All posts by Cherie Hufford

Sharpen your focus! Six strategies for success  

We have two weeks left of the semester, and papers, project, and assignments are piling up.  Many students claim they are struggling to focus, so here is a list of six focus strategies that can apply to students, athletes, faculty and staff.  After you read this, feel free to share your own strategies.

  1. One thing at a timePeople think they can multitask easily but true focus requires us to concentrate on one thing at a time. Finish that and go on to the next task.
  2. Give each task its own time – Although this seems similar to #1, it’s a bit different in that it addresses all the things we do but don’t give separate time for. We check our email, but it’s not on our to-do list. Yet, it can take up significant time. Choose specific times for email, homework, working out, etc. and then – BE PRESENT at each activity.
  3. Build up your focus muscles – It’s just the same as building muscles for any sport – practice keeping your thoughts from distraction. Have a reminder word or phrase when you notice yourself drift off such as “Concentrate” or “No distractions.”  Some people use an object, such as wearing a rubber band, so they remember what task they are working on and sticking to it.
  4. Be confident in your developing abilities – It’s all about your mindset. If you say you can or you can’t, you’re right! No one is in the same place they were a year ago, or even last semester.
  5. Take time to breathe – Taking time out for a walk or some other exercise can help your creative and thinking juices flow.
  6. Get more sleep – It seems counterintuitive, but since it’s hard to focus when sleepy, you are probably wasting more time trying to concentrate than you would if you spend time sleeping, you can then spend time focusing and accomplishing more.

Cherie Hufford, MSEd and MA, is a student support specialist, visiting faculty, and assessment assistant at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She recently completed a second master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. When Cherie isn’t teaching, she enjoys baking, rooting for the Packers, and caring for her micro “farm,” complete with a small flock of chickens, gardening boxes, and herbs in the window sill.

Journaling with SCAR

In the Center for Teaching and Learning, we have many opportunities to work with individual students and discuss strategies for their specific academic needs. Last week, a student came in for a meeting, and his major concern was that he was behind in journal entries for two of his classes. This student is a good writer, but the problem he voiced was that he had a hard time getting started with his journals. I considered how to help. There are strategies that stem from annotating or discussing. But, this student had weekly journals in two classes. He needed a “no-fail” strategy that could work whether he had time to talk to a peer or not and whether he was journaling about a reading, video, production, or presentation. 

It came to me that students needed a journaling template. If they weren’t sure where to start with a journal entry, this would give them some guidance for it.  It shouldn’t have many steps so that a student could remember it, and the letters of the steps should form an acronym for the same reason. I drafted an idea and shared it with the student.

The next day, a colleague and I came across an idea about intellectual journaling in a booklet called, How to Improve Student Learning: 30 Practical Ideas, from Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder from the Foundation for Critical Thinking (2011, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press). One of the ideas was about intellectual journaling. They too suggested a four-part structure. Their ideas includes Situation (describe it thoroughly), Response (use precision), Analysis (they ask you to analyze your reaction to the work), and Implications (what can you learn?). Adding the earlier work to what I had done with the suggestions of Paul and Elder, my colleague and I discussed shaping a journaling structure we felt was a meaningful, yet quick reminder for students who don’t feel inspired to journal about a class activity.

Here is the idea. Have your students learn the acronym SCAR.

            S – Summarize the material, production, video, or presentation

            C – Connect the summary to other texts or activities the student has experienced

            A – Analyze the text or activity to look for meaning

            R – Reflect on how this text or activity could be meaningful in future learning, classes or career

Although this won’t work for all journaling activities, and it might not even hit all the points you would like your students to cover, it will give the students a starting point. Some students simply have a challenge with putting pen to paper (or key strokes to document), and this little idea will give them a starting point and no excuse for why they couldn’t at least begin a journal entry. I find that they usually want to do the work but get frustrated or afraid if they don’t feel secure in the assignment. SCAR gives them a sense of security to know they can have a place to begin.

Cherie Hufford, MSEd and MA, is a student support specialist, visiting faculty, and assessment assistant at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She recently completed a second master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. When Cherie isn’t teaching, she enjoys baking, rooting for the Packers, and caring for her micro “farm,” complete with a small flock of chickens, gardening boxes, and herbs in the window sill.

Finish strong

Prioritizing – Seeing it all come together….

There are  many responsibilities and activities we want to participate in, but how to get it all done without letting things fall through the cracks?

Take some time to prioritize…

All you need is paper, some post it notes, your schedule and a pen …

Write each of  your “to do’s” on a post it.  Arrange them on your paper. As you complete them, you can remove them. If the order has to change, it’s easy to move them around.

For example, you have a research paper and test that are coming up and so you put them on your priority sheet. Suddenly, your professor gives you more time to complete the paper. Your priorities just shifted. So, even though it’s still on your list to get done, you can move something up on your chart that needs to be completed sooner.

As you complete tasks – your paper gets more empty and soon you will complete everything successfully for the semester!

Extra Tips:

  • Use different colored post its for different courses
  • Use different colored post its for different activities – sports, assignments, work, etc…
  • Check your priority sheet daily and make changes, removing anything that was completed and rearranging tasks that might need re-prioritizing.

Cherie Hufford, MSEd and MA, is a student support specialist, visiting faculty, and assessment assistant at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She recently completed a second master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. When Cherie isn’t teaching, she enjoys baking, rooting for the Packers, and caring for her micro “farm,” complete with a small flock of chickens, gardening boxes, and herbs in the window sill.

How much is too much…when it comes to homework…..

It might just be the time of year. Spring has sprung; sports and shows are in full swing. When the weather is so nice outside, who wants to have their head in a textbook?  Whatever the reason, those of us here in the Center for Teaching and Learning are hearing some specific complaints about homework and the overabundance of it.

So, how much is too much?  It’s hard to gauge. Some students can dash off their homework in half an hour and be knowledgeable and ready for a discussion or quiz about the information. While other students in the same class can take two hours and not manage to wrap their minds around the content. If you are feeling concerned that your homework is too much or not enough, try the following ideas.

Invite two of your students in for a brief discussion about homework in general. Choose two students who may be at both ends of the spectrum for success in your class, or choose a diligent participant and someone who is quiet. (It’s probably a good idea not to choose two friends.) Ask them, “On an average night, how long does it take to do the homework for this class?” Ask them how they do it (alone, in a crowd, with music or in silence, etc…), where they do it (desk, bed, library), and when they do it (morning, after sports, or late at night). From these discussions you can get a feeling if the homework is too much or not enough or if the student themselves need support to make different homework style choices. By talking to two different students, you can get a feel for varied opinions on the homework.

The other idea that might help you succeed in making sure of a proper homework load is to give  students a brief, printed questionnaire. Ask the questions listed above and then compile the answers to get a feeling if the amount of homework you are requiring is right for your class and your students.

A final reminder: Most students would prefer no homework, so any of the questions you ask, whether in person or in a questionnaire, are going to be colored by the idea that less is much better. Temper their answers by looking through the lens of responsibility to teach the correct amount of content. You’re still the instructor.

Active listening strategies

Last Friday, many of our professors got together to discuss effective teaching strategies across the disciplines. We gathered in groups and shared our perspectives about effective teaching strategies. One idea that every group hit upon in one way or another was the importance of listening. So many of us are concerned with getting our points across to the students; we feel we need to teach all the content and not miss anything. Often we are so focused on imparting information, we forget to listen to what our students are telling us. In a single class period, students can give valuable information that will help us more effective teachers.  By watching and listening for these verbal and non-verbal signals an instructor can discover:

  • Additional knowledge that the teacher might not have included in the lecture, or didn’t even know
  • How to fill gaps in the students’ knowledge foundation
  • How to clear up misunderstanding from the homework
  • A lack of preparation
  • An inability to keep up with the lecture or other class activities
  • Discomfort with an in-class group situation
  • An important question
  • Ways to provide opportunities for advanced study


The need for active listening strategies is being recognized more often in higher education.  A few examples of the importance of listening pops up everywhere on the net. The Russell Group University believes active listening happens when instructors “allow for thinking time and silences.”  Northwestern University offers a course called The Importance of Listening. And thirdly, in her essay, Tell Me More, On the Fine Art of Listening, Brenda Ueland says, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.” She goes on to say people who “really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and want to sit in their radius as though it did us good.”

