Monthly Archives: December 2011

In Praise of Good Teaching

I’m in the midst of reading nominations for Penn State’s teaching awards, and I’ve been extremely impressed by the nominees. All sound extremely dedicated to their students’ learning, and the letters from students are especially impressive. In addition to content knowledge and ability to create good learning environments in their classes, one thing that’s mentioned often is the ability of some faculty members to be open and approachable — to make students feel like this person is a mentor and source of advice, even if not the student’s official adviser.

That makes me think of Bernie Asbell, whose magazine-writing classes I took when I was a junior at Penn State many years ago. He was a journalist and author who had turned to teaching late in his career. In addition to being dedicated to making us all into better writers, Bernie was an approachable human being. When my writing alluded to some thorny issues I was dealing with, he privately talked with me in a very empathic and caring way. (I remember this conversation, on a bench near Old Main, like it was yesterday.) His wise words helped me figure out my dilemma, and I will always be grateful. I never really told him that, though — he died several years ago — so I’m pleased to see so many students taking the opportunity to thank outstanding faculty by nominating them for teaching awards.


Recently I found myself in several meetings discussing ‘learning analytics’.  Basically, we want to identify potential data sources that will help inform our decisions around retention, student success, advising, placement and a plethora of other student-centered topics.  The Chronicle just released a piece on learning analytics, citing examples from Harvard to Rio Salado College, a community college in Arizona. 

Regardless of what lens I view learning analytics through, I see incredible opportunity to better guide and support our students.  From an institutional research perspective, I think we can use these analytics to enhance things like retention and advising.  From a faculty perspective, I can see using analytics to increase engagement in my classroom.  Being part of a small committee looking at potential new CMS platforms for Penn State, I’m thrilled to report that all of our potential platforms have a wide variety of learning analytics modules. 

While I feel this is an extremely positive movement, Gardner Campbell, director of professional development and innovative initiatives at Virginia Tech, has a different take (from the Chronicle Article):
“Counting clicks within a learning-management system runs the risk of bringing that kind of deadly standardization into higher education.”

The article summarizes Gardner’s concerns, pointing out that these CMS environments are not necessarily the best platforms to measure real student engagement and creativity.  I wholeheartedly agree with Gardner! This could be a slippery slope some universities could go down.  But I do argue that counting clicks is an important piece to guiding decision making in terms of retention and student success.

Take Rio Salado for example.  I attended a webinar by their project lead, and he reported that a large amount of the variance in terms of student success (a “C” or better) can be predicted by using two variables from the CMS:

  1. Date of first login
  2. Whether or not the student has clicked on (and assuming, viewed) the course syllabus.

If these two simple, easy-to-track variables play such a large role in predicting whether a student will succeed or fail in a course, why not track them?  This allows the instructor, or student adviser, to intervene very early in the semester, which in turn greatly increases that student’s chance of success.

I look forward to the onset of Penn State’s new CMS, and what data-driven initiatives we can spin up to enhance student success and retention.

Faculty: Please remind your students about the University Teaching Awards

Recently, a reminder appeared in the Penn State Newswires that nominations for the Undergraduate Teaching Awards are accepted year-round at 

Our students take courses with some pretty stellar teachers here at Penn State.  During this difficult semester, that is a good thing to remember. 

How about saying something like this:

“I know some of my faculty colleagues are among the best teachers here at Penn State.  Have you considered nominating one of them for an Undergraduate Teaching Award?”

Perhaps you could suggest that if they’ve recently given positive ratings to one of their other teachers, that faculty member might also deserve a teaching award.

Or, as a last resort, you could remind them simply because I’m asking for your help reaching out to students.  After all, students spend the most time experiencing faculty teaching excellence–we need to hear from them!

If you can’t remember the URL above, it is the first link listed in a search for “teaching awards” from the Penn State homepage.

Graduate Student e-portfolios


It is Saturday afternoon and I am taking a break from my dissertation isolation wondering how many other graduate students experience such moments when one feels so intense the need to just reach out. I think all graduate students do and as David Brook pointed out in his recent article “Should graduate students create e-portfolios?” we find ways to escape: we Facebook, tweet, post or check  blogs, or even upload on you-tube.

