How much is enough?

Might there be a diminishing return, when it comes to incorporating high impact techniques into the learning environments we create? 

“She is a breath of fresh air…a ray of sunshine making an early morning class not only bearable, but fun…she has a ready smile for everyone…”

A Paradox: Is there a dark side to high impact teaching practices?

Personality shines through differently in blogging than it does in real life. I often think about this, about how we only know small pieces of who folks really are. When reading a blog, you learn a little about folks’ inner world by reading between the lines and appreciating the turns of phrase (or direct prose, or stream of consciousness) they put on the screen. But you rarely see their faces, much less their gestures and other non-verbals. And those are telling, too. When interacting in person we get the opposite: we get to learn about personality by their non-verbals: facial expressions, hand gestures, body posture. Together, all these bits and pieces tell something closer to the full story of who we are, inside. When you only know someone in a singular context, you only know a small bit about them, despite the feelings of familiarity that come from your knowing.

Teaching is an interesting context, where you might think that teachers get to be better known by their students because they – the students – see such an inclusive view. You’d think our students would know us better, if not downright well, because they get to see our gestures, facial expressions, and postures regularly for long periods of time. They get to read our turns of phrase, hear our interpretations and thoughts, and so on. But it turns out that this isn’t the way it works. Students don’t know their teachers better. I often feel much less understood in work contexts, by both students and even by colleagues.


I usually chalk it up to two reasons: though we are “ourselves,” we present in carefully cultivated ways, only showing one (or maybe 2, depending on the class) sides of ourselves. And, because we are evaluators, our students see us with perceptual filters on.

She is going to judge me, and she doesn’t even know me!” students feel.

And then, too:

They are going to judge me, and they don’t even know me or how much I care about their learning!” some faculty feel, too.

At the end of each term, this is what many of us are thinking, when we work in contexts where student comments are treated like currency, and where students are expected to work really hard to earn their grades. Finals week is a tough time, when evaluation is on everyone’s minds.

While I am ever the optimist, and I do tend smile and laugh at the drop of a hat, I am finding my smile fading, and my positivity harder to muster these days. That’s not good.

I am feeling like there’s a diminishing return in boosting student engagement that folks don’t talk about much. As an ambitious optimist, I’ve been driven to explore and creatively implement a number of high-impact techniques. While I find the challenge energizing and the outcome (students learn more!) laudable (I am, after all, in the business of learning), I am also finding that moods are sour these days: mine and my students’.

I fear, that is, that too much energy put towards high impact teaching can have a paradoxical effect. With high impact teaching and deep learning, we should feel great, right? Tired, but energized? But we don’t. That’s the paradox.

Or is it? While I’ve written before about my distaste with our culture’s mis-guided love-affair with self esteem (a favorite post of mine, in fact, titled “I have a problem with self esteem”), I am finding myself, perhaps, at a tipping point on the other side. While I know all about motivation and the fact that without some stress learning/change doesn’t occur, what I am wondering about today is how much stress is too much?

The harder I find myself working at boosting student engagement, at utilizing “best practices” in student learning in my college classrooms, the more tired and cranky I am becoming when off the clock.

I am feeling a lot of stress. Too much, I think.

High-impact active learning techniques cause stress as they enhance learning. And while that stress, when managed and challenged appropriately translates into deep learning, it also causes negative emotions that lead to venting at course evaluation time. And what’s the gain in that, then, when it takes tremendous effort to design and implement a high-impact course that leaves everyone feeling hollow and wrung out at the end, rather than richly full, brimming over with excitement from all that new knowledge?

Teaching to enhance student learning is seriously hard work, both the kind you expect and the kind we don’t often think about. It requires deep content knowledge and delivery know-how, reading & writing and all that. It also requires a heavy emotional labor load. Once students start experiencing the high impact techniques and they realize how different it is, many start to plead for “normal” lectures and study guides. It takes a tremendous amount of emotional-motivational carrying (emotional labor, writ large) to get their buy-in. I heard myself telling a student this semester that I “knew I was playing a dangerous game, in causing enough stress with the workload to make it motivationally effective, but not overwhelming.” Her sideways glare spoke volumes about my gamble.

The quotes I started off with here today – ray of sunshine, breath of fresh air – those are quotes from past student evals. Over the course of my career (I am on year 16 at my current institution) these kinds of remarks have regularly shown up on my evals. The relative balance of such comments seems to be dwindling of late though, and that’s a real bummer when at this point student course evaluations are the only regular feedback I get on my work (faculty at my level are reviewed every 5 years; on off-years, we do have performance reviews).

It’s a strange situation to be in, to find that the harder I work to enhance learning, the more tired I get and the crankier the students become. This semester has been hard.

 Some back-story to the story

When I started this post, here’s the first sentence I wrote:

It’s finals week and, like usual, I am tired. Really tired, in fact. And in a mood for reflection as I stare at the stack of lingering homework assignments, term papers and exams in front of me, waiting for my careful attention and evaluation.”

All this is pretty typical for me. I looked back at some of my pictures taken over the years, around this time, and you know what I found? Quite a few images of the stacks of papers I grade during finals.

I should also note that, as portrayed in the last panel of the collage, my university has actually recognized my dedicated work at developing and delivering high-impact active engagements. It was quit an honor to receive the award of teaching excellence several years ago. But that winning glow of achievement recognized is starting to fade.

At one point in the semester this year I did something I should have done years ago: I estimated how many pages of student-written text I obligated myself to reading and evaluating. The number blew me away, as it was over 2200. And that wasn’t counting finals – that figure is only of weekly homework and mid-term papers. Next, I started estimating how much time I was spending reading and deliberating on the quality of the learning evident in the work in front of me and again, I blew my own tired mind. The exercise certainly validated my feelings of overwhelm.

What does High Impact Student Engagement look like?

It’s not just the grading that’s got me feeling overwhelmed though – rather the grading is just one part of a complex dynamic I’ve created in my workflow over the last five years (at year 16, that’s 1/3 of my career – wow!).

About 6 years ago, I decided to make an intensive study of the increasingly publicized work in the Learning Sciences, and in the Winter semester of 2013 (a three week intensive format where students meet for 30 hours, in a block format), I implemented my first “new” class – a class that modeled while it taught best practice in empirically based teaching and learning. I taught students in a way that would enhance their learning, and they learned why. Pretty cool “meta” class, as it turns out.

I called the class “The Psychology of Studying” and it was an invigorating success. I wrote a fun, inspired blog post about that first class and today folks still find the page and (presumably) read it. I presented an assessment of the class’s effectiveness at an Association for Psychological Science meeting and the poster was met with enthusiasm. Measured in pre- and post format, I reported on how students’ metacognition and self determined motivation significantly changed as a result of taking the class. Colleagues were impressed and inspired.

So all that motivated me to continue. The Psych of Studying class was hard to teach, but so encouraging. From there, I started implementing the techniques into all my other classes. My teaching, and student learning, transformed.

 Skipping ahead to today, in some respects my classes aren’t that different from the status quo, but in other ways they are. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing:

  1. Reading Annotation Assignments. “RA’s” follow the same format each time. The template is designed to foster metacognitive reflection, elaboration, and active (mental) engagement. In the syllabus, students find a prompt for each reading (I call the prompt different things in different classes, but the purpose is the same: it gives students more specific purpose in their reading). In brief, the template guides students to:
  • Skim the topics and write out what they know already.
  • Read and then write a summary using the syllabus prompts as their emphasis guide.
  • Reflect: was their “best guess” about the content of the reading accurate? Did the reading build on old knowledge, or was it entirely new?
  • Self evaluate understanding: What was easiest, what hardest to understand?
  • Connect with previous material?
  • Cast a vote: what would they most like to cover in class?

I love the format of these assignments! A handful of my course syllabi have been peer reviewed and deemed worthy for posting on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology– Project Syllabus website, and I regularly get requests from colleagues for a closer look at the handouts.

I don’t use this in all my classes, though. For the last 9 years, I’ve had my students in my Child Development spend about 20 hours in our campus lab school. For each 2-hour visit, they prepare an observation/clinical assessment plan, then conduct it. The handouts for these reports have changed quite a bit over the years and their current form is quite similar to the RA form I describe here. They read, make a plan and a prediction, then reflect on what they discover. Just once did I have students do both RA’s and Observation reports, and even for me that was too much.

In a semester, students write about 16 RA’s per class, depending on the number of chapters and articles we cover. In the Child Development class, students write about 10 observation reports (I’ve assigned as many as 11 and as few as 9).

