2019 MMA Teaching Award

Each year, the Dean of the College selects one member of the faculty to receive the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award. The award honors the memories of Reid H. McLain ’27, Clair McTurnan ’10, and Kent Arnold ’29, and has been given annually to a member of the faculty who has distinguished him or herself by innovative and engaging teaching since 1965. A list of past winners of the award is available here. This year’s winner is Dr. Eric Wetzel, the Norman Treves Professor of Biology.

Citation by Dean Scott Feller: Tonight, I am honored to announce the recipient of the 2019 McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award. The tradition has been for long citations, cleverly worded tributes crafted by the Dean of the College. By necessity that changed when I became the Dean. My award citations are shorter, and much less creative, but no less deeply felt. To honor a faculty colleague with this award is one of the highlights of my work as Dean. And this year’s winner is someone who I greatly admire, a teacher whose dedication to our students, to our college, and to our world, serves as a model for all of us.

Our winner is praised by students for passion inside and outside the classroom. I have been particular impressed by our winner as a model for lifelong learning, someone whose teaching and research has grown far from the narrow PhD training that most of us experience, someone who has developed new courses and new programs at Wabash that bring together academic disciplines in a way that is uniquely possible at a liberal arts college.

Our winner pushes students well outside their comfort zone, actively working to challenge them, to disturb them, as part of their education. He does that by taking the classroom far off campus, to understand the common elements of our humanity by learning about people and places far from our college as well as the people we call neighbors.

Please join me in congratulating the 2019 McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award winner, Professor of Biology, Eric Wetzel.

Teaching Men

At the 2018 Opening Workshop, organized by members of the the Teaching and Learning Committee (Crystal Benedicks, Adriel Trott, Scott Himsel, Sujata Saha, Karen Quandt, Tom Pearson, Aaron Elam and Neil Schmitzer-Torbert), nearly 80 faculty and staff gathered for a set of conversations about teaching which launched our academic work for the year. Our focus was on what it means to be a liberal arts college for men, and what it means to teach men. Our conversations began with an introduction by Dr. Adriel Trott, which is reprinted below.

At Wabash College, we define our mission in terms of teaching men. Today we want to think together about how teaching men leads us to shape our pedagogy and our curriculum. I am probably not saying anything that is news to any of you when I say that teaching men in a single-sex student environment is not the same for students or for faculty as teaching women in a single-sex student environment is. And these differences have much to do with the ways that men and women have historically existed in the world. Institutions with all-women student bodies largely aim to give women opportunities to be recognized as knowers and as leaders because they historically haven’t been recognized as such. Historically, men are assumed to be the knowers, the leaders, to be ambitious, and so forth. While this is true, these roles come with their own pressures and double-binds—and speaks to the assumptions people make about how men should act and be. This recognition of male privilege and pressures makes the various issues that men face Continue reading

How can we help students study for exams?

During the 2017-19 academic year, the Teaching and Learning Committee hosted a series of conversations about challenges that we face in our teaching, and strategies that we could apply to address those challenges. Following our opening workshop in August, where we considered a wide range of challenges, two groups of faculty met monthly during the fall, discussing how to engage our students more effectively in learning, and how to handle difficult conversations in the classroom.

I participated in the Engaging Students in Learning group, and during the academic year, I worked to put into practice several course revisions intended to help students succeed by providing more effective feedback. One of these revisions was inspired by a reading that we discussed in our group, a blog post by Dr. Maryellen Weimer (How Should I Study for the Exam?In the article, Dr. Weimer describes the results of a research study conducted by Drs. Amanda Sebesta, and Elena Bray-Speth of St. Louis University (How Should I Study for the Exam? Self-Regulated Learning Strategies and Achievement in Introductory Biology).

Drs. Sebesta and Bray-Speth were interested in self-regulated learning (one’s ability to develop and execute an effective plan to study for an exam in this case), and they developed a survey to assess the types of self-regulated learning strategies that students used to study for exams in their introductory biology courses. They found that students who did well in the course, and those who improved across the semester, used more of the self-learning strategies, and that there were a subset of strategies correlated with better academic performance, some of which involved cognitive and metacognitive strategies (e.g. “I evaluate the quality or progress of my work. For example, I check over my assigned work to make sure I did it right; when I get an answer wrong, I try to understand why the correct answer is right.“).

