Let’s Get Critical


Last year I went in depth on one of the most overlooked assessment tools, rubrics. My feelings and thoughts on that important tool have not changed, but rather than repeat myself this year I want to talk about a different type of assessment. Specifically, I want to talk about assessing the critical thinking skills of students.

The specificLightbulb critical thinking ability I have been working on is the ability to analyze and attack a strongly held personal belief. The idea being that a good critical thinker should be able to understand opposing viewpoints.

I have done this through a series of writing assignments in various forms over many semesters. The most recent iteration is a “Devil’s Advocate” series of assignments where students are required to write a defense of a personal belief one week and write a defense of the opposing viewpoint the next.

The reason I always do this type of assignment is because of my core belief that critical thinking is a skill that will be useful to students no matter their future profession. It is also a skill that is sometimes overlooked in the test-driven performance-centric world of secondary level education.

Think Outside the Box

A word of warning, these types of assignments do have issues that will arise and need to be planned for ahead of time. There inevitably is always a group of students who absolutely detest this type of work. I had a student go as far as claim I was trying to “force my liberal beliefs” on them through my position of power. That complaint didn’t go anywhere, but it is an example as to how difficult this can be for some individuals. It also is very insightful as to the ability of students to critically think.

I have only recently started to tabulate the data in any real form, and the number of students that are able to successfully “think from the opposing viewpoint” has varied over semesters. The one constant I have noticed in the last decade is that there is always a significant portion of the class (30-50%) that must change their topic or take a sarcastic tone to complete the task, which shows a lack of developed critical thinking ability.

No matter what the final numbers and assessment show, the need to reinforce critical thinking skills at the college level is, well, critical. There are elements of critical thinking that can be taught in any discipline or class, and if every course made an effort to include tasks that require critical thinking skills, the end result would be students who will be better prepared to handle the unknown, problem solve, and appreciate (or at least respect) the “other”.

Education prepares the workforce of the future, politicians, nurses, teachers, managers, everyone that has a job that requires more than a High School diploma. In a world of percentages, having the majority with a solid foundation of critical thinking skills will result in a better world for everyone.

Graduation Photo

If you have assignments that assess critical thinking, or have thoughts about critical thinking in the classroom, I would love to hear about it. Feel free to comment below or send me an e-mail!

The “One Thing” and it’s Not Bragging


Welcome back to Week 3 of “The One Thing You can do to Raise Enrollment,” a six week “how-to” series.

Study after study has produced empirical evidence to support the fact that reputation is the most important factor influencing people’s college and class choices.

Without a strong reputation, colleges are unable to attract the resources necessary to build an effective educational environment. Institutional reputation attracts everything from the best professors and research talent to philanthropic donations and star students. Everyone wants to be a part of a winning team, and in education, that means investing in the best academic brand,” writes Joseph Torrillo, vice president of Reputation Management.

As employees, we cannot sit back and passively place our hope in the power of the marketing department alone to define and manage our institutions’ reputations. Why? Because no amount of marketing can trump a personal experience with a brand.

I love this definition: Brand equity “is the intangible asset of added value or goodwill that results from the favorable image, impressions of differentiation, and/or the strength of consumer attachment to a company name,” writes Michael Belch and George Belch in their book,  Advertising and Promotion: An Integrated Marketing Communications Perspective. (if this were a paper, the attribution would read, (Belch and Belch p. 56) …go ahead, makes me giggle a little, too.)

When a student has a good experience with a GCC employee, a curious thing happens: The student does not say, “I love that GCC employee named Lupe.” No, the student says, “I love GCC.” A single good experience with a single employee packs a powerful boost to GCC’s overall reputation. Suddenly someone is singing praises of GCC to their friends, family, and strangers on social media.

However, experience is a double edged sword. When a student has a bad experience with a GCC employee, it’s not the employee they heap coals upon, it’s the overall institution.

