Feed on

We all know how to use PowerPoint badly. Cramped or illegible slides, distracting transitions, stock clip art, students rushing to transcribe from slides, presenters reading word-for-word off the screen… But how can instructors use presentation software to engage students and help them take ownership of the material?


Should I even use PowerPoint?

While students find repetitive or poorly prepared PowerPoints boring, they generally prefer PowerPoint lectures and rate lectures and courses that use PowerPoint more highly. Survey results indicate that students appreciate PowerPoint because it offers a visual stimulus, a sense of progression during the lecture, and change. Use a variety of media and consider using different color schemes or templates during a semester to keep things fresh. Most research, however, finds that the use or non-use of PowerPoint does not significantly affect student learning.


Does the format reinforce the message?

PowerPoint carries its own way of thinking:  the outline. Poorly designed PowerPoints often convey information via unconnected or oversimplified bullet points. In most cases, outline material is probably better communicated by distributing lecture notes, rather than having students rush to copy every word. Instead of putting your notes up on the projector screen, present charts, diagrams, artwork, artifacts, maps, quotes, or other media suitable for your discipline. Use the presentation to bring sources and problems into the classroom as a way to spark discussion, stimulate creative answers to questions, and encourage students to construct their own understanding of the material.

You might also consider using Prezi as an alternative to PowerPoint. Instead of slides, Prezi organizes information on a very large canvas. The user creates a series of frames on the canvas to order the information and can pan, zoom, or rotate across the canvas. A completed Prezi often looks like an infographic, but Prezis can also be used to visualize a cycle or process, depict geographic or other spatial relationships between ideas, or zoom into details in images for closer analysis.


How do I take a pedagogically-oriented approach to presentations?

Consider distributing the presentation to students. Depending on your learning goals, you might provide students a complete copy of the presentation or a partial framework with blanks to guide notetaking. When students are not scrambling to record every word, they have more time to listen and to engage in higher levels of thinking.

Make the first slide count. As students enter the room, make sure your first slide prepares them for the class period. Instead of putting up the lecture title, which is probably already in the syllabus, try the “three things” alternative:  List the top three central ideas students should take from the lecture. (You might adapt the number for your course if you give particularly long or short lectures.)  If your lecturing style is more narrative, consider listing a few additional key ID terms to guide students’ listening and notetaking.

Students waiting for the start of class can take time to read the slide, anticipate main lecture points, and begin taking notes. Beginning with this slide will also help you to clearly articulate the learning goals for the day. Students appreciate having a road-map that helps them follow the structure of the lecture and take better notes without becoming overwhelmed with extraneous details.

Incorporate active learning. Student attention spans during lecture are roughly fifteen minutes, so breaking up segments of lecture with active learning can keep students engaged. After several minutes of lecture, check for understanding and prompt original thinking with activities such as:

  • Note comparison: Pause for two minutes after an important point in the lecture to allow students to compare notes with their neighbors and ask clarifying questions.
  • Think-Pair-Share: After confronting students with a problem or question, ask students to think individually about their answers for a minute or two. Then ask students to pair up to discuss their response with a partner so that each student can formulate his or her ideas aloud and get feedback from a peer. Finally, ask a few groups to share their thoughts with the class.
  • Polling: Use a service like Poll Everywhere to ask questions to a large group of students and get immediate feedback on student learning.

Sources and further reading:

Jennifer Clark, “Powerpoint and Pedagogy:  Maintaining Student Interest in University Lectures,” in College Teaching, 56 (2), 2008, pp. 39-45.

Linda Cornwell, “What is the Impact of PowerPoint Lectures on Learning? A Brief Review of the Research,” 2014.

Michael Prince, “Does Active Learning Work?  A Review of the Research,” in Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 2004, pp. 223-231.

