We are proud to announce René Shroat-Lewis as the DRC Featured Partner for August!
If you walk into René’s classroom on the first day of the semester you’ll be greeted with the sounds of She Blinded Me With Science. Music, and sometimes dancing, is a recurring theme in her classroom. Each class starts with background music that is tangentially related to the topic for the day, such as Volcano by Jimmy Buffet on volcano day or Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash on the day that students begin to explore plate tectonics. This serves several purposes: it helps set a light-hearted atmosphere in the class and it gives students time to freely chat with their peers and get prepared for the day’s lecture. The students quickly learn that when the music stops, class starts.
René strongly encourages peer interaction, which starts on day one. Students are asked to build groups based upon their birth month. To keep it geology related, the student groups must find out what their birthstone is and they must find some fun fact or ancient use for their birthstone. Often the results are amusing, such as February’s birthstone, the amethyst, which was thought to protect its owner from drunkenness (this is why the ancient Greeks and Romans wore amethyst and made drinking vessels of it!) Michael DeAngelis, another member of the Earth Sciences Department, was first to use this activity in class and it went over so well that René adapted it to her classroom. This type of ice-breaker is great for helping the class to develop cohesion, and to set the tone for the semester of learning while having fun.
At the end of each class, students write on cards any questions they have, or give requests for points of clarification. Everyone is encouraged to anonymously write something, even if it’s just a doodle, so those who might be embarrassed about having a question won’t be conspicuous. These questions are addressed at the beginning of the next class and serves to give students the answers they seek, but they also let René know if she has not covered the topic enough. “If the majority of students tell me on the cards that they didn’t understand a particular topic in that day’s lecture, then I know I didn’t go over it sufficiently and I can address it immediately,” she says. René is working with the DRC to set up an electronic system to complement this one, so blind students and those with dyslexia can easily participate as well.
She believes that geology is very accessible for all students and says “There’s always a way to learn it!” She encourages all students to audio-record her lectures so notes taken in-class can be later supplemented and clarified. Students who struggle in class are encouraged to meet with her one-on-one to analyze how they study, and she provides helpful tips on making improvements. Weekly quizzes are given in the classroom and René writes a personal note on each quiz with encouraging words like “Great job!” or “Well done!” If a student hasn’t done so well on a quiz, she might write, “I know you can’t be happy with this grade. Come talk with me and let’s see how we can improve this.” Feedback is important, and René uses it as a means to build a personal connection with her students.
Assessment is an area where she has built in options for students who may miss an exam, or do poorly on a test. Four exams are given in the course of a semester, plus one comprehensive test at the end. If a student misses a test for any reason, they can take the final and it will replace the missing grade. For students who don’t want to take a comprehensive final, she has built in extra credit opportunities that can make up missing points, including going on field trips to such places as the Mount Holly Cemetery and the Arkansas State Capitol building, and attending lectures about geology. Her exams are multiple-choice, but she plans to explore the possibility of offering short answer and essays as an alternative, since some students struggle with multiple-choice exams, but can express what they know very well in essay format.
Student exams are graded on the day that they take them and grades posted immediately online on BlackBoard. These exams are then returned during the next class period with two grades. The first is the grade that they earned on that exam, and the second is the total number of points they have earned so far in the course along with a letter grade that lets them know exactly where their overall grade currently stands. By doing so, all students can easily keep an eye on their performance and work toward getting an acceptable grade at the end with no surprises.
René also makes good use of the BlackBoard site for each class. A couple of important folders are set up immediately. For every topic that will be covered in class, she has a ‘What To Know’ list. This is a study guide that students can use to prepare for the exams. They should do well on the exams if they can answer each question on that study guide. Further, although René writes her lectures on the board, she does use PowerPoint for illustrations. All PowerPoints are posted at the beginning of the semester, so students can look ahead and print out what they’d like to have during class to jot notes on. If she makes any changes to the PowerPoints, she notifies the class well in advance. Posting assignments for the entire term on day one helps students plan ahead to meet the course obligations.
Theory in practice
Many of René’s practices fit in nicely with the concepts of Universal Design, as well as Chickering’s (1987) Seven Principles of Good Practice (below), which provides the rationale for establishing a flexible and supportive learning environment. While these principles formed the basis of teaching strategies prior to the development of the principles of universal design, they are still used in many instructional programs as they offer a common sense approach to instruction.
|1. Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty||Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students’ intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans.|
|2. Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students||Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort that a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one’s own ideas and responding to others’ reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding.|
|3. Encourages Active Learning||Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.|
|4. Gives Prompt Feedback||Knowing what you know and don’t know focuses learning. Students need appropriate feedback on performance to benefit from courses. When getting started, students need help in assessing existing knowledge and competence. In classes, students need frequent opportunities to perform and receive suggestions for improvement. At various points during college, [and university] and at the end, students need chances to reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to know, and how to assess themselves.|
|5. Emphasizes Time on Task||Time plus energy equals learning. There is no substitute for time on task. Learning to use one’s time well is critical for students and professionals alike. Students need help in learning effective time management. Allocating realistic amounts of time means effective learning for students and effective teaching for faculty. How an institution defines time expectations for students, faculty, administrators, and other professional staff can establish the basis of high performance for all.|
|6. Communicates High Expectations||Expect more and you will get more. High expectations are important for everyone — for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts.|
|7. Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning||There are many roads to learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college [and university]. Brilliant students in the seminar room may be all thumbs in the lab or art studio. Students rich in hands-on experience may not do so well with theory. Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learning in new ways that do not come so easily.|
You’ll recognize prime examples of the first four principles above in René’s teaching strategies.
1. Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty
- Makes herself available to meet individually with students for questions or help
- Solicits feedback at the end of each class in an easy, non-threatening manner
2. Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students
- Ice-breaker activity on day one gets students talking to each other
- Encourages students to work on in-class tutorials to help reinforce lecture topics
3. Encourages Active Learning
- Students are encouraged to attend field trips, and to attend lectures on topics in geology that interest them
- Uses active demonstrations to “wow” the students, such as using a black light to examine fluorescent minerals
4. Gives Prompt Feedback
- On each exam, provides total number of points to date in the class, and the student’s current grade
- Exams are graded and grades posted online within 24 hours (easily done with multiple choice questions) to help ease student anxiety
René values full inclusion in her classes, and we are so thankful for her work with all students, and for sharing her techniques with us all.
Alternate format for blind students
In addition to designing courses so they are accessible to everyone to the extent possible from the outset, the Geology Department has also put a lot of effort to have alternative formats for their materials. These images depict some of the ways in which the Geology Department has made its courses fully accessible to blind students. You’ll note that map legends are provided with raised lines for tactile reading, along with Braille labels. Their department is the standard-bearer in the state in this area.
The Disability Resource Center is ready to partner with all academic departments on campus to implement universal design features in courses, and to create alternate format information like those pictured below. Please contact Sharon Downs to explore this further.