Active learning in the graduate seminar room

This past autumn I taught my first graduate seminar in almost eight years; as a result of sabbaticals, career moves, and then my labour establishing a new undergraduate theatre studies program at Western, I had had neither the time nor the opportunity to teach graduate students (Brits: that’s postgrads to you) since summer 2009. I was excited to get back into the seminar room with smart MA and PhD candidates, but I was also a bit daunted.

I find graduate teaching a mixed blessing. On one hand: smart students, well read, self-selecting into a challenging program. We can expect them to be prepared; we can expect them to be keen; we can expect them to participate. On the other, though, there’s the whiff of imposter syndrome all around us in grad seminars: every student is eyeing every other student, wondering if they know enough, if they are smart enough. Showing off can ensue; oneupmanship happens whether students intend it to or not. Fraught dynamics emerge; and there I am, the prof who ALSO fears she doesn’t actually know enough to be teaching graduate students, caught in the middle, trying to keep the discussion on track.

(Imposter syndrome never goes away; you just learn to cope better with it. Sorry.)


With years between me and my last graduate outing, I had some questions for my peers as I prepared the syllabus: how much reading is too much? Not enough? Are we still assigning One Seminar Presentation and One Final Essay, or have assessments evolved? In general the consensus was: 100 pages per week, give or take; seminar presentations always; one or two essays as you prefer.

The goal, as ever, was to make discussions in the room rich, but prep not too onerous. Grad seminars, the logic goes, should involve the prof and the class preparing the reading, and then coming to the room with questions and ideas to propel a discussion. Profs aren’t prepping lectures (or, most aren’t), and the onus is on the group to find useful things to say about each set of readings each week.

Pure, unadulterated active learning.

Except, well… maybe not. As I planned my new course (“Performance and the Global City”; please email me if you’d like a copy of the syllabus!) I spent a lot of time thinking back to my earlier graduate seminar experiences, both as a teacher and as a student. I realized that the traditional seminar model creates some barriers to access that reveal its limits as an active learning environment.

First of all, good discussions require a fair bit of curation; it’s not enough to come to class with a handful of talking points and/or questions for the room and assume everyone will be able to jump in and dig deep, just like that. (Quiet students will always struggle with the “so, what did we think?” opener, and, no, it’s not them, it’s us.)

Second, certain voices dominate class discussions because they have been trained by existing learning protocols to do so; those voices are comfortable with minimal prompting, and they aren’t always aware of how much space they are taking up. For profs keen to get a rousing discussion going around the seminar table, those voices are a godsend; we may complain to each other in the halls or over drinks about the students who dominate our discussions, but without the keeners who can kill airtime, our under-curated discussions can stall and leave us exposed.

Finally, can I just say that the traditional graduate seminar presentation is more often than not boring as heck? Does anyone actually enjoy listening to anyone else read a paper for 20 minutes at a go? What – other than how to write a clever paper and deliver a very dull conference presentation – do we imagine we are teaching our postgrads with this kind of assessment?

OK, so I know I’m being hard on tried and true models here, and if your graduate seminars run conventionally but very well then I’m really glad, and I would not want to stop you from carrying on with them. But the more I thought about the grad seminar status quo, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it again. So I hatched a new plan.

I decided to import a bunch of flipped-classroom active learning techniques from my undergraduate classes into my new graduate seminar.

This shift manifested in two key ways. First, student presentations were styled as peer teaching presentations, not research presentations. Every student was required to teach one article over the course of the term to the rest of the class, and students were required to work in pairs for this task. Further, I explicitly asked them not to create a lecture, but instead to frame the teach with an active learning exercise.

Here’s the brief for the peer teach I included in the syllabus:


Once this term you will work in pairs to lead the class in an exploratory exercise based on one of our readings. The goal: to help you to try out different ways to connect students with challenging material. For that reason, I ask you not to prepare a lecture-style statement for this task; you should of course have thoughts about your reading you would like to draw out, but the point of this exercise is not to tell us what they are.

Here’s how the task will work:

  • By Wednesday at NOON of your week to teach, you will post to OWL a provocation (maybe a question, maybe not…) based on ONE of the readings for that week. Let Kim know in advance which reading you will focus on.
  • Your classmates will offer preliminary reflections on your provocation on OWL over the following 24 hours. You should read and note these reflections.

You will then prepare a learning exercise to help us explore your provocation.

There are lots of exercises to choose from; you might want to consult some research on “active learning” or the “flipped classroom” to help you out – the Teaching and Learning Centre at Weldon can help with this, or (of course!) you can have a chat with Kim to discuss some options. Your exercise need not be complicated, but it should be more than you simply asking everyone, “so, what did you think?”

When you come to class on Thursday, you will run your exercise, and then debrief it. Here, you can incorporate your classmates’ preliminary responses as much or as little as you feel will be productive.

You will have a total of 30 minutes for your teach. (NOTE: this is actually not a lot of time! Use it with care.)

Clear as mud? Don’t worry! Kim will model this task in our second week. If you’re still stuck, though, ask yourself this question: did a teacher ever do a really useful, cool thing in class that really stuck with you? What was that cool thing?

Second, not only did I model a variety of peer teaching exercises for the students in the second class of the term, in order to give them a concrete sense of how their own teaching sessions could work, but I continued to incorporate group-based and pairs-based learning exercises in my own teaching week to week in order to make those things normative in our seminar room.

We’d do think/pair/share work, we’d use “world cafe” or long table-style discussions, and one week we even debriefed our field trip to Detroit by creating team maps of the experience on flip chart paper, trying to draw connections between our on-the-ground experiences and the ideas conveyed by our readings about the city.

(Candid snaps of the students at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – Sebastian, Lacey, Sharon, Emily and Robyn)

The students came along, gamely, for the ride – although they were understandably hesitant at first. I made a point of leaving my office door wide open to them as they prepared for their teaches, and after each teach I’d invite the presenters to come for a debrief, where we’d talk about what went well and what didn’t, and where they could be free to ask me all kinds of questions about active learning models.

Students consistently reported to me that they enjoyed the teaching exercise, found it unusual but productive; nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were just humouring me. After all, grad seminars are supposed to be complex, serious learning environments… and we were mostly just having a good time. My imposter syndrome gurgled away in the pit of my stomach. Could they really be taking this seriously, getting as much out of it as they were getting out of the modernist theory and poetry seminar up the hall?

When my seminar evaluations landed in my email inbox last week, that gurgle erupted once more. Here was the moment of truth: What They Really Thought about our flipped seminar, all those small group discussions and messing about with coloured markers.

To my genuine surprise and utter delight, the evaluations universally praised the experience. I was astonished; students called our class a “refreshing and dynamic break” from the traditional model, a “comfortable and open learning environment” where everyone “could express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgement.” This one below is my favourite, because it tells me I achieved everything I had wanted to do, and also more than I’d hoped:

Through her use of active learning in her teaching practice, Kim fostered a deeply collaborative class environment. It was an environment where it felt safe to fail, which made it all the more generative – we were able to take risks, offer partial thoughts, and hash them out together.

I really appreciated that she encouraged using creative practices in our assignments, especially given the course material. Being able to engage in the practices that we were locating in our readings and field trips was a really valuable research method for me – that Kim gave us the latitude to work outside the boundaries of more traditional methods really enhanced my experience in this course.

Last Friday I had lunch with one of the students from the class, Emily Hoven. I told Emily about the evaluations and my surprise at their unwavering support for the flipped seminar model; I then asked her if she could talk to me a bit about what in particular she had found productive (or even not productive) about the model.

Her reply confirmed my own suspicions and chimed with the data on the evaluations.

She noted, first, that there’s a spirit of competition in graduate seminars that is not always helpful; everyone’s trying to say the next smart thing. That can make for brilliant, lively discussions, but can also make for intimidation and fear. In our class, she pointed out, we all worked together in a more equitable way; as a result, feelings of competitive angst lessened considerably.

Next, she pointed out that, as an undergraduate, she’d had a lot of experience with flipped classrooms, and thus our classroom felt both familiar and safe. Never mind that the model was unlike other grad seminars; it was like enough to active learning that many students are now experiencing at university that it provided a sense of grounding for students who might otherwise be struggling. She noted that likely this was not true for all the students in the class, but my guess is it’s also more true for many than we might think. As active learning becomes more common at the undergraduate level, we should consider its value as continuity at the graduate level, especially for Master’s students who are undergoing a sea change in their learning experiences and expectations as they enter grad school for the first time.

Finally, Emily’s comments, along with those on the evaluations, reminded me of what I found to be the most positive peer-teach outcome of all: it required everyone to renegotiate the vocal dynamic in our seminar space. Remember above, when I noted that certain voices tend to dominate seminars because they’ve been trained to do so by extant pedagogical models? In our classroom, new models driven by different learning dynamics meant quieter voices were invited actively into the learning space; shifting the room’s architecture (figuratively, but frequently literally, too, as we moved furniture to facilitate different kinds of group work) changed the default “permissions” of our seminar space, to productive effect.

In one of my favourite peer teaches of the term, this shift became glowingly evident as the most vocal person in the room and one of the quietest worked together; the former student actively placed herself in the peer teach’s supporting role in order to make space for her peer to take centre stage.

It was remarkable evidence of the power of genuine “active learning” in the graduate classroom to help everyone feel a little less like an imposter, and a little more like an empowered knowledge-maker.

Feeling grateful,


On flipping the theatre studies classroom… back again (part 1)


A few weeks back I was in Calgary for the annual conference of my professional association, CATR (the Canadian Association for Theatre Research). I was one of the organisers, so sadly missed a good deal of the stimulating research presentations on offer across our four days together. I did, however, manage to make time to support my colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Jenn Stephenson in a workshop we put together on “flipped classroom” practice for theatre history teachers.

We had a terrific crop of graduate instructors, early, mid-career, and senior teachers in the large and diverse cohort of participants, and initially I imagined I’d do a blog post reporting our findings; what happened during the session, though, really got me thinking about the ways in which “flipped classroom” practice has been sold to instructors across disciplines in North America, and how our particular labour as humanities teachers – and specifically theatre and performance teachers – has been co-opted (and even elided) in that process. So, today’s post will include reportage from the workshop and some of the discoveries we made as we talked; then, tomorrow, I’ll paint the second half of the picture, which will include some provocations for those who curate our campus centres for teaching and learning. (Listen up, gang!)


Our workshop began with a brief discussion about the perceived neutrality of the classroom lecture model (the workshop was originally prompted by Natalie’s reading of this New York Times article on that very issue). According to information included in the NYT piece, normative in-class content delivery models (i.e., come to the lecture, take notes, revise before the essay or exam) tend to privilege expert learners – those who’ve gone to “good” schools, had “good” teachers, and enjoyed plenty of support from parents and siblings at home as they figure out how to take in and process lecture material efficiently. In short: this claim argues that lecturing can often been heavily classed and culturally biased, especially against some new immigrants and the children of the working poor.

Natalie asked us if we bought this argument: is lecturing indeed a privileged form of learning? When, and for whom? This question hovered over the entire workshop, and in our second half it became a spur for vigorous discussion about how the “flipped classroom” model is also not value-neutral. Certainly, the current critical mass of literature indicates that flipped classrooms get better results for more students than lecturing tends to do, but what about its impact on instructors? Who is being encouraged to “flip”, and who is posing as the flipping expert? What resources are being offered (or not!) to those from whom flipping is expected, and what kinds of academic practices are being exploited, or indeed undervalued, along the way? (More on this tomorrow!)

After Natalie’s introduction, individual participants reported on a wide range of flipped-classroom resources that we (actually, Jenn and Nat) had curated in advance. (You can see the list of readings, complete with links, on our workshop blog here.) Quickly it became apparent that a lot of this stuff says a lot of the same things:

  • flipping involves getting students to watch online materials in advance, do some advance reading (often also online), possibly complete some exercises or do some writing in relation to the viewing/reading, and then come to class prepared for a series of exploratory and problem-solving exercises based on that work. (This is often described as “pre-class”, “in-class”, and “post-class” labour);
  • flipping is broadly beneficial for most students and data suggests that grades improve overall under flipped models;
  • there are, within the pre-, in-, and post-class rubric, about a million ways actually to “flip” your classroom. (Indeed, you may already have flipped, and just don’t know it.)

Three compelling lines of inquiry emerged from our summaries:

  1. it was rapidly obvious to the majority of us that “flipping” the classroom is really just a particularly rigorous, thoroughly integrated version of old-fashioned active learning. The shiny new label makes this practice seem super innovative, of course – a bandwagon needing jumping-onto by all and sundry, rather than simply sound classroom practice – and encourages, for better but also for worse, senior university administrators to get very excited (and demanding).
  2. we talked about how heavily weighted toward the maths and sciences the literature on flipping tends to be. It’s often written by science-oriented teaching and learning scholars for (apparently often reluctant) maths and science teachers who (it is assumed) need schooling in the benefits of active learning. Everyone nodded at this trend: it’s one many of us have long perceived in our centres of teaching and learning on our various campuses. When was the last time you attended a teaching and learning event, one NOT organised by your faculty, that was delivered by an Arts instructor?
  3. we talked about student perceptions of the flipped classroom. Some of us reported a predictable, neoliberal response: “why should I pay the university so I can teach myself?” Many others, however, reported both improved student outcomes and genuine student enthusiasm for what we might call thoroughgoing flipping: active learning labour curated carefully across an entire term, with clear links to work backwards and forwards in the semester, clear goals and outcomes, and very clear assignment rubrics.

