Quick Tips: Getting Your Students Names Right

A sheet of four names tags in red, blue, green, and purple, saying Hello My Name Is.Our last two posts have focused on diversity and inclusion in the classroom. Today I’d like to offer some resources for another important way to create a positive classroom climate: knowing your students’ names and pronouncing them correctly. A previous post Learning Your Students’ Names [September 6, 2013] will give you some tips for the first part. But making sure you pronounce names correctly can be challenging. Rather than stumbling through the attendance list on the first day of class, you can prepare ahead and know that you will be in the ballpark as you call names.

The first resource comes from the K-12 world, but is useful for us in higher education as well. Getting It Right: Reference Guides for Registering Students with Non-English Names (2nd Edition), gives a general overview of the naming conventions in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese languages.  Each section provides guidance such as the number of given names or family names and the order of these names.

The My Identity/My Name website’s Take Action section has a list of online resources with links to web tools and applications that will help you to correctly pronounce names (as well as geographical places, phrases, and words). Here is a partial version of their list with the resources that seemed most relevant:

Forvo is a great web tool to learn how to pronounce words from a wide array of categories including common words, phrases and people’s names.

Guiding Tech: 4 Useful websites to help you pronounce names correctly features four possible tools a teacher, parent or student may use to help learn the correct pronunciation of a name they wish to use. Within the article are the links to all 4 sites.

 How to Pronounce is a great web application to get the audio and text pronunciation, meaning and other information related to wiki pages, synonyms and antonyms for the searched word.

Pronounce by VOA News is one of the great free web tools for learning more about pronunciation of places and names. Founded in 2000, this Pronounce tool has a plethora of words and names to find from. 

Regardless of your preparation before you take attendance in your first class, you should always confirm with the student that you’ve pronounced their name correctly and determine what name they would like to be called in your class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

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, February 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing and Karen Fleming, Professor, Biophysics, presented on Fostering an Inclusive Classroom.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky led off by describing the Expository Writing program. [See presentation slides.] Students learn in small class settings (10-15 students) how to write and academic argument using evidence. The academic argument is framed as an ongoing conversation—they say (identifies the problem or viewpoint), I say (recognizes a flaw in the argument and establishes a thesis to correct the flaw), so what? (what’s at stake or what’s next?)—to which the student is contributing. The vast majority of her students are in the STEM fields. This is the background for Brodsky’s introduction of diversity and inclusion in the classroom.

Students bring their complex identities and a sense of whether or not they feel they belong on campus to the classroom. Brodsky seeks to make sure that her curriculum includes reading diverse authors. Students are given a number of choices for each major writing assignment so that they can find something that interests and speaks to them. Additionally, students do informal writing on topics fincluding What is College For? Learning (science of learning, recent research, advice), School (campus life, student realities, ideas for redesign), Stories—why they matter, Words (language change, texting, big data). For each topic area Brodsky identifies a number of articles that students can choose from to read and write a response.  She tries to make topics current and relevant, and to be flexible, for example, after the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, “I offered my students supplemental reading. I hoped to show how the JHU community engaged in local, ‘real-life’ struggles with rigorous, historically responsible, and creative thinking.” She encourages interdisciplinary conversations so that students don’t shut themselves off from possibilities.

Brodsky works with students who are afraid of writing and finds that different approaches work for different students. She is an advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In the classroom she practices eight ways of teaching.

  1. Giving students permission to fail successfully. The writing process is all about Slide from Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky's presentation listing 8 ways of learning.drafts and revisions; students learn that their first efforts may not work well, but they can learn from mistakes and rewrite.
  2. Using color highlighting while reading, by Brodsky and the students, to understand how an academic argument works.
  3. Sorting through key words used in an academic argument to understand how language works. For example, when identifying a flaw in an argument, key words are repudiate, contest, reject. Next, Brodsky has students perform textual analysis, by looking at a text and deciding whether it is either a conversation over coffee or actual textual analysis. For example, the text being analyzed is a comment on this quote (taken from a John Oliver segment): “A former British prime minister once described refugees as a “swarm of migrants.” Answer A is: “That made me crazy.” [conversation] Answer B is: “The word ‘swarm’ suggests invasion, threat, as well as equating humans to insects.” [textual analysis]
  4. Using Lego building blocks with statement taped to the sides, students “build their argument.”
  5. Learning to analyze and interpret by practicing describing things in different ways.
  6. Employing different ways of talking and discussing in the classroom. Students prepare elevator talks, engage in think/pair/share activities, anonymously share worries and wishes on index cards, and write questions to establish knowledge.
  7. Crafting a succinct “elevator pitch” to streamline their own academic argument.
  8. “What I mean here is to help and expect students to engage fully in their work on campus—not just their science brains for science, or even just their intellectual skills for their courses. Rather, they come here with richness of experience far beyond the academic classroom.”

In engaging students, Brodsky helps them to see frustration as unrealized potential and uncertainty as curiosity. She drew on a 2013 interview with British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips: “A student who’d been frustrated for weeks by my suggestion that thesis statements were probably not good things to have about works of literature began to recognize that her frustration was partly a fear of freedom. ‘You’re really just increasing my allowance,’ she said.”

By engaging in inclusive teaching practices, Brodsky has given her students the freedom to learn.

Karen Fleming started off by stating her goals for an inclusive classroom: To create a learning environment where everyone feels safe to express ideas and questions, where discussion brings multiple diverse questions and all opinions are considered, and where student experiences of marginalization are minimized. Two of the many challenges that instructors face are unconscious bias and student stereotype threat. [See presentation slides.]

Fleming noted that 99% of our cognitive processing uses unconscious reasoning. Unconscious bias stems from our experiential expectations; bias being an error in decision making. Expectation bias is grounded in stereotypes such as women are not as good at math or spatial learning; Hispanics and African Americans are lower achieving than Whites; Hispanics, African Americans, poor, and obese people are lazy; male athlete are jocks (muscular but not smart); Asians have higher math abilities; and blondes are less intelligent than brunettes. Stereotypes are cultural and both faculty and students have biases.

Fleming described a research study on science faculty and unconscious bias [Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male studentsPNAS 109: 16474-79.] The study was headed by Jo Handlesman, Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, Yale University. Fleming walked through the study details, noting that the institutions selected—research intensive universities—were geographically diverse, the demographics on faculty participants agree with national averages, and it was a randomized double-blind study (n = 127). Science faculty in biology, physics, and chemistry were asked to rate the application of a student for a lab manager position in terms of competency and hireability. Faculty participants were randomly assigned an application with a male or female name—the applications were otherwise identical and designed to reflect high but not outstanding qualifications.

Both male and female faculty participants showed gender bias by rating the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant. They were willing to offer a significantly higher starting salary (and more career mentoring) to the male applicant. And, perhaps surprisingly to women in the audience, both female and male faculty were equally likely to show gender bias favoring male applicants and to offer the female candidates a lower salary. One possible explanation? Male stereotypes meet the expectation for the lab manager position.

Slide from Karen Fleming presentation showing male and female stereotypes.Expectation bias occurs when we hold different groups accountable to different standards. When a man performs well in a traditional male-type task, this performance is expected. When a woman performs well in a traditional male-type task, this conflicts with stereotypic expectations. As a result, her performance is closely scrutinized, and she is required to repeatedly prove her competence.

We can check our biases using tests set up by Project Implicit. “Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” Look for tests on bias concerning gender, race, religion, disability, age, sexuality, weight, skin tone, and more  in the Social Attitudes section.

Fleming then discussed the issue of stereotype threat. For students, performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. And, culturally-shared stereotypes suggesting poor performance of certain groups can disrupt performance of an individual who identifies with that group. She referenced a study done by Steele and Aronson in 1995 [CM Steele and J Aronson (1995) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797-811.] At Stanford, 114 undergraduate students volunteered for the study. They were given a test composed of Verbal GRE questions. First they took a test that was presented as diagnostic, a measure of intrinsic ability, and then a test presented as non-diagnostic, a laboratory tool for studying problem solving. The results showed that invoking stereotype threat (diagnostic test) affects performance of students who identified as African-Americans in an evaluation setting. Further, having to identify their race before taking the test, “race-priming,” increases the results of stereotype effect on performance in an evaluation setting.

How can instructors be more inclusive? Fleming offers these suggestions.

  • Establish a Growth Mindset
  • Set clear, equal and high but achievable expectations for all students
  • Include material created by people of different backgrounds
  • Pay attention to group dynamics (especially compositions of small groups).

