Back to School

It’s freshman move-in day on our campus, signaling the end of summer and the start of classes. Today’s post offers some resources for instructors as the semester begins.

Empty lecture hall, tiered with wooden seats.The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker Blog post from August 13, 2015 by Natalie Houston (associate professor of English, University of Houston), From the Archives: Getting Ready for the New Semester, offers tips on getting ready to teach. Whether you are new to the profession or a practiced professor, there are links to articles with suggestions on learning student names, being prepared for medical emergencies in class, and routines to help you get organized.

In the The First Day of Class: A Once-a-Semester Opportunity (Teaching Professor Blog August 19, 2015), Maryellen Weimer, (professor emerita, Penn State Berks) writes, “There’s only one first day of class. Here are some ideas for taking advantage of opportunities that are not available in the same way on any other day of the course.” She suggests using the opportunity to tell students why the course is important, why you are committed to teaching it, why they should be committed to learning the material. Take the time to learn about your students and begin building relationships with them. “[G]et students connected with each other and the course content.”

Students often complain of poor presentation methods in lectures where instructors use PowerPoint (or other presentation software applications). A common mistake is to attempt to make your slides serve two purposes by being both lecture notes and lecture slides. This leads to too much text on the slides and reading from the slide. Both practices lead to student inattention. Bryan Alexander, in Giving a great presentation: notes on using PowerPoint, (July 27, 2015) tell us, “Your argument…is the essential thing.  The slides enhance your essential argument.  They amplify it and render it easier to understand. Make and use slides accordingly.” While the focus of the article is on presentations in general, there are some good things to consider for your use of presentation software in teaching!

Thinking about flipping your course? Check out Robert Talbert’s post Four things I wish I’d known about the flipped classroom (June 5, 2014), from his blog Casting Out Nines.

Or, perhaps you are considering implementing active learning strategies in your classroom. A recent article in Nature, Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right (July 15, 2015) by M. Mitchell Waldrop, examines the problem of persistence in undergraduate STEM education. “Active problem-solving confers a deeper understanding of science than does a standard lecture. But some university lecturers are reluctant to change tack.” Waldrop stresses the importance of active learning, while analyzing the factors and challenges that contribute to slow adoption. For specific active learning strategies, see Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence website page on Active Learning. If you are going to be using an active learning classroom, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Education Innovation offers advice.

New to teaching or looking to brush up on your pedagogical skills? The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is re-offering the 8 week-long MOOC: An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, starting September 28 and running until November 19, 2015. Having taken the course last year, I highly recommend signing up. Here’s the description from Coursera:

“This course will provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to evidence-based teaching practices. Participants will learn about effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them, and they will apply what they learn to the design of lessons and assignments they can use in future teaching opportunities. Those who complete the course will be more informed and confident teachers, equipped for greater success in the undergraduate classroom.”


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source:

Twine 2.0: Not just for storytelling

For the past several years, I’ve been interested in storytelling as a means of improving student communication skills in any media. When I talk to students about communication skills, we discuss the importance of knowing your audience and of thinking about one’s research or project a being an opportunity to tell a story. I’m always on the lookout for applications and tools that might be useful in the classroom to help put these ideas into practice.

Black and white line drawing of a figure standing on an arrow with three heads pointing in different directions.A few years ago, I came across Twine, a tool for creating non-linear texts. It had potential, but at that time, the interface was a bit clunky, and didn’t seem intuitive enough for faculty and students to be able to pick up quickly. Enter Twine 2.0. A recent ProfHacker (Chronicle of Higher Education) blog post Starter Exercises for Interactive Storytelling, June 18, 2015, by Anastasia Salter, alerted me to a newer, easier to use version, with options for downloading or using it online. Twine casts itself as a game-writing tool, but more broadly it allows users to construct a story map.

What is a story map? If you were or had a child in the 80s or 90s, you may remember the popularity of the print “choose your own adventure” books. A story map allows you to graphically plot the paths that making a set of choices will take you down. This is the structure behind video games, as well as the “pick your next step” stories.

What can you do with Twine? Here’s what the Twine 2.0 guide says:

At its heart, Twine is a tool for creating hypertext. The difference between hypertext and a linear story, the kind found in books and magazines, is that it allows the reader to have some measure of agency. In other words, the reader has some ability over what he or she reads next. … [In creating a complex story or game] [b]ecause hypertext branches so much, it’s easy to get lost in your own work. Much of Twine is dedicated to helping you keep track of your work’s structure visually with a story map, so you can see what your readers’ experience will be like.

