Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Teaching Students with Disabilities: A Brief Introduction

TJ Dumansky

Last week, Robert Wickham and I led a workshop on “Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Diverse Learning Styles and Disabilities.” One of the questions that this workshop addressed was: how can students with learning and sensory disabilities be empowered to actively participate in classroom discussions and activities? We considered a variety of tools and practices that can be utilized to accommodate students who have processing challenges, visual impairments, or hearing impairments that impact their learning experience in the classroom.

The theme of disabilities in education is familiar to many elementary and middle school teachers, but may get less attention in the training of college and university teachers. One study found that the percentage of teachers who felt adequately prepared to teach students with learning disabilities dropped from 44% of elementary school teachers, to 10.9% of university science teachers.[1]

A recent study from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, funded by the Research in Disabilities Education program of the National Science Foundation, noted a particularly striking statistic: when college freshman entered a required remedial math course, only 15% of students with hearing impairments achieved or exceeded their recommended performance level, leading to gaps between these students and their peers. However, when appropriate learning interventions were implemented, the percentage of students with hearing impairments who exceeded their performance levels jumped to 68%.[2]

More research needs to be done to determine if these kinds of results are typical, but it should nonetheless prompt university educators to consider the sorts of habits they can adopt in ordinary classroom practices to improve the learning experience of students with disabilities. While colleges have programs dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities, such as Yale’s excellent Resource Office on Disabilities (, accommodating diverse learning needs is a team effort. It requires that teachers both create space for individual students to articulate their needs, and that teachers become aware of how their own verbal and nonverbal habits might present additional challenges for students with disabilities.
Here are some examples of the types of things to be aware of in your preparation and in the classroom:
·      Always include information for students with disabilities on your syllabus. A school’s disability resources office can provide information on school policies and services, but also indicate how a student can contact you confidentially if they so desire.
·      For people who are visually impaired, make sure to read aloud what you write on the board. Say “this painting by Rembrandt,” or “that glass jar” instead of just the words “this” or “that.”
·      For people who are hearing-impaired and need to read lips, be sure not to stand where you are backlit.
·      Treat students as individuals first. Two people with the same type of disability can have different accommodation needs and different levels of functioning. If you aren’t sure what language to use when talking about a disability, take a cue from how a student talks about him- or herself.
·      Provide multiple modes of instructional communication: if you give verbal instructions for an activity, repeat the instructions on a handout or on a visual aid; or, provide information through both text and graphics or images.
·      Consider sharing your lecture notes with students in advance, as this can be very helpful to students who need extra preparation time.
·      Be on the lookout for “trigger phrases.” Suggestions that students who need accommodation just need to “work harder” or that they are getting “special treatment” can marginalize students with accommodation needs. Students with disabilities encounter misunderstanding and negative attitudes about their learning abilities and teachers also have a responsibility to support their social inclusion in the classroom.

If you want more information on Yale’s policies and services, check out this Faculty Guidebook (

[1] Norman, K., Caseau, D., and Stefanich, G. (1998). Teaching students with disabilities in inclusive science classrooms: Survey results. Science Education 82(2): 127-146.
[2] Moon et al., (2012). “Accommodating students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM),” SciTrain: 37 (

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Math: Does the U.S. Teach It Well?

Elizabeth Boulton

I love math. Is that a weird thing to say? I love algebra, calculus, problem-solving math. I love working with equations and making them say what I want them to say. I like looking at the world in terms of math. When I’m driving on the highway, I try to guess how fast the cars around me are driving. Given that I am going 65 mph and I have gotten 5 car lengths (about 50 feet) closer to the blue Honda in front of me over the last 5 minutes, how fast is the blue Honda moving?

Unfortunately, there are many people in this world who don’t feel the same. Not everyone has to like math, but everyone should at least be given the tools to be comfortable with math. I have tutored many people in physics, and since physics has so much algebra in it, in reality, we spend a lot of time talking about math. It is always frustrating for me, when my tutees cannot rearrange an equation in order to find the variable they need, when they can’t figure out what equation to use, or when they can’t see how to make an equation out of the words in the problem. Let me be clear: I’m not frustrated with them. I’m frustrated because I can’t articulately explain how they can know to do those things. I can lead them through rearranging equations until I am blue in the face, but I can’t communicate any general rules that they can use for every problem.

A few months ago, a friend of mine sent me an article, “Teaching the Conceptual Structure of Mathematics.” She described herself as having hated math in school and we have discussed her frustrations many times. When she ran across this article, she sent it to me saying, “When I was a kid in math I would ask, every time, ‘but why would you use that formula there?’ and my teachers would (without fail) tell me I didn't need to know why—I just needed to memorize it and apply it on the exam.”

After I read the article, everything made sense: why so many of my students have trouble using algebra in physics, why my friend suffered through math classes, why I was frustrated at my own inability to teach my students the patterns of math. Could the answer to all of my questions be that math is very poorly taught in the United States public K-12 system?

According to the article, schools in the U.S. teach math by teaching the rules of math and having students apply these rules over and over. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad way to teach, except when you consider that this doesn’t give anyone a framework to approach new math problems that maybe don’t look exactly like the ones for which they were taught the rules. The article lays out two main features of instruction that would allow students to form a framework for math. First, teachers and students need to explicitly discuss mathematical concepts. Second, students must struggle with the concepts in order to fit them into their emerging framework.

The authors of the article note two studies that corroborate these findings. The two studies looked at about a hundred teachers in each of the following countries: Germany, Japan, the U.S., Australia, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The conductors of the study found that what separated the high-achieving countries (all of the above except the U.S. and Australia) from the low-achieving ones wasn’t the class size, the kinds of problems used, nor the teaching style, “but the kinds of learning opportunities teachers created for students, namely, making explicit connections in the lesson among mathematics procedures, problems, and concepts and finding ways to engage students in the kind of productive struggle that is required to understand these connections in a deep way.” The teachers in each country gave their students two main types of problems: problems that can be solved using a procedure and problems that must be solved by making connection between previously solved problems. In every country except Japan, many more procedure problems were given. However, in every classroom, the teacher transformed some of the connection problems into procedure problems by giving extra instruction. For example, a teacher might present a connection problem, and then solve a sample problem that was exactly like the connection problem, which would transform it into a procedure problem. Figure 1 shows the percentage of connection problems the teachers in each country transformed into procedure problems.

The compelling evidence from this articled supported by my personal experiences makes me firmly believe that the U.S. is teaching math the wrong way. What can we do about this? How can the system be changed in order to provide better math education? How can we in higher education correct for all the damage that has been done in lower level math? I don’t have any of these answers, but I’m hoping that together we can come up with some.

If you found this post interested, I urge you to read the full article that I discussed, “Teaching the conceptual Structure of Mathematics” by L.E Richland, J.W. Stigler and K.J. Holyoak. Another interesting read on the same topic is “A Mathematician’s Lament” by Paul Lockhart.

Figure 1

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mindset: What is it and why does it matter?

Megan Ericson 

As instructors, we all have moments in the classroom that embody why we teach. For me, one of these happened this past summer when giving a seminar on my research to 7th-grade students attending a two week SCHOLAR program at Yale.1

I would see these students just once and had wracked my brain to figure out how to make an aspect of infectious disease research interesting, eventually deciding to work through two of the major discoveries in my field with them. My class met in the late afternoon, at the end of a long day and right before the students would be eating dinner.  They were a bit restless and a few pairs of eyes began to glaze over after ten minutes. Rather than spend more time continuing planned activities and risk seeing more unfocused gazes, I paused for a moment to talk to the students about the nature of science and discovery. 
In many classrooms, milestones in biology are presented as facts that were simply uncovered by very smart individuals. None of the backstories and pains of discovery are mentioned, but it’s important for students to know that scientists are not born, but made.

