Teaching Assistant Development Program: Annual Report Update

Teaching Assistants (TA’s) are trained at the start of each semester. TAs are PhD, MS, Meng, and Undergraduate students from all the departments in the College of Engineering.  The number of TAs trained per program varies and depends on departmental decisions for TA hiring.

Who completed our TA Trainings?
In 2023-2024 ELI trained:
  • 150 PhDs
  • 18 Master of Science
  • 72 Master of Engineering
  • 127 Undergraduates

ELI is not responsible for the demographics that are represented by teaching assistants in the College. However we share the racial diversity data here.  The largest proportion of TAs, overall, in both PhD populations and Undergraduate TAs is Asian students followed by white students.

Our Process and Team

Hiring and Training Graduate TA Consultants

This year we hired and trained a group of 5 PhD students interested in learning about effective teaching strategies and building those and other professional skills. Together we designed and implemented the 4 primary workshops in the training:

  • Universal design for learning 
  • Active learning   
  • Fair and effective grading 
  • Group dynamics and processes

(add more about the demographics of consultants?)

TA Consultants gain pedagogy skills, communication skills and leadership skills that extend into their own teaching, their lab experiences as graduate students, and their future careers.

Quotes from TA Consultants about the benefits of the programs for their growth:

“As someone who dreams of becoming a professor and is excited for both the teaching and research responsibilities of that role, becoming an ELI TA consultant was a rewarding choice.”

 “Beyond skill acquisition, ELI facilitated the formation of a supportive network with like-minded friends passionate about learning. We hangout outside of teaching, sharing lives and research, and formed a supportive community.”

“I find it extremely useful for my career as an academic as well in several collaborative work environments, as the program caters immensely to the professional growth of the consultants.”

TAs report that they value the time as a TA and the opportunity to develop skills

In the post assessment survey, directly following training, TAs reported that they value teaching as part of their experience, they value the time spent training, and they feel more like they can be effective as a TA after participating in the 2 days of training workshops.

 

TAs in the trainings report that they value teaching as part of their experience, they value the time spent training, and they feel more like they can be effective as a TA after the workshops at the start of the semester.

They also report that their confidence in being able to create a welcoming environment that includes all learners, grade fairly and accurately, and keep students engaged increased substantially from pre- to post- workshop.

 

At mid-semester, students in contact with TAs in various learning environments report that the TAs are using practices that align with the workshop topics at the highest ratings (5) in the survey.

  • 87% report TAs using practices from Universal Design for learning,
  • 90% provide opportunities for collaborative learning
  • 91% use active learning strategies.

 

Helping Students Practice Knowledge Transfer

 

Being able to apply information that is learned in one context to solve problems in another context, is known as ‘transfer’.  Many would argue that being able to transfer concepts and knowledge to a new context is the true test of learning.  We agree!

 

“A central and enduring goal of education is to provide learning experiences that are useful beyond the specific conditions of initial learning.”

(Lobato, 2006, in Nokes-Malach and Richey 2015)

It turns out that researchers have been arguing over, and studying, both content and context in which learning transfer fails or succeeds since the very early 1900s. Nokes-Malach and Richey (2015), summarize the arguments, research, and outcomes in this complex literature. For our purpose of sharing practices that can make transfer more likely, we will focus on the outcomes. To illustrate just a bit about the complexity of this topic, transfer of knowledge can be: ‘near’ (executing learned procedures), ‘intermediate’ (adapting learned procedures), and ‘far’ transfer (relating concepts to each other and to new problems with different features).

Examples will be discipline specific. Here are examples of where transfer of knowledge is required in a civil engineering design course:

Basic Knowledge: Structural Analysis (Beam). Using the principles of statics and mechanics of materials, students learn to determine the shear force, bending moment, and deflection along the length of the beam.
Near transfer: Structural Analysis (Frame). Students are asked to analyze a structural frame, such as a door frame. The frame consists of interconnected beams and columns, subjected to various loads and boundary conditions.
  • In the frame analysis, there is a more complex structural system with multiple members connected at joints. This requires additional considerations and analysis techniques (frame stability, joint behavior, and load distribution among members).
Intermediate transfer: Truss Analysis. This problem involves the analysis of a truss structure. The truss consists of interconnected members subjected to external loads.
  • The new approach must be adapted to account for the unique characteristics of truss structures (i.e. axial forces in the members).
Far transfer: Foundation Design: This example involves the design of a  structural foundation. The structure has specific requirements for load-bearing capacity, settlement, and stability
  • Designing a foundation system that interacts with the underlying soil and supports the entire structure involves applying principles from different areas of civil engineering, such as geotechnical engineering and foundation design, which may not have been directly addressed in the analysis of a beam.

These levels of transfer require different skills and likely help explain the variety of learning outcomes in the transfer literature. Applying, adapting, comparing and contrasting, and evaluating are (more or less) progressively more challenging cognitive tasks (think ‘Blooms taxonomy’, Agarwal, 2018). These different levels can be promoted using different learning strategies.

If transfer of knowledge is an expectation and it requires critical thinking skills, this should be transparent in the learning objectives for the course and/or assignment. Rather than teaching or practicing these skills, it may be that students are expected to already have these skills. Some likely do; others do not and need structured practice.  This is a question of equity. Because  students are transitioning to college courses from a variety of educational experiences, not all have been challenged to critically think and transfer complicated knowledge to a new context. This does not mean they are unable to learn how. If we make assumptions about students’ critical thinking skills, we perpetuate an inequitable situation in our classrooms and institutions.

Higher level critical thinking skills needed for information transfer include the ability to analyze, compare contrast, link concepts, and evaluate approaches. These skills can be practiced and scaffolded so that students who have a grasp on content in the context it was taught can know how to use that information in a new context.

