Thursday, December 3, 2009

Time to Slow Down

I know, this time of year everything seems to be speeding up. As the semester comes to an end, and we are flooded with grading, meetings, and planning for next year (not to mention personal commitments, office parties, and holiday shopping), we all seem to be doing a dash for the finish line. But at what expense?

Lately my bedtime reading has been "In Praise of Slowness" by Carl Honore. Perhaps ironically, I haven't had much time to read, so I am barely past the first few chapters. However, it has gotten me thinking about what we sacrifice to fulfill our need for speed. Among other things (such as our health), we often sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity.

As you wrap up the final sessions of your courses, think about what you want students to take away with them. What do you want them to remember? Maybe it's a better use of your time (and theirs), instead of rushing through the content that you somehow need to fit into the last week, to pause and reflect back on what you've all learned over the course of the semester. I don't mean a rapid review of every lesson and every reading, although many students seem to want this before a final exam. What I have in mind is taking the time to step back and look at the big picture. What were the big questions that were addressed, and what questions still remain? How will students use what they've learned in your course in their daily lives?

Bigger, faster, more more more. This seems to be how we live our lives, build our careers, and teach the next generation of researchers and educators (parents, employees, citizens) to operate. But are we teaching them to reflect, to grow, to be better at what they do?

Photo courtesy of / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remind me - what is it that I love about teaching?

One thing too few teachers do is take time to reflect on their teaching.

I am absolutely guilty of this. The current semester seems as though it's been busier and more stressful than the previous three semesters combined. I find myself so caught up in prepping, and grading, and meeting with students, and answering emails - not to mention research, and meetings, and mentoring, etc. - that I find it difficult to get anything done, much less enjoy doing it! Lately when I've asked myself "Why do I teach?" it's been muttered under my breath in a rather cynical tone.

I think it's normal for everyone to feel this way sometimes. Obviously I love to teach, or I wouldn't have chosen teaching, and instructor development, as a career. However, I think that every now and again it's a good idea to take a few moments to reflect on what I love about teaching, and what my goals are as an instructor.

Among the many things I love about teaching is the excitement students display when they "get it". Lately we've been having discussions in one of my classes in which students are spontaneously making connections between the course material and what they're observing in their service learning placements, working for the most part with underprivileged preschoolers. The enthusiasm with which they talk about how they could actually use what they learned in class to understand a young child and ultimately help him to read a book, wait his turn, or make a new friend is amazingly rewarding. And it's inspiring - it reminds me that one of my goals as an educator is to provide these kinds of learning opportunities for students, and motivates me to dream up new ways of reaching them. This little moment of clarity is worth all of the hectic rushing around I do the rest of the day.

Taking the time to reflect is important not only to hold on to one's sanity, but also to help us continue to grow.

In the picture above, I am standing in the front (in pink), surrounded by last year's cohort of talented TA Scholars.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Teaching Online

For many reasons, more and more courses are going online. Are you prepared to teach online?

If not, there are many resources available to you at the University of Utah. At CTLE we teach 2 courses aimed specifically at preparing instructors to teach online. UGS 6510: Cyberpedagogy introduces you to the similarities and differences between teaching face-to-face and in an online learning environment. You'll learn about best practices in online education and have the opportunity to begin developing tools for an online course of your own. UGS 6520: Advanced Cyberpedagogy is an opportunity to continue building an online course, or improve an existing one, with the guidance of experts in pedagogy and technology from CTLE and TACC. The best part about these courses? They are conducted fully online, so you can experience the course from the perspective of a student and as an instructor in an online course.

TACC (the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center) is currently accepting proposals for grants to support the development of online courses. On their website you can find recommended practices for online courses, developed in cooperation with CTLE.

Not sure if online is right for you or your course? We will also be offering a workshop on online teaching this coming Friday - there is still time to register, so take advantage of this opportunity to get free guidance regarding the advantages and disadvantages of teaching online! This workshop will be held face-to-face, as well as in a synchronous Wimba format.

Finally, our current issue of lessons is now online. The current issue is chock full of insights and commentary from students, as well as interviews with professors, relevant to teaching and learning online.

Did you know?
CTLE offers evaluations of courses, including online courses, and consultations with instructors. These services are available for free to anyone involved in instruction at the U. Request an evaluation or consultation today!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ensuring Academic Integrity

Today I attended one of the workshops in our Teaching Workshops Series. This particular workshop was on how to deter academic misconduct, and how to deal with it if it occurs. We shared a lot of great tips and ideas.

For example, breaking written assignments down into several parts (e.g., topic selection, annotated bibliography, outline, draft, final) means that students must work through the steps towards a final written assignment, making plagiarism less likely - and meaning you end up grading more polished work! This doesn't necessarily increase grading time - you can grade the early stages as credit/no credit, or even make them subject to peer review.

For exams, some of the ideas included writing essay (or at least partially written answers) instead of completely multiple choice exams, as this makes it harder for students to memorize answers if they get them ahead of time, or to copy from a classmate. Also, make sure you're modifying your exams each semester so the same set of questions and answers isn't going out semester after semester. If you do use multiple choice, try creating different forms by, for example, shuffling the order of the questions.

For all of the great tips and resources from this workshop, check out CTLE Videos. The video of the workshop itself may take a week or so to post, but in the mean time you can view videos of past workshops or sign up for future workshops. The next is on October 30: Workshop 3: Is an Online Format Right for You and Your Course? (classroom and WIMBA settings).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tips for Quick Grading Written Work

As we approach midterms (I know, already!), you may be testing out those red pens, doing wrist-strengthening exercises, and stocking up on chocolate-covered double-espresso beans to help get you through the grading that is to come.

