Category Archives: Teaching Tips

Intentional Self-Care

As a clinical psychologist, you would think I was an expert on self-care. And I’m great at reminding my clients about the importance of their self-care. I am quick to tell my students and research assistants that it’s okay to take a day off if you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, no worries, we can always catch up when you’re feeling better. All the while, I’m thinking about which “healthy” freezer meal I picked out for a meager lunch today and worrying about where I can possibly fit in 1/2 an hour of exercise in my busy schedule this week. I’m pretty sure the last true vacation I had was eight years ago, when I was on my honeymoon. When I take a weekend “off,” I still find myself getting that irritating itch — should I spend it doing schoolwork or housework?

Over the past year or so, I have become more intentional about taking care of myself. Partly, this is because I have simply run out of juice and could not delay my self-care any longer. Part of it, though, is because I’ve come to recognize that a critical piece of my vision for post-grad school life is a good work-life harmony. I’m never going to be one of those academics who works 80 hours a week chasing grants and top-tier journals. I want my life to be more balanced, such that I enjoy my work and find it productive and fulfilling, but with a healthy dose of time with my family and time to myself, doing things I enjoy. So, as I approach the conclusion of my time as a graduate student, I have begun to shape my life to better match my vision of the future. For me, this means that I spend less time typing while I watch TV and instead enjoy a show or movie without distraction. It means that every 2 weeks or so, I turn off my phone and enjoy a hot bubble bath or trip to the nail salon. Do I still try to save money? Heck yes. But I also feel less guilty for “turning off” when I get home.

Graduate school is what you make it, to one extent or another. If you want to work all the time and never take a break, I doubt there is anyone telling you not to do that. (If you have someone, that is wonderful and rare, and be sure to thank that person and keep them close!) But I see people burn out, just like I have, all the time. There comes a point where you cannot do good work anymore, because you are hungry and exhausted and isolated and can barely think straight about your project. I challenge you to learn how to act before you reach that point, so that you may prevent the worst of it. It’s like dehydration — learn to realize you are thirsty and drink some water before you collapse. I think this is doubly true in the current climate, when many of us are working overtime to support social justice on top of our many 8-to-5 obligations. Sit for a minute before you fall over.

I am hopeful that VT GrATE will be able to bring some cool self-care events, opportunities, and ideas to you this month. Regardless, you have to figure out what works for you. Learn to recognize small moments and use them to support yourself in meaningful ways. Don’t force yourself to wait until graduate school is over before you start to live your life. There will always be “something else.”

And about those people who are reminding you to publish or perish:

Sometimes you are all you have, and that’s good enough. Don’t forget it.

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Neurodiversity in the Classroom

As a clinical psychologist, I have seen multiple sides of the process for accommodating students’ unique needs in the classroom. I have served as the assessing clinician who makes an initial diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disorder, and I have been in the position of an instructor who needs to work with a student and disability services to ensure that the student has sufficient opportunity to succeed in my course. When I disclose that I have clinical training, I find a number of students coming forward to discuss problems with anxiety and other disorders that may impede their learning, although I have to be careful to inform them of the strict boundaries I hold in order to avoid engaging in inappropriate dual roles.

More and more instructors, even those without my specialized training, are beginning to recognize the presence of neurodiversity in their classrooms. Although this term has classically been associated with autism spectrum disorders, it has since expanded to encompass a wide variety of cognitive and emotional conditions and differences. Essentially, this is a movement to encourage the recognition of these differences as part of a continuum of human experience, on par with other disabilities or variations, and not strictly as pathologies that must be treated in order to bring someone into alignment with the norm.

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I thought it was timely to discuss neurodiversity in preparation for tomorrow’s VT GrATE Brown Bag on inclusiveness in the classroom. More specifically, I’d like to share my perspective and some ideas I’ve had about how to make students at many points on the neurodiversity continuum feel more welcome in class.

