Improving the Climate in Your Classroom

Drawing of a green chalkboard with Welcome to Class written on it and a storm cloud with lightning bolts lower left and sun burst lower right.What do we mean when we talk about classroom climate?  Classroom climate can be defined as “…the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn. [Ambrose et. al. How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey Bass. 2010.] How you, as an instructor, choose to interact with students in your classroom will affect the classroom climate.

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTE) at Cornell University provides an overview of the factors that teachers should consider in thinking about classroom climate. Not only must we be aware of blantant biases in dealing with students, but also the micro-inequities, small but significant interactions that have a negative effect on students. The Cornell CTE discusses the factors that play into creating a negative or positive climate (sterotyping, tone, interactions, and choice of content) and offers examples of ways to access and improve your classroom climate.

In a recent (September 2015) video produced by The Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know, “transgender and gender-nonbinary students share what keeps them from feeling safe and thriving on campus.” These students give us personal and powerful statements on how we can improve their classroom and campus experiences. The video is about 12 minutes long, and covers the recognition of the range of gender identities, use of preferred names over birth names, the use of pronouns, the need for resources and staff deticated to LGBTQ student life, and restroom and housing issues. The message is that by asking about preferences we can make a difference for all students.

Last, but certainly not least, I recommend watching a video produced for the 2014 MOOC  An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching. This course is being offered again this fall by the CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning) Network. The video is also available throught the Vanderbilt University YouTube site. In The Affective Doman: Classroom Climate (25 minutes), Dr. Michele DiPietro, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennessaw State University, discusses the many aspects of classroom climate and the importance for student motivation and learning.

Dr. DiPietro covers a lot of ground in his presentation. Especially valuable, he makes us aware of the fact that even the best-intentioned instructors may be unaware of the ways in which classroom climate has consequences for their students. He cites a 1994 study by DeSurra and Church, [Unlocking the Classroom Closet: Privileging the Marginalized Voices of Gay/Lesbian College Students], that demonstrates that faculty frequently rate themselves higher on a continuum representing creating an inclusive versus marginalizing classroom climate than their students do.

How can faculty do a better job? DiPietro suggests that we start by examining our assumptions, which can be a difficult task as we are often blind to our own preconceptions.  He advocates learning and using students’ preferred names, modeling inclusive language, using multiple and diverse examples, establishing ground rules for interaction, striving to be fair, not asking people to speak for an entire group that they may or may not actually represent, and being aware of micro-inequities. By the end of DiPietro’s presentation, we will understand not only why it important it is to access classroom climate, but what we can do to create the best possible learning environment for all students.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images

What to Do When Your Students Arrive Late

It’s the beginning of the semester (or quarter) and already you are experiencing the problem. Maybe it starts with just one student, who every class comes rushing in late. Or perhaps a small group saunters in just as your lecture or discussion is getting going, fresh coffees in hand. Then there is the snowball effect—it starts with one or two latecomers to your early morning class, and then gradually the numbers increase until the disruption of late arrivals is too much to ignore. Whatever the scenario, is there a solution?Digital display You Are Late in white letters on blue background.

The answer is yes, but how you choose to handle the situation may depend on the size of your class, the culture at your institution, and your teaching philosophy. Some instructors take a hard line approach, others may attempt to deal with each offender individually. The latter concept, to speak individually to students who arrive late, is worth considering. If your institution has a large campus, or several campuses from which students may be arriving, it could be that they don’t have sufficient time to change classes. Or there is the possibility that another instructor is consistently running late, leaving students to race to their next class. It is appropriate to work with students to find a solution, before penalizing them and before getting too far into the semester when habits may be harder to break.

Advice from various sources provides a range of strategies. In Late Again? (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2015) Stephanie Reese Masson, an instructor of language, English, and communication at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, recommends talking to your class about lateness and potential motivators for punctual arrival. She chose two tactics—marking late students as absent with a grade reduction after four absences and periodically offering unscheduled, short, in-class, extra-credit activities at the start of class. Her essay includes other ideas as well.

Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence has a page of advice on reducing late arrivals, including arriving early yourself so that you can interact with students as they come into class. “If you arrive to class early, you show your students that you value your time with them.  By arriving early, chatting with students, answering questions and starting on time, you build rapport and model proper classroom etiquette.  Do not try to embarrass late students in front of the class.  Statements such as “I see you’re late again,” or “Why are you late, Mr. Watson?” beg for a reply and can easily domino into greater classroom distractions.  A better approach is simply to welcome the late student.  A welcoming recognition of a late student lets the student know that you are aware of his/her lateness without giving opportunity to spiraling incivility.  If a student is habitually late, ask to talk to the student after class and express your concerns to him/her in private.” Other suggestions include starting class with an activity or with something that will intrigue your students.

The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University has a section on their website called Solve a Teaching Problems, which is a great resource for a range of issues instructors are likely to encounter. For each issue, potential reasons are identified and appropriate solutions and strategies are offered. For Students come to class late, possible reasons include: students don’t take responsibility for themselves, students’ expectations are out of line with the instructor’s, students don’t recognize how their lateness affects others, students don’t perceive the beginning of class as important, there is no consequence to being late, students are trying to challenge the instructor’s authority, students are experiencing emotional or psychological problems, and students have physical or logistical reasons for coming late. Each link will take you to a page with applicable strategies.

The key take-away from all the advice offered is that to solve the problem of student tardiness, you must first understand the reasons that students are arriving late.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image courtesy of Stuart Mills at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

Logo for TILE - Toolkit for Inclusive Learning EnvironmentsI am excited to report on a project here at Johns Hopkins that will provide resources (available to all) for supporting inclusive practices in the classroom.  Sharing diverse perspectives and validating students’ and minorities’ varied experiences is a challenge for many faculty. Even those with the best intentions may unwittingly create classroom environments where students from minority communities feel uncomfortable or excluded. However, when executed effectively, an inclusive classroom becomes a layered and rich learning environment that not only engages students, but creates more culturally competent citizens. Enter TILE – Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments.

Funded by a Diversity Innovation Grant (DIG) of the Diversity Leadership Council (DLC), TILE will be a repository of examples and best practices that instructors use in order to spark conversations in the classroom that foster diversity and inclusion.

Funding would be used to begin a conversation with faculty who are currently implementing inclusive practices in the classroom. The conversations will result in a report-out session, scheduled for April 2015, when faculty will share ways in which they specifically support and foster an environment of inclusion that can then be replicated in other classrooms. These conversations will lead to the development of a toolkit that will include examples of best practices. The toolkit will offer inclusive instructional approaches from across the disciplines. For example, a biology professor might discuss intersex development as part of the curriculum, and an introductory engineering class might discuss Aprille Ericsson and some of her challenges at NASA.  When professors use these best practices in the classroom, they not only help students learn about some of the issues surrounding diverse populations, but also help give students the voice to be able to be more conversant about diverse issues. Most important is the engagement of students who otherwise may feel marginalized when their own unique experiences remain invisible.

Project collaborators are Demere Woolway, Director of LGBTQ Life; Shannon Simpson, Student Engagement and Information Fluency Librarian, and myself, with support from the Sheridan Libraries and Museums Diversity Committee. Most important will be the various lecturers and faculty from across the disciplines who will work with us on developing the toolkit.

More information on TILE can be found here. While TILE is in development, here are two resources for those interested in exploring ways to improve classroom climate.

The National Education Association (NEA) offers strategies for developing cultural competence for educators. “Cultural competence is the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive teaching.”

The Center for Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) has some excellent diversity resources on its website, including a literature review, case studies, and a resource book for new instructors.

 

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer, Center for Educational Resources
Shannon Simpson, Librarian for Student Engagement and Information Fluency, Sheridan Libraries and Museums

Image Source: TILE logo © 2015 Shannon Simpson

Should you require class attendance?

