Tag Archives: active learning

The Humpty Dumpty term paper exercise: helping your students recognize shortcomings in their narratives

When I discuss a term paper assignment with my students, I explain that readers need to understand  a paper’ s purpose and the logic of its organizational structure. To prepare them for writing a rough draft, I ask them to write a detailed outline, with section headings, introductory paragraphs, and prospective topic sentences. Despite this request, when I read their drafts, I still find that I have a hard time understanding how they got from their opening problem statement, through their literature review, and eventually to the conclusion. Gaps in reasoning along the way bring me up short, as I search for the links between sections and paragraphs.

Humpty Dumpty as puss in boots
Humpty Dumpty before the fall

Students are surprised when I tell them that their term papers lack a strong narrative. They often don’t understand the marginal comments I’ve made in which I flagged narrative gaps and suggested remedies. In trying to explain what I mean, sometimes I resort to dramatic metaphors to drive home my point. For example, in asking for more explanatory sentences, I told them that they were writing as if every additional word they committed to the paper was tearing off a little piece of their soul. Why hold back, I asked them? But they didn’t get it.

So, I came up with what I call the “Humpty Dumpty” exercise to create a compelling physical demonstration of my critique. It involves physically manipulating bits of paper, accompanied by the visceral experience of being misunderstood by a peer. It is designed to get their attention in a way that my written comments do not.

The assignment begins with requesting a rough draft of the paper, after I’ve already made comments on the outlines used to create the draft. Next, I print out two copies of each paper and then cut them into paragraphs, keeping the headings and subheadings together with the paragraphs that immediately follow the headings. The dissected papers are placed into envelopes or folders. (In a big class, you can ask the students to do this on one another’s papers.)

I then pair the students up with someone else and each receives the folder with the paired student’s  paragraphs. Students also receive dispensers of transparent  tape. I ask the students to take the scrambled pile of paragraphs and sort them into the order in which they should be placed, following the logic they discern from reading the bits and pieces. When they are confident of the proper order, they are asked to tape the paper back together. Doing this requires a sizable amount of workspace on a desk or table.

After a few minutes, it becomes clear that the task is much more difficult than they had imagined. Poor organization, missing transitional sentences, mangled topic sentences, and so forth make some papers impossible to reassemble. Laid out on the desk in isolation from one another, a paper’s paragraphs often look like an arbitrary collection of words and sentences. However, some students have worked from strong outlines and have provided enough clues to allow a passable reconstruction of the original.

For students who finish early in assembling the other student’s paper, I then have them work on their own paper. Or, if they discover they can’t figure out how to organize the other student’s paper, then I suggest they at least try it on their own paper. For poorly organized papers, that can be a challenge!

The final step in the paired work requires students to work with their colleague to explain why they had trouble figuring out how to order the paragraphs. What did they try to use as cues to determine the order? What signposts were missing? What could the author have done to signal what was coming next and how it related to what it come before it? It’s at this point that I see the light bulbs come on. Students discover that they had taken a lot for granted and in leaving things out, or not fully explaining them, had left their readers in the dark. I ask them to work together with their partner to edit the draft, on their laptops, while the disappointment of being misunderstood is fresh in their minds and they can immediately test the interpretability of the rewritten text.

After the exercise is completed, I take a few minutes to emphasize the main takeaways. First, many of the problems arise because the students worked from an incomplete outline in drafting their papers. An outline should externalize the logic of the paper’s organization, whereas many of them simply used bullet points or listed ideas they wanted to cover, without writing out a summary of the argument itself.  Second, I explain that the structure of the paper should give readers guideposts to the major arguments in the papers so that readers can anticipate, early on, where the paper is going. Students are often surprised at their peers’ confusion, and hearing their peers explain the source of that confusion often opens their eyes to why the left out or incomplete material undermines their paper’ s coherence. Third, this exercise gives me another chance to repeat what I’d initially told them when I urged them to write full outlines: your readers can never know what’s in your head until you put it on paper for them to read.

I believe that by adding movement and emotion to the process of improving rough drafts, students gain insights into writing that are much more likely to endure than if I had just written marginal comments on their drafts. Struggling with their peers to create better narrative structures adds a social dimension to the feedback that also enhances the likelihood of the lessons being retained.

Should We Assign Professional Journal Articles to Undergraduates?

My syllabi for undergraduate students almost never include any professional journal articles. In contrast, many of my colleagues choose many of their readings from journals such as the American Sociological Review, Social Forces, or the American Journal of Sociology. When I challenge my colleagues about their choice of reading material for undergraduates, they offer three rationales.

An author's dream wall
Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

First, they argue that undergraduate students ought to get it taste of what our field is like by reading the best articles written by the top scholars in the field. Reading articles written for professionals gives them insights into way sociologist think about problems and the analytic strategies used to answer important social scientific questions. Second, they argue that professional journal articles represent the state-of-the-art thinking in our field, and it is our job to make certain that students read examples of the progress being made in our discipline. Sometimes they object to what they see as the “dumbing down” of material for undergraduates in textbooks, social media, and the popular press. Third, some instructors take a more nuanced position and argue that it’s not appropriate to assign journal articles to lower division classes, but that juniors and seniors in advanced courses are ready for the challenge posed by professional journal articles.

I explain my choice of reading materials by emphasizing why I object to assigning professional journal articles to undergraduates, even those in advanced classes. First, articles in the top journals are written for people who have PhD’s in the field. Published articles are the survivors of a rigorous selection process in which only 5 to 10% of the submitted articles make it through the review process. Typically, two or three people with PhD’s in the field have had to certify that the article meets a field’s highest standards of conceptual thinking and methodological prowess. If our undergraduates can truly understand articles that have made it through this gauntlet, then what is the point of asking people to earn a PhD in the field? If you don’t need a PhD to understand articles published in professional journals, then why not just settle for a bachelor’s degree and save a lot of expense?

Second, my colleagues sometimes answer this objection by saying that they tell students not to bother with the technical parts of the article. Instead, they assign only the non-technical parts of the article and tell the students that the rest will be explained in class. I wonder whether it’s prudent to essentially insult students’ intelligence by telling them that even though the article is important enough to assign in class, the students don’t have enough knowledge – – are too ignorant? – – to understand everything they will be asked to read. The professor, as the expert, will explain it to them. If that’s the case, why not just lecture on what is in the article in the first place, rather than assigning it?

Third, in my observations, I’ve noticed that instructors who assign current journal articles then need to spend significant amounts of class time, explaining the article to frustrated students. Such exercises puzzle me because an instructor who has had five or six years of graduate training must find a way to simplify the story enough that students with no prior background will understand. If that’s the case, why not just lecture on the article from the start and not assign something that we know students can only partially understand? Asking students to read material over their heads seems like too much effort for too little reward.

Rather than try to reconcile these dueling positions point by point, I suggest a better way to think about the issue is to use the backward design approach to syllabus construction. Instructors should ask themselves, “why am I assigning this article? What do I want to achieve? Is there a better way? Is this the only way?” If the goal is to show students state-of-the-art thinking in our field, instructors could choose an article from journals published by professional associations that represent the public face of the discipline to people without PhD’s in the subject.

For example, here is the description of Contexts, a journal published by the American Sociological Association: “Contexts is a quarterly magazine about society and social behavior. Published quarterly as the public face of sociology, it is directed to anyone interested in the latest sociological ideas and research. Contexts seeks to apply new knowledge, stimulate fresh thinking, and disseminate important information produced by the discipline. Articles synthesize key findings, weave together diverse strands of work, draw out implications for policy, and debate issues of controversy. The hallmarks of Contexts are accessibility, broad appeal, and timeliness. By design, it is not a technical journal, but a magazine for sociologists, social and behavioral scientists, and others who wish to be current about important developments in social research, social science knowledge, emerging trends, and their relevance.”

Instructors can assign articles by authors who are excellent at translating social scientific research into accessible prose, such as Malcolm Gladwell. For example, rather than assign technical articles on social networks by authors such as Mark Granovetter, Brian Uzzi, or Ron Burt, I assign Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” Through his superb analysis of what made a Chicago activist a powerful figure in local public policy debates, Gladwell illustrates most of the important concepts in social network analysis. The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, and news analysis articles in papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, provide excellent content that can generate well-informed classroom discussions as well as providing as examples for instructors’ lectures.

Seen through the lens of a backward design approach, the choice of undergraduate reading material is made with course goals in mind. What are the instructional objectives of the course? What are the goals for each day within the course? How will an assigned reading enable an instructor to create a context in which students can learn course concepts and principles?

