Think, Pair & Share

tpsWe read a case in my first-year Torts class in which a labor union’s health insurance fund paid a member’s medical bills ($22,700). When the member settled his case against the driver who hit him (for $250,000 — lots of pain and suffering!), the union wanted its $22,700 back. (In lawyerspeak: The union sought to be reimbursed out of the settlement funds for its previous payments of the medical bills of its insured (subrogation), despite the fact that there was no subrogation clause in the insurance contract or plan documents.)

The issue was whether health insurance was more like property insurance (where insurers promise to indemnify their insureds against actual losses and have an implied right of subrogation in the absence of contract language) or more like “personal insurance” (the best example being life insurance), where the insurer promises to pay a sum certain upon the occurrence of an event (like the death of the insured) and therefore subrogation is not allowed by implication.

There are arguments in favor of either result, some based on contract language (i.e., what was actually promised) and some based on considerations of social policy. The court’s opinion wasn’t a model of clarity or completeness in terms of the various arguments and ultimately decided (counter-intuitively) that health insurance does not give rise to a right of subrogation by implication because health insurance is more like personal insurance than property insurance. The court reached this conclusion even though health insurance contracts promise to pay the insured’s actual losses, which makes them seem more like property insurance (where subrogation is available by implication) and less like life insurance.

As I walked from my office to the classroom this morning, I was expecting a lively debate in which I played two students against one another while 91 others sat and waited for us to get to something that might actually be on the final exam.

To involve the whole class, I invoked the “Think, Pair & Share” device that I first heard about at CTE’s Sparks event a few weeks ago. I gave the students about 5 minutes to write an argument in favor of each result. Then they paired up with a neighbor and discussed their arguments. The room was rocking! Then they shared their arguments with the rest of the class (not all 40+ pairs shared, of course). I put all the arguments up on the board, solicited more arguments from the class, and then asked for counter-arguments. The discussion was rich and I had tons of volunteers who wanted to be heard. TP&S worked like a charm!

I don’t want to overuse this device, because I think part of its effectiveness was that it was different — a rare departure from my usual “call and response” large-class routine. It’s also not particularly efficient in terms of pure coverage — we spent 20 minutes on a point that I could have covered in ten minutes with my two-students-debating approach. By another measure of efficiency, though, it was a blazing success: In 20 minutes I had 90+ students actively engaged in digging out and analyzing some difficult policy arguments. Doing that two students at a time for 10 minutes each would take 7.5 hours!

My recommendation for Think, Pair & Share: try it — you’ll like it.

Posted in Active Learning, Large Classes | 1 Comment

The Value of Note-taking: Laptop versus Ink?

paper-pen-laptop image

Do you ever ask yourself why you have students take notes in class? Do you plan out what you hope they will write and then how they will use these notes later? Obviously we want our students to learn material we think is important. If they are writing it down they at least have the required material. But are there tangible benefits of note-taking and in this age of computers is note-taking better done by using a laptop or ink?

This area became of interest to me when I was recently asked if a student could have my notes for the semester and if not, could I secure a fellow student who might be a more efficient note taker to provide notes for this student. The request made me reflect on note-taking and wonder if there is not more value to the process than simply making sure you have the notes from class and I also wondered if my no-laptop policy was a hindrance for some note takers?

I began my quest asking a trusted colleague for her opinion. She put me on to an interesting blog post that led me to more literature and a recent study undertaken on this specific issue. Below are some of the highlights of what I found that might make you ponder the role of note-taking in your course and whether you want students to use laptops or ink.

Wray Herbert’s report in The Huffington Post (2014) titled “Ink on Paper: Some Notes on Note-taking,” summarizes several experiments undertaken by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer examining note-taking via laptops versus traditional notebooks. Their results are to be published in a forthcoming Psychological Science issue. In the research they assessed amount of note-taking and type of notes as well as short and long term recall and factual versus conceptual learning. The findings suggest handwritten note-taking is a superior technique to typing notes on a laptop across most outcome measures. Specifically, Herbert summarizes the main results indicating that while more notes were taken using a laptop:

“Those who took notes in longhand, and were able to study, did significantly better than any of the other students in the experiment – better even than the fleet typists who had basically transcribed the lectures. That is, they took fewer notes overall with less verbatim recording, but they nevertheless did better on both factual learning and higher-order conceptual learning.”