After a very brief exchange on the fact that science itself is actually very hard, but entirely worth the challenge, the students’ body language relaxed, facial expressions became more open, and (most excitingly!) levels of engagement increased. The students began working through major questions in my field and sharing ideas with each other. I even had a few students approach me at the end of the seminar to ask if they could do a research internship at Yale!

What was it about this quick discussion that made the students feel more open to participating? How could I capture that moment and replicate it multiple times during a semester? - I wouldn’t have the lexicon to discuss what I had a brief glimpse of in my classroom until a few months later while taking a MOOC entitled, “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching,” offered through Coursera .2.  One strength of the MOOC was its focus on the affective domain and its influence in the classroom. Of all the content used to cover this, I found that the idea of being cognizant of the mindsets of students and how this impacts their learning resonated with me the most.  The discussion not only prompted self-reflection on times when I was a student, but also reminded me of my experience with the7th-grade students this summer.  I was so intrigued by this initial discussion that I decided to go back to the source of mindsets and read Dr. Carol Dweck’s fantastic book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”.3

Although I am still learning much about mindset myself, I’ve broken down what I gleaned from the book into two key takeaway points. The first will focus on what mindset is and how it affects learning. Secondly, I want to touch on how our interactions with students affect mindset and offer a few suggestions for supporting growth mindset in students.

What are the mindsets? How do they impact learning?

After extensive research on self-conceptions and motivations, Dr. Dweck and colleagues found that most individuals fall into one of two mindsets. One, the fixed mindset, occurs when people have a view that certain aspects of their personality, intelligence, athletic ability, etc are set and cannot be changed. At the other end of the spectrum is the aptly named growth mindset. People who have a growth mindset embrace the notion that they can push the boundaries of their abilities by working hard. 

The mindsets affect all aspects of how people perceive themselves, but the rest of this discussion will be focused on the self-perception of intelligence. (I refer you again to Carol Dweck’s phenomenal book3 if you are interested in learning more about mindset.) 
Pupils with a fixed mindset feel that their intelligence is constant regardless of how hard they work. One manifestation of the fixed mindset is found in students who believe that they are “stupid” and refuse to try in class because nothing can change that. On the other hand, as instructors we might encounter students who have always performed well but have only had to put in minimal effort with coursework. These students believe that they are just inherently smart and when they are suddenly confronted with an academic challenge, such as beginning college, a crisis of self-perception may occur as they worry that they are not as smart as they believed. Ironically, these students often won’t put effort into their courses because if they don’t try they can blame their lack of success on the fact that they didn’t put in effort. After all, if you believe there is nothing you can do to increase your intelligence and you don’t understand a question right away is there any point in trying only to fail? This mindset prevents students from reaching their full potential by restricting them to the boundaries that their self-perception has created and making them afraid to try as failure is a reflection of who they are.  

On the other hand, students who enter a classroom with a growth mindset will have a deep-seated belief that if they work hard, they can increase their knowledge. With this conviction, comes an appreciation of hard work and an idea that failure is not a bad outcome because the worst case scenario is not trying at all. These students are motivated by a challenge because when something is hard it only means they will learn that much more once they succeed. When students have this mindset, they are able to reach their full potential and will gain much more from their classes than peers with a fixed mindset. 
When discussing my excitement about mindsets with a friend, she, being a good skeptical academic, questioned whether any instructor actually supports the idea of a fixed mindset. After all, isn’t there a paradigm that hard work can lead to success and haven’t we heard this time and again when we were students? Unfortunately, even after having taught for only a few semesters, it is apparent that many students have a fixed mindset about their intelligence. What is fostering this self-perception in students and what can educators do to help promote growth mindset in students? 

How can we as instructors support the growth mindset in the classroom? 

Instructors may stress the importance of hard work, but when we think about education and how we classify students’ intelligence levels, it’s clear that we begin pigeon-holing them from the very beginning. Test scores when children are very young determine whether or not they can move to the gifted-and-talented class, placing a label on those “gifted” and those who are not. IQ scores, GPA, PSAT and SAT scores, and AP and IB results are all numbers that students use to classify their intelligence levels. If we think back to our own high school and college days, the kids considered to be the smartest had maximum achievement with minimal effort. After all, when was the last time that you were praised for the process you worked through to solve a problem or the amount of effort you put into a task? 

We are all so fixated on the end result that many times we praise students for the product, ensuring that their focus is on that number or letter grade. When that end product is so important, students believe it reflects their intelligence. They may even be driven to measures as desperate as cheating or lying about scores to ensure others don’t perceive them as less intelligent. All of the subtle messages students might obtain from teachers, parents, peers, and society at large about grades and test scores being a direct reflection of intelligence drives the formation of a fixed mindset. What are some ways that this can be ameliorated? 

First, we as instructors must be conscious of how we speak to our students about their performances in the classroom. When students perform well, this should be acknowledged, but we should praise them not for doing well quickly or with a lack of effort, we should focus instead on the effort they put into their work. By praising the process the student worked through to get to the end product, you encourage the student to put in that extra energy again. In the same vein, we need to be honest with students when their performance is lacking either in effort or in reaching the correct answer. The fixed mindset does not accept constructive criticism well, but the growth mindset accepts this criticism as a tool for growth. 

Students need to become accustomed to hearing the truth, in a helpful way, and not being constantly praised. Constant praise, which is something many parents and instructors may be guilty of, feeds the fixed mindset. If a student is already wonderful and is told this all the time, why bother changing? Instructors can help correct this stream of constant praise by ensuring that they are honest with students about their performance. This constructive criticism can help create a classroom environment where failure is an accepted process of learning. When students are no longer terrified that failure means they are stupid but just a part of becoming more intelligent, what reason do they have not to try? 

Finally, make sure to model the growth mindset for students in how you talk about yourself and other professionals. Discuss any challenges that you had pursuing your chosen field and think about how you overcame them to succeed. Introduce students to personal skill sets that they will need to develop to be successful in certain disciplines rather than just focusing on what content or techniques they need to know. One example of a focus on discipline-specific personal development can be found in the pedagogical use of rubrics delineating STEM skill sets.4.  The instructors in this example generated a rubric focused on specific traits students would need to develop to be successful in their courses, like perseverance with a difficult question and self-compassion. Periodically, students would be asked to evaluate where on the rubric they fell and think about or ask for concrete things they could do to build up these skills.

To conclude, I’ll refer back to the moment in my classroom with which I began my blog post. By having a conversation that good scientists are made and not born, I hope that some of the students realized that if they continued to strive at their studies, they could become proficient in whichever career path they would someday choose. This one instance was not enough to shape the growing psyche of students or change any fixed mindset opinions, but it was a start.

To continue this conversation, what are some ways that you have incorporated growth mindset (consciously or subconsciously) into your classroom? Have you ever run into the challenge of trying to “reset” the mindset of a student who believed their intelligence was a fixed trait? 

1) Scholar Program link,
2) Vanderbilt University, CITRL. (2014). An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEMTeaching. Fall 2014. Retrieved from
3) Dweck, Carol. Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.
4) Measuring Growth, Part 1: Origin of the Self-Evaluation Rubrics. (2012, November 28). Retrieved November 9, 2014, from  origin-of-the-self-evaluation-rubrics/

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Diverse Classroom: Stereotype Threat & First-Generation Students

Luke Mayville

Stereotype threat, defined as “a situational predicament in which individuals are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their group,” can be especially harmful in the classroom, where teachers and students alike often express negative stereotypes.

First-generation students—those without a parent who completed a bachelor’s degree—face unique challenges in a college environment that often seems foreign to them.

Ryan Cecil Jobson and I chose to combine these two diversity-related challenges in a single workshop because we found them to be interrelated in interesting ways. We wanted to invite workshop participants to think of the two issues side by side, giving rise to questions such as “How might first generation students experience stereotype threat?” and “How might we, as teachers, reach out to first-generation students to meet their needs without stereotyping them in the process?”

