By Parky Lau, Joseph Rootman, Jill Robinson, & Lesley Lutes
Clinical Psychology: An Introduction
As a practitioner, clinical psychologists often conduct assessments and provide evidence-based therapy to a variety of individuals that exhibit some form of psychopathology. Clinical psychologists are also trained as scientists and can be found working in research or educational settings such as academia and research centers, as well as clinical settings, including hospitals and private practice clinics. It is not uncommon for clinical psychologists to divide their time among clinical practice, academia, and research. As such, a vocation in clinical psychology can be rather versatile, making the degree and associated training programs highly-sought after. Clinical psychologists have undertaken extensive coursework, research, and clinical training in their field, have completed one year of internship/residency prior to completing their graduate degree, and have formally underwent the registration process with the licensure body (e.g., The College of Psychologists of British Columbia) in their province/territory or state (e.g., North Carolina Psychology Board).
Clinical MA/Ph.D. Programs in the USA and Canada
Clinical psychology MA/Ph.D. programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner (Boulder) model, which underscores the importance of the relationship between empirically validated research and delivery of evidence-based treatment to clinical populations. As such, students are trained to be scientific researchers as well as clinicians. Canadian graduate programs in clinical psychology typically offer a combined Masters (MA) and Doctoral (Ph.D.) program, as opposed to just the Ph.D. The MA program lasts approximately 2 years, and the Ph.D. program extends this by another 4-5 years (including a year of predoctoral internship). Although the clinical MA and Ph.D. are usually distinct programs, it is common that those applying to the MA program continue into the Ph.D. Many programs will not accept students who plan to terminate their studies after completing the MA, although most clinical programs will accept students at the Ph.D. level if they have completed an MA in other relevant fields (e.g., counselling psychology). Indeed, students who believe they will not be accepted to a clinical program directly from undergrad (due to low GPA, lack of research or other factors), may benefit from obtaining an MA in one of these other fields and applying to clinical programs at the Ph.D. level (or at the master’s level with sometimes an ability to “fast track” to the Ph.D. after the first year with good performance and a paper/review/comprehensive). All states and most provinces, with the exception of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia, require that students hold a Ph.D. in order to gain licensure as a clinical psychologist with the regulatory body of that state or province. On the other hand, US programs typically only include the Ph.D. program, where students obtain an MA on route. For example, in North Carolina, students only enter the Ph.D. program, where they get an MA as a part of their Ph.D. Their timing is usually four years of assistantship funding, and they are usually on an internship in their fifth year.
When preparing applications, two crucial aspects students should consider include the number of institutions they wish to apply to and the quality of these institutions. With respect to the first point, acceptance rates are low. Typically, 5-8% of applicants receive an offer of admission. Therefore, it is the norm for prospective students to apply to multiple programs to increase their odds of acceptance. Some experts recommend applying to between 12 and 15 programs to maximize the chance of gaining admission. However, applications can be expensive and time-consuming, so it is generally advised that students avoid applying to programs that they have no intentions to attend or cannot spend the time needed to submit a high quality, tailored application. On the other hand, given the low acceptance rates, applying to multiple programs can be seen as a short-term investment for long-term gain as a professional. Applicants that are considering the number of schools they should apply to can take this as an opportunity to flex their researcher muscles by looking at school statistics, journal articles on acceptance rates and talk to experts in the area. Using these types of information to make informed decisions is a central tenet of clinical psychology, so it makes sense to apply that skill to admission processes as well!
Second, it is strongly recommended that applicants prioritize institutions whose doctoral program are (or in the process of being) accredited by the American or Canadian Psychological Association (APA/CPA). Students going to/graduating from unaccredited programs will experience at best, a more detailed, drawn out, and delayed process of registration/licensure. At worst, there is the slight possibility of being unable to register as a clinical psychologist upon completion of their program if their program does not meet the registration guidelines set forth by the state/province/territory. The APA/CPA sets out strict standards for which clinical programs must obtain to ensure that students are competent to practice independently. Generally, licensure bodies will examine the quality of the applicant’s education, internship, and experience to determine their fitness to register as a clinical psychologist in that territory.
For applicants interested in crossing borders it is worthwhile to know that, since the First Street Accord was signed in 2012, the APA Commission of Accreditation (CoA) recognizes the standards established via CPA accreditation are equivalent to those set by the APA (and vice-versa). As such, crossing borders to train as a clinical psychologist is certainly a viable option. That being said, there are some important differences between Canadian and American institutions. First, while CPA accredited clinical Ph.D. programs typically provide funding through a combination of Teaching Assistantships (TA), Research Assistantships (RA), or remitted tuition to cover tuition and some cost of living, the same is not true of all American institutions. Specifically, tuition at some American institutions far outweighs funding income, so for Canadian students looking at American programs, this is worth considering.Likewise, government funding opportunities can be limited for international students in both countries. For more information, see the book Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition by the American Psychological Association for specific differences between institutions in their funding package. This book also provides excellent information from application to acceptance among a variety of other useful information regarding applications.
The consequence of these funding differences is that American students may feel pressured to complete their program with haste to avoid going too deeply into debt. This is made more difficult by the fact that the number of face-to-face clinical hours required by internship programs is lower in Canada than the US. Institutions accredited by the APA or CPA have demonstrated the necessary rigor to develop highly trained clinical psychologists. Graduating from an APA/CPA accredited institution confers professional benefits and is necessary for obtaining an internship/residency through the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centres (APPIC) as well as facilitating the search for employment after graduation (some prominent employers, such as Veterans Administration, also require graduation from an APA/CPA accredited institution). It is also much less likely that a student exiting a non-accredited program will secure an accredited internship relative to those who exit accredited programs.
Finally, although an in-depth examination of other degrees, such as the Psy.D. or counselling psychology is beyond the scope of this guide, it is worthwhile to mention these alternatives. These programs may be of interest to those whose passion is oriented towards clinicalpractice or for those who wish to work with populations that exhibit less extreme or pervasive mental health concerns (e.g., relationship issues, stress management). For a further look at the Psy.D., counselling psychology, and other related fields of studies, please consult Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology by Dr. Mitchell Prinstein. Similarly, this guide is intended for those who are interested in applying to clinical psychology programs which differs from those who have completed a clinical program and are applying to internship. Applicants applying to internship are directed to resources beyond the scope of this guide (e.g., Match Made on Earth for Canadian Students, the Internships in Psychology APAGS workbook for both Canadian and US programs).
The Application Process
Applying to MA/Ph.D. graduate programs in clinical psychology is often a difficult and confusing process and can take several months to adequately prepare. Generally, the list of materials applicants will need to assemble for programs include: 1) Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores;2) the Psychology subject test (if required); 3) a list of institutions and associated supervisors of which to apply; 4) three (or more) letters of recommendation (LOR); 5) official transcripts; 6) an updated curriculum vitae (CV); 7) a statement of intent (personal statement); 8) completion of the general application; and 9) paying of the fee to apply to the program.
In addition, although rarely explicitly stated on institution websites, most CPA accredited institutions expect Canadian students to apply for external government funding from one of the Tri-Council agencies (CIHR, SSHRC, or NSERC). With the competitive nature of these admissions, skipping this step may be considered a “kiss of death” as some institutions will be forced to disregard applicants that have not applied for any external funding. For Tri-Council funding applications, the materials applicants will need are: 1) the Canadian Common CV (CCV); 2) two LORs; and 3) a hypothetical research proposal. Often, programs will ask applicants outright if they have applied for external funding, such as Tri-Council funding or the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). While American students are not eligible for Tri-Council funding, applying for international funding opportunities (often listed on institutional websites) instead may benefit American applications to Canadian institutions.
Preparing for the GRE (and the Psychology subject test if required) is a time-consuming aspect of the application process and applicants should allocate at least 2 to 4 months to studying for this exam. The exam should be taken as early as possible to ensure that there is sufficient time to report scores as well as retake the test if necessary. Note that while the General Test can be taken throughout the year, the Psychology Subject test is offered only a few times per year. It can take several weeks to receive official scores, so applicants must plan accordingly. If the application deadline occurs before scores are obtained, applicants may be rejected. By late summer or early fall, applicants will also want to consider which institutions they would like to apply to. Several factors worth consideration include the quality of the program, the match of the research supervisor, richness of the training offered, practicum placements, potential funding opportunities (which may be more limited if you are crossing borders), length of time typically spent in the program, geographical location and feasibility of moving, the culture and atmosphere of the university and, perhaps most importantly, the “fit” between student and mentor. Truthfully, this truly is the most important fact. Based on research data, this the #1 predictor of satisfaction in graduate school. Each institution typically provides information on their university webpage about faculty and their research interests. Applicants should note that it is important to determine if the faculty of interest is accepting new students for the upcoming round of admissions. Faculty may not accept students one year for a variety of reasons (e.g., sabbatical leaves, administration duties, maternity leave, current size of the lab) and applicants must be wary of wasting their time or money applying to a supervisor who is not accepting students. As such, applicants should confirm that their faculty of interest is taking applications for new graduate students by examining their website or sending them a direct email. Although not a necessary component in some programs, faculty members may appreciate an effort to contact them, especially if keen insight and enthusiasm into their work is demonstrated. However, for other programs it is a requirement. For example, at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus), students are required to contact potential mentors to ensure that there is a good potential match as a necessary first step to determining a good fit for the overall program. The initial contact with potential supervisors should include a brief introduction of who the student is, their research interests, and why they are interested in working with the supervisor. It is advisable that the student attach their CV to the email as well. When contacting prospective supervisors, it is important that applicants represent themselves as polite and professional in their correspondence. Accordingly, e-mails must be proofread before being sent and should demonstrate that the sender has inquired into the faculty’s research. However, while you should be open to a meeting, it is not recommended that you ask/require to meet talk with the supervisor before applying. While some supervisors will want to talk with each student before, others have 10-20 students applying to work with them each year and really do not spend a lot of time at this level, on in depth interviewing of candidates. Until the full application is in and reviewed by them and the graduate admissions committee, it is impossible to know if a student will meet the requirements to proceed to an interview.
