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Prior Knowledge Check

The following entry from the 2013-2014 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips was contributed by Dr. Michelle Jackson Manager, English Language Institute, Professional & Public Programs at The University of Texas.


Favorite Teaching Quote: “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” – Thomas Carruthers

Contributed Activity: On the first day of class, I like to ask students to write a 1-page response to the following question: “What do you know about (Insert your field here)?” I do this for multiple reasons:

  • It activates prior knowledge, requiring students to pull from their experiences and see how they might apply those experiences to class material (Pressley et al., 1992).
  • It demonstrates that I value what they may already know about the field.
  • It puts the responsibility on the students and illustrates that this class will require active participation.

Near the end of the semester, I return these papers to the students, and have them respond to what they wrote previously. Students are usually surprised by their initial writings and by their ability to respond with what they have learned. This activity shows how much a student’s conceptualization of a field can change in just 15 weeks. It also reminds me of the quotation above—and how quickly I become unnecessary, if I do my job well.

Good luck & happy teaching!


Pressley, M., Wood, E., Woloshyn, V., Martin, V., King, A., and Menke, D. (1992). Encouraging mindful use of prior knowledge: Attempting to construct explanatory answers facilitates learning. Educational Psychologist 27(1), 91-109.

The following entry from the 2013-2014 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips was contributed by Valerie Lopes, PhD Professor, Centre for Academic Excellence Seneca College and  adapted from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University Online Document Course Design Tip Sheet – available at: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/CourseDesign.html


In preparing to teach a course, it is helpful to first consider:

1. What is the purpose of this course – What is it that the students will be able to know/think/do as a result of taking this course?

What do you hope to teach the students? What is the single most important thing you hope they will leave the course knowing or being able to do? Why are you teaching it? (This is not about what facts you want them to know at the end, but about what your larger or deeper objectives are for the course.) What are the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely) Learning outcomes of this course?

2. What are your students’ capacities and expectations and needs?

Who are your students? What do they know already, as they enter the course? How will you know what they know? What levels of sophistication can you expect? How much can you expect them to do? What courses have they taken? How much do they need to know at this level? What prior knowledge is essential in order for students to be successful in this course?

3. What assessments will you use to determine whether or not the students have achieved the learning outcomes?

What will you use as evidence that the students have learned what you intend for them to learn? How will theses assessments guide the teaching and learning activities and resources? How will you use assessments to help students to learn? Do you have formative as well as summative assignments?

Once the answers to the questions above are clearly established, then there are a host of other questions to consider:

  • How will you design the weekly sessions and lessons? How are you going to tie the course together? What is the story line for this course? What are the logical links between sessions? And what are the main topics and sub-topics? How will you enable the students to follow the course’s progression from week to week? Can you create a concept map for the course?
  • How are you going to get to the broader, underlying conceptual issues, as opposed to simply covering the material? Given the underlying purpose or concept or level of the course, what material should be emphasized and what can be cut?
  • What “active” teaching methods are you going to use – e.g., lectures, discussions, role plays, demonstrations – and in what proportions? What activities other than the readings and class discussions might be appropriate? How will you stimulate students to think about the material before class? How will you encourage/require students to prepare? How will you get students to actively engage in reading, listening to lectures or viewing videos that are used to deliver course content? What learning strategies will you use?
  • How will you evaluate your students? How will you know what they do and do not understand? How will you know if they have learned anything, and if so, what they have learned? How will you know which students are A students, which are B, C, and D students? What about students who fail?
  • How will you give feedback to the students? How will you grade and comment on their written and oral work? What opportunities will students have to use feedback to improve their work?
  • How flexible are you going to be in meeting students’ different backgrounds, interests and needs? Are you willing/able to change any aspects of the course in the middle of the semester if that seems appropriate? Are you willing to entertain different approaches to the material?
  • How will you get feedback from the students? How will you know if the course is working for them?

