active learning techniques February 28

Deeper Thinking about Active Learning


I keep worrying that we’re missing the boat with active learning. Here’s why. First, active learning isn’t about activity for the sake of activity. I fear we’ve gotten too fixated on the activity and aren’t as focused as we should be on the learning. We’re still obsessed with collecting teaching techniques—all those strategies, gimmicks, approaches, and things we can do to get students engaged. But what kind of engagement does the activity promote? Does it pique student interest, make them think, result in learning, and cultivate a desire to know more? Or is it more about keeping basically bored students busy?

Frustrated student in library September 13, 2017

Reflections on Learning: Giving Students Assignments They Hate


Questions for teaching-learning discussion groups or individual reflection

In this week’s Teaching Professor Blog, I offered strategies to help move our conversations about teaching beyond the “tips and tricks” to the kind of thought-provoking discussions that help promote, motivate, and sustain our growth as teachers.

Here I have outlined potential questions that can be used in a discussion group or for individual reflection. The exercise centers on those unpopular assignments that we sometimes give our students and is based on an article in this Journal on Excellence in College Teaching:

DeWall, N., (2016). Millennials by heart: Memorization as an active learning strategy for the SparkNotes Generation. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27 (4), 77-91.

A synopsis: Nichole DeWall gives students an assignment they hate. Students must scan, paraphrase, and memorize a self-selected passage or poem from one of the assigned texts. Then they recite the memorized material in private to her, and teach the passage to classmates in a short, interactive presentation. Finally, they write a low-stakes reflective essay about the experience.

The article explores the rationale behind the assignment, why it’s appropriate, especially for Millennial students, and what they learn by doing it.

Even though it’s an article about an assignment few faculty will ever use, it’s well-worth reading and even more worth discussing because it raises issues much larger than the details of her assignment.


Should we give students an assignment they hate?

“The assignment’s ability to make students uncomfortable increases its value.” (p. 80)

“Piercing Millennial students’ egos allows them to be open to truly transformational learning. Therefore it is neither necessary nor desirable for the classroom to feel like a seamless extension of our Millennial student’s native worlds.” (p. 80)

“Students sharpen their metacognitive skills when they memorize, teach, and reflect upon their poems; they also leave my classes with constant companions that may just help them make sense out of their lives. For these reasons, I continue to ask my students to commit verse to memory every semester, despite their objections (and, often, my colleagues, bewilderment).” (p. 87)

How do students see classrooms? Do they act the same way in the classroom as they do everywhere else because we have failed to make classroom spaces look and feel different from everywhere else?

Does an assignment that causes discomfort produce a different kind of learning? If so, how is it different and is it a better kind of learning?

How much discomfort is enough, too much, and how does a teacher make that determination?

Most faculty work to make classroom environments feel safe and comfortable. Does giving an assignment that makes students uncomfortable compromise that objective?

How many of our assignments cause discomfort? Enough? Not enough?

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student at white board April 26, 2017

Helping Students Discover What They Can Do


“What has held me, and what I think hold many who teach basic writing, are the hidden veins of possibility running through students who don’t know—and who strongly doubt—that this is what they were born for, but who may find it out to their own amazement, students who, grim with self-deprecation and prophecies of their own failure . . .can be lured into sticking it out to some moment of breakthrough, when they discover that they have ideas that are valuable, even original, and express those ideas on paper. What fascinates me and gives hope in time of slashed budgets and enlarging class size, and national depression is the possibility that many of these [students] may be gaining the kind of critical perspective on their lives and skill to bear witness that they have never before had.”

stepping outside comfort zone March 22, 2017

Learning Outside Your Comfort Zone


When we learn something outside the comfort zone, we attempt to acquire knowledge or skills in an area where we’re lacking. Part of the discomfort derives from learning something we anticipate will be difficult. We have no idea how to do it, or we think it requires abilities we don’t have or have in meager amounts. Moreover, poor performance or outright failure lurk as likely possibilities. In other words, it’s going to be hard and require concentration, and what we’re struggling to do, others can accomplish beautifully, seemingly without effort. Their skills, and our obvious lack of them, raise questions about our merits as a learner and maybe even our worth as a person.

reading glasses January 13, 2016

Becoming a Better Teacher: Articles for New and Not-So-New Faculty


A couple of months ago a colleague asked me to recommend a book for his new faculty reading group. I rattled off the names of several, but then wondered if a packet of articles might not be a better option. When I started to identify articles, it came to me that the what-to-read dilemma for new and not-so-new faculty goes beyond the articles themselves. It is more about the categories of work on teaching and learning rather than individual pieces.

female professor talking with students. June 24, 2015

The Power of Language to Influence Thought and Action


Language influences thought and action. The words we use to describe things—to ourselves and others—affects how we and they think and act. It’s good to remind ourselves that this powerful influence happens in all kinds of situations and most certainly with language related to teaching and learning.

Here are some big ones that come to mind.

students paying attention June 10, 2015

Can We Teach Students How to Pay Attention?


I need to start out by saying that the article I’m writing about here isn’t for everyone. It’s not like any pedagogical piece I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a few. My colleague Linda Shadiow put me onto it, and although the article may not have universal appeal, the topic it addresses concerns faculty pretty much everywhere. How do we get students to pay attention? Their attention spans are short and move quickly between unrelated topics. Can we teach them how to pay attention? Is there value in trying to do so?