What’s On Our Minds Lately: The Instructional Design Team

by Jerod Quinn, CTTL Instructional Designer.

In my line of work as an instructional designer, I get to be exposed to new ideas and tools all the time. Some of those ideas manage to grab my attention and take hold of it. Here are three that I have come across in the last few months that are inspiring me with their potential to influence teaching and learning here at SLU.

Students as Producers: http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/2013/09/students-as-producers-an-introduction/

I stumbled onto the concept of “Students as Producers” through a blog post from Derek Bruff at Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. The idea is that “students should not be merely consumers of knowledge but producers, engaged in meaningful, generative work alongside the university’s faculty” (Center for Teaching, 2014). The important change is that the student becomes the producer and the faculty the collaborator, not the other way around. That’s no subtle difference. Students as Producers also demonstrates the power of undergraduate research, which is one of the AACU’s High-Impact Educational Practices (High-Impact Educational Practices, 2014).

If we go back to where the term Students as Producers originates we end up at the Centre for Educational Research and Development, the University of Lincoln, Galway, Ireland. Students as Producers came out of the “attempt to reconfigure the dysfunctional relationship between teaching and research in higher education and that this can be best achieved by rethinking the relationship between student and academic” (Winn, 2012). The University of Lincoln has created something that goes way beyond adding a research project to a course. They are changing the experience of undergraduate education at their university, along with demonstrating the value of open research, and it’s blowing my mind.

Sketchnotes: http://prezi.com/ccax5lolwzsm/sketchnotes-in-the-classroom-a-more-visual-approach-to-notetaking/

I have always drawn all over my notes. Sometimes my doodles illustrate points from the meeting or class, other times they are merely expressions of a wandering mind. Even with access to a laptop, I prefer to take handwritten notes. At a conference this past winter I was introduced to the concept of sketchnotes and pointed towards the Sketchnote Handbook, by Mike Rohde. Dual-coding theory, a theory of cognition, suggest that our brains process concepts in verbal and visual modes. Sketchnotes are a form of note taking that engages both the visual and verbal modes. Instead of drawing in the margins of your notes, the drawings become meaningful illustrations of the knowledge you are trying to retain. These visual notes act as a map of the ideas you hear. Rohde lays out a framework for creating sketchnotes by offering many practical tips, some design concepts, basic drawing tips, and many examples of how others practice sketchnoting. After several practice runs I tried live sketchnoting at a Missouri Department of Conservation gardening workshop a few weeks ago. As I was explaining my sketchnotes to my wife, I was absolutely shocked at how much I remembered and retained from the workshops. I also stumbled upon some recent research that indicates hand-written note taking influences deeper learning than typing lecture notes on a laptop (Herbert, W., 2014). My experience sketchnoting and the recent research on writing notes combined to make me wonder how many of our students could become better engaged with our courses if they learned about sketchnotes?


One of my first live sketchnotes from a workshop on starting plants from seeds.

One of my first live sketchnotes from a workshop on starting plants from seeds.


Google Apps for Collaboration:

A couple weeks ago I facilitated a workshop on using Google Apps for Collaboration. I was already using Google Apps in my everyday work, and also when I teach courses at SLU. In preparing for this workshop I learned a few new tricks that Apps can do. For example, Google Docs and Sheets now have the ability to add plugins (called “Add-ons”). I’m using one right now called EasyBib that creates and adds properly styled references to the bottom of my Google Doc. Google Sheets has an add-on called mapping that takes locations in a spreadsheet and automatically plots them on a Google Map. There are dozens of these potentially useful add-ons to help broaden the functionality of Google Apps. I was also reminded that not everyone really knows about Google Apps, even though we are a Google campus. Our workshop discussion demonstrated ideas about how Apps can assist with collaborative projects in and outside of the classroom. Several of the participants mentioned how a shared spreadsheet or a collaborative writing assignment came together relatively easily using Apps. I have provided links to my presentation and some resources if you would like to learn a little more about Google Apps for collaboration.

