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College instructors often list critical thinking as one of their central learning goals, but it is much easier said than done.  From the start, we need to recognize that our students may not know what we mean when we say, “think critically.”  In Teaching for Critical Thinking, Stephen Brookfield defines it as “A process of hunting assumptions–discovering what assumptions we and others hold, and then checking to see how much sense those assumptions make,” (p. 24).

Students will not automatically become critical thinkers just by sitting in a college classroom.  What steps can you take to teach critical thinking skills in your discipline?

  1. Learning to think critically is a process.  Treat it as such, and do not become frustrated if students stumble or seem to go back to old ways of thinking.
  2. Address students’ misconceptions that critical thinking is negative or is always intended to overturn what is known.
  3. Introduce a disorienting dilemma to compel students to think differently about a topic they already think they know something about.
  4. Model critical thinking yourself.  Think out loud for students, explain ways in which you have changed your thinking about questions in your discipline, or work through problems together.
  5. Introduce a simple framework for critical thinking that students can apply themselves.  Brookfield has a four-step process for gathering and analyzing assumptions.  I use the three A’s (author, audience, and agenda) as a starting place for students to read historical texts.
  6. Start critical thinking with impersonal problems or questions.  Students will be more receptive in learning the methods of applying critical thought before they question their own beliefs.
  7. Treat critical thinking as a social process.  The input and feedback of others, especially peers, helps us to identify our own assumptions, consider different interpretations, and articulate our reasoning.
  8. Consider borrowing problem-based or inquiry-based learning approaches that are suitable for your students’ level and discipline.

For more, see these suggestions for teaching critical thinking from Jessica L. Collett, an Associate Professor in Sociology and friend of the Kaneb Center.

It’s your first day of leading a classroom discussion as an ITA and you are anxious about facing a classroom full of American students.  Agonizing questions start to bombard your mind. Will they understand my accent? Will I be able to meet their expectations? What if my English isn’t good enough? What if I don’t know the answer to a student’s question?

Most ITAs face these common teaching anxieties when they learn that they are required to teach. This may be due to a lack of teaching experience as well as by a lack of language proficiency. The following suggestions will not only help you become more confident about teaching in an American classroom but you may also find teaching to be a delightful experience.

Communicating Without Words

These tips are adapted from Connie Van Zelm’s essay in The Foreign TA: A Guide to Teaching Effectiveness, Handbook of State University of New York at Buffalo, 1988.

  1. Become an actor. Great skill is not necessary, just a little boldness. If there’s a keyword you don’t know in English, use your hands, body and facial expressions to act it out. Don’t be afraid of acting silly or looking funny. Do whatever you need to do to get your point across and learn to laugh with the students. Your students will appreciate your efforts and enthusiasm.
  2. Use a chalkboard or a piece of paper whether you are dealing with one student or a whole class. Write down the keywords you use as you talk about them, and draw a simple picture, map, or diagram of what you are talking about. You can usually sketch examples of what you mean.
  3. If you are afraid that someone might misunderstand you, draw a picture of what you don’t want the students to do or think, and then draw a big “X” through it to show that’s not what you’re talking about.
  4. Instead of explaining a formula or an equation, show how it works, and if the students don’t understand the first time, try explaining it with the help of illustrative examples.
  5. Be creative. Use visual aids whenever possible. Have models available whenever you can, and consider using the students themselves to model how something works.

If you are willing to step out of your shyness and do all you can do to communicate with them, they will really appreciate it, no matter how good or bad your English is.

Additional resources for ITAs:

  1. Resources for International Faculty and TAs by Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning
  2. English for Academic Purposes at the University of Notre Dame

Additional Reading:

Sarkisian, Ellen, Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities. Harvard University, 1997 (accompanied with a video, Teaching in America)

Smith, Jan, et al, Communicate: Strategies for International Teaching Assistants. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.

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.



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

Requiring an early assignment be handed in and graded provides a mutual check-in for you and your students.  You students will get a preview for the bigger assessments later in the semester.  They will understand the kinds of questions you ask, the amount of time it takes to complete assignments in your discipline, and the ways in which their work will be assessed.  Your feedback will help them to understand how they should focus their time and energy for their upcoming midterms. On the other end, you will get more insight about your students’ learning. You may find widespread patterns across the student work that need to be addressed.  Perhaps your students lack either a skill necessary in the course or have become confused about a topic you discussed in class.

