FoTT — Plenary Session: Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar

FoTT-Morrison-Shetlar-01.jpgDr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, as well as Professor of Biology at the University of Central Florida, gave the second plenary session presentation at UMSL’s Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference. Her topic of choice was Interactive Teaching Techniques With and Without Technology. She has had a long and distinguished career in both science and education. It was a very enjoyable presentation as she brings a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to her presentation.

Dr. Morrison-Shetlar’s presentation is available from her web site by clicking the Handouts link. However, her web site uses “lightbox” to show her slides, so it is not practical for downloading a copy of her slides. Unlike Dr. Ray Schroeder, who was the other plenary session speaker, she has embraced PowerPoint for her presentation, though she uses it fairly effectively to make her points.

Her first technique that she shared with us was simply to greet us with “Good morning”. Since our first response was too lethargic, she tried again, “GOOD MORNING!” This time we had no choice but to respond.

Her three main objectives for the presentation were:

  1. Demonstrate strategies that work in large and small classes.
  2. Discuss how to modify the strategies and create new ones that fit different situations and teaching personalities
  3. Show high and low technology adaptations of strategies for engaging students.


One of the strategies that she said worked for both large and small
classes is to use what she calls the “one minute paper”. She has taught
classrooms with several hundred students as well as smaller classes of
more reasonable size and I can see how this technique would work in
both situations. The basic idea is to pose a question to the students,
ask them to take one minute to formulate their response and then to
share their responses with someone else in their local vicinity (in a
small class, you might be able to allow the students to move around a
bit to find someone they haven’t interacted with before). I believe Dr.
Klaus Woelk on our campus actually uses this technique in his Chemistry
1 course to engage the students using clickers. He asks a question and
students first respond as individuals. Students then have a couple of
minutes to confer with a neighbor to see if their responses are
correct. Then they respond again to the same question. Generally, there
is a small increase in the number of correct responses.

The nice
thing about the “one minute paper” technique is that it doesn’t require
much preparation on the part of the instructor. The challenge is to
find engaging questions for your students that not only force them to
think, but also to articulate a thoughtful response. “What is 2 + 2?”
is not particularly good for this type of exercise, but “Why does 2 + 2
= 4?” might be.

Another technique that can be useful is to have
the students actually draw a picture, a diagram, a chart or some other
visual imagery to help explain an idea, a relationship, or a process.
We do this all the time when we create PowerPoint presentations, though we generally invest significant time and energy to do so. Dr. Morrison-Shetlar advocates a much more informal approach by letting the students create doodles and then explain that doodle to their classmates. This forces the “doodler” to articulate the idea expressed by the doodle and also solicit feedback on the effectiveness of the doodle in question for representing the abstract concept.

You can also simply present an image to the students and ask them questions about what the image represents. We do this a lot in technical communication because visual design is a very important component of good technical communication. One recent example of how images can be used to stimulate discussion can be found here. This link shows different images of the 2008 U.S. presidential election results. As one can see from the images, at first glance, it appears as though a majority of the states are “red”, since that color dominates the map. However, if we adjust the shape of the map somewhat to reflect the population, we can see that the map is more “blue”. Images are usually a direct appeal to one’s emotional state (that is why advertising works). Emotions are often linked to memory since a strong emotion about something can lead to greater memory recall of a particular event. However, one has to be very careful about the way in which emotions are engaged when showing images. Some images are very emotionally charged, so may not be appropriate for classroom discussion.

Dr. Morrison-Shetlar is a strong proponent of just-in-time teaching (jitt). She sees it as a way to prepare students to come to class. It also allows the professor to determine where the class is in their understanding of a concept and make adjustments as necessary. For students, it provides a feedback loop to help students keep up with the content. Just-in-time teaching is used on our campus in clicker-enabled classes. Some instructors can also use Blackboard to help facilitate just-in-time teaching by posting assigned readings shortly before class and through the interactive quiz/survey features in Blackboard. This keeps the students on their toes before class.

The main advantages to jitt are as follows: it helps students develop problem solving skills and concept understanding. Students gain some control over their own learning process–they can go along with jitt or use their own style, if they like. Depending on the jitt exercises, it may promote team building and communication skills. Finally, it has the potential to reduce the mismatch between what is being taught and what students learn. A large part of the jitt process is the instructor’s capability for flexibility in their pedagogy to adapt to the students as they are learning, just as the students need to be flexible to the instructor’s teaching style. Instructors should not be abruptly changing their pedagogy every day, but they can gradually introduce changes as needed, based on the instructor’s perceptions of how well the students are learning the material. The goal is to create a positive feedback loop between the students and their instructor so that as the students become more proficient in their understanding of the material, the instructor can move the class forward to more advanced concepts.

As I hope you can see from my discussion of Dr. Morrison-Shetlar’s presentation, I really learned a lot about pedagogy and instruction. If I were attending University of Central Florida, I would be eager to get into one of her classes, even though biology is not one of my strong suits (I did OK in freshman biology here at Missouri S&T and had a pretty good teacher, but not quite like Dr. Morrison-Shetlar).