A review by Hadjian (2019), reported that transfer could occur at any stage of learning and practices that might be effective to support students include scaffolding the learning, students interacting, reflecting and practicing assessment in a low stakes learning environment.
A summary of some practices to support learning of transfer skills include:
  • Identifying ‘knowledge transfer’ as an expected learning outcome.
  • Scaffolding complex problems by helping students build on the basic information using metacognitive questions and reflection.
  • Comparing and contrasting the simple questions with more complex questions.
  • Provide relevant real-world problems for students to practice and collaborate on.
  • One key here is inviting students – in groups – to practice and discuss a progression of problems from one context to another.

This is an easy way to help our students be more successful in their learning.  Happy teaching and learning. Happy transferring!!

 

Supporting our International Graduate Students in Their Teaching Roles

With increasing global mobility, international teaching assistants (ITA) are now a major part of the workforce in higher education institutes in the U.S. In 2020 National Science Foundation reported that 29% of science and engineering faculty were ‘foreign born’ and this same demographic received 6 out of 10 doctoral degrees in engineering, math and computer sciences. While we know, and the literature suggests, international students bring critical social-cultural perspectives and strengths that contribute to diversity in all programs, they still face a lot of challenges in their work as TAs and it is our responsibility to provide the support to help them overcome cultural, linguistic and instructional difficulties (Zhou, 2009).

TA training image
Author and Teaching and Learning Specialist,  Wenjing Luo, shares in discussion with some international TAs at the Fall 2023 Graduate TA training at Cornell Engineering.  Luo began her higher education career as an International TA.

Ultimately, our ability to communicate with each other across different cultural norms, practices and languages, is crucial and can also influence the quality of learning and social interaction between TAs and students. Compared to domestic TAs, ITAs have to expend much more effort to tackle cultural, linguistic and instructional challenges in order to successfully communicate with students and even peers.

In this post, we provide suggestions from the literature and our own experiences with ITAs to help lower these barriers to communication, and to create support systems and greater understanding.

Cultural and social challenges

Cultural differences in pedagogies and social norms between students and teachers create challenges for ITAs and their students. In many cultures, teachers are respected as authority figures and have more influence over what and how students should learn. However, at American universities, students are expected to be more independent, and have more freedom and autonomy over their learning. Also, the relationship between teachers and students is more informal in the U.S. and students are often expected to discuss or argue as colleagues with those responsible for guiding their education. While making eye contact, smiling, and leaning forward may help signal involvement and listening in the United States, some ITAs, for example ITAs from Southeast Asian cultures, often do not incorporate nonverbal actions that might help them connect with students (Byrd & Constantinides,1992).

ITAs (and some of their international students) may come from an educational system where students

International TA leads training
Having international TAs who are trained in pedagogy to lead trainings can lower the barriers for some of the ITAs as they train.

are expected to be silent during class and not question their professors, and they may not be prepared for American students who expect to participate actively and ask questions in the classroom (Sarkisian, 2006). As a result, these differences will affect the interactions between ITAs and students in different teaching and learning contexts.

Ellen Sarkisian (2006) offers a guide for international faculty and TAs in her book: Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities.

Below are some suggestions about how faculty and staff can help ITAs navigate through those cultural differences:

  • Take time to recognize and listen to the educational experiences of ITAs so we can know where the challenges may be and can address the challenges rather than guess what they are! Different graduate students will face different challenges!
  • Provide workshops on those identified topics for ITAs before they begin their TA work.
  • Invite experienced instructors with strong multicultural competence to the interactive workshop for perspective and empathy.
  • Provide multiple ‘check-ins’ for ITAs to discuss successes and challenges with peers and colleagues in a “give-and-take” situation.
  • Share resources that provide effective strategies   (i.e. Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students)

Linguistic challenges

ITAs’ English language skills are another factor that might cause communication breakdowns between ITAs and students. Difficulties mentioned in the literature on this topic include that some students cannot understand and learn from ITAs (Alberts, 2008; Bailey, 1983; Plakans, 1997; Williams, 2011), that ITAs do not have extensive English vocabulary to provide clear explanations (Albert, 2008), or that non-standard pronunciation patterns can cause miscommunication and fail to provide the necessary context to assist students’ learning (Anderson-Hsieh, 1990; Molholt, 1988; Morley, 1991; Byrd & Constantinides,1992). English language skills are most challenging for ITAs who just arrived in the U.S. and have not yet been extensively exposed to the English language. These outcomes are not surprising when we invite talented and creative students to come and enrich the culture of ideas in our institutions, and then place them in the classroom to teach without enough support in either language or the  practice of teaching in a different culture.

Below are some great resources to help alleviate ITAs linguistic barriers:

Instructional challenges

ITAs are often faced with a variety of instructional difficulties that derive from social and cultural challenges. Since most of them received their previous education in another country, they are not familiar with the academic level of their students.

  • ITAs often feel anxious and frustrated with the U.S. grading and testing system. Most American universities follow a similar grading system by assigning letter or numeric grades to evaluate students’ performance. This system generally provides clearer expectations and the associated structure allows opportunities for students to access support  – some ITAs may not have experienced this.  Therefore, to help students to improve their work, ITAs will have to take on the challenge of providing feedback, comments, and criticisms that are well-structured and accurately organized. They also have to be prepared for cases when students disagree or complain about their grades.
  • Even if ITAs are consciously aware of the need to apply more student-centered and active learning strategies in different teaching contexts, they often need more support and time to develop these skills because they are often fundamentally different approaches than what they experienced.
Group of graduate students in a training working collaboratively

To address these instructional challenges, some universities provide TA training sessions, usually consisting of workshops, for TAs before they start their work. For example, at Cornell Engineering, we provide TA in-person trainings in both fall and spring semester for all new incoming TAs. We cover a range of topics tailored specifically toward engineering TAs, such as Universal Design for Learning, Active Learning, Fair and Effective Grading, and Group Dynamics and Processes. However, most of the content are geared toward TAs in general and do not offer specific guidance on how to tackle ITAs’ instructional challenges.

