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There are many ways in which in-class instructional time can seem overwhelming, especially to first time teachers. During my first TA experience I remember opening up a word document with the intention of writing up an agenda for the first week’s discussion. I kept staring at the document like it was a vast open prairie, or an empty stage in a sold-out theatre. The time and space I had seemed expansive, full of possibilities and opportunities, but also shapeless and unstructured. In that moment, I found myself wondering: how am I supposed to fill every moment of face-to-face instructional time with meaningful, interesting, and valuable content, and how am I supposed to know after the fact if I’ve succeeded in this goal? In this post, I’ll argue that you can go a long way towards answering these questions for yourself by carefully crafting S.M.A.R.T. learning objectives, and by using these objectives to design and implement daily assessments.

First off, a learning objective is a brief, descriptive statement of one thing that a student will take away from a day’s lesson. They are typically determined by (and fit into) the broader “learning goals” that you set in your syllabus at the beginning of the semester, but are more specific, concrete, and active. Examples include: “By the end of class, each student will be able to distinguish between examples of substances and accidents, and to give an intuitive definition of each.” You might have just one learning objective for a class period, or, if you have more time or if the objectives are less ambitious, you may break it down into two, three, or even more. (For more helpful information on learning objectives, and the difference between a learning objective and a course goal, see this helpful handout. For a taxonomy of different kinds of learning objectives, and how to incorporate these into your course prep see this handout on class prep from the Kaneb Center.)

S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym often associated with productive goal-setting in general, and I forget where I even first came across it (see here, here, and here). The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-bound, and I find these criteria immensely helpful in crafting good learning objectives. I won’t go through detailed descriptions for each criteria (for such descriptions see the links above), but to get an intuitive sense, consider the following two objectives:

  1. By the end of class students will be able to analyze philosophical texts well.
  2. By the end of class, students will be able to isolate Singer’s “Obligatory Giving” argument and distinguish its major premises, and give one reason why they agree or disagree with each premise.

Objective 2 is clearly better along each of our five dimensions.

S.M.A.R.T. objectives can help structure in-class time in at least two ways. First, they can help you determine what information you need to present and what sorts of activities you need to have your students engage in, and what to prioritize in the distribution of class time for any given meeting. If objective 2 was one of your objectives, for instance, you’d need to make sure to leave time for the students to read and mark-up a paragraph of text (3-5 minutes), share their thoughts with a neighbor (2-4 minutes), and collaborate on reconstructing the argument as a group (5-8 minutes). If you have three or four other objectives for that day, you might think about simplifying the task, or about giving them a little more help along the way.

The second way S.M.A.R.T. objectives can help you structure in-class time is in a more global, semester-level sense. S.M.A.R.T. objectives — if crafted well — naturally give rise to concrete assessment mechanisms (they are, after all, Measurable, Results-focused, and Time-bound). To expand upon our example: you could ask your students to write down the premises and conclusion of Singer’s argument on a half-sheet of paper and turn it in. If pressed for time, you could cold call on three students and ask each to offer a premise and a brief reason to agree or disagree with it. If the objective and content are crucial to the course as a whole, and directly related to your overall learning goals, you might hand out a worksheet at the end of class, or have students take an online quiz to ensure that they’ve attained proficiency. This feedback is an invaluable resource in helping you to determine where to spend valuable future class time.

As college instructors, we get precious little face-to-face instructional time with our students, so it’s important that we structure the time we have effectively. S.M.A.R.T. learning objectives can help us to do that, and in a way that isn’t overwhelming or overly time consuming. Moreover, I’ve found that pairing my objectives with daily assessment mechanisms, and even using the process of designing such mechanisms to clarify and evaluate these objectives, allows me to foster a more “communicative” classroom experience; i.e. one in which I’m getting feedback from the students that I can use to create future objective-based learning goals that are responsive to their needs.


* Note: this blog post first appeared on the Kaneb Blog in the Fall of 2017.

Links and citations:

“Goals vs Objectives.” University of Iowa Information Technology Services, Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2017. https://teach.its.uiowa.edu/sites/teach.its.uiowa.edu/files/docs/docs/Goals_vs_Objectives_ed.pdf

“Articulating Learning Goals: A Path to Increased Efficiency and Improved Student Performance.” University of Notre Dame, Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2017. http://kaneb.nd.edu/assets/75457/learninggoalsho.pdf

Image source: http://habitica.wikia.com/wiki/SMART_Goal_Setting

This post is adapted from a November 2015 post by Joseph Michalka.

