Welcome to Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week:

  • Steven explores how pop-up courses allow one university to customize its offerings and adapt to changing needs.
  • We pass along some tips you shared for improving your office hours.
  • Dan conveys a question from a fellow reader.

Learning, Concentrated

Some subjects can’t fill a full-semester format, but they can still teach valuable skills and information to students.

That’s why faculty members and administrators at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln are bullish on a year-old experiment in offering pop-up courses.

Students across the university have been taking one-credit courses taught by professors or local professionals. In as little as 15 hours of class time, they examine emerging technologies and trends, learn a skill, or simply a pursue an interest they may have lacked time for.

By the end of this semester, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications will have run about two dozen pop-up courses, for majors and nonmajors, since last spring. The educational-psychology department is also offering pop-ups, which it calls “mini-courses.”

Many have proved popular. A course on drone journalism drew about 45 students, said Matt Waite, a professor of practice who has long taught professionals about tech in journalism.

Now Waite is leading a pop-up on “sensors for storytelling,” teaching reporters-in-training how to build and use small electronics to, say, measure noise levels in neighborhoods on the Fourth of July, or find the loudest stadium section at a sporting event.

Teaching in such a compressed time frame can be a “high-wire act” with constant adjustments, Waite said. Things can go wrong at any time, especially with fickle devices. But that presents its own learning opportunity, he said. “Failure analysis will be as important as anything else,” he said. “That’s half the fun. And if this class turns into a problem-solving class, then so be it. I couldn’t think of much better things to be teaching students.”

The benefits of pop-up courses are especially clear for professional schools. The format may be best suited to teaching a particular skill or new technology, Waite said. And they tie students closer to the industries they hope to enter: Nebraska students, for instance, jump at the chance to take a course taught by ad gurus at Archrival, a Lincoln-based agency.

But Waite believes the model is widely adaptable. Generally speaking, he said, pop-ups can work anywhere instructors want to teach students a discrete skill, topic, or approach.

Programs outside professional schools can benefit, too. Learning a skill can boost a liberal-arts major’s job prospects, according to research by Burning Glass, a company that analyzes skills that are in demand in the work force.

“The idea for pop-ups bubbled up from a lot of different people at about the same time,” said Amy Struthers, the journalism college’s interim dean. “Across higher ed, people are talking about how to better chunk learning, … how to break it down in ways that make it maybe more digestible, and more current, and provide a sense of accomplishment.”

One little stone kills a lot of birds, the thinking at Nebraska goes: Pop-ups connect students from disciplines across the campus; allow them to customize courses around increasingly fractured schedules; and keep the curriculum in step with the outside world, unencumbered by the lengthier course-approval process.

Pop-up courses, many readers may know, are nothing new. Institutions like James Madison University, Pomona College, and Stanford University have offered courses on “design for justice,” “essays as resistance,” and, yes, drones.

In fact, Kenneth A. Kiewra, a professor of education psychology at Nebraska, took mini-courses as an undergraduate at the State University of New York’s College at Oneonta, in the mid-1970s. He remembered them as an “intriguing” way to dive into an unfamiliar subject, and promotes them now to busy nonmajors as a way to dip a toe into his discipline.

The low commitment — all pop-ups are one-credit-hour, pass/no-pass sessions — means students often take them out of genuine interest, he said. And the constraints force him to boil a topic down to its basics. “Good teaching is about good storytelling,” he said.

The courses’ structures vary. Kiewra’s department markets its three mini-courses as a customizable package: Students can take any of the one-credit courses on talent, motivation, and neurology separately, or string them together to make a traditional semester-long course.

Over five recent Wednesdays, students in Kiewra’s course on talent read two to three chapters per week, wrote responses, and discussed them in class. They also played a cup-and-ball game (known to Francophiles as bilboquet) to chart their progress and understand the importance of practice, he said.

Surely one add-on course doesn’t change every student’s life. But one graduate student requested permission to take Kiewra’s undergraduate mini-course, he said. By the end, she’d decided to switch her focus from journalism and communications to educational psychology.

Have you taught a pop-up course? Would they be particularly suited — or unsuited — to your discipline? Tell me at steve.johnson@chronicle.com, and we might highlight your message in a future newsletter.

**A message from The Chronicle:

Revamp Your College’s General-Education Program: A thorough, well-planned gen-ed program is essential to preparing today’s students for an increasingly complex world. Get this special report for key insights into what you need to know before rethinking your college’s core courses.**

Improving Office Hours

In response to our newsletter last week, several of you emailed us to share how you increase the educational impact of your office hours.

As an adjunct who has taught astronomy at Emmanuel College, in Boston, Joshua Roth often had no office. So he held his office hours in the commons next to the cafeteria, a space with round tables. The setting offered a sense of equality and informality similar to the tutoring center we described in last week’s newsletter, he said. “I also think it may have been less intimidating to meet the older male adjunct in a public space than in a relatively isolated office, at hours when the academic buildings were mostly empty — especially for female students,” he wrote. “Finally, the practice afforded me the opportunity to meet other students who were interested in taking the class at a future time.”

Jenel Cavazos, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma, started offering extra credit for doing a scavenger hunt. The exercise gives students in her large courses (many of them with 500 students) an opportunity to interact with her early in the semester. As part of the assignment, they have to visit her office hours and tell her one interesting thing about them. “This helps get them in the door in a completely non-threatening context and (hopefully) helps them realize that office hours are not scary!” Cavazos wrote. The scavenger hunt also connects students to other resources, like graduate assistants and the tutoring center. “The students who choose to complete it,” she wrote, “are very positive about it!”

And Gunjan Gakhar, an instructor of biology at Washington State University at Vancouver, often starts a session in her office by asking students if they want coffee or tea, and then casually asking questions. “I have noticed that students seem at ease and are more open to talking while drinking a beverage,” she wrote. Gakhar also uses a side table in her office, rather than sitting at her desk, and offers students the bigger chair.

A Reader’s Request

Kanchan Mathur, who teaches mathematics at Clark College, in Vancouver, Wash., recently contacted us with a question we couldn’t answer:

“Are there any colleges that have dedicated ‘tutoring’ or ‘study’ hours?” she wrote to us. “That is, is there a block of time in the day when no classes are held in the entire college, and in that block of time students are encouraged to go to the tutoring center or to their professor’s office hours?” She also wondered if such a policy would have any effect on retention.

Many institutions block out several days or a week as a review period just before final exams, but I’m unfamiliar with anything along the lines of what Mathur asked. Readers, are you aware of any colleges that have done this? If you are, please email me at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, and I may write about it in a future newsletter.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or steve.johnson@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to receive your own copy, you can sign up here.

—Dan, Beckie, Beth, and Steven