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!

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. 

Paper or…electronic? Which is best for student reading?

Like a lot of folks who work at Penn State, I’ve spent much of this past week reading various articles and books. I always jot notes when I read, either on a separate piece of paper, or on a series of sticky notes. If I’m reading an article, I like to print it out and jot in the margins.

I was having lunch with the Liberal Arts teaching group at University Park campus, and the conversation turned briefly to how students don’t seem to read much these days, but when they do, they seem to prefer paper copies of things to electronic versions. (In fact, many of us in the group had printed out paper copies of an article the group was discussing that day). I said I wondered if students prefer a format they can physically annotate.

We talked about NB, a software package developed at MIT that students can use to annotate electronic text. None of us have used it, but we are wondering if anyone at Penn State has.

I took a brief turn in the “sandbox” (NB’s demo) and noticed the software has ways to annotate text and share with a group, or jot notes to oneself. Check it out:


Reading text and marking it up with notes and questions seems to be an important part of how we learn, but it’s not something students are able to do naturally or easily. See this article from this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education:


How much more would our students read if we modeled how to interact with a text through annotation? And what if we had an effective way of doing so electronically?



What is college for?

How would you answer the question “what is college for?” I think most of us would agree that the goal of a college education is to provide individuals with a satisfying job at a reasonable salary. But is that all? According to Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University, it isn’t. In Delbanco’s recent book, “College, What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” published in March of 2012, he argues that college should do much more. In addition to providing economic success for individuals and, by extension, the nation, college should helps students learn how to contribute to our democracy, which depends on an “educated citizenry.” Furthermore, college should provide students with experiences that enhance the joy of living.

In his introduction, Delbanco suggests that college should help students “develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship” which include the following:

“a skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past”
“the ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena”
“appreciation for the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of arts and sciences”
“the ability to imagine experiences from experiences other than one’s own” and
“a sense of ethical responsibility”

Delbanco suggests that these qualities cannot be developed by study within a single discipline. His compelling arguments follow from a fascinating analysis of the history of colleges and universities and a comparison of the past with the present.

What do you think of Delbanco’s ideas? Do you think Penn State is successful at helping students develop these “qualities of mind and heart?” If not, how might we do a better job?

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.

How do you Motivate Students to Read?

Members of the Institute are currently working with faculty members from Hotel and Restaurant Management on a research project around reading compliance, trying to better understand the factors that contribute to a student’s decision to read course materials. We’re currently administering a survey on the topic, and finalizing an analysis of past focus group data. Based on the data, as well as prior research in the field, some things you might want to consider to motivate and encourage your students to read course materials:

  • Quizzes – short, regularly scheduled reading quizzes provide motivation for students to read. In some instances, these quizzes might be weekly, and worth a very small number of points. In addition to quizzes, some instructors have success with short reading essays, also worth a small number of points. 
  • In-class discussions – integrate active learning elements, like in-class discussion, into your course. Students felt more compelled to read before class when they knew the instructor might call on a random student to answer a reading-related question. Some students even cited the use of i-clickers in class as a motivating factor when deciding to read.
  • Vary reading assignments – students understood the value of text books, but also appreciated various viewpoints, case studies and other sources of reading materials throughout the semester. Students especially appreciated readings that were current, and also readings that illustrated practical application of content being covered in class or the textbook. 
  • Stress long-term benefits – students often read only with short term benefits in mind, such as grades. Instructors should emphasize the long-term importance of course readings, such as being more knowledgeable, having a deeper understanding of a topic, the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate topics, be better prepared for interviews and the ability to apply a wide range of knowledge to existing challenges.
In addition to things you might want to try to increase reading compliance, the students in our focus groups also identified some instructor behaviors that act as disincentives or demotivators when it comes to course readings. These include:
  • Repeating the book – this was one of the primary reasons students did not read. If an instructor lectures directly from the book, students often decide not to read because they can get the same information in class. 
  • Enthusiasm or interest in the topic – students cited a lack of interest in the content by the instructor as a reason not to read. This might be challenging for some instructors, especially if it’s the 50th time they are teaching the same course. Students will quickly pickup on instructor disinterest in the material, and it might impact their interest as well.
  • Surprise quizzes – this was a tricky point to unpack. Students cited quizzes as a motivating factor, but some flavors of surprise quizzes seemed to demotivate students. For  example, when an instructor ‘threatens’ a pop quiz each week, but never gives one. On the other hand, some students indicated that instructors that give one surprise quiz each week (I know, that doesn’t sound very surprising) acts a motivator to read. To build on this example, it might be that the instructor teaches MWF, and gives a short quiz on one of those days each week based on the readings. 
We hope to learn more about students’ decisions when it comes to course readings through a current survey being administered in various PSU classes. If you happen to teach a course, especially a 100 or 200-level course, and willing to ask your students to participate in the survey, please contact me ( We have the ability to track students that participate if, for instance, you wanted to offer an extra credit point. We plan on analyzing the data and trying to put into practice what we learn at PSU through a variety of Institute workshops and other outreach efforts. 
Feel free to comment below if you have additional strategies you use to motivate your students to read.

