Author Archives: Elizabeth Nix

Structured Assignments Can Help to Close the Achievement Gap


Yesterday in an opinion piece in the New York Times Annie Murphy Paul asked whether college lectures were unfair. She cited research that shows that “the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.”  Why would this be? Researchers know that “we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess.” First-generation college students, women and minorities might be less sure that they possess background knowledge that would be useful in understanding a lecture, so allowing them to show themselves what they actually know already primes them to acquire new knowledge in the classroom.

Paul does not advocate throwing out the lecture entirely. Instead, she encourages professors to introduce more structure into reading assignments outside of class that will help them engage more fully in a traditional lecture. Studies have found that when professors provide questions to students about the reading before they come to class, students are more likely to complete the reading, putting the entire class on a more even footing.

Some professors grade the answers to the homework questions, but others administer frequent in-class quizzes that incorporate them. I like this method, since I prefer to grade writing on paper instead of on-line.  In class I can ask students to connect the reading to a document they have not seen before or an image I show them for the first time. Last week my first-year students had read about Captain John Smith for homework. At the beginning of class, I asked students to fill in this Point of View graphic organizer to analyze his many layers in order to determine bias he might have brought to his record of his Chesapeake Bay explorations. When they had completed the graph, students could see right in front of them the knowledge they brought to the class, so they were ready to hear more about John Smith in a lecture. This type of structure is relatively easy to incorporate in your teaching. In fact you already might be doing it.


Paul writes, “In the structured course, all demographic groups reported completing the readings more frequently and spending more time studying; all groups also achieved higher final grades than did students in the lecture course. At the same time, the active-learning approach worked disproportionately well for black students — halving the black-white achievement gap evident in the lecture course — and for first-generation college students, closing the gap between them and students from families with a history of college attendance.”

Students spend a good deal of energy trying to figure out “what the professor wants.” Structured reading assignments make homework expectations explicit. When they know the answers to reading questions, students can feel certain they are reading in the right way. When they can connect their homework to new experiences in class, they gain a sense of mastery. When a professor tells them every week that they are on the right track, they come to understand that they are in the right place.

Renovated Classrooms Lead to Innovative Learning



In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, librarian Brian Mathews wrote about the ways that new classroom designs are allowing his library to become a pedagogical incubator. Instead of setting up traditional rows of desks and computers, his institution invested in classroom furniture that is flexible: tables that can be configured in a variety of ways, rolling individual desks that can be grouped easily for team projects, flat screens and mobile tables that can be configured as a media lab, pictured above.

When students walk into a classroom environment that does not look the way that classrooms have looked for the past 150 years, they know that they are going to be doing something that goes beyond lectures and tests. The physical environment influences the activity that goes on within it. Innovative learning spaces should exist outside of library incubators. Our students deserve to learn in environments that encourage the best pedagogical practices.

Universities should recognize that students rarely see the interior of administrative offices. They might spend an evening in an auditorium, and the truly committed hang out at the library. The college spaces that influence them the most are the classrooms, and every university should invest in learning spaces that reflect their educational mission and encourage innovation.

Take a look at the animation for Verb classroom.

And here is the Node Classroom


It is Never Too Early to Start Productive Habits of Mind

Southwest Baltimore Charter School

Southwest Baltimore Charter School

Ten years ago I helped start Southwest Baltimore Charter School in my neighborhood. As the current board chair,  I’ve learned a great deal from the dedicated K-8 teachers and administrators who work there.  SBCS is an Expeditionary Learning School where students engage in hands-on extended projects as they work their way through the Common Core curriculum.  I’ve found that the practices that SBCS instills in its students, especially EL’s Core Practices, would serve college students as well, especially in a general education context.  You can find the practices below and read more about Expeditionary Learning here.

1. The Primacy of Self-Discovery

Learning happens best with emotion, challenge, and the requisite support. People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students undertake tasks that require perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement. A teacher’s primary task is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can.

