Suggestions for making classes more interactive

One of my introverted junior colleagues asked for suggestions on how to keep students engaged for a 3 hour block class without completely exhausting him and also to make sure they don’t skip the readings before class.  Here’s some of my suggestions.

I really like Boice’s suggestion with teaching, “get them to do the work,” and keep that in mind when I’m coming up with new class preps.

Here’s some more targeted suggestions:

– Provide them with discussion questions to go along with their readings, then hit those discussion questions in class discussion. Since everybody will have something written down, you can cold-call and/or round robin around the table to get everyone’s answers.
– Have them come up with discussion questions.  Have them post the discussion questions online prior to class for everyone to read.
– Ask them to present on specific topics. (I find presenting about the details of different public programs to be kind of boring, so I’ll let them pick off a list for one of my classes. It’s something they can present on without a huge amount of econ knowledge.)
– Have them find literature or news stories that directly relate to the topic for the week.
– Have them follow people of interest on Twitter and pick a tweet or two that deal with the topics of interest in you class. You can start class going around the table and asking them about what’s going on in current events based on their twitter feeds.
– Cancel regular class prior to a major written assignment but require them to stop by your office individually to get feedback on their papers prior to submission.
– Have them workshop each other’s papers in class. (Your campus writing center may have resources to help you do this.)
– Debate
– In-class exercises
– Guest lecture
– Ask the library for help on research
– Show videos, discuss the videos

What suggestions do you have for breaking up long classes and keeping students engaged?

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Notes from a 3 hour implicit bias training

Faculty and staff had mandatory implicit bias training this year.  Last time (>5 years ago) we did this it was voluntary and all I remember from it was the speaker bringing up a (female, foreign-born, adjunct) volunteer from the audience and white male full professors commenting on her clothing and appearance because the speaker asked them what their initial impressions of her were.  It was enormously cringe-worthy.  This time it was a bit better, but I still came away with the feeling that, like economics, perhaps a little training is worse than no training at all.

I think I understand now why implicit bias training has been shown* to decrease implicit bias in people who already understand implicit bias and increases it in people who don’t really believe in it.

The first audience comment was an ageist joke.  Most people laughed.  I told the commenter that was not appropriate.  If I hadn’t been there, would anybody have said anything?

The students took this training for the first time last year.  I now understand why I got comments on my course evals saying that I was micro-aggressive towards white men and favored under-represented minorities and women over said white men.**  This training is focusing on making everybody in the audience feel like victims and giving them the language to talk about that.  I work very hard at inclusion in my classes and inclusion can feel like micro-aggression to the majority who is used to feeling like they’re special.  The first example the speaker gave was an example about the speaker hearing someone using the term “redneck” and joking, “you did not just say that.”  To her credit, she noted that most of the (Southern) audience was staring at her in disbelief and asked why.  After some native Southerners pointed out that was a pretty milquetoast insult, I noted that there really aren’t any powerful epithets against native straight white men in the US.  People in the audience seemed to agree.  (They probably didn’t need me there for that one.)

During various exercises, one straight white guy after another shared anecdotes about when they felt like they’d been discriminated against or stereotyped.  So many short-haired white guy heads nodded during these recounting while the rest of us just sat there.  The speaker applauded them for their sharing and made points about how everyone is put into groups.

It went on like that.  I broke in a few times to note that thinking you’re aware isn’t enough– people don’t realize that they’re calling on men more than women– they think they’re being equivalent.  They think 35% is 50%.  So you really do need to keep track of who is talking, or (as another professor suggested) you need to randomize cold-calls.  I talked about how to make cold-calling less scary and how to include more students, even those who are silenced.  I talked about other techniques that can be used to make groups more inclusive.  Having good intentions isn’t enough.   But thinking it is enough is dangerous.

There was a lot of talking about problems, nothing about solutions.   The speaker brought up examples of incidents and asked if we’d seen them and to discuss them (and how they make people feel), but didn’t talk about possible bystander reactions.  There was no discussion of relative difficulty, no checking white guy privilege.  Most of the exercises had the purpose of making people understand what it feels like to be discriminated against… but, as I said before, for people who aren’t actually discriminated against, not being treated like princes feels a lot like discrimination.

I suspect there’s implicit bias training that works better than what most universities are presenting.  This is not yet a solved problem.  What can be done in a 3 hour lecture hall, even with group exercises?  I don’t know.  But my other colleague who has studied this a lot for that university-level committee we were on thinks that maybe not trying to cover everything and instead focusing on the major problems affecting our students and our faculty right now according to the latest campus climate survey (islamaphobia, racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, or some subset thereof) and providing solutions on what to do for various instances might be the way to go.  If these were smaller sessions, maybe the IAT (though again, its use has had mixed results depending on how receptive the participant is).

Have you seen implicit bias training that actually works?

*too lazy to look up the citation, but it featured heavily in a university-level committee I was on

**fairly sure I’m not micro-aggressive towards white men.  However, I am intentionally micro-aggressive (as well as explicitly “you coming in late is disruptive stop doing that”) to people who wander into class late, and last year only white men wandered in late.  Most white men did not wander in late.

Ask the grumpies: Dissertation Student from Hades

Stacie asks:

I have this student. She is a PhD student and she gets under my skin! Several months ago I could tell things were not right between us as she was very combative and defensive in class. I tried various ways to figure this issue out in class to no avail. I finally asked for a meeting and honestly felt blind-sided and rail-roaded by her response. When I tried to discuss her behavior, she was quick to retort how she wasn’t the problem, it was me and began to recount my failings [update:  failings were that Stacie is “cold and distant”]. It honestly caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to respond. I ultimately tried to diffuse the situation and talk about how we would work together in the future. I did find out that other students definitely see problems in her behavior in various classes, but have yet to find another professor who will vouch for this. I’ve asked and they say they have no problems with her, but then I hear other students talk about how much this student is being difficult in their classes… (this also drives me crazy!) I talked to my Chair whose overall response to most things seems to be “oh well” so that didn’t really help.

I am really having a hard time keeping my cool around this student who continues to be defensive in class. I am definitely having trouble “teaching others how to treat me” – probably because I don’t like conflict, try to be “nice”, and don’t have great one-liners at the ready to respond to student behaviors.

Yes, I am the newest faculty member, one of the only young females in a mostly senior, male faculty, and have been told I’m the most “human” of any professor we have. (I used to think this was a good thing, but now am not so sure.)

I was wondering if you could help me with how to think about this issue or some phrases I could use regularly with this kind of thing with students or other things I can do to survive this kind of issue. I have a feeling this won’t be my last student who challenges me like this, but I don’t want to always worry or over-think these things. I honestly have some great students, but this one student is the only one I can think about! It drives me crazy!

Well, we don’t have any great advice on this particular student.  Avoiding her completely would be awesome, but it sounds like that might not be an option. Mostly, it sounds like you need a mentor who has handled PhD students at your school for a while and has tenure. They can give you suggestions for the circumstances.  It also sounds like you’ve tried in vain to find such a mentor, and that really sucks.  We’re sorry you’re not getting more support on this.  :(

However, you can also look outside of your department.  Seek out the following resources: 1) talk to the head of the teaching development center at your school, whatever that’s called. (Or teaching & learning, or teaching & Faculty development, etc.) They exist for things like this! 2) talk to your faculty ombudsperson, as they may know more resources and probably have seen similar situations in the past. 3) attempt to get mentoring informally from senior colleagues — if not in your own department then in other departments. You could talk to other people who supervise PhD students, members of the student’s dissertation committee, the Director of Graduate Studies for your department, or the Dean of the Graduate School (or someone in their office). Take them to coffee and ask for advice. It’s good for the future to be friendly with these sorts of people anyway. 4) Outlast the student. Unfortunately this also takes time.

In terms of how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future with other students, Teach like a champion is an invaluable resource with tactics that really do work. It isn’t quite as much help for what to do after a problem has started, but it’s great for setting up a professional environment where problems won’t start. We have some posts on teaching tactics from it that you might find helpful if you want to get a taste while waiting to get it from the library.  Maintain control of the classroom, and very strong personal boundaries. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.

Update:  That is an incredibly gendered complaint.  Professors are allowed to be cold and distant and setting boundaries and having a personal bubble helps immensely when you’re a young woman professor.  If you didn’t have such a bubble, students would be complaining about something else because they would perceive you as unprofessional.  There’s no way to win.  Allowing space and distance is the way to go because it isn’t so time intensive or emotionally challenging, even if you get punished for it.

Getting grey hair is also good for reducing student challenges. And experience is great for not letting obnoxious students get to you so much. But those strategies take time.

In the mean time, hopefully the academic part of the Grumpy Nation will chime in with additional suggestions.  We’ll also try to get a signal boost from Historiann to get her always helpful readers.

warm and fuzzy student things

One of the joys of my job is that I get to remove math phobia from students.  I teach a required math course for social science majors, many of whom come from backgrounds that are not math heavy.  Often this is the first math course they’ve taken since high school.  Many of them think they’re just not good at math.  I spend a lot of time filling in gaps of their knowledge, even doing silly things like going over every step of simplifying a fraction or solving for X, you know, just in case.  (I do this because my Calc 1 instructor SUCKED and I learned almost all of Calc 1 while taking Calc 2 from a different professor at the local university because he would go through every single step of what I’d missed whenever we needed to know it.)  I do extra tutoring in office hours.  I constantly push the growth mindset on students.

From about midterms to getting final grades, my students start to realize that hey, maybe they’re not so bad at math after all.  This week has been especially warm and fuzzy with students popping by during office hours to confide in me that they’re actually “getting” the class, something they thought impossible. (Last week they discovered and informed me that they’re several weeks ahead of the other section and have had much more difficult homework assignments– this has become a point of pride with them.)

Lots of students mentioned in office hours that it’s all coming together on this week’s homework.

