Ideas for teaching

I usually blog about research, but this month I’d like to share some teaching ideas I’ve been experimenting with since I started teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007. Here are my top four:

  1. Jigsaw discussions (from the Discussion Project, a workshop I took in fall 2017 at UW-Madison): In each of my undergraduate courses, I include two full-class (75-min.) sessions devoted to a jigsaw discussion. Here is the handout I use in my History of Forensic Science class. I like jigsaw discussions because they use two different kinds of small-group discussion and build up to a full-class discussion. The fact that not everyone has read the same thing means that students have added incentive to explain the big point and highlights clearly to each other. I try to pick very interesting readings. This format works well with different case studies on a common theme or genre.
  2. Rare Book show-and-tell (from Rare Book School course, “Law Books: History & Connoisseurship,” taught by Mike Widener and Ryan Greenwood in June 2018): In our increasingly online world, the experience of seeing rare books in person is new for many students. In the past, I have taken my class to Special Collections, with a relevant selection prepared in advance by the librarian who has described highlights to the group. But I also like the idea of using a more structured and interactive in-class exercise during this visit. Here is an example of how Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at Yale Law School, structures a class visit. He uses trial pamphlets here, but you could also use other kinds of ephemera or rare books.
  3. Current Events round-up: I’ve been doing this one for the past decade. Instead of doing a final review of course themes on the last day, I reserve this day for a discussion of news stories that relate to our course and that have happened since the course began. I collect these stories throughout the semester, and invite students to send me any relevant links. One week before the final class, I put together a selection of these stories. I make a PDF that is max. 30 pages long, and post it on our course website. During the final class, I distribute a handout that lists all of the news stories. I also post it on the screen. Here is what I used in my History of Forensic Science course in spring 2018. The discussion is very open-ended, but our starting questions are: What course themes can you trace in today’s readings? Do any of the readings confirm or complicate ideas explored in our course? I include these questions at the top of the handout. I like this exercise because it shows students who don’t necessarily love history why history is relevant to their lives. In some cases, we continue to struggle with the same problems as earlier generations. In others, we are facing challenges that feel different or new. Either way, the discussion ends up functioning like a review session without feeling boring and repetitive, or like spoon-feeding.
  4. Advice to the future: On the last day of a course when we do course evaluations in class, I also give my students a slip of paper. On it, I ask them to write their advice to next year’s class. On the first day of class the following year, I tell the new class that I have some messages for them from the past. I read a selection of this advice from the previous year.

I’m always looking for interesting new teaching strategies and formats. Please e-mail me if you’d like to share yours: