Category Archives: Tuesday Teaching Tips

Flexibility: to give up or go forward?

I was teaching class yesterday, and I assumed the students would all have their assignments finished and completed.  Well, that expectation did not turn out the way in which I was hoping. Instead of getting mad at them, I decided to give them 7 minutes to get to work , especially since my entire lesson was riding on them having their work.

Once they had some time to pull it together, we had a moment where we discussed what happened.  Since I teach an Integrated Learning Community in which students, specifically freshmen, are supposed to learn the expectations of college, I decided to take some class time to have a teachable moment.   We discussed time management strategies and methods to structure their assignments. We also brainstormed ways they can support themselves and one another.

This experience taught me that I could have become frustrated with my students and canceled class, which wouldn’t have helped anyone, or I could be flexible and make the most of the moment.  

Any questions?

Several weeks ago, I received a blog post from the Faculty Focus called “‘Everybody with me?’ and Not-So-Useful Questions” which pique my interest, but I didn’t have time to read it so I bookmarked it for later..  Then one day I was sitting in a graduate class when I heard the question, “You follow me?” The next day I was walking down the hallway in my office building and happened to walk by a class when I heard a professor ask, “Does that make sense?”  Both of these experiences caused me to go back and read the Faculty Focus blog post, and I started to think about the questions professors ask and what they mean or want when they ask questions.

So I thought back to how I felt when I heard both of these questions.  When my professor asked the class the question, “You follow me?,” I immediately answered “no” in my head because I was still processing what he was saying.   So technically I wasn’t with him, but I didn’t dare tell him that because I didn’t want to him to just repeat the explanation he had just given. It was in that moment that I realized that I needed to check my own teaching.  Was I asking questions that were not moving my students forward? Was I really allowing them to respond? Was I asking questions that did not have a purpose other than to fill a void in the lesson?

As I reread the Faculty Focus blog post, Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) were mentioned as ways to involved students more.  CATs are strategies in which faculty can informally or formally assess students’ understanding.  Some examples of CATs are one-minute essays and student-generated exam questions. I started to remember other techniques, like freewriting or popcorn questions.  All of these strategies help faculty teach in a way that promotes purposeful questions as well as opportunities to gauge if and how the students are understanding the course material.  Is everyone with me?

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.

Practice what you preach

Last week I presented in Principia College’s Dilemmas and Decisions program. It involved a speech. The thing is, while I give others feedback on speeches, this format for expressing ideas is not my forte. I’m a writer. I’m not a natural presenter. Sure, I’m a professor, but somehow that’s different to me. Since I really wanted to participate and share on my assigned topic, reason, when asked a few semesters ago, I agreed to present.

Two things were key to my success and confidence this time around, and I want to share both here as pointers in case they help you.

#1 Make it your own

For three semesters I worked with a script that had been written by someone else. Sure, I added some ideas, including a story last fall, but the script and ideas were never really mine. This got in the way of my confidence and, I think, the success of the presentation. I was never comfortable. This semester I realized I could change that.

In talking through with my husband what the students, mostly college juniors, would care to know about reason and reasoning, I came up with five stories of decisions I’d made between the ages of 17 and 25 and how I had reasoned through them. I started to get excited about giving the talk (and remember, I really don’t like giving presentations to big groups). Why was I excited? I had made it my own, just as I advise my students to do. (You see, they almost always claim that they can’t write about things they’re not passionate about. For me, the passion came in my eagerness to share these stories