The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

picture of carpet with phrase, " I can show you the WrHLD"


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I Can Show You the WrHLD

Benjamin-Goldschmidt

by Benjamin S. Goldschmidt, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Duquesne University

Have you ever been so busy you forgot a meeting even though you had entered it in your calendar? Since becoming an assistant professor, I have done this many times–as hard as it is to admit.  I believe the reason has to do with cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount you can store in your short-term memory at the same time. As professors, we are tasked with many different duties such as performing research, mentoring and teaching students, and overseeing special projects for student groups and the department.  The cognitive load we bear is significant. Thus the stereotype of an absent-minded professor can be quite real.

Have you ever considered the cognitive load on your students? Put yourself in a student’s shoes. Their cognitive load is for new tasks as socialization to college, apartment/residence living, and employment, in addition to taking multiple classes each semester. One common problem all academic institutions have is simply getting students to turn in their work on time, or sometimes at all. People attribute this to varied reasons such as student choices or the difficulty of the work, but what if that isn’t the whole story? What if the organization of our courses has a dramatic impact on whether or not students submit assignments?

image of student clasping head in stress, with word "overload" looming above head

To investigate this, I ran an informal experiment during the first semester I taught Biomaterials & Characterization Techniques at Duquesne University. I asked students to turn in one single document every Monday at noon called a “WrHLD.” WrHLD, pronounced “world,” stands for the four weekly assignments: Writing, Homework, Lab and Design. I uploaded a template (WrHLWrHLD) to the Blackboard course site so that the students could simply drop the four assignments into a pre-formatted single submission each week.

Although students found the course challenging, by the end I noticed a greater than 50% reduction in the number of students forgetting to submit weekly work, compared to a previous course with weekly assignments.  And this occurred despite the course requiring a lot of student work.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t had missteps with this technique. One unexpected piece of the cognitive load was that I asked students to label each WrHLD with a number corresponding to which week of the semester we were in (i.e. Week 1 = WrHLD #1). This, however, proved to be a comparatively complex process. The students turned in their work, but overwhelmingly forgot what week we were in. I often got WrHLDs without numbers and had to determine the week by the content. In the future, I will simply use the date the assignment is due rather than an arbitrary number. I expect to see a significant improvement in labeling assignments once this is implemented.


image of calendar showing assignment due at noon every MondayAfter giving it some thought, I believe the improvement in student submission of weekly work resulted from three factors.

  1. Consistent, weekly due dates that do not change throughout the semester
  2. Having a single consolidated assignment for students to turn in each week
  3. Having a memorable acronym (WrHLD) along with a template available on Blackboard to remind students of what they need to submit every week

Each factor reduces the cognitive load for students by simplifying what they have to remember week to week. Having reduced the extraneous cognitive load on students, I can now guide them in focusing on important course content and skills rather than on when and what assignments are due.

Image Credits: The hand drawn  images in this post were created by Kiara Yough, student aide at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence and a Biomedical Engineering student. 

 


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What Are We Doing and Why? Transparent Assignment Design Benefits Students and Faculty Alike

Photo of Kasey Christopher at microscopeBy Kasey Christopher, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University

As a biology professor, I like to imagine that the relevance of my subject matter is indisputable. Don’t we all? Unfortunately, I don’t always clarify how the focused exercises I ask students to do will translate into the “big picture” learning objectives I expect them to meet. It may be obvious to a student why abilities to hypothesize or interpret experimental data are useful in any career; it is decidedly less clear how writing about the appearance of worms in a petri dish serves these goals.

When I joined the Duquesne faculty in Fall 2015, I had little experience designing assessments. My instructions were rarely as clear as I thought. I failed to provide a context for what I was asking and for what students could hope to gain from completing the assignment, other than a grade. I tweaked assignments to increase clarity, but lacked the tools for dramatic improvement until I attended a 2016 Duquesne CTE workshop on Transparent Assignment Design presented by Mary-Ann Winkelmes.  This workshop revolutionized my approach to assignments, with little additional effort on my part. The tenets and inclusive nature of Transparent Assignment Design have been discussed on the Flourishing Academic before, so I won’t rehash them here. Briefly, transparent assignments are constructed with three key components: purpose, task, and criteria for success. This lies in stark contrast with the more traditional approach of providing only the task, perhaps with a rubric attached for higher-stakes assignments.

