Guest Post: Standing in My Students’ Flip-Flops

The essay below was penned by Assumption College’s Richard Bonanno, a professor of Italian, describing a package of new strategies he has used to help his students master a difficult text.  Prof. Bonanno will be working more closely with the DCTE in the 2018-2019 academic year as one of the participants in this year’s Course Innovation Academy.Bonano_1

The subject matter and learning goals of my courses may have changed throughout the years, yet a simple guiding principle has remained, for the most part, steadfast: putting myself in the shoes of my students. Let’s refer to it from here on as the Ugg Jordan approach, which consists of mining my memory banks for lessons learned from my own education and channeling not only the wisdom of my mentors but, perhaps more importantly, the cadence, timbre, and inflection of their voices. If, for example, Prof. Guido Guarino’s raspy discussion of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was so deeply moving to me during my graduate years, then my students at Assumption College would not only learn as much as I had but also marvel at my dramatic reprise of the structure of his seminar and his delivery of the subject matter.

But in recent years the Ugg Jordan approach has begun to fail me. For example, in Spring 2013, when I last taught the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, giving life to my inner Prof. Franco Ferrucci was leaving students in a state of somnolence. Why weren’t they responding to the supplicatory fiddling of the fingers of my outstretched hand as I glossed verses in a seductively silky voice a la Ferrucci? Despite how well I knew my Dante and how ably I mimicked my mentor, my course objectives were not being fully met. I came to realize that my fundamental approach—like my courses—was in need of serious reinvention. Fortunately, I am still committed to thinking critically, resisting complacency, and considering my trade seriously, even though such processes often create a considerable amount of extra work.

I had been putting myself in my students’ shoes with the best of intentions in mind, but it became increasingly clear that they were essentially receiving what was best for me regarding my experience as student. Despite wearing their Uggs or Air Jordans, I was formulating my courses according to my needs. I was seeing with my eyes, hearing with my ears, and learning according to a traditional model that had always worked for me: the lecture. What had essentially been an exercise in self-absorption needed a dramatic shift of perspective so that I might better meet the needs of a new generation of learners.

How, then, could I apply the new and improved Ugg Jordan approach to my Spring 2018 offering of CLT 225: Dante’s Comedy, which dares to present a 700-year-old epic poem to a class of Snapchatters, Instagrammers, and Tweeters? The languorous nature of Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven toward his ultimate beatific vision is, indeed, anathema to the snap, the instant, and the tweet that characterize the quickness and brevity of the media that comprise the majority of our students’ reception and transmission of information, but plenty of old-school learners also find reading a text like the Divine Comedy challenging. It would have been a particularly long semester had I not carried out some major changes to my traditional delivery of the course, and chances are that the Ugg Jordan approach, with its novel adjustment of perspective, could be applied to courses in other disciplines. Below are some of the changes that helped make the course a success:

1 – Keep it real: My graduate instructors had never found it necessary to review the learning goals in their seminars; I was in class quite simply because I loved literature and hoped to someday share my passion in the classroom. However, from day one in my course on the Commedia at Assumption College, we spoke about developing a general understanding and appreciation of the text, and students were encouraged to consider their own lives in light of Dante’s journey of self-discovery. Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta of Yale University has written at length on the Divine Comedy, in particular on the author’s presentation of a “circle of knowledge” and of the notion of a liberal arts education as a means by which individuals free themselves from tyranny. I applied Mazzotta’s lesson to the course and, more broadly, to the education offered at Assumption College, encouraging students to reflect on its meaning in their lives, and much as the poet comes full circle in his voyage, we ended the semester as though it were a new point of departure.

Dante bookmaking workshop
Bookmaking workshop with Prof. Spani.

2 – Balance theory and praxis: Instructors clearly need to communicate important content, and lecture format is what many of us know best. However, interactive class meetings that get students on their feet or using their hands have clear merit and, quite frankly, can be particularly memorable. My students developed a much deeper appreciation for the Commedia during a bookmaking workshop led by colleague Prof. Giovanni Spani of the College of the Holy Cross. They found that making your own ink out of raspberries and writing even a few words with a properly-trimmed feather are extraordinarily time-consuming tasks. It was easier for them to see how difficult it must have been for a Benedictine monk to transcribe a medieval text, and when they reflected more deeply on the exercise, the genius of Dante and his text came into sharper focus.

3 – Think outside both the lines and the campus: The teaching load at Assumption College often makes it difficult for instructors to design novel class meetings or plan excursions, but there are some excellent resources available to those of us willing and able to take our shows on the road. Students of the Commedia seemed to enjoy the scavenger hunt that I prepared for a class meeting in the Worcester Art Museum (you can see the instructions for the hunt here: Dante Scavenger Hunt). Groups of three students had an hour to connect a series of textual clues to works of art located throughout the museum. Though challenging for some, the activity fostered a deeper understanding of the text and gave all students the opportunity to explore the museum in a truly interdisciplinary way. We ended class in the Chapter House, which had once been part of a Benedictine monastery; this was especially captivating because we had recently spoken in depth about the importance of monastic communities as centers of learning in the middle ages. Are you interested in carrying out the scavenger hunt at the Worcester Art Museum? Download the text here, bring your annotated copy of the Divine Comedy, and give yourself one hour. Buona fortuna! If not, consider finding ways of tapping into the richness of WAM as a teaching resource.

4 – Be an on-line arbiter: The allure of the internet for immediate answers to all our questions is undeniable, but the course instructor has the power to steer students toward the best digital resources. Nancy O’Sullivan in the D’Alzon Library did a wonderful job of helping me create an on-line study guide for the course; it was a valuable point of reference for students, one that helped me ensure that their on-line sources for the writing assignment would be among the most reliable and that they were familiarizing themselves in general with the authorities in the digital world of Dante Studies.

