The Peaceful Professor

End of the Semester Blues

We’re approaching the end of the semester, which means a cloud of stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation has settled over the campus.  I, too, am struggling to keep it together so last night I turned to my favorite guided meditations (I love Rebekah Borucki and Grace Smith).  As I lay in bed breathing deeply and relaxing my muscles, I thought “my students and colleagues could really benefit from a meditation practice, too.”  So I decided to start a series called The Peaceful Professor to share resources related to meditation and stress relief particularly for professors and college students.

Teaching Mindfulness

Meditation isn’t a fad.  It’s been used across the world for centuries as a way to relieve stress, cope with negative emotions, and feel more grounded.  There’s also a multitude of empirical evidence supporting the positive impact of meditation.  For example, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study of elementary teachers found that daily 15-minute meditation sessions reduced symptoms of burnout.  Another study found mindfulness meditation actually increased gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, which is an area of the brain involved in learning, memory, and emotion control.

At the College of Charleston’s Pedagogy Symposium, Dr. Rhonda Swickert-Hittner, Professor of Psychology, shared how she begins every class period with a 5 – 10 minute deep breathing exercise.  By the end of the semester, the students are equipped with an arsenal of techniques to battle stress, anxiety, and other emotional ailments that commonly affect college students.  The impact on her class was palpable as exam scores slightly increased and attendance improved.  Studies have demonstrated similar outcomes.  For example, researchers from George Mason University and the University of Illinois found that students who meditated before a lecture performed better on a post-lecture quiz than the students who did not meditate.

The Peaceful Professor

I am inspired by the efforts of Dr. Swickert-Hittner and the work of other scholars, such as Dr. Dennis Shirley, Professor of Education at Boston College, and the force behind the Mindful Teacher.  The Peaceful Professor series will combine empirical research, guided meditations, and strategies for making meditation part of your daily life (maybe even your students’ lives).  My posts will specifically be tailored to college professors, but I hope K-12 teachers will find them useful as well.

If you have suggestions for topics I should explore or experts I should reach out to, please leave a comment below.  Also, if you have requests for meditations that would help you (e.g. procrastination, imposter syndrome, motivation), I’ll start building a list.  I’m looking forward to this new endeavor and I hope you’ll join me!  ~Peace~

Join me at and help me spread the word about the power of mindfulness!

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Strategies for Drama-Free Group Projects

My classroom is a “no drama” zone.  I work hard to establish and maintain a peaceful, professional, and cooperative environment in my classes.  But there’s one element that tests my classroom management style: group projects!

No Drama Group Projects

What we want to avoid! Image credit:

Effective collaboration is a foundational skill that is taught as early as preschool.  As students progress through school, they learn to share, cooperate, listen, and resolve conflicts.  By the time they reach college, one would think they would be expert team players.  Unfortunately, any college professor can tell you that’s not usually true.  Students struggle to communicate competently, schedule meeting times, and manage conflict.  This often leads to tearful office hour appointments or angry emails about slackers and Mean Girl cliques. So the following is advice based upon my experiences and research I’ve conducted regarding effective group work strategies for the college classroom.

Determine what type of group work will allow students to achieve the learning outcomes.  Group work is not one size fits all.  There are many forms of collaborative learning and each serves its own purpose.  So first think about what you want your students to accomplish from working together, then decide upon a method (such as team-based learning, peer instruction, or project-based learning)

Instructors, not students, should form groups.  When students are allowed to choose their own teammates, they almost always (1) choose their friends and acquaintances or (2) choose people who sit near them.  I don’t blame them; that’s the easy and comfortable option.  But this often results in homogenous groups.  Thus, especially for higher-stakes projects, instructors should strategically form teams that are composed of members who are diverse and who have common blocks of time to meet outside of class.  This can be accomplished by administering surveys that address variables such as personality type, learning style, leadership style, conflict management style, course-related knowledge and experience, habits, and schedules.

Discuss principles of effective teamwork.  While students have been collaborating with peers for most of their educational careers, most don’t have a scholarly understanding of group dynamics.  I’ve found spending a class period sharing the research on assigning group roles, establishing expectations, and managing conflict has improved my students’ success.  If you don’t have class time to devote to such a discussion, provide your students with resources, such as handouts or links to websites that they can refer to as they work.

Require a team contract.  For higher-stakes assignments, such as semester-long projects, have students write a contract that details expectations and consequences of violating those norms.  During the team’s first meeting, I suggest students brainstorm all the things they hate about group projects then turn those complaints into a list of do’s and don’ts.  I ask students to provide me with a copy of their contract that each team member has signed.  This document can then be used by the group to mediate conflicts.No Drama Group Work

Establish a policy to deal with social loafing.  The policy should outline procedures and consequences for students who violate their team contracts.  My policy has shown students that I will not (and they should not) tolerate slacking off and has dramatically reduced drama.  Whatever type of policy you create, make sure you require students to provide documentation of the contract violations and meet with you separately.  This helps to prevent unwarranted complaints or students “ganging up” on someone.

Require teams to provide you with regular progress reports.  To identify problems early and to ensure students are not procrastinating, I require teams to update me biweekly.  I ask students to identify a member of the team who is responsible for providing me with those updates either face-to-face or via email.  This has helped immensely to address concerns and to steer students in the right direction when they’re faltering.

Ask teams to complete regular assessments of one another.  An interesting meta-analysis published in Teaching of Psychology came to the conclusion that peer assessments within groups does not improve learning outcomes.  I hypothesize that the typical way peer evaluations are completed is to blame.  Often, instructors will require students to complete a cumulative assessment of their teammates at the end of the project.  Perhaps they’re asked to distribute points or assign each team member a grade. But by the time a project is completed, students may have “checked out” and are less motivated to provide a thoughtful assessment (“the project is done; I don’t really care anymore.”).  Also, this type of evaluation doesn’t allow the team to examine their dynamic while they’re collaborating and, therefore, eliminates the opportunity to make changes.  A potentially better approach is to first instruct students on the principles and importance of constructive feedback then ask them to complete periodic assessments as they work together. Perhaps at the termination of the project, students could write a letter to you reflecting on the evolution of the group.

Encourage students to use technology. One of the biggest complaints students have about group projects is finding times outside of class to meet.  Many students have jobs, internships, and other extracurriculars that make matching schedules frustrating if not impossible.  There are a multitude of technology tools that allow students to collaborate when not in the same physical space.  Google Drive allows students to work together on documents, slides, and spreadsheets on any device that connects to the Internet.  Google Hangouts, Blab, and Skype allow students to videoconference.  And there are many collaborative whiteboard apps, such as Realtime Board.  The availability of free software and apps really limits how often students can claim “we can’t get together.”

I hope these suggestions help you to help your students get the most out of collaborative learning.  If you have other tips for effective group work, please share!

References and Resources:

Faculty Focus Special Report: Effective group work strategies for the college classroom.

Major, C. H. (2015, Sept. 21). Choosing the best approach for small group work. Faculty Focus

Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2 (1), 9-34.

Tomcho, T. J., & Foeis, R. (2012). Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39 (3), 159-169.

Weimer, M. (2012, Feb. 22). My students don’t like group work. Faculty Focus.

This post first appeared on my work blog at the College of Charleston:

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Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus

In self-report surveys, students indicate they consult syllabi fairly regularly (Calhoon & Becker, 2008)1.  Yet professors’ exasperated refrain “It’s on the syllabus!” has become so clichéd, it has been turned into a whole host of memes and paraphernalia.

Why do students say they routinely consult the syllabus but faculty find they cannot recall basic information?  Could it be because our syllabi discourage close reading?

Crafting a Learner-Centered SyllabusIn my experience, first as a student, then as a faculty member, and now as an instructional technologist, syllabi tend to not be very engaging or welcoming documents.

They’re text-heavy, written in small, unattractive typeface, and their tone makes students feel like they’re misbehaving children who must be either intimidated or guilt-tripped into compliance.

