How to get snake people to speak in class

Why is it so hard to generate the kind of class discussion where everyone contributes, and everyone learns, with a minimum of cajoling, policing, and teeth-pulling by the instructor? More to the point, why was it so hard for me to generate discussion in the second week of my social ethics class this semester?

I asked questions. Nothing. I had students think-pair-share. They thought, they paired, but when it came time to speak to the whole group? Nothing. I don’t like cold-calling, because I didn’t like being cold-called. What was I supposed to do? I want to promote active learning, but I don’t want to spend several hours of the week in the only life I have to live in awkward silence in a room of quiet students.

On Twitter recently, the writer and academic Freddie deBoer admitted a similar concern:

The quick-n-easy answer is to blame the snake people — I mean, millennials — themselves. (There’s a Google Chrome browser extension that automatically, and hilariously, converts any instance of the word “millennials” on a webpage to “snake people.”) Kids and their gizmos! They’re so self-centered! They have only ever lived in a post-9/11 world!

Snake people

Snake people: They don’t eat cereal, but they vote! The horror!

That sort of hand-wringing bothered me when I was in college and commentators fretted about Generation X. So even if it’s true that kids today really are more reticent to speak in class than my peers were, knowing that won’t magically make my classroom discussions livelier. It will always be easier to change my pedagogy than to remake an entire generation’s upbringing.

To generate ideas for what changes to make, I turned of course to social media, where my question was met with a lively and instructive discussion. I heard from current colleagues, old friends who teach far away, even former students who are now college teachers (and some who aren’t teachers but who chimed in on what they found helpful about discussions). Later, I moderated a conversation among faculty at King’s about this question. The result of all of this was a raft of ideas, drawn from decades of collective wisdom. Here are some of the ideas people shared in these forums:

  • There are lots of good reasons to hold discussions in class. Discussions help students think and talk through ideas. They foster the idea that scholarship is a conversation. Through discussions, an instructor gets a real-time view of what students are learning and can guide students toward better understanding.
  • What counts as “discussion” may vary by discipline. Faculty in the humanities (like me) may think that discussion looks like a large-group conversation, with the instructor moderating. A science faculty member said that if he asks direct questions in class and students raise their hands and give the right answer, then that’s a successful discussion.
  • It’s OK to cold-call students, especially if you give them notice that you might do so and you give them the opportunity to pass sometimes. One way to do this is to warn students that you’ll just call on them in sequence, around the circle or up and down the rows, so they can have time to formulate ideas to share when it’s their turn.
  • If kids really are attached to their gizmos, then let them hold a discussion via gizmo. A middle-school teacher friend suggested Chatzy as a free, simple way to host online conversations via mobile devices.
  • Small-group work is of course a tried-and-true means of getting students to talk in class. One down side is that you can’t monitor every conversation, leaving the door open for conversations to head in the wrong direction. To keep conversations on track, you might assign every group a task with a specific outcome and give every member of the group a role (lead writer, fact-checker, devil’s advocate, etc.).
  • Ending class with a “minute paper” can cement the day’s learning, provide an opportunity for quieter students to let you know what they’re thinking, and set the stage for the next class meeting’s discussion.
  • Because human beings fear being lone voices in a silent crowd, the best way to foster discussion may be to build up the sense of community in class.

This last approach is the one I tried in my class. First I distributed a survey to all students, asking them what forms of fostering discussion they would be comfortable with and what obstacles there were to them participating more fully in discussion. Because several students said they would be willing to meet in small groups outside of class to discuss course material, I set up those meetings.

The most often cited obstacle to discussion was fear of “saying the wrong thing.” Several students said they felt like they didn’t know enough theology to say anything. (Well, of course, I thought, that’s why you’re taking the class!) To address this fear, I decided to do two things. First, consistently send the message that it’s OK to make mistakes like “saying the wrong thing.” In fact, making mistakes is a necessary part of the learning process.

Second, in order to make the classroom feel like a space where it’s OK to make the mistakes that learning requires, I spent a full week of class time meeting with students in pairs, in the classroom, just to talk about anything. If this seems like a “waste” of class time, I ask you to consider how much class time I might have wasted in unproductive, painful silence over the rest of the semester if I hadn’t tried to foster a better learning community.

From these conversations, I learned a lot about my students, including that most of them chose to come to King’s because they would be known by their classmates and professors and could have a voice in their classes. Several said they learn a lot by tracking discussions among their classmates. On some level, the students really want to participate actively in classroom conversation, but, as they said on the survey, there are obstacles.

So did these conversations make a difference? Maybe. This week’s discussion was a lot closer to the ideal I have for discussion. Participation was broader. Students responded directly to each other. I could hear students learning. There was more side chatter in class (which I don’t see as a bad thing, even if the chatter isn’t on topic). I hesitate to declare the experiment a success yet, because things could still shift after spring break. But I’m much more optimistic now.

Spring 2016 Events

Innovation in Teaching Grant Presentations

  • Tuesday, January 26 at 3:30 p.m. in the Postupak Room, McGowan

  • Presenters: Bridget Costello and Corine Coniglio

Bridget Costello, Sociology Department, “Specs Grading and the Illusion of Choice”

For two sections of Core 157: Introduction to Sociology, I implemented a “specs” grading system, wherein each student chooses both the number and the difficulty of assignments to complete from a “menu” that directly corresponds to both the demonstration of specific course learning outcomes and the student’s desired course grade. In theory, specs grading results in greater course rigor without increasing either student or faculty workload, in that it does not reward partial effort on assignments and instead incentivizes full effort on a smaller number of assignments, while also ensuring that most students – even those earning C’s and D’s – have achieved at least basic competency in all course learning outcomes. As implemented, however, students did not seem to perceive any greater degree of choice in the volume, pacing, or challenge of their workload as compared to a traditionally graded course; relatedly, the system did not seem to substantially improve the quality of student work.

Corine Coniglio, English Department, “From Online to Inline”

While many teachers approach new online courses for the challenges they present–engagement, accountability, efficient use of tools–this discussion of course development focuses on suggestions for how to use the strengths of online courses in traditional and hybrid courses through backwards design. Participants will engage in discussion that aims to turn the usual discussions about online learning into pedagogical opportunities for traditional, face-to-face courses.

Faculty Research Colloquium

  • Tuesday, February 16 at 3:30 p.m. in the Postupak Room, McGowan

  • Presenters: Janine Janoski and Noreen O’Connor

Janine Janoski, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, “The Hidden Mathematics of Super Tic-Tac-Toe”

We all have played the beloved game tic-tac-toe. Now imagine in each square of the board, we draw a smaller tic-tac-toe board, making a 9 × 9 grid with 9 squares making a larger board. Impartial Super Tic-Tac-Toe (STTT) is a game where each player uses an “x” and their move dictates which larger square the other player must make their next move. In this talk we will explore the mathematical structure of impartial STTT.

Noreen O’Connor, Department of English, “Recovering Elizabeth von Arnim”

Elizabeth von Arnim, who wrote 22 novels between 1898 and 1940, was a witty and popular novelist who explored women’s lives in daring ways. Noreen O’Connor will discuss the writer, focusing on some of her most successful works. She will also address her recent work to help recover the writer, including the literary society, web site, and literary journal dedicated to the writer that were all established with her help during her sabbatical semester.

Faculty Research Colloquium

  • Thursday, February 25 at 3:30 p.m. in the Molewski Room, Sheehy-Farmer Campus Center

  • Presenters: Anne Szklarski and Frank Varriale

Anne Szklarski, Department of Chemistry and Physics, “Synthesizing Molecules Using Light”

Isoindolines are chemical structures that are commonly found in pharmaceuticals, natural products, and pigments. This research project was aimed at discovering a new way to make isoindolines using light as a main component of the chemical reaction. Since this photochemical strategy uses light instead of other chemicals, it has the potential to reduce the amount of harmful chemical waste this is currently generated by other known methods.

Frank Varriale, Department of Biology, “Dental Microwear as an Indicator of Jaw Action in the Dome-Headed Dinosaurs (Pachycephalosauria)”

Microscopic pits and scratches are formed on teeth whenever an animal chews its food. These features are termed dental microwear, and the orientation of scratches can be used as an indicator of jaw motion. Microwear was examined in the dome-headed dinosaurs Pachycephalosaurus and Stegoceras to determine jaw action, and the evolution of this behavior throughout the group Pachycephalosauria.

Faculty Research Colloquium

  • Monday, March 21 at 2:00 p.m. in Postupak Room, McGowan

  • Presenters: Melissa Ciocco and Daniel Clasby

Melissa Ciocco, Department of Sports Medicine, “A Review and Compilation of Physical Examination Orthopedic Special Tests and Their Diagnostic Accuracy Values”

Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) is becoming widely utilized in medicine. All evaluation techniques that an Athletic Trainer (AT) uses to diagnose an injury should be supported by evidence that they are both valid and reliable. Many tests that are used are not truly accurate at determining the implication that they state they are for. Many texts speak about how to perform a test, what it tests for, and diagnostic accuracy values, but all do not assess whether or not the test is truly a “good” test or “bad” test for evaluation purposes. A list of available orthopedic special tests was compiled, Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) results were analyzed, and these data values were used to help the clinician choose the best tests for clinical practice.

