An Interview with Bill Cerbin, Professor and Director of CATL

Bill Cerbin is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He has been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in general, developmental, educational, cognitive and learning psychology for 30 years. 

In June, Bill is co-teaching a faculty seminar, Improving Learning by Design, in a blended format. He is also the author of Exploring How Students Learn, a website providing resources, research findings and theoretical perspectives to help teachers better understand how students learn and inform their teaching.

How did you first get into teaching online?  

My first experience teaching online was years ago, using email to collect student writing assignments. This predates course management systems. A day before each class period, students emailed responses to several questions related to the reading assignment for that day. Their responses revealed their prior knowledge and misconceptions of the topic, which helped me decide what to do in class the next day – what concepts to highlight, what kind of practice might help to develop an idea. I still use this technique, but with newer technology.

Fast forward a few years. I currently direct the teaching center on my campus and we offer a three-week intensive online instructor training course. To maintain street credibility among faculty, I took the course in 2009. It was offered online, so participants essentially experienced what it’s like to be a student in an online course. The experience reaffirmed that good teaching and learning, regardless of the format, depend upon careful design.

From your work as a Carnegie Scholar with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, are there a few takeaways you can share with instructors?

My experience with Carnegie underscored the importance of systematic inquiry into teaching and learning, regardless of the format or delivery mode of a course. The mode, format, and context of teaching are always important, but so are differences in the level of students, the discipline, and intended learning outcomes. Systematic inquiry is a tool instructors can use to better understand how and why students learn from instruction, whether that takes place online or face-to-face.

I can offer three other Carnegie-inspired ideas that are important for online teaching:

  1. Focus first and foremost on learning. Unless you know clearly what you want students to know or to be able to do, you have little basis for deciding how to teach them.
  2. Read what others have done before you. In our disciplinary research, we habitually study the field thoroughly and build on previous work. Too often in teaching we try an innovation without any empirical or theoretical rationale. Consequently, we miss the opportunity to learn from our predecessors, and we may produce something that has already been done and does little to advance teaching and learning.
  3. Never underestimate the complexity of teaching and learning. There is a fair amount of simplistic thinking among pundits, who advocate for certain pedagogies or best practices in higher education. In their view, all you have to do is adopt the best practice and students will learn. But teaching and learning are inherently problematic.  Two former Carnegie colleagues, Steve Chew at Samford University, and Randy Bass at Georgetown, capture this idea in slightly different ways.

Both perspectives emphasize uncertainty as the norm, and that we need to carefully investigate teaching to determine not just whether it works, but how it supports or does not support learning.  Steve talks about teaching as an ill-structured problem, in which we always face uncertainties about students’ learning. There are multiple factors, such as students’ background knowledge of the subject, their skill and approach to learning, and their motivation that make the outcome of teaching uncertain.  Randy suggests that every time we teach a course it is an experiment. The syllabus is the hypothesis.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered since you began teaching online? 

Technology overload and the conceptual transition from teaching face-to-face to an online format.

To the annoyance of my colleagues, I have started using the phrase, “Is technology working for us, or are we working for technology?” Course management systems are still clunky. Updating software, fiddling with glitches, and trying workarounds are time-consuming distractions.

Some instructors initially imagine that an online course will be identical to their face-to-face class, with the same structure, rhythm, sequence, and assignments. For instance, an instructor whose customary mode of teaching is to lecture, may simply record the lectures for an online class, and use the same assignments and exams.

However, teaching online can and should involve rethinking one’s assumptions and reasons for one’s instructional practices. Why lecture? What should a lecture consist of? What’s its purpose? How long should it be? Should it be students’ first exposure to the material, or should it come later after they have read or engaged in an exercise?

What are your creative solutions to those challenges?

Perhaps teachers would be better served by attempting small-stakes innovations before adopting large-scale changes. For example, if you like trying out different technological tools, play with them and explore their features before adopting them for a class. More importantly, start with a need or problem you want to solve and then look for a technology that can help you.

Teaching online is significantly different than traditional instruction. I recommend that instructors participate in a rigorous course in how to teach online, especially one that is well grounded in instructional design principles. Part of that experience should involve designing a unit or module for a course that can serve as a prototype when it comes time to fully plan and design an online course. A good training experience not only exposes instructors to various techniques, but also addresses underlying assumptions and beliefs about instructional practices and how they support learning.

What are some of the authoritative sources of content you seek out (other than textbooks)?

I look for:

  • Authors in my field, who publish articles on topics suitable for an undergraduate course.
  • Journals and periodicals that publish articles accessible to undergraduate students.
  • Video and multimedia material from certain sources, e.g., TED Talks, specialized videos by researchers, and peer reviewed learning objects from sources like MERLOT.

What would you say to instructors, who care about improving student outcomes, and are looking for a better alternative, but are reluctant to change what they’ve always done?

I think most good teachers work to improve their practice. Having tried a lot of major changes over the years, I gradually discovered that it makes more sense to think small — identify an aspect of student learning to focus on, rather than adopt an alternative pedagogy wholesale.

Change sometimes is disruptive, does not work well initially and may arouse student resistance. However, by focusing on a specific learning problem, one reduces the workload and the risk if change does not work as anticipated. I would strongly advocate approaching the problem as a form of classroom inquiry or research. This will enable you to describe what you did and why, and most importantly, explain how or why students learned or did not learn from the experience.

Do you have any suggestions or tips to help online instructors teach more effectively?

As an experienced novice, I am still learning and thinking about ways to teach in online and blended formats. I would advocate approaching teaching from a perspective of cognitive empathy. Try to put yourself in the minds of students, who are unfamiliar with both the course structure and the content.

How would you like to see online learning evolve? What improvements would you like to see?

I am very interested in courseware that can scaffold student learning of foundational knowledge. We know a lot about the benefits of certain learning strategies, such as practice testing and distributed practice. We know about the benefits of targeted feedback. There are examples of pedagogical approaches that incorporate these ideas effectively, e.g., Peer Instruction by Eric Mazur. I would like to see courseware that focuses on the most difficult concepts in particular disciplines and provides intelligent tutoring and feedback that help students revise misconceptions and deepen their understanding of core concepts.