Statistics have been used to inform us, change our minds, and even to shock us. From polls telling us who is winning various political races, to commercials telling us about a toothbrush recommended by nine out of ten dentists, to the rise of ocean temperatures over time, facts and figures inform the stories that help us understand the world around us. We spoke to communications instructor and Media and Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age author Richard Campbell about how he teaches his students about the stats behind the stories (and the stories behind the stats) and the storytelling at the intersection of journalism and statistics.
Marisa Bluestone: A bit of a chicken and egg question, but what do you think comes first -- the stats or the stories?Richard Campbell: You can’t have the story without the data, without the stats. The jobs of the news narrative is to transform hard data into something an audience can understand. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in their seminal book The Elements of Journalism that the job of the journalist is “to make the significant interesting.”
Data by itself is not interesting or understandable to a general audience. But a good narrative by a reporter who does her homework and asks good questions of the right sources can transform the data into a compelling story. Too much mediocre news, however, takes “interesting” stuff -- like a celebrity scandal or an outrageous tweet – and makes it seem significant just by the act of reporting it as news.
Marisa: This could be an entire course, but what quick tips do you have for students to help them translate statistics into stories, or visa versa? Richard: Funny you should ask this. The Stat+Stories podcast grew out of a course. At Miami, John Bailer -- chair of the statistics department -- and I had worked together to get a quantitative literacy requirement into our college’s curriculum. As part of that initiative, we team taught an honors class called “News and Numbers” in 2009 and developed the podcast in 2013.
As a one-time reporter and long-time journalism educator (with some math phobia issues), I remember how nervous I was in that first class with John. But when he put up a data graph culled from a national newspaper and asked the students, “What’s the story here?”, I relaxed. Storytelling is something I knew about and to realize this renowned statistician expected a good data chart to tell a story put me at ease. John and I had common ground. We would start every class with some graph or news story form a news site that relied on statistics and John would lead the students through a critique of what stories did a good job and what stories needed work.
My job was to improve their narratives. So one tip is to start a data-based report, not with data and numbers, but with a story that illustrates the impact of the data. For example, do not begin a news story on homelessness with data and percentages. Start the report by telling about a family impacted by homelessness and then lead your audience to the big picture and what the data tell us about the significance of the problem. But first you need to make an emotional connection to your audience. A story does that. It is hard to make such a connection early in a news story by using big numbers.
Marisa: How have recent advancements in data visualization changed the way you teach communications courses? Richard: At Miami, the statistics department also started a course, in collaboration with the graphics design department and the journalism program, on data visualization. Although I am retired now, I would encourage anyone teaching design or statistics to think about how graphic and data illustrations might be accompanied by a good narrative that help people understand the visuals. A lot of folks are used to making sense of the world through written or video narratives not through a dazzling graphic chart or complex statistical tables. But in combination, we might have a better chance of reaching more of the general audience.
Marisa: It's election season. What role will stats play in how the presidential election is covered? What role should they play? Richard: I assume you mean stats on political polling and not all the other statistics that are truly important --- like data on income disparities, or unemployment related to the Covid-19 crisis, or the higher percentages of Black and brown people mistreated or killed because of systemic racism. Unfortunately, during a national election, most mainstream TV news outlets obsess over polls – who’s ahead and who’s behind. This is not my area of expertise, but I can report on what experts have told us on our podcast.
Back in 2016, the national polls were within the margin of error. Clinton won by two percentage points – or 3 million votes. But some of the state reporting was flawed, since many formerly “unlikely voters” voted, and Trump eked out an electoral victory by narrowly winning Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
For 2020, statisticians and pollsters again warn of uncertainty. Determining “likely voters” in the age of Covid-19 and mail-in voting may be a crap shoot. Additionally, increases in robo calls in swing states have made many people more wary of answering their phones. Other than suggesting trends over time, we just don’t really know with any certainty how accurate polls are.
Marisa: Do you think there's room for opinions in data storytelling, or should it all be fact based? Richard: Good journalism throughout much of the 20 th century traditionally tried to separate opinion and analysis from basic news stories, in which reporters learned to keep their opinion out of news reports and attempted to interview multiple sources. Even today most newspapers relegate opinion essays to the editorial and op-ed pages. If a newspaper runs an analysis piece on the front page, it is usually labeled as such.
