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After this year’s divisive election, the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning disseminated a helpful document on how to discuss the aftermath of the election in the classroom. They respected that this is clearly a sensitive, complicated topic and that some people would not feel comfortable with or capable of discussing and therefore provided alternative options for those who wanted to acknowledge the election and the high emotions engendered by this election season without engaging in an in-depth discussion. 

I was glad to have such a resource, since I wanted to provide my students with a space in which to share their feelings about recent events but didn’t know how to do so. I feared I would not be able to be bipartisan enough even though I truly wanted everyone’s voice to be heard. I didn’t want to erase my feelings but rather wanted to make sure that they didn’t overshadow anyone else’s who had different political views from me. I truly wanted to come together in solidarity, no matter which candidate each of us voted for. The University of Michigan’s document solidified my feelings that this was a conversation that was necessary to have in the classroom.

My pedagogical approach can often be a bit meditative. I tend to give students time for their thoughts to naturally flow individually so that they can be confident in the thoughts that they share with the class. I simply had my students reflect on the election on paper as I provided some guided questions that they could choose to answer or not. Then, we had a class discussion, in which participation was voluntary.

At first, students of a particular political persuasion felt much more empowered to speak, voluntarily offering information on who they voted for. When only one side of the spectrum was clearly being offered, with several students remaining silent, I decided to offer my own feelings, which diverged from what many of the students had expressed thus far. I stated directly who I voted for, just had the students had done, and shared my feelings. I did this while emphasizing that my voice is only one of many in the classroom and that I did not intend for what I said to sound dismissive of anyone else’s opinions. I relinquished my authority at this moment and became just another concerned citizen. Afterward, a student who had not spoken shared thoughts similar to mine and explained the rationale behind these thoughts.

I wish I had enabled all of the students to share their opinions but I also respect their wish to remain silent. I did not want to force anyone into a debate. In fact, I didn’t want it to be a debate at all. I just wanted to share our feelings with one another and we did that. I just hope that the students chose to be quiet and that they did not feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts. I wanted the classroom to be a safe space and tried to do this to the best of my ability. That’s all we all can do.

I think it is necessary that we carve out class time for processing political and social events such as the election. The election and other social happenings are integrally important to all our disciplines. This is perhaps most evident in fields such as history, political science, and sociology, which deal directly with such material. Social and political relevance, however, extends even to fields that may not be as obvious. Government grants for example play a large role in determining what types of scientific research will be supported and how this research will be used and the outcome of an election can radically affect who and what gets afforded grants. Some social issues are more relevant to some disciplines than others, so I am not advocating for stuffing the classroom with the world as much as possible, but only for making sure that enough of the world is present so students are aware of how the material they are learning in class plays out in the world.

Though the election occurred weeks ago, there is still time to integrate it into your classroom discussion. I hope that my experience doing so proves helpful. I have also included the link to the University Of Michigan’s advice on discussing the election below.

Additional Reading:

Information on discussing the election from The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning: http://www.crlt.umich.edu/node/93815




Maybe your class is scheduled mere hours before the freedom of Thanksgiving break.  Or maybe it’s a Friday afternoon right before a home football game and the sounds of the marching band drift through the windows.  Or maybe most of your students had a big exam in another class earlier this morning.

These distractions are not excuses for students to slack on their work, but even in our classes that are usually well-prepared, lively, and engaged, our students occasionally come to class inattentive or unprepared.  Especially if you are a TA or a guest lecturer in someone else’s classroom, you likely had no say in structuring the course optimally for student preparation and participation.

These tips can help you recover from those one-time situations when a normally energetic group of students falls short.  However, if your students are often unprepared or unwilling to participate, these quick fixes are no substitute for a thorough reconsideration of how you structure your course, conduct class daily, and reward work and participation.  (Contact the Kaneb Center for recommendations or to schedule a consultation.)


What can I do to salvage that class period?

  • If the problem is not already clear, try to understand why students are not engaging so that you can adapt your class accordingly. Your approach may differ if the students tried to read but genuinely did not understand the material, versus a situation in which they chose not to complete their work.
  • Give a mini-lecture if your students struggled to understand the material. A mini-lecture helps provide context, define the major points of a topic, and set up the class to begin more detailed analysis. Just be careful not to spend too much time talking yourself, or students will stop expecting to participate themselves.
  • Use an active learning activity such as think-pair-share or a mini class debate. These kinds of activities can 1) give students time to do a portion of the work, 2) help them articulate their answers or misunderstandings, 3) give shy students confidence to speak to the larger group, and 4) engage students by requiring them to take a position on the material.
  • Take a smaller bite of the material. Especially if your students have not done the work, you may still be able to teach the major points you want to cover by doing a close-reading, tackling a case study, or practicing with a concrete example problem.
  • Take a backup activity folder with you to every class. Keep on hand the materials for at least one activity that you can pull out at any point during the semester when a class just stops for whatever reason.  It might be a critical thinking activity, case study, or synthesis exercise.
  • But by no means do the work for the students.  Do not let one bad day of discussion or tutorial turn into a pattern by showing students it is okay to not do their work.


What can I do to avoid that situation altogether?

  • Plan ahead in the schedule. You know certain days will be more prone to distraction than others.  Take into account events at the university, the workload of other courses if many of your students are within the same major, and other assignments due in your own course.
  • Remember that it takes more effort to keep track of multiple assignments or readings. It’s easier for students to digest one 20-page reading than it is for them to keep track of four five-page readings.  In the same vein, do not expect students to complete a heavy reading load when they also have high-stakes exams or papers scheduled for the same day.
  • Reinvent the standby of showing a movie on the day an essay is due, but commit to using the film or clips for active learning.  Stop the film at key moments and ask students for their predictions or analysis. Give students a guided note-taking worksheet that will help them use the film in a subsequent assignment or discussion.
  • Make the work you assign important. Smart students will devote more time their most important work, so make homework required for students’ success in your course.  Tie readings concretely to assessments or structure the class so that students who have not read will be unable to participate or contribute effectively.


Additional Reading:

On designing meaningful assignments, see Walvoord, Barbara E., and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. 2 edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

On conducting class and engaging students, see Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. 1 edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004.


The importance of mental health and well-being is increasingly being recognized within the walls of the academy. In a previous post, we discussed how stress and poor mental health can affect student success in the classroom. But what about the person at the front of the room? The reality is, teachers are human too, and with that comes a need to care for one’s own psychological well-being. And yet, this is often swept to the wayside with pressing deadlines, classes to prepare, and large workloads. This post introduces just a few tips for how to be mindful of one’s own mind. We encourage you to spend some time thinking about ways to care for yourself and stay healthy during the most stressful times of the semester.

Principle 1: Time spent away from work can increase your productivity at work. While it may seem counterintuitive, spending less time on the job can actually help you to get more done. When our brains are always on the go, they tire just like the rest of our body. Breaking up one’s work schedule into reasonable amounts allows the mind to recover and return to the job refreshed and energized.

Action Steps:

  • (Literally) Schedule time away from work. Planning for when you will take breaks makes you more likely to do so. A quick break every hour and occasional vacation days will go a long way towards keeping your brain focused and on track.
  • Learn to say no. It is tempting to get involved in every activity and spread oneself too thin. People will understand if you can’t attend every event, and it is empowering to keep control over your own schedule.
  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Find a hobby that you like or other activities outside of work to break up the routine of job-related brain activity. Singular-minded devotion to any subject encourages burnout, while engagement with a diverse range of interests permits creativity and exercises different components of the brain.

Principle 2: Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Not that your entire year’s schedule should be condensed into today’s agenda! However, have you noticed the times that you feel the most stressed out? For most people, it tends to be when deadlines are approaching and last-minute work (or even all-night work) is needed. To the extent that you can avoid waiting until the last minute to complete projects, your mind will thank you!

Action Steps:

  • Make a priorities list. There’s a famous meme which suggests that the most effective housecleaning sessions occur when a large project is nearing due. This is an example of a priorities imbalance. Instead, divide your to-do list into a “must do, should do, could do” list, and be sure to hit your top priorities first.
  • Plan out your due dates. Some dates you will not have control over. Others, like when you will be grading papers and exams or teaching particular sections of a course, you have more control over. Try staggering your assignment due dates so you do not have enormous loads of grading to do all at once.
  • Practice physical self-care. Some of the first things to get cut from the to-do list when one is feeling overloaded are exercise and healthy habits. And yet these are some of the most important daily habits for holistic mental health. It is more difficult to return to a routine after pushing exercise or healthy eating back a day or two (or three), so try to maintain as much consistency as possible.

