Posts Tagged ‘ teacher ’

In addition to surveying, a previous blog post of mine recommends sending out an introductory email a week or more prior to the beginning of class. Read more here: …The importance of establishing a positive and comfortable communication climate cannot be overstated. Thanks for the list of tips!

The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?

This month the Creative Research Center at Montclair State University filmed a one-hour virtual webcast, The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?” as part of its Second Annual CRC Symposium.

The video, available here, presents a panel discussion on creativity and imagination, discussed among scientist educators working at MSU, to foster innovation, creative learning, and adaptive expertise in research and in the classroom. The discussion is moderated by Dr. Neil Baldwin, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of the Arts and director of the CRC. He interviews Dr. Jennifer Adams Krumins, assistant professor, Department of Biology and Molecular Biology; Dr. Cigdem Talgar, director of Research and Programs and acting director of the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL); Dr. William Thomas, director, New Jersey School of Conservation; Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, assistant professor of Physics in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; and Dr. Meiyin Wu, associate professor, Biology and Molecular Biology and director of the Passaic River Institute.

For educators, an essential struggle in any discipline lies in exciting our students’ imagination, getting them to think creatively about a problem or concept, and asking them to adapt to new knowledge and variable information in order to think more critically and deeply. This video highlights ways in which this is being done in the classroom, what role models and sources of inspiration have served our educators, how important engaging students in world views and creative thinking is to change, innovation, and adaptability, and much more. The conversation takes us into the specific profiles of each scientist educator, leads us into their world of development and experimentation, and models how they integrate their passion into their research and teaching.

I highly recommend that you watch this video, and share with your colleagues and students. There are numerous ways to approach creative thinking and imaginative learning; here are several of them packaged into an active and informative discussion.

The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?


Getting Students to Complete Reading Assignments – Ideas from Teachers for Teachers

The Research Academy held its first Teaching Circle meeting last Wednesday. I decided to start the semester with a topic that repeatedly comes up in teaching consultations and faculty discussion groups: getting students to do the reading and/or out-of-class work. I observed a class a year ago in which the new young instructor, finishing up the 90 minute class, asked who had done the assigned reading. Not one hand went up. She rather desperately searched her student’s faces: “No one did the reading?” she asked incredulously. No response. I knew this felt awkward for her; she was being observed (at her request) by her colleagues and she didn’t know how to handle the situation. Carry on? Cover the material anyway? Her plan had been to lead a discussion around the concepts in the reading; if no one read it, she would essentially just be teaching the material. She decided to skip the reading altogether and finish up with some group work on a different topic.

This is hardly a singular experience. Nearly every (every?) teacher has faced a class of students who are unprepared. They didn’t read, they didn’t watch the video, or do the review. Luckily, there are definite ways to handle this. First, why don’t students do the reading? Our group, squeezed into a library classroom, brainstormed the following reasons behind the student-didn’t-read phenom:

  1. There is no pay-off. Students are very strategic about their work load. When assigned readings are not tied to any evaluation (grades) or when the teacher covers the material anyway, they know that they can get away with not reading with no penalty.
  2. The reading isn’t connected to course material in an obvious way, or the teacher has not helped them make the connection. When assignments seem to be arbitrary, that is, not tied to course work in an appreciable way, students lose motivation to complete it. They do not see the reading as an extension of the course work or core to disciplinary understanding, so they shrug it off.
  3. Students don’t know how to read academic texts. This, unfortunately, prevents them from contributing to a discussion even if they did TRY to do the reading. They may not have understood what they read, did not know what was important (highlighted EVERYTHING ON THE PAGE), and are afraid to sound “dumb” if they discuss what they read. Students receive very little training on how to read academic texts. They don’t know the jargon, they don’t know how to identify what’s important, they don’t know how to summarize the text. This level of reading can be intimidating.

These are some of the primary reasons that students don’t complete assigned reading. It is important to know why they aren’t reading because this directly informs how you can make some alterations to instruction in order to address these issues.

The participants offered some ideas on what they are doing to counter the no-reading issue:

  1. Mini-quizzes on the reading at the beginning (or before the beginning) of each class. These are conducted online, through Blackboard, and take about 10 minutes. Quiz grades count towards overall course grade.
  2. Guided reading – questions to answer as they read, using Socrative, an online student response system. Socrative allows teachers to set up exercises and questions, multiple choice or open-ended, graded or not graded, that the students can answer from any connected device (phone, laptop, tablet). They can see each others responses if the teacher deems it important, or the answers can be anonymous.
  3. Model good reading strategies, especially for research-oriented or academic level text. One professor has them highlight only the portions of the text where they felt lost or began to lose track of what the text was saying. These points of confusion can guide class discussion, provide fodder for small-group work (students work together to grapple with meaning), and can let the teacher know what students struggle with the most.

