How Do You Get Your Students to Do the Assigned Reading?

Female with glasses reading a textbook.Recently I had a discussion with faculty about reading assignments. The perennial problem? Faculty assign but students don’t read. The faculty I work with aren’t the only ones facing this problem. David Gooblar, They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again. [The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vitae, Pedagogy Unbound, September 24, 2014], starts off by citing research showing that on a given day in class 70% of the students will not have done the assigned reading. He dismisses the use of quizzes as punitive and time-consuming. What to do instead?

Gooblar suggests starting by making sure that the assigned reading is really necessary. Students prioritize their work and won’t bother with the reading if they feel it is not essential. Make sure that your required reading aligns with course objectives and can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Show students that the reading is, indeed, necessary. At the end of class preview the upcoming reading assignment, explain how it fits into the material to be covered in the next class, and give the students some questions to consider as they do the reading.

Handouts created for the students can be useful, Gooblar writes. These can be specific to each reading assignment or more general to be used for all the readings. Questions posed in handouts help prepare students for in-class discussion. End by asking “What one question would you like me to answer in class about the reading?”  Instead of a quiz, create a questionnaire to gauge problems students are having with the reading. “By asking questions that point to the use you’ll make of the reading, you’ll underline the fact that the reading is indeed integral to the course. You’ll also provide yourself with useful information to guide your lecture or class discussion.” These questionnaires can be used to monitor students’ completion of the reading.

Finally, Gooblar advises making use of the information from the reading assignments in class without repeating it in detail. Why should students spend their time reading if you are going to tell them what they need to know? You want the reading to serve as a foundation for in-class discussion or use lecture time to build on the ideas presented in the reading.

A special report from Faculty Focus on Teaching offers 11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned [Magna Publications, July 2010]. I’ve summarized the main point(s) of each one after the title, but the articles are all short, so it won’t take long to review the full report.

  • Enhancing Students’ Readiness to Learn: Being explicit with your students about expectations [concerning the reading assignments] and assessing their preparedness improves motivation and learning outcomes
  • What Textbook Reading Teaches Students: Make sure your students understand why you are assigning textbook readings and how it relates to other course content. Don’t repeat the exact information in class and thus make it easy for students to skip the reading.
  • Getting Students to Read: Design your course so that students must do the reading to do well. Create assignments that require more than passive reading, structuring these so that students must engage with and respond to the reading.
  • Helping Students Use Their Textbooks More Effectively: Suggestions in this article include giving explicit requirements, introducing the text in class, and offering students effective textbook study practices.
  • Still More on Developing Reading Skills: Quizzing is not an effective motivator for students to complete reading assignments and may encourage surface reading. Assignments, such as reading responses, that structure reading for the students work better.
  • Text Highlighting: Helping Students Understand What They Read: Have students bring highlighted/annotated/underlined texts to class and share their reasons for the markup. “In this way, the types of thinking that accompanies purposeful, active reading become more apparent.”
  • When Students Don’t Do the Reading: Students won’t read if they know that the material will be closely reviewed during lecture. Let students know that the reading is necessary background that will be referenced and built on.
  • Pre-Reading Strategies: Connecting Expert Understanding and Novice Learning: Examples of scaffolding or structuring the reading experience for students, especially underclassmen, by building a framework for topics, giving them reading strategies, making connections to the course content, identifying roadblocks to understanding, and uncovering the structure of the argument presented.
  • The Use of Reading Lists: The article looks at a British study on how students can be motivated to read outside of required texts for a course. The answer lies in taking time to develop student reading skills and raising interesting, challenging questions whose answers are to be found in the readings.
  • The Student-Accessible Reading List: Structured and discussion-specific lists (of non-required texts) with a limited number of readings are more accessible to students. Annotations direct students to readings that will be useful to them.
  • How to Get Your Students to Read What’s Assigned: The final article provides a nice summary of ideas. Introduce the textbook and encourage use of supplemental materials the textbook provides, identify discipline-specific terminology, have students mark-up readings, structure the reading by providing questions to be answered ahead of class, use the textbook in class to emphasize its importance, teach students to ask questions about the reading, link the reading to exams, and identify and work with students who need help with reading.

Faculty I talked with pointed out that students coming into colleges and universities today may be less prepared to take on reading assignments than in the past. In high schools today many students are being taught to the test and may be associating reading with learning facts, which often means reading on the surface without understanding the big picture. If you teach a course that relies heavily on reading assignments, consider taking time at the beginning of the semester to provide some in-class training on the best practices and strategies that your students should adopt. Have the students scan a text, skimming the abstract or first paragraphs and conclusion, noting the section headings, illustrations and or graphics. Based on this preview, have them frame several questions that they have about the content, before they do a thorough reading. Discuss the value of taking notes and what those notes should cover. Ask them what they highlight when they read and why. Remind your students that they should be bringing questions to class about their reading assignments.

If you have a solution that you’ve used to encourage students to do the reading, please share it with us in the comments.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Teaching with Modeling and Simulations

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, March 4, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the fourth Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching. For this session, Jeffrey Gray, Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Rachel Sangree, Lecturer in Civil Engineering, and Program Chair for Engineering for Professionals in Civil Engineering, discussed their experiences using modeling and simulations. Both Gray and Sangree had received Technology Fellowship Grants from the CER that enabled them to develop the models and simulations for courses they teach.

