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Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher

By Donna M. Qualters & Miriam Rosalyn Diamond
New Forums Press
227 pages
ISBN: 1-58107-085-3
$19.95 (paper)

Reviewed by

Gary Cretser

Psychology and Sociology Department
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


Just who is this Jonas Chalk? He is purported to be a “very wise, but not overly pedantic, teaching guru who knows the teaching literature, human nature, and classroom dynamics” (p. 18). He has been called “the conscience of the university teacher…the kindly old professor who understands your problems and has sage advice to offer” (p. 19). He has been described as a professor who “has taught engineering, math, physics, chemistry, and education courses.” Rumor has it he has won a number of teaching awards...taught large and small classes…[and] has both male and female characteristics and sensibilities” (p. 19). With this sort of a resume, I assumed I must be the only person who had never heard of him.

It turns out that Jonas Chalk is the nom de plume of the nine-member (five-man, four-woman) Instructional Development Group core team of the Northeastern University Master Teaching Team. The College of Engineering and the College of Letters Arts and Sciences at Northeastern had received a three-year grant from the General Electric Learning Excellence Fund to improve learning outcomes and the learning experience of engineering students in general and freshman engineering majors in particular.

The Instructional Development Group was tasked to design a faculty development plan that would improve teaching and increase the use of new teaching methods across disciplines. The group recognized that engaging faculty and changing existing teaching practices is a formidable challenge. They needed an approach that required little time or cost, was readily available to large numbers of faculty, was recognized as collegial, and would “provide strategies and alternatives in an explicit way but with enough options to allow the faculty member to make the final decision” (p. 5). They settled on a “Normative/Re-educative” (p. 2) or “problem based learning (PBL)” (p. 3) approach. This model is explained in some detail in chapter 1.

Members of the Instructional Development Group—several of whom had won or been nominated for the Northeastern University Excellence in Teaching award—created Jonas Chalk, a fictional composite of themselves to serve as an electronic teaching-advice columnist. Meeting weekly for an hour over the course of an academic year, they would choose one or two of their number to write a draft column addressing a teaching dilemma or challenge they and their colleagues had faced. The lead “columnist” was expected to review a related article or two in developing a response and to include suggestions gleaned from the weekly brainstorming meetings. This draft was then circulated to the other group members for editing before the column was e-mailed to faculty.

One might assume that the material in the “Chalk Talks” column would be of primary interest and use to instructors of science, math, and engineering, but this is not the case. In chapters with titles such as “Dear Jonas: Where’s the Cafeteria or What’s the Best Way to Reach Freshmen?” “Don’t They Teach Them Anything in High School?” “Since When Did I Become Manager of the Class?” “How Can I Be Everything to Everybody?” and “When Is an A an A?” Jonas answers questions related to engaging first-year students, keeping students connected in class, communicating effectively with students, managing the classroom, dealing with diversity, testing, and managing teaching assistants.

Each chapter contains a short introductory section written by a member of the team followed by a list of books, presentations, and websites, for further reading. A quick inspection revealed that many of these resources appear to be useful. The overview is followed by several questions related to the chapter theme supposedly sent to Jonas from faculty members with pseudonyms like “Lonely in the Classroom” (p. 113), “Not Sherlock Holmes” (p. 122), “Professor Sandman” (p. 83), “Midterm Blues Man” (p. 115), and “Uneasy Instructor” (p. 134). At the end of each of Jonas’s responses is a boxed “quick tip” that has been found useful in dealing with the issue at hand. For example, in the chapter on communication, “Dear Jonas: What Can I Say?” there is advice on

  • dealing with students who are inattentive and bored in class,
  • dealing with student excuses for missed homework and tests,
  • getting students to come to office hours and effectively assisting students during these periods,
  • dealing with students who monopolize too much class time,
  • dealing with a team-teaching issues,
  • handling e-mail from students, and
  • communicating with students outside of class.

Although some of the material is probably of most interest to faculty relatively new to the teaching profession, I found this book to be full of valuable suggestions, many of which I could readily adapt to my own classes. Jonas’s recommendations include using the “peer instruction” method (Mazur) for engaging students; scheduling office hours across two or more class scheduling modules in order to distribute student office visits; as an initial assignment, having students write a letter about their hobbies, jobs, and other aspects of themselves in order to connect with freshmen; allowing a full ten seconds after posing a question or pairing students up to formulate answers in classes where students are reluctant to respond to questions; and in order to estimate the time needed for students to complete an exam, having the instructor finish the exam and multiply by three.

The final chapter contains suggestions for how the e-advice model can be used on other campuses to further the goals of faculty development. At Northeastern, the Chalk Talk format has been successful in helping to build a sense of community among faculty from across campus. It has served as a stimulus for faculty from diverse disciplines and departments to become acquainted, discover they encounter similar problems in teaching, and share successful strategies for improving teaching and learning. I think this format has the potential for improving teaching on other campuses as well.

A principal theme of this book is that effective communication is necessary for good teaching and learning to occur. This group of colleagues at Northeastern University has done a service to college teachers everywhere by effectively communicating much of their combined teaching wisdom in the form of Chalk talks.


Mazur, E. Peer Instruction: Collaborative learning in large lectures. Harvard University. Mazur Group.

Posted April 5, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Gary A. Cretser.

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