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“Merging Silly and Serious” with Martha McCaughey

Lillian talks with Appalachian State University’s Professor of Sociology Martha McCaughey who tells us about her fun and engaging way to get students to collaborate, reflect upon big ideas, and demonstrate their knowledge in silly ways to get to the serious stuff of learning! She also discusses how learning about the UDL principles has changed the way she designs assessments and has added to her toolbox of teaching practices.


Merging Silly and Serious for Creative Expressions of Learning- Here is Martha McCaughey’s module so you can use the same techniques in your classrooms!

Silly Theory– An article about the benefits of being silly, and that it is part of the serious business of learning!

The College Star Instructional Modules are now housed on the East Carolina website- Find other helpful instructional supports and how they relate to UDL principles

First Year Seminar at Appalachian State University– Take a look at the First Year Seminar program at Appalachian State University that Martha McCaughey oversaw. And you’d better believe those creative posters and videos were all her idea!

Find Martha McCaughey on Twitter at, you guessed it, @MarthaMcCaughey


[Lillian] Welcome to think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast, where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters. Welcome to episode 4 of the think UDL podcast where my guest today is Dr. Martha McCoy, the director of first year seminar and the common reading program and professor of sociology at Appalachian State University in Boone North Carolina. Today Martha and I get to discuss one of the resources on the College Star website that she has created and shared with all of us. This is a really fun and useful way to reflect on student learning throughout the semester. It is a technique that can be used in any college classroom and comes from her experience in her upper-level sociology seminar. Thank you Martha McCoy for joining us today on think UDL. I’m really interested in hearing about your recent module on merging silly and serious for creative expressions for learning. My first question for you is: what was the context of this, what made you come up with this idea?


[Martha] Well I’ve been teaching this class that the sociology students hate the senior research seminar. It’s a capstone class. They have to pass it with a C or better in order to get their bachelor’s degree in sociology. They hated it and then that made me hate it and I really wanted to do something different. I decided as part of a course redesign to think more seriously about where they were at and how I could meet them where they were at. The students were so intimidated by the rigor of the class and having to do their own research project and having to discuss the ethics of it and their methodology and do a thorough literature review and come up with their own conclusions and cite their sources properly and all the things they do in the class. I realized that they just, I needed to tap into the affective domain at some level and to acknowledge that this was a sort of painful, serious, rigorous course and find a way to lighten it a little bit; not make it easier. I didn’t change any of the requirements but I wanted to acknowledge the sort of difficulty they were going through and find a way to get them to bond over it and to tap into their feelings about it and even find ways to make fun of how difficult it was.


[Lillian] So this is a senior class so there they are all really, serious students. they are in it and have been for a long time. and did you since they had lost a little bit of their fun or interests in it because they were so far down this very serious class or course of study?


[Martha] Well no, I don’t think they had lost their sense of fun. I think all there are other sociology classes or a lot of them are actually more interesting and engaging. They take race relations and criminal behavior and deviant behavior and constructions of gender and things that are much more interesting to them and relevant. Then they come to my class and they have to do this sort of research project that is one, much more self-directed than what they do in their other classes and two, something that takes the entire semester to complete it’s not tiny little projects but this big capstone experience and I think it’s just more daunting as a task. So I think they were not used to the serious rigor of the class in the rest of their sociology classes. I think they were more, those other classes tend to be more topical and fun for them.


[Lillian] So would you say this is more of a Theory class.

[Martha] No. The idea is they have to construct their own research question and based in a thorough review of the literature so they have to do a lot of library research first and a lot of thinking on that make an original argument and it’s just really their big opportunity to be original in their thinking and their assessment of the sociological theories and research that has come before them. so I think that’s the part that’s intimidating to them.


[Lillian] I see. Well, so, what were some of the ways that you were able to merge silly with this serious content?

