Sunday, October 23, 2011

We've Moved!

The Tenn TLC blog is now on our home page:

Please join us there.

Thank you!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Recent Ideas for Engaging Students with Audio, Visuals


Several posts have recently caught my attention;  I would like to share two with you--one on mind mapping and one on using your iPad as a document camera. 

Mind Maps

The blog "Faculty Focus" published a review of mind-mapping and software that you can use to mind-map.  Mind maps, also referred to as concept maps, can help students organize ideas and think critically.  Plus, since mind maps involve visualizing problems, it appeals to learners who remember visuals more easily than printed text.  You will need to decide whether to use paper and pen or to go with online tools.  With smaller classes, I would recommend large sheets of paper, which you can buy in packs (you can even purchase rolls of paper, the kind used by newspapers, and cut off sections).  Poster-sized post-it notes are also an option, although this is the most expensive method. 

"According to Buzan and Buzan, a mind map should be drawn on blank paper that is larger than standard 8 ½ by 11 inch paper. The rationale behind using a large sheet of paper is that it allows the student the opportunity to break away from the boundaries established by standard sized paper." 

Mind-mapping can be an excellent group activity when you want students to think theoretically or want them to create relationships between information and ideas.  For more on mind-mapping and other visual learning activities, you can visit the TENN TLC page on visual learning.

Using Visuals / Your iPad as a projector

According to OIT, most of the classroom projection systems can work with the iPad VGA adapter cable, and a recent post by Classroom in the Cloud gives us another reason to consider springing for this cable.   There are several OIT consultants specializing in iPad uses: just give them a call and check on which adapter will be most appropriate for your classroom (4-9900).

Have you ever made use of a doc camera?  When students are doing in-class writing, it is an excellent tool.  This is obvious to composition teachers but the doc camera can also be helpful in other types of classes, in projecting the results of student group work.  For instance, suppose you ask students to solve a problem in small groups.  You could randomly call on a group to bring their results to the front and, using the camera feature, project their answer.  You can do this by creating a "stand" (as explained in this blog) or you can simply take and project a photo.

Why go to this effort?  We know from decades of research that involving students in the learning process is most effective.  Holding students accountable for their learning is also highly recommended (we do this all the time with quizzes and tests).  So, if you are wondering how to make sure groups are producing the thoughtful work that you have requested of them, have them produce a document.  To make even more impact, let them know that their group might be chosen to show their work to the class--now they are accountable not just to you but to an entire audience of their peers.  This is a powerful incentive for any student but especially for our peer-focused millenials.

The article also discusses other ways to use the iPad in the class. You could talk to UT's professor Joanne Logan  about her experiences.  She is currently in a TEAL classroom (technology-enhanced) and her student groups are using iPads.   For more ideas on using iPads, see "my bloomin' ipad."

Whether or not you make use of technology, involve your students in class.  Years ago, Bloom (of Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning) asked us to consider, who is doing the most work in the room?  That is the person who is learning the most. His question is still valid.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Teaching and Learning--Recent Articles

Now that the semester is well underway, news articles about teaching and learning have been hitting my desk.  Let me share some significant reading material with you. 

When faculty ask for help engaging today's student, I frequently mention Eric Mazur's process of Peer Instruction.  When we want increase engagement and learning in class--particularly larger classes of 50, 100, or more--Mazur's approach can be very useful.  His process begins with giving students questions about the assigned reading that they answer before class.  Students also submit questions about concepts that they found difficult or confusing.  In class, the instructor addresses these questions and provides time for students who are now "getting it" to talk to each other.  

A recent article and video,"Don't Lecture Me," posted by American Radio Works (public media) gives one of the clearest explanations of this process and sets it in the context of teaching trends today.  Mazur's story of how he started to develop peer instruction is very interesting.  He describes a phenomena of student interaction that still amazes us.  When we ask students to turn to their neighbor and explain or discuss a problem or concept, the energy level in the room just explodes.  Just yesterday, a faculty member remarked on the noise level as students discussed a quiz.  It is quite a shock as we realize that they have been carefully restraining themselves in order to listen to the lecture, yet they have a lot to say.  As classroom managers of large groups of students, we might worry about what they are doing.  However, this discussion is extremely important in terms of understanding and long term retention.

If you are looking for the most comprehensive survey of recent teaching news, consult the recent Carnival by ProfHacker.  Post September 1, this blog lists a multitude of interesting teaching and learning articles, including but not limited to Chronicle articles.  I particularly recommend Cathy Davidson's essay on collaborative learning, as she expounds on students' collective imaginations, crowd-sourcing, and public grading.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

How We Make an Impact as Teachers

Ken Bain wrote about great college teachers at length, and in our workshops for new faculty, we start with a discussion of those teachers that we admired.  What characteristics did we appreciate?  In a recent discussion, we came up with qualities such as honest, personal, generous, competent, fair, responsible, resourceful, and understanding.  We also discussed how instructors can encourage and reinforce students in their learning, someone who can encourage creativity, someone who strives to move forward in their teaching and in their content knowledge, and someone who can create connections for students. 

