Learning about Teaching from “Good Bakes”

I recently spent a lot of time resting, icing, and elevating in my “granny chair,” recovering from hip-replacement surgery.  My brain was foggy; reading, and even my beloved knitting projects were more than I could tackle.  Watching TV was about all I could handle. In my search to find interesting programs, I came across The Great British Baking Show featuring Mary Berry (the British “Queen” of Baking) and Paul Hollywood (professional bread baking expert). Their styles mesh well and the show’s 10-week competition is engaging. It’s perfect binge-watching fodder.

Beyond enjoying the show’s format and personalities, I hoped to learn how to be a better baker.  An added bonus are the insights and timely reminders about teaching and learning I gleaned.

Vocabulary The show was filmed for a British audience. There are words and phrases in British baking vernacular that baffled me. Some examples: 180 fan; sultanas; Muscovado sugar; and strong flour. I routinely paused and Googled. I wondered: How often have I used vocabulary, which is second nature to me, that leaves students scratching their heads? While it was easy for me to pause, search the word or phrase and continue watching, students in a lecture would have to raise their hands and ask for clarification. Very few are willing to appear ignorant in front of their peers. Teaching Lesson: It’s important to periodically review our notes and lesson materials with an eye on vocabulary.  Better to be clear than mistakenly assume students are familiar with jargon.

Varied Assignments Each week the show presents different and more challenging themes, just like our lessons and assignments grow in complexity. What I found particularly compelling is the show’s mix of assignments. Each episode is a combination of specific and open-ended challenges.   The “technical bakes” require a very specific outcome. The outputs should all look identical. The “show stoppers” specify a category like “Victoria Sponge” but otherwise allow complete freedom to demonstrate skills in flavors, textures, and presentation. Teaching Lesson: Students benefit from both kinds of experiences. Initially, structured and specific formative practice and assignments allow students to develop skills and understanding as timely feedback is provided. Ultimately, allowing students some flexibility or choice of how to demonstrate mastery can produce “show stopping” learning.

Baking is Messy It might be more accurate to put it this way: You can’t learn to bake if you don’t get your hands messy. Mixing by hand. Feeling the consistency of the dough. Stirring the chocolate or whipping the egg whites to the desired consistency can’t be learned by watching. I’m not a better baker because I watched hours of baking shows. Learning Lesson: Our students often think they’ve learned from taking notes during lecture. Some teachers may agree. But watching the teacher diagram chemical compounds, solve math problems, produce flowcharts, or draw graphs shows that the teacher understands the material. Watching isn’t enough. Learning is not a spectator sport. Let’s make sure we remind our students of this, and more importantly, provide plenty of opportunities to get their hands messy with low-stakes practice to develop skills in- and out-of-class.

New Methods Because I enjoyed the program so much, I looked into buying a related cookbook on Amazon. Some reviewers lamented the need to convert from metric units. Others complained about weighing ingredients instead of using measuring cups. My initial thought was, “Ugh! I don’t want to deal with all that change and complexity.” But as I read more, I became convinced that weighing ingredients and measuring in grams is more precise and that produces better and more consistent results. Learning Lesson: Our students may be comfortable with learning strategies that sometimes work (like flash cards for memorization), but produce poor results in more complex situations. They may need evidence about why we’re asking them to try different learning methods. These new strategies may feel awkward, uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first. We need to keep pushing, coaching and providing opportunities for effective, long-term learning methods to take hold.

If you subscribe to Netflix I encourage you to check out the program and watch it through the lens of teaching and learning. Berry & Hollywood give candid feedback without crushing the novice bakers’ spirits.  They encourage and inspire. While participants are competing, friendships are formed and “competitors” frequently help each other. This engaging program models a classroom where high expectations, effective coaching, gentle humor, and collaboration are the recipe for learning and “good bakes.”

