CRLT Blog

CRLT is accepting applications through Monday, February 23, for the May Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) Seminar, which interested graduate students can learn more about here. In this guest post, Screen Arts and Cultures PhD student Katy Peplin reflects upon her experiences in the seminar last spring.

Katy Peplin

As with so many opportunities in graduate school, I was thrilled beyond measure to be teaching my own course in the Summer term of 2015, but was filled with an equal measure of fear. I had many goals, and spent a great deal of time imagining all the ways that my class would transcend all previous classes. It would be challenging and accessible, discipline specific and yet inviting to everyone, and be effortless to prep and teach. In my years as a GSI and as a student myself, I had cultivated considerable “back seat driving” skills when it came to others’ courses, but I had no language or framework for translating my opinions about what did and didn’t work about other courses into a syllabus or teaching philosophy.

Luckily for me, the notification of teaching assignments was in my inbox as the email encouraging me to apply for the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) seminar arrived. When I read that I would leave the 10 day seminar with a course syllabus, in addition to a teaching philosophy and a CV item, I jumped at the chance and applied. What I didn’t know is that not only would PFF help me shape my syllabus, but it would help me shape myself as a teacher, a scholar and a professional as well.

Large courses present some distinct challenges to teachers and students. How, for example, can hundreds of students practice challenging concepts simultaneously? And how can instructors in large courses gain insights about the learning of all of their many students? 

CRLT has sponsored several faculty learning communities focused on effective strategies for teaching in large courses. Faculty members learn together about pedagogical tools and technologies that facilitate student learning and then develop concrete applications for them in their specific courses. In this 6-minute video, one participant, psychology professor Pamela Davis-Kean, highlights her use of Google Forms to provide students practice with key skills and difficult concepts in an upper-level course of 150 students. She recommends it as a flexible, easy-to-learn technology that can enhance student interaction and engagement in a large course setting.

For more details about Davis-Kean's use of Google Forms, see this page. You can find more examples of U-M instructors creatively using online tools to enhance student collaboration and learning in our searchable list. And you can click on the "large course" tab below for more examples and resources specifically related to such classes.

Photo of students taking notes on laptops and notebookIs the pen mightier than the keyboard? Based on a recent study, when it comes to notetaking in class, the answer to this question might be “yes.” In their 2014 article on student notetaking, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared students who took handwritten notes with those who used a laptop. Their findings, which held over several different experimental settings, indicate that longhand notes lead to better learning. (U-M users can get the full article here.)

In tests given immediately after a lecture, recall of factual information was equal for both modes of notetaking. However, students remembered significantly greater amounts of conceptual information after taking handwritten notes. When tests were delayed by a week (a situation that more closely mirrors a classroom setting), the hand-writers performed significantly better on both factual and conceptual test questions.

Mueller and Oppenheimer explain that, although laptop notetakers record significantly more words, they do so in a verbatim fashion, without much cognitive processing. Those who write by hand can record fewer words and therefore must synthesize and summarize, rather than simply transcribe, the lecture. When tests occur immediately, capturing a large amount of verbatim information leads to good factual recall, but less ability to retain concepts. However, the shallow processing that characterizes laptop notetaking seems to be detrimental in the long run for both factual and conceptual recall.

These findings could well be counterintuitive for students who feel better able to follow lectures by typing notes. Especially given the large body of research showing the power of technology to distract students, instructors might want to proactively help students maximize the usefulness of technology while minimizing its potentially negative effects. Here are some suggestions:

Michigan Diag during winter

As we move into winter term, with its mix of intense academic demands and challenging weather, it's a good time for instructors to prepare to respond or reach out to students experiencing mental health challenges. Whether they are grappling with anxiety, depression, or other sorts of distress, students' mental heath struggles often become apparent to teachers when they take a toll on their academic work. And students in distress sometimes turn to teachers for help because they see them as their most immediate support network.

As U-M’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) states in their guide for instructors on Helping Students in Distress, "your role can be a positive and crucial one in identifying students who are in distress and assisting them in finding the appropriate resources." 

What should you do if you know or suspect a student is in need of your assistance? Detailed guidance can be found in the CAPS guide above or at the University's Mental Health Resources webpage for faculty and staff. In general they recommend, if a student comes to you, that you listen attentively and without judgment. You can help the student develop an action plan for addressing their main concerns, especially with coursework, but remember that it's not your role or responsibility to provide professional help for students facing mental health challenges. You can support students by referring them to relevant campus resources. Depending on the circumstances, these might include: