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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!


ChatGPT’s impact on higher education has been evident since its release late last year: while it may not usher in the sort of revolution that some of the hype suggests, it is certainly changing the way students work and learn. The rise of ChatGPT pr…

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ChatGPT’s impact on higher education has been evident since its release late last year: while it may not usher in the sort of revolution that some of the hype suggests, it is certainly changing the way students work and learn. The rise of ChatGPT prompts teachers to reflect on how best to facilitate student learning in today’s classroom. While different teachers may disagree about how the tool can best be used, its presence must be addressed one way or another, lest it become the elephant in the room. 

An obvious starting point is crafting a course policy for the use of ChatGPT and other AI tools. Besides addressing a technological exigency, developing a course policy for AI is also a chance to further engage and motivate students. Here are a few key considerations for developing a course policy in the age of AI: 

Level of permissiveness 
It’s worth remembering that ChatGPT is just one AI-powered tool among many, even though it gets most of the press. Grammarly has been long used (and sometimes recommended) for students to improve their grammar, and it uses AI to make its recommendations. Canva is another popular AI-powered software platform that provides aid in creating layouts for documents of all kinds. AI tools have been built into Microsoft 365 products such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel—and their capabilities will expand. These are just a few examples in a deepening sea. 

Which tools do you allow students to use on coursework, and when? Some teachers may require students to use AI tools to complete their work, while others may make certain tools optional, and others may prohibit all such tools outright. The choice should reflect the course’s expected learning outcomes and the teacher’s pedagogical approach. 

Whatever the decision, you should communicate it to students as clearly as possible. One pain point for students at present is ambiguity as to which software is allowed and not, and what uses of software constitute academic integrity violations. This is an easy issue for instructors to resolve. 

Sometimes policies are communicated as a decree from on high. We don’t need to justify our choices, though perhaps we should. Space and time permitting, more transparency is better. You should strive, for example, to explain why a tool is required, optional or prohibited. Students may be less likely to use a tool outside the allowed framework (that is, cheat) if they understand the your pedagogical reasoning

AI Literacy 
An AI policy on your syllabus can be an opportunity to explain the nature—and the dangers—of tools students may have been using without much reflection. For example, ChatGPT’s fluent outputs suggest authentic communication with an “intelligent” agent, when in reality they are the products of a mathematical algorithm that replicates training dataset biases without critical thinking or moral judgement. As future professionals and citizens of an AI-saturated society, student need to go beyond a “user experience” approach and understand that AI-tools require expert supervision and critical discernment.   

Instructors may or may not ask students to acknowledge which AI tools they used in their work. At one end of the spectrum, a teacher may require students to append a short reflection about why they used the tool and how they feel it improved their work. At the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps there’s no need to mention the tool at all. In other cases, perhaps it’s enough to include the tool in the reference list along with other sources

The appropriate way to acknowledge AI tools will certainly evolve over time. After all, we typically don’t expect students to reflect on or even disclose their use of spell-checkers and Google, though these obviously help them in their work. That said, there may be certain courses where even these technologies should be disclosed and reflected upon, depending on the course’s expected learning outcomes. 

The tone of the classroom policy, like the tone of the syllabus generally, should also be considered. Is your policy written in stern, legalistic language, or is it friendly and warm? While each teacher has their own style, research does suggest that friendly and explanatory policies support student learning outcomes better

Faculty Workload 
Policy choices often affect not only the student’s workload but the teacher’s, too. Instructors should consider workload when devising any course policy. For instance, if you commit to checking sources more rigorously, redesigning assignments, running student work through AI detection tools (which have proven to be notorious unreliable), etc., these policy choices may create additional labor for you.  

Person in Focus 
Typically, course policies focus on the student: what the student must do, and what will happen if they don’t do it. But, given the potentially transformative nature of AI, it may be worth communicating your policy more fully to include yourself and other stakeholders. What do you commit to do for your students? How is AI technology changing your approach? How does this relate to student learning? And how might you reflect upon all this with your students? 

Lastly, consider who will develop the course policy. Traditionally, instructors (following institutional guidance) construct the course policies, and students are then expected to adhere to them. But the growing student-centered learning movement suggests that there may be value in involving students in the process of developing course policies, designing assignments, and selecting topics of study. 

In this light, a policy regarding AI technologies could be developed in collaboration with, or even entirely by, students. Again, this choice will depend on a course’s particular expected outcomes. In the case of AI, there may be especial value in involving students in the policy development process. They are using the technologies already, and they have not only opinions and experience but also valuable insights as to what works best and why.  

