It’s that time again!!! “What Do You Do on the First Day of Class?”

As part of the TPP relaunch, here’s some helpful stuff for the start of the academic year!

Teaching Prof in Progress

If you’re a school geek like me — not to mention if you’re a parent — the first day of school is a magical time.

But for us teachers, it can also be a nerve-wracking time… there are a number of goals we have for kicking off our class in the right way: establishing our own persona, introducing the course in a way that whets the students’ appetites, establishing clear expectations, and establishing a welcoming and warm yet serious classroom environment. [Maryellen Weimer blogged a short yet dead-useful summary of goals and tips last year in the Teaching Professor.] Yeah, yeah, we introduce the syllabus, but what then?

Just in time, Josh Boldt at the University of Georgia shares a great idea — both for building a welcoming classroom culture and for helping you learn names and faces! — in Vitae. Boldt also gives a shout-out…

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“Desirable difficulties?” Try telling that to students…

"This teacher is getting on my last nerve..."
In the John Hughes ’80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we see why Ferris ditches school: his history teacher (played with deadpan brilliance by Ben Stein) stymies, bores and infuriates a classroom full of students through a mind-numbingly repetitive and monotone lecture, punctuated with the worst attempts at coaxing student involvement ever.  Ironically, we know that students in the early stages of their college education actually prefer to receive information passively, served up by teachers with expertise. This is largely due to their less-developed stage of learning, and increasingly aggravated by public high school teaching that is designed to move through required content quickly and efficiently. However, to move students to higher orders of thinking and learning — application, critical analysis, creative synthesis — we need to get them to take more ownership of their learning process. Which is hard — especially when students are first faced with this demand in areas of study new to them.

As you might be aware, the benefits of student struggle in the learning process has a sound basis in cognitive psychology. Robert Bjork of UCLA, who studies processes of learning and forgetting, distinguishes between “retrieval memory,” or the easy, immediate accessibility of information, and “storage memory,” or the longer-term ability to retain and recall information. Since the latter is the product of deeper learning, the objective becomes facilitating learning that boosts storage strength as well as retrieval strength. Bjork’s research developed the concept of “desirable difficulties,” beneficial struggles in the learning process that can result in deeper learning.

For instance, pedagogical moves such as frequent quizzes and tests, active problem-solving, and varying the locations where learning takes place are examples of desirable difficulties that prior research links to effective learning.

Of course, as the video statement from Bjork above points out (did you skip it??? go ahead, watch it… I’ll wait…), there is a bit of a dilemma here: students enjoy a rapid, easy improvement in performance (due to the triggering of retrieval memory), but the slower, more troublesome learning process that actually leads to optimal learning can be frustrating to students.

The Teaching Professor Blog‘s Maryellen Weimer discusses how we might respond to this dilemma: how do we help students get beyond “teach me, and make it easy!” to accept the desirable difficulties of student-driven learning? In brief, the way we frame these experiences for students is key to their success.


SEPTEMBER 10, 2014

“She Didn’t Teach. We Had to Learn it Ourselves.”

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

Yesterday I got an email from a faculty member who had just received her spring semester student ratings (yes, in August, but that’s a topic for another post). She’d gotten one of those blistering student comments. “This teacher should not be paid. We had to teach ourselves in this course.” I remember another faculty member telling me about similar feedback, which was followed later with a comment about how the course “really made me think.”

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The four-question path to critical thinking. Really? Really!

Thinking is hard — just ask Christopher Robin’s friend, who observes that even valiant efforts at problem solving can suffer from underdeveloped critical thinking skills:

Even harder is to figure out approaches to engage students in critical thinking — a central goal embraced, at least philosophically, by most all college and university teachers — in ways that can actually lead to observable outcome gains.  It’s a tricky business.  The VALUE rubric developed by AAC&U for assessing student development in critical thinking defines it as  “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” The rubric is a useful tool, largely because it lays out stages of critical thinking development from initial benchmark to capstone in a variety of important areas: explanation of issues, use of evidence, considering assumptions and contents, establishing a position, drawing conclusions.

So we’ve got some guidance on assessing what students do… but how can we provide them explicit practice in doing it, in ways applicable to a broad range of learning contexts?

Coming to our rescue again,  from the Teaching Professor Blog shares what appears to be a too-simple pattern of four question prompts that guide students through four important paths to critical thinking: analysis of concepts, reflection on the relevance of concepts, application of concepts to other situations, and continued questioning about concepts.  The four-question plan comes from Dietz-Uhler and Lanter (2009), whose SOTL research on the use of this question set revealed significant effects on student performance!

So you don’t have to bruise the side of your head like poor little Pooh to think of ways to get your students to think. When in a pinch, just take them down the four-question path!  And stop for some hunny on the way, silly old bear.


