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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

In in-person, remote, and online courses, discussion boards are commonly used to facilitate written discussion among students. But, despite wide use, many students see discussion boards as busy work and not valuable to the larger goals of the course…

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In in-person, remote, and online courses, discussion boards are commonly used to facilitate written discussion among students. But, despite wide use, many students see discussion boards as busy work and not valuable to the larger goals of the course. Designing discussion topics that engage all members of the class can be difficult, especially when the specific prompt does not encourage divergent responses from students. 

Single Prompt Discussion Boards 
Typically, discussion board assignments are designed with a single prompt, sometimes with multiple parts to generate appropriately thorough responses from students. In this scenario, students all respond to the same prompt and are often asked to respond to their peers’ posts. Single prompt discussions work best when the prompt requires students’ responses to be unique. One example of this involves assigning prompts that ask students to connect a reading to their own experiences. There are a variety of ways to design effective prompts, ranging from beginning of class introductions to peer reviews for an assignment. 

Multiple Prompt Discussion Boards
A less common, but still effective approach, includes allowing students to select from multiple prompts for one discussion assignment. Doing this creates a sense of choice for students, which is likely to increase motivation. To do this, the instructor posts multiple prompts that focus on various subtopics in the overarching theme of that week or module. The prompts may present different questions or different learning tasks for students to complete, and the instructor will often set a minimum number of posts/responses for satisfactory participation. There are various strategies to effectively use multiple discussion prompts. For each strategy, the defining feature is that students get to choose what they want to investigate based on what stands out to them the most. 

Example 1: Assign students to watch several short videos or read several short articles. Then offer a different prompt for each and let students decide which discussion they want to participate in that week. ​​​​​​

Example 2: Provide a number of topics. Assign students to select one of the topics and find, summarize, and share a recent news story about that topic.

By utilizing this technique, we hand students the reigns to their discussion-based learning experience by allowing them to have more input in which parts of the content they want to explore more deeply. They are free to choose the aspects of the topic that appeal most to them—perhaps some aspects are more in-line with their personal goals or interests while others are not. Whatever the case, students get to choose the educational threads they wish to follow and may therefore have an easier time finding relevance and satisfaction in discussing the topic.  

Whichever discussion board approach you try (or if you try both), setting clear expectations is key. Students want to know what it looks like to be successful in your classes and you want to be able to recognize successful engagement when you see it (and grade it). Consider using a discussion board rubric that clearly lays out the expectations for the features of a strong initial post, including what characteristics you’re expecting to see in a strong response and what other elements you will focus on when assessing the quality of discussion posts (do you care about writing conventions, for example?). This resource from UW offers clear descriptors of expectations for engagement, as well as a simple rubric for grading.  


Klein,Valerie

March 2020 was unlike anything we had ever experienced; it was a time of panic and uncertainty. I primarily teach online and had three children and a spouse sharing my work-from-home space. Like many, I suddenly found it challenging to find space an…

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March 2020 was unlike anything we had ever experienced; it was a time of panic and uncertainty. I primarily teach online and had three children and a spouse sharing my work-from-home space. Like many, I suddenly found it challenging to find space and time for uninterrupted thinking and writing during the typical working hours (and often outside of those as well). It became harder to be productive and organize my days. Recognizing the universality of this challenge, in terms of our time and our space and the overall disruption of our routines, I began to think carefully about how this may be impacting my students. I thought more about the major stressors that students were experiencing because of my courses and what I could do to alleviate some of their stress. Deadlines and late work were one of the places I chose to focus on in order to address this issue. I borrowed this strategy from a colleague and have found its benefits to be innumerable. This is the message I sent my students about our new “late work” policy:​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​If you can’t get work completed on time, don’t panic. I want you to be happy with what you submit, and sometimes life takes over and school needs to be put on pause while we cope. For my class, hit the pause button if you need to. Just email me and let me know. You don’t have to share details, just “I need to hit the pause button this week” works. No penalties for late work. This lets me know you’re still out there and trying your best vs. just giving up on the class completely. I hope no one gives up.

I gave this grace to both my undergraduate and graduate students. My initial concern about implementing such a policy was that they would all “hit pause,” or stop completing their work and as a result I would end up with loads of incomplete students at the end of the term. But that did not happen.

I had a few students per class who had to “hit pause” due to a variety of valid circumstances —some worked in health care, some suddenly had several children at home 24/7, some were sick themselves, and some just had a challenging week or two. But you know what? Every single one of them completed their courses. Only a few students needed days beyond the final exam period to complete their final papers, but everyone else finished their work on time. Students expressed that knowing they had this option, even if they never used it, relieved some of their stress. The students who did take advantage of this late work option said it made a significant difference to them and that they were able to rest easier knowing that I meant what I said. They had the freedom and permission to focus on themselves and consequently they let me know when they were ready to “push play” again. Students also felt more comfortable asking me questions before they began completing their missing work.

