On the eve of departure

The eve of departure was busy and long. It also wasn’t really the eve of departure. I guess technically right now is the eve of departure since my flight will leave at 5:15 to Copenhagen, where I’ll have a casual FOURTEEN hour layover, before continuing to Zurich on Friday night.

The past week and a half has been busy, really. The last day of classes was May 8th, I visited my mother for Mother’s Day from the 10th-12th, I gave my class their final exam on May 13th and then I was supposed to have plenty of time (a week and a half) to finish up loose ends around campus and prepare for my trip, but somehow things always take longer than expected. I left my apartment in Blacksburg on Wednesday, May 22nd and I won’t be back until July 15th. I will go to Raleigh directly after the GPP trip is over, and then I go from there to a family vacation, and then finally back to Blacksburg.

Before I left, I had to set some meetings with undergraduate students working in one of my labs this summer to show them how to do their tasks while I’m gone, meet with the faculty director of that same lab to go over preliminary analyses (we might have a significant result- whoo!), meet with a committee member to discuss my prelim prep, and meet with my advisor to work on about four different things, return some books to the library, cancel a recurring monthly subscription and pick up my dog’s heartworm medicine, on top of packing for not only this trip but my next month and a half.

I actually did most of the school/work-related stuff, though my advisor and I only got through one of our four tasks and I have to go back through and carefully merge some data files when I come home. I didn’t pick up my dog’s medicine because apparently he needed a prescription we didn’t have and I think I packed enough clothes for the next seven and a half weeks, but who really knows. I have a notorious habit of forgetting at least one integral category of clothing (shirts, underwear, etc.) on every major trip since childhood.

I was so busy running around buying last minute items and throwing things in, then taking them out of my suitcase that I didn’t even have time to think/worry/get excited about the trip. But now I can do that all on my first 8-hour flight, FOURTEEN hour layover, and then the two extra days I’ll have in Zurich before GPP officially starts.

Here’s to a great experience and hopefully enough underwear.

The Myth of Multitasking

I was very excited that this was a topic of discussion for our blogs this week because I just gave a lecture to my HD 1004 class on Tuesday about the myth of multitasking. Please watch this short video before reading the rest of this post!

As I told them, when you think you’re multitasking, you’re really just doing two (or more) things poorly. Basically, when we say multitasking, we’re referring to one of two things:

Switch-tasking – the act of alternating between two (or more) attention-demanding tasks, or

Background tasking – the act of working on an attention-demanding task while something mundane is going on at the same time.

Texting while driving, grading while parenting, listening to a lecture while shopping online are all example of switch-tasking, or things people think they can do at the same time, but logistically and cognitively cannot. Background tasking can be commonly illustrated by listening to music while studying or having a podcast on while cleaning, but even these activities can get dicey. Have you ever been reading with Netflix on in the background and realized you’ve gone three pages without absorbing any content because you’ve actually been caught up in the 645th reveal of A in Pretty Little Liars? Or have you been cleaning your room and gotten so zoned in on folding and putting away clothes that you missed the half of the guest’s story?

Our brains are all-powerful organs and yet they have limits.

Working memory – the accessible state of memory retention; related to an immediate task (15 – 25 second storage)

The general rule of thumb is that you can keep 5-9 pieces of information in your working memory at a time (think about the ways we break up cell phone and credit card numbers into smaller groups of 4 digits, rather than 10 or 16 at a time). Attention isn’t the same as memory.

Attention – an active processing of information

Selective attention – the ability attend to only certain stimuli when multiple stimuli occur simultaneously

Divided attention/Split attention – the ability to process information from different sources simultaneously and probably a source from which the myth of multitasking developed

The video at the start of this post is a common selective attention task and also helps to illustrate some of the problems associated with the idea of multitasking. When I showed it to my class, about half the class actually saw the gorilla without it being pointed out. This suggests (as with all things) there are individual differences in cognitive capacity. The students who didn’t notice the gorilla the first time around can help to illustrate the way our brains work when we’re switch-tasking. If you’re trying to do two attention-requiring and unrelated tasks, your brain cannot process information from the two areas at the same time. The idea of divided attention complicates things a bit because the notion lends itself to the possibility of multitasking; however, divided attention is really referring to two different sources of information for the same or closely related tasks (e.g., reading powerpoint slides while listening to a lecture, not listening to a lecture while checking email).

Many professors and instructors know that students who have their laptops/phones/tablets out in class aren’t necessarily paying the best attention and so the challenge, addressed in some of the readings for this week, becomes what to do with technology in the classroom. The professor for whom I’m TA-ing this semester offers an extra credit opportunity for his students. At the beginning of the semester, students who choose to will sign a pledge not to use social media or technology unrelated to the course (taking notes on a laptop, accessing readings or slides on Canvas, for example, are fine). Those who sign the pledge are then eligible to write a reflection at the end of the semester, assessing their own ability to keep up with their promise and how it impacted their course experience.

I like his strategy, but through class observations, I know that many of the students who signed the pledge are still engaging with their technology in inappropriate ways during class. Further, I am working with a lab in my department to conduct an experimental study on the effect of cell phone presence and social media interaction on cognitive function. Did you know just having your cell phone visible can reduce cognitive performance?

In light of this, I am still struggling to figure out what my technology policy will be. A good portion of my first class is dedicated to establishing my students as responsible for their own education and discussing choices, consequences and accountability. Right now, I have that message and a class activity reading an article about distractions in class with a reflection activity with no other official technology policy, but I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I am interested in hearing my peers’ thoughts about the ideas of attention, multitasking and technology in the classroom.


Departmental support makes all the difference for new teachers

I identified with a lot of what Sarah Deel discussed in her post. I will be a first time teacher next semester, so I am asking and attempting to answer many of the same questions she did; however, unlike Sarah, I have the full support and mentorship of my department during this process. I am also coming from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, so the emphasis on teaching is slightly greater than in other colleges. Like Sarah, though, I came from a  smaller liberal arts school where teaching was the forefront for most faculty, so the adjustment from that school to Tech has been odd for me. I am grateful for my “academic upbringing” in the liberal arts, as teaching has always been a bigger passion than research for me and because of the school I came from, I am confident in sharing that with faculty in my department.

I have described it before, but after the readings for this week, I am incredibly grateful for my department’s apprenticeship program for GTAs. This semester, I am attending all the classes of, do the grading for and will give two lectures in a section of the course I will teach next semester. I meet with my apprenticeship supervisor each week to process things that happened in the class (things my supervisor felt worked and areas where they felt they could improve)  and to discuss any of my upcoming responsibilities. As I prepare my first guest lecture (in two weeks!) my supervisor shared with me resources they use for content as well as more general teaching resources that I will use in my presentation. I will get feedback from my thesis advisor, my apprenticeship supervisor and another graduate student in my department from one or both of my guest lectures, that can not only go into a teaching portfolio, but will also be helpful in developing my course for the spring.

I had previously been a TA for a professor who is nearing retirement and while they were absolutely great to me, they were less understanding or sympathetic to undergraduate students and their struggles. My apprenticeship mentor’s teaching philosophy is all about increasing and creating opportunities for learning whenever they can. By doing grading for these different professors and their individual standards for accepting student work, I’ve found where my boundaries will be with students. As a student teacher, especially, and maybe during my first few years as a full-on faculty member, I will have more strict guidelines than my mentorship supervisor and will be more flexible than my previous TA supervisor. As I get further into my career and have more time devoted to teaching rather than other bureaucratic responsibilities, these policies may change over time.

Without this apprenticeship program and other opportunities afforded to me by my department, I imagine that I would be much less sure of myself as a future teacher and would spend a significant amount of time agonizing over the questions Sarah asked herself. After reading about her experiences, my appreciation for my department and the faculty’s willingness to share their experiences and resources in teaching has increased ten-fold and I know I have an invaluable network of support.

Effective Learning

A number of posts this week have discussed various themes that have emerged since beginning this class, its readings and discussions. For me, each week, I consider balance to be the theme applied in different contexts.

I think the idea of engaged and mindful learning is noble, but like this post I also acknowledge that we can’t always do that. I think we, as educators, need to spend meaningful time examining our course content and finding the places where we can effectively engage technology, mindful learning and other more innovative methods of education, to balance out the places where we might have to give a basic lecture.

This post mentioned GTAs who are thrown into teaching without adequate preparation, and I agree that’s a huge problem and likely contributes to the less effective (mindless) learning that we see in some areas more than others. My department has a really great teaching apprenticeship program, wherein the semester before GTAs become instructors of record, they shadow and act as TAs for the course they will eventually teach. Our introductory course uses an online textbook with integrated quizzes, as well as other helpful resources, such as flash cards, glossaries and interactive material, that students are required to read. When preparing my first guest lecture, my apprenticeship supervisor told me that students, on average, only retain 10% of course material in a lecture that goes broad but not deep. He advised me to go over the material from the book, find the concepts that would be most challenging to students and focus my lecture on 20-30% of the textbook material, then work on ways to engage students so they might take away 90% of the content from my lecture. I still won’t be covering everything, but I’ll hopefully engage their learning, build on their previous readings and help them to come away with more than if I had just done a lecture that covered everything in the textbook over again.

Balancing integrative/digital learning

I had some thoughts watching the TED talk by by Michael Wesch, so that is what I’m choosing to focus on in this blog, with some general comments about required blogging below. In both areas, I came to the same conclusion that balance should be at the forefront of education, whether it be balancing professor resources with student need, or balancing new technology with impact in the classroom.

I come from the psychology and human development fields and so socio-emotional and cognitive development and context are ingrained in my approach to and interpretation of all things. Especially in Human Development, context and individual differences are integral considerations and so I didn’t take away from the video what I was maybe meant to. Secondly, I’m also cynical (sometimes to a fault) as a person, so I might push back more than necessary or productive.

At one point, Dr. Wesch quoted faculty members who said “some people are not cut out for school,” though I think he meant for college, and that translated to those people saying “some people are not cut out for learning.” I get what he’s trying to say; however, school (specifically college) is for very specific kinds of learning and while educators can and should change and adapt their teaching style to meet the needs of their students, there is also a reason that some people go to college while others go to vocational school or train on the job, etc.

One of my biggest hang ups to the inspirational aspect of what he said was one kind of throw-away comment about a student pursuing accounting even though she hated it. There is also the very real thing that people need to make money to survive and while people can and should be encouraged to follow their passions, it seems inspirational but can often be dismissive to tell people to follow their passions in lieu of finding security in the real world.

Maybe Dr. Wesch didn’t even mean to inspire or give something to which educators should aspire, and he just wanted to share his experience, which is also valid. He was a well-known, tenured faculty member with a lot more resources than first- or second-year faculty, who won’t be able to take two hour lunches with their students each day and tailor their content to each student. My takeaway was to not always continue traditional methods of teaching but to also acknowledge that faculty members have different resources/skills/practices and it’s okay if some professors, especially early career and those with large introductory classes, can’t completely adapt and individualize their courses.

Switching gears to the connected/network learning, I took the Preparing the Future Professoriate course last semester and in my final journal, this is what I wrote about blogging:

Due to the size and structure of this class, having both a journal assignment and blogging assignments felt limiting and redundant at the same time. The blog assignment didn’t really increase communication between students in the class because of the sheer number of posts and how daunting it was search through and find ones that might be interesting to comment on. The assignment didn’t seem to make a fruitful contribution to class conversation or effective method of reflection. Also, because I was required to do both a blog and a journal, I would limit what I wrote in each area so that I didn’t repeat myself by writing the same thought in two places, which would have been a lot of work for little to no benefit. I think I would have preferred to only do the journal, even with an expectation that some journal entries would be read aloud in class or in small groups to facilitate conversation.

I have heard that this course is more interactive as far as incorporating blogs into the course content, the class is a bit smaller than my PFP course, and not everyone is required to blog each week, we don’t have a journal requirement and yet, I am still skeptical of how meaningful we will find the required blogging and comments for the course. I can appreciate the intent and I am sure that engaging digital learning in a  classroom is a challenge and a constant give-and-take; however, I think the balance between wanting to engage in the newest teaching methods and opportunities and what is actually meaningfully contributing to the experience of individual students and classes as a whole is difficult to manage and should be constantly reevaluated.

