Diane Rubino
Diane Rubino
Adjunct Instructor, New York University

“They bring me information from [gulp] Wikipedia,” the panelist said, disbelief audible in her voice. This memorable comment came from an employers’ panel during which would-be hiring managers expressed concerns about recent graduates.


I tell this story in nearly every class. I want to convey the importance of information veracity for coursework and future bosses. Everyone nods. Digital natives know the Internet is a mixed bag of truth and lies. Yet many of those same students submit homework based on sketchy resources.



When I started teaching, I was surprised at the odd collection of commercial sites, unverifiable blogs, and, yes, Wikipedia that passed for an academic citation. There are cases when any of these sources could be appropriate, with careful consideration. However, the careful consideration part was underwhelming.


I learned that students were unlikely to vet their sources carefully. The Information Superhighway reinforced their natural confirmation bias. If they could easily verify their beliefs and the site looked okay at first glance, their ideas must be accurate—or so they thought.


I realized the students were not necessarily being careless. Instead, they had lackluster information literacy skills.


Information literacy, or the ability to know when research is needed, then finding, evaluating, and using that knowledge correctly, is a complex concept. I’m unable to tackle a lengthy treatise on the subject either in school or this short essay. But I can share my classroom experiences as well as resources that helped my students.


Rather than leaving their research process to chance, I built some speed bumps on the Information Superhighway to encourage reflection.


1. Don’t Assume—Clarify

Don’t assume students will work from reliable resources or are fully information literate. If you want a certain type/quality of information, say so. I add language like this to rubrics and syllabi: Resources cited must be suitable for a professional/academic environment. No Wikis, –Pedias, Huffington Post, or blogs you’ve stumbled across. Be prepared to explain why the source you selected is reliable. This text alone, however, was insufficient to achieve my goals.


By the time you, dear reader, got to university, you’d been schooled in research basics. You were taught how to use the library, the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, the Library of Congress classification system, and so much more. But a librarian from an elite institution told me that some students don’t even know how to use a call number to locate a resource. Perhaps because they were unschooled on the basics, my students seemed to avoid the library, eliminating an essential evaluation tool.


2. Reinforce. Repeat. Remind.

Because Google is so tantalizingly easy, the idea of looking beyond the search engine results needs to be reinforced repeatedly.


I’ve tried a few approaches to augment my call for reliable, well-documented sources, one of which was a short video on the topic. I worried it might be too simplistic, but the experience turned out to be an “a ha moment” for some. This fine example from Seminole State College also mentions research attribution, another common point of confusion. I used to get lists of URLs instead of correctly written citations. This made my vetting process more difficult. Now I instruct classes to use an online citation generator like CitationMachine.


Early in the semester, I hold a librarian-led session in the library. I learn something new every time. But my students reported feeling overwhelmed by the amount of specialized search strategies. So I began asking for a narrow focus on just one or two relevant tools, like LexisNexis® and one specialized EBSCO® database.


I recently invited my school’s Information Literacy Librarian to teach a session. This was a revelation for me. He focused on fundamentals by providing evaluation problems like this multiple choice question: “If you want to locate good journal articles on a specific topic, which of these is the best way to start?” I realized the semester’s session needed to be re-calibrated again with more attention on information literacy and less on specialized tools.


3. Peerless Google

Last semester I explained that the first thing I would do to evaluate mid-project progress was to review bibliography. Yet even with a warning, guidelines, and extra coaching, I found myself having countless conversations like this:


Me:                 Why did you use this as a resource?

Student:        It had information about my topic.

Me:                 Arggghhh.


The message I communicated was steamrollered by Google’s ease. It was only during these one-on-one sessions that I was able to coax students into developing a better bibliography.


I also learned that part of my work was to leverage, rather than replace, the existing environment. If Wikipedia is the first place students look, they needed to be reminded to, at minimum, consider the whole article and to review the references to identify more substantial resources. A colleague also has some success with in-class, group evaluations. Students share their reference lists and they collectively discuss and evaluate the appropriateness of each title. **


Fortunately, I work with colleagues who traffic in information veracity, so the work I do is in step with program values. Yet I’ve met instructors who believe my extra safeguards are ridiculous—and tell me so. Other professors have different ideas about what’s appropriate for their class. And of course students have their own insights about veracity. These differing perspectives contribute to the confusion about what resource is acceptable.


But after teaching for a while, I understand more about what my students need and have collated the strategies above to ferret out the most egregious information-literacy errors. If students walk out of my class with a small dose of additional knowledge about, and tools for, vetting sources, I count that as a win.


*I’m grateful to American University of Bulgaria’s supportive Information Literacy Librarian Krasimir Spasov who developed an information literacy section for my students.

** This exercise is the idea of my former colleague, American University of Bulgaria Professor in Writing and Literature Sean Homer.


Photo credit: Diane Rubino

Summer Life Hacks for Educators

Posted Aug 15, 2018
    Douglas Petrick
Douglas Petrick
Physics Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA

Say it out loud, S-U-M-M-E-R, summer. Now close your eyes, and what do you see? What do you hear? I see a sandy beach. I listen to waves gently crashing on the shore. I’ll tell you what I don’t see—a classroom. I don’t hear bells ringing. And I don’t feel the restraints of a rigid schedule. Yes, summer is a very different time of the year for educators.



During the summer months, I use four techniques to keep me “chill.” These summer hacks guide my decision-making, maximize my vacation, and ease my return to reality in August. Each principle I list below can be employed for educator survival from August through June. All four items will lower your stress level and keep your students engaged.


      1.  I Carve Out Time to Recharge

What should an educator do right after the school year ends? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s right; I try to avoid anything related to teaching or school to take time out from the routine to recharge your batteries, as the end of the year can be unusually intense. Even just a few days can be rejuvenating. Case in point, if you teach year-round, schedule one or two days off and make a long weekend. This can be especially helpful for educators working into the summer session, needing a chance to reboot.


Similarly, during the middle of the semester, educators are frazzled. There are endless tests to grade, stacks of projects to evaluate, homework feedback to provide, office hours to keep, lab groups to debrief, while you’re expected at the same to craft engaging classroom activities. You get how overwhelming it all is because you live it.


When just thinking about the educator to-do list becomes too daunting for me, I schedule a night or two off and do nothing. You might want to watch a movie, listen to music, go out with friends. My suggestion is to do anything other than tending to your educator-related duties. You will feel fresher when you return to your responsibilities. Plus your students, your co-workers, and your loved ones will notice a little pep in your step after you take a  breather.


      2. I Plan for Transitions.

We all struggle with the back to school blues. The transitional period—the first week of fall classes—can deplete the life right out of educators and students. I approach this timeframe methodically when shifting gears from summer to school.


I’ve found I can stay calm throughout the year by having a plan whenever the routine changes for my students. I’ve come to expect chaos to ensue in the classroom pre- and post-exam, pre- and post-holiday, as well as before and after long breaks. So, during the summer, I consider ways to minimize disruptive transitions.


I consider implementing more student-centered instruction. Group work is excellent, as students typically prefer working with their classmates during these times. I include activities to get students physically moving inside or outside of the classroom. If you teach in a large space such as a lecture hall, force your students to go from digital to analog. Do a mid-lecture “check for understanding” using note cards, having students write with the traditional paper and pencil. I encourage you to think outside the box while working within your constraints. For instance, I direct students to switch seats with the person next to them because movement—big or small—helps break up the routine and burns off excess student energy.


      3. I Consider Energy Expenditure

Most students are mentally drained the day after an exam. It’s challenging for an educator to determine the plan for that dreaded day after. Starting new material is ideal, but would this be a good time to deliver a lecture rich in content and brimming with new concepts? Probably not.


Don’t underestimate the energy expenditure by your students after intense academic efforts like exams. Spend a little time during the summer months to plan post-high focus activities. Consider items that are low-stakes, but multi-tiered in structure, such as providing opportunities for web-based independent learning, or beginning the planning phases of a project are two examples of ways to deliver new content without overloading students. In return, you get the opportunity to focus on interacting with students during these activities, instead of lecturing to the masses


4. I Utilize Others

Throughout the year, we all want to deliver interactive lessons, create stimulating discussions, and facilitate activities that keep our students engaged. There’s a lot out there to help you do the things listed above, but how can you sift through all the options? Utilizing time during the summer months to sort through the possibilities enables me to select the best ideas and plan ahead.


I reach out to other educators, knowing there are innovative ideas just waiting to be incorporated into my class. I’ve asked other educators how they assign projects. When feeling uneasy about setting up a classroom discussion, I’ll meet with a co-worker known for being incredibly collaborative. Often, I’ll reach out to a colleague who teaches in a different subject area and put my own spin on what I learn to create a new best practice.


As we shift back to the school year, reflect on these four ways to spend your summer vacation to make things easier for you in the classroom. Happy educators can make for happy students, as well as create healthy environments in which students can thrive.


How was your summer vacation? What tips do you have for channeling that relaxed summer vibe during the school year? Post a comment in the space below, and I will be sure to connect with you.


Doug Petrick holds an Architectural Engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from California University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a high school Physics educator at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. Doug regularly contributes to a series for educators on The Wiley Network offering practical advice and instructional strategies.


Image credit: pexels.com/Skitterphoto


Image credit: pexels.com/Skitterphoto

    Diane Rubino
Diane Rubino
Adjunct Instructor, New York University

active.jpg“Never Give Up and You Will Shine” read the t-shirt of the small boy ahead of me. I trailed the boy and his nanny, as he zigzagged over the sidewalk on his training wheels, pairing the slogan to the idea of children who get a trophy for showing up to the race, whether or not they win.


