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Summer with Kaneb Center

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of another semester in one piece. You deserve to catch your breath and enjoy your well-deserved time-off. In addition to getting some rest,, we encourage you to set yourself up for future success by taking advantage of the Kaneb Center’s resources.  To help you hone your pedagogical prowess over the next few months, consider:

  • Reading Groups. The Kaneb Center purchases books on teaching and learning for small informal reading groups. Faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars are all welcome and invited to sign up for a prearranged group or to propose their own group. These groups are a great place to gather new ideas on teaching and to meet colleagues from across the university who are interested in teaching and learning. An official announcement will follow in the next week.
  • Graduate Courses on University Teaching and Learning. Short credit-bearing summer courses on teaching and learning in various fields are available to all graduate students. Enrollment is now open, and be sure to submit a tuition waiver Contact kaneb@nd.edu with any questions.
  • Teaching Well Using Technology Certificate. The summer is an excellent time to complete one or all of the badges required for the Kaneb Center’s Teaching Well Using Technology certificate – available to all graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and staff at Notre Dame. If you are available on May 15 and 16, consider attending one of our hands-on sessions to jumpstart the certificate. Contact Chris Clark with any questions about the certificate.
  • Individual Consultations. Schedule a one-on-one consultation with a member of the Kaneb Center staff to discuss any teaching needs. We are happy to help you review CIFs, discuss your course plans for the fall, develop new types of assessments or other learning activities, or consider the integration of technology into your course.
  • Kaneb Center Library. The Kaneb Center library holds hundreds of books, videos, and other materials on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Visit our library and check out some great selections for your summer reading!

From all of us at the Kaneb Center, we wish you a happy and productive summer!

You are well prepared with a good set of prompts to start a lively discussion in class. The class starts and you begin by asking the students “What is the key takeaway of the reading assigned for today?” The room is filled with awkward silence: 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds . . .

Sound familiar? This has happened to many of us. We tend to consider this silence as an indication that students don’t want to talk or they feel bored. We then quickly adopt other strategies to end the awkward silence. Instead, we should take some time to reflect and understand the reason for this silence.

Questions such as “What is the key takeaway of the reading assigned for today?” or “What is the difference between a gene and an allele?” are questions to which there is one correct answer, which is not a great type of question for starting a discussion.  Furthermore, such questions can be threatening to students as they send out a message that you as an instructor know the answer and you expect the students to have already known the answer by now. This might put the student’s self-confidence at risk as nobody wants to get embarrassed in front of the class by giving a wrong answer.

If your goal is to start a discussion, try the following strategies instead:

[1] Ask questions that are less threatening. When you want to warm students up to discussion or surface a variety of viewpoints, ask students to talk about their experience with a particular subject. [2] When teaching a concept or theory, ask students for examples illustrating the concept rather than asking them to define the concept [3] Use a chalkboard/whiteboard / Poll Everywhere to keep track of student responses. This will send out a strong message that you are going to privilege student voices in the discussion, rather than just looking for confirmation of what you were going to tell them anyway.

Are you asking the right questions? Answering this for yourself will help you better understand both your students and the silence.


[1]The Sound of Silence Can Be Deafening and the Questions You Ask Your Students Can Provoke It by Howard Aldrich, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 2, Number 2, February 2018 [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2166-3327]

[2] When students don’t answer a question, what does the awkward silence mean? By Paul T. Corrigan, May 28, 2015, Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed. [when-students-dont-answer-a-question-what-does-the-awkward-silence-mean/]

With over half the semester completed, instructors are now in a good position to review their syllabi. How well does it serve the goals of the class? What elements  could use revision? What might you want to add to future syllabi? Today’s post will run through course policies you may want to adjust based on your teaching experience this semester.

