Unlock your students’ superpowers with team work!

Any comic book geek can tell you the value of teams. Sure, when we think of the “team” concept, many of us default to sports — football, baseball, etc. But I’m thinking of the Avengers, the Justice League, the X-Men: not only do these teams repeatedly save the world, but their success stems in part from their optimal mix.

Consider the Justice League’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. This mix involves not just their unique superpowers (invulnerability and strength; intelligence and stealth; magical weapons), but also their singular identities that can often clash, but still complement and complete each other (optimism and a clear moral compass; cynical skepticism and ruthless pragmatism; power and resolve informed by gender identity).

Teams can be powerful things. If done right, not only can they accomplish important things together that they never could individually, but the interactions of teams can help folks of diverse backgrounds, personalities and skill sets learn from each other by learning about each other. A confident consensus has built around the notion that collaborative opportunities are high-impact practices for deep student learning.

This assumes, of course, that the opportunities are designed and led in ways that are productive rather than self-defeating… because there are few things students loathe more than high-stakes projects involving a dysfunctional group.

I am super happy to have David Gooblar on the Augustana team. He teaches writing for us, and is a central player on Pedagogy Unbound, a great blog on great ideas for teaching. You should follow it. And read what he has to say on team-based learning (TBL).


How—and Why—to Split Your Students Into Teams

July 23, 2014

Want more teaching tips? Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but we’re coming to the end of July. That means that summer, which seems as if it just got started, is already past its peak and a new semester is just around the corner. If your term doesn’t start until September, you can go back to your cocktail and your Edan Lepucki novel (or, more likely, iced coffee and furious writing on the research you don’t have time to do while teaching). But for the rest of us, it’s time to start thinking about teaching strategies for the term ahead.

Now, before everything gets super-busy again, is the time to begin thinking about overarching ideas for the courses you will teach this fall, ways you might approach the structure of a course from top to bottom. One such systemic approach is “team-based learning,” first developed at the University of Oklahoma business school in the late 1970s and popularized by Larry Michaelsen. Building on research that suggested that students learn better when they collaborate with their peers, team-based learning has evolved into an elaborate system of best practices designed to get the most out of group work. The website for the “Team-Based Learning Collaborative” and, more succinctly, this 12-minute video from the University of Texascan give you a good overview of the system if you’d like to use it.

But if you’re like me, you’re a little reluctant to adopt a pedagogical system whole hog. I’m more likely to look to marry aspects of a number of systems, taking strategies from here and there, hoping to construct an approach that suits my style of teaching and the specific courses I have to teach. So I thought I’d share with you a couple of ideas worth taking from team-based learning (henceforth TBL) and importing into your own individual teaching style. This column will look at a smart way to form groups, or teams, and my next piece will look into a great way to make use of teams to help students learn course material.

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A 20 minute writing workout? How about half?

Ah, who can forget the halcyon days of aerobic exercise in the 1980s? (If you are a reader who is too young to remember… shut up.)  Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda… and the infamous 20 Minute Workout videos. I heard rumors some folks actually used these videos for actual workouts…

The philosophy of these large-haired workout regimens was actually rather sensible: It doesn’t take a long time to get fit — rather, it takes a commitment to do a little bit each day, regularly, in order to get results.  Such a productivity philosophy can easily be applied to other tasks requiring discipline… such as academic writing.

Many of us struggle with the prospect of “finding time to write”… we tell ourselves it requires devoting large blocks of open time that we can ill afford with our various other professional and personal obligations.  Granted, finding such time can be a marvelous luxury, as those of us who have benefited from “writing retreats” can attest. However, Gregory Semenza from the University of Connecticut reminds us that doing just a little bit each day — a mere 10 minutes of down time we’d otherwise fritter away (face it, you know you would… I would) — can provide productive results that we’d otherwise miss. Writing for the Chronicle’s Vitae, Semenza reminds us how easy, and beneficial, it can be to keep those workouts brief, frequent, and pain-free.

While his advice is ideal for writing during the academic year, why not start a “10 Minute Workout” regimen this summer? It’s not like there aren’t loads of other distractions… and you won’t even need leg warmers!



July 18, 2014


Write every day. Over the years, this is the single bit of advice I’ve given most regularly to graduate students who aim to become professors. Unfortunately, after grad school, it’s a lot easier said than done. The seminar and ABD stages present young scholars with a misleading sense that an academic schedule leaves relatively large blocks of time for writing.

With the possible exception of the summer research months, it doesn’t. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that writing time shrinks for most of us as our careers advance.

Though I was involved in departmental and university service as a graduate student, I was by no means prepared for the realities of a full-time academic job. In the first two to three years following graduation, university service requirements quadrupled, my teaching load increased, external consulting and reviewing activities proliferated, and so too did undergraduate- and graduate-advising duties. Throw in a house, a yard, maybe even a family, and you’ve got yourself a dilemma: For those of us who are required to write, or simply wish to write, time is not on our side.

During my dissertation phase, I developed a daily writing strategy that served me well for several years, which was to try to write at least two double-spaced pages first thing every morning. This strategy was an adaptation of a system practiced by one of my dissertation advisors, who writes for at least two hours each day. The two systems are a lot alike—especially since, for me, two pages of solid writing very often requires about two hours of work. Whereas some people work better with time limits, others find it more productive to set page goals. I continue to believe that systems such as these are ideal both for establishing a productive writing schedule and ingraining habits that will carry over well into a variety of academic positions after graduate school. (Those interested in learning more about such plans should see Graduate Study for the 21st Century .) But there’s the ideal and then there’s real life. While I continue to dole out this advice on a regular basis, I’m finding it harder and harder to find two hours—or even time for two unspeakably bad pages—in my day.

What I often do have, in between meetings with students, classes, and so forth, is 10 or 15 minutes.

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Total Recall? Maybe not, but good enough?

OK, maybe I’ve got summer movies on the brain this month… but Total Recall was one year before I graduated college (yes, that means 1990 — I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Colin Farrell remake). Loved it.

For all of it’s cheese-covered popcorn empty calories, the film raises some provocative questions about the nature of the mind, memory, and reality. As educators, we know that the capacity to aid our students in deep learning that endures beyond the final exam is a powerful opportunity. We’re not always — or even frequently? — able to tap into this opportunity. But shouldn’t this be our aspiration?

 from BYU contributed this brief piece on enabling long-term learning and memory to Faculty Focus. Griffin emphasizes the role of relevance and memory cues in achieving learning that sticks. Maybe our students won’t achieve Total Recall, but they might be more satisfied with the course, and you might be more gratified by the results.


JULY 14, 2014

Learning That Lasts: Helping Students Remember and Use What You Teach

By:  in Effective Teaching Strategies

How often do you hear the following sentiments from students?

  • “I won’t ever use anything I am learning in this class, but I have to take it to graduate.”
  • “I don’t care about this class. I just need a passing grade.”
  • “I can’t remember anything I learned in that class.”

Granted, not all classes cover interesting material all the time. While we can’t change what needs to be taught, we can change how we deliver it. If we make the right adjustments to our course design and teaching methodologies, we will hear less complaining in our classes. So, what can we do to achieve higher levels of student satisfaction and long-term learning that lasts far beyond the end of our class?

Begin by realizing that you don’t usually need a complete course re-design to teach more students at higher levels of engagement and retention. You can start making simple yet strategic changes that improve learning right away in the courses you already teach. Here are two simple yet effective techniques you can use in your courses to improve learning and retention: frontload the relevance and engage their memory.