Do you have an attendance policy for your classes? Do you reward or penalize students for attending class? Or do you leave it up to the individual student to determine how to acquire the knowledge necessary to pass the course? Does mandatory attendance equate with a higher success rate for students in the course?

Handwritten attendance sheet.Research studies have not shown mandatory attendance to insure a higher success rates for students. An oft-cited article by Karen L. St. Clair, A Case Against Compulsory Class Attendance Policies in Higher Education, Innovative Higher Education, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring 1999, examines and evaluates the research literature on the relationship between attendance and academic achievement. St. Clair applies Paul Pintrich’s model of college student motivation in the classroom to the issue surrounding attendance policies. [Paul Pintrich, Student motivation in the college classroom. From: K. W. Prichard & R. McLaran Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook of college teaching: Theory and application, Greenwood Press, 1994.] She finds that attendance is linked to motivation and required attendance does not guarantee high achievement. Low achievement in a course is usually due to a number of factors. Moreover, an attendance policy will not guarantee attendance. “Classroom environments that engage students, emphasize the importance of students’ contributions, and have content directly related to knowledge assessed will undoubtedly provide encouragement to students to attend regularly.” (p. 178-179) St. Clair notes that there are exceptions when it is necessary for students to attend class to demonstrate proficiency, for example, in foreign language and laboratory classes, small discussion sections or seminars where “…attendance is compulsory because it is part of the grading structure.” (p. 179). Otherwise, St. Clair concludes that class attendance should not be compulsory.

St. Clair’s work dates from 1999, and it could be argued that much has changed in the classroom and in institutions of higher education in the past fifteen years. While more recent studies on attendance have been conducted, these have focused on attendance for online courses or other issues, for example, whether providing lecture materials online causes student class attendance to decline. However, instructors have written articles based on personal experiences that may provide insight for your consideration of the issue.

Inside Higher Ed featured an article, Attendance Not Required (December 17, 2012) by Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. Bugeja, who taught at Ohio University and Iowa, accepted any reason for not attending class (as long as a test or project presentation wasn’t scheduled) because he wanted students “to assess their priorities.” He required students to email their excuse for the absence with the criteria that they be completely honest. He collected and posted the reasons, because he felt that faculty are not well informed as to why students miss classes. He explained to his students that attendance correlates with achievement and had the data to prove it. Perhaps not everyone will want to duplicate this approach, but his reasoning and results are worth examining.

On the other side of the discussion, in 2013, Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska adopted an extremely tough “three strikes” attendance policy. “Once a student skips class, flunks a quiz or fails to turn in their homework (or any combination thereof) three times, the vice president for academic affairs, Steven Bullock, decides whether the student is out — of the class, in this case.” (Carl Staumsheim, Striking Out of Class, Inside Higher Ed, April 11, 2013). The key here was a perceived need for early intervention for struggling students. “Administrators stressed the policy was created to motivate, not weed out, lazy students. As students begin to accumulate strikes, they are sent to Midland’s advising center to get help with their coursework and study skills.”

A recent post (July 14, 2014) in the Advice section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, presents the views of Michelle LaFrance and Steven J. Corbett in A 21st Century Attendance Policy. LaFrance, an assistant professor of English and director of the writing-across-the-curriculum program at George Mason University, uses a prompted freewriting exercise at the start of each class as a means of both encouraging and taking attendance. Students receive points for each completed freewrite, but the exercises are not graded.  In anonymous surveys, students have been positive about the process. It also serves as a formative assessment as LaFrance writes: “But I like how this activity makes keeping attendance much simpler for me and, at the same time, is a useful means of taking the temperature of student learning. Instead of standing at the front of the room placing check marks and late notes by student’s names on a roster, I return to my office later that day and spend some time reading their warm-up thoughts. I’m not only keeping track of attendance, I’m gauging how the course is going and where I may need to make adjustments, based on their comments.” Corbett, a visiting assistant professor of English at George Mason University, has a much stricter policy based on a concept of professionalism – in the real world if you don’t show up you don’t get paid. Students are allowed two or three absences after which each absence takes a mark off their overall grade. Both LaFrance and Corbett have clearly stated policies. “We talk to our students throughout the semester about our expectations, reminding them frequently about how their choices will affect their final grades, a clear motivator for the 21st-century student. But we also remind them that learning is an investment of time and energy that only they can bring to the table.”

