Center for the Advancement of Teaching

Developing Teaching

“I never teach my students. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
-Albert Einstein

How Do People Learn?

In recent years, advances in cognitive science are being applied to pedagogy, so that rather than thinking so much about how we’re teaching, we can think instead about how learning happens.

This means we can do more to encourage, facilitate, and prompt learning. In fact, this takes some of the pressure off of us as teachers: nobody has to be a perfect combination of Socrates and George Carlin—instead, we need to figure out how we can assist our students to acquire the skills and competencies our fields demand.

Some teachers feel that shifting to a learning-centered perspective lessens their control over the class, but this concern is misplaced, since a focus on learning instead allows us to structure the course at many levels.

Learning is a complicated process. Learners need mental frameworks in order to process new input. We cannot say we have usefully learned something if we cannot retrieve it from memory—just hearing a snippet of data doesn’t equate to learning.

We have to make sense of information and be able to categorize it so that we can use it. This involves making connections to things we already know, and often it involves challenging and rethinking things we already accept.

When we are able to situate new information in a framework, and then to employ it, we are far better able to remember what we take in. We can recognize patterns, so we make meaning out of information that previously seemed random.

A great example involves a chessboard: an expert chess player can easily see a pattern and remember the placement of pieces on a given board, while someone who has never played the game would have immense difficulty memorizing what piece was placed on what square, since the arrangement would seem meaningless.

For teachers, this means that if we expect students to retain what we teach them, we must enable them to make connections, to build their knowledge rather than simply receiving it.

It’s also important to keep in mind that learning requires repetition. Most of us don’t actually encode new concepts without several iterations, so reviewing and reinforcing new ideas is crucial.

A useful recent overview of the science of learning is a book called How People Learn; it was commissioned by the National Research Council. We have a copy at the Center, available for check-out if you want to read more. Here’s an outline produced by Vanderbilt University’s Teaching Center.

How People Learn

This teaching guide highlights the pedagogical theory presented in the book:"

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School

John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown and Rodney R. Cocking, editors

National Academies Press; 1st edition (September 15, 2000)


Commissioned by the National Research Council, How People Learn presents the conclusions of recent research in cognitive science, and then develops their implications for teaching and learning. The following highlights of this research may be helpful as you reflect on your own teaching practice, and how it may better enhance your students’ learning.

The Nature of Expertise

Expertise is on a continuum that runs from novice to expert, and one is more or less fluent in one’s expertise.

Expertise is field-dependent. Expertise in one field doesn’t translate directly to expertise in another field.

Characteristics of expertise:

  • Expert learners have well-organized knowledge, not just problem-solving strategies.
  • Expert knowledge is organized to support understanding, not just recall. And the organization is grounded in a field’s foundational concepts.
  • Expert knowledge is conditionality, and the conditional relationships form patterns that experts recognize and rely upon.
  • An expert’s fluency allows the easy retrieval of relevant knowledge. The patterns mentioned in the previous point are second nature to the expert, while the novice struggles to recognize them. This fluency with fundamental patterns frees the mental energy to focus on new knowledge to add to the pattern.
  • There is a difference between adaptive experts, whose metacognitive skills allow the transfer of knowledge from one setting to another, and routine experts, whose expertise allows them to function well in standard settings but doesn’t serve them well when conditions are different.

Challenges in Developing Expertise

Being aware of these challenges can help the expert in a field to work more productively with novices in the field to develop their expertise:

  • The development and retention of new knowledge depends in large part on the relationship between what one is learning and what one already knows. Because novices in a field typically don’t know much of the content in that field, they have little to which they can relate the things they’re attempting to learn. So they retain less.
  • Since novices typically don’t grasp the fundamental principles in a field, they don’t see the patterns grounded in those principles. They tend therefore to adopt an idiosyncratic organizational scheme for what they are learning. This organizational scheme might function well enough in a particular context (e.g., in the particular unit they’re covering in a part of a class) but it doesn’t serve them well in other areas of the field. It doesn’t transfer well.
  • The expert’s fluency can conceal the very principles and strategies that the novice must learn in order to become more expert. These principles and strategies are often invisible even to the expert precisely because they are second nature. And they’re invisible to the novice observing the expert because they’re implicit in the expert’s work.

Implications for Teaching

Make Thinking visible.
  • Student thinking: Have students engage in activities that make visible the processes of their thinking, rather than merely the conclusions of their thinking.
  • Expert thinking: Model expert thinking, being careful to make explicit the strategies and techniques that are implicit in expert thinking.

Be aware of knowledge level of students. The knowledge (and misunderstandings) they bring with them into the class will shape what they learn in the class.

Use contrasting cases as examples. Contrasting cases–two examples whose differences highlight a particular point or set of points–can illustrate the particular points you are highlighting as an instructor. Note that experts are more likely than novices to see the relevant contrast between two complex cases that are similar in many respects. So it’s best to start with relatively simple cases and then move to complexity as understanding deepens.

Creating Effective Learning Communities

According to the cognitive research covered in How People Learn , environments that best promote learning have four interdependent aspects—they focus on learners, well-organized knowledge, ongoing assessment for understanding, and community support and challenge.

  1. Learner-centered: Learner-centered environments pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting. Teachers must realize that new knowledge is built on existing knowledge—students are not blank slates. Therefore, teachers need to uncover the incomplete understandings, false beliefs and naïve renditions of concepts that students have when they begin a course. If these are ignored, students may develop understandings very different from what the teacher intends them to gain.
  2. Knowledge-centered: Knowledge-centered environments take seriously the need to help students learn the well-organized bodies of knowledge that support understanding and adaptive expertise. Teachers are wise to point their students directly toward clear learning goals—to tell students exactly what knowledge they will be gaining, and how they can use that knowledge. In addition, a strong foundational structure of basic concepts will give students a solid base on which to build further learning.
  3. Assessment-centered: Assessment-centered environments provide frequent formal and informal opportunities for feedback focused on understanding, not memorization, to encourage and reward meaningful learning. Feedback is fundamental to learning, but feedback opportunities are often too scarce in classrooms. Students may receive grades on tests and essays, but these are summative assessments that occur at the end of projects. What are needed are formative assessments that provide students with opportunities to revise and improve the quality of their thinking and understanding. The goal is for students to gain meta-cognitive abilities to self-assess, reflect and rethink for better understanding.
  4. Community-centered: Community-centered environments foster norms for people learning from one another, and continually attempting to improve. In such a community, students are encouraged to be active, constructive participants. Further, they are encouraged to make—and then learn from—mistakes. Intellectual camaraderie fosters support, challenge and collaboration.

The most effective learning environments contain all four of these interdependent foci.

Active Learning

Active learning has been a hot topic for the past few decades, but there’s no complete consensus about what it means. Some experts claim that all learning is active, but others point out that learning is much more successful when the learner is more cognitively active.

If we rely upon the traditional metaphors for teaching, with the professor as the fount of wisdom, and the student an empty vessel to be filled, or the student as a baby bird being fed nuggets of knowledge, then we are imagining learning as a passive process.

Instead, we should understand learning as a building process, where the student has to construct learning—through questioning, writing, discussing, analyzing, taking apart, employing, playing, etc., as well as simply listening and reading.

Reflection and application are important aspects of active learning. Faculty employ active learning strategies to cultivate higher-order cognitive functions like analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. (For a useful tool, see Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain).

Active learning is a general goal, which can be facilitated through a variety of classroom approaches.

Lectures can be interactive, incorporating probing questions, written reactions, work done in pairs, etc.

Journal writing assignments prompt active learning, as does working with case studies.

Group discussions elicit much active learning, and pre-meditated strategies like problem-based learning, team-based learning and Reacting to the Past demand active involvement from students.

Here are several useful links, which offer dozens of examples for active learning exercises:

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning is a student-centered instructional technique that presents students with problems to solve as motivation for acquiring skills and knowledge.

The instructor invents a hypothetical problem that would arise in the “real world” of the profession or the field, and teams of students are required to solve these problems.

Students have to deal with open-ended questions and dilemmas, with many levels of complexity, where no single right answer presents itself, and they have to work cooperatively to craft solutions. Instead of delivering content in the traditional way, and afterward asking students to recite or apply it, this technique requires students to acquire knowledge and expertise in order to solve the problem.

