On today’s podcast, I talk with the authors of a new book that can help college teachers better understand their students as whole people, while also providing lots of advice for instructors who want to better support their students’ learning. Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon are authors, along with Steven Hunsaker, of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, the latest in West Virginia University Press’s Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series edited by James Lang and Michelle Miller. Rob Eaton is a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University-Idaho, and Bonnie Moon is a professor of mathematics, also at BYU-Idaho.
Rates of anxiety and depression among college students are higher than they’ve ever been, and Rob and Bonnie share lots of strategies in our conversation for instructors who don’t want to make learning harder than it needs to be for their students. As Rob says near the end of the conversation, “Not every difficulty is desirable.” Rob and Bonnie have talked to a lot of students about their learning experiences in college, and the two of them have very practical advice for designing courses and assignments with compassion and respect for students.
· Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom by Robert Eaton, Steven Hunsaker, and Bonnie Moon, https://wvupressonline.com/node/920
· The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School, by Tim Clydesdale, https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/F/bo5298911.html
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See my website for my "Agile Learning" blog and information about having me speak at your campus or conference.
Derek Bruff 0:06
Welcome to Intentional Teaching, a podcast aimed at educators to help them develop foundational teaching skills and explore new ideas and teaching. I'm your host, Derek Bruff. I hope this podcast helps you be more intentional and how you teach and in how you develop as a teacher over time. Years ago, I read a book by Tim Clydesdale called The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School. Clydesdale tracked 50 young people in their first year after graduating high school, most of whom went to college that year. One of my takeaways from the study was that my first year college students, especially my first semester students, are spending way more mental energy on daily life management than they are on what they're learning in their classes. Doing laundry, managing finances, navigating relationships and new freedoms. All those things are really challenging the first year out, and I'm not going to be aware of that if I just see my students through the tiny window of the 150 minutes a week they spend in my class. On today's podcast, I talk with the authors of a new book that, like the first year out, can help college teachers better understand their students as whole people, while also providing lots of advice for instructors who want to better support their students' learning. Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon are authors along with Stephen Hunsaker of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. The latest in West Virginia University Press' Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series edited by James Lang and Michelle Miller. Rob Eaton is a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University, Idaho, and Bonnie Moon is a professor of mathematics, also at BYU, Idaho. Rates of anxiety and depression among college students are higher than they've ever been. And Rob and Bonnie share lots of strategies in our conversation for instructors who don't want to make learning harder than it needs to be for their students. As Rob says near the end of the conversation, not every difficulty is desirable. Rob and Bonnie have talked to a lot of students about their learning experiences in college, and the two of them have very practical advice for designing courses and assignments with compassion and respect for students.
Well, thank you, Rob and Bonnie, for being on intentional teaching. I'm excited to talk to you today and talk to you about your your new book and this mental health challenge that higher education is facing right now. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Rob Eaton 2:27
Thanks so much for having us, Derek.
Bonnie Moon 2:29
Yeah, thank you.
Derek Bruff 2:31
I'll start with my standard opening question, which I find helps me get to know my guests a little bit. Can you tell us about a time when you realized you wanted to be an educator?
Rob Eaton 2:45
You want to start, Bonnie?
Bonnie Moon 2:45
Why don't you start, Ro? I'm excited to hear your story.
Rob Eaton 2:48
This is an I don't know if it's too personal or not. I'm one of the few attorneys and ex executives who quite enjoyed the practice of law and my brief tenure as an executive. But I, I, I felt the yearning to do something more consequential and periodically I would ask a couple of questions, even literally close the office door and lock it because it was a scary exercise and use a whiteboard and think, if I could do anything in the world for a living, what would I do? And in my particular case, my religious beliefs are a big part of my life. I would ask, what would God have me do? And I was really blessed to have the answer to both of those questions be the same. So we saved up our money. I'm pretty sure I was the only vice president of my company driving a two door Ford Escort as we saved up money. And then at the right time, I made the switch to a full time teaching career and have never looked back. It's been so rewarding.
Derek Bruff 3:43
Wow. So you were not an educator who went into law and then back. You kind of started a legal career, moved into an executive position, and then switched over to education.