The take-away from this last point was, for me, a truly useful one: many of us already teach using active learning models (small group discussions, in-class debates, video assignments, etc), but there’s a step beyond that worth taking: linking active learning tasks week-to-week, and developing a series of activity models that can become predictable for students, even as they are varied and fun. Participant and Queen’s University instructor Grahame Renyk talked about the challenges for both students and teachers of increased “cognitive load”: flipped learning is based on smaller, more numerous tasks for students rather than the “one big essay at term’s end”; that can often mean lowering the stakes for students assignment-to-assignment, which is a great thing, but it also risks overwhelming students as they find themselves unable to time-manage many smaller tasks. (And, of course, those can be more onerous to mark as well.) Predictability in this case is really important for students, as it crystal clarity on the course outline about what students should expect from class time; for teachers, consistency across the term’s labour can make prep and marking more streamline-able as well.

In other words: “flipping” your classroom, vs engaging in what we might call normative active learning, is mostly about effective pre-planning for both you and your students, alongside managing student expectations of how active learning works and what they can get from it. That means it’s also dependent on a few other, entirely practical things that teachers need to be thinking about, and that universities need to provide proper support for. 

For example:

SPACE MATTERS. Grahame and Jenn (who are colleagues and often team-teach at Queen’s) shared information about how classroom spaces impact their flipped-classroom work. Grahame has moved all uni-directional content delivery online in order to free up in-class space for other work, but still struggles with the proscenium arch-style classroom he is given for his large course (and which is not conducive to group work, to say the least). Jenn, meanwhile, has benefited from a pod-based classroom that is ideal for group work, but that doesn’t facilitate lecturing as there is no “front” (and thus some students need to strain physically to see her when she speaks to the whole class).

All of us had similar space stories to share. Increasingly universities are doing a better job of planning active learning classroom spaces as new buildings are built and others renovated, but what’s often lost in this process is the recognition that flipped classroom-style active learning embeds numerous teaching practices within a single course, and each of those practices will have different physical needs. For such teaching to work well, classroom spaces need to be flexible above all.

COMMUNITY MATTERS. Flipping the theatre studies classroom has long been, for me, about carefully curating student groups and giving students the opportunity to stay with the same peer group all year. Several of our participants reported using the same strategy. Students sometimes complain about this (BORING!!), but consistent groups not only help with cognitive load; they also mean students get to know one another as a team, learn about one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and form community bonds as they strategize around problems that emerge from clashing work styles. Lots of flipped classroom work happens in teams; getting the team right, and then letting its ethos evolve longer-term, is key.

ONLINE: ESSENTIAL OR NOT? In the second half of our discussion we talked a lot about the growing expectation that the flipped classroom also be “blended”: delivered at least in part online. We developed a healthy skepticism by workshop’s end about the perceived requirement for online components. Lots of students work from mobile; are our university’s virtual learning environments mobile-friendly (if they are even any good to start!)? The consensus in our room: rarely. Lots of students are similarly not that media-savvy; the digital-native generation knows how to check Instagram and torrent TV shows, but not necessarily how to post to a course blog without making all kinds of time-consuming errors that instructors or TAs must then tidy up. And then there’s the biggest question of them all: is more online labour really more efficient and effective, or is it just another make-work component of neoliberal university labour, in which administration is downloaded onto both instructors and students even as the university’s admin cohort bloats with overpaid VPs and deputy Provosts?

More on that, and much more on the politics of flipping the classroom, tomorrow.


On “Minding American Education”, by Martin Bickman*

*An Activist Classroom book review.

I have a big stack of books next to my bed – like most bookworm types, I’d wager. It never grows smaller; in fact, I think it’s inhabited by book-replicating trolls. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m slow to move through each title, falling asleep as I read most nights.


(This image comes from

For the past few months, one of the titles on top of the pile has been Martin Bickman‘s 2003 volume, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (New York: Teacher’s College Press). I finished reading it, at last, on the night before our first day back to class last week, and I’m eager to share my delight in it.


Minding American Education is a rich tapestry, though it’s woven from two quite different strands of thread. I’m tempted, even, to say that there are two different books here, addressed to two different kinds of audiences: scholars of American literature on one hand, and teachers of elementary, middle, and high school students on the other. Nevertheless, the two strands of Bickman’s discussion move together like warp and weft, producing a broad-ranging discussion of the longstanding, powerful, and imaginative tradition of active learning in American pedagogical theory and practice.