This means that they have to seek out the “content” of the course. The instructor becomes a guide and facilitator, who points students toward references and resources, and who models problem-solving strategies but does not provide final answers.

This method works inductively, starting from the place where traditional courses ended—application.

Some instructors worry that adopting a problem-based approach will reduce coverage of course content, but PBL practitioners find that students in fact cover and retain more material.

The benefits of this model are high levels of student engagement, active learning, and motivation. Students are able to see that the skills they are building are relevant to their future lives and the world around them, so they are generally eager to learn more and work effectively. They also gain communication and team-work skills.

This method originated in a medical school, at McMaster University, and although it has been successfully employed in many disciplines, it is particularly favored in the health sciences, business, engineering and architecture.

For examples and additional details, see these links:.

Critical Thinking

Nearly a hundred years ago, John Dewey argued that "the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth."

Almost everyone who teaches at the college level aspires to teach critical thinking; in a globalizing world characterized by rapid technological advances, employers want college graduates who are trained to think quickly, assess new situations and information accurately, and draw sound conclusions.

There's a lot of agreement that our students need to develop their reasoning and critical thinking skills, but there's less consensus on what that actually means, since each discipline may require a different implementation of this ability to weigh, judge, and differentiate. Nursing students will have to make different sorts of decisions than political economists. (See the critical thinking website for some attempts to pinpoint a definition.)

On the other hand, we can probably all agree that in the internet age it is ever more important that our students be able to distinguish between a reliable source and an inadequate or misleading one, and we would all like for them to become good citizens who can make informed decisions at the polls.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain offers a useful categorization of the sorts of skills we want students to acquire, in order from least to most complex.

The trajectory begins with knowledge, leading to comprehension, then application, and on to analysis, then synthesis, culminating with evaluation. The verbs associated with these stages start with simple memorization tasks like list and report, and progress toward higher-order functions like justify, judge, and critique.

Higher-order critical thinking skills are not at all easy to teach—or at least, it's not always obvious how we can go about teaching them.

We want to cultivate a habit of inquiry and skepticism.

We can begin by modeling this behavior, giving students access to our own reflective processes and our inveterate questioning. "How did I arrive at this conclusion?" you can ask—and trace the steps.

Our thought processes seem intuitive to us, but are less transparent to our students, so it’s important to slow down and demonstrate the stages and connections in your thinking. It’s especially useful to rehearse possible counterarguments, and show how you refuted or resolved them on the path to your logical conclusion.

Questions structure our classes and our disciplines, so we can present our classes in the form of a search for answers, introducing students to the knotty questions that confront us.

We can also craft our assignments to demand critical thinking, rather than simple recitation. Writing assignments are great places for this, since we can ask students to present and assess arguments from multiple perspectives. Even exams can stretch critical thinking—and they should, if we want students to take us seriously when we say we value these skills.

Tests and in-class assignments can ask students to apply new principles and concepts in ways that demand that they explore a range of possible answers and form judgments in order to select the strongest. Problem-solving exercises are great for cultivating critical thinking, since they can present complex or open-ended questions and require students to wrestle with ambiguities.

Timely feedback is important for reinforcing critical skills—remind students of questions they’ve overlooked, or conclusions they’ve missed, and take note of their insights.

Part of critical thinking is being critical of our own thinking, being rigorous enough to perceive our own biases and relinquish false assumptions. As Diane Halpern explains, “When we think critically, we are evaluating the outcomes of our thought processes—how good a decision is or how well a problem is solved” (Halpern, 1996, 1998).

This is not easy work—although self-interrogation may come to seem like second nature when we have acquired the habit, such intellectual rigor requires constant attention. Many unengaged thinkers may prefer to think in “default mode,” without this constant evaluation of data and arguments, this vigilant self-assessment.

Part of our task as teachers is to convince students that the effort is worthwhile. We must show them how exciting it is to live in this confident relationship with the world, how stimulating to be curious, to probe, to critique, to invent.

The University of Minnesota’s site is (as always) very helpful.
For concrete suggestions, download IDEA paper #37 (“Helping Your Students Develop Critical Thinking Skills” by Cindy L. Lynch and Susan K. Wolcott) as a PDF.