But grading doesn't have to be this way. Really.

So how can you reduce the time and energy required to grade? I'm concentrating here on written work (lab reports, essay exams, thought papers), and will focus on other types of assessments in future posts.

1) Have as much written work submitted electronically as possible.

Although some instructors are "old school" about grading by hand, once you get used to reading on the screen and providing type-written comments you'll realize that it's much faster. Other perks: you're saving paper, you have a copy of all of your comments saved to your computer, and students will never complain about your hand writing again!

2) Have a well-defined rubric.

We always recommend not only creating clear grading criteria and weighting of points, but also offering this to students ahead of time. All of my written assignment descriptions are accompanied by the rubric right in the syllabus. On exams, whenever I include multiple-part written answer questions, I am sure to include the point breakdown. This helps students focus their efforts on the most important points, and actually leads to better formulated responses. When it comes time to grade, you can convert your rubric into a checklist and simply go down the list. Students are less likely to be confused about why they earned the grade they did, and you've sped up your grading time considerably.

Never created a rubric before? Come to us for guidance. Or try RubiStar, where you can create your own rubrics for free.

Bonus points: Pair this tip with the previous one and complete and return all of your rubrics electronically.

3) Create "canned" feedback.

This is an ingenious tip from Darrell Coleman, Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence.

Have you ever noticed as you grade that students always seem to have trouble with the exact same concepts? There are always patterns in the errors students make; the same confusions appear from semester to semester. So why should you have to respond each and every time the same mistake is made? Well, you don't.

If you create a document with all of the comments you make the first time you grade an assignment, you can simply go back to that document and cut and paste each time you need to make the same comment again. Brilliant!

What are your time-saving tips for grading written work? We'd love to hear them!

Photo by

Monday, September 21, 2009

Peer Review - Increasing quality and decreasing grading time

Have you ever looked at a stack of student work and thought, "I wish I didn't have to grade this pile of garbage!" Well, the answer is simple. Don't.

Instead, get students to review one another's work before submitting it. This is quite common in writing classes, but why can't it also be used in science classes where students are writing research papers, in humanities classes where they are writing essays, in fine arts classes where they are creating and designing? Any time students are being asked to submit work that you hope they have taken the time to proofread or revise in some way, you can take advantage of peer review.

All you need to do is create an earlier deadline, and offer points for submitting work early and reviewing other students' work. I suggest giving students your grading rubric ahead of time so that they can (a) use it to guide their own work, and (b) use it to review the work of their peers. You can use class time to do peer reviews, or you can set up groups on your course website for students to review written work. You don't have to grade the submission or feedback beyond the fact that it has been completed, but I find giving guidelines on how to leave effective feedback and possibly grading feedback with a simple scale (like credit/no credit or check, check-minus, check-plus) helps.

Not only will having their work reviewed by others lead to a better product, research has shown that when students spend time reviewing someone else's work their own work improves as well. (Anecdotally, I also find that for some reason students are more embarrassed about turning in shoddy work to their peers than they are to me, so even the first drafts tend to be better!)

In the end, your students have learned something about providing useful feedback, they've gone through a revision process they might not otherwise have done on their own, and you have the pleasure of grading a much more polished set of submissions.

Image courtesy of

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Teaching Efficiently - What a bright idea!

By now many of us have switched to energy efficient light bulbs, water-saving shower heads and low-flow toilets, re-useable instead of disposable everything. Some of these changes have been made to ease the strain on the environment. Many of these changes have been made to ease the strain on our wallets.

So you may have made your home more energy efficient, but have you done the same for your teaching? The energy we're trying to save here is not necessarily electricity or water, although I suppose we could consider it a natural resource: it's YOU.

Now that so many of us are teaching more classes, each with more students, and trying at the same time to increase research productivity, it seems like the time is ripe to learn what small changes you can make in the way you teach that can add up to big savings in terms of your time, energy, and sanity!

Over the next few weeks we'll be sharing tips on how to teach more efficiently now, and how to make changes to make next semester even better. We also want to hear from you, so share your ideas here or email them to us at

Image courtesy of

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Going paperless

Increases in environmental awareness, and decreases in budget sizes, mean that more and more offices are going paperless. But how can this be done?

I've searched the web and surveyed colleagues to bring you some ideas of how to make your classroom (and maybe all of your academic pursuits) paperless.

