How Do I Get My Students to Read the Assignment?

Textbook imageby Kim Levenhagen PT, DPT, WCC, Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training

This has been a problem for me since my early years of teaching: I would come to class after assigning a reading ready for a robust conversation in the classroom.  Then, I would pose a softball of a question to the class to begin the discussion only to hear crickets.  I would leave the classroom with my head down and spirit crushed.  After my first year, I simply asked students why they did not come to class prepared.  The answers ranged from “you don’t assign points” and “you just lecture on it any way so why read.”  I discovered the problem was I did not hold the students accountable for the readings and assist them in understanding the importance of the information.  So I changed my approach to the readings and my expectations with much better results.  Here are three ways I made a change in the classroom.

  • Teach reading strategies

I discovered that many students arrive to college having never picking up a textbook or an article.  They often will give up due to the enormity of the readings in multiple classes.  One of the textbooks I use is over a thousand pages.  The students quickly become overwhelmed after leaving the bookstore.  I take them through how to successfully navigate the reading by previewing the graphics, italicized words, and headings prior to starting their more in-depth reading.  I provide learning objectives on what I consider important.  Often students will highlight the entire book becoming frustrated when they return to the chapter to study.  Weimer (2002) builds highlighting into her first two classes.  She asks the students to highlight reading assignments.  She then shows them what she has highlighted so the students’ learn how to tease out the pertinent information as it relates to her expectations.

  • Explain why the readings are important

I start the semester providing a rationale for my selection of required readings. I recognize the students have more to do than my class so I let them know that my readings have been carefully selected.  I only assign the pages that are pertinent to the discussion and explain the purpose, value and relevance of the readings to the course objectives.  I clearly define the expectations for the readings as they relate to assignments and exams.  Finally, I stopped “spoon feeding” the information from the readings in class.  I related key pieces from the readings to the discussion but I stopped lecturing on the articles themselves.

  • Hold the students accountable

I learned long ago that if points are not associated with the assignment, students are not likely to complete it.  The students perceive if there are no points then it is not important.  I cannot expect my students to have the same passion as I do about the topic.  So I have assignments with most of my readings.  This can take shape in a number of ways such as a reflection paper, on line or in class quiz, or a case study.  Some of the faculty in my department use “Top Hat” which is an automated response system. The students answer questions regarding the assignment at the beginning of class.  Top Hat, similar to Clickers, provides instant feedback on the number of correct responses so faculty can recognize which areas require further discussion.  Assignments need to be structured so that students engage in classroom discussion.

These changes are not innovative or extensive but they have led to improved classroom discussion. As faculty it is our responsibility to assist our students in the learning process to achieve success.

Teaching History As the “Great Unknown”

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Doug Boin, Assistant Professor, History

There’s a cliche among people outside the historian’s guild: History is about names and dates, memorization of facts, and the knowledge of content crammed into textbooks. Ten years ago, there were probably some truths to this cliche, back in the era before YouTube and Wikipedia. These days, the same content can be streamed anywhere, anytime. And some of it is really cool! (For a stop-motion animation of tiny figures building Trajan’s column in Rome, see National Geographic []).

Clearly the history professor’s role is changing. Students don’t need us to get their basic information anymore, and that’s causing a ripple in the field. It’s also important for people outside the guild, across the university, to recognize that, too. What our first-year history students need is for us to help them practice and refine their thinking and analytical skills, and that’s exactly what my colleagues and I at SLU now do in our core classes and in our large introductory courses.

Because, when it comes to history, I want even the most beginning-level undergraduate to know how we know what we know about the past. I don’t just want them to accept information uncritically.

Taking a pro-critical thinking stance is not a controversial position, of course. What I’d like to do in this post, however, is give an example of how many of us inside the discipline of history are transforming the older lecture model—of the first-year classroom as a content delivery system (“Read! Memorize! Repeat!”)—into a laboratory that helps students acquire skills that will last beyond the final exam. The goal is to give them a toolkit that they can take with them whether they choose to dig deeper into history or not.

My favorite way of doing this is to ask students to write a commentary on a source they’ve never seen before. This source can be snippet of text, or it can be an archaeological object. I just asked my large lecture class this fall to write on a fragment by the Roman poet Horace, who celebrates the death of Rome’s enemy, Queen Cleopatra, even though he’s too proud to mention her by name [Horace’s Odes 1.37 here:]. My students, who had read about Roman aversions to “the queen” in Virgil’s great national poem, the Aeneid, picked it up naturally. The Teaching Assistants and I were really impressed!