So, what are some strategies that help us to be better listeners?

In the Faculty Focus Blog, there was a very helpful article about active listening. The author, Isis Artze-Vega listed seven ways to help students listen. She cited talking less, accountability, and modeling as key ways to promote listening (see complete article here

In the TESOL Quarterly, Rebecca Palmer gives 9 listening strategies including modeling (hmmm….this seems to be a familiar theme!), taking notes, responding and summarizing (

Even Forbes recommends we become better listeners. The suggestions by their columnist, Dianne Schilling include eye contact, keeping an open mind, and empathy. (Her article is here:

With these strategies, we can help students be better listeners and we can become more attentive ourselves.


Grove, J. (2017, February 14). How to teach: 13 top teaching tips for university lecturers.  [Web log Retrieved from

Hlavac, R. Northwestern University Online Course

Ueland, B (1998).  Tell me more; On the fine art of listening. Tucson, AZ: Kore Press.


Speed debating – An ESL tip that can work for all students

My course is populated exclusively by international and ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Because English is not their primary language, I try to be mindful of what would make these students more comfortable and what would help with their academic English development. To that end, three things I do to promote a non-threatening atmosphere include: endeavoring to speak slower than I might normally (I’m not too successful with this), limiting and explaining the excess of idioms I often use (I am more successful with this) and avoiding putting the students in a position that would embarrass them. This final idea is what inspired this lesson on speed debating.

To inspire class writing, we read small essays, and last week’s reading was the philosophy of Mencius (Man’s Nature is Good) and Hsun Tzu (Man’s nature is Evil). These opposite schools of thought naturally lend themselves to a debate. So, my students and I prepared to do just that. We discussed the differences in the philosophers and their points of view and we discussed what makes a successful debate. We then prepared by researching background information and building an outline of our stance on the issue of man’s true nature. Initially, most of them chose the same side, and as a class, we recognized that we needed to have both sides equally represented. So some students volunteered to change sides for the debate.

On debate day, the students who were sure that man’s nature is evil met on one side of the room, and those who prepared to argue that man’s nature is good sat on the other side. The students shared their arguments with each other and got excited to prove their points.

We set up with two lines of desks facing each other. Each desk was far enough away from the next one (2-3 feet) so that the students could concentrate on their own debate. Then students from one side of the issue sat across from students who focused on the other side of the issue. We then began our series of mini-debates. Students each had two minutes for their opening remarks, and they had one and a half minutes for rebuttals and for introducing new points.

After 12 minutes, one line of the students got up and moved one seat to the left. Then we began again. After another 12 minutes, one more move happened. For the third mini debate, I gave no structure. I did not time their opening remarks and I didn’t keep track of switching back and forth with time for making arguments and expressing their rebuttals. This unstructured strategy was to inspire class discussion later.

For the last few minutes of class, the students wrote a reflection of the process. They answered three questions:

  • Did you use any metaphors in your debate arguments? (There had been quite a few in the text and so we had discussed this ahead of time. This question could be changed to anything appropriate for your course’s content.)
  • Did you enjoy the structured or non-structured debate more and why?
  • How does debating make you a better writer? (This is also a content question which can easily be changed for different subjects).

In their answers, students noted organization and depth of thought as benefits of the speed-debating activities.

Although this activity could be fun for any population of students, it works especially well for ESL (English as a Second Language) students because they are not used to extensive class participation. Generally speaking, they come from backgrounds of teacher-centered classrooms where the students are not expected to give input. In this activity, the students can argue for their opinion but not have to stand in front of the class and act as the authority. While this debate style gives the students the opportunity to hone and improve their arguments as the mini-debates progress, it is a non-threatening way to aid in developing confidence in class participation and advancing one’s own point of view.


Cherie Hufford, MSEd, is a student support specialist, visiting faculty, and assessment assistant at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She is currently completing a second master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. When Cherie isn’t teaching, she enjoys baking, rooting for the Packers, and caring for her micro “farm,” complete with a small flock of chickens, gardening boxes, and herbs in the window sill.

