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Challenging Upperclassman Students to Make Meaningful Connections with the “Classify” and “Headlines” Instructional Strategies

by Dr. Christina Moylan

This final Blog Post builds on the discussions in my first and second posts, and highlights the power of the synergistic use of more than one student engagement technique simultaneously. This strategy can be particularly effective in promoting significant learning with upperclassman, as they often have greater reasoning capacity than novice undergraduate learners. Blog Post 2 introduced the “Classify” technique, which helps students recognize how concepts are organized by truly understanding the defining principles, and learning how each of the concepts can be organized to relate to the whole (Barkley, 2010). This can be coupled with the “Headlines” strategy, which traditionally requires students to create a headline associated with a concept, to help them capture the essence of a learned concept and make meaningful connections to the idea (Ritchhart, et al., 2001). It can be equally effective to use actual headlines, in conjunction with a “Classify” exercise, to create a rich learning experience.

For example, one lesson within the HLTH 33510: Legal & Ethical Issues in Health Policy course requires students to grasp an array of 15 policy tools used by governments. Eugene Bardach (2011) describes these more colloquially as “things government do”. One teaching strategy would be to have students read, listen to lecture, memorize, and then test on the types of tools. However this approach does not facilitate long-term learning, nor does it help connect those tools to actual use in policy development or implementation.

Using the concept of incentives as subsidies/grants as an example, with a definition of “policies that stimulate activities that neither markets nor nonprofit voluntary action produces in adequate quantity or quality”, students are placed into groups and challenged to match concepts and definitions and then align them with the appropriate headline (see Figure 1). screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-3-36-43-pm

This is a significantly more challenging task as the headlines are more open to interpretation and require relatively in depth discussion to match. The small group work creates a natural setting in which students bring different perspectives to debate the true meaning of each concept and its definition, and the headlines require students to externalize and make connections between the classifications and big picture ideas.

Once the groups complete the task, the newspaper headlines are projected one-by-one for review. A rotating leadership role among the groups is assigned to have them defend their choices. The other groups are then provided with the opportunity to agree or disagree with ample time for discussion and to reconcile differences.

A parallel teaching strategy with this exercise is to consider the order in which the headlines are displayed. Grouping closely related headlines presents an opportunity for a compare/contrast discussion not just within, but also across concepts. A question such as “How is this headline and its related concept different than the one we just discussed?” provides for more in-depth exploration of meaning by students.

Clearly, these types of classroom activities require more up-front preparation by faculty and also excellent impromptu facilitation skills to guide class discussion. It also begs the question of whether we are crossing the line into having to “entertain” students. Based on my experience, I would caution that faculty adopt a willingness to accept trial and error as even thoughtful design, which seems great in your office, can fail miserably in the classroom. The student engagement technique has to match the class objectives. And overzealousness by trying to integrate too many student engagement techniques at once can lead to poor execution on your part and overwhelm students.

But when you hit on the right combination, like the ones I have described in this series of Blog Posts, it is incredible to see the response of students. I do not have empirical data that show that long-term retention is higher, but the feedback from student evaluations suggest that students feel engaged, excited, and motivated by the class format and material.


Bardach, E. (2011). A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving (4th Ed.). Washington, D.C.: Sage.

Barkley, E. (2010) Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M. & Morrison, K. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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