Cable TV news began blurring these distinctions, especially with the arrival of Fox News in the mid-1990s. Still, even on Fox News, there is generally fairer and more complete reporting in the midday hours before the wave of opinion talking heads ascend in the evening. But this is also true of MSNBC, with its nightly line-up of liberal and progressive talking heads. Still, the best opinion pieces are informed by good reporting and not just cable hosts spouting whatever comes to mind as they try to fill their allotted hour of time.
The tragedy, of course, is that many viewers think what they are getting in the evening is fair and balanced reporting. In fact, cable TV news in the evening -- and nationally syndicate conservative and libertarian talk radio throughout the day -- have filled the void created by the loss of many local newspapers. In the last 20 years, the U.S. has lost more than half the workforce of daily newspaper reporters -- from 56,000 in 2001 to fewer than 27,000 today.
A landmark 2017 University of North Carolina study identified 1,300 U.S. communities as “news deserts” – with no local print or digital reporting. In 2020, that figure has jumped to 1,800. About 2,100 daily and weekly papers have stopped publishing since 2004. According to a 2019 Brookings Institution study, millions of Americans see only national stories, and many of those “have a strong partisan bent” or “focus heavily on partisan conflict.” More alarming still, Brookings found the decline in local reporting has been accompanied by “a diminished capacity to hold elected officials and other local leaders accountable and a general disengagement from local politics.” Evidence that we have gathered in Ohio suggests too that letters and comments to editors at small-town papers are now less likely than in the past to focus on local issues. Instead, many merely parrot cable TV talking points.
Marisa: Is there anything I didn't ask you about, but should have? Richard: I would like to recommend that every journalism student take statistics or quantitative literacy courses and that every math and stats major take journalism courses (plus, all our high schools should be requiring quantitative literacy classes). The ability for mathematician or scientists to translate the complexities of their work into a story for a general audience is key to challenging the anti-science and anti-evidence strains running through our mediated culture.
Richard Campbell is professor emeritus and founding chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University and has been teaching for 48 years. For Bedford/St.Martin’s Press, he is the lead author of three textbooks, including Media and Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age, now in its 12 th edition. He is also the author of 60 Minutes and the News: A Mythology for Middle America and co-author of Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade and the Reagan Legacy. He also was a print reporter and broadcast news writer in Milwaukee and was high school English teacher and girls’ basketball coach in the Milwaukee Public School system.
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Student engagement. It’s a struggle that instructors regularly list as their top concern in surveys on teaching during the pandemic. Though maintaining students' attention, curiosity, motivation and passion for learning has been a topic of interest for instructors for some time, these challenges are more pronounced this fall with digital fatigue, distractions at home, lack of one-on-one interaction, and connectivity challenges.
While most instructors now have some experience teaching classes online, having done it once before during the Spring semester, many continue to seek new and innovative ways to support student engagement.
There’s no shortage of ways that instructors can facilitate the joy of learning and connect with their students, and we’ve curated some of the ones that we’ve seen work successfully using the technologies and methodologies that we know best.
At the Start of and During Class:
Ask the class content-focused opening questions : Retrieval practice is a great way to begin each class, as it allows students to activate knowledge from either pre-class activities or a previous class. There are a few variations of this, including using opening questions on your lecture’s first slide, and removing it from view after a few minutes to encourage students to show up on time. You can also choose to give students credit for answering the opening question orally, in writing, or with a student response solution like iClicker .
Help students to focus by engaging with technology : With a virtual environment, it’s easy for students to get distracted with other content, texts and games on their phones and laptops. The new iClicker Focus feature helps students to self-regulate their behavior to stay engaged solely with the iClicker app for the duration of the class.
Chunk out content: Research indicates that students’ attention declines throughout the lecture. This can be compounded in a remote environment, with distractions making concentrating even more difficult. Chunking out information in seven to ten minute increments helps reset attention spans. and beginning each content segment with a polling question, helps activate students’ thinking by requiring them to engage with the content. This can be done using a variety of question types, and with a click of a button using iClicker’s diverse question types (i.e. anonymous, short answer, target, etc).
Administer low-stakes, formative assessments: Frequent formative check-ins offer students an indication of their performance, giving them an opportunity to improve their knowledge and grades ahead of exams. You can accomplish this synchronously or asynchronously with iClicker’s Polling or Quizzing features in class or by using the Assignment feature that students can complete outside of class sessions. The feature can be used to support asynchronous learning or “flip” your in-person class sessions.
Create an on-screen action: Whether teaching synchronously or asynchronously, you can move beyond static, text-heavy slides by incorporating illustrations, YouTube videos, 3D modeling software, interactive presentation software, or even memes. You can also add questions in your lecture videos (with iClicker’s Assignment feature) so students can answer questions on their own time.
Ending Class and Outside of Class:
Pose a reflective closing question : Learning research suggests that awareness of learning enhances it . In addition to demonstrating how well students understand the concepts covered in class, they can also be an opportunity to clarify any points or provide additional resources for students.
Have your students set learning goals. By offering a series of sh ort, assignable surveys students can reflect on their learning progress at key points across the semester. You can do this using a survey of your own creation or with Macmillan Learning’s new learning platform, Achieve , which offers an Intro Survey that asks students to consider their goals for the class and to think about how they plan to manage their time and learning strategies. Later, Checkpoint surveys get students to reflect on what's been working and what has not so that they can decide to make changes on their own. Each survey that students complete also generates a report that gives you a bigger picture of how your class is doing beyond their grades.
There are a lot of tips here that reference our new digital learning platform, Achieve, and with good reason. During the spring 2020 semester, instructors using Achieve reported their students were more engaged both in and outside of class when they compared to other classes they were teaching without Achieve. More information about Achieve’s performance during the pandemic is being studied now, and you can find our research up to now on our Learning Science page . There's also no shortage of research on the positive impact of iClicker on course outcomes .
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Over the past six months, COVID-19 gave many students the opportunity to make economic decisions, whether they knew it or not. This is true for both big decisions, like whether they should attend college this fall, and the day-to-day ones like whether they should go to visit a friend. This is not a new phenomenon, as many of us have been using basic economic principles to make decisions throughout our lives.
Everyday economics has been a passion of instructors and authors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers for years now. They literally wrote the textbook on it. Principles of Economics
To help foster an even better understanding of the history-making pandemic, Betsey and Justin added new, current examples to help instructors cover the pandemic in their classrooms and to show students ways that they are already using economic principles -- or not -- in their recent decision-making. Here are seven insights distilled from these lessons:
Students weighed the costs and benefits of leaving their homes. They analyzed the pros and cons to determine what worked best for them. And in many instances this meant staying home. In fact many students began to socially distance well before the government required them to do so.
Students did not always ignore sunk costs (though they should have). As the pandemic was just beginning, many students had vacations, parties and other activities that had been planned for and paid. With fear of missing out and since money had been spent, many did not cancel. Florida’s spring break was a prime example of why it’s okay to not continue to invest in sunk costs, as people got sick and some died after attending parties.
Students reviewed the opportunity costs . Some students considered changing their college plans by asking themselves “or what.” For example, they asked: Should I go to college or … travel (which is limited) ... get a job (which is harder because unemployment is up).
Students' actions caused supply and demand to shift . With social distancing measures in place, they didn’t go out to restaurants nearly as often, and overall demand for in-person dining decreased.
Students made decisions that impacted more than just themselves. The marginal external costs associated with risky behavior during a pandemic are larger the more infectious and fatal the disease because it's more likely to make more people sick with serious consequences. On the other hand, the marginal external benefits associated with social distancing and mask-wearing during a pandemic are also larger since averting potential infections could save many lives.
Students relied more on Amazon for goods, giving Amazon greater market power. An article in The Economist on April 11, 2020 noted: “As the world gets back on its feet, big firms will have better access to capital markets, giving them an extra edge over smaller competitors.”
Students played a coordination game when they bought more toilet paper than we needed to. Purchases in excess were made not because they feared a shortage, but because they were concerned that others feared it.
These seven examples of how COVID-19 impacted our choices represent just a fraction of how we're using economic principles to make decisions in our everyday lives. For more information about Principles of Economics with Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers from Macmillan Learning, and to learn more about why every decision is an economic decision, click here.