[Martha] Well what I did was decide that we met twice a week and that at the end of the week, every week we would get into our teams. They were in teams of three and they had the same team for the whole semester. So there was a little bit of extra bonding that took place there and have their teams come up with some big thing they learned that week; something they, a rule they had to remember, or some tasks they had to make sure they got done in the next week in their homework time or some principle of the research process or whatever it was. Whatever we were focused on that week they would have to summarize that most important lesson of the week in some creatively communicated form. I would give them that form for the week and I would say: if this is the most important part of your literature review and was a Facebook post what would the Facebook post be? Then I would give them a little template of a Facebook post and ask them to write it down. Each team would come up with something and then they’d look forward to listening to what the other teams had to say. Or if it was a: if this were to be a cat meme what would the meme say or if you had to tattoo the most important thing you’ve learned this week on to your body what would the tattoos say and I would pass out pictures of little body parts and then they would actually write the tattoo; you know they make the tattoo on the body part on the image. Then we had a big bulletin board in the class and every team’s creative communication for the week would go up on the big bulletin board. I was lucky that the department chair allowed me to take over that entire bulletin board for the whole semester. So our stuff got to stay up. We just kept building on it week after week. So they also had this sort of visual reminder of the past lessons they’ve learned and it was fun to look at them because they were memes and Facebook posts and tattoos and there were pictures of cakes and they would have written something as though were written in frosting on cake. So they had all kinds of fun images up on the bulletin board going throughout the semester.


[Lillian] And what was the reaction of the students when you gave them this first assignment.

[Martha] They had a lot of fun with it. I think it became really important for them to come up with something witty for one thing. The teams worked hard. They would only take you know maybe six minutes at the end of class and we’d have a couple of minutes to share what the others came up with, but just in a few minutes they would want to come up with something funny and that really did express the important thing they’d learned. Of course it gave me a chance to see if they were getting the message. Sometimes they didn’t get the right point and I’d have a chance to make a correction. So it was a quick assessment opportunity for me, but a lot of times they really did seem to get the point and I was pleased with it. They would share that, but they had to confer with each other first because they were with teams of three and then they would say okay well what would Yoda say, then they would have to come up with something that Yoda would say about whatever this sociology lesson was. They would want to make it funny. They would want to make it sound like Yoda. There would be someone who would try to talk like Yoda and that just made it much more fun and light-hearted. Given how serious and how seriously intimidating the work was, it just lightened it a little bit for them and put it into a context of communicating that they were used to. So a lot of the rules they had remember were about the professional communication styles of sociologists. As sociology majors they were bound to use the specific state citation style and the specific organizational structure of proper literature review. They were supposed to discuss their research methods the way sociologists have to discuss them and these were all professional communication techniques that a lot of them found intimidating and foreign. So to come up with ways of communicating about those intimidating communication rules using the communication strategies they were familiar with like, memes and Facebook posts and tweets and tattoos and using those familiar communication and techniques helped give them a way in to the thing they were really mastering, which was a set of foreign professional communication techniques. So tweeting about their proper literature review format was helpful to them because it was like okay well I know how to tweet so let me tweet about this even though what I’m tweeting about is this complicated professional sociological communication strategy. So it kind of worked because it met them where they were at and showed them okay we’ll go ahead and use your way of communicating but what you’re going to communicate is what you’re learning and what you’re learning is this whole other way of communicating.


[Lillian] So worked well it did. As Yoda would say.

[Martha] yeah well it did.

[Lillian] Worked well it. I was interested too because it sounds like they are using that time to reflect upon their learning and when you’re in the trenches and you’re going through what sounds like a lot of work and continuous to step back and then say do I get the big picture, do I understand each part and how it relates to a larger part, am I getting the big concept, is often something we reserved for a big exam right or the final paper or something like that so it sounds like as an assessment technique you were able to keep them on track but also this seems like a really good time of reflection for them.


