Saturday, December 8, 2018

Wrapping up the 2018 Speaking Season

I write from the hotel bar of a Marriott in Salt Lake City, where I am unwinding after completing my last speaking engagement of the 2018 calendar year. Since the publication of Small Teaching in 2016, I have been a bit of a road warrior, fielding more than 100 speaking requests per year, mostly from colleges and universities in the United States and Canada--but occasionally from places much farther flung from my home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Of course I can only accept a fraction of those requests, as I still have a full-time job teaching and directing the D'Amour Center for Teaching Excellence on campus. But I am very grateful to all who have invited me to speak to their faculty, whether I was able to make it or not.
Jillian and Lucie on "The Fault in Our Stars" bench in
Amsterdam.This was really difficult to find,
but we persisted.

No doubt the highlight of the speaking year was the three-week stint I spent in April at Central European University in Budapest, where I led a few small seminars and taught a class for graduate students. On the weekends I had the opportunity to travel around Europe a bit, and my spouse and three younger children were able to join me for the last week or so of the trip. I spent a weekend in Vienna on my own, and as a family we traveled to Amsterdam and Lucerne. Europe, I will never tire of you. I'll come back anytime.

I took multiple trips to Canada, presenting on both Cheating Lessons and Small Teaching. My Canadian hosts were uniformly gracious and friendly, and participants at lectures and workshops were all incredibly supportive and engaged in the events which I led. As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone's nice in Canada.

Anne overlooking Lake Lucerne in Switzerland.
How lucky am I to have married this person?
I traveled to many lovely spots across the United States, some of which enabled me to work in visits with my far-flung family. Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University gave me the opportunity to return to my hometown of Cleveland and spend time with my brother. At Villanova University I gave the first presentation of my current research and visited with my daughter, a junior there. My time at CalTech enabled me to squeeze in a dinner with my daughter who is in graduate school at USC. Talks at the University of Chicago and Benedictine University meant quality time with my sister (and my adorable nephew) in Chicago.

I love travel and I enjoy speaking, although they both have their down sides. Nothing energizes me like a plane lifting into the sky, a new destination waiting at the other end of the trip, or like standing in front of a few hundred people with nothing but a microphone in front of you and your work behind you. But traveling and speaking also mean endless hours standing in airport security lines, lonely nights watching Netflix on my laptop in hotel rooms, and lots of meals eaten with folks whose faces and stories I won't be able to remember a year later.

Flagstaff. AZ, home of Northern
Arizona University.
The travel also can make it difficult to meet writing deadlines, a major one of which approaches in just eleven short months. Travel definitely stimulates my brain--I wrote for a good two hours on the flight from Boston to Salt Lake City on Thursday--as it breaks me from my routines and gives me new ways to think about old and persistent problems. But getting stimulating ideas really represents a small part of the writing process; most of it involves sitting down and banging out the words, slowly and deliberately, over long stretches of time.

2019 will see my time on the road much reduced. I have some engagements booked for the spring semester, and as usual I'll be at Ken Bain's Best Teachers Summer Institute. But in the fall--in addition to teaching and administrating as usual--I'm going to be hunkered down and writing Teaching Distracted Minds, working furiously to meet a November 2019 deadline. I'll still look for a few opportunities to present the ideas from the new book and see how people respond, but will prefer local and very limited engagements. It will be a very different fall from the one I've had this year, but it will be good. As I approach my 50th birthday, I'm glad to report that the writing fire still burns hot.

Keep an eye out here for progress updates, and have a great break.

P.S. You can keep up with my travels on Instagram at jimlang7, where I (very irregularly) post photos from my trips.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

New Book Coming: Teaching Distracted Minds

The first time that my syllabus mentioned anything about the use of technology in class was in the spring of 2008, when I wrote the following policy into my Argument and Persuasion course:
  • PUT AWAY AND TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONES!  If your phone rings or vibrates in class, or I see you checking it or texting, you will be absent for that day.
LOOK AT ALL THOSE CAPS AND EVEN AN EXCLAMATION POINT! I WAS REALLY CONCERNED ABOUT THIS! I REALLY DIDN'T WANT STUDENTS TO USE THEIR CELL PHONES!

This policy likely arose from some student who was texting during in class the previous semester, so you can trace back my concern with this issue at least ten years, and probably longer. Students on my campus have been slower than those on other campuses to bring their laptops into class, so at that time cell phone were the only in-class technology that concerned me. 

Ten years later, both the concern and the policy seem almost quaint. I haven't heard a cell phone ring in class for at least a few years now, and I no longer have a strict attendance policy. We do enough low-stakes writing exercises or other activities in class that students who miss class will gradually bleed away so many points that it makes it difficult for them to pass.

The vexing question of how to address student use of technology in class has become an increasingly fascinating one for me, though. I see faculty all over the spectrum on their policies about the use of technology in class, read arguments in academic publications about whether we should ban phones and laptops from class (and I've written some of those arguments myself), and pored through lots of research about the use of technology in class and how it impacts student learning.
The coffee shop where I like to work, with it's many distractions.

Almost all of that research connects to the larger cultural debates we have been having about attention and distraction. Are our cell phones destroying our ability to pay attention? Are students these days incapable of sitting down and focusing on difficult texts, because they are so used to scrolling continuously through their phones? Has the advent of our latest technologies changed the human brain? Do we need to re-think our education systems for our tech-saturated world? Or should we focus instead on teaching students to focus their minds, using techniques like mindfulness?

A few years ago I began really thinking about this question in earnest, exploring the research on attention and distraction, and reading what both learning theorists and working teachers had to say about these issues, about their students, and about their policies. What I found, especially in the literature of attention and distraction, was how fundamental this question was to so many aspects of our lives. Neuroscientists, for example, debate about the extent to which our attention systems form our very consciousness. Philosophers consider what it means to think with and without attention. Psychologists point out that attention to one thing means blindness to many others. And teachers wonder whether, without attention, we can learn anything at all.

I always know that I've hit about a good book topic when I can't stop wondering about a question. And a good two years after I began thinking about these issues in depth, I'm still curious and wondering. That curiosity has led me into historical and philosophical texts which demonstrate that we have been concerned about distraction for a good two millennia now. It has led me into the work of neuroscientists who explain why our minds are subject to distraction, and how that might have benefited our early brains. It has led me to the work of psychologists who describe creative thinking in terms that sound an awful lot like distracted thinking.   

All of this is prelude to say that I'm pleased to announce that my next book, Teaching Distracted Minds, will be published by Basic Books in 2020. (I buried the lede for this blog post way down here at the end, just to see if you were paying attention.)  I'm still on the research journey, but the ideas that will form the core arguments of the book are in place, and I hope I will be able to offer readers some new historical and scientific perspectives, some creative solutions for the problems that educators at all levels are having with distracted students in class, and some new ideas for how careful thinking about attention and distraction can improve the education we provide for students, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

I'm very grateful to my agent and to the editors at Basic Books for helping to make this project come to life.  I was fortunate enough to have multiple presses interested in the book, and Basic made a very convincing case for their ability to bring the book to the widest audience possible. I can't wait to get writing, and to get the book in your hands as soon as humanly possible.

In the meantime, to all my fellow teachers out there, have a great start to the new academic year.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Want Good Grades? Ditch that Highlighter

The following (slightly adapted) essay was written for the Assumption College student newspaper, Le Provocateur, and appeared in the January 31st, 2018 issue.

I work and teach in a beautiful new building on my campus, one that contains many informal study spaces for our students.  As I walk through the building each day, I see some students poring over their work in comfy chairs or empty classrooms and conference rooms, and others gathering together in small groups to discuss projects or prepare for classes. 

