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Podcast - Interview with an Expert

Student Motivation with Don Fraser

Don Fraser is one of North America’s leading authorities on student success and retention. A professor at Durham College for the past 30 years, Don publishes the national best-seller Making Your Mark, which has sold over one million copies. Don has delivered student motivation seminars to over 17,000 college staff at various conferences and at over 300 colleges across North America. In this podcast Don talks about student motivation.

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US News

Inside Higher Ed

Maryland System Takes Control of Football Probe

The University System of Maryland Board of Regents announced Friday evening that the system has taken over the investigation of a student death and the culture of the football program at the system's College Park campus.

Officials at College Park had said that a commission would evaluate the program, but the system is now taking over that investigation. "Today’s actions will allow the USM to provide guidance from the findings of the investigations to all system institutions," said a statement from the system. The announcement followed a four-hour special meeting of the board.

The death of a football player in June was followed more recently by a devastating report by ESPN detailing a "toxic" culture in the football program. The report indicated that football players endured an environment in coaches hurled small weights at them, along with insults. In one case a player said he vomited after the coaching staff forced him to overeat.

Earlier this week a football strength and conditioning coach resigned.

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Let 'em Write


One of my biggest regrets as a teacher of writing is that for many years, I didn’t make students write enough.

The problem was the way I was structuring the semester as units, each unit focused around a major assignment which would be subject to a grade.

In a composition course, I might have six units of varying lengths, including a researched essay that may take a month or more, meaning for that month students would essentially be working through the scaffolding assignments – proposal, annotated bibliography, draft, peer response, revision – which were necessary to produce an artifact which would hopefully pass muster.

Even the first unit, a summary of and response to a short argument would take two weeks from initiation to completion. All that for a piece of writing which would top out at 500-600 words, or about half the ultimate length of this blog post that I will conceive, draft, and publish in a matter of hours – a single day at the most.

I’m a believer in students experiencing the full range of the writing process, particularly revision, which I find they have very limited experience with. The units were a way to model the full writing process each time, and to introduce them to what it means to try to move a piece of writing from “good enough,” to “can’t make it better.”

If you include drafting and revision in the page counts, students were indeed producing a fair number of pages, but as I became more focused on “writing as thinking” as the central part of my pedagogy, I became concerned about the limited number of times I was asking students to practice this thinking, as well as the limits on the kind of thinking I was asking them to do.

Over time, I began introducing many more so-called “low stakes” assignments, where students would get credit for simply producing something that met minimal thresholds and was often done in class.

When I was designing these assignments I said to myself, “Self, if you’re not going to attach a grade to these things, you better make them interesting so you get more than a pro forma effort,” and so I did.

One example is what I call an “impossible argument” using the prompt “Are hot dogs sandwiches?”[1] which I used to kick of the unit on persuasion which culminated with the researched essay. Students loved arguing about stuff like that.

An interesting thing happened. Looking at these “low stakes” assignments, I saw arguably better writing, certainly more engaged, more lively, and more interesting writing. The results could be messy, but students were thinking and acting as writers.

In the summary/response unit I added a low-stakes assignment where students would write a response to a New York Times op-ed and post it to the website. In the type of thinking required, it was identical to the assignment they would work on for two weeks and turn in for a grade, but they would do it in between class periods.

Again, I had to admit the resulting artifacts were essentially no different than what I was seeing in the graded assignments with considerably longer gestations. I was tied up in the rhythms and practices of academics, but now I was shifting my values towards learning, past practices be damned.

By this time, I’d already converted to a grading contract in my fiction writing courses that privileged production over “quality” and had seen students easily handle writing loads which were roughly double what they’d done when the course was centered around preparing two stories for a full-class workshop. In talking with students they almost universally cited having the chance to write more as a benefit. They believed they were learning more because they were writing more, and I believed them.

Committing to a similar grading contract in first-year writing allowed me to break free of units centered 100% around that graded artifact at the end. Students would still produce writing that addressed the goals of the unit, but they would be doing it every day, in different ways.

They would be working on their writing “practices.” All practice would be purposeful, but they would not be fully focused on that one graded assignment. Sometimes, the work could be about a smaller aspect of the writer’s practice.

The result, similar to the fiction writing class, was students simply writing more, and having carried over the goal of making sure all the writing experiences were interesting, they wrote with greater attention and energy.

This wasn’t a panacea. There was no sudden shift in externally perceived competence. But what I knew for sure is students were getting more practice than before, they understood the context of what they were practicing, and they were better positioned to extend the practice to unfamiliar writing occasions. They had both momentum and method to keep improving as writers even when the course was completed.

I remained a strong believer in helping students navigate the full writing process, but rather than running them through it for every assignment, they would select out the pieces they felt about most strongly and revise and edit those to the point of “can’t make it better” for a final portfolio.

By adding in reflective writing assignments for every unit as well, I was able to fold in even more writing, more practice.

I’ve now collected all of those experiences (along with some I’ve just recently invented) into a book, The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, and I firmly believe that engaging with the experiences in the book will result in the promise of the subtitle.

The only proven way I know to learn to write is to read and write as much as possible. Figuring out how to get students writing more was the most important pedagogical shift I’ve ever made.

If you can find room to let students write more often, and write with purpose, I believe the benefits will be apparent.


[1] The argument is “impossible” because even though you can muster evidence and make a case, there really is no definitive answer

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Thursday, August 16, 2018
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Friday Fragments

Thanks to Melina Patterson for highlighting this one. It’s a bill for a semester at the University of Houston in 1975. The total is $152.50. Correcting for inflation, that would be slightly over $700 now.  

