Post from Elisabeth Gareis: Benchmark-Milestone-Capstone

The following is a post from Elisabeth Gareis, Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies at Baruch College. She can be reached at

Critical Thinking-Benchmark Level 1: “Specific position is stated, but is simplistic and obvious.”

Critical Thinking-Capstone Level 4: “Specific position is imaginative, taking into account the complexities of an issue. Limits of position are acknowledged. Others’ points of view are synthesized within position.”

These quotes are the AACU Critical Thinking VALUE Rubric, one of 15 AACU rubrics, designed to measure learning outcomes in higher education ( I recently participated in calibration scoring of three rubrics. The assignment was to score nine student essays, about three pages each. The allotted time for the nine samples was 4 hours.

The essays in the Level 3-4 range were all excellent. I have to admit that most of my students couldn’t compete. A current student, for example (let’s call him Joaquin) submitted a paper last week that was so elementary, it would have received zeros or ones on the critical-thinking as well as other rubrics (including written communication). Turns out the student arrived in the United States from Latin America at age 12 and, according to him, ³never really learned how to write.²

Scoring the rubrics reminded me of the results of a study on learning outcomes in higher education. The study ( showed that more than a third of students in the United States show no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication skills-even after four years of college.

I know we could help students like Joaquin, but would need time. Time to diagnose, work with him on multiple drafts, and provide individualized feedback. Standardized rubrics could help students and instructors keep the eye on the prize. At 28 students per class and as many as four classes per semester, however, the 27-minute allotment of the AACU for one paper would amount to more than 50 hours of reading and scoring alone. And that’s just the first draft of the paper.

To be effective, I believe this level of diligence is required. But the current course load conditions at the College make it impossible to do justice to it all: our students, scholarship, and service. The faculty at Baruch is exceptionally devoted. With decent workloads, we could make a true difference in our students’ lives . . . and raise Baruch’s national ranking in the process.

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On traditional learning methods

On January 20th, two articles in the popular press reported new brain research that suggests certain benefits of note-taking by hand and taking tests.

  1. Write it don’t type it if you want knowledge to stick: Children and students who write by hand learn better than those who type, a study shows” by Richard Alleyne, The Telegraph, 20-Jan-2011.  (The print edition used a different title: “The pen is mightier than the keyboard as a teaching aid”.)
  2. To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test: Test-taking actually helps people learn, and it works better than repeated studying, according to new research” by P. Belluck, New York Times, 20-Jan-2011.

Of interest?

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Mobile Technology in the Classroom

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on popular ways to use mobile technology in the classroom.  The information for the article itself was “crowdsourced” through Twitter.  Do you use mobile technology in the classroom?

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So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?


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Quote of the Day

On notebook computers in the classroom:

Devices have become security blankets. Take the time to wean yourself. …  [L]eave the laptop behind.  In a lecture, you’ll only waste your time and your parents’ money, disrespect your professor and annoy whoever is trying to pay attention around you by spending the whole hour on Facebook.  You don’t need a computer to take notes—good note-taking is not transcribing. All that clack, clack, clacking … you’re a student, not a court reporter.  And in seminar or discussion sections, get used to being around a table with a dozen other humans, a few books and your ideas.  After all, you have the rest of your life to hide behind a screen during meetings.

—Christine Smallwood (source: “Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend,”  NY Times, 26-Sep-2010, p. WK12).

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Academic Integrity in the Times

I’m certain many of you saw this: the New York Times ran four pieces on academic integrity in the last 30 days.  Interesting reading.  I especially recommend Alfie Kohn’s comments in the second article.

1. “To Stop Cheats, Colleges Learn Their Trickery,” by T. Gabriel, NY Times, July 5, 2010.

For educators uncomfortable in the role of anti-cheating enforcer, an online tutorial in plagiarism may prove an elegantly simple technological fix.

That was the finding of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in January. Students at an unnamed selective college who completed a Web tutorial were shown to plagiarize two-thirds less than students who did not. (The study also found that plagiarism was concentrated among students with lower SAT scores.)

The tutorial “had an outsize impact,” said Thomas S. Dee, a co-author, who is now an economist at the University of Virginia.