If a primary course goal is to get students to think like professional sociologists, then I would expect to see a staged sequence of lesson plans in which students are gradually brought up to speed so that they can read and understand the current literature. Course content will probably be subordinated to learning new analytic techniques. If, however, the course is described in the course catalog as designed “to help students understand the causes and consequences of social inequality in advanced capitalist societies,” the readings should be chosen with that goal in mind. Textbooks, nonprofit organizations’ websites, blog posts, magazine articles, and so forth are all possible vehicles for supplying the material needed for such a course. I suggest reframing the debate about whether to assign professional journal articles. Instead, we should think about how assigned articles help instructors achieve course goals. There may be some specific conditions under which it makes sense to assign current journal articles to undergraduates, but that choice should be made with course goals in mind, rather than a general desire to “show students the current state of the field.”

POSTSCRIPT: My colleague, Neal Caren, told me that he recently learned that the MCAT social sciences section has students read and interpret article summaries. He likes them because he can get a sense of what they are like from the practice ones on the Khan Academy website.


In Neal’s opinion, these passages strike the right balance by introducing students to research and theory testing without overwhelming them. 

Blackboards and Whiteboards: How to Enhance Working Memory While Running Class Discussions

Instructors and students face much heavier cognitive demands in discussion-based class sessions than in more straightforward lecture or structured discussion classes. They face the problem of managing their working memory: being able to hold multiple elements in their minds while actively processing them. In this post, I offer some strategies for easing the burden on working memory by externalizing much of the discussion.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash
Brain bits, from Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Free flowing discussions enliven classrooms and make college teaching gratifying for instructors and students. Unlike lectures, which tend to be heavily scripted and lacking in spontaneity, discussions allow students to actively participate in the process of generating, elaborating on, and assessing new knowledge. Hidden assumptions are surfaced, risky positions are staked out, and instructors must be on their toes to keep up with students. When run well, discussions move students from passive consumers of content generated by instructors to active participants in a collective learning effort. Discussions can reward students by validating their voices and showing them that their point of view is shared by others, something that’s often invisible to students in lecture classes.

However, the free-flowing spontaneity and uncertainty sparked by classroom discussions poses problems for instructors and students alike. For instructors, their role switches from almost ironclad control of the pace and content of class sessions to one of managing multiple threads in what can be chaotic conversations. Rather than proceeding in stepwise fashion through a set of lecture notes, instructors who pose open-ended questions to their students must be prepared to play more of a “traffic cop role.” They must keep track of multiple threads in the conversation, deciding when a line has played itself out and when a new line should be pursued. They must remember what previous commentators have said so that they can point out complementarities and contradictions and possibly direct questions back to the original speakers.

Similarly, for students, participating in in discussions rather than simply answering questions with fixed answers raises their level of interdependence with fellow students. To participate effectively, they need to pay attention to others’ contributions so that they know whether their intended point is still relevant or if the conversation has moved on. If they spend too much time thinking about an original contribution they want to make, they may miss the opportunity to build on what has already been said by another student. As more lines of inquiry are opened in the discussion, they need to remember how the discussion all began and the diverse lines of inquiry that may have developed.

In such uncertain circumstances, everyone involved struggles with managing the cognitive load placed on their working memory. How can they hold multiple elements in their minds while actively processing them? The issue is not about getting things into short-term memory, which is also something that could be happening during the discussion, but rather one of juggling the diversity of elements that have arisen so that they can make good decisions on things like turn-taking, closing lines of argument, and preventing incivilities that can derail discussions. Effective participation requires skill in managing short-term memory, and that skill differs so much across individuals that it can skew the distribution of participation, if instructors don’t know how to manage the discussion. Trying to keep matters straight solely through juggling all components in working memory can be a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, instructors have a simple technology that makes it easier for them and their students to manage working memory: the blackboards, whiteboards, or SmartBoards in their classrooms.  Instructors only need a piece of chalk, a felt -tipped marker, or an electronic wand to get the conversation started. Using a blackboard or other visible recording device enables instructors to externalize much of the conversation, making the question and key lines of argument observable by students, thus reducing the cognitive load on working memory. 

