Feed on

Checking student understanding is essential for effective teaching. Do your students have preconceived notions of a topic? Are they following your lecture? Do they understand the connection between this topic and your course goals? There are many ways to evaluate student understanding (through assignments, projects, or exams), but I encourage you to check student understanding during the learning process.

A great, quick way to check comprehension is to poll your students. Below I have compiled a list of tried and true polling techniques.



1. Show of Hands

You don’t need fancy technology to get instant feedback in class. A simple “Raise your hand if you have heard of this concept before” or “Raise your hand if you agree with this statement” can go a long way.


Advantage(s): no preparation, no cost

Disadvantage(s): not anonymous, binary response (yes/no, true/false)


2. Student Response Cards

This is such an easy, brilliant system for multiple responses. At the beginning of the semester, hand out colored post-it notes or labeled index cards to each student. During class, pose a multiple choice question and assign each answer a color. Students then simultaneously raise their response cards and you immediately have a pulse of the class.


Advantage(s): minimal preparation, multiple-choice

Disadvantage(s): not anonymous


3. Poll Everywhere

Poll Everywhere is a web-based response system. You create questions online (multiple choice, open response, live word clouds, clickable images, up- and down-voting for Q&A, and rank order) and students respond by visiting a website or texting a number on their phones.


Advantage(s): multiple question/response types, can be anonymous, results updated live, can integrate into PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides

Disadvantage(s): students need phone access, free version capacity is 25 responses (contact Kevin Abbott if you would like to implement Poll Everywhere in a larger class)


4. Kahoot

Looking to liven up the classroom? Kahoot is a game-based learning platform that turns concept quizzes into a competition. With music, points, and rankings, Kahoot is ideal for social learning or review questions.


Advantage(s): game-like features haven proven popular among students

Disadvantage(s): with emphasis placed on answering quickly and winning, kahoot is not ideal for higher-level thinking or collaboration


5. Plickers

Originally created for K-12 teachers, Plickers is unique because it combines student response cards with technology. At the beginning of the semester, each student is given a unique Plickers card (with a machine-scannable image that looks like a QR code). Each side of the square card corresponds to a letter A, B, C, or D. When prompted, students hold up and rotate the card to put their chosen answer on top. The instructor then uses the Plickers app on a mobile device to scan the room and compile the responses.


Advantage(s): great for polling in classrooms where students don’t have personal devices, inclusive, free

Disadvantage(s): lost or mixed up cards, limited to multiple choice responses



Done well, polling students during class can increase student engagement and comprehension. If you would like more information about polling (effectiveness, examples of questions and teaching activities, how to get started, etc.), see the additional resources below.



Additional Resources:

  1. Other Student Response Systems
  2. Getting Started with Poll Everywhere
  3. Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments
  4. Multiple-Choice Questions You Wouldn’t Put on a Test: Promoting Deep Learning Using Clickers









As we leave fall break and Daylight Savings Time behind, and look forward to Thanksgiving break and the end of the year, you may find that your students’ motivation is flagging. This is a good time to take stock of the plans you have for the remainder of your course and to think about ways to keep students engaged and inspired through the end of the semester.

Motivation is a complex phenomenon, but psychologists have broken it down into broad two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In education, extrinsic motivators include external rewards like grades and are related to the expectations of instructors, peers, and parents. Intrinsic motivators, by contrast, are related to the student’s own expectations and may include things like interest in the subject matter or a sense that what students are studying is relevant to their lives. Our classes are full of, and necessarily organized around, extrinsic motivators. But fostering intrinsic motivation is a key part of helping students reach their full potential.

One good way to increase intrinsic motivation is to promote student autonomy. When students feel ownership over their learning and a sense of empowerment in the classroom, they not only perform better on assigned tasks but also leave the course with a greater sense of satisfaction and a good deal of knowledge that will stick with them long past the final exam.

So, how can you increase students’ autonomy in your classes? One way is to treat students as active collaborators in the production of knowledge rather than passive receivers of it. Encourage students to see themselves as developing experts by asking them to explain concepts; engaging them in problem-solving or inquiry-based activities; encouraging multiple opinions and approaches; and allowing them to generate their own discussion questions or to take control of class conversation in some way.

You can also promote student autonomy by giving students meaningful control over the learning process. Consider your activities and assignments for the remainder of the semester: is there any way to incorporate student choice (within reasonable parameters) into those assignments or activities without making major changes? For example, you might let students choose their own topic for a final project, perhaps working from a list of approved topics you compile. You could likewise involve the students in creating the assessment criteria for such an assignment. You might also let students choose the topic of discussion, or the means by which that discussion is conducted, for one or two class days. Allowing your students to make these kinds of choices can increase both their investment in the course and their motivation to finish the semester strong.