Rob Eaton 3:54
That's right. I did teach a year as a visiting instructor, I guess, at BYU after I graduated undergraduate, but before going to law school. But really, I was a lawyer and an executive for ten years who then made the jump.
Derek Bruff 4:07
Wow. What about you, Bonnie?
Bonnie Moon 4:09
Yeah. So my story is different. I always wanted to do something to inspire, and I didn't know what that was going to be. I believe that when people feel good about what they're doing and can understand and make sense of it, that they have a better life. And I wanted to be part of that. And I saw teaching as a way to do that. And so when I went to school, I started out in English because I didn't have the confidence in myself to do the mathematics that I really wanted to do. And just my experience, I think being in a small school, there wasn't a lot of focus on the higher up mathematics, and especially for girls in my school. And so I didn't really have a mentor until my senior year. And by then I was like, Oh yeah, I think I can do this. And I wanted to use mathematics to inspire, because if you can do math, can't you do anything? You should know this mathematician, you know? Yeah. So I thought if I could help people understand and learn mathematics that they could believe they could do anything. And so after doing English for four years, I finally decided, I'm just going to go back and do math. And I don't care if I fail, I'm just going to do it because no one really told me that I could. Except me and one other person. And so I finally listened to those two voices and I said, I'm just going to stay. And so I ended up getting a minor in mathematics and then went back and got a master's and a doctorate.
Derek Bruff 5:39
And so you had gotten a major in English.
Bonnie Moon 5:42
Derek Bruff 5:43
And picked up the minor and then. Then continued math.
Rob Eaton 5:46
Yeah. And now she's going back. And tell them what you're working on now for fun.
Bonnie Moon 5:51
For fun? Yeah. So after a few years of teaching mathematics, I realized that the more relevance I can bring to the classroom, the more excited my students get. And so I'm going back now to pursue education and a master's in nuclear engineering so I can see the mathematical modeling and share that with my engineers in my math classes. And I don't know, it's just been such a wonderful journey. And so, yeah, so I teach because I love to inspire and I love to help students see who they can be and who they can become.
Derek Bruff 6:20
That's great. That's great. And clearly, a lifelong learner yourself.
Rob Eaton 6:25
Bonnie Moon 6:27
Yeah, my husband does laugh about that. But that's okay, because I do love school.
Rob Eaton 6:31
She inspires me.
Derek Bruff 6:33
That's great. That's great. Well, let's talk about your book that is now out. And I guess my first question is, why is higher education talking more about our students' mental health now in 2023 than, say, five years ago? Is this is this all a function of COVID or are there some other elements to the current conversations around student mental health in higher ed?
Rob Eaton 7:04
That's a great question. We were literally writing the book during the pandemic and wondered how much do we incorporate stuff about the pandemic. We we made a conscious decision and intentional decision, not not to really say a lot about the pandemic and its effects on mental health, because we we figured we hoped it would eventually pass and we didn't want people to think that this was a temporary problem, because even if the pandemic had never come along, we're reaching record proportions of this challenge. And and they continue to persist. The pandemic made it worse. And we're seeing seeing lingering effects from it. But in my own teaching, I think anybody who's been in the classroom for a long time and you compare what you're seeing now or even pre-pandemic to ten or 20 years earlier, and we're just seeing a lot more impacts of mental health challenges on students ability to learn and succeed in our courses and in college.
Bonnie Moon 8:01
And I'll just add to that. So the numbers since we've written our book are higher. From what I've seen, I mean, the CDC came out with a study recently on concern and with teenage girls and depression and. And so even now, when I look back at our book and some of the numbers I'm looking at here, 8% of college students were diagnosed with depression in 2009. By 2019, that figure went to 18%. And now, I mean, that's even an old number. And especially COVID, of course, exasperated all of that. But it was a problem before, and I see it in my classrooms even more so today.
Rob Eaton 8:38
That CDC figure Bonnie was mentioning from 2011 to 2021 for teenage girls, it went from 36% who persistently felt sad or hopeless and went from 36% to 57%. So even if some of that in 2021 was pandemic, still we're just seeing significant and troubling increases across the board.