As the weather gets warmer, it’s a refrain heard by many teachers: “Can we have class outside?” Though some have visions of passionate philosophical debates being held under the shade of the old oak tree, in reality, it is a question often fraught with concerns about the weather and any number of distractions that might impede the lesson plan for the day. On the other hand, maybe acquiescing once won’t hurt anything, and may end up giving a nice bump to those teaching evaluations. What’s a TA or instructor to do when approached with this question? Here are the pros and cons of teaching outdoors, as well as some suggestions to consider when doing so.

The Concerns:

A popular outdoor classroom location between DeBartolo Hall and the Law School

A popular outdoor classroom location between DeBartolo Hall and the Law School

  • Distractions. There are plenty of distractions within the classroom, and even more outside of it. Your lesson for the day will be competing with other students walking past, construction noise, bugs and animals, and other conversations. It will also take up additional class time to find and move to the right location.
  • Weather. While it may look beautiful out the window, sitting in one place outside can be too hot/cold for some students, and it can be difficult to find a space with the right amount of sun or shade. The wind can whip papers around, and then there’s always the chance for passing rain (or snow, for that matter). Plus, weather changes sometimes lead to allergies, which can make for an uncomfortable out-of-the-classroom experience.
  • (Lack of) Resources. The convenience of a classroom is that it has most everything needed to conduct a class session. On the other hand, taking your class outdoors likely means no computer, whiteboard, or desks for students to take notes. Some classes, like lab sciences, rely even more on classroom space to fulfill daily learning activities.

The Defense:

  • It’s Healthy. In a world of “nature deficit disorder,” it is easy to be cramped up indoors all day without a chance to see the sun and breathe the fresh air.[1] Particularly so for busy college students and professors. Getting outdoors, even for a short while, can improve health and well-being and help one recover from mental fatigue.
  • Motivation. Holding class outside offers a change of pace from the normal routine: a chance to reinvigorate the subject and increase students’ motivation to learn. A new environment adds excitement to discussions, and may actually improve student concentration.
  • (New) Resources. Teaching class without PowerPoint or immobile desks allows one to incorporate different active learning techniques that might not be practical in the classroom. For instance, the additional space presents an opportunity for easy small group discussions, group work, or other activities that require movement. With some creativity, you may also be able to tie the environment to your subject or lesson plan for the day.

Things to Consider

Outside of O'Shaughnessy Hall

Seating outside of O’Shaughnessy Hall

  • Is there a space that is available with enough (clean) seating for the students? Will everyone be able to see and hear what is going on? What distractions will you be competing with?
  • Are all students properly prepared to hold class outside? If students aren’t expecting to be outdoors for an extended period of time, they may not have warm enough clothing to be comfortable for the entire class period. If you are planning to have class outside, consider telling students to come prepared to the next class or email them the night before to let them know it is a possibility. Try to get a sense from all students how they feel about having class outside, not just those asking.
  • Don’t throw out your best teaching practices! Just because you are outdoors doesn’t mean your lesson plan has to go out the door too (except to accompany you to your learning space). Stick to your agenda by identifying learning goals for the day and having a beginning, middle, and end to the class.

Additional Reading

[1] Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

I was a university student from the year 2000 until the year 2015, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student.  During that decade and a half, I witnessed a rise and fall of laptop use in the classroom.  In the early 2000s laptops in the classroom were a novelty.  By the mid-to-late 2000s, laptops in the classroom were ubiquitous.  But then, to my surprise, in the early 2010s, laptops started to disappear.  Many of my classmates began to revert to the old-fashion pen and paper.  At the same time, certain professors started to ban the use of laptops in the classroom.  It seemed, at least to some students and instructors, that laptops had become a hindrance to learning.  Is this really the case?  Or, is there a place for laptops in the classroom?  Can laptops be used productively in the classroom, or are laptops simply a distraction?  In this post, we will review a few recent arguments and studies that address these questions.

