Communicating Engagement, Engaging Communication: Part 2

Reinert Center by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Earlier this fall, I posted a short entry in The Notebook about the role of communication in developing and sustaining classroom engagement. I described engagement as a “potentially inventive conversation between communities with differences,” wherein members work together to generate new ways of thinking and talking (Deetz, 2008, p. 290, emphasis added). Below, I offer three interactive moments to invite this kind of conversation with students. These moments help raise to a conscious level the role of communication in teaching and learning, with the goal of engaging different identities and experiences in ways that create a stronger sense of community and commitment to understanding.

1.      Provide an example of a code of conduct, statement of ethics, or oath of inclusion at the start of the semester as a way to begin communicating about engagement

 For example, I give my students a copy of the Credo for Ethical Communication endorsed by the National Communication Association. As a class, we discuss reasons why associations, organizations, and communities might produce this type of document, as well as the ways it may function (or not) in practice. I encourage honest reactions from students to each principle (e.g., “We promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators”) and invite examples of each principle as a form of communication practice. My goal is to get students thinking (and talking!) about communication in more mindful and intentional ways. The Oath of Inclusion in the SLU 2015-2016 Student Handbook is another excellent resource to help facilitate this conversation.

 2.      Ask students to develop and prioritize a list of best principles for engaging communication throughout the semester

 We do this first in small groups and then as a class, identifying common threads and clarifying differences when needed. We often select one or two principles from the National Communication Association credo to include on our list. However, we almost always tweak the wording to better capture the course goals and the needs of our specific classroom community. Most of the principles on our list emerge from the open discussion of the credo, which results in an inventive, unique list for our course. I truly value this inductive process because it integrates multiple voices and experiences into the formation of community principles for engagement. Once the list is final, I give each student a hard copy and also post the list online. I encourage students to reflect on the list before, during, and after each class. I commit to doing the same.

3.      Revisit the principles as a way to sustain ongoing reflection about the challenges and successes of communicating for engagement

At least twice during the semester, I set aside time for us to revisit the list and discuss how successful we have been at practicing each of the principles. It is important to keep this conversation at the community level and not scapegoat individual students as uncommitted. It is equally important to avoid praising individual students, as it risks diminishing the value of the community practice. Instead, ask students to identify challenges and successes of the entire class – and then work to revise, prioritize, and commit to key principles needed to support mutual learning, growth, and change over time. Communicating in this way can be exhausting, and even frightening. As Stan Deetz (2008) reminds us, there is an element of risk involved because it asks us to open ourselves up to others without knowing where the conversation will lead. I remind students that engagement is a process involving ongoing moments of understanding, reflection, and invention. It is the process that is the reward, and certainly worth the risk.

I hope these ideas for developing moments of engagement will provoke new ways of thinking and talking in your courses. My experience suggests students draw from the list of principles to inform how they participate in the course, but students also find ways to infuse into other course elements the same processes of discussion, collaboration, and creation that helped create the original list of principles (e.g., classroom discussions, group projects, study sessions, etc.). Thus, communicating about engagement is a powerful determinant for supporting its practice.

If you would like to schedule a consultation to talk further about communicating engagement and engaging communication in your teaching, please contact the Reinert Center at Please also consider sharing your perspectives on communication and engagement, or reflections on ideas introduced in this blog post, in the comment section below.



Deetz, S. (2008). Engagement as co-generative theorizing. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 36, 287-297.

Collaborations in Teaching and Learning: A Transformative Experience

by Lenin Grajo, Assistant Professor, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

In the Fall semester of 2013, I started having conversations about an international teaching and learning collaboration with a colleague and mentor of mine from the Department of Occupational Therapy in the University of the Philippines in Manila (UPM) for implementation in the fall of the following year.  The goal was simple: provide opportunities for students to learn about the influence of culture in the study of occupational science. Now, after two years of implementing this collaboration, I realize the outcomes not only transformed my students’ view of themselves as people who actively engage in daily meaningful activities (called occupations in my field), but also transformed the way I teach and measure my teaching practices.

In a recent editorial for a special issue on Global Partnerships for the Occupational Therapy International journal, Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar and colleagues (2015) highlighted how international collaborations in occupational therapy curricula can help transform student learning. Using Mezirow’s transformational learning theory (1997) as a main premise, Balcazar-Suarez and colleagues discussed how students are able to examine and reflect on their own belief systems, behaviors and understanding of themselves through meaningful and guided interactions with international peers during an educational collaboration.