Assessing Learning

Grades traditionally assess student performance; how do we distinguish between performance and learning, and how do we measure learning? An adept writer might easily earn an A in freshman composition without actually learning much; prior knowledge and skill can be the primary contributors to good grades.

We’re doing a better job of monitoring our own effectiveness, then, when we find ways to measure learning. We also enhance learning, since students need constructive feedback to guide them during the learning process. A cycle of “practice-feedback-practice” is ideal for building competency.

There are tons of quick, engaging techniques for checking to see how well students are learning. It’s very, very useful to employ these early and often, to provide students with formative assessment (a measure of their progress that assists them to learn more effectively) rather than only summative assessment (a final evaluation of performance, like an exam grade).

Many faculty use clickers to check student responses during class, so that they can immediately clear up confusion and review tricky points. Angelo and Cross wrote a very valuable book calledClassroom Assessment Techniques (we have four copies at the Center, so please feel free to borrow one!) about the value of formative assessment, giving dozens of example assignments. Here are a few CATs:

  • Think-pair-share: Give students a minute to reflect on an open-ended, challenging question; then give them a few minutes to discuss their responses in pairs. After they have chewed over the question, either call on students or request responses from the whole class. This gives students time to think about their answers, makes them more confortable speaking up, and enhances their retention of material.
  • Background knowledge probe: Use multiple choice or short-answer questions to assess the level of students’ prior knowledge on the subject matter of the course. Doing this at the start of the course will help you gain a sense of misconceptions and the degree of relevant knowledge.
  • One-minute paper: Allow for two or three minutes before the end of class and ask students to respond, on a half-sheet of paper, to the following question: What was the most important thing you learned in this class today? You may also ask: What question remains unanswered (or is unclear) from class today? This gives you a sense of how students’ understanding of the class is similar to, or different from, your goals.
  • One-sentence summary: Ask students to summarize the “who, what, where, when and why” of something (an event, a chemical process, a story plot, etc.) in one, clear grammatical sentence. This gives you a sense of their ability to analyze and synthesize information in a concise format.
  • Application cards: Distribute 3x5 index cards to students and ask them to identify one real-world application of an idea, concept or principle they have just learned. This helps students connect the material to prior knowledge and lets you see whether they understand the applicability of the concept.
  • Student-generated test questions: Have students prepare two or three test questions with model correct answers. You will be able to see what students believe the main ideas of the course are, what they believe are fair test questions, and what is their ability to answer the questions.
  • Pro-con grid: Have students create two columns and generate a list of pros and cons on a particular topic. This process helps students see multiple sides of contentious issues and gives you a sense of their depth of understanding.
  • Muddiest Point: Just before class ends for the day, ask students to write down the point or issue from the day that confuses them most. Take up the responses, and start the next class period by rehashing and clarifying the points of confusion. This helps students retain information, and helps you to plan steps for the rest of the course.

For examining student progress over the course of an entire semester, portfolios, application-based projects, and reflective writing assignments are useful.

Many faculty members use rubrics to ease the burden of responding to large numbers of papers or projects, and to clarify standards for students. Here are links to some examples:
You can download a very good PDF from the “Teaching Nuggets” on the USC CET website: choose 4.1, Assessing Student Learning.

The University of Minnesota also has a good website.

Writing for Learning

As everyone knows who has ever sat down to compose a paper (or a website blurb about teaching) the process of writing confronts us with our own ignorance and uncertainty.

One cannot explain anything well in writing without possessing a thorough command of the subject. Precision is impossible if our grasp of concepts or details is muddled.

But just as writing reveals logical errors, lack of knowledge, and faulty connections, it is an irreplaceable tool for exploration. In early drafts we often write our way toward a thesis. The focus required by writing helps us discover connections, draw conclusions, formulate ideas, support arguments.

Writing is indispensible for active learning—and it certainly does not belong solely within the confines of an English department. Students should be writing in every course they take at the university, in word problems, lab reports, professional projects, or essay exams.

Peter Elbow is a pioneering advocate of writing for learning, who suggests assigning frequent “think pieces” and focusing on “low-stakes writing,” which generates ideas rather than simply recording learning. “Writing for Learning—Not Just Demonstrating Learning” is a good (and short) introduction to his work. The premises Elbow sets out at the end of the essay are worth quoting here:
Some Premises:
  • Students understand and retain course material much better when they write copiously about it. We tend to think of learning as input and writing as output, but it also works the other way around. Learning is increased by "putting out"; writing causes input.
  • Writing needn't take any time away from course material.
  • We can demand good writing without teaching it. The demand itself teaches much.
  • Students won't write enough unless we assign more writing than we can comment on--or even read. There is no law against not reading what we make them write.
  • Writing can have a powerful communal or social dimension; it doesn't have to feel solitary.
Colorado State has an exceptionally detailed site for writing across the curriculum.

As always, Barbara Gross Davies offers great advice.

Here’s a good blog about grading writing and minimizing the load.

The University of Hawaii Manoa has a great collection of online resources, from sample assignments to tips on responding constructively to student writing.

Teaching Critical Reading

We tend to assume that students come to college with fairly well-honed reading skills, but this isn’t always (or even often) a safe assumption.

High schools don’t usually teach any kind of critical reading, and students don’t pick up these skills from nowhere: we need to teach them.

Whereas we have spent years cultivating discipline-specific reading strategies, students frequently struggle to make sense of the reams of material assigned in their slate of classes, and they may not have skills for approaching different types of texts in different ways.

We don’t read a whodunnit like a phone book; nor do we read a lab report like we read a polemic. So how do we help our students to understand their reading contexts? And how do we teach them to question as they read, to evaluate data, assess arguments, recognize gaps?

First of all, we have to mean it when we assign reading.

Students are very busy, and if you’re going to use lecture time to tell them what the reading is about, they will listen rather than read.

Our courses can accomplish a lot more if we genuinely require students to do the reading on their own, so that we can use class time to answer questions, clear up misconceptions, show them how to apply concepts, give them problems to solve, and tease out nuances.

In order to enforce this habit, we may have to give reading quizzes, assign homework or in-class work that depends on the reading, have students draw up concept maps at the beginning of class, or require minute papers, but we will reap the rewards in terms of student learning, and student success in the longer term.

With all the technological tools at our disposal (and using strategies for large classes outlined above) these active-learning measures don’t have to be burdensome for you. Many faculty require students to complete reading quizzes before coming to class—blackboard and moodle can open or close quizzes at times you determine, so the cut-off can be the start of class. Students may even figure out how to take the quizzes on their phones.

You also need to provide a model for critical reading.

Show them how to do it. Have students ask certain questions of the text—you can spell these out in the syllabus, especially if they’re discipline-specific. Point out rhetorical strategies and ask students to identify these tactics in new places. Ask them to read against the grain, alert to the writer’s motives. Cultivate curiosity and suspicion.

Even in a calculus class, students have to read carefully, determining which is the stray variable in a word problem. This sort of attention to structure and detail will serve them well in developing their critical thinking, and it’s our job to foster it.

Here are some great resources for teaching critical reading:

Here’s a blog post from Inside Higher Ed on teaching students to read journal articles.

If students are having difficulty just comprehending the great masses of material that face them, many instructors suggest the SQ3R approach: Survey, Question, Read- Recite- Review.

Team Based Learning

Team Based Learning (TBL) is a classroom strategy developed by Larry Michaelson. It has the enormous advantages of cultivating active learning in even very large classes, and it is carefully designed to prevent all of the usual problems that arise in working with groups, such as “social loafing.”

The instructor assigns students to groups of 5-7; they work together throughout the semester, forging into teams.

Students are responsible for out-of-class preparation and are tested both individually and as teams—final grades are calculated based on individual and team results--so peer pressure becomes a powerful motivator.

TBL employs a “Readiness Assurance Process” to make students accountable for keeping up with the reading and work outside class, and then uses class-time for application, problem-solving, and feedback.

Teams work together to apply course concepts to increasingly complex problems, with immediate feedback from the rest of the class and the instructor.

Students tend to be highly engaged and motivated in these classes, and they have far more time (and interest) for questioning, critical thinking, and higher-order skills development.

The in-class assignments need to be carefully designed, so that they fulfill the course goals, require full participation from all students, and challenge the capacity of teams.

