All posts tagged discussion

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.  

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….