CUTLA Teaching Tips for Student Engagement

Teaching, learning, and assessment tips that facilitate student learning or promote student engagement based on scholarly literature and suggestions from faculty who have successfully used these strategies.

To Receive Teaching Tips

CUTLA Teaching Tips are weekly e-mail messages to the faculty of UWF describing an instructional strategy that faculty might find helpful in promoting active learning and student engagement. If you are a UWF faculty member and do not currently receive the Teaching Tip e-mail but would like to receive future postings, contact CUTLA.

Contributions Welcomed

Do you have an instructional strategy that improves student learning or promotes student engagement with your class? Send a description of your teaching tip to Claudia Stanny at the Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment for posting in a future Teaching Tip mailing.

Teaching Tip Topical Archive

The Topical Archive Teaching Tips is an accumulation of CUTLA's weekly Teaching Tips arranged in categories.  (A link to this site will be added in the near future.  Thank you for your patience.)

Archived Teaching Tips

Spring Semester Teaching Tips

April 15, 2014
Use Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) to reflect on your teaching and improve student learning in future courses

The final weeks of the term are one of the best times to reflect on student learning and consider changes you might want to implement the next time you offer the course. Identify activities and assignments that worked well and make notes to yourself about modifications to assignments, rubrics, and other aspects of the course that might create improvements. Use the course evaluation activity to administer a questionnaire of your own design to elicit comments and suggestions from students. Formal course evaluations currently focus on “student satisfaction.” Rather than asking students if they liked aspects of the course, create your own Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) questions to evaluate the effectiveness of a specific assignment, class activity, project, or teaching strategy.

SALG questions ask students to rate the class in general or to rate specific assignments, projects, class activities, and other teaching strategies.

Examples of SALG questions

Global SALG: How much did (insert the target activity) help you in your learning? Target activities may include a class activity, lab assignments, particular learning methods, guest lectures, class readings and other resources.

Content SALG: As a result of your work in this class (or this specific activity), what gains did you make in your understanding of each of the following? Provide a list of specific learning outcomes or concepts that you consider important for the class.

Skills SALG: As a result of your work in this class (or this specific activity), what gains did you make in the following skills? Target skills may include making quantitative estimates, finding trends in data, designing a research study, writing technical material, creating a web page, piece of art, etc.

Attitude Change SALG: As a result of your work in this class (or this specific activity), what gains did you make in the following areas?  For example: enthusiasm for the course or subject area

Although these are self-report measures, SALG measures can provide diagnostic evidence about teaching effectiveness that can be useful for scholarly projects on teaching and learning or inclusion in documentation of teaching effectiveness for annual evaluations, tenure and promotion, and teaching awards.

A discussion of the development of SALG measures and information about the validity and reliability of this approach to measuring student learning can be found in:

Seymour, E., Wiese, D., Hunter, A. & Daffinrud, S.M. (2000, March). Creating a Better Mousetrap: On-line Student Assessment of their Learning Gains. Paper presentation at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, San Francisco, CA.

Information about Student Assessment of Learning Gains and a free download of the Seymor et al. paper can be found at the Student Assessment Learning Gains web site.

Updated: 06/24/14 tjf

April 08, 2014
Use an annotated syllabus to track changes in your thinking about course design and document the effectiveness of your teaching

Faculty should use multiple sources of evidence to document the effectiveness of their teaching for annual evaluations and tenure and promotion portfolios. An annotated syllabus can document how you use feedback from students and other assessment evidence to improve the quality of courses you teach regularly.

Annotated syllabi begin with your current course syllabus and grow in scope and in depth as you add annotations and links to additional materials each time you teach the course. How can an annotated syllabus be useful for faculty? Creating an annotated syllabus prompts regular reflection on the effectiveness of course design and the instructional assignments we create. An annotated syllabus makes the intellectual work that goes into teaching public, documenting the evolution of course designs across multiple terms.

Annotating your syllabus also creates immediate and tangible benefits. During the middle of a term, we may discover small changes that will improve future versions of our course or get an idea about a better way to design an assignment or in-class learning activity. Usually it is not possible to implement these changes during the current term, but we want to capture these ideas for the next time we teach the class. Annotations on the syllabus should describe the precise change we intend to make and articulate our rationale for the change. Thus, an annotated syllabus tracks the evolution of your ideas, impressions, and observations about course design and documents your efforts to continuously improve teaching and learning in this course.

