Congratulations to the Spring 2015 Certificate in University Teaching Skills Recipients!

DSC_0026The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning honored fifteen Certificate in University Teaching Skills recipients and twelve Foundations Certificate in University Teaching Skills recipients at our Spring Ceremony on Friday, May 1 from 3:30-5:00 in the Level 2 Gallery (second floor, Pius Library).

Long-time board member and professor in the School of Social Work, Dr. Sue Tebb, began the ceremony by sharing a reflection on teaching with the recipients, friends, and family in attendance. Following the reflection, and then the presentation of the certificates, we also honored three Reinert Center Advisory Board members who are leaving us at the end of the semester: Kasi Williamson, Shawn Nordell, and Darina Sargeant.

This semester’s Certificate in University Teaching Skills recipients are Sara Barnett, Melissa Chapnick, Kene Chukwuanu, M.D., Wootae Chun, Shahida Priscilla Rice, Arilova Randrianasolo, Hashir Saeed, Alexey Semenov, Matthew Siebert, Ph.D., Sean Smith, Nicole Summers, Jacob Van Sickle, Xiaoying Wang, Kevin Wenzel, and Maureen Wikete Lee.

The recipients of the Foundations Certificate are Areej Almehdar, Hernan Barenboim, Rachelle Barina, Alexandria Boyer, Andrea Burr, Carolyn Clark, Katie Davis, Christine Guarino, Joshua Mather, Valentina Penalba, Lindsey Riley, and Emily Trancik. 

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

“Reflections on Teaching” by Sue Tebb:



Assessing Higher-Order Thinking

assessment-toolsby Kelly McEnerney, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

The tendency for students to become consumed with grades at the expense of learning is all too common. It is evidenced in certain questions students ask, such as “do we need to know this?” or “will this be on the exam?” Whatever the response, it then influences students’ level of investment in the learning exchange. This reality can be frustrating for teachers who invest much time and energy into developing lesson plans that draw upon higher-order thinking skills but are respectively less amenable to traditional testing methods. One technique for getting students to recognize and then appreciate the value of these class activities is to align them with assessments that emphasize the kinds of higher-order thinking skills which they promote.

McKeachie (2013) recommends a variety of methods, all of which incorporate reflection, offer feedback, and emphasize the importance of learning. These methods address a range of skills and objectives. They include the following:

Authentic assessment: This method involves real-life contexts or situations that require students to apply knowledge. Importantly, when students perceive authentic assessment as true-to-life, they are more likely to value it.

Concept mapping: This method requires students to synthesize knowledge and involves a connect-the-dots sort of logic in which students draw lines between concepts to explore their relationships (for more information on concept mapping see an earlier blog post entitled “Concept Mapping and the Constructive Learning Process”).

Journaling: This method encourages critical reflection and self-awareness.

Portfolios: This method allows students to document and analyze progress over time. Students frequently observe evidence of their learning that they report would otherwise have overlooked (McKeachie, 2013).

Peer assessment: This method encourages students to analyze the work of a peer using a set of criteria. This method helps students become intimately familiar with the criteria, which they can also use to reflect on and assess their own work.

Group work: This method may involve two different forms of assessment, one geared towards the content of the project and the other geared towards the interpersonal dynamics, such as collaboration and teamwork. This form of assessment is authentic in the sense that it prepares students for future careers, which typically involve some sort of group work.

While these methods do not altogether replace traditional methods of testing – research suggests that frequent quizzing (more than two per semester) positively impacts achievement when paired with feedback and opportunities for self-assessment (e.g., Basol & Johanson, 2009; Kuo & Simon, 2009), they can enhance learning by encouraging higher-order thinking skills that might otherwise be difficult to measure.

Most importantly, McKeachie (2013) recommends prioritizing the learning experience over grades in the assessment of learning. Feedback (whether graded or not) supports students’ achievement of learning objectives. Moreover, teachers should aim to evaluate all learning objectives, a pursuit that requires them to think outside the box of conventional assessment methods.


Başol, Gülşah, and George Johanson. “Effectiveness of frequent testing over achievement: A meta analysis study.” International Journal of Human Sciences6.2 (2009): 99-121.

Kuo, Trudy, and Albert Simon. “How many Tests do we Really Need?.” College Teaching 57.3 (2009): 156-160.

McKeachie, Wilbert, and Marilla Svinicki. McKeachie’s teaching tips. Cengage Learning, 2013.

Engaging Students to Improve Academic Integrity

by Kim Levenhagen, Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Therapy & Athletic Training

On March 24, 2015, Provost John Etchemendy wrote a letter to all faculty at Stanford University regarding an increasing number of allegations regarding academic dishonesty.  He wrote, “Dishonesty is corrosive in an academic community.”  In his letter he implored faculty to define academic honesty for students who have grown up in a widespread, technology sharing culture.  Although there is a process that is nearly complete to update Saint Louis University’s Academic Integrity Policy, the current policy begins, “The University is a community of learning, whose effectiveness requires an environment of mutual trust and integrity, such as would be expected at a Jesuit, Catholic institution.  As members of this community, students, faculty, and staff members share the responsibility to maintain this environment.”  Each statement places the responsibility on the student as well as the faculty.  With the advances in technology, the lines have become blurred regarding academic integrity.  This may include copyright infringement or sharing of assignments or test questions.  So how do we as faculty improve students’ awareness of academic integrity?

Udermann and Lamers from Syracuse University provide Ten Strategies to Encourage Academic Integrity in Large Lecture Classes.  They are as follows:

  1. Promote your school’s honor code:  On a quick search of Saint Louis University’s website, one can find academic integrity policies of most Schools or Colleges but how familiar are you with the policy?  Do you have it in your syllabus or have frank discussions regarding your expectations with your students when setting the tone of the class on the first day?
  2. Respond to cheating in your class.  Taking action is not always easy and often stressful.  It can even be time consuming as you provide teaching moments regarding the incident.  But not taking action creates an environment of academic dishonesty.
  3. Individualize papers and assignments to the class if possible.  The authors provide examples of creating unique assignments with a narrow focus so projects cannot be passed down from semester to semester.  The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning works with faculty and graduate students on course-design related projects, such as helping instructors create or redesign assignments so that they are tailored specifically to their courses and provide unique experiences which are meaningful to students.
  4. Give clear expectations for assignments and other course work required of students.  In my syllabus, I describe if the project is a group or individual assignment so the students are aware of my expectations.  Additionally, I set realistic expectations if I have a Blackboard Learn Quiz about whether or not the students can use notes, text, or friends.
  5. Encourage student responsibility.  I take time during the first day of class to explain ethical decision making and how their classroom behavior can carry into their workplace.  I want students to recognize that with academic dishonesty they cheat themselves and their future stakeholders, which may include patients, clients, or businesses.  By not performing the work themselves, they cannot develop their critical thinking or problem solving skills.
  6. Get to know as many students as possible.  I work to learn the names of all of my students in the classroom.  According to this article, getting to know your students will deter cheating and promote academic integrity.  Arrive to class 5-10 minutes early to interact with the students to demonstrate that you genuinely care about them as a person and their learning.
  7. Separate students during exams, when space permits.
  8. Have adequate proctors to help with exams.
  9. Have multiple versions of exams.  Numbers 7, 8, and 9 are challenging due to spacing, timing, and personnel issues within any university.  One method that has emerged which can minimize these issues yet promote academic honesty is the utilization of computer-based tests.  Saint Louis University offers Respondus as a tool to construct and manage quizzes/exams that can be printed to paper or directly published to a Blackboard Learn course.  ITS provides training and technical support for utilization of Respondus to meet your class requirements.  Although different software packages may provide different tools (at an additional cost), computer based testing has the potential to minimize academic dishonesty through a number of different mechanisms such as restricting access, requiring the use of a pin number to unlock the exam or limiting access to the internet, or other software features on their device. Questions can be randomized so no 2 students have an identically ordered exam.  An additional benefit to some computer based testing systems is student performance can be linked to assessments such as Bloom’s taxonomy or learning outcomes, providing additional feedback to the student and the instructor.
  10. Engage your students and be enthusiastic.  The authors challenge faculty to motivate students to learn by including methods of student engagement.  They believe this enthusiasm will improve academic integrity.

Academic integrity challenges everyone on this campus.  As faculty, we need to assist our students in developing into men and women for others with integrity.  We need to implement strategies that have an impact on reducing cheating.  We need to have honest conversations with our students and not be afraid to take a stand on what is ethically correct.  As Arlene Spector said, “There is no higher value in our society as integrity.”

Levenhagen Pic 2

Kim Levenhagen is an Assistant Professor in the Physical Therapy and Athletic Training department. She serves on the Reinert Center advisory board. Her areas of interest and expertise include clinical education, scholarship of teaching & learning, service learning, and integrating reflection assignments into teaching.


Coming up from the Reinert Center

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_0822144th Annual Learning Studio Symposium
April 24, 1:30 – 3:00 p.m., Des Peres 213

Please join us for our 4th Annual Learning Studio Symposium where past and current Innovative Teaching Fellows will share their perspectives and experiences about teaching in the Learning Studio, a state-of-the-art teaching space designed by a team of faculty and students as part of the Herman Miller Learning Spaces Research Program.

Seating is very limited and first priority is given to current full-time faculty members. For additional information and registration, please visit the symposium webpage.

Certificate Ceremony
May 1, 3:30 – 5:00 p.m., Pius Library, Level 2 Gallery

Please join us in honoring ​​the Spring 2015 recipients of the Certificate in University Teaching Skills.
Reflections on teaching to be given by Dr. ​Sue Tebb. Light refreshments will be provided.
​​If you plan to attend, please let us know by clicking here.

Learning in an Age of Distraction: Listening and Questioning Strategies to Promote Critical Thinking
May 5, 8:30 a.m. – Noon, BSC, St. Louis Room

Faculty, staff, and graduate students are invited to attend the annual May event. This interactive workshop, lead by Dr. Deandra Little of Elon University, will focus on habits of listening, and the role of questions in individual and group interactions. For additional details and registration information, visit the webpage.

Two Opportunities for Scholarship of Teaching & Learning

The Reinert Center invites all faculty and graduate students who do research on teaching and learning to submit a proposal to its annual Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Symposium, to be held October 23, 2015.  We also invite nominations for the James H. Korn Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award, which will be presented during a ceremony at the end of the symposium.  Both symposium proposals and award nominations are due on Friday, May 22, 2015.

Click here for more information on the Call for Nominations for the James H. Korn Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award.

Click here for more information on the Call for Proposals

Promoting student self-assessment in the classroom

writingby Dipti Subramanium, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Reinert Center

The idea of student self-assessment is not something that we always think to incorporate into our teaching practices. However, being intentional about involving students in their own learning process is an integral part of a learning cycle as well as effective teaching.

Why involve students? Integrating student self-assessment has numerous benefits. For students, self-assessment grants them the opportunity to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses on the concepts and materials taught in the classroom. In addition, this process inevitably allows students to become active participants in their respective learning and furthermore, this approach promotes accountability. Ultimately, it serves as a guide in helping them in prepare for the next exam or assignment, and how to best do so.

Why is it important for the instructor? First, think of this as a good teaching strategy to encourage students to take responsibility of their own learning. Second, results from student self-assessment give you data. This is valuable information about some of the feasible steps that you can implement to enhance their learning. It serves as insight into some of your own teaching practices that can be altered or enhanced in preparation for subsequent semesters.

How do we implement self-assessment? Surveys are one of the most valuable tools to use when obtaining student feedback. You can develop your survey tool using Qualtrics® or SurveyMonkey® platforms. Try to frame your survey to include both open ended and close ended questions. The questions can include items about the resources used (e.g. textbook, recorded lectures, office hours, etc.), time spent on preparation,  identifying areas where they have learned concepts, lost points on exams or unclear concepts, and finally, identifying some of the steps the students intends to take in preparing for the next exam.