Finally, you can help foster student autonomy by avoiding or deemphasizing external rewards and punishments. While extrinsic motivators have their place, psychological studies have shown that offering extrinsic rewards can actually decrease people’s intrinsic motivation. A key part of developing student autonomy is helping your students see the value not in the rewards system of the class but in the subject matter itself. Giving students the freedom and the tools to interest themselves in course content is one good way to beat the mid-semester slump.


Further Reading

Crone, I. & MacKay, C. (2007). Motivating today’s college students. Peer Review 9.

Garcia, Teresa & Pintrich, Paul R. (1996). The effects of autonomy on motivation and performance in the college classroom. Contemporary Educational Psychology 21, 477-486.

Gorham, J. & Millette, D.M. (1997). A Comparative Analysis of Teacher and Student Perceptions of Sources of Motivation and Demotivation in College Classes. Communication Education 46, 245- 61.

Lowman, J. (1990). Promoting motivation and learning. College Teaching 38, 136-140.

Motivating Students, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Niemiec, Christopher P. and Ryan, Richard M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education 7, 133-144.

Stefanou, Candice R., Perecevich, Kathleen C., DiCintio, Matthew, & Turner, Julianne C. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision-making and ownership. Educational Psychologist 39, 97-110.


Kaneb Center Resources

Fostering Student Motivation Through Instruction

Motivation and Learning

Keeping Students Motivated

Research on flipped-learning – the concept where first exposure to new material is done outside of class while applied learning activities and higher-order thinking is conducted in class – is expanding at an incredible pace. The goal of this post is to give a qualitative overview of  what the current literature does and does not say about flipped learning. Much of this work will reference studies and literature reviews conducted by Robert Talbert at Grand Valley State University, a prominent scholar in the field [1,2] (also see Refs. [3] and [4] for more in-depth definitions of flipped learning). 

Flipped-learning research has grown by approximately 60% each year since 2012 [2]. Most of it is conducted by faculty members who are using flipped learning in their own teaching, which means that the research is never far removed from the actual classroom experience. However, it also means that the authors are often not specialized in educational research and that the scope of the research is usually limited. In addition, the success of the techniques is often determined by course/exam grades, which are not necessarily the best metrics of learning. The other common measure is student surveys designed by the researchers for a particular study. More use of validated survey instruments would be better, more consistent, metrics to implement moving forward.

So, what does the literature say? In general, students in flipped-learning environments achieve higher scores than students in traditional settings, or else the differences are not statistically significant. These two outcomes seem to be about equally as common. Only rarely do you see students in flipped learning environments perform significantly worse. One of the most consistent results in the literature is that flipped learning is strongly correlated with improved class-meeting attendance; however, data on whether students actually partake in the pre-class activities are mixed and vary widely. The literature also indicates that students tend to show higher satisfaction with flipped learning compared to traditional methods; however, these positive views only tend to sink in over time. Frequent and transparent communication with students seems to be critical with regards to this topic.

The literature, or lack of literature, does not indicate any significant effect of: whether the course being flipped is introductory vs. advanced, whether the course is undergraduate vs. graduate, whether the number of students is small vs. large, whether all of the course is flipped vs. only part of it, or whether videos are used vs. not.

As the use of, and research regarding flipped learning continues to grow, many of these questions will inevitably be answered to a fuller degree. This means that the literature on the subject up to this point should certainly not be viewed as conclusive. However, this short article serves as a convenient recap for those thinking about implementing such techniques in the semesters to come.


[1] Talbert, R. (2017). Flipped Learning : a Guide for Higher Education Faculty. Sterling, Virginia : Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2017.

[2] Talbert, R. (2018). What Does the Research Say About Flipped Learning. http://rtalbert.org/what-does-the-research-say/

[3] O’Flaherty, J., & Phillips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. Internet and Higher Education, 25, 85–95.

[4] Bishop, J., & Verleger, M. (2013). The Flipped Classroom : A Survey of the Research. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, 6219.

Submitted by:

Carson Running

Ph.D. Candidate, Aerospace Engineering

University of Notre Dame

Last month, in the first installment of this series, we considered two reasons to teach controversial topic and three frameworks with which to do so. This month we will focus on how instructors can develop a classroom environment conducive to productive engagement with controversial issues. This post will address how to create the appropriate classroom environment and how to prepare to draft ground rules for engagement with controversial topics. 


