Great Teaching at University of Michigan

Antonio (Tony) Alvarez (Social Work)
How can instructors address the limits of teaching practice- oriented material within the confines of a classroom? How can learners directly experience topics being taught in order to develop rich understandings of abstract and amorphous concepts?
In social work, it is particularly challenging to convey to students the process of personal transformation for clients seeking change in one or more aspects of their lives, and to further address the responsibility inherent in guiding another. Not only must practitioners be able to build effective relationships with clients, but they must also practice effective self care to protect against burnout.
Part of an experiential-based syllabus, the Stick Project assignment invites students to observe and spend time with, write about, and physically transform ordinary sticks. This puts students in the shoes of a client working at change, struggling with what comes along with change, grappling with the downside of the process, and celebrating progress toward goals.
Michael Gould (Music, Theater & Dance/Residential College)
The Drum Diaries project fulfills a 30-year wish for a single technological device capable of providing instant access to vast collections of audio and visual music recordings. Digital tablets now offer opportunities to surpass the predominant format typically available to new players of instruments--a method book plus a CD (which often gets lost and thus goes unheard).
Instead, with the Drum Diaries iBook loaded onto an iPad propped on a music stand, a student can quickly switch from reading, seeing and/or hearing to playing along, imitating, or creatively improvising. Music methodology, technique, styles, and history can all be integrated and enriched with video and audio examples, practice tips, and hyperlinks.
A frequent leader of face-to-face percussion clinics and master classes around the world, the instructor also brought considerable experience with online instruction to the creation of the Drum Diaries. His drum lessons at, a music education website created by Swedish musicians, are proof of practice in dividing complex musical topics into manageable chunks, as well as in explaining and performing them on camera.
Michael Hortsch (Cell and Developmental Biology/Medical School)
SecondLook is a study aid that lets learners self-test their ability to recognize visual structures and interpret their significance. Originally developed in PowerPoint and disseminated via a Medical School website, the resource became available through the iTunes Store in November 2012. Over the first three months it was downloaded 1,438 times across 74 different countries.
This teaching innovation is particularly relevant to any discipline that introduces students to daunting amounts of visual material. For example, studying the microscopic structure of tissues constitutes an entirely new visual terrain for many first-year medical and dentistry students. Several features of the SecondLook iPad app make the resource an especially useful guide for navigating this unfamiliar landscape.
Mika LaVaque-Manty (Political Science and Philosophy)
“Gamification” is the application of structures, rules, and logics encountered in games to non-game contexts. Gamifying a course doesn’t consist of just converting conventional grades to points. Rather, the logic of rewards must be pervasively changed. Conventional reward systems “mark students down,” discouraging them from a crucial part of learning: failing and trying again. However, when students focus on “leveling up” and earning points, they are motivated to do more work and to take on new challenges. When students aren’t penalized for unsuccessful efforts, the only cost is their time.
Brent Gillespie (Mechanical Engineering)
Students may be capable of manipulating mathematical models of physical systems in the abstract, yet lack intuitive understanding of how changes in system variables will manifest physically. The Cigar Box is a tool that makes the same behavior that is being described mathematically accessible to students’ haptic senses of touch and motion. It turns code into virtual environments that can be touched and manipulated, much like the real world objects to which they refer. Best of all, model parameters can be changed on the fly as students interactively explore dynamic systems.
Pedagogically speaking, this teaching innovation addresses challenges that may be found in any discipline. The instructor identified a gap in the experiences of current student cohorts, who tend to be far more familiar with clicking a computer mouse than tinkering directly with mechanical objects. The Cigar Box provides an alternative (and far more flexible) means of acquiring mechanical experience and intuition.