Illustration of beam bending simulation.Sangree [presentation slides] regularly teaches a course, Statics and Mechanics of Materials, with a lab component. The problem has been that “[w]hile they may have been listening, 130 Students from four engineering departments have a lot going on between the time they hear lecture material in class and write their lab reports related to the lecture material.” The labs are staggered in order to keep the number of students in each lab small, with the result being that some students are writing lab reports about content introduced in lecture three weeks earlier. Sangree’s solution was to create simulations of the labs (using Finite Element Models) and a recap of relevant lecture material, and provide these in Blackboard so that students can review the lab and the material needed to write their lab reports. She demonstrated the simulations for three lab exercises: beam bending, torsion, and the tension test, showing us the equipment used in lab and the simulations the students use to review the experiments. These simulations may be viewed if you download the pdf of the presentation slides. In the discussion that followed the presentations, Sangree emphasized that she views these simulations as a resource to improve student learning, and other faculty agreed that this approach and use of simulations had improved learning outcomes in their classes.

Gray [presentation slides] began by giving some background information on PyRosetta  of which he is a founder, and the Rosetta Commons. Rosetta is a community computing project for protein structure prediction. Gray describes PyRosetta as “…an interactive Python-based interface to the powerful Rosetta molecular modeling suite. It enables users to design their own custom molecular modeling algorithms using Rosetta sampling methods and energy functions.”

Illustration of PyRosetta model.Gray teaches Computational Protein Structure Prediction and Design, a course with 15-25 students, with a mix of graduate and upper-level undergraduate students. The course combines lecture sessions and hand-on workshops each week. The course objectives were described as: Students should be able to 1) explain, interpret or modify classic algorithms in structure prediction and design, 2) use standard tools to model biomolecules de novo or by homology, dock biomolecules, and design biomolecules, and 3) create new custom methods and algorithms for specific problems.

Two CER Technology Fellowship Grants have allowed Gray to create a workbook of pedagogical modules that uses PyRosetta to introduce students to structure prediction and design applications. The workbook ensures that the computational tools are available to the students on the first day of class. Gray reported that the workbook and accompanying videos are available and used world-wide, and he has gotten positive feedback from colleagues and the Rosetta community. Gray noted that the PyRosetta platform provides active, hands-on learning, and that engineering students can gain insight and creative advantages by making 3D structural models, exploring hypotheses, and designing improved molecules.

In the discussion following the presentation, Gray mentioned that his biggest challenge has been the varied backgrounds students have in coding skills. Other faculty agreed that core computational requirements are a complicated issue due to differences among the disciplines.

For those looking to integrate modeling and simulations into their classes, it was suggested that there are many resources available online.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the upcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Rachel Sangree and Jeffrey Gray.


Report on the JHU Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences

On January 11th and 12th Johns Hopkins University held its fourth Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences. The event was part of a two-day symposium co-sponsored by the Science of Learning Institute and the Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI). The first day highlighted cognitive learning research; theLogo for the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative second day examined the practical application of techniques, programs, tools, and strategies that promote gateway science learning. The objective was to explore recent findings about how humans learn and pair those findings with the latest thinking on teaching strategies that work.  Four hundred people attended over the course of the two days; approximately 80% from Johns Hopkins University, with representation from all divisions and 20% from other universities, K-12 school systems, organizations, and companies. Videos of the presentations from the January 12th presentations are now available.

The GSI program included four guest speakers and three Johns Hopkins speakers. David Asai, Senior Director of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, argued persuasively for the impact of diversity and inclusion as essential to scientific excellence.  He said that while linear interventions (i.e., summer bridge activities, research experiences, remedial courses, and mentoring/advising programs) can be effective at times, they are not capable of scaling to support the exponential change needed to mobilize a diverse group of problem solvers prepared to address the difficult and complex problems of the 21st Century.  He asked audience participants to consider this:  “Rather than developing programs to ‘fix the student’ and measuring success by counting participants, how can we change the capacity of the institution to create an inclusive campus climate and leverage the strengths of diversity?” [video]

Sheri Sheppard, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, discussed learning objectives and course design in her presentation: Cooking up the modern undergraduate engineering education—learning objectives are a key ingredient [video].

Eileen Haase, senior lecturer in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, discussed the development of the biomedical engineering design studio from the perspective of both active learning classroom space and curriculum [video]. Evidenced-based approaches to curriculum reform and assessment was the topic addressed by Melanie Cooper, the Lappan-Phillips Chair of Science Education at Michigan State University [video]. Tyrel McQueen, associate professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins talked about his experience with discovery-driven experiential learning in a report on the chemical structure and bonding laboratory, a new course developed for advanced freshman [video]. Also from Hopkins, Robert Leheny, professor of physics, spoke on his work in the development of an active-learning- based course in introductory physics [video].

Steven Luck, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, provided an informative and inspiring conclusion to the day with his presentation of the methods, benefits, challenges, and assessment recommendations for how to transform a traditional large lecture course into a hybrid format [video].