Principle 3: Perfection is unattainable. That is certainly not to say that we shouldn’t try hard and strive for excellence, but academia often appears to demand perfection when it is not possible. For those who struggle with perfectionism, it can help to have a regular reminder that the hard work you do is valuable and appropriate for the job you have.

Action Steps:

  • Lower the stakes in your classroom. You have the ability to take the spotlight off of you. In your class prep, try some new active learning strategies that allow students to get involved and take on a greater role in facilitating the class. (Research shows this is actually a good learning strategy!) Break major assignments into smaller ones so that grades are less decisive to a student’s overall course grade. And try using early semester evaluations to avoid placing too much emphasis on final student evaluations.
  • Remember your purpose. Remind yourself of why you do the work that you do. Hopefully you can recall the enjoyment and passion you have for your subject! Then try to contextualize how your work fits into the big picture; is this an instance where minutiae is important, or is it simply a part of a larger whole?
  • Be human. Everyone makes mistakes, has struggles, fears, concerns, and weaknesses. Many students and colleagues appreciate genuineness and authenticity, so be yourself and don’t feel like you need to hide behind a mask of perfection.

One final principle and action step is to enlist the help of others if your mental health isn’t where you’d like it to be or if you want to keep improving your mindfulness. Therapists, psychologists, or medical professionals can all assist with keeping you healthy and doing your best work possible. Notre Dame has a number of resources for individuals at any stage in their teaching career; check out the resources below for more information.

Importantly, these tips cannot replace the advice of trained care providers; in a case where mental illness is a possibility or a concern, seek the individualized guidance of a professional care consultant.

If nothing else, be sure to check in regularly with how you are doing taking care of yourself. Be sure to keep your mind healthy while you are working to expand others’!

In the event of a serious crisis or if you are concerned that somebody is in a life-threatening circumstance, you should call 911 immediately.


Further Reading

Being Transparent About and Challenging Our Own Assumptions About Material

In my current Writing and Rhetoric class, we are thinking about manifestos in preparation for writing our own. The manifesto forces students and myself to challenge our assumptions about certain topics by both replicating hyperbolic rhetoric and then objectively challenging and explaining the rhetorical moves we have made. Recently, I showed the class a visual art manifesto that I had recently come upon and found to be very complicated, playful, and to be making interesting visual and written rhetorical moves. I had been under the impression that this piece was an anti-establishment piece because of its content and we analyzed it as such.

Regrettably, after we did so I realized I had made a mistake and that this piece of art was institutionally endorsed and even being sold as limited edition napkins by the same institution. I pulled up the same visual manifesto next class and explained that I had mad an assumption that was incorrect and could have led to a slightly distorted interpretation of the piece. Thankfully, our interpretation of the piece was still valid, as part of the idea of the peace was to minimize the role of the establishment and to privilege the potentially transgressive art inside. I used this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of research as a tool for challenging assumptions while also underscoring that our unique, individual opinions and arguments about a certain topic should not be replaced by research but supplemented by it. The argument we had made when we were considering the piece to be anti-establishment (an assumption he students made as well) was not overwritten by finding out something new about the piece but was only made more robust and contextual.

I tell this story to underscore the necessity of transparency and vulnerability. We, as teachers, are as fallible as our students, no matter how more informed we are. Often, we are teaching classes outside of our narrow academic specialization and are trying to form our own opinions of the material ourselves. There are going to be times when we overstep. Instead of ignoring these missteps, we should attempt to publicly acknowledge them in front of the students to demonstrate that making assumptions is a natural act that everybody makes but that everybody should also be fully aware of. Admitting and airing your own assumptions makes you feel more human to them and invites them to self-reflect with you, which makes challenging their own assumptions feel more of a communal, shared activity.

Challenging our Assumptions about Students

No matter how informed we are about the material, we have very little knowledge about our students as people beyond our classroom, especially at the start of the semester. Therefore, we must make sure that we are not projecting our assumptions onto students. I say above that my students also assumed that the piece was anti-establishment because they were the first to articulate this point. I had merely let it go unchallenged. If I had brought the point up first, the students may have just attached themselves to my interpretation because of my perceived authority and I would have no evidence of which to deduce that they actually shared the same viewpoint prior to my statement. Even now, I have no idea if all the students agreed with the statement or whether some of them were just passively accepting it as truth because I, the knowledge-holder, hadn’t challenged it.

