Wicked Workshops to Create Wicked Students who Solve Wicked Problems

Contributed by CTL Faculty Associate, Kelly Mancini Becker

I haven’t really heard the term wicked since my days living in Providence, RI in the early 90s where the term was used frequently to emphasize everything: it was going to be wicked cold this weekend, that outfit is wicked cool, my day was wicked long.

Educator and author, Paul Handstedt, is reviving the word in his recent book, Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. What is a wicked student? “A questioning, informed, thoughtful agent of positive change” who can go out into the world and solve complex issues, or what he calls wicked problems (Handstedt, 2018, p. 3). I’ve written this post to both introduce the “wicked” concepts and invite you to a new CTL workshop series (see calendar links below).

What’s a wicked problem?

The notion of a wicked problem, according to Wikipedia, has its origins in the mid-1970s, first coined by West Churchman and expanded by Horst Rittel. In Handstedt’s use of the word, he refers to the work of Edmond Ko, a general education thinker who defined it as a “situation where the parameters of the problem and the means available for solving them were changing constantly” (p. 3).

Sound all too familiar? The Corona virus pandemic was one big, wicked problem. This book was written in 2018, so Handstedt didn’t have this as an example, but it surely fits the bill. In the effort to face, solve, and survive the pandemic, leaders in every sector of society had to think and act in new ways. This issue crossed borders and required politicians, scientists, medical staff, educators, and business owners to work together to create systems to meet the new and constantly changing challenges that the pandemic presented.

As instructors in higher education, we are helping to educate the next generation of leaders, workers, and citizens who will be faced with solving such problems—which leads to the premise of the book: how do we accomplish this and what does it mean for the courses we teach?

Paul Handstedt argues that we need to do more in college courses than teach content and skills. He argues that our students need “authority.” In a sense, he uses this word to allude to “authorship”—to write, create, or build something new and have the confidence to do something that has not yet been done. Authority is also an attitude, “a sense of one’s ability to enter the world not as a mere cog in the machine, but as a thoughtful, competent individual who, when the situation calls for it, is able to step forward to ask questions and propose solutions that may lead to a reinvention of the machine” (p. 5).

So how do we create an opportunity to gain authority in our courses? In what ways do our courses challenge our students to solve problems, be creative, and think in new ways? Handstedt acknowledges that our students need to have some knowledge base before solving problems in their fields, but he argues that we need to move more quickly to application, providing our students with opportunities to practice these skills.

Handstedt argues that “higher-order goals are not a replacement for the basics but, rather, a means of taking foundational material to a more productive level of learning” (p. 20). He challenges us to break down the walls between classroom and world sooner, and to push our students to practice solving complex problems in real world settings. He suggests we shift our thinking about our courses as spaces that allow our students to gain knowledge and hopefully skills, to thinking of them as opportunities for students to gain wicked competencies: more action and application and less knowledge acquisition.

If this sounds interesting, please join for a 3-part workshop series where we explore how to accomplish this through course design using three chapters in Creating Wicked Students as a framework.

During our time together, we’ll workshop ideas to either strengthen our current syllabi or plan a new course by:

  • Defining wicked problems in our fields.
  • Developing or reworking course objectives to go beyond learning content, but to also develop competencies, deepen learning, and build the capacity for authority.
  • Structuring courses in a way that pushes our students to gain authority within a subject area and build their capacity to problem-solve; as the semester builds, the challenges can become more complex.
  • Developing assessments and assignments that both test and allow student to solve wicked problems.

CTL Workshop series

  1. Session 1: Identifying Wicked Problems for Wicked Students
    Tuesday April 12, noon-1pm
  2. Session 2: Designing Wicked Course Objectives
    Tuesday April 19, noon-1pm
  3. Session 3: Creating Wicked Assignments and Exams
    Tuesday April 26, noon-1pm

Feel free to join us for one or all of these sessions. It’s going to be a wicked great learning experience for all!


Handstedt, P. (2018). Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. Stylus Publishing.

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Adjusting to Mask-Optional Teaching

Contributed by the CTL Director, Susanmarie Harrington

Provost Prelock announced that as of Saturday, March 19, masks are now optional in most indoor locations at UVM. The policy change announcement acknowledged the ways in which students, faculty, and staff have repeatedly adapted to the pandemic. As we think about coming to campus next Monday for the first classes that will occur with this new policy guidance, we enter a new period of adjustment. Faculty, staff, and students no doubt have a range of thoughts and feelings about studying, living, and working amid COVID, and that range will affect our classrooms. Some of us had the chance yesterday to talk with students about the shift, and heard reactions that included excitement, relief, happiness, worry, sadness, confusion, fear. We’ve been wearing masks, and enduring the pandemic, for so long, that this mix of emotions is completely understandable.

Since March 2020, every aspect of our lives and work have been affected by the pandemic and becoming a mask-optional campus is another milestone in this journey. Some of us will welcome the ability to be on campus without wearing a mask; some of us will continuemasks to wear masks. Some of us will feel relieved by this shift; some of us will have questions, concerns, or fears. It may be helpful to leave some space in our classes to acknowledge that policy changes affect our learning spaces—and to note that we can, with compassion, continue to create learning communities together.

Throughout the pandemic, the CTL’s workshops and consultations have emphasized compassion for students and instructors and the importance of clear communication. We’re using these themes to think through what a pedagogical transition to a mask-optional campus might look like. We welcome your thoughts and questions now, and we look forward to hearing from you as the semester continues.

Approaching change with compassion

Compassionate teaching begins with awareness that each person in the classroom brings a broad lived experience with them. There are many reasons that students and instructors alike might feel some nervousness about being in the presence of unmasked neighbors—for example, immunocompromised people, caretakers of those unable to get vaccinated, people at higher risk for complications from a COVID infection may wish for higher levels of masking in public places. At the same time, other students and instructors might feel pure joy at the return of maskless classes. With a whirl of emotions in play, your students may be sitting near people who are making different masking choices than they are. While our campus policy now emphasizes individual choices about masking, we can encourage everyone to consider their individual choices in context. We will all be navigating anew the ways our individual choices affect the people around us. Just as we took time in the earlier months of the pandemic to recognize how students’ learning was affected by broader change, we can help students think through this new change. Transparency is the best way to assure students that you’re managing class with their learning in mind.

Modifying group work as needed

As we move through the remaining weeks of the semester, group work may be complicated if group members have different approaches to masking. Consider asking groups to be thoughtful of others when making their masking choices. Depending on the nature of your assignments, you may be able to re-form groups so that students are matched with those making similar choices. If groups are solidified in membership, you can support them in using their group skills to negotiate any differences. Groups with divergent masking preferences might use remote tools to complete their work, for example, or may be able to change their work sites. If you guide students to communicate with each other respectfully and clearly, and you assist them in finding ways to accommodate the divergent approaches in their group, it will help to keep them focused on their tasks.

Communicating about classroom experiences

Colleagues on campuses that have already transitioned to mask-optional status report that masking behavior can vary widely. A thoughtful post by the Indiana University CTL suggests that instructors could gather information from students by asking questions about how the shift in mask policy is affecting them, and use the sense of the class as a starting point for conversation. In small classes, we can open up discussion directly.

However, because there is so much about masking that is now up to individuals, opening up this conversation might be challenging. If your class is already in the habit of negotiating classroom agreements about policies or standards, you could be in a good position, with processes and norms for negotiating shared approaches. But in a very large class, or in a class where students are accustomed to simply receiving class policies from you, this isn’t practical. It could generate unfairly critical feedback as the semester ends from students who have strong opinions about behavior you simply can’t control. You can always influence classroom culture by being explicit about your own masking choices, helping students to see how they can think through what difference masking/not masking makes in your particular class.

Masking can be a polarizing issue in the absence of mandates. It makes sense to assume that students have a range of feelings about being near people who are making different mask choices and to do your best to communicate that you welcome and support all students.

Please stay in touch

For the past two years, our teaching has worked because of our generous and supportive teaching community that values what matters most for students. In almost every workshop, we come back to the question of what instructors really want students to be learning and how instructors could make sustainable teaching choices in this challenging time. Clarity about this has helped shape your choices about activities and accommodations–what assignments could be put off or redesigned and what activities could be transformed for a pandemic. That same sort of thinking may be helpful now, if you think divergent views about masking may affect the ways your assignments or activities will play out as the end of the semester nears.

The CTL is always ready to partner with you as you teach, and we look forward to hearing from you about what it’s like teaching on a mask-optional campus. What in-class pedagogical questions come up? How are your students navigating in-class changes? What would you like to talk about with your colleagues?

We’re all learning together, and we are more resilient for the conversations we have together.

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Helping Students Overcome Obstacles

Contributed by CTL Faculty Associate, Allison Anacker, Psychological Science

We’ve been experiencing an unprecedented number of issues arising in the last two years, and not just COVID cases. Students have been going through personal crises and have physical and mental health challenges at rates we haven’t seen before. It’s hard to know what to do with all the emails and other communications of personal, often distressing information, and requests for flexibility.

Here are a few strategies to help students overcome obstacles they encounter. The goal is to help them navigate their situation and return to class able to move forward with their learning (and to help reduce the burden on you).

1. Be proactive

You can help prepare students for what to do in case of an emergency, and potentially lighten your own load by steering them in the right direction before they come to you for help. Let students in each class know early or mid-way through the semester what they should do in case an emergency arises.

For example, if students must go away suddenly due to a death in the family, they can email or make a phone call to Student Services in their Dean’s Office (see list at end of this post) to communicate the issue instead of contacting each of their instructors in that difficult moment. Student Services can then send out an official request for flexibility for the dates the student will be affected, without the student needing to share personal information directly with their instructors. I also advise students to take this route when they have a medical issue that will affect them for more than one day.

To be prepared and reduce my own work when issues arise, I have a PowerPoint slide with the Student Services website and contact information that I share in each course, and I have boilerplate text I can copy and paste quickly into an email to guide students to this resource if needed. A message about other resources like the tutoring center for developing time management or study skills is helpful for students if they’ve fallen behind but may not have an issue that would be recognized by the Dean’s Office.

2. Be compassionate

First, express your concern and your desire to make sure they have the support they need, such as suggesting they contact Student Services as described above. Then consider what the student will be missing or need flexibility on. Is it critical for the course or for subsequent assessments? If not, it may be reasonable to make them exempt from that. If that is a hard change for you, consider the load a student would bear after missing even a few days, to have to make up work/classes missed and stay on top of upcoming work, all while still recovering physically and/or emotionally; if they can be successful in the class without that burden, let’s make that work! Even when I have reasons not to exempt a student from a particular assignment, I often let struggling students know that it is okay to just ‘let it go’ and take a 0 and move forward. They may not have seen that as a possibility, or it may ease their mind to know you would understand why they would make such a choice.

3. Set appropriate boundaries

We’ve all been carrying plenty of stress and emotional baggage these days. It can be hard not to “take on” some of the emotion of students who are coming to you in distress. Remind students that they don’t need to share personal, especially medical information with you. Along with guarding you from the emotional burden or compassion fatigue, students may benefit from an acknowledgement of their autonomy when you convey that you respect their ability to balance the various factors in their lives and make their own choices about what to prioritize. If you do sense a student is in distress (their emotional/mental state is impacting their ability to function in everyday activities), file a CARE report (link below) and follow up.

By empowering students and guiding them to the proper processes and supports when they experience difficulties, you can help them work through obstacles in their academics and ease your own time and emotional investment in the process. Keep the goal in mind – helping students return to the classroom feeling motivated to continue their learning after a setback and finish strong!

Campus resources

Student Services contacts and websites

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Experimenting with Yellowdig in a Biochemistry Course (with Some Unexpected Results)

Contributed by CTL Faculty Associate, Laura Almstead, Plant Biology; Nutrition & Food Sciences

An introductory biochemistry course isn’t the first class you’d think of when considering classes where a discussion board could be used. This is a course I’ve taught almost every fall for the last ten years. It’s undergone multiple, major “renovations” over the years and, this year, the main goals of my changes were to promote peer instruction, increase retention of the material, and better emphasize the relevance of what we discuss to their future educational and career goals. A class discussion board could potentially help me achieve all three. Let’s try it, I thought. If it’s a flop, we’ll drop it and figure out how to readjust assessments. It ended up being far from a flop.

My experiences last year were what sparked the first of my goals – promoting peer instruction. Open-ended class discussion questions, group problem-solving, and iClicker questions had been part of the course right from the start, so students worked with each other, at least some, in every class. Last year, I taught the class using a mixed delivery modality, and majority of students chose to attend remotely. I struggled to get them to engage with the material in class, and students seemed to struggle much more to grasp the material. This was in stark contrast to my introductory biology course, run remotely, where the Teams chat nearly blew up every time I posed a question and students were as successful compared to prior years. Both classes, however, struggled more with iClicker questions in an environment where they couldn’t talk to their classmates. Thus, my experiences teaching remotely reinforced the importance of having students engage with the material in class and peer instruction.

The biochem course this year was set up so that Yellowdig contributions and in-class iClicker questions both counted towards the engagement component of the assessment. Yellowdig posts (40 words minimum) could be questions, important points (e.g. answers to follow-up questions posted for each class; tables, lists, or diagrams summarizing material), or extensions/applications (e.g. related videos or articles). The word count minimum for comments was set a bit higher (60 words), and students were encouraged to answer their classmates’ questions, add additional information related to someone’s post, or explain why they found an extension/application especially interesting or helpful. Students could make up for missed iClicker questions by creating an extra post or comment that week, or contribute more on some weeks so they could take a week off during a “crunch” week in other courses. A majority of students hit their Yellowdig points goal several weeks before the class ended…and most kept right on going.

Day one, I told the students that the success of our Yellowdig discussion board was up to them. They could use it to ask questions, motivate them to answer to the follow-up questions and/or check their answers, help each other, etc. or they could spend the semester figuring out how to say “Hi, so-and-so, this post is very helpful,” in 60 words. It was up to them. I was not going to “police” Yellowdig and take away points for contributions lacking any real content. Instead, I’d invest my time and energy answering questions and reinforcing/clarifying important points.

And invest time I did – because I enjoyed it! I found myself checking Yellowdig four or more times a day, much more than was probably necessary, but I couldn’t stop myself. Although there were only thirty students in the class, it seemed like there were always new contributions to read. At first I jumped on answering questions people asked. Gradually I backed off and waited for other students in the class to chime in with an answer first. By the middle of the semester, I was mainly giving my thumbs up to contributions, providing clarifications when needed, and answering a few of the more challenging questions. Now, were there a few students whose contributions were mostly of the “hey, this is helpful” in 60 words? Certainly, but a whopping majority of the contributions had actual content.

Looking at trends in frequency of Yellowdig contributions, quiz scores, and homework scores there was a definite pattern – more Yellowdig contributions were correlated with higher quiz and homework scores. My guess is that some of this is due to the fact that students who contributed more were simply more invested in the class, but does suggest that actively engaging with the material and peer instruction outside of class through Yellowdig helped promote understanding. Nearly all of the students who responded to an anonymous end-of-course survey also said Yellowdig was at least “sort of” helpful and the vast majority said they’d recommend using Yellowdig next year.

So, will I use Yellowdig next year? Yes. Will it be as successful? Who knows? Ultimately, it’s the students that will make it or break it. What I do know, is that, overall, students were more successful in the course, their interest in course material was higher than usual, and I was able to connect much more with the students this year than in the past.

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A Case for Teaching the Hidden Curriculum

Written by Jen Garrett-Ostermiller

Introduction to the Series: “A Case for Teaching the Hidden Curriculum”

This is an introductory post where we explore the academic challenges college students face, created and exacerbated by Covid, and kicks off a series titled “A Case for Teaching the Hidden Curriculum.” Upcoming posts in this series will highlight curriculum-based academic skill development as a partial antidote to these challenges.

Earlier this month, Dr. Cate Denial, author of the forthcoming book A Pedagogy of Kindness wrote on twitter, “I realized this morning that I made a big mistake this term. I didn’t think to explicitly teach ‘how to do college.’ I did a lot of work on ‘how to do history,’ but in retrospect, everyone-even the juniors and seniors-needed ‘how to do college’ again.” (emphasis added)

This concept of students struggling to “do college” is echoed in sentiments being felt right here at UVM this semester. It makes sense. Since that day in March 2020 when everything suddenly went remote, learners and educators alike have been adapting to new ways of doing school. Despite attempts to define this fall as some version of normal, we are all still in the midst of a global pandemic, and many of us are depleted.

Impacts of the Covid pandemic on college students

Washington Post staff writers documented challenges directly connected to the stress of living and learning in a global pandemic:

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University reviewed data on 43,000 college students who sought treatment in fall 2020 at 137 counseling centers. Of them, 72 percent reported that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health. Sixty-eight percent said it had hurt their motivation or focus, and 67 percent said it led to feelings of loneliness or isolation.

This leads us to ask, how are students supposed to know how to manage time and projects when attention spans are shortened and motivation is lowered? How are students supposed to know how to effectively read and study while also navigating the emotional and mental stresses of a collective (and often personal) traumatic experience?

Additionally, after 18 months of learning how to “do emergency remote learning,” students may be experiencing cognitive whiplash as they are asked to prepare for and engage in primarily in-person classes with a range of norms and expectations. Practical questions emerge. How do students know how to participate in class when they have spent the better part of two years engaging meaningfully in a written chat? How do they know how to navigate group projects? How do they know how to take notes in a large in-person lecture?

Academic skill development in college

Now, more than ever, students need help to learn how to “do college.” Sometimes called the hidden curriculum of college, academic skill development—time management, studying skills, reading strategies, and communication approaches—is essential for success. Some students come to college with these skills, but most gain them through trial and error, emulating peers, or (in the most fortuitous circumstances) with the coaching of an advisor or mentor.

Acquisition of these academic skills has a positive effect on retention. If all students are taught to become more adept with these skills as early as possible, we should see more equitable outcomes. Additionally, supporting students to develop academic skills in the classroom is a proactive intervention. When all students are more equipped to “do college,” panicked emails about missed deadlines or requests for extra credit at the end of the semester are reduced.

An argument can be made that attention to academic skills belongs in the curriculum whether or not we’re in a pandemic. A college degree signals skill development beyond disciplinary aptitude. Earning a diploma indicates that graduates have demonstrated effective time and project management, can independently learn new and often complex information, can manage stressful circumstances, know how to communicate with a range of constituents, and can use information literacy skills for inquiry-based research. If we expect these skills to be an outcome of a college education, then teaching these skills becomes integral.

What do we know about teaching the hidden curriculum?

In a large study with over 10,000 undergraduates, Bowman, Miller, Woosley, Maxwell, & Kolze (2018) identify that hands-on, real-world application is more effective than simply telling students about the best strategies for approaching school.

For example, a time management workshop should have students engage with their own schedules and share how they could approach or structure these differently (in ways that are consistent with the intended learning outcomes), as opposed to simply providing a list of time management tips that students may or may not use. (p. 149)

The classroom is therefore an ideal space for students to learn about and practice these academic skills.

In this series, we are not advocating that every instructor incorporate teaching every aspect of the hidden curriculum in every class they teach. That would be overwhelming for instructors and students alike. However, we do think that identifying one or two key skills particularly relevant for your class will have an impact.

Upcoming series on supporting students’ academic success

Over the coming months, CTL staff and faculty associates and the Center for Academic Success will publish a series of blog posts and host workshops about practical ways you can support students in developing behavioral and affective skills that will support their academic success, making the hidden curriculum both visible and valued.

We’ll be sharing posts about how to support students’ development of the following on life skills (e.g., time management strategies, growth mindset), classroom skills (e.g., test taking, participating in discussion), and learning skills (e.g., reading strategies, spaced retrieval).

If you have an idea you’d like to share about how you build academic skill development into your teaching, please write to ctl@uvm.edu, and we’ll include it in a future post.


Bowman, N., Miller, A., Woosley, S., Maxwell, N., & Kolze, M. (2018). Understanding the link between noncognitive attributes and college retention. Research in Higher Education, 60(2), 135-152.

Svrluga, S. & Anderson, N. (2021, October 14). College students struggle with mental health as pandemic drags on. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/10/14/college-suicide-mental-health-unc/












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What Teaching Modifications Should We Keep After the Pandemic? Ask Your Students!

Contributed by Allison Anacker
Psychological Science, CTL Faculty Associate

As we near the end of this unprecedented academic year, with the promise of something resembling “normal” in the fall, it’s a good time for reflection. We’ve made monumental changes in our approaches to teaching, and we need to decide if we want to continue some of these new practices in the future. There’s no better time than now to reflect on this, while everything is fresh in our minds and while we still have direct interactions with students.

