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.

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the Black Death, and many of the images used to represent it, in textbooks and on apparently credible websites are out-of-date or incorrect.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.

Welcome to the New Year

The new academic year has arrived, and your friendly Assumption College Center for Teaching Excellence looks forward to working with our faculty throughout the year to support the learning of our students both on campus and in our online courses.  We are continuing our most popular programs this year, such as our Food for Thoughts and Faculty Learning Communities, and have kicked off the second year of our (renamed) Course Innovation Academy, with a class of nine faculty members from six different disciplines.  We are excited to track the progress of participants in last year’s academy, and seeing how their courses unfold throughout this academic year.

We will welcome two special guests to our programming this year.  Robin Morgan, the Director of the Faculty Academy on Excellence in Teaching for the Indiana University system, will join the Course Innovation Academy for a special session in October, presenting an overview of alternative models for higher education course design.  In the spring we will be featuring Jay Howard’s book Discussion in the College Classroom in our Spring Faculty Learning Community, and then welcoming him to campus for our annual Innovations in Higher Education Lecture.  Jay will also join the Course Innovation Academy for dinner and discussion before his lecture.

As the Center for Teaching Excellence continues to grow and evolve, we will put increasing emphasis on working with our faculty to produce new work in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) in higher education.  (You can visit our newly created SOTL page for a quick look at what our faculty have accomplished already.)  Sarah Cavanagh, Associate Professor of Psychology, newly appointed Associate Director for Grants and Research in the Center for Teaching Excellence, and author of the outstanding new book The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, will be available to help faculty who wish to pursue new research in measuring the effectiveness of their teaching or the learning of their students, and both Sarah and Jim are always available to discuss ideas, provide feedback on projects and plans, and read drafts of new work in this area.

Of course we remain available for consultations with individuals, departments, programs, and committees on teaching and learning at Assumption.  We can observe classes and provide feedback, discuss challenges you might be facing with your teaching, or meet with departments and committees to help provide resources and perspectives from the research on teaching and learning in higher education.  E-mail Jim or Sarah at any time with such requests.

It’s worth noting here again, as we do in all of our communications, that we welcome all Assumption faculty–full-time, part-time, adjunct, graduate and continuing education–to our events and resources.  If you teach at Assumption, we are happy to support and promote your work.  So many conversations between faculty in higher education require us to butt heads with one another or fight over resources.  The Center for Teaching Excellence provides space and time for us to come together with one another in a collegial environment and help each other support our most essential mission: educating our students.  Join us for an event this year and you will find a supportive community ready to listen, learn, share, and help.

Finally, we are especially excited at the prospect of moving into our new home in the fall of 2017. We’ll be in the new academic building under construction right now, with offices for Sarah and Jim and access to lounge space and conference rooms.  The new space will enable us to launch some exciting new initiatives for the 2017-2018 academic year: stay tuned!

Have a great semester.

Public History, Scholarship, Teaching, and . . . Twitter?


On Monday, April 25th, the Center for Teaching Excellence held its final event for the 2015-2016 academic year: a Food for Thought luncheon hosted by Carl Robert Keyes, associate professor of history here at Assumption College.  Carl spoke to us about the research project in public history which forms the basis both for a current book project and for a course in public history at Assumption.

As Carl explained to us in his presentation, his current scholarly project explores the history of advertising in colonial America. In service to that project, he created The Adverts 250 Project, a web site that enables him to share his work-in-progress with the scholarly community.  The website “features a daily image of an advertisement published in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago that week.  Brief commentary accompanies each advertisement.  Daily updates are supplemented with longer posts that analyze individual advertisements in greater detail, highlight other marketing items from the period, or examine issues related to research and accessibility of historical sources.”

Carl had this website in place prior to the start of the class, and decided to involve students in two aspects of the work: creating content for the site during the semester, and then connecting it to the wider scholarly community through Twitter.  Students in Carl’s spring 2016 public history course first became guest curators for the daily advertisements posted to the site. They were responsible for searching colonial newspapers for the advertisements they wished to feature and writing a brief analytic essay for each ad.  Once the ads were posted, they had the additional responsibility to Tweet about the advertisement for each day, through Twitter accounts they created for the course.

The power of this assignment as a learning experience for Carl’s students was impressive.  They participated in an original research project in American colonial history, helping curate and analyze advertisements that influenced colonial America’s political and economic culture.  They learned how to shape and present their work not merely for an “audience of one,” as Carl put it, but for the wider scholarly community and even the public at large.

Other scholars and even historical institutions responded to and promoted the work they were doing, giving them an authentic taste of participation in the practice of writing and analyzing history.

And Carl learned from it as well: in several cases, as he explained, the work of his students gave him new perspectives on colonial advertising or on the scope of the project.

Carl wrote two blog posts of his own about his experiences teaching the course and working with his students as guest curators: one midway through the course, and one at the end of the semester.  Carl has also co-authored essays on pedagogy for the American Antiquarian Society’s blog Past Is Present, which offer equally fascinating accounts of his teaching work: one on “Combining History, Graphic Art, and Modern America in the Classroom” and another on  “Transcribing the War of 1812: AAS Collections in the Classroom.

Carl was one of the members of the CTE’s 2015-2016 Core Academy, seeking to explore innovations in course design with a small group of fellow faculty members throughout the year.  His presentation reminded us of the incredibly high quality of work created by this year’s Academy members, as well as of Carl’s commitment to creating the deepest possible learning experiences for his students.

You can continue to follow the work of this inspiring teacher and his students by connecting with Carl Keyes on Twitter at @TradeCardCarl.

Innovating, Together

A Team Approach to Teaching Innovations

“Participating in the Academy this year has been the highlight of my time at Assumption College. My entire time at Assumption,” Professor Cinzia Pica-Smith said, right before launching into a presentation on how she overhauled one of the major courses in her department.

DSC_0363She was describing her experience in the 2015-2016 Teaching Core Courses Academy sponsored by the Assumption College Center for Teaching Excellence. On Monday, April 11th, we held our concluding session with a public presentation of our work to the campus community. The presenters described students constructing Maypoles to learn the beauty of doing mathematics, considering the theme of the refugee crisis to situate human services in a broader consideration of systems as well as service learning, and creating digital video footage to delve deeper into history, among other innovations (see below for full descriptions of each project).

Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, a group of eight faculty members representing six disciplines on campus joined me to answer a challenge: how could we design or re-design innovative new courses and course projects for our students in ways that would engage them and maximize their maypole_treelearning?

The Academy opened in August of 2015.  In advance of our first session, we read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do, which still represents for me the top book on teaching in higher education.  Our first meeting was a half-day session in which we described the courses we wanted to invent or revise and discussed the implications of Bain’s work for our plans.  Thereafter we met throughout the fall semester on a monthly basis over dinner, each session lasting ninety minutes.  We shared readings, videos, and discussion board posts on our virtual learning platform in order to help inform our conversations, which grew increasingly lively and impassioned as we began testing out ideas on each other, sharing progress, and growing together as a team.

We shared readings, videos, and discussion board posts on our virtual learning platform in order to help inform our conversations, which grew increasingly lively and impassioned as we began testing out ideas on each other, sharing progress, and growing together as a team.

In January we read our second text, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, and began to really dig into the details of what our courses would look like.  We met for two additional sessions, and then as a group we attended the CTE’s annual Innovations in Higher Education lecture with Sarah Cavanagh, author of the forthcoming book The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion.