Daniel Clasby, Department of History, “Jewish Peoplehood in the Italian Diaspora”

This paper examines Italian Jewish sites of memory, spaces where attempts are made to memorialize and curate Italian Jewish cultural heritage. Largely focused on the small, former ghetto environs of once populous and vibrant Jewish communities in Venice and Rome, the paper also reveals the conflicts and contradictions of contemporary Italian Jewish peoplehood and the way Italian Jewish history is and is not being marshaled for use in the post-Shoah present.


An experiment in using Twitter to foster student engagement and information literacy

This semester I am attempting two very different experiments in my classes, though both aim to foster greater student engagement with course material. One experiment — which I will write more about later — involves developing a role-playing scenario modeled on Reacting to the Past to teach the intellectual and political conflicts of the Reformation in 16th century European Christianity. The other is to require students in my Core course, Theology of Work, to tweet about their reading and writing between classes.

What possessed me?

A couple of experiences coalesced at the right time to make the Twitter experiment seem appealing. First, I had an exchange via Twitter with a couple of bloggers who are, like me, interested in how to make theological sense of work. By the end of the conversation, I had gained a new way to think about the issue, and I realized that this was exactly the kind of conversation I wanted my students to be able to have by the end of the course. Past experience had told me that they could do it, but I hadn’t really given them the opportunity.

Around the same time, one of the reference librarians at King’s told me that the Association of College & Research Libraries was about to approve a new Framework for Information Literacy, which would emphasize using information in the process of inquiry within a community of inquiry, with the aim of creating new knowledge. This framework helped me to imagine my course as a node within the wider conversation about theology and work and my students as producers of knowledge that others in that conversation could benefit from.

Twitter seemed like a simple way to realize both of these insights. With Twitter, it is absurdly easy to locate, listen in on, and contribute to conversations occurring on any topic. If I required my students to tweet about their reading assignments between classes, then I could use those 140-character essays as springboards for in-class discussion. This could save time in class, as so many of the basic points of the reading would already be on the table. Additionally, students could engage with others who care about the issues we address in class.

Successes: Bringing experts to students

The preliminary results have been good. Especially taken as a whole, the students’ between-class tweets do zero in on the major issues I would want them to pick up from the reading. I don’t need to begin class by asking, “So, what did you find in the reading?” It’s all there, already Storified. Once class begins, it’s projected on the screen.

In terms of engagement with wider conversation, we had  a big win on the first night of class, when David Graeber, anthropologist at the London School of Economics, wrote back to students who had mentioned him in their Tweets about an essay he wrote on “bullshit jobs.” Graeber’s comments really helped clear up a misconception we’d had about the essay. When I was a college student, an exchange like this would have been impossible. It would be as if I made a comment about a John Rawls essay, and then five minutes later, the phone rang, and Rawls was on the line wanting to speak with me.

We also used Skype to bring a great writer on religion and economics, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, into class to speak with the students about how she has used various electronic platforms, including Twitter, to generate and communicate her ideas. We spoke as well about how intellectual authority is constructed (a key element in the ACRL Framework). Liz began her writing career at the end of her college career; at first, she wrote out of her expertise on living in Boston during the Marathon bombing and its aftermath. An expert doesn’t have to be a 50-year old with multiple degrees. By the end of the course, my students should begin to think of themselves as experts who are “developing their own authoritative voices” on the course topic.

Since then, the class hashtag has gotten some notice from other bloggers and academics.

And other authorities have helped us understand more about their areas of expertise because we’re tweeting about things they know about.

Cautions: No one is used to this

While we have had some interactions with people outside our classroom, we can stand to have a lot more. Students are used to hearing their professors tell them to put their phones away when they study. They are not used to thinking of social media as academic tools. Similarly, we tell students all the time that they cannot seek outside help on their assignments, so it may seem strange for them to hear me encourage them to reach out to living, breathing experts and expect a response. This week’s assignment is meant to address that; students must use Twitter to link to and comment on a blog, mentioning the author’s Twitter handle.

