Parker Palmer once said “Tips, tricks, and techniques are not the heart of education—fire is.” He’s right of course. But even so, every once in a while it’s good to switch up what we do in the classroom.
What follows are seventeen day-to-day pedagogies (Drawn from Paul Hanstedt’s Creating Wicked Students) that we implement in our courses pretty easily. Some of them may require some minor adaptation to fit the particulars of the course, the field, or our particular construction of ourself as an instructor, but that’s sort of the point: we should be deliberate about what we do, thoughtful about finding approaches that meet the learning needs of our students.
That in mind, our first piece of advice is that you not dismiss any of the following ideas too quickly. With each, take a moment and think about how it might be revised/restructured for your students, your field, your courses, and most importantly, your goals. Always begin by asking, “I wonder if . . . ?”
Our second piece of advice is to remember that these kinds of engaged learning techniques are not just about “having fun,” or “changing the pace” of the classroom. Yes, students may enjoy some of them more than, say, a traditional discussion or lecture. But what really matters here is that these approaches ask students to process and apply the content they’re receiving in your course. And in that application process, more and better neuronal networks are being created which, in turn, means that your course content becomes more meaningful and easier to recall. Which, after all, is kind of the point.
This technique is already part of the traditional method of a number of fields, including law and business. Periodically throughout the class present students with brief, puzzling “cases” and ask them to propose solutions to these problems, based upon the reading, lectures, discussions, etc. The nature of these cases should obviously be determined by the content of the course, but as much as possible should be contextualized in terms of life beyond the academy. In other words, throwing a math problem on the board is not a case study; couching that math problem in terms of statistical analyses of the weather, of gun control, of poverty in developing nations is, because at this point these issues become appropriately wicked.
Best practices also encourage that: a) the case studies should become increasingly complex as the course progresses and students begin to gain control over the material; and b) students are asked to explore/solve the case studies with increasing levels of independence.
Concrete Images of Abstract Ideas
In The Art of Changing the Brain, cognitive neuroscientist James Zull notes that learning is deeply indebted to the senses—and that our visual sense is arguably one of the most powerful of these. That in mind, “If we can convert an idea into an image, we should do so. And wherever possible, we should require our students to show us their images.” Zull goes on to say that while it’s easy to think about how certain topics can easily be transcribed into images—he cites mathematics as one of the most “image-dependent subjects”—others may seem to present a less natural fit: music, for instance, or philosophy (Zull, 2002).
His point is that the more abstract the concept, perhaps the more necessary it is to have students create images that allow them to visualize these abstractions, in order to aid their recall. For instance, students in a writing theory course might benefit from having to create an image that captures the nuances of social-epistemic theory. Similarly, biology professor D.B. Poli requires that her students create a cartoon—comprehensible by anybody, even those not in the course—depicting the transcription of DNA into RNA, and the translation of RNA into protein (Hanstedt, 2012). And though this image generation might in the end not be directly related to any final assignment we give (although . . . ?), it can still be an authoritative tool in that it requires students to own the course material, to very literally make it their own. And again, remembering Zull’s earlier point, these images improve the chances of deep learning and greater recall.
A related—and likely more familiar—approach is concept maps, or knowledge maps. Essentially, these are images representing ideas, facts, and data, with an emphasis, as Blumberg, (drawing off of the work of J.D. Novak) puts it: “showing the relationships among the concepts, such as cause and effect, consequences, or a series of events” (Blumberg 2009). Flowcharts and tables are concept maps, but students should by no means feel limited to these forms: there’s nothing that says that images couldn’t just as easily replace boxes in a flow-chart, or that “flow” might not also somehow be combined with some sort of image that would look at the sorts of commonalities you might find using a Venn diagram.
In short, as with image generation, the goal here is for students to assume authority as they learn the logic(s) of a concept being taught in the course. As Blumberg notes, these knowledge maps can be generated individually, collaboratively, or both, using one and then the other.
Epigraph and Analysis
Students come to class with a one-page type-written response to the day’s reading. At the top of the page, they’ve included a quotation from the reading. This quote can be something they love, something they hate, something that they’re confused about, something that they think is relevant to the class. The rest of the page is filled with a careful analysis of their response to the quotation: what do they love about it? Hate about it? Why do they think it’s relevant to the class? What word, exactly, confuses them? Or what turn of phrase? How do they see it as applying to their lives? To other readings? To other courses? To their long-term goals? To their learning?
These responses can be used in a number of different ways: some instructors just collect them and respond with a check or minus; others choose two every day (from different students) and use them to begin discussion; others have students exchange them, find “hot spots” and/or “smart ideas” and use those as the basis of the entire discussion that day.
Some instructors require a reading response like this every day while others require it only once a week. We generally respond to these pieces in detail only when we have lots of time. In the end, this kind of writing is about students exploring ideas and using writing to think—and test their own thinking. Practicing that skill isn’t always something that needs a lot of instructor feedback.
Gallery walks pair nicely with the image-generation and concept maps outlined above. A gallery walk essentially puts the images and concept maps generated above on display, and opens students up to dialogue and feedback that might also to productive revision.
The logistics are simple: once the images or concept maps (or for that matter, drafts of formal posters) have been generated, they are hung on the walls of the classroom. Students then peruse the “gallery,” considering the work of their peers and, whenever possible, asking questions and offering feedback. This latter stage can be enacted in a number of different ways:
- Students are simply given yellow sticky notes and asked to create questions and ideas for at least five (or three, or ten) different posters. (Note: it’s a good idea when using this approach to prep the class on effective and constructive feedback).
- Half of the class strolls around and looks at the images/maps/posters; half the class stands by the posters, explaining and answering questions. Then the two halves switch so that everyone gets a chance to see the work of others and everyone gets a chance to explain/defend/take farther their ideas.
- The instructor goes around the room, focusing attention on each poster in turn and leading an impromptu discussion of its strengths and strategies to improve it.
- Some combination of this last approach and either of the previous two.
There are several obvious benefits to gallery walks. First, it raises the stakes for the images and maps by creating a real audience. Any time we know that real people with real questions and real thoughts in their real heads are going to be examining our work, we become much more focused and thoughtful in our approach.
Second, if we use the option where half the students must stand by their posters for a question and answer “defense,” the stakes go even higher: as they are pushed to explain their thinking orally, students gain further mastery over the material, and likely improve their sense of authority, coming to understand that they can do this, that they are capable of discussing these matters.
Third, in being asked to offer feedback, students are also developing a sense of authority. Let’s face it: being a member of the audience can be an invigorating experience, especially if part of our role is to offer critique. We may not be exactly an expert on the topic, but all of us are experts on being confused, on not understanding, on being able to say to the presenter, “Right there, that idea, that thing you said, that’s what confused me. What did you mean by that?” And very often, as audience we see flaws in logic in the work of others that we wouldn’t notice in our own work—which then allows us to turn back to our poster or map and revise and strengthen it.
Generating Discussion Questions
When students arrive in class, they are asked to generate three questions related to the day’s reading; some of the questions can relate to pure content and understanding, but at least one of the questions should be something they believe would lead to an interesting discussion (note: this technique can be used even in large classes where the discussion might never occur).
Once they have generated lists individually, students should get in pairs or groups of three, look at their respective lists, and generate a new list of three “best” questions. They must be able to explain why these questions are worth discussing. The only rule here is that they can’t take all three questions from a single person’s list.
One thing worth noting: on the face of it this task seems to “waste” time in that it cuts into the minutes available to actually discuss questions. In reality, though, as students first generate and then select questions, they’re already thinking about what matters, about what doesn’t, and about some of the answers and potential answers to these questions.
Generating Study Questions
Early in the semester, the instructor provides students with the study questions for the exam. As the semester progresses, the students begin to generate some of the questions, with guidance from the instructor. And as the semester ends, the students develop their own questions, with little or no guidance from the instructor (Blumberg, 2009).
Essentially, what this pedagogy does is shift from the instructor to the student the responsibility for creating the bridge between course “intake”—through lectures, reading, discussions, labs—and course “output”—exams and quizzes. As a result, this approach creates more active readers, students who, rather than reading passively, are constantly reading while thinking “What matters here?” Students are engaged, then, in evaluation, as well as projection and construction, thinking to themselves “What kind of question might occur on the test? How might this material be brought into play?” Consequently, all of the ideas they’re exploring will be easier to recall.
This method works well when there are a series of small pieces that are necessary to solving a larger problem. Essentially, the ”jigsaw” refers to breaking things up and putting them back together again, meaning in this case, both the day’s content and the various groups of students. The extended example below has to do with literature, but don’t be fooled: with a little thought this can be applied to virtually any class:
- Five poems are assigned for a class on a given day (or five poets, or five calculations, or paintings, or philosophers). Students are broken into five groups. Each group is assigned one piece of the puzzle, whether that be a poem, a poet, a calculation, or whatever.
