Adaptive teaching: Creating a Meaningful Learning Experience in the Classroom

Last month I had the opportunity to present at the First-Year Experience- Students in Transition conference in New Orleans. The conference serves as a platform for higher-ed leaders and administrators from around the U.S. to share and discuss the latest research in teaching, programs, advisement, and assessments. Topics center around student engagement, retention, persistence, and graduation. In particular, first generation, non-traditional, and first-year students who often find the transition into college difficult during the first two semesters. It never fails that eventually someone raises the concern that today’s students seem lazy, require a great deal of hand-holding (coddling), possess a short attention-span, and look to be entertained in the classroom. I often wonder do we really understand the term student engagement? Also, who doesn’t like to be entertained while learning. We must get beyond the mindset that learning should be a laborious effort that must be endured as a rite of passage.

As kids we were taught that learning could be fun, engaging, and connect to our reality. I know we all can remember Sesame Street, School House Rocks, Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, and Electric Company. Okay, maybe I’m dating myself but the educational TV shows of the 70s made learning fun. Music, dance, acting, puppetry, and theatrics were used to educate children. I guarantee most Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers can remember at least one lesson or song from the shows.  Many post secondary schools go to great lengths to employ the latest teaching, learning technology, and strategies to create a meaningful and adaptive (individualized) learning experience for kids. These new approaches are based on past models just with the added flare of technology. Why would we expect anything less as young or older adults entering higher education? In fact, the wish is that the college experience is building on or acting as an extension of the robust learning that is hopefully happening at the K-12 level.

Students enter the classroom with different learning styles, behaviors, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. Too often the words “teaching and learning are used as if the two are synonymous to each other. The concepts of teaching and learning should be considered independent yet interdependent actions that require separate attention. The assumption is that one equals the other which is not always the case. If we cover everything on our list (e.g., lecture, assign readings, administer a test, grade quizzes, and answer questions) then the lesson has been taught and students are learning. That is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact it becomes painfully obvious when you suddenly notice the blank stares from your students or the deafening silence that fills the room. Either the lecture was so great that all questions were answered or your students have zoned out. I suspect it’s the latter. There existing many learning theories that explain how people take in, process, perceive, and interact with information. Two of which are Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligence Theory” and Jerome Bruner’s “Constructivist Theory.”

Multiple Intelligence Theory suggests that each person possesses some distinct form(s) of intelligence that may vary in degrees. This intelligence requires information to be delivered through different methods and strategies to accommodate the learner. Eight types of intelligence are identified that can be used to guide how instruction can be designed and delivered to create a meaningful learning experience:

  • Verbal-linguistics
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Visual-spatial
  • Body- kinesthetic
  • Musical-rhythmic
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist

Constructivism Theory suggests that each person constructs new meaning of concepts and ideas by relating experiences to current and past knowledge. The premise or bottom-line is that learning is more meaningful when students can connect that information to their current knowledge and past experiences. It’s as an active learning process where students interact, transform, construct hypotheses and make decisions based on their present understanding. The information is delivered in a context that students are willing and able to learn. It emphasizes hands-on problem solving and critical thinking.

Learning can and should be engaging for both kids and adults. Creativity and learning can live in the same space. If students are able to relate to the material, connect that information to their own experiences, and apply the new knowledge to real-world situations then meaningful learning has occurred. Instructors who have never explored or considered alternative methods of teaching are not only doing a disservice to their students but also the institution and themselves. We must find better ways to meet our students where they are instead of taking the sink or swim approach. Our delivery of services, curriculum, teaching, and instruction must be flexible or at least adaptive to the rich background and multiple experiences that students bring to the conversation and classroom. Teaching should be student-centered to ensure that learning is engaging.

High Impact Learning: A deeper way of thinking


There exist hundreds of pedagogical practices whose aim is to improve student development, teaching effectiveness, assurance of learning, and learning outcomes. One that has been around for years but only recently gained momentum is the concept of “high impact pedagogy” practices.  Students actively engage in the analysis and development of solutions to real-world problems. The purpose is to deepen the learning (high impact learning) experience and to increase social and self-awareness. Students collaborate with peers, faculty, community members, and other stakeholders to explore the issues. Examples would be internships, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research opportunities, and service/community-based learning projects.

One reason high-impact pedagogical practices have become so popular is due to the demand for more accountability from educational institutions. Proof that secondary and post-secondary institutions are providing students with the knowledge, skills, and real-world experience needed to compete in a global economy and marketplace.  Gone are the days when federal and state government blindly allocated funds to educational institutions without proof of measurable and tangible learning outcomes. As college tuition continues to steadily  rise and students are saddled with mounting loan debt, many question if a college degree is really worth the expense.

