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Are you going to have TAs for one of your classes this semester?  Or will you be a TA?  Before the harried first week of class, sit down to talk through these few key questions to set mutual expectations for faculty and TAs:


1. What is your teaching philosophy? What are the learning goals of the course?

Make sure you are on the same page with regard to the goals of the course. This clarity will help prevent misunderstandings and allow TAs to make confident on-the-spot decisions.  TAs can also help to reinforce the course goals to students (and perhaps explain them in more accessible terms).


2. What are your preferred forms of communication?

Email?  Weekly meetings?  Who will handle various categories of student communication (e.g. attendance, content questions, or grade inquiries)?


3. What are your interests and strengths? What are your weaknesses or concerns?

Where can the TAs and instructors profitably share their expertise? Maybe the TA has lots of ideas for active learning activities or can give a lecture on the topic of their research.  Or perhaps the TA has been assigned outside their subfield and will require extra help understanding certain concepts before teaching them.


4. What is the role of TAs during lectures? 

Will you take attendance, and if so, whose responsibility is it?  TAs who only teach weekly can benefit from taking attendance in lecture to learn their students’ names more quickly.

Where should the TA sit?  In the back to enforce a no cell phone policy?  In the front to help to distribute handouts?  In many situations, it can be helpful for a TA to choose different seats throughout the semester to help understand and guide the class dynamic.  By choosing a particular seat, a TA can break up a clique or encourage that quiet back corner of the room to participate more in discussion.  Or a TA could determine whether that pair of students who talks frequently during lecture is bored or whether they are struggling to clarify points of content.

Will TAs participate in the course?  Should they selectively model good discussion behaviors?  What should the TAs do during active learning activities?


5. What teaching role(s) does the TA have?

Will the TA have an opportunity to give lectures (or at least mini-lectures)?  How much independence will the TA have in setting the agenda for discussions or labs?  Will TAs help to write exams?

How will the TA experience contribute to the graduate student’s professional development?


6. How will grading work be divided? What are the grading policies?

Discuss the workload of grading at the beginning of the semester while you have time to plan ahead or even make tweaks to the syllabus.

Laying out grading policies during the first week will clarify the TA’s role to the students and promote confidence in the fairness of the system.  Will you use rubrics to speed up the process and ensure consistency across graders?  Will the faculty review the TA’s grading before returning material to students?  How will you handle grade appeals for TA-graded work?


7. Have you worked out the logistics for the first week?

Do the TAs have the texts or other materials for the course?  Do they have appropriate access to the InsideND or Sakai pages?  Do they have access to a photocopier that does not require them to use their personal print quota?

Plan to have the TAs introduce themselves to the students on the first day.  Be explicit about the role of the TA and what kinds of concerns the TA will handle.  Also be clear about how students should refer to their TA:  many first-year students find it uncomfortable to call a TA by their first name without explicit permission to do so. Add the TA contact information to the syllabus.

If a TA holds their own labs or discussion sections, we suggest they produce their own policy sheet or syllabus.  Include the TA contact details, the goals and teaching philosophy for that portion of the class, and any particular policies or rules.   This sheet will provide a quick reference and underscore the seriousness of that portion of the class to students.

From my childhood I remember going to my elementary school with my mom a day or two before the start of the new academic year where we’d excitedly find out who would be my new teacher. With either joy or anxiety and we’d would head off to meet the teacher and wander around the new classroom for the first time. Checking out the whole class and chasing friends around, I quickly imagined what the new school year had in store for all of us, each respectively wading through a similar mix of emotions and anticipation that night. This initial encounter of teacher and classroom set the emotional stage for my classmates and me as our summer vacation officially came to an end. We’d either be eager and willing to head off for the first day of school, or perhaps unconsciously implore ourselves to stay under the comfort of our bed covers as long as we could! Ahh those memories…

So fast forwarding to the college campus, we can ask whether these emotional sensitivities are any different for a college student when they face their new courses and instructors for the first time. How does your first impression impact your students and how do you make the most of it? Since your syllabus is often available prior to the first day of class, let’s look at how its initial impression can set the stage for a warm and positive experience in your class.

