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Fall 2021
Facilitated by Phil Gressman, Math, and Heather Sharkey, NELC


Phil Gressman

Calculus sequence: first year students, a big adjustment to college.  Many feel traumatized by the experience; showing students that they can do this is not just a sign that they can do calculus it is often a sign that they will succeed at Penn.

  1. Think about your own mentors and then dind a way to authentically be yourself in the classroom
  2. You can base things off of your own experiences, but you can't be someone else. Take the examples you have, but make it your own.
  3. Try to see where students are coming from and why they may think they don't belong
    Use previous student quotes and examples they can see themselves
    Explicitly address imposter syndrome. It's normal to worry about if you can do  this!
  4. Focus on helping students see that they are part of a community, and that you as an instructor are part of that community. Connection to peers is key! It's not just about your belief. Collaborative process

Heather Sharkey

Not just cheerleading, support!

  • Use a research paper as a central part of each seminar. Tell students that you'd like to learn something new from the paper, ownership
  • Promote skills and concrete tips that students can follow; communicates that you are invested in their progress
  • Provide helpful steps and tips that help students understand how the field and publishing works, make the invisible visible (show students journals they might be published in, show them how to write an email to an editor, explain what to do when you get rejected (because we all do))
  • Help students connect with previous students: show examples of published work, invite guests from prior semesters.  Include published student papers on the reading list.
  • Communicating faith in their development requires continuous support and relationship building: help students choose topics that they find interesting, confirm that their ideas are valuable
  • Share own vulnerability;  share failures as well as successes
  1. Show them examples
  2. Alert them to possibilities
  3. Be invested in the outcomes, follow up

Key: This kind of student work and this kind of work with students makes teaching energizing.


What if you don't have examples from previous students? 

  • Can start with own impressions and experiences
  • Help peers connect during class, can inspire each other
  • At least get the process started in one class: can take what they say to the next semester -- be OK with starting small

Balancing growth while not overwhelming students

  • Taking their ideas seriously and providing useful feedback is empowering
  • Try to structure grades so they don't feel punitive
  • Help them meet expectations (that are high) but tell them they don’t have to be extra -- they are enough

How to help struggling students (especially if they can see that they are below or well below the average grade for the class) -- can spark an existential crisis

  • If students don't perform well, acknowledge how they feel about it and don't try to pretend everything is fine, but also provide a clear path forward to improve.
    • e.g . How to study
    • Reinforce that reaching out is a good choice
  • Some students may mostly lack confidence/imposter syndrome, but others may also truly lack some helpful experiences and the response to them needs to be different!
    • Fear of under-performing and not being able to continue in the career they want
    • Students now (in 2021) fear that they have not gotten the background they need -- right now they feel like they are already behind and feel already overwhelmed
    • Find ways to ask students about their experiences and concerns
    • A TED talk on impostor syndrome
  • Math: moved from mid-terms to weekly quizzes (worth about 5% each). Students can drop 3 or 4. Improved scores, reduced cramming (may never return to high stakes mid terms!)
  • "I'm glad you're here"
  • "You're enough as you are here now, but this is a way to grow and add more"

Using projects to help students find their interests (and joy in academic work)

  • Let students choose a topic that they enjoy and/or are important to them! Tell them “pick a topic that brings you joy”
  • Let students work together to find a topic that is interesting to many of them -- help them get excited for each others’ work
  • Provide rubric, clear guidelines but also find ways to be flexible so that students are free to completely engage with the material and the questions
  • Revision and opportunities to try again
    • To manage instructor time, focus revisions and feedback on the first steps/beginning to guide the whole process
  • Iterative projects, multiple steps with feedback
  • Authentic assignments, such as developing a question from primary sources, provide multiple chances to run an experiment just as you would in a research lab.
  • Grade what's important to you

Multiple Modes of Participation!

  • Find ways to grade different ways of participation, give students options for things that count (maybe on discussion board or speaking in class)
  • Make a class playlist that relates to the topic
  • Provide chances for everyone to speak during class, start on the first day
  • Think beyond speaking aloud in class. Different people engage differently
    • Discussion boards
    • Poll everywhere (can give students a chance to answer in class and then revise their answers after)
    • Group work

Help students get to know each other

  • Group work, activities that ask students to work together
  • Provide time for students to just chat, try to group folks who have a harder time talking, those who have not met
  • Use the physical space in the classroom, have people move around
  • Find ways to encourage students to meet different people. Move around the room
  • Have students write and share about their experiences (Heather uses the COVID 19 Community Archiving Project)

Key themes of this conversation:

  1. Build relationships with your students and between your students (perhaps easier in small classes but can be done in larger classes -- you may have to focus on peer to peer relationships.)
  2. Support students: cheerleading only goes so far, provide them with concrete things to do and ways to improve.  Show them the possibilities (from previous semesters and students) and the path.
  3. Use grades to help -- throughout we talked about using grades to encourage students to do things like revise and review that we know will help them do rigorous work (rather than seeing grades as a punishment.)
  4. Provide students with small stakes assignments that allow them to build confidence and mastery.  Given them the ability to fail and learn from that.