Barbara Gross Davis in Tools for Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2009, p. 17-18) offers some good general advice: “Let students know in the syllabus and on the first day of class that you expect them to come to class regularly. Do your best to make class time worthwhile – a time when real work takes place. Students are also more likely to attend if they know that exams will include items that have been discussed in class only. Some faculty use attendance as a factor in grading, but many do not. If you want to reward good attendance, let students know how you will determine whether they come to class. Rather than penalize absences (by subtracting points), reward perfect or near-perfect attendance (by giving bonus points); the numerical result will be the same, but students feel better about the latter. Set a good example by arriving early to class, starting and ending on time, and staying late to answer questions.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art

 

Flipping Your Class Humanities Style?

We’ve had several posts on flipping your class at The Innovative Instructor. From the plethora of articles appearing recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, it’s clear that flipping is now the big thing in pedagogical approaches. Our experience has been that the faculty practicing flipping here at Johns Hopkins have been in the STEM disciplines. But what about the humanities?

Text reading flipping the classroom with the classroom upside downHumanities courses are often taught using a model of assigning readings outside of class and engaging students in discussions in class. Larger, lecture-style courses at the introductory level may have students met in smaller sections for the discussion component. Discussion of the readings is generally a key component to the learning experience in humanities courses. Does it make sense to have students view the lecture materials outside of class as they do for STEM courses? Would they do this in addition to the reading? Or would they read in class? What would be the benefit? Then what happens to the discussion? Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis and columnist for education at Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education, examines these questions, and provides an account of her personal experience in partially flipping an introductory-level literature class in a post titled The Flipped Classroom.

Schuman sites a couple of examples (here and here) of flipping humanities classes. She speaks honestly about her reservations on flipping her class, but after hitting a point mid-term where her students didn’t seem to be doing the readings and in-class discussion were flagging, she made a flip. In class, students did close reading and worked in small groups on worksheets (like “problem sets” in STEM classes) she’d created. The results were mixed. Schuman writes:

Yes, the students did a more thorough job reading Shakespeare than they had with Dante. But we never had a chance to have the kind of discussion for which college was invented: the kind that happens when careful reading gets done at home, so there is time in class for everyone’s ideas to be challenged, everyone’s theories to be pushed and tested. Yes, they read carefully—but the reading itself took up so much of class that I felt their “end point” was still, in some ways, more cursory than a traditional class would have been.

Schuman concludes that her experiment was an incentive for students to improve their reading habits outside of class for the subsequent book studied – they didn’t like the flipped class experience. Flipping a class makes a lot of sense for some courses, but it is not a one-size fits all. The pedagogical method should match the course objectives rather than be adapted because it is the latest trend.

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


Image Source: © Macie Hall, 2013

Rebooting Your Syllabus

Recently a faculty member was overhead making the comment that syllabi are just chapter headings arranged by week. The Innovative Instructor hopes that the syllabus for your course meets a higher standard. This post provides guidance and resources towards that end.

Old style and new style syllabi presented side by side

Syllabus “The Fiftes” with permission from Dr. Tona Hangen, Worcester State University, Massachusetts

Richard Shingles, a lecturer in Johns Hopkins Department of Biology who also directs the Center for Educational Resources TA Training Institute, offers graduate students in his workshops a number of suggestions for preparing a syllabus. He suggests first looking at examples to get an idea of what to include. Other faculty in your department might share their syllabi, but there other resources awaiting your perusal.

