Center for Teaching Excellence




The Common Good

CTE_logo_web.jpgA teaching and learning newsletter

Produced by the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Student Committee on Teaching Excellence (SCTE), with input from the students of SUNY Plattsburgh. Vol. 4, issue 1. Read other issues


Student Survey Question: What kinds of teaching techniques help you to become engaged in class discussion?

We all want to have energetic classroom discussions because we know that the open back-and-forth exchange of ideas is an effective way of spiking interest in a subject and fostering self-appropriation of the learning process. We all also dread the silent classroom where our efforts to light up discussion are met with glazed eyes and restless shifting.

The reality is that classroom dead zones will always be with us for one reason or another. You know them:

  •  fatigue,
  • difficult material,
  • unpredictable class dynamics, etc.
Back to basics

There are, however, basic principles that are the foundation for consistently productive class discussions, and techniques that can create the right conditions for them. In order for class discussions to flourish, the first foundations have to do with our attitude and persona.

It is critical that students trust the instructor; this means that we always engage with respect and openness. Practically, this action translates into inviting dissenting views, allowing students to speak without interruption, and checking our own egos at the door, and this requires awareness of our own intellectual biases and foregoing the “sage on the stage” posturing. They want to discuss hot topics, but they do not want to be beaten down by our assertions in a way that turns expertise into a kind of intellectual aggression.

They want to discuss hot topics, but they do not want to be beaten down by our assertions in a way that turns expertise into a kind of intellectual aggression.It is also important for us not to always think of discussions as spontaneous conversations. While we can hold forth on our topic with little prompting, students are new to what we are teaching, and they need time to reflect in order to have the confidence to offer an opinion or analysis. I’m not talking here about waiting a few minutes for a response to a question; I’m talking about planning well ahead and giving the students the discussion topic before class so they can mull it over while completing reading or writing assignments. This means we have to think about what we want to discuss and where we want that discussion to lead. That way, we are more able to direct the conversation towards the content we are trying to elucidate. Pre-planning for discussions also signals that we are well-organized and have a clear map for their learning. That doesn’t mean we should shut down those discussions that do arise spontaneously; there is always a place for the creativity of the moment, but that is less likely to happen without a thoughtful plan for the rest of our classes.

Some quick ideas for stimulating discussion:
  • Discussions should be centered on higher order, evaluative and synthetic thinking
  • Questions should be general enough to avoid short answers
  • Questions should connect theory to application (problem-solving is a favorite technique for students)
  • Questions should provoke and inspire

In their words:

“Being able to read what the professor is going to talk about in class before I get to class. That way I’m more prepared.”
--Josephine Hoeffner

 “Hands on activities so I can see how to do it as they teach.”
--Elizabeth Raner

“One that allows for class discussions on hot-button issues and topics in class. With that being said, I like teachers who don’t offer their opinions to the class in a close-minded manner.”
--John McCarthy

“A hands-on teaching style so I know how the material applies in practical situations.”
--Andrew Shaw

Students on Discussions

What gets rave reviews:

  • Ability to find topics that are relevant to the material and personal experiences of the students
  • Enthusiasm for subject matter
  • Willingness to entertain dissenting ideas

What doesn’t:

  • Interrupting a student or talking over a student
  • Dismissing ideas
  • Calling out students who prefer to listen and learn rather than talk

Featured Department: Management International Business and Information Systems

This issue of The Common Good has a new feature – a spotlight on a department that is dedicating the semester to improving teaching. This semester MIBIS accepted an invitation from the CTE to pioneer a department focus on teaching. We have already met for a MIBIS luncheon to discuss teaching issues suggested by the faculty, and in this case that topic was how to promote classroom discussion. We are planning another luncheon in March to talk about how to use Moodle to enhance courses and improve efficiency in grading. In setting up this specialized learning community, the faculty were asked to commit to attendance at three working luncheon (provided by the CTE) and to sign up for mid-semester class visits. So far we have had great success, and I encourage all departments to consider taking on a mission to pursue excellence in teaching! Congratulations to the faculty of MIBIS!

The February Teacher of the Month

Cecilia Gregoire, Ph.D., Biological Sciences, Lecturer
Cecilia understands that the classes she teaches (Anatomy and Physiology) are tough because they introduce students to a whole new language and world of concepts, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be drawn into the material and become actively engaged in the class: “I go into the classroom wanting to share my enthusiasm about the topic with those attending. It’s exciting information, especially when I can give real life examples that maybe even some of them have experienced.”   

This practice of finding points of relevancy for the students in our course content is central to achieving the goal of helping students take hold of their own learning. It is a technique that for Cecilia is driven by her pedagogy: “My approach to teaching is simple – be real, be myself, and never forget what it’s like to be the student.”

Excerpts from nominating submissions:
“She makes a cut and dried subject (A&P) a fun class to participate in. It is interesting and her excitement for the subject rubs off very easily.”
--Jeff Marvin

“She is willing to help students achieve their fullest potential. She helped me when I didn’t understand topics in lab and in class.”
Alissa Shinder

“She is very interested in the topic, which makes the students more engaged, and she will help everyone out.”
--Leah Spadafore

--Cecilia will soon receive her own Center for Teaching Excellence Teacher of the Month mug, which will hopefully stay out of the hands of those skeletons hanging around her lab.

Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100