Hi, and welcome to Teaching, a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Today, Dan talks to two faculty members about how podcasts can be teaching tools, and he has some fresh research for you, too. Then Beckie passes along how one of your fellow readers uses stories in class, and we share some upcoming deadlines and events for your calendar.

The ‘Pedagogy of Podcasts’

Emma Bjorngard-Basayne is a podcast maven. She listens to them at the gym, on walks, and on her commute to her job as an academic adviser at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business and to her gigs as an adjunct. It’s not unusual for her to listen to them for four hours a day.

So it’s no surprise that she started using podcasts in her teaching. For a discussion about double standards in her course on gender and philosophy, for example, Bjorngard-Basayne had her students listen to the podcast Unladylike. The episode, about female bike messengers, allowed students to hear women describe in their own voices how, even though they engaged in the same behavior as men, they had very different experiences.

One day, she happened to be talking with her friend, colleague, and occasional research collaborator Kristi Kaeppel about their favorite podcasts, and they realized that podcasts had something to say about teaching more broadly. As they wrote in a blog post titled “The Pedagogy of Podcasts,” these audio journeys “draw the audience in to make meaning and retain the information presented.” How, they wondered, “might we borrow some of their lessons in our own teaching?”

Podcasts often succeed, they wrote, because they convey authenticity and use vulnerability to create a sense of intimacy with the listener. They also find ways to make sometimes-abstract concepts feel relevant, often by using storytelling techniques. There’s a hook in the beginning, usually the story of a person. “It builds empathy and humanity,” said Kaeppel, a graduate assistant in the department of educational leadership at UConn.

Podcasts, she has found in the adult-learning program she teaches at a community college, can be a good springboard for her students. Many of them experience anxiety about learning and may be uncomfortable sharing details from their own lives in class. A podcast is another way to humanize the material and pique their interest. And that interest can often propel them through rigorous material.

There’s something particularly powerful about the human voice, too. It builds empathy and allows students to hear someone like them. “I can talk about the theory behind things,” said Bjorngard-Basayne, but students “might not be curious unless they hear another person talking about a thing from a perspective they can identify with.”

And, while the notion of matching material to students’ learning styles has been widely downplayed, Bjorngard-Basayne and Kaeppel have noticed that people of varying levels of education do, in fact, seem to respond differently to podcasts than to text. Many people have more patience for listening than for reading. And, thinking about her adult students, Kaeppel wonders what effect it has on learners when professors are text-centric. “There might be something lost in translation for a lot of students,” she said.

Listening to podcasts is just one example of informal learning, the kind that happens in the world, free from the construct of the formal classroom. The popularity of these forms of informal education suggests that there’s a wide hunger for learning. Have you used other kinds of informal learning — maybe games or entertainment — to inform your teaching? How? Email me at dan.berrett@chronicle.com and I may include it in a future newsletter.

Recent Research

  • Graduate students and early-career faculty often hear that they should focus on research, typically at the expense of teaching. A recent study published in Plos One found that, for Ph.D. students trained in evidence-based teaching methods — like those that emphasize active, collaborative, and hands-on learning instead of just the traditional lecture — their research productivity didn’t suffer. In some cases, in fact, they were even more confident about their research and more productive than those who weren’t trained in such methods. To see how colleges are trying to help train graduate students to be more effective teachers, you can check out this package of Idea Lab stories from our colleague Vimal Patel.
  • When it comes to class size, smaller is often thought to be better. A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota studied that assumption, as described in a new paper in BioScience (abstract available here). As class size increased, they found, women performed worse on high-stakes exams compared with men, but underrepresented minorities fared worse across several measures compared with their majority peers regardless of class size. The findings suggest that other facets of the education environment might play a role. “There are many simple ways to make even big classrooms feel small for students,” Cissy Ballen, a postdoctoral associate in biology teaching and learning, said in a news release. “That includes group work, giving students more opportunities to interact with lecture material, and instructors using inclusive teaching practices.”

Drawing on Students’ Stories

A while back, we asked how you’ve used students’ stories in your courses. One interesting response came from Andrew M. Koke, the coordinator for basic skills and PASS in the University of Indiana at Bloomington’s Student Academic Center.

Some of the courses Koke teaches have a religious component, he wrote, including one he’ll teach next year on witchcraft, religion, and magic. Koke finds it useful — and interesting for students — to get a sense of class members’ religious perspectives. But — because the subject is often deeply personal — he also wants to protect their privacy. So he assigns a “short, anonymous 500 word essay that asks specific questions about their belief system,” he wrote. “Questions for next year, for example, will include, ‘What do you believe about evil spirits?’ ‘What experiences have you had with a ‘spiritual’ realm?’ ‘What do you think of the devil?,’ and the like.”

Koke then incorporates students’ responses into a PowerPoint presentation that shows the share of students who share a particular belief. Among other things, the exercise provides an opportunity for Koke to show students the diversity of their classmates’ perspectives and, he wrote, “urge sensitivity to religious beliefs.”

Calendar Notes

Is there an upcoming conference — or call for proposals — you think newsletter readers should be aware of? Tell us here.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

— Dan and Beckie