As both Fleming and Brodsky reminded the audience, instructors can change the way they teach to be more inclusive, identify their biases, and work to establish a positive classroom climate.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo (© CER), slides from Brodsky and Fleming presentations


Thinking about Accessibility Part 1

Four universal signs for disabilities: wheelchair access, hearing access, captioning, visual accession. Signs are white on blue background.Often I read an article or blog post and suddenly find that I am falling down a rabbit hole. Hours, or even days, later I emerge, having uncovered a wealth of information and resources that have to be edited down in order to present a reasonably digestible overview of a topic for you readers. Such was the case with David Gooblar’s post Now is the Time to Think About Accessibility on his Chronicle Vitae Pedagogy Unbound blog (August 8, 2017). From the links in his article, I went on to discover other great material on accessibility to share—enough good stuff for two posts. This first post will cover thinking about accessibility in your classroom in general; next will be a follow-up post focused on creating an accessible syllabus and other documents for your class.

Gooblar starts off by noting that for many instructors, accessibility is given a brief mention at the end of the syllabus and then forgotten. Accessibility is seen as “an exception to the norm” and given little thought. He then notes an article by Anne-Marie Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, which takes issue with that way of “conceptualizing accessibility.”

Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi (College Composition and Communication, February 2017) by Anne-Marie Womack should be required reading for all higher ed instructors. [Note: if the link does not work, try copying and pasting this URL directly into your browser: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0683-feb2017/CCCC0683Teaching.pdf.] It is an important document that asks us to rethink disability and academic accommodations. She starts by discussing “contemporary theories of disability to retheorize accommodation as the process of teaching itself.” Womack provides a history of disability law and American institutions of higher education, noting that students today must “pass substantial hurdles to qualify for accommodations” often at the risk of being stigmatized. Faculty, who may receive little institutional support, come to feel that they are the ones burdened by the process. Any resulting pedagogical changes are seen as affecting only the students with disabilities.

Womack argues that resistance to accommodation by university administration and faculty assumes that accommodations are an exception to a rule, to a best practice, or normal way of teaching. Womack states, “Ultimately, though, there is no normal, primary way of learning, only normalized methods made primary through frequent use. Material always changes as it moves from expert to novice. Every act of teaching is an accommodation because it creates certain conditions for students to learn and display learning.” Even though effective student learning means that the material is accessible, instructors have come to feel that “making material accessible to disabled students threatens academic rigor.”

Seen from another vantage point, inclusive teaching means eliminating barriers to learning, not eliminating intellectual challenges. Womack says, “Accommodation is the most basic act and art of teaching. It is not the exception we sometimes make in spite of learning, but rather the adaptations we continually make to promote learning.” She advocates accommodation of disabled students within a universal design framework.

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” Universal design is good for everyone. In your classroom, Womack suggests, for example, considering guidelines for dyslexic and blind readers, working under the assumption that by creating documents that more students can read, more students will read. She warns, however, that universal design must be used as a process, not to negate the need for accommodations, but to start to negotiate the means to accessibility for all.

In my next post I will look at the second part of Womack’s article, which provides suggestions for creating accessible documents, engaging students by using “cooperative language” and building flexibility into your course to empower students. “If instructors see the syllabus through the lens of disability, then the question becomes not how policies protect a normative standard but how far they extend inclusion.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Teaching Transparently

Back in September 2015, The Innovative Instructor posted Do Your Students Understand the Assignment?, an article that examined the concept of transparent Semi-spherical transparent soap bubble on a grey wood surface.teaching. Transparent teaching helps students understand the why and how of their learning. Research from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project (TILT) has shown that when students understand the task, its purpose, and the criteria for evaluating their work, they are more motivated and feel the work is more relevant. The TILT website has some excellent suggestions and resources for instructors, including examples of assignments from various disciplines presented in two versions, less transparent and more transparent, for comparison.

A recent post on Teaching Tidbits,  a blog sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America to keep higher ed math faculty up on advances in educational research and pedagogical practices by providing “…quality, evidence-based ideas with high impact and low time commitment that can be used by a wide audience,” examined teaching with transparency. [October 24, 2017, How Transparency Improves Learning by Darryl Yong] Although the focus is on teaching college mathematics, the key points are applicable to a range of subjects.

Yong starts by citing the work done at UNLV, noting in particular the finding that underrepresented students experienced the greatest improvement in learning outcomes when transparent teaching methods were used. Yong speculates that transparent teaching helps to level the playing field for these students.

A key to teaching more transparently is to see things from your students’ vantage points. What would they find “bewildering, frustrating or alienating?” Being transparent does not mean that you don’t expect the work to be challenging rather that you will “engage your students in a productive struggle.”

Providing instructions in more than one format is helpful. For example, you should include information on assignments in writing on your syllabus, verbally in class, and again in written form in handouts to be sure that students aren’t missing important details.

