Category Archives: MSU Teaching Seminars

Diversity, Inclusion and Sensitivity Workshop (MSU Campus, spring 2015)

Recently went to a diversity workshop offered by Michigan State.  It was interesting to attend and I learned a lot.  There are a lot of hot-button issues that I’m only now becoming aware of.

I like to pride myself on treating my students as equals and working to increase my inclusivity in the classroom.  My greatest weakness is still trans individuals as I tend to think in a biological sense (in terms of sexes), but attending this workshop has definitely opened my eyes to a lot of issues that I was unaware of.

But hey, realizing your weaknesses and ignorance about certain issues is the first step towards fixing bad (or unaware) behavior.

And hey, I got a certificate, so that’s fun.DIS


Facilitating Discussions That Work (MSU Workshop)

This workshop, hosted by Rique Campa III PhD, was mainly devoted to getting your students to contribute to the course.  Most professors blame the students for not participating while taking no responsibility.  Did you ask the right type of question? Did you convey to the students early in the semester that course discussions were an important component?  These are important things to consider before casting blame on your class.

One thing I’ve learned throughout all of these workshops:  if you want your students to be good at something at the end of the semester – start them on it early and teach them how to be successful with it.  You can’t expect your students to excel at group work or discussion-based work if you don’t teach them the basics and give them a framework for greatness.  Isn’t that what we’re doing, after all?

Besides that point…let’s get back on track!

The majority of the workshop was teaching us the difference between factual, evaluative, and interpretive questions.  They each have their place in teaching, but Dr. Campa stressed the importance of interpretive questions when putting things up for discussion.  For a brief explanation of these terms go to this fine presentation I found by the Upper Merion Area School District. Interpretive questions ask what the author/material means and avoid simple regurgitation of facts or feelings about the materials.  These interpretive questions work best when the professor is engaged and excited about the answers being provided by the students, and Dr. Campa stressed that students should walk away from the discussion having produced something (think-pair-share).  Also, students should be able to answer the question, but you shouldn’t be looking for one single answer.  If there’s only one acceptable answer, that means you asked a factual question…not an interpretive one.

Some students don’t think well on their feet, and thus this type of discussion may be threatening to them.  But, by having students think to themselves and write down their thoughts, they have something to fall back on when they are called on to talk in a group or to the class.  This would also result in them having an interior dialogue which they could reflect on later.  All-in-all I think it’s a solid way to do things.

So, what I learned from this workshop is that interpretive questions are hard.  Factual questions come out fast and on-point, but they don’t accomplish what we want them to.  If a student knows the answer, they’ll respond.  If they don’t know the answer, they remain quiet.  There is no discussion happening. Create an environment where students can get creative and be wrong, they’ll still learn something in the process.

Oh, and one more thing that I thought was gold…

Dr. Campa enjoys waiting for extended periods of time in class before picking a student or continuing the discussion.  It leads to the students being ‘forced’ to contribute.  One class he waited for over a minute in complete silence – no response from the class.  He then started packing up his materials and his laptop and walked towards the door and said “we can discuss it on the final.”  He said a number of hands went up immediately.  Solid way to do it.  If your students don’t want to have a discourse with you present, they can have one on the final.  I think I’ll use that.

Promoting Inquiry Based Learning in STEM Classrooms (MSU Workshop)

This workshop, while advertising inquiry based learning, ended up being a refresher on how to use backwards design while setting up your course materials.  A bit of a digression in my personal opinion, but it stressed that to use inquiry-based instruction in a classroom you have to change the way you set up your course.   It’s difficult to use inquiry based activities in a purely lecture based course as you’re not typically asking students to explore and interpret a topic, you’re providing information that is essential for them to learn.  So, designing your materials in a backwards manner means you’ll focus on what’s important and alter your assessments to match the instruction that’s happening in the course.

So, on that note, let’s dip into backwards design for a bit.  I’ll get into the inquiry aspect later, skip ahead if you’re already familiar with backwards design – I swear it won’t hurt my feelings.

Backwards Design:

Backwards design

Backwards design is a strategy for designing your course/course materials in which you don’t go about things in the typical fashion.  Most professors think about what they want to teach on any given day, within the framework of their course, and subsequently design their assessments around those materials ex post facto.  Backwards design has the same steps, but you go about it in a different order.  You first identify the overarching goals of your course (learning outcomes), then based on these decide the assessments which would demonstrate understanding, and then finally you finish where you’d think to start – with designing your lesson plans for each class.  I’ll just link you to the Wikipedia page on Backwards Design for a summary.  The benefits I see for backwards design are:

  • Making sure your assessments match your teaching style
  • Sticking to your course objectives with each class
  • Your students will hopefully see the forest over the trees – they won’t get bogged down in the specifics of each class period.  “Why am I learning this?”

The desired results are your course objectives, and are obviously important for the course.  You should pick reasonable goals which you believe you and your students can accomplish over 15 weeks.  These goals should, in a perfect world, align with the goals of your department and university as a whole.  Finally, if your course is part of a series of courses which cooperate with each other, make sure your course objectives fit.  If your students succeed in your course, it is your responsibility to ensure that this sets them up for success in the next course in the series.  In designing your learning outcomes many like to think of the ABCs.  It is possible to group your learning outcomes into Affective (feeling), Behavioral (action), and Cognitive (understanding) outcomes.  These are nicely outlined here if you would like to read (or watch) further.  While you can make your course objectives without these in mind, it helps to frame how you’ll judge the success of your students in regards to altering their feelings towards, actions regarding, or understanding of the course materials.

Designing your assessments to match your course objectives is a bit more interesting in my mind.  I would guess that the majority of classrooms where we (as 25+ year olds) were instructed were lecture courses where group work and inquiry-based studies were limited.  I still believe these courses have a serious place in our universities.  All students must understand the foundations, but it is often important to have at least seen an expansive amount of information regarding a certain topic (majors classes for example).  So, if you’re looking to create multiple-choice exams to prepare students for a standardized test (think MCATs), then lecture courses can be very successful.  But, many will argue that multiple-choice tests and lecture-based courses are low on Bloom’s Taxonomy, thereby being less intellectually stimulating and beneficial than things higher on the ladder.  As I’ve expressed, I both agree and have my issues with this new paradigm.  I will likely retain my doubts until I witness a higher Bloom-level class succeed with my own eyes.

Regardless of these doubts, it was stressed that professors make their assessment style match their instruction/course flow.  If you merely lecture on a topic it is unfair to ask students to do an inquiry based test.  The opposite is also true, you can’t focus on the foundations in class and expect students to remember the specifics on an exam.  Both of these will result in low grades and upset students.  The woman leading the workshop stressed that low grades on an exam or in a class are typically an issue with the assessments not matching the instruction.  This demonstrates the importance of at least considering backwards design while drafting your course – what you stress as important in your lectures must be what is stressed on the exams.  Memorization in courses is just fine, if that’s what your tests will be.  But, if you’re stressing exploratory research in your lectures and expecting them to know specifics on the exams, your students will get frustrated and I would assume a call from the Dean is coming soon.  Your assessments must match the learning experience.

Inquiry Based Learning:

Inquiry in this post involves the effort of students to explore, collect, and examine information regarding a topic or question.  If you still don’t have a solid idea of what an inquiry-based study would look like, think of scientific research.  You have to come up with an idea, do some research, refine your question, do more research, and then proceed onwards to an eventual conclusion/understanding of the topic being researched.  You might think “woah woah woah, this is dangerous…my kids aren’t that smart.”  Well, in some cases this is true.  But, in a lot of cases students merely don’t know how to do inquiry based learning.  You must teach your students how to ask the right questions, find the right information, and interpret/synthesize that information into a complete story.

This can be done most easily using directed inquiry.  In directed inquiry you tell your students where to go, how to get there, and what types of conclusions they should draw from it.  This is akin to most laboratory sessions in the sciences – you’re letting the kids explore but not really giving them the freedom to move off the beaten path.  Some may argue that this is not inquiry at all as you’re limiting their freedom, but I believe that directed inquiry is best used for early undergraduate students or those who have never used inquiry-based techniques before, as it provides them with a framework on which to build from.

