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Teaching Tips

Teaching Tips from the TLC is the Teaching and Learning Center's blog. Regular posts include brief, practical, research-based strategies for improving students’ learning, as well as tips for managing workload and stress. Drexel faculty and staff can read Teaching Tips from the TLC [requires Sharepoint Login] on Drexel University's SharePoint site. Check back often —new tips are added every few weeks!

Klein,Valerie

During the uncertainty of the past few years, instructors have been asked to be flexible and accommodating to our students. In many ways, this has made us more understanding, more approachable, and more willing to think about the structure of our cl…

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During the uncertainty of the past few years, instructors have been asked to be flexible and accommodating to our students. In many ways, this has made us more understanding, more approachable, and more willing to think about the structure of our classes, assignments, and support for students. When I think about how this has impacted my teaching, what comes to mind is that I revised deadline policies, re-imagined make up assignments, re-examined attendance policies and thought carefully about extending grace when students miss class due to illness, potential illness or caring for roommates, family and loved ones. At the same time, I have been repeatedly reminded of the impact of missing class, being late on assignments and requesting that students make-up work while simultaneously exploring new content. As we move into the new academic year, it will be important to set students up to be successful in my classes and to evaluate honestly when, due to circumstances beyond their control or mine, they cannot be. One strategy I plan to use is self-assessment and reflection coupled with regular gradebook checks ins. The intention is to build self-assessment and self-efficacy skills, both of which support students to better understand their own performance in a class and take more agency in their success. 

Bi-Weekly Check-ins on Course Engagement: 

Like most instructors, I have noticed that when students fall behind, they tend to imagine themselves as able to catch up quickly and underestimate the time it will take for them to submit quality work. In addition, I am often the one to reach out and initiate a conversation with students about missing assignments (I tend to do this as I complete my grading for various assignments). To shift some of the responsibility to the student for communicating about their progress in the course, I plan to use a short survey I will send out every other week that will ask students to reflect on their engagement with coursework (graded and ungraded) and then ask them to assess their likelihood of being successful in the class. 

Please respond honestly to the questions below and consider the past two weeks of the course: 

Have you completed the assigned readings: 

  • ___I have read all the assigned readings on time before class 
  • ___I have read all the assigned readings, but some I completed after class  
  • ___I have read some of the assigned readings  
  • ___I have not read the assigned readings 
  • ___I do not have the course texts yet 

Please put and (x) next to the assignments you have completed that were due in the last 2 weeks: 

  • ___Reflection paper 
  • ___Mid-term topic selection  
  • ___Peer Feedback 
  • ___Take-home quiz 

Now look back at your responses:  

  • Name one thing you will continue to do to maintain your engagement with the course: 

  • Name one thing you will continue to do differently to increase your engagement with the course: 

  • Do you feel you can be successful in this course? 
  • ___Yes 
  • ___No 
  • ___Not Sure 

Why did you choose yes or no or not sure? 
​​​​​​​

These data can be collected using any survey software (i.e. Microsoft Forms, Qualtrics, or Google Forms a Blackboard Quiz) and will allow me to quickly to see trends in how students report themselves. In terms of looking closely at the data, I am most interested in two sets of results. I want to look at the responses for students: 

  1. who are performing poorly based on the gradebook (missing assignments or doing poorly on them) to see how they assess themselves and; 
  2. who indicate that they do not feel they can be successful in the course or are not sure. 

In both cases, I want to see if their self-assessment matches my assessment of them. I feel that a combination of their own self-assessment along with my grades will foster a more authentic conversation about their performance in the class moving forward. In doing so, I hope to be able to provide additional support students may need to be successful. I also imagine this will help me understand trends in the students’ engagement with the course readings and out-of-class assignments in ways that will allow me to offer whole class support with time management and reading strategies.  



Inman,Johanna

As a parent of a 9- and 10-year-old, I was distraught by the news of yet another mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas this past May. The morning after, I addressed the incident with my kids in as age-appropriate language as I could…

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As a parent of a 9- and 10-year-old, I was distraught by the news of yet another mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas this past May. The morning after, I addressed the incident with my kids in as age-appropriate language as I could muster and reluctantly sent them to school. I tried my best to focus on my day at hand; however, I kept wondering what my kids were hearing at school, what they were feeling, and at the same time grappling with my grief over this tragedy. 