First, there are some who advocate for the use of laptops in class, pointing to the potential benefits of laptops for learning.  For example, some argue, laptops can be used to encourage student engagement with class content.  Learning may be facilitated by strategically designed digital activities and tools that reinforce the course’s learning goalsThe Teaching Center Staff of Washington University points to a study describing the benefits of wisely implemented laptop use:

  • According to this study (Samson, 2010), the use of the interactive LectureTools app leads to a “dramatic increase in the number of students posing questions during class time” and suggests students may be more engaged in lectures.
  • The Teaching Center Staff also offers some examples for how digital activities and tools can encourage learning in the classroom.


Yet, many others argue that laptop-free classrooms are more conducive to learning. Several recent studies support this conclusion.  For example:

  • In one study (Sanaa, et al., 2013), laptop multitasking not only distracted laptop users from learning (leading to lower test scores), it also distracted others in the classroom who were sitting in view of their classmate’s laptop.
  • In another study (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014), students who took notes longhand performed better on conceptual questions than students who typed out their notes on laptops. Why? When writing longhand, students cannot write fast enough to record every word that a teacher speaks; instead they must summarize the main points, which requires active processing, evaluation, and paraphrasing. Laptop users, who can write faster, “transcribe lectures verbatim” without processing what they are writing.


In spite of these studies, some may still decide to allow laptops in the classroom; fortunately, guidelines exist that could help avoid some of the pitfalls of laptop use.  For example, The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching  (University of Michigan), suggests:

  • Making and communicating a clear laptop policy that allow the use of laptops for “legitimate classroom purposes” like notetaking and downloading class information, but which prohibits all other uses.
  • Creating a “laptop free” zone at the front of your classroom, for students who do not use laptops and who would be distracted by their classmates’ screens.
  • When using digital activities and tools in the classroom, make sure your classroom is set up to accommodate all of your students’ computers; consider the number of outlets; and remind students to charge their batteries before class. And make sure all of your students have access to a laptop.


Sources and Further Reading:

Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” Psychological Science 25 no. 6 (June 2014), 1159-68.

P. J. Samson, “Deliberate engagement of laptops in large lecture classes to improve attentiveness and engagement” Computers in Education 20 (2010): 22–37.

Faria Sanaa, Tina Westonb, and Nicholas J. Cepedab, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” Computers & Education 62 (2013): 24–31.


Consider the testimony of Clay Shirky—internet technology consultant and usually that last to side with the Luddites—who recently decided to ban laptops from his classroom: “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away.”

And, that of Dan Rockmore: “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom,” The New Yorker, 2014.


Older studies suggesting negative results for laptop use:

Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay, “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments,” Journal of Computing in Higher Education 15 (2003)

  • Hembrooke and Gay write, “Students in the open laptop condition suffered decrements on traditional measures of memory for lecture content.”

Carrie B. Fried, “In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning,” Computers & Education 50 (2008): 906-14.

  • Fried explains, “Results showed that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking and that the laptop use posed a significant distraction to both users and fellow students. Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance.”



This spring break, the Kaneb Center challenges you to create one new action plan for your teaching. One new activity, assessment, or approach to teaching. An update to an old syllabus or lesson plan. Take your pick. Then let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you!

Don’t know where to start? Check out some of our selected resources below:

Recent Blog Posts

Books in the Kaneb Center Library

Other Kaneb Center Services

Have a great spring break, and good luck with your teaching challenge!

Teaching Study Skills

One semester a student came to me disappointed about his grade on an exam. He told me that he had studied for nine hours yet felt unprepared for the exam. I asked him to describe to me what exactly he did during those nine hours.  He explained his review strategy: he reread all of his notes from class; identified unfamiliar terms and concepts; and then memorized definitions for each of these terms and concepts.  While he had stored in his brain a huge treasury of relevant information, he did not know how to use this information.  The exam required him to do more than just regurgitate memorized facts or recognize familiar concepts; instead my student was challenged to relate familiar concepts to unfamiliar concepts and to synthesize distinct ideas.

My student’s struggles prompted me to ask two different questions: (1) what was I doing during class time to prepare my students for the higher level of learning required by my exams; and (2) what should my students be doing outside of class to prepare effectively for an exam.  Apropos to the first question, several recent Kaneb blog posts have offered strategies for prompting higher levels of learning in the classroom such as the use of in-class writing assignments, concept mapping, and guided discussions.  I encourage you to scroll down and read these for yourself.  In addition to utilizing such strategies, I suggest preparing students for exams by requiring them to solve questions and problems during class time that are similar to those that will show up on the exams.  In other words, early on and throughout the semester, expose students to the kinds of tasks and puzzles that you hope they will be able to accomplish and solve by the last day of class.

With regard to the second question, if students are to perform well on their exams, it is important to teach students how to study and review class material effectively.  Consider the following tips:

  • Invite, inspire, and require students to review subject matter from class early and often.
  • Encourage students to review their notes from class as soon as possible after class is over. Explain that students learn more effectively when they review newly learned material promptly.
  • To motivate such prompt reviewing, for each class period, consider assigning a review problem/question that is due twenty-four hours after the class.
  • Require students to come to class prepared to recall the main points from the previous class. Tell students that as a part of their grade, you will call on them at the beginning of class to summarize the previous class.
  • Offer frequent low-stakes, self-diagnostic quizzes (or short practice tests) that expose students to kinds of questions and the higher level of learning that will be required on the exam.
  • Grade these quizzes in class and talk through the correct answer.
  • Encourage students to form weekly study groups for discussing class content. Consider offering extra credit to students who commit to meeting in such a group.
  • Urge students to practice discussing ideas and answering questions from class out loud and on paper. Explain to them that putting their thoughts into words spoken and written, will force them to thinking about class concepts on a deeper level.

For a bibliography on teaching study skills:

Consider the study skills handouts prepared by Dartmouth College:

and their learning strategies videos:

Also, consider Joe Landsberger’s very popular collection of study guides and learning resources:

I am a big proponent of assigning writing as an active learning tool in the classroom. This should not come as a surprise, as I am pursuing a PhD in English and have primarily taught English courses that require writing as a major component. Yet, I actually learned the best methods for incorporating writing into the classroom from a philosophy professor I observed who decided to make writing the focal point of his classroom after finding himself frustrated by traditional methods of knowledge acquisition in philosophy classrooms. Upon altering his pedagogical approach from one that was test and teacher centered to a student centered course in which students weekly articulated substantial responses to philosophical texts in writing, he observed a significant increase in critical thinking and theoretical sophistication in the majority of his students.

Writing as a tool can benefit every discipline if it is implemented as an active learning strategy, in which students are tasked with developing a deep, focused written engagement with a question or idea. This means that the focus should be on quality of thought rather than on grammatical conventions. This is not to say that a final draft should be turned in without having been carefully proofread but only to emphasize that thinking is sometimes messy and that, especially in early stages, good, interesting written ideas might still need to be polished. Writing, like thinking, is a process.

Writing as Active Learning Strategies:

  • Provide students with time to write down their initial responses to a new idea or topic, especially one that is particularly complex, in writing before discussing the topic in depth. This writing does not need to be collected or formally graded but should rather be thought of as a springboard for discussion. If students have had time to articulate their ideas on their own first, they will be more confident in their knowledge and more likely to participate in the class discussion. Even five minutes is helpful.
  • Generate specific writing assignments or writing prompts. The complexity of the questions can vary depending on what you are looking for from the assignment. Are you looking for understanding of key concepts or are you expecting students to delve deeply into a difficult concept? The more transparency you provide the better the students will be able to engage with the assignment.
  • Have students present their writing in class. This option can include a formal presentation or a more informal presentation given to select group members. The idea is to give the students a chance to test their ideas out on others. As the saying goes, the best way to learn something is to teach it.
  • Divide the class into groups based upon specific topics or questions. For examples, in a philosophy section on Kant, you could task each group with responding to a specific Kantian principle. Each student would develop a rough draft of a written response independently and then get into their shared groups to enhance other’s grasp of Kant’s concepts. You could then have them each develop a further draft of their individual ideas to hand into you.
  • Build in multiple drafts. As emphasized above, writing and thinking take time. The first articulation of an idea might be the seed of a more complex argument that just needs more time to germinate. Providing students with a response to an initial draft and requiring them to hand in a revision based upon your comments will help them to think more deeply about their initial ideas and give them a chance to further enhance their argument. It is important not to frame revision as corrections, as that implies that there was something negative about the student’s initial draft that needs to be fixed and this could frustrate a student. Instead, frame it as what it is: a chance to develop their argument. How many drafts should you allow? That’s up to you. My advice is to allow or require at least one revision.

