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This is the fourth and final installment in our series on teaching controversial topics. In the first, we considered two reasons to teach controversial topics and three frameworks with which to do so. The second addressed how to develop a conducive classroom environment by building relationships with students and preparing to draft ground rules for discussion. The third concerned why and how to involve students in the creation of ground rules, some suggested ground rules, and how to use ground rules. 

This month, we turn to some tips for facilitating discussion of controversial topics. Implementing the following strategies can foster discussions that are more productive and civil.


Provide a Common Basis for Understanding to help Focus the Discussion

To do this, you might:

  • Assign readings
  • Show a video clip
  • Have students review material immediately before the discussion
  • Create a list of things students would like the discussion to take into consideration


Begin the Discussion by Stating its Purpose

Stating the purpose provides a touchstone with which students can evaluate how to contribute to the discussion. It can also serve as a point for instructors to reference as they guide the discussion. Examples include:

  • Promote critical thinking by helping students understand the complexity of the issues
  • Increase awareness by providing information that is typically not addressed
  • Improve dialogue skills that students can use in other venues
  • Connect the topic with students’ roles and responsibilities outside the classroom


Structure the Discussion to Include Everyone

Strategies for doing this include:

  • The Round: Ask a guiding question and give every student an opportunity to respond without any interruptions or comments. Offer the option to pass. Discuss responses after the round.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Ask a question and give students a few minutes to respond individually in writing. Then assign partners and give explicit directions for discussion, such as “Tell each other why you wrote what you did.” After a specified amount of time, reconvene the class and debrief. 
  • Reflection Memos: Prior to class, have students write a reflection in response to some question(s) you pose. Ask them to read their memos in pairs, small groups, or to the entire class. 


Maintain the Focus and Flow of the Discussion

Begin with clear, open-ended yet bounded questions. Questions to avoid include: 

  • Double-Barreled: pose two questions simultaneously
  • Hide the Ball: search for a specific answer
  • Short Factual or Yes/No: can be addressed summarily

Prepare questions to break the silence:

  • “What makes this hard to discuss?”
  • “What needs to be clarified at this point?”

Maintain the focus

  • Ask probing questions to prompt students to provide more information, clarify, elaborate, or explain.
  • Remind the class of the readings or discussion objectives to redirect the discussion to its intended purpose
  • Validate important but extraneous input by redirecting the focus and mentioning them at the end of the discussion as points to consider

Be an active facilitator, but don’t take too much control. As necessary:

  • Reword questions
  • Correct misinformation
  • Reference relevant materials
  • Ask for clarification
  • Review main points


Facilitate a Wrap-up 

Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was worthwhile if the instructor facilitates—with class input—a synthesis of key issues addressed. It can be helpful to generate a public written list. 

In addition, to get student feedback and identify issues to address later, save the last five minutes of class for students to write a Minute Paper on questions such as the following. Be sure to review responses and debrief them  in the next class.

  • “What are the three most important points you learned today?”
  • “What important questions remain unanswered for you?”
  • “What did you learn specifically from what someone else said that you would not have thought of on your own?”


While discussing controversial topics will likely always be challenging, implementing the strategies outlined in this four-part series can help make doing so more pleasant and productive for everyone involved. 


“Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed December 6, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines

In the flurry of final exams, papers, and projects, it’s easy to let plans for the last day of class slip through the cracks. But the final class day presents a perfect opportunity for both you and your students to reflect on what you learned, consider its future applications, and recognize your achievements over the course of the semester. Below are some suggestions for how to get the most out of your final class meeting. 

Look Back

It’s important for students to reflect on and articulate what they’ve learned in class not only because it provides good review for final exams, papers, and projects but also because synthesizing and consolidating learning can increase retention. On the last day of class, revisit your course goals with students and consider how they’ve been fulfilled over the past several months. Ask students, either in individual writing, small group discussion, or a class conversation, to identify their main takeaways from the course and articulate the significance of what they’ve learned. 

The end of class also provides a good opportunity for you and your students to think about what worked in the course and what didn’t. Ask students to reflect on their own learning process and to think about their best and worst moments in the course. What have they learned about their own learning? This is also a good time to reflect on and make some notes about your teaching: what worked and what didn’t? If you could redo the course, what would you change?

