Teaching Tips

We’ve included below some shorts tips and insight about pedagogical topics of recent interest to our learning community. For a more detailed repository of pedagogical resources and information, please visit our FDC Commons Moodle site. If you aren’t able to access the FDC Commons when you log into Moodle, please email us at fdc@furman.edu.

Teaching in Difficult Times and Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

When students experience distress, worry, and anxiety, creating a supportive and safe space for learning becomes essential for our Furman community. Included below are some tips and strategies compiled from various sources which might be utilized with adequate consideration to the unique needs of you and your and students. Furman’s Counseling Center is available to help students with a range of challenges related to mental health and academic life.  Their website includes instructions for students to make an appointment as well as some resources for helping students in distress.  They also offer various support groups for students on topics such as grief, stress & anxiety, and managing emotions. Furman’s Office of Spiritual Life is also available to support you and your students in difficult circumstances.

Strategies for Teaching in Difficult Times (from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Northern Illinois University)

Take time to talk as a group or class.
Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period about the event. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak. Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have.

Have students discuss “facts” first, then shift to emotions.
Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened and “debating” some details. People are often more comfortable discussing “facts” than feelings, so you might allow this exchange for a brief period of time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.

Invite students to share emotional, personal responses.
You might lead off by saying something like: “Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”

Respect each person’s dealing with the event.
Some will be more vocal or expressive than others with their feelings and thoughts. Everyone is affected differently and reacts differently. Some may view events at least in part from the perspective of their discipline and/or background. Be aware that the presence of someone in our classroom who is evidently from a different background or who has a different relationship to crisis events will alter the dynamics of the classroom. We must be aware that differences (such as religion or nationality) are not always obvious or visible. The challenge is to create a meaningful, educational dialogue without creating an uncomfortable situation for any student. All students must feel that it is truly safe to express their thoughts, but they must do so with reasonable courtesy and willingness to allow that there are other valuable points of view.

Allow freedom of participation.
If students feel uncomfortable during class discussion, allow them to leave. If they feel coerced into the conversation, then they are likely to withdraw from the conversation or guard closely what they say.

Acknowledge both verbal and non-verbal communication.
In a discussion or conversation, silence can make faculty feel uncomfortable, but silence and other non-verbal behaviors can be just as vital to a productive conversation as words are. It is tempting to fill silence with variations on the question asked, but doing so can inhibit students’ abilities to think through the issue and to prepare to share their thoughts with their classmates. If students repeatedly need extremely long silences, however, faculty should invite conversation as to why students do not feel comfortable sharing with their classmates.

Be prepared for blaming.
When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger. It is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, future tragedies can be avoided by doing things “right.” If the discussion gets “stuck” with blaming, it might be useful to say: “We have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”

It is normal for people to seek an “explanation” of why the difficult event occurred.
By understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that, as intellectual beings, we always seek to understand. It is very challenging to understand “unthinkable” events. By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain. Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable. It is better to resist the temptation to make meaning of the event. That is not one of your responsibilities and would not be helpful.

Make contact with those students who appear to be reacting in unhealthy ways.
Some examples include isolating themselves too much, using alcohol excessively, throwing themselves into academics or busy work in ways not characteristic of them, etc.

Make accommodations as needed, for you and for the students.
Many who are directly affected by a tragedy may need temporary accommodations in their workload, in their living arrangements, in their own self-expectations. It is normal for people not to be able to function at their full capacity when trying to deal with an emotional situation. This is the time to be flexible. Adapt your syllabus for the week following the crisis to accommodate reduced workload. Modify expectations to meet current conditions and provide additional time and support for student learning.

Use disciplinary frameworks to address the issue through course content.
How might scholars within your field think about or analyze the issue? What concepts or ideas from the course might support a deeper analysis or the event or provide additional content or information?

Thank students for sharing and remind them of resources on campus.
In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, you can encourage him or her to make use of campus resources.

Give yourself time to reflect and heal.
Remember that you have feelings too and thoughts about what occurred, and these thoughts and feelings should be taken seriously, not only for yourself, but also for the sake of the students with whom you may be trying to work. Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with stress. Eating well, resting, and exercising help us handle stressful situations more effectively and deal with students and their needs.

Additional Resources:

In addition, Furman’s Chaplain, Vaughn CroweTipton, offers this guidance when addressing a sudden community loss or traumatic event with your students.

  • Do address the issue. Students will have a range of emotions but avoiding the reality of it is more likely to feel diminishing or dismissive.
  • A brief statement and naming resources is better than doing anything long or drawn out.
  • Name your limitations even as you acknowledge what has happened and that it affects our community (“I am not a counselor but I can point you to those who are”).
  • Give students permission to grieve.
  • Encourage them to offer care to one another and take advantage of our many resources.
  • Watch for any students who have strong emotions. Take the initiative after class and name what you see and offer that as a means to point them toward resources (“You appear to be struggling, upset, sad. Let me encourage you to seek out a place to talk and for help with the chaplains, counselors, or someone in student life. Can I connect you with someone?”)
  • Use the Starfish system to let us know of students who you suspect need help. We can and will follow up.

An example: Before we begin class today I want to acknowledge the grief that is part of our campus today. The death of one of our students and the injury of another impacts us all, even if in different ways. Some of you may feel sad, others angry, some may feel numb, and others careening between a range of emotions. That is normal. You have a right to your feelings and to grieve. While I am not a counselor, I am aware of the fact that all of us are dealing with this tragedy in the midst of walking through our own normal schedules. Let me encourage you to take care of yourself, give yourself time and permission to grieve, and maybe even seek out help or a place to talk with the many resources we have on campus whether that is in the counseling office, the chaplain’s office, or student life. I have the numbers and names of individuals in those offices if you need them. Watch out for each other, listen to one another, and by all means let someone know if you know someone who is struggling and could use help. Before we begin, let us offer a moment of silence to remember (community member name) and their family but also to prepare ourselves for things we must continue to do even as we grieve together. (Offer 30 seconds of silence).

Accommodating Students Temporarily Unable to Join Face-to-Face Classes

Given the likelihood that some of your students may be absent from your courses due to illness or mandated quarantine and isolation, it is helpful to consider how you can best engage students who are legitimately unable to participate in your class sessions so that they do not fall too far behind. It is in your best interest, and the best interest of your students, to find reasonable solutions that respect the time, course dynamics, and situational factors of all involved. Providing a consistent message to your students that you will work with them to find a reasonable solution should they have to miss class may help discourage students from coming to your course when ill for fear of missing course content and falling behind.

You might consider the following options for a limited period of time:

Provide a virtual option to join your class sessions synchronously. You might utilize a recurring Zoom meeting room and utilize Furman’s classroom technology (see here for more) for this purpose or provide a link to students as needed once you have mutually agreed on this option. The FDC has assembled some Furman faculty “hacks” for integrating face-to-face and virtual participants, as well as several ideas to address common integration challenges. For more ideas about ways to integrate temporarily virtual students with those in-person, see the Integrating F2F & Remote Students tab here. To discourage abuse of this option, you might communicate a set of criteria under which this option is appropriate (e.g. only when you have official notification from the Associate Dean), limit the number of uses (e.g. 3 per semester), or implement regulations about what virtual engagement might look like if used (e.g. camera must be on unless agreed otherwise). 

Record your class sessions (or portions) for asynchronous review and engagement. You might consider recording and sharing your course sessions (or portions of them) for students to review as they are able in a password protected space. There are a variety of reasons why you may not want to record the full course session, in which case you might consider recording the most essential components like your lecture content (see Flipped Classroom Instructional Model & Digital Content Delivery tab below), or “sign post” or summary portions of a larger class discussion where you dedicate a portion at the end of a class conversation for you or course participants to highlight key content from that discussion (definitions, ideas, areas of application). See the Class Session Recording Recommendations tab below for more information. You are encouraged to remind your students that the unauthorized dissemination of any recorded classroom proceedings, including distribution for compensation, is strictly prohibited. The improper sharing of recorded material by students or others may constitute a violation of U.S. copyright law and is a violation of campus policy.

Share summary, outline, or review material. You might consider sharing your lectures notes, slide decks, or whiteboard or document camera images from missed class sessions. Uploading these to Moodle provides safe and secure access to all course participants. Other options involve soliciting student volunteers to take class notes that can be shared or creating a group notes document (in Box) where students can curate and share notes about key ideas or discussion points. This option not only benefits students who may need to be absent, but all students in the course as well.