What student would want to read our syllabi?

“These days syllabi are looking more and more like those Terms of Service that pop up when we use software. You know, the long documents in fine print with a scrollbar that we click through so we can move on” (Fister, 2011).

Why does it matter if our syllabi are aesthetically-pleasing and friendly?  Well, the syllabus is the first point of interaction between you and your students.  Syllabi not only inform students about the course and their role in it, but also about the personality and teaching style of the instructor and, therefore, can create powerful first impressions.  And first impressions matter.  They set the tone.

A significant body of research suggests clear, friendly, student-centered syllabi facilitate teaching and learning.  Unfortunately, syllabi tend to be anything but student-centered.  Many of us distribute authoritarian syllabi, which can result in negative consequences.

Authoritarian Syllabi
Authoritarian syllabi communicate to students that the professor is the sole authority and they are simply passive recipients of the professor’s knowledge.  They typically make students feel powerless and voiceless.  These types of syllabi, through content, form, and tone, focus primarily on preventing problems and challenges to professor authority.  They concentrate on what not to do rather than what to do, and in a tone that is dictatorial, demeaning, or infantilizing.  Some examples taken from real syllabi (but posted anonymously):

“I really take offense to students reading during class. Just leave the classroom — be sure to gather up all your things since you won’t be coming back.”

“Loud students will be warned and then asked to leave the room and will be marked absent.”

“Please ensure you go to the bathroom before class begins.”

To me, it seems that authoritarian syllabi reflect a breakdown in trust between students and instructors.  If only I had a nickle for every time I’ve heard professors complain about “lazy, spoiled, unmotivated, unprofessional Millennials.”  We seem to distrust our students’ ability and desire to learn.  Our syllabi communicate that.

Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus

Image courtesy of

We need more empirical research on this topic, but the studies we do have indicate that these types of syllabi tend to contribute to negative outcomes.  Students who read authoritarian syllabi are more likely to drop the class, are less likely to approach the instructor for assistance, and are more likely to believe the instructor doesn’t care about their success.2

Learner-Centered Syllabi
In contrast, a learner-centered syllabus requires faculty to release a bit of control and place more emphasis on what will help student intellectual development.  This does not mean we are catering to students, spoon-feeding them, or holding their hands.  It simply means designing a document, and by extension a class, that sets students up for success.

Learner-centered syllabi make it clear that students will not be treated as passive receptacles for information.  Instead, they will be treated as active, contributing participants.

One of the simplest ways to make students feel like active contributors is to use more inclusive pronouns.  Rather than “the instructor will” and “students should,” use “we,” “us,” and “our.”  For example:

“Throughout this course we’ll spend considerable time laying a foundation conducive to respectful but challenging discussions through which we all can grow. I hope we will grapple with complicated, emotional, and thought-provoking topics as a community, and to understand that learning and teaching come from shared experiences and self-reflection.” — Dr. David Jull-Patterson, Palliative Care, UC San Francisco

Also, do you provide space for your students to contribute to the design of the course? Students could contribute to the creation of course policies, assignments, or class schedule.  For example, I leave a few class periods open in the schedule and my students decide together what topics will be covered.  We also spend the first day of class creating a list of expectations — students’ expectations of each other, my expectations of them, and their expectations of me.  This becomes our course contract.

Secondly, to use a colleague’s phrase, instructors should not play “find the cookie” with their syllabi.  In this metaphor, the cookie equals the steps to success.  This means we shouldn’t be vague, confusing, or equivocal.  It shouldn’t be a mystery how students will achieve the learning objectives and how they will be evaluated.  Instead, we should “disclose as much insider knowledge as possible to promote the success of all students” (Collins, 1997)3.  Students shouldn’t have to search for the cookie. The cookie should be easy to find.

Finally, learner-centered syllabi outline what students can expect from instructors.  This communicates that the course is a joint effort and it gives the impression that the faculty member is invested and cares.  I started including a section in my syllabi that explicitly states what students can expect from me, such as being punctual, providing thorough feedback, and communicating clearly.

Although, once again, we need more empirical research, the existing studies demonstrate that learner-centered syllabi contribute to positive outcomes, such as:

  • Students are more likely to remember the information (Littlefield, 1999).
  • They are more likely to perceive an instructor as warm, approachable, and motivated to teach the course (Harnish & Bridges, 2011).
  • And they are more likely to seek support from an instructor (Perrine, Lisle, & Tucker, 1995).4

Your Turn
Now that you understand the differences between authoritarian and learner-centered approaches, think about your own syllabi.  What are you signaling to students about your class, your discipline, and you as a professor?

This rubric ( may help as you begin to critically examine your syllabi.  Try to see through the eyes of your students and challenge yourself to make one learner-centered change.

1.  Calhoon, S., & Becker, A. (2008). How students use the course syllabus. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2, 1-12.

2.  Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53, 159-164.

3. Collins, T. (1997). For openers . . . An inclusive course syllabus. In W. Campbell and K. Smith (Eds.), New Paradigms for College Teaching (pp. 79-102). Edina, MN: Interaction Books.

4. Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology Education, 14, 319-330.

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How to Pin a Tweet (and why you’d want to)

I’ve been using Twitter with my students for the past three years.  Just about every day, I share resources such as links to articles, Youtube videos, memes, and other media that are relevant to our course content.  I also use Twitter to post announcements, reminders, and helpful tips for completing assignments.  But because I tweet frequently, important posts likely get lost in my feed.  Pinning a tweet solves this problem!

A pinned tweet remains at the top of your profile page (the feed where your tweets and retweets live).  This gives it greater visibility as it will be the first tweet visitors see when they check out your profile.  A pinned tweet will remain at the top until you unpin it or until you pin a different tweet.

Pinning important tweets increases the likelihood that students will see them (such as a canceled class or the announcement of a guest speaker).

I made a quick tutorial demonstrating how to use this simple but powerful feature:


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Take Your Students on a Twitter Scavenger Hunt

Last month, I wrote about making the most out of the first day of class, including using fun icebreakers.  This semester, I decided to use an icebreaker that served two purposes: allow students to get to know one another and learn a tool we’ll be using in class.

Twitter Scavenger Hunt
For the past three years, I’ve integrated Twitter into my classes as a method for sharing resources and teaching digital citizenship.  But many students are not Twitter users before entering my class.  Each semester, my students complete a survey that asks them which social media platforms they use on a daily basis.  Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are used most, but only about 20% report using Twitter.  Thus, most of my students don’t know how to use the platform and Twitter has a steep learning curve.

So this semester, my students completed a Twitter scavenger hunt.  Like a traditional scavenger hunt, the tasks had them running all over campus, taking photos, and searching the Web for answers to questions.  But my hunt required they use Twitter features, such as posting photos, using hashtags, and retweeting.

Twitter Scavenger Hunt Icebreaker

The clues and tasks for my scavenger hunt

Before the class period of the hunt, students sign up for Twitter and enter their handles in a Google spreadsheet.  I then request they follow each other.  I do this because those who are brand new to Twitter will not show up in hashtag feeds until they have enough followers (Twitter is wary of spambots, so often new accounts won’t show up in searches until they have a number of followers, upload an avatar image, add a bio, and engage in tweeting/retweeting).

I also establish a hashtag for the course (#cofcmgmt if you’d like to follow along with us).  This hashtag allows our tweets to be searchable and added to a Tweetdeck list.  For the purposes of the scavenger hunt, this helps me to locate their contributions to determine the “winners.”

On the day of the hunt, I randomly assign students into teams.  The team who completes the most tasks in the set time period wins.  And while the students are out on campus, I’m following along, watching the live #cofcmgmt feed.

The next class period, I use TweetBeam to display the results of their scavenger hunt.  Students get a kick out of seeing the funny photos each team took.

I think my students enjoyed the scavenger hunt because it encouraged them to be silly and have fun with one another, all while familiarizing themselves with a new tool.

Have you tried scavenger hunts with your students?  Please share!

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Icebreakers That Don’t Suck

In previous posts (1, 2) about the first day of class, I argue that icebreakers can be so much more than obligatory traditions that make us cringe.  They don’t simply introduce students to students and students to instructor.  Rather, they set the tone for the rest of the semester.  Are you willing to do something silly or fun with your students the first day?  Or do you consciously try to be uptight, intimidating, or boring to get students to drop your class?  Well, for the students who don’t drop, that first day has created a strong impression about what the next 14 weeks will be like.  So I encourage you to find an icebreaker that will get students talking and laughing and will establish a classroom culture of openness, sincerity, and good old fashioned fun.

Here are my favorite icebreakers:

Show and Tell.  For this icebreaker, I ask students to find an object on their person (in their pocket, purse, backpack, etc.) that they think no one else in the room has.  We then push the desks away and form a big circle.  Next, we go around the room showing our objects and telling the story of the object.  You may ask, “how could the stuff students keep with them have actual stories?”  Trust me, they do and they are usually either heart-warming or hilarious.  It’s amazing the random things we keep with us, from key chains to ticket stubs to Costco-sized jars of peanut butter (I really did have a student carry that around in her backpack).  Once we’ve all gone around the circle, I surprise them with the next step: pick someone and tell us their name and their object.  My students really enjoy this activity because it’s different than the typical “say your name, where you’re from, and a fun fact” icebreaker.  The objects they share are often a reflection of their personality, so we learn much more about one another.

First Day of Class Icebreakers Speed Dating

Image courtesy of Jesse Chan-Norris via Flickr

Speed Dating.  Before the students arrive, I line the desks up into two rows, each desk facing another.  When the students show up, they are immediately perplexed and curious.  The beauty of this activity is that it shakes them out of the usual first day routine — they’re not expecting to have the desks arranged this way or to be sitting directly across from someone they don’t know.  I find this arrangement makes it less likely they will stare at their cell phones because it seems more obviously rude to do so when a person is sitting across from you.  This encourages them to introduce themselves before the class even begins.  Once everyone is seated, I display a timer on the projection screen and tell them they have two minutes to identify two things they have in common with the person seated across from them (and it must be something other than hair color, for example).  When the timer buzzes, one row remains stationary while the other row moves one seat to the right and the process starts again.  There’s nothing earth-shattering about this icebreaker, but it creates a cacophony of laughter and conversation in the room.  And I like a little bit of chaos on the first day!

Twitter Scavenger Hunt.  Like a traditional scavenger hunt, tasks require students to run all over campus, taking photos, and searching the Web for answers to questions.  But my hunt requires they also use Twitter features, such as posting photos, using hashtags, and retweeting.  This not only teaches them a tool we’ll be using in class, but also allows them to be silly and learn more about their College.  I provide detailed instructions for facilitating a Twitter scavenger hunt in this post. Check it out!

What are your favorite icebreakers?  I’m always looking for new ones!

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Universal Design and an Easier Way to Create Closed Captions

With the fall semester quickly approaching, I want to remind my professor friends about the importance of 508 compliance and Universal Design.  It’s vitally important that we design our courses to meet the needs of all students rather than creating what we think is a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum.  This means assuring our methods, materials, and assessments are accessible to all our students.  Consider the following:

Are you using PDFs created by scanning books?  If so, are you aware those files may not be readable by assistive technology like JAWS?

Will you only be assessing student learning by high-stakes exams?  Or, have you differentiated your assessments?

Are you flipping your class and asking students to watch video lectures?  If so, have you closed captioned them?

In my work as an instructional technologist, I frequently hear professors say “I don’t have time to make all these adjustments. I’ll just cross that bridge when I have to.”  The problem with this thinking is manifold, but two big issues are (1) not all students have a visible disability and (2) you’ll be more efficient if you plan ahead.  Have you considered that a student may be, for example, dyslexic and could benefit from multi-modal instruction?  Have you also considered that you may not know a student will need an accommodation until a couple weeks before classes begin?

I, myself, discovered I would be teaching a blind student a mere two weeks before the start of the semester.  Because I had put off the work of implementing Universal Design principles, I had to scramble to make my lectures, slide decks, readings, and assignments accessible to her.  I do not recommend this slipshod approach.

So I strongly suggest you think about your course design, how you deliver content, and how you assess student learning.  Are these methods and practices accessible to all students?

A tool that will make one aspect of this process easier is Youtube’s transcribe feature.  It’s a game-changer.  Gone are the days of time-consuming stopping and starting.  This feature offers automatic pausing, continuous typing, and automatic time codes!

In a previous post, I shared new accessibility features in Voicethread.  With Youtube’s transcribe tool, you can now easily add closed captions to your Voicethreads by downloading the .SRT file from Youtube then uploading it to Voicethread.

My colleague, Mendi Benigni (@benignim), created these tutorials for using Youtube’s transcribe tool.

Text-based tutorial:

Video tutorial:

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Schedule Office Hours with Google Calendar

Over the years, I’ve questioned the usefulness of regularly scheduled office hours.  It seems that no matter where I hold them (office, coffee shop, library) or when, students don’t take advantage of this routine time to chat with me.  Instead, I find myself alone having this internal debate:

I could really use a cup of coffee.

But what if a student stops by while you’re gone?

True. But hardly anyone ever stops by.

The second you leave to get that coffee, a student will show up.

Dammit. You’re right.  I’ll just sit here and try to grade papers.

One hour later and no students stop by.

I should have gotten that coffee.

I’ve tried office hours early in the morning, during lunch, in the evenings. . . It doesn’t matter.  More often than not, students have class or work during my office hours so we have to set up a special appointment.  But then we run into the never-ending email chain:

Let me know when you’re available.

How about Wednesday at 2:00?

I’m sorry, I have class.

Okay, what about Tuesday or Thursday at 4:00?

I have to be to work by then.

And on and on it goes.  So I’ve been searching for a painless way to schedule appointments that doesn’t require emailing, is simple to set up, and is free.  There are numerous software packages that institutions can get site licenses for (our student advising office uses Appointment Manager) and there are paid platforms used by salons and other small business owners.  But I don’t need bells and whistles and I definitely do not want to pay a monthly fee.

These conditions ultimately led me to Google Calendar.  If you have a Google for Work or Google for School account, you have access to an appointment feature in your calendar.  I almost always look at my calendar month-by-month so I never noticed the appointment option because it only appears when you display the day or week.  So here’s how you set up appointments:

Create Appointment Slots

1.  Using your Google for Work or Google for Education account, access your calendar.

2.  Make sure you are in Day or Week view.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 9.37.45 AM

3.  Click on the date and time during which you’d like to establish a single appointment or block of appointments.  In the event box that pops up, click Appointment Slots.

4.  Next, I recommend clicking Edit Details to modify your appointment slots.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 9.39.18 AM

5.  Enter the details, including name, date, time, and location. You also have the options to make an appointment recurring and to change the type to a single appointment or multiple time slots (the green text boxes in the screenshot below).

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 8.49.03 AM

Invite Others to the Appointment

There may be times you want to invite specific people to an appointment, such as a colleague or a teaching assistant.

  1. Click in the Add Guests field and enter their email addresses (the blue text box in the screen shot above)
  2. Keep in mind anyone that you add here will be invited to every appointment throughout that block of time, and will also get an email each time someone reserves an appointment.

Invite Your Students to Book Appointments

1.  Open your Google calendar and click on one of your appointment slots.

2.  Copy the link at the top of the page called the Calendar’s Appointment Page (the red text box in the screenshot above).

3.  Paste that link into an email, your LMS, syllabus, etc. so students have access to it.  The link is very long, but you can shorten it with Google’s URL shortener:

4.  This link will take students to your appointment calendar and they will see all available time slots you have established.