2. The Having of Wonderful Ideas

Teaching in Expeditionary Learning schools fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.

3. The Responsibility for Learning

Learning is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Everyone learns both individually and as part of a group. Every aspect of an Expeditionary Learning school encourages both children and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning.

4. Empathy and Caring

Learning is fostered best in communities where students’ and teachers’ ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust. Learning groups are small in Expeditionary Learning schools, with a caring adult looking after the progress and acting as an advocate for each child. Older students mentor younger ones, and students feel physically and emotionally safe.

5. Success and Failure

All students need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges. But it is also important for students to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.

6. Collaboration and Competition

Individual development and group development are integrated so that the value of friendship, trust, and group action is clear. Students are encouraged to compete, not against each other, but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.

7. Diversity and Inclusion

Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and respect for others. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students investigate and value their different histories and talents as well as those of other communities and cultures. Schools and learning groups are heterogeneous.

8. The Natural World

A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.

9. Solitude and Reflection

Students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need to exchange their reflections with other students and with adults.

10. Service and Compassion

We are crew, not passengers. Students and teachers are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others, and one of an Expeditionary Learning school’s primary functions is to prepare students with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service.

Mock Trial a Genuine Success



This spring I staged a mock trial in “Everyday Lives,” my general education social history class.  I have tried these exercises in past years with mixed results, but this time around it really worked. The twenty-five students in the class were prepared and engaged, and they learned something about 1830s New York City. I attribute the success to the set up. Here are some steps you can take to make an experiential learning activity go smoothly in your classroom.

1. Provide students with background information

In this class students read The Murder of Helen Jewett  by Patricia Cline Cohen. This examination of the 1836 murder of a young prostitute includes lost of information about social history, legal history, and the sexual mores of the day. Students used the information in the book as their reference as they prepared for trial. They did not have to do additional research; they simply had to analyze the materials in the book. Everyone was on the same page.

2. Give students options

Two weeks before the date of the trial, we were about half-way through the book. We had met most of the characters but had not seen the report of the trial proceedings. I handed out two identical character lists and asked students to lay claim to one of the actual historical figures. Students chose to take on the characters of prostitutes, young male clerks, the coroner, policemen, or members of the legal teams. This array of choices worked well in this general education class filled with freshmen who planned to major in criminal justice, forensics, jurisprudence, business and history. (I’m not sure if the game design majors found compatible characters.) After the lists went around I compared them and negotiated with the students who had both picked the same character. This method allowed students who wanted to take on more responsibility to sign on as attorneys on the legal team; the students who chose these roles really rose to the occasion.

3. Hold students accountable

One week before the trial I asked every student who was a witness to post a character profile on the discussion board of our course management system. This exercise showed students how to use an index in a scholarly book and also helped the legal teams craft their argument. The firm deadline of this requirement also allowed me to acquire some hard data I could use when grading the entire exercise.

4. Keep everyone busy

Two days before the trial, I sent the entire class to the library. Students who would serve as witnesses were required to find a secondary source that would give them historical context for their character. They had to summarize that source and provide a citation. While they were working on that information literacy task, the legal teams circulated among them asking them questions about the testimony they would give later that week. Although they were doing different things, everyone was occupied in a worthwhile venture.

On the day of the trial, I asked the witnesses to write a summary of the trial proceedings from the point of view of their character. These in-class writings demonstrated that they had learned about the person they were portraying and understood the concept of loin of view.

5. Make expectations for grading clear

Process is important for professors, and in these experiential activities grading may seem secondary. But students need grades, and to be graded fairly they to know the basis for their evaluation. In this exercise I graded witnesses on their witness profile, their source for historical context, their in-class point of view written submission, and their testimony on the stand. The legal teams were evaluated on their line of questioning and mastery of the facts of the case. The legal teams did not have to submit anything in writing. Two days before the trial one student told me he had a conflict due to a doctor’s visit, but on the day of the trial every other student came to class.  As Darien Ripple, my colleague who came in to act as the judge, can attest, every student testified accurately and all were able to answer questions without hesitation. I gave high marks to everyone for their testimony.

