Broader Identity as Change Agents

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Like many of you, I spent some of my time this semester preparing a workshop for a conference. This was the primary professional conference for faculty developers from all over North America. It’s one of those conferences where you are surrounded by hundreds of colleagues and yet you never have to explain “what you actually do” because we all do similar work. I’ve been in this line of work for around four years, and I still have to explain what I do to my family. While I was at this conference, I got to experience something that I read about in my time preparing. I was incorporating some work on collective identity into my workshop when this phrase I read became burned into my brain: “If college teachers define themselves only as content or skill experts within some narrowly restricted domain, they effectively cut themselves off from some broader identity as change agents.” The idea of having a broader identity as change agents stuck with me, and that’s what I got to experience at this conference.

As I was reflecting on my conference experience a week or so after, I had the realization that the main difference between the first year at a conference and the second year at the same conference is that you begin to recognize names and faces. People also begin to recognize you. That may not sound like much, but it’s the core of that shared identity as change agents. There’s a certain empowerment that comes from learning that others are thinking and caring about the same things you think and care about. It’s also pretty encouraging when someone from across the country recognizes you from the previous year and goes out of their way to say hello. Being connected to a community that has some shared values is strangely motivating. I realized that it’s not just me, alone in my office, wrestling with how to help faculty and students have more meaningful learning experiences. It’s not just the Reinert Center staff working together to support the community here at SLU. But that I’m part of an international group of people who are collaborating and working together to highlight all things teaching and learning far beyond the walls of our individual universities. And realizing that I am part of a larger community of change agents has refreshed my desire to serve my community in more and deeper ways. So, it was a pretty good conference, to say the least.

This is the part where I usually try to offer some practical advice to make what I write about action-oriented. I’ll be honest, I’m struggling a bit with this one. I didn’t take many “practical” steps to get to my community revelation. I didn’t plan my route, or really even go searching for a professional community. But what I did have was a supportive department that modeled shared values and that encouraged me to attend different conferences in hopes of finding a community I felt like I could join. So I think that’s the most practical advice I can offer. Model and share your values with those around you, whether they be research on string theory physics, helping students navigate their field and practicum experiences, or the scholarship of teaching and learning. As you look to find your community of change agents, be sure to bring others along with you as they search for theirs.

Seeking “the Gray”: Further Thoughts on Teaching in a Time of Crisis

grey prismby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

In a blog post earlier this semester, I offered some thoughts on the important distinction between reaction and response when teaching in times of crisis.  Since then, the need for response (versus reaction) has only grown stronger.  We’ve had continuing protests (on campus, in the St. Louis region, and across the nation), and we’ve seen more evidence that informed dialogue and deep reflection are needed at all levels of our society if social injustice is to be ameliorated.

While there are many ways we in higher ed might and do serve the causes of social justice, I have heard a number of faculty ask, “But what can I do? In my classes and my work with students?”  The questions are more acute from those who teach courses that do not, in their content, seem directly related to the issues at hand.  But I believe we’re all striving to teach habits of mind, in addition to content.  And all of us have an opportunity (and a responsibility) to foster particular habits of mind that can prepare our students to work toward justice.  One “habit of mind” stands out as especially useful – and, indeed, essential – in the current crisis is the active seeking of “the gray.”

So many of the voices we hear in conversations around race and class and privilege seem to want the issues to be black and/or white.  But many of us believe that the only way to real progress is a consideration of the “gray” – those murky, messy spaces where either/or propositions or easy cause/effect arguments fail to account for the multiple truths inherent in any complex situation.

