A time for reflection

Being a professor provides us with an opportunity to have a hard end, every semester. With a built in break, to rejuvenate, lick our wounds, work on our scholarship, and to reflect on the prior academic year.

I remain concerned over the quality of course evaluations. Many universities do exactly what my institution did. An assistant provost created a committee of faculty members and administrators, none of whom had a background in the creation of psychometric tools. She provided them with some constraints … 10 items or fewer, it had to include an item on starting and stopping class on time, and it had to be free to administer.

A good measure, regardless of its purpose begins just with that … what is the purpose of this measure?

Yet, course evaluations are supposed to have multiple purposes.

  • Provide administrators with information they can use to make retention/tenure/promotion decisions, often so that they have support for denying retention, tenure, or promotion. (Note: I spent a stint in administration … not all schools are like this, but enough are).
  • Evaluate the quality of the professor.
  • Provide feedback to the professor so he/she can make data driven improvements.

You can’t really impact how the measure you are assigned to use has been crafted, what’s it’s purpose, or what kind of information it will be provided to you. However, even if you are at an institution where there is no truly useful measure, the act of seeking anonymous feedback from your students can be useful in helping you to be more reflective on your teaching, and to make improvements for the future. (e.g., http://www.chronicle.com/article/As-Summer-Sets-In-a-Chance-to/240203?cid=wcontentgrid_hp_2)

Here are some tips to do just that:

  1. Before you even look at the results, look at what your goals for the semester were. Did you hope to improve student homework completion? Attendance? Make a list of that information, and see how your efforts translated to student responses.
  2. If your school’s course evaluation is not providing you with useful information, ask the students open ended questions that will provide you with useful information. Just make sure to administer it after the grades have been posted, and provide students with a way to provide that information anonymously. Survey Monkey is an easy way. If you are working with a course delivery system like D2L, there are survey options that you can make anonymous. But in the end, ask the questions you want/need the answer to.
  3. Look over the students responses on both the course evaluations and the survey you created. Read them … and then think about what they said. Then read it again. If you get back feedback that makes you sad or mad … put the course evaluations down for a couple of days, then come back to them.
  4. As you look through the responses … often after a couple of days of waiting to re-read them, evaluate those responses in the context of your course goals. Remember, this isn’t going to be like a t-test … a binary decision: reject the null/fail to reject the null. People just simply aren’t good teachers and sucky teachers. Instead, look for signs of when you were a good teacher. When were you not a good teacher
  5. Growing up, there was a prayer in my kitchen … you may know it …

Grant me…

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

The power to change the things that need changing

The Wisdom to know the difference.

I believe that as you focus on the students responses … keep that in mind. Some variables are out of your control, but others are within your control. Your job when you read over your course evaluations and reflect on your teaching is to have the wisdom to know the difference… and create some targeted goals to better reach the students you are serving.

I hope your summer is one of great reflection, rejuvenation, that you don’t have that many wounds to lick, but you do find some time to have fun with family and friends.

Happy thinking!




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Let’s dance

Let’s Dance …

Some of my fondest memories are surrounding dancing. I learned how to Polka with my Grandfather. I have many memories of dancing with my Dad, including learning how to Waltz.  My son, as an infant, would only calm down with “dancing.” Many days we would dance for two or more hours. And now, I look forward, every year to the one polka dance my daughter promises me at a community event.

Thus, with all of these fond memories of dancing, it’s probably not surprising that dancing has become a metaphor for me as to what great teachers do.

In dancing, there is a give and take between two people. There is a form of non-verbal communication, especially with the Polka (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Polka, this clip can give you a sense http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=782aze89Ty4 ).

In teaching, there, too, is a form of non-verbal communication that takes place … with the give and take between two people (or the teacher and the entire class). Though the teacher is “the lead” if she doesn’t receive information from her dance partner, the dance will not turn out well, and I would predict the dance partner will leave.  There has to be that give and take, that continuous communication, and continuous adjustment for learning to occur at the highest levels. I believe the dance is gone in electronic based education.

Now, anyone who has been reading this blog for any period of time knows I am a fan of http://khanacademy.com. I encourage you to make use of this great website for your students (and your own children). A great interview with Sal Khan and Khan Academy can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kh60v5PxMk&feature=player_embedded

What we can all learn about teaching from the strength of Khan Academy is how each of the topics are broken down into the component pieces. This should be true in the classroom environment, too.  Students, then, have to truly master those components through what some may call “Drill and Kill” but I like to think of as “training one’s brain.”  Students have to get a certain number of problems correct in a row, with Khan Academy before they receive an “award” for completing the task. Even one small error could result in having the student to start over from the beginning. I’ve been a fan of drill and practice, as an important component of learning for years , and the research is clear … drill and practice of component parts are necessary though not sufficient to assure mastery of information like statistics. Though I find such skill development, as put forth in Khan Academy, to be necessary for learning, it is only the beginning, not the end of learning.

