Student Voice and Choice Matter

Small teaching tip: Consider giving students more control over their learning such as allowing them to contribute to the syllabus or choose from a list of assignment options.

One way instructors can build a positive environment and encourage students to take more responsibility for their learning is to give them greater control, such as seeking more input from them or allowing them to choose how they will be assessed.

Giving students more control does not mean we are giving away all control or that we are allowing them to cherry-pick only the content that interests them.  Instead, it simply means giving students greater voice in the classroom.  Instructors can do this in small ways.  Here are a few ideas:

Allow students to contribute to the syllabus:

Hand out a draft syllabus on the first day of class, then present the areas you want students to contribute to (You can obviously set limits and define certain rules that are non-negotiable for you). For example, leave open 10 percent of the grade for an undetermined assignment and have students decide together what that assignment will be (such as a multimedia project instead of a research paper).  Or, leave a few class periods open on the course schedule and allow the students to vote on which topics will be discussed on those days.

Create a class constitution with your students:

In groups, ask students to brainstorm a set of rules to govern the class.  Ask them to think of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that have helped or hindered their learning in other classes. Use this information to create a set of “do’s and don’ts.”  I’m often surprised by the high expectations students set for themselves and one another when we complete this activity.  They often discuss being distracted by the classmates who show up late or online shop on their laptops, so they set rules about these behaviors.

It’s important that the class constitution also includes expectations of the professor.  The rules don’t just apply to the students.  I often divide the whiteboard into two columns and write “expectations of the instructor” on one side and “expectations of peers” on the other.  This demonstrates that I view our class as a community and that I am not “above” the rules.

Allow students to generate exam questions:

Take 30 minutes of class time and ask students to work in groups to generate exam questions.  Then tell them 10% of the exam questions will come from the list they generated.  This will not only give them some sense of control over the test, but also will serve as an excellent review activity.

What are ways you encourage student voice in your classes?  Please share!

For more small teaching tips, check out: The Minutes Before Class Begins

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The Minutes Before Class Begins

Small Teaching Tip: get to class early and engage your students right away. Consider posting a class outline, a thought-provoking image, or play some music.

Many of us arrive to our classrooms without time to spare.  We then concentrate on taking attendance, turning on the computer and projector, or reviewing our lecture notes. Meanwhile, our students sit silently, gazing at their phones.  We may not consider the minutes before class begins as consequential, but they offer a fertile opportunity to get to know your students better and build a more positive classroom environment.  So make it a goal to arrive to your classroom early and use those extra few minutes to chat with your students and set the stage for the rest of the class period.  Here are a few ideas:

Display a class agenda or outline.  This is a simple way to help students see how the class period will be organized and understand how the information they will learn today relates to what they learned last week.  As an expert in your field, you have a clear understanding of the framework of your discipline and how concepts are interconnected.  But novice learners tend to see facts, concepts, and skills as discrete pieces of knowledge, without much awareness of the connections that join them.  Thus, a simple outline can help students to better organize information in their memories.

Display a thought-provoking image.  Encourage your students to start thinking about the class content, rather than staring at their phones, by displaying something that will pique their curiosity such as a political cartoon, quote, or video clip.  For example, Peter Newbury posts NASA’s “pic of the day” for his students to look at as they file into the classroom.  On each image, he types two questions:  “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”  This simple visual prompt serves multiple purposes: it grabs his students’ attention, serves as a conversation-starter, and provides an opportunity to discuss how the images connect to previous course material.

Play some music.  Playing music is a great way to “warm up” the room and create a less stuffy environment.  Music can be used strategically to establish a particular atmosphere, such as energizing your lethargic students or calming them before an exam.  Steve Volk creates playlists themed for each class and encourages students to bring their own music.  He then shares the playlists with his students at the end of the semester.  This strategy is not relevant only to those who teach in the arts.  Think creatively about how music might relate to your course content, such as playing protest songs, Renaissance madrigals, or Native Andean flute music.

If these ideas aren’t appealing, I challenge you to identify a strategy that works with your teaching style and course content.  Both instructors and students need a little transition time at the beginning of class to get mentally prepared to learn and engage.  So don’t waste those precious few minutes!

This post is part of a series which will present low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  This post also appears on my work blog:

For more small teaching tips, check out:

Strategies for Deeper Learning and Long-Term Retention

The Essential Role of Memory Retrieval in Student Learning

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Strategies for Deeper Learning and Long-term Retention

Much of our understanding about how we learn is flawed.  The typical advice given to students is single-minded, focused repetition, reflecting the belief that if we expose ourselves to something long enough, we can burn it into memory.  This is called “massed practice” by cognitive scientists and “cramming” by students.  Given this advice, it should come as no surprise that one of college students’ most frequently reported study strategies is to reread their textbook1  .  Unfortunately this, and other forms of massed practice, are the least-effective methods of learning!2  As Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel write in their book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

“The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application, or how they relate to what you already know about the subject” (p. 16).


However, despite the research demonstrating that simple repetition does not lead to long-term retention, we rely on massed practice because it can produce quick results.  But this “learning” is an illusion of mastery — the retention of information is short-lived and does not encourage the application of knowledge to novel situations.  Most students don’t know this, and many aren’t bothered by it as long as they can pass the exam.  So it’s our responsibility to help students see the benefits of using the following research-supported techniques to improve their learning.

Spaced Practice

When faced with an exam, many students engage in cramming or pull “all-nighters.”  While this practice may help some students pass, the information is quickly forgotten.  In contrast, spaced practice divides studying into installments, allowing time to elapse in between.  One of the best ways for students to employ this technique is to study their notes and quiz themselves each week (not after every class or waiting until midterm time).  Why does this work?  According to Make it Stick, embedding new information into long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, during which neural connections are progressively strengthened and new information is linked to prior knowledge.  Research indicates that allowing yourself a little time time to “forget” is a good thing because it then requires extra effort to retrieve the piece of information from memory.  The more often you retrieve that information, the stronger those neural connections become.3

Interleaved Practice

The typical way we teach is to cover one concept until most of the students have learned it, then move on to the next concept.  Consider the typical textbook as an example — it is organized around massed practice, with each self-contained chapter dedicated to one concept.  But interleaved practice means you shift back and forth between different concepts or skills.  For example, one week you learn how to find the volume of a spheroid; then the next week, you learn how to find the volume of a cone.  The week after that, you move onto another concept, eventually coming back to the spheroid.

Students may become frustrated by this alternation because they leave a concept before they’ve fully mastered it, only to return to it later.  I does indeed feel messy; but the rewards are substantial. For example, one study found that while massed practice resulted in students scoring higher on tests taken immediately after learning a concept, interleaved practice resulted in significantly better performance weeks later, indicating greater long-term retention.4

Varied Practice

Varied practice means employing multiple methods or approaches. For example, a baseball player uses varied practice to hone their batting skills by asking for random pitches, thus improving their ability to identify and respond to each pitch.  This is opposed to asking for 15 fastballs, then 15 curveballs, then 15 change-ups, which would be a form of massed practice.  According to Make it Stick, neuroimaging studies suggest that different types of practice engage different parts of the brain and this increased mental effort encourages greater consolidation.  By using a variety of learning techniques, you are broadening your understanding of the concepts studied and the relationships between them.5  So rather than self-quizzing yourself with flashcards that are always in the same order, shuffle them each time and then ask a friend to quiz you.

An Important Warning

Although the research strongly supports spaced, interleaved, and varied practice, it’s important to recognize that they require significantly more effort and feel slower.  This can be frustrating to students and they may be tempted to go back to their “old ways” of massed practice.  For example, research has demonstrated that even when participants have performed superiorly using spaced, interleaved, and varied methods, they still believe they learn better using massed practice!6

Teachers, coaches, and parents should share this research with students and spend time explaining the benefits of these approaches.  In Make it Stick, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel suggest emphasizing the following fundamentals when talking with students about learning:

  • Some struggle is okay.  When learning requires effort, you’re actually learning more.
  • In contrast, when learning seems easy, it’s often superficial and soon forgotten.
  • Our intellectual abilities are not solely dependent on our genes.  When learning is effortful, it actually makes new neural connections and increases intellectual ability.
  • You learn better when you struggle a bit with a new problem, trying to solve it on your own, before being shown the answer.
  • Failures are an essential part of learning.  It is through our mistakes and setbacks that we discover essential information about the concepts and ourselves, which help us to master the material.


    Image from Wikipedia

Desirable Difficulty

Instructors can stress these fundamentals in their classes by incorporating “desirable difficulties,” a term that reflects balancing support with rigor.7  When learning is easy, students don’t retain information and are less able to apply that information to novel situations.  But designing your classes to be “trial by fire” swings too far in the other direction.  Making a few small changes to your teaching can help you find that desirable midpoint, where greater effort leads to greater learning:

Incorporate frequent quizzing*  This requires students to continuously practice memory retrieval, which encourages greater consolidation, known as the “testing effect.”9  But before you start quizzing your students, there are a few important stipulations to keep in mind:  

  • First, make the quizzes count towards the course grade.  While we would love our students to complete quizzes simply for the joy of learning, most require extra incentive.  That being said, the quizzes should be low-stakes.10 11  The purpose of these quizzes is to practice retrieval, not to have an anxiety attack each week.  
  • Second, avoid the pop quiz.  Pop quizzes are only effective at intimidating students into coming to class.  For most, they do not encourage actual learning.  But quizzes that students know about in advance do.  Rest assured, these assessments do not need to be lengthy or require labor-intensive grading (there are countless instructional technologies that can help facilitate this process).  
  • Third, design quizzes to be at least partially cumulative.  This requires students to reach back to concepts covered earlier in the term, developing deeper understanding and more complex mental models.  Remember: greater retrieval efforts equal greater learning.
  • Finally, occasionally assign quizzes that students complete before they learn new material.  This may seem strange, but a pre-quiz encourages students to consult their previous knowledge to help them grapple with new ideas.12

*One need not rely on quizzes to achieve these goals.  Writing exercises, problem sets, and other forms of assessment can also be used.

Encourage memory retrieval during class.  You don’t need to use daily or weekly quizzes to encourage memory retrieval and consolidation.  Instead, during lecture, ask students questions that require them to connect the dots between a new concept and a previously learned one.  Their first instinct will be to consult their notes or flip through their textbook, but tell them to resist this urge and take a moment to think.  Ask your students to write down their thoughts and make sure you’ve given them enough time to think.  Does implementing this idea mean you won’t cover the same amount of material in a single class period?  Yep.  Does this mean you’ll have to prepare thoughtful, purposeful questions in advance?  Yep.  But you’ll be encouraging your students to actually learn, rather than sit there like zombies.  I think that’s a worthwhile exchange.

Another, more active, strategy from Make it Stick is to ask a question you know students struggle with and often reach competing conclusions.  Ask volunteers to write their answers on the board (narrow them down to three options).  Next, ask students to vote on the answer they think is correct by holding up that number of fingers.  Students then find someone who is holding up a different number of fingers and share how each arrived at their answers.  During that discussion, students are encouraged to come to a consensus and be able to articulate why they think their answer is correct.  Both of these exercises encourage students to retrieve information learned from previous classes, practice metacognition, and engage in peer teaching.

Incorporate more metacognition activities.  Thinking about how we think is an essential component of learning.  Such reflection requires us to retrieve previous experiences and knowledge, connect them to new experiences, and visualize alternative perspectives.  One simple way to incorporate metacognition into your classes is to ask students, after completing a major assignment, to write a paragraph about how they prepared and what they would do differently next time.  This process involves retrieval (What did I do? How did it work?) as well as generation (How could I do it better or differently next time?) and elaboration (How can I explain my thinking to another person?).  All of these cognitive behaviors lead to stronger learning.13 


Image from Pixabay

Provide practice tests.  Students can (and should) practice memory retrieval outside of class as well.  Self-testing is often disliked by students because it requires more effort than simply rereading the textbook or copying their notes over and over.  But the greater the effort, the deeper the learning.  Encourage students to use the Leitner flashcard system, participate in a study group (that actually studies), and complete practice tests.  If you provide corrective feedback on these practice tests, even better.  This allows students to identify gaps in their learning and prevents them from retaining incorrect information14.  Practice tests are also a useful teaching tool because the results enable you to identify areas of struggle or misunderstanding so you can address them in class.

I hope this post has illuminated the research on how we learn best and provided at least one strategy that you can incorporate into your classes to achieve “desirable difficulty” and improve student learning.  You don’t need to completely restructure your entire course to incorporate this information.  As James Lang argues in his book Small Teaching, fundamental pedagogical improvement is possible through incremental change.

If you enjoyed this article and are looking for more tips, check out this post: The Essential Role of Memory Retrieval in Student Learning.



  1. McCabe, J. (2010).  Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory & Cognition, 39, 462-476.
  2. Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34, 40-41.
  3. Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tests: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.
  4. Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007).  The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481-498.
  5. Goode, M. K., Geraci, L., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). Superiority of variable to repeated practice in transfer on anagram solution. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 662-666.
  6. Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: Free Press.
  7. Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  8. Roediger, H. L., Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 382-395.
  9. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.
  10. Leeming, F. C. (2002). The exam-a-day procedure improves performance in psychology classes. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 210-212.
  11. Lyle, K. B., & Crawford, N. A. (2011). Retrieving essential material at the end of lectures improves performance on statistics exams. Teaching of Psychology, 38, 94-97.
  12. Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15, 243-257.
  13. Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  14. Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). Feedback enhances the positive effects and reduces the negative effects of multiple-choice testing. Memory & Cognition, 36, 604-616.
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Allow Yourself to be a Beginner

As an instructional technologist, I support faculty’s endeavors to incorporate more innovative strategies and technologies into their teaching repertoire.  When I first accepted this position, I didn’t realize how much of my work would involve reassuring, soothing, and encouraging faculty.  But I quickly discovered that many instructors are downright fearful of exploring new approaches to teaching.

For some, it’s simply a lack of confidence.  During graduate school, they were not taught how to teach and so they’re left with reproducing the methods they experienced as students.  Many faculty do not know any other way to teach besides lecturing with Powerpoint slides.  So opening their eyes to new approaches is the first step.  I like to suggest reliable and time-tested methods to these instructors, such as exit tickets or live polling, because there is evidence that these result in greater student engagement and learning.  Faculty seem to find that evidence reassuring.

For non-tenured faculty, there is often a perception of risk that holds them back from experimenting.  If they try something new and it fails, their student course evaluations could suffer and that data is used for tenure and promotion decisions.  For these instructors, providing low risk, high impact options can improve their teaching without requiring a complete transformation.  If you’re looking for a collection of empirically-grounded strategies, check out James Lang’s book Small Teaching.

For other instructors, there’s a fear of losing control or credibility.  Exploring new pedagogical approaches or instructional technologies requires patience, flexibility, and persistence.  For example, when I first flipped my classroom, it was a disaster.  My students were frustrated and I was exhausted.  But I learned a lot and didn’t give up.  After much trial and error, I’m now happy with my flipped classes and my course evaluations reflect students are, too.  But getting to that point required I let go of control and risk damaging my credibility as an expert.  Not all faculty are willing to do this because we don’t want to be perceived as a novice.  Our egos get in the way.

So if you are hesitant to experiment because you fear failure, chaos, poor teaching evaluations, or just looking like a fool, grant yourself permission to be a beginner.  Teaching is a continuous process of learning, growing, and challenging oneself.  It’s okay to not know how to do something.  It’s okay to feel uncomfortable or awkward.  It’s okay to make mistakes.  We all start at the beginning.  And the beginning is a wonderful place to start.

Allow yourself to be a beginner. No one starts off being excellent. The Peaceful Professor affirmations.

For more affirmations, guided meditations, and research on mindfulness, visit The Peaceful Professor.

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The Essential Role of Memory Retrieval in Student Learning

Are We Actually Helping Students Learn?

Too often, at professional development workshops and on education blogs, there’s an emphasis on designing courses that encourage students to reach the summit of Bloom’s pyramid.  Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing inadvisable about helping students analyze, evaluate, and explore.  But in our race to the top, we often overlook the importance of remembering, understanding, and even applying (especially in our upper-level courses).  According to cognitive psychologists, this is a mistake that can have damaging effects on student learning.  Without foundational knowledge, it is difficult, if not impossible, for students to demonstrate higher order levels of thinking.  According to cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham:

“Thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care most about–critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem-solving–are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” (quoted in Lang, 2016, p. 16)

Without a solid understanding of basic concepts, theories, and processes, a student cannot think creatively or critically about a discipline’s body of knowledge.  This academic groundwork allows students to integrate new knowledge in deeper ways and make more sophisticated connections.