6. Keep a strict timetable

I have tried the Anne Hutchinson trial from Reacting to the Past and although I liked it in concept, the actual execution over five weeks seemed too long. In this class we started reading the book on the second week of class and we held the trial in the fifth week. Students were only working with their character for two weeks. The time crunch made them more efficient and they did not have time to lose interest in their characters.

This exercise reinforced most of UB’s general education goals:

  • communicate effectively in many different modes
  • gather, synthesize and critically evaluate information
  • make ethical and evidence-based decisions
  • understand systems and think systemically
  • negotiate divergent and competing perspectives

I would definitely stage it again.


Simming: Simulation as a Pedagogical Tool




Does this photo make you uncomfortable? Can you detect power relations in this situation? How do you feel about the white man wearing antebellum clothing standing over kneeling people of different races?

This image was captured during a public history experience called “Follow the North Star” staged by the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana. Participants, who sign a waiver, are involved in a pedagogical technique called “simming,” where guests engage in simulations of historical experiences.  Since the participants are college students and adults who are prepped in advance, the Conner Prairie organizers feel they can take a real risk by putting them in an extremely uncomfortable situation: visitors portray escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. At the beginning of the evening, they are left in a vacant field in the dark where they hear gun shots and barking dogs. A museum staffer appears to guide them through the night where they meet other interpreters portraying sympathetic Quakers, helpful free blacks, and slave catchers. They discover that even some allies harbor racist views: people who want to help them escape encourage them to make their way back to Africa. Participants encounter complex scenarios that most likely challenge their received celebratory narratives of the Underground Railroad. Some visitors react emotionally. Many report feeling real fear, and one young man actually punched a museum staffer who tried to separate the man’s girlfriend from the group.

Probably that young man will remember his experience in the Underground Railroad for a long time. Studies show that when adults enter a “discomfort zone,” they actually learn more. Most of these studies looked at museum visitors, but professors could also incorporate simulations in their classrooms. Reacting to the Past has had great success with this approach. Later this month, my students in a general education history class at the University of Baltimore will stage a mock trial of the murder of Helen Jewett. The classroom will be filled with prostitutes, brothel owners, young male clerks and legal counsel from the 1830s.  I’ll let you know how it goes later this spring.


Syllabus Design Aimed at Meeting Deadlines



Syllabus with Color OverlayWhy do some students fail our classes? Usually, in my courses, students don’t pass because they don’t complete all the assignments. It is possible that the work is too hard for them, but in most cases students fail to turn in a paper or complete a project due to their lack of organization. To ensure higher pass rates, I have tried to accommodate my students’ complicated lives by giving them lots of lead time for papers and numerous benchmark deadlines throughout the semester for larger projects.  However, recent studies by behavioral economists indicate that my scheduling might actually be encouraging my students to procrastinate.

Researchers of consumer behavior have found that people are much more likely to meet a deadline if it falls in the same month as the initial assignment. If students are told about a task in early September that is due September 30, they are likely to start working on it right away. If it is due October 1, they tend to procrastinate; their minds perceive the next month as pretty far off while they can feel the current month ticking quickly past.

I reviewed my syllabi for last fall and found that by consistently assigning due dates in the first week of each month, I was working against this principle of scheduling psychology. When students saw a November 5th due date on the syllabus, they were hardwired to put it off until after Halloween.  Although I was giving students weeks to complete a project, I was making the worst possible choice for the actual due dates. Their predictable procrastination meant I wasn’t receiving polished projects but first drafts. Some students never turned in the papers at all. This semester I resolve to introduce the projects at the beginning of each month and set deadlines near the end of the month; according to these studies, students should start working on the projects earlier, and I will enjoy a higher rate of student achievement.