  • Academic integrity
    • Whether or not you have experienced any issues with students cheating, plagiarizing, or otherwise compromising the honesty of their work in your course, consider whether your policy on the syllabus is clear enough to confront them. A clearly written policy not only provides you with the opportunity to hold the student accountable, but also prevents miscommunication or misunderstanding among your students as to what their responsibilities are. Although such a policy is meant to check dishonest behavior, it can be helpful to frame it in positive rather than negative terms. Academic integrity is more than a set of rules that should not be contravened; it is more importantly a positive good that contributes to the well-being of the student and the life of the mind. Consult Notre Dame’s honor code for reference.
  • Accommodations for students with disabilities
    • Students must register with Sara Bea Disability Services to request specific accommodations. Directions for requesting accommodations may be found here; sharing this information with your students gives them the resources they need to succeed in your classroom without creating additional work for yourself. The Kaneb Center has written about this in more detail here.
  • Use of Technology in Classroom
    • If you have found the use of laptops or phones disruptive to your classroom, consider adding a Technology Use policy to your syllabus. Because many students depend on their computers for note-taking and studying, they need to be prepared ahead of time for a classroom environment that explicitly excludes those kinds of technology. Even if your policy prohibits the use of laptops, avoid framing it in a purely negative. As with the Academic Integrity policy, you want students to see this as part of a positive vision you have for their education.
  • Student Recording of Class
    • As with computers, some students rely on this method for note-taking and study purposes. Decide if you are comfortable with this or not, and incorporate it into your technology policy. You can also consider mentioning it in your disabilities statement, since this may be part of a student’s accommodations.
  • Grading Policies
    • Ideally, the grading policy you put in your syllabus should allow you to navigate any issues that arise with your students. But if you’ve had some disputes or even just simple confusion, think about incorporating more specific grading rubrics in your statement. You can also use this space  to let the students know what they need to do to succeed in this class.
    • If you are unsatisfied with student attendance this semester, take time to include an attendance policy in your statement on grading. Be clear about the effect unexcused absences will have on the final grade. See more about this here.
  • Support for Students’ Well-Being
    • Life as an undergraduate is affected by a myriad of things you may or may not know about, from family tragedies, to medical complications, to the mundane but taxing reality of stress. Encourage your students to take care of themselves, and remind them of the University’s counseling services. Emphasize that if they are having difficulty with the class that they can come to office hours for advice and help on how to study and complete your assignments.

In conclusion, don’t let your experiences this semester go to waste! Now is the time to take notes on what is and is not working for your class so you can improve the next time you teach it. You may want to make updates or clarifications to your current syllabus, but this is an especially good time to make notes for future semesters.

The Kaneb Center has additional resources on how to create policy sheets and statements for syllabi here and here. See additional blog posts here and here for related reading.

How do you capture the attention of your students before they even set foot in your classroom? What makes an effective, enticing course description stand out from all the rest?   While you probably have seen dozens of course descriptions by this point in your academic career, you may not have put much thought into how to write one in a way that captures your vision for the course.  This post contains a few hints for writing an original and effective course description.


The Job of a Course Description

Your course description should answer two primary questions:  why and what. Why should students take this course, and what will they experience as learners?  Try to refrain from making yourself or the course itself the subject of your sentences. Keep your focus on what will students learn and do in the course.

Remember your audience.  Your course description is primarily for the benefit of people who have not taken the course, so do not use abbreviations or technical language.  In a description intended for students, you may use the first or second person (“we” or “you”). Also check whether your course description must meet any departmental or university requirements (e.g. maximum word length, list of prerequisites).


The First Sentence (or Two):  Why

Starting your description with “This course explores…” or “In this course, you will learn…” is not only clichéd, but it also wastes the crucial first words of your description without conveying important information.  

Start with the aim or goal of the course.  Be intellectually bold here. Use your grant-writing skills to communicate the significance of the course to a non-specialist audience.  How does your course matter to students’ intellectual development or personal lives? You might phrase it as a key question (e.g. “What makes us love reading stories?”) or a statement of the end goal of the course (e.g. “Fiction allows us to live a story as if it’s our own.”).  


The Body:  What

Then, use the rest of the course description to detail what the learning experience of students will be in your classroom.  The exact format and content of this section is open-ended. Remember that the description is neither a set of learning goals nor a reading list.  Keep the lists to a minimum and focus on the bigger picture. Some of the points you may wish to touch on include:

  • Learning objectives
  • Teaching methods
  • Teaching philosophy 
  • Course content examples
  • Final accomplishments

The following example demonstrates how you can mix and match the above categories to pack a significant amount of information into a short course description:


Annotated Course Description



Reflect: Think back on the first half of your semester and write down 2-3 things that you think went really well and 2-3 things you think could have gone better. Reflect upon both the successes and shortcomings of your class and write down 2-3 things you might do in the second half of the semester to make the class more successful. Try to implement these changes into your lesson plans right away so you don’t forget to do so.