Yong says, “The amount of transparency that you provide to students depends on their maturity and the level of the course. There are times when you don’t want to be explicit about everything. For example, you don’t want to constrain their creativity by priming them with examples, you want them to struggle with figuring out what the first step should be, or you want them to be more independent in their learning.”

He concludes the post with some suggestions on transparency for mathematics courses, but even these can be translated to more general use. The concepts are:

  • Be sure that students understand discipline-specific terminology.
  • Be clear about the tools, applications, and resources are students allowed to use for assignments and exams.
  • Explain why you have chosen a particular assignment, project, or type of exam. Connect these choices to their learning outcomes. Share strategies that successful students have used in the past for assignments and evaluations. Share rubrics when used for grading. Share examples of successful projects.
  • Tell students why you have chosen the pedagogical strategies you use to teach.
  • Start each class by highlighting a relevant current area of research and the people doing it. If your field has not been inclusive in the past, acknowledge that and “showcase women and people of color in these highlights to engage in counter-stereotyping.”

Teaching transparently will involve more planning and preparation for your course. It also means teaching intentionally. Improved learning outcomes and greater student satisfaction will make it worth your effort.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com


Back to School: From the Archives

Illustration of a blackboard with "Welcome to Class" written in white chalk.The Innovative Instructor blog is celebrating its five-year anniversary—we started posting in September 2012. To mark the beginning of the academic year, here are some tips and helpful hints in the form of posts from the archives to get instructors started on another successful semester. There are some new resources included as well.

Looking for advice on preparing for the first day of class and beyond? A post on from August 15, 2015, Back to School, offers some resources.  The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) at the University of Virginia has a great webpage on Teaching the First Day(s) of Class, with references to material on engaging students, creating an inclusive classroom, building rapport, learning names, and troubleshooting common teaching challenges.

What about using an icebreaker, an exercise or activity that provides an opportunity for students and the instructor to get to know one another? Take a look at the August 30, 2013 post Icebreakers for some ideas. Faculty Focus had a recent article, First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning (July 19, 2017) that offers some other options.

Learning your students’ names is important to create a positive classroom climate. Even in a larger lecture course there are some ways to accomplish this task. See the post Learning Your Students’ Names from September 6, 2013 for tips and tricks. You can also download the guide Not Quite 101 Ways to Learn Students’ Names from the University of Virginia’s CTE website.

The use of mobile devices in the classroom, particularly smartphones, has become an issue faced by all faculty. It’s best to be clear about your policies on device use from day one. For strategies on dealing with this issue, see the October 12, 2012 post, Tips for Regulating the Use of Mobile Devices in the Classroom.

With these resources and strategies in hand, your semester should be off to a great start.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com

Faculty Office Hours: The Instructor is In

Peanuts comic showing Lucy in the psychiatrist's booth, re-labelled to say "Course Help Free; The Instructor is In."What if you hold office hours and nobody comes? That’s the issue that Dr. Richard Freishtat, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley addresses in Don’t Be Alone During Office Hours (Tomorrow’s Professor, January 10, 2017). He describes a student panel at Berkeley on facilitating student success. When the student panelists were asked by a faculty member about attending office hours, there was silence. Why was this opportunity not being pursued? One student responded, “Reason #1: ‘I think office hours is for students who are struggling with the material and need extra help. I wouldn’t want my professor to know I’m struggling, even if I was.’ Reason #2: ‘I was fascinated by the Professor, the discipline, and research in the field beyond what we were focusing on in class. I would have loved to drop into office hours and just talk with my professor about her own research, but figured there’s no way she’d want to take the time to do that with me.’” Faculty in the audience expressed just how much they would appreciate students coming to see them for the latter reason.

Freishtat goes on to suggest some ways to increase student attendance at office hours including making it an assignment, telling students how to use/what the purpose is of office hours, explaining to students how to start an office hours conversations (bring a question, a quote of interest, a story), scheduling varying days and times to accommodate different schedules, and promoting office hours throughout the semester/quarter.

For more on practical measures to take to improve the participation and outcome of your office hours, see the Stanford Teaching Commons website on Office Hours That Work and the University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning on Face to Face Office Hours.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Image from Flickr [https://www.flickr.com/photos/frederickhomesforsale/16107671226] modified by Macie Hall

Establishing Ground Rules for Student-Instructor Communication

Perusing the Sunday Review in the New York Times recently, I came across a White pill bottle with blue and yellow labe for Etiquette tablets. Instructions read, "Students: take two tablets before each class and when sending emails to your instructor."piece by Molly Worthen, U Can’t Talk to Ur Professor Like This (May 13, 2017) that I thought deserved a share. As a beginning instructor, Worthen grappled with trying to seem cool, but she says …” [a]fter one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step.” As part of her syllabus she included an attachment with basic etiquette for addressing faculty and writing “polite, grammatically correct emails.”  Worthen also cites a similar set of guidelines created by Mark Tomforde who teaches mathematics at the University of Houston. This practice may be on the increase as faculty are dealing with students whose communication skills are based on the informality of social media.

Women and minorities in particular may find that requesting students use formal titles and proper etiquette helps ensure deference not always given to non-white-male faculty. Instructors note that stating on the syllabus they wish to be addressed as Professor or Doctor Last-Name helps to establish authority. Further, linking the preference to mutual respect, by asking students how they wish to be addressed, can help to establish an inclusive classroom climate.

Providing guidelines for email will not only save you from dealing with the frustrating “Yo prof! I need to make up that exam!” type messages, but it will help students learn how to be professional in their interactions. This will serve these young adults well as they transition to the workplace. As Worthen says, “Insisting on traditional etiquette is also simply good pedagogy. It’s a teacher’s job to correct sloppy prose, whether in an essay or an email. And I suspect that most of the time, students who call faculty members by their first names and send slangy messages are not seeking a more casual rapport. They just don’t know they should do otherwise — no one has bothered to explain it to them. Explaining the rules of professional interaction is not an act of condescension; it’s the first step in treating students like adults.”

Some additional resources for creating classroom guidelines see:


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com image modified by Macie Hall.

Lunch and Learn: Constructing a Comprehensive Syllabus

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, February 16, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 2016-1017 academic year. Katie Tifft, Lecturer Biology, and Jane Greco, Associate Teaching Professor Chemistry, shared best practices for creating a comprehensive syllabus.

Tifft and Greco presented as a team, reflecting their commitment to collaboration, and gave an impressive overview of the process they follow. Here are their slides for review. They started by sharing a quote by Gary Gutting “Why Do I Teach?” [New York Times 5/22/2013]: “College education is a proliferation of . . . possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.”

This represents an ideal, but in real world practice your experience may differ. One way to ensure that students leave your classroom with the knowledge you hope they will gain is to think about how to construct your course so that the desired learning outcomes align with your pedagogical approaches.

Tifft and Greco noted that standard course planning path is to choose a textbook/readings, produce a syllabus, write or revise lectures and prepare slides, and then create assessments (exams and assignments). This is a teacher-centric approach as it revolves around the content that you as the instructor plan to disseminate.

But what if you wanted to develop a course that was student-centric? Then you might take an approach known as backward design. With backward design you start the course planning process by formulating broad learning goals, then defining specific, measurable learning objectives. To clarify, learning goals express what you want students to get out of the course, while learning objectives detail the specific skills and level of understanding you want students to obtain. Next you design the assessments that will be used to evaluate the students’ mastery of the learning objectives. Finally, you develop the course content and activities and choose supporting texts and readings. This process will help you to create a syllabus that informs the students what you expect them to be able to do at the end of the course, as you will share both the broad learning goals for the course and the learning objectives for each course section on the syllabus.

Tifft and Greco reported that research has shown that the longer and more detailed a syllabus is, the more comfortable students will be, because they can see ahead to what will be coming in the class. They suggest keeping a positive tone, focusing on rewards rather than consequences. They both emphasize collaborative work in their courses, and on the syllabi, which fosters a student-centric environment.

What should the syllabus include? The course schedule in some detail, along with the A sign with an orange background reading "Keep calm and read the syllabus."detailed learning objectives for each unit. The course content will be a major part of your syllabus. Policies for absences and missed work should be included and should be transparent, fair, and set an easily achievable bar by accommodating situations that are bound to occur, such as illness, sports team events, etc. One way to do this is to drop the lowest score if you give multiple quizzes, exams, or homework assignments. Tifft and Greco noted that well thought out and clearly written policies are essential in a large enrollment course, and will help reduce the number of emails from students.

The syllabus should give information about assessments and assignments including due dates, descriptions, the link to learning objectives. Setting the test and assignment dates in stone, so to speak, on the syllabus will help your students know what to expect when. Having a variety of assignments is a good practice as it speaks to the diversity of student learning styles. This isn’t always practical in a large lecture class, but should be considered.

If you are using clickers (classroom polling devices) you will want to include policies for use, credit given for participation, credit for correctness, and contribution to grade. Tifft and Greco do not give credit for correctness as they see that getting something wrong contributes to the student’s learning process.

Grades are a major concern for students at Johns Hopkins; Tifft and Greco said that it is important to be as specific and transparent as possible when describing grading criteria and distribution on the syllabus. Doing so will reduce student complaints and misunderstandings. Some practices to consider in creating a grading scheme include the concept of revision/redemption—giving students a chance to drop a low score or revise a paper. They recommend against grading on a curve to reduce competition and facilitate student collaboration.

Don’t forget to list sources of help for students: office hours, names and contact information for teaching assistants, dates and times for recitations/review sessions, and information about the Learning Den tutoring program or PILOT (peer led team learning) program if applicable.

Finally, Tifft and Greco mentioned the required and recommended statements of policy, such as those on ethics, accommodations for students with disabilities, and copyright compliance. And in closing, they recommend adding a line in your syllabus that reads: “The information on this syllabus is subject to change at any time for any reason.”

Discussion by the faculty in attendance followed. One question asked was “How do you get students to read the syllabus? Should you go over the syllabus in class?” Greco stated that since she is teaching first semester freshman, she spends about 20 minutes on the first day of class going over key points, especially the learning goals and her teaching philosophy. Tifft, who teaches upperclassmen does give a brief summary of key points.

Faculty also shared experiences with grading schemes. Many like the idea of dropping the lowest scores on tests and/or assignments and the concept of redemption, especially when based on how the student has done on other parts of the course work. Some faculty give several section-based exams followed by a comprehensive final. Students who have aced the section exams, are not required to take the final.

The use of extra-credit and make-up work to improve grades was debated. It was agreed that it was important to be transparent in these cases, and to make sure that all students are offered the same opportunities. Greco recommended that faculty not allow students to wait until the end of semester to do make up or extra-credit work as it puts too much burden on you as a grader.

The session ended with Tifft and Greco sharing this cartoon from PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) by Jorge Cham, something anyone who has ever created a syllabus will relate to.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image generated by http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/

Dealing with Difficult Students

Reading a recent post from Stanford University’s Tomorrow’s Professor on dealing with difficult students made me realize that The Innovative Instructor had not dealt with that topic specifically in four plus years of posting. Time to remedy that situation.

Four students in a lecture hall setting, three female, one male. The male and one female appear bored and inattentive.The excerpt from a book [How to Teach Adults: Plan Your Class. Teach Your Students. Change the World, by Dan Spalding, 2014 Jossey-Bass, San Francisco] is from a chapter on managing a class. The short and concise How to Deal With Difficult Students lists eight pieces of advice, all useful considerations, from “Never attack the student,” to “Listen and validate,” to “Draw a line,” with the advice to “focus on the behavior, not on the student.”

Two articles from the archives of Faculty Focus Higher Ed Teaching Strategies offer different approaches to the problem. In Four Tips for Dealing with Difficult Students, March 26, 2010, Jason Ebbeling and Brian Van Brunt suggest taking a collaborative approach using four principles—Express Empathy, Develop Discrepancy, Avoid Argumentation, and Roll with Resistance—to acknowledge a problem and work with a student to correct it. The second article, Dealing with Difficult Students and Other Classroom Disruptions by Mary Bart, June 4, 2012, suggests a proactive approach. Setting expectations on the first day of class and clearly communicating those expectations both verbally and on the syllabus can set the tone for the learning environment you want to create. Still, the author acknowledges, even when an instructor does everything right, there is a potential for a student to be disruptive. Suggestions are provided for having a conversation with a difficult student from a point of concern for the student’s success.

In searching for material on this topic, I discovered a site that instructors might find useful in general for teaching: 4Faculty.org. Unfortunately, the site is no longer being supported and updated, but there are great resources available in the archive—just be aware that the material may be dated. In most instances, that is not an issue. The Classroom Management guide by Linda Rodriguez is a case in point, offering solutions to specific issues under the heading of dealing with difficult students. These include undermining the instructor’s authority, leaving class frequently, verbal or physical threats, cell phone disruption, monopolizing discussions, and disrespectful behavior among others. A handy PDF version of the suggestions can be found here. Keep scrolling down the page to find more tips on setting classroom atmosphere, managing class time, facilitating connections in the classroom, and helping students to be successful college students.

The Innovative Instructor welcomes your comments and suggestions on dealing with difficult students and other classroom management topics.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

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

Image Source: Pixabay.com