[Martha] Yeah I think so. They were able to stop and talk with each other and come up with what they thought was the upshot of that day or that week and I think that was helpful. Again, to do it in a way that was fun and light-hearted. It wasn’t graded. It was part of what they did in class as an activity. I think made it, again, just really stress-free for them. In fact, it was a stress relief because they were getting more and more stressed. I’d taught the class multiple times and I saw that they would get more and more and more stressed as the semester went on and this big huge project was maybe not getting done or was a lot harder than they realized it was going to be. So this really helped them feel like I understood how hard this was for them and they were allowed to talk about how hard it was for them and they were even allowed to joke about how hard it was for them. So one of the things I did most of the time, the creative communication techniques that I was having them do, were summarizing some substantive point that they were learning, but one of the times I simply asked: how do you feel trying to make sense of all the data you’ve collected in three emoji or fewer. Then they’ll come up with three emoji or fewer and they would do you know some really funny combinations of emoji to express how overwhelmed they felt. That was a case where I just literally gave them permission to just talk about or express how stressed out they were or how overwhelmed they were and to make light of it in a couple of minutes and that was fun too to just give them permission to let me know how hard it was for them.


[Lillian] well one of the things that I’m seeing here is a really important Universal Design for Learning principle that you’ve really paid attention to in this technique. and it’s part of that effective part of the brain, the emotional part of learning, and you have created a sense of community in their teams. and did they stay in the same team each time?


[Martha] Yes. They stay in the same team all semester.

[Lillian] So they are communicating as a team and they have a real sense of togetherness and that camaraderie is also really helpful for learning. So it seems like this technique pulls in a lot of parts of Universal Design for Learning: giving options for communication and giving a different way to communicate (not so serious way), but also a really important way that offers time for self-reflection. So let’s see, did you have all of this in mind when you thought of it?


[Martha] Probably not. I think, I knew I wanted to introduce the affective domain and I knew I wanted to have them tap into some form of communication they would find fun or familiar or both and from there I think I began to learn more about UDL and to see how that was UDL. I think that there’s been a lot of times where I’ve designed assignments that would work for a number of different learners, but I mean I had done that for years but didn’t know there was anything called Universal Design for Learning back then. So it’s one of those things where you might be practicing a technique because you’re seeing that it works but you don’t know there’s a whole body of literature behind it.


[Lillian] Yes. Exactly what one of the reasons why I love having these conversations with creative faculty like yourself, Martha, is chances are there are a lot of people who are using Universal Design for Learning principles because it’s worked, because they got their students really into the project; it motivated them. They saw really fantastic results, they just didn’t know it was called UDL or were using one of the principles in their design, but being familiar with it for all of these different tweaks or maybe spreading it across different classes or environments. So that we we’ve got a lot of instructors who are incorporating these things and a lot of people also don’t know about it or what the benefits can be so I appreciate that you’ve been first of all a creator of these things, but also to be able to share it with us. I noted I think our listeners would also be very interested that on a college star website this merging silly and serious for creative expression is one of the modules. So really anybody could do this. Do you see this in other disciplines or something like that?


[Martha] Yeah and I know that a number of professors have already adopted it and they heard me present on it at the Lille conference on teaching and learning a couple years ago. There are faculty members teaching math, statistics, there was someone teaching abnormal psychology I think, and some other classes that students tend to feel are either a drag or intimidating or just rough going. Those were the faculty members who immediately connected with my story and wanted to start implementing some of these techniques. What’s great about the module on the college star website I think is that I did all the groundwork so that if someone wants to start doing this in their class they don’t have to do it every week the way I did. If they want to try it a couple of times in a semester they can try it, but they don’t have to go looking for these, you know, cakes they have students right on top of or the parts of the body that they want students to make a tattoo on to though or the cat memes. Those are all on there so you can just click on an image or a form of creative communication you like and there’s a template. You can just print it out from the college star website and bring it into your class or if you teach online or partially online you can download it and have students make these Creative Communications online and then post them to an online discussion forum space to share with their fellow students. So I just did some of that legwork already which makes it easier for people who want to try the technique to just hit them just go ahead and start implementing it in class.


[Lillian] I’d say you did all of the legwork if anyone wanted to try this. I’ve looked at the module and loved the examples that you provide. I think my favorite is the thank-you notes, I’ll Jimmy Fallon, is that one? I know my students get most of their news from Jimmy Fallon or other late-night host so incorporating what is the language and the method of how they speak to each other and that funny part always makes it more interesting. So Martha, let me ask you. What’s your favorite technique that you’ve employed to merge the silly and serious in your class?