As a last note, just from an ethical perspective, I thought it was interesting that the #1 recommended blogging format was a paid platform for which the instructor of the course has a coupon code. The discount code is a nice gesture for students and I know no ill-intent was meant, but oftentimes these coupon codes are mutually beneficial for the distributor and redeemer, yet no benefit/compensation was disclosed when the coupon code was given. There may have been no benefit, but the first question I had when I saw the code was what I was giving to the distributor if I had used it.


Campus Resources

I was thinking about how graduate students and faculty have a different relationship with campus than undergraduates, and how that might mean we have to do a little extra work if we want to be of most benefit possible to our students. I first came to Virginia Tech as a student in graduate school. My sister has been here since 2010, so I have visited and am vaguely familiar with aspects of campus and community life, but I, and I am sure many other graduate students, have a vastly different relationship to the university and town than undergraduate students. This is of concern to me when I think about preparing to teach my first course next year.

I want to be able to help my students not only succeed in my class but also college, overall, but I am concerned that I don’t know about the different resources available to them. If I don’t know what resources, services, etc. are available, I won’t be able to connect my students to the people, centers and services that might be of greatest help to them. I plan to spend some time this summer and over the fall semester visiting different buildings on campus to get a better sense of who and what is located where. I really want to incorporate campus resources into my classes (which will be comprised of primarily first-year students) so they can start off their college careers with a knowledge of where to turn when they need help.

Classroom Engagement

When I was in undergrad, I was a peer facilitator for a group of 10 students in a freshman year seminar  for the honors college. Each year, I had a variety of student personalities and strengths, including the exuberant and outgoing students and also the thoughtful and shy students.

I was fortunate to have such a small group because I was able to develop a system to gradually build shier students up to participating in group discussions without penalizing them for their personality and characteristics at the outset.

The first thing I did was set ground rules for our group. At the time, I had some quote or clip from The Daily Show or something similar, but now by rules are essentially “you are free to share a difference of opinion but will not be permitted to deny, denigrate or disrespect another individual’s identity or existence.” This helped to foster an open and inclusive conversation where everyone would feel comfortable sharing.

The purpose of grading class participation was as a means to gauge engagement with class topics and readings. So, for the first 3 weeks of class while everyone was still getting comfortable with one another, my shy students would have to take notes and email me their thoughts and places where they would have contributed in class. This way, I could ensure they were engaged, but they didn’t have to push themselves beyond their limits straightaway.

For the next 2-3 weeks, I would open class discussions by asking my shy students questions directly, so they were participating in group discussions but didn’t have to work themselves up right to find the breaks in conversation and courage to speak up or over other students.

After that sort of introductory period, I would have another face-to-face meeting with my students to check in and see how they were feeling and let them know that I would expect them to start actively participating in class. We would usually set a goal number of times per class that would increase over time.

I think this strategy works well with shy students, students with anxiety and could also work will for students who have a language barrier, with some adaptation. I know I will have to change some things to get this to work with the bigger classes at Tech, but I really want engaging all students to be a focus and area of success for me as an instructor.

Future of the University

I think that this sentiment has been made by my peers, but I am really hoping for a push toward more emphasis and respect for teaching positions and fields in the humanities and social sciences. Whether intentionally or not, often when we talk about the most highly respected or highly sought after positions, we assume that it’s the STEM fields. That assumption ignores not only the importance of the humanities and social sciences but also individual differences and preferences. Even though STEM fields might have a higher base salary, etc. not everyone prefers those fields, and if we don’t continue to encourage engagement in the humanities and social scientists, we’ll just have a lot of highly distinguished scholars with specialized research skills but no soft skills, which would honestly be terrible.

I would also like a shift toward recognizing the importance of teaching responsibilities, even at research-based institutions. If we focus too heavily on research and not on fostering education and passion within the next generations, there won’t be new cohorts of researchers to continue the work being done now.