Teaching Newsletter: Helping Students Persist, 9/21/2017

September 21, 2017

Motivating Nonmajors

For Heather Tinsley, an associate professor of biology at the University of Montevallo, in Alabama, introductory biology for nonmajors has always been the hardest class to teach. The reason? The students who take it aren’t intrinsically motivated. Ms. Tinsley, who also directs the university’s Malone Center for Excellence in Teaching, shared her approach to this challenge in response to our recent question to readers about how they help motivate students.

In her effort to capture students’ attention, Ms. Tinsley looks beyond her discipline. She's redesigned the nonmajors class using the humanities technique of deliberative democracy to show students “how they would encounter biology in the real world,” she wrote.

That means focusing on questions like “Should genetically modified foods be labeled?” or “Should medical claims made on television shows be regulated?,” she explained. Such questions connect to broader issues that are explored in the course — genetics and science versus pseudoscience, in these examples. But they “also relate strongly to concepts from other disciplines like public policy with respect to regulations,” she wrote.

That allows students to “draw on their own interests and career goals to see the relevance of the scientific content for them.”

Ms. Tinsley also tries to choose topics related to current events, which “helps with motivation and a sense of relevancy.” The question about medical claims, for instance, was chosen during 2014 testimony to Congress by Dr. Oz, the physician made famous on TV.

We also heard from Cecilia Le, director of strategic engagement with Persistence Plus, a company that designs behavioral nudges to improve student success. Nudges encourage but do not force particular behaviors — a good example is making retirement-savings plans opt-out rather than opt-in. Such interventions are having a moment in higher-education research, as I explored in this article last year.

Ms. Le described an effort in which students write themselves motivational messages. The company then sends them back “later in the term, when we know motivation flags,” she wrote. The messages are part of a suite of interventions that have been found to improve student retention.

That got us wondering: Do you see retention as part of your responsibility as a professor? If so, what actions do you take to help students persist? Please share your thoughts with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.


A Big Prize

Academe has its fair share of awards, but a recent announcement about the Yidan Prize stood out to us. That’s partly because its two inaugural recipients were each awarded close to $4 million — a generous sum, especially for prizes in education research and development.

On top of that, the recipient of the research prize is a scholar whose work has major implications for teaching: Carol S. Dweck, the Stanford University psychology professor best known for showing the benefits of a “growth mind-set,” the belief that abilities can be improved through effort (as opposed to a “fixed mind-set,” which holds them to be innate).

Ms. Dweck is the rare academic whose big idea became a breakout hit. Her book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success has sold more than a million copies, and she’s given a popular TED talk. So the Yidan Prize — half in cash, half a project fund — is just her latest public recognition. Still, this is a good moment to catch up on Ms. Dweck’s work. Here’s a crash course from The Chronicle:

  • Her seminal research on children. To what extent do her findings apply to college students? That’s one key question our former colleague David Glenn explored in this 2010 profile of the psychologist.
  • Many scholars dream of their theories' going mainstream. The downside? They might be misunderstood. That’s happened with Ms. Dweck’s concept of mind-set, as she explains in this interview with The Chronicle’s Goldie Blumenstyk.
  • James M. Lang, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and a professor of English at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass., explores what teachers can take from Ms. Dweck’s research in this advice piece.

Seeing Through Students’ Eyes

A few weeks ago, we asked you to share your stories of a failure in the classroom and what it taught you. Julia Williams, a professor of English at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, described what she learned when a lesson on William Blake’s poem "The Tyger" went awry.

The incident took place early in her career, she explained. She had put together her lesson with “meticulous notes” about the Industrial Revolution in England and how it affected Blake. Then, in class, she distributed copies of the poem, which included Blake’s illustration of the tiger.

The class started as planned. Ms. Williams talked about mechanization and its impact on British workers. But soon something seemed amiss. Her students started “snickering and pointing to the illustration,” she wrote.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

A student said that the drawing looked cartoonish. “It looks like a stuffed tiger,” Ms. Williams remembers him saying.

She lost her temper (the last time she says she has done so) and kicked everyone out of class. The thought that her students weren’t taking Blake, his poem, or her seriously felt unbearable.

Ms. Williams went back to her office to calm down. A student soon knocked on the door to apologize for the class’s behavior.

“The students just didn’t get it,” he said.

A realization struck her: “They didn’t understand what a ‘tiger’ is and how it relates to factories.” That sparked an epiphany.

“It was my job to help students understand the historical, cultural, and literary aspects of Blake’s work,” she wrote. “I couldn’t assume that they entered my classroom knowing these things, and I did them a disservice if I ridiculed them for not knowing the things I knew.” From that point on, she decided to try to work with students wherever they are in their intellectual development.

“That decision,” she said, “was a turning point in my teaching career.”

Thanks for reading Teaching, The Chronicle's newsletter about teaching, learning, and curriculum. If you've been forwarded this email and would like to sign up, you can do so here. Comments and questions are welcome, too. Please write to us at dan.berrett@chronicle.com or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

— Beckie and Dan