Derek Bruff 9:00
And one of the things I love about your book is that you you combine your teaching experience in your own classrooms, right? But also that of your colleagues. You have a lot of student stories which I want to come back to in a minute. But you do a great job also of of kind of summarizing the literature. There is a lot of research on mental health in teenagers and in college students. And I love that that you're in conversation with that literature.
Do you have some theories as to why these numbers are are so much higher than they used to be?
Bonnie Moon 9:36
Well, I'll tell you, my sister's. I mean, there's, of course, a lot of literature on this, too. But, you know, I was talking to my sister. She lives in Chicago the other day, and I just said, you know, I'm working on this book. I just don't understand some of the things about it. And I mean, we've, you know, covered this and this. And she said to me, Bonnie, you can just fix the problem by taking away social media, get those teenage girls off social media. And I said, okay. I mean, that is one area that we we could do more a lot more exploration on. I don't know if that's really the base of all this. I think there's a lot of other things going on in the world, too, right now. And family dynamics have changed over the years and and the schools are changing and there is so much more to distract us from learning. There's so that's part of it. But I don't have the hard numbers on that. But that's just since you asked for my opinion.
Rob Eaton 10:30
You know, we were in our wellness chapter. We were going to include a section on encouraging students to kind of be wise in managing their use of smart technology, smartphones and social media. And then a meta analysis came out that kind of cast some doubt on that theory. And then subsequently, I've seen other stuff that casts doubt on the meta analysis.
Derek Bruff 10:50
Rob Eaton 10:50
Intuitively it's it's sure hard to escape the notion that that this dramatic change in the way we interact with each other has had some impact on it. That's not been altogether helpful. But in the end we kind of took an agnostic position to say, look, we don't know the sources.
In fact, one one danger I think was kind of for us as amateurs, kind of engaging in armchair psychology. Speculation about the root cause is that I've seen some people use this as an excuse to not really deal with it at all. If they would just move pipe more like they did. I don't know. That probably doesn't make sense in the rest of the country, but I know farmers. You grew up moving pipe and now that's technologically been replaced. You know you just move pipe more they wouldn't have these problems and.
Derek Bruff 11:37
Rob Eaton 11:38
I don't know. I'm glad other people are attacking the roots but for us we've got the symptoms and they're very real. They're not feigned. They're not this is not just people being weak. It's not just a change in diagnosis. As we've dealt with this with students and in other contexts, we've seen very real, very significant, very unwelcome impacts of mental health challenges on these young adults we deal with.
Derek Bruff 12:01
Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I echo your concern. I think sometimes the quest for a cause can be a distraction from the things we can actually do in our classrooms now to help students. Right. Sometimes it's an excuse to say this is someone else's problem and it doesn't have to be someone else's problem. I think from your book makes your book makes clear it can be a problem that we we play a role in helping with. And before, though, that I get we get to kind of advice for faculty. I do want to note that I think there's the stories from students in your book are really compelling, and I'd love to hear a little bit about how those came to be. What, what, why,
how did you get to have so many rich student stories a part of this work?
Rob Eaton 12:48
So we did we did simple focus groups. And to be honest, we're not way steeped in focus group methodology. You probably didn't even follow all the right rules, didn't have huge focus groups. My father was a journalism professor for 33 years at a community college and did journalism in the summers. And so journalism ran in our family's blood. And so I've I've learned to interview people through the years. And and what my father used to say was, if you know the right questions to ask, everybody's a walking feature story. And I've loved that insight.
So I was delighted with how open these students were and our wonderful research assistant, Alexis McKee, also asked some of the questions, which I think made them willing to answer. But wow they would say things not knowing anything about the theories, not knowing anything about psychological phrases like fear of negative peer evaluation, but they would express that very sentiment in colorful ways and I think gave texture to the book. I it made me wish I had done a lot more focus groups throughout my career, not for books or anything, but just to learn what are students thinking about my assignments, different techniques, different course design decisions that I make. It really shed a lot of light on things for me.