Also of interest may be the videos of the presentations from the Science of Learning Symposium on January 11, 2016. Speakers included: Ed Connor, Johns Hopkins University; Jason Eisner, Johns Hopkins University; Richard Huganir, Johns Hopkins University; Katherine Kinzler, University of Chicago; Bruce McCandliss, Stanford University; Elissa Newport, Georgetown University; Jonathan Plucker, University of Connecticut; Brenda Rapp, Johns Hopkins University; and Alan Yuille, Johns Hopkins University.


Kelly Clark, Program Manager
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative logo

Small Changes That Can Make a Big Difference in Teaching

For many of us this time of year marks the beginning of a new semester. Even if your classes have already started up, it’s not too late to consider some tips for improving the teaching and learning experience in your classroom. James M. Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, has written two articles in a proposed series for The Chronicle of Higher Education “…making the argument in this space that small changes to our teaching — in things like course design, classroom practices, and communication with students — can have a powerful impact on student learning.”

Students given presentation to a class.

CC Photo by Creative Services:

In the first article, Small Changes in Teaching: The Minutes Before Class: 3 simple ways you can set up the day’s learning before the metaphorical bell rings [CHE November 15, 2015], Lang states that “The more time I spend with students in that brief space before the start of class, the more I recognize that those warm-up minutes actually represent a fertile opportunity.” He recommends chatting briefly with students as they come into the classroom. By informally rotating through the roster of students, the instructor can create connections. The results can be striking—a more positive classroom climate, increased participation in discussions, better evaluations from the students at the end of the course were cited.

Land’s second recommendation is to “display the framework” meaning that helping students to organize the content they are about to engage in improves their understanding and learning. The approach can be as simple as using the board to write an outline of your lecture or list of discussion topics. Connections that are clear to you, may not be to your students. Creating this kind of agenda helps students see what is important and how topics are connected.

Third, Lang exhorts instructors to “create wonder.” He uses an example of an astronomy professor who before the start of each class puts up an image from the cosmos and asks two questions: “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” Using material related to your course content to stimulate informal discussion at the start of class can “can activate students’ prior knowledge, helping them form connections with what they already know. It also offers both the instructor and the students the opportunity to discuss how the images connect to previous course material.” As well, students see your excitement about the course content.

In the second article, Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class: 4 quick ways to shift students’ attention from life’s distractions to your course content [CHE January 11, 2016], Lang argues that “[t]he opening five minutes offer us a rich opportunity to capture the attention of students and prepare them for learning.” Students come into the classroom distracted and using the opening few minutes for logistics—taking attendance, making announcements—may not be the most effective strategy. Instead, Lang suggest opening class with a question or two, the answers to which will be uncovered during class. At the end of class, return to the questions so that your students can now formulate potential answers. This exercise allows students to see a purpose to the class session.

Another idea is to review what was covered in the previous class. Lang proposes that “… instead of offering a capsule review to students, why not ask them to offer one back to you?” He points out that learning researchers have shown that quizzing students works not only as an assessment of student learning but promotes it.

Not only will you want to review what you have taught, but you should “reactivate what [students] have learned in previous courses.” By asking students what they already know, you can help them make connections to the material in your course, and you can fill in gaps and correct misunderstandings.

Lang states that all of these activities will benefit from having students write down their individual responses before sharing with the class. “That way, every student has the opportunity to answer the question, practice memory retrieval from the previous session, or surface their prior knowledge — and not just the students most likely to raise their hands in class.” He advocates for “frequent, low-stakes writing assignments” to encourage student engagement.

All of these suggestions are low-barrier, easy to implement strategies. You don’t have to use all of them at once. Pick one or two and see how they work. I am looking forward to Lang’s next article in the series and to his new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, which will be published in March of 2016. 


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: CC Photo by Creative Services:

“A Lecture from the Lectured”: What students have to say

View of a large university lecture in progress. Seen from the back of the lecture hall.Back in October 2015, I wrote two posts about the tradition of the lecture format and where various faculty stand on its value in 21st century teaching: Where goes the Lecture? and Where Goes the Lecture, Reprise. The second post reviewed an article by Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, who wrote an op-ed piece, Lecture Me. Really. Worthen came out in favor of the traditional lecture, especially for humanities courses. Rebecca Schuman, who writes as an education columnist for Slate, refuted Worthen’s position with Professors Shouldn’t Teach to Younger Versions of Themselves. But, there was an important voice missing from the debate—that of the students.

In A Lecture From the Lectured [Vitae, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 4, 2016], John Barone, Cassandra Chaplinsky, Taylor Ehnle, John Heaney, Riley Jackson, Zoe Kaler, Rachael Kossy, Benjamin Lane, Thomas Lawrence, Jessica Lee, Sarah Lullo, Kevin McCammack, Daniel Seeder, Carly Smith, and Demetrius Wade, all students in Catherine Prendergast’s writing course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a thoughtful response to Worthen and Schuman.

For these students, who are often taking a heavy course load of large, lecture format courses, competing with other students to fulfill distribution requirements, and holding down a job as well as being a full-time student, the sage on the stage can be intimidating. And why should a student attend lectures if the instructor is reading from a PowerPoint that restates the material found in the textbook?