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Crane-kick that publication, Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Who doesn’t love a sequel? Summer is a great time for them, isn’t it? (Reminds me… still need to get to How to Train Your Dragon 2…) Of course, some are better than others…

Last month I re-blogged a helpful little article with tips for getting published. This morning I saw that the author, a journal editor at the University of British Columbia, wrote a follow-up piece with some helpful advice. Since we’re at about the halfway point of the summer, a prime time for many of us to re-focus on our scholarship, it seemed prudent to pass it along. (And since the author references The Princess Bride right after the jump, you know she’s cool.)

So enjoy this follow-up from Kirsten Bellpublished in Vitae from the Chronicle.


Random Reflections on Getting Published


July 14, 2014

In my last article, I provided a handful of obvious tips for junior scholars on getting journal articles published. My aim wasn’t to provide a comprehensive guide to publication, but instead to highlight common (and easily rectified) issues that I see regularly as an associate editor of an academic journal.

But there’s more to say. So as a follow-up, I thought I’d offer a few random reflections informed by my work as an editor and my experiences as an author.

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A productive summer writing plan: It’s not too late!

"AHA! Now I can finally finish that article! Pass me another shandy and ear of sweet corn!"

As the extended July 4th weekend festivities retreat into memory, I know what many of you are thinking… because it’s what I’m thinking:

“Gads, the summer break is nearly halfway over! What happened to the time?!?”

Especially for those of us at teaching-intensive institutions, and/or with hefty service obligations during the academic year, summer is a time we count on to get reconnected with our scholarship, especially our writing. But it’s also a time — and rightfully so — when we reconnect with our families, our hobbies, our capacity to rest and recreate. And so it’s all too easy to let our work slide. That is, if we don’t have a plan.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, wrote this short but useful piece two months ago. Rick Reis of the tomorrows-professor e-mail listserv (have you subscribed yet???) helpfully resent it last week. These tips, incidentally, aren’t just useful for the summer… so you’ve got plenty of time to prepare for your fall writing plan!


Let’s Get Ready for Summer Writing

Happy end of term! Happy Graduation! and CONGRATULATIONS! You survived another academic year! And you know what that means: the summer writing season is right around the corner. Throughout the spring semester, I kept hearing from beleaguered faculty and graduate students who couldn’t wait for summer so they could “get some serious writing done.” And yet, every August I hear from just as many folks lamenting about how another summer has passed by and, once again, they failed to make progress on their intellectual projects. As we head into the summer break, I’m feeling motivated to help eradicate end-of-summer regret among academic writers! To that end, this summer’s Monday Motivators are designed to be your week-by-week support system for your summer writing and productivity.

Summer Writing Challenges

While we often fantasize about the freedom that summer represents, there are some important challenges to consider during the summer months. The most important challenge is the deception of unstructured time. Freedom from teaching, committee meetings, advising, and the day-to-day drama of campus life can create the illusion that we have lots of time. Imagining that we have infinite time can lead us to procrastinate and/or belabor tasks unnecessarily. Additionally, for those of you who aren’t daily writers during the academic year, you may experience the challenge of heightened expectations. In other words, putting off writing until the summer can create intense pressure (particularly for tenure-track faculty) that you must complete a year’s worth of writing in 12 weeks.

Childcare poses yet another challenge to summer writing. Changed schedules for school-aged children, gaps between the end of school and beginning of summer camps, and the increased expense of additional childcare during the summer months can leave some parents struggling to manage additional childcare and a rigorous writing schedule. Finally, some of you are simply exhausted from the intensity of the academic year and, more than anything else, feel the need to address all the neglected areas of your physical health, social life, and personal relationships during the summer months.

While it’s important to understand the challenges academic writers face during summer breaks, they point to the keys for a productive summer. I believe those are: 1) knowing what you need as a human being and what you need to accomplish as a writer and researcher, 2) creating a realistic plan to meet all of your needs, and 3) connecting with the type of community, support and accountability that will sustain you through the summer months. I think each semester should start with a plan, so for this week I want to encourage you to set aside 30-60 minutes, grab your calendar and a piece of paper, and develop a clear and concrete plan.

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