Our work together concluded with the presentations on April 11th, which showcased a range of new and exciting courses and projects.  Two of us decided to create a major video project for our students.  Mark Christensen, Assistant Professor of History, wanted to engage his students in understanding and improving public perceptions of history.  He asked his students this spring—and will expand the project next fall—to work in groups to interview fellow students about major historical events or people or trends, and then create videos showcasing the contrast between public understanding of those historical events and the more informed perspective of historians.  Students in my literature survey courses, meanwhile, will be launching the Assumption Survey Project, and helping to create a bank of 3-5 minute videos on historical topics that provide context for the literature taught in British and American literature courses.  These videos will be posted to a YouTube or Vimeo channel and can be shown in class or assigned as homework to students in high school and college classes around the world.

Two of our faculty members decided to flip their courses.  Associate Professor of Natural Sciences David Crowley couldn’t wait forDSC_0368 next year to make his changes, and flipped his spring genetics class.  Before class students read the texts, watch video lectures, and study animations or other course material; in class they ask questions, solve problems, and discuss their understanding of the material.  In an effort to improve their metacognition, they also assess and articulate their understanding of the course material for every class period.  Bob Caron, Assistant Professor of Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies, likewise plans to flip his introductory class next year.  In addition to the usual work of the flip, Bob will have his students learning about the work of a local non-profit agency and then creating for them a PSA (public service announcement)-style video that they can use in their promotional campaigns.

Cinzia Pica-Smith, also an Assistant Professor of Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies, wanted students in her upper-level course in principles of case management to gain real-world experience that would help them connect the work of the course to its global contexts.  Her students began working this spring with refugees who have been resettled in our city of Worcester, and came up with a host of innovative ways to educate themselves, the public, and political leaders about the plight of local refugees.Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 1.27.02 PM

Lynn Simmons, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art, worked on a re-design of her introductory course in graphic design.  Grappling with the fact that students in the course brought into it many different majors and interests, she created a model in which students will be able to draw upon their major course work or interests to contribute to a course textbook which will also feature student-created art and designs.  The final version of their work will be produced as both a printed book and an e-book.

Associate Professor of History Carl Keyes wanted students in his history courses to move beyond writing for an “audience of one” (i.e., the professor) and engage in the process of creating public history.  His students will be drawing throughout the semester on the power of Wikipedia both as a teaching tool and as a site of public history.  He will use the Wikipedia Education Program to work with his students on creating and revising DSC_0369Wikipedia pages stemming from his course content.

Finally, two faculty spent the year designing entirely new courses. Brooke Andersen, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, put together a course called Discovering the Art of Mathematics, in an effort to help non-majors appreciate the beauty of mathematics, and see its relevance to the world around them.  They will be working with problems and projects designed to illustrate mathematical patterns and structures, such as maypole dancing or Rubik’s cubes or string art.  Esteban Loustaunau, Associate Professor of Spanish, created The World is Calling: Vocation Across Cultures, for students in our sophomore-level SOPHIA program.  They will be asking and discussing questions about their vocations and life purpose, and launching an ongoing blog that will continue beyond their college years, with each new class of students benefiting from the wisdom and insights of those who have gone before them.

Working with this group of faculty, engaging in these monthly discussions about teaching and learning and our students, has been one of the highlights of my academic career.  Next year the CTE’s Sarah Cavanagh will be joining me in our work as we look forward to welcoming eight new participants to the (re-named) 2016-2017 Course Innovation Academy.  Check back here for updates on the courses we created, and on next year’s incoming Academy classes.

For readers outside of Assumption, feel free to drop me a line with questions about the logistics of our program, such as behind-the-scenes work or course materials.  We’ll be happy to share ideas and experiences.

And best wishes to all for a great finish to the spring semester.

Hello world!

Welcome to the home page of the Assumption College Center for Teaching Excellence. Whether you are an Assumption College faculty member or a colleague in faculty development, we hope in the coming months you’ll find this page a trove of useful information about our programs, efforts, and our faculty’s research on the science of teaching and learning.

In the meantime, we encourage you to read about our center in this wonderful profile put together by Assumption Magazine. You can find that here.