  • Make your syllabus available online. Many of us already do this, but then print out copies for students. I haven't printed any copies for the past 3 semesters, and have yet to receive a complaint. Sure, some students print them out for themselves, but there are others who choose to view the syllabus online only, so at least some paper is being saved. (And at the very least, it's not coming out of your budget.)
  • Make handouts available online only. Making lecture notes and handouts available online gives students the choice to print them out or only keep electronic versions, and saves you money by reducing the printing you are doing. If you are asking students to complete a worksheet in class, have it posted on your PowerPoint slides and ask them to copy it to their notebooks. You may also consider encouraging students to bring their laptops to class with them.
  • Stop using overhead slides! Overhead slides need to be reprinted every time you update your lessons. (If you've been using the same slides for more than a few years, you should rethink your lessons. Aren't you getting bored with them?) Opt instead for a more renewable resource, like PowerPoint or the whiteboard/blackboard available in most classrooms.
  • Have assignments submitted online. Use Blackboard Vista or other course management system to have students turn in their assignments online. Additional perks: everything is time and date stamped, and already in a form that can be run through plagiarism software if you so choose. Just make sure that you are providing comments online, and not printing everything out to write longhand. Perk for students: no more illegible handwriting to try to decipher, and grades are available as soon as you're done grading.
  • Consider having quizzes/exams online. As long as you are comfortable with students completing work on their own, you can have them take their exams outside of class time. Many classroom management software packages (including Blackboard Vista) allow you to create self-grading multiple-choice, True/False, and fill-in-the-blank tests. You can also create rubrics for easy grading of open-ended written answer questions. Consider creating exams that are meant to be open-book, or use the timing features of your course management system to limit how long students have to complete the quiz. Even if you have students completing calculations where they need to show their work, you can do it all online (just introduce them to the equation editors available in most word processing software)!
  • Use student response systems. For quizzes, exams, surveys - anything that requires numerical or short text answers in class. The U is now using TurningPoint. Find out more here.
  • Adopt an e-book. I haven't made the switch yet, but it's something I'm definitely considering. Students like the cheaper prices, and you'll probably like the resource materials to which you gain access. Although many are worried about the quality of these texts, the ones you purchase through the major textbook publishing companies are usually just electronic versions of what you'd be using anyway. One thing to be aware of (and warn students about) is that many electronic textbooks only offer a limited subscription (and of course, students won't be able to sell back a used copy).
  • Print, but only to your computer. If you or your students find an article online that you want to read, instead of printing to paper, print it to pdf. CutePDF is a free downloadable program to do this. (Tip from Small Notebook for a Simple Home.) When you do have to print, be sure to print in the smallest font you can read comfortably, with narrow margins, and on both sides of the page.
Don't feel like you have to make all of these changes at once. Adopting small changes gradually will likely ease the transition and make you more likely to stick with it. Every little bit helps!

Did you know?
There are additional tips for making your research paperless available on the Sciencewomen blog. Try also TeachPaperless, a blog geared towards K-12 but also with useful insights for Higher Ed.

Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An ounce of prevention...

Are you feeling a bit frantic? Is the beginning of the semester making you want to cry out for help?

Then you're not alone. Both new and experienced instructors and TAs alike tend to greet the new semester with a mixture of excitement and dread. If you're like me you probably enjoy the promise of a fresh start - the chance to fix past mistakes and try out new ideas. But at the same time you're probably also wondering how you're going to manage your teaching and all of you other commitments (and still hopefully have time for some sleep). You may be asking yourself, "So how far ahead of the students should I be in reading the textbook?". Or you may have found a new mantra - "Please don't let WebCT go down. Please don't let WebCT go down." (Of course, replace "WebCT" with any technology you rely on but aren't quite sure how it actually works, and certainly don't know how to fix it should you - or your students - run into trouble.)

As always, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Organization, as in many facets of life, is key. Take time each day to review your "to do" list and prioritize your tasks. Make sure you plan at the beginning of each week (or the end if you like to rest easy over the weekend) what needs to be done and set aside time to do it. Don't forget to schedule time in for grading and course preparation, and don't allow meetings or other commitments to flow over into this time. Also, be sure to look over your syllabi and try to judge when students will be most likely to need to visit your office or flood your inbox with emails. It's a safe bet that even if your office hours are usually a ghost town, right before and after exams or major assignments you will need some time to deal with student questions (and possibly complaints).

I know that many of us are now teaching more classes than before due to the combination of budget cuts and increased enrollments. This may mean that even those who were organization dynamos before are now having to rethink their strategies. Feel free to contact the Center for Teachign & Learning Excellence to schedule a consultation to review your courses and brainstorm ways you can streamline your prep and grading. Takign an hour out of your week to plan ahead is sure to pay off in the long run.

Taking some steps towards increasing the efficiency of your teaching means you'll get more bang for your (time and energy) buck. At the very least, I promise you'll sleep better. As soon as you finish tomorrow morning's lesson plan.

Photo courtesy of / CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


If you are new to the blog (and perhaps to the University of Utah as well), I'd like to wish you a warm WELCOME!

For everyone else WELCOME BACK!

It's the beginning of Fall semester already - can you believe it!?! This year we have a great selection of services for you to take advantage of. Here are a few highlights:

The Annual TA Teaching Symposium - Every year we are joined by faculty and senior graduate students from across campus to provide a day of break-out sessions on teaching topics designed especially for new TAs. You can see the whole program and check out materials from this year's event here. To gain online access to videos of previous sessions, email us at

The Teaching Workshop Series - Each month we have another free workshop. This year, many of the topics were chosen by YOU. The first workshop will be September 25 on the topic of Ensuring Integrity with Student Work. Click here for more details and to register.

FREE & CONFIDENTIAL Mid-term Evaluations - We can visit your classroom and provide you with feedback, discuss the class with your students, or collect feedback from students online. We offer a wide variety of evaluation options to best meet your needs. We follow up with a one-on-one consultation to provide you with resources and answer your questions. Great for the beginning TA or the seasoned professor!

For a full list of our services, please see our website. And be sure to check back here for teaching tips, announcements, and reflections on teaching.

We can't wait to work with you this year!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New Semester Top Ten

Recently the University of Utah Daily Utah Chronicle asked readers to name the Top Ten Tips for Incoming Freshmen. They posted their list on Facebook.

I want to know, what are your top tips for new instructors? What do you wish you had known before stepping into the classroom on the first day?

To provide new Teaching Assistants with some tips before they begin teaching, we are again hosting the Annual TA Teaching Symposium, lovingly referred to as "ATTS". You can check out the program on our website at We also have videos available from previous sessions. Email us at to gain online access.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Getting ready...

It's that time again! Summer grades have been posted, Fall syllabi have been copied (or preferably posted online - save a tree!), lesson plans are ready to go.