Can you build games with Twine? Of course! Twine has the capability to do conditional logic, so if the protagonist finds a key in an early part of the story, he or she can use it to open a door later on. It can also incorporate variables, which encompass the traditional trappings of games such as hit points and score. These, along with agency, are foundational concepts of interactivity, the currency of game design.

Beyond the gamification possibilities and the ability to create interactive narratives, Twine, and similar applications such as Inform 7 and Inklewriter, could be used more broadly for any activity that involves thinking critically about a decision process. Assignments that involve constructing a logic argument, inserting variables into an experimental model, or constructing hypothetical scenarios could all benefit from the features of Twine. Being able to “play” through the story map allows one to quickly identify flaws or problems.

There is a wiki full of information about using Twine. Get started with Twine 2: How to create your first story. Be sure you read Where Your Stories Are Saved before you start to avoid losing your work.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source:


Using Twitter in Your Course

The Innovative Instructor has written about using Facebook in the classroom, what about Twitter? What’s next? you might ask, Pinterest? Yes, even Pinterest seems to have inspired faculty to find uses for its boards in the classroom. Today, however, I want to make a case for using Twitter.

Twitter Logo Blue BirdWhat is Twitter? Wikipedia tells us that “Twitter is an online social networking service that enables users to send and read short 140-character messages called ‘tweets’. Registered users can read and post tweets, but unregistered users can only read them.” From celebrities to revolutionaries, the Twitterverse (aka the Twittersphere) is comprised of more than 500 million users; 271 million of these use Twitter actively. While many complain that the content is mostly inane babble, there are serious, even scholarly, conversations taking place on Twitter every day.

This example of an educational use comes from the CIRTL MOOC, An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, now completed, but due to run again in the near future.  If you signed up for the MOOC, you may still be able to access the content. The Twitter example was presented in Week Five: Inclusive Teaching and Student Motivation.

Margaret Rubega, Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut with a PhD in ornithology, decided to use Twitter, appropriately enough, for her introductory ornithology course. Rubega describes the course as face-to-face with approximately 100 students each semester it is taught. There is no lab component, so she struggled to find ways to introduce active learning in what has been primarily a lecture format. Another issue is that most of the students have grown up watching nature programs on TV (or YouTube videos), which exposed them to the concept that animals and birds are exotic species that live in remote areas. To her incoming students, nature was something that takes place somewhere else.

Rebega wanted to get her students to appreciate the way that biology plays out in their world. That it is something that they could observe when they walked out of the classroom onto campus. She knew that telling them (in lecture form) did not equal an appreciation that comes from observation and experience. She wondered if she could get students to use their electronic devices in some way that would force them to look up and see what was happening around them.

Thus was born #birdclass. The # sign is called a hashtag and is used to identify a specific conversation within the cacophony of tweets. By using the hashtag, Rubega and her students could have a targeted discussion. You can search Twitter for #birdclass to see the class-related tweets. Rubega assigned her students to tweet once a week. Each tweet was to 1) identify where they were, 2) what bird-related phenomena they saw, and 3) how it connected to course content. If it had the required three components, the tweet was awarded three points. She put a cap on the total number of points she would award each student.

Rubega’s initial goal was to make students take the course content outside of the classroom and see that what was described in class actually occurs in their world. She looked at Twitter as a tool that would allow her and her students to gather their observations in a way that was immediate and easy to access. She was not thinking about the social implications.

As soon as the students started using Twitter (and Rubega was posting to encourage them and provide examples of her expectations), their interest in engaging in conversation with her and their peers became immediately apparent. She began retweeting (forwarding and promoting in Twitter parlance) their best tweets to a larger audience interested in ornithology and thus facilitating a broader conversation outside of the class. This provided feedback from others in the field. The social aspect created instructional value that Rubega had not anticipated.

The second year she taught the course using Twitter, she traveled to Belize during spring break. She had not mentioned this trip to her students. While in Belize she began posting a list of birds she seen and asked if her students could identify where she was. Even though it was spring break and she had no expectation that any of her students would be monitoring their Twitter feeds, several student responded immediately. In a series of tweets, they worked on figuring out her location by looking at bird range and distribution charts. Rubega described being “blown away” by this experience. Further, when she returned to class, she gave the winning (first to correctly guess her location) student a token souvenir as a prize. This young women commented that she had learned more about geography in doing research during this tweet exchange than she had in high school.

