Monthly Archives: February 2013

Don’t use your words: evocative visuals and active learning


As educators, we spend a lot of time explaining things. We (and our students) value clear explanations. Sometimes we want our students to practice observation or interpretation skills, or just discover that there is more than one way of looking at a piece of information or a problem.


In such cases, it may help students if we teachers don’t use our words. 


I was talking with a faculty member who coordinates teaching assistants. One of her perpetual challenges is helping new teaching assistants learn to recognize when students working in class need their help, and determining what kind of help those students need. “They only listen to me so much,” she mused. “It’s like they have to go out and experience such a situation before they can understand how to deal with it.” We concluded: she can talk all she wants, but the TAs really need practice identifying and responding to challenging groupwork situations. 


A day before that, I was sitting in a talk with a bunch of engineers. Now here are some folks who like to solve problems! The speaker knew her audience. She showed them a photo of a traffic jam and asked them “What is the problem here?” 


We receive new information all of the time. But if we are actually going to use it, we have to grapple with it on our own terms. Not everything can be explained to us; we have to engage in our own discovery and interpretation.             


In what cases can visuals help your students have those experiences? 


To think about how you would do this in your own teaching, consider the following technique:  


Put an evocative visual (photo, video clip), a powerful text passage, or a quantitative chart in front of the class. Select an item that will engage students both emotionally and cognitively and are likely to elicit multiple interpretations.


Ask students to interpret the item by asking a question such as “What do you see?” What’s going on here?” After students brainstorm their analysis, ask a question such as “What does it mean to you?” or “What do you think it means?”


Source: Frederick, Peter J. 2002. Engaging Students Actively in Large Lecture Settings. In Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty. Anker, Bolton, MA.    


SITE Stories: TA for a Day

At SITE, we’re always interested in innovative teaching practices. So when a couple of people mentioned Jennifer Chang Coupland’s “TA for a Day” activity, we wanted to learn more. Below is a description of the activity and its pedagogical benefits, written by Professor Chang Coupland, a clinical associate professor of marketing.
I have found over the years that students can often provide outstanding insights when it comes to teaching material. I teach marketing, which is a topic that has definite theories, frameworks and strategies, but the content is dynamic. Every semester (or minute!) consumer preferences change, buying habits alter, the economy shifts, brands and media move through trends and macro forces in the environment. When I started teaching 15 years ago, the examples I used were fairly relatable to students as we were close enough in age and marketing-related interests. As I’ve aged and my students haven’t, I find myself grasping for relatable, timely examples. 
In my honors marketing seminar a couple years ago, I had students volunteer to “teach” the class for 10 minutes at the end of the semester. They could choose any topic covered in the course but discuss the topic in their own way with their own examples. I found that this provided me with many great ideas for future semesters.   
I wondered if I could take this “teacher” concept to my large Principles of Marketing course in the Forum, which seats 350 students. I like the idea that students are at once “students” who learn the basic course content, “consumers” who know about the real-world of brands and media and what it’s like to sit in the large classroom setting, and “teachers” who can marry these concepts together.   
So, after consulting with my TAs and some undergraduates, I came up with a concept called “TA for a Day,” which is an optional extra credit assignment due at the end of the semester. Students can earn up to 1% extra credit to their final course grade. Below are the instructions:  
“You may submit your own original ideas for in-class activities (include title, materials needed, specific procedures, instructions, expected results, relevant textbook page # or course topic), multiple choice exam questions (be sure to include the correct answer, textbook page #, relevant image), or lesson plan ideas for MKTG 301 in the Angel dropbox, ‘TA for a Day Extra Credit.’ You may submit this form of extra credit at any time before ___.”  
As a result of the submissions, I’ve obtained a wealth of new content, some very innovative. For example, Jon Slomka came up with an in-class game for a lecture on product quality, entitled “Real of Fake? Test Your Product Wits” in which students try to use product quality lecture objectives to determine which products are real or fake. Greg Newman came up with an elaborate in-class activity to illustrate the personal selling process and a key stage known as “prospecting and qualifying.” And many additional students have come up with other great ways to help their classmates learn.
What I like about these activities is that the student has clearly thought not just “about” the lecture material but thought “through” it. Not only do I learn from the students, but they themselves learn by doing. They come up with their own specific examples and creatively apply the content. I believe students are more likely to fundamentally remember marketing in a useful way through this exercise. Future students also benefit from a novel, relatable idea.