Unfortunately, students often make poor choices when they attempt to learn new information.  Have you ever asked your students how they studied (maybe after the class did terribly on an exam)?  Often, students will say things like “I re-read my notes” or “I made flash cards and read them over and over again.”  Research demonstrates that these are some of the least effective strategies for committing information to long-term memory.  Thus, if we care about our students’ learning, we must design our courses in ways that actually help students learn, not simply cram and forget.  Holy Flashcards Batman meme. Practicing memory retrieval through frequent quizzing and cumulative assessments help students learn and retain information.

Exams are considered by many to be the gold standard of measuring student learning.  However, most instructors are not familiar with the cognitive science literature and, therefore, do not design exams that actually result in student learning.  But better understanding the retrieval effect (sometimes called the testing effect) will help us to create more effective assessments.

How Practicing Memory Retrieval Can Help

How many times have you claimed your “brain is full” or “you can only remember so much”?  In reality, our long-term memories are actually capable of holding quite a lot of information.  Cognitive psychologist Michelle Miller argues:

“the limiting factor is not storage capacity, but rather the ability to find what you need when you need it.  Long-term memory is rather like having a vast amount of closet space–it is easy to store many items, but it is difficult to retrieve the needed item in a timely fashion.” (quoted in Lang, 2016, p. 28)

She explains that each time we recall a piece of information, we strengthen the neural pathways that move the information from our long-term memories to our working memories.  This is key.  The more times we retrieve the information, the better.

To encourage your students to practice retrieval, try these strategies from James Lang’s book Small Teaching:

The Retrieval Syllabus.  Most of us distribute our syllabi on the first day of class and never bring it up again, unless a student violates a policy or makes a complaint.  Instead of thinking of your syllabus as a contract, envision it as a resource that is continuously referred to throughout the semester.  For example, fill out the course schedule with details that will help students see how the course will progress, how topics connect to one another, and how knowledge is organized in your discipline.  Then, during class, ask students to look at the document to orient themselves as well as remind them of what has been discussed thus far.James Lang's book Small Teaching discusses the importance of memory retrieval in student learning.

Warm-up Review.  In the first few minutes of class, ask students to write down on a scrap sheet of paper the topics that were covered the class period before or the main themes from the reading.  Ask students to share their “take aways”: What do they think was the most important point?  What struck them?  What piqued their interest?

I’ve done something similar with my students, but I simply asked the class to provide a review orally.  Typically, the same few students are the only ones who reply.  Thus, not everyone is encouraged to practice retrieval, so this method is less effective than asking all students to write down their recap.  This simple exercise has the added benefit of being an intellectual “warm-up” that prepares students for learning and participating during class.

Exit Tickets.  Similarly, at the end of class, have students complete an exit ticket.  For example, you could ask students to write down two things they learned and one question they still have.  This requires memory retrieval as well as provides valuable information about what students perceive as important and what they are struggling with.  This can serve as a great jumping off point for the next class period.

What is absolutely essential for both warm-ups and exit tickets is that students are told not to consult their notes or textbook when responding.  If students look up the answers, they are not practicing retrieval.  It’s also important to explain to students the purpose of these exercises.  You’re not trying to test them or give them busy-work; you’re trying to help them learn more effectively.

Frequent Quizzing.  Frequent, low-stakes quizzes are one of the best ways for students to strengthen their retrieval muscles.  Remember that the more we recall information, the stronger the neural pathways between long-term and working memory.  When creating quizzes, it’s essential that they are not weighted heavily.  The point is to encourage retrieval, not stress students out.  It’s also important to include question types that are similar to what students can expect on exams.  This allows students to familiarize themselves with those formats so the exam is a test of knowledge instead of exam-taking ability.

If you don’t have enough class time to devote to frequent quizzes, consider using online quizzes, such as through your Learning Management System (LMS).  Most textbook publishers provide gigantic test banks that provide more than enough questions to create multiple quizzes throughout the semester. These banks are designed to be quickly imported into your LMS and quizzes can be automatically-graded, making quiz creation and administration simple.  To ensure students are practicing retrieval, restrict the time limit so they don’t have the leeway to look up every answer in their notes or book (30-60 seconds per multiple choice question is advisable).

Make Assessments Cumulative.  Yes, your students will likely grumble when you explain that assessments will cover material from previous units or modules.  But, they will learn far better because of it. Why?  Remember that cramming works well for the short term, but it does not lead to long-term retention.  Including cumulative elements ensures that students continue to study or practice the older content.  According to James Lang, “whatever material you want students to retain beyond the confines of your course should make multiple appearances throughout the semester, especially on your tests. The more often the students have to retrieve, use, and reflect upon the course material, the more opportunities you are giving them to learn it deeply.”Cumulative exam meme: Study all the material?

So after the first quiz or exam, dedicate some percentage of future assessments for questions on older content or skills. You can do this with assessments of any kind (such as papers) if you consider how each assignment builds upon previously covered material.

Space Out Due Dates.  Students should complete multiple smaller assessments throughout the semester (as opposed to only one midterm and one final exam).  Intersperse lower stakes assessments (e.g. weekly quizzes, practice problems, minute papers) with higher stakes assessments (e.g. exams, research papers, lab reports).  According to James Lang, “the more frequently that your students have to check in and offer some demonstration of their learning, the more often you are giving them retrieval practice” (2016, p. 36).

Providing frequent opportunities for retrieval will not only help your students remember important information, it will also open the door to higher levels of cognition.  I’ve shared simple but powerful ways to help your students learn that do not require extra preparation, overwhelming amounts of grading, or even that much class time.  Want more ideas?  Check out James Lang’s fantastic book Small Teaching and then ask yourself, “what small changes can I make to help my students learn?”

