Category Archives: Teaching

Tourist Learners or Learning Travelers

What’s the difference between tourists and travelers? A friend recently noted how their guidebooks would differ.  I’m more interested in how they approach planning for the trip and what they do during the journey.  In my view,


  • Take snapshots of the major sites,
  • They don’t venture off the beaten path
  • Let a guide lead them around
  • Stay in their comfort zone: chain hotels, familiar foods
  • Speak English; avoid learning phrases in the local language


  • Immerse themselves in local culture
  • Avoid standing out, “when in Rome…”
  • Interact with locals
  • Seek hidden treasure off the beaten path
  • Try new foods and experiences, expand their comfort zone

How do these differences connect to the ways students approach learning?

How would you describe your students? Are they tourists or travelers?

Some students may want to be tourists.  Hit the sights, check off items on a list, and move on to the next course.  They’re selling the learning journey short, and it’s out job to help them see that there’s more to learning than ticking off items on the itinerary (syllabus).

Other students want to travel, but find themselves in expensive, restrictive tours. The syllabus (trip itinerary) prescribes every detail of their journey. They infrequently, or perhaps never, have a chance to offer input. One size fits all. There’s limited, if any, flexibility;  scant opportunities to share ownership or responsibility, and few chances to customize their learning journey to make it more meaningful and personally relevant.

Typically, all the decisions about their learning journey have been made for them:

  • What they’re going to learn.
  • How they’ll learn it.
  • Pace and timing.
  • What to pack (books and materials) and how to pack it (page lengths, font sizes, submission requirements, often specified in excruciating detail).

I believe teachers have the best intentions. We believe we’ve planned an excellent trip. After all, our disciplines are fascinating places to discover. Of course students may have other ideas. They might know little or nothing about the destination, or worse, maybe they’ve heard bad things. Perhaps it’s a place they’ve visited before; they may start the journey convinced there’s not much value to be gained from the trip.

Tourist learners see the sights;

Learning travelers are transformed.

The statistics on student boredom suggest that too often, teachers control the learning journey from start to finish. We treat students and learning like a sightseeing trip. Then we’re disappointed when students are disengaged and resort to snapshot learning, checking items off a list. We don’t have to settle for tourist students and canned travel packages.

Even when a vacation is booked through a tour company, travelers have the opportunity to arrange side excursions or make other choices to personalize the experience. Zesty courses and instruction leverage the power of curiosity and interest to advance learning. Doing so requires we spend more time planning the learning journey with our students, not exclusively for them.


Transit & Destination Learning

Curiosity is like a spark plug. It ignites thinking which is a prerequisite for learning. It propels, in short bursts. Interest is like a turbo charger. It accelerates and sustains forward thinking and effort. (For more about curiosity, interest and the brain, read ZEST)

If spark plugs ignite the engine and turbos propel forward movement, this begs two questions: Where are we going? How will we get there?

Where are we going? Destination Learning

Sometimes the learning journey emphasizes the destination. Most courses have some aspects of a destination focus. These are the non-negotiable components of content that students are expected to learn and know by the end of the course. Examples include foundation concepts in introductory courses, content-driven learning like the pulmonary system in an anatomy class, or the rules of DR & CR in accounting. In plain English, it’s the “stuff” that has to be learned.

Although I believe destination learning, or content, often drives too much of what we do, there will always be a need for teachers to specify some amount of the content “coverage.”  In these cases, students’ interests can be integrated by allowing them some choice in how they demonstrate that learning (papers, projects, presentations, skits, role play, video, website, Pinterest page, Prezi, etc). To continue with the sparkplug, turbo, transportation analogy: The teacher specifies the destination city. The students choose how they will get there.

Think of the algorithms used by Google maps, Mapquest, Siri, or Waze. You put in the start and end points and the system makes recommendations, accounting for tolls, scenic routes, traffic avoidance, and speed traps. Similarly, teachers know the geography of our content. We know where learning might get derailed and breakdowns of understanding occur. We can help students navigate their chosen route and mode of transportation if we invest time and effort getting to know them. The payoff is that we can recommend the routes best suited for their learning; it becomes a personalized, meaningful trip.

 To implement, it’s helpful to begin by providing choices from a pre-determined menu:

  • Choose one assessment that you’d be most comfortable receiving and assessing in alternative formats.
  • Think carefully about the kinds of deliverables that will best allow students to demonstrate the kind of learning you want them to achieve.
  • Consider the kinds of deliverables students would be most interested in producing.
  • Consider whether individual effort or collaboration is more appropriate.
  • Develop one rubric that reflects your expectations. It’s most straightforward for students and teacher if it’s the same rubric across deliverables.
  • Consider when is most appropriate, “final” assessments are necessarily best. These principles apply to formative and summative assessment.

 How will we get there? Transit Learning

Sometimes the emphasis is on process learning. Continuing with the travel analogy, the focus is on the mode of transportation: boat, plane, car, train, taxi, or virtual travel. How we’re traveling is more important than where we end up. A few examples of transit learning: employing the scientific method, making computations, performing technical analyses, developing technical skills, conjugating verbs, or analyzing text. In each case, the process and procedural steps are the learning focus. Teaching and learning a process can be accomplished across a variety of settings and scenarios. It’s the steps and thinking method (whether we’re on a train, bus, or in a car) that is key; the final destinations could be different across students (some end up in NYC, others in Philly). 