Rubega maintains that Twitter works for her students because it allows self-directed, real-life discovery of the world around them. Their observations bring affirmation of what they have heard in class. The reward comes via interaction with their peers and a larger community of ornithologists, as well as acknowledgement of their tweets with the point system. By the end of the course, the students are using their knowledge to teach others in the Twitter ornithology community – by correcting and commenting on others’ identifications and observations, for example.

In thinking about the kind of learning that students achieve in the tweeting assignment, many of their tweets involved application and analysis (Bloom’s Taxonomy). This represents a higher level than might normally be associated with a straight lecture format – typically, transfer of knowledge and comprehension by the students.

You can see Margaret Rubega’s tweets at Besides teaching at the University of Connecticut, she is also Connecticut’s state ornithologist.

If you are interested in using social network applications, such as Twitter, in your classroom, there are several articles by Derek Bruff, director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics, that will be informative. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, A Social Network Can Be a Learning Network (November 6, 2011), Bruff references the concept of “social pedagogies,” a term coined by Randall Bass and Heidi Elmendorf, of Georgetown University. “They define these as “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” Leveraging student interests through social bookmarking, a CIRTL Network blog post from August 22, 2012, describes Bruff’s experiences using social bookmarking in two classes he has taught. And his students’ preferences for social bookmarking tools are discussed in a post, Diigo Versus Pinterest: The Student Perspective (May 31, 2012), on Bruff’s Agile Learning blog.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Twitter blue logo

Writing to Learn

I’ve been touting the CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning) MOOC, An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, for several weeks now. The course is coming to an end, but I am mining the materials for content to summarize here at The Innovative Instructor in case you missed it.

Students doing group workLast week the unit on Writing to Learn was particularly compelling. Janet L. Littrell, Ed.D, the Director of Distance Learning and Associate Director of the Engineering Education Research Center at the Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh, taught the module. The material presented below is taken from the three videos Littrell produced.

The concept of writing to learn has been around since the 1970s, but has gained traction again more recently. The concept is to view writing as part of the learning process, not solely for the purpose of communicating information, but also as a reflective practice to increase student understanding, enhance learning, and provide instructors with feedback.

How does writing to learn differ from other writing students are asked to do as part of their coursework? Traditional writing assignments usually are done outside of class, are complete when turned in, are graded and returned to the students, and have the purpose of documenting students’ knowledge and comprehension.

Writing to learn assignments are often assigned and completed in class, are short, open-ended, may or may not be turned in, typically are not graded, and have the purpose of helping students think for themselves. Engagement is the goal, errors are ok. The idea is that students are encouraged to explore, question, develop their ideas, and/or reflect on their experiences. A writing to learn assignment is often a jumping-off point; it marks a beginning of a thought process rather than an end product. This type of writing is often referred to as low-stakes writing.

The goal of low stakes writing is to turn students into active learners, to help them find their own voices, and to focus on thoughts and ideas rather than on a formal writing structure. Have your students do smaller, more frequent writing assignments that are not graded. For example, have students keep a journal or learning log to document their ideas, thoughts, reactions, and to comment on class discussions, labs, readings and other assignments. At the beginning of class give students 5 minutes to free-write on a specified topic as a way of helping them gather their thoughts for a discussion. Take a minute or two at the end of class for students to write questions or comments they have on the day’s lecture or discussion. Or, if you sense that students may not be understanding what you are teaching, you can ask for mid-lecture feedback. Although writing to learn assignments are not usually graded, in these last two cases, where the responses provide formative assessment, the instructor should collect and read through them. In other cases, there might be a check plus/check minus system for completion of a writing assignment, with points that accumulate for credit over the course of the semester. You might also consider peer review for a writing to learn assignment.

Using low stakes writing or writing to learn assignments in your classes does not preclude having students write in more traditional ways. You should consider your learning objectives and assign writing accordingly. Consider, however, that the more students write, the better writers they will become. Low stakes writing helps them to understand that putting their thoughts on paper is part of a larger scholarly process involving inquiry, analysis, and critical thinking.

For more on writing to learn see these resources and examples:

You can also Google “writing to learn” for more on the subject.

Finally, hot off the press is a report on a multi-year research study of 2,101 writing assignments across 100 higher ed institutions undertaken by Dan Melzer, Associate Professor of English at California State University at Sacramento: Assignments across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing, University Press of Colorado, 2014. This is worth taking a look at as you think about what it means to write in specific disciplines and why you might want to integrate writing to learn into your courses.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Summer Reading: Three Articles for Your Consideration

Celebrating the end of the academic year and looking forward to some time for summer reading? It’s always good to have solid research to back up our teaching practices. Three recent articles highlight scholarship behind the claimed benefits of collaborative learning, improved student performance with the use of active learning, and taking notes by hand provides better cognitive retention than using a laptop.

Woman lying on grass reading a book.A tip from the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list sent The Innovative Instructor to IDEA (Individual Development and Educational Assessment) and POD (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education). “IDEA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide assessment and feedback systems to improve learning in higher education.” [] As part of IDEA, POD produces “succinct papers” to address specific ways for instructors to employ innovative teaching methods. The POD Center Notes on Instruction is definitely worth a look.

POD Item #5 Formed “Teams” or “Discussion Groups” To Facilitate Learning Overall, reviews the research supporting the benefits of collaborative learning. “Learning is enhanced when the material to be learned is thought about deeply and also when related material is retrieved from memory and associated with the new material. When students have an opportunity to work together to learn course content, particularly when applying that material to a new challenge, both deep thinking and retrieval of associated materials are realized.” Specific tips are presented for implementing group work in a course, including setting clear expectations and monitoring group progress. Applications of group work for online settings are examined, and assessment issues are addressed.

Next, a study on lecturing versus active learning was recently highlighted in both Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The results of the research, Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Scott Freeman, Mary Wenderoth, Sarah Eddy, Miles McDonough, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Michelle Smith. The lead researchers are in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington, Seattle.

From the abstract: “This is the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date.” “These results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” As for the significance of the report, “[t]he analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.”

From the April 2014 Psychological Science, The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, reports on the benefits students gain by taking lecture notes longhand rather than on a laptop. Although using laptops in class is common (and instructors complain about the distractions laptops present), this study “…suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” “In three studies, [the researchers] found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” The authors conclude “…that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image Source: CC Spirit Fire on Flickr:

What is Gamification and Why Use It in Teaching?

A few weeks ago The Innovative Instructor had an inquiry from a reader who wanted to offer an online gamified Gothic art history class and was looking for models. Today’s post seeks to provide information on gamification, why you might want to consider using it in your teaching, and how to go about implementing gamification.

Gamification is defined as the application of typical elements of game playing (rules of play, point scoring, competition with others) to other areas of activity, specifically to engage users in problem solving. [Wikipedia and Oxford Online Dictionary] It has been used in marketing, but also has applications in education. In addition to promoting specific learning gains, games are a form of active learning. In some cases gamification includes the use of badges – think scouting merit badges in digital form – to promote learning and recognize competencies (e.g., Khan Academy has a badging system).

My own introduction to gamification came last October when I attended the annual Educause conference. One of the keynote speakers was Jane McGonigal who has a Ph.D from UC Berkeley and is a world renowned game developer.  Her 2012 TEDGlobal talk has had 4.5 million views, and her website is a great place to start learning about the value of games. “She points out that we like people better if we’ve played a game with them; we bond and build trust. And contrary to popular thinking, she explains that games are not so much a tool for escapism but rather a way to use our best selves. Gamers are extremely productive and collaborative within the realm of a game.”  [Friedman, Stan. “Finding the Future: Inside NYPL’s All-Night Scavenger Hunt.” Library Journal. July 13, 2011.]

It’s not all just fun. Games can be about finding solutions to serious problems as McGonigal states: “Many of my games challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale: hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace, for example (see: EVOKE, World Without Oil, Superstruct).” []

A search for scholarly articles on gamification [Google Scholar gamification in education] will get you to research on why gamification is an important teaching and learning strategy and how to incorporate gamification into your curricular planning. “In today’s digital generation gamification has become a popular tactic to encourage specific behaviours, and increase motivation and engagement. Though commonly found in marketing strategies, it is now being implemented in many educational programs as well, helping educators find the balance between achieving their objectives and catering to evolving student needs.” [Huang, Wendy Hsin-Yuan, and Dilip Soman. “Gamification Of Education.” 2013. p.5]

Huang and Soman define a five part process for applying gamification to the instructional environment.

Flow chart defining the steps to implementation of gamification in instruction.

The flow chart starts with knowing who your students are and where the course/training/instruction fits into the larger curricular framework. Context also refers to the type of instruction and where it will take place (individuals, groups, class size, face to face, online). Identification of “pain points” (factors that prevent learning advancement) will help the instructor define learning objectives and structure the placement of game elements in the curriculum. Then you can begin to identify resources – pre-existing games or ones that you will develop, which can range from complex to very simple. Finally, you will implement the gamification strategies.