There have been several attempts to build a database of university and college level syllabi, including one by Dan Cohen, the director of the Digital Public Library of America, which unfortunately is no longer functioning. Just recently the Open Syllabus Project was announced. This initiative includes partners from Columbia, UNC, Harvard, Parsons, The New School, and has Dan Cohen on its advisory board. Its goal is “…to promote institutional cooperation in the task of gathering and analyzing a significant corpus of syllabi.”

A new online, peer-reviewed journal, called Syllabus is devoted entirely to the display of examples from a wide range of disciplines. At the other end there is always Google. Try searching on “syllabus your discipline” (e.g., syllabus art history) to get started.

A syllabus should be more than a list of class topics and readings. In her book Tools for Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 1993, p. 14), Barbara Goss Davis tells us, “A detailed course syllabus… gives students an immediate sense of what the course will cover, what work is expected of them, and how their performance will be evaluated.  …Further by distributing a written explanation of course procedures, you can minimize misunderstandings about the due dates of assignments, grading criteria, and policies on missed tests.”

Dr. Shingles recommends trying to anticipate and answer student questions with information provided in the syllabus, and keeping the schedule flexible when possible by giving topics for the week versus the day. As for what should be included in your syllabus, think in terms of more rather than less. Here is his list:

  • Provide basic information
  • Describe course prerequisites
  • Give an overview of the course’s purpose
  • State general learning goals or objectives
  • Describe the course format
  • Specify textbook and readings
  • List supplementary materials for course
  • List assignments/papers/exams
  • Describe grading and evaluation
  • Stipulate course policies
  • Provide a list of university support offices
  • Provide a course calendar
  • List important dates (add/drop, grade appeals)
  • Indicate supplementary study aids

For the instructor use of the syllabus doesn’t end with distributing it to your students on the first day of class. Keep a copy handy and annotate it as the semester progresses. Perhaps you find you need to spend more time on a particular topic, or that the first assignment might work better if it came a week later. It’s also good to have a copy on hand to remind students that yes, you did state that you have a no make-up policy for quizzes.  You should post the syllabus online as well.  Posting online could be to your Blackboard (or other LMS) course site. But Dr. Tona Hangen, a professor of history at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, has raised the bar to a higher level by sharing her syllabi via an application called flipsnack.

Flipsnack allows you to publish material online in an application that simulates page-turning. You can create a basic account for free. Another similar online application is ISSUU.  ISSUU also is free for a basic account. As a side note, ISSUU has been used by at JHU for the Scholar’s Bookshelf project: http://issuu.com/scholarsbookshelf – collaboration between the Sheridan Libraries Rare Books Collection and the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures.

Dr. Hangen inspires with her beautifully designed syllabi. She has an archive of examples from the past several years. While the ones on flipsnack may seem daunting to the design challenged, some of her PDF versions are more easily emulated. These could be created in Word or a basic design program such as Microsoft’s Publisher, which is often included in the Microsoft Office suite.

Barbara Goss Davis reminds us: “…a well prepared course syllabus shows students that you take your teaching seriously. (Tools for Teaching, p. 14).

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/intenteffect/4263014185/sizes/n/in/photostream/ IntentEffect
http://www.flipsnack.com/A9C8DBBA9F7/f7u8vaql Dr. Tona Hangen, Worcester State University, Massachusetts

 

Quick Tips: Little Things That Can Make a Big Impact on Teaching

You have pulled together your syllabus, lined up the readings on course reserves, planned your class presentations, and mapped out the assignments. Your Blackboard site is prepped and ready. The big stuff is all taken care of, so all you have to do is walk into the classroom. According to Woody Allen, eighty percent of success is showing up. But is just showing up to teach really enough? A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that instructors would do well to look at the other twenty percent.

