Book Review: Democracy and Education Reconsidered

admin-ajaxby James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

John Dewey’s seminal Democracy and Education is arguably one of the most influential books on education published in the twentieth century. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of its publication, a recent volume proposes “ways of revising Dewey’s thought in light of the challenges facing contemporary education and society” (Garrison, Neubert, & Reich, 2016, p. 1). In Democracy and Education Reconsidered: Dewey After One Hundred Years, the authors work to reconstruct and re-contextualize Dewey’s educational philosophy through various themes, theories, and teaching situations that speak to the democratic issues of our time. Specific attention is given to matters of educational diversity, such as class, race, gender, and disability that were not directly touched upon in Dewey’s original work.

On the contribution of Dewey’s work to the topic of educational diversity, the authors write,

Democracy and Education is essentially a program against discrimination in all possible            forms. Dewey was critical of all forms of social injustice in his time and he often             addressed issues of inequalities that threaten democratic living together…His insistence     on the idea of equal opportunities in society and education and his powerful definition            of education as personal and social growth that must include all in a democracy stand        against exclusions, divisions, and compartmentalizations that obstruct communication     and exchange between individuals, groups, and societies. It is a strong argument for   living in and with diversity” (p. 192).

For Dewey, education and democracy must never be separated. The inclusive and sustainable participation of all people in education is foundational to a functioning democratic society. The authors of Democracy and Education Reconsidered carefully reconstruct and re-contextualize the enduring relevance of this core philosophy. For readers already familiar with Dewey’s work, the “reconsidered” volume offers a fresh perspective on his ideas for education today. For those new to Democracy and Education, it is a concise overview of the thematic contributions of Dewey’s one-hundred-year-old text for both the philosophy and practice of education.

If you would like to discuss Dewey’s educational philosophy and how it might inform your own teaching philosophy and practice, you can complete our online form to request a consultation or call us at (314) 977-3944.


Garrison, J., Neubert, S., & Reich, K. (2016). Democracy and education reconsidered: Dewey after one hundred years. New York, NY: Routledge.

Learning Styles Mini-Literature Review

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Sandy Gambill, Sr. Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

The idea that individuals learn in different ways has been around for centuries. “As early as 334 BC, Aristotle said that “each child possessed specific talents and skills” and he noticed “individual differences in young children.” (Reiff, 92.)

Research on learning styles in the 1970s (Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model)  and 1980’s (Honey and Mumford’s Managerial Model) coalesced in the 1990’s as Neil Fleming developed The VARK Questionnaire. VARK deals with  four primary learning styles. Visual learners prefer to see diagrams, maps and graphics. Auditory learners prefer lectures or hearing explanations. Those who have the read/write style, prefer information written out, while kinesthetic learners prefer active learning experiences such as simulations or demonstrations. These four styles can overlap in individuals who have multimodal style.

The VARK Questionnaire is presented online as an interactive tool that lets you answer a few questions to determine your preferred learning style. For example, my results came back visual: 6, aural: 2, read/write: 8, and kinesthetic: 4, meaning that I have a “mild read/write learning preference.” Once you have completed the questionnaire, VARK suggests study strategies matching your style.

Many teachers have used VARK with their students, so it is not unusual to encounter a student in a class who is very vocal about having a learning style and feeling they can’t learn in other ways. Although the terms learning style and learning preference are used interchangeably in the literature, it is important to help students draw a distinction if they believe their style is set in stone and they can’t learn in other ways.  For example, students who  believe they can only learn through a visual style may question why you are not using PowerPoint or posting your notes online, even if that doesn’t fit with the pedagogy of the course. You may need to have a conversation with them about study strategies for their course, such as making their own diagrams from their notes.

VARK also features a teaching style questionnaire. Contrast my results here with my learning style preference: visual: 3, aural: 8, read/write: 5, kinesthetic: 2. This indicates I have a “mild aural teaching preference,” which is really at odds with my read/write learning preference. In fact, as a learner, I scored lower in the aural category than any other. As a teacher with an aural style, I need to think about what I like as a learner and make sure I’m not just saying something in class once and expecting students to get it. Tasks such as remembering to put assignments in writing, rather than just talking through them in class become very important.