Betsey Stevenson advised President Obama on social policy, labor market, and trade issues as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers from 2013 to 2015. She is currently a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan and she serves on the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association and other boards. She is an expert on the impact of the economy on happiness, on public policies’ impact on the labor market, and the economic forces shaping the modern family, among other topics.
Justin Wolfers is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. He is an expert in unemployment and inflation, the power of prediction markets, the economic forces shaping the modern family, discrimination, and happiness. He has been an editor of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, a board member on the Committee on the Status of Women in Economics, a member of the Panel of Advisors of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, among many other board and advisory positions.
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History is more than just a study of past events. It's an interpretation of people, artifacts and events that allows us to find a path forward. With an important milestone that just passed, the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, we discussed women's equality with acclaimed historian, author and instructor Nancy Hewitt.
Marisa Bluestone: How do you think that the women’s marches in 2016 will be remembered in our history books 100 years from now? Nancy Hewitt: Among women’s historians, I think the 2016 women’s marches will be highlighted as part of a new wave of activism touched off by Donald Trump’s election as president but rooted in a much longer shift in progressive women’s activism. The repeated attacks on abortion rights since Roe v Wade, the snail-like pace in achieving equal pay, the continued devastation caused by sexual assault and domestic violence, the continued issues of sexual harassment in workplaces of all kinds, and attacks on immigrants and Dreamers fueled the 2016 marches. But so, too, did the expanding power of women in law, academia, medicine, journalism, and many other professions, the increasing power of Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, and Asian American women’s activist organizations, the expansion of LGBTQ rights and organizations, and the growing importance of women elected officials from diverse backgrounds.
Among American historians, it’s likely that the women’s marches will be viewed as part of the wave of protests in the 2010s and early 2020s inspired by women and men, young and old, working-class and middle-class, from diverse racial and ethnic communities. These activists have demanded racial, environmental and economic justice; gender equality; indigenous rights, LGBTQ rights, and universal healthcare. This extended period of progressive activism, in which women play central roles, will follow on stories of similar moments in the decades before the Civil War, the Progressive Era, and the Sixties (really the 1950s into the early 1980s).
Among both women’s and American historians, this progressive activism will be examined alongside the rise in conservative and alt-right activism among women and men and fueled by many of the same issues. This, too, echoes earlier periods, particularly the Red Scare of the 1910s and 1920s, the McCarthy era and the anti-feminism and New Right of the Sixties.
Marisa: What role have students played in women’s equality movements? Nancy: Students, especially college students, have been critical to women’s equality movements since at least the late nineteenth century. Before that, education at all levels was a key demand of women, including writer Judith Sargent Murray and educators and activists Sarah Mapps Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd, Mary Lyon, Catherine Beecher, Elizabeth Peabody, and Fannie Barrier Williams. It was also one of the key demands of women’s rights advocates from the 1840s-1880s. African American students, such as Rosetta Douglass (Rochester, NY) and Mary Jane Patterson (Oberlin), played key roles in movements for women’s educational equality movements by demanding access to predominantly white schools.
The success of these educational campaigns allowed female students at women’s colleges and a growing number of coeducational institutions to become deeply involved in women’s equality movements over the next half-century. Associations of college students joined the suffrage movement, fought for improvements in public health, advocated for temperance and peace, labored in settlement houses; and, as journalists and writers, they investigated conditions in prisons, asylums, workplaces, and impoverished neighborhoods. Photographs of massive suffrage parades in New York City, Washington, D.C. and other cities in the 1910s show young women marching under student and sorority banners. Black sororities were especially important in training young women for careers in civil rights and social justice efforts. In this decade, white and Black college women volunteered for overseas work supporting American troops during WWI or banded together at home to assist the Red Cross and other organizations.
It’s also important to think about the children who did not get to continue their education because of the economic needs of their families. Even when public education was widely available, many African American and immigrant children had to leave school early to earn money. Many native-born white children in rural areas had to miss school as well to help plant and harvest crops. Some of these young people, too, participated in social movements, including labor movements in cities and populist movements in rural areas. This part of the story continues today for children of recent immigrants, migrant workers, and impoverished families of all races.