What? You mean you haven't done any of this?

Getting into the swing of things for Fall can be difficult, whether you're wrapping up from teaching a summer course or are coming back from vacation. But now is the time to get all of that work done, as a well-prepared course is sure to run much more smoothly than one you've jumped into on the first day back. (For you vacationers, think of the difference between a well-prepared dive and a belly flop!)

So here's your back-to-school checklist:

1) Prepare your syllabi. Use the handy syllabus guidelines found here. If you have questions, or just need another set of eyes to look things over, email your syllabus to us at A trained consultant will review your syllabus and send you feedback.

2) Check out your classroom. It's just awful to get stuck with a classroom that doesn't have what you need. Check out the rooms you will be teaching in and make sure they have the seating capacity, room arrangement, and technological support you need. Don't just look to be sure everything's there - play with the lights and the audiovisual equipment to make sure everything is in working order. Figure out who you need to call to fix things last minute or change the temperature in the room. If things are really bad, find out if there are any other rooms available that better fit your needs.

3) Prepare your lesson plans. I always like to go into the new semester with at least a few weeks of lesson plans ready to go. Lesson plans are important to get you off on the right foot, and keep everything running smoothly all semester. Don't know how to create a lesson plan? See our website for some helpful tips. Also, be sure to work in a couple of ice breakers so you can get to know your students early on in the semester.

4) Prepare your course website. Just about every course has some online materials, even if it's just a link to the syllabus and reading list. Get your website ready and ask a colleague or one of our staff members to review the site and make sure it's easy to use. If your course is fully online, make sure you have someone tour through it and give you feedback before it becomes available to students. Don't know how to put together a website? Check out the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center (TACC) - they offer beginner workshops and one-on-one help.

5) Send a welcome email to your students. Tell them a bit about yourself. Let them know if they need to prepare anything for the first day (e.g., buy the textbook and other materials, print the syllabus, visit the course website). Welcome them to thte course and let them know how excited you are to meet them all!

6) Breathe. The beginning of the semseter, especially Fall, can feel a bit overwhelming. But with a little preperation, you can actually walk into the first day of class calm, cool, and collected.

If you need more help getting ready for the first day, register for our workshop Preparing for the First Day (faculty only), or for the Annual TA Teaching Symposium (graduate students and undergraduate TAs only). All workshops are free for University of Utah faculty, students, and staff.

Photo courtesy of / CC BY 2.0

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Come on baby, kiss that frog!

Remember The Frog Prince ? This was the fairytale where the frog convinced the princess that if she kissed him he would turn into a handsome human prince and they would live happily ever after.

What does this have to do with teaching? Well, around the end of each semester, many an undergraduate student makes allusions to this story. They seem to think that despite the fact that they've spent the entire semester sitting comfortably on a lily pad in a marsh somewhere (or whatever it is they've actually been doing besides studying), with a little bit of kissing up they can magically become students who will sail off into the sunset with a passing grade in your class. And you're meant to feel like the evil queen if you refuse to help them in their quest.

Now I'm all about second chances. We've all run into tough spots from time to time that we needed a little help and understanding to get out of. After all, life happens, right? But this is why I keep in touch with my students throughout the semester, asking those who are doing poorly or suddenly show a drop in performance to meet with me to get extra help. This is also why I create extra credit assignments - so folks who dug themselves into a little hole can find their way back out. But if that hole is six feet deep, I'm sorry my dear, but you seem to have dug your own grave.

I feel for these students, I really do (despite what you might have heard me mumble under my breath). The ugly truth however is that not everyone will succeed in college. Cutting some students extra breaks is not fair to the students who worked hard all semester (and trust me, they all have lives and difficulties of their own). It's not fair to future employers who take at face value the college degree you come to them with. It's not fair to you, the frog, as if you've never had to climb up out of the mud on your own then you'll never learn how.

I don't think that these students are bad people. I don't even think they want special treatment - most of them come into my office not with a sense of entitlement, but embarrassed and desperate. My guess is that somehow along the way we (educators, parents) forgot that eventually Froggy would have to do things for himself. In the real world, not everyone gets a prize. If you consistently miss deadlines or fail to show up, you probably don't get to keep your job. A little bit doesn't always go a long way.

And frogs don't turn into princes.

Photo courtesy of _marmota

Monday, July 20, 2009

Just another face in the crowd?

Do you know how to recognize when a student needs help?

Sure, their test scores suffer. Maybe they don't seem to be following along in class. Perhaps they're not even coming to class. But when you are teaching 100+ students, and that's just one class, how are you to know?

Unfortunately, the students who really need help are often invisible. They're the ones who show up for the final exam and you don't recognize them. You know their names but not what they look like. You're surprised at the end of the semester that they're still enrolled.

Some of us take the time to try to contact these students. We ask them to come and see us in our offices (although as one student recently told me, if he were failing he'd be too embarrassed to come see the instructor). Maybe we write "See me" on the bottom of a term paper that never gets picked up. We email and hope that they check their school account every once in a while, even if it's just for discounted football tickets.

Some of these students are struggling because they're too wrapped up in the non-scholastic side of college life. I imagine some didn't come prepared with the skills they need for college and now don't know how to get help (or are too afraid to ask). Some, I'm afraid, may be calling out for help.

The U of U Counseling Center has some great resources available to help you identify what may be more than just irresponsibility and potentially a warning sign of a serious problem. They'll help you identify red flags, learn how to talk to a student who may be in danger of hurting themselves or others, and also provide free and reduced-rate counseling services to students seeking help.

My only question now is how can we reach these students? Do we keep sending emails into the over-loaded inbox that they never check? Do we tackle them at the door of the classroom before they can disappear? What can we do if they refuse our help?

My answer right now is to just keep trying and hopefully just knowing that someone is paying attention and is concerned will have some impact.

Photo by Edgar Zuniga Jr.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Need some rejuvinating?

Doesn't this look refreshing?

Don't you wish there was a way to do this mentally? A way to have some fun and come back refreshed - but with no guilt and no catching up to do?

We at CTLE spent all day yesterday at an off-site retreat. We didn't spend a lot of money - one of our team members hosted us at his home. It wasn't all fun and games - we worked hard all day! But because we enjoy one another's company and what we do, we were able to have a really productive day that left us (I think I can speak for everyone here) refreshed and inspired. Although we always walk away with a lot of work to do, it's also with a renewed sense of purpose and excitement, as well as a greater appreciation of one another.

So how can you apply this to your teaching? Why not have a teaching retreat? I think it would be a great idea for folks who teach similar classes to get together, even if it's just once a year, and share new ideas, try out activities, and work together to find solutions to problems. It might be even more exciting to get together folks who teach in different disciplines - it would be a great chance to learn from one another, and you likely have more in common than you might think.

Can't get everyone together in the same location at the same time? Why not hold the meeting online, taking advantage of the online tools available to us, such as Wimba? This would allow everyone to join from wherever they happen to be (even if it's at home in pjs), and to try out new technologies. Although Wimba can be used with a phone or through text-based conversation, why not buy a webcam (they're fairly inexpensive these days) so you can see one another (although pjs are not recommended in this case).

Don't have a group to meet with? Why not hold your own personal teaching retreat? Clear a full day on your calendar to surround yourself with all of the notes and resources you've been meaning to review. Create an agenda so you don't find yourself tuning out and checking email, listening to the radio, etc. Set goals for the next semester or year (e.g., incorporate at least one new activity into each class, try a new technological teaching tool) and devise strategies to help you reach those goals. Take time to create a group of peers so next year you won't be all on your own (you can try searching the internet for chat rooms, listserves, existing groups in your area...)!

Remember, sometimes you have to take time out to set goals, reprioritize, and rejuvinate interest in order to be really effective at what you do. This is time well spent!

Photo courtesy of bbum.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Engaging Students

Last week I mentioned that I thought particular students in my class needed to participate more. My sense is that these students would perform better on exams if I could find ways to better engage them in class.

So in our last class session I tried a few things, including something a bit controversial. I called on students by name.

A few times each semester someone will ask me if I think it's okay for them to call on their students. Usually the undoubtedly satisfying answer I give is : "It depends." I truly believe this answer to be true.

I was for most of my education a student who preferred to listen rather than to share (this is true of my personal life as well). For me at least, this didn't mean that I was not paying attention (at least most of the time), but rather, that I was processing the information and making connections of my own. I really didn't become very good at, or at least very comfortable with, "thinking out loud" until I began to teach as a graduate student. So personally, I think it would have been mortified if a professor had called on me in class without my first volunteering to offer an answer.
In my own classes, however, students like this aggravate me. I read their thoughtfully-constructed and insightful comments on the material in their papers and exams and want to bang my head against my desk (and sometimes do), screaming "Why didn't you say this in class?!?!"

So now to help provide opportunities for students to learn from one another, and to allow me to gauge how the quieter students are doing (are they silent geniuses or completely and utterly lost?), I call on students by name to answer questions. I do give them some time to formulate a response first, sometimes by asking them to write it down, sometimes by discussing in a small group, and sometimes simply by waiting before calling on anyone. Of course, not all students are able to answer. I make a habit of letting them know that they can pass, but that I will call on them again, either later in the same session or next time. My hope is that this will help start a fire to get them to come to class better prepared, and also give me a sense of what types of questions they are struggling with (for example, maybe they can define terms, but not provide a real-life example).

Now obviously, being able to call on students requires that you know their names. More on this next time.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A little venting...

I just finished grading the first exam of the summer, and I am a bit baffled, although I really should know better.

So the situation is this. I created a 3-question, take-home, open-book exam. Students received the questions 2 weeks in advance of the deadline and had a "review session" during which they had a chance to ask questions. The exam questions were (read: should have been) no surprise, as they were directly related to the objectives of the lessons from that unit.

So when I read the answers I was confused/frustrated/demoralized/enraged. Don't get me wrong, many students did very well, and the average (both mean and median, with the mode being somewhat higher) was a B-. Totally acceptable. But still - I thought this should be easy! Everyone save one student has consistently been in class! We covered all of the material - some of it twice (in class and in readings)! They had all of the answers at their fingertips! Didn't they?

Well, I considered, especially for the final question on the exam, whether or not I'd actually covered the material sufficiently. But looking back over my lesson plans, which I habitually stick to, I made sure to do in-class assessments, group work, discussion, etc. based on this material. When all was said and done, they should have known it backwards and forwards, inside and out. And yet...

I've had this sneaking suspicion for the past week or so that I have not been doing a very good job of making sure everyone is participating/contributing equally in class. Although everyone "seems" to be following along, I realized last week that there is really a core group of students who do most of the talking. (Sound familiar to anyone?) Not surprisingly, I suppose, these were the students who did fairly well on the exam.

So I guess my job now is to find some ways to get the quieter students to actively take part in class and then report back to you as to how it all worked out.

How will I do this? Stay tuned...