Applicants will also want to reach out to their current supervisors and/or professors for letters of recommendations. Most programs will require 3 academic references. For some schools, but not all, a professional reference may be submitted in substitution for an academic letter. It is essential that referees are willing to provide a strong positive testament to the applicant’s abilities and can speak to their potential success in a primarily research-based graduate program. Reference letters that offer faint praise or that are critical of the applicant can be damaging to an application (for other so-called ‘Kisses of Death’ see Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Applicants should aim to facilitate the process for referees by ensuring that referees have plenty of notice (4 to 8 weeks in advance of the application deadline) that they will require a letter in the future. Applicants may draft a list of the schools they will apply to and provide a step-by-step guide on how to submit the LOR to each school (electronically and/or by physical mail) for referees’ convenience. Applicants should also provide referees with direction by identifying examples where they have proved their capacity to succeed in a clinical research program. Further, applicants should also send references, an updated CV, a set of transcripts, and background information about the program to which they are applying. The more information the reference has, the easier it is to write a strong letter. And, appreciate that while this is critical and paramount for you, faculty likely have 5, 10, -20 others letters they are writing for students for various programs and scholarships with different deadlines. Therefore, ask them when they would like the gentle reminders for submission (i.e., 2 weeks, 1 week, 3 days before). Also, make sure to tell them the actual deadline, not when you like the materials in. While this may cause you anxiety, a faculty typically has numerous deadlines at once and they are just doing the best they can. Remain calm and professional as you provide those gentle reminders – consider this your first test of handling clinical stress!
Official transcripts, CVs, and the personal statement can be completed and submitted electronically any time before the application deadline – and should be done well ahead of schedule. This will help to mitigate unforeseen circumstances such as the 2018 postal strike in Canada - which delayed regular mail by several weeks. However, gathering feedback from peers and supervisors on the written portions of the application is imperative. Do not hesitate to start this process early. Applicants will want to complete an initial draft of written portions several months prior to the deadline to ensure enough time to make necessary revisions. Applicants should spend ample time editing and revising their personal statement to ensure no typos, spelling or grammar mistakes are present. It is strongly recommended that applicants have at least one other person read the letter of intent. In the following sections, we will provide additional content and stylistic information regarding the personal statement.
As noted earlier, an oft-neglected but necessary part of graduate applications, specifically in Canada, is applying for external funding from the three federal granting agencies (Tri-Council): CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. Applications are due December 1st for those applying to MA programs and mid-September for those applying to Ph.D. programs. These applications require two academic references as well as a short research proposal. Each funding agency may require different information. Applicants will want to give themselves an appropriate amount of time to become familiar with the literature required to write a strong research proposal. And make sure to adhere to the guidelines – to the t! For example, at one institution, programs will not forward applications for full review if they exceed the page/word limit. This would disadvantage the candidates that had met the word limit which could be cause for a grievance. Consider this another test of your clinical acumen, just like a therapy session. Can you find a way to say what you need to in the most eloquent and parsimonious way within the time confines allowed? Note that your proposed study does not have to be carried out; this is simply an exercise of the ability to clearly communicate a potential research idea in a scientific manner. It is important to understand that this information reflects the current funding status in Canada in January 2019. Information and government funding opportunities may change in the future.
For a more comprehensive and detailed timeline for suggestions as to when these components should be completed, as well as information on interviews after the application period, please refer to Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley’s Tips for Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide.
American Psychological Association. (2019). Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition. American Psychological Association.
Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process. Teaching of Psychology,33(1), 19-24. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3301_5
Jill M. Robinson, M.A. is currently a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of British Columbia | Okanagan. Her research interests include cognitive models of substance use as well as prevention and intervention of adolescent substance use. Jill currently works with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and substance use disorders.
Parky Lau is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at Ryerson University. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Parky obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He currently works in the Sleep and Depression Laboratory under Dr. Colleen Carney examining cognitive factors related to the development and maintenance of insomnia. His professional interests include mentoring undergraduate students, attending research conferences, and playing an active part in shaping organizations within Ryerson University. Parky can be reached by email at [email protected]
Joseph Rootman is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan Campus. He moved to the Okanagan after completing his undergraduate education in Psychology at the University of British Columbia – Vancouver campus. He is currently a researcher in the Therapeutic, Recreational & Problematic Substance Use Lab under the supervision of Dr. Zach Walsh. Joseph’s primary research interest surrounds the use of Cannabis as a substitute for other, more harmful, drugs. Beyond research, Joseph is the Chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy – Okanagan Chapter. Joseph can be reached by email at [email protected]
Dr. Lutes is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University of British Columbia - Okanagan Campus. Dr. Lutes is a clinical health and registered psychologist whose area of research is in developing innovative cognitive and behavioral treatment interventions focused on lifestyle change and chronic disease management for conditions such as obesity and diabetes and their co-morbid psychological correlates including distress, depression and well-being. She also does research/advocacy/policy change in the area of integrated primary care and training the next generation of psychologists for healthcare delivery in the 21st century. She has secured over $7 million dollars in grant funding, published over 60-peer-reviewed publications, and had over 100 oral presentations to date. She is on the national executive of the Canadian Council for Professional Psychology Programs (CCPPP) and is on the editorial board for the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. She is the director of the healthy weight clinic and the Centre for Obesity and Well-Being Research Excellence (CORE) at the UBC. Dr. Lutes can be reached at [email protected]
“I have read through all my students’ final paper, indicated mistakes, and offered suggestions for improvement. Am I wasting my time and energy?”
Does this voice sound familiar? Instructors who use writing as an assessment-- including me-- find that many students do not have good academic writing skills. When we design helpful writing assignments, such as research papers, they often fail to deliver on their promise. Some typical problems of final papers include:
An inability to follow important details of the instructions
Difficulty expressing ideas clearly in writing
Trouble following citation styles.
Another core problem is that many students do not actually learn from writing a final paper. Many students procrastinate until the end of the semester (even if you warn them the very first day of the semester!), and barely have time to organize their thoughts. Additionally, based on research evidence and my experience, helpful feedback is almost impossible due to instructors being busy entering all of the grades and students not reading feedback after the semester is over.
So, what can we do? If we use final paper as a summative assessment of course objectives, we should provide students with multiple assessments throughout the semester to prepare them for writing the final paper.
Setting up Multiple Deadlines
Setting up multiple deadlines for various parts of a final paper is one effective way to implement formative assessments that lead to the summative assessment in writing. I teach a Research Methods in Psychology course in which students have to conduct a group research project and submit a final individual research paper (about 10–12 pages). Most of my students have never written a research paper before and thus struggle with writing their first one. Instead of writing a whole paper at once, I help students to write their final research paper in parts and submit corresponding drafts in the order of Introduction, Methods, Results, and the whole paper with Discussions. I clearly lay out specific instructions for students to focus their time and energy for quality writing of each part. If any part does not pass the proficiency standard listed in the rubric, students have to rewrite that part and resubmit it. Based on the detailed constructive feedback given on each draft, students submit their final paper at the end of the semester by rewriting each part and put them together in one piece. In this way, students have sufficient time throughout the semester to learn how to write adequately the first time and rewrite a better product to fulfill course objectives.
Having multiple deadlines may help students understand and execute the final paper with a better quality, but this approach alone may not maximize learning without adequate feedback. One of the key challenges faced by instructors is providing feedback that students want to and actually use. Research indicates that instructor comments are often useless because students frequently do not attend to or understand the feedback. Furthermore, the feedback students appreciate (i.e., general positive comments) is not necessarily the feedback (i.e., constructive criticism) that could best support their learning. Thus, it is “not inevitable that students will read and pay attention to feedback even when that feedback is lovingly crafted and provided promptly” (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004, p. 20).
One way to encourage students to use the feedback is to convince them that doing so can improve their final grades. Similar to how researchers resubmit a manuscript to a journal for publication, I ask students to highlight each of the revisions that they make in their final paper and assure that making all of the suggested changes appropriately can result in a high or even perfect score on their paper. Instead of providing proofreading services that have been shown ineffective, the content of the feedback should surround some big ideas regarding structure and organization (e.g., theories and significance), support of arguments (e.g., literature review), and important technical details (e.g., citation style). In courses that instructors cannot possibly provide detailed feedback for separate parts of a final paper, instructors may give students credits for writing a brief outline with some arguments for support, followed by providing constructive feedback. In order to enhance student likelihood of using feedback, instructors can foster students’ growth mindset, rooted in Carol Dweck’s research, by providing encouraging feedback such as “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
What is students’ take on writing a final paper with multiple deadlines and feedback beforehand? In my anonymous course evaluation, over 80% of my students stated that having multiple deadlines and instructor feedback were the most helpful things for completing their final paper. Some students also mentioned having writing samples and meeting with the instructor were important for their writing. However, a small group of students, particularly the less engaged, may not like this approach due to the fact that revisions represent a greater amount of work. Additionally, having multiple drafts and providing helpful feedback to each of them increase instructors’ workload. Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to offer some caveats for using this multiple-deadline approach:
Make sure students understand why it is beneficial for them to write the final paper and how having multiple deadlines and drafts can help. For example, I show students some requirements for psychology graduate program applications, which emphasize good writing skills and research experience.