“We expect to be held accountable, but we would also hold accountable our professors as well. Nothing will guarantee our attendance if we do not have the opportunity to challenge our professors, ask questions of them, and engage with our paying classmates. When we feel as though we won’t be missed if we skip class, it makes it easy to do just that.”

The students state that the lecture is not necessarily doomed. They have had professors who were great lecturers and offer examples of what those faculty did to inspire their students. Often, it is simply a case of offering a human side, making the students feel as if they matter.

“Instead of debating the lecture, instead of imagining what students are thinking, get to know us. Find out what college is like for us now, rather than what it was like for you years ago. Learn that we respond to your lecture very individually, and that we pick our lectures often for the individuality of the professor rather than the subject. Condemning or celebrating the lecture isn’t, in the end, as useful as understanding what we need. So please ask us. Because we’ve had enough of sitting silently in the dark, listening to all of you talk.”

If you lecture, read the article. It’s good to know what your students are thinking.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Developing and Facilitating Research-Based Assignments

On Tuesday, December 8, the Center for Educational Resources hosted theLogo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom. second offering in the new Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching series with two faculty presenting on their experiences in developing and facilitating research-based assignments.

Elizabeth Rodini, Director, Program in Museums and Society and Teaching Professor in the Department of History of Art, led off with a presentation [presentation slides pdf] Incorporating Research into Teaching: 10 tips (in no particular order). Rodini has taught many courses during her time at JHU with students doing research-based assignments. While in some of these students have produced research papers, in many cases the assignments have been less traditional.

Photograph illustrating teaching skills,with two students handing objects in a museum setting.Here are Rodini’s ten tips:

  • Teach Skills—begin with your librarians, who can help students learn basic research skills. Invite a librarian to your class. Other discipline-specific skills include close looking and reading, descriptive writing, proper handling of objects, and learning how to reach out to experts for help.
  • Experiment with Format—move beyond the traditional research paper and have students make posters, create actual or virtual exhibitions (involves researching material, writing text, conceptualizing the whole), or develop an audio tour for an exhibition. Students learn alternative ways of presenting information (visual, oral) and can benefit from the potential public face of this work.
  • Let Content Drive Form—make sure that the content and your learning goals drive the format rather than choosing the form first and trying to build around it.
  • Smaller Is Often Better—doing too many projects in a semester can pose problems for you and your students. Consider how you can break one project into parts. Have students focus on doing one thing well.
  • Focus on Building Blocks—drawing from the previous teaching skills and smaller is better ideas, consider having students do the background work of a research paper without writing it up. For example, they turn in an annotated bibliography, an outline, and abstract, an opening paragraph, or they produce a research portfolio on a particular topic, gathering and ordering the information, perhaps giving an oral presentation. This approach is particularly effective for younger students who are just learning research skills.
  • Look to Other Disciplines—in a science lab, students have the opportunity to see project research as a collaborative process with contributors ranging from the senior faculty on down to undergraduates. This isn’t the case in the humanities. For humanities students the science lab model could be replicated in a group museum project, where the project research is conducted collaboratively toward a shared end with a public presentation. Some of the benefits: a “building block” approach to a project where different people contribute different things; students learn from/teach each other; use of a “lab meeting” format where students give regular, brief updates; and the professor can be part of the team, serving as a model for students.
  • Be A Locavore—encourage students to work on objects/materials/texts we have here in Baltimore. Local venues offer opportunities to connect, see, work with relevant archival material, meet experts, and do original
  • Vary The Feedback—writing comments on papers feels futile when you know they won’t be read. So try other things like oral presentations (use the final exam slot for this in a seminar), or poster sessions, and have outside experts come to these presentations to critique.
  • Practice Asking Questions—another skill/building block that many students are lacking is how to ask new questions of texts and images. In one of my freshman classes we start on the first day with, “What can you observe about an old pair of shoes and what else do you want to know?” [See the educational exercise from an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum, 50 Ways to Look at a Big Mac Box].
  • Insist on Revisions—to eliminate useless final comments and make the project worthwhile you can incorporate revisions to work starting early in the semester. Students benefit from genuine critiques to which they must respond.

Joel Schildbach, Professor in the Department of Biology and KSAS Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education, presented [presentation slides pdf] on his research-based course Phage Hunting. The course description reads: “This is an introductory course open to all freshman regardless of intended major. No science background is required. This is … a year-long research-based project lab course in which students will participate in a nation-wide program in collaboration with undergraduates at other colleges. Students will isolate and characterize novel bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) from the environment using modern molecular biological techniques.”

The Hopkins Phage Hunters lab comes to JHU from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance – Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program (SEA-PHAGES).  HHMI provides training for instructors and teaching assistants and support for this program across the country. The program is based the work of HHMI Professor Graham Hatfull, University of Pittsburgh.

Negotiating the network to find available positions in research labs around the Photograph showing students in a lab setting.University can be difficult, particularly for incoming freshman. The goal of this course is to provide freshmen students with a lab experience in a small course setting. Enrollments in the sections are limited to 24 students.  Work in the lab starts on the first day, when students bring in a sample of dirt. They then begin a process of isolating a bacteriophage. Because phages are so numerous, it is likely that each of the isolated phages will have not been previously identified. During the course students isolate the phage, purify the DNA, and use an electron microscope to identify it. Assuming their phage has not been previously identified, the student gets to name it and send the record to a national archive. One phage per section is selected for genetic sequencing. The process is both challenging and rewarding.

