CoVisions – Responding To Students In Need

Monday saw the debut of ProVisions’ new partner program – Covisions. CoVisions is a new series sponsored by the Student Affairs department, and is co-ordinated by Mary Fitzsimmons and Jennifer Richardson. The objective is to support the holistic needs of both students and faculty through innovative collaborations. As with ProVisions, the series follows the same format of three presenting faculty followed by an informal Question & Answer session toward the end. The first installment of CoVisions focused on the theme of “Responding to Students in Need.” The presenters for the session were Dr. Jay Hamer, Director of Counseling Services, Dennis McDonald, Vice President for Student Affairs, and Dr. Megan Fulwiler, Associate Professor of English and ProVisions legend.

Dr. Jay Hamer began proceedings by reflecting on how the counselling department and the issues within in it have changed dramatically during his 19 years at The College of Saint Rose. In those early years, there were students with depression, as well as those who experienced struggles related to adapting to college or with their roommates, but there was not the level of chronic mental illness that is part and parcel of the job today. Dr. Hamer stated that the climate has very much changed in relation to student’s mental health – it has now become a lot more pathological. There appear to be more students with serious disorders than ever before. Increased numbers of students are coming to college with prescription for medication. Dr. Hamer explained that anxiety has become the biggest issue for college students today. Anxiety attacks and debilitating symptoms associated with anxiety are on the rise. Another particular area of concern that has become more common is the rise of suicidal ideation among students. Dr. Hamer revealed some rather eye-opening statistics to support this claim. In the last 12 months, 10% of students seriously considered committing suicide, while 50 % of college students reported having experienced suicidal ideation in their life. Dr. Hamer announced that, at Saint Rose, there are an alarming amount of students with serious issues related to mental health, including a significant number who struggle or have struggled with thoughts of self-harm or at risk behaviors. Dr. Hamer believes Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a valuable resource in striving to alleviate these problems. He also reflected that the process from feeling suicidal to acting on it appears to be significantly more abrupt than it used to be. Within DBT, the students learn skills to help them cope better with emotional disorders. Dr. Hamer concluded by stating what he believed to be the two effective solutions to reducing suicidal ideation. Firstly, to ensure that the students are receiving counselling treatment; students are far less likely to take any drastic steps when they are in counselling. The second solution is to, however possible, remove the means or opportunities for students to make an attempt. This could include taking away any potential weapons or placing the students in a safer environment.

Dennis McDonald was next up to present, and he started by detailing the inner workings of the Behavioural Assessment Team (BAT).  McDonald explained that the BAT, which was started in 2006, dealt with a wide range of student issues. One of its main objectives is to “Increase the identification of students whose behavior are distressed, disruptive, or dysregulated.” McDonald stated that there is a meeting each week on Friday for the team to discuss certain students who may be in need of help. The team will identify students who may be causing a disruption at the college, try to find out the cause of the disruption, and discuss the steps needed to best address the problem. McDonald explained that the BAT are essentially tasked with finding the root cause of the behaviour and implementing an appropriate intervention. According to McDonald, a significant issue regularly faced by BAT is students’ lack of class attendance. For each case, the team collaborates with the appropriate faculty to see how the student in question is doing in other classes and in their residential life. McDonald made the case for early intervention. By helping the students and attempting to solve problems as early on as possible, the hope is that it will not grow into something potentially more problematic. McDonald also took the time to dispel the misconception that faculty are not permitted to air their concerns about students with their colleagues. If you are worried about a student, it is perfectly acceptable to share your concern and ask the opinion of a colleague. McDonald concluded by stating that in situations where students are acting in disruptive ways that go beyond the point of classroom management, the services and support exist to help faculty deal with such students.