AUGUST 28, 2013

Prompts That Get Students to Analyze, Reflect, Relate, and Question

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

A simple teaching technique that helps students learn; now there’s something few teachers would pass up! This particular technique involves a four-question set that gets students actively responding to the material they are studying. They analyze, reflect, relate, and question via these four prompts:

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Don’t let your students fall off the concept map!

Maps can be amazing things — they can not only reveal what is there, and how things are connected, but also how to navigate and master a terrain. Of course, some maps are more amazing than others…

For high-impact pedagogy that can apply in a variety of situations, though, the concept map can be hard to beat. A “concept map” is defined by Cañas and Novak of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in this way:

Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts. Words on the line, referred to as linking words or linking phrases, specify the relationship between the two concepts.

If you’re unfamiliar with concept maps and their potential uses for student brainstorming, classroom discussion, and assessment of learning, check out this brief, useful video by Karen Rohrbauck Stout from Western Washington University’s Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment.

I experimented with concept mapping in my Rhetorical Theory class last year. While I found it a great tool for guiding class discussion in a way that helped students define tools and shape the key ideas of a theoretical perspective, I had less success helping students use concept mapping independently to study course material.

If you’re unsure about incorporating concept maps in your classes (especially if you’ve tried, crashed and burned before, or heard of someone who has), Maryellen Weimer‘s advice might help you rethink how to use this potentially powerful tool for student learning.


Keeping Students on Board with Concept Maps

Written by: Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D.
Published On: August 25, 2014

The benefits of concept maps are well established. They encourage students to organize knowledge and do so in ways meaningful to them. They help students sort out, prioritize, and understand relationships between terms, concepts, and ideas. Students can also use concept maps to forge relationships between new knowledge and what they already know.

But students don’t always see these benefits when first introduced to concept maps, and as the authors of the article referenced below discovered, how concept maps are used in a course directly affects student perceptions of their value.

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Can we move our students from consumers to realistic achievers?

The scenario is a painfully familiar one…

For the last two decades the scholarly study of “academic entitlement” and its relationship to the higher education experience has yielded some important insights. While defining the concept is tricky, Singleton-Jackson et al. (2011, p. 232) identify the following facets of the phenomenon:

a) a belief that some reward is deserved that is not justified based on one’s actual academic achievement; 2) that a high academic entitlement disposition implies a diminished role for personal responsibility in actual academic achievement; and, 3) that a high academic entitlement disposition also implies expectations about the role of instructors that are above and beyond their obligation of providing educational opportunities and effective, quality instruction.

These tendencies should come as no surprise to us, as we have been and will continue to teach the Millennial generation — and their expectations based in part on an educational consumerist perspective — for the next six years. First year college students, in particular, are vulnerable to experiencing a system shock as the work patterns that yielded high achievement in their K-12 past don’t seem to cut it in the bigs. So is the answer to provide toughlove and get them used to lowered expectations?

We don’t want our students to be demoralized, and to settle for lower expectations for their performance in our classes.  Indeed, a healthy body of research confirms that establishing high expectations for students can be a powerful means of achieving effective student learning outcomes.

Maryellen Weimer of The Teaching Professor Blog addresses an important dilemma we all face as college teachers:

Unrealistic expectations present teachers with a conundrum. We want students to believe in themselves. We want them committed to doing well. But we need them to be realistic about what success demands.

Her useful recommendations bear some attention as we start our courses this year — how can we use the first day, the first week of class to set expectations that are both realistic and aspirational for students? How can we use the first few weeks of the term to provide formative feedback that helps students adjust their expectations while maintaining their morale? And how should we respond to the first big exam or essay to help keep students motivated and on the right track? Your suggestions and conversation are welcome in the comments below!

Singleton-Jackson, J.A., Jackson, D.L., and Reinhardt, J. (2011). Academic entitlement: Exploring definitions and dimensions of entitled students. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 5(9), 229-236.


AUGUST 20, 2014

Reality Check: Helping to Manage Student Expectations

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

It’s not until the day of the test, as they’re confronted by a number of questions they can’t answer, that the anxiety sets in. They will sit staring at the questions and guessing at far too many answers, before turning in the test and then persuading themselves that chances are still pretty good for a B. Most students begin college, the academic year, and new courses motivated and optimistic. Many first-year students expect to do well because they were successful in high school. Some are right, but others will only find similar success if they work much harder than they did in high school. Yet most start out expending the same level of effort. They will talk with their classmates and convince each other that an exam covering three chapters can’t be that hard, so they put off studying and then “look over” the chapters the night before—happily dealing with any and all interruptions and distractions.

A lot of students continue to hold unrealistic expectations throughout the course even in the presence of mounting evidence to the contrary. A student can be going into a cumulative final exam with a solid C, but she believes she is going to ace that final and come out of the course with a high B. That may be possible in a few courses, but it’s a long shot in others and is simply not going to happen in most courses.

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It’s that time again!!! “What Do You Do on the First Day of Class?”

If you’re a school geek like me — not to mention if you’re a parent — the first day of school is a magical time.