During this same session, one student had briefly zoned out to do some quick and dirty research on the artist via Wikipedia. He found that the artist was a transvestite and had non-normative sexual experience throughout his life and started to assume what I found to be some troubling things about the piece of art based upon his findings. I felt that he was making assumptions about the artist’s choices based upon the brief, subpar, biography he had read of the author’s life. I quickly made my own assumptions about what the student’s intent might be but I decided to challenge my assumptions and to frame the next class specifically around challenging assumptions we have about identity categories. It turns out that the same student that had made the troubling comments was also the one who I heard talking sensitively and cogently about identity politics in small groups this next class. I was surprised and sobered by this reminder that my assumption about his comments were not completely correct.

Challenging Students’ Assumptions

It is important that student’s assumptions are always being challenged. Yet, this cannot be done well if we have not already challenged our own. Therefore, I think it is important for the act of challenging assumptions to be a shared activity. Starting with pointing out or investigating our own assumptions will make students feel more comfortable with the process. One activity I have tried is to present an often-debated issue and ask students to write out their assumptions about the topic on the page. I then show a well-argued, objective video on the topic and then ask the students to revisit their assumptions in a group. Finally, we share our thoughts with the full class. I participate as much as they do in this activity. This is only one of many ways to stage a discussion of assumptions. Please share your own in the comments section below.

Additional Reading:

Stephen Brookfield. Teaching for Critical Thinking: a vital resource for this topic with many suggestions for how to challenge assumptions in classroom situations.

In our new Faculty Feature series, the Kaneb Center interviews teachers around campus to learn about what motivates them, discuss techniques they use in their classrooms, and share bits of wisdom with others in the Notre Dame community and beyond! Our first article features Patrick Clauss, Director of Writing and Rhetoric in the University Writing Program.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a South Bend native, having grown up just a few miles off campus. My maternal grandfather, Dr. George Hennion, was the Julius Nieuwland Chair of Chemistry for much of his career at Notre Dame. To my grandfather’s great disappointment, I struggled in high school chemistry, finding that my interests and talents were in the liberal arts instead.

I joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2008. Previously, I taught at Butler University for eight years, where I also directed the writing center. Here, I am the Director of Writing and Rhetoric in the University Writing Program. In addition to teaching Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric to First Year students, I also mentor approximately 15 graduate student instructors each semester, doctoral candidates from across Arts & Letters who teach Writing and Rhetoric. In the spring of 2014, I was honored to be named a recipient of the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.  This year, I am a Kaneb Center Faculty Fellow.

My research interests dovetail nicely with my teaching: My areas of interest include argumentation theory, rhetorical theory, and composition pedagogy. Essentially, I am interested in two related questions: What makes a natural-language argument (written, spoken, visual) true or valid, and what makes a natural-language argument persuasive? Validity, truth, and persuasiveness are not the same things of course, as anyone who’s followed recent political campaigns can certainly attest.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

Originally, as an undergraduate at Indiana University, I set out to be a high school English and French teacher. However, while student teaching many years ago, I discovered two important things about myself: First, while I have great respect for high school teachers, I do not have the patience to deal with teenagers all day long. Second, I have an insatiable curiosity about argumentation, persuasion, and rhetoric. With just my bachelor’s degree, for instance, I felt as if I had barely scratched the surface of what there is to know about communication. Consequently, I returned to school, earning my master’s and then my doctorate in English, focusing on rhetoric and composition. While in graduate school, I taught a variety of writing and literature courses, and I soon fell in love with college teaching.

In what ways do you find teaching rewarding or meaningful?
This is easy: I work with smart, talented students discussing topics that fascinate me: Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, inductive and deductive reasoning, rhetorical theory, and critical thinking, among other areas. Just last week, for instance, I discussed the Aristotelian virtues of good sense, good moral character, and goodwill with my Writing and Rhetoric students. I’ve taught that particular lesson numerous times, but as we watched various campaign ads together and considered their effectiveness using Aristotle’s framework, I did not want class to end. Seventy-five minutes fly by when you’re doing something you love. Plus, I take very seriously my responsibilities to educate aristotlestudents in a democracy, where all citizens must make informed choices about a tremendous variety of issues.

Describe one teaching technique you like to use in your classes.

As an undergraduate, I was in a French history class with at least 75 students. The professor asked each of us to write, in French, a one-page response to the prompt “Tell me about yourself.” Weeks later, when I stopped by his office with a question, he remembered several things about me, things I’d shared in the paper. I was quite impressed. He took the time to get to know each of his students, even in a large class at a Big Ten university. When I began teaching at the college level, I too began assigning such an assignment, one I still use to this day. In all of my undergraduate classes, the first writing assignment is pulled directly from Professor Berkvam’s playbook: “Tell me about yourself.” While reading this assignment, I get to know each student on a personal level. Among other things, this allows me, when possible, to tailor activities and assignments to my students’ interests.

What advice would you give to a new teacher?

If you think you are not reaching a particular student, that a particular student is “checked out,” be very skeptical of your abilities to make that judgment: Always assume the best about a student’s engagement, even when that student sits in the back of the room, rarely or never participates, and seems disconnected from the class. Definitely work to engage everyone in your class, but don’t dismiss or write off the student who doesn’t seem to care. So many times in my career, I have been contacted by just such a student long after my class has ended, months or even years later. I’ll get an email with something like the following, “You probably don’t remember me, but I was in your class a few years ago. The other night, I was watching the presidential debates, and something one of the candidates said reminded me of what you taught us about argument and persuasion . . .” It may not have seemed like it at the time, but I reached that student. I made a difference in that student’s life. Be eternally optimistic about all of the students in your class!

In your opinion, what makes a great teacher?

This is a difficult question, as there are so many great teachers with such different styles and approaches. I try not to take myself too seriously in the classroom, but I also try—even on days I’m tired or preoccupied with something else—to demonstrate that there is no better place to be than in a classroom at the University of Notre Dame. If I don’t care about the topic, lesson, or activity, how can I expect anyone else to care? I frequently ask students, “Isn’t this interesting?” or “This is fascinating, isn’t it?” That’s not pretense on my part. I really mean it.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Here’s a fun story from the first college class I ever taught, in the fall of 1990: I was a 23 year-old graduate student instructor, standing in the hallway waiting for the class before mine to dismiss from the classroom. One of my students, whom I had not yet met, leaned against the wall next to me. “Do you have English class next?” he asked me. Nervous about teaching, I didn’t think through my answer. “Yes, I do,” I told him. “Man, I hate English class” he replied. It occurred to me then that he thought I was a fellow student. “I hate it sometimes, too,” I jokingly said.

As the class before ours left and we walked in the classroom together, he sat in one of the student desks, looking at me to sit next to him. I continued to the front of the room. Setting my materials on the teacher’s desk, I watched a look of horror wash across his face as he realized I would be his teacher for the semester. For the rest of that first class, he hid behind his baseball cap, pulling it down as far as it would go.

When class was over, I took the student aside and thanked him for making my first day of college teaching memorable. I also assured him I would not hold his comment against him. (I did suggest he be careful, in the future, about assumptions about his audience, whether in writing or speaking situations.) Every semester since then, I still think of that young man on the first day of class. I’m still nervous on the first day of each semester, but that memory makes me smile every time.

Thanks, Patrick!


My first boyfriend’s car was his family’s old SUV named Bessie.  Having moved the kids across the country for college, carried the family on many happy vacations, and suffered the daily commute, it had exceeded the promised 200,000 mile lifespan.   Like any teenage male with a secondhand car, Bessie’s owner dreamed of installing a new radio, fixing up her rust spots, replacing the cloudy glass of the headlights, and replacing the damaged seats.  But he couldn’t find the time or money for the cosmetic repairs amid all the more urgent fixes Bessie needed just to drive safely.  Bessie had made it to her third transmission.  She needed her emissions system replaced.  A collision required her to get new struts.

What does Bessie have to do with teaching students to write?  We should focus on making the paper work before we fix the cosmetic details.  Like a car needs a working engine, transmission, and suspension to be safe and reliable, a paper needs a strong thesis, compelling evidence, and sound analysis.  The grammar, proofreading, and are like a shiny paint job and detailed interior.  They make it compelling, but they’re useless if the thing does not function.