How do our personal characteristics matter?  We can use our natural tendencies to great effect.  And, we can work on those characteristics that we want to adopt.  Some professional attributes are part of our areas--part of our content expertise.  How do we bring into the classroom our experience with the content and our knowledge and experience how that content is used in the world?

Two aspects of teaching stand out consistently as highly influential for students: engaging them in learning and connecting with them personally.   In the classroom, students are engaged when they are asked for input, which helps them connect new learning with previous learning.  They are also engaged through narrative.

We, as teachers, often speak about how good visuals impact student learning.  We know that technology has increased the impact of visuals in learning (we are already a very visual species).  We talk less these days about the importance of narrative, but narrative makes just as much impact on learning.

By narrative, I mean creating a story about your content.  When you walk into the classroom, what do you want to convey?  What is your objective?  How do you express yourself with passion?  For students who come to a physical classroom, they come to see us.  As UT acting professor Jed Diamond often says, we are the focus in the room--not the powerpoint slide.

When we step up, and we can create a story about our content, we capture student attention.  I do not mean that we have to be story tellers.  Yet, we can introduce a significant case with details woven into our lecture.  We can ask students a significant question and work our lecture around that question. We can inject our professional experience--adding a personal aspect--into our talk with students.  And we can build in activities around these cases and experiences, asking students about their ideas, opinions, and even their own experiences. 

Monday, July 25, 2011


Ensuring a Productive End to Your Summer
There are people out there who believe college professors work just a few hours a day each week and get a 3-month vacation every year.  Clearly, this is not the case, but what are you doing this summer to stay busy? Many faculty currently have book projects and research underway, are attending development workshops, planning their courses, and possibly even teaching. These faculty know that a productive summer can lead to an even more successful fall semester.
But others may view the summer as unstructured time, as a break from a tough previous semester, or even develop a sense of isolation during summer months—and this can impede getting a jump on the summer to-do lists. If you haven’t accomplished what you had hoped to so far, it’s not too late. So what are the secrets to getting the most (professionally speaking) out of the summer? 
  • Start by making a personalized summer plan with realistic goals. Identify what needs to be accomplished and note the steps needed to make each item on your list happen.
  • Next, be a daily writer! Even if it’s just a paragraph, write something every day, and even look for a group of “daily writers” for support. It’s also helpful to keep a log of what you do each day and how long you spent doing it. Finally, commit to accountability. Create the same sense of urgency for yourself that your students and colleagues feel regarding teaching and service, and apply it to your summer research and projects.
  • If you are on track or ahead with research and writing, it might be a good time to review plans and materials for the fall semester by incorporating some new techniques or innovative teaching strategies into your already-prepared course.
  • In case you missed the 2011 UT Summer Teaching Institute, you can get plenty of tips online by visiting some easy-to navigate sites and libraries that will help you revamp what you already have… or create something entirely new. The TENN TLC offers a variety of teaching tools and resources, including how-to guides and suggestions for improving your course.  For more information, Active Learning in Higher Education is a collection of research, focusing on development and innovative teaching. And for access to research studies, reflective essays, literature reviews, case studies and critiques/ comments, visit The Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Service.
If at this point in the summer you are caught up on research and writing, have no workshops or seminars to attend, are not teaching, and have reviewed course content and materials for the fall, you’re probably way ahead of your colleagues. Why not just find a cooler, a chair, and a good book? Here are the best reads for the summer for those of you that deserve an award for your summer productivity!
And, finally, for those who simply can’t bear the thought of opening one more book this summer, why not get out and enjoy the summer here in Knoxville? Here are some great local events & attractions to stimulate the mind. The Knoxville Writer’s Guild  is a community of writers who provide support and promote education and publication.  The East TN Historical Society and Museum  offers a wide selection of programs and events for anyone interested in history. And for a group outing with like-minded people, check out all of the available Knoxville Meet-ups, including interests for oenophiles, nature-lovers, entrepreneurs, and more; there are more than 130 meet-up groups available at; just search for Knoxville, TN.

guest writer Karen Brinkley, Tenn TLC

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


It can sometimes frustrate college teachers when they realize that their students don't read well (who am I kidding--it confounds and frustrates a lot of us!).  Students have most likely been given instruction on active reading either in high school or during a composition course; however, it may not be habit for them and students may not be accomplished at or confident about college-level reading. 

There are strategies to encourage students and offer help. Articles from the Teaching Professor Blog can help you decide on an approach.  "How Students Read Textbooks" discusses a study on the "sink or skim" methods used by most students--who either "sink" the knowledge by careful reading or "skim" their texts, often the day of or the day after a lecture.  Assessments designed to hold students accountable for careful reading vary from assigning journals to given a "just in time" quiz before class (see the article on reading quizzes: "More on Students and Reading").

As for whether it makes a difference if the text is print or e-book, the active reading strategies may vary.  Consider the reading support provided in many e-books (often they come with glossaries, linked indexes, and dictionaries).  However, before you throw away a student's option to read a print text, you might want to consult the following article: "Another study points to advantages of printed textbooks."   The study by the University of California Libraries cites the advantages of e-books (including e-highlighting, annotation, and downloading options), yet shows that print books have other advantages in terms of deep learning.  Readers will move to print copies for "reading, note taking, text comparison, and deep study" (see the May 2011 study).  This preference is shown more by students in the arts and humanities (the same group that scores highest in writing and critical thinking, according to the authors of Academically Adrift).   What is most interesting is the reported preference for print-on-demand options for textbooks. 

So, as you plan for courses next year, consider how to integrate reading into your courses--and how to encourage your students to adopt deep reading strategies!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Summer News

Summer, for many of us, is a time to catch up on news in higher education and to spend a bit of time reading more than the headlines. Here's some recent articles of interest:
Do you think about the future of education?  Check out the 2020 Forecast which provides ideas for you to explore, in terms of drivers of change, trends, signals, and learning agents.

Ever wonder about the debate between the effectiveness of lecture versus active learning?  There is a great deal of research supporting the effectiveness of pedagogies that engage students.  Take a look at this recent article on the results from research on an undergraduate physics course, "Applying science to the teaching of science"; "according to Dr Deslauriers and his team, their result is the biggest performance boost ever documented in educational research."

Want to learn more about options for new classrooms and learn about new trends (and possibly throw in your recommendation with an administrative committee?).  Campus Technology has an interesting article on new "active learning classrooms" that integrate technology for positive results.

And finally, read the new Faculty Focus special report on Course Design and Development Ideas that Work.  You can download the report for free.  There are several relevant topics to teaching at a university today, and my eye was caught by the discussion of scaffolding (supporting) learning:

"But the point of teaching cannot be to eliminate or even reduce the likelihood of failure. To eliminate failure throttles the learner. For the student does the learning. The student must be free to think and act and, in so doing, err—and recover. That is the cost of learning. To prescribe that teachers enable learning is a tautology. Of course that is what we want to do—the question we beg is: “How?” If scaffolding is to help answer that question, it should illuminate the differences between what the teacher does and what the student does. It should get us to think about the instructor as a planner and initiator of activities that invite students to develop their own goals and strategies. As we know, learning grows out of the students’ previous knowledge and skills. But the assignment must challenge without being so difficult as to discourage learning or so easy as to evade it. Both student and instructor have to be active."

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Reflecting on our semester

Having finished courses for the year, I regularly think and write about what went well and what I want to change.  Reflecting on your course is best done in the moment, by thinking about what has just happened and how you reacted to the events of the semester.  Reflective writing can take many forms, such as an entry in a teaching journal or through a quick note added to your course material folder or notebook, even a brainstorm list that you file for reference next year.  Be sure to note what worked as well as what did not; these jottings can help you remember how the course worked in action (often different from your mental image and plans!) and help you make improvements to the course. 

I posted previously on creative teaching and reflective practice, but at this time I want to share with you a letter from a faculty member who participated in the Faculty Inquiry Group on Creative Teaching (we at the Tenn TLC offer several FIGs each year).  Each person ended the semester with a reflection--a letter to colleagues--on the group's discussions. In her letter, Dr. Polly McArthur, PhD, RN, from the UT College of Nursing, writes:

Dear Colleague,

For the past 8-10 weeks, I have had the pleasure of meeting on Friday afternoons with a small group of professors to talk about creativity in teaching. We are interested in engaging students in creative learning activities at the university. We brought topics of interest to the group, shared ideas and experiences, and asked for help with particular challenges.
            Our group leader asked us to write a letter to you – an unnamed “you” who perhaps represents a college professor in the early 21st century. I want to share with you my thoughts on creativity in teaching. I would like to be a creative person, but I question exactly what I mean by the term creative. Does this mean being original, talented, gifted, unique, outstanding, exciting, inspiring, or just memorable? I am certainly not the next American Idol of College Professors. I believe my goal is to try new ways of doing things in my course that accomplish the learning objectives but give the students some freedom to make the experience their own.
            If I strive to innovate, where do I find my inspiration, support, and energy to imagine something anew? For me, there are three critical pillars for this process, which is ongoing and never fully attained. First, I have to stay rooted in the basics of my discipline of nursing. I must examine and re-examine the knowledge of my field. Second, I must associate with people who are inspiring, skillful in collaboration, and constructively critical of my teaching, my vision, my interactions, and anything related to my professional aspirations. Third, I must try to walk in the students’ shoes to understand their responses to the learning environment. How am I creating both opportunity and means for them to create a personal experience that facilitates a change in capacity?
            Creativity, in essence, is open to interpretation. It is a breath of fresh air when life seems weighted down with the mundane or the expected. Perhaps just working towards higher levels of creativity is as important as finding a definite answer to some perceived problem or deficiency. As professionals who guide learning in the university setting, we are fortunate to connect with other people and continually transform our being in the world.
`                                   Sincerely,

Monday, May 2, 2011

An off-the-wall idea

A recent article in the NY Times points out that we may think we remember and know material well when we have an easy time processing what we read. A review of recent studies of memory points out that processing is not the same as recall--and that difficult fonts make us pay more attention and learn better.

You might want to send out study sheets today in Lucinda Handwriting!

Joking aside, the studies reviewed are interesting; I recommend the article:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Assessing student papers

I will never forget the night that my brother, who was then an art student, called me and said (as I recall):
"I have to write a paper on Sartre for class.  Where do I start?" 

"When is it due?" 

Fortunately, he is a successful artist who can write a mean artist's statement.

Reportedly, less and less of us are giving our students written assignments (just refer to Academically Adrift for a current conversation on this issue).  So, when we do assign papers--and students will start turning that work into us soon, as the semester approaches a close--how can we help students make the most of that experience?

One idea is to create a feedback loop with the student.  We comment on a nearly complete draft and students send us a response before they do a final edit. We may even incentivize this exchange with some extra credit and achieve several good results.  Students are nudged into writing a draft earlier in the semester (not the night before that paper is due) and they get a peek at their grade so that they have a concrete idea of what they need to do to finish their work.  In an email back to us, they have to articulate the steps they need to take before they do the work.

For us, the benefit is that we will have helped that student by doing the assessment on a nearly complete draft--our grading process for the final papers will be much faster, with the need for much less feedback at that point.  We also can identify students who are struggling--and recommend a trip to our office or the writing center.

Sometimes the process of providing written feedback in and of itself is a chore.  One recommendation is to record (audio or video) your feedback for the student.  The theory is that as your feedback is given linearly, as you are reading, rather than all at the end.  Feedback should note positive aspects as well as areas for improvement (thus students avoid changing something that was already working!)

If you are interested in an interesting alternative to written feedback, see the method below.  I have also used Jing and found it easy to use.

Short Screencasts Provide Personalized Feedback about Student Writing
Submitted by Francine Glazer
Assistant Provost and Director, Center for Teaching and Learning
New York Institute of Technology

One of the factors that faculty often consider when assigning written work is the time it will take to grade. Whether the writing is an essay, a draft of a longer paper, a lab report, or a project proposal, it requires a considerable amount of time to write comments for each student – and often, students don’t read and/or incorporate them.

An alternative approach is to create a short screencast for each student, in which you talk to the student about his or her paper. Prior to starting the screencast, make a couple of brief notes on the paper, or highlight the areas you want to discuss. After a couple of trial runs, you’ll find that you can scroll through the paper and talk about the major items you want the student to consider.

The screencast technology is free (you may need to buy a microphone if there isn’t one on your computer) and easy to use, the time investment is comparable to what you’d spend writing comments, and students respond very positively, appreciating the personalized feedback.  The five-minute limit imposed by the software helps keep the focus on the most essential points.

There are a number of free screencasting programs available. My favorite is Jing, produced by TechSmith. There’s a small piece of software that you download to your computer (yes, it comes in both Windows and Mac versions), and register for a free online account on their server where the videos will reside. It’s easy to use – when Jing is running in the background, you simply go to the Jing icon in the system tray or the dock and select “capture.” A grid opens to allow you to select the portion of your screen you want to capture. The control pane has “capture an image,” “capture a video,” “redo selection,” and “cancel” buttons.

If you capture an image, you can edit it by adding highlights, arrows, boxes, and text to call attention to specific areas of the photo. If you record a video, you can mute the microphone, pause and resume, or restart if necessary. Once you’ve completed your video and clicked “stop,” you get a chance to preview it and decide if you do in fact want to save the file.. The url for the video is automatically placed into your clipboard. You can then open an email to the student, paste in the url and write a brief note, and off it goes!

Resources: (download the software) feedback video)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Are your students working on their assignments?

Tips for Teaching from the Writing Consortium

Initiated by :
Sally L. Kuhlenschmidt, Ph.D.
Director, Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching (FaCET)
Western Kentucky University Bowling Green

When Doing Less for Students May Help Them Learn More

If your philosophy includes the notion that students should leave college more independent and self-reliant than when they entered or if you have ever used the words entitled and students today in the same sentence, read on.

