Pick Me! Choosing the Right Technology Tools for Your Courses

Ariel Siegelman, Sr. Instructional Technology Specialist, CAT

All of us at one point or another have fallen victim to “Shiny New Toy Syndrome.” We hear about a really cool new tech toy, gadget, or app and we have to have it because it looks flashy, or is the latest and greatest fad that makes us look “hip.” But soon after we buy it, we realize that it’s not exactly what we were expecting—maybe it doesn’t work as well as promised, or maybe it’s not really so useful after all. And so, after the initial excitement wears off, it sits forgotten and unused.

Having thousands of new education technology tools and apps available, it can be easy for “Shiny New Toy Syndrome” to strike when searching for resources to use in your courses. You might think, “My students will think my class is so cool if I use this!” or “Everyone is using this tool right now, I should too!” But before grabbing the first trendy-looking tool that comes up on Google or Twitter, slow down for a moment and consider: how is this tool really going to help my students learn? Even though a fancy new tool may seem like a sure-fire way to increase student engagement, if students think that the tool is ineffective or a waste of time, it could actually lead them to be less invested in your course.

With so many new products and applications, how it is possible to figure out which tools to use? After conducting a series of several studies that examined a myriad of digital and mobile applications and how efficient they were at enhancing student learning, Kearney, et al., a group of researchers based out of the Centre for Research in Learning and Change at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, published a framework describing three essential features for a digital tool to provide a quality learning experience. While this framework was developed to evaluate mobile tools, it can absolutely be applied to any digital tool out there.


First, students must be able to personalize the tool to fit their own needs and interests. This can range from allowing students to customize the way that they study the information, such as choosing whether to read an article or watch a video to learn about a topic, to having students create a personal profile or avatar of themselves that collects awards or achievements as they progress through the content. This aligns with research that shows students learn more effectively if they have more control over their learning experience. Additionally, adding a personal touch to an assignment or educational tool can help students feel more connected to and invested in their work. In other words, each student should not have the exact same experience when using a digital tool–they should be able to curate the tool so the experience is as enjoyable and as effective as possible for them.


Another important aspect to consider is if the tool can assist in providing students the opportunity to connect the experience and content to real-life situations. Research shows that students are more engaged with content when they can identify how it will assist them in their future, thus improving their chances of valuing and understanding information and concepts. If integrated with an assignment or lesson plan that simulates real-world scenarios, a digital tool is worth using if it can help students make meaningful connections.


A final feature to consider is a digital tool that allows students to work together to create and discuss content. This provides the opportunity for students to receive and give feedback about their understanding of the information, which is important to ensure that students don’t walk away with any misconceptions or gaps in knowledge. Additionally, in a fully-online class it allows students to connect with one another and establish a greater sense of community. Research supports the idea that when students build social connections while learning new information, they are more likely to become invested in that information.

It can be tempting to use technology just for the sake of it, but by establishing that the tools we use in our classes are well-rounded and effective, we can ensure that the activities our students participate in are worthwhile and enhance their overall learning experience.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

What kinds of tools do you use, or have you heard about that meet all of these criteria? How have you integrated them into your courses? Or, after learning about this framework, are there any technology tools that you will no longer use in your courses?

From OER to Open Pedagogy: Next Frontier in Learning

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University

Imagine a jet plane cruising down a road. It’s possible, though a clear case of underutilization of the technology. Now take that imagery and apply it to Open Educational Resources (OER). While they are available for adoption by faculty as learning content, the full potential of OER goes underutilized. How so? At the Open Ed ’16 Conference, held November 2016, I learned how faculty are taking on that challenge and finding new ways to create and use OER.

A keynote and multiple sessions explored open pedagogy as the next frontier in achieving a culture of openness in higher education. While the majority of faculty are just beginning to discover OER, as is often the case with advances in learning and the adoption of educational technologies, we can be inspired by the experiences of early adopters. At Open Ed ’16 those pioneers shared their insights into and experience with the open pedagogy movement.

In his keynote, Gardner Campbell challenged attendees to adopt pedagogical practices that engage students in a “eureka hunt” which means creating assignments that put students in a position to have a unique discovery or an “aha” moment. He referred to this as “insight-oriented education” and educators achieve it when they equip students to take responsibility for their own learning. Our work, said Campbell, is not to graduate more students, but to enable students to graduate themselves. Though Campbell’s talk could be described as more conceptual than practical, he was followed by David Wiley and three faculty who shared how they are using open pedagogy to do exactly what Campbell advocates.

Wiley, organizer of the Open Ed Conference, has, to an extent, told us what he means by open pedagogy in a 2013 blog post (the source of my plane analogy). He encouraged faculty to shift from what he calls “disposable assignments” to “renewable assignments”. Disposable assignments are the ones students hate to do, faculty hate to grade and are quickly forgotten. Think ten-page term papers. Renewable assignments are insight-oriented. They engage students in their own learning. More importantly, they are renewable in the sense that the next class of students will inherit them. Future students will both learn from and build upon them as an act of creating new, open learning content. As an example Wiley described his “Kung-Fu” assignment that requires students to take old video sequences and replace the dialogue with a new soundtrack that describes a contemporary technology challenge. He shared a student’s “Blogs vs. Wikis” video to demonstrate what students can accomplish when challenged.  

This is how students work with faculty to create OER. Robin DeRosa, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Plymouth State University, shared an equally powerful example of open pedagogy.  Working with her students, together they created the open textbook The Open Anthology of Early American Literature. She explained the technology behind the project and how the students were involved to identify and organize the content. Admittedly, DeRosa told the audience, this project required more effort than any of her previous assignments. She felt it was among the most rewarding because the students created the textbook as they learned the subject matter. The open textbook gave the students the satisfaction of sharing their work with future students.

If DeRosa’s textbook project seems like an overwhelming place to begin exploring open pedagogy, consider something on a smaller scale but with similar outcomes. In the talk “Free and Freedom” Rajiv Jhangiani, open learning advocate and psychology professor from Kwantlan Polytechnic Institute, suggested that faculty try a “public scholarship” project where students work collaboratively to create content that is publicly accessible and sustainable. One of Jhangiani’s example was the Wikipedia research project in which students work together to either update or enhance an existing Wikipedia article or write an entirely new one (I write about the virtues of these projects in more detail here). Students typically use the institution’s primary and secondary research resources to gather the information used to update or write the entry, serving the added valuable function of building their research and writing skills.

For faculty not yet ready to take on a textbook project like DeRosa’s, the Wikipedia research project is a good first step to achieving “renewable” assignments. Though a drastic departure from a traditional essay or research paper, Wikipedia offers multiple guides for faculty wanting to experiment with open pedagogy. Students find it more challenging, but express appreciation for the opportunity to create a Wikipedia article that lives beyond the end of the course. It also gives them a far better understanding of how information becomes available for Internet consumption. They learn firsthand that anyone can create Internet content, which offers a valuable lesson in why evaluation is a critical skill.

My big takeaway from Open Ed ’16 is that the OER conversation is evolving beyond the basics of what are open educational resources, where they are found, how they are incorporated into courses and how to advocate for their use. While all of those issues are still important to discuss, there is new thinking about the benefits of OER for students when we involve them in their own learning through the practice of open pedagogy.

Teaching Students How to Learn: Metacognition is the Key

Pete Watkins, Associate Director, TLC

As I listened to Dr. Saundra McGuire’s keynote presentation on metacognition at Temple’s 15th Annual Faculty Conference on Teaching Excellence, a troubling thought occurred to me.  I made it through two decades of schooling as well as nearly a decade of teaching at the college level without ever hearing the word metacognition.  No one ever taught me to read actively or to monitor my own thinking.  Why do we keep this stuff a secret?  Teachers and students need to know “how to learn”.  Fortunately, McGuire has made it her “revolutionary mission to make all students expert learners.”

What is metacognition and why should I care about it?

In McGuire’s keynote address she explained, metacognition is the ability to:

  • think about your own thinking
  • be consciously aware of yourself as a problem solver
  • monitor, plan, and control your mental processing (e.g. “Am I understanding this material, or just memorizing it?”)
  • accurately judge your level of learning
  • know what you know and what you don’t know

McGuire points out that many of us who are college professors probably learned good metacognitive skills on our own.  But we should not assume that our students know how to learn.  

Active reading is a good example of a metacognitive strategy that we can teach our students.  We presume that college students can read. However, McGuire points out that active reading using strategies such as SQ5R is different from the way that most college students read and we should invest the time to teach students to read actively.   

