Memrise: Making Memorization Fun

Memrise logoRote memorization as a learning strategy has fallen out of favor in recent years, for good reason. When students cram by memorizing facts for an exam, those memories are often fleeting. Long term memory is built differently. Yet a certain amount of memorization of facts is essential to the foundation of any discipline. There can be multiple layers to the need for these foundational facts in a course. In an introductory class, it is expected that students will learn these facts, but as an instructor you may not want to have them spend valuable class time to this end. At higher levels of course work, students may need to do remedial work to brush up on the facts or to learn from scratch on their own. How can you help students with learning the facts for your course?

Enter Memrise, “…an online learning community where one can learn almost anything in the world, entirely for free! Through just the right mix of science, fun and community, learning on Memrise is speedy, enjoyable and lasts.” Moreover, the Memrise app makes it easy for your students to learn on the go using their smartphones. [See: Apple App StoreGoogle Play Store]

Memrise offers existing courses in languages (including vocabulary, grammar, and culture), arts, literature, math, science, the natural word, history, geography, computers, engineering, law, health and medicine, business and finance, prepping for specific standardized tests, and more. If you don’t find a course that meets your requirements, you can create your own.

Memrise “…help[s] you form vivid, sensory memories. We test you continuously, always making sure to give your brain just the right workout. We remind you of what you’ve learned at scientifically optimized times so your memories are always growing stronger, and never forgotten.” Combining this with a gamification element makes the process fun. Students can use Memrise on their own, or there is also a group function that allows students to learn together, which can be created by an instructor or by students. “The group function is beneficial, because the students/group members can compete against each other on the Leaderboards. Also the members can see their overall score all together. This way the group creator/teacher can keep track of the members’ progress and learning easily.”

As a personal endorsement, back in August I tested Memrise by using a course to learn the Greek alphabet. I took two days to go through the process, then put it aside. Three months later, my retention is 100%. Results may vary, but it’s an app worth looking into when you need your students to do some memorizing.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Memrise logo

Developing and Using Effective Active-Learning Exercises in Class

On Friday, October 30, the Center for Educational Resources launched ouLogo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.r Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching series with two faculty presenting on developing and using effective active-learning exercises in their classes.

Vince Hilser, professor and chair, Department of Biology led off with a presentation [presentation slides] describing how he had used active learning to help students understand a core concept, equilibrium, in his Biochemistry course. Showing his sense of humor, Hilser presented a timeline for the first semester he taught the course in 2011: August—Hilser prepares (brilliant) lectures. September, October, November—Hilser delivers (brilliant) lectures to students. January 2012—Hilser receives student evaluations and realizes that students did not learn from (brilliant) lectures.

Vince Hilser's diagram of What is Biochemistry showing inverted triangle with Facts, Reasoning Skills and Core Concept.Convinced that understanding the principle of equilibrium would enable students to truly learn it, Hilser wondered if he could help his students actually see an example of equilibrium.  A classic demonstration of equilibrium is the so-called Apple Wars: An apple tree straddles the properties of two neighbors with yards separated by fences. Every fall the tree drops its fruit and the old man and young man throw the unwanted apples into each other’s yards. Ultimately, as they are throwing, the number of apples on each side will reach a constant state, which is at equilibrium.

In Hilser’s classroom (a large lecture hall), a long line of yellow police caution tape running from front to back stood for the fence. Ping pong balls represented the apples. Students on one side were the young man and could fetch and throw with both hands, on the other side, the old man students were handicapped by being allowed to fetch and throw with the left hand only. A blast from a whistle started the students throwing ping pong balls across the fence, retrieving and throwing back. At the end of a timed sequence the balls were gathered on each side and counted. The exercise was repeated and the results echoed those of the first round. Then Hilser introduced the equation for equilibrium, filling in the results from the ping pong war demonstration to demonstrate the application of variables.  Once the students have seen in real life what equilibrium is, the equation make sense to them. They can then move on to methods of inquiry and how biological systems work.