Chemistry instructor facing class of students with blackboard behind himIn It’s the Little Things That Count in Teaching Steven J. Corbett and Michelle LaFrance argue that paying attention to the “less serious” aspects of teaching can make you a more effective instructor.  Their advice includes arriving at the classroom early and sticking around afterwards in order to be more accessible to your students, playing interesting YouTube videos as your students are getting settled, establishing an email policy (and sticking to it), and letting students take responsibility for leading discussions. There are some suggestions for how to handle students’ use of mobile devices in the classroom. [See also The Innovative Instructor post Tips for Regulating the Use of Mobile Devices in the Classroom.] They advocate for bringing candy to class for motivation, and depending on class size, having a pizza party or potluck along with final presentations. The authors acknowledge that their recommendations may make for more work, but feel that the payoff is worth the effort – more engaged students and a positive classroom environment.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Learning Your Students’ Names

Instructors agree: learning student names helps to foster a positive climate in the classroom by creating rapport between instructor and students and improving class management and interaction. If your class is a relatively small seminar or discussion-based section, learning names usually can be accomplished in a few sessions. For a large lecture course, the task may be more daunting, although faculty report that often in these courses, students understand they have an advantage in being known by name.

Instructor in front of chalkboard pointing with a piece of chalkAs Natalie Houston blogged in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Professor Hacker forum, “Even if you do not consider yourself to be naturally “good at names,” you can improve your recall by following a few simple tips.” She breaks the process down to five parts: Commit, Prepare, Work [On It], Review, and Practice – steps that will work regardless of class size. Houston, along with others (see sources below), suggests making note cards for each student that include photographs. At Johns Hopkins, this process is made easy using Integrated Student Information Services (ISIS). Faculty can pull up a roster with student pictures and select an option to produce cards with these images and names.

Part of learning your students’ names is being sure that you are pronouncing them correctly.  Do a roll call at the start of a couple of class sessions and ask that students provide you with the proper pronunciation of their names. Make notes of phonetic pronunciation on those photo-name cards you’ve created.

For larger classes, some instructors recommend using seating charts, at least for the initial meetings of the course, to help with memorization of names. Having students give their names when called on in class will help, as will returning assignments in class by reading the names and passing the papers to each individual. Depending on the size of the class, asking students to see you during office hours within the first several weeks of the semester is another tactic for associating names and faces. Some instructors ask students to use name tags or folding cards (for larger classroom settings). Dividing a large class into smaller working groups makes it easier for some faculty to learn names.

Practice makes perfect. Greet students by name as they enter the classroom. Use students’ names when calling on them in class. Associate their names with the comments they have made in discussion that follows.

In a very large class, you may not get to 100% name recognition by the end of the semester. But our faculty assure us that it is worth the time spent. Students appreciate the effort; knowing individuals by names helps promote mutual respect.

Here are links to some academic webpages with additional tips and tricks for learning student names:

Other resources:

 

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Icebreakers

A few months back a saavy instructor, thinking ahead to fall classes, asked us about using icebreakers on the first day of class. What is an icebreaker? Essentially it is an exercise or activity that provides an opportunity for students and the instructor to get to know one another.

As we talked to faculty and did some reading on icebreaker activities, it became clear thatFour ice cubes stacked against blue background there are two camps: those who like these exercises and think they provide value, and those who think they are off topic and a waste of time.

Why would you want to use an icebreaker? The Center for Teaching and Learning at Lansing Community College lists these benefits on their page of icebreaker activities:

  • Reduces both student and instructor anxiety prior to introducing the course.
  • Fosters in a powerful way both student-student and faculty-student interactions.
  • Creates an environment where the learner is expected to participate and the instructor is willing to listen.
  • Actively engage students from the onset.
  • Conveys the message that the instructor cares about getting to know the students.
  • It makes it easier for students to form relationships early in the semester so they can work together both in and out of class.

Given the number of ways these activities can benefit the class; it seems worth looking at whether there are ways to overcome concerns about applicability and usefulness to the course.