While the jury is still out on whether or not learning styles actually exist, or that mapping your instruction to specific learning styles helps learners, (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork, 2008), there is growing interest in learning styles as a tool to create a more inclusive classroom.  Consider having your students use VARK to determine their learning style. Then take the teaching style questionnaire yourself. Are your teaching strategies in sync with the way your students believe they best learn? If not, how can you bridge the gap?

If you want to learn more about learning styles, explore these resources.

  1. Reiff, Judith C., Learning Styles. What Research Says to The Teacher Series.

  2. David Kolb

  3. Honey and Mumford:

  4. Neil Fleming’s Vark:

  5. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Pasher, McDaniel, Rohrer and Bjork. Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

  6. Learning Styles and Pedagogy in post 16 learning: a critical review . Learning and Skills Research Center.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

Person-Centered Perspectives on Inclusive Teaching

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

“Learning of all kinds goes on best, lasts best, and tends to lead itself on more when it grows out of a real focus of interest in the learner.”  - Carl Rogers

Establishing an inclusive learning environment can depend on how well instructors encourage and maintain working relationships with students.   Psychologist Carl Rogers addressed the relational dynamics of teaching by incorporating many of the same concepts found within his humanistic approach to counseling.  His “person-centered teaching” perspective is one in which the facilitative interpersonal relationships associated with learning are considered alongside cognitive and academic development.  Socio-emotional competencies are considered an essential aspect of the overall learning experience for students.

In his book, Freedom to Learn (1994), Rogers provided three key characteristics to “person-centered teaching.” Each characteristic considers how an instructor’s affect and attitude towards students impacts the socio-emotional abilities related to student motivation, personal agency, and responsibility for learning.  Rogers explains how congruence, empathetic understanding, and “unconditional positive regard” are critical components to providing a learning environment to help improve interpersonal functioning, develop confidence and emotional regulation, and to help maintain an environment of trust that benefits all students

Below is a brief explanation of each of the three core conditions of Rogers’ person-centered teaching; congruence, empathetic understandi­­ng, and unconditional positive regard.  Each one includes a few practical techniques you can use in a variety of teaching situations.  Whether teaching in a face-to-face course, online, or in a hybrid learning environment, a person-centered perspective can have a profound impact on a student’s educational experience.

Congruence – Also known as genuineness or authenticity, congruence is when instructors can present their “true authentic self” in the classroom.  Instructors who show congruence appear more “real” or human to students by expressing emotions at appropriate times.  For example, showing vulnerability when stumped by a student’s question is an opportunity to demonstrate congruence.  Rather than pretending to know the answer, promise to investigate their question out-of-class and to get back with them.  This response demonstrates that students’ concerns are important to you and that is acceptable to not know everything.  When you follow up to their questions, it demonstrates their learning is important to you and that they are valued. (Rogers, 1962; Rogers & Freiberg, 1994)

Empathic understanding –  The ability for an instructor to accurately understand the student’s experience, and to help create opportunities for students to recognize the experience of others has a profound impact on student learning.  In a 2014 study by Reinhard Tausch and Renate Hüls (Rogers, Lyon & Tausch, 2014), described the profound emotional consequences of insufficient empathy towards students.  Their empirical study shows how a lack of instructor empathy had a significant psychological impact on learning, motivation, and student confidence.  In contrast, students who expressed they felt compassion and empathy from their instructors felt motivated, understood, and encouraged to learn.  Creating opportunities where students can express their learning experience can help create an atmosphere of empathetic understanding.  Offering journaling exercises, holding regular office hours or regularly providing opportunities where every student can participate in class discussions can help encourage student academic performance but also bolster self-confidence and emotional well-being.

Unconditional Positive Regard – Rogers’ concept of unconditional positive regard is a practice in which instructors express an appreciation of all students.  When students feel valued and respected, they contribute more to the overall learning experience.  Class assignments that provide a space for self-expression or that allow students to share their perspective on learning contribute to an environment of unconditional positive regard.  Although unconditional positive regard can be difficult to manage in an evaluative classroom setting, showing that all student contributions are valued demonstrates a genuine care and concern for students.  However, when a student needs to be confronted, conducting an individual, out-of-class meeting where the instructor offers care and concern for the student can help retain a climate of unconditional positive regard. (Carruth & Field, 2016)

If you would like to talk further about person-centered teaching or want to schedule a consultation to learn more about humanist education, please feel free to contact me directly at


Carruth, E., & Field, T. (2016). Person-Centered Approaches: Providing Social and Emotional

Support for Adult Learners. In Supporting the Success of Adult and Online Students. CreateSpace.

Rogers, C. R. (1962). The interpersonal relationship. Harvard Educational Review, 32(4),


Rogers, C. R., & Freiberg, H. J. (1994). Freedom to learn, 3rd ed., Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Rogers, C. R., Lyon, H. C., & Tausch, R. (2014). On becoming an effective teacher:

Person-centered teaching, psychology, philosophy, and dialogues with Carl R. Rogers and Harold Lyon. New York, NY: Routledge.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

A new resource guide on Assessment in Diverse Classrooms

inclusive teaching banner_FINALA new resource guide on Assessment in Diverse Classrooms [LINK] has been posted to the Reinert Center website [LINK].

If you want to talk with someone about this topic in your own classes, you may request a teaching consultation by completing this form [LINK].

If you have ideas for resource guide topics you would like to see posted, share them here [LINK].

Collecting and Reacting to Student Feedback

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214by Mitch Lorenz, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

When thinking about asking students for feedback there are a number of factors to consider. Your motivation as the instructor, the students’ motivation to provide authentic feedback, as well as your intentions for how to use the feedback all play a role in how the feedback might look, when it should be administered, and how students will respond.

Motivation of the Teacher

Consider why you are seeking feedback. These motivations may range from curiosity (e.g., Are my materials easy to follow?) to problem-based (e.g., Why did this assignment not provide the intended results?). You will also want to consider how you plan to use the feedback. Will you react immediately, making changes to the current course? Perhaps you will not make any immediate changes but, instead, use the information you receive to adjust your course before you teach it next.

Motivation of the Student

Consider the motivation of the student asked to provide feedback. Whether or not the feedback is anonymous in nature is likely to influence how candid students are as they may fear offending the teacher if they are too straightforward with criticisms. Additionally, students will be more likely to provide thorough and authentic feedback if they expect to see their comments addressed in some way. The timing of the feedback plays a role in this, as feedback opportunities provided late in the semester (e.g., end of course evaluations) provide little opportunity for any changes to be made for students currently enrolled in a course.

Recommendations (adapted from McKeachie & Svinicki, 2013)

  • Don’t use standard forms

Targeting questions to address specific components of the class and the actual goal you have for seeking feedback will lead to responses more likely to provide insight. You may also use less traditional methods, such as inviting students to provide feedback in person during appointed times or having students fill out feedback forms in groups. Tailor the feedback to the situation and your goals for what you hope to learn.

  • Collect feedback early enough for students to see results

Students will invest more if they believe they are likely to see their feedback have an impact. Even if you are not planning to make changes, informing students of the impact their feedback will have in future semesters can help them feel as if they’re making a difference.

  • Be realistic in your response to the feedback

You may identify a number of things you could change but select two or three small things and leave the rest for future iterations of the class. Over-reacting to feedback can be just as detrimental as not reacting to the feedback at all, as it may distract you or lead to changes in areas that were already effectively guiding student learning.

Resources at Saint Louis University

  • Small Group Instructional Feedback (SGIF)

Reinert Center staff collects mid-semester feedback anonymously at the individual, small group, and class-wide level with responses collected and returned to instructors before the next class session. Two open-ended questions are presented to students related to what is effective for their learning and what changes could be made to help their learning. More information is available on the Reinert Center website (here).

  • Qualtrics

Qualtrics is a powerful survey tool made available to SLU students and faculty. It can be used to create anonymous surveys that can distributed to students with relative ease.



