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Disseminating Teaching Tips to Faculty: The Chalk Talk Email Column

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Abstract

First year engineering students (FYES) receive a majority of their teaching from instructors outside of engineering, typically from chemistry, math and physics departments. As a result, these instructors ar e usually not a teaching "community" with a shared purpose and commitment to these students. Thus, addressing collective teaching quality among these instructors is difficult. It has been shown that retention of engineering students, particularly from fre shman to sophomore year, is strongly tied to the quality of, and attitudes toward, teaching. As part of a project to improve the FYES learning environment and engineering student retention, methods were needed to build a community of reflective teaching pr actitioners among chemistry, math, physics and engineering instructors. This paper describes the development of a carefully crafted, electronically distributed advice column on teaching developed by an editorial team drawn from these departments, under the pseudonym Jonas Chalk (an amalgam of the editorial team). S urveys of Chalk Talk readers indicate that this is an effective and cost efficient means to effect teaching culture change among a diverse instructor population.
In
ternational Conference on Engineering Education
October 16
21, 2004, Gainesville, Florida.
1
Disseminating Teaching Tips to Faculty: The Chalk Talk Email Column
Authors:
Jacqueline A. Isaacs, Northeastern University, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, Boston, MA
02115, jaisaacs@coe.neu.edu
Thomas
C. Sheahan, Northeastern University,
Civil a
nd Environmental Engineering, Boston, MA
02115, sheahan@coe.neu.edu
Susan Freeman, Northeastern University, College of Engineering,
Boston, MA
02115,
sfreeman@coe.neu.edu
D
onna M. Qualters Northeastern University,
Center for Effective University Teaching,
Boston, MA
02115, d.qualters@neu.edu
Abstract
¾
First year engineering students (FYES) receive a majority of their teaching from instructors outside of
engineering, typically from chemistry, math and physics departments. As a result, these instructors ar
e usually not a teaching
“community” with a shared purpose and commitment to these students. Thus, addressing collective teaching quality among
these instructors is difficult. It has been shown that retention of engineering students, particularly from fre
shman to
sophomore year, is strongly tied to the quality of, and attitudes toward, teaching. As part of a project to improve the FYES
learning environment and engineering student retention, methods were needed to build a community of reflective teaching
pr
actitioners among chemistry, math, physics and engineering instructors. This paper describes the development of a
carefully crafted, electronically distributed advice column on teaching developed by an editorial team drawn from these
departments,
under the
pseudonym
Jonas Chalk (an amalgam of the editorial team).
S
urveys of Chalk Talk readers indicate
that this is an effective and cost efficient means to effect teaching culture change among a diverse instructor population.
Index Terms
¾
dissemination,
fres
hman, faculty development
, FYE
S, teaching
.
I
NTRODUCTION
First year engineering students (FYES) face a variety of challenges as they adapt to life as college students. Unlike freshmen
in most other majors, they face the first year challenge that the majo
rity of their coursework is outside of engineering,
primarily in chemistry, math and physics. These courses provide the necessary knowledge base that every engineer needs,
but are taught primarily by faculty outside of engineering. Thus, the “community” o
f instructors who teach these students at
this initial, critical point in their engineering curriculum is typically drawn from different departments, each with its own
level of emphasis on teaching (versus scholarship and research activities) as a componen
t of its identity. The faculty from
math and the sciences may view teaching engineering students as more of a service activity and feel that their teaching
energies are better devoted to students in their own majors. In other words, the instructors of ou
r FYES are too often not a
“community” of instructors at all,
lacking
a shared sense of purpose, mission, and commitment to prepare engineering
students for follow
-
on courses.
This issue of a shared teaching mission by instructors of FYES is important when
one considers the number of
engineering students who leave engineering after the freshman year. The well
-
known study by Seymour and Hewitt
[
1
]
examined concerns among two groups of undergraduate science, math and engineering students: those who change ma
jors
away from science, math and engineering (“switchers”), and those who remained to complete their respective degrees (“non
-
switchers”). Poor teaching by science, math and engineering faculty was cited as a concern by 93% of all students, including
98% o
f switchers, and 86% of non
-
switchers. Student “concerns about teaching, advising, assessment practices (grading), and
curriculum design pervade” the study, which included students with math SAT scores of 650 or higher.
The College of Engineering at Northe
astern University (NU) was faced with a number of significant obstacles in
deciding how to devise ways to address communication and teaching among faculty teaching first year engineering students.
Communication
about teaching between
the Colleges of Arts
and Sciences and Engineering was limited, usually confined to
deans or associate deans. Instructors’ knowledge about learning theory and educational research was typically non
-
existent
except for those instructors who had been involved in education grants
.
In
ternational Conference on Engineering Education
October 16
21, 2004, Gainesville, Florida.
2
As part of a project to address these issues to promote an improved learning environment for FYES at Northeastern
University (NU), methods were needed to build a
community of
reflective practitioners
[2, 3]
, i.e., teachers of FYES who
discussed with eac
h other, evolved and adapted their teaching strategies to meet the needs of this particular group of students.
By creating both this community of practitioners, and a climate of change in teaching practices, we hoped to achieve
improved retention among ou
r FYES.
A significant constraint on the design of our method for promoting change was time and efficiency. We knew we had to
develop an intervention that would meet the needs of as many instructors as possible on the continuum with relatively little
cost
on their part, and in a way that was not perceived as time intensive. A final constraint was the creation of a mechanism
for Arts and Science instructors to interact with Engineering instructors regarding the different content needs of non
-
science
majors.
The mechanism developed to achieve these objectives took the form of an advice column, much like “Dear Abby.” An
editorial team was formed consisting of faculty from chemistry, math, physics and
engineering, directors of Northeastern
University’s Center f
or Effective University Teaching (CEUT), and an educational technology specialist. Critical topic areas
around the issue of teaching freshmen engineering students were identified, and questions on those topics were formulated by
the editorial team (as if “
readers” had asked the questions). The experiences of the editorial team, as well as teaching and
learning literature, were integrated to compose “responses” to these questions, written under the pen name of “
Jonas Chalk
”.
The development of the “
Chalk Tal
k
” column provided a means to form the teaching community and disseminate specialized
teaching practices for a very particular population.
S
OLUTIONS TO
C
REATE
C
HANGE
From these challenges emerged the idea for an electronic advice column,
Chalk Talk
. The
editorial team consisted of an
interdisciplinary group from engineering, math and the sciences and the Teaching and Educational Technology Centers.
These individuals met to exchange ideas and talk about different discipline models of teaching and learning
[
4]
. This created
opportunities for significant reflection and dialogue on teaching among these constituents. Next, the group (using the
pseyudonym
Jonas Chalk
) investigated and used the research on teaching and learning provided by the CEUT staff to in
form
the writing of the columns and combined this information with reflection and discussion on our own successful practices.
The method of delivery was electronic via e
-
mail and web postings of columns, which remained available on the
Chalk Talk
website
[5]
for ease of faculty consultation.
Chalk Talk
was launched as a teaching advice column on February 13, 2001 with the first column entitled “Lost
Students,” which addressed the issue of engineering students who were “lost” in their math and science cla
sses because of
varied high school preparation. From this beginning, the editorial team began producing a column every week for the first
two academic years.
A sample column is
shown
in Figure 1.
These were sent to the freshmen instructor e
-
mail list, whic
h
included a total of 35 instructors in chemistry, engineering, math and physics. After the first two years of producing weekly
columns,
Jonas
decided in Year 3 to run a new column every other week and reprint a relevant archived column on the
alternate w
eeks. This was an effective strategy as
the column
continually attracted new readership in successive years.
These
republished columns had a two
-
fold effect: they allowed new readers to read those columns that the team felt were most
relevant to recurring
teaching challenges; and for existing subscribers, the archived columns provided reminders of good
teaching practices.
It was challenging for the
editorial
team to “become Jonas,
with a single coherent voice
[6]
. Each week, the team met
to discuss possi
ble column ideas. A primary draft writer was usually assigned to compose the initial “question” and response
that would address the particular issue that had been agreed upon. This initial draft was then passed electronically from one
team member to the ne
xt, with each member editing using the “tracking” function in MS Word. At the end of this process,
the draft writer typically sorted through the changes, made final edits, and this final draft was discussed at the following
week’s meeting.
The titles of t
he columns were designed to be interesting enough to attract the attention of the majority of
faculty to open at least a few of them. Columns also addressed very common teaching areas strategically placed at
appropriate times in the semester. For example,
during mid
-
terms,
Jonas
would run a column on “Cheating on Tests” or
“Devising Multiple Choice Exams
.
” These were issues that even the most seasoned practitioners usually struggle with at
some point in their own classrooms.
Another feature that was adde
d to
Chalk Talk
was a post
-
script that was called the
“Quick Tip.” The team wanted to provide a tool that an instructor could try immediately at his or her next class, or a
reference (usually a website) that would provide further guidance on a topic.