Once your students have demonstrated they are able to successfully get through a directed inquiry project, you could move on to guided inquiry.  In guided inquiry the professor is in charge of asking a question and providing the methods to answer it, but the students have a bit more freedom than in directed inquiry to move in their own direction and use their own thought process.  In doing this, I would hope that most professors are open to constant questions from the students.  Students must have a resource to know if they are on the right track.  If this is not the case, I imagine it would be far too easy for students to get lost – having no map to direct their explorations to meet up with the conclusions they want to reach.

Now, say you’ve already guided your students through an inquiry and believe they’re ready to proceed onto the next step.  Open inquiry allows your students complete freedom to explore a topic.  I see this failing miserably in courses primarily composed of underclassmen.  However, for upperclassmen or graduate courses, I believe this type of open inquiry could be enjoyable and liberating for students.  These students, however, must have had experience with using inquiry as a learning tool or students may ask the wrong questions, seek the wrong materials, or not reaching any true or valuable conclusions about a topic.

Finally, the workshop leader brought up what’s called coupled inquiry.  In coupled inquiry, you couple a directed inquiry exercise with an open inquiry exercise.  I believe this is the least risky technique at all levels for a professor interested in using inquiry based learning.  The professor first demonstrates or directs an inquiry for their class.  This initial step provides a framework for such inquiries.  Then, an open or guided exercise can be undertaken by the students.  They should build upon the framework provided and now have the freedom to pursue a question of their choosing.  Were I to attempt an inquiry-based learning exercise, I would undoubtedly begin with coupled inquiry.

My Inquiry Based Learning/Backwards Designed Activity:

During the workshop we emulated an active classroom and were expected to proceed through the backwards design of an inquiry based learning lesson.

I chose to start with a cognitive/affective outcome for an Introductory Microbiology course:  After succeeding in this course my students will have seen that many microbes serve beneficial functions in our lives and thus remove the fear that many have of microbes.

The assessment that I would hope my students would be able to accomplish to demonstrate their understanding would be a 5-10 minute group presentation to be submitted by video.  I would ask my students to pick a beneficial microbe/community that’s essential in an industrial or food product, look up primary literature to back up their claims, and finally to create a video as a small group.  This would let the students explore a bit, but limit the range of questions they could ask.  I would make several qualitative assessments leading up to the video to ensure students are proceeding through the study adequately.  The final assessment would be an analysis of the completeness, synthesis, and presentation of the materials into a coherent video.  The best videos would be presented to the class (1-2 per day) to help cement the idea that microbes do serve beneficial purposes in our lives.

The activity/instruction behind this would be a brief lecture or two setting up the background for the information they will be exploring.  Next, I would pick a specific topic of interest that fits and proceed (in brief) through the procedure so the students can see what I expect and how to get started on each step.  Finally, I would allow space in multiple class periods to hone their question, examine the available information, and create their video.

Facilitating Discussions That Work (MSU Workshop)

Workshops based around discussions here at MSU are largely populated with education instructors and those running small classrooms.  As such I oftentimes have difficulty adapting the ideas and applying them to large classrooms where I think my future lies.  Sure, it’s possible to promote discussion based exercises in classrooms of 20-30 students, but how does this evolve and maintain usefulness when you increase the student count 10-fold?  Thus far, I have yet to get a solid answer for this.  So, take the following with a grain of salt and a bit of an imagination if you’re looking at a group of 200+ students on a semi-daily basis. 

There were two main take-home messages which were instilled upon us during this workshop.  The first was that if you want to incorporate discussions into your classroom, you have to set the framework up on day one.  Stress that group discussion will be an important part of their everyday activities.  Do a short activity on your first day/week of class where discussion will be important and show them how to efficiently discuss a topic.  I have a negative view of in-class discussions which I attribute to never having a professor take the time to make it valuable.  Had any professor given me specific tasks to discuss, a framework on how to do so, and made it worth something I might see a greater value in classroom discussions than I do now.  But, enough on past grievances, this is about looking to the future, not the past.

