Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Writing exam questions

Here's a tip courtesy of UCD alum Erin Espeland.

Resist the temptation to teach your students while testing them. Writing exam questions with too much information -- or unnecessary, irrelevant information -- creates cognitive overload, making it hard for students to do what you're asking. Here's an example of an overloaded exam question:

The presence and association of the male seems to have profound effects on female physiology in domestic animals. Research has shown that the presence of a bull in cattle has the following effect:

Eliminate "info overload" by simplifying questions and cutting unnecessary words and prhases. Here's a revision of the example:

The presence of a bull has what effect on cattle?

For more discussion of writing exam questions, come to the workshop on Monday, August 25 at 1 pm in Wellman 25!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Teaching tip

Did you know?

The ET Partners program is available to UC Davis instructors for help with efficiently incorporating technology into teaching. ET Partners are undergraduate students who can show you how to use and bring you up to speed with technology including PowerPoint, document cameras, Photoshop, SmartSite, and more.

To contact ET Partners, call (530) 754-2115 or email

Monday, July 14, 2008

Digital Literacy at UC Davis

What does it mean for UC Davis students to be "digitally literate"?

This is a question on the minds of many of us at the TRC--and many of your minds as well, as I know from talking with you. We're drafting a guide for students to help them understand what skills faculty believe they'll need to succeed as undergrads.

Some skills on our list:

  • Use the full feature set of a personal computer to support learning through course work, analysis and preparation of documents, review of online resources. In particular, learn how to prepare, edit, save, transfer, label, store and retrieve digital files that correspond to text, audio, video and numerical data.
  • Critically examine digital files of all sorts –text, audio, video, numerical and hypermedia--in terms of their publication history, authorship, social and technical origins, credibility, copyright status, and privacy status.
  • Manage your computer files, email and web links to ensure that you can find and respond to what’s most important when you need to.
  • Recognize and avoid problematic software, including email SPAM, phishing, and viruses.
  • Install and uninstall software, including “player” plugins such as Adobe Reader, RealAudio, QuickTime, etc.
  • Determine and recognize different attributes of a digital file, including: file types and “extensions” for text, image, audio, video, spreadsheet; file size, locations and paths; creation and modification dates.
  • Find and evaluate online collections and digital resources related to your program of study and individual learning objectives.
  • Search through UCD library from on-campus and off-campus locations.
What's on your list? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Has reading changed?

When UC Davis faculty ask their students to read for a class, what are they asking? In most cases, the implication is, "Read all of the assigned texts, and come to class (or lab) prepared to consider or talk about them."

Any seasoned UC Davis instructor knows that students frequently interpret reading assignments differently. The student version might be "If I can't get the material elsewhere, read just enough of the course texts to pass the midterms and final exams, or to write an essay for the course." We may regale students with tales of how we read a book per week per course when we were undergraduates, but they'd never believe us--it's as if we're telling them we walked uphill, both ways, in the snow to get to and from our classes.

In the face of such an attitude toward reading, it can be tempting to dismiss (with an angry sigh) kids these days. But before we criticize their lack of intellectual curiosity and their disinclination to read, we need to take a look at what--and more importantly how--Americans read. And this includes ourselves.

Recently overheard:

UC Davis Professor #1: I'm really enjoying this book I'm reading.

UC Davis Professor #2: Really? I think I'd like to read it.

UC Davis Professor #1: You can borrow the CDs as soons as I'm done with them.

Clearly, we have some reflecting to do.