Look Forward

The final class day also provides an opportunity for you and your students to look forward. Use the last class day to think not only about ways to improve teaching and learning going forward but also about the ramifications of students’ learning for their future. You might ask students to brainstorm about how what they’ve learned this semester will play a part in their daily lives or consider how it will help them succeed in future classes or careers. What will students do with the knowledge they’ve gained in the course? You can also use the time to answer lingering questions that the class has raised for students or talk to them about future directions in the field they’ve been studying for the past several months. Revisit some of the big questions of the course and think with students about their significance going forward.


Finally, give yourself and your students permission to celebrate your achievements over the course of the semester. This doesn’t mean you should throw a party. But it can be good to take time to recognize in some way the mutual effort you’ve put into the course. The celebration doesn’t have to be a grand gesture: simply thanking your students for their participation in the class or taking a moment to mutually share positive thoughts about the experience can make a big impact.

It can be difficult to carve out time to wrap up your course properly. But taking an hour or so to look back, look forward, and celebrate the semester can help you and your students end the course, and the year, on a high note. 


Further Reading

Bleicher, Elizabeth. (2011). The last class: Critical thinking, reflection, course effectiveness, and student engagement. Honors in Practice, 7, 39-52. 

Boucquey, N. C. (2014). School’s out! Almost. Strategies for the last day of class. Stanford Teaching Commons.

Dietz-Uhler, B., & Lanter, J. R. (2009). Using the four-questions technique to enhance learning. Teaching of Psychology, 36(1), 38-41.

Last Day of Class,” Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning.

Maier, Mark H., & Panitz, Ted. (1996). “End on a High Note: Better Endings for Classes and Courses.” College Teaching, 44(4), 145-148.

Uhl, C. (2005). The last class. College Teaching, 53(4), 165-166.

End of semester, summative course evaluations are a commonly expected event that provide students the opportunity to rate an instructor’s teaching effectiveness as well as the course’s impact on their own learning and success. At Notre Dame these are called Course Instructor Feedback (CIF) forms. Typically, these evaluations are used as part of formal promotion and tenure reviews by departments, or as job application documents, rather than as tools for self-improvement. Even though there may be occasional, unanticipated lower scores on some survey items, or even some negative comments to balance the positive remarks, this anonymous student feedback instrument can be an equally effective tool for teaching self-reflection, self-assessment and course improvement. Additionally, for those interested in using their survey scores more formally in the pursuit of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) involvement, MacMillan, et al (2011) suggests that teaching evaluations could even be a source of useful data for the SoTL cycle of inquiry. No matter the scores received, or even their intended use, analyzing some or all survey items for specific course or teaching improvement can be valuable. This targeted self-reflection may uncover opportunities revealed by more than the mean scores alone.

Most instructors likely already do some formative or summative self-reflection or self-assessment. And in general, this can identify areas for improving one’s teaching – especially in areas less visible to students but still essential to the course. Perhaps consider self-administering a general teaching inventory to assess the methods you use and get new ideas for future classes. Instructors could also periodically choose to reflect on their course(s) through the lens of the CIF, providing a parallel view of your course from the instructor perspective. Below are a few CIF-based items for instructor self-assessment, with accompanying self-reflection questions to assist in thinking more deeply about a just completed course.

