Liberal Education

The Teaching Naked Cycle: Technology Is a Tool, but Psychology Is the New Pedagogy

Editor’s note: At the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the 2014 Frederic W. Ness Book Award was presented to José Antonio Bowen for his book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2012). The following article is based on the presentation made there by the author.

Technology is bringing new tools and new competition to higher education, but it is also changing basic rules about how we operate as human beings: the meaning of “friends” has changed forever. Technology is only a tool, however; it is not an educational strategy. While the use of technology in higher education will surely increase, educators must remain focused on student learning.

Internet technologies have changed our relationship with knowledge. While most of us remember a not-so-distant past of knowledge scarcity—our simple arrival on a campus once increased our access to knowledge—current students have no concept of this. The world is now knowledge-rich, and students today can use their phones to access more information than is contained in any college library. College is like an app for the mind; filtering, analyzing, and synthesizing content is increasing in value. The Internet is overloaded with data on every flight every day to every place, but the app on my phone limits that information to what is relevant and useful today—is my flight on time, and how long will it take me to get to the airport given current traffic conditions?

As faculty, if we are primarily concerned with transmitting content, then our value will only decrease. The Internet contains a much broader selection of lectures, demonstrations, animations, and examples on more subjects, in more languages, and with a greater variety of approaches, methods, and pedagogies than any professor, department, or even entire university can provide. If, however, we are more concerned with faculty-student interaction; the design and sequence of learning experiences; the application, analysis, and synthesis of information; the motivation of students; and, especially, the increasing complexity of students’ mental models, then the value of what we do will increase.

Although the importance of critical thinking is recognized in all colleges, higher education is largely structured around the delivery of content. Current disciplinary knowledge is prioritized by the ways we furnish our classrooms, structure our curricula, train our future professors, organize our syllabi, and assess student learning. All of these are holdovers from a time when opportunities for learning were scarce. But in the future, there will be even more to learn and more ways to do it. Access to content and courses will be cheap and plentiful. As we know already from the early MOOCs, knowing how to learn new content—and, more importantly, how to integrate new ideas—is a necessary prerequisite for success in a MOOC. The point of college is increasingly to prepare the mind for the unknown.

Knowledge is required for thought, but content itself is a means rather than an end. Our real goal is to improve how students integrate new information. We want to change them. While what we have to teach our students may get them a first job, it will not on its own get them a second job—especially one that may not yet even exist. We want our students to be able to learn new things, analyze new knowledge, integrate it into their thinking, and change their minds when necessary. Employers say they want employees who can solve complex problems with people who are in various ways different from them.1 This seems entirely in harmony with what our colleges say we do. And yet, while we hope to accomplish these two things simultaneously, we spend more time on content than on critical thinking.

We in higher education tend to accuse employers of not really meaning what they say and overvaluing certain majors or graduates from elite schools. Would this still be the case if we could really deliver what employers say they want? Companies like Google say they are no longer going to accept these proxies (content training or admission standards) for creative and critical abilities (which they will measure themselves). What if we could demonstrate that our liberal arts graduates really had these skills?

Technology can be our partner in this. The technology that makes knowledge so readily accessible has also made it more important to be able to analyze information. And with greater access to content now freely available, we should have more time for the pedagogy of critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking is difficult and labor-intensive, and technology has made course design and pedagogy more important than in the past. If you think of a syllabus or a course as a list of topics or content to be mastered, then you are only doing half of your job—and that is the part of the job that is being devalued.

The good news is that the greatest value of a physical university will continue to be its provision of face-to-face (naked) interaction between faculty and students. The first role of technology, therefore, is to create more time for such interaction. At a very basic level, new technologies can increase student preparation and engagement between classes and create more time for the (naked) in-class dialogue that makes the campus experience worth the extra money it will always cost to deliver. The most important benefits of using technology occur outside of the classroom.

Your use of technology may increase your credibility with your students, but it cannot by itself increase their learning. Most students are able to use technology in ways they find useful or entertaining, but they are markedly less proficient at using technology to access or assess information. In particular, we need to think very carefully about how our students process and integrate what they access.

Dee Fink has developed an integrated model of course design that connects learning outcomes, activities, and feedback in order to create significant learning experiences.2 Technology has given us more options for how we can sequence these activities, created more options for feedback and support, and made class time (as the most expensive and least scalable piece) even more precious. “Flipping” assumes there are two parts to be exchanged. But based on Fink’s model, what I call the “Teaching Naked Cycle” looks more broadly at the choices of sequence and design and at how technology expands opportunities for interactivity. By using new communication technologies, rethinking course assignments, and creating online quizzes, we can help ensure that our students come to class prepared for the more challenging activities and interactions that spark the critical thinking and change of mental models we seek.

Entry points

It is not enough to want students to care about your subject (or insist that they do so). Engagement and learning start with what matters to students. This is the “entry point.” If you understand what matters to students, you have a better chance of getting them to see what matters to you. You don’t need to be an expert in popular culture, but you do need to know something about students’ hopes and fears. This will help you connect with them, but it also gives you tools for motivating them (and that is most of the job, really). Don’t start by writing “Wagner” and “gesamtkunstwerk” on the board; instead, ask your students why music matters to them.

Minor alterations in your instructions can make a big difference. Instead of asking your students simply to “read,” “look,” “solve,” or “practice,” suggest that they “find something interesting in the text,” “look at the picture from different perspectives,” or “practice the scales in a variety of ways.” Intention improves retention and memorization. Your entry point is critical.

Online professors may be famous content experts, but they are unlikely to know much about the particular interests, anxieties, beliefs, and curiosities of your students. Remember that motivation was not your problem; you liked school so much that you are still here. You understood why professors assigned so much reading—you even liked it. But you are not the typical student. Knowing what motivates or worries your students and how to engage them with the content is a huge advantage of campus-based teachers, and its value will only increase.

E-mails, texts, tweets, wikis, discussion boards, and any of the ever-developing forms of social media can provide meaningful options for personalizing and localizing content for your students. Ask your students which social media platform is current, and make a determined effort to try to learn how to use it. This will give you insight into how they process information (more entry points!), increase your credibility, and demonstrate that you are open to learning new things—something you are trying to model for them. Students may tell you that “Facebook is for old people,” but it is probably still something you should know about. With any new technology, learning one platform will also help you with the next one and provide a basis for comparison. And despite what they say, most students still peek at Facebook more than they like to admit. Find a student or a small child to help you.

While the Internet offers almost limitless online content, none of it is specific to your students. Only you know (or can discover) the right entry point that will stimulate them. Use e-mail or other forms of electronic communication to offer short motivational introductions to readings, study questions, encouragement, connections, additional thoughts, and further explanations.

First exposure to content

Forget your personal eagerness for school, and try searching online for content related to your courses as though you were a student trying to avoid going to class. Start with a Google search (and note the ability to search just for videos), but then make sure you also know about OpenYale, EdX, iTunesU, Khan Academy, CrashCourse, PHeT, Utubersidad (with its Spanish-language academic lectures), and—just to start. For most subjects, the Internet offers a much broader range of lectures, explanations, examples, different analogies, songs, animations, games, and unique ways to learn than any individual professor can.

If you don’t want to spend a lifetime trolling through millions of online lectures, then set up a free wiki (try PBworks or your campus Course Management System) and ask your students to create a community study guide using the resources they find. If you offer to make up your final exam from this wiki, you will add an extra incentive and they may be willing to share their sites.

Critical reading is still an important skill, but you need to teach it as a skill. Start by assigning shorter portions (especially in the first year), and help students read them in more depth. Tell them why they are reading in advance, and then discuss and use all of what you assign until students get better at digesting readings on their own. Reading is more work than watching a video, so you will need an even better entry point to motivate them. If reading is important for your department, then you need a progressive, multi-course, multiyear plan that teaches students how to do it.