Since 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts has published two reports, Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read, on the practice of reading in the United States. Each includes alarming statistics and draws disheartening conclusions about Americans' interaction with literary texts:

  • Americans are spending less time reading literature and books in general.
  • Reading comprehension skills are eroding, especially among teenagers and young males.
  • These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.
  • 65% of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all. The percentage of non-readers among these students has nearly doubled.
  • Reading has declined over the past 20 years among every group--including those with bachelor's and graduate degrees.
  • Literary reading strongly correlates to other forms of active civic participation, including volunteer work, museum visits, and attendance at performing arts or sporting events.
  • In 2002, only 57 percent of Americans read any book. During the same time period, 95.7% of U.S. adults watched at least one hour of TV per day on average; nearly half of American adults watched three or more hours of TV each day on average.
Can we blame the internet and digital media for this decline in time spent reading books and especially literary texts? Some have tried. In the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Nicolas Carr raises this possibility in his article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He believes his use of the Internet has rewired his brain:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Carr and others in the article postulate that not only the way we read, but more importantly the ways we think, have changed as a result of our becoming netizens. Reading online is different from reading offline. Carr argues that our use of web browsers encourages us to skim rather than to really take the time to dig into complex arguments. And as the NEA studies on reading have suggested, it is easy to get out of the practice of reading thoughtfully.

Others are less eager to villify the Internet and the intellectual habits it engenders (or fails to engender). Barbara Ganley, for example, has found the web to be an excellent medium through which students can engage with ideas. Laura Blankenship reminds us that students see the Internet as entertainment rather than learning tool, and that we need to teach students how to use the Internet in their learning--just as we need to teach them how to read as college students.

Over the next year and beyond, the UC Davis Teaching Resources Center will be looking into both student and faculty reading habits. And so we want to know: When you ask students to read, what are you asking them to do? Are your students reading in the ways you wish them to read? And where, what, and how do you read these days? Please leave your comments, if you're so inclined, in the comments below, or e-mail them to Leslie Madsen-Brooks at ljmadsen -at- ucdavis -dot- edu.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Teaching Tip of the Week

Instead of throwing out the ubiquitous "Any questions?" at the end of class, try asking your students to recap or summarize the lesson or lecture. This will allow you to gauge their understanding of the material, which in turn will give you a chance to clarify or reinforce confusing material. Here are some examples of recap-style questions you might use:

How did Sherman's march impact the outcome of the Civil War?

What is the relationship between substance abuse and evolution, according to E.O. Smith?

Why did the Vikings have more than one fertility god?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

AITC's Teaching Tip of the Week

Melissa here -- I'm the TRC's Associate In Teaching Consultant for Summer Sessions 2008. I will be posting a teaching tip for AIs throughout Summer Sessions I and II on a (hopefully) weekly basis.

This week's tip:
To generate student discussion, ask open-ended (how, why, to what extent, in what way) questions rather than closed (who, what, when, where) questions. Most open-ended questions can be answered in several ways, inviting a variety of responses. In contrast, there frequently is only one way to answer a closed question; moreover, it's easy to respond to this type of question with a one-word answer (resulting in sudden discussion death).

Here are some examples:

Open-ended question: To what extent did Shaker cooking influence American cuisine?

Closed question: When did the Shaker lemon pie become popular?

Hungry for more teaching tips? See you here next week!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Share your teaching anxieties--help plan the next More Thoughtful Teaching Symposium

I need your help in planning the next More Thoughtful Teaching Symposium, "Fear and Anxiety (Yours and Theirs) in Teaching and Learning."

Please leave your comments about fear and anxiety in teaching and learning, as well as your suggestions for related topics to discuss at the May 22 More Thoughtful Teaching Symposium, below. Feel free to comment anonymously, or to e-mail me privately and ljmadsen -at- ucdavis -dot- edu.

Many thanks,


P.S. Want to learn more? Here are some resources on fear and anxiety in teaching and learning:
  • Tomorrow's Professor offers an excellent excerpt from the book To Improve the Academy. It's from the chapter "Preparing Faculty for Pedagogical Change: Helping Faculty Deal with Fear" by Linda C. Hodges of Princeton University.
  • One of my favorite fearless profs is Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach. His essay "Teaching in the Face of Fear" is a must-read.
  • I recently presented with colleagues from four other institutions at the EDUCASE Learning Initiative conference. Here's a link to some resources from that presentation: Fear 2.0 presentation.