In the post-World War II period, as the college population increased significantly, students remained central to movements for peace, women’s rights, civil rights, farm workers rights, and social justice. More high school students joined their ranks. The southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s offers one of the most powerful moments of student activism from Black children who integrated white schools amid rising violence to white and Black college students who joined efforts to integrate transportation, stores and lunch counters. They testified about the sexual abuse of Black women and pushed for voting rights across the South. Farmer worker movements across the West politicized Chicana students, many who worked the fields themselves, a necessity that limited their access to education.
College students were among the groups that supported the grape and lettuce boycotts launched by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta through the United Farmer Workers. While Chavez missed school for weeks at a time as he moved with his family picking crops across California, Huerta left her job as a school teacher to organize farmer workers after seeing the devastation on children’s education caused by the system of migrant farm labor. Huerta was also active in campaigns for voting rights among Mexican American/Chicana/o workers across the Southwest.
In the 1970s, college students from diverse backgrounds were central to the rise of women’s liberation, women of color feminism, and lesbian feminism. They remain at the heart of battles for women’s equality today, building on efforts to increase women’s presence in law, medicine, journalism, the arts, and academia. Photographs and videos of women’s rights marches from the 1970s to 2020 document the participation of large numbers of young women, many organized through college and high school networks.
The field of women’s history emerged, of course, on college and university campuses. It was launched by women and a few good men trained in other areas of history. Fortunately for me, I entered graduate school at University of Pennsylvania in 1975, when it was possible to claim women’s history as a major field in some graduate departments. When I entered the job market in 1981, 9 history departments were hiring their first women’s historians. I was hired at the University of South Florida, and continued to teach both the American history survey and women’s history at USF, Duke and Rutgers University.
Marisa: What woman in US history do you think students should learn more about? Nancy: There are so many that it is hard to choose just a few. Many more women appear in high school textbooks than when I attended high school or college.
I remember when Harriet Tubman became a standard figure in high school textbooks. I was teaching the early American history survey at the University of South Florida. I began each semester by asking students to list the names of 10 notable Americans between 1600 and 1865, and then asked them to create a second list of 10 minus political and military leaders. The second lists were often much shorter than the first, and some included authors, explorers and scientists. Frederick Douglass appeared with some regularity, and a few women, most notably Pocahontas and First Ladies. But in the late 1980s, Harriet Tubman started appearing regularly. When I asked my students why, they said she was one of the people featured in boxed biographies in their high school textbooks. Now, high school and college textbooks include a much more diverse cast of characters, and I suspect my opening gambit would be easier for students, at least I hope so.
So let me highlight a few women in this early period who are starting to appear in college textbooks and whose stories help us think broadly about women’s roles and women’s equality.
Weetamoo, a Wampanoag sachem in 17 th century New England, worked to save native lands through deeds and diplomacy. She married into a prominent Wampanoag family, and Metacom (King Philip) was her brother-in-law. Weetamoo was an important diplomat, seeking first to negotiate with English colonists and in the 1670s joining Metacom in King Philip’s War against the colonists. Only recently have historians begun to understand the full significance of her role in native and New England society.
Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) was born into slavery in New York and was sold to John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, as a child. She was allowed to marry and had a daughter before her husband joined the Continental Army. Mum Bett’s owner was an active patriot, who often held meetings in his home. In 1773, the group drafted the Sheffield Resolves, the first manifesto of individual liberties. In 1780, after hearing a reading of the Massachusetts Constitution, she asked one of Ashley’s fellow patriots, Theodore Sedgwick, to help her sue for freedom. He did so; and in winning her suit, she helped ensure the end to slavery in Massachusetts.
Jessie Benton Fremont was raised in a prominent political family and spent much of her young life in Washington D.C., where her father Thomas served as Senator from Missouri. She met Lieutenant John C. Fremont, a military officer and explorer. Despite her family’s objection, the two married and Jessie became a critical assistant to her husband as he mapped parts of the western frontier and sought military and political fame in California. She helped him write dramatic accounts of his explorations, putting her husband at the center of the story. When John received the nomination for President from the new Republican Party, Jessie rallied women to his campaign, illuminating the expanding role women played in political campaigns well before they gained the right to vote.