TBL needs a good bit of advance planning, and the instructor must have a very clear idea of the purpose of the class, but when properly implemented it is a powerful strategy for enhancing learning—and for minimizing grading time.

TBL deserves a full-semester commitment from the faculty member, since the groups will not cohere into teams with casual use; likewise, thoughtlessly crafted assignments will not achieve the learning or teamwork goals.

TBL has been used particularly effectively in Engineering, Business, Medicine, Nursing, Architecture, and other disciplines that focus on problem solving, but has been successfully implemented across the curriculum.

The Team Based Learning Collaborative is a comprehensive resource.

This video from the University of Texas is a good, quick introduction.

WikiPODia offers a quick overview.

CIT sponsors faculty learning groups for faculty interested in exploring TBL; please contact us if you're interesting in joining one.

Reacting to the Past

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) is a technique that has generated thrilling results. Developed by Mark C. Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College, it is an innovative active-learning pedagogy that engages students through role-playing.

Classes are structured in intricate and absorbing games, where students are required to research their roles and evaluated on how well their performance reflects the big ideas and the details of the time, place and ethos they’re studying. Because students plunge themselves into unfamiliar worlds, inhabiting unfamiliar personas and dealing with unexpected realities, they get a deep sense of what was important to other cultures, and they learn to question their own assumptions.

They also have so much fun that they do far more work than they would otherwise dream of doing.

Over the past decade RTTP has been expanded and adopted at universities across the country, and the spadework for many games has been completed by excited faculty, so there are numerous options for faculty interested in exploring the technique. History, Philosophy, Religious Studies and Literature are among the fields that can best exploit RTTP.

Here’s how Carnes described RTTP in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“In the late 1990s, I initiated an active-learning concept that, with the subsequent work of hundreds of scholars, has evolved into Reacting to the Past, which engages students in elaborate games based on classic texts. Each game lasts a month or more and consists of hundreds of pages of rules and roles. In one, students portray democrats or oligarchs in Athens after its surrender to Sparta, in 404 BCE. Another game is set in Rome in 1633: Jesuit scholars who endorse Aristotle's physics contend with supporters of Galileo's views. Yet another takes place among the Ming Empire's top academic advisers in 1587, examining whether the Analects of Confucius promoted human rights or justified imperial power. Over the past half-dozen years, Reacting to the Past has spread to more than 300 colleges and universities.

Students have been influenced in unexpected ways. Paul Fessler, a professor of history at Dordt College, in Iowa, devoted the last month of his Western-civilization class to a game set amid the French Revolution. The sessions were heated and involved, and it soon became clear that the semester would end before several key issues could be resolved. Fessler offered to extend the class. Instead students volunteered to come 30 minutes early for the remainder of the semester. Fessler was floored; his class started at 8 a.m.

'Every student felt a strong personal investment in their roles,' explained Nate Gibson, a student in the class. "We read more in the weeks of the game than we had at any time before in the class. We plowed through the game manual, our history texts, Rousseau, you name it. We spent hours writing articles. I spent several all-nighters editing my faction's newspapers, and the other editors did, too. It had become more than a class to us by that point. The early-morning sessions were the only way to honor the sacrifices that everybody had made."

For more details, here’s the Barnard page on Reacting to the Past...and the Chronicle column. This link leads to a video of students involved in a game on “The Struggle for Palestine.”

Teaching Large Classes

Class sizes are growing, in universities across the country, and the change presents challenges for all of us. How do we keep students engaged? How do we humanize our interactions with a sea of faces? How do we keep up with the grading?!

Experienced hands claim that anything we can do in a small class we can do in a big class. We don’t have to give up on discussion, or critical thinking, or active learning when our classes grow; we just have to adapt our methods. We don’t even have to give up on using writing for learning.

Some canny instructors of large classes assign regular homework and take it up randomly. Some pick up and grade homework or writing from 10 randomly-selected students each day; the students never know when their work may be required (turning in work on Tuesday doesn’t mean it won’t happen again on Thursday) so they tend to complete it regularly.

Writing assignments can be peer-reviewed, then second drafts turned in—especially if you teach students how to read and respond to essays, and share your rubric with them before they start the assignment.

Instead of marking each paper with comments, you can scan for common errors and misconceptions, then address these in class. Students need to get credit for their work, of course, but you don’t have to lose sleep and eyesight grading a thousand essays. The University of Hawaii Manoa gives some advice on “Handling the Paper Load”. The POD network’s “WikiPODia” also offers useful suggestions.

  All of the active learning techniques we’ve already discussed, like think-pair-shares and minute papers, will work equally well in larger classes. Discussion can start in small groups then move into the full-class format.

Faculty in many disciplines have had particular success with Team Based Learning.

Fortunately, since faculty across the world are in the same boat, there are plenty of resources treating the topic of large classes. Here are a few of the best:

Here’s a good blog about grading writing and minimizing the load.

Teaching with Wikis

Have you ever wanted to try using a Wiki in your class? Watch this video.

Course Design

(See also Designing a Syllabus) If we’re feeling harried, the easiest way to design a course tends to be duplicating the sorts of courses we took ourselves.

This means we never stop to reflect on the real goals of the course, so despite our engaging personalities, clever classroom techniques, and impassioned explanations of the big picture, students don’t end up learning as much (or what) we would like.

It turns out that investing a bit of time in reflection pays big dividends in reduced stress and increased enjoyment of the class--for faculty and for students. We need to start backwards, by thinking about what we want to accomplish with the class.

What big questions should the course answer, or at least address? What skills should students leave the class with, what masteries? What will it prepare them for or enable them to do? What do we really want them to learn? (Does this match the catalog description? If not, should we change it?)

From here, we have to determine how we will accomplish these goals. What do students need to read? Write? Practice? Apply? What tasks will cultivate the learning we want to see—and how will we measure it?

How will students demonstrate these masteries? What evidence of learning will we require? Once we have addressed these questions it’s easy to decide on assignments and standards.

“Backward Design” as propounded by Wiggins and McTighe starts with the end (the learning goals) in mind, then determines the proper form of assessment of learning: this keeps the curriculum focused.

From assessment this model moves to the assignments. The authors describe this approach as “results-focused” rather than “content-focused.” It’s important to note that backward design is NOT “teaching to the test,” since you yourself are determining the goals and outcomes of the course. You are simply taking charge of your class by clarifying its intent.

UT Austin’s page on course design is excellent.

Berkeley offers a great page on designing learning goals.

Florida State’s handbook for new faculty has a good chapter on course design.

Teaching Online

As enrollments rise and space becomes more limited, there is increasing pressure on faculty to teach online. Some see this as an exciting opportunity to make creative use of technology and advance pedagogical innovations, but others find it alienating and intimidating, counter to our expectations of teaching.

Just the term “distance learning” strikes some faculty as tragic, as if we’re holding our students at arm’s length. How can we surmount these barriers? How do we use the technological tools to practice good pedagogy? How do we make sure learning happens online?.

As in any face-to-face class, we have to hook our students and keep them engaged. You need to cultivate active learning, even through the computer.

It’s essential to humanize the online situation, so that students feel interested, motivated and accountable. We have to foster curiosity and critical thinking, just like in any other class.

This may seem challenging, since we lack the advantage of eye contact, and conversations happen asynchronously. On the other hand, there are plenty of interactive tools to make things fun, and if you can harness the impulses of play and competition that make online gaming so popular, you’ll have an easier time motivating your students.

Effective online classes foster active learning, and interaction is a key step in this direction. Students need to interact with you and with each other, or they’re unlikely to learn very much online.

Only very self-directed learners can make progress in a vacuum, so you must foster a sense of community, even mediated through technology.

Icebreakers are even more important online than in the physical classroom. They personalize the atmosphere right away, and they get the students accustomed to interacting, rather than passively absorbing, in the online setting. Some faculty have everyone take a learning styles quiz, or a silly “what-Peanuts-character-would-you-be”-type personality quiz, and share the results.

You can find tons of examples online; try these sites:

You can hold live-time office hours to answer questions online, using chat or even video or sound, and office hours can be recorded for students who miss them.

Many faculty videotape their live lectures and post these online, or make podcasts to accompany powerpoint or Prezi presentations.