Classroom learning can help shift with students’ … take their waning attention on the Friday before Spring Break. Yes, even on the Friday before Spring Break, classroom seats should be filled, as important learning is taking place. Yet, the students’ minds are often less focused. The teacher in the front of the classroom can focus their thoughts through examples … if one doesn’t work (as you can tell by the look in their eyes — or lack their of), then you switch until you hit on the right combination … it is, indeed, a dance. Teachers can help identify what component pieces of information may be missing and help guide the class toward mastering that component piece. The teacher can aid in integrating the knowledge through questioning … an old and well tested pedagogical technique called Socratic Method, which enables students to thinker deeper and over time, faster that assures students to find weaknesses within their thinking  (Though there are a lot of descriptions of the Socratic method, here is one: http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/a-liberating-education/socratic-method ). Of course, individuals can say … this can be replicated on line, I suppose if the entire class is being conducted synchronously, but, you still lose information … information you get from non-verbal cues, information that could help in the dance.

Now, I have been looking for research in this area, and haven’t found any. There is plenty of research attempting to show that students can perform as well without a teaching in the front of the class, but that is with a typical 50% drop rate!

Could you imagine a university keeping a new professor if 50% of all students who took his class dropped it?  Yet, no one is talking about this fairly robust trend … a 50% drop rate, which I even see in my on-line classes.

Yet, if you listen to Sal Khan, it seems like he is saying … education can completely change, and all you need is a computer. If you read about the Falling of Universities, it seems like people think it is possible to learn as much from a computer as from a human, but computers can’t dance … and until they can (which I suspect will result in them first having passed the Turing Test), computers can become a tool in the path toward education, but it will be a tool a skilled teacher will need to wield, not merely hand over to students.

If anyone sees research on how to teach the “dance” to new faculty or how to assess the “dance,” please let me know … for those of you looking for an interesting research area in education/teaching/pedagogy … I really think over the course of the next ten years, this  will be a hot topic, as we better understand what children and adults can and cannot learn from a machine.

Happy Dancing!

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Decreasing Cheating

Several years ago, I arranged for an Eastern Psychological Symposium on the application of psychological research in maximizing students’ intellectual engagement in (and out of) class. I was reminded of this symposium while reading the Chronicle of Higher Education. A faculty member was highlighting the challenges he faced prior academic year when he started to use a anti-plagiarism software, Turnit-In http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/nyu-prof-vows-never-to-probe-cheating-again%e2%80%94and-faces-a-backlash/32351.

His experiences were certainly interesting, and as I thought of cheating in my non-statistics classes, I started to wonder … why don’t I catch students cheating in statistics. It is the class that occupies 50% of my professional schedule. I don’t catch cheaters, as I minimize any benefit students may have in cheating.

(1) I do not collect or correct homework. I provide students with worksheets (Green & Sandy, 2010) https://www.pearsonhighered.com/program/Kiess-Statistical-Concepts-for-the-Behavioral-Sciences-4th-Edition/PGM110238.html. Students are instructed to complete before completing the more complicated problems within the body of the textbook. In both cases, the Assignments and Exercises for Students and the textbook examples, answers are provided to the students. In fact, for many of the Assignments and Exercises for Students  problems, interim solutions are provided for students, so they can check to what point they had the answer correct. Students must take responsibility for their own learning, and most do. Those who don’t cannot be rewarded with cheating, and instead, fail to master the material and thus fail the class.

(2) During exams, I provide students with the formulas. Let’s face it … we double check formulas that we don’t use regularly. If students were to cheat, bringing along a copy of the formula seems like the most obvious place to start. Not much else could help them. The problems are too long and would take too much writing space to be helpful to risk being caught cheating.

However, there are some other behaviors that a professor can participate in that will decrease cheating.

(3) Stating a plagiarism policy in your syllabus is associated with less cheating.

(4) As is explaining to students, on a personal level, how you feel when students cheat.

(5) Here is an additional article on decreasing cheating: http://chronicle.com/article/Cheating-Lessons-Part-2/140113/. In short, James Lang reviews a research study that found one of the ways a faculty can go about decreasing cheating, is by not by focusing on cheating behaviors, but by focusing on learning behaviors. Moreover, it seems that students who were in classes with fewer tests, quizzes and other assessment tools demonstrated greater cheating behavior. Offering students nonthreatening ways for them and you to evaluate their cognitive development (like in the homework problems listed above), students are less incline to cheat. They simply have less reason to do so. Yet, they are spending time learning and mastering the material.