Prior research on note-taking would suggest that note taking encourages encoding and recall of material, but that verbatim note takers score lower on tests than students who engage in a greater integrative process during note-taking (Bretzing and Kulhary 1979). Computer note-takers tend to engage in what Herbert termed ‘mindless transcription’ leaving no chance for higher level processing of information.

In the end, I will continue the note-taking process in my course as well as my no-laptop policy. But I will be more conscious of providing ‘pause’ moments to allow students depth of processing and higher level integration of the material.

If you are interested to find out more here are a few citations discussing various studies in relation to note-taking.

Bretzing, Burke H. and Raymond W. Kulhary (1979), “Notetaking and depth of processing,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4 (2), pp. 124-153.

ERIC Digest “Note-Taking: What Do We Know about the Benefits? ERIC Digest #12,”

Herbert, Wray (2014), “Ink on Paper; Some Notes on Note-taking,”

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (in press), “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking,” Psychological Science.

Posted in Active Learning, Pedagogical Theory, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Humor in Teaching

We’ve recently added a lot of seriousness to the offices of teaching, from the too-high cost of a degree to the desire to produce specific results (jobs, right?) that are not really promise-able in any environment. But humor is an important tool to keep in the toolbox, for a number of reasons.

I was first alerted to this in a critique, a number of years ago, when a very perceptive student noted to the class that I used humor specifically when I was getting most serious and specific about something in the work discussed–follow the humor, he said, to find what I thought.  Now, I teach in a studio environment, in art, which is extremely discursive, seemingly “subjective”, and is essentially evaluative about student results that are, in essence, propositions about a problem or thesis. While there is much attendant theory and critical structure, essentially most teaching involves students delivering a product which is then discussed as to its efficacy (success or failure).  Even in class, when things are being rather publicly produced (calculus on stage), one works exposed.  This is, at the least, a stressful process. So clearly humor can help, given its traditional psychological role of defusing tension and leveling difference.  But humor often hurts, and this can be good and bad.

So a few ground rules I intuitively follow:

1. The best humorists work at the expense of themselves, not others.  A former graduate student compiled a video of all of Rodney Dangerfield’s entrances to Johnny Carson shows–it was heartbreaking.  Instantly, you wanted to be helping him, for whatever he wanted.

2. Humor is hard.  If one looks at the files of comics, one sees such a vast array of approaches and failures to get the point across that most of us look lazy.  They involve not just words but physical attitude.  They are dependent on context–if a particular group doesn’t get it, a new path will be tried.

3. Humor follows a specific thesis structure–a problem is set, and results are tried.  Interestingly they are all “failures”, because the dominant mode of humor is desire and failure.  This applies not just to the conveyance of a problem, but to the problem itself–the problem perhaps has no solution.

What results from a (virtuous)  humorous cycle is of great interest psychologically.  The lowering of structurally defined power enables subjects to try for power themselves.  The lightness of identifying difficulty invites approaches to its challenges. The identification with failure as the common result creates community rather than exclusion.

That humor creates a space in which to operate is not a particularly new idea.  Tonight, at a talk about Afghan poetry in the “Landlay” style, we essentially viewed the creation of a safe space for women through a very simple but wickedly humorous art-form, essentially a text-message in its brevity.  While we are perhaps all to aware broadly of the negative side of humor, as it is employed to deprecate others,  specifically focused humor specifically focuses its power in ways that, for the “powerless” would not exist.  Witness Swift, and it is not insignificant that the most powerful figures in Shakespeare are often fools; power that cannot lower itself is never really power. This is particularly true for teaching, which is one of the most asymmetric relationships possible, but one which doesn’t clearly enunciate its asymmetries–students are mostly powerless, so give them a shot.  And shoot back.


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47 Down. Effectiveness of crosswords as review vehicles (2 wds.)

crossword-coasterFor many years, I wrote a crossword puzzle for my students to use as a vehicle for reviewing what we had just covered (either at the end of each week or, less ambitiously, at the end of each chapter). I used commercial software that took my clues and answers and formatted them into the familiar grid and arranged the clues in the usual columnar display. The program also arranged the squares so as to create the maximum number of intersecting letters, which probably allowed students to spend less time on the puzzle without (I hoped) materially affecting their learning.

The result was a puzzle that looked great, and the students seemed to enjoy this outside-the-box approach to reviewing material.  It took very little time for me to write the clues and answers, maybe 30-40 minutes for 30-40 items. It was also flexible enough to allow me to include clues about things that were discussed in class but not covered (or not covered in the same depth) in the readings. Will Shortz’ day-job is secure, but the result looked pretty darned good.

For some classes, this might be a good review option. It’s great for vocabulary (e.g., “jurisdiction over things” (answer: inrem)), concept identification (“standard of appellate review of questions of law” (answer: denovo)), and even some black-letter rules (“number of defendants who can have the same citizenship as one or more plaintiffs in a federal suit based upon diversity” (answer: zero)).

A 2009 article in the on-line Journal of Effective Teaching by Davis et al. compared outcomes for two classes in a Sociology course. Each class used crossword puzzles to review for two tests and multiple-choice questions to review for two other tests. One class did better on tests for which the review was done by crossword, the other class did worse. The authors’ conclusion: “The differing results between the two classes used in this study suggest that further research on this topic needs to be done.” Clear as mud. (Answer to title of this blog: notknown.) The inconclusiveness of this study allows me to cling to my belief that the crossword puzzle works well for certain kinds of reviews, but it’s just a belief at this point.

Meanwhile, I’ve moved on to a review vehicle for all my classes that I think works better for the kinds of things I want law students to get some practice doing: making arguments by applying legal rules to fact patterns, which requires a knowledge of the rules, creativity in formulating arguments, judgment (to accept some arguments and reject others), and writing skill, all in a fifteen-minute exercise. (It’s also the format for my final exam, so students get multiple opportunities to practice this type of question before they encounter it for real.) The device is a multiple-choice question with short-essay explanation. More on that, perhaps, in a future blog.


Posted in Teaching Methods, Technology | 1 Comment

Beyond Mnemonics for Name-Learning Challenged Teachers

hello-my-name-isI have always thought that learning the names of my students creates a better classroom environment. The alternative — pointing a finger at a student I want to call on, or calling out the “the young man in the green sweater” — seems rude and crude.

Plus, learning students’ names is simply respectful. It acknowledges their dignity as individuals. It sends the message that you care enough about what you’re doing as a teacher to make the effort to learn their names. And, as Natalie Houston has observed at The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, it builds rapport, creates a sense of community, and facilitates classroom management tasks such as taking attendance and grading class participation.

Learning students’ names comes in handy outside the classroom, too, where “Good morning, young man in the green sweater” sounds demented and a simple “Good morning” sounds incomplete after you’ve been greeted by your name.  There’s just one problem.

I am terrible at names.

Actually, I am worse than terrible.  I am ridiculously awful with names. I’ve greeted someone with a handshake and exchange of our names and forgotten the other person’s name before letting go of their hand. It’s as if the name went into a dark cave in my brain, never to be seen or heard again. More likely, though, the name probably never got to my brain at all. Either way, it didn’t click, register, stick, or stay.

I do okay in seminars with up to twenty students. With a roster and photo array before the first class and a few minutes of conversation with each student during class, I am usually good to go for the rest of the semester.

In a large class — say my first-year Torts class with 93 students — it’s a lost cause.

But there’s help for the hapless, and where there’s help there’s hope. I like Natalie Houston’s short list of name-learning helpers. The University of Nebraska has a website where they describe twenty-three tips and tricks for learning students’ names. As they say, not all of them will be compatible with your personal style, but some of them may prove to be useful.

Posted in Large Classes, Students | 1 Comment

Does sex matter?

r-CLASSROOM-HANDS-large570 From the Journal of Higher Education (Nov./Dec. 2013), here’s the abstract:

We conducted an observational study to examine the effect of student and professor gender on college classroom participation and faculty-student interactions. A main effect for professor gender emerged, with more voluntary responses in female-taught classes. As the percentage of males present increased, overall voluntary responses and professor praise decreased.

I am not so sure about their use of “gender” as a synonym for “sex,” but whatever. This article by Tatum et al. raises a number of interesting questions. Is there a difference in patterns of class participation for male and female professors in your discipline? Does the presence of more male students change this pattern? And if so, what can you do to alter the pattern? The study reports that “[f]emale professors were more likely to follow up on students’ comments, praise students’ verbal participation, and provide more corrections to students.” Should we male professors be learning something from these findings? If “[f]emale professors may have created an atmosphere in which students felt more comfortable participating because their responses were extrinsically reinforced more often by the instructor,” maybe male professors should be doing something differently.