At the workshop, I practiced applying these principles to an assignment in which I asked students to examine mutant roundworms and speculate as to the developmental basis of their defects. When I gave the original version of the assignment, many students struggled with understanding how to guess the cause of the worms’ appearance. I refined the new “transparent” version of the assignment and put it into practice the next semester.  (The original and redesigned assignments have been submitted to the TILT Higher Ed project and are accessible here: https://www.unlv.edu/sites/default/files/page_files/27/Example-E-Biology.pdf.)worms from assignment

I was shocked at the results; by simply mentioning that learning to make observations and hypotheses was part of the key goal, and providing a successful sample response, I avoided the vast majority of confused student questions. Concurrently, the depth of thought that students put into their hypotheses increased noticeably.

Since attending Dr. Winkelmes’s workshop, I have incorporated this paradigm into every assignment I give. I believe the benefits to students are twofold: (1) Detailed criteria for success lead to improved clarity of expectations, showing students what I am asking them to do. (2) A specific purpose fosters deeper appreciation of the value of the assignment, explaining why I am asking them to do this and motivating students to spend more time thinking about their work. In particular, breaking the purpose into knowledge and skills  (Figure 1) emphasizes that the activities are useful not just for learning this specific content, but for honing skills that will be broadly applicable throughout college and postgraduate careers.

TAD Christopher figure 1 revFrom my perspective, the perks to faculty are impressive. It has made grading easier: fewer students completely miss the mark, while more adhere to the appropriate formatting and style. Coupled with demonstrated evidence of the student outcomes (Winkelmes et al., 2016), this would be sufficient motivation to use this assignment structure. However, I have noticed further indirect gains. First, by removing the confusion about basic requirements, I find that students worry less about what their assignment should look like, focusing more energy on content. I relish responding to questions about the impact of various mutations rather than about whether they must re-type the questions. Additionally, putting the purpose into writing forces me to think carefully about designing assignments that truly help students meet learning objectives. Creating specific criteria for success helps me anticipate common problems, thinking preemptively about what constitutes a good response.

Dr. Winkelmes and her colleagues have published strong evidence about the positive learning impact of showing students what you expect of them and why you are asking them to do specific tasks.  My experience suggests that as educators, asking ourselves the same questions can have a deep impact on teaching without drastic changes to our courses or large impositions on our time.

Works Cited:

Christopher, K. (2016) Sample E: C. elegans Mutant Phenotypes Assignment. Retrieved from TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources. https://www.unlv.edu/provost/transparency/tilt-higher-ed-examples-and-resources

Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1), 31-36. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1805184428?accountid=10610.

 


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One Small Thing…

headshotErin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

If you could make one small change to your teaching repertoire and create the potential for significant impact on student learning, would you try it?

Over the past year or so, several colleagues at Duquesne University have been exploring just this notion of small teaching, a concept presented by James Lang in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  Lang argues, that You can create powerful learning for your students through the small, everyday decisions you make in designing your courses, engaging in classroom practice, communicating with your students, and addressing any challenges that arise.”

small ballComparing the notion of small teaching to baseball’s small ball (that idea that ball games are won through “simple, incremental strategies” that get players from base to base), Lang writes that it’s unrealistic to think that instructors have time for “sudden and dramatic transformation” of their teaching when they have so many responsibilities. The result? His book of small teaching strategies that can be implemented with minor, if any disruption, to your course design.

This notion aligns with CTE’s SCALE initiative (Small Changes Advancing Learning).  Our Fall 2017 SCALE UP micro workshops highlighted Lang’s strategies for helping students retrieve knowledge, connect information for greater understanding, and foster a growth mindset. At each 30 minute workshop, CTE staff highlighted key points from the respective sections of Small Teaching, and provided faculty and graduate student participants with opportunities to design a strategy for a small change that they could implement later in the semester, the week – or even later that day!

Here are some examples of the small changes faculty at Duquesne envision.

