Choosing an Instructional Method? Consider Teacher-Student Interactions

by Sara Sanchez Alonso

One of the most challenging aspects as we prepare to become effective teachers is to understand the variety of instructional methods that we can implement in the classroom. If we think about the most recent classes we have attended as students, we might have been exposed to very different formats: lectures, group discussions, presentations and class projects are among the most frequent ones. The instructional method is crucial in the classroom: it ultimately determines the roles of both the student and the teacher and thus how the information is presented and received by the student. Intuitively, the teacher in a traditional lecture format is typically regarded as the “producer” of knowledge, whereas a group discussion expects more input from the student. In this post, I would like to reflect on this particular aspect of instructional formats: how the format we implement in the classroom determines the interaction between the teacher and the student and the implications it has for learning.

Betsy Barre, Assistant Director of Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, provides a description of two different roles the teacher may play in a recent article titled What is the Point of a Teacher? (Barre, 2015). The author describes the responsibilities of the teacher with respect to a scale that has two poles: the teacher as author and the teacher as tutor. This is how she characterizes the differences between the two views:

  • The Teacher-as-author view defines the pedagogical value of the teacher with respect to three main roles: 1) a producer of knowledge, 2) an organizer of knowledge and 3) a role model of scholarly production. Under this view, engaging students in the classroom is not one of the responsibilities of the teacher.
  • The Teacher-as-tutor perspective considers that the main role of the teacher is to pay active attention to the development of the students. Thus, teachers should know the background of their students, how they change during the semester and what their final stage is. In this way, teachers are aware of the needs of the students and are able to respond to them.

How the student perceives the teacher, as either author or tutor, will have an impact on how the student engages with the material. If the teacher is seen as the provider of information, students might still be able to critically think and become involved with the material. However, the expectations on the students are different because they are not prompted to become participants in building their own knowledge. They are not required to express their opinions or argue in favor or against a particular aspect, as it would be expected in a group discussion. They are also not asked to explain the materials to their peers or explicitly establish relations with previous lectures, as in a class presentation. The level of engagement is different because the expectations are different. We can capture the interrelation between the roles of the teacher and the student as in the following figure:

Teacher-Role-Sara_BlostPostThis figure shows that the closer the teacher acts as an author, the more passive the student will be. On the other hand, a teacher that regards himself as a tutor will aim to have more interaction with the student. How does this impact the instructional method we implement? For example, a traditional lecture format typically leads to a more passive role on behalf of the student, but actively engaging student improves the process and retention of information (Freeman et al., 2014). Thus one might ask, should we still be lecturing? The answer to this question is very much still under debate and there are opinions that reflect both sides of the debate. For example, The New York Times recently published an article by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor in the History Department at UNC-Chapel Hill, arguing in favor of the lecture format of teaching humanities as an “exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout” (Worthen, 2015). For Worthen, lectures are not passive learning experiences, but instead they are an opportunity for students to synthesize and structure information, as well as to react to this information. On the other extreme, Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist, commented that “it is almost unethical to be lecturing” (Bajak, 2014) in response to a recent study on STEM instructional methods (Freeman et al., 2014). This study demonstrated that teaching formats, which promoted student engagement with the material and activity in the classroom, increased student exam performance and reduced the risk of failure by almost one-half standard deviation.

There are certainly benefits to lecturing. Lectures provide focus on important points or ideas and help clarify difficulties in the course materials. Since the teacher is seen as the “producer” of information, s/he can present an overview of the topic and provide depth with new examples. Clearly, such a format requires a more passive role on behalf of the student. However, certain topics might be more amenable to such a format and work well in combination with other techniques that require more active engagement with the material, such as group discussions or think-pair share activities. Perhaps the most ethical thing instructors can do is to build awareness of the strengths and limitations of the instructional methods we use.

Overall, what seems clear is that the instructional method (or combination of formats) that we choose to implement in the classroom will have an impact on the kind of relationship we establish with our students. Ultimately, it will also influence the level of engagement of the students with the material. Choosing an instructional method then requires the instructor to consider at least three main aspects: 1) the learning objectives, to make sure the method is appropriate, 2) the nature of the materials and 3) how we want students to interact with this information. It might be that one instructional method is not enough to meet our needs and we need to combine different formats to make sure students engage with the materials at different levels and practice skills that meet our learning objectives.



1. Bajak, A. (12th May, 2014). Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds. Science. Retrieved from:

2. Barre, B. (23rd October, 2015). What is he point of a teacher? Blog: Principled Pedagogy. Retrieved from

3. Freeman, S., Edith, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., Wenderoth (2014), M. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS 111(23), 8410–8415.

4. Worthen, M. (17th October, 2015). Lecture me. Really. New York Times, Sunday Review. Retrieved from

Categorizing Learners: Bad Uses for Good Tools

by Kyle Skinner

Over the last couple of years, while becoming more invested in developing myself as a teacher, I’ve been asked to take the VARK inventory three or four times. VARK was presented to me as a learning style inventory, or a sort of personality quiz that tells you what kind of “learner” you are—visual, auditory, read/write, and/or kinesthetic. If you haven’t taken the VARK inventory before, you can take it for free here. Whether you’ve taken it or not, you’ve probably taken something like it before. Quizzes or inventories of learning styles like VARK, Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, or the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire are easy to find and seemingly ubiquitous. While they follow slightly different models from one another, they are all built to sort students into categories of learners. One study included a list of more than seventy available learning style models, and another even cites statements on an old version of our very own Yale Graduate Teaching Center website to demonstrate the extent to which the idea of learning styles has become popular in the world of pedagogy.

When asked to take these inventories in the context of teaching workshops, facilitators often justify their use of the quiz with vague allusions to the “matching hypothesis,” or the notion that learning outcomes can be improved by matching your presentation of course material to the style of learning that individual students prefer.

I have always been suspicious of VARK and learning inventories like it, but the last time I was asked to take it I got stuck on one particular question:

You are helping someone who wants to go to your airport, the center of town or railway station. You would:

-write down the directions.
-draw, or show her a map, or give her a map.
-go with her.
-tell her the directions.

One of the things I like about the VARK inventory is that you can select multiple answers to any question. But this question in particular (and a few other similar questions) makes me want to explain myself. Depending on whether the recipient of my directions is a beloved friend or a stranger, I might have different feelings about walking her to the airport. I might decide to write down directions instead of drawing a map if the directions would be simple and my piece of paper was small. Most importantly, I might give directions in different ways based on the navigational prowess of the recipient (my sister has such good directional memory that I could give her verbal directions once, but I would rather just put my mother in an Uber to save us both the inevitable frustration). The way I would answer this question would be dependent on context, not on my own personal learning preferences.

Even if the questionnaire did accurately diagnose my learning preference, I find myself skeptical that such diagnoses for my students would be particularly helpful to me as a teacher. When asked what their favorite days of class were over the course of a semester, I would be disappointed but not surprised were some of my more honest students to rank the lessons featuring active learning and hard work below the one day I screened a film. And I wouldn’t blame them—everyone needs an easy day every once in a while, but if curriculum were driven simply by what our students prefer to do, I think we’d see very little learning while YouTube would see a moderate increase in ad revenue.

My intuition seemed to pan out as I looked for evidence-based considerations of the usefulness of the matching hypothesis. A meta-analysis of relevant research revealed no reason to believe that the matching hypothesis is real. I far prefer to learn by reading silently to myself—but that’s because I’m impatient as a listener (as many close friends and former girlfriends would agree) and find that diagrams make me work too hard. But I could probably learn a lot more by becoming a better listener and analyzing diagrams. In fact, when I “match” my learning style, my intuition is that I get less out of it because I end up putting less effort into the learning.

I was feeling pretty misled about the VARK inventory and the like until I found this punnily named article, co-authored by a higher-ed consultant and Neil Fleming, the designer of the VARK questionnaire. I was surprised and delighted to find out that the questionnaire was never designed to be diagnostic, but rather was intended to be the starting point of useful conversations about meta-cognition that might help students themselves become better learners by thinking more about circumstances that aid or stifle learning:

“I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants. It is a beginning of a dialogue, not a measure of personality. It should be used strictly for learning, not for recreation or leisure. Some also confuse preferences with ability or strengths. You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it or any point between. VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.”

Using VARK as a diagnostic tool to determine what “kind of learners” our students are is a missed opportunity. Used to determine how we can match our teaching to our students’ learning styles, VARK encourages a one-sided teacher-centric classroom. For example, after finding out which learning modalities my students prefer, I can change my curriculum to match their preferences. Teachers should, of course, tailor their curricula to make sure they are meeting learners half-way, but providing information only in a student’s preferred learning modality means the student won’t get practice in learning in other styles. Instead of using VARK to dictate how we should teach or to inform our students that they should focus on particular methods of learning, the inventory could be used as the first step in a series of conversations with students about metacognition, ultimately helping them to develop their own notions of how to learn most effectively in the classroom or while studying on their own time.

There’s nothing wrong, I think, with the VARK inventory. Or any of the learning styles inventories you might find—but even the best tools are only useful when used well.


  1. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
  2. Fleming, Neil, and David Baume. “Learning Styles Again: VARKing up the Right Tree!” Educational Developments 7.4 (2006): 4-7. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. <>.
  3. Fleming, Neil. “Introduction to VARK.” VARK. VARK Learn Limited, n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. <>.
  4. Fleming, Neil. “The VARK Questionnaire.” VARK. VARK Learn Limited, n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. <>.
  5. Pashler, Harold, Mark Mcdaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9.3 (2009): 105-19. Web. 19 Jan. 2016. <>.

Mobile-Ready Education: Making Education More Accessible

By Stefan Avey

In our increasingly digital world, mobile devices are ubiquitous. On college campuses, cell phone and tablet use by students and teachers alike seems to be increasing with respect to less-mobile laptops and PCs. As a 4th year Ph.D. student in bioinformatics, I spend most of my time in lab working on a desktop computer. When I am not in lab, however, I am likely to learn something by listening to a podcast or watching a video on a mobile device (often while driving, washing dishes, or folding laundry). Given the increasing use of mobile devices, can encouraging students to use mobile devices make learning more accessible?


Mobile-ready education requires adaptation of course material to formats a mobile device can handle, which leads to practical concerns.1 If you expect your students to use a website, is it mobile-friendly? Try Google’s URL tester to find out. If you use videos to teach, are they small enough to be downloaded on a mobile device or accessible as streaming videos? If not, have you considered that some students may not have easy access to a computer and are therefore at a disadvantage?


Beyond the practical considerations, how should we think of mobile-ready education? One useful framework is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (ACCESS Project 2011). UDL has historically been viewed as a design principle to make learning more accessible to students with disabilities (Tobin 2015). For example, closed captioning was created to aid people with hearing impairments, but it helps many people including, perhaps, college students who do homework after their children go to sleep at night. The idea is simple: putting content in multiple formats, and letting your students choose how to learn, benefits all students. Why? The UDL framework emphasizes giving students an extra option for encountering content, demonstrating learning, and staying engaged. (ACCESS Project 2011) UDL will especially benefit students whose success depends on utilizing multiple learning modalities or capitalizing on opportune moments to study (e.g. on their way to work).2 Indeed, the demographics of the average college student is shifting towards students who are older than 30, have children, or work while in college. A recent report from Georgetown University found that around 40% of undergraduate students work at least 30 hours per week. (Carnevale 2015).3


At this point you may be thinking, “well this is all great in theory but I don’t have the time to make professional videos and mobile apps.” One way to adopt UDL principles with minimal extra work is to use, or ask your students to use, existing technologies. For example, in a science class at Yale, an undergraduate recently gave a final presentation about the chemical structure and degradation of pigments used in oil paints. This student used a free app to demonstrate how a pink pigment that Van Gogh commonly used looked when fresh (Van Gogh’s intended color) and how it currently looks. This award-winning app, Touch Van Gogh, allowed the entire class to dive deeper into Van Gogh’s work without stepping foot in a museum.


There are many excellent resources available online that can be adopted for your course.4 In addition to representing information, mobile devices can be used to engage students and allow them to demonstrate learning. Some examples include encouraging your foreign language students to converse in the language by texting on mobile devices outside of class or giving course credit to your botany students when they post pictures of field work on twitter with a class hash tag.


While UDL aims to increase accessibility, the risk with any online learning is that the content may be permanently or temporarily unavailable. I recently taught an introductory course on Data Science that relied heavily on example websites for in-class demos. A few minutes before class, as I was setting up my laptop, I discovered (to my horror) that the site was down even though I checked that it was working a few hours prior. I scrambled and found a similar tool online but didn’t have time to change my slides to reflect the particularities of the new tool, making that section confusing for my students. I learned that when using online content, having a backup plan helps students be successful. If you give your students an assignment and the website doesn’t work, what should they do instead? What if it only stops working the day before an assignment is due?


A 2007 study found that 94% of distance learners but only 60% of faculty said they were ready for mobile learning. Since 2007, mobile technology has continued to evolve and our students are mostly “digital natives,” while faculty are not. (Corbeil 2007) Mobile-ready education has the potential to help bridge this gap by providing content to students in a more familiar, accessible way. Major challenges include building infrastructure to support faculty developing mobile-ready content and convincing faculty that this is worth the investment. To some extent, the infrastructure can be facilitated by a university-wide learning management system. The Canvas system, currently piloted by Yale, boasts mobile apps for iOS and android that allow easy access to content on the go. In addition, many universities, like Yale, have instructional technologists who support faculty in providing mobile-ready learning. Depending on the strategy, the time commitment can range from a few minutes per lesson to months of developing an app with a support team.


I would love to hear your thoughts on who benefits from a mobile education and how education can be made more accessible by making it mobile-ready?




1. For a more detailed analysis of techniques and frameworks for mobile content adaption, see Chapter 10 of Emerging Perspectives on the Mobile Content Evolution.

2. For more information on UDL including resources and technical modules, see Colorado State University’s excellent UDL webpage.

3. The Georgetown website describing this report gives a good model for mobile-ready education as it is mobile-friendly and represents content in a variety of formats (video, PowerPoint, text, audio, podcast, etc.).

4. To learn about some of these resources, visit the CTL technology resource page or attend CTL advanced teaching workshops on technology (check the CTL website for schedules).



Carnevale, A.P., Smith, N., Melton, M., and Price, E.W. (2015). Learning While Earning: The New Normal.

Quinn, Clark (2000). “mLearning: Mobile, Wireless, In-Your-Pocket Learning,” LineZine. (retrieved November 27, 2015).

Corbeil, J.R., and Valdes-Corbeil, M.E. (2007). Are You Ready for Mobile Learning? Educ. Q. 51–58. (retrieved November 27, 2015).

Thomas J. Tobin (2015). Everyone’s Future: Getting Faculty to Adopt Universal Design for Learning. (retrieved November 17, 2015).

ACCESS Project (2011). Universal Design for Learning: A Concise Introduction. 1–4.


Scaffolding Student Projects: Seven Decisions

By Edward O’Neill

Why give students collaborative projects?

Many factors come together to make the assignment a good learning experience, and this means many decisions must be made.

Collaborative or group projects can be powerful learning experiences.

  • The students are the agents.
  • They must work together, debate, explore ideas by articulating them to each other, and come to agreement.
  • There is a tangible thing at the end, something they can see and touch and take pride in.
  • When the projects are made over time, students get feedback as they go. In educationese we call this: formative assessment, i.e., measuring student learning in order to spur on progress.

What kinds of projects do expert teachers assign?

Over the last several years, I’ve worked with professors who used the following kinds of projects for the following class topics.

  • Advanced French Prose Writing. Students research and write a multi-character novel about people living in a specific, real apartment building in Paris.
  • Literary Criticism. Students write, edit, lay out, and publish a literary magazine.
  • The Life Sciences. Students design, write, edit, and publish pamphlets explaining scientific literature to relevant lay audiences.
  • Visual Studies. Students curate an online exhibition & catalog.
  • The Social Sciences. Working in groups, students write a research paper using data sets the instructor supplies and consulting with the instructor and each other to develop their methodology.
  • Econometrics and Data Analysis. ​ Students work in small groups to answer a substantive question they care about by gathering, describing, and analyzing real data sets.

Most of these assignments are “authentic”: students make a real thing recognizable to non-experts and with utility outside strictly academic exercises (i.e, “write a paper about X”).

Most teachers who see this list will spot one that might be adapted to their courses.

Seven challenges to organizing student group projects

How do you help them get and stay organized?

  • Such organizational structures which help students build their knowledge over time can be called scaffolding. The metaphor is those structures put up around a building to allow the building to be built–after which the scaffolding is taken away.

We can make progress towards scaffolding by considering seven decisions concerning the organization of the class time and the students’ relationships.

  1. Are the learners going to build something one piece at a time?
    • Because at the end, the pieces may not fit together.
  2. Will they just do one large project?
    • Because it could end up being a mess, and there are no second chances–hence no real learning.
  3. Do they pursue their work outside class?
    • While also doing reading and other homework? That’s like an extra class.
    • And then they have to turn the work in, you have to grade it and return it to them, they need to digest the feedback. You’re talking three or four weeks for one step: they do it, you write feedback, they get the feedback, then the move on to the next stage.
  4. Does everyone do the same project? A piece of one big project?
    • Because if all the students solve the same problem, the projects might all end up the same. Or if there’s one “right answer,” everyone may get it quickly–or worse, not get it.
  5. What formats and media do the students use as they go?
    • Presentations? Papers? Mock-up’s?
  6. How do you know the students learned something?
    • Can you really design activities that show what the students understand the first time out? It will likely take you a few tries to fine-tune the assignments. What happens in the meantime?
  7. Finally, how do you grade the work?
    • Is there a letter grade for every step? How do you avoid grading, grading, grading–and discouraging the students as well by putting pressure on their every comma and square root?

All these pitfalls may sound discouraging. But the good news is: there are some pathways you may not have considered that avoid some of these pitfalls.

We can consider these options using a research paper as an example: not because it’s an authentic project, but because it’s familiar to most teachers.

1. Consider assigning ‘small wholes’ of increasing size instead of parts of a larger whole.

Often when we think of working on a project over time, we think of a big whole thing that has parts. A paper has:

  • a bibliography,
  • a lit review,
  • an introduction,
  • a body,
  • a conclusion.

We then ask the students to make the parts and then just glue them together.

Often the ‘gluing together’ is not so easy. And what’s more: a fault start can mean a poor finish.

An alternative approach is to consider the smallest possible version of the whole and then to ask students to make several of each, winnowing as they go, and growing the tasks in size. E.g.,

  • For a paper, a hypothesis might be the smallest possible whole which contains the germ of something larger.
  • One paragraph might be a bigger ‘small whole.’
  • A one-page paper might be the next step, followed by two-page papers, etc.

In this case the scaffolding might be:

  • First students write (say) ten hypotheses. These are subject to discussion and debate.
  • Then the students pick (say) the five most viable hypotheses, and they write three paragraphs for each hypothesis.
  • The same process repeats with (perhaps) three one-page papers, two three-page papers, and finally one final paper.

It’s survival of the fittest.

This way students try different approaches and decide what works in conjunction with the instructor and each other. The students avoid a weak foundation which can’t possibly support a larger building.

2. Consider giving the students a ‘trial run’ project followed by the ‘real thing.’

Often our students come to us already having experience doing the type of work we’re asking: writing papers or lab reports, etc.

But they may not be great at these things, and we hope what we teach them is new.

If we only give them one chance to refine their skills and demonstrate their knowledge, they may not ‘get it’ the first or even second time. So we typically want to give them several opportunities to try, fail if need be, and then succeed.

When we walk the students through a process slowly and carefully, if we allow enough time, we can then let the students do it on their own more rapidly.

This is one of the most distilled descriptions of scaffolding: the gradual transfer of agency and control from the teacher to the learner. A ‘trial run’ project lets the students ‘get the ropes,’ stumble around, and then do it better the second time.

3. Projects can be completed during class to avoid a long turnaround time on grading or feedback. But this reduces ‘content coverage.’

Whether students do one project or two or three, there is the question of when the work gets done and where, how much time goes into it–and where the time comes from.

  • If students do project work outside class time:
    • that either takes time away from reading and other homework, or it takes time from elsewhere in the student’s life;
    • students may need to meet in person, and their schedules can make this difficult;
    • you then need to take the work, write comments, return it–ideally before the students do the next step, which typically requires input on the prior step.
  • If, however, students do project work during class time:
    • you can set high expectations for reading and homework;
    • students don’t need to schedule meetings–there’s a time already set aside;
    • you get to give the students feedback right then and there. There’s no stack of papers or maquettes to take home and pore over.

But this means in-class time is not dedicated to other things–like discussion or lecture.

It is possible to use the project to apply, say, concepts from the reading. But most professors want dedicated time during class meetings to go over what’s been read or studied, separate from any focused project work.

Having a long project all by itself, in addition to losing class time, thus sometimes mean the instructor must cover less material, and many instructors are not willing to do this.

In my experience the instructors I know who dedicated large amounts of class time to big projects find it very rewarding.

  • They have focused time with the students in groups giving everyone help.
  • The instructor feels involved, and the student gets extensive expert input (or “formative assessment”).

4. Consider opportunities for different group projects to feed into each other.

Is everyone doing the same thing? A part of some larger whole–i.e., a ‘jigsaw’?

For a small class, one project with a few teams can work fine. But for larger classes, some ‘social coordination’ can be useful.

  • If everyone solves the same problem, that is generally quite dull.
  • If each group solves their own problem, then they have little to tell each other.
  • If each group approaches one piece of a large problem or project, then they can work separately and then coordinate.
    • This can make for very rich interactions.
  • Finally, some professors ask students to do individual work, choosing elements of a broad topic.
    • Then once some basic research has been done and topics defined, the professor puts the students in groups with related interests.
    • Each student acts as an ‘expert’ within the group, and they create a single project that synthesizes their individual work.

5. Consider using different media for different types of assignments.

Presentations? Papers? Infographics? Videos? Always use the same medium–the one they’re going to end up with? Or different tools for different kinds of work? Guided by what principles?

There is some virtue to using the same format or medium for every step in a long process: people get used to it, get better at it, or master it.

But there is a virtue to using different media and formats: from a Tweet to a Powerpoint to an infographic to an essay to a video.