Rose O’Neal was born in rural Maryland in 1813 or 1814 to a poor farm family. After her mother died, she was sent to live with relatives in Washington, D.C. Rose gained the friendship of Dolley Madison, ensuring her entrée to the best social and political circles in the city. There Rose met Dr. Robert Greenhow. After their marriage, she began holding her own “at home” gatherings. By the time Civil War erupted in spring 1861, Rose was widowed and mother to a young daughter. A supporter of the Confederacy, she gathered political and military information from numerous admirers, who had no idea she was passing it to the Confederates. To avoid suspicion, she appealed to the chivalry of men on both sides. She was finally arrested and imprisoned in the Old Capitol Prison with other female enemy agents. She was eventually released and sent to Virginia. Although considered a traitor to the United States, Greenhow used her femininity, intellect and political commitments to claim a significant role in the Confederate cause.
Marisa: Many (like Macmillan Learning author Betsey Stevenson) believe that COVID-19 may set back women’s workplace gains. What does history tell us about how the pandemic may impact women in the workplace? Nancy: This is a hard question to answer given the dramatically different economic situations of American women. Many frontline workers—from hospital cleaners and laundry workers to nurses and doctors—might improve their position in the workforce because of the critical character of their work during the pandemic. But they are also more at risk of infection. At the same time, many service workers—such as cashiers and secretaries—are likely to lose their jobs with the collapse of brick and mortar stores and small businesses. Those jobs may never recover given that shopping malls and traditional consumer shopping were already in economic trouble with the rise of online shopping.
While women have made huge strides in recent years in terms of access to the professions, entrepreneurship and other fields, they remain a small percentage of workers in high tech companies, which are likely to expand as a result of the pandemic. Moreover, the pandemic is likely to increase disparities between college-educated and non-college educated workers and between women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds whose access to education and job training differ as much as among men. Thus, women of color are likely to be especially hard hit by the economic effects of the pandemic as they are by its medical effects. Thus generalizations are hard to make.
Finally, the smaller percentage of wealth held by women (versus men) and of Black, Native and Chicana/Latina women versus white women means that racial inequities will continue to effect women not only in the workplace but on the home front. This is especially true since homeownership is much higher for native-born white women than for other racial groups, providing them with a foundation (literally and figuratively) that allows them to survive economic downturns more easily than those who rent.
Marisa: Is there anything else we should be asking you about women’s equality but haven’t? Nancy: I think it’s important to remember that in almost any time period, in the United States and elsewhere, advances for one group of women have not automatically meant advancement for all groups of women. This year with the centenary of the 19 th Amendment, the differential effect of that amendment has been the focus of a number of talks, articles and books. Most white women who hadn’t already been enfranchised by their state governments did gain the right to vote in 1920. But Native American and Chinese American women did not gain citizenship rights until 1924 and 1943, respectively, thus making them ineligible to vote. Korean American and Japanese American women were not granted citizenship until even later. And Black women in the South were largely disfranchised alongside Black men until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Other groups—including Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans—also had to fight for the vote for more than a decade after 1920. And many Spanish-speaking women did not gain full voting rights until the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, when bilingual ballots and voting information was available. Of course these limits were generally shared by women and men, but they make clear that the 19 th Amendment did not enfranchise all women, which has been the popular understanding for far too long.
As the students we teach in colleges and universities become more diverse, it is important that we incorporate the many stories that contribute to American/US history into our textbooks. It has been incredibly enlightening for me to see how focusing on different groups can shift an entire story. That has been clear since becoming a women’s historian, but I have tried this year to be even more attentive to how women from different backgrounds develop their own histories and relate to other groups of women in forming American histories. The same is true for men, of course. How do their stories differ across race, ethnicity, place and time; and how do those stories relate to each other and to the histories of women.
This summer, as I worked on the 4 th edition of Exploring American Histories, the addition of Weetamoo and Elizabeth Freeman, giving equal attention to Powhatan as to John Smith, and adding more stories of Mexicans and Tejanos to the period from the 1830s through Reconstruction alongside those of blacks and whites helped me see new aspects of the American past. I hope these stories will also encourage students from diverse communities to understand their part in the historical development of the United States and in struggles for the equal rights promised in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Nancy Hewitt is the co-author of Exploring American Histories franchise, published by Macmillan Learning. She is Professor Emerita of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Her publications include Southern Discomfort: Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s; Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822-1872; and the edited volume No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism. Her latest book is Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds.
