Engaging Students with the Element of Surprise
An effective way to get students thinking in a disciplinary vein, or to regain their attention when it might be lagging late in class, is the element of surprise. Our fields of study—our course content—are full of surprises: the odd, the curious, the contradictory, the unexpected, and the downright amazing. Immersed as we are in our discipline, finding surprising information to share with our students may take some practice. As content experts, what we find surprising or interesting may not resonate with the disciplinary novice; and what no longer surprises us may be utterly surprising and attention grabbing for our students.
So how can you find surprising information to bring up in class? Calling on your repertoire of common student misconceptions and misunderstandings is a good place to begin. Look for ways to present your surprise that will have students asking themselves, and one another, “What did she just say?” Follow up your surprise with a pause to let it sink in. Then, follow with discussion, questions, and extended explication. In only a short time you will have gotten your students thinking in the discipline using the course content and may have made a significant inroad into clearing up persistent misconceptions.
The Cliffhanger Approach
Fall and spring breaks provide much-needed mental relief for us and our students. However, reconnecting with our students and returning to course material after the breaks can be challenging.
To establish continuity, consider ending class before the break with an intriguing issue, problem, or story on the cusp of resolution, but ultimately unresolved—don’t deliver the punch line! Or end the class with a provocative question, leaving your students wanting an answer. Encourage your students to think about the problem or question while they are away on break. They may or may not think a great deal about the unresolved issue while they are on break, but you will have a useful way to reconnect with the students and segue back into the course material.
When Should We Lecture?
Because research has demonstrated that lectures usually hold many impediments to learning, conversations about lecturing in higher education too often take the form of either/or—you should or you shouldn’t. In her Faculty Focus blog, Maryellen Weimer suggests that something is missing from these discussions: a consideration of when and how lecturing can facilitate student learning, and when other approaches work better. As disciplinary experts and expert learners, faculty have an enormous amount to offer students: disciplinary content, perspectives, understanding, and excitement about research. When is hard-won professional expertise best put to use in the form of a lecture?
Weimer suggests that lecturing should be purposeful and targeted, used to meet specific needs, and set aside when learning needs are best met with other approaches. To determine whether lecturing might be an appropriate solution, she suggests we consider our own goals and our informed understanding of our students’ needs:
- What do my students need, and what do I wish to accomplish?
- When is lecturing an effective way of meeting those needs and goals?
- What content can my students master on their own, and what do they need my help with?
- How can I use lectures to lay the foundations of disciplinary thinking?
- How can I use lectures to inspire or motivate the uninspired student? How can I use lectures to support other learning approaches?
These questions and others can be useful in developing teaching practices and can be starting points for continuing conversations with colleagues.