Month: October 2016

Encourage Critical Thinking, Nov. 2016

Getting students to think critically about material requires instructors to develop habits of repeatedly demonstrating our own processes in class, and perhaps giving students time to practice similar processes.  Class discussions often offer such an opportunity.

In a recent Faculty Focus article, Linda Nilson suggests that “questions are central to students acquiring critical thinking skills. We must ask students challenging, open-ended questions that demand genuine inquiry, analysis, or assessment.”  She recommends questions like

  • What is your interpretation/analysis of this passage/data/argument?
  • What are your reasons for favoring that interpretation/analysis? What is your evidence?
  • How well does your interpretation/analysis handle the complexities of the passage/data/argument?
  • What is another interpretation/analysis of the passage/data/argument? Any others?
  • What are the implications of each interpretation/analysis?
  • Let’s look at all the interpretations/analyses and evaluate them. How strong is the evidence for each one?
  • How honestly and impartially are you representing the other interpretations/analyses? Do you have a vested interest in one interpretation/analysis over another?
  • What additional information would help us to narrow down our interpretations/analyses?

If you are interested in learning more about infusing critical thinking into class discussions, please attend one of the upcoming CETL Teaching Talks on Conducting Class Discussions:

  • Storrs, November 7, 12:30-1:45 in ROWE 319. email to register
  • Avery Point, Tuesday, November 8, 1:00-2:00 in ACD 319—Register
  • Avery Point, Wednesday, November 9, 12:15-1:15 in ACD 109—Register

Refer to the following links for help integrating critical thinking in your classroom:

Active Learning Strategies, Oct. 2016

We’ve been hearing a lot about active learning these days, but what, exactly, does active learning mean? Neal (2010) defines active learning as “educational methods in which students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation). The term therefore primarily reflects what is going on in a student’s mind, whether or not the body (or the mouth) is physically active.” Studies show that active learning can increase students’ attention in class, as well as their retention of ideas, leading to more effective, gratifying, and memorable learning outcomes. In fact, most people learn better from actively engaging with material than they do from passively listening to a speaker or reading from a textbook.  Active learning strategies have students “doing” things—analyzing, creating, role playing, experiencing, reflecting, etc.

According to the Center for Teaching & Learning at the University of Minnesota, the four Basic Active Learning Activities are the same elements you are probably already using in your class:

  1. Talking and listening – Students actively process information when they ask or answer questions, comment, present, and explain. When students go beyond passive listening to relate, analyze, and use what they are hearing, they are engaged in active learning.  Discussions and Interactive Lectures are useful strategies.
  2. Writing – Students can actively process information by putting it in their own words; this can help students organize their thoughts and reflections and prepare them for discussion. Check out these suggestions for Informal Writing Activities from the University of Minnesota.
  3. Reading – Instructors often expect students to learn through reading. It’s easy for students to read passively in order “to get it done.”  Providing questions, summary exercises, opportunities for posts or reflection, etc., can transform it into an active process.  Students can often benefit from instruction on Active Reading.
  4. Reflecting – Class periods are often packed with information. Students sometimes need time to process the material and connect it to what they’ve already learned.  Reflecting on the applications and implications of new knowledge can help develop higher-order thinking skills and Metacognition.

Visit Active Learning Strategies for an explanation of several individual, paired, and small- and large-group active learning activities, and if you are interested in discussing how you might incorporate active learning in your classroom, please register for CETL’s November 4th “Active Learning” teaching talk; contact Stacey Valliere to register.

Promote Learning in the Classroom, Oct. 2016

In its online blog last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a post listing these ten things instructors can do to promote good learning (from a student survey):

  1. Know that it’s OK to humanize yourself (e.g., it’s OK if you’re having a rough day — we get it).
  2. Know students’ names. We get that this is hard if it is a big class, but it matters.
  3. Know who students are (e.g., Are some of us shy in class? Do we work or play sports or play in bands or lead extracurricular groups or sing or dance or juggle parenting and school or a hundred other things? Why did we decide to take this course? What do we hope to learn?).
  4. Assume students want to be there and are prepared.
  5. Create and foster mutual respect in the classroom. And really, doing No. 4 is a big part of No. 5. Well, actually most of this list supports this one.
  6. Recognize that sometimes life can get in the way of learning for students, so take the time to diagnose the problem (e.g., if a student is having trouble staying awake in class, it could be because they had to work overtime last night, not because they were out partying).
  7. Hold all students to the same rigorous expectations.
  8. Refrain from interrupting students to get a point across. We know that sometimes one of us can get long-winded and you may need to redirect; but we try not to interrupt you and it’s really nice when you don’t interrupt us.
  9. Please don’t feel you need to comment all the time in a full-class discussion. Sometimes we need you to guide the discussion, and sometimes we really don’t need you every turn.
  10. Listen to what students have to say.

How many of these attributes describe you?  The online blog also lists ten things students can do to promote good learning.  Are there steps you can take to encourage your students toward these behaviors?

If you would like to discuss this topic with CETL faculty development specialists, please attend the October 24th “Classroom Management” teaching talk (12:30-1:45); email Stacey Valliere at  (860-486-2686) to register.  Contact Suzanne LaFleur for more information or, if you prefer, to schedule a private consultation with a CETL specialist.

Formative Mid-Semester Evaluations, Oct. 2016

Do you wonder how your students are responding to your course this semester?

Consider administering a formative assessment to gather mid-semester feedback that you can use to improve your teaching while your course is underway.  Formative assessment can help you recognize when your students are struggling and enable you to address problems in the middle of the semester.

Unlike end-of-semester student evaluations of teaching, mid-semester surveys are optional and completely confidential.  You can use these formative assessments privately, or you may decide to share them with your department head, along with the resulting course modifications, and include the same in your teaching portfolio. 

Results of these surveys can provide you with valuable opportunities for reflection and course improvement, and studies show that when students know that you intend to use the results to improve your course immediately, their response rates are typically high and carefully thought-out. 

Time is running out for these evaluations this semester:  Please request yours no later than October 28th.  Visit Formative Mid-Semester Evaluations or contact the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning if you would like to learn more about formative assessment or arrange for consultations or classroom observations.