Megan Fulwiler was last to present. Dr. Fulwiler shared her experiences about the role that writing can play in student behavior problems. Dr. Fulwiler began with a story about a young man in one of her colleague’s classes several years ago. The student was unpredictable, disrespectful, disruptive, and posed a threat to the safe environment of her writing class. After much conversation between Dr. Fulwiler and her colleague, it was decided that the best solution was to contact someone (Dr. Hamer) who would know exactly how to help. Dr. Fulwiler suggested several solutions to deal with a scenario of this variety. One of which pertained to early intervention: it is so important for faculty to share their problem or negative experience as soon as it happens.  She also recommended initiating one on one conversation with the student, with the intention of finding the cause of the problem as early as possible. As was the solution in this case, Dr. Fulwiler recommended contacting someone who can help, such as Dr. Hamer or the BAT. Inspired by Michelle Payne’s book on “When Students Write about Abuse and Eating Disorder”, Dr. Fulwiler has been able to make the connection between writing and student behavior. Personal writing, especially, is a major tool in identifying potential student concerns and issues. Sometime there is evidence of a pattern emerging in writing. There can perhaps be consistent themes of violence or depression. Dr. Fulwiler explained that it is important to find out their purpose and inspiration. Is it merely creative or does it have personal relevance? Dr. Fulwiler gave an example of a former student who, for an autobiographical exercise, chose to write about her abusive relationship with her former boyfriend. The students in the class were using online blogs to share, explore, and connect their topic. Dr. Fulwiler’s student confided in Megan that her boyfriend had managed to find her blog, which stirred up a lot of problems. The young man’s parents even tried to sue the college for defamation of character despite the absence of any identifying features in the blog. Despite this, the student maintained her blog, which was a therapeutic and helpful process. Dr. Fulwiler concluded by stating that when working with student writing, we also work with student’s lives. It is important for them to have a space to do that, and for faculty to be there to help.

The floor was then opened up for questions. These were some of the points and observations that were made:

  • Faculty should err on the side of caution when referring students to the counselling center – If there are any concerns about a student, seeking help should be recommended.
  • The creation of an online forum available to help faculty in matters of student mental health would be greatly beneficial.
  • Decreasing the stigma around mental health would help students to seek help more readily.
  • It is crucial that students are teachers alike are both aware of the resources available to them.
  • It is important that teachers have the support of the college when dealing with potentially dangerous or threatening students.

Lastly, these are a few links and handouts relevant to the discussion:

NewDataonNatureofSuicidalCrisis

Students in Distress Manual Sept. 2012

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/05/incoming-students-emotional-health-all-time-low-survey-says & https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201402/the-college-student-mental-health-crisis

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March Provisions Session – Teaching Lives: What Keeps You Motivated

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here

Our second provisions session of the year explored the theme of “What Keeps You Motivated”. An audience of 30 were in attendance to hear presentations from Dr. Mary Ann McLoughlin, Professor of Mathematics, Prof. Julie Demers, Adjunct Professor of English, and Dr. Stephen Birchak, Professor of Counselling.

Dr. McLoughlin kicked things off by providing us with a history of both The College of Saint Rose and her own journey that brought her there. She graduated from St. Rose in 1963 before continuing her academic journey with graduate school at Washington University in St Louis. After successfully obtaining her Master’s Degree, she went on to teach geometry at high school level. In 1965, Dr. McLoughlin returned to St. Rose as a teacher, where she was younger than many of the students in her current class. Speaking back on her time as a student, Dr. McLoughlin stated that she could have studied anything, given her overwhelming motivation to learn. As a teacher however, given that St. Rose was a Catholic College at the time, it was not initially easy to gain authority due to her age and the fact that Dr. McLoughlin was not a Sister. Throughout her time at the College, she took on the roles as Chair and Head of many committees. As chair of humanities, Dr. McLoughlin carried out formal class observations, running the rule over teaching staff and learning from them in the process. Ever seeking to learn and improve, Dr. McLoughlin also spent two years teaching at the Albany County Jail.  During these 50 plus years of teaching experience, Dr. McLoughlin emphasised the importance of mentors. Her parents were her very first mentors, followed by teachers in her Elementary and Secondary Schools, as well as important figures at St. Rose. Dr. McLoughlin noted the value of having retired mentors familiar with the world of academia, who can offer outside yet expert perspective. Dr. McLoughlin herself has acted as a mentor to student teachers, sharing with them her experiences and wisdom. Variety, too, has been an important factor for Dr. McLoughlin; she explained how she took her students all the way to Egypt on a field trip. To conclude, Dr. McLoughlin stressed that teachers must have a passion for their subject and be able to convey the most important elements of their subject to their students.

