Should Professors Take a Backseat?


In Professors’ Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the role of the professor in the classroom is brought into question. History suggests that it has long been established that the professor takes center stage and guides the learning experience for the students. However, more recently, we are seeing a shift in the paradigm towards a more student driven experience.

Kevin Eagan, both an assistant professor at the University of California and interim director of the Higher Education Research Institute, has seen evidence of this change documented in a recent survey produced by the institute. According to the results, faculty members have reported an increase in student-centered teaching methods. Class discussions, group projects, student selected topics, and cooperative learning have all become more prominent facets of the modern day classroom. Among explanations for this shift, Eagan states that older, more experienced professors were more likely to engage in traditional lecturing in their teaching, while the opposite was true for younger professors, who reported employing more student-centered approaches. These findings suggest that “a true paradigm shift might not hit until 2020″

On the other hand, Maryellen Weimer, a professor emerita of teaching and learning at Pennsylvania State University, is not convinced that one can take the professors’ self-reports as gospel. She believes that, in such surveys, professors are prone to “report what they should be doing rather than what they’re actually doing”. Weimer, who prefers the term “learner-centered”, sees a change in the classroom power dynamic as being key to a real evolution. In such a dynamic, the students would have an increased say in what they learn, and most significantly, they would be working equally as hard as the teachers. Weimer has noticed that, despite the best of intentions, professors are often working harder than the students, and thus remaining the focal point of the classroom

Catharine H. Beyer, a research scientist for the assessment of student learning at the University of Washington, has observed that professors are most likely to initiate change based off of their students’ feedback. Beyer insists that faculty must view students as “partners in the process of learning”, in order to possess the requisite awareness and need for adjustment that is vital to achieving positive learning outcomes. Instead of seeing their students as being “passive recipients of knowledge”, Beyer remarked that professors began to describe their students as “traveling along a learning path”.

Is such a development inevitable or exaggerated?

November Provisions Session – Teaching the Visual

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

27 faculty members were in attendance for our 3rd and final Provisions session of 2014. The three presenters, who shared their experiences of ‘Teaching the Visual’, were Liz Richards, Visiting Instructor of Communications, Susan Meyer, Assistant Professor of Art Foundation, and Dr. Joanne Powers, an Associate Professor of Mathematics.

Proceedings began a little differently to usual, with Liz Richards and Susan Meyer collaborating to co-present their story about another collaboration that took place back in the spring semester. Richards, who teaches Multimedia Storytelling, a communications class, and Meyer, who teaches 3-D concepts, an art class, decided to merge their group of students together in the hope of creating a unique project centered on a type of installation art dubbed “inflatables”. Due to the common divide of city and country students, an urban vs. rural theme was established. For the art class, the task was to physically construct the inflatable installations using plastic sheeting material and a fan, while the communications students provided both visual and audio media that was projected onto them. In addition, the communications class combined their talents to document the collaboration, report on it, and form marketing and public relations departments.

Another notable difference between the two classes was that the 3-D concepts students were in their 1st year, while the Multimedia Storytelling were comprised of juniors and seniors. Richards and Meyer explained that, in spite of the gap, the two sets of students learned a lot from each other. Although they were only able to align their schedules to meet three times in person, the use of technology acted as a vital resource in maintaining and facilitating that contact.

Richards and Meyer added that, for the students who were used to last-minute cramming and starting and finishing work the night before due date, a project of this nature required a time of acclimation. By the end of the experience, Richards and Meyer learned that their collaboration acted as a great platform for their students to learn from each other, gain confidence, and that the project provided a visual example of their accomplishments.To see the collaborating duo’s PowerPoint, click on the link – Inflatables-4.

Dr. Joanne Powers was next up to present; she demonstrated how mathematical visualizations impact her teaching and, thus, the learning of her students. In Dr. Powers’ class, games can be used to help understand complex concepts. The chaos game allows students to see how a seemingly random process can result in familiar patterns; the Sierpinski triangle being one of them.  The students’ learning is further enhanced through the medium of an interactive geometry software program called “The Geometer’s Sketchpad”where students are able to visually explore a multitude of different mathematical areas. Dr. Powers showed the audience, with the Geometer’s Sketchpad, examples of how shapes can be constructed and, in turn, manipulated to provide visual representations of the changes that can take place in the figures. The students are able to see for themselves the answer to “what would happen if….?”  Dr. Powers stated that her students’ understanding of mathematical equations was made easier thanks to the visual model. Due to the visual nature of the world these days, a visual approach could surely enhance learning in any academic discipline.

