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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Explain reading assignments’ relevance

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

  • Preview the reading

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

  • Use class activities that increase compliance and effectiveness

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

  • Use class time

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

  • Require prior reading

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

  • Test over reading material

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

  • Teach reading strategies overtly

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Flickr

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

by Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources for designing community-based inquiry focused on Ferguson.

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

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

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

Lauren-ArendLauren Arend is an Associate Professor in the department of Educational Studies. Before pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Louis University, Lauren worked with young children and teachers of young children at the International Child Resource Institute in Berkeley, California. Lauren’s research focuses on early childhood leadership, particularly how early childhood directors develop a leadership practice. Lauren currently serves as a Reinert Center Faculty Fellow.

Reinert Center Supports Research on Teaching and Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Metanoia” in PhD Mentoring

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Photo of IF-AT form courtesy of Epstein Educational Enterprises

Empowering Students to Use Sources Responsibly: One Small, Powerful Book for Students

harvey_wws2_165x260by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

Let me begin with a confessional tale: When I was first assigned Gordon Harvey’s Writing with Sources, I was a young graduate student, preparing to teach an undergraduate course.  The book seemed straightforward enough, and there were many things in it I already knew (e.g., the literal definition of plagiarism, the reasons one “shouldn’t” plagiarize, some grammatical approaches to incorporating others’ ideas and words into my own work).  But there were also some things in it I’d never encountered before, things like “dual submission” and “structural plagiarism,” sins I felt sure I had myself committed as an undergraduate writer without even knowing it.

First, I was horrified; I had been a good student, a rule-follower, a praised writer.  Then, I was curious: how could it be that no one in my own undergraduate education had ever talked about the more subtle “misuses” of sources with me?  After almost 20 years of working with student writers and graduate student teachers of writing, I believe the answer has something to do with the assumptions we make about what students know and don’t know about “writing with sources,” and about what others are teaching them about this important topic.

Originally prepared for first-year writing students at Harvard, Harvey’s book is relevant for students in all disciplines, at all levels of study.  It’s a thin book, just 70 pages in length. Paperback. Inexpensive for a course text.  It is also powerful in its brevity.  Harvey begins with a brief treatment of “The Role of Sources” (chapter 1), examining “the why” of using sources in the first place – and the different roles that different types of sources can play in academic work.  He then moves to a consideration of “Integrating Sources” (chapter 2), looking at some of the different methods for bringing sources to bear in one’s own work.  So far, so good.

It’s really in the third chapter, “Misuse of Sources,” that Harvey gets into the subtleties of what can constitute source “misuse” – and where he offers very practical advice to students on how to avoid these misuses.  And it’s here that he makes explicit many of the concepts related to responsible source use that so many of us leave implied.  Finally, in the last chapter, he considers several different “Styles of Citation,” which may seem, on its face, not especially interesting.  However, what’s useful in this chapter is that it gestures toward citation methods as styles, which creates an opening for further dialogue with students about why different fields of study privilege different methods and what might be at stake, disciplinarily, in those differences.

If you’re looking for a quick, manageable resource to help students better understand the subtleties of source use, this book is a good one.  It can begin a general conversation, allowing you to shape its lessons for your particular field.  While it does help students to understand matters of correctness, perhaps its most powerful quality is that it privileges the role of sources in academic writing – and the reasons behind students’ misuse of sources – in ways that are more likely to empower students to use sources in the ways we most hope they will: to expand their own ideas and arguments and thinking, to enter new dialogues and discourses in responsible ways.

Students’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Course Relevance

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Kelly McEnerny, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Imagine attending a course that seemed not to relate to your goals and showed little compatibility with your interests. For anyone who can remember furtively glancing at the clock in the back of the classroom, this exercise should be easy. Your experience would likely have involved some lack of motivation. One can argue that, when teachers make information relevant to students, they increase students’ motivation to learn. Indeed, students have commonly ranked course relevance as a top motivating factor in their learning (Sass, 1989; Weaver & Cottrell, 1988; Frymier & Shulman, 1995). But what does relevance look like in a classroom, and, importantly, what does relevance mean to students? Muddiman and Frymier (2009) asked 184 college students to produce a list of relevance increasing strategies using the prompt “what teaching strategies, tactics, and other behaviors do undergraduate students perceive as increasing content relevance of material presented in their college courses?” Several categories of strategies emerged, suggesting that students’ conceptions of relevance were broad and multifaceted. Students recounted parallels that teachers drew between course content and domains inside and outside of the classroom; they described teachers’ styles and personalities, and the methods and activities that teachers used.

The largest category, “outside course relevance” (47% of responses), referred to ways that the teacher connected course material to students’ needs, interests, and desires outside of the classroom. This category included behaviors such as sharing experiences and telling stories, using examples from media (e.g., music, TV shows, internet clips, documentaries, and sports), and referencing news stories that concerned politics, business, and environmental issues. Moreover, teachers helped students to recognize the applicability of skills learned from the course to other courses and to specific career settings. Teachers also invited guest speakers who could share insights relevant to a course topic.

A second category, “teaching style relevance,” encompassed teacher behaviors that amplified student engagement. This category consisted of behaviors such as showing consideration for students (e.g., giving positive feedback, using informal language), making use of a variety of teaching methods, showing enthusiasm, getting to know students, using humor, and allowing students a choice in the coverage of course material.

The category, “methods and activities relevance,” pertained to teaching methods and activities that extended beyond examples and scenarios. These methods and activities included discussions led by instructors and students, projects that involved applications to real word problems (e.g., community service), group activities, visual aids, and field trips.

Finally, the category, “inside course relevance,” included strategies teachers used to emphasize the importance of specific material for students’ performance in the course. These strategies included encouraging students to take notes, providing assignments, highlighting information helpful for getting good grades, holding study sessions, connecting material to larger themes, and providing up-to-date course material.

Several of the students’ perceptions of relevance were consistent with the general recommendations of experts on teaching (Ambrose et al., 2010). In their book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Ambrose and colleagues (2010) offered strategies for getting students to value learning. These strategies included connecting course material to students’ interests, emphasizing the relevance of course-related skills to students’ personal and career pursuits, designing real-world activities, and demonstrating flexibility.  In returning to the question, “What does relevance mean for students?” you might consider incorporating any number of these strategies into your course design process, while keeping in mind that some strategies may agree more with a given teaching style than others. You may find that your new approach motivates students to seek understanding of course material, as well as gain insight into their own experiences.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Frymier, A. B., & Shulman, G. M. (1995). “What’s in it for me?”: Increasing content relevance to enhance students’ motivation. Communication Education,44(1), 40-50.

Muddiman, A., & Bainbridge Frymier, A. (2009). What is relevant? Student perceptions of relevance strategies in college classrooms. Communication Studies60(2), 130-146.

Sass, E. J. (1989). Motivation in the college classroom: What students tell us. Teaching of psychology16(2), 86-88.

Weaver, R. L., & Cottrell, H. W. (1988). Motivating students: Stimulating and sustaining student effort. College Student Journal.

Power Over or Power To?

The-Teaching-Professor-Newsletter-Cover-ImageHas the balance of power changed in classrooms full of millennial students?

Jennifer Waldeck, in a short article in The Teaching Professor*, “Reflections on Teacher Power in the Contemporary Classroom,” argues that current student behaviors challenge “traditional assumptions” about the power teachers have to influence students.  She lists conventional ways of influencing students:

          • Using “rewards” or “punishments”
          • Presenting oneself as an “expert” that students should unquestioningly follow
          • Assuming that being a “teacher” necessarily carries “authority”
          • Leveraging “good relationships with students as a way of encouraging them to comply”
          • “Managing their classrooms” to “force students to be on task,” by not allowing the use of personal electronics, talking, lateness, etc.

In her student-focused, group-based research, Waldeck finds that today’s students do not “identify with us,” do not seek out relationship with professors in order to deepen knowledge.  She finds that students increasingly view teachers as “employees paid to transmit knowledge as a commodity,” and that they intentionally resist “teacher influence.”  While these findings are certainly discouraging, Waldeck suggests that this discouragement can be channeled to re-define our understanding and use of power in the classroom.  Waldeck advocates for re-thinking power by shifting the balance from trying to influence students and mold them from above to seeing ourselves as collaborating with them, seeing the work from their vantage point, and connecting points of relevance in daily life.

The kind of power she calls for “is not about bossing students around” but “about influencing students to engage, motivating them to learn, and challenging them to connect the dots of course content to their lives.”  This power to influence deep learning, she claims, cannot be “mandate[d] with a policy or a statement in the syllabus.”

Instead of managing the classroom to structure student behavior, Waldeck encourages teachers to:

  • “Influence students to engage […] the material […] in the midst of” the many other pursuits they are involved in.
  • Rather than expecting students to value “knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” show students how a comprehension of the subject matter “will help them secure employment, generate income, or contribute to some other applied outcome.”
  • “Influence students by being as considerate of them as we wish them to be of us.”