My involvement with the Reiner Center as a 2015 Faculty Fellow provides me a unique chance to survey faculty at Saint Louis University (SLU) about other existing international teaching and learning collaborations. My goal for this project is to share information and promote more teaching and learning collaborations within programs at SLU.  In this reflection post, I would like to broaden Balcazar-Suarez and colleagues’ discussions, share my personal perspectives and emphasize how teaching and learning collaborations can not only transform student learning but transform how educators examine their teaching practices, deliver learning material and measure effectiveness of the teaching and learning process in various courses and programs.  Below, I share three main perspectives.

I.  Planning a teaching and learning collaboration allows opportunities to re-examine and critically reflect on our teaching philosophies and approaches.

After two years of teaching the same course in our undergraduate program, I decided it is time to enrich the learning opportunities offered through the course by thinking of opportunities for a teaching and learning collaboration.  I reached out to my mentor and colleague in the University of the Philippines.  The process involved a redesign for both the SLU and UPM courses.  The collaboration provided opportunities for me and my collaborator to examine the way we teach our courses, how we can seamlessly bridge the objectives of the collaboration with our course objectives, and how our individual teaching approaches can be enhanced and used optimally in the collaboration.

II. Conversations with collaborating peers provide rich discussions about content expertise, current best and effective practices, and new ways of thinking and knowing. Collaborations can also help make educators more creative when thinking about how to measure outcomes of the teaching and learning process.

Several emails and Skype meetings provided my collaborator and I many opportunities to share our teaching practices, how we measure student learning outcomes, and reciprocal and continued mentorship.  The process allowed us to develop creative ways of delivering content (my collaborator and I thought of multiple ways to deliver presentations in live and recorded formats to account for internet connection challenges and geographical time difference), ways to bridge two different curricula of occupational science and occupational therapy programs (the SLU OT program is a master’s program with an undergraduate occupational science program and the UPM program is a bachelor’s in OT program), and various ways to measure the effectiveness of the collaboration in achieving learning outcomes (we developed enhanced analysis and reflection assignments and a mixed-method survey to measure impacts of the activity).

III. Teaching and learning collaborations provide great means for educators to contextualize learning materials, bridging the gap between classroom-based learning and practical learning.

The courses I teach provide me constant means to reflect on how I can scaffold learning of very theoretical concepts to real life applications.  Being in the health professions, students always ask how concepts learned in class can help them pass their certification exam and how they can be used in clinical practice.  When developing the teaching and learning collaboration, I had to be very cognizant of these student expectations and make sure that this new teaching and learning activity is not just a filler activity, busy work, or something that students will just forget after the course run has finished.  The process and the collaboration provided real opportunities for me and my students to discuss similarities and differences in perspectives and practices in the way people perform daily activities.  This is very similar to how my students might encounter clients in the future who will share very different opinions, beliefs, and cultural practices from their own.  Being an educator born and raised with a culture very different from that of my students, I have learned the value of being uncomfortable with differences.  These moments of discomfort, however, provide great teachable moments and reflection points that students always appreciate.

Developing and implementing an international teaching and learning collaboration has made a significant impact in my life as an educator.  Collaborations do not have to be big and international.  Educators can survey existing community-based programs and resources that can be utilized for teaching and learning purposes.  Collaborations can also be within programs, departments or colleges.  I encourage you to reflect on the courses that you currently teach and think of ways you can bring in meaningful teaching and learning collaborations from various resources available to you and your learning community.



Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997(74): 5–12.

Suaraz-Balcazar, Y., Hammel, J., Mayo, L., Inwald, S. & Sen, S. (2013). Innovation in global collaborations: From student placement to mutually beneficial exchanges. Occupational Therapy International, 20, 94-101. doi: 10.1002/oti.1341


The Author

Grajo pic (2)Lenin Grajo, PhD, EdM, OTR is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Doisy College of Health Sciences.  He is the recipient of the 2015 Outstanding Educator Award of the Missouri Occupational Therapy Association, and currently the Mary L. Stephen Faculty Fellow for Scholarly Teaching at the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.  He is also the Professional Development Coordinator of the Education Special Interest Section of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

How Do I Get My Students to Read the Assignment?

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

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

  • Teach reading strategies

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

  • Explain why the readings are important

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

  • Hold the students accountable

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

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

Teaching History As the “Great Unknown”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Trick or Treat

by Steve Sanchez, Assistant Provost

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Creative Critical Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recommended Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Make Office Hours Great Again

3681836715_84235b8c8b_qby Mitch Lorenz, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

teaching and learning. APS Observer19, 12-13.

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

Carolina Press.

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

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

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Upcoming Events at the Reinert Center

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Symposium

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

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

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

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

To register to attend, please click here.


Brown Bag: The Apprenticeship Workshop Model for PhD Dissertation Direction

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

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

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

Click here to register.


Faculty Panel on Thinking Critically in the Disciplines

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

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

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

Please click here to register

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

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

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

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

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

What does critical media literacy look like?

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

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

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

Resources: To learn more about media literacy visit

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