1. Suggest steps that students can take to solve academic problems, alerting them to use resources and people and to consider schedules. Often these steps mirror what adults do in order to solve life problems (such as a broken home appliance):
  • review your notes or course text material (read appliance instructional manual)
  • check with a classmate (seek advice from your neighbor)
  • come to office hours (call Sear's appliance repair department)
  • ask the professor in class (schedule a home repair visit)
2. Craft student-made rubrics for student-constructed assignments/projects Student-constructed projects (e.g., essays, posters, art projects) have essential criteria and performance levels. Bring in a ready-made example project and ask students to determine the essentials (4-6 optimum) and what a beginning, satisfactory, and stellar fulfillment of each criterion would be. Type up as a rubric and distribute, thus providing students an understanding
of :
  • (1) the project's essential criteria,
  • (2) the levels of performance,
  • (3) a road map for doing their project, and
  • (4) the assessment tool for self, peer, and teacher evaluation of the final project.
If projects are too cumbersome for office-storing, conduct a class sharing session and capture a digital camera image of each project and student instead of collecting.

3. Guide students to monitor their own progress on assignments Set aside class time to discuss dividing assignments into segments, the steps toward completion of each segment, and a tentative timeline. At a couple critical times throughout the term, discuss (and collect?) have done and have yet to do lists with students.

4. Limit your corrections and lengthy identical feedback on student papers When you correct students' writing, do they truly learn the writing rules or merely copy your edits? If the latter, consider making a hash mark(s) in the margin of a line with error(s) and asking students to find and correct their own errors. Another rule of thumb is to mark only the first 10 mechanical errors in a paper, and then ask students to correct the remainder and resubmit. For general feedback to the entire class, consider putting only letter codes by errors on individual papers (e.g., RO for run-onsentence) and either (1) preparing a page of explanations (codes and the rules) and distributing or (2) giving oral explanations (with examples) as part of a total-class-feedback session.

Adapted from submission by:
Dr. Cynthia Desrochers
Institute for Teaching and Learning, Faculty Director
California State University

Recall and Relate

To prepare students to thoroughly understand new material, plan an activity that bridges their existing knowledge of the topic to the new information you're planning to introduce. In particular, recall and relate activities can help students focus on the new instructional material and process it more effectively.

Recall : One way to help students link old and new can be a simple review of previously learned facts, concepts, or procedures that are associated with the new material. Students may appreciate having their memories refreshed before they start processing the new material. It will also allow you to learn what students already know and understand before making your own instructional points.

Relate : Another way to prepare students for new information is to help them cognitively put the new knowledge into an existing framework. Pose a question or series of questions that stimulate thinking and focus on the instructional topic. Ask questions that have several possible answers (Example: Why does an employee quit? How can you tell how intelligent someone is?). Promote a discussion that probes student opinions, hypotheses, or conclusions. As the classroom discussion advances, point out similarities or differences between the new knowledge and old knowledge, so that the new knowledge is tied to the old.

Submitted by:
Faculty Development Center
Bellarmine University
Louisville, Kentucky
Email :

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mid-Semester: Expanding the Conversation

At this point in the semester, you know your students as a group and have tested them enough to know where they are in their thinking. 

It's time to push them further and deepen their learning experience.

In order to do so, you and your students need to know where they are in the course.  First, they need a midterm progress report.  If you are already posting grades online, excellent.  

If you have not been posting grades, then student perceptions of their grades may not match the reality.  Give them a progress report so that you are on the same page before you talk to them about the course (for more on this topic, read Will Millhiser, "Why Post Grades on Blackboard?").

At midterm, they should know where they stand in terms of their learning and grades, and all you need to do is put that into perspective, in terms of the whole class.  In general, is everyone completing homework, for the most part?  Are they reading?  Participating in class?  Address these basic issues, and if the class is struggling, ask them, what is getting in your way?  They may be setting up barriers to their own learning (such as getting too involved with social groups or working too much), and they need to hear from you that you expect them to change their behaviors.   Give them advice on how to prepare better for class and learn more from the course.

When you ask your students to review their performance, also let them review yours. Check with them about their experiences with the course (again, have them a response at the end of a course).  This midpoint 'formative assessment' lets you know how the class is going from their point of view.  It sends a clear message to the students that they are participants in their own learning; education is not something that is "done to them."  Issues will come up that you can not fix and those you can ignore (after all, you cannot change the class meeting time).  Address those issues that you can change or modify--disturbances in class or distracting situations.  If they need more handouts, more frequent study guides, or need you to slow down, they will tell you.
Review the course objectives and learning outcomes with your students (they haven't thought about the syllabus for months, at this point, so remind them of it).  Talk to them about the goals of the course and remind them that the course is more about learning information.  Ask them: what more do you want from class at this point and how will you take charge of your learning? 

Find out where they can meet more challenges in the course.  Ask them to delve into their thinking and logic.  Socratic questioning works very well at this point, especially if they are used to coming prepared to answer questions in class.   The website by the Critical Thinking Foundation is very useful and thorough.  However, for a quick glance at question structures, check out this page on "Socratic Questioning."