- Each group has to answer the same series of questions about the poem (poet, calculation, etc.). Every student in the group must take notes, because they will then report the findings of this first group to another group.
- After the groups have had adequate time, the groups are then broken apart and configured into new groups, each new group containing one member from each of the old groups. This is so that all of the new groups can hear the “findings” from all of the previous groups. (In other words, if you had five groups of five, you’ll now make five new groups of five; if you had three groups of five, you’ll now make five groups of three. The key here is that each student is responsible for reporting the findings of their first group to their second group).
- Each member reports to the new group what their old group discovered—the answers, in other words, to the questions that were provided.
- The new groups then use the aggregate data to solve some more complex problem.
This final step—solving a new problem that depends on the information from the first set of groups—is another crucial component to making this pedagogy work. This gives meaning and significance to the reporting process: every student must master the material from the first group, must own it and understand it well enough to bring it to the second group, so that this group can accomplish a meaningful task.
Once course content has been encountered—through lecture, reading or discussion—students are introduced to a “case” in which that content is relevant. For instance, Stoddart and McKinley (2006) talk about a section of their psychology course exploring sleep, to which they bring a real-life case in which a husband offered sleepwalking as his defense for harming his partner in the middle of the night. Students are put in groups and asked to prepare both “defense” and “prosecution”—then they are assigned one or the other, and a trial proceeds.
Monday Morning Riddles
This idea came from Dan Clark, at Western Oregon University. The name is self-explanatory: the first thing every week, students are presented with a problem that needs to be solved. Thus, a physics professor intent on having her students eventually develop a method for calculating the blades of grass on the football field, might, on a Monday morning ask students as a group to figure out a method for calculating the number of desks in the building. Or the number of ceiling tiles in all of the classrooms on the first floor. A literature professor intent on getting her students to recognize how a single poem may offer multiple readings, may present a poem by Christina Rossetti, discuss to contrasting analyses, and ask students to debate which is correct. A philosophy professor teaching logic may offer their students a syllogism and ask if it’s correct. And of course, a mathematics professor may simply put a complex problem on the board and ask students to discuss, collaboratively, how to get through it.
A further step, as the semester goes along, might be to ask students to bring in problems/ riddles/puzzles they’ve encountered that are appropriate for the class.
Key here is that the solving of the riddle is done collaboratively, involving instructor and students. The kind of exercise can even occur in a larger lecture.
Real World Applications
This approach can take place in a number of formats: class discussion, journals, wikis, blogs (Barkley, 2010). It can also apply both to course content and/or skills taught in the course (Ambrose, 2010). Essentially what you’re doing is asking students to make connections between the course content and the “real world”: what theories have they encountered in this course that help them understand the current political situation? What solutions have they encountered in the course that they might propose in response to the immigration debate? How is Victorian literature relevant to twenty-first century life? How effective is mainstream media at reporting on science?
Two things are necessary to make this technique work: the first is that students be absolutely required to discuss exactly what course content they’re drawing from. Quote from the textbook; reference a particular lecture; tie it to a specific lab, or even a particular part of that lab. This is to ensure that students don’t generalize about they’re learning, that they’re really truly mastering that content as they apply it beyond the classroom.
The second thing that helps make this approach effective is to require students to do more than simply describe the connection. Yes, they should talk about what they see in the class and what they see out of the class—but then what? Why does this matter? What is revealed here—about the course content, about the real world, about learning, about the student and how they view the world, about what may happen next? Description matters, but it allows the brain to stay relatively passive; answering the so what question pushes students toward higher levels of cognition, the kinds that deepen learning and strengthen a sense of authority.
Students arrive in class with three typewritten theses related to that day’s reading. These are shared and discussed, either in small groups or with the class as a whole, as a means of both developing thesis-writing skills, and of catalyzing discussion.
These are graded check/minus and should be part of the minor or secondary assignments for the course.
Send a Problem
A variation on case studies evolves from Elizabeth Barkley, in Student Engagement Techniques (2010). In this pedagogy, various groups or pairs of students are each given different problems or case studies and asked to propose solutions, again, based on the best thinking in the field as they’ve thus far learned it. Once they have completed this task, they pass their problem onto another group and themselves receive a new problem. Without looking at the previous group’s solution, these new groups tackle the problem, making a proposal. Again, the material is passed on and the process repeated (this should happen at least three times, but may happen more if the professor would like). The task for the final group that receives the problem is to examine the various solutions and analyze and synthesize them, reporting to the class as a whole the solution (or some hybrid solution) they think is best.
As Barkley points out, this technique involves both problem-solving and evaluative skills. In today’s digitized world, where we’re encountering more and more solutions but fewer and fewer thoughtful ones, developing this skill seems crucial.
On the face of it, this activity may appear a little cruel, but its purpose is pure. At the start of class, the instructor places a statement on the board for consideration. It should not be something factual, but rather should allow interpretation of the day’s reading. Indeed, this technique works best when it related to something that most students will likely get wrong, at least initially.
The instructor should then ask students to write “True” or “False” on a sheet of paper, alerting them that, once they’ve written an answer, they must stick with that answer. All of the students who’ve written “True” should then cluster on one side of the room. Those who have written “False” should cluster on the other.
The instructor should then clarify the correct answer, without explaining that answer. The two sides of the room (working as a group, or at least in pairs) are then asked to use their notes, their readings, class discussions, lectures, etc., to explain how the reasoning behind the correct answer. The results generated by the two groups should then be compared (Barkley, 2010).
The purpose here is to move students beyond obvious or first-impression thinking—and then to show them that they have and have always had the capability to arrive at the correct answer all along. Indeed, more often than not the “results” between the correct group and the incorrect group are very similar. In short, this method teaches more deliberate thinking. (Of course, it also teaches students who haven’t done the reading that they’re missing out on content that will be used in class).
Students are broken into two teams (or more—see below) and asked to develop arguments—based on readings, lecture, discussion, and research) for BOTH sides of a particularly complex or divisive question. They should be told that extra points will be given for their ability to not just cite data, but explain that data in a way that would make sense to someone not in this class. Additional points are given to the team that has the most members take an active speaking role.
Once they’ve had time to generate material for both sides of the question, then and only then are sides appointed. The debate should involve initial statement of ideas, responses to the other side, and closing arguments. If you wish, you may give teams time to discuss amongst themselves between segments.
There should be a post-debate analysis and discussion: which side did better? Why? If they’d been appointed to the opposite side of the debate, what arguments might they have added to the discussion?
Note: if you have a larger class, there’s nothing wrong with creating four, six, or even eight teams, and having them all go through the same process, collecting data for both sides, having a side appointed to their group, etc. etc. You might then have one group do the opening argument, another the response, and still another the closing argument. The key here is having students consider both sides of a complex question, whether or not they actually present.
Think-Aloud Pair Problem Solving
This technique comes from Barkley, Cross, and Major’s Collaborative Learning Techniques and works well in classes that require a lot of problem solving. The basic technique involves the instructor coming to class with a number of field-related problems that can be solved within a relatively short period of time. Though the problems themselves should be challenging, they should allow students to engage in some of the basics of problem solving: identifying the problem, analyzing the knowledge and skills necessary for solving it, brainstorming possible solutions, and so on.
In class, students are divided into pairs and given a problem: one is asked to talk through the problem-solving process, while the other is asked to listen carefully, trying to follow along, understand the thinking as much as possible, and offer suggestions where issues or missteps seem to occur. Then, of course, the roles are switched: the listener becomes the problem solver, the solver becomes the listener.
Part of the appeal of this technique comes in the rationale provided by one of the case studies in Barkley et. al’s work: discussing a set of problem-solving questions in a computer science course, Barkley and her colleagues write:
Students needed to become competent in a complex problem-solving process of retrieving, manipulating, and analyzing sequences from a variety of databases. The instructor noticed that some of his students “caught on” and were able to go through the steps relatively easily. Others tended to make process mistakes that resulted in programming errors that were time consuming and frustrating to find later. Historically, these struggling students simply dropped the course at this point, so the instructor was searching for ways to reduce attrition and alleviate student anxiety . . .. the result was that students not only gained competence sooner than in the previous semester when they worked independently, but it also significantly improved student retention. (2005)
Too often, students—and sometimes instructors—approach intelligence as though it’s something you either have or you don’t. In contrast, we believe that if we can teach these ways of thinking, if we can shift a student’s attitudes, that we shape their sense of what they’re capable of by putting them in situations that challenge them, but also teach them how to succeed.