Benedetti, Plumb, and Beck (2022) propose an innovative model of peer-teaching and self-reflection in TA training which can be effective for training ITAs. For example, asking one of the ITAs to teach their peer-ITAs a type of student-centered pedagogy and self-reflect on their teaching practice afterwards. Peer teaching sessions offer ITAs a safe space to practice designing and delivering teaching sessions to their peers and receive constructive feedback from their peers. The peer audience also get the chance to experience teaching from a students’ perspective. Time is limited for graduate students, however a best-case scenario would be to provide more than one peer feedback teaching session in a semester.

Unpublished data from Cornell Engineering Teaching Assistant Development Program
Unpublished data from Cornell Engineering Teaching Assistant Development Program (Fall 2023)

This practice is similar to ‘microteaching’ that can be used as the culminating experience following interactive training workshops such as those listed above.  Our  Cornell Engineering Graduate TAs suggest that  this type of practice and feedback is valuable:

“It was beneficial to watch other individuals present to get a better idea of how other people structure their lessons and see how they incorporate UDL and active learning”

They also benefit from watching a video of their ‘micro-teaching’ and an opportunity to  reflect on what can be improved:

“The video replay of myself is very rewarding – I am getting critical of how I am perceived by students. I also learned a lot from what people suggest for other students and try to improve on those aspects as well”

The experiences of being observed and observing others can be a starting point for reflection, through which they will, over time and with practice, become more successful teachers and  professionals.

Some additional tips that will help ITAs to cope with their instructional challenges:

  • Conducting follow-up activities. In addition to the initial training workshops, follow-up activities from these workshops, such as mentoring, in-class observation, and self-reflection, can be conducted to craft ITAs’ teaching skills.
    • ITAs can be paired with senior faculty member/TAs, who can mentor ITAs throughout their teaching journey.
    • Peer observations can provide an opportunity for ITAs to learn from each other’s teaching practice.
    • Reflecting on their own teaching practice is another key component for ITAs to refine and develop their teaching skills.
  • Creating a clear outline for one’s daily instructional activities. Having a well-structure outline will give students a better idea of today’s instructional goals, provide a context for students to better understand the topic, and give ITAs opportunities to check students’ understanding at different points in any instructional activities.
  • Grading papers and tests with informed knowledge. ITAs should spend enough time understanding the grading policy at their own universities by attending TA orientations/relevant workshops, and reading grading policies carefully. ITAs should also know the procedure to properly handle grading disputes.

In general, more efforts are needed to gain a better understanding about ITAs experience in American universities/colleges and to provide adequate resources to overcome their challenges. ITAs’ improved understanding of U.S. academic cultures and communications will not only help them improve the learning of their students. Educating faculty, staff, and American students about the cultural differences and the barriers their international peers face, can  also encourage American students to embrace a more global mindset and to work with others across culturally diverse backgrounds (Council, 2009).

References
Anderson-Hsieh, J. (1990). Teaching suprasegmentals to international teaching assistants using field-specific materials. English for Specific Purposes9(3), 195-214.
Ashavskaya, E. (2015). International Teaching Assistants’ Experiences in the US Classrooms: Implications for Practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning15(2), 56-69.
Di Benedetti, M., Plumb, S., & Beck, S. B. (2023). Effective use of peer teaching and self-reflection for the pedagogical training of graduate teaching assistants in engineering. European Journal of Engineering Education48(1), 59-74.
Byrd, P., & Constantinides, J. C. (1992). The language of teaching mathematics: Implications for training ITAs. Tesol Quarterly26(1), 163-167.
Huang, T., Chen, S., Lin, J., & Cun, A. (2023). Marginalized, silenced, and struggling: Understanding the plights of chinese graduate teaching assistants. International Journal of Chinese Education12(1), 2212585X231156996.
Molholt, G. (1988). Computer‐assisted instruction in pronunciation for Chinese speakers of American English. TESOL quarterly22(1), 91-111.
Morley, J. (1991). The pronunciation component in teaching English to speakers of other languages. TESOL quarterly25(3), 481-520.
Sarkisian, E. K. J. (2006). Chemical Education Today-Book & Media Reviews-Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities. Journal of Chemical Education83(12), 1763-1763.
Williams, G. M. (2011). Examining Classroom Negotiation Strategies of International Teaching Assistants. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning5(1), n1.

 

 

 

 

The value of being a teaching assistant when teaching is not the chosen path: A reminder for graduate TAs

Regardless of the path you take after attaining your degree, the skills you gain by working on a teaching team will be valuable in your professional career! The knowledge and skills that support effective learning are the same as those that result in the best work environments and business outcomes. Being a teaching assistant (TA) is an excellent way to gain and strengthen both your technical and non-technical skill sets.

 Professional skills for engineering career success – room for growth!

Historically (and still today) these professional skills have often been referred to as ‘soft’ skills. This term originated in the U.S. military, and was used to differentiate a certain set of interpersonal skills from more knowledge-based skills associated with specifics of a professional role (‘hard’ skills).   As we start to recognize critical importance of these interpersonal skills in successful engineering tasks, careers, products, processes and outcomes, many people are beginning to refer to this skill set as ‘professional’ skills.  We use that language here.

Five hundred companies and organizations participated in a study where they rated the importance and proficiency of their recent entry-level engineers for 26 identified ‘professional’ skills. These skills include the type of work a teaching assistant (TA) does and can learn about through the act of using evidence-supported strategies and working to support student learning. Here is a list of some of those skills:  communication, organization, team work, creativity, social skills, critical thinking, interpersonal communication, adaptability, punctuality, friendly personality, critical thinking and more (Hirudayaraj, et al. 2021).

“The findings suggest that although entry-level engineers have proficiency in all of these ABET required skills, the entry-level engineers were not meeting the level of importance expressed by the organization for 24 of these 26 skills.”

Green (2023) recently surveyed perceptions of faculty, students and engineering employers for 8 professional skills (collaboration, communication, ethical considerations, inclusivity, leadership, professional judgment, task management, and teamwork) exhibited by engineering students .