Google Apps Presentation: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/19ir8TeR3lf2sEsoEag5txbrcq5PDRZO5mZiH45wB0LM/edit?usp=sharing

Google Apps Resources: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1en7ND5g7Z_a9hNrE6EiKMlWzp_yzw1DtAl5cPPJV9wo/edit?usp=sharing


Center for Teaching. (n.d.). Retrieved April 08, 2014, from


Herbert, W. (2014, January 28). Ink on Paper: Some Notes on Note-taking. Retrieved April 08, 2014, from


High-Impact Educational Practices. (n.d.). Retrieved April 08, 2014, from


Winn, Joss. (2012, March). Hacking the University – Lincoln’s Approach to Openness. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from


Preparing Our Students for the Future

by Kim Levenhagen PT, DPT, WCC, Assistant Professor in the Program in Physical Therapy

In 2013, Hart Research Associates conducted an online survey of employers’ priorities for hiring today’s graduates.  This detailed analysis provided recommendations on changes that need to occur in education and educational assessment practices.  A brief summary of It Takes More Than a Major:  Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success reported employers want graduates who are:

  • Innovative
  • Ethical
  • Critical thinkers
  • Complex problem solvers
  • Excellent communicators in the written and oral language
  • Lifelong learners

Additionally, the report suggested that in order for students to be successful in the workplace, educational institutions should incorporate a blended model of liberal and applied learning.  This model would include educational practices that require students to “1) conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; 2) gain in-depth knowledge in the major, and analytic, problem solving, and communication skills; and 3) apply their learning in real-world settings.”  It is interesting to note, that employers placed emphasis in a candidate’s ability to critically think, communicate, and solve complex problems over their major field of study when hiring.

So how do we measure up in preparing Saint Louis University students for the future?  When our students graduate this May can we say they can critically think, communicate and solve problems?  Have we provided them opportunities to fail and succeed in real life settings?  According to the 2014 Saint Louis University Student Profile, 95% of students from the Class of 2012 were satisfied with their post graduate activities including graduate school and careers.  If we agree that satisfied graduates are equal to satisfied employers, then we are living out the Mission of Saint Louis University and producing future employees who are men and women for others.  So what do we do to set our graduates apart?

One way in which faculty live out this Mission is by incorporating the Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm into the curriculum.  It allows the students to develop a level of deeper critical thinking and solve complex problems.  This transformational learning process involves five elements which include: 1) Context (who); 2) Experience (what); 3) Reflection (why/how); 4) Action (what next); and 5) Evaluation (how well).  For this model to be successful, the faculty member must plan purposeful learning experiences in which the students can critically think, problem solve in real life experiences, reflect, and then serve as change agents.  This can be accomplished through addressing social justice issues in curricular topics, problem based learning, or participating in community service projects that address cura personalis (care of the whole person).

If you are new to the concept of Ignatian Pedagogy, the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning provides excellent resources for faculty.  The site includes videos on the history and the five elements by the late Fr. Vincent Duminuco, S.J. as well as Saint Louis University faculty Darina Sargeant, Ph.D., Michael D Rozier S.J. In addition, there are links and tip sheets on how to incorporate service learning, Ignatian spirituality, and reflection into your curriculum.  Even if you are familiar with Ignatian Pedagogy these resources can assist you in sparking new ideas to enhance your teaching.


Levenhagen Pic 2

Dr. Levenhagen has a DPT in Physical Therapy from Saint Louis University. She teaches many courses, including: Survey of Disease, Communication Processes, Multi System Management, Skills Practicum, Interprofessional Educational courses. She also is part of the Clinical Education team for the SLU Program in Physical Therapy. Deeply committed to effective pedagogical practice, Dr. Levenhagen has participated in a number of programs hosted by the Center, and she now serves as one of the Center’s Faculty Fellows. 


Pedagogy and the Teaching of Law


Saint Louis University Law professor, Miriam Cherry, has recently conducted classroom research exploring new ways to teach about employment discrimination. The results of that research are published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Saint Louis University Law Journal.

Professor Cherry’s article “explores virtual worlds as a teaching technique in the Employment Discrimination class. In designing and creating an avatar, students may see how elements of their online identities and appearance are malleable. Because employers are increasingly using technology and virtual environments, virtual worlds may either promote meritocracy or replicate existing stereotyping and hierarchies. This article presents several strategies for using technology as a way to study employment discrimination and to use technology as a de-biasing agent” (abstract).

To read Professor Cherry’s article as well as other pedagogically focused research about “teaching employment and labor law” from the several SLU law professors featured in this issue, including Matthew Bodie, Susan FitzGibbon, Marcia McCormick, and Elizabeth Pendo, visit the journal website.

Wikipedia Editing In the Classroom

by Dr. Judith Ogilvie, Biology

Wikipedia provides an opportunity for students to enrich their understanding of course material while mastering fun, new technology and serving the worldwide community of Wikipedia users. I had recently read an article about editing Wikipedia in the classroom when several students approached me about taking my Developmental Biology Course for Honors Credit. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for a trial run. The students were so enthusiastic that, the following spring, I incorporated Wikipedia editing into the curriculum for my graduate-level course on Signal Transduction. By this time, the Wikipedia Education Program had been established with many new resources available for professors and students. I learned a lot from these experiences that seem to be worth sharing for anyone else considering signing up.

What is the Wikipedia Education Program?

“The idea behind the Wikipedia Education Program is simple: Professors around the world assign their students to contribute to Wikipedia for class assignments.”1

What resources are available? Lots! Information for educators, volunteers, and students can be found at the Wikipedia Education Program web site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Education_program.

Why incorporate Wikipedia editing in your classroom?

Like any written assignment, editing Wikipedia articles can be used to develop research, writing and communication skills. But there are a few valuable differences:

  • By becoming producers of information on Wikipedia (WP), students become better consumers of information. Wikipedia is the first place students look for information. They know that it may not be a reliable resource, but tend to trust it anyway. Writing or editing Wikipedia articles helps students to think critically about where the information comes from, the degree of reliability for any statement, and how and when to use WP as a resource.
  • Unlike so many college writing assignments that are only read by one professor before ending up in a file folder or recycle bin, students take great pride in knowing that thousands or millions of people around the world may read their work.

What might a Wikipedia editing assignment look like?

My course page can be found at this web site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Biolprof/Signal_Transduction_Spring_2013_Revisions. It includes nine assignments distributed throughout the semester in order to keep everyone on track for a successful outcome. Anyone is welcome to use any parts of it that you might find helpful in designing your own course.

Some reflections and recommendations from my two semesters with Wikipedia in my classroom.

  • Make the time to become familiar with WP policies, as well as the mechanics of editing. Go through the instructor training. The material is frequently being modified and improved.
  • Accept that you don’t have complete ownership of a Wikipedia editing assignment. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with many rules and guidelines. Original research is not allowed and, in most cases, secondary sources are preferred over primary sources. All writing should maintain a neutral point of view. You should make sure that the goals of Wikipedia are consistent with the goals of your course before developing a Wikipedia assignment for your class.
  • Wikipedia incorporates an entire community of Wikipedians, or dedicated editors. Each has their own interests, priorities, personalities, but all of them committed to improving WP. Become a part of this community! Seek an on-line ambassador that will take an active role in your class. I found it very helpful to set aside one class period for a Q&A Skype session with our Ambassador. Note that if an experienced Wikipedian thinks that a student contribution makes a WP article worse, they can (and usually will) revert the edits made by your student. The assistance of an Ambassador can be a tremendous help in, first, preventing this from happening, and second, navigating a resolution should it occur.
  • Like any written assignment, grading can be very time consuming if you have a large class. Because of the structure and style of writing for Wikipedia, it is essential to have many benchmarks along the way. You will want to make sure that you have time for this during your busy semester.
  • Plagiarism is a major concern on Wikipedia, as it can be in the classroom. There is an excellent article on WP clarifying the boundaries between acceptable citations and plagiarism or too-close paraphrasing.2 You can use this as a tool to have your students look for evidence of plagiarism in current WP articles.
  • Finally, students have let me know that they found Wikipedia editing to be among the most rewarding and interesting written assignment that they have done. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, invited us to “imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” It is, indeed, very rewarding to be a part of that effort.

1 https://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_Education_Program

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2009-04-13/Dispatches

3-26-14_Ogilvie_picDr. Judith Ogilvie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology where she teaches a variety of courses related to cell and molecular biology. Her research investigates development and degeneration in the vertebrate retina.

Teaching a Flipped Class for the Second Time

Michael Lewis

by Michael Lewis, Associate Vice President for Faculty Development,  Associate Professor of Chemistry

Last year I taught the course Principles of Chemistry II using a flipped classroom approach.  This was my first time teaching the course in this manner, after having taught the course once using a traditional format.  The class was relatively large with about 150 students who were primarily freshmen majoring in Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy.  The flipped classroom approach went very well on multiple fronts: the student reported in mid-term and end-of-semester evaluations that they liked it; student performance improved compared to when I taught the course using a traditional format; and I liked it.  Given this outcome, I chose to use the format again this semester, and I thought I would report back on how the flipped classroom approach looks the second time through the process (or partially through the process).

Before getting into the details, in case there are any readers who haven’t heard of the flipped classroom approach, let me give a brief description.  The basic premise is to have the students engage in, and introduce themselves to, the material ahead of coming to class so we can use class time to work problems and delve into the complicated details.  From the students’ perspective, this looks a lot like doing homework in class, and I saw this mentioned numerous times in mid-term and end-of-semester evaluations.  This approach is flipped, or inverted, from the traditional teaching approach where the instructor introduces the students to the material in class and the students are responsible for the deeper engagement with the material on their own in terms of homework and studying.  Hence, the term flipped classroom, or inverted classroom, to describe the approach.

The first time using the flipped classroom approach in Principles of Chemistry II, during the Spring semester of 2013, definitely required more of my time compared to when I taught the course in a traditional manner.  I had to record lectures for each chapter weeks ahead of when the material was covered in class so the students had time to engage in the course material before we got to it in class.  I purposefully recorded lectures a chapter at a time, and not a lecture at a time, so I could use them again the next time I taught the course; I am not organized enough to finish each lecture in the same place every time I teach a course.  Thus, in teaching the course again this semester I am spending far less time preparing for the course.  I still have to prepare problems to work during class time, but having the lectures already recorded from last year has been a large time saver.  In my estimation, over a two or three year span of teaching the course, I will make up the time I initially invested recording the lectures in year one of the course.

From a student perspective, I feel the course format has been received in a more positive manner the second time.  I can speculate on two reasons why this might be the case.  First, the students know from the previous year’s students that the course turned out fine.  That is, it wasn’t a disaster, and students performed well in the course.  Second, and related, is that I was quite proactive in selling how well the course went the previous year.  I have begun compiling data comparing student performance in the flipped classroom approach and in a traditional approach for publication, and I shared with the students the highlights of the statistical comparison.  This comparison shows a significant increase in student performance using the flipped classroom approach.

Let me finish by highlighting an issue that I wrote about in a previous blog post.  Mid-term evaluations almost always show different preferences for different groups of students.  It is not uncommon for me to find one group of students request changes to a course, only to find the students in the following year’s course ask for me to change back.  This cropped up again in the mid-term evaluation I did for this year’s course.  Last year’s students wanted me to change the due dates for online assignments and quizzes so they reflected the dates we actually covered the material in class.  This year’s students asked me to keep the dates the same, regardless of whether I am a little off on when we get to the material in class.  Thus, I don’t want to make any more generalizations about student perceptions of the flipped classroom approach, at least as it pertains to the various details of how I implement the flipped classroom.

Ultimately, in order to flip a classroom, the instructor needs to pre-record lectures, and provide incentive for students to watch the lectures; I use online assignments.  After that, it is my suggestion that instructors conduct mid-term evaluations early in the semester to find out what their students find useful.

Are you flipping your class? Share what you’re doing in the Comments section.  To read more on this topic, check out the Reinert Center’s teaching tips on the flipped classroom.

Irrelevant or Engaged?

ConnectingDotsby Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

When Nicholas Kristof declaimed in his New York Times column that “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates,” he, unsurprisingly, unleashed some backlash from the academic community. Kristof’s central argument—that the academy is too busy speaking to itself in coded jargon through peer-reviewed journals to speak to the culture at large—was criticized for failing to take notice of the mass of academics engaging the broader culture through social media.  While Kristof’s piece needlessly stereotypes academics as uninfluential and apathetic about their lack of cultural consequence, his overarching point is a plea to academics to engage further with the culture, as seen in the last line:  “So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks—we need you!”

Both sides of the conversation started by Kristof’s opinion piece seem to be in agreement about one crucial thing:  they want academics to communicate more with the culture.  They agree that there is a need for professors to take on a public role, to engage in practical, daily realities, both through public writing and action.

Interestingly, the exchange between Kristof and his critics about the relevancy of academics in the culture has thus far failed to mention one way in which professors already influence culture to a great degree:  teaching.  Kristof critic Corey Robin mentions teaching, but only as an obstacle—in the form of heavy course loads—to the work of public engagement.  And yet, through daily interaction with students, professors profoundly interact with, and even form, the broader culture.  Certainly, if they teach in a vacuum, professors may choose not to engage with students in their situated reality. But, especially if we take seriously the mission to educate the “whole person,” the work of teaching has the capacity to engage in the public sphere by “let[ting] the gritty reality of this world into [our] lives.”

Public engagement can take many forms, and classroom interaction is not the least of these.  Professors can shift course material from an insulated academic experience into an experience with relevance in the public realm of students’ lives by taking intentional steps.  This move toward engagement may be as simple as introducing space for critical reflection into the course.  By encouraging students to think, talk, and write about how the material of the course relates to their lives, professors guide students to connect the dots that make the academic material relevant to their public lives.  Patti Clayton provides some practical steps for effectively incorporating critical reflection into a course.

When possible and appropriate, professors may also have students engage in mandatory or extra-credit community work.  Getting students involved in real world situations may make them more attuned to the meanings inherent in the classroom content.  When I most recently taught “Advanced Strategies in Rhetoric and Research,” the course focused on studying the causes of and arguing for a solution to a social justice issue.  Students’ final project was to write a proposal for a local way to ameliorate the social justice issue they had researched all semester.  I included an extra credit option for students to put an aspect of their proposal into action.  Even though not all of the students chose to get involved in local activism, the possibility of their own involvement remained in the background as they thought and wrote about their social justice issue.  Rather than my telling them how rhetorical choices were relevant to social justice concerns, students began coming to class with stories of how they saw instances of injustices in their daily lives. They began weighing and debating issues of privilege and blame and considering what could be done to ameliorate the problems they witnessed daily.  They listened more carefully to the rhetorical choices made in each other’s arguments, and they thoughtfully crafted arguments of their own.  They energetically refined their research skills, fueled by a need to know that was, in turn, fueled by a need to act.

When students themselves are connecting the dots between what they learn in an academic setting and what they encounter in their lives outside the academy, they make the connection between monastic academic knowledge and the streets.

Save the Dates

PrintThis semester has moved at a rapid fire pace, so before you get completely booked up after spring break, we’d like to take this opportunity to cue you in on some upcoming development opportunities

Online Teaching and Learning Institute: This is a week-long institute offered every summer for full-time faculty who want to develop online or blended courses. This summer’s session will be held June 2 through 6. Registration opens on March 17, as soon as we come back from spring break, and is limited to 12 participants. Watch the Reinert Center blog and the daily Newslink email for more information.  To learn more, visit http://www.slu.edu/cttl/programs-and-services/institutes.

3rd Annual Learning Studio Symposium: Always a highlight of the spring semester, the Learning Studio Symposium is an opportunity for the Reinert Center’s Innovative Teaching Fellows to discuss the courses they have taught in the Learning Studio. This year’s symposium will be on the afternoon of April 16 and registration will open on March 24. (Since the event is held in the Learning Studio, seating is limited and priority is given to full-time faculty who are eligible for Innovative Teaching Fellowships.) To learn more, visit http://www.slu.edu/cttl/teaching-innovations/learning-studio.

