Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

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What’s the Eberly Center reading and thinking about this month?

The Research and Scholarship Digest, published the first Monday of each month, consists of short summaries of recently peer-reviewed studies on teaching and learning topics. This digest offers a view into what we are reading and thinking about at the Eberly Center that:

• adds to our understanding of how students learn
• is potentially generalizable across teaching contexts in higher education
• provokes reflection on implications for our teaching and educational development practices.

We hope the readers of this digest will find it a useful resource for staying in-tune with the rapidly expanding education research literature.


January 2023

Evidence of weight bias in the college classroom: A call for inclusive teaching practices for students of all sizes

This study is one of the first to investigate how classroom dynamics are shaped by fat-phobia, or stereotypes about and discrimination against anyone with a body weight above what is considered typical. The authors were interested in how larger students may be evaluated and excluded by their peers. Two hundred undergraduate psychology students read short vignettes describing hypothetical peers which included names, pronouns, race, and weight category (“overweight” or “normal weight”), and hobbies. They then estimated the described person's GPA and ranked their desirability as a partner in class group work. Participants estimated normal weight peers as having higher GPAs than overweight peers, and expressed a preference to work with normal weight peers. These results show that student prejudices may result in exclusion when students are allowed to select team members for group work, and the authors argue that instructor-chosen groups may therefore lead to more inclusion. More broadly, this study is experimental evidence that fat-phobia exists and likely shapes the experiences of many college students, roughly a third of whom are categorized as overweight or obese. Instructors must be aware of this axis of discrimination in order to combat it and create inclusive classrooms.

Alexander, K. E., & Alexander, R. G. (2022). College Teaching70(4), 461-468.

[link to article]

Do students know what they think they know?: Evaluating the relationships between online practice questions, knowledge monitoring, and course outcomes

The researchers investigated whether having students retrieve information for low-stakes question sets and assess their own confidence in the answers can promote learning and metacognitive skills. Data came from a large, content-heavy Human Anatomy class in which students could complete online modules for extra credit as part of their studying. In these modules students were asked to both answer questions and assess their confidence in their answers, and they received immediate feedback. The >350 students studied completed between 0 and 1088 questions over the course of the semester. The researchers found that both the number of practice questions a student completed and their ability to accurately rate whether or not they knew the answer were positively correlated with overall grade in the course. However, there was no correlation between number of questions completed and self-assessment ability, and students did not improve in their self-assessment skills over time. This suggests that although retrieval practice is associated with better learning outcomes, it does not necessarily support the development of beneficial metacognitive skills, even when students assess their confidence as they practice. The authors suggest incorporating additional metacognitive scaffolding questions to increase the benefits of low-stakes practice.

Husmann, P. R., & Smith, T. C. (2022). College Teaching70(4), 482-492.

[link to article]

A sociological lens on linguistic diversity: Implications for writing inclusive multiple-choice assessments

This article inquires into the accessibility of multiple-choice questions (MCQs), particularly for students who use English as an Additional Language (EAL). First, the authors use a normative sociological approach to problematize how MCQs often “pack” coded language derived from academic disciplines into their question stems. This linguistic complexity, as they define it, contributes to the variability of construct-irrelevancy. Construct irrelevancy lowers the validity and reliability of MCQ exams, which contributes to lower student performance as an artifact of the question itself, not the learning the question is meant to measure. In addition to their theoretical contribution, the authors conducted a set of two-stage randomized exams, contrasting performance on packed and unpacked MCQs. They sampled from 606 EAL students, with differing levels of language proficiency. To complement the exam data, the authors also conducted a series of focus groups to understand how students experienced the MCQs. The findings revealed that unpacking MCQs increased students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge, and answer more MCQs correctly. This effect increased further for students also enrolled in pathway programs. The focus groups revealed an interesting divergence in student perception of unpacked MCQs: first students perceived unpacked MCQs as containing more content; second, since the stem of an unpacked question is often longer, they also perceived it as more difficult to answer in a timed setting. The aggregate results left the authors to conclude that university-wide MCQ-writing workshops should be available for instructors who frequently find need to use them.

Lyon, K., Roberson, N., Lam, M., Riccardi, D., Lightfoot, J., & Lolliot, S. (2022). Teaching Sociology, 0092055X221134126.

[link to article]

Undergraduate international students’ challenges in a flipped classroom environment: An Australian perspective

In a "flipped classroom," students first encounter new material outside of class in readings or videos, while classroom time is devoted to active learning activities such as discussions. Although this structure has potential benefits to student learning, the authors were concerned that flipped classrooms might pose unique challenges to international students. They interviewed thirty-two international students at an Australian university and identified three main themes: 1) language issues, 2) high need for autonomy and little guidance, and 3) unfamiliar technology. International students with lower English proficiency reported that they struggled with long readings and videos, timed online quizzes requiring quick comprehension, and contributing in class discussions. They suggested that instructors in flipped classrooms assign succinct readings and videos with subtitles and transcripts. Additionally, the authors suggest that instructors design and moderate in-class activities to encourage interactional student participation. The second issue raised was that many international students reported being surprised and unprepared for the high degree of autonomous learning required by flipped classrooms. Although they were able to adjust with time, they suggested that instructors prepare students for how they will be expected to learn and provide an avenue to be able to ask questions while working outside of class. Lastly, students reported that they struggled with navigating online Learning Management Systems. They suggested that instructors design LMS sites carefully and explicitly teach students how to use them. Although international student experiences are extremely diverse and more studies like this in other contexts are needed, instructors can use these suggestions as a starting point of how to make their flipped classrooms more accessible and inclusive.

Singh, J. K. N., Jacob-John, J., Nagpal, S., & Inglis, S. (2022). Innovations in Education and Teaching International59(6), 724-735.

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