While it can be difficult to help students cultivate this habit of mind, we have an imperative to do so.  We can get there by teaching students three important early habits:

1 | Suspending judgment: All courses can teach this lesson, whether the “judgment” being suspended is about weighty social issues or just about the specific content of a course.  Here’s one way to do that…

How: At the beginning of the semester, ask students to write down their assumptions, fears, expectations about the course and its content, or about specific topics that will be covered in the course.  Students might consider their own preconceived notions about how difficult or interesting the course will be, things they’ve heard other students say about it, expectations they have about whether they will be strong in particular areas, etc. Then, ask students explicitly to try to set aside those views and to commit to full engagement in the course.  At the end of the semester, ask students to revisit those earlier assumptions and to reflect on the ways in which those early judgments were or were not well-founded; discuss these things in a last class period or in an online discussion.  This kind of activity will model for students the importance of suspending judgment; it also will signal your willingness to hear their critique and views, but after those views are informed by evidence from their own experience.

2 | Seeking multiple perspectives: It’s one thing to talk about “diversity” and another to be committed to the work of actively seeking multiple perspectives.  Most courses have an opportunity to cultivate students’ appreciation for diverse perspectives, whether those perspectives are about cultural topics or just different methods for solving the same problem.

How: Present the class with a complex problem to be discussed / solved in groups.  Before students begin working, ask them to talk in their groups about who among them has specific expertise or skill that may help with tackling the problem.  Ask them to identify their majors or their specific areas of research or study (or other areas of expertise, such as particular job skills or hobbies or service experience), so they can see the different approaches or methods for problem solving that are represented in their group.  Before they begin working, invite them to list all the possible approaches, types of evidence, or formulas that may be relevant.  While they may do many of these things intuitively, there can be value in explicitly foregrounding the need for many different ways of thinking.

3 | Listening deeply: So often, the kind of listening students do in classrooms is listening for – listening for the “right” answers or the “best” solutions or for one student to stop speaking so they can jump in or get credit.  One important skill to cultivate is that of listening with – with attention, with purpose.  Here’s one way we might begin to cultivate this skill explicitly…

How: During a lecture, ask students to put down their pens or stop typing for a set period of time.  Tell them their goal is not to take notes but to really listen, both to the content of what you’re saying and to how you’re saying it.  They should focus on the relationships or connections between ideas that you’re conveying, not on memorizing facts.  After you lecture for 10-15 minutes, stop and ask students to restate what they heard; ask them to try to articulate what was most important in the lecture, what connections they heard.  As they report out, invite them to consider how they knew these were the important lessons.  Then, give them an opportunity to jot down notes and to ask additional questions for clarification.

It’s uncomfortable to live in the gray.  We have to hold multiple perspectives in our heads at once.  We have to listen to seemingly contradictory views and look for truths in both.  We have to be willing to see our own complicity, our own limitations of experience or knowledge, our own privilege.  Ultimately, we aggressively have to seek dialogue, rather than debate.  The steps above are just a few ways we can begin to help students cultivate the habits of mind needed to transform society.  If SLU is about the pursuit of truth, and if that pursuit is messy, living in the “gray” is an essential element of the education we’re striving to provide.

Have other ideas about how teachers can empower students to seek the gray?  Please share them in the Comments section of this blog.

Congratulations Fall 2014 Certificate in University Teaching Skills Recipients!

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning will honor three Certificate in University Teaching Skills recipients and four Foundations Certificate in University Teaching Skills recipients at our Fall Ceremony on Friday, December 5, 2014 from 3:30-5:00 in the Pere Marquette Gallery (second floor, DuBourg Hall).

Long-time board member and professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training, Dr. Darina Sargeant, will begin the ceremony by sharing a reflection on teaching with the recipients, friends, and family in attendance. All faculty and graduate students are invited to join us Friday as we celebrate our shared commitment to teaching and learning.

This semester’s Certificate in University Teaching Skills recipients are Ismaila Emahi, Tommy Lucas, and Jieqiong Ma.  The recipients of the Foundations Certificate are Dr. Dannielle Davis, Limor Gildenblatt, Danielle Mach, and Jerod Quinn. We will also celebrate the dedication to teaching and learning shown by those faculty members who served as teaching mentors to the certificate recipients.