Second to present was Professor Julie Demers from the English department. Demers announced that she wanted to focus her presentation on her favourite subject and biggest motivation: her students. As a student herself, Demers recalled an activity organised by her teacher where the students would have to write down in a letter what they like about class and what they would change about it if they could. Having now adopted the same activity with her own students, despite initial dread about what they would say, Demers found that it proved to provide an insight into the lives of her students as they both informed her of the positive feelings they had about the class and of constructive changes that they would like to make. Thanks to this activity, improvements were initiated and the classroom experience was improved. In her moments away from teaching, Demers explained that she felt a longing to get back in the classroom with her students, who fuel her passion for the profession year after year. Demers confessed, however, that even with the passion, it is not all plain sailing. Despite all the hard work and detailed, engaging lesson plans, her students do not always match her enthusiasm. For Demers, the most rewarding side of teaching comes when her students ‘give back’. In order to achieve this process, Demers uses reflective and metacognitive based assignments as well as free writing activities to foster introspective thoughts from her students. Demers encourages her class to ‘stop and think’ so as to reflect on their own learning and growth as a student. This is what is most motivating for Demers. Rather poignantly, Demers brought proceedings to a close by showing examples of students’ admissions of struggles and revelations of progress.
Here are the handouts Julie brought for the audience – Reflective Exercises2 ProVisionsWriter’s Reflection in 3 Parts

Last up on stage was Dr. Birchak from the Counselling program. He began by reflecting that we should all ask ourselves the question“What keeps us motivated?” every day, such is its importance. Having taught since 1980, Dr. Birchak failed to recall a single year when he was not excited about the upcoming teaching term. Positive psychology plays a big part in Dr. Birchak’s life right now. Although it involves a lot of hard work, Dr. Birchak insists that we can make ourselves happier if we really want to do so. Rather worryingly though, Dr. Birchak explains that suicides have doubled in the last 50 years, and accompanies that statistic with a quote from Earnest Hemmingway – “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know”. He, however, fervently disagrees that there is a meaningful correlation between intelligence and unhappiness, stressing that some of the most intelligent people he knows are very happy.  Dr. Birchak proceeds by pointing to research revealing that our happiness or indeed unhappiness is in our own hands. 50% of our happiness is genetic, only 10% is said to be due to our circumstances, while 40% is down to intentional behaviour. Dr. Birchak validates this research by referencing Viktor Frankl’s inspirational perspective on his days imprisoned in a World War II Concentration Camp. Dr. Birchak listed five active reflections that help to maintain happiness and motivation: I am free, I like my best me, I have grateful perspective, I promote kindness and calm aggression, and I love and I am loved. True freedom, Dr Birchak says, is to hold the ability to choose your own attitude and rise above the insanity. Perspective, too, is particularly crucial, as is avoiding any forms of pettiness and drama. In terms of motivation, Dr. Birchak falls in love with each and every new year. He chooses to cherish the new moments that he experiences, and, significantly, avoids becoming apathetic. Dr. Birchak described how by becoming apathetic, cynicism enters the equation, and soon enough one loses the control of their own life. He explains the importance of finding freshness of appreciation, enjoying every new class, and in turn, every graduation. Finally, Dr. Birchak declares that sharing his passion with his students is what motivates him and drives him to continue.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, there were only a few minutes of the post presentation discussion. Despite this, the following points were made:

  • Former teachers acted as great motivators in each of the presenters’ lives.
  • Students will benefit from teachers seeing the best in them and showing unwavering faith.
  • There is always hope in every situation, and it can help you triumph in adversity.

