Using Classroom Simulations as an Active Learning Technique

College educators have many goals for students; we want them to acquire more knowledge and be better critical thinkers, but also to feel empowered and energized about their future contribution to society. Students that are motivated and ambitious are more likely to pursue personal opportunities and inventive ideas. This type of energy and focus also contributes to the problem-solving capacity of society as a whole. Although a positive attitude often comes from within the student or outside the classroom, the structure of learning also has an impact.

For the global environmental politics classroom, the problem of student attitudes is especially acute: students of global environmental governance are particularly prone to negative emotional reactions, including feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which can engender apathy and cynicism.  Students come to believe that the complexity and depth of problems like climate change make effective action impossible. Students who do not believe a problem can be solved are unlikely to seek solutions to that problem in their post-college careers. Using active learning techniques like Simulations can combat these attitudes, by giving students the opportunity to collectively investigate and tackle barriers to international action.

I designed a Simulation for the last week of my fall 2017 “Politics of the Ocean” class, because I noticed that the students often left class in despair. Solutions to over-fishing, Model United Nations simulation with students sitting at tables with flags of the represented countries.plastic pollution, dead zones, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and other ocean issues seemed out of reach because of political and economic barriers. The number and complexity of ocean issues seemed overwhelming. And yet, we knew that the United Nations was gearing up to negotiate a new treaty to govern the high seas. This provided me with the opportunity to design a politics Simulation that hewed as close to the real world as possible, where students could practice negotiating a treaty that addressed many of the problems they had learned about in class.

The basic features of the course dictated the options for Simulation design – I had 15 students, and we met twice a week for a total of 2.5 hours. I started by assigning students to polity teams in the week before the Simulation began. I choose countries that have had the most influence on ocean governance historically, and groups that would likely have influence in the upcoming negotiations: The United States, China, Russia, the G77 coalition, Singapore, and NGOs. I asked students to do the assigned readings for the next week – each of which contained a specific proposal for ocean governance – with their team in mind.

The Simulation was divided into two days. On day one, students worked within their teams to answer a series of questions like “Who are the primary ocean interest groups in your country?” “What are your priorities for ocean governance?” and “What treaty design best serves your interests?” Students were instructed to work with their teammates, and to do supplementary in-class research to help flesh out their positions. Some teams had specific questions: the NGOs had to decide which NGOs to represent, and the China team had to decide whether to negotiate with the G77, or on its own. The Singapore team had additional questions about how the negotiations ought to be run, because of Singapore’s historic role as a leader in organizing past Law of the Sea negotiations.

On day two, students entered the classroom to discover groups of tables designated with small flags. Singapore ran the negotiations while I took notes, with some minor interventions. Each team started with an opening statement about their key interests and main concerns, with short rebuttals following. Then Singapore asked each team to submit a list of priority topics, and chose the top four. While the original plan was to address each in turn through speeches and open discussion, the students ended up deciding to address all the issues simultaneously. In the last ten minutes, Singapore collected specific treaty language proposals. Each of six new rules was voted on individually, and those that with a majority of teams affirming became the agreed upon treaty.

I designed this Simulation to achieve attitudinal goals in three ways. First, role playing required students to formulate prescriptions from the descriptions of ocean problems and governance models they had learned about in class. The idea is that practicing advocacy will help students recognize that they have informed opinions about ocean issues, and see themselves as agents of change. Second, the format shows students that complexity is not the same as intractability. The two-day design allows group work to break down the structure of a collective action problem, construct a policy agenda and negotiation strategy, and consider various policy models described in the literature. Third, the negotiations allow students to directly encounter barriers to consensus formation, instead of speculating about everything that could hold up an agreement. Confronting obstacles to agreement this way may illustrate the utility of issue-linkages, and demonstrate that there are coalitions willing to move forward.

I assessed the achievement of attitudinal learning outcomes using a short pre- and post-Simulation survey, which asked students to rate their level of agreement with statements like “All relevant parties can get what they want from the oceans” and “The situation in the high seas is too complicated for effective management.” The survey also asked students to rank the importance of different barriers to an international treaty, like “political will” and “public education.” The final questions were open-ended, and asked students to use one word to describe the situation in the ocean, and also how they feel about it. While the survey results showed a slight improvement in optimism, I was surprised by the fact that students started out more optimistic than I expected.

The biggest mistake I made in the design of this Simulation was asking the Singapore team to take a leadership role by designing the basic structure of the negotiations, and leading the class on day two. Although I chose two students with obvious leadership qualities, they found it difficult to command authority among the teams, and to push for efficiency in negotiations. They also seemed displeased that they had a “special” role, and more interested in participating as a regular team. Most of the students reported wanting to start the Simulation earlier in the semester, so they could have more time getting into the details of constructing a workable solution to collective problems in the ocean.

This type of Simulation is relatively easy to design and implement, and there exists a broad literature relating game design to specific cognitive and attitudinal goals. Even though this Simulation was imperfect, students reported on their course evaluations that they appreciated doing something different, and having the chance to work through obstacles to consensus as a group. And because this type of Simulation can be used with a larger class size (just add more teams), I know that the lessons from this class can be used to improve the Simulation for the future.

Elizabeth Mendenall, PhD candidate, Johns Hopkins University

Elizabeth Mendenhall is a PhD candidate in International Relations. Her dissertation concerns obstacles to effective governance in the global commons, specifically the ocean, atmosphere, and outer space. She will be starting as an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island in the Fall of 2017.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons








Snow Day? How to Keep Your Classes Going Even When Life Doesn’t Cooperate

Dog sled shown in a snow-covered landscape with mountains in the background.Winter here in Baltimore brings the specter of freak snowstorms dropping two feet of the white stuff on our campus and shutting the city down for a week. Missing two or three class sessions can push your course syllabus into the realm of unrecoverable. Even if you live in more tropical climes, there is always a critical conference, a virulent virus, or other unplanned absence-causer lurking. The good news is that with a little thinking ahead, you can keep your classes going virtually whether or not you are present in reality.

Staff in the Center for Educational Resources prepared a handy guide for weather-related emergencies: Options for Continuing Instruction. While the guide is specific to Johns Hopkins tools, resources and applications, it is adaptable to other circumstances. The suggestions will be even easier to implement if you take some time to plan ahead.

Some of the suggestions recommend the use of Blackboard, the JHU learning management system. Readers from outside of Hopkins can substitute your institution’s LMS. Even if you don’t use the LMS regularly it is a good idea to have a course shell ready to go for an emergency situation. At JHU all courses have a Blackboard shell ready to be activated by the instructor. Here is general help with Blackboard if you are a new user or need a refresher.

First and foremost, it is important to have a way to contact all of your students. JHU Faculty can do this through Blackboard or our Student Information System (SIS). In any case, letting your students know how to proceed in an unplanned absence will be critical to your success. It’s also crucial to let your students know your expectations for assignments and other course modifications made during the closure or your absence.

You can share course materials with students using your LMS, or through a file sharing system such as DropBox. JHU faculty have JHBox freely available for their use. Students can submit assignments by email or through the LMS.

Replacing actual time in the lecture hall or classroom can be more challenging, but is doable. For a smaller class or seminar where discussion is the norm, you can conduct asynchronous discussions using a threaded discussion application. Blackboard has one as a built in feature (see here for help setting this up and here for tips on implementation). Voicethread (here for JHU, here for others), which at JHU is integrated with Blackboard, is another option. A wiki application, such as Google Sites, could be adapted for use as an online discussion tool. Teleconferencing is also an option for smaller classes. IT@JH provides instructions on live teleconferencing options. Skype could also be used for live discussion.

 There are applications, such as Adobe Connect (available here for use by JHU faculty) that will allow you to conduct a live, synchronous lecture and record it for students to watch later. Panopto is another JHU resource for recording a video lecture that can be posted to your Blackboard course site for students to watch on their own schedule. If you don’t have access to these applications, it is possible to create a PowerPoint presentation and do a voice recording over the slides to send to your students. Even lower-tech and easier, put your lecture script in the notes section of the slides instead of voice recording.

The purpose of these solutions is to keep your students and course content delivery from falling irretrievably behind. Having a plan in place ahead of time, figuring out the options that will work best for your course, learning how to use the relevant applications, and alerting your students to the possibilities, will save you time and headaches when the snow starts falling.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Lunch and Learn: Team-Based Learning

Logo 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.On Friday, December 16, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2016-1017 academic year. Eileen Haase, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering, and Mike Reese, Director, Center for Educational Resources, and Instructor in Sociology, discussed their approaches to team-based learning (TBL).

Eileen Haase teaches a number of core courses in Biomedical Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, including Freshmen Modeling and Design, BME Teaching Practicum, Molecules and Cells, and System Bioengineering Lab I and II, as well as being course director for Cell and Tissue Engineering and assisting with System Bioengineering II. She has long been a proponent of team work in the classroom.

In her presentation, Haase focused on the Molecules and Cells course, required for BME majors in the sophomore year, which she co-teaches with Harry Goldberg, Assistant Dean at the School of Medicine, Director of Academic Computing and faculty member, Department of Biomedical Engineering. The slides from Haase’s presentation are available here.

In the first class, Haase has the students do a short exercise that demonstrates the value of teamwork. Then the students take the VARK Questionnaire. VARK stands for Visual Aural Read/Write Kinesthetic and is a guide to learning styles. The questionnaire helps students and instructors by suggesting strategies for teaching and learning that align with these different styles. Haase and Goldberg found that 62% of their students were “multimodal” learners who will benefit from having the same material presented in several modes in order to learn it. In Haase’s class, in addition to group work, students work at the blackboard, use clickers, have access to online materials, participate in think-pair-share exercises, and get some content explained in lecture form.

Team work takes place in sections most FridSlide from Eileen Haase's presentation on Team-based Learning showing a scratch card test.ays. At the start of class, students take an individual, 10 question quiz called the iRAT, Individual Readiness Assurance Test, which consists of multiple-choice questions based on pre-class assigned materials. The students then take the test as a group (gRAT). Haase uses IF-AT scratch cards for these quizzes. Both tests count towards the students’ grades.