5 – Make the assignments memorable (and keep ‘em real): I am not averse to assigning essays on the most popular scenes or themes in the Commedia, but students seem to gain more from writing assignments or exam questions that encourage greater self-reflection. For example, students were required to compose a brief essay on one of three topics in the last part of the final exam. Two questions elicited an impersonal response involving textual analysis, while a third was worded as follows:

You are camped out beneath an umbrella on your favorite beach during your annual summer vacation with family. Seated next to you is your favorite uncle, who works as an auto body repairman in your hometown. Despite never having attended college, he is hardworking, bright, and curious, and wants to know more about what you have studied this semester. How would you describe the Commedia to him?

If the 18 students enrolled in the class are able to provide an evocative description of Dante’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso as it relates to their realities, then I will have more effectively put myself in their shoes (or flip-flops in this case), but this time with a greater sensitivity toward how the sand feels between their toes, not mine. And perhaps my Ugg Jordan approach will be ready for the mainstream.

Prof. Carl Keyes Selected for Bright Institute

Carl KeyesJust a quick note of congratulations to Assumption College History Professor Carl Robert Keyes, stalwart supporter and friend of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence.  Carl has been selected as a member of the first cohort at the Bright Institute at Knox College (see biographies of all cohort members).  As Carl describes it, “This three-year program for professors of American history before 1848 at liberal arts colleges features an annual intensive two-week summer seminar devoted to integrating research and pedagogy in the undergraduate classroom.”

Carl traces his journey into this first cohort of the Bright Institute from his time in our Course Innovation Academy, and we are pleased to have played a small role in his journey to this new honor and opportunity.  We look forward to continuing to learn from Carl about excellence in teaching, and to promoting his many achievements as a teacher and scholar.


2018 Innovations in Higher Education Lecture: Dr. Anne Ellen Geller

In October of 2016 I traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia to give a keynote at a conference there.  I had one afternoon free during my visit, and used it to walk along the beautiful (albeit cold) waterfront. I brought a book with me, as I always do, and after my walk I sat down at a coffee shop to read for an hour.  I still vividly remember thinking two related thoughts as I read The Meaningful Writing Project: I wanted to write about the book for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I had to get one of the authors to deliver the 2018 Innovations in Higher Education Lecture at Assumption College. Meaningful Writing Project

The Meaningful Writing Project, co-authored by Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner, analyzes survey results from more than 700 undergraduates at three different institutions, who were given two prompts:

  • Describe a writing project from your undergraduate education that was meaningful to you.
  • Explain why it was meaningful.

The authors spent several years interpreting and categorizing the responses to those two questions. Working with a team (which included undergraduates), they supplemented their survey data by interviews with two groups: (1) a subset of the survey respondents, and (2) faculty members who had created meaningful writing assignments.

The results have tantalizing implications for those of us who design writing assignments — whatever the discipline, and whether they are for a first-year writing course or a senior seminar.  The book offers a small number of thought-provoking principles that any instructor can consider when crafting a writing assignment–and although I’m not sure the authors would agree with me, I believe those principles would apply to the crafting of non-writing assignments as well, including presentations or projects of any kind.  I describe the principles articulated in the book in a little bit more detail in my Chronicle column on The Meaningful Writing Project.

When I returned from Halifax andAnne Geller discovered that one of the authors of the book had taught at Clark University across town from us in Worcester, I reached out to her immediately.  I am therefore thrilled to announce that Dr. Anne Ellen Geller, Professor and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at St. John’s University, will be giving the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence’s Innovations in Higher Education Lecture during the common hour (11:30-12:30) on Tuesday, February 13th, 2018Later that day, from 3:30-5:00 pm, she will conduct an optional workshop, aimed at RWI instructors but open to all faculty on campus, on making meaningful writing projects in any course.  We’ll ask participants to bring a writing assignment or even just the idea for a writing assignment to the session, and Dr. Geller will help walk us through a process of making it as meaningful as possible to our students. Dr. Geller will finish her day with us by joining the Course Innovation Academy for dinner and discussion.

Dr. Geller’s visit will present us with an incredibly valuable opportunity to enhance our conversations about how to help our students become better writers, as well as how we can help them find meaning in the work we ask them to do.  I hope you will join us for what promises to be a fascinating conversation.

The Innovations in Higher Education Lecture is free and open to the public; Assumption faculty (including all full and part-time faculty) will receive an e-mail with a request for RSVPs for the afternoon workshop.

A Door That Shuts

How to Write a Lot (Even at a SLAC)

I’m arguing for a revolution.

But first, a bit of backstory.

Last week a group of our faculty gathered over some dinner (and delicious pastries) for our Fall Faculty Learning Community. We discussed Paul Silvia’s slim tome How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Academic Writing.



Recommendations from the Book

Silvia’s recommendations all center around the idea that the only hack you need to get more writing in your life is to schedule regular times in your weekly schedule to do so, and to then ruthlessly defend those writing times.

He proposes every objection you might have to this thesis and one by one knocks them all down.

Do you feel the need to wait to “find” time to write, perhaps winter break or summer break or spring break, and then engage in what he calls binge writing, and then always ends those breaks lamenting about how little you got done? You don’t look for time to teach or do service or eat meals – writing is an instrumental part of your job as an academic, and you need to treat it like a necessity, not a luxury. You need to create and then defend time in your schedule to do it.

Do you tell yourself you need to wait until you feel inspired to write? Silvia presents data to illustrate that in contrast to intuition, people feel most inspired to write when they have regular times for writing in their schedule.

