Blog Post

Ten Easy Ways to Energize Your Classroom Tomorrow: Your Students Will Love It and So Will You

Pencil and pad with Futures Initiative letterhead

This post is a companion to the one focusing on students, and how students can make a great education even in the most stultifying of institutions, "Ten Key Ways to 'Do' College"

All of these techniques work, are based on extensive learning research, and make teaching as exciting for the professor as for the students.  Not everyone will be comfortable with every technique.  All can be adapted to different fields and in different ways.  The main thing is ask your students, let them take the lead, let them try, and make sure the point is not just learning for the class but learning the most basic human, learning, collaborative, research, decision-making, and organizational skills that last a lifetime, in school and well beyond.

Whether you teach in a radically innovative program or at a very traditional institution with a prescribed syllabus, there are ways that you can immediately transform your classroom into a student-centered learning space where you are teaching complex skills that students can use in any field, while they are still in college or after they graduate, in any profession.  These methods are all designed to offer students the opportunity to take responsibility for and creative leadership of their own learning.  (Note: All these techniques work in meetings too.  I’ve done several in team-building workshops with CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies.)


The tactics here are arranged from the simplest to the most complex.  And, even before you get started, here are two things to set up in advance.  First, have all the students make a "table tent" (a folded stiff piece of paper) for themselves with their name on it.  Lots of research shows that students can sit next to one another for twelve weeks and never know one another's names.  This causes shame and precludes interaction.  Make sure the names are available throughout the semester, for every class.  It creates an atmosphere of learning together.  Second, if you have the bandwidth, create a collective document for the course, with everyone signed in.  HASTAC offers free "Groups" on which you can do this, even allowing communication within the group or publicly. 



I. Inventory Methods to Gain Total, Equitable Participation


1. Think-Pair-Share.  This works best with index cards (optional) and a timer.  I like to do T-P-S in a formal way to ensure everyone has a chance to speak and everyone has a chance to sit quietly and listen.  (a) Ask a question (example: What was the single most provocative/disagreeable/brilliant/inspiring comment you read in this week’s assignment?)  Give students 90 seconds (maximum) to write out an answer on their card.  (b) When the timer sounds, have students take 90 seconds to take turns, one person reads her card while the other listens, and then the second reads her card and the other listens.  In the same short time frame, they then decide what they will present to the group—they can merge, edit, or choose one or the other.  When the timer sounds, they must have synthesized one comment.  (c) Go around the room (if less than 40 students), and have one person from each pair read/share their comment with the group.   Whatever you do next, this method ensures that everyone is involved, alert, and already thinking across a range of different ideas. If you have more than 40 students, you can create a Google Doc or use another online collaborative tool and have everyone record their comment.  OR you can collect all the index cards and structure the rest of your discussion by reading from cards you pick randomly.   I like a (d) too: To have some kind of public blog or document where students take turns recording all their responses. 

2. Exit Tickets.  I know someone who does this in a lecture for 600 students and I’ve done it at meetings with 6 people, substituting for pop quizzes and taking roll.  At the end of each class, have students (I use index cards again but any paper works) write out one idea from the class that they can’t stop thinking about, that they wish to discuss further, that they disagree with, etc. (You can vary this each class).  You can begin your next lecture or discussion by selecting some of these reflections.

3. Everybody Raise Your Hand. This is the method used by the polymath, self-taught speculative fiction writer Samuel Delany.  Whenever you ask a question, have every student raise a hand. You call on anyone.  They can either answer or say “I don’t understand the question” (in which case you ask “why?” and start a discussion there) or say “I don’t know the answer—but I bet Derek/Dahlia does.”   This simple technique asserts that “I don’t know” is a starting place, not a source of shame.  (Your students will also prepare more if they know they are responsible for every question, every class, even if they don’t know the answer.) 

4. Interview.  Have students work in pairs and interview one another. I like to have them ask "What three things are you most worried will be hard about this class?" and "What three things can you contribute to our class that we don't know about?" and do a skill pairing on the first day of class.  You can also use the technique throughout the semester to ask about the assignment or problem sets or whatever is on the  syllabus for the day. Example:  "What did you find hardest to understand about the assignment for today? What are you sure you have down cold and can teach someone else about today's assignment?"  Have them together prepare what they think will be an interesting question, challenge, problem, to present to the whole class to address or solve. In a large lecture, you can sort out the kinds of questions by groups and have them work in a group on the topic.


II. Classroom Discussion Management

5. Question Stacking. Ask students to raise their hands in response to a question and write down the name of everyone with a hand up.  Have everyone put their hand down and call on people in order, and no one asks a second question until each person responds or withdraws the question because someone else answered it already.  We know seminars can replicate inequality even more than lectures, by seeming to be open but privileging those who are best at mimicking or mirroring the intellectual style, language, or even demographic characteristics (race, gender, sexuality, region, religion, etc) of the professor.  (Admit it: we’ve all been to lecture where we know in advance who will be waving a hand and dominating the Q and A.  That happens in class too.) 


III.  Collaboration and Community-Building Techniques

6. Class Constitution. On the first day of class, set up a collaborative online tool and have students write the “terms of service” or a “class constitution” for the class.  This is ideal in a class of fewer than 50 but we did it for 18,000 in our MOOC.  I typically get students started by offering a document written by others that they can edit or by putting up bullet points of all the minimal class requirements and letting them determine everything else.  I even have students create assessment systems, including such things as contract grading and student-peer-review and analysis of one another’s work.

7. Collective Syllabus Design.  Also on the first day, I like to leave the room and have the students design a syllabus.  I’ve done this for entering freshmen and for doctoral students, with equal success, in a range of courses across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

8. Collaborative Note Taking.  Set up a Google Doc or other collaborative tool for each site and have students take notes together in class, including with a back channel for conversation during class, where they also add links and other items they find in web searches.  This puts a twist on the “laptop or no laptop” question.  You can also create extra-credit reward systems for those who contribute most, make requirements that everyone contribute something, have students vote up and down ideas, and find other ways that the laptop becomes an instrument of learning not—like the school paper of old—a form of diversion and escape.

9. Class Projects and Study Groups.  Whether the research happens at preschools, law school, in impoverished communities or at Harvard, the finding is the same: nothing improves learning faster and better than a structured study group.  You can create these in a class, either through carefully managed group projects, where each person has a role and students evaluate one another’s contributions (I use peer badging for this).  This must be carefully managed—even in business, collaboration is difficult. Structure that difficulty into an advantage that helps students for the rest of their lives.

10. Public Contribution to Knowledge.  Students work best when they know their work is for their future beyond school, not just for the test, and when they realize their work contributes.  For the last decade, I’ve refused to assign any term or research project that is only by students for me for the purpose for a grade.  I ask students to find a way that their work can have a bigger impact and value beyond the course, whether that is on a class blog or editing or augmenting Wikipedia entries or tutoring local kids (or first-year students) in what they have mastered or in actually using their knowledge to effect some kind of change in the world.

The best part of student-centered learning designed to prepare students for a complex world outside the classroom and after graduation is that, once you let students begin, they will lead you to many different ideas, solutions, and applications.  


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