Witnessing all of this informal study makes the heart of this teacher glad—except for the fact that I see so many students engaged in two unhelpful learning activities: highlighting and re-reading. It might surprise you to learn that these two beloved study activities, ones in which students almost universally engage, have very little effect on your long-term learning.  Worse still, highlighting course material and then re-reading it later gives you the illusion that you know your stuff, without any of the actual learning.


In 2013, a team of psychologists who study human learning published an overview of ten study techniques in which students commonly engage. They examined the bodies of research behind each of these strategies, and rated them from low utility (or not very useful at all) to high utility (very useful).  Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, will likely come as unwelcome news to most students.

Both highlighting (or underlining) and rereading were rated as having very low utility.  Summarizing a large body of research on highlighting, the authors conclude: “In most situation that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance” on quizzes or exams.  The findings on re-reading are almost exactly the same.  In other words, across a wide range of experiments on learning, in different disciplines and with students of different ages, these two strategies simply did not produce effective, long-term learning.

You might object that you have been highlighting and re-reading course materials for your entire school career, and you’ve done just fine.  You probably have this impression for two reasons.  First, highlighting and re-reading can be effective for very short-term learning.  If your only goal is to survive a test you have on Monday morning at 9:00 am, and it’s 11:00 pm on Sunday night, re-reading highlighted passages might help you get through that exam.  But whatever you “learned” during that re-reading cram session will fade from your mind very quickly. Your learning will be shallow and short-lived.

You also might believe that highlighting and-rereading work because you have no ability to make a scientific comparison between highlighting or re-reading and other, more effective learning strategies.  If you could clone yourself and the universe, you could study for your history exam using highlighting, and your clone could study for the exact same exam using a different strategy.  Afterward, you could compare your scores, and see who received the better exam score, you or your clone.  Without the ability to conduct that kind of experiment, you have no easy way to understand how other strategies might prove even more effective than the ones you are already using.

If you are currently earning all A’s without much effort, you should probably keep doing whatever you are doing, and can stop reading right now.  But if you’d like to understand how to study in ways that will increase your long-term learning, three study strategies—all of which have been proven effective by mounds of research—will help you become a much more effective and efficient student.

Practice Testing.  Memory researchers have learned in recent decades that our brains have enormous storage capacity.  The challenge for our memories is not so much cramming stuff in there; it’s being able to retrieve information or ideas from our memories when we need them (i.e., when you’re sitting down in front of a test).  It turns out that the more times you practice retrieving something from your memory, the better you get at it.  Highlighting and re-reading do not require you to use your memory at all; practice testing does.  So if you want your memory to go to work for you in the exam, give it lots of practice when you study. Close your book and test yourself.  You can use flashcards; you can take practice quizzes online; or you can even just practice writing and re-writing the key ideas or information that you want to remember.


Spaced Study.  You probably know this one already, so I won’t belabor it.  But the evidence for it is irrefutable.  You will have a much greater long-term grasp of your learning if you space out your study over multiple sessions instead of cramming it all into one.  In one very simple experiment that demonstrated this, students who studied foreign language vocabulary for ten minutes three days in a row outperformed their peers who studied the same vocabulary words in a single thirty-minute session.  Your parents and all of your previous teachers were right: spacing out your study sessions over time beats cramming—by a lot.

 Making Connections.  When we learn something deeply, we relate it to other aspects of our lives and our existing knowledge. We have thick networks of connections between what we know already—or what we experience outside of school—and what we are learning.  As you are studying, try to make connections between what you are learning and other things you have learned or experienced.  Ask yourself connection-making questions: Have I ever encountered this before?  Have I learned anything similar in another course?  In what real-world contexts would this concept or skill operate?  Why is it significant?  This strategy will work best if you write these ideas down; fill out your notebook or your texts with new connections, rather than with highlighting or underlining

All three of these strategies require more work than highlighting or re-reading.  Learning isn’t always easy.  In fact, some learning researchers suggest that struggle in learning is beneficial.  When we grasp things easily and quickly, we also forget them easily and quickly. (This is one reason why we have learned in recent years not to worry so much about people's learning styles, which at one time were all the rage in education.  We all do have preferred ways of learning, but it's not always helpful for a visual learner to learn with visuals; it might be more effective for that person to struggle with other ways of mastering the material.)

The real problem with highlighting and re-reading arises when they represent your only study strategies.  They are easy and comfortable strategies for many students—which also means that they are largely ineffective.  They can, however, provide good starting points for your study, if you combine them with these other, more effective strategies.

If you really love it, then, you can hang onto your highlighter, and start your studying with it.  Just make sure that eventually you put it down, pick up your pen, and use study strategies that actually work.

Professor Lang is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, located in TFAC, and the author of the 2016 book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. For more on the research behind these recommendations, check out RetrievalPractice.org and The Learning Scientists.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

An Open Letter to President Trump, from an English Professor, on Random Capitalizations in His Tweets

Dear Mr. President:

I would like to begin by commending you for demonstrating to students of all ages that writing remains an important skill for successful people to master.  Previously students might have suspected that if they aspired to careers as business leaders, reality television stars, or politicians—and you’ve been all three, look at you!—they could leave behind all of the lessons they learned in their high school English classes. 

The influence you have wielded over American culture by Tweeting your random musings to the public demonstrates the value of continuing to hone your writing skills throughout your life.  As I say to my students, writing can change the world.  Your Tweets have certainly helped demonstrate my point.

I have noticed, however—and please forgive an English professor’s perhaps annoying attention to detail—that your Tweets contain an excessive amount of random capitalizations.  Put more plainly, you capitalize words that just have no business being capitalized. 

Consider two of your more recent Tweets—chosen at random, but very representative of your capitalization habits:



We don’t generally capitalize random words in sentences, as you have done in these Tweets.  Inappropriately capitalized words include:

Tweet One: Military Strength, Border Security, Shutdown
Tweet Two: Staff, Fake

The good news is that you got some right.  The following words were capitalized correctly:

Tweet One: Nobody, The, Dems
Tweet Two: Thanks, White House, General John Kelly, Long

Forgive me for reminding the President of the United States about a basic writing rule—and I won’t try your patience with too much detail here, because I know you’re a busy man—but generally we reserve capital letters for the beginning of sentences and for proper nouns (which would include your name, your title, your office, your address, and your political party).  You can even capitalize your first name: Donald! These rules would also apply to your wife (and ex-wives), your Russian friends, the addresses of your golf courses, and any porn stars you have dated in the past. 

But capitalization rules are a great equalizer in life (one might almost suspect they were developed by communists).  Much to your annoyance, they would also dictate the capitalization of names like Robert Mueller, individuals who immigrated illegally to the United States, and even the names of shithole countries. Low as these entities may be in your esteem, even they receive the benefit of capital letters at the start of their names.

Your random capitalizations are not an uncommon problem, you’ll be happy to know.  Inexperienced writers frequently capitalize words when they want to emphasize them.  Writing teachers like me try to explain that it’s better to revise the sentence in a way that emphasizes the key word through its location in the sentence, or perhaps through punctuation, than it is to break capitalization rules.

But, you might be objecting to yourself, some great writers used Random Capitals just like me. (See what I did there?)  True. You might be thinking of Emily Dickinson, a favorite American poet, who capitalized many words in her poems.  We generally give poets and other creative writers a little bit more license to break the rules than we do in nonfiction writing like your Tweets.  We do so especially in the case of brilliant and talented writers like Emily Dickinson. 

Even though I hear you are a stable genius, we typically don’t extend that license to official nonfiction communications like a politician’s Twitter account. And after all, remember that you are modeling the writing of English for people around the world.  We need you to Make Capitalization Great Again!

I hope this little lesson wasn't too painful for you.  Next time we'll consider the use of exclamation points in our writing, which should be spare.  But for now, keep on Tweeting!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travel Lessons

I didn't grow up as an adventurous traveler. As a child my primary travel experiences consisted of long car rides from Ohio to South Carolina for week-long summer vacations, all seven members of my family crammed into the station wagon or the van.  One year we made it all the way to Florida.  But many years we drove just an hour west of Cleveland to stay in small cabins on Lake Erie, returning to the same location year after year. My first plane ride occurred when I was in high school, and my father took me to visit Duke University for a campus tour.

None of those trips gave me any special love for travel; if I enjoyed them, which I did, it was for the usual reason that a child loves travel--the break in routines, the opportunity to see one's parents fall into more relaxed versions of themselves, nights playing board games with my siblings.

In the late 1990s I took my first journey outside of the US, and began my recent decades of travel with a wallop.  I boarded a plane in Chicago that took me first to London, and then to Cairo, where I was met by my older brother, who was at that time teaching at the American University of Cairo. I approached this trip with nothing but anxiety and fear; I had a wife and two small children at home, and was terrified of the many ways in which a trip to the Middle East could part me from them forever.  Still, some part of me must have been so intrigued by my brother's invitation to visit, and give a presentation at his university, that it pushed away the fears just enough to get me on that plane.

I can remember more details of that trip than many journeys I have taken since: I can still see the massive crowds of people trying to pass through customs, and the university driver who hustled me to the front of the line and pushed me through; I can picture the walk my brother and I took through the warren of lanes and alleyways in a Cairo bazaar; I can feel my back aching as we descended, hunched beneath the low ceiling of the tunnel, into the deep chamber of a Giza pyramid.

Every experience on that trip--from the food my brother and his wife prepared for our lunches to the belly dancing show we watched on a Nile river boat cruise--set off little fireworks of wonder and awe in my mind. The world contains places and people like this?  In spite of the intensive reading I had done in graduate school, where I passed Ph.D. exams in contemporary international fiction, I was astonished to see the world come to life in such startling new clarity.

From that moment on, I was hooked on travel.  In the two decades since that trip I have boarded hundreds of planes and trains, visited close to twenty countries, and set foot in dozens of new US states.  Much of this travel has occurred as a result of the books I have written about higher education, which have earned me invitations to speak with faculty in many parts of the world.  But in recent years my wife and I have made travel a high priority in our lives, both ourselves and for our children.  When we get a financial windfall of any kind, or manage to squirrel away money for a while, we inevitably blow it on travel.

We do so in part because I have come to recognize travel as one of the most powerful ways to inspire new learning in 21st-century humans, especially when we leave formal education behind. Travel has the potential to engage every part of us that connects to learning, and can do so in ways that far exceed the kinds of learning we do in classrooms. I want my children, when they have finished their schooling, to feel regularly the itch to get out and re-kindle their sense of wonder, to meet strangers on the road and hear their stories, and to discover that other places exist where they do things differently.

Hydra, Greece. 2017
"The point of travel is knowledge, not information.
Its purpose is to create new thoughts."
Russell Banks, Voyager
Travel, of course, can be done in ways that expand our perceptions, our empathy, our wonder at the created world; it can also be done in ways that are at best oblivious and at worst damaging to ourselves and the places we visit.  Over the past few years I have been thinking a lot about the lessons of travel, both what we can learn from travel, and how we can learn to travel in ways that take advantage of the best it has to offer our hearts and minds.

Those reflections are coalescing into the next book project, which will return me to my roots as a writer of memoir and personal essays.  But they will also tie a thread to my more recent work in education, as I hope in the book to consider especially the connection between travel and learning. That thread will be a loose one, as this book will remain more in the realm of literary nonfiction than the kind of researched books I have written in recent years.

I have been immersed in the literature of travel in recent months as a result of this project, and gathering lots of excellent quotes from writers throughout history.  To help launch the writing of the book, I've created an Instagram account where I will post regular photos from my travels, both past and present, captioned with some of those quotes on travel, like the one you see pictured above.  If you wish to join me for the ride--and you are most welcome--you can find me on Instagram at @jimlang7