Creating an Environment

An instructor plays a significant role in determining how conducive a classroom environment is to productive engagement with controversial topics. Some of the ways to create a good environment for productive disagreement include:  

  • Establish rapport with students by finding ways to demonstrate that you care about them.
  • Use discussion beginning on the first day, so students will be comfortable speaking in class. (Or, take the time to explain why you are using discussion for this topic.)
  • Expose students (via readings or discussion questions) to a variety of perspectives on an issue to prepare them for the conversation. 


Clearing the Ground for Ground Rules

Ground rules (or guidelines) for engaging with controversial topics are an important way to create shared expectations and norms, which can be a lifeline in difficult contexts. That said, guidelines don’t work well in a vacuum. Instructors need to set the stage for them to maximize their effectiveness. To help students understand the context for ground rules, instructors should clarify the following for their students:

  • What types of learning interactions will be common in this class?
  • Why do we use these types of learning interactions? 
    • For example, in the book Discussion as a Way of Teaching, Brookfield and Preskill identify four purposes of discussion:
      1. “to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration”
      2. “to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique” 
      3. “to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly”
      4. “to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world.” (pg. 6)
  • What goals of the course ought to inform your ground rules?
    • Are you equipping students to enter a particular profession or context?
  • What are the limits of ground rules?
    • Have a conversation about guidelines will not preemptively remove all of the challenges of engaging with controversial topics. 

Implementing these strategies will go a long way toward creating a classroom environment conducive to engaging with controversial issues. Next month, we’ll explore some tips for drafting ground rules for that engagement.


Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Hoboken: Wiley, 2012.

 “Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines.

“Teaching Controversial Issues.” Center for Teaching Excellence. Duquense University. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning/teaching-controversial-topics.



As we reach the midpoint of the semester, where tests are as numerous to the students as the falling leaves, it is fitting to look back to October 1924 and the eloquent words of Grantland Rice…Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are… Quizzes, Exams, Midterms, and Finals. Ok, maybe these Four Horsemen of Assessment are not as daunting as Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden were on the football field that Saturday, but your students may feel equally overmatched, unnerved and bowled over during tests if your question design is not following the game plan for quality assessment. Students should be tested in a fair but challenging manner, which means instructors must take great care in composing multiple choice questions. Engaging student brains with well-designed questions will validly determine whether they have learned and retained the targeted skills and information to meet your course objectives. 

Let’s review some general, but important, considerations when developing quality multiple choice items.

Stem and Options

After first drafting the stem (positively-worded) and correct answer (which together makes a complete and correct sentence), 3-5 distractor options should be created that are: 

  • Plausible enough to be chosen and possibly be argued as correct
  • True statements that don’t answer the question
  • Reflective of common student errors, assumptions or misconceptions
  • Familiar, yet incorrect, words or phrases
  • Reasonably likely to be chosen by those who don’t fully know the material

Visual, Verbal, Grammatical and Logical Cues

Review your answer, considering cues students may use to identify the answer, as these defeat the goal of the instructor to engage the type of thinking, learning, and feedback needed to by students to understand and connect the material to learning objectives. Cues may include: 

  • Grammar structure that is not consistent with the stem sentence.
  • One distractor that is much longer than others (“too long to be wrong”)
  • A single option that contains all the other options
  • An option with a vague word or phrase like “usually,” “typically” or “may be”
  • Two options with the same meaning
  • One option in textbook/lecture language (correct), others in everyday language

Other Common Mistakes or Answer Identifiers

Finally, it is equally advisable to be aware of some common mistakes/issues when creating your multiple choice items. These elements can add confusion or vagueness to your item so avoid using:

  • Negative wording of the stem (Which of the following is NOT…)
  • Microscopically-fine distinctions between options (unless absolutely necessary)
  • An option that is humorous, funny or cute
  • Options that include All or None of the above, All, Always, or Never
  • Stems that seek to find the exception in a list of correct options  (All of the following are signs of XYZ except)
  • One option combines to other options (Both A & B)



Rice, Grantland “The Four Horsemen”. New York Herald Tribune, 18 October 1924. Retrieved from http://archives.nd.edu/research/texts/rice.htm October 11, 2019.

Hubert, Dan (2019). Creating Effective Multiple Choice Questions. University of Notre Dame. Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning Workshop, September 25, 2019.