Annotated syllabi can provide entry points in which you can “dig down” and excavate your assumptions about course design, ask questions such as

  • is this textbook really accomplishing what I want from it?
  • does my policy about class participation motivate students to give their best? or
  • is my grading rubric as clear as it can be about different levels of performance?

There are no prescriptive prompts for creating an annotated syllabus; each annotated syllabus is unique to the interests and professional development of the instructor. Simply annotate your syllabus where you have questions about how you want to structure future courses, identify the changes you are considering, explain the scholarly thinking that informs choices you make when designing your course, or identify assignments you plan to use to assess how well students achieve a particular course learning outcome.

Collaboration with other faculty can magnify the benefits of creating an annotated syllabus. Collaborative groups might pose questions that an instructor working alone might not consider, such as

      • why does this rule exist in your classroom?
      • why did you select these materials for your students? or
      • why did you include or not include this language in your syllabus?

If you choose to work alone on annotating your syllabus, consider reading a book about instructional improvement or course design. These resources can prompt you to raise questions about your instructional choices. Good resources include:

          • Ken Bain (2004) What the Best College Teachers Do
          • Donald Finkel (2000) Teaching With Your Mouth Shut
          • Maryellen Weimer (2002) Learner-centered Teaching: 5 Key Changes to Practice.
          • Maryellen Weimer (2010) Inspired College Teaching

Practical Tips for Creating an Annotated Syllabus

Save your current course syllabus as a Word file with a different file name than the one used for the course syllabus (e.g., Syllabus-MMM2345 might be saved as Annotated-Syllabus-MMM2345).

Activate Track Changes in the Review menu in Word.

Highlight a word or phrase in your syllabus that you want to annotate and click on New Comment to add an annotation.

Alternatively, if you would like to access your annotated syllabus from any computer—and perhaps eventually to make it public—use Google Docs or a Wiki such as PBWorks. Wikis allow you to add endless depth to your annotated syllabi!

You can view samples of annotated syllabi created as part of a faculty learning community at Metropolitan State College of Denver Annotated Syllabi.

This tip is based on teaching strategy submitted by Mark Potter, Director, Center for Faculty Development, Teaching Strategy Tips, Metropolitan State College of Denver to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.

Updated: 04/24/14 tjf

April 22, 2014
Design motivating courses by first identifying why students are (and are not) motivated

When we think about how to motivate students, we might assume our students will be motivated by the same goals and values that motivated us, but we will often be mistaken. When we try to motivate students with the wrong incentives, students disengage from classes and assigned learning activities, avoid doing more than the minimal work needed to get by, fail to use mentoring and tutoring opportunities we create, do not employ effective study strategies we suggest, or behave defensively, feigning understanding and avoiding tasks they believe might challenge their ability to perform. In the long run, all of these behaviors undermine students’ ability to learn.

Ambrose et al. (2010) discuss three factors that influence student motivation in a course. No one factor is definitive; the three work interactively to determine student motivation. If we want to structure our course to motivate students, we must attend to all three factors:

  • The value a student places on the learning goals.
  • Whether the student expects he/she can achieve the learning goals.
  • Whether the student perceives support in the class – does the student believe course activities and supportive resources will help him/her achieve the learning goals?

Ambrose et al. (2010) describe strategies instructors can use to leverage each factor and improve student motivation.

Establish the value of your learning goals

  • Connect course content and skills to student interests.
  • Create problems and tasks that address real-world problems.
  • Connect content and skills in your course with other courses in the curriculum and describe the connections repeatedly in your course.
  • Explain how skills students acquire in your course (e.g., writing clearly) will contribute to their professional lives.

Help students develop expectations that they can achieve the learning goals

  • Determine the appropriate level of challenge for students in your course and design assignments at this level. Assignments that are too easy sap motivation as much as do assignments that set unrealistic demands.
  • Create assignments and assessments that align with learning goals. Describe the relation between learning goals and assessments in a rubric in which you describe the learning outcomes for an assignment and articulate your expectations for performance.

Create a supportive structure and communicate the role of this structure to students

  • Create early, short, low-stakes assignments to give students an opportunity to practice skills and develop confidence in their ability before they tackle a larger, high-stakes assignment.
  • Provide constructive feedback and opportunities to use it. Feedback should identify strengths, weaknesses, and specific suggestions for actions students can take to improve the quality of their work.
  • Describe effective strategies for learning course material and explain why these strategies work.
  • Stereotypes about “talent” depict academic success as a manifestation of an unchangeable characteristic and undermine motivation when students encounter an early set-back. Students cannot alter their “talent”, but they can alter their work habits. Emphasize the value of variables students can control: hard work, good time management, and practice guided by constructive feedback for success. Give explicit examples of these strategies in action.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Updated:  05/05/14 tjf

April 01, 2014
Use elements of cognitive constructivism to design effective learning activities

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011) and others (Bransford et al., 2000) identify constructivism as a critical learning theory for the design of effective teaching methods. However, this term is often misunderstood and confused with concepts such as “social constructionism” (Hartle, Baviskar, & Smith, 2012).

Cognitive constructivism has four major characteristics. Learning activities become more effective when we include these elements in the design of the activity.

  1. Activate prior knowledge. Learning activities should elicit prior knowledge and engage students cognitively and emotionally with the topic. New learning is retained better when it is connected with existing knowledge structures; both new knowledge and existing knowledge must be active in memory at the same time. Integration will not happen if the prior knowledge is not active and students experience the new knowledge in isolation. Instructors should be able to observe and interpret student’s prior knowledge, including assumptions and misconceptions they might bring to the task. Select a meaningful activity that engages and motivates student interest; activities that only check whether students read the text or did their homework are not suitably engaging.
  2. Create surprise. Create learning activities that reveal disconnects between prior knowledge and the demands of the current task. Sometimes prior knowledge is incomplete and students are unable to solve a problem without additional knowledge. Sometimes prior knowledge is incorrect (misconceptions and false assumptions) and obstructs problem solving. Learning is most effective when circumstances violate our expectations and predictions (a surprising outcome, new information contradicts prior knowledge or beliefs). When we confront discrepancies created by inadequate information or misconceptions, we experience emotional discomfort (dissonance) that can motivate learning. However, instructors must handle this component with care. Too little discomfort will not motivate students to learn; too much discomfort will direct attention away from the learning activity and toward other behaviors that will reduce or eliminate the discomfort.
  3. Apply and evaluate the new knowledge. Students should apply the new learning to a variety of related problems and receive detailed formative feedback. These activities create opportunities to make any corrections needed. Repetition with a variety of problems provides practice and reinforcement for the learning. When possible, construct learning and practice tasks that provide self-correcting feedback as an integral part of the task. Tasks completed as a group frequently create opportunities for students to give effective feedback to their peers while completing the task.
  4. Include a closing reflective assignment. Require students to reflect on their learning experience. Students frequently complete learning activities without recognizing what they gained from these activities beyond completing a required assignment. When students can articulate what they have learned and how a learning activity contributed to their learning, they become more motivated to engage in similar learning activities. At the close of a learning activity, ask students to explain what they learned, what they are now able to do, describe how they did it, and describe why the activity was important for their learning.

Hartle, R. T., Baviskar, S., & Smith, R. (2012). A field guide to constructivism in the college science classroom: Four essential criteria and a guide to their usage. Bioscene, 38, 31-34.

Updated: 04/16/14 tjf

March 25, 2014
Use a minute paper to evaluate what students actually learn from a lecture

Lectures enjoy a reputation for enabling an expert to efficiently communicate content to a large audience. A well-crafted lecture delivered by an engaging, knowledgeable presenter is a delight. Consider evaluating how well students retain the key points you intended to communicate in one of your best lectures (Kalman, 2007).

Review the content of one of your best-organized lectures. Select a strong, well-organized lecture based on content area you know well and feel confident about when you present material to your students. Identify the three most important points you hope students will retain from your lecture.

On the day you give this lecture in your class, close the class session by asking students to write down the three most important points they derived from the class.

Describe the three points you identified (put them on a Power Point slide, a transparency, or write them on the board). Ask how many of your students wrote down all three points on their minute paper. How many wrote down two of the points? One of the points?

Collect the minute papers and review what students actually wrote down. Reflect on the gap between your intended message and the message students heard. Consider how you might direct students’ attention to the key points during future lectures.

TED talks are masterful presentations, famous for the engaging style used by the expert presenters. Consider selecting a TED talk on a topic related to class content. Identify three main take-away points from the talk. Do students identify these key points?

An illusion of learning occurs when students evaluate how well they will remember material immediately after studying it. Immediately after study, content is active in immediate memory simply through the passive process of recent exposure. Students can easily access it and might believe they have stored the content effectively for long-term retention. However, immediate memory (short-term memory) is ephemeral. When a delay filled with another activity displaces content material from immediate memory, access to contents can deteriorate substantially unless learners engaged with the material in a way that promotes long-term retention.