Posted in Learning Communities, Students, Teaching Methods | Leave a comment

Simple Classroom Cues to Help With Student Motivation

Within the SMU CTE, we have been discussing a number of issues relating to motivating the students that we all have the privilege to teach. Although many of us assume that the subject matter itself should be interesting to and motivating for our students, the fact is that we can all benefit from considering how to motivate our students when the subject matter itself does not. While we recently presented a CTE workshop titled “Carrots and Sticks: Motivating Students to Learn”, I wanted to share some other considerations on this topic.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at how other universities approach this important consideration, as student motivation is perhaps a universal for those teaching in higher education. For example, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University has provided some useful information on motivating students, looking at six categories and aspects: Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, Effects of Motivation on Learning Styles, A Model of Intrinsic Motivation, Strategies for Motivating Students, and Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject. The last of the six, Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject struck me as interesting.

As Vanderbilt’s CT states, “When encouraging students to find (your) subject matter interesting, use cues to show students the appeal of the subject matter”. They then give examples of verbal cues that the instructor can provide to and for students.  They outline cues in eight areas: Novelty, Utility, Applicability, Anticipation, Surprise, Challenge, Feedback, and Closure. For example, in the area of Utility, a cue might be “This next topic is something that we’ll use again and again.  It contains valuable ideas that we’ll use throughout the later sections of the course.” I find this helpful, as it is an example of how simple but carefully worded comments can provide a spark to the student to help them take notice (and hopefully be motivated by) the course material at hand.

In summary, while some students will be motivated simply by the subject matter itself, we as instructors can also make use of targeted teaching strategies to help motivate our students as needed. If you are interested in reading more of what Vanderbilt has to share, visit their Center for Teaching website at

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They love me, they hate me?

HeartEach semester I dread and welcome the day I receive the email with the subject line ”Teaching Evaluations”.  In the email, I get access to two things, my quantitative scores and my open-ended student comments.

Like many colleagues, I love the comments – the good and the bad.  I welcome the sarcastic remarks about why the assignments have to be so complicated, the compliments regarding my choice of readings, and even the somewhat odd personal observations such as, “do you know you wear black pants every Thursday.”  I learn so much about what students believe to be fair and good about my course.  I take most of these comments to heart, even the odd observations. In general, I feel nothing but love from the students when I read these comments, even the critical ones.

On the other hand, I dread opening the quantitative scores that always accompany the comments.  As a quantitative researcher, I know how to make sense of the distributions and the possible random errors.  As a heavy user of survey research, I place a lot of value on scaled responses.  As a member of a large university faculty, I know that my relative overall ranking from these scores matter and that professional careers can hinge on good and bad teaching evaluations.  With all the possible limitations and consequences in mind, I also take these averages and individual scores selected by my students to heart.

To be honest, my quantitative scores are rarely that low, but they are far from excellent which is what I aspire to.  What I have come to accept is that only a small proportion of students will choose the highest rank on all questions asked.  For example, some might believe I manage class time well others disagree.  When colleagues question the utility of standardized teaching evaluations I often disagree.  In my experience, my students are as intentional in their response choices using these measures as they were in writing their comments.  If I am honest with myself, the majority of students are often right with respect to where they find me lacking and where they see my strengths.  So I now use both my comments and my standardized scores to improve my courses.

I know many of us are concerned with the heavy reliance on standardized evaluations and the lack of attention paid to the comments portion of teaching evaluations, the peer observations, and the critical assessment of syllabi.  I completely agree.  I know that we worry about students using these evaluations as a tool to exact revenge for their poor performance.  However, as standardized teaching evaluation questions have improved, I increasingly see value in the responses generated from these questions. Universities are increasingly paying attention to the questions asked and to the data received.  Over the last two years, Dedman College examined the content of questions, revised and added new ones, and finally found a way to link class characteristics to the data.  As a result, the standardized scores from my fall evaluations were some of the most helpful I have received while at SMU.

