Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Course: Re-Energizing the Classroom

Sorry for the lateness of this post.

In this chapter Lang discusses the common phenomena that most, if not all, of us go thru, normally towards the end of the semester; the feeling that we are going ‘through the motions in the classroom, trotting out the same old teaching techniques every day.” This realization can be very discomforting and is sometimes difficult to overcome. We have utilized a wide variety of teaching techniques, most of them discussed in this book, and we feel as if we, and the class, are running out of steam. The level of excitement is diminishing and it seems as interest in the subject matter and class discussions has waned. So the question Lang poses (and answers) is ‘how can we provide a spark to get ourselves, and our students, enthusiastic about the subject matter again?” He addresses five ‘experimental strategies’ that we can use to re-energize the classroom and three activities that we, as learners ourselves, can use to “remain fresh as a teacher.”

The five experimental strategies are 1) posters, 2) field trips, 3) inkshedding, 4) trials, and 5) case studies. Having taught for over twenty years now, I must admit that I use case studies as part of my regular teaching techniques. I dedicate the last 2-3 weeks of my courses in ethics to student presentations where they either construct their own case, or utilize an existing case, and analyze the moral issue associated with the case from a minimum of two different normative perspectives. This approach works wonders in that students usually do good work on cases/issues they themselves select. Furthermore, having them present the normative issues turns the focus away from me as ‘expert’ to them as ‘expert.’ The students also more directly interact with each other and I then function as a moderator. The idea of using a poster to map out the development of an argument or a problem seems to me to be a very workable idea; one which I plan to try next semester. In philosophy doing a field trip may be difficult, if not impossible, after all how does one go back in time. But here, I think we can utilize other technologies; e.g. movies/videos, literature/plays, having students attend a departmental colloquium, and/or assigning students to use the Internet to find concrete examples of issues we are discussing in class. For example, if we are discussing world hunger and our obligation, if we have one, to help end it, we could go on the Internet and find concrete examples of people suffering and people helping those who are suffering (Youtube is a wonderful thing). Reacting to an image is different then reacting to an argument! I think both of them have their place in teaching ethics. Inkshedding, the idea of having students write for five minutes on a topic and then giving their writing to another student who reads it and then writes on what they have read, is a strategy I am going to have to think about. If anyone has any ideas on how to incorporate it into teaching philosophy, I would love to hear them. Trials are also something that I think could be very useful in teaching philosophy. After all, we do have the paradigm in Socrates’ trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. Again, if anyone has tried this out, I would love to hear about it.

There are three activities that Lang suggests for helping us to remain fresh: become a learner again, stay currant, and be nosy. As a way of becoming a learner again, Lang suggests taking a course or lessons of some sort. This way you keep your mind open as well as active. It allows you to creatively explore things outside your normal comfort zone. Staying currant is a matter of keeping up with what is happening in educational theory or in your discipline. This may appear to be very time consuming and therefore something that is not practical, but he suggests three relatively easy things we can do in this regard; we can read a journal either in teaching methodologies or in our own discipline. As far as finding out different strategies for teaching philosophy is concerned I recommend the journal, Teaching Philosophy. Most issues of this journal that I have read contain at least one article that I have found useful. ‘Being nosy’ is simply taking advantage of learning from your peers what they do that is successful in their classes. As Lang points out, sometimes simply talking with a colleague about a teaching issue can be more helpful then trying to find a solution on our own. He also suggests that we take advantage of what our institutions offer in the way of programs designed to help teachers become more effective. Finally he suggests that we visit other colleagues’ classrooms and see how they do it.

There is an underlying point to this chapter that I think needs to be brought out. As Lang points out, it is true that we do run into a ‘wall’ sometime during the course of a semester; not all class sessions are as successful as we would like them to be. This should not be seen as a mark of failure on our part, but as a normal part of teaching and one that we can recognize and minimize if we have strategies for doing so. Furthermore, we should realize that we all could improve our teaching. There is a natural tendency to become comfortable with what we do successfully. But, this feeling of comfort itself can sometimes cause us to be not as successful as we could be; we may become complacent. As a way of overcoming complacency, as well as the ‘doldrums’ that naturally occur, this chapter is especially pertinent and helpful; even to someone who has taught successfully for over 20 years.


  1. John, thanks for your post.

    One technique I've found useful in re-energizing the classroom is to go back to the beginning, i.e., return to the learning objectives on your syllabus, review them with the class, and mark their progress. This can also be combined with a mid-term assessment of the course. I think this can help because one source of that late-term blah feeling is that students (and instructors!) get bogged down in the tasks associated with a course and lose touch with the larger learning goals. So by going back to the course learning objectives to see the progress that's been made (or not made!), we can rediscover some of our original, intrinsic motivations.

  2. A few weeks ago I had a strong sense that my classes were in the doldrums, as Lang puts it. I tried something that was very successful in my inroductory ethics classes, and moderately successful in my upper division course--a North-South East-West debate. (See
    I've tried debates in the past, but dividing a class of 30 into 2 teams allowed for too many students to check out. Having two debates back to back, on two related but distinct topics was effective and a very nice change of pace.

  3. "stay currant,"

    I prefer to stay raisin.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!