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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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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How to include introverted students in class discussions.

How to Include Introverts in Class Discussion

Would you prefer to go to a party with 50 exciting, brand-new people that you’ve never met before, or would you prefer to have dinner with an old, dear friend? You’ve probably guessed already that extroverts would prefer the party and introverts would prefer dinner with a friend. But what does this have to do, in particular, with learning and students in our classroom discussions? Temperament influences our preferences for learning, and introverts have particular preferences about how they would choose to learn.

Not only is it a matter of preference, but it’s also a matter of where introverts produce their best work and the conditions under which they are best suited for learning. Introverted students tend to be very comfortable with solitary learning. They’re comfortable doing their learning through reading, research, writing, and sitting in a large lecture hall listening to someone.

Introverts are usually quite happy being alone, so the kinds of learning that lets them participate on their own are within their comfort zone. It’s also typical of introverts to prefer to have some time to think before they speak. And in that thinking, they have an opportunity to sort out their thoughts, clarify their own thinking, and come to some creative kinds of thinking and some deep reflections.

Many introverts are comfortable using written formats to clarify their thinking. They like to write things down before they’re asked to share them, and those writing opportunities allow them to think through the subject before speaking. Knowing these preferences and understanding the kinds of learning strategies that bring about the best results for introverts is important to us as faculty members.

To sum up introversion, it’s really a matter of difference. A good analogy might be to think about the difference between left-handed people and right-handed people. One is not better than the other. One is not right, and the other is not wrong. They’re simply differences, but they’re differences that have implications. And as left-handed folks have had to try to learn how to live in a world that might be designed for right-handed people, so too do introverts in our classrooms sometimes struggle to feel like they should be more extroverted.

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brief moments of inquiry in college classroom

Using Brief Moments of Inquiry to Enrich Student Learning

Who discovered Pluto?

 A colleague described this brief exchange he had with his young daughter as they crossed Tombaugh Street in Flagstaff, Arizona. My colleague, ever the professor, pointed out that the street was named for local astronomer Clyde Tombaugh who had discovered Pluto in 1930. His daughter promptly informed him, “Walt Disney discovered Pluto.”

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class participation

Class Participation: What Behaviors Count?

What counts for participation isn’t always addressed when we talk with students about the importance of participation. It’s easy to assume that everybody knows what’s involved—but is that a safe assumption?

When considering what qualifies as participation, some behaviors come to mind quickly—asking questions, answering questions, and making comments. But are those the only options? Maybe interaction in our courses would improve if we broadened the definition and considered some alternatives.

The behaviors that most often count as participation relate to verbal communication—what students say. And we all know that some students, close to 50% according to most studies, are very reluctant to say anything. With broader, more inclusive definitions, we might make it easier for shy, fearful, and reticent students to learn how to answer confidently when they are called on and how to speak up in a discussion when they have something of value to contribute.

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adult student talking in class

Improvising Great Classroom Discussion

I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

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University students study in classroom with female lecturer

Facilitation Skills: The Way to Better Student Discussions

Most faculty aspire to engage and involve students in interesting and insightful discussions. But these in-class and online exchanges frequently disappoint faculty. Students come to them unprepared. They engage reluctantly. Their individual and unrelated comments take the discussion in different directions. There can be awkward silences that force faculty to rephrase questions or make statements in an effort to restart the discussion. Unprepared students tend to deal with discussion topics superficially, and they don’t delve deeply into the issues. Teachers soon feel compelled to add content depth and detail, and the more teachers talk, the less students contribute. Unfortunately, in many cases, discussions morph into lectures and students seem just fine with that.

Are faculty aspirations for discussion unjustified? Are they unrealistic, given today’s college students? No. Discussion remains a powerful instructional tool. It affords students the opportunity to learn from and with each other. Students phrase ideas in ways that help other students understand. One student’s question often asks something many students would like to know. Different perspectives are shared, and students come to realize that not everyone understands or experiences things in the same way. Discussions can be stimulating, provocative even. They can cultivate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Students learn to craft arguments and to refute them. Discussions can model civil discourse. For all these reasons and more, good discussions promote significant learning experiences.

At the crossroads between what discussion can be, and often is, stands the teacher whose challenge is easy to understand yet complicated to execute: lead and guide the exchange, but without controlling and directing it. What makes discussions engaging is the free flow of ideas, but these ideas stop flowing freely when teacher talk dominates. As teachers, there are several factors that make it easy for us to assume a commanding position in discussions. We have content expertise. We are in charge of the course and who gets to talk. We wield grading power. It’s not surprising that students direct their comments to the teacher during discussion and not to each other.

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questions marks

Questions That Promote Student Engagement

I don't know a single teacher who doesn't try to use questions to encourage student interaction. The problem is that most of us don't spend a whole of time thinking about the kinds of questions we're asking students, how or why we're doing it, and whether there might be some things that we could do that would encourage more student interaction.

Since this is a piece about questions, I'm hoping you'd expect me to pose some. Let’s start with this one: What kinds of questions are students asking in your classrooms or online? Are they provocative and stimulating queries driven by intellectual curiosity? Or are their questions more pedantic than provocative—how many words you want on a reaction paper, or how many of the homework problems they need to do, or whether there’ll be multiple-choice questions on the test?

Yes, those kinds questions are important to students, but they aren't the kind of questions that we'd like to have students asking us. We need to ask ourselves why students ask these not very inspired questions. Lately I’ve been wondering if it’s related to the kinds of questions we’re asking them. How often do we ask them provocative, stimulating questions?

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student participating in class

Learning More about Student Participation

A lot of good research has been done on participation in college classrooms. Here are some key findings and references that provide excellent background and reasons why working to get more students participating is so important.

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