The benefits to students include experiencing a quick time from the start to seeing progress;, gaining comfort in a lab setting; learning to deal with the failures, repeating processes, and finally, sense of achievement that define lab research; having a sense of ownership of their work; and developing a community of peers.

Schilbach noted that the labs are staffed with both instructors and PhD-level teaching assistants. He stressed that for faculty seeking to implement similar programs, it is essential to have sufficient resources—budget and staff—to ensure success.

For more on this course, see the blog, JHU Phage Hunters, with posts authored by students and instructors.

In the discussion that followed, attendees asked questions and talked about the mechanics of collaborative work and grading group projects. Not all students like group work because they don’t have control over the process, yet many of them will be required to work in teams once they graduate into the workforce. There was consensus that, at least for humanities projects, groups of three were a good number. Larger groups may encourage a phenomenon one faculty member called “social loafing” where a team member relies on others to do the work. It was suggested using contracts for group work, which the students can create themselves, to define the roles and responsibilities of each team member and criteria for evaluation. These can be used at the end of the project for the students to grade themselves and each other. This can them supplement the instructor’s grade. It is also possible for students to work in a group, but submit individual assignments. Elizabeth Rodini pointed out that some group projects may bear more fruit than others, so it is important to have multiple aspects on which to assess students.

In a related discussion, Joel Schildbach was asked about how students deal with failure in the lab. For the phage hunting course, this has not been a big issue, as historically, almost all students have been successful. The idea of repeating a process until you get results is integral to scientific research and the students in the course generally embrace this concept. As to grading, Schildbach uses a multi-tiered grading system based on benchmarks and time lines. There are also graded presentations and a paper at the end of the semester. He noted that freshman first semester grades are covered, which allows students to take some risks.

In regards to managing a number of end of the semester presentations, when those are substituted for a traditional paper, it was suggested that the slotted exam time could be used. Sometimes students are willing to meet in a special session for these presentations, particularly if refreshments are provided. A poster session is an efficient way to handle a larger group of presentations, especially if you invite other faculty or outside experts to assist in the review process.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the forthcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Elizabeth Rodini and Joel Schildbach.

Managing Students’ Emotions while Facilitating Active, Peer-to-Peer and Experiential Learning in the Class

silhouette  of a human torso with heart and brain. How do you deal with disengaged students in your class? Those students can easily be discounted as people who “just don’t get it.” We can label them as “dysfunctional” and be comforted thinking that we can’t make every student happy in our classes. But what if your assumption is that your responsibility is to create a learning environment where transformations – from bored to engaged –can happen? What if the actual content you are teaching, and the learning you are hoping to achieve, has an emotional component?

Key questions comes to mind:

  1. Does learning involve both cognitive and affective/emotional work?
  2. How do we do this affective work and how do we balance the need for dealing with it in a way that doesn’t make the class a “shrink” session?
  3. If we agree that facilitating experiential learning is more effective than lecturing in the class, how do we develop acceptance in instructors and students of the feelings that arise during the learning process?
  4. What conditions can make the work of managing emotions in the class easier for facilitators and participants?

Does Learning involve both cognitive and emotional work?

Dualism, the idea that thinking and feeling are separated can be traced from Plato to Descartes, and from Kant to the Logical Positivists. Day-to-day life is permeated with expressions like “Don’t be so emotional!”, “Let’s leave emotions out of this discussion” or even using the word “passionate” to mean erratic and unpredictable, at least in Anglo Saxon cultures. The message is clear: emotions do not belong in a class.

Dualism has been proven to be false; cognition and emotion appear to be dynamic, interactive and interdependent. Research shows that emotion and cognition jointly contribute to the control of mental activities and behavior. Even in classes where a highly-technical subject matter is taught, the learning process is impaired when educators rely on a theory of learning that is exclusively “above the neck”. This makes emotions not-discussable, which in turn makes this decision itself not-discussable.  Thus the role of emotions during the learning process becomes a hidden process that plays a role never fully understood or leveraged for learning success. Learning does involve both the cognitive and the affective domains and educators can learn how to create the right mix.

As an adaptive leadership practitioner and experiential educator, I treasure the distinction between Ron Heifetz’s learning “above the neck” (the intellectual faculties, the home of logic and facts), and learning “below the neck” (the emotional faculties, the home of values, intuition and inner purpose). Heifetz’s great intuition is that leadership work – and that of educators – is about “managing the gradual process of easing people into an uncomfortable state of uncertainty, disorder, conflict, or chaos at a pace and level that does not overwhelm them yet takes them out of their comfort zones and mobilizes them to engage in addressing an adaptive challenge.”

How do we do this affective work and how do we balance the need for dealing with it in a way that doesn’t make the class a “shrink” session? Are emotions expressed in the class a sign of failure or success?

