest of the class.

Choosing a group teaching method

So how do you choose a specific form of group work or group activity? And I think this is a really—on the surface it’s kind of an easy question. Make sure your learning goals are this and that the method’s goals align with that so that you get where you think you’re going.

When we look at the different methods, knowing about them and then knowing what they are and how they play out, what they’re intended for, and where you’re going can be very helpful in that. But at the end of the day, there is a whole lot of inspiration involved in choosing the methods. We need to choose the method that’s going to accomplish the learning goals that we want, and we must be intentional about the group learning method that we choose and make sure that it’s accomplishing a goal. Group work for group work’s sake is never a good idea.

 

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Embracing Tension in the Classroom

By Geniece Crawford Mondé

 

As instructors, we strive to generate thoughtful and engaging classroom discussion while maintaining a collegial and inclusive environment. In doing so, we may be tempted to avoid topics that can ultimately add to students’ learning. Hot moments in the classroom refer to discussions that become contentious, acrimonious, or even disrespectful. None of us wants to promote a toxic classroom environment, and when such moments happen, we work diligently to diffuse them. However, when done strategically, creating what I call positive tension can help students better understand ideas central to a course while learning to engage in productive debate in the classroom and beyond.

Positive tension may sound like a milder degree of a hot moment. Although there are similarities, there are also important distinctions. Hot moments are often spontaneous and result from an incendiary statement (whether intentional or unintentional) made by either a student or the instructor. The classroom may become uncomfortably quiet as students feel the tension and hope for a quick resolution, or students might become argumentative as they compete to have their perspectives recognized. In a word, hot moments are deeply emotional, and learning related to classroom objectives can be difficult to achieve once they occur, according to L. Warren, who has written about hot moments (http://ift.tt/2dYmj8S).

In contrast, I use positive tension to accomplish some of the very goals that a hot moment may undermine. Like hot moments, positive tension typically results from focus on a controversial topic, often one where viewpoints may be rooted in personal beliefs and values. Unlike hot moments, instructor-directed positive tension is a guided exercise in which students address a controversial topic but do so following a set of “ground rules.” Much like an athletic competition that may evolve in exciting and unpredictable ways, the instructor allows students to share original and unique responses, while ground rules structure the exercise so that individual perspectives are respected, learning is advanced, and debate is fair (i.e., avoiding ad hominem attacks).

Positive tension should always have a broader pedagogical objective. The objective is not the debate itself. Rather, debate should be viewed as a way to accomplish broader learning goals. This is important to keep in mind because, when executed effectively, positive tension can generate rich classroom discussion that can consume class time. Guiding students to make relevant connections with course learning goals during energetic classroom discussion is a key component to successfully using positive tension.

Second, it is important for instructors to consider the degree to which positive tension might lay the foundation for a hot moment. It might be helpful to discuss the exercise with a colleague or even a student advisee who is not taking the class. By thoughtfully considering the possible outcomes of the exercise, the instructor can be prepared to address heated discussion, modify the exercise, or ultimately decide not to use that exercise. Finally, instructors should feel free to use exercises that extend beyond their particular field. Interdisciplinary strategies can be effective ways to create positive classroom tension, because students’ preexisting views or arguments on an issue may not translate as effectively in another field. They must then reevaluate and reframe their position in ways that challenge their views on an issue.

A number of practical strategies can be used to create positive tension in the classroom. For example, if an instructor in a social science course wants students to discuss the gender pay gap, she might first have students read two short narrative accounts of pay inequality or poems about gender inequality that express competing viewpoints. Using this technique, a sociology or psychology student is now evaluating a social issue through the lens of literature and debating how the work should be interpreted. In this example, the instructor has placed students’ focus on a literary text while maintaining the core of the learning objective: gender inequality. As students debate the meaning of the text, the instructor helps them make broader connections by raising questions related to relevant course material.

Another strategy instructors may employ is the use of fictitious vignettes or narratives that contain the components of real-world controversy. Hot moments often occur because students have personal experience with the issue and have already formed strong views on it. Stripping an issue of its real-world status both limits the judgment students may feel from others and the judgment they may place on their classmates. It also allows students to ask questions of the scenario or identify the weaknesses of fictitious individuals, all while highlighting the complexity of the topic. The flexibility of such exercises allows tension to coexist with objectivity, something more difficult to achieve when the emotional stakes are high, as they are with real historical or current events.

Geniece Crawford Mondé, Wingate University, North Carolina. g.monde@wingate.edu

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 30.7 (2016): 1-2. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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