  • First, our initial understanding may be sprawling or tiny.
    • Gathering all the relevant thoughts and facts may be a useful step and may require a large document.
    • Focusing down to the essence, condensing and distilling our understanding can help to focus it. So small, even reductive formats (like a diagram) can be useful.
  • Second, using different forms of representation may actually help students build their understanding.
    • In STEM fields, much research shows how using multiple forms of representation are required for complex problem-solving. It would be surprising if there were no parallel in other disciplines.
      • We don’t understand a complex phenomenon immediately in one instant.
        • We see a painting as a whole, then study its parts, then the interactions.
        • Each time we re-grasp something about the whole until we understand the painting not as just one inert thing but as a complex dynamic whole.
      • First we grasp the locations in Hamlet, then the plot, then character motivation, etc. in increasing degrees of complexity.
  • Finally, students have varying degree of skill with Powerpoint and prose (to name only two), and so different media give different students the opportunity to shine–or to get better at some specific skill.

In my experience, most any tool can be used for most any step in a process of planning, drafting, revising, and delivering. But you should explore and draw your own conclusions that work for you and your students.

And when you are at a loss, it’s often a good idea to ask students to choose. It gives them buy-in and lets them play to strengths or learn new skills from their peers–as they choose.

6 and 7. How do we know the students are learning? How do we assign grades?

First, the project should be aligned with the course goals. You should be able to look at the project and see in it a degree of expertise.

The first time you assign students a given project, you might not know what success and failure look like. But you can see the features as they emerge, and you can point the students to however it is you’ve defined the course goals.

  • “Demonstrate an understanding of” is wiggle verbiage: you should be able to provide some standards about what more and less robust performances look like–standards you can revise each time you teach a course.

Second, if there are other forms of assessment (like tests and exams), you can see if students whose projects were better also did better on exams.

  • It’s possible that project performance will mirror underlying knowledge.
  • But it’s also possible that project skills go so far beyond knowledge of the subject matter that projects represent “knowledge plus.”

It’s somewhat up to you to find out what the projects show about your students learning so you can decide what kind of weight to give to what kind of performance.

As for grading, some instructors give both individual and group grades.

  • They ask students to specify their roles: presentation wrangler, editor, project manager–whatever the students choose.
  • They ask students to evaluate both themselves and each other at regular intervals to decrease ‘freeriding.’

It can be a good idea to have the individual pieces be graded generously or merely to earn ‘points,’ also doled out generously.

  • Basically, if you put too much pressure on students during the work process, you may freeze them up, cause them to seek perfection, rather than focusing on learning.

In short, there are many kinds of authentic collaborative student projects, and at least seven big decisions to make. This pdf summarizes them.

How you make them depends on what’s important to you.

Active Listening: Teaching with Music

by Christy Thomas

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.[1]
-Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes’ famous words to Dr. Watson can be rephrased to reference the ear rather than the eye as the sensory organ of observation: You hear, but you do not listen. In these parallel statements, the implication is that “seeing” and “hearing” are passive, while “observing” and “listening” are active, requiring a heightened level of engagement from the observer or listener but also resulting in a greater acquisition of knowledge.

Music surrounds us everyday—it is on our playlists, the radio, commercials, soundtracks for movies or television shows, our neighbors’ stereo—yet we seem to have mastered the art of hearing without listening. Nevertheless, music has the power to enrich student engagement in the college classroom if they learn the art of active listening and how to connect what they hear with a broader conceptual network. To practice active listening, we must—like Dr. Watson—learn to observe with our ears.

While the importance of teaching with a variety of artifacts or objects is generally recognized, music may not always be the first port of call outside of music classes. But music is not just for musicians and music courses. By expanding the notion of a “text” to include any object that can communicate meaning—as in the literary theory sense of the word—then music can also be treated as an important object of study from a variety of vantage points.[2]

Musical examples can be usefully deployed in a wide variety of disciplines. For example, an American History course on the 1960s could feature iconic protest songs of the anti-war movement or a comparison of Aretha Franklin’s Respect from 1967 with Otis Redding’s original 1965 recording in order to highlight prevalent issues of class and gender in the United States at that time. An English course might examine how particular texts have been set to music, or how canonical theatrical works have been adapted for the operatic stage. A class on Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, might feature a musical excerpt from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 operatic setting of the play. An Art History course on Impressionism might examine various musical compositions in conjunction with visual works of art of the same period, comparing Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies to better understand the principles and markers of the impressionist movement as expressed in various media.

Many university libraries are purchasing subscriptions to online streaming databases and supporting initiatives to catalogue and archive their multimedia collections, thus providing access to a rapidly diversifying treasure-trove of newly available resources for use in undergraduate courses. In order to make effective use of the music made available via these resources, we must train our students how to engage with it. Even the best-prepared activities can miss the mark, however, unless students are prepared to listen and not just to hear. However, while active learning is a frequent topic of discussion in pedagogical circles today, the notion of active listening is rarely addressed—if at all.[3]

So what is “active listening” and how can we encourage and facilitate it when using musical examples in undergraduate courses?

If active learning is generally understood as any pedagogical approach that engages students in the learning process and requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing in the context of the classroom, then active listening similarly requires students to engage with and think about what they hear.[4] In other words, active listening is listening with a purpose.

Whether employed in music courses or in non-music courses, active listening does not require advanced musical training or the ability to read music, yet it can still be used with students who can read music. Even students with years of performance training may struggle when it comes to talking about music or making salient observations about what they hear. Students may be familiar with a piece, and may even know it well, but have they thought about it? Active listening, therefore, is a useful tool in both music courses and non-music courses, and can have the democratizing effect of leveling the playing field.

In order to address how active listening can be cultivated through teaching with music, I outline three types of listening that might be mapped onto different listening goals, followed by four practical techniques that can be used during any of these three types of listening.

Three Types of Listening:

In teaching music history, music theory, and music appreciation courses, I often think of three types or tiers of listening: 1) affective listening, 2) structural listening, and 3) dialogic listening.[5] Although these categories have been particularly effective in teaching musical examples with a level of detail appropriate for music majors, they can also be usefully applied for using musical examples in non-music courses more broadly.

Affective Listening

This type of listening is perhaps the most basic. It paints a picture for the ear in broad strokes, and gives students a general sense for the affect of a piece—its emotion, its color, its stylistic or generic characteristics, its je ne sais quoi. It could also be thought of as a “sampler strategy,” a method for moving quickly through a piece or through a number of pieces in order to set the stage for more focused listening. This type of listening can be enhanced by adding a layer of commentary while the music plays to direct students’ attention to particular details before asking them to make observations on their own, as will be discussed later. Useful questions for this type of listening typically prompt students to voice their observations on a basic level: What instruments do you hear? What genre of music is this? What emotions does this evoke? How fast or slow is it? (For those with musical training, this might also include more targeted questions to draw out observations about tempo, meter, rhythm, range, etc.)

Structural Listening

This type of listening approaches a musical example almost like a sculpture or a painting, in which you point students toward particular moments and see the ways in which those moments are the culmination of particular trajectories. As such, structural listening often means comparing different moments from within a particular piece. Questions might include: How does the artist or composer move from one idea to another? Why? What underlying questions does the piece pose and how does it answer these questions, if at all? How does the text relate to the sounds?

Dialogic Listening

This type of listening is perhaps the most complex and time-consuming, yet also the most fruitful and potentially rewarding. As the name implies, this type of listening places a musical example in dialogue with external elements—generic conventions, other musical pieces, artwork, texts, objects, etc. Teaching with music does not preclude using texts or visuals as well. If your piece has lyrics, include them (and if those lyrics are not in your students’ native language, provide a translation as well). It often helps to complement listening with other ways of engaging with musical examples by using other types of media. Questions that promote dialogic listening might, for example, entail comparing a piece of music to another piece by the same artist or composer, to a later reworking or different recording of that piece, to a painting or sculpture engaging with similar concepts or coming from a similar period, or to a newspaper article or review from the same era; it could even involve tracing the piece’s reception over time.

Four Practical Techniques:

Teaching with music can be challenging—especially because we as a society have developed the habit of hearing without listening. In playing a musical example in class, the risk is often one of losing control of student attention. Too often, the moment the music starts playing, eyes begin to glaze. These techniques are designed to help students engage productively with what they hear, to engender active rather than passive listening.

Model good listening

Your students look to you as the model for how to listen well. Body language is important. If you use this time to shuffle through notes, you appear disengaged. If you look like you’re just waiting for the example to be done before you can start speaking again, you appear disengaged. Try closing your eyes. Smile. Frown. Laugh. Be expressive. Show that the music affects you.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Sometimes it takes multiple hearings to grasp a musical selection. When reading written texts or analyzing visual objects, students can move back and forth between different elements and can look back and refresh their memory on a point or a detail that has already been covered. But you can’t “listen back” in the same way as you can look back. When listening to music, you can only hear one moment at a time, moving sequentially from moment to moment without the ability to jump backward and forward. Playing examples multiple times allows students to better absorb the music and to make more informed assessments and observations of what they have heard.

Highlight salient points

Talk over the musical example to point out important features that you want your students to notice. This can be especially helpful when your students are less confident about their own ability to listen effectively, and to demonstrate your expectations in terms of what to listen for. The last thing you want is for students to tune out and lose focus during a musical example. The point is to engage students, not to use this time for other unrelated activities (Facebook, email, Twitter, homework for other classes, etc.). Providing an on-going commentary essentially provides students with a road-map for listening, helping them not only to understand the relevance of what they hear in a given moment but how that moment relates to other moments in the piece.

Give listening directives

Students should always know what to listen for. Because everyday musical engagement often does not involve critical thinking, it is helpful to point students in the right direction. Ask a question before playing the musical example. Tell them a particular aspect of the piece to focus on. Clarify your expectations for what you would like your students to do, listen for, or understand as a result of listening to a particular musical example.

Active Listening: Beyond Music

The principles behind active listening can be extended and applied to more than just using music or multimedia in the classroom. The practice of active listening cultivates transferrable skills for how to listen carefully and critically in other situations both inside and outside the classroom—listening to lectures, to political speeches, to TED talks, and even to one another. For example, in her recent op-ed for The New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.”, Molly Worthen argues about the validity of the lecture course in the midst of today’s debates about active learning.[6] All too often, such pedagogical debates condense lecturing and active learning into an oppositional binary, with the implication that lecturing only results in passive learning, if it engenders learning at all. Yet I would argue that the underlying principles of active listening—critical engagement with aurally received information—challenge the foundational assumptions for such a binary. Although Worthen does not specifically use the phrase “active listening,” her argument is essentially built upon the notion that lectures require—or should require—students to listen rather than just hear. As Worthen points out, in 1869 former president of Harvard University Charles Eliot cautioned that “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome, but it runs through. A mind must work to grow.”[7] However, for Worthen—as well as for myself—an alternative to abolishing the lecture is to teach students how to listen, to hone the sieve instead of turning off the water. Thus, whether applied to teaching with music or to other situations, active listening is a useful pedagogical strategy for teaching the principles of critical inquiry.

Do not be satisfied with simply hearing and seeing. Strive instead to listen and observe.