Early feedback can set up success later in the semester.  The pedagogical literature suggests giving students a modest boost in confidence early in the semester improves motivation.  Moreover, students who feel capable in a course are less likely to engage in academic dishonesty. (Lang 2013) However, if any students are particularly struggling with time management, the prerequisite skills of the course, or the standards of academic work, an early, low-stakes assignment can alert you to problems and give you time to intervene early in the semester.

While it is important to grade the work in some way to give your students feedback about their work, that grading method does not have to be traditional.  It could be worth only a very small fraction of their final grade.  You might give feedback with no letter or number attached.  Or you could grade it using a system that is less intimidating to students and appropriate for a low-stakes assignment, using a check system or a rubric, for instance.

In my own course, I asked students to write a short reflection paper evaluating a controversial question using sources from the class.  I discovered that my students were more skilled in some areas than I anticipated, but they struggled with an important skill that they would need for their next assignment.  Having realized my assumptions were incorrect, I adjusted by devoting time to additional in-class instruction and practice targeted to the area of weakness.  With some practice and feedback behind them already, my students have a leg up on the first substantial assignment for the semester due this week.


Additional reading:

On designing rubrics for low-stakes assignments, see the resources from our previous workshop.

Lang, James. Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Walvoord and Anderson. Effective Grading:  A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Preparing for Class

Designing a semester long course is challenging enough in itself, but deciding how much time to spend preparing for each class presents a particular problem for graduate students and new teachers still managing other academic responsibilities. Keeping certain guidelines in mind can help manage that precious time while also preparing the teacher to be maximally effective in class.

Learning objectives. The most important step to take in preparing for any class is to remind yourself what the learning goals for this session are. Specific learning goals allow you to focus your preparation for the class and provide your students with the most helpful information. Keep the course as a whole in mind while you do this, so that each objective directly contributes to the course’s overall purpose. In addition, make sure that your objectives are manageable within the time given; if you try to cover too much in one class session, you will only frustrate yourself and your students. See the Kaneb Center’s handout on learning goals here.

Variety in the classroom. The general structure of a class should always have a beginning, middle, and end, with the appropriate amounts of time blocked for each part. Within this structure, however, you are free to consider a wide variety of teaching methods that will keep you and your students engaged in the material. Now that the semester has started and you have had a chance to begin to know your students, consider the different ways in which they are participating and responding. Different combinations of mini-lectures, class discussions, in or out of class reflections, or more active learning, can all be used to help you design the most effective class session for the learning objectives you have set.

Be flexible. Once you have your learning goals and teaching methods for the day in hand, you might well feel completely ready for class. But the truth is that classes rarely go exactly according to plan, and it is always advisable to be ready for changes. If you plan a discussion that ends much earlier or much later than you expected, think of back up plans for the remaining learning objectives that will still cover what you need for that day. This might mean adding a discussion to a mini-lecture, or asking students to write a reflection on that final point that they can turn in at the next class. Thinking ahead to these kinds of contingencies will keep you calm and confident in the classroom.

Physical and mental readiness. Give yourself time before class begins to be fully alert, warmed up, and ready. Recollect your learning goals, plans, and backup strategies for the day, but also revisit your hopes for the course as a whole and your interest in teaching it. Not only will you avoid the forgetfulness and disorder that comes with being rushed, but you will also come to class more energized and enthusiastic, creating a better experience for you and your students.

It is important to think about the first few weeks of class as not only initial content days but also ways to create a community in the classroom. Doing so will build trust between the students and yourself and likely boost student performance on in-class activities. Below are some strategies on how to successfully build a rapport with students straight off the bat.


Learning your students’ names, especially if it is a larger class, is an easy way to demonstrate to your students that you value them as people. If you are bad at names or if you have an extremely large class in which learning names is a daunting task, you can make use of the Online Photo App through Inside ND to help memorize student names outside of class. You may also be transparent about your trouble remembering names and have the students help you out. For example, you can have them create paper signs with their names on it that they display at their desks or have them say their name before they speak after raising their hand. Be aware that it might take students longer than you to remember each other’s names, so it is a good idea to either make sure you begin using the student’s names out loud as soon as you learn them or continue whatever activity you are using until you are confident that most people know each other.


Learning students’ names is only the first step toward making them feel valued not only as students but as people in your classroom. You can do this in a number of ways: arrive early and chat with them before class starts, take the first five minutes of class to discuss something of interest to them unrelated to class (you can have students choose the topics), or collect unofficial survey information after specific class periods. Just do what feels comfortable for you as a person. Please note that if you are going to collect responses from students at the end of a class period, be sure to follow up on their responses. You can do so individually or collectively, depending on the nature of what you want to address.


Having student’s know something about you as a person will help them identify with you better. For example, if you are teaching a film class, you might want to tell the students about your favorite movie, or chat about a new movie coming to theaters that you are particularly excited about. Expressing your opinion on a topic and allowing students to openly challenge or disagree with your statement in a respectful, evidence-based, dialogue can also go a long way in establishing yourself as a person with your own unique and informed positions. Don’t feel pressured to reveal anything that you are not comfortable with. Simply demonstrating your passion for the topic will reveal quite a bit about you and will make you more relatable as a teacher.


One of the most important ways to build relationships with students in the classroom is to emphasize that the classroom is a safe space. You want to therefore emphasize and set guidelines for appropriate and respectful behavior. This is especially important if you are going to be dealing with controversial topics in class. The best way to set boundaries is to get students involved in the drafting of this guidelines so that they feel safe and empowered in the classroom.


A Short Article from the Social Psychology Network on Creating Rapport on the Classroom : http://www.socialpsychology.org/rapport.htm

The spring semester has drawn to a close and the summer is upon us! Although there are fewer classes to teach in the summer, that doesn’t mean one must forget about teaching for three months. As you prepare for fall classes and continue your professional development as a teacher, consider taking advantage of the many resources the Kaneb Center has to offer this summer:

  • 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.
  • Graduate Courses on University Teaching and Learning. Short credit-bearing summer courseson 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 Joanna Sherbun with any questions.
    • Course on Teaching and Learning Online. Whether you are on campus or off, consider taking a four day course in July on teaching an online course, appropriately, taught entirely online. This course is especially helpful for graduate students on the job market who may be asked to teach online courses at their new institutions. Learn more here and sign up by following the links above.
  • 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 in May (the week after finals end), 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 (confidential) 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, best wishes for a happy and productive summer! As always, let us know if we can assist you with any of your teaching needs.

During the summer, it’s easy for teaching to take a backseat to the research duties that have been piling up all semester while you have been busy grading. Taking a break and switching gears is healthy and can bring you fresh focus upon return to teaching, but it is also important to schedule some time for reflection and fall semester prep. Don’t add stress to your fall by cramming all your planning into the week before the semester starts!

Most importantly, reflect on your semester as soon as possible. Doing so while the semester is still fresh in your mind will enable you to pinpoint more accurately and honestly what did and did not work for you this semester. If you have time and need to make relatively small changes, make sure to get to them right away. Nothing is worse than having an assignment not meet expectations, only to remember that you had a fantastic idea for solving this issue last semester but forgot to implement it. At the very least, jot down a to-do list and place it in a spot that you are sure to check when prepping for the next semester. Place it on the fridge next to your kid’s finger-paintings, add it as a google calendar event in August, or add a document to your class folder with a prominent title.

It is best to complete this self-reflection before you receive your course instructor feedback (CIFs) from students. This way you can focus solely on your own instincts and then supplement your initial reactions with those received from the CIF reports. CIFs can never provide a full picture of a class, nor do students always appreciate your pedagogical intentions or their own significant learning. Reflecting before and after the CIFs can help you better understand and contextualize the feedback that students provide.

Next, make a schedule that paces out your workload and stick to it, even if you can only afford a day a month in June and July. A consistent schedule will make sure that you don’t leave everything until the last minute. Spacing out future semester planning will provide you with time to reflect on your choices in between planning sessions so that you can be as intentional about your pedagogy as possible. We discourage students from cramming and should always follow our own advice. Come fall, you will be grateful for your proactive reflection and early planning.

The end of the semester has a reputation for sneaking up on teachers and students alike. While the students are busy with finals and term papers, teachers can be equally preoccupied with finishing the course, submitting grades, and filing paperwork. But we shouldn’t forget to stop and try to make sense of all the ground we’ve covered in the last few months. Here are some tips on making the most of the last week of classes:


  • Engage students in reflection: Take the last class to reflect on the syllabus with your students.
    • Ask them how well each topic was covered, what they were most interested in or excited about, and what they noticed in their own learning. Focus on the large concepts and goals of the course. Ask students how they feel about where they are now compared with the beginning of the semester.
    • Push them to articulate the connections they’ve found between topics within the course or between the course and their other coursework or their lives.
    • Share what you’ve learned from teaching this course with the students; have they changed any of your outlooks in the course of the semester?
    • You might consider asking some of the students to write letters to future students in this course. How can they get the most out of it? What was the most challenging aspect and how could they best benefit from this?
  • Point to the future: help your students understand that their learning and benefit from your course need not end after the final.
    • Remind your students, as they continue working on those end of term papers and projects, to think of these assignments as potential portfolio material for themselves. These assignments could have a future beyond the grade they’ll receive in this class and go toward their future professional development.
    • Encourage them to learn from this semester; not just the goals of this course, but from the habits they’ve discovered as students, so they can apply what they’ve learned about themselves as students to courses they take in the future.
    • For those interested in continuing their education in this area, compile a suggested reading list from your own bookshelf on the materials covered. Encourage interest in pursuing the questions you’ve been asking.
  • Celebrate: You and your students have bonded over this last semester, and it can be fun and satisfying to discuss what you’ve all learned in a more relaxed setting. Whether you go to a meal together or bring treats to share in class, this is a nice final touch for a course. Don’t forget to thank your students for their contributions and engagement with the course!
  • Think ahead: It might be the end of one semester, but this is the perfect time to plan for your next course.
    • Set aside 30 minutes to reflect and write yourself notes on changes you’d like to make next time you teach this course, while it’s still fresh in your mind.
    • Mark up your syllabus – or better yet, update it now – to reflect those classes and assignments that worked best, and those that could use revision.

With finals approaching, you may be planning to distribute review problem sets or study guides to your students.  But in addition to providing resources to review course content, it is equally important to ensure that your students have the necessary study strategies to prepare and practice for high-stakes exams.  The following guest post, provided by Dr. Maria A. Taydem, Interim Dean of Math and Science at McHenry County College, provides some strategies for discussing studying techniques with students:

When I was teaching chemistry, one of the hardest things to hear from a student was something like this: “I studied so hard and really thought I understood the material, and I still bombed the exam.” This was often followed by a diagnosis: “I just don’t do well on tests.” In my current role as Dean, I hear similar frustrations from students who need my permission to repeat a class they’ve failed (often math.) They’ve worked on the assigned problems, visited the tutoring center regularly, and still struggle.

What can we say to these students? I’ve found that I can often give new hope to students by talking with them about how they study, and how that might be hurting them. I first check to be sure that they are working on the sample problems scattered throughout the chapter. Often they are, but they generally do it with the book open, following the pattern of the worked example. I point out to them that while this may allow them to complete the problem successfully, it does not mean they understand how to do the problem – it just means that they can follow a pattern. Further, it creates a false sense of accomplishment that can lead to that earlier statement (“I thought I understood, and I still bombed…”).

I suggest that it is essential that they work the problem just like they will have to work problems on the quiz or exam – with the book closed, and no reference to notes. In effect, they need to test themselves. At this point, I like to encourage them along this path (which will almost certainly be more challenging to them) by throwing in a bit about the testing effect (in short, that just the act of taking a test can help learning) and on Robert Bjork’s work on “desirable difficulty” (again in short, that struggling with a problem enhances learning).

Next, I encourage them to work the problems at the end of the chapter, but warn that there is a danger here as well – textbooks frequently group like problems together, which amounts to “blocked practice.” Blocked practice is shown to produce less learning than “interleaved practice,” where problems of different sorts are randomly mixed. Here again I warn them that studying this way will seem more difficult, but that this is a “desirable difficulty” that has been shown to produce greater learning gains. Interleaved practice helps students learn to discern between types of problems and to select the correct strategy needed to solve that type of problem. I point out that it is also more like what they will experience on the test, where there’s no bold type announcing what sort of problem is next.

While I haven’t yet collected even anecdotal results on whether students put this advice to use, or if it helps (writing this is prompting me to follow up with the students I’ve talked with!), I do know that many of them acknowledge that they have fallen into these “traps” and leave with renewed enthusiasm for studying with this approach, and a bit of hope that maybe in fact they can learn to test well. That, at least, is a start!



For more on the testing effect, and how to make use of it in education: http://www.retrievalpractice.org/

To learn more about Robert Bjork’s ideas on “desirable difficulty”: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-addiction/201105/desirable-difficulties-in-the-classroom

And for an overview of the work on interleaved practice: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-interleaving-effect-mixing-it-up-boosts-learning/

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