Monday, October 31, 2016

Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching

We know from a vast amount of psychology literature that people are chock-full of biases, which impact our judgments and behaviors. For example, gamblers use both winning streaks and past losses to support the likelihood of future winnings, despite the laws of probability that contradict both theories. People may, for safety reasons, choose to drive rather than fly despite the greater preponderance of lethal car crashes than plane crashes. In making decisions about with whom to associate, people tend to deem out-group members to be more similar to one another than in-group members. The list goes on and on. 

A study released earlier this year suggests the importance of being wary of such limitations and biases as they play out in classroom settings. Researchers analyzed five years’ worth of student evaluations of teaching (SET) from thousands of students about hundreds of instructors at a French university. They also applied rigorous analyses to the data from a 2014 study that looked at SETs from an American online course in which the students were, depending on which group they were randomly assigned to, told the instructor’s gender (which was only sometimes true). Interestingly, there was no statistically significant correlation found between SETs and actual student performance on anonymously graded finals. There was a statistically significant finding, though: male instructors, or those perceived to be male, were rated more highly than female instructors.

Another interesting finding emerged in the comparison of French and American data. Among the French students, it was primarily males who tended to rate the male instructors more highly than the female instructors. Among the American students, it was primarily the females who rated the male instructors more highly. Consistent across both countries, though, were the overall relatively low ratings of female instructors, regardless of student achievement. While there is certainly room for subjectivity in evaluating teaching aspects such as enthusiasm and fairness, even what should be a much more objective measure— promptness— was found to be subject to bias. Despite taking the same amount of time to return assignments, the female instructors were rated as being significantly less prompt than the male instructors. This highlights the concerning extent to which biases can color perceptions

The conversation about gender bias in education is not new. However, much of the research done has focused on teacher biases as they relate to, and impact, students. Now we see that it is a bi-directional issue. As in all contexts, it is important to identify and be aware of biases as a first step in minimizing them or guarding against their being accepted as unquestionable truths.

The question of what may be a better, or the best, means of evaluating teacher effectiveness is an important one. This continues to be debated and opinions will continue to shift as new information comes to light. For example, the finding reported earlier this year that erroneous scores were used to link student performance to teachers has raised some eyebrows higher over one particular method. Finding an A+ means of grading teachers is certainly not easy. It is a worthy pursuit for continued exploration, but in the meantime, teachers should focus on using the best methods at their disposal for bringing out the best in their students.

Despite the many impressive things our minds allow us to do, clearly people are far from perfect in forming assessments.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Doodling and Visual Note-Taking

As far back as your blogger can remember, drawing in class has been a big no-no, often resulting in a stern “talking to” after class. Even today, kids often have to get special permission from the school psychologist or learning specialist to be allowed to scribble away during lessons. What that special permission has taught us, though, is that allowing a child (or adult) to make pictures while attending to a lecture can help her focus and stay tuned in. So why not harness that power and take it up a notch? That’s exactly what Sunni Brown and Rachel Smith, two TED speakers, are hoping we’ll all start asking ourselves next time we’re sitting in history class or attending a board meeting. 

Brown and Smith, in separate TED and TEDx speeches, described and demonstrated the practice of visual note-taking, or doodling with purpose. For the most part, we’ve always relied on using the alphabet to take notes. Unfortunately, even the fastest young writers can’t capture everything a teacher says, nor should they. A previous blog post has already explored the ways in which verbatim note-taking cuts out the requirement for comprehension and synthesis during class, allowing students to record their instructors without absorbing what is being said. For many, taking notes by hand, using the alphabet, is a great system that gets them where they need to be. For others, though, it just doesn’t cut it. That’s where doodling can help.

Brown defines doodling as the process of making spontaneous marks to help yourself think. She heralds it as a preemptive measure to stop yourself from losing focus. Lots of us have small habits that help keep us focused – tapping our feet, twisting a rubber band, or doodling, for example. By expanding our doodles into basic iconography, we can use the habit to increase our comprehension and retention of lectures or meetings. According to Brown, the reason doodling works so well is because it combines visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthesia, the four modalities of sensory input in school, with emotion and context. That key piece – adding context with personal significance – is what leads to good learning.

                                                                          Illustration by Austin Kleon via flickr cc
Smith gets more into the nitty-gritty of how we can adapt doodles into note-taking. Doodling is freer than writing, and allows you to see the big picture displayed across a page. By looking at the page as a canvas rather than a series of sequential lines, we can draw-quite literally-connections between pieces of information that come up at different times. Most importantly, drawing what you hear requires you to listen to and to understand what’s being said, so that you can translate it into your own system of icons. Doodling allows you to capture what you’re hearing in a way that’s relevant to you, and Smith advocates doing so with a personal set of icons that can be tweaked depending on the circumstance.