Even STEM Classes Can Benefit from More Writing

Writing is important to any discipline, as anyone who has drafted a grant or had to give a public lecture understands. Yet, writing is too often attached only to English courses, or at best, the humanities. While the suggestions I have provided above would work for any discipline, the links below provide resources that include discipline specific information related to the importance of writing in the classroom and specific strategies that can be used to effectively implement writing into your course.

Further Reading:

Writing Across the Curriculum Page at Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (Includes extensive bibliographies for further reading): https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/671/01/

Example of a Writing Across the Curriculum program: http://www.wac.pitt.edu/

What are concept or mind maps?

Concept or mind maps can help learners think through a question or topic by visualizing the relationships between concepts, arguments, evidence, and themes.  Links between nodes show the connections between these ideas.  In general, the term concept map describes hierarchical diagram building downward, connecting multiple ideas in a more formal way.  Mind maps tend to focus on a single idea at the center, building outward in a creative way often using color or images.  Your learning goals are more important than the formal distinctions between concept and mind maps, and it may be most natural for your students to combine aspects of both types of maps, as in the following example:

Example of a student concept map


What are the benefits of small-group concept mapping? 

Incorporating concept maps in the classroom can:

  • Increase student engagement though active learning. Having students produce concept or mind maps in small groups offers more time for each student to grapple with and articulate key ideas.
  • Improve student performance through collaborative learning, which studies consistently show to be more effective in producing learning outcomes than individual learning.
  • Connect to diverse learning styles.
  • Provide a low-stakes assessment of student learning.
  • Offer students variation in students’ studying routines, which helps students move beyond memorization to deeper learning. Consider incorporating a concept mapping activity into a review session before an exam.
  • Foster higher levels of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy.  Beyond simply remembering facts, students must also analyze the relationships between ideas, justify their choice of connections between different nodes, and construct a visual representation of a topic.


Incorporating small-group concept mapping in class:

Explain the idea of a concept map and distribute an example map of a different topic in your discipline.  Depending on your academic discipline and learning goals, you may instruct students to visually differentiate or label different types of nodes and connections.  Give students a key question or problem as the focus for their diagrams.  It might be a singular question that forms the central node of the diagram (what are the elements of…?), instructions to compare and contrast two concepts, or a question that puts a few key themes into conversation (what is the relationship between race, class, and gender in…?).  If you choose, you can also give students a list of concepts or sources to include in their maps. Be transparent in your teaching:  explain how the exercise relates to the course goals and what students should get out of it.

Divide students into small groups to begin mapping.  Circulate around the room as students work on their concept maps, asking for the rationale behind their decisions and prompting them to consider new factors.  Once students have produced their maps, use a document camera to project each group’s diagram.  For the sake of time, you might ask each group to explain a particularly important or original portion of their work.  These maps do not need to be treated as final products.  Encourage students to offer suggestions or ask questions to improve other group’s maps.  As the instructor, you might find it useful to draw changes on a map to explain a common misunderstanding that needs correction.

Leave enough time to debrief the exercise.  Ask students to construct an answer to the initial question. Collecting a final map from each group will allow you to gauge student understanding.  Just remember to make photocopies or post scans of all the groups’ work to Sakai so that students can refer to the material for future projects or studying.


Practical tips:

  • Consider the physical constraints of your classroom. Will there be enough space for small groups to work around a sheet of paper?  Do you have a document camera in the room to project each group’s work?
  • Depending on your constraints and learning goals, you might do a variation of the above activity by having students begin individual maps before working collaboratively or working as a whole class using the whiteboard.
  • What preparations are necessary? Will students need to have notes or texts from previous weeks at hand?  Should they bring colored pens or pencils?
  • Several online tools have been developed for concept mapping. See this list developed by our own Chris Clark.


Additional Sources: 

John W. Budd, “Mind Maps as Classroom Exercises,” in The Journal of Economic Education, 35 (1), Winter 2004, pp. 35-46.

Michael Prince, “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research,” in The Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), July 2004, pp. 223-231.


Mahler. Mozart. Mendelssohn. What can they teach us about teaching? You may have a flash of genius for a particular course or lesson plan, but most artful teaching requires planning, revision, and contextualizing the lesson or course into the overall curriculum. Much like the composition of the great musical symphonies. Fortunately, most composers do not have to go into the composition blind – and neither do you as a teacher. When structuring the first movement of the symphony, many composers follow the sonata form: exposition, development, and recapitulation. This can also be a useful way to structure your lesson plans:


The exposition of a sonata introduces the major themes of the movement. It sets the stage for everything to follow and provides direction for the piece, and often contains the most memorable melody. In the classroom, it is helpful to start by introducing the major themes of the class. Start with the learning goals that you want to accomplish in the class and the major questions you hope to answer. Make sure that these are clear and memorable to the students, and use them to direct the remainder of the class. This means keeping the number of goals manageable and realistic to achieve in the time available.


Following the exposition, the composer begins the development of the major themes. The material is complexified and nuanced, building on the basic musical ideas set out from the beginning of the piece. Importantly, the themes set up in the exposition guide what happens in the development section. Likewise, as you teach, be sure that the course material relates to your learning goals. Plan the lessons around the main questions in 10-15 minute mini-modules or “chunks,” using active learning techniques to break up lectures and engage students. Research shows that this is the approximate attention span of college students, so using the structure of the exposition (learning goals) allows you to stay on message and accomplish what you set out to do in the class without losing students’ attention.


The sonata movement ends with the recapitulation, or recap of the exposition section. It reiterates and reaffirms the primary themes, bringing the movement full circle – back to where it began. After developing each of the main course ideas, just like the sonata, you should return to the beginning and assess whether the learning goals were achieved. Consider asking students to write down the most important thing they learned or what questions remain after the class. Remind students of the main takeaways and highlight what was accomplished during the session.

Moving from a Movement to a Symphony

Whether it is one movement of a symphony or a single class of the semester, it is important to consider how the part fits into the larger whole. Composers will often draw on the themes introduced in the first movement throughout the rest of the symphony; instructors should also draw on themes introduced at the beginning of the course throughout the rest of the semester. Consider how each class fits into the overall theme and the broader learning goals you have for the course. Structuring your course in this manner will help you organize your materials and ensure that your objectives are met.

Want to learn more about structuring and designing effective courses?

The Kaneb Center is currently offering a workshop series on the Fundamentals of Course Design, and offers private, individual consultations to those who are revising an old course or planning a new one. Contact us today for assistance in composing your next course!

Additional Resources

You spent winter break painstakingly selecting readings and learning materials and constructing assignments that will engage your new students and teach them to truly value, and perhaps even learn to love something about, your subject matter. Now, a few weeks into the semester, someone has yawned, someone has tweeted during a lesson, perhaps many of the students have failed a quiz or did not do as well on the first essay as you would have liked. Often we can feel a bit powerless when courses don’t go as well as we had imagined. The most important thing to remember is that even the most seasoned professors run into similar problems and that class dynamics are rarely perfect and depend upon multiple factors including the specific skill level and initial interest of students in the class. In other words, this doesn’t mean you have failed at teaching. Actually, it means you have exhibited one of the attributes of a good teacher: the ability to recognize that something is not working as well as it could be and the desire to address this issue.

Remember, you are not alone. You have colleagues, department heads and other university or college services that you can reach out to. Most importantly, however, you have your students. They are the best people to ask about the particular issues in a class because they share this environment with you at least once a week. If they are struggling in the course, they will likely be able to give you a good indication of why. Even if you feel like a course is going well, it is a good idea to see what the students are thinking so that you are all on the same page.


Build in Time Specifically for Feedback

Feedback is only helpful if you truly build in the time to enable students to adequately respond. Trying to cram in student feedback into the last few minutes of a course might turn out to be counterproductive. I would suggest setting aside at least 10 minutes at the end of a class for student feedback. 10 minutes might seem like a long hiatus from precious content time but evaluating your students’ understanding of the material and taking time to figure out how this specific group of students best learns will ultimately strengthen your ability to teach them the material. If you really feel that taking time out of class is not possible, then it would be best to implement an online feedback option.


When to Elicit Feedback

It certainly is not overkill to ask for student feedback after every class, as this can be a great way to gauge a student’s learning progress. It really depends on what you are trying to evaluate. In general, the best times to ask for feedback are:

  • After teaching a particularly difficult lesson of introducing a complex idea.
  • At the end of a specific multi-class topic or module to assess students’ understanding of key concepts and ideas before moving onto the next topic.
  • After returning an assignment, especially if it contains feedback from you. (I have found this method to be extremely helpful. I give a lot of written feedback on essays and want each of them to reflect on my comments instead of just noting the grade and shoving the paper into the abyss of their folder or backpack. Building in time in class for them to read through my comments and then write a response back to me ensures me that they have engaged with my feedback and are also thinking deeply about their writing process. This type of feedback can be done for any assignment type).


Build in Specific Questions when Asking for Feedback

In the past, I have asked students to just reflect on the course in general. Though that method was sometimes useful to gather my students’ thoughts, I found it more helpful to provide specific questions, especially if there was something in particular that I wanted them to address. The questions can still be open-ended but should have a focus. 2-3 questions should be fine.


Possible Feedback Methods

Eliciting feedback is sometimes a large demand on the professor’s time. For example, if you have over 100 students a semester, it will be extremely difficult to read an evaluation from each student, especially if you collect evaluations from students frequently. Below are ways that you can consolidate student feedback to make it more manageable (you can also combine methods if you wish):

  • Individual Feedback- Ask each student to provide feedback and collect responses from each of them (time-intensive, only do this if you have the time to genuinely read them all).
  • Group Feedback- Place students in small groups and have them discuss their opinions together. Then, instruct one of the students to write down what was discussed and collect one sheet from each group.
  • Oral Feedback- Have the students write down information either individually or in groups and share their responses with you orally. This method will likely take more time. I suggest having students write down their responses first so that they have time to formulate their answers first and don’t feel put on the spot.
  • Poll Everywhere- Simply go to polleverywhere.com, create an account and set up a poll. You can input specific questions and students can text answers to a designated number. Their responses will show up anonymously on the computer screen immediately after they text their answers. This method will also likely take more time than the written methods.
  • Google Forms- A good online tool for gathering feedback if you don’t feel that you have time in class for it. Asking students to rate the usefulness of specific behaviors or assignments can be a good way to quickly get digestible information.


What to Do with the Feedback?

Feedback can provide you with a valuable picture of the learning progress and learning styles of individual students as well as a group of students. Yet it is also critical that you follow up with your students during class. The most important thing for you to communicate to them is that you are reading their responses and that the feedback is not just busy work. Students hate busy work. The following are methods I have tried or seen other teachers do:

  • Hand back their feedback to them with a check on top, demonstrating to them that you have read and valued their responses. You should also follow one of the below options in addition to handing the feedback back to them.
  • Integrate comments into your next lesson and point out any changes you may have made due to student feedback. This verbalization of student feedback and the effects it has on your teaching methods shows students that their voices truly matter and that they are at the center of your pedagogy.
  • Post a single online that responds to some of the most important issues raised in the feedback.


Kaneb Center Resources

The Kaneb Center has resources and examples for those interested in an early-semester evaluation. You can access these resources by e-mailing the Kaneb Center at kaneb@nd.edu.


Further Reading:

  • From ELA Today: https://ateqjournal.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/structures-and-practices-for-eliciting-student-feedback-2/ This document includes helpful methods and resources for eliciting student feedback geared at the secondary school level. High school teaching methods can often be invaluable in college classrooms.
  • Information on eliciting student feedback from Brown University’s Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning: https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/feedback-teaching/getting-timely-feedback

Research has shown that 99% of college students take notes during lectures, but university instructors rarely address note-taking as a skill.  Instructors often assume students have learned to take notes during high school and their competence will improve with time.  Given that university students typically capture only 30-40% of important lecture points in their notes, the topic deserves attention in the college classroom.


Why should students take notes?

With over a million terabytes of information at the click of a search button, students no longer have to rely on lecture notes as a primary source of factual information.  However, note-taking improves academic performance and learning in a variety of ways:

  • Students are significantly more likely to recall information in their notes than points not in their notes.
  • Taking notes can also assist in general recall of non-recorded points.
  • Reviewing notes effectively substantially improves recall.
  • Higher exam scores are correlated with the level of detail of student notes.
  • Personal notes allow students to synthesize information and relate incoming information to prior knowledge, promoting better performance on critical thinking tasks.


What are the challenges of note-taking?

  • Note-taking requires students to listen and process content nearly simultaneously. Students often record information verbatim, failing to reach higher levels of processing that reflect synthetic thinking.
  • Note-taking puts students under severe time-pressure: average rates of speech are 2-3 words per second, but average handwriting is only 0.2-0.3 words per second.
  • For students with lower information-processing abilities, taking-notes while listening to a lecture may hinder comprehension. However, if these students are able to review instructor notes after class, they have been shown to perform comparably with their peers.
  • Students report confusion about the variability of instructors’ policies regarding the availability of instructor-provided notes or slides.


What strategies can the instructor employ?

  • Discuss with students the purpose of note-taking in your specific course and explain your rationale for providing or withholding notes. Do notes primarily serve as the basis for reviewing information? Or is note-taking an exercise of synthesis and transformation of knowledge?
  • Give students a partial framework with blanks, such as a matrix or an outline. These frameworks can guide students to separate major points from details and can help them make connections between ideas.
  • Provide students with a complete set of instructor notes. Students who review instructor notes have been shown to score significantly better on factual questions than those who study from personal notes.
  • Distribute visual aids (e.g. powerpoint slides, graphs, etc.) to free up class time for active learning. Research has shown that the least successful students benefit the most from visual aids.
  • Teach students alternative styles for note-taking. Non-linear note-taking has been shown to increase comprehension by 20%.  Taking non-linear notes forces students to encode their ideas more effectively, and the need to visually connect points prompts synthetic thinking.
  • Insert brief pauses during lectures for students to catch up and clarify points discussed by the instructor. This strategy has been shown to increase recall, especially for students with learning disabilities.
  • Flip the classroom to help students process information at their own pace


Sources and further reading:

For resources to share with students, see Dartmouth Academic Skills Center, “Classes:  Notetaking, Listening, Participation.”

Academic Skills Center, Cal Poly Student Academic Services, “Note Taking Systems.”

Tamas Makany, Jonathan Kemp, and Itiel E. Dror, “Optimising the use of note-taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning,” in British Journal of Educational Technology, 40 (4), 2009, pp. 619-635.

Jacques van der Meer, “Students’ note-taking challenges in the twenty-first century: considerations for teachers and academic staff developers,” in Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (1), 2012, pp. 13-23.

Robert Williams and Alan Eggert, “Notetaking in College Classes: Student Patterns and Instructional Strategies,” in The Journal of General Education, 51 (3), 2002, pp. 173-199.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Copyright © 2010 | Kaneb Center for Teaching & Learning | kaneb@nd.edu | 574-631-9146
Get Adobe Flash player