To provide evidence for the efficacy of team-based learning, Haase and Goldberg retested students from their course five months after the original final exam (99 of the 137 students enrolled in the course were retested). The data showed that students scored significantly better on the final exam on material that had been taught using team-based learning strategies and on the retest, retained significantly more of the TBL taught material. [See Haase’s presentation slides for details.]

Slide from Mike Reese's presentation on Team-based Learning showing four students doing data collection at a Baltimore neighborhood market.Mike Reese, Director of the Center for Educational Resources and instructor in the Department of Sociology, presented on his experiences with team-based learning in courses that included community-based learning in Baltimore City neighborhoods [presentation slides]. His courses are typically small and discussion oriented. Students read papers on urban issues and, in class, discuss these and develop research methodologies for gathering data in the field. Students are divided into teams, and Reese accompanies each team as they go out into neighborhoods to gather data by talking to people on the street and making observations on their surroundings. The students then do group presentations on their field work and write individual papers. Reese says that team work is hard, but students realize that they could not collect and analyze data in such a short time-frame without a group effort.

Reese noted that learning is a social process. We are social beings, and while many students dislike group projects, they will learn and retain more (as Haase and Goldberg demonstrated). This is not automatic. Instructors need to be thoughtful about structuring team work in their courses. The emotional climate created by the teacher is important. Reese shared a list of things to consider when designing a course that will incorporate team-based learning.

  1. Purpose: Why are you doing it? For Reese, teamwork is a skill that students should acquire, but primarily it serves his learning objectives.  If students are going to conduct a mini-research project in a short amount of time, they need multiple people working collectively to help with data collection and analysis.
  2. Group Size: This depends on the context and the course, but experts agree that having three to five students in a group is best to prevent slacking by team members.
  3. Roles: Reese finds that assigning roles works well as students don’t necessarily come into the course with strong project management skills, and projects typically require a division of labor. It was suggested that assigning roles is essential to the concept of true team-based learning as opposed to group work.
  4. Formation: One key to teamwork success is having the instructor assign students to groups rather than allowing them to self-select. [Research supports this. See Fiechtner, S. B., & Davis, E. A. (1985). Why some groups fail: A survey of students’ experiences with learning groups. The Organizational Behavior Teaching Review, 9(4), 75-88.] In Reese’s experience assigning students to groups helps them to build social capital and relationships at the institution beyond their current group of friends.
  5. Diversity: It is important not to isolate at-risk minorities. See: Heller, P. and Hollabaugh, M. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. American Journal of Physics, 60 (7), 637-644.
  6. Ice Breakers: The use of ice breakers can help establish healthy team relationships. Have students create a team name, for example, to promote an identity within the group.
  7. Contracts: Having a contract for teamwork is a good idea. In the contract, students agree to support each other and commit to doing their share of the work. Students can create contracts themselves, but it is best if the instructor provides structured questions to guide them.
  8. Persistence: Consider the purpose of having groups and how long they will last. Depending on learning goals, teams may work together over an entire semester, or reform after each course module is completed.
  9. Check-ins: It is important to check in with teams on a regular basis, especially if the team is working together over an entire semester, to make sure that the group hasn’t developed problems and become dysfunctional.
  10. Peer Evaluation: Using peer evaluation keeps a check on the students to ensure that everyone is doing a fair share of the work. The instructor can develop a rubric, or have students work together to create one. Evaluation should be on specific tasks. Ratings should be anonymous (to the students, not the instructor) to ensure honest evaluation, and students should also self-evaluate.

In the discussion that followed the presentation, mentoring of teams and peer assessment were key topics. Several faculty with experience working with team-based learning recommended providing support systems in the form of mentors and or coaches who are assigned to the groups. These could be teaching assistants or undergraduate assistants who have previously taken the course. Resources for team-based learning were mentioned. CATME, “which stands for ‘Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness,’ is a free set of tools designed to help instructors manage group work and team assignments more effectively.”

Doodle was suggested as another tool for scheduling collaborative work. Many are familiar with the Doodle poll concept, but there are also free tools such as Connect Calendars and Meet Me that can be used by students.

An Innovative Instructor print article, Making Group Projects Work by Pam Sheff and Leslie Kendrick, Center for Leadership Education,  August 2012, covers many aspects of successful teamwork.

Another resource of interest is a scholarly article by Barbara Oakley and Richard Felder, Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams [Oakley, B., Felder, R.M., Brent, R., Elhajj, I. Journal of student centered learning, 2004]. “This paper is a guide to the effective design and management of team assignments in a college classroom where little class time is available for instruction on teaming skills. Topics discussed include forming teams, helping them become effective, and using peer ratings to adjust team grades for individual performance. A Frequently Asked Questions section offers suggestions for dealing with several problems that commonly arise with student teams, and forms and handouts are provided to assist in team formation and management.