Motivational Language and Tone

Much has been written and discussed about contents and functions of the syllabi. Traditionally. a syllabus may initially introduce the course to student through conveying learning objectives and goals, future content, and needed operational logistics. It can also function as a student contract while at the same time providing the institute a record of a course being taught. Additionally, syllabus types can range from more traditional, instructor-centered to a learner-centered style. No matter what type of syllabus you create and use, one underlying area that receives less attention is its projected tone. A positive, friendly tone may help cultivate a better student-instructor relationship and thus better overall course experience for students.

Syllabus Expression

If you are looking to make changes in your syllabus for the next offering of your class, Maryellen Weimer proposes some questions to consider if you seek to project warmth and enthusiasm for your course. In part she suggests you ask yourself:

  1. Does my syllabus convey the excitement, intrigue and wonder that’s inherently a part of the content you teach?
  2. Does my syllabus indicate that all the decisions about the course have been made?
  3. Is it full of strongly worded directives or friendly in nature?
  4. Is the focus on what students will be learning or on all those various things that they should and shouldn’t be doing?

These questions can provide a good primary lens when initially reviewing and revising your existing syllabus. But what prominent characteristics are best to concentrate on in creating that warm and inviting syllabus? Consider these six areas to address:

  • Positive or Friendly Language – will help the students feel comfortable and welcome, especially when reading the syllabus in advance of your first class.
  • Rationale for Assignments – will help motivate students by clarifying how each assignment relates to your course goals.
  • Self-Disclosure – sharing a personal experience or perspective can provide insight into an instructor’s interpersonal style.
  • Humor – not taking yourself seriously can help with tone, but use caution as humor can be tricky and requires discretion at times.
  • Compassion – perhaps best conveyed in your attendance policy when dealing with the unexpected life events.
  • Enthusiasm – choose language that shows your passion for teaching and for your subject matter.

First impressions of you and your course can have the same emotional impact on students as they perhaps did during those early days of elementary school. Students want to come to a class and feel welcomed by the instructor and this can start with a positive and warm reaction from the first review of your syllabus. So as you prepare for your classes, what does your syllabus say about you, your teaching style, expectations, or personality? What message does it send about the “feel” of the course and what does its tone say to the students? Make that first impression matter!

For samples of exemplary syllabi please check out the Society for Teaching Psychology website’s Project Syllabi.

As we wrap up another semester, now is a great time to think about what you can do during the summer to prepare for fall classes and to continue developing as a teacher. As part of these preparations, the Kaneb Center invites you to take advantage of the following resources:

  • Summer Reading Groups. The Kaneb Center purchases books on teaching and learning in higher education for small informal reading groups. Faculty, teaching assistants, and postdoctoral scholars are invited to sign up for one of the prearranged summer reading groups or propose their own group. These groups are an excellent chance to talk about teaching and learning with colleagues and to meet new friends interested in pedagogy.
  • Pedagogy Journal Group. Our pedagogy journal group, which meets to discuss journal articles related to various teaching and learning topics, will resume later in the summer. Meeting times will be announced according to participant availability. To be added to the email list for the journal group, send an email to Rachel Banke. Examples of past readings can be found here. All are welcome!
  • Graduate Education (GRED) Courses. 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 online. Contact Joanna Sherbun with any questions.
  • Individual Consultations. Schedule a one-on-one (confidential) consultation with a member of the Kaneb Center staff to discuss any teaching needs. We are happy to help you review CIFs, discuss your course plans for the fall, develop new types of assessments or other learning activities, or consider the integration of technology into your course.
  • Kaneb Center Library. The Kaneb Center library holds hundreds of books, videos, and other materials on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Visit our library and check out some great selections for your summer reading!