How can we as instructors focus on the paper’s engine, rather than the upholstery?


  • Focus less on grammar.

In one meta-analysis of teaching techniques for writing, students in a grammar/mechanics treatment scored slightly less (-.29 of one standard deviation) than their peers who did not receive a specific instruction in grammar.  The other modes of writing instruction in the study (including freewriting, use of models, involving students in the use of scales to evaluate writing, combining sentences, and activities of inquiry to develop skills for dealing with data) all showed improvements over control conditions.

Limit yourself to two local comments per page so that students will focus on your global comments at the end of the paper.  Also make sure your rubric reflects your priorities.


  • Use peer review thoughtfully.

While students struggle to identify a strong thesis or compelling argument, most students can find local-level errors easily, especially in each other’s work.  Use this to your advantage.  If your assignment has multiple drafts, you should read the first draft to direct the student’s overall argument, structure, and evidence.  Then use a peer review exercise for the second draft to address problems like topic sentences, grammar, and proofreading.


  • Use student writing as a diagnostic.

We’ve all had the experience of struggling with a particular paragraph or section in our writing.  When you go back to your draft, you can still tell that’s where you had a problem wrangling your argument into shape.  The sentences are clunky, and maybe they use a lot of to-be verbs.  You might have more than your average number of typos or proofreading errors.  Your transitions and paragraph structure are probably weak there too.

The same thing happens in student writing.  Writing is next to impossible when we do not know what we are trying to convey.  That paragraph with all the technical errors is trying to explicate a text the student did not understand.  Or maybe that evidence really is a counterargument they are trying to shoehorn into their evidence.  Or perhaps their thesis is too vague or too narrow to account for the topic of that paragraph.  Instead of marking every grammatical error, explain what the errors show you about the argument.  Make suggestions for the student to rethink or reframe that paragraph or section.  The technical problems will likely smooth themselves out when the student knows what he or she is trying to say.


  • Implement a “never again” list.

If you still feel the need to grade and address grammar more directly, try implementing a “never again” list.  Every student will keep their personal, ongoing list of errors they vow “never again” to commit.  After each assignment, every student will identify a new error to add to the list.  For every new assignment, students attach their updated list to their paper.  You will only grade the grammatical points each student has added to his or her list (and perhaps make a suggestion for a new error to add for the next time).  This strategy limits the scope of the errors you will be marking while building student proficiency.  This technique can be especially helpful for students with poor written English or English language learners.



Hillocks, George. “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies.” American Journal of Education 93, no. 1 (1984): 133–70.

Walvoord, Barbara E., and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Happy fall break from the Kaneb Center! As you prepare for the second half of the semester, we challenge you to plan one new active learning strategy for your class. Research shows that active learning leads to increased student motivation and better learning outcomes. Here are some suggestions for active learning strategies you could employ in your teaching:

  • Notes compare. Take a one or two minute break from class to have students compare notes with another student sitting near them. Ask them to discuss what they think the most important parts are and why they emphasized what they did in their notes. This will allow students to think about the notetaking strategy they are using and to learn from their peers.
  • One minute papers. Ask students to write for one minute on a class question, on the most important thing they learned in class, or on questions that they have about the course material. You do not necessarily need to collect the papers, but if you do, this is an excellent opportunity to assess student learning and answer lingering questions.
  • Case studies. Case studies are an effective tool to get students thinking about critical issues in your course material. They include stories as short as a paragraph to longer cases describing a problem that needs to be solved and some brief context needed to solve that problem. Students working in groups brainstorm solutions using their readings, class discussion, and their own experiences to apply the subject to “real-life” problems.
  • Student presentations. Have students prepare short presentations on a topic related to your lesson for the day. Students may present on noteworthy contributors to the topic, a section of the readings, an important takeaway, a current event related to the material, or many other subjects. If you have a large class, assign multiple students to a presentation topic and have students teach others in small groups.
  • In-class debate. Divide students into teams to discuss a question with two or more reasonable answers. After preparing their arguments, consider following a formal debate format with students offering opening statements, rebuttals, and closing remarks. Close by debriefing the debate, especially if students were assigned to represent a certain side of the debate topic. For more information about using debate in the classroom, see this previous post.

There are hundreds of different active learning techniques that can be used in any discipline, for any course level, and for any topic. Take a look around and find one that works best for you!

Not sure where to start? Need some help deciding which technique is right for your class?

Stop by the Kaneb Center for an individual consultation. We are available to assist with all of your teaching needs!

Additional Resources

A wealth of education literature suggests that using active learning techniques in class leads to more positive learning outcomes, including greater retention of course material, higher levels of student engagement, and increased opportunities for critical thinking. In spite of this evidence, some educators may be hesitant to include active learning techniques in their courses. Busyness, comfort with other models of teaching and learning, or negative experiences when first trying active learning are common reasons for not employing more active learning strategies. While there are many very simple active learning techniques that can be paired with any teaching model, overcoming negative experiences with active learning (either as a teacher or as a student) can be much more difficult. Below are five tips to keep in mind when using active learning to avoid common mistakes and to produce more positive experiences:

  • Match active learning with your class goals. Active learning works best when you have a reason for doing it, and not just for the sake of doing it or filling class time. Consider how active learning fits into the broader picture of your class: are you asking students to recall class material, learn to solve problems, apply the material to real-world problems, or reflect on their learning? Is there a certain point you want to emphasize through the activity, do you want every student to speak, or are students practicing working in groups? You may also consider briefly explaining why you are doing an activity to increase motivation.
  • Explain ahead of time and give clear directions. As with any teaching activity, active learning is only useful when students know exactly what they are supposed to be doing. If directions are not clear, participants will get off-topic much easier and the leader will receive less buy-in to the activity. If the activity is complex (or even if it is not), try writing directions on the board, displaying them on the screen, or putting them into a handout.
  • Don’t make activities too easy or too hard. This takes time to figure out. Avoid packing too much into a single learning exercise, but make sure that you are not giving students five minutes to do a one minute activity. Many of the best active learning strategies challenge students to work on a single question or topic. Monitor the activity by walking around the room and gauging students’ completion. If the goal is not completing an assignment, many active learning exercises do not require you to wait for all students to finish; otherwise students who complete the work early will likely tune out as others wrap up.
  • Hold students accountable. To make sure students consistently stay on task throughout the semester, consider collecting students’ writing or discussing the activity with the full group. It is important to reinforce that everyone should participate in the activities, and calling on students or asking each group to share is one way to keep students focused on learning. Active learning techniques can be used to evaluate participation or informally evaluate student learning.
  • Use a variety of techniques. Some active learning techniques work better than others in a given class. If one technique doesn’t seem to work, try something else! If you are unsure about whether students are learning what they need to from the activity, follow up with them to see. There are hundreds of different active learning techniques, so find the ones that work best for you.

It’s easy to get discouraged when trying or experiencing new teaching techniques. If your first attempt doesn’t go well, perhaps the activity just needs to be tweaked, or maybe a different type of active learning is more appropriate. Either way, don’t give up! If you want to incorporate active learning and need a place to start, start small. One technique in one class. Research shows that using short active learning activities every 15 minutes leads to more learning, even simple tasks such as having students compare notes or discussing a single discussion question. So if at first you don’t succeed, as the old adage suggests, try and try again.

Additional Resources

The first presidential debate of 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had the highest viewership of any presidential debate in history. Yet how many of us actually integrated this groundbreaking event or the myriad of currently contested political issues into our class discussions? Surely, this election season is a field day for many political scientists but it and other current events are also deeply relevant to multiple disciplines. Using current events can help students clearly understand the relevance of a certain class topic or discipline.

The following entry provides strategies for using current events in the classrooms. This entry is from the 2016-2017 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips and was contributed by Debi Griffin of the Faculty Development Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.



Weaving Current Events into Student Assignments and Classroom Activities

One way to help students recognize the relevance of a course of study is to incorporate current events into the mix of classroom strategies. Whether your students use actual newspapers or electronic resources, there are dozens of ways to weave current events into student assignments and classroom activities. The New York Times Learning Network posted “50 Ways to Teach with Current Events” on their website last fall and there are hundreds of other suggestions on the web.