With the semester drawing to a close and final exams approaching, review sessions are sure to be at the front of your student’s minds. While typically not as focused as a regular lecture, review sessions can help students draw connections between the various topics covered throughout the course. What follows will be four techniques to help you rock your next review session.

  1. Reserve a spot (early):
    Unless you are going to hold the review session during class time, you will need to reserve a room large enough to fit all of your students at a time that works for the majority and since you will be competing with the rest of the university it helps to do this early. It can also be useful to schedule the review session more than one day ahead of the exam so that any potential issues identified during the session can be addressed before the final.
  2. Poll Students (early):
    While most students want all of the possible material covered in a review session. For a cumulative final, reviewing that much material in a one or two hour session is daunting, both for you and for the students. By polling the students (Sakai, or ask in class) on which sections they feel weakest on, you can better plan how to allot the time of the review session.
  3. Active Learning:
    In contrast to a lecture-based content-heavy review session, recent research [1] suggests that incorporating active learning exercises into review sessions can lead to large gains for students, whereas passive lecturing tends to only encourage a student’s illusion of mastery [2].

    1. Concept Map: Have students sketch out a map connecting the various concepts that will be on the exam.
    2. Notebook Comparison: Have students compare their notes on a topic or section with a partner and discuss why they may have recorded the information differently.
    3. Problem Solving: Provide a set of problems for each topic and have students work on them together.
  4. Match the Format:
    One of the best ways to help your students prepare for the exam is to give them a taste of the type of problems that will be on the exam. If the test is going to be primarily calculations, sprinkling practice calculations throughout the review session will better prepare the student than if you provided them with multiple choice questions.


[1] Active review sessions can advance student learning. Terence G. Favero. Advances in Physiology Education Sep 2011, 35 (3) 247-248; DOI:10.1152/advan.00040.2011

[2] Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning.

The following entry was adapted from an earlier post from the 2013-2014 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips; it was contributed by Belinda Richardson and Debi Griffin, Bellarmine University.


Whether you are hoping to finish strong as the semester comes to a close or simply strategizing how to keep your students active and engaged in your classes next semester, integrating activities into your lecture helps keep your students’ attention and spur on their learning. Start by finding natural breaks in the content material and break up the lecture into shorter segments. In between the shorter lectures, add activities that require the students to review and apply their new learning and interact with each other. Mix it up by incorporating different activities each week. The change of pace, interaction, and variety can help to enliven the classroom atmosphere and encourage deeper learning for every student. Some activities to consider are listed below.

Skeleton notes – Create a handout with key points of the lecture on the left margin, leaving space for students to fill in notes during lecture. Pair up or group students to compare notes and fill in gaps.

Press Conference – Ask students to work in teams to write and organize questions, and then interview the instructor in a simulated press conference.

Clusters – Break reading material into sections and have each individual or group read an assigned section, becoming an “expert” on that section. Each individual or group then teaches the others about the specific material that they learned.

Select the Best Response – Students are presented with a question or scenario and then asked to consider which one of three responses best answers it. This can be used to recall and apply information presented in lecture.

Correct the Error – This can be used in math or lab courses. The instructor creates an intentional error based on important lecture material. Students then work to correct the error.

Support a Statement – The Instructor provides a statement for which students must locate support in lecture notes or textbooks and give data to support the statement.

Re-order Steps – The instructor presents a series of steps in a mixed order and the students are asked to sequence the items correctly.

Short Video Clip – A short, relevant video clip can be useful for introducing a new topic, punctuating the main point, or providing a springboard for class discussion.

One Minute Paper – Near the end of the class period, ask students to write for one minute on the main 1-2 points of the class. This assignment allows you to gauge student comprehension and gives students an incentive to absorb and comprehend course material.

Student-created Visuals – Ask students to work in small groups to create visual study aids such as flow charts, graphs, diagrams, artwork, maps, or photography. A variation on this activity could produce student-created study guides prior to each major exam.

* Today’s post comes from the 2018-19 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium, a collaboration of over 40 institutions of higher-education. Author information is included below *

A common complaint of faculty is that their students are unmotivated to learn. It does seem at times that our most brilliant lecture or most well-designed homework assignment just elicits blank stares and yawns. We know from the significant body of research on motivation (see Ambrose et al. 2010) for a succinct summary of the research) that one of the major factors affecting motivation is that the student values the task at hand. Students in upper-level courses in the major, for instance, often are interested in what they are studying and can see that the work they are doing will lead directly to goals after college, so they have a mixture of intrinsic and instrumental values at play that lead to high motivation and good outcomes. On the other hand, we may have more trouble getting students motivated in a general education or foundational class required for the major or for graduation.

In a class that looks to students as just a hurdle to be jumped over on the way to the good stuff, we need to think more deeply about what we do to communicate value. I once asked a pre-calculus teacher why students should take her course; her response was “it’s a pre-requisite for calculus.” When pressed to articulate the value of learning pre-calculus, she couldn’t do it. If we can’t articulate the value of what we teach, how will students appreciate the value?

Here’s a little exercise to stretch your ability to communicate value. Imagine a student can choose between your course and another course to fulfill a requirement. Using only a discussion about the value of the course, convince this student to take your class. Try writing down your argument. Think about how course content connects to student interests, the skills students will learn, the habits of mind they will develop. Here’s a guide to help you with this thinking exercise.

Then start communicating that value starting from day one on your syllabus and throughout the semester. You may see your students’ motivation rise before your eyes.

Submitted by:
Stephanie Laggini Fiore, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice Provost
Center for the Advancement of Teaching
Temple University

by Amy Buchmann

Gathering early-semester or mid-semester student feedback allows instructors to gauge what is working well in the course and determine what adjustments might need to be made.  There are several reasons for incorporating early-semester feedback into your course design and plan:

  •  The information can be used to make changes during the current course.
  • Students feel empowered to help design their own educational process.
  •  It allows an assessment of specific behaviors rather than a global “quality of teaching” rating.
  • Instructors can ask for the information most pertinent to them-even soliciting criticism-without fearing any adverse consequences from the administration.
  • The evaluations go directly to the instructor, not the administration, precluding comparisons across instructors (Keutzer, 1993)

Once the early-semester or mid-semester evaluations are distributed and the responses are collected, it’s important to have a plan for evaluating the responses. When analyzing the feedback from student evaluations, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Throw out the off-the-wall comments that do not provide you with useful information and forget about them.
  • Throw out the positive comments that don’t tell you anything specific.
  • Divide the negative comments into two groups: those you can change and those that you cannot change.
  • Work on perceptions and learn to be explicit.
  • Prepare students for doing course evaluations throughout the semester.
  • Savor the comments that are meant to be negative, but let you know you are doing your job (Buskist and Hogan, 2010).

For more information on creating an early-semester evaluation or to see examples of early-semester evaluations, please contact the Kaneb Center For Teaching and Learning at kaneb@nd.edu.


1. Connie Buskist and Jan Hogan, (2010). She Needs a Haircut and a New Pair of Shoes: Handling Those Pesky Course Evaluations. Journal of Effective Teaching 10 (1), 51-56.

2.   Carolin Keutzer, (1993). Midterm Evaluation of Teaching Provides Helpful Feedback to Instructors. Teaching of Psychology 20 (4), 238-240.

Are you creating a course from scratch or interested in learning more about course design?

Then make use of this fall break and come to the “Course Design Bootcamp” by Kaneb Center on October 15 & 16, 2018.

At this intensive 2-day workshop, you’ll receive step-by-step guidance for imagining, planning, and designing a course that will help you teach effectively and efficiently. Presentations on topics including goal-setting, assignment-centered course planning, writing a syllabus, building a calendar and lesson planning will be interspersed with work time so that you will leave with a syllabus and other essential materials for your new course.

When: Monday & Tuesday, October 15 & 16, 2018

9 AM – 3:30 PM

Where: 210 Duncan Student Center

What to bring: Laptop Computer

We need your RSVP! To register, go to Course Design Bootcamp 2018

Can’t make it? Check out these resources in our library:

  • Fink, L. Dee (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses
  • Wiggins, G. P., Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Ascd.

*Please note that you are registering for both days of the Bootcamp

*This workshop counts towards the Striving for Excellence in Teaching Certificate or the Advanced Teaching Scholar Certificate

By Susan Hall, Director, Center for Teaching and Learning, University of the Incarnate Word
Most of us have seen this downward spiral: We assign reading. Students—inexperienced at academic reading—find it challenging and don’t complete it. During the next session, we encounter blank faces, so we give an ad hoc lecture on the reading instead of leading a planned discussion. We assign more reading. Students—having concluded that they don’t really need to read—skip the assignment. In class, we again encounter blank faces and again begin summarizing the contents of the reading.
As the spiral continues, we become more frustrated and students lose opportunities to engage in the richness of the course content and to develop the reading skills they need. What to do? Here are three suggestions.

