Monthly Archives: November 2011

Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom II: Continuing the Conversation

TECCE-final-pic.jpgNEW!!! For more information, see the “Difficult Dialogues” tab above.

The student-run media organization Onward State has provided some excellent coverage of the past weeks’ events via their webpage, liveblog, and Twitter feed (@OnwardState). Last week, student writer Dan McCool wrote a poignant piece voicing many students’ hopes about going home for fall break. Yesterday, John Tecce followed it up with The Break that Wasn’t – an article about his troubles connecting with loved ones outside Penn State:

It’s difficult to expect our friends and family at home to understand what the past few weeks have been like for us, and yet, we can’t help but do so. Unfortunately, all they know comes straight from the news vans we walk past every day on the way to class, hoping that maybe tomorrow they’ll be gone.

Both of these pieces provide some insight as to what many of our students are continuing to experience as members of the Penn State community. As teachers, it’s important for us to stay connected to these experiences so that we can attend to them if/when they affect the learning environment.

In the wake of the events, many faculty have implemented reflective writing assignments as suggested in the first Difficult Dialogues blog post we published. Although some students may be tired of discussing things openly in class (especially if course material doesn’t overlap directly), short reflective writing can still be useful at this time to help students air out tension or angst that could impede the learning process. Sometimes having fears or concerns heard about a difficult topic or challenging assignment can be enough to move forward with learning. Of course, the Critical Incident Questionnaire discussed earlier or other Classroom Assessment Techniques can give you important information about where students may be hung up, or what could be impeding their learning.

As always, we’re here to help. Feel free to contact us to schedule an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or to attend one of our many upcoming teaching workshops. Our services are always free and confidential.

NOTE: This post is republished here from a comment on the first Difficult Dialogues post here.

IMAGE: Ellie Skrzat, Onward State

A ‘Story’ for Learning

In 2003 my son, David, underwent surgery to repair a displaced hip. The procedure was not a simple one – the doctors had to cut through the hip bone, move it, and put it back together in a new position with several long screws. The day after the surgery when David awoke, he exclaimed “Mom, I’m so lucky, I got a new scar!” and “Mom, I’m so lucky, I can play video games from my bed!” I have used this story many times to illuminate the concept of optimism to students in my psychology classes. In fact, I have found stories about my children to be very effective ways of making psychological phenomena more memorable to my students.


According to Heath and Heath (2010) stories are the “currency of our thoughts” and using them to illustrate concepts is a very effective way to help students learn. In their article, “Teaching that Sticks,” they suggest that making concepts simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional are additional strategies that helps students learn.


As this semester comes to a close, you may be looking toward the spring semester and searching for new teaching strategies. If you are, I highly recommend reading the article Teaching That Sticks. It’s full of great ideas for improving student learning and fascinating stories that you won’t forget! 

The Red Pen: Grading Reconsidered

Even as we continue to process the distressing events at Penn State, we are aware that some of the normal aspects of academic life continue. Take grading, for example.
We are fast approaching the end of the semester, a time when those of us teaching take up the “red pen” to grade student work.
It’s not a task most of us look forward to, because frankly grading wears us out. After all, it takes time, thought, and energy to give feedback on all those student papers, exams, projects, reports, and bluebooks.  
I invite you to put down the red pen for a moment and consider the following questions: 1) are grading and feedback the same thing? 2) If not, what is feedback for? 3) how much do students need feedback on their performance at the end of the semester?
These are questions David Brooks asked himself. The answers he came up with might surprise you:

Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Resources for Penn State Teachers

NEW!!! For more information, see “Difficult Dialogues” 

In light of the tragic events continuing to unfold at Penn State, we at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence recognize that there are many faculty and graduate student instructors who, while experiencing their own shock, anger, and sadness, are also looking to help their students process these events in a thoughtful and productive way.

Teachable moments can be found in this terrible situation, and thus can provide much needed support and healing through the learning process. Destiny Aman, with input from a number of other teaching institute consultants, developed the following tips for teachers interested in incorporating difficult dialogue discussions into their courses.

  1. Set Ground Rules. Encourage students to practice empathetic listening, use “I-statements,” and avoid personal attacks.
  2. Start with a guided reflective writing exercise – give students a chance to write about what they’re feeling and experiencing, but also incorporate questions to stimulate critical thinking.
  3. To give all students a chance to participate, and reduce the chance that a few individuals will dominate discussion, incorporate think-pair-share activities, dyads, or other discussion techniques that allow students to talk and process their ideas in smaller groups prior to speaking in the larger class setting.
  4. To the degree possible, connect the situation to course material and learning goals (keep in mind that while this might not directly relate to your course content, such discussions do overlap with learning goals such as critical thinking, reflection, and peer-learning).
  5. Recognize your own experience and role in the dialogue. Do not respond angrily or shut down students whose positions you disagree with – this will result in defensiveness and have a negative effect on student learning.
  6. End the session with a Critical Incident Questionnaire, and follow up with the topic as needed during the next class session or via email.

Even in classes where course content does not overlap, the learning environment will continue to be affected as news breaks on a daily (or even hourly) basis. Many students are struggling emotionally and psychologically, and may find it difficult to focus on course material. All students should be made aware of resource centers on campus where they can find a supportive, safe, and productive space to process their experience. These include:

Counseling & Psychological Services
Center for Women Students
LGBTA Resource Center
Pasquerilla Spiritual Center

As always, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence stands with all who teach at Penn State, and especially now as you work through this difficult time. If you have questions, concerns, or would like more suggestions related to teaching at Penn State, we are happy to schedule an individual consultation.

Do Students Know Best?

So many of us in higher education enthusiastically endorse current instructional strategies intended to engage active, meaningful learning in the classroom. While there are many instructional approaches used to actively involve students, one that is easily recognized is the Socratic Method. You can picture it – an interactive discussion-style teaching approach where the instructor asks questions and engages students to talk, think, and learn from each other. It certainly seems students would want to be involved and working with others in the classroom, yet a recent Inside Higher Ed story, Socratic Backfire? , sheds light on another perspective.

I’m not sure what I make of this story – lots of questions are swirling in my head. What was it really like inside his classroom? Why were the students either not willing or not able to engage in this type of teaching? Were they reacting to their own learning discomfort or were they not able to learn with this process? What does this kind of reaction tell us about today’s students? Why didn’t the professor’s colleagues see glaring instructional inadequacies? Sometimes it feels like there is too much emphasis on blame and finger pointing in our classrooms and not enough emphasis on learning.

Assessing Student Blog Activity

As more faculty continue to leverage the University’s blog platform for teaching and learning, we continually are asked:

“How do I assess what my students are doing on the blog?”

This question is particularly challenging for a variety of reasons.  In some instances, students are writing in their own personal blog space.  With a roster of 50 students, this represents 50 different blogs the instructor must visit for each assignment (although an RSS reader can help instructors be more efficient using this method). The model that we see more often now involves instructors creating a blog, then adding all of their students as authors to that blog.  This alleviates the need to go visit each blog separately while also increasing the interaction between students.  When all entries are authored in a single blog, it makes interacting with one another simple.

In terms of the actual assessment of student work, we typically see two different methods.

  1. Assess each individual entry.  This typically involves some sort of rubric to guide the student’s writing, and each individual entry receives a specific grade.  Mark Sample offers a good example rubric in the Chronicle.
  2. Assess the students’ blogging activity as a whole.  This method of assessment provides a single grade for the entirety of a student’s blogging activity throughout the semester.  Chris Long, Associate Professor of Philosophy, assesses student blog work in this manner and also shares the rubric he uses on his website.

Do you have a rubric for assessing student blogging activity?  If you do, and you don’t mind sharing, please feel free to send it to me (bkp10[at]  I’m working on a collection of blog rubrics to share on our website for new faculty looking to experiment with blogs.

Timely Reminders

As the end of the semester looms nearer, some reminders:

–Many of our students are starting to “hit the wall” around this time in the semester. (If only they knew that so are their faculty.) If you have major projects due in the next few weeks, consider checking in systematically with your students to gauge their progress. How many of them have completed the literature review for their research papers? Have their groups been meeting regularly to prep for their upcoming class presentations? The ideal situation is if you have built these checkpoints into your syllabus; even if you haven’t, consider whether you can informally check in now.

–Make sure your grade book is current. I’ve sometimes been guilty of waiting until the last minute to compile my end-of-semester grades. Not recommended, unless you like stress. Consider whether your grades are all up to date, and if not, there’s no time like the present.

–Prepare for those SRTEs. Although end-of-semester student evaluations are still a few weeks away, David Perlmutter offers some good tips about intepreting them — and preparing students to take them — in the Chronicle of Higher Education. One interesting suggestion: “In the case of course objectives, on the first day of class, lay them out carefully, noting that they are also spelled out in the syllabus. In a later class, perhaps the one previous to the session in which you will hand out the evaluations, reiterate your course objectives and explain how they have been achieved. That’s not pandering to students; that’s transparent teaching.”

–Remember that extra hour we all get this Sunday, when we turn the clocks back one hour. You might use it to sleep or to catch up on academic work. Don’t worry though — we’ll have to pay for this next year when we “spring forward.”