Keep in mind that the objective is to gamify the process not the outcome. “Ben Leong, Assistant Professor at the School of Computing, National University of Singapore (NUS) states that there should be a clear understanding that gamification is independent of knowledge or skills. Gamification directly affects engagement and motivation and it indirectly leads to acquiring more knowledge and skills. Gamification encourages students to perform an action; for example, motivating students to practice computer programming will increase their skill and motivating students to memorize consistently can increase their knowledge.” [Huang and Soman. p. 15]

For many the big question will be “What games should I use?” There are a number of already developed, sophisticated games applicable to a variety of disciplines – STEM, humanities, social sciences – out there. For example, Entering the Education Arcade  [Jenkins, Henry, E. Klopfer, K. Squire, and P. Tan, “Entering the Education Arcade,” ACM Computers in Entertainment, Vol. 1, No. 1,
October 2003, Article 08] describes three games made by the Microsoft-MIT iCampus project, namely Supercharged!, Environmental Detectives, and Revolution. “Has education become nothing but fun and games? Not exactly. In each case, the games are being integrated into a range of other curricular activities. Games are enhancing traditional educational tools such as lectures, discussions, lab reports, homework, fieldtrips, tests, and textbooks. Games are being allowed to do what games do best, while other kinds of teaching support those lessons.” [Jenkins et al. p.2]

These links will take you to the games cited above and others developed by the MIT Education Arcade.

Also check out Games Learning Society, another developer of innovative educational video games, which “…promote engaging ways of learning about biological systems, civic activism, pro-social behavior, programming, and many other STEM domains.”

You don’t have to rely on existing video games, online simulations, coding your own games, or having students code in order to bring gamification to your teaching. Keep in mind that you are looking to identify a “pain point” and find a way to help your students learn that material. Role playing, research-oriented scavenger hunts, adapting classic television games or shows (e.g., Jeopardy, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Mission Impossible) to the classroom, are low-barrier methods to consider.  As this video demonstrates, it can be as simple as bringing buckets of ping pong balls to class. Here at Johns Hopkins, Professor of Biology Vince Hilser demonstrated the concept of equilibrium to students in an introductory biochemistry class by having them throw ping pong balls across the room. Specific rules, timed segments, and a spirit of competition fulfill the requirements for the activity to be a game.

Now, Innovative Instructor, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to develop a game to help students conquer a learning obstacle in your class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Macie Hall adapted from Huang, Wendy Hsin-Yuan, and Dilip Soman. “Gamification Of Education.” 2013. p.7.

Teaching with Primary Sources

Four examples of primary sources: letter, photograph, early bible, broadside.A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) titled Current Trends in Teaching with Primary Sources – A Hands-on Workshop. Not only did I learn a lot about the subject, but the workshop itself was a model for best pedagogical practices. Lecture format was kept to a minimum, formative assessment was used throughout, and the emphasis was on active learning in small groups. The workshop instructors, Matt Herbison (Archivist for Reference and Outreach, Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine), Doris Malkmus (Instruction and Outreach Archivist, Pennsylvania State University), and Rachel Grove Rohrbaugh (Archivist and Public Services Librarian, Chatham University), were enthusiastic about both what they were teaching and how they were teaching.

The Innovative Instructor doesn’t sit on the other side of the podium (so to speak) very often, so it was exciting to experience the principles we preach in practice. The instructors condensed the lecture content to several short (ten minutes or less) segments and provided the participants with photocopies of the slides for reference. Each of the lecture sessions was followed by an exercise. We were organized into groups of three and four and given handouts – copies of newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, printed materials – accompanied by a set of key questions for the group to answer.  In this way we learned to identify and differentiate primary, secondary, and tertiary sources; how to evaluate these documents for audience and bias; and how to analyze documents using standard generalized and specific approaches. Since the goal of the workshop was to train the trainers, we were also given some background on teaching strategies, including the importance of developing learning objectives, knowing your audience, and assessment and rubrics. For our final exercise each group created a primary source activity for a specifically described undergraduate or high school class using a set of primary and secondary sources.

Why is it important for students to learn how to work with primary sources? A project called Students and Faculty in the Archives collected data between 2011 and 2013 on visits by faculty and undergraduate students to the Brooklyn Historical Society. “After visiting the archives, participating students were more engaged with and excited about their coursework, showed improvement in key academic skills, and achieved better course outcomes than their peers. Faculty participants learned newly-established best practices for archives-based teaching and became more thoughtful and effective instructors.” And from the Library of Congress web pages on teaching with primary sources we learn that “[p]rimary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period. Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.” Moreover working with primary sources engages students, helps them to develop critical thinking skills, and learn to construct knowledge.

If you are interested in integrating primary source research into your courses, it’s easy to get started. Here at Johns Hopkins we have librarians and archivists who provide instruction for students individually or to a class, either in the classroom or in the special collections areas. There are likely similar library, special collections, and archive resources on your campus. Don’t stop there. If you are in or near an urban area you and your students should consider the wealth of primary source material housed in public libraries, archives, historical societies, newspaper morgues, house museums, and other such institutions.

There are also a number of places online where you can find inspiration for learning activities to introduce or reacquaint your students to working with primary sources. The following resources were recommended by the MARAC workshop:

Brooklyn Historical Society, Teaching effectively with primary sources:

NYSED on Document Analysis:

National History Day Resource Listing:

Key Concepts in Historical Thinking:


Library of Congress: Using Primary Sources

Document Analysis Worksheets: National Archives

National History Education Clearinghouse:

Historical Thinking Matters:

For further reading on the subject of teaching with primary sources, here are links to two bibliographies provided by the MARAC workshop:

1) Society of American Archivists Reference, Access, and Outreach Section

2) Zotero Groups – Teaching with Primary Sources

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Individual images from Wikipedia:

Two Keynotes – Part 2

In the last post, I wrote about a keynote presentation by Philip Yenawine, the co-founder of Visual Thinking Strategies. A second remarkable keynote address came during a half-day symposium, Peer to Peer: Engaging Students in Learning and Assessment, sponsored by colleagues in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (JHSPH).

Screenshot taken from Howard Rheingold's websiteHoward Rheingold delivered his presentation From Pedagogy to Peeragogy: Social Media as Scaffold for Co-learning remotely as seems appropriate for the person Wikipedia  describes as “… a critic, writer, and teacher; his specialties are on the cultural, social and political implications of modern communication media such as the Internet, mobile telephony and virtual communities (a term he is credited with inventing).”

Rheingold is a visiting lecturer at Stanford University in the Department of Communication where he teaches two courses, Virtual Communities, and Social Media Literacies. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley in the School of Information where he teaches Virtual Communities and Social Media. He is the author of numerous books including Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, [2002, Perseus Books], and Net Smart: How to Thrive Online [2012, The MIT Press]. He has given a TED Talk titled The New Power of Collaboration.

On the bleeding edge in terms of technology and thinking about the power of the human mind, Rheingold has long been an advocate and advancer of the collaborative nature of networked communities and communication. Rheingold spoke to the audience at JHSPH on the evolution of learning from lecture-based to learning-centered, self-directed, social, peer-to-peer, inquiry-based, cooperative, and networked models.

He started in the mid-2000s with the Social Media Classroom, a wiki-based site that acted as a place for communication and served as an asynchronous element to a face-to-face class he was teaching. In the process students, working in teams, became co-teachers. He promoted the use of blogs, and mind maps that provided students with a non-linear way of looking at materials and making connections between things. In an effort to reach out to different learning styles, Rheingold presented the course syllabus as a concept map, a Prezi, and on the wiki.

Since then we have seen a proliferation of peer-to-peer learning platforms such as YouTube and Khan Academy, as well as self-directed, peer-supported courses such as ds[digital storytelling]106. Since January 2011 ds106 has been taught at University of Mary Washington (UMW) and other institutions as a course for credit but also has at the same time been open (non-credit) to participants from the web (learn more about ds106).

Howard Rheingold’s Rheingold U. is a natural extension of this phenomenon.  “Rheingold U. is a totally online learning community, offering courses that usually run for five weeks, with five live sessions and ongoing asynchronous discussions through forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, and social bookmarks. In my thirty years of experience online and my eight years teaching students face to face and online at University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University, I’ve learned that magic can happen when a skilled facilitator works collaboratively with a group of motivated students. Live sessions include streaming audio and video from me and from students, shared text chat and whiteboard, and my ability to push slides and lead tours of websites.”