We wish you a happy and productive summer, and as always, please drop by or let us know if we can be of assistance for any of your teaching needs!

It’s hard to believe that it’s already May and that the semester is coming to a close. As we are all preparing for the final stretch and, hopefully, preparing for some well-earned relaxation over the break, I want to suggest that we all take this time to reflect on our teaching over this semester, while it’s still fresh in our minds.

In an ideal world, we should all be keeping some type of teaching log in which we routinely write down our post-class thoughts. If you do not currently do this, I highly suggest that you add it to your agenda in the future. Entries do not have to be extensive but should at the very least capture elements of each class period that you found to be effective and at least one thing you might change in the future. In addition to reflecting on your own teaching you should also be periodically eliciting evaluations and class reflections from students. This way you will have a clear snapshot of how that semester progressed and this will help you better prepare for future classes.

Whether you do keep a teaching journal or not, I recommend that you take this final week to reflect upon and synthesize your thoughts about your classes this semester. The week of finals is actually a perfect time to engage in this activity because the class sessions are still fresh in your mind. Ask yourself substantive questions and try and answer them as honestly as possible.

Possible Questions might look something like the following:

  • What was your favorite teaching moment this semester and why? What do you think made this moment so memorable?
  • Were there any particular classes or assignments that you can remember students struggling with? If so, how might you strengthen this specific assignment or lesson plan for the future?
  • Did you attend any teaching workshops or have any conversations with fellow teachers that inspired you to try something new (i.e. a specific piece of technology, a campus resource, a unique grading rubric, etc.)? List these items.

The worst feeling is starting a new semester after having finely tuned your syllabus and lessons plans over the previous few weeks and then suddenly remembering that you had wanted to try that new discussion tool you had heard such good things about the previous semester but had forgotten about over the break. We all forget, especially after a stressful semester of teaching and grading. That’s why it is so important to just get your thoughts out now. That way, you will not have to worry about keeping it all in your head all summer.

Keeping a teaching log and writing a more comprehensive reflection of the semester before the break begins is also a good way to gather material for a teaching portfolio. Participating in these reflective exercises will also help you become a lot more conscious of your unique methods and teaching style.


An article from Western University in Ontario, Canada on how to build reflection time into the summer months: https://www.uwo.ca/tsc/resources/publications/newsletter/selected_articles/looking_backward_to_move_your_courses_forward.html

A previous blog post of mine that stresses the importance of student evaluations for teaching effectiveness: http://blogs.nd.edu/kaneb/2016/02/01/eliciting-student-feedback/

Now that spring sunshine has arrived, some instructors’ thoughts have turned more darkly to the stack of final grading they will soon face.  Here are a few quick tips to make the most of these final moments of the semester:


Use Rubrics

Studies tout the benefits of rubrics in grading reliably, increasing transparency, and promoting learning.  Not all rubrics are created equally though.  Rubrics should be analytic rather than holistic, that is, they should assign scores to each separate dimension of the assignment.  Augmenting your scale with + or – signs can improve the accuracy of scoring. Topic-specific rubrics also provide more dependable scores. Multiple sets of “anchors” or examples in a rubric to help students better identify qualities in their own work and show that there are multiple ways to approach the assignment.  Finally, if multiple instructors or TAs are grading, take time to ground mutual expectations for more consistent scoring.


Be aware of bias

Variability in grading can be as great in the same instructor as between multiple graders.  The order in which papers are reviewed has been shown to influence scores, so be sure to take frequent breaks while grading to help yourself grade more fairly.  Previous student performance can influence subsequent grades, a bias known as the halo effect.  Other studies have demonstrated that the grading can be influenced by a variety of factors including student penmanship, gender, ethnicity, and even attractiveness.  Implement blind grading for exams and assignments for which you have not given students in-progress feedback.