  1. Clear & Muddy Waters. Students do this at the end of each RA, and periodically they do it in class too. Specifically, they report on which aspect of the reading/class period is most clear and which aspect is most confusing. When done in class, students write on a 4 X 5 notecard. The size of the notecard heuristically guides them to keep it “to the point.” When done in class, these are ideal to do first, so that students are engaged in the class period with what they most need clarity on in the forefront of their minds.
  2. Think-Pair-Share. At periodic intervals as material is covered, students are prompted to reflect on a more elaborate discussion question and to sketch out a brief answer, then discuss with a classmate first. As pairs share with each other, I circulate and listen in, then take what I am hearing and quickly frame my thoughts to wrap up the discussion as a class.
  3. Frequent “No-Stakes” review quizzes. As regularly as is reasonable, students take T/F quizzes in class. For items deemed False, they correct the statement to make it true. Students self-score and answers are discussed immediately. Time depending, students will swap and discuss with each other first, before we go over it as a full group. I really like the “pair-share” format when there’s time for it.
  4. “Just-in-time” lecture planning. I do this in a low-tech way, not with clickers. That is, students read and complete their RAs, and I then plan class based on what they report in their RAs. By reading their written responses to readings, I can plan class based on their interests and on their mistakes. If it appears that portions of the reading are clear to all, I don’t take time in class to comment much, unless it’s a topic that warrants additional discussion.
  5. Summative writing assignments. I tell students that their studying starts with their RA’s, and their learning continues from there. As we close units, I ask students in my Cognitive Psych classes to write a formal perspective piece of some kind. The format varies considerably across classes, but I usually make these creative expository writing rather than literature reviews. Favorite formats are blog posts, or seminar planning, or open letters.
  6. Infrequent “High-Stakes” testing. With regular retrieval practice occurring in class, I give fewer high stakes summative in-class exams, usually just 2, or maybe three depending on the class.

So over the course of the semester, classes with all these elements engage students in a number of empirically supported ways. While I’d started developing my procedures before the publication of the landmark paper on high impact practices titled “Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques” my work clearly aligns with the recommendations therein. That was validating. Using the terminology from this paper, here’s what my techniques get my students to do: [note: High = high impact score in the article noted above; Mod = moderate impact score in the article noted above]

  • Distributed Practice (High). Students read every week. They are quizzed every week. They engage in discussion every week. That is, cramming is discouraged, because if they don’t read each week, they can’t participate and it shows.
  • Retrieval Practice (High). Students take regular low-stakes quizzes. Students are encouraged to create their own sets of flash cards.
  • Elaborative interrogation (Mod): not only do the RA’s require such thinking, I also frame my lectures in this way. That is, I don’t just report information. I present students with questions, and I answer the questions with research and theory. I then continue on, by challenging the validity of the research and of the theory.
  • Self explanation (Mod). The reflective portions of the RAs encourage students to think about what they know, then reflect on what they’ve learned.
  • Summarization (Mod). The body of the RA’s is a summary, guided by the prompts. It turns out that not all students remember to look at the syllabus prompts though, so for most, this is a recitation section rather than an answer, as intended.
  • Interleaved / Subjective organization Practice (Mod). I don’t follow the order of information flow in the textbook chapters. I develop a narrative flow that makes the most sense to me. Students then, when they study, have to re-organize the information as they study, to blend lecture material with readings. They can either use the book flow and insert their lectures notes, or use the lecture outlines and insert their book notes. Either order works. Working through the material in this way forces students to engage in elaborative engagement as they study. As well, I revisit ideas repeatedly over the term, that is, I don’t just “cover and move on.” Revisiting periodically is a form of interleaving and a way of helping students make broader, more detailed connections.

With all the work noted above, I’ve stopped doing some things I used to do quite regularly. That is, I’ve stopped giving students study guides. I stopped doing this for a number of reasons – some practical, others empirical.

When I do “just in time” lecture prep, I am making the exams “just in time,” too. That is, there isn’t enough time in between content coverage and exam for a guide to be made and used properly. Further, as I get to know students and their interests by reading their RA’s each week, I often change readings a bit, to tailor the content to their interests, so making a guide in advance isn’t fool-proof.

Another reason I don’t give out study guides? They can use the in-class quizzes to practice with and to use as a guide for making their own sets of flash-cards.

The last rational I have for not giving out study guides is that it is better for students to make their own. I DO give them page ranges to guide their studying, to help them eliminate material I am not going to cover nor test them on. But I don’t give them practice essay questions above and beyond all the active work they’ve already done. It seems like doing so is overkill on my part.

What do students think about all this? 

You know what? The study guide issue really ticks some students off. They want study guides, despite all else they’ve been doing. They complain about it a lot– to other students, to other faculty, and in the course evals. They don’t hear my rationale, or rather, they don’t buy it.

