getting students to read what's assigned

10 Strategies for Promoting Accountability and Investment in Reading Assignments

As teachers, we see value in what we assign students, but students don’t always appreciate the relevance or understand the purpose of their assignments. Required readings are a great example of this disconnect. However, when students have some input into their learning, their response to assignments (yes, even reading assignments) changes. Rather than requiring fill-in-the-blank reading guides or giving weekly quizzes to “motivate” students to do assigned readings, professors can give students some alternatives. We can design those alternatives to give students greater choice and responsibility for their learning, thereby making the assignments more meaningful. Here is a collection of reading assignment alternatives we use and recommend.

  1. Non-structured Notes: Allow students to submit notes on assigned readings in various formats. These formats may include a detailed outline, graphic organizer, poster, summary paragraphs, or other visual representations of the material. Different format samples can be shared with the entire class or within small groups to stimulate discussion of the readings.

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studying outside

Using Reading Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking

“Students can critically read in a variety of ways:

  • When they raise vital questions and problems from the text,
  • When they gather and assess relevant information and then offer plausible interpretations of that information,
  • When they test their interpretations against previous knowledge or experience …,
  • When they examine their assumptions and the implications of those assumptions, and
  • When they use what they have read to communicate effectively with others or to develop potential solutions to complex problems.” (p. 127)

And don’t we all wish our students read this way! Unfortunately most of them don’t, and the challenge is finding those strategies and approaches that help them develop these sophisticated reading skills. Terry Tomasek, who crafted this description of critical reading, proposes one of those kinds of strategies.

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class lecture

Creating a Respectful Community: Lessons from the Middle East

My family and I have had the privilege of living in the Middle East for nearly three decades. In addition to the extraordinary Arab hospitality we have enjoyed, it also has been a time of learning. Many of my parochial assumptions have been challenged, not the least being my understandings about teaching and learning.

A notable feature of education in the region (as in much of the world) is an emphasis on rote learning. I received the bulk of my formal education in Australia and United States—countries where there is a strong focus on the development of autonomy through critical thinking. With some ethnocentric arrogance, I initially viewed the local education systems here in the Middle East as backward and destructive. These systems resulted from and contributed to the sort of authoritarian dictatorships that prevail in many parts of the world.

Over time, however, I have gained a more nuanced appreciation of local learning approaches and I believe there are elements that Western educators may do well to consider or reconsider.

In his seminal work on intercultural rhetoric, Robert Kaplan offers a set of foundational questions: (1) What may be discussed? (2) Who has the authority to speak/write? (3) What form(s) may the writing take? (4) What is evidence? (5) What arrangement of evidence is likely to appeal (be convincing) to readers?

The answers to these questions are profoundly shaped by culture. In particular, I am struck by the fundamentally different understandings of the first two questions in collectivist and individualistic societies. In individualistic societies, such as Australia and United States, the normative assumption is that it is right and healthy to promote the development of a strong autonomous voice in students. We encourage students to speak with confidence, question assumptions, and challenge those in authority.

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student participation

Question of the Day Promotes Class Participation

Most of us have experienced the dreaded quiet class. Typically, it’s the class where only a few students speak and it’s always the same three or four. Everyone else sits passively and waits out the clock. For those classes and others, I’ve found a question of the day an effective method of promoting participation.

It’s an approach that gets students thinking and speaking on a course-related topic. The expectations are that everyone speaks and all answers are accepted and welcome. Sometimes the question of the day assesses student’s prior knowledge of the topic; sometimes it asks for an opinion, and sometimes it asks for an application of a course concept. Typically, the class session starts with the question of the day. I use it to set the day’s learning purpose. Each student provides a brief response, typically taking no more than 20 seconds.

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students in lecture hall

Low-Risk Strategies to Promote Active Learning in Large Classes

Faculty who teach large classes confront the long-existing challenge of making their lectures more engaging and meaningful. In this article, I will share some low-risk strategies to help faculty transform lectures into student-centered learning experiences for enhanced learning outcomes.

These active learning strategies can be easily implemented without significant redesign of the class and without an investment in technology. However, toward the end of the article, I offer a few tech-based strategies for engaging your students.

  • Use skeleton handout. Provide students with a handout of the day’s lesson, but intentionally omit some key words and phrases from the slides. Students will have to listen closely during class in order to fill in the missing pieces of information.
  • Physical movement. In a traditional lecture, faculty tend to stand at or behind the podium, interacting with the few students sitting near the front of the room. To engage the whole class, even those students who like to sit in the back, walk around in the classroom from time to time and work to draw in those students sitting on the periphery.
  • Pause and chunk (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987; Di Vesta & Smith, 1979). Researchers have told us that students have very short attention spans and start to lose focus after 10 to 15 minutes in the lecture. To keep students continuously engaged, it is suggested that you chunk the content into smaller segments. For instance, after lecturing for 15 or 20 minutes, switch gears by involving students in mini learning games/activities during the transitional break.
  • Effective questioning. Questioning is one of the most common engagement techniques used by faculty in their daily teaching practice, but have you noticed that it doesn’t always produce the intended outcomes? That’s because many don’t give questions the time and attention they deserve—during lesson planning and the class itself. Below are a few questioning tips to consider.
    • Ask meaningful questions. Factual recall questions are fine for getting the class warmed up, but it’s also important to ask questions at the higher levels of Bloom’s revised taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002). Higher level questions force students to think critically about the content. Questions that have more than one good answer are more likely to lead to interactive discussion.
    • Give “wait time” (Elliot, 1996; Mills, 1995). After you ask a question, wait a few extra seconds before asking for volunteers. By extending the wait time, students have time to process their ideas and produce more thoughtful answers. This is especially beneficial to those who are reluctant to talk in the class. With a few extra seconds to think about and organize the talking points, they will be more confident in their response and more willing to participate.
    • Ask follow-up questions. Too often, after a student answers a question, the teacher explains why it is correct or incorrect and then continues to lecture. Although there is nothing wrong with this practice per se, it does mean we’re throwing away an opportunity to further engage students in higher level thinking. If further discussion is warranted, ask follow-up questions, probe for more information, ask for clarification, request an example, or have students explain the rationale for their answer. Some examples of follow-up questions include: why? what if? how do you know? or what is an example of that?

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multitasking while studying

Confronting the Myth of Multitasking: A Collection of Tools and Resources

Download a self-check quiz for students, plus a look at key research findings

Most of us need no research evidence to document that students are using their phones and attempting to multitask in class. We see it all the time, and if you suspect it's also happening when they study, research confirms that as well. In some ways, we can’t really blame students. People are on their phones everywhere, including places where cell phones are supposed to be off. And let’s be honest, faculty are pretty much like everyone else when it comes to paying attention to what’s on their phone when they shouldn’t be—in faculty meetings, workshops, while listening to the college president, and when they grade student work. Students do have a problem, but so does pretty much everyone else. We need big societal changes and those aren’t yet forthcoming. Without them, is it any surprise that solutions tried in the classroom have had limited success?

Most faculty have responded to students’ proclivity to multitask with policies that prohibit the use of devices in class, significantly curtail their use, or put instructors in charge of when and for what they can be used.  (See “Cell Phone Policies: A Review of Where Faculty Stand”) A growing body of evidence documents how students are responding to these policies. If the class has more than 100 students in it, 90% of students reported on one survey that they could text without the instructor knowing (Tindell and Bohlander, 2012). In a study involving smaller class sizes, 32% said they could text without the instructor knowing Clayson and Haley, 2013). In the same study, which involved multiple sections of a marketing course, 56% of students said that texting in the class was banned and 49% said they texted anyway. Whether students can text without us knowing is not as important as the fact students think they can do it without us knowing.

Students are also using their devices when they study. In one study that analyzed student activities in 3,372 computer logs of study sessions, multitasking happened in 70% of those sessions (Judd, 2013). Studies referenced in the resources that follow document how frequently students switch between studying and their devices when they study.

As the resources illustrate, this kind of task-switching slows them down and compromises their attempt to learn the material. The amount of notes they take, quiz scores, exam scores even course grades are all negatively affected. Because it’s our job to guide, manage, and otherwise direct their learning experiences, we must explore a range of approaches to help make students more acutely aware of how their attempts to learn are being compromised by these devices.

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Using analogies in your teaching.

Mining the Analogy

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine.” Benjamin Franklin may not have realized at the time that he was actually using a tool for the education he espoused, namely, the analogy. More than a simple witticism, the statement can be explored for rich conceptual parallels. Although a familiar teaching tool periodically invoked as a creative clarification, we faculty may not fully appreciate how an analogy might be mined for its full value. In higher education in particular, creation of an effective analogy is a worthy endeavor because it serves not only to instruct, but also potentially to hone the deeper, more complex higher order thinking skills we aspire to teach students.

The cognitive and educational benefits of using analogy (relational or analogical reasoning) in education, especially primary and secondary, have been well explored. Although research-based recommendations have not been made for every college-level subject, principles with practical implications have been identified. Of particular interest to faculty should be the 2015 assertion Richland and Simms offer in WIREs Cognitive Science that “relational reasoning can be productively considered the cognitive underpinning of higher order thinking,” where this type of reasoning is “the process of representing information and objects in the world as systems of relationships (which) can be compared, contrasted, and combined in novel ways depending on contextual goals.” They note the beauty of the dual benefit. Analogy is both “a tool for promoting content acquisition and a basic cognitive mechanism for using information flexibly and across contexts.” For an analogy to serve as both a tool for basic understanding and development of complex reasoning, it must be carefully and intentionally designed and delivered.

An effective analogy may be pursued in many contexts. It may provide motivation in an intro course or illuminate complex concepts of an upper-level subject. It’s an invaluable means of encouraging visualization of what cannot be seen or experienced. Once it creates a spark of recognition, it may cascade into a deeper and broader appreciation of the subject, often creating the desire to delve further. However, as the foundation beneath a house determines its livability, the careful construction of the analogy with a clear view of the instructional goals determines its fruitfulness.

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flipped learning ideas

Don’t Just Flip—Unplug

Why “unplug” in the classroom?

In his book Teaching Naked, Jose Bowen challenges us to rethink the role of technology in our courses and be more intentional about when we use it, why we use it, and what our students do with it. Bowen (2012) explains, “Technology is most powerfully used outside of class as a way to increase naked, nontechnical interaction with students inside the classroom” (preface, p. x). Here are three reasons you might want to consider adding unplugged strategies to your classroom:

  • To increase focus. In my work, the FLIP means to “Focus on your Learners by Involving them in the Process” (Honeycutt 2013 & 2016a). When you FLIP, you focus on integrating active learning strategies and helping students achieve higher-level learning outcomes when they are in class with you and their peers. When your students disconnect from their devices for part of a lesson, they can connect with each other and work with the course material in a different way. They are focused on the task of solving a problem, organizing information, analyzing content, or creating something new.
  • To decrease distractions. In a 2013 study, undergraduate students reported using a device (phone, laptop, tablet) almost 12 times a day during class for nonclass activities (McCoy). Interestingly, in 2012, researchers found that students did not have to be the ones engaging in nonclass activities to be distracted. Students in view of a peer engaged in off-task activities scored 17 percent lower on a post-lecture comprehension test (Sana, Weston, and Cepeda, 2012).
  • To add value. One of the most common challenges faculty face when implementing flipped and blended instructional design models is how to encourage students to complete coursework outside of the in-person class time. Students need to know how their out-of-class work will be used in class. Bowen (2012) explains, “Nothing has more potential to eliminate boredom and create an incentive for a student to come to class prepared than a complete rethinking of the use of class time, overhauling it from a passive listening experience into a transformative learning environment” (p. 185).

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getting your students to read

Reading to Learn

For some time now, students in my first-year biology course have been protesting that I’m assigning too much pre-class reading. I use the flipped classroom structure in most of my courses and that means students prepare for class by reading assigned pages in the textbook. To hold students accountable for completing the reading, I administer a two-stage reading quiz before we discuss the content and apply the concepts to problems during class. Those who complain tell me that reading is not part of their learning style and I’m putting them at a disadvantage.

The research on learning styles is inconclusive and contradictory (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). The theory behind them proposes that students learn best when teaching matches their learning preference, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. The research, however, does not support this theory in very convincing ways.

What the research does suggest is that learning occurs best when the teaching method matches the content and the learning task. Thus, if problem-solving is the skill to be learned, then practicing problem-solving is the best way to learn it. If concepts are what’s being learned, then various explanations of the concepts and practice explaining them is the best way to learn them. Learning can be approached in many different ways, and we each have our preferences about how we like to learn. But our preferences do not, indeed should not, prevent us from learning in different ways. If we find it difficult to learn by listening to a lecture, that does not mean we must live with poor listening skills. It means we need more practice at listening for meaning when we find the content challenging. If we have difficulties understanding the written material that appears in texts, that does not prevent us from becoming more skillful readers of text. It means we need a better understanding of the skills involved in reading textbook material and repeated practice in applying those skills.

What troubles me about learning styles is that they promote a fixed mindset and that evolves into a perceived learning disability where none exists. Certainly, learning disabilities are real and experienced by some students, but many of my students conflate having a particular learning style with the inability to learn any other mode. They treat their difficulty with learning from texts as an incurable problem and ask to be excused from ever having to do it. I can’t think of any profession where people are excused from reading. Rather, poor reading comprehension comes with consequences.

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Student persistence

Mindset and Stereotype Threat: Small Interventions That Make a Big Difference

What if there were a simple classroom exercise that could create positive and lasting effects on the academic performance and persistence of students—in particular, students who are under-represented in your field?

It turns out there is. More accurately, there are a number of such exercises—let’s call them interventions—that research shows are effective.

The interventions grow out of two intersecting bodies of literature in social psychology and are described in drastically over-simplified terms below.

Mindset research, widely known as the brainchild of Stanford’s Carol Dweck (2006), holds that students’ beliefs about learning and intelligence profoundly influence their ability to persist in the face of challenges and setbacks. Students with a “growth mindset” believe that intelligence is malleable, learning is often effortful, and failure is a natural (and perhaps necessary) part of personal and academic growth. When students with a growth mindset fail, it does not threaten their sense of identity, so they are able to move on and persist. As a result, they have a capacity for resilience that ultimately serves them well in academics and in life. Students with a “fixed mindset,” on the other hand, view intelligence as innate and failure as a threat to their core identity (“But I’m an A student! How could I fail?!”). They are fine as long as they succeed, but tend to panic, give up, or even cheat when they encounter setbacks or find that learning is harder than they anticipated. In other words, they are brittle rather than resilient.

Stereotype threat research, championed by scholars like Claude Steele (2010), has a different but overlapping focus on issues related to identity. It shows that students from groups stigmatized or stereotyped on the basis of social identity (race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.) experience stress when asked to perform challenging tasks that converge with known stereotypes. Think, for example, of women in STEM fields or the elderly performing memory tasks. The internalized pressure not to confirm stereotypes interferes with cognition, creating a kind of mental “noise” that negatively affects performance. Sophisticated experiments have shown that when a task-relevant negative stereotype is triggered in the minds of students from the stereotyped group, their performance measurably declines. However, when the stereotype is not triggered—or when steps are taken to actively reduce its salience—the performance of these students is significantly higher.

As powerfully detrimental as the effects of fixed mindsets and stereotype threat can be, there is good news coming out of both fields. Students with fixed mindsets can develop growth mindsets. In doing so, they can raise not only their short-term academic performance but also their long-term ability to bounce back from setbacks and persist in challenging fields. Stereotype threat, moreover, can be mitigated, and when it is, it can significantly decrease and sometimes outright erase the performance differential between stereotyped and non-stereotyped groups. In addition, reducing stereotype threat can help members of underrepresented groups overcome imposter syndrome and develop a stronger and more resilient sense of belonging and self-efficacy within a given field.

Still better news: simple interventions can address both issues simultaneously. And – this part is perhaps the most encouraging of all—they create positive effects that snowball rather than diminish over time, as positive outcomes generate confidence that lead to still more positive outcomes (Yeager and Walton, 2011). While these interventions seem almost magical, Yeager and Walton point out in their excellent review of the research (2011) that they’re not magical at all: they simply leverage what we know about the human mind, in particular how emotion and cognition interact.

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