As we near fall break, you may find that your grading is piling up quickly, and if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how to keep it from taking over your life. What follows are some concrete strategies to make grading more efficient, without sacrificing the quality of feedback you give on student work.

Add grading to your calendar. For major assignments, set aside blocks of time for grading in your daily schedule. Try to work for an hour or two at a time to avoid burnout and to keep your grading consistent. 

Set a timer. Time can really get away from you while you’re grading. Setting a timer for each paper, lab report, or project (and sticking to the time you’ve set!) can help ensure you give concise feedback on the most important points and finish grading in a timely manner.

Use a rubric. Rubrics with clearly defined expectations not only help students craft better assignments but also help instructors focus their evaluation. Consider designing rubrics that you can mark up and return to students with their grades. In addition to minimizing the amount of time you spend writing out comments, this method can also promote more consistent grading, saving time in the long run. 

Use a comment bank. If you find students are consistently making the same kind or error or struggling in similar ways, craft a general comment that addresses your concerns and can be slightly modified for different students and situations. Save this comment, and others, in a document that you can draw on when grading future assignments. 

Focus feedback by considering assignment goals. Remember that addressing every concern in every student assignment is impossible. Limit the kind of feedback you give to the concerns the assignment is designed to address and the topics you’ve covered in previous classes. 

Offer verbal rather than written feedback. Sometimes speaking to students about their work can be quicker and easier than writing out your comments. Consider meeting individually with students to offer feedback or even recording verbal comments to distribute digitally.

And remember: past a certain point, the amount of time you spend crafting feedback for students has diminishing returns. Students can feel overwhelmed or discouraged by too many comments, so devoting an inordinate amount of time to grading is not only exhausting but also, in many cases, counterproductive. Developing a toolbox for targeted and efficient grading can improve the experience of the course both for you and your students.  


Additional Resources
Natascha Chtena, “Grading Faster and Smarter,” Inside Higher Ed
Kevin Gannon, “How to Escape Grading Jail,” The Chronicle of Higher Education
Victoria Smith and Stephanie Maher Palenque, “Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading,” Faculty Focus
Tips on Grading Efficiently,” Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center, Berkeley Graduate Division

“If your goal is to engage students in critical thinking… you need to present interesting challenges to solve, rather than simply explaining how other smart people have already solved those challenges.” – Therese Huston

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) are both student-centered teaching pedagogies that encourage active learning and critical thinking through investigation. Both methods offer students interesting problems to consider. And research shows that both PBL and IBL are effective models of learning. 

So, what’s the difference between the two?


According to Banchi and Bell [4], there are four different levels of inquiry.

  1. Confirmation Inquiry: Students confirm a principle through an activity when the results are known in advance.
  2. Structured Inquiry: Students investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure. 
  3. Guided Inquiry: Students investigate a teacher-presented question using student designed or selected procedures.
  4. Open Inquiry: Students investigate questions that are student formulated through student designed or selected procedures.

Most academics define Inquiry-Based-Learning as a pedagogy that is based on one of these levels. So IBL can be as methodical as guiding students through a procedure to discover a known result or as free-form as encouraging students to formulate original questions. For example, in a Physics laboratory, suppose the topic is Newton’s Second Law of Motion. The lab instructions could define a procedure to record the mass and impact force of various objects. Multiplying the mass by the acceleration due to gravity, the students should recover the force they recorded, thus confirming Newton’s Second Law.


Problem-Based-Learning can be classified as guided inquiry where the teacher-presented question is an unsolved, real-world problem. For example, in a Middle Eastern Studies course, the main problem posed by the instructor could be “Propose a solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.” This question will motivate the study of the history of the region, the theological differences between Judaism and Islam, and current events. At the end of the semester, students would be expected to present and justify their solution. 

Therefore, using the definition above, PBL is a type of IBL.


PBL is great because it motivates course content and maximizes learning via investigation, explanation, and resolution of real and meaningful problems. At any level, inquiry can be an effective method of learning because it is student-centered and encourages the development of practical skills and higher-level thinking. 

As you plan for your next class, I invite you to reflect on your method of content delivery. Is it motivated? How? Would your students benefit from a day based on inquiry?



  1. Inquiry Based Learning. University of Notre Dame Notes on Teaching and Learning. https://sites.nd.edu/kaneb/2014/11/10/inquiry-based-learning/.
  2. Problem-Based Learning. Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/engaging-students/problem-based-learning.
  3. Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E.; Duncan, Ravit Golan; Chinn, Clark A. (2007). “Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)”. Educational Psychologist. 42 (2): 99–107. doi:10.1080/00461520701263368.
  4. Banchi, H., & Bell R. (2008). The many levels of inquiry. Science and Children.