  • Mary Ann Weimer suggests stopping the downward spiral early. The first time students show up unprepared, she suggests calmly saying something like this: “This article is really quite important. Too bad you aren’t ready to work with it as I had planned” and moving to an alternative activity designed for just that moment. Weimer says no scolding–but no summarizing the reading, either.
  • John Bean notes that background knowledge helps students understand a text. Often we provide that just before a discussion. Bean suggests shifting the overview to the end of the previous class, when we make the assignment. We might point out the central focus of the reading, or alert students to a tricky passage or important term. We can also record these short introductions and post them on the class website.
  • Norman Eng proposes an activity he calls QQC for “question, quotation, comment.” As students read, they note a question, select an interesting quotation, or make a comment; the instructor then devotes 10 or 15 minutes to QQCs. Eng suggests three ways to make QQCs work. Use them regularly. Call on students randomly rather than waiting for the typical volunteers. Use this “cold calling” in good faith–involve many students but avoid deliberating embarrassing the momentarily distracted.
    Want to read more?
    Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
    Gonzalez, J. (2017). 5 Ways College Teachers Can Improve Their Instruction. Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/teaching-college/
    Weimer, M. (2010). 11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned. http://www.facultyfocus.com/free-reports/11-strategies-for-getting-students-to-read-whats-assigned/

* Today’s post comes from the 2018-19 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium, a collaboration of over 40 institutions of higher-education. Author information is included below *

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it

-Zig Ziglar, American author and motivational speaker

Students spend hours on co-curricular activities, but can resist investment in coursework. Why is that?
One possibility is low motivation. Jon Wergin’s motivation framework yields actionable strategies to
influence motivation. Although Wergin’s framework focuses on faculty, his principles apply to all

Autonomy: Having choice and ownership lead to high autonomy and contribute to positive motivation,
and are easy for an educator to manipulate in her course. For example, rather than assigning an essay
exploring the cultural forces leading to a specific event (e.g., the French Revolution), the educator could
allow each student to choose which event they think best illustrates the core concepts (e.g., how does
national identity contribute to the Arab Spring or the American Civil War).

Community: Humans, even introverts, are communal creatures. Educators can welcome students to the
scholarly community of the classroom. They can adopt strategies like collective determination of exam
dates, an email list or message board for anyone to post to, responsibility of students to others to
promote their success (e.g., peer review approaches), and having the class norm of summarizing the
previous comment before adding a new idea. These strategies and others help build a learning

Recognition: According to Dale Carnegie of How to Make Friends… fame “Remember that a person’s
name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”. I’d add “attached to
praise”. Students do many praise-worthy things. Educators can make public affirmations (“Malcolm sent
me this great website, let’s take a look”) and illustrate how past work becomes future affirmation (“Last
term, Jackie Benson and Jerry Marshall drafted this model that incorporated at least seven different
concepts”). Word spreads. For especially neat outcomes, alert your communications office.

Efficacy: Everyone is motivated to do things they are good at. The problem is that good requires a lot of
practice and mistakes, two experiences most people choose to avoid. In addition, the point of learning is
that one isn’t already an expert. To counteract our nature tendency to avoid new and challenging tasks,
educators can create heavily scaffolded experiences and intentionally escalate the complexity of work.
Then, refer to past success to point to the likelihood of future success.

By using these strategies, educators can create an environment that promotes student motivation.


References & Additional Resources

Pintrich, P. R. (XX). A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and
teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 667-686.
Ryan, R. M. & E. L. Deci. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation,
social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
Wergin, J. F. (2001). Beyond carrots and sticks. Liberal Education, 87(1), 50.


Author: Ella L. Ingram, Associate Dean for Professional Development
Rose Hulman Institute of Technology

Today’s post will focus on tips for setting the atmosphere of your classroom in those few minutes just before class officially begins.

These quiet minutes are something I began to notice this semester, partly because my students are particularly reserved this time. The silence before class starts has become almost distracting–and since I like to arrive early, I’ve had to put some thought into turning those awkwardly silent moments into an opportunity for myself and the students to be as ready as possible for class.

In general, engaging your students in conversation is one of the best things you can do. The minutes before class starts are perfect for establishing more personal relationships than are always available in class itself. Feeling comfortable with the instructor is a significant factor when students decide whether to take advantage of office hours or even ask questions in class. However, sometimes you do face shy, quiet, or even tired students who are not interested in small talk. In those cases, here are some ideas to fill the silent moments before class begins:


  • Open with a question. Either on the projector or on the whiteboard, display a question for the students to ponder. This can be especially effective when it not only relates to the course in general, but when it applies to the day’s lesson in particular. With my own quiet students, I have had success asking absurd or silly versions of questions that pertain to our material, since it can elicit a chuckle or comments from kids who would otherwise be sitting in silence, staring at their books.
  • Open with interpretation. Instead of a direct question, another good method for sparking interest is to show the students an image, headline, or passage that requires some time to consider. If it’s an arresting image, it will grab their attention quickly and possible incite conversation in the room. Guide or encourage conversation before class by asking questions about what they see, getting opinions, and tying these contributions into the actual opening of class.
  • Open with a joke. You can also display something silly for its own sake, such as a joke or meme, just to lighten the mood and encourage responses. If your students enjoy this, maybe encourage them to submit their own memes about the class to be displayed when they walk in with their classmates.
  • If nothing else, choose a playlist for the semester and play music before class starts! Historical classes can use music from their time period, or you can choose songs which seem thematically appropriate and get the students to talk about why you might have chosen this particular piece.