Here are some simple tactics. First, the initial question should either be written on the board or handed out on a sheet of paper so that students can refer to it throughout the conversation. They shouldn’t have to ask the instructor to repeat the question, once the discussion gets underway. Second, they should clearly label columns on the board in which they are going to record answers, and decide whether they will use words, phrases, or try to write entire sentences. It’s crucial to label the columns if there is going to be a debate among multiple positions during the discussion. Third, to show students that their views are being taken seriously, comments should be written on the board in the student’s own words, rather than in condensed form. If a student says so much that instructors feel the need to edit, then they should ask the student’s permission before writing up their own version of what was said. If the class is small enough, instructors might also consider putting a student’s initials next to the points they make, so that they can return to their comments for clarification later in the discussion.

Fourth, instructors should take advantage of the breaks allowed in the conversation while they are writing to step back occasionally and look over what has been written on the board. Look for undefined terms and concepts or contradictions, because of students’ differing opinions. At that point, or at another designated time during the conversation, call attention to the gaps and ask students what to do. Ideally, instructors should not do this themselves! Ask the students to do it first. Only after students have had a turn should instructors offer their own views on definitions and reconciliations.

Used in this fashion, keeping track of the discussion through writing on the board reduces the cognitive load on working memory for both instructors and students. Students can concentrate on responding to the question on the floor in the moment, rather than having to keep in mind all that has happened up to that point, particularly when their peers have offered contradictory views. By stepping back and pausing occasionally, instructors can get a sense of the flow of the conversation, whether it is cumulative, and whether additional follow-up questions should be brought into the discussion.

I use this teaching strategy when I don’t have a fixed set of points I wish to make and when I want to see how facile students have become at taking what they have already learned and building on it. Often, their contributions take us off in directions that I have not anticipated. Keeping track of the conversation on the board relieves me of many of the difficulties of managing open-ended discussions, which at the hands of an unskilled discussion leader can often lead to chaos and ambiguity in the closing moments of the session. In a sense, I have externalized many of the “traffic cop” functions and can concentrate on the more substantive side of helping students probe more deeply into understanding what their peers are saying.  It also frees me to spend more time on finding ways to get more students involved in the conversation.

Teaching: It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

In reviewing a performance of the Dorrance Dance Company, a New York Times critic praised Michelle Dorrance, the company’s founder and lead choreographer. The critic commented on their excellent collective work as well as the virtuosity of their solo performances. After noting that Michelle was the most prominent and ubiquitous tap dancer in America, he pointed out that it was easy to tell who she was – – she was the company member who had the fewest solos. Although it seems odd that the head of a company would give herself the fewest solos during a performance, it made a lot of sense to me. Like her father, Anson Dorrance, the winningest women’s soccer coach in the NCAA, Michelle emphasizes creating the conditions that allow each of her troupe to realize their full potential. The performance was not about her, it was about them.

As I reflected on the simplicity of her genius (she won a 2015 MacArthur genius award), I recognized that it exposed all that was wrong with what I’ve been observing on my occasional strolls past a local  classroom during the past semester. The instructor usually left the door ajar, and so was easy to hear his booming voice, echoing down the hall. In the first week or so of the semester I wasn’t surprised to hear only him, but as the weeks turned into months, it became increasingly clear that his was usually the only voice to be heard from that room. I peered in – – there were about 15 students, sitting around a set of tables arranged in a square .The instructor stood at the front, next to the screen on what he was projecting PowerPoint slides, talking. And talking. And talking.

I thought I must just be passing by at inopportune moments. In a humanities seminar, students surely would be offering their own observations on the material. I even shared a running joke with one of my colleagues whose office was near the classroom. She knew the instructor and so occasionally I stopped by her office after observing another monologue and joked that I still hadn’t heard a student’s voice. She said she knew him and thought that he must be a good instructor, but by the middle of the term, I demurred.

 I noted that he was teaching a class organized around his own views of the material, his own interpretations, not theirs. Out of 15 students, surely there must be other views. When will they have an opportunity to test their understanding against others? How would they even know how their classmates interpret the material? He walks into the classroom,puts his voice on play, and then dominates the next 50 minutes. It’s not about them, it’s about him.

In this era of flipped classrooms,active learning, and student-centered instruction, why does such archaic pedagogy persist? When I can figure out a polite way to introduce myself to the instructor, I suspect I will find that he is well-intentioned and probably not conscious of the extent to which he dominates the classroom. (I hesitate to say“classroom discussion” because I never really heard any.) But he has approached the design of this seminar from the wrong direction. Instead of thinking about ways to achieve the learning goals of the seminar by empowering the students,he has designed the class so that he is telling the students what he knows.Students have few opportunities to tell him what they know (or, probably, don’t know). As I pointed out in several of my other posts, talking is not teaching.In seminars, instructors who do most of the talking are like captains who add so much ballast to their ships that they sink of their own weight.

