Monthly Archives: August 2011

What are they thinking?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye –  It begins with a story about a group of students who designed a survey that included this question: “On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree), do you feel that dyeing your hair purple helps your self of steam?”  I laughed and I wondered how they came to such a conclusion.  How have they not heard the correct term? Do we communicate so that they can hear us? Wouldn’t the “hover generation” know the term self- esteem?  Do we take an opportunity like this one to correct students’ thinking and to hear their logic behind “self of steam” o r is it easiest just to chalk this up to naivety?  Actually this cleverly written article has raised many issues to think about as this semester begins.

Faculty Spotlight: Amit Sharma

Why do so few students complete their reading assignments?  Are they simply disinterested or are there other reasons why they don’t read? This lack of preparedness can become so frustrating that it is tempting to simply shrug and let students suffer the consequences. Associate Professor Amit Sharma in the School of Hospitality Management, however, wants to get at “why” students aren’t reading and he is taking a diagnostic approach from his own research and applying it to his classroom. As a researcher in decision-making and cost-benefit analysis, he is keenly aware that like all human beings, students can suffer from a “give it to me now mentality” where payoff seems too far in the future. He is exploring why students often fail to recognize long-term benefits of reading, and using that perspective to help his students become more active and effective readers. Dr. Sharma began this research from the fundamental premise that reading plays a large role in learning. He firmly states, “We’ve got to teach them [students] by getting them to think, to read, to question.” He believes learning in the classroom is a shared responsibility between instructors and students because, “They [students] came here [Penn State] because they couldn’t do it [get an education] themselves.”

With support from a Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence Teaching Support Grant, Dr. Sharma is identifying student perspectives on and approaches to reading.  He is conducting student focus groups, administering a survey, and testing new strategies designed to encourage students to take more responsibility for their reading–and learning. What has he learned so far? 

Preliminary analysis of the focus group data indicates that students prefer relevant, applicable reading assignments such as case studies and journal articles as opposed to dated textbooks that simply focus on facts or concepts. Students also prioritized reading assignments higher if the professor actively ties the reading into the course, using such strategies as quizzes, discussion activities and even clickers.  Two of the primary reasons some students do not complete readings relate to both their own behavior, and instructors’ actions. If instructors simply re-state the reading during class presentations, students do not feel the need to complete reading assignments.  Also, students indicated that some instructors have no follow-through, meaning they assign a reading but never discuss with the students the importance of the reading, or how it applies to other course content. With regard to their own behavior, procrastination appears to be a critical challenge for students. The upside is that students seem to accept this issue, and may even be willing to modify their behavior, at least in some instances. Most importantly, students felt they were unable to connect the relevance and significance of reading assignments – the ‘so what’ question.

Can faculty make a better case for completing reading assignments, and would that influence student behavior? These are a few of the questions Dr. Sharma will explore during a workshop at the Schreyer Institute on September 14th at noon. Learn more about the workshop.

While the demands of juggling a busy schedule may prevent professors from digging deeper into their students’ learning habits and perspectives, we suggest contacting us. The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence helps faculty delve deeper into effective teaching and learning strategies while being mindful that time is at a premium. For Dr. Sharma, the time invested in studying and enhancing his students learning enables him to “look at the world differently now” and to see where he can make a true impact in his students’ education.

For more information please visit Dr. Sharma’s website

For ideas on how to encourage student reading in your course, see
Or contact the Schreyer Institute for a personal consultation:

Welcome to our new grad assistants

This fall we’re happy to welcome three grad students to our staff at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence: 
–Hong-Ning Fang, a Ph.D. candidate in counselor education, will be working with Bart Pursel on analysis of educational data compiled by Penn State. She has an extensive background in statistical analysis and has co-taught in counselor education.
–Lauren Kooistra, a Ph.D. candidate in music education, will be working with our Instructional Consulting and Faculty Development staff to lead workshops about teaching and learning, and she’ll consult with graduate students about their teaching needs. She has a strong background in music pedagogy and gets energized by learning about learning theory.  
–Andrew Porter, a Ph.D. candidate in biobehavioral health, also will be working with the ICFD staff on workshops and consulting. He has wide-ranging teaching and TAing experience and won a Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award in 2009. 
Welcome to all three!

Technology adoption on campus

The Chronicle just released their “Academic Almanac” for 2011.  This is always an interesting read as it aggregates a LOT of different data from various data sources and attempts to package it in a short, categorized format.  Due to my background in instructional technology, I tend to gravitate towards the technology section first to look for any interesting trends.  Obviously, mobility and mobile devices are playing an increasingly large role at many universities.  Here at Penn State, we just rolled out a mobile-friendly version of our primary website.  But with the rapid adoption of technology, we sometimes forget about good pedagogy. 

The Chronicle’s Technology entry in this year’s Almanac addresses some of these shortcomings, discussing several failed implementations of iPads and other mobile technology platforms at large, R1 institutions.  The author points out:

“The trick, colleges are learning, is to find the sweet spot where the technology and the type of instruction meet.”

When it comes to the iPad, one major affordance of the device is the multi-touch interface.  This lends itself to specific things from a pedagogy perspective.  Examining 3D models, for instance.  Interactive simulations and games.  Possibly examining high-resolution artwork for an art history course.  Some of these things work, and work well, on a device that involves navigating and interacting with fingers.  On the other hand, using these devices for text-heavy practices, such as note-taking or grading papers, might not be appropriate.  I do know people that use the iPad for text-heavy activities, but typically they use a stylus or external keyboard. 

As we approach the new semester, and Penn State explores technologies such as a new clicker system and a lecture capture pilot program, we need to think critically about pedagogy and how it transfers to some of these devices and systems that give us new affordances in the classroom.  Feel free to contact the institute ( if you want to talk more about the possible ideas for leveraging technology in your class, or various technologies available to all Penn State instructors.  We’re working closely with Education Technology Services to better understand all the technology ecosystems at the University, and we can help you align technology and pedagogy.

Reacting to the Past

Are any faculty at Penn State using Reacting to the Past?  I just learned about it and sounds fascinating.  This is program developed at Barnard College by anthropologists and historians that involves students in role-playing games as a way to learn not only about important events and transition points in history, but also writing and communication skills. The games emphasize historical contingency, but can also highlight the role that individual people can play in shaping history.

An article about it by David Walsh, editor of George Mason University’s History News Network, indicates that it is flexible enough to allow faculty to emphasize different aspects of history, historical scholarship, and even different learning objectives. 

Description from the Reacting to the Past website:

“Reacting to the Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills.”

I’ve not had a chance to delve deeply into it, but I wonder if any faculty members have taken this into cyberspace–it certainly seems to have potential.

Women of Color in STEM

The Summer 2011 issue Harvard Educational Review focuses on Women of Color in STEM.  The issue commemorates the 35th anniversary of the publication of The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science (1976 AAAS).  Shirley Malcom, lead author of the original publication and an author of one article from the recent symposium received her PhD in Ecology from Penn State in 1974 and is one of Penn State’s most distinguished alumni.  Dr. Malcom currently leads the directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs at the AAAS (American Assn. for the Advancement of Science).

I’d love to consider co-sponsoring an event for her to once again return here to talk about this important topic during the 35th anniversary of the publication of Double Bind.  I can imagine a number of potential partners including Educational Equity, the Graduate School (Malcom was in the Interdisciplinary Graduate program), Eberly College of Science, Agricultural Sciences (who nominated her for the Distinguished Alumni award), and maybe even the College of Engineering.

One of the articles, “Pathways and Pipelines” has some interesting comments about STEM instruction and its impact on the persistence of women of color in STEM.  It would be great to be able to highlight some of the teaching and learning going on in our science classes that engages women of color inside the classroom, as opposed to what the author, Espinosa, desribes as the “obscurity and subsequent silence that marks the behavior of women of color
in the STEM classroom due to gendered and racialized treatment by peers
and professors” (p. 233).  I know that there are some great examples of active and collaborative learning going on in STEM classrooms across the university.

Students’ Thoughts on Faculty Use of Technology

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a few videos, asking students to recall some of the best, and worst, instances of faculty incorporating technology into classes.  I was somewhat surprised at how basic some of the answers were.  A couple students specifically talked about video, where an instructor simply made himself available to Skype in the evening.  One student noted even if he didn’t require assistance on an assignment, it was comforting to know the instructor was only a few mouse clicks away.  Another example that was slightly more high-tech involved a TA sending out a variety of multimedia via iTunes in association with a Rock and Roll history course. 

In terms of the worst experiences, most students centered their discussion around the use of Power Point.  The two main themes were:

  • Instructors too dependent on Power Point
  • Instructors providing very DENSE slides, making it difficult for the students to take notes and keep up with the content being covered.

In addition to dense slides, students seemed very frustrated when these slides were not distributed electronically after lectures.  Students also urged faculty to always have a plan B, so if technology fails the content is still covered adequately. With so much discussion about Power Point, I want to point out that the Institute runs several sessions that focus on best practices for Power Point.  Various research-based models are discussed, such as the assertion-evidence model.  Check out our events page if you’re interested in the workshop.