Replacing misconceptions and myths

I just finished reading an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about why incorrect or inaccurate ideas and information persist even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. The story is Why Lies Often Stick Better Than Truth.”

The educational research literature on misconceptions has clearly shown that learning can be significantly impacted by contrary pre-existing beliefs and conceptions.  What is really great about this article is that it provide a link to the Debunking Handbook, which has some excellent suggestions that faculty should find interesting.  It’s a quick and very useful read!

Cook, J., Lewandowsky, S. (2011), The Debunking Handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland.

Listening to Our Students: Comments from a Student Panel on August 23, 2012

We started this school year off by co-hosting, along with the Alumni Center, a student panel for Penn State new faculty. Hearing student voices and their sometimes opposing viewpoints certainly helped each of us in the room to think a bit differently about our students and their perspectives. Dr. Mark Maughmer, an aerospace engineering professor who is one of this year’s Alumni Teaching Award winners, moderated the panel of seven undergraduates and one graduate student. The event, slated for an hour, ran a bit longer because, once the students started, it turned out they had plenty to say!



Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Group of students.jpgTo set the stage, Dr. Maughmer asked about the students’ use of technology. Hearing they send and receive some 200 daily text messages brings home a point – technology is a constant in their lives. When asked if we (faculty) should be worried about all of this technology usage, one student’s reply aptly sums up their feelings, “Are you open to communicating with us? Will you use today’s media?” They expect not only to communicate via technology, but they expect current technologies in their learning. As pointed out by one student, “The worst way a professor can use technology is to NOT use technology.” They want their syllabus and other materials electronically available. While ANGEL got mixed reviews from these students, most still expect it to be an integral part of their classes. A real benefit to ANGEL is that they feel it “helps us to operate efficiently.” And being efficient is an underlying operating premise for these students. Although when they brought up that ANGEL is down every day from 4:00 to 6:00 am, you wonder how efficient they can be if they are up at these hours! They also anticipate mediated materials will not just be given to them by a professor, but instead suggest integrating technology into instruction. Developing rich resources is only one part of the equation as explained by one student, “if you are going to use technology, make sure you come with it rather than on it.”   


When asked to explain how they know a class will be good, their answers didn’t contain any surprises. Yet these answers brought home, once again, important things to remember. Be passionate, for it is contagious. Show your students why you are interested in the course material and why it is important for them to know it. Be organized and make sure your syllabus reflects this and provides specifics. Use language that is appropriate for undergraduate students – they made it clear that they recognize you are smart. You don’t need to tell them that. What they need from you is empathy and the ability to help them learn. Provide ways for students to make connections and see the relevancy of this content, otherwise they think it is just “mumble jumble.” Make learning active. As one student noted, “I loved going to his class. The topic wasn’t really my thing, but I had to take the class. The professor taught what he needed to teach in ways that helped me remember. It wasn’t just how he went over the material, for we did activities that helped to illustrate principles.”


Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ThreeStudents.jpgPowerPoint was almost a sore subject. Comments like “a bunch of slides will make a student pass out” and “sometimes I can’t help it, but I fall asleep with PowerPoint” made us think. Dr. Maughmer asked, “Is it PowerPoint or is it PowerPoint used badly that causes you such angst?” The trouble is that far too often the students find it misused. One student added, “A lot of students don’t fall asleep on purpose. There has to be some kind of effort made to keep us engaged.” They all pretty much confirmed that if the professor is just there reading the slides, the students have checked out.


Another issue that distracts students is lack of communication from their professors. Not all that is taught comes easily to the students and they need help when the material is tough. Several suggested that it helps when an instructor acknowledges that the material is tedious and one succinctly remarked “don’t pretend it is the best and instead be candid when it is dry.”  Another student added faculty should try to be honest by saying “we are going to go through this with as little pain as possible. You need to learn this.” Dr. Maughner remarked that “brain biology results in our minds needing a little rest every 10 or 15 minutes.” He peppers his students with distractors when he feels he is beginning to lose their attention. If you wonder what happens when a grasshopper goes into the bar, stop by one of his classes. His intention, to help the students reflect and think about what they have just learned before they move on, seems to work since it gives students a bit of a mental break before they have to continue with the complex processing. And a little laughter seems to help keep students engaged.


One dilemma discussed was the role of the professor and the textbook. One of the panelists vehemently wants professors to structure the class just like the textbook. This student only goes to class if it is mandatory because he finds “I am one of those who doesn’t go to class. I read the textbook and that works for me.” He claims that as a self-motivator, he doesn’t need a professor to help convey the textbook and that his approach is efficient. Ironically the student sitting next to him had taken a class with him where both of them had made A’s, yet this student always went to class and never reads the textbook. For him, it is the professor who will make or break a course. Their pronounced preferences helped us to think about the differences in our students and recognize that one size doesn’t fit all.


The graduate student who has been teaching gave us a closing call to action. She stressed “the more demanding you are, the better your students will perform. If you expect excellence of your students, they will perform with excellence. You have to do this from the beginning by making this clear on your syllabus and continuing the whole way through. These undergraduates are capable of so much.” And Dr. Maughmer concluded “they are capable of so little if you don’t.”