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Faculty statements of the “one small thing” they might try to increase student learning

Spending just a few minutes of class time to focus on the process of learning can have a significant impact on student learning because it fosters a growth mindset.  Carol Dweck describes growth mindset as a state of mind that helps students take risks, challenge themselves, and persist in their learning, because they believe that intelligence is not a fixed trait, but one that can increase with practice and hard work.process-of-learning-resized1.jpg

Another method is to provide feedback that fosters growth. Think: “This topic is challenging, but by continuing to work with it, you’ll grow your brain and have a better understanding” rather than “Perhaps you should change your topic.” Yet another method for fostering growth? Promote success strategies by having experienced students write tips for succeeding in the course and sharing them with new students. These strategies reinforce that learning is a process that develops over time.

Likewise, giving “quizlets” in class provides students with low stakes opportunities to practice retrieving knowledge. This is important because, as Lang writes, “the more times any of us practice remembering something we are trying to learn, the more firmly we lodge it in our memories for the long term.”  Quizzes and tests not only measure learning; they are valuable tools that “help students exercise their memory muscles to improve and solidify their knowledge base.” Reconceiving of quizzes and tests as “retrieval practice” can decrease anxiety and places emphasis on how learning happens.

And guess what! These activities can also help students to discover connections between old knowledge and new knowledge. Calling attention to these connections helps students fortify their foundations. Because students don’t always see the larger organizational picture that we can see as experts in our fields, our helping them retrieve old knowledge and map new knowledge networks deepens learning.   A small teaching strategy for helping students connect information is to draw concept maps, visual depictions that identify connections between ideas in succinct ways.

Like the sound of some of these strategies? Hungry for more? Check out Lang’s book or – better yet – join the author and regional faculty who have been exploring small teaching strategies at the first annual Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium on March 16, 2018.  Think you have a small teaching strategy that could help your colleagues? Submit a proposal by November 1! Details below.

Call for Proposals

The Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium welcomes proposals across four session types from all faculty, graduate students, librarians, instructional designers, and others involved in teaching and learning or educational development:

  • Concurrent Interactive Workshops
  • Steal My Idea / Pecha Kucha
  • Recipes for Success
  • Posters

Sessions may be presented by individuals or small groups. The proposals will be blind reviewed by colleagues from across the region.

For details on session types, click here.

To submit a proposal, click here.

We look forward to hearing about your small teaching ideas. CTE staff are available to consult on your proposals.


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Helping Students Reflect on Study Habits

In January 2017, CTE interviewed Pamela Spigelmyer, Faculty, School of Nursing about her use of exam wrappers to help students learn. thumbnail_pamela-spigelmyer_0003

What is an exam wrapper?

It’s a reflection by students on their exam performance. It stimulates them to think about the effort they put into studying for the exam, and the barriers to achieving their best score. I ask students to do the following:

  • tell how much time they studied and estimate the percentage of time they spent on various study methods
  • analyze the reason for the points they lost on the exam
  • state their study plans
  • suggest ways I can support them for the next exam. [see sample wrapper below]

Tell me how you have used exam wrappers.

I have used them on the midterm exam in three different courses. Students can use their reflection on the midterm to improve their learning in the second half of the semester.

In my freshmen class this fall it went really well. I was surprised at the list of things they said they were going to do to improve for the next exam. When I asked, “what can I do to help you,” there were only minor comments. This makes sense, because I was already administering frequent quizzes and giving them clicker questions in class. They were getting practice.

What have you learned in the process?

Some of the comments I got back really opened my eyes to what students thought was effective study. For example, some students created 50-60 page study guides by cutting and pasting from the book. They explained that this guide was all they used for studying and claimed that it should have been enough. But they didn’t do well, and I was able to provide that as evidence back to them.

I put student grades into two ranges and made a chart of the study methods students in each range said they used. Then I presented it saying, “if you want to achieve a higher grade, here’s an idea of what some of your classmates did.” chart-low-high-performance

Once I had a student who honestly reported on the exam wrapper that she had studied zero time. She had not looked at any material in preparing for the midterm exam. She apparently didn’t implement the study methods we talked about after the midterm, and performed poorly on the final exam. Then, at the end of the course, she challenged the grade. The exam wrapper served as evidence that she hadn’t put in the effort needed to achieve a better grade.

Do you have a way for students to refer back to their reflection? How do you administer the exam wrapper?

They always have the wrapper available on Blackboard. Right after the midterm exam closes, the exam wrapper assignment opens up. I tell them it is not graded, but it is required. Most students complete the 10-15 minute reflection within the 24-hour window.