In my first meeting, the facilitator began by addressing the incident and allowing space for faculty and staff to respond or remain silent. At this time, some colleagues voiced anger, sadness, despair, and calls for action. While an agenda had been prepared, the facilitator understood that moving forward with “business as usual” without addressing this tragedy would have been useless, and instead allowed us time to grieve together as a community. This experience was an important reminder of how emotionally charged events can creep into our work and learning spaces whether we plan for them or not. 

In a 2007 survey, students named the least helpful and most problematic response by faculty to critical events as a “lack of response.” When a tragic, violent, or emotionally-charged public event occurs, it can be hard to know as instructors if—and how—we should address them in class. But silence is often as loud as words. At the very least, acknowledgement of these events is appreciated by students and can help provide them with an opportunity to process what happened, as well as recognition that it may affect their ability to concentrate and learn. 

If you are still processing the event, feel emotionally triggered, or simply can’t find the words to address it with the class, acknowledging the event and observing a moment of silence may be a good option. Here are some additional strategies that may also be appropriate: 

  1. Engage students in discussion. Discussions about these events can be an important opportunity to help students develop emotional intelligence, consider viewpoints different from their own, and discuss highly charged topics in a productive way. If you have not done so already, it is important—especially when discussing topics that elicit strong emotional responses—to share or create guidelines or ground rules for engaging in respectful discussion. Additionally, using structured or semi-structured discussion strategies can ensure more balanced participation and provide time for students to reflect before speaking. 

  2. Provide time for reflective writing. If you feel ill-equipped to lead a discussion about a particular issue, providing a short amount of time for students to reflect on the event in writing is another option. Writing can provide time for both you and your students to grapple with any feelings about the event. These assignments can also normalize those feelings, build class community and rapport, and help students clear their minds and move forward with the lesson if you choose. Depending on the event, you may want to provide reflective writing as an option that is not collected or graded, offering students to share it with the class if they want. 

  3. Direct students towards resources and support. Some students may be seeking additional assistance beyond your classroom. It’s always good to remind students of the support and resources provided to them through the University. Drexel’s Counseling Center offers both individual and group services. The Office of Equality and Diversity also offers ongoing programs that often respond to timely events. University chaplains provide religious and spiritual counsel to all members of the Drexel community, including faculty, professional staff and students. If you share these resources with students in class, it can be helpful to follow up with an email or Blackboard announcement providing a reminder and links to these resources. 

Drexel faculty and staff seeking additional support processing tragic events are encouraged to use the Employee Assistance Program. To think through how you can create inclusive spaces for productive conversations about tragic events in your classes, you can also make an appointment with the Teaching and Learning Center for a one-on-one consultation




Klein,Valerie

“There is nothing more demoralizing than the thought that the countless hours we spend grading might be dismissed as meaningless.” – Elizabeth Bare Although many students think “they are the only ones who worry about grades,” writes Elizabeth Bare i…

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“There is nothing more demoralizing than the thought that the countless hours we spend grading might be dismissed as meaningless.” – Elizabeth Bare

Although many students think “they are the only ones who worry about grades,” writes Elizabeth Bare in a recent blog post, “anxiety about grades is also a central feature of faculty life.” While students often worry about how their grades will affect their progress toward graduation, faculty are also concerned about whether their approaches to grading are valid, fair, and efficient, or as Bare puts it, “meaningful, moral, and manageable.” This tip explores several ways of better aligning learning and grading, so that attention to one translates to attention to both elements.

Are the grades I assign meaningful?
When considering whether her grades are meaningful, Bare thinks about grades as measures, but wrestles with what grades are actually measuring: “performance, competency, growth, or effort?” To make grades as meaningful and impactful as possible, we must first define clear goals for student learning. Then, we can design assessments (e.g., projects, tests, quizzes, assignments, and so on) that collect evidence of students’ progress toward those goals. If our assessments measure what we intend for them to measure, the grades students earn with their work will align more closely with their progress toward accomplishing the goals of the course--and therefore become more meaningful.

Is grading moral?
When exploring the morality of her approach to grading, Bare is particularly concerned with the issue of fairness: creating “a system of grading that ensures students in similar circumstances will be treated similarly.” Because developing rubrics helps us define evaluation criteria, they are invaluable tools for grading. Not only can they help keep us focused on the most important aspects of an assignment as we evaluate each student’s work, but they also force us to define this for ourselves and students before grading an assignment. This helps instructors avoid deducting points for minutia irrelevant to the learning goals we’re trying to assess and empowers us to give feedback on more important elements of an assignment.

Two additional strategies related to fairness are grade norming and “blind grading,” or grading anonymous student work. Grade norming entails working with colleagues in an effort to evaluate student work more consistently. It’s particularly important for instructors and TAs working together to grade students’ work within the same course – when using a rubric, for example, start by having your TAs grade the same assignment and then compare rubric scores. This can foster conversations about how to best interpret the rubric categories and how to use them similarly across graders. To grade anonymously, we can use Blackboard’s anonymous grading options that will allow us to review student work, provide feedback, and assign a grade without seeing students’ names.

Is the process of grading manageable?
Rubrics can also help with the management of grading. Starting with clearly defined criteria for success can improve the quality of the assignments you receive. They also aid students in getting closer to accomplishing the assignments’ goals on each attempt, allowing for more targeted feedback. Many faculty have found that dividing up the work of grading (e.g., grading only five projects in one sitting) also helps make the task more manageable and less overwhelming.

Bare experimented with using specifications grading in her course and reported that “the grading was most certainly faster and less anxiety inducing, as I expected it would be.” Her post describes her approach to using “specs” grading in her course, and it also links to several sample syllabi from other courses from which faculty adopted this method.


Inman,Johanna

Designing for student success means engaging in intentional course design, leveraging pedagogical tools and strategies to support the success of all students , especially those who may face additional barriers or challenges to success. One way to de…

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Designing for student success means engaging in intentional course design, leveraging pedagogical tools and strategies to support the success of all students, especially those who may face additional barriers or challenges to success. One way to design for success is to communicate using psychologically attuned language.

What is communicating using psychologically attuned language?
Communicating using psychologically attuned language is humane, thoughtful, kind, empathetic, and growth mindset oriented. It uses language that is easily understandable to students, does not feel punitive, invites conversation, normalizes challenges, highlights support available, and purposefully introduces possibility.

Why is communicating using psychologically attuned language important?
When we reach out to students, it is generally because we want them to succeed. However, sometimes our well-intended outreach can be perceived as unsupportive or shaming, which could further alienate already struggling students. On the other hand, using psychologically attuned language may lead to more meaningful communication that values the student as a person, and potentially promotes continued learning.

How to communicate using psychologically attuned language?
While there are many ways to communicate using psychologically attuned language, one of the key characteristics of this communication approach is to help students, especially struggling students, feel:

1) like they belong 2) that there is a path to success moving forward 3) that the instructor genuinely cares about them as a person 4) that their success matters 5) that the instructor and the institution aims to support their success, and 6) informs the student about existing support systems. 

Some design questions to consider
Two questions to consider when designing your course are first, in what areas of your course do you need to use psychologically attuned language (ex. course syllabus or course documents)? Second, are there existing course documents or policies that need to be altered to include psychologically attuned language?

Example of using psychologically attuned language
Finally, I provide an annotated example of communicating using psychologically attuned language (edited): 

Hi <first name of student>, [personalize the student]

I was looking at the first exam scores for BIO102 and saw that you didn’t do as well as expected [express high expectations but give honest feedback]. Since it’s still early in the course [purposefully introduce hope/possibility], now is the time to try and figure out what went wrong and how we can fix it [normalize challenge]. I have some quick questions for you that I’m hoping you’ll be willing to answer for me to help us identify what adjustments might help based on my experience teaching the course. 

  • Do you have an idea why you didn’t do well on the exam?  
  • How did you study for the exam? (For example: read text, read notes, solve practice problems; attend review session; study with a group)   
  • What percentage of class do you think you participated in actively?  
  • Do you have a study group?  
  • Did you use the TA’s office hours to discuss the material? [encourage student to introspect about existence of support systems within the course] 

With this information we can figure out what happened and work together [show pathway to success] so that the rest of the course goes more smoothly! 

Thanks, 
<Instructor’s name> 


Klein,Valerie

When you label a student as less engaged in the classroom, what are some of the indicators of a lack of engagement that you consider? Is it their recreational use of technology during lectures, their body language, or something else? These days in a…

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When you label a student as less engaged in the classroom, what are some of the indicators of a lack of engagement that you consider? Is it their recreational use of technology during lectures, their body language, or something else? These days in a remote teaching environment, it might be students opting not to turn on cameras during a live lesson, missing multiple classes, or infrequently logging onto Blackboard for many days. It is easy to take it personally when students are not engaged in a course you have worked hard on, but a more productive response is to ask, “Why are they disengaged?” The answer may be different than we expect, especially with the many ways higher education norms mystify students.

Since we do not know who will come into our class in any given semester, it helps to create courses from a design perspective, particularly one that is flexible and accounts for students with varied interests, strengths, and motivations.  

Universal Design for Learning (or UDL) is a way to “improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” (CAST.org). This approach considers the why, what, and how of students’ learning while reducing the barriers students may face in achieving course outcomes. Learning during the pandemic exacerbated these barriers, which is why UDL is the foundation of a recent Chronicle article on six ways to be more inclusive in your virtual classroom. UDL doesn’t water down instructional expectations or standards; instead, it provides students access to opportunities to succeed.  

Things to Do Now (or Soon) 
Here are some first steps to consider in increasing access for a variety of students. They don’t need to be completed all at once. The authors of Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, recommend a “plus one” approach, which promotes making one change, one time, forever. Consider where you can get the most benefit for your work and what parts of your course do students typically: 

  • ask questions about the content, 

  • get things wrong on tests and exams, or 

  • ask for alternative explanations? 

They also recommend choosing your starting point by asking students themselves questions like: Where do you get stuck? What kind of options would increase your motivation and deepen your understanding? These are just some areas to consider as you think about making your course more available to all students:

  • Provide early access to course content. Allowing students to look at least one week ahead in a course helps them plan for uncertain schedules. 

  • Record sessions. Recorded sessions not only support students who cannot attend live sessions, but also provide an opportunity for students to review specific parts as many times as needed. 

  • Turn on live captions. Google Meet, Google Slides, Zoom, and Microsoft PowerPoint have live captioning options. While not perfectly accurate, this visual reinforcement can help students who have difficulty understanding audio. 

  • Be flexible in assignment due dates, when possible. Do assignments need to be turned in within a date range, or is it crucial for students to turn in assignments on the day specified? Timelines help students scaffold their learning, so consider how to encourage timely submissions without drastic penalties for work submitted shortly after the due date.   

  • Encourage variety in discussion forum expression (text, video, audio). With increased online classes, we are all likely doing a lot of reading these days. Encourage students to respond in a variety of formats: sometimes students can articulate more complex thoughts in audio or video, and variety can help increase student motivation – in BbLearn a tool like VoiceThread does this well.  

  • Provide checklists or templates to help students focus on learning. When enrolled in multiple courses, students are not only learning concepts related to the discipline, but also how each instructor sets up their course, how different activities work, plus a litany of other processes. Checklists or assignment templates can help free up some of students’ cognitive load in order to focus on the important stuff. 

  • Link to the reading source (rather than uploading PDFs). PDFs can either be highly accessible or difficult to read depending on how they are produced (check out this handy PDF accessibility guide). Check the original web source for a PDF, whether a journal article or popular web piece, and link students to that web page. This tends to scale better. Providing both PDFs and weblinks are an added bonus.  

  • Share course documents in Google Docs or Word rather than just PDF. These editable formats more easily allow students to customize the appearance and annotate the document based on their needs (highlighting due dates, rearranging information, etc.). Additionally, Google Docs has a “make a copy” feature that enables students to make a copy of a document, which allows you to maintain a master copy while also allowing students to annotate their own copy. 

  • Find existing reinforcement resources (YouTube videos, visual guides). Many faculty are publicly sharing their teaching resources. When you recognize a pain point in the semester, note it for later exploration and see what the web offers. Sometimes an alternative explanation and example reinforces a concept in a way that helps it stick for students. Bb Ally provides alternatives for students to listen to text-based documents. Make these additional resources optional for students who feel like they need additional review.

Inclusive Practices Reject a Deficit Model 
I hope this checklist provides a good starting point and sparks a deeper interest in UDL. I also hope you continue to explore UDL’s opportunities. When considering UDL from an inclusion lens, it’s important to note that UDL is more than a “one size fits all” mindset. As is often articulated by disability experts, designing for students who have been historically marginalized in higher education not only benefits these students, but all students, simply through implementing a better course design. UDL de-centers the value placed on a singular mode of engaging students, representing ideas, and measuring their learning. In other words, UDL should emphasize students’ differences and view them as an asset rather than as a tool for perceived deficits.