But are we really present in the web as graduate students and future professionals? Could e-portfolios help graduate students establish a virtual identity? This post aims to explain how graduate students can begin creating an e- portfolio and the resources available at Penn State to help you develop one.


During our “graduate careers” we work diligently inside cubicles, teach behind closed classroom doors, participate in research teams, spend days and nights in labs, tutor students during office hours, complete internships and spend breaks doing field work around the world. But how do we share the experiences, skills and knowledge we accumulate? How do we record our growth? Are the published research papers, scholarly articles and conference presentations representative of all the hard work we have done during our “graduate careers”? I do not think so and that is exactly the reason I agree with Mr. Brook: Graduate students should create e-portfolios to start establishing a virtual professional presence and positioning themselves in a field beyond what the standard blurb on a CV or Resume communicates about them.

eportfolio process.jpgCreating an e-portfolio: The process

Electronic portfolios are dynamic and sustainable tools that allow a graduate student to be creative, reflective and collaborative. Developing an e-portfolio involves several steps in which graduate students:

1.   Collect material and evidence of their work and professional growth in various formats (i.e., audio, video, images, and text).

2.   Reflect analytically and critically on the importance and contribution of these documents and materials to their professional expertise, future goals and the purpose of the portfolio.

3.   Organize the materials and resources in a way that highlight the goals, knowledge, skills, abilities and professionalism of a graduate student. Adopting a theme for your portfolio can make it cohesive and the theme serves as a point of reference for everything included in the portfolio.

4.    Request feedback from mentors and peers about your e-portfolio.

5.   Revise the portfolio regularly. Set a portfolio hour where you can meet with other peers for a monthly maintenance of your e-portfolio.

6.   Monitor their progress by using the e-portfolio during meetings with the advisor or for their yearly review to become more active in their assessment process.

7.   Collaborate with other individuals inside and outside of the field through the use of blogging, social networking or other comment functions available on e-portfolio platforms to create a presence in a research or pedagogical community and position their work within the community.

So graduate students, the take home message is begin crafting your virtual identity.  Search committees may currently simply browsing the e-portfolios of applicants who provide a web-link to their portfolio on their CV but someday, soon I hope, we will not have to spent money and paper in submitting countless job application envelops, or even emailing or dropping application materials on several websites.  It is about time for the job hunt to become more green and efficient and graduate students can be the change agents by starting to create their professional online profiles.

My effort to create an e-portfolio has made me more self-aware, self-confident and gave my work more direction because I had to organize, synthesize, reflect and evaluate the work that I have done so far in graduate school and articulate my future professional goals. I was fortunate enough to share my experience and knowledge about e-portfolios at workshops and at a conference for faculty developers and e-portfolios definitely gain ground both in higher education and in the professional world outside academia.

e-portfolios at Penn State

E-portfolios are more rich and authentic when graduate students begin creating them early on during graduate school rather than portfolios put together when one is going to the job market. Here at Penn State students have resources to draw on to help them do that. Penn State has a blog-based publishing platform (e-portfolios at Penn State) available for free to any graduate student or postdoctoral fellow who wants to build an e-portfolio. In addition, graduate consultants at Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence have created an online recourse ( for graduate students who would like to build an e-portfolio. This online resource contains information about the contents of an e-portfolio along with examples. A blog is also active in the site where graduate consultants post updates on topics relevant to e-portfolios.  Scroll down to the welcoming post to see other platforms available besides the Penn State e-portfolio platform. Consultants at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence can help you conceptualize your portfolio and provide feedback about the contents of the portfolio such as your teaching philosophy and your student evaluations. 

If you would like to learn more about graduate student e-portfolios attend one of the upcoming workshops at the Schreyer Institute on Documenting Your Teaching (soon available on the Schreyer Institute website) or schedule a consultation by emailing


I would like to thank once more the instructional consultants and the staff at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence for a unique educational, mentoring and employment experience that I had during graduate school. My interest in e-portfolios grew as part of my work as a graduate student consultant and I hope that I will be able to continue this work as a faculty developer.

Andria Antiliou is a PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology and a
Graduate Student Affiliate at The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.

                             Originally posted on December 3rd, 2011. How to cite a blog post.

