Engaging Student Opinions Without Imposing Your Views

By Martha Thompson

Having passionate debates is nothing new to any college campus; however, helping students engage in discussions about controversial topics in a way that your own opinion does not shut down the dialogue can be a bit of a challenge in its own right.  Maybe it is the therapist in me or the part of me that has always liked a good debate.  My mom thought I was going to be an attorney.  I enjoy facilitating in class discussions on many topics, including those that have been near and dear to our very own students, such as the protests on campus last year.  In training to become a therapist, one strives to be open, empathetic, authentic and nonjudgmental while clients share everything from the most mundane to bizarre and even horrific stories.  These same qualities help in the classroom when talking about everything from theories to politics and current events. Personally I am a fan of using a few techniques from Drs. Miller and Rollnick, the founders of Motivational Interviewing.

In 1983, the first journal article about Motivational Interviewing (MI) was published in Behavioural Psychotherapy. The research focused on problem drinkers’ motivation to change and resistance to change.  MI has become very popular when investigating all types of motivation, change, and human behavior.  A quick Google search will produce more than three million hits.  I tend to use a few strategies from MI in the classroom when moving the conversation towards controversial topics or in order to increase the depth of a discussion.  The spirit of MI is to be person centered, allowing for very direct challenging without imposing your own values or judgments.

O.  Open ended questions–Asking students to elaborate is a great way to get the ball rolling on any topic. “Tell me what your thoughts are” or “Give me some examples” are two of my favorites. If the students are slow to start, try having them talk to their neighbors or in small groups and come up with an idea or two to share with the whole class.  From there you can ask the class what their thoughts are. This will move the conversation forward and create depth.  It also makes it easy for us to use some of the steps below all while keeping our opinions to ourselves.

A.  Affirm–We all like to hear the words “Good job!” Even a simple head nod or “Tell me more” will show the students you are encouraging them to share.  As a result, you are setting the stage for others to engage when they may not normally speak up.  Affirmations help students to see you are open to their opinions and viewpoints without sharing your thoughts on a topic.  This is especially important when creating a safe space for students to talk about sensitive or controversial topics.

R.  Reframe–Using this technique in class discussions can be tricky.  Our goal is not to change a student’s view or opinion but to help them see many sides of a topic, as well as understanding the breadth and depth of issues.  Instead of pointing out the opposite view when reframing, try asking students to explore other angles or sides of a given argument.  A good follow up here is another open ended question such as “Let’s explore how that would look from the other side” or “How does that apply in the real world?”

S. Summary –  Pulling many ideas together and making meaning out of them can be a challenge in its own way.  Reflecting the ideas of the students by saying things like “What I hear you saying is . . . ” allows for clarification and highlighting of key concepts.  I will at times summarize the key points the class made and then have the students rank them in order of importance or relevancy to the topic at hand.  Using affirmation and open ended questions fits right in line with summarizing their ideas.

Open ended questions, affirmation, reframing, and summarizing–OARS.  The OARS steps are not new to us individually; however, using them together gives us focus and some structure when handling difficult or intense class discussions.  The order does not matter as much as watching how you deliver your messages, ask your questions and prompt the students for follow up.  Remember, when you are up a creek without a paddle or you find yourself having an interesting conversation, you can always remember your OARS.

Miller, W. R. (1983). Motivational interviewing with problem drinkers. Behavioural Psychotherapy, 11(2). 147-172.

The Things That Matter: What a WWI Cartoon Can Teach Us About Assessment

By Kevin Pry

We’ve all had our frustrations with collegiate assessment processes—how to assess, what to assess, when to collect data, what kind of data to collect, how to interpret data collected, and how the hell to find the time to do all these tasks, and in a manner that can lead to practical results. Consultants and other experts tell us assessment is necessary to improve our programs; accrediting organizations and governmental bodies demand that we produce it to justify our methods and our budgets, and administrators swear by it (and, if the truth were known, also swear at it.) Most of us on both sides of the process slog through the  assessment trenches, hoping that by soldiering on our end result will have some lasting effect on our work and institutions, but many of us despair along the way—how can we possibly make our assessment—or our demands for them—worth  the sacrifice of time and energy involved?

I’ve been in the middle of my department’s annual assessment process, going down that long, long trail a-winding while fighting the usual classroom and rehearsal battles to stay effective. In an infrequent moment out of the firing line, I turned for momentary relief to the work of one of my favorite cartoonists, the legendary British WWI artist and infantry officer Bruce Bairnsfather, and ran across this classic darkly humorous take on the way assessment was often conducted in the British Expeditionary Force of the Great War:



Haven’t we all been in Colonel Fitz-Shrapnel’s place? We’re fighting like hell to carry out our primary function, things are going like hell (and sometimes to hell) all around us, and out of seeming nowhere we’re politely invited (notice the word “please” at the opening of G.H.Q.’s “request” for data) to ignore the current difficulties and dangers and carry out an assessment that looks from our dugout in the front lines to be both immaterial and irrelevant.

At the risk of analyzing the comedy right out of  Captain Bairnsfather’s classic squib, let’s wonder why at the height of the bloody fall offensive G.H.Q. may want the information about the tins of raspberry jam* at this particularly inconvenient moment:

  • Could G.H.Q. be checking to make sure that the right supplies are reaching the Colonel and his unit? That sufficient resources are getting to the people who most need them?
  • Is G.H.Q. concerned that important resources are somehow being diverted from where they really need to be going to wasteful and low-priority parts of the front? Is G.H.Q. about to divert our allotment of jam to some other outfit?
  • Are the folks at G.H.Q. under pressure from the War Cabinet to justify the expense of putting lowest-bid contracts out for a variety of jams to ensure that frontline soldiers don’t have their morale undermined by monotonous rations?
  • Is someone at G.H.Q. looking to make up some impressive documentation to prove that their clerkly function is vital to the war effort and thus deserves recognition, reward, and promotion?
  • Does G.H.Q. want to reserve all the raspberry jam for its own use?
  • Is Col. Fitz-Shrapnel’s outfit getting more than their fair share of the raspberry jam?

Some—though not all—of these motivations may be useful and warranted, but from Col. Fitz-Shrapnel’s viewpoint, understandably obscured by the falling debris from his rapidly-disintegrating dugout roof, General Headquarters’ request at this dangerous and busy time is absurd, prompting  these complaints:

  • Who gives these orders, anyway?
  • Who in his outfit has seen any kind of jam except plum-and apple since the start of the bloody war?
  • Why hasn’t the Colonel been told the “why” of this particular data collection? Why the secrecy about for what the data’s being collected? Is there a raspberry-jam procurement scandal that needs to be hushed up?
  • Why is this urgent? Is the jam poisoned/? Contaminated? Are we all about to get dysentery?
  • Why hasn’t anyone up the chain of command given any reason for requiring the information, nor explained how the data might lead to better decision-making and allocation of resources that would directly benefit the Colonel’s outfit—that the Colonel’s battalion might get more raspberry jam?
  • Why has no one up the line bothered to tell the chaps in the front line how raspberry jam fits into the “big picture?”

Denied any context, Colonel Fitz-Shrapnel and his lads will just shake their heads in disbelief at the polite request— and question the motives and sanity of those at G.H.Q.; if the front line fellows survive their current situation or are given some timely support and relief, they might have time to comply with the data collection directive, but without explanations of the relevance of and the use to which the data will be put, why should they be enthusiastic about the task placed before them?

So, what’s the takeaway from Captain Bairnsfather’s minor masterpiece for those of us in the assessment trenches? Open and transparent communications about assessment tasks, communications which keep everyone informed on an equal footing, will go a long way to remove the suspicion the front line has of Headquarters’ motives and will earn G.H.Q. better and more informed cooperation from the folks at the sharp end of things. If we can openly discuss why we want the assessment information and demonstrate how its collection will be used directly to benefit, and not punish, those from whom it is collected, we might just get out of the trenches alive—and end up with more raspberry jam.

*Raspberry jam was very scarce on the Western Front in the first half of WWI.

A Long Walk in Spain: Student, Scholar, Pilgrim


By Holly Wendt

In early June, I embarked on a ten-day International Faculty Development Seminar titled “Modern Debates along an Ancient Way,” thanks to generous support from Academic Affairs. The seminar centered on the history and culture of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route that is still very much in use today. I set out on the journey as a scholar seeking material to enrich my courses and to help me develop new ones, but the Camino is accepting of diverse persons and encourages them to accept diverse roles, and so I found myself wearing multiple hats.

The Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—has many arms, many long-established routes. The focus of our pilgrimage was the Camino Frances—the French Way. From one of the traditional starting points, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees, the Camino Frances stretches more than five hundred miles across northern Spain on its way to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, a small city in Galicia. Most contemporary pilgrims, absent illness, injury, or side-treks, complete that portion of the Camino in a little more than a month, averaging around twenty-five kilometers per day.

Our route stood much abbreviated; we flew into Madrid, participated in a brief orientation there, and traversed the central portion of the Camino—from Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Burgos to León to Ponferrada to Pedrafita do Cebriero to Sarria—by bus, stopping along the way to visit important sites, museums, and churches, and to enjoy evening lectures from experts on the Camino. From Sarria, we began our walk, completing roughly seventy-one of the final one hundred kilometers on foot and entering the holy city beside many pilgrims. But the point of the Camino is not mileage. The point of the Camino is communitas: the spontaneous community created by pilgrimage, regardless of the motivations for beginning the journey.

The explanation of communitas was made most clear by our visit in León with the Association of the Friends of the Camino, an organization of volunteers who help to maintain the Camino and who serve at the public albergues that house and feed a large portion of pilgrims each year. Additionally, the Friends went much out of their way to build a sense of community with us, though we were only with them for an evening, not only sharing information, gifts, and a magnificent spirit of bonhomie, but also an impromptu tour of some of León’s medieval walls and a rooftop view of the cathedral at night. That is the Camino. At each turn, even and especially on the remote, wooded portions of the Camino, where one’s path frequently crossed with other pilgrims’ with whom the only shared language was the ubiquitous buen camino!, there was community. In that, I found myself feeling most like a student, engaging with that learning edge: not walking in silent (easy, comfortable) individual contemplation but interacting such that it was impossible to ignore the stories of fellow pilgrims, even when the story could only be told in a few gestures, an upturn or downturn of the mouth.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the inimitable Wife of Bath is among the many famed pilgrims to have traveled the Camino de Santiago, and though the text doesn’t specify whether she went overland or by sea (the traditional Camino Inglés), she visited the shrine of St. James. Fittingly, while I was on the Camino, I was able to view a reliquary of the English St. Thomas Beckett, whose Canterbury Shrine was Chaucer’s pilgrims’ destination. The reliquary was housed in Burgos Cathedral, and I was able to take a photo to bring back to my English Literature I students as clear evidence of the trade and transport of relics and the medieval popularity of pilgrims, but more importantly, I was able to speak a bit about the nature and contemporary relevance of such a journey, even if my own participation was brief.

My own participation, too, was tantalizing, and one of the frankly inevitable outcomes of the seminar is a desire to return, ideally with students in a short-term study abroad course, and encounter the act of pilgrimage again. In the meantime, my IFDS experience has manifested in a variety of scholarly and creative works, including two conference proposals and a short story. The conference proposals, in particular, consider the necessity of engagement with the world—and with the individual self in the world—and how that engagement is both necessary to creating world-ready students and to creating a campus community that can teach and support those students. All of these are things discovered along the Way.

Buen camino!


Fact Checking, Not Fear Mongering

By Sally Clark

The issue of “fact checking” exploded in the media before the first presidential debate. The two campaigns vehemently disagreed about whether the debate moderators should fact check the candidates in real time. Janet Brown, the executive director of the commission that organizes the debates, told CNN’s Reliable Sources that it is ultimately up to the “independent, smart journalists” that have been chosen to moderate to decide how to handle it. And yet, the considerable lack of responsible, timely fact checking by the media throughout this election cycle has contributed, in part, to a proliferation of untruths and ratcheted up fear mongering across the nation.

False claims and factually challenged information are not new to politics, as we well know, but we currently seem to be barreling down a misinformation superhighway on a party bus. And it is so easy for us to join the party – see something that feeds into our particular source of outrage, hastily click a share button to send the item to all like-minded “friends” without substantiating the claims, and we are right on board. Mother Jones’ recent article, “The Fear-Hate-Anger Click Machine,” calls it “the reign of the rage-share.” Unfortunately, we have all seen the polarizing impact on public discourse. Public calls for people to fact check before they share have had less than stellar results. For example, the Santa Monica Public Library encouraged people on Facebook to check snopes.com (among other sources) or ask a librarian before posting information. This generated an immediate cynical response about the unreliability of snopes.com. Ironically, the evidence provided to substantiate this statement was a satirical article claiming the CEO of Snopes had been arrested for fraud and corruption.

It is clear that we, as educators who work to facilitate information literacy, can play an essential role in turning around this growing perpetuation of false information. We have the opportunity to help our students directly apply the informational skills they build in our classrooms to the world around them. We can emphasize that finding and considering authoritative sources on all sides of the issue, recognizing authorial bias, requiring factual support and evidence, and applying all the other good tenets of critical reading and thinking, are important to becoming a global citizen. We can remind them of the responsibility that goes with sharing information – we need to be sure of accuracy and truth. In doing so, we can also check ourselves, for the immediate lure of the share button can charm us all.

In addition, our progress with inclusive excellence is reliant upon adherence to informed truth. Diversity of well-informed thought promotes healthy dialogue; fear-mongering diverts and denigrates it. The more we filter out harmful misinformation, the stronger and healthier we will be as a learning community. So, as we navigate these challenging, divisive times, our encouragement of responsible, informed sharing will serve us all well.