As I continue to look for ways to help students succeed on my in-class exams, I found this study to be very promising. In the spring semester, I implemented the survey in two courses, in an attempt to:

  1. Identify which exam study strategies were related to better exam performance in my courses, and
  2. Determine if I could improve exam performance by encouraging the use of specific strategies.

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2018 MMA Teaching Award

2018 – McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award Winner:
Brian Tucker

Each year, the Dean of the College selects one member of the faculty to receive the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award. The award honors the memories of Reid H. McLain ’27, Clair McTurnan ’10, and Kent Arnold ’29, and has been given annually to a member of the faculty who has distinguished him or herself by innovative and engaging teaching since 1965. A list of past winners of the award is available here.

Citation by Dean Scott Feller: Dr. Brian Tucker is praised by students for phenomenal classroom teaching, particularly in drawing out the very best in his students as they wrestle with a difficult text. But he is also known for taking students around the world to immerse them in the people, places, and culture that bring those difficult texts to life.

Those of us who teach chemistry or economics, or any number of subjects that young men identify with based on their high school experience, can count on students showing up to campus, ready to fill our classrooms. Some of us are given students by virtue of the subject we teach, others have to earn it. I have come to greatly admire my colleagues who draw students into their discipline with engaging course work, creative programs, and excellent teaching.

Dr. Tucker is the poster child for attracting students to his discipline, providing them an unrivaled educational experience, and setting them up for post-graduate success.

Engaging Students in Learning

Summary of our Fall 2017 lunch discussions

At our Opening Workshop in August 2017, hosted by the Teaching Learning Committee, we started a process of reflection on the challenges that we have identified in our teaching, and how to address those challenges. Throughout the fall of 2017, a group of faculty met monthly between September and November, to focus in one set of related challenges from the workshop, which we broadly framed as the challenge of engaging students in the process of learning.

For this group, the motivating questions that we took from the opening workshop included: How do we effectively engage students who enter our classroom with a wide range of preparation, how do we provide feedback in a way that promotes reflection and development, and how do we encourage students to develop the skills to evaluate and improve on their performance in class? How do we support the needs of our international students?

Across our meetings in the fall, our conversation focused on two issues:

  • Strategies for providing feedback in a way that impacts student performance (such as comments on papers which students respond to in a deep way)
  • And, working with students who enter with a wide range of preparation.

Question #1: How do we provide feedback that is useful?

  • Types of assignments we discussed in our monthly meetings: papers, drafts, exams, problem sets.
  • Concerns: Our most effective strategies (one-on-one meetings, extensive written comments) are time-intensive, and students may not respond to that feedback on later assignments.
  • Themes: Some of our discussion focused on specific assignments we use, but general themes that emerged was that these techniques were intended to increase accountability for using feedback, and to provide models for how to respond to feedback.
  • Whatever our technique, our goal seems to be to nurture a metacognitive skill in our students: learners should habitually attend to the results of their efforts and use them to improve.

Accountability: Heavily weight revisions in the final grade for papers, require students to submit a plan for a paper revision before starting, take off points on later problem sets for repeating errors made on earlier problems.

Making the goals of the revision explicit: Providing a rubric for the quality of a revision, discussing how to respond to comments from faculty or peer reviewers.

Potential resources:


Question #2: How do we support students who enter
the classroom with a wide range of preparation?

  • How do we help students who struggle with basic skills? Being able to read and interpret a word problem was an area of concern here for some.
  • How do we help students prepare for each class session? Specific techniques that came up here were the use of quizzes (especially ones that had students apply material that they had read before class).
  • Specific concerns for our first-year students: Many students arrive at Wabash having experienced easy success in high school, and we are concerned that many need encouragement to learn to persist when struggling in a course, to get them to make use of office hours, to introduce them more fully into the psychology of learning (that reading is not the same thing as studying, strategies for taking notes, etc.).
  • Services: Can we better partner with the Writing Center and Quantitative Skills Center to support students?

Some of these points are focused on providing students with effective support, but others seems to also focus on helping our students develop better metacognitive skills.

