The active in active learning

Many higher education standards require the use of active learning.  So, it seems appropriate to include a discussion of active learning in any “teaching” experience or development program such as an academic training experience.

I was having a conversation with a student regarding active learning for just this very purpose.  She was completing an academic experience.  The discussion began with a personal reflection on learning style.  From there, I asked which learning experiences were the most successful for this student and why.  Was this active learning?

While there is a lack of consensus on what active learning is, I think that many would suggest that active learning involves cognitive processes above simple recall.  Whether physical activities are required is a matter of debate.  There is a long list of strategies and activities that may be implemented as active learning.

I asked my student what her expectations for this discussion had been. It was insightful that she expected to discuss a long list of activities.  However, we actually focused our discussion on reasons to use active learning?  Purpose, meaning, and intention.  Having those in mind will facilitate learning to the end that you intend rather than simply being busy work.

How have you seen active learning strategies change your students’ learning?  What is one thing that you would recommend to others who are considering a shift to more active learning?

For further reading:

Oyler DR, Romanelli F, Piascik P, Cain J. Practical Insights for the Pharmacist Educator on Student Engagement. Am J Pharm Educ. 2016; 80(8): Article 143.

Michael J. Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Adv Physiol Educ. 2006. 30: 159-167.

Great Expectations

I read with interest a blog from Faculty Focus.  It focuses on creating and communicating course expectations to students.  In illustrating ways that we communicate expectations, it reports the perspective of students on two questions: Describe a great professor and Why was a professor their favorite.

This survey was conducted in order to give new faculty insight into student expectations for the classroom.  In reviewing the descriptions of a great professor, it is surprising that few relate to the personal character of the professor such as honesty, concerned, energetic, and enthusiastic.  Whereas, the remaining descriptors seem to suggest more behavioral characteristics towards the student such as available, relatable, engaging, entertaining, etc.   These were not ranked but honesty was at the top of the list.  Also, conspicuous are the traits that are not listed such as authoritative.

What traits have you observed in great teachers?

What traits do you hope your students see in you as a teacher?

See previous post on Three C’s of a Teacher.

Link to Faculty Focus blog post:


“I am ashamed to say it,” I returned, “and yet it’s no worse to say it than to think it. You call me a lucky fellow. Of course, I am. I was a blacksmith’s boy but yesterday; I am—what shall I say I am—to-day?”

(Great Expectations by Charles Dickens Chapter 30)

Three C’s of a teacher

I recently read a blog post from Faculty Focus – The Teaching Professor blog.  The title was “Caring about student matters”.  This reminded me of the principle of the 3 C’s.  Students want a teacher that cares about them, that challenges them and that is competent.  I don’t remember where that quote came from but I have been challenged to develop the “caring” aspect of teaching throughout my career.  Lowman posits that there are two dimensions which are demonstrated by exemplary teachers: Intellectual excitement and interpersonal rapport.  WIthin the interpersonal rapport section of his book, he provides some reflections and techniques on student-teacher interactions such as eliciting feedback.  For me, I have discovered that patterns of comments contained in student feedback can be insightful and provide opportunities for me to develop the skill of constructive feedback by modeling it.  Some simple ways to show I care include learning names and using them.  I also make it a point to talk with individual students before, after, and outside of class time.  This relational approach seems to cut the teacher-student tensions of the classroom and produce a much better learning environment where students will risk responding to answers publically and receive correction much more readily.  What strategies do you use to connect with your classes?

Other resources for developing a caring personae include:

  • Lowman, Joseph. Mastering the techniques of teaching.
  • Wilkinson, Bruce. The seven laws of the learner.


At the end of the program, how many students become the fruit you (institutionally) had hoped for?  Furthermore, how do you describe what that outcome looks like and the process that the student undergoes to become that person.  The process broadly may be seen as the curriculum.  Of course, curricula are complex and there are many factors such as resources, sequencing, coursework, content, pedagogy, faculty, etc that go into developing and implementing a curriculum. The end goal/product should be considered in developing and improving curricula.  In reading Curriculum: from theory to practice by Wesley Null, I came across some interesting ways to describe curricular philosophies.  These concepts may serve as important steps in engaging curricular discussions.  Which best describes your curriculum?

Five Types of Curriculum:

1) Systematic

* education is a business approach

* high value on “objectivity”

* focus on instructional methods/techniques

* values assessment, accountability, efficiency

* standards based “what should students know and be able to do”

* science content valued more highly than humanities

* planning, highly structured

2) Existentialist

* the personal journey

* goal focus on uniqueness of a learner and the process of personal meaning making

* individual above community learning

* individuality and personal freedom above institutional responsibility

* more about surrounding learners with interesting possibilities than predetermining what the learner should be and learn.

3) Radical

* political perspective

* bias is embraced rather than navigated around

* knowledge that is aligned with political agenda is taught

* believes that curricular materials have inherent biases that should be countered, eg. suppression of content on ethnic disparities.