Read a book on pedagogy: Spring break is a great time to relax, crack open a book, and learn something new about teaching. The Kaneb Center especially recommends Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. Make sure not to miss out on Ken Bain’s talk on “Fostering Deep Learning and Creativity” on Friday, April 6 at 2:00pm. Register at kaneb.nd.edu/events/


Read some articles on pedagogy: Don’t have time to read an entire book over break? Head on over to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website to see what’s new in the pedagogy. I also highly suggest “The Case for Inclusive Teaching” by Kevin Gannon on Chroniclevitae.com. Be sure to check out the Tuesday, April 17th workshop on “What’s New in Pedagogy Research”


Sign up for some Kaneb Center Workshops: The Kaneb Center still has a number of workshops upcoming in the second half of the semester. Take a moment to browse the list and find a workshop that fits your needs and schedule. If the workshop is showing as filled, please put your name on the waitlist as there is a chance you may still be able to attend if confirmed attendees drop out.

Are you creating a course from scratch or interested in learning more about course design?
Then make use of this spring break and come to the “Course Design Bootcamp” by Kaneb Center on March 12 & 13, 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, March 12 & 13, 2018
9 AM – 3 PM
Where: 232 DeBartolo Hall
We need your RSVP! To register, go to Course Design Bootcamp 2018

*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

Midterm season is fast approaching (if it hasn’t arrived already) and you may now face the challenge of designing one or more exams that will fit the students, the material, and the goals of the class. You probably touched on some of these elements when designing the course or creating the syllabus, but the actual work of crafting a satisfactory exam can still be a daunting prospect. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you plan:

  • Consider the exam in light of course objectives. How will you describe this test to your students in terms of the overall goals of the course? Maybe it is a tool to measure how much content they remember at this point in the semester. Or it can be a chance to draw out students’ creative abilities by encouraging new ideas and new applications of the material they’ve learned by this time–as long as everything on the test is material they have already covered. This is not a time for surprises! In either case, use this midterm as an opportunity. It can be more than a routine checkup; it can actually work toward achieving some of the goals of the course.
  • Use appropriate methods of assessment. Depending on what you hope your students will gain or demonstrate through this exam, you will want to choose the format of the test carefully. Multiple choice and true or false questions are work well if you need your students to demonstrate knowledge of discrete technical terms or other data retrieval. It is possible to measure more complex thinking with multiple choice questions, but it requires a high level of effort and skill on the teacher’s part to create these kinds of questions. (See here for more information on creating good multiple choice questions.) Typically, if you need your students to establish their ability to construct and defend arguments, essay questions demand the more complex level of thinking needed.
  • Think ahead to grading. It’s never too early to start building a grading rubric! As you go over your questions, break the desired answers down into their component parts so you can decide how many points to award for each part. This will make it easier to give partial credit to an answer that still falls short. Once you make your decisions about how many parts and how many points go with each questions, distribute this rubric to the students. While this rubric should not give away any answers, it can guide their study. Not only will it help them prepare for the exam, it will make grading far quicker and easier.
  • Consider how long it will take to finish. It is important to design exams that can be reasonably completed within the set time limit. There can be a disconnect sometimes between what an expert in the field can do or answer and what a student should be able to do in the same amount of time. You might consider taking your own midterm to see how long it takes you; then double or triple the time you needed to get a sense of what your students will need. Give your students a sense of how long they should spend on each section by letting them know the number of points they can earn per question. For example, if the short answers are worth 5 points each and the essay questions are worth 15 points each, they will have the information they need to manage their time effectively.
  • Ask a colleague or a friend to read through the exam. As with other writing projects, it’s easy to miss mistakes or misjudge how well an exam is constructed without some outside feedback. Asking someone else in your discipline to review your questions will help you judge if the exam is an adequate and accurate tool to measure student progress. Even getting a friend a from another field to look it over can help you ensure the exam is unambiguous in what is asks of the students.