A version of this post appeared on my work blog:

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The Struggle of the Luddite Professor

As I was scrolling through Twitter the other day, I came across this tweet from the account @AcademicsSay:

Tweets by professors joking about not knowing how to use the technology in their classrooms

Can you relate?  Apparently a lot of people do relate, based on the hilarious responses:

Tweets from professors joking about not knowing how to work the technology in their classroomsShit academics say-technology2

As an instructional technologist, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “I’m not good with technology.”  However, instructors’ perceived deficiency has little to do with competence; rather, it’s a lack of confidence.

Often, faculty who reject instructional technologies do so because they fear its supposed unpredictability.  Perhaps they were burned once and that embarrassing or frustrating experience tainted their perception.  Conditional psychology then takes over: the presence of technology or the suggestion they use it becomes a trigger for anxiety, causing normally intelligent and open-minded individuals to become stubborn and crotchety.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to escalate situations to their worst possible outcome, what psychologist Albert Ellis calls “awfulizing.”  What if the WiFi in the classroom goes out?  What if the speakers in the room don’t work and the students can’t hear my video?  What if I can’t get my laptop to connect to the projector?  What if the app I want to use suddenly isn’t available for download anymore?  These “what ifs” escalate until the professor feels an utter lack of control, leading her to give up on even trying.

Comfort With Discomfort

I’ve often heard tech evangelicals claim that “technology will not replace teachers. But teachers who don’t use technology will be replaced by those who do.”  Perhaps this is true.  But I think the more important point to make is about being comfortable with discomfort, not necessarily being comfortable with technology.  Education is constantly changing with each new generation of students, learning theory development, technological advance, and government election.  Teachers who cannot cope with such changes are the ones who will burn out and be left behind by the hardier teachers.  What distinguishes these two groups of instructors?  (hint: it’s not the difference between those who use technology and those who don’t)

Landmark research by Dr. Suzanne Ouellette and her colleagues identified three factors that make someone better able to cope with stress and uncertainty.  They are commitment, control, and challenge.¹

Commitment refers to possessing an attitude of curiosity and an appreciation of new experiences.  These individuals remain engaged and intrigued when facing challenges, uncertainties, or conflicts.  They constantly seek explanations or answers.

Control is the tendency to believe we can influence events in our own lives.  Thus, these individuals focus on taking action rather than feeling victimized.  Utilizing their knowledge, skills, and imaginations, they believe they can make a positive difference in the world.

Finally, challenge refers to the belief that change is the essence of life.  These individuals believe change leads to innovation, progress, and excitement rather than being a threat to comfort and security.

Ouellette’s research found that people characterized by the three Cs tend to react to stressful events by increasing their interaction with them in order to better understand and learn from them.  According to biologist and psychologist, Joan Borysenko, this approach transforms the stressful event into something less distressing because it’s viewed as an opportunity for personal growth rather than a threat.

In contrast, those who are not characterized by the three Cs tend to feel powerless to change stressful situations, try to hide from uncertainty, and resist anything that challenges their status quo.

How does this relate to technology?  Well, those who are characterized by Ouellete’s three Cs will approach new technology with curiosity.  They will embrace the unpredictability, the frustration, and the potential embarrassment of learning something new because it presents a challenge to overcome and a chance to grow.  In contrast, those who are not characterized by the three Cs will reject implementing a new teaching strategy or tech tool because the outcomes are unpredictable and, therefore, threatening.  But this doesn’t mean a luddite professor cannot become more comfortable with new approaches to teaching with technology.

Developing a Growth Mindset

Anyone can develop the attitudes and outlooks represented by the three Cs.  There is fascinating research about “growth mindset” that supports this claim.  According to psychologist Carol Dweck, those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence, skills, and abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication.  This attitude leads to a love of learning and encourages resilience in the face of difficulty.  Doesn’t this sound like most PhDs??

Professors are likely a breed of individuals with growth mindsets, which is what made academia seem attractive in the first place.  That mindset continues to be strengthened from years of tireless dedication to their research.  So the necessary attitudes are there, just waiting to be tapped into!  While it may take conscious effort and motivation to apply one’s growth mindset to taking risks on a new technology or pedagogical strategy, it is possible.

Remember: the more we try to control life, the less control we have.  Embrace the fact that technologies are built by fallible humans and operated by fallible humans.  

Errors happen.  

Equipment breaks.  

Strategies fail.  

That’s simply a part of teaching.  Don’t let fear of the unknown block you from trying something new.  Don’t let a lack of confidence in your abilities hold you back.  As Joan Borysenko argues: “It’s fear that masquerades as the need for control, and fear that deprives us of the chance to be free” (p. 37).²

I am willing to take risks. I invite the fear of failure. I embrace making mistakes. The Peaceful Professor affirmations.

For more mantras, affirmations, guided meditations, and research on mindfulness, visit The Peaceful Professor.

  1. Stressful life events, personality, and health: An inquiry into hardiness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1979, Vol 37(1), pp. 1-11.
  2. “Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.” 2007. MJF Books: New York, NY.
  3. For helpful suggestions on developing a growth mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s website and her TED Talk.
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Why You Should Flip Your Classroom

When I first started teaching, I wrote detailed outlines for each class period covering which topics I’d lecture on, questions I’d pose to my students, and activities they would complete.  Despite these plans, however, I inevitably would run out of time.  And what always got cut?  The application exercises and activities.  

I quickly realized this pattern was problematic, but I struggled to find a way to fit content delivery and application into a single class period in a way that did justice to both.  I tried shortening my lectures as well as dividing the week into lecture days and activity days, but both of these approaches resulted in not covering as much material as I wanted and needed to.  It wasn’t until I started working with TLT that I discovered the solution to my teaching challenge: the flipped classroom model.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re more than likely familiar with the education buzzword “flipped classroom.”  Originally conceptualized by Colorado high school science teachers, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams, the flipped model seeks to change the traditional classroom structure.  In many (if not most) college classrooms across the country, instructors lecture and students listen.  Unfortunately, this method of content delivery has consistently been demonstrated to be ineffective.  As Nobel laureate Carl Wiseman argues, the college lecture is the educational equivalent of bloodletting, one long overdue for revision.

What is the Flipped Classroom Model?

The flipped model attempts to address the weaknesses of traditional lecturing by moving it out of the classroom and bringing in more active learning strategies.  To deliver content, instructors record mini-lectures and students watch them outside of class.  These videos prepare students for hands-on application exercises which occur during class.  Now, you may be thinking, “but students are still listening to a lecture whether it’s in class or on a video!”  That is true.  But there is also a significant difference.  

We know that learning occurs best when students are given multiple opportunities to practice (this research is discussed in depth in James Lang’s Small Teaching and Benedict Carey’s How We Learn).  Students need the most assistance and guidance while practicing, but this typically occurs when the student is alone at home.  So the value of a flipped class is in the repurposing of class time into a workshop where students can inquire about lecture content, apply their knowledge, test their skills, and collaborate with others.  When we lecture for an entire class period, this is less likely to happen.

Chart comparing the traditional lecture model with the flipped classroom model.

Image by Jason Rhode

Why Should I Flip My Class?

Both empirical and anecdotal evidence demonstrates the positive impact of the flipped model.  For example, at Penn State, Dr. Kenneth Pasch teaches an undergraduate accounting class to 1,300 students (yes, you read that right).  It’s a course in which students struggle and a large number fail.  But after implementing the flipped model, the class average jumped from 60-70 percent of students passing to over 80 percent. The percentage of students earning As also increased from 12 percent to 26 percent in a single semester.  As another example, students in a flipped statistics course earned higher scores on exams and higher final course grades than students in the lecture condition.  In addition, while students in both conditions performed similarly on a departmental pretest at the beginning of the semester, the students in the flipped class scored significantly higher on the posttest.¹  

While the flipped model can improve exam scores and grades, it also impacts student learning in other meaningful ways.  For example, in a large-enrollment physics course, the researchers found increased student attendance and higher engagement in the flipped condition than in the lecture condition.  Another study of linear algebra courses found that while flipped classroom students performed only slightly better on a final exam than their traditional classroom peers, they reported enjoying the class more.  These students also seemed to develop a greater belief that linear algebra is relevant to their futures.  When asked to rate their agreement with the statement “linear algebra is likely to be relevant to my career,” flipped classroom students agreed significantly more than lecture section students.²  These research results are encouraging because engagement, enjoyment, and perceived relevance all impact student learning.

While these studies demonstrate positive outcomes, there are others demonstrating that students in flipped classrooms perform the same as students in lecture classrooms (though there aren’t too many indicating that students in flipped classrooms perform worse).  For an excellent scoping review of research on the flipped classroom, check out: While we need more rigorous empirical research to assess learning outcomes, I believe there is sufficient evidence that the flipped classroom model is worth implementing.

This post will be the first in a series on the flipped classroom.  I will particularly focus on the problems instructors encounter and offer solutions based on the education literature and my own experience.  I won’t sugar coat it: flipping is labor-intensive.  But the outcomes are worth it.  So I hope this series will help you flip your classroom without flipping out!

  1. Wilson, S. G. (2013). The flipped class: A method to address the challenges of an undergraduate statistics course. Teaching of Psychology, 40(3), 193-199.
  2. Love, B., Hodge, A., Grandgenett, N., & Swift, A. W. (2014). Student learning and perceptions in a flipped linear algebra course. International Journal Of Mathematical Education In Science & Technology, 45(3), 317-324.
  3. Feature image for this post comes from Washington University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
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You Are More Than Your Course Evaluations

It’s that time of the year.

What time of year is that, you ask?  A time for reflection and optimism as a new class of college graduates toss their caps into the air?  A time for renewed commitment to research and manuscript writing?  A time for office spring cleaning?


It’s time for end-of-semester course evaluations.

Across the country, faculty will be receiving the results of their students’ assessment of their teaching. . . Perhaps it’s more accurate to say some will receive evaluations of their teaching.  Many more will receive evaluations of their personality, wardrobe, voice, sense of humor, kindness, and physical attractiveness.

Female professors especially receive comments that are unrelated to their teaching and harsher evaluations than male professors.  According to Ben Schmidt, Assistant Professor at Northeastern University, men are rated as funnier, more intelligent, and just cooler than women (check out his interactive chart that lets you visualize gendered language in student evaluations on  And this isn’t limited to the United States.  Scholars in the UK, for example, have made similar complaints.

For those not in higher education, this may seem like nothing more than the complaints of ego-bruised academics.  But there’s a lot riding on these student evaluations.  At most colleges and universities in the U.S., student course evaluations are a primary artifact used in tenure and promotion decisions.  But when only a portion of students complete these evaluations (typically those who either adored or loathed the professor), “all pretensions to ‘validity’ are rendered dubious” (AAUP).

student course evaluations cartoon about only remembering the few negative comments instead of the many positive ones.

The Problem with Student Course Evaluations

When I first began teaching, I agonized over my students’ ratings.  I can still quote some of their comments ten years later.  While some made me feel like I could soar:

“Jessica is the best professor I’ve ever had. She’s so knowledgeable and helpful. She’s professional but is really easy to talk to. This class was also extremely interesting and I’ll never forget what I learned from her.”