The aim of an exercise like this is to give students an opportunity to draw upon broad themes and specific knowledge they’ve acquired working with us throughout the semester and to apply that information to something they weren’t “required” to know. (Hat-tip to my teaching mentor Prof. Adam Rabinowitz in the Department of Classics at UT-Austin [], who gave me an excellent model for how to accomplish this sort of exercise in a 300-person lecture.) By introducing students to the “great unknown,” I can even model for them how I do my job as an historian—not because I’m asking them to demonstrate a vague notion of critical thinking but because I’m asking for them to use critical thinking to read and interpret a piece of historical content.

In short, the “unknown” exercise requires students to make connections between something they know and something they’ve never seen, and that’s an important skill they can take with them whether they stay in the discipline or not.


s200_douglas.boinDouglas Boin, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of History at Saint Louis University and Reinert Center Teaching Fellow 2014–15. He is the author, most recently, of Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

Trick or Treat

by Steve Sanchez, Assistant Provost

Since this blog entry was due on Halloween, I thought it might be appropriate to share a “treat” from recent research conducted by SLU’s Office of Institutional Research (OIR) on the experiences of SLU undergraduates.  The “trick” part of all this is regularly and intentionally acting on the research data to improve those student experiences.

In Spring 2015, about one-third of SLU’s “traditional” undergraduate students (that excludes students enrolled in 1818, ESL, the School for Professional Studies, the Madrid campus, and those not seeking a degree) participated in what was called a “Student Satisfaction Survey.”  But fear not: this was not the typical survey of student satisfaction; there were no questions about parking or food service on campus, or other such superficial measures of satisfaction.  We also were not trying to have, as an end goal, some sort of summative statement about how many, or what percent, of SLU undergrads were “satisfied” with their SLU experience; that kind of data is fairly meaningfulness in terms of informing faculty and staff about what is working (or not), and how we can improve.  In fact, the whole point of the research was to learn – at a fairly deep and complex level — what constitutes “satisfaction” in the undergraduate experience at SLU, and how what constitutes satisfaction manifests in student retention.

I’ll spare you the impressive but complicated details of the survey methods, data analysis techniques, etc.  Thankfully, my colleagues in OIR who did the heavy lifting on this did some excellent work, and they can elaborate on the specifics (feel free to contact me directly for more information).  In short, what the data show quite demonstrably are that the primary drivers of student satisfaction are how students feel about their:

  • Social Integration
  • Learning
  • Engagement in Mission-Focused Work
  • Faculty Support

These have been presented in priority order.  In other words, the most powerful driver of undergraduate student satisfaction at SLU is the extent to which students felt they were well-integrated, socially, in the SLU community.   How “social integration” was defined for this study, as well as how the other primary drivers were defined, is offered in the table below:


An important part of the research data is what were explicitly not found to be primary drivers of student satisfaction:

  • Financial Concerns
  • Advising
  • ACT scores
  • SLU GPAs
  • SLU College/School

In other words, some of the things that are often reported (on typical satisfaction surveys) by students as making them more or less “satisfied” with their college experience – cost issues, advising, and even their academic success (as measured by their GPA) – were, in this research, comparatively insignificant drivers of satisfaction.

Another key data element from a related OIR study is that student retention is also highly correlated with the same primary drivers of satisfaction identified in this study.

So what really matters to students are the attributes of the collegiate experience most of us would hope matter most:  students’ relationships (with each other, and with faculty and staff); being challenged, motivated, and supported by faculty; and students feeling that they contribute meaningfully to an institutional mission greater than their own academic or future professional successes.

In one sense, acting on this data – which is, after all, the point of any assessment effort – shouldn’t be all that tricky.  But it can be.  For example, here are some questions that we all would be well-served by thinking about more intentionally, perhaps even at regular intervals throughout the semester: how often do we intentionally and genuinely show students we care about their progress instead of merely informing them about their progress?  How often do we help students connect ideas from our classes to experiences outside of those classes, or to social issues meaningful to our students? How often do we, as faculty, intentionally welcome students into our various campus communities, and work to sustain their engagement with those communities?  How often do we intentionally and repeatedly frame our courses in the context of key elements of our institutional mission?  Or do we assume that’s what “Make a Difference Day” is for, or that connection to mission happens elsewhere?