Instructional Conversations

Student participation in the classroom is essential to teaching, helping students gain focus and improving their depth of understanding. Yet, some days students seem to want to participate, and on other days, it is almost impossible to get the students to engage. So, how do we get more participation?

One way is to set up Instructional Conversations. This technique is beneficial for all students but is especially valuable for our English Language Learners as they get to hear the vocabulary of the class content in different voices, giving them a chance to internalize both the vocabulary and the content.

What Instructional Conversation looks like:

  • It happens in small groups – 6 – 8 students is ideal.
  • The atmosphere is non-threatening and encourages all students to share their ideas.
  • There are clear academic and content-related goals.
  • The instructor has prepared open-ended questions (avoid yes or no questions).
  • The conversation is on target, and mostly run by the students. They should be talking at least 80% of the time.
  • The discussion turns are self-selected, but the instructor should model the way the students signal that they want entry into the conversation: sitting forward on their chairs, making eye contact with the current speaker, or being ready to enter the discussion when there is a conversational lull.
  • The instructor needs to make sure that everything they say in the conversation is a modeled for the students. This includes questioning, restating, commenting positively about the students’ contributions, and encouraging them to delve more deeply into the subject.

Other tips for the Instructional Conversations:

  • Avoid having students bring their questions to the conversations in a written form. This might promote the idea of just reading their questions and not thinking deeply about what their peers are saying.
  • Tactfully correct wrong assumptions – don’t let false information float around but try to do it in a way that is not going to bring the conversation to a halt.
  • Make sure that you are part of the groups (a chair for you in each group so you can float in and out).
  • Model enjoyment. Have a good attitude and be enthusiastic about the discussion. That will help send the right message.

If you have any questions about this strategy, feel free to contact me.  Let me know how it goes!

Rico-Diaz, L. T. & Weed, K.Z. (2013). Crosscultural Language and Academic Development Handbook: A Complete K-12 Reference Guide (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn-Bacon.

Depth of Knowledge Goes Round and Round

Often we find ourselves engaged in conversation about improving the depth of knowledge in our courses and assignments. How do we elucidate the concept of depth of knowledge not only for our students but also for ourselves?  We know that scaffolding assignments accomplishes a graduation to the more challenging aspects of our class goals. But, how do we know if the students are not just staying on the surface of the information but are going deeper into the texts and materials? The graphic below will give you some ideas for making sure that the assignments you are giving and the questions you are asking go to the heart of the topic and make connections that are meaningful.

Depth of Knowledge Wheel

This was based on Dr. Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge work.  You can hear him speak directly to depth of knowledge below:

Multicultural Education

Principia College boasts a 20% international student population. With this large segment of our student body coming from differing cultures, how do we support them? Principia is actually quite good at this. We have the annual International Festival, and we have an International Student Program Coordinator. We also have our International Student Learning Community. These are just a few of the steps Principia takes to be supportive to our international students. However, research shows us that embracing different cultures in the classroom is also advantageous. Having a multicultural classroom supports all learners. There are many ways we can improve the multicultural classroom experience here at Principia.
Here are just a few ideas to support you:

• Follow Mrs. Eddy’s counsel and regard each student with pure love. “When the heart speaks, however simple the words, its language is always acceptable to those who have hearts.” Mis 262:9

• Read about unfamiliar cultural experiences to expand your background

• Punch up your pedagogy
Make sure that your lessons have room for interaction
Participate with the students during journaling and discussion
Arrange classroom seating for easy communication

• Kindly encourage students from diverse backgrounds to join extra-curricular activities even if they are shy or hesitant.

• Get out of your comfort zone so that it is easier to empathize with your students
Take a class in something unfamiliar
Go to a restaurant you have never tried
Go to an activity that is new for you (think opera or Nascar)

• Relax and be yourself, students who are comfortable learn better

• Care … students who know they are cared for are more successful

Finally, enjoy your students and the class experience. You are doing what you love and they can feel it.
These ideas are adapted from Sonia Nieto and Patty Bode’s book Diversity, The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, Lisa Delpit, in her book Other People’s Children, and Mary Baker Eddy in Prose Works.