You may worry that this practice would be hard to implement due to a special requirement of academia — the syllabus.  On the first day of class, professors are expected to present students with a roadmap of the semester indicating all their due dates. These studies provide a way to reduce procrastination in long-term projects even within the parameters of a traditional syllabus. Researchers found that using color to block off project time on a calendar also helps people get started on assignments.  This spring I also resolve to incorporate an overlay of color on my syllabus schedule to define the time period students should be working on specific projects.

I am hoping that these two simple shifts in they way I design my syllabus will help my students meet their deadlines this semester. And I am trying to incorporate them into my own research schedule as well.  There’s no harm in tricking the mind if it makes us all more productive.



Risk and Innovation: The Most Important Elements of Honors Education


imageI’m attending the National Collegiate Honors Council annual meeting in Denver today, and I just participated in a workshop on faculty development in honors. Honors directors from across the US and Europe asked ourselves “How do we communicate what honors teaching is?” “How can we convince our faculty that honors teaching does not mean more, it means different?”

Workshop leaders Donnie Nobles, of Auburn University-Montgomery and John Zubbizarreta of Columbia College, South Carolina distributed a list of elements involved in learning-centered teaching:
Intellectual Engagement
Motivation, Self-Direction
Experiential Learning
Challenge (quality and process over quantity and products)
Risk, innovation
Discussion-based classes
Undergraduate Research
Freedom and flexibility

The honors directors in the room agreed that the most important element, and the most difficult one to implement, would be risk and innovation. These notions challenge both students and instructors. Students want to maintain a high GPA, so they avoid risk. Professors need good student evaluations, so any new assignment is inherently risky. Both groups are uncomfortable with ambiguity or even chaos.

How can we encourage risk-taking in our classes? Possibly by assigning ungraded activities that encourage risk? Possibly by encouraging peer review for professors so less emphasis is placed on student course evaluations? Maybe by embracing a culture of freedom and flexibility?

Active Learning Can Narrow the Achievement Gap



Our office promotes innovation in higher education and encourages professors to try out new methods of active learning in their classrooms. Instead of always lecturing to students who spend the class time taking notes, we support team learning, debates, role-playing and working with community partners. We have seen students at the University of Baltimore respond with enthusiasm to these active approaches to instruction, and now data backs up these practices.

A recent study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has shown that this type of instruction is particularly effective for first-generation college students and students of color. Kelly Hogan, a professor of an introductory biology course, taught her 400-person sections in different ways over the course of six terms. She gave traditional lectures in three terms, and then switched things up. In three terms instead of lecturing,  she included team work in class and assigned for homework on-line activities that encouraged collaboration outside of class. She found that all the students who were in the more active classes were much more likely to come to class having done the reading, mainly because the lectures were not simply her overview of their reading assignments. Test scores for the whole class rose 3 percent.

In addition, Hogan’s active approach to instruction narrowed the achievement gap. Among first-generation students and black students, scores went up six percent. That rise halved the disparity between test scores of black students compared to whites and completely eliminated the distance between first  generation students and the rest of the class.

The New York Times published a story on the study just as the new school year was beginning:

The Best Way to Learn Something is to Teach It, Even On Line

UB Students teaching each other

UB Students teaching each other

As any first-year professor can attest, you don’t really know a subject until you have to teach it. The act of sifting through the information, organizing it in a way that will make sense to others and rehearsing your delivery imprints the brain in a way that mere memorization does not.

Teachers know this phenomenon intuitively, and they regularly create assignments that ask students to teach other students. The jigsaw method has become common in both secondary and college education. In college seminars, participants take responsibility for individual sessions and teach the content to their peers. In my Women’s History class I ask students to pick a topic we haven’t covered in class, create a teaching unit about it appropriate for middle school students and then deliver the lesson to a small group of their classmates.

Now there is scientific proof that backs up this pedagogical hunch. Matthew Leiberman reports in his article “Heads Together” (April 14, 2014 Chronicle Review) that he has imaged the brains of students learning for a “social motivation” (i.e. to teach others) vs. a “selfish motivation” (i.e. to take a test). His fMRI study found that “it was activity in the regions involved in social thinking (i.e., the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction) that was associated with accurate recall of the information.” In other words, the students who were asked to pass the information on to an audience other than the professor processed the material more accurately and were able to score higher on a test than those who simply studied for the test.

Lieberman discusses the implications his findings have for MOOCs, which have for the most part asked students to absorb information and give it back on a test. Lieberman has found that even in MOOCs, instructors can ask students to teach the material, using “‘teachable agent’ programs in which the student is asked to teach a computer avatar a science lesson. At each step along the way, the student must think about what the avatar has and hasn’t understood. Though still in their infancy, teachable-agent programs have produced both short and longer-term improvements in learning, especially for those performing poorly before the experience.”

Outside MOOCs, Leiberman’s findings should challenge teachers to continue to develop assignments that ask students to synthesize content for authentic audiences. In history classes, students can design copy for museum exhibits. In physics classes they can produce short videos that illustrate concepts. Psychology students could write columns for the school newspaper describing common psychological conditions. And although the logistics make it a hassle, especially on a commuter campus, students should join study groups and take responsibility for summarizing chunks of materials for their peers. They won’t simply divide the work; they will gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

Struggling Niagara Falls, NY Provides Residence Offers after Graduation

Frozen Falls from the Canadian side Saturday April 4, 2014

Frozen Falls from the Canadian side Saturday April 4, 2014


Lots of college graduates leave school without a clear idea of their next step.  They may not have secured an entry-level position in their chosen field. They may not be ready to jump into grad school. They have energy, knowledge and ambition, but they may not have a workable road map.
Instead of waiting for a job offer to determine their next move, what if college graduates started their post-university lives based on a residence offer? The Northeast Regional Honors Council held its annual meeting in Niagara Falls, NY in April 2014.  The keynote speaker for the conference banquet was Seth Picirillo, the Director of Community Development for the city.  Picirillo, a Niagara Falls native, told his audience that although the municipality boarders one of the natural wonders of the world, Niagara Falls has struggled over the past fifty years as industry left and the population dwindled.  In the 2010 census its population numbered 50,193 people, which put it in a precarious position. The federal government reclassifies any municipal area that falls below 50,000 people as a town and not a city, and towns can not receive some types of federal funding, such as HUD grants.
Picirillo was tasked with making sure that the population of his city did not fall below 50,000.  His office instituted LiveNF ( a number of programs designed to attract “urban pioneers” who they define as people who are “willing to reside in, and dedicate their time, skills and energy to maximizing the potential of an urban setting.” In his talk to college honors students Picirillo highlighted the city’s efforts to attract recent college graduates. Most cities aim targeted media campaigns towards this group, but Niagara Falls puts its money where its mouth is.  Last year Picirillo’s office selected twenty recent college graduates who agreed to live in downtown Niagara Falls for two years.  They gave three landlords $40,000 each to rehab apartments in historic buildings where these twenty-somethings could live.  At the end of two years, each urban pioneer will receive $7,000 towards their student loans. So for a cost of $260,000 Niagara Falls may have kept their city from officially changing to a town.
This program helps the city and it also helps the students. Seniors in college often face conflicting emotions; they are eager to start their working lives but they hate to leave the friends they have made at school.  Not only do they like those people as individuals but also they are nervous about giving up the sense of community and the creative fervor that can come with frequent contact with other active and innovative minds.  A program like LiveNF can allow them to continue that collegial contact for a few more years. Additionally, Niagara Falls projects that employers will want to relocate to urban areas with concentrations of creative, well-educated people, creating jobs that might make the pioneers stay after their two years are over.
We tell our students that it is the knowledge they have attained in school that makes them marketable, but programs like LiveNF demonstrate that, in fact, their ways of thinking put them in demand. Cities need innovative ideas and they want residents who have the confidence to take risks and who value a sense of place. Our students need to know that they have value to communities. They may not find their dream jobs right out of college, but if they help to create a vibrant community, the dream jobs might just come to them.