Indeed, the trick behind the treat of this data is that we need to regularly examine our professional work and commit to the kind and level of intentionality required to ensure that all SLU students are deeply, and meaningfully, “satisfied” with SLU.


Steve SanchezDr. Sanchez is an Assistant Provost and is responsible for University-wide assessment of student learning and academic programs, the Office of Institutional Research, and the University’s charter school sponsorship efforts. He also serves as the institutional liaison to the Higher Learning Commission for University accreditation and as the Office of the Provost’s liaison with Information Technology Services. Dr. Sanchez is a member of the Undergraduate Academic Affairs Committee, the Undergraduate Initiatives Committee, and the Council of Academic Deans and Directors.

Creative Critical Thinking

critical-creating thinking banner 2015By Mary R. Vermilion, Ph. D., Assistant professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

In thinking (critically and creatively, of course) about the issues of critical and creative thinking, I have come to the conclusion that they are intrinsically tied. I will elaborate on this idea later. First, however, I want to discuss the particular issues surrounding critical and creative thinking in my particular discipline and, second, share a few of the methods I have used to engage students in these thinking processes. As an anthropologist, I work in a discipline that presents some interesting challenges in terms of how one evaluates research, publications, and presentations because the nature of the data we deal with is fluid (e. g., cultural anthropology, anthropological theory), often incomplete (e. g., archaeology, human evolution, linguistic anthropology), and extremely complex (i. e., what it means to be human).  These challenges are inherent in anthropological course work as well, but they are certainly not insurmountable.

While there are dozens of textbooks written on the principles of critical thinking, few (if any) provoke enthusiastic responses from the students expected to engage the material. How then do we entice students to view creative and critical thinking in a positive manner? At heart is the charge to learn HOW to think, not what to think. Learning what to think is a passive exercise, referred to as the “sponge” learning style by (Browne and Keeley, 2010, p. 3). Learning how to think is an active exercise and, like any physical challenge we attempt to master (sports, musical instruments, dance, etc.), it requires training and consistent practice.

The methods I use to teach critical thinking in my “Science vs. Pseudoscience” course begin with developing the skills necessary to recognize fallacies, errors in logic, deceptive reasoning, and obstacles to critical thinking, and can be applied to any discipline. However, training students to recognize and define fallacies is itself a passive exercise. The real value underlying this passive knowledge can only be attained through application of that knowledge through analysis and the active exercise of critical thinking skills. This is where creative thinking comes into play and the point at which the implementation of critical thinking skills can be demonstrated to be rewarding and of significant value.

First, however, the preconceived notions that students bring with them must be identified and dealt with. One such notion is the tendency, when reading opposing views on a topic, to feel that one must side with one viewpoint or the other. This hinges on another misconception: that there can only be one ‘right answer.’ This is generally not the case, but the mindset inhibits students from thinking about alternatives. An additional misconception is that ‘skepticism’ implies cynicism and a knee-jerk reaction to negate any claim that crosses your path.

There are creative ways to mitigate these issues. Rather than plodding through the standard exercises at the end of each chapter in a critical thinking text, I find it beneficial to challenge the students using current issues and claims. For example, one of the texts I use is Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Anthropology, edited by Welsch and Endicott. Students read essays defining both sides of a particular issue (e. g., climate change, ape ability to learn language, genetic basis for human violence, Elvis sightings [!], etc.) and are challenged to locate the issue and the conclusion and then to evaluate the writing in terms of any errors in logic, misused or withheld evidence, the strength of the evidence presented, alternative explanations for what is being claimed, etc. They are not asked to choose a side. (Note: There are 52 titles in the Taking Sides series covering a wide range of disciplines, providing plenty of food for thought.)

In class, we also review films concerning various claims (e. g., the Bermuda Triangle, the Shroud of Turin, Creationism, etc.) and the students are asked to think critically about how this type of media is used to shape our thought processes. Interview techniques, background music, and film techniques are critically analyzed in addition to the verbal content.

As the end of the semester approaches, each student presents a current claim that is of interest along with the evidence presented in support of the claim. They then use the skills acquired to critically analyze the claim, identify the motive for making the claim, evaluate the evidence presented (or withheld), and propose creative but sound alternative explanations for what is being claimed. Using the above techniques combines creative and critical thinking skills and, according to the feedback I get, utilizes an active knowledge process that is engaging and applicable to any line of inquiry.