A well-organized delivery creates an immediate sense of understanding, but this perception might be misleading, especially if the presenter does most of the work required to organize and create meaning (Carpenter et al. 2013). I do not propose to create disorganized lectures to make students exert effort to discover the meaning in a lecture and thereby learn more! Rather, introduce brief pair-share activities or thought questions during the lecture to focus student attention on key points. When you require students to actually do something with material related to a key point, the effort students expend to complete these activities makes this information more distinctive and memorable (Dunlosky, et al., 2013).


Carpenter, S. K., Wilford, M. M., Kornell, N., & Mullaney, K. M. (2013). Appearances can be deceiving: Instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning. Psychomic Bulletin & Review, 20, 1350-1356. DOI 10.3758/s13423-013-0442-z

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58. Doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266

Kalman, C. S. (2007). Successful science and engineering teaching in colleges and universities. Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Updated: 04/16/14 tjf

March 18, 2014
Tips for managing email from students: How to be responsive and maintain your sanity

Students are more likely to interact with instructors outside of class by sending an email than by visiting an instructor during office hours. Prompt responses to student emails create a sense of “connectedness” between students and faculty, contribute to the quality of engagement with the course, and can indirectly improve student learning and retention.

We all appreciate prompt responses to our email messages. But with a huge volume of mail in our queue, how can we respond effectively to student email messages and protect our time for other important activities?

Respond promptly to messages from your students. You need not respond immediately. Try to respond within a reasonable period of time (24-48 hours).

Tell your students how quickly they can expect a response on the first day of class and in your syllabus. Honor this promise. They might expect prompter responses from their friends, but you can and should set reasonable expectations and limits on how quickly students can expect you to respond. Communicate email policies clearly. Plan to communicate them more than once, e.g., repeat them near assignment deadlines and test administrations.

Set up a filter in email to direct mail from students to a designated folder. A good filter prevents messages from getting lost in your email queue.

Identify a key phrase (best to pick one that is easy for students to remember) that you used when you set up your filter. For example, if you set up a filter so that all mail with EXP4407 in the subject line goes to your EXP4407 class folder, students must always include this in their subject line or risk having their message buried and neglected. Tell your students what they must include in the subject line to ensure their message is filtered properly. As tech-savy as we think our students might be, they might be unaware of filters for email and the need to put a key word in the subject line to ensure their message is directed properly. Consider this a “teachable moment” for practical real-world communication skills.

Use this strategy to sort your email from other key sources. You can filter emails from your department chair or a colleague you collaborate with on a research project by filtering mail based on their email address.

Remind students to sign the email with their full name. Student accounts and private email addresses are cryptic. As with strategic use of the subject line, full identification of the sender is an email skill that students might still be learning.

Identify a time when you will respond to student email. If you think about responses to student email as a replacement for conversations during office hours, consider setting aside a designated time when you respond to email from students. De-clutter your inbox by creating a filter for student messages, which you can then locate, read, and respond to during your designated time. This strategy also works well for managing the flow of messages from a topical listserve. Isolate these messages in a folder with a filter and read them when you have time.

Updated: 04/16/14 tjf

March 04, 2014
Develop expertise in students by creating cognitive apprenticeships for students

Learning in a discipline involves more than acquisition of content knowledge. Development of expertise requires students to develop skills in reasoning and strategies for solving disciplinary problems or applying disciplinary models to real-world applications. Fields with the tradition of teaching through apprenticeships include trades and crafts dominated by skills and tasks that students can easily observe (e.g., building a cabinet, tailoring a piece of clothing). Academic disciplines present challenges because disciplinary strategies for reasoning and problem solving are cognitive strategies and are not readily observable. Nevertheless, students must acquire these skills to develop advanced skills in the discipline.