5.  Keep in mind that students will need a Google account to make appointments.  Many universities and colleges are Google Apps for Education institutions, so students have free accounts.  Otherwise, they can sign up for one.

If you don’t have available appointments in the near future, students will be notified and prompted to jump ahead on the calendar.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 9.52.05 AM

Tell Students How to Make an Appointment

1.  Tell students to click the link for the appointment page that you shared with them.

2.  Unless their login credentials are cached, they will need to sign into their Google account.

3.  On the appointment page, they should click an available appointment button.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 9.52.21 AM

4.  Since they’re logged in with their Google account, their name should appear next to “Who.”

5.  If they need to add a comment, such as the purpose of the appointment, they can type it into the Description box.

6.  Click Save.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 9.52.33 AM

7.  If a student wants to cancel the appointment, they can delete or decline the appointment event from their calendar. Then others can book the appointment.

Once a student makes an appointment, it will show up on your Google calendar in a small box offset from the overall appointment slot.  You will also get an email notification.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 9.54.49 AM

And that’s it!  Simple, quick, and free.  There are other options for those who don’t have a Google for Work or Google for School account, such as YouCanBookMe and Doodle.  If you use another tool to schedule appointments, please share!

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Don’t Waste the First Day!

The countdown to a new semester has begun.  I’ll give you a moment to sob or stomp your feet…

Despite our wish for a never-ending vacation, the reality is classes begin in a few short weeks.  As you work on your syllabi and lectures, give some thought to how you approach the first day of class.  Do you read the syllabus to your students line-by-line?  Do you have students play an icebreaker game that makes them sigh and roll their eyes?  Or do you simply introduce yourself, tell students which textbook to buy, then let them go after 5 minutes?

When I first began teaching, I admit to doing all three of these.  I was young and nervous and awkward.  But in the years since, I’ve learned to embrace the awkwardness of the first day and use that class period to set the tone for the rest of the semester.  So I challenge you to give more thought to what you do on the first day of class to set expectations and start building your classroom culture.

In a previous post, I discussed why you shouldn’t treat your first day as “syllabus day” so I won’t belabor those points here.  But I will offer a few additional suggestions:

Introduce yourself as a human being.  If students are so inclined, they can look up your bio on your department’s webpage.  They can Google you.  So instead of telling your academic story, consider telling a more personal story.  Share your hobbies and passions or something students would never guess based on their first impressions of you.  This is more than being personable; it’s about being authentic.  When I introduce myself to the class, I share quirks and pet peeves.  These usually get a chuckle and make me seem like a human being rather than a lecturing and grading robot.  I once had a professor who played a piece of music he wrote as a way to introduce himself.  I still remember him vividly 12 years later.

Find an icebreaker that isn’t trite.  I know, I know.  Icebreakers are awkward and many of them are incredibly boring.  But there are ways to encourage your students to get to know one another that don’t make them want to gouge their eyes out.  Remember, by the time students get to your class, they could have already suffered three or four terrible icebreakers.  So rather than the usual “let’s go around the room and each person tell us a little about themselves,” spice it up with an activity or game, even something silly.  For example, I have had students engage in “speed dating” where they have 2 minutes to chat before the bell rings and they have to move to the next classmate.  We’ve also played “6 degrees of separation” where they make a list of 5 things they have in common with a classmate, then they have to find someone else in the room who has at least one of those things in common.  Then those two students make a list of 5 similarities and the game continues.  Students may roll their eyes at first, but by the end of class, they are laughing and I notice friendships forming by the next class period.  So try something new this semester to encourage your students to talk to one another, rather than spending the minutes before class begins texting on their phones.  For my three favorite icebreakers, check out my post “Icebreakers That Don’t Suck.”  Faculty Focus provides a few ideas as well: “The Interest Inventory,” “A Classroom Icebreaker with a Lesson that Lasts,” and “First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning.”