McGuire also believes in teaching students about Bloom’s Taxonomy.  As a faculty developer, I have introduced Bloom’s Taxonomy to many teachers, but it never occurred to me to introduce it to students.  McGuire asserts that when students learn about Bloom’s Taxonomy “they begin to have learning goals instead of GPA goals.

McGuire is the former director of the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University.  Her Center taught students a five-step Study Cycle that empowers them to be good learners.  The five steps are:

  1. Preview-before class skim new materials and note the big ideas
  2. Attend class-take notes and ask questions
  3. Review-after class, review notes and write down questions or gaps
  4. Study-schedule study sessions several times per week and use active strategies
  5. Assess/Check-Is my strategy working?  Do I understand the material? 

McGuire challenged us all as teachers to better serve our students while also acknowledging that students share responsibility for their learning.  And she delivered her message with her characteristic wit and warmth, which was greatly appreciated on a day when the temperature outside was in the teens.  Her book Teach Students How to Learn is a must read for people who teach college and want to empower their students to be good learners.  


Let’s Exchange EDvice!

What strategies have you found effective in teaching students how to learn?

Failure to Launch: Why a Clever Idea to Make STEM Relatable Never Took Off

Cliff Rouder, Assistant Director, CAT

Nota Bene: This is a true classroom experience I had during my undergraduate student days.  Please fasten your seatbelts as we prepare for take-off.  

Picture it: a 900-seat auditorium at a major research university. My first day of introductory physics. My friends and I entered the massive lecture hall and settled in. Suddenly, we heard (and felt) a very loud rumbling noise coming from stage left. In a flash, we caught a glimpse of a man seated on what looked like a rocket-shaped go-cart racing across the stage. Applause, and then a collective sigh of relief. Surely this was not the “weed out” course we were warned about. Surely this was a professor who had thought about how to make this course meaningful and motivating. Surely we were going to get lots of practice and support. Well, turns out we were surely wrong.  

Things went from awesome to “uh oh” faster than that rocket. After our instructor disembarked, he put 900 copies of a one-page syllabus on a table and told us we could pick it up at the end of the class if we thought we could pass the course after that first lecture. He then walked over to three massive blackboards and furiously wrote equations nonstop for the next 50 minutes. We, too, were furiously copying (and mis-copying) what he was writing, while not understanding a thing. We had no clue how the homework problems related to what he wrote on those blackboards, and he never helped us connect them. If you’re still wondering what the rocket entrance had to do with the course, he never told us, at least not before my friends and I got our first exams back and made the unilateral decision to drop the course. The experience was enough to cause some of my friends to switch majors. “Houston, we have a problem.”

Although there are multiple factors involved in a student’s decision to drop a STEM major, the good news is that what we do in our classrooms has the potential to positively impact retention directly, or on potential mediators of retention like reduced failure rate, improved exam scores, and self-efficacy. We now know a lot more about how learning works in the brain and the teaching strategies that can promote deep and lasting learning (you know, the kind that’s more than just memorizing information the night before an exam and forgetting it the day after). And the best news of all is that incorporating some of these strategies into your courses is pretty doable.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

How could “Professor Rocket” have…

  • used his rocket entrance as a “hook” to find out, relative to his course content, what students already knew; what misconceptions they had brought with them; and what interests and prior experiences they had?  Why would doing this be valuable?  What are some less grandiose “hooks” you might use in your courses?
  • challenged his students in a more supportive way?  What might he have said, or what might he have written in his syllabus to create an environment where students felt included and supported while being challenged?  What might you do in your courses to create this environment?
  • engaged us in the learning process even though we were in an auditorium?  Why is this important to do?  What in-class opportunities do you give your students to work with course concepts and content?

Operators are standing by, so let’s hear from you! After all, who wouldn’t want to “rocket” a course to greatness?!

Creating presence in an online course… without working around the clock

Laurie Friedman, Instructor and Online MSW Coordinator, School of Social Work

In transitioning to teaching an online course for my first time four years ago, I was initially drawn by the promise of flexibility. Yes! I could work in my pajamas, from anywhere with internet access. I could work around my toddler’s schedule; teaching online afforded me the opportunity to balance work with parenting. While I found that these benefits did exist, what I didn’t expect was feeling burnt out at the end of the semester. I was working around the clock, dutifully responding to students’ questions, actively participating in discussion boards and providing detailed and timely feedback—all the important elements of online teaching I had agreed to when assigned the class. I have since spoken with colleagues who share similar experiences, namely that they are “always working” and that teaching online is “more work” than teaching in the traditional brick and mortar classroom.

Since 2012, our knowledge of best practices in online teaching has expanded, as has my experience. Creating a presence is noted as one of the most important aspects of course delivery; there are elements of course design that contribute directly to course delivery, making planning vitally important. An online presence consists of the relationships we build with and among students to create the learning environment, the role we play as instructional guides, and the personality traits and interests we bring to the course. Research on online classes shows that “students rate contact with faculty as more important than contact with other students.”  Sheridan and Kelly also found that among factors related to course presence, students were most interested in how clearly the instructor conveyed the course requirements and information, as well as the timeliness and quality of their feedback. Creating a presence in an online environment is an intentional process, below are some tips on how I have maintained an online presence while creating boundaries so that I don’t burn myself out.

  1. Start with a welcome video. First impressions matter, and help alleviate students’ anxiety about a new course. Introductory videos should be 3-5 minutes long, include our personal and professional interests and give an overview of the course with tips for success. I’ve received feedback from students that my enthusiasm for the course’s content positively impacted their experience in the course. I also know instructors who choose to include a picture of their pet, favorite vacation spot or family member to begin to create a relationship, which helps to personalize the experience (discussed more below).
  2. Create a course tour. A brief 2 or 3 minute video tour of our online classroom space shows students where to find key information (i.e. assignment information, policies, syllabus, course materials and grades) and lets them know we care, are present and available.
  3. Personalize the experience. Each week, I record a 10-15 minute “lecturette” where I review the major points and questions from the previous week and orient students to the goals and activities of the current week. In the video, I may utilize specific comments from students and discuss how current events (including weather!) relate to course materials. Another way to personalize the experience is to use individual e-mails intentionally. For example, if a student mentions she is particularly interested in a topic that is not the focus of our course, I will share news articles and resources with her if I find them. This lets students know I am paying attention to who they are as individuals.
  4. Post regular announcements. Announcements (using text, video and/or pictures) are key to saving time and replacing individual e-mails. One of the benefits of announcements is that they remain on the course site unless you delete them, with the most recent post on top. Send the announcement via e-mail if it’s a priority message and schedule times when other announcements are posted. This leaves us in control of when we are working and allows us to stagger messages without having to log in repeatedly.  
  5. Set up a “Water Cooler” discussion board. Creating a discussion board, sometimes dubbed the “Water Cooler,” for students to ask general questions pertaining to the course helps to create a sense of community and streamline communication. It is important that from the beginning we socialize students to use this forum, and post responses to individual e-mails in this forum.
  6. Use rubrics. The rubric tool embedded within the learning management system can be used for grading course discussions and other assignments. I absolutely love this feature! I used to send each student an individualized e-mail with feedback on their discussion board participation. To save time and maintain presence, I now embed a discussion rubric within the learning management system (we use Blackboard) and simply check off boxes to assign points. I aim to give each student at least one qualitative comment each week, specifically mentioning a post they had and why it stood out.
  7. Establish online office hours. Online office hours are imperative to creating presence. Even if no students show up, the perception and knowledge that faculty are available has a positive impact on students. It also alleviates my need to instantaneously respond to questions if I have let students know ahead of time when office hours are and my response time for emails.

So to return to my original question, how do we do all of this without burning ourselves out? For me the key is transparency, communication and boundaries. We need to follow the same advice we give our students taking an online course: check the course site daily at a time that works for them and carve out time for this class as we would any other class, adding specific times to our calendar when we plan to complete activities (for us it’s grade, record videos, check discussion boards and respond to messages). This helps us get into a rhythm, similar to one that develops when a class meets weekly in a brick and mortar classroom. Creating a presence does not mean we are available 24-7 or that students need immediate responses. In fact, this can inhibit the learning process as they become dependent on us for answers. In case you were wondering, yes, I am still tired at the end of my courses, but I no longer feel burnt out as I did four years ago. My online courses, synchronous and asynchronous, “meet” at predetermined times that fit my needs and those of my students.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

How else have you set up boundaries to define the classroom space in an online environment? What other strategies do you use to create presence in an online class?

Emotions, Learning and the Brain

Where were you on September 11, 2001? Chances are very good that you have vivid memories of that day especially if you were in the United States. Why? Because we tend to remember emotional events. Although our memories of that day may not be completely accurate, it is unlikely that we will ever ‘forget’ where we were when we learned of the attacks because memory and emotion are inextricably linked.    