Rather than viewing teacher power as a given force for students to bow to, Waldeck shifts the focus to ask how teachers may find the power to influence students through truly engaging them.  Many studies about effective student learning support this shift.  The authors of How Learning Works demonstrate that students are most engaged, and better retain what they learn when they are motivated by their own goals and values, rather than punishments and rewards.  Ken Bain’s study of What the Best College Teachers Do finds that “Trust,” an integral element of generating student engagement, “depend[s] on the teacher’s rejection of power over them” (70).  Student learning that moves beyond mere completion of tasks cannot be brought about by force, but by teachers asking “how they can help students understand all the beauty and joy of the enterprise before them” (50).

What Waldeck’s “Reflections” do not address is the ways in which these “conventional assumptions” about power in the classroom are not only challenged by contemporary student behaviors, but also by other pedagogies which critique an authoritarian model of power in the classroom as being ineffective or unjust.  Examples of such critiques of power might be found in critical, or liberation, pedagogy, like the foundational Pedagogy of the Oppressed, or feminist theorists, like bell hooks in Teaching Community.  Works such as these examine how the classroom can re-inscribe unjust social stratifications and divisions, and they offer possibilities for how it can dismantle divisive structures.  Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach argues that educational structures governed by power over students are really governed by fear.

Fear, according to Palmer, creates structures of power that divide classrooms, students from teachers and from each other, to “protect us against one of the deepest fears at the heart of being human—the fear of having a live encounter with alien ‘otherness’” (37).  It is “to avoid a live encounter with students,” that teachers “hide behind their podiums, their credentials, their power” (38).  Yet, Palmer reminds us, the “creative conflict” brought about by the meeting of “divergent truths” has power to change both teacher and students.

Consider having a conversation, first with yourself, then with your students, about how power operates in your classroom.  Engage students in an analysis of the dynamics of authority and how authority shapes knowledge.  Invite them to share power, to analyze the power structures in the syllabus and co-create rules for learning together.  Talk with them about how power might be shared in the classroom to forge connections among the class community and the course material.

Waldeck, and other thinkers on power in the classroom, remind us of an important aspect of teaching:  power is, well, powerful.  The way we wield or share the authority we have over our students has a dramatic impact on the community of learning enabled (or disabled) in our classrooms.  The agency we share with or withhold from our students has the capacity to ignite learning or to quash its flames.

*The Reinert Center has an institutional membership to The Teaching Professor available to SLU faculty and graduate students.  Please email for instructions on how to access it.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Bain, K.  (2004). What the best college teachers do.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Friere, Paolo.  (2004). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

hooks, bell.  (2003). Teaching community:  A pedagogy of hope.  New York:  Routledge.

Palmer, P. (1998).  The courage to teacher:  Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life.  San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Waldeck, J. (August/September 2014).  “Reflections on teacher power in the contemporary classroom.” 28(7), 1,4.


Image courtesy of

What’s on our minds: How current events can help inform our approach to teaching and serving students

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

With the recent events in Ferguson, many educators have been looking to find useful resources to help teach about race, racism, inequality, and justice.

In response, Marcia Chatelain, a historian of African-American life and culture at Georgetown University, created the Twitter hashtag, #Fergusonsyllabus. Since the hashtag’s creation, there have been hundreds of ideas shared by educators across many disciplines.

Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for recently wrote a piece about the #Fergusonsyllabus hashtag stating, “The immediacy and importance of the Ferguson syllabus is another useful reminder that the academic world and the so-called ‘real world’ are actually the same world (2014).”

Over the last few years, many other hashtags like the #Fergusonsyllabus hashtag have helped establish Twitter as a useful resource for educators. More importantly, the use of the hashtag serves as a subtle but significant reminder for how educational technology can provide learning experiences interconnected with current events.

There are many education-related hashtags available to provide educators with a useful destination for dialogue, resources, and ideas. Below are just a few examples of hashtags where users can share ideas and resources, as well as help connect educators interested in the same discipline or topic. Although there are many hashtags devoted to a specific academic discipline, below are a few related to pedagogy:

  1. #ntchat (new teachers)

  2. #highered (regarding higher education)

  3. #stem (science, technology, engineering, mathematics instruction)

  4. #flipclass (flipped classroom teachers)

  5. #blendchat (blended learning)

  6. #edtech (educational technology)

  7. #digped (digital pedagogy)

  8. #Education (general education news)

  9. #phdchat (resource for PhD students)

  10. #pedagogy (teaching strategies)

To learn more about the #Fergusonsyllabus, visit the following articles:

Chatelain, M. (2014). How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson. The Atlantic. Retrieved 8 September 2014, from

GONCHAR, K. (2014). The Death of Michael Brown: Teaching About Ferguson. The Learning Network. Retrieved 8 September 2014, from

Schuman, R. (2014). The Birth of the #FergusonSyllabus in American Colleges. Slate Magazine. Retrieved 8 September 2014, from

Van Noorden, R. (2014). Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network. Nature, 512(7513), 126-129. doi:10.1038/512126a

Channeling Student Motivation

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Student motivation can be an elusive creature.  Many of us have come up with the perfect lesson plan to convey the most exciting subject matter that our discipline offers…only to look out upon a sea of lifeless faces.  Yet, when we step out into the sunshine and see students tossing Frisbees and exchanging ideas on the lawn, we know that they are full of energy.  How do we channel that energy into the classroom?