Here’s the sequence: students take the online exam, receive the score immediately and then are asked to reflect on the exam and their studyingexam-wrapper-assignment-sp2017

I tell students that I use exam wrappers to identify areas where I can help them improve, and that they should use it for looking at their learning and areas for growth.

How have you used exam wrappers to help students?

Several students have mentioned stress anxiety. This gives me an opportunity to guide students to the Counseling and Wellness Center. In the past, they could have struggled without me knowing, but now I can pick that up at midterm.

Here’stwo-answers-multiple-choice another example. I can see from exam statistics where students get it down to two answers and can’t pick the right one; this is very typical for nursing exams. That tells me that I need to be more explicit in helping them choose between the two. There’s always something in one that makes it better than the other, and they’re just overlooking it. So we do practice questions that are specifically close in two answers.

Sometimes they say, “I just didn’t know the content,” which suggests that they didn’t prepare enough and I outline the way high achieving students study.

Before the exam, I also provide a study template. It just lists the course objectives and tells how many exam questions will be related to each objective. It shows the importance of sections. When there is a lot of material, it’s only fair for students to know how to prioritize their studying.

I like that way of tying it to the course learning objectives.

I also do frequent quizzing – which helps them gauge their learning. I don’t give them answers for items they miss, but just indicate the reading chapter it came from. That forces them to go back and find it.

Do you have any suggestions for your colleagues? Is anyone else doing it that you know of?

Several faculty colleagues have asked me for this assignment, and they have started to implement it. Others use a similar kind of method that they have created.

Do you tie this assignment in with a nursing competency?

I haven’t, but that would be a good idea. I never thought of that. It would fit under “professionalism and growth.”

Related posts: Helping Students Learn from Returned Tests   The Finals Lap: Tips and Ideas for Final Exam Review

SAMPLE EXAM WRAPPER

  1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for this exam?
  2. What percentage of your test-preparation time was spent in each of these activities?
Activity Percentage of Time
Reading textbook section(s) for the first time
Rereading textbook section(s)
Reviewing homework-quiz question/concepts
Reviewing in class practice questions
Solving case study questions from textbook
Reviewing your own notes
Reviewing additional materials/websites posted in class weekly folders
Other: (please specify)

3. Now that you have looked over your graded exam, estimate the percentage of points you lost due to each of the following (make sure the percentage add up to 100):

Reason for lost exam points Percentage
Did not know/remember the content on the exam
Did not understand the question
Did not read the question/item carefully
Missed key words in the question
Did not read all distractor /potential answers carefully
Had difficulty choosing between 2 answers
Read/inferred more into the question than what was stated
Careless mistake (selected the wrong response accidentally)
Changed the answer
Experienced test anxiety/ inability to focus
Other: (please specify)

4. Based on your responses to the questions above, name at least three things you plan to do differently in preparing for the next exam. For instance, will you just spend more time studying,  change a specific study habit or try a new one (if so, name it), solve more case studies, practice more questions, or something else?

5. What can I do to help support your learning and your preparation for the next exam?

 

 


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This online course got my attention! Student and teacher views

by James Daher, President, Student Government Association and student, Economics major, French minor.

james-daher-blog-postLast summer I took Intro to Marketing with Dr. Dorene Ciletti, and she used a range of different methods for getting the students to work with the material. This included readings, video lectures, discussion boards, warm-up exercises, quizzes, simulations, exams and an extensive marketing plan.

Whereas some online courses I have experienced focused student work mostly on the discussion board, Dr. Ciletti’s class was a much more holistic approach to an online course. Not only did this range of teaching methods account for different learning styles, it also gave students more contact with the material. The same themes and key words would be in each assignment during any given week. The course required significant directed attention in order to complete the exams and marketing plan. But that effort and attention were focused directly on course content, rather than long readings and discussion board posts.

One of the more common methods in online education is the discussion board. While I believe that the discussion board is a useful piece of online education, it should not be the sole focus of the class. In my experience, it is far too easy and lacks engagement for many students.

Another hit to student engagement is that the online learning experience sacrifices the pre-established times students have with the material in the classroom. To make up for this, the online coursework should take up at least as much time as the student would spend in an actual classroom. However, if the class is all reading and discussion board based, many students lose focus and cut studying time short.

In sum, I personally prefer the physical classroom, but the potential of online courses is vast. If the course requires enough time and attention through varied teaching methods, I believe that this potential can be unlocked. Dr. Ciletti’s course engaged and challenged me.

by Dorecilettine Ciletti, PhD, faculty, Marketing, School of Business

I enjoy teaching Introduction to Marketing, creating a context in which students build a foundation in marketing and use the concepts and theories to support integrated bottom-line success in an organization. The offer to develop an online course a few years ago intrigued me. Online education is growing, and while there are some common components, approaches to online classes vary, and I had some initial concerns. How would I engage the students? How could I deliver material so that students would learn effectively? How could I assure that course objectives would be met?

Rather than simply transferring the in-class experience to the online space, I made substantial changes. Working with the end in mind, I organized material into content modules, and organized the course such that we would complete one or two modules each week, with each module supporting clearly stated learning objectives.

Students need a structure that’s easy to access and navigate, and the lesson plan and learning module features in Blackboard allowed me to build modules that incorporated various content types and skill-building activities. Discussion boards can be used to share information, promote discussion, and provide evidence of learning, but used as the only activity option, it can become a chore. So, our weekly modules included links to instructor-developed brief lectures, publisher-based content, outside video content including TED Talks, some discussion board activities, and yes, even tests.

Using a variety of activities within a consistent course structure, I believe, provided a richer learning experience for the students. They knew basically what to expect for each module so they could prepare and allocate time accordingly, but I kept the course lively with various types of assignments.

Building critical thinking is important, and, borrowing from Bloom’s Taxonomy, I wanted students to move from remembering to creating. Each module promoted interaction with content in several different ways, so students had the opportunity to understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate. The final project was designed for students to create a marketing plan utilizing concepts and skills from the entire course.

Student feedback is valuable, and I so appreciate that James Daher took the time to share his perception of this online Intro to Marketing course.  What better encouragement could a faculty member receive?


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SCALE-up with micro workshops and wrapper sessions

 

laurel-2013by Laurel Willingham-McLain, Director, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

At the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence we’re trying out some new programs in the SCALE initiative.  SCALE, which stands for Small Changes Advancing Learning, was inspired by James Lang’s, Small Changes in Teaching series, and his book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (2016), as well small-teaching-imageas  AAC&U’s High-Impact Practices and the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project.

Our initiative continues to explore the power harnessed by small changes in teaching and learning—methods that are

  • achievable by instructors in varied contexts,
  • based on principles of learning
  • known to benefit students equitably
  • open to creativity.

Lang, in Small Teaching, writes, “you can create powerful learning for your students through the small, everyday decisions you make in designing your courses, engaging in classroom practice, communicating with your students, and addressing any challenges that arise.”

twelve-twentyNew for Spring 2017, we are offering a series of 30-minute lunchtime workshops, 12:20-12:50 pm. Designed to accommodate busy schedules, these micro workshops highlight a teaching and learning topic and introduce simple, proven strategies that you can incorporate into your course right away.  Associate Director for Faculty Development, Steve Hansen, came up with the idea for these workshops as a way “to model to faculty how small teaching practices can have big connections to student learning.  We want faculty to experience how learning in a micro-context can have macro-learning implications that faculty can apply and scale up for their own teaching contexts.”

Spring topics include transparent assignment design, how emotions motivate learning, micro-aggressions, using nudges to deepen learning, and a student-learning graffiti wall.  The series will begin on January 23 and 24 and will continue through February.

Follow-up opportunities will be available through wrapper sessions and consultations with CTE staff.  Wrapper sessions provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect and learn from experience; they are based on the learning strategy called an Exam Wrapper, which guides students to review and analyze their performance (and their instructor’s feedback) on an exam, with an eye to improving their next attempt.

In December 2016, we tried out our first Course Wrapper where participants enjoyed time to reflect individually and with colleagues about a fall course, and then outlined steps for their spring courses based on their reflection and feedback. Participants repgift-with-boworted that “The reflection and discussion were a great way to put a bow on the semester” and the Wrapper session provided a “wonderful way to wind down the semester.”  The Wrapper
sessions encourage teachers to practice the systematic reflection they ask of students.  Participants are invited to consider successful aspects of a recent course and plan ways to model future teaching on what worked well.  We take a whole-person approach, encouraging faculty to plan ways to bring their very best selves to their teaching.  New spring Wrapper Sessions look at Students Evaluation Surveys and assignment design.

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Our semester culminates May 17-18 in the seventh annual Inspired Teaching Retreat at the Spiritan Retreat Center.


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Rhetoric, Combs and Rhizomes: Q & A with Dr. Derek Hook (Part II)

hook-headshotarvin-simonby Derek Hook, PhD, Associate Professor in Psychology at Duquesne University & Arvin Simon, MA, Doctoral Student in Psychology at Duquesne University

Derek’s work focuses on psychoanalysis with expertise in the area of critical psychology and psychosocial studies. Arvin is an Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

In response to Arvin’s generous characterization of the ‘rhizomatic’ nature of my approach to graduate teaching and in relation to his two direct questions, I (Derek Hook) would like to offer a few brief thoughts. watch

  • I am worried that I won’t have enough time to cover all the material! Is facilitating a discussion an efficient use of my lecture time?

Perhaps not always, but we could reverse the question: surely NOT facilitating a discussion in class is often a bad use of teaching time. This is often the case when the material is overly theoretical, when it contains much that is paradoxical or counter-intuitive, or simply when students (and professors!) are not sure they properly understand the texts in question. Discussions, particularly when paired with the tactic of asking students to frame the inquiry, can be a good way of ensuring that students read in the first place. Through student participation, systematic errors or questionable assumptions can be revealed, then engaged and worked with.

It is a good idea to work with ‘questions from the floor’ and use them to direct students to crucial facets of the text. ‘Preparing to be spontaneous’ is a nice oxymoronic way of framing this approach to teaching: I come prepared (perhaps with some possible talking-points, crucial debates, points of uncertainty, critical challenges, etc.), but keep these in the background until needed, precisely as a way of drawing out crucial facets from what emerges in more general discussion. I also make sure that students have access to scaffolding materials covering the main material (i.e. handouts with summaries of key arguments; schematic, diagrammatic depictions of the material; accessible secondary readings, etc.), which they have in front of them when one decides to risk a slightly more open-ended discussion. This is also the learning environment where I believe teachers learn the most; they are ‘unscripted times’ when teacher and student alike approach a set of ideas from a different set of problems or conceptual concerns.

Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning.

Sometimes the best and most effective practical everyday examples of the ideas in question come from class discussions. I am always on the lookout for fresh examples of key ideas, because they are often what students remember best about a given theoretical notion. Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning. It also means that the learning continues beyond the parameters of the classroom, to the movie theatre, the realm of earlier personal memories, to the realms of fiction and popular culture. Soliciting examples is a great way of prompting discussion and also, importantly, of isolating instructive counter-examples (i.e. pointing to why certain apparent ‘examples’ DON’T work).disc

  • I am concerned that if I lead discussions on difficult topics then students might get offended or offend one another. What can I do to create a conversation that does not shut people down?

in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate

Perhaps the obvious point is to concede that discussions can be a risk in certain student groups – especially when lengthy and gratuitous tangents seem a strong possibility – and yet they bring the dimension of ‘liveness’ to the classroom, and with it, a sense of the unpredictable and spontaneous. A great deal of emphasis should be placed first though on facilitating trust in a given student group, and avoiding the snooty or judgmental intellectual atmosphere and enabling an atmosphere where everyone can – and should – contribute.

One suggestion here is that in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate. This may not always be possible, but, this idea can at least frame discussions, so that views and counter-views are taught together in a way that prioritizes the spirit of intellectual debate, of hearing out, of considering unintended consequences, of Devil’s Advocate kinds of arguments. This type of framing also sometimes adds momentum to developing discussions.

It is often a very good move to acknowledge areas of uncertainty, indicating from time to time that one does not completely understand something. It lets students know that they too should be allowed to ‘think out loud’, to extrapolate, guess, take a stab at what some or other evasive or difficult conceptual formulation might mean.  If one can communicate a collaborative ethos or approach to working through materials, this often helps a great deal also. Signaling that we are explorers – and indeed, a team of explorers – of a given theory goes someway to dissipating counter-productive rivalries within a group of learners.