Derek Bruff 14:08
Are there one or two student stories that you might share with our listeners just to give them a little a taste of of of the kinds of narratives that you've heard?
Rob Eaton 14:17
You know, one that stands out, I'd actually done as part of an earlier project, and I can't even remember if we got this one in the book or not, but we had a student in a wheelchair and we were talking about things that professors do that help students feel connected with them. And
he, in essence, said, when they know my name, I feel like they see me. And it just
was a powerful moment
to hear what a difference it made. And actually that sentiment came up with multiple students that when teachers knew them and knew their names, it made all the difference. In fact, in a I was doing a focus group for the next project that we were on, and I've got a chapter on democratizing participation. And so I kind of write the chapter, a draft of it. And then I was probing, looking for stuff that would support it. And I would say in your classes where you're more likely to volunteer a comment, what are the professors doing? And they kept saying things like, They're nice, they like me, they're good to me. Yeah, but what are they doing? And I kept trying to get them back. But. But it turns out the students were in tune with some research I had yet discovered where they tested 15 different hypotheses. And by far the longest lever was the relationship between the student and the professor. When they felt safe, when they felt like the professor cared, they were more likely to participate. So those were a couple of the insights that stood out from the focus groups that we did.
Bonnie Moon 15:51
Yeah. Can I share one?
Derek Bruff 15:52
Yeah. Yeah, please do.
Bonnie Moon 15:54
So. So yeah, I really enjoyed the focus groups because I thought those were insightful and taught me some things. And one that stands out to me right now is a student that shared with us his
hope when teachers expressed to them either in a syllabus or just with words on the first day of class that if they are struggling with depression or or struggling to come talk to them or to let them know what's going on, you know, not in a personal necessarily way, but just to kind of say, hey, I'm here, here's the resources, I can help. Even just putting the resources on campus for students who might be struggling with mental issues and wellness could help students know that their teacher cares. And so I did that. So after studying with Steve and Rob, you know, for an an a group of us, there was like 12 of us and a focus group for I guess what would you call it, a.
Rob Eaton 16:47
Faculty learning community.
Bonnie Moon 16:49
Yeah so in our faculty, yeah. So, so we focused for quite a while on some of these studies that we mentioned in the book. And so it wasn't just the three of us. We had a team of us working together, but I remember trying to make some changes and one change I did make that came out of that experience was I did start to write in my syllabus some of the campus resources that we have, and so I did that this last semester. And this time, could I share just one quote I got from a student? Yeah, no. So I learned from the student in the focus group. But then at the end of this semester, just pieces of this quote, he said, Thank you for sharing and being personal with us. So I shared a little bit with my class about some of the struggles I had had with depression before COVID. I had an acute case that I was not ready for right before COVID happened, and I didn't know that it was depression because I didn't really understand that. And so after understanding that a little bit, I'm a little bit more open with my students now. And so I did share the first day of class a little bit about my struggles. And he said that that was very helpful when you shared that and about how hard it was for you. And he just basically said, Thank you and he just appreciated the acknowledgement. So even just acknowledging, I mean, simple as kind of like Rob was saying, we're not the researchers, we're not the experts on depression and anxiety. We're just teachers who want to make a difference. For teachers who understand that students come to class with a bunch of baggage and things that we don't understand. But that's okay because there's things we can do in our pedagogy. There are things we can do as a person to reach out to them that empower us, to help them learn and become those people that we know they can become and and to feel good about their lives.
Rob Eaton 18:29
And in fact, if I may just add one thought to this. This is not an individual comment I remember from the focus groups, but probably my number one takeaway was, wow, these students are reading us and they've had a few negative experiences with faculty members and they if they get some of those negative vibes, they think I'm just shafted in this class. If I, if I freeze up for a couple of weeks in the middle of the semester, I'm just going to flunk. There's nothing I can do. So anything like the comments that Bonnie has made, any signal that we send subtly or explicitly that we take mental health challenges seriously, gives them tremendous relief. I had a student at the end of a semester who thanked me for that, that provision in my syllabus. He got an A and had no idea that he ever had any challenges. He said, I never needed to use the flexibility you talked about, but it gave me tremendous peace of mind to know that if problems arose, there would be some flexibility there. So that was a key takeaway for me from the focus groups, was they're reading us and if we send the you just need to move more pipe vibe, it compounds the problem.
Derek Bruff 19:38
Bonnie Moon 19:40
Derek Did we mention like where we got these students for the focus groups?
Derek Bruff 19:45
You did not. I'm curious about that.
Bonnie Moon 19:47
So I mean, we had various opportunities to bring in students, but one place that we really did focus was we reached out to a program that we have on campus called Thrive. It's a six week anxiety and depression program. Just a quick first sentence here. Thrive will run for six weeks, focus in on fun, positive interventions to help with depression and anxiety. So that's how it's advertised. Anybody can sign up for it. But we reached out to the teacher of this course, Melissa Russell.
Rob Eaton 20:13
She's a wonderful proponent of pot positive psychology. A recreation management professor I think.
Bonnie Moon 20:19
Yeah. And so she helped bring this program to campus. And so we asked for permissions to focus to create focus groups from her students that have either self identified or have reached out for this program. So these might have been students that were recognizing that they had some struggles that semester or previously and wanted to do something about it.
Rob Eaton 20:41
That was especially for the focus group on wellness. Yes.
Bonnie Moon 20:45
Yeah, that's where we that's true because we did a few focus groups, so they're not all from us. Right. But it was helpful to maybe helpful to know that.
Derek Bruff 20:53
So let's talk more about what teachers can do, right? So I teach math, right? Like, I'm not trained as a counselor. I have, but but I want to do right by my students, right? So maybe in the spirit of of Jim Lang's small teaching, what are some steps that teachers can do to make their classes just a little bit more manageable for students who may be struggling?
Rob Eaton 21:19
So let me throw out one that relates to what you just said. We did a survey and Bonnie led out on creating and administering the survey for us.
And on a scale of 1 to 7, we asked how likely they how willing they were to meet with a professor if they thought the professor cared about them as a person, it was a 5.26 and if they thought the professor seemed really busy, it was 2.8. Three was one of the biggest swings that we saw in the survey. And so that's made me try to be more intentional about what vibe I'm sending. And my problem is I've been busy since third grade, so it's really hard not to send the vibe that I'm busy. So I have in giving presentations on this, I realized that very day as I'm getting student email that says, Hey, I've got to attend a funeral on Friday, I'm going to miss class. Can I make it up? that my natural response is yes, here's the portion from the syllabus and how you make it up. Boom, let's do business. Next thing I've tried to just slow down, take another 7 seconds and say funeral. So tell me more about that. I'm so sorry. Who? Who passed away? It was my grandmother. I'm so sorry to hear that. Were you close. What? What did you learn from your grandmother? I can in ten or 15 seconds, sprinkle in a few questions that radically changed the nature of that email exchange from transactional to human. And that goes a long way to shrinking the psychological gap that is much bigger than I realized between professors and their students. And the more that they feel like we're somebody they could talk to if they needed to, even if they never do it. We've got some interesting studies we cite in the book that show the less likely they are to commit attempt suicide, even the better able they are to fend off depression. That having natural mentors serve as natural insulators and guard against more having depressive things to morph into depression itself. So that's one simple thing that we can do. I think it's kind of mind our vibe. Do what I can to shrink the psychological gap between my students so that if they need to talk to somebody, they can, even though I'm not going to give them mental health advice beyond saying, let me connect you with some amazing resources on campus. Do you know about
about this Thrive program or if their case is more acute sometimes, even on occasion, literally walking them over to the counseling center when I've discovered they're suicidal.
Derek Bruff 23:51
Rob Eaton 23:52
Your turn, Bonnie.