High impact pedagogical practices go beyond in-class lectures, rote Traininglearning and tests taking. These methods challenge students to dissect issues, analyze components, construct solutions, and reflect on outcomes. In addition to providing a rigorous, and robust learning experience.  The benefits of high-impact learning are: students gain hands-on experience and develop job-related skills such as critical-thinking, teamwork, flexibility, adaptability, and problem-solving.  Additionally, research has shown that high-impact learning experiences promote student engagement and academic persistence.

So, in my opinion, there are four key elements to creating a high-impact learning experience:

  1. Problem: The project or activity should be a real-life problem with real consequences and outcomes. It should require students to commit substantive time and effort to explore, dissect, analyze and synthesize information to deepen the learning experience. Regular, purposeful tasks are assigned, and project updates are required to ensure students are making daily decisions that influence the overall outcome. This creates a vested interest and commitment to the project.
  2. Collaboration:  That act of working with a group, peer or instructor allows students to foster relationships and interact with colleagues on a professional and substantive issue. Collaboration helps generate ideas,  question notions, and challenge students to think outside the box. In doing so, learning opportunities are created, and intellectual tools developed.
  3. Real-time feedback: Peers, instructor, and group provide frequent and real-time feedback which is critical to success. Issues, questions, and challenges are addressed sooner rather than later so corrective action can be taken.
  4. Critical Reflection: People often confuse reflection with remembering. The process of reflection requires students to take an account of the events, analyze actions taken, and finally, draw meaning from the experience. Reflective action enables them to challenge personal values, beliefs, and critique presuppositions.

By incorporating high-impact pedagogical practices into the classroom, instructors can create an engaging hands-on learning environment that promotes critical-thinking and problem-solving. These practices promote a win-win situation not only for the students and institution but also the workplace.


Re-thinking Education and Technology


Categorized as one of the greatest influences of today’s society, technology touches every aspect of our lives. The way we eat, sleep, drive, exercise, cook, read, socialize, communicate, teach, and learn have been transformed by a form of technological innovation. One only has to look as far as the hand (i.e., cell phone, IPad, MP3, GPS, e-books) to realize that everyday activities involve some form of electronic device. No industry has been able to avoid its reaches, not without unfavorable consequences. These technical means have not only sparked innovation and creation but also speed and accessibility. Making it possible to reach a broader audience while placing the world at their fingertips.

The field of education has been one of those industries disrupted by technological innovation. Though sometimes reluctant or slow to embrace change, higher education or post-secondary institutions have quickly had to adapt to a constantly changing learning environment; adopting new teaching and learning practices. First it was to address the learning behaviors of the millennials generation, those considered digital natives, now Generation Z (Gen-Z). Gen-Z will expect the same level of technological innovation centered on social media which will be critical to their social and academic educational experience.

Educational and Learning Technology are not new terms in higher education. It is only now that these fields are making their way to the forefront of discussions surrounding curriculum development, teaching, and learning. Ironically, secondary education has embraced technological innovation for years, but post-secondary institutions still struggle to effectively integrate its use into classroom teaching and learning practices.

This past semester Dr. Richard Halverson, a professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis in the UW-Madison, facilitated a discussion on rethinking education in an age of technology. Richard explained how technologies such as (MOOCs), gamification, fantasy sports, social media, mobile devices and Kahn Academy had drastically changed the way institutions teach and delivery instruction. The landscape of learning is now tech2becoming a more social and interactive experience instead of a series of isolated and disconnected activities.

Dr. Halverson cautions not to select technology solely based on its newness or popularity but on teaching and learning objectives. Culture should determine technology use. Decide what type of learning environment you want to create and the learning management system (LMS) to best accomplish this goal. That means understanding the difference between technologies that are content-centered vs. technologies that are learner-centered.

Technology for Content

  • Focus is on content mastery
  • Regulated by standards (i.e., district, local, state, federal)
  • Emphasis is on accountability for meeting standards
  • Democratic; basis progress on learning for all
  • Schools create and manage learning environment

Technology for Learners

  • Emphasis is on means to the user’s end
  • Learning is random not organized
  • Several learning opportunities (intentional and unintentional)
  • Meritocratic; basis progress on individual ability and talent
  • Learners create and manage learning environment

In the past, educational institutions have practiced a single model for the delivering of instruction. The teaching of a particular discipline or subject took place in a school (brick and mortar), and transmission of that knowledge was from the teacher to the student. Course content guided lesson delivery while the student assumed a passive role in the learning process.

Technological innovation has made it possible for knowledge to be fluid, flowing back and forth between teacher-student and peer-peer. Instruction can be student and learning centered while also creating a social learning space. Establishing virtual affinity spaces can encourage students to share ideas, ask questions, mentor, collaborate on projects and join groups of interest. This “participatory culture” allows students to form relationships and build networks. Instead of assuming a passive role students are active participants in their learning. The instructor becomes a facilitator of learning.

Students enter the learning environment varying in learning styles and learning behavior. What works for one student many not necessarily meet the needs of another. To capitalize on learning opportunities and academic outcomes instructors need to incorporate a variety of teaching tools and resources to engage students. That includes using a combination of traditional teaching methods as well as technologically based formats. No longer is the one size fit all approach acceptable.

Don’t teach the way you know, teach the way they learn!!!!


Rules of engagement: Helping students develop skills of professionalism and respect

Breakfast Club 1985

Over the last few years, an increasing amount of my time has been spent discussing with students what is considered common courtesy or respectful behavior. Topics range from proper email correspondence to instructors, professional greetings, conflict, and bullying. Two majors issues have been learning how to disagree without being disagreeable and properly handling disappointment. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entailed Wanted: High-Character Student which argued that the “selfie generation isn’t so selfless, valuing achievement and happiness over caring for others.” There is a tendency to be self-focused with a blatant disregard for others and often guidelines.

For example, a student stormed in my office demanding that additional evening courses be scheduled to accommodate the working adult. The young woman pointed out that the university is a company and therefore has the responsibility to meet the needs of its customers. Of course, I made every attempt to explain the complexities of adding a course, especially since the semester began in a week. Unfortunately, the chance of adding a course was slim but not impossible. I further explained that the head of the department was ultimately the decision-maker, and I had no control over the matter. After several minutes of debating (not pleading) her case the student reluctantly left my office but yelled, “Thanks for nothing” as she stormed down the hallway.


Ordinarily an encounter such as this would not bother me because sadly, irate students who either do not respect or care about boundaries have become commonplace. Today’s students view themselves as “customers” and as such feels that the client is always right. I do understand the challenges current students face trying to find a work-school-life balance. Factor in mounting student debt, a steady rise in tuition and a less than ideal class schedule can lead to a mental breakdown. Personally, I worked a full and part-time job while earning a masters and doctorate, so I understand the frustration and pressure.

What was most concerning was the sense of entitlement. The student felt comfortable barging in my office, arguing, and hurling insults in an attempt to get her point across. At that moment, I am sure I was viewed as the enemy or the person blocking progress but in any case, there is a level of professionalism and respect that must be practiced. I am reminded of a line from the 2004 movie Troy. King Priam said to Achilles, the man who murdered his son, “You are my enemy tonight, but even enemies can show respect.”


I wondered if colleges and universities had placed so much emphasis on student academic success that the importance of “respect and professionalism” had been neglected. The current generation, Millennials ( individuals born between the years 1982) have been criticized for being self-centered, too dependent, lacking skills of conflict resolution, unable to communicate face-to-face effectively, failing to adhere to personal boundaries and not working well under stress.

Of course, we can easily say the cause is an over-exposure to technology or overly protective guardians, referred to as helicopter or black-hawk parents. I think the issue is broader and more complex. The discourse can also be the result of generational differences. Currently, four generations, Silent Generation, Baby-Boomers, Gen X and Millennials occupy college campuses and the workplace. Each generation possess very different traits and characteristics which can cause friction if not properly managed. Differences are seen in social interaction, work ethics, style of communication, use of technology, problem-solving and self-perception.


Is it not one of the responsibilities of post-secondary institutions to help students development professional and social skills that will make them not only good workers but good citizens as well. The burden of higher education is not solely to ensure that students develop the skill-set needed for the workplace but also the verbal and nonverbal skills of social interaction and communication. Simply put, how to be professional and show respect. I created a list that my first-year freshman students discuss on the first day of class.

Rules of Professional Engagement:

1.When communicating with professionals, i.e., faculty, administrators,etc., whether face-to-face, telephone, email, etc., be precise and concise in your statements. Provide specific details, complete thoughts, and any other vital information.

2. Always use titles (Mr. Mrs, Miss, Dr. Professor, etc.) unless otherwise granted permission not to do so. It is a sign of respect and courtesy.

3.Temper tantrums are expected from children (adolescents), not college students. You can scream, yell, cry, make demands, and hurl threats. I will not be bullied. In most cases this type of behavior hinders process, makes a bad impression of you and is counter-productive.

4.Instructors are not your Facebook friends, buddies, or colleagues so don’t get too familiar with them. They are friendly but not your friends. Their role is to serve as a support system and a resource.

5.Your words should be your bond. If you do not value them, WHY SHOULD I.

6. Always start off a mistake with a “sincere apology” instead of an excuse. Starting off with an excuse worsens the situation.

7. Be prepared to face the consequence of your actions or choices, whether positive or negative. You can control your actions but not the consequences.

8. Everyone will not get an “A” for effort. Sometimes you get what you deserve (whatever that may be).

8. A “hello” and “thank you” goes a long way when conducting business. Be gracious even at times when you are not.

9. Speak slowly and express clear thoughts. Most of us did not major in speed reading or listening.

10. You are your “brand.” How you act, dress, speak, and conduct business speak volumes about your character. Every interaction leaves an impression and footprint of you.

11. Learn how to “respond” instead of “react.”

12. Become a good “active listener.” It’s not always about what you say but how well you listen; whether you agree or disagree.

13. It will not always be about you!! As much as you think that the world revolves around your issues, it does not and will not.

14. Your life is not over because you did not get the praise you expected!!!! Suck it up, move on, and work harder.

15. Dress like you came to an institution of higher learning, not the dance club!!! Yes, you are being judged by the way you dress.

16. If your instructor is in conversation with someone else, please be patient, don’t interrupt or hover around. It is rude, inappropriate, and disrespectful to the instructor and their guest.

Teaching and engaging a new generation of learners


Over the last 15 years many colleges and universities have and continue to struggle with academically engaging students from the time they arrive on campus until the moment they graduate. The concerns surrounding student retention and graduation have become so critical that in 2009 President Obama created a 2020 College Completion Goal  plan  to increase American’s graduation rate. As a result, colleges and universities both two-year and four-year institutions have focused their attention, efforts, and resources on increasing the rate of student retention, persistence, and graduation. Of course 0ne of those focal points has  been on creating ways to better engage students in the classroom, especially through the use of innovative teaching and learning practices.

The concept of teaching and learning in school never changes. Whether we are discussing secondary or post-secondary education, knowledge is ultimately transferred from the instructor (subject matter expert) to the student (learner).  This is how education or schooling has been practiced for centuries and undoubtedly will not change anytime in the near future. However, those teaching methods and tools used to transmit that knowledge should adapt to a changing population of learners. As time ushers in a new generation of students characterized as being technologically savvy, confident, innovative and social in nature the classroom environment should be reflective of these traits.

In 2001 a new generation of students arrived on college campuses all over the U.S forever changing the manner in which higher education provides services, engage students, and develop classroom instruction. Millennials, those individuals born between 1982-2002, are the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. They are considered special, sheltered, confident, achievers, team oriented, pressured and conventional. One of the greatest influences of this generation has been technology. Millennials are the only generation that has never lived without some type of technological gadget in their hands. These gadgets not only  include the latest computers but also BlackBerrys, iPhones, IPads, PDAs, Xbox, Hover Boards, Play Station, etc. On a daily basis, at least 6.5 hours a day, Millennials are engaged in some type of technological activity whether it’s surfing the internet, listening to music using a cellphones or communicating with friends via Tweeter, Facebook, instant messenger, Skype, Snap Chat, FaceTime or WhatsApp. Yesterday, while eating at a restaurant, I observed a young couple dining out. What struck me as being odd was that for 5 minutes both of their heads were buried in their cell phones, texting while not speaking a word to each other.  At the same time, a young woman, sitting next to me at the bar, was having a virtual FaceTime conversation with a friend on her phone. For Millennials technology is not considered an accessory to life but is viewed as way of life. Its as necessary to them as air, food, and water.

Unfortunately, if you visit most colleges and universities in the U.S their instructional methods and practices resemble that of a classroom from 100 years ago.  Many instructors still cling to the “lecture” style of instruction maybe accompanied by the occasional PowerPoint Presentation. Often they are rely on the same teaching methods that were used during their schooling. This is particular true for instructors from the  Silent Generation or Baby Boomers who can be a little apprehensive, resistant, and sometimes fearful of embracing new teaching and learning technology. Are instructors  using outdated teaching and learning methods to address a new population of students or using old solutions to address new challenges? Some consider the act of tailoring classroom instruction to students as a form of hand-holding or coddling which is thought to send the wrong message. They take the “it worked for me” approach which can be problematic when looking at how drastically different Millennials are from past generations. Additional a new generation of learners, Generation Z, is entering college possessing some of the same characteristics  of their predecessors. With the current state of the U.S. educational system, its not a matter of if but when instructional strategies will adapt to a new generation of learners.

10 key things to consider when developing teaching and learning for Millennials:

  • Provide ongoing and frequent feedback on performance
  • Create a collaborative learning environment
  • Incorporate experiential and real-life learning opportunities
  • Becoming a facilitator of learning; Instead of acting as a sage on the stage, practice being a guide on the side
  • Include modern media in the classroom and work assignments
  • Include a use of modern technology to increase learning
  • Course guidelines and expectations must be stated early and enforced
  • Create a learning environment that promotes an open exchange of ideas
  • Create a social atmosphere through the use of peer to peer, team, and group assignments
  • Instruction must be student-centered instead of content-centered