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Research & Resources

Empowering Students to Think Deeply, Discuss Engagingly, & Write Definitively in the Univ. Classroom

Ann Singleton, Ed.D., Associate Dean, School of Education & Professor of Special Education

April 14, 2005 -

A typical college classroom is often pictured with the professor talking for several hours while students frantically try to write down everything that is said. This type of classroom has traditionally produced surface learning and has done little to promote learning that lasts. Do university classrooms have to be professor driven? Can university classrooms become engaging and facilitate student learning? What does a learner-centered classroom look like at the university level? The authors of this paper will explore effective strategies for shifting university students from surface learning to deeper, more lasting learning. The paper is divided into three parts: comprehension strategies, discussion strategies, and writing strategies.

Comprehension Strategies

Empowering students to think deeply about the concepts and skills inherent to a particular discipline is a daunting task. Most professors have spent years building their own understanding of the foundational concepts of their disciplines. Add to that process a continuous and singular focus on how these foundational concepts drive the body of knowledge surrounding a discipline. As the professor’s learning continues, a more complete understanding and clarity of the related concepts are ferreted out with more intricate and subtle connections made by the professor. As a result of this process, it is difficult for professors to know how to enable students to move past the surface knowledge of a discipline within the time constraints of a single course.

The organizational schemata of course information can make a difference in the way students approach their learning. For example, the use of essential questions to frame a course can facilitate students’ ability to place meaning on what otherwise may be perceived as unconnected facts (Elder and Paul, 2002). These essential questions also can provide students a meaningful focus for a discipline that they may not feel confident in or perhaps have had a bad experience with in the past.

One such content, unfortunately, that some students may have had unsuccessful experiences in understanding is mathematics. As a professor of an elementary mathematics methods course, I have experienced the anxiety and tension that some students associate with mathematics. Even though this issue was addressed in a supportive and upbeat manner at the beginning of the course, some students found the course very difficult. However, when the entire course was put into the context of, “How can I show my students this mathematical concept?” rather tan the traditional, “How can I teach my students this mathematical concept?” the students began to shift their focus. Rather than worrying about the steps of a mathematical procedure, they began to find models that demonstrated the concept. With this new focus students were using more clarifying language that described the concept as well. The students’ confidence levels increased as well as their levels of competence in their mathematics pedagogy. The only way that the class had changed was the addition of an essential. The same examples and explanations were used as well as the same activities and tests. However, with the inclusion of an essential question, the students’ learning was more evident on test scores and classroom discussion.

Discussion Strategies

Classroom discussion from university students can be enhanced with the use of planned questions. These planned questions can move students from a basic level of understanding to higher levels of thinking. Facilitating this process can be the use of a taxonomy of comprehension. One prominent taxonomy of comprehension is attributed to Benjamin Bloom (1956). Bloom identified six levels of thinking: 1) knowledge, 2) comprehension, 3) application, 4) analysis, 5) synthesis, and 6) evaluation. Planning discussion questions that help students move through these different levels of understanding will provide students with appropriate prompts to discuss issues from an interested and thought provoking position rather than a less involved “I know that answer point of view.”

In an elementary mathematics methods course students are asked questions that require different levels of understanding.

  • Knowledge Level
    How can you use grid paper to explain 2.36 added to 2.64?
  • Comprehension Level
    How does this problem fit the two big idea of teaching addition?
  • Application Level
    How can the addition problem of 2.36 and 2.64 relate to the monetary system used in the United States?
  • Analysis Level
    How does the process used to add 2.36 and 2.64 fit with the addition of whole numbers? fractions?
  • Synthesize
    What other models could be used to demonstrate 2.36 + 2.64?
  • Evaluation
    Which model do you plan to use to introduce decimals to your students and explain why you would use that model?

As students are involved in answering the kinds of questions that require higher levels of thinking, additional strategies may be used to keep the discussion going. These strategies include asking students other than the one answering the question to: 1) elaborate on a student’s response, 2) offer an opposing view to a response, 3) summarize another student’s response, 3) clarify the logical rationale, 4) explain how the student’s response supports this class’ essential question, 5) explicate how the student’s response empowers the student. Using these strategies can make the difference between a potentially dull exchange of information between students and professors and an exciting dialogue among all class members.

Writing Strategies

A popular cartoon depicts one character saying to another that she would like him to write a theme for her. The second character indicates that if she wants to learn, she will write it herself. At that point, the first character exclaims in surprise, “Learn!” Yes, one does learn through writing. However, all writing to learn assignments do not have to be the traditional theme or essay, which are so common in classrooms. Brief writing activities can be interspersed throughout a class session to ensure that reflection, or processing information, is taking place.

One example of this type writing is journal writing, which can take many different forms, according to both the content area and the professor’s goals. Journaling can take the form of reading journals, learning logs, or reflective journals. According to Wyrick (1996), journals help students confront fears of writing and help them “conquer” the blank page. Wyrick also maintains that journals help improve powers of observation, which the reading journal or learning log can easily do. Journals may also help students prepare for class and focus on a problem, or the essential question posed by the assignment or class activities. Reflective journaling is especially effective in classes that meet longer than one hour. For instance, in four hour classes, the professor might pause several times for students to reflect, or process, information that might extend over an hour or so. Reflective journaling might also be used to transition from one topic to another during longer class sessions.

The above strategies are best utilized when they are woven throughout a class session. For example, a reflective journal entry can be used to access students’ prior knowledge about the day’s topic. In addition, a reflective journal entry can be used during the class discussion to clarify the lesson’s concept or used as a class closing activity as a means to verify the students’ understanding of the essential information presented. Other writing strategies, such as the Minute Paper and Ticket to Leave, can also be used as closing activities that offer the student an opportunity to use higher levels of thinking that ensures the content presented is processed as meaningful information. Discussion strategies can be utilized at strategic times during a class to ensure that students not only know and understand the concepts presented, but that students also can apply, synthesize and evaluate information for use in long term projects.

Results of student learning outcomes as a result of using the strategies discussed are evident as opportunities occur to observe these pre-service teachers in the classrooms in which they teach during field experiences. In addition to the pre-service teachers’ learning, the learning that their students achieve is also evidence that the strategies presented and information discussed in their university classrooms support long lasting learning in a variety of disciplines.


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Presented by Ann Singleton, Ed.D. & Ken Newman, Ed.D. at a Lilly Conference at Miami University

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