Bonnie Moon 23:53
Okay. I appreciate this. The mentoring chapter Becoming Natural Mentors. That's one that I've also tried to focus on this last semester because, like Rob, since I was born as well, like, I don't call it busy, I call it productive. I've been productive my whole life. Yeah. So it's it's difficult for me to slow down, but I think students need to see that and feel that. So one thing that I actually changed in my classes and I've been working with the chair of my department on this because I needed to actually make a change. So I have something that I count on structurally that helps me become an actual mentor because I needed that. Because in addition to the vibe, what I ended up doing and, and it's different for different classes, but I have a five day a week course, and so I changed one of the days to a lab day. And on the lab day I hire a T.A. and the department helps me with this. Of course, I train this T.A. and on Lab Day, they're working on their case studies. They're working on their group projects, they're working on their group things. And then I start pulling the students out one at a time into my office. If my office is close enough or into the hall, if I just have the hall because they don't come like I invite them to my office and I get a few that will come. But like when they're coming to class and it's part of they signed up for that. I know that hours free and I have a T.A. I can count on. I mean, it has made a world of difference, and I just try and do that. Of course, at the beginning of the semester, I try and do it at midterm, and then I try to do it at the end. And like Rob said, when they come in, I try to make sure they know this is their time. The Tas is taking care of the class, actually take care of each other. I mean, if you can build a community where they take care of each other, that's also helpful. But just having that one on one time with them to ask them how is the math going? And even if we can do a math problem before they leave and they can get some confidence in themselves and in me, that I can actually help them, they'll come back. And so but we also talk, you know, how their progress is going. And we talk about, you know, there are other things that you're likely to know. And it's just my favorite five, 6 minutes with each of my students every well, it's going to be every semester. Now, I've been trying it kind of as a pilot and, you know, seeing what the results are and seeing if it's worth the department's money to help me hire a TA.
Rob Eaton 26:10
By the way, one little twist on that that I've been incorporating in those classes where I now require students to meet with me is I say, would you mind showing me a photo or two from your phone that will help me better understand you? And that has been revelatory. and frankly helps me sometimes it's a little awkward and maybe my small talk skills are failing me. This one never fails me. And it's really interesting what students are revealing are willing to share, and it's a great way to kind of fast track that connection.
Derek Bruff 26:42
Yeah, I also, when I heard from both of you, is that these are essentially required one on one meetings with students because I think sometimes faculty who are well meaning will say, I have office hours, these are for... They'll even explain what office hours are for, right? Never mind the students who don't even know what that means. But but like, I've got office hours I'm inviting. I want students to be there. I want them to know it's about them. And yet
making that decision as a student to walk into that faculty office and say, This course is kind of hard, or I need a little bit of help. Right? That's just a big hurdle. And I think some of the students who most need that one on one connection with you are also least likely to opt in to that. So building it into the core structure so that at least the first couple of times it's not opt in, it's just expected everyone's going to have this kind of meeting I think is really powerful.
Rob Eaton 27:33
So a subtle theme I think laced throughout our book is just scaffolding. And I've become a big fan of scaffolding on the first day when I have them choose teams and I have them make sure they have at least one person who's new at college, one person who's done the syllabus quiz already. I give them a chance to get to know each other, but at the end I say, Would you exchange phone numbers so that if you have any questions about what's due this week or anything else, that simple little bit of scaffolding makes it now socially acceptable for them to exchange phone numbers. And many of them are desperate to have a connection with some other students. So I think there are a lot of ways like requiring them to come and meet with us. That scaffolding that makes it easy to meet with us rather than overcoming what seems an insurmountable psychological barrier for many of them.
Derek Bruff 28:22
What about what are some choices faculty might make in assignment design that might make things just a little bit easier for our students?
Rob Eaton 28:36
You've been doing some of this lately. You want to start or have to go first.
Bonnie Moon 28:39
I like it when you go first. Okay. I can get my thoughts together.