“Statistical analysis on survey data indicated that how students rate their peers’ abilities aligns with the perceptions that practicing engineers have of student abilities with both groups’ means for each skill being [significantly] lower than how the students rated their own ability”

The conclusion from these (and other) studies is that there is a need for graduating engineers to improve these skills. Teaching, and TA training, are one of the best opportunities to do that in a higher education environment.

The value of teaching and TA training to develop technical and professional skills

Teaching others means you learn it better, get new perspectives, and solidify your knowledge-base. Even long-term memories can fade over time, and your practice helps to lock in less used ideas (that might be useful to remember in the future).

 

The best evidence-supported teaching practices are grounded in inclusivity, engagement, collaboration, reflection, perspective sharing, and leadership. Working as part of a teaching team in a college course requires the ability to listen, include, create an engaging and purposeful environment, give and take feedback, and work on a team toward common goals.  Doing this consciously and mindfully and with the intention of developing these skills is leadership.  If there is the opportunity to take advantage of some pedagogy training to get you started, it will provide tools and help develop the confidence to try them and to grow these professional skills.

While teaching is not the only way to build these important skills, it is likely to be the situation in which you will have the most opportunity to practice, evaluate, try again, or try something new.  Teamwork is hard. People are complex, and our own biases and perceptions often blind us to other ways – maybe better ways – to approach or solve a challenge.  Growing these skills takes practice, and teaching for a semester or a few semesters is an excellent way to do this as a graduate student.  Being a TA is a win/win.  Your practice will help engineers coming up under you AND improve your the quality of your team’s work and increase opportunities to advance in your career.

Group projects in design courses, particularly when well structured by the instructor, are great opportunities to grow teamwork, communication, and collaboration skills. Other co-curricular activities like mentoring undergraduates in a lab can also build important professional skills – again, particularly when guided by a few basic evidence-supported practices that take into account how people learn, become engaged and feel like they belong. Facilitating communication with colleagues is the key to learning and leading.

“Gone are the days of sitting at a cubicle, and minding your own business. This is the digital age, and communication skills reign supreme.”

https://www.engineering.com/story/5-skills-hiring-managers-look-for-in-engineering-grads

Just a couple more reasons to consider being a teaching assistant

Your work supporting others with shared passion for the work of engineering is so important.  Learning from peers and those closer in experience (than professors) opens up possibilities for empathy that become harder and harder to access with growing expertise and cognitive intuition.  Learning how to support other humans in distress or create an environment in which everyone can learn and/or contribute is a skill that comes with practice and is strongly related to being a leader of people in your field.

Your expertise in a field will only take you so far if your ability to manage programs and people, communicate, collaborate and share ideas in ways that make sense to different audiences is lacking. Being a TA is a valuable resume builder when you can talk about how you learned to manage people, facilitate discussions on challenging topics, actively listen and use questioning strategies to prime critical thinking. These are skills you need and can sell!

Embrace it!

IT’S NOT JUST YOU WHO FEELS THIS WAY!

College is a time full of transitions and new experiences. Early on, there’s the transition to learning in a new environment, and for many, living away from home for the first time. There’s learning new things as you explore a major and classes become more and more focused on your discipline. There might be a transition to a new major or other significant events and experiences that happen in your pathway. All and all, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. You may ask yourself questions like, “Do I really belong here?” and “Am I smart enough to make it?”

But, it’s not just you who feels this way—what many students don’t realize is that some kind of adverse experience and these types of feelings of not belonging are very common in college. Your challenges are likely not going to be the same ones as everyone else, but all students deal with challenges at some point in their college careers. And, you’ll discover that you get better at dealing with these issues over time, in part by using more of the supports that are available to you. Now, it’s not like you’ll get to your senior year and be like, “I have conquered all of my problems and insecurities.” But, we can say that the things we get hung up on are more surmountable than we first think. ​

The UBelong Collaborative is conducting research on how best to understand students’ experiences with challenges and  support student belonging. This team from Purdue University, University of Pittsburgh, and University of California, Irvine, are investigating how reflection on and discussion of challenges can better equip students to frame these normal experiences as typical and not unique to them. So, when you feel overwhelmed, know that you are not alone. Reach out and talk to others—it’s likely more common than you think. And, if someone else has not had the same experience, they likely have some other experience with a common theme on which you can relate.

Allison Godwin, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell University.

Other members of the UBelong Collaborative:  Linda DeAngelo, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Pittsburgh.
Kevin Binning, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Chris Schunn, Ph.D., is a Professor of Learning Sciences and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh.
Natascha Trellinger Buswell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Teaching in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC Irvine
The UBelong Collaborative also benefits from the support of a large team of collaborators including:
Maricela Bañuelos, Bev Conrique, Carlie Cooper, Charlie Díaz, Gerard Dorvé-Lewis, Ketura Elie, Rachel Forster, Hee Jung Gong, Cherry Ji, Kevin Kaufman-Ortiz, Audrika Khondaker, Danielle Lewis, Dr. Eric McChesney, Dr. Erica McGreevy, Dr. Heather Perkins, Jacqueline Rohde, Kelly Tatone, Dr. Rob Toutkoushian, and Dr. Nelson Zounlome.

Recognizing and Requesting Transparency in the College Classroom

Black boxes are useful in a model system or the research we do as we work to understand the world.  In those cases, the ‘unknowns’ are exciting and they represent what we are working to ‘know’.  However, when it comes to what is expected of you as a learner in your classes, there should NOT be black boxes.  Transparency is paramount for equitable, inclusive learning.

This post is intended to share materials and ideas for students to recognize transparency or lack of it, so that they can ask the right questions of their instructors and have those expectations clarified so that they have the best chance to be successful.  The framework of transparency is not intended to be  unidirectional – simply clarifying the information shared from faculty to student- but also a conversation where clarity and communication are maintained through a regular feedback cycle about how well it is working and what might be made even more clear.

What is transparency in educational settings and why does it matter?

The basic concept is simple. Transparency in the classroom means that the purpose, the task, and the criteria (to be successful) must be clear to the learners. 

Probably the most comprehensive set of materials on transparency in higher education comes from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) Higher Ed. body of work inspired and directed by Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes. Many of the resources discussed or linked here are from that work in some way or another.

Most of the research and resources regarding transparency are aimed at teachers who are looking for examples and templates to increase transparency in their course materials.  The number of these types of resources is growing, which means change is happening!  As with most of the evidence-supported practices that make learning inclusive and effective, there is still work to do.  In the meantime, learners need some tools.

The rules and criteria that result in ‘success’ in a particular course (or assignment) are determined by the instructor.  It follows that, if those expectations and criteria are inadvertently withheld from the students (unless students can intuit specific expectations and can do it correctly – and some can) a barrier to learning and to meeting those expectations is established. 

You may be wondering how information that allows students to be successful can be ‘inadvertently’ withheld. Easily.  As humans, without being intentional and reflective about the varied realities of others, we often operate based on our own past experiences, our own understandings of the world, and our own ‘entry points’ into ideas and tasks. Ultimately, we make assumptions.  In an educational setting where we are working to develop a diverse group of learners and professionals, our assumptions can create biases and a very unequal playing field for students with different past experiences and understandings. Most often if we experience lack of transparency as learners, instructors are sharing what they experienced and haven’t taken or had the time to consider the assumptions they are making when they share expectations, use language, and/or expect certain outcomes on assignments.

How to recognize Transparency

Read your Syllabus and your assignments.  Your syllabus is effectively your learning contract with the course, and the course’s learning contract with you.  It takes time to develop these, even more time to make them transparent and welcoming. Each assignment should also be transparent so that students have clear understanding of what is expected of them to do well.  Associated with transparency in assignments is the related transparency in assessment.  Rubrics are the best ‘tools’ to help a student know what is required and valued in any assignment and how they will be graded. These can also lack detail and transparency. At their best, they are sufficiently detailed and concise so that a student can use the criteria to pre-check their work. At worst, rubrics are a great starting point for a more detailed discussion about expectations. Be sure you do the work of reading what has been shared so that you can ask necessary, specific and respectful questions that will allow you to meet instructor expectations.

This link will help students look for the key indicators of transparency in a syllabus/assignment:

  • the purpose (why are we doing this, learning outcomes objectives)
  • the task (what are we doing specifically)
  • the criteria – (what specifics are required to be successful)

How to ask for transparency, if it is lacking

Simply asking an instructor to provide a more transparent syllabus or assignment could require some clarification on your part as to what it is you mean. So what can a student do to recognize when transparency is missing and ask valuable clarifying questions?

Again, read your syllabus and your assignments. Look for purpose, tasks, and criteria. Read for unfamiliar terms or phrases. Remember, the language and expectations may not be familiar to you for a host of reasons, for which you are not to blame!  After you have paid careful attention to the materials provided, go to office hours, ask in class when opportunities arise, or reach out after class to the instructor, TAs, or other members of the teaching staff.

  • Ask how the assignment connects specifically to the content and learning outcomes objectives
  • Ask for examples of good work
  • Ask for rubrics with detailed criteria
  • Ask for definition of any terms used in the syllabus or on an assignment with which you are unfamiliar

In the case where you are having difficulty getting the answers you feel you need, you can use the metacognitive cycle to help you fill in what you can until you get more answers.

    • Find a diverse group of peers to work with.  Discuss and write what you collectively believe are the purpose, the task and the criteria.  More ‘heads/persectives’ will represent different experiences and possibly include someone who can better intuit or understand (via their experiences) what is really expected.  Reflect on what you are being expected to learn in the context of what has been happening in class. Here is a link to a previous Edublog with support for turning problem sets into study sessions using ‘metacognition’ (thinking about your learning process) that could help.

The bottom line is: we may be quite a distance from perfect transparency in our higher education classrooms, and slowly things are changing. All learners deserve an equitable opportunity to be successful, regardless of diversity of experience and cultural expectations. We are richer for our diversity. Lack of transparency is typically an oversight, and therefore calling respectful attention to it will help instructors recognize oversights and will benefit individual learners now and in the future.

Do well on finals AND retain knowledge: Strategies for short and long-term success

image of students in traditional lecture room taking an exam

Many of us have experienced that doing well on an exam, may not mean all that information we used to successfully answer the questions on the test is retained. Both remembering and forgetting are physiological processes likely driven by the need to prioritize bits of the massive amount of information to which we are exposed. While the science  and biology of forgetting is an emerging and large part of the story that dictates what information ends up in our long, long-term memory, this post will focus on ‘remembering’  and practices that are shown to support it.

As finals time approaches in colleges and universities, there is still some time to structure study practices so that we not only remember and can use information from early in the semester and perform well on the final assessment, but that we are also more likely to take that remembered information (learning) forward so that it can be recalled and used long into the future. Program curricula are structured with the expectation of a high degree of pre-requisite learning from previous courses. So, practices that help to reinforce the neurological pathways that allow us to store and access information, not only support success on the final exams in the  short-term, but also support more effective building of disciplinary knowledge throughout our chosen programs. The implications of these long-term effects of effective study deserve more consideration as motivations for adopting the strategies shared here.

What are the basic stages of memory?

Memory is more complex than this but here are the basics:

Simple memory diagram
https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/8-1-memories-as-types-and-stages/
Sensory memory – subconsciously gathers information from the senses (allows time for your brain to process incoming information from the senses (retention is generally less than 1 second)
Short-term memory – if a sensation (visual, auditory, tactile) is attended to, it can move into this version of memory.  Without further attention, this will be lost within seconds.
Long-term memory – Storage of information for longer time periods (retention is hours, days, months or years)

For learning to be effective, we want the information that we hope to use into the future to be transformed into memory, and specifically the kind that will be available to us for a long time.  There are some practices that can be used to improve the likelihood of taking information with you into the future, for example, into a course for which this information is pre-requisite! These practices can be incorporated into course and assignment design by instructors, and they can be incorporated into personal study habits.