Now that we’re four weeks into the semester, you may be wondering: how can you effectively help students who are struggling to keep up in your course? This issue can be broadly categorized into two major components: (1) identifying at-risk students (ideally early in the semester), and (2) intervening with those students to increase their academic performance. The former is a fairly established area of research [1,2,3,4], while the latter is an emerging topic. There is not much research, however, that attempts to combine the two and close the learning analytics loop [5].

Recent work conducted at the University of Notre Dame has been shown to boost student success, by using an integrated closed-loop learning analytics scheme that consists of multiple steps broken into three main phases, as follows: (1) capture gradebook data in real time, (2) analyze that data to identify a trigger for potentially non-thriving students, (3) intervene with those students to boost their performance [5]. The general idea of this technique is to close the loop by allowing later steps to inform earlier ones in real-time during a semester and iteratively year to year, thereby improving the course from data-driven insights.

This new technique effectively takes the burden of identifying and helping non-thriving students off individual instructors in larger, multi-section courses. Instead, the real-time data-driven analytics do much of the detail-oriented work at identifying non-thriving behavior, and templated bottom-up interventions are provided to students to boost their academic performance. 

Even if you do not have the appropriate resources or class size to implement the above techniques, the general structure can be followed: (1) As a domain expert, do your best to decide on a gradebook trigger which you believe will identify the majority of non-thriving students (e.g., if a student has missed one or more of the first four assignments). (2) Intervene with those students early on in the semester, either directly (say, an email expressing concern and an invitation to meet with you or come to office hours) or via their academic advisor. The goal with this step is not to scare the student into doing better, but rather to get at the root of the issue (e.g., they just forgot, there was a grading mistake, they are struggling academically, they have home- or campus-related stress, etc.) This bottom-up method of intervening helps get at the root of the problem, allowing you to provide the student with the appropriate resources to boost their performance (e.g., strategies for managing their workload, scheduled meetings with the instructor or advisor, referrals to the rector, a care consultant, a peer advisor, a counselor, etc.) (3) Track those students throughout the semester and assess the effectiveness of your trigger and/or intervention, and update it as needed for future semesters.

Hopefully this strategy can help you minimize the damage for students who fall behind early in the semester this year and years to come.   


[1] Arnold, K. E., and Pistilli M. D. (2012). “Course Signals at Purdue: Using Learning Analytics to Increase Student Success.2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge

[2] Moon, S. et al. (2013). “High-Impact Educational Practices as Promoting Student Retention and Success.” 9th Annual National Symposium C-IDEA

[3] Murtaugh, P. A., Burns, L. D., Schuster, J. (1999). “Predicting the Retention of the University Students.Research in Higher Education, 40, 3

[4] Wolff, A. et al. (2013). “Improving Retention: Predicting At-Risk Students by Analyzing Clicking Behavior in a Virtual Learning Environment. 3rd International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge

[5] Syed, M. et al. (2019). “Integrated Closed-Loop Learning Analytics Scheme in a First Year Experience Course.International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge

Submitted by:

Carson Running

Ph.D. Candidate, Aerospace Engineering

University of Notre Dame

This week’s blogpost is twofold. It reminds you that this is a great time to solicit early-semester feedback from your students, and serves as the first in a four-part series on teaching controversial topics. 


Gathering Early-Semester Feedback

You are likely approaching the point in the semester at which you begin to develop a rhythm. Before that rhythm becomes too much of a routine and time slips away, take advantage of the chance to solicit early-semester feedback from your students. 


The Kaneb Center has several resources to help you do so. Our blog archive has many short posts on collecting early-semester feedback, including why and how to do so, what type of questions to ask, how to evaluate the results, and how to use them.


This handout summarizes the rationale for soliciting early-semester feedback, strategies for doing so, and resources for further reference. 


The Kaneb Center is also happy to review your questions and administer Qualtrics surveys for you. 


Finally, you are invited to attend our workshop on soliciting early-semester feedback this week on Wednesday, September 18. 


Teaching Controversial Topics

Instructors often steer clear of controversial topics because they are not confident of their ability to handle them well. This is understandable, given the many ways that engaging with such topics can go awry. But there are also two reasons it is worth engaging these topics anyway: 


  • First, controversial topics are likely to interest students. One of the most effective ways to engage students in course material is to bridge to it from something they are already care about. Controversial issues pique student interest almost by definition, since they are sensitive, emotionally charged, or the subject of strong disagreement. 