In the end … this is a challenge I think we will forever be battling, but don’t give up!

I’m most certainly looking for current research on this topic, so please let me know if you are involved with this kind of research.

May your students be intellectually engaged, and may cheating in your classes be non-existent!

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Intellectually taking hold of your students: The First Five Minutes

“I’ve lost them.”

I hate the realization that I have lost my class. I don’t care if I’m teaching 15 or 150 students, I want to grab a hold of their minds and fill them with critical information. This is particularly true in applied statistics.

We all know, many of our students don’t want to take applied stats. Let’s face it, some of our colleagues don’t even see it as being useful. And, there are even some people teaching applied statistics who don’t  want to! [I have tips for those who don’t want to teach stats here: https://statisticalsage.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/so-you-dont-want-to-teach-stats/]

But this world has some real problems facing it, and I suspect those of us teaching applied statistics understand how through the application of statistics … if done well … those problems can be solved. And as students grow to understand how statistics works, when to use it, what it can tell us and what it can’t, they begin to appreciate why applied statistics matters, too.

However, they aren’t going to naturally come to class with that understanding. Instead, they come to class worrying about everything from how they are going to pay their bills next month to are their eyebrows looking good! Most of our students are connected 24/7 to their phones that perpetually eat up their working memory capacity, and now we have to get them to focus on the class.

James Lang [http://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-The/234869?cid=trend_right_h] explains why the first five minutes of class matters so much. Lang also provides four examples of how to change up those first five minutes to encourage intellectual engagement. I encourage you to read his well written article. Building on his thoughts, I’m going to add a few of my own.

Students often want to take control of the first few minutes – Don’t let them:

I have been beginning my classes, including the first one of the semester, the way Lang describes since I’ve been teaching college. However, I always have …in every class … two or three students who want to interrupt the flow of the start of the class by asking about homework, or wanting back their exams, or any number of logistical issues that can and should wait. I would say about once every two years or so, the student is so insistent, class after class, I have to talk with them about what I am doing and why. Yes, questions are important, and students should feel welcomed to ask them … but as you are attempting to help students transition from the world into the classroom, you need to be the one to do that, and students questions or comments will disrupt that process.

Either deliver Logistical Issues before class starts or wait until the end of class: 

In my classes with student helpers,  I have the student helper put up a looping powerpoint for about 8 minutes before class begins. On it, there are reminders about upcoming assignments, quizzes, and office hours. For classes like applied statistics, when I finish one segment of the class and before transitioning to the next, that’s when I review the logistical issues of the class, never at the valuable beginning. As for attendance… I actually don’t take attendance on the first day of class, it eats up too much time. I take it before class starts. If I’m running late, I don’t take attendance that day.

Start with the working memory:

Remember, working memory is the amount of information a person can hold onto at any given moment and time. As professors we should do everything we can to maximize students’ working memory. That means, getting them to think about the class and nothing else. This is where Lang’s “Start with a Question” comes in handy.

You remember that looping powerpoint that my student helper puts up prior to the start of class? Interspersed between the logistical comments, I also include questions about information we have covered in the past to get the students thinking.

In applied statistics this makes so much sense … because aren’t we all about answering questions using statistics??? As a result, I make students come to the second class with a question they want to answer. In Quantitative Psychology, it has to be about Psychology … like, what causes happiness. In Quantitative Business Analysis it’s about a Business question, why are people willing to pay more money to shop at Wegmans where there is a much cheaper Walmart across the street. (etc.)

Some times I ask the question … some times I ask for a question. Often I’ll use that question as the basis for discussion during class as well.

However, we don’t just have to ask questions.  We can get students thinking and maximizing their working memory by also telling a story.  I start with saying … “On my drive into school…” Or yesterday I was reading … ” and the students pay attention. Whenever possible, I try to make it about something funny or shocking and always about statistics.

Another story approach is “The Statistical (or Psychometric) Schmuck of the Week.”  …

For this, I find a story or research about someone who has misused statistics (or psychometrics) in a way that it’s embarrassing! What a Schmuck … I’ll say to the class. [For those of you who don’t know, a schmuck is Yiddish slang for a foolish person. Use the slang that fits your student population.]

Some times if I don’t come in with a Schmuck of the week story for a while, they’ll even ask  for one! They love to hear about how people have drawn terrible conclusions by misusing statistics (or psychometrics).

The goal isn’t the question or the story, the goal is to get their attention, and maximize their working memory capacity while we prepare them to learn about statistics.

Activate their mental representations so they can receive the information:

I know … I’m showing my information processing roots. I do think of mental representations in a very Piagetian manner. That is I believe students form something akin to schematic structures regarding the information I am teaching. As a result, the best way to make sure the new information gets encoded and stored effectively is to activate the previously stored schema!  The best way to activate their schemata is by quizzing them or questioning them. Within the first 5 minutes of class, and even in between transition from one section to the next, I have my students retrieve information, and I always make them write it down first, while my student assistant and I walk around the class and give thumbs up to those who have gotten it correct.

So, for Tuesday’s class, I’ll be asking my students what were the four classifications of statistics we learned about last week. Write them down, and define them for me. After 30 seconds or so, I’ll put up the first letter of each of the four words.

They are …

  • Descriptive Statistics
  • Inferential Statistics
  • Hypothesis Testing Statistics
  • Finding Association Statistics

This not only helps students to evaluating the effectiveness of their studying, but it also serves as a “self test” thus they get all of the benefits of that. It provides me with a sense of who is on track and who might need a bit of a push. Most importantly, it activities the schema from the prior class, so the new information being added today will be more effectively encoded and hence stored.

James Lang isn’t alone in believing the most important time in your class is the first five minutes … make it count!

I hope your semester is off to a great start!

Happy teaching!!!

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Beginning the Semester …

Hello All,

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted. But the incredible thing about being a professor is we get a fresh start every semester. And the fall semester, in many ways, is the most exciting.

For me, one of the exciting parts of right before the fall semester starts is that I get to meet and provide professional development to our incoming faculty. For the last few years, there just weren’t that many new faculty, especially of the tenured track variety. But today, I was able to meet several. I hope this is a trend that continues.

This year’s professional development workshop was also a bit different. In the past, I always talked about syllabus formation. And, today, I did as well. You can find information from prior blogs on syllabus formation here, and here.

This year, however, I was also asked to talk to faculty about how to be successful with students including office hours and grading. Now you might not think these two things have anything in common … but they do.

Firstly, each of your institutions may have some rule or expectations for you with regard to office hours and grading. Please, folks … if it’s not going to negatively impact your teaching and your students learning, appeasing administrators goes a long way. Being a professor and being in a relationship are similar … pick your battles, lest you be viewed as a griping malcontent.

But simply following the expectations may not be enough …

There are two variables associated with academic success that we should keep in mind.

  • Does the professor possess high expectations for his/her students?
  • Is the professor meeting the needs of the students?

If you are interested in learning more about how to do these two things making use of grading and office hours, the attached powerpoint “Welcome to ESU” can provide you with additional details.

I would love to hear from those of you teaching applied statistics …

  • What are some ways you articulate high expectations to your students?
  • What are some of those expectations?
  • How have students responded to your high expectations?
  • What kind of struggles have you had in meeting students’ needs?
  • Do you have any tips or recommendations for meeting students’ needs?

If you have answers to any of these questions, my name is Bonnie Green, and I can be found at East Stroudsburg University.  I would love to hear from you.

Happy start of the semester!

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New Year’s Resolution: Do they make a difference?

It is time to wish everyone a Happy New Year! As we go through the transition of one year to the next, many people think about New Year’s Resolutions. Do they make a difference? If so, what is the best way to assure a New Year’s Resolution be fruitful?

Approximately 40 – 45% of people establish goals for themselves at the start of the New Year. The most common goals deal with health related issues like healthy eating, physical activity, or limiting unhealthy behaviors like smoking. The next common class of New Year’s resolutions are money related issues … like increasing savings or cutting down on spending or debt. However, a New Year’s Resolution can be on any topic, and there is good reason to believe making resolutions can help a person achieve a goal.

Norcross and others, have studied how people change their behavior, including the role of New Year’s Resolutions. In one study, they spoke with people at the start of the New Year and asked them about changes they hoped to see in the next year. Most people were able to express a personal hope for the following year. However, some of those people actively decided to make a New Year’s Resolution and some did not. After 6 months, the researchers followed up with each group and found that 4% non-resolvers were successfully working towards their desired goal whereas 46% of the resolvers were still actively striving to achieve their stated goal. Thus, making a New Year’s Resolution seems to increase behaviors associated with reaching personal goals.

What besides making a resolution increases goal achievement? Koestner found that self-regulatory strength is associated with goal achievement. Specifically, when a person has a sense that the goal they have established was done so for their own benefit and not as a result of pressure from others, they are more likely to implement a plan to reach that goal.

Now, what does a good implementation plan look like? I return to the tried and true research on expertise by Erikson.