As always, at the end of the presentations, the floor was opened up for discussions. These were a few of the points that arose:

  • There is a need for integration between courses in liberal education.
  • Having interdisciplinary students in the same classroom helps to provide welcomed diversity and different insights to a subject.
  • Creativity is not merely confined to traditionally creative classes such as music and art.
  • Students should be encouraged to take risks; the process of potentially making a mistake can lead to a greater eventual understanding.
  • It could be beneficial to spread out liberal arts courses so that students can take them when they are older and have developed their sense of critical thinking.

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

Further Reflections on the Novice-Expert Continuum

This week, Jenn and I dug a little deeper into our examination of the processes that underlie the transition from novice to expert through our reading and discussion of the following articles:

Laird, T. F. N., Seifert, T. A., Pascarella, E. T., Mayhew, M. J., & Blaich, C. F. (2014). Deeply Affecting First-Year Students’ Thinking: Deep Approaches to Learning and Three Dimensions of Cognitive Development. Journal of Higher Education, 85(3), 402–432. [Read here]
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound? Educational Researcher, (1), 16. [Read here]
Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1987). Transfer of cognitive skills from programming: When and how? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 3(2), 149–169. doi:10.2190/6F4Q-7861-QWA5-8PL1
Implicit in our recent readings on composition theory, and explicit here in the Laird article, is a special concern for the needs of first-year (and even moreso, first-semester) students as they begin to travel along the continuum toward expertise.  Indeed I still am working to make the translation from theories concerning disciplinary expertise and studies about human cognition to the more personal task of improving my own efforts to assist first-year students.  While I still have a long way to go before I feel competent to draw conclusions, here are some of my intial takeaways:
  • A depth of general knowledge is useful in creating local or disciplinary knowledge.  But not in all cases!
  • We must plan lessons carefully if we hope to optimize the chances that students will tranfer knowledge into other domains (and be explicit about the idea of transfer).
  • Repetition of tasks prepares a student for “low road transfer” of knowledge into similar situations (e.g., driving a car allows transfer of knowledge about driving when you sit behind the wheel of a truck), and this will happen without a great deal of deliberate thought about this transfer.
  • The affect or emotional response a student brings to the learning process can be a critical factor in helping her move along the continuum from novice to expert successfully.


Perhaps this quote from Perkins and Salomon (1989) best sums up the role and importance of both general and discipline-specific knowledge within the context of transfer and expertise:

To the extent that transfer does take place, it is highly specific and must be cued, primed, and guided; it seldom occurs spontaneously.  The case for generalized, context-independent skills and strategies that can be trained in one context and transferred to other domains has proven to be more a matter of wishful thinking than hard empirical evidence…Local knowledge, more than general problem-solving heuristics, appeared to be the bottleneck.


YouTube Education

In What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show, Jessica Lahey interviews Michael Stevens, one of many internet educators who are effortlessly engaging children across the nation. His YouTube education channel, named Vsauce, has managed to attract 8 million subscribers and amass around 700 million views. The channel is home to a mixture of scientific and philosophical explorations in which he imparts a wealth of entertaining knowledge to his audience.

It is not inconceivable to imagine that many procrastinating students around the world have been victims of YouTube’s addictive and distracting nature. Channels such as Vsauce are able to take advantage of our love of technology, and children’s predilection for video-based entertainment.

In the article, Stevens articulates a number of factors that he believes help to engage his young followers.

First, Stevens highlights the importance of knowing your subject inside out. It is one thing to know and to understand the concept, but being able to clearly and concisely explain it in a way that leaves no confusion or ambiguity is paramount.

Stevens, too, stresses the importance of tailoring vocabulary to the learners needs. He recommends that teachers assume their students are intelligent, but unfamiliar to the subject specific jargon.

Lastly, Stevens urges other educators to point students in the direction of further resources so that they can continue their learning outside of the classroom and begin to self-educate.

Lahey concludes that Stevens’ approach is “to teach so people don’t even realize they are learning”, and that YouTube, which has proven to capture students’ imagination, is an ideal forum for this method of teaching.

For a link to Vsauce’s channel, click here 

General versus Local Knowledge: The Great Debate

In Michael Carter’s “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” he outlines a late 1980s/early 1990s debate in the field of composition over the value of general versus local knowledge in terms of students becoming “expert” writers.  Pete’s post provides us with a table comparing the elements that make up these two types of knowledge, and since he does an excellent job of summing of the key elements of the article, I won’t rehash it all here.  I will just say that Carter spends about 22 pages to get us to a pluralistic model of knowledge (general to local knowledge = a continuum), which when applied to writing instruction tells us:  “[T]he writers who possess local expertise in a domain must continue to rely on the more general strategies of the competent writer when writing outside that domain” (282)

The article, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning,” returns us to the concept of threshold concepts that Pete has already written about.

Jan H.F. Meyer and Ray Land revisit a definition of threshold concepts as “conceptual gateways” or “portals” that ultimately lead to a “previously inaccessible” way of thinking about a concept.  “A new way of understanding, interpreting, or viewing something may thus emerge — a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view” (373).  They reiterate that threshold concepts “may be”:

  • transformative
  • irreversible
  • integrative

Meyer and Land describe the “conceptual framework” that they offer up in this article as providing a means of locating “troublesome aspects of disciplinary knowledge within transitions across conceptual thresholds…” (they call this transitional state of not knowing or being “stuck” as “liminal) “and hence to assist teachers in identifying appropriate ways of modifying or redesigning curricula to enable their students to negotiate such epistemological transitions and ontological transformations in a more satisfying fashion for all concerned” (386).  They describe the tension between thresholds and liminality as that between leading a learner toward a “pre-ordained end” (threshold) and unpredictability — the “‘liquid’ space” (liminality).  On account of this, their framework attends to figuring out how/why certain students experience a transformation while in liminal space of learning and others get “stuck.”  To understand these phenomena their framework insists educators take into account “the notion of variation within learning” (380).  Student-centered teaching, they tell us, requires as certain “responsiveness” to “variation in the manner in which students engage with the context and content of learning” (380).

The “emerging framework” that they offer up in this article is really quite general (by their own admission):  “Ultimately of course it is not for us (and we would not wish) to generalize across the varied and complex settings within which discipline-based colleagues might negotiate such transitions in the context of their own institutions and students” (386).  In other words, Meyer and Land see the value of offering up a generalized heuristic or “conceptual framework,” while acknowledging this will be adopted and implemented differently based on the local knowledge of a specific discipline.

While their goal in this piece is not to debate the virtues of general versus local knowledge, as Carter does in “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” Meyer and Land seem to tacitly understand that general to local is a continuum and that both types of knowledge have impact and are, in fact, necessary in an educational space.  Pete puts it this way, “I would say that these problematic concepts represent ones that cannot be understood using only a general knowledge framework.”  Here Pete is referring to threshold concepts when he says “problematic concepts.”  He understands that a pluralistic model is necessary, as do Meyer and Land.

The generalized heuristic is necessary for those “new to a knowledge domain,” as Carter describes novices, in order for them to “gain more and more specific knowledge” (270).  However, “to go beyond competence is to go beyond the reliance on general strategies” (Carter 271) — just as Meyer and Land acknowledge that to help remove problems with teaching threshold concepts we might “create an authentic scenario…that presents an opportunity to think like an economist'” (384).  In other words, to think in a discourse community immersed in the local knowledge of a specific discipline.  I find it interesting that this 2005 piece on the psychology of learning treats as a given what Carter worked very hard to make a case for in 1990.



October Provisions Session – The Culture of Assessment

For the podcast from the session, visit the mediasite or our Soundcloud page -Mediasite / Soundcloud 

The 2nd Provisions session of the year was on the Culture of Assessment. 27 attendees were present to hear talks from John Dion, of the Marking Department in the school of business, Dr. Claudia Lingertat-Putnam, the deputy chair of the Counselling and CSSA programs, and Dr. Stephanie Bennett, from the Sociology Department.

John Dion kicked things off by sharing his experience of assessment from the school of business. He asserted that the main desire of accreditors was to see that professors had a good understanding of what students should leave the program knowing. More specifically, what components of the curriculum students are expected to learn target material through, how to assess progress toward learning targets, and how to make changes if student are failing to make sufficient progress. Then, using the School of Business as an example, Dion outlined the process of developing learning outcomes, and curriculum mapping through which those desired outcomes may be realized. To see Dion’s PowerPoint presentation, click on the link – Assessment for Provisions

Next up was Dr. Claudia Lingertat-Putnam. She demonstrated how her program uses data to inform what they were doing. As of now, the school of education is operating under conceptual framework where there are eight standards to meet – Provisions Flowchart Program Assessment (The presentation).
The counselling students are evaluated in three phases during their master’s program to ensure they are meeting standards. Dr. Lingertat-Putnam described how well-designed rubrics, including those on Chalk and Wire may be used to facilitate evaluation of student progress across learning domains. Chalk and Wire is a particularly useful tool for professors in that, following the input of a rubric, it provides detailed student evaluation reports. Dr. Lingertat-Putnam’s student learning outcome assessment data, collected via a Chalk and Wire rubric, showed that her students were struggling with both their writing, and coming to grips with the APA style. With these problems highlighted, changes were able to be made. Due to the nature of these two problems, a trip to the writing center was seen as the remedial action to be taken.

