How To Facilitate Easy and Effective Discussions in the College Classroom

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After reading last week’s post, Why Students Benefit from Participation & Class Discussions, a longtime friend and reader of the blog decided to try a new approach to teaching her class and reached out to me for some tips. I was thorough enough that I figured my (very long) response to her would serve as a great follow-up post for this week:

Hi Carol,

(Just to warn you, my answer is really long! I’ll probably end up using it as a blog post on Happy Professor next week :). I hope it helps!)

I’m glad you enjoy the posts! The way I normally facilitate a discussion is to put the responsibility on the students so they feel some ownership of what they’re learning. Whether it’s a chapter in a textbook or an article like the one you mentioned, I would use the same approach (and this is just me, so it doesn’t fit everyone’s teaching style!):

  1. As the instructor, pick your favorite concepts from the reading that you think the students will enjoy most (preferably one for every student in the class if you have 10 or fewer people, or one concept for every 2 students in the class if it’s a bigger group- you want to keep the number of concepts between 5 and 10, otherwise you’ll run out of class time).
  2. Write the list of concepts up on the board, and tell the students (either individually or in pairs) what concept they’ll be responsible for ‘researching’ and discussing with the class (I try to pick a specific idea that that particular student would like most, based on what I know about them). They can look within the assigned reading for answers and outside sources (like the internet on their smartphone to gather more information to share).
  3. After assigning the topics/concepts, I would give them 10 minutes to read, do research, and figure out in what way they personally want to steer the discussion. I also encourage students to look at other concepts on the board and read about them so they have more to add to the discussion, other than just the topic they were given.
  4. Then I just go down the list and have each student or pair of students share their thoughts with the class. I also go around the room and ask each individual student if they have anything to add, but I don’t force them to answer (sometimes it’s just easier for them to speak up when asked directly rather than for them to take the initiative to raise their hands- at least that was how I was as a student!).
  5. I always ask for them to include personal examples from their own lives in applying the ideas, since it helps them understand how the lesson affects them directly, and it’ll help them remember the concepts better. It also makes the discussion much more lively.

That’s about it!

This might be the way you were already doing things, but hopefully you found some new stuff in what I said above!

Good luck with the lesson! 🙂

Erin

Why Students Benefit from Class Discussions & Participation

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This semester I’ve been teaching a Family Communication class that I’ve loved every second of. I taught the class online a few years ago, but the face-to-face version has been a completely different experience, and I’m seeing my students grasp the concepts much more easily this time around- applying the textbook terms to their own lives and thoroughly analyzing  what they’re learning in meaningful ways.

I give credit to the in-class discussions.

I recently read the article “How Do Students Learn from In Class Discussion?” on facultyfocus.com, and I shared it with my Family Communication students to show them how research supports the way we’ve been spending our class periods (since the professional in me is worried they might think the class has been a little too much fun..).

As instructors, sometimes it can feel like we’re ‘getting away with something’ when we fill class time with lively conversation and have students analyze, in my case, an early episode of Modern Family to solidify the terms that will be on the final exam, but research is showing that it’s class periods just like this that help students learn the most by:

  • Increasing engagement
  • Remembering and retaining information
  • Confirming learning
  • Getting verbal feedback from the instructor
  • Deepening their understanding

Of course, once we’ve talked at length about various chapters, terms, and how they apply to situations in the students’ own families and in examples from the media (Modern Family has worked perfectly for this particular course), they go home to write essays and prepare oral presentations to solidify their learning.

Using homework to reinforce ideas from class is secondary, though. I believe that when you’re in the college classroom, the best foundation is application and participation first, and then the rest almost seems to take care of itself.

If you’d like to learn more about classroom participation helps students, see the link below:

http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/students-learn-participation-class-discussion/

Happy teaching and learning!

The Truth About the Most Inspired Happy Professor Posts

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After looking through some of my blog posts recently, I thought I’d clarify a few things.

I’ll admit, teaching college students is not all sunshine and rainbows. There are plenty of frustrating moments and students that know how to push your buttons.

However, the students I meet with weekly in the classroom do inspire me 99% of the time.

These days I teach evening classes exclusively (which I prefer, since you tend to have older students who come straight from work and are there to better their lives- from what I’ve gathered over the last 8 years), and I only teach once or twice a week so that I give it my all, and can’t wait to come back for more. I’ve learned that ‘the classroom in moderation’ makes it incredibly fun and fulfilling, and works wonders for this happy professor.

Here’s where the blunt truth comes in: teaching online is not quite as inspiring.

There are plenty of days where online students send nasty emails, ask you why the copy and paste function isn’t working on their computer, email you 3-4 times if you don’t respond within 5 minutes, and generally treat you like a customer service rep who has wronged them.

These experiences make it hard to feel inspired, and this is why I stay in close contact with other teacher friends who work online- it can be hard, and you need the emotional support.

That’s not to say that online students or teaching online is generally ‘bad.’ I love it for the freedom it gives me, the fact that it helps me contribute in a financially significant way to my household, and that when I have children I’ll be able to do a job I’m good at and enjoy from my own home.

There are also plenty of incredible online students who I’ve established a connection with, are hard workers, respectful, professional, and those are the students I look forward to ‘seeing’ when they need me. These are the students who tell me they stumbled upon my blog and it made their day, or that they appreciate how organized and responsive I am as an instructor, and I even had one student the other day tell me I was ‘thebomb.com’ for helping her out with a difficult situation. These moments make me smile and brighten my day.

Even the students who send frustrating or inappropriate emails to the instructor don’t necessarily mean anything by it, sometimes they’ve had bad experiences with inattentive online instructors in the past and don’t know how to have their voices heard (I can’t imagine feeling helpless as an ignored students when your teacher won’t respond and your grade or upcoming graduation is at stake), and many students simply aren’t given the tools they need to take an online class or even understand how to write a professional and respectful email to instructors (we’re still in the Wild West of online teaching here- hopefully we’ll see some changes and better online student training in the next decade, but we’re all learning).

All this to say that, honestly, my face-to-face students just inspire me more (apologies to some of you wonderful online students I’ve had over the years!), and that’s generally what I’m drawing from when I reflect on the wonderful things in life here on happyprofessor.com. Online teaching is the future, and the pay, flexibility, and ability to work wherever you want can’t be beat- and you’ll also see those posts on this site, because that situation in itself can be freeing and inspiring in a whole different way.

However, there’s magic that happens in the physical classroom, the goosebumps when a student gives a speech unlike any they’ve given before, a student comes to your desk to ask if you’d coach them for a speaking event, or you see the mass of students in front of you turning into a family to help each other grow, learn, and become more confident learners.

That’s the stuff that makes me the happy professor.

Happy teaching, living, and learning :).

Happy Professors Series: How to Find Teachable Moments in Everyday Life

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“Have you ever stopped yourself in the middle of the day to question what you are doing? I often think about how invigorating it is to really think about why we, as social creatures, choose to live our lives the way we do. Why have you chosen to take the actions or engaged in the behaviors that you did so far today? Or, why you are doing it all in the specific way that you’ve chosen?

Stopping ourselves and asking why we move through life the way we do is exciting to me; not only because it allows for increased mindfulness, but also because it helps us hone the skills of deeper critical analysis.

I question my own choices every day. For example, when I present an opinion about our socio-political environment, I might ask myself why I feel the way I do. Easy enough. But there is more. I then question what role the media has played, or what deeper issues I am interested in, and what relation my upbringing or socialization has with my own outlook on life. I’ll ask why I hold certain value systems or norms and social expectations. I use this type of questioning with my students all the time.

I have bright students, but I still constantly ask them why it is that they arrived at a certain conclusion or analytical framework. Not because they weren’t clear enough in their presentation of their argument, but because questioning gives way to learning. So many times, instructors (and human beings in general) take “good” answers for granted. We applaud them, agree or disagree, and move on. Perhaps even regurgitating what we have heard at another point in time. But stopping there makes us miss out on a critical opportunity.

A much deeper level of learning emerges when you stop and pry a bit more.  Do not take your sense of reality or your opinions for granted. Ask questions, like what schema or social lens are you using to view “reality” the way you do? Why is it that you chose to focus on certain aspects of the situation, rather than others? What does this say about your relationship with your larger social group, as well as your inner cognitive functions?

Perhaps more importantly, what assumptions are you making, even at an unconscious level, to move through the issue the way you do? You see, we often operate by a mindset that is on autopilot. What do I mean by this? We quickly put bits of pieces about our world or environment together so that we effectively and efficiently get about our day. This is usually done by our minds, without our realization.

Let’s take gender roles as an example. I teach sociology and social psychology, so I often deal with teaching and learning about gender and gender roles. Very often we hear words –aggressive, dainty, mechanic or nurse—and form a gendered opinion. What this tells me is that we take femininity and masculinity for granted. However, these are social constructions that we impose on people, based on their sex—their physiology. From the moment a baby is born, we constantly reinforce the duality of gender through blue or pink. Colors, whose symbolism we have come to attach to gender.

Similarly, I teach courses on the social construction of place. This might make my point a bit clearer—we often take the labels of places or boundaries for granted and simply feel that we are somewhere very real, but what is place, but the social construction of space? What makes this city different than the next?

These moments of reflection can sometimes feel like we are spiraling down a rabbit hole, and becoming more confused, but it also allows us to step outside of our implicit biases and assumptions and critically look at why we come to view the world the way we do. Bringing this out in others has led to deeper conversations and deeper connections. Additionally, it has led to clearer understanding of our social constructions and our social expectations. By deconstructing our world, our reality and our assumptions, we are left with bits and pieces that we can put together in new, innovative ways.

If we look to all our daily actions this way, we will soon realize that all of life is a teachable moment—not just those confined within classroom boundaries.”

~Dani, Sociology Instructor, Ph.D.

Finding Quiet

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I’m generally pretty good about keeping distractions to a minimum, but sometimes pesky things like fun articles online, pretty Instagram posts/pictures, and music as background noise while taking care of odds and ends, in addition to real life noise/work/’to do’ lists add up and take their toll.

Recently, I felt like my head was swimming with useless information, and instead of feeling like I’d taken a break from grading papers by reading those articles on TheEveryGirl.com, I felt more overwhelmed.

I started noticing that although the online articles and Netflix episodes seem short, soothing, and easy to digest at first glance, I was watching New Girl (a show I enjoy) and thinking: “I never want to watch another episode of anything ever again” (while I continued to watch the next episode).

As I read The Every Girl articles about careers, travel, and the best books to read, I kept clicking on the next article and thinking: “I never want to read another online article or blog post ever again” (as I kept clicking and reading).

It was much the same for Instagram, and even listening to music while I graded papers or cooked dinner.

I was tired of noise, literal and figurative noise, and I felt scattered and unable to focus (so much for using these modern inventions to relax). I felt like I was eating gummy bear after gummy bear in a never ending bag, well past the point that I felt sick- but for some reason I was still putting them in my mouth one by one.

So I finally stopped.

For the last two weeks I returned to reading actual books and focusing on this one thing at a time (instead of jumping from short article to shorter article, and post to Instagram post- just thinking about it is making my head throb).

And yes, reading one solid book is a little more time consuming; it doesn’t always provide the ‘short’ break we’re looking for, and for those of us who have become fans of audio books, sometimes it can feel like the slowest way to accomplish something.

But it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

I still needed breaks from the day, and nothing else seemed to be working; I was relieved that I found a way to rest that actually seemed like I resting. In fact, it felt a lot like spending a few days at our isolated mountain home in North Carolina (which is where everyone in my family slows down and recharges during the holidays). I was still working during the last two weeks, but somehow it felt like a vacation.

Now don’t get me wrong, first of all, listening to jazz music while you work or cook isn’t bad for you (and I’ll probably listen to it in the very near future), and neither is reading articles on Success.com or TheEveryGirl.com. But ometimes it all becomes too much, and you realize that instead of a small sweet treat, you’ve just eaten way too much candy.

The bottom line is, I had no reason to feel this unfocused and overwhelmed by ‘stuff’- I work from home at my leisure and I don’t have kids. All I needed to do was flip a fairly easy switch to make a major change (that I was fortunate enough to be able to make in my situation).

So lately when I need a short break, I’ll read on my Kindle app for a minute (Present Over Perfect is what I’ve been reading at the moment). When I want to take my time and really indulge, I sit back on the couch and enjoy the feel of a book in my hands (which is Julie & Julia right now).

Slowing down like this has cleared my head and gotten rid of the nonsense. I’ve grown to love the sound of relative quiet. The sound of turning the page in a paperback, hearing cars passing by on the street, birds chirping, and kids playing in the neighborhood feels like the perfect type of quiet for right now.

Happy Professors Series: Helping Students Gain Courage

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“I started my career in education as an English teacher in Japan. The experience was life changing for me. I previously had little desire to pursue a career in education, however my experience teaching – and learning from – my elementary and junior high school students has steered me toward my current profession. The thing which I most enjoy about teaching is seeing how a classroom setting gives students the courage to come out of their shells and express their opinions and feelings. I believe my most positive experience thus far has been seeing my students move from having a paralyzing fear of the English language to courageously tackling speech competitions.”