The requirements for the Certificate in University Teaching Skills are themselves learning experiences that help participants to make deliberate and intentional choices about teaching. Friday’s ceremony will acknowledge the time and commitment these participants gave to earning one of the Certificates.

To hear the “Reflections on Teaching” by Darina Sargeant, click here.

For more information about our certificates visit


Teaching Students to Think like Experts

2377889055_6d4c98d59f_qby Kelly McEnerny, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center 

An expert guitarist might hear Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” and be able to discern patterns related to a chromatic scale and relate those patterns to other songs – I recently learned from a colleague and professional musician that The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” shares the same pattern as “Free Falling.”  A novice would likely not recognize these patterns, much less be able to identify common patterns across songs. Indeed, experts differ from novices in several specific ways. According to Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000), authors of “How People Learn,” experts are sensitive to patterns within their domains of expertise; they know the core concepts, or big ideas, that link together seemingly disparate facts and skills. They have well organized knowledge structures that enable them to address problems efficiently, as well as flexibly. More importantly, they remain students of their disciplines, pushing the limits of their knowledge and tackling essential questions that speak to big ideas.

The notion that experts perceive and approach their disciplines differently from novices has pedagogical implications. Whereas seasoned scholars tend to operate within the realm of big ideas, readily noticing themes and contradictions, novice students often remain at a superficial level, attempting to memorize facts, oblivious to the existence of a larger context. In essence, instructors may not always be aware of these differences. Indeed, Bloom’s foundational taxonomy suggests several different levels of understanding of which teachers might easily take for granted and of which students are often unaware.  Drs. Nordell and de Foy from Saint Louis University recently conducted a teaching seminar on “Promoting Higher Order Thinking” during which they described a common scenario in which students “miss the forest for the trees;” they fail to recognize the big ideas, concepts, or patterns.

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) describe big ideas as subtle and often counterintuitive, and offer suggestions for helping students to recognize them. This process often involves predicting and then addressing students’ misconceptions. Making students aware of big ideas can scaffold their thinking, encouraging them to begin to operate at higher levels of understanding. By introducing students to big ideas, teachers help students to develop a cognitive framework for integrating new knowledge.  They do so by making connections for students and then gradually encouraging students to make connections on their own.

Posing certain questions can also help students integrate information into a more encompassing framework, enabling them to develop conditionalized knowledge (another feature of expertise). These questions involve asking students to think about concepts in terms of “when,” “where,” and “why.” These types of questions require students to elaborate on concepts, a process that helps them to develop broader and richer conceptual understandings.  Conditionalized knowledge allows experts to readily retrieve relevant information without having to laboriously section through everything they know.

Above all, experts are flexible and open to new ideas. They view themselves as “experienced novices” and view knowledge as constructed. Moreover, they engage in metacognition, or thinking about thinking, which allows them to evaluate their learning and recognize “blind spots.”  Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000), suggest communicating to students that knowledge is not concrete and that experts do not have all the answers. They recommend helping students learn to evaluate their own thinking and learning, emphasizing the importance of questioning for life-long learning.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Fostering Critical Thinking through the Socratic Method

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Dipti Subramanium, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Reinert Center

As one of the oldest styles of teaching, the Socratic method is an open-ended, inquiry-based model that prompts the students with questions as opposed to providing answers. It is an effective technique for those interested in fostering and promoting critical thinking in the classroom. Often, the biggest misconception amongst instructors is that the Socratic method is one-sided, but in reality, this method promotes an environment for collective dialogue among students and the instructor.  While it is implicitly understood that the role of the instructor is to guide the discussion, the Socratic instructor, along with the students, is a participant. This makes both parties equally accountable in propelling the dialogue through questioning.  The primary aim of the Socratic method is not to introduce or create a fearful and intimidating classroom. Instead, it allows students to become self-aware of their knowledge and comprehension level as well as prepares them for higher level analysis, synthesis, and inquiry. Here are several effective strategies to practicing the Socratic method in the classroom:

1. Implement guidelines for discussion

Inform students that they are expected to carefully listen as well as actively engage in conversation by critiquing the concepts, not the individual.

