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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: A Professor Interviewed Hundreds of Excellent Teachers and Found a Common Theme

Welcome to Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week:

  • Beckie chats with Bonni Stachowiak about what she’s learned from hosting the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.
  • Dan shares readers’ perspectives on having students write test questions.
  • Beth tells you about a new project by Carnegie Mellon U. to improve teaching.
  • We let you know about some conferences we’ll be writing about.

The ‘Playful Experimentation’ of Teaching

Teaching is both a science and an art. That’s the starting premise of each episode of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast hosted by Bonni Stachowiak, director of the Institute for Faculty Development at Vanguard University. The podcast, which Stachowiak started in 2014, just hit a couple of milestones: 250 episodes and a million downloads. Beckie caught up with Stachowiak to hear what she’s learned from talking with so many people about how professors can better facilitate learning. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. Who are your listeners?A. People who want to hear and feel a part of conversations about teaching and about serving our students well. What really seems to resonate with them is that we’re just yearning to get better at what we do.

Q. This sense of yearning is a theme you hit with your guests?

A. At first, I wasn’t necessarily as purposeful as I am now, because I was really learning. I feel very grateful to James Lang. He was on very early; he and people like him really shaped a lot of the podcast.

Now, after all this time, a theme that I see across the episodes is people who are more comfortable in what Jen Ross and Amy Collier coined “not yet-ness”: that people who are really pursuing teaching excellence have become comfortable enough that it’s not all baked yet, it’s not all finished yet. It’s that playful experimentation with our teaching that sometimes means we might fail, but the successes that we do have will be so magnificent.

But I didn’t set out to do that.

Q. Have there been other surprises along the way?

A. I often feel like other people have it all together and really know what they’re doing, and that I’m the one who’s flailing. So a big surprise is that so many of us don’t feel like we know what we’re doing, but we still do it because we know that’s what is going to serve our students.

I think about when I interviewed Robin DeRosa. I think of her, and so many people do, as just this pinnacle in open education, who has such a presence and so many powerful things we could learn from. And then I realized she’d really been doing this for less than two years at the time. She just really was willing to experiment and be the learner.

Q. What have you found drives someone to want to be a better teacher?

A. Well, sadly, I can say what it’s not. We still haven’t figured out in our various Ph.D. and master’s-level programs to have components about how to teach. So they’re not often getting it early in their career.

What makes me hopeful is that at least it’s coming at some point. There is that alarm that starts to go off. People are looking, for example, increasingly at DFW [grades of D or F, or a withdrawal] rates, particularly if there’s disparity among various races and ethnicities.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge facing instructors?

A. The pressure for bigger class sizes. I’ll sometimes get emails: “But I can’t spend more than X minutes per paper providing feedback.” Those deeper connections with our students are the ones that are transformative, and there’s people who want to so much, but the system is not allowing for that. We don’t talk about that a lot on the podcast, but it’s kind of always in the peripheral.

Stachowiak also told me that she finds the “rich conversations” about teaching she’s able to have on her podcast “quite addictive.” And she mentioned that such discussions can be hard to come by at a small college. Where do you turn, on your campus or beyond, for this sort of interaction? Write me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

**A paid message from: The University of Warwick

Experiencing challenges and failures in normal tasks of life develops practical skills and coping mechanisms.**

Exams as Learning Tools

Last week, we told you about Max Teplitski, who has asked his students to draft questions for their exams, and we asked if you had tried anything similar. It turns out that several of you have.

Shriram Krishnamurthi, a professor of computer science at Brown University, said the approach is an example of what he called “Contributed Student Pedagogy.” But when he’s asked his students to write questions, it isn’t so that they can be used on midterms; it’s for developing concept inventories, which are assessments that test students’ understanding of underlying ideas. Krishnamurthi passed along a paper of his that describes the approach. “This is a very lightweight, cheap way of generating and evolving fairly good inventories,” he wrote in an email.

Benjamin Wiles, who is chief data officer at Clemson University, said Teplitski’s approach was an example of “Self-Determination Theory.” One way Wiles has made use of it in some of his math courses is by having students write the syllabus with him on the first day of class. “It takes some coaxing,” he wrote in an email, “but I think it helps foster meaningful engagement in the course from Day 1.”

A study at the University of Michigan explored a slightly different angle from the one Teplitski studied. Michigan’s compared the rigor of the exam questions that were written by students in a first-year dentistry course with those that were created by instructors. Three experts blindly analyzed the questions based on a modified version of Bloom’s taxonomy, according to a paper that appeared in 2015 in the Journal of Dental Education, which came to us from one of its authors, Mary C. Wright, director of Brown’s center for teaching and learning and past president of the Professional and Organizational Development Network.

They found that 42 percent of the students’ questions assessed high-level cognitive skills, while just 16 percent of the instructors’ questions did. The students were also surveyed about what they thought of the exercise, and 81 percent said it helped them make connections between ideas learned in that course and other ones they were taking. “This exercise forced me to evaluate questions and review why they were right and wrong,” one student wrote.

Free Teaching Tools From Carnegie Mellon U.

Carnegie Mellon University announced last week that it will begin making some of its many ed-tech tools, software, and content openly available over the coming year. The result of about $100 million in research and development, the tools are designed for use by instructors in both higher education and K-12 institutions. They include a collection of adaptive learning courses available through Open Learning Initiative. The difference now is that Carnegie Mellon will also provide the underlying code for these tools, meaning that instructors will have a better sense of how they work compared with the products offered by some commercial vendors. The release is being led by the Simon Initiative, a Carnegie Mellon project dedicated to improving learning outcomes through research and technology, and the Empirical Educator Project, a collaboration among colleges and ed-tech vendors.

Stay Tuned

The American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting kicks off tomorrow. We’ll have a couple of articles in The Chronicle based on new research being presented, so keep an eye out!

Meanwhile, Beth is attending the Harvard Summit on Excellence in Higher Education, and may write something about it for a future newsletter. Say hello to her if you’re there, too.

Speaking of conferences, if there’s one coming up you think newsletter readers may want to know about, tell us here.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or steve.johnson@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to receive your own copy, you can sign up here.

— Beckie, Dan, and Beth

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.