But for us teachers, it can also be a nerve-wracking time… there are a number of goals we have for kicking off our class in the right way: establishing our own persona, introducing the course in a way that whets the students’ appetites, establishing clear expectations, and establishing a welcoming and warm yet serious classroom environment. [Maryellen Weimer blogged a short yet dead-useful summary of goals and tips last year in the Teaching Professor.] Yeah, yeah, we introduce the syllabus, but what then?

Just in time, Josh Boldt at the University of Georgia shares a great idea — both for building a welcoming classroom culture and for helping you learn names and faces! — in Vitae. Boldt also gives a shout-out to Augustana’s own David Gooblar, who provides tips on this subject and much, much more on his Pedagogy Unbound website (which you should check out ASAP).

Enjoy that first day!



Image: Oregon State U. Special Collections & Archives.

August 21, 2014

A huge proportion of Vitae members identify themselves either as graduate students or faculty members—which means that a pretty significant number of people here will be teaching at least one section this semester. And of course for every section taught, there’s always a first day of class.

So I thought it might be fun to come up with some ideas for first-day lesson plans. David Gooblar has compiled an excellent database of teaching resources here at Vitae and at his website Pedagogy Unbound. We’ve also just created a new Teaching Tips group where teachers—beginners and veterans—can share more tips and ideas. Consider this post the beginning of that discussion.

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Make a great first impression… with your syllabus!

The old cliche reminds us that we never get a second chance to make a first impression.  So true.

This is particularly true for the first day of class, and that all-important document that goes along with it: the syllabus. Sure, the syllabus fulfills some specific course information and management functions. But it can also play a crucial part in how you come across as a teacher, and how your course is framed and received by students.

Just in time for your last-minute syllabus completion crunch, here’s an oldie-but-goodie post on the Teaching Professor Blog by Maryellen Weimer. There’s good stuff here to consider in order to help your syllabus help you make an effective first impression — and maintain it as long as students continue to use the syllabus in your course.


AUGUST 24, 2011

What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course?

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

A colleague shared an excellent but not yet published paper on the syllabus. It got me thinking as this is the time of year when most of us are revisiting these venerable documents. Oh, I know, some of you finished yours back in May when the semester ended. And then there are the rest of us who are working on them feverishly as the beginning of new academic year quickly approaches.

Whether yours are ready to go or just being developed, all our syllabi merit a critical review on a regular basis. I’d like to share some questions to think about as you take a contemplative look at your syllabus.

How would you characterize the tone of your syllabus? Is it friendly and inviting or full of strongly worded directives? Is the focus on what students will be learning or on all those various things that they should and shouldn’t be doing? Why do we feel so strongly that we have to lay down the law in the syllabus? Do we need a policy to cover every possible contingency? Do multiple prohibitions, rules and pointed reminders develop student commitment to the course?

Does your syllabus convey the excitement, intrigue and wonder that’s inherently a part of the content you teach? Does it hint at or openly state the enthusiasm you feel about teaching this great subject? Does it mention the many things students will know and be able to do as a consequence of their engagement with the content? If you read this syllabus, would you say the course is taught by somebody who loves learning?

Does your syllabus indicate that all the decisions about the course have been made? Or does it leave some options up to students or identify some areas where they might have a hand in deciding some of the details associated with the course? Is it really necessary for the teacher to make all the decisions about the course? When the teacher decides everything, how does that affect the motivation to learn? Does teacher decision-making help students develop as independent learners?

Have you ever asked students for feedback on your syllabus? Try this, wait until three or four weeks into the course and ask students to take out the syllabus and in a five-minute free write tell you anonymously what they thought about the course and the instructor on that first day when you went over the syllabus. Or, ask them to describe their sense of an ideal syllabus. Or, ask them to write about the most unusual syllabus they’ve ever encountered. Or, inquire why so many students don’t read their syllabi, and if you’re really daring find out if they have or haven’t read the syllabus in your course and ask why.

The authors of the paper I mentioned think we’re too oriented to the syllabus as a contract and I have to agree. When the focus is on all the logistical details, all the terms of this particular learning deal, we miss an opportunity to generate enthusiasm for the course, indeed, for learning.

Syllabi can convey messages that build rapport between the teacher and students and they can help create community among students. I know courses need policies, students need guidelines and some students take advantage of teachers. But I wonder if we don’t err on the side of being too defensive in our syllabi. We could all benefit from discussion of these syllabus-related issues, and I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comment below.

It’s also a great discussion to have with a colleague. Give a trusted colleague your syllabus and ask him or her what they conclude about the course and the instructor based on the syllabus. If you’re not comfortable doing that with your own syllabus, there are lots available online and one of those can be considered in light of these questions.

I have three final questions for you: Have you ever thought about creating a syllabus that invites students to a learning event they just might want to attend? What would that syllabus look like? How different would it be from the syllabi you’re polishing and posting for this Fall?