Author Archives: lnh2

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.    


Paper or…electronic? Which is best for student reading?

Like a lot of folks who work at Penn State, I’ve spent much of this past week reading various articles and books. I always jot notes when I read, either on a separate piece of paper, or on a series of sticky notes. If I’m reading an article, I like to print it out and jot in the margins.

I was having lunch with the Liberal Arts teaching group at University Park campus, and the conversation turned briefly to how students don’t seem to read much these days, but when they do, they seem to prefer paper copies of things to electronic versions. (In fact, many of us in the group had printed out paper copies of an article the group was discussing that day). I said I wondered if students prefer a format they can physically annotate.

We talked about NB, a software package developed at MIT that students can use to annotate electronic text. None of us have used it, but we are wondering if anyone at Penn State has.

I took a brief turn in the “sandbox” (NB’s demo) and noticed the software has ways to annotate text and share with a group, or jot notes to oneself. Check it out:


Reading text and marking it up with notes and questions seems to be an important part of how we learn, but it’s not something students are able to do naturally or easily. See this article from this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education:


How much more would our students read if we modeled how to interact with a text through annotation? And what if we had an effective way of doing so electronically?



Free Range Learners

Ever wonder why students don’t read your carefully-chosen course materials and instead look for other sources of information on the web?

I peronally have always found this habit annoying. A recent (albeit informal) study published in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests students have good reasons for treating the web as their textbook. Most notably, students surfing the web may be looking for the same information in their textbooks, but in a format that is more understandable to them.

This strikes me as an area ripe for further inquiry. I mean, who hasn’t looked for another source of information when a given source doesn’t make sense?





Classroom Management: What Would You Do?

Yesterday in the Course in College Teaching we introduced some classroom managment situations. It sounded like a lot of people could relate to them. In the spirit of continuing the conversation and sharing ideas, here are a few of the scenarios. Do any of these sound familiar to you? What would you do? Or what have you done in situations like these?

1) One of your students came late to the first few classes, interrupts your lecture loudly, doesn’t let others get a chance to answer questions and habitually forgets to turn off his cell phone. Most annoyingly, during class, he walks out of the classroom [across the front], and saunters back.

2) You are teaching in a computer classroom. Even though you are not using the technology at the moment, students are busily typing away. The clacking is making it difficult for some students to actually hear the material.

3) You are teaching a small lecture-type class and students regularly arrive 10 minutes late. In addition, others leave 10-15 minutes early. In a 55-minute class it feels like the comings and goings never end.

I Am Worried About My Grade

The “I am worried about my grade” video has been making the rounds in higher education. The cluelessness of the student and the frustration of the instructor seem to resonate with a lot of us who teach.


I recently suggested to a colleague who loved the video that he show it at the beginning of his course as a way to set up a discussion with students about what is expected of them. I don’t know if it would be appropriate in every course, but it might be useful in some contexts. For example, when many of your students are new to college and really are not clear on what is expected of them.


What do you think? Would you use it in a course? Have you used it? What was the resulting discussion like?  

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:

Teaching with Clickers: The Pedagogy Behind the Technology

Yesterday Penn State faculty from the Behrend, Berks, and University Park campuses got together (via videoconference) to chat with Brian Young, Instructional Desinger at Educational Technology Services. Brian has lots of experience in working with Penn State faculty to implement iClickers in their courses. Here are some notes on the conversation.

Q: What are the pedagogical applications of clickers? What different ways can instructors use clickers beyond sporadic multiple choice questions?
A: Clickers are one way of helping us focus on what important things we want students to learn. Clickers actually change the way we teach; with clickers, we spend more class time asking questions and helping students identify what is important, rather than simply “downloading” information to students via lecture. Some examples of ways Penn State faculty are currently using clickers: 
-Clickers can be used to test core concepts.
-One interesting application we discussed is asking students to generate questions for periodic reading quizzes. There are many more: 
-Reading quizzes can also be used to stimulate discussion.
-Students can answer a clicker question with more than one answer and discuss with one another why they chose the answer they did.

Q: What’s new about the new clicker system PSU is using?
A: Check it out:
Also, see for “how-to” webinars

Q: What’s a reasonable time to wait for responses from students? What about students with disabilities?
A: Expect to spend more time waiting for students to send their votes in. So be prepared that you can’t put in as much content as you used to. Using the “count down” timer may work better than “count up,” but still harder questions take a bit more time. Time spent on peer discussion can really eat up a 50-minute class session. One instructor at the Behrend Campus uses discussion or peer interaction, and he has found that he is reducing the width of the coverage but going deeper in the content covered. Some other strategies include:
-Consider ways in which students can “pre-think” about the material outside of class. Then, when they come to class, they are simply voting.
-Keep in mind it takes students about 4 times longer to solve problems than it does the instructor.
-If you’re doing a quick question or poll, it’s best to tell students they have a certain (short) amount of time to respond. If they only have 30 seconds, let them know beforehand so they can plan accordingly.
-In some cases, online quizzes on ANGEL are better than clickers, especially when students need extra time to take a quiz.
Q: Are clickers only used for “mega-huge” courses?
A: There are cases at Penn State where clickers are used in seminar classes of 10 people. They are actually a great way of making sure all students get to participate in the discussion (not just the really talkative students!)