What can you do to make learning stick?

Here we summarize  a set of study practices to promote long-term memory.

Retrieval Practice –  referred to as ‘free recall’,  ‘blank page testing’ or ‘brain dumps’. This practice simply entails writing down all you can remember associated with a particular topic or learning objective. Retrieval is particularly valuable as a way of finding out what you know and what you don’t know well enough… yet. The focus and cognitive struggle to pull those memories to the forefront is the practice that helps create those neurological changes that reinforce pathways in the brain to keep information accessible for longer time.

Collaborative learning  – has been shown to improve learning outcomes because of the opportunity to share knowledge, fill in blanks for each other, reflect and share strategies and perspectives among learners. After some individual retrieval time, compare and discuss your individual sets of information with other learners, remind each other of ideas that may have been missed by making a collaborative braindump. Then individually and collectively, identify the most challenging pieces of the topic so they can be the focus of more practice. While the research on the value of collaborative recall is complex and can be very dependent on context and structure of the collaboration, according to a meta-analysis on the topic by Marion and Thorley, 2016:

“Generally, collaborative remembering tends to benefit later individual retrieval.”

When collaborating in study groups, intersperse opportunities to recall and reflect on information and process individually, with small-group collaboration to fill in knowledge gaps, teach and quiz each other, and work through and discuss the process in problem solving. End each session with a reflection on what you learned, what you know, and where you need to continue to workThis reflection requires retrieval of the information immediately after learning it and thus can improve long-term remembering

Spacing and mixing-up (interleaving) topics for Retrieval Practice 

Two more critical concepts related to your retrieval of information and other active approaches to working with material during study are interleaving and retrieval spacing. 

Interleaving is simply the idea of devoting short periods of focused, active time (not simply re-reading notes, etc) on one subject and then switching to another, or to several topics, and then, after a break, returning to the first and cycling through again. This can be done during a 3 hour study session where you alternate 35-45 minute chunks of working on 3 different topics (with short breaks between), to designing a weekly schedule for a set of 5 different topics spread across daily study sessions and re-organized and revisited several times across a week. As is common with active and collaborative learning strategies, even though assessments show students benefit from these practices, students find it difficult and thus do not ‘feel’ that it is working.  Unfortunately, the bit of extra cognitive struggle required to shift gears and retrieve information multiple times, is the very reason it works. Treading the same path multiple times across a study session, a week, and a semester, is what leaves the traces in our brains that allow us to find our way back to that knowledge over time.

“Over 8 weeks, students in two lecture sections of a university-level introductory physics course completed thrice-weekly homework assignments, each containing problems that were interleaved (i.e., alternating topics) or conventionally arranged (i.e., one topic practiced at a time). On two surprise criterial tests containing novel and more challenging problems, students recalled more relevant information and more frequently produced correct solutions after having engaged in interleaved practice (with observed median improvements of 50% on test 1 and 125% on test 2). Despite benefiting more from interleaved practice, students tended to rate the technique as more difficult and incorrectly believed that they learned less from it.”

Samani and Pan, 2021

Here is a schematic representing the more effective ‘interleaved practice’ with the more common ‘blocked practice’ schedule

https://schoolhabits.com/study-techniques-how-to-use-interleaved-practice-to-study/

Spacing of retrieval practice refers to the amount of time between revisiting a topic and working with it for a 2nd, 3rd and even 4th time before an exam. A really thorough and accessible resource for implementing spaced retrievel from the University of Iowa concludes that  the time between retrieving and working with the same information matters much less than making sure it happens over time before the time of the assessment.  A good rule of thumb is ‘touching’ the material 3-5 times  over a week, several weeks, or even the period of a full semester is beneficial to retention of knowledge.

It is the time of year where the focus of learning moves toward being successful on those cumulative final exams in each course.  There is still time to implement these practices on your own and to share them with like-minded collaborators.  In the long-run, these strategies will allow students to be better prepared to move through a scaffolded curriculum in a disciplinary program, get the most out of individual courses, and lay the groundwork of concepts and knowledge that will make them more prepared to build on the next layer of learning in future courses or in chosen pathways beyond an undergraduate education.

Hope these help!  Finish Strong!

USING THE METACOGNITIVE CYCLE TO TURN ‘PROBLEM SETS’ INTO ‘STUDY SESSIONS’

After a fun and productive meeting with a couple of our undergraduate educators in my office last week, we shifted gears and started to talk about how very busy their own semesters were.  One of them confided that they were committed to getting a good night’s sleep (Bravo!), and they had time for doing homework – mostly in the form of problem sets for engineering students in their first couple of years – but that they were having a hard time finding time to ‘study’. At that point I asked, “Isn’t doing a problem set ‘studying’?”

The brief conversation that followed reminded me that students sometimes compartmentalize tasks, experiences, and even related content information.  And that ‘studying’ continues to mean finding large blocks of time to go over class notes and materials – often in passive, ineffective ways.  It is what they are used to doing.  Compartmentalization is often our default to get things done in a busy schedule.  And we typically don’t support students in making those critical links and connections.  But we can! When instructors are explicit about putting class activities, homework assignments, and topics into a larger context, and encourage complementary practices that prompt students to grapple with those connections, students become better, more self-directed learners, gain depth of understanding, new perspectives, and insight into their own thought processes. These powerful, under-used practices are reflection and metacognition.

This post will introduce the terms and share their value and some related links. Ultimately we suggest a practical way (and provide a worksheet to get started) to apply the ‘metacognitive cycle’ to problem sets so that the large amount of time students spend on these applications will become more efficient, deep- learning opportunities in which students actively retrieve, review and process course content while they apply their knowledge to solving problems.