One final thought on thinking critically involves acquiring a healthy dose of skepticism. It is important to communicate to students that skepticism is a part of the scientific method, not an automatic reflex to debunk claims you encounter. As Michael Shermer states, “In principle, skeptics are not close-minded or cynical. [Rather] a skeptic is one who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it.” (Shermer, 2002, p. 17). Skepticism should be at the heart of any evaluative process and provides the framework within which one can actively exercise critical and creative thinking skills.


Recommended Reading

Browne, M. N., and Keeley, S. M. (2010). Asking the Right Questions. A Guide to Critical Thinking. New Jersey, Pearson.

Feder, K. (2014). Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. (8th ed.). New York, McGraw-Hill.

Fisher, A.  (2006). Critical Thinking. An Introduction. Cambridge, University Press.

Gibbon, G. (2014). Critically Reading the Theory and Methods of Archaeology. An Introductory Guide. Boulder, Altamira Press.

Shermer, M. (2002). Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York, Henry Holt and Company.

Welsch, R., and Endicott, K. (2013) Taking Sides. Clashing Views in Anthropology. (5th ed.) New York, McGraw-Hill.



MaryVMary Vermilion has been a full-time non-tenure track Assistant professor of Anthropology at Saint Louis University for five years. She teaches across the discipline including classes in Human Evolution, Forensic Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, Archeological Lab Methods, World Prehistory, Science vs. Pseudoscience, the Archeology of Death, Cultural Anthropology, and Native Peoples of North America among others. In addition, she has been a researcher at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where she has conducted field work for 16 years.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

Make Office Hours Great Again

3681836715_84235b8c8b_qby Mitch Lorenz, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

The focus on effective teaching within the classroom can overshadow the importance of effective teaching outside of the classroom. Interactions with students outside of class can take many forms, from the post-class clarification to the awkward public run-in, but the most structured outside of class interactions occur during office hours. A cynic might say, “Well, they would occur if anyone attended office hours!” Others might find office hours frustrating, with the time spent reassuring students before tests or explaining grades (again). While anyone who has taught can surely sympathize with these points of view, I suggest a focus on the utility of office hours, even when they are spent on the activities I just mentioned.

Why is engaging with students outside of the classroom important? There is evidence suggesting productive encounters outside of the classroom support transformative teaching and help build rapport. Slavich and Zombardo (2012) consider personalized feedback a method through which transformative teaching may occur, suggesting use of office hours as a way to personally engage with students (for a review of Slavich and Zombardo see this informative post from our director, Debie Lohe). Buskist and Saville (2001) found that students consider availability outside of the classroom and displays of personal interest to be reflective of good student-teacher rapport. How can we increase students’ willingness to utilize office hours while, perhaps more importantly, ensuring these interactions enhance learning?

Being prepared to maximize the learning potential of individual meetings with students requires an understanding of the motivation of the student. What led the student to make the effort to meet with you? They likely want something; to receive feedback, lobby for a better grade, use you as a counselor, become your friend, complain about class policies etc. (Filene, 2005). Initially, it is necessary to identify whether the desires of the student provide an opportunity to satisfy what they perceive as a need while also encouraging learning. For some students, facilitating learning during office hours may be unrealistically challenging due to very specific, learning-irrelevant goals (see this related post regarding challenging students).

For most students, though, an office visit may be a reaction to something that occurred in class (e.g., assignment was returned). If these students are seeking clarification regarding something you already felt was made clear (classroom content or assignment feedback), it provides an opportunity to probe deeper into the ways in which the student engaged with the material. How did they study? What concepts did they focus on? The answers to these questions might provide the guidance sought by the student while also offering valuable insight into how your students are interpreting the class content. Finding teaching-related utility in these types of visits can also help make what would otherwise seem redundant more rewarding.

Inventive ways to increase the utility of office hours can only be successful if students actually attend. To encourage office hours attendance, Filene (2005) suggests passing an appointment sheet around during every class in order to make sure those office hours aren’t repurposed as “guaranteed downtime.” This encourages students to reflect on their learning-related needs at least once per class. It also reinforces the idea that you actually want to meet with students, a key component of rapport building (Buskist and Saville, 2001). This is also a great option for those who want to avoid designating a large quantity of set-in-stone office hours, as you can use the appointment sheet as an extension of the “by appointment” style of office hours. Additionally, office hours attendance can be made mandatory, whether as a general requirement or as part of specific assignments (a particularly useful technique for checking progress on lengthy, challenging projects). Using the structure of the class to facilitate an initial office visit may lead to subsequent voluntary visits as the benefits become clear to students who might not have considered office visits a worthwhile endeavor.