As you may have guessed, there is a lot of research and expertise available that supports our group’s ideas of how to get students to read, as well as provides some additional ideas. What the experts say:

From Karl Wirth, Malacaster College (

Reading Reflection

After completing the reading assignment, write brief responses (i.e., at least several sentences) to 2 out of 3 questions:

  1. What is the main point of this reading?
  2. What information did you find surprising?  Why?
  3. What did you find confusing?  Why?

Too often, when we read the words on a page we do not fully integrate that new information into our existing knowledge structure, and so we fail to gain new understanding of the world around us.  Research in cognitive science and learning tells us that “deep learning” requires that the learner reflect on new knowledge and create personal meaning from it.

To help us reflect more deeply on readings in this course, we will use reading reflections.  These reading reflections are designed to help the reader engage with the material in a deeper way, and to construct new meaning from it.  The reflections also have the advantage of providing the instructor with detailed information about your learning in the course.  This not only helps guide the daily preparation of course activities, but also helps connect us as a community of learners.

Your response need not be long, but must clearly indicate careful reading and thoughtful reflection.  You must respond to two of the questions.

What is the Main Point?
Reading assignments often contain a lot of information.  What is the main concept that the author is trying to get across?  This may, or may not, have been explicitly stated in the reading.  Why did the author choose to emphasize this point, and not some other?  Your response is not a summary of the chapter, but an analysis of it in a way that creates new meaning for you.

What is Surprising?
Your response to this question should be reflective.  Did you learn something that is in conflict with your previous notions of the world?  Did you learn something that fascinates you in a way that you didn’t expect?  How does this new knowledge connect with material in other courses, or with other parts of your life?  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

What is Confusing?
Responses to this question require careful reading and reflection; it is only though the process of reconciling new information with our existing knowledge structure that we become aware of inconsistencies, or “gaps” in our understanding.  Responses to this question should be specific and actionable – that is they should outline a clear path to understanding.  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

Rubric for Evaluation
10 points         Responses to both questions are labeled and clearly indicate careful reading and deep reflection.  Responses submitted before class meeting.

5 points           Responses are not specific, do not clearly indicate reflection, or are submitted soon after deadline.

0 points           No response, or response submitted more than one class period late.

From the IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40 – Getting Students to Read: 14 Tips, by Eric H. Hobson, Georgia State University (

1)   Using appropriate texts:

  • Why am I using this particular text?
  • How does it help me meet my course goals/educational outcomes?
  • What do I mean by “required”? How does it contribute to students’ success in the course? “Nist and Kirby (1989) wrote that documented reading assignment compliance rates among college students (20 to 30%) “could be partly due to the fact that students quickly discovered that they did not need to read and study their texts in order to do well in the class. Perhaps attending class and studying lecture notes were sufficient for acceptable performance” (p. 327).”

2)   Rate your reading material: (e.g. absolutely essential, good supporting material, exotic, appealing to experts, or idiosyncratic choice). Only material that is essential should be labeled “required” and students will be held accountable for reading (such as graded reading assignments or readiness quizzes). Consider not using a text if no text can be categorized as essential; instead, build a course reading packet that supplements and complements the course. Any additional texts can fall under Recommended Reading.

3)   Course readings should show up as part of in-class presentations (yours or the students), factor into course projects, or appear on exams. Connections between the course and the reading should be obvious.

4)   Scaffold your reading assignments. Aim most assignments at “marginally skilled” readers, slowly build up the difficulty level of the readings, have students identify concepts or terms they struggled with for group/class discussion. Develop necessary reading skills and interpretative/inter-relational analysis skills. Preview the readings; relate them to course activities; practice reading skills in class (marking text and understanding why certain things are marked, summarizing concepts, identifying confusing or unclear ideas, forming questions).

5)   Use the syllabus as a teaching tool: “Effective syllabi do more than identify required reading materials; they provide background about the materials so that students understand why the reading assignments contribute to learning and how they relate to other course content and course activities (Grunert, 1997; Maleki & Heerman, 1992).”

Source: Turn to Your Neighbor (Peer Instruction Blog):

Peer Instruction (at least concerning homework and reading assignments) emphasizes effort over getting it right. So, in class, students would compare answers and work together towards a correct answer.

1)   Questions associated with the reading.

  • What did you find difficult or confusing in the reading? What attracted your attention, or you found most interesting? What questions do you have?
  • Content-specific questions where students must justify their answers.

2)   Students will be prepared to be called on to lead discussions on the reading. Assignment is random (cold-calling). Set up communication climate to establish trust and openness for ideas in the classroom.

3)   Make the reading MEAN something. Reading should ALWAYS be separate but related to the class material, else what’s the motivation to read it?

4)   Credit (grade) for Reading Assignments.

Works Cited

Grunert, Judith. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Bolton, MA: Anker, 1997. Print.

Hobson, Eric H. “Getting Students to Do the Reading: 14 Tips.” IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40, (2004), 1-10. Print.

Maleki, R.B. & Heerman, C.E. “Improving student reading.” IDEA Paper No. 26, Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, 1992.

Nist, S.L. & Kirby, K. The text marking patterns of college students. Reading Psychology: An International Quarterly, 10 (1989), 321-338.

Schell, Julie. “How One Professor Motivated to Read Before a Flipped Class, and Measured Their Effort.” Turn to Your Neighbor, Peer Instruction Blog. 4 Sept 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <;

Wirth, Karl. “Reading Reflections.” Carlton College, Science Education Resource Center. 29 May 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <;

Communicating With Students – Creating a Comfortable, Open Environment

Sending EmailTwo recent documents crossed my desk, one a study concerning sending welcoming emails to students one-week prior to the beginning of class (I know, this is a bit late for that, but still doable). The other discussed how to set boundaries on email communication, limiting digital clutter and establishing the rules and expectations on digital communication – which is probably especially important for those teaching hybrid/online courses. I thought I’d do a “welcome back!” post combining the strategies of these two studies, as a tip for setting the tone of out-of-class communication with your students, managing expectations and possibly limiting stereotypes and prejudices.

The study was conducted by Angela Legg and Janie Wilson in 2009. They found that sending a welcoming email to students one-week prior to class increased student’s motivation, fostered a positive attitude among students towards the instructor and the course, and increased student retention. Their study builds on existing research that indicates that building a rapport with students and keeping an open line of communication can increase motivation, participation, attendance, and learning (cf. Buskist & Saville, 2004; Christensen & Menzel, 1998; Frymier, 1994). Their research operates as an extension of theories of immediacy behaviors, and was expected to be most effective along gender lines, especially appreciated by female students more than male. To read about these theories more fully, I recommend you read the full study (available via the link below), it’s not long and it’s informative about student behaviors and how we can anticipate and forestall negative attitudes and perceptions.

First impressions can set the tone – good or bad – for the rest of the semester (Nilson, 2003; Wolcowitz, 1984). Traditionally, first impressions are made on the first day of class, but a welcoming email (the authors also suggest first contact can take other forms as well, such as using a social networking platform) can build a relationship before you ever meet your students. Tips for sending a welcoming email:

  • Personalize the message, rather than send a mass, blind cc email to all your students.
  • Provide your full contact information, office hours, and preferred method of contact (we’ll return to this item below).
  • Use a professional but approachable tone in your email, avoid excessive familiarity, attempts to be overly humorous, crude, or “hip”, stay on task by sticking to the connecting factor, your course. Striking just the right tone of friendly, open availability balanced with a professional, professorial air will carry over into your classroom environment.
  • Provide pre-reading opportunities (if applicable), list of texts, where they can be found (and publisher you prefer if applicable) and any other resources that may be helpful for students to get a jump on course work and/or come prepared to class.
  • Finally, invite questions! But, be sure you have the time and inclination to answer every email students may send your way. Let’s explore this question more now.

Courtesy of National Geographic, 2003

How much communication is too much? We have to be aware that, if we open the door to digital communication and invite a relationship via email or any digital platform, there may be other expectations set. The second piece I read was called “The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours” by entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week (Crown, 2009). Though geared for a business audience, I found that many of the themes and suggestions of the article seemed particularly useful in relation to the study on welcoming emails and digital communication with students. It’s one thing to say, “I want my students to feel welcome to email me and ask questions”, but what limits do you set on your time, willingness to answer every minor email from students, and willingness to be available and expected to reply quickly? In an age where instant access and instant response are the standards, it is a wise move to set some boundaries and let students know what they can expect in their digital communications with you. By sending a welcoming email, you can influence attitudes, motivation, and even control some preconceived stereotypes or prejudices, but it’s worth limiting these communications – not at the expense of the student or relationship, but to strengthen them.

Ferriss calls email “the single biggest time waster in modern life” (4). He provides the following tips for setting boundaries for your email communications:

  • “Batching” Check email only once or twice a day, at set times. Turn off auto-alerts when you get a new email; it distracts you and interrupts productivity. Establish this rule of access in a template that is replicated (like a signature line) in each email – set up as an autoresponder or as an automatic amendment to each outgoing email. Here is a template [modified for educators]:


Due to a high courseload and pending deadlines [or research/teaching obligations], I am currently responding to email twice daily at 12pm EST [be sure to indicate your time zone] and 4pm EST.

If you require help with something that can’t wait until either 12pm or 4pm, please call me on my [cell/office phone] at 555-555-5555.

Thank you for understanding. I look forward to working with you this semester.

  • Either in your course syllabus or in your welcoming email, set expectations of what you will or will not respond to.
    • This means letting students know that if there isn’t a question to be answered, you won’t respond to email. This can be helpful for colleagues as well. It cuts down on the back-and-forth correspondence that plagues us all.
    • Here is a template [language modified for educators, particularly those that supervise others]:

Thank you so much for your message. I make every attempt to personally respond to each person who contacts me, but due to the high volume of e-mail I receive, this is sometimes impossible. Please be assured that I have received and have read your email. If your email requires a response, I will reply between the hours of [your email schedule]. Thank you for understanding and have a wonderful day!

Ferriss addresses several other tactics for limiting or eliminating digital clutter and the consequent demands on our time that accompany digital correspondence. The full report is available via the link listed below.

By first establishing a relationship through a welcoming email, and making sure to define the expectations and parameters of that relationship, you could increase positive student attitudes about you and your course, increase retention rates, and increase student motivation. As well, you are making sure that you can maintain that digital relationship by setting communication expectations, so you aren’t disappointing or failing to respond to a student, which we all know, can sour the attitude of many a frantic student. It’s equally important to follow through on what you say. If you establish a schedule, stick to it.

I hope this proves helpful for your course and your relationship with students. I’m eager to hear your experience, so please comment or write and tell me what works for you. Have a wonderful semester!


Legg, A. M. & Wilson, J.H. (2009). E-Mail From Professor Enhances Student Motivation and Attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 205-211. Available online at:

Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2004). Rapport-building: Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology, 2, 149–155. Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Ferriss, T. (2007). The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours. ChangeThis, 34(4). Retrieved from

Silence at a Teaching Tool: Meditation in the Classroom

Silence as a Teaching Tool: Meditation in the Classroom

Silence as a teaching tool

Teachers fill their classes with sound. A lecture or assignment that excites a lively class discussion is deemed successful. It is also productive to fill them occasionally with silence. There is no exercise that my students enjoy more than silent meditation. They say they are under a lot of pressure, and a few minutes of quiet with the lights low is refreshing, calming, and settles their minds.

My pedagogic specialty is the application of the principles of linguistics to the writing classroom, and one area of linguistics concerns how ideas are created before they are voiced or written down. Ideas come as plentifully from silence as they do from discussion.

The three meditation-based exercises below give students a creative tool which most of them have never used before.

I.    Meditation Before Writing.

Meditation is a sophisticated practice which requires a long time to master. The better title for this exercise may be “quiet concentration” or “pure thinking.”

Exercise: Provide an in-class assignment; it could be a simple description (“What would the ideal classroom look like?”), or a more philosophical question (“What is the right way to discipline young children?”). It could also be a memory question (“What is your earliest memory?”). The question can be tailored to current class work.

Turn the lights off, ask them to silence their electronic devices, tell them to get comfortable, and announce that the meditation will last five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, give them time to write a paragraph on the assigned subject. You could then ask them to read the paragraphs aloud, but that is not required. Ask them to share their reactions to the meditation process.

The payoff would be that the process results in a better final paper, but there is no good method to test that.

It’s a simple exercise, but provides a memorable and often empowering experience for the students.

II.  Guided Meditation.

One of the pitfalls of learning is the frequent assumption by students that their view of the world is universally held.  In my classes recent statements have ranged from “Everyone serves lasagna on Christmas,” to “Everyone loves their parents,” to “There were no abortions before Roe v. Wade.”

Exercise: Ask students to close their eyes.  Ask them to breathe comfortably in and out, and then instruct them to relax their feet, ankles, knees, hips, stomach, throat, eyes, etc.  Then guide them in a meditation.  This has as many permutations as there are people, but I often use this one:

Imagine you are walking along and you come upon a gate in a fence.

You walk through the gate, and across a wide field. 

You come to a body of water, where you stay for a while. 

Now turn around and come back to where you started.

You can also use this one:

Imagine you stop your car by the side of the road and walk to a lake 100 yards away

What is on the surface of the lake?

Descend lower into the water. What do you see there?

Descend to the bottom of the lake. What do you see there?

Now rise back to the top and walk to your car.

This part of the exercise should take 5-10 minutes. It takes time for images and impressions to develop, so leave plenty of time between each phase of the imagined experience.

After it is over, ask the students to tell the rest of the class what their fence/field/body of water looked like, what they did while they were walking.

Some students are alone, some with others. For some the field is full of flowers, which they pick, others play soccer with their team. Some go swimming in the water; others dip their toe in, and some just look at it. On their return, some lock the gate behind them; others walk through and leave it open. Some have friends awaiting them on the other side of the gate; others are alone. The imagined experiences are utterly different from one another, and students are amused, amazed, and delighted at the variety.

(As an aside, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to demonstrate similar diversity on a more practical level. In the first class after the break, I ask each student write down what they ate on Thanksgiving. I have done this three years in a row and there is no single food that “everyone” has served, not even turkey and pumpkin pie. One such real-life example of natural diversity is worth any number of lectures on the subject.)

This is a counter-linguistic exercise in that it involves no language at all until the class reviews what they have imagined – the experience takes place on another level. It is a good opportunity to question where ideas come from, how creativity works, and what our “minds” are.

The dazzling array of different experiences speaks for itself in demonstrating that no two minds think alike. The point can be underlined by noting that their imaginings proceeded from different experiences and expectations, and that this diversity should be assumed in every area of the human experience.

III. Talking Stick:

This exercise is based on tribal ceremonies to resolve differences and hash through issues. It can be used in any discipline to dig deep into a specific area of inquiry. It is nonthreatening, egalitarian, and always interesting. I participate too when the Talking Stick comes into my hand.

Example: In my writing class this semester, the essays are based on the Ages of Man, beginning with “before birth, childbirth, and early childhood.”  We are reading poetry, essays, and fictional works which portray or discuss this period in life, and inspiration can be gleaned from these readings, but it is still a daunting challenge to narrow the focus to a specific claim. This semi-meditative exercise provides a rich lode of issues and experiences to enrich the thinking of all members of the class.

Exercise:  The teacher must find a “talking stick” of some sort, which is simply an interesting stick. You can tie a ribbon around an ordinary stick from your yard, or use, as I have, a colorful carved walking cane. Some stick-like object decorated by your imagination suffices.

The role of the teacher is to guide the discussion and regulate the timing.  The students should understand clearly the issue they are to address. Instruct them to give complete attention to the person holding the Talking Stick – no laughter, no commentary, no questions. Students self-regulate the length of their comments so each participant has time to speak, but the teacher should be ready to cut off a time-hog. The teacher will also judge how long the sharing should go on, giving each student a chance to speak the same number of times. In a class of 18 students, two times around with the Talking Stick took 40 minutes.

The class sits in a circle and the Talking Stick is placed in the middle.  The group sits in silence until someone is moved to pick up the stick and share a thought about the subject at hand. He or she speaks for as long as necessary to express his or her thought and then passes the stick to the left. The next person speaks, and passes it to the left, and so on. Students who can’t think of anything to say can pass it without speaking, but the teacher should come back to them later.

The Talking Stick is powerful. As each participant sees it coming closer and closer, a sense of excitement grows, and often the thoughts expressed when the Talking Stick arrives are freighted with deep commitment. It is a cathartic and informative experience for everyone involved.

This exercise works for both introverted and extroverted students. There is plenty of time to compose a thought, and a flexible amount of time to present it.

Ann Evans is an Adjunct Professor in the award-winning First Year Writing Program at Montclair State University.  She has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Montclair State, and an M.A. in English from New York University.  She writes a monthly column, Language Bits, in The Sussex Newspaper and her blog, “Linguistics in the Writing Classroom” ( is read around the world. An article, “Beyond Grammar: Linguistics in the Writing Classroom” was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Duke University journal, Pedagogy.

Work That Matters | High Tech High

Via Scoop.itEducation and Social Media

From the website

“The teacher’s guide to project-based learning” Free for download

How to design and run projects for students that begin with an enquiry and end with a tangible, publicly exhibited product. This guide has grown out of the partnership between High Tech High, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Innovation Unit.”

This newly published 100-page guide is available for free download. It is the product of an extensive collaboration primarily between High Tech High (a 10-year-old network of 11 public charter schools in San Diego) and Learning Futures (a UK-based non-profit organization that has worked with over 40 schools on innovative methods of teaching and learning, focusing on student engagement). -JL

The guide “offers step-by-step advice on planning and managing extended, interdisciplinary projects as well as useful protocols for critique sessions, templates for important documents such as project plans, and examples of high-impact projects.”


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