I see emotions as expressions of deeply held beliefs and our work of educators as getting in touch with this inner dimension in order to gain greater awareness. I can only do this work with emotions in class if I am able to explore and handle emotions myself. Exploring emotions during the adaptive change that deep learning is, I have found that the emotion of fear (e.g., fear of loss, fear of the unknown) has the greatest significance. Fear impairs our individual and collective capacity to learn by distracting us and diverting our energy into self-protection. We can deal with that fear head-on by encouraging our students and strengthening their motivational resilience. Dealing openly in the class to counter the idea that learning is only cognitive affair might be a start, as well as dealing with student’s expectations. Indeed students show up for a class with clear expectations:

They expect the work to be at a cognitive level as many individuals – emotionally intelligent in their personal lives – believe in the classroom they must be completely logical and remain emotionally unaffected by their experiences. This idea keeps students from discovering useful information and keeps them from crafting creative solutions.  They also expect the instructor will convey course content in a traditional way (often through a lecture consistent with their previous experiences).

As educators we can decide to keep the conversation at the “cognitive level”. But if we embrace learning as both cognitive and emotional we need to engage courageously with the following paradox:

  • If we meet learners’ expectations of a purely cognitive experience we do not serve them well especially in classes where the premise and purpose of the work is intentionally transformational and centered on personal growth.
  • If we disappoint learners’ expectations (and teach a kind of knowledge that is cognitive/emotional in nature and process) we may generate anxiety; and force our students to renegotiate the social contract with us as authority figures, a contract with which they are familiar and comfortable.

Expression of emotions are neither a sign of success nor a sign of failure, but I do know that classes where emotions are not expressed are more likely to be ineffective.

If we believe that experiential learning is more effective than lecturing because it mirrors more closely the real world, how do we develop acceptance of the feelings that arise during the learning process in both instructors and students?

While there may be no “right way” to manage this complex process as a facilitator, I have found from my personal experience that the following to be helpful:

  • Listening and speaking from the heart. Listening from the heart means understanding what others are feeling; speaking from the heart means expressing what I am feeling. This communicates the values at stake, the reasons that make it worthwhile for people to deal with their temporary discomfort and stay in the game. For example if I talk about something sad and feel the urge to cry, I do not end my class prematurely or walk out of the room: I allow myself to feel while also seeing my class through. By doing this, I let my students know that the situation is containable, that I can stay with the emotion and that they can, too.
  • Allowing for silence. Resisting the urge to fill the silence might be one of the most powerful ways to support students’ expression of their feelings. Marcia Reynolds, the author of “The Discomfort Zone” states “Silence is holding a space of care and trust as a person’s brain tries to make sense of what it is learning…You don’t want to interrupt when a person is processing a question you asked. Silence is more effective than trying to make someone feel better…If you quickly shift the person from feeling negative to positive, going away from the problem to what is possible…the person might feel ashamed for continuing to feel angry or frustrated during or after the conversation. His or her real needs remain unspoken.”
  • Asking myself “What person’s essential values/commitments has been so violated that it justifies these feelings?” I address this issue openly and encourage a sense of adventure and moderate risk-taking. I remind students that in their professional lives they will probably deal with issues that are confusing and unclear. I continue to issue several invitations that encourage the more controlled-minded individuals to “go with the flow, by “renting the ideas” rather than buying them to see where these ideas might lead them.
  • Being comfortable with conflict. I have no problem with a high range of emotions being expressed in the class. My belief is that the power of dialogue can get people far and that we are all better off when we learn with and from each other. Differences can become an exhilarating window into other worlds and ways of seeing the world.

In summary…

In summary, I hope you can see how the courage to be vulnerable and to embrace emotions in the class transforms the way we teach and the way we learn; and how important it is to model for our students the courage our cognitive as well as our emotional selves be seen. Vulnerability is the path if we want greater clarity in our purpose as leaders.

I have discovered that a learning process that allows for vulnerability both of instructor and students makes it easier to courageously seek our authentic purpose as teachers, learners and leaders.

We will do better in our work as educators when we decide that taking risks, braving uncertainty and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure are no longer weaknesses to be feared, rather crucial decisions that ultimately define the quality of our own learning journey, of our work and ultimately of who we are, for our students and especially for us.

For Further reading

  • Heifetz,R., Grashow,A., and Linsky,M., The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (HarvardBusinessPress,2009)
  • Nussbaum, M. “Upheaval of Emotions”
  • De Souza, Renner “Not Knowing”
  • Reynolds, M. “The Discomfort Zone”
  • Baldwin,C. ;Linnea,A. “The Circle Way. A leader in every chair”
  • De Mello, A. “Awareness”
  • Pianesi, A. “Journey to chaos and back: Unlearning in workplace training programs” The Systems Thinker
  • Web site: by Adriano Pianesi and Jill Hufnagel


Adriano Pianesi is a leadership development consultant and principal of He teaches leadership experientially at the Carey Business School Johns Hopkins University, at the State Department, at the World Bank and at Microsoft. He has worked in the last 20 years in the private, nonprofit, government sector, and in international organizations. A passionate experiential educator, World Café host, and Adaptive Leadership enthusiast, Adriano can be reached at

Image source: by Macie Hall remixed from “Man shadow – upper” by Mikael Häggström – File:Upper body front.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – and

Developing and Using Effective Active-Learning Exercises in Class

On Friday, October 30, the Center for Educational Resources launched ouLogo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.r Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching series with two faculty presenting on developing and using effective active-learning exercises in their classes.

