Teaching and My Journey with Technology


(Speaking with pre-service teachers in the Ukraine 2011.)


My journey teaching with technology is constantly evolving… as it should be.  In fact, I remain in a fairly steep learning curve, although I am intentionally taking baby steps as I explore new tools to meaningfully enhance teaching and learning.  My approach to any innovative teaching and learning practice is to understand the type of thinking it targets or can facilitate when done well and what it looks like when done poorly. In other words, I place the thinking goals first, then choose the appropriate methods and tools to help.

What follows is a brief description of the various tools I have embedded, to varying degrees, in my instruction. I will make relevant connections to my uses in faculty development, but most of my experimentation is in the classroom and is fortunately aided by the skilled hands of my colleagues. I claim no expertise with any tool, but I am skilled at making the thinking goals visible and figuring out how to bring them to fruition.


  • Blogging – I guess if you are reading this you are aware of this blog. It is the place where I reflect on and explore issues related to teaching, learning and higher education. Frankly, it has been one of the most rewarding exercises in my professional life. One of my colleagues, Britt Watwood, relentlessly argued that I embrace blogging, and, being a person who believes in making decisions on sound reasons when necessary and important to do so, I eventually had to yield. I have Dr. Watwood to thank for his introduction into the power of public reflection. I found my voice. Consequently, I have discovered ways to incorporate blogging into the classes I teach.
  • Course Sites and Mother Blogs. The first two examples below capture efforts with the undergraduate courses I teach. The third example is an aggregated blog for the Learning Spaces program I designed, manage, and facilitate. All are evolving, but all represent an attempt to help students connect with one another and outside participants.

Google Forms & Docs

  • Most of my electronic documentation in the undergraduate courses I teach take place in Google Docs. Our university supports Google, which makes it easy to share work with students and connect them to various apps and add-ons. The commenting features have proven very valuable for providing and tracking peer feedback. I have even experimented with Google draft back that I first learned about from James Somers blog on the topic. This tool is really powerful for its metacognitive potential and helping students actually see their thinking in action…for better or worse. Moreover, I can use this tool to show them my thinking as I write, re-write and re-write again. Finally, Google Docs is an excellent tool for co-creating course documents with students like rubrics and grade profiles.
  • Google Forms is such an easy tool for real time assessment. Whether I am checking in with students to get a better idea of how the course is meeting their needs or if I need to check their understanding of a concept, Google Forms is a simple and quick way to gather that information particularly because it automatically loads the responses into a spreadsheet. It is just a press of a button to transfer that data into a graph or chart. Pretty seamless for my purposes thus far.

Telescoping Text

  • I posted my first telescoping text in my course site for an undergraduate class entitled Inquiry & the Craft of Argument. I used this tool to communicate two elements of the course: The Big Thought Picture  and The Big Course Picture. The first addresses the type of thinking and core questions informing our intellectual work. The second clarifies the course theme. The purpose of this technology is to find the CORE of the course. My secondary purpose was to model the type of thinking that the tool targets. In doing so, students were to use this tool to present the abstracts for their final research papers. The thinking (finding the core) was difficult for them just as saying it concisely, but the tool is easy to use; it just takes forethought.


  • I LOVE FLIPGRID!!! I have to thank my colleague Michael Reis for the introduction and orientation to this tool. Why do I love it so much? It has a low threshold for participation. Flipgrid has proven to be an excellent tool for capturing faculty reflections. Of course, it has its limits. If my purpose was to use it to capture deep reflections and extensive elaborations, then I would be greatly disappointed. However, that is not my purpose. I use this tool as a conversation starter. Specifically, I use it to introduce a new idea, have participants engage with that idea modeling a specific pedagogical method (or interpret it through a specific conceptual lens), view what others have said, and use the 90 second clips as starting points for our follow-up group meetings. Awesome! 90 seconds is not a lot to ask and it does not require a unique log-in. It can also be used with computers and mobile devices that have voice and camera capabilities. Best of all, faculty love it too!


  • It’s odd that I learned of this tool and it was announced shortly after that my institution will enable Voicethread in our LMS. My experience with this program is emerging, but so far I have found it very useful for digital interactions with students and faculty. I like the ability to annotate a document with text, illustration, and voice narration. It really helps viewers hear and see the thinking. I also like the commenting features, which allow for following discussion threads. Finally, it is a strength of this program that a user can comment in multiple formats: voice, video, text.  As far as our faculty are concerned, one downside is that it requires a unique log in, so it adds yet another thing we have to keep track of. Hopefully, this last piece is addressed once it is embedded within our LMS.

Timeline JS

  • Timeline JS is a free web-ware that my colleague Tom Woodward introduced me to. It is designed for making history timelines. However, once I saw it I immediately thought of its potential for students crafting timelines of their intellectual journeys throughout the term.  The assumptions driving general education initiatives rest on exposure to, practice with and transfer of cross-disciplinary intellectual skills and dispositions. I believe in the potential power of general education, but I pause at the suggestion that all students will be able to develop such skills and dispositions through mere exposure. I want to make the process more explicit and accountable as far as my class goes. My goal was for students to account for the development of the skills, dispositions and insights they have worked on throughout the term. This involves addressing obstacles they faced and how they managed them. Timeline JS allows for one to embed a document (pdf), picture, website or a video that I required students to cite as evidence to support claims of intellectual growth. This project is directly linked to my critique of traditional conceptions of what constitutes a student portfolio. The potential for students to see and account for their development over the course of a semester is tremendous; this is particularly relevant to shifting the focus of learning away from rote content knowledge toward growth mindsets. If we are to help students develop emerging understandings and skills of what it means to think within a discipline (like biologists, like literary critics, like historians, etc.), then much can be said of emphasizing deep metacogitive reflection that is both visible and framed as an argument.

Glogster and Smore are two additional online resources that I used to help students capture the stories of their intellectual development over the course of the term. I focused on my undergraduate general education course for reasons stated above in my description of Timeline JS. I gave students options because, after all, it’s their stories. I like the platforms because they are fairly easy to learn: there are multiple templates students can use. The thinking goals here focus on metacognitive reflection. Here are a few examples: Student Smore Examples Randomly Selected: 1, 2, 3

Piazza & Kaizena are two discussion and feedback tools that have a lot of potential to encourage peer feedback and develop communities of practice. I am new to these tools, but both are being used in a graduate course I am currently teaching.


  • I really like Diigo. It is a web based bookmarking site that allows annotation and group sharing. It also excellent search functions based on tags and categories that are either user defined and/or Diigo suggested. It has been very useful for curating and sharing resources with colleagues and students.


  • Where would I be without YouTube? Anticipatory Set Activities: When in doubt, use YouTube. An anticipatory set activity is an introductory learning experience that prepares students, intellectually and emotionally, for the content lesson. It is indirectly related, but speaks to a key concept or process with which students will engage during the lecture. A good video often provides that intuitive link that can help students see course content in just the right way. I make a study of good and short videos, and I thank all those that spend their time to make them public.


  • My university has recently invested in Kaltura, which, I’m told, feeds nicely into our LMS.  Kaltura is a lecture capture platform. I have recently learned that we can now embed a quiz in a video. I have not experimented with this yet, but plan to. This is a new tool for me, and I am particularly interested in exploring its potential for FLIPPED classroom applications.

Blackboard…of course.

My journey continues, and I work to make it a meaningful and exciting one.

Saying the known in an unknown way

Maya Angelou once said of meaningful writing:

“The writer has to take these most known things and put them together in such a way that the reader says ‘I never thought of it that way.’ That’s a real challenge.” (1 minute mark here)

Angelou’s comment sparked two questions:

  • How skilled am I at reframing my course content in ways that help students say “We’ve never thought of it that way! Wow!”?
  • How often is it my goal to do so?

I write “my goal,” but what I really mean is “our goal” as instructors; as people who have some level of responsibility for thinking about what and how other people learn.

One of my methods for helping faculty (and myself) rethink the “known” questions of education in alternative and potentially insightful ways is with this site. The organization of the site is credited to my colleague Tom Woodward. This project has proven more valuable to my own intellectual development because of the conscious effort I have made to think about the known in unknown, unfamiliar and often uncomfortable ways.

For example, this question, What do you want to get out of your next lecture?, prompted this post. The question forced me to reconsider my assumptions and perspectives about my purpose teaching (A humorous note on this idea and recent blog out of Rice Center for Teaching Excellence). One consequence is that it has opened up new ways for me to communicate, connect with and challenge the faculty I work with….and they have been very receptive. This is particularly true with established, mid and late career faculty.

I can elaborate, but at the core of this post is the question: Do I dedicate concentrated time to think about my perspective: its assumptions, its limitations, its history; and do I actively seek alternative ways to say something that may lead to insight or motivation? I want to make it a habit; a disposition so that I can help students do the same.

Critical Thinking in the Wild

Matthew Crawford wrote a book that I love: Shop Class for Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. In the spirit of this book, I wrote a post outlining a home improvement project I completed, which I conceptually applied to thinking about course design. The ideas and challenges embedded within works like Crawford’s can be quite complex, but there is a simplicity, elegance rather, to the various ways we approach intellectual work that moves beyond mere accomplishment; they speak to who we are are as human beings, as reasoning begins. Following Matthew’s lead, once again, I am going to blog on my most recent challenge: felling a 120+ foot oak.


(top 1/2 of the tree)

This magnificent tree died this last spring. Since then it has been dropping limbs on the forest floor, that, if left uncollected, would return its nutrient rich fiber to the ground from which it drew life for over a hundred years.

It hurt me to see it die. Where fresh young leaves would have covered it in a blanket of photosynthesizing magic were mere memories of what once was. By summer, the limbs were bare; far before the first cool winds of fall and the tell tale yellows and reds that draw millions of people each year to the vistas of East Coast hardwood forests. This old tree had a life far older than mine, and I was sad to see it end; yet, part of me rejoiced in the confidence that it will warm my home next winter.

I wish I could write a tribute to its magnificence that rivals that of Aldo Leopold’s essay “Good Oak” in his famous Sand County Almanac. I’ve read it numerous times, and it always brings me to tears. I’m not that writer, but I celebrate and respect the oak nonetheless. My purpose here, rather, is to follow Crawford’s lead. I wish to highlight the thinking, the critical thinking, that helped me bring this tree down to its current resting place.


I had not thought to write about this event until numerous colleagues prompted me to do so. I’ve felled numerous trees (all had died). It is a regular part of my life living in a sort of pseudo-back to the land ethic. Heating our old early 20th century farm home with a woodstove is but one example. I mention this only to emphasize that I want my children to intimately understand the physical, intellectual and emotional investment it takes to make heat and create comfort.

I wish to outline the thinking (cognitive considerations) involved in this event knowing that I currently lack the eloquence to capture its emotional significance. This is the largest tree I have dropped. I have felled trees just as tall and one that was taller, but this one was the largest considering its height and bulk.

Critical Thinking Lesson: Know your context and clarify your considerations. As one can see in the above picture, I had a few challenges. First and foremost I had to drop the tree in such a way to avoid the power/phone post that is just inside my property line. Secondly, I had to bring the tree down in one piece. This necessity was more a factor of cost and tools than of know-how. I did not have the funds to pay a tree service to bring this ancient down in pieces. Hence my first criterion: Bring the tree down with as little financial cost as possible.

Another consideration (and sub-criterion) was to do so while minimizing damage to living trees, and my neighbor’s property. The power/phone post was a major consideration, but minimizing forest damage was much more significant. The forest on my property and the neighboring property is dense. When one tree falls it often creates a domino effect that, in this case, would have damaged my neighbors property. Moreover, the tree had a natural lean that favored its fall toward that of many other healthy trees and my neighbor. An uncontrolled fall = killing healthy trees and increased costs due to property damage. To summarize my additional contextual considerations:

Considerations and Challenges:

  • 20″ chain saw, but 35″ tree diameter
  • unknown cause of tree death (its core could be rotten)
  • top heavy
  • natural opposite lean
  • one man operation
  • electrical post
  • avoid raccoon den
  • minimize impact to healthy trees

Positive factors:

  • no wind
  • experience
  • sufficient tools (debatable)
  • good drop location


  • position burl for easy access
  • more convenient access for hauling wood out of forest

Critical Thinking Lesson: Take action to properly address / manage considerations.

Strategic and mindful action helps us not only prepare our actions, it helps us self-regulate and manage our assumptions and expectations. We must organize, we must strategize, we must monitor, and we must assess. What are my expected outcomes given the course of action? Is this course desirable? What are realistic alternatives? Is this the best choice and how do I know? How will I learn from these decisions to guide future action? These are a few of the major precautions and preparations I took to maximize the probability for a successful drop.


  • Well prepared tools (sharp chainsaw, cleared fall zone)
  • Helmet for unpredictable falling limbs
  • Frequent, but short breaks for rehydration and context assessment
  • I informed others of my plans and timeline for checking in

I’ll spare the reader the detailed summary of the entire experience. Instead, I want to highlight the intellectual (critical thinking) considerations. Given the above challenges, desires and preparations, the real beauty addresses two categories. The first is that of the physical. The second is that of the technical.

Physical: This is physically tough and exhausting work. Despite what one may assume, using a chainsaw requires heavy lifting, strategic pressure, assessment of the wood and environment, and continuous mental attention. Moreover, the chainsaw is but one of my tools. I had to use an axe and a maul to remove material and drive wedges. I place mental factors within the physical category because when one lapses so does the other. In other words, they are intimately connected. In work like this the connection is very real. For example, once physical exhaustion sets in one begins to take things for granted. Dehydration can lead to lapses in judgment, unclear thinking, and neglecting procedures (Tomporowski, 2003; Ya et al, 1997). I have learned (the hard way) to pay acute attention to my physical status so that I don’t allow my mind to press my body to do things that it is too exhausted to do. My mind might say “One more swing of the axe!” but my body may not be ready resulting in a missed strike. I have come very close to breaking my leg with such lapses in judgment. It is also very easy to get caught up in a rhythm that pushes cognitive checks  or cautions aside. Consequently, one might fail to stop and check if any limbs might be in danger of falling on one’s head. Mind and body: a balance of necessity in this case.

Technical: Well, there is a lot to consider. The saw is important. Positioning the wedges on the back-cut is very important. These are typical considerations, but I want to discuss those unique to this case. In the picture below is a power/phone line tower; I had to miss it. Doing so was a bit of strategy and hope mixed into one.



I started by making an unconventional wedge cut. I left material on one side of the wedge cut. I’ve done this with smaller trees and when coupled with strategic saw work and wedge placement the tree will actually rotate during the fall. I should say “might actually rotate” because I really don’t know if it has much of an affect alone, but when combined with the other factors it has worked for me many times. The challenge, concern really, is that I had never attempted such a maneuver with this large of a tree.

Why did I want it to rotate during the fall? Two reasons, First, I had to miss the power/phone tower. Second, I wanted the burl (pictured in first photo) to be positioned on the top side of the tree instead of buried beneath it. Fortunately, (second picture from top of post) it worked.

In this case, all my goals and challenges were met.  The intellectual work that went into this project, I believe, mirrors some of the best work I have done in academia. Actions taken to manage my expectations, emotions, and ego had to be explicated and strategically confronted. Assessing the context before and during involved mapping the conditions: physical, emotional and technical. Ultimately, I put my faith in the quality of my preparation and reasoning to maximize the probability for success. In this type of work, as with complex work dealing with people, the outcome cannot be determined with 100% accuracy. So, it’s about being strategic, mindful and prepared. That is a decent recipe for maximizing success.

So, for my friends at the California Conservation Corps and those who’s work takes tangible forms, I applaud those times where critical thinking is exemplified. Now….the real work begins to get it from forest to fire.






What do I WANT to get out of my next lecture?

(Image Source)

Most of what I read frames instruction around what students get out of it….and rightfully so. After all, we teach so they can learn. Nonetheless, it made me think about what I get out of it. More specifically, it made me think about what I WANT  to get out of it.

The macro goals of my teaching life are pretty clear. I feel emotionally strengthened when I know students are challenged in important and potentially transformative ways. It fills my emotional vat when a student seeks me out to thank me for my contribution to her/his learning. I also gain new knowledge particularly as it relates to learning technologies and engaged learning pedagogy. Such knowledge has really boosted by confidence in the classroom and designing courses. I also have made friends. Some are former students, many are my colleagues. Finally, I get the opportunity to talk about my academic passions. This has huge payoffs. However, so often I find myself (and my colleagues often agree) unmotivated, lacking passion, or worse dreading class. What do I want to get out of class on a typical day?

The micro life of teaching is largely managing the mundane: logistics, grading, taking attendance, posting assignments and resources, coordinating groups, reminders, reminders and more reminders. They are necessary conditions of the profession, but they can also overwhelm and dominate my calendar as well as my thinking. So, I WANT to ask: How often do I ask questions that excite me? How often do I get a chance to demonstrate the type of thinking that I attracted me to the subject in the first place? How often do students see what I contribute to the discipline?

What do I want from a typical lecture?

  • I want to get excited.
  • I want to ask a question that Google can’t easily answer.
  • I want to ask a new question.
  • I want to engage in a meaningful discussion with other excited people.
  • I want to feel motivated.
  • I want to see the discussion continued once class ends.
  • I want to see a new research possibility.
  • I want to laugh.
  • I want to get angry at injustices.
  • I want to make something.
  • I want my thinking to be challenged.
  • I want people to care about what I have to say.
  • I want to feel invaluable.
  • I want to have a feeling of accomplishment.
  • I want to see something from a different perspective.
  • I want to discover an alternative way of doing something.
  • I want to leave with new questions.
  • I want to look forward to our next class.

Thinking about what I want to get out of class has reoriented my thinking. The above brief list shows me new possibilities and lines of action. It has also helped me rethink my attitudes and instructional habits. So, What do YOU want to get out of your next class meeting?

Barriers to Faculty Development/Enrichment & What we can do about it.

I recently conducted an in-person survey of those involved in some dimension of faculty development/enrichment. I was speaking at a conference and took advantage of the opportunity. All worked in higher education. Some were upper administrators looking for institutional alignment related to programs and initiatives. Others were Teaching and Learning Center directors, assistant directors and various types of consultants searching for additional ways to promote authentic faculty engagement. Some held split appointments teaching and leading faculty development initiatives. Despite our diverse perspectives, roles and purposes, all saw faculty as one key to furthering our respective goals.

The purpose of my talk was to highlight an approach for soliciting authentic faculty engagement. To get there, I decided to make explicit the barriers to substantive faculty development learning experiences and programs. I surveyed the attendees (approximately 25) asking them to merely list such barriers. Of course there are short-term and long-term obstacles as well as fairly simple and complex challenges. Surfacing the often discussed barriers enabled us to pursue three objectives.

First, by aggregating all the various perspectives in the room one may see something that s/he is currently struggling with, but has yet to articulate and, therefore, confront.

Second, creating a list of topics allowed us to formulate each item into the form of a question. The question tells us the direction of our thinking: a.k.a. reveals the settlement conditions. For example and stated simply here, questions that begin with “What” may indicate that we are looking for information, examples or resources. “Why” questions search for underlying reasons; “How” questions tell us we are looking for methods, procedures, strategies, etc. “To what extent” questions explore a range of relevant factors. Each formulation exposes our assumptions on the topics we surface. The majority of questions this day were “how” questions, which allowed us to question our assumptions and preconceptions of a particular topic.

Third, making such obstacles explicit helps us, as a group, manage our frustrations, disappointments and expectations. I find that it helps move us toward configuring constructive actions.

The group listed the following barriers/obstacles:

  • how to get them to show up for center events
  • poor motivation to invest in center programs/events
  • developing relevant topics when research trumps teaching
  • best practices vs. emergent practices
  • teaching schedules and logistics
  • time to experiment
  • comfort zones
  • new ideas
  • involving and helping adjuncts
  • teaching from a distance
  • faculty conceptualizing their end goals
  • tenure and promotion process
  • time
  • balance between structure and unstructure
  • danger of just having conversations
  • identifying faculty leaders
  • ego/turf issues
  • trust issues
  • mindset

Our group successfully identified the most often cited obstacles facing authentic faculty engagement in center activities. Not surprising actually, but meaningful as far as our workshop was concerned. Moreover, not terribly surprising given what leaders and scholars in the field have identified and discussed.

For example, many of these challenges are addressed in various chapters in anthologies like A Guide to Faculty Development and To Improve the Academy (here and here) often frame their recommendations around various obstacles. Additionally, Brownell and Tanner (2012) discuss similar barriers facing faculty development in the life sciences focusing. They focus on the lack of pedagogical training, lack of time, lack of incentives and tensions with professional identity as significant challenges to shifting practice away from strict didactic, instructor-centered instruction and toward more iterative and evidence-based practices. Montero, Trivino, Sirhan, Moore and Leiva (2012) address similar challenges focused on faculty in medical education, but add one that did not explicitly surface in my conference workshop: many faculty see “teaching is seen as a natural skill that is difficult to be trained.” This last concept is not unique to medical education, but it does highlight the need to help faculty see that they too can develop, that they can learn new skills, and that they have unique contributions to make to their students’ educations. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed by Colleen Flaherty reinforces this notion.




What do we do about it?

I want to go on record (although I already have many times in this blog) and say that I think that a lot can be done. I wouldn’t be in this field if I believed otherwise. It is beyond the scope of this post to outline the various methods and approaches centers for teaching and learning take. However, I will briefly articulate principles I use to organize the programs I design and facilitate. They have proven very intuitive for faculty.

First, begin within. In order for faculty development to be authentic, it must begin with those we are working with. Our programs must speak the language of academia; faculty’s language. The lexicon involves not only tenure and promotion, service and teaching, it involves those canons of scholarly thinking that we long for our students to embrace and put into regular practice. It involves understanding that incentives are important but only take one so far, which leads to a second principle.

Cultivate meaningful relationships. I reflected on this in an earlier post. If faculty development programs are viewed as exclusively top down, episodic, impersonal events, then their fruitfulness is limited at best. However, if we view faculty development as built on cultivating substantive relationships, then the programs we design and facilitate are positioned as collaborative enterprises. I understand that there are logistic considerations that limit our relationships, but I want this idea to be foundational for all collaborations.

Challenge with love and plan with conviction. What moves programs and initiatives forward in ways that point toward transformation, impact, development, and enrichment? Another way to think about this question is to think about it in terms of our instruction: If our students are not genuinely trying to figure something significant out, what are they doing? I apply the same type of thinking to faculty development relationships. I find that some of the most rewarding and transformative experiences emerge when we can challenge each other respectfully.

Help faculty see themselves within the initiatives we promote. How do we get students to take ownership of course content? One way is to help them make deep, personal connections with the ideas, theories, controversies, and methods that inform each discipline and make it exciting. Once again, this principle can be a significant lens through which to view faculty development programs and relationships. It speaks to the importance of organic involvement with the definition and implementation of university and/or department level initiatives. This does not mean that everything must start from scratch; rather, it suggests that ownership comes from deep involvement.

These are just a few principles I see as foundational for thinking through faculty development and enrichment efforts. However, there are more that I will work to surface in later posts.
Articles Cited 
  1. Brownell, S.E. & Tanner, K.D. (2012). Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity? CBE Life Sci Educ. Winter; 11(4): 339–346. doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-09-0163 PMCID: PMC3516788
  2. Flaherty, C. (2016). Professors Can Learn to Be More Effective Instructors. Inside Higher Ed. Accessed February 12, 2016.
  3. Montero L1, Triviño X, Sirhan M, Moore P, Leiva L. Barriers for faculty development in medical education: a qualitative study. Rev Med Chil. 2012 Jun;140(6):695-702. doi: 10.4067/S0034-98872012000600001.

How do I distribute my time between Giving, Guiding and Grading?

I am revisiting the book entitled Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment (Walvoord and Anderson, 1998). In it, the authors have an illustration (Figure 8.1, p. 127) that looks something like this:

Emphasis on Grading

G   i   v   i   n   g   / Guiding /    G        R        A        D        I        N        G

– Most time spent on grading and the least amount of time spent on guiding students to deeper understandings.

Emphasis on Guiding

G   i   v   i   n   g  /   G        U        I        D         I        N        G       / Grading

– Most time spent on guiding with the least time spent on grading.

I began to think about my distribution in these three categories. I would like to say that most of my time is spent with an emphasis on guiding, but if I hold myself accountable I have to ask: What does that look like? What is the evidence? What do I do?

Linda Nilson wrote an article early this year in Inside Higher Ed entitled: “Yes, Virginia, there is a better way to grade.” In it, she provides very practical approaches to rethink our “broken” grading system. Although I don’t think Nilson offers any new or novel methods, particularly after re-reading Walvoord and Anderson (1998), I think she helps us remember that we, as instructors, have options; that our primary purpose as educators is to help guide students toward deeper learning; that our assessment options are often limited by our own limited knowledge and creativity.

In earlier posts, I discuss ways I experiment with methods for making my grading load lighter while challenging students to do more and deeper thinking. To paraphrase John Bean, design assignments that require a lot of thinking that is followed by a little bit of writing. Assignment design is ONE key factor in reducing my grading load and shifting my focus to guiding student learning. Another factor is in how we grade.

Nislon (2016) and Walvoord and Anderson (1998) both argue that it is often acceptable and productive to give students all or nothing grades. I have taken this to heart for years now, and I have found it rewarding for both me and my students. I outline one approach here.

Walvoord and Anderson (1998) provide another example that I want to present here (with a few edits). Their key point is this: “Do Not Waste Time on Careless Student Work” (p.128). They suggest a check list that accompanies student work that will not be accepted if not present.

  • I read the assigned work at least twice.
  • I significantly revised my paper (assignment) at least once.
  • I spent at least five hours on this paper (assignment).
  • I started work on this assignment at least five days ago.
  • I have tried hard to do my best work.
  • I proofread my work at least twice for grammar and punctuation.
  • I consulted others to proofread my work.

The idea is to help provide students accept responsibility for the quality of their work. They have this checklist ahead of time and use it as a basic guide. Moreover, this type of low-investment strategy nudges behavior in ways that better align with our instructional goals and concerns.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano discusses how small nudges can help students be more  successful navigating the initial complexities of starting college. Similarly, Dan Ariely discusses the power of the nudge in changing human decisions and behavior. Ariely cites a studies at MIT, Yale and Princeton universities (p.42) where student cheating was seriously reduced when prior to taking a test students were required to sign an acknowledgement of a university honor code. Amazingly, MIT and Yale didn’t even have honor codes according to Ariely. Just the act of simply reminding students of ethical standards shifted their behavior.

When we apply this principle to our above checklist, the simple act of having students take a moment to reflect on WHAT they did to prepare and HOW they prepared can seriously reduce our workloads.

Another classic text, that I totally love, is Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross. This book is filled with nudges that can make not only make our grading more dynamic and enjoyable, but help one dedicate more time to GUIDING.

Pop Quiz Hot Shot!

pop quiz

(photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bdunnette/184607940 )

I want to elaborate on an idea I blogged about a couple months ago. I gave my undergraduate students a pop-quiz toward the end of last semester. I know: pop quizzes are kind of unfair and there are those who believe they can give the classroom learning environment a punitive flavor. I am very sensitive to that, so I don’t typically give pop-quizzes. However, this quiz was designed to address the thinking that students are doing within the subject and the thinking they are doing about their learning and classroom presence. Let me tell you why and, more importantly, how.

Why did I give a pop quiz?

I believe that humans are competent compartmentalizers. I use this term in two ways. First, we are fairly efficient when it comes to managing all the things contemporary life throws at us. This is largely due to our tendency to place different pieces of information, different parts of our lives, and different responsibilities into different organizational categories or intellectual compartments. However, when does such compartmentalization become an obstacle to deep thinking and substantive learning? This leads to the second meaning of the term, which I draw from the field of psychology: “Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.” This second meaning speaks to the complexities of meaning making: managing new information and the need to bring it in alignment with existing world views, beliefs, values and assumptions. We often distort information and our interpretations of it, or rationalize, so as to maintain our existing schema. Dan Ariely speaks clearly and accessibly to this tendency in his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone- Especially Ourselves. To combat the problems of agenda driven compartmentalization, educators and scholars often talk about the importance of facilitating transfer of ideas, methods and insights across domains.

The discourse on transfer exists, in part, due to the pervasiveness of compartmental thinking. The AAC&U, for example, advances the notion that a substantive general education cultivates the skills, dispositions and insights necessary to thrive as a global citizen and well-rounded thinkers. Although this topic is well beyond the scope of this blog post, there is a well established body of scholarship on the theoretical and applied benefits of helping students explicate, examine and apply their emerging skills within and across academic disciplines. With this backdrop functioning within my thinking, I provided an opportunity for students to assess the extent to which they were committed to substantive intellectual engagement in the classroom as individuals and as members of a community.

My goals for the Pop Quiz:

  1. Remind students that they have a responsibility to their peers: seriously considering their points of view, comments, questions, insights. Doing so requires connecting via blog comments or twitter or in person; taking notes; studying and contextualizing all relevant comments as we collectively work through content issues and problems.
  2. Recall and reflect on anchor activities: there are certain learning experiences that I frame as anchors – core experiences/processes/models/concepts/etc. that ground our work; things we can continually revisit to help frame our thinking and work.
  3. The critically engaged student is open-minded and exercises discernible judgment: a healthy skepticism is essential to informed decision-making; however, we must give all ideas their fair voice and evaluation before we judge. One of the highest forms of respect in a classroom is to actively listen to one’s peers. It’s like saying: “Your point is important and valuable, so I want to understand what you are saying.”
  4. Recall our learning agreement: We entered into a learning contract that they helped craft at the beginning of the term. The aforementioned points were all part of the agreement.

How did I administer the pop quiz? 

When students entered, I instructed them to get out a piece of paper. This was unique for our classroom context because we typically use white boards and google docs. I told them that we were having a pop quiz and there would be three questions. I was actually surprised that no one protested.

Question #1:“One of your peers (insert name) gave an excellent explanation of the nail puzzle as a metaphor for writing a quality research paper. What was her explanation?”

Question #2: Last class, (insert student name) asked a question about citing sources. Specifically, she asked a question about in-text citations and hyperlinks. What was her question and what was my reply?

Question #3: This course is built on two organizing questions. What are they and how has your work thus far functioned within them?

You can use class notes, but access no other resources (e.g. – course website)


This pop quiz turned out to be a great success even though all students failed. The value manifested in reminding students of our course contract, the value of anchor activities, and the importance of one’s peers as potential resources for direction and insight. Moreover, it reminded them that it is important to take notes. This quiz was not weighted heavily, so poor performance did not cause anxiety as far as their grades are concerned. I wanted to craft a significant learning experience.

When we think of our courses as journey, I must ask myself: What type of journey do I wish for students to have? What am I doing to help the journey be meaningful? Of course, it’s their journey, but it is my responsibility to help craft the types of learning experiences that further the goals and objectives of the course: as emerging thinkers within a discipline and as students who are developing general education skills, dispositions and insights.

I might try this again in a graduate course I’m teaching this semester. I’m curious what, if anything, will be different.

What could I do with my class if I didn’t have to grade so much?


(image link: http://ahundredaffections.com/2014/03/31/the-bane-of-my-teaching-existence/ and the associated blog comment captures the mood)

The title of this post is a question I ask myself every time a pile of student work comes across my desk.  It is also a question that plagues many other instructors.  Others agree. It’s not that we don’t believe in grading, or that we don’t think its valuable for students, but there is so much! Doing something new or innovative often equates with more work for me. Does it have to be that way? What do I have to do to view the problem from a different perspective?  What are the implications for faculty development?

A Short Story

I met with a department last Fall semester to discuss participation the ALT Lab Brown Bag Lunch faculty development program. I was built into their faculty meeting. Although I was welcomed, it was made very clear to me that their time is extremely valuable. I was given 10 minutes according to the agenda. As a side note, I am NOT a salesman. I don’t “sell” my services mainly because (1) they are part of my job and (2) I see my work was a collaborative partnership not a service as such. However, when given only 10 minutes one finds himself giving a pitch.

I began with a question: What could I do if I didn’t have to grade so many papers? I followed it up with a saying something like: “Grading and assessment are part of my teaching responsibilities, but I’m tired of grading mediocre work: work that students haven’t taken ownership of; work that they see as mere check boxes, mere points. In fact, I hate it. My new philosophy of teaching is to only do things that make me happy. So, I’m not going to grade papers any more. I’m going to figure out how to get better thinking and work from them and simultaneously reduce my grading load.”

Eyes widened. One instructor practically yelled: “Tell us how!” We spent the next 40 minutes talking about the how.

The Point

How well do we as faculty developers help instructors see themselves within the goals and initiatives that we are trying to advance? To what extent do I genuinely speak the language that faculty speak? Do I empathize? How well have I positioned myself to respectfully challenge? Do I create and cultivate “thought partnerships” to use a phrase from a colleague of mine?