While changing standardized evaluations are certainly a step in the right direction, I would suggest that universities also find a way to use the open-ended comments as well.  All they need to accomplish this is software that analyzes qualitative data to identify patterns.  Using these software packages, we can quickly and reliably identify positive versus negative adjectives, identify consistent problems, generate super cool WORD CLOUDS to see what words dominate student comments.  In other words, there are ways to not rely so heavily on a single number or a rank when determining how good of a teacher someone is.

I would love to hear other ideas for how we might continue to improve how we personally use our teaching evaluations and how our institutions use these evaluations (both quantitative and qualitative) to evaluate our performance.

Posted in Teaching Evaluations | 4 Comments

Adjuncts Adrift?

SMU is boat-hull-dam_70945_990x742hosting “The Year of the Faculty,” but the Chronicle of Higher Education seems to be amid a year of Adjuncts. Many articles in the last several months have detailed the often poverty-stricken, prep-strapped life of some adjuncts. Clearly, not all adjuncts are alike. Some are indeed affluent leaders in their fields who teach to share their special knowledge, serve their professions, enhance their résumés, or enjoy the classroom experience. But sometimes, adjuncts are relegated to the dregs of Academia’s caste system.

Long-term adjunct work, part-time and full-time, has its drawbacks for faculty as well as students. At the 2014 AAC&U conference, I attended a session titled, “Addressing the Adverse Impact of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Working Conditions on Student Learning: Practical Approaches and Resources for Facilitating Change.” (There’s an academic title for you.) A panel discussed the many challenges for adjuncts and the ways those hurdles may impact student learning. Overall, the session identified difficulties and called for more inclusion of adjuncts.

Granted, tenure is hard won and deserves respect. But adjuncts teach the same students, in the same classrooms, for the same tuition dollars as tenured professors. Our students deserve the best learning opportunity in all classes, regardless of who is standing in front of the room. And our instructors deserve respect, regardless of rank.

Fortunately, more people and institutions are recognizing the problem and calling for change. For example, recent articles in the Chronicle include: “Accreditation Standards Should Include Treatment of Adjuncts, Report Says,” and “Adjuncts Gain Traction With Congressional Attention.” USC has launched The Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success.

Here at SMU, the CTE is developing a program to support part-time adjuncts: CAFÉ, a Community for Adjunct Faculty Excellence. If you would like to learn more, participate, comment, or collaborate, please contact me at In the meantime, please join me in speaking up for greater awareness at SMU.

Posted in Academia | 1 Comment

Anyone up for playing a game in the classroom?

GamificationWhat’s wrong (and right) with having some scholastic fun? What do students gain, both cognitively and affectively, from role-playing simulations? Do games and related activities stimulate student motivation to learn? Those are some the questions a small group of faculty members are thinking about this academic year under the auspices of the CTE Faculty Learning Community. The group, intrepidly led by Alice Kendrick (Advertising-Meadows) includes Ann Batenburg (Teaching & Learning-Simmons), Tony Cuevas (Instructional Design & Learning Technology-Simmons), Andy Greenwood (Music History- Meadows), and me (Psychology-Dedman).

We are learning that there are lots of good reasons to occasionally insert a game or “playful” activity in class. It breaks up the lectures, gets students’ competitive juices flowing, and as Dean Bowen would endorse, it is a great way to actively engage students. We’ve also learned that there is a literature out there about such topics as “gamification” (Kapp, 2012), defined as using game elements or design techniques to make learning more engaging and fun.

Classroom games are already being played on the hilltop. Maria Dixon (Communication Studies) is using the John Madden football game to teach organizational communication skills. Alice Kendrick has students go without wearing denim for several days (“deconsumption deprivation”) to learn how clothing affects social activities and personal choice. Ann Batenburg adapted the speed dating concept to help students prepare for tests. I’ve used a customized Jeopardy game for reviewing course material. One of my colleagues plays a song at the beginning of class. The first student who makes the connection between the song and the topic of the day gets a point of extra credit. These are just a few examples of what is going on in our classrooms.

As is evident, games and related activities can add life and some fun to the classroom experience. You will hear more from our group as we develop more knowledge and expertise in this area. But you can also help us. If you are using a game or game-like activity in your class, please send me an email about it ( And don’t forget to have some fun in class!

Posted in Active Learning, CTE, Learning Communities, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | 1 Comment