The last year has pushed me to reconsider how and when to provide students with the grace and understanding needed to complete their assignments given real life challenges beyond their control. Ultimately, after much reflection, what I have realized is that for the most part, I prefer to read work that students feel confident about than work they hastily submit (even if I give them the option to revise and resubmit their work). I believe that the option to “press pause,” may also decrease students’ incentive to cheat on their assignments in order to submit them on time. Providing students with a level of strategic leniency, patience, and understanding builds a level of trust between them and their instructors.

I want students to engage with the course content in ways that feel meaningful and beneficial to them, and if having a “pause button” option supports that, which it has in my case, I am in favor of that. I made sure to be attentive to and critically think about how this policy impacted my workload, and the impact was minimal. Rather than monitoring students late or missing assignments and communicating with them or their advisors regularly, students took ownership of their own academic success and had the initiative to preemptively communicate with me about what work would be late. This was due in part to asking them to initiate a “pause.” As a result, there were fewer emails to sift through in my inbox and there was less tracking of students and their assignments needed on my end, which was a pleasant outcome.

I have continued this policy every term since then—Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2021, Spring 2021, and Summer 2021. And I will keep doing it! Of course, over time I may continue to tweak and reevaluate this policy, but as for right now, I am hopeful that it will continue to take the pressure off students because they may be less fearful of communicating with me about the status of their work and their capacity.

In the end, I learned that a little kindness and transparency go a very long way to creating a welcoming learning environment and building stronger relationships with my students. I look forward to continuing to take this humanity-centered approach and providing students with a little bit of grace, in all my classes.


Inman,Johanna

As we return to primarily teaching face-to-face courses this fall, many of us are considering what this transition will mean for our teaching and our students. Will we just wave a magic wand, and return to “normalcy” again? No, we all recognize that…

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As we return to primarily teaching face-to-face courses this fall, many of us are considering what this transition will mean for our teaching and our students. Will we just wave a magic wand, and return to “normalcy” again? No, we all recognize that it is impossible to simply “return to normal” after so much has changed and as things continue to evolve with the pandemic. What we can do is devise some strategies to deal with issues that have arisen—or may still arise—during the pandemic and consider ways to make the transition back to campus easier for ourselves and our students.

Engaging Students While Wearing Masks
First, we must prepare for the possibility that engaging students will be more difficult than it was prior to the pandemic and remote learning. Many students may have become used to sitting in the “back of the room,” either physically or virtually, and not participating actively in class. Additionally, both you and your students will be required to wear masks indoors which means it may be slightly harder for them to hear one another in discussions and interpreting facial expressions will be much more challenging. Luckily, this list of recommendations for teaching in masks can help you prepare for possible challenges.

Second, don’t abandon all the valuable lessons learned during this pandemic related to teaching. Just because we’re back in-person, we shouldn’t toss out all the digital tools we’ve used in the last year. Students have become accustomed to using Zoom chats, Blackboard discussion boards, and a slew of other online collaborative tools. There is no need to eliminate or stop using these tools in brick-and-mortar classrooms. In fact, these tools may help you to learn students’ names and faces—even while wearing masks in class. These tools can also help students transition back to campus, create additional pathways for class participation, and keep your courses prepared for any future emergencies that could arise. Since both you and your students will be masked during class time, posting an introductory or welcome video in Blackboard Learn will help them to get to know you better. Also, facilitating icebreakers using Flipgrid, VoiceThread or just asking them to share a photograph of themselves in a discussion board, can assist with creating connections and community within the classroom.

Addressing Learning Gaps with a Focus on Mastery
For some students—and for a variety of factors—remote learning was less effective than in-person learning. Keep in mind that these students may not have completely mastered important content and skills in the courses they took during the pandemic. It is imperative that we provide students with essential information regarding academic supports that are available to them early in the term. You may also provide students with a self-assessment or ungraded quiz in order to gauge their understanding of key concepts or skills they will need to succeed in your course. Providing students with a few videos, problem sets, or background readings to activate their prior knowledge or help them “catch up” can also be useful.

Be intentional about checking in with students and assign formative assessments to determine how they are doing. This might need to happen earlier in the course and more frequently than before the pandemic. Using Blackboard to organize and post all your assignments, readings, due dates, and other course materials in modules or weekly folders will also help students stay organized and keep on top of their academic work.