Developing a course policy regarding AI may seem like just another thing on your to-do list, but it is an opportunity to reflect on your teaching practice and deepen student learning. Here are two documents to get you started: a policy on academic integrity pertaining to artificial intelligence (drafted by Drexel University’s Provost's Office Working Group on Policy for Academic Integrity with Artificial Intelligence) and a compilation of academic classroom policies for generative AI tools from across academic institutions and disciplines (curated by Lance Eaton). 


The best professors are lifelong learners—including learning how to be (even) better teachers. While it might be hard, or outright impossible, to find time for professional development during a busy academic term, the summer provides an opportunity …

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The best professors are lifelong learners—including learning how to be (even) better teachers. While it might be hard, or outright impossible, to find time for professional development during a busy academic term, the summer provides an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and refresh our teaching toolkit. One useful approach is to pick up a new pedagogy book every year. To this end, we offer two summer reading recommendations: Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s The Spark of Learning. Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (2016) and Susan Hrach’s Minding Bodies. How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning (2021). Both Cavanagh and Hrach make evidence-based arguments for expanding beyond the traditional “brains-on-sticks” model of education, where students (and professors!) are reduced to their intellectual dimension only. Science has made us increasingly aware of the role our affective and physical selves play in the processes of cognition. Faculty can leverage this knowledge to enhance student learning and wellbeing—and create academic environments more hospitable to human thriving.  

In The Spark of Learning, Cavanagh argues that many of our pedagogical goals can be better achieved if we pay attention to emotion. In the author's words, “if you want to grab the attention of your students, mobilize their efforts, prolong their persistence, permanently change how they see the world, and maximize the chances that they will retain the material you’re teaching them over the long term, then there is no better approach than to target their emotions” (p. xiii). Accordingly, Cavanagh offers advice on how to “consider the emotions of your students when managing how you present yourself to the class, when designing your syllabus and assignments, when considering which activities to include in a given class session and how to frame those activities, and when grading and providing feedback to your students” (p. xiii). Small interventions like using emotional hooks, telling a story to enhance lecture content, making time for goalsetting and reflection, or supplementing traditional discussion with role playing can engage student emotions and boost learning. See here for more insights from Cavanagh’s book. Many professors worry that such an approach might compromise the intellectual integrity of their courses or promote a culture of coddling. But Cavanagh reassures us that the exact opposite is true: “We’re not going to coddle our students, we’re going to energize them to work harder than ever before” (p. 8).  

Hrach’s Minding Bodies considers the neuroscience of emotion alongside the science of embodied cognition: “Scholarship of teaching and learning has effectively applied neuroscience to establish the ways we acquire new knowledge–through retrieval and spaced practice, enhanced by social and emotional connection. The insights of embodied cognition explore the role of physiology in those processes” (p. 15). Hrach’s chapters offer tips on incorporating movement, spatial awareness, and sensory perception into our pedagogical repertoires. Out-of-the-box classroom activities like small-group “standing meetings,” brainstorming strolls, or embodied “surveys” (where students express their position on an issue by physically positioning themselves on a spectrum) can energize bodies and minds and infuse academic learning with fresh energy. As the author passionately asserts, “We are deluding ourselves to imagine that we can compartmentalize students’ emotional and physical well-being during the years-long process to earn an academic degree. Teaching faculty can become much better at acknowledging the relevance of students’ embodied experiences to their intellectual receptivity and at adopting a holistic view of the learning process” (p. 18). 

Summer is a great time to remember that our brains are not disembodied, dispassionate intellectual entities but living organs of the human body. Cavanagh and Hrach’s books can help us consider how to best use this knowledge to enhance our teaching craft. 


Exams are traditionally seen as high-stakes summative assessments designed to measure content mastery. But, with some creative tweaks, traditional exams can do double (or triple!) duty by engaging students in deeper metacognitive thinking about thei…

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Exams are traditionally seen as high-stakes summative assessments designed to measure content mastery. But, with some creative tweaks, traditional exams can do double (or triple!) duty by engaging students in deeper metacognitive thinking about their discipline and their own learning. Here are some easy add-ons you might consider in order to shake up your exam routine:  