Even if you are the world’s expert on the topic of your seminar, follow Michelle Dorrance’s lead and allow your students to show their stuff. Listen to them more and talk less yourself.

Lecturing & daydreaming: what happens when students have no decisions to make?

A few weeks ago, I spent several days at a conference on a topic that holds great intrinsic interest for me. I signed up for the conference, eagerly anticipating meeting new people and being challenged with novel ideas. I had never attended the conference before and had few preconceived notions about the format for presentations. However, because most of the scholars were in the humanities, I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing many tables of numbers or hearing about esoteric statistics!

What I wasn’t prepared for was being read to. Over the course of several days, almost every speaker read their presentations from pre-prepared scripts. In one typical session, the first two presenters held their papers with two hands, looked up occasionally, and put the paper down only to change the PowerPoint pictures. They read well, using inflection and pitch to emphasize important points, but it was still a word for word matching of oral presentation to the text. The third presenter had a script but had done a better job in memorizing it, as she occasionally made eye contact with us and did a fairly good job of disguising the fact that she was reading.

Biennale sculptures in Arsenale

Which way to turn?

As I always try to do in conferences, I had made a point of sitting in the first row, so I could see the slides clearly and also have a clear view of the presenters’ faces. I found that being able to see faces helps me catch meanings I otherwise might miss when I don’t hear all the words.

Despite my advantageous location, where I should’ve been in the thick of the action, there wasn’t any. I found my attention wandering, and to stay focused, I tried taking notes of the key points that I heard. As often happens, my notes quickly became observations on the format of the presentations and not just their contents.

Why couldn’t I stay focused on the content? Frequently in such situations I find myself lamenting the lack of presentational skills by the panelists and speculating about what it must be like to sit through one of their classes. But in this case, I turned the focus on myself and asked why I wasn’t doing a better job in playing along with the role of an “audience member,” which is apparently how the presenter saw me. Then I realized that I didn’t want to play that role anymore.

Instead, I wanted to do something. I wanted the presenters to ask me questions, to solicit my feedback, and to force me to puzzle out where they were going next. Alas, their one-way talk left me with no options — no decisions to make. I had been forced into a thoroughly passive role.

If there was to be action, I needed to force it myself. I started writing down objections to what was being said, but because the presenter had left no space for such diversions, whenever I wrote something down, I missed a part of the presentation. Because the presenter was reading from the text, and redundancy had mostly been edited out, missing a few sentences often meant I lost the thread of the argument.

Colleagues who know me well will recognize that, once again, I’ve found another provocation from which to push my case for active learning! The situation in which I found myself was very much like that of our undergraduate students in classic lecture based classes: an instructor does 90% or more of the talking while students passively try to record in their notes as much as possible of what has been said. The few questions asked of the students are mostly rhetorical and only answers that conform to the a priori expectations of the instructor will be followed up.

Why do such situations make me so unhappy? Why was I so disappointed with the presentations I heard at the conference? I think it is because the presenters had made no allowance in their plans for bringing me into the session as an active participant. Just as instructors who rely heavily on one way talk give their students no decisions to make, as an audience member, I also was expected to simply absorb what was being offered rather than let the speaker know that I actually understood – – or not – – what was being said.

The decisions offered to me could have been simple ones: the presenters could’ve asked for examples of what they were talking about. The speakers could have offered several alternative scenarios that completed their narrative and then asked us which one we thought was the most plausible, and why. They could have purposefully constructed an alternative counterfactual scenario and then asked us why it didn’t occur.


Venice red threads & keys

You Keep Me Hanging On! Keys hanging by red threads at Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 2015

My point is straightforward: when humans are put in situations where they are simply being talked to, with no opportunities offered for them to engage their higher order cognitive powers, they will struggle mightily to stay engaged with the material. I recently read a blog post by a scholar who works with online courses and who noted that she had viewed some amazingly well produced videos. However, within one week, she had completely forgotten their contents! The slick videos had given her no role to play in her own instruction.

The natural cycle of human attention is quite short, but it is further truncated when people are asked to play only passive roles, as audience members. Daydreaming is a more likely outcome than deep learning!