Extending Discussions Online

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Jerod Quinn, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

“Leading a productive discussion, one that engages students and enhances their understanding, may be the most complex and challenging task in teaching.”

- J. Henning, “Leading Discussions: Opening Up the Conversation.”

No matter what else happens in my classes, I have the bad habit of equating my effectiveness as an instructor with the quality of class discussions. If I feel like we had a great discussion, then it was a great night regardless of whatever else happened in class. The same correlation works in reverse if our discussion choked and sputtered along, then I leave defeated and vow to do better next week. Now I know those correlations are not true for many reasons, but discussions so heavily shape my perceptions because I see great value in them. The conversations we have are places where students can learn to evaluate logic and positions, they’re opportunities to apply principles, and they offer a chance to articulate what is being learned. With those experiences in mind, I have been thinking about ways to extend, and hopefully improve, class discussions before, during, and after class using some of the tools we have available in Blackboard.

BEFORE CLASS: It’s hard to have a discussion when students haven’t studied the material.

What would it look like for your students to come prepared for discussion? We often have our students read or review something in preparation. But what can often happen is that students don’t complete the readings, and, therefore, have little substance to bring to the class discussions. One way we can encourage reading is to offer a more structured approach to the readings using a process called active reading. Active reading is really just offering guidance on what students should do with what they are reading. One way to offer this guidance is to write a few questions for your students to answer that reinforce the most important points of the readings. If you prefer a more structured approach, you could use the QQTP or the SQ3R active reading frameworks.

The journal tool in Blackboard is a useful tool to deploy active reading strategies. The journal tool is only viewable to the author and the instructor, and it gives a space for students to begin reflecting and thinking about the content of the reading on an individual level so they have the opportunity to bring more informed ideas to the discussion. When we offer students some of these active reading frameworks, it can help the students realize that they are not “just reading” but that there is an intentionality behind these readings and we expect them to begin applying what they are reading to what we will be discussing.

DURING CLASS: If a student has already written an answer, it’s much easier to encourage them to speak, than if you asked them to answer immediately.

When asking our students difficult, or layered questions, their responses to those questions change if we give them a few minutes to think and write before answering. Asking good questions is one of the consistent challenges instructors face in facilitating class discussions. Short, shallow questions rarely propel the conversation forward. But when we ask demanding questions there may not be time to think through an appropriate answer in the awkward silence of the few seconds between asking the question, and instructors succombing to the tension by answering their own question.

The blog tool in Blackboard can be that in-class space to think and write. This can work even better when you know the question you would like the learners to wrestle with in advance, and can have a blog prompt primed and ready before class begins. The difference between the blog and the journal is that while the journal is private, the blog is public. The blog gives the opportunity for peers to offer comments and engage in discussion. But you don’t have to have a specific question in mind for this activity to be useful. You could also use a classroom assessment technique like the “muddiest point” approach where the students take a few minutes to write about the aspect of the day’s content that they are most unsure about. Once the students have something written, that’s your springboard to class discussion. Even the more shy students in your class will be less intimidated by asking them “what did you write?” as opposed to “what do you think?”

AFTER CLASS: Sometimes discussions are just getting started when the class period ends.

What do you think would happen if you let the students generate the conversation topics? The conversation can often be just getting going when it is time to go. This is especially true of fifty minute classes. If you know the class period is likely to end before the discussion ends, the best way to extend discussion past those fifty minutes is to be proactive about it. Stop the discussion five minutes before class ends and give the class as a whole the opportunity to decide what that online discussion will look like. You and your students will struggle if all the direction you have for this is, “let’s keep this conversation going online.” But if you take a few minutes to ask what the students would like to continue discussing online, that provides incentive and focus to the conversation. The students have a say in the direction of the conversation, and they also have a concrete starting point.

The discussion board can be a good place to host these conversations as it allows students not only the opportunity to reply to comments, but to generate new threads of discussion when the conversation turns in a new direction.

