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Tom CookThomas Cook, Ph.D., R.Ph. is an associate professor and director of program assessment at Touro College of Pharmacy in New York City.

Remember (or imagine) your first day as a new faculty member. You walk into a room with anywhere from 50–300 students packed into a lecture hall. They have various accessories spread in front of them: laptops, mobile phones, newspapers, coffee, and/or breakfast. The challenge is engaging the class to keep them interested, not simply for the sake of keeping them interested, but to enable them to achieve the learning objectives for the lecture and the course.

If you are like me, the extent of your teaching instruction was limited to a stint as a laboratory TA, and when I started at my first position, I was lucky enough to be handed notes from the previous year’s offering. You quickly realize, though, that those tools are not sufficient.

What’s a faculty member to do? Current students have come of age exposed to a variety of teaching techniques. After spending the bulk of their lives in school, they know their own personal learning style. The standard lecture style presentation on PowerPoint will likely put them all to sleep. I know that’s what happened on a regular basis for me. I chalked it up to the 8:30 am lecture time, but I finally learned that it wasn’t the whole story.

My epiphany came when I attended the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) meeting in Boston. I participated in a session on the last day in the last time slot. The first surprise was that the room was full. The surprises kept coming. From a slide with a gorilla and a fart joke to an audience member sharing how he uses M&M’s in class to teach aspects of pharmacokinetics, I became converted.

Throughout my academic career, when I heard about using games and other similar activities in the classroom, I quickly dismissed the notion thinking that students (especially the older students at Touro College of Pharmacy, which is a post-BS program) would consider that the activities were too childish. Well, I can tell you that Dr. Jennifer Goldman-Levine from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy taught me differently that day. The keys in my mind were to have students work in groups; to make the games into friendly competition; and to incorporate learning into the games by making sure they were relevant to the content. For example, using a word search as a learning and teaching tool. In order to make it a competition and educational, you could have students work in teams of two. They would need to find 3-4 words (usually drugs) and then write down something they learned about that drug that day. The first team to find the words would stand up, tell the class what they learned about that drug and then receive a prize (Dr. Goldman-Levine often used candy). These techniques allowed the students to demonstrate their learning and teach each other in a non-threatening environment. She demonstrated this at the AACP meeting using content that we learned at the workshop; we were engaged, we were interested and we enjoyed sharing our new knowledge with each other.

Flash forward to the 2012 AAPS Annual Meeting and Exposition. I recruited Dr. Goldman-Levine to work with me on a similar presentation. It was intended to be an outreach effort (in my prior role as Chair of the Teachers of Pharmaceutics Section of AACP) to reach pharmaceutics faculty. I was thrilled to see that the room was filled. Dr. Goldman-Levine, in her typical exuberant style, engaged the audience. The active participation was just what I hoped to see. We reviewed and practiced many techniques that work in any discipline for engaging the audience, not just games. The participants were able to share how they could use these techniques or develop their own to encourage active learning in their own settings.

The bottom line is that everyone who is in academia or who is contemplating an academic career could use some direction in becoming a teacher and becoming an effective teacher. Not only is it good for your career, I expect that you will find it very rewarding to see students who are actively engaged in your class.

What techniques do you use in your classroom to engage students? We encourage you to include links to teaching resources.