Finding the best way to improve your office hours, beyond the few examples provided, requires reflecting on your teaching and utilization of office hours in the past. As we enter the height of presidential campaigning and slogan generating, I ask you: are you ready to make office hours great again?


Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2001). Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing

teaching and learning. APS Observer19, 12-13.

Filene, P. (2005). The joy of teaching. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North

Carolina Press.

Slavich, G. M., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2012). Transformational teaching: Theoretical

underpinnings, basic principles, and core methods. Educational Psychology Review24(4), 569-608. doi: 10.1007/s10648-012-9199-6

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Upcoming Events at the Reinert Center

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Symposium

Oct. 23, 2:00 – 4:30 p.m., Boileau Hall

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Symposium will be held on Friday, October 23, 2015. Poster presentations will take place from 2:00-3:00 followed by the ceremony and reception for theJames H. Korn Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Awardfrom 3:00-4:30.

We invite all faculty and graduate students to attend the second annual Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Symposium. The goal of the symposium is to showcase the SoTL work being conducted by Saint Louis University faculty and graduate students, and to promote a community of SoTL practitioners.

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) involves researching questions about teaching activities and student learning by formally studying the teaching and learning activities of one’s course; answering those questions by assessing student learning and effectiveness of teaching strategies; and publicly sharing results of this inquiry in a setting that invites peer review, such as a publication or conference presentation.

To register to attend, please click here.


Brown Bag: The Apprenticeship Workshop Model for PhD Dissertation Direction

Oct. 28, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m., Des Peres 214

Most graduates of PhD programs speak in subdued tones when reflecting back on the days of planning, researching, and writing their dissertations. The majority recall feelings of isolation and anxiety that accompanied the experience. Yet most faculty who teach in graduate programs tend to replicate that experience for their students writing their own dissertations.

You are invited to attend this brown bag discussion at which Kenneth Parker, currently Steber Professor in Theological Studies, will discuss the pedagogical approach to dissertation direction he has created, the “Apprenticeship Workshop Model for PhD Dissertation Direction,” and the results of a formal study he has conducted on the positive impact of this model.

Click here to register.


Faculty Panel on Thinking Critically in the Disciplines

Nov. 20, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m., BSC 352/353

During this hour-long panel discussion, faculty members from three different disciplines will explore what thinking critically looks like in their own discipline and how they help students to learn how to do that kind of thinking work in their classes.

Lauren Arnold, Epidemiology
Brad Carlson, Marketing
Colleen McCluskey, Philosophy

Please click here to register

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Paul Lynch, Associate Professor, English

The question we’ve been asked is straightforward: what do critical and creative thinking look like in your discipline? Mine is rhetoric, and in rhetoric I’m not sure there’s much distinction between critical and creative thinking. There is no way to engage in one without engaging in the other.

To think creatively in rhetoric is to see both a need and an opportunity for change, which is also a pretty good definition of thinking critically. And if a student can think through a situation critically enough to recognize that need and opportunity, then they are already thinking creatively enough about what the change might look like.

Before I go on too far with this argument, though, I want to say a word about “critical thinking,” liberal education’s most popular justification. Why should student take courses in the humanities? What is the purpose of the liberal arts? What is their “value added”? Again and again, the answer is “critical thinking.” So popular is this refrain that I fear it has become a floating signifier whose meaning can be stretched to fit nearly any situation. Everyone is for critical thinking and no one is against it, which suggests that invoking critical thinking does not actually require very much critical thinking.

If this sounds confrontational, well, I intend it to sound confrontational, because I think the uncritical teaching of critical thinking can do a lot of damage. I frequently see the harm in the teaching of rhetoric, a subfield of both English and communication. In English, rhetoric often handles the teaching of composition, particularly the first-year writing course. In those courses, it’s common to equate “critical thinking” with a kind of critique in which students are taught to “see through” messages that are allegedly trying to appeal to them in some nefarious way. You’ll often see a version of this lesson: the teacher projects some advertisement on the video monitor, and then asks the students to critique it.

The results are almost always the same. Students do a great job of thinking critically about the advertisement: they can pick apart all the unethical appeals and ugly assumptions. They know that the ad is often trying to appeal to the worst parts of human beings (our need to fit in at any price; our need to conform to some shallow ideal of excellence; our need to be perfect). But then ask them whether they purchase or own the products advertised, and you get a different story. Very often, students (and their teachers) know better, yet by the stuff anyway. That observation, by the way, should not be taken as some tired analysis of millennials, who are certainly no more or less susceptible to advertisement than are the Boomers and Gen-Xers who came before them. Rather, my point is to say that it’s very easy and very tempting for all us to think that critique is enough, as though seeing through a lie is the same thing as telling a truth.

Worse, when we teach that critical thinking requires seeing “through” or “past” something, we teach the dangerous lesson that being persuaded is tantamount to being manipulated. This outcome suggests that persuasion itself is the problem, that rhetoric is machination, and that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness. Taken carelessly to this extreme, critical thinking becomes a way to inoculate oneself against complexity and uncertainty, the central values of liberal education.

I would rather begin with creative thinking, which, in rhetoric, would ask students to articulate their commitments and try to persuade others to share them. This is why our first-year writing course now includes an advocacy project, in which students research a problem and articulate a feasible solution. At first glance, such a project, which asks students to take a clear position, might seem to violate the ideals I’ve just articulated. Instead of complexity and uncertainty, aren’t we asking for assertion and finality? But key to the project is that students must craft their arguments for actual audiences, real-live people that they can identify and name (not their instructors, who are so often the default audiences for academic work). Confronting a tangible audience forces students to consider the needs and values of others and to try to see things from their perspective. This encounter, even if happens only in the students’ imaginations, invites complexity and uncertainty, since what seems like a good argument to one audience may not seem like a good argument to another.

Just a few days ago, I received evidence of critical thinking by way of an email from one of my students, who asked this question: “I have been doing research on my topic…is it too late to change my mind?” This student has already gotten the most important lesson of a liberal education. Yet it emerges not because we’re asking students simply to critique, but to create (claims, appeals, and messages), and, ultimately, to find a position to which they can commit. I suggest that our students will best learn what to reject—and God knows there is a lot out there worth rejecting—by learning what to accept. They’ll learn how to say no by first learning how to say yes.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

Making the Invisible, Visible: Engaging Students in Critical Media Literacy


By Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

A few years ago a graduate student in my statistics course shared with me the website “Spurious Correlations,” a site replete with near perfect statistical correlations between variables such as per capita consumption of margarine and the divorce rate in Maine.  While humor in statistics is always welcome, the site led me to consider the importance of statistical literacy.   Would my students be able to identify spurious correlations that were not so obvious?  This question got me thinking about my students’ history with data and statistics.

I teach an introductory course, and often students groan, “I know NOTHING about statistics” on the first day of class.  But this is not true.  They have been consumers of statistical data for years through a variety of media.  Prior to taking any formal coursework, students in a statistics class already have an orientation towards interpreting, understanding, and applying statistics.  This prior knowledge is hugely influenced by the media representations of data, not critically framed, and most likely not changed through completing problem sets on hypothesis testing.  In other words, it is possible that students come to class with a limited ability to critically analyze statistics presented in the media, excel in a course on statistics, and leave with the same limited ability to analyze media.

This led me to identify ways I could engage more purposefully in critical media literacy pedagogy in all of my classes.  Critical media literacy is an approach to literacy (this can be a broad definition of literacy to include fields such as statistics) that seeks to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information, and power.  Engaging in critical media literacy can be an important tool in unpacking prior knowledge and challenging students to view and evaluate their own epistemologies.

While students enter our programs with limited background on what they know about content   in their respective fields, they come to us with some preconceptions about what it feels like and looks like to be a professional in that field.  Students come to us with a history of interactions with news media, film, television, music, literature, and advertisements that have shaped their understanding of who teachers are, what a doctor is like, or what it means to work in criminal justice. Without framing, it is highly unlikely that students were examining those decades worth of images through a critical lens.  This is where critical media literacy pedagogy becomes crucial.

What does critical media literacy look like?

In research methods courses, use the framework of critical media literacy to investigate how research is “translated” by the mainstream media.  Students can collect articles from both mainstream media and academic journals reporting research on the same topic.  Prompt students with questions such as, who is the intended audience of this piece? what information or understanding do I need to have to interpret the research reported? what information is missing?  what is lost in the translation of academic research to a popular news story? For example, students in an introductory statistics course can analyze how statistics are framed and positioned in mainstream media sources that are read by people who may understand very little about statistics.

In pre-professional programs, such as teacher education, use visual clips from film and television that portray professional teachers. Use these clips to unpack assumed knowledge about education as a field, teachers as professionals, or groups of students.  Prompt students with questions such as what values are portrayed? what is the ideology of this film? what is the commercial message? who is the film made for? For example, my students in a course on urban schools and communities watch clips from the movie Freedom Writers to critically examine the film’s implicit messages about students of color in relation to their white teacher.

Critical media literacy is broadly applicable to coursework in any field and can help us as instructors understand our students’ positions and identities, while our students develop an awareness of their own epistemological stances.  Such investigations make the invisible subtexts and assumptions in our classrooms, visible. Students become excited to engage in critical work and empowered as a classroom community as they re-examine “familiar” representations and see those representations in new ways.  For me as an instructor my favorite classroom moments are when, as a community of learners, we peek behind the curtain and expose the wizard.

Resources: To learn more about media literacy visit

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?
Lauren Arend is an Associate Professor in the department of Educational Studies. Before pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Louis University, Lauren worked with young children and teachers of young children at the International Child Resource Institute in Berkeley, California. Lauren’s research focuses on early childhood leadership, particularly how early childhood directors develop a leadership practice. Lauren currently serves as a Reinert Center Faculty Fellow.


Encounters with Primary Sources: On Teaching Critical Thinking in History


by Luke Yarbrough, Assistant Professor, Department of History

Last week a student in one of my courses told me that she was feeling frustrated. In the course—an advanced seminar on how the concept of “jihad” has been interpreted historically—students break up each week into three “task forces,” each of which works to master an assigned primary or secondary source. All three sources connect to the week’s theme, which might for instance be “Holy Striving Before Islam,” or “Modernist Interpretations of Jihad.” It’s the task force’s job to teach the rest of us about their source and what it adds to our understanding of the theme. For the third week in a row, this particular student found herself in a task force that had been dealt a primary rather than a secondary source. “With a secondary source you have a beginning and an end and an argument,” she said. “But with a primary source you have to figure out what it even is, and then think up what you’re going to say about it.”

Professional historians share her frustration, though most of them, in their peculiar way, have developed a taste for it. Primary sources—the most direct textual or material evidence we have with which to answer a given historical question—always present gnarly problems. They may bury the information you want in piles of irrelevant detail, or blurt it out it abruptly without context; some are fogged in by the assumptions of the distant era that produced them, others lure the reader into believing that their outlook is perfectly congruent with hers. But to think critically as a historian, rather than just gaping at the results of others’ critical thought (a.k.a. secondary sources), one must come face-to-face with the evidence itself. And this means primary sources, in all their unruly glory. Students who are able to emerge from their encounters with primary sources bearing compelling accounts of what they’ve met have gained a valuable and highly transferrable skill: the ability to arrange perplexing fragments of information into meaningful and therefore useful patterns. Students’ eventual careers, I assure them, will bombard them with a stream of recalcitrant sources to analyze and interpret (customer feedback, market analyses, performance evaluations, etc.).

But the skill to analyze primary sources critically does not spring spontaneously from the collision of student with source. It must be planted and nurtured. The following are a couple of basic approaches that I have used to foster this kind of critical thought among students of history.

1. The source. Even though a major goal of introducing primary sources is for students to experience and overcome bewilderment (i.e., solve problems), the exercise fails if they feel completely overwhelmed. The most effective primary sources for teaching are thus fairly short, and include apparently familiar material alongside unfamiliar, historically specific puzzles to solve. For example, in a pre-modern World History survey, I use a well-known ancient Egyptian text translated from a document known as Papyrus Lansing, which dates to the reign of the pharaoh Senusret III (ca. 1878–1839 BC). In the text, a senior scribe addresses a pupil, whom he berates (in comically exaggerated terms) for falling short of his potential. The scribe then provides a descriptive inventory of the most common careers in ancient Egypt, all of which he deems inferior to that of the scribe, as a way of inducing his pupil to work harder. My students’ sense of solidarity with the talented but struggling pupil, and their amusement at his teacher’s ridiculous self-aggrandizement, establish a notional connection between them and the primary source. This connection in place, students feel more willing to think critically about the non-obvious insights they might derive from the source, for instance about the economic bases or social hierarchies of ancient Egypt.