Collins, Brown, and Holum (1991) propose that instructors must find strategies to make their expert thinking and problem-solving skills explicit to create effective cognitive apprenticeships in academic disciplines. They propose the following components for an effective cognitive apprenticeship:

  • Domain knowledge: the subject matter content usually addressed in textbooks and lectures
  • Heuristic strategies: techniques used to accomplish common tasks in the discipline
  • Control strategies: approaches experts use to guide their problem-solving processes
  • Learning strategies: knowledge about how to learn new concepts, procedures and strategies

We have many strategies for transmitting domain knowledge (lectures, textbooks, etc.), but the remaining three components must be addressed in other ways. Colling, Brown, and Holum (1991) suggest the following strategies:

  • Model a task so that students can observe all of the component steps: completing a heuristic strategy, thinking aloud to demonstrate how you guide your problem solving
  • Coach students and provide feedback on their actions while they perform a task or solve a problem
  • Scaffold tasks by breaking a complex task into simpler components that build on one another
  • Encourage students to verbalize their thought processes while solving problems so you can observe and offer feedback to correct sub-optimal strategies
  • Ask students to reflect on their performance and compare their strategies and outcomes to others
  • Explore new problems; solving the same problems over and over encourages a plug-and-chug mentality that does not generalize well to the new problems students encounter

Pay attention to the sequence of learning activities to build skill.

  • Begin with a conceptual model for the larger task. This model creates a road map that enables students to identify how component skills contribute to larger goals.
  • Initial tasks should be relatively simple; later tasks should add complexity as students become more skilled. Create a series of assignments or projects that provide repeated practice with initial skills; later tasks include additional skills without becoming overwhelmingly complex, the final project should require the full set of skills.
  • Introduce variations in how students apply skills to new tasks and assignments that add complexity. Students must then make decisions about when and how to apply a strategy they’ve practiced, which increases the likelihood that students will apply strategies to new situations appropriately.


Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, 15 (3), 6-11, 38-46.

Updated: 04/16/14 tjf

February 25, 2014
Small changes can improve class community and student course evaluations

A well-organized, carefully planned course is critical for effective teaching, but attention to small details contributes to rapport with students and a classroom experience that supports effective learning. Corbett and LaFrance (2013) offer suggestions that improve the learning for students and the teaching experience for instructors.

Arrive early and linger after the class meeting time. Make adjustments to lighting, set up your technology for the session, chat with students before and after class to learn about events outside of class that might influence their in-class learning and continue topic-related conversations while you walk back to your office.

Create a positive attitude during class meetings. Leave your own life stresses at the door when you teach. We can’t always be our best selves every day. Life stresses and department politics can intrude on our thoughts. But try to protect class time from these worries. Similarly, do not allow sullenness in students to ruin your enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm and attitude can be contagious, although the effect will not be immediate.

Respond promptly to student email messages. You need not respond immediately. Tell your students when they can expect a response (on the first day of class, in your syllabus) and honor this promise.

Surrender control of the class occasionally. Choose your battles for control. Some activities and rules for class management are not negotiable. But if you can allow students to determine how some things work, you create a sense of community and shared responsibility for classroom learning. Identify class policies that you feel comfortable allowing students to determine what is acceptable. Explain why other activities or course policies cannot be altered. (See tips on mid-semester feedback for how to elicit feedback about course procedures from students and making mid-course revisions.)

Remember to tell students when they are doing well. Students need feedback to correct errors, but they also need feedback to let them know when they are on track. Remember to recognize progress and successes.

When we adopt one or more of these small changes, teaching becomes a more pleasant and rewarding activity, and our students become more engaged and motivated with the class.


Corbett, S. J., & LaFrance, M. (September 9, 2013). It’s the little things that count in teaching, Chronicle of Higher Education. [Retrieved 9-10-2013:]

Updated: 06/24/14 tjf

February 18, 2014
Encourage students to make wise academic choices through effective advising

Students seek academic advising from many individuals across the UWF campus. Faculty members should be knowledgeable about degree requirements for programs in their disciplines and be prepared to advise and mentor students on professional and career choices related to the discipline.

Although academic and professional decisions are ultimately the student’s responsibility, a faculty adviser or mentor can help students learn to plan their academic work, make practical decisions about selection of courses, and discover academic options and co-curricular activities that help them make progress toward achieving their goals. A wise adviser will help students learn to think through the consequences of their choices. An adviser who is well-informed about services available to students can refer a student to campus resources on campus that can assist students with specific issues (tutoring, health and wellness, personal issues, or career counseling and resume development). A list of helpful campus resources appears on the CUTLA web site, Where to Send Students for Help.

On a practical side, the State of Florida is now directing increased attention to students who require many years to complete a degree and who graduate with excess hours and has developed regulations that impose an Excess Hour Surcharge on these students. Careful advising will provide students with the information they need to make wise decisions when selecting classes and creating plans to complete a degree without incurring problems associated with excess hours.