Set up deadlines that are not too close, and yet not too far, from one another. My class meets twice a week, and I set deadlines that are one week apart for three different parts of the paper; students are able to receive my feedback (both written and verbal) prior to submitting the next part. I deliberately plan my calendar to ensure both students and myself are typically not very busy, such that the writing and grading can be completed in a timely fashion. The final paper submission are three weeks apart from the previous draft to allow students time to revise and ask questions deemed necessary.
Consider the number of students in a course. I only have 25 students in my research methods course, so I can dedicate time and energy to provide helpful feedback to each part of the paper. For instructors who teach larger classes, they shall consider training graduate teaching assistants to provide intended feedback, or offering a framework for undergraduate students to complete peer review and provide feedback for classmates. Research shows that both reviewing classmates’ work and having work reviewed by classmate can benefit and learn from the process.
Enjoy grading your final paper next time!
Dr. Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu’s is an Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. He teaches research methods in psychology and conducts research on motivation for sport and exercise. Alan is also a sport psychology consultant who works with athletes and coaches on mental skills training. To practice what he preaches, Alan is highly involved in sports, specializing in table tennis as a competitive player and an internationally certified coach.
Carver, M. (2017). Limitations of corrective feedforward: A call for resubmission practices to become learning-oriented. Journal of Academic Writing, 7(1), 1-15.
Gibbs, G., & Simpson, C. (2004). Does your assessment support your students’ learning. Journal of Teaching and learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 1-30.
Winter, J. K., Neal, J. C., & Waner, K. K. (1996). Student and instructor use of comments on business communication papers. Business Communication Quarterly, 59(4), 56-68.
Most faculty want to be excellent teachers. We want to use evidence-based, cutting-edge teaching practices. We want our students to love coming to class and really learn the course content. We want stellar student evaluations. We want to dazzle our department chairs and deans.
But you know what most faculty don’t want to do?
Dedicate lots of time to reading decades of education research.
This is why our Fearless Teaching Framework is a useful tool to help improve college teaching. We distilled decades of research and theory on teaching and learning into set of recommendations for university instructors interested in improving their teaching.
The Fearless Teaching Framework is a conceptual model of the four pieces of effective teaching that promote student engagement and motivation: classroom climate, course content, teaching practices, and assessment strategies (Donlan, Loughlin, Byrne, 2019). Each piece represents aspects of the course that an instructor can control and change as they develop into a better teacher.
Climate – When students feel that the classroom climate is supportive, they are more likely to ask questions, ask for help, support their peers, engage deeply with material, and achieve academically. Instructors have the power to structure the learning environment so that students feel a sense of belonging and that their voices and questions are welcome.
A supportive climate is fostered both in how the instructor establishes the classroom climate at the beginning of the course and how they interact with students throughout the semester. For example:
At the beginning of the semester, the instructor:
Clearly states that they want students to succeed.
Positions themselves as a partner in meeting the course objectives.
Asks for and uses students’ preferred name and pronouns.
Asks students what they need to learn best – whether it be clearer instructions or closed captioning on course videos.
Throughout the semester:
When an instance of discrimination, hate, or bias emerge in class or on campus, the instructors is prepared to talk about and address issues that inhibit students from being successful. Learn more about how to handle sensitive topics in class here: tltc.umd.edu/discussions
Content – Students are more successful when the course content is appropriate for their developmental stage and academic ability. Further, students are more likely to be engaged when they understand that the content prepares them for the next courses in their sequence of study, and is relevant to their lives outside of the classroom. In other words, high quality content meets students where they are, and prepares them for where they need to go.
We recommend that instructors:
Connect course topics to examples from students’ professional and personal interests – including parenthood and community leadership.
Emphasize how the course content can be used in the real world, for example through Problem Based Learning – meaning that they develop a plan in which students need to apply their knowledge to real-world problems. The application of course content to problem solving helps students retain content and self-assess their mastery.
Collaborate with colleagues to ensure the learning objectives and content across courses in a major/minor sequence are aligned and build toward mastery.
Ask students about their prior content knowledge on the first day of class – maybe in an ungraded pre-test survey – to gauge the incoming knowledge of the group.
Practices– When instructors adopt active learning practices and appropriately scaffold new content, students are more engaged with the course material and motivated to learn. We recommend that instructors:
Rely on strategies beyond lecturing – such as active learning practices. Structuring learning so that students are required to respond to one another’s ideas, create a product together, or teach each other, can be an effective teaching strategy.
Practice Scaffolding: Instructors can motivate students by scaffolding new ideas to pre-existing knowledge, building a scaffolding system to help them learn and practice new content without going too far, too fast.
Hold Clear, High, and Reasonable Expectations: By being consistent with praise, corrections, rubrics, and mastery goals, instructors set high expectations that can motivate students to stay engaged. When teachers provide comfort instead of coaching during failure or praise the accomplishment of very simple tasks, it can inadvertently signal that they don’t believe the learner is capable of challenging tasks.
Assessment – We found that learning assessments are most productive when they are valid, reliable measures of stated learning outcomes and provide students with with prompt and fair feedback. However, often too much emphasis falls on designing summative, end-of-semester assessments. We recommend that instructors make time throughout the semester to provide students with formative feedback on their drafts and design clear rubrics that communicate exactly what mastery looks like.
Provide students with formative feedback mid-way through the semester on a project or paper either through instructor feedback or a peer review process. This process allows the instructor to identify students who need additional support in meeting the course objectives, and allows students to reflect on what aspects of the content they understand and what aspects they need to focus on in future weeks.
Increase student motivation to study and learn by providing students with a clear rubric. A rubric is a tool that details the gradations of difference between understanding something well and not understanding it at all. Rubrics can require significant effort to construct, but they ultimately decrease the amount of labor dedicated to grading student work by establishing clear expectations.
Construct assessments with learning objectives in mind and then work backwards to design a rubric and an assessment structure that align with the objectives. Students are more in control of the grade they earn when they can compare their effort and output against a detailed grading rubric and realistic test grades. Rubrics motivate students to work towards the grade they want.
From our review of the education theory and research literature, we found that instructors can improve their teaching by reflecting on their teaching within the 4 pieces of the Fearless Teaching Framework and setting a goal to change one thing each semester. We are piloting an evaluative instrument based on the Fearless Teaching Framework that we hope to share with the community soon.
Based on the Fearless Teaching Framework and all the recommendations we provided,
What is one thing you will do next semester to improve your teaching?
Virginia L. Byrne, M.S., is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Teaching & Learning, Policy, & Leadership at the University of Maryland’s College of Education. Her concentration is in Technology, Learning and Leadership. She serves as the Graduate Assistant for Research and Assessment at the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center. She earned a Master’s in Higher Education: Student Affairs from Florida State University and a Graduate Certificate in Instructional Systems Design from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Learn more about her work at www.virginialbyrne.com
Alice E. Donlan, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at the University of Maryland’s Teaching and Learning Transformation Center. Alice leads the research, evaluation, and assessment efforts at the TLTC, and collaborates with faculty and programs across campus to understand ways to improve teaching and learning outcomes. She earned her Ph.D. in Human Development with a specialization in Educational Psychology and a certificate in Measurement, Statistics, and Evaluation at the University of Maryland.
We all include policies on our syllabi, often simply copying and pasting them from one version to another. But, how often do we revisit the why behind our policies? What do your policies communicate? How do your policies help and hinder student achievement of course learning goals? Are there any unintended consequences of these policies? These are important questions to consider as our policies can impact student motivation and success (Hutcheon, 2017). Let’s use the example of one such policy—late or missed work—to illustrate the importance of regularly reflecting on and revising class policy.
The why behind late and missed work policies
The primary reason behind late and missed work policies is pretty obvious. Most of us would agree that completing tasks on time is an important life skill. For example, employers expect their employees to meet deadlines on projects and be on time to important meetings. By imposing deadlines and policies related to these deadlines, we can help students increase personal responsibility by developing effective time management skills.
Another reason behind these policies relates to our own—rather than our students’-- time management. As faculty members, we are incredibly busy, juggling teaching, research, mentoring and committee work. When we set deadlines for assignments, we often do so in an effort to manage our own packed schedules. It can very time-consuming for us to accept late work at all different times of the semester or create alternative exams or assignments.
What do our policies communicate?
Late and missed work policies typically communicate to students the importance of completing tasks on time. It is therefore important to include these policies on our syllabi (Doolittle and Suidzinski, 2010). However, the nature of these policies and the way in which we write these policies can be very important (Harrington & Thomas, 2018).
Some instructors emphasize the importance of these policies by using capital letters, bolded and larger font, and exclamation marks. These strategies will likely draw student attention to these policies, but there may be potential negative consequences as well. Students may perceive you to be yelling at them (Agger & Shelton, 2017). This approach may communicate to students that you do not believe they know how to responsibly behave. It may convey the idea that you expect them to behave irresponsibly and submit assignments late. This may negatively impact our relationships with students right at the start of the semester and may also decrease student motivation.
Strict late work policies can also send the message to students that the assignments in this course should be their priority. Although we do want students to place a high priority on school, it is important for us to recognize that this course is probably just one of many courses and that our students likely have many other competing responsibilities such as family and work. I’m sure we can all imagine a situation such as the loss of a loved one or a serious illness where we would agree that the course assignment would not be a priority in a student’s life. Strict, rigid policies do not acknowledge these situations.
What are your goals for the course and how do your policies help and hinder student achievement of these goals?
We all have identified learning outcomes for our courses. These learning outcomes are typically focused on students learning content and skills related to our discipline. In most situations, we have not identified specific outcomes related to timeliness even though we recognize the importance of students meeting deadlines. Let’s consider how strict no-late work policies or policies with significant penalties for lateness impact learning. If a student misses an assignment and is not given an opportunity to make-up the assignment, they have then missed out on a learning opportunity.
Policies that allow students to submit work late but with a penalty sound on the surface to be supportive of students, but in some cases, the penalties are so harsh that the reality is that it may not be worth the student’s effort to complete the task late. For example, some instructors have a half credit late policy. What would motivate a student to complete an assignment when the highest possible grade is an F? Late work policies that drop a letter grade for every day the assignment is late does not help a student who is in the hospital for a week or is spending several days with family after a loss of a loved one. Assuming this assignment was directly linked to our course learning outcomes, then this student may not be able to successfully achieve these learning outcomes for the course.
Are there any unintended consequences of our policies?
Students can become very discouraged by a zero grade. In some cases, the student may decide to withdraw from the course, especially if they do not see a path toward successfully completing the course. Depending on how much the assignment or exam counts toward the final grade, it may be impossible to recover and pass the course. In this scenario, the student may have learned an important lesson about the importance of being on time, but the primary learning goals of the course were not achieved. Since our primary goal is for students to learn the course content and related skills, this type of policy may not be aligned with our goals.
Late and missed work policies can also impact students from different cultures in different ways. Let’s look at an example. For example, perhaps one of our students had a death in family or was very ill. If approached by a student in this situation, many of us would likely make an exception to the no make-up or late work policy. On the surface, this seems like a fair approach. However, not all students will approach us if we have already communicated a strict no-make up exam policy. If a student comes from a culture where it is not acceptable to challenge a policy and ask for an exception, they would probably not approach us. As a result, we would not be able to make an exception. I think we would all agree that we created policies to be fair not unfair and yet a policy such as this one does certainly seem like it gives an unfair advantage to some students.
I think we would all agree that the final grade should accurately capture whether or not a student was able to successfully achieve the course learning outcomes. Sometimes strict or harsh policies that result in zero grades impact the final grade so that the final grade does not accurately tell the story about whether a student has successfully accomplished the learning goals of the course. It’s important that our policies align to our course goals.
Suggestions for developing and communicating policies
1. Consider accepting late work. Begin by communicating the importance of completing work on time and how doing so will help them learn and succeed in the class, but then also acknowledge that situations may occur that prohibit them from doing so. I have generally found that most students really appreciate this type of policy and do not take advantage of it. If you are worried about this may negatively impact your schedule, you could establish parameters for this policy. For example, you could:
Accept late work only during the final weeks of the semester
Allow each student to submit a specified number of assignments late.
Tell students that very low stakes assignments such as online quizzes can not be made up but that moderate and high stakes assignments can be made up if there is an extenuating circumstance. The rationale for different rules for different types of assignments is that very low stakes assignments won’t negatively impact the final grade as much as moderate or high stakes assignments.
2. Accurately communicate your policy. If your practice is to make exceptions when warranted, then it makes more sense to communicate this in your policy. Instead of saying “no late work will be accepted,” you could instead recognize that situations may arise that prohibit a student from submitting work on time and if this happens, they should come and talk with you. This type of policy not only more accurately reflects the practice, it also communicates to students that you care about their success and recognize that they may encounter stressors in their life.
3. Use positive language. Phrasing policies in a positive way can motivate students (Wasley, 2008). For example, instead of a policy that says no-late work will be accepted, what about having a policy that says all students are expected to complete work on time and to talk with you if life circumstances make this difficult or impossible.
4. Provide a rationale for policies. Students really appreciate it when you share the why behind your policy (Harrington & Thomas, 2018). For example, you could begin by explaining that being able to meet deadlines is an important skill. You could also emphasize how each assignment builds on the previous one and how their classmates will often be counting on them to be prepared for group activities.
5. Consider using 50 as the lowest grade. Zero grades can have a significant negative impact on student motivation and achievement. Grading systems are failure heavy- with failure being represented by approximately 65% of the grading scale. Guskey (2004) advocates for grading scales from 50-100 rather than 0-100. With 50 as the lowest grade, students are more able to recover from a mistake or missed opportunity. In many cases, students can’t mathematically earn a passing grade if they received a zero on a major assignment.
6. Use a series of formative assessments throughout the semester. Having numerous opportunities for students to demonstrate what they are learning is advantageous for many reasons. One reason is that no one grade on an assignment will determine the final grade or outcome for the course. Another reason is that students will have the opportunity to learn from feedback they have received throughout the semester.
7. Structure grading policies to account for possible missed work. Another approach is to build in a “drop the lowest grade” or “only count the highest three grades” approach for different assignment categories. This is quite easy to do in most course learning management systems. The benefits of this approach are that you don’t need to worry about accepting late work and a student’s final grade won’t be negatively impacted by missing an assignment. You will also probably find that the student’s final grade is more likely to accurately capture whether a student successfully achieve the course learning outcomes because outlier grades were removed from the calculation.
Establishing policies that align to your course learning outcomes can play a critical role in student success. Students will undoubtedly appreciate your flexible policies and be more motivated to learn. For additional ideas about policies, read Designing a motivational syllabus: Creating a learning path for student engagement (Harrington & Thomas, 2018) published by Stylus.
Dr. Christine Harrington is a national expert in student success and teaching and learning. She has worked in higher education for almost 20 years. She is currently an associate professor and co-coordinator of the Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program at New Jersey City University. Previously, Dr. Harrington worked as a professor of psychology and student success at Middlesex County College. She also served as the First-Year Seminar course coordinator and the Director for the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching. Christine also teaches part-time in the Learning and Teaching Department within the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. Recently, Christine served a 2-year appointment as the Executive Director for the Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. In this role, she assisted all 19 New Jersey community colleges with implementing Guided Pathways to improve student success outcomes.
Christine is the author of a research-based first-year seminar textbook Student Success in College: Doing What Works! 3rd edition, published by Cengage. She co-authored Dynamic Lecturing: Research-Based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness with Todd Zakrajsek and Designing a Motivational Syllabus: Creating a Learning Path for Student Engagement with Melissa Thomas, both published by Stylus. She also co-authored Why the First-Year Seminar Matters: Helping Students Choose and Stay on a Career Path with Theresa Orosz, published by Rowman and Littlefield. She was the 2016 recipient of the Excellence in Teaching First-Year Experience award which was presented at the Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience, and the recipient of the 2016 Middlesex County College Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award. She is frequently invited to give plenary presentations at national and local conferences as well as at colleges and universities across the nation.
Agger, B., & Shelton, B. A. (2017). Time, motion, discipline: The authoritarian syllabus on American college campuses. Critical Sociology, 43(3), 355-369.
Doolittle, P. E., & Siudzinski, R. A. (2010). Recommended syllabus components: What do higher education faculty include in their syllabus? Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 20(3), 29-61.
Guskey, T. R. (2004). Are zeros your ultimate weapon? Principal Leadership, 5, 32-35.
Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018). Designing a motivational syllabus: Creating a learning path for student engagement. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
The good news is this - We can change our lectures into active learning experiences with the simple, small change of adding purposeful pauses. These pauses don’t have to take much time away from delivering content but they will make the difference between minimal learning and exciting improvements in retention.
In an earlier blog we examined the value of pausing at the end of class to reflect on the learning experience. We reviewed literature that supports the idea that learning will have a stronger and more lasting impact if teachers step back and allow learners to reflect and share their summaries and action plans before leaving the learning session.
In addition to closing pauses, there are two other critical times in a learning session when pausing is particularly important:
The middle (in a longer session)
In this article, we will examine what we might gain from pausing at the start of learning, as well as throughout the lesson to allow learners to personalize and experience concepts for themselves.
Pauses Create a Positive Learning Environment
Pauses provide an opportunity to create an environment which is conducive to learning. When we take a few minutes to pause at the start of class, we create a safe environment, one which communicates that students are valued. Students learn more when they are in a positive environment. It may be good to remind ourselves that people think better when they are happy (McCullough, 2017).
What you can expect from a starting pause
Starting pauses can help with any of the following objectives:
Grab attention, focus, and minimize distractions
Enhance power of the lesson
Create interest, curiosity, and anticipation
Bring about positive expectations
Connect to prior knowledge
Provide a safe environment and create community
So often we assume that these objectives have already been accomplished. We think our students come to class thinking, “I am so excited about this lecture, I have read the assignment, and I have my questions ready.” This may not be the case, however. I am afraid that many times my students come to class not even knowing what the day’s topic is. We don’t take a moment to check our students’ interest, desire, prior experiences, or exposure.
If we don’t take a starting pause to provide ourselves some feedback, we may launch into the lesson and waste time teaching something that is already understood, or, worse, teaching something that no one desires because they don’t see the value of it.
Stzabnik (2015) suggests that there are 8 minutes in the learning experience that matter most. “If a lesson does not start off strong by activating prior knowledge, creating anticipation, or establishing goals, student interest wanes, and you have to do some heavy lifting to get it back.” If only we had paused for a moment for a simple introductory experience, everything might have been different.
Ideal learning begins with an experience (Kolb, 2014). Starting pauses offer us opportunities to provide that experience to kick off learning. This activity might involve reflecting, moving, writing, watching a video clip, taking a quick quiz, or responding to questions. The starting pause is usually short—a quick introduction.
Less is More—This is SO Hard for Us to Believe
If we are to truly maximize learning when we teach, we must embrace the fact that we cannot do all of the talking—we must cover less content—we must give up at least a few minutes of our lecture hour. Students learn better when they have opportunities to speak or write about their learning. We cannot ignore the fact that whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning (Bowman, 2011; Doyle, 2011).
