This Friday: Presenting on a Writing Across the Curriculum Collaboration

 

Hostos Image.png

This Friday May 13, 2016 we’ll be presenting our assessment of a WAC Collaboration at the 12th annual Coordinated Undergraduate Education (CUE) Conference “Walk the Talk: Inspiring Action on the Concourse and Beyond”.

The conference is focused on “showcasing action, articulating outcomes with evidence based results, and engaging in continuous improvement.”

We’re excited to share our journey working to assess and improve our collaboration with the Honors and Emerging Scholars Programs at City Tech. Specifically, we provide a workshop on abstract writing, which is part of a mandatory series of workshops for students. As part of this workshop, we focus on when and how abstracts are used and review the 5 main components that make up an abstract (i.e., motivation/significance, problem / objective, methodology, conclusions / results, and implications).

Abstract Workshop image

Our project aim was to enhance learning outcomes for students in the Honors and Emerging Scholars Programs, as related to their student project carried out with a faculty mentor that results in a poster and abstract. The two outcomes we focused on were abstract quality and student perceptions (of conceptual understanding, utility and satisfaction with the workshop).

To improve abstract quality, we developed an assessment framework utilizing the standards that we communicated to our students as our own assessment rubric. Over the course of 3 semesters, we quantified and reviewed abstract quality, to inform improvements to the workshop.

Results showed that students typically had a strong introduction to their abstract (motivation, goals, methodology) but abstracts weren’t as well-developed at the end (conclusions, implications). Given these data, we amended our workshops to increase the focus on conclusions and implications, and taught students techniques to help them develop these sections further.

Abstract Quality

Student perceptions were collected using a standard student survey. Students reported strong conceptual understanding after the workshop, and high satisfaction, though students felt less well-prepared to write an abstract in the future. This is an area we can address to improve.

Student Perceptions Image

What have we learned so far? Reviewing data from past semesters is useful for improving the workshop and student outcomes in following semesters. Further, it would be useful to incorporate other measures of student progress and student perceptions, especially those that are validated.

From the lower ratings of student preparedness to write their own abstract, we also learned that scaffolding the abstract workshop would be helpful, such as incorporating a second follow-up workshop later in the semester. Further, to improve assessment, we could collect and rate abstracts both before and after the workshop, rather than only after workshop completion.

Come join us at Hostos this Friday to learn more about our approach and join in on a discussion. You will also have a chance to learn about projects led by other fellow CUNY faculty. Our presentation is part of the “Assessing the Effectiveness of Action” track and we’ll be presenting at 10:50 am in room B-506.

We hope to see you there!

CUE conference

Student Stress & Learning: How ‘Writing Across the Curriculum’ Can Help

Our student’s lives are filled with stressors. Students have the pressures of part- or full-time jobs, child and family care-taking responsibilities, financial difficulties, interpersonal relationship problems, and also mental and physical health issues. In fact, the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders is quite high, with 32% of adolescents meeting criteria for an anxiety disorder, and 14% meeting criteria for a mood disorder like depression (Merikangas et al., 2010; Watkins, Hunt, & Eisenberg, 2012).

Unfortunately, chronic anxiety and depression can reduce our ability to focus and learn new information. For professors, this should be of significant concern. Luckily, we are in a position to help our stressed students improve their learning while reducing the negative effects of stress on their lives. And by helping our students, we too can learn to better manage the effects of stress in our own lives.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogy offers several strategies that can help students better manage stress and reduce the negative physiological effects of stress on our brains and bodies.

Psychological distress & Learning

When a person is chronically stressed or depressed, their physiological stress systems that regulate physical well-being become altered (Grenham, Clarke, Cryan, & Dinan, 2011; Eskandari & Sternberg, 2002). In the brain, these changes are associated with damage to the hippocampus, a brain area that is very important for learning. We reviewed the importance of the hippocampus in learning in an earlier blog post, but in short, the presence of anxiety and depression can impact the size of our hippocampi (Bremner et al., 2000; Campbell, Marriott, Nahmias, & MacQueen, 2004) and thus reduces our ability to form new memories. Additionally, chronic psychological distress is also associated with altered attention and reduced cognitive performance (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007).

What can professors do?

  1. We can teach our students profession-specific ways of dealing with psychological distress

We teach our students how to utilize information specific to their field, but isn’t it equally important that we help students manage the stress of these professions? There are a variety of ways that professionals practice self-care to remain effective, and we should be helping students develop these skills. You could even model this, by describing what self-care routines you follow yourself. Reviewing this can benefit the student as well as the teacher, as it may also make the professor more aware of the importance of self-care. Some ways that professionals manage stress include:

  • Physical exercise. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to reduce psychological distress. Research has even shown that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. With many Americans and students sitting for much of the day, it is important to review how physical movement can be incorporated into one’s professional life. One effective way to encourage physical activity is to incorporate physical activities into the classroom.
  • Meditation and/or mindfulness. This is an effective method to relax and focus, and is popular among psychologists, medical professionals, business people and athletes. Such techniques can be incorporated into classroom learning, even just by asking students to self-reflect and be aware of their current state. Low-stakes writing assignments may be especially helpful here.
  • Gratitude. Practicing daily acts of gratitude can reduce stress and elevate mood. This could be tied to any field, but may be particularly useful to those in professions where they may encounter a significant amount of stress and sadness as part of their jobs.
  1. We Can Incorporate WAC Classroom Activities That Promote Stress Reduction

While reducing psychological distress is not necessarily an explicit goal of WAC pedagogy, many WAC strategies do fulfill this function. Below we discuss specific WAC strategies that may be particularly beneficial for anxious and depressed students:

  • In-class writing exercises. Expressive writing is a powerful tool for reducing stress and depressive symptoms (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Gortner, Rude, & Pennebaker, 2006). By making these low-stakes writing exercises specific to self-care topics, it could benefit the students further. Here are some examples:
    • When introducing a large, scaffolded project to students, a professor could begin by having students’ free-write and reflect on their procrastination habits, what thoughts and feelings come up? How may they be able to manage these habits better for the upcoming project.
    • When reviewing a midterm exam, you could ask students to free-write about their awareness of their stress. Ask them to reflect on the thoughts and feelings that come up as they review the exam material. Do they notice any physical reactions to stress? By having students identify their emotions, and bringing awareness to the impact of these emotions on their physical bodies, students can become more mindful of their emotional responses and be in the present moment.
    • Self-criticism is highly prevalent amongst anxious and depressed students, and is often associated with perfectionism and procrastination. A free-write assignment could be included asking students to reflect on how they feel about themselves as students (do they feel like they’re good enough?), and asking them to imagine how their most compassionate selves would respond to their initial self-view. Such an exercise may be particularly helpful before exam grades are handed back.
  • Scaffolded class assignments. One WAC strategy that helps fight procrastination is a scaffolded assignment design, a central practice of WAC pedagogy. Scaffolding means breaking down larger assignments into smaller tasks with due dates throughout the semester. Not only will you receive better developed class papers and projects, you will also assist your students in experiencing less anxiety and depression by reducing procrastination.
  • Incorporating physical movement into class activities. Create activities that involve some level of movement. A great way to reduce the physiological effects of stress is through moving the body. A few activities could include:
    • The Snowball activity: As a brainstorming session, have students answer a question on a piece of paper that they then crumple up and throw toward the front of the classroom. Students then have to get up and pick up a “snowball” in order to respond to the first students’ response.
    • Creative Assignments: Send students to do assignments on campus or in the city that involve exploration. For example, for a history class, you could ask students to visit historical locations throughout the city. Students could be asked to film themselves at the site, explaining the location’s importance and relevance to other historical topics.
  • Creating fun social in-class activities. One of the biggest antidotes against stress, anxiety and depression is social involvement. Laughter, feelings of happiness, and social connectedness reduce stress and cortisol levels. WAC pedagogy promotes group and peer activities, as this increases active learning. These social activities also have the added benefit of reducing stress and depression.

 

References

Anderson, G., & Horvath, J. (2004). The growing burden of chronic disease in America. Public health reports119(3), 263.

Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in psychiatric treatment11(5), 338-346.

Bremner, J. D., Narayan, M., Anderson, E. R., Staib, L. H., Miller, H. L., & Charney, D. S. (2000). Hippocampal volume reduction in major depression.American Journal of Psychiatry.

Campbell, S., Marriott, M., Nahmias, C., & MacQueen, G. M. (2004). Lower hippocampal volume in patients suffering from depression: a meta-analysis.American Journal of Psychiatry.

Eskandari, F., & Sternberg, E. M. (2002). Neural‐immune interactions in health and disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences966(1), 20-27.