Last but not least, Dr. Stephanie Bennett focused in on the use of rubrics and the important role that they play. Within the Sociology Department, herself and her colleague created pre and post-test rubrics. Based on their experiences, Dr. Bennett recommends that professors create rubrics that are divided by specific learning outcomes, and in which instructions are detailed and expectations are explicitly stated. Having implemented such rubrics, and thus improved communication between her students and herself, Dr. Bennett discovered that her students were more knowledgeable than she initially realized. Bennett explained that, while her students possessed the intelligence and understanding of the target material necessary to complete assignments well, they depended on clearly stated expectations to demonstrate that intelligence and subject comprehension. For example, some of Dr. Bennett’s students realized only when writing style was included on Dr. Bennett’s grading rubrics, that their manner of writing was as important to their grade as the content of their paper.

After the three presenters had their say, the floor was opened up for discussion. These were a few of the highlights:

  • Chalk & Wire can track progress over time, and inform professors on what works and what doesn’t.
  • Adjunct professors need to be more integrated into the process in order to maintain consistency throughout the faculty.
  • Faculty development in the form of mentoring can help to inform and reach out to adjuncts.
  • Writing skills need to be emphasized and reinforced throughout each year of the program.
  • Clearer guidelines and better communication with the students has generated richer discussions within the classroom.
  • A lot of data is collected, but it does not always make the transition to practical information.
  • Students are honest about their own performance, especially when working with well developed and clear rubrics.

For the podcast from the session, visit the mediasite or our Soundcloud page -Mediasite / Soundcloud 

The Bumpy Road to Expert Status

Articles Discussed
Carter, M. (1990). The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing. College Composition and Communication, (3), 265. [Read]
Foertsch, J. (1995). Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories about Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy. Written Communication, 12(3), 360–83.
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning. Higher Education, (3), 373. doi:10.2307/25068074 [Read]
This week, Jenn brought me to her domain, assigning a couple of articles (Carter and Foertsch) that discuss composition theory.  Both authors arrive at a pluralistic model to understand the process that moves a student from novice writer to expert.  Along the way I was able to learn more about the two opposing schools of thought:  1) novices learn by using general knowledge (“universal, fundamental structures of thought and language”) to develop expertise as writers and 2) local knowledge is the key, as knowledge is “constituted by a community and writing is a function of a discourse community.”
Each of these opposing models was expressed in various terms and contains important concepts, outlined in the table below:

Most interesting to me was the alternative models of how a student moves from novice to expert, which I attempt to summarize below and simplify greatly:

  • General Process Model: Experts, through experience, have developed more effective general strategies than novices.  These general strategies can be tranfered from one domain to another and are thus more powerful than those that derive from local knowledge.
  • Local Knowledge Model: Experience in a domain is the dominant way a novice progresses to become expert in that domain.  General knowledge is not sufficient to advance within a discipline.  (The idea of experience is given a framework within cognitive psychology by Foertsch, as she distinguishes between semantic and episodic memory and their role in solving new problems we encounter.)
  • Pluralistic Model: General and local knowledge fall along a continuum and novices move along that continuum from general to local.  Absent the same knowledge and tools to integrate new knowledge as a disciplinary expert, a novice will rely on general knowledge strategies to acquire local knowledge.  In this manner, the novice acquires more local knowledge and eventually can operate primarily from a local knowledge approach within the domain.

I include the third article (Land and Meyer) to my list this week, because the process of acquiring expertise within a discipline is a central problem that is addressed by the authors — in their case through the use of a framework of threshold concepts.  I provided an overview of threshold concepts in an earlier post, but I think it would be useful to revisit the idea in light of this pluralistic model of expertise.  The central idea of threshold concepts is that there are certain important concepts in all disciplines that are particularly difficult for students to grasp.  Within the models presented by Carter and Foertsch, I would say that these problematic concepts represent ones that cannot be understood using only a general knowledge framework.

In large part this is because another necessary criterion of threshold concepts is that they are particularly troublesome, and often the underlying knowledge is counterintuitive to the uninitiated.  The ugly underside of this aspect of threshold concepts is that they often go unrecognized by experts in the discipline.  Having fully integrated these concepts within their larger disciplinary knowledge base, experts may be blind to the troublesome nature of these threshold concepts and not fully appreciate or even recognize the struggle their students face.

While difficult to move beyond, threshold concepts, once understood, are transformative to students’ understandings and are integrative in the sense that they help provide a more unified and comprehensive understanding of the discipline.  As important and significant mileposts along that disciplinary continuum, threshold concepts may be those anomalies where the accumulation of general knowledge does not provide a sufficient basis to continue their progress in the discipline.  Constructing learning opportunities that infuse a unique local knowledge perspective at these junctures may aid in pushing students along that continuum, happily moving ahead until the next troublesome concept slows them once again.


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