Rob Eaton 28:43
two changes that I've made more recently are one. And this seems maybe remote from mental health, but it's not. We've got some good studies connecting it, but the more we can intrinsically motivate them, the less likely that the better they fend off. Anxiety and depression, and the more choice that we give them, the more they tend to be intrinsically motivated. So I've given my students more choice lately. I teach religion and so I've gone from kind of an assigned block of stuff. Everybody has to read this to read, you know, highlight three of these scriptural verses from this list of 20, highlight something from one of these talks highlight want something from one of these other resources, put it all together in this electronic notebook and they can choose whether to read, listen to something, watch their different types of things. And I've gotten tremendous feedback on that. It's also then more made it more relevant. I in this particular case, they're using an app, so they're saving things that they can keep. As long as they have their phone in that app, they'll have them forever. So unlike all my previous preparation assignments, this is one where they can see, okay, I've got a place where I'm keeping this. It seems relevant to my life. So increasing choice and relevance in in the way we design assignments fosters intrinsic motivation, which helps fend off mental health challenges or help students better cope with mental health challenges. Yeah.
Bonnie Moon 30:08
Thank you for that minute. I'm just going to connect and jump off of his explanation, so I'll just give an example of something I really enjoyed. One thing I changed in my assignments was actually with a final experience, so I don't call it a final test anymore. I call it a final experience and I give some choice in that in in my differential equations course. And so at the beginning of the semester, I say, you guys can take the final exam.
Derek Bruff 30:33
I just want to say you said differential equations course. Sorry, I don't know that I've ever heard any creative teaching act associated with that course. I'm very excited to hear that your take the most it maybe this was my personal experience as a college student. It was the most boring course I took by far, so I'm excited to hear how you can make differential equations a little bit better.
Bonnie Moon 31:01
Okay, here goes. No pressure.
Derek Bruff 31:03
Bonnie Moon 31:04
So. So what I decided to do is give a choice for this final experience. So I said, you may go ahead and study and take the final exam or you may go ahead and choose a project that you want to accomplish. And the project has one of two choices. You either dig deep into one of the ideas or concepts that we covered for the semester, or you connect differential equations to a course you're taking. So it can be a connection or it can be a deep dive. And so right away the students are kind of, Oh yeah, that sounds great. You know, we can do this. And so all semester long we're talking about what could you do in your your subject, what could you do in your subjects? And we bring ideas from electrical engineering, from mechanical, from mathematics, from computer science. And so we're, you know, on lab day or sometimes we laid out like, what are we doing? What kind of things could we do? And so we just kind of get there and tell the deadline. And then when the deadline comes for the project proposals, they all come in and then the students realize I'm serious. Like you really have to dive deeper, connect something. And so, you know, we kind of go back and forth with the project proposal. So by the end of the semester, I probably have about one fifth of the students who go ahead with the proposal and do a project. And then about 4/5, as I wrote up for fourth. Yeah, do the do the final exam. I have a final review that everybody does anyway. And so I'm not worried that they're not getting everything that we're supposed to do. So so so the final experience is the final project plus this final review or the final exam plus the final review. So they get some say in it.
Rob Eaton 32:29
Seriously, anything we can do to shift our students from I'm doing this because I have to to I'm doing this because I want to. It'll be beneficial on multiple fronts but including the mental health front. Yeah. Can I throw out one other course design thing to consider? And this has been a huge change for me. I'm, I started out old school on late policies and you take a test and you bomb the test. Well, I hope you learn something important for the rest of your life that you better study harder for tests So early in the semester. My New Testament course, I had a 25 question test with multiple choice questions about some essential factual factual aspects of the New Testament. And frankly, my students tended not to do very well on the test. And and then we proceeded with me knowing perfectly well that they didn't understand most of the things that I had said were important for them to understand, because that's just American higher education. And and it kind of helped give you a nice spread in the grade book. But as I shifted from.
Derek Bruff 33:27
It sounds like maybe you went to law school.
Rob Eaton 33:29
Exactly. Exactly. But as I shifted from a shifting mentality to a lifting mentality, I began to question that and think, wait, what if my real motive is to help them learn as much as possible? In fact, even before I was thinking about mental health challenges, Steve Hunsaker introduced me many years ago to spaced learning. So I changed that from a one time test to a three time test so that even the students who aced it the first time, as they took it to other times a month apart, would be more likely to remember it. And instead of it being worth 10% of the overall grade, now it's worth 2% the first time, 3%, the second time, 5% the last time. And if they do better the second or third time, I have them email me and I bump up their previous test scores. I want to give them incentive to master it. That gives them less test anxiety as they take it and when they're done with it, if they don't do as well as they'd like to, less discouragement than even depression because it's not like an unfixable thing. In fact, it fosters a growth mindset. And I realized that much of what I done fostered a fixed mindset. I guess I'm just not good at this kind of stuff. Giving students chances to resubmit assignments or even take a test as a subsequent time, or even just cover some of the stuff on the final and give them a chance to somehow still learn what they didn't capture the first time. I think it really helps combat mental health challenges.
Derek Bruff 34:51
Yeah, I'm going to end with this question, and I almost started with this question, bu I didn't want to get too detoured. But I'm going to kind of interrogate my own phrasing as I was talking to you about this. At one point, I think during our conversation I said, you know, how can I make things easier for my students? And I don't think that's actually the goal, at least for some definitions of easy. So can you say kind of what your hope is for this work? How how should we think be thinking about our students mental health and our role as instructors in interacting with that landscape? I don't I don't think making it easier is always a useful phrasing. Yeah.
Bonnie Moon 35:34
I yeah, I don't usually start, but I'll start and then we can end with Rob. So with that, I think I love the title of your podcast actually with your intentionality, like how can we be intentional about things? And it's not about lowering that bar, it's about creating a space where students can thrive and know they have chances for growth mindset and to grow and to meet that bar. And it might not look the same for every student. And as a teacher, that might be a little unnerving because you might have different
assignments or different paths for different needs for your students. And, and yeah, that working with that and within, you know, certain parameters, of course, that you set up on your syllabus, but leaving it free enough that you can meet the different students needs who are coming to your class.
Rob Eaton 36:24
And we love desirable difficulties. Robert Bjork's concept. But even he himself said, you know, some people have gotten carried away that not not every difficulty is desirable. That's kind of a sloppy, lazy sort of thinking. The paper chase, if you don't know the movie that you know is your minds are mush. And he's got high expectations for students. And in the beginning of the movie, the first year law student runs off and throws up in the bathroom afterwards. The fact that something's hard doesn't make it good. So our goal is not to eliminate difficulties, but to be more deliberate, more intentional about the difficulties that we create in some cases, scaffold them, ramp up, escalate gradually. Incidentally, I would still do oral presentations in some of my classes. I still do a bunch of things where I have students participate, but but I do some things that help them succeed there more. as my goal is to help more students learn more. I'm totally counting on them having some desirable difficulties in the process. I'm just trying to make sure that I haven't inadvertently created some undesirable difficulties. And that's why, you know, the title of our book in the end is not very catchy,but we felt really passionate about this because too many people thought, Oh, you must be advocating coddling. If you're talking about helping students with mental health challenges, just giving them a free pass. That's why we called our book Improving Learning and Mental Health in the college classroom. We think you can do both. In fact, most of the tactics we advocate here, we would do even if we inexplicably had no students with mental health challenges because they lead to more learning for more students.
Derek Bruff 38:06
That's great. Well,we'll leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Rob and Bonnie, this has been delightful and inspiring and I hope our listeners get a lot of ideas from your new book.
Bonnie Moon 38:17
Thank you, Derek.
Rob Eaton 38:18
Thanks for what you do to promote intentional teaching. Derek It's been a delight.
Derek Bruff 38:23
That was Bonnie Moon, professor of mathematics at Brigham Young University, Idaho, and Robert Eaton, professor of religious Education, also at BYU, Idaho. They are authors along with Steven Hunsaker of the new book Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom from West Virginia University Press. I've read the book and it is packed with research on mental health among college students, stories of students navigating college and mental health challenges, and advice for instructors wanting to teach their students well. This episode of Intentional Teaching was produced and edited by me, Derek Bruff. See the notes for links to my website, the sign up form for the Intentional teaching newsletter and my Patreon, which helps support the show for just a few bucks a month. You get access to the occasional bonus episode. Patreon Online Teaching Resources. The archive of past newsletters and the community of Intentional Educators. As always, thanks for listening.