Here is a good resource for different types of grading rubrics that can prompt you ask specific kinds of questions.

We have previously talked about how to design a final exam here. There are many similar points to be made, and you may find the perspective of the final helpful here as well.

At this point in the semester, both you and your students probably have some ideas about what is working well and what could be improved in your classroom.  If you have not done so already, take some time this week to check in with your students.

As I was speaking with a couple of my students last week, they told me they had no idea how they were doing in most of their classes.  Even without giving formal grades, you can still give your students feedback about how they are doing in your course and what they might do to improve.

In discussion-based courses, you might give students a participation grade update. A variety of formats could work, but I prefer to give each student a slip of paper with their current participation grade and a few sentences containing specific observations and a targeted suggestion for improvement. For example, I might write something like, “I see you gaining confidence each week. You did a particularly good job bringing us a new perspective on X in our discussion on Y. Keep working on it, and remember that it can be easier to chime in when you bring a specific question or two to class.”  (Hint:  To speed up the process, write the feedback on a computer and keep a “comment bank” of general statements to adapt to specific students.)   Participation grades can seem subjective to students, so this kind of exercise helps you be transparent about how you calculate grades and does not leave students surprised about where they stand.

In other types of courses, you might opt to give students a low-stakes or no-stakes quiz to help them measure the efficacity of their study strategies.  Again, the format can be tailored to your classroom; it might be a brief. self-graded quiz taken in class or an online quiz worth few or no points.  As learners, we often develop a false sense of competence about material we have encountered but may not have actually practiced or understood.  Asking students to practice retrieving information will provide them with a reality check about their capabilities and can help them learn the material for the longer-term. (For more on the “retrieval effect,” see Lang, ch 1.)  You can also collect the quiz results to help you address common areas of confusion.

While you’re taking stock, ask your students for their feedback. I have been successful pairing feedback I give to students with a request that they give me feedback in return.  It offers you an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to teaching and open up a conversation about your teaching philosophy.  Surveying students now can also help you improve your teaching during the semester and will allow you to respond to some student observations before the formal CIF period.  The Kaneb Center recently offered a workshop on Gathering Early Semester Student Feedback.  You can check out the resources from that workshop or read several of our previous blog posts about eliciting feedback from your students.  You are also welcome to contact us for help in developing, administering, or interpreting early semester feedback surveys.

There has been a push in education theory lately, and amongst administrators familiar with the area, to make sure that educators act intentionally to be more “culturally responsive” in the way they design their courses, lessons, classrooms, and even pedagogical interactions. In this post, I’ll talk about a couple of things I’ve done via course design make my teaching more culturally responsive, i.e. to meet students where they’re at, to minimize evaluation based on irrelevant skill sets, and to remove barriers to learning that are often part of introductory college courses. While the discussion will use a philosophy intro class as a concrete case for illustrative purposes, the principles and strategies can be readily be applied to similar courses in the humanities, and, I hope, beyond.

Using alternative literacies and removing educational barriers

One way to remove educational barriers is simply to place most or all course materials online. Today’s student tends to be extremely adept at using complex technology and social media tools to navigate the world and their relationships, even — and perhaps especially — students from lower-income homes, who often have internet access, even if they live in school districts with limited or no access to libraries, print materials, etc. According to an article in Wired by Emily Dreyfuss, “The vast majority of Americans use the internet every day—88 percent according to the Pew Research Center. In 2016, three quarters of all Americans owned a smartphone, with lower-income people and people over the age of 50 accounting for much of the most recent growth.” In culturally responsive teaching terms, then, familiarity with and competence using the internet and its various social tools constitutes an “alternative literacy” which educators ought to seek to use in their pedagogy, rather than a form of illiteracy they ought to discourage. Placing course materials online both maximizes this use of alternative literacy and increases access for students with financial barriers.

In one class I recently taught, I replaced the paper syllabus with a class homepage which serves as an interactive syllabus. On the site, the course is broken down into pages corresponding with each day of class. Every assigned text, and every assignment is included on the website as a distinct link, so students can confidently navigate every aspect of the course on their own terms, whenever they’d like, and with full confidence that they’re not missing any readings or assignments.

