Catching Up on the Intentional Teaching Podcast

Intentional TeachingLast November I launched the Intentional Teaching podcast featuring interviews with a variety of educators aimed at helping listeners develop foundational teaching skills and explore new ideas in teaching. I published the sixth episode last week, and as I write this the podcast has a total of 1,239 downloads. Not too shabby for a brand-new podcast! Also, I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that over half of all podcasts don’t make it past five episodes, and I’m still going strong. I have three interviews already recorded for future episodes and another interview scheduled for later this week. I really appreciate the opportunity the podcast gives me to reach out to and learn from colleagues across higher education who are doing interesting things!

I thought I would share a brief tour of the first six episodes here on the blog with a few of my favorite quotes from my guests. You can listen to particular episodes below, subscribe to the podcast using any number of apps, or search for “Intentional Teaching” in your podcast app of choice.

In Episode 1, I interviewed Susan Hrach, director of the Faculty Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Columbus State University and the author of the 2021 book Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many faculty became more aware of the role that our students’ bodies and physical environments play in their learning. I knew I wanted to explore this idea of embodied learning on the podcast, and I knew that there wouldn’t be a better place to start than by talking with Susan!

In the interview, Susan describes some of the ways we use our bodies for learning, and she shares practical advice for faculty teaching on-site or online for recognizing and fostering embodied learning. “I’ve really started thinking about ways to design assignments that do not chain my students to computer,” Susan said during the interview, and I appreciated thinking through this challenge with her. My favorite quote of the episode was “We need to be braver about moving furniture,” something Susan said as an encouragement for instructors to be more intentional in how they use their physical classrooms.

In Episode 2, I talked with Robert Cummings, associate professor of writing and rhetoric and executive director of academic innovation at the University of Mississippi. I’m working this year at UM’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and Bob is one of my favorite new colleagues there. Back in November, ChatGPT had just launched as the first free and easy-to-use interface for the GPT-3 large language model, a text generator powered by artificial intelligence. There’s been a lot of talk in higher ed about ChatGPT and what it means for teaching and learning since November, and I am glad I got to talk to Bob about all this at the very start of this big conversation.

Bob helped me frame the advent of these AI tools around the ways they might help students learn and write and create. He also pointed me to the group YACHT, which used AI generator tools to help them write music and lyrics for songs of their new album. Might we have our students use ChatGPT in a similar fashion? He pointed out that a lot of students have trouble starting a piece of writing; they get overwhelmed by the blank page. Having ChatGPT output a very rough first draft or set of ideas might get students past this hurdle.

Bob also pointed out something provocative about where we find ourselves as humans who write and speak:

“The real problem that we’re going to experience as a public is we’ve never been in a situation… where writing has been divorced from thought. Previously, every time you encountered writing somewhere, behind that writing was thinking. It might not have been great thinking, sure. It might have been a stranger, it might have been a group of people, it might have been plagiarism, but at the core, somewhere there was thinking. There no longer is.”

In Episode 2, I interviewed Melinda Owens, assistant teaching professor in neurobiology at the University of California San Diego and one of the lead developers for Decibel Analysis for Research in Teaching (DART). DART can take an audio recording of a class session and, with fairly good accuracy, identify the time periods in that class session where active learning was taking place. That is, it can distinguish between one person talking (as in a lecture), multiple people talking (as in small group work), and no one talking. For the STEM courses on which DART was trained, this gives a good estimate of the amount of class time spent in active learning (students talking or thinking quietly) and traditional lecturing (the instructor talking).

Here’s Melinda on the value of DART as a self-assessment tool for instructors:

“I think it’s really interesting to see just how much of the time do you spend talking versus do the students spend talking? I think that is the most important thing because when the students are talking or they’re silent, they’re engaging, those are the times when their minds are working… Having it black and white on the paper in the form of [sound] graphs really made it, it’s obvious. People would notice things like, oh, I do activities at the beginning and end of class, but I just talk in the middle. Or things like, oh gosh by the middle of the term it’s all single voice. Or, oh, that lecture, I hate that lecture. I talk too much.”

DART is free for anyone to use. For details, see the DART website.

In Episode 4, I talked with Juan Gutiérrez, professor and chair of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. One of the areas I’ve been looking at while at the University of Mississippi is student success in the so-called “service” math courses. Those are the math courses that students not majoring in mathematics take in fulfilment of general education or program requirements. Some of these courses struggle to students to pass, and I heard that UTSA was making great strides in this area.

Juan shared that in just a two-year period, the DFW rate (that’s drop-fail-withdraw) in the UTSA math service courses dropped from 35% to 25%. That’s a huge improvement in student outcomes, especially for a department that teaches eight or nine thousand students each year. In the interview, Juan described the strategies that his department has used to make that kind of change.

For instance, UTSA didn’t focus on course redesign. Instead, they worked to align course learning outcomes up and down the service courses. Here’s Juan with a strong argument for this approach:

“We need to take a systemic approach. This Petri dish approach in which we take every course individually… It’s absurd. It’s creating islands that are disconnected from what is needed, which is a continuing curriculum. We don’t want a collection of cliffs students have to face every time that they go to a new course. We want a smooth ramp. We want an a function with infinite number of derivatives.”

In Episode 5, I interviewed Mary-Ann Winkelmes, founder and director of the TILT Higher Ed project. TILT stands for “transparency in learning and teaching,” and the project works with instructors and institutions to practice transparent course and assignment design. With all the conversation in higher education today about rigor and flexibility, I thought this would be a perfect time to talk with Mary-Ann about transparency in teaching and learning.

In addition to sharing loads of practical strategies for making the goals, tasks, and assessments of assignments more transparent to students, Mary-Ann eloquently argued for the value of such transparency:

“How do we measure [student] success? If what we aim to measure is how well can a person figure out the secret unwritten rules to the discipline they’ve chosen before they need any help, if that’s what we’re trying to measure, then don’t talk with them about the process of learning! But instead, if what we’re trying to measure is, what does the students’ best quality work look like? What does the top of their achievement look like when they spend a 100% of their time doing their best quality work as opposed to 50% of their time doing their best quality work after they’ve spent half of the time figuring out how on earth am I going do this work?”

Episode 6 featured my first pair of guests: Regan Gurung, associate vice provost and executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University, and Dwaine Plaza, professor of sociology at Oregon State. The two of them are editing a forthcoming book titled Onward to Better: How Facing a Pandemic Will Improve Higher Education in the 21st Century. Regan and Dwaine are in the interesting position of having read about two dozen chapter submissions for the book, all about lessons learned from teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic authored by faculty, staff, and administrators. I wanted to know what lessons higher ed has learned from pandemic teaching, and what lessons higher ed should learn.

I was glad to hear Regan confirm something I felt to be true: “There were clear differences between campuses that had a strong, well staffed center for teaching and learning and campuses that did not… We could see that those campuses with well established centers that also had good communication with leadership and administration, they’re the ones who coped better… If you listener are on a campus with a good teaching and learning center, you are lucky because your campus probably dealt with the pandemic better.” And I would suggest that now is a good time for institutions to invest in their teaching centers, before the next massive challenge to teaching and learning hits.

And Dwaine pointed to the ongoing value of the tools for engagement that faculty learned to use during pandemic teaching:

“Something as simple as a Jamboard or a poll or [Zoom reactions], all those things became part of our Zoom world… Many of us would love to have [those tools] in a large class situation where we can actually get that feedback right away and get a chance to react to it… If people are always saying, you know, my students have stopped showing up, in my opinion I think they’ve stopped coming to your class possibly because you’re not engaging them anymore. You’re not doing something for them that actually makes them want to step into that place because you haven’t created that culture for them. You might have created it in the first couple weeks, but then you’ve waned. They haven’t waned. You’ve waned, and so you’ve lost the audience.”

Thanks to Dwaine and Regan and all my guests on the podcast so far. I’m excited to learn from and with my guests on future episodes of Intentional Teaching! As mentioned above, you can subscribe to the podcast using any number of apps, or search for “Intentional Teaching” in your podcast app of choice.

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