If you are an instructor on the Homewood campus, staff in the Centerfor Educational Resources will be happy to talk with you about team-based learning and your courses.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, presentation slides by Eileen Haase and Mike Reese

Tips for Writing Effective Multiple Choice Questions

Writing test questions is a daunting task for many instructors. It can be challenging to come up with questions that correctly assess students on the comprehension of course objectives. Multiple choice questions are no exception; despite being very popular, instructors often struggle to create well-constructed questions.

Piece of notebook paper with Questions at the top, followed by numbers and ABCD for each of the six numbers. Answers are circled in red.Multiple choice questions have several advantages. They lend themselves to covering a broad range of content and assessing a wide variety of learning objectives. They are very useful when testing a student’s lower level knowledge of a topic, such as factual recall and definitions, but if written correctly, they can be used to assess at the higher levels of analysis, evaluation, and critical thinking skills. Multiple choice questions are scored efficiently (even automatically, if an electronic test is used), therefore, they are frequently the evaluation method preferred by instructors of large courses.

There are some disadvantages, including the fact that this type of question can be time-consuming to construct. Multiple choice questions are made up of two parts: the stem, which identifies the question, and the alternative responses which include the correct answer as well as incorrect alternatives, known as distractors. Coming up with plausible distractors for each question can be a difficult task. And, while some higher level thinking skills can be addressed, multiple choice questions cannot measure a student’s ability to organize and express ideas.  Another thing to consider is that student success when answering multiple choice questions can be influenced by factors unrelated to the subject matter, such as reading ability, deductive reasoning, and the use of context clues.

The following guidelines are offered to help streamline the process of creating multiple choice questions as well as minimize the disadvantages of using them.

General guidelines for writing stems:

  1. When possible, prepare the stem as a clearly written question rather than an incomplete statement.

Poor Example: Psychoanalysis is….

Better example: What is the definition of psychoanalysis? 

  1. Eliminate excessive or irrelevant information from the stem.

Poor example: Jane recently started a new job and can finally afford her own car, a Honda Civic, but is surprised at the high cost of gasoline. Gasoline prices are affected by:

Better example: Which of the following are factors that affect the consumer price of gasoline? 

  1. Include words/phrases in the stem that would otherwise be repeated in the alternatives.

Poor example: Which of the following statements are true?
1. Slowing population growth can prevent global warming
2. Halting deforestation can prevent global warming
3.  Increasing beef production on viable land can prevent global warming
4.  Improving energy efficiency can prevent global warming

Better example: Which of the following techniques can be used to prevent global warming?
1. Slowing population growth
2. Halting deforestation
3. Increasing beef production on viable land
4. Improving energy efficiency 

  1. Avoid using negatively stated stems. If you must use them, highlight the negative word so that it is obvious to students.

Poor example: Which of the following is not a mandatory qualification to be the president of the United States?

Better example: Which of the following is NOT a mandatory qualification to be the president of the United States?

General guidelines for writing alternative responses:

  1. Make sure there is only one correct answer.
  1. Create distractors that are plausible to avoid students guessing the correct answer.

Poor example:
Who was the third president of the United States?
1. George Washington
2. Bugs Bunny
3. Thomas Jefferson
4. Daffy Duck

Better example: Who was the third president of the United States?
1. George Washington
2. Benjamin Franklin
3. Thomas Jefferson
4. John Adams 

  1. Make sure alternative responses are grammatically parallel to each other.

Poor example: Which of the following is the best way to build muscle?
1. Sign up to run a marathon
2. Drinking lots of water
3. Exercise classes
4. Eat protein

Better example: Which of the following is the best way to build muscle?
1. Running on a treadmill
2. Drinking lots of water
3. Lifting weights
Eating lots of protein 

  1. When possible, list the alternative responses in a logical order (numerical, alphabetical, etc.)

Poor example: How many ounces are in a gallon?
1. 16
2. 148
3. 4
4. 128

Better example: How many ounces are in a gallon?
1. 4
2. 16
3. 128
4. 148

  1. Avoid using ‘All of the above’ or ‘None of the above’ to prevent students from using partial knowledge to arrive at the correct answer.
  2. Use at least four alternative responses to enhance the reliability of the test.


Brame, C., (2013) Writing good multiple choice test questions. Retrieved December 14, 2016 from

Burton, S. J., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P.F., and Wood, B. (1991). How to Prepare Better Multiple-Choice Test Items: Guidelines for University Faculty. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Testing Services and The Department of Instructional Science.

“Multiple Choice Questions.” The University of Texas at Austin Faculty Innovation Center, 14 Dec. 2016,

Amy Brusini, Blackboard Training Specialist
Center for Educational Resources

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The Dead Grandmother Syndrome and How to Treat It

Gravemarker with angel lying face down in grief, holding a wreath.If you are a woman of a certain age, with grandchildren attending college, please watch out for yourself over the next couple of weeks. Your mortality rate is about to increase dramatically.