2. The narrative. A challenge of bringing primary sources into the classroom to teach critical thought is that students are asked to analyze raw evidence at the very same time they are building the knowledge base that makes that evidence meaningful. How is a student to make any real sense of the Qur’an as a historical document if he remains clueless about society, economy, and religion in pre-Islamic Arabia? It would be reasonable to conclude that a teacher should provide the necessary narrative first, and only then introduce primary sources. While this approach can work, I have found that students remain more engaged with the narrative if their minds are already working to unravel a primary-source puzzle. Why, for example, does the Qur’an distance itself from poetry (36:69), when much of its text sounds “poetic” to 21st century ears? I might begin a class on early Islam by presenting this apparent problem, then explain the social and political roles of poetry in the tribal, stateless society of seventh-century western Arabia. By the time students have absorbed the basics of this narrative, they will have begun to form their own defensible solutions to the problem I posed. In a larger sense, by constantly shuttling back and forth between larger narratives and the primary-source evidence on which they are based, students get used to fitting discrete fragments of information into larger stories. They also come to see that the same fragment of information can occupy different yet equally valid places in different stories, and that ultimately all of the history they read (not to mention all of the journalism, annual reports, gossip, etc.) is the product of the evidence-narrative dance that they are learning to perform for themselves. Often they’ll get the dance wrong, of course, by the rigorous standards of professional historians. But it’s more important for students’ own development to practice thinking critically the way historians do—by fitting perplexing, fragmentary, and (yes) frustrating sources into larger narratives in the most persuasive way they can—than merely to watch historians do it.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

One Key to Pedagogical Success: Questions and Enduring the Awkward Silence

3509344402_1d0bd80ec9_qby Kenneth L. Parker, Steber Professor in Theological Studies

At the beginning of each academic year, I have to relearn the same lesson: enduring the awkward silence after a question has been asked. At the start of my career this “skill” seemed unendurable. It felt far easier to fill the empty void of fifty or seventy-five minutes—or God forbid, two and a half hours—with the sound of my own voice and well chosen words recorded on paper. After all, students are conditioned to expect that of my guild. Yet as I began to take more seriously the need to create learner-centered classroom experiences, one of the first steps to achieve that goal proved to be silencing my own voice, and waiting for students to find theirs.

Whether it is a classroom of first year undergraduates or PhD students, helping students find an entry into the learning experience is key to their ownership of the semester’s project. If I start the semester by stating what I plan to accomplish and march them through the details of the syllabus as the first exercise of the course, it sets a tone for the semester that may be hard to reverse.

Well-crafted questions are crucial in reorienting the structure of the classroom experience. Even in a required (and often dreaded) course, like Theological Foundations (THEO-1000), asking students why they are taking the course gets an awkward truth out in the open: most students do not want to be there. Once that uncomfortable reality is normalized, I can follow it up by asking: “Since you are required to take this course, what do you hope to get out of it?” As we compile a list of possible opportunities to learn on the board, I can start affirming their interests, and confirming that these will be reflected in different parts of the semester. Students begin to own parts of the content of the course, even before they see the syllabus. With other well-chosen questions, students often come to realize that they have interests in the subject they had not previously realized, and may even be attracted to questions raised by others. Students can then work through the syllabus at the end of the first class, feeling a sense of ownership that they did not have when they entered the room. If this pattern is repeated in subsequent classes, students discover that their voices matter, and they engage in more dynamic ways with the material being taught.

Yet asking questions is not enough. Learning to endure the awkward silence has proven to be the greater challenge. When I first started doing this, ten seconds could feel like an hour. Students would avoid my gaze for fear of being called on. Yet slowly it became clear to me that students needed to process the question and formulate their thoughts. If I waited long enough, even the most timid and reluctant student might find an occasion to contribute to the class. Sometimes I joke about the silence to relieve any tension. At other times the best approach is to reframe the question, restating it in different words as students continue to think. But waiting for students to find their voice is crucial.

As I have grown more comfortable with this style of instruction, a different dynamic has emerged in the classroom. Student questions have ceased being about repeating a line from my lecture notes or whether a term will be on the test, and instead has focused on concepts being discussed and how to apply the subject at hand. Students leave my courses retaining key concepts … often years later. But far more important for a life of learning, students have reported that mutual respect is fostered and a genuine interest in the thoughts of others is nurtured. We learn from one another, and that builds relationships. But this ethos starts with the instructor asking well-crafted questions and enduring the awkward silence, in order to create spaces where learning can happen.

Photo courtesy of