Feed on

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

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

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

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

-Zig Ziglar, American author and motivational speaker

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

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

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

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

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

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


References & Additional Resources

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why Assess “Participation”?

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

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

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

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

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

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

An Overview of the Changes I’m Going to Make

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

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

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

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

Learning progresses primarily from prior knowledge, and only secondarily from the materials we present to students. Students come to the classroom with a broad range of pre-existing knowledge, which influences how they interpret and organize incoming information. How they process and integrate new information will, in turn, affect how they remember, think, apply, and create new knowledge. Thus it is important to assess such prior knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs very early in the semester, since they may either promote or hinder student learning. Assessing students’ prior knowledge can also help us craft instructional activities that build off of student strengths, and acknowledge and address their weaknesses. The following infographic offers 27 different ways to assess and activate your students’ prior knowledge.

Once prior knowledge and skill are assessed, there is a range of potential responses, depending upon the type of course, the uniformity of results, and type of supplemental materials and alternatives. For example, if a majority of the class possesses a weak understanding of a concept that you viewed as a critical prerequisite, you may decide to spend time reinforcing it in class, provide a supplementary session on it, or provide links to materials for students to engage with on their own. Similarly, if most students demonstrate proficiency in a skill you were planning to cover, you may decide to drop it and replace it with another skill that they have not yet developed, or adjust the level of complexity or time you spend on it. Thus, assessing prior knowledge early in the semester can enable both the instructor and the student to allocate their time and energies in ways that will be most productive.

Adapted from Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University

First day as a TA

Adapted from Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington.

A successful first day can be a key component of a successful quarter. On the first day consider ways to involve your students in a discussion of course content. Try modeling or practicing strategies and methods you plan to use throughout the semester. By planning a focused and dynamic first day you will give students a better sense of the course overall.

How should I introduce myself?
Introduce yourself and explain what you want to be called. It’s okay to use your first name. Many TAs and faculty do. However, if that makes you uncomfortable, then you can go by Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss. Make sure that students are aware of your preference. They will want to be clear on how to address you.
When you introduce yourself give a little background, e.g., your discipline, where you are in the program, why you are excited to teach this subject, and why you are a passionate about your discipline. Students will respond to this and become engaged. Have them do similar introductions.

How do I make a good impression?
Arrive early. Create a comfortable atmosphere as students enter the room. Chat with them before class starts: How was their break? What other classes have they had this week? What is their major? Include your name and the course name on the board/PowerPoint so that nervous students know they are in the right place.

What should I do on the first day?

  • Collect information about your students: Have students write down their names, contact information, majors and the last course taken in the subject area. This information will provide valuable background and help you calibrate your teaching and course content to your students’ levels and interests.
  • Make sure to invite students who may need accommodations (students with disabilities or student athletes for example) to provide any documentation or to make necessary requests.
  • Get students to engage with the syllabus. Review the syllabus as a group; highlight the course requirements and policies. Discuss the objectives of the course and your approach to the subject. Discuss the readings, assignments and forms of evaluation.
  • Establish a comfortable atmosphere and professional rapport: Establishing an atmosphere in which students will feel comfortable asking questions and contributing to discussion, in a respectful manner, will increase everyone’s potential for success.
  • Additionally, you may want students to interact with each other. Have them pair off or work in small groups, which works as an ice breaker for shyer students. As they become more comfortable with each other, then they are more likely to participate as the class progresses.
  • Teach something: Get your students engaged with the course content from day 1.

Additional resources
“Making the Most of the First Day of Class”, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, Carnegie Mellon

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



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