IT Connect
Information technology tools and resources at the UW

Jaime Diaz: Engaging Students and Creating Community

Head shot of Jaime Diaz

Dr. Jaime Diaz
Psychology Department
University of Washington, Seattle Campus



A member of the Carnegie Foundation Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Dr. Jaime Diaz is a Neuroscientist and Professor in the UW Department of Psychology. He teaches two courses regularly: Drugs and Behavior, and The Neurobasis of Behavior.

Diaz has maintained a long-standing commitment to improve student learning through new teaching techniques and technology. He articulated this commitment in his 1995 Yearly Activity Report:

“Raising the quality of university teaching has become a major priority for me. Specifically, I have become an active advocate for raising the quality of teaching at UW and especially for the intelligent use of computers in our teaching. I am convinced that the advances in computer technology, especially in the area of telecommunications, will virtually change the ‘infrastructure’ of the University and profoundly change the nature of higher education.”

Challenge – Engaging Students and Expanding the Classroom

The general challenge for Diaz is to engage the students, expand the classroom, and create community.

Diaz has found success in making learning more like a game. “If you conduct your class, like ‘I’m going to give you little bits of information,’ they won’t come to class. That’s a bad model. We are more than the information we bring to class. We are thinking about the info. We are how to use that info. Factoids die quick…they can find it on Google. Students want more video and interactivity… make it a game and they’ll play.”

Diaz is a big advocate of online discussion boards like GoPost where he lets the students answer their own questions. He also uses surveys to provoke students to think about their learning (metacognition). Questions at the beginning of the course include, “Why are you taking the class?” “What do you expect from this class?” “What does it take for a class to be successful for you?” Posing such questions, Diaz is able to get the students to think about their expectations and the amount of work they will need to put into the class to achieve their learning objectives.

Technologies for Teaching

Before PowerPoint and Flash Animations, Diaz had to pantomime brain structures or bring brains to class (which was somewhat challenging for 200 students to see). When the technology became available, he began to design QuickTime animation brain models that he could then project for the students.

Diaz is a big advocate for using technology tools in the classroom. Though Diaz is clear that pedagogy is paramount, he believes technological tools can enhance the teaching and learning experience.

“I feel strongly about technology enhancing teaching. Of course you can mess up anything, including the blackboard or overhead. If there’s a technology in use with teaching, it can be abused. So you have to do it intelligently so you get the students to learn.”

Diaz uses technology to support a range of teaching tasks:

  • Enhancing the lecture (PowerPoint, Quicktime VR, Flash Animation, YouTube)
  • Creating a hub for class information through the class Web site (CommonView, Dreamweaver)
  • Fostering a learning community (GoPost)
  • Providing a vehicle for student feedback (WebQ, UMail)
  • Submitting assignments (Collect It)
  • Distributing the lecture material (PDF versions of the slides, GoPost, podcasting)
  • Organizing and submitting grades (Gradebook)


Diaz continues to develop and experiment with technologies for teaching. He recently switched from using Dreamweaver for his class Web site to CommonView and is pleased with how easy it is to use and update even when he’s out of town.

After collecting positive student feedback about the idea, Diaz also recently began to offer Skype “office hours” as an alternative to coming to his office.

Lessons Learned – Use Technology Intelligently

Diaz is also a lead in the Faculty Fellows program where he advocates the intelligent use of technology.

“People say, ‘I don’t use the technology, I use the overhead or the whiteboard.’  Well, that’s your technology. Embrace the technology you use and make sure you are using it intelligently. It’s not about the tools, it’s about the pedagogy…bad teaching with technology is still bad teaching. If you have your class buy clickers and then don’t use clickers, then shame on you. If you put up a discussion board and then don’t talk about it in class, then who’s going to post?”

As a neuroscientist, Diaz also offers some useful information on maintaining student focus during class: “You don’t use just one technology when you teach and you cannot maintain a constant cognitive stream for the students. They need a break, and you can do that by mixing your technologies.”

Diaz mixes technologies even further, by inviting his students to engage with a centuries-old technology of the mind. At the beginning of every class, he includes a meditation moment that includes breathing and mindfulness techniques: “There is a lot of neuroscience behind why that should work and does work for focusing and concentrating and pushing out distractions.” Perhaps by making use of one of humanity’s first technologies, students are better able to take advantage of the latest technologies.

Get Started – Try WebQ

Diaz has been incorporating technology in his teaching for several years. If you’re new to using educational technology, you can start small. For example, at the start of a quarter, experiment with WebQ by surveying your students with questions similar to the ones that Diaz uses (“Why are you taking the class?” “What do you expect from this class?” “What does it take for a class to be successful for you?”).

As you gain familiarity with educational technologies and experience the benefits to your teaching and your students, you’ll gain confidence about adding more tools to your collection.