Category Archives: Pedagogy

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.      

Mentoring for Online Instructors

Online learning at Penn State continues to grow. A whopping 42% of our resident students have taken an online course. Predictions are that the number of online students will continue to increase and as a result, we are thinking of how to best help faculty in their transition to online instruction. One tactic is to encourage mentoring of new faculty and last fall the Faculty Engagement subcommittee of the Penn State Online Coordinating Council and the Schreyer Institute piloted an online mentoring program for those new to online teaching ( The intent of this effort is to provide instructional support for those teaching online and to create opportunities for networking with others teaching online.

The online mentoring experience is intended to last a semester and is, first and foremost, a collegial relationship. Through the mentor’s personal guidance, the prot�g� can question and explore online teaching strategies and expectations. Dialogue drives this relationship, but the mentor can also review online course activities and interactions. What is needed and how to go about getting those needs are met is something that is left to the devices of the mentor and prot�g�.

What do you think — would a mentor be helpful to you as you begin teaching online? Or would you like a mentor even though you have taught online? By engaging in a mentoring relationship, you can ask questions, share comments, voice concerns, dissect instructional strategies, and feel connected to someone else who has walked in your shoes.

Approaches to STEM Education

A recent publication in Science is stirring up dialog around approaches to STEM education in K-12. The article, The Efficacy of Student-Centered Instruction in Supporting Science Learning, found that students not only performed higher on content knowledge exams than the teacher-centric control group, but also showed hither retention of that knowledge in the future. One thing that really stands out about this study is the thoroughness of methods. Occasionally in similar studies, results are often overlooked or de-emphasized due to the lack of rigor in methods. But the researchers in this study even went so far as to record each session of instruction, to make sure that the teachers held true to the student-centered or teacher-centered approach they were assigned. This reminds of me a Chinese proverb I recently used in several meetings:

Tell me and I may forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand.
Even when I think back to my own experiences in the classroom as a student, the most powerful learning experiences came when I was doing something, not when I was simply listening. One challenge with this student-centered approach is that it can be tougher to design activities to fill your class time vs. designing a lecture. Fortunately, we have a large number of resources that can help you. In collaboration with Education Technology Services, we’re working with some faculty to flip their classroom, putting the burden on the student to consume content (reading, watch videos of lectures, etc) outside of class, while class time is used for more student-centered, active learning approaches.We have resources in inquiry-based learning, with strategies you can use to engage your students to deeply explore the concepts and ideas from your course. We also have resources, and can present workshops, on student-centered discussion. If you’d like to discuss possible strategies to actively involve your students during class, please do not hesitate to email us!

Reflecting on Wesch’s Wonder and Big Questions

Consultants at the Schreyer Institute have just returned from the annual conference of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD). One of the speakers at the event was Michael Wesch. He teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University where he studies social media and its effects on society. Dr. Wesch may be familiar…His class’s YouTube video called A Vision of Students Today went viral several years ago.  His talk at this year’s POD conference was one of the most inspiring and hopeful messages I’ve heard in a long while. He talked about our need to instill ‘wonder’ in the ‘Age of Whatever.’ The talk didn’t begin with optimism, but it ended that way.

There were two parts of his message that I think have important implications for faculty in higher education (not to mention for teachers, parents, mentors, etc. everywhere). The first is that we must give students what Wesch called ‘the gift of big questions.’ It’s true that students ask the small ones…Will this information be on the test? How long does the paper have to be? But our job is to get them thinking about the BIG questions, the ones that inspire a quest for knowledge, understanding, and application. The small questions don’t change the world, but the big questions can.

The second big message for me was related to the first but focused more on technology. If we inspire wonder and big questions, then technology becomes an invaluable tool for communicating, information seeking, information sharing, and problem-solving. If we fail in this regard, then technology is essentially just distraction. (Interestingly, the other plenary speaker at the conference was Alex Soojung-Kim Pang who spoke about the Distraction Addiction. His book by this title is due out next year.) When wonder and big questions drive social media interaction then Facebook, for example, becomes a means of social change, not a distraction from learning.

This is not rocket science. It’s not new information. But Wesch’s was a poignant–and for those of us in the room, graphic–reminder of what’s at stake and why it’s important. It was also a hopeful message, if we can inspire in our students a sense of wonder by giving them the gift of big questions, then their thinking and their engagement with technology find purpose. 

How do you Motivate Students to Read?

Members of the Institute are currently working with faculty members from Hotel and Restaurant Management on a research project around reading compliance, trying to better understand the factors that contribute to a student’s decision to read course materials. We’re currently administering a survey on the topic, and finalizing an analysis of past focus group data. Based on the data, as well as prior research in the field, some things you might want to consider to motivate and encourage your students to read course materials:

  • Quizzes – short, regularly scheduled reading quizzes provide motivation for students to read. In some instances, these quizzes might be weekly, and worth a very small number of points. In addition to quizzes, some instructors have success with short reading essays, also worth a small number of points. 
  • In-class discussions – integrate active learning elements, like in-class discussion, into your course. Students felt more compelled to read before class when they knew the instructor might call on a random student to answer a reading-related question. Some students even cited the use of i-clickers in class as a motivating factor when deciding to read.
  • Vary reading assignments – students understood the value of text books, but also appreciated various viewpoints, case studies and other sources of reading materials throughout the semester. Students especially appreciated readings that were current, and also readings that illustrated practical application of content being covered in class or the textbook. 
  • Stress long-term benefits – students often read only with short term benefits in mind, such as grades. Instructors should emphasize the long-term importance of course readings, such as being more knowledgeable, having a deeper understanding of a topic, the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate topics, be better prepared for interviews and the ability to apply a wide range of knowledge to existing challenges.
In addition to things you might want to try to increase reading compliance, the students in our focus groups also identified some instructor behaviors that act as disincentives or demotivators when it comes to course readings. These include:
  • Repeating the book – this was one of the primary reasons students did not read. If an instructor lectures directly from the book, students often decide not to read because they can get the same information in class. 
  • Enthusiasm or interest in the topic – students cited a lack of interest in the content by the instructor as a reason not to read. This might be challenging for some instructors, especially if it’s the 50th time they are teaching the same course. Students will quickly pickup on instructor disinterest in the material, and it might impact their interest as well.
  • Surprise quizzes – this was a tricky point to unpack. Students cited quizzes as a motivating factor, but some flavors of surprise quizzes seemed to demotivate students. For  example, when an instructor ‘threatens’ a pop quiz each week, but never gives one. On the other hand, some students indicated that instructors that give one surprise quiz each week (I know, that doesn’t sound very surprising) acts a motivator to read. To build on this example, it might be that the instructor teaches MWF, and gives a short quiz on one of those days each week based on the readings. 
We hope to learn more about students’ decisions when it comes to course readings through a current survey being administered in various PSU classes. If you happen to teach a course, especially a 100 or 200-level course, and willing to ask your students to participate in the survey, please contact me ( We have the ability to track students that participate if, for instance, you wanted to offer an extra credit point. We plan on analyzing the data and trying to put into practice what we learn at PSU through a variety of Institute workshops and other outreach efforts. 
Feel free to comment below if you have additional strategies you use to motivate your students to read.

Active Learning

I always believe that students learn when they are willing to learn and to take the responsibility of learning. However, it does not mean that the role of the instructor is not important. I think instructors still play an important role in students’ journey of learning. Instead of training students to be passive learners, instructors build an environment where students are eager to learn actively, facilitate students to think and explore, and create opportunities for students to transfer what they learned in class to real life situations.

Here are two articles on key principles and strategies of active learning from Faculty Focus written by Maryellen Weimer. You may want to take a look at these principles and strategies and see if any of them fit in your teaching style and your students’ learning needs.

The articles are here:

Five Key Principles of Active Learning

Active-Learning Ideas for Large Classes: Simple to Complex

What about Learning Styles?

Mary Ellen Weimer had an interesting blog post in Faculty Focus last week. In her post, Challenging the Notion of Learning Styles, she shared some of the recent research that suggests that regardless of the match between mode of instruction and a student’s learning style, performance is the same. Those of us in Educational Psychology have long discounted the notion of learning styles (e.g., including elaborated models of intelligence such as Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory) as having insufficient data to support its assertions.