The following list includes a few of my favorite news-related assignments and activities:

  • Give extra credit for current news articles that directly relate to class content. Invite students to bring in an article, explain why it’s relevant and present a 1-2 minute summary.
  • Have students closely examine one news event by comparing the coverage from different news sources. How is the coverage similar and how is it different?
  • Given a particular news event, ask students to identify two credible resources and two questionable resources, and justify their selections.
  • After discussing a current event, provide event photographs and ask students to develop their own captions and share in class.
  • When following one issue for a full semester, ask students to write an opinion piece at the beginning, middle and end of the semester.
  • With more complex current event topics, ask students to create a timeline of events.
  • Invite students to look at the stories that have made the front page of a local newspaper during the last few days and to talk about why each of those stories made headlines.
  • Ask students to choose an article and write about how that issue matters to them, to their family or to their community.
  • Ask students to analyze how photographs are used, what they add to the understanding of the article, how they may bias the content of an article and what makes them memorable and/or questionable.
  • Ask students to write a letter to the editor about a topic/issue emerging from the course content and discussion.
  • Ask students to compare a current event to a historical event of their choosing.
  • Help students practice research skills by distributing articles for students to use to practice summarizing, paraphrasing, using quotations, avoiding plagiarism and citing sources.



Education World: Twenty-Five Great Ideas for Teaching Current Events. Retrieved from http://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/lesson/lesson072.shtml

The Learning Network: 50 Ways to Teach with Current Events. Retrieved from http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/07/50-ways-to-teach-current-events/comment-page-1/

Submitted by: Debi Griffin Faculty Development Center Bellarmine University Louisville, Kentucky dgriffin@bellarmine.edu

Okay, you’re about a month into the semester now and feeling good about things.  You’ve learned your students’ names, gotten them comfortable with your teaching style, and probably graded and returned a first assignment or exam.  But how do you know everything really is so peachy?


Why should I gather early semester feedback? 

  • Motivate students by demonstrating that you are concerned for their learning.
  • Improve your teaching.
  • Open up a conversations about your pedagogical methods, students’ study habits, and/or the modes of your discipline.
  • Allow for you to respond to students’ feedback before they complete formal evaluations at the end of the semester.


When should I survey my students?

You might choose to administer one larger survey or collect quick feedback throughout the semester.  If you decide to give one larger survey, time it between weeks four and seven of the semester (though late is better than never).  If your focus is on whether students have understood content in the course, you might want to ask for feedback before a review session, or after covering a particularly complex or difficult topic.  Finally, consider pairing feedback on your teaching with an update on students’ participation grades to make the process a two-way street. I’ve gotten very positive responses from students when I have explained how I view their learning as a collaborative endeavor that requires we all strive to be our best.


How do I collect feedback?

  1. Choose a format that best matches your concerns and class size.  Popular choices include a Likert-type ranking scale, start/keep/stop (what should we start doing? keep doing? stop doing?), and free responses.
  2. Write questions that will be clear to the students and provide you with helpful feedback.  Do not combine multiple questions together in a multiple choice or rating-scale survey. (e.g. The question “Do the lectures and class activities help you to understand the material better?” might have two different answers.)  If possible, refer to specific examples of teaching techniques or readings in your questions.  Leave space for open-ended suggestions and other comments.
  3. Administer the questions anonymously. Options for surveying students include:

a. Handwritten paper surveys administered during class. Though this method is simple and ensures high response rates, it will not be truly anonymous if there is a chance you might recognize some students’ handwriting.

b. Online survey tools (though Sakai Survey Tool, Survey Monkey, or an anonymous Google Form).

c. Bringing in a trusted outsider (e.g. a staff member of the Kaneb Center or a colleague) to conduct a group interview with the class.


What kinds of things might I ask about?

  • Student effort
  • Specific strategies or activities you have used in the course
  • Class format or pace
  • Course content
  • Improving class participation
  • Instructor availability or approachability
  • Usefulness of feedback
  • Speaking pace or clarity


Now what do I do with the answers?

Look for general trends in the surveys, rather than focusing on the outlying comments.  Then follow-up with your class about the results. Explain what you found, and talk about what adjustments you will make.  You might also suggest changes the students might make as well.  For example, if students are spending more time than you thought on the work, you can offer them more efficient study strategies.  If you cannot change something, explain your rationale. (Though try not to ask questions about things you are unwilling to change in the first place.)   Finally, make those changes you have discussed with the students!  Write yourself reminders in your office or on your lesson plans to follow through with your new plans for becoming a better teacher.


Please contact the Kaneb Center if you would like help with preparing, administering, or interpreting your early- or mid-semester feedback.


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