Because it is so very hard for us to give up the lectern, it is probably worth our time to review a couple of pivotal studies.
Ruhl and colleagues examined the difference that pausing might make. The study contrasted two classes in which one group had traditional lectures and the other had three two-minute breaks for students to share their ideas with other. At the end of the five-week experiment, each group of students took an examination. The instructors were quite surprised to discover a significant difference between the performance of the groups—and in the opposite direction from what they expected. The group who had less lecture each day performed better on the exam (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987).
Another study supports the idea that less is more. In this study, medical school professors prepared three different versions of a lecture on the same topic—one which was less dense, one of medium density, and one of high density. The higher density lectures had more new concepts introduced and fewer examples provided. Students randomly assigned to each of the three groups took a test immediately after the lectures and then took an unexpected test again 15 days later. The students in the low-density group performed better on both the immediate post-test and, even more so, on the two-week later post-test (Russell, Hendricson & Herbert, 1984).
These studies illustrate the limits of the human mind. Our students are only capable of learning so much new information at a time. If we think we can race along with fast-paced, high-density lectures, we are probably fooling ourselves. Students learn more when we lecture less, when they do more of the talking, and when we pause to ask them how they are processing what we have tried to teach them (Rice, 2018).
Middle Pauses Help Reduce Cognitive Load
Ruhl’s study focused on the benefits of pausing during the middle portions of the learning session. Many, if not all, of our students cannot take in more than about 20 minutes or so of new material at a time (Major, Harris & Zakrajsek, 2016; Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). We are told that even the best and most entertaining lecturers begin to lose the attention of their audience within 15-20 minutes after beginning (Jensen, 2005). Since most lectures last an hour or so, we may have to plan for more than just a starting and closing pause. We may have to allow for some short learning breaks throughout the lecture to reduce cognitive load.
Reducing cognitive load and keeping students’ attention requires regular mental breaks (Howard, 1994; Major et al., 2016). We know that chunking is a valuable strategy to help us break our teaching into manageable sections. Pauses allow us to chunk. When we pause occasionally, we give our students opportunities to:
Relieve cognitive load
Three Quick and Easy Mid-Pauses
The book, Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning (Rice, 2018), provides a number of illustrations of teachers who have paused to enhance their students’ learning. There are three pause techniques that are particularly well suited to the middle portion of the lecture. They are in common use and well-known, but worth reviewing.In order to use these techniques, instructors will plan ahead of time for some thought-provoking questions—perhaps writing them down in the margins of their notes, or preparing a slide to project the question. Then they can choose one of these techniques to allow students to reflect and share their ideas.
Think Pair Share
The first of these is the think-pair-share technique, otherwise known as the buzz group, the “turn to your partner” and many other variations (Rice, 2018, MP 24). Simply ask the group to turn to the person sitting close to them, in groups of two or three, and share their thoughts with each other. After a short time, ask for a few to share with the large group and then proceed.
Students write their response to the question, either on their notes, or on a card provided by the instructor, or on a blog or with an audience response system, such as PollEverywhere. The Short Write opportunity (Rice, 2018, MP 23) is a nice alternative to the Think Pair Share technique, and has some advantages, such as allowing the more introverted student opportunities to think quietly before jotting down ideas.
Pause Procedure Question
The Pause Procedure Question (Rice, 2018, MP25) constitutes simply asking the question in a powerful way. The teacher says something like this, “I am going to ask you a question. I want each of you to think of your answer and be ready to answer if I call on you.” The beauty of this way of questioning is that the tension in the room is raised for all of the students. They feel self-conscious in front of their colleagues and they will usually exert some effort in thinking of an answer to the question that has been posed.
Barriers to Hitting Pause
Trying something new in our teaching requires a willingness to risk. Those of us who are reluctant to incorporate starting, middle, and closing pauses into our lecture plans may need to remind ourselves of these important ideas:
Teaching less can lead to more learning (Ruhl, et al., 1987).
Small changes can make powerful differences in student learning (Lang, 2016).
Learning is directly proportional to the amount of fun you are having (Pike, 2003).
We might not be comfortable pausing with certain groups we teach. We may be concerned that pauses are too childlike for our sophisticated audiences.
However, when we plan a playful method to ask a substantive question, our students thank us for the chance to test their understanding and get feedback. Usually they don’t mind if they have a little fun in the process.
A statistics teacher reluctantly decided to try a few of these pause techniques in her class. The first one was the stand up, hands up, pair up technique (Rice, 2018, MP36) for a fairly simple mathematical problem—computing a t-test. Later in the class period, the teacher had students in small groups use a simultaneous Round Robin Pause (MP38) for a more challenging question requiring interpretation of statistical test results. The students’ comments at the end of the class period illustrate the value of those middle pauses:
“This is the first session in this course that I can truly say I enjoyed. I was always nervous in this class before, but today I relaxed. It was helpful to be able to work together to solve the math problems, as I had a check on my calculations with my partner.”
“The “Round Robin” activity was reassuring when we could talk together and use our group consensus to reach a conclusion.”
“Thanks for your creativity in planning today’s class. The time flew. I felt that I really understood the t-test calculation and the case we worked on...”
“I really learned a lot in class today… Working in groups is much more reassuring than trying to do math and answering stat questions by yourself. Hope for more classes like this.”
The statistics teacher was glad she took a risk and gave students a chance to work together and share ideas. Giving students some pauses to help them feel more confident about their skills and to receive feedback about how well they were applying course concepts to examples similar to what they would have in their upcoming mid-term exam made a big difference.
Even though these breaks take a few minutes of class time, they pay off in big ways.
Chunks of learning work better
Take a break
Let students catch a breath
Less may really be more
Dr. Gail Rice is a professor at Loma Linda University, where she directs faculty development for the campus. She teaches for the Harvard Macy Institute for Education in the Health Professions in Boston and the USC Keck Medical School Innovations in Medical Education conference. She presents for organizations and campuses worldwide and has published books and articles for peer reviewed journals on various topics relating to creative, effective teaching in higher education. Her most recent publication is Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning, published by Stylus Publications. Gail and her husband, Richard, have devoted their lives to finding fresh and effective ways to teach university students.
Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning - Book Discount
Pauses constitute a simple technique for enlivening and enhancing the effectiveness of lectures, or indeed of any form of instruction, whether a presentation or in an experiential setting. This book presents the evidence and rationale for breaking up lectures into shorter segments by using pauses to focus attention, reinforce key points, and review learning. It also provides 65 adaptable pause ideas to use at the opening of class, mid-way through, or as closers.
For 25% off Hitting Pause, follow the link below and use code HP25 when ordering.
The course syllabus is a tool that can be used to increase student engagement. Research indicates that engaged students achieve higher-level learning. When redesigning a course, I came to appreciate the significance of the course syllabus as a tool to promote student engagement.
To redesign the course, I followed course design principles. I used data collected from previous sections of the course and reflected on student outcomes and needs. I considered appropriate assignments aligned with course objectives. I mapped out engaging content to meet student learning outcomes. I followed best practices to create the “perfect” course. I placed relevant information in the course syllabus. However, looking at the course syllabus as a reflection of the changes I made, I realized that the first impression my syllabus made was not a good one.
To start, the syllabus for my dynamic, engaging, redesigned course was very old-fashioned (Figure 1). This syllabus could easily be created on a typewriter long before computers and Microsoft Word were ubiquitous tools for syllabus creation. In addition to a lack of visual interest and design, the syllabus contained policies and information copied from syllabi to syllabi over the years. These policies and procedures were not written to reflect current perspectives. My syllabus was as exciting to read as a terms of service agreement. This realization sparked a complete redesign of my syllabus in design and content (Figure 2).
I’d like to share with you what I learned during my discovery process about transforming syllabi to increase student engagement. To begin, a syllabus bloated with content, lacking design, and/or constructed without considering the power of the syllabus to serve as an important student learning and motivational tool is not typically the kind of syllabus that makes a good first impression for a course. Looking at my original syllabus, I realized I was missing an important opportunity to use the syllabus as a powerful tool. I decided to transform my syllabus to promote student engagement and enhance the learning experience.
My syllabus needed to accurately reflect the course redesign, explain course content, demonstrate pedagogical style, motivate students, and promote student learning and engagement. I wanted the syllabus to make an accurate first and lasting impression to encourage student interest and enthusiasm for the course. For more specific information about a syllabus makeover process, refer to Dr. Tona Hangen who had a similar realization about the power of the course syllabus.
The process of creating an engaging syllabus is not limited to adding pictures and columns. Developing a motivational and engaging syllabus requires content, organization, tone, and a learner-centered perspective of the syllabus. My process of syllabus redesign began by exploring basic assumptions about the syllabus. I asked myself Who? What? When? Where? How? and Why? questions about syllabus construction and design. I’m happy to share the resources and information I found to guide your efforts at syllabus transformation.
Who is the audience for the syllabus?
Answering this question helps articulate the basic importance of a syllabus. A well-designed syllabus provides an important organizational tool for students and instructors. The syllabus assists students and instructors to efficiently plan and prepare for the course. The usefulness of a syllabus is not limited to students and instructors.
A syllabus is evidence of course learning and provides departmental offices, other faculty, and supervisors with pertinent information about the course and teaching methods. A course syllabus is frequently the starting document provided for peer and course evaluation.
A syllabus is sometimes used to offer proof of mastery of specific content when transferring the course credits to another institution or meeting the requirements of a pre-requisite course. As we develop our syllabus it is important to recognize the syllabus may be used for a variety of purposes. For additional information, Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning provides a brief overview of the functions of a syllabus.