Updated: 06/24/14 tjf

February 11, 2014
Share feedback with students while complying with FERPA

Students are more likely to improve their work when they receive frequent, diagnostic feedback from their instructors. Federal regulations govern and restrict the way we share information about students and their academic records and present challenges for how and to whom instructors release information about students.

The most common challenge instructors face concerns how we can return graded material (exams and papers) to students quickly. Never leave graded exams and papers in a public location for students to pick up or post grades with names or any part of student ID numbers in a public location.

The eLearning system is an ideal tool for informing students of grades and providing feedback about their work. The system is convenient: students can access eLearning system at any time and from a computer at any location. The eLearning system is password-protected; when students log onto eLearning and view materials for your course, they see only their own grades in the grade book and comments on the work they submit to the drop box. The drop box has a second advantage: You no longer have to worry about losing track of a paper a student submits as an email attachment in your email queue. The submissions get stored in an organized way in eLearning, including a date stamp for when the student submitted the work.

If you use eLearning for no other aspects of course management, use eLearning to quickly share information with students about their academic performance. Post grades for exams and other assignments in the eLearning grade book. Use the drop box for secure submission of papers, student-created Power Point presentations, and other electronic documents. Similarly, instructors can leave comments on written work in the dropbox feedback section and/or post a marked-up electronic copy of a paper submitted through the drop box.

Instructors should take care to protect personal information (student ID numbers) in class. If you circulate an attendance sheet in class, the sheet should list only student names. Do not include other personal identifiers.

For additional details about FERPA compliance, see the CUTLA resource page, Understanding FERPA. The Office of the Registrar created an on-demand online course summarizing the key points of FERPA and providing information needed to comply with access to student information. All faculty who will access student data in Banner must complete this course (FERP01 - FERPA Training for UWF Employees). Sign up for the course through the Nautical Reservation Desk or contact the Office of Human Resources (x. 2694) to enroll.

Update: 04/17/14 tjf

February 04, 2014
Request feedback from your students about your course during the term

Model the use of formative feedback for your students and reinforce the credibility of the end-of-term course evaluations. Introduce the topic of the value of formative feedback by discussing the value of formative feedback on your teaching. Point out that evaluative feedback from students at the end of the term does nothing to benefit the students who are currently enrolled in the course. Faculty simply can’t correct a problem that they don’t know about. If they learn about a problem only after the term ends, the problem might be corrected in the following term but it can’t possibly be resolved for students during the term.

Consider conducting a mid-course evaluation.

  • Create a short survey by creating a Form in Google documents, accessed by clicking on the Drive option in the Google ribbon menu. This option is located in the Create menu in Google Drive (select Forms from the list of document options). Your questions can be embedded in an email sent to students. Responses will be collected in an excel file stored as a Google document. Note: Because student gmail is in a different domain than faculty gmail, unclick the box that requires respondents to sign on before accessing the form. If you do not unclick this box, students will not be able to access the form from their student mail account.
  • Invite a representative from CUTLA or a colleague to visit your class and conduct a Small Group Instructional Diagnosis.
  • Request written feedback in class through a Minute Paper. Ask students to comment on an aspect of the class that helps them learn, an aspect of the class that they would like to change (and why), and suggestions for things you might do to help them learn the material more effectively.

Participate in the Teaching Partners program. Teaching Partners conduct classroom observation visits and provide one another formative feedback about their teaching.

Not all suggestions or comments can be acted on (or should be acted on). But instructors can draw attention to changes they make based on student suggestions and explain why some suggestions cannot be changed (dispensing with exams, ending an evening class half an hour early). The fact that you take the comments seriously and responded to those that you could reasonably implement will strengthen students’ belief that course evaluations are taken seriously.

This tip is based in part on a tip submitted by Michael Dabney, Director, Teaching and Learning Center Hawaii Pacific University.

Updated: 04/16/14 tjf

January 27, 2014
Encourage students to evaluate the quality of information sources

Students are notorious procrastinators. Assigning an annotated bibliography early in the term helps students structure their time. For example, if we expect students to cite primary sources in a literature review paper, students who delay locating sources might scramble to locate the required number of sources and cite sources of marginal relevance.

The annotated bibliography can encourage students to evaluate the quality of sources located in a data base if we require students to locate a larger number of scholarly sources than we require the students to cite in the final paper. The annotated bibliography assignment might require each student to identify 2-3 sources they located in a data base search that they thought would be useful but decided were not relevant or not useful. Ask students to explain in their annotations why a rejected source looked promising at first but was ultimately rejected.