There are three steps to start your doodling-as-note-taking endeavor. First, pick a tool. This may be a notebook, a pencil, a thin marker, a set of colored pens, or a tablet with a drawing app. Second, develop a few basic icons. Trying to come up with your icons while you’re doodling during a lecture is like trying to develop a new language while writing – it takes 100% of your attention. It’s best to figure a few out beforehand and practice using and adjusting them over time. Third, focus on capturing the speaker’s main points. You can always add details later to capture the smaller pieces of information, and seeing your icons will aid your recall of these details. Smith’s final piece of advice – don’t get sucked into the drawing. Focus on listening and using your icons. Nobody needs to understand your drawings except you.

I took a shot at some visual note-taking based on these two TED talks, using the starter icon Smith taught her audience. My drawing skills have always been wanting, but when I look back at the notes I took, the pieces fit together. The doodles I made do a good job reminding me of the information because I had to really engage myself in the process of creating them.

For more information about visual note-taking, check out these websites:

Friday, October 21, 2016

Teen Diet Recommendations Have Lost Some Weight

Our colleagues at The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have some updated recommendations for promoting healthy eating habits in adolescents. Based on a review of studies looking at adolescent obesity and eating disorders, the recommendations include that family discussions focus not on weight loss but rather on generally healthy behaviors, such as exercising and eating nutritious foods. Research suggests that parents’ comments about their own weight or that of their teenage children, even if encouraging, tend to be counterproductive. Such comments actually increase the likelihood of the adolescents gaining an unhealthy amount of weight or developing eating disorders. The AAP report also notes that dieting tends not to work, with efforts to restrict caloric intake leading to binge eating and, ultimately, weight gain.

With the prevalence of obesity and eating disorders having increased in the past few decades, efforts geared toward their prevention are as important as ever. Both types of conditions are associated with medical complications as well as psychosocial challenges, i.e., certainly counter to our goal of having happy, healthy students who are optimally available for learning. Parents with the best intentions, who may be inclined to encourage their teens to lose weight, may be wise to heed the AAP advice and shift focus from the numbers on the scale.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

FCRR Resources and Materials for Elementary Teachers

Teaching reading, especially to large classes of students who all come to school at different levels with a diverse range of exposure to literacy, is one of the most challenging parts of an early childhood educator’s job. Finding materials that can be adapted to work in your unique classroom can be difficult. Not all programs are created equal; it’s hard to judge the worth of many instructional resources because most don’t come with extensive research reviews explaining the benefits, or lack thereof. Luckily, The Florida Center for Reading Research has been working for decades to build up an impressive library of resources for teachers of students from pre-school through fifth grade. All of their materials were developed with the intent of bringing the findings from research on reading instruction into the classroom. Their website includes materials for teachers as well as innumerable downloadable printables to be used with students.

One of the best features of the FCRR website is the section Empowering Teachers, which aims to help teachers make “sound instructional decisions to improve reading outcomes.” There are layers upon layers of information, including an extensive overview of what skills are necessary for early readers and how teachers can work on those skills in the classroom. There’s even detailed guidance regarding how to differentiate instruction for diverse learners in a large class setting. Teachers can also find basic tutorials for using progress monitoring assessments and planning in-class interventions.

When your blogger was tasked with providing a reading intervention for a first grader who hadn’t yet mastered his phonics skills, I relied heavily on the activities on the FCRR website. There’s even a set of professional development videos to help new users get started with the instructional materials. There are so many different types of tasks from which to choose, it was hard for my student to get bored before I switched to the next activity. One of his favorite activities was sorting pictures of familiar objects and animals into different jars based on the sounds at the beginning of the word. Building up my binder of activities did take a lot of time initially, but you only need one set of materials to use with many children. If the materials are laminated, they can last for years.

The FCRR website includes all their resources for free as well as additional information about ongoing research and projects with which you can get involved. It’s a truly invaluable set of research-backed instructional materials for teachers at the elementary level.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Teen Driver Safety Week

It sometimes seems like there are "weeks" or "days" for all sorts of things, most of them them the creation of some marketing mind trying to get attention for a product or event. But this week's commemoration of Teen Driver Safety Week is one event that no parent should ignore. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. To put the issue in context, the CDC provides the following statistics: In 2014, 2,270 teens in the United States ages 16–19 were killed and 221,313 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes; six teens ages 16–19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries.

In 2013, young people ages 15-19 represented only 7% of the U.S. population. However, they accounted for 11% ($10 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration focuses on five most significant risks when teens are at the wheel, and has created a "5 to Drive" campaign to address these: 
  • alcohol use
  • not wearing seat belts
  • distracted driving
  • speeding 
  • extra passengers, especially other teens
There are a number of steps parents can take to reduce the risks when their teens drive. Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have looked at the risk factors noted above and add a few of their own: nighttime driving, driving older vehicles, driving by teens who do not have a license, and unmedicated ADHD. They propose solutions which involve both parents and teens, including graduated driving laws, restrictions on nighttime driving and carrying passengers, and zero tolerance for alcohol use by teen drivers. 
Both the AAP and the American Automobile Association urge parents of teen drivers to consider entering into a contract with their children, first discussing the many factors that impact safe driving and then coming to an agreement about how and when their child should be operating a motor vehicle and what the consequences will be for any infractions. The AAP also offers links to information for parents about their role in safe teen driving and to clear, colorful charts (good for sharing with your teen) showing how different risk factors can affect teen driving safety.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Exercise Continues to Top the List of Learning Strategies

Memory and exercise have come up plenty of times in our work with students here at The Yellin Center, and we’ve written about them quite a bit, too. Only recently, though, have studies begun investigating the ways that exercise can help jump-start the parts of your brain that make memorization of academic material more achievable. Back in 2012 we reviewed research that debunked the myth of the “brain training” apps, which unfortunately continue to be popular among folks who want to improve their cognitive functioning. Since then, we’ve always been on the lookout for evidence-based strategies that can really make an impact on how kids and adults learn. Exercise began popping up more and more often as a crucial part of keeping our bodies, our brains, and our minds healthy, and it was only a matter of time before researchers started to look more closely at the relationship between movement and learning. Over the last few months we’ve seen a lot of research pointing to the positive effect of exercise on memory.

Exercising after studying, for example, can increase your test scores on an exam taken the next day. Light yoga combined with meditation improves communication in the parts of your brain concerned with memory and attention. Participating in moderate exercise four times a week can boost scores on a standardized memory test. Even exercising lightly while you’re learning new information can help you encode, or store, that information for later use. It’s not yet clear exactly how exercise leads to improved memory and attention, but at least one study found that moderate exercise leads to neurogenesis, or the growth of brain cells in the parts of your brain that deal with memory. Light activity, rather than an intense workout, may stimulate your brain just enough to prime it for learning.
We already know that exercise is important for keeping our bodies and minds healthy, but now we have an even better reason to get in those weekly 150 minutes – it’s one more evidence-based strategy for helping students learn new information. So what do we do with all this great data? Here are a few suggestions for incorporating some real-world “brain training” into your schedule:
  • Find a movement that’s fun for you, such as walking with friends through the park, riding your bike, or skateboarding.
  • Take movement breaks while you’re learning something new or studying for an exam. A five minute dance party is sure to get your blood pumping.
  • Don’t shy away from moving during learning, either. A treadmill or stationary bicycle with a book stand might work for some, while listening to material with headphones while jogging, riding a bike, or taking a brisk walk could be more enjoyable for others. When outside, always keep the volume at a level where you can still hear what’s going on around you.
  • Make the most of gym class and recess, and don’t worry so much about improving specific athletic skills. Spend the time running around and having fun. 
  • Combine movement with mindfulness, meditation, or light yoga. Focusing on our own minds and sitting with our thoughts and feelings can help us get the most out of movement. 
  • Keep it up! Finding activities that are enjoyable now will help kids stay active and healthy as they grow.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Choosing the College that Fits

The school year is well underway and high school seniors are busily considering the next stage of their lives. That means it’s time for them to think hard about where they want to be next fall. We’ve written in the past about the value of a college education, when to start planning for college, and how to navigate the world of FAFSA and student aid. Today we’re going to take a slightly different angle and consider the biggest question of all – how do I choose the school that’s right for me? Is there even such a thing as a “good school” or is it just a “good fit”? So much of our work here at The Yellin Center focuses on matching a learning environment to each individual student’s needs. The post-high school years are no different; every student has unique needs and expectations when it comes to higher education. 

There are a few questions every student needs to ask her- or himself before setting off on the four-year journey to a bachelor’s degree. First and foremost, we should take some time to reflect on who we are as individuals and why we’re going to college in the first place. If the first answer that comes to mind is “I have to go to college to get a job that pays well and offers stability” that’s fine, but put that thought on the back burner for just a moment. What else do you want to get out of your education? What else would you like to experience or accomplish? Perhaps there’s a particular area of study you want to explore, or a big project you’d like to become involved in. Different universities and colleges offer very different experiences. For example, your blogger chose to attend a small women’s college with no sororities, a very active student government, and a deliberate focus on developing engaged citizens. This was after spending my freshman year at a large public university with strong Greek life, huge lectures, and a focus on research. Neither campus was better than the other, but it was clear which was right for my individual needs and aspirations.

