Friday, January 30, 2015

Belonging II - Word Clouds

How do we help our students feel that their opinions, interests, or questions are not just unique to them? Faculty regularly suggest that if one student has a particular question, it is likely a question that many of their peers have as well - yet it is still often difficult to elicit those questions in class despite our strongest assurances that those questions will be well-received. Fortunately, there is an incredibly efficient way to collect evidence from an entire class that will help each student self-assess their level of concept understanding and hopefully of belonging. I use word clouds.

Real-time digital conversations during class

At the end of a recent class, I asked students to log onto the course site I opened at

If you haven't seen this site, you should definitely check it out. It is simple, which means it has hundreds of uses. In essence, it is a chat room on a web page. This site is free to use, and nobody has to create an account. The instructor makes a simple name for their page (I use and distributes the URL to their class. Each student with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop simply types in their name (or, better yet, an anonymous nickname) and joins the digital conversation. I use this site for collecting minute papers, exit tickets, and other forms of assessment.

Word cloud workflow

This day, at the end of the class session, I asked the students to tell me what they had learned in class that was new to them. Their comments on this question appeared on the course web page in real-time. After class, I copy-pasted the transcript of the webpage contents, which included this excerpt,

into Excel. The reason this step is to eliminate all of the interleaved lines of text that note when each comment was posted - these words negatively impact the effectiveness of using a word cloud. I sort the cells of text alphabetically, so that each of those interleaved lines (each of which starts with a numeral) are all collected at the top of the spreadsheet. Then, only the actual comments, part of which are represented in the bottom six rows below, can be copy-pasted onto

Word cloud generators, like wordle, do one task: they count the number of times each word is represented in the entire set of words, and prints more frequently used words in larger sizes. Additionally, the instructor has control over the shape and color scheme used to visually display which words were more commonly (and more rarely) used:

When should the word cloud be showed to the class? I used it at the beginning of the next class to stimulate a quick review of what we had discussed during our previous meeting, focusing on the most frequently-appearing terms.

I heartily endorse this approach to showing an entire class (including the instructor) the current state of understanding. With this word cloud, for example, I discovered that most of my students had never heard of haplotypes, but that much of the rest of the content I had covered was perceived as review. This is certainly useful feedback for me, but I also hope that the same is true for the students, who can see how frequently various terms (topics, questions) are represented among their peers.

They will see how much they fit in.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Belonging in the classroom

or perhaps "Belonging, in the classroom"

As I mentioned in my last post (continuing a thread of non-tablet-specific pedagogy), one focus we have at Fresno State is ensuring that every individual knows that they belong and that they have our support: we're here to make sure everybody has the tools they need to succeed. We are combating several forces, among which are self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Today, I suggest two approaches to improving the student sense of belonging from day one in the classroom.

To help students, I feel like one of the more important steps to take is to break down walls that might exist between students and faculty. I was inspired by a recent presentation by José Bowen, in which he pointed out that students might not attend office hours because, to some students, the faculty office is the inner sanctum of hell.

To keep my office out of Mordor, I have taken some simple steps. For example, I try not to make intimidating decor choices. Instead, I opt not only for stocking the office with tissues for the occasional sob but also making this necessity a good conversation-starter: I love my tiki tissue box holder!

In genetics class on Friday, I took what I hope is a bigger step: spending the first day of class being a person instead of being a Professor. I avoided the first-day staple of discussing the syllabus, instead asking students to read it and come prepared to discuss at our next class meeting. Instead, we started the term with an active process: free association. I said the word "mutant," and the class responded with terms like, "deformed," "different," "X-men," and so on. Because self-deprecation could be a good way to break down apparent barriers between the Professor and the class, I followed this exercise with an admission that I am a mutant - and we spent a little time discussing how I'm different: I'm color-blind, a result of a genetic mutation. I left it to the class to decide whether I'm deformed. Thus,

Approach 1: it is important to set the mood on the first day of class - make yourself human, and be approachable.

Although I don't (consciously, at least) make course decisions to improve my student ratings of instruction, several lines of evidence (e.g. this study by Pruitt, Dicks and Tilley) suggest that student impressions are set on (or before!) the first day of class and after that won't change much across the semester, no matter what the instructor does. My approach above was intended to combine active processes, a bit of personal introduction about me, and to start making genetics relevant. Doing this, I definitely experienced a different (more genial, relaxed) mood in my classroom this semester than I have when opening with six pages of syllabus.

To continue involving the students, I then wanted to collect some formative information. So I distributed a short, written survey asking:
1) the students' initial impressions of the relevance of genetics to them or to society
2) what topics of genetics are their least favorite

After collecting these, I spent five minutes at the end of class reading aloud to the class some of the responses (anonymously). The goal here was to create an intellectually safe environment in the class by letting other students hear about each others' interests and fears.

Content of some of the select few comments I read aloud, regarding least favorite topics:

  • Punnett squares
  • Meiosis
  • Statistics

These are perennial least-favorites, so there was no surprise to me here. One could argue that I wasted time by conducting a formative assessment when I already suspected the response. However, the goal here was formative assessment for the students' sake! I wanted them all to hear that others in the class have the same misgivings about genetics.

Importantly, I was ready with responses to give to the entire class: that I had planned additional time into the syllabus so that we would go deliberately through these essential topics in genetics. We would set the groundwork understanding and using Punnett squares. We only have to use one statistical test during the term, it is used in multiple scenarios across the term, and we have plenty of time to become familiar with it. In sum,

Approach 2: engage students immediately to help students help each other feel intellectual belonging

Hopefully these approaches prove successful, which I'll be evaluating by assessing two outcomes:
Increased student presence at my office hours and sustained attendance in class.

Update (19 Jan.): after I posted the above, a student happened to e-mail me, writing, "…Thank you for helping me to calm my nerves on the first day of class. I didn't know how to approach this class or the heavy subject but your lecture made me excited for this class." Perfect validation - even helping one student means success in my book!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Combating bias: Google Images

At Fresno State, our administration has made student inclusiveness a prominent priority lately. As a caucasian male, I hadn't consciously recognized the issues until I recently became a university professor, and I'm sure I'm not alone in my propensity to overlook bias and equity issues. Indeed, Google apparently has diversity issues as well!

Should a white male professor fit in at Fresno State?

It took me a term or two at Fresno State, which is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and an AANAPISI (Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution), before I one day looked out at my class of sixty students and realized that I was the only one (or perhaps one of three or four) in the room with blonde hair. Fresno State, like all California State University campuses, has a mandate to serve students from the geographic region, many of whom are Hispanic.

Then came a moment when I started wondering whether I was an appropriate choice of professor for Fresno State. Last year, our Provost asked us to read Who Gets to Graduate?, a New York Times article by Paul Tough, and to think about how each of us on the faculty (and staff) can help all students feel welcome and feel like they belong. Could it be that I'm actually inhibiting the potential of my students because I'm not as good a role model as I could be if I were a first-generation college student, or Hispanic, or female, or...? I have since given the question of how to help improve students' sense of belonging considerable thought, but I hadn't come up with any steps I felt like I could take in the right direction, until today.

Professional development to the rescue!

A NSF WIDER grant recently awarded to my College helped us establish faculty learning communities (FLC) for redesigning courses using high impact teaching practices like active learning, to try to improve our student success, especially among disadvantaged student populations. At one of our FLC meetings, we were asked to participate in an online implicit bias test at Harvard, which is a good first step for those who are in denial that we all have biases. This professional development opportunity primed me for what I realized this morning.

An almost faux pas

I am working on an activity for my first day of genetics class tomorrow, and my goal is to try something new to get students used to talking and asking questions in the large classroom setting (I now have 90 students in my genetics class). I'm going to show a slide with many images (a labradoodle, a mule, a pea pod, a roulette wheel, and teosinte and maize) and ask the students to discuss and share why they think each image is relevant to society. I'm trying to represent diversity in these images, because I'm actively trying to make genetics relevant to the students and their lives. I have plants that are important crops, and animals that are possibly relevant to daily life represented, for example. Then I thought I would add an image for students who are thinking about the relevance of genetics to medicine, so I added an image of a needle being used to perform in vitro fertilization.

A quick exercise for you

There are always some students in my class who are interested in genetic counseling as a career, so I though I would add one more image: of a genetic counselor. I get all of my images for presentations from Google Images searches, so I did a search for "genetic counselor" and was about to use one of the top few images that were returned, when I realized that those top image hits for this search term provide a very un-diverse image of who can be a genetic counselor: a white female, apparently! I urge you to do this search for yourself!

Then, try Google Images searches for the following professions as well - you might be surprised the degree to which the internet says these professions are diverse!

  • medical doctor
  • pharmacist
  • forensic scientist
  • professor
  • politician
  • engineer
  • construction worker
  • nurse
  • physician assistant
  • farmer
  • day laborer

What other search terms did you use that gave you surprising results?

The bottom line

If you use Google Images (or any other method) to find images to represent examples in class, be mindful of the diversity of the set of options you're choosing from! This is my first simple step that we can use to help improve how well our students feel like they belong in the university classroom.

What suggestions do you have for helping students feel like they fit in?