  • Second, the college classroom can be an excellent venue for students to learn how to engage more productively with controversial topics. Students who hold unreflective views about these topics will benefit from the opportunity to reflect critically on their positions in conversation–whether face to face or mediated by course texts–with those who disagree with them. This critical reflection may also help students develop ethical reasoning skills which will serve them well as they navigate controversial issues for the rest of their lives. 


However, the specific way that the college classroom fosters more productive engagement with controversial issues will depend at least in part on the framework you adopt as the instructor. Three pedagogical frameworks for engaging with controversial issues are prominent in higher education today: 


  • Liberation Pedagogy: Because the classroom is enmeshed in the world’s problems, students should relate their experiences to those problems so they can gain a new understanding of their relationship to the world. (cf. Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed)


  • Civic Humanism: Teachers should aim to develop moral and civic virtues in their students, to prepare them to be responsible citizens. (cf. Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges



  • Academic Detachment: Teachers should analyze controversial topics in a detached fashion because the purpose of academia is to evaluate competing arguments rather than to determine what course of action to take. (cf. Stanley Fish, “Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job”)


Before you teach a controversial topic, reflect on which of these frameworks you will adopt. You may also prefer to glean aspects from multiple frameworks and develop your own personal framework. In next month’s post we’ll consider how instructors can develop a classroom environment conducive to productive engagement with controversial issues. 



“Teaching Controversial Topics.” Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Yale University. Accessed September 13, 2019. https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics.

“Why Teach Controversial Issues?” Teaching Quality at Flinders. Flinders University. Accessed September 13, 2019. https://www.flinders.edu.au/teaching/quality/teaching-methods/teaching-controversial-issues/why-teach-controversial-issues.cfm.

Just like a good essay hooks the reader, an effective class engages students right from the start. I challenge you to rethink the way you use the first 5 minutes of your class. Instead of diving straight into lecture or administrative announcements, try to spark student curiosity and contextualize new material with the tips below.


  • Open with a question or challenge

Get students excited about new material. For example, in a Linear Algebra course, the first question of the day could be: “Do you think it’s possible to encode a secret message using matrices?” This question is a perfect segue to talking about invertible matrices, and the students will get lively talking about spies or German secret codes from WWII.

Choose a question that requires the student to make a decision or create a plan. Research shows that when students generate a hypothesis, they are more invested in the learning process. [2]

Posing a question is a great way to get students thinking, especially if you don’t answer the question–at least, not right away. Focus on creating a dialogue, challenging students, and encouraging critical thinking skills. 


  • Recall previous material 

Recall is one of the best ways to transition lectures and connect the big ideas in your course. This can be as simple as listing the topics covered in the last class. In just a few minutes, you can give students concrete take-aways from the old material and transition to the new.

Another option is to have the students recall the old material. This can be done in the form of a low-stakes quiz, a word cloud, or a Think-Pair-Share with a prompt to think of the three main take-home points from the previous class session or unit. The goal here is to get students to think about the most important ideas from the last class and practice memory retrieval


  • Outline the class and establish learning goals

Give students a roadmap of what to expect. Create an outline for the structure of the class and be clear about what you want your students to take away from it. Learning goals are the best way to make these intentions explicit. Good learning goals will:

    1. identify content and skills to be mastered and
    2. connect to broader goals and outcomes.

Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy when phrasing your learning goals!


  • Create context

Place your lesson in the context of your course, history, or student experience. Context helps students to develop connections and deepen understanding. You can make connections to previous lessons and to the learning goals for your course. You can illustrate the “big picture” by giving historical context or addressing current events. For example, in a Political Science course, before covering the framework of the US Constitution, you may discuss the current controversy of the electoral college. Or you can have the students draw upon their past experiences or previous courses to create context. This is a great way to understand your students’ backgrounds in and preconceptions of a new topic.


Investing in the first 5 minutes will dramatically increase the odds that your students will be invested in the remaining 45 (or 70) minutes. Don’t be afraid to try something new! Get students thinking, talking, and contextualizing right away.




  1. Chandler, C. (2017, January). The First 5 Minutes: Ignite Student Learning. Retrieved from https://www.middleweb.com/33852/the-first-5-minutes-ignite-student-learning/
  2. Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: everyday lessons from the science of learning.
  3. Lang, J. M. (2016, January 12). Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-The/234869?cid=wcontentgrid_hp_13
  4. Marzano, R. J. (2013). Classroom instruction that works: research-based strategies for increasing student achievement.


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