Making Excellence Inclusive in STEM Classes – Barrier #1: Stereotypes

This fall and spring, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops(1), the third of which was held on November 7th:


Many thanks again to Andres Tellez for the beautiful mandala image used in the flyer for our event.

In this research-based workshop, we discussed the characteristics and benefits of an inclusive classroom, identified common barriers to inclusivity in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes, and discussed some new strategies for tackling these barriers constructively in STEM classes.

This blog post is the first in a series of follow-ups to the workshop intended to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the session, and also make resources available for further reading on the topic. When possible, in the discussion of specific scholarly works I have linked to both public summaries and journal articles so that those with and without fulltext journal access can read about this research.

But first, here’s the workshop prezi:

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Note: at the time of this first post, the references sections in the prezi for Barriers #2 and #3 are still being compiled, and will be completed when I post the blog entries for these barriers (forthcoming). This embedded prezi will automatically update. 

As you can see in the prezi, the bulk of the workshop was organized around three barriers to making excellence inclusive in STEM classrooms. The first barrier we identified was Stereotypes.

Wherefore art thou stereotype?
At its most basic level, of course, a stereotype is merely an oversimplified conception of a group of people. Stereotypes develop out of longstanding cultural assumptions and tend to self-replicate and become rooted in popular belief. In the workshop, we brainstormed a number of stereotypes specific to STEM including which types of people “naturally” possess STEM-specific abilities and skills, which types do not, and who STEM practitioners are and are not. The stereotypes we came up with involved categories of gender, race, learning style and ability. Images like the “mad scientist” were invoked – male, white, out of touch with the world, cares only about work, has no social skills, and can’t get a date to save his life:

Image credit:

While at times humorous, this activity highlighted the proliferation of problematic images involving STEM – stereotypes that involve both the perception of STEM fields by those outside the disciplines, as well perceptions of who “belongs” in a STEM field. Research shows that these perceptions form early – for instance this 2011 study (journal article here) found that children started linking math with gender as early as the second grade:

The kids, 247 children (126 girls and 121 boys) in grades one through five in Seattle-area schools, sat in front of a large-screen laptop computer and used an adapted keyboard to sort words into categories.

As early as second grade, the children demonstrated the American cultural stereotype for math: boys associated math with their own gender while girls associated math with boys. In the self-concept test, boys identified themselves with math more than girls did.

In our workshop, one participant asked “How are children picking up these stereotypes so early?” Many scholars who study the social construction of gender and race argue that these cues are embedded in the fabric of our lives from a very young age (for a well-researched and accessible introduction to some of this work, check out the excellent Sociological Images blog. Specifically, here’s a primer on the Sociology of Gender). For instance, children’s toys often incorporate subtle (or not so subtle) visual cues about what jobs are performed by men and which are performed by women:


Image credit: Caroline P. via Lisa Wade, Sociological Images

Or which intellectual skills girls are okay to possess or not possess:

and stir” approach to diversifying course materials is not a magic elixir for addressing the impacts of stereotypes in STEM classes. As some have no-doubt experienced, a ham-handed application of this tip can be ineffective, or worse, lead to awkward and counter-productive “diversity moments” that succeed only in singling out diverse learners and distracting the class from course material. Thus, this tip works best as a thoughtful complement to tips 1 and 2, and in cooperation with the goals and objectives of your lessons and course more broadly.

Beyond the Barriers

As always, incremental steps are steps in the right direction. If you are unsure how best to approach making these kinds of changes, you can always contact us at the Schreyer Institute for an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or a custom workshop. Our services for Penn State teachers are always free and confidential.

This article was written by Destiny D. Aman, a Ph.D. candidate in geography, and a graduate student affiliate of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State University. Originally posted 1 December 2011. How to cite a blog post.

(1) Notes from Workshop 1 and Workshop 2 are available elsewhere on the SITE blog.

(2) Indeed a recent survey by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), found “sense of fit” to be the single most important climate factor predicting job satisfaction in STEM faculty positions, with women significantly less likely to report satisfaction in this category.

Image credits for photos on the right:
Scantron (stock.xchng)
Physics classroom (Science Daily)
Homer brain (
Too pretty t-shirt (
Engineer (

Scientist (