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.


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.

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




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

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

How do I know

The issue of grading and assessment are a real source of trouble for teachers I feel.

Which of the following statements most reflects your opinion about grading?

– It serves to distinguish the good student from the bad students.

– It gives students feedback.

– It is an institutional requirement.

– It gives the teacher feedback.

Perhaps, you feel that grades should be a combination of some of the above.  Furthermore, if you reflect on your grading process within the context of a learner perspective, do you think that the grades are serving their purpose?

Lowman in Mastering the Techniques of Teaching lists several “Myths of Evaluation”

1. The quality of education that students receive is commensurate with the difficulty of earning high marks.

2. Differences in grade point average reflect differences in student quality.

3. Hard grading and student satisfaction are inversely correlated.

4. Strict grading is necessary to motivate students to study.

5. Tough grading encourages memorization, while a nonjudemental classroom atmosphere is necessary for higher-level learning or for independent or creative thinking to occur.

In what ways might grading actually be a barrier to student learning?

Lowman J.  Mastering the Techniques of Teaching.  2nd Edition. Jossey-Bass. 1995.

Wholistic teaching

“This belief in man’s duality has other pedagogical consequences for a perennialist.”

This was a statement made in a book that I’ve been reading. Although it was published just under 40 year’s ago, some of the pedagogical paradigms are still in effect today. In fact, some of the principles still serve as the foundation of education today.

But, I digress. Let’s define a few terms before we proceed. Lapp et al. describe a worldview of man from a dualist perspective.  In other words, man is part material or physical and part immaterial or spiritual. Interestingly, this seems to align mostly with a Biblical worldview.

Next, the authors point out that this view of man has a “pedagogical consequence”. In other words, how we teach intersects with who we teach. The teaching methods or strategies and the learner are intimately related.

Finally, the author describes the teacher as a perennialist. A teacher that takes a perennialist approach emphasizes the past and longstanding principles that have stood the test of time.

What I take from this reading is that who you are as a teacher and who you are teaching strongly influence how you teach at the very core of the teacher’s and learner’s being.  When is the last time you considered the personhood of your students as you developed your teaching strategy? Does it make a difference?

I think it might.

For example, if we see the learner as an empty container to be filled, we may use a pedagogy that attempts to fill that container.  As a side note, implementation of pedagogy is critical as well.  One might immediately think of a lecture as the poster child for filling up the learner.  However, in the hands of a master teacher, the lecture can evoke critical thinking.  But, the lecturer must be limited to a few key concepts or the learner may be overwhelmed.  Back to the issue at hand,  What if you saw the learner as an apprentice?  How would this change you pedagogy?  Is there a difference between a young learner and a returning to college learner?

While we must operationalize teaching in simple terms, it is easy to see that there is a place for the scholarship of teaching and learning.  The interactions between the teacher and learner alone is complex even in the absence of content.  The next time that you set to reflect on your teaching, consider how you implement your strategy and the potential effects on the learner.  Better yet, ask your learner and do some scholarship!