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.

Model research with "the lifeboat problem"

James Clements, American University of Dubai 

The biggest challenge I face when teaching research methods to first-year students is that they tend to understand research only as "support" for an argument. In other words, they insert research into their papers to back up preconceived opinions, rather than use it to help them form their arguments in the first place.

To help them understand that research should precede the formation of an argument, I often begin the course with the following in-class group assignment, which also helps students get to know each other in the early stages of the course.

I break the class into groups of four or five, and present them with a very basic list of about twelve "types" of people: an elderly grandmother, a captain, a lifeguard, a nurse, teenage twins, and so on. I then ask each group to choose which eight individuals will make it onto a lifeboat.

I let them discuss it for ten minutes or so. Most often, the students ask no questions at all, and simply proceed to make their decisions based on the very limited information at hand. After they've made their choices, I then ask them to explain how they reached their decision. I follow this by asking them how their decisions would have changed if they'd had additional information: ie. one of the twins is pregnant, the captain was not responsible for the accident, and so on. It usually leads them to significantly change their decisions. In the remainder of the class, I ask them to reflect on the ways in which the game parallels the process of forming any moral argument: acquiring additional information changes the parameters of the conversation.

While the exercise is simple, I have found that it helps redefine students' understanding of the purpose of research early on in the course, and sets a precedent for the remainder of the semester.

Encourage attention and discussion with "listening teams"

Here is an easy strategy to encourage students to listen critically to your lectures and to encourage discussion afterward. In both variations, you begin by dividing up students at the beginning of class.

Variation 1: divide students into four teams, each of which has a specific assignment for that day's lecture and discussion. 

  1. Questioners - After the lecture is finished, this team has to ask two questions about the material.
  2. Nay-Sayers - After the lecture is finished, this team comments on two points with which the team disagrees. 
  3. Yea-Sayers - After the lecture is finished, this team comments on two points with which the team agrees. 
  4. Explainers - After the lecture is finished, this team has to give two specific examples that explain the lecture. 

After the lecture, allow the teams to confer. Let each team then report to the class the results of their discussions.

Variation 2: divide students into groups of four students each. Each student will play a specific role within his or her group. 

  1. Example-Giver - This student listens for examples or applications of key concepts.
  2. Questioner - This student asks two clarifying questions about the material presented in the lecture. 
  3. Devil's Advocate - This student comments on two points with which he or she disagrees.
  4. Team Player - This student points out two areas of agreement with the lecture material.  

The groups confer after the lecture, with each student presenting his or her contributions according to his or her role.  

In both variations, the exercise serves to encourage students to follow the lecture more closely, as well as structure the discussion so as to reinforce the material presented in the lecture.  -DG

Source: Variation 1 from Mel Silberman. 101 Ways to Make Training Active. Johannesburg: Pfeiffer, 1995. 101-103. Variation 2 from Mel Silberman. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996.


 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.