Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Impacting Students for a Lifetime - Part 5

Continued blog post series by Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction - Engagement and Learning at LWIT 


Practice Paradox

The last of the 4 Connections is Practice Paradox. In the paraphrased words of Don Wood, VP of Institutional Effectiveness at Odessa College, faculty who are masters of paradox set clear, high expectations and then are reasonable human beings when issues arise in students’ lives. In the world of advising and student services, we often referred to this as high expectations/high support. The term paradox may be a bit hyperbolic, but it communicates the challenge of setting supportive boundaries and demonstrating supportive flexibility.

Let’s focus on setting clear, high expectations. The only measure of good teaching is student learning (Dr. Bob Mohrbacher, President, Centralia College). We must never expect less-than for students to demonstrate that they have met the learning outcomes for the course. Often, however, our assignments/assessments measure something other than students’ abilities related to outcomes – they measure students’ abilities to read our minds or to work the college system. Clear, high expectations allow us to equitably measure student learning. One of the best ways I have found to do this is to use transparent assignment design. Give it a try.

Designing Transparent Assignments


This activity prepares faculty to utilize the Transparency Framework, an assignment design template developed at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The framework improves clarity of expectations and results in increased student success.

Think of a typical class. What does your grade distribution look like for most assignments? In my initial years of teaching, it often looked something like this:

Line graph of bimodal distribution of student grades on a sample assignment.

Extreme Honesty Warning: I would look at the grade distribution and think, “Well, like always, there are the good students and the bad students.” That thought process is rightfully challenged by the Transparency Framework. The framework encourages faculty to approach students with a capacity mindset. ALL students in the course are capable. Those who struggle do so because they have not had the opportunity to develop the academic skills needed to interpret faculty expectations accurately, to persevere through difficult instructions, or to ask for help. A zero for not turning in an assignment is not necessarily an indicator of laziness or apathy – usually the opposite: the student tried for a long time and feared the work they would turn in would reinforce their belief (and the faculty member’s) that they are not a good student. This lack of academic preparedness can be called an opportunity gap, and it is a gap we, as faculty members, can close.

Use of the framework ensures that all students have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and/or skills without having to do the guesswork of what you are looking for. Instead of measuring a student’s ability to understand an assignment, you can know with more certainty that you are assessing their skills and knowledge related to course outcomes. Use of the framework at UNLV not only increased success on assignments, but also increased year-to-year retention and closed equity gaps.

Therefore, implementing the Transparency Framework on just two assignments in your class (more is great!) can:
  • Increase student confidence
  • Clarify your expectations
  • Build trust among you and the students in your classes – this is why this is part of The 4 Connections…actually, all of these are why; I wanted to highlight this one.
  • Reduce opportunity gap impact
  • Increase retention
  • Provide a mental framework that all students can continue to apply beyond your class
  • Ensure that you are accurately measuring competencies related to course outcomes

Learn about the Transparency Framework and its impact at UNLV:

Read about microbarriers to student success:

Watch students share their experiences in classes that are transparently (and collaboratively) designed:


Now that you have been introduced the Transparency Framework, complete the following actions. You may change the order if you prefer to see examples first or if you prefer to review the template first. Or, you can choose to skip the examples all together. The third action should be the last one you work on.
1)      Examine two examples of less transparent assignments that were revised to be more transparent.

a. Choose from: 

                                                             i.      Sociology
                                                            ii.      Science
                                                           iii.      Psychology
                                                           iv.      Communication

b. Consider the following questions: Think back to when you were a student. Which of the two versions of the assignments would you prefer and why? What changes did the faculty members make that help improve the assignments? Can you think of any other changes that would improve transparency? Note: You do not need to submit your responses to these questions.

2)      Review the Transparent Assignment Template and Transparent Assignment Checklist.

3)      Identify two assignments from one of your courses, and apply the Transparency Framework to redesign them. Use the template and checklist as guides, but feel free to make additional changes that help to improve clarity.

4)      Reflect on the experience of revising the assignment and the hopes you have for improved student success. Consider questions like: What are your overall thoughts about the framework and the impact it can have on student success? Why did you select the particular assignment for revision? What types of assignments would benefit most from the framework? Which courses? Do you have any concerns about adopting the framework for at least two assignments in all of your courses? How might you address those concerns? If you haven’t already answered these questions, what do you see as the greatest strengths and the potential shortcomings of the Transparency Framework?

Criteria for Success  

Now, evaluate your revised assignments using the following criteria. Event better, ask a colleague to do so.
Adherence to the template and checklist (or explanation when the template and checklist were purposefully adjusted)

Clarity of Purpose, Task, and Criteria for Success sections of the assignment (adopt a student perspective to evaluate for clarity)

As you prepare for the new academic year, consider how you can build trust with your students by clarifying your expectations. As you practice the other three connections (learning students’ names, checking-in regularly, and meeting one-on-one), get to know their strengths and struggles so that you can be flexible when needed based on what  will help them to be successful.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Impacting Students for a Lifetime - Part 4

Continued blog post series by Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction - Engagement and Learning at LWIT

Schedule One-On-One Meetings

At the beginning of the quarter and throughout, schedule one-on-one meetings with students.

Many students will never use your office hours or the extra time you provide before and after class for questions. In all their schooling up until this point, the only time they went to an office, came early, or stayed late was most likely when they were in trouble. Others are intimidated or think you will judge them for struggling. While none of these concerns may be true, they are real for many students who struggle with impostor syndrome*. Building in one-on-one meetings as a requirement breaks down stigma and fear. It also makes it easier for you to find out how each student is doing individually.

Possible Practices:

  • Q&A Form: For each meeting (e.g., beginning, mid, and end of quarter), provide students in advance with the list of questions you will ask during the meeting. Provide space for them to jot down notes. Also, ask them to write down at least one question they want to ask you. Have them bring the form to their meeting and follow it as needed.
  • Project Process: Build in a meeting as part of a project. This could be a planning meeting to help students get started if they have never done a project like this before. It could be a status report midway or a final review of a draft.
  • Scheduling Meetings: Sign-up forms can be printed and posted in your classroom. You can also create a Canvas page that is editable by students and you. List the time slots available and have students add their name next to the time that works best for them.

Lessons Learned:

You can spend all of your out of class time and then some meeting with students. Using the practices above can help set healthy boundaries for meeting focus and time frame. One-on-one meetings do not need to be more than 15 minutes. Are you a professional-technical faculty member with a lot of lab time and less out of class time? Build one-on-one meetings into your daily lab rotations.

*Impostor syndrome is the feeling/belief that you do not belong and someone or everyone is going to find out. Students with impostor syndrome see any action that can be perceived as failure as validation that they aren’t cut out for college. They often isolate themselves, thus reinforcing the sense that they don’t belong. Impostor syndrome is common. You might have it as an instructor. I do. Required one-on-one meetings are one of the best practices I have found to mitigate impostor syndrome (that, and talking about it openly on the first day of class).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Impacting Students for a Lifetime - Part 3

Continued blog post series by Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction - Engagement and Learning at LWIT 

Check-In Regularly

Pay attention to student behavior and track student progress. Empathize with students ("I am exhausted today, too. Let's make the best of this class together."). When a student is struggling, intervene.

I recently shared my excitement about The 4 Connections with a faculty member at Olympic College. When I described checking in regularly, she shared an awesome practice that she had adopted intuitively during her years of teaching. She creates a printable spreadsheet for each class that includes the students’ names in the far left column and the dates of the class sessions in a week across the top. When she interacts with an individual student, she puts a check in their row under the date she spoke with them. It may be something as simple as, “How is your cat doing?” As the week comes to a close, she reviews who she has yet to connect with and makes sure she seeks them out intentionally before the week is over. The faculty member began this practice because she recognized her own weakness – she often provided individual attention to students who were doing well and to students who were struggling, but she easily overlooked those who were doing all right. She didn’t want to miss anyone.

This example shows that The 4 Connections are practices that good teachers do naturally – and practices we can all do more intentionally to better connect with our students. A similar example is formative assessment. It is an excellent way to check in regularly about students’ learning.

As the faculty members at LWTech practiced checking in regularly with their students, they began to learn more and more about the students’ struggles and needs. Frequently, those needs went beyond teaching and learning and related to issues students were facing in their personal lives. Your college has many resources available for students on campus. One of the best ways to support students, those who are excelling and those who are struggling, is to refer them to those wonderful resources. Even better, walk them to the services and help them connect with someone there.  Not sure what the resources are? Find the Student Handbook on your college website or connect with an adviser in Student Services.  Look for programs like TRiO, disability support, counseling, tutoring, BFET, and more. Worried about remembering all that is available? No worries! Demonstrating use of the Student Handbook to find information is a great way to model help-seeking behavior to students.