Defining the terms

Whether we understand them in these specific terms or not, metacognition and reflection are critical parts of the ‘expert’ practitioner’s tool box.  However, novice learners – early undergraduates – need to be instructed in the practice and the value of these tools. Generally, reflection is thinking back on an experience in order to process it and turn it into ‘knowledge’.  In this way reflection can also be a version of ‘retrieval’ (pulling up information and working with it again, also a critical practice for making knowledge stick).  Metacognition is most easily described as a type of reflection in which one examines the thought processes used during a task.  So metacognition is ‘thinking about thinking. There is a lot of research on metacognition in the psychological literature and it is complex! Research suggests that adding metacognition to disciplinary teaching in the classroom where groups of students are solving problems can help them become better at solving open-ended problems and transferring that understanding to solving novel problems.

These higher order thinking skills are the goal of our disciplinary curricula, particularly in technical and applied sciences like engineering.

Applying the ‘metacognitive cycle’ to problem sets

Studying is most efficient when done in short, spaced, repeated, active, intervals. Interspersing topics, revisiting and actively engaging with the material several times before an assessment, has been shown to provide the best results.  So, in a perfect world, we aren’t looking for large chunks of time to ‘go over notes’ or other more passive activities that are shown to not be very effective for learning. By adding a few extra minutes (30?) to the practice of ‘doing a problem set’, a student – ideally a group of students – can contextualize the problems they are solving in their growing conceptual understanding and make it an efficient, deep-learning study session.

 

The metacognitive cycle is broken into the following simple stages: planning (before beginning working on the problems in the set, gathering resources), monitoring (what is happening in ones thoughts while trying to apply knowledge to problem sets), and evaluation (how did it go, what was hard? what was learned? what do you need to ask at office hours or recitations?)

 

During the Planning Stage

Take a few minutes to look through the problems set and decipher the larger context of the problems there:

  • List what you know about conceptual information that surrounds the problems and the associated equations that are being applied – retrieval
  • Write 2 – 3 learning objectives. These are statements about what one should know by the successful completion of the problem set – goal setting. If they are not given in the assignment, it is your job as a learner to ‘figure them out’ from the types of problems in the worksheet – retrieval
  • At the start of each question, ask  “what information do I need to know in order to begin this question and why do I need it? “- reflection, retrieval and metacognition

During the Monitoring Stage

As you work through each of the problems in the set, be intentional about the choices you are making.  Ask the ‘why’ questions:

  • In a group or solo ask the question ‘why is this problem challenging?’. Responses to this question requires – reflection.
  • Explain the decisions/processes that led to the solving of each part of a problem. Ask why did you/I make that choice in this part of the problem.  Answers to these questions require – metacognition

During the Evaluation Stage

At the close of the problem set, or the part of it that was completed in one session, look through and remember the content that was applied, the processes and the decisions.

  • Write a paragraph that summarizes (more detail is better) of what was learned and how ideas are connected and applied in the problems completed – reflection
  • Make a list of topics/concepts/skills that still need work for good understanding and bring these to the next office hours or recitation section to get the support needed – goal setting

These suggested practices are the same ones that experts use without conscious effort!  For someone new to material, reflection and metacognition and using the simple application of these learning strategies in work that is required as homework, will  make it more relevant and expedite learning!  Less additional time will be needed for ‘studying’,  and the time spent studying will be more effective and efficient. This should help with time management and result in deeper understanding of disciplinary material. Start slow, and see how it works.  Here is a worksheet to remind about guidelines while applying these strategies to problem sets.  Let us know how it goes, and enjoy the process of  becoming an expert!

Cognitive and Affective Domains: Critical parallels for effective teaching

Cornell Engineering Peer Educators practice collaborative learning at the cognitive domain level of ‘apply’ while using the ‘receiving’ and ‘responding’ levels in the affective domain.

The Cognitive Domain – Learning as a hierarchy of increasingly difficult cognitive work

Educators use Bloom’s Taxonomy to think about and scaffold the degree of cognitive difficulty in courses and for helping to design activities and assignments appropriate to learning expectations. Cognitive challenge increases as we move ‘up’ the pyramid from ‘remember’ toward the pinnacle of cognitive complexity – ‘create’. Bloom’s taxonomy verb choices help teachers to write learning outcomes objectives at appropriate cognitive levels so that they can be sure they are facilitating learning in which the outcomes match the complexity of the objectives. As a reminder, here is one iteration of the classic but updated Blooms Triangle (with ‘create’ at the highest cognitive level):

Classic representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy with updated organization in which to ‘create’ is now the pinnacle of cognitive complexity.

A learning objective on the lowest rung of the taxonomy – the ‘remember’ level – might read: “by the end of this activity/class session the student will be able to define the 1st law of thermodynamics. If the objective were to be at a higher cognitive level – the ‘apply’ level – the learning objective might read: “by the end of this activity/class session the student will be able to explain how the first law of thermodynamics applies to changes in a system when heat and pressure are applied”

In either case, the instructor can then design  assessments at the level of the stated expectation and ‘backwards design’ appropriate activities or assignments to prepare students to be successful when they come to the assessment.

Bloom’s taxonomy has been through some iterative changes but, effectively, it’s been a really important framework for cognitive outcomes since the 1950s. This organization and development of critical thought processes (or cognitive difficulty) can guide curriculum development and learning tasks for students working with concepts and processes as they build deeper and more integrated knowledge.

The Affective Domain – Learning as a hierarchy  of increasingly complex behaviors

Blooms Taxonomy has a critical parallel: Krathwohl’s Affective Domain. Discussions of the affective domain in teaching and learning are less common than the cognitive domain. This is at least true for STEM learning in higher education.  Although Bloom still gets a lot of the credit for this ‘sister taxonomy’, the general consensus is that David Krathwohl, a close colleague who also worked on the cognitive domain, is the primary author and developer of the affective domain.  Read a good review of both domains and the history of their evolution and authorship here.

Krathwohls Affective Domain
A representation of Krathwohl’s Affective Domain. This is the critical parallel to Blooms Cognitive Domain and is the domain in which the work of making learning ‘stick’ happens

This is the domain in which listening, acknowledging, reflecting, and decision making, using information gleaned at levels in the cognitive domain, can result in value development and perhaps even behavioral shifts.  This is the domain in which learning is contextualized or situated.  While we focus on the cognitive Bloom’s taxonomy for learning objectives and disciplinary structuring, learning is a social and reflective endeavor and the key to helping learning happen is in the affective domain: receiving, responding, valuing, organizing and ultimately characterizing that information are what lead to deep learning and real change.  The cognitive domain describes the development of knowledge through acquiring and manipulating information, and the affective domain describes how knowledge is integrated into the learners’ frame of reference and in a social context. If we explicitly understand both the cognitive domain and the affective domain, and their intersection, we can be intentional about how we use them together to intensify the benefits for learners. 

Powerful Learning explicitly applies both domains through collaborative learning

Since the initial development of these taxonomies (maybe before), an irrefutable consensus has been building in the teaching and learning literature: structuring collaborative learning activities within inclusive and reflective learning environments results in better learning objectives outcomes.

Regardless of the cognitive level of the learning outcome, awareness of and attention to (affective domain) the point at which students are entering into the knowledge arena should be a primary consideration. Once learning outcomes objectives are written (step 1), the teacher imagines a matching assessment that would provide information about how well the objective was achieved – did students learn what was intended (step 2)? Designing learning activities moves the teacher and student more directly into the affective domain (step 3).  This is all about structuring the emotional and cognitive engagement cycle (see our earlier blog for review of cognitive and emotional engagement) through which students receive the information, consider it, discuss it, use it, value it, and make choices about where it fits in their cognitive/emotional map. For short activities, design might include a more linear pathway of activities. For example: groups of students may work independently to master an aspect of a topic or approach to a problem (receiving), and then teach each other the specific piece with which they worked (receiving and responding). The group may then discuss and put together the components, discuss its value and  apply it to a related problem (valuing, organizing). In a long-term project (design development or other task) the work in the affective domain is likely to be cyclical and iterative. As ideas are built, discussed and valued, a new cycle of receiving and responding (reflection) that deepens the learning, improves the project and motivates students would be natural, but should be structured. Developing and sharing specific learning objectives with students, and structuring collaborative and inclusive learning activities have been shown to improve outcomes.  These two Domains of learning are not new, and explicitly linking them is simply a reminder to check the pieces of our practice.  Ultimately, when learners situate the new disciplinary knowledge into their social-emotional frameworks, long-term learning and real student growth are the outcomes.

4 Steps for a Successful Semester – Build and keep a schedule, attend classes, reach out, and believe in yourself!!

Put your ‘Ducks in a row’ 

It takes time to transition to a busy college schedule.  And by ‘time’, we mean sometimes several semesters!  If you don’t feel you are there yet, you are not alone!  We all come to new experiences with different strengths, and sets of experiences.   If you are an undergraduate student in the early days of your college career, this is a practical ‘To-Do’ list with tried and true advice and links to resources to cheer-you-on to a successful start of a successful semester!

Here are some steps and links to help you start the semester right.

1. Build your schedule: Before classes start!

There are ‘old-school’ paper versions, Outlook and Google Calendars, and a million apps to help you organize your time. Time management is one very important aspect of a successful and healthy semester. Among other studies on the benefits of managing time for college students,  Adams and Blair (2019) examined the impact of time management behaviors on Engineering students’ performance. Self-reported behaviors that correlated most strongly with GPA were setting goals and priorities (the building phase) and maintaining control over the time spent on various tasks (the sticking to it phase).

 

2. What to Schedule?: Including your personal wellness and free time

    1. In- Class time – including office hours, recitations, and discussions.
    2. Study time – personal preparation, study groups.
    3. Personal time – mental and physical well-being
    4. Networking or other co-curricular professional development time

3. Attend your Classes!! 

Studies show that students who attend their class meetings are more likely to have higher grades. Even if you feel well prepared for a particular course, attending the scheduled class meetings is perhaps the easiest way to keep up with work. Being introduced to new topics, getting insights from the instructor that might only be shared verbally, getting reminders for upcoming assignments, listening to the questions asked by peers, opportunities for in-class collaborations,  are all ways that attending class can keep you on track and deepen your understanding, even when you feel you understand the material.

“…early and consistent class attendance strongly correlates with academic performance” (Kassarnig et al, 2017)

4.  Stick to your Schedule: The hardest part – and you can do it!

The work of Adams and Blair (2019) with engineering students, generally matched the findings of other studies: Time management supports success! What they also found was that though students were quite successful at building schedules, they were less successful at sticking to them. The perception of control over scheduled time was much more difficult. But it can be done! Take this quick time management quiz to see where you might be able to improve.

Quick read on more good information about time management for college students!

5.  Keep a ‘Growth Mindset’  and reach out for support as soon as you need it.

image of growth mindsetA ‘growth mindset’ is in contrast to a ‘fixed mindset’. A growth mindset acknowledges that you might not be there yet, but with perseverance,  you can, and will get there!  A fixed mindset refers to the belief that the ability to learn or master certain topics is something that is innate and inflexible. The evidence-supported truth is that ones own perception of their ability to learn challenging material actually influences ones cognitive ability to do so. It is a bit like mind over matter! and it is REAL.  Believe in yourself. You are capable of learning things that are challenging! The ability of your brain to learn challenging material can grow!

College is the next step It is supposed to be challenging. Finding oneself in need of support from peers or from the course teaching staff is normal and expected.  That is why study groups are a great idea and why support offices and office hours are available.  Everyone needs to share ideas and get new perspectives at some point, and it’s also the best way to deepen your understanding of material. If you don’t know the people who can help, ask an instructor or advisor! Collaboration results in deeper learning.

Here is a fun video to remind you to focus on the fascinating journey and grow rather than shrink from the challenges: The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More | Former NASA and Apple Engineer – now Science and Engineering Youtuber, Mark Rober

 

-YOU GOT THIS! Have an amazing semester!

Engineering Learning Initiatives