Start (and end) the term with student questions

On the first day of class, I ask students to submit three questions they have about the class topic. Reviewing questions helps me gauge the background knowledge and interests of students. I type up the questions to save for later. Then, on the last day of class, I distribute questions to small groups and ask students to answer them. Typically, students can answer most of the questions, demonstrating how much they learned over the course of a term. If the question is one that we did not directly address though the class, I ask them to review their notes, readings, etc. to look for relevant information that could build towards an answer with more research. In this way, the exercise also serves as a review for the final exam.

(This tip was anonymously submitted.)

Take a chance on student participation

Many instructors are in a bind when it comes to class discussions: they want everyone in the class to contribute, but they do not feel comfortable calling on students who do not raise their hands to speak. 

Kurtis Swope, in a 2006 article for the Teaching Professor, writes of an inspired technique to avoid this conundrum. He brings some many-sided dice (bought at a game store) to class, and whenever he asks the class a question, rolls the dice to determine which student is to answer. Swope notes that he still allows for open discussion in his classes, in which students freely respond to one another. But students quickly warm to the dice-rolling, Swope reports, adding that the technique "generates a sense of anticipation and attention because any student can be called upon at any time." 

It's a good idea, not least because it involves those students who are too shy to raise a hand or otherwise unwilling to volunteer in class discussions without singling anyone out. By leaving the decision up to chance, the technique takes a part of class that students can be quite sensitive about and turns it into something that's truly democratic and maybe even a little exciting. 

Source: Kurtis J. Swope, "Roll the Dice and Students Participate," in The Teaching Professor, April 2006, 20(4), 6.

What do your students know about the topic?

Here’s another straightforward technique from Angelo and Cross’s Classroom Assessment Techniques: what they call the “Background Knowledge Probe.” Whenever beginning a new topic or working on a new task, ask students to list, in groups, or as a class, everything they know about about the topic or task. You might have the students do this in writing, or have them call out answers for you to add to a master list on the board.

After gathering everything the students know, think they know, possibly know, etc., begin the work, as a class or in student groups, of sharing and organizing the information. What is accurate and what is not? What is important and what is not? What is commonly known about the topic and what do only one or two students know? This can work really well as a discussion that begins in groups and then expands to the whole class.

The technique allows students to discover that they already have knowledge of the subject, encourages them to share their knowledge and grow as a learning community, and provides a natural way for you to begin your discussion or presentation of the topic at hand.  -DG

Source: Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. 121-24.

Interview important people in your field, even if they are dead

 One way to supplement course readings and lectures is to have students reach out to significant people in the field that the course covers. Science students can get in touch with working scientists, (or with officials who set policy for public research), political science students can contact politicians, art students can reach out to artists, etc. You can introduce your students to a prominent figure, and have them come up with questions for that person. The project can be a great way to demonstrate that the course’s subject is a living one, as well as bringing in contrasting perspectives to complement your own.

But what do you do if your subject is ancient history, or the literature of the nineteenth century? Well, you could contact another historian, or a literary scholar. But another possibility is contacting the very people that you are studying. Have students research a historical figure, say, or one of the authors on your syllabus, and prepare a slate of questions for him or her. You may want to play the role of the interview subject yourself—doing your best to answer the students’ questions—or you could assign one or more students to play the part. This project could easily be expanded to a more complex assignment, with students taking a number of weeks to research and write an essay, answering the peer-generated questions in the voice of the designated figure. Encouraging your students to take this fictional interview seriously will help them see your subject from a new angle.  -DG

Source: "84. Contact the Players." and "85. Travel Through Time and Space." Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 35-36. 

Use quotations to prompt discussion and/or writing

Here’s a class activity that’s easily adaptable to a variety of classrooms and disciplines. It’s a good way to spur discussion and encourage evidence-supported argument. The activity, which comes from Constance Staley’s Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern, begins with the teacher distributing a number of quotations, each typed onto a strip of paper, to the students.

Staley gives a number of possible quotations to use, on such topics as education, self-understanding, and the definition of success:

  • “Education worthy of the name is essentially the education of character.” Martin Buber
  • “Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century.” Perelman
  • “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Derek Bok, president Harvard University

…and so on. I can see the exercise working just as well, if not better, with quotations that directly apply to the course’s subject.

In Staley’s version, after handing out the quotations, the teacher goes around the room, calling on students one by one. Each student, when called on, must read her quotation aloud, say whether she agrees or disagrees with the statement, and then “identify two pieces of support from personal experience, course material, or other relevant information sources.” This can easily be modified for larger classes, either by breaking the students up and having the discussion take place among groups, or by turning the exercise into a writing prompt—each student must write a paragraph or two explaining why she agrees or disagrees with the quotation, and must support her position with evidence. In all versions, particularly if the teacher uses quotations tailored to course content, the exercise offers a straightforward way to allow students to take an active role in the learning process, and encourage them to construct arguments with proper support.  -DG

Source: Constance Staley, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. 120-24.