Vince Hilser, professor and chair, Department of Biology led off with a presentation [presentation slides] describing how he had used active learning to help students understand a core concept, equilibrium, in his Biochemistry course. Showing his sense of humor, Hilser presented a timeline for the first semester he taught the course in 2011: August—Hilser prepares (brilliant) lectures. September, October, November—Hilser delivers (brilliant) lectures to students. January 2012—Hilser receives student evaluations and realizes that students did not learn from (brilliant) lectures.

Vince Hilser's diagram of What is Biochemistry showing inverted triangle with Facts, Reasoning Skills and Core Concept.Convinced that understanding the principle of equilibrium would enable students to truly learn it, Hilser wondered if he could help his students actually see an example of equilibrium.  A classic demonstration of equilibrium is the so-called Apple Wars: An apple tree straddles the properties of two neighbors with yards separated by fences. Every fall the tree drops its fruit and the old man and young man throw the unwanted apples into each other’s yards. Ultimately, as they are throwing, the number of apples on each side will reach a constant state, which is at equilibrium.

In Hilser’s classroom (a large lecture hall), a long line of yellow police caution tape running from front to back stood for the fence. Ping pong balls represented the apples. Students on one side were the young man and could fetch and throw with both hands, on the other side, the old man students were handicapped by being allowed to fetch and throw with the left hand only. A blast from a whistle started the students throwing ping pong balls across the fence, retrieving and throwing back. At the end of a timed sequence the balls were gathered on each side and counted. The exercise was repeated and the results echoed those of the first round. Then Hilser introduced the equation for equilibrium, filling in the results from the ping pong war demonstration to demonstrate the application of variables.  Once the students have seen in real life what equilibrium is, the equation make sense to them. They can then move on to methods of inquiry and how biological systems work.

Hilser could see from course assessments that students had a firmer grasp of the concepts. Evaluations showed that 86% of the students felt that the apple wars demonstration was effective in helping them to understand and apply the concept of chemical equilibrium. Students trusted the facts because they had experienced the proof. One student commented, “This really made me believe that organized randomness occurs in nature,” a statement that shows a high level of perception and extrapolation. Hilser’s presentation demonstrated that a good active-learning exercise can be worth more to students than a lot of words from the sage on the stage.

Todd Hufnagel, Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, presented [presentation slides] on his experience with using peer instruction in his Structure of Materials course. This class typically has 20 to 25 students.

Photograph showing students in the active learning classroom in Todd Hufnagel's Structure of Materials course.In 2011 Hufnagel received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In response to the broader impacts requirement, he decided pursue an educational research project. For Hufnagel, a core principle underscores his teaching philosophy as articulated in this quote from Herbert A. Simon: “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks.” The grant allowed him to test whether student learning outcomes would be better if the course was taught using an active-learning model or using a traditional lecture style by teaching it twice each way in alternating years.

He turned to a model developed by Harvard’s Professor of Physics, Eric Mazur, involving the use of concept inventories and peer learning. “A concept inventory is a criterion-referenced test designed to determine whether a student has an accurate working knowledge of a specific set of concepts.” Students are given a concept inventory test at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester to measure their learning gains.

During the semester, the concept questions are used as a basis for peer instruction. Hufnagel introduces a slide with a multiple choice question. Students use their clickers to vote on what they think is the correct answer. Hufnagel shows them a histogram of all the answers. If the histogram indicates that students are confused as to the correct answer, he asks students to discuss the question in pairs of small groups.  Based on the idea that the best way to learn something is to teach it, students who know the correct answer will explain the concept to those who don’t.

After discussing the question, the students are asked to vote again. The instructor can then determine the level of understanding and proceed with a full explanation, a quick clarification, or simply affirm that the students are correct and move on to the next concept.

Is active learning better? Hufnagel’s comparison of teaching the class two ways showed that improvement in concept inventory scores in lecture version of class was 63%, for the active learning classes the improvement was 100%. He also surveyed the students about how their confidence in understanding the material.  Interestingly, the lecture course students rated their knowledge much higher than the active learning students. Hufnagel thought this is because the active learning setting makes students realize how much they don’t know, while the lecture course students aren’t as aware of what they don’t know.

Hufnagel detailed the pros and cons of using a peer-instruction approach. On the plus side, students learn more, and the instructor gets more effective feedback on what they students actually know as s/he circulates through class listening to their discussion. Hufnagel also noted that this approach was much more fun for him as a teacher. The drawbacks are that it can be more difficult to “cover the material,” and there is a significant time commitment on the part of the faculty. For the first, Hufnagel noted that the important thing is that students understand the material that is covered, and that students can be made responsible for learning some of the content outside of class. As to the second, while it is easier and faster for faculty to write lectures, once the concept questions are written, they have a long shelf life and can be re-used. In the end, the strong evidence of improved student learning gains with active learning is a compelling argument for using these teaching strategies.

Faculty attendees had questions and made comments during the discussion period. Following is a summary of some of the main points.

On ways of handling coverall “all the material,” Hufnagel assigns reading and watching videos outside of class. He finds the students like the videos as they can tackle content on their own schedule and repeat as often as needed to understand the material. There is quick four question quiz on the assignment to encourage students to both do the work and to help them retain the concepts. Research tells us that students learn by being asked to recall content frequently. He spends the first five minutes of class talking informally, perhaps brining in a topical information to increase interest, then spends the rest of the class on concept questions. Typically he will get through about six questions per class. He tells his students that he has data that show students learn better with active learning and that helps with buy-in to what may be a new learning experience.

To faculty questioning how much time had to be allocated for active learning exercises, Hilser explained that the ping pong ball demonstration takes an entire class, but it establishes an understanding of a concept so fundamental to the course that is it worth the time spent.

A question, “What about teaching the facts?  What if students don’t absorb enough factual knowledge?” led to a response by Hilser that there are many facts that are critically important as base knowledge, absolutely required facts. But he and Hufnagel agreed that beyond the core facts, students can look up information. The instructor’s role is to provide context.

One attendee noted that he has participated as an instructor in a department where lecture and active learning course covering the same content are running in parallel.  The active learning class do slightly better (10%) on exams, but they are much happier in class–more satisfaction is seen in the active learning students.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the forthcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Vince Hilser and Todd  Hufnagel.

Where Goes the Lecture, Reprise

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a question mark over it.Lectures were the topic of the last post, and usually I adhere to the adage that variety is the spice of life. Lectures, however, have been a hot topic in education news recently, and there was a comment on the previous post with a link that I wanted to share. Therefore, lectures, take two.

First, Illysa Izenberg, lecturer for the Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, commented on the previous post, “I think maybe the best way to teach may be to teach in many different ways.” She wrote an article for Faculty Focus (a free e-newsletter and website that publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom) titled, The Eight-Minute Lecture Keeps Students Engaged, August 31, 2015. Izenberg writes: “When I began teaching in 2006, I assumed that students could read anything I say. Therefore, my classes consisted of debates of, activities building on, and direct application of theories taught in the readings—no lectures. But I noticed that students had difficulty understanding the content in a way that enabled accurate and deep application without some framing from me. In short, I needed to lecture—at least a little. This is when I began the eight-minute lecture.” She then describes how to prepare students for using this methodology and how to implement it in your course. An example from a course she taught provides specificity. Although this technique might be more difficult to apply in a traditional large lecture hall, it would work well in any classroom space that allows for flexible seating arrangements.

On October 17, 2015, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece for the Times Sunday Review, Lecture Me. Really. Worthen pushes back against the “active learning craze” in favor of the traditional lecture, especially for humanities courses. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.” Students should be exposed to “absorbing a long, complex, argument” that requires them to “synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Along with this she cites the value of learning hand-written note-taking skills, which recent research has shown help students better remember course content.

Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate, responded to Worthen on October 21, 2015 with Professors Shouldn’t Teach to Younger Versions of Themselves, offering a reality check. Worthen’s concept represents an ideal situation with ideal students, Schuman says, but those may not be the students in your classroom. “The American professoriate shouldn’t gear their courses exclusively to students who are so bright and motivated they could learn the material on their own. They should also include components designed for the average, real, very-much-not-ideal student they will actually meet.”

Regardless of what you choose as the method for content delivery, you will want to consider classroom climate and teaching to diversity, making sure that you are fostering an inclusive classroom.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from images

Do Your Students Understand the Assignment?

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention this past week: The Unwritten Rules of College by Dan Berrett (September 21, 2015), profiled art history professor Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her quest to help students learn how to learn.

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.Winkelmes, the former director of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, has also trained faculty in teaching at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and, currently, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where she is principal investigator of  Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. This project seeks “to improve higher education teaching and learning experiences for faculty and students through two main activities:

  • promoting students’ conscious understanding of how they learn, and
  • enabling faculty to gather, share and promptly benefit from current data about students’ learning by coordinating their efforts across disciplines, institutions and countries.

A primary focus for Winkelmes has been reaching out to students who are first generation college students or otherwise may not understand what she calls “the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college.” [See: Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. “Equity of Access and Equity of Experience in Higher Education.” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24, 2 (February 2015), 1-4.] “As an increasingly broad and diverse cross section of students enters higher education, knowing those rules matters more than ever. Without them, students stumble. They might miss the point of a paper, drift during discussions, or feel overwhelmed or aimless. But all students can thrive, Ms. Winkelmes says, if the tacit curriculum is made plain.”

Winkelmes’ findings from the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project point to giving assignments in a transparent manner as having a “significant effect on students.” Faculty involved in the project considered three questions when creating assignments: the task, the purpose, and the criteria.

Defining the task means that the students are told exactly they are to do. Students should also know the purpose of the assignment. Why are they being asked to do this and what is the instructor’s goal? What are the criteria that will be used to evaluate the work that the students submit?

The article provides details on how several faculty took assignments they had used in the past, reviewed them using the three questions, and then implemented improved versions of the assignments in their classes. While some faculty have pushed back on the process, others have found it to be valuable, saying that clarifying the assignment at the outset helps save time in the long run.

This relatively easy technique has proved to have a big impact. “In the classroom, knowing the task, purpose, and criteria can help motivate students and make their courses relevant. In other areas, the information can help them navigate an intimidating system. To Ms. Winkelmes, the protocol helps students meet higher expectations of rigor, which, in turn, can ensure equity in educational quality.”


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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