Category Archives: Faculty Spotlight

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.

Faculty Spotlight: Laura Guertin

Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin has developed a reputation for being innovative in the classroom. Dr. Guertin’s innovations stem from necessity. She teaches at Penn State Brandywine, a commuter campus with approximately 1600 students. Many of her students use public transportation to commute within Pennsylvania and from Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland; it is not unusual for them to have a 2-3 hour trip to campus. In addition to attending college, many students work and care for family members. The result: little or no time for homework. 

Faculty members teaching at residential campuses notice the same lack of student attention to work outside of class. “Students are changing,” said Dr. Guertin. The demands on out-of-class time are numerous: for example, close to one fourth of all full-time students at public four-year institutions work 20 or more hours per week (Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac of Higher Education 2011). 
Laura, preparing for a presentation
Dr. Guertin faces another challenge familiar to faculty who teach courses that satisfy general education requirements: the sense that your course is one students simply want to get out of the way. “I’m at the bottom of their list of things to do,” she said. Dr. Guertin noticed a lack of engagement by students in her lecture courses. Readings and homework were simply tasks her students wanted to get done, not ways to think and explore. 
Her response to this situation was to use the Just-In-Time Teaching Technique (JiTT). The term describes strategies used to connect in- and out-of-class work. A common approach is to design a small set of questions students respond to outside of class. Students submit their answers a few hours prior to class. The instructor uses the students’ answers to create in-class activities that address student misconceptions, gaps in knowledge, or incomplete/faulty reasoning. With the help of a small grant from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Dr. Guertin adapted this technique in her Dinosaur Extinctions and Other Controversies course by posting three open-ended questions each week for students to answer via ANGEL. A couple of hours before class, she read students’ submissions, looking for misconceptions. She then planned an all-class discussion based on student responses and an interactive follow-up activity. She did this once a week. The new approach seemed to be working, but she wanted to know how well students were actually learning. 
Schreyer Institute consultants worked with her to develop and phrase her question sets for students, as well as devise ways of measuring gains in student learning and engagement. She developed a survey that measured students’ perceptions of their learning and engagement. What she found was a marked increase in students’ learning, engagement, and comprehension of course material. Students also reported a greater sense of responsibility for their own success. She published her findings with former Schreyer consultants Sarah Zappe and Heeyoung Kim in the Journal of Science and Educational Technology. 

Laura Presenting at a recent brown bag Lunch.

Dr. Guertin said the approach is not without its challenges. Instructors using JiTT have found students are more likely to buy into the technique if they get credit for it. Typically instructors make JiTT activities worth about 10 percent of the overall course grade, but this can vary by instructor. With her students, 30 percent is the “sweet spot” that induces them to participate regularly. She says instructors also need to devote time to making sure that follow-up activities are aligned with the teaching goals for their course. With meaningful pre-class questions, and the ability to submit responses to questions online, the daily commute has become homework time for many of her students. 
Dr. Guertin’s main suggestion for faculty members considering trying JiTT in their courses is to take the time to construct good questions. Whether they are multiple-choice or open-ended, questions need to be clearly phrased and include a variety of levels of thought. For example, all questions need not be recall-oriented; some might ask for an application or example. Dr. Guertin scales her questions using a model of cognitive levels (Bloom’s Taxonomy). See here for examples of questions at different levels of thinking that can be applied in any course. Dr. Guertin said that JiTT questions are a way for non-science majors to connect course material with life outside of class, such as current events and local connections. 
In addition to JiTT, Dr. Guertin continues to develop other teaching tools to help students meet course goals such as scientific literacy. This is a particularly important goal for non-majors, who will need to understand geologic/geographic information in order to be effective teachers and decision-makers. She has developed a capstone Google Earth ePortfolio assignment in which students use technology to apply their geological knowledge to real life situations. For example, students use the Google Earth program to locate and plot geographic features. The program has a tool that students can use to insert annotations, photos, and video, which provides them with a means of making connections between what they are learning in class and how that information applies to real-world phenomena. 
While Dr. Guertin, a 2010 Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology Faculty Fellow, continues to incorporate technology in her courses in new and creative ways, she stresses that incorporating technology into one’s classes need not be complicated. “Don’t hesitate to use technology. Don’t go overboard. Just think about your goals and how technology can get you there.” That’s sound advice for any teaching technique, technological or not.

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
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