Q: I’m thinking about using clickers in my course(s). How do I get students to buy into using them (or heck, even just buy them)?
A: One instructor found in the first two weeks not all students registered their clicker online, and some didn’t buy the device. For the instructor, that means constantly reminding them, updating the roster, etc. A few freebie or low point value questions (such as “I have read the syllabus and understand the expectations of the course. A. True; B. False”) may help push students completing the process. There will be students who forget the clicker at home. One instructor’s approach is to give them two chances to turn in a paper with answers as substitute. But each paper response can only get maximum 70% of the grade the student would get via clicker. Nobody has exceeded the two chances yet in a class of 140 students.
Q: Can I use clickers to just take attendance?
A: You can, but students really resent this. One suggestion is to have graded clicker activities that are worth only a few points. That way missed clicker opportunities are not interpreted as punishment for not attending class.

Q: So students don’t like it when instructors use clickers to take attendance. What are students’ overall impressions of clickers?
A: In a Penn State survey with 1000 students responding, a majority said that clickers made them accountable for learning the material in their classes. Some thought it was good to held more accountable, and some did not!

Q: How do I start developing good clicker questions?
A: Identify places in the material where students get stuck. Looking over past exams can give clues as to what these “bottlenecks” are. So can looking over comments on student work, and conversations with colleagues. If you are a very experienced instructor, you probably have a really good sense of where students typically get stuck.

Ain’t Misbehavin’? Civility in the Classroom

I hosted a session on fostering civility in large courses today.

It seemed to be an appropriate time of the semester to do so: midterms are in full swing,
and probably more than a few students and faculty are feeling that the “honeymoon” phase of the course–when goodwill flows between students and professors–is defintely over.

As you look around your class and notice students sleeping/texting/facebooking/etc. you may think “Sheesh. Seven more weeks of this?! And then there’s next semester…will it be like this forever?!”

Not necessarily, writes David Perlmutter in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but the key is to realize civility in the college classroom is a two-way street. Check it out and let us know what you think:

Cutting the cord

Recently a colleague who is a new faculty member at another institution told me that she has been communicating with her former graduate adviser too much. She contacts her advisor frequently to ask for input on articles and grant proposals she is working on. “I just realized that I’m relying on him too much,” she said. “It’s time to cut the cord”. She was referring to the umbilical cord that joins a newborn to its mother. Of course the umbilical cord is essential to the growth and development of a baby before birth, but afterward it is no longer needed.

At Penn State we are at the beginning of a new academic year, a time when hundreds of new faculty members are beginning another stage of their careers. Where do they get the information they need to successfully navigate this transition? I chatted recently with a senior faculty member who has many years of experience in working with new faculty as a department head, a dean, and a member of promotion and tenure committees. He told me he has seen several instances where new faculty members, unsure of their departmental/college expectations for tenure, consult a source who cannot necessarily give them useful information: their graduate advisor. Why is the information not useful? Each institution has its own particular expectations regarding promotion and tenure, so a faculty member who has gone through the process at another institution may have had a very different experience.

I certainly do not mean to suggest through these anecdotes that new faculty should sever all ties to their graduate advisors. But what we do know from scholars who have studied the mentoring process (not quite like advising but close enough for my purposes here) is that the relationship between mentor and mentee is just that–a relationship. And like any kind of relationship, it has phases. New faculty may find themselves negotiating not just a physical but a psychological separation from their graduate advisors. This separation phase marks the end of the formal mentoring relationship, where both parties review what has been accomplished and how successful the relationship has been.

This transition is not always an easy one for a new faculty member, who may feel less than confident in his or her readiness to take on a new role. And mentors who have really engaged in and enjoyed the mentoring process may be reluctant to separate from the mentee. A successful separation is not the end of the relationship. Once they work through the separation process, mentor and mentee can redefine their relationship as one of friends or colleagues.
During the separation and redefinition phases, a new faculty member still needs sources of useful information and support germane to his/her new role–in other words, another mentor.

As an instructional developer who works with new faculty concerning their new teaching roles, I realize that new faculty need support as they take on not just teaching, but research and service.

We are a large university with many mentoring resources, some of them informal or not well-known. Do you have experiences or resources on mentoring new faculty you would like others to know about? Or perhaps you are a new faculty member looking for resources? Let me know about it, either via the blog or email: