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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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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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Creating and Integrating Videos in the Classroom

At Baruch College’s March 26 “13th annual Teaching and Technology Conference” I led a session with the same name as this blog post. I’d like to share the basis of that talk for those with interest.

Disclaimer: When it comes to digital video, I am not the fountain of all knowledge. There are people all over CUNY (and NYU) doing rather innovative things with video—some of whom I had the pleasure of meeting in my talk. That said, technological innovations have made it so easy to weave video into a lecture that the question is shifting from whether you should adopt video to how you should do so. All you need is a $150 digital camera with a movie mode, namely, any camera on the market.  Your iPhone works great too.

Background: In my subject (operations management, a discipline that combines management, economics, statistics and engineering) video can demonstrate complex ideas in large lectures that are difficult to get across in words.  There also seems to be a growing understanding that large lectures benefit from small breaks and changes in the routine, video being an important option (e.g., see the paper here).

For now, I’m not talking about creating instructional video tutorials, but something relatively simpler. The focus is three types of video.

  1. Bringing the real world inside the lecture hall. I always carry a compact digital camera around NYC and shoot video and stills whenever I see something relevant to class: an interesting inventory system in a Soho retail store, the queueing system at Whole Foods, the supply chain strategy posted on the windows of American Apparel, etc. Students always sit up and listen when one shares these videos.  (Hint: it’s always better to ask first, film second.)
  2. Debriefing. My students also learn through games and simulations. I’ve started filming with my iPhone or compact digital camera to capture the students and their game boards as a game progresses. Lots and lots of little movie clips. I’ve begun interviewing during the games—like reality TV—to ask about the situations and choices students are making (one has to be careful to do so without distracting from their play). These efforts have added a level of richness and engagement to the post-game debriefing that I never anticipated.  (Hint: students seem a little less intimidated by an iPhone than a proper camera.)
  3. Improving presentation skills. I now film my students while they give project presentations. For their personal development, they view their presentation videos and give me a critique/reaction of what they saw. The  “iTunes U” is a good place to host such video, but more on this shortly.

Software: Regardless of shooting video clips and stills outside or inside the classroom, my favorite way to present these to a class is by uploading all the content to iPhoto and then dragging and dropping into Apple’s equivalent to PowerPoint called Keynote. Each still image gets its own slide, as does each video clip. It creates the modern equivalent of a slide show, except the slides that contain video play as movies. I prepare this on my Apple MacBook Pro notebook computer, close the computer, carry it to the classroom, open, plug into the overhead projector, and voilà… it’s that easy. (PC users: you can drag and drop stills and video into PowerPoint too.)

Sometimes I shoot a number of short videos that I want to stitch together to create a single video. In this case, Apple’s iMovie (part of the iLife software suite) is a good tool for the job. It’s relatively easy to use, and costs less than $100. PC users can do the same with Movie Maker, included free with Windows XP, Vista and 7.

What if you want students (or the world) to access the videos via the WWW? To restrict access only to students, the best option I’ve seen so far is “iTunes U,” which interfaces through Blackboard, and under the right settings, creates a place for your videos that only Blackboard course users can access (all users will need the free iTunes download). Contact Kevin Wolff in BCTC for details.  I like this option for student presentations. The students can see and critique their presentations in the safety of knowing that the rest of the world will not.

Public sharing options include Vimeo, Blip.TV, Flickr, YouTube, but you’ll need to be careful about obtaining consent of people pictured in your videos before posting to the web. Finally, if appropriate, consider BCTC’s video hosting options.

So… what are you doing with video?


Special thanks to Prof. Sara Rofofsky Marcus, Queensborough Community College for motivating this post, and to the folks in Baruch College Technology Center (BCTC) for the generous grant that allowed this.

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Multitasking, revisited

In my December 2 post I wondered about the appropriate role of mobile devices in the classroom. Since writing that column, I’ve discovered four relevant references that may influence one’s thinking on the issue.

1. PBS Frontline, “Digital Nation” (February 2, 2010, Season 28, Episode 3, What is the effect of media multitasking on society, education, brain development, and the economy? Interviews with researchers reveal what we now know about how badly the human brain multitasks and how some multitasking is impairing our ability to think deeply, even after the computer is turned off. In light of this research, the documentary challenges conventional wisdom about the role of technology in the classroom, yet perhaps most intriguing is the coverage of a Stanford study (see #2).

2. Ophir, Nass and Wagner, “Cognitive Control of Media Multitaskers” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009, vol. 106, no. 37). This study shows that students who think they are highly effective multitaskers are actually quite the opposite, or as Stanford’s Clifford Nass said in a BBC interview: “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.” See additional coverage in Wired Magazine and The Associated Press.

3. Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, 2008). Jackson is another who argues that despite the cultural acceptance of multitasking, such practices are undermining our own attention skills; she cites more scientific studies that suggest that we have become so distracted by multitasking that we are losing the ability to think deeply about problems. In a video interview posted on her website (, she asks,

What are the repercussions for a democracy when citizens are surrounded by information and are less and less capable of creating knowledge or learning from that information?

Jackson says that the average knowledge-based worker in the US now switches tasks every three minutes, and about half of these are interrupting. If you are wondering about the financial toll of all this multitasking and disruption, you may be interested in this…


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Thinking about large lectures

I’ve got a section of 120 students this semester. I’ve taught it before and always enjoy the group—there’s so much energy at 7:30 at night. Thinking about the class, I recently reread Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish’s “The ‘Change-Up’ in Lectures” (The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 1996, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 1-5), a refresher of tricks to make large lectures more engaging.  Perhaps you’ve seen it.

My favorite quote from the article is this:

One explanation for the lapses in students’ attention is that the “information transfer” model of the traditional lecture does not match what current cognitive science research tells us of how humans learn. Research tells us that the brain does not record information like a videocassette recorder.

The full text of the article is on the web:

In the original printed version there is also this sidebar of tricks:

Tricks include the well-known “think-pair-share.” Have you ever tried the so-called “kisses and crackers”?

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Creating Sustainable Leaders

An interesting article entitled “Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School” appeared in the New York Times this week. The article reports that, although business schools were found “too vocational” as far back as 1959, they are only now starting to change curricula. “Many of the changes are moving business schools into territory more traditionally associated with the liberal arts: multidisciplinary approaches, an understanding of global and historical context and perspectives, a greater focus on leadership and social responsibility and . . . learning how to think critically.” John J. Fernandes, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, predicts that in 10 years, 75 percent of schools will have made changes that focus on “the creation of more sustainable leaders.”

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