There are countless tools, and the University Technology Services can train you to use them. The trick is to remember your pedagogical purposes while you’re employing the bells and whistles.

Students still need to do the reading and other preparation; they need to be held accountable for this work, and then asked to apply what they have learned. They still need to practice, explore, analyze, critique, and so forth; and of course they need timely and substantive feedback.

You can provide practice quizzes and homework (in the form of games, if you’re creative). You can still assign projects that generate deep learning. Team-Based Learning works online, as can modified versions of the CATs.

Discussions, group projects, peer reviews, and other activities are very important. When students email with questions it’s a good idea to take the questions and answers to the discussion board, so that everyone shares the answers—and of course you need to monitor the discussion board and weigh in regularly.

Because you don’t actually see each student three times a week, in online classes it’s even more important to stick to a schedule and enforce early, frequent deadlines. Otherwise many students will leave everything to the last minute, when it’s too late to really learn much.

Even if you haven’t commonly assigned quizzes and homework in your face-to-face classes, now is the time to use them, to keep everyone on track. Many faculty start out with a non-graded quiz on the syllabus during the first days of the class.

Participation grades are important motivators in online classes, and you need to spell out the distinction between substantive participation and chatter. A blog from Inside Higher Ed outlines the “rhythm” of teaching online:

Since not everyone will be familiar with the online setting, you’ll need to set out your expectations for “netiquette.” As with any class, you also need to spell out the learning objectives and the requirements for student work, as well as suggestions for success. You should explain how you’ll communicate with students (email, chat, phone, etc.) and sketch the time-frame for your responses (for example, emails will be answered within 24 hours).

Here are some important resources for online teaching.

MERLOT provides vast resources, including discipline-specific suggestions.

The University of Illinois system maintains a compendious index of resources for online teaching.

JOLT (The Journal of Online Teaching).

Documenting Your Teaching

Teaching is what we do. The university exists to provide an education to its students. But while we’re scrupulous about documenting our research, our innovations, our writing, we tend to take far less care to document what happens in our classrooms.

Each of us has a career trajectory as a teacher, however, and it’s valuable to take note of how we have developed—and to take charge of how we wish to continue to develop.

Teaching is fundamentally connected to the research work we perform, but it’s far more complex than simply making our learning available to students. We facilitate learning, we nurture it, we inspire it; we ask our students to reflect on what they learn, and if we are to remain lifelong learners ourselves, we need to take some time to reflect on what we ourselves are learning in our classrooms.

A teaching portfolio is a great place to ask yourself these questions—and it’s professionally useful, as well.

The University of Kansas gives comprehensive advice on documenting your teaching.

Harvard also has a useful page on does UT Austin and Vanderbilt.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is a situation that happens when members of a stereotyped group are constrained by the stereotype. All of us belong to some group or other, but some stereotypes are more pernicious, and members of negatively stereotyped groups experience anxiety about fulfilling the false expectations.

The classic example is of women and math: because women are commonly assumed to be less adept at math, reminding them of their gender will almost always cause girls or women to underperform on math tests.

Data shows that people in stereotype-threat situations experience elevated heart rates, diminished short-term memory, and reduced cognitive ability. The effect is not limited to performance on tests: studies also indicate that the experience of stereotype threat can erode students’ enjoyment of the academic experience, and their long-term success.

The cues that invoke stereotype threat are often far more subtle than we might imagine, so it is hugely important that faculty are aware of their powerful role in shaping student attitudes and performance.

Reminding students of stereotypes, even when we mean to be sympathetic or dispel them, can accidentally hamper their success—but assuring students that stereotypes have no validity can assist them to overcome the obstacles.

We must be vigilant about communicating high expectations. We should also take care to present intelligence and academic success as skills that can be cultivated, rather than talents that are inborn: recent work on stereotype threat shows that students learn more and enjoy their work more when they are asked to understand the brain as a muscle which is strengthened with exercise, rather than as genetically determined. For example, the same students will score higher on a test when they are told that the test measures teaching effectiveness rather than the student’s innate ability.

The CAT at Xavier University interviewed Dr. Joshua Aronson about stereotype threat. Here’s a podcast of the interview. Here’s a transcript:

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