What content belongs in a syllabus?
Recognizing the importance of a syllabus, we’ll consider the content that belongs in the syllabus. Kevin Gannon writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education offers practical advice regarding syllabus content. The article provides a good review of recommended content and discusses additional issues encountered when developing syllabi. In addition to required syllabus content that might be mandated by our employers, my ideas for presenting the content to promote student engagement are provided below. Consider your syllabi using the list below. What item(s) is/are beneficial to improve in your course syllabi?
Provide an overview, rationale, and schedule for the course to motivate students. Make sure the schedule is easy for students to understand and follow.
Clearly define student and instructor responsibilities allowing all to know what’s expected.
Develop course level objectives and student learning outcomes that assist students with identifying what they will learn and do in the course.
Describe clear assessment/evaluation methods explaining what students must do to be successful in the course. Be explicit and provide exemplary examples, rubrics, and other tools to support the best student work possible. Examples and rubrics do not need to be part of the syllabus, but should be easily available.
Foster a sense of community that helps students belong. Use inclusive language in the syllabus.
Explain course and University policies so students know exactly what is required. Consider brief explanations with hyperlinks to complete policies.
Include difficult to obtain materials. Don’t make students waste time finding and gathering required course materials.
Offer learner support and resources. Consider what resources help students learn and succeed in the course. In an online course, this means making sure there is adequate technology support and instructions.
A syllabus that promotes student engagement is easy to read and constructed in a manner that makes perfect sense to the students. The syllabus is explicit and easily understood. Developing syllabus content takes time and should be something we assess anew and improve each time we teach our course.
When do we create a syllabus?
The course design process begins with selecting materials and course content. In the earliest phases of the course design process, we develop general course goals. With course materials and general goals, we develop a syllabus reflecting sound course design principles. At this point, the syllabus serves as a planning tool and is ready before developing lectures. The syllabus undergoes frequent revision until we achieve a syllabus that is designed to increase student engagement. Backward design may be a good approach to syllabus development, however, we must be certain the syllabus is complete and ready at least a few weeks prior to the start of the course. The Teaching Center of Washington University of St. Louis provides a useful course planning timeline.
The course syllabus is important. Despite debate over syllabus bloat and required content, we recognize that transforming a syllabus to be learner-centered means that the syllabus is not developed at the last minute. Syllabus development is carefully designed and planned to create a syllabus that is clear, easy to read, and explicit.
Where do students access our syllabus?
A paper syllabus may be required and provided to students on the first day of class. In online courses, the syllabus may be emailed to students with instructions on how to access the course. The important response to this question is to make sure that students have convenient access to the syllabus. Even if we’re teaching a face-to-face class, posting the syllabus on our learning management system (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle) or other hosting site makes the syllabus available on-demand for students. Unlimited access to a syllabus promotes syllabus use and engagement with course materials and content. Although the sample covers of the syllabi reviewed previously (Figures 1 and 2) are Word and PDF documents, some instructors use other syllabi formats including infographics, Prezi presentations, flip books, google templates and a variety of different formats. The best syllabus format is determined by presenting the course content in a manner that promotes student learning and interest.
With creative syllabus design, we must be mindful of accessibility issues, copyright, and other pragmatic issues. If you’re not ready to fully transform the format of your syllabus, look at Billie Hara’s course map that graphically illustrates how assignments and learning outcomes are connected in her course. Adding a graphic element in the syllabus may make course expectations more explicit.
How do we express ideas in a syllabus and set a tone for the course?
Our syllabus makes a first and lasting impression. Students and colleagues judge our teaching, communication, course content, grading rigor, organization skills, and more based on our syllabi. We want to express our course design choices in a manner that clearly expresses ideas and expectations relevant to our course. We have an opportunity to take a warm or cool tone in relaying syllabus information. For example, a cool tone is set by this statement, “Students will attend every class. If a student misses three classes, the student is dropped from the course”. The same information can be expressed in a warmer tone with the statement. “You need to attend every session of our class to be fully engaged in the learning process. If illness or emergency circumstances will cause you to miss class, please notify the instructor by email. Please be aware that as per our University attendance policy, if you miss more than three classes you should drop the class”. To review additional examples and learn more about how the tone of a syllabus relates to student perceptions of a course and the instructor, refer to an experiment conducted by Harnish & Bridges.
explain student responsibility for self-directed learning
provide a course schedule
include assignment guidelines and rubrics (or directs students to the documents)
We need the syllabus. It is usually required. However, we can do better with our syllabi. We can appreciate the value of the syllabus as a tool that teaches, makes expectations explicit, promotes student success, and introduces the course as a dynamic and engaging learning experience.
I compared data between two course sections where the only change made to the experimental course was redesigning the syllabus to promote student engagement. When comparing student rating scores (IDEA instrument) between the courses, I found scores were higher (statistically significant) in the course with the redesigned syllabus compared to the course with a traditional syllabus. Information on the IDEA instrument is available here: https://www.ideaedu.org/Services/Services-to-Improve-Teaching-and-Learning/Student-Ratings-of-Instruction. This data reinforced additional data and student feedback from assessment measures throughout the courses. A redesigned syllabus increased engagement and interest in the course content. The students appreciated the planning and relevance of the syllabus to their unique learning needs. For me, I verified the legitimacy of expending effort, thought, and design into the syllabus construction process. I hope this blog assists and inspires you when transforming your syllabi to increase student engagement and learning.
Kathleen (Kathy) Klein is Interim Director of the Center for Learning Design and Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. Dr. Klein’s role in the Center for Learning Design supports faculty design and delivery of effective courses that promote student learning. She teaches clinical neuroscience, research methods, motor performance, activity analysis, and professional issues. She has varied research interests including the scholarship of teaching and learning and clinical pediatric issues related to health/wellbeing, self-regulation, and executive function. Dr. Klein presents at a variety of conferences and consults for organizations related to best practices in education, professional development, and corporate training. Dr. Klein received her post-professional doctorate degree in occupational therapy at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She completed her BS and post-professional MS in occupational therapy at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Klein can be reached by email at [email protected]
Can you recall the last time that you sat in the audience of a PowerPoint Presentation? What was that experience like? If the presentation was a typical, it probably included:
The presenter reading directly from the screen
Lots of bullet points
Distracting animations and transitions
I have been conducting a Pecha Kucha Workshop for college faculty titled Pecha Kucha Create Presentations with Pop and style for three years. I always open our session by asking faculty to think about the last time they had the pleasure (or pain) of sitting through a PowerPoint presentation. I want them to think about what worked and what could have been improved. Invariably, the conversation brings up many-- if not all-- of the points mentioned above. The misuse of presentation technologies can distract from the content and lead to boredom and disengagement.
Why Pecha Kucha?
The Pecha Kucha format can help to remedy many of these common PowerPoint woes. Pecha Kucha was developed by the managers of a Japanese Architectural firm (Klein Dytham Architecture), that was suffering from many of the same presentation issues highlighted above. The Pecha Kucha method consists of 20 slides, and the speaker speaks for 20 seconds about each slide. If you are doing the math, the total length of your presentation time is 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Creating a presentation less than seven minutes long, with only twenty seconds per slide cuts down on the rambling that is often characteristic of PowerPoint delivery. A successful Pecha Kucha is tightly edited and arranged in bite-sized pieces. It requires careful consideration to arrange the slides in a sensible way. It also incentivizes presenters to rehearse so as not to waste time. The result, typically, is a polished presentation.
Another feature that sets the Pecha Kucha apart from a traditional presentation style is the design of the slides. As the audience only has twenty seconds to absorb each slide, you want to select an impactful image that is worth looking at for twenty seconds. The slide will only be visible to the viewer briefly, so it should not be an image that the audience has to labor over. Pecha Kucha benefits from tight structure while also giving creative latitude to the presenter, turning the act of presenting into storytelling.
As an instructor, you can do a lot with this presentation format to make presentations livelier and more engaging to your students.
Let’s look at some ways you can use Pecha Kucha with your students.
Structure your lessons around two or three Pecha Kuchas that are about seven minutes in length. Each of these mini lectures can cover a major theme for your lesson. Between each mini-lecture, provide students with an activity that reinforces the main concept of your lecture.
2. Introduce a topic to your students
Since the Pecha Kucha is so short, it is an ideal format to introduce a new topic to your students. An introduction to a topic via Pecha Kucha can be used either face to face or online. After using a Pecha Kucha to introduce a concept, you can allow time for questions and answers, or an online discussion board inquiry.
3. Image Rich Review of a Topic:
At the conclusion of your lecture, or online material, use the Pecha Kucha method to provide students with an image-rich review of the concepts that you presented.
4. Final Exam Review
When reviewing for your final exam, create a few Pecha Kuchas with a topical overview of your content. After you present each Pecha Kucha, let your students interview you with any additional questions they might have about preparing for the final exam.
5. Tell a Story
Do you have a relevant story that fits in with the material that you are presenting in your traditional or online classroom? Tell that story in Pecha Kucha Format, using compelling images, in 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
6. Visual Case Scenarios:
Are you already using case studies with your students? If you are not already using case studies, are you interested in using them with your students? Either way the Pecha Kucha format gives you a great way to present a case study with your students and get them practicing skills! After you present your case scenario to your students, consider letting them work through the case in groups.
7. Project Overview:
If you are assigning a project to your students, “pitch” the project to them by using the Pecha Kucha format to outline the project’s requirements. After you present the project to the students using the Pecha Kucha format, students can interview you for clarification. If you are using the Pecha Kucha format to pitch the project online, a bonus is that the students will have a succinct presentation that they can review as needed to gather project requirements.
8. Online Presentations:
When creating presentations for students in an online format, brevity is key, otherwise students will not watch the presentation. The Pecha Kucha method allows you to employ chunking when you post a video, and to deliver the material in bite-sized pieces.
9. Big Picture Concepts:
Most instructors have big picture concepts that are important to their field. You can use Pecha Kucha to deliver these big picture topics to students. Highlight the topic, why it is important to your field, and how it contributes to the history of your field. This gives students a foundation in the thinking that characterizes your discipline.
10. Introduce yourself to your students
Whether you are teaching an online, blended, or face to face course, as a first step, you introduce yourself to your students. Use the Pecha Kucha format to introduce yourself to your students, talk about why you chose your field, your teaching philosophy and other items you feel comfortable to share in a unique, picture format.
11. Vocabulary Pecha Kucha
If students need to recall vocabulary or other concepts, give each student a vocabulary word from your list, and have each student create one twenty second Pecha Kucha slide on the definition of their word. Each student takes turns delivering their word to the class.
Help students make sense of the Pecha Kucha
Since the Pecha Kucha format is a brisk paced format, I recommend faculty develop some exercises to help students “unpack” the Pecha Kucha that was just presented.
One Minute Paper
One tactic you can use is the One Minute Paper. After you deliver the Pecha Kucha, you assign a one-minute paper, where you ask the students about the main point of your lecture. In a face-to-face class you can then call on a few students to read their papers. That will check comprehension and spark discussion.
Muddiest Point paper
If you know that your Pecha Kucha covered a dense topic consider having students complete a muddiest point paper, where you ask them what they found most unclear about the Pecha Kucha.
How students can use Pecha Kucha
The Pecha Kucha format is not just for faculty. Pecha Kucha provides students with a good template for presentation development which moves the focus from reading bullet points to effective presentation, followed by discussion.
1. Group Projects
Pecha Kucha gives students a structure to complete group projects. Since the format is only seven minutes long, this gives you lots of opportunities to assign students a specific portion of a topic. This saves you from needing to listen to several versions of the same presentation. Your students will also be more engaged when they listen to their peers as they will be presenting on a different topic.
2. Personal Reflection Presentation
Student ePortfolios are popular in Higher Education right now because they encourage student self-reflection and introspection on the relationship of their current learning to the world around them and their careers. Pecha Kucha gives students a great structure to reflect on your course content and how it has affected their lives.
3. Student Introductions
At the beginning of a semester, you have students introduce themselves to each other because it builds community. Get your students to introduce themselves using Pecha Kucha and give them a structure to organize their thoughts and tell a compelling story.
4. Teach a topic
The best way to learn something is to cultivate the ability to teach it to someone else. Give your students a chance to instruct their peers using the Pecha Kucha format. Select a lesson and assign different groups to teach each theme, Pecha Kucha style. After the lesson each group can entertain questions.
General Tips for Pecha Kucha Development
Since the Pecha Kucha is about storytelling, when designing a Pecha Kucha, you should start with thinking about the story you are going to tell in seven minutes or less.
Start by developing a storyboard, rather than developing directly in PowerPoint. This will help you focus on the story you are trying to tell instead of designing a PowerPoint and trying to make your presentation “fit” the PowerPoint you develop. Low Tech storyboarding tools include:
Printing the Notes Pages of a PowerPoint Slide
Time each slide to make sure that it is 20 seconds. Remember to add time for pauses and transitioning to the next slide
Next, intentionally plan the images that will go on your slide. Plan thoughtful images that highlight the theme you are trying to convey. Try to think of the images that will advance your message before you even start looking for images.
Tips for Designing the actual Pecha Kucha in PowerPoint
Avoid most PowerPoint templates as they are cluttered and difficult to digest when working with twenty seconds per slide.
Text should be kept to a minimum. If you need text, use brief keywords or phrases, as you only have 20 seconds per slide. When using text, use a Sans-Serif font, such as Helvetica or Arial.
Avoid using Sound clips or videos.
Set the slides to automatically advance after 20 seconds.
Don’t use slide transitions. The slides advance so rapidly that the viewer will find transitions distracting. You don't need sounds or video clips. Your voice will carry the presentation.
Rehearse your Delivery of the Pecha Kucha
Practice what you are saying. This rehearsal is critical to being able to be polished while delivering the Pecha Kucha. Listen to your delivery. Do you have too much to say? Remember to breathe as you present. If the timing is tight, edit your presentation. You don't want to sound rushed while delivering the Pecha Kucha.
Baker, T. J. (2014). Pecha Kucha & English Language Teaching: Changing The Classroom. Amazon Digital Services LLC.
Shank, Patti (Ed.). (2011). The Online Learning Idea Book, Volume 2: Proven Ways to Enhance Technology-Based and Blended Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
Michele Knight is an Instructional Designer for the Department of ELearning Innovation and Teaching Excellence, (ELITE) at Montgomery College. Her primary role is to help faculty integrate technology into their teaching. Prior to working for Montgomery College, Michele was employed as a Multimedia Specialist for Chesapeake College. Michele’s professional interests include teaching with mobile technologies, techniques to build public speaking skills, and the effective integration of technology into instruction. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Information Systems and a Master of Arts degree in Instructional Systems Design, from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. To get in touch with Michele, please visit www.linkedin.com/in/michele-knight
“Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. I am the guide who creates the learning experience and then steps back to let learners take over”. – Sharon Bowman
Do your students ever nod off, watch the clock, or retreat to their phones during lecture? In this fast-paced digital age it can be challenging to keep student attention. Harder still is engaging interest and helping students make their thinking visible. A little innovation can go a long way toward increasing student engagement in three areas: doing (behavioral), thinking (cognitive), and feeling (emotional, interest). If you are ready to plunge in and try active engagement in your lessons, check out the spicy strategies. If these strategies are a bit too much for your instructional palette, check out the milder alternatives.
Dealing with Student and Faculty Resistance to Active Learning
Students and instructors alike sometimes turn up their noses at these types of learning activities. Admittedly, they are artificial and so can sometimes seem “hokey” or even frivolous. In her book called Learner-Centered Teaching, Maryellen Weimer details dealing with the “nuts and bolts” of implementation and addresses both faculty and student resistance. Weimer recognizes that these types of activities involve additional planning and ask more of instructors than do traditional lectures.
Her advice, when students scoff at active approaches, is “don’t take it personally.” My approach is to be upfront with students at the start of the semester. During the first day of class, I inform students, model, and demonstrate my teaching philosophy which includes active learning and an inclusive environment. Be open with students about the purpose of active strategies and tell students ahead of time when and how they will be implemented.
By contrast, Weimer’s advice for dealing with faculty resistance is “do not seek to convert the masses.” Your colleagues exist in their own, unique web of tenure, research, personal style, and so forth. These activities are not for every teaching style and so it is best that you limit your discussion of them to like-minded colleagues. Perhaps most importantly, Weimer emphasizes the importance of documenting the impact of your approaches.
So what will it be, spicy or mild?
My area of scholarship is educational psychology. I have been in the field of education for more than 20 years and hold an advanced professional certification in teaching. My experience has involved working with toddlers, managing literacy programming, inclusion classroom co-teaching, mentoring teachers, working with adolescents’ social and emotional skills and teaching in middle schools and college.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bowman, S. (2014). Presenting with Pizzazz. Glenbrook: Bowperson Publishing.
I’ve been teaching criminal justice courses both in residence and online for six years. With so many stories about police events in the news, my students and I have plenty of real-world examples to discuss. Unfortunately, from time to time, these conversations can seem superficial.
This is especially the case when we cover the ethical dilemma involving police accepting gratuities – such as free meals or a free cup of coffee. Some students agree that police should be able to accept gratuities because the public is showing appreciation for their service and it would be impolite to decline such a generous offer. Other students argue that police should not accept gratuities because these gifts can be a slippery slope to corruption.
To deepen the discussion, we must move beyond these cursory arguments. For example, how might other officers react when one turns down a free coffee that all other officers have accepted? Might that lead other officers to distrust the refuser? Might that have implications in other areas of the workplace? Maybe so, maybe not; but, this is a conversation worth having. And too often in my class we don’t have it.
I turned to my instructional designer, Louisa, for advice. We discussed ways to increase student engagement. Ultimately, we thought a decision tree activity might lead to deeper conversations on this topic.
Display Logic: Useful Feature of Survey Software
I had several conversations with students in my office about what might happen if a police officer accepted a free cup of coffee. Across many such discussions, I developed a decision tree with various paths based on the decisions made. I mapped it out in Word; in retrospect, Excel might have been an easier tool. Excel has the ability to hide long text in one small cell while also displaying it in full in the formula box above when clicking on the individual cell.
Penn State, where I teach, offers employees licenses to use Qualtrics. Other survey software has similar attributes. However, having used Qualtrics on past research, I was familiar with some of its features. One, in particular, is “display logic" (see Figure 1). Display logic only shows an item on some condition set by the programmer.
This feature is especially useful for developing decision trees, where we want the student to go to a scenario based on a previous response. For example, the opening scenario asks whether the student, as a rookie officer, would accept a free cup of coffee when offered:
You are a rookie officer on the afternoon shift. You stop for coffee at the Sheetz on your beat, where you meet up with Joe, another officer who’s been on the job for about 12 years. You and Joe walk up to the register to pay for your coffee and the cashier refuses to accept your money: “Your money is no good here! We appreciate your service. Coffee’s on us”. Joe thanks the cashier and tells you, “It’s nice to be appreciated once in a while. That’s why all the guys stop here for coffee”. What do you do?