Baking bread

P.S. In case you’re wondering about the British baking terms:

180 fan= 180 degrees Celsius in a convection (fan) oven

Sultanas= golden (white seedless) raisins

Muscovado sugar= loosely, dark brown sugar, but with more nutrients

Strong flour= bread flour, higher in gluten for bread baking

After I drafted this post, I found an article about the new season which will be quite different.  See this NYTimes article for details.


Academic Rigor: A Message to Academic Leaders

Faculty and students are not on the same page about what makes a course rigorous.

Draeger, del Prado Hill, and Mahler (2015) find that “faculty perceived learning to be most rigorous when students are actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context” (216). Interactive, collaborative, engaging, synthesizing, interpreting, predicting, and increasing levels of challenge are phrases faculty use to describe rigor. In contrast, “academic rigor” is an uncommon expression among students. They describe challenging or “hard” courses “in terms of workload, grading standards, level of difficulty, level of interest, and perceived relevance to future goals” (215). Course quality is “a function of their ability to meet reasonable faculty expectations rather than as a function of mastery of learning outcomes” (216).

These material differences about workload and course difficulty impact enrollment as students vote with their feet. These perceptions also impact end-of-course evaluations and retention. Some teachers attempt to manage expectations and more closely align students’ perceptions of rigor in the context of instruction. But ad hoc solutions fall short when the issue is systemic. Effectively managing these conflicting views requires combined effort by faculty and administrators.

Academic leaders can attend to this disconnect by gathering program or institution-wide data from students on the front end of the academic process. Sander, Stevenson, King, and Coates (2000) developed a questionnaire to “enable students to tell the teaching team what they believed should happen in teaching and learning (ideal expectations), what they believed was likely to happen (predictive expectations) and what they definitely did not want to happen (counter-ideal expectations)” (p. 310). The authors also collected data on students’ views of assessment and which qualities a good teacher is supposed to have.

This kind of data allows teachers and administrators to gain valuable insights about students’ perspectives and expectations about learning. Because learning maturation occurs over time, a sense of first-year students’ understanding and potential misperceptions about learning provide a critical lens from which introductory and general education course evaluations should be filtered. Subsequent surveying of advanced standing students can shed light on how beliefs and attitudes toward learning and academic effort have changed, and hopefully matured, as students advance through programs.

Addressing issues related to rigor more directly, a survey by Lizzio, Wilson, and Simons (2002) emphasizes students’ perceptions of workload. They ask:

  • What is your sense of the volume or amount of work in this subject compared to other subjects?
  • What is your sense of the difficulty of the material in this subject compared to other subjects?
  • What is your sense of the balance between the breadth (the range of areas covered) and depth (how thoroughly they are covered) of material in this subject?
  • What, for you, have been the key ideas in this subject? How well do you feel you understand each of these ideas?
  • If we were to give more time or emphasis to one topic, which should that be? Why?
  • If we were to give less time or emphasis to one topic, which should that be? Why?
  • What are your time commitments outside of university?
  • What activities compete with university study?
  • What skills, attitudes, or resources might assist you in better managing the workload in this subject?

Conversations among academic leaders, faculty, and students about rigor and learning are more likely to adjust student expectations to a more realistic level than efforts by individual faculty. Academic leaders are in a unique position to identify trends and patterns in student perceptions and view the findings holistically. Responding to data and making those responses explicit and visible demonstrates that the institution cares and is receptive to student needs. Collecting data on expectations up front and acting on the results may lead to more students completing and taking seriously the end of course evaluations.

“Sometimes expectations and preferences might be responded to by moving to meet the students’ expectations or preferences. Other expectations or preferences that the students might have could well be unrealistic. In such cases, it would be more appropriate to sensitively manage these expectations or preferences to more appropriate levels. In either event, the student has been listened to and responded to, which is, in our view, the real purpose of accessing student expectations and preferences in the first place” (Sander et al. 2000, p. 322).

Gathering this kind of data also supports faculty development. Academic leaders and faculty will have more insight about the comments and feedback armed with data on student perspectives on workload and learning. Viewing course evaluations through the lens of student perceptions about learning and rigor shows faculty that the value of course evaluations goes beyond a few summary ratings. 