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion7(2), 336

Gortner, E. M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior therapy37(3), 292-303.

Grenham, S., Clarke, G., Cryan, J. F., & Dinan, T. G. (2011). Brain-gut-microbe communication in health and disease. Front Physiol2(94.10), 3389.

Merikangas, K. R., He, J. P., Burstein, M., Swanson, S. A., Avenevoli, S., Cui, L., … & Swendsen, J. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in US adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry49(10), 980-989.

Perrin, J. M., Bloom, S. R., & Gortmaker, S. L. (2007). The increase of childhood chronic conditions in the United States. Jama297(24), 2755-2759.

Watkins, D. C., Hunt, J. B., & Eisenberg, D. (2012). Increased demand for mental health services on college campuses: Perspectives from administrators. Qualitative Social Work11(3), 319-337

Utilizing WAC Pedagogy to Support Your Professional Development

Learn and Lead

Faculty introduced to Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) principles often note how implementing WAC practices may support their students’ academic development.

What teachers may not immediately realize is that WAC pedagogy can also support their own professional development in the following ways:

  1. Be More Productive

In their article Enhancing Pedagogical Productivity, Walvoort and Pool (1998) discuss how implementing WAC techniques can reduce costs in relation to outcomes. The authors argue that by varying the modes of content delivery (e.g., journal writing, group activities, and peer review), faculty can free up time previously devoted to delivering class content through lecture. Additionally, by designing scaffolded assignments and implementing WAC best-practices for grading, faculty can further free up time while improving learning outcomes. By becoming more pedagogically productive, faculty can devote more time to research, publications and other important aspects of their professional development.

  1. Expand Your Research and Publications

In conjunction to freeing up time to devote to research and writing, your experiences with WAC pedagogy can itself be the focus of your research and writing. You could examine several outcomes related to implementing WAC practices, including student interest in class topics, pass/fail rates, exam grades, writing quality, etc.

Several journals are devoted specifically to WAC pedagogy. For example:

  • Writing Across the Curriculum
  • Language connections: Writing and reading across the curriculum
  • Language and Learning Across the Disciplines

Other journals that publish WAC-related research:

  • American journal of Education
  • Assessing Writing
  • College Teaching
  • Research in the Teaching of English
  • Communication Education
  1. Be a Stronger Collaborator

Faculty often collaborate with their colleagues on projects. In the same way that WAC principles help improve student critical thinking and writing skills, applying these principles to your own work can have the same effect. For example, you may realize that it’s helpful to scaffold your own group projects, with due dates for outlines, drafts and peer reviews. Further, your feedback to collaborators may improve when you focus on higher order concerns and provide forward-looking feedback, without copy-editing your colleagues’ work.

  1. Improve Your Teacher Evaluations

Improved teaching performance is related to a teacher’s sense of satisfaction and commitment to teaching (Hughes, 2006; Peterson and White, 1992). Research further supports that student achievement is closely tied to the quality and training of the teacher (Darling-Hammond, 2000). By completing WAC training and implementing WAC pedagogy, teachers are better prepared and often increase their performance and sense of satisfaction, which in turn translates to more positive evaluations from both colleagues and students.

For example, one study by Blakeslee, Hayes and Young (1994) provides support that faculty who participated in WAC training differed significantly from non-participating faculty on attitude and teaching behavior. Specifically, participating faculty were more likely to view writing as a means for learning rather than testing, developed stronger writing assignments, and spent significantly more time answering student questions.

Positive teacher evaluations are associated with several professional development factors, including increased publication record and improved job opportunities (Feldman, 1987).

 

References

Blakeslee, A., Hayes, J., & Young, R. (1994). Evaluating training workshops in a writing across the curriculum program: method and analysis. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 1(2), 5-34.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement. Education policy analysis archives, 8, 1.

Feldman, K. A. (1987). Research productivity and scholarly accomplishment of college teachers as related to their instructional effectiveness: A review and exploration. Research in higher education, 26(3), 227-298.

Hughes, V. M. (2006). Teacher evaluation practices and teacher job satisfaction (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri–Columbia).

Walvoord, B. E., & Pool, K. J. (1998). Enhancing pedagogical productivity. New Directions for Higher Education, 1998(103), 35-48.