These ideas are all based on the idea that students will do better in class and be more engaged if they are “warmed up”, so to speak before class starts. (For more on this theory see here.) No matter which method you choose, shaping the atmosphere of your classroom before you begin can make a world of difference to your class.

In every course I’ve taught so far, I’ve reserved a few points in the rubric — 5 to 10% or so — for “in-class participation.” At this point, this is mostly just a habit. In early courses I designed, I included such points because every course I’d ever seen had done so, and this is one of those things — like the section on academic integrity or on-campus resources — that I keep copying and pasting into my new syllabi. The way I actually assess participation, too, has become somewhat rote: if students show up, they get a point. If they speak up, they get another point. And if they are especially engaged, I give them a perfect 3/3 for the day.

This semester, however, I decided to re-think participation and break some of these old habits. Here, I’ll detail some of my reasons for doing so, and the changes I’m going to make. Later in the semester, I’ll revisit this topic and tell you how the experiment went.

Why Assess “Participation”?

I think most instructors assign participation points for something like the following reasons: (1) to encourage students to show up, (2) to encourage students to contribute and engage when they do show up, and (3) because they rightly think some portion of the points in a course should come from frequent, low-stakes assignments or activities, so that student grades don’t come down to one or two, stressfully high-stakes assignments.

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

I doubt that many students need a couple of points dangled in front of them just to get out of bed and head to the classroom, and I doubt that those who really do need the extra encouragement will find the 2 or 3 points usually assigned for participating sufficient. It’s part of my teaching philosophy that assessment should tie in to my learning goals for the semester, and while being physically present in the classroom is technically a prerequisite for accomplishing those goals, it’s not clear to me that it’s an appropriate object of assessment. (Compare: breathing at regular intervals is a necessary condition for accomplishing any of my learning goals, but I’m not assigning points for that…)

I’ve also often found that participation points tend to be assigned in a pretty opaque way, since an instructor often doesn’t evaluate and record every student’s contribution on the spot. Even when a rubric is distributed ahead of time (or in the syllabus), grading participation often feels pointless or random as I sort through fragmented memories of the class period or rely on an intuitive sense of who‘s doing well in class. I often just give students more credit if they’ve established a pattern of contributing well, rather than if they actually meet the criteria set out in the rubric. And none of this seems fair or helpful.

Finally, I think it’s admirable — even advisable — to assign a number of low-stakes assignments throughout the semester, and I think it’s right that student grades shouldn’t come down to one or two major assignments, but why not make these lower-stakes assignments something that will directly contribute to the learning goals, like a weekly short reflection journal entry on course materials, or a post in a class discussion board?

For all these reasons, I’m rethinking how I grade “participation” in my classes.

An Overview of the Changes I’m Going to Make

Here are some of the changes I’m going to try out:

  • As I lesson plan, I think about small tasks or activities I could have students perform that would actually contribute to their accomplishing a concrete learning goal for that day. Sometimes, these are brief “entrance” or “exit” tickets, like a short quiz, concept map, or a question addressed to me regarding that day’s content. I then assign a point or two for their thorough completion of these activities, or I ask them to self-assess.
  • Sometimes, I’ll assess (or have them self-assess) more in-depth group activities, and just use that as the “participation grade” for that particular day. In-class time is rarely the same from day to day, so I find that this approach makes much more sense than using a generic rubric based on an idealized or abstract “discussion / lecture contribution” model.

Participation grades won’t always be the same from day to day — they might have the chance to earn 2 points one day, and 5 the next — but this doesn’t strike me as particularly problematic. They’ll always know where the points are coming from, and there will be enough of them throughout the semester to provide plenty of low-stakes opportunities to earn points.

The best part of the new model is that these are points that are being assigned to assess actual participation, in actual activities, during the class period, so it feels like I’m finally actually grading participation in a meaningful way. I hope that this model leads to more concrete and communicative participation assessment that is less biased and more attuned to my learning goals. I’ll follow up later in the semester and let you know how it goes!

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