There also has not been much student-to-student interaction on Twitter. I need to do more to make that happen. When I reply to a student’s tweet, usually by asking a question their tweet prompts, they nearly always reply back. I may try mentioning more than one student in my replies, thereby potentially starting conversation among a few students who had different ideas. It can take hard work to get students to speak to each other (and not just to me) in the classroom; it’s no easier to make that happen online.

Do you have ideas about how to help students form intellectual communities within and beyond the classroom? If so, please say so in the comments.

How to improve student evaluations of your teaching

It’s the last week of the semester, which can only mean one thing (that’s right, only ONE thing): it’s course evaluation time! Most faculty want to receive good scores on their course evals. With the right strategy, we can also get good information from them and use that information to improve our teaching.

It’s true that student evaluations are imperfect means of evaluating teaching quality. But because they are so systematic, these evals are, practically speaking, the best available tool for finding out how students respond to our teaching. Like any tool, they need to be used properly, lest anyone get seriously injured.

In May I responded to Rebecca Schuman’s criticism of course evals with a blog post that appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education website. That post prompted a comment thread on Facebook that turned up some fantastic ideas for how to get more out of your course evaluations.

In that thread, Temple University sociologist Dustin Kidd (follow his blog; buy his book!) offered a comprehensive–and illuminating–view of how he works with evaluations. Dustin reports that generating useful responses starts with how he administers the evals. His advice is to

tell students what kind of feedback you want and how you plan to use it. I always tell students that I’m planning to revise the course and ask them to use evaluations to help me with the process. I give them a list of elements from the course that names all the readings, films, assignments, and other components and ask them to use the list to give me specific feedback.

Yes, students know, in one sense, how to fill out evaluation forms. But they do not inherently know how to make those forms most helpful to you. You may want to know what they thought about the first unit in the course, which has been on your mind daily for three months. But during the last week of the semester and with final exams looming, they may not recall that unit right now. So, following Dustin’s advice, why not remind them? It’s even possible that by reminding students of everything you’ve done in the course, they will also think well of the course overall, which can’t hurt.

Dustin further explains to his students the role that their evaluation of his teaching plays within the institution:

I have a very explicit discussion with the students about how the evaluations are used in my performance reviews when I apply for merit raises, promotions, or awards. I tell them the department uses the evaluations to make decisions about what courses will be offered and who will staff them. Making the process transparent helps the students to take it more seriously.

I suspect (though I do not know for sure) that at a large university like Temple, students are glad to know that their voices really do matter to the institution. Dustin conveys to students that they are taken seriously; in turn, one hopes, they will take seriously the responsibility to inform the department and university about Dustin’s teaching.

Finally, getting the very most useful information out of your evals does not necessarily mean using every last bit of information. Some filtering is necessary:

In brief, I try to summarize the evaluations in short phrases that strip away the judgement (positive and negative). I then quantify them so I know how many people made each critique. Then I focus only on the good and bad critiques that were said several times, as well as any helpful suggestions (even if the suggestion was only made once). The process helps me avoid zeroing in on the evaluations with really strong language and focus instead on the big picture.

It’s not surprising that Dustin takes a methodical approach, placing the evaluations within their institutional context and seeking to filter out the “noise” in the responses. He is a sociologist, after all. But this approach is not just good social science. It is good for the professor’s mental state, because it’s a way to avoid the twin pitfalls of vanity (upon reading a positive comment) and anger (upon reading a really negative one). What one student says might be interesting, but what many students say is real evidence, which can then inform your pedagogical decisions in later semesters.

Too much reading

My students filled out mid-semester (self- and course) evaluations last week. It was good to learn what’s working and what isn’t. In one class, the biggest complaint was about the number and/or length of reading assignments. (In another section of that course, not one student complained about this!) I just emailed the class and, after expressing some sympathy given the difficulty of some of the assignments, I told them this:

Reading is essential to accomplishing all of the course goals. If education is about intellectual fitness and a course is like a training program [a metaphor I use often], then reading is basic strength, conditioning, and flexibility: it’s the basis for everything else. Yes, it’s possible to hurt yourself if you try to lift too much weight or run too much, but I don’t think that’s the case in this class. In just about every case, you should be able to complete the reading for class in less than an hour of concentrated attention. (To continue the analogy, is an hour too much time to spend at the gym?)

The fact that I’m not planning to cut down the reading will probably disappoint a few students. But the students’ comments did make me think that they would be well served if I told them a little more about the purpose and what to look for in the readings. If they can approach the reading with a better sense for what to expect, then the assignments might not seem so heavy and pointless.

Do students say in evaluations of your courses that the reading load is too heavy? If so, how do you respond? Please share in the comments.