In the book Essentials of College and University Teaching: A Practical Guide by Eleanor Boyle and Harley Rothstein (ProActive Press, Vancouver, Canada, pp. 71-74), the authors suggest using icebreakers that incorporate course material. “This may seem difficult on the first day of class, when students haven’t even read chapter one. But students enter every discipline, no matter how exotic, with ideas, preconceptions, information and misinformation. One exciting and motivating approach asks students to debate general interest questions relating the discipline.” The exercise involves creating three to six general-knowledge questions about the discipline at hand. These can be presented as true or false, shown with multiple choice answers, or made open ended for discussion. Students are asked to group themselves into pairs or threes. The instructor then projects the first question and asks the students to discuss and decide on an answer in their groups. After a few minutes, students are asked to vote on the correct answer – if clickers are being used this can be done electronically, but a show of hands will suffice. If the question is open-ended, the instructor can ask for responses from several groups. Time should be allowed for discussion or debriefing, but generally speaking, the activity should be fast paced; the advice is to move to the next question to keep the students focused. “The best questions for this exercise are relevant to your discipline but require no expert knowledge; they do not have obvious answers and potentially generate a variety of responses. Such questions pique student’ interest, expose them to different opinions, and allow them to anticipate issue that will emerge throughout the course.”

From the Teaching Professor blog at the website Faculty Focus come two posts on icebreakers that can be used to create “a climate of learning” in the classroom. The first is called A Classroom Icebreaker with a Lesson that Lasts. At the minute the class is supposed to begin, the instructor arrives with a box packed with about 15 random, preferably unrelated objects. The box is placed on a table at the front of the room, then the instructor unpacks each item and places it on the table. Once all the items are unpacked, they are returned to the box in the same order. Then the students are asked to take out a piece of paper and write down as many of the objects as they can remember. The author, Virginia Freed, writes: “Interesting things begin to happen here, and I can make some immediate points about classroom expectations. Students sitting in the back of the room have not been able to see the items on the table. The point? Sit as close to the front of the room as possible. Some students have been engaged in conversations and did not see me or the box. The point? Pay attention right from the beginning of the class; professors often offer the most interesting and important information at the beginning and ending of class. Some students come in late. The point? Arrive on time. Some students don’t have anything to write with or on. The point? Come prepared. We discuss all this with humor, but the inferences are clear.” The process can be repeated in several ways that will help students understand concepts relating to content mastery.

Another post from the same website, First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning, by Maryellen Weimer, shares four first day activities that “…emphasize the importance of learning and the responsibility students share for shaping the classroom environment.” One of these, called Syllabus Speed Dating, helps ensure that your students are not only “…acquainted with each other, [but is] a great way to get them reading the syllabus and finding out for themselves what they need to know about the course.”

For more icebreaker suggestions see the list of 32 activities posted by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Lansing Community College and a long list  provided by the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of New Mexico.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Bring on the Collaboration

Getting students to participate in class discussions is a common challenge. Every instructor has faced the dreaded silence after posing a question. Active learning activities can stimulate student engagement, but they can be difficult to implement in classrooms that were designed for lectures –  fixed seating inhibits opportunities for collaborative exercises such as group work and discussion.

Research has shown that active learning strategies can improve students’ retention of content taught in class [Michael Prince. Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 2004. http://ctlt.jhsph.edu/resources/views/content/files/150/Does_Active_Learning_Work.pdf.] A variety of teaching methods – such as peer-instruction, discussion groups, and collaborative problem solving – can foster greater student engagement. Each of these methods requires students to connect, share information, and discuss possible solutions to posed problems, anticipating real life workplace situations.

eStudio-309_2D-finalFaculty who want to implement active learning strategies may find it challenging to manage in a space designed for lecture-based instruction. In the last decade, universities have introduced classrooms to address this challenge. Typically known as studio  or collaborative learning classrooms (CLC), such spaces often have round, movable tables for group work, ample whiteboard space, and large display screens for each group. This learning environment has a positive effect on students’ engagement; it alters their roles in the classroom from passive recipients of knowledge to active participants in their own learning.

