The Weekly Teaching Note

From the Cal Poly Pomona Faculty Center for Professional Development

Archive for January, 2009

The Value Line

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 27, 2009

This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Get your students out of their chairs and standing up to their opinions on controversial topics. A “value line” requires students to line up according to how strongly they agree or disagree with a statement or proposition.  You can then structure four-person discussions that include a range of viewpoints in each group.

State the issue, perhaps giving arguments for or against the proposition.

Ask students to consider the question, then to choose a number on a one-to-five scale that best describes their position on the issue.  Have the students jot down their numbers.

Ask students who have chosen “one” to stand at a designated point along the wall of the room.  The students who have chosen “two” follow them, and so forth until all students are lined up.  Stretch the line to avoid crowding.

After the students have formed a line, identify the median person.

Group students for a discussion (make sure to prepare discussion questions ahead of time). Form the first group by taking one student from each end of the line and two from the middle.  The last few groups will have less extreme differences of opinion among their members. That’s okay; just be aware of it and perhaps plan to prod those groups to explore their moderate views more carefully.

The value line is useful because it lets students see very clearly that other people both agree and disagree with them. Because the activity does result in a very public display of opinion, use it only if you feel that the class has established some trust and rapport, and establish clear ground rules for civil discussion.  Carefully monitor the discussions by sitting in with groups.

Other Applications:

  • In an online setting, students can email their “one-to-five” number to you. You can then form discussion groups for a threaded discussion based on the student responses.
  • You can use a similar line-up to identify “study buddies” or to form review or coaching sessions with students lining up based upon their confidence in their content knowledge or skill abilities.

Examples from various disciplines: Instructors could ask students to respond to the following statements:

  • The United States was justified in dropping the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
  • Science majors should be required to take business courses.
  • Embryonic stem cell research should receive federal funding.
  • Every woman is entitled to abortion on demand.
  • The United States should adopt a flat income tax rate.
  • Affirmative Action is a productive way to ensure diversity in the workplace.

Contributed by:

Barbara J. Millis, Director

The TEAM Center

University of Texas at San Antonio

San Antonio, TX

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What are They Thinking? Mid-Quarter Feedback

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 21, 2009

Do you wonder how your class is going? What might show up on the end-of-quarter evaluations? Asking students for feedback during the quarter, ideally before the mid-term, is very valuable. You can make some specific changes to benefit the current students. Some problems can be dealt with. Students appreciate being asked to give input, and learning what students like and consider valuable about the class can provide a morale boost for you.

Individual students tend to be shy about giving feedback, no matter how welcoming you are. It’s better to have an organized way of asking for student comments. One effective way of gathering feedback is to have someone come and interview the class in your absence. This works for both large and small classes. At your request, Faculty Center staff can interview your students and talk to you confidentially about the results. Email Victoria Bhavsar at to request an interview.

If you cannot have someone come into your class, you can still ask for student feedback. The easiest way is to ask students to take 10-15 minutes at the end of class to write down answers to three basic questions:

  • What is helping you learn the material in this class?
  • What makes learning hard in this class, and how could that problem be dealt with, by you or by the teacher?
  • What other suggestions do you have to improve your learning experience in this class?

When you present the questions to the students, explain that you want to make the class the best learning experience for them that you can. Tell them that you will take their ideas seriously although you may not be able to make all the changes they want. Ask them to focus their comments on learning: if they say they “like” or “dislike” something, they should follow up with explaining why their learning is affected.

Students will be honest only if they are assured that any criticisms they give will not hurt their grades or make you angry. It’s best to have someone else gather the papers and type up the comments for you so that recognizing their handwriting is not an issue.

It’s critical to go over the students’ feedback quickly and carefully so that you can talk to them about it the very next time you see them. If you do not talk to them, they will consider the activity a waste of time, which is even worse than if you had not asked for feedback at all. At the least, thank them for their ideas and assure them that you are taking time to consider carefully.