Rheingold asked, “What do self-learners need to know in order to effectively teach and learn from each other?” This question led him to the development of the concept of peeragogy (a collection of techniques for collaborative learning and collaborative work) and The Peeragogy Handbook: a peer-to-peer learning guide in the form of a wiki-based “textbook” created cooperatively. Of this Rheingold says, “I was invited to lecture at UC Berkeley in January, 2012, and to involve their faculty and their graduate students in some kind of seminar, so I told the story of how I’ve used social media in teaching and learning – and invited them to help me create a handbook for self-learners.”

Rheingold inspires us to rethink traditional teaching models, reminding us that not only do we learn best by doing, but also that teaching someone what we have learned reinforces our own knowledge.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: Screen shot from

Two Keynotes – Part 1

In the past few weeks I’ve attended a couple of professional meetings, a three day Visual Resources Association (VRA) conference in Milwaukee, and a half-day symposium, Peer to Peer: Engaging Students in Learning and Assessment, sponsored by colleagues in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (JHSPH). Both meetings packed a lot of valuable information into the sessions and had enlightening keynote speakers.

Screen shot from home page of the Visual Thinking Strategies websitePhilip Yenawine, Co-Founding Director, Visual Thinking Strategies, gave the keynote address at the VRA conference. He opened with an active learning exercise where he had the audience examine an image of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X and make statements about what we saw.  I should note that the Visual Resources Association is “a multi-disciplinary organization dedicated to furthering research and education in the field of image management within the educational, cultural heritage, and commercial environments” so many of the attendees examine art-related images on a daily basis, and were, perhaps, a bit better practiced at the exercise than average.

Yenawine states: “Of the vast array of images available to us, art tends to be the most complex and as such gleaning meaning from it – in its many manifestations – is a challenge. Frustrated when data revealed visitors learned little from the many educational interventions offered by [my] talented staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, [I] turned to Abigail Housen, a scholar who studied “aesthetic thought”– how people use what they know when looking at art – to try to determine and remedy the problem.” []

Yenawine and  Housen created a method they called Visual Thinking Strategies, and began introducing VTS into schools seeking to improve aesthetic development. “In longitudinal research studies, it was shown that, in addition to developing visual thinking, VTS programs promote creative and critical thinking skills. [Housen’s] research also demonstrated that students’ application of these crucial 21st century skills transfer to other subject areas across the academic curriculum.” []

Yenawine reported in his presentation that VTS discussions of art can be used to teach language, thinking, and social skills, but equally important is the development of visual literacy – defined as the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image.

So why is this program, designed for implementation in the K-12 sector, important for those of us in the Higher Education realm? In October 2011, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) introduced the Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education stating “[t]he importance of images and visual media in contemporary culture is changing what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Today’s society is highly visual, and visual imagery is no longer supplemental to other forms of information. New digital technologies have made it possible for almost anyone to create and share visual media. Yet the pervasiveness of images and visual media does not necessarily mean that individuals are able to critically view, use, and produce visual content. Individuals must develop these essential skills in order to engage capably in a visually-oriented society. Visual literacy empowers individuals to participate fully in a visual culture.”

In other words, it is never too late to become visually literate, or to think about how improving your student’s visual literacy might have a positive effect on their learning more generally.

The next post will highlight the keynote speaker from the Peer to Peer symposium.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: Screen shot from

Leveraging Peer Instruction

This post is based on an article written for our print Innovative Instructor series.

Instructors often seek student-centered, active-learning teaching practices. These teaching methods are intended to increase student retention and engagement but the ways in which they are implemented is important for success.

Professor Todd Hufnagel, Department of Material Science and Engineering (MSE), was interested in pedagogical techniques that are potentially more effective than the traditional lecture-based format for the course, Structure of Materials.

Professor David Neufeld, Department of Physics and Astronomy, planned to change his teaching approach in a 100-level, large lecture physics course in an effort to identify students’ misunderstandings and improve comprehension of the course content.

These courses – Structure of Materials and General Physics – are gateway courses. Students’ mastery of the course learning objectives is critical to success in subsequent, advanced courses. Research demonstrates that the use of active-learning strategies can lead to increased student retention in science and engineering majors. [Felder, R., G. Felder, and E.J. Dietz. (1998) “A Longitudinal Study of Engineering Student Performance and  Retention. V. Comparisons with Traditionally-taught Students.” Journal of Engineering Education, 87(4), 469-480.  Springer, L., M. Stanne, and S. Donovan. (1999). “Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research. 69(1), 21-5.]

Two heads in silhouette facing with light bulb betweenIndependently, the two professors adopted the Peer Instruction method pioneered by Eric Mazur in his physics courses at Harvard University in the 1990s. Peer Instruction is a popular, research-based pedagogical tool among physics faculty; it is being used increasingly in other disciplines as well. “The basic goals of Peer Instruction are to exploit student interaction during lectures and focus students’ attention on underlying concepts,” using ConcepTests – short conceptual questions on the topic being discussed. [Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. Page 10.]

In Mazur’s implementation of Peer Instruction, students first gain exposure to content before class by reading texts, watching videos, or completing other activities. Instructors then solicit pre-class feedback on that content, usually in the form of questions about what students found difficult or confusing.

The in-class cycle is as follows: after a brief presentation on the topic, the instructor presents a question (i.e., ConcepTest) to the class. Students individually respond after briefly reflecting on the question. The instructor then asks students to discuss their answer, with 1-2 other students who have different answers before responding again. The instructor always debriefs the question by discussing with the students the rationale behind the correct answer and providing a short lecture on the underlying concept, depending on the percentage of students who answer correctly.

Professor Hufnagel’s use of Peer Instruction starts with the introduction of a ConcepTest with four multiple-choice answers, often including an illustration. He asks the students to think about the question individually before voting using clickers. He then uses the iClicker software to show a histogram of the results. Students talk with their neighbors for a few minutes and then vote again. Professor Hufnagel shows the new results, explaining which answer is correct and why. The depth of explanation depends on how well the class is mastering the concept. If, based on the histogram, the class has not mastered the concept; he will ask another question on the same concept, repeating as necessary.

In Professor Neufeld’s physics course, students watch online content before class as a replacement for the traditional lecture. By flipping the lecture, Professor Neufeld can spend class time using ConcepTests. If there is general agreement about the correct answer after the first vote, he moves on to the next question. If there is substantial disagreement, then students are directed to discuss their answers for 1-2 minutes with those sitting around them. After a second vote, Professor Neufeld asks students who changed their answers to explain why they did so. This often leads to further class discussion.

In Professor Hufnagel’s course, students were administered a concept inventory at the beginning and end of a semester during which he lectured and the semester during which he employed Peer Instruction. The concept inventory included 20 questions measuring student mastery of the course learning objectives. During the semester in which he used Peer Instruction, student gains were twice those of the students in the semester in which he primarily lectured. Additional assessments will be conducted in the future to see if these gains are replicated.

Professor Neufeld used the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), a standard assessment instrument used in university-level Newtonian physics. Student learning gains measured by the FCI tend to be higher in courses with active-learning strategies compared to traditional lecture courses. In Professor Neufeld’s class, results were similar to those reported by faculty at other universities using traditional lecture methods. The gain was not what he hoped, but this is not uncommon. Sometimes the method requires a few tweaks. While disappointed, he suspects the results reflect the fact that it was his first time using Peer Instruction. He is committed to teaching with Peer Instruction again, and the FCI will be used in future semesters to determine if gains increase as he acquires more experience.

One of the challenges of using Peer Instruction is that instructors cannot script class time as they can with a lecture. It is difficult to estimate how many ConcepTests can be completed during class because the length of follow-up student discussions varies. Despite some concerns about how to structure class time, both Hufnagel and Neufeld were pleased with how engaged students were during class discussions.

The first time you try Peer Instruction can be challenging, especially when creating or selecting ConcepTests. To assist instructors, Julie Schell and Eric Mazur established The Peer Instruction Network (, a database of Peer Instruction users with links to their available ConcepTests.

Peer Instruction can be used as one of several active-learning strategies during class time. For example, at several stages in Professor Hufnagel’s course, groups of students spent class time working out detailed problems that traditionally might have been presented as part of a lecture. Professor Hufnagel mentors student groups as needed during these exercises.

Additional resources:
• Mazur, Eric. Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual. Prentice Hall, 1997
• Turn to Your Neighbor Blog. The Official Blog of Peer Instruction: 
• Article on “flipping the classroom”, Lectures On Demand:
• Article on “clickers”, In-Class Voting (‘Clickers’):

Michael J. Reese, Associate Director, CER, Johns Hopkins University
Mike Reese is the associate director of the Center for Educational Resources and a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology.

Julie Schell, Educational Researcher, Harvard University
Dr. Julie Schell is the senior educational researcher within the Mazur Group at Harvard University and an instructional designer at the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin. She is an expert in innovative flipped teaching and Peer Instruction. She co-founded the Peer Instruction Network and authors the official Peer Instruction blog, Turn to your Neighbor.

Image Source: © 2013 Reid Sczerba