“Many instructors don’t want to create this kind of adversarial environment with their students where there is a presumption of guilt,” Dr. Dee said. “Our results suggest a tutorial worked by educating students rather than by frightening them.”

2. “Room for Debate: When Did Cheating Become an Epidemic?” by M. Bauerlein, A. Kohn, A. Daines, M. Pease, NY Times, July 12, 2010.

Alfie Kohn asks,

Rather than counting the number of students who cheat, or figuring out how to catch (or deter) them, I’d prefer to ask two questions that rarely figure in these discussions: What kinds of teaching elicit cheating? And what assumptions and values lead us to define some acts as cheating in the first place?

By the way, I recommend Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

3. “Cutting and Pasting: A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name)” by B. Staples, NY Times, July 12, 2010.

This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.

4. “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age” by T. Gabriel, NY Times, August 1, 2010.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students—who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking—understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

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Thinking about presentation software

Did you notice that a software alternative to MS PowerPoint and Apple Keynote emerged from this year’s student presentations? It’s called Prezi ( If you haven’t seen it, the idea is this: instead of thinking in terms of slides, imagine arranging all your presentation information on a large canvas as you might on a white board. Then instruct the software how to zoom in and out of various regions of that canvas in a way that complements the story you want to tell.

An illustrative example is on the Prezi website; another is James Geary’s 2009 T.E.D. presentation, though so far the best I’ve seen so far comes from our students. Prezi is web-based and free if your file size is 500MB or smaller (due to a special offer for students and teachers) and was recently reviewed in the NY Times and an blog.

What does Edward Tufte say about the cognitive style of Prezi? Is it indeed more intuitive? Is it a fad? How does one create a traditional slide deck for clients? I don’t know.


Speaking of presentation software, did you see that there are now apps to control PowerPoint and Keynote remotely from your iPhone? Even though I already use a USB remote control, I am experimenting with the iPhone Keynote Remote right now. All one needs is an iPhone and computer on the same wireless network. Hold the iPhone horizontally (in landscape orientation) and you’ll see the current and next slides side by side, though most text is too small to read. Hold the iPhone vertically and you’ll see the current slide and notes.  Swipe your finger to advance slides. My hope is that this $0.99 app will buy more eye contact with students and less looking over my shoulder.

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Much has been said about diversity at Baruch: From that we are the most diverse college in the United States . . . to that we don’t make maximal use of our diversity.

This semester, several students in my classes made poignant comments about integration. The first student (as part of a class presentation) recounted her freshman experience. Prior to the first day of classes, she had been very much looking forward to meeting many new people at Baruch and making friends. But the minute she set foot on campus, she said, she knew that it was not going to happen.

Another students wrote as part of a reflective essay on intercultural friendship: “As a student of Baruch College for the past two years, I have not made many friends. And for the few friends I have made, none of them are outside my own culture, which is a white American. This is not because I do not want friends outside my own culture; actually having friends from other cultures would be exciting for me. I feel that lack of communication and building of friendships between cultural groups at Baruch is absurd. This is a matter that has actually always bothered me since I started attending Baruch College. It seems to be that there is a tendency for students at Baruch to stay within their own cultural boundaries. . . . I would really like to see some change at Baruch regarding this matter. I feel it is of high importance and would make the school itself more appealing to the general public and surrounding communities.”

Finally, a third student commented about being gay at Baruch: “The whole topic of being gay for a young person in these classes is difficult because they have to matriculate through their four years with their fellow students, and if it’s only a small part of their identity, it would be a shame for them to be seen first as gay. . . I would not be comfortable having people gossiping about me for four years. It is odd to me that I even feel this way considering how normal gay is to me in my ‘real’ life and how omnipresent it is the pop culture. . . . I believe that many gay people who are asking for equal rights feel they are on a similar track of where black people were in the 60s.”

He later asked me whether we, as educators at Baruch, are trained at this topic. Maybe we should start thinking about such training? Or a discussion or workshop series of how to assist students in their integration efforts? Any thoughts?