Invite students into the exam prompt design process 

As any professor knows, writing great exam questions is not as easy as it seems. It requires content expertise but also creative imagination, communication skills, a granular understanding of the cognitive sub-skills required for task completion, and a good sense of the learners’ ability level. You can help students understand the conceptual complexity of exam design by “lifting the veil” and showing your class how experts go about developing exam prompts. Better yet, you can invite students to try their own hand at designing exam questions for your course (Ahn and Class 2011; Green 1997; Maddox 1990; Corrigan and Craciun 2013). Prompt design makes a great low-stakes homework assignment, but it can also serve as the centerpiece of an in-class review session, where students draft, analyze, and refine prompts together—or even compete to create the best prompt. (The promise of using winning prompts on the exam itself can provide an authentic incentive!) By gaining a better understanding of what makes a successful exam prompt, students come to understand the cognitive “moves” they are expected to master; this expanded understanding helps them prepare for the assessment and, perhaps more importantly, gives them a better sense of disciplinary norms that too often remain implied or altogether hidden from academic novices.  

Invite students to reflect on their exam answers 

Reflection is a fundamental part of the learning process—yet most of us rarely make time for reflective practices or assignments that communicate this import to our students. An exam provides a good opportunity to sneak in moments of reflection through follow-up questions that ask test-takers to assess their responses and assess their preparation process in light of their responses. Or, if time is tight, students can simply rate their responses on a simple scale from “I’m confident the answer I gave is correct” to “I’m not sure if my answer is correct” to “I’m pretty sure I got this answer wrong” (chemistry professor Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh streamlines this process with the use of emojis). Building a reflective component into your exam invites students to think about what they’ve learned but also about how they learn—and provides you with valuable insight into what’s going on beneath the surface of exam responses. Exam reflections can also serve as a starting point for follow-up feedback and exam wrappers. Finally, building in a reflective component, however large or small, reinforces the important message that a test is not a final step in a linear learning experience, but, rather, one point in an ongoing cycle of learning.  

Invite students to show off what they learned 

While exam questions are designed to assess specific aspects of student learning, consider adding an extra question that allows students to show off learning not captured by your prompts. This can be an optional extra credit section or a part of the exam itself. Here’s a sample prompt: “Use this space to show me something important you have learned in this course that you didn’t yet have a chance to demonstrate on this exam.” This easy add-on allows students to demonstrate knowledge on their own terms, communicates your interest in student learning, and personalizes the exam experience. Your students might surprise you!     

Last but not least: put them at ease! 

Exams are a notoriously stressful undertaking. Some level of stress can be mobilizing, but we can (unless one of our learning goals is the ability to perform under pressure) take a few small steps to make the exam-taking experience less nerve-wracking. Consider tweaking the tone of your prompts to add some human warmth or adding a few non-content items like a welcome message, a mid-exam message, or relevant test-taking tips. You can also help lower anxiety levels by opening the exam session with an image designed to put test-takers at ease (perhaps a calming landscape or a photo of yourself as a college student?) or by reiterating your faith in your students’ ability. These seemingly trivial adjustments can make a big difference in the exam experience!         


In his book Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (2020), James Lang reminds us that attention is not the default state of the human mind. On the contrary, attention should be thought of as an achievement: “the normal sta…

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In his book Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (2020), James Lang reminds us that attention is not the default state of the human mind. On the contrary, attention should be thought of as an achievement: “the normal state of our brains might be characterized as distracted or dispersed, from which focused and sustained attention arises in specific contexts” (p. 16). If achieving focus requires mindful effort, then the art of teaching, Lang argues, is in large measure the art of cultivating attention. In previous teaching tips, we explored attention-boosting practices like teaching students about the neuroscience of distraction and establishing curiosity-driven classroom routines. Today, we’ll look at a strategy that can be especially useful in the middle of a busy term: renewing student attention with a mid-term attention refresh.

Several weeks into an academic term, most professors will have established a predictable pattern in their courses. This is a good thing: regular classroom routines minimize cognitive load and help students focus on learning. Nevertheless, the danger of familiar routines is that the students (and the professor) might be settling into a rut. A break from established norms may help reinvigorate the class and refresh everyone’s attention, with benefits for learning. Lang suggests professors develop a toolbox of “signature attention activities” designed to shake things up during the mid-semester lull: “To snap students awake again, we need to create at least some learning activities that will nudge them out of those familiar routines and back into meaningful and transformative encounters with one another, with us, and with the content of our courses” (p. 179).

A mid-semester attention refresh can mean anything from an unexpected change in class structure (if you usually lecture, open with problem-solving; if you usually problem solve, open with a video, etc.), shifting the physical layout of the classroom, or bringing in props. The goal is to generate curiosity and renew student interest in your class—and your subject. Here are a few suggestions for attention renewing activities drawn from or inspired by Lang’s book. Enjoy! 