This is a well-documented phenomenon, first described in a scholarly journal, the Annals of Improbable Research in the November/December 1999 Special Education Issue with The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome by Mike Adams, Department of Biology at Eastern Connecticut State University. Although Adams’ article reports on the results of serious data collection, you should take the conclusions with a small amount of salt. The Annals of Improbable Research — also known as AIR — is a science humor magazine that publishes “…research that makes people laugh and then think.” But even as you may smile reading Adam’s research on the dead grandmother syndrome, it is likely because you recognize it from personal experience. As the end of the semester approaches and exams and papers are due, students who fall behind may resort to excuses for extensions or make-up dates. Your syllabus makes it clear that you don’t offer exceptions. Enter the death of a beloved grandmother.

While some faculty take a hard line on these excuses [Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before The Midterm … Chronicle Vitae, January 29, 2015], others have learned from personal experience that sometimes students’ grandmothers actually do die. Brian Thill writes of the conundrums faculty face in dealing with students excuses in The Time of Dead Grandmothers [Inside Higher Ed, March 14, 2006]. He writes: “As teachers, it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It’s as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. … How rightly to regard a student who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.”

Karen Eifler, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Portland, Oregon, offers a practical solution in Dealing with Student Deceptions: What to do with ‘Death in the Family’ Excuses [Faculty Focus, March 12, 2009]. Eifler, while well aware of the dead grandmother syndrome, also recognized that students do have deaths in the family and these events demand a sympathetic and courteous response, even while not wanting to encourage students to practice deception. This was her answer to the problem: “[W]hen a student informs me that a close relative has died, I immediately send a condolence card to the whole family, expressing my sympathy for their loss. If the student has been explicit (“It was my grandmother”), I am too. I can also match their vagueness. If the loss was authentic, the family is touched at the gesture, and I am truly glad to have extended that civility. However, if the story was a fabrication, the student finds he or she has some uncomfortable explaining to do to the family, which usually curbs that behavior.” It only took a couple of semesters before word got around about her practice, and it worked to her advantage to be seen as compassionate. Students quickly realized that it was better to speak with her honestly about their need for an extension as “…they figured anyone willing to call their bluff by sending condolences to the whole family would probably treat them with reasonable due process anyway.”

Ultimately it may be most useful to take a look at the underlying cause of the syndrome and address the stress that students are experiencing.

In his article, ‘Tis the Season of Dead Grandmothers [Chronicle Vitae, November 2, 2016], David Gooblar, lecturer in the Rhetoric department at the University of Iowa, questions  “…the assumption that strict discipline is the same thing as demanding a lot from our students.” He states that it is possible to care about your students without being a pushover. Strict policies with no exceptions may “…signal to students that adherence to the rules is more important than any other learning goal we have for them.” The end result may be detrimental to long-term learning. Gooblar prefers to create a “cohesive and supportive” learning community for his students. For example, he allows his students to come up with policies on device use in the classroom, having learned that students are more likely to adhere to policies when they have had a voice in the decision. He writes: “We should strive to create courses in which students want to do the work on time — because we’ve successfully made the case that doing the work on time will benefit them. We should also look to make students trust us enough that if tragedy does strike — sometimes family members do die, you know — they feel comfortable coming to us and explaining why they need some extra time.”

How do you handle student excuses and/or requests for extensions or makeup exams? Please share your policies and solutions in the comments section.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Tweeting the Iliad

Two years ago I wrote a post on Using Twitter in Your Course that described how Margaret Rubega, Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut with a PhD in ornithology, had used Twitter to promote active learning in a large lecture course. The post also provides some basics on how Twitter works for those unfamiliar with the social networking application. Recently, a colleague, gave me a link to an example of a faculty member using Twitter in a humanities course.

Twitter Logo Blue BirdSjoerd Levelt teaches at Bilkent University, in Ankara, Turkey in the program Cultures, Civilizations and Ideas, a year-long intensive course focusing on the meaning of culture. At Bilkent, instruction is in English. Levelt’s students are from diverse backgrounds and departments “…including computer sciences, mechanical, electrical and industrial engineering, law, archaeology, and management.” Levelt has a blog, and recently he posted on a course he is teaching on ancient and classical civilizations, covering texts ranging from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Plato’s Republic. The blog post, #Iliad, discusses the challenges he faced in teaching this text (The Iliad) and how having his students use tweeting, provided a solution.

Levelt writes: “The Iliad is not an easy text to read. Robert Fagles’ translation is not an easy translation to read. This would be true for most students (actually, most readers); and my students are further disadvantaged in that for the vast majority of them, English is not their native language, and many of them, they don’t read (or even like reading) literature all that much to begin with.” He wanted to “… explore with my students how we can engage with the classical text through various media…”.

First he had students look at other examples of how tweeting had been used to comment on literary works. Then he asked them to discuss how and why tweeting was effective in these cases. Students recognized that tweeting provides summary, explanation, commentary, and humor, among other things. In fact, reading with the idea that one will need to summarize, comment, and explicate the text in short sentences, forces students to read closely in order to grasp complexity and subtlety.

Levelt did not require the students to set up Twitter accounts. Instead he had them tweet on prepared “tweet sheets” that replicated the look of a Tweet. The assignment was structured; students were assigned to tweet as one of the characters in Book 3 (the focus of the assignment).

#Iliad, Book Three
Write “tweets” –on paper!– describing (a selection of) the narrative of book 3, from the perspective of the person whose identity you have been handed in class:
Paris (@FoolForLove)
Menelaus (@BattleHungry)
Helen (@TooPretty)
The Achaeans (@NotAHorse)
The Trojans (@HorseBreakers)
Use all 6 “tweets” of your handout to give your version of Book 3. Each tweet: maximum 140 characters. Bonus for creative use of hashtags and @mentions. Perspective: think, for example, of what your character can know, what they would find important, how they would view certain actions and events, what kind of language they would use.

After the students had completed the assignment, he had them come together in groups in class based on their characters (all the Helens, all the Trojans, etc.). The groups selected tweets from the combined sheets to share. Levelt then, with the permission of the students, shared their tweets on his Twitter account. He teaches three sections of the course, so there are three classes represented. These are their tweets: Class 1, Class 2, Class 3.

Levelt writes: “I was very impressed with the range and variety of aspects of the text reflected in my students’ tweets – from Helen’s conflicted internal monologues to Menelaus’ asking the troupes for retweets, and from a baffled Menelaus wondering what just happened after Paris disappeared to Helen’s shocked ‘selfie’ watching the battlefield, there are many very interesting readings of the text, and very few poor ones. Many of the tweets also provided opportunity for further discussion in class.” Moreover, students commented that the assignment made them look at the text with fresh eyes and engage with it based on their own experiences, leading to reading in a way that they had not done before.

This is an innovative use of social media to stimulate student engagement and higher level learning. Please share in the comments section examples you might have of similar assignments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Twitter blue logo

Quick Tips: Teaching in Challenging Times and Facilitating Difficult Discussions

In the days following the election faculty and students across the country were faced with Image of a stylized human figure peering into the opening of a large circular maze.teaching and learning in a climate that made both activities difficult. The issues that divided our nation could not be ignored in the classroom. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University published a thoughtful guide for faculty: Teaching in Response to the Election, by Joe Bandy, CFT Assistant Director. The suggestions are practical, reference additional resources, and are useful not just today, but in thinking about supporting students in general. Three other CFT guides are referenced: Teaching in Times of Crisis for when “communities are united in grief or trauma,” Difficult Dialogues will be useful whenever topics of discussion in the classroom touch on “hot button” issues, and the guide for Increasing Inclusivity in the Classroom is relevant at all times.

We welcome your suggestions in the comments for facilitating difficult discussions and teaching in challenging times.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Consider the OER (Open Educational Resource)

I should first disclose that I am not a longstanding, seasoned user of online strategies in my pedagogy. In fact, aside from very basic use such as posting images online for my students to review, my first real foray into systematic, thought-through online pedagogical strategies began in the summer of 2015.

A stitched image showing the Ishtar gate of Babylon in full view. Pergamon Museum, Berlin.In my discipline, specifically the study of Mesopotamian art but more broadly art history, I see two somewhat different audiences for online resources: 1) students (or student-like users) looking for content about art history; and 2) educators looking for pedagogical support/sharing related to the teaching of art history.

With respect to online resources for student-like users, two main trends in online pedagogy are apparent: 1) how to recreate and/or enhance the kind of activities that take place in face-to-face teaching; 2) how to add to, that is do something different, from the kind of activities that take place in face-to-face teaching.

My own foray into online pedagogy was primarily aimed at student-like users, although a secondary audience of other educators is also relevant because of the open-access nature of my project.

The arts of Mesopotamia – the “land between the rivers” in what is today Iraq and Syria – represent some of the earliest complex artworks dating back to 3500. Works from intricately carved seals to sculpture offer a wealth of arts that inform on the social, political, economic, and religious spheres of multiple ancient cultures, including Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria. The cultural heritage of Mesopotamia is particularly threatened at the moment due to the current political situation in Iraq and Syria.

Teaching this material at the undergraduate level, however, is a challenge as there is no reliable, up-to-date textbook available; the most recent usable textbook dates to 1954 (H. Frankfort, Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient). Publication of a traditional, hard-copy textbook now is considered financially impractical.

In the spring of 2015, pursuing a Technology Fellows grant from the CER, I proposed a solution: to create on-line modules to be used in teaching my course Palaces, Temples and Tombs in Mesopotamia in fall 2015. These modules are designed as Open Education Resources (OER) using a pre-existing Internet platform, OpenStax CNX, hosted through Rice University, which promotes the production of small “knowledge chunks” in an open license venue. Materials for the modules consist of freely available content and content created by me and my graduate student fellows, Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor.

What is an OER? From the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation “Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OER include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

OER modules of instruction permit multi-media and non-traditional formats for conveying information, including virtual reconstructions and walk-throughs, videos, and hyperlinking in addition to providing up-to-date informational entries for the ancient artworks. For my course, I envisioned these modules as a means of engaging students before actual face time in the classroom in order to concentrate on discussion and exploration of the complex conceptual aspects of Mesopotamian art and culture during class time.

