Author Archives: Crystal

Reflecting on Wesch’s Wonder and Big Questions

Consultants at the Schreyer Institute have just returned from the annual conference of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD). One of the speakers at the event was Michael Wesch. He teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University where he studies social media and its effects on society. Dr. Wesch may be familiar…His class’s YouTube video called A Vision of Students Today went viral several years ago.  His talk at this year’s POD conference was one of the most inspiring and hopeful messages I’ve heard in a long while. He talked about our need to instill ‘wonder’ in the ‘Age of Whatever.’ The talk didn’t begin with optimism, but it ended that way.

There were two parts of his message that I think have important implications for faculty in higher education (not to mention for teachers, parents, mentors, etc. everywhere). The first is that we must give students what Wesch called ‘the gift of big questions.’ It’s true that students ask the small ones…Will this information be on the test? How long does the paper have to be? But our job is to get them thinking about the BIG questions, the ones that inspire a quest for knowledge, understanding, and application. The small questions don’t change the world, but the big questions can.

The second big message for me was related to the first but focused more on technology. If we inspire wonder and big questions, then technology becomes an invaluable tool for communicating, information seeking, information sharing, and problem-solving. If we fail in this regard, then technology is essentially just distraction. (Interestingly, the other plenary speaker at the conference was Alex Soojung-Kim Pang who spoke about the Distraction Addiction. His book by this title is due out next year.) When wonder and big questions drive social media interaction then Facebook, for example, becomes a means of social change, not a distraction from learning.

This is not rocket science. It’s not new information. But Wesch’s was a poignant–and for those of us in the room, graphic–reminder of what’s at stake and why it’s important. It was also a hopeful message, if we can inspire in our students a sense of wonder by giving them the gift of big questions, then their thinking and their engagement with technology find purpose. 

SITE Stories: Internships the focus of Schreyer teaching grant

This SITE Story is shared by Nicholas Rowland ( and Thomas Shaffer ( If you are interested in learning more about their project or have specific questions, please contact them directly.
Nicholas Rowland, Penn State Altoona Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Thomas Shaffer, Academic Internship Coordinator, have received funding and associated support from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (SITE) for their proposal, “Enhancing Student Learning in Internships.”  They will work with SITE Instructional Consultant Crystal Ramsay to revise an internship preparatory course, INTSP 370, to focus on helping students to reimagine the internship as an academic learning experience.
The current project is part of a larger effort by Rowland and Shaffer to recapture and clarify the learning half of the “workplace learning” equation for higher education. Current reform trends tend to emphasize the academy’s need to get students thinking about “the world of work”–and the earlier, the better. This workforce development mentality, however, may undercut the institutional supports needed to integrate internships and other work-related learning opportunities more comfortably into traditional academic culture. While some reformers argue that a culture shift is precisely what is needed in higher education, Rowland and Shaffer focus on strengthening these institutional supports to encourage a convergence of interests among students, faculty members, colleges and universities, and employers.
The findings of the 2011 University Senate Task Force on Internships strengthen the argument for an academically-grounded approach to internships. Challenges identified in the Task Force  survey include a lack of resources to facilitate internships; insufficient support, recognition, or reward for faculty members overseeing internships; and a “concern that comprehensive student guidelines, standards for judging student performance, and mechanisms for tracking students and assessing the impact of internships are often lacking.” 
Rowland and Shaffer contend that resources, support for faculty, guidelines, and evaluative standards will follow only if internships can be shown to be a credible academic pursuit with an identifiable role for faculty that leads to recognizable growth in students’ abilities to think and act.  Presently, students almost universally, and most faculty members, tend to think of internships as a career-oriented endeavor to which the academy adds little if any value. Witness the Task Force’s finding that it is commonplace for student grades in academic internships to be determined largely by host site supervisors’ evaluation of an intern’s performance in the workplace; or the unambiguously ambiguous language we use to talk about the faculty’s role in internships (faculty members “oversee” or “supervise” internships–they do not teach internship courses); or our overwhelmingly passive approach to defining what constitutes a “good” internship (internships are presented to students and faculty most often as job descriptions, as a fait accompli that is external to a student’s or a faculty member’s influence).
Rowland and Shaffer suggest that targeting students’ academic preparation for internships can, with time, address each of these concerns. Their project moves in this direction by creating a “conversational space” (INTSP 370) for students to consider together, with faculty guidance, the learning possibilities attached to a mix of internship opportunities. Their goal is to explore and clarify for students and for faculty what academic learning means in the context of workplace learning. With this expanded understanding of workplace learning, students and faculty can become active participants, together with a host site, in determining the content–and therefore the value–of an internship.
A critical component of the project is assessment. Rowland and Shaffer are involving undergraduates enrolled in Penn State Altoona’s Integrative Social Sciences Research Lab in the design of a survey instrument that will tap (1) students’ role identity (worker/employee v. student), (2) students’ use of academic/disciplinary language to describe what they intend to learn as well as what they learned during the internship, and (3) the process students followed during the internship to gain the information, skills, or perspectives they believe to be most valuable to them. Surveys will be administered to students enrolled in INTSP 370 and to students pursuing internships but not enrolled in the class, both before and at the conclusion of their internships.
The success of Rowland and Shaffer’s project hinges on a gradual expansion of faculty buy-in to their approach.  In effect, they are betting that the assessment data, together with a student cohort more attuned to academic learning in internships, will prompt a gradual increase in individual faculty members requiring students to enroll in the course as a condition of their acting as a student’s faculty internship supervisor. This buy-in should be further assisted by a course design that enables students to enroll in the course either prior to an internship experience or concurrent with it, thereby accommodating students who receive last-minute internship offers.
Rowland and Shaffer anticipate that these changes will significantly increase course enrollment within 3-4 semesters. Short-term objectives include building and maintaining course enrollments sufficient for INTSP 370 to be a regular semester course offering.  Long-term objectives include a heightened and more consistent set of expectations than currently exists among Penn State students and faculty members regarding what undergraduate internships can and should entail.