When students identify and examine more materials than they are required to include in the final submission, they can break away from the habit of including every remotely relevant source they locate to meet minimum citation requirements for an assignment. Students can then begin to evaluate the merit of materials as cited sources. Students need practice making these decisions to build their information literacy skills in the analysis and evaluation of evidence.

Update: 04/16/14 tjf

January 21, 2014
Provide timely and explicit feedback to students to improve learning

Grades and scores provide students with some information on the degree to which students’ performance met an instructor’s expectations and criteria, grades do not explain which aspects did or did not meet the criteria and how (Ambrose, et al., 2010, pp. 139-140). Feedback improves learning more effectively when it identifies particular aspects of performance students must improve rather than providing a generic evaluation of performance (such as a grade) or abstract praise or discouragement.

Similarly, too much feedback is not always effective feedback. When we make too many comments or marginal notes, students may be overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback and fail to respond to any of it. Alternatively, when students see many detailed comments, they might limit their revisions and change only the easy-to-fix elements. Essentially, students may accept instructor copy editing and ignore feedback about conceptual or structural changes (Ambrose, et al., p. 140).

When is feedback effective?

  • Students receive specific directions and guidance for subsequent practice.
  • The class includes one or more assignments that give students an opportunity to apply the feedback and improve future work.
  • Feedback is given early enough to allow students to benefit on subsequent work.
  • Feedback is given often enough for students to notice that their work is improving.

Evidence-based strategies for using feedback

Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria. When students do not know what the performance criteria are, they are less likely to practice skills appropriately, and they do not accurately monitor their progress. Communicate performance criteria through a rubric—a scoring tool that explicitly represents the performance expectations for a given assignment. A rubric divides the assigned work into component parts and provides clear descriptions of the characteristics of high-, medium-, and low-quality work associated with each component (see the CUTLA Rubric Development resource page on how to create a rubric).

Create multiple opportunities for practice. Learning accumulates gradually with practice. Multiple short assignments with specific, well-defined learning goals produce more learning than a single major assignment with a larger scope. Create multiple assignments that become increasingly complex to build skills over time. When these assignments build on one another, they enable students to use early feedback to improve later work. A single opportunity to practice a skill in one assignment is unlikely to develop the relevant set of skills and gives students no opportunity to use your feedback.

Set expectations about practice. Students underestimate the amount of time an assignment requires. Provide guidelines about the amount of time students need and the amount and type of practice they should perform to master the knowledge or skills and meet your expectations.

Give examples or models of target performance. Share examples of past student work to illustrate how your criteria can be met in an actual assignment. These examples are even more powerful when you either highlight or annotate key features of the sample that illustrate why the work meets your criteria.

Give examples of common errors to illustrate what you do not want. Examples that illustrate common student errors or misinterpretations or explain why some types of work will not meet your assignment expectations help students distinguish between high- and low-quality work. You can give students additional practice to evaluate their own work (or the work of a peer), applying the criteria in the grading rubric.

Provide feedback at the group level. If you do not have time to make feedback notations on all student papers, identify the most common errors students committed, create a list of these problems, and discuss how students can correct these errors if they appear in their own work.

Require students to describe how they used feedback in subsequent work. Students often do not see the connection between assignments. When students must describe how they used feedback on an early assignment to modify their work on a later assignment, the connection between assignments becomes more transparent. Some instructors assign multiple drafts of a paper and require students to describe how they used prior feedback to improve the current submission. Other instructors create multiple milestone assignments that clearly contribute to a large, integrated, final project.

Ambrose, S. A., et al. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

This tip is based on teaching strategy submitted by Kathy Watson, Associate Dean, Faculty Development, Eckerd College to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.

Update: 06/24/14 tjf

January 14, 2014
Use a rubric to evaluate class participation

George Kuh (2008) and Carol Twigg (2003) note that “students don’t do optional.” If we know an activity or study strategy is effective, they propose that we should encourage students to use it by making the activity mandatory. Unfortunately for us, this usually means we must grade the activity in some way.

Students who prepare for class and actively participate in discussion are more engaged and learn more, but grading participation can be a challenge. Many instructors include class participation as a graded element but have difficulty evaluating student participation. Simply recording attendance or counting how often students contribute to discussion or ask a question during class feels superficial. Worse, this system can misfire and create unintended problems. If we reward all contributions without evaluating whether contributions advance the discussion, the quality of discussion might degrade because students attempt to earn points for “participation” by asking trivial questions or making uninformed or off-topic comments.