4) Pragmatic

* problem solving immediate social needs

5) Deliberative

* choice

* hearing multiple perspectives, choosing the best response, and acting on that response

* avoid extremes

Other key ideas:
goal of liberal arts: “transforms the inner constitution of a person’s character so that he or she can lead a life of reason, reflection, and deliberation.”

Key ideas:

* bridge tradition and foundation knowledge while preparing for a life of decisions that further these traditions.

* Breaking patterns of traditional thinking – “liberating”

* developed personal, defensible, perspectives

* curriculum making involves answering questions of practice, purpose, and integration


Null W. Curriculum: From theory to practice. (C) 2011. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Do YOU hear what I HEAR?

I was thinking about syllabi.  All faculty at some point have to put one together for their courses and post for students to access.  These documents may include policies and procedures for the course.  This might seek to communicate when, where, why, what, who for the course.  The primary audience are the students enrolled in this class.   As a document that seeks to communicate to students many different facets of a course, it seems that little has looked at the effects of these documents.  For example, I have seen instructors BOLD “important” and serious information such as expected behaviors.  What does this communicate to the students?  How does this shape the student-teacher relationship? How does it impact the learning environment? I particularly like to “teach” the syllabus to students at orientation.  My experience or perception, rather, has been that students would not lay eyes on this document otherwise.  However, I had not ever considered the influence of the syllabus on students.  I assumed that it communicated professional attitudes and that student behavior would fall in line with those expectations.  But, is there any published data regarding the effects of syllabi?  Very little has been done in this area as far as I can tell after conducting a brief search of Pubmed, ERIC, and google.

Most suggest that the syllabus content, style, and tone can have important effects on student-teacher interactions.  These include initial impressions of instructor, approachability of instructor, classroom behavior, and student performance possibly.  As I reflect on this, I wonder how much the syllabus tone influences students evaluations of the teacher.  The study by Harnish suggests that there could be an effect.

The next time you read through your syllabi, think about what are you trying to convey?  This is a challenging topic when one considers that there may be two purposes for a syllabus – one from the teacher perspective and one from the student perspective.  In discussion with colleagues, some see a syllabus as a contract.  In this case, one would expect a syllabus to read like a “legal” document.  However, one could also take the posture that communicating to students course expectations with “how” that is communicated might be more important.  Next time, you are reviewing or creating a syllabus consider how you are communicating to students as well as what you want to communicate.


Bies-Hernandez NJ. The effects of framing grades on student learning and preferences. Teach Psychol. 2012; 39(3): 176-180.

Harnish RJ, Bridges KR.  Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions off instructor and course.  Soc Pscyhol Educ. 2011; 14: 319-330.

Perrine RM, Lisle J, Tucker DL. Effects of syllabus offer of help, student age, and class size on college students’ willingness to seek support form faculty. J Exp Educ. 1995; 64(1): 41-52.

Sulik G, Keys J. “Many student really do no yet know how to behave!” The syllabus as a tool for socialization.  Teaching Soc. 2013. DOI: 10.1177/0092055×13513243




Where ideas meet

I am currently reading a book evaluating the teaching philosophy of constructivism. At its roots in history, constructivism seems to have been born out of a postmodern view of the world. The content is not the center of learning, the learner is. This seems to be very acceptable to most on the surface. A quick look at the educational literature will verify this. (Keyword search: learner centered).

The main question should be how to individualize the approach not the content. For, taken to its extreme, individualizing the content means relativism and where then would we find truth. The answer in the postmodern perspective is that truth is relative and subjective not objective. Unfortunately, that statement is self-contradictory. I cannot say that truth is subjective without that statement somehow being inherently objective – that is repeatable and observable. It is true, however, that subjective perspective is a part of a greater truth.

How does this impact education? In what ways, does your educational approach or system reflect what you believe or how you see the world?

If I were king of the forest

Years ago, I remember seeing a book on courage and teaching.  I didn’t think much of it at the time.  However, as I reflect back on my teaching experiences, I can see how this book might be an encouragement.

The first time I walked into the classroom, there was a mix of emotions.  This is it!  I am a teacher.  I am going to give a presentation that will not only wow my students  but will instantaneously make them knowledgeable.  Apart from the hours of preparation and the naive expectations, I might have succeeded if it were not for the simple fact that a class of students and a culture of passive learning need to be engaged.

There are some tough groups of students to reach and teach.  I say reach because students require a connection on some level.  Without that, “teaching” may only get you so far.  Anyways back to the point at hand,  I had not realized early in my career what a mob mentality a class of people could have.  The more work I put in and demand from students, the more little mistakes seemed to magnify distress.  One seemingly contradictory point or confusion on the part of a class and the wolves will smell blood.  This is an intimidating environment.  We’re imperfect people.  We’ll make a mistake or two in our careers.

Here’s a few things that I have kept in mind to try to mitigate the feeding frenzy.

– Prepare but don’t over prepare: This allows space for students to wow you with their questions and challenge you to learn also.

– Have a catch phrase in your tool box, eg. “I don’t know the answer to that question.  I will look into it and provide a response at a later time.”

– Set a proper attitude: one of my residency mentors said it this way “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”  Sometimes, we can be our own worst enemy.