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Earlier this week, the University North Carolina, Chapel Hill announced that it would transition classes on-line, reversing course on its decision to hold in-person classes after learning nearly 200 students that had tested positive for Coronavirus. It’s likely that others may follow, moving to virtual classrooms temporarily or for the remainder of the year. This means that, once again, many instructors will teach classes online.
This past spring Instructors closed their offices and students packed up their dorm rooms within a span of weeks. All the careful planning instructors had done to create a semester’s worth of learning needed to be dramatically altered to reflect the new reality of an online classroom. The quick transition saw challenges with technology, student engagement, accessibility and more. With all the upheaval, it’s not surprising that a survey from OneClass found that 75% of college students were disappointed in the quality of their virtual classrooms this past spring.
With their recent experiences, the thought of another semester online may seem unappealing to students. But unlike last spring semester, when many colleges shut down without having contingency plans in place, this time the industry was better prepared.
No matter what college looks like this year (and it will look different from class to class and college to college) students will experience improvements that will make learning very different this fall. Here are four reasons it will be better.
Instructors have more experience with technology. About half of instructors and many students got their first taste of online learning this spring. While instructors did their best to deliver classes similar to their in-person ones, many struggled and the process wasn’t always seamless. It can be daunting setting up and using technology for the first time, not knowing which buttons to press and what certain prompts mean. But instructors have been using digital learning platforms, LMS, Zoom and iClickers for a few months now and are more familiar with the ins and outs. There will be fewer requests for people to mute their phones, students know how to virtually raise their hands to ask questions. Learning online will feel more familiar to both students and instructors.
Active learning and student engagement are a priority. More than 60 percent of instructors cited "keeping my students engaged" as their biggest challenge as they transitioned to remote learning, according to the Tyton Partners survey . Instructors recognize that students don’t learn their best by clicking through slides and watching videos. To help with engagement many are turning to active learning, which encourages students to interact with content rather than simply listen to it. Many have discovered new technologies that allow students to actively participate in class. Whether it’s using Zoom breakout sessions, iClicker for in-class polling, peer-review of work, Achieve’s pre-class activities, or something else. Instructors are embracing the opportunities technology offers. Active learning can be especially important for students with skills gaps. Our research with instructors using Achieve found that less academically prepared students who engaged in at least 80% of assigned activities elevated their final exam grade nearly a full letter grade and closed the gap in their average performance and the performance of their more academically prepared peers by about half.
Greater investments are being made in technology and training. Many colleges recognized that there are areas that can be improved in online learning, and are investing their time and resources to acquire the tech and training to do just that. In fact, a survey of college presidents by Inside Higher Ed found that 76% were very likely to invest in online learning resources. The Boedeker Group found that 67% of professors were seeking training in best practices for online instruction. While some colleges are tackling the digital divide and helping to ensure better equity by investing in laptops for students and hotspots across campus, others have invested in training instructors and technology to improve the quality of online learning. Many instructors had to use teaching methods they had never used before and recognize they could use training. It takes an entirely different skill set and pedagogy to teach online. Macmillan Learning recognized that we could help instructors explore the benefits of digital learning and edtech, and offered 70 professional development webinars that were attended or downloaded by over 11,000 instructors.
Instructors have planned for classes to be online . According to a survey by Tyton Partners , 52% of percent of faculty adjusted the learning outcomes and objectives of their courses to accommodate a remote environment this past spring. This meant dropping assignments and changing the quality and quantity of work. This fall, those changes won’t need to happen. While there will still need to be a degree of flexibility, classes will be more structured. Expectations will be set early on about when classes will start and end. Students will know how to access the course materials. Expectations about assignments, grading and deadlines will not need to shift midway through the semester.
Beyond just being different than this spring, digital learning has many benefits and it’s not uncommon for instructors to use digital learning course materials even when they meet in-person. Faculty are recognizing benefits, with a survey by Tyton Partners indicating that 45% saying their perception of online learning has become more favorable since the start of COVID-19.
Digital learning can engage students before, during and after class, with interactive ebooks, adaptive quizzing, polling, and choose-your-own-adventure-like activities. It also offers flexibility for both students and instructors. And from our own research with our new digital learning platform Achieve, we know that using pre-class activities can help boost student grades.