Put advocacy in the hands of the student, not the institution. Although some diagnoses are easily recognized and accommodated (e.g., ADHD, learning disorders), others may not be. Tweak the language in your syllabus so that even students without an official letter from disability services have an opportunity to talk with you about their needs and see if anything can be done to improve their learning. It may not require a big change from you. For example, I recently heard about an instructor who purposefully uses large type on slides and provides captions for videos shown in class to better accommodate those with visual or hearing difficulties. As another example, many students are not served well by a traditional lecture format, and your adjustments could make a major difference in their grade.

Offer options. I have frequently had students with social anxiety come up to me after class and disclose their fears about doing group work or having to give a presentation. I don’t shy away from these learning opportunities or typically let students off the hook for doing them (exposure is the gold standard treatment for anxiety), but I do try to make it so that the entire grade isn’t based on one or two assignments, and I ensure that other assignments are less directly dependent on social interaction. You could consider extra credit, which all students will appreciate but will directly help students who lose points for not having polished speaking skills. Another idea is to allow students to divide up group work based on their strengths–maybe the shy student can write up the paper, and another student present it. Both will be expected to contribute equally, but neither feels as if he or she is forced to be uncomfortable.

Be kind when students struggle. Almost every semester, I have at least one student who faces insurmountable obstacles that keep interfering with his or her performance. In several cases, the student has disclosed to me that after many attempts to get to class and catch up, his or her mood disorder, relationship distress, or traumatic experience has caused a formal medical leave to be necessary. You don’t have to be a doormat, and I certainly encourage laying out a clear late work and absence policy in your syllabus, but know that it’s okay (and often very appreciated) to be flexible and supportive. One student I had withdrew due to depression in the fall, was back in my class in the spring, and got an A. I can’t help but think that my supportive attitude may have encouraged her to want to work with me again.

I’m really curious about what you all have to say about this topic during our brown bag. See you there!

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Turning a Safe Space into a Brave Space

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Thanks to Kelley Woods-Johnson for inspiring this post.

“Safe space” and “trigger warning” have become loaded terms over the past several months, particularly after the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago sent a letter informing incoming freshmen that the university would not permit the installation of safe spaces in its classrooms. The faculty of the university responded with a letter of their own, accusing the Dean of stripping students of their right to make demands about their own education. As an instructor in the psychology department and student in a mental health-focused field, I have been asked many times about my opinion on safe spaces and trigger warning. My response is typically that these terms are more nuanced than they may seem, and how one interprets their meaning has a lot to do with the opinions one forms about them.

The Dean’s letter characterizes safe spaces as walled-off anti-intellectual realms where students are “safe” to remain entrenched in their own perceptions and opinions without being challenged or exposed to new points of view. From this perspective, I can understand the outrage and protective response from the faculty, who clearly believe (as I do) that students should seize the opportunity in college to explore novel ideas in the pursuit of developing their own independent self-concepts. Furthermore, the faculty and I share the opinion that an atmosphere of mutual respect is an essential ingredient for preserving classroom spaces in which truly free–and safe–exchange of ideas may occur. In my view, then, a “safe space” is defined as one in which students feel comfortable voicing their opinions and, in exchange, agree to be open to and respectful of the potentially opposing opinions of others. It sets up the foundation that the classroom is not a place to be intimidated or harassed, but a place in which one can seek to learn about new, important and meaningful experiences and ideas.

Naturally, there will always be a “counselor” or “therapist” side to me, and it occasionally wars with the “instructor” side of me when it comes to issues like these. The former side feels concern for students who may have experienced trauma that prevents them from approaching these topics with open eyes. In trying to be fair to these students, I see the need for “trigger warnings” in highly specified situations. The latter side, then, tries to include such warnings as needed while informing students about the purpose of the potentially triggering material and encouraging them to see it for its educational merit. I strive to have a clear purpose for everything I show and to not shy away from controversial or probing questions. I pride myself on not letting my students “shy away” from critical thinking opportunities.

With a foundation of mutual respect, the appropriate use of warnings about potentially triggering content, and the establishment of a “safe space” as defined and agreed upon by all participants, I believe that we can move toward the use of “brave spaces” in our classrooms. In my view, the construction of a successful “safe space” naturally leads to the emergence of a “brave space,” in which students and instructor share ideas and together shape their understanding of the curriculum. In a “brave space,” students can fully identify with the topics of discussion and discover their relevance and value. It is a “brave space” not only in terms of the flow of ideas but also in building a sense of trust, such that students are free to question the material and instructors are free to ask students to engage more fully with the material and approach higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in working with it.

In closing, I have a few ideas about how I would create a “successful safe space”:

  • Negotiate the space cooperatively with students. Consider the message conveyed by an instructor independently establishing a safe space; although it may seem harmless and natural, it could also convey a message steeped in privilege and set up the belief that student voices don’t matter in your classroom. Instead, seek their feedback about what kind of space would be beneficial to them, and keep the conversation going throughout the semester so that students who come into contact with unexpectedly triggering material can speak up about their concerns. Along with this, send a clear message that students are welcome to confide in you if they have reservations about the course and how their experiences might negatively impact what they are able to get out of the course. If possible, seek opportunities for compromise rather than defaulting to the option that students who are worried about being triggered can just be exempt.
  • Show, not tell. Often, syllabi convey that instructors expect respect and participation from students with few overt statements about what students can expect from the instructor in return. Model mutual respect by using preferred pronouns, responding promptly to student questions (even if a little outside research is needed), and adhering to stated office hour schedules.
  • A little disclosure goes a long way. In clinical psychology, some believe in the sparing use of self-disclosure as a method for building rapport with clients. This could also be useful in the classroom. If you have an opinion on a controversial topic, feel free to share it, as long as you have already established the purpose of the discussion and your openness to disagreement. If used tactfully, this technique can help “humanize” you to students and get them to open up.
  • When in doubt, use a “trigger warning.” I would never use a “trigger warning” to, say, open a discussion of the role of implicit bias in police brutality. This topic could be triggering, but in my view, its importance in our current political climate and impact on less privileged communities outweighs any potential (and valuable) discomfort experienced by my students in discussing it. However, I would consider warning students who may have experienced racially-motivated violence if I were going to show a video clip that depicts police brutality against a person of color. My style would be to convey the importance and purpose of the clip and prepare students for what they are about to see, and let them know that I and the rest of the class will not think negatively of them or punish them if they become overwhelmed and need to step out. To avoid singling anyone out, I might frame this as “anyone is free to use the restroom at any time.”

This list is not exhaustive, and I hope it promotes some constructive discussion at our brown bag this week. My overall message and point in writing this post, however, is to ask you to reconsider your perception of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and think about whether they could be useful to you.

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Assessment: what, how, why?

My students and I agree on at least one thing: exams suck.

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I haven’t given a test since last spring. Although several concerns factored into this decision, it was mostly inspired by several semesters of observation, in which I saw promising students seriously contemplating dropping my class because they didn’t do as well as expected on the first exam. Truly, no amount of consolation (“the first one is always hard, don’t worry!”) makes much of a difference when the test is worth 20% of the total grade. Sure, I try to use the experience to help students refine their study skills and critically examine how they’ve been approaching the material, but that lesson comes too little too late, and often they are unable to turn around old habits in time for the next test. It was unfair, I reasoned, to expect students to cram so desperately for my exams, knowing that a slip-up could permanently sink their grade — especially during midterms and finals, when they are cramming for several difficult exams all at the same time. Of course, this process also creates some discomfort for me as an instructor; I am tasked with grading all the exams, determining how to deal with questions that many people bombed or how to fairly grade open-ended responses, and breaking the news to my students.

So, faced with these clear problems, I decided it was time for an overhaul.

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For the past couple semesters, I have instead been using a quiz, writing, and project-based format. My quizzes are smaller, administered weekly online, and both open-note and open-book. Because quizzes are more numerous and shorter, they are perceived as being “low-stakes” compared to quizzes (altogether, though, they still take up a sizable chunk of the course grade). My aim with quizzes is not just about testing learned material; they also give students a glimpse of how well they understood the previous chapter and might help them understand that they need to read more closely or pay more attention for the next one. Thus, they (hopefully) provide a sort of automated, incremental feedback system. Writing assignments can be used to shake up a traditional lecture and encourage students to think critically about the topic of the day, which helps keep them invested in class and invites discussion. Projects are focused more on application, my Bloom’s taxonomy level of choice, along with some opportunities for analysis and evaluation of existing ideas. I want to see my students relate to the topics we cover, create something new, and get excited about their newfound knowledge, a new tool with which to confront their world.

Testing is a controversial topic in modern pedagogy. David Perry points out that in-class exams force differently abled students to out themselves on order to get accommodations, and they create a context in which a student’s ability to memorize answers and quickly regurgitate them is sometimes more directly assessed than the student’s actual learning. David Gooblar argues that testing has its place, but he agrees with my low-stakes approach, favoring shorter, low pressure tests over traditional multi-chapter exams. Gooblar also argues that using a combination of assignments (i.e., tests and writing) can help bridge the gap between STEM and the humanities and more adequately evaluate students’ diverse abilities than an approach that exclusively utilizes one method.

I’m excited to discuss this topic with the academy next week, and I can’t wait to hear from all of you: what methods do you use, and why? Are you pro-tests, anti-tests, or in the middle? How does your discipline shape these choices? Which levels of Bloom’s taxonomy do you currently tick off, and which would you like to incorporate in future course plans?

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Course & Syllabus Prep Tips

With the end of the summer comes a general atmosphere of frantic course-prepping and editing of prior syllabi, at least around our department. Over the years, I’ve prepped four courses, not including introductory psychology recitation, and revised them several times. Here are a few things I’ve learned that might be helpful to others in the midst of this confusing process.

1.) Time management is key. I advise you to start early when prepping a new course; it takes a while to select a textbook, plan out assignments, create rubrics, and prep lectures. You should also keep this in mind when choosing how to devote your class time and office hours during the semester. Estimate how much time it will take you to grade tests and other assignments, depending on your class size, and try to find a “happy medium” between devoting sufficient time to each student’s paper and being able to return assignments to the class in a reasonable time frame. By the way, when you’re teaching your class, I would suggest that you take notes about things you’d like to change next time you teach the course. It will be easier to look back at these notes than to try to remember in August what didn’t quite work in April.

2.) Gather student feedback. I don’t subscribe to the “students are consumers; you work for them” model, but I do think students appreciate being given agency in determining how classes are designed and run. One thing I like to do is give an informal opportunity for student feedback around midterms, while noting that giving feedback at this stage instead of just at the end of the semester may allow me to improve the course for the students currently taking it. In the past, I’ve done a short online survey or a simple anonymous paper-in-the-hat survey that asks students to name one thing they enjoy about the class and one way it could be improved. I credit previous students with helping me come up with creative assignment ideas, improve the structure of exams and quizzes, and see why assignments I thought would work… well… didn’t.

3.) Don’t overprep. I made the mistake the first time I taught as the instructor of record to prep my entire semester ahead of time. I’ve since learned that this is not necessary (there is time during the semester to create lectures, after all, particularly if one uses one’s office hours judiciously) and may even be a hindrance if the result is more inflexibility during the semester. I do try to prep 3-4 lectures before the semester begins just to give myself a head start, though, and I always make sure that my assignment rubrics are ready before the first day of class.

4.) Clarity is paramount. One of the major complaints I hear from students is that assignments aren’t always clear and they don’t understand why they earned a particular grade. This is something I have been working on (and continue to need improvement on) for a while. One thing that I have found to be helpful is to include an example (generated by me) that would meet criteria for full credit on the assignment. This takes a little extra work on my part, but it helps me see the potential snafus experienced by students and alter my rubric accordingly. Of course, for the rubric itself, it is helpful to be clear about what criteria are necessary to include and how many points each of these aspects is worth. Be careful, though, not to be so specific that there is no room for subjective evaluation on those assignments that merit it.

5.) Be a human being. Understand and remember that your students have their own struggles and that your class is only one component of their busy schedule. Hold high but not unreasonable or rigid standards. Humor and an attempt to relate to students goes a long way. I find that students tend to respect me, even as a graduate student, if I have earned their respect.

Hope you find these suggestions helpful, and feel free to add more in the comments.

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