If I have a class where I plan to use discussion frequently, I will create a handout/form that each group will hand in – demonstrating the conclusions reached about the topic/question.  This way, each discussion group has concrete proof to demonstrate that they participated and I have a way to track which groups took the time to do so.  What I don’t know, as of yet, is how to make group participation equal within a group.  I’ve been thinking about having a “discussion leader” within each group (for each activity) who is responsible for either leading that discussion or making sure all parties are heard.  In this case I would make the worksheets worth participation points or small amounts of points  so the pressure is there to discuss in depth, but not stressful enough so that “the smart one” in the group answers every question.  Another thing which could help this is to turn in smaller worksheets individually before, and then a group discussion after.  In this scheme I would be able to assess understanding both before and after the discussion, thereby edging it closer to a formative, rather than summative, assignment.

The second important aspect of using discussions in your lectures are to ask the right types of questions.  Some types of questions, such as factual and evaluative (outlined below) don’t often lead to creating discussions that work.

  • Factual questions often result in a mere regurgitation of fact.  Simple questions where there is a yes/no or definitive answer will end a discussion regardless of whether a student answers it correctly or not.  If you want to use factual questions as discussions, make them deep/involved questions, or those centered on topics which you know are oft troublesome.  This way, students should eventually arrive at a set answer, but using a discussion based format can make the journey a bit more nourishing to the mind.
  • Evaluative questions rely on the opinions of the reader/class member.  This is unlike factual or interpretive questions where your personal opinions are unimportant.  As such, these are good questions to ‘stir the pot’ or get your students to vehemently discuss a topic.  But, what they lack is a need for students to re-visit the material or dive deeper into the subject matter.  Again, if you want to put some feeling/emotion into the subject matter or look into bias on a particular subject, these questions may be for you.  Otherwise, I would stick to well-crafted factual questions, or our last option.

The third type of questions presented at the workshop were interpretive questions.  Interpretive questions can lead to the most effective discussions because they require students to re-evaluate the materials and, if done right, permit multiple answers with merit.  This type of question asks students to interpret what the material or author means.  This leads to a synthesis of information as the student has to put their existing ideas and the new information together – putting the material into their own words.  This means that instead of merely regurgitating the information, they must interpret, analyze, and summarize it.  Interpretive questions are often unintimidating to answer because you’re allowing your students to interpret it, so if they’re off slightly you could ask why they went that direction or have other students interpret their interpretation.  One thing to note – the instructor must be curious and enthusiastic about the answers the students provide as this will draw the students further into their interpretations and thereby drawing more information out of themselves and the material.

Some random tips and tricks:

  • If students aren’t answering the right questions (note how this is different from providing the answers YOU believe are correct) you have several options:
    • Rephrase the question so the students can better understand what you meant to ask
    • Rephrase the question to match what the student answered
      • Note that this only works if the student’s original answer is a viable path to the material
  • Suggest putting that discussion off until later
    • This type of response lets the student know that their answer was intriguing, but not really applicable to the current focus of the class
    • Other suggestions:
      • Give student an option about what to interpret:  If you can’t think of an answer for X, what about Y?
      • Make the questions easy but not simple – avoid factual questions
      • Grade based on participation, not being “correct” because…
      • Emphasize that multiple answers (openness) may be correct and/or valuable
    • Problems:
    • Students who talk too much:  Tell them they can only have one response, or “I’ve already heard from X, let’s see if anyone else has something to say”
    • No participation?
      • Give them something to stir the pot before class – so they come in with an interpretation prepared (even if it’s not written down)
      • Make them write something down before discussing as a class – even the shyest students can read from something they’ve written


What is your method for ensuring equal discussion/participation within group projects?

