Teaching Tips and Tricks

By Tania Allen, Michelle Bartlett, Carolyn Bird, Sue Carson, Maria Gallardo-Williams, Erica Kosal, Melissa Ramirez and Angie Smith

Pumpkin with howling wolf image

With Halloween here we are enjoying the cooler weather, the pumpkin treats, and all the spooky possibilities. In the world of educational publications, some posts on  scary pedagogical practices (some intentional, some accidental) are currently making the rounds. An interesting one that came out this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education is 4 Classroom Lessons by Haunted Houses, written by Sarah Rose Cavanagh. 

Inspired by the frightening themes evoked by the season, we asked our OFE Fellows to give us some advice on how to handle some eerie (but quite common) teaching  scenarios. This is what they had to say:

Spine-chilling scenario: It’s your first day of teaching. How will you deal with covering content, managing students, and stopping your knees from shaking and your voice from cracking?

(Michelle) First day advice to help ground your purpose is to focus on building connections with your students. You will have a lot of time to teach content and assess learning, use this early time to get to know your students and help them get to know you, your teaching style, philosophy, what you expect of them and what they can expect from you. You can learn more about connecting with your students through the Core Teaching Certification and the Inclusive Teaching Certification

(Sue) As a new faculty member, I wasted a lot of time that first day on things that I thought were necessary, but actually had little impact. Nobody wants a syllabus read to them, and when there are 30 or more students in the class, going around the room with each person introducing themselves really doesn’t add much value in terms of people actually getting to know one another. Instead, students read the syllabus in advance and respond to a short Google Form asking them to certify agreement and understanding of each main portion, and then allow time for questions during class. With the saved time, we can do something more meaningful, like breaking into small groups to work on an activity related to class content, especially one that helps me understand the existing knowledge base of the students in the class.

Sinister scenario: You need an active learning activity for your class but don’t have a lot of time to design it.

(Maria and Carolyn) Try this Active Learning Library. You can find activities here for any class, and you can sort them based on preparation time, degree of difficulty, etc. Your students will appreciate it, and hopefully they won’t be ghouls, but will participate and share with their neighbors. 

(Michelle)  Under the doom and gloom rapid transition to online teaching during the pandemic the Office for Faculty Excellence worked with the Academic Continuity Group to put together an amazing list of resources to Keep Teaching that are very useful, still, and loaded with tools, resources, and  ideas when you don’t have much time.

Petrifying scenario: A discussion in the classroom veers into negative or dangerous territory. How do you get back on track without bloodshed? 

(Michelle) I have found it very helpful to prepare ahead of time with narrative to help (1) pause discussion so that you can then (2)  recap if helpful the varying viewpoints and what each has to offer the overall discussion, (3) re-focus the conversation, and ultimately (4) end or prompt conversation back on track. Some phrases I have found helpful to pause negative dialogue are: “I love the passion I am hearing around the topic, let’s pause for a moment ….”, “Let’s take a moment to pause and appreciate the complexity of this topic”, “Wow, there are so many different viewpoints I am hearing…”, “Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this complex topic….”, “I am hearing clarity around the various perspectives, let’s pause for two minutes to consider one goal people in all viewpoints would agree on”, “Thank you all for your active engagement, so that we can stay on time let’s get back to the original question of <restate prompt>”.  

(Tania): I too find it helpful to imagine some ‘worst-case scenarios’ for topic discussions,  from no one participating in discussion to having very heated and/or negative ones. One thing I like to do for addressing heated discussion is also to create a follow up “debate” where I have students take the opposite perspective from the one they were initially arguing. This can sometimes be funny, in that they take extreme positions, but it can also allow them to see the issue from a different perspective. 

Hair-rising scenario: You don’t have enough time to grade all of your students’ submissions.

(Michelle) Depending on the assignment sometimes it is helpful to read over the submissions and then give collective feedback. Overarching comments on where the collective has exceeded your expectations, met the learning objectives, and where there is room for growth or missed perspectives. 

(Angie) Attend a DELTA workshop held by faculty fellows (Dr. Michelle Bartlett, Bethany Smith… et. al) on grading, rubrics, Moodle, and more to identify ways to minimize the grading load and gain back valuable time in your day. Incorporating and implementing rubrics into the grading process can reduce the time spent on grading tasks. Rubrics can be built into Moodle before the semester begins. 

(Erica)  Give yourself some grace – you are human!  Unless the feedback on the students’ submissions are vital for preparing for a major assessment, explain to the class that it is taking longer to grade than you had anticipated.  The students will appreciate your honesty and may help them to give themselves some grace also.

Poke your Eyeballs Out of Frustration scenario: Your students are missing deadlines and asking you questions that are addressed in the syllabus.

(Erica) Make your syllabus more engaging and welcoming.  Create a “living or dynamic” syllabus that you can modify and add to as necessary (as a google doc), transform your dull syllabus with just text into a document with images and colors, and/or add inclusive information and language that encourages students to use the syllabus as a resource.  You can learn more about these strategies and practices by participating in a faculty reading circle (this semester they are reading the book Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom by Hogan and Sathy; podcast available here from Teaching in Higher Ed) and/or by completing one of the certification courses through OFE: the Core Teaching and the Inclusive Teaching Certifications.  In all cases, there are so many good conversations and tips that colleagues provide one another!

(Sue) Recognize that many students just are not going to refer back to the syllabus after the first day of class. Faculty are no different; I cannot tell you how many times as an NSF Program Officer I could have said “it’s in the solicitation” or “it’s in the PAPPG” – to the same faculty who want to wear “it’s in the syllabus” tee shirts. It is just human nature. On the first day of class, I recommend to students that they add all important due dates and exams to their Google Calendar. And then I do my best to provide “just in time” reminders about important assignments, including answering questions about assignment guidelines in the period leading up to the assignment.

(Tania): The syllabus as a living document is a great example of making the syllabus more relevant. I will also sometimes hide “easter eggs” in the syllabus to make it more engaging. So, if they’ve read through it, they will get some sort of reward (extra credit, 1 free extension on a project, etc.) When the syllabus is a Google Doc, it’s also easier to point back to it as an easy link in your assignment description

(Melissa): If there are items in the syllabus that I really want students to be aware of, I will often pull that information out and highlight it in various ways. For example, I will break out our course schedule and provide it as a separate google document that I link to in a formatted html block on Moodle that I call “Quick Links.” 

Eerie scenario: In your large enrollment course, you have an assignment that contains a mix of question types, relies on images or videos, and asks students to upload their notes, work, etc. Should you use a Moodle Quiz? A Moodle Assignment? Or something else?

(Melissa): Google forms are great for large enrollment courses, and there have been some great updates to the functionality over the years. All responses are collected in a google sheet and have a timestamp along with student email addresses. In the end I have a spreadsheet of scores that I total in a new grade column. I like to have column 1 with email addresses and column 2 as total scores. There are a couple of ways to upload the grades into Moodle (https://docs.moodle.org/400/en/Grade_import). I usually just copy/paste columns 1 and 2 using the import feature.