Hilser could see from course assessments that students had a firmer grasp of the concepts. Evaluations showed that 86% of the students felt that the apple wars demonstration was effective in helping them to understand and apply the concept of chemical equilibrium. Students trusted the facts because they had experienced the proof. One student commented, “This really made me believe that organized randomness occurs in nature,” a statement that shows a high level of perception and extrapolation. Hilser’s presentation demonstrated that a good active-learning exercise can be worth more to students than a lot of words from the sage on the stage.

Todd Hufnagel, Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, presented [presentation slides] on his experience with using peer instruction in his Structure of Materials course. This class typically has 20 to 25 students.

Photograph showing students in the active learning classroom in Todd Hufnagel's Structure of Materials course.In 2011 Hufnagel received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In response to the broader impacts requirement, he decided pursue an educational research project. For Hufnagel, a core principle underscores his teaching philosophy as articulated in this quote from Herbert A. Simon: “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks.” The grant allowed him to test whether student learning outcomes would be better if the course was taught using an active-learning model or using a traditional lecture style by teaching it twice each way in alternating years.

He turned to a model developed by Harvard’s Professor of Physics, Eric Mazur, involving the use of concept inventories and peer learning. “A concept inventory is a criterion-referenced test designed to determine whether a student has an accurate working knowledge of a specific set of concepts.” Students are given a concept inventory test at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester to measure their learning gains.

During the semester, the concept questions are used as a basis for peer instruction. Hufnagel introduces a slide with a multiple choice question. Students use their clickers to vote on what they think is the correct answer. Hufnagel shows them a histogram of all the answers. If the histogram indicates that students are confused as to the correct answer, he asks students to discuss the question in pairs of small groups.  Based on the idea that the best way to learn something is to teach it, students who know the correct answer will explain the concept to those who don’t.

After discussing the question, the students are asked to vote again. The instructor can then determine the level of understanding and proceed with a full explanation, a quick clarification, or simply affirm that the students are correct and move on to the next concept.

Is active learning better? Hufnagel’s comparison of teaching the class two ways showed that improvement in concept inventory scores in lecture version of class was 63%, for the active learning classes the improvement was 100%. He also surveyed the students about how their confidence in understanding the material.  Interestingly, the lecture course students rated their knowledge much higher than the active learning students. Hufnagel thought this is because the active learning setting makes students realize how much they don’t know, while the lecture course students aren’t as aware of what they don’t know.

Hufnagel detailed the pros and cons of using a peer-instruction approach. On the plus side, students learn more, and the instructor gets more effective feedback on what they students actually know as s/he circulates through class listening to their discussion. Hufnagel also noted that this approach was much more fun for him as a teacher. The drawbacks are that it can be more difficult to “cover the material,” and there is a significant time commitment on the part of the faculty. For the first, Hufnagel noted that the important thing is that students understand the material that is covered, and that students can be made responsible for learning some of the content outside of class. As to the second, while it is easier and faster for faculty to write lectures, once the concept questions are written, they have a long shelf life and can be re-used. In the end, the strong evidence of improved student learning gains with active learning is a compelling argument for using these teaching strategies.

Faculty attendees had questions and made comments during the discussion period. Following is a summary of some of the main points.

On ways of handling coverall “all the material,” Hufnagel assigns reading and watching videos outside of class. He finds the students like the videos as they can tackle content on their own schedule and repeat as often as needed to understand the material. There is quick four question quiz on the assignment to encourage students to both do the work and to help them retain the concepts. Research tells us that students learn by being asked to recall content frequently. He spends the first five minutes of class talking informally, perhaps brining in a topical information to increase interest, then spends the rest of the class on concept questions. Typically he will get through about six questions per class. He tells his students that he has data that show students learn better with active learning and that helps with buy-in to what may be a new learning experience.

To faculty questioning how much time had to be allocated for active learning exercises, Hilser explained that the ping pong ball demonstration takes an entire class, but it establishes an understanding of a concept so fundamental to the course that is it worth the time spent.