Using Social Media to Promote Student Learning

Today’s MSU Grad School teaching seminar was designed to inform PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows of the uses of social media in student learning.  In case any of you have found my site due to anything besides social media (Facebook or Twitter in my case), these sites are becoming much more popular in the world of research and academics.  Social media permits someone to connect to a huge range of people – those who you may not even know directly.  They are networks, and as such they allow someone (or someone’s information) to spread across an existing web of contacts.  If you know one person, they undoubtedly know a few more and ever outwards.  Thus, posting content on your site can instantly lead to it spreading to hundreds or thousands of individuals (depending on how interesting your content is).  Others of you may be familiar with social media but, like myself, don’t see the value in incorporating such technology into the world of teaching.  I am still not a firm believer that sites such as Pinterest and LinkedIn will ever be of value in a college classroom, but I do think that Twitter and Facebook, if handled properly, can serve students and professors well in the classroom.

Constant involvement and immersion in the classroom, or a certain subject matter, has been shown to improve student learning.  This forces students to have the topic on their mind and not simply prepare for class and have the materials dissolve into the ether once the proverbial bell rings.  Thus, if a professor creates a dispersal method which the student is required to be involved in (a la a Twitter or Facebook group), those students who use the sites for personal reasons will come across information from your class in a casual manner.  This engrosses the student and permits them to view the subject matter in an organic instead of structured environment.  This idea spreads also to the student-teacher relationship.  Students who feel a connection to their professor do better in their classes.  Be this because they are more engrossed in the material or they feel a personal responsibility to their professor is beyond the scope of this post.  Regardless, if students can interact with their professor in an informal and non-classroom environment they can start to see them as a source for interesting information and not just information required to pass a course.  I do not attempt to force a professional/strict relationship with my students; I simply cannot perform as well under these conditions.  My students know who I am as a person, but I require them to respect me as a professor.  I believe this leads to more honest questions and approach to the class.  If I am able to connect to these students on a social media site, it will allow me to further this connection and promote active discussion with me in a non-threatening manner.

Now let’s dive into some specific sites that were mentioned in the workshop:


Facebook – one of the original social media sites and I would imagine today’s most popular.  Facebook allows one to create their own profile page describing themselves, their interests, and provides a sort of bulletin-board for them to express their ideas/beliefs/findings.  When I become a professor I plan to have a professional page, but as of yet I do not have such a page and therefore keep this digital identity to myself.  I have, however, created several Facebook groups for the courses I teach.  These groups function as an online meeting place where members share a bulletin board and can ask questions or post material that are mutually beneficial.  A community can form around this group – involving students of previous years, experts in the field, and even those who are not related to the group.

One attendee volunteered a bit of helpful information for instructors:  If you field a simple question by email you may have to answer 10+ of the same email.  If this question is posted to the Facebook group, you only have to answer it once, thus saving you time and reduces the stress that accompanies a full inbox.


Twitter is the epitome of the attention span of today’s youth.  This social media limits one’s thoughts to a measly 140 characters and spreads it out for the world to see.  While this limits how deep a single message can go, it is fantastic for synthesizing information and spreading a quick note.  Unlike Facebook, where each person has their own space to call their own, Twitter is solely composed of these small blurbs.  “Tweet” a fact out, and anyone in the world can see it.  This creates a powerful way to spread your ideas.  You could require your students to have a Twitter account and “follow” you.  In this manner you can send out links to articles, quick facts, or reminders for that pesky test coming up in a few days.  This is yet another casual way for students to interact with you and the topic at hand.  Professors these days show “live tweets” from their students during classes – instant feedback on the material.  These tweets could be part of class participation – since they are putting their thoughts and ideas out for the world (literally) to see.

Some of you out there may be saying “But Mike, if you promote these sites during class won’t they just distract your students and reduce their attention to the material?”  Well, it’s reducing their attention to me definitely.  I have little faith that all of my students are paying attention to me at any given time.  They are already on these sites during class (seriously, go into any class over 40 students and peek at the screens of the back 20 students), so at least you could provide a way to do so and contribute.

Many top students go to class because they are required to, not to learn from the professor.  If they sit in class and look up topical news articles, science articles, or old-wives tales about your course material…don’t you think you should provide them a way to share these with the rest of your class and get answers/feedback?

Does anyone out there use social media sites in their classroom?  I’m especially interested in learning if anyone uses something besides Twitter and Facebook.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE:  Here’s a helpful link for Twitter possibilities: