Getting students to buy-in to non-traditional instruction

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 26, 2013

As the new semester is starting up, many of you are considering how to best promote student engagement in your course  — especially if you use non-traditional, research-based forms of instruction such as clickers, student discussion, or group work.

We have a compiled set of approaches and materials, representing how instructors around the country help to frame student expectations and engagement in their course.  We have found the wide variety of approaches to be very illuminating, and hope you do too!

To download the materials, please visit the Framing Project website:

More about the project

Research on student attitudes and expectations suggests that the way students understand classroom learning activities can strongly influence how they engage and how much they can learn.  This “framing” can include ideas about the purpose of the activities, about what students should do to learn, and about what constitutes understanding in science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM).  When implementing research-based pedagogies, instructors may encounter mismatches between how they would like their students to approach the material and the actual framing that students bring from prior experience.  We are investigating the ways in which STEM instructors shape and manage student framing.  A primary goal is to develop a set of resources instructors can use to reduce student resistance to and create a positive climate for non-traditional modes of teaching.   Another primary goal is to better understand which strategies are most effective in particular environments.

An extensive body of research has demonstrated the efficacy of student-centered, active-learning strategies for improving student learning of key concepts in science.  However, it has also been consistently demonstrated that, while they are aware of these research-based instructional strategies, few faculty use them, don’t use them with high fidelity (Dancy, M. & Henderson, C. (2010) Pedagogical Practices and Instructional Change of Physics Faculty, American Journal of Physics, Physics78 (10), 1056-1063), and stop using them after only a semester or two (Henderson, C., Dancy, M., & Niewiadomska-Bugaj, M. (2012) The Use of Research-Based Instructional Strategies in Introductory Physics: Where do Faculty Leave the Innovation-Decision Process?, Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 8 (2), 020104.).

It has become clear that instructional change must go beyond the “develop and disseminate” model, where developers create an effective teaching strategy and then make it available to the community at large (Henderson, C., Finkelstein, N. & Beach A. (2010). Beyond Dissemination in College science teaching: An Introduction to Four Core Change Strategies, Journal of College Science Teaching39 (5), 18-25; Henderson, C. and Dancy, M. (2008) Physics Faculty and Educational Researchers: Divergent Expectations as Barriers to the Diffusion of Innovations, American Journal of Physics (Physics Education Research Section), 76 (1), 79-91.).  Rather, faculty require support and help in implementation, including strategies to overcome or avoid common challenges or pitfalls.One commonly cited challenge is that of student resistance (Henderson, C., & Dancy, M. “Beyond Instructor Beliefs: Additional Barriers to the Adoption of Student-Centered Instruction in Physics”, Contributed Talk, International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Bloomington, IN, October 23, 2004).  Instructors believe that students do not support the use of research-based methods, do not like to interact with each other, and are not prepared to think independently (Henderson, C., & Dancy, M. (2011). Increasing the Impact and Diffusion of STEM Education Innovations, A White Paper commissioned for the Characterizing the Impact and Diffusion of Engineering Education Innovations Forum, New Orleans, LA, Feb 7-8, 2011.). There have been a few striking cases of student resistance to such methods, including at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where students petitioned against the instructional changes in introductory physics.

Despite this growing awareness of the importance of attending to student perception of instructional methods, there has been no known prior work to investigate the methods that instructors have used to communicate to their students about their pedagogy, and what is most effective.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that many instructors simple tell students what they will be doing and why (which is not the most active approach in itself) and that perhaps what works for some instructors actually backfires for others (e.g., women).   Understanding what works to generate student buy-in is a crucial piece in helping to inform instructors about the ways that they might promote student buy-in to their course approaches, thus helping to ensure that more instructors use research-based instructional strategies.

What we have found

So far, our work has focused on characterizing the different approaches used by instructors.  We have identified the following broad categories of approaches that instructors have used:

  1. Instructors justify the course approach by…
    1. Reference to how people learn best (often with reference to the research literature)
    2. Asking students to reflect on how they learn best, or how they prefer to learn
    3. Clarifying their expectations of what students should be doing in and out of class
  2. Instructors motivate students to engage in the course by…
    1. Discussing the relevance or importance of course content
    2. Establishing classroom norms and community
    3. Addressing student confidence and affect.

Additionally, instructors accomplish these goals in several ways:

  1. Didactically, through lecture and exposition
  2. Through discussions with and among students
  3. Through activity or experience


Examples from the materials we have collected.

Items in our archives from each category are indicated in italics.






Instructors justify the course approach by…

Reference to how people learn best (often with reference to the research literature)
  • Presentation about how people learn (slides)
  •  Clicker questions about research results (clickers)
  • Class activity to demonstrate that we don’t learn by memorization (Misconceptions about Learning)
  • Reading and discussion of what is required to achieve higher levels of learning (Bloom’s Taxonomy).
  • Show video of instructor teaching dance through lecture; discuss how to keep class from becoming that way (Traxoline and Dancealot)
Asking students to reflect on how they learn best, or how they prefer to learn
  • None found
  •  Midterm evaluations; what can you change to best learn, and class discussion. (Stop Go Change).
  • Clicker questions about what techniques are hardest for them (clickers)
  • Show video demonstrating how the discipline uses messy thinking, and discuss how course can help you learn that messy thinking (Messy Thinking).
Clarifying their expectations of what students should be doing in and out of class
  • Handout on student roles during tutorials (handouts).
  •  Students read syllabus and respond to questions (easy and tough) about proper behavior (Syllabus quiz)
  • Class discussion about what skills students can learn in-class versus out-of-class, to justify doing activities in-class and reading out-of-class (Out of Class Learning)

Instructors motivate students to engage in the course by…

Discussing the relevance or importance of course content
  • Lecture about the relevance of the course (slides, SCALE-UP)
  •  Class discussion about relevance of the course to career or major (Why are you here?  Why study [your course]?  SCALE-UP)
  • Content-related activity, followed by a discussion of how this relates to the content of this course (Nature of Science activities)
Establishing classroom norms and community
  • Show slides and give a brief bio-sketch of your own background (slides)
  • Explain the norms and expectations of the class (slides)
  •  A practice clicker question, used to generate some sense of community (clickers)
  • Introduce yourself to your neighbor and other icebreakers (First Day Variety, slides)
  • Jump into an activity, to establish community and set expectations for course structure (Nature of Science activities, Weird Paper Airplane, Fermi Questions)
  • Create first groups so they will be productive (Forming the First Groups
Addressing student confidence and affect.
  • None found
  •  Clicker question, “Do you like math?” etc. (clickers)
  • Discussion:  What rumors have you heard about this course?  (SCALE-UP)
  • Midterm questionnaire about what they do and don’t like about course, and discussion (Stop Go Change)
  • Give students participation points when they contribute during class (Sticky Participation Points).

The Framing Project is a joint project between Stephanie Chasteen (U. Colorado Boulder), Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington U.) and Jon Gaffney (Eastern Kentucky U.)

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