Having answered the questions above – how are you going to let the students know the overall plan for the course, including the class guidelines, suggested readings, assignment requirements and deadlines, tests and final exams dates, weekly schedules and all other pertinent information?

Lots of questions – but once they are all answered – you will be able to tell the story of your course and show how all the pieces are connected.

Review Sessions

As we begin the last full week of classes, it is important to think about how we want our classes to end. Review sessions can help students study for the final exam, and also reduce their exam anxiety.

The following tips for planning a review session come from the “The Last Day of Class” section of Barbara Gross Davis’ Tools for Teaching.

  • Explain how the review session will be conducted – Go over the logistics of the review session, whether or not it is mandatory, and the goals of the session.
  • Conduct the Review yourself – To avoid miscommunications about how to properly prepare for the final, the instructor of the course is encouraged to lead the review session rather than the TA or grader.
  • Ask your students about scheduling the review – Research has shown that reviews session are most effective after the last lecture when students have had a chance to study the material on their own. However, it is important to consider other student conflicts (work, family, other coursework, etc.) when scheduling a review session outside of the normal meeting time.
  • Create a relaxed, informal atmosphere for the review – Give students positive feedback, and remind them that they are capable of mastering the material.

Check out Tools for Teaching for more information on conducting a review session and providing closure at the end of a class.


Davis, Barbara Gross. “The Last Day of Class.” Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

The following entry from the 2013-2014 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips was contributed by Claudia J. Stanny, Ph.D., Director, Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, University of West Florida.


Faculty are experts in their disciplines. The cognitive skills that comprise expertise can also create barriers to instruction. Experts internalize disciplinary cognitive skills and procedures through extensive practice and repetition to the point where they can execute these skills without deliberate thought. The automation of these skills (developing skilled disciplinary habits of thought) enables experts to devote their attention to areas that are difficult. However, this automation can also make it more difficult for experts to clearly articulate and explain how they carry out skilled behaviors. A solution that appears to simply “pop into the head” of an expert may actually be based on a complex series of cognitive steps that play out rapidly in the mind of the expert. When explaining the solution to a novice, the expert might omit one or more intermediary steps.

From a student’s perspective, experts solve problems through processes that seem mysterious and hidden. Students might not know all the intermediate steps hidden below the surface of the fluid performance of an expert. The “curse of expertise” sometimes prevents experts from accurately anticipating the obstacles that impair the learning of novices (Hinds, 1999). The detailed steps experts follow when they solve a problem become less obvious after years of practice enable experts to execute these steps automatically. Experts tend to represent and describe their knowledge in abstract language that interferes with clear communication with novices (Hinds, Patterson, & Pfeffer, 2001; Nickerson, 1999). The challenge facing experts who teach is to articulate their implicit knowledge so that it is explicit and accessible to students.

Researchers at Indiana University have been exploring ways to make implicit expert knowledge explicit through a process called Decoding the Disciplines. They identify three types of bottlenecks or obstacles to learning:

  • Procedural bottlenecks occur when successful completion of a task requires multiple steps. Students may not have identified and/or mastered all of the steps required to complete the task (e.g., the steps involved in formulating a hypothesis, identifying competing hypotheses, and determining which variables must be manipulated, which variables must be controlled, and which variables must be measured to design an experiment).
  • Epistemological bottlenecks occur when students do not understand how knowledge is constructed within a discipline (e.g., the nature of what “counts” as evidence to support an argument).
  • Emotional bottlenecks occur when students have emotional responses to the discipline or subject matter that hinders learning (e.g., when students feel that their religious beliefs are threatened if they study or accept the concept of evolution in biology).

The Decoding the Disciplines process helps expert faculty identify conceptual bottlenecks and discover strategies to help make implicit expert strategies explicit and devise learning activities that will help students develop these skills. The process involves the following steps:

  1. Identify a bottleneck concept
  2. Define the processes students must learn to overcome the bottleneck
  3. Identify ways to model these processes
  4. Create activities and assignments that give students practice with these processes and feedback on their performance
  5. Identify strategies to maintain student motivation while learning these processes
  6. Assess student progress in acquiring these processes
  7. Share effective strategies with others in our discipline

Interested faculty can learn more about Decoding the Disciplines and read about specific disciplinary examples by visiting the Decoding the Disciplines web site:



Diaz, A., Middendorf, J., Pace, D., & Shopkow, L. (2008). The History Learning Project: A department “decodes” its students. The Journal of American History, 94, 1211-1224. doi: 10.2307/25095328

Hinds, P. J. (1999). The curse of expertise: The effects of expertise and debiasing methods on predictions of novice performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 5, 205-221. doi: 10.1037/1076-898X.5.2.205

Hinds, P. J., Patterson, M., & Pfeffer, J. (2001). Bothered by abstraction: The effect of expertise on knowledge transfer and subsequent novice performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 1232-1243. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.86.6.1232

Middendorf, J., & Pace, D. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: A model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2004, 1-12. doi: 10.1002/tl.142

Nickerson, R. S. (1999). How we know – and sometimes misjudge – what others know: Imputing one’s own knowledge to others. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 737-759. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.737


The Power of Tests to Teach

The following entry from the 2013-2014 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips was contributed by Todd Zakrajsek, PhD Executive Director, Academy of Educators, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Conventional wisdom is that new information is acquired while studying and then the extent to which the material has been successfully learned is assessed through testing. Typically, most individuals consider examinations neutral with respect to the actual learning process. Researchers are now reporting that tests themselves may be an important part of long-term retention of new information (Karpicke & Roediger, 2007). In one such experiment subjects learned new material by reading blocks of information. In one condition subjects read the test material four times and then took a quiz over the material five minutes following the last reading session. In a second condition, subjects read the block of material three times, took a practice quiz (no feedback) and then five minutes later took a different quiz over the material. In the final condition subjects read the material only one time and then took three different practice quizzes (no feedback on any of the quizzes) and five minutes after the last practice quiz took a quiz over the material. As expected, for these three conditions the more time spent studying demonstrated higher quiz scores. Surprisingly, however, was the performance on quizzes one week later. At that later time there was a significant reversal of three groups. Those who had repeated practice quizzes performed significantly better than the group who had more repeated study opportunities. Perhaps most interesting is that there was a very small (relatively speaking) decrease in performance over time for the group who had multiple testing opportunities (particularly as they received no feedback on the practice tests).
Several additional studies have confirmed the importance of repeated recall in solidifying information in long-term memory. Implications include the value of in-class practice quizzes in class, group discussions (additional recall), and students quizzing one another.

(If you would like additional information about this phenomenon please contact: todd_zakrajsek@med.unc.edu.)


Karpicke, J.D., & Roediger, H.L. (2007). Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 57, 151-162.


The following entry from the 2013-2014 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips was contributed by Belinda Richardson and Debi Griffin, Bellarmine University.


In order to retain student attention and facilitate learning, consider integrating a variety of activities into a lecture-based course. Start by finding natural breaks in the content material and break up the lecture into shorter segments. In between the shorter lectures, add activities that require the students to review and apply their new learning and interact with each other. Mix it up by incorporating different activities each week. The change of pace, interaction, and variety can help to enliven the classroom atmosphere and encourage deeper learning for every student. Some activities to consider are listed below.

Skeleton notes – Create a handout with key points of the lecture on the left margin, leaving space for students to fill in notes during lecture. Pair up or group students to compare notes and fill in gaps.

Press Conference – Ask students to work in teams to write and organize questions, and then interview the instructor in a simulated press conference.

Clusters – Break reading material into sections and have each individual or group read an assigned section, becoming an “expert” on that section. Each individual or group then teaches the others about the specific material that they learned.

Select the Best Response – Students are presented with a question or scenario and then asked to consider which one of three responses best answers it. This can be used to recall and apply information presented in lecture.

Correct the Error – This can be used in math or lab courses. The instructor creates an intentional error based on important lecture material. Students then work to correct the error.

Support a Statement – The Instructor provides a statement for which students must locate support in lecture notes or textbooks and give data to support the statement.

Re-order Steps – The instructor presents a series of steps in a mixed order and the students are asked to sequence the items correctly.

Short Video Clip – A short, relevant video clip can be useful for introducing a new topic, punctuating the main point, or providing a springboard for class discussion.

One Minute Paper – Near the end of the class period, ask students to write for one minute on the main 1-2 points of the class. This assignment allows you to gauge student comprehension and gives students an incentive to absorb and comprehend course material.

Student-created Visuals – Ask students to work in small groups to create visual study aids such as flow charts, graphs, diagrams, artwork, maps, or photography. A variation on this activity could produce student-created study guides prior to each major exam.


The following entry from the 2013-2014 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium: Teaching Tips was contributed by Claudia J. Stanny, Ph.D., Director, Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, University of West Florida.


A “flipped” class requires students to read assigned materials and complete other assigned work that prepares them to apply new learning during in-class activities that promote deep learning of course content and skills. Instructors can assign readings, but what if students do not complete these readings before coming to class?

Hoeft (2012) reports that 56%-68% of students in a first-year class reported that they did not read assigned material before class. The most common reasons students give to explain why they did not read assigned materials are:

  • They had too much to read.
  • Their work schedule does not allow enough time for extensive reading.
  • Their social life leaves little time for reading.

Students who say that they read the assigned materials usually said that they were motivated to complete reading assignments because they were concerned about grades.

Students who say that they did not complete assigned readings suggested that instructors might increase the number of students who read assigned material if they

  • give quizzes on the assigned readings,
  • assign supplementary graded work based on the readings to help them focus, and
  • make the assigned readings interesting.

Hoeft tried each strategy in one of three different courses. She found that reading quizzes and supplementary graded work successfully motivated students to complete assigned reading (74% of students in a course that used reading quizzes; 95% of students in a course that used an assigned, graded reading journal). Although more students reported reading when the journal assignment was used as a motivator, an independent measure of reading comprehension indicated that quizzes improved comprehension more than the journal assignment. Students in the reading journal assignment class appeared to read superficially, skimming the readings to find answers to questions included in the assignment; students in the reading quiz class appeared to read more deeply because the reading quizzes tapped reading content in less predictable ways than did the journal assignments.

Instructors can implement reading quizzes by creating self-grading quizzes in eLearning as graded assignments. Close access to the quizzes on the due date for the assigned reading to motivate students to complete the reading before class sessions. Alternatively, some instructors implement reading quizzes in the first 5 minutes of the class meeting (perhaps as clicker questions). If completed during class, the reading quizzes also serve to motivate students to attend class and participate in planned learning activities.


Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6, (2). http://academics.georgiasouthern.edu/ijsotl/v6n2.html

This Friday, James M. Lang (Assumption College) will be on campus to discuss his recent book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). In his book, Dr. Lang outlines how our current academic environment can unintentionally incentivize cheating and suggests ways to overcome this while encouraging student learning.

For more information, check out this recent interview with Dr. Lang.


Event Details:

Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty

James M. Lang (Assumption College) will address how to gain a better understanding of the reasons for academically dishonest behavior and use that knowledge to build better learning environments.

Friday, November 1; 10:00-11:30 a.m. at the Fishbowl in the Hesburgh Library (1st floor) Register here.



Highlights from the Preparing for the Academic Job Market Series

The Kaneb Center in collaboration with the Graduate School Professional Development Team recently offered the Preparing for the Academic Job Market Series.  Below are a few highlights from the series, just in case you could not attend.


Preparing for the Academic Job Market I: Putting Together Application Materials

Dr. Matthew Capdevielle, Director, University Writing Center

Dr. Capdevielle presented on two important documents typically included in application materials: the CV and Cover Letter. He offered a brief overview of what to include in each of these documents and discussed examples. A teaching statement and research statement were also briefly discussed. For more information about this workshop, please check out the workshop slides.


Preparing for the Academic Job Market II: Interviewing, the Job Talk, and the Teaching Pitch

Dr. Cindy Bergeman, Department of Psychology

Dr. Bergeman outlined what to expect during a typical on-campus interview.  She shared tips for preparing chalk talks and mock lectures.  Common interview questions were discussed as well as ideas for questions to ask on an interview and how to handle difficult questions. For more information about this workshop, please check out the workshop slides.


Preparing for the Academic Job Market III: Faculty Panel to Discuss Working at Different Types of Institutions

Dr. Cassie Majetic, Department of Biology, St. Mary’s College

Dr. Kelcey Parker, Department of English, Indiana University South Bend

Dr. Alan Huebner, Department of Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics, University of Notre Dame

Our faculty panel had experience working in small liberal arts institutions, regional public institutions, teaching positions at research institutions, and industry. The panel members were all currently in academic positions with teaching loads ranging from 3-2 to 4-4 (courses taught per semester), and many of the panelists had repeated preps. All panelists were involved in some sort of research depending on their positions. The “Scholar/Teacher” model was discussed. In this model, faculty members are expected to teach courses and contribute to scholarly work. Depending on the institution, the definition of scholarly work may include pedagogical work.  Dr. Cassie Majetic stated that she often does most of her research in the summer, in part due to the high teaching load but also due to the nature of her research. Dr. Kelcey Parker described working at a regional public university where she is actively engaged in research and teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses.  Dr. Huebner shared his experiences going from industry to academia and stressed the importance of maintaining an active research program while working in industry if you intend on returning to academia.

As far as applying for jobs, the panel advised to keep on open mind – the job that you think you are the best fit for, may not be the job you interview for.  The panelists also stressed that it is also possible to find a good fit with a job that you do not initially think is the best fit.  To stand out from a pile of applicants, panelists recommended that it is important to demonstrate that you are familiar with the department that you are applying to. They encouraged participants to do their research ahead of time, learn about the area, the type of institution, the mission statement, the faculty research interests, standard teaching loads, etc.

 For more information on upcoming workshops, please check out our Fall 2013 Workshop Series.

Gathering early-semester or mid-semester student feedback allows instructors to gauge what is working well in the course and determine what adjustments might need to be made.  There are several reasons for incorporating early-semester feedback into your course design and plan:

  •  The information can be used to make changes during the current course.
  • Students feel empowered to help design their own educational process.
  •  It allows an assessment of specific behaviors rather than a global “quality of teaching” rating.
  • Instructors can ask for the information most pertinent to them-even soliciting criticism-without fearing any adverse consequences from the administration.
  • The evaluations go directly to the instructor, not the administration, precluding comparisons across instructors (Keutzer, 1993)

Once the early-semester or mid-semester evaluations are distributed and the responses are collected, it’s important to have a plan for evaluating the responses. When analyzing the feedback from student evaluations, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Throw out the off-the-wall comments that do not provide you with useful information and forget about them.
  • Throw out the positive comments that don’t tell you anything specific.
  • Divide the negative comments into two groups: those you can change and those that you cannot change.
  • Work on perceptions and learn to be explicit.
  • Prepare students for doing course evaluations throughout the semester.
  • Savor the comments that are meant to be negative, but let you know you are doing your job (Buskist and Hogan, 2010).

For more information on creating an early-semester evaluation or to see examples of early-semester evaluations, please contact the Kaneb Center For Teaching and Learning at kaneb@nd.edu.


1. Connie Buskist and Jan Hogan, (2010). She Needs a Haircut and a New Pair of Shoes: Handling Those Pesky Course Evaluations. Journal of Effective Teaching 10 (1), 51-56.

2.   Carolin Keutzer, (1993). Midterm Evaluation of Teaching Provides Helpful Feedback to Instructors. Teaching of Psychology 20 (4), 238-240.


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