Once you start asking questions, who knows what could happen!  They  might even take charge and ask questions of their own.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Counting the days?

Are you hitting a mid-semester slump?  Don't just wait until spring break; help yourself and your students by doing something to shake them up now! 

Have you done a formative assessment with your students yet?  At the end of class, ask them to write (anonymously) for one minute on the pros and cons of class up to this point.  Collect and read these assessments and look for patterns.  Return to class with a short report back.  Tell them about the strengths of the course as they see it, and let them know what you can adjust to solve problems (and what is out of your control--such as changing their 8 a.m. class to noon!)

Re-energize your class with some fresh pedagogies.  Here's two ideas from blogger Rob Weir of Inside Higher Ed:
  • Change the usual routine: If you customarily lecture in a class, try having a discussion. (If you have a mammoth lecture class you’ll need to act more a talk show host walking into the studio audience, but you can still do this. Punctuate questions and discussion with quick lecture soundbites.) If you usually discuss, give a lecture. If it's appropriate and logistically possible, make a sign-up sheet, suspend classes for a week, and require students to stop by for a one-to-one tutorial or planning session.
  • Change the backdrop: Come to class armed with something that's not generally part of your repertoire. Play a piece of music and ask students to analyze it. Project a single slide, ask students to write down everything they observe on the image, and discuss their responses. Invite a guest to take over your class for a day. Set up an experiment and abruptly tell students that you’re reversing roles — they’ll conduct and explain it while you listen. Conduct a nature walk with your bio students, or discourse on Emerson while walking by campus nature spots. Let your imagination run wild. The worst that can happen is that you’ll try something that doesn’t work and you can share a good laugh about it the next class. (“Okay, so that wasn’t my most brilliant idea ever!”

On that last note, consider ways to be more playful with learning in a class or two.  Conduct a study review by playing a jeopardy game (bring a bag of candy for the winners) and have the students create the questions (if they are missing any items, you can add your own questions at that point). Put students in groups and have them create a 1 minute "ad" or skit for a concept that you want them to learn.  They can use their phones to take videos and then post on Blackboard. For a class of 35 or less, bring in large pieces of paper and markers and have them create concept maps. Make these activities non-graded so that students feel free to experiment.

Send in your ideas for changing things up!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How are your students doing?

Two articles in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education (2-11-2011) reminded me that it is time to check in with our students.  At this point in the semester, after at least one test and a month of classes, student issues arise.  One article identifies the "Ghost Student" who has never or rarely shown up to class.  Who is this person?  Why are they on your role and where did they go?  The other article identifies the risk-adverse student (the "grade grubber") who has dropped or is about to drop a course because of an impending low grade. There are pressures that mold students into these types.  For the first, outside pressures--family issues, job stresses, and other problems--interfere with that student's ability to focus academically.  For the other, such a student may risk losing a scholarship or grant due to the GPA requirement.  Says Noah Roderick, "It is not that this generation of students isn't exposed to risk; it's that the risks students could be taking--in their thinking, writing, and course selections--are being displaced by fear of the dire consequences of falling below unnecessarily high GPA requirements."

A provocative (and philosophic) answer to these disappearing students is forwarded by Ronald Barnett, in A Will To Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty (2007).  In this book, Barnett tackles an assumption in higher education that many of us have worried about over coffee and tea: where is the student motivation?  Where is their will to learn?  Barnett argues that the will to learn can be either lost or gained during a student's course of study.  Students fight anxiety (made worse by continual, high-stakes assessment) and complexity in an era of "fast learning" when the space and time for learning is compressed (citing Hassan 2003).  Students counter these pressures by developing a sense of commitment, passion, and engagement with their own education.  They move past the syllabus shells of course descriptions and learning outcomes to become "self-creators of their own experience"; they become authentic learners with their own authentic, individual voices.

What about the teacher's role in all of this self-development?  First, we need to not get in the way--and forgetting to treat each other (students and colleagues) can certainly interfere with internal motivation. And second, we construct the learning space, so recognizing that the "will to learn" is a key part of the learning process is essential. We may assume that students come with us with certain dispositions listed by Barnett: the will to learn, to engage, to listen and to explore, the will to continue forward with their education (or, in the current lingo, to become life-long learners).  Still, these dispositions are under attack and need to be nurtured. We too have to pay attention to the pressures of risk, complexity, and anxiety.  We battle these with our commitment to students as autonomous individuals, people with whom we can connect and inspire.  Barnett places great store in the idea of inspiration, an idea that at first glance leaves me skeptical (it's not easy to teach composition in an inspiring vein).  However, his definition of inspiration includes the implicit care and determination that we communicate to our students as well as our overt enthusiasm for our subject.  When we regard students with humanity and solicitude, we bolster their own self-efficacy.

I have been maturing as a teacher. New experiences bring new sensitivities and flexibility...
-- Howard Lester

This is all well and fine, but what does this have to do with pedagogy?  We want to give students space and time to learn--to become their own educated selves--and in doing so, we may need to fight external pressures to compress time, limit space, increase content, and employ high-risk assessments. If we give our students this gift of time and space to learn--whatever that means in our own disciplines, whether group or individual projects, discussion time, creative and low-risk assignments--let's make sure we are explicit with them.  If we create a learning space for students, be explicit about why and how they should use the opportunity.

And then ask them how it went...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Participatory Learning

Vin60, Flickr
"Brick wall

Students learn by participating in their own learning process (otherwise, do they learn by sitting in class as still as bricks?) The Tenn TLC will be addressing participation in two upcoming workshops: one on assessment and one on lecturing.

What do these topics have to do with participatory learning?

First, lecturing is a primary mode of teaching, especially in large classes of undergraduates.  Donald Bligh's oft-cited study of lecturing (What's the Use of Lectures?) assesses decades of research to determine how well the lecture mode meets "four logically distinct kinds of objective: 1. The acquisition of information, 2. The promotion of thought, 3. Changes in attitudes, and 4. Behavioral skills."  Of these four objectives, research shows that lecture only meets the first: acquisition of knowledge.

Bligh concludes:
It does not follow that teachers should never lecture or even that the time allocated to lecturing on a timetable should not exceed that allocated to discussion. That is a matter of judgement in particular cases.... But the acquisition of knowledge from lectures or any other method, is not an end in itself. It follows that lecturing should always be pursued as a means to some other end.
This conclusion has far reaching implications for lecturers' attitudes, techniques and preparation. In particular almost every lecture must be prepared and given with a clear idea of how it is to be combined with discussion or some other method. ...Planning a series of lectures, even by visiting speakers, without planning their follow up, is a useless activity - unless you have touching faith in the subsequent initiative of the audience to do that job for you.

What about the other three objectives:  promotion of thought, changes in attitudes, and behavioral skills?  We can ask the question, how can we get students to participate in their own learning, by asking about these objectives.  How can we change behavior, so that students learn more deeply?  How can we change attitudes, so that students value their learning?  How can we change the ways students think, so that they think critically and creatively?
With a generation of students driven to perform on standardized testing, on top of the grading system, we face students who learn mostly for extrinsic rewards.  And we know that extrinsic rewards do not insure deep, lasting learning (Bains 2009).   We must reverse the trend and offer students intrinsic rewards.  To do that, they have to participate.

This leads to our second workshop: assessment, in particular, classroom (formative "in process") assessment.  How will we know if attitudes, behaviors, and thinking processes are changing during a semester if we do not ask the students?  We can tell to some extent by the product (homework, quizzes and such) and we may be able to observe attitudinal and behavioral changes, but only in our classroom, since they are not observable once they leave class (and are less observable in an online course).  I recommend simply asking the student: are you studying differently for this class?  Are you thinking differently?  Are you valuing this educational experience?  See what they say!

Check out two related talks (both with fascinating animation)--one on educational paradigms:

The other talk is on motivation:

One last thought from Barr and Tagg (1995): "A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted."


Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Teaching Research Nexus:

Student working on a project
What does it mean to teach at a research institution?   The question was asked of me again a few days ago; the cold reality of promotion and tenure often drives the initial conversation.  However, universities are starting to change the culture.  We know from years of study that adopting new pedagogies that actively involve students in their courses will increase engagement and thus retention.  Yet as a faculty member with a hefty research agenda, how does one do this? 

The University of Michigan just released a study of faculty work-life.  Compared with an earlier study, there was a nearly 40% increase in the number of faculty who valued or highly valued teaching.  As one of the leading institutions in teaching innovation, it is interesting to watch their culture change.  Last year, President Mary Sue Coleman recognized the multiple demands on faculty, pointing to their “record levels of research and discovery,” as well as their “innovative teaching” and “the force of creativity.”  Her phrasing shows how the university has adopted Boyer's model of scholarship.  

How will other research universities answer the call for innovation?  One model is becoming popular: SOTL or the scholarship of teaching and learning.   Researching and then writing about one's class has a certain appeal for faculty, yet it is not a model that works comfortably in all disciplines.  Faculty can also bring research into the classroom, but only if the gap between class content and the research is not too great.  A third option, teaching about the research process, has a lot of positive factors. 

Engineering faculty Prince, Felder and Brent (2007) suggest teaching students about the process itself, using our personal experiences about how we do research:

"What researchers do routinely is confront open-ended and imperfectly defined problems, figure out what they need to know and how to find it out: search out sources of missing information; hypothesize and test possible solutions; arrive at final results; and defend them.  The traditional lecture-based teaching model, in which instructors present perfectly organized derivations and examples on the board or in PowerPoint(tm) slides, and then ask students to reproduce and/or apply the information in assignments and tests, bears little resemblance to the research process.  An instructional strategy that comes much closer to emulating research is inductive teaching."