Facilitate student self-assessment

Grading should be a two-way street that helps students understand the standards of the course, compare their current performance to good performance, and close that gap.  While establishing a dialogue around performance and expectations should be a semester-long process, you can implement the following strategy even at the end of the term:

When students arrive in class ready to turn in a final assignment or project, take five minutes for self-reflection.  Choose four or five key features of the assignment for each student to mark in their work, such as their best use of evidence, thesis statement, creative use of a source, or strong writing.  Not only will your grading be made easier with these cues, but the activity offers students an opportunity to assess their own performance and compare their expectations with external standards.


Sources and Further Reading:

Anders Jonsson and Gunilla Svingby, “The Use of Scoring Rubrics: Reliability, Validity and Educational Consequences,” Educational Research Review 2, 2007, pp. 130-144.

John M. Malouff, Ashley J. Emmerton, and Nicola S. Schutte, “The Risk of a Halo Bias as a Reason to Keep Students Anonymous during Grading,” Teaching of Psychology, 30 (3), 2013, pp. 233-237.

David J. Nicol and Debra Macfarlane-Dick, “Formative Assessment and Self-Regulated Learning: A Model and Seven Principles of Good Feedback Practice,” Studies in Higher Education, 31 (2), April 2006, pp. 199-218.

Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently),” CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13, pp. 159-166.

Conflict is a natural part of social interactions, and thus it is no surprise that conflict occasionally arises in the classroom. Ranging from a minor disagreement about grades to more disruptive instances, we typically think of conflict as something to be avoided in the course of teaching and learning. On the other hand, what would a classroom discussion or debate be like if there were not differing points of view? Conflict SpectrumIn practice, conflict ranges on a spectrum from destructive (e.g. fighting in class) to constructive (a learning opportunity).
This post offers five broad tips for preventing or responding to destructive conflict and encouraging constructive conflict.

  1. The first step toward a productive handling of conflict is to understand your own natural conflict tendencies. Different individuals experience conflict in a variety of ways (becoming defensive, avoiding it altogether, etc.), and our own experiences may differ depending on the context of the conflictual encounter. Before taking action, it is helpful to consider the biases and experiences you have that might influence your judgment in a particular instance. Understanding your own tendencies before conflict arises can help prepare you to manage conflict in a healthy manner.
  2. One important way to prevent destructive conflict is to ensure you create a safe and welcoming classroom environment from the first day. In your syllabus, you may wish to include an inclusivity statement that reflects a commitment to valuing different perspectives and opinions. This sets the tone for how you expect the class to behave and function. In other syllabus policies, be as clear as possible to avoid confusion in how they should be interpreted. Additionally, spend time getting to know students and be open to any concerns they may have. If students know and respect you and the other students, they are more likely to respond to conflict in a constructive way.
  3. In addition to statements in the syllabus, try to involve students in constructing the ground rules for class discussion or working in groups. This encourages students to think about how healthy discussions or group work occur and how they would like to be treated by their fellow students. Writing ground rules can be done at the start of the semester or before the first discussion or group assignment. Be sure to remind students of the rules they established; some professors even ask everyone to sign a contract agreeing to the ground rules established by the class. Should conflict arise, you then have a common agreement to utilize to restore a healthy environment.
  4. Think about how you approach potentially sensitive subjects in your course. If a certain topic may divide your students, consider addressing it later in the semester after students have had a chance to form relationships and work together on other, less sensitive subjects. As the topic approaches, start by discussing the issue broadly before asking for students’ personal opinions. Alternatively, consider using a debate to encourage students to examine both sides of the issue and support their opinion with facts and evidence rather than emotions. In sum, plan to build up to the subject and prepare students for the discussion ahead of time.
  5. If destructive conflict does occur in class, always try to use it for constructive means. First, think about who is harmed or affected by the conflict and be sure to include them in the solution. Here are a few common techniques to use at contentious points in the class:
    • State the problem you have identified and caution the whole class, rather than directing your comments to a particular student. For example, you could state: “This discussion appears to have crossed more into personal opinions than a discussion of the assigned reading. While those opinions are valued, let’s try to frame them in light of the evidence from the text.”
    • If the conflict is disruptive, ask students to step back and think about what happened and write down their reaction or thoughts. Ask students what they learned from a particular moment and whether the conflict is reflective of a larger issue.
    • If a student raises an unpopular opinion, open up the point for further discussion. Suggest that others likely hold that position, and ask students to explore why some people hold a particular position while others hold different ones.
    • If one or a few students are the source of the disruption, ask them to discuss the issue with you after class or in office hours.
    • If you are unable to appropriately diffuse a situation, tell students that it is important and you will return to it at a different time. This allows time for tempers to cool and for you to come up with an appropriate response.
    • Finally, if a situation cannot be used constructively and impedes your ability to conduct the class, you may ask a student if they need time to cool down outside of the classroom. Follow up with the student later on, and recommend other wellness resources if necessary.

These are just a few strategies you can use to address broad conflict situations. If a conflict arises in your class, utilize the resources available to you to ensure that it is handled appropriately. Reach out to your departmental administration, a faculty mentor, or other offices on campus. Remember that it is possible to shift conflict from a destructive moment to a constructive learning exercise, so be proactive in repairing any harm done. And even before conflict occurs, do what you can to prepare yourself and your students to respond to conflict in a healthy manner.

Additional Resources

How to Write a Final Exam

When you sit down to write a final exam, where do you start? Ideally, in the process of designing your course, you already put some serious thought into how to assess and measure student learning.  Perhaps you followed the steps of “backward course design”—a course design strategy which makes the development of an assessment strategy the second step of course design coming immediately after the formulation of learning goals and long before determining what content and activities will fill individual class days.  Or, perhaps you adhered to the sage advice of writing exam questions immediately after each class, when the class was still fresh in your memory.  If so, you already hold in your hand dozens of potential exam questions.

But, what if you didn’t?  What if you need to write a final from scratch?  Is there anything that you can do?  Yes, it is not too late.

First consider what you hope to accomplish with the final exam.  For example, a final exam could be…

  • a motivator for students to review what they have learned in your class;
  • an opportunity for students to think about and process course material at a deeper level (e.g. one could require student to apply methods and skills learned earlier in the course to new problems);
  • and, lastly, a chance to measure student completion of the course’s learning goals.

Second—with regard to this last possibility—master teacher, Linda Nilson (2010, 281-82), reminds us that student assessment should reflect and reinforce both your overall goals for the course and the kinds of learning accomplished in individual classes and assignments.  For this reason, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are your learning goals for the class?
  2. What level of cognition is required by each goal? (Does a given goal require low-level learning such as recognition and recall, or higher-level learning such as evaluation and application?)
  3. How have class sessions and assignments prepared students for these levels of learning? (E.g., How much practice do your students have at applying a concept to a new problem?)
  4. Can you think of questions that both measure student achievement of learning goals and reflect the kinds of learning practiced in class?

Third, get students involved.  Help students take ownership of the final exam process:

  • Explain to your students the purpose of the final exam
  • Review course goals and explain how you intend to measure these goals
  • Invite students to reflect on their own learning; for example, have students write about what they have learned and how far they have achieved the learning goals
  • Ask students to consider the course goals and write their own final exam questions


References and Further Reading:

Linda B. Nilson, Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, Third Edition (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

For a wealth of ideas and strategies, see: Mary E. Piontek, “Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams,” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Occasional Papers 24 (2008).

Consider the do’s and don’ts provided by educator Rob Weir, “Having the Final Say” Inside Higher Education (2009).

For example:

  1. Don’t use the final exam to exact revenge on students who seemed disrespectful or inattentive.
  2. Don’t experiment with your final exam, but stick to the methods employed previously during the semester.
  3. Do prepare students by making instructions and expectations clear ahead of time.

More tips may be found at UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning

During your career, you will inevitably be asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student. Below are some ways to deal with student requests and advice on how to write the letter itself.


Set up Expectations

  • Be Transparent: Since you are likely to be asked for a recommendation at some point during your career, it is perfectly reasonable for you to spend some time discussing recommendation requests in class and to set reasonable guidelines for when you expect to be notified of a possible request. The exact time-frame is up to you, but most people find anywhere from 2 weeks to a month’s notice to be reasonable. It depends on how many other commitments you have. You might also want to send the information in e-mail, or place it on your syllabus, just so that you can point to this information if a student makes an unreasonably late request and is upset when you decline them.
  • Cultivate Mutual Respect: From my experience, it seems that most students think that we work only during class hours and therefore have tons of free time that we spend watching Netflix and goofing around. After all, if they don’t read something, their grade decreases to what they might feel is a perfectly acceptable C and they don’t realize that if I don’t read and/or grade something and/or prepare for class, then class literally can’t function. So, part of making sure you don’t get unreasonable requests is to make sure you express that your time is valuable and build your class based on mutual respect. For example, when I collect papers, I always ask student to provide me with the same time to read and grade the assignment as I did for them to write it. In other words, if I gave them the assignment prompt two weeks before the due date, I ask them to respect that I will need that same time to grade their assignments. Before I started to emphasize mutual respect for each other’s time, some students used to get annoyed with me if the paper was not given back by the very next class period.  Now, I receive fewer complaints each class period about the paper not being turned back yet and students are extra appreciative if I hand something back earlier than expected (which I try to do, regardless). If you demonstrate that you are respecting your students’ time, they are more likely to respect your time. If you consistently underscore that your time is important and that you are providing           them with the same courtesy, you are unlikely to receive too many late requests. In the event that you do, it will be easier to explain to the student why the request is impossible for you if you have already set up parameters in your class.


Writing the Recommendation

  • Ask the Student for Important Documents: Always ask a student for complete information about the opportunity they are considering along with a CV, a short description of their recent work (or, if you think it is necessary, a full length example of their most relevant work), and, at the very least, a few bullet points of what they are including in their application essay and a short explanation of why they are applying to this specific program or scholarship. This process is time consuming and the reason that it is important for a student to provide you with adequate notice, since you are going to need time to collect documents from the student, review them, and then address the information in these documents.
  • Create a narrative: When you write a recommendation, represent your student the same way you would represent yourself in a cover letter for a job. Do not use empty phrases, such as “intelligent” or “hard working” without demonstrating these qualities with examples. Create a narrative for the student that speaks specifically to the type of opportunity you are writing the letter for and to the student’s unique strengths.


Respect Your Own Time

As noted above, sometimes students will ask for an unrealistically quick turnover on a letter of recommendation, even if you have already made your guidelines clear. I have had friends who have felt bad turning down a late request, especially when it was for a student they really cared about. I have been there myself. Yet, it is important not to give into this guilt. It is obviously not your fault if a student is late in requesting a recommendation and it is perfectly reasonable to say, even to your favorite student, that you cannot fulfill a late request and will need more time in the future. This is an important skill that they need to learn for future applications and professional relationships.

It is important not to get annoyed at a student if you feel like they are disrespecting you with such a demanding request. Rather, just politely say no and explain to them that they need to provide a certain amount of notice when requesting recommendations. If the student gets angry, which I have never experienced but I have heard of from at least one former colleague, then it is best to just disengage with that person at that time and, if they are willing, explain to them later why their request was not professional and provide them with advice on how to go about asking for recommendations in the future.

You are only helping them by turning them down. Now certainly, it is your prerogative if you decide that you are actually free over the next two days and want to accommodate your favorite student’s late request because you have the time to do so. I would just suggest that you do so sparingly, so as not to set a precedent. After all, your letters will hardly be helpful to a student anyway if it is written at the last minute in between mounds of previously scheduled work.


Further Reading

The below documents will provide more information on how to respond to student requests and construct successful letters of recommendation.

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

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