Another question to ask yourself is who you want to surround yourself with. Research has shown that classrooms full of people from all different backgrounds do more to push their students to higher levels of thinking. That means that the most comfortable campus isn’t always the one where we’ll thrive the most. Ask yourself how you feel about entering a situation where you’re forced to think differently and form bonds with people from different cultural backgrounds, races, faiths, and political ideologies. How does a specific school stand up to our expectations of diversity? On the other hand, some of us really benefit from the comfort of being close to home, surrounded by other students in similar situations. Do you feel that you would benefit more from engaging deeply in a community you’ve grown to love, such as what you might find at a local school or community college? Or do you want to dive head first into the unfamiliar and challenge yourself to see the world from a different perspective? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. Take a few moments to consider your own limitations, aspirations, and expectations.

After considering these questions, it’s important to take into consideration the preconceived biases we already have about colleges and universities. First and foremost, we need to fight the inclination we have to equate the relationship between a school’s “ranking” and the quality of education we can get from a school. Instead of relying on one publication’s ranking system, decide what’s most important to you and build your own ranking system based on those criteria. Another resource that may lead you to schools you had not considered is your high school guidance counselor. Connect with current and former students of colleges you’re interested in to get a feel for the rigor of the classes, the nature of the instructors, and anything else that you have deemed important. And remember – you can build a challenging, rigorous course load at any school. It’s more important to find a campus that offers the types of classes you want to take and a variety of degree tracks you’re interested in. It’s normal and expected to explore a few different paths before choosing a major, so try not to lock yourself into a school that doesn’t provide wiggle room for exploration outside of what you think you want to do. We’re not the same people at age 18 as we are at age 20, so we can’t expect to stick to a plan we made our senior year of high school. 

After reflecting on your needs and considering the academics, look into the available extracurricular activities and clubs. When you’re not studying, how do you want to spend your time? What campus activities would you find most rewarding? Is it important that there’s studio space on campus? What about research opportunities or professional organizations? Again, the best source of information is often current students. The college website is a good starting point for information, but you won’t really know a place until you’ve heard first-hand accounts. You don’t have to visit every school you’re interested in, but make sure your top few contenders are on your schedule.

Finally, consider any special needs you might have, like accessibility issues, a learning disability, or ADHD, that interferes with your learning. If you make use of testing accommodations, or class modifications like recording lectures or receiving a copy of the notes, make sure to contact the school’s office for students with disabilities to get a sense of how effectively they operate and how supportive they are of student needs. Don’t stop there, though. Reach out to students and instructors to get their take on these issues as well. Some campuses are more open and supportive than others. For more information on navigating life after high school with a disability, check out the book by Susan Yellin, Esq., the Director of Advocacy and Transition Services here at The Yellin Center.

Picking a college or university that fits your needs takes some time and willingness to explore, but it’s well worth it. All those little details add together to make up some of the most rewarding years of your life.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rethinking How College Students Take Notes

Over my five years of teaching undergraduates at The City University of New York campuses, your blogger noticed a growing trend of students relying on their computers during class and, later, their tablets and even smartphones. My students were using these devices to do everything from take notes and view readings to play Candy Crush and make weekend plans. Some of my highest-achieving students were quietly texting or gaming under their desks, while some of my struggling students were rushing to type down every word I said; there didn’t seem to be a real pattern to how device usage related to student grades or engagement in discussions. 

After discussing the topic with my students and exploring the research, I decided to implement a no-device policy. Their one saving grace was a mid-class “tech fix” that I allowed – a few minutes in the middle of class when students could check their phones and “check out” as a way to relax and refocus. Without this break, students’ device “withdrawal” may get the better of them when they’re trying their best to pay attention. If college grads are going to be expected to use computers for almost all tasks once they enter the work force, why did I decide to go back to the old-fashioned pen (or pencil!) and paper policy? The answer was clear and simple – Evidence-Based Research. There’s a lot of research out there about the way millennials engage with their devices and how tech use influences grades, happiness, relationships, and sleep. There are even university departments completely devoted to studying the relationship between people and their technology.

So how does technology play a role in college students’ learning? For starters, students who take notes on paper have the upper hand when it comes to test performance. This may seem counter intuitive – if we take notes on a computer we can capture so much more of what the instructor is saying, right? This may be true, but if we’re just blindly typing every word we hear without processing the information, we don’t have to summarize or paraphrase the concepts in our heads. When we take notes by hand, we’re forced to process all that information and be selective about what we want to write down. This helps us learn the material by focusing in on what’s important and how the concepts relate to one another. No matter how many times I reminded my students that all my slides were available online, a significant number insisted on trying to re-type everything I said – no easy feat given my rate of speech! When I took away their ability to use a keyboard, I nudged them towards developing effective note-taking skills. When I checked in with my class a few weeks after instating the policy, I got only positive feedback. The take-home message here: put away the laptop and immerse yourself in the lecture while jotting down only the most important, inter-related points. You can always audio-record the session or use a Livescribe Smartpen  if you’re worried about missing information.

Photo credit: Luke Jones: flickr cc