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[Your Subject] Knowledge for Teaching

Many of us who teach have had this experience: We work hard to explain to our students something that we understand well. We try to use intuition, analogies, examples, multiple methods, asking and answering questions, group exercises—the stuff of pedagogical knowledge. We are rewarded with students who feel that they understand. But when our students try to solve problems themselves, many make mistakes which reveal that they, in fact, didn’t understand. We correct their mistakes, explaining the right logic. But some students make the same mistakes again and again.

Through years of work and after much frustration, we teachers learn students’ common errors and the logic of those errors. We learn to stave the errors off—or use them as teaching moments. With our students, w go through each stage in their logic to find and explain the flaws.

This knowledge of the thinking behind their errors is not the content of our subject. Nor is it classic pedagogy. Most of us learn how our students misunderstand unsystematically and almost by accident. Some of us may systematically take stock of and analyze students’ mistakes to understand them. But in my experience few professors think of this as systematic knowledge and fewer yet have a name for it. I certainly did not.

Then a few weeks ago I read a New York Times magazine article, “Building a Better Teacher.” Researchers in elementary school math pedagogy, particularly Deborah Ball of the University of Michigan, have coined the term “Mathematics Knowledge for Teaching”. Here is how the article describes it:

“It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able to understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it… This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge.”

The concept of mathematics knowledge for teaching is much broader than simply understanding misunderstandings. But I think that this sub-component is particularly valuable and something that we in higher education should embrace.

I’m sure some of you are already thinking that there is already a literature in subject-specific teaching in higher education. I have certainly seen and found valuable materials on the teaching of microeconomics and of statistics, two of the subjects that I teach. But in my experience, such materials combine content and pedagogy; they generally do not focus on understanding students’ misunderstandings.

The most efficient way to work on this is for instructors that teach the same subjects to collaborate, compare notes and so on. One semester, my colleague Gregg Van Ryzin and I both taught research methods with the same materials. Each week, we met to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We focused on the what, why and how of our students’ confusion. Our teaching and teaching materials improved substantially.

Unfortunately, I am still taking baby steps with such efforts. The real professionals know how to do this well. I learned recently about the work of Steve Hinds and others working on in developmental math in CUNY. Their work in general is described in “More Than Rules: College Transition Math Teaching for GED Graduates at the City University of New York”. What struck me most is how they work: all instructors collaborate on developing the materials but whatever the differences of opinion, everyone teaches with the same detailed materials, including in-class exercises, approaches for introducing topics and so on. Then all instructors describe their experiences: what worked, what didn’t, why and how. Collectively, they then work to improve student learning. This method, like the faculty inquiry groups Mary Taylor Huber has described, are very different from most of our experiences teaching in higher education.

What subject-specific student misunderstandings have you learned about? How has such knowledge helped your teaching? Do you and other professors who teach the same course regularly debrief?

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Announcement: Formation of Faculty Inquiry Group on Teaching Professional Writing

Faculty members interested in teaching different approaches to professional and workplace writing are invited to a meeting at the CUNY Graduate Center to establish a cross-disciplinary, cross-campus forum or “faculty inquiry group” focused on the unique challenges and opportunities of this effort.

DATE: Friday, April 23, 2010
TIME: 12-30 pm – 2:30 pm (Lunch will be served)
LOCATION: CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
219 West 40th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues)
Room 301

While there is ample evidence that students struggle with writing academic papers, many of us are also keenly aware of the special demands posed by workplace writing. Being able to complete workplace or professional documents usually requires knowledge of specific narrative conventions, formatting rules, and reasoning sequences-often taken-for-granted in various fields. In order to enter this very competitive job market, our new graduates are expected to hit the ground running and be competent in these writing styles. Emerging work on pedagogies of professional writing is laying some of the groundwork for addressing this gap in academic and career preparation. We hope that by bringing together faculty from a range of professional and academic fields, we can create a collaborative forum for sharing teaching approaches and piloting and identifying best practices to help students master these critical skills.

This effort is being led by Bonnie Oglensky, Associate Professor in the Social Work Program at York College. She has collaborated with colleagues on an approach to psychosocial assessment writing in social work called “Writing in the Field.” If you have questions about the upcoming meeting and the creation of this forum Bonnie can be reached by phone, 718-262-2612, or email:

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