Taking Students’ Mental Wellbeing into Account 
Anxiety and mental health challenges have affected many college students during the pandemic, and those entering college as first-year students are not exempt from those same challenges. Providing opportunities for students to express these concerns or facilitating quick “check-ins” at the start of a class will be important to continue this fall. Many students may still be caring for unvaccinated or immunocompromised family members. They may also simply be experiencing a sense of unease in social situations. Other students may be inclined to over-extend themselves socially or academically now that they are back on campus and have higher levels of stress as a result. Share information about counseling center resources and encourage students to make use of them. If you are facing similar challenges, don’t forget that Drexel also offers supports and programs for faculty

Face-to-face group work might be a bit of a challenge as social skills and comfort levels may have been affected by the pandemic. Students (and instructors) may need time to re-acclimate to group settings, particularly interactive ones. Proceeding slowly and keeping groups small may assist in this transition. Additionally, students may need to “step away” periodically to re-orient to a communal setting. Make sure each group has a leader to moderate group sessions. Informal groups can be very helpful in enhancing social skills outside of the classroom. You might consider assigning students to small study groups so that they can review material with one another or exchange notes if they miss classes.

Finally, remember to be flexible, practice patience, and recognize that there are still many issues that might arise, including the stress that often accompanies transitions. Don’t eliminate the electronic and digital tools you have been using, rather use them to supplement the class. If at all possible, prepare and practice teaching in a mask and using the technology available to you in your classroom before the term starts. These plans can help you adjust to campus teaching, as well as set the stage for positive interactions starting on the first day of class.


Klein,Valerie

For many instructors, we are lucky enough to teach the same courses more than once. As we do so, we start to identify common student patterns and which portions of the course or assignments are challenging for them. From term to term, we adjust elem…

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For many instructors, we are lucky enough to teach the same courses more than once. As we do so, we start to identify common student patterns and which portions of the course or assignments are challenging for them. From term to term, we adjust elements of our classes, offer advice to students on what it takes to be successful, and try to figure out how to best engage and support students based on what we’ve learned from teaching previous iterations of the course. While students benefit from our careful attention to the course design and our advice on how to best prepare for success in the course, we may be missing opportunities to leverage student perspectives. One way to capture these perspectives is by assigning an exercise where current students write letters or notes to future students.

Why Use Letters/Notes to Future Students in the Classroom?
Asking current students to write letters, notes, or advice to future students is beneficial for both the instructor and the students. As ​​​​​​​Alexandra Babino and Jacqueline Riley shared, “by giving our current students the time to provide guidance to future incoming students, we not only learn how our students are experiencing our classes, but our students also take the opportunity to reflect personally on significant learning and develop a sense of empowerment as they can give a seasoned perspective to future students.” They also emphasized that while it’s commonly known that reflection is an important part of learning, it can be difficult for students to reflect on their experience simply for the sake of reflection. In Cheating Lessons, James Lang shared several strategies for seeking feedback from successful students and using it to support future students, taken from the work of Joe Ben Hoyle from the University of Richmond. Hoyle asked students “to describe the study strategies they used that allowed them to achieve the grade they earned.” He then compiled the feedback and shared it with his next class. Lang argued that sharing this feedback with future students both “foster[s] self-efficacy and inspire[s] them to learn” (p. 150) and has reflective benefits for those that chose to share. He sought to support current students as they learned from previous students’ suggestions and explained that students are more likely to take this advice from their peers than they would from an instructor. Hoyle’s actions “reflect an awareness on his part that students need both tools and encouragement to succeed” (p. 151).

Babino and Riley (2020) as well as Lang (2013) shared the benefits of seeking these reflections and advice from students for their own instruction. By reading the documents, they better understood the student perspective and used this information to adjust their assignments, class structure or strategies for giving feedback.  

How to Collect and Use Letters/Notes to Future Students 
As you seek to learn about your students’ experiences in your classes, it is important to think carefully about what you want to learn and what you think will be mutually beneficial for both your future students and for yourself. Occasionally you might want to learn about the course as a whole and you may plan to ask students a general question like: “what advice do you have for future students in this class?” Other times you might try a new approach in the classroom for a given term so that you can collect specific feedback on what worked best for your students.  

Babino and Riley shared their approach to this process. They selected a prompt connected to their goals, shared their intent for the exercise with their students, and then allotted about 5-minutes for students to compose their responses before collecting them. Allowing for time in class to do this work both communicates to students that the work is important and gives them ample time to complete the task. If you want to designate time in the schedule for students to think about their responses, you could share the purpose of the assignment and the prompt in one class and then collect advice and recommendations in the next class.

Hoyle specifically sought advice from students who were successful in his course, and wrote “at the end of each semester, he sends an email to all of the students in his course who received an A. The email contained his congratulations for their effort and asks them to describe the study strategies they used that allow them to achieve the grade they earned” (p. 150). Hoyle then looked through the information gathered and considered if the feedback would be useful for future students or more appropriately used to improve the course (e.g., if cramming for exams works for students, perhaps you should shift the nature of your exams).

How to Share Letters/Notes with Future Students 
Once you’ve collected this feedback, think about how it can be helpful for you and for your students. It’s important to think about the best approach for sharing it with future students enrolled in your courses. Some faculty have chosen to include the letters or advice from students in a handout on the first day of class, others have featured it on the syllabi or even included this advice with assignment directives. The students’ advice can also be included in Blackboard as a resource for other students. Additional strategies involve creating a handout for students to read as well as a discussion board for them to share their responses to the advice, or you can develop an icebreaker exercise where students share which advice they have chosen to use. Finally, it is important that instructors communicate that student advice is a valuable resource intended to support their success in the class. 


Inman,Johanna

Prior to the pandemic, it was common to hear faculty remark about students’ underutilization of office hours. During the pandemic, as our classrooms shifted to a remote environment, so did our office hours. As a result, many faculty experienced an i…

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Prior to the pandemic, it was common to hear faculty remark about students’ underutilization of office hours. During the pandemic, as our classrooms shifted to a remote environment, so did our office hours. As a result, many faculty experienced an increase in the number of students they saw in office hours during this time. Even as most classes return to an in-person format this fall, many faculty have shared that they will continue to offer online office hours in an attempt to keep up this trend. However, remote or in-person, it is important to consider a number of strategies to increase students' usage of this valuable resource.  

Why is attending office hours important for students?  
​​​​​​​Research indicates that, among the factors that contribute to student success, having faculty who are responsive, supportive, and accessible is among one of the strongest. Students also tend to be more successful when they have a relationship and connection to their faculty member. Interactions during office hours can be one bridge to help build faculty-student relationships. Although students who don’t use office hours often don’t realize their value, those who do often come to see faculty as a supportive and a valuable resource. 

How can we encourage students to attend office hours? 
First, start with using student-welcoming language to encourage students to come to office hours in the syllabus. An example might include “I am here to support your learning. I encourage you to meet with me when you need support or assistance.” You might even let students know it is an expectation that they will attend at least one office hour at some point during the term. Better yet, you might provide data that links students with the best grades in class to participation in office hours.

In addition to continuing to offer online and in-person office hour options, you might include both set office hours and office hours “by appointment” to accommodate students who cannot attend during scheduled times. Holding your office hours in central locations has also shown to help (many students feel intimated coming to your office). 

If you have a large class and have a teaching assistant, students may be meeting regularly with the TA. However, meeting with students in small groups during office hours is also an option. Divide the class into groups of 4-5 and assign them a time to come and visit you in your office during the first couple of weeks. This can be a short (10-minute) introductory meeting to help “break the ice” so they are more comfortable to come back when they need help. You might also offer sign-ups to meet with you about certain topics, for example a particularly tricky concept or an upcoming assignment. Of course, it’s also never a bad idea to reach out periodically throughout the term with a personal email or Blackboard announcement reminding students to visit you during office hours. In addition, using Blackboard Learn analytics, you might identify students early in the term who are struggling or missing assignments and invite them to meet with you.  
 
It can also be helpful to share suggestions about what students may need help with. For example, stating in class or sending an announcement such as: “I know a few people have asked about how to get started on the problems in the second half of the problem set - I am happy to go over that with folks during office hours.” This nudge can help students feel like their questions are appropriate for office hours and encourage them to come. 

How can we support students during office hours? 
When students do come to office hours, let them know you are happy they came. Provide them prompts and questions so they can articulate their needs. Remind them of how much time you have for the meeting and give them reminders a few minutes before it is time to leave. If they seem like they still have questions, be clear about other resources that are available and how they can access them (online supports, TAs, resource guides, and Drexel resources for academic support). Also, encourage them to come back for a follow-up meeting. 

Listen for underlying issues. Sometimes students come to see you, indicating that they have an academic question, when in fact, they have a personal issue or concern. Be supportive, but make sure they know you are a mandatory reporter in the event they share certain information with you about harassment or abuse. You will also want to have a list of places to refer students to if needed (Title IX Coordinator, Counseling Center, etc.). Have Kleenex available. Have candy, snacks, or coffee available, if possible. 

What if a student misuses office hours? 
If a student is monopolizing too much time or overstepping, it’s okay to be direct and set boundaries. If a student comes in and they are exceedingly angry (pertaining to a grade or other issue) and they begin to yell or make threats, remain calm and state something to the effect of, “you are clearly upset right now and while you are so upset it is not possible to have a productive meeting. I recommend that you come back when we can continue the conversation.” Although you want to meet privately with your students, be cautious that you do not create a situation that puts you into a compromising position (keep your door ajar, do not meet late at night if no one else is around, if you are concerned ahead of time alert someone in the office).

Overall, students want to know their instructors care about their success in class. Welcoming and supporting students during office hours can signal this to your students and help you build productive relationships with them.