One gentleman told me that his entire life he’s taken the easy way out, doing things that maximize how impressive they sound while minimizing actual need for thinking.  This semester he’s taken some (gen-ed fulfilling) classes from our department, including mine, and they’ve challenged him and he’s risen to the challenge and he’s realized he likes to be challenged.  He came by to tell me he’s changed his major to our department from communications.  He’s actually the second person to tell me this week that (s)he’s switched into our major because my class wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as (s)he had thought it would be, not because it’s easy, but because (s)he can do it.

Another woman stopped by to tell me that she’s always been terrified of math and never thought she’d ever be able to do anything with computers, but she feels really powerful whenever she uses her statistical software on the homework.  She can’t wait to take my (more difficult, semi-elective) class next semester.

A senior stopped me in the hall and told me how surprised she’d been to see that A on her transcript last semester, an A she’d earned in my harder semi-elective.  The stuff she learned has been helping her this semester too.

It’s been a warm and fuzzy week.

Do you have any warm and fuzzy student stories to share?

More on teaching tactics: roll call, do now

We already talked about Roll Call— simply calling people’s names from the attendance sheet before class and marking them in or absent, whether or not you use that information.  The book Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov talks about threshold techniques, which is the way you greet students as they enter, and DH has picked roll call to be his threshold technique.

Do Now is another technique that can be useful in technical classes.  Basically you have a little problem for them to solve that they should be able to solve in a short amount of time at the beginning of class.  It’s either written on the board or given in a handout that they pick up as they enter.  It’s a way to check for understanding and to get the ball rolling and the brain activated for class.

DH has been talking about the interaction between the two.

Roll call (effectively his threshold technique), strengthens the utility of the Do Now. People show up early for the roll call, and so they’re there to start on the do-now before class. It’s gaining him probably 5 minutes of time on 3/4 of the students.  And he can use the time since he’s going right up to the bell every session.

Do Nows and quizzes are pedagogically essentially the same thing– quick checks for student understanding and an incentive to keep up with the material.  However, the Do Now has many psychological and mechanical advantages over the quiz.  Students like the Do Now better than the quiz.   They feel a lot different.  They’re less intimidating. And he doesn’t have to grade them.  They feel more like they’re for the student learning than the end result of a grade.

He was using quizzes for attendance, feedback to the professor, and an incentive for them to keep up with the material. Now roll-call and cold-calling are filling those needs.

me: I’ve definitely been doing more cold calling.  I’ve been trying to learn a new student name or two every class period  so that kid gets picked on.  Once I’ve picked on them, they’re more likely to ask questions.

DH: I’ve realized that cold calling can be a learning tool, and hopefully that comes through when I walk them through anything they’re struggling with, and the way there’s no judgement on wrong answers.  Anyway, off to class.

I hope it went well!  Do you think we should allow students to sink or swim on their own, or is nudging them ok?

Ask the Grumpies: Video in class

Leah asks:

What is your preferred way to use a video in your class?

#1 says:  I love them, I use them as much as possible, students love them.  I show them whenever I can think of an excuse or find a good video.

#2 says:  I generally only use video in my electives, and generally Daily Show or Colbert Report clips on current events that just happen to fit with a topic we’re discussing.  Occasionally I’ll dig up a Youtube video of an old commercial or something to explain what things were like before they were born.  I tend to use NPR a bit more, either having them listen in class or as a homework assignment that we’ll then discuss in class.  For one of my electives, I have a video of a talk that an architect of an important piece of legislation gave that I just show instead of lecturing because he just does a great job of explaining what and why and what are the problems.  I also have a video on another topic that I play sometimes because it has a nice overview of all the scholarly articles we’ll be reading on the topic.  One year I had my students watch a Michael Moore video for the final exam and use what they’d learned in the class to critique it.

Ask the grumpies: What makes an ideal student?

Femme Frugality asks:

What are the qualities in your ideal student? Where’s the line between being a good student and being a kiss-ass?

There’s no such thing as a kiss-ass in the grumpy nation.   A good student is excited about the material and about learning and isn’t concerned about grades, just doing a good job, being responsible, polite, and understanding the material in the class.  Enthusiastic students are often labeled kiss-asses as if it is a bad thing, but we’re here to tell you that enthusiasm for learning is never a bad thing, even if it forces you to go to graduate school and perhaps even become a professor.  So stay bright-eyed and respectful, we will not think less of you, even if your classmates are secretly jealous and try to pull you down.

#2 adds:

Come to class, look attentive, don’t sleep or text.  Make some reasonable effort on all assignments.  Don’t ask for exceptions to the rules.  Don’t give me presents or try to be friends, it’s weird.  (#1 says:  I do not mind presents from my international students whose cultures suggest gifts for all professors after the holiday break, but only *after* the class is over.  I have a nice collection of New Years red ribbons, which are entirely appropriate, especially when all your first semester professors have one.)

The students that stand out in my mind were really interested in the topic of the class and found something to fascinate them.  Also, intelligence.  Smart ones are better.  (#1 notes:  even if you’re not smart, hard work will *make* you smarter, at least in my classes.)  Respectfulness (not obsequiousness) and good writing will help.  I will have a soft spot for you if you volunteer for an in-class demo, but you don’t have to.

Grumpy academic readers, what makes your ideal student?