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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

As we move into the holiday season, we are often thinking about what gifts we want to give or receive. There are many items I’d love to get for myself, and one I have been thinking a lot about is what I can do to connect to the parts of my teaching …

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As we move into the holiday season, we are often thinking about what gifts we want to give or receive. There are many items I’d love to get for myself, and one I have been thinking a lot about is what I can do to connect to the parts of my teaching that I enjoy the most. For me, that includes digging into students’ ideas, trying to make sense of their understandings and misunderstandings and finding new and innovative ways to convey big ideas and try new things in my classrooms. To make space for this, I have given myself two tools that are helpful to get some things in place for future courses prior to the start of the course. 

Pre-populate announcements:  
Before the course starts, I create announcements for each week that highlight the big ideas, identify any assignments and deadlines, and if necessary for a particular week, I block out additional office hours (in person or virtual) and list those as well. Having all this set up in advance allows me time each week to add specific content and comments that connect to the students. I might add examples of key ideas from class conversations, I might share student ideas that were particularly relevant, or I might pull comments from a discussion board to highlight important concepts – all of this personalizes the announcement to the class and helps me connect with students. I try to format all my announcements similarly each week, so students know where to look and what to expect.  

Using my calendar to protect my teaching time:
I find that time is fleeting during the quarter, so I try to use my calendar as a tool to protect my time and schedule the things I know I want to do weekly. I schedule weekly grading time for each class and mark it as busy on my calendar. I use that time to grade and to check in, via email, with any students who are missing work or who missed class.  I schedule weekly announcement time – since I have created the announcements ahead of time, I use this time to make it more personal for the specific class I am teaching.  I schedule all my office hours, including the weeks I know I’ll need additional hours before (and sometimes after) big assignments. For live classes, I schedule 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after class so that I can prepare, I can leave time to talk to students and I can decompress after class. 

Overall, I have found this to be tremendously helpful in reminding me that the work of teaching is not only fit in between the other responsibilities of being a faculty member, but also requires specifically carved out time to do it in the way that brings me joy.  


Inman,Johanna

Asking students questions in class is an important aspect of the teaching and learning process. The right questions can pique curiosity, get students to dig deeper into class content, and provide an opportunity for formative assessment. However, as …

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Asking students questions in class is an important aspect of the teaching and learning process. The right questions can pique curiosity, get students to dig deeper into class content, and provide an opportunity for formative assessment. However, as many of us have experienced, when we aren’t asking the right questions in the right way, this process can fall very short of our instructional goals.

The following recommendations and strategies can help you not only ask better questions, but consider how to get more students answering them, and help you to better listen and respond in ways that will promote learning. 

Asking the right question 
Asking the right question begins with considering your instructional goals. What are you hoping to achieve through the question? What types of thinking do you want students to practice? How might your question help students to apply or transfer course concepts to novel situations?  Do you want to engage students in higher-level thinking such as analysis, synthesis, or evaluation of course concepts? This taxonomy of questions may help you identify a question that best aligns with the learning goals you have for students. 

If the goal is to check for understanding before moving on, then ask a specific question about the topic. Avoid asking broad questions such as “Do you understand?” or "Are there any questions?" You might also ask which aspects, terms, or problems within the lesson they would like further clarification on or ask them how confident they feel about learning this new course material. 

Research suggests that asking questions with a single correct answer, for example "What is the...?” may lead to fewer responses. Additionally, be careful not to ask leading questions that are “fishing” for specific answers or questions intended to simply assert your authority on the subject. Rather, try to ask students one clear question at a time and refrain from asking several follow-up questions until the first question is properly addressed. 

Setting expectations 
Many of us are used to saying, “there are no stupid questions” but it is rare that students hear “there are no stupid answers.” Some students are intimidated and worried about answering questions in class because they don’t want to be perceived poorly by peers and instructors. Communicate to students how you plan to use questions and their responses–even if incorrect–to improve learning in the course.  

It is also important to let students know how you expect them to respond. For example, will you provide time for thinking or writing before you take responses? Will you ask students to volunteer a response through a raised hand or will you “cold call” on students? If you plan to call on individuals, make sure to give students at least one “pass” per session and avoid humiliating students who may not be ready with a formulated response. 

Listening, Clarifying, and Responding to Questions 
Before responding to a student’s answer, it is recommended that you repeat the student’s response to ensure the entire class has heard it; paraphrasing or summarizing a student’s response can help to clarify that you comprehend their answer or comment. If the response was unclear, or might be misinterpreted, probe the student for additional information by asking, “tell me more,” or “can you provide an example?” Literature also recommends that instructors split their attention between the student who is responding and the rest of the class to ensure that all students in class remain engaged in the discussion.  

Avoid interrupting students during their response and thank the student for asking a question, sharing their thoughts, or answering your question - even if it is incorrect. For example, “I’m so glad you mentioned that. It is a common misconception.” By showing interest or appreciation in your student’s contributions, they and their peers are more likely to contribute in the future. 

In a previous post we discussed the importance of wait time after asking a question. Often, we don’t wait long enough for students to formulate a response before jumping in with the answer or a follow up question. Although a long pause can feel awkward at times, the payoff in student learning is worth it. Research on wait time tells us that as it increases, so do the number of student responses, appropriate responses, student questions, and even students supporting their answers with evidence. Giving students a set amount of time, 1-2 minutes for thinking or reflective writing, can also lead to more equitable participation among students.  

Lastly, if you are asking a question in hopes of launching a class discussion, make sure to identify additional best practices for facilitating discussions. However, even if you are asking a quick check-in question, encouraging students to interact with each other and identify connections between their responses can encourage students to think more deeply. For example, you might ask, “Khaled, could you relate that example to what Gloria said earlier?" or “Who would like to provide a summary of the responses so far?” Probing students to dig deeper, identify connections between responses, and to substantiate their claims can lead to more productive responses that are better aligned with the original goal of your question. 


Klein,Valerie

“When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.” –Mary Helen I…

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“When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.”  

–Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience on Education” 

What can you do to effectively engage students, convey the importance of course content, and facilitate better learning outcomes? Maybe, instead of focusing on how we can get students to think a topic is important, we should start directing some of our attention to how we can help students feel it is important. 

It may seem antithetical or impractical to encourage and stimulate emotion in the classroom. Emotions, it’s often thought, can be distracting or misleading–steering us further from our course learning goals and the pursuit of the truth. But in The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, Sarah Rose Cavanagh explores how emotion can be an asset, rather than a detriment, to learning in the classroom. Cavanagh offers some practical suggestions for how instructors can promote and harness relevant emotions that enhance learning in their classrooms.

Relevant v. Extraneous Emotions
To be clear, emotions don’t always lead to better learning outcomes. Emotions
can be distracting. Cavanagh notes that emotions like anxiety, fear,
sadness, shame, hopelessness and frustration can overwhelm students, draw away their attention, and lead to avoidant or resigned behavior and burnout.  

Emotions like excitement, curiosity, joy, empathy, hope, and wonder, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect–they can draw students in and motivate them to engage with the course, seek help and face challenges through problem-solving and collaboration. To mobilize these relevant emotions, Cavanagh suggests instructors use emotional hooks in lectures to grab attention, cultivate a welcoming classroom climate, and express passion in the course subject matter–each suggestion is detailed below. 

Emotional Hooks
One way Cavanagh suggests evoking learning-enhancing emotions in the classroom is through “
emotional hooks.” Grab students’ attention by evoking curiosity in a course topic with an interesting, relatable example, story, case study, or puzzle. Or, relay the relevance and human dimension of a topic with a story that evokes empathy, hope, or passion for finding a solution to a real-world problem. 

Climate Matters
Cavanagh also emphasizes the importance of course climate on student engagement and learning. When a course has a warm climate, students feel more comfortable expressing their ideas, exploring questions curiously, and challenging themselves out of their comfort zone. In cold course climates, students are more likely to not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts or questions, feel threatened, hopeless, and
isolated 

Little things can make a big difference to your course climate. For example, trying to learn your students’ names and encouraging students to attend office hours conveys care. Having in-class opportunities for collaboration and discussion can help students facilitate supportive connections.

Passion is Contagious
​​​​​​​Finally, Cavanagh reminds us that all else aside, when instructors simply convey their own enthusiasm and curiosity, students’ positive emotions
follow suit. If an instructor acts distracted, the students are likely to be bored or distracted themselves. If an instructor acts closed-off or hostile, students will likely close off as well. If, on the other hand, an instructor conveys excitement–both in course topics and in students’ contributions to discussion–through their body language, vocal tone, and eye contact, this draws students into the conversation 

In sum, emotions don’t always need to be tamed in the classroom. Learning can be promoted by stimulating feelings or passions, resulting in efficiently and effectively engaging students, promoting help-seeking behavior, and promoting students’ sense of belonging and community. 


Inman,Johanna

At the start of this new academic year, many of us are looking for new ways to capture students’ attention, curiosity, and engagement. Activity Before Content, or ABC, is an easy strategy to adapt to a wide range of disciplines and modalities, almos…

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At the start of this new academic year, many of us are looking for new ways to capture students’ attention, curiosity, and engagement. Activity Before Content, or ABC, is an easy strategy to adapt to a wide range of disciplines and modalities, almost anyone can use it! The strategy is simple: have students explore concepts and ideas before presenting them with new content. For example, before introducing a new concept, ask students to define it, drawing from their experiences and expectations: What do they think it means? What does it remind them of? How have they encountered it in previous situations? 