I will offer one bit of practical advice when it comes to class discussions online, be they discussion boards or blogs. Blackboard allows you to create small groups of students randomly or by assignment. You will see more engagement and more fruitful discussions with small groups of no more than four to five, than you will see of large groups of fifty.

Discussion has a well earned place of distinction in higher education. It can be a powerful tool for learning and development. By combining discussion with some of the tools we have available to us, we may be able to push the quality of our conversations even further.

Henning, J. E. (2005, 12). Leading Discussions: Opening Up The Conversation. College Teaching, 53(3), 90-94.

McKeachie, W. J., & Gibbs, G. (1999). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rovai, A. P. (2007, 12). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 77-88.


Concept Mapping and the Constructive Learning Process

jean_piagetby Kelly McEnerney, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Scientific thought…is not momentary; it is not a static instance; it is a process (Piaget, 1968).  This notion of thought as a process is the basis for certain pedagogical techniques. One such technique is concept mapping. Reasons for using this technique become clear when we reflect on the differences between acquiring information and achieving knowledge. The latter of which leads to deeper more situated understanding.

Teaching approaches that emphasize the achievement of knowledge can look very different from those that emphasize information acquisition. To understand this distinction, consider a child’s first understanding of the term dog. A child does not simply acquire this term from a single explanation. Rather, the child’s understanding involves an integrative process in which the child actively gives structure to the dog concept by classifying it within a larger system of interrelated concepts – dogs are animals, which are unlike reptiles; they consist of golden retrievers, poodles, and collies, etc. In other words, the child gradually understands that dogs are a concept among other concepts that relate to each other in some way. According to Novak and Canas (2008), knowledge involves a constructive process in which individuals make connections between concepts, often using what they already know. This notion of knowledge construction has pedagogical implications. Moreover, it encourages educators to make course material relatable to students so that they can integrate it into their existing systems of knowledge in meaningful ways.

Developed by Novak and Musonda (1991) as a way to visually observe changes in students’ conceptual understandings, concept mapping is a method that teachers have used to encourage deeper, more layered understanding. It is a tool used to represent relationships between concepts in a visual way. Lines that represent propositions connect to circles that represent concepts. The end result is a web of concepts linked by propositions, which reveals a lot about a phenomenon in a comparatively small space.

Concept mapping has since made contributions in and outside of the classroom, as researchers have used it to study various phenomena, just as educators have used it to support and assess their learning objectives. As a pedagogical tool, concept mapping has shaped the context of group work, allowing students to collaboratively work to coordinate and integrate each other’s ideas, thus learning from each other.  As an assessment tool, concept mapping has offered flexibility in its variety of forms. Teachers can use the parking lot format, which places concepts in a “word bank” that students select from when creating a concept map (i.e., linking concepts with propositions). Teachers can also use partially filled concept maps, requiring that students “fill in the blanks,” providing either the names of concepts or the linking propositions. In addition to the traditional concept map, educators can use flowcharts to show the linear relationships between concepts. They can also use systems to represent the relationships between concepts, as organized in terms of inputs and outputs (see below for an example of a concept map).


Importantly, the format of such an assignment depends on individual teachers’ learning objectives. Whereas a history course might require an understanding of the sequence of important events, a science course might require an understanding of certain processes. As such, history sudents might benefit most from constructing flowcharts that deliniate the sequence of events, whereas science students might benefit most from  constructing  systems of inputs and outputs. Whether you want students to produce all (or some) of the concepts in a concept map, or to produce the propositions, might also depend on your learning objectives and the students’ current understandings.

In short, concept mapping is a flexible method grounded in the assumption that people construct knowledge. Unlike multiple-choise tests, which tend to limit the manner in which students convey knowledge, concept maps tend to introduce new possibilities; they lead to inventive ways of thinking. Students develop skills of analysis, synthesis, and application, as they construct meaning by defining relationships between concepts, often with the structure and guidance of teachers (i.e., providing partial concept maps or “word banks”).  Concept mapping can be inserted in different ways within a classroom setting in order to support specific learning objectives and accomodate students’ individual needs. Esentially, concept mapping scaffolds the constructive process that leads to knowledge.



