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Dr. Cynthia Simpson

Dr. Cynthia Simpson

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Terrified of Tests?

by Dr. Polly Treviño
Our oldest son started second grade this year.  Recently, I was looking through his second grade science guide, which also contains his weekly science homework.  (The science homework, sadly, was all multiple-choice questions.)  Our son noticed me reviewing the booklet, and he joined me looking over my shoulder.
“Mom,” he said very urgently, “Do you know what is the most terrifying thing?”
Terrifying?  Trying to sound nonplussed, I said, “What is?”
“This!  Let me show you.”  He flipped through the booklet to find page 2 and read the following aloud to me:
These strategies will give the students a structure for reading carefully and thinking critically about each question.  Students are going to use these strategies with warm ups, homework, checkpoint tests, unit tests, benchmark tests, and STAAR.
Pointing to the abbreviation STAAR, he said, “THAT is the most terrifying thing.  I don’t know if we have to take it this year or not, but …” His voice trailed off.  “It’s supposed to be the HARDEST test,” he continued.  (STAAR is our state’s annual high-stakes assessment of student knowledge and skills.)

I sat in stunned silence.  I should not have been stunned, for I am well aware of the effects of high-stakes testing in public education.  But hearing these words come from my second grader was jarring.  He is seven years old, and he fears a test that he will not take for another year and a half.  How is that possible? I did not even know he knew what STAAR was, much less that he feared it.  Given that he could read the instructions for parents on the science guide, he is likely to show mastery on the exam when it’s time to take it.  However, awash in his fear, he doesn’t realize this.

I don’t recall talking about STAAR at home.  We prefer to emphasize learning as opposed to testing in our home, and I made a conscious choice not to mention it.  After all, he’s only seven! So, I can only assume that he has learned to fear STAAR at school.  I don’t blame my son’s teachers for this. Rather, I believe he is a product of the public education assessment system as a whole.   A system that reduces creative, capable, and complex children to a number.  A system that measures all of a teacher’s efforts as valid only if the students answer enough questions correctly.   A system that quantifies all student learning, so rich and varied, into a single score on a single measure on a single day.

I am trained in quantitative research, and I understand the efficiency and psychometric adequacy of our current system.  I value the easily collected and easily summarized data that tests can give us.  However, it seems to me that, in the present assessment system, tests have become the outcome of education instead of learning.  When homework is always formatted in multiple-choice questions, when students are encouraged to use their “strategies” for every single assignment (in math, reading, and science), when students are inundated with tests (See the sundry tests listed in the science booklet instructions.), and when all of this starts as early as first grade, the message that children receive is that the TEST is what is important.  What should be important is the LEARNING, but instead our students believe that doing well on tests is the purpose of education.

Cue the fear and anxiety, because the next message that children absorb is:  “The test is the ultimate outcome.  If you do poorly on the test, then you are not good.”  Somewhere along the way, to students themselves, assessment became not a measure of learning but a measure of worth.  In essence, the system communicates that PERFORMANCE = WORTH.  Students begin to believe that if they don’t pass STAAR (insert any other assessment here), then they have no value.

It is easy to see why so many students have test anxiety.  For if a student believes the test somehow measures worth, then of course he will fear the outcome.  The performance-worth equation is one we have to break.  We need to help students see that their value is not found in their performance on tests.  They have value because they are children of God, created in His image, ransomed by Christ on the cross.  PERFORMANCE WORTH

This is what I tried to convey to my sweet seven-year-old.  I told him:  “If you put forth the effort to learn and learn as much as you can, learn with joy and learn deeply, then you have no need to fear a test.  If you fear the test anyway, then ask Jesus to help you with your fear.  Give it to Him and He will replace it with peace and comfort.  Remember, the test tells your teacher what you have learned and where you have room to grow; it doesn’t say what you are worth to our family and to God.  We will love you no matter what happens.  You are a child of God, created in His image, and He will love you no matter what happens on this test.”

Are you an undergraduate getting ready for a midterm? You might need to hear this, too.  Are you a psychology/counseling graduate student preparing for orals?  Are you an education graduate student preparing for comprehensive exams? Listen up and take this in!

PERFORMANCE WORTH.   The test does not measure your value as a human being.  Because of Salvation, you need no longer be a slave to your fear.  You are a valuable child of God.

Note:  The views expressed in this post are my own and in no way reflect the position of Houston Baptist University, the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, the HBU Educator Preparation Program, or other faculty contributors to this blog.

Our Ever Changing World: E-cigs

by Dr. John Spoede

To smoke e-cigs or not? That is the 21st century question.
In our ever changing world, it is hard to keep up with current trends. Specifically, e-cigs were introduced to the USA market around 2006. Since that time, there have been numerous findings by the CDC on the use of e-cigs among various populations.

Even more telling were the findings from the 2014 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study.

In the 2014 MTF annual study, the use of e-cigs surpassed the use of regular cigarettes. This finding, supports the need for future research on e-cigs. Another (troubling) statistic reported in the 2014 MTF was that 10th grade students use  e-cigs twice as often as regular cigarettes.

For those in the K-12 education system, these findings support the need to develop education programs and interventions. Specifically, e-cigs should be addressed through programs such as “Red Ribbon Week” and “safe and drug-free schools.” For those in the fields of counseling and psychology, there is a need to update our understanding (through CEU’s) of e-cigs. There is also a need for the diagnostic community (those using the DSM-V) to determine how to address e-cigs, which provide nicotine to the user, when determining how to diagnosis and treat clients who actively use e-cigs.  Overall, this is an area of research that has more questions than answers.

To smoke e-cigs or not, that is the 21st century question.

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement: A Review

Dr. Tom Kennedy
I devoured a great book two weeks ago: The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Drs. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009, Atria Books). I recommend it highly, even though it was published in 2009. The book documented the increase in selfish behavior over the last few decades and how that selfish behavior has crossed the line into narcissism. I could not fail to see parallels with the attitudes of the Romans in the Roman Empire at the time it fell.

Just some background first: Everyone has some level of narcissism. It emerges in infancy from what Freud calls the Id. The Id demands what it wants, when it wants it. Our childhood exposure to family and society’s rules is supposed to teach us to balance desires with society’s rules. This balanced selfishness morphs into narcissism when teens and adults come to believe society’s rules can be bent/broken for them, but that others should follow the rules. Narcissists also rationalize their failures by blaming others. In fact, many narcissists take credit for their teammates’ successes. Not something you learn in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

Twenge and Campbell, the book’s authors, are two researchers who have been working in this field for decades. They talk about the “epidemic” in narcissism among modern students. Since the 1980s, almost 40,000 students were given a narcissism test. Narcissism was lower at that time but “[b]y 2006, 1 out of 4 college students had agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits.” Many professors who have been in the profession for a few decades have seen this development in their own students.

Though not everyone can be diagnosed with a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, society’s major influences are training people to become more narcissistic in their attitudes and beliefs. Messages on clothes tell others that they are encountering a princess, or the clothes may just say I love me or I’m hot, and you’re not. The authors cringe at the idea of the self-esteem improvement efforts because it fans the idea that one is special. In the past self-esteem meant feeling comfortable with being a part of the group. Now self-esteem means one is superior to the group.

There are myths about narcissism that the authors confront and correct. One such myth is that narcissists have low self-esteem. The authors’ research shows that narcissists are in love with themselves and see themselves as “awesome.” “Thus,” write Twenge and Campbell, “narcissists have very similar views of themselves on the inside and the outside—they are secure and positive that they are winners, but believe that caring about others isn’t all that important.”

What are some of the causes of the tremendous rise in narcissism? It seems that a combination of “less authoritative parenting” (Read: permissive parenting) and the focus of the self-esteem movement has propelled the dramatic increase in narcissism. The movement’s focus on sparing the feelings of a child who underperforms seems to be a major cause of this increase. As a result, we give medals and ribbons to all the children despite their performance. We also give them positive reinforcement at home and school for mediocre performance, which encourages them to expect less of themselves. One complementary result of this low expectation is to expect more from others to compensate for one’s own lack of success.

Some narcissists are intelligent and successful. They become leaders of business, and many enter politics. The ultimate power trip is to be able to tell many other people what to do but blame others for one’s own failures.
The authors suggest some ways to reduce narcissism in our society. Removing the self-esteem approaches to education and parenting is an important step. In education, the “everyone-is-a-winner” approach does not improve performance. The authors point out that “[i]t is OK for a child to feel somewhat bad if he or she underperforms in academics, sports, or personal conduct. The child can then learn from the poor performance and be given the opportunity and encouragement to strive to improve.”

One other major area pointed out earlier is in parenting. Permissive parenting has been a major culprit encouraging narcissism in children. We do know that setting clear limits and providing consequences is important to balanced parenting. However, parents must follow up with enforcing the consequences, even if it looks like it will reduce the child’s self-esteem. In actuality, enforcement of consequences will encourage us to examine our behavior in relation to others.

Twenge and Campbell also take on the forces that reward narcissism: reality TV programs, commercials, sports activities, the internet (Facebook), credit cards and even economic policy. However, it will be a tough road to change these influences for those who want to reduce narcissism and increase responsibility in our young.

At one point the book does explore how religion prevents narcissism. Worship services and Sunday School emphasized empathy, compassion, and a concern for others. But the authors point out how narcissism has crept into the church itself and how churches search for new members by appealing to their narcissistic desires. On the other hand, they noted that, as members have been leaving the church and declaring that they have no religion or creating their own religion, narcissism has increased.

Religion is also mentioned as a solution, but in focused ways. Twenge and Campbell talk about teaching humility, compassion for self, meditation, mindfulness and gratefulness. There is no emphasis to just go back to church and how church leaders can accomplish that. I think many of the authors’ solutions will be realized if people will just go back to worship services and Sunday School.

What do you think?

The Mere Presence Effect Controls What You Believe

Quick question: What is the number one cancer killer of women? No, it is not breast cancer, it is not uterine cancer, it is not cervical cancer, and it is not ovarian cancer. The number one cancer killer of women is lung cancer. In fact lung cancer kills more women than all the others combined. Were you surprised? Most people are. But why do most people believe the number one cancer killer is breast cancer?

The reason is the Mere Presence Effect. This social psychological term describes the brain’s willingness to believe a lot of something exists in society if it sees it often. When was the last time you saw an advertisement support research on lung cancer in women?

Here are some other influences of the Mere Presence Effect. What percentage of our society is made up of homosexuals? Many students in my classes give answers as high as 30%, or thirty out of 100 Americans are homosexual. The actual answer is around 2%, or two out of a 100. Why the difference in beliefs? We see so much about homosexuals on TV and in the news, especially with same-sex marriage.

Is it better to cohabit to see if you are compatible, and then marry? TV shows people happily cohabiting together, but usually shows married people as unhappy. Cohabiting will lower one’s divorce rate, according to many people. They are wrong. We have no research that shows cohabiting lowering the divorce rate. In fact, those who cohabit will have a higher rate of divorce if they do marry later. Just to clarify something, those who live together and don’t get married break up at a much higher rate than those who marry.

Here is a thought question. Why do politicians want to spend so much money on TV ads and other media? Part of the reason is the Mere Presence Effect. If they overwhelm you with more ads than their opponents, then your brain will believe that everyone else is going to vote for them, so you should too.

What parts of your beliefs are influenced by the Mere Presence Effect? Perhaps much more than you know. This scripture from Paul indicates some of the influence of the Mere Presence Effect on the spiritual lives of Christians.

Romans 12:2   Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Everyone in Paul’s world was living a pattern of unhealthy spiritual lives, but almost all believed their spiritual lives were healthy. Why? Because they saw everyone else living the same way.

Part of our challenge as Christians is to examine what is real and what is an unhealthy Mere Presence Effect. What do you think? Are you influenced too much by the Mere Presence Effect? Would you know a Mere Presence Effect if you saw one? It is time to study scripture as well as good research. They will give you a good indication.

Tom Kennedy, EdD

They Are Huskies

Check out HBU News today:  They Are Huskies.  Recent MEd graduate Thomi Wilson and undergraduate education major Jenneth Oliveras are highlighted for the work they do outside of the classroom.  Dawgs up, COEBS!


by Dr. Stephanie Ellis

Several days ago, I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with the First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, speaking (in part) about the United States’ relationship with her country. The part of her message that really struck a chord with me was this: She asked the US to continue supporting Afghanistan, but to do so without pity, understanding that the Afghan people (including Afghan women) are a strong, motivated people.

I don’t think many of us know how to do that. And I don’t mean in a foreign policy sort of way. I think that American culture has such a strong focus on independence that we often don’t understand the concept that someone might need or want support, but still not need to be viewed as dependent or made to be dependent.

Consider all the “give support” commercials you can think of. Do starving children and sick puppies and Sarah McLachlan come to mind? Trust me, they do those kinds of commercials because they are the most effective ones at opening pocketbooks.

