Teaching and learning has always been a challenge. This year it feels more challenging than ever. Amid all the confusion and frustration, it is refreshing to know that the faculty at Saint Leo are meeting the challenge head on with great strategies, best practices, and innovative use of teaching tools to make the best of a difficult situation. The Faculty Spotlight will showcase some of the great teaching that is happening at Saint Leo.
Authentic Assessments and Classroom Culture – Dr. Kenny Embry
In this, the first edition of the Faculty Spotlight, we’ll discover the connection between authentic assessments and the culture in a classroom. Faculty who challenge their students to meet practical challenges with innovative solutions can also lay the foundation for a culture where critical thinking and problem solving are paired with communication and respect between students, their peers, and their professor. Dr. Kenny Embry, Associate Professor of Communication Management, uses these strategies in his communications courses. He brings to life a teaching philosophy where critical thinking skills, relationships, and a willingness to seek clarification are paramount.
Critical thinking skills are something he describes as “the most important thing” that he teaches. To teach those skills effectively, Embry believes in the importance of building relationships with students. Students respond best to those they know and trust. Before we can move into “the most important thing”, we must first take the time to get to know our students. Building in time during class to check in and get feedback on how students are doing outside of the classroom is one way to build trust. Where are they experiencing success? Where are they struggling? If 2020, and now 2021, has taught us anything, it is the value and importance of knowing where our students, and even ourselves are mentally from day-to-day. As Embry says, “Teaching is essentially relational.” Those relationships create fertile ground for planting the seeds of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and problem solving.
Another crucial element of Embry’s teaching philosophy is to encourage his students to challenge their reasoning. To achieve this, Embry will often play the role of devil’s advocate, pushing back on positions or ideas presented by his students with the goal of helping them discover how and why they arrived at their way of thinking. “I have to foster an environment where failure is not something we avoid, but where failure is something that's okay, and that asking questions that you don't know where the answers might lead is also okay. I stress, a lot, of playing devil's advocate; advocating for a position, you may or may not hold.” Embry, once again, raises the importance of building relationships with students when it comes to the ability to challenge their reasoning. “In an environment where students are allowed to question things, they have to feel a lot of trust and, quite frankly, a lot of like.”
Building relationships requires faculty to be intentional about making connections with their students. “Falling in love with your students as fast as you can” is what Embry counts as the best advice he ever received concerning teaching. Do this by calling them by name, ask how they are doing and listen to the answer, and being your authentic self. It can be easy to play the role of the authoritarian professor and to keep clear barriers between you and your students. While some of those barriers are appropriate and necessary, they should not come at the cost of the humanity that a professor can use to engage students. Remembering that one class is not our sole focus in life, and the same is true for our students, places things in perspective. Provide examples of your personal successes and failures. Create a culture in the classroom where making mistakes is viewed as a learning opportunity and not something that is always punitive. Authenticity is a key element to building any relationship. Including that in your teaching will draw students in, builds trust, and enables you to teach and challenge them in new and rewarding ways.
Authentic Assessments and Classroom Culture
The idea of authentic assessments is a popular topic in educational circles. What are authentic assessments? What would they look like in your class? The answers may surprise you. Authentic assessments are activities that place the student in a position where they must use the knowledge and skills acquired in your class to solve a real-world problem or create something new. To create an authentic assessment, you should have students engage in the practical application of the things you teach.
Embry achieves this in his podcasting class by having students choose a personal topic for their podcasts. In doing so, this requires his students to personally invest in the class from the start. It also positions students to understand the value and importance that their peers have for their personal work. When students engage in peer evaluations, their communication can then focus on areas where the work of their classmates can be inspirational and where they can provide constructive criticism. Students are encouraged to challenge each other, but this is only as effective as the relationships they have built with each other and with their professor. Embry wants his students to view formal presentations as conversations. He reminds them that he and the rest of the class are there as a resource.
When it comes to group assignments, Embry is against the idea of allowing students to self-select their partners because “they will often go to places where they are comfortable.” By putting students in groups where they are not necessarily familiar with their peers or as comfortable as they would be in self-selected teams, Embry is challenging them to build new relationships and sharpen their communication and collaboration skills.
Using authentic assessments allows the professor to be a facilitator of learning. There is a time when we must deliver information in a lecture format. However, the next step should be to ask our students to do something with that information. They should engage in activities that require them to test their knowledge and skill level with the support of the professor and their peers. This is where the best learning happens in a class. “Sit and get” teaching can be effective in some ways but following up with activities that authentically assess the student is best practice.
Using Technology for Teaching
When it comes to using technology as a tool for teaching, Embry leverages the capabilities of Zoom and Google documents. He recommends asking students to turn their cameras on, although he recognizes that some students are still reluctant to do so. “If they do not have their camera on, I try to minimize it as much as it can. I try to praise the people who have cameras on and use that idea of positive reinforcement.” Breakout rooms have become a go-to tool in Embry’s classes. The ability of the professor to enter and exit each room is a great way to check-in and hold students accountable for completing the task. Another way to monitor progress is to use OneNote or Google documents. These tools show the student’s work in real-time. Embry enjoys the attribution element in Google docs. He will create a document for each group and share it with the students. As students work on the document, he can monitor how much work is being done and who is doing the work. “It's actually a really nice little metric that tells me if just one person is typing or are there multiple people typing at the same time. That information from the breakout rooms, for me, is really excellent.”
An openness about the limitations of Zoom is also valuable. Zoom is not a perfect tool. It was not originally designed for teaching and learning. Acknowledging the troubles and frustrations that come with teaching and learning using Zoom can help relieve the uneasiness some students may feel. “I will absolutely say ‘Yep, you know guys, this is not ideal, but it is what we have and guess what? This is going to allow us to continue in education so I’m grateful for that.’” Setting the tone with gratitude over grief encourages students to overcome their frustrations in the same way.
The chat feature is an element of Zoom where Embry has noticed his students using for backchannel communications. “They're probably talking about something in chat that I can't see and that's fine with me, I think that's advantageous. I promise you, they are absolutely talking about the Super Bowl or whatever, but I also promise you somebody is asking ‘What did he just say?’ or ‘What does that mean?’ They're asking clarifying questions of one another. That is exactly the environment I want them to have.” Encourage students to use the chat to ask each other questions. Zoom allows the host of a meeting to save the text from a chat. This is a valuable piece of information that can be reviewed by the faculty and clarification can then be provided in a later communication, either via email, news item in D2L, or at the beginning of the next class.
Teaching and learning has always been a challenge. This year it feels more challenging than ever. Amid all the confusion and frustration, it is refreshing to know that the faculty at Saint Leo are meeting the challenge head on with great strategies to make the best of a difficult situation. A special thank you to Dr. Kenny Embry for taking the time to share his thoughts and insight with us. Be on the lookout for the next installment of the Faculty Spotlight coming in March.