The workshop included two brief presentations in which we overviewed the unique challenges to student achievement posed by stereotype threat and first-generation status. Following these presentations we opened the workshop up for group discussion, asking participants how they might respond to these challenges. After generating a number of responses, we offered our own ideas. For example, participants were encouraged to engage first-generation students in the classroom with active-learning strategies, and to connect students vulnerable to stereotype threat with supportive university services. We ended the workshop by presenting four different problem-scenarios related to stereotype threat and first-generation status. Participants broke up into small groups to discuss how they would respond to the scenarios before sharing their ideas with the entire workshop.

After the workshop, participant feedback expressed a heightened sensitivity to the challenges associated with stereotype threat and first-generation status. Participants found the scenario activities particularly useful for helping them think through how they might discern problems when they arise and how to open up lines of communication with students at risk.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Five Strategies for Managing Your Fear of Public Speaking

Mark Twain identified two types of public speakers: those who are nervous, and those who are liars. Fear of public speaking afflicts us all.

This is not altogether bad. The nerves we bring to our speeches, presentations, and lectures can help focus our attention and can also give an air of gravity to our message.

Yet, as most of us have experienced, unmanaged fear can be an obstacle to effective communication and, in the case of the classroom, student learning.

Luckily, we need not simply accept and live with uncontrolled fear of public speaking. Here are five strategies for calming your nerves.

First, try cognitive techniques. If you’ve ever consulted a cognitive-behavioral therapist about your anxieties, you were probably advised to reinterpret your negative thoughts—to reframe the limiting beliefs you hold about your future. This technique can be highly effective for public speaking. Are you apprehensive about making mistakes? Reframe the thought by telling yourself that your audience will forget whatever mistakes you make, but will remember your best moments. To give another example, we sometimes multiply our nerves by overthinking them (“Why am I so nervous? I’m nervous about being nervous!”). Instead, we might reframe the thought by reminding ourselves that we need nerves to focus our attention.

Second, you might develop a pneumonic strategy. While we do not recommend rote memorization, a certain kind of selective memorization can calm your nerves by giving you a sense of control over your performance. Try memorizing the very first and the very last words of your talk. Starting of strong can build confidence for your entire presentation, and knowing exactly how you will end can provide a calming sense of direction as you move along. In between, try to hold in your memory key pivot points, or pegs, in your presentation. Perhaps these are moments when you transition from one section to the next, or when you emphasize a main point. Memorizing these strategic pegs will help you remain calm and focused throughout your talk.

Cognitive reframing and strategic memorization take practice. Fortunately, there are more readily available techniques you might employ right away. Mindfulness experts tell us that a number of simple physical techniques can help manage our nerves. Try inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly through your nose while counting in your head “1,2,3” as you inhale and “1,2,3” as you exhale. Another helpful technique to use just before your talk is to tighten up part of your body that no one else can see (perhaps a foot or a hand under the table) and then slowly release the tension.

If the room or venue where you’ll be speaking is available before your talk, you might try a visual technique. Stand or sit in the exact spot where you will deliver. Look at the empty chairs and spaces in the room and imagine your audience. Keep this image in your mind later as you prepare. Visualization will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by your audience when it comes time to speak.

Finally, consider an emotional strategy. Sometimes the best strategy for managing your fear of public speaking will be to counteract fearful emotions with positive ones. In the moments leading up to your talk, remind yourself of your genuine excitement about the opportunity to speak. What are the nuggets of knowledge that you are thrilled to leave with your audience? How are you determined to make your listeners a little bit different—even better—for having heard your talk?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Spring Teaching Forum 2014

Registration for the annual Yale Teaching Center forum is now open!

Registration: Please register here.
Location: Sterling Memorial Library (SML) Lecture Hall (Wall Street entrance)
For more details and information, please see our website.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Monday, February 24, 2014