Over the 6-month period of the fellowship, five different modules were created and posted to the website at OpenStax CNX. They were an enormous asset to the class, because they provided background information and discussion points that were up-to-date in their content and specifically formulated to align with my class lectures and discussion. The modules also included helpful videos and virtual reconstructions of the ancient art that provided a fuller understanding for the students.

The online modules were evaluated through an online survey, developed with the aid of CER, and available to the students through JHU’s Blackboard (learning management system). All 12 students completed the anonymous survey, which consisted of 5 questions. 83.3% of the respondents said the modules were “very successful” in providing information related to the course content, while the remaining 16.7% said they were “somewhat successful.” The responses to the other questions were also generally quite positive, with appreciation for the multimedia components and for the fact that the modules aligned well with the lectures. Respondents found least useful about the modules some formatting issues inherent in the platform we used, and a few noted that they were slow to download.

Beyond the student reactions, I have had positive responses from colleagues in the field who expressed gratitude for making freely accessible materials on Mesopotamian art available.

The one downside for me was that the OERs did not necessarily promote a higher level of discussion as I had hoped; the modules were still too close to a textbook in terms of how students interacted with the materials

There were a few issues that we faced in developing the content, one of which was copyright.  We had to rely on what was freely available online and that sometimes meant using videos that contained inaccurate material. We also had to work with the OpenStax CNX version of an html coding program that made certain things difficult to manipulate and constrained format in terms of relationship of image to text.

These drawbacks did not discourage me from using OERs. In spring 2016, I received an additional grant through the CER’s Technology Fellows program to produce more modules for my teaching with the assistance of graduate student fellows Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor.

The modules can be accessed through various search mechanisms on the OpenStax CNX website, including through the authors’ names: Marian Feldman, Megan Lewis, and Avary Taylor. They are:

  1. Cylinder Seals and the Development of Writing in Early Mesopotamia
  2. Ur III: Continuity and Erasure
  3. Late Bronze Age Internationalism and the International Artistic Style
  4. Neo-Assyrian Palace Reliefs of Kings Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II
  5. The Ancient City of Babylon
  6. Mesopotamian Votive Statuary from the Early Dynastic Period
  7. Mesopotamian Cosmology and Mythology
  8. The Development of Sumerian Temple Architecture in Early Mesopotamia
  9. Sargon the Great and the Charismatic Rulers of Ancient Akkad of Mesopotamia
  10. The Babylonian Map of the World: A Portrayal of Mytho-Historic Reality
  11. The ‘Victory Stele’ of Naram-Sin of Akkad and the Development of the Public Monument in Ancient Mesopotamia

Marian Feldman, Professor, Departments of the History of Art and Near Eastern Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: A stitched image showing the Ishtar gate of Babylon in full view. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Photo CC Radomir Vrbovsky, Wikimedia Commons.


Lunch and Learn: Flipped courses: What is the purpose? What are the strategies?

Logo 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.On Thursday, October 20, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the first Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching for the 2016-1017 academic year. A panel of faculty including Avanti Athreya, Assistant Research Professor Applied Mathematics & Statistics; Michael Falk, Professor Materials Science & Engineering; Bob Leheny, Professor Physics & Astronomy; and Soojin Park, Assistant Professor Cognitive Science; spoke briefly on their experiences and engaged in a lively discussion with attendees on Flipped courses: What is the purpose?  What are the strategies?

Avanti Athreya described flipping a large lecture course in Fall 2015 with her colleague, Dan Naiman, Professor, Applied Math & Statistics. The 4 credit course, Statistical Analysis I had previously met four times a week for 50 minutes – three lectures by faculty and one small-group meeting led by a TA.  Starting in Fall 2015, students watched several short videos (5-15 minutes each) before the week started.  The videos were created by Athreya and Naiman using Camtasia. Students then met once for a 75-minute lecture with the instructor and twice in small-groups with a TA.  During these sessions students, working in teams of three, solved problems with a TA available for help as needed.  Clicker quizzes were given at the beginning of each lecture to motivate students to watch the videos. Athreya noted that clear learning objectives were listed at the beginning of each video. Challenges included initial resistance from the students (she stated that there had been less of that this semester, the second iteration of the flipped course), and that students often need alternative explanation for concepts. Typically, the videos cover an idea in one way. In a lecture, the instructor noting confusion may offer another explanation for clarification.

Soojin Park co-teaches Cognitive Neuroscience: Exploring the Living Brain with Brenda Rapp, Professor, Cognitive Science. This 3 credit course has an enrollment on average of 250 students. Park and Rapp flipped their course in Spring 2016, with a goal of putting more emphasis on student exploration. They videotaped scripted lectures (these videos were shorter and more focused than the lectures in the traditional course) and posted them on Blackboard. Students took quizzes on the video content. Students met twice a week in sections of about 25. One section was structured as a review section, the other as an active learning section. The challenge was to create the active learning activities. They decided to emphasize practical skills, such as exercises to learn spatial areas of the brain using 3-D software. These activities were all group based. There were worksheets for each session. For the final project, students developed a mock NIH proposal. Park and Rapp found a 5% learning improvement on the final exam (the questions were reused from the previous year to allow comparison) as well as higher course evaluations.

Bob Leheny reported that he is in the fourth year of teaching an active-learning version of Introduction to Physical Sciences, which incorporates a flipped classroom model. The course serves 700 students each semester. Before class, students watch videos that were developed at the University of Illinois. Leheny noted that there is a great deal of video content already developed for teaching introductory physics, so the faculty developing the course here were spared having to create their own. Faculty are able to track how much time students spend watching the videos. The course was developed with funding from a JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative grant, which included the design and implementation of an active learning classroom that seats 80 students. In the classroom, students review the video content, then work collaboratively in groups of three on exercises and experiments that explore the topic for the day. The course is supported by three graduate student TAs and four undergraduate TAs. Leheny said that one of the challenges was time management in the active learning setting. He compared the instructor and TAs to “waiters working the tables” where students were doing the activities and exercises. There is a constant monitoring of where students are and what they need.

Michael Falk was an early adopter of flipping the course. He now flips two courses: his undergraduate Computation and Programming for Materials Scientists and Engineers, with an enrollment of 35, and a graduate course, Thermodynamics of Materials. For the undergraduate class he created his own videos using Screen Flow. Students take quizzes on the video content before class. In class students work through exercises collaboratively. Falk uses Class Spot to facilitate this work. Class Spot allows screen sharing; students can see how their classmates worked out solutions to problems. For his graduate course in thermodynamics, Falk made short, Khan Academy-style videos using Quick Time. The students watch the videos before class and use class time for problem solving. He also made use of an application called Perusall for annotation exercises. His found in general that his students like it better if there is a short recap of the video material at the beginning of class. Falk feels that the biggest challenge with flipping is finding meaningful activities for class time.

Some key points covered during discussion included:

  1. Making sure that students aren’t assigned too much to do outside of class–videos should replace some of the reading or other homework assignments.
  2. It may be necessary to incentivize students to watch the videos. This can be in the form of quizzes.
  3. If group or collaborative work is done in class, follow best practices for creating groups. Groups of three are ideal. It is best not to have two males and one female in a group as has been shown in research on gender construction of teams. Group work presents valuable experiences for students. For those going into STEM fields, collaboration will be the norm, thus is a good skill to acquire. Group work can help minimize the negative aspects of competition in a classroom.
  4. Base in-class activities on the student learning goals for the course.
  5. Keep videos short, even, or especially when using a lecture-style delivery of the content. Scripting of lecture delivery was advised, as well as adopting a modular concept. Each lecture video should focus on one idea.
  6. Faculty who had flipped their courses noted that preparation for the initial offering of the course took a tremendous investment of time, but that the results had been worth the effort involved.
  7. Several faculty from the humanities discussed whether a flipped model could be used in their class situations, and specifically whether video delivery offered any advantage over reading a text. Certainly offering a variety of learning modalities can be valuable for students coming to a course with different backgrounds and understanding. A humanities course might not benefit from being flipped in total, but having students work together in class to develop specific skills, such as close reading, could prove valuable.

In all, the session was interesting and informative. If you are an instructor on the Homewood campus, staff in the Center for Educational Resources will be happy to talk with you about flipping a course.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources.

Silence is Golden

A recent post in Tomorrow’s Professor by Joseph Finckel, Associate Professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut, suggested an innovative approach to teaching courses that have a discussion-based component. He writes: “I teach English, and midway through the spring 2013 semester, I lost my voice. Rather than cancelling my classes, I taught all my courses, from developmental English to Shakespeare, without saying a word.”

Black and white drawing of a man with his mouth taped shut.In The Silent Professor, Finckel notes that with an instructor-centric approach, talking is often confused with teaching. What he observed when he had laryngitis has compelled him to “lose his voice” at least once a semester since. “A wealth of literature focuses on active learning and learner-centered instruction, but I submit that nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room.”

Finckel points out that there are non-verbal actions the instructor can employ such as writing on the board, posing questions by typing into a projected document, and using gestures. Further, he tells us that considering when and for what reasons to speak assists developing “…an intentional, reflective teaching practice.” Student response has been positive. Finckel feels that is because he is creating a situation where learning will occur. “Teaching without talking forces students to take ownership of their own learning and shifts the burden of silence from teacher to student. It also forces us to more deliberately plan our classes, because we relinquish our ability to rely on our knowledge and experience in the moment.”

Although such an approach wouldn’t be appropriate for a large lecture class, it is useful to think about whether talking too much or too soon inhibits students. In working with faculty who teach discussion-based courses, one pitfall is being afraid of the silence after asking a question. It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of answering the question yourself when the silence is deafening. That simply reinforces the students’ belief that if they wait long enough, they’ll be off the hook.

Check out the article for more details on implementing the silent approach. Maybe that next case of laryngitis will be an opportunity rather than bad luck.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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