2. Allow time for silence

Typically, the initial response to silence is to fill it with more questions, but remember that silence is not bad. It enables students to process the information and align their thoughts. Give 30-40 seconds before rephrasing the question or posing a follow-up question.

3. Break a larger class into smaller groups

Having a large class should not prevent you from using the Socratic method. Breaking the class into smaller groups makes it more manageable and conducive to meaningful discussion.

4. Practice frequently

This approach to teaching requires discipline and continual self-assessment. Don’t be afraid to try and identify where the gaps are when things do not go as planned.

5. Be open

You should be willing to acknowledge if you have uncertainties or simply do not know the answer. Remember, you don’t always have to know all the answers but can always offer your perspectives on the subject matter.


  4. Hawkins-Leon, C. G. (1998). Socratic Method-Problem Method Dichotomy: The Debate Over Teaching Method Continues, The. BYU Educ. & LJ, 1.

Moving from “Why Aren’t They Reading?” to Creating a Culture of Reading

Textbook imageby Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Skeptical that your students did the reading?  Chances are you’re probably right to be.  Studies show that on any given day, about 1/3 of the students will have read the assignment (Hobson 2).  Eric Hobson’s IDEA paper*, “Getting Students to Read:  Fourteen Tips,” offers a diagnosis of student resistance to reading and suggests strategies for motivating them to read.  While Hobson focuses more on “compliance” than engagement, his tips for encouraging reading can provide a mid-semester boost for both students’ and teachers’ engagement with course readings.

Why don’t students do the reading?  Hobson, distilling many studies on the topic, finds that students often do not do the “required reading” because they assume, often correctly, that doing the reading is not really required for their success in the class.  Because faculty often “require” reading that students will not be held accountable for or that will be covered in class, students become “consummate pragmatists” and choose not to read when it is not necessary for their success (3).

Hobson also locates students’ failure to read in teachers’ false assumptions about student reading abilities.  He argues that teachers believe that their students are able to read and write at a higher level than their actual ability.  They are often unaware of the difficulties that students encounter in comprehending assigned texts.  Also, they often do not view teaching the skill of reading as their responsibility.  However, Hobson contends, “When reading becomes a focus emphasized in the course structure and across course activities, helping students improve their reading skills should be the responsibility of every college-level teacher” (4).  Learning to read effectively within a discipline is part of learning to think in that discipline.

Hobson offers fourteen tips for improving students’ reading compliance.  Several of these tips focus on course design, which is not particularly useful post-midterm (unless you are planning for next semester).  Here are some tips to improve student reading that can be incorporated at any time of the semester:

  • Explain reading assignments’ relevance

Make the “implicit explicit” by drawing connections between assigned reading and other course material and requirements. “The more connective the web between course reading and course learning goals, the more likely students are to see the course’s reading assignments as relevant and worthwhile” (5).

  • Preview the reading

Give them an “intellectual reason” to complete the assignment by bringing the reading into class activities before they are required to read it (6).

  • Use class activities that increase compliance and effectiveness

Provide reading guides, study questions, and short writing assignments to aid students in engaging actively with the reading material.

  • Use class time

Have students read brief but important sections of assigned texts in class to reinforce the material and prime them for activities.

  • Require prior reading

If you expect students to participate in class discussion that relies upon prior reading, that reading must be required.  One way to hold students accountable to being prepared for class is through random questioning.  Expecting student volunteers to participate only perpetuates the tendency of some to not be prepared for class.

  • Test over reading material

Although this can be seen as a “punitive” tactic, faculty advocates argue that testing over reading material is often the only way to ensure students will read that material (6).

  • Teach reading strategies overtly

Hobson argues that “Any teacher who includes reading assignments in a course should also ensure that students have the reading tools they need to use that material for the purposes intended” (7).  Even basic skills, such as “text marking,” need to be taught to students to explain the purpose, technique, and benefits of such close-reading.  Consider modeling your own reading practices for students, as a way to bring reading material into class and to teach effective reading strategies.

Hobson concludes that the work of teaching reading for college courses is nothing less than developing a culture of reading, a mindset where students view reading as a necessity for “higher-order thought, rational action, and fulfillment” (8).  This goal, Hobson argues, requires faculty to undertake teaching reading, not merely assigning reading, as a crucial aspect of their responsibility.

While this IDEA paper sometimes sounds like getting students to “comply” is the goal of assigning reading, Hobson’s focus really is more nuanced than that.  He does include many tips to ensure that students simply ‘do’ the reading.  Yet, the rest of the article makes clear that ‘doing the reading’ is not an end in itself.  Student reading is only one rung on the much broader scaffolding of a learning experience.  Yes, they do need to do it.  But they need to it within a context that teaches them what to do with the words they read and helps them build the skills to read as a path of discovery.  Rather than simply blaming students for not reading, Hobson challenges teachers to reconsider our aims and strategies in teaching reading.  Shifting the focus from getting students to complete the task of reading to teaching them to think through the reading can bring fresh air into the stale routine of homework.    Hobson’s practical strategies can help us work steadily toward the lofty vision of building a culture of reading—a daily discipline of reasoning through words.

Hobson, Eric H.  “Getting Students to Read:  Fourteen Tips.”  IDEA Paper No. 40, Manhattan, KS:  The      IDEA Center, 2004.

*IDEA is a non-profit organization that seeks to “improve learning in higher-education.” Their website provides full access to a treasure-trove of IDEA papers like this one—short, research-based “resources for faculty evaluation, reflection, and improvement.”  See for more.

Image courtesy of Flickr

Ferguson at the Clock Tower: When community-based inquiry comes to campus

by Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

On the morning of Monday, October 13, the day the SLU campus woke to protestors and activists setting up camp at the clock tower, I was busy preparing for my School and Community class for preservice teachers.  As has happened often over the two semesters I have taught this course, focused on community-based inquiry, I was throwing out my plan for the day.  The tricky thing about designing a course around the community is that events in the community rarely follow my syllabus outline.

Backing up to this summer, when the St. Louis region was stunned both by the events of August 9th and the subsequent reactions, I was certain that Ferguson must be the focus of our inquiry into how schools and communities interact to support children’s learning.  Indeed, many of the early headlines focused on schools, from delayed starts to the school year for Ferguson-Florissant and nearby districts, to the myriad directives from school district administrators on how and if teachers could discuss the events in their classrooms.

The case study for our inquiry became Ferguson and the question that guides our work is: What is the role of schools in a community’s discussions of events like Ferguson?

While the case study for our community inquiry varies from semester to semester (last fall we looked at the student transfers from Normandy to Francis Howell), the frameworks and the knowledge base that preservice teachers need to untangle these issues remain relatively stable.  As this course has developed, it has been important to not get lost in the particulars of the situation or incident, and sustain our focus on the broader implications for teachers in communities with varied contexts.  In other words, I did not want to spend the semester debating “sides,” so I had to identify what knowledge and skills my students needed to develop a position on the teaching of Ferguson, rather than focusing on opinions of Ferguson itself.

To reach this goal, students read and responded to key areas that serve as foundational knowledge needed to understand school and community interactions:

  • Student development and developmentally appropriate practices: In discussing community issues with K-12 students, teachers need to apply their knowledge of cognitive and socio-emotional development to inform their approach to teaching about issues in the community.  Our course discussions around development allowed preservice teachers to see how knowledge of child development intersects with pedagogical choices.
  • Theories of family and community engagement: Our class looked at how family engagement with schools has been historically defined, challenges to existing models, and we read original research that reports how varying models of family and community engagement impact student engagement and achievement.
  • Biased language in schools: We addressed questions such as: What is biased language? What does it look like in schools? Who uses it, and who may be marginalized by it? And finally, what might a teacher do to stop it?
  • School governance and school law: Discussing who “owns” schools, who makes policy decisions impacting schools, and how federal, state, and local directives intersect to define the roles of families, teachers, and students in schools is a crucial component for our community-based inquiry.  Throughout the inquiry, while we do discuss what we wish would be, we focus on what is.  The purpose of this is, hopefully, to instill a sense of urgency and advocacy in my students.
  • Race, power, and privilege: This conceptual arena is the most difficult for my students, but also the most crucial.  Unlearning the “othering” of culture (we all have culture), identifying structural and systemic institutions of power and racism, and recognizing our own privilege(s) have been at the center of engaging students in thoughtful, sensitive, and relevant approaches to bridging schools and communities during times of crisis.

Coming back to that Monday when the Ferguson events came to our campus in an explicit way, I realized that there was a final component of engaging preservice teachers in community-based inquiry, and that was modeling this approach in my own teaching.  In a course where we developed positions on what we would do in future teaching assignments, I knew that students would be closely watching what I did during that Monday class.  Our class session that day was informed by several tenets of community-based inquiry that have emerged over our work thus far in the semester:

  1. What is happening in the lives of those in our community may disrupt pre-determined learning outcomes. When we ignore current events in our student lives, we send unintentional messages that those events are either unimportant or taboo.  Either message can marginalize students.
  2. Ask questions and share worries or concerns.  This approach allows dialogue to move forward and delve into systemic questions, rather than getting stuck on debates about specific “facts” of the current situation.
  3. Relate comments to the literature.  This can be difficult for undergraduates, but is also crucial to developing informed and articulate arguments rather than “off the cuff” opinions.
  4. Identify what makes the context of a community event both unique and universal.  Similar to tying discussion to the literature, inquiry around communities should seek to understand what is local and transcendent about context.
  5. Leave with strategies for learning more.  For students who wanted to understand more about the purpose of the protests, we went to the clock tower and asked questions.  For all students, a shared Google document of resources and research related to understanding the context is updated depending on the questions raised during each class session.

Resources for designing community-based inquiry focused on Ferguson.

#FergusonSyllabus: A Twitter hashtag developed by Dr. Marcia Chatelain at Georgetown University to pool resources for teaching Ferguson on community campuses. Chris Grabau wrote about the hashtag in an earlier Notebook blog post.

Teaching Saint Louis: A series sponsored by the College of Education and Public Service at SLU to broaden teachers’ understandings of how to teach the complex issues of race, class, and inequity in our community.

Teaching Tolerance: The site is geared towards K-12 teachers, but the professional development activities can be utilized in many graduate and undergraduate courses that look at issues of tolerance from varying perspectives (history, literature, psychology, etc.).

Lauren-ArendLauren 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.

Reinert Center Supports Research on Teaching and Learning

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214Thanks to the vision of Dr. Elena Bray Speth, the Reinert Center’s Mary L. Stephen Faculty Fellow for Scholarly Teaching, on Friday, October 17, 2014, the Reinert Center hosted the first annual Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Symposium.

The symposium showcased IRB-approved research being conducted on teaching and learning by 22 faculty members and graduate students from across the university on a wide range of topics including: aspects of the flipped classroom, auto-ethnography, assessment, and disciplinary fluency.

The symposium culminated in the 9th annual James H. Korn Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award ceremony. After Dr. Debra Lohe, Director of the Reinert Center, made opening remarks to the over 40 people in attendance, Dr. Korn presented the award to this year’s awardee, Dr. Michelle Lorenzini from the Department of Political Science.  Dr. Lorenzini shared an overview of her scholarly activities in the area of teaching and learning for global awareness and engaged citizenship.