McKeachie, W. & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips. Cengage Learning


Queer Pedagogy

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Queer pedagogy is an emerging area of research among scholars and instructors who are committed to creating inclusive learning environments for all students. Informed largely by queer theory and concerned with the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender learners, queer pedagogy is an interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes the value of fluidity, uncertainty, and multiple possibilities in and as educational experiences (Yep, Lovaas, & Elia, 2003). It is an approach that seeks diverse perspectives “about topics that are slippery and dynamic, such as cognitive and clinical psychology, social studies of all kinds, physics, math, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and so on” (Shlasko, 2005, p. 133). And it has critical implications not only for what we teach, but also how and for whom we teach. If you are interested in applying and trying queer pedagogy in your teaching, G. D. Shlasko (2005) offers several practical suggestions for places to start. I really like the following three ideas:

  • Constantly multiply the possibilities of knowledge by focusing on questions, rather than on answers. Queer pedagogy seeks to disrupt linear, transmission models of teaching that view students as passive recipients of information. Try beginning the course planning and design process by asking yourself, “What questions shall we ask of each other? After we explore those questions, what will have been left out? And then, what other questions shall we ask of each other?” (Shlasko, 2005, p. 128). Your responses to these questions can help queer course goals and objectives, materials and texts, and learning activities.
  • Incorporate texts about and from the perspective of queer people, and encourage students to read all course texts “queerly.” One way to do this is to include readings that are explicitly about queer identities and experiences, or published by queer writers and scholars. Another strategy is to encourage more self-reflective, queer reading throughout the course. Try using the following reading questions for class discussion, “What does this text mean, because of my reading, that it did not mean before? Why did I understand it to mean that, and not something else? How else could one read it? What else could it mean?” (Davis & Sumara, 2000; Kumashiro, 2002). These questions not only help students begin to think more critically and queerly about a reading, they can also create space for different experiences, identities, and voices to contribute to class discussions.
  • Rethink what does and does not constitute being “out” in the classroom, for both you and your students. Deciding why, when, and how to disclose aspects of our identities in the classroom is a challenge for any instructor. The process of “coming out” to students (as well as to colleagues) is especially difficult for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender instructors. Queer pedagogues suggest “any teacher can bring multiple, fluid identities and knowledges into the classroom” (Shlasko, 2005, p. 131). The point is not to identify one way or the other. Rather, the point is to make present in the room multiple ways of doing gender and of understanding gender (e.g., Khayatt, 1997; Kopelson, 2002; Shlasko, 2005). As such, a “performative acknowledgment of queer possibility” (Shlasko, 2000, p. 131) can help foster safer, more inclusive classrooms (and campuses!) where a range of identity expressions is possible for everyone (Rofes, 1998).

These are a few ways you can begin to enact a queer pedagogy in your teaching. The references listed below are thoroughly queer and offer a nice balance of theoretical and practical discussions of queer theory in educational contexts – check them out!

If you have any questions about the content of this blog post or want to schedule a consultation to learn more about queer pedagogy, please contact the Reinert Center or feel free to email me directly at



Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2000). Another queer theory: Reading complexity theory as a moral and ethical imperative. In S. Talburt & S. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Thinking queer: Sexuality, culture, and education (pp. 105-130). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Khayatt, D. (1997). Sex and the teacher: Should we come out in class? Harvard Educational Review, 67, 126-143.

Kopelson, K. (2002). Dis/integrating the gay/queer binary: “Reconstructed identity politics” for a performative pedagogy. College English, 65, 17-35.

Kumashiro, K. (2002). Troubling education: Queer activism and antioppression pedagogy. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Rofes, E. (1998). Transgression and the situated body: Gender, sex, and the gay male teacher. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association.

Shlasko, G. D. (2005). Queer (v.) pedagogy. Equity & Excellence in Education, 38, 123-134.

Yep, G., Lovass, K., & Elia, J. (2003). Queering communication: Starting the conversation. Journal of Homosexuality, 45, 1-10.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

What We’re Reading Lately: About Online Teaching and Learning

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214Online Learning Journal Volume 2, Issue 4 – December 2016

The Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan C) recently published a special issue of the seven best research papers presented at The 2016 American Educational Research Association Special Interest Group (SIG) on Online Teaching and Learning.  Research topics include Culturally Responsive Teaching Knowledge and Practices of Online Faculty.
The special issue can be downloaded as a pdf at link:

Teaching Diversity Online Is Possible. These Professors Tell You How.
Chronicle of Higher Education

Do you hesitate to raise difficult topics like race and diversity in an online course or is this something that keeps you from teaching online altogether? The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked professors to write in with their strategies for building trust in an online course so these discussions might be possible. Although some of the courses discussed are on diversity, the suggestions apply to any online course dealing with difficult topics.

Interaction matters: Strategies to promote engaged learning in an online introductory nutrition course  
Journal of Online Teaching and Learning

This research was conducted to determine the impact of incorporating student feedback on making online courses more interactive on student engagement and learning. It examines specific student suggestions and strategies that could be implemented in any course. The introduction provides an overview of the body of research on the importance of interaction in online courses.

Using Twitter to Promote Inclusive Learning

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Gina Merys, Associate Director, Reinert Center

While it is easy to think of social media as a place for non-academic conversations or short bursts of impulsive prose, using social media can also be a way to link students’ experiences out of the classroom with what they are learning in the classroom. Not only can this kind of practice help students see their learning as applicable beyond a discrete classroom assignment, but also it can support inclusion in a course.

In the past few years we have seen increasing attention given to the concepts of “introversion” and “extraversion” and how the associated personality traits may put a student at an advantage or disadvantage in the current U.S. American educational model. Additionally, we know that international students and multilingual students often display traits similar to those of introverts when in a classroom situation due to a variety of situational factors such as language fluency and cultural norms for participation. Turning to the use of social media to create structured assignments opens the possibility for students to engage with course material and each other in ways that are fundamentally different than interactions inside of the classroom.

Asking students to post specific insights, experiences, and observations to a social media platform such as Twitter is one example of a class assignment that can achieve the goals of learning class material and connecting it to something in daily life outside of the classroom, while also creating an inclusive avenue for that learning. In a rhetoric of social justice course, for instance, I have asked students to post observations, images, video clips, brief transcripts of overheard conversations, and the like using a shared hashtag on Twitter. They learn to apply the lessons of rhetorical awareness (identifying the rhetorical methods, applying knowledge to a new situation, analyzing the message, making conclusions, etc.) to authentic messages about social justice they encounter as they live their life. At the same time, those students who do not generally participate in the classroom through oral responses and questions have the ability to do so through an outlet that allows them to take time composing, and even revising, their thoughts. Because it is an activity that clearly links to the learning objectives of my class as well as the goals of engagement with materials and classmates, students take it seriously and gain from the experience in ways that are clear in other assessments later in the term.

This type of class assignment is easily adapted to other disciplines, lessons, and situations. In a plant science course, students could tweet photos of moss; or, in a calculus class, students could tweet examples of formula application. Other social media platforms, including a simple discussion board or blog post within a Course Management System, such as Blackboard could be substituted as well. As long as the formula (course material + learning objective + real world) matches the social media platform used, the discipline or lesson is nearly infinitely interchangeable.

If you would like to discuss ideas for inclusive teaching using social media for your classes, contact the Reinert Center (


Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Broadway Books, 2013.

Carroll, Judith and Janette Ryan. Teaching International Students: Improving Learning for All.        Routledge, 2007.

Godsey, Michael. “When Schools Overlook Introverts.” The Atlantic. Sept. 28, 2015.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

Features of an Inclusive Syllabus

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

Creating an inclusive learning environment begins with the course syllabus. In spite of how packed with information our syllabi can be, they often exclude more than they include. Disciplinary jargon and institutional abbreviations, the unwritten academic “rules of the game” we assume all students understand, the tone used when we lay out (un)acceptable student behaviors—in all of these choices, we communicate (however unintentionally) messages about how inclusive or exclusive our courses will be.

These messages have the potential to start students off on inequitable footing from the outset. First-generation college students or brand-new doctoral students may not yet understand the norms of formal academic work in higher education. Novices beginning their study of a subject for the first time may not be able to understand course descriptions that include discipline-specific concepts. Students with certain kinds of disabilities may find classroom participation or course attendance policies at odds with their ability to be successful in a course.

To use the syllabus as a tool for inclusion, consider the extent to which your syllabi reflect the following features. Among other things, an inclusive syllabus . . . .

Incorporates content that represents a diverse set of perspectives and experiences: choosing content from authors/creators of diverse social identities and disciplinary sub-fields helps students to see that scholars from all identity groups have a stake in the work of your field and that success in the field is not limited to a privileged few.

Prioritizes learning over content and/or rules: this may include stating learning goals explicitly, framing major assignments as learning activities (rather than grading activities), offering guidance on how to study / read / prepare for class successfully, and providing some of the rationale behind important course design decisions.

Is framed as an invitation, rather than a contract: this may include an emphasis on the opportunities for learning the course will present, a tone that does not alienate students, and a focus on what students will gain from the course and what kinds of actions lead to those gains rather than a focus on rules and behavior to be avoided.

Explicitly articulates the norms and/or hidden “rules” you assume all students know: many students come to us without clear understanding of classroom norms or “rules” for successful academic work in the university setting. This is true of first-generation college students, students who come to study in the U.S.A. from other cultures/countries, and students returning to school after a significant time away. The more explicit you can be about your expectations, the more likely students will be to meet the high standards you set. (For more on academic rigor and inclusive teaching, see this blog post.)

Explicitly values differences in students’ social identities and considers how these might affect students’ experience in the course: including language that explicitly values diversity, privileges dialogue over debate, and considers the types of supports some students may need are ways to demonstrate your commitment to inclusion. This may take many forms, including: asking students to indicate their preferred gender pronoun (rather than assuming you know from appearance), expressing explicit value for divergent points of view, creating ground rules for inclusive dialogue, and incorporating inclusive statements about course content.

Allows for multiple ways to learn and demonstrate learning: This might include varying assignment types to balance individual and collaborative tasks or written and oral tasks. Or, it might include allowing students to choose how they will demonstrate their learning and achievement of assignment objectives.

There are lots of other ways to make your syllabus more inclusive, including other practices advocated for by those committed to universal design of instruction. (This website from the University of Washington [LINK] offers a good overview of UDI. And this Before [PDF] and After [PDF] view of one syllabus offers an example of small changes that can make your syllabus design more inclusive.)

The next time you create or revise a syllabus, consider incorporating the features described above. You don’t need to add them all at once; try layering a few strategies each time you revise your syllabus and see what you think.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at

A Creative Teaching Tip that Doesn’t Involve Reinventing the Wheel

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Elizabeth Gockel-Blessing, Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedical Laboratory Science

PROLOGUE: Setting the Stage

For over 20 years, I taught a medical laboratory science course that contained an interactive case study unit.  The cases consist of a short introduction of the patient under investigation, the patient’s symptoms, and initial laboratory tests and results that not only need interpretation, but often require the determination of next steps.  Some of the cases require students to predict the outcome of performing such next steps along with justification for their use.  My original goal for this unit was to create and present a series of “no frills” interactive cases.  I paid no attention to consistency, details, and connections between and among them.   As I am sure many readers can relate, I was only a unit or so ahead of the class in preparation and thus time was of the essence.  It did not take long at all before realizing how boring these traditional case studies were for not only me as the teacher but also for the students.  I was in the process of slowly converting my courses from traditional formats to using creative strategies whenever possible.  The time had come to transform the interactive case study unit.  My next challenge was how to do so without reinventing the wheel.

ACT ONE: Getting the Wheel in Motion

After significant “incubation” time during which I pondered this challenge and possible creative solutions, the light bulb went off!  What if I were to integrate a theme into these cases so they all were connected?  This could work if I selected a theme that spoke to the audience.  One of my first thoughts was to build a theme around one of my favorite shows in college, Dallas. I say this in part because, like so many of us, we know where we were when we found out who shot J.R.!  Just for the record, I was in the common living room area of my College dorm where the only television was located. I will never forget Sue Ellen’s famous line:  “It was YOU, Kristen who shot J.R.!” Sadly, when I had the opportunity to ask the students the question as to whether they knew who shot J.R. on the television show Dallas, to my disappointment, I received a resounding response of “Who is J.R.?”  Ouch!  I am getting older!

Another thought regarding a theme that crossed my mind would be to select a current television show. The only shows that I even knew something about were the medical and CSI shows of the day.  I was already using them creatively in a different course that these same students would eventually take.  Sadly, I did not (and still do not) know enough about other modern day shows to effectively use them.  So needless-to-say, none of these shows was not an option for an appropriate theme.

It was critical for me as the teacher that the students relate to the theme selected.  Upon further reflection, I remembered earlier non-course related conversations with the students that, thanks to Nickelodeon and other like television channels, they were familiar with some of the shows from “yesteryear” (a.k.a. my growing up years).  I marveled at the fact that these students actually knew about Gomer Pyle, Gillligan’s Island, and The Munsters!  After careful consideration, I settled on The Andy Griffith Show.  While I might have been able to do so with other shows of the day, I liked this one as it allowed me to create a “world” relatively easily, in this case the fictional town of Mayberry, in which the characters lived, worked, and played.  Finally, I was on to a theme that just might work!

ACT TWO:  The Wheel Goes Round and Round

I systematically and thoughtfully reviewed each interactive case study to determine which Andy Griffith show character best fit as the “person of interest” (that is, the patient).  I tweaked each case study just enough to assign it the appropriate character name, connect it to the other cases in the unit, and contribute to the “world” of Mayberry.

The original interactive case study unit had an “overview” section that was in writing.  To introduce the students to this unit of instruction, I verbally went through the overview section in class.  I made the necessary revisions to both the written overview & the pertinent section of the corresponding introduction to the unit lecture.  I tweaked the remaining content in this unit and wove the Andy Griffith Show theme thread throughout the class sessions that accompanied the case study unit.  It was great because the course content was already in place. All I had to do was change the fictitious patient names and incorporate aspects of the show into the sessions as appropriate.  Furthermore, I had the students assume the role of laboratorian in the Mayberry hospital laboratory responsible for the testing and analysis of laboratory samples on these patients.

By the end of the unit, students were very familiar and became engaged with Mayberry and all of the key characters, whether they knew much about the show before or not. As new details regarding the characters’ medical conditions were revealed, the students began to not only put the medical puzzle pieces together, but also that of the deep connection between these fictional characters and themselves.   To my great delight, the students overwhelmingly enjoyed this themed unit of study.  In fact, I continued the theme into the corresponding exam.  I particularly remember how I conducted a mini-observation study by watching the body language of the students taking this exam.  The smiles, smirks and subtle grins “sealed the deal” for me moving forward!


What I described here is just one of the many creative strategies I implemented into my teaching over the years.  What a difference some tweaking to an established unit of study can make not only for the students but also for me as the teacher.  Students repeatedly told me that they love the fact that these strategies are non-traditional and as such they look forward to upcoming classes in the course because they don’t know what will happen next.  I love the potential element of surprise and suspense, not to mention the challenge that goes along with keeping class sessions new and fresh!  Students particularly seemed to gravitate and relate to the fact the fictitious characters turned fictitious patients were all connected both in the show and in the unit of study.  I found the unit to be a refreshing change of pace.  The class sessions and case studies were connected by the fictitious town of Mayberry and its patient citizens.  The students participated as laboratorians in the Mayberry hospital laboratory.  I was able to incorporate content consistency and provide details under the auspices of the themed unit of study.  Seeing the students’ reactions and engagement transformed the once boring case study unit into one with creatively presented content, rigor, and humor.

I am eager to take this concept further by more emphasis on the students’ role in such units of study.  I can see how many related aspects to laboratory medicine such as ethical considerations and managerial responsibilities could be incorporated into such units of study. So, here’s my challenge to you:  What teaching adjustments will you make that don’t reinvent the wheel?