What about Learning Styles?

Mary Ellen Weimer had an interesting blog post in Faculty Focus last week. In her post, Challenging the Notion of Learning Styles, she shared some of the recent research that suggests that regardless of the match between mode of instruction and a student’s learning style, performance is the same. Those of us in Educational Psychology have long discounted the notion of learning styles (e.g., including elaborated models of intelligence such as Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory) as having insufficient data to support its assertions.

So what does this mean for instructors? Should we test our students on the first day of class to learn what is their preferred learning style then proceed to twist and contort our every lesson so as to accommodate the visual, the kinesthetic, the auditory, and the every-other-style learner? Certainly not. Should instructors simply teach as they wish, since attending to students’ reported learning styles apparently doesn’t make a difference? Not recommended either. The fact is, it’s not so simple.

Perhaps the answer is in moderation and mix. In Mary Ellen’s summary of the research, she reminds us that, while students may not differ in their learning styles, the students are, nonetheless, different. It seems to me that it’s on the basis of differences that do exist and that do matter that we should consider modifying our instruction. We should alter our instructional approaches when doing so would make a difference for students with different levels of prior knowledge, interest, or  ability (the research, Reiner and Willingham_2010.pdf, says these matter).

Unless we base our pedagogical decisions on characteristics such as these, we risk making our lectures more visual but failing to attend to gaps in prior knowledge. We risk creating elaborate hands-on projects while failing to recognize important disparities in aptitude across the class. We risk altering our instruction in ways that are not comfortable to us and still not successfully motivating the learners in our classes.

A great new nugget on classroom management

Kathy Jackson and I have been thinking a lot in the last 6 months about what it means to teach Millennial students. (See Kathy’s recent SITE blog post for some great resources.) In a recent workshop with faculty from across the Penn State system, we were engaged in a conversation about establishing a healthy learning environment, given Millennial students’ attributes and preferences. One of the attending faculty members raised his hand and very casually said, “I figure out what doesn’t bother me, then I give it away.”

Come again, I thought.

He said, “I figure out what doesn’t bother me, then I give it away.” What he meant (and we were all eager for him to elaborate) is that he thinks about all the things that students prefer in class…Cell phones, texting, computer access, food, whatever. You name it. Some of those things bother him, and some of them don’t. He insists on the things that really matter to him. For example, there may be NO phone calls during class. But he also figures out what he doesn’t really care about; that is what doesn’t really interfere with his teaching or drive him personally crazy. Then he gives it away. He literally tells students that it’s fine. For example, texting. By openly allowing students to engage in some of the behaviors they’d like to be able to engage in (and ones that don’t interfere with learning in a particular class), students feel empowered and are more likely to abide by the mandates that do matter. It’s a great concept!

To Read, Or Not to Read…

Increasingly I find myself in conversations with folks about assigned reading in higher ed classrooms–and mainly about why students won’t/don’t do it. Instructors say, “I can’t get them to read the text.” And theories abound–They’re not interested. They can’t focus. They live in a culture that skims everything, so they don’t value depth. Their eyes might fall across the page, but they don’t engage with the text as active readers. (Lots of ‘theys” in there, it seems to me.)

If we talk long enough we get around to discussing the characteristics of the texts themselves. Back in the mid-eighties, Bonnie Armbruster and Richard Anderson (1984) introduced the notion of Considerate Texts (or Inconsiderate Texts, as the case may be). Considerate texts are written in ways that actually support the reader’s navigation of the message: clear structure, headings, signals, simple-to-understand graphical aids, etc. Inconsiderate texts, as you might guess, do not bear these qualities.

Sometimes, the conversations eventually even turn toward the instructor: What’s the purpose of the reading? What are you hoping is accomplished by having students engage in the reading? These are interesting questions, because sometimes it’s apparent that reading is the best pedagogical approach; other times it’s not.

Then today, I came across a blog post on Mary Ellen Weimer’s Faculty Focus. She talks about a new instrument–the Textbook Assessment and Usage Scale (TAUS). The point of the instrument and the series of studies where it was used was to have students weigh in about their perceptions of the text, to determine whether text characteristics were related to text reading, and to see if text characteristics are somehow linked to test performance.

You can read the study, which was conducted in Psychology courses, to get the full gist, but here’s the short story–Students often don’t read the text. Right. One predictor of how much they’ll read, however, is their perception of text quality. Characteristics important to students: quality of research examples, quality of visual elements, pedagogical aids, and instructor involvement in incorporating and advocating the text. Elements that predicted exam scores: Quality of writing and of pedagogical aids.

It would be an interesting exercise to administer the TAUS to students, especially before deciding whether to require a text again, whether to supplement it with other sources, or whether to get rid of it altogether. It’s easy to place the blame on “them” for not reading, but it’s also important to consider the factors that influence their reading and make changes where ever we’re able.

Creating Productive Learning Environments (AKA…Classroom Management)

At every level of education, folks want to know about classroom management. Even in non-academic environments–say, for example, business meetings–it can be a struggle to keep people from text messaging, engaging in sidebar conversations, etc. In classrooms, in particular, the issue for instructors is often what to do once disruptive behaviors occur. What do I do about the students talking in my class? The students reading newspapers in my class? The student who is sleeping? A staple in this regard is Felder and Brent’s All In A Day’s Work. They’ve got a great approach to thinking about management issues once they arise. (And we all know that they do!)

But what about strategies for preventing management problems? Is there a way to be proactive? Yes! The trick is to stay focused on creating a productive learning environment. The staple here? Jacob Kounin’s work. Okay. Okay. The research is old–1970. But it’s seen corroboration in the decades since. Here’s the premise: Be organized. Plan for smooth transitions between learning activities. Have yourself and your class materials organized. Be prepared for the unexpected. Don’t allow yourself to get off on tangents that aren’t central to what you’re teaching. Ask questions in ways that everyone has to think about the answer even though only one or two may respond.

My personal favorite is ‘withitness.’ It’s Kounin’s term for having eyes in the back of your head. It’s about being aware of everything that’s going on in the classroom. Do you notice the person who’s texting? (You might simply mosey a little closer to that person. They’ll probably quit.) Do you notice the person who doesn’t look well? The person with a drink teetering on the edge of the desk? What about the student who looks puzzled by your last comment? What about the two arguing–but about their understanding of a concept you’re teaching? If you’re aware of these things, you can make decisions about them. Attend to them. Or not. But at least you’re in a place where you can be proactive. That’s classroom management.

I read once that if job stress was measured by number and frequency of decisions made, then teaching would be second only to air traffic control. More recently I heard someone say that teaching IS decision-making. Personally, I would rather make decisions that create productive learning environments and prevent classroom management issues than make decisions about how to fix them once they’ve occurred.