Monthly Archives: November 2012

All Students Can Recognize Good Teaching: Just Ask Them

This fall semester is about over and soon students will be responding to the SRTEs. For many students, the opportunity to give feedback to their instructors, is a phenomenon that begins in college. That trend, however, is changing. According to the article “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers” a growing number of American schools across the country are asking their students, some as young as kindergarten, to evaluate their teachers.

Some interesting findings are emerging. Student ratings tend to be fairly stable from class to class and from fall to spring. Race and income done have much impact on results. What is clear is that students are looking for a classroom where the teacher has control and makes learning challenging. And one city, Memphis, has become the first school system in the country to link survey results to teachers’ annual reviews by having the surveys count for 5% of a teacher’s evaulation. 

A variety of questions are being asked on these surveys, but the five most correlated with student learning are listed below:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

What can those of us in higher education learn from this article? Are we, for example, asking the right questions? Are we using the information we gather from students to define quality teaching and to inform better practice?

Faculty Spotlight: Rosalie Ocker

“The longer I teach, the less I lecture.”
Rosalie Ocker, Ph.D.
Professor of Practice

Dr. Ocker, the recipient of the George McMurtry Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award for 2007-2008, leverages a wide variety of active learning strategies and methods to engage students in the classroom. “I put it on them [the students]. You walk into class, you’re quizzed, before we talk about anything.” Dr. Ocker’s typical class involves a short lecture, followed by a student-centered discussion, and then a closing activity. Dr. Ocker’s course is structured similar to a flipped classroom approach. “The longer I teach, the less I lecture. I’m putting more onus on the students, then using the time together for solving problems or applying knowledge.”

ocker_vertical.jpgThis model stays consistent across her various courses, whether she’s teaching 30 students or 125 students. Dr. Ocker also teaches online, and states “If I excel in teaching, I should be able to excel across different venues. This includes online.” All these experiences, Dr. Ocker reflects, add to her toolbox of teaching skills and techniques. “Online teaching has improved my resident teaching, without a doubt. It has forced me to be more organized, clearer. I remember, in the past, not having a course schedule finalized at the start of the semester. I would never do that now, in any course. Online courses have brought a discipline to my teaching.”

When asked how she goes about planning her course, Dr. Ocker stresses the need to think critically about what knowledge we want the students to walk away with. “We could teach less content, and they would still learn the essentials. We need to clearly identify the top 3 to 5 things the students need to get out of the course and focus our energies on that. Sometimes less content is better.” When thinking about the students, Dr. Ocker states, “Every instructor that a student has thinks differently. That’s like having 5 different bosses at once.” Dr. Ocker always takes the students into consideration, and understands that each student is likely to be in many different courses at the same, with instructors that are using different styles, approaches and tools to teach.

One approach to course design that is consistent across all of Dr. Ocker’s courses is the use of student teams. Specifically, Dr. Ocker focuses on partially-distributed teams (PDT), where two or more team members are located in one geographic area and two or more team members are located in other geographic areas. Throughout her teaching, Dr. Ocker incorporates PDT projects, where students in the College of IST are in teams with students from other universities around the world. When talking about strategies to implement teams in a course, Dr. Ocker emphasizes that students need to be taught how to work in teams. “Be prepared to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly when working in teams.” Instructors also need to allot plenty of time for student teams to work through the teaming process, and in Dr. Ocker’s courses this includes in-class time to work on team projects and provide team status updates to her each week.

An important aspect of teaming projects, Dr. Ocker states, is to identify what you want to assess. For instance, is the goal of the teaming project to illustrate how to work in teams and collaborate, or is the goal to produce a final deliverable or outcome? “You cannot manage what you do not measure,” says Dr. Ocker.


Be sure to create a grading mechanism that fairly and accurately assesses the teaming process and output (depending on what your learning goal is for the team project). For Dr. Ocker, factors that are often included in the assessment of the teams include observations, participation, multiple peer evaluations, team status meetings and so on. Even though these are team projects, Dr. Ocker assigns both a team and an individual grade. If the team assignment is worth 100 points, Dr. Ocker includes an individual grade, often based on peer evaluations and feedback that is also worth 100 points.

Dr. Ocker received two different Teaching Project Grants from the Schreyer Institute to assist her with teaming initiatives, the most recent grant focusing on educating students around aspects of cultural awareness and sensitivity when working in global teams. She also attended several Schreyer seminars, including OL 4000, a collaborative seminar designed, developed and delivered by the Schreyer Institute and World Campus specifically for online teachers.

New resource for teaching sustainability

A recent brown bag talk presented by James Hamilton, retired professor, and Susannah Barsom and Cole Hons from Penn State’s Center for Sustainability introduced us to a new online resource for faculty who want to address sustainability in their courses. Created with seed funding from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, the Field Guide to Teaching Sustainability is a place for instructors from all disciplines to submit their finest sustainability-oriented lessons, activities, and other pedagogical material into a searchable database. Once populated with activities, the database will serve the entire community as a storehouse that can be tapped by teachers who have never incorporated sustainability into their teaching before, as well as veterans searching for fresh approaches.

If you happen to have a sustainability-oriented lesson or activity that you’ve used successfully in your classroom, please go to the website and submit it. Submission is easy and your colleagues, who may be interested in sustainability but don’t have experience using it in their teaching, will be very grateful!

Approaches to STEM Education

A recent publication in Science is stirring up dialog around approaches to STEM education in K-12. The article, The Efficacy of Student-Centered Instruction in Supporting Science Learning, found that students not only performed higher on content knowledge exams than the teacher-centric control group, but also showed hither retention of that knowledge in the future. One thing that really stands out about this study is the thoroughness of methods. Occasionally in similar studies, results are often overlooked or de-emphasized due to the lack of rigor in methods. But the researchers in this study even went so far as to record each session of instruction, to make sure that the teachers held true to the student-centered or teacher-centered approach they were assigned. This reminds of me a Chinese proverb I recently used in several meetings:

Tell me and I may forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand.
Even when I think back to my own experiences in the classroom as a student, the most powerful learning experiences came when I was doing something, not when I was simply listening. One challenge with this student-centered approach is that it can be tougher to design activities to fill your class time vs. designing a lecture. Fortunately, we have a large number of resources that can help you. In collaboration with Education Technology Services, we’re working with some faculty to flip their classroom, putting the burden on the student to consume content (reading, watch videos of lectures, etc) outside of class, while class time is used for more student-centered, active learning approaches.We have resources in inquiry-based learning, with strategies you can use to engage your students to deeply explore the concepts and ideas from your course. We also have resources, and can present workshops, on student-centered discussion. If you’d like to discuss possible strategies to actively involve your students during class, please do not hesitate to email us!