Educational Tech in the Old School Religious Studies Classroom: A Review (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part X of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX]

I have to admit, at times, I am a proud Luddite. I still love writing on the board, using handouts, and having students read in print (curse those liquid crystal displays![1]). Yet, I would be lying if I have not seen the potential value of educational technology in the classroom. I would also argue that it would be irresponsible to ignore the wave of digitally literate students coming into our classrooms and the skills they possess in those domains – with digital storytelling and data visualization having the most promise in my eyes. Of course, us Luddites do not need to mindlessly drink at the well of technology! There is an overabundance of educational apps and software being produced every year, and not all of it can easily be made to align with our pedagogical goals.

Moreso, the flash of technology should not blind us to its circumscribed value. The hanging question should not be how do we integrate technology into our classrooms, but whether technology can sustain or even advance our educational aims. Our expenditure of time and resources should not go into finding the newest educational tech iteration, but how to identify the technology’s potential to deepen our students’ learning. Sometimes, new technology may make us reconsider our final course outcomes (say, replacing a traditional reserch paper with image-driven scholarship), but I hope we also identify clear pedagogical reasons to do so.[2]

“But wait,” you may object, “I already use my university’s learning management system, I am tech savvy!” True, Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, and other lesser known learning management systems (LMS) are often integrated into a school’s network and offer many educational avenues not available to the traditional non-digital learning environment. The question, I suggest, is how many of us use it beyond a digital repository for assignments and readings? Often there are many uses – such as online discussion forums – that can add a new teaching modality. Unfortunately for fans of LMS software, the new educational tech is more user friendly. In my view, this new tech (often marketed as apps) will not replace the more comprehensive LMS software (at least in the near future); but it does augment it in valuable ways. Overall, many of the new educational apps are more intuitive, interactive, and collaborative than the functions found in university learning management software.

Below I review several different kinds of digital education tools and the potential for their use in discussion based humanities courses, such as those found in Religious Studies.[3] Almost all of the educational tools below offer free versions of their applications with limited functionality. Since I have not paid the subscription for any of these tools, I will only discuss the free features. Regrettably, I have been introduced to many of these tools only recently and my comments remain, overall, rather cursory. Nevertheless, I have already imagined clear benefits to incorporating several of these tools into my course planning. I hope to update this page as my opinions develop and new tools emerge.

Polling Apps

Instead of using expensive classroom clickers, students can download an app on their cell phone and respond to questions set up by the instructor. Honestly, I see narrow value for technology like this because it too easily breeds an impersonal classroom environment. If I wanted to take a quick vote, I would rather ask for a simple show of hands (excepting large lectures). If I wanted to gather a variety of responses on a topic, I would rather engage in dialogue with a few students.

Of course, there are moments when polling apps could be very useful. For example, if you wanted to vote or gather data anonymously, such as providing a mid-term evaluation or “exit ticket” at the end of class.[4] Or, if you wanted to set up a debate between competing perspectives or interpretations, you may gather data to set the topics and parameters of the discussion. Alternatively, I could see a ranking task working well to stimulate discussion. In any regard, I suggest using polling apps judiciously and would say their ideal implementation includes a meaningful class discussion (e.g. analysis, interpretation, debate, perspective-taking, etc.)

  • Mentimeter: Perhaps my favorite because you have several visually appealing layouts to select when displaying student responses (like the “spider chart” for the scales-type question). There are ten types of questions to choose from (Multiple Choice, Open Ended, Scales, Image Choice, Ranking, etc.), but you can only ask three questions total in the free version of this app (hack: when using the scales-type, you can actually add several more questions). Students go to the Mentimeter website and enter a code to gain access to the poll; it’s pretty easy to use.
  • Poll Everywhere: More types of questions (around 20) than Mentimeter, but several are just variants of the open-ended type. One interesting question type allows an image to be uploaded (even a map) and students can click on various parts of it. Students have to text a rather long code to a designated number to get access to the poll.
  • VoxVote: This backend interface is not as easy to use as the others and I honestly just stopped trying to figure it out, but I’ll list it here as another free option.