It’s also very helpful to talk with someone, such as a colleague or someone from the Faculty Center, about the feedback you receive.

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Writing Your Own Assignments

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 14, 2009

If you’re staring down the barrel of a quarter full of grading less-than-compelling student papers – instead of writing your own research and scholarship – here’s a fresh idea that might help with both problems.

One professor of sociology got tired of receiving bland, ill-written papers in return for assignments that she thought should have been interesting. To help address this problem, she started writing responses to her own assignments and giving them to the students as examples of the type and quality of writing that she wanted from them.

She says, “I give students a series of brief writing assignments for the first few weeks of the semester.  For the course I taught [recently], I posted my own responses to these brief writing assignments on the class BlackBoard site.  This served two initial purposes: one was to model for the students the kind of writing I wanted them to do; the other was to reveal some aspects of myself to them.

“That strategy proved so successful that I expanded the practice to a more significant assignment.  I expect students to undertake a piece of empirical research appropriate to their developmental level.  This assignment includes a research proposal and one or more focused research reports.  Most students have not had an assignment like this before and many clamor for a sample to guide their work.  So, I wrote a research proposal and two research reports based on the work I had outlined in the proposal.

“The results were incredible in terms of the improved quality of student writing, the relative ease with which they incorporated their own experiences into their narratives, and the ways that my writing about myself made them feel more in tune with me as a person.

“Buoyed by the success of my trial run, I’ve already started to implement this practice in both of the [upcoming] courses I am teaching.  Because I’ve started writing the assignments while my course syllabi are still in draft form, I’ve been able to make minor adjustments in the wording of the assignments themselves as I discover ambiguities or unnecessary limitations in the options I’ve given the students.

“Remarkably, the research proposals I’m writing for the [upcoming] classes are of a caliber that I can and will turn them into pieces of scholarship.  This was a totally unexpected outcome—and the semester hasn’t even started yet!”

This is a great way to have your teaching contribute to your research scholarship, complete with built-in deadlines. Of course, students may need some reassurance that you don’t expect them to write just like you!

This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.


Donna C. Bird, Ph.D.
Director of Faculty Development Initiatives
University of Southern Maine
Portland, ME

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The Big Question

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 7, 2009

As we start both the new quarter and what promises to be a very interesting and in some ways tumultuous new year, here’s an idea for beginning classes in a way that can help students make sense of it all.

This Weekly Teaching Note is contributed by a member of the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain describes how many of the teachers that he studied prepared to teach by devising a “big question,” one that their course would help students address.

I use a “big question” to encourage students to reflect on what they have learned in a course. In the first class meeting of a [term], I present a big question that the course will address and I ask the students to write a page or less in which they reflect on the question. They write a response to the question as they would answer it now, and they indicate what knowledge they used to formulate their answer. This provides me with an understanding of the knowledge base and potential misconceptions that the students bring to the course.

As they write this initial paper, I indicate that there will be a second part to this assignment: they will respond to the same question at the end of the term. At the end of the term, I ask the students to address the original big question again. I encourage them to revisit their response paper from the first class. (I give points for completing the “big question” assignment only if both papers have been submitted.)

Students use varied approaches when they respond to the question a second time. Some students incorporate comments from the first paper into the second paper, often refuting points made in the first paper with new insights gained through the term. Other students write the second response and do not look at their earlier response until they have completed the second paper. Still other students start with their first response, and then expand on that first response to create a second response.

Regardless of the approach taken, students are much more expansive in the second response than they were on their earlier attempt to answer the question. I have found that having students answer the same big question for the course at the beginning and again at the end of the course serves multiple purposes including encouraging students to reflect on their learning and address misconceptions, while providing a very practical way for me to assess the impact of the course on student learning.


Contributed by:

Mary Stephen, Director

Reinert Center for Teaching Excellence

Associate Professor, Educational Studies

Saint Louis University

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