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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!

Signore,Rebecca

Understanding student motivation is a complex challenge. Factors such as mindset, personal values, anticipated outcomes, environment, and external expectations all impact motivation—which, in turn, impacts learning. While we cannot control many of t…

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Understanding student motivation is a complex challenge. Factors such as mindset, personal values, anticipated outcomes, environment, and external expectations all impact motivation—which, in turn, impacts learning. While we cannot control many of these intersecting factors, faculty are uniquely positioned to help students develop and strengthen academic motivation. In Teach Students How to Learn, Saundra McGuire offers several insights into how we might accomplish this task:  

 

  1. Express Belief 

    Student motivation correlates with self-efficacy—belief in the ability to successfully accomplish a task or goal. Offering encouraging words or sharing success stories from students who have done well in the class can help bolster motivation, especially for learners who question their ability to succeed. You can set the tone on the first day of class with a metacognitive icebreaker, asking questions like:   

    • What is something you are good at? How did you get good? Can you apply some of those strategies to this course?

    • What qualities do you think a student would need to be successful in this course? How can you develop/strengthen those qualities?

    • What’s your plan for achieving success in this course? What trusted strategies do you plan to use? What will you do if your old strategies are not working? How would you go about modifying them? What new strategies might you need to develop?

  2. Promote Autonomy

    When students have choices, their intrinsic motivation grows. Do you give students autonomy in your classroom?  Can they select topics for papers, projects, or discussions? Or perhaps choose the format of a project, deciding between an essay, a podcast, or video? You can also promote autonomy by encouraging students to articulate, track, and reflect on daily/weekly/monthly learning goals. Goal-setting activities do double pedagogical duty by developing metacognitive awareness while boosting academic motivation.  

  3. Enhance Competence

    Students are more likely to be motivated if they experience early success in a course. To enhance student competence, faculty can:  

    • Provide early opportunities for success by offering manageable, low-stakes assignments early in the term.   

    • Test early and often, so that students have lots of data and feedback. (You don’t have to grade every low-stakes assessment—feedback is more important than grades for ongoing practice!) It is also helpful to provide detailed rubrics, grading schemas, and exemplars. These tools help students to gauge their level of competence and assess the task before them—a critical step in their metacognitive process.  

    • Offer opportunities for reflection, including reflection on how students used previous feedback to adjust their approach to subsequent tasks.  

    • After an early test, devote class time to explicitly discussing metacognition and learning strategies, so that students can adjust the way they learn. Bonus tip – invite your partners in the Center for Learning and Academic Success Services (CLASS) to come to class and take part in this discussion, so students become familiar with academic support services on campus!  

  4. Articulate Value

    At times, students struggle to maintain their motivation because they lose sight of the value of what they are working toward. How can you help students see the value of the hard work they are putting into your class? Your enthusiasm for the subject certainly helps—as do authentic assignments and testimonials. Finally, you can ask students to articulate the value of your class themselves, by connecting studied material to real-life applications (co-ops, professional experiences, community engagement) as well as their personal values.


Maczynska,Magdalena

Many instructors experience disappointment when their students’ exam scores don’t live up to expectations. How is it possible, we ask ourselves, that so many students failed to grasp the concepts we had explained so thoroughly? Why were our students…

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Many instructors experience disappointment when their students’ exam scores don’t live up to expectations. How is it possible, we ask ourselves, that so many students failed to grasp the concepts we had explained so thoroughly? Why were our students, who seemed to understand course material so well during class, unable to apply their knowledge/skills on the final assessment? Why did the learning fail to “stick”? Most importantly, how can we help support students in achieving deeper, more long-lasting learning—and in successfully demonstrating this learning during finals?  

 

One way to support students preparing for high-stakes assessments is to add a layer of metacognition to assessment design. When students understand how learning works, they can start letting go of counterproductive mindsets, myths, and practices (“I’m just bad at math”; “This material feels hard, so I guess I’m not smart enough. There’s no way I can pass without cheating”; “All I need is to re-read the chapter a couple more times and I’ll be ready for the exam”). Metacognitive knowledge can help students adjust their learning beliefs and strategies and successfully prepare for exams—especially when metacognitive awareness is fostered throughout the entire academic term.  

 

Metacognitive support throughout the academic term 

Humans learn best through regular, iterative, feedback-informed practice—but many academic courses make such practice optional rather than required. Instructors can help students learn better by designing courses that offer frequent (required!) practice opportunities and feedback loops–and communicating the rationale behind the design, so that students understand how exactly learning happens. You can foster effective learning if you: 

 

  • build in frequent practice opportunities, make them required, and explain their importance; 

  • make sure students receive frequent feedback (from you, peers, or automated systems); 

  • make room for student reflection on their learning practices and goals; 

  • build student self-efficacy by scaffolding the difficulty of course tasks. 

 

Metacognitive support during exam preparation
Myths about how learning works can derail a student’s academic success. For example, many students prepare for exams by re-reading ("going over") their notes rather than using evidence-based study practices like retrieval or teaching the material to another person (or pet). An instructor can make a difference by inviting students to engage in effective study practices (and attitudes!) in class and encouraging continuation of the same practices outside of class. Here are a few ideas for quick in-class study practice activities: 

 

  • open each class sessions with a “typical test question” for students to tackle; 

  • task students with explaining a course concept to their lecture hall neighbor; 

  • ask students to reflect on their study strategies (and modify them as needed); 

  • ask students to identify barriers to learning (and remove them if possible); 

  • be transparent about the fact that learning if often hard and frustrating. 

Metacognitive support on exam day  

While most instructors put a lot of time and thought into designing exam questions, few think about helping students become more successful exam-takers. But test-taking tips can make a difference in a student’s exam outcomes, and sharing best practices can help level the playing field between more privileged students who had already acquired test-taking competencies elsewhere and those who have not. Here are a few test-taking tips you can build into your exam prompts and/or exam-day instructions: 

 

  • tell students to skim the entire exam first; 

  • urge students to re-read each prompt with care; 

  • suggest that they start with the easiest questions to build confidence; 

  • suggest skipping questions that make their minds go blank (and returning to them later); 

  • advise test-takers to combat anxiety with deep breaths and positive self-talk; 

  • express faith in students’ ability to succeed. 

 

Boosting metacognition can help make your assessments more inclusive and equitable as well as more student-centered.  And it might make grading those final results much less disappointing! 


Maczynska,Magdalena

In the perfect world, students would read the texts we carefully curate for them with equal attention and care. In reality, many students struggle with college-level readings, either giving up on challenging texts altogether or reading in ways that …

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In the perfect world, students would read the texts we carefully curate for them with equal attention and care. In reality, many students struggle with college-level readings, either giving up on challenging texts altogether or reading in ways that do not promote deep understanding or learning. We can help students get more out of course readings by boosting metacognitive awareness of how to read academic writing. How might we help students understand the structure of academic textbooks/journals/monographs? How can we prompt students to adjust their reading strategies to the text and task at hand? How do we guide them towards reading academic texts with a sense of purpose? The following four strategies can help students get the most out of course reading assignments, and find more confidence and enjoyment when reading academic texts: 

 

  1. Teach basic academic literacy 

    Although we tend to assume otherwise, many of our students lack a basic understanding of how academic textbooks, monographs, or journals are structured—and many don’t have a clear sense of what these terms refer to in the first place (especially if they primarily interact with on-demand digital texts). Drawing students’ attention to paratextual features like tables of content or indexes can go a long way in helping them find the information they need and become more effective readers of academic texts. 

  2. Require prereading 

    Many students who struggle with college-level texts do so because they launch into reading without sufficient preparation. Simple pre-reading exercises (“skim the chapter in four minutes to identify key terms,” “read the opening sentence of each section,” “guess the content of the article based on its subheadings,” “predict the argument by looking at the graphs/illustrations,” etc.) can help students grasp the big picture before attending to the details of a reading. In addition to quick pre-reading exercises, well-formulated guided reading questions (GRQs) can help focus student attention on key concepts and avoid getting bogged down (or discouraged) during the reading process.  

  3. Introduce effective reading strategies 

    In her book Teach Students How to Learn, Saundra McGuire introduces a simple but effective method for helping students process challenging academic texts (sign up for TLC’s Saundra McGuire Winter ‘24 book group.) She advises students to pause after each paragraph and restate its content in their own words. As students continue to read, they fold in the main point of each paragraph into subsequent paraphrases, creating a running account of the text’s unfolding meaning. This process might seem laborious and time-consuming, but McGuire’s students report that it paradoxically saves them time, as it allows them to follow the argument with understanding and eliminates the false starts and “going in circles” feeling that novices often experience when tackling expert-level writing.

  4. Switch focus from “texts” to “tasks” 

    The traditional method of assigning readings is to give students a page range or chapter numbers and hope for the best. In a Faculty Focus podcast (episode 69) Norman Eng proposes refocusing reading assignments from an emphasis on the text to an emphasis on a task. For example, instead of simply assigning a chapter on theories of behaviorism for a psychology class, an instructor can give students a case study and ask them to analyze it using relevant theories found in the reading. Adding a sense of purpose (and relevance) can boost motivation, help students focus their reading efforts, and help connect the reading task to a broader learning context. 


Maczynska,Magdalena

There are no silver bullets in education but if there ever was a secret weapon educators can deploy to improve student learning, it’s metacognition . Metacognition is a meta-level awareness of cognitive processes, including the process of learning. …

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There are no silver bullets in education but if there ever was a secret weapon educators can deploy to improve student learning, it’s metacognition. Metacognition is a meta-level awareness of cognitive processes, including the process of learning. In our role as disciplinary experts, we focus on what students need to learn. What if we also helped them understand how to learn? Instructors often assume that college students already know how to understand, monitor, and shape their learning process. This may be true for some students, especially those who already enjoy high levels of educational privilege; but many enter college with weak metacognitive skills or erroneous metacognitive models that actively interfere with their learning. Those students may mistake gaps in academic know-how for a lack of academic aptitude and drop out of courses and majors in which they were perfectly capable of succeeding. Even students who do possess robust metacognitive skills need to adjust their strategies in response to the new demands of university-level studies and/or the specialized demands of individual disciplines and courses. Metacognitive awareness can help all students become more intentional, focused, and effective learners.

  

In her book Teach Students How to Learn (2015), Saundra McGuire offers numerous stories of successful metacognitive interventions in higher education and beyond. Perhaps the most dramatic is an AP Physics course where the class average went from 66.9% on the first exam, to 95.6% on the last! (Sign up for TLC’s Saundra McGuire Winter ‘24 book group.) We can help students develop stronger metacognitive skills by sharing insights from the science of learning, building good study habits into the structure of our courses, and making time for (unrushed) reflection. 

 

  1. Teach your students basic study skills. Do your students know that passively re-reading their textbooks/notes is much less effective than actively retrieving course content from memory (a.k.a. retrieval practice)? Do they know they should space out their study sessions (spaced practice) and continue returning to older material (interleaving)? Do they understand that struggling with course material is not a sign they are failing to learn but, on the contrary, a sign that they are learning? Do they know how much professional writers revise their drafts? Are they aware of how having a fixed mindset (as opposed to growth mindset) can interfere with their academic success? Do they understand the key difference between studying and learning? You can use these questions to determine which study skills might be needed in your course. Then, you can easily weave in just-in-time study skill lessons throughout your class with minimal effort by adding metacognitive tips to assignment prompts, LMS announcements, or in-class reminders, to help your students become better and more confident learners!

  2. Bake good learning habits into your class—and let your students know. While telling students how to learn can be beneficial, building good learning strategies into the structure of your course can be transformative. Consider adapting some of the following strategies—and don’t forget to let your students know why you did so! Reminding students why we have designed their learning experience in a certain way can help them become more aware of the skills practiced in our classes and encourage transferring those skills to new contexts.

    • Help students see the power of retrieval practice by opening class with a brief quiz.

    • Use interleaving by offering cumulative assessments.

    • Promote spaced practice by spacing out low-stakes assignments.

    • Train students to develop better academic reading skills by requiring annotations.

    • Instill better time management by scaffolding longer assignments.

    • Help students understand specific cognitive skills required in academic work (synthesis, analysis, evaluation, categorization, etc.) by clearly articulating them in assignment prompts.

  3. Invest time in reflection. You can promote a more intentional approach to learning by building in reflection opportunities throughout your course. Those do not have to take up much class time: a one-minute check-in prompt at the end of a class or unit (“What was the greatest area of difficulty?” “What did you struggle with and why?””) or a five-minute exam wrapper ("Which study strategies prepared you to do well on the questions you aced?” “Why do you think you didn’t do well on others?”) can yield valuable information for you and your students. Investing time in more in-depth reflection, ideally followed by whole-class discussion, can help students gain a more accurate and nuanced view of how learning works; overcome impostor syndrome (“I’m not the only one struggling with this!”); and learn from one another. Regular reflection develops the habit of thinking about the “how” in addition to the “what” of academic work, allowing students to become more effective, more intentional, and more confident learners. 


Maczynska,Magdalena

Have you ever felt crushed while grading final exams because so many students failed to master course material despite your best efforts? Have you ever wondered whether making your assessments more equitable might improve final grades and help more …

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Have you ever felt crushed while grading final exams because so many students failed to master course material despite your best efforts? Have you ever wondered whether making your assessments more equitable might improve final grades and help more students achieve course learning goals? It can! Many instructors value equity and inclusion but aren’t sure how to actualize those values in their teaching pedagogy, especially when it comes to assessing and grading student work. In their book Inclusive Teaching. Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom, Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy offer suggestions for creating inclusive assignments and grading practices that you can use to assess students at the end of this term—or as you plan your assessment strategy for the next one. 
 

  1. Align final assessments with frequent (required) practice opportunities 
    Make sure to give students frequent opportunities for practicing the skills needed for final assessments. Offering low-stakes practice opportunities like TTS (typical test questions) aligned with final assessments, and making this practice required for all students, helps close educational achievement gaps while boosting overall scores for everyone.
     

  2. Offer frequent and timely formative feedback 
    Instructor feedback can be a powerful tool for student learning, but students are less likely to read our comments once an assignment has been graded. Faculty energies are best spent on offering formative feedback (customized or automated) and requiring students to use that feedback to improve their work. Building in multiple feedback loops leads to incremental, distributed learning throughout the term.
     

  3. Set up students for exam success 
    Help reduce test-taking anxiety by clearly communicating the format and length of your exams ahead of time, sharing exam instructions, and, if possible, holding a trial exam session. Communicate to students that you are rooting for them and want them to do well. As Viji Sathy tells her students, “These exams tell us as much about how well I have taught as they will tell you about what you have learned” (183). On the day of, you can put students at ease by wishing them success, making sure exam instructions are clear to everyone, providing time markers, and bringing extra supplies for those who might need an extra pencil or tissue. 
     

  4.  Design inclusive exams 
    Exams are stressful for many students. Unless speedy work is one of your learning goals, consider giving all students extra time to complete the exam in an unrushed manner. You can help reduce test takers’ cognitive load by avoiding unnecessary jargon, using diverse names and voices in exam prompts, and giving students the opportunity to report ambiguous or unclear questions. Humor and warmth can go a long way towards dispelling test-taking anxiety as well—take a few seconds (or minutes) to set a welcoming atmosphere before the start of your exam. Finally, post-exam reflections, debriefing sessions, and exam wrappers (short metacognitive surveys where students reflect on the effectiveness of their exam prep strategies) can help students learn from previous experiences and develop exam-taking skills. See our previous Teaching Tip on student-centered exams for more suggestions!
     

  5. Reduce bias in grading with rubrics and anonymous grading process 
    Research shows that unconscious bias can influence grading decisions despite best intentions. Whenever possible, redact student names from graded materials and use grading rubrics to avoid assessing extraneous aspects of student work. Grading by question/problem, rather than one test at a time, can help reduce inconsistencies and promote equity. Finally, well-designed rubrics can help clarify grading criteria for students and instructors. Co-designing rubrics together with students can help boost motivation, affirm student agency, and reinforce course learning goals. See our previous Teaching Tip, “Why Grading Makes Us Anxious, Too” for more ideas on ethical grading practices.  
     

  6. Design a flexible grading scheme that rewards progress 
    While we often wish our students were more willing to take intellectual risks, our grading schemes tend to punish missteps and failures. Consider designing a forgiving grading scheme that allows for do-overs, drops lowest scores, offers choices in how students demonstrate learning, and rewards ambitious attempts even if they end in failure. Grading schemes can also reward progress by allowing cumulative assessments to replace weaker prior grades, placing more weight on end-of-semester assignments, and assigning additional points for improvement. Finally, unlike norm-based grading schemes (i.e. “grading on a curve”) where students compete for a small number of high marks, mastery-based grading schemes encourage collaboration and offer every learner a chance for an A as long as they demonstrate mastery of course learning goals.