Many people think of teaching and learning as intellectual endeavors that engage the head more than the heart. However, in her book Emotions, Learning and the Brain, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an affective neuroscientist and former teacher, argues that we only think deeply about things we care about and that it is impossible for students to think deeply about a topic unless they are emotionally engaged. Immordino-Yang relates the link between emotion, memory and learning to the fact that the brain mechanisms that regulate emotion evolved to aid survival. “Emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, and sadness are cognitive and physiological processes that involve both the body and the mind.”

She tells the story of a college-aged participant in a study who watches a video about a mother in China who finds a coin on the ground and uses it to buy warm cakes for her son who had been all day at school with nothing to eat. Although the son was very hungry, he offers his mother the last cake, which she in turn declines by lying that she had eaten already. The student is clearly moved by the story and describes the visceral reaction that he had as “a balloon or something just under my sternum”. As he reflects on it, he relates it to his own parents and the sacrifices that they made for him and how he does not thank them enough. (Note to self, find this video and show it to my kids.)

Immordino-Yang points out that the student only made the connection between the story and his own life because he was given adequate time to reflect. She believes that allowing time for constructive internal reflection is key to helping students make connections between material they learn in class and their own lives. This reflection time allows them to engage in cognitive perspective taking, i.e. seeing something from another’s point of view. It is also during reflective moments that students develop social awareness and the capacity for moral reasoning. One of the most common ways to build reflection into a class is through reflective writing activities such as logs and journals either in-class or out-of-class.  

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

Given that learning is an emotional and social experience, how do you help students emotionally engage with material that you teach? 

Open Educational Resources: Good for Affordability; Better for Learning

Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University

Despite a growing conversation in higher education about open educational resources (OER), the fact remains that many faculty know little about OER or encounter various barriers keeping them from integrating these learning materials into their courses. We know this thanks to a recently published survey, Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2015-2016, from the Babson Survey Research Group. According to the report’s introduction:

Survey results, using responses of over 3,000 U.S. faculty, show that OER is not a driving force in the selection of [learning] materials – with the most significant barrier being the effort required to find and evaluate such materials. Use of open resources is low overall, but somewhat higher for large enrollment introductory-level courses.

Higher education media reporting on this study focused on two findings:

·       faculty remain largely unaware of OER

·       cost is a primary factor for faculty in choosing learning materials.

Only 25% of faculty indicated awareness of OER, still a slight increase from 2014-2015. One way to increase faculty awareness of OER is to…well…write an EDvice Exchange post to discuss what OER are, promote the value of OER as affordable learning material and address concerns faculty share about OER.

What Makes it OER?
What exactly makes an educational resource open? It takes more than being freely available on the Internet. To qualify as OER learning material should pass the Five R’s Test. That is, can you determine if the content can be:

Retained – you have the right to retain the content by virtue of downloading, storing and managing it;
Reused – you have freedom to use the content as you wish for reuse on the web, a course site, etc.;
Revised – you can adapt, adjust or otherwise modify the content;
Remixed – you can merge the content with other material to create something new;
Redistributed – you can share copies of the original or revised/remixed content with others.

“Openness” happens when faculty create and share learning content they develop for their students, be it a quiz, a video tutorial, course notes, slides or even entire monographs. How can educators be intentional in giving their materials OER status? One way is to contribute the resource to a repository of open and sharable learning resources, such as MERLOT. Alternately, assign a Creative Commons License to the content. This signals the material is available for any of the Five R’s without needing the author’s explicit permission. It looks like this:

The symbols indicate this content requires anyone using it to provide attribution (BY), refrain from using it for any commercial application (NC) and must share it freely with others (SA). The Creative Commons website has a license generator that simplifies the process of assigning a license to content.
Why Do So Few Faculty Use OER?
The Babson Survey asked faculty to indicate important factors in choosing learning materials. 87% of faculty ranked “cost to the student” number one. If cost is a prominent decision factor why aren’t more faculty choosing OER to eliminate the cost to students? Another survey question offers some insight. When asked about the barriers to adopting OER faculty cited numerous concerns. The top five were:

·       insufficient resources in my subject

·       too difficult to find resources

·       no comprehensive catalog of resources

·       not used by other faculty I know

·       not high quality

These are certainly valid concerns, but far from insurmountable obstacles to introducing OER into many courses across the disciplines. The successful integration of OER into nearly 50 courses participating in Temple Libraries Alternate-Textbook Project demonstrates this. In exchange for receiving an award of $1,000, faculty agree to eliminate their traditional commercial textbook. Courses from the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences have all managed to identify and adopt OER as learning material.

While there is no single finding tool for all OER, subject specialist research librarians are well versed in locating OER and can assist faculty across the disciplines to identify OER. While only faculty can determine the quality of learning material, librarians can point to peer-reviewed open content.

Are You Getting the Results?
When it comes to learning materials, what matters most is whether students are achieving course learning goals. Even the highest quality learning materials are of limited benefit to students if they are unable to afford it. Seven out of ten students reported that they have not purchased a textbook at least once because of the expense. Faculty participants in our Alternate-Textbook Project, in their final project evaluations, typically report high satisfaction with student learning with OER and supplementary licensed-library content. When all students have equal access to learning materials they are better prepared for class. When faculty have greater control over learning content they find students are more engaged with the learning materials.

While there will always be courses for which a commercial textbook is the best choice of learning material, the increase in and improved discoverability of OER make it a more realistic option for faculty who wish to provide their students with affordable learning content. Your colleagues at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching  and Temple Libraries are available to assist you in exploring OER for your course. You may also learn more and explore OER resources with Temple Libraries’ Guide to OER.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!
Are you using OER resources in your course? Tell us more about how OER are working for you and your students! If you aren’t using OER, what do you see as the most convincing argument for implementing them? 

Make Your New (Academic) Year’s Resolutions

Stephanie Fiore, Senior Director, Center for the Advancement of Teaching

Fireworks Image

Happy new academic year, everyone, from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT)!

We often start a new calendar year in January with a list of resolutions. I was committed to making more time for myself. I’m sure you said you were going to exercise more, stay in closer contact with friends, or just not stress the small stuff. I know when I make those resolutions, I do so with the best of intentions, but I also know that even small changes require that I make them a priority, or I may not succeed in pulling them off.

Now that we are starting a new academic year, what are your resolutions, and how are you going to make them happen? Have you reflected on your professional practice and how you are going to continue to grow? Have you thought about changes to your teaching that you might want to implement? My resolution is to reach out to as many departments as I can this year to discuss with faculty how our wonderful staff at the newly renamed Center for the Advancement of Teaching can support them with their pedagogical and instructional technology needs.

My challenge to you is to consider making a commitment to incorporate new reflective practices into your teaching. In his landmark work on reflective teaching, Stephen Brookfield argues that we should reflect on our teaching practice using four lenses. Most of us already use two of these lenses. We look at ourselves through our students’ eyes when we read our SFFs, (although I suggest also checking in with your students throughout the semester to get feedback on your teaching). We may also use our own experiences as learners and as teachers (what Brookfield calls our autobiographies) to inform our practice.

But there are two lenses that we rarely use and that can add richness to our work, and here’s where a teaching center can help. The third lense is to look at our teaching through our colleagues’ eyes. That can be done through peer review of teaching, but it can also be done simply by discussing our teaching with other faculty, something we rarely have the opportunity to do. One of the greatest benefits to attending the teaching center’s seminars and workshops is the opportunity to talk to other faculty from across the university about what is happening in the classroom, online, in the studio, or in the lab.

The fourth lense that Brookfield cites is to look at our teaching against what the theoretical literature tells us about how people learn. There is a wealth of information out there. If you join us at our seminars, workshops and trainings, we’ll give you resources to explore, or you can join us and your colleagues to read and discuss a book on teaching. You can also peruse the many resources we have available for you online. Some good reading can get the ideas flowing and make us sit back and think about whether there might be alternative paths to helping our students be successful in our courses.

Join me in making a commitment for the new academic year. Choose one way of reflecting more deeply on your teaching and make that resolution stick! I think you’ll find that it enriches your work and helps your students to learn.   

Flip the Switch: Making the Most of Student Feedback Forms

Johanna Inman, Assistant Director, TLC

“Johanna is really nice.”

“I hated the readings.”

“I learned a lot.”

“Some discussions were pointless.”

“I enjoyed this class.”

These are typical comments I used to get on student feedback forms. Unfortunately, these aren’t very helpful. They are vague and lack the answer to that ever-elusive question: why?

When I began my teaching career as an adjunct instructor, I cared a lot about student evaluations mostly as a means to job security. Over the years, I came to value my students’ opinions as a way to improve my teaching and my courses for future students. However, as I’m sure many of you have experienced, it was rare that I actually received a thoughtful, constructive, and useful comment.

Now as Assistant Director of the Teaching and Learning Center, I often hear faculty raise similar concerns I’ve had about student evaluations. Of particular concern is how student evaluations are used for personnel decisions. In addition, faculty point out that students aren’t trained to evaluate teaching or that they evaluate factors outside of an instructor’s control. Sometimes I hear faculty repeat common misconceptions about student evaluations such as, it’s only the angry students that complete SFFs, or it’s all just a popularity contest anyway. And then there are comments like I can’t bear to read my evals anymore, students are just plain meanIt also doesn’t prompt a lot of faith in student feedback when recent research uncovered that evaluations can be influenced by students’ hidden biases.  

So, do student feedback forms have any real value for faculty? Absolutely!

In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield suggests that reflective teaching includes seeing our teaching through multiple lenses or perspectives, one of which is our students’. Student feedback forms give us a window into this lens and they allow students to have a voice in forming and improving learning experiences. That said, in order to get the most from our students’ perspective, we need to improve both the quality of feedback we receive from them, and the way in which we respond to it.

Here are strategies to help students do a better job providing constructive feedback, as well as ways we can better receive student feedback in order to improve ourselves and our courses.

Teach students how to provide effective feedback

Preparing students to be more effective and objective evaluators of teaching helps improve the quality of feedback that they provide. First, let students know that you read their student feedback forms and take them seriously. Encourage students to include specific and constructive feedback such as aspects of the course and/or instruction that helped them learn. Overall, make sure students understand ways that you plan to use their feedback to improve the course for future students.

Consider implementing the following strategies:

  1. Provide students with examples of useful feedback. Students may not know what is helpful and what is not. Give students examples of targeted comments that you have found helpful in the past. Before they complete SFFs, remind them to be specific, give supporting examples, and most importantly explain why they feel the way they do.
  2. Explain to students exactly how you plan to use their feedback. Share examples of what you have changed previously as a result of student feedback. Are you already thinking about making a change in the future? Ask them to weigh-in. Don’t forget, you may also want to let them know what elements of the course you can and cannot change.
  3. Use strategies to improve your student response rates. Add a link to the e-sffs in your course’s Blackboard site. Alert students when evaluations are first available and send them a reminder when the deadline is close. Let them know what percentage of students have already completed them and share your goal for a higher response rate. If you haven’t had success with these strategies, reserve some in-class time for students to complete evaluations on their mobile devices, or better yet reserve some time in a computer lab.
  4. Implement a mid-semester evaluation earlier in the semester. Set up an online survey using Blackboard or Google Forms and ask students to complete it around week 5 or 6.  This strategy gives you an opportunity to make course adjustments mid-stream.  Students will also learn that you value their input and get practice providing constructive feedback. If you ask the right questions, it’s also an opportunity for students to reflect on their own performance in the course, not just yours.

Reflect on students’ feedback objectively

If you care at all about your teaching, this is not an easy task. However, the most effective way to use evaluations to improve our teaching is to remove defensive or visceral reactions to student feedback. Although it seems like an impossible exercise, here are some strategies that may help:

  1. Give it some time. You may not want to wait too long after the course is over to review student feedback, but perhaps at least a few days. When you’ve had a chance to take a deep breath and feel ready to review student evaluations, make sure to give yourself enough time for a thorough review. Read through all of the evaluations once, then go back a second time in order to better digest and analyze the information.
  2. Track feedback quantitatively. How many students are commenting about the lectures?  How many about the discussions? How many are positive? Negative? Often faculty get stuck on that one hurtful comment and forget that there were many other positive remarks. At the same time, if you see a common theme emerging from students it is clearly an area that should be addressed.
  3. Read evaluations as if they were not yours. This is a great strategy if you tend to take student feedback personally or get defensive. Ask yourself: What if this feedback was about a colleague? Then, what advice would you give them? How would your response be different?
  4. Don’t panic; get support! All instructors receive negative feedback at some point in their careers, including the very best! Schedule an appointment at the Teaching and Learning Center for a consultation to help you interpret your evaluations. TLC consultants can help you make meaning of student feedback and provide an objective point of view. Research suggests that instructors who discuss their evaluations with a colleague are more likely to have improved evaluations than others who do not discuss them.
  5. Reflect and make at least one improvement. Once you have reflected on your student feedback, think strategically about some changes you can make to your course or to your teaching based on the feedback you’ve received. Don’t try to change everything at once and definitely don’t change what isn’t broken. But make a commitment to improve something. Then, make a plan for that change.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

Are there specific strategies you use to make student feedback forms more effective? Let us know!

6 Tips for Creating Engaging Video Lectures That Students Will Actually Watch

Simuelle Myers, Instructional Designer, TLC

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How do I get started creating video lectures? How do I engage students from a distance? How do I know if they understand the concepts in my lecture if I can’t see their faces? How do I know students are even paying attention? These are common questions asked by faculty when preparing to create a video lecture. As both online and flipped classroom formats grow in popularity, the number of faculty creating video lectures is increasing. However, many of these videos are recorded as straight lecture, limiting students only to the role of observer.  The six tips below will help you create videos that also engage students in active learning, while giving you information to assess their understanding of course concepts.  

1. Keep it Short!

Break lessons into segments of about 7-10 minutes. This allows students to digest every part of the lesson,  quickly revisit what they may not have understood and provides a meaningful place to pause if they need to return to the lesson later. This can also become invaluable if you need to update a video later. It is much easier to re-record 10 minutes than 50 minutes!

Tip for implementation: If you are used to longer lectures, review your lessons and identify where the natural breaks in the material might be.  Use these as a guides to decide where every recording should begin and end.

2. Use visuals, images and animations

While students greatly value being able to see and connect with their instructor, a lecture consisting only of a “talking head” can be hard to follow.  Visuals can enhance your presentation and make material more accessible. Screencasting software (e.g. Camtasia Relay) allows you to share your screen with students so they can see your presentation, graphs, figures, drawings  and your face all at the same time. These tools can also be used to create video demonstrations for students in your brick and mortar classes.

Tip for implementation: Text-heavy slides can make it difficult to pay attention to what a speaker is saying.  Mix it up and try slides using a single large image. This creates a need for students to listen more to what you are saying instead of just reading the words behind you. This also gives students a reason to take more detailed notes.

3. Create guided or embedded questions

Pause to ask students a question, provide a worksheet that they need to complete as they watch the lecture, or create a task for them to do in between videos. There are also several programs you can use to create questions that are embedded directly into a video that students must answer before they continue watching. Similar to an in-class activity, these allow students to work with the material in the midst of the lesson and add variety to help keep them engaged.

Tip for implementation: How do you make sure that students complete guided questions or worksheets? Have them submit their answers as an assignment. This can also help you assess your students’ understanding of the material.   

4. Test knowledge with quizzes and self-assessment

Frequent, low stakes quizzes encourage students to pay closer attention to video lectures and allow you to assess their knowledge. Self-assessments are typically ungraded, but provide students with diagnostic feedback that  encourages them to re-visit areas of the lesson based on  questions they may have missed. Both methods give students quick feedback so they can gauge early on which concepts or problems they may need help with.

Tip for implementation: Ask students what they are having trouble with. At the end of a unit, have students assess themselves by asking what their “muddiest point” is or what they would like to learn more about and have them submit their responses via the Learning Management System (LMS) as a private journal entry.

5. Use pre-existing videos

You do not always need to create original videos.  Many great videos exist that already do a good job of explaining specific topics. This also creates more variety in students’ learning experience and can be less time intensive for the instructor.

Tip for implementation: Explore what resources are available before you begin recording your own videos to gain an understanding of what currently exists and what you need to do yourself.

6. Be Yourself!

Lastly, remember that this is not a Hollywood production! One of the most important things to do in a video is to be yourself and act natural. It is okay to stumble over a word or quickly correct yourself when you make a mistake. This allows students to truly see your personality and connect with what makes you unique as an instructor.

Tips for implementation: Record a test video, then go back and watch it (bonus points if you have someone else watch it too!). Evaluate what you do well and what needs improvement. Feel free to experiment with environment and style until you feel that you are able to convey yourself in a way that is comfortable and genuine.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

Are you already creating video lectures? What strategies do you use to keep students engaged?


Additional Resources:

Ho, Yvonne. “Seven Steps to Creating Screencast Videos for Online Learning.” Faculty Focus. Magna, 15 Mar. 2013. Web.

Mayer, Richard E. Multi-Media Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.