At a National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education last summer, several Hopkins colleagues and I participated in group work in a space designed for collaboration. We were impressed by the power of that learning experience. Shortly after the workshop, we learned that the Provost’s Gateway Sciences Initiative would be underwriting the conversion of a traditional learning space (Krieger 309) into a collaborative learning classroom.  I decided to offer my Biology Workshop course in the new CLC in the fall semester of 2012.

The course was designed as a guest lecture series with some meetings set aside for group discussions.  Although we continued to offer the guest lectures in a large hall, we moved to the CLC for the group discussions and were delighted to take advantage of the features of this new space. During a typical class, I provided a 5 to 10 minutes overview of the day’s lesson plan, often using the instructor projectors to play a video or podcast highlighting a current event or controversial topic in biology. For the majority of the class time (30 minutes), students worked in groups using their own laptops to conduct research, discuss potential answers to questions, create charts and other graphics, and post content to the course Blackboard site. For ten minutes at the end of class, groups took turns presenting their work to the entire class, using their team projectors to display their work.

View of collaborative learning classroom - Krieger 309 - no studentsThe room’s design allows students to work comfortably in groups, using tools ideal for collaboration. Each group has a whiteboard adjacent to its table where students can jot down notes or conceptualize and work out problems. Students can easily project their individual laptop screens for viewing by the whole class. In addition, the instructor has control over two large screens, which is helpful when presenting materials to the entire class or sharing a group’s display with the class. The room’s layout facilitates instructor visits to each group while they work, something that is difficult in a lecture hall.

One of the nicest things about teaching in the new CLC was that students seemed toStudents inCollaborative Learning Classroom - Krieger 309 know what was expected of them. Seeing the space they knew the class would not be a typical lecture format, which intrigued them. Moreover, the students responded positively as they engaged in the discussions and participated in their groups, producing a higher caliber of work than I experienced in this course previously.

Students were amazingly “on task” during group work, which speaks to their high level of engagement and enthusiasm. They clearly felt a strong sense of responsibility for their group’s performance, particularly when presenting their findings to the class.

View of collaborative learning classroom - Krieger 309In comparison to previous iterations of this course, the students’ grades were in the same range; however, the level of engagement was much higher and it was a significantly more enjoyable teaching experience. I know that the students appreciated the active learning aspect of the course because when I presented in lecture format for more than 15 minutes, I could see them squirming in their seats.  They couldn’t wait to get started on group work. It has been a challenge to limit my introduction to just a few minutes, and then post supporting material for the students to explore during class with their groups.

Because this class had more discussion and collaborative work than when I previously taught the course, I found that it helped to prepare learning objectives for each session. This kept the focus in place during class and ensured that the group work would meet the goal for the day. It also helped set the students’ expectations for what they needed to accomplish and learn for tests.

A number of faculty have taught in the new CLC since its creation, from the departments of Chemistry, French, Physics, Mathematics, and Civil Engineering. The room is flexible enough for a number of uses and can support classes from any discipline. The way I conducted my course for instance, is similar to the teaching approach for humanities courses in which class discussions are standard. Although the students in my Biology Workshop did not often use the whiteboards, other classes used them frequently.

There are many methods for generating effective group assignments in class. I found that when my 35 students first entered the CLC, the room’s layout clearly suggested that they would be working together at the round tables, which seat seven. They gravitated naturally to self-defined groups around the tables. This proved to be effective way of forming lasting and productive groups for this class.  Other instructors may wish to randomly assign groups or to purposefully break and re-form groups throughout the course.

Additional Resources

The text for this post originally appeared in the print series of The Innovative Instructor.

Rebecca Pearlman received a PhD in Biology from the University of Wisconsin.  She has over fifteen years of teaching experience ranging from small laboratory courses at a two-year college to large lecture courses at Hopkins. She is delighted to be a lecturer in the Biology Department working with amazing colleagues who are dedicated to improving the undergraduate experience.  Her past collaborations with the CER include work on creating videos of laboratory techniques and piloting in-class voting and course management systems.


Images Source: © Reid Sczerba.