This
simple, elegant solution provided the means to address significant faculty development issues, while creating an
interdisciplinary community of teachers with a common purpose developed through understanding the learning style and
needs of each discipline.
The creation of
Chalk Talk
provided a venue for regular, face
-
to
-
face communication among the
chemistry, math, physics and engineering faculty, many of whom are involved in teaching FYES. The inclusion of staff from
In
ternational Conference on Engineering Education
October 16
21, 2004, Gainesville, Florida.
3
the university’s teaching and education
al technology centers added further dimensions to the discussion and formulation of
each column.
Dear Jonas,
Yesterday I gave my class a test. At the end of the period only about half the students had finished the exam. The students started getting ver
y
vocal, complaining about needing more time, asking whether they could do it over, claiming that the test wasn't fair, and so on. So I told them
that for those who didn't finish, I would grade only the part they had completed. After class, the students who had finished the test came to me
and were very angry. They said it wasn't fair: since they had finished the test, why should these other students have less work graded? Now I've
got everybody in the class mad at me. What should I do?
Tested Out
Dear Te
sted Out,
First, think about what you might have done to avoid this. For example, did you try the test yourself to see how long it took you to do it? Even
though you're an expert, you often get a feel for how much time it might actually take if you try to
answer your own questions. It's always best to
try any assignments yourself beforehand so that you have a better understanding of what's involved in doing the work. If you have a TA or grad
student working for you, you could ask him or her to take the test and note how long it took; you can then adjust the questions accordingly. If this
happens again, you can try a couple of strategies. You could tell students that you're going to grade the entire test, but because so many students
had problems with it, you're willing to drop one grade this quarter (assuming that you are sure your future tests can be done in the allotted time).
If you believe in extra credit, you could give students an opportunity to make up points. With this class, you're already in a bind
. It's best to be
frank with the group and tell them you were really surprised that they couldn't finish the test in time. You might also consider telling them that
those who want the test to count should let you know, and for the others, you'll disregard the test grade in the final grade calculations. You should
then set the policy clearly with the class for future tests. They'll appreciate that you've heard their concerns and are planning to address them in
the future. Jonas
Quick Tip: To approximate whe
ther an allotted exam time will be adequate for students, determine the time it takes you to complete the exam and
multiply by three.
FIGURE 1
S
AMPLE
C
HALK
T
ALK
C
OLUMN ENTITLED "U
NFAIR
T
ESTING
"
P
roblems that arose with FYES teaching or other instructor
-
student interactions were
often
resolved using the editorial
team as a sort of mediation group. Discussions during meetings allowed administrative issues to be addressed in a
collaborative setting to bring about institutional change. For example, during
a review of a column on final exams, it became
clear that the exam schedule did not work for either Arts and Science faculty or Engineering faculty. This discu
ssion of the
column allowed the scheduling
issue to surface
,
and on
-
going discussions created a
compromise solution that was presented
to the registrar and easily adopted and implemented the following semester.
I
MPACT OF
C
HALK
T
ALK
C
OLUMNS
After running weekly columns for five academic quarters, we surveyed our targeted readership of faculty, instr
uctors, and
teaching assistants from Engineering and Arts and Sciences. The survey was intended to find out how many of our e
-
mail list
recipients were aware of
Chalk Talk
and, more importantly, how many of those were actually reading the column. The surve
y
also asked about the usefulness of
Jonas
for changing classroom practices and getting pre
-
contemplative faculty to think
about changing their practice
the first crucial step in the change continuum. Surveys were sent on
-
line as part of the
Chalk
Talk
c
olumn, and paper versions were handed out at a luncheon for engineering, math and science instructors who teach
FYES. Our survey generated a 50% return rate from all the disciplines involved in the project, and respondents ranged from
lecturers and teachi
ng assistants with only limited classroom time to full professors with over 20 years of teaching
experience.
Of the respondents, 96% were familiar with the column, 92% had actually visited the
Chalk Talk
web site and found
Jonas
helpful, while 59% had sp
oken to another colleague about their teaching because of a
Chalk Talk
column. Perhaps the
most impressive survey result was that 92% of survey takers had thought about their teaching practices and tried at least one
new idea. In the portion of the survey
where respondents could write comments, it was clear that
Jonas
had prompted many
instructors to reflect on their teaching methods. For example:
·
“(
Jonas
) helped me recognize some of the philosophies I hold and the techniques I use.”
·
Jonas
“helped me th
ink about things” and “caused me to consider how I do things and possible techniques I can try.”
·
“(the columns) cause one to reflect on one’s own teaching and what one could do better to improve teaching, how to
interact better with students and how to b
e more effective as a communicator and teacher.”
In
ternational Conference on Engineering Education
October 16
21, 2004, Gainesville, Florida.
4
There was further on
-
campus anecdotal evidence that
Jonas
was gaining some notoriety among the target audience.
Teaching practitioners started to ask who
Jonas Chalk
is (when, in fact, “he” is really a prod
uct of 8 to 10 editorial team
members). There were also unsolicited responses to columns from the readership, including: comments on points of debate in
the columns; suggestions about how to address a particular issue; and recommendations for future column
s (which were
welcome inputs to an editorial team that occasionally struggled with column topics).
As word of the column
spread, we have added faculty from five different colleges to our
Chalk Talk
e
-
mail list
, which
now totals 130 subscribers
.
T
he Bouv
é College of Applied Health Sciences at our university, faced with similar issues
teaching their first
-
year students, was so impressed with
our
results that the
Chalk Talk
column is
now
sent to their faculty.
Chalk Talk
also started to gain exposure on oth
er campuses as the editorial team spoke about th
is
dissemination
technique
at conferences and workshops. The column received a national award in 2001
[
7]
, was highlighted in the Teaching
Professor list serve
[
8]
, and was added to a number of other universi
ties’ teaching publications or electronic newsletters from
universities as diverse as the University of Maryland and the University of Australia to Tompkins Cortland Community
College in Dryden, New York
.
Archived columns are available for perusal [
5,6
].
C
ONCLUSIONS
This paper has described an electronic dissemination tool for improving teaching practices for instructors of first
-
year
engineering students (FYES). The tool took the form of an “advice column” for instructors, and each column provides
caref
ully crafted guidance on a particular teaching issue, written by an editorial team of 8 to 10 faculty and staff from
chemistry, engineering, math, physics, the university teaching center and educational technology. The columns were
distributed via e
-
mail t
o instructors in engineering and relevant Arts and Sciences departments. The goal was to build a
community of reflective practitioners and effect teaching culture change. The number of faculty enrolled in the e
-
mail list
has increased from
35
at the colu
mn’s inception to
130
in 2004. In a survey of target instructors, 96% were familiar with the
column and 92% had thought about their teaching practices and tried at least one new idea. The column has expanded its
distribution to a number of other universiti
es.
While Jonas
many not have opened the classroom door, i.e., made teachin
g practices transparent to all [
9
]
, the
Chalk
Talk
column has created an electronic teaching community among disparate disciplines. It has provided an inspiration
to act and reflect
on teaching practices, and serves as a forum for discussion.
A
CKNOWLEDGEMENT
The authors wish to acknowledge the support of a grant from the General Electric Foundation, titled “GE Master Teachers for
Freshman Engineering Students”
,
which has partially
supported the development and sustaining of the
Chalk Talk column.
The authors also appreciate the support of the Allen L. Soyster and Richard J. Scranton, Dean and Associate Dean of
Engineering,
respectively,
and James R. Stellar, Dean of Arts and Scien
ces,
for
pursuing and sustaining this initiative.
R
EFERENCES
[1] Seymour, E. and N. Hewitt ,
Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences
, 1997, Boulder, CO: Westview.
[2] Schon, D.,
The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in
Action,
1983
New York: Basic Books.
[3] Wenger, E.,
Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity,
1998, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
[4] Donald, J. G.,
Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives, 2002,
Jossey
-
Bass: San
Francisc
o
.
[5] GE Master Teachers website, Chalk Talk Column Archives,
http://www.gemasterteachers.neu.edu
,
last accessed August 10, 2004.
[6] Qualters, D. M. and M. R. Diamond,
Chalk Talk,
2004,
New Forums Pres
s: Stillwater, OK.
[7] Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education website,
http://
www.
pod
network.org
,
last accessed August 10, 2004.
[8] Tomorrow’
s Professor Lists
erve
, Msg. #572, Jun
e 1, 2004,
http://ctl.stanford.edu/Tomprof/index.shtml
, last accessed August 10, 2004.
[9] Schulman, L., “Teaching as Community Property
,
Change
Vol.
25
, Number 6, 1993, pp. 6
-
13.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Book
Prologue Part I. Practice: Introduction I 1. Meaning 2. Community 3. Learning 4. Boundary 5. Locality Coda I. Knowing in practice Part II. Identity: Introduction II 6. Identity in practice 7. Participation and non-participation 8. Modes of belonging 9. Identification and negotiability Coda II. Learning communities Conclusion: Introduction III 10. Learning architectures 11. Organizations 12. Education Epilogue.