How-To: Orchestrating Active Learning in a Less-Than-Ideal Environment


By Stacy Palen

Somehow or other, classroom architects in the 1960s, 1970s, and as far along as the 2010s did not get the memo that instructors would sometimes want students to work together on projects. It’s a mystery. Even in our two-year-old science building, the lecture halls are set up for presenting to large groups. This is fine, but presents a challenge when I want to have students collaborate.

Often, I’ll put students in groups of two for brief discussion on things such as clicker questions or to work through a worksheet. “Groups” of two are easy to accomplish. But sometimes, we just need more room, either to work in groups of three or four, or to work with “manipulables” like paper moons or large maps.

When this happens, I need an advance plan. Typically, I will need about twice as much space as I have in the seating area of the lecture hall. I’ll look for space in the front or back of the lecture hall, and down the stairs on either side of banks of chairs, and estimate how many groups of 3–4 I can fit in those areas. I will scout out nearby alternative locations for students to work, like a stairwell, outdoor retaining wall, or atrium. Sometimes there are groups of chairs at the end of a hallway, or benches outside the classroom.

At the beginning of class, I’ll spend a few minutes on the typical introduction to the activity and the material, and then I’ll invite the students to spread themselves out to work in the spaces I’ve designated. About a third of them stay in the seating area of the lecture hall, turning backwards and kneeling in their chairs to work with the people behind them. The rest move out into the larger spaces and form into small groups.

I spend the rest of the time walking through those spaces: interrupting groups who’ve gone off track, or who aren’t making progress, gently nudging students to ask better questions and suggesting that student X take a turn holding the paper “Moon.”

It sounds like chaos, but it actually works out very well. One unexpected benefit is that I am harder to find. This means that students must struggle on their own a bit longer before they can ask me for help. Often, that little bit of “extra” time lets them solve their own problem.

I’ve never had a student complain about this, nor have I heard from the professors teaching in neighboring classrooms that it has been in any way disruptive. Sometimes, they just shut their door.

I have, on occasion, had students who are wheelchair users or whose mobility is restricted in some other way, and so I make certain to keep an eye out for any obstacles to group inclusion, physical or otherwise. Most always find a group without issue, but I do keep an eye on the situation, just in case.

Possibly the most common question I get asked about active learning is, “How can I do this in a lecture hall?” Depending on the individual situation, it may be difficult. But take a look around—often you might find you can “rent” a little space outside the confines of the lecture hall for the fun activities you want to do!

How-to: Learning is a Social Phenomenon

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By Stacy Palen

As I mentioned in the last post, David Brooks recently collated several different studies of teaching and learning into an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “Students Learn From People They Love.” Two paragraphs of this article particularly caught my attention; one about brain activity in a group, which I discussed in my last post, and the subject of this week’s post about in-person vs video teaching.

Brooks states in his article:

Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington has shown that the social brain pervades every learning process. She gave infants Chinese lessons. Some infants took face-to-face lessons with a tutor. Their social brain was activated through direct eye contact and such, and they learned Chinese sounds at an amazing clip. Others watched the same lessons through a video screen. They paid rapt attention, but learned nothing.

This study reminded me of a welding course I took last year, in which the welding instructors were testing two different ways to teach welding.

The first method used real-time feedback from a computer/robot setup, which had lights and sounds to let you know when you moved the welding tip too fast or too slow. The second used a more traditional combination of videos and live instruction. I was in the second group.

I found that I could watch the instructor do something once, and then feel competent to try it myself. While my hand-eye coordination needed development, and I couldn’t necessarily make the weld as smoothly as I wanted, I easily remembered the series of steps required.

But if I was learning by video, I had to watch the video multiple times, and once I even had to stop in the middle of a weld to remember how to do what came next (turn a corner, as I recall).

I did not get to participate with the “robot teacher” but heard later that it was not as effective as the live instruction.