Specific strategies that Wabash faculty have used, or are trying out:

  • Having one-on-one meetings with each student (to discuss exams, papers, etc.): considered effective, but a very time-intensive strategy.
  • Holding a session on note-taking (outside of class), to demonstrate one method for effectively taking notes on readings and course sessions. Providing students with an example of one’s own notes from an undergraduate or graduate course (Eric Olofson).
  • Having students grade themselves using an answer key in class (Eric Olofson, Neil Schmitzer-Torbert), or providing students with the correct solution, and requiring them to work together to identify why their own answers were not correct (if they made an error) (Nate Tompkins).
  • Having students complete a survey on their study strategies when they complete an exam (Katie Ansaldi, Karen Quandt, Nate Tompkins).
  • Having students resubmit one question for an exam (Shamira Gelbman)

Paper revisions:

  • Requiring students to submit resubmission letters (Matt Carlson, Matt Lambert), or a revision plan listing the points the student would address (Shamira Gelbman), or making the revision (the improvements made to the paper since a previous draft) worth half of the final grade, unless somehow the original paper was perfect (Eric Olofson).
  • Make the first version of the paper worth the most. This one is all student work, without peer or my comments.  And they’ll take the initial (not “rough draft”) more seriously. Doesn’t help with taking the revisions seriously, though. (Paul Vasquez, formerly in our Political Science department, described by Karen Gunther)
  • Karen Gunther: On repeat versions of the same type of assignment (mini-lab write-ups, different experiments, not a revised paper, but the same format across multiple papers), I reserve 5% of the grade for their comments/reflections on what they improved on the second (or third) mini-lab, based on my comments from the first (or second) mini-lab. This is explicitly requested in the syllabus.   Not all students read the syllabus, and thus miss this part of the assignment.  But usually after receiving mini-lab #2 back, with 0 on 5% of the assignment for reflection, they do the reflection on the 3rd mini-lab.

2017 MMA Teaching Award

2017 – McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award Winner:
Michelle Pittard

Each year, the Dean of the College selects one member of the faculty to receive the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award. The award honors the memories of Reid H. McLain ’27, Clair McTurnan ’10, and Kent Arnold ’29, and has been given annually to a member of the faculty who has distinguished him or herself by innovative and engaging teaching since 1965. A list of past winners of the award is available here.

Citation by Dean Scott Feller: Dr. Michelle Pittard’s impact on the campus is not limited to the classroom or office hours. She supports our students in all their endeavors, support that continues after they graduate as they go on impact the lives of their own students. It is fair to say that this year’s winner touches the lives of every Wabash student through her tireless commitment to our all-college courses. As a faculty leader she strengthens the college in important ways.

I went back to listen to a Chapel Talk from our winner last year. I am always amazed by my colleagues who craft powerful messages to share with our community. But her message that day, on the many dimensions of family, was particularly powerful. Families are very important to our winner. At work, she considers Wabash her family and at home her family includes her own children who are college students. In fact, one of her children attends that school 30 miles to the south and plays on the baseball team that will be visiting us on Saturday. It is my hope that the MMA award is the only thing a member of her family wins at Wabash this week.

Time for teaching

In February, Rick Warner and I traveled to Ann Arbor to meet with members of the GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to talk about the progress of the new website for the CTL, and directions for the future of the consortium. Ahead of that meeting, the program directors asked us, “What are one or two of the greatest challenges that faculty members encounter in their teaching at your college?

Rick and I put that question out to our faculty, to help us get a better feel for the range of challenges that Wabash faculty are seeing today. In the end, we heard back from six of our colleagues, who wrote about their concerns in engaging all of our students in class discussions, how to teach large-ish survey courses where students enter with a wide range of preparation, and how to challenge students without putting them off. All of these concerns resonated with our own experiences, and with those of the other CTL members, and we hope that that the CTL can be a valuable resource in our conversations about how to engage with these and the other concerns that come up in our teaching.

And, we also noticed that across these very thoughtful responses another theme emerged, on time, or time scarcity. Lack of time, especially time for teaching, was detailed specifically in two responses, listed below:

  • “I think the greatest challenge will always be time – to teach the courses we want (often we are too stretched as a department to allow flexibility) and to develop them thoughtfully and carry them out well in balance with research and service.” – Laura Wysocki, Department of Chemistry
  • “Finding time to invest in preparing and, more importantly, revising lesson plans.  I often find myself reusing a lesson plan from the past that I know I could improve but don’t have the time to devote to doing so. I have to give priority to a new lesson prep because, well, there is no existing lesson plan to lean on!” – Jennifer Abbott, Department of Rhetoric

In Ann Arbor, when we discussed our responses and those from other colleges at the GLCA/GLAA meeting, we found that time emerged as an common concern. And, I can’t say that we were surprised by this: as we entered this discussion, everyone did assume that faculty would report feeling pressed for time. We have made similar observations at Wabash, notably in 2013-14, when we spent some time surveying faculty about their job satisfaction. Stress about time emerged from those conversations as well, though mostly related to research and scholarship. But, faculty also expressed their desire fro more time for time to work with students, which seems to overlap with the concerns we saw at the CTL meeting.

