Redefining Student Expectations to Foster Good Discussions

In the first part of this post, we looked at some of the findings in Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom that spoke to some of the barriers to meaningful student engagment in class discussions. In particular, what Howard calls “civil attention” plays a large role in students’ resistance to participation; so long as they are able to look like they’re paying attention without putting in more effort than that, students will likely take the opportunity to remain passive. As a result, if we try to start a discussion, we encounter long periods of silence, if not a sullen resistance to our efforts. “Civil attention,” according to Howard, is the product of how students see the class experience as a passive and “unfocused” environment, as opposed to a “focused” situation where contributions from everyone are the expected norm. The key question, then, is how we can get our students to treat class as a focused environment, and see engaged discussion as the norm, not some unpleasant exception. Continue reading “Redefining Student Expectations to Foster Good Discussions”

Iowa Nice, “Civil Attention,” and Student Engagement

Recently, I was talking with a colleague at another institution about the phenomenon known around here as “Iowa nice.” Neither of us is native to Iowa, so we were both told about the “Iowa nice” mindset when we began our positions in Iowa colleges. The phenomenon actually has its own Wikipedia page, where it’s defined as “a cultural label used to describe the stereotypical attitudes and behaviors of residents within the U.S. state of Iowa, particularly in terms of the friendly agreeableness and emotional trust shown by individuals who are otherwise strangers.” In general, Iowa Nice is a good thing. It’s nice to live in a place with the idea that one should observe basic niceties and be courteous with strangers, or the general expectation that one is expected to help one’s neighbors in need. Continue reading “Iowa Nice, “Civil Attention,” and Student Engagement”


Suggested soundtrack to this post:

In my home discipline, there’s a running joke: “Historians: We study Change, but we certainly don’t recommend it.” It’s funny because it’s true. Change is hard, and it’s not just historians that struggle with it (though we are some of the more amusing examples, I’ll grant). But it’s a struggle that we have to engage in, or our teaching and our own scholarly work becomes stale. And if we’re stale, our students will often notice it before we do. It’s like a funny smell in one’s house–the resident is so familiar with it that it goes unnoticed, but as soon as the guest enters, they immediately wonder what died in the basement.

At this point in the semester, we may have become aware of changes that we might need to make; I know that’s the case in one of my courses. Discussion flags, readings aren’t being completed, things are starting to drift off course…a little past the quarter-pole of the semester is an opportune time to assess how things are (or aren’t) going and adjust as necessary. If something isn’t working, we need to discern why that’s the case. Are my discussions anemic because they aren’t reading? What do I differently to get them to engage with the material ahead of time? Then we make changes based on our sense of what can help move our classes toward our desired outcomes. This is the process, I would argue, that’s at the heart of pedagogy: becoming a reflective practitioner, always willing to critically examine our teaching and act on what we find.

This week’s links discuss some of the more common issues we encounter early in the semester that might call for rethinking or reflection. And, as always, your friendly neighborhood CETL staff is happy to assist as well. If you’re looking for ideas or inspiration in this process of assess-and-adjust, feel free to come by and chat. We’re here to help!

Marellen Weimer asks the $64,000 question: “Why are we so slow to change?” Her answers are thoughtful reflections on both what we do in the classroom and why we do it.

We are so vested in our teaching, and, like our students, we are error averse. Try something new, and there’s a risk of failure. There’s risk with what we do every day, but it feels safer to go with the tried and true.

But, Weimer tells us, there are ways to mitigate the difficulties inherent in change if we’re willing to reach out to colleagues.

The KQED Mind/Shift blog had an interesting post this week on some colleges’ efforts to replace lecture-driven classes with hands-on, experiential learning. This particular case deals with Science courses, but the insights are applicable across a range of disciples.

If you’re looking to revive flagging discussions, or try something new to spark conversations in your class, you’ll find this list of discussion techniques from The Cult of Pedagogy quite useful. There’s a good range of stuff in here, from spur-of-the-moment ideas to more structured, pre-planned activities-a little something for everyone!

Speaking of changes, Blackboard has incorporated some really useful mobile features that many of our students are already using. There are a lot of intriguing possibilities for design here, both on the general course and individual assignment basis. On February 15, at 4 PM in Rasmussen 217, the inimitable Dr. Karly Good will be hosting Conversations on Technology:

Do you plan on teaching a course with more online components in the near future?  This Conversation on Technology will help you take classroom activities on the move by using Blackboard tools. Many features of Blackboard are enabled to be used on any Smart or mobile devices.  All we have to do is develop activities that take advantage of those tools so that students may use them in both face-to-face courses as well as blended and online courses.

This workshop will help you convert practical activities you already use into mobile activities.  We will supply the laptops, you supply the content (and smart device if you like).  Starting to think more about mobility will get you closer to understanding how your students engage, study, and communicate.  This workshop will be grounded in both constructivist and connectivist theories.

We hope to see you there!

Also, one of the other changes on the horizon that we’re engaging with is Blended and Online Learning. If you’re currently slated to teach a course in either of these modalities, or interested in learning how to do so, consider attending our Open Lab Workshop on Saturday, Feb. 20, from 9-12. We’ll be in the Krumm East Lab (KCTR 26); there’s no formal schedule, but rather the opportunity to work one-on-one with CETL staff to develop/modify syllabi, course activities, and course design. Bring your class materials and your questions!

Looking for resources? Ideas? Help?

Click here to contact CETL

Click here for this week’s CETL Library Spotlight

We may not have had a snow day this week, but Tian Tian, one of the pandas at the National Zoo, did. And it was GLORIOUS:


Surprise! It’s October!

SurprisedCatIs it just me, or is the semester going by really fast? (Note: I have posed this rhetorical question at the five-week mark of every semester in my teaching career.) As we stagger make our way toward midterms, our classes are finding their rhythms–their patterns and identity–as we and our students become more familiar with one another and with the work at hand. In many cases, this is a really positive development; students have gelled with one another, discussions have become less stilted and more open and honest, and we’re finally able to remember everyone’s name. But in some instances, the rhythm isn’t established yet. Or the class has taken on less-than-ideal characteristics–students are sullen, or belligerent, or just plain flat. If you’re in that spot (and, honestly, who among us hasn’t been?), the good news is there’s still time to turn things around. In some cases, the answer to our problems is to relax the reins a little bit, especially if discussion is the main area in which our class is struggling. It may seem counter-intuitive, but letting go may be the answer to regaining pedagogical balance. Have we over-planned? Are we creating structures that stifle students rather than empower them? Do they have room to try (and maybe even fail) to accomplish the course goals? In this thoughtful essay, Chris Friend explores what it means to “let go,” listen to our students, and let them wander rather than channel them into specific places. Sometimes the way to regain control is to give it up. Continue reading “Surprise! It’s October!”