All posts in Innovative Instructional Practices

Time-Saving Tech and the Distraction Subtraction

As ole Ben said, “An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.” And as our students apparently Google: “Where did Benjamin Franklin work?”

Looks like we need all the help we can get.

Barney McCoy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln estimates students use their smartphones for non-classroom activities 11 times per class period—that 20% of students’ in-class time is device-enabled non-class work. Imagine how much of their attention we have outside of class.

In addition, most adolescents should list “social media user” as their longest-held part-time job, since they spend 9 hours a day clocked in. Even on weekends.

While worthy, unplug advocacy may do long-term good but isn’t likely to snap students’ attention to the whiteboard—and we can’t exactly shoo them from the internet while assigning activities on Moodle.

So, then: to subversion. Pirate Professors, how can we use technology to help students avoid the distractions and diffusion of technology?


  • This Google Chrome plug-in allows students to limit access to particular websites (Facebook, etc.) on a customized schedule. It can also be used to cultivate more mindful use of technology by allowing access to a site but only for, say, an hour, or only after presenting the student with a series of gateway challenges to curtail a compulsive click to the Huffington Post.


  • K12 teachers have been on to this one for years. Remind requires some set up from the instructor, but then enables students to get text message reminders for course assignments, staff meetings, or special events. The instructor can set these reminders ahead of time (say, at the beginning of each term) to eliminate the “remember to remind” tasks from your to-do list. Maybe best of all, the app will distribute texts but can be set to block replies—so you can access students in real time but they can’t text you back at 2 am.

Google Calendar Appointment Slots

  • This is the tech version of the Office Door Sign-Up Sheet. We already schedule meetings with each other through Google calendar (or you can start now—see especially “Find a Meeting Time”), but this function allows students to schedule themselves for paper conferences, office visits, or advising appointments in slots pre-timed and pre-approved by the professor. A link to the slots can be posted on Moodle or sent by email, and everyone is saved the trouble of transferring items between calendars or using class time for passing the sign-up sheet— inevitably missed by the one student who reeeeally needs this conference.


  • If you’re skittish about others accessing your Google calendar—or need a tool to help students schedule their own group projects—Doodle is your jam. It prevents the irksome and unproductive rounds of I-can-do-Thursday-but-not-Tuesday / I-can-do-Tuesday / Next-Thursday? / No-Tuesday / Huh?

Pdf Joiner

  • Streamlining course documents (for distribution and submission) can reduce another sort of tech distraction: the time and energy wasted—and loss of focus—in toggling between a Word article, scanned map, Drive spreadsheet, and .gif graph. Pdf Joiner (and its cousins) allows users to drag-and-drop multiple documents into a single .pdf without Adobe Suite or a full version of Acrobat.

Even if these tools are regulars in your arsenal, the first few weeks of the semester are prime time for preventative measures.

Ole Ben’s other advice (wine is “a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!”) may find dissent. Nonetheless, better to invest minutes of tech prep now and save hours later of wishing for whiskey.

Implementing the Harvard Thinking Routine “Connect-Extend-Challenge”

by Fred Van Geest

This past fall I incorporated the Harvard Thinking Routine “Connect-Extend-Challenge” (Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011) in one of my courses, POS211: Political Quest.  There were about 18 students in the class.  I chose to implement the teaching technique in this course for the following reasons:

  • I was interested in improving student accountability for completing readings and coming to class prepared to talk about the readings.  I wanted students to do some serious thinking about material before class, and then encounter different peer perspectives in class.
  • This particular course does not emphasize the acquisition of facts and knowledge, but relies more on discussion, critical thinking, and reflection on the relationship between biblical principles and political life.
  • This class sometimes involves discussion of controversial ideas and I wanted a method that would ensure opportunities for everyone to participate, without having certain students dominate.
  • Students often have preconceived ideas about politics and faith.  I wanted them to reflect on how their ideas related to new ideas they encountered.

The Process

I adapted the routine by adding two questions of my own (the first and final).  

Summarize: What is the main argument of this reading?

Connect:  How are the ideas and information presented CONNECTED to what you already knew?

Extend:  What new ideas did you get that EXTENDED or pushed your thinking in new directions?

Challenge: What is still CHALLENGING or confusing for you to get your mind around? What questions, wonderings, or puzzles do you now have?

Quote:  What quote or passage did you find most interesting and why?

I then set up a Moodle “quiz” for each reading with each of the five questions worth two points.  They were due by class time, with no late submissions accepted and I had my TA grade them, using the following scale:

0 = the question is not completed
1 = the response displays minimal effort or deep misunderstanding
2 = the response displays good effort and understanding

Students were also required to have a copy of their responses with them in class, ready to share.  If a student was not present in class to share what they wrote or not prepared to do so, they would be assigned a score of 0/10.  

Typically, I would begin class by selecting several students to share their responses to the questions.  How we proceeded depended on if students had a clear understanding of the main ideas from the reading and if there was consensus, disagreement, or varying perspectives on what the reading meant for how they developed their own Christian political worldviews.


  • Students who showed up for class always seemed to do the reading!
  • Having multiple students briefly summarize the main idea of the reading was an excellent way to begin.  We got to the core ideas quickly and I could easily see if everyone understood them.
  • The technique effectively showed the areas where students were being pushed in their thinking about political life.
  • There was never any shortage of participation and discussion– and it was usually enjoyable.

Next time…

  • I permitted students to read from their laptops (I didn’t want to waste paper).  The presence of laptops combined with the non-lecture format meant that a number of students were otherwise distracted by the screens.  Next time, I think I would ban laptops and require students to bring a paper copy.
  • Sometimes calling on multiple students to report on what they wrote felt a little mechanical.  Other students would sometimes tune out if it wasn’t their turn.  I think some students had the perception that since they completed the written work, they were off the hook and didn’t need to process the material anymore.  Class time probably felt like wasted time for some of those with this perception.  It’s hard to find ways to hold students accountable for what they learn from class discussions.
  • I probably used the routine for too many readings.  Students appeared to get a little tired of it at times.  I may also have let discussions run a little long, because of my desire to hear from as many students as possible.



The main challenges have to do with keeping students engaged in the discussion activity over a prolonged period of time, holding them accountable for it, and building on the learning that comes from it. But I found the teaching technique to be very effective– especially in eliciting participation from everyone in the class, revealing new things students were learning and challenging their views of faith and politics.  

Old School Creativity: 5 Classics on Innovation Still Stand

A batch of fresh-baked creativity books fills the oven. Creativity is all the rage.

Last year, in a set of articles in “The Atlantic,” William Deresiewicz and Robinson Meyer debated the cultural-historical arc from “artisan,” through “genius” to “creative.” Deresiewicz derides the last term, finding it more hipster than helpful.

I have some sympathy for Deresiewicz’s attachment to bygone definitions of artistry and innovation. Much of the contemporary school of creativity has taken a distinctly self-help, pop psychology turn. A turn patently unhelpful to teachers, especially in higher ed., whose efforts to engage and facilitate discovery must be reliable and reproducible.

While rock-star authors like Elizabeth Gilbert and business gurus like Pixar’s Ed Catmull get much of the ink (virtual and otherwise) now, some older explorations of creativity stand strong as time-tested research and rumination on promoting ingenuity and vision.

5 Throwback Books on Creativity to Add to Goodreads

The Creative Process edited by Brewster Ghiselin

Includes nearly 40 selections, many brief and potent, on creativity in the arts and sciences written by figures from Poincaré to Picasso, Stein to Einstein

The Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy

Accessible even to those outside mathematics, Hardy, a 19th century British mathematician—who believed “the creative life was the only one for the serious man”– explores the aesthetics of mathematics

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Though anchored in the creation of visual art, Bayles and Orland address contextual influences on the creative process—the classroom, institutional demands, finances, criticism and good ole fear

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Many educators know Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory. Here he draws on interviews with creators from many backgrounds to examine flow in innovation

The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn

The first and last chapters, particularly, of this Harvard professor and painter’s reflections on creativity stare straight at the tensions between structure and freedom elicited by the liberal arts institution

If your grading load (or kids’ ages) won’t allow a book-length read now, head to the databases with one name: R. Keith Sawyer. Editor of the (literal) textbook on creativity– Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation—Sawyer also has several articles relevant to creativity and the classroom. These include:

  • “Distributed creativity: How collective creations emerge from collaboration.” With Stacy DeZutter in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 3.2
  • “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity: A Critical Review.” Creativity Research Journal 23.2
  • “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the aesthetics of spontaneity.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 58.2

Connecting with Diverse Students: Scenarios & Cases

When I think of simulations in the fields of nursing or education, I often think of very expensive practice manikins with arteries and veins that students can practice poking with needles (Complete Left Replacement Arm $234.00) or classroom-management programs where graduate students are paid to act as avatars that talk too much in a simulated middle-school classroom. Although these are great learning resources for students, I don’t have the resources to purchase or design these complicated simulation tools.

However, I don’t want my students to miss the many  benefits of simulation-based learning.  Scenarios and case studies are known to create significant gains in the areas of moral reasoning (O’ Flaherity and McGarr 2014) and teamwork skills (Motola, et al 2013) as well as critical thinking (Milner & Wolfer 2014). I’ve been experimenting with scenarios and case-studies on a smaller scale, and have been pleased at the level of engagement students have shown–both with the material and with each other. In addition, I’ve been especially intrigued with how scenarios  and case studies can meet the diverse needs of students.

Here’s why:

Scenarios & Cases Give Students a Common Starting Point

It’s easy to assume  all students have experience with a particular situation or concept..  However, as our classrooms become more diverse, this assumption doesn’t hold up.  Wlodowski and Ginsberg (1995) discuss that one of the keys to motivating culturally diverse students is to build on prior knowledge. If students don’t have the prior knowledge to engage with a question, they will lose motivation. I want my students to approach a discussion on equal footing, regardless of their past experience. Therefore, I ground a big question in a specific situation,  using a background video clip, article, or anecdote that can allow all students to participate.

Even before we read the syllabus on the first day of College Writing, I want my students to explore the abstract question “What does it mean to know?”  To ground this big question, I start with a smaller one grounded in a specific situation: “Is it possible to really know someone if your only contact with them is through digital means?” Before we discuss the question, we watch a scene from the MTV show Catfish, in which people who have met online have the opportunity to meet in person (usually with disastrous results.) Everyone in the class, then, has some common background about a few of the common pitfalls and possibilities of online relationships.

Then I ask students to discuss the specific question with a small group. Each group must post three answers–a “yes, because” answer, a “no, because” answer, and an “it depends” answer. From the “it depends” column we build an answer to the more abstract question,  “What does it mean to ‘know’?” before moving into the ways in which college writers need to “know” their subjects in order to write well. (We also establish– for the most part– that we wouldn’t lend money to or marry someone that we hadn’t met in person at least once.)

Scenarios & Cases Allow Students to Take New Perspectives

Although I work to make my classroom a safe place to discuss controversial issues, many students feel pressure to conform to a particular Christian point of view.  Students who come from underrepresented communities may feel that they need to speak carefully as they are representing their communities in every class discussion.  With these constraints in place, sometimes it’s difficult to discuss controversy. The work of Griffith (2012)  indicates that when discussions get heated, students often withdraw, defeating the purpose of the discussion and causing more fear and awkwardness around these difficult topics. A simulation can encourage students to shed these constraints and enter into a ‘third space’ (Cook 2005) where ideas can be more fully explored as well as offering multiple entry points (Gelbach 2007). Students can more easily shed constraints and enter the situation as someone other than themselves.

In my juvenile literature class we read the textbook chapter on censorship, which insists that all censorship in books for young readers is wrong.  Although this stance works in a textbook chapter, most people who work with young readers know that this issue is much more nuanced and complex than the textbook indicates.  Students come to class after reading that chapter with very strong opinions about this issue.

I ask students to set their personal opinions aside and take on the role of a participant in a simulated school board meeting to decide whether students should read the first Harry Potter book as part of the seventh grade curriculum. I encourage students to choose a speaker role they feel is not representative of their actual view and I give time to go back into the textbook and other resources to plan what they will say based on their assigned role. This class session is always full of surprises. Quiet students often become more vocal and those that have spoken up frequently speak less as they filter their words through their assigned role. The “school board” members genuinely lead, asking better probing questions than I ever do in class discussion.  Students’ written reflections show they are surprised in the power of this experience. One student wrote, “I was expecting judgment in class today and instead I got grace.”

Scenarios & Case Studies Contextualize Abstract Concepts

The work of Giamellaro (2014)  and other science educators indicates students often grasp difficult concepts more easily if they are contextualized, “situating a concept in a particular time and place” (abstract).  This becomes even more important when students have different cultural backgrounds, as Teaching Tolerance recommends instructors provide experiences “that show abstract concepts are drawn from and applied to the everyday world.”

