Monday, November 2, 2015

The Power of Tweaks and Nudges

Some recent articles talk about small tweaks or nudges that can motivate people to engage in activities. As we enter the second half of the semester, some students are falling behind or forgetting to do assignments. It may be time to increase the tweaks and nudges.

My own experience with hybrid classes reminded me that students lead very busy lives and don't always read the syllabus, course calendar or moodle shell. I found that even though I had given all the dates for the  assignments and I wanted them to be independent learners, that they did not always do assignments on time. I then started to send short reminder emails (using the moodle news forum), trying to be positive and motivational and discovered that the submission of assignments in a timely manner seemed to increase.

When discussing this with students they felt that the reminders were helpful in keeping them on track and made them feel that I really cared about them and their success. This was especially true when the tweaks or nudges had some positive content (ie. After our discussion in class, I look forward to reading your papers) rather than simply a reminder message.

This strategy also worked in classes that meet on a weekly basis. Why not give it a try?

Here are two recent New York Times articles that talk about the the good, the bad and the ugly of tweaks and nudges.

A Better Government, One Tweak at a Time

The Power of Nudges, for Good and Bad

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Students Are Neither Visual Nor Auditory Learners! They Are Tactile/Kinesthetic Learners!

Obviously, something was going wrong!

It was the first day of Math class, and there I was, at the front of the classroom, pointing at the board, going over the text I had written on it word-for-word, reiterating the course code, my name, my email address, my office hours, smiling, firmly in the role of the Professor. I had respectfully greeted each of my students as they had first entered. I had warmly welcomed each student to my course. 

While we did make some brief eye-contact initially when I had first greeted them, and then, again, when I had begun to speak, I realized that no one was paying any attention any longer to what I was saying.

Fifteen minutes into the course, I felt that I was no longer connecting with my students.

When it comes to teaching and learning, I have always trusted my intuition. My intuition was clearly telling me that I was losing the battle for my students' attention, interest -- and that the battle for their engagement (and for my relevancy) was already not going my way.

I instinctively stepped back. I re-examined the behavior of my students for clues. What were they doing? What was I doing? What was I missing, or overlooking?

Two students on different sides of the room were texting using their cell phones. Another was busily wandering through her fashion magazine, recognizing one celebrity after another on the fashion pages. A fourth was applying blush to her cheeks. Another student sitting at the back of the room was putting blank pages into her binder. A young man by the window was folding his newspaper into thirds, neatly fitting it into an inside compartment of his backpack, between what looked like a set of textbooks and his bag lunch.

There I was, standing up there, at the front of the room, speaking to no one.

So . . . I stopped what I was doing.

These behaviors comprised clues to solving the puzzle: my students were busy doing things with their hands. They were engaged in tactile tasks. They were not reading. They were not listening to me. By implication, they were letting me see that they were kinesthetic, hands-on learners. To reach them effectively, I needed to mirror that learning style and engage them in a manner that would be compatible with how they learned.

Instinctively, I decided to alter my approach. I re-joined the battle with a new strategic plan. I began by handing out blank pieces of paper to each student. Everyone took at least one page. I had begun to model their hands-on behavior.  That tactic worked: I suddenly had captured everyone's attention. Next, I modeled how I wanted them to fold this paper. Fold in half, then in thirds again.  Everyone followed. Everyone succeeded at this task. I praised everyone. I received smiles back. We were all in synch, together. I knew I was on the right track.

Next, everyone wrote on their topmost fold, "Rules for Adding Fractions," and then copied the rule for addition when denominators were the same, and gave two of his/her own fractional examples of that rule in action.

"Any questions so far?" I asked. More smiles. "Is everybody with me?" I inquired further? More smiles and nods. We were learning and re-learning.

"Okay, we ready for what to do when the denominators are different?"  Everyone was truly ready for the last part of the instructions.  This time around, I was the one to give the fractional examples.

I went step-by-step, starting by identifying numerators and denominators, revisiting the concept of the least common denominator. At each step I paused and encouraged questions or comments. Students spoke up. They asked; they inquired. They disclosed what they did not understand. I acknowledged and valued their disclosures and each one of their questions. I answered everyone, in turn. I addressed misunderstandings and clarified their concerns. It was happening. Everyone was learning. Moreover, they were helping and learning from one another. When someone did not understand or grasp the concept, others spoke up. We all became teachers and learners.

I looked up when the folded page was complete. An hour and a half had passed. The students were happy. They had gotten it.

"Now, put your names on your papers. Show your children how these rules work, and how to do it," I added. It was that easy. I devoted the rest of the semester to creating similar foldable papers, covering a variety of other Math topics in the curriculum. Students came away with permanent learning tools they could always use, for themselves and for their children.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Pew Research Center

As we are all putting the finishing touches on our syllabi and moodle shells for Spring 2015, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite resources for lecture materials, handouts for discussion, interactives and visualizations of data with charts and graphs. Pew Research is considered valid and reliable and I have seen it cited by The New York Times and CBS News. I always manage to find up-to-date information for my classes.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research.

Their many projects include:
Here is an article that I think presents a good summary of the kinds of material published by the Pew Research Center - 14 striking findings from 2014.

You can also subscribe to their extensive selection of email newsletters at

I would like to hear from other members of the faculty about resources they find useful.
(This post was originally posted to the Audrey Cohen School for Human Services and Education Faculty Moodle Portal.)