At $700 a semester, most students could work their way through.  But it’s juuuuuust a bit higher than that now.

In the year-to-year series of incremental changes, it’s easy to lose track of that sort of thing.  Take a step or two back, though, and the changes are seismic.

Take that trend line and project it forward, say, twenty years.  Assuming that real wage growth continues at its current pace, such as it is, there’s no earthly way to make that sustainable. 


These two stories next to each other do a nice job of encapsulating the dilemmas of folks trying to make college budgets sustainable.

One is about a consultant urging colleges to pare down their programmatic offerings, in order to attain greater operating efficiencies.  Each new program requires slicing the existing population thinner, and committing to running entire programs even as cohorts shrink with attrition.  The other is about colleges adding programs right and left in hopes of generating enrollment.

Those of us in the trenches know this dilemma well.  Growth requires taking risks, which involves suspending the focus on efficiency for a while.  (New programs almost never pay for themselves in the first year or two.) That can be a hard sell as money gets tighter.  But if you stagnate for too long, you won’t be able to cut your way out of decline.


Bryan Alexander does a nice job here of connecting the dots between OER and changes in commercial publisher behavior.

As regular readers know, I’m very much a fan of OER.  Some people aren’t, whether because of concerns around sustainability, quality, or faddishness.  What Alexander points out here, I think correctly, is that OER is helping to put pressure on commercial publishers, thereby helping both its fans and its detractors.  Cengage Unlimited, for example, is pretty clearly a response to OER; if open alternatives had not caught on, I doubt that the subscription model would have emerged. Having to compete with “free” is forcing publishers to rethink a pricing model almost as out-of-control as our own.  

OER isn’t the entire answer to college costs, heaven knows, but it may buy us some time to figure out more fundamental changes.  And it will do so in an ethical and aboveboard way. To the extent that improved access to books improves student performance -- which it does -- colleges can do well financially by doing good morally.  That doesn’t always happen. When we find opportunities like those, we should jump on them. If it buys us time to address the larger cost issues, even better.


Of course, the ultimate in unsustainability is childhood. This year, The Boy will be a senior in high school. He’ll be heading out in just over a year.

He’s fine with it. Heck, he’s excited about it.


I will be. 



No, really,  I will. I just...need a minute...


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Friday, August 17, 2018
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OCR Investigates Ohio State on Doctor Accused of Abuse

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into allegations against a late Ohio State University doctor accused of sexual assault.

Ohio State in April announced its investigation into Dr. Richard Strauss, a former team physician who ended his own life in 2005. The university said it had received reports of sexual misconduct from male alumni in 14 different sports, among them baseball, cheerleading, cross country, fencing, football, gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer and wrestling.

Former athletes have accused Strauss of molesting them and alleged that his behavior was an open secret among athletes and staffers at Ohio State.

Strauss was a team physician for 14 years and then briefly worked in the health center.

OCR will investigate whether Ohio State is responding “promptly and equitably” to the complaints of former students, including accusations that university employees knew or should have known about Strauss’s misconduct and allowed the abuse to continue, according to a university statement.

“We welcome the involvement and careful oversight of OCR and look forward to providing any information we can,” said Gates Garrity-Rokous, Ohio State vice president and chief compliance officer. “We responded promptly and appropriately to the allegations received in April about Dr. Strauss. We are confident in the independence and thoroughness of the investigation we launched then as well as our ongoing commitment to transparency.”

The case has made national headlines in part because U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and founder of the House Freedom Caucus, was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State from 1986 to 1994, during Strauss's tenure. A few ex-wrestlers have accused the congressman of failing to stop the abuse.

Jordan has denied knowing anything about Strauss’s conduct. ​Ian Fury, Jordan's spokesman, told Inside Higher Ed last month that the congressman "never saw any abuse, never heard about any abuse, and never had any abuse reported to him during his time as a coach at Ohio State."

Dunyasha Yetts, a former Ohio State wrestler, told NBC last month that he and teammates talked to Jordan about Strauss many times. “For God’s sake, Strauss’s locker was right next to Jordan’s and Jordan even said he’d kill him if he tried anything with him,” Yetts said.

Fury said Jordan would be willing to assist investigators in any way possible, “because if what is alleged is true, the victims deserve a full investigation and justice.”

Ohio State is asking anyone with information about Strauss to email the law firm Perkins Coie LLP at osu@perkinscoie.com. The firm is conducting an independent investigation and to date has interviewed more than 200 people, the university said.

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Duke will leave empty the spot in its chapel that previously had statue of Robert E. Lee

A year ago, in the wake of the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., set off by white supremacists, Duke University removed from its chapel a statue of Robert E. Lee.

The statue was one of 10 at the entrance to the chapel. It was seen by many as an affirmation of the Confederate cause. The removal of the statue left open the question of what to do with the empty space created by the decision.

On Thursday, the university announced that the spot will remain empty.

Vincent E. Price, president of Duke, said that the idea came from Reverend Luke Powery, the dean of the chapel, who said a year ago that the empty space could represent “a hole that is in the heart of the United States of America, and perhaps in our own human hearts -- that hole that is from the sin of racism and hatred of any kind.”

Price wrote in a statement, "I have concluded that Dean Powery’s suggestion is the right one, particularly when combined with the placement of a plaque in the foyer of Duke Chapel that explains why the space is empty. It will provide a powerful statement about the past, the present and our values."

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