(Picture credit to quinn.anya)

At some point it just clicks

Does this look at all familiar to you? This is the old-fashioned way to poll a group of students. Green = Yes, Red = No. Or Green = True, Red = False. Or Green = 1, Red = 2. You get the point.

These little cards have been especially helpful when polling large classes (think 50 or more) - you see a sea of color in response to a question. But wouldn't you rather see something like this:

This is what you can have if you use TurningPoint as your audience response system. These graphs are automatically generated after you poll your students, and show up on your PowerPoint slide or on your screen (if you are not using PowerPoint). There is also a wide array of other exciting features, from quizzes (including multiple choice and number/text response options) to games.

TurningPoint is the brand of audience response system (A.K.A. clickers) that the U has officially adopted. I was just at a training session, and discovered that not only do these fun little gadgets have a lot of features, they're also easy to use, both for the student and for the instructor. If you'd like to learn more about clickers - both how to use the technology and how to use this tool to support effective teaching - register for one (or several - there are a few different options) of the upcoming training sessions in August.

What's the cost? Training is free to you as a member of the U community, and instructors will receive a free receiver (which you'll need to collect responses from students' clickers) each time they order 100 clickers to the bookstore. (There are also a few receivers that can be signed out from IMS, and some departments are purchasing their own.) Students will buy their clickers from the U Bookstore, and will be able to use them in any class that incorporates this technology into the classroom throughout their time here at the U. For those who don't want to buy a clicker just for one class, they have the option of paying a small fee to use the service via the web or their cell phone.

What are the benefits? Student engagement, anonymous polls, graded questions, automatic attendance taking, etc. See this video of a recent workshop to learn more!

Photo courtesy of mathplourde

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Exam Averages

I received this email this week:

"Is there an exam average that instructors should be aiming for with exams? I hear that an average of 80 is good with at least half the class above 80. Is there any rhyme or reason to this?"

This is an interesting question, and one that people tend to disagree about. My response assumes that this question is asked regarding grading exams, as usually this is when most people ask this question.

The advice that this instructor had received seems to suggest is that the ideal would be to have a relatively normal distribution of grades around an average grade of a B-. Something like this:

However, this also seems to suggest that you can control this distribution. Of course, you can if you choose to grade on a curve. Grading on a curve is generally not advised, however, as it can have many unintended consequences. For example, students generally don't understand that if you are truly grading on a curve, their grade could potentially go down in order for you to be able to fill the "quotas" you've created (e.g., half of the class gets less than a B-). Also, it creates a situation in which students are assessed based on the performance of others in the class, as opposed to being evaluated against a set of standard criteria. I always tell my students that I will be happy to give them all As if they all exceed the expectations set out at the beginning of the course.

This brings us to another point. An "A" doesn't mean that you completed all of the necessary requirements. It means you exceeded expectations, or went above and beyond the call of duty. Indeed, a B is considered "above average" work. I think that many people fail to recall that a "C" is truly an average grade. (Ever heard of grade inflation? But that's a topic for another time...)

This doesn't mean that you should norm your grades around a C either. What it means is that we need to set standards for performance in our classes, be clear about what is required to earn a particular grade, and then evaluate students according to those standards.

Of course, looking at the grade distribution can be helpful. Once you have graded exams or papers against your preset criteria, I do suggest plotting out the grades to see the resulting distribution. If it is positively skewed (meaning that the majority of the grades are above a C), you may want to review the assignment to ensure it was sufficiently challenging given the requirements of the course, and was designed such that it could discriminate between average and excellent work. If so, congratulations - this may be a sign that you are an effective instructor and your students worked hard to learn the material.

If the grades are negatively skewed (meaning usually that a lot of people failed), you may find that your test was too difficult, or did not adequately represent the material covered (it's probably unusual to have an entire class of students who simply don't put in the work). In these cases, you may want to do an item analysis (review the pattern of responses for each question in turn), and drop the items that you deem unfair or ineffective from the assignment. This allows you to bump up grades based on standards relevant to the course material, not simply due to poor grades. Finally, it is not unusual to see a bimodal distribution (where many students did very well, and another subset of students performed quite poorly). Again, I would do an item analysis, but if everything seems to look kosher (the questions seem fair, there wasn't anything special about the group who performed poorly, such as all being from a preexisting group such as ESL students), you can probably chalk this up to a small group of students failing to adequately prepare.

I hope this helps to answer your question!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I love teaching during the summer semester. The classes are usually smaller, the pace is a bit easier (no back to back meetings!), and students even seem less stressed, even though many of them are still working full time as well as taking classes.

The one challenge that becomes more prominent in these summer classes, however, is how to teach to students at different levels of ability, interest in the subject, and preparedness. Summer classes seem to have a way of dividing up the usual mix of students until you are left with mainly two distinct types: (a) those who are repeating the course because of a failing grade the first time around, and (b) those who are incredibly ambitious and using the summer to help them fast-track by finishing up their requirements.

These two sets of students seem different in many ways. The first group tends to struggle, which is made all the more difficult given that they've seen this material before and still can't get a handle on it. The latter students often pick everything up with ease, and you worry they are becoming bored. Sometimes I feel like the only thing they have in common is that everyone wants to get out of class, and be done with the credit, as soon as possible.

How do you teach to these seemingly disparate groups of students in the same class? How do you help support the struggling students while at the same time not losing the attention of the others?

Gosh, I wish I knew.

But I guess since this is a blog about teaching I should at least take a shot at it. I think the secret is motivation. When you ask students why they are taking a class, well at least for the classes I teach, a majority of students will say that it is a requirement for their major, or fulfills a general education requirement. Few of them ever exclaim "I have a burning desire to delve into the complexities of developmental theory and research!" But some will mention some personal interest in the subject - in my classes, I will always get a few folks who are parents, or about to become parents, so child development is particularly interesting, or at least relevant, to them. Then I try to design assignments and bring in examples that relate to how the course material applies to the real world. I also try to stir the pot a bit, and bring up controversial topics that can start discussions. If I can find something - anything - to draw those students in, they seem to get hooked and come along for the ride.

Case in point - last semester I had three African-American football players in my class. You could tell they didn't want to be there (although that may have been aggravated by the fact that they had 5 am practices before my class). After the first exam, it became clear that although they were there physically, that was about the limit of it. Then I showed a video in class, that I chose specially for them. It was of an African-American teen athlete discussing his dating life (we were doing a unit on adolescence). Luckily, my bet paid off, and they seemed to be able to relate to the video. And although the teen in the video didn't talk like the rest of the mainly Caucasian middle-class kids in the other videos on the subject (or like many of the other students in class), he was obviously an intelligent, thoughtful young man. Suddenly, my football players came alive, and although I can't thank this one video for everything (there was also a lot of support from me and their coach, and a lot of hard work on their parts), all three of them did quite a turn-around, and one of them wrote one of the best papers in class at the end of the term.

I didn't ask these students what in particular helped them, what inspired the change, but I like to think that part of it was I made an attempt to figure out who they were. I took them seriously, didn't write them off, and tried to find ways to motivate them to learn the material.

Motivation is going to be different for every student, and sometimes I can't quite figure out what makes a student tick. I think some of them are so focused on grades (both those who aren't getting them, and those who are excelling) that tapping into what interests them about the material is difficult. But every semester I feel like I've reached a few more, and that keeps me going.

Photo by crd!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I recently read about a protest being held at Ohio State concerning their library's switch from books to eBooks, or electronic versions of the printed materials. It seems that the library was discarding thousands of printed versions in favor of the electronic ones.

I've recently discovered that our own University of Utah Marriott Library has also made the decision to switch to eBooks. As I've heard it told, whenever there is an option to purchase an electronic version, the printed version will not be purchased. Apparently, it's too expensive to purchase both, so the library is opting for eBooks.

I can't help but wonder what the implications might be of this decision. Will the use of eBooks influence the way we read and perhaps our ability to learn from written works? What do you think? (VOTE BELOW!)

Although I am sure that there are financial, environmental, and perhaps other arguments to be made, since this is a blog about teaching and learning in higher education, that's what I'll focus on here.

Personally, as a social scientist, I have retrieved the journal articles I use in my research electronically for many years now - I'm even starting to be able to read them online without printing them out. However, when reading a work of fiction, I still prefer to curl up with a book as opposed to my laptop. Is this just force of habit or a personal preference? It's the same information on the computer screen versus the page - does it really matter which medium I use to access the information? I don't honestly know (although I hope to report back on what the research has to say soon).

But what about students and faculty whose research is not housed mainly in peer-reviewed journals? Would reading Descartes or Milton be the same experience online as with a hard copy? I'm not so sure. The Marriott library's own resources suggest that people don't like reading books online, but rather, that electronic versions are more suited to searching for information and fact checking. Is this what we want our students to be doing when they are writing a term paper on Shakespeare's sonnets? Maybe, maybe not. You tell me.

Blog Polls

Photo by minhtu

Monday, April 27, 2009

Is the university just another corporation

I just read an opinion piece in the NY Times, just one of many articles over the past few years that has criticized higher education of being focused on money and not truly on education. This particular piece focuses on the role of graduate students, arguing that we are preparing them for jobs that won't exist once they graduate (either due to overspecialization or tenured professors already taking up all of the positions), and taking advantage of them as cheap resources for teaching and research. Other pieces have argued that undergraduate students are treated, or at times demand to be treated, as customers or clients. Does this mean that assessments of our programs should focus less on learning outcomes and more on customer satisfaction?

I find myself very torn as I think about these issues, as in some ways I want to strongly defend higher education (certainly I chose an academic career path and believe in what I am doing), yet at the same time I can see flaws in the system as it currently operates. Especially in a time when we are under such economic strain, it can become easy to focus on the business side of the institution - being able to keep everything running and protecting job security. But are we losing sight of the mission of higher education?

What do you think?

Photo courtesy of Steve Wampler.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Evaluation season is upon us

At the end of each semester, many students dread their upcoming finals. Many instructors dread the ratings and comments that students provide as evaluations of the course. But fear not - student course evaluations can be our friends!

The purpose of end-of-term evaluations is to give students a chance to provide constructive feedback about the course and the instructor's approach to teaching it. These comments can be used for a variety of purposes, such as RPT (retention, promotion, and tenure) reviews. My hope is that they are also being used to inform future offerings of the course, the instructor's teaching, and students' decisions about course selection.

Now of course, to be able to use student feedback in this way, students need to be motivated to provide feedback, and educated as to how to provide feedback that will be useful to instructors. How often have you seen "This course is great!" (or "This course sucks!"), but have had no idea what was so great (or so awful)?

Having an open discussion with students about what comprises quality feedback may help improve the utility of end-of-term student course evaluations (for both the instructor and future students). You can also provide students with practice, through midterm evaluation opportunities and asking students to evaluate one another's work in class. (After all, this is a great educational opportunity, and the ability to provide useful feedback will likely come in handy for students in the future.) It also is beneficial to let students know how the evaluations will be used, and what the implications are for students like themselves. One of this year's TA Scholars, Tim Edgar, worked with CTLE team members Darrell Coleman and Jill Stephenson to create a project designed to help instructors with some of these issues.

So once you get feedback, what do you do with it? How do you interpret the results? How do you make sense of all those written comments, many of which seem to contradict one another? Well, we're hosting a workshop on May 29 (with a repeat on June 5) that will help you answer some of these questions. You can learn more and register to attend (for free!) here. Look here for a video of the workshop a few weeks after it has been presented.

And how do student course evaluations help students? Currently, students can access evaluation results to help them make decisions about course selection. Unfortunately, sometimes these can be hard to find and to interpret, so many students prefer to use services such as (Read what students have to say here.) But we are doing something about it! Stay tuned for news about how a working group comprised of students and faculty are planning to address the problem, and put student course evaluation results to better work for all of us!

Photo courtesy of Gideon Burton.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

TA Scholars

Here are the 2008-09 TA Scholars posing just outside their poster session last week at the Academic Senate meeting. We had an amazing group of people this year!

Top row (L-R): Jana Schurig (Film Studies), Tim Edgar (Geography), Danielle Ballinger (Music Education), Holly Rau (Clinical Psychology)

Third row: Russ Askren (Philosophy), Rachel Eddington (Sociology), Steve Elmer (Exercise & Sports Science)

Second row: Keri Schwab (Parks, Recreation, & Tourism), Lin Sunthonkhan (Economics), Alfred Kalyanpu (Civil & Environmental Engineering)

Front Row: Rebecca Blais (Clinical Psychology)

You can learn about their projects on the TA Scholars website.They've done some innovative things like implementing virtual labs in traditional classes, creating peer mentorship programs, comparing online and face-to-face teaching, and assessing the effectiveness of an entire program of study.

I am so grateful to have worked with this bright, creative, fun bunch of graduate students!

If you or someone you know is a graduate student at the U and would like to become involved with the TA Scholars program, please email me at

Here I am with this year's Scholars:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Are you facing grading hell?

Maybe you want to try the stairway method of grading, demonstrated here. Just throw everything down the stairs, and then determine the grade based on where it lands. According to the creator of this photograph, to stay current with grade inflation the top stair should be a B-, the bottom stair an A.


We are rapidly approaching the end of the semester, and many of us are about to receive dozens, or hundreds, of papers, exams, and other assignments, which will need to be graded - and rather quickly. How can you do this efficiently, and without resorting to tactics such as throwing papers down the stairs or shooting exams out of a canon?

Probably the most important thing you can do is to ensure that you have a clear set of grading criteria and a rubric that you can use to assign grades. You can learn more about how to do this here - this article also includes a great reference list of other resources on rubrics. Another way to make grading more efficient is to avoid procrastinating - we've all done it, and then spent an entire night frantically trying to finish entering grades before they are due. Make it a pleasurable experience - pick a coffee shop or some other environment you enjoy, get yourself a snack and a comforting beverage, and give yourself a reward when you get done. maybe even throw a grading party, and get together with colleagues so that you can take breaks and refresh yourselves before diving back in. Aim to grade in several shorter sessions instead of one all-nighter - this can help to make sure that you keep your sanity, and that you don't take your frustrations out on your students.

For the future, I strongly recommend avoiding a pile of grading before it happens. One way to do this is to spread assignments across the semester. Instead of a midterm and a final, try 4 shorter exams, or even weekly quizzes. Instead of a final paper, try providing topics with staggered deadlines (e.g., Topic 1 papers are due in October, Topic 2 papers in November). This means you have less grading at any one time. In my evaluations, students report liking the flexibility these types of assignments allow, and appreciate that the material is broken down into smaller chunks. Students also seem to respond well to getting feedback earlier than may be typical. This gives students a chance to improve, and an opportunity to discuss the material and ask questions after receiving feedback - something that rarely happens after the end of the semester.

What do you do to make the grading process more efficient and less painful? Please share your stories and tips!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Have you got game?

From a young age, Millennial students have been exposed to video games. (This picture is courtesy of Sean Dreilinger.) Some of them have spent almost as much time gaming as they have in class. Can we use this to our advantage, and incorporate games into our classrooms?

Of course we can. Even for non-Millennial students, adding games to your classroom can make learning more engaging and fun, and as long as you can connect the game back to the material, students are likely to remember the lesson much longer than a dry lecture on the same topic. Although there are many ways to incorporate games into the classroom, here are just a few ideas...

1) Using a "Jeopardy" type game for review. You can download a PowerPoint template for the game on the internet (here is one such site). All you do is enter the categories and the answers (remember, contestants must answer in the form of a question). You might want to consider Bloom's Taxonomy as you match questions to the increasing dollar amounts. This game works best with a small- to medium-sized class. With my classes of 40-50 students, I split them into teams and each team member takes a turn being the contestant. The team with the most points at the end of the session wins a prize (e.g., bag of candy).

2) Although I am a newbie to SecondLife, I've been hearing a lot about the innovative ways in which it can be sued in the classroom. SecondLife is a virtual community. Students can join for free, and create their own avatars. You can create a virtual classroom, hold office hours, or create scavenger hunts (where the clues are related to your course material). SecondLife has its own economy and social networks that students can study. For a list of examples of ways SecondLife can be used, see this handout, created by a computer sciences professor.

3) Although not a video game, Barnga is a great game to help teach intercultural awareness. It's great for use in classes where you will be discussing these issues, and should not be overlooked as a community-building tool in any class, especially those in which students will be doing a lot of group work or participating in discussions.

To read some research on the use of the games in college classrooms, check out this article from the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

How do you use games in your classroom? Please share your ideas!

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