Students don’t recognize the value of inter-leaving/revisiting material after the main overview. What I see as an opportunity for deeper engagement and interleaving for further rehearsal, students see as disorganization and wasted time (“why cover it if we’ve already been tested?” they remark).

Perhaps the greatest complaint students make though has to do with reading/summarizing/planning/observing before we cover it in class. The “just in time” model I’ve created wherein students do some work on their own first (whether RA or Observation, “It’s a starting point, not an ending point,” my constant refrain), before class lecture, then I plan lecture/discussion/quizzes based on where they appear to need the most help makes students incredibly uncomfortable. While I see the academic benefits of the discomfort — they really are learning more and learning it more deeply — the emotional labor necessary to get it to that point is deeply exhausting.

How much is enough? Does it seem to matter?

Some students do actually see the benefits though. And even more remark, after the fact (as in mid-way through the next semester), that they realize how beneficial the RA’s were for them. However many students are resentful of all the extra work. Many students complain that my classes are far too difficult. Their gratitude comes later, after they’ve vented on their course evals and grumbled to anyone who will listen.

Each class ends up looking a little different, but in all classes, students are reading, writing, and thinking much more deeply than they were before. Class discussions are much better when students have already read, and already thought about the material. Indeed, I struggled to stimulate great discussion before the implementation of the RAs. And when we get off schedule where RA’s don’t align right with class topics discussion goes down the tubes.

So it seems like the RA’s in advance are an awesome addition to a course.

As well, I had students write papers before my changes, but I was often disappointed at the lack of thought evident in their papers – many were summaries more than expositions. With the combination of formative and summative writing though, my students are producing some really impressive works. Even when I exhausted, I really enjoy reading finals!

So in this evaluation, it seems like all I am doing matters. But here’s the rub: does it matter enough to justify the energy expenditure in emotional labor, in grading, and in “just in time” prep work? Do students need to learn and engage as much as this “package” requires of them?

Each semester, many students remark that they’d rather just have lecture and study guides. That they find the “perceived disorganization” disturbing. At first I kept smiling and said “But just you wait – you will be so happy with how much you are learning! Hang in there! It’s worth it! I promise!” Now, 5 years in, I am not so sure. Sometimes I want to go back to the old “lecture and study guide routine too.” It was so much easier to teach that way.

I definitely struggle to keep up the pace required to do justice to the “just in time” approach. Students are worn out from all the reading and writing. That is, I can skim the RA’s to get what I need to plan lectures in a “just in time” format. But I need to read more closely to evaluate and score them, and I get behind on that work when I am juggling everything in the bigger picture of the full work of an engaged academic.

For example, we are required to meet with advisees before they register, and this Fall I had to coordinate with 30 students in this regard. This was happening at a time when I was working on a research deadline, too. I calculated that in order to do justice to everything during that 3-week period, I would have to put in 60 hours each week. And you know what? I can’t do that. I am a parent. I managed to swing about 50 hours though, and that meant I didn’t grade homework for a couple of weeks. Students get mad about that. Resentful, in fact. While I believe that the learning is in the doing, students still want to know their scores so they can track their grades.

 So here we are at the paradox. I’ve created an excellent model for how to implement high impact teaching techniques that enhances student learning. And both me and my students are too tired to appreciate it. That’s not entirely true, of course. I do have always a handful of students who do actually appreciate the challenges I present them with because they see the value. But really, there are many more who hate it than love it. I had a student roll her eyes at me this semester. I almost lost it then. The emotional labor of dragging many students through this learning process has started to become a real buzz-kill. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify the process.

 Where do I go, from here?

 After years of blogging about my teaching and student learning, I realize that I don’t get a lot of discussion going on this site. So while I am always eager to discuss, my main goal in writing this essay was to try and see the situation more objectively. As I’ve been typing, the process is working. I am seeing some ways in which I can scale back the work to make it more manageable. For example – they summary portion of the RA’s is probably out of alignment. Summarization is given a “moderate impact” score on the article I mentioned earlier, and yet reading and evaluating those summaries takes a lot of effort. More than it’s worth, probably.

Now that I’ve got the words and feelings out of my head and onto my screen I’ll keep thinking about the value therein of all the work I’ve been doing. I wonder what YOU are thinking, too though? Do you engage in impact teaching, and find it rewarding, challenging, paradoxical? I am ever the optimist, you know. I’d love to chat more about this.

Key words: learning science, active learning, higher education, teaching psychology, high impact teaching, effective learning, empirically based practice

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