A rubric that describes appropriate preparation and participation behavior provides clear guidelines to students about participation expectations. Provide periodic feedback based on the rubric during the term (once every 3 or 4 weeks works well). The feedback tells students you take meaningful class participation seriously, and students can use the feedback to improve their in-class contributions. Finally, participation rubric scores serve as an unambiguous method for determining a participation grade.

An example of a Rubric for class participation‌ (PDF) that I developed and used in a small seminar is posted to the CUTLA web. The rubric includes evaluation of the quality of the student’s preparation for class discussion, the substance of contributions made to discussion, and aspects of general class citizenship (listening skills, responding to other students with respect, promoting on-topic discussion). I share this rubric with students during the first week of the class and provide feedback to them about once a month during the term, with a final evaluation at the end of the term. The rubric allows me to give students regular feedback based on a period of observation I can recall accurately. The first time I provide feedback on class discussion, the students initiate a useful discussion about my expectations for participation. I note an improvement in the quality of discussion following this initial feedback that persists through the remainder of the term. Students appreciate the opportunity to improve the quality of their participation across the term. Since using this rubric, students in my class now initiate actions to keep discussions on track and will refer to the rubric when they respond to another student whose off-topic comments threaten to send the discussion off the rails (yes, the rubric rewards students for contributions that keep the discussion focused).

Examples of rubrics, including my rubric for class participation, are posted on the CUTLA web site.

Kuh, G. (2008).What matters to student success: Lessons from high performing institutions. (PDF) Workshop on Assessing Student and Institutional Performance, University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL.

Twigg, C. A. (2003, July). Build it, but will they come? Learning Market Space. Electronic newsletter published by the National Center for Academic Transformation.

Update: 04/17/14 tjf

January 07, 2014
Managing conflict in the classroom

Facilitating difficult conversations on controversial topics is a common practice among instructors from almost all disciplinary backgrounds. When instructors incorporate proactive and reactive strategies for conflict communication into course content and modeling constructive ways of handling conflict, they can prepare students to learn to manage conflict associated with a variety of aspects of difference that sometimes arise in the classroom.

Conflict is stressful. Many faculty might wish to avoid experiencing conflict in their classes. When managed well, conflict can be an important learning opportunity for students. They learn how to manage conflict in appropriate ways. What is the best way to manage conflict in the classroom?

Prepare students to engage in discussions about conflicts in a professional and civil manner
Ask students to identify their approach to conflict and their conflict style (Wilmot & Hocker 2011). In this activity, students read through the following statements and identify which statement aligns with their views on conflict. Students gain valuable insights into their preferred communication mode— competing, avoiding, compromising, collaborating, and/or accommodating (Thomas & Kilmann, 1974):

  • I love peace and harmony and will go to great lengths to avoid conflict.
  • I sometimes will willingly engage in conflict, but only if I can see no other good choice
  • I like the give-and-take of a good verbal conflict and am not particularly wary of getting involved.
  • I enjoy constructive conflict. My adrenaline gets going, and I like to see what can come of it. I even seek out conflict at times.
  • I count on conflict to help clear the air, solve problems, and get us to a “different place.”

Ask students to identify constructive and destructive approaches to managing conflict
Ask students to think of a recent conflict they have had with a peer, superior, or subordinate. They should write down what the conflict was about and list several ways they might have handled this conflict. Finally, students identify how they actually handled the conflict and describe why this strategy worked or did not work. (This activity is based on Masters & Albright, 2002.)

Practice managing conflict in a role-play activity
A role-play activity is an effective method for generating helpful proactive and reactive strategies for engaging in appropriate communication during conflicts. Role-plays help students experience “stressful, unfamiliar, complex, or controversial situations,” explore and practice effective communication styles (Bonwell & Eison,1991). Students should reflect on the words and actions of each character in a role-play and evaluate whether the communication style used was effective in managing the conflict in their role-play scenario.


Bonwell, C C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1.

Masters, M. F., &.Albright, R. R. (2002). The complete guide to conflict resolution in the workplace. New York: American Management Association.

Thomas, K. W., &.Kilmann, R. H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument. Tuxedo, NY: Xicom, Inc,

Wilmot, W., & Hocker, J. (2011). Interpersonal conflict (8th ed). McGraw-Hill.

This tip is based on teaching strategy submitted by Dr. Amanda G. McKendree, Assistant Director, Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Notre Dame to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.

Updated: 06/24/14 tjf

Updated: 06/24/14  tjf