I am at a university that has one foot in research and tries to keep the other foot in maintaining a commitment to quality teaching. Research, Service and Teaching….and teaching often comes last yet tends to take up so much of the time. It doesn’t bode well for cultivating progressive attitudes toward teaching.  I work to help faculty discover and do what makes them happy. It’s often an issue of rethinking the way we were taught and our teaching patterns.

A Few Ideas on Grading (Make them your own according to your context)

First, read this and this.

Second, consider some of the following ideas. I have embedded variations of these ideas within my own instruction, and I continue to adjust and experiment. In every case, however, I try to focus on a core principle (thinking goal) and figure out how it may function within my instructional situation. Also, even though I maintain a high standard of rigor, I do so with compassion knowing that my students need guidance. In other words, I’m flexible, but maintain high standards.

Convince us to read your paper. 

  • I have got a lot of traction with this activity. Early on in my career I got really tired of papers that were written the night before often characterized by a poor attention to well disciplined and crafted work. I also got really tired reading papers that didn’t address some significant and interesting topic. So, I require students to write a ONE page argument that convinces the reader (me and one’s peers) to read their paper based on two criteria: the topic is interesting and significant. This is attached to their research paper as a preface of sorts. Prior to writing this short argument, the class has to operationally define what constitutes interesting and significant. They also must explicate the parts of an argument including how to outline their work so that the reader is convinced to invest their time to critically engage with the paper.  I scaffold this assignment with smaller assignments and activities in class that better prepare the work. If the reader is not convinced, then their main research paper will not be read. It has really helped improve the topics students research, the organization of their arguments, and the preparation they put into writing their research papers. Student blog posts have proven a valuable medium in this assignment for three reasons: (1) concise writing, (2) peer access and review, (3) ability to highlight specific intellectual moves for the entire class to see and evaluate. Here are a couple examples: Example 1 and Example 2. I am not claiming they are excellent or poor; rather they are examples of minds in action.

What did you do to pursue excellence?

  • This is another question that I require addressed before I will read any substantial assignment. My goal is to have students demonstrate that they have strategically taken advantage of every resource available to help them do the best job that they can. I am not asking or expecting students to be excellent writers…I’m not. I’m not expecting them to be intellectually sophisticated…again, I question my own sophistication. Rather, I DO expect that they utilize their support resources. By strategic I mean that they are to plan, take action and avoid procrastination. This activity is usually written, but I have been experimenting with video and podcasts. It accompanies the assignment they are turning in. I format it  for easy and quick reading. I usually ask that they address the following categories: Key question; Thesis; Record of library visits and document searches (this can be a screenshot of their search history or a list of sources they consulted); Record of the times they visited the writing center; Record of who read their paper/assignment with comment references; A statement addressing what they did to meet the criteria for an excellent mark and how they prevented from making mistakes that are present on previous work; A statement of the intellectual skills they have worked on or accessed as they worked on the assignment and how they plan to use those skills in other work in my class and other classes. This sounds like a lot of writing, but I don’t have to read it all. Rather, I place students in small groups for a particular task and I then hold short “interviews” with students about this work. If I have any doubts or questions, I read relevant sections. The idea here is that they are doing the intellectual work necessary to be successful rather than relying on me to tell them what their thinking is worth. Finally, I prefer to see this limited to two pages maximum.

Oral Arguments

  • How often do students study their own work? Do they study it with the mind to speak to any part (ideation, significance, argument, sources, alternative perspectives, connections, limitations, next steps) coherently? I know this is a tall expectation for students who do not have background experience doing such things, so I help them learn it. I am confused when I am asked to critically critique (study) a student’s paper who has not studied it himself. I provide students with a brief guide addressing some of the aforementioned parts. I meet for 2-3 minutes with individual students when the others are in peer assessment groups or on some other task. They have to speak to the log of their paper coherently. If they fail, they have to go back and study it, which leads to a better product.

The combination of these three activities have reduced my reading load because learners have invested more time working with peers, visiting my office hours, and consulting other institutional support resources like the writing center and our library.  By the time students turn in their final drafts, I shouldn’t have to read them because I know the work that they have done to prepare the final composition. I read them, of course, but I do not have to spend an enormous amount of time making comments, interpreting intent, and so forth. Rather, I read selectively to make sure they have seriously accounted for editing suggestions.


Faculty Development & Center Organization: How do we see ourselves? OR What if we thought of PCK and TPACK as people?



PCK Schulman,1986 & TPACK Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org

I am continually struck by the theoretical and practical power of the PCK and TPACK models the more I work with faculty, departments and various units, and the more I teach. PCK and TPCK are largely (if not completely) unknown to most faculty I have had the pleasure to work with despite their tremendous influence on faculty development. Nonetheless, I have had more success with these models than any other when it comes to convincing faculty to invest time in developing knowledge beyond their content specializations. An outcome has been shift: shift in the articulation and often reconceptualization of one’s philosophy of teaching and learning; shift in the way faculty think about course and lesson design; shift in the way faculty seek out and interact with the resources needed to augment their knowledge sets; shift in the way faculty development and support units interact.

As some of my readers may know, I do not believe that a strong argument is generally sufficient to promote positive and progressive shift. It’s necessary, but rarely sufficient. It’s largely a matter of scale; in other words, when working with numerous faculty a good argument will get a lot of affirming head nods, but rarely prompts committed action. One of the purposes of faculty development units is to initiate action.

Disclaimer…The more I read this post, the more I am unsatisfied with my ability to clearly capture what I wish to say. So, please consider this a conceptual draft that will be developed over time.

I want to start with some questions that speak to how I have been thinking about and using the PCK and TPACK frameworks in faculty development.

What if we thought about PCK and TPACK as frameworks for deep self-reflection? I see this question pointing us to a core purpose of these models. They provide a means by which to look within; to explore the limits of our knowledge; to better understand the implications of our work within higher education. Since meaningful knowledge exist within the minds that create it, there is a sense in which that creation challenges us to do the intellectual work necessary to see ourselves within knowledge that is presented to us. We must construct it, we must grapple with it, we must make it our own. In short, we must experience it for it to be substantively used.

  • If I were to place myself within either the PCK or TPACK frameworks, where would I position myself?
  • What would my diagram look like?
  • How could I prove it?

What if we thought about PCK and TPACK as people? What would be the organizational implications? Who are my resources? Who will help me fill my intellectual and skill gaps?  If I thought of TPACK as departments or faculty development or support units, then where are the gaps in my center? How do I cultivate professional relationships with other units to provide robust opportunities for faculty? Might such an imaginative position help us investigate the implications relevant to the various ways faculty development centers conceptualize themselves, the way they work with other departments, and the ways they plan for the future?

What if we thought of PCK and TPACK as frameworks for course and lesson design? It almost goes without saying that this question is implied within the purposes of each framework, but when I think of the potential for transforming faculty consultations I want to make a more explicit connections. So many texts share the multi-dimensional and multi-domain approach to thinking about how to structure our courses, lectures and learning activities. For example,

There are actually too many to list here, but these exemplify my point.

As I continue to contemplate the field of faculty development, I find that returning to foundational tenets of deep reflection are useful and grounding. PCK and TPACK are two such anchors for my teaching and my work in faculty development. I would love to use these as frameworks for thinking about organizational structure, resourcing and commitment.


Here are a couple links to Lee Shulman’s early work on the subject of Pedagogical – Content – Knowledge (PCK)

  • Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4- 31.
  • Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22.

How can a nail in a board help students think about thinking, writing, and responsibility?


One of the courses I teach is an undergraduate, general education course titled: Inquiry & the Craft of Argument. It is one section of a six section cohort teaching the Thought Vectors track. The course is designed as an introduction into scholarly thinking and writing.  Recently, I challenged students to solve a puzzle (solution above). Why? The puzzle is a metaphor for problem solving and collaboration as well as a metaphor for a few fundamental parts of a quality research paper.  It was a very successful activity.

My goal was to create an anchor for thinking about thinking (metacognition) and writing. I find that if I establish a few strong anchors that align with key ideas/methods/topics/problems in the course, then students are better able to make substantive connections between course concepts, their thinking, and other courses. It’s not a silver bullet, but it is a sound pedagogical practice.


  1. Groups of 3 students.
  2. Balance eight nails on the head of one nail that is partially nailed into a board.
  3. Cannot use extra materials (e.g. gum, glue, tape, or supports)
  4. Before you begin, discuss your understanding of the problem and possible solutions with your group. Write out ideas.
  5. Try it.

It’s a tough exercise kinesthetically and intellectually. Moreover, it’s difficult to collectively problem solve – from communicating clearly to executing action. Students were failing. I gave them approximately 8 minutes to work on the problem. During this time, I probed their assumptions, challenged their approaches, and gave hints. Eventually, I instructed the class to search for the solution on the Internet and try again. Much more successful.


Thinking about our Thinking

– What can our experience with this puzzle teach us about how we approach problems in general? What obstacles emerged? For example, any intellectual rigidity at play? How effectively did we work as a group? Are there any axioms or guidelines we can generate to help us with future problems or challenges?

Thinking about our Writing

– How is this puzzle a metaphor for writing a quality research paper?


Thinking about our Thinking

I don’t want to pretend that this was an easy activity or that insights emerged in such transformative ways that students walked away more amazing than when they entered. There was a lot of Socratic questioning to surface any insights. What did they say?

  • We learn best by doing. Action is an amazing, albeit frustrating, teacher.
  • It’s good to plan before jumping in. In other words, planning can help surface the assumptions that frame our preconceptions about how we think the world (its problems and people) function.
  • It’s important to stop and regroup when we are stuck rather than continuing down the same ineffective path. Exploring and systematically implementing alternative approaches to solving problems is a necessary condition for success. In other words, be cautious of intellectual rigidity!
  • Let every voice be heard and seriously considered. Don’t assume my point of view is the most accurate or the most effective.
  • Critically listening requires that we are able to accurately restate and elaborate on what our peers have said. Such acknowledgement is an important form of respect.
  • Identify and use your resources: peers, instructor, books, the web.
  • Persevere! It goes a long way.

Thinking about our Writing

I’ll summarize one of my student’s explanations because it was excellent.

  • The base is the topic. It must be significant and interesting to be solid enough to be seriously considered and capture the reader’s attention.
  • The nail is your thesis. It must be firmly grounded; based on a sound showing that you have something important to say about the topic [literature review].
  • The remaining nails represent a balanced perspective. They show the reader that you have considered all relevant perspectives fairly.
  • The entire picture is quite eloquent; beautiful in a way.

I was very impressed with this explanation. It actually moved me emotionally because it was beyond the lesson I intended to impart. That was a teaching moment; it was  firm anchor.

THE QUIZ (a.k.a. – commit to the responsibilities we have to our learning and our peers)

Two weeks later I gave a pop-quiz. My first question was:

“One of your peers (insert name) gave an explanation of the nail puzzle as a metaphor for writing a quality research paper. What was her explanation?”

This was an eye opening experience for students. We need to think of all our class sessions as connected, rather than disjointed and independent. I wanted them to see the course as having a logic and, therefore, structure. I also wanted to remind them that they are responsible critically examining (and remembering) what their peers contribute to each class. Know your Thought Vectors.

The whole learning experience was a very rewarding for me, and for many of my students.