Close Only Counts in History and Horseshoes

by Flannery Burke, Ph.D., Associate Professor in History and Fulbright Roving Scholar to Norway

Here are three historical mistakes I may have conveyed in the course of teaching American culture to high school English classes in Norway as a part of that nation’s Fulbright Roving Scholars program.  Which is most egregious?

1)     Abraham Lincoln served as President until 1868.

2)     The Navajo insisted on passports to pass through their nation in the 1970s.

3)     I married a University professor while a student at Bryn Mawr College.

I made the last mistake when introducing myself.  I explained that Bryn Mawr students prized academics over socializing.  I said that at Bryn Mawr we had a race and whoever won the race would be, according to superstition, the first to get her PhD.  “Whoever lost the race,” I’d say with a little smile, “Would be the first to marry.” “What did we care about?” I asked.  “Studying,” answered a student. “What didn’t we care about?” “Boys,” answered a student.  So far so good.  Students were interacting with me.  Some of the shyer girls were smiling a bit.  Maybe they would talk later.  Then, I made it too complicated.  “I was not the first to get my PhD, but I did get it.  I was not the first to marry, but I did get married.  I even married a University professor!  So I got to have my cake and eat it too.  Do you know that expression in English?”

Students often do know the expression, but an English-speaking teaching assistant told me later that I had given the impression that I had married one of my Bryn Mawr professors while I was a student.  “Better fix that,” she said.

Where to begin exactly?  There is no such race at Bryn Mawr – rather, the superstition involves lanterns that Freshmen receive from upper classes.  The lanterns become heirlooms, symbols of our education and the light of knowledge we received in university.  The superstition is this: whoever’s lantern goes out first will be the first to marry.  Whoever’s burns longest will be the first to receive her PhD.  It’s got more potential as a metaphor, but I find it too complicated, especially for non-native speakers.  And I like the idea of young women learning that marriage and serious study are not mutually exclusive.  So I say it’s a race.  But I’m wrong, and I know it, and apparently even beyond my knowing mistake, I’ve also left the impression that I married and received a PhD at the tender age of 19.  Should I just stop telling the story?

I’ve never been called on mistake #2.  Most of my students have probably never even heard of the Navajo.  If they have, they may very well mispronounce the name with a “y” sound in place of the soft, Spanish “j.”  I use the Navajo example to introduce the largest tribe in the U.S.; to introduce the proper pronunciation of their name; and to teach the idea of sovereignty – a very complicated idea to explain to non-native speakers.  By repeatedly referring to the “Navajo Nation,” and by bringing in a word that I know most students will recognize: “passports,” I try to convey the idea that indigenous people strive for sovereignty.  But it’s a complicated idea, and I have no evidence, aside from a vague memory that I cannot verify quickly, that I am correct.  Should I just stop telling the story?

Mistake number 3 only happened once, mercifully.   It was early in my time as a Fulbright rover, and I was teaching a lesson on woman suffrage that I usually use with my university students.  I was looking at a timeline that included the date of adoption of the fourteenth amendment– the amendment granting men citizenship rights regardless of race.  That date is 1868, and I absent-mindedly read it off the page as I answered the question. But what followed was even more concerning for this professor of American history.  No one corrected me.  The question came from the instructor, and, while I worked students through the timeline, he found online a commonly-forwarded near-conspiracy theory comparing the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.  This was his “source” when he reminded me several minutes later of the actual date of Lincoln’s assassination: 1865.   Does it matter if Norwegian students can quickly and easily name the date of Lincoln’s assassination?  Does it matter that no one (not even me!) immediately caught my error?  Does it matter that the source that brought my full attention to the question perpetuates illogical and hysterical conclusions?

