Teaching in the Cognitive Domain

old-chimpanzee-11298298953dvvI teach introductory biology courses. I live in the cognitive domain. Some professors may view teaching 1st and 2nd year courses as boring in their simplicity, but to me, the challenge and responsibility is exciting. I have the challenge of providing a smorgasbord of an entire scientific discipline. I must present the discipline in the most palatable way possibly while laying a foundation for future studies.It is my responsibility to entice students to learn so that they can build a strong foundation. If I screw it up, I may turn students away or worse, set them up for failure down the road. So what are some strategies for teaching in the cognitive domain?

I was reviewing my notes for a course I took on curriculum development and came across a handy table that provides strategies for teaching in the cognitive domain. This seems very fortuitous because as the semester winds down, I’m reviewing what worked and what didn’t in the past year. So as I review the table, these are some of the strategies I want to incorporate into my course revisions.

At the introductory level, ensuring pre-requisite knowledge is in place is the top priority. One suggestion is to “ask students questions about relevant concepts, facts and processes”. I have provided the students with learning activities which ask these questions, but I think what is missing is more self-evaluation both in class and outside class. High on my list of things to do is to look into Socrative for in class assessment. Outside of class, I would like to redo my instructional videos as a tutorial instead of a lecture. I could also use Moodle to provide more self-assessment opportunities.

My next priority is creating enthusiasm. In order to learn, students must want to learn. Motivation ultimately comes from the student. This idea is expressed by the proverb, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink”. Or in the case of the cognitive domain, “you can lead the student to the material, but you can’t make them think”. So very true, but what if the instructor makes thinking about the material so appealing and so much fun and so engaging, the student can’t help themselves but think? So that is my motto. I want to add some case studies to arouse the learner’s curiosity. I’m also playing with the idea of alternative assessment techniques like learning journals that the students work on throughout the semester in addition to or instead of multiple choice midterms. One idea is to have students journal about their emotions regarding course material. A second journal approach is to have students find newspaper articles related to course material.

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Cell Phones in the Classroom

cellphoneFaculty Focus published an article by Sydney Fullbright asking “Cell Phones in the Classroom: What’s your Policy?”. My initial reaction is “no”, but in reality, I found this policy difficult to enforce.

The rational for saying no was that cell phones are disruptive to learning and Sydney confirms this in her article, but what about the benefits of cell phone use?

I approve of students using the cell phone for family responsibilities, making notes and study aids, and looking up information relevant to learning. I’m also interested in using mobile technology to engage students in learning with apps like Socrative.

With both advantages and disadvantages, a simple policy on cell phone use in the classroom is not as easy as it sounds. The comments on the article are as useful as the article itself and I enjoyed reading solutions offered by other faculty. I most agree with the approach of making the policy a collaborative effort. I would present to students the advantages and disadvantages and ask them how we should enforce any policy we decide on.

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Garden of Your Mind

I loved Mr. Rogers as a kid. This remix is very inspirational! Might be a fun one to try to create a positive-learning environment.

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Can we take active learning too far?

The first post of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) new series “featuring articles by skeptical teachers exploring critical thinking in the classroom, using the investigation of the paranormal, fringe science, and pseudoscience to teach methods of science and reason” is about hoaxes in the classroom. Bob Blaskiewicz teaches writing skills by having students analyze conspiracy theories.

I’ve been teaching conspiracy theories for several years, and my final project usually has students create a new conspiracy theory that somehow draws on existing ones. By the time my students have finished the class, they have encountered a conspiracy theory, broken it down into its component parts, researched/fact-checked each element, analyzed the conspiracy, and written an argumentative paper about the rhetorical and narrative elements of the conspiracy theory that make it memorable and “culturally transmissible,” as it were. They then create their own conspiracy theory and write a paper illustrating how what they have learned in the class has influenced their own conspiracy theory.

This is an awesome example of student engagement that incorporates active learning and motivational strategies. The only thing more fun than showing an existing conspiracy theory false is to make up your own conspiracy theory.  Another instructor has used a similar approach for his history class, “Lying about the Past”.  Professor T. Mills Kelly tells his students that in the course “we’ll be focusing our attention on the lies told about what happened—lies told with the specific intention of deceiving others (most typically known as historical hoaxes).” Very similar approaches, however Blaskiewicz claims Kelly has taken the active learning too far when the class doesn’t just stop with examining hoaxes but goes on to “make up our own hoaxes and turn them loose on the Internet to see if we can fool anyone”.

Why is this going too far? Blaskiewcz explains,

We do not release our conspiracy theories onto the public because they are likely to be believed by someone. An important theme of the course is that conspiracy theories are not good things, that they are time sinks for people who would otherwise want to participate in American political life in a meaningful way, and that they perpetuate ignorance, misinformation, and hate (often targeting scapegoats). They are, to use Chip Berlet’s phrase, toxic to democracy.

Even Kelly describes this behaviour as “unthinkable”, but does it anyway. Why?  He offers these reasons,

I have two answers to this question, both of which I hope will convince you that I’m onto something. The first answer is that by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we are much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past. That alone ought to be enough of a reason to teach this course. But my second reason is that I believe that the study of history ought to be fun and that too often historians (I include myself in this category) take an overly stuffy approach to the past. Maybe it’s our conditioning in graduate school, or maybe we’re afraid that if we get too playful with our field we won’t be taken seriously as scholars. Whatever the reason, I think history has just gotten a bit too boring for its own good. This course is my attempt to lighten up a little and see where it gets us.

Blaskiewcz is not satisfied with these reasons as creating a hoax is not required to accomplish the goal of learning about hoaxes or making history fun. Furthermore, Blaskiewcz argues that purposefully misleading people violates ethical standards.

I have to agree with Blaskiewcz. This blog is all about being creative and engaging students, but we also have ethical obligations. Kelly seems to encounter these ethical violations as he writes his syllabus when he explains the backlash from the previous class, states which topics are off limits, advises students to keep course activities secret, and discusses academic honesty, however he ignores these red flags. Encouraging students to lie to people should not be encourage by professors that should know better.

What do you think? Is Kelly a history professor extraordinaire or has he crossed an ethical line?

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Success for Every Student

I stumbled across an essay entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” written by Professor X while looking for a picture of a professor for my Gravatar. The essay was published in the June, 2008 issue of the Atlantic Magazine.

The image is a good summary of the article. Students killed by pools of red ink and begging the instructor to change an “F” grade. In the background administrators gloat in this slaughter.

My experience has been similar to Professor X’s. While I wouldn’t call our college a “college of last resort”, our college has a mission to promote the success of every student and every student with a high school diploma is welcome. Similarly, these high school diplomas may be newly minted or decades old.

I love trying to convey to a class my passion for literature, or the immense satisfaction a writer can feel when he or she nails a point. When I am at my best, and the students are in an attentive mood—generally, early in the semester—the room crackles with positive energy. Even the cops-to-be feel driven to succeed in the class, to read and love the great books, to explore potent themes, to write well.

I also love those early days of the semester when “the room crackles with positive energy”.

The bursting of our collective bubble comes quickly. A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.

Ah yes, the worst part of the job is evaluation. I hate being judge and jury. I hate the realization that some students just don’t have what it takes to succeed. The question that Professor X and I then ask is “what do we do about it?”. Throughout his essay, Professor X mentions  these solutions to help the students succeed:

  • clearly stated learning objectives for each assignment
  • the use of analogy to explain the assignments
  • instruction on basic principles to bring students up to speed
  • using a textbook that breaks the assignments down into manageable steps
  • suggest the use of counseling and/or extra help to deal with deficits
  • providing feedback outside of class hours

Despite all of his efforts, students still do not succeed.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

I feel horrible for lowering the hammer. Like the image that accompanies the essay, I view the students lying in a pool of red ink, slayed by the pen.  Professor X struggles with the idea of lowering his academic standards so that students don’t get an “F”. I can relate to that struggle, but unlike Professor X, I’ve also faced pressure from administrators that depend on the financial income to keep students in the program. I stuck firm with the academic standards. I’ve always thought that if I didn’t have what it takes, I’d want to find out sooner rather than later. Some students keep trying, but I’ve also had others reexamine their goals and change paths because of their failure. I was pleased that these students found a better path that better suited their strengths.

Professor X asks whether it is morally wrong to even admit students that lack these basic skills.

We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns. Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

I’ve struggled with this dilemma too, but decided that everyone does deserve the opportunity and my job is to provide all the tools I can to make the endeavor successful. The students may fail the class, but at least they tried and within that failure may be a lesson for better opportunities.

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Critical Thinking Videos

This video is the first in a series about critical thinking. This would be an excellent resource to introduce critical thinking since the videos are short and captivating. Enjoy!

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Setting Achievable Goals with Rubrics

Rubrics are generally considered a good thing since they simplify grading for instructors and provide feedback for students. There are a lot of resources on rubrics and how to construct them. This is one example from Harvard University and this is a link to an index page for more resources on rubrics. From the index page, we can even find a rubric for rubrics!

I like rubrics as a motivational strategy since it conveys expectations. In her book “Student Engagement Techniques”, Barkley says, “Students must have confidence that, with appropriate effort, they can succeed. If there is no hope, there is no motivation” (p. 11).

This blog is a class assignment and it is graded using a rubric.  This is the expectation for the highest level of achievement for this blog:

Level ofMastery Level 4 A superior, consistent performance; beyond expectations
Blog Project60 % The Blog reflects a professional product that could be used as an educational resource. Content, links, resources and media are substantive and reflect breadth and depth. A wide range of media is evident throughout the Blog.
Organization AndLayout

35 %

Organization and layout requirements are met. The document has a professional look and feel
Writing skills5% Writing is free of grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors.


The only grade here is 10/10. Perfect. Who is perfect? But it is worse than that, because the level of mastery here says “beyond expectations”. If the expectation is perfection, how can we exceed that? Furthermore, we are only expected to spend 8 – 10 hours week working on this course, which includes other activities besides this blog. I can spend 8-10 hours on one blog post alone. How am I to achieve substantive content, links, resources and media within that time frame? For organization and layout, the document should have “a professional look and feel”. Well, thank goodness WordPress makes a professional layout easy, but I’m still not a professional writer. Besides, what does “professional” look and feel like anyway? The last criteria is that “writing is free of grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors.” Yeah, right. As if that is going to happen without a copy editor and even with a copy editor, mistakes still happen.

So if we go back to our rubric about rubrics, the blog assignment rubric gets a poor since “expresses goals that are unclear, unattainable, or unrealistic“, “offers judgments that are merely opinions“, and “describes characteristics that are not age appropriate “. So how would I fix this, if I was the instructor? The description of criteria for each part of the assignment needs to be more objectively defined. For example, how many posts should be included? What constitutes depth and breadth (for me depth would be using the higher levels of Bloom taxonomy and breadth would involve using 3 or more sources in the post)? What format should the posts be in (text, video, audio, cartoons)? How many of each? Should these formats be self-generated or just include sharing the work of others? How long should the posts be?

I think the description of perfection is useful to convey the instructor’s vision of the assignment in terms of goals but not as an evaluation category. I see value in striving for perfection and knowing what that looks like helps, but as evaluation category perfection is unattainable. There is no hope, so why even try? Indeed, I had a mini-meltdown when I read this rubric at the beginning of the course, until I told myself I didn’t need to be perfect. Level 3 is good enough.



Level 3 A solid consistent performance; demonstrated competency of knowledge and skills

60 %

The Blog demonstrates a comprehensive perspective of the topics, however, more attention to detail could have been demonstrated in regards to content, links and resources.


35 %

Organizational requirements met (i.e., thinking and content). Issues exist re structure and layout of material.
Writing skills5% Writing contains minor grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors.


The blog to me is a continuing project which helps me evolve as an instructor. The blog gives me a place to collect ideas and techniques, explore my thoughts, take risks, modify my approach and document this journey. A daily post forces me to keep thinking about my teaching and allows me to convey my dedication to my craft. The blog will never be done.

More importantly, I decided this blog is for me, not some grade. I’m also not out to seek fame. If people want to come along for the journey, they are most welcome and I appreciate all comments and shares. I find the thought of self-promotion repulsive in its arrogance. If a fellow instructor asks me a question, I will feel compelled to share what I have learned but I just don’t think that I’m all that interesting or brilliant to promote this blog without prior solicitation.

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