Tips for improving courses based on learning theory

AAC&U has provided helpful tips (including links to many useful resources) to instructors contemplating improving courses for students in the coming semester. Even if you’re a learning theory expert, these tips and resources can assist in contemplating if one’s courses are the best they can be.

Read more:

Demeter, E. (2021). Reflecting on Course Redesign: How Faculty Can Measure the Impact of Instructional Changes. Liberal Education Blog.

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Planning for in-person instruction despite Delta: experiences of a small college

As universities plan for the coming semester, higher education administrators are thinking about what to do about Delta, taking various models into consideration while attempting to keep campuses open for in-person instruction. One small college describes their planning/modeling process:

…administrators believe they can bring the campus reproduction rate below 1 with a combination of vaccination and other measures, including entry testing, weekly surveillance testing for unvaccinated students, and a mask mandate. 

Other universities feel that vaccination rates are high enough to avoid such measures.

Read more:

Diep, F. (2021). Vaccination Alone Isn’t Enough to Keep the Virus Under Control This Fall, One Small College Warns. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Equipping students to deal with uncertainty

Many in the educational sector, including myself, have contemplated the value of the information we’re imparting on students over the past year. As we migrated to primarily online settings in many places, we had to revisit curricular ideas, course formats and plans, and learning goals and outcomes for our students. I personally have been surprised how well small and individual coursework has been received by students, and feel the highly tailored and personalized settings and interactions to be ideal for fluidly reacting to the many external challenges and pressures faced by students. Together we have, regardless of course content, helped each other navigate turbulent times, filled with uncertainty.  

How do we better-equip ourselves and our students or mentees to deal with adversity and uncertain environments? No one has the right answer yet, it seems, but I came across two recent short essays which helped me start sharpening the way I’m asking myself these questions and thinking towards the future. 

Flateby, T. L. & Rose, T.A. (2021). From College to Career Success: How Educators and Employers Talk about Skills.

Even as we make curricula to non-discipline-specific learning outcomes for graduates such as the Association for American College and University’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, are we sure the outcomes we in academia create align to the expectations of the places graduates will work? Flateby and Rose (2021) describe early findings from a broader College to Career project, a small survey of line managers, which highlight gaps in graduates’ ability to think critically and communicate effectively:

Several managers observed that graduates need more experience exercising critical thinking skills throughout the curriculum and in more complex situations. Newer graduates often look for the “right” answer, the managers said, and provide employers with what they think they want to hear. Often, new graduates do not know how to proceed without direction.

For written communication, the line managers reported that newer graduates typically communicate in writing as though they are texting. Most of the written communication issues they identified pertained to a lack of audience awareness.

In response, Flateby and Rose suggest several immediate responses educators might take to address these issues in their assignments. 

But while assessing audience in writing may be easier to incorporate into assignments, “critical thinking” remains, despite an articulated VALUE rubric, a rather nebulous concept. 

Burke, T. (2021). An Unconvincing Argument for the Liberal Arts: We say we prepare students for undefined futures. Are they better for it? (NOTE: while this essay is freely-available, it is behind a “data wall” and one must provide one’s contact information to view it). 

Burke discusses how hard it is to put our educational fingers on what we are guiding our students to think critically about, particularly in uncertain times:

Our assumptions about how to teach to uncertainty are mostly unexplored, and the empirical evidence of whether we do so successfully is debatable. To the degree that we are successful, we don’t really know why. Arguably, the capacity to navigate uncertainty has less to do with student learning than with the social capital and economic resources available to our graduates. This is where “preparation for uncertainty” lives alongside other reassuring concepts like “resilience,” “emotional intelligence,” or “grit.” These concepts may not be measuring teachable skills or habits of mind so much as access to money and social networks. Dealing with rapidly changing conditions is much easier if your parents can help with the rent or if you know someone who can get you in the door in a new line of work after your current gig closes down.

Many of us would answer “critical thinking” (which may be an equally leaky terminological boat). We’d likely assert that critical thinking suffuses our institutions in such a way that their graduates learn to view the world around them skeptically and provisionally, and that this in turn prepares them to adapt rapidly to changing economic and social conditions (and to help lead or direct processes of change for others). The major problem with this answer is that any curricular structure, any pedagogy, can likely and perhaps justifiably claim to be producing critical thinking and hence to be preparation for uncertainty. It’s so truistic and underspecified that it’s hard to be satisfied with it as an answer. Possibly, we could decompose “critical thinking” to far more specific epistemological and methodological commitments in various academic disciplines: the scientific method, thought experiments, close reading, etc., and get a better account of how to teach skepticism, provisional truth-making, and so on. Possibly.

Read Burke’s concluding thoughts about this topic, and read them again, particularly the entire last paragraph of his essay. His contemplation don’t provide a clear pathway towards the future, but they do crystalize some thoughts many of us in the educational sector have been considering these past few months:

Inhabiting the foundational uncertainty of the universe is one of the deepest challenges of human life. If we have insight into that, good. If we don’t, let’s work to develop that insight. But we mustn’t confuse this work with the drive to normalize the insecurity of our present moment. Our educational job there is different: We must teach our students to reject that project entirely.

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TIB Germany Launching Open Journal and Conference Services

TIB Open Publishing reaches a new stage in its development. Read more:

Tullney, M. (2021). TIB becomes Major Development Partner of the Public Knowledge Project (PKP).

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Visionary Institutional Action at some Universities Overcomes Paralysis

Aaron E. Carroll, Professor of Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, describes how some higher education institutions who reacted to the pandemic in a visionary manner have continued operations and created models for others to follow, allowing community members to continue living their lives despite the pandemic and producing results which could be implemented by others.

Carroll, A. E. (2021). The Colleges That Took the Pandemic Seriously. The Atlantic.

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Reinventing the Knowledge Workplace as Situations Change

Alison Mudditt, CEO of PLOS, summarizes her experiences in the workplace over the past year, and provides her thoughts about how knowledge workplaces will continue to evolve.

Mudditt, A. (2021). Emerging from the Pandemic: The Future of Work is Now. Scholarly Kitchen.

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Equitable Open Science

A brief summary of the dynamics of openness in the scholarly endeavor, with a reminder about the broader picture:

[W]e must be especially sensitive to the ways in which open science policies may actually worsen existing inequalities, and make efforts to mitigate these effects.

Read more:

Ross-Hellauer, T., Fessl, A., & Klebel, T. (29 December 2020). Can We Have Open Science Where No Scholar Is Left Behind? Social Science Space.


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Bumpy Reopenings

As the first universities open for “post-corona” business in the U.S., the first campus reopenings have been less than smooth rides. This week, Ohio State University took action against more than 200 students for violating gathering rules, and they are not alone:

In New York, Syracuse University announced last week it had issued 23 interim suspensions to students who violated its COVID-19 safety requirements. The president of St. Olaf College in Minnesota said 17 students who participated in an off-campus party are suspended for the fall semester. Purdue University in Indiana also suspended 36 students for partying.

And officials at other schools, including the University of Miami and the University of Connecticut, say they have revoked housing for students who have violated public health guidance.

How to balance the urge for young people to gather and feel “free” with virus-related restrictions? This question appears not yet to have an answer, not just in higher education environments.

Read more:

United National Population Fund. (2020). Adolescents and Young People & Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Preparedness and Response UNFPA Interim Technical Brief

Treisman, R. (2020). More Than 200 Ohio State University Students Suspended For Violating Pandemic Rules

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Three Scenarios for Higher Education Later in 2020

Bryan Alexander has drafted a thought piece outlining three possible scenarios for higher education operations in late 2020 with some caveats:

…in this post I am exploring future possibilities.  I am not endorsing any particular analysis, political party, or course of action.  I am also not assessing relative likelihood of these scenarios.

My primary target is United States academia, because of circumstances.  Yet I think what follows can be applied to most nations, with some tweaking depending on local circumstances.

The comments (though not numerous) are worth reading, and the piece may be useful for those contemplating possible steps forward for their institutions as the current crisis unfolds in different contexts.

Alexander, B. (2020). Higher education in fall 2020: three pandemic scenarios.

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A Test in Reproducibility

During his time as Editor-in-Chief for Molecular Brain, Fujita Health University’s Tsuyoshi Miyakawa made requests for raw data for 41 papers marked for revision prior to publication, and the majority of authors failed to respond to this request (in fact, only one article from this 41-article set was eventually accepted for publication). This experience prompted Miyakawa to pen an essay entitled “No raw data, no science: another possible source of the reproducibility crisis” and to call for journals to include raw data requests as part of their editorial process, describing his journal’s new policy for datasets:

I propose that all journals should, in principle, try their best to have authors and institutions make their raw data open in a public database or on a journal web site upon the publication of the paper, in order to increase the reproducibility of published results and to strengthen public trust in science. Currently, the data sharing policy of Molecular Brain only ‘encourages’ all datasets on which the conclusions of the manuscript rely to be either deposited in publicly available repositories (where available and appropriate) or presented in the main paper or additional supporting files, in machine-readable format (such as spread sheets rather than PDFs) whenever possible. Building on our existing policy, we will require, in principle, deposition of the datasets on which the conclusions of the manuscript rely from 1 March 2020. Such datasets include quantified numerical values used for statistical analyses and graphs, images of tissue staining, and uncropped images of all blot and gel results.

In my own recent experience with journal editing, I can say that having the ability to access underlying data for any study would provide me with more confidence when considering the results discussed in a paper, regardless of discipline.

Miyakawa does recognize the need for more robust data infrastructures for supporting raw data provision by authors and calls for better infrastructures for this:

…institutions, funding agencies, and publishers should cooperate and try to support such a move by establishing data storage infrastructure to enable the securing and sharing of raw data, based on the understanding that ‘no raw data, no science.’

Read more:

Miyakawa, T. No raw data, no science: another possible source of the reproducibility crisis. Mol Brain 13, 24 (2020).

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