The Neuroscience of Active Learning

Traditional teaching styles typically rely on students learning class material passively, which encompasses listening to lectures and taking notes. However, research examining effective pedagogy tends to support teaching styles that are geared more towards students learning actively (e.g., by engaging students in problem solving; Michel, Cater, & Varela, 2009; Wingfield & Black, 2005).

We can turn to the neuroscience of learning to appreciate why active teaching styles may lead to improved student outcomes. With the advent of neuroimaging techniques in the 1970s and functional imaging in the 1990s (i.e., fMRI), researchers have studied how the brain processes different types of information for several decades. Naturally, scientists have had a great interest in studying learning and memory specifically, and these studies generally show that multimodal or multisensory learning leads to the most long-term physical changes in the brain, and improves memory retention and recall.

A Multisensory Approach to Learning

It appears that learning is enhanced when multiple neural pathways are activated at the same time. In plain terms, the more we can activate students’ brains in different ways, the more they learn. This means that engaging as many sensory, cognitive, emotional and social processes in students will increase their learning potential. This can be accomplished by:

  • Making class activities problem-based
    • This activates brain regions involved in executive functions (e.g., prefrontal cortex) that aren’t as active when learning passively. Read more about the benefits of problem-based activities here.
  • Incorporating short, low-stakes writing assignments
    • This introduces tactile stimulation (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014), visual processing (through imagination; Shah et al., 2013), and increases activation in prefrontal regions involved in executive function. Read more about this approach here.
  • Using varied modes of teaching
    • By approaching a topic in multiple ways, students can integrate class content by activating a variety of different interconnected brain processes (e.g., writing, listening, speaking, interacting, moving, etc). Read more about this approach here.
  • Asking students to incorporate new knowledge with personal experiences and older knowledge
    • This activates older memory pathways and allows new information to be physically linked with them. Read more about this teaching style here.
  • Having students work in pairs or groups
    • This engages social, emotional, auditory and motor networks. We’ve previously posted about the benefits of peer activities here.

When students work with each other, for example, more cognitive and sensory networks are involved. These processes include talking and listening to others, experiencing positive emotions, moving physically, and problem solving. In comparison, passive learning typically involves less varied activation throughout the brain, in that students sit still and listen. By engaging multiple processes, students learn and retain more information.

Why is Multimodal Activation Important for Learning?

Learning involves physically storing new information- or new connections – in the brain. Therefore, forming new memories requires physical changes to occur between neurons, and this process is aided by the hippocampus. We need our hippocampus for most (but not all) types of learning, and I will explain why a multisensory approach maximizes the work done by this brain region. Many of us have likely heard that the hippocampus ‘does’ memory, but often it is unclear what that means exactly. Some individuals erroneously assume that all of our memories are stored within the hippocampus, but the actual story is much more interesting.

Here is an illustration of where the hippocampi are located (bilaterally):

image of hippocampi

 

 

 

 

 

[image from brainconnection.com]

As you may notice, the hippocampus is centrally located, meaning that it can connect with various cortical regions throughout the brain. Cortical regions are the outside layer of the brain, where all higher order processes take place.

When we learn new information, neurons that code for different aspects of this information begin firing at the same time and “wire together” as a result, physically connecting pieces of older knowledge to create new knowledge. When neurons are firing at the same time, this sends a signal that the two areas (or groups of neurons) are responding to the same information source, and the two areas or clusters should ‘meet’.

Neurons becoming friends after responding to the same stimuli:

two neurons firing togethertwo neurons after firing

But what if these neurons firing at the same time are nowhere near each other? Then we need the help of our hippocampi in order to physically connect these distant neurons. First, the hippocampus connects to the cortical regions that are firing together (e.g., perceptual, linguistic, emotional, etc.). Over time, the hippocampus facilitates a direct connection between the two cortical modules, or clusters of neurons, and the specific memory no longer depends on the hippocampus. The memory is now permanently stored in our cortex, or the outer layer of our brain.

Here is an illustration of how the hippocampus connects different cortical neurons by first binding to them, and then aiding memory storage in the cortex itself (Ward, 2015):

mechanism of hippocampus

The hippocampus is like a friend introducing two other people who didn’t know each other previously. While the person is needed for the initial introduction, they are no longer needed later on. In this way, memories get permanently stored throughout the brain.

In summary, as more brain areas are activated, there are a higher number of cortical modules the hippocampi have to connect. This, in turn, makes memories more deeply embedded in the brain, and more easily retrievable.