Students came to rely on the robot feedback rather than actually training their own eye. They made great welds as long as the robot was there to continuously correct them. But the students did not make the next step to being able to determine on their own that a correction was needed.

That’s interesting, it implies that correction alone will not help a student to identify their mistakes, even in real time; something more is required.

In another recent experience at a “meet the candidate” event for people running for local school board, a member of the public asked me why public education has not taken greater advantage of internet-based learning to keep costs down. His premise was, in my opinion, faulty in two ways.

First, education has taken advantage of the internet more than most fields.

Second, as I stated at the time, if the internet was going to replace teachers, then books would have done so, or television, or DVDs.

But we’ve all had the experience of watching the TV show or the video, and then being completely unable to repeat the task on our own. In fact, there’s a whole new series of “nailed it” shows that poke fun at this very human experience.

Clearly, some things can be learned from watching, and some by reading. But other things need to be learned by doing, and they are learned faster and more effectively with a person who can show you how. Research into learning and neuroscience is beginning to figure out why, and it’s fascinating!

How-to: Learning Relies on Soft Skills


By Stacy Palen

David Brooks recently collated several different studies of teaching and learning into an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “Students Learn From People They Love.” Two paragraphs of this article particularly caught my attention, one about in-person vs video teaching, and one about brain activity in a group. I’ll talk about each one separately, in this and the next post.

In the article, Brooks writes, “Suzanne Dikker of New York University has shown that when classes are going well, the student brain activity synchronizes with the teacher’s brain activity. In good times and bad, good teachers and good students co-regulate each other.”

This one caught my attention because I’m not at all sure what “synchronized brain activity” means. It sounds a little…unscientific.

But when I think about it more, I’m pretty sure I have a guess about what it feels like. I bet you do too.

We’ve all been in a classroom where the professor and the students were all working toward a common purpose, and we felt like the professor knew our questions before we could articulate them. Even hard things seemed approachable, because the professor was keyed in to our confusions. We would work extra-hard to please those teachers, and it paid off with faster and deeper learning.

On the other side of the desk, we’ve all had those students who helped clarify for us the confusion in the classroom. For better or worse, there’s sometimes that one kid who seems to respond to what we are saying just a little bit quicker. And when her eyebrows furrow, we pause and back up and try to explain again.

This sometimes extends to an entire classroom of students. I’ve had back-to-back classes in which the classroom vibe was completely different. In one hour, the group was chatty and involved and asked questions and was prepared each day. And the next hour, it felt like pulling teeth just to get them to actually push a button to answer clicker questions.

But all of this is very “fuzzy,” and that makes us uncomfortable. We would love to have a concrete set of steps to take so that if we want to improve student outcomes by 7.3%, we can simply invoke 20% more clicker questions in the classroom, and the student outcomes would improve accordingly. But if that were true, we would all be teaching perfectly already. It cannot possibly be so formulaic or teaching astronomy would be done by reading the cookbook.

Be reassured by the burgeoning research that learning is a social experience. It’s an interaction and therefore, each teacher-student pair does it differently. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. And what works for you with student X won’t necessarily work with student Y. And even what works with student X for topic A won’t necessarily work for topic B!

This can be frustrating, but it also makes teaching fun and exciting. Teaching is a giant research experiment, where you are always trying something new, to see how it works. Not because there is one right answer, but because there are a hundred right answers, and matching up the method to the topic and the interaction is a subtle art.

The elephant in the room, of course, is evaluation. Brooks points out:

The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is: What is the quality of the emotional relationships here?

And yet think about your own school or organization. Do you have a metric for measuring relationship quality? Do you have teams reviewing relationship quality? Do you know where relationships are good and where they are bad? How many recent ed reform trends have been about relationship-building?

In my experience, the answer to all of these questions is no because it’s really hard to measure these “soft skills,” like relationship building and communication. It’s much easier to measure changes in learning that are made by a change of specific instructional techniques than those that rely on interpersonal relationships between a teacher and their students.