[Martha] I would say the mid-century pop art comic and that’s because if you’re familiar with the Roy Lichtenstein drowning girl you know a single frame comic and usually somebody who looks very anguished or upset or stressed out. Sometimes it’s a lady crying with, you know, tears running down her face. I provide images of these single frame pop art comics with an empty speech bubble and then have the students fill in the speech bubble. They really enjoy that because they they’re planning to make it funny and they make a point. No matter what you’re teaching you can find a way to have students summarize some aspect of their learning that day using the single frame pop art comic and having them write in a speech bubble. They love making it witty. They love boiling down what they’ve learned to a single statement that works with those comics. I’ve found a variety of comics and they’re in the public domain, so I, you know, not violating copyright or anything I share those, but they’re the students love to do that and it tends to automatically give them permission to bring in their emotion because the pop art comic characters are usually already anguished so…


[Lillian] Is there anything else about this technique that you use that you think we should know about some any revelations you found from using it or outputs that maybe you weren’t even expecting


[Martha] Well… I guess I think when I thought about why it works well I think the important thing is that the students who might be most likely to feel intimidated are maybe not the students most likely to be intimidated might be non-traditional students or first-generation students and we don’t as professors often realize that we’re speaking a language that sounds foreign and intimidating it sounds foreign intimidating to a ton of people but I think there’s some research that shows it’s especially foreign and intimidating to first-generation college students and I think that where we’re trying to give all these students a great opportunity and we want to make sure that they plug in and feel like they belong and feel like they can be here and be doing what we’re doing in class and I think it’s on us to come up with some techniques that work with a broad variety of students because we want all those students to succeed and it’s no fun learning in an environment that feels intimidating or stifling of creativity or where you think you’re the only one who’s having a difficult time figuring out what to do I think it really helped everybody feel plugged in and like they belong and that they weren’t the only ones to feel intimidated they thought oh ok we’re all feeling this way in fact our professors are letting us talk about how we’re feeling that this is a daunting task and it is a lot of what they had to do is really daunting but I’m in letting them talk about it I think I took away some of the…


[Lillian] Anxiety or something?


[Martha] Yeah, yeah I took away some of the anxiety and just some of the what seemed sort of snobbish about it I think and I had I had students on my evaluations say that the professor is arrogant and they considered me kind of snobbish because I had all these high standards and I did all this research and I was a published author and I didn’t mean for that to come across as snobbish or intimidating but I had to admit that they learned that it did come across that way and I really wanted to find a way to make it less intimidating and I didn’t want them to see me as a snob I wanted them to see me as someone who’s done it who was capable of teaching them how to do it and who was coaching them through it and who was capable of at least remembering that it was hard to do at least when you first start doing it


[Lillian] Well it one of the things I’ve noticed is that instructors will often forget what it was like to be a novice learner and this technique really helps the students build that rapport it seems with the professor have you gotten a snobbish review since using this


[Martha] No I think that class would turned out much better and I think they saw me more as on their side I mean I still had to grade them and I still had to you know tell them if they didn’t pass a certain standard and all of that but I think they saw that they understood there was going to be a lot of work they knew I knew that and they saw me as on their side hoping they got through it and wanting them to enjoy the process too and I think in the end they did enjoy it even though and they could feel proud of their accomplishment when they completed it but no the class and more importantly I would say just the class got more fun for me I mean when I felt like it was so awful for them I’d have rather gone and gotten a root canal than show up in class I mean I was really not liking it for me either so it made it much more enjoyable for me and it’s a certain point that was why I was willing to take the risk and try a whole new teaching strategy because I couldn’t go on anymore so I wanted to change for me and I hoped and thought it would work for them too and I think it did but my original motivation really being willing to take the risk was that it wasn’t working for me either to have that class atmosphere and I was stuck teaching the class this wasn’t a class I had opted into teaching I was consistently assigned to teach it because it was a required course and somebody had to teach so I didn’t have really the option of just walking away so I wanted to make it better for me and I think it in doing that it made better for all of us and then it was just a feedback loop after that where I liked it better and they liked it better and then they liked it better made me liked it better and then that made them liked it better because I liked it better so


[Lillian] It sounds like a fantastic loop and everybody’s learning you know and I thought the reason I loved this when you told me about it was because it was silly I and fun and it turns out after talking to you I am also seeing the reason why I really love it is you are seeing your students as whole people not just brains but you are really designing this environment to account for the fact that these are real human beings with hearts and brains and souls and anxieties and capabilities and you’ve designed that into the course and oftentimes we forget to do that as instructors we will only design for the brain that is checking off boxes and getting these objectives done and we miss a little bit of the whole person that’s learning at the same time so this technique really does get to all parts of that person and helping them really to go much further than they could have that anxiety really could have held the back and here they are being able to deal with that and then go on more confidently and move forward so that’s what a great benefit that is maybe an unexpected one but a fantastic one. So I have a few other questions what makes you a different learner?


[Martha] So what makes me a different learner is that I actually like being lectured to so I went to a big University the University of Michigan and I had classes with five six and seven hundred students and I liked sitting there taking notes while the professor spoke with the microphone up at the podium and I so I think that’s because I’m an auditory learner right is that…


[Lillian] Yeah, yeah that you possess, you can process things very well by listening yeah


[Martha] I actually do not like to learn by doing you know or if a professor says everybody go down the hall try to find something or do something and go you know the men go into the women’s bathroom and women go in the men’s bathroom I’ve colleagues who do things like this the students seem to love it I was the kind of student who hated doing that I wanted to know what was the point what is the research show and what do you want us to be learning you know about whatever it is and so I have had a hard time as a teacher remembering that not all students want to sit and be lecture to like I do they do want to go do an activity and sort of figure out the point later and so I’ve had to remind myself that my teaching style cannot be based on my learning style and that I need to know all the different learning styles and develop teaching styles that are that help all those different learning styles of course you know some people feel more comfortable teaching one way over another and it’s not like you can completely come up with a teaching style that doesn’t feel comfortable for you and might not work but I have really tried to vary what I do so that it for a variety of people but I am an auditory learner and auditory processor and it’s interesting to me how that works and how that’s different for other people


[Lillian] So Martha tell me about your experience that moved you from being just a lecturer to incorporating different teaching techniques


[Martha] So I had a very good fortune in graduate school of working as a peer teaching coach we had a Teaching Development Center at University of California Santa Barbara where I was in graduate school and they had a videotaping service and teachers could sign up to be videotaped especially graduate students who were teaching for the first time and then they would come in and watch the tape of themselves teaching with a peer coach like me and I had a fantastic boss Shirley Ronkowski who trained us in how to be good teaching peer coaches for our graduate student teaching colleagues so I really did get exposed to a lot of the literature on teaching styles and teaching and learning and so I got to watch a lot of other people teaching and talk to them about their teaching in that job and then I got to read a lot of the literature that Shirley Ronkowski gave us in our training sessions and I learned about the use of suspense in teaching I learned about the use of props I learned about discussions and what types of discussion questions are useful and I was able to learn I learned about these so that I could talk to the teachers coming in for their coaching session about them but of course I was able to incorporate those in my own teaching as well so I really learned about the different learning styles and the different teaching styles that could match those learning styles through that job and graduate school so I was really lucky that I had that


[Lillian] That’s fantastic it sounds like we need to incorporate that in every PhD program so that we get a lot of variability as far as our teaching because we know that our learners have a lot of variability as well so I have one other question although you know you, your answer was kind of both before so if you don’t have anything to say that’s fine but my other question was how has Universal Design for Learning and incorporating that changed the way you teach or learn


[Martha] I would say I like I like we talked about before I was using a lot of the principles of Universal Design for Learning without realizing that was what UDL was and but now that I know much more about UDL I am intentionally incorporating techniques which allow for multiple means of expression so that I really am intentionally including a variety of learners in when I when I design an assignment I’m doing much better at making my assignments transparent where it’s clear to students what the purpose the assignment is what steps they need to take to get the assignment started what I’m expecting them to do and what a successful assignment would include I think that many of us didn’t have that when we were students and with we became professors it was probably because we were able to be pretty good at being students even if we didn’t have a professor who’s very clear in their instructions but it’s really I’ve really made an effort over the past couple years to do really clear syllabi and where it’s very clear what students can expect from me and what I’m expecting from them and make really clear and transparent assignments so that they are not trying to figure out what I’m looking for what where they understand oh here’s how you do this kind of thing and here’s a model of assignment I find students really want to do well and they want to learn how to how to do what the assignment is helping them learn how to do and if it’s clear and transparent it’s a lot less intimidating so I think those are ways that I’ve realized I need to intentionally do that and I try to push other faculty to do that same thing to be more transparent in their course design in their assignment design


[Lillian] I think you bring up a really common barrier to learning actually in exactly what you mentioned and it’s something that I found too when I would assign what would be a usual assignment in my field maybe a 15 page research paper but then did not give a clear understanding of what I expected of when deadlines might be of how to do it of what a good assignment looks like and when I first started teaching with that assignment they were terrible and I thought at first I thought these students can’t do the work and then I realized very soon afterwards that it really was a barrier I was putting up because I wasn’t specific in what I was asking them to do and giving them or teaching them how they should go about doing it. It was something that I had learned right I just forgotten that I at one point was a novice learner and here I was all the way at expert level and expecting my novice learners to be experts so in essence you’ve delineated this barrier that you were able to take away so that your students could really understand what you were asking them to do which is a fantastic UDL principle in action is to help our students know what they are doing and why they’re doing it what the purpose of that is


[Martha] And ultimately I think if we want our students to succeed and we want them to learn the material that we have on offer then we need to commit to designing the learning experiences and assignments in ways that will make it most possible for them to learn what we want them to learn so to me it isn’t just a test of how well they can figure out my vague instructions which I think some faculty members really do think well they should know or they should go figure it out and I think that’s kind of like being on an authority trip but my passion is for them to learn what I think they need to learn and so I am going to work really hard to make my assignment it designed in a way that allows them to learn it it’s not hand-holding it’s not telling them things they’re supposed to already know or anything like that but it’s just being really clear so that the assignment doesn’t become an exercise and guessing how to please the professor or it does an assignment where it’s an exercise in calling your older siblings who’ve graduated from college if you lucky enough to have anybody in your family who’s graduated from college and who can help you I’d rather it be something that really allows the student to go oh here’s how I go do this and then I know that when they go do that thing I’m telling you to do that’s where they learn the skills that this assignment is trying to teach or have them practice so for me it’s really about the dedication to their learning the material that you ultimately want and need them to learn and I think we get too caught up sometimes in just whether they’re good enough to be there or whether they’re following my instructions and assuming my instructions are even clear enough to follow and or whether they’re self-motivated enough and all that I think we second-guess our students and we don’t actually second-guess our own our own plans and designs as teachers enough so


[Lillian] It seems like in that plan what you’ve just described you’re really putting the learning the student learning first and that’s the number one priority and I think that’s the most important thing right that seems to be why we are doing what we’re doing in a university at least teaching a class that seems to be what we’re supposed to be doing so I really appreciate your emphasis on that and knowing how to get at that student learning so that our students can be successful in these endeavors

So thank you so much Martha for spending time with us at the think UDL podcast and I always admire what you do at Appalachian State University with the first-year seminar program and also what you’re doing in faculty development and what you’ve shared with merging silly and serious especially in the College Star website so thank you very much for your time Martha


[Martha] Thank you it was fun

[Music][Lillian] You can follow the think UDL podcast on Facebook Twitter and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released and also see transcripts and additional materials at the think UDL .org website the think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR the star stands for supporting transition access and retention in post-secondary settings and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles if you’d like to know more go to the College STAR .org website additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University where if you call it Appalachian I’ll throw in Appalachia the music on the podcast was performed by the odyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell and Jose Cochez our sound engineer is Tanner Jones and our social media coordinator is Reuben Watson and I am your host Lillian Nave thank you for joining us on the think UDL podcast

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