The final benefit is programmatic. Information about student expectations and perceptions about the program’s difficulty, learning, and instruction can be beneficial in the design and delivery of modules and courses (Sander et al. 2000).

If teachers, administrators, and students hold different definitions and expectations about rigor and learning, the academic process falls short of its potential. Academic leaders can gather front-end data to better understand and manage mismatched definitions of rigor. The purpose is not to water down courses, make grading easier, lower expectations, or reduce standards. The goal is to manage expectations at the start of the academic process, thereby improving learning and retention and more accurately interpreting course evaluations through more closely aligned conceptions of rigor.

Note: This piece is a modified version of an article in Magna Publications’ Academic Leader Newsletter (Sept 2017). Click here for subscription information.  Interested in learning more about rigor, learning and course evaluations, please consider participating in:

Magna Online Seminar, “Aligning Student and Faculty Perceptions of Rigor” on September 27.  Register Here

Magna Online Seminar, “Interpreting Rigor: Tools for Evaluating Faculty and Increasing Program Retention,” on October 4, 2017.  Register Here.


Draeger, J., del Prado Hill, P., Mahler, R. “Developing a Student Concept of Academic Rigor.” Innovation in Higher Education, 40 (2015): 215–228.

Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., Simons, R. “University Students’ Perceptions of the Learning Environment and Academic Outcomes: Implications for Theory and Practice.” Studies in Higher Education, 27, no. 1 (2002): 27–52.

Sander, P., Stevenson, K., King, M., and Coates, D. “University Students’ Expectations of Teaching.” Studies in Higher Education, 25, no. 3 (2000): 309–323.

Questioning the Two-Hour Rule for Studying

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a Faculty Focus article published earlier this week.

Faculty often tell students to study two hours for every credit hour. Where and when did this rule of thumb originate? I’ve been unable to track down its genesis. I suspect it started around 1909, when the Carnegie Unit (CU) was accepted as the standard measure of class time. [See Heffernan (1973) and Shedd (2003) for thorough histories of the credit hour.] The U.S. Department of Education defines the credit hour as “One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester…” The expectation was the norm when I was in college in the 1980s and more seasoned professors indicate it was expected in the 1970s too.

 Is the two-hour rule relevant today? Why two hours? Why not one? Or three? Study resources and tools have changed dramatically in the past century. Typing papers, researching, and collaborating required a lot more time in prior decades. Personal computers, mobile devices, and the Internet have dramatically changed what goes on in and out of class, yet the two-hour rule persists.

The two-hour rule implies a 3-credit course involves 9 hours of learning per week. Few teachers think about or plan courses with nine hours in mind. Taking this further, if we rely on a brief, standard syllabus statement to “cover” the six study hours, what does that say about their importance or role in learning? Furthermore, NSSE data suggest students generally aren’t studying anywhere near that level of time per week. [This Indiana NSSE article is a recent example.] The rule exists but does it matter to students or faculty? Is it relevant? Is it working?

What should be done during study time? Of bigger concern than the emphasis on time is the lack of direction about what to do during those hours. Some schools (Binghamton University, is one) require that course syllabi state what students might do outside of class, “completing assigned readings, studying for tests and examinations, participating in lab sessions, preparing written assignments, and other course-related tasks.” That’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Before we blame students by saying they should already know what to do, let’s consider an example. I studied classical piano for a dozen years. Each week the teacher would instruct on notation, technique, and interpretation. Lessons always included detailed descriptions and a discussion of what I was to do during practice. How long I was to practice was only an estimate. The emphasis was on what needed to be done, not how long it would take. Practice time consisted of warm-up exercises, scales, and work on compositions. I didn’t always practice diligently (sorry, Mrs. Farr), but I consistently knew what I should be doing during practice to improve as a pianist.

Can most students say the same? A statement on the syllabus, particularly one that emphasizes policies, probably doesn’t get much attention from students during study time. Likewise, a teacher’s admonition to “study X hours per week” is easily forgotten or ignored. In addition, we lose credibility with our students if we tell them to “study two hours per credit” for no other reason than that’s the way it’s always been done. We should be more concerned with outcomes than time.

Shift focus from time to task. I recognize that telling students to study doesn’t mean it will happen. I’m also not suggesting everything students do outside of class should be graded. But instead of telling students how long to study, emphasize mastery. Provide examples of active learning strategies so they can use their time more effectively. In addition to active reading assignments and graded homework, the following activities promote engagement and go beyond students’ typical study strategies, such as creating note cards or “looking over” their notes.

  • Practice Problems: Provide extra, ungraded problems. Suggest they mix different types of problems to simulate an exam. Ask them to solve problems they’ve created. Provide additional problems and hold back the solutions to allow students some time to work without the answers. Consider incorporating a couple of these questions on exams to motivate practice.
  • Rewrite Notes in Your Own Words: Rewrites are an opportunity to “replay” what was said and done in class. Be intentional about asking students if they have questions about what they’ve written in their notes. Occasionally set aside a couple of minutes in class for students to compare notes and seek clarification.
  • Concept Maps: Students can use note cards to accomplish deep understanding if they try to connect single pieces of information on each card to other concepts through a concept map. These can be drawn by hand or created with software. Emphasize substance over form. The purpose is to make connections and see the content from different perspectives (Berry & Chew, 2008).
  • Respond to Learning Reflection Prompts: How is X related to Y? What other information would you want to find? What was the most challenging topic in the chapter? How does this material connect to what you learned before? Reflection prompts promote connections across topics, helping students see content more holistically. Incorporate reflection in graded work as appropriate. Reflection assignments can be independent and ungraded or incorporated in class or online.
  • Quiz to Learn: Provide sample questions or ask students to create multiple-choice questions as part of their study activities. Occasionally use one or two student-created questions on exams, or reward exceptional examples with extra credit.
  • Crib Sheets: Even if they’re not allowed during an exam, the process of identifying what to put on a “cheat” sheet and organizing the information promotes thinking about the relative importance and relationships among concepts. Set aside a few minutes of class time for students to compare and contrast their sheets as part of student-led exam review.

I think it’s time to retire the two-hour rule. This is not a call to abandon the credit hour or ignore institutional policy. Nor am I suggesting we ask students to study less. It is a call to think about mastery more and time less. For many students, studying is something only done before an exam and homework is completed because it’s graded. If we want to develop self-directed learners, these narrow conceptions of what it means to “study” must change. Teachers broaden and reshape students’ perceptions of homework and study by de-emphasizing time and focusing on substance. We can help students see class time, study time, and homework as an integrated system of activities designed to advance learning. We do that by being as specific and intentional about structuring students’ out-of-class study activities, graded or otherwise, as we are about what goes on during class.

Interested in learning more about the definitions and implications of rigor?  Consider joining in an online seminar:

Magna Online Seminar, “Aligning Student and Faculty Perceptions of Rigor” on September 27.  Register Here

Magna Online Seminar, “Interpreting Rigor: Tools for Evaluating Faculty and Increasing Program Retention,” on October 4, 2017.  Register Here.


Berry, J.W. & Chew, S.L. (2008). Improving Learning Through Interventions of Student-Generated Questions and Concept Maps. Teaching of Psychology, 35: 305-312.

Binghamton University Syllabus Policy. https://www.binghamton.edu/academics/provost/faculty-staff-handbook/handbook-vii.html#A8 Accessed: July 26, 2017.

Heffernan, J.M. (1973). The Credibility of the Credit Hour: The History, Use and Shortcomings of the Credit System. The Journal of Higher Education, 44(1): 61-72.

Shedd, J.M. (2003). The History of the Student Credit Hour, New Directions for Higher Education, 122 (Summer): 3-12.

U.S. Department of Education Credit Hour Definition. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div8&node=34: Accessed: July 26, 2017