Establish intentions.  Rather than spending time listing policy after policy, consider setting intentions for the semester and involving your students in this process.  What do you hope they accomplish and what do they want to learn?  What do you expect from them and what can they expect from you?  Is there a way both parties can be satisfied?  For example, after I explain a few of the more important policies, I ask students to compile a list of what they would like from me.  Punctuality, availability, and fairness are usually mentioned and these are qualities that I already deem important.  But because students composed the list themselves, it gives them the sense that I’m willing to share my power and that I’m open to their perspectives.  We also spend time establishing a classroom code of conduct.  Some of you may find this infantile, but I believe it’s one of the best and easiest ways to establish a respectful classroom culture.  When students generate the rules, they own them.  I also like Jennifer Garrett and Mary Clement’s idea to start each class with “Today We Will” to set those intentions.

Showcase course content.  You may disagree with me on this point as well, but sometimes we have to convince students to buy what we’re selling.  The first day is all about introductions and the course content should be included.  But rather than provide a regurgitation of the course catalog description, pitch the course as something students will find exciting and, yes, applicable to their lives.  And just as important, tell students why this is content you love and why this is a course you want to teach.  Enthusiasm is contagious.  I also recommend you start teaching the first day.  Students may look at you with incredulity, but it communicates that you take the course and their learning seriously.  In contrast, if you let them go after ten minutes, it communicates the course isn’t important.  So use this time to jump in and provide an outline of the fantastic content you’ll be sharing.

The first day of class is ripe with possibilities.  Make the most of it and it will set you up for a successful and enjoyable semester!


What are your suggestions for the first day?  Can you recommend fun icebreakers?

A version of this post appeared on my work blog for the College of Charleston:

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Voicethread is Now Accessible to More Users!

This post was written by my colleague, Mendi Benigni, on our work blog:  I wanted to share it because it’s exciting news for those who use VoiceThread with their students but worry about it being accessible to those with sight impairments.  Read on!

VoiceThread is an easy way to create everything from student presentations to course lectures…and now it can be accessible to more users!

Universal View

This view is readable by computerized screen readers used by those with sight impairments. This view is also navigable using only the keyboard (no mouse needed) so it’s more accessible to those with physical issues. The Universal View is also perfect for faculty who want to capture a snapshot of all the text comments for a slide in VoiceThread. Click here for more information, including tutorials, for VoiceThread Universal.

Voicethread Accessibility


VoiceThread now also allows for captions of not only the videos you upload but your audio and video comments as well.  As with all media players that allow captioning, VoiceThread can DISPLAY a closed captioned file but it cannot CREATE a closed captioned file.  That has to be done using a third party app such as Movie Captioner or YouTube.

Captioning Comments in VoiceThread:

You can caption both audio and video (webcam) comments.

Step 1:  Create the caption file and save it to your computer as one of the following: .DFXP, .SRT, .SAMI, .SCC, .SBV

Step 2:  Start playing the comment.

Step 3:  Click on the CC button at the bottom of the comment, next to the trash icon.

Step 4:  Select the caption file you created earlier.

Step 5:  Click OK.

Captioning Video in VoiceThread:

You can also caption video that you’ve uploaded or recorded into the main VoiceThread content window.

Step 1:  Create the caption file and save it to your computer as one of the following: .DFXP, .SRT, .SAMI, .SCC, .SBV

Step 2:  Navigate to the slide that contains the video.

Step 3:  Hover your mouse over the video icon on the left side of the page.

Step 4:  Click on the CC button in the top-right corner of the VoiceThread window.

Step 5:  Click Add Captions.

Step 6:  Select your caption file.

Step 7:  Click OK.

VoiceThread is continuing in their efforts toward universal accessibility; however, the roadblock remains the creation of the caption file.  Check back in the next few weeks as we hope to have a tutorial on the easiest way to create captions for VoiceThread comments and content.

— Blog by Mendi Benigni @benignim

UPDATE 8/6/15: Please check out my post about Youtube’s transcribe feature.  It makes creating closed captions and subtitles less time-consuming.  The .SRT file can be downloaded and then uploaded into Voicethread.

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