Teaching Tips

Twice a month, I will post short Teaching Tips written by faculty members from various universities. Please send me your own Teaching Tip for inclusion.

Bonnie Kirkpatrick
Senior Director, Faculty Development & Support

June 11, 2012: Reflection Exercise on a Course’s “Big Question”

by Mary Stephen
Saint Louis University

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain describes how many of the teachers that he studied prepared to teach by devising a “big question,” one that their course would help students address. I use a big question to encourage students to reflect on what they have learned in a course. In the first class meeting of a semester, I present a big question that the course will address and ask the students to write a page or less in which they reflect on the question, and write a response to the question as they would answer it now and indicating what knowledge they used to formulate the answer. This provides me with an understanding of the knowledge base and potential misconceptions that the students bring to the course. At the end of the semester, I ask the students to address the original big question again. I encourage them to revisit their response paper from the first class.

At the time students write the first paper, I indicate that there will be a second part to this assignment, one that will require them to respond to the same question at the end of the semester. I give points for completing this “reflection” assignment, only if both papers have been submitted.

Students use varied approaches when they respond to the question a second time. Some students incorporate comments from the first paper into the second paper, often refuting points made in the first paper with new insights gained through the semester. Other students write the second response and do not look at their earlier response until they have completed the second paper. Still other students start with their first response, and then expand on that first response to create a second response. Regardless of the approach taken, students are much more expansive in the second response than they were on their earlier attempt to answer the question. I have found that having students answer the same big question for the course at the beginning and again at the end of the course serves multiple purposes including encouraging students to reflect on their learning and address misconceptions, while providing a very practical way for me to assess the impact of the course on student learning.

Resource:  Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 1994, Harvard University Press Learning through Reflection: http://tep.uoregon.edu/resources/crmodel/strategies/learning_through_reflection.html

September 16th, 2011: "The One Thing to Do..."

by David Durr
Murray State University

A few semesters ago I was asked to participate in a panel discussion that was targeted at new instructors. Specifically, the goal of the session was to provide new instructors with tools that they might employ in their classroom to enhance the learning experience for the students. The title of the session was "The One Thing I Do…" Experienced teachers on the panel were asked to describe one thing that they consistently do in all of their classes that they think make a difference.

As I tried to narrow the focus, I considered various examples that I could share. I thought about pedagogical approaches and tools. I knew that I could focus on how I bridge the gap between academic theories and real world applications of the concepts. I knew that I could talk about the use of technology to enhance learning. But I kept coming back to the same thing…that one thing…that I consistently do every semester and in virtually every class. It is quite simply really. I learn their names. I find out a little bit of "who they are."

The one thing that is uniquely ours is our name. Students appreciate being "more than a number." Throughout the semester I may find out the hometown of a student. I may ask another about their favorite baseball team. I may ask which teams they think will be in the Super Bowl. I may ask someone what they received for Christmas. In short, I send the message that I find them to be interesting and I appreciate the uniqueness that they add to the class.

I find that students become more engaged. They ask more questions. They make more comments. The communications in the classroom become less "one-sided." The interaction may easily extend beyond the classroom walls. Greeting a student by name at an athletic event, at the cafeteria, at the library, or off campus reinforces the interest and respect that you have for your students.

There were five teaching professionals on the panel. It was quite interesting to note that all of our messages that day centered on creating an atmosphere in which students are comfortable, encouraged, and un-intimidated. As simple as it sounds, we all agreed that one way to help accomplish our classroom goals is to take the time to learn our students' names.

Contributed by:
David Durr
Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology
Murray State University
Murray State, KY

Distributed by:
Nancy Givens
Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, KY