Yale Library Resources

Yale’s links to audio streaming databases:

Yale’s links to video streaming databases:

Yale Music Library:

CDs and other recorded formats are searchable through Orbis


[1] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1892).

[2] For more on using multimedia in classrooms, see, for example: Janice Marcuccilli Strop and Jennifer Carlson, Multimedia Text Sets: Changing the Shape of Engagement and Learning. Winnipeg: Portage & Main Press, 2010.

[3] Although there is a considerable amount of literature on the use of music in elementary education classrooms (often in the vein of using music as a memory tool or a means of drawing students together, or even “how playing classical music in the background helps children focus”), as well as a number of pedagogical resources for teaching music history and music theory (perhaps most notably the Journal of Music History Pedagogy and the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy), there are fewer resources on effective practices for employing musical examples when teaching broader concepts in undergraduate classrooms more generally.

[4] For more on active learning, see, for example: Michael Prince, “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 93 No. 3, 2004: 223-231.

[5] I am indebted to James Hepokoski for these particular terms and ways of thinking about different types of listening.

[6] Molly Worthen. “Lecture Me. Really.” The New York Times, 17 October 2015.

[7] Charles William Eliot, Addresses at the Inauguration of Charles William Eliot as President of Harvard College, October 19, 1869. Server & Francis, 1869: 42.

Mindfulness of the Mind


Jared Rovny

I. Mental frameworks

The brilliant French mathematician and Einstein’s contemporary, Henri Poincaré, was mid-vacation in the town of Coutances, mid-conversation, and mid-stride — one foot stretched to step into his bus — when the solution to his problem suddenly appeared in his consciousness and seared itself in his mind. He had no time to write down and verify the mathematics, but also no need, so he continued his conversation. Without working on his problem or even actively thinking about it, his subconscious mind had presented him with the solution in a single moment.1 Controversial and perennially misunderstood, occurrences like these fascinated the earliest students of human academic thought, and help motivate the broader goal of this piece: to take a step back and ask “What can we learn about effective teaching by thinking about the minds of students?”

And so I want to briefly explore: what constitutes a framework of knowledge, how is it built, and how can we be more effective teachers by thinking about these things?

Inspired by a series of lectures by Poincaré in 1937, Jacques Hadamard (also a renowned French mathematician) wrestles issues like the above in his short work The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. While a powerfully thought-provoking piece in its own right, I am particularly interested in his questions to prominent scientists of the day, including Albert Einstein, as to how they “did their thing.” Did they think in words? Imagine mathematical symbols? Interestingly enough, Hadamard notes that “practically all of them… avoid not only the use of mental words but also, just as I do, the mental use of algebraic or any other precise signs; also as in my case, they use vague images.” [i] Einstein reports the following famously fascinating observations:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced or combined… The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type.” [i]

The “muscular type”? Yes, Einstein could “feel the abstract spaces he was dealing with, in the muscles of his arms and fingers.” [ii][iii]

I love reading things like this, both because I myself rarely think (scientifically) in words or symbols, and because I wonder at the possibilities— how many ways are there to think?2 How can I improve my understanding of the world around me by exploring modes of thought? But back to the point: what implication does this have for our students?

II. Synthesis as a context for learning

If we agree that our students mentally work in unpredictably unique ways, how can we introduce them to a subject in a way that they can build a useful framework in their own minds, according to their own way of thinking? An answer to this, in many regards, is what Hadamard calls “synthesis,” and by which I mean the active process of discovery, or of actively incorporating new ideas into one’s own mental model. In the classroom, by actively working to understand or apply a new concept, the student builds a mental framework organically consistent with his or her own mode of thinking.3

How do we teach in a way that promotes this active synthesis for our students? This can be especially difficult since in mathematics (and possibly in other fields) we often have to communicate in a language foreign to our own — or our students’— actual mode of operational understanding. Here’s an example: a well-known law in physics and mathematics is called “Gauss’s Law.” I know this law well, but like the scientists mentioned above, it exists in my mind only as a sort of image or impression. Even though the law is elegant and simple, I cannot convey it as such. Instead I have to conjure my mental image, and interpret it into a series of mathematical relationships, which is a common language between my students and myself. Is it then sufficient to derive a mathematical law by simply presenting a series of individually consistent steps?

According to Poincaré (who we started with), this is necessary, but is not usually sufficient. As he puts it:

Context is everything. [viii]

Context is everything. [viii]

To understand the demonstration of a theorem, is that to examine successively each syllogism composing it and ascertain its correctness, its conformity to the rules of the game? … For some, yes; when they have done this, they will say, I understand. For the majority, no. Almost all are much more exacting; they wish to know not merely whether all the syllogisms of a demonstration are correct, but why they link together in this order rather than another…Doubtless they are not themselves just conscious of what they crave…but if they do not get satisfaction, they vaguely feel that something is lacking. [i]

Teaching by simple progression, one abstract idea to the next, leaves a student missing something; Hadamard more clearly states exactly what’s missing:

In this way of working, which seems to be the best one of getting a rigorous and clear presentation for the beginner, nothing remains, however, of the synthesis… But that synthesis gives the leading thread, without which one would be like the blind man who can walk but would never know in what direction to go. [i]

The missing piece is synthesis, the original context by which the idea came to fruition. Of course, this is commonplace. We discover something through a particular thought-process, then rewrite and rework our logic a dozen times before presenting our work anywhere else. The advantages are concise and logical publications; the disadvantages are the production of learning materials that can leave us feeling led, but blind. This is a pitfall for textbooks especially, which are as rigorous as reference manuals, but are often lacking in synthesis, context, or motivation.

A further example to conclude: suppose this week you become fascinated by a close relative of “Gauss’ law”, called “Stokes theorem” (we use this in introductory Physics, so naturally you are enthralled). You look it up on Wikipedia only to read:

“In vector calculus, and more generally differential geometryStokes’ theorem is a statement about the integration of differential forms on manifolds… Stokes’ theorem says that the integral of a differential form ω over the boundary of some orientable manifold Ω is equal to the integral of its exterior derivative dω over the whole of Ω.” [iv]

Well good luck sipping knowledge from that fire hose. It is logical, concise, defensible, and largely useless, links and all (exactly 6 clicks deep into the first links will lead you to the “philosophy” page anyways—again, good luck) [v][vi][vii]. But Hadamard’s point is deeper than this— he claims that even if you “understood” the above statement, meaning you could verify each part yourself, you are still lacking the synthesis, the ideas and thoughts and problems that could lead a person to such a formulation as a whole.

So both Poincaré and Hadamard claim that synthesis is an important ingredient in the teaching process: by presenting the topic in the fullness of its historical or logical context as much as possible (the context in which the idea was synthesized in the first place), the mind of the student is automatically set to contextualizing and reframing that problem according to their own mental processes as they search for a solution.4

III. Application: lessons from my own teaching

To incorporate synthesis in my teaching, I have borrowed from the examples of my own teachers, who were an unbroken chain of great mentors, especially my undergraduate advisor and friend at the University of Dallas, Dr. Richard Olenick. With them in mind, I try to make synthesis a habitual practice in my teaching, using the following two methods:

  1. Provide the context for synthesis. To do this, I always try to connect, contextualize, then motivate the material. Connect: Each and every student sits down in class with something different on their mind: food, sleep, relationships, intimidation, excitement, and more. I’ve found it highly effective to allow the first sixty seconds or so be content-free. Discussing the course, upcoming assignments, or their current course load gives each mind time to adapt and settle in to their surroundings, and build attention towards you and the class. Only a few seconds are needed and provide a very high return on investment. Contextualize: I can then easily discuss a background to the topic and properly motivate it. In the sciences particularly, history has been my friend; a short background to your topic is a powerful incentive, human and logical. Motivate: With some background, however brief, the material is ready to be motivated: why is this interesting? How does it impact your life? Why did it fascinate the people who came up with it? Reasons and goals are great allies.
  1. Provide tools for synthesis. Even with the proper context and motivation, you can’t actively search for answers (synthesize) if you don’t understand the question. With complicated material, I’ve found it helpful to first provide simple overviews of the topic, verbally and visually. This reduces intimidation and clarifies the topic, allowing students to be more receptive to the material itself. With a basic overview and understanding of the relationship among different aspects of a topic, students have a mental “scaffold” on which to place the more complicated material as it arises, providing mental space and the prerequisite knowledge to begin active problem-solving and synthesis.

To frame this according to modern research: “To develop competence…students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application” [xii]. That is, competence requires knowledge, in a framework and organized. So, to restate: with complicated material, I find that first exposing students to a clarifying framework5 of a topic can help them retain the knowledge itself. Students are then better equipped to synthesize and create mental organization as they internalize the knowledge. To accomplish this, I first discuss the larger framework (“how are all these ideas connected?”) using simple versions of the ideas, only then to follow through with more detailed explanations.

IV. Conclusion

Innovative thoughts about metacognition from over fifty years ago provide insights into thought and pedagogy that remain highly relevant today. The sources referenced here gave me important mental models for understanding active learning and backward design as a teacher, but student metacognition has also been shown to produce learning gains [xiii]—so as your students learn and synthesize, have them think about how ideas fit into their own broader understanding. Everyone benefits from being mindful of the mind!

By looking into the foundations of education research, we can continue to find innovative ways to relate current research to our own teaching. This innovation “is highly important for the further development of educational professions… and for our development as a knowledge society.”6 In our rapidly accelerating information era, we can foster effective pedagogy by applying research old and new. I hope you find ways to apply mindful teaching in your own discipline, and I hope you tell me how you do it! I’d love to hear.


1 “At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’ sake, I verified the result at my leisure.”

2 Some would say there is only one way to think. I would refer them to the broader discussion on [i] and documentation on alternative mental processes such as synesthesia.

3 For more on active learning, a good starting place is the CTL’s overview [ix].

4 Ever had a student reach the “a-ha” moment, and then explain the concept back to you in a strange way? “OH! So it’s just like [insert unanticipated or confusing analogy here].” But you realize their analogy does make some sort of sense. That’s the concept being adopted and adapted into their particular mental framework, and being re-expressed.

5 While the full meaning of a “knowledge framework” is the subject of much discussion, here I simply use “framework” in the very specific sense discussed in the prior paragraph: a basic overview of a topic with stated relationships among its various components.

6 This importance was recently emphasized in Review of Educational Research [x].


[i] Jacques Hadamard, The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 1945. Pages cited: 84, 143, 104-106.

[ii] L’Enseignement Mathematique, Volumes 4 and 6. International Committee on the Teaching of Mathematics.


[iv] (subject to change without notice, especially after publication of this article)

[v] (subject to change without notice, but less likely)





[x] M. Thurlings, A. Evers, M. Vermeulen, “Towards a Model of Explaining Teachers’ Innovative Behavior: A Literature Review.” 2015. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 85, No. 3, pp. 430-471. DOI: 10.3102/0034654314557949.

[xi] For further thoughtful commentary about Hadamard’s book (and other topics), see

[xii] M. Donovan, J. Bransford, and J. Pellegrino, How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, National Research Council. 1999. Page cited: 12.

[xiii] K. Tanner, “Promoting Student Metacognition.” 2012. Life Sciences Education, Vol. 11, pp. 113-120. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.12-03-0033.