Provide alternative activities or assignments. Some course activities may not be conductive to virtual engagement, recording, or summary notes. In these cases, you might consider providing alternative or supplemental activities or assignments that help students achieve your learning outcomes, albeit somewhat differently. Alternatives could be provided for specific students who are unable to attend your courses on a case-by-case basis, or you might elect to pivot certain activities to a virtual space for all participants. This might include utilizing online discussions (see more here) fostering asynchronous engagement (see more here), or providing exams or quizzes online (see Using Online or Proctored Quizzes and Exams tab below). Even student presentations can be recorded and shared via an online repository (Box, Moodle).

Provide opportunities for virtual office hours. You might consider providing virtual office hour options for students who are unable to meet with you in person. Although it is unreasonable to expect that you would review all content missed in these sessions, providing students with dedicated time to ask questions and clarify key concepts may help allay anxiety about missing class and ensure students do not fall behind.

Additional resources for online and hybrid teaching are available here.


Class Session Recording Recommendations

If you elect to record all or a portion of your course activities, guidance on promising practices for recording (how to alert your students that you will be recording a portion or all of the class, how to store recordings on box) is available in this Promising Practices document.    

Students are not permitted to record classroom lectures or discussions without either the express written approval of the faculty member teaching the course or an accommodation through the Student Office of Accessibility Resources (SOAR). Qualified students with disabilities that impact their ability to take or read notes may receive an accommodation through the SOAR office that permits them to record lectures for their personal academic use. If the SOAR office determines that recording lectures and classroom discussions is an appropriate accommodation for a student, the recording may be used only for personal academic purposes. Unauthorized dissemination of any recorded classroom proceedings, including distribution for compensation, is strictly prohibited. The improper sharing of recorded material by students or others may constitute a violation of U.S. copyright law and is a violation of campus policy.

Using Online or Proctored Quizzes and Exams

Moodle has a quiz feature with built-in capability to scramble answer and question order for added protection against academic dishonesty and faculty can elect to utilize Safe Exam Browser in conjunction with the platform. More information about developing non-biased, application-based multiple choice questions is available here.

  1. How much time should you give students on a timed asynchronous online exam? One simple approach is to take the exam yourself and allow students at least triple the time it took you to complete. However, especially if you have students in different time zones, you may consider providing at least a 24-hour window in which your timed exam can be completed. To do so, set the quiz/assignment to be open for a 24-hour period in Moodle to let students start whenever they wish, but restrict the time in which it must be completed to however long you’ve determined is necessary (one hour, two, three?). This allows students to take the quiz/assignment when they are able, but they all have the same time limit in which to do so.
  2. As you calculate exam time periods, please note that time accommodations are not granted for “X number of minutes” but rather “X amount of time beyond that given to all students.” A student with a time accommodation will need additional time to demonstrate the same level of achievement/knowledge as can be demonstrated by classmates in the time allocated. For example, you write an online quiz to take 15 minutes, but plan to give the entire class 45 minutes to complete it. A student in your class has a “time-and-a half” accommodation. Therefore, that student is allowed 1.5 hours to complete the quiz.

If you feel as if proctored, synchronous online exams are essential for your course, you might consider proctoring those via an online video conferencing platform like Zoom. In order to do this, you would set up a timed Moodle Quiz, gather students in a Zoom session, and proctor the exam live. Check out these seven tips for promoting academic integrity in your virtual or hybrid classroom without joining the “arms race” in cheating-prevention tools.

Best Practices for Using Timed, Proctored Exams

Before the Exam

During the Exam

  • Conduct the exam in-class on paper if possible.  Walk around the room during the exam and sit students by number to reduce the chances of cheating.

  • Consider trying the two-stage exam technique. Students take a quiz or exam first individually, and then a second time in a group. This can prevent struggling students from falling further and further behind, since they can learn from each other the things they missed in the first stage. And you don’t have to spend so much time reviewing the exam yourself.  Here’s a video of it in action, as well as more tips for success.

After the Exam

Flipped Classroom Instructional Model & Digital Content Delivery

With many faculty adopting a flipped classroom model, one central design strategy is important to remember– short “mini” video lectures engage students more effectively than the longer versions many of us are accustomed to. Further, there is growing evidence that transforming course content into shorter, more digestible components in this way can support more inclusive learning.  

As the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching highlights, flipped learning approaches require careful attention to four core strategies for success (below). For suggestions in each of these categories, see here. 

  1. Engaging and appropriately segmented content exposure prior to class with clear mechanisms for obtaining just-in-time support; 
  2. Creative incentives for students to prepare for class and explore material; 
  3. Consistent mechanisms to assess student understanding and preparation prior to class; 
  4. In-class exercises focused on properly scaffolded higher-level cognitive application. 

Whether you are teaching an online course or want to utilize your synchronous course interactions for more active learning elements, there are a variety of methods you might use to adapt your lecture content for a digital format. Those might include recorded videos, interactive graphics, narrated Power Point presentations, or short audio or video clips of “mini lectures”. For a closer look at several of these options, click here and for important guidance about creating these videos, see here.   

Cultivating Flexible and Active Learning

No matter what instructional modality you use or learning environment you are in, there are more or less engaging strategies to invite students into the learning process. If you are searching for active learning approaches, there are a number of information-dense resources online, both for face-to-face and online instruction. Two to consider include the Teacher Toolkit  and Ditch that Textbook. These resources highlight several go-to approaches like quick writesthink-pair-shares, debates, digital gallery walks, jigsaws, exit tickets or Know-Want to Know-Learned charts. This article from the Chronicle about “engaged” teaching is also useful, including the resources noted at the end of the missive.

Building a Community of Inquiry

It is likely that you’ve worked intuitively to build a Community of Inquiry (CoI) in your courses, even if you aren’t familiar with that term. The CoI framework (Garrison, 2017) outlined below is useful in any setting. Designing your course around the CoI framework can ensure that you’ve constructed the appropriate course infrastructure to cultivate rich community in such an environment.

The CoI framework is built upon careful attention to three dimensions (Purdue, 2020):

  1. Teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of meaningful learning. In the F2F classroom you create this daily with your presence and facilitation. In a hybrid flexible environment, creating this presence involves the (1) instructional design and organization of the course and activities, (2) facilitation of the course and activities virtually and in-person, and (3) direct instruction.
  2. Social presence refers to the ability of course participants to establish an identity and persona in the social body of your course and play an active role in contributing to the learning process. In the F2F classroom, this happens through regular, consistent interaction with one another in one common experience. In an online context, social presence refers to the ability of those joining virtually to perceive others in an online environment as “real” and the projection of oneself as a real person. Social presence involves open communication, affective expression, and group cohesion.
  3. Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse. The ultimate goal of creating a Community of Inquiry is to build a solid foundation of social presence and teaching presence to stimulate cognitive presence in a course to achieve learning outcomes and challenge participants to develop and reflect on ideas, beliefs, and values.

Research has shown that there is a relationship between the three presences and students’ perceived learning, satisfaction with the course, satisfaction with the instructor, actual learning, and sense of belonging (Akyol & Garrison, 2008). The CoI framework suggests that deep and meaningful learning in hybrid flexible environments occurs at the intersection of social, teaching, and cognitive presence (Purdue, 2020). For a brief overview of the CoI model see here, or check out this online resource on the framework. For strategies on how to develop each of these three COI areas, see here (although developed for online and hybrid courses, these ideas can be adapted for the face-to-face environment).

Expanding Your Assessment Practices

If you are looking to expand your assessment practice you might consider open and closed-book application activities. See this handout on Unproctored Assessments for ideas on alternatives to timed, proctored exams. You can use TurnItIn if you wish to check any submitted papers for plagiarism. 

Assessing learning through project reports, individual or group presentations (delivered live or recorded and shared online), and other forms of authentic assessment are often appropriate in all modes of instruction with very little variance needed. See this Authentic Assessment Toolbox for several examples and tips on creating authentic assessment activities, including rubrics to assess them.