Teachers speak often of “balancing” content and pedagogy as if we put both on a scale and wait until the two sides reach an equilibrium.  Adding a role-playing exercise here; subtracting a lecture with PowerPoint there.  “You can be the sage on the stage or the guide by the side,” a teacher once told me.  But that is never how it actually goes down in the classroom.  The two can be a jumbled mess or a delicate and nuanced mélange, but however they appear, they are always tied, always mixed.  Getting the facts right are just a tiny part of the whole.  The briefest of lectures involves split-second decisions regarding word choice that can make students conclude that slavery had little to do with the American Civil War.   The decision to use a historical document that has been translated from another language or decoded, the Code of Hamurabi or the Zimmerman Telegram, can utterly transform students’ understanding of the document itself, regardless of whether they encounter it in a role playing exercise or in their textbook.

History requires nuanced thinking and comfort holding complex, and even contradictory, ideas together. And every teacher will tell you that you are always modeling for your students the skills that you want them to display.  How do you share those complex ideas without just mixing up your students?  How do you prepare them to answer a simple question when you’re whole point is that there are no simple answers?  My fellow university instructors speak of “not doing violence” to the subject matter as they prepare their syllabi.  As they hack away at the number of pages of reading and writing and ditch the war of 1812 for a deeper conversation about the Great Awakening, they shudder to think what students will actually learn in the miserly 15-week semester.  As one teacher here told me, “I just wish there was more time to reflect.  For the students and for me.”  “The clock is the tyrant in the classroom,” I responded with a laugh, but I knew what she meant.

“Just stop worrying about the history,” one teacher here tells me, smiling.  After all, I am in English classes here in Norway.  “It went fine,” says another. “Don’t analyze.”  But it’s my way.  I worry.  I analyze.  I teach history.

One often hears of the humility that comes from studying history.  Usually such statements call our attention to the wide sweep of the past — from the big bang to the present moment.  The point of such reminders is to recognize that we are small in the infinity of the universe.  More rarely one hears of the humility that comes from historical study, the recognition that no matter how deeply one digs in the archives, one can never find all the sources because some of them no longer exist and because some people did not have the influence to leave a record of their voice.  The point of such reminders is to recognize that we will never have total knowledge; we will never have the whole story.  We will never have all the answers.  But it is rarer still to hear of the humility that comes from history teaching: the pain as we tear our subject matter apart; leave aside the decades of scholarship our peers have put into the questions we’re asking; abandon the hope that students will see the same beautiful dance of inquiry and disciplined answer that we are trying to share; and embrace the meager satisfaction of knowing that even when we’ve done our very best, we only come close.


FlanneryBurkeFlannery Burke is associate professor in the Department of History at Saint Louis University and currently serving as a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway.  She specializes in environmental history, the history of the American West, cultural history and gender history. Dr. Burke has been involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning history since 2004, and has served on the writers committee drafting K-12 common core standards for social studies.

Why Are Concepts So Hard?

by Shawn Nordell, PhD, Associate Professor, Biology

“Conceptual understanding” is a learning objective commonly seen in primary, secondary and post-secondary courses as well as throughout the educational literature.   Indeed, there is an emphasis in many disciplines to design a curriculum that promotes students’ conceptual understanding within a discipline rather than simple procedural knowledge or rote learning.   Core concepts can be a keystone of understanding for the student and once understood can transform the students’ learning.

But what exactly is a concept? It turns out to be a term that is not easily defined.   Several dictionaries agree that concepts refer to an abstract idea but agree on little else.  A recent survey of faculty attending a workshop at a pedagogical conference also resulted in a large degree of variation in the definition of a concept.  One commonality was that concepts are different from definitions and statements in that a concept should have some sort of explanatory power.   Using an example from my own discipline, the statement that “behavioral genetics is the study of the genetic and environmental influences on behavior” is a definition of the term “behavioral genetics.”  As such it lies low on the hierarchy of critical thinking skills.  However, the phrase, “the environment influences gene expression and behavior” is a true concept that allows us to understand how variation in the environment can lead to variation in the behaviors of individuals that we observe.   Concepts allow us to synthesize our understanding of a topic and use that to explain some process.  Articulating the key concepts in our disciplines is a challenging task for instructors, so I can only imagine how challenging it might be for our students.