Can you imagine a commercial that said “The Help-Us-Help-Others organization is functioning well? We have a strong group of volunteers, and the people we serve are strong. Our financial situation is not dire, but adequate. God will meet our basic needs; we don’t have any concern about that. And if we have to change the way function or provide services based on what we have now, that’s also legitimately fine. We will not fall apart if you don’t support us. But it would be nice, and you would be helping, and we and the others who rely on us would benefit. Please donate!”

When you first read that, does it sound a little crazy?! Read it again. And read it again, if you need to. Read it until you realize that almost always true, and it’s still worth helping.

SO, how can we do this better?

How can students support each other better? How can faculty support students, faculty support each other, church members support each other in a way that honors the strength and dignity of the other person, and doesn’t enable them in becoming dependent, while still providing what they need?

Using Discussion Forums in Online Courses

by Dr. Polly Trevino

In the HBU College of Education and Behavioral Sciences we are adding new online courses each semester.  Just like our face-to-face (F2F) courses, HBU online course are interactive, even though students and professor in the online classroom are separated by time and space.  (See Dr. Wilson’s post about interaction in her online graduate courses.)  As we design and teach online courses, we are intentional in structuring interactions among learners.  Discussion board forums are essential for interactive online classrooms.  Are you new to online instruction?  This post will walk you through the basics of discussion forum assignments.

Why discussions?

Discussions forum assignments are to the online classroom what class discussions are for the F2F classroom.  The instructor poses a question, task, or scenario to which students must respond in writing.  Responses are posted publicly for all class members to see, and then class members reply to each other’s postings.  Discussion assignments engage learners in “the cycle of reading, reflecting, considering, and making connections that actually changes the knowledge structure inside the learner’s brain” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010, p. 85).  Students express ideas, “listen” to one another, connect and apply learning, ask questions, and reflect.  The instructor poses questions, “listens” as students grapple with ideas, and facilitates students’ connections and applications.

Discussion forums provide a social context, allowing individuals separated by time and space to become a community of learners.  As a place for community-building in the online classroom, discussion forums are “the ‘campfire’ around which course community and bonding occur” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010,p. 85).  Through writing discussion posts, learners engage with the content, with one another, and with the instructor.  Moreover, in an online discussion forum, all learners have the opportunity to “speak” in the discussion.  Even shy or reluctant learners, relieved of the social anxiety or pressure to respond in F2F discussions, participate in the online discussion forum.

What makes a good discussion question?

Boettcher & Conrad (2010) recommend focusing discussion topics on essential course concepts.  Discussions are appropriate for learning goals where students are asked to apply core concepts in various contexts.  Discussion forums work best when students are problem-solving, linking new knowledge to existing knowledge, or applying new knowledge in context.

When developing the discussion topic, avoid knowledge-level questions that have a pre-determined answer.  Asking this type of question on the discussion forum does not encourage deep interactions.  Everyone’s answer will (or should) be similar, and learners will not have anything to discuss.

Instead, choose questions that can have more than one answer.  Ask learners to:

  • conduct research related to course learning and report to the group,
  • express opinions about an issue,
  • analyze a real-world issue in light of course learning,
  • answer higher-order questions rather than lower-order questions, or
  • incorporate personal experiences with academic analysis.

Learners’ answers will vary, which will motivate them to read other’s posts to see how their classmates answered the question.

How many discussion topics should I ask my students to complete in one week?

The answer to that depends on the type of questions you’re asking and what else you’ve assigned that week (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010).  If your discussion questions are short-answer essay questions in which you ask the learner to comprehend and summarize concepts or apply them in simple contexts, then you might have as many as three discussion questions in one week.  If your discussion questions are more complex and require research, application in complex situations, or problem-solving in case studies or scenarios, then two discussions in one week would be sufficient, provided that there are no other assignments due that week.  If there are other assignments due, then one complex discussion might be sufficient.  Weeks in which students submit a major project or have an exam might not have any discussion questions.

How can I facilitate online discussions?

There are several techniques that instructors can utilize to encourage students to interact and elaborate their thinking.  First, require that students make a specified number of replies in each forum.  Typically, all students are required to make an original response to the discussion topic.  A requirement to reply to their peers’ posts will encourage reluctant students to interact with their classmates.

Additionally, you, the instructor, should participate in the forum and respond to students’ posts.  Respond to the content of the posts in the public forum, and give evaluative feedback to students privately.  When you participating in the forum:

  • Comment on something the student has said in the post:
    • That reminds me of…
    • Thank you for bringing that up…
    • I see your point that…
  • Relate two students’ posts or summarize and synthesize student comments:
    • Check out ___’s post.  She also commented that…
    •  ___ and ___ argued for a different approach to the problem.  How would you counter their position?
    • The majority of our class argued for X, although for various reasons…
  • Ask students questions to encourage elaboration:
    • Can you explain what you meant by…?
    • What has been your experience with…?
    • Would you agree or disagree with that?
    • How does X relate to Y?

Finally, use student names in your responses.  If you’re responding directly to a particular student’s post, then address him/her by name.  When students see that the instructor knows and uses their names, they will feel acknowledged and be more likely to learn and use their classmates’ names.  Before you know it, your students, separated by time and space but connected with technology, will become a functioning learning community!

References: Boettcher, J.V., & Conrad, R. (2010).  The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The Successful Online Student

by Dr. Alex Spatariu

A new semester has just started here at HBU, and we are all excited but also focused on the course work loads ahead of us. For those of you taking online or blended courses, especially if it is your first online learning experience, check out this guide for successful e-learning experiences.

Personally, I recommend focusing on 3 things. First, log in to your course at least a couple times a week.  Check for materials you have to read or use for class as well as assignments that are due. That will help you keep up with the course as there are no face to face meetings where one would be verbally reminded what is to be done and when. Second, master the technology needed in the course, whether it is Blackboard course navigation, course specific software, or electronic materials associated with your textbook. Third, balance your coursework with other life responsibilities, such as work, family, friends.  Do not forget to take some breaks and have fun as well.


by Dr. Alex Spatariu

The semester end is almost here! Before we can all relax during the winter break, assignments have to be turned in, a few more classes need to be attended, and the finals are pressing for more study time. All of these could make one tired or feel overwhelmed. My best advice to you all for navigating through busy times well is to divide work into smaller tasks and take things one step at a time. Try not to think too much about what you have to do overall, just chunk things and work on each of the smaller parts. Then piece them together.

Here are some motivational video interviews to watch when you have a few minutes. These are done by Dr. Bob Hoffman, a good friend of mine, who is a professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Central Florida. These folks come from all walks of life, but they all have something in common: overcoming hardships and experiencing success by finding their motivation!  You can also sign up for Twitter and follow Dr. Bob.

Finding Joy in a Tough Job

by Dr. Julie Fernandez

Why would anyone want the job of a school principal?  It is a tough position. People yell at you, challenge you, and at times steal your parking space.  The responsibilities of a principal have grown exponentially during the past 10 years.  School accountability means the test scores are pinned to a principal’s shirt for all to see.   There is nowhere to hide when it comes to the endless responsibilities of the job. You must have knowledge of instructional strategies, human resources, special education, budgeting, scheduling, discipline, and serving food in the cafeteria.  If there is a problem on a campus, it is the principal’s problem. However, the job is not all about stress and gloom.  There is joy.

When the day is over and everyone goes home, you can sit back and reflect on the enormity of the job that God entrusted you to do.   It is a calling far beyond any thoughts of glory you had when you first dreamed of this career path.  Children depend on you to hire the best teachers.  They come in the doors hoping for unconditional love and acceptance.  They look to you as their parent away from home.  It is an overwhelming honor.

How you keep all the stress from sucking the joy out of your passion for the job is the biggest challenge.  I struggled with this problem all the time, but I finally found a simple solution. On particularly stressful days, I went to kindergarteners for advice.  It was at the end of the day when they were resting from a long day of letters, numbers, and songs.  I asked them to sit with me and give me their wisdom for living a life full of joy.  One little boy who smelled like Play-doh and sweat looked me in the eye and said, “When I am tired, I take my blanket and snuggle with my mom.  She makes me feel good.  She loves me.”  When I arrived home that evening, I took my blanket and snuggled with my Father.  He made me feel good.  He loves me.  “Humble yourselves, therefore under God’s mighty hand so he may lift you up in due time, casting all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5: 6-7, NIV)

Never underestimate His love and care for you when you follow His calling to positions where you are entrusted with the care of His children.  Stress in any job is inevitable especially in jobs where leadership is vital.  However, how we manage our stress is what separates the believers from the non-believers. Snuggle with your Father and allow Him to take your burdens and lighten your load.  There you will find joy.

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