Quick Tips: Teaching in Challenging Times and Facilitating Difficult Discussions

In the days following the election faculty and students across the country were faced with Image of a stylized human figure peering into the opening of a large circular maze.teaching and learning in a climate that made both activities difficult. The issues that divided our nation could not be ignored in the classroom. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University published a thoughtful guide for faculty: Teaching in Response to the Election, by Joe Bandy, CFT Assistant Director. The suggestions are practical, reference additional resources, and are useful not just today, but in thinking about supporting students in general. Three other CFT guides are referenced: Teaching in Times of Crisis for when “communities are united in grief or trauma,” Difficult Dialogues will be useful whenever topics of discussion in the classroom touch on “hot button” issues, and the guide for Increasing Inclusivity in the Classroom is relevant at all times.

We welcome your suggestions in the comments for facilitating difficult discussions and teaching in challenging times.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com

Where goes the Lecture?

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a slash through it.At Johns Hopkins there have recently been discussions among faculty and high-level administrators around the concept of “blowing up” the lecture. Nationally, we hear and read that the lecture is ripe to be “disrupted” and replaced by online, hybrid, or flipped course experiences. This is a debate that arouses strong feelings for and against the age-old pedagogical method. But what if you aren’t in a position to re-invent your lecture-based course? The three articles reviewed in today’s post offer some insights into best practices for working within the lecture format.

In How to Teach in an Age of Distraction [The Chronicle of Higher Education October 2, 2015], Sherry Turkle, Professor, Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looks at the broader issue of reaching students immersed in their electronic devices. As almost all instructors today face this challenge, the article is well worth a read, whether or not lecturing is your mode of content delivery.

Turkle defends, with caveats, the lecture, citing anecdotal evidence from colleagues that with MOOCs and flipped classes, students often miss interacting face-to-face with an esteemed faculty member. “A student in an MIT class acknowledges that she gets to listen to the professor speak in an online video, but she wishes she could hear him lecture in person. He is an international figure and has a reputation for being charismatic. She feels she is missing out.” Turkel argues that watching course content videos alone in their dorm rooms isolates students and increases their connecting learning with using electronic devices. Further, she says,

But for all its flaws, the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged. What makes the greatest impression in a college education is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own. Students watch a professor thinking on her feet, and in the best cases can say: “Someday I could do that.” What the young man meant by showing up to “something alive” was really showing up to someone alive — a teacher, present and thinking in front of him.

As stated above, Turkel’s essay focuses primarily on the value of face-to-face conversation and collaboration, arguably not the primary components of most lecture-based courses. A well-designed flipped class would be more likely to foster these pedagogies. But, in Turkel’s defense, the flipped-class trend has not guaranteed that all flipped classes are better learning experiences for students than lectures.

In Turkel’s own classes, which are small seminars, students agreed to put away their devices and focus on the discussion at hand. It is not out of the question to ask that your students do the same in a lecture class. Helping students understand what they will gain by doing so may go a long way towards getting buy in. Turkel’s essay will help you make those points.

There are other reasons to eschew the old-fashioned sage-on-the-stage approach in favor of more interactive teaching practices. Annie Murphy Paul in Are College Lectures Unfair?, an opinion piece in The New York Times [September 12, 2015] asks if college lectures discriminate. Specifically, are lectures “… biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?”

Paul cites studies conducted by scholars at the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin that suggest that the lecture format puts women, minorities, low-income, and first-generation college students at a disadvantage. The studies showed that use of active learning strategies in the classroom reversed the effect. “Research comparing the two methods [lecture vs active learning] has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

Although Paul looks to flipped-format courses as the answer, there are many examples of ways in which to incorporate active learning into a lecture by using classroom polling systems (clickers), think-pair-share exercises (see more on this below), and other strategies. See Twenty Ways to Make Lectures More Participatory from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for more ideas.

Regardless of the content-delivery format, instructors should understand the value of creating an inclusive classroom climate and the importance of teaching to students with diverse backgrounds. The JHU TILE project (Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments) is a good place to go for resources. I highly recommend watching the video The Affective Domain: Classroom Climate.

The third article, What If You Have to Lecture?  by David Gooblar, Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa [The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae: Pedagogy Unbound, February 18, 2015] addresses the conundrum directly.  Gooblar offers three ideas to keep students engaged for those who “…simply don’t have the option of abandoning a lecture-dominated course.”

Gooblar’s first suggestion is to use regular quizzing. He cites an earlier article he wrote on the benefits of frequent low-stakes testing for student retention of information. He offers the suggestion of handing out a short multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of the class that students will answer as the lecture progresses. All of the questions will be covered in your lecture. The quizzes are collected and graded at the end of every class with each quiz counting as a small percentage of the final grade. An even better pedagogical approach, Gooblar proposes, would be to have students answer the questions at the beginning of the class before the lecture, then correcting their own answers during the lecture. This approach allows students to see what they don’t understand and helps them focus on learning those points.

Gooblar second idea is to incorporate group work, a common active-learning strategy, into your lectures by putting students in pairs. Pairs work best in large lecture settings as it is easy for students to turn to the person next to them, and every student is accountable. He describes the classic think-pair-share activity, but also suggests, “Pair students up and, at various points throughout the lecture, pause and ask the pairs to share and compare notes for the previous section of the lecture. This is a good way for students to discover if they’ve missed anything important, and for misconceptions to reveal themselves quickly.”

Thirdly, he recommends that you “cultivate confusion” by asking students either in the middle of the lecture or at the end to write down their “muddiest point.” If you do this in the middle of class you should then call on students and have them read their responses so that you can address concepts that are not clear.  If students are asked at the end of class, collecting the responses, reviewing them and then responding at the beginning of the next lecture to clarify misunderstandings will help keep them on track. Gooblar maintains that this “…is a great way to break students out of the role of passive listeners….” This kind of formative assessment is a good practice for an instructor as well.

Even if you must lecture, you can ask students to be present and reinforce that by keeping them actively engaged. They can’t be on their cell phones if they are being called upon to answer questions, take graded quizzes, and pair up to discuss concepts with classmates. Be aware of the inequities that lecturing may bring and address issues of classroom climate at the beginning of your course. Use formative assessment to benefit you and your students. As you can see, a lecture doesn’t have to be a passive experience.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images

The Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments

The Innovative Instructor has featured several posts recently on inclusivity and diversity in the classroom. This is an important issue, and one that is very much on my radar screen as I have been involved in developing TILE–the Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments (see post here). On Wednesday, March 25th, we had our first session with interested faculty to explore best practices.

As part of the program, we introduced three examples of the types of course components we envision for the toolkit. These could be in-class activities, assignments, projects, case studies, role-playing, experiential learning, best practices or recommendations.


Screen shot from Twitter Feed of the PR firm StrangeFruit showing the two women founders explaining that they thought the term strange fruit could mean something different than it did historically.

Twitter.com screen shot.

Pedagogical Approach: Critical Thinking Exercise 

Students can do this in class on their laptops, tablets, or smart phones.

In 2014 a food and entertainment PR firm was the subject of a media backlash because of their chosen company name. What is wrong with the name? What is the history of the name both past and more recently? How would you have advised the firm to remedy the situation? [By the way, you can find the full story here.]

 Potential Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will be able to discuss why basic research and information literacy skills are imperative to making business decisions.
  • Students will understand the negative consequences of 1) not doing basic research, and 2) not being culturally competent and/or sensitive.
  • Students will understand the importance of gaining cultural competence when it comes to issues or terms that they may not personally understand but may be a sensitive subject for others.
  • Students will have a broader knowledge of a tumultuous time in recent US history.
  • Students will be able to articulate the meaning and history of a song labeled “The Song of the Century” by Time magazine in 1999.
  • Students will be able to discuss the meaning of the term “strange fruit.”


Male crash test dummy in driver's seat.

Brady Holt http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crashtest-Dummy#/media/File:IIHS_crash_test_dummy_in_Hyundai_Tucson.jpg

Pedagogical Approach: Case Study

Adapted from Stanford’s Gendered Innovations, Pregnant Crash Dummies Case Study. In 1949 the US military developed Sierra Sam, the first crash test dummy based on a 95th percentile male body. A female body type was introduced in the 1970s, children crash test dummies in the 80s, and babies in the 90s. There is one group/body type that is not required in vehicle crash tests and yet accounts for the number one fatality rate among a certain group. Any guesses?

“Conventional seatbelts do not fit pregnant women properly, and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma (Weiss et al., 2001). Even a relatively minor crash at 56km/h (35 mph) can cause harm. With over 13 million women pregnant across the European Union and United States each year, the use of seatbelts during pregnancy is a major safety concern (Eurostat, 2011; Finer et al., 2011).”

What are the dangers to the fetus with the current seat belt system? Could you design something better? Given what you know, what requirements or federal policies or disclaimers would you require that are currently not in place? Do the standard seatbelt and seat requirements leave any other segments of the population at risk? If so, who?

Potential Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will understand the importance of a diverse team.
  • Students will be able to discuss the dangers in design when diversity is NOT considered.
  • Students will understand that a one-size-fits-all approach in design overlooks important segments of the population.
  • Students will understand the need for policies that require design for all segments of the population.
  • Students will create a solution that requires inclusive design considerations.


Eurostat. (2011). Fertility, Figure 1: Number of Live Births, EU-27, Legally Induced Abortions by Year, Country, and Mother’s Age, EU-27. http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=demo_fabort&lang=en

Finer, L., & Kost, K. (2011). Unintended Pregnancy Rates at the State Level. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 43 (2), 78-87.

Weiss, H., Songer, T., & Fabio, A. (2001). Fetal Deaths Related to Maternal Injury. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286 (15), 1863-1868.


Image showing a number of faces of people, male and female, of different ages, races, ethnic, and cultural groups. The images are staggered and framed with brightly colored lines suggesting computer monitors.

Pixabay http://pixabay.com/en/system-network-news-personal-591225/

Pedagogical Approach: Guest Lecture or Panel of Experts

Identify minority experts in your field and bring them in as a guest lecturer or for a class discussion. They should spend most of the time on their scholarship and area(s) of expertise and only speak about their minority status in the field when and if they themselves choose.

Potential Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will see someone as a role model for both minorities and non-minorities based on that person’s accomplishments and expertise in their shared area of study.
  • If the expert is respected by the student’s professor, the students will also show/gain respect for the expert.
  • Due to professor’s modeled behavior, students could also potentially treat minority experts as equals when they encounter them in the field.
  • Students may evolve into professionals who support and understand some of the challenges that minorities face in their field.

We have asked those interested in contributing their own examples to submit a PowerPoint slide with the following format: on a single slide, start with an image that is relevant to the example. We ask that the images be rights-free or have a Creative Commons license with attribution in either case. In the Notes section below the slide, describe the pedagogical approach, give the information necessary to implement the example, and list potential learning outcomes.

You are invited, too. If you have an example you’d like to submit, please contact me via the comments with a brief message and an email address. We are looking forward to sharing your contributions.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer, Center for Educational Resources