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Teaching Advice Column

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Yesterday I gave my class a test. At the end of the period only about half the students had finished the exam. The students started getting very vocal, complaining about needing more time, asking whether they could do it over, claiming that the test wasn't fair, and so on. So I told them that for those who didn't finish, I would grade only the part they had completed. After class, the students who had finished the test came to me and were very angry. They said it wasn't fair: since they had finished the test, why should these other students have less work graded? Now I've got everybody in the class mad at me. What should I do?


The posting below is a summary and sample from a new book, Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher, published in advice column format by Miriam Rosalyn Diamond and Donna Qualters, Northeastern University. It is designed to help faculty deal with the everyday challenges of teaching. The book is based on an award- winning service provided at Northeastern University via weekly e-mails collaboratively written by an interdisciplinary team of professors. Stillwater, OK : New Forums Press Inc. ISBN: 1581070853. Copyright ?2004, New Forums Press, Inc, All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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The following is an excerpt from Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher. Qualters, D.M. and Diamond, M.R. (ed.s) (2004) Stillwater, OK : New Forums Press Inc. 230 pages. Written in advice column format and grouped by topic, this book contains research-based guidance and direction on how to deal with teaching decisions that arise in this electronic age.

The Challenge: How to Improve Teaching

The problem for those interested in changing teaching practice is how to engage faculty and get them to change old habits in an informed way - in other words, to have faculty examine what they do in the classroom in light of current research and then actually make a change.

That was the challenge to the Northeastern University Master Teaching Team. The College of Engineering in partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts received a three-year grant from the General Electric Learning Excellence Fund to improve the learning outcomes and the learning experience of engineering students, especially freshmen. This grant allowed us to form the Master Teaching Team comprised of faculty from the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Science, along with members of the Center for Effective University Teaching and the Educational Technology Center. An interdisciplinary subset of this group became the Instructional Development Group and was charged with designing a faculty development plan that would improve teaching across disciplinary boundaries and introduce new teaching methods that would be appropriate to a wide variety of disciplines - a formidable task!

We did have some roadmaps from the organizational change literature to guide us in this endeavor. Seminal literature such as Chin and Benne (1969) developed strategies and models that are particularly adaptable to help faculty develop as teachers. They identified strategies that form the framework of models to engage groups in the change process. One of the strategies, called the Normative/Re-educative Approach, engages participants in the development process by using "real problems" and then having participants actively involved in the decision-making process on how to design solutions for these problems. Today we call this problem based learning (PBL). In PBL groups are presented with contextual situations and asked to define the problem, decide what skills and resources are necessary to investigate the problem, and then pose possible solutions (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001). In many ways this is what faculty must do. They are confronted with real muddy problems in t!

he context of their class that they must address. In essence, like their students, they must define what the problem is, what do they already know about it, what do they not know, where can they find the information, and most importantly what can they do.

Reaching the Target Audience: The Development of an E-Advice Column

Any activity devised would need to be time-efficient and easy to do; cost-efficient but available to a large number of faculty; cover as many individuals as possible on the change continuum; provide strategies and alternatives in an explicit way but with enough options to allow the faculty member to make the final decision; provide insight to get faculty to think about their own examined assumptions; be collegial and allow a partnership to develop between the team and the faculty in improving teaching; and lastly, share some of the literature on teaching and learning that would inform faculty as they design environments to maximize student-learning.

Thus was born JONAS CHALK: CHALK TALK. This electronic teaching advice column, written collaboratively by the members of the Instructional Development Group, met all the above criteria. The team started talking initially about our own challenges in the classroom and soon found that many were having the same concerns. We all struggled with how to get students engaged in the class, what do to when no one answered our questions, how to respond to student excuses and so the questions seemed to write themselves. We soon realized it would take time, knowledge, and experience to comprehensively answer these questions, but as the questions surfaced we found ourselves saying, "This is what I do", "I always do this", "Have you ever tried this?" Collectively, we had a lot of ideas and tips and that our experience was quite extensive. Thus evolved the system of constructing a group question at our meeting and then soliciting a volunteer among the group to be the lead writer. (E!

ventually, recipients of the column began submitting their own questions, as well as opinions.) The writer would draft an answer and circulate it to the rest of the team over e-mail, where each person would have a turn adding ideas, citing relevant literature, giving examples and editing grammar. The final copy was deemed "ready to ship" and e-mailed to faculty on our distribution list.

The columns contained a common "real" problem in teaching that faculty from any discipline and teaching any group of students might encounter. Jonas then would outline the issues in the problem, identify resources and then suggest possible solutions, always providing a number of options from different discipline perspectives which team members themselves used to address the problem. These columns were kept short and identified the teaching dilemma in the subject line. Faculty could quickly open the e-mail, scan it, and then save it for future reference. This approach gave faculty a number of techniques from a variety of disciplines and perspectives to consider.

Sample Chalk Talk Column

Here is a sample column entitled "Unfair Testing"

Dear Jonas,

Yesterday I gave my class a test. At the end of the period only about half the students had finished the exam. The students started getting very vocal, complaining about needing more time, asking whether they could do it over, claiming that the test wasn't fair, and so on. So I told them that for those who didn't finish, I would grade only the part they had completed. After class, the students who had finished the test came to me and were very angry. They said it wasn't fair: since they had finished the test, why should these other students have less work graded? Now I've got everybody in the class mad at me. What should I do?

- Tested Out

Dear Tested Out,

First, think about what you might have done to avoid this. For example, did you try the test yourself to see how long it took you to do it? Even though you're an expert, you often get a feel for how much time it might actually take if you try to answer your own questions. It's always best to try any assignments yourself beforehand so that you have a better understanding of what's involved in doing the work. If you have a TA or grad student working for you, you could ask him or her to take the test and note how long it took; you can then adjust the questions accordingly. If this happens again, you can try a couple of strategies. You could tell students that you're going to grade the entire test, but because so many students had problems with it, you're willing to drop one grade this quarter (assuming that you are sure your future tests can be done in the allotted time). If you believe in extra credit, you could give students an opportunity to make up points.

With this class, you're already in a bind. It's best to be frank with the group and tell them you were really surprised that they couldn't finish the test in time. You might also consider telling them that those who want the test to count should let you know, and for the others, you'll disregard the test grade in the final grade calculations. You should then set the policy clearly with the class for future tests. They'll appreciate that you've heard their concerns and are planning to address them in the future.


Quick Tip: To approximate whether an allotted exam time will be adequate for students, determine the time it takes you to complete the exam and multiply by three.

Outcomes and Influences

What are the implications for faculty development? First, the success of this program lay in the fact that Jonas was written by faculty for faculty. The writers knew the current issues and struggles occurring in (and out of) the classroom at that university. They understood what responses were realistic and what actions most professors were unlikely to take. It was written in an accessible, collegial format with Jonas often talking about his struggles as well.

Second, team members themselves gained in knowledge and experience as a result of participating in the discourse and debate that took place while collaborating to create a weekly product. This discourse occurred both in face-to-face meetings, and during the process of using e-mail to compose, edit, and revise the columns before they were sent out. We also created cross-disciplinary and cross-college connections that improved overall communication and collaboration.

Third, as this was delivered in an electronic format, a resource on effective teaching was collected and made accessible for the entire university, using new technologies. When a concern arose, faculty could turn to the electronic list of Jonas columns and quickly get some direction and ideas about how to handle the issue.

After running weekly columns for two years, we surveyed our targeted readership of approximately 50 faculty and teaching assistants to get their feedback on the usefulness of Jonas in changing classroom practices Our survey generated a 50% return rate from all the disciplines involved in the project. Of the respondents, 92% found Jonas helpful, 59% had spoken to another colleague about their teaching because of a Chalk Talk column, but most impressive was the fact that 92% had thought about their teaching practices and tried at least one new idea.

Faculty respondent comments showed that they were reflecting and thinking about their practice and choosing to try one or two ideas that Jonas had presented. One faculty member told us " (Jonas) helped me recognize some of the philosophies I hold and the techniques I use". The concept of reflection was often raised: Jonas "helped me think about things", "helped me deal and think about questions from students and their problems", "caused me to consider how I do things and possible techniques I can try", "cause one to reflect on one's own teaching and what one could do better to improve teaching, how to interact better with students and how to be more effective as a communicator and teacher". It would appear that Jonas was doing what we had hoped in the original conception of the idea; help faculty think about their teaching practices. In other words, getting faculty to be contemplative, and then for those who were in the action phase providing a variety of techniques !

from different disciplines that they could experiment with in their own classes.

The simple, cost-effective process of a collaboratively driven advice column can be an accessible resource to support the work of faculty on many levels. Through building community, creating a forum for discourse, and serving as a resource using technology, e-advice can promote timely and effective teaching.