So then the very best answer is to try things, all the time, to find the set of techniques that work best for you in your classroom with your students. And then sit down at the end of term and write down your thoughts for your evaluation file.

Explain what you tried, and why you think it worked or didn’t work, whether you’d try it again, and what you’d change. Your teaching will only benefit from the moment of reflection, and I suspect the committee that evaluates your work will too.

How-To: Confronting Gender Bias in the Sciences

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By Stacy Palen

The article from Nature Ecology & Evolution, How the Entire Scientific Community Can Confront Gender Bias in the Workplace, came across my screen recently, and it occurred to me that many astronomy professors might not see it…

I find that while evidence of gender bias is well-documented, approaches to changing that bias are harder to come by. Near the end, this article provides some scientifically-minded suggestions for tackling the gender bias problem that we may all find helpful. It’s important to note that this article is coming from the biological sciences, which statistically have a smaller gender bias problem than the physical sciences.

As I read the piece, I was reminded of a particularly formative interaction I had as a young scientist. When I interviewed at graduate schools, I talked to lots of professors of both physics and astronomy, since I hadn’t yet decided how I would specialize.

As an undergraduate, I had taken one subpar introductory astronomy course which didn’t make the field seem very appealing—the class primarily focused on memorizing which stars were in which constellations that were visible at what times of the year. (There was also a lot of talk about epicycles, which took me nearly two years to eradicate from my brain, in order to make room for ellipses.) So astronomy was on my radar, but only peripherally. At the time, it seemed to me that something closer to industry might be a wiser choice.

During a visit, one professor made an off-hand comment that would alter the trajectory of my life: “Of course,” he said, “there are lots of women heroes in astronomy…” And that was it. In that moment, I decided I wanted to find out more about those women heroes, and the obvious way to do that was to specialize in astronomy and astrophysics.

Go figure. Sometimes the smallest, most insignificant interactions can change a life…

I’m positive that this professor doesn’t remember the interaction. I know this because I later asked if he remembered my visit (for another reason), and he didn’t recall it. I don’t blame him—I too have had former students say to me, “You said this one thing, one time, that changed my life…” and had absolutely no recollection of it. It’s difficult to know how our most off-hand interactions affect other people.

Lately, I’ve been trying an experiment in which I include more women and minority scientists in my classes but do NOT make a big deal of pointing them out; instead, I just mention them casually, as though it happens all the time. I’m interested to see how this affects my students in the future.

I'll have the luxury of interacting with some of these students again in later years, both in other classes in the department and across campus. And I’ll probably devise some sneaky way of asking a question on a homework or exam to find out if they noticed. I’ll let you know how it goes…

How-to: Making Them Read

Using Trade Books in an Introductory Physics Course

By Colin Inglefield

I regularly teach PHYS 1010: Elementary Physics, at Weber State University. I didn’t choose the course name; at your school, it might also be called Conceptual Physics or Descriptive Physics. Regardless, it is a physics course with no math prerequisite (and therefore very little math content), primarily taken by students to fulfill a General Education breadth requirement.

There are challenges for the instructor. Some students have profound difficulty with proportional reasoning. Others sign up for the course after taking an Advanced Placement calculus-based physics course in high school, specifically because they are looking for an easy course.

The standard texts are approachable and conversational but might also seem patronizing—at least they do to me. Typically, there are between 90 and 100 students in my course. What to do?

I want the course to provide a meaningful experience for all students, while being faithful to the catalog description and General Education mission by presenting a survey of topics in physics and physical science.

I’ve made my course reading-intensive, because I believe in the transformative power of reading in any discipline. To get an A in my course, students have to, among other requirements, read two trade books.

The first trade book is something I choose for the whole class to read together. Most commonly, I’ve used American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherman. It’s an excellent book, a Pulitzer Prize winner that I recommend to anyone. It’s also a 600-page (not counting notes and references) serious work, arguably the most scholarly biography of Oppenheimer to date.