Last week you spent some time writing a few statements that speak to your personal humanity.

This week your task is to… take a deep breath… list your achievements.The purpose of this task is to make public any information that enables students to make an informed decision to choose you.

“If we are to achieve results never before accomplished, we must expect to employ methods never before attempted.” – Francis Bacon

The simple act of listing your areas of expertise and accomplishments in your Employee Biography page serves to significantly elevate GCC’s reputation on a local, national, and international scale.

It’s not bragging.  You ARE the secret sauce in GCC’s reputation! You have a history of proud moments, achievements and accomplishments that needs to come up in a google search.

A bio page with secret sauce includes naming your areas of expertise, credentials, a personal quote, and some information that reveals your humanity and proudest moments.

Here is an example:

Name: John Doe
Credentials: AAS Computer Science; M.A.Ed, Ph.D.
Areas of Expertise: Curriculum design; Community Partnerships

Personal Quote:  “I got my Doctorate at Yale University, but I identify more with the students who come to GCC.”

Bio: Four generations of my family have come to GCC to get their degree and come back to teach or to serve here. Ask me why we love GCC and I’ll tell you – everywhere you look are caring, compassionate, and smart people who want to help you succeed.
I am proud to be a part of GCC’s legacy of helping the next generation move forward in acquiring the education and skills that will bring them closer to their dream job.
My part in helping students involves…
My proudest moments are…
My contributions have… [been recognized, rcvd awards, resulted from specialized training, earned degrees, been published, been in the news, led to grant funded…]
I don’t believe my degrees define me – I only earned my Doctoral degree to be a better teacher, so I tell my students to call me Mr. Doe. I look forward to the start of each semester. Meeting the next generation of students is like unwrapping a present: What wondrous potential lies inside!”

Teach others how and what to think about you, and it forms a reputation in their minds for GCC as well. Take this time detail what you offer – leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that not only are you are a devoted educator, but you are a nice person to boot.

Reputation wields compelling, persuasive, influential power.

Your homework this week: Begin listing the ingredients that make up your particular secret sauce. These may include your personal areas of expertise and scope of services, awards, thesis topic/description, published works, patents, specialized training, published news about you, your motivation, what inspires you, the thing(s) you love most about what you do, and…

…(at least) one thing you want to be remembered for should you drop dead tomorrow. 

It’s Presidents’ Day weekend, established in 1885 to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln whose reputations for honesty and integrity still inspire us today.

This weekend, carve out some time to work on defining YOUR enduring reputation. Then come back next week for Step 4: A Picture is Worth a 1000 Likes

Frequent Formative Assessment

     At the end of class one day, one of my students uttered, "I learned that I didn't know what I thought I knew." It was such a perfect statement that I actually scrawled it down on some scrap paper, so I wouldn't forget it. The statement came at the conclusion of a round of Kahoot (thank you, Caryn) on APA formatted in-text citations. Students had already been assigned some readings and a SoftChalk lesson on APA.

     The game was low stakes, and they played on teams--the same teams they are in all semester. They were currently working in the final days before their paper was due, so the game was supposed to be review with a few special circumstances thrown in that I knew would come up in their papers--things like a source within a source, the ampersand in parentheses for two authors, the title of an article with no author.

     The more frequent formative assessment I've been adding in to my courses with intention comes on the heels of having read Make it Stick: The Science Behind Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. One of the points made in the book is that frequent, low stakes assessment lets students check what they know and don't know prior to a summative assessment. It gives them insight into their learning. This review that I used did exactly that for almost all the students. The student who spoke the phrase which could have been quoted from the book recognized that he thought he knew more than he did. He now had a starting point to work from while editing his paper. He got a chance to make corrections to his knowledge and application prior to the summative assessment.

     I have the sentence taped to my computer now. I want to remember the value that more frequent assessment has for my students. I'm using it as reminder to give my students more opportunities to check their own understanding prior to finding out they "didn't know what [they] thought they knew" on a more significant test or essay.



I have been using emotional intelligence lately to tune in to my students. I teach in an industry that demands extroverts. Last night, we had a guest speaker  who came to share about trends in the fitness industry.  He took one look at the group, and before he even started, he announced that they were too quiet and needed to change that quickly. I bristled.

Step back six weeks in time when I started reading a book on introversion.  Susan Cain, the author, is an introvert “in a world that can’t stop talking.” She wrote an awesome book on the topic and I have to share what I learned.

There are lots of introverts among us. They are hard to spot sometimes because they have managed to adapt to their environment. As instructors, introverts can perform well in the classroom, but they need much more recovery time than an extroverted professor.
Many, many of our students are introverts. They are very uncomfortable with speaking up in class or engaging in dynamic group activity. They do it, but it is draining, and they have a harder time learning information because adrenaline is coursing through their veins. The limbic part of their brain is dealing with stress, and the pre-frontal cortex is not able to focus on learning.
I can relate. I know what it is like to be put on the spot and be expected to speak in full eloquence and all that comes out of your mouth is a caveman-like grunt.
We are supposed to be preparing our students for the workforce. Employers are telling us they want outgoing, friendly people with excellent customer service and communication skills. No introverts need apply.
So we create modular classrooms where students are forced to face each other and work in groups. We ask students to do oral presentations in front of the class regardless of ability. We call their name in front of the class without warning and expect a correct answer.
I wish we could have a visual readout of our students’ brainwave patterns and hormone production as we teach them so we can adapt our methods accordingly. If a student is half terrified, even though they can hide it well, they are not in a safe and effective learning environment. We can teach all we want, but they retain very little.
So what is the solution to this dilemma? Our introverted students are not less intelligent than our extroverted students, yet our biases favor the extrovert. The introverted professor brings a wealth of knowledge to campus meetings, but never gets heard. The introverted students are engaged and fully focused on learning  until we push them too far out of their comfort zone. The loudest voice in the room is usually the one that we acknowledge.
How can we get a nice complement of both worlds? How can we pair our introverts and our extroverts so the best knowledge is heard?
We have much work to do in this area.
Start by reading Quiet, by Susan Cain.

Recovering Assessment Hater



“Boring, lame, inconvenient, and unnecessary.” If you would have asked me several years ago my thoughts on assessment, this would have been my response when I was adjunct faculty. I abhorred assessment because I didn’t get it, but I didn’t get it because I was not educated in it. I had a resistance to it, and my resistance was rooted in my insecurities and my ignorance in the area.


When it was that time of year for the assessment reports, I thought to myself WHY!!???, and I submitted my assessment reports, gritting my teeth, just wanting to get them over with, and out of my face.


     It’s really hard for me to admit that I knew nothing about assessment when I started teaching as an adjunct. When I say I knew nothing, I knew NOTHING. I didn’t even know that the exams I had in my course were actually a form of assessment, that was how bad it was. When I started teaching part time, my knowledge of assessment was not a requirement. I met the qualifications on paper, I was handed a book and a syllabus, and off I went.

When I was hired as residential faculty I knew a little more. I had previous experience as a curriculum developer and I knew that I wanted to do better and I wanted to change my negative attitude. I had to be honest with myself by raising my hand and saying “My name is Tenisha Baca and there’s a lot about assessment that I still don’t know, but feel like I should know.” I knew that the only way to remedy my negative attitude towards it was to commit to taking the time to properly learn what it is, how it works, and why it’s important. So, I signed up for the assessment seminar at the Center for Teaching Learning and Engagement (CTLE), and my mind opened up to a whole new world of amazing in the following ways:

  1. Assessment is really not that big, bad, or scary. It’s simple and informative.
  2. I can do this, I can do a better job, and the CTLE can help me.
  3. If I’m all about student success, I need to do it and take it more seriously for the benefit of the student’s learning experience.

I applied it and I’m happy that I did. I have seen an improvement in my student’s exam scores, I revised the curricular areas where my students were struggling, and I have criteria that is clearer and grading that is more consistent. The commitment to assessment had a significant impact in my courses.

If you were like me several years ago, I encourage you to give assessment a chance and really look at the potential and the possibilities behind it. I see the value in assessment because of the improvements I have seen, not only in my students, but myself. Assessment is needed and our decision to take it on and do it right, or do it half way, or not at all, can make a huge difference in student success in the classroom.

Those Left Out and What I Hope


I have been in school now since 1975. I started young, and I’ve had a handful of graduations, but for all intents and purposes, I feel that I’ve never left school; at some point, I just switched sides of the class room.

Despite being a “gifted” student growing up, I seldom learned the way that teachers wanted me to learn. I don’t have a great memory.  I’m a terrible speller (considering what I do for a living), and I often begin something at the end and work forward to the beginning. Therefore, I am not linear, and I’m really not even interested in things that are linear because they don’t capture my imagination. I love looking at maps as they spread out and go several ways. You’ll never catch me pouring over a timeline. I’m also not a procedural thinker: I know an answer to a math problem because I know it, and it makes sense to me. I often cannot explain how I got there.

Over the years, education has become what it has through a conglomeration of cultural, social, historical, and economic factors, and it ideally is designed only for a handful of certain types of thinkers.  I worry about everyone else. I worry about the student, like me, who wasn’t served well by spelling lists, whose imagination isn’t charged by summary writing and reports, who doesn’t find meaning in taking a multiple choice test, for whom making meaning is more important than displaying knowledge.

Despite being in education for years and being an English major with two advanced degrees , it took me years to realize that I belong in academia because it’s really not designed for thinkers like me. It took me decades, but I finally learned that I am what is called an intuitive thinker and an intuitive  writer. I take meaning and information from several places and make connections and generate what is new. I learn actively. . I think a lot. I trust myself, have an inkling and  I write. I use information, techniques and skills I’ve picked up on the way, and I see what I produce. Often it’s a surprise.  For example, when I sat down to write this blog, I had no idea I’d create this very paragraph. I wasn’t even thinking about it. It just arrived, and I used words to let it through.

I do enjoy data usually because it’s something to think about. It’s fun to interpret and extract meaning out of. I see numbers as a type of symbolism, and symbolism can be used to make meaning, but in this data-driven, logical realm that often dominates academia, I worry about students like me who interested in the wider perspective, who like numbers, but who also want more. I worry about the students who realize what they know slowly, through processes, not through objective testing and results. I learn from being in a moment and letting all I know and understand up to that moment materialize in certain ways, and there are times that moments cannot be represented numerically or through the collection of data, and if I’m asked to do that, then I’m probably not going to experience success.

I hope that with the diversity of thinkers that we have here on campus that there is room for many types of learners and thinkers. While the human brain works similarly for most people, it is so incredibly complex and unique, and each person has his or her own individual neurological make up and therefore an unique intelligence. I hope we’re building an environment that testifies to that individual beauty. I hope we’re inviting people to learn and be here in their own ways and not in the ways that we insist work best.

My Lightbulb Moment


As a faculty member, when I think of cultural relevance, I tend to try to think about what I can do in my classroom to help achieve this, whether that is by identifying approaches to assignments that allow students to choose a topic that is meaningful to them or working to identify readings from authors who better mirror our culturally diverse campus. Recently however, I realized that an important part of developing culturally relevant pedagogy is coming to terms with the depths of what you don’t know.

Spring started and I learned that I had five students classified as deaf and hard of hearing this semester. No problem, I thought. I had worked with a deaf student in the past. I remembered that she had some challenges with grammar because of the differences between American Sign Language (ASL) and English. As the semester progressed, I noticed some trends with these students across ENG 091 and 101: sentences with missing words, sentences with unnecessary words, and profound problems with choosing the correct tense. The missing words made sense to me. After all, words like “a,” and “the” just aren’t that essential to the meaning of sentences when you think about it. They’re added to ensure clarity, but they’re not as crucial as the subject and verb, for example, so it stands to reason ASL would omit articles for the sake of speed. And since ASL communication often occurs synchronously, as opposed to asynchronously like writing, your audience can always stop you and ask for clarification if needed. Not so with writing. But the issues with tense stumped me.

I have the same interpreter across three classes and have gotten to know her a bit in that fleeting time between classes. I’m so impressed by the work our interpreters do and often feel compelled to ask questions (not when students are present of course. It’s important to always address the student, not the interpreter during office hours or any other interaction with deaf and hard of hearing students. You talk to them just like you would anyone else. You just hear their answers coming from somewhere else.) During one of these conversations, the interpreter informed me that there is no present and past tense of verbs in ASL. Instead, sentences are often preceded by a word (“yesterday” for example) that makes the context of the events clear.

“So there’s no word for ran. It’s just run?” I asked, or something along those lines.


Anyone watching could probably have seen the light bulbs going off above my head. No wonder these students had difficulty identifying the correct tense to use in their writing. They had to memorize verb conjugation from scratch, just like anyone how learns a foreign language, only even more challenging than that because they don’t get to hear it spoken. The next time I met with a deaf student to review his paper, we spent some extra time focusing on errors in choosing the right tense. Instead of telling him the correct tense, we discussed the verb itself and each of the conjugations of it: past, present, future, past perfect, etc. The interpreter, of course, spelled out the different conjugations. Some of these he had already memorized; some he hadn’t. I told him that I realized these designations must seem arbitrary, but that I was confident with time and practice he could memorize them. We talked about similar conjugations across some verbs, much like when my Spanish 101 teacher taught us how to conjugate -er verbs 20 years ago.

I left that day feeling more than a little humbled. How could I expect to effectively serve our deaf and hard of hearing students if I knew so little about the unique challenges they face in learning English grammar? How could I ever learn enough to really be as effective as I would like to be? I realized that creating a culturally relevant approach to teaching requires hundreds, perhaps thousands of little “Aha!” moments like the one I had that day. There is no one guidebook that tells you everything you need to know about deaf culture. (I do, however, plan to read more about the differences between English and ASL.) Becoming more culturally responsive is about time and practice. Time means taking the time to get to know each and every student and to understand where they are coming from and what works for them. Practice means not just teaching but reflecting on outcomes. Which approaches are more effective for students? If a student is struggling, what can we do to better facilitate their success? And, perhaps before any of this, we should ask: who are they?





Culturally Responsive Teaching Empowers Students Intellectually and More


“Culturally responsive teaching is an approach that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes”.

-Gloria Ladson-Billinas

When I was a sophomore in high school I was enrolled in Honors English (not Honors Math) thank God. I had a teacher from Dallas, Texas. She was a cowgirl. She looked around the room, 27 students and 25 of them Latino. We had the typical Shakespeare booklist and she looked around and said “we’re throwing that out, instead we are going to read “Bless me Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya.” The story is about a Mexican-American boy living in New Mexico. His grandmother is a native folk healer and she teaches him about the importance of moral independence. An emphasis of thinking independently about moral decisions. Antonio, the boy learns many lessons from his grandmother and witnesses the end of her life. The story ends with her death.

Talk about classroom engagement. The entire class was consumed by the story and the cultural validation. It didn’t end there. Somehow our teacher contacted Mr. Anaya and asked him to visit our class. He said yes and within weeks of us finishing the book he came to our class to talk about his life as a Mexican-American author. We were beyond impressed. This was a memorable experience for me and my classmates.

As educators both in the classroom and outside the classroom we have a wonderful, blessed career to partake in the educational journey of our students. We get to be a part of their journey and we get to learn about their personal lives as well as their goals and dreams for the future. Often times we are their first mentor, their first role model, their first support system. To me, cultural responsiveness means more than one strategy or providing students with one experience, it means truly being interested in who they are as a person and understanding my role in their success. Veteran students, single moms, foster youth, minority males, the list goes on and on but the underlying commitment lies in our ability to adjust our college to meet our students needs and help them achieve their dreams.

Creating Culture in the Online Classroom–6×6 Week 2

While students who attend classes on campus are exposed to the diverse student population of their college/university as they attend classes, walk across campus, and eat in the dining hall, online students may not even have a picture of the other students in their classes. Likewise, while college campuses might strive to create community through campus events, clubs, and school spirit, online students can be left out of the loop because they are spending time in an online environment.

Whether they are returning students or first time attenders, online students likely have families, jobs, and other responsibilities that prompt them to choose to take their classes online. So, they may know about campus events, but not have the time or ability to get involved. Regardless of their other commitments, it is likely that online students are simply missing all of the flyers posted about campus, the buzz from other students, etc, that help to spread the word about those events.

Online students, who already can feel disconnected from their fellow students and their instructors, can feel even more distant from the campus itself. Since we know that being a part of the community is one of the key components to student success, it is important to help students in online classes connect with each other and with what is happening on campus.

Taking photos of flyers and posting upcoming events in the online classroom is a simple way to engage students. We might also encourage students to attend particularly important events by creating assignments tied to those events, even for extra credit. Inviting students to campus for conferences is another way to engage students in the campus community–offering ‘swag & chocolate’ for students who drop by on certain days is another fun way to get students on campus.

While this task is perhaps more easily accomplished by full time faculty with offices on campus than by those of use who live in the online realm 100% of the time, it doesn’t take much extra time to create a space for students to feel connected with the campus culture and with each other. If it supports student success, I think it’s worth doing.



Mini-Bytes. Try Before You Buy

Photo: Great Falls College MSU

I learned about an interesting way to increase student online enrollment from the eLearning team at Great Falls College Montana State University today at the ITC eLearning conference in Tucson. They discussed how students are often reluctant to sign up for online courses because they’ve never done so before and don’t know what to expect. That coupled with the fact that some students sign up for online courses and are not properly prepared to be successful in the online environment. The eLearning departments solution was the creation of Mini-Bytes. “A Mini-Byte class is a free 2-week sample of an online course. Instructors that teach the full 16-week watch over the courses and interact with the students who can sign up at any time.” Students get to try before they buy. That’s a great idea.

I think that if students could actually see what the expectations are for an online class and experience the look and feel of a course, they would have a better idea of what the online class will be like. They can then make an informed decision about whether online is a right fit.

However, many times great ideas get mired in red tape. How could GCC or Maricopa capitalize on an idea like this? First, we would have to get past the whole registration aspect. With our no late registration mandate, this is not possible. Strike one. Next, we would need to get faculty who teach online to be willing to open a 2-week portion of their online course and allow for open enrollment. Canvas permits this easily; however, the idea of having a random group of students in a 2 week course that faculty would be responsible for engaging with is not easy. Faculty working for free? Strike two. If the numbers were small, it might be possible to persuade a few. But would there be a broad enough spectrum of courses available for students to taste?

Another problem I foresee would be course consistency. As the former eCourses faculty lead for GCC, I know first hand how challenging it is to get all departments on board with a consistent look and feel for online courses even though we subscribe to Quality Matters. I would imagine taking an online English course would be much different from taking an online math class. Although maybe that is not the purpose of the mini-bytes. Maybe they are course specific which makes sense. Therefore, we would need to ensure that department online courses have a consistent look and feel. I know in English that is what we strive for, but it can be a challenge.

Overall, I like this mini-bytes concept and clearly one college, Great Falls College, has made this work for them. I guess I will implementing innovative ideas in Maricopa were easier.


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