Others crushed me:

“Honestly found her unbearable to listen to.  She’s also extremely ignorant and will butt into your conversations with stupid comments.  Her lectures are really long and boring and you are forced to attend.”

Gee, thanks.

I’ve since learned to take student course evaluations like these with a grain of salt.  There are just too many flaws that make these evaluations an unreliable measurement:

  1. Typically, only students who feel strongly will take the time to complete the evaluations, thus skewing the data.  They either love you or hate you, it seems.
  2. Comments within a single class often dramatically contradict each other.  This makes it very difficult to determine what changes should be made to the course.
  3. Comments often have little to do with teaching or course design, and instead focus on personal flaws and virtues.
  4. Evaluations are administered at the very end of the semester.  This is problematic for many reasons.  First, human memory is notoriously unreliable so student recollections may not be accurate.  Second, the end of the semester is when student stress peaks (which could result in venting negative feelings).  Finally, students’ opinions can only be used to change future courses rather than being used to improve the course during the semester.

Despite these weaknesses, student perceptions matter and it’s important to provide a platform for their voices to be heard.  Other than changing the culture of academia and its often misguided approach to performance evaluation, what can we do as individual instructors to better assess student learning and satisfaction?  I believe the simplest and most effective solution is to administer student evaluations throughout the semester.  This is sometimes called “Informal Early Feedback.”

How to Incorporate Informal Early Feedback

Gathering students’ opinions in momento solves many of the problems associated with end-of-semester evaluations.  Also, responding to students’ comments by discussing them in class and making changes as appropriate can have a powerful and positive impact on the classroom culture.  Here are a few ideas to incorporate into your classes:

Exit Tickets:  These are quick formative assessments that allow instructors to check students’ understanding and identify areas of struggle.  They’re called exit tickets because they are typically administered at the end of each class period.  They can take any form and ask any question.  For example, some instructors simply ask students to write responses on scrap paper.  Others incorporate instructional technologies, such as Poll Everywhere, Socrative, Plickers, or Google Forms.  These are two of my favorite exit ticket prompts:

  • 3-2-1:  Ask students to list three concepts they learned, two ways they contributed to today’s class, and one question they still have about the material. This allows the instructor to compare the learning outcomes he/she set for that class with what students are actually retaining.  It also provides insight into how students perceive their participation as well as identifies concepts that students may need further help understanding.
  • Muddiest point: Ask students to identify the most challenging concept discussed in class or in the readings.  This provides a safe way for students to communicate what they’re struggling with so you can determine if additional class time is warranted or if individual interventions are needed.

Tweet What You Think:  If you’re using Twitter with your students, you could provide your students with a prompt at the beginning of class that serves as both a review of content and a discussion starter.  This is one I used in my business communication course:

Improving the process of gathering student's perceptions of course effectiveness by implementing informal early feedback like Tweet What You Think

Keep, Stop, Start:  Ask students to write on a Post-It note one thing they wish would remain the same, one thing they wish would stop, and one thing they wish would start happening.  For example, a student may comment that they like the flipped classroom structure, but they wish the weekly quizzes would be eliminated, and instead be replaced with journaling.  I ask students to not write their names on the Post-It and to stick them to the wall on their way out.  This helps to ensure anonymity and, therefore, more honest feedback.

Improving the process of gathering student's perceptions of course effectiveness by implementing informal early feedback like using Post It Notes

Describe Our Class:  Around midterm time, ask students to describe the class for a friend who is interested in taking the course.  This includes how each class period is typically structured, how I interact with students, what types of readings are assigned, what types of assignments are completed, what he/she is learning, and whether or not he/she is enjoying the experience.  This exercise gives me fantastic insight into how students’ perceptions compare to my own.

These are some of my favorite ways to gather student feedback throughout the semester.  I will often use a combination of these, but sometimes I only conduct mid-semester evaluations.  Choose a method that works best with your course structure and your own approach to teaching.

And Now, Your Monday Mantra

It’s easy to allow student course evaluations to distress us.  When so much of our identities is connected to teaching, it’s painful to be criticized or even attacked.  But remember that these evaluations are often biased or skewed to the extremes.  If you receive negative evaluations, seek out the counsel of your Department Chair or ask a colleague to observe your teaching.  And instead of relying only on this one snapshot to assess your teaching, consider implementing informal early feedback throughout the semester.  I’ve found that these exercises have actually improved the quality of my end-of-semester evaluations.

I am more than my student course evaluations. The Peaceful Professor Affirmations

Do you incorporate informal early feedback into your classes?  What strategies work for you?  Please share!

And for more affirmations, guided meditations, and research on mindfulness, visit The Peaceful Professor!

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Want to Improve Your Lectures? Take Notes!

As the semester winds down, I’ve begun reflecting on the successes and failures of my class.  Which topics led to fruitful discussion?  Which assignments caused students the most trouble?  Which instructions did I constantly have to clarify?  Which activities backfired?

As important as this type of self-reflection is, when I wait until the end of the semester, my memory sometimes fails.  So I’ve established the habit of journaling throughout the semester.  But if you’re like me, your days are full and it’s easy to put self-assessment on the back burner.  How do you find the time?  The answer is to make the process as quick as possible.  Here are some suggestions:

Add Post-Its® to Your Lecture Notes

If you use paper lecture notes, Maryellen Weimer, the editor of Faculty Focus, suggests attaching sticky notes that contain your teaching to-do list:

“A colleague once shared with me that after class ends, she attaches a small sticky note on the materials from that day, and then imagines she will only have 15 minutes for prep the next time she teaches that material.  She writes her to-do list on the sticky note: find more examples of X, create a better question about Y, add another graphic to the Powerpoint slide about Z, etc.”