Online quizzes

Creating online quizzes or even just giving students a few “thought” or “study” questions before every class can encourage them to read an article or watch a video, can help guide their learning, and can provide insight into what they’re thinking. Online quizzes also can provide students with feedback to guide their reading and give them some control over their own learning. Many kinds of questions can be graded automatically in a course management system, so both you and your students can see the results instantly. If these quizzes are due one hour before class, you can use the results to shape your use of class time. (You can condition students from day one by making the course syllabus available online only and creating a syllabus quiz that is due before the second class meeting.)

Although they can be difficult to write, multiple-choice questions can be used to encourage critical thinking even in large classes (see, for example, the question template in figure 1). Figure 2 presents a sample question about contracts, and the sample responses given there represent my own judgments—and, like all judgments, there are arguments for and against each. When I use this question in classes, I am less concerned about the “no” answers; this “just-in-time” feedback gives me the opportunity to emphasize that a contract is useful for clarifying expectations. 

Figure 1.
Sample multiple choice question template

The following are all true statements.

Which are summaries of X? (Comprehension)

What would be the best way to improve X? (Application)

Which of the following develop the thesis of X further? (Synthesis)

Which are facts, which are opinions, or which are judgments? (Evaluation)

Check all that apply. Partial credit is available.


Figure 2.
Sample application-level question

(Below, “Yes” and “No” indicate what I think are the “best” answers, and the percentages indicate the proportion of students who agreed with me.)
The following are all true statements. Which are the best reasons for you to issue, negotiate, and sign a contract (or letter of agreement) before you agree to sell work or services? Check all that apply. Partial credit is available.

  • A contract helps all parties understand what is expected. (Yes = 50%)
  • Without a contract, you can be sued for damages; a contract allows you to limit your liability. (Yes = 96%)
  • You can break a contract, if both parties agree. (No = 40%)
  • You can always amend a contract later, if you change your mind. (No = 42%)
  • A “tech rider” specifies what technical requirements you might need. (No = 33%)
  • A contract will help you think about all the extra charges (like shipping, transportation, or parking) for which you might want the client to pay. (Yes = 88%)
  • A contract will help ensure you get paid. (Yes = 92%)
  • Contracts are often long and boring. (No = 8%)

While not as difficult as having students create their own arguments in writing, these sorts of multiple-choice questions can help students break problems down and, given the immediate feedback, further stimulate their thinking. The quizzes can be graded automatically, which gives you time for other things. These questions are mostly diagnostic, so it is most important that they get at crucial issues and be used to guide student thinking. If students want to argue about the answers in class, that is fantastic. Let them. (Think, for example, about the class discussion that might follow the sample question presented in figure 3). 

Figure 3.
Sample analysis-level question

The following are all true statements.

A. Which are most likely to be used by Democrats to support government policy?

  • Government spending creates jobs.
  • Tax cuts stimulate job creation.
  • Uncertainty is bad for business
  • A large debt can hurt the economy.
  • Government spending cuts can hurt the economy.

B. Which are most likely to be used by Republicans to support government policy?

Don’t worry about cheating. The world is “open book”: when was the last time you were asked to produce work without access to the Internet or other sources? Besides, these are not the kinds of multiple-choice questions that Siri or Google could answer anyway. If you make the online quizzes worth something relatively small—maybe 10 percent of a course grade—and use them primarily for diagnostic purposes, then you will lower the stakes and make it far less likely that students will cheat.

There are, of course, other ways to reach the same goal. Ask students to post strategies for solving problems on the course website, to make their own video summaries, or to post on the course discussion board. The point is that technology provides new ways for both you and your students to prepare for class.


I frequently ask my students to write brief responses to course readings or videos on index cards. For example, I may ask them to identify the weakest argument or most controversial claim in an article, correct three mistakes in a Wikipedia entry, argue for the importance of a theme left out of the CliffNotes video on Hamlet, or copy a quotation and explain why they think it is essential for the persuasiveness of a particular reading. Students then bring these index cards to class and swap them with a neighbor who then reads the response, turns the card over, and, on the back, writes a rebuttal, paraphrases the argument, or provides another perspective.

Maintaining vigilance about the veracity or persuasiveness of everything found on the Internet is an essential skill. Scholars are trained to be skeptical, but too often we do not address this “complex” skill until after more “basic” skills have been covered—and after the rigidity of disciplinary thinking has been allowed to calcify. But now that the bar to publishing on the Internet is essentially zero, providing “trusted” sources like textbooks may evoke a false comfort that ironically exists only in the Ivory Tower. Employers will be grateful for graduates who question sources.

Before class is also a good time for students to create diagrams, imagine alternative theories, find relevance, explore connections, outline proposals, summarize data, and provide solutions to problems. These do not have to be long assignments, but it is essential that they get student thinking, evaluating, and synthesizing before class.

Using class time

Now you face a room full of prepared students with time for discussion, application, active learning, role playing, or problem solving. Can you structure your class more like a lab or studio now? Try applying something prepared as “homework” to a new situation. Have students prepare a presentation for a meeting in New York, for example. Then, at the start of the class, tell them the meeting has been moved to Tokyo, that the original data were flawed, or the client wants something different. Give them fifteen minutes in class to figure out how to alter the presentation.

Now you can really learn what students think and how they process. If your class is large, and since you no longer need to cover the content, perhaps you can meet with students in small groups only, rather than as a large class. Your preparation will now focus more on the design of an experience than on the coverage of content. Remember that more content, more reading, and more “exposure” do not necessarily result in more learning. Especially in introductory courses, less content and more focus on how to study and apply can create more motivated learners for upper-division courses. Nothing kills academic motivation like a freshmen “survey” course that skims the surface all semester.

Cognitive wrappers

The goal of college is to help students develop more complex mental models. John Dewey called it “thinking about your own thinking.” This is mostly a process of helping students learn to self-regulate their own learning process.

A great way to do this is to use cognitive wrappers, a generalized approach based on Marsha Lovett’s exam wrappers in STEM fields.3 When handing back a paper, a problem set, an exam, or audition results, consider also providing students with a single sheet of paper and asking them to reflect on three questions: (1) How did they prepare? (2) Where did they lose points? (3) How might they prepare differently next time? The students themselves will start to see that these three things might be connected.

Do not grade these student reflections. Simply allow students to complete this exercise in class. You can collect them and hand them out before the next test, paper assignment, or audition. Wrappers are much more effective when used simultaneously in very different classes or situations, as students will then start to think about how their preparation and study habits might need to be customized for different tasks.4

Using technology to reinforce

Social media can be used as teaching tools, allowing students to connect ideas. Try asking students to use your Twitter hashtag (#mycourse) and find one connection (a web link) per week that they can post. Twitter is all about connections, and your students often don’t even look for the connections between your class and the outside world. In fact, if you don’t ever contact students outside of class, you are reinforcing the idea that the information in your class is not relevant to the “real world.” First, connect.

Social media also enable you to show your passion (students perceive your messages as supportive and motivating). And, oddly, they also offer a way to demonstrate the power of slow thinking. Students think that because you are smart and know lots of things, you must always know the answer. They will be shocked when, instead of answering a question in class, you want to “think about that question” or “first do more research” and then respond in an e-mail message to the entire class. Time for reflection and interaction is a casualty of the digital age, but you can help reclaim this time.

By interacting with your students, you serve as a role model for them. Only you can demonstrate that what really makes you “smart” is that you are open to new ideas and allow them to give you new perspectives. You have another superpower: you can change your mind.


1. See Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013).

2. L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

3. Marsha C. Lovett, “Make Exams Worth More Than the Grade: Using Exam Wrappers to Promote Metacognition,” in Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning, ed. Matthew Kaplan, Naomi Silver, Danielle LaVaque-Manty, and Deborah Meizlish (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2013), 18–52.

4. I have created a general template for cognitive wrappers in any field. It’s available for free at

José Antonio Bowen is president of Goucher College.

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