Author Archives: sweinstein

New resource for teaching sustainability

A recent brown bag talk presented by James Hamilton, retired professor, and Susannah Barsom and Cole Hons from Penn State’s Center for Sustainability introduced us to a new online resource for faculty who want to address sustainability in their courses. Created with seed funding from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, the Field Guide to Teaching Sustainability is a place for instructors from all disciplines to submit their finest sustainability-oriented lessons, activities, and other pedagogical material into a searchable database. Once populated with activities, the database will serve the entire community as a storehouse that can be tapped by teachers who have never incorporated sustainability into their teaching before, as well as veterans searching for fresh approaches.

If you happen to have a sustainability-oriented lesson or activity that you’ve used successfully in your classroom, please go to the website and submit it. Submission is easy and your colleagues, who may be interested in sustainability but don’t have experience using it in their teaching, will be very grateful!

What is college for?

How would you answer the question “what is college for?” I think most of us would agree that the goal of a college education is to provide individuals with a satisfying job at a reasonable salary. But is that all? According to Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University, it isn’t. In Delbanco’s recent book, “College, What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” published in March of 2012, he argues that college should do much more. In addition to providing economic success for individuals and, by extension, the nation, college should helps students learn how to contribute to our democracy, which depends on an “educated citizenry.” Furthermore, college should provide students with experiences that enhance the joy of living.

In his introduction, Delbanco suggests that college should help students “develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship” which include the following:

“a skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past”
“the ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena”
“appreciation for the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of arts and sciences”
“the ability to imagine experiences from experiences other than one’s own” and
“a sense of ethical responsibility”

Delbanco suggests that these qualities cannot be developed by study within a single discipline. His compelling arguments follow from a fascinating analysis of the history of colleges and universities and a comparison of the past with the present.

What do you think of Delbanco’s ideas? Do you think Penn State is successful at helping students develop these “qualities of mind and heart?” If not, how might we do a better job?

Give Penn State Learning your Inquisitive, by Neill Johnson

This post was authored by Neill Johnson, Director of Penn State Learning.

“Give me your tired, your poor,” says the Statue of Liberty in that famous poem by Emma Lazarus. If we take this approach to tutor referrals, we perpetuate the image of academic support resources as anchors for students adrift.  In learning as in life, nobody wants to be lost, not even temporarily. However, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be skilled at asking and answering questions. That’s why I implore you, please, to “give Penn State Learning your inquisitive.”  We want and need students who enjoy asking questions, who are eager to be challenged, and who are eager to help their peers “get it.” We also want students who aren’t afraid to say they don’t know. We annually employ over 100 inquisitive writing, foreign language, and math tutors and over 20 equally curious leaders of drop-in study groups for various accounting, economics, math, statistics, and physical science courses. All members of these learning communities are undergraduates, all are fairly compensated, and all take either English 250 or Curriculum and Instruction 200 and receive ongoing feedback from mentors and supervisors.


Without these inquisitive student leaders, no peer tutoring operation has a ghost of a chance of helping all the students who haven’t yet figured out how to ask their own questions and who dread being asked something they can’t answer. So in addition to your inquisitive, yes, give us your shy, your timid, your quiet novices yearning to speak free. We want them, too. In your syllabi and on your ANGEL course sites, please encourage your students to stop by our labs, visit our study groups, and check out the “Employment” and other links from our home page,


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! 

Imagine a University without Lectures

Research has shown that students learn better when they are actively engaged in the material than they do when they are taught by lecture (see, for example, Crouch & Mazur, 2001: But trying to incorporate active learning strategies can be challenging because neither faculty nor students have had much experience with teaching and learning in new ways. Furthermore, making sweeping changes in the manner that teaching and learning happens at established universities is extremely difficult.


So, when the University of Minnesota decided to build a new campus in Rochester, Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle took the opportunity to build a university that focused on learning, rather than memorizing (see ). According to Lehmkuhle, the goal of education is not the pursuit of knowledge in distinct disciplines; rather, it is the acquisition of skills needed to succeed in a world where knowledge is constantly changing. Research indicates that the key to learning is motivation. The University of Minnesota Rochester is built around the idea that students are motivated to learn when they can make connections.


So…at UMR, there are no lectures. There is no “front of the room” where one authority disseminates knowledge, according to the vice chancellor, Claudia Neuhauser. There are no departments. Faculty of all disciplines work together in the Center for Learning Innovation. Courses in biology, ethics and writing (for example) are connected. Tenure and promotion require faculty to do research on student learning. Can you imagine that?


At UMR, there is no football team. But there *is* a competitive ballroom dancing team.

If I could start my education over again, I’d apply to UMR!

Digital stories of exemplary teaching strategies

The Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) website (, has been offering peer-reviewed teaching and learning materials for many years. A recent addition to the site is ELIXR (see This portion of the site offers short digital stories of faculty describing their teaching strategies. The stories are categorized as follows: course preparation and design, understanding and addressing students’ needs, teaching strategies, teaching and learning, technology and learning, developing instructional expertise and assessment and evaluation. Faculty who want to learn more about fostering creativity, for example, can find several different strategies for doing so in less than 25 minutes.