Examples of CIF-Based, Instructor Self-Feedback Items

  • Overall I organized the course to meet the needs of my students. (CIF item: Overall organization of the course)
    • What data or feedback did you receive this semester to indicate that their needs were/were not met? Did you get an inordinate number of questions about a particular topic that you thought you had appropriately prepared for?
  • I was available and provided appropriate help or learning resources outside of class. (CIF item: Availability of appropriate help or learning resources outside class)
    • Did you schedule office hours for students to meet their schedules or yours? Were you hours well attended? Did you use the library reserve service for additional materials? Did you have additional, explanatory materials in Sakai? 
  • I required assignments (readings, projects, etc.) that were helpful in facilitating student  learning. (CIF item: Helpfulness of required assignments (readings, projects, etc.) in facilitating my learning). 
    • What indicators were you looking for to indicate this helpfulness? What parameters did you use to select these? What other materials did students use to supplement yours? What individual requirements could be improved upon?
  • I provided useful feedback to my students concerning their work in the course. (CIF item: Usefulness of the feedback I received concerning my work in the course)
    • What confirmed feedback was useful? Were student products reflective of feedback following directions from you (either written or verbal)? Did you ask students anonymously where your feedback could be improved?
  • I communicated clearly to students in class and in my materials. (CIF item: Instructor’s clarity of communication)
    • Did you note when students indicated they were unsure about something you communicated? Were students confused by assignment directions? Did students want to discuss their grade on a more subjective assignment or assessment?
  • I was fair and impartial in conducting my class. (CIF item: Instructor’s fairness and impartiality in conducting the class)
    • Were all students treated and graded without bias? Did your learning preference impact or influence the learning environment or engagement of your students? Did you gravitate toward students who appear to mirror your, personality, learning style or disciplinary focus? 
  • I equally helped all students develop mastery of the course material. (CIF item: Instructor’s effort to help students develop mastery of the course material)
    • Were you equally available to all students to help them? Did your office hours work for everyone? Was your learning environment inclusive for all students? 

While this is just a sampling of CIF-based survey items that are instructor facing, these example items provide ideas on how reflecting on the CIF can help you improve your teaching, perhaps leading to both greater student success and higher CIF scores in the future.  


MacMillan, M.,  Manarin, K., and Mitchell, M. (November 2011). In Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal Volume 5 Issue 2. Retrieved from: https://www.kpu.ca/sites/default/files/Teaching%20and%20Learning/TD.5.2.1.Macmillan_etal_Teaching_Evaluastions.pdf

Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 16, No. 4, Measuring Studying and Learning in Higher Education—Conceptual and Methodological Issues (2004), pp. 409-424. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23363879.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A78a48cb24fd3aa456064946de44b833f

This is the third installment in our series on teaching controversial topics. In the first installment, we considered two reasons to teach controversial topic and three frameworks with which to do so. The second installment addressed how to develop a conducive classroom environment by building relationships with students and preparing to draft ground rules for discussion. This month’s post addresses why and how to involve students in the creation of ground rules, some suggested ground rules, and how to use ground rules.


Involving Students

Ground rules are expectations for conduct.[1] Instructors may create them independently or involve students in the process of creating them. Including students in the process is a good idea because it may help them:[2]

  • Feel Valued
  • Understand the Power of Collaboration
  • Clearly Understand Expectations

In Discussion as a Way of Teaching Brookfield and Preskill suggest a way to involve students in creating ground rules. Ask students:

  1. To identify the best and worst classes in which they have participated.
  2. To reflect on what made them so.
  3. For three things that students could do to help create such an environment.


Suggested Ground Rules

Then, use their suggestions to draft a list of guidelines. You may want to ensure that some of the following make it on your list:[3]

  • Only make a statement if you are willing to say it directly to someone to whom it matters a great deal.
  • Listen actively and respectfully.
  • Seek to include everyone in the conversation. If you tend to talk a lot, leave space for others. If you tend to stay quiet, contribute so others can learn from you.
  • Whenever possible, support assertions with evidence.
  • Cultivate “tentativeness.”
  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • Expect others to have different experiences and perspectives.
  • Seek to learn rather than to debate or persuade.
  • Be willing to change your perspective based on what you learn.
  • Think critically about why you believe what you do.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t assume things about classmates or ask them to speak for their (perceived) social group(s).
  • Expect mistakes. Seek to see them as a valuable part of the learning process.
  • If you learn that something you said negatively affected others, seek to learn how you can do better in the future.


How to Use Ground Rules

Here are some ways to use the list of ground rules you generate:[4]

  • Discuss them on the first day of class.
  • Post them around the classroom.
  • Distribute hard copies to students.
  • Put them on your syllabus or add them to your course website.
  • Strategically remind your class of them before sensitive conversations.
  • Refer to them when people violate the ground rules.
  • Ask students to read them aloud as a reminder of your agreements.
  • Re-evaluate them periodically to see if the class has suggestions for revisions.
  • Use them as a reference point for students to self-assess their participation. (e.g., “How have I contributed positively to the sort of learning environment described in our discussion guidelines?”, “Where can I grow as a contributor?”, or “How well have we as a class been abiding by these agreements?”
  • Use them as a starting point for developing guidelines the next time you teach the class. (Ask students what they want to keep and what they want to amend.)

These strategies can go a long way toward increasing student buy-in for ground rules, which are an important aspect of creating a classroom environment conducive to engaging with controversial topics. Next month, we’ll explore some tips for facilitating discussions of controversial topics.


[1] Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence’s Ground Rules.

[2] The Art of Education University’s Create Your Classroom Rules WITH Your Students for a Powerful Start to the Year.

[3] Adapted from Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning Teaching Controversial Topics and the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics and Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.

[4] Adapted from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Center for Faculty Development and Innovation Classroom Ground Rules and the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.




Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Hoboken: Wiley, 2012.

“Classroom Ground Rules.” Center for Faculty Development and Innovation. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.siue.edu/facultycenter/services_resources/teaching/Ground_Rules.shtml.

“Ground Rules.” Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Carnegie Mellon University. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-dontparticipate/groundrules.pdf.

“Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines.

“Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines.

Harmon, Wynita. “Create Your Classroom Rules WITH Your Students for a Powerful Start to the Year.”  The Art of Education University, August 3, 2017. https://theartofeducation.edu/2017/08/08/3-benefits-creating-classroom-expectations-students/.

“Teaching Controversial Topics.” Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Yale University. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics.

Checking student understanding is essential for effective teaching. Do your students have preconceived notions of a topic? Are they following your lecture? Do they understand the connection between this topic and your course goals? There are many ways to evaluate student understanding (through assignments, projects, or exams), but I encourage you to check student understanding during the learning process.

A great, quick way to check comprehension is to poll your students. Below I have compiled a list of tried and true polling techniques.



1. Show of Hands

You don’t need fancy technology to get instant feedback in class. A simple “Raise your hand if you have heard of this concept before” or “Raise your hand if you agree with this statement” can go a long way.


Advantage(s): no preparation, no cost

Disadvantage(s): not anonymous, binary response (yes/no, true/false)


2. Student Response Cards

This is such an easy, brilliant system for multiple responses. At the beginning of the semester, hand out colored post-it notes or labeled index cards to each student. During class, pose a multiple choice question and assign each answer a color. Students then simultaneously raise their response cards and you immediately have a pulse of the class.


Advantage(s): minimal preparation, multiple-choice

Disadvantage(s): not anonymous


3. Poll Everywhere

Poll Everywhere is a web-based response system. You create questions online (multiple choice, open response, live word clouds, clickable images, up- and down-voting for Q&A, and rank order) and students respond by visiting a website or texting a number on their phones.


Advantage(s): multiple question/response types, can be anonymous, results updated live, can integrate into PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides

Disadvantage(s): students need phone access, free version capacity is 25 responses (contact Kevin Abbott if you would like to implement Poll Everywhere in a larger class)


4. Kahoot

Looking to liven up the classroom? Kahoot is a game-based learning platform that turns concept quizzes into a competition. With music, points, and rankings, Kahoot is ideal for social learning or review questions.


Advantage(s): game-like features haven proven popular among students

Disadvantage(s): with emphasis placed on answering quickly and winning, kahoot is not ideal for higher-level thinking or collaboration


5. Plickers

Originally created for K-12 teachers, Plickers is unique because it combines student response cards with technology. At the beginning of the semester, each student is given a unique Plickers card (with a machine-scannable image that looks like a QR code). Each side of the square card corresponds to a letter A, B, C, or D. When prompted, students hold up and rotate the card to put their chosen answer on top. The instructor then uses the Plickers app on a mobile device to scan the room and compile the responses.


Advantage(s): great for polling in classrooms where students don’t have personal devices, inclusive, free

Disadvantage(s): lost or mixed up cards, limited to multiple choice responses



Done well, polling students during class can increase student engagement and comprehension. If you would like more information about polling (effectiveness, examples of questions and teaching activities, how to get started, etc.), see the additional resources below.



Additional Resources:

  1. Other Student Response Systems
  2. Getting Started with Poll Everywhere
  3. Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments
  4. Multiple-Choice Questions You Wouldn’t Put on a Test: Promoting Deep Learning Using Clickers









As we leave fall break and Daylight Savings Time behind, and look forward to Thanksgiving break and the end of the year, you may find that your students’ motivation is flagging. This is a good time to take stock of the plans you have for the remainder of your course and to think about ways to keep students engaged and inspired through the end of the semester.

Motivation is a complex phenomenon, but psychologists have broken it down into broad two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In education, extrinsic motivators include external rewards like grades and are related to the expectations of instructors, peers, and parents. Intrinsic motivators, by contrast, are related to the student’s own expectations and may include things like interest in the subject matter or a sense that what students are studying is relevant to their lives. Our classes are full of, and necessarily organized around, extrinsic motivators. But fostering intrinsic motivation is a key part of helping students reach their full potential.

One good way to increase intrinsic motivation is to promote student autonomy. When students feel ownership over their learning and a sense of empowerment in the classroom, they not only perform better on assigned tasks but also leave the course with a greater sense of satisfaction and a good deal of knowledge that will stick with them long past the final exam.

So, how can you increase students’ autonomy in your classes? One way is to treat students as active collaborators in the production of knowledge rather than passive receivers of it. Encourage students to see themselves as developing experts by asking them to explain concepts; engaging them in problem-solving or inquiry-based activities; encouraging multiple opinions and approaches; and allowing them to generate their own discussion questions or to take control of class conversation in some way.

You can also promote student autonomy by giving students meaningful control over the learning process. Consider your activities and assignments for the remainder of the semester: is there any way to incorporate student choice (within reasonable parameters) into those assignments or activities without making major changes? For example, you might let students choose their own topic for a final project, perhaps working from a list of approved topics you compile. You could likewise involve the students in creating the assessment criteria for such an assignment. You might also let students choose the topic of discussion, or the means by which that discussion is conducted, for one or two class days. Allowing your students to make these kinds of choices can increase both their investment in the course and their motivation to finish the semester strong.

Finally, you can help foster student autonomy by avoiding or deemphasizing external rewards and punishments. While extrinsic motivators have their place, psychological studies have shown that offering extrinsic rewards can actually decrease people’s intrinsic motivation. A key part of developing student autonomy is helping your students see the value not in the rewards system of the class but in the subject matter itself. Giving students the freedom and the tools to interest themselves in course content is one good way to beat the mid-semester slump.


Further Reading

Crone, I. & MacKay, C. (2007). Motivating today’s college students. Peer Review 9.

Garcia, Teresa & Pintrich, Paul R. (1996). The effects of autonomy on motivation and performance in the college classroom. Contemporary Educational Psychology 21, 477-486.

Gorham, J. & Millette, D.M. (1997). A Comparative Analysis of Teacher and Student Perceptions of Sources of Motivation and Demotivation in College Classes. Communication Education 46, 245- 61.

Lowman, J. (1990). Promoting motivation and learning. College Teaching 38, 136-140.

Motivating Students, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Niemiec, Christopher P. and Ryan, Richard M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education 7, 133-144.

Stefanou, Candice R., Perecevich, Kathleen C., DiCintio, Matthew, & Turner, Julianne C. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision-making and ownership. Educational Psychologist 39, 97-110.


Kaneb Center Resources

Fostering Student Motivation Through Instruction

Motivation and Learning

Keeping Students Motivated

Research on flipped-learning – the concept where first exposure to new material is done outside of class while applied learning activities and higher-order thinking is conducted in class – is expanding at an incredible pace. The goal of this post is to give a qualitative overview of  what the current literature does and does not say about flipped learning. Much of this work will reference studies and literature reviews conducted by Robert Talbert at Grand Valley State University, a prominent scholar in the field [1,2] (also see Refs. [3] and [4] for more in-depth definitions of flipped learning). 

Flipped-learning research has grown by approximately 60% each year since 2012 [2]. Most of it is conducted by faculty members who are using flipped learning in their own teaching, which means that the research is never far removed from the actual classroom experience. However, it also means that the authors are often not specialized in educational research and that the scope of the research is usually limited. In addition, the success of the techniques is often determined by course/exam grades, which are not necessarily the best metrics of learning. The other common measure is student surveys designed by the researchers for a particular study. More use of validated survey instruments would be better, more consistent, metrics to implement moving forward.

So, what does the literature say? In general, students in flipped-learning environments achieve higher scores than students in traditional settings, or else the differences are not statistically significant. These two outcomes seem to be about equally as common. Only rarely do you see students in flipped learning environments perform significantly worse. One of the most consistent results in the literature is that flipped learning is strongly correlated with improved class-meeting attendance; however, data on whether students actually partake in the pre-class activities are mixed and vary widely. The literature also indicates that students tend to show higher satisfaction with flipped learning compared to traditional methods; however, these positive views only tend to sink in over time. Frequent and transparent communication with students seems to be critical with regards to this topic.

The literature, or lack of literature, does not indicate any significant effect of: whether the course being flipped is introductory vs. advanced, whether the course is undergraduate vs. graduate, whether the number of students is small vs. large, whether all of the course is flipped vs. only part of it, or whether videos are used vs. not.

As the use of, and research regarding flipped learning continues to grow, many of these questions will inevitably be answered to a fuller degree. This means that the literature on the subject up to this point should certainly not be viewed as conclusive. However, this short article serves as a convenient recap for those thinking about implementing such techniques in the semesters to come.


[1] Talbert, R. (2017). Flipped Learning : a Guide for Higher Education Faculty. Sterling, Virginia : Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2017.

[2] Talbert, R. (2018). What Does the Research Say About Flipped Learning. http://rtalbert.org/what-does-the-research-say/

[3] O’Flaherty, J., & Phillips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. Internet and Higher Education, 25, 85–95.

[4] Bishop, J., & Verleger, M. (2013). The Flipped Classroom : A Survey of the Research. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, 6219.

Submitted by:

Carson Running

Ph.D. Candidate, Aerospace Engineering

University of Notre Dame

Last month, in the first installment of this series, we considered two reasons to teach controversial topic and three frameworks with which to do so. This month we will focus on how instructors can develop a classroom environment conducive to productive engagement with controversial issues. This post will address how to create the appropriate classroom environment and how to prepare to draft ground rules for engagement with controversial topics. 


Creating an Environment

An instructor plays a significant role in determining how conducive a classroom environment is to productive engagement with controversial topics. Some of the ways to create a good environment for productive disagreement include:  

  • Establish rapport with students by finding ways to demonstrate that you care about them.
  • Use discussion beginning on the first day, so students will be comfortable speaking in class. (Or, take the time to explain why you are using discussion for this topic.)
  • Expose students (via readings or discussion questions) to a variety of perspectives on an issue to prepare them for the conversation. 


Clearing the Ground for Ground Rules

Ground rules (or guidelines) for engaging with controversial topics are an important way to create shared expectations and norms, which can be a lifeline in difficult contexts. That said, guidelines don’t work well in a vacuum. Instructors need to set the stage for them to maximize their effectiveness. To help students understand the context for ground rules, instructors should clarify the following for their students:

  • What types of learning interactions will be common in this class?
  • Why do we use these types of learning interactions? 
    • For example, in the book Discussion as a Way of Teaching, Brookfield and Preskill identify four purposes of discussion:
      1. “to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration”
      2. “to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique” 
      3. “to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly”
      4. “to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world.” (pg. 6)
  • What goals of the course ought to inform your ground rules?
    • Are you equipping students to enter a particular profession or context?
  • What are the limits of ground rules?
    • Have a conversation about guidelines will not preemptively remove all of the challenges of engaging with controversial topics. 

Implementing these strategies will go a long way toward creating a classroom environment conducive to engaging with controversial issues. Next month, we’ll explore some tips for drafting ground rules for that engagement.


Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Hoboken: Wiley, 2012.

 “Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines.

“Teaching Controversial Issues.” Center for Teaching Excellence. Duquense University. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning/teaching-controversial-topics.



As we reach the midpoint of the semester, where tests are as numerous to the students as the falling leaves, it is fitting to look back to October 1924 and the eloquent words of Grantland Rice…Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are… Quizzes, Exams, Midterms, and Finals. Ok, maybe these Four Horsemen of Assessment are not as daunting as Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden were on the football field that Saturday, but your students may feel equally overmatched, unnerved and bowled over during tests if your question design is not following the game plan for quality assessment. Students should be tested in a fair but challenging manner, which means instructors must take great care in composing multiple choice questions. Engaging student brains with well-designed questions will validly determine whether they have learned and retained the targeted skills and information to meet your course objectives. 

