Teaching the Presidential Debates

Kate Chilton is a San José State University professor who is using Globalyceum’s Election 2016 in her classroom.  We have invited her to blog about her plan for teaching the upcoming Presidential Debate.

It is not often that an American political event outdraws the Super Bowl on television.  But if 100+ million Americans watch the first presidential debate on Monday, as many predict, that may very well happen.

Here’s how my colleague, Laura Guardino, and I are teaching this signature election event using Globalyceum’s Election 2016.  Globalyceum has decided to run a special debate poll that opens on Monday, September 26, at 6:00 AM PDT and is available through Friday, September 30, at 11:55 PM PDT.  It runs parallel with the Second Mock Student Election, so students will be able to take a poll and vote in the same week.  For students unable to see the live debate, we will encourage them to check online for full debate videos (CNN and PBS will likely offer it).


In the days following the Monday debate, we will encourage students to watch the debate and participate in the poll and vote.  But our learning objective is for students to gather information and analyze the way the debate shapes public opinion in this crucial period.  Both of us plan to assign Globalyceum’s “Problem: Do Debates Make a Difference?” in the Comparative Problems list.  We like the way it asks students to watch a comedy show about the debate, comment on the satirizing of the candidates, and consider the influence that comedy shows may have on young people this election season.

The following Monday, each of us plans to start class by showing Melinda Jackson’s video on the debates, a followup to videos on the Conventions and the Battleground States. I will have 2-3 students share in class their comedy clips from YouTube and have a whole-class discussion about satire and its influence on politics.  Laura will divide her class into small groups for a 20-minute small group session so that students can discuss the information they have accumulated from the debate, comedy shows, news media, the video, and the poll results to answer this question: Is your impression of the debate similar or different to your classmates (according to the poll results), the news media, or other public commentators (including comedy shows)? Why?”  Group leaders will report out the results of the discussion. As always we give participation points for student participation. Globalyceum’s grade book automatically records students who vote, poll, and submit assignments.

On Tuesday morning, almost everyone will have an opinion about the debate so it is a great opportunity to engage students in this election.  Don’t miss it.  Please let me know if you have any other election-related engagement strategies with your students and feel free to reach out to me with any questions.

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Using Election 2016 in the Classroom

A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved…

Here is a problem that many professors have.  My syllabus has been set since the start of the semester, and any potential change might throw my students off or change my grading system.  But my students are interested in this year’s election, and I do not want to pass up a chance to teach history as it is happening.  How can I make it happen online, use no more than 10 minutes of class time each week, and easily incorporate it into my grade point structure?

The many different activities in Globalyceum’s Election 2016: Follow the Vote have provided me with the easy solution to this problem.  The first activity I chose was the mock election because I knew my students would appreciate the opportunity to vote and then analyze their votes.  For many of my students, this presidential election would be their first as potential voters.  

The mock election was online, and it collected not only the vote but demographic data about the voters.  I could assign it for homework, and the students could complete it at home in under five minutes.  In the following week, I would then be able to throw the results up on the screen for the first five minutes of class time to hold a brief discussion.  Globalyceum has organized it so I can manipulate the data with the students, comparing voting patterns of groups–age, gender, ethnicity, education, etc.–and digging a little deeper into the election.  Last week, my students completed the first mock poll of opinions about the issues and candidates, and I look forward to a similar and even more interesting discussion with those results this week.  If you missed the first round of elections and polls, it is not a problem because there is a second mock election the week of September 26 and a second survey in mid October, followed by the final mock election the week before US voters go to the polls on November 8.

Mock Election Results
Mock Election Results

Brief videos (under four minutes) about events of the election is another great feature of Election 2016 that I have chosen to use. The most recent was “The Battleground States.”  It not only explained the Electoral College and how it creates the phenomenon of battleground states, but also Dr, Melinda Jackson’s analysis of this year’s battleground.  I added my own variation — I showed the video at the start of class and asked the students to rate which candidate had the better battleground state strategy.  This in-class assignment took seven minutes, and dramatically enhanced my lecture.  I was using the Globalyceum lecture by Jack Rakove, “Three Myths of the US Constitution,” which talks about the Founder’s reasons for creating the Electoral College.  This allowed me to make a great connection between past and present.  The next video about the debates will be available October 3, and I plan to do a similar strategy of video and then poll.

Globalyceum’s Election 2016 suite of materials also has primary source problems and readings on our electoral system.  If you have the time, you can use these in class or as homework.  I have chosen to do just the videos and mock elections and polls, but I know other professors who have added one or two of the other activities.  

I had the good fortune last fall of talking with Dr. Melinda Jackson, the author of Election 2016.  I asked her what was the biggest problem with teaching students American government and history today.  She responded quickly–”student political apat hy.”  Professors should do more than tell students about politics and government. They also need to turn students into “engaged citizens who can make a difference.”  A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved by voting, volunteering in an election, writing a letter to a representative, or registering others to vote.  It only takes 10 minutes a week, but it can make a world of difference.

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The Active Learning Lecture?

I add a question mark to this title because most people when they think of active learning do not think of a lecture. A lecture by its very nature is supposed to mean passivity on the part of the student, and active learning means student engagement in their own learning. But the first part of that statement is simply not true. As I noted in my last blog, lecture that is handled well in the classroom can be incredibly active. Today, professors are finding ways to create a lecture experience that makes the classroom a dynamic place and gives more responsibility to the student. In order to transition to an active learning lecture, there are five principles to observe.

  1. Reduce lecture duration to 40-60% of the available classroom time.
  2. Move factual information to reading or online listening and leave more challenging conceptual information to lecture.
  3. Provide structure and good visuals without bullet points to your briefer lecture.
  4. Poll students during lecture for both opinion and understanding.
  5. Offer an active learning assignment for before or after the lecture.

Reduce lecture time.
Even the best lecturer has a hard time sustaining student attention past 20 minutes–according to science, the limit of sustained attention span. If your class is 75 minutes of lecture, you are truly asking for nap time. If you are naturally a good speaker and have a very engaging lecture style, you can talk for 45 minutes. But if lecture is not your strength, consider limiting yourself to 30 minutes as a standard practice.

Make Conceptual Information Shine in the Classroom.
I have observed enough lectures to know that, in the social sciences, about 75% of a 75-minute lecture is simply recitation of facts that a student could get by reading a book. Many professors admit to me that they are lecturing in parallel to their assigned reading texts, and students end up not doing the reading. But almost all lectures by a well-trained academic have a conceptual core, where there is real benefit in having a person explain it. It is this 30 minutes of concept explaining that should shine in the classroom. The other 45 minutes of factual information can be left to the students reading at home or by simply putting the remainder of your PPT online and creating a voice over–the flip in what is known as the flipped classroom.

Craft the Briefer Lecture.
When you confine yourself to a 30-45 minute lecture, you can put more effort into a quality lecture with 3 attributes. (1) Choose a subject for the lecture that can be explained in 1500-2500 words (about 5-9 pages double spaced if you were to write it out). (2) Create a 3-part structure like a well-written essay, including an opening hook to engage the students, a clear thesis with several points, and a final summary. (3) Make a visual PPT with 10 quality visuals that illuminate what you say about every 2-4 minutes. By illuminate I mean images that have some detail and are directly on point with your lecture. There are no bullet points in a quality lecture–the scientific literature on this issue is absolutely clear. The minute you put up bullet points, it is a signal to students to stop listening, start copying, and go into zombie mode.

The Punctuated Lecture.
You want a lecture where all students are engaging, not just the top 10 students. To ensure this, there is a new lecture idea called the “punctuated lecture” that builds poll technology, readily available today, into the lecture and actually grades students for lecture understanding in real time, not 5 weeks later. First, make sure that the poll technology you use will give participation points for student opinion with multiple choice, true-false, and free response answers, but also gives varying points for right and wrong answers. Create provocative opinion questions for the start or end of the lecture, and a couple of right-wrong answer questions for the middle of lecture to check for student understanding. Practice keeping your discussion of these questions to 1 minute of implementation and 2 minutes of discussion, which provides about 12 minutes of punctuated engagement time for each 30-45 minutes of lecture (about a 25-30% ratio).discussion

Active Learning Assignments.
This is a larger subject for another blog, but active learning assignments of this type have 4 features. (1) They use primary sources, case studies, and actual evidence, because the student is practicing being the social scientist. (2) The exercise has an analytical question and the student must use the evidence to answer the question. (3) The assignment is related to the topic of the lecture or the general topic of the week, so that the lecture and the assignment work hand in hand. (4) Generally, it is best if the student does most of the assignment outside of class; works in groups in the beginning or end of class to clarify understanding, and finally debriefs or reports out as a group to the whole class for a discussion of the concepts in class. The whole process would be about 30-40 minutes of class time.

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What a Good Time to Talk About Assessment

  board-361516_960_720This is about that time of year when you might want to reconsider two questions about assessment: How much assessment should my students do? How much grading of assessment should I do?  Right now the quick answer to both might be–as little as possible. But the well-considered answer would be–a lot of student assessment and much less but higher-value professor grading.

How is this possible? Think back to a time (before graduate school) when you as a student had an assignment that was graded in such a way that it became a turning point in your academic life. Can’t? Well, that supports the research that says the way you become a better academic student is through the feedback of cumulative and steady grading and rating of your performance over time. Assessment works best when it provides a consistent message about standards and practices when it is frequent and timely, when it shapes academic behavior, and when it prevents students from making the same mistakes over and over.

When you think about assessment, do not think aboutstudent-1178024_960_720 what everybody else does or what is traditional. Ask yourself: What are the 3-5 things I want the students to do that will make them better academically in the long run? And then create an assessment program where good planning and automation do an effective job of shaping the simpler student tasks and behaviors and your personal grading intervention is reserved for the higher-value academic tasks.


For the sake of brevity, let me lay out such an assessment plan for my 5 desired student goals.

Student Goal
What Student Does?
What Student Learns?
How Professor Grades?
Takes weekly MC/TF online tests on reading.
To improve reading by being accountable for the adult- recommended 150,000 words per term.
Zero. Set up automated online grading.
Submits weekly reading study guides of key terms online.
To condense readings into concepts that are explained and prepare for assessment.
Zero. Incentivize the study behavior with participation points.
Takes up to 8 in-class poll questions online about lectures as they happen in class. Submit small group problems online.
To learn to collaborate and actively discuss in small and large groups the ideas, processes, and evidence presented in lectures and problems.
Zero. Use polling technology to collect and record automatically the in-class data. Give participation points for problems.

Submits 3 parts of the writing process of the paper in the term, called formative assessment.

To build an analytical paper systematically and correct errors in the writing process before they can accumulate into incoherent writing.
Grade 1.5 hours per student for the term, divided into 3 grading sessions.
Submits 3 parts of a research process in the term and works with a research team, called project-based learning.
To get information from varied sources about a topic of high interest to the research team: collaborate, plan, discuss, analyze, and present.
Grade 1 hour per group for the term. Up to 3 collaboration sessions overseen in class. Teams present online or in finals week.
You may notice that I do not include the 2 activities that dominate college teaching–lecture assessment with blue books and end-of-term paper or book report.  They would look like this:
Student Goal
What Student Does?
What Student Learns?
How Professor Grades?
Writes out 3-5 pages of information in a blue book in class.
To tell back to the professor what he or she said or what the student read several weeks before.
1.5 hours of repetitive grading per student, divided over 2-3 sessions in the term.
Writes 5-10 page paper to a writing prompt and submits at end of term.
To write descriptively and  demonstrate the state of the student’s writing skill at the time.
1 hour per student,  possibly 1.5 hours to correct the writing of weaker students.
I believe I have made a pretty good case here that, for the same or less grading time, you can actually improve all students’ academic performances in a much wider and more significant range of skills and disciplinary learning. Research calls it the frequent, low-stakes assessment plan. It works well, particularly today with the availability of online grading and submission. All it requires is for professors to shift priorities and learn to use the online tools. Consider these thoughts as you look at the stack of papers and bluebooks in front of you. Do yourself and your students a favor and investigate new assessment strategies this summer.
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To Lecture or Not to Lecture? That is Not the Question.

Sometimes I am told that I am anti-lecture because I spent much of my career writing active learning pedagogy. That is absolutely not true. I lecture, I enjoy a good lecture, and I see real value in lecture in the college classroom. In fact, experience has shown me that truly great lecturers are usually great analytical thinkers.

But I personally find this whole debate about lecturing a non-starter. If you read carefully, most people who advocate for the lecture, and presumably against active learning, actually argue for high-quality lecture and combinations with active learning methods. And people who advocate for active learning do not discount the lecture and pretty much arrive in the same place–advocating a blend of the two.

In the final analysis, quality teaching is whatever works in building ever more sophisticated thinking in the majority of students. In my 4 decades of teaching, I have found that no one method has a lock on that goal.  The problem as I see it is instructors’ lack of diversity in methods, not the use of a so-called “bad” method.  Research shows that the higher education classroom is over 75% dominated by the method of lecture. On the other hand, the high school classroom has migrated over the last 40 years to a very active learning space.  Is it better?  No one makes that argument. But the truth is that neither classroom has been well-served by taking one side of this useless debate.


For example, in high school classrooms today, you see students going from one small group assignment to another with no lecture in between–because of the mantra that active learning is supposed to be good and lecture bad. But what is the result? Many students come to college lacking mastery of knowledge or any sense of the discipline. The students seem to think that the classroom is like a series of “fun” games. I like fun too, but learning is also work. Students seem to be mystified by the idea that they are supposed to do something to further their education outside the social group of the classroom–such as individual study. And individual work is necessary if you are going to read, research, and write–skills essential to graduating and functioning in the real world. But these skills have truly lost ground in recent years in the secondary space.

Now the same students come to college and find that the classrooms are, as I said, dominated by lecture. The knowledge being conveyed is more sophisticated but the involvement of the student is pretty low, if the classroom follows that usual pattern of 75 minutes of straight lecture, 2 days a week. This college classroom is an information space, where building the fund of knowledge is emphasized, but not necessarily the student’s ability to do something with it.

The interesting parallels in these two scenarios is the following. First, each creates a lot of student dependency on the instructor. Independent learners and confident students are not necessarily being nurtured. Second, if the instructor is not careful, each method can easily and quickly deteriorate into a superficial educational environment with limited learning. So let’s take a look at the advantages of each method when it is done well.

  • It provides quickly and efficiently a fund of knowledge upon which the student can rely to proceed with in-depth study.
  • It models problem solving, analytical skills, evaluative judgments, and passion about the knowledge set forth and the discipline itself.
  • And it creates a narrative glue that holds together all of the active learning sessions, readings, research, and other in-depth study opportunities where students demonstrate their own analytical thinking and expression.
Active Learning:
  • It asks students to use knowledge acquired from lecture and reading to do analytical thinking for themselves.
  • It gives students opportunities for both individual and collaborative in-depth learning, both in and out of the classroom.
  • It provides detailed steps and practice in the classroom for how to do analysis, research, reading, study, and writing to assure that all students know what to do outside the classroom and on their own.
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Authentic Academics: The New Job Readiness Plan

Take a look at this ranking of most desired skills, which was collected from a survey in 2010 by Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

1.The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing (89%)
2. Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (81%)
3. The ability to analyze and solve complex problems (75%)
4. Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings (71%)
5. The ability to innovate and be creative (70%)
6. The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources (68%)
7. The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics (63%)

Must be a poll of university professors about the goals of a college education–right? Wrong. A nation-wide poll of employers identifying the 7 essential skills of entry-level employees. It looks like the most-valued skills of today’s knowledge economy are also the goals of the much-maligned American liberal college education.

We are not often asked to consider that college professors and employers might be on the same side. Afterall, there has been a lot of discussion today about whether a college education is worth it for two reasons. First, the price of college is leaving students in severe debt. Second, many students who have a bachelor’s degree are not able to get employment in their fields. Therefore, many graduates end up in minimum wage jobs after getting a rather expensive degree.

So, are employers blowing smoke when they say they value these skills? The operative word here is “skills.” It is presumed that when students have graduated from college, they of all people should have these 7 essential skills. Not so. In 2003, the American Library Association published the results of an extensive adult literacy test that found only 31% of college graduates in America actually had college-level reading ability. They did not assess the writing, computation, and reasoning skills suggested above, or the percentage would have been much lower. And that same reading assessment conducted today would probably garner even worse results.

We can argue about how we got into a condition where so many students are “inauthentic” graduates. For example, there are the financial formulas of colleges and universities today that cram too many students into classes, so there is little professor-on-student time to assess sophisticated liberal knowledge, let alone train and assess complex skills. Then there is the 3-unit system of the bachelor degree, which rewards students for passive attendance rather than reaching benchmarks of skill and knowledge acquisition. Also, we have the pattern of universities to emphasize “access,” so much so that they admit millions of students each year who simply are not ready for college.

But the professoriate also has problems. In the face of data that suggests that students need more skill development and more active demonstrations that they can blend knowledge, skills, and academic behavior, the majority of professors still regard themselves as primarily transmitters of sophisticated knowledge in their disciplines, and teach accordingly. Moreover, universities and professors tend to ignore, financially and pedagogically, the lower division where the futures of so many disadvantaged and under-prepared students are made or broken. Finally, when faced with an avalanche of students who are weak to start with, there is a very natural human tendency on the part of professors to protect their own reputations for caring by dumbing down the whole curriculum and letting students pass through, even though they show minimal or no skill, or even knowledge, acquisition.

What to do? A lot of things, even though most are beyond our control because they involve money. But nothing gets done unless you can agree on what you are trying to produce. So, the first thing is to identify what is a successful college education–authentic academics–using a language that professors who train and employers who employ can at least agree upon. Here is the evaluation formula I would suggest.

Authentic Academics =  7 Essential Skills + Liberal Education + Major Field Training


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How Students Are Wrecking Their Futures With Student Evaluations

Student computer

With this title, most people would anticipate that I am going to talk about the end-of-term professor evaluations that colleges administer to their students. There has been a large amount of research conducted on this subject, mostly concerned with how it affects retention and tenure decisions that might help or wreck professors’ not students’ futures.

These evaluations, however, are not the ones that should concern those who are worried about undergraduate education in the first two years–the ground zero of college failures. Why? Because most of these lower division courses today are taught by adjuncts, and they are far more concerned with enrollments–or how students vote with their feet–than they are with college evaluations and tenure.

Twenty years ago, a senior adjunct professor at my college explained to me the logic of this calculation. Watching me prepare materials for my first college class, he took me aside and explained “the enrollments problem.” If the word got around among students that I was likeable, funny, and “easy,” the next semester they would flock to my class. What or how I taught was less important than these social decisions. While tenure-track professors have to deal with retention decisions, adjuncts are quite vulnerable to decisions that deprive them of section assignments. According to my colleague, my continued employment would hinge ultimately on administrators’ views of my enrollment numbers.

Though I went my own way, every experience that I have had since then confirmed for me that he was essentially right about colleges in general. American colleges are accomplished at enrolling students, but they are not set up well for ensuring the finish line, or making sure that students are college educated and graduated.

Twenty years ago, students had word-of-mouth to guide their feet in and out of the classroom. Today, as with most things, the internet has turned this tendency into a phenomenon to be reckoned with, which brings me to the RateMyProfessor website. When I was teaching, I never looked at this site and naively thought that most students didn’t bother either. But I was surprised recently when I overheard a very good former student of mine talking about it. I asked her if she actually went on the site, and she told me yes and that everybody did. For what, I asked? I think she was taken aback by the amazed tone of my voice. She assured me, “just to know whether or not I had to buy the textbook,” which of course did little to assuage my concerns.

I finally did access the site to know what this other world of student evaluations was about. Suffice to say the evaluation categories are superficial at best. But one thing that you have to hand to the internet evaluation sites. They make no pretense of evaluating the quality of education, as the college-administered student evaluations do. Instead, they simply summarize and accumulate student comments that give other students one clear piece of information–in this particular course, with this particular professor, and at this particular time, how passive can I be in my own education and still pass the class?

There are many more students than you think, who are gaming the system and graduating in this way. Undereducated college graduates have become a national problem. In 2003, an adult literacy assessment found that only 31% of college graduates were proficient at college reading levels. Michael Gormon, then president of the American Library Association said, “It’s appalling–it’s really astounding. Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.” (Washington Post, December 25, 2005).

This means that, while 50% of college students drop out and join the working poor in low-end jobs, another 35% graduate with an unpersuasive piece of paper and float around the labor market for years. Evidence suggests that employers are increasingly avoiding these undereducated students by leaving them unemployed, underemployed, or working in low-end jobs.

You may find the following problem a useful introductory exercise for your next course:

College Graduates and the Labor Market

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The Ever Expanding Textbook


Tutors have a secret method called “preteaching”–teaching the student a concept or process the week before it is presented in the regular class. The method works and works well. Why? Because preteaching taps into a factor in student success that is not well appreciated–pre-knowledge.

The more successful student is often the one with a greater fund of subject knowledge going into the class. Not only is there less new information to learn, what is learned is being tied to previous information already organized in the mind. Even more important, the student has the powerful social role of expert in the classroom. The novice student is the opposite–knowing little, viewing the knowledge like it is an insurmountable wall, lacking confidence. Thus, preteaching turns the novice student into the expert student.

So what does this have to do with the textbook? Well, the textbook is not written for novice or expert students; it is actually written for you. And you are not just an expert, you are a super expert. When you read the textbook, you not only know the information, you are critical of it. You ask why some information is not in the text or why it is not given more prominence. Then you communicate your learned concerns to your textbook representative who communicates it to the editor. The editor has only one way to respond and keep your adoption–that is to add more text to the already dense textbook.

Since 1980, textbooks have grown 50% in size. The most frequent inquiry in professor rating sites today is “Do you have to buy the textbook to pass the class?” And increasingly the answer is “No.” Why? Professors have a sense that the density of the textbook is too much even for the expert students. The tendency is to ask more questions from the lecture and less from the readings. Not surprisingly, national studies today show that students are not making any progress in reading in the first two years of college.

Add to this the research that shows that the 8 best-selling textbooks are written several years beyond the median reading level of entry-level college students, and you begin to see an important problem. The textbook is not only expensive, it is becoming irrelevant. Or as one University of California professor recently said of the most frequently adopted history text today: “The best textbook students don’t read.”

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Why The Mooc Did Not Work

A recent talk I had with a perceptive adjunct professor at San Francisco State University distilled this issue for me perfectly. His argument: If what college professors do in the classroom is lecture each class period, then the MOOC makes perfect sense. Why have 1000 professors who have varying capabilities in lecturing, when you could have one expert and very talented lecturer do the same thing and stream it out digitally?

You can see what the investors who jumped on the MOOC bandwagon were thinking. Afterall, most of them went to college and probably received the traditional all-lectures classroom experience. But as adults with some business experience, they knew an inefficient use of expensive resources when they saw it. The physical classroom needs not only large amounts of money for salaries and benefits, but also support staff and administration to manage them, as well as expensive facilities in which to hold the lectures and all the ancillary services to take care of the congregated students, such as health centers, student unions, athletics, etc. And then there are the costs for students to get to the classrooms–in travel time, gas, parking, public transportation, or the ability to live near the college. For what? To sit in one place together and listen to a lecture? Very inefficient.

Students in classroom

Only one thing got in the way of the MOOC investment strategy–the students. They preferred the physical professor and the physical classroom. Mind you, they were not crazy about it, they just preferred it to the virtual professor and the virtual classroom.

So here are two ideas to take away from the MOOC experiment. First, the better the student–experienced with computer resources, academically skilled, highly motivated, strong problem solving drive–the more he or she benefits from the MOOC experience (and any online experience for that matter). A Harvard student is the perfect candidate for a MOOC. But, while Harvard was willing to give MOOCs to other students, they would not dream of offering it to their own students. Mom and Dad shelling out $50,000 a year for Junior to listen to lectures on computers? Not likely. The point is, you already have to be quite learned to benefit from a virtual lecture. But then, the same could also be said of a classroom lecture.

Second, the MOOC experiment has highlighted the fact that the physical classroom experience is the gold standard of college education–quite expensive to arrange so you better take advantage. Does the lecture–as the only method of instruction–really exploit that golden opportunity? After all, the students did not vote for physical over virtual lectures. They voted for people–professors in the flesh and fellow students in the environment. Maybe we should take advantage of the gold standard classroom to give them more of what they want:

  • More engagement among professor, student, and fellow students.
  • More dimensions and methods of teaching in and out of the classroom.
  • More interactions among professors to explore what really gets the maximum educational results in the golden classroom.
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The Great Reading Debate: Digital Or Paper?


Do students understand and retain what they are reading digitally as well as they do paper texts? Recent research indicates that it depends on what you are reading and for what purpose.


Digital reading is a problem for the long novel because the reader does not seem to retain the evolution of the plot as well. There is something about the physical sense of being part way, half way, or almost done with a book that aids the reader’s sense of time and narrative. On the other hand, the book that is a simple page­-turner (sometimes called the airport book), does not place on the reader the kind of demand that James Joyce’s Ulysses would; thus, the popularity of Kindle with the easy-reading public.

The amount of time spent reading digital texts is also an issue. Though recent studies indicate that the younger reading public is more accustomed to reading digitally than their elders, handing anyone a 400­-page digital textbook is going to be a slog. Yet, the students already tell us that the 400-­page paper textbook does not interest them either–nationally 30 percent of students don’t even buy the assigned text and those who do buy hardly get past the first two chapters before they give up on that particular reading experience.

The real problem here is selecting the right kinds of reading for the various purposes of the classroom. One single type of reading is probably not the best preparation of a modern reader and not the most effective reading strategy for today’s students, most of whom come to college several grades behind in reading ability.


Here are 4 types of reading that you might want to consider:

  • Shorter passages of digital information text of 2000-­3000 words or less, or the textbook “chunked” as reading specialists call it. And these digital texts need to get back to where paper textbooks were 40 years ago­­–1/3 less information.
  • Short background readings of 500-­700 words or less in digital or paper form to set up primary source readings also of no more than 500­-700 words.
  • Digital or paper scripts for 2000-­word lectures that are accompanied by a 20­-slide, all images Powerpoint­­–in other words some of your lectures but for home reading.
  • Real paper books of the standard 65-­90,000 words that have narrative quality and strong interest for young people. These might include historical fiction, biography, autobiography, or very straightforward monograph.

In the end, while professors consider the virtues and drawbacks of the two methods of reading, digital or paper, let us not lose sight that the kinds of reading, their diversity, and their purposes are actually more important to the student. To each reading purpose, there is a better or best reading method or combination of methods.


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