By the time little cyclists like this reach my class the “Showing Up Trophy” has been promulgated countless times. Recognizing participation is undoubtedly well-intentioned. Truthfully, fear held me back from valuable childhood experiences. So, maybe I could’ve used some trophies in my early years. Nonetheless, the reality is that this idea makes for confusion and esteem busting in classrooms down the pike.


When Working Hard Isn’t Working


The Trophy is foreign to me. So, I’ve struggled to manage related, cross-generational conversations. For example, on occasion, a perplexed or annoyed student will comment on a grade that’s lower than desired by noting, “I’ve worked hard on this assignment.” Or “I’ve spent more time on this task than any other.” A colleague recently got an email bearing a familiar refrain from someone in her class: “I’m trying as hard as I can.”


The subtext of these comments appears to be that the assessment system is malfunctioning. The evaluation fails to recognize that the student not only showed up but also made an effort. Others seem deflated in the face of the newly realized reality. If effort alone won’t make successful, what will?


I stumbled the first time the I’m-trying-hard-and-therefore-should get a better grade idea came my way. It seems patently obvious TO ME that everyone struggles toward goals that don’t materialize. I said as much when I heard it again. I pointed out that persistence is only one ingredient in success. But the argument failed to persuade. 


I needed to underscore that working hard does not always equate with success.  I also wanted a more convincing response to affirm the validity of my rubric while acknowledging my student’s effort.


Because a defeated student is tough to motivate I also needed to communicate that those who fail are not failures. Ironically, that’s the time where never giving up would come in handy. But it’s also the exact moment when the aphorisms fade.


So, I reached out to other instructors for advice. Their collective response addressed my concerns aggregated in these guidelines.


1.     Remember the negative consequences of giving an A for effort

A seasoned teacher used to consider effort when calculating the grades of those who started with poor skills. Until he realized this was “unfair—prejudicial, in fact” to others. “…I abandoned elevating grades on the basis of effort. I think students should be graded on what they produce, not on the effort they expend on producing it. I tell that to my students at the beginning of a course,” he said.


2.     Provide well-defined expectations at the outset


NYU instructor John Deats offered: “Unless I made an egregious error (and I've made several over the years), my answer [to grade challenges] is:  All grading is evaluated against performance and expectations...Then I review the paper and point out its shortcomings.”

“I tell them that a “B” (the usual threshold for a complaint) is reflective of the paper--a good grade (and point the student to the school’s grade scale, which clearly defines what each grade means), and actually what they learned is more important than any letter grade.”

“I also refer students to the syllabus, which is clear in saying that the quality of the outcome is what matters, not just that one worked hard to complete the project.”

“You can't be the 'good cop,'” he concludes, “only a consistent one.”


3.     Be honest about the effort required to complete the task--—even for professionals


My colleagues and I are professional communicators. So, NYU School of Professional Studies teacher, Don Bates mines his professional experience. “For me, no matter how hard you work, it’s the final product that counts. I can write things in an hour or two, but usually, I spend far more time. And I’m a professional. Ditto for most writers I know. Good writing of any sort takes a lot of concentrated time.”

“Rather than working hard, students should work smart, i.e., instead of winging their assignments, as most students do, they should study samples, review rules, outline, etc., before they plunge into the actual writing. They should try a draft or two, maybe share with other students and a couple of adults to see what they think of the draft as readers, asking: Does it make sense? Is it as clear as can be? As succinct? Helpful? Insightful? Actionable?”

Don found a creative way to demonstrate how writers struggle with words, using poetry to make his point, like Yeats’ Adam’s Curse and A.J. Liebling’s pithy ”I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.”

4.     Encourage self-reflection


NYU instructor Craig Mills refined my general notion that each of us struggles toward goals that don’t materialize. He suggested a way to help students connect with the reality of their own life experience by asking. “Did you get into every college or secure every job or internship you applied to, even after painstaking effort?”

5.     Find humane ways to keep students motivated


Only students who feel hopeful about their capacity to improve are likely to endure the struggle of hard work and expend even more effort. Another peer began to give students extra credit projects. “It gives them a way to feel more accomplished.”

Of course, there’s no right answer, though talking with peers yielded smart ideas. Nor is it mine alone to change the course of a river flowing for decades. Instead, my task is to respond thoughtfully. Upon reflection, I reconsidered the Showing Up Trophy’s value. I began to see merit, rather than reflexively dismissing the concept. At least now I can be confident that my imperfect response is carefully considered. In future, similar conversations I’ll undoubtedly stumble and yet continue to move forward, modeling the acceptance I’m preaching.  


How do you respond when students object to their grades? Let us know in comments below.


Photo credit: pexels/suelynn parker


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