Consider adopting project-based learning strategies and encouraging students to work in small teams and asking them to include who they work with and in what ways as a part of the assessment. A hybrid version of this includes two-stage collaborative exams

Integrating robust self-assessment and peer assessment activities not only provide opportunities to collect rich evidence of student learning outcomes, but also help students develop valuable analytic and critical thinking skills. See also instructor-led peer learning techniques such as Peer Instruction or Team-Based Learning, or peer-led learning techniques such as Peer-Led Team Learning or Learning Assistants.

Finally, instead of confining assessment to a few high-stakes evaluations, you might consider assessing student learning more often with regular low-stakes classroom assessment techniques and creative alternatives. For example, using index cards (or virtual note codes) to ask students to apply a concept to a real-world situation in class, or having students write down the most important point of the class and submit their answers is a quick and simple strategy to assess comprehension. Using classroom polling is another opportunity to have students answer a variety of questions to gauge understanding in real-time. You might even elect to conduct assessments verbally, in small groups, where you can set up individual meetings with students and ask them to respond to questions in the moment. This option enables you to give immediate feedback to students, which often enhances their learning. 

Additional Tips to Consider:

  • When it comes to assessment, less might be more. In alignment with your course learning outcomes, what do you really want your students to know? What evidence of that learning is most critical?
  • Providing assessment options can allow students to demonstrate evidence of their learning in ways that play to their strengths and interests. As long as you have clearly articulated learning outcomes and have determined what kinds of evidence will demonstrate that outcome, you might find that students are able to show that in many different ways. Grading may be more interesting for you, too!
  • The use of well-articulated rubrics for assessment is advisable as this alleviates student worry by outlining your specific expectations and criteria and helps to ensure that no matter the mode or format of assessment, you are evaluating student learning in an equitable and consistent fashion. Rubrics are also helpful at streamlining your grading. Moodle provides options to utilize traditional rubrics and grading guides in the online system.
  • Consider these tips for reducing cheating on take-home exams and making writing assignments more plagiarism-resistant.
Academic Integrity Statements for Online or Take-Home Assessments

Consider modifying and including one of the sample statements below to provide students with clarity about your integrity protocol expectations with online or take-home assessments.

  • Option 1: Stress-Reducing Version: The exam is open-note, open-book, but not open-person. It must be your own work in accordance with Furman’s academic integrity policies. Please do not discuss the exam with other students until after all students have had a chance to take it.
  • Option 2: Direct Version: Students are required to refrain from discussing the test until they receive an email from the instructor that all exams have been completed.
  • Option 3: Consequence Reminder Version: You are expected to turn in your own work, not give un-permitted aid to others, and not consult unauthorized sources for support.  You are also expected to provide a statement indicating as such at the conclusion of and prior to submitting your test.  Moodle provides mechanisms to analyze your responses against your classmates. All matters relating to academic integrity violations will be forwarded to the Academic Discipline Committee.

If you are using Moodle to administer assessments, you could require students to provide a confirmation that they have abided by integrity policies by including one of the statements above in the exam (for each page of questions, and/or as a question at the middle or conclusion of the exam).  Or, you might ask students to type a statement, followed by their name, in a blank essay box indicating that the work being submitted is their own and has been completed without unauthorized aid: “On my honor, I have neither given nor received aid completing this test.”

Providing and Receiving Student Feedback

The half-way point in the semester provides an opportunity to solicit early course feedback from your students about their learning experience in your course. If you’d like to consider a more formal mid-semester feedback process, find out more about the Small-Group Instructional Feedback process offered by the FDC. You could also utilize the Moodle Feedback feature to employ the simple KQS Feedback approach – Keep Doing, Quit Doing, and Start Doing. Consider posing the following two questions to your course participants: 

  • What could I as the instructor keep doing, quit doing, and start doing to help you learn? 
  • What can you as a student keep doing, quit doing, and start doing to promote your learning? 

At the same time, you might consider multiple ways to provide feedback to your students throughout your course. Textual feedback can easily be integrated into electronic documents using track-changes features like those offered in Microsoft Word. Once you’ve received your student assignment files, you can annotate those assignments with your suggested changes and comments, save that file, and send it back to your students with your feedback. 

Spoken feedback can also be shared with your students instead of textual notes. Four tools below provide you with options for recording spoken feedback and sharing that with your students. 

    • Moodle allows you to record audio or video feedback when assignment grades. 
    • SoundCloud: An easy audio-recording tool that you can embed in your learning-management system so students can click an arrow and play your recording. 
    • Vocaroo: A simple, PC-friendly tool for recording your voice. You can immediately get a link to the recording and give it to students. 
    • Kaizena: A site that helps you provide verbal feedback directly on student documents and track their progress by comparing your feedback history over multiple assignments. 
Teaching During an Election

Our students, the classroom environment, and the content that we teach are not separate from broader social events and context. Whether or not you teach content well-aligned with issues most salient during an election period, as you consider how to address the potential impact of the election in your classroom. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching offers several ideas here, The New York Times has shared these 11 ways to engage students, or you may find helpful resources in this “day after” guide or post-election to-do listAdditionally, our colleagues at the University of Michigan have developed a series of resources that may be of use for teaching about elections, structuring classroom discussions around related issues, and helping students channel reactions to election results into positive action that may be of use. The Scholars Strategy Network has published similar ideas here

Four considerations of note include: 

  • Facilitating Difficult Dialogue and Respectful Disagreement – Creating an environment where students feel comfortable expressing a wide range of perspectives and opinions inevitably will reveal disagreements. What does respectful discourse look like, and what conditions need to be met in order for it to happen? It may be time to reinforce classroom norms and expectations with your students. Project Pericles offers a free deliberative dialogue discussion guide. Professor Danielle Vinson has developed pre- and post-election discussion guides to draw from as you consider conversations in your classroom. 
  • Freedom of Expression and the First Amendment – Elections present ample opportunities to discuss free speech and freedom of expression in your classroom. Although Furman guarantees student freedom of expression, there are limits to free expression in the classroom when there is a “material and substantial disruption” to class or school activities or when the form of expression defames, threatens, or incites violence. You might reference Furman’s classroom disruption policy with your students. 
  • Media & Information Literacy – The plethora of information sources available today via any number of digital platforms provides rich ground for discussions about media and information literacy. How do students evaluate the credibility and reliability of the information they consume pre- and post-election? How might these skills be useful in and outside of the classroom? These resources on evaluating sources from the Duke Library may come in handy. 
  • Reflective Practice – Creating space for students to reflect on and process the significance of the moment both personally and as a member of your classroom community might provide a valuable outlet for your students to make sense of election results and make connections to the central concepts/content of your course. Consider guidance in this resource on implementing reflection in your academic courses 

However you plan to engage your students around the election, if at all, these trauma-informed pedagogy reminders may come in handy as you help students process election results. 

Fostering Racial Equity in the Classroom

Problems like racial inequity are most effectively addressed at multiple levels, just like other complex issues. Take a look at this brief handout regarding ways to mitigate racial inequities and help our students adapt to the consequences of existing broader inequities.

Inclusive Pedagogical Practices

Inclusive pedagogy focuses on teaching strategies and policies that create learning environments where the varied backgrounds, learning preferences, social identities, and physical and cognitive abilities of students are acknowledged and respected so that all students can achieve equitable learning outcomes. Take a look at this handout for some initial ideas about how to support inclusive practices in your classroom.

Facilitating Class Discussions

Providing opportunities to enhance critical thinking, crafting arguments, and communicating ideas professionally and concisely, class discussions are a hallmark of many courses at Furman. Consider the recommendations to make your course discussions even stronger by reviewing this Chronicle advise guide by Jay Howard, author of Discussion In the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (Wiley, 2015).

Designing Collaborative Learning Opportunities

Collaborative learning can be a messy endeavor and does not always result in enhanced learning. As you design your collaborative learning projects, we invite you to reflect on some promising practices to strengthen the success of group learning strategies. Considering both how you construct and evaluate collaborative projects and ways to integrate opportunities for students to reflect on the process of learning can enhance these common learning opportunities. You might consider one or more of the ideas below as you evaluate your own projects or explore additional recommendations about how to strengthen team-based learning in this Chronicle of Higher Education article 

  • Whether you randomly sort your collaborative learning groups or allow students to self-select, one strategy that can help students both understand the processes of collaborative work and engage with their strengths is to develop clearly defined group roles assigned to specific students (facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, harmonizer, devil’s advocate). Students could construct these with you or in teams.  One option is to rotate students through these roles, so that they each get practice performing essential group functions.   
  • You can help to structure group participation by promoting dialogue and engagement through scaffolded prompts for your group activities (e.g. probe your groupmates about x topic, discuss how you would like to divide work) or provide (or develop with your students!) project outlines (segmenting major components to be completed) so that they can plan and track progress and reflect on challenges at key moments with you or their groupmates. 
  • Utilizing clear and multi-dimensional assessment strategies that evaluate both individual (short essay, self-evaluation, quizzes) and group (final product, group exam) outcomes as well as process and group dynamic skills (team and peer evaluations) can help students understand and articulate not just what they have learned, but how they have done so collaboratively.  
  • Carefully consider which of your learning assessment and reflection components will be included in the grading process as some of these elements may be best as ungraded formative components, providing space for students to make mistakes and provide more honest feedback to one another. 
  • Before students jump into a collaborative project, dedicate time for them to build group dynamic norms, expectations, and rules of engagement. This can be a useful time for students to articulate both their preferences and opportunities for accountability and growth in a group setting.   
  • Provide multiple checkpoints throughout the project that present opportunities for individual and group learning, accountability, and reflection.  
Cultivating "Second-Half Success" in Your Course

It is the middle of the semester and some of your students have not yet found their rhythm in your course. What can you do? To help these students course-correct for the duration of the term you might consider utilizing one or more of the following strategies. 

Root Cause Analysis: Whether through mid-term grade reports or your mid-semester check-in process, most students who are struggling are now aware of their course status. However, students are not always able to identify the root cause of their challenge. As this recent article in Inside Higher Education notes, studies have shown that faculty members are critical “gatekeepers” for student success and wellbeing. Working with students to identify the root causes (academic and otherwise) that are inhibiting their success and connecting students with campus support systems can provide essential guidance when students feel overwhelmed. Specifically, pinpointing whether problems relate to a unique course-related event (e.g. exam), are isolated within a specific course, or are occurring across courses can inform a plan of action. If a referral to the Center for Academic Success or the Counseling Center is warranted collated contact information is available here.

Self-Reflection & Evaluation: Although self-evaluation and metacognitive reflection is often a necessary part of the teaching process, it is not something that many of our students inherently associate with the learning process. Yet, much like root cause analysis, asking students to take the time to identify what strategies are supporting their learning in your course and which habits are not can be illuminating. You might consider pairing a brief self-assessment activity alongside an upcoming assignment or course activity that focuses on learning strategies and skills. Quick “exam wrappers” can provide fruitful insight that might inform future mitigative action. Three simple questions (What was I supposed to learn? Did I learn it? What questions do I still have?) may help students identify bottlenecks in their learning.  

Reiterate and Foster Essential Study Skills: Reiterating important note-taking and studying skills and helping students practice productive strategies can significantly improve student learning. In addition to some of the study strategy support highlighted here, you might consider: 

  • Introduce the Cornell note-taking strategy (see here for an overview). Modeling this strategy with your class can help them hone an effective practice.
  • Provide students with a basic “lecture map” or outline of a class session or unit (even if it’s not a lecture) to help students frame the content and fill in conceptual gaps.  
  • Provide opportunities for students to compare their notes with another student’s notes. What are the similarities and differences in what they wrote down? Did they agree on key concepts and main ideas? 
  • Encourage students to self-test and quiz each other as study partners or in study groups. This explanation of how to study from a textbook (or any reading, actually) suggests one approach for crafting sample self-quiz questions. If your students use flashcards to study, make sure they’re using them effectively by providing this guidance
  • Integrate strategies that build retrieval practice requiring the “production of an answer, rather than recognition of an answer” (Brame & Biel). Frequent quizzing, classroom polling, or consistent short answer prompts (ungraded or VERY low stakes) focused on what they just did, what they did a few days ago, and what they did earlier in the semester can foster retrieval skills.  
  • Design collaborative studying practices that focus on the same content on different occasions strengthens the memory “muscle.”  This PDF is a great explanation. 
  • Refer students to the resources and staff in the Center for Academic Success