But, while it not a surprise that faculty feel that time is a challenge in our teaching, I do think it is important that we not simply accept this situation as a given, as some universal feature of faculty life. Instead, especially after reading Berg and Seeber’s recent book, The Slow Professor, this semester, I think that we should use these concerns as an opportunity to ask what we can do to better prioritize time for teaching. As part of this process, I think it is important that as individual faculty members, and as a college, that we continue to look for ways to support reflective faculty development on our teaching.

For instance, as a college, I think we should continue to ask ourselves:

  • How do we support our faculty in their efforts to develop and reflect on teaching? And, how can we improve on our existing efforts?
  • How do our reward structures (tenure, promotion, salary review) focus on exemplary and reflective teaching?

As individual faculty members, I think we should also continue to take advantage of the resources, in our own community and externally, to help us refine and reflect on our teaching. Informal conversations about teaching are invaluable in our community, and a key part of our faculty development. I would also suggest making use of a few more structured opportunities:

  • Consider participating in the Peer Observer Program (POP)
  • Meet with colleagues to discuss the results of mid-semester feedback and end of course evaluations.
  • Join a book discussion with other faculty and staff, to spend time reading and thinking about a work that can inform our teaching. In 2016-17, a group of faculty met in the fall to discuss Rose’s The End of Average, and in the spring, another group met to discuss Cain’s Quiet.
  • Departments can devote a portion of regular meetings to talking about teaching experiences or strategies that department members are experimenting with.
  • Many disciplines have journals dedicated to teaching and learning (for examples, see this list, maintained by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennesaw State University).

And, while I am happy to offer a few ideas on how to help support our faculty in finding time to focus on teaching, I also acknowledge that the perception of time scarcity is not a “problem” that we can “solve” permanently through any of the strategies listed above. When we see that a diverse set of institutions (such as our GLCA/GLAA peers, who have a wide range of teaching, scholarship and service loads) all share the perception that time to reflect and focus on our teaching is scarce, then this would suggest that simply changing one dimension (teaching load, service, etc.) will not likely change our satisfaction in a lasting way. Instead, creating space by removing one thing (through a reduction in teaching or service), will lead to other activities creeping into that void.

However, I do think this is an important issue, and one we need to address even if there are no easy, or permanent, solutions. As a liberal arts college, our main concern in our work is the education of our students. So, it is a critical concern for us to continue to find space for faculty to reflect on teaching, to refine and develop new courses, and to grow as teachers.

Teacher Talk – The voices of first-year students

In our October Teacher Talk, Drs. Crystal Benedicks and Jill Lamberton described their work with the Wabash Liberal Arts Immersion Program (WLAIP), a summer program which brings a group of entering Wabash freshmen to campus for four weeks during the summer, to get a head start on their Wabash experience. As part of the program, the students complete an immersive composition course, in which the final assignment, designed by Jill Lamberton, is a reflective audio essay.

The assignment was motivated by the observation that in the real world, our students will be writing in multi-modal ways, and Jill was interested in creating an assignment that helped students practice this type of writing. Students also had the opportunity to solidify their learning as they reflected on what they had learned in the course, stating what their beliefs about writing are, and the types of writers they wanted to be. The use of an audio assignment also leveled the playing field in some ways, as those students who excelled in creating audio content were not always those who had written the strongest papers. And, the assignment also involved peer evaluation, to give students more experience in looking critically at the work of others, and using that feedback to improve their own work.

In the Teacher Talk, we listened to a 9 minute audio piece, which featured parts of the audio essays of several of this year’s WLAIP students. The clip is available to Wabash faculty on the Teaching and Learning Canvas page (Look under the 2016-17 information, under the heading: Teacher Talk – What first-year students really think about college learning (Oct. 19, 2016)).

In the clip, we heard students describe being overwhelmed in school, “fact after fact smack me in the face without knowing what it meant.” Others described how they felt they had not understood the purpose of school, how it translated to being successful, and how they now wanted to claim an education.  How they had felt that “creativity was a crime” in high school, and they were never expected to succeed in college, or treated as a person with potential. Students spoke about being self-conscious about their accent, feeling that they were judged as less able, and their words as less valuable, because of their speech. Others spoke about how they had dreaded reading in school, and had never really read a passage or essay before the summer course.

After listening to the audio, faculty and staff shared their reactions. We noted that it must be very different to come into college from backgrounds where they were not expected to go on to college, compared to those students who were always expected to go to college. We were also impressed that the students featured were all very eloquent and reflective, citing sources well.

We noted that students reported seeing the feedback on their writing (getting a paper back marked up in red) as a reflection of who they were (a bad writer) and not as feedback intended to help them improve their work. Related, students did not really think of drafting as a process of thinking, and this was something they had to learn.

Helen Hudson, who had also taught in the summer course, described her conversations with students, who said “I had no idea anyone was interested in hearing my ideas” when they reflected on class discussion.

Some of the points that we took away from the audio clip and our own conversation were:

  • We can all promote students talking directly to each other.
  • We can also promote the idea that you CAN work on your writing and improve as a writer.
  • The importance of encouraging annotations – in the summer course, students were required to print and write all over their readings; students received points based on how much they wrote
  • The importance of helping students understand strategies for annotations: to see this as a key part of engaging with a text.
    • To encourage students to summarize, react, to ask questions in the margin
    • To see this work as the ideas that will be important in their later paper drafts, and a key step in the writing process.

Big Data @ Wabash: The Paths our Students Take

Prof. Martin Madsen (Associate Professor of Physics), presented at the 2016 Ides of August on the results of his study of the path that our students take through their four years at Wabash. This was a great example of how “big data” can give us insight into patterns (shown in Martin’s summary figure below, which captures how the paths of our students differ across majors) that we might not easily capture in other kinds of reports.

This project follows work from Preston Bost on the classes that Wabash students take in their first year at the college. I extended the work and looked across all four years. The data set comes from the Institutional Research office and consists of all courses (by department and course number) for students that graduated from Wabash College in the years 2007 – 2016. There are 1887 individual students in this data set.

The courses exclude all-college courses (Freshman Tutorial, Enduring Questions, and Cultures & Traditions), transfer courses, courses awarded as back-credit, or lab sections. All sections of a course (i.e. special topics, or changed course designations) are included under the same course number (for example, if PHY 114 was changed to PHY 112, both courses are included under the number that the students took them). There are a total of 756 different courses listed for a total of 59,408 student-course data points.

The “courseEnrollments.png” data show the fraction of total students that took each of the different courses in the data set. The horizontal axis is organized by department with each column in the department representing a different course number, in ascending (left-to-right) numerical order.courseEnrollments

The “majorNumbers.png” data show the fraction of students that majored in each of the different possible majors at the college over this 10 year period. Because the data only include graduated students, every student had a major. Double majors were counted twice in these data. The colors used in this chart represent the different majors and are repeated in the combined data set.majorNumbers

The main figure, “allmajors.png”, shows all the data. The color of each point represents the graduating major. The brightness of each point corresponds to the fraction of each major that took the same class at the same point in their career (i.e. if all physics majors take PHY 111 the fall of their freshman year, that point will be very bright, if only 1/4 of the physics majors take MAT 223 the fall of their freshman year, that point will be much dimmer). The vertical axis represents an increase (from bottom-to-top) of time from the fall of the freshman year to the senior year (plus the fall of year 5 for some students).allmajors

*Note: Martin also created a PDF version of the data plot (11 x 17), which should be easier to download!

Class notes: Things, expected and otherwise, I learned taking a colleague’s class

Prof. Ethan Hollander (Associate Professor of Political Science), presented at the 2016 Ides of August on his sabbatical work, and also his experiences as a student during sabbatical (in Prof. Jane Hardy’s Modern Linguistics course, and several online courses). Below, he describes his experiences, and speaks to the value of seeing the classroom again from a student’s perspective.

Confucius said that “There are three paths to wisdom: Reflection, which is highest; imitation, which is easiest; and experience, which is bitterest.” I’m not sure if a year of sabbatical experience cured or enhanced my bitterness. But it did give me ample opportunity for imitation and reflection, and this is my report on the wisdom acquired thereby.

I spent part of my sabbatical as a student of Professor Jane Hardy’s course on Modern Linguistics (MLL 122). My only expectation was to satisfy a curiosity I had in the topic since college. In practice, the experience did much more. If you’ve got the time and you’re open to new ideas, taking a colleague’s course can be a valuable thing indeed.
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