Not surprisingly, students have trouble recognizing concepts.  Recently, Betsy Angeli and I designed a study to determine whether students could discern between recall, conceptual, and application types of questions.  We used modifiers from Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe each type of question.  Specifically, we asked students whether a question asked them to a) identify, recognize or recall; b) classify, compare, or explain; or c) apply, analyze, or predict.  These modifiers refer to a) remembering facts, b) understanding concepts, and c) applying knowledge.  These represent a wide range of levels of cognitive complexity.  We included all three types of questions in each weekly quiz in laboratory sections in an introductory biology course.  The question types were randomly ordered each week.   We also made sure not to include the modifiers in the question itself.

We found that recall questions were correctly identified over 90% of the time, and application questions were correctly identified almost 50% of the time.  However, conceptual questions were correctly identified less than 15% of the time.   It seemed that students also may not have a clear understanding of concepts!  It is important to note that, at the beginning of the semester, students were introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning and given discipline-specific sample questions for each level as an introduction to the types of assessment they should expect in the course.

So why did we get these results?  It is possible that our questions were not clearly designed and that our modifiers perhaps were somewhat ambiguous, but given the very small number of students who correctly identified conceptual questions that does not seem to be the clear answer here.  Perhaps, it is more likely that concepts are a challenging cognitive task and one that we should address more substantially and clearly, both for ourselves and our students.  If we seek to enhance conceptual learning in our students, we need to think about how best to accomplish this.  One approach is to identify core concepts up front at the beginning of class and organize the class activities around those concepts.  Another approach would be to allow students the opportunity to develop the core concepts from their class activities.  Either way, it will be useful to come full circle and discuss how the core concept allows us to deepen our understanding of the topic.  Clearly identifying specific concepts, illustrating those with examples, and providing opportunities to apply concepts are all critical elements for students’ development of their learning.

How do you teach for “conceptual understanding”?  Share your ideas in the Comments section.


Shawn Nordell is an Associate Professor in the Biology Department and a Senior Faculty Fellow for the Reinert Center.  She is currently studying the effect of cognitive complexity on student learning.





Collaborating with your SLU Research Librarian

by Rebecca Hyde, Research & Instruction Librarian, Pius XII Memorial Library

It’s easy to assume students learn about research and library resources before they ever get to your class, but think about the last time you assigned a research project. Were you happy with the quality of the information and the sources your students used? Could your students differentiate between a primary and secondary source? Did you have to field multiple questions about what resources were relevant or appropriate?

Students struggling to find sources for a research assignment may never tap into library resources. They’re starting their research on Google and may be finishing it there. In addition to missing out on top quality resources, the students’ research strategy is often inefficient and they may lack crucial information evaluation skills. Every department is assigned a faculty research librarian who can partner with you to help address these kinds of issues.

In a research intensive course, consider asking your subject librarian to guest lecture for a class or a series of classes. This allows for research instruction specific to the subject and assignment, as well as time for the students to get hands-on practice while an expert is available to answer their questions. Even those students who have attended an introduction to library resources aren’t necessarily fluent in research practices or sources specific to their major and they probably aren’t aware there is a librarian with expertise in their field available to help guide them through the research process.

Think of the class visit with a research librarian as a refresher for you, too! It’s probably not in your schedule to keep up on all the latest resources available to you through the library, or the hottest new digitization project, data repository or research tool that may save you significant time in your own research.

If your course does not have a significant research component, but you want to instill research knowledge and practices for future courses in the major; consider collaborating with your librarian on an assignment to build the students’ research skills in ways that are relevant to your field. Faculty research librarians can provide advice, be a sounding board for your ideas or work with you to develop assignments that meet your course learning objectives related to information literacy and research.

For all your classes, consider including the contact information for your department’s research librarian in the syllabus. Most students do not know what a librarian can do to assist them in finding quality sources, but they value the opinion of their professors and with your suggestion they are more likely to seek out help from a research librarian.

There are research librarians at Pius XII Memorial Library, the Medical Center Library and the SLU Law Library. If you haven’t met your department’s research librarian, give them a call today!


RHydeRebecca Hyde is a faculty research & instruction librarian at Pius XII Memorial Library. She is the subject librarian for Political Science, Urban Planning and Real Estate Development, Government Information, and the School for Professional Studies.