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.

The Minute Paper: where you've been and where you're going

The Minute Paper is a flexible technique designed to get students to reflect and think critically about their learning, while giving teachers an easy way to assess how their students perceive their experience in class. It was first formulated, at least in a published form, by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross in their 1993 book, Classroom Assessment Techniques. It’s simple: ask students to briefly reflect on a learning experience and ask them to respond, in writing, to the following two questions: “What was the most important thing you learned?” and “What question or questions remain unanswered?”.

Angelo and Cross suggest using this technique in the last five minutes of class, to get students to reflect on that day’s content. This works to help solidify the day’s discussion in the students’ minds, but also allows the teacher, after collecting the papers, to see how the students experienced the class and what they still might not get.

Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones suggest that the Minute Paper could be used in any number of situations: at the beginning of class to review a homework assignment, or the previous class’s discussion; in the middle of class to reinforce what’s come before and point the way forward; or at any time to gauge students’ learning experiences that took place outside of the classroom (in previous courses, for instance).

It’s an easy way to focus students and teacher alike on the ground that has been covered and the distance left to run.  -DG

Sources: Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques : A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. 148-53. Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones. Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. 147-48.

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. 

First day of class: Meet Your Teacher

Most teachers, I’m sure, make sure to leave time during the first class to take student questions, primarily about the syllabus and the shape of the course ahead. But it’s worth underlining the importance of student involvement right from the start, letting them know that your desire to hear their questions and concerns is not just a superficial courtesy (“Any questions? OK then…).

Here’s a way to encourage students to take ownership of the course. After a brief introduction, distribute the syllabus, and perhaps highlight a few important points. Then divide the students into groups of four and ask them to take time to review the syllabus thoroughly. Have each group come up with questions for you: about the syllabus, about the subject matter, about your qualifications to teach the course, about your expectations from them. Emphasize that a wide variety of questions relevant to the course are acceptable, not just strict matters of course policy. You can have each group choose a representative to ask their questions, if you don’t want the discussion to become a free-for-all.

The exercise, by insisting upon student questions, will encourage those students perhaps too shy or just not usually disposed to asking questions in class to speak up. It will expose any ambiguities in your course materials pretty quickly. It will, with luck, establish your classroom as a place where students are invited to speak regularly. Ideally, as well, it will signal that you care about their expectations and opinions about the course and are planning to work with them throughout the semester to create a successful course.  -DG

Source: "13. Play 'Meet Your Teacher.'" Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 5-6.

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.

Gauge student misconceptions early on

Students begin your course with a whole host of prior knowledge about the topic—some of it incorrect or poorly understood. James Lang advises trying to figure out just what your students know—or think they know—early on in the term, in the first or second class period. As Lang notes, much learning research suggests that students will use whatever previous knowledge they have to process the information and ideas you present to them. It's worth knowing, as you begin your course, what ideas the students already have.

Lang suggests making up student information sheets that you distribute to the class. Each student must fill out his or her name, major or possible major, and email address (though you may very well already have these). In addition, "ask each student to write a short paragraph in response to two or three substantive questions about their past experiences with the course topic, or about their understanding of their ideas you will be presenting over the course of the semester." 

In the short term, you can use the exercise to generate a first-day-of-class discussion on the course's subject matter and the students' misconceptions going in. More importantly, you can use the students' answers to help tailor your teaching in the weeks that follow to the specific group of students in front of you.  -DG

Source: James M. Lang. On Course: A Week-By-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. 31-35.

First day of class introductions

Creating a friendly and supportive community among your class's students is a worthwhile goal, but it is one that is difficult to achieve quickly. Here, from David Royse, are some "warm-up techniques" to try on the first day of class, to encourage the students to relax with, interact with, and learn from each other.

"Each student: 

  • Interviews a fellow student and prepares a 45-second introduction of the person on his or her right or left.
  • Informs the class of something very few people would know (e.g., once shook hands with the President). 
  • Describes the unique cultural experience or community in which he or she was raised. 
  • Shares a wish, hope, or fear about the class. 
  • Says, 'To know me, you would have to be familiar with the book ______'. 
  • Lists three adjectives that best describe him or her. 
  • Jots down a pet peeve or myth.
  • Describes any relevant events or experiences that might make him or her an 'expert' on some area (e.g., lived in Belize for two years in conjunction with Peace Corps assignment; spent last four years working midnight to dawn in a bakery)."  -DG

Source: David Royse. Teaching Tips for College and University Instructors: A Practical Guide.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001. 59.

Encourage all students to talk, with poker chips

 In many discussion-heavy classes, only a handful of students dominate the conversation. Here’s a technique, from Bob Burdette, Assistant Professor of Accounting at Salt Lake Community College, to encourage everyone to participate. At the beginning of class, pass out two or three poker chips to each student. Whenever a student answers a question or makes a comment, she turns in one of her chips. When a student is out of chips, she can no longer speak, leaving those students with chips left to answer the remaining questions.  -DG

Source: Bart, Mary. “Classroom Discussion: Professors Share Favorite Strategies for Engaging Students.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 9 July 2012. Web. 24 July 2013. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/classroom-discussion-professors-share-favorite-strategies-for-engaging-students/

Term-long informal writing exercises

Devote the first ten minutes of each class to an informal writing assignment: give the students a prompt and have them write an answer in a specially devoted notebook. You can collect these student writing journals several times throughout the semester to check on your students’ progress and perhaps give them a grade. Some portion of the final class of the semester is devoted to an exercise that asks students to reflect on their writing throughout the term. You have them respond to four prompts:

            1) Go through and choose their strongest response of the term and briefly explain why it is the strongest;

            2) Choose the response that was the hardest to do and briefly explain why;

            3) Choose the response that “does the best job of stating their values and beliefs, and then … discuss how those values and beliefs have affected their ability to understand course content”; and

            4) Compare answers written during the first few weeks of the term with those written near the end of the course and describe the changes they see.  -DG

Source: Weimer, Maryellen. “Informal Writing Assignments: Promoting Learning Through Writing.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 6 November 2012. Web. 22 July 2013. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/informal-writing-assignments-promoting-learning-through-writing/. Based on research by Hudd, S.S., Smart, R.A., and Delohery, A.W. “My understanding has grown, my perspective has switched: Linking informal writing to learning goals.” Teaching Sociology, 39.2 (2011), 179-189.


Have students respond to marked papers

When you return papers to students, have them 1) correct any grammatical or syntactical problems you have pointed out, either on the paper itself, or on a separate sheet, and 2) respond to any marginal comments you’ve made. Perhaps offer bonus points for thorough responses. This ensures that students actually read your comments, and that they might actually learn from them. -DG

Source: Tollefson, Stephen K. Encouraging Student Writing: A Guide for Instructors. Berkeley: Office of Educational Development, University of California, Berkley, 2002. 9. http://teaching.berkeley.edu/sites/teaching.berkeley.edu/files/encouraging_0.pdf


Low-stakes pre-writing

At the beginning of class, give students a question about their reading, the material covered in the last class, or a topic that will be relevant to that day’s class, and give them ten minutes to write an answer. This writing can go ungraded, or it can be turned in and count for a tiny percentage of the final grade. The writing gives students time to think, reflect on the material, and get into the right mindset for a discussion in class. It can also give shy students the confidence to speak up in class, because they only have to look down and read from their paper to make a contribution.  -DG

Source: Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 90-92.

McEvoy Minute Around

 Begin class by handing your watch to a student in the front row. Explain that each student will talk for a minute—an initial contribution to the day’s discussion, a response to the reading, a question to explore—before handing the watch to the next person. This is only practical, of course in smaller classes. “‘The longer my students sit without saying anything,’ one professor told [Ken Bain], ‘the harder it is to bring them into the discussion.’” The activity’s title comes from its progenitor, University of Wisconsin professor Arthur McEvoy.

James Lang adds that you don’t need to use the watch-gimmick. “Simply establish that at the beginning of the class, each student has a brief time period either to respond to a question that you pose, or to explain what she thought was relevant, or interesting about the reading or material for that day’s class. As the students offer their statements, you take notes, and use their comments and ideas to fill out or alter whatever discussion questions you have planned.”  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 130-31. Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 92.

End of class conclusions/questions exercise

 Leave 5-10 minutes at the end of each class. Ask students, “What major conclusions have you drawn from today’s class/reading/discussion?” and “What questions remain in your mind?” Have students write down the answers to these questions, then go around the room, asking for some of their answers. Let those answers drive a discussion that helps cement the content of that day’s class, and/or contribute to what you teach in the next class.  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 103.


 To reinforce ideas within a lecture, it’s worth pausing between big concepts and asking students to reflect and interact on what they’ve heard. Here’s a structured way to do that.

   "1. Think—Pose a question either as review (‘What has been the main point so far?’ ‘Why do the Balinese regard death lightheartedly?’) or as a transition” to your next big idea “(‘Given what you’ve heard…?’) Give them sixty seconds to write an answer.

   2. Pair—tell students to confer with a neighbor (for two or maybe five minutes) and compare answers.

   3. Share—Ask one pair to report their answer. Ask whether other pairs have different answers. After a brief discussion, move on…”  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 54-55.

A strategy to improve a challenging class

Peter Filene has a suggestion for dealing with a course that does not seem to be going well. If discussions falter, responses to the readings are cursory at best, and you do not seem to be getting through to students, Filene suggests involving the students in diagnosing the problems. Distribute index cards to the students and ask them to evaluate the course by responding to questions. These can be very general, as in “What is going well?” and “What do you think could be improved or changed?”. The questions, alternatively, could be more focused on specific issues: “How does the difficulty of the readings compare to your other courses?”, “What holds you back from participating in discussions,” etc.

At the end of the exercise, you can collect the index cards, take them home and think about your students’ answers. Or you can shuffle the cards, return them to the students, and have each student read a card aloud, beginning a class-wide discussion of what’s wrong with the class and how the problems can be fixed.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 71-73.