Game-Style Quizlets

Naturally one could use these apps for exam review or even to review material from the previous day’s class (say, a casual five minute review as students stroll into class). Truly, the benefit of these apps is the ability to assign students to teams, which ramps up the competitive spirits of almost everyone. As with the polling apps, I am hesitant to use these games when simple class discussion would suffice. Additionally, multiple choice testing overall has limited educational value, but that is not to say it cannot be used effectively or wisely. Not surprisingly, some functionality of these quiz apps overlap with the polling apps above.

  • Kahoot: You can create three types of questions: multiple choice, a jumble (think of putting options into a correct order), or a survey. In order to lessen test anxiety, I presume, the potential answers are a mixture of shapes and colors, not the traditional letters (A-D). You can select to have the game played individually or as teams. It is easy to incorporate background images into the quiz, and the overall design is simple and visually appealing. Students go to the Kahoot website and enter a code to gain access to the quiz.
  • Socrative: You can create a quiz with three types of questions: multiple choice, true/false, and short answer (NB: the answer the student types has to match the answer you provide exactly, so it’s more of a fill in the blank than short essay). The “Space Race” option allows you to assign teams. There is also an option to make an “Exit Ticket” directly. Students go to the Socrative website and enter a code to gain access to the quiz or exit ticket. In my opinion, the visual appeal of Kahoot is better than Socrative.

Digital Storytelling

This is a broad category of tools that I divide into two categories, timelines and annotated media tools. The one common aspect is that these tools allow for a more visual and multi-media approach to creating narrative. Instructors could use these to supplement lecture, but I would argue their best usage is through having students create the content. As individuals or in groups, students could be given assignments to utilize these tools to create stimulating review, research, or presentation projects. These tools, in effect, represent a new(ish) genre of writing and content creation, and thus require the crafting of careful guidelines (or grading rubrics). Some instructors may find these suitable substitutes for traditional research papers.

      Timelines

  • Tiki-Toki: An interactive timeline tool which allows you to add interactive cells along a timeline and incorporate a multimedia source (image, video, audio) or weblink to the written text in the cell. The cells can be tagged and assigned colors so they are easy to visually identify (such as for distinguishing people, places, events, and so forth). The backend interface is relatively easy to use.
  • TimelineJS: This is among the suite of open-source tools for digital story-telling originally designed for journalists known as Knightlab. As with Tiki-Toki, you can add multimedia or weblinks to each cell with text. The backend interface uses a spreadsheet, and thus is not as intuitive as Tiki-Toki. The published presentation has a slightly more polished feel than Tiki-Toki, but ultimately they are quite comparable.
  • Sutori: Similar to the timeline tools above, this app allows you to create cells with multimedia sources or weblinks, as well as discussion forums and quizzes. This added functionality gives this online tool the feeling of LMS software, but with a graphical interface on the front end. While the cells are distributed sequentially along a line, the line does not incorporate dates, offering a streamlined vision of events (it is easy to add dates to the text within the individual cells if absolute dating is necessary). The backend interface is relatively easy to use.
  • StorylineJS: Not technically a timeline, but also part of the Knightlab suite. This tool allows you to annotate a line chart to give context behind the number represented.

      Annotated Media

  • Thinglink: A tool that allows you to imbed interactive cells into images (including an image of a map) and video. In addition, multimedia sources (images, videos, audio) or web links can be added to the embedded cells. Essentially, this allows for the creation of a non-linear narrative structured on a visual base. Perhaps the most interesting use of this tool involves creating interactive 360 degree photographs (the site provides a library of 360 degree images), but this function is behind the paywall. The finished 360 degree product could have more interactive capacities than the e-Dunhuang site, which provides some interactive cells in many of its cave photographs.
  • StorymapJS: Part of the Knightlab suite, this allows you to imbed interactive cells into a map and add multimedia sources (images, videos, audio) or web links. The published presentation can be quite stunning.
  • SoundciteJS: Part of the Knightlab suite, this allows soundclips (taken from Soundcloud) to be directly embedded in text. This works best with the blogging site WordPress.

Communication Applications

These tools are primarily meant to foster communication between students (and teacher-to-students) outside of the classroom setting. Most LMS cover the same functionality, but these newer technologies are better than the old online discussion forums found in most institutions.

