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.