October 11th, 2017

Designing Developmentally: Simple Strategies to Get Students Thinking

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Activities to get students thinking

I continue to be concerned that we don’t design learning experiences as developmentally as we should. What happens to students across a course (and the collection of courses that make up a degree program) ought to advance their knowledge and skills. Generally, we do a good job on the knowledge part, but we mostly take skill development for granted. We assume it just happens, and it does, sort of, just not as efficiently and extensively as it could if we purposefully intervened.

Teaching Professor Blog Perhaps it would help if we had some concrete examples illustrating how assignments and activities can be designed so that skills are developed. Kathie L. Pelletier describes an interesting iteration of the now vintage two-minute paper strategy. Normally students write those papers during the final minutes of class and the papers usually focus on something students have learned and/or think they should have learned but don’t yet understand. Pelletier embeds these writing events within sessions of her upper-division organizational behavior course. On a number of unannounced days in the course, a question appears on the screen and students have two minutes to write an answer. She uses a rubric to quickly grade their responses. But here’s what makes the strategy intriguing: the questions are sequenced developmentally—they get more complex as the course progresses. In the beginning, the questions ask for definitions and descriptions of theories, and by the end of the course they’re challenging students to apply theories to specific organizations.

The approach has multiple benefits. For teachers, it’s do-able: one set of questions. I wouldn’t say that makes it easy, given that we don’t generally plan question sequences, but it’s manageable. If the goal is to develop thinking skills, then the questions have to be rolled out in a way that each question promotes more complicated kinds of thinking. Preparing that kind of question set takes mental energy, but it’s bound to clarify our thinking about the kinds of questions that promote increasingly complex thinking. That’s a plus for us and our students.

Another benefit to this approach is that the questions themselves can be used, not just to debrief good answers (or with certain content, correct answers) but to explore different kinds and levels of questions. Pelletier confesses she came up with the approach (which she combined with a set of announced quizzes) to solve a couple of more mundane problems: poor class attendance and study habits. The two strategies accomplished those goals, plus they resulted in higher mid-term and final exam scores when compared with scores in sections where the strategies were not used. A good instructional strategy often garners multiple benefits.

Julie Empric writes in the October issues of the Teaching Professor newsletter about a strategy she calls “afterthoughts.” She’s concerned about the space between class sessions, worried that the learning there occurs more by chance than design. An “afterthought” happens outside of class. The student may see a connection between something covered in class (the most recent class or a few sessions back) and something happening in the world outside of class. Or maybe upon reflection or after a conversation with a classmate, a new insight or deeper understanding emerges. Empric shares her “afterthoughts” and responds to those that students offer.

“Afterthoughts” struck me as a simple but effective strategy that gets across the idea that the content can (and should) be thought about after class, and that content is connected: to material presented earlier in the course, to content in other courses, and to events elsewhere. By making them a routine part of the course, they gently guide some of the learning that occurs when students aren’t in class. And in terms of our focus here, they could be structured developmentally. The first request for an “afterthought could be invitingly open. It’s followed by requesting thoughts that connect content from a previous session, and that’s followed by requesting connections between course content and something happening on campus, followed by “afterthoughts” that connect three content ideas. You’d have to identify a sequence that works with your content, but Empric got students regularly sharing “afterthoughts” for nothing more than the promise that they counted as quality participation points.

We should be thinking developmentally about whole courses and degree programs, and simple strategies like these help illustrate how that works and why it’s important.

References: Pelletier, K. L. (2017). Keeping students “on their toes and on their game”: Serendipitous findings in students’ assessment and reactions. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 28 (2), 167-192.

Empric, J. (2017). Afterthoughts. The Teaching Professor, October.


  • My essay assignments for Developmental English/Writing received two grades: grammar and writing. I read every essay and made grammar corrections before giving the grammar grade–unless A/A was obvious. Then I went through a second time and gave a writing grade. Thus C+ would be a 78. B would be an 85.