7th Annual Mini-Conference on Teaching

Teaching the Difficult: Challenging Topics and Troubling Student Responses

The 7th Annual Academy of Teaching Mini-Conference on Excellence in Teaching

Monday, April 1 from 9:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
150 Younkin Success Center

The Academy of Teaching invites you to attend our annual free mini-conference on excellence in teaching. Come together with teachers from across the campus community as we focus this year’s discussions on teaching difficult or controversial material to students and managing their reactions. Joan Middendorf, Lead Instructional Consultant at Indiana University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning and Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership, will lead discussions that walk you through her Decoding the Disciplines method. We will also hear remarks from Ohio State’s own Susan Fisher, Faculty Emeritus in Entomology, who has spent years teaching her students the difficult topic of evolution. Plan to leave with practical ideas and techniques for addressing the difficult topics, “bottlenecks,” and troubling student responses in your specific discipline or course.


8:30–9:00 a.m. Registration and coffee
9:00–9:30 a.m. Remarks from Dean Joseph Steinmetz
9:30–10:15 a.m. Decoding the Disciplines, Pt. 1: Overview & Bottlenecks
Joan Middendorf
10:30–11:15 a.m. Strategies for Increasing Understanding and Acceptance of Evolution in a Large Nonmajors Biology Class
Susan Fisher
11:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Decoding the Disciplines, Pt. 2: Decoding Tacit Knowledge Interviews
Joan Middendorf
12:15–1:15 p.m. Lunch
1:15–3:00 p.m. Decoding the Disciplines, Pt. 3: Interviews (cont’d) and Development of Metaphors
Joan Middendorf


Session Descriptions

Decoding the Disciplines

Thirty years of the scholarship of teaching and learning have resulted in two juxtaposed problems: Many students struggle to learn at the university level, while ever more techniques are being developed to help students learn and to measure their success.

Since the 1990s Decoding the Disciplines has helped instructors define and overcome specific bottlenecks. Besides providing a framework for analyzing the reasons for students “stuckness”, the model employs a systematic scaffolding to lead students through the bottleneck.

Decoding the Disciplines (Pace & Middendorf, 2004) arose from the realization that there is a “disciplinary unconscious,” automatic moves learned tacitly by experts. Teachers expect, however, that students will be able to make these moves equally automatically, without being told to do so, much less how or why they should (Perkins, 2008). As a pedagogical theory, Decoding the Disciplines provides a strategy to isolate the key thinking skills required in a discipline and identify the teaching techniques that will enable students to negotiate them.

The identification of bottlenecks to learning is the first step that leads directly to specific classroom interventions. The latter steps of Decoding provide a clear model for instructors to devise concrete strategies to help students overcome bottlenecks to learning by modeling the necessary operations, giving students practice at these skills, motivating them to remain involved in the process, assessing their success at mastering each procedure, and sharing what has been learned by the instructor.

The point of SoTL, since Boyer (1997) set it beside the scholarship of discovery, has been to bridge the gap between teaching and research. Epistemology is the link between teaching and research; to the degree that instructors in any field are conscious of the ways they themselves make meaning in their field they will be both better scholars and better teachers. “Decoding” provides such a bridge by making the epistemology visible. (Shopkow, Diaz, Middendorf & Pace, 2013).

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Download the Slides (1st set)

Download the Slides (2nd set)

Strategies for Increasing Understanding and Acceptance of Evolution in a Large Nonmajors Biology Class

Despite the importance of evolution to understanding modern science, it is notoriously difficult to teach. Studies have shown that the difficulties include misunderstandings about natural selection, the role of chance and the nature of science itself. However, the most persistent difficulty in teaching evolution is that roughly 55% of undergraduates perceive a conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs.

Because Biology 101 is likely the last biology class most undergraduate nonmajors will take at OSU, it is critical to help students in this class achieve an accurate understanding of evolution and its importance. An emerging body of literature shows that directly addressing students’ religious beliefs is effective in dispelling misconceptions about evolution. With this in mind, we designed a series of strategies for engaging students in active discussion about evolution, its importance to science and whether or not evolution can be reconciled with faith in a supernatural deity. These interventions included a revised lecture on Charles Darwin which highlighted thinkers who contributed to the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, an in-class discussion about evolution and a panel discussion that featured nationally renowned speakers with expertise in the science vs. religion debate. We collected data from the students enrolled in Biology 101 for three years to evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies. Our data indicate that it is possible to increase understanding and acceptance of evolution even in large undergraduate courses.

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Joan Middendorf

Joan Middendorf is a long time scholar of teaching and learning who serves as Lead Consultant at the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning and Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership at Indiana University Bloomington. Her early publications concerned the adoption of innovations in teaching and faculty culture change. Along with David Pace, she developed the Decoding the Disciplines method for helping students learn disciplinary thinking and has led over 150 faculty in learning communities. She has published numerous articles about college teaching and learning and is a frequent guest speaker on making the ways of knowing as central to teaching as it is to research. She is a co-Director of the History Learning Project, recipient of the 2008 Robert Menges Research Presentation Award from the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education and the 2009 McGraw-Hill – Magna Publications Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning Award. Joan likes to camp, garden, and practice T’ai Chi.

Susan Fisher

Susan Fisher has been a Professor in the Department of Entomology at OSU since 1981. Her research expertise is in environmental toxicology with emphasis on food chain dynamics of persistent hydrophobic contaminants and invasive aquatic species. She has taught courses in environmental toxicology and chemistry and pesticide toxicology. She has also developed several innovative courses including The Biology of Hope and Belief and another entitled Chemicals that Changed History. She is the 2010 winner of the Arts and Sciences Teaching Award for classroom innovations that include using the OSU Marching Band to perform the Krebs Cycle, the OSU Football team performing the Z-Scheme of Photosynthesis and DNA replication and protein synthesis in song and dance. Dr. Fisher retired from OSU in 2011 but was called back from the retirement wilderness to serve as Associate Chair of the Department of Entomology in 2012.

Registration is now closed.