Novak, J. D., & Musonda, D. (1991). A twelve-year longitudinal study of science

concept learning. American Educational Research Journal28(1), 117-153.

Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to

construct and use them. Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition Pensacola Fl, www. ihmc. us. [ UnderlyingConceptMaps. htm]284, 16.

Piaget, J. (1968). Genetic Epistemology, a series of lectures delivered by Piaget at

Columbia University, Published by Columbia Univesity Press, translated by Eleanor Duckworth.

Broadening our Definition of Expert

by Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

I’m always looking for ways to connect my students at SLU to the broader St. Louis community.  One of the ways that I have done this is to bring local school and non-profit leaders into the classroom as guest speakers.  These guests are framed as experts who can insert a real-life perspective into our theoretical work.  This semester I continued a problem-based learning project centered on the events in Ferguson in my School and Community course for preservice teachers.

While following the conversations in St. Louis on both traditional and social media forums, I began to notice the ways in which the young people who were a part of the movement defied traditional notions of “expert”.  They dressed casually, spoke informally, used emoticons on Twitter.  The young activists in Ferguson have challenged the status quo not only with their mission and message, but with their inclusionary vision of who is capable of delivering that message.  This current movement has exemplified the rejection of expertise residing with a select few.  For me, this was reminiscent of Paulo Freire’s characterization of the “expert” teacher as oppressive to student thought.  This semester I wanted to redefine “expert” in my course and encourage students to broaden their view of community expertise.

Early in the semester I invited Alexis Templeton, a co-founder of the group Millennial Activists United and one of the plaintiffs in a case where a judge ordered that protestors be given reasonable warning prior to the release of tear gas, to speak to our class about her activist work and what she saw as the role of schools in addressing local protests.  I thought Alexis, who is currently a student at UMSL, had the potential to change the power dynamic in the class conversations in a way that I could not.

Alexis’s visit was an important contribution to our coursework this semester.  She also defied the role of traditional expert.  She entered class in sweatpants and a black hoodie with white print reading, “Not Your Respectable Negro.”  She eloquently spoke about the issues in the community, but did not hide her passion or excitement or anger.  She triggered students to ask questions about the ongoing events in Ferguson in a way that I could not and have not since.  Student inquiries during her visit were more in-depth and led to more prolonged interchanges than I typically am able to support when discussing contentious topics with my students.

So why was Alexis’s visit to my class so great? With the student-teacher relationship, students are often concerned with saying the right thing or asking the right question.  In other words, students assume (often correctly) that they are continuously being assessed by the teacher.  Similarly, often when we invite guests to lecture, these figures can be presented in such a manner that students are too intimidated to engage in meaningful dialogue.  Because Alexis was a peer and inspired students to engage in unique ways, the students dove right in to the conversation.  My role during her visit shifted as well.  I took a seat and observed.  I took copious notes of the interchanges that were occurring.  Occasionally, I prompted the conversation to go deeper, into less familiar territory, when I felt the students teetering on the edge of asking (or not asking) something.  About halfway through the class, I interrupted the conversation to ask my students, “Isn’t anyone going to ask Alexis about her sweatshirt!?!” which led to a rich conversation about dress codes, activist clothing as a provocation to dialogue, and free speech in schools.

Our community is filled with individuals who are not only experts on their own experiences, but experts on delivering a narrative that runs counter to the same old, same old.  For me and the students in my class, Alexis’s expertise was refreshing, powerful, and informative.  There was no fanfare in manner or preparation for this expert lecture, which made it seem possible for all of us in class that day to develop a position and articulate it broadly.


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.


Real Life, Online Service Learning: One Teacher’s Path

by Kasi Williamson, Assistant Professor & Assistant Chair, Organizational Studies

Context: What, Where, and Who I Teach

In the School for Professional Studies (SPS) at SLU, I teach communication courses to adult learners, in eight-week terms, in online and on-ground formats.

In other words: I get to teach transformative concepts to extraordinary students in a format that helps them make higher education a part of their already full lives.

The benefits (and challenges) of online, eight-week courses are many. Our students take only one or two courses in any given eight-week term, so I can expect their focused time and energy. But wow, do those eight weeks go by quickly. The online environment allows students with work and family demands to schedule their own “class time” each week. But because online participation is sometimes monitored in word count and rewarded with points, there’s a risk that the routine elements of a course will feel more “transactional” than “transformational.” The online classroom can push students beyond the surface to a more authentic kind of learning. But that takes a different kind of work from the instructor and the students.

Experience: A Path Paved with Metaphors

The challenge, then, is to design an eight-week digital experience in which students encounter rich content, engage in authentic interactions with their classmates and instructor, and understand both the mundane logistics and higher order concepts that course learning activities require.[1] Through trial and error, with the help of colleagues and an attentiveness to student feedback, I gradually refined my online course activities and assignments.

I began to imagine my online courses as a path, in which assessments serve as milestones. Students travel the trail together, helping each other along the way. At each milestone, a student encounters my feedback, which serves as an opportunity for conversation and redirection. The path leads to a final course project; ideally, this project becomes a perfect realization of the student’s learning experience.

The reality, of course, is much messier than my metaphor. The “experience” is not created by me — the experience of the class belongs to the students. Even before I encountered their book, I was influenced by Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson’s (2012) observation that online courses should help students become increasingly responsible for their own learning (p. 15). I wanted this to be the case. I wanted students to blaze their own trails! But I still felt as if there wasn’t enough “student” in the student experience of some of my courses.

Reflection: Beyond the Digital Domain

At a Jesuit university, we have an additional framework for transformative learning: The Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm. Discussions within SPS about Jesuit identity in our online programs ultimately helped me to see my instructional challenges in a different light. My course is online, so students will experience the course content I provide in a “virtual” environment. But the students, themselves, are flesh and blood and walking around in their own very concrete worlds.


Respect for the student’s “context” led me to observe that only certain parts of the learning process happen in the online environment I create: The “experience” of some course content, perhaps, and students’ “reflection” on their learning. But students might also “experience” course content more meaningfully in their own context, and they can certainly “act” in the world based on what they have learned.

Service learning activities are designed to provide an opportunity for students to engage in just this sort of “action,” to make their learning real in the world. The online learning environment doesn’t necessarily need to simulate “real life” interaction; students can interact in their real lives, and bring those experiences into the online learning environment. Within this particular application of the Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm (which is certainly not the only possible application), the online learning environment provides a framework for student “experiences” and “actions,” then creates focused opportunities for “reflection” and “evaluation.”

Action: Real Life, Online Service Learning

Based on these reflections, I adapted one of my eight-week online courses for adult learners to become an eight-week online service learning course for adult learners. Service learning-related resources at SLU abound: Several of my SPS colleagues had implemented service learning projects in their online classes, and SLU’s Center for Service and Community Engagement provided additional helpful advice.

In a course called Strategic Digital Communication, I asked students to select an organization that would benefit from the creation of a strategic digital communication plan and a digital prototype (e.g., a couple of web pages and a selection of social media posts). While the “plan” assignment included narrowly defined components, the “prototype” assignment was largely open for definition by the student (with instructor consultation). In addition, students would create for me a recorded presentation in which they “pitched” the plan they were proposing.

Adult learners work with multiple organizations in their everyday lives (e.g., their employer, their church, their children’s school, and so on), and many adult learners already engage in regular service in their communities. I gave students the option to choose a nonprofit or community organization they been involved with in some capacity in the past, or to use this as an opportunity to create a relationship with a new organization. I also allowed students to make a case to me that their current place of employment provided a meaningful opportunity for both “service” and “learning.”