A question, “What about teaching the facts?  What if students don’t absorb enough factual knowledge?” led to a response by Hilser that there are many facts that are critically important as base knowledge, absolutely required facts. But he and Hufnagel agreed that beyond the core facts, students can look up information. The instructor’s role is to provide context.

One attendee noted that he has participated as an instructor in a department where lecture and active learning course covering the same content are running in parallel.  The active learning class do slightly better (10%) on exams, but they are much happier in class–more satisfaction is seen in the active learning students.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the forthcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the session here at The Innovative Instructor.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Vince Hilser and Todd  Hufnagel.

Improving the Climate in Your Classroom

Drawing of a green chalkboard with Welcome to Class written on it and a storm cloud with lightning bolts lower left and sun burst lower right.What do we mean when we talk about classroom climate?  Classroom climate can be defined as “…the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn. [Ambrose et. al. How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey Bass. 2010.] How you, as an instructor, choose to interact with students in your classroom will affect the classroom climate.

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTE) at Cornell University provides an overview of the factors that teachers should consider in thinking about classroom climate. Not only must we be aware of blantant biases in dealing with students, but also the micro-inequities, small but significant interactions that have a negative effect on students. The Cornell CTE discusses the factors that play into creating a negative or positive climate (sterotyping, tone, interactions, and choice of content) and offers examples of ways to access and improve your classroom climate.

In a recent (September 2015) video produced by The Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know, “transgender and gender-nonbinary students share what keeps them from feeling safe and thriving on campus.” These students give us personal and powerful statements on how we can improve their classroom and campus experiences. The video is about 12 minutes long, and covers the recognition of the range of gender identities, use of preferred names over birth names, the use of pronouns, the need for resources and staff deticated to LGBTQ student life, and restroom and housing issues. The message is that by asking about preferences we can make a difference for all students.

Last, but certainly not least, I recommend watching a video produced for the 2014 MOOC  An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching. This course is being offered again this fall by the CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning) Network. The video is also available throught the Vanderbilt University YouTube site. In The Affective Doman: Classroom Climate (25 minutes), Dr. Michele DiPietro, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennessaw State University, discusses the many aspects of classroom climate and the importance for student motivation and learning.

Dr. DiPietro covers a lot of ground in his presentation. Especially valuable, he makes us aware of the fact that even the best-intentioned instructors may be unaware of the ways in which classroom climate has consequences for their students. He cites a 1994 study by DeSurra and Church, [Unlocking the Classroom Closet: Privileging the Marginalized Voices of Gay/Lesbian College Students], that demonstrates that faculty frequently rate themselves higher on a continuum representing creating an inclusive versus marginalizing classroom climate than their students do.

How can faculty do a better job? DiPietro suggests that we start by examining our assumptions, which can be a difficult task as we are often blind to our own preconceptions.  He advocates learning and using students’ preferred names, modeling inclusive language, using multiple and diverse examples, establishing ground rules for interaction, striving to be fair, not asking people to speak for an entire group that they may or may not actually represent, and being aware of micro-inequities. By the end of DiPietro’s presentation, we will understand not only why it important it is to access classroom climate, but what we can do to create the best possible learning environment for all students.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from images

Where Goes the Lecture, Reprise

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a question mark over it.Lectures were the topic of the last post, and usually I adhere to the adage that variety is the spice of life. Lectures, however, have been a hot topic in education news recently, and there was a comment on the previous post with a link that I wanted to share. Therefore, lectures, take two.

First, Illysa Izenberg, lecturer for the Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, commented on the previous post, “I think maybe the best way to teach may be to teach in many different ways.” She wrote an article for Faculty Focus (a free e-newsletter and website that publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom) titled, The Eight-Minute Lecture Keeps Students Engaged, August 31, 2015. Izenberg writes: “When I began teaching in 2006, I assumed that students could read anything I say. Therefore, my classes consisted of debates of, activities building on, and direct application of theories taught in the readings—no lectures. But I noticed that students had difficulty understanding the content in a way that enabled accurate and deep application without some framing from me. In short, I needed to lecture—at least a little. This is when I began the eight-minute lecture.” She then describes how to prepare students for using this methodology and how to implement it in your course. An example from a course she taught provides specificity. Although this technique might be more difficult to apply in a traditional large lecture hall, it would work well in any classroom space that allows for flexible seating arrangements.

On October 17, 2015, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece for the Times Sunday Review, Lecture Me. Really. Worthen pushes back against the “active learning craze” in favor of the traditional lecture, especially for humanities courses. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.” Students should be exposed to “absorbing a long, complex, argument” that requires them to “synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Along with this she cites the value of learning hand-written note-taking skills, which recent research has shown help students better remember course content.

Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate, responded to Worthen on October 21, 2015 with Professors Shouldn’t Teach to Younger Versions of Themselves, offering a reality check. Worthen’s concept represents an ideal situation with ideal students, Schuman says, but those may not be the students in your classroom. “The American professoriate shouldn’t gear their courses exclusively to students who are so bright and motivated they could learn the material on their own. They should also include components designed for the average, real, very-much-not-ideal student they will actually meet.”

Regardless of what you choose as the method for content delivery, you will want to consider classroom climate and teaching to diversity, making sure that you are fostering an inclusive classroom.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from images

Where goes the Lecture?

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a slash through it.At Johns Hopkins there have recently been discussions among faculty and high-level administrators around the concept of “blowing up” the lecture. Nationally, we hear and read that the lecture is ripe to be “disrupted” and replaced by online, hybrid, or flipped course experiences. This is a debate that arouses strong feelings for and against the age-old pedagogical method. But what if you aren’t in a position to re-invent your lecture-based course? The three articles reviewed in today’s post offer some insights into best practices for working within the lecture format.

In How to Teach in an Age of Distraction [The Chronicle of Higher Education October 2, 2015], Sherry Turkle, Professor, Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looks at the broader issue of reaching students immersed in their electronic devices. As almost all instructors today face this challenge, the article is well worth a read, whether or not lecturing is your mode of content delivery.

Turkle defends, with caveats, the lecture, citing anecdotal evidence from colleagues that with MOOCs and flipped classes, students often miss interacting face-to-face with an esteemed faculty member. “A student in an MIT class acknowledges that she gets to listen to the professor speak in an online video, but she wishes she could hear him lecture in person. He is an international figure and has a reputation for being charismatic. She feels she is missing out.” Turkel argues that watching course content videos alone in their dorm rooms isolates students and increases their connecting learning with using electronic devices. Further, she says,

But for all its flaws, the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged. What makes the greatest impression in a college education is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own. Students watch a professor thinking on her feet, and in the best cases can say: “Someday I could do that.” What the young man meant by showing up to “something alive” was really showing up to someone alive — a teacher, present and thinking in front of him.

As stated above, Turkel’s essay focuses primarily on the value of face-to-face conversation and collaboration, arguably not the primary components of most lecture-based courses. A well-designed flipped class would be more likely to foster these pedagogies. But, in Turkel’s defense, the flipped-class trend has not guaranteed that all flipped classes are better learning experiences for students than lectures.

In Turkel’s own classes, which are small seminars, students agreed to put away their devices and focus on the discussion at hand. It is not out of the question to ask that your students do the same in a lecture class. Helping students understand what they will gain by doing so may go a long way towards getting buy in. Turkel’s essay will help you make those points.

There are other reasons to eschew the old-fashioned sage-on-the-stage approach in favor of more interactive teaching practices. Annie Murphy Paul in Are College Lectures Unfair?, an opinion piece in The New York Times [September 12, 2015] asks if college lectures discriminate. Specifically, are lectures “… biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?”

Paul cites studies conducted by scholars at the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin that suggest that the lecture format puts women, minorities, low-income, and first-generation college students at a disadvantage. The studies showed that use of active learning strategies in the classroom reversed the effect. “Research comparing the two methods [lecture vs active learning] has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

Although Paul looks to flipped-format courses as the answer, there are many examples of ways in which to incorporate active learning into a lecture by using classroom polling systems (clickers), think-pair-share exercises (see more on this below), and other strategies. See Twenty Ways to Make Lectures More Participatory from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for more ideas.

Regardless of the content-delivery format, instructors should understand the value of creating an inclusive classroom climate and the importance of teaching to students with diverse backgrounds. The JHU TILE project (Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments) is a good place to go for resources. I highly recommend watching the video The Affective Domain: Classroom Climate.

The third article, What If You Have to Lecture?  by David Gooblar, Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa [The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae: Pedagogy Unbound, February 18, 2015] addresses the conundrum directly.  Gooblar offers three ideas to keep students engaged for those who “…simply don’t have the option of abandoning a lecture-dominated course.”

Gooblar’s first suggestion is to use regular quizzing. He cites an earlier article he wrote on the benefits of frequent low-stakes testing for student retention of information. He offers the suggestion of handing out a short multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of the class that students will answer as the lecture progresses. All of the questions will be covered in your lecture. The quizzes are collected and graded at the end of every class with each quiz counting as a small percentage of the final grade. An even better pedagogical approach, Gooblar proposes, would be to have students answer the questions at the beginning of the class before the lecture, then correcting their own answers during the lecture. This approach allows students to see what they don’t understand and helps them focus on learning those points.

Gooblar second idea is to incorporate group work, a common active-learning strategy, into your lectures by putting students in pairs. Pairs work best in large lecture settings as it is easy for students to turn to the person next to them, and every student is accountable. He describes the classic think-pair-share activity, but also suggests, “Pair students up and, at various points throughout the lecture, pause and ask the pairs to share and compare notes for the previous section of the lecture. This is a good way for students to discover if they’ve missed anything important, and for misconceptions to reveal themselves quickly.”

Thirdly, he recommends that you “cultivate confusion” by asking students either in the middle of the lecture or at the end to write down their “muddiest point.” If you do this in the middle of class you should then call on students and have them read their responses so that you can address concepts that are not clear.  If students are asked at the end of class, collecting the responses, reviewing them and then responding at the beginning of the next lecture to clarify misunderstandings will help keep them on track. Gooblar maintains that this “…is a great way to break students out of the role of passive listeners….” This kind of formative assessment is a good practice for an instructor as well.

Even if you must lecture, you can ask students to be present and reinforce that by keeping them actively engaged. They can’t be on their cell phones if they are being called upon to answer questions, take graded quizzes, and pair up to discuss concepts with classmates. Be aware of the inequities that lecturing may bring and address issues of classroom climate at the beginning of your course. Use formative assessment to benefit you and your students. As you can see, a lecture doesn’t have to be a passive experience.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from images

Do Your Students Understand the Assignment?

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention this past week: The Unwritten Rules of College by Dan Berrett (September 21, 2015), profiled art history professor Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her quest to help students learn how to learn.

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.Winkelmes, the former director of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, has also trained faculty in teaching at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and, currently, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where she is principal investigator of  Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. This project seeks “to improve higher education teaching and learning experiences for faculty and students through two main activities:

  • promoting students’ conscious understanding of how they learn, and
  • enabling faculty to gather, share and promptly benefit from current data about students’ learning by coordinating their efforts across disciplines, institutions and countries.

A primary focus for Winkelmes has been reaching out to students who are first generation college students or otherwise may not understand what she calls “the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college.” [See: Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. “Equity of Access and Equity of Experience in Higher Education.” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24, 2 (February 2015), 1-4.] “As an increasingly broad and diverse cross section of students enters higher education, knowing those rules matters more than ever. Without them, students stumble. They might miss the point of a paper, drift during discussions, or feel overwhelmed or aimless. But all students can thrive, Ms. Winkelmes says, if the tacit curriculum is made plain.”

Winkelmes’ findings from the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project point to giving assignments in a transparent manner as having a “significant effect on students.” Faculty involved in the project considered three questions when creating assignments: the task, the purpose, and the criteria.

Defining the task means that the students are told exactly they are to do. Students should also know the purpose of the assignment. Why are they being asked to do this and what is the instructor’s goal? What are the criteria that will be used to evaluate the work that the students submit?

The article provides details on how several faculty took assignments they had used in the past, reviewed them using the three questions, and then implemented improved versions of the assignments in their classes. While some faculty have pushed back on the process, others have found it to be valuable, saying that clarifying the assignment at the outset helps save time in the long run.

This relatively easy technique has proved to have a big impact. “In the classroom, knowing the task, purpose, and criteria can help motivate students and make their courses relevant. In other areas, the information can help them navigate an intimidating system. To Ms. Winkelmes, the protocol helps students meet higher expectations of rigor, which, in turn, can ensure equity in educational quality.”


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source:

The CIRTL MOOC is Back!

Last fall I blogged several times about the CIRTL MOOC. CIRTL—the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning—is an NFS funded consortium of 21 universities whose “…mission is to enhance excellence in undergraduate education through the development of a national faculty committed to implementing and advancing effective teaching practices for diverse learners as part of successful and varied professional careers.” CIRTL promotes three core ideas: Teaching-as-Research, Learning Community, and Learning-through-Diversity.

Screenshot of Coursera course description page for An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching.CIRTL offers a number of courses, some of which are open to participation to those who are not in CIRTL member institutions. Last fall (2014), An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, developed by CIRTL member faculty at Vanderbilt University, Michigan State University, Boston University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, was launched. You can see this description on the CIRTL website:

  • Instructors: Faculty and staff from across the CIRTL Network.
  • Duration of course: September 28, 2015 – November 20, 2015
  • Format: MOOC on Coursera (
  • Suggested Credits: Coursera version is noncredit; local MOOC-centered learning communities may offer credit locally.
  • Open to: Early or advanced graduate students, post docs, academic staff and faculty
  • Technology Requirements: internet access
  • Accessibility: We strive to be inclusive of anyone interested in participating in our activities, programs, and courses. If you have specific accessibility needs, please let us know in advance so that we may make the necessary accommodations.

The Coursera website description adds: “This course will provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to evidence-based teaching practices. Participants will learn about effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them, and they will apply what they learn to the design of lessons and assignments they can use in future teaching opportunities. Those who complete the course will be more informed and confident teachers, equipped for greater success in the undergraduate classroom.”

I took the course last fall and found it to have great videos on topics such as learning objectives, assessment, peer instruction, inquiry based labs, learning through writing, and problem based learning. My assessment is that it is not just appropriate for STEM instructors; anyone teaching at the higher education level could benefit from the course content.

Here are links to last year’s The Innovative Instructor blog posts inspired by the course content:

One thing that I really like about MOOCs is that if you are not taking one for credit or certification, you can go at your own pace, take what you need and skip over content that is not relevant. Moreover, in this case, you will continue to have access to course materials after the MOOC has finished. While you lose the benefit of participation in discussion threads and getting feedback on assignments, being able to view the videos and readings has value.

Whether you are STEM or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), just starting out in your teaching career or a seasoned professional looking for some new ideas, sign up for An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Screen shot

What to Do When Your Students Arrive Late

It’s the beginning of the semester (or quarter) and already you are experiencing the problem. Maybe it starts with just one student, who every class comes rushing in late. Or perhaps a small group saunters in just as your lecture or discussion is getting going, fresh coffees in hand. Then there is the snowball effect—it starts with one or two latecomers to your early morning class, and then gradually the numbers increase until the disruption of late arrivals is too much to ignore. Whatever the scenario, is there a solution?Digital display You Are Late in white letters on blue background.

The answer is yes, but how you choose to handle the situation may depend on the size of your class, the culture at your institution, and your teaching philosophy. Some instructors take a hard line approach, others may attempt to deal with each offender individually. The latter concept, to speak individually to students who arrive late, is worth considering. If your institution has a large campus, or several campuses from which students may be arriving, it could be that they don’t have sufficient time to change classes. Or there is the possibility that another instructor is consistently running late, leaving students to race to their next class. It is appropriate to work with students to find a solution, before penalizing them and before getting too far into the semester when habits may be harder to break.

Advice from various sources provides a range of strategies. In Late Again? (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2015) Stephanie Reese Masson, an instructor of language, English, and communication at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, recommends talking to your class about lateness and potential motivators for punctual arrival. She chose two tactics—marking late students as absent with a grade reduction after four absences and periodically offering unscheduled, short, in-class, extra-credit activities at the start of class. Her essay includes other ideas as well.

Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence has a page of advice on reducing late arrivals, including arriving early yourself so that you can interact with students as they come into class. “If you arrive to class early, you show your students that you value your time with them.  By arriving early, chatting with students, answering questions and starting on time, you build rapport and model proper classroom etiquette.  Do not try to embarrass late students in front of the class.  Statements such as “I see you’re late again,” or “Why are you late, Mr. Watson?” beg for a reply and can easily domino into greater classroom distractions.  A better approach is simply to welcome the late student.  A welcoming recognition of a late student lets the student know that you are aware of his/her lateness without giving opportunity to spiraling incivility.  If a student is habitually late, ask to talk to the student after class and express your concerns to him/her in private.” Other suggestions include starting class with an activity or with something that will intrigue your students.

The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University has a section on their website called Solve a Teaching Problems, which is a great resource for a range of issues instructors are likely to encounter. For each issue, potential reasons are identified and appropriate solutions and strategies are offered. For Students come to class late, possible reasons include: students don’t take responsibility for themselves, students’ expectations are out of line with the instructor’s, students don’t recognize how their lateness affects others, students don’t perceive the beginning of class as important, there is no consequence to being late, students are trying to challenge the instructor’s authority, students are experiencing emotional or psychological problems, and students have physical or logistical reasons for coming late. Each link will take you to a page with applicable strategies.

The key take-away from all the advice offered is that to solve the problem of student tardiness, you must first understand the reasons that students are arriving late.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image courtesy of Stuart Mills at

Back to School

It’s freshman move-in day on our campus, signaling the end of summer and the start of classes. Today’s post offers some resources for instructors as the semester begins.

Empty lecture hall, tiered with wooden seats.The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker Blog post from August 13, 2015 by Natalie Houston (associate professor of English, University of Houston), From the Archives: Getting Ready for the New Semester, offers tips on getting ready to teach. Whether you are new to the profession or a practiced professor, there are links to articles with suggestions on learning student names, being prepared for medical emergencies in class, and routines to help you get organized.

In the The First Day of Class: A Once-a-Semester Opportunity (Teaching Professor Blog August 19, 2015), Maryellen Weimer, (professor emerita, Penn State Berks) writes, “There’s only one first day of class. Here are some ideas for taking advantage of opportunities that are not available in the same way on any other day of the course.” She suggests using the opportunity to tell students why the course is important, why you are committed to teaching it, why they should be committed to learning the material. Take the time to learn about your students and begin building relationships with them. “[G]et students connected with each other and the course content.”

Students often complain of poor presentation methods in lectures where instructors use PowerPoint (or other presentation software applications). A common mistake is to attempt to make your slides serve two purposes by being both lecture notes and lecture slides. This leads to too much text on the slides and reading from the slide. Both practices lead to student inattention. Bryan Alexander, in Giving a great presentation: notes on using PowerPoint, (July 27, 2015) tell us, “Your argument…is the essential thing.  The slides enhance your essential argument.  They amplify it and render it easier to understand. Make and use slides accordingly.” While the focus of the article is on presentations in general, there are some good things to consider for your use of presentation software in teaching!

Thinking about flipping your course? Check out Robert Talbert’s post Four things I wish I’d known about the flipped classroom (June 5, 2014), from his blog Casting Out Nines.

Or, perhaps you are considering implementing active learning strategies in your classroom. A recent article in Nature, Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right (July 15, 2015) by M. Mitchell Waldrop, examines the problem of persistence in undergraduate STEM education. “Active problem-solving confers a deeper understanding of science than does a standard lecture. But some university lecturers are reluctant to change tack.” Waldrop stresses the importance of active learning, while analyzing the factors and challenges that contribute to slow adoption. For specific active learning strategies, see Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence website page on Active Learning. If you are going to be using an active learning classroom, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Education Innovation offers advice.

New to teaching or looking to brush up on your pedagogical skills? The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is re-offering the 8 week-long MOOC: An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, starting September 28 and running until November 19, 2015. Having taken the course last year, I highly recommend signing up. Here’s the description from Coursera:

“This course will provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to evidence-based teaching practices. Participants will learn about effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them, and they will apply what they learn to the design of lessons and assignments they can use in future teaching opportunities. Those who complete the course will be more informed and confident teachers, equipped for greater success in the undergraduate classroom.”


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Copyright and Your Classroom

When we think about teaching, intellectual property rights may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet staff in JHU Center for Educational Resources where I work, and my librarian colleagues, are not infrequently asked by teaching faculty to address concerns about copyright and fair use issues in the classroom.Copyright logo - black c within a black circle.

For example: “I am assigning my students to do an online exhibition, if they re-use images and videos taken from the web, can we make the exhibits public?” “It’s educational, so it’s fair use, right?” “I’ve created a library of video clips from popular television series to use in teaching. Is it ok to share these with my colleagues?” “How do I know if something is in the public domain?” “Why can’t the library just digitize their collection of film DVDs so we can stream them in our classrooms?”

Unfortunately, neither I nor my colleagues have law degrees with specialization in intellectual property rights (IPR). We are fortunate here at Johns Hopkins to have an Office of Legal Counsel with someone who is an IPR specialist, and there has been an effort to make policies and guidelines about common educational legal concerns easy to find and readily accessible. That’s not the case everywhere, and not all questions need an appointment with an attorney to answer. Sometimes you just need a quick answer to what is likely a common question… Fortunately there are resources to help you.

Last summer Duke University, in collaboration with Emory University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offered a MOOC, Copyright for Educators & Librarians. “Fear and uncertainty about copyright law often plagues educators and sometimes prevents creative teaching.  This course is a professional development opportunity designed to provide a basic introduction to US copyright law and to empower teachers and librarians at all grade levels.” I signed on and found it informative and engaging. So, I was excited to learn that the course is now being offered on demand.

The “…goal [of the course] is to provide participants with a practical framework for analyzing copyright issues that they encounter in their professional work. We use a lot of real life examples—some of them quite complex and amusing—to help participants get used to the systematic analysis of copyright problems. This course is intentionally a first step toward bridging the gulf that is often perceived between desirable educational practice and legal permissible activities.”

The instructors, Kevin Smith, MLS, JD, Director, Copyright and Scholarly Communication Duke University Libraries; Lisa A. Macklin, JD, MLS, Director, Scholarly Communications Office, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University; and Anne Gilliland, JD, MLS, Scholarly Communications Officer University Libraries, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill bring knowledge and enthusiasm to the course modules, which are framed as discussions. Now that the course is offered on demand, you can sign up and take it as your schedule allows. There are five units, which cover an introduction to copyright law, a framework for thinking about copyright, owning rights, specific exemptions for teachers and librarians, and understanding and using fair use.

For those of you who need just in time assistance, I can recommend the very thorough LibGuide on Copyright, put together by our JHU librarians. There is a section specifically for Teaching Faculty, with information on the TEACH Act, Fair Use Teaching Tools, guidelines for the use of copyrighted materials within course management software, and more. Additional resources include a discussion of European Copyright law, and links to other university IPR guides and pages. The Copyright Crash Course website at the University of Texas at Austin Libraries is particularly useful.

Ignorance of the law is not a defense in IPR matters. These resources will help you to get a better grasp of the issues that should be of concern to you in the classroom.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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