~ Allan, College Instructor and Instructional Designer

How to Effectively Flip Your Classroom

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I’ve been using the ‘flipped classroom’ approach to teaching since before I knew what the term meant.

I’m sure I’m not the only instructor who intuitively felt that talking at students for a few hours each week, and then sending them home to do outside work wouldn’t be the best learning strategy. Instead, I had students tackle the material at home (with assigned reading and YouTube lectures I’d created), and then I tested that learning with activities and in-class work afterward to see where students needed extra help to fill the gaps in knowledge.

Most of us are used to the former approach since flipped learning is still relatively new, but the latter is becoming more accepted and increasingly effective as instructors are becoming more comfortable and creative with the flipped classroom approach, and we’re seeing more articles like the one below.

Some tips for effective assessment mentioned in the article are:

  • Start with good learning objectives.
  • Employ a “frequent and small” approach.
  • Use “preformative assessment.”
  • Act on, and share, the data you collect.

For those of you who have learned to navigate the flipped learning environment, hopefully you recognize the lingo above and were able to use the 4 strategies as a quick checklist to be sure you’re on the right with your teaching methods (I love a good checklist to remind me that I’m actually following the correct protocol!). If you’re not familiar with these strategies, or with flipped learning, I encourage you to read the article below and see if it’s an approach you might be interested in- it might be just the perfect fit for you!

Four Strategies for Effective Assessment in the Flipped Learning Environment

http://www.facultyfocus.com/resources/blended-and-flipped/grading-feedback/four-strategies-effective-assessment-flipped-learning-environment/

Happy learning and happy teaching!

Teacher Quotes for Valentine’s Day

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Because it’s Valentine’s Day, and we should all have a little more compassion and love for each other on this (slightly too commercialized) holiday, here are some moving teacher/professor quotes to make your day a little sweeter:

“My teacher thought I was smarter than I was- so I was.”

“Every kid is one caring teacher away from being a success story.”

“I call my students ‘my kids’ because in our time together they aren’t just kids on my class list, they become a part of my heart.”

Happy learning, living, and happy Valentine’s Day.

Taking a Pause

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Sometimes you just need to take a pause.

I’m not talking about putting the brakes on a romantic relationship, but I am talking about giving your creative side some time to breath.

So many of us these days are adamant about chasing our passions. We’re afraid that if we’re not careful and disciplined enough about nurturing our creative projects that they’ll just simply slip away.

We pour our love, energy, and time into them hoping that with maybe less sleep and more focus we can finish our passion project quickly and with a touch of genius before we lose any bit of inspiration.

Sometimes it happens that way, and when it does it’s amazing. But then sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s when the worry sets in.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert sends a powerful message to artists: It’s okay to take a break from your passion project for a day, a week, or even years (as scary as that might sound); it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. True, that particular project might not hold as much interest for you down the road, but it doesn’t mean your ability to create and find that unstoppable drive is gone for good. And it also doesn’t mean that that project is over, it might just need time to evolve into something better.

You just need to wait.

Take time for new hobbies, simple projects, and time with friends. Take time to remember what the day-to-day can feel like without that wild drive to build something (I’m not saying it’s easy, but the contrast can be restful, helpful, and eye-opening).

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been in limbo between projects for over a year now- deliberately, as an attempt to slow down. However, like all type A’s with an artistic streak, I do worry that my imaginative muscle isn’t getting the exercise it needs.

Then I remember that there have been times like this before, and I know better. The artist inside isn’t gone, she’s just resting up for the next big, all-consuming and absolutely incredible project.

Happy learning, living, and creating.

Happy Professors Series: 35 Years of Teaching, Traveling, and Pursuing Passions

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“I never planned to be a teacher. In fact, my mother (a teacher) steered me away from the profession. In college, my interest survey said I should be a catholic nun/teacher. I thought the survey was screwy – I wasn’t catholic and had no plans to be a teacher. After I finished my masters program I was asked to teach an accounting class at the local community college.  I knew almost immediately that I found my calling and never looked back.

Teaching is rewarding and SO MUCH FUN!  I’ve been teaching for 35 years – 34 years in the classroom and now all online. I love my time with the students and I love the flexibility teaching has given me to pursue my other passions – traveling and grandchildren.”

~ Connie
Department Chair and Accounting Instructor

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