– Be patient: Communication with one individual is complex enough.  Multiple those challenges by the number of students you have in the classroom.

– Keep the conversation going until you have clarity: Most curricula are so jam packed that dialog is not possible.  Our culture does not value margin.  But, if we don’t ask questions of the students, how are we to know if we are truly being effective?  We all know the metrics and measures that are used have significant limitations.

More could and probably will be said on this in future posts.  But, as you engage your classes, take courage.


– the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous (Courage. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2013, from

– I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. Nelson Mandela (

– Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage assumes fear…Courage is the willingness to strap on your fear and move ahead.  Andy Stanley The Next Generation Leader


I think that any discussion on teaching and learning should explore the relationship between three key elements: the teacher, the content, and the learner.

Teacher Image with black background

Exploring the relationship between each of these elements provides a conceptual framework for the scholarship of teaching and learning. Let’s take for example an investigation into “active learning”. Depending on which of the three relationships you are examining, you might choose classroom techniques as the object of inquiry. Is this a scrutiny of teacher-content or content-learner or teacher-learner relationship? In reflecting on this question, one might conclude that all three may be involved in this hypothesis testing. However, a study would be designed much differently if the research question were focusing on the teacher-content relationship versus the content-learner relationship. In future posts, I will muse over these relationships in more depth.

Take care how you listen (Part 2)

As I reflect on ways that students are hearing I turn to student evaluations, individual conversations with students, and published materials on learning for data to base my evaluation.  I think that a central topic is student attitudes.  Attitudes are reflections of the heart.  And attitudes can be very influential in our behaviors.  Below are some “student types” described by Mann.
Mann’s Student Type and Characteristics
Compliant: teacher-dependent; highly task-oriented; in class to understand material; comfortable with status quo; once student feels accepted by instructor –> independence begins to develop
Anxious-dependent: grade-focused; “trust teachers and assume that the grades they receive are justified”; “they feel angry about having less power in the educational setting than they would like.”; “low opinions of their own ability”; prefer simple right-wrong content
Discouraged Workers: demonstrate depressed and fatalistic attitudes; grade centered; low morale
Independent Students: Learning centered; independent; actively engaged; “apparent independence can be a cloak for rebellion”
Heroes: wants teacher to notice their work; “erratic, optimistic, underachievers”; “some underlying hostility toward authority figures or inability to maintain their commitment to a goal prevents them from playing this role to the end.”; “love discussion, can be annoyingly argumentative, never admitting that they have lost a debate.”; “fear that they might not be able to live up to their heroic ideal even if they try their best.”; impulsive temperament; I’m special attitude
– Snipers: hostile, cynical, habitual rebels, feelings of guilt and fear about their hostility lead to quick retreats when queried about their behavior; “can be respectful however, hostility stems from discomfort with authority figures and protects them from close contact with them”
– Attention Seekers: highly social; enjoy discussions and collaborative work
– Silent: silence is response to fear of not being accepted by instructor; typically desired for instructor to know them
Mann’s Student Type and Positive Instructor Responses
Compliant: help learners with self-efficacy and development of independence
Anxious-dependent: patience, acceptance, facilitate, affirm legitimacy of question
Discouraged workers: help lift their spirit in face-to-face conversation/small talk,  recognize student type; openly acknowledge recognition of discouragement
Independent: acknowledge independence of learner;challenge learner to stretch beyond expectations; low student productivity determining factor if independence is rebellious
Heroes: encourage this student type to put energies into structured course requirements versus giving “special assignments”
Snipers: form positive relationship; patience; ignoring behaviors does not generally work; respond focusing on positive in comments not negative; recognize the value of the student to the class; engage in short conversations outside class
Attention seeking: give attention but focus on academic work and reduce over time; draw into intellectual skills
Silent: don’t ignore; make it a point to go through roster regularly to note students; engage
It is interesting to note that in each description, the instructor is encouraged to use relationship to dissuade classroom incivility and improve student performance. The author notes also that this could represent stages of learner development which might imply that learners at different stages might be equipped differently to hear effectively.
Mastering the techniques of teaching.  Joseph Lowman. 2nd edition. (C) 1995. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Take care how you listen (part 1)

I was reading a short book title “Take Care How You Listen”.  Author, John Piper, reflects on the meaning of the Parable of the Sower.  He describes the main point of the parable “how to listen to preaching”.  However, I think there is some application here to teaching and learning.

Here is the parable:
“When a large crowd was coming together, and those from the various cities were journeying to Him, He spoke by way of a parable:  “The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.  Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.  Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant.  And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.

“Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God.  Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved.  Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away.  The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.  Luke 8:4-15 accessed 7/8/13

Piper outlines two key points of the Parable:
1. how you hear has potentially positive and negative consequences
2. the heart with which you hear has implications for learning
With what heart do you think your students listen with?
How do you think that this might influence their learning?
As a teacher, what could you do to mitigate this learning obstacle?
Take Care How You Listen: sermons by John Piper on Receiving the Word.  (C) 2012 Desiring God Foundation