Let’s review some general, but important, considerations when developing quality multiple choice items.

Stem and Options

After first drafting the stem (positively-worded) and correct answer (which together makes a complete and correct sentence), 3-5 distractor options should be created that are: 

  • Plausible enough to be chosen and possibly be argued as correct
  • True statements that don’t answer the question
  • Reflective of common student errors, assumptions or misconceptions
  • Familiar, yet incorrect, words or phrases
  • Reasonably likely to be chosen by those who don’t fully know the material

Visual, Verbal, Grammatical and Logical Cues

Review your answer, considering cues students may use to identify the answer, as these defeat the goal of the instructor to engage the type of thinking, learning, and feedback needed to by students to understand and connect the material to learning objectives. Cues may include: 

  • Grammar structure that is not consistent with the stem sentence.
  • One distractor that is much longer than others (“too long to be wrong”)
  • A single option that contains all the other options
  • An option with a vague word or phrase like “usually,” “typically” or “may be”
  • Two options with the same meaning
  • One option in textbook/lecture language (correct), others in everyday language

Other Common Mistakes or Answer Identifiers

Finally, it is equally advisable to be aware of some common mistakes/issues when creating your multiple choice items. These elements can add confusion or vagueness to your item so avoid using:

  • Negative wording of the stem (Which of the following is NOT…)
  • Microscopically-fine distinctions between options (unless absolutely necessary)
  • An option that is humorous, funny or cute
  • Options that include All or None of the above, All, Always, or Never
  • Stems that seek to find the exception in a list of correct options  (All of the following are signs of XYZ except)
  • One option combines to other options (Both A & B)



Rice, Grantland “The Four Horsemen”. New York Herald Tribune, 18 October 1924. Retrieved from http://archives.nd.edu/research/texts/rice.htm October 11, 2019.

Hubert, Dan (2019). Creating Effective Multiple Choice Questions. University of Notre Dame. Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning Workshop, September 25, 2019.


As we near fall break, you may find that your grading is piling up quickly, and if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how to keep it from taking over your life. What follows are some concrete strategies to make grading more efficient, without sacrificing the quality of feedback you give on student work.

Add grading to your calendar. For major assignments, set aside blocks of time for grading in your daily schedule. Try to work for an hour or two at a time to avoid burnout and to keep your grading consistent. 

Set a timer. Time can really get away from you while you’re grading. Setting a timer for each paper, lab report, or project (and sticking to the time you’ve set!) can help ensure you give concise feedback on the most important points and finish grading in a timely manner.

Use a rubric. Rubrics with clearly defined expectations not only help students craft better assignments but also help instructors focus their evaluation. Consider designing rubrics that you can mark up and return to students with their grades. In addition to minimizing the amount of time you spend writing out comments, this method can also promote more consistent grading, saving time in the long run. 

Use a comment bank. If you find students are consistently making the same kind or error or struggling in similar ways, craft a general comment that addresses your concerns and can be slightly modified for different students and situations. Save this comment, and others, in a document that you can draw on when grading future assignments. 

Focus feedback by considering assignment goals. Remember that addressing every concern in every student assignment is impossible. Limit the kind of feedback you give to the concerns the assignment is designed to address and the topics you’ve covered in previous classes. 

Offer verbal rather than written feedback. Sometimes speaking to students about their work can be quicker and easier than writing out your comments. Consider meeting individually with students to offer feedback or even recording verbal comments to distribute digitally.

And remember: past a certain point, the amount of time you spend crafting feedback for students has diminishing returns. Students can feel overwhelmed or discouraged by too many comments, so devoting an inordinate amount of time to grading is not only exhausting but also, in many cases, counterproductive. Developing a toolbox for targeted and efficient grading can improve the experience of the course both for you and your students.  


Additional Resources
Natascha Chtena, “Grading Faster and Smarter,” Inside Higher Ed
Kevin Gannon, “How to Escape Grading Jail,” The Chronicle of Higher Education
Victoria Smith and Stephanie Maher Palenque, “Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading,” Faculty Focus
Tips on Grading Efficiently,” Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center, Berkeley Graduate Division

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