Students were required to schedule and conduct an interview with someone from the organization (phone interviews were allowed, to increase flexibility). They also analyzed the organization’s existing web communications. In each week’s discussion, students applied new course concepts to a component of their projects-in-progress, benefitting from peer feedback and ideas. I assigned my typical “milestones” in the form of draft project components, so that I could comment on how students’ work reflected the concepts we were learning in class. At the end of the term, students reflected on how the experience of service affected their learning process. They had an opportunity to incorporate my final, evaluative feedback on their projects before delivering their work to their service learning organization.

Evaluation: First Steps, Next Steps

Very early in the term, I could feel the energy in the online course. I could see that having “real life” stakeholders (i.e., other than me) added a dimension to the work that made it seem much more … real. I teach strategic communication because it’s a practice that helps people and organizations have a transformative impact in the world. My students had an opportunity to sense this potential through their lived experience. From my own perspective, the classroom dynamics I saw reminded me of the kind of excitement I have experienced in creative, mission-driven professional settings.

Importantly, I learned that good things happen when I let go a bit. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t control all aspects of the student experience in this class. As the instructor in the course, I had no interaction with the service learning organizations; it was entirely up to the students to initiate the relationship, understand the organization’s goals, and design a project that would meet course expectations and make a contribution to the organization. To be sure, my assignment sheets still included some pretty abundant detail. But because the experience was more fully “theirs” to begin with, students were much more central to the course experience as a whole.

Moving forward, I plan to add service learning projects to one or two more online courses that I teach. I would like to continue to shift the balance of the service learning experience to one that is focused on the student, eventually moving that focus further toward transformation in the community. This class represents a few first steps, which were encouraging. The path continues ahead.

[1] Rita-Marie Conrad’s books provide a helpful model for facilitating deepening levels of engagement online.

Kasi Williamson

Kasi Williamson, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor & Assistant Chair of the Organizational Studies Program in the School for Professional Studies.
As a rhetoric scholar and former strategic communications professional, she is most interested in how words make change in the world.


Oblique strategies for teaching

oblique_20120526_by Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Some teachers may find themselves feeling like they are in a bit of a rut in their teaching.  It’s an all too common feeling in which something feels out of step.  Perhaps, we feel bored or feel that our efforts don’t produce the same results as before. We may also find ourselves falling into familiar teaching habits, or even feeling overwhelmed by not knowing what to change. It is a similar feeling found in other creative professions; however, the “rut” can go by different names.   Some artists call it having  writers block or simply hitting a creative wall.

In 1975, composer and producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created a deck of cards called the “Oblique Strategies” – a series of cards designed to tackle creative log jams.  Each card includes an aphorism intended to help artists break free of a creative dilemma in order to promote “lateral thinking – a form of metacognition designed to address problem solving by using reasoning that is not immediately obvious” (De Bono, 2010).

Although some of the phrases on the cards are specific to music creation, some are open-ended enough to be thought-provoking for any situation.  Some of their questions include (Taylor, 1995):

  • What to increase? What to reduce?

  • Work at a different speed.

  • Use an old idea.

  • Use your own ideas.

  • Don’t avoid what is easy.

  • What is it for? Who is it for?

  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.

I often think of the Oblique Strategies when I find myself in a teaching rut.  Using a set of aphorisms tailored specifically for academics could help us break free from our own ruts.

Consider the following questions:

  • When am I at my most productive?

  • What part of the course am I taking for granted?

  • Who am I teaching?  What do they already know?

  • What do I find most interesting?  How do I let my students know?

  • If I were a student in my class, what would I change?

  • WWXD:  What would (colleague X) do?

  • What is essential for my students to learn?

  • Have I planned enough time?

  • How will I know students have accomplished the objectives for the course?

  • What if I showed students the blueprints?

  • What would I do differently if I were teaching a colleague?

No matter what questions you may ask, the practice of reflecting on teaching in strategic ways can help lead to a new place outside of your rut.

De Bono, E., & Zimbalist, E. (2010). Lateral thinking. Viking.

Jones, S. (2014). Ambient Genius. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Taylor, G. (1995). History of the Oblique Strategies. Retrieved 24 February 2015, from

Photo courtesy of