Bickman is a literary scholar as well as a teacher of teachers, and through the chunky middle of Minding American Education he is concerned primarily with American transcendentalism (the works of Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, the Thoreaus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example) and especially with the ways in which the transcendentalists reimagined education as an enterprise in knowledge-creation rather than rote learning or linear dissemination. Bickman notes carefully the rarity of this kind of reading of the transcendentalists: while we appreciate, as a rule, the literary and philosophical merits of these authors’ works, much less common is our appreciation for how these pioneering American thinkers were rebelling against ways of teaching and raising children that encouraged teachers to replicate themselves in their students, and through that process to replicate dominant culture tropes and ideologies.

220px-Henry_David_Thoreau_2 220px-Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857 Sarah_Margaret_Fuller_engraving-2

(A trio of transcendentalists: H.D. Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller)

As Bickman moves, in the latter half of the book, into the modern period and eventually into his own, contemporary experiences teaching literature at the University of Colorado, the writing becomes less philosophically dense and gains what for many teachers may be more familiar ground. Nevertheless, I want to recommend not skipping the early chapters that bring transcendental theory into collision with education praxis; as a scholar with absolutely no knowledge of the transcendentalist tradition, I was both fascinated and moved by Bickman’s account – not least because it offers a very different picture (active; activist; exploratory; non-hegemonic) of American education history than most non-Americans are likely to expect.

Bickman makes a strong and – today more than ever, as Donald Trump lumbers toward the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – valuable case for why and how exploratory learning enables the development of creative and nuanced minds, and along the way he rescues a number of now-outré education scholars (John Dewey!) from the dustbin, mining their writing and their practice for important tools and insights. This is my favourite thing about Minding American Education, in fact: it has no time for educational faddism. Although it is committed to a practice of active learning, to tracing the history of that practice in American thought and to advocating for its futurity at the heart of a robust American democracy, it does not regard active learning as a fad, and it does not treat student-centred learning as anything but a methodology with a long, rich lineage. At bottom, it is 165 pages of evidence that active learning is not a fad – it is an ethics, it is education for democracy, and it has been around for a very, very long time.

For all this historical insight, however, my favourite chapter in Minding American Education, and the one I recommend EVERYONE read, is the last one: “Enacting the Active Mind: Teaching English, Teaching Teaching.” Here, Bickman relates his experience teaching two particular courses at the University of Colorado, one of which was actually two courses in one: a graduate class on the theory and practice of teaching literature, organised around the team-teaching of an undergraduate class in which the graduate students acted as teaching assistants, active teaching participants, laboratory experimenters, and careful observers. (I first learned about Bickman’s work from my lodger, who himself took this course as a graduate student and raved to me about the experience.) Bickman’s discussion of this course is profound for its honesty: he explains the many stumbles he and his TA teams experienced along the way, and he explores carefully the ways they arrived at fixes, some of which worked better than others. This chunk of the chapter is a window on an exceptional, committed, activist teacher discovering new insights into his own teaching practice on one hand, and into the ways in which undergraduates learn, engage with, and inhabit literary texts on the other. It is both riveting and humbling to read.

In this final chapter Bickman is frank about the limited power of lecturing (“I blush to say it, but I was never tired or bored by my own lectures. And yet I know I cannot keep my mind from wandering after about a half hour of someone else’s lecture, no matter how good it is” [154]); about the value of reader response theory as a tool for empowering students (although, as he notes, that theory is often let down by its abstractions, imagining “the ideal reader” rather than trying to encounter real ones [153]); and about the value of writing before and during class time as key to students’ learning processes (“As we push our vague, fuzzy thoughts to precision, we find the very act of writing makes us articulate things we didn’t know we knew” [155]). In effect, he ends the book by mobilising his earlier, transcendental history, whose purpose now comes fully into view: what the transcendentalists have given him, and might by his example give us, is a firm sense of how to enact theory, test and experiment, learn and change as our students do, knowing that it is not our job to impose theory on them, but rather to build it with them.

This afternoon I had a snowy walk with a good friend who is teaching a contemporary critical theory course (a staple of all English Literature programs in North America) for the first time this year. He lamented that he’s found few resources online to help him troubleshoot common problems with teaching high theory to inexperienced undergraduates, and he concluded that it seems the scholars most likely to teach theory are those who tend to be least interested in pedagogy. While I’ve no doubt this is true often enough, Minding American Education suggests that it need not be – that in fact good theory and good teaching make exceptional fellow-travelers.


Check out a preview of the book here.