Friday, February 24, 2012

How do we get our students to do the reading and to understand it?

This is a question that comes up frequently in faculty development circles. Teachers who want to spend more time in class with active learning are understandably reluctant because they know that students won't come to class prepared for discussion, problem-solving, group work, etc.

Recently Faculty Focus posted two articles that provide some solutions both for getting students to read and for encouraging comprehension.

Maryellen Weimer reports on a study by Terry Tomasek that includes prompts to encourage critical thinking over the reading. Whether you want your students to be able to identify problems or issues in the reading, make connections, interpret evidence, challenge assumption, or apply what they read, there are specific prompts to foster these different levels of thinking. Tomasek decides first what level of thinking she wants her students to engage in, and then she assigns one prompt at the time the reading assignment is announced; students respond in one or two paragraphs prior to coming to class using Blackboard. These pre-class postings then provide fodder for in-class discussions.

In the post "Two Strategies for Getting Students to Do the Reading," Weimer reports on a study published in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education that compares two strategies--reading quizzes and "Readiness Assessment Tests" (RATs). Reading quizzes are a common feature in college classes, and they work well, the authors argue, when the instructor's objective is for students to learn the material in any way possible, or when there isn't enough time to score open-ended responses to the reading. But when the instructor's objective is for students to do the reading prior to class and be prepared to participate fully in discussions and learning activities, the authors recommend RATs. Administered at the beginning of a class or before class, students answer broad open-ended questions--not questions that students can turn to a specific page in their reading to find the answer. Typically, in a single RAT, students might respond to two or three such questions, and the answers are graded.

Both of these studies are on to the same basic idea: Hold students responsible and expect them to engage in higher order questions around their reading. You can even build these expectation as out-of-class work that will have the effect of turning your in-class activities into more fruitful experiences.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

One-minute paper: make it predictable

Today I heard Vincent Tinto talk on the topic of student success (his premise: it doesn't arise by chance). Student success begins in the classroom, and we know from studies what's necessary: clearly stated and high expectations; support; feedback and assessment; and engagement.

Minute papers provide for feedback and assessment and engagement. When Tinto administers minute papers, he frames his questions as: What interests you most from class today that you want to learn more about, and what's still muddy that you want to understand more clearly?

It's not how he frames the questions, though, that I find most critical for advancing student learning. It's the frequency and the follow-up in his practice. Tinto administers minute papers at the end of class about 80% of the days the class meets. That's far more often than I have used them. Predictability, he argues, instills in students the expectation that they'll be asked to report on something, thus they're more likely to pay attention on any given day. Tinto also purposefully keeps responses anonymous so students will more likely be honest in their self-assessment. Finally, Tinto provides written feedback to the class, in the form of a one-sheet handout that summarizes the main points raised by the minute papers, clarifies misconceptions, and suggests additional readings, resources, or ways of thinking about the topic. He also spends 5 minutes or so at the beginning of the next class session discussing responses.

Ultimately, Tinto steps out of the way of the learning process, and after students respond to his minute-paper prompts, he has them form groups of 3 or 4 to discuss what they wrote and to help each other clear up any misconceptions they may have That's the point where you've reached the juncture of high expectations, support, feedback and assessment, and engagement--the recipe for student success.

You can read more about minute papers at the resource page of the CFD Web site. Click on the question "Once I have course learning objectives, how do I assess student progress in meeting them?"

Monday, February 6, 2012

Good question-making at the root of effective teaching--an interview with Ken Bain

In 2004, Ken Bain wrote about creating "natural critical learning environments" in his book What the Best College Teachers Do.  Presently, Dr. Bain is working on completing his new work What the Best College Students Did

The Higher Education Teaching and Learning Portal features an interview with Dr. Bain in the second volume its International HETL Review. Dr. Bain takes the opportunity to expand on his ideas about teaching and research--how they are related without having to be in opposition to each other--and about the centrality of questions to both teaching and research: 
Rather than dwelling on the perceived conflicts between them (teaching and research), we need to explore ways that the learning of teacher and student can complement each other rather than stand in conflict. I think the most fruitful way of doing that may be in understanding the power and importance of good question-making in the success of each. The ability to ask good questions has long been recognized as central to research and publication success, but we also need to see its importance in cultivating someone else’s learning, and how, in turn, the ability to ask good questions to spark someone else’s learning can help drive a research agenda. Great teacher/scholars recognize that already. 
The connection is this: people are most likely to take a deep approach to their learning when they are trying to answer questions or solve problems that they, the learners, have come to regard as important, intriguing, or just beautiful. Yet in a formal educational environment, the learner is usually not in charge of the questions. We could solve that problem by putting the learners always in charge of all the questions, and some people have attempted to do just that. But while that has some benefits, it also has limitations. Novice learners cannot imagine some of questions that advanced learners have begun to consider. Thus, we need to have advanced learners (teacher/scholars) raising questions for novice learners (students) to think about.  
However, that often creates a gap between the conditions that prevail in a formal educational environment and the conditions that may stimulate deep learning. The great teachers have learned to fill that gap by asking questions that students will find important, intriguing, or just beautiful, and they manage to do so because of their own deep understanding born out of their own learning. Their own struggle to frame the questions that will provoke students often leads to new insights that will influence their research. Cultivating someone else’s learning entails more than asking great questions, but it is the necessary ingredient that underpins everything else. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Classroom management workshop

The Judicial Affairs Office in Student Life will offer a "Student Conduct and Conflict Workshop" on Wednesday February 8. More details are at the Faculty Development Events Calendar.

It is not uncommon for our faculty to struggle with classroom management issues. Faculty who have attended this workshop in the past have found it helpful both in prevent classroom management problems and in dealing with problems if and when they arrive. From the workshop description on the Events Calendar:
In this workshop, we will be presenting information about the student code of conduct violations (academic dishonesty or behavioral), reporting procedures, how to work with disruptive students, and conflict resolution support for faculty and students.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Online resources at

The Web can be a tremendous source for online instructional resource and faculty development materials. To help you access the most useful of those materials, the Center for Faculty Development continuously sifts through relevant Web sites and "saves" the best by bookmarking them in

If you haven't yet explored the online resources that are bookmarked and tagged under the MetroCFD profile of, you may be pleasantly surprised by the range of (mostly teaching related) resources found there. Topical tags help to organize the resources, and you can view all the tags in a word cloud.

Some of the online resources bookmarked at are the same as those made available at the CFD instructional resources Web page. Finally, you can subscribe to the RSS feed of the MetroCFD profile to be notified whenever a new Web site or online resource is added to the collection.

Can we get students to come to our office hours?

In a recent post, Faculty Focus offers some tips for encouraging students to interact with their professors outside of class. Some of the tips (which students themselves generated in the course of 33 in-depth interviews) are pretty basic, like "be there for office hours." Others, though, are tips that can pretty easily be added to our teaching routines if we're not already doing them. For example:
Write your email and office hours on the board regularly, maybe even every class session at the beginning of the course. Say more times than you think necessary that you welcome questions, comments, and the chance to interact with students.
Offer tutorials during office hours and encourage small groups of students to attend. 
In sum, the authors state,
students do pay attention to those classroom behaviors that convey we care. If we vigilantly maintain our office hours and employ the strategies recommended by these students, then we can more actively engage students in academic discourse, facilitate a deeper understanding of our fields and their associated professions, and serve as better advisors and mentors.