This is an incredibly simple way to reflect in the moment before you forget what worked and what didn’t.  This will ensure you know what improvements need to be made when next semester rolls around.

Use a Note-taking App

Both iPhones and Androids come with apps already installed that allow you to quickly type notes (iPhones come with a “notes” app and Androids tend to come with a “memo” app).  After a particularly successful or terrible class, I will take 1-2 minutes to type what occurred.  Were my instructions unclear?  Did I not allow enough time for group work?  Did that reading spark an enthusiastic discussion?  This takes very little time and could be done while you’re still in the classroom.

If you have to hurry to your next class or meeting, use the voice memo app that also comes standard on iPhones and Androids.  As you’re walking, talk into your phone’s microphone, and record your observations.  By recording my questions, ideas, and concerns after each class, I’m creating a fantastic resource to use when I prepare for the next semester.  Here’s an example of my iPhone notes:

Example of teaching self-reflection notes using the notes app on my iPhone

For those who own tablets, there are a multitude of sophisticated apps that make note-taking quite delightful.  These apps work best if you use a stylus.  It takes only moments to open the app and jot down your thoughts about the quality of each week’s classes.  Here are some of my colleague’s favorite apps:

Notability ($4.99, iOS) combines typing, handwriting, photos, PDFs, and audio recordings to create multi-layered notes.  If you’re a frequent notetaker, it’s worth every penny.

If you’re an Evernote rockstar, you can’t get much better than Penultimate (free, iOS).  Its inking technology looks and feels like real pen and ink, and as you write, the page keeps up with you so you never run out of space.  Plus, it syncs with your Evernote account so you have access to your notes from just about anywhere.

Squid (free, Android) allows you to easily markup PDFs to fill out forms, grade papers, or sign documents. Import images, draw shapes, write on a virtual whiteboard, and add typed text to your handwritten notes.

Other options include:

ColorNote Notepad (free, Android)

Inkpad Notepad (free, Android)

UPAD ($5.99, iOS)

Paper (free, iOS)

Add Notes to Your Powerpoint Slides

For those who aren’t keen on using apps and worry about losing sticky-notes, using the notes section of Powerpoint is a fantastic way to keep an ongoing record of your teaching observations.  Most presentation software have a designated area for notes, including Google SlidesKeynote, and Haiku Deck.

Add notes to Powerpoint slides to self-reflect on your teaching

Why Bother With All This?

Teaching is a continuous process of exploring, learning, and evolving.  If we fail to prioritize self-reflection, we become stagnant and ineffective.  So do yourself and your students a favor by getting in the habit of routinely evaluating what happens in your classroom.  You don’t have to do it after every class period, or even every week, but don’t wait until the end of the semester.  You’ll forget less if you write it down.  As poet and author Harley King notes: “So much is buried in our lives that we forget what we have learned.”

A version of this post first appeared on the blog I contribute to for work:

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Feeling Overwhelmed? Try the Pomodoro Method

This post is part of a series called The Peaceful Professor, which will explore how mindfulness can be integrated into higher education.  Empirical research, teaching strategies, guided meditations, and affirmations will be shared to help professors (and students) alleviate stress, avoid burnout, and improve overall wellbeing.

Across the country, college students are approaching exam week.  This means faculty will soon be inundated with exams, papers, and other projects.  As a chronic procrastinator, I have the bad habit of allowing grading to pile up until it becomes so overwhelming that I actually move through the stages of grief.  As miserable as this makes me, I’ve been repeating this experience for ten years now…  I did say I was a chronic procrastinator.

But this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment.  I don’t wish these feelings of anxiety and exhaustion on anyone.  So to help you, I propose a time management idea as well as an affirmation.

The Pomodoro Method

One of the contributors to procrastination is facing a task so large or complex that we don’t know how to start.  Feeling overwhelmed prevents us from taking action.  The Pomodoro Method seeks to remedy this by asking practitioners to break down tasks into manageable chunks and take scheduled breaks while working.  When I first heard about this technique, I immediately thought it could make the grading process less painful.  So how do you begin?

First, set specific goals for what you want to achieve.  In the case of grading, maybe it’s “by Friday, I will grade 20 of my 40 research papers.”  Given your goal, how many pomodoros do you need (pomodoros = 25-minute segments)?  Perhaps you typically devote 15 minutes to each student’s paper.  That means you’ll need 12 pomodoros to reach your goal.

Next, set your timer for 25 minutes and work in a distraction-free setting.  When the timer rings, you must take a short break.  It’s required.  Get a cup of coffee; walk a loop around your neighborhood; play with your pet.

When you return, set the timer for your second pomodoro.  After four pomodoros, you must take a longer break (30 minutes is recommended).  Go for a run; cook dinner; watch an episode of a favorite TV show.  Maintain this cycle until you reach your goal.  If you have tasks remaining, set a new goal and determine how many pomodoros you still need.

Although not revolutionary, this technique can result in greater productivity by encouraging us to set concrete goals, commit to short segments of concentration, and take regular “brain breaks.”

Affirmation for Grading Overload

Now that you have a practical suggestion for handling grading overload, I’d like to offer this simple affirmation based on the adage “this too shall pass.”  While you may be feeling mentally exhausted, remember that you will get through it one step (or one pomodoro) at a time.

This grading shall pass. The Peaceful Professor Affirmations.

Have you tried the Pomodoro Method?  Do you have other strategies for managing grading overload?  Please share!

And for more mantras, affirmations, guided meditations, and research on mindfulness, visit The Peaceful Professor!

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