Generating and using experience-affirming content

Another valuable way to reach all of your students while removing barriers to learning is to give students leadership in discussion settings in a way that draws out and emphasizes the value of their experiences. If you’re teaching a course that would traditionally have instructor-led discussion sections, which risk introducing or reinforcing unhelpful pedagogical stereotypes and mimicking unhelpful power dynamics, you might think about replacing these with more student-led discussions, and could even implement a formal program like “Sustained Dialogue.” Sustained Dialogue is a program that was developed to help groups of students engage in meaningful conversations about hot-button issues on college campuses. One of the things I like best about the Sustained Dialogue model, which is explicitly designed to last for one semester, is that it grounds conversations about big questions in the experiences and backgrounds of those in the group, and it proceeds on the assumption that deep dialogue needs to be rooted in mutual understanding and personal relationships. In this way, then, the students’ own experiences and background become relevant content for the course. This allows me as the instructor to reflect and emphasize the value of those experiences in course materials and assignments, and in a way that doesn’t depend on my own potentially biased or misinformed assumptions about where my students are coming from or what will or should be most important to them.

By drawing on alternative (and sometimes non-dominant and non-standard) literacies, and focusing on content that reflects and affirms the value of their backgrounds and personal experiences, these design elements aim to not only enhance the philosophy classroom experience, but also empower students to use philosophical tools, like informal reasoning and argumentation, to conceptualize and collectively respond to social problems in their communities.

Often, especially at the beginning of the semester, it may seem difficult to get students to participate in classroom discussions. Below are some strategies that may help get conversations started:

  1. Wait at least 10 seconds before you clarify a question or add a new one. A lot of the time, students do have thoughtful answers to the questions that instructors ask, they just need some extra time to formulate them.If no one has offered an answer after around 10 seconds, you may need to reframe your question, ask a more direct question, or move on to the strategies below.
  2. Have students write down their answer to a specific question or set of questions. This approach both offers students the thinking time they need while also leveling the playing field for students who may fear speaking off the cuff or in front of a group of people. Once everyone has had time to compose an answer, they may be more willing to share with their classmates.  
  3. Engage students in a think/pair/share. This activity splits students’ responses into three parts: first they answer the questions on their own (as described in #2), then they discuss them in pairs, and finally they share their responses with the entire class. Students are more likely to feel safe sharing their thoughts if they have had time to not only formulate their answers, but also test and build upon those thoughts in a lower-pressure situation before having to share in front of the entire classroom.

In my last Blog Post I mentioned Bloom’s taxonomy as a tool for building course goals. It can also help you build better questions. If you have tried all of the above methods and students are still struggling, you may want to revisit the types of questions that you are asking. Perhaps you are asking questions that rely solely on declarative memory and thus won’t generate much productive discussion. Conversely, it might be that the questions you are asking students are all higher-level questions and thus overwhelming for students. Make sure that whenever you are asking questions, you are making sure that students first have knowledge of lower level concepts pertaining to the subject so that they are able to build off these lower level concepts to achieve higher level understanding. The following chart pairs Bloom’s taxonomy with a list of verbs and is helpful for building level specific questions:


    Remembering: can the student recall or remember the information? define, duplicate, list, memorize, recall, repeat, reproduce, state What percentage of Americans voted in 2012?
     Understanding: can the student explain ideas or concepts? classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase Describe two costs and two benefits of voting.
    Applying: can the student use the information in a new way? choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch, solve, use, write Propose one way the United States could reduce the costs of voting.
    Analyzing: can the student distinguish between the different parts? compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test Compare the Michigan and Rochester models of voting behavior.
    Evaluating: can the student justify a stand or decision? appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate Defend the merits of the Michigan model of voting behavior.
     Creating: can the student create a new product or point of view? assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write Design a replacement for the electoral college system.


As always, the Kaneb Center is happy to hold a private consultation with you if you feel you are still having difficulty with classroom discussions.


Further Reading:

Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Haley-Speca, Robert Gower. The Skillful Teacher

Therese Huston. Teaching What You Don’t Know

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