The authors of How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching take principles from the science of learning and distill them into practical strategies to help channel student motivation.   Here’s a glimpse of three of these learning principles and the practical strategies that flow from them.

1) Students are motivated by “personal investment” toward reaching a goal.

Students have many competing goals, often in competition with our goals for them.   At any given time in our classes, students may “seek to acquire knowledge and skills, make new friends, demonstrate to others that they are intelligent, gain a sense of independence, and have fun.”  Our goals for our students are focused around their learning.  We may aim for them to gain understanding that comes from “intellectual risk-taking,” or see connections between the subject matter and everyday life. By getting to know our students, and learning what they value, we can connect the learning goals we have for them with the areas they are already invested in.

2) “When confronted by multiple goals,” students will pursue that which they most value.   

We can use this commonsense reality in our classrooms by connecting for students the intrinsic value of our subject matter—those inherently pleasurable habits of thinking and questioning in our disciplines—with the extrinsic value of a college education—the good grades, the path to a profession, the ability to connect with others, which students often focus on.  The authors suggest these strategies to connect the intrinsic value of our subject matter with what students value:

  • Connect material to student interest.  How is the material you are teaching relevant to them?  How can you bring that relevance into the classroom?
  • Provide authentic, real-world tasks.  Can you create assignments that require students to use the knowledge of the course to solve or enter into real-world problems?  Engaging in these assignments will build their understanding of the material as intrinsically important to them.  Connecting them with real-life situations can also connect with their other values, such as making professional connections.
  • Show how your course is relevant to other academic experiences.  While you may see the connections between your course and other courses students may take, they may not be making those connections.
  • Demonstrate the relevance of the skills they are learning to their future professional lives.   What are they learning that they will carry away with them?  How can you show them that these skills are important for their future careers?

3) Students are most “motivated to pursue goals and outcomes that they believe that can successfully achieve.” 

In order for students to believe that they can achieve the goal of doing well in a course, they need to believe a) that doing the work will result in doing well in the course, b) that doing the work will require substantial, challenging effort, c) that they are “capable of doing that work,” and d) that they are supported in their efforts.  This principle calls for teachers to achieve the tricky balance of helping students expect that they have the capacity to do well, while at the same time challenging them enough so that they need to really put themselves into the work.  Challenging but attainable is a difficult balance to strike.  Too challenging may tip them into discouragement; too easy to attain may let them slip into apathy.   The authors suggest the following strategies to help students build “positive expectancy”:

  • Align your learning objectives, assessments, and “instructional strategies,” and be transparent about what these are.  Let students clearly know what the goals of the course are, and how those align with what you are doing on a daily basis.
  • “Identify an appropriate level of challenge.”  In order for students to feel challenged, you need to know what their prior knowledge and capabilities are.  Give early, informal diagnostics to assess the level of knowledge and skill of the class.  Talk to colleagues about what their students have been able to do in similar courses.
  • “Provide early success opportunities.”  Student expectations that they will succeed are based on doing well in the past.  Short, early assignments—with feedback from you—can show students the level of effort they need to put forth in order to succeed.
  • Provide Rubrics.  Explicitly represent your expectations for any given assignment.  Rubrics show visually what characterizes work of a given quality.  They also may help you to establish for yourself what you are looking for—what are the components of the task, what are the expectations for performance.
  • Provide “targeted feedback.”  Feedback is most useful when timely and constructive.  Give feedback as soon as possible to the performance/task, so that it is fresh in their minds.  Provide students an opportunity to do something with the feedback—revise or reflect.  Giving them the option (or mandate) to revise a paper or a providing a structured reflection on exam performance, such as an exam wrapper, can help students to process feedback.

Tap into your students’ energy by showing them how your course is relevant to their academic, professional, and personal lives.  Motivate students to rise to the challenge of your course by showing them clearly what your objectives are, making it clear what they need to do to meet those objectives, and giving them support along the way.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

See also the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation webpage on learning and teaching principles: