Author Archives: Rebecca Brent

How can I do all this new stuff and still cover my syllabus? (RB & RF)

This question is the first one we get in just about in every workshop we give. Everyone worries that active learning exercises and other learner-centered methods will take too much time, and important course material won’t be covered. It’s a completely understandable fear, but there are some techniques you can use to do all the learner-centered teaching you want without sacrificing coverage of course content, and maybe even covering more.

Reduce coverage of nice-to-know material. Write learning objectives and use them to distinguish need-to-know from nice-to-know course material. Need-to-know material directly addresses your learning objectives and may be on your assignments and tests, and nice-to-know material doesn’t and won’t be. Make sure you cover all of your need-to-know material, and put nice-to-know material in any remaining time you have.

Felder, R.M. (2014). Why are you teaching that? Chem. Engr. Education, 48(3), 131-132. 

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (Chapter 2). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reduce in-class coverage of material to be memorized. If all you want students to do with information is memorize and repeat it on exams, put it on handouts or study guides to be read outside class, and quiz the students on it in class or online.

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (p. 34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keep in-class activities short. Most activities should take between 10 seconds and three minutes. As few as two or three activities in a 50-minute class can make a huge difference in your students’ learning without seriously damaging your content coverage. If you want students to do something that will take more than three minutes, break it into chunks and process the chunks separately.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. Active learning tutorial

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (Chapter 6). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Flip some course content. Present some course content in interactive online tutorials and self-tests before class, and use the class period for active learning that builds on the online material.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2015). To flip or not to flip. Chem. Engr. Education, 49(3), 191-192

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (pp. 142-146). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Use handouts with gaps. Put your lecture notes on handouts interspersed with questions, incompletely labeled diagrams, and skipped steps in problem solutions. Have students read straightforward material themselves in class and ask questions rather than lecturing on everything. Use active learning to fill gaps.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2015). Handouts with Gaps. Chem. Engr. Education, 49(4), 239-240. 

Felder, R. M, & Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide (pp. 81-84). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Give Sketchnotes a Try! (RB)

Sketchnotes of our 1-day teaching workshop by Margot Vigeant

Rich Felder and I presented a 1-day teaching institute at the ASEE Chemical Engineering Division Summer School at North Carolina State University recently to nearly 200 new faculty. One of our longtime colleagues, Margot Vigeant from Bucknell, sat in on the workshop and prepared a set of graphic notes, or sketchnotes. As soon as we saw them, we knew we wanted to share them here, and Margot kindly agreed. As you can see, the notes don’t include everything important, but they are a visual representation of the ideas and take-away messages that most struck Margot.

It seems to me that graphic notes or sketchnotes could be a great way to identify and capture key ideas in a presentation and create something you’ll return to again and again. It could be an effective way to takes notes for students who just can’t seem to get into the dry outline format they’ve been taught.

To get ideas about how to start making graphic notes, check out How to Get Started with Sketchnotes by Elisabeth Irgens. Another free resource is Sketchnoting for Teaching and Learning! For more examples, see 10 Brilliant Examples of Sketchnotes: Notetaking for the 21st Century. Happy notetaking!!

Can I just capture my whole lecture and put it online for my students? (RB)

In a word, no! (Well, technically you can, but it’s a bad idea.) A well-established guideline related to students’ attention span says that for online lecture clips and screencasts, shorter is better and about six minutes is a good target.

Marketing gurus at Wistia Blog have analyzed 564,710 videos with more than 1.3 billion plays and have found that (as you would expect) the longer the video, the less likely people are to complete it. Very short videos of less than two minutes hold a viewer’s attention best, but videos that short are generally not that useful for covering the amount of content we want to present. You can see the data here.

Okay, I hear you say—that’s well and good for marketing. Surely, I can use longer videos than THAT when I’m teaching college students.

Well, again, let’s look at the evidence. In a 2014 study, some MIT professors studied viewer persistence data from 6.9 million video sessions in four EdX MOOC offerings (Guo, et. al, 2014). They found that video length was “by far the most significant indicator of engagement” as measured by the length of time students watched the video and whether they attempted embedded assessment questions. Median engagement time was six minutes regardless of video length, leading to the authors’ recommendation that videos should be edited into short chunks of less than six minutes in length.

So what should you do in your short videos? The MIT folks have answers for that one, too. It turns out that tutorials in which you do step-by-step problem solving (think Khan Academy) are more effective than PowerPoint slides. (Then again, what isn’t, except for showing pictures, diagrams, and charts with minimal verbiage?) Filming in a more informal setting where you can make eye contact, such as with a laptop webcam in your office, may be more effective than a fancy professional studio production. Finally, it works better to plan these videos specifically for the online format instead of just videotaping a class and hoping for natural stopping points.

The next big question, of course, is how do I get students to watch the videos and truly engage with the material? There are answers aplenty for that question, which we’ll take up in a future blog. In the meantime, whatever you do, make those online videos short!

Guo, P.J., Kim, J., & Rubin, R. (2014). How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos. Proceedings of the first ACM Conference on Learning@Scale. 

References on online and hybrid classes

  1. Boettcher, J.V., & Conrad, R.M. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, Chapter 7. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Felder, R.M., & Brent, R. (2015). To flip or not to flip. Chemical Engineering Education, 4(3), 191-192.
  4. Means, B, Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., and Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Teaching Creative Thinking: 2. Alternatives to brainstorming (RB)

When most of us think about teaching creativity, we think of brainstorming. Brainstorming is widely used in industry, but it has some limitations. Ideas may be lost because too many people are talking at once; individuals may withhold ideas out of fear of being judged; and dominant individuals may keep others with possibly better ideas from contributing.[1] An alternative to brainstorming that helps avoid these limitations is brainwriting.[2] Students are given the same type of prompt, but instead of contributing ideas orally, each person writes a list of ideas. The lists are compiled and shared with the whole group, which then brainstorms additional ideas. Check out some prompts for brainwriting activities and ideas for how to conduct them in our first blog on creative thinking skills.

Another interesting alternative to brainstorming is bisociation. This technique challenges students to use two unrelated things to stimulate new ideas. The steps in the approach are:

  1. Choose a stimulus
  2. Capture what you know about it on a whiteboard
  3. Make associations or connections

Suppose you want to get ideas for improvements to a tool (stethoscope, garlic press, etc.). You choose an unrelated stimulus (wireless speaker, ruler, etc.) and have students explore everything they know about it. Then you ask students to make connections between the original item and the new stimulus. The result is a much richer source of ideas because of the unexpected connections. Felder[3] used a variation of this technique in an undergraduate fluid dynamics course, when he asked students to brainstorm ways to measure the viscosity of a fluid and gave double credit for methods that involved the use of a hamburger.

To find out more about bisociation, take a look at a short 6-minute video by Ken Bloemer of the KEEN Engineering Unleashed program at the University of Dayton.

Give one of these ideas a try in a class you teach. You’re bound to get students thinking in new ways and having fun doing it!

[1] Heslin, P.A. (2009). Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea generation in organizations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82, 129-145.

[2] Van Gundy, A.B. (1983). Brainwriting for new product ideas: An alternative to brainstorming. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 1, 67–74.

[3] Felder, R.M. (1987). On creating creative engineers. Engineering Education, 77(4), 222–227.

Teaching Creative Thinking: 1. How can I teach my students to be creative when I’m not sure I am? (RB)

Creative thinking is a skill that faculty members are often nervous about teaching. If a suggestion is made that they incorporate instruction in it into their classes, they are likely to respond with (or at least to think) the title of this blog.

An easy way to integrate creative thinking into teaching is to include some idea generation activities in class. The most familiar activity of this type is brainstorming, in which participants come up with as many ways as they can to answer an open-ended question or solve a problem. Following are some illustrative brainstorming prompts.

List possible

  • ways to verify a [calculated value, derived formula]
  • ways that could be used to determine a physical property or variable [with no constraints, with no required instrument calibrations, as a function of one or more other variables, involving a stuffed bear]
  • uses for [any object, something that would normally go to waste]
  • ways to improve a [process or product, experiment, computer code]
  • real-world applications of a [theory, procedure, formula]
  • safety and environmental concerns in this [experiment, process, plant]
  • flaws or possible problems in a proposed [design, procedure, code, grading rubric]

Consider conducting a brainstorming activity for active learning groups in class. Tell the students to organize themselves into groups of 2–3, ask a question or pose a problem, and give the groups 2–3 minutes to come up with ideas. Then stop them and collect ideas on the board. (If you’re not sure how small groups would work in a large class, take a look at our introductory active learning tutorial at

Tips for brainstorming exercises[1]

  1. Focus on quantity. The goal of the idea-generation phase of problem solving is to generate as many ideas as possible, be they good, bad, ridiculous, or illegal. The more ideas there are, the more likely the best one is to occur.
  2. Welcome unusual ideas. A seemingly absurd idea can serve two vitally important purposes. It can move the idea generation process in a new and unexpected direction, possibly leading to good ideas that otherwise might not have come up. In addition, it can lead to laughter (approving, not mocking) and possibly serve as an incentive to come up with an even more far-fetched idea. Eventually the ideas may start flowing as fast as anyone can write them down.
  3. Build on the ideas of others. The power of brainstorming lies in the fact that hearing ideas often stimulates people to think of related but different ideas.
  4. Withhold criticism. Creative ideas flow best in a relaxed environment, and nothing kills a sense of relaxation more than trashing ideas as soon as they are raised. Once people start worrying about being criticized, the flow of ideas shuts down. If you think an idea is bad, don’t criticize it—just come up with a better one.

Answer to the blog title question. Yes, you can teach creative thinking without being creative yourself. The brainstorming activity described above provides a good illustration. You can ask students to brainstorm a list of anything, and evaluate the quantity, variety, and originality of their ideas, without having a trace of creativity. The fact is, though, that most faculty members—probably including you—are more creative than they give themselves credit for.

Additional reading on teaching creative thinking

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, pp. 222–230. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fogler, H.S., LeBlanc, S.E., & Rizzo, B. (2014). Strategies for creative problem solving (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Additional reading on active learning

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, Ch. 6. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


[1] Osborn, A.F. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (3rd ed.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.