Faculty Development & Learning Assessment

Keeping Your Classroom C.R.I.S.P.

--04/07/2011

Are you and your millennial students losing your focus in the classroom? Feeling like you need to make some changes in your courses but time is at issue?

Our burden of responsibilities—email, program assessment, committee work, etc.—seems to grow each year. Is there something faculty can do to regain that focus in the classroom that leads to greater student learning? Absolutely, and it’s not that difficult.

Keeping Your Class C.R.I.S.P.—A Refresher Course

Here are five things you can do so your daily class organization promotes learning: Contextualize. Review. Iterate. Summarize. Preview.

HGTV (Home & Garden Television)has become quite popular by showing viewers how to decorate their homes. The cable channel’s methodology is simple—every room needs one focal point, and everything in the room ought to contribute to that end with the final goal of unity—pulling the entire home together.

If there were such a thing as The Pedagogy Channel (TPC), it would doubtless stress that classrooms work the same way: not only seeking unity for each individual session but also developing a seamless flow for the entire course—sort of a pedagogical feng shui. So until TPC launches, we’ll offer you some tips to redesign your classroom for more effective, unified learning through the C.R.I.S.P. approach.

Contextualize!

Rather than jumping into the day’s topic, begin your class with what Gerry Nosich calls “the fundamental and powerful concept.” For example, instead of starting the class with a general announcement such as “Today we’ll be examining Poe’s `Ligeia’,” provide a focal point that informs the entire hour: “Today we’ll be looking at Poe’s `Ligeia’ through the dark magnifying glass of the Gothic tale.”

At that point, you might move on by providing a brief PowerPoint presentation that includes a definition of the concept, perhaps by conducting a mini-lecture about the conventions of the Gothic tale, or you might have preselected a group of students to research and present that information. Even low techies can write GOTHIC TALE in bold letters on the board as a reminder of the day’s focus.

This focus on a singular concept will also serve your students well in the entirety of their domain/field. Ideally, you are helping them develop a knowledge base, and transferable skills. Understanding how “Ligeia” exemplifies the gothic tale illuminates much Romantic Literature as well as introducing a key element in Southern Literature. In addition, the notion of convention (e.g., the Gothic motif of the dark and stormy night) is fundamental to all literature and will aid students in further literary analysis regardless of the specific course.

Review!

Once students know where you are going with the class, immediately tie that focus into previous class foci (to aid this process, encourage your students to study their notes after each class and skim over them just before the next class starts).

Research demonstrates that students learn best when they can attach new knowledge to old knowledge. When you review, you also prime their pumps on that learning process by exemplifying and modeling how it works.

“A few weeks ago we were studying the Neoclassic Age, with its emphasis on reason, as the way by which people knew and understood the world around them. Coming at the end of the18th century, the Gothic reflects a tension between this old way of confronting the universe and a newer way, the Romantic’s reliance on emotion and intuition’s ability to grasp things beyond the reach of reason. Do you see any of this tension in `Ligeia’?”

Students can now dive into this new world of Poe from a strong platform, no matter the methodology you choose from this point.

Iterate!

Throughout the class, continually emphasize the powerful and fundamental concept around which the session is built. While you could simply point to your writing on the wall periodically, you create deeper learning experiences by having your students actively engaged in the iteration process. One method Nosich recommends to provide students a framework for learning the day’s new concept is the SEE-ing I.

Have each student take a few minutes on paper to State his/her definition of the Gothic, Elaborate on it with a paraphrasing sentence beginning with “In other words … .” Exemplify it with a sentence starting “For example … .” Illustrate it with a sentence beginning “It’s like ….” Then have them share their thoughts through a brief discussion.

Importantly, this exercise leads students beyond memorizing and parroting yours or a group’s definition. For variety, you can facilitate deeper learning by such techniques as pair-and-share moments. Additionally, have students draw analogies between “Ligeia” in your course and other examples of the Gothic they recognize in television, (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), movies (Van Helsing), and other courses (“A Rose for Emily” in Southern Lit).

While keeping their focus on the Gothic, move your students along the revised Bloom’s taxonomy. Have them apply the convention of the Gothic mansion to Poe’s ruined abbey in “Ligeia.” Analyze the conventions that do and do not appear in the story, evaluate several possible meanings of the “ruby-colored fluid,” and create an interpretation that takes into account seemingly disparate details in Poe’s story, such as the semi-Druidical carvings, the pentagonal-shaped room, and the placement of the bed.

Don’t forget that if you are conditioning your students through these active learning methods, you shouldn’t design your assessments—tests, papers, and exams—to reflect this approach. Multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests and encyclopedia-like papers run counter to the learning strategies you have been promoting.

Summarize!

No matter how well class is going, stop five minutes before the end. Whether you’re in the midst of a brilliant PowerPoint, an insightful lecture, intense Socratic questioning, or effective group work, you need to make a definite segue into this segment with a conditioning prompt such as “Let’s summarize today’s main ideas.”

Since you are promoting active learning, try to have the students provide the key points and how they work together relative the session’s organizing concept. Finally, ask if there are any questions about the session—in this case, details in “Ligeia,” conventions such as the damsel-in-distress or the mysterious stranger, or how the othic atmosphere in this story relates to that seen previously in Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Preview!

Before your students make that lemming-like rush for the exit, give them specific directions on what they need to be looking for in their next assignment. Rather than the generic, “Don’t forget to read “The Fall of the House of Usher” for next time, guide them to “Identify the same four or five conventions of Gothic lit that you just covered in the summa ry. See if you can find the same tension between rational and supernatural explanations for the eerie events that occur.” Again, you have provided your .students with a focus for their reading, a bridge between where they’ve been and where they’ll be going.

Conclusion

Remember that old strategy from speech class: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em”? The C.R.I.S.P. approach promotes the same goals of organization, unity, and flow. Not only do students feel comfortable knowing exactly what’s going on at any class session and how the material fits into the course as a whole, but also you have helped to make fundamental and powerful concepts stick, whether teaching a course in American Lit. or Biology.

When food is crisp, it’s more digestible. When your class is C.R.I.S.P., your students are more able to eat up what’s cooking, and deep learning is more apt to occur.

“Finding the Core of the Idea”

In Made to Stick (2007) Chip and Dan Heath demonstrate that the key to making an idea stick—i.e., understood, remembered and have lasting impact—is to keep it simple by “finding the core of the idea”(17). Through an analysis of advertising and political campaigns, the Heaths essentially support Nosich’s “fundamental and powerful concepts” idea. The Heaths’ insight is applicable to education as I recently discovered when I was asked to teach an American Literature I class (a course I have taught many times) for a colleague. Taking someone else’s class is always daunting because the guest lecturer doesn’t know the students, what they have learned so far, what has been stressed, or even the usual class format. Before guest facilitating a discussion on Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” I determined in a brief discussion with my colleague what we considered the course core: literary conventions. I then made the class C.R.I.S.P. by contexting the concept of conventions, reviewing what conventions the class had covered recently (i.e., the Gothic), iterating the conventions of the detective story as found in “The Purloined Letter,” summarizing these conventions toward the end of the session, and previewing the material for their next class—Hawthorne’s use of another set of conventions, those belonging to the Romance.

The result was a 50-minute session that unified that class, previous classes, and future classes, thus increasing the chances for student learning.

Adapted from Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, Eastern Kentucky University. Contributed by Tasha Souza.