While students will surely miss the “full college experience” with in-person interaction with their peers and instructors, technology can help bridge the gap between our new normal and a traditional college experience. And learning should be more fulfilling this fall.
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When we decided to kick off the Learning Stories Blog, the first person who came to mind was Macmillan Learning author David Myers. With this new blog, we plan to share perspectives about topics we’re passionate about, such as what's going on in the industry, what drives us, how we do what we do, and why we do what we do. David Myers
With his nearly 35 years of work with psychology students, and his advice to them throughout the pandemic via the TalkPsych blog, @david_myers perspective about how to manage the upcoming semester is timely. We spoke with him about what students should expect this Fall as they decide whether or not to begin their college career or go back to campus, and at what capacity.
Marisa Bluestone: What advice would you give students who are afraid to go back on campus this Fall? David Myers: While advising against panic, I’d definitely advise conscientiously following all the distancing and masking that colleges are mandating. First, such protects the students from sickness and possible nonlethal consequences. But more importantly, when students protect themselves, especially in higher-risk indoor contexts including meals and parties, they also protect their communities. By protecting against virus transmission to family and campus members who are at much greater risk, they express intergenerational altruism. Moreover, it’s what’s needed to keep their campus and their local community healthy and functioning.
Better yet, students who understand that this is about “we,” not just “me,” can model and help enforce campus norms that will minimize virus outbreaks.
Marisa: You talked in a recent blog post about humans’ tendency to fear the wrong things. Are there any right or wrong things students should expect to feel this Fall? David: Lots of research shows that people often fear the wrong things, often by fretting about vividly publicized but highly improbable catastrophes. Thus many folks fear commercial flying more than driving, though in the last decade we’ve been 501 times safer, mile per mile, on commercial flights. Likewise parents who don’t bother to strap their child into a car seat may fear infinitesimally rare school shootings or child abductions.
And surely some college students now are too personally afraid of Covid-19. Consider: In the half year between February 1 and July 25, Covid took the lives of 246 Americans under age 25. For them and each of their families, this was a tragedy. But every half year motor vehicle accidents claim 3800 under-25 Americans—15 times as many. So, are today’s students 15 times more fearful of vehicle accidents, and taking corresponding precautions?
Marisa: You mentioned in your video that we are social animals. College students seem to be the embodiment of this. What tips do you have for students attending classes remotely who want to feel more connected to their peers and instructors? David: Colleges, including my own, are terribly concerned about sustaining engagement and community. Colleges are, as we all know, using Zoom and Google Meet to connect students with their instructors and with each other—including easy-to-convene breakout discussions that may become even more commonplace than in classrooms.
Even so, nature has designed us for face to face communication. And this seems especially true for teens and young adults who, in repeated surveys during Covid have reported very high rates of feeling lonely or depressed. In one national survey, 70 percent of 18- to 29—year olds reported experiencing “moderate or severe distress”—triple the 22 percent in a prior survey.
FYI, one way my editor and I are working to create a more personal author-reader connection is with online “Topic Teaser” videos in which, in about 60 seconds, I introduce each major upcoming topic . . . all in an effort to support instructors and help draw students in.
Marisa: What role will unrealistic optimism play in college this Fall? David: Good question. While some will fear too much, others—thanks to our being natural positive thinkers—will be too blasé. In surveys over the years, college students have seen themselves as much less vulnerable than their peers to getting cancer, losing a job, getting divorced, or just about any bad thing. Hence the pool parties and bar scenes amid Covid.
Marisa: What are the greatest lessons that students can learn from this challenging time? David : Another great question. Perhaps this year can help us refocus on our life priorities—on the importance of our close relationships, caring for our health, finding a spiritual purpose. Even so, we all long to have the learning period end!
David Myers is the co-author of Psychology in Everyday Life as well as Psychology , Psychology in Modules , Exploring Psychology , and Exploring Psychology in Modules , all published by Macmillan Learning. He has been recognized for his work as an instructor at Hope College, and has been sharing insights on his TalkPsych blog with the psychology community. Most recently, he was recognized by the International Honor Society in Psychology (Psy Chi) for his strong support of the organization and assistance to students during the pandemic.
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