So what does this mean for instructors? Should we test our students on the first day of class to learn what is their preferred learning style then proceed to twist and contort our every lesson so as to accommodate the visual, the kinesthetic, the auditory, and the every-other-style learner? Certainly not. Should instructors simply teach as they wish, since attending to students’ reported learning styles apparently doesn’t make a difference? Not recommended either. The fact is, it’s not so simple.

Perhaps the answer is in moderation and mix. In Mary Ellen’s summary of the research, she reminds us that, while students may not differ in their learning styles, the students are, nonetheless, different. It seems to me that it’s on the basis of differences that do exist and that do matter that we should consider modifying our instruction. We should alter our instructional approaches when doing so would make a difference for students with different levels of prior knowledge, interest, or  ability (the research, Reiner and Willingham_2010.pdf, says these matter).

Unless we base our pedagogical decisions on characteristics such as these, we risk making our lectures more visual but failing to attend to gaps in prior knowledge. We risk creating elaborate hands-on projects while failing to recognize important disparities in aptitude across the class. We risk altering our instruction in ways that are not comfortable to us and still not successfully motivating the learners in our classes.

The Fun of Learning

Crystal Ramsay and I are collaborating with Assistant Professor Michael Tews in the School of Hospitality Management.  Michael, an energetic and enthusiastic professor, is questioning the impact of fun on students’ learning. While at first glance, this may seem like a trivial topic or perhaps one that is best left to the gaming enthusiasts, I’m finding it a perplexing issue. We have begun by looking deeper at how fun is defined in higher education and we are exploring how to measure it.

As a preliminary step, the three of us each asked a group of students to think about a professor they’ve had in college and to describe three things that he/she did to make the class fun. The class of aerospace students I queried provided a range of responses with hands-on learning, humor, and relating topics to everyday life topping their lists. They also shared some that got me thinking. For example, several mentioned that they found it fun when a professor starts class with a fact trivia or an airplane of the day. Doing something like that gains their attention as suggested by Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. One student noted, “The professor was a likeable person who wants to teach” and that made me wonder why we have professors in our classrooms who don’t want to teach. Several of the students listed they found it fun to be able to set their own learning goals with one student stating it this way, “Classes where the teacher lets you learn the way you want to learn.”  One professor has one a day a week for “gripe day” so that students can voice their agitations with the class or life in general.  Doing so leads to a release of anxiety and with the professor’s coaxing; students get to figure out possible solutions as well as sometimes see the silliness of their dilemmas. 

I find it very telling to listen to students and I’m looking forward to hearing more as we make progress with this study. In the meantime, I am going to get back to the fun of thinking about teaching and learning.

Flipped Classroom

I learned a little bit about the Flipped Classroom when I was working on the Lecture Capture Research Starter Kit. This morning when I was surfing the Web, a blog, Flipping out? What you need to know about the Flipped Classroom, written by Andrea Zellner caught my eye. After reading and browsing more articles and websites about the Flipped Classroom, I feel this is something worth trying and using in the class.

We know that too much teacher-talk is not good for students’ learning and usually make students feel bored and this is why I really like the idea of flipping the whole classroom and homework – Delivering online lectures that students can access outside of class (e.g. home) and moving homework into the classroom. Instead of giving an hours-long lecture in the classroom and making students be passive listeners and learners, the instructor interact with students more and have personalized contact time to facilitate students’ learning based on their specific needs. Because students have watched lectures outside of class at their own pace, they go to class with basic concepts and questions. Students can ask questions and/or involve in discussion to get clarification and be ready to participate in classroom activities to apply what they learned from the online lectures to cases.

Some people concern about the impact of online lectures on students’ attendance, some people think the Flipped Classroom can only be used in limited disciplines, and some people worry that students may not watch online lectures before the class. However, several studies found that the availability of online lectures did not impact on students’ attendance and many students reported that interaction with the instructor and classmates helps their learning. Also, many experienced Flipped Classroom teachers from a variety of disciplines, such as sciences, math, history, and arts, have shared their successful experiences. In addition, we need to remember that students’ learning is not only the instructor’s task, but also the students’ responsibility, so we should help students learn to take their own responsibility of learning.


For more information about Flipped Classroom, here are the article and a website:

Flipping out? What you need to know about the Flipped Classroom

The Flipped Class Network