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

Reflecting on Flipped Library Instruction, Part 2

In this post, I pick up on my reflections on flipped library instruction, using the design principles outlined in the Kim article below.  My previous post addressed the first five principles; here I conclude and add thoughts on how I might modify flipped instruction in the future, based on my reflections.

Kim, M. K., Kim, S. M., Khera, O., & Getman, J. (2014). The experience of three flipped classrooms in an urban university: an exploration of design principles. Internet & Higher Education, 2237-50. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.04.003  [Read this article]

  1. Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class
  2. Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class
  3. Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding
  4. Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities
  5. Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance
  6. Provide enough time for students to carry out assignments
  7. Provide facilitation for building a learning community
  8. Provide prompt/adaptive feedback on individual or group work
  9. Provide technologies familiar and easy to access

#6 – Provide enough time for students to carry out assignments

My thinking on this principle has evolved.  Initially, I believed that, of course, there was enough time for students to both watch my video/s out of class and then make progress on their research in the class itself.  However, I am beginning to question the open-ended nature of the in-class assignment that has been the case in two of the four flipped classes in which I participated.

When students are simply given the go ahead to “work on their papers” or to “start their research,” I have observed students engage in a wide range of activities, from searching in library databases to searching Google to logging into their Facebook accounts.

While the goal of flipped library instruction may often include teaching concepts and strategies that result in effective topic research, a simple “go to it” does not necessarily further that goal.  Certainly experimentation and iteration are key parts of the research process, but during the limited time that a librarian works with a group of students, I think more structure in the in-class assignment is necessary.

Some possible examples:

  • Find three peer-reviewed articles that address your topic.
  • Discover one or two authors who write extensively on your topic.
  • Identify one citation from the reference list of an article you have found that may be of interest.  Find out if that article or book is available through the library.
  • From your initial research, develop a list of keywords and subject headings that appear to cover your topic interest.

Having a more specific assignment connected to in-class work would allow the librarian to better gauge the level of success of the class and allow intervention — both individually or by briefly bring everyone’s attention back together — to address problems or highlight successes.

#7 – Provide facilitation for building a learning community

Creating a class that encourages collaboration and collective learning can be an important goal for a semester-long course.  Within the traditional one-shot library instruction, this goal is difficult to address.  However, what I have found during the in-class part of flipped instruction is that many students naturally work together.  This is to be encouraged, and as I walked around I always found a little bit of teaching and learning going on in those conversations.

Another way I attempted to remind the class that we are all learning together was by periodically bringing their attention back as a group to highlight something I had observed: a unique solution to something, a common difficulty, an extension on something previously taught.  And in the best of these moments, students would also contribute to the conversation and, of course, that becomes infectious.

#8 – Provide prompt/adaptive feedback on individual or group work

This principle represents perhaps the most important benefit of flipped library instruction.  As mentioned in my last post, playing the role of “guide by the side” provides a way to informally assess student understanding of the concepts presented out of class.  Indeed, providing feedback and direction during this period of in-class activity is the action that completes this circle of assessment.

#9 – Provide technologies familiar and easy to access

After trying a few alternatives, I wound up uploading my videos to YouTube.  This is about as basic as you can get, and it is a guarantee that all students should be able to access the assignments.  While I don’t necessarily see the need to introduce more complex — and perhaps unfamiliar — technologies to what I am doing, the point of this principle is well-taken.  Don’t let the technology be an obstacle; make sure it is a tool to learning.

Thoughts on Future Flipped Library Instruction

In addressing the nine principles of flipped instruction above and in my previous post, I point to some of the ways I would change or “tighten” flipped library instruction in the future.  Included on this list:

  • Be more explicit about the goals of the out-of-class video and the in-class assignments.
  • Foreground higher level concepts and stress knowledge that is transferrable to alternative domains.
  • Incentivize the pre-class assignment/s.
  • Work more closely with classroom teacher to develop both the assignment/s and goals of in-class work.  Develop more specific outcomes than simply to “work on your assignment.”
  • Concentrate on creating videos that are more individualized for the specific course needs.  As my inventory of existing videos grows, I will more easily be able to reference additional help without making explicit assignments of multiple videos.

And my final thought on future efforts: keep trying!

The Quandary of Writing Across the Curriculum

Julie Foertsch’s 1995 article, “Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories About Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy” continues with the work of Michael Carter’s 1990 piece, “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” which I wrote about previously.

Foertsch begins by pointing out that the concept of transfer is largely overlooked in composition scholarship (with the exception of Carter’s work).  Likewise, I have noted the same thing — even twenty years later there is little discussion of transfer in the field of composition (which is why I am revisiting these now “dated” articles).  And yet, as I have said a number of times in my posts for this Provisions blog, I believe that the concept of transfer is central to understanding what underlies the common “students can’t write” complaint.  I also think that revisiting the concept of transfer in eduction is important as our teaching/learning experiences are increasingly shaped by our digital/networked culture.

Foertsch, like Carter, believes that there needs to be a synthesis between general and local knowledge in order to teach writing effectively.  Foertsch in particular attempts to bring together the seemingly disparate composition “camps” of the social theorists and cognitive theorists.  Social theorists believe all writing is deeply contextual, discipline specific, and therefore local (so that ultimately transfer is unlikely or rare). Cognitive theorists believe generalizations can be useful across writing contexts (meaning transfer is indeed possible).  To bring these two together in a pedagogically useful way (and by this she means in a way that promotes transfer of learning), Foertsch draws on cognitive psychology’s work on memory.

[What follows is entirely paraphrased from Foertsch’s article.  I do not pretend to have any deep knowledge of cognitive psychology]:  Historically cognitive psychologists made a distinction between “semantic” and “episodic” memories. As the names connote, semantic memories refer to “an entire class of entities”; whereas, episodic memory is tied to a specific episode or instance (the difference between your knowledge of how to knit and what is in yarn store versus that time you knitted with your grandmother and the cat got into the yarn bag).  It was once believed that semantic memory was more “robust and more readily accessible,” would eventually replace or override episodic memory, and hence was more useful than episodic memory.  Later this theory of memory was called into question resulting in a model of memory known as “instance based,” favoring the strength and usefulness of episodic memory:  “[M]emory traces of individual instances can be retained indefinitely.  Semantic generalizations still occur, but they are by no means automatic replacements for the set of episodic memories that they summarize” (366).  Finally there is the “connectionist models” of memory, which see memory as a pattern of activation [based on the name of this model, you can probably see this is where we are headed].  “With connectionist models, both highly specific ‘episodic’ memories and more generic ‘semantic’ memories can be stored on and retrieved from the same set of connection weights” (367).  The level of specificity of the recalled memory depends on how many past episodes were similar to the current context.  What we end up with is not a dichotomy (semantic OR episodic with one being more robust, useful, etc.) but a continuum (!!!) “where the vast majority of memories have both some degree of generalization and some degree of context dependency” (369).  Continuum.  Context.  Generalization.  We are finally back to writing and composition pedagogy (phew)!

Drawing on this model’s ability to connect both the local (context specific memory recall — episodic) and the general (abstract, semantic memory), Foertsch makes the move to say writing too needs to be connectionist and that we can make this happen through our writing curriculum.  Using the evidence from cognitive psychology, Foertsch points out, one could conclude that “teacher-provided generalizations” / “generalizations about academic writing” have little use without “real-life” context or a plethora of “contextual retrieval cues.”

Q:  So of what use “are teacher provided semantic strategies and ‘decontextualized’ cognitive approach” (370)?

A:  To answer this question, we must turn our attention to the problem of transfer.

I’ve written previously about the “problem of transfer”:  that it can occur, but is rare; that it can only occur if we create pedagogically sound/effective conditions for it to occur; that often we see education as being achieved when transfer occurs; that spontaneous transfer is rare unless the situation involves an expert; and so on.  Foertsch tells us that all of these challenges to transfer occurring suggest a causal relationship between “the number of related episodic memories one has” and the ability to “transfer that learning to new contexts” (371).  This points us back to scholarship on the difference between novices and experts.  Ultimately it seems, experts have “enough exemplars of relevant problems in memory to bet able to abstract out the general structural relations…” (371).  That is, the more previous experience/examples upon which to draw, the more expert the person is.

However, even if novices will always be less accurate than experts at identifying the relations that are relevant, they can be explicitly instructed to use the same strategy that experts use….  [S]ucessful transfer can be achieved even with relatively low levels  of past experience as long as the novices are forced to process the problems in ways that direct their attention toward structural commonalities…rather than surface-level differences.  (emphasis in bold mine 372)

Q:  So how does this help us teach writing so that transfer might occur?

A:  “[B]ecause few lower-level college courses require writing, many students have limited opportunities to gain experience with academic writing….  [T]ransfer of learning is most likely to be obtained when general principles and reasoning processes are taught in conjunction with their real-life applications in varied, specific contexts” (374).

The general solution that many schools use (including our own) to ensure the general to context specific continuum is covered in teaching students to write is through a “general” first year writing course followed by a writing intensive course within the major.  The efficacy of these separate courses for general and local knowledge/writing is unclear, as students often “forget” and/or don’t understand how to apply the writing principles they were taught in first year writing.  While the general to local continuum when it comes to writing instruction should essentially be attended to in every course, it rarely happens.  Instead, we divide up the teaching of writing with those outside the discipline of English expecting the experts teach writing in a way that adequately prepares students for all future academic writing, while those within English departments rarely have the kind of expertise (not to mention the lack of time) to teach discourse conventions specific to other fields.  Similarly, those faculty outside of English departments argue that they have neither the time nor the expertise to teaching writing in their courses, having so much content to cover.  It’s quite a quandary.  For me the answer lies in creating more collaboration across disciplines as faculty.

Foertsch’s answer lies in working with students “to analyze the underlying discourse conventions” (379).  This requires a collaboration between students and teachers to “contrast and compare different writing contexts and assignments and to make generalizations about writing and rhetorical skill” (378).  This approach would use “real-life examples from a variety of academic contexts and have student analyze these examples in such a way that encourages transfer” (378).  As a result, “students would become aware of the differences in how the generic principles that they learn will actually apply once they start writing for specific disciplines” (379).

Foertsch also recommends two levels of composition courses before students move onto their junior or senior year discipline-specific writing instruction, in which instructors take time to teach the specific discourse conventions of the field.

All of this seems a very (long…) round-about way of doing what many first year writing textbooks aim to do, which is teach the “moves” of “academic discourse” (see, for example They Say / I Say).  What I find, however, is that these “moves” are often still too general.  I believe that collaboration between first year writing programs and other departments / other colleagues across the disciplines is central to addressing the problem of transfer.  The kinds of “real-life examples” that Foertsch refers to need to be understood in the deep way that experts  have access to in order to be discussed and analyzed with students.  Working collaboratively we might be able to actually address this kind of local knowledge in a more effective way in first year writing.

In sum a writing curriculum that teaches for transfer:

  • Has more writing early on in a student’s college career.
  • Has a robust WAC program that has resources (time/compensation) for faculty across disciplines to collaborate in the teaching of writing in order to create a contextualized general knowledge approach to writing instruction.
  • Is focused on working with students to recognize the conventions of academic discourse (structural commonalities as opposed to surface-level differences).