  1. Defamiliarize the familiar: have students observe an object related to your course content; encourage students to move past initial perceptions and notice something new about the object and its relation to the subject of the course.

  2. Rearrange: surprise students with a new spatial arrangement in the classroom to reinvigorate attention and allow for fresh connection-making (if the classroom does not allow rearranging, you can mix things up by simply positioning yourself in a different part of the room).

  3. Harness the power of images: post an arresting image related to class content on your screen as students enter the room, to whet curiosity.

  4. Cast the dice: make two numbered lists of course concepts and have students connect them to one another by using dice to pick an item from each list.
  5. Get moving: invite students to take a short walk (mobility allowing) to process course content alone or with a partner.

  6. Visualize: ask students to draw a concept map of course material learned thus far.

  7. Tap into social media savvy: ask students to distill class content into tweets/memes/TikToks.

  8. Make connections: ask students to connect course material to out-of-class experiences/learning/values.
  9. Harness the power of puzzles: invite students to grapple with a mystery or solve a puzzle related to your course content. 

  10. Gameify: design a role-playing activity to practice course content. 


We all wish for attentive and curious students—but we don’t always design learning experiences that foster curiosity and attention. In his book Distracted. Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (2020), James Lang shares three example…

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We all wish for attentive and curious students—but we don’t always design learning experiences that foster curiosity and attention. In his book Distracted. Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It (2020), James Lang shares three examples of activities designed by professors to spark curiosity and capture attention. These are perfect for introducing students to your subject in the early weeks of the term—and can be used for sustaining curious attention over multiple weeks. Although discipline-specific, they can be adjusted to a diversity of disciplinary contexts and course formats.  

Puzzle it out  

The early weeks of a course are the best time to establish a culture of curious attention. On the first day of class, history professor Cate Denial uses a puzzle activity to introduce her students to the complexity of history-making. She divides students into groups and hands each group a “document packet”—an incomplete portfolio of sources related to a historical event that students are tasked with organizing in a meaningful way. Each group puzzles out relationships between portfolio pieces, creates cohesive explanatory narratives for the source set, and compares their narratives with those produced by other peer groups. In the process, students begin to understand history as a dynamic, messy, creative endeavor. “The puzzle of this first-day activity,” Lang explains, “leads Denial and her students to the mystery at the heart of her courses, and at the heart of their discipline” (p. 135). Mini-versions of this opening-day activity (like projecting two images on a screen and giving students a few minutes at the start of class to puzzle out connections) could be used as a weekly opener to sustain curious attention. What hands-on “puzzles” might you design to activate student curiosity in your discipline? 

Microbe of the day 

Sparking curiosity in the first minutes of class can become a regular feature of your course. Microbiology professor Aisling Dugan starts every class session by projecting a picture of a microbe (along with its name and scientific classification) and inviting students to spend several minutes looking up everything they can find about the “microbe of the day” on their phones or laptops. The opening activity not only sets the tone for the rest of the session, but it allows Dugan to channel student excitement about each new microbe to make connections with previous and forthcoming course material. This curiosity-sustaining routine can be replicated in any disciplinary context: what might a version of Dugan’s “microbe of the day” look like in your course? 

Look again! 

While Dr. Dugan asks students to apply the same set of questions to a different microbe every week, art history professor Joanna Ziegler has her students apply a new set of weekly questions to the same image. Ziegler’s students write thirteen papers on the same work of art over thirteen consecutive weeks. They consider distinct aspects of the piece, expanding and deepening their understanding with each iteration. This intensive attention-training project requires learners to slow down and find new facets of a seemingly familiar object. (An added benefit of the exercise is creating a tangible record of each student’s growing knowledge and sophistication.) While not all of us have the luxury of dedicating this much time to attention-building practice, a weekly one-minute micro-essay examining an object/image/equation from a new angle can probably be squeezed into most courses without compromising content—and with benefits to student attention and focus. What item might merit repeated examination by your students?    

The early weeks of an academic term are a great time to establish curiosity-fostering routines. By combining the comforts of repetition with the excitement of novelty, such routines can help sustain curious attention for multiple weeks. And, if weekly activities don’t fit the format of your course, you can still use similar activities as low-stakes practice opportunities or mid-lecture attention refreshers. Lang reminds us that curiosity is a powerful antidote to distraction: “When I am curious, I have an immediate goal: I want to learn more. The stronger my curiosity, the more I focus my attention—and the less I feel tempted by distraction” (p. 144). By helping students stay curious, we make it easier for them to focus on learning—while refreshing our own sense of curiosity in the process.