Why use ABC?  

ABC has many advantages. Among them, it:  

How does it work?  

Many familiar teaching strategies lend themselves to ABC, for example,   

  • Write or project a question on the board for students to answer before class begins. Using a polling application (e.g., PollEverywhere), share responses as they accrue in real-time or immediately after everyone has responded, so students can see what their classmates are thinking. As a class, discuss the responses; be sure to explore any misconceptions/outliers as well as correct responses.  

  • Start class with a one- or two-minute free write. Discuss students’ responses as a class or in small groups before sharing them out with the entire class. In online classes, leverage asynchronous discussion threads for these small group explorations.  

  • Create a low-stakes quiz that students complete in small groups at the beginning of class. Provide a few minutes at the end of class for groups to revisit/revise their answers after you’ve presented and discussed the content.  

Once you get started, you’ll think of many more ways to pique your students’ curiosity, engage them in active learning, and create a vibrant classroom community with ABC.   



Inman,Johanna

For many years, a customary practice in online classes has been to provide students access to course materials one week before it officially begins in order to help orient them to the course. More recently, recommendations for leveraging the week be…

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For many years, a customary practice in online classes has been to provide students access to course materials one week before it officially begins in order to help orient them to the course. More recently, recommendations for leveraging the week before classes start—also referred to as preview week or week zero—have expanded to hybrid, remote, and in-person courses to give learners time they need to familiarize themselves with the course, prepare their schedule for important deadlines, and purchase or access course materials. Preview week can also be a valuable opportunity for instructors to set a positive tone in the course, establish productive communication expectations, and facilitate more significant learning experiences on the first day of class. 

While official teaching and learning activities and assignments should not be conducted during preview week, below are a few tips for making the most of this important time.  

1. Create a “Start Here” module in your Blackboard course. This section explains how to begin the course, where to locate materials and information in the course, and a few tips to help students prepare for learning. Often instructors will post a brief video introducing themselves, the course and/or the syllabus.  

2. Send a welcome message. Post an announcement with a welcome message to students that includes the purpose of preview week and instructions on how to get started. This is also an opportunity to set the tone for the course. It is important to select the option to email this announcement to students so that they know to visit the Blackboard course during this time. Adding this message as an announcement also ensures that students who may enroll after the email is sent can still access the message in Blackboard. 

Examples:   

Welcome to the course!   

Classes begin on [start date] however, you have access to our Blackboard course now.  While the course is now available, I will not be active in the course until classes start. Please review the instructions under "Start Here", view the welcome video, review the syllabus, and take some time to explore the course. If you have any questions, post them on the Q&A Discussion Forum.

Sincerely,  

Professor Y

 -----------------------  

Welcome to Preview Week Researchers! My name is Dr. X and I will be facilitating [course name] this term. I am so excited to work with you, learn more about your thoughts on research, and find out more about your plans moving forward! This week, be sure to review the syllabus overview in VoiceThread found in the "Getting Started" section in the Blackboard course menu. The course syllabus and the schedule are available in the Course Info section. You may want to take a look at the Course Reserves. Here you will find the articles we will use for some of our work in this course.  

The Weekly modules will be available to you beginning Monday, [insert Term Start date], the first day of Week 1.  

Looking forward to working with all of you!  

Dr. X

3. Add your updated Syllabus. It’s important to make sure students have access to the most up-to-date version of your syllabus during preview week. This may help them plan for important deadlines or make difficult decisions about workload before the drop/add period ends. The course syllabus can be linked within the “start here” module or added as a link to the course navigation menu. You may want to review Drexel’s Syllabus Check List and some recommendations for designing an inclusive syllabus before you post the final draft. 

4. Clarify course expectations. Communicate expectations regarding the course format (e.g., in-person, asynchronous discussions, synchronous virtual meetings, or other requirements for attendance/interaction/participation). Provide information regarding required course technology and how to access it and check that it is functioning. Add links to IT for troubleshooting problems.

Lastly, consider adding some specific guidelines or expectations around communication on Blackboard to let students know when and how they can ask you questions and when and how they can expect to hear from you. Be as specific as possible with timeframes.   

Examples:

“I will typically respond to emails within a 24-48-hour time period, excluding weekends.”    

“Feedback about written assignments will be provided within a week after the due date and can be found within the assignment.”   

As you prepare for the upcoming term, it’s helpful to give students a chance to preview the course and your approach to teaching. This can increase transparency in the learning environment, ease students’ nerves and support them to come to class ready to learn on day one.