  • Clearly state what we are interesting in achieving.

Remember, this has to be something you want … not something you are doing to appease someone else.

  • Specify a plan of how to achieve it.

You have to have a plan. That plan should include: Who, What, Where, When, and How.

  • Make sure the goal is attainable, yet causes us to stretch.

Select a goal and a plan that will fit with your life the way it really is, not the life you wish you had!

  • Establish a way of assessing our progress toward the goal.

Yes, you have to measure your success, which means you have to have a plan to measure your success. Again, sometimes the best way to do this is to seek out recommendations from experts. Often, though, you will have a clear cut goal that will have a clear cut measure associated with it.

  • Use the information from assessment to making changes to the plan.

Don’t just make measures, if you find the plan isn’t working, make changes based on these measures.

  • Deliberately Practice and revise along the way.

Deliberate practice is very targeted practice designed to help us get better. According to Erikson, deliberate practice individuals focus on developing areas of weakness. When faced with challenges or down right failures, people who have adopted a deliberate practice seem to have a laser focus on the area of weakness, and make targeted effort to bring about improvement. Duckworth and others have termed this behavior, Grit, that is the persistence and passion possessed by an individual directed at reaching a long term goal. Grit enables us to maintain interest and drive despite lack of progress, presence of obstacles and even complete and utter failures.

So, making a New Year’s Resolution can make a difference, but only if your personal goal is one that you want for you. Then, create a plan and be gritty as you deliberately practice toward your goal.

Here is hoping you and your family have a Happy, Healthy, and Grit-filled New Year!


Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1997). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

Koestner. (2008). Reaching one’s personal goals: A motivational perspective focused autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49, 60 – 67.

Norcross, Mrykalo, & Blagys (2002). Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and non-resolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 397-405.

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Making students fail???

By now, anyone reading this blog has probably figured out the only thing I like more than teaching applied statistics is understanding what makes students learn the material better. My goal is not for them to learn the material long enough for the exam, but so they can actually do what the class is intended to do … apply statistics to find the answers to important questions.

My focus on the cognitive science underlying student success is no surprise to people on my campus. As such, I wasn’t the least bit surprised with a science faculty member contacted me to find out the answer to this question. What is better, direct teaching or forcing students to try to figure out something prior to being taught, then teaching them. The specific topic at hand was helping students to understand the application of mathematics in this particular science discipline. The topic came from a teaching listserve.

I have come across a research article addressing this very topic, the abstract can be found by copying and pasting this:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cogs.12107/abstract

Kapur, M. (2014). Productive Failure in Learning Math, Cognitive Science, 38, 1008-1022.

What Kapur found is that though students learn a great deal from direct teaching, that is providing students with background information, showing them how to calculate a math problem, then having them practice, preferably in class, then out of class as homework, direct teaching may not always be the most effective way of having students learn how to solve problems in mathematics.

Instead of direct instruction,  Kapur found that by providing students with the problem and having them figure out how to solve the problem before being instructed yields better long term learning, and also increases a students’ ability to apply that knowledge to other problems. Prior to  instruction, almost every student fails. Yet there seems to be benefit in the attempt despite the failure.

I have used this very technique for years as has my science colleague I spoke of earlier.

I actually begin when I teach the (arithmetic) mean. By the time a student is in college he or she has calculated many means. It is actually a concepts taught to 8 year olds. What the students haven’t been taught is the formula for mean, at least not that my students seem to remember.  Equally true, they haven’t thought about how the mean works. They just plug in numbers into their calculator and it spits out a number.

What I have them do is write  in word the steps involved. Then, I let them ask me questions about symbols. If they can’t figure out they need the symbol for sum of the observations and total number of observation, I will eventual give them to the students. Either way, they have to create the formula for the mean.

After teaching students the conceptual meaning of the Sum of Squared, they determine the formula and process to find it. Then, I define for students variance, and again they generate the format. Obviously, they are asked to generate the definitional formula.  In each case (which by the way covers several days), only about 3 or 4 students in a class of 40 are actually successful. However, most students, who initially won’t even try and respond to my requests with an “I don’t know” eventually start giving it a shot, and most of the time can get a piece of it correct.  More importantly, students start thinking about statistics as a process and the definitional  formulas as a set directions and explanation.  Statistics begins to make sense to students, but it starts with failure.

The same process works with z-test, and all three t-tests (one sample, independent, and related).

There is no doubt that direct teaching will be faster, but forcing students to think about the underling concepts of applied statistics , even if it results in failure, seems to yield deeper and longer understanding, and after all, isn’t that what we are after?

I hope everyone has a great break and wonderful 2015!


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