Each year, a committee of faculty chooses the winner of the Korn Award from a pool of faculty nominations. In 2006, the Center established this award in recognition of Dr. Korn’s many contributions to research on teaching and learning. Professor emeritus in Psychology, Dr. Korn was deeply committed to scholarly teaching; he was also a member of the faculty committee that first established the Center in 1997.

For more information about the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and to see the list of past winners of the Korn award and guidelines for nominations, please visit the Symposium page here.

To talk with someone in the Reinert Center about how you might study what’s happening in your own classes, please contact us at

“Metanoia” in PhD Mentoring

by Kenneth L. Parker, Steber Professor in Theological Studies, Department of Theological Studies

Metanoia is a transliteration of the Greek word, μετάνοια, and means “change of mind, repentance, regret.” While the Greek word means far more than the English terms “repentance” or “regret” can convey, the expression “change of mind” is too vague to carry the force of its intent. I prefer Matthew Arnold’s commentary on Jesus’s use of the word in the gospels: “the main part was something more active and fruitful, the setting up [of] an immense new inward movement for obtaining the rule of life … a change of the inner man.” (Literature and Dogma, 1873, 196).

Professors who teach in doctoral programs naturally associate this change of the inner person with the PhD students we are shaping into scholars and teachers. We seek to refashion their perspectives on our discipline and exhort them to shed former ways of engaging our intellectual project. We hope they will respond to our vision for the work to be done. Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a form of “evangelization” in our intellectual work, and our PhD students are disciples who place themselves in our care, so that they may be prepared to carry on the work we have embraced.

Yet it may be important to step back from our role as mentors and consider our own need for metanoia. When I began teaching in my department’s PhD program in Historical Theology, I adopted the mentoring style modeled for me at Cambridge University. My supervisor assumed I would come to him when I needed help with my dissertation research. He considered the process of identifying a topic, formulating and implementing a research agenda, and writing dissertation chapters to be a solitary enterprise. I experienced the work as isolating and lonely. But I persevered, found a way forward, and finished my work in record time. That model worked for me. Yet my efforts to replicate that pedagogical style at SLU had mixed results. Students often required multiple extensions, and one dissertation student failed to complete in the maximum time allowed by the Graduate School. I felt mired in a way of mentoring that did not yield the desired results.

Seven years ago something changed. I confronted a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was a student who had been traumatized by the isolating experience of dissertation research. The opportunity was a publisher’s solicitation of a volume of essays based on conference presentations I had made with a group of students. In the months and years that followed a new pattern of mentoring emerged, a method that I call the apprentice workshop method. I learned that by organizing a one-hour weekly pro-seminar with my dissertation students, we all thrived. They not only overcame isolation that had debilitated and impeded their progress, but also became productive scholars and teachers—publishing articles, presenting at conferences, and gaining employment. I became more productive, too, because my students became the first, best critics of my rough drafts. We learned from each other. The experience has changed me. My experience of metanoia required an openness to alter deeply engrained patterns of mentoring. The process has been life-altering, and I am deeply grateful for it.


Ken Parker2Kenneth Parker is a Steber Professor in Theological Studies in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University (1992-present), with a PhD in Divinity from the University of Cambridge (1984) and post-doctoral studies at the University of Fribourg (1987-1990).  He received the 2013 Donald G. Brennan Award for Excellence in Graduate Mentoring, and he currently serves as a Reinert Center Faculty Fellow.

Student Engagement Technique: Liven Up Class Discussions with the IF-AT Form

IF-AT testBy Elizabeth Sweeny Block, Assistant Professor, Department of Theological Studies

Have you ever posed a question to your students only to be met with blank stares and silence?  Have you wondered how you could better facilitate discussion in class?  Have you wished that you could motivate your students to participate in class conversations?  The IF-AT is the answer!

The what!?  What is an “IF-AT?”  IF-AT stands for immediate feedback assessment technique.  Simply put, an IF-AT is a multiple choice quiz.  You create the questions, and your students take the quiz using a pre-made form on which they scratch off their selected answer using a coin or paperclip.  When they have made the right choice, a star appears as they scratch their answer.  If they are wrong, the space is blank, and they keep working to find the correct answer.  Students receive immediate feedback on their quiz this way.

Now you are probably thinking, “How on earth is this going to help my classroom discussions?”  Here’s how!  In my experience, the IF-AT forms are best used in small groups.  At the beginning of the semester, I divide my class into teams that will be in place for the remainder of the term.  In a class I am teaching right now, I have four teams of five students each.  Four to seven students per team works well.  Even if your class is small, one team is all you need!  I create a ten-question multiple choice quiz, which each student completes individually in a matter of minutes.  Then the fun begins!  Each team works together, discussing their answers and deciding which answer is right, with one member in charge of scratching off their answers on the IF-AT form as they go.  If they choose correctly, they see a star on the form.  If they have erred, they keep working together, talking out the answers, until they get it right.  They get partial credit for choosing the correct answer on the second or third try.

The benefits of this technique are numerous.  Students build camaraderie.  They work in the same teams throughout the semester, getting to know each other and learning how to navigate the course material together.  In order to complete the quiz, they must talk together about the reading assignment.  By talking together in a small group first, they are much more likely to participate meaningfully in the large group conversation after the quiz ends.  This small-group setting is a safe place to test out ideas and make mistakes and to admit that some part (or all) of the reading was hard to understand.  Quiet students are often much less reluctant to speak up in this setting, especially when they realize week after week that they do know the right answer.  Vocal students realize that they ought to let others contribute to the dialogue, especially when those others seem to be getting the answers right.  The discussion often begins with more of a vote: “How many of you picked C?”  “Great, let’s go with C.”  As the weeks pass, the discussion deepens, and students give a rationale for why they chose C instead of A, even trying to convince others that this answer, and not that one, is right.  These spontaneous team quizzes, which I give no more than once a week, also hold students accountable for the reading.  No one wants to be the student who didn’t do the reading and therefore cannot help her teammates with the quiz!

From the perspective of the professor, it is a useful way to prepare for class.  As I create these multiple choice quizzes, I am forced to think about the most important points in the reading, the challenging arguments that need explanation, and the passages and quotes that warrant discussion.  I base my questions on these points because I want to ensure that we discuss all of this in class.  Creating the quiz provides a way for me to steer the class conversation.  If you are thinking, “multiple choice quizzes would never work with the material I teach,” fear not!  If I can make this work in theology classes, surely you can make this work for your subject matter!  My questions often look something like this: “Cahill makes all of the following arguments in her essay except…” or I provide a quote and ask, “Which of the following answers best explains the significance of this quote?”  Sometimes I create questions that build bridges between sections of the course: “Smith’s argument is most like which other reading from earlier in the semester?”  There really are ways to make multiple choice quizzes work for a variety of disciplines.  And once you’ve made the quiz, you have it to use again and again in future semesters.

I walk around the room while the teams are working, listening and observing, which prepares me even better for the lecture and discussion to follow.  I get a sense of what was difficult for them, or what they understood with ease, and I can direct the conversation accordingly.  Each team scores their own quiz (no grading for you!), and there is always a little friendly competition among the teams.  Students are excited when they do well.  “Yes, we got them all right!”  We spend time after the quiz reviewing questions that were tricky, and those become jumping off points for the conversation that follows.  If there were questions I just couldn’t ask in multiple choice format, I am able to link those questions to the quiz in order to get students talking.  Students are more relaxed and ready for discussion because the team quiz serves as an ice-breaker.

Team quizzes using the IF-AT work wonders for student engagement and lively class discussion!

Where can you find IF-AT forms and learn more about them, you ask?  Right here:

And where can you learn more about team-based learning?  Here:


Elizabeth Sweeny Block is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Theological Studies.  She holds a Ph.D. from The University of Chicago in Religious Ethics.  Her research focuses on moral anthropology and conscience.



Photo of IF-AT form courtesy of Epstein Educational Enterprises