"Change-Up": A Good Pitch to Have in
Your Teaching Repertoire
McAllister, Faculty Consultant, TRC and Department of History
In this issue of Teaching Concerns, we are re-printing a popular article originally published here in the Fall of 1997. We often find ourselves recommending the change-up strategies described here by our former TRC Faculty Consultant, Bill McAllister. It’s been over a decade now since this piece ran in our newsletter, and the insights remain just as relevant today for those of us seeking to make our lectures well-paced and interactive. Whether you are reading this article for the first time or the fifth, we hope you find it useful.
all had the experience, probably both as teachers and learners, of drifting
off part way through a presentation. The phenomenon most often occurs
in lectures, but can happen in any class. Individual students pursue
various strategies to cope. Some gamely attempt to stay alert, the telltale
sign of which is often a noticeable snapping back of the head at the
precise moment they lose consciousness. Others deliberately opt for
a short sojourn in hopes of avoiding a longer recess from sentience.
Most succeed in refreshing themselves one way or another, but in the
interim they may have missed a goodly portion of the day's proceedings
and perhaps disrupted your concentration as well.
the TRC's many excellent library holdings is an article that deals with
precisely this issue. Entitled "The 'Change-Up' in Lectures,"
by Joan Mittendorf and Alan Kalish, the article addresses the empirical
literature on attention span and then suggests practical ways to counteract
the all-too-natural human tendency toward cerebral entropy.
and Kalish note that studies on attention span indicate that, when passively
absorbing information, adult learners usually experience mental lapses
after a mere 15-20 minutes. Moreover, refocusing efforts proved only
partially successful; students tended to drift off more quickly after
the initial period of alertness and inattention.
the authors cite research indicating that, in order to make connections
between old and new knowledge, students require opportunities to practice
thinking in terms of new concepts. Without a chance to exercise their
new-found knowledge, they are less likely to inculcate it-to make it
relatively non-intrusive tactic you can employ to counteract the attention-gap
is to utilize a "change-up" in class. The terminology emanates
from the baseball diamond: by throwing the ball at different speeds
the pitcher keeps batters off-balance. The concept works equally well
in the classroom: by mixing brief period(s) of application into your
teaching, you can help students stay alert for the entire class. Moreover,
change-ups afford students opportunities to wrestle with difficult concepts
and ultimately enhance student learning.
in mind that change-ups need not consume large amounts of class time;
many can be completed in five minutes or less. Although some instructors
are loathe to spend precious classroom minutes on what might appear
to be an ancillary project, the time used is more than compensated for
by the increased retention rates your students will enjoy.
are the essential principles to follow when designing change-ups:
Plan on inserting a change of pace every 15-20 minutes. That means
a 75-minute session will typically require two change-ups, whereas
a 50-minute session usually needs only one.
Make your activity directly related to that day's course material.
When appropriate, pick a task that reinforces the central point(s)
you want students to retain.
PITCH: Have a clear idea of what you want your students to do
and give explicit instructions about what they are to accomplish.
If your change-up involves a question, make sure it is unambiguous.
IT OVER: Make sure to debrief after completing the activity.
Discuss, explore, and confirm what students discovered. Reinforce
what is important and tie it to the day's key points.
following change-up activities have been selected from a larger range
of ideas proposed by Mittendorf and Kalish and from other sources available
at the TRC. For more suggestions, contact the Teaching Resource Center.
Group Discussions: Have students discuss a key point from today's
material in groups of two to five. Ask them a question that requires
analysis, evaluation, or synthesis, and see what kind of responses you
a Question: Simply ask students to write down one or two questions
about the material. Before providing the answer yourself , ask other
students to attempt it. You could learn a lot about what they know (and
Questions: Alone or in small groups, have students write their own
exam questions. Select a few to read to the whole class, and critique
the questions. If you collect all the questions at the end of class,
you might generate some new material for your next test.
Evaluation of Course: Ask them to write down the muddiest point
from today's class. Collect and analyze. Or, discover what you're doing
well, perhaps by asking them to point out one thing you are doing that
is promoting a helpful learning environment in the classroom. Their
responses can be quite helpful.
Self-Evaluation: Ask students to rate their own performance. Do
they read the assignments on time, come to class regularly, think carefully
about the material, and generally take an active role in their own learning?
Representations: Ask students to concoct a non-narrative account
of some key issue or concept. Asking them literally to draw the "big
picture" can lead to some interesting results.
Statements: Ask students to write down two or three things they
know to be true about some aspect of the day's material. Use the responses
to examine assumptions and level of knowledge.
the best indicator of the value of change-ups is what the students have
to say about them. In my own lecture class this past spring I instituted
change-ups to good effect. No one complained that they constituted an
improper use of class time. Here are some of their comments about change-ups
culled from end-of-semester evaluations:
teaching aids: the change-ups are a terrific idea, almost addictive.
change-ups were very helpful in keeping people from losing concentration.
change-ups are very interesting, and help provide perspective to
change-ups accommodated students, because they recognized that we
become restless easily and quickly.
change-up in the middle of the class often provided food for thought.
enjoyed the creativity of the change-ups.
change-ups are GREAT! All classes should have them.
change-ups midway through class made a HUGE difference. I can't
stress this enough. I loved the way they utilized the different
senses to help us learn
from Mittendorf, Joan and Alan Kalish. "The 'Change-up' in Lectures,"
The National Teaching and Learning Forum 5:2, 1996.