In the higher-ed blogosphere, some writers have made recommendations (see post on The Conversation) about which teaching practices are worth keeping, such as recording lectures (see Chronicle article), and also which pre-pandemic teaching strategies we should leave behind.

I’m trying to apply these questions to my own specific course changes. In one course this past year, my co-instructors and I made a huge shift away from traditional tests to a series of homework assignments and low-stakes quizzes. The changes worked well, overall, for our current conditions, but I wasn’t convinced that they improved learning compared to the traditional route. I wasn’t sure how to approach next year… that is, until I talked to my students.

For this relatively large class, I was lucky to have six undergraduate TAs, four of whom had taken the course in the “before times” with traditional tests and two who took the homework-focused course last fall. This spring, I asked them to consider the current course (in which they are TAs) in comparison to previous experiences in either this course or other courses, and tell me what parts they thought worked best, focusing on learning as well as overall well-being.

Their responses were clear and unanimous: the traditional testing model was not optimal for learning because it encouraged cramming and purging. They felt that the assignment-heavier format engaged students more than the exam-heavier format did. It should be noted that these TAs are high-achieving, independent, and motivated students who excelled in the course themselves, so their responses are unlikely to simply reflect a desire for easier work. That said, the method they prefer is not, in fact, easier, because students likely spent much more time on the homework assignments than they would have on studying for and taking exams!

I now feel confident that my approach of engaging students through homework assignments, rather than studying for exams, is worth continuing.

The point is not to advocate for the same changes in your course design, but rather to encourage you to talk to your students about what’s working now that could continue to be helpful for students who take the course in the future.

Here are some suggestions for how to go about that:

  • If you have TAs, have a targeted discussion on this topic with them.
  • If you have a chatty class where you can reasonably expect that most students will participate, have a discussion with them to reflect together and ask:
    • What’s worked best to help your learning in this course?
    • What helped or what was difficult about “new approach X”?
    • If things were back to ‘normal’ in the fall, do you think “new approach X” or “old approach Y” (which you’ve experienced in past courses) would work best for your learning?
    • How do you feel about the learning you’ll carry with you from the course – do you think it would it be different if we had done “old approach Y”?
  • Ask for student feedback by anonymous survey on Blackboard (encourage participation with the offer of extra credit). You can use questions like those above but also add more specific questions in this format, including true/false, multiple choice, or ranking style questions for results that are easy to analyze
  • Finally, don’t depend on your course evaluations to give you these perspectives because the questions don’t typically elicit feedback on the specific aspects of courses that you may be most interested in, and they certainly won’t get at comparisons with another possible course structure.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to reflect with your students, and get their perspective on what’s working for you to continue in the future!

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Four Ways to Cultivate Community & Connection in Pandemic Classrooms: Insights from a Student Research Project

Contributed by Kelly Hamshaw
Community Development & Applied Economics, CTL Faculty Associate

With the Fall 2020 semester in our collective rearview mirror and with preparations for the Spring 2021 semester ahead of us, we have an opportunity to reflect upon what worked well and what could be improved in our pandemic classrooms. Regardless of teaching modality, COVID-19 significantly impacted our standard practices of engaging and connecting with our students. Personally, I have missed the energy generated during a spontaneous popcorn-style discussion, brainstorming with small groups of students as they navigate a challenge in their service-learning project, and the post-class “walk and chats” on my way to back to Morrill Hall. These activities helped foster community and connection in our classrooms in the “before times”. Yet cultivating community and connection matter as much now, and perhaps even more, during these uncertain times.

How we can effectively build connection and community as we teach in new ways and with new technologies? How important are community, connection, and caring for creating a sense of belonging and inclusion during pandemic teaching? To address these critical questions, students in Professor David Conner’s CDAE 250: Research Methods course partnered with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) across the Fall 2020 semester. Students worked in small groups to review the academic literature, create and launch an online student survey, and conduct interviews with student and faculty members across campus.

Over 400 current UVM students responded to the survey. Nearly 90% reported that community is an important factor for their satisfaction with their college education to some or a great extent. Yet only 51% of students reported at least some degree of community feeling in their Fall 2020 courses. These findings suggest that there is opportunity for improvement as we look ahead to Spring 2021. Interestingly, most student respondents (nearly 83%) believe that the faculty member holds the primary responsibility for creating a sense of community within the classroom (whether or not we as faculty members agree with this notion, it is important to recognize that students hold this belief). The vast majority of students also acknowledged that the students enrolled in a course play a large role in creating community within the classroom (94% responded that they somewhat or strongly agreed).

Student and faculty responses also provided important insights regarding how faculty can help foster a sense of community and connection with their students while teaching during a pandemic.

The following four suggestions provide concrete strategies to consider for your spring courses.

  1. Get to know your students
    Over three-quarters of student survey respondents (78%) reported that faculty efforts to get to know students within the class has a large positive effect on developing a sense of community. Multiple student interviewees remarked that they appreciated when faculty members built in time to learn about their students’ interests, goals, and experiences—especially in the absence of those informal conversations that typically would occur before or after in-person class sessions. Sixty-four percent of students reported that periodic check-ins initiated by their faculty member had a large positive effect on their experience in the class. Building time into your course to learn about your students as individuals can pay dividends as the semester moves along by enhancing connection, developing rapport, and providing faculty members with valuable insights into who our students are as individuals—something that can be difficult in remote or online courses.

    Things to consider:

    • Create a Blackboard survey to ask students to share about themselves – from what brought them to your class, what their extracurricular interests are, or a positive highlight from their winter break.
    • Encourage students to come to “office hours” early in the semester to establish a personal connection.
    • Hold space for “checking in” with your students on a regular basis and consider making it a regular practice throughout the semester.
  2. Lead with Empathy and Compassion
    COVID-19 has impacted all of us, in tangible and intangible ways, as we navigate balancing learning, working, and taking care of loved ones and ourselves during a pandemic. Acknowledge that students, like faculty members, are learning how to effectively navigate a remote or socially distant classroom in these surreal circumstances. One student shared in an interview, “When a professor acknowledges that you’re busy, it’s good, when they make you feel like they think their class is your only class, it cannot separate you further from a professor.” Keep in mind that students are likely to have courses in different modalities and perhaps using different technologies. Students responded positively to faculty members that shared how they’re coping within the contexts of both class and daily life. More than half of the student survey respondents (52%) reported a large positive effect when faculty members shared personal anecdotes and updates, while 40% reported a small positive effect. “Being real about it all” encourages students to feel more comfortable coming to office hours, asking questions, and reaching out for help.

    Things to consider:

    • Identify class policies that can offer flexibility when students experience pandemic-related challenges.
    • Share some insights into how you’re adapting to the challenges brought by COVID-19.
    • Be available for informal conversations prior to starting or ending class sessions.
    • Invite or incentivize student attendance to office hours.
  3. Share your investment in adapting your course
    Student interviews indicated that students recognize the difficulty of adapting courses for pandemic teaching—along with the challenges of general pandemic life. Many expressed a deep appreciation for faculty members who clearly invested in adapting their classes by learning new technology platforms and re-imagining course assignments. Students shared that they were more invested in those courses to reciprocate their faculty members’ efforts. Conversely, students expressed that when faculty members showed a lack of investment in their learning, they felt a sense of apathy towards the course. Students shared that they appreciated that teaching in a new modality or adjusting to new technology are challenges for faculty members. While we may strive for a seamless experience without any tech glitches, one student noted a positive response to when faculty members are transparent about the bumps or twists along the way, reporting “I feel like I respect them more when they acknowledge mistakes because they’re more real, there’s a new sense of relatability and reality built-in.” Another student echoed how acknowledging the reality of pandemic teaching builds stronger rapport by saying, “I appreciate it when teachers joke about technical difficulties, or express mutual frustration. It’s okay to look human. It’s okay to laugh about the problem as you fix it.”

    Things to consider:

    • Be transparent about your efforts to adapt to pandemic teaching.
    • Choose your technology thoughtfully, practice with it for proficiency, and share your rationale for using it.
    • Acknowledge that technology glitches or mistakes may occur as part of our shared pandemic teaching and learning experience.
    • Evaluate your major course assignments and adjust in ways that make sense for your class modality.
  4. Create Opportunity for Peer-to-Peer Connections
    Students shared a deep sense of loss for missed opportunities to get to know their peers within their classrooms. Whether students selected the “UVM At Home” option or returned to campus, their social interactions were substantively curtailed by COVID-19. Although vitally important to students’ college experiences, these connections can be difficult to build and maintain in remote or online courses. Faculty members can strategically weave in opportunities for peer-to-peer connections that will increase overall class engagement and cultivate a sense of belonging within the pandemic classroom. One student interviewee shared, “To me, I believe that to have a sense of belonging in the class, I have to feel comfortable with most of the students in the classroom and feel a sense that I know them. Whether that is by name, major, just feeling like I’m not talking to strangers!”.

    Students noted that breakout discussion groups and low-stakes group assignments were especially helpful in larger remote courses where students were more likely to have their cameras off and be muted during synchronous meetings. In fact, over 75% of students surveyed felt that opportunities for small group discussions in breakout rooms during class strengthened a sense of community, and approximately 60% reported that group projects led to a positive effect on their experience.

    Things to Consider:

    • Incorporate icebreaker activities in the early weeks of the new semester.
    • Use the Channels or the newly launched Breakout Room features on MS Teams to have TA-led or student-led discussions during synchronous class meetings.
    • YellowDig is now widely available for UVM faculty to use as a discussion board platform that fosters peer engagement.
    • Develop group projects with clear structure and support so that students can create community while practicing collaborative skills.

Of course, community, connection, and engagement will look, sound, and feel different in each class given the modality, faculty teaching style and experience, and disciplinary content, just as they would in a “before times” classroom.

In addition, the convenience sampling methods and other COVID-19-related precautions limited the generalizability of the findings from this project to the whole UVM community. Nevertheless, listening to student voices and experiences offers concrete ideas for increasing a sense of community, connection, and engagement in the spring semester.

Interested in exploring how you might weave some of these community-building insights into your Spring courses? The CTL is offering a month-long series of Support and Community events where you can attend a variety of workshops, office hours, and practice sessions on MS Teams.

CTL Faculty Associates are available throughout January and into the Spring semester for individual consults focused on individual courses and are happy to serve as a sounding board as you consider how these insights on community, connection, and care might apply to your classes.

Special thanks to Professor David Conner and the student researchers in CDAE 250: Research Methods for exploring this important topic during the Fall 2020 semester!

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Take-Home Messages from Listening to Students

Contributed by Laura Almstead,
Plant Biology; Nutrition & Food Sciences; CTL Faculty Associate

I was prompted to write this blog piece after reading the responses to a mid-semester survey and reflecting on input I’d received through one-on-one conversations with students.

Listening to our students is a powerful way to answer the all-important question: Is what I’m doing working? Seeking student input is even more important as we all make adjustments, or in some cases monumental shifts, in our courses to navigate the new landscape of COVID-19.

Below is a compilation of take-home messages from my students as well as the students in other CTL Faculty Associates’ courses. These messages come from a range of course sizes and formats, yet the underlying themes are the same. As we look towards spring, hopefully these messages can help inform and guide our course development.

Technical glitches freak students out, and they often blame themselves.

One of my great surprises this semester was how frequently students blamed themselves for technical glitches such as not being able to log into Teams, not being able to type in the chat, etc. Choose your technologies carefully and keep the number of different technologies you use to a minimum. Most importantly, be kind, be patient, be lenient, and constantly reassure students that they’re not to blame for these glitches.

Be yourself, be human – it works.

Students want professors who are “real people.” As we strive to garner the respect of our students, it can also help to let them see our vulnerability. Whether that’s by sharing your love for Schitt’s Creek and the Bachelorette, or introducing your pet in a Teams meeting, it all helps to build community. Even in remote or asynchronous online classes where you may never meet your students, sharing who you are outside the classroom builds connections that make you more than just a face on the screen.

Provide structure to support student learning during stressful times.

Structure is essential component of inclusive teaching under normal conditions, and even more important now in these topsy-turvy times. Set patterns and reminders go a long way towards helping students stay on track. Have a clear, consistent pattern to class activities and assignments, and regularly remind students of due dates via class announcements and emails. Take the time to clearly communicate the details of your course, such as how technologies will be used and how to contact you.

Give students ways to interact during class to promote engagement.

It’s easy for students to “zone out” in class, especially if they’re joining remotely. Keep people engaged by providing frequent, simple ways for them to respond to or interact with class content. Ask a question and have people respond verbally or by typing in the chat, or simply have them write the answer in their notes. Assign “chat buddies” and have people message each other to discuss a question. The remote response system iClicker Reef provides a relatively simple way to incorporate participation as a graded component of the class. Whatever methods you choose, students appreciate and want interactive classes.

Create opportunities for students to build connections with each other.

In these times of social distancing, students crave opportunities to connect and interact with their peers. Encourage students to respond to each other’s answers in the chat during class, promote and support formation of study groups, find ways to incorporate group discussions, and include low-stakes group projects. Consider what’s appropriate for your course, and try to find at least one way to increase student-student interaction.

Be flexible with in-person attendance in mixed and in-person classes.

As much as many students want to attend class in person, some may feel safer joining remotely and others may struggle to navigate the logistics of juggling mixed, remote, and in-person classes. We must also be prepared for students to be in quarantine or isolation. Give students the choice of coming in person or joining remotely in mixed classes. For in-person classes, have a clear plan outlined in your syllabus for students that are unable to attend in person due to health concerns. Remember that what’s important is not how your students join class, but rather that they are easily able to join class in the manner that makes them comfortable and keeps everyone safe.

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Online Proctoring Tools: Balancing Academic Integrity with Student Access and Privacy

By Dianna Murray-Close
With the recent move to remote teaching, faculty have raised questions about how they can ensure academic integrity when students take exams online. Concerns include students taking the exam together, exam questions being broadly shared with future students, and challenges to replicating closed-book exams.

Exam Alternatives:

It may be easier to maintain academic integrity with alternative assessment options, such as multiple low-stakes quizzes or culminating assignments (e.g., portfolios). However, these alternatives may not be feasible in all courses. For instance, in large-enrollment courses, frequent or culminating assignments may create untenable grading demands. In courses where fundamental learning outcomes are tied to performance on high-stakes exams, such as preparation for a professional exam, testing may required. The CTL exam decision tree is a resource to help faculty identify the best option for their courses. When faculty elect to use tests, however, it’s not always clear how to maintain academic integrity when teaching remotely.

Respondus Online Proctoring Tool:

Online proctoring has emerged as a way to alleviate concerns about cheating on exams in Blackboard. UVM provides access to Respondus LockDown Browser, which prevents students from navigating away from Blackboard while taking the exam. However, when students are taking tests at home, this option alone fails to prevent the use of alternative devices to look up answers or consulting a textbook during a closed-book exam. To address these concerns, faculty have the option to add another layer of security: Respondus Monitor.

Respondus Monitor is an online proctoring application that accesses students’ computer microphones and webcams to record them while they take exams, using artificial intelligence to flag exam instances that may require faculty review.

Bear in mind that although the Respondus tools provide deterrents to academic integrity violations, they cannot completely eliminate the chances that such violations will occur. For other strategies, see Encouraging Academic Integrity During Remote Exams.

Should these tools be used?

Remote proctoring tools are generating significant controversy across institutions of higher education. Even prior to COVID-19, some scholars argued that testing practices implemented in face-to-face courses often do not translate well into the online environment.

Concerns Raised about Bias:

The algorithms used in facial recognition in online test monitoring may introduce bias when flagging potential exams of concern, with greater likelihood of flagging students with darker skin tones. Caretaker status, medical conditions, gender identity, and internet connectivity may also relate to the likelihood of being flagged. At a minimum, faculty must be aware that an exam being flagged is not, in and of itself, evidence of academic dishonesty. Flagging may simply reflect difficulty identifying the student in the frame, potentially due to bias in facial recognition and detection algorithms, or other factors deemed “atypical” such as loud noises caused by children or roommates nearby or movements related to medical conditions.

Related articles:

Concerns also include:

  • Technology: Do all students have the technology needed to run the Respondus programs? For instance, are students able to take the exam using a laptop or tablet with a webcam for Respondus Monitor? Do student devices meet the operating system requirements for Respondus LockDown? Do students have high enough internet connectivity to allow video recording through Monitor? You can read more about these requirements on the UVM Knowledge Base pages, linked below.
  • Access: Do students have a private space for taking exams, free from roommates or family members, so that they are not flagged by Respondus Monitor?
  • Compassion: Do these tools compound distress amid a time of significant upheaval? Do the tools move the focus from learning to cheating? Do they interfere with opportunities to infuse compassion into our teaching?
  • Ethics: Do online proctoring tools force students to choose between their privacy and completion of their education? Prior to implementation of Respondus tools, faculty may wish to consider the implications of these tools for student access and privacy, and evaluate whether other potential approaches that encourage academic integrity during remote exams could work for their courses (see the Decision Tree under “I need to give a traditional exam”).

Articles Cited:

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Contemplative Pedagogy for Transformative Education and a Creative Response

By guest contributor, Laura Hill, Plant Biology

Today’s college student is seeking more from their higher education than simply gaining knowledge and skills. They are asking faculty to make the classroom experience more participatory, inclusive, and relevant. College students are searching for life purpose and meaning, according to an extensive survey of first-year students across the U.S conducted by Alexander Astin and colleagues. Students reported preoccupation with life’s big questions such as: “What are my most deeply felt values? Do I have a mission or purpose in my life? What kind of person do I want to become? What sort of world do I want to create?” (Astin et al., 2011).

The Tree of Contemplative Practices
This tree of contemplative practices is intended for illustrative purposes and is not a comprehensive list

UVM’s mission statement underscores our mission to graduate students with a “dedication to the global community” and an “enduring commitment to… ethical conduct,” both of which are touchstones to transformative education. How then are we creating space in the classroom to allow our students to explore their own personal agencies? What classroom activities are we creating to prepare students to cultivate their moral courage to engage in social dilemmas with clarity about their own values along with the capacity to actively listen to others with different values and opinions? (AAC&U, 2007). Economist Daniel Barbezat argues, “somehow we have lost our way in higher education and abandoned our mission to create lives of purpose and strong, ethical, and creative minds” (Barbezat and Bush, 2014).

What can faculty do to facilitate our students’ growing confidence, clarity, knowledge, skills, and values so that they graduate to be creative problem-solvers in our increasingly complicated global society? Without opportunities to inquire deeply, students will likely repeat the past, thus sacrificing the potential for a creative response. Many faculty across the globe are responding to this call with contemplative pedagogy. Contemplation is at the heart of all great scholarship, as it exemplifies profound concentration to a particular topic in a field of study (Barbezat and Bush, 2014).

The essence of contemplative pedagogy is to structure classroom activities to bring students into a first-person experience with the course material. Here, students experience the material in both an abstract, analytical manner (third-person) and deepen their understanding by contemplating their own, first-person experience. Ultimately, students gain empowerment in their learning, in themselves, and in the world.

Contemplative practices vary greatly (Figure 1) but all have an inward (first-person) focus that creates opportunities for greater connection and insight. Contemplative practices include structured activities that focus students to pay attention to the present experience. The critical aspect of all contemplative pedagogy is for students to discover their own internal reactions without having to adopt any specific ideology. Contemplative pedagogy aims to build students’ capacity, deepen understanding, generate compassion and resiliency, and inquire into their human nature (Barbezat and Bush, 2014).

UVM supports professional development in contemplative pedagogy, and there are rich avenues to explore the intersection of contemplation within the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) model (Owen-Smith, 2018).

For more information about contemplative pedagogy, please consider the following upcoming opportunities:

  • Attend the Contemplative Pedagogies talk as part of the New to the Faculty – Brown Bag Sessions hosted by the Office of the Provost, Tuesday, March 17 from 12-1:30PM in the Jost Foundation Room Davis Center 422
  • Request an individual faculty consultation with Laura Hill, CTL Faculty Associate
  • Apply to join the Fall 2020 cohort of the CTL Contemplative Faculty Learning Community. Applications will be solicited from all faculty in late Spring 2020. Email Laura Hill (lhill@uvm.edu) for more information.
  • References:

    Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2007). College Learning for the New Global Century. A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Accessed February 5, 2020 from: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/GlobalCentury_final.pdf (PDF)
    Association of Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE). The Tree of Contemplative Practices. Accessed February 5, 2020 from: http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree
    Astin, A.W., H.S. Astin, and J.A. Lindholm. (2011). Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    Barbezat, D. P., & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    Owen-Smith, P. (2018). The Contemplative Mind in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Indiana University Press.

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