  • Slack: An online communication hub that dispenses with the need for emails, online message boards, and discussion groups and provides the necessary space for conversation, questions, and file sharing. Slack is marketed as a more mobile-device-friendly LMS, and it has its ardent supporters among the MOOC community. Communication is accomplished through a mixture of channels, threads, and direct messages.
  • Screencast-o-matic: A rather easy-to-use tool for creating screencasts, i.e. videos that capture computer desktop activity and your voice (or image). This can be used for audio feedback on student assignments (with the digital document also captured in the video) or students can create screen-based videos as projects.

Grist for the Mill: On one hand, polling apps and game-style quizlets could easily be incorporated into an active, student-centered classroom. With careful planning, their use could foster discussion among students and even provide stimulus for lively debate. The digital storytelling tools, on the other hand, could be used as new creatvie expressions for student projects or as online sites for class collaboration. Finally, the communication apps can facilitate an out-of-class experience, allowing students and instructors to maintain avenues of contact that exceed the capacities of email or online discussion forums.

Notes:

I would like to thank Mindy Colin for her worhsop introducing many of these tools to me, and the members of the Japanese Religions Pedagogy seminar, Fabio Rambelli, Ellen Van Goethem, Ori Porath, Emm Simpson, Diamante Waters, Kaitlyn Ugoretz, and Daigengna Duoer, for our invaluable and spirited conversations about how to best implement them.

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] I am being facetious, sorry my Luddite brothers and sisters! In reality, I try to consciously use a hybrid of old school and new school approaches. For example, I use a mix of print and digital reading resources in my courses. The more conceptually complex a reading – where I could imagine needing to flip back and forth between pages and ideas quickly – the more likely I am to assign it in print form.

[2] If you are hoping students will just like the techy new tools, or think they are cool, well, I would suggest that is not good enough.

[3] Generally, I see problem solving and task-oriented courses – think STEM classes and lab sessions – as employing different pedagogical methodologies. Of course, there is considerable overlap, but I could imagine a calculus instructor envisioning different uses for the tools I discuss.

[4] I suppose one could also these apps to ask questions about a sensitive topic where students would prefer to remain anonymous. In my view, however, I would rather use these tools to stimulate a good conversation, which might be difficult in this scenario – though I imagine it could be done strategically and skillfully.

In Defense of Lectures? II (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part IX of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, X]

Defenders of the lecture will often point to a widely popular lecture-style format found easily on the internet – TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, and Design Talks).[1] These talks typically combine the spoken word with various media (audio, video, image), thus resembling something similar to a modern university lecture.

Yet, TED Talks also keep a relatively tight time cap at 18 minutes, more than halving the typical university class period. What is our aspiring-lecturer to do?

The emerging consensus response seems to advocate for 10 to 15 minute blocks of “classic” lecture (i.e. straight presenting) divided by some sort of class activity where students reflect upon or apply the lecture content. This blend is often represented as an interactive lecture-tutorial hybrid, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or sometimes “lecturettes.”[2] The problematic assumption is that students will reset their internal “attention clocks” through these interspersed activities. The logic follows that we then have another 15 minutes before students attention precipitously wanes. Tick-tock.

I would like to reflect on this for a moment. To me, this seems to conflate two different complaints against the classic lecture. The teaching-learning activities (TLAs) are typically implemented in order to allow the students to deepen their knowledge of the concepts – this is what transforms the passive learning environment of the classic lecture into the active learning environment of the flipped classroom.

The attention span of students seems to be a very different matter. A recent analysis offered by Neil Bradbury criticized the magical 10-15 minute window, summarily noting:

“A review of the literature on this topic reveals many discussions referring to prior studies but scant few primary investigations. Alarmingly, the most often cited source for a rapid decline in student attention during a lecture barely discusses student attention at all. Of the studies that do attempt to measure attention, many suffer from methodological flaws and subjectivity in data collection. Thus, the available primary data do not support the concept of a 10- to 15-min attention limit. Interestingly, the most consistent finding from a literature review is that the greatest variability in student attention arises from differences between teachers and not from the teaching format itself.”

Interestingly, and as other recent scholarship has shown, the ability to captivate the audience is not due to the format of the learning environment, but the performative ability of the instructor. Unsurprisingly, a bad performance can turn even a 5 minute lecture into an interminable affair. Eleanor Sandry makes an astute observation that educational research frequently excludes personality and rhetorical style from the quantitative evaluations of pedagogy, thus leaving the lecture to be uncharitably characterized as dead learning environment.[3]

I do not think it was accidental that the champion of the didactic argumentative style, Aristotle, was also the champion of rhetorical techniques (noted in our last post). Cool-headed persuasion was most effective when it was combined with emotional flourish. Academic writing, for better or worse, trains young scholars to avoid emotive expression in favor of logical argumentation. Yet, writing a good argument is not necessarily a good template for crafting a good lecture that holds attention.[4]

Thomas Buchanan and Edward Palmer also pose an interesting critique on the anti-lecture paradigm – much of the current research focus on STEM disciplines, especially the applied sciences, where skill acquisition and demonstration is paramount. What of disciplines where interpretation is the primary skill? It can be argued that the act of interpretation necessitates the acquisition of large amounts of contextualizing information – of which the lecture is most effective at disseminating. Additionally, in the disciplines of history or religious studies, narrative creation and story-telling is not only central to their research agendas, but also in their classroom deployment, thus making lecture a valuable modality of pedagogy.[5]

Outside of having students engaging with higher-order thinking, a better argument for breaking up a lecture into segments than attention (or performance) deficit involves “cognitive load,” the idea that our working memory can manage a relatively limited amount of information at one time. Load increases based on the difficulty of the material itself (intrinsic cognitive load), the elements that aid in the information processing (germane cognitive load), and the elements the potentially distract from the information (extraneous cognitive load). Cognitive capacity diminishes not at a set point in time, but at a certain threshold of information – thus it is advised that we pay closer attention to the difficulty and amount of information provided, than merely the time it takes to present it.

Grist for the Mill: I am in no position to settle these arguments – and certainly wish to read more stimulating research – but it seems to me that if your goal is to simply deliver data, especially to students who have very little background, then lecturing would be entirely sufficient. If you have any performance chops or can craft and tell a good story, that lecture could certainly last far longer than 10 or 15 minutes. More importantly, we should pay attention to the quantity and difficulty of the data, and intersperse activities accordingly so students can work with the data in more encompassing ways in order to form a better comprehension of it.

Yet, if we want students to do more than simply recognize and recall facts, or in other words to perform certain skills (such as interpretation, analysis, assessment, and so forth) we need to allow them to practice those skills in a more active classroom environment and this is where lecture falls flat.

Notes:

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] E.g. Freisen 2014, Bradbury 2016.

[2] The concept of the lectorial, punctuated with 10-15 minutes blocks, is discussed in Cavanagh 2011.

[3] Suggestions for livening-up a lecture include watching motivational or charismatic speakers (Bradbury 2016), and incorporating paralinguistic expression and kinesics (non-verbal voice qualities and bodily movement)(Sandry 2006).

[4] I am unaware of any studies that look at the reception of the classic lecture that is ritually delivered at almost every academic conference. If there are apologists among my readers who claim that you enjoy conference lectures, and consequently students should learn to enjoy all classroom lectures, please let me suggest this. The conference papers you enjoyed are either performed by charismatic scholars or are related to your deeply invested academic interests. Imagine at a conference I asked you to take copious notes on a poorly performed presentation of which you had no background knowledge. Then, after you sat bleary-eyed through the presentation, I would give you a quiz on it. Or even better, make you write a paper about it. Performance and motivation matters for lecturing and learning.

[5] Buchanan & Palmer 2017.

References:

  • Bradbury, Neil A. 2016. “Attention Span During Lectures: 8 Seconds, 10 Minutes, or More?” Advanced Physiological Education, Vol. 40, pp. 509–513
  • Buchanan, Thomas & Palmer, Edward. 2017. “Student Perceptions of the History Lecture: Does this Delivery Mode have a Future in the Humanities?” Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 1-17.
  • Cavanagh, Michael. 2011. “Students’ Experiences of Active Engagement through Cooperative Learning Activities in Lectures,” Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 23–33.
  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.

In Defense of Lectures? I (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VIII of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VI, VII, IX, X]

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Here at the Religious Studies blogging headquarters, we enjoy a good lecture. Admitting this in certain circles may seem a tad tone-deaf given the popularity of the “flipped classroom” and focus on student-centered learning.[1] If you have been hiding in a cave for the past few years (or ignoring the pleas of the Chronical of Higher Education), the sage-on-the-stage format has been widely rejected in favor of the now-preferred guide-on-the-side.

Of course, over the past two decades good data has emerged from educational psychology announcing the successes of more “active learning” models of teaching, while the field of instructional design has tailored these theories to suit the needs of university environments. In preparation for a short seminar on the deficits of the classroom lecture for my colleagues, I wanted to take the stance of the apologetic – what was the best research-based defense of lectures I could muster? The motivation was slightly nefarious, I had long been a convert to active learning environments, but found many of my colleagues in the humanities hesitant (if not hostile) to modify their lecture format, thus I wanted to be equipped with the best possible argument for lecture, in order to defeat it. At least, so went my thinking.

In my reading, the two basic arguments against the lecture format can be boiled down to the efficacy of engendering “deep learning” and the ability to hold the attention of students for a sufficient period of time (typically, for the entire 50-55 minute lecture). Both of these actually require interesting caveats, which I will return to below (and in the next post).

Before we fully dive into this topic, I feel duty bound by my history training to cover some groundwork. The term “lecture” derives from Latin legere, “to read,” but more specifically here it means to read aloud, the dominant form of reading throughout the medieval period in Europe. Traditionally, the method of the lecture is more didactic than dialectical (or Socratic), a division stemming from ancient Greek distinctions in styles of argumentation. Aristotle is often presented as the champion of the didactic “lecture” style, where the straightforward presentation of information was paramount. Importantly for our brief analysis, Aristotle is also known for his interest in the artful use of rhetoric – for simplicity’s sake we can just call this “strategies of persuasion.” Thus Aristotle’s didactic style, suffused by artful presentation, became the origins of classic Roman oratory and even early ecclesiastical sermons.[2]

Moreover, the material conditions of the medieval European university helped maintain the lecture as the primary means of pedagogy. Manuscripts and other text media were relatively scarce, thus the most efficient means of disseminating information was to read aloud the written material that was available. In this case, the act of lecturing and reading aloud were functionally equivalent.[3]

Let us pause here. I do not think many would disagree that, given the widespread availability of textual materials, the bland and pedantic reading of a text retains little value in the modern university. I would also suggest in modern practice the lecture is more varied than simply reading text aloud. University lectures are often rife with multimodal media, incorporating image, audio, and video, in addition to text (via various presentation software, but also chalkboards and whiteboards).[4]

Consequently, one concern I have with several arguments against lecture is that they offer only the most uncharitable and limited definition of what lecture is in modern practice (at least in my personal experience).[5] To offer the full spectrum of definitions of lecture would bring me too far afield here, but I offer one characteristic gloss to situate my claims: “50-55 minutes of largely uninterrupted monologue from a lecturer with student activity being focused on listening and note-taking.”[6] Again, in my experience, lecture is oftentimes punctuated by instructor or student questions (or even brief analytical activities, such as inviting comments on a video), allowing for a calibration of understanding on both sides. In a strict senses, these activities fall outside the purview of the “classic lecture.”

This is important for university instructors to note, by calling for student responses they are already moving towards a flipped classroom. A bedrock claim of student-centered learning advocates is that the more students are involved in the learning process, the more effective knowledge acquisition becomes. Of course, the quantity and quality of these student-centered moments vary greatly by teacher, and at a basic level, I would encourage non-conformists to expand and explore more of these techniques. Nevertheless, a diagram depicting an active learning environment may already look like what many others simply call lecturing [Figure 1].

Figure 1 (from Lumpkin et. al. 2015)

Screen Shot 2019-01-31 at 09.22.19.pngCommon consensus “best practices” recommends that “classic lecturing” be divided frequently by student-centered exercises. Active learning does not replace lecturing, it complements it by structuring the learning experience with moments where students can reflect, analyze, evaluate or synthesize the material that was presented. This is, of course, not a full-throated defense of lecturing, but a qualified defense that it should be paired with other modalities of learning.

But for how long can a lecture captivate a student audience? How regularly do we need to incorporate student activities and what should be their purpose? We will return to these questions in out next post. To be continued…

Notes:

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] For those unfamiliar with this jargon, here’s a brief primer: student-centered learning is opposed to teacher-directed learning and refers to the primary mode of educational engagement. This maps imperfectly to, but is oftentimes used synonymously with, active and passive learning as well as deep and surface learning, respectively. Student-centered, active, deep learning is often theoretically grounded in constructivist theories of learning, while teacher-directed, passive, surface learning is typically aligned with a vessel theory of learning. The flipped classroom signals a shift from the latter forms of pedagogy to the former. As with any theorized dichotomy, however, these distinctions are blurred quite frequently in practice.

[2] Many of these points are notes in Sandry 2006 and Friesen 2014.

[3] Friesen 2014: 138-9.

[4] Points raised in Freisen 2014.

[5] It seems to me that the modern attack on the lecture has its beginnings in the early 1990’s, specifically with the publications of Charles Bonwell and James Eison’s Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991) and Diana Laurillard’s Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993).

[6] Wood, et. al. 2007

References:

  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Lumpkin, Angela; Achen, Rebecca M.; Dodd, Regan K. 2015. “Student Perceptions of Active Learning.” College Student Journal, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 121-133.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.
  • Wood, Leigh Norma; Petocz, Peter; Joyce, Sadhbh; Rodd, Melissa. 2007. “Learning in Lectures: Multiple Representations.” International Journal of Mathematical Education, Vol. 38, No. 7, pp. 907-915.

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Setting Student Expectations and Intentions

While designing my course syllabus, I was focused on all of the traditional aspects: crafting learning outcomes, deciding on course content, selecting class readings, figuring out student assessment, and so forth. It never occurred to me to think about syllabus design, meaning graphic design. This is all the more strange because I was a graphic designer.

I was lucky enough to stumble across this blog by Tona Hangen (Update, also Zac Wendler) which had a profound impact on my syllabus design (I’ll discuss this more in-depth at another time). Her design reminded me of newsletters I created in the past and that insight led me to reconsider the purpose of a course syllabus. I wanted to make a document that was more than a course “contract” that was squirreled away and never thought about again.

One aspect, which I will discuss here, was the role a syllabus played in helping to frame the intentions of students. Hangen’s post does a great job of analyzing three different types of learners in her class, those who need to acquire basic knowledge, those that have that knowledge already, but want to expand their knowledge, and those who have extensive knowledge and who can analyze and assess at higher levels. Her syllabus  utilized the metaphor of scuba diving to describe the different “depths” her students would reach. I adapted these categories to the content of my course, dividing them between arhat, bodhisattva, and buddha.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 22.16.25.pngDuring our first class meeting, these ideas are approached through conversation with my students about why they are taking my class (I’ve yet to have a religious studies major in any of my classes; I’m lucky if I have anyone whose major is in the humanities!). Typically, after listening to several comments on how this class fulfills several requirements, I begin to ask slightly more probing questions: Why this class? (Surely other classes fulfilled these requirements too!) Undoubtedly, a few start to open up about personal interests or express their genuine curiosity. I use those insights to propel discussion about the potential value of Religious Studies classes and how students can approach our class. For this summer class, I then introduced them to the three levels of aspiration (above) and asked them where they thought they might fall in the spectrum.

This is more of a reflection exercise to establish expectations and intentions than anything else. Overall I find this to be a much better introductory conversation than asking students about their majors or hometowns.

Meditation or Mind Lab?

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Slide introducing a Mind Lab Exercise

I arrived on campus a few days before classes began to find my classroom. The room number suggested that I had to go to the gym to find my classroom, so I was curious. After being directed by a few students on the basketball team, I came to find that I was slated to teach my Zen class in a dance recital room, complete with mirror and ballet barre…and no desks what-so-ever.

I immediately went to the department to see if I could switch rooms, I had no idea how I could conduct a religious studies class there. I was told that room was selected because the previous instructor  – someone I knew was wildly popular – had requested to teach there. It immediately made sense – his Zen class was all about the practice of Zen (meditation) while mine was going to be about the history of Zen (myth, lineage & literature).

This immediately struck me. I love when I find someone who has a completely different approach to the same material. I talk a lot about the history of meditation in my classes on Buddhism, delving into its correlation with cosmology, the debates over non-cognitive states, the endlessly varied terminology the English term “meditation” masks, the arguments over the modern mindfulness movement, and so forth. I encourage students to seek out meditation clubs or to sit on their own time, but I dutifully omit much meditation practice in class. Perhaps when I discuss the Seven Point Vairocana Posture and ānāpānasmṛti (Mindfulness of Breathing) will I ask students to briefly engage in sitting – to get the flavor of it.

Part of this reasoning is simply practical. Much of my lecturing on the history of meditation was developed while students were actively engaged in sitting regularly during the Woodenfish program. My lectures tried to give context to their practice – they did not need me to teach them the practice as well.

Buoyed by the potential expectations of my students who planned to meet in the dance hall, I decided to introduce what I had been calling Mind Labs – quick and simple exercises to help get students to develop their own personal phenomenology of mind. (I suppose one could call these Thought Experiments too, but I prefer Mind Labs…)

For example, when the Abhidharmists claim that mental events can only occur in quick succession, and not simultaneously, I prefer to do an exercise which asks students to determine what they think first. Another question I like to ask is whether or not students always have an affective coloring to their thoughts (for Theravādin Abhidharmists, unless a highly achieved practitioner, the answer is typically “yes”).

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Slide introducing a Mind Lab Exercise

For all Mind Lab questions I ask that students write down responses and had them in to me for tallying. I try to quantify the results the best that I can and identify patterns of belief. During our next meeting I will have a small discussion about the results and try to relate the discussion back to the “standard” Buddhist position.

Thus while I do not typically engage in much meditation practice during class time, I feel that there are numerous other philosophical exercises of mind that may touch upon similar aspects.

 

Intro to Religions & Threshold Concepts

This summer I decided to try something slightly different for my survey course on Asian religious traditions. I wanted a way to bridge the diverse religious traditions I planned on covering. In other words, I wanted a way for students to more easily and creatively engage in the act – and art – of comparison.

I decided to use a set of “threshold concepts” to function as lenses for comparison. I described “threshold concepts” in my syllabus, along with how I wanted them to be used and which terms I selected. Here is the relevant excerpt from my syllabus:

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There were plenty of comparative terms that did not make the cut, including: deity, monism, human nature, millenarianism, sacred/spiritual, and cosmogony/cosmology.

My basic criteria for selection was, admittedly, biased. But generally, the terms needed to serve several functions. First, they needed to be potentially useful for a definition of religion. The main writing projects for my students were oriented around critiquing and creating such a definition. Second, I needed to be able to clearly exemplify the term in the content of that day’s assigned reading and lecture. For example, we discussed material culture on the day we examined the Indus Valley Civilization, which is re-constituted solely through archaeological and art historical remains. Asceticism was discussed in the context of the śramaṇa movements in ancient India, epistemology was introduced to talk about the early Buddhist approach to the Dharma, metaphor was used to understand the explanations of the Dao in the Daode jing, and so forth. Sometimes I selected a term because I thought it could highlight a different way of thinking about religions (see non-violence, immortality, humor).

The immediate problem I encountered was trying to figure out how to introduce these concepts effectively without spending too much time on them. I first thought about simply using Wikipedia entries, but then settled on selecting entries from the widely used Encyclopedia of Religion. The entries here were too long, however, and many times too complex for what I was looking for. Oftentimes the entries placed too much of an emphasis on Western religious traditions, which I didn’t want confusing (or even “tainting”) my students.

Ultimately, I decided I would make short audio recordings, hitting the points I thought were most effective and illustrative of the traditions we were covering. I based many of my ideas on the entries in the Encyclopedia of Religion and provided the pdf’s to my students who wanted further clarification. I didn’t want students to do more (and potentially needless) reading and was hoping to provide them with another mode of learning. These recordings, shunning all modesty, worked perfectly. Students listened to the recordings (which I called “briefs”) and located where the concept was illustrated in that day’s reading. They were then expected to write about their ideas in daily reading posts.

I will do another post on creating the “podcasts” later. Ultimately I found the threshold concepts worked well in helping to organize student thoughts and gave them a solid framework for crafting a definition of “religion.” I recently asked my student to select two potential threshold concepts they would highlight for their definitions, and the tally was as follows:

  • Soteriology x7
  • Community x6
  • Mysticism x5
  • Material culture x5
  • Morality x4 (=ethics)
  • Ritual x3
  • Epistemology x2
  • Myth
  • Ontology
  • Scripture (=textualism)
  • Metaphor

Clearly not every “threshold concept” was equally valuable in this assignment (though we had not yet discussed paradise, nature, or humor when the students posted their ideas), but I am quite happy with the variety. I am also happy some students decided to wrestle with tricky terms like epistemology and ontology, or even ideas that often get overlooked in religious studies, such as material culture or metaphor.

If I was to employ threshold concepts again in this manner I may cut some out in future iterations. But, nevertheless, I am quite pleased with how this turned out for this iteration of my survey course.

The Art of Cold Calling Students

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Jin’e Temple 金峨寺, Ningbo, China, summer 2017. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

I have never cold-called students in my classes, but I am becoming more intrigued by it. I am hesitant for the reason many others likely share: I would never want to embarrass or alienate a student who is uncomfortable speaking in a group setting. Yet, I run against a persistent problem in my classrooms where only a narrow segment of students consistently share their thoughts. Simply, I am looking for a tool in my pedagogical “tool kit” to combat this problem.

My current summer class has been no exception to this rule. I also noticed this segment of students thinned throughout the term, with only about 4-5 students (out of 25) regularly participating by the end. I was happy to observe that small group work was effective in producing “new” speakers when we convened for class discussion. But I cannot plan group activities for every facet of a lesson, lecturing and asking (open-ended) questions still remains the backbone of my teaching style.

There has been some compelling research on the value of cold-calling recently. One study (by Dan Levy & Josh Bookin) shows that cold-calling actually helps to increase voluntary student responses. It appears that effective cold-calling “breaks the ice,” so to speak, giving the classroom environment a sense of inclusivity that makes students more willing to volunteer ideas. Another study (by Elise J. Dallimore, Julie H. Hertenstein & Marjorie B. Platt) shows that when cold-calling is used in conjunction with student online postings, students devote an additional hour to assigned readings. A slightly refined technique is suggest by a recent dissertation (by Brittany Carstens) which calls for teachers to gradually switch over from cold-calling to voluntary participation after student engagement increases.

Personally I am not motivated to use cold-calling as a coercive technique to ensure students do their assigned readings (I discussed my primary coercive technique elsewhere). I am interested in getting more engaged students, however. After talking with some colleagues and reading around on the internet, these are my most important takeaways about cold-calling.

  1. Prime the Students: List “public speaking” and/or related skills, as a course goal. Devote a few words to it as well at the beginning of the course.
  2. Start ’em Early: Cold-calling students has to occur on the first day of class and occur regularly thereafter. I really wanted to try cold-calling during this summer class, but decided to ease off on the idea because I was pleased with student participation early on. By the middle of the term I wanted to hear from different student voices, but also did not want to shift the learning environment so significantly halfway through the class and risk really embarrassing a student.
  3. Be Inquisitive: Be motivated by caring to hear what students have to think and say. Too easily cold-calling is conceived as simply testing students to see if they did the work. That’s setting up a rather antagonistic environment. I had one grad seminar when the teacher cold-called a student and caught him a little off guard (he did not regularly cold-call folks). The student asked, in a friendly manner, why he had be chosen. The teacher simply shrugged and said, “well, I usually enjoy your thoughts, so I thought I’d ask.” It was a natural and honest response, and I still remember it.
  4. Model Thinking-Out-Loud: Students may be intimidated to speak without well-formed thoughts. This is one reason why I think my group exercises generated several “new” participants, they were able to rehearse their ideas. Perhaps instructors can speak a little off-the-cuff to invite similar “live thinking” from students.
  5. Inviting Others: Closely related to the above point is inviting students to help others along or to fill in the blanks. Instead of moving on from a student who does not have a response, you could have him or her take a wild guess, or just invent something (as students commonly do on exams!). From a different angle, you could also invite students to critique or build upon a response.
  6. All’s Fair: To avoid bias (or always picking on the student who doesn’t pay attention) it may be reasonable to select students (truly) at random. Index cards with names are one clear option. There are several “random picker” and “random name picker” apps for phones.
  7. The Shift: Not all responses need to be cold-called. Cold-calling can be used to generate initial conversation. You can ask for volunteers after a few responses, or even switch completely over to volunteer participation once broad engagement is achieved.

To be honest, even after reading and thinking about this, I am still hesitant. Cold-calling is not a natural part of my personality nor my teaching persona, but I do want to challenge myself and try new things, even if I ultimately decide they are not well suited for me.