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Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Elon University Teaching and Learning Conference. I have gotten to go to this several times and always take away something useful from it. Last year it was threshold concepts. This year it was the power of slowing down and reflecting.

Not that I had to be taught, per se, to be reflective. According to my Strengthsfinder results, that’s pretty core to how I work. Just in the past few years I’ve fallen out of the practice of carving out time for it and the exact same time that I’ve gotten busier at work due to meetings and at home because of other (adorable) obligations.

And at this point reflection resonated with me because it really aligned with other things I’ve been thinking about lately. For example, I’m reading a great book on introversion:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

As some reviewers have noted, this book is a bit judgmental towards extroverted folks, but still contains a lot of interesting and useful points about introverts and the importance of time alone to be creative and innovative.

Okay, so with that as the background:

The keynote of this conference was given by Ashley Finley, Senior Director of Assessment and Research – Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). This was particularly exciting to me as those of us involved in instruction have been discussing the AACU Value Rubrics a lot over the past year. If you’re interested in her talk, you can watch it for yourself! She spoke on the importance of authentic assessment of the learning process rather than focusing only on the learning outcome. It was a level of nuanced discussion that can only be had once an institution has gotten used to assessing learning outcomes, so I was especially glad that we have been talking about that for the past year. Much of my personal take away from the talk was the importance of metacognition and reflection in the learning process.

Following that keynote, I attended Catherine Ross and Peter Felten’s (of Elon’s Elon’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning) session on evaluating teaching. This seemed particularly relevant to me as that’s one of the instruction projects on tap for this semester, and was useful in particular as I was reminded of the importance of using several types of evaluation in considering your own teaching. Student evaluations provide useful information, but it’s only useful in context. Catherine pointed out that further context can be provided by (very structured) peer evaluation and personal reflection on one’s own teaching. Reflection–again!

My next session was on thinking out loud in the process of teaching. It was a workshop given by philosophy professors and more than anything made me wish I could go back and get an advanced degree in my favorite discipline. The premise of the workshop was that reading is approached differently in different disciplines and the best way to approach this is to have the students read (and think) out loud with support from the instructor. The instructor should also do that as demonstration to the students. The facilitators pointed out that math, as a discipline, has been doing this for some time by asking students to write out their work. I couldn’t help but think that we do that in libraries, too. Anytime we do an unplanned search in a class, and explain what we’re looking at and how we’re interpreting it, the students are getting a chance to see what we’re thinking. If any of us have done the exercise where students print out a list of results and notate it with what they think about each source, that’s a chance to see student thinking. I am going to want to look for more opportunities to do this as a result of this session, so that was a clear outcome of the day for me.

My final presentation was on first generation students. It was a good session, packed with facts from Davidson. My main takeaway from this session was not necessarily what was planned by the instructor. I kept thinking about Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning. In those approaches you design something for one group, but it has benefits for another. In Universal Design you might build a building with a ramp for wheelchairs, but then it also benefits those with strollers or rolling luggage. Win-win-win! In UDL you might design a learning object, like a video, to have subtitles for those who have trouble hearing. However, those subtitles also benefit those who learn best from reading or those who are using the video in a crowded place on a muted computer. In this session the presenter kept talking about the needs specific to a majority of first generation students, such as a hard time participating in group discussions due to language challenges, and I kept thinking of how if you designed a class that didn’t rely on group discussions then shy students would also be able to succeed. Likewise, if you don’t require very expensive textbooks, then no one would be faced with purchasing them. If you designed a class keeping in mind that it would be hard for students working jobs in the evening (many first generation students are in this situation) it would also benefit students who are returning while keeping their jobs or are parenting when they’re not in class. Universal design is good in all contexts.

So, for me, it was a really good day. Lots to reflect on in light of what I’m thinking about these days and several tangible things I can implement back at ZSR. It was a good use of the day!