If a student does not accept a free cup of coffee, s/he is redirected to a similar scenario with more peer pressure to accept; if s/he continues to decline the free cup of coffee, other officers progressively withdraw trust, leading to dangerous situations.
If a student accepts the free cup of coffee, the next scenario that will display asks how s/he would respond to two incidents:
You’ve been regularly going to Sheetz for the free coffee for some time now. You know all of the Sheetz employees and they know you. Your Sheetz visit is the one thing you look forward to on your shift – it’s a nice break from dealing with the worst of society. About an hour after your Sheetz visit on tonight’s shift, two calls come over the radio: A robbery is in progress at the Sheetz AND there’s a man with a gun threatening the cashier at the Turkey Hill a block away from the Sheetz. You’re exactly between the two, but you can only respond to one call. Which call do you take first?
If the student responds to Sheetz, the next scenario increases the gratuities officers are offered to both lunch and coffee. However, the Turkey Hill was robbed and the cashier was injured, prompting an Internal Affairs investigation because of the slow response time. If the student responds to Turkey Hill, the Sheetz employees rescind the free coffee offer for all officers and now other officers are upset with the student rookie.
Once the decision tree was entered into Qualtrics, I asked police officer friends to review the scenarios for a reality check. While some scenarios are a bit over the top with the intention to drive the point home to students, they agreed the scenarios are possible.
As one can see, the progressive nature of the decision trees leads students to deeper understanding of the ethical decision-making process. The tool accomplishes many objectives: it allows students to consider angles they might naturally overlook, it emphasizes ethical decision making as a process rather than as blindly following rules, and it provides insight into real world policing issues.
For class participation, students are asked to complete the decision tree multiple times, making different decisions each time. Then, students post their responses to a prompt on the online discussion board. (For the classes held in-residence, students are required to post to weekly discussion prompts online.)
Adding the decision tree activity was a nice break from the typical discussion prompt and students seemed more engaged with the topic. Students had deeper conversations about police gratuities and, broadly, about corruption. We were able to link some of their thoughts to other course topics, such as police subculture, when they asked, “That wouldn’t really happen, would it?!”
Overall, this was a welcome addition to the class discussions and a fruitful way to use survey software.
Dr. Jennifer Gibbs is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg, where she studies policing topics, including public attitudes toward police, violence against police and police recruitment and hiring. Her work on social distance and attitudes toward police, co-authored with Dr. Jonathan Lee, was recognized in the 2016 Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence.
Louisa Nkrumah is a Learning Experience Designer at the University of Maryland, College Park in their Teaching and Learning Transformation Center (TLTC). In her role, she provides instructional consulting, support, and training, learning technologies support and implementation, and instructional design support. Prior to joining the TLTC in June 2018, Louisa was an instructional designer at Penn State Harrisburg, where she collaborated with faculty to design, develop, and revise courses for the online Criminal Justice and Homeland Security programs via Penn State World Campus. Louisa holds a B.S. in Applied Behavioral Sciences and an M.Ed. in Training and Development, both from Penn State Harrisburg.
Steve has to write a research paper for his psychology course. Given wide latitude by his instructor, he elected to take up a project assessing the relative merits of cognitive therapy as an alternative to medication for the treatment of depression. The trouble is, Steve already strongly believes that cognitive therapy is a superior alternative. That prior judgment is likely to inform his research and the paper he’ll eventually write.
Steve begins by searching for articles on this matter. He uses key phrases such as “advantages of talk therapy”, “why cognitive therapy is better than medication”, and “serious risks of SSRIs.” He does not bother to complete searches with phrases such “when is medication a better alternative to cognitive therapy”, or “comparison of outcomes for different therapeutic approaches to depression.” That is, he is searching in a manner that will tend to lead him to articles that support his current position. He will find confirmation for the view he already holds. He is also avoiding searches that would tend to lead him to material that could disconfirm his position.
Nevertheless, Steve finds and reads some articles whose conclusions run counter to his view. He finds them to be lacking, though, citing weak methodology, lack of author expertise, and so on. In short, he finds sources that support his view to be more authoritative than those that don’t.
These are typical manifestations of confirmation bias. As a teacher of psychology, you may already explore it as a concept with your students, but it’s clear that many students are also affected by it in practice. I’m not a psychology professor, but I teach critical thinking in an interdisciplinary general education program that also emphasizes research and writing. Over the years, I’ve seen many research projects culminating in argumentative essays gone awry, thanks to confirmation bias. This post explores how it can arise in coursework and discusses what we might do to mitigate it.
Definitions of confirmation bias are many and varied, but I’ll proceed with this understanding.
“Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs.” (Carroll, 2016)
We can see both aspects of this present in Steve’s work. He went about looking for relevant evidence in a way that heavily favored confirming data over disconfirming data, and he heavily discounted the latter when he found it.
Many teachers who assign argumentative essays require students to acknowledge and respond to counter arguments. Do such requirements succeed in getting students to treat multiple perspectives fairly and comprehensively? They often fail to help because students tend to misrepresent counterarguments or address them dismissively. Not only do they fail, but they may make matters even worse!
A well known 1979 study conducted at Stanford University supports this outlook (Lord, Ross & Lepper, 1979). Of the undergraduate participants in the study, half were supporters of capital punishment, and half opposed the practice. Each subject was presented with the results of two studies. One study presented evidence confirming the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent, and the other presented disconfirming evidence. Students tended to evaluate the methodology and reasoning of the study that happened to support their side more strongly. The tendencies to overrate the strength of favorable sources and underrate the strength of unfavorable ones had the effect of moving people on both sides to more extreme positions on the issue. The effect of exposing students to a balanced set of opposing views was not moderating. It was polarizing.
In my experience, students are more likely to handle opposing sources and opposing views poorly when they are directly put to the task of taking a side and arguing for it. For the typical student in that situation, everything is about finding and organizing evidence that advances their single goal - winning an argument. They have little reason to avoid the worst tendencies of confirmation bias.
Part of the problem is that students dismiss opposing arguments because they are induced to present arguments with confidence. So, we ought to try to present different stakes for them. This could mean shifting research and writing goals away from argument, or it could mean bringing in intermediate steps. A different kind of assignment can focus on research as an end in itself, where students must think about the merits of sources, that is, their authority and their content strengths. This can culminate in products such as critical annotated bibliographies, where students can be evaluated on (and perhaps more importantly, rewarded for) fair and thorough evaluations of sources.
How could this help to lessen the impact of confirmation bias on students? When they are made to take opposing sources and arguments seriously and consider them more carefully (which they are more likely to do when they know they’ll be graded on precisely that), those same sources and arguments will not be so easily dismissed or downplayed further down the road. Once a student has acknowledged the merits of a study that challenges their prior judgments, it cannot then be dealt with as trivial in an argumentative research paper.
Another strategy that holds promise involves disabusing students of a certain notion. Many students approach arguments as contests that they don’t just have to win; they often feel a need to dominate! For the typical student, is it enough that the balance of evidence tips in their favor, or is it important to that every single issue that bears on their argument go their way? I’ve had students admit to having thought dichotomously about the positions they take in debates, thinking along the lines of “Either I’m right about everything on this issue, or I’m on the wrong side of it, altogether.” Students can get better at avoiding such false dichotomies.
Conversations with students like that one have led me to suspect that another kind of fallacy is at play, one that only fuels confirmation bias. I have dubbed it (tentatively) “The fallacy of the overwhelming case.” It is a flawed approach to reasoning wherein one assumes that any point that would, if true, support a conclusion, should be taken as true. Working under such an assumption, students may feel obliged to argue for points where the evidence is not on their side. This increases the psychological pressure to be dismissive of compelling evidence to the contrary.
Think about those students who argue for or against capital punishment. Four crucial issues that bear on the morality of capital punishment come to mind.
1. Does the threat of capital punishment deter heinous crimes?
2. Are there misdeeds so terrible that they warrant death?
3. Does the possibility of mistaken convictions make an irrevocable punishment unjust?
4. Can people who have committed evil find redemption?
We may disagree about their relative weight, but a student who covers the standard bases in the capital punishment argument would probably wish to address all those issues, and probably more. To these questions, the pro-capital punishment researcher would answer the first two questions above in the affirmative and the last two in the negative, and marshal evidence and reasons to support those answers. An opponent of capital punishment would more likely defend the opposite answer to each question.
Were I to ever approve a student’s proposal for this topic (and that seems unlikely!) for a major argumentative paper, I would urge that person to consider that the best answer to at least one of those questions might not be the one they like. However, a supporter of capital punishment could, for example, concede Question 1 or 3 to the opposition. Likewise, an opponent could concede Question 1 (agreeing for the sake of argument that the threat of capital punishment can be a deterrent) but defend an abolitionist view on other grounds.
You might consider requiring this approach of students. As they develop arguments to support a position, they could also have to prepare to concede at least one point to an opposing side. In so doing, they may gain a better appreciation for moderation and qualification in their arguments.
I wish I could guarantee that these methods would practically eliminate the effects of confirmation bias. In truth, the outlook among many cognitive psychologists on this matter is grim. There are success stories to be told, though. And if we can’t make confirmation bias go away, we can try to deflect it a little. By incorporating new steps into your research projects, you may still see confirmation bias reinforcing many of their prior views, but you may steer them toward more reasonable versions of those views.
Andrew Marx is a faculty member of University College at Virginia Commonwealth University. There, he teaches interdisciplinary courses such as Focused Inquiry, Inquiry and the Craft of Argument, and Pseudoscience. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from City of New York, but continues to draw upon his undergraduate major in psychology from University of Delaware to infuse his courses on critical thinking and ethics with insights from that discipline.
Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11), 2098-2109.