Inductive teaching is a term that encompasses several strategies: problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning.  Students are given a challenge and asked to solve it; the learning takes place through their attempts to meet the challenge.  We can find examples of this approach across campus--you can visit the PBL (problem-based learning) rooms in the Pendergrass library or BESS 123, and talk to faculty like Tenn TLC Ambassador India Lane (Veterinary Teaching Hospital), and to our Creative Teaching Grantees Elizabeth Cooper (Psychology), Carl Wagner and Nikolay Brodskiy(Mathematics), Cary Staples (Graphic Design) and many others.

For more on problem-based learning: see the PBL Initiative

Or view:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Balancing Flexibility and Fairness Through Course Design

Thank you to Mark Potter at MSCD Center for Faculty Development for this post!

       “Prof. Smith, I won’t be able to make it to class tonight because unfortunately my flight back from vacation has been delayed by an hour and now I won't make it back to Denver in time for class.  Is there supposed to be a quiz today and if so is there any way I can make it up?”
       “Hey Professor, I am terribly sorry, but I am unable to attend class this evening due to family issues. I am writing to see what precisely we went over tonight, and what I need to review in order to not fall behind.”
       “I will not be able to make it to class today due to a conflict with work but I have attached my re-write of the last paper and will get the notes from someone who was in class. Please let me know if there are any important announcements I will miss.”

We have probably all seen emails from students like the ones above, and in fact these are probably fairly mild examples; I have received far more outrageous student emails than these.  It is understandable if we react viscerally to them.  We may want to reply with a snarky email, or, more to the point, penalize the student for missing class or assignment deadlines.  Students should just follow the rules and then “problem solved,” right?

Well, sort of.

Perhaps there is a place for empathy and compassion toward the student whose work schedule changes abruptly, who has (even an unspecified) family emergency, or whose family travel plans become derailed in the middle of the semester.  Like it or not, student demographics are changing as are students’ priorities and work habits (Higher Education Research Institute, 2010).  More students work to cover costs while in college, more students attend college with specific job-skills development in mind, and the range of aptitudes, study skills, and college preparedness continues to widen. 

Maryellen Weimer (2006) encourages instructors to put themselves in their students’ shoes by taking a college course outside their field of expertise every few years in order to experience all the aspects of learning, including balancing course deadlines with work deadlines.  Still, while compassion and empathy may be warranted, we want to avoid granting special treatment to individual students, and it is important for the sake of our own workload and our own time management to hold students to reasonable standards, or “lines in the sand” (Robertson, 2003).

Learner-centered course design can help us to balance these competing demands between compassion and fairness.  Learner-centeredness shifts responsibility for learning to students while granting them more opportunities, control, and options over how they demonstrate their learning (Weimer, 2002).  We can use course design both to hold students responsible and to provide allowances for when life “interrupts” their studies, all while preserving our lines in the sand and our sanity.

Some course design ideas that accomplish this include:

   Carrots.   Incentivize on-time submission of assignments.  I accept late papers (up to three days late) from my students, but only those students who submit their work on time have the option to rewrite their papers and to incorporate my feedback for an improved grade.

   Bounded flexibility.  A colleague at Metropolitan State College gives his students a “syllabus quiz” in the first week of the semester.  Every student who passes earns 5 credits toward turning in work late (1 credit = 1 day).  Students can cash in all of their credits at once with one assignment, or they can split them across assignments at different times in the semester
   Cooperative/collaborative learning.  If students have to miss a class session in a course that incorporates group learning, they have a resource--their fellow students--on whom to rely to try to catch up, rather than coming right away to the instructor to find out what they “missed.”

   Technology.  Web-based tools, such as Blackboard, wikis (on Blackboard or public sites like PBWiki), and Google Docs can reinforce cooperative learning and the sense of community within a course.  If students unexpectedly miss a class meeting, they can turn to these online resources where they might find threaded discussions designed to supplement in-class learning or examples of student work/reflections completed in class and posted to a Wiki.  Students may also be able to use the online tool to contact their “group” for help. 

Of course, students need to know that the interactions and engagement that occur in class are not replicable and that missing class means missing out on an opportunity to learn.  Still, the premise of this essay is that life sometimes gets in the way of the best of intentions, and providing some opportunity for students to learn--an opportunity that does not rely on the instructor delivering instruction twice over--is preferable to penalizing the student by doing nothing.

Additional Resources:

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “A Snapshot of the First Year Experience.  Accessed on July 15, 2010 at

Robertson, D. (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. 

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Weimer, M. (2006). Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature That Makes a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.