While passive learning may lead to a weak connection between neurons, active multisensory learning leads to deeply embedded neural connections:

passive vs active

References:

Michel, N., Cater, J. J., & Varela, O. (2009). Active versus passive teaching styles: An empirical study of student learning outcomes. Human Resource Development Quarterly20(4), 397-418.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological science, 0956797614524581

Shah, C., Erhard, K., Ortheil, H. J., Kaza, E., Kessler, C., & Lotze, M. (2013). Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study. Human brain mapping, 34(5), 1088-1101.

Ward, J. (2015). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. Psychology Press.

Willis, J. (2011). Writing and the Brain: Neuroscience Shows the Pathways to Learning. National Writing Project, 3.

Wingfield, S. S., & Black, G. S. (2005). Active versus passive course designs: The impact on student outcomes. Journal of Education for Business81(2), 119-123.

 

The Benefits of Peer Review

As I finalize and submit my class grades, I tend to reflect on class components that worked well and didn’t work so well. As I reflect, I often create a list of strengths and weaknesses for the course and note the chapters and concepts that students had the most difficulty with.

When reading student exam responses, I often find myself frustrated with the fact that a large number of students still had difficulties grasping certain core concepts, even though I felt that I had covered the topic adequately in my lectures and assignments. Over the years I realized that in order to understand certain complex concepts students need something that I can’t provide myself: their critical engagement. I have previously discussed the benefits of in-class exercises to promote critical thinking, and these types of exercises (as well as writing assignments) can be further expanded to include a helpful peer-review component.

As professors and academics scholars we learn so much from our peers. Peer reviews can provide us with some of the most insightful feedback, and help us develop stronger work. The American Psychological Association (APA), for example, reports that a majority of peer-reviewed articles are accepted with contingencies. This means that papers are accepted with the agreement that the authors improve or clarify several aspects of their work based on feedback from peers. So why is it that we, who benefit so greatly from the peer-review process ourselves, don’t utilize this resource more when helping our students grow as professionals?

There are several benefits that students may gain. It can be helpful to communicate these to students as well, so that they know why they are being asked to review their peer’s work.

  1. Students often learn more from people at their level of learning.

Professors feel responsible for their students’ learning, which is great! However, it is okay to step back and have students learn more independently; allowing the student to discover knowledge for him or herself can be very powerful. And one way that many students learn well, is from one another (Boud, Cohen, & Sampson, 2014).

  1. Peer-review can build comfort and normalcy around receiving constructive feedback.

Being able to listen to others and utilize feedback effectively is important to future career success. When writing recommendation letters for students, I’ve noticed that many graduate programs ask that we discuss the student’s openness to feedback, as this is central to student success. To better serve our students, it is thus important that we help them develop their ability to effectively work with constructive criticism early on. With this, it is also important to monitor that feedback remains constructive. The teacher can assist in this by developing a guided peer-review worksheet and by discussing acceptable feedback in class.

  1. Providing peer feedback can strengthen students’ own work.

By providing feedback to peers, students often begin to think more flexibly about their own writing. For example, by taking the grader’s perspective, a student might start to better understand that the writer isn’t always successful in communicating something clearly. This experience may then promote the student’s ability to take the grader’s perspective when they review their own work before submitting it for a grade.

Additionally, by having students review each other’s writing assignments, they have to divide the paper writing process up into at least two stages: the draft and final paper. Scaffolding assignments in this way is known to lead to more critical engagement and learning (Bean, 2011).

  1. Peer review can save grading time.

This can be a nice added benefit! However, implementing a peer-review component may not immediately save you time. It is important to think about the design of the peer-review activity, so that it is designed to integrate well with your current grading system. If you feel that you need assistance with this, don’t hesitate to contact one of our writing fellows for guidance.

How do you develop a strong peer-review exercise?

It is important to lead the students through their own discoveries. This means that you as the teacher want to think about the cognitive steps students need to take in order to come to the appropriate conclusions about the assignment they are responding to. This will facilitate their ability to provide constructive feedback and accurate peer grades.

Here is an example of a peer-review exercise for an annotated bibliography assignment. In this exercise, the teacher uses specific questions to help the student focus on the most important aspects of the assignment: the peer’s clarity in communicating ideas and the quality of the research methods they used.

As you update your class syllabi this summer and think about improving coverage of certain topics, consider developing a peer-review component!

References

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (Eds.). (2014). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from and with each other. Routledge.