Do you eternally feel like you need to read a few more articles or do a few more analyses before you can get started writing? No sweat, Silvia argues, just do these things during your writing blocks. Anything that progresses your writing counts.

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 3.07.35 PM

He doesn’t shy away from some tough love. “If you don’t plan to make a schedule,” he writes, “gently close this book, clean it so it looks brand new, and give it as a gift to a friend who wants to be a better writer.”

An Illuminating Discussion

In the discussion of Silvia’s ideas and whether or not they fit with our particular teaching and service load, I shared with my table that Silvia’s ideas are all echoed by Stephen King in his wonderful book On Writing. I told my tablemates that since (re)reading Silvia’s book I had made the sign below for my office door.

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 2.59.47 PM (2)

Reactions were mixed. Several faculty members wanted me to share the sign. Others seemed uneasy with the idea of a closed door.

Associate Professor Lisa D’Souza shared that when she began working at Assumption College, Nanho Vander Hart (who happened to be sitting next to her) was chair of the education department and their offices were next to each other. “I learned about the culture here from Nanho,” Lisa said, “She is on campus every single day and her office door is never shut. She is always available to faculty and students, and I tried to emulate that right from the start.”

Others at my table seemed similarly uncomfortable with the idea of closing doors on colleagues and students.

I pushed back. If we are hired to accomplish a balanced trifecta of teaching, scholarship, and service, how can we accomplish that if we don’t carve time out for scholarship? Moreover, doesn’t our scholarship directly enrich our teaching? And doesn’t being scholars in our field enhance the reputation of the college, thus also enhancing our service to the college?

Last spring our Learning Community focused on Discussion in the College Classroom by Jay Howard. He is a sociologist who studies social norms in the classroom that govern how willing students are to participate in discussions. Social norms in academic settings have thus been on my mind.

I realized that what I was pushing back against was a college-specific social norm that centered around endlessly prioritizing teaching and service over scholarship. Which of course is part of what makes our college extraordinary – the love and care all of our faculty bring to our students and to our college’s endeavors. This norm is also part of the special appeal of small liberal arts colleges in general — both for those of us who love teaching, and of course for parents and students looking for that particular flavor of higher-ed.

I would never argue that this deeply held value should change.

But what I would argue is for more moderation in our approach to the trifecta of demands upon us. I argue that prioritizing scholarship helps our students and our college as well as our own careers. That we are allowed to shut our doors to read and to think and to write. That we deserve that time to remember what first drew us to a life of the mind.

Woman reading inside a huge book

A Call to Revolution

In the larger group discussion, I shared these thoughts and wondered aloud whether we could change these norms surrounding the importance of writing and scholarship, to start a small intellectual revolution. Several faculty members seemed to warm to the idea of a collective change of our norms. One attendee suggested that we could advocate that the master schedules we all fill out include blocks for writing and scholarship as well as for teaching and office hours. Another mentioned keeping writing blocks in mind when requesting teaching times in the spring, intentionally setting class schedules so that the hours when his mind is the freshest for writing aren’t taken up by classes or office hours.

People who felt they would still feel uncomfortable with closed office doors discussed the possibility of writing from home or in coffee shops.

Everyone seemed a bit energized and excited about encouraging each other’s scholarship.

And the Revolution Will Be Social

At the end of the discussion, most of the attendees met with smaller groups interested in leveraging the power of accountability, deadlines, and social support to encourage their writing efforts. We facilitated organization of three types of writing groups: one in which groups meet biweekly to share deadlines and goals and progress, one in which groups join each other for side-by-side silent writing, and one in which groups share and provide feedback on actual drafts.
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Local folks, keep your eyes peeled for an email from us about the side-by-side silent writing – we’ll provide the schedule and the space in the CTE conference rooms, and you can drop in whenever you like to do some writing with colleagues.

We’ll even shut the door for you.


The 2017-2018 academic year has arrived, and we are off and running at the Assumption College D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence.  We want to remind you about some of the core resources and programming of the Center, but first we are especially pleased to announce the new places, people, and initiatives associated with the Center for the 2017-2018 academic year.

New HoLarge Signme

First and most importantly, we have arrived in our new home in the Tsotsis Family Academic Center.  You can find Sarah and Jim on the second floor, in the wing which also contains the Honors, Core Texts, and SOPHIA programs.  You will find our always-growing library of books on teaching and learning in higher education in the alcove outside of our offices (TFAC 230 and 231), and we will be hosting our smaller events in the adjacent (and sparkling new) conference rooms (TFAC 227 and 237).  Visitors to our new spaces always warmly welcomed.

New People

We are pleased to announce that Mark Lonergan has joined the Center for Teaching Excellence as our Instructional Designer.  For the past year Mark has been working at Assumption to help provide ideas, support, and resources to faculty who are teaching online courses.  He will continue working in that capacity, as well as contributing more generally to the work of the Center, and helping us all consider ways in which emerging technologies can support the work of teaching and learning on campus.

Student Fellows

We are extraordinarily pleased to announce the creation of our Student Fellows Program, and present to you the four student members of our team.  The Student Fellows will be working with us throughout the year on a number of initiatives, including assistance with our Davis grant, meeting and discussing the student experience with faculty in our New Faculty Orientations and Course Innovation Academy, planning one of our spring Food for Thought events, and writing a blog post for this web site.  Look for those posts throughout the year under the heading of “Student Perspectives on Learning at Assumption.” And please congratulate these students if you know them or see them around campus!

Tamra Adams

Tamra AdamsTamra comes to Assumption from Quincy, MA, and is a senior biology major with a minor in psychology and a concentration in neuroscience.  She serves as president of the senior class, head tutor in the Academic Support Center, and co-founder and vice-president of the Student Philanthropy Club.  After graduation, Tamra plans to attend graduate school to become a physician’s assistant.

Kurt FalterKurt-Falter-150x150

Hailing from Walpole, Massachusetts, Kurt has double majors in history/secondary education with a minor in political science. He loves American history and politics in particular and hopes to teach both subjects at either the high school level or higher ed. This past summer he held an internship at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, where he was able to teach school and tour groups about the importance of our government and civic engagement. When he’s not obsessing over history, he likes to play violin, read Stephen King, and fulfill his New England duty to drink Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee everyday.

Jessica FerronettiJessica Ferrnetti

Jess Ferronetti is a senior from Andover, MA, double majoring in Spanish and secondary education with a minor in psychology. On campus, she works at the Academic Support Center and the Assumption College Bookstore. She is currently working on her Honors Thesis and is a member of the Spanish National Honor Society and Habitat for Humanity. When she’s not working on campus, she enjoys sitting out in the sun and reading. After graduating, she hopes to get a teaching position at a high school and obtain her masters degree in Spanish.

Carly Wheaton

Carly-Wheaton-150x150Carly Wheaton comes to Assumption from the town of Marshfield, Massachusetts. She is a senior majoring in elementary education and mathematics. Upon graduation, she will be licensed to teach grades 1-6 at the elementary level, as well as math in grades 6-8. On campus, she serves as head tutor at the Academic Support Center, with her instructional focus being mathematics. With teaching as her true passion, she looks forward to impacting the education of the future students at Assumption by fully investing herself in the opportunities that this fellowship will offer.

Ongoing Work

The regular work of the Center continues, and so we finish this welcome post with some reminders about that work.  Remember that you can always find an updated list of upcoming and recent CTE programming at our Events page.  Please check back frequently for new additions.


Food for Thought Conversations.  These informal events are held twice per semester, and provide an opportunity for faculty members to learn about and discuss common challenges in higher education pedagogy, as well as new or innovative teaching approaches.  Suggestions for topics for the lunches come from the faculty at large or from the Center for Teaching Excellence Advisory Council.

Faculty Learning Communities.  Each semester the CTE selects a book or collection of readings related to teaching and learning in higher education.  The Center purchases and distributes copies of the common reading to all interested faculty, and schedules a dinner discussion early in the semester.  Suggestions for books for future Faculty Learning Communities are warmly welcomed.

Innovations in Higher Education Lecture.  Each spring the Center invites a nationally recognized scholar or practitioner of higher education pedagogy to deliver a lecture on campus about the current state and future of higher education.  Depending upon the discipline and scheduling of the scholar, other events may be organized around this lecture, including smaller faculty workshops, visits to classes, or meetings with relevant committees or individuals.  These lectures are free and open to the public.

Course Innovation Academy.  Each year the Center guides a small group of faculty through a course renovation process that draws upon the scholarship of teaching and learning to help them create dynamic new courses for their students.  The Academy’s work commences at a half-day meeting in August, and then continues with readings and monthly dinner meetings throughout the year.  The group reads about and discusses new research from the learning sciences, innovations in college teaching, advances in educational technologies, and alternative course design and assessment models.  This year’s Academy participants are:

Laura Blake, Business Studies

Bryan Coleman, Business Studies

Lisa D’Souza, Education

Karolina Fucikova, Natural Sciences

Jeremy Geddert, Political Science

Leamarie Gordon, Psychology

Nalin Ranasinghe, Philosophy

Allison Stoner, Psychology


Individual faculty members, both full- and part-time, can request consultations with the Director, Associate Director, or Instructional Designer at any time throughout the year.  The consultation process may include everything from informally discussing course ideas and teaching strategies to a full review of course materials and pedagogical practices.  The CTE can also provide feedback to faculty members through classroom observations.  All consultations and observations are entirely confidential, and do not play any role in the evaluation of faculty members for tenure or promotion.  The Center can also provide consultation to committees, departments, or programs who are doing work related to teaching and learning on campus, including members of the staff and administration.


The Center provides new faculty at the College with a series of orientation sessions designed to help them successfully launch their careers at Assumption College.  The new faculty orientations begin with two half-day sessions in late August, and continue with four meetings throughout the year devoted to a variety of topics relevant for new faculty.  Each session gives the new faculty the opportunity to share their experiences and learn more about a specific topic, to build community with one another, and to meet senior faculty who help contribute to the conversation.


The Center has an Advisory Council which consists of four Provost appointees and four members elected through the Faculty Senate.  All appointees serve two-year terms.  The Advisory Council meets once or twice per semester to review the work of the Center, to offer feedback and suggestions for future programming and initiatives, and to approve travel and other funding requests.


Professional Development.  Faculty can apply to the Center for funding to attend conferences or workshops on teaching and learning in their disciplines or within higher education more generally.  The Director has a list of suggested conferences, but faculty can make requests for conferences they have identified on their own.  The Center also provides funding for faculty who wish to enroll in courses in the Certificate in College Teaching Program through the Higher Education Consortium of Central Massachusetts.  Information about the program and course listings can be found at Funding for Center-sponsored conference travel or professional development does not count as part of the normal faculty travel allowance.  Awards for conference travel are made on a rolling basis throughout the year; funds are very limited.

Research Funding. The Center has a small budget to offset research-associated costs for faculty members who are pursuing projects related to the scholarship of teaching and learning.  This funding cannot be used for faculty stipends. Interested faculty should contact the Associate Director for more information.


The Center for Teaching Excellence houses a small library of books on teaching and learning in higher education on the second floor of the Tsotsis Family Academic Building.  These books are available for faculty to borrow and return at any time.  We are also happy to purchase and loan out books that faculty identify as relevant to their teaching work.  The CTE’s library contains multiple copies of several highly recommended resources: Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do; Susan Ambrose et al’s How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching; Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Roediger, McDaniel, and Brown; and Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . And the Rest of Y’All Too.  Although very different in style and scope, each of these books provides a solid foundation for understanding what we know about how students learn and how our course design and classroom practice can benefit from that research.

Faculty can also stay current with the work of the Center by following us on Twitter at @AssumptionCTE.


One of the Center’s long-term goals is to promote Assumption College as an institution which produces significant scholarship on teaching and learning in higher education.  If you have an interest in experimenting with new teaching techniques and strategies, and would be willing to formally study their effectiveness and present your findings at conferences or in published form, the Center wants to help. We can assist you in finding grant money, in designing and conducting experiments on teaching and learning in your classes, in identifying suitable outlets for presentation and publication, and in connecting you to others who share your interests.  Contact the Director or Associate Director at any time if you would like to discuss how you could contribute to the fast-growing field of the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education.

Plagued by Alternative Facts: Bringing Medieval Research to Secondary School Teachers

The 2016-2017 Course Innovation Academy concluded in April, marking another successful year of guiding a small group of faculty members toward a significant course re-design.  One of this year’s participants, Winston Black, an Assistant Professor of History, gave a recent workshop for secondary school teachers on how to help students engage with medieval history.  Learning about the fascinating work that many of our faculty do to promote excellence in teaching, both off and on campus, has been one of the great side benefits of the Course Innovation Academy.  So although this work of Winston’s did not emerge from the Academy, we are very pleased to share below a description he wrote of his experience working with secondary teachers.

“Plagued by Alternative Facts”

by Winston Black

It’s a simple rule when teaching history: students love the Black Death. I’ve found this to be true with high school, college, and graduate students. The gorier the details and the more shocking the images, the more they pay attention. And teachers love it too. It provides plenty of death, gore, tragedy, heroics, and superstition, but at an emotionally manageable distance of seven centuries. More seriously, it’s satisfying for a history teacher to see students engaged with later medieval religion, economics, and politics as they encounter the various reactions to pandemic bubonic plague.

But the very aspects of the Black Death that make it fun to learn about and teach—medieval peoples’ inability to explain or stop the disease, their apparently bizarre reactions to it, and the vast number of online resources about the plague—are the same ones that lead teachers and students into traps. Simply put, much of the information about the Black Death, and many of the images used to represent it, in textbooks and on apparently credible websites are out-of-date or incorrect. Many of the teachers at the workshop admitted that they and their students used the Internet to find additional sources and images for the Black Death, without the tools or information to verify their authenticity. My worry is that students’ easy and unchecked acceptance of any online information about the Black Death could then be applied to other historical events, like the American Revolution or the Holocaust, for which errors could have more serious consequences.

This was the subject of a workshop I ran on March 24, 2017, for the second annual Medieval Studies Workshop for Middle and Secondary Educators, held at Fitchburg State University, and sponsored by their Center for Professional Studies. Sixty teachers from around Massachusetts attended the workshop, earning professional development points (PDPs), which are required for renewal of their Massachusetts teaching licenses. About forty of them attended my workshop, in which I walked them through answers to the questions: How can teachers who are not familiar with the latest scholarship on the Black Death present it effectively and accurately to their junior high and high school students? What resources, in textbooks and online, are authentic representations of the Black Death and which are not? Attendees were asked to do some primary and secondary source readings in advance, which I had posted on a wiki for the workshop.

Winston Black Image--Science

In a one-hour presentation, I shared a mix of content and pedagogy, based on my own experience teaching the Black Death over the last decade to undergraduate and graduate students, that I thought could also benefit junior high and high school students. In the first place, I briefly walked the group through the latest science of the bubonic plague, which is useful in engaging those students who might not automatically be interested in medieval plague, and which is not represented in even the latest history textbooks: the medieval Black Death has been decisively proven to be bubonic plague using ancient DNA from skeletons; scientists have now sequenced the plague genome; we now know plague is spread by all rodents, squirrels, and rabbits and not just the maligned black rat; plague is on the rise again in Madagascar and the American southwest; and so on.


Second, I helped the teachers think about primary sources. Many of them wanted to spend more time on the Black Death in their classes, but didn’t know how to move beyond what is found in their textbooks. One problem in doing this is that nearly every textbook still uses the same source: Boccaccio’s preface to his Decameron. I walked the group through the problems of using just this source, which shows medieval society falling apart, to represent the plague. To balance the despair represented in this document, I suggested a small number of other sources (available in translation) that show medieval people confronting the plague with the religious, political, and scientific tools available to them. In a similar vein, I stressed the importance of presenting the plague as a crisis for all of Eurasia and North Africa, and not merely just England or Italy, as most textbooks present it. Again, I shared a few short sources written in Byzantium, Muslim Syria, and throughout Europe for students and teachers to understand the geographical and temporal spread of the disease.

As a final, “hands on” activity I had the teachers look up medieval images of the Black Death online in Google Images. Some had already done this for their own lessons plans or had students do this for class projects. After rejecting the clearly non-medieval images, some of the most common images were the five in the slide shown here.

Winston Black Image--Images

Sure enough, many of the teachers had used the two images in the upper left and upper right. Many at the workshop knew where I was going with this, however, since I had asked them to read beforehand a new essay about the perils of relying on the internet for accurate information or images of the Black Death: Lori Jones and Richard Nevell, “Plagued by doubt and viral misinformation: the need for evidence-based use of historical disease images,” The Lancet: Infectious Diseases 16: 10 (2016) . Jones and Nevell demonstrate that none of the most commonly used images of the Black Death in medical journals and historical websites, as well as on Wikipedia and even on the British Library website actually depict the Black Death.

In the slide shown here, the images in the upper left and lower right depict leprosy, and the one in the upper right shows the plague of boils sent by God to punish Egypt. Only the lower left and middle images actually depict people dying from the plague in the Middle Ages. I opened the workshop up to discussion at this point, and we talked about how students (of any age) can be misled by apparently trustworthy modern sources, and about how their teachers can design projects around images like this. Rather than simply pointing out that websites are often wrong (still an important point for students to understand), we can ask revealing questions using these image searches: What does it say about modern historians and physicians that we want our images of medieval plague to show diagnostic spots and boils? What does it say about medieval people that their genuine images of the plague focus on the intercession of the saints and the difficulty in burying the dead? I showed the group how they could build group projects or individual assignments around the juxtaposition of these images with the suggested primary sources, as well as with maps and information available in typical textbooks.

Our discussion was able to continue for the following week on the workshop wiki, where the teachers shared their own experiences in teaching the Black Death, asked questions about the sources and images, and shared ideas for adapting my suggested lessons to specific age groups. The workshop was a great success, and the oganizers are already planning for next year.

2017 CTE Initiatives

Welcome to the spring 2017 semester!  We are pleased to announce three exciting new initiatives that will take place during the 2017 calendar year.

We begin with the launch of the classroom experiments that we are conducting with the support of our grant from the Davis Educational Foundation.  December and January included an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work conducted by the grant team, led by CTE Associate Director for Grants and Research Sarah Cavanagh.  The initial classroom interventions will take place during the first week of classes, and then will continue throughout the spring and fall 2017 semesters.  We are very excited to see what data will emerge from the study.

Second, the Center for Teaching Excellence will be partnering with the D’Alzon Library to sponsor two Faculty Writing Days in the spring 2017 semester (check the “Events” tab for the schedule).  This program will be modeled on similar initiatives undertaken by other centers around the country, one which expands the scope of the Center’s work to include supporting faculty in all areas of their work, including research and publication.  These Faculty Writing Days consist simply of scheduling time and space (and snacks!) in the second-floor library classroom for faculty to come and dedicate some time to their research and writing.  We hope that the presence of your colleagues working away will inspire you to make some progress on that article, book chapter, book project, or conference paper that always seems to get pushed aside by more immediate concerns.  Although the D’Alzon staff will be on hand to support faculty for any research needs they might have, mostly we intend for these days simply to create a space for faculty to schedule time to get some writing done.

Third, the Center will be preparing this spring for the creation of another exciting new initiative in the fall of 2017: the CTE Student Fellows program.  We will be working with the Academic Support Center to identify four ASC tutors who will serve as Student Fellows of the Center, and who will help us ensure that student voices have a place in our work.  The Student Fellows will receive a small grant, and in turn will have a number of responsibilities within the Center, including writing blog posts for this web site, collaborating on planning one of our Food for Thought programs, and having monthly meetings with the Center staff to help us enhance our mission and regular events.

Of course, the Center will continue with its usual programming during the spring 2017 spring semester, with two Food for Thought events, our Spring Faculty Learning Community, and our annual Innovations in Higher Education lecture.  Meetings continue throughout the year for both our New Faculty Orientations and the Course Innovation Academy.  You can find all of the information about these events on the updated schedule.

And last but not least, we will spend the spring in happy anticipation of our move into the newest building on campus, the Tsotsis Family Academic Center, where we hope to work with faculty who are interested in using two new collaborative learning classrooms that are currently under construction.  You’ll hear more from us on that soon.

Best wishes for a great semester.

The Power of Testing

The learning power of tests and quizzes has become a popular subject of research in recent decades in the learning sciences.  Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that when students engage in what researchers call “retrieval practice”–that is, drawing newly learned knowledge or skills from their memory–it helps solidify that material in their long-term memories and make it more available for future use.  This research has helped us understand that tests and quizzes not only measure learning, as we have traditionally expected them to do–they can also support and deepen it. You can find an excellent summary of some of that research at Pooja K. Agarwal’s website

Assumption College psychology professor Leamarie Gordon has been actively producing new research in this field, and the Center for Teaching Excellence was pleased that she was able to host our most recent Food for Thought event, on November 15th, 2016, which focused on the learning power of tests and quizzes.  A group of almost two dozen faculty members enjoyed lunch and a brief presentation by Prof. Gordon, followed by a discussion of the implications of this research for our classrooms.

Prof. Gordon began her presentation by noting some of the most well-known experiments that have demonstrated how retrieval practice improves our memory for newly learned knowledge or skills.  She noted that this research actually goes back close to a century–she cited one study that was conducted in 1917!

But two fascinating new lines of research emerged from the presentation as well.  First, Prof. Gordon noted that some more recent experiments have suggested that retrieval practice can actually help people improve their recall of untested, related material–a striking finding.  Let me explain with a simple example.  Let’s say students learned new concepts A,B, and C in a class period.  One group of students takes a quiz on those three concepts immediately after class; another group just restudies them for a few minutes.  The main research on retrieval practice tells us that those students who took a quiz immediately after learning the material for the first time will remember it much more firmly than those who did not, and will score higher on later tests of that material.

But now let’s say that students learned related concepts, A,B, and C in a class period, and then immediately afterward took a quiz that required them only to remember facts A and C.  The research on retrieval practice would tell us that those students will have a better memory of facts A and C on later exams because of that initial test.  But this new line of research suggests that they will even have a better memory of fact B, which they were not quizzed on!  So it may be the case that the power of retrieval practice extends beyond the knowledge we ask students to retrieve on quizzes and tests and into related areas of knowledge.  This would be a welcome discovery, since we can never test students on everything we hope they will learn.

Second and finally, Prof. Gordon showed us some of her own research into an equally promising and fascinating new finding: that quizzes and testing have the power to improve new learning that occurs immediately after taking the quiz or test.  In other words, if students learn something in the first half of a class, and then pause to take a brief quiz on it (such as through clicker questions), they will learn the material in the post-quiz second half of the class more deeply than students who did not take that quiz.  This finding suggests that we might want to consider pausing during longer class periods to give students some brief retrieval practice–such as low-stakes quizzes or clicker questions–to prepare them to learn more effectively in the latter part of the class.

We look forward to seeing Prof. Gordon’t research in this field continue, and to benefiting from that research as we continue to focus here at the Center for Teaching Excellence on understanding the best strategies we have at our disposal to help our students learn.

Faculty Making It Stick

Two dozen members of the Assumption College faculty met on October 6, 2016 to discuss how they can uphoto-oct-06-7-56-32-pmse teaching methods that will make knowledge stick in the minds of their students.  Our conversation was inspired by the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, published in 2014 by Harvard University Press.  The book has shot to the top of many reading lists for educators, as it represents a concise and readable account of what we know about human learning from two of the most prominent researchers in the learning sciences, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel.  These scientists wisely teamed up with a novelist, Peter Brown, to help them create a book of lively, anecdote-filled prose  .

Our faculty learning community gathered together over dinner, grouped into tables of eight.  After some opening socializing, each table was first given a handout that listed some key quotes from the book:

Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive . . . Reading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time.” (3)

Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading . . . A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than re-reading the text or reviewing lecture notes.” (3)

“Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” (4)

“If you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn.  Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.  The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.” (5)

“It’s true that we start life with the gift of our genes, but it’s also true that we become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve, and create.  In other words, the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control.” (7)

The tables were then asked to spend thirty minutes discussing the following three questions:photo-oct-06-6-57-44-pm

  1. What research or theories from the book were most surprising or intriguing to you?
  2. Did any of the theories or arguments from the book strike you as implausible, especially difficult to translate into practical teaching strategies, or otherwise unconvincing?
  3. Have you made any concrete changes to your courses or your teaching as a result of reading this book, or do you have changes you would like to make in the future?

After the discussions at our tables, we convened as a group in order to see what concrete strategies we could take from the book and apply to our own courses.  Faculty discussed strategies that they had experimented with in their own courses, those they had heard about or observed in the classes of colleagues, or ideas for new techniques that they could explore in the future.  We listed those on a white board, and all took home plenty of great ideas to help our students make their knowledge and skills stick.

One important question that came up in the discussion, and that the authors address in Make It Stick, centered on the fact that students often prefer to use ineffective study strategies because they are easy and work in the short term.  The authors cite one study in which students studied and were later tested on their ability to correctly identifyphoto-oct-06-7-38-25-pm the styles of famous painters with two different methods: either through massed study of these painters or through interleaving.  In the massed study condition they focused on the work of one painter at a time; in the interleaving condition they studied them in mixed order.  The interleaving group performed better on the subsequent exams, and yet–because interleaved study can feel frustrating for new learners–the students continued to express a preference for massed study: “Even after they took the test and could have realized from their own performance that interleaving was a betters strategy for learning,” the authors write, “they clung to the belief that the concentrated viewing of paintings by one artist was better.” (54)

This preference that students have for easy but ineffective learning strategies–such as reading and re-reading their notes, for example, instead of engaging in self-testing or retrieval practice–remains a significant challenge for faculty.  Even when we know best how to help students learn, we don’t always find them willing partners.  For this reason, we should consider how we can make our classrooms active laboratories of learning in which students get to practice learning strategies–through the kinds of techniques described in works like Make It Stick–rather than seeing them exclusively as content delivery sessions.

Thanks to the faculty who joined us for this event.  In the spring we will focus our faculty learning community on Jay Howard’s book Discussion in the College Classroom, in preparation for his visit here in March.  Check back on this site later in the semester for more information on our discussion and on Jay’s visit with us.

Blog Post: Jim Lang; Photos: Sarah Cavanagh

The Classroom as Retreat Space

On September 19th at noon, around two dozen faculty members from Assumption College gathered for our first formal event of the semester, a Food for Thought program hosted by MCLC professor Esteban Loustaunau on the thought-provoking subject of the classroom as a “retreat space.”  After this wonderful kickoff to our 2016-2017 academic year, we asked Prof. Loustaunau if he would contribute a blog post on this topic.  His thoughts, which formed the subject of his presentation and are currently being expanded into a longer, reflective essay, are below.

The Classroom as Retreat Space

Esteban Loustaunau, MCLC

As a language teacher, I always look for ways to help my studephoto-sep-21-12-38-11-pmnts feel more comfortable speaking in class.  Since often students remain quiet when I as a question, I want to better understand some of the reasons why they avoid sharing their thoughts and ideas freely during class time.  I’ve come to think that in order to motivate my students to speak more in class, I need to rethink how we spend our time together in the classroom.  A better learning experience for my students and I come s by rethinking the classroom as a retreat space.

As teachers many of us believe that a discussion-driven classroom can motivate students to become more active, confident, and engaged learners. Yet, many times we find it difficult to stick to our discussion-driven strategies when, despite our best efforts, students resist to talk in class.  In my experience, students feel more comfortable speaking when they work in pairs or in small groups. Facing students’ resistance to talk in class, and feeling the pressure to stick to the syllabus, too many times we end-up lecturing to our students.  Of course, there are many benefits to a good lecture and in my courses I lecture once in a while to provide students with useful historical background and context, but for the most part I expect students to interact with each other in class discussion.

In my years of teaching undergraduate students, I’ve attended lectures and workshops, read pedagogical books and articles on teaching strategies such as learning by doing, small group discussion, and flipping the classroom.  All of these have given me valuable insights and ideas, and have motivated me to try new things in the classroom.  Yet, most of these strategies have failed to point out a key component of learning: building relationships of trust with students.  In order to better teach my students I need to know them and understand where they are coming from.  The same goes for my students.  If I want my students to trust me as their teacher, they also need to know me as a person.

This semester I am teaching a section of SPA 204: Introduction to Literature in Spanish.  It is an elective SOPHIA course that focuses on helping students to think deeply about their life purpose and vocation.  In this class, students work hard at listening to their inner voice that would lead them to their life purpose.  One way of doing this is through class discussion.  On the second day of classes I asked students to spend the first five minutes to write about what they remembered from the previous class.[1]  In particular, I wanted them to remember our earlier conversation on a photograph titled “The Passage” by Robert Parke Harrison showing a man building a boardwalk on water, heading into the horizon.

Students also were invited to write about how they could apply the meaning of this photograph to their own lives.  After the five minutes were over, students shared their ideas with each other by working in pairs.   Once they were finished, I asked for volunteers to describe their thoughts to the rest of the class.  Not surprisingly, only three students volunteered.  They commented on how the photograph was about building confidence, motivation, and hope in the face of uncertainty.  These are all valuable emotional skills for students to feel safe to share their ideas in front of others. Yet, they found it difficult to apply these skills to the exercise at hand.

Feeling a bit frustrated with students’ lack of participation, I decided to put my lesson plan on pause. Continuing in Spanish, I asked students to list the reasons why they wouldn’t talk.  Their main reasons for not speaking included their fear of saying photo-sep-21-12-12-44-pmsomething wrong, vergüenza (shame) of sounding stupid, and the dread of disagreeing with others, especially the professor.  This developed into an open and honest conversation where I shared with them my own fear of speaking in class when I was their same age.  When I started college I was afraid of sounding stupid in class due to my lack of English oral fluency. Most of my students are still developing their fluency in Spanish, just as I did in English years ago.  But I also reminded them of their own interpretation of “The Passage” and how they could apply confidence, motivation and hope when facing their fear of speaking in class.  My personal story and my students’ insights on “The Passage” helped us to build common ground in the classroom.  From this common space, together we realized that we needed to let go of the false notion that in order to speak we first must possess enough knowledge and self-confidence.  I then explained how we sometimes can’t help but to start from failure, and how we should not be afraid when this happens.  Recognizing failure can be a form of liberation for students so that they can to speak honestly and respectfully without worry or shame.  This unplanned connection with my students is what I call turning the classroom into retreat space.  This is a moment when we can step outside the regular habits of the classroom, where the professor to student relation can be turned into other kinds of relations such as person to person or mentor to mentee with no syllabus, lesson plan, or graded assignment to interfere in the conversation.

After the retreat time was over, we turned our attention to Augusto Monterroso’s short story “El paraíso imperfecto” (“The Imperfect Paradise”).   In this micro-story only three-lines long, the narrator describes how the only bad thing about getting to heaven is that once there, heaven can’t be seen.  The irony of this story brought us back to our discussion of students’ fear of failure.  As one student put it so eloquently, perhaps it is not that we need to start from failure in order to free ourselves from our fear of it, but that we are often unable to see our own success when we face it.  She was absolutely right.  After class was over, I extended our retreat space by sending my students a recent article that my wife had mentioned to me a couple of days before.  In his article comedian and writer Mike Birbiglia mentions the importance of losing our fear of failure: “Don’t worry about failing,” he urges the reader “[f]ailure is essential.  There’s no substitute for it.  It’s not just encouraged but required.”[2]

The learning that happened on that day would not have happened if I had not let go of my lesson plan.  The lessons shared on that day came about through patience, courage and collaboration, by turning the classroom into a retreat space.  Carving retreat spaces in our courses can help us find common ground with our students.  Common ground is indispensable if we want to have real, honest conversations with others.  When students and faculty find ways to connect and trust in each other they can begin to build mentoring relationships to help students discover something new about themselves, find a purpose, a career path, and a calling to serve others.

These are five ideas of how you can turn your classroom into a retreat space:

Connect with students on a personal level.  Treat your students as who they are, full human beings.  Remember that they are more than students, so try to learn their names as soon as possible.

Share from your own life experiences. The point is not to have students be like you, but to show them that you were once like them.  Don’t be afraid if students see how imperfect you were/are.  This might be necessary if you want to show just how much you care about them.

Carry things beyond the classroom.  Find a short article, image, or video to help students continue to reflect on a conversation that started in retreat space.  These can be about your academic discipline but they don’t need to be.  They should mostly be to encourage students to continue to think about what was discussed during class.

Reflect.  Encourage students to write before, during, and after class.   They should write down their ideas and reflect on the conversations held in retreat space.  Have them keep those paragraphs handy in good and bad times: whenever they may experience joy, but also when feeling frustrated or discouraged.

Adjust your lesson plan. Be open to pause and adjust your lesson plan to give way to retreat space.  Besides learning new skills and concepts in your discipline, your students will remember that you took time to know them better.

[1] I first learned about this assignment idea from Jim Lang in his article, “Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class.” Chronicle of Higher Education 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.

[2] Mike Birbiglia, “Mike Birbiglia’s 6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood. Or Anywhere.” New York Times 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Sept. 2016.