It’s not a book a lot of my students would choose on their own. It includes many physics topics we talk about in the class and is a great springboard for discussing issues of science-and-society in the 20th century.

We read it in sections and take one day every other week from class as “book club day” to discuss a section of the book. Before we discuss the book, students take a short-answer reading quiz. If they don’t pass the reading quiz, they can come meet with me and, by discussing the book with me, convince me that they’ve done the reading.

The only real requirement is that they read the book.

In the in-class discussions, a different group of students participates enthusiastically as compared to a “regular” day of class. The discussions have been some of my most memorable days in the classroom in my 20-year career.

Once the students get over the “Yes, we are going to read this whole thing” on the first day of class, a surprising number enjoy it and I get more positive than negative comments on my evaluations about the reading.

I had one student tell me that she started reading again because of my class.

Beyond the book we read together, in order to get an A, students need to read another trade book from a list of ~10 that I provide.

Here is the list of books that my students currently have to choose from:

  • Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
  • Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World by Eugenie Samuel Reich
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
  • The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo
  • The Sky is not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  • Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson
  • The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars by Christopher Cokinos
  • The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

Selections cover a variety of the people and issues from science in the last century and include a diverse group of authors and subjects. I break the class up into smaller groups for a separate book club discussion for each book in the last week of class.

Grades in my class are based on reaching benchmarks in various categories.

To get an A, a student needs to average 75% or better on my (physics) quizzes and tests and read both of the trade books. They get a B, but no better, if they don’t read the second book. They can’t do better than a C without doing the reading.

This all makes for a reasonable balance between making every student do something significant and giving every student a reasonable chance for a good grade.

The reading-intensive General Education science course has been as successful as anything I’ve tried in the classroom, in my obviously biased opinion. I love to talk about it with my colleagues.

Have you tried something similar with your students? Let us know in the comments!

How-to: Using Collective Marks

By Stacy Palen

In the last two posts, I explained what a rubric is and why they are useful. In the prior blog post, I explained how I use the first part of the rubric to guide me as I assess content knowledge in each question. In this post, I will explain how I use “collective marks” that apply to the whole assignment.

I first heard of collective marks in the sport of dressage. In this sport, the horse and rider complete a test consisting of 25-40 movements, which are each scored individually against a rigid standard of perfection. At the end of the test, the horse/rider pair are scored on four different and more subjective standards, such as “effectiveness of the rider” and “harmony.”

These collective marks might be loosely summarized as “sure, it was technically perfect, but did they make it look easy?”

I use collective marks for all the things that I care about that are not technically astronomy, such as spelling and grammar. But I also include here other features of the assignment that may appear in question after question, like units or neatness or labels on graphs.

It is tedious and time-consuming to keep writing “units” or “complete sentences” after every question. Grading these items collectively allows me to focus on the content in my first pass through the assignment. Then, I leaf through the pages again to recall my general impression of the “beauty” of their performance. I scale the collective marks to be worth about 10% of the student’s grade on the assignment.

For example, if the assignments are all worth 100 points:

For each assignment, 10 of the points will come from the “collective marks,” determined by the neatness, clarity, and other aspects of the work that are taken as a whole.

10: Excellent: You remembered to use units on every measurement or calculation. The assignment is neat and easy to read, with correct spelling and grammar and complete sentences! All mathematical steps are included, and all the graphs and tables have labels, with units! You are a rock star!

9: Very good: There are one or two minor flaws of spelling or grammar. However, all of the numbers have units.

8: Good: There are three or four minor flaws. I could find all of your work, but it was disorganized and a bit sloppy.

7: Fairly good: There is a major flaw (forgetting units or a label) or a combination of 5 or 6 minor flaws.

6: Satisfactory: There is a major flaw and several minor flaws.

5: Marginal: There are two major flaws and several minor flaws; I could barely read your writing.

4: Insufficient: There are several major flaws; I could not read your writing on many of the answers or had to hunt through your papers for the answers.

3: Fairly Bad: I could not find some of the answers, and the work is very sloppy. There are major and minor flaws. Please visit the writing center for a reminder on spelling, grammar, and sentence construction.

2: Bad: I couldn’t read your writing, and the spelling and grammar were poor. The work is sloppy, but it appears that you attempted every question in the assignment.

1: Very bad: You have made no effort to show respect for your own work, or for the time your professor will require to grade it.

0: Not performed

Giving collective marks takes very little time, once I’ve graded the content.

Depending on how many students I have (and how far behind I am in my grading!), I may circle the flaws (such as spelling errors) on their assignment. But I don’t stress about making sure to catch every flaw or giving a correction. I just make a circle and move on.

Before I started using collective marks, I felt conflicted about grading for things like spelling. It seemed wrong to just ignore bad spelling or messy papers, but at the same time, I didn’t feel I had adequate time to correct every student’s grammar.

Collective marks let me do that in a way that lets students know I care, and I notice, but then puts the student back in the position of learning how they should have spelled “gallactic.”

I also find that collective marks reward the students who take the time to carefully write out their assignments, check their spelling, or make careful drawings. I have been known, on rare occasions, to give 11/10 for collective marks, because a student shows such diligent care.

Using collective marks saves me time, makes my grading more consistent, and rewards students who are careful and thoughtful in their work.

Give them a try and let me know how it goes!

How-to: Using Grading Rubrics

By Stacy Palen

There is a tension for every professor between giving detailed feedback and keeping up with the workload. I suppose it’s possible that there is a “unicorn” professor out there somewhere who never struggles with this, but I haven’t met them!

Using a rubric can be helpful, because a rubric can add clarity to your expectations and cut down on the grading workload.

A rubric is a written explanation of your expectations for an assignment. Rubrics are most commonly applied to large projects or presentations, but they can be just as useful for the weekly homework assignment or in-class activity.

Using a rubric means that both you and the student are on the same page about what’s required. In science, we often consider our assignments to be quantitative and objective, so that the grading is likewise quantitative and objective.

But students may not see it that way; even if the assignment is quantitative, students may not know what makes a proper quantitative answer. Are you a professor who cares about complete sentences and units and showing all the work? Or do you only care about the answer?

It’s a fair point that students have questions about this, especially in an introductory course where they are not “plugged in” to the culture of your specific Department.

I typically post the rubrics for assignments on the LMS or course website, and also in the syllabus. Then when students ask me questions about why they lost points on an assignment, I’ll refer them to the rubric.

In some semesters, I have printed out the rubric for the first assignment, writing directly on it, so that students could see how the rubric was applied. That’s probably a good idea, but I’m not always able to get it done.

The level of detail included in the rubric depends on the assignment. For example, I will have different rubrics for short-answer homework questions than for in-class lab activities.

Exams, which in my class involve drawing pictures, writing paragraphs and solving puzzles, do not fit so neatly into a rubric category. But I find that by the time I reach the midterm, the students already have an idea of my expectations.

I have colleagues who have written holistic rubrics for their entire course. That is, they have written down in clear terms what an “A”, “B,” or “C” in this course means. For example, a “B” may mean that the student has completed 14 of 15 homework assignments with a grade of 80% or better, plus two exams with a grade of 75% or better, plus read and commented on two articles in the course discussion board. An “A” might mean both higher scores AND more articles read.

Some professors have gone so far as to then turn that rubric into a “contract” with the student, where the student can state up front at the beginning of the course that they intend to aim for a “C.” They often do.

I divide my grading rubrics into two parts: a part that is applied separately to each question, and “collective marks” that apply to the whole assignment. In the next two blog posts, I will explain how I use rubrics to grade for content knowledge, and how I use them to grade for “meta” qualities that span multiple parts of the assignment. I will also explain how I use rubrics to cut down on my grading workload.

There are endless other examples of rubrics and how to use them on the internet. Many of them come from K-12 teachers, who frequently use rubrics in their grading. Your students may be more familiar with the concept than you are!

Stay tuned for Part 2, “How-to: Grading Content” next Friday.

How-to: Patience, Growth Mindset, and Mathematics

By Stacy Palen.

I have a TON of math-phobic students in my classes. I teach at an open-enrollment university, where the majority of students test into Developmental Math. Many of these students have such poor math skills that they are enrolled in Math 0950, which begins with counting and the number line and culminates with percentages.

We have no structure here to make sure that these students pass their quantitative literacy classes before they take astronomy.

I feel quite strongly that everyone can do basic math. More importantly, everyone should. If their numeracy does not improve, these students will be taken advantage of by banks and credit card companies and salespeople and loan officers with every major (or not so major) purchase, all the rest of their lives.

I can make an argument that is compelling to myself that the financial crash of 2008 was caused in large part by people who did not understand how to calculate mortgage payments. So the lack of numeracy in the population has larger implications than just whether they score well on an astronomy exam.

Because I don’t want to send the students out the door like lambs to the slaughter, but I simultaneously don’t want them to hate me, I’m always on the lookout for tips and tricks about learning things that are hard.

Ages ago, I learned about the “growth mindset.” That’s the idea that success comes from working hard at things, rather than innate talent.

Focusing on growth mindset turns out to be particularly useful for underrepresented groups, who for better or worse don’t see the talent route as available to them. People in underrepresented groups often internalize this. They think: if people “like them” were “naturally good” at x, more people like them would do x.

When you want to encourage students, it’s hard to think of a quick motto that encapsulates all this. And it’s not always obvious how to make use of the idea that maybe students just need more practice to feel proficient.

This is why I recently took note of this article in the New York Times, about learning patience.

The author of the article makes the point that “patience, the ability to keep calm in the face of disappointment, distress or suffering, is worth cultivating.”

I could instantly see how a more patient person would do better with mathematics than a less patient person, especially if they had learned to fear math. There’s a lot in the article about how to interrupt the function of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that stimulates that frantic, impatient reaction to everyday frustrations like slow-moving cashiers or slow-loading web pages. Or calculator malfunction. Or algebra. It’s worth a read.

But the thing that caught my eye was this motto: “Train, don’t try.”

Mathematics is not a matter of sheer willpower: just trying harder will not make you numerate! Instead, students need to systematically practice problems of gradually increasing difficulty -- repeating as necessary -- until their ability grows and develops, just like a muscle would.

This is why I insist that they do math in my class, and it’s why I start them doing it during lab time when I (and their peers) can give them pointers on their technique and their methods.

So I’m going to try the experiment of explicitly pointing out the connection between developing patience and developing math skill. And I will encourage my students to “Train, don’t try.”

I bet I will have to try it more than once to get it right.

How-to: The Last Choice, A Questioning Strategy for Your Astro 101 Lecture

By Stacy Palen.

Often, in-class questions are presented as a binary choice: “Does the star grow, or does it shrink?”

I always couch these as, “How many of you think the star grows?" Wait for hands. "How many of you think it shrinks?" Wait for hands. "How many people think that 9:30 in the morning is an unfair time to ask that question?" (Wait for hands.)

The last choice, though it may seem frivolous, is really important.

I try to make these last choices light-hearted and a little bit funny. For example:

  • “How many of you were asleep just now?”
  • “How many of you were thinking about lunch?”
  • “How many of you were thinking about puppies instead?”
  • “How many of you wish we would just get to black holes already, and stop talking about nuclear fusion?”

You get the idea. The light humor helps them stay focused and makes it clear that I expect them to put up their hand for every question at some point, even if it’s the silly last choice. I expect them all to participate, every time.

The last choices -- and the way students react, by laughing or groaning, for example -- help me figure out where they are in their heads.  Do I have their attention? Are they feeling confident to take a risk and make a guess? Are they actually listening to me at all? Were they really thinking about puppies?

I often don’t interpret that response in the moment. After class, while I’m walking back to my office and putting my notes away, I’ll think about what was happening in the classroom right at that time when I asked the last question.

Was there a better way to explain before I asked the question? Had I been talking too many minutes in a row? And so on. I might make a note in my lecture notes about a sticky concept, or an analogy that worked particularly well. This reflection afterwards helps me improve for next time.

Most importantly, the last choice gives students an “out.” It is an acknowledgement on my part that they might not know the answer, and that’s OK. I expect them to go ahead and guess sometimes! Giving the last choice makes it clear the question is not a referendum on how smart they are. I am genuinely asking the question because I am trying to figure out what they have understood so that I can help them.

Really, that’s what the last choice question is all about: it’s a less intimidating way for them to say, “I don’t know.”

The last choice helps students to stay focused because they know there will be a moment when they can answer honestly, and often it will come with a laugh.

A closing note on classroom technology: Sometimes I use “clickers." Sometimes I use a piece of paper divided in 4, with A, B, C, D written on each square; students fold the paper to show me the letter of their answer. Sometimes I just have them put up their hands, because the question is an extemporaneous one that just happened naturally in the course of my lecture. In this post, I talk about the questioning strategy as though it applies to extemporaneous questions. But of course, you could use this strategy for a planned questions, too.

How-to: A Day One Strategy for Improving Classroom Engagement

By Stacy Palen.

We often wish that students were more engaged in class. Sometimes we complain that students won’t ask questions, or that they won’t answer the ones we ask.

This is a training problem: we have to train students to know what our expectations are. Think of it this way: expectations are different in every classroom. In some classrooms, especially large ones, students are expected to sit passively and quietly, taking notes, watching videos, or just letting the professor “get through” the material. In some classrooms, students are expected to “discuss.” In others, they are expected to “do.”

How does a student know which kind of classroom they are in? On day one, you can make your expectations clear to students, but it may require allowing yourself to be pretty uncomfortable on that first day! 

First, tell students that you expect them to contribute during class. Then, give them an immediate opportunity to do so! Ask your students what they want to learn in the class, and then stop talking.

Let them tell you. Make a list on the board or screen, where you faithfully show that you hear their contributions. This is not the time to say, “Well, we aren’t really going to talk about constellations.” This is the time to say, “Constellations. Good.” And write that down and then say, “What else?”

This lets students know that you are not looking for a “right” answer. You are taking their input seriously, even if it’s “aliens.” It takes courage for students to speak up in front of their peers and risk being wrong. They need help with that.

Second, tell them that you expect them to answer questions. Then, give them an immediate opportunity to do so! Ask a question that has no “wrong” answer. For example, ask about a recent astronomical event. At the moment, the solar eclipse is a good one.

“How many of you heard about the solar eclipse?” Hands will go up.

“How many of you witnessed it?” Hands will go up.

Ask those students to share their experience with the group. Then ask a question that clearly has a “right” answer: what causes a solar eclipse? WAIT, for a long time if necessary.


For a long time.

I sing “Happy Birthday” to myself to force myself to wait long enough for students to know that they have to take responsibility for answering the question. Sometimes, I even tell them this is what I’m doing--they think it’s hilarious.

Often, in the first few days, as I wait, a student will speak up and say, “Wait. What was the question?” That's because their attention drifted away. They did not know that I was expecting them to stay focused and answer questions--because they didn’t know what kind of classroom they were in.

WAITING is particularly important in the first few days of class. It’s how you show that you actually expect your students to respond to you, unlike those other professors who ask rhetorical questions. Wait. Every single time. How will students know it’s not a rhetorical question, unless you prove it to them by waiting, even though it makes you uncomfortable?

That’s enough for you to try to keep track of on the first day! Try it out and let me know how it goes in comments below.