  • A common example of transit learning: assigning a paper in a writing class, but leaving the topic open to student choice. The process of writing is the focus but students can apply the skill different contexts.
  • Personal interest & connections to topics can be integrated into class-wide lessons and examples. See Big Questions post for assignment and use in microeconomics principles.

Most courses shift between both types of learning. For the brave, or for those with a high tolerance for ambiguity and messiness, destination and transit learning strategies can be combined in one course for a very individualized learning experience.  I’ve done this in classes of about 60 students. My motivation- eliminating the dreary slog to finals week that inevitably occurs after Thanksgiving. It was a bit chaotic the first time, but it’s gotten easier to manage. The payoff- students own their projects. They’re working solo or on group projects of their choosing. We all learn about different and interesting things as they share what they’ve discovered and produced. The last weeks of class are engaging and fun.

  • The more open-ended the range of topics, the more important it is to have students define the connection(s) between their topic and the course/content.
  • Provide a menu of delivery options: paper, presentation, facilitated discussion, website, Pinterest page, virtual scrapbook, video/movie, skit, poster, etc.  It may be simpler to provide a narrow range of choices at first.
  • Develop one generic rubric for all deliverables, instead of multiple rubrics dependent on product format.  It makes life easier for students and it forces the teacher to identify broad learning outcomes that can be demonstrated in a variety of ways.

Even if you’re not interested or willing to go that far, keeping the principles of destination and transit learning in mind leads to increased student engagement. ZESTY learning occurs when students share control of process, product or both, as appropriate to the discipline, student abilities, maturity, and instructor’s ability to tolerate a messier, less controlled environment. If you would like a copy of the student project plan or a sample rubric, please email me:


Popcorn: Piquing Curiosity & Spurring Action

I recently observed a colleague’s teaching.  The class met at 4:30. By that time I already taught a couple of sessions, attended a meeting, held office hours, and normally would have been heading home. By the time I got to class, I was worn out.

Do you ever consider: How many classes have your students sat through before yours? Are they tired? Did they work before class? Are they leaving for work right after? Do they have kids, spouses, and/or bills distracting them? Are they hungry? With all the possible distractions and concerns students bring into our classes, we need to be intentional about setting the stage and designing opportunities to hook, draw in and direct their focus to learning.

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I like to think of the hook as the “popcorn effect.” It’s a throwback to my college days. Microwave ovens weren’t ubiquitous (my age is showing here) thus, many of us owned a popcorn popper. Here’s the scene. I’m working diligently at my desk, or reading on my bed, when the first small wafts of popcorny goodness tickle my nose. Sniff. SNIFF. INHALE. Once you smell freshly popped corn, you’ve got to have some! The smell of popcorn lured me and my floormates to find the source, grab a handful, and then pop our own. The smell initiates a chain reaction, moving us from passive (sniffing) to action (making more).

How can we leverage the popcorn effect in teaching?

  • Shock-n-Awe: One strategy  I like to use is the startling example.  In economics,  the Production Possibilities Frontier (PPF) model is represented by guns (military spending) and butter (consumer goods).  [Insert yawn here.] But, when I mention Colorado’s PPF can be represented by “pot” and Twinkies, students gasp, laugh and begin devising their own examples to share with a neighbor.
  • Current Events: Fraud, weird science articles, celebrity foolishness, and interesting discipline-based stories are excellent lead-ins to learning. At first the teacher can provide the articles; later, ask students to find examples to share and discuss.
  • Photos: A picture really is worth a 1,000 words. Serious, thoughtful, or funny images can be a pleasant surprise or offbeat way to introduce a new topic, pull students in at the start of class, or a provide a quick mental break during the session.
  • Stories: Narrative is one of my favorite instructional strategies. Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed how I integrate personal experiences in my writing and teaching. Strange, funny, stories from real life are a powerful way to connect with students. Personal accounts can be the hook, or teachers can leverage students’ interests and experiences to connect with content through reflective writing.
  • Cases: Incomplete information is a key aspect of case study learning. The itch to fill the gap through speculation and formulation of possible explanations or courses of action leverages the power of curiosity and interest to learn. Case discussions promote engagement while students construct their understanding of the underlying principles, concepts, and processes.
  • Humor: Silly jokes, puns, and comics lighten the mood, providing a valuable reminder that learning doesn’t always have to be serious business.

Capturing students’ attention is the first step. Holding it requires sustained interest. One way to maintain interest is through shared ownership and control. A straightforward place to to start is with conversations about

  • Participation, attendance, mobile device & other course policies
  • Deadlines
  • Course weights
  • Course norm statements (Tanner, 2013)
  • Course expectations/syllabus activity

Sharing some control with students fosters buy-in of the learning process. Shared decision-making promotes student ownership and responsibility for learning. It’s no longer just about the teacher teaching. Generally, students are pleasantly surprised (to put it mildly) when asked and allowed to establish norms and expectations for the class. Please read Learner-Centered Syllabi  for additional strategies and suggestions.

REFERENCE: Tanner, K.D. 2013. Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Equity, CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12: 322-331.