One of my challenges in teaching Introduction to the Liberal Arts is helping students care about Bethel’s history–a concept that perhaps isn’t relevant to new students in the first week of school. However, after listening to all of Chris Gehrz’s podcasts on pietism this summer, I was keenly aware of how Bethel’s unique way of framing issues and problems and grows out of history. Before students read the first two chapters Becoming Whole and Holy Persons, we examine a real-life scenario. Students read the Washington Post  article by a Christian,  incoming student at Duke University who refused to read the graphic novel Fun Home for religious reasons.

Of course, many of my students had an immediate opinion about whether the author of this article was right in making this choice. Several of them immediately commented, quoting Bible verses and girding themselves to “win” the argument.  However, instead of discussing it immediately, I gave them a list of possible Christian responses, some of which agreed with the Duke student’s stance, and some of which disagreed.  We looked at them together, agreeing that all of these were responses that a Christian could reasonably make. When I sent students home to do the reading, I asked them to identify different aspects of Bethel history that might contribute to a discussion of this dilemma. In our next class session, I asked students what words should characterize a discussion of this issue at Bethel, considering its history. They chose words like “respectful,” “Christ-centered,” and  “considerate” and connected these concepts to the historical events in their reading They had entered into a context in which these historical roots became important.


Faculty members like you and me are the value-added in the classroom. We have the background, the experiences and context that can’t be provided by textbooks or video lessons.  How might you use scenarios or cases to share the richness of your experiences to meet the needs of our diverse range of students?



Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence.  (n.d.)  Five standards for effective pedagogy.   Teaching Tolerance.  The Southern Poverty Law Center.  Accessed at

Cook, M.  (2005).  A place of their own:  Creating a classroom ‘third space’ to support a continuum of text construction between home and school.  Literacy.  39:2.  85-90.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4350.2005.00405

Gehlbach, H. (2011).  Making social studies social:  Engaging students through different forms of social perspective taking.  Theory Into Practice.  50:4.  311-318.    DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2011.607394.

Giamellaro, M. (2014).  Primary contextualization of science learning through immersion in content-rich settings.  International Journal of Science Education.  36:17.  2848-2871.  DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2014.937787

Griffith, L.M. (2012).  Bourdieu’s game of life:  Using simulation to facilitate understanding of complex theories.  College Teaching.  60:4. 147-153.  DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2012.660710.

Milner M. & Wolfer, T.  (2014) The use of decision cases to foster critical thinking in social work students, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 34:3, 269-284, DOI: 10.1080/08841233.2014.909917

Motola I., et al. (2013).  Simulation in healthcare education:  A best evidence practical guide. AMEE Guide No. 82. Medical Teachers.  35: e1511-e1530.

O’Flaherty, J. & McGarr, O.  (2014).  The use of case-based learning in the development of student teachers’ levels of moral reasoning.  European Journal of Teacher Education.  37:3.  312-330.  DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2013.870992

Usherwood, S.  (2015)  Building Resources for Simulations:  Challenges and Opppotunities.  European Political Science.  Sep2015, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p218-227. 10p.

Wlodkowski R. & Ginsberg, M. (1995).  A framework for culturally responsive teaching.  Educational Leadership 53:1.  17-21 Accessed online at

Summer Reading & Viewing: Recommendations from the faculty development team

When grading subsides and parts of your brain regain normal functioning, consider engaging faculty development resources you may have missed in the craze of the academic year. The faculty development team suggests these highlights:

Keith Brooks recommends:

  • Leah Fulton and Sam Mulberry’s Interviews with Students of Color (Short and Full Versions) These exit interviews provide great insight to some of the easily-overlooked issues relating to human dynamics. This is relevant in regard to changing demographics nationally and locally, and addresses our ongoing task of being a place that communicates effectively across cultures.

Kathy Nevins recommends:

Jay Rasmussen recommends:

  • Making Thinking Visible & Selected Harvard Thinking Routines Over the last several years a number of faculty have been using selected Harvard Thinking Routines to make thinking visible and to create a culture of thinking. When learners speak, write, or draw their ideas, they deepen their cognition. Thinking routines jump-start and make thinking visible so students can direct and improve their thoughts. This narrated PowerPoint and the related routines provide a good starting point.
  • Grouping for SuccessStrengthening Our Use of Groups & Group Contract Form Group work within the college classroom has the potential of being a powerful learning experience for students. Unfortunately, group work often turns into a less-than-desirable experience for students and professors alike. This video shares how groups can be successfully structured and used within a variety of instructional settings.
  • Using Flow Theory to Promote Engaged Learning Flow Theory, as developed by Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, explains why humans fully engage in certain activities to the point of being fully absorbed, completely focused, and unaware of passing time. This narrated PowerPoint explores the origins of Mihaly’s research, conditions typically present when flow occurs, and how the theory can be applied to an instructional setting.
  • Power of Formative Assessment & Formative Assessment Strategies The use of formative assessment is one of the most exciting developments in the field of education in recent years. Used effectively, formative assessment has the power to double the speed of student learning. These resources provide an in-depth look at why to use formative assessment, guidelines for providing formative assessment, and specific formative assessment strategies.

April Schmidt recommends:

  • Schedule Like Beethoven: How to organize your workday like a genius One of the gifts of the academic calendar is an opportunity to re-approach our work each year with fresh strategies. This DIY Innovation Studio session is chock-a-block with wisdom from geniuses of history and tips and resources from Bethel profs. for making the most of your work day. Take a strategic, proactive approach to next year’s workdays and equip yourself to maximize efficiency and prevent burnout.

Sara Wyse recommends:

  • Top 21 1/2 Teaching Tips If you are short on time and want a great overview and synthesis of the research literature and what we’ve learned through Learner Perspectives on Instruction, check out the 21 1/2 teaching tips.  From course design to interacting with students, these tips will help energize you when you begin to transition back to thinking about teaching come August.

Making Finals Fun:Using novel finals for learning and levity

As the school year nears its end, if you are like me, managing the last few weeks of “class-culminating” projects, other end-of-the-year demands, and, of course, spring fever (mine as well as the students’), can be overwhelming. One way I have dealt with these end-of-year stresses is to introduce some creativity and levity into the mix. I try to plan at least one “novel final.” A novel final is any final class activity, other than a test or paper, that gives students an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned, and allows assessment of that learning. Here is an example:

The novel final for Theories of Personality (N=40) involved recording group discussions (N = 8 ) of the personality characteristics of “Bob,” Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob? Students in each small group were randomly assigned different theoretical viewpoints. The groups watched a 20-minute clip from the movie and then had an hour to discuss Bobfrom their differing points of view.  The discussion ended with the group deciding what theory best explained Bob’s personality, which they reported to the rest of the class at the end of the final.

Invariably students would leave laughing and invigorated by the experience. They had fun, and so did I.

So what are some things to consider in designing a novel final?

  • Make it novel but not too novel. You want the experience to energize and challenge, but not terrify and overwhelm students.  This can be helped if you draw on the skill(s) students have learned, and the material they have been studying/practicing.  In Theories of Personality, being evaluated based on one’s contributions to a recorded discussion was highly unusual.  Having a final that had a collaborative element built in to it was unique for its time.  Yet, students had already been involved in discussion groups.  They had had practice viewing the same case study from different theoretical viewpoints.  And, we had a practice session.  It probably also helped to temper anxiety  by holding the final in an informal setting  (dining center), with free coffee and snacks!

  • Novel finals should give students a feasible and familiar way to communicate what they have learned.  It would have been unfair for me to demand students present dramatic interpretations of Bob’s personality from different theoretical perspectives (at least not without training and practice).   At the same time, the mode of communication can be innovative. I could have asked students to produce a schematic diagram of the relationship of different personality theories (with labels).

  • Novel finals should be fun to grade. I realize that what might be fun for me to evaluate may not be for someone else, and vice versa.   Regardless, a thoughtful, applicable rubric for assessment will make the process go better for students and for you as you are evaluating the experience.  In the example given above, the rubric made it possible for me to take about 6 hours to listen to all the discussions, and evaluate each group member.  Compared to reading 40 papers, [12+ hours], grading group discussions was more time efficient, and more fun. I enjoyed hearing the groups starting to relax and enjoy the task, and I got more than a few chuckles out of hearing how they thought Freud [or some other theorist] would characterize Bob.

  • Last, novel finals should be memorable. That is, both you and students will look back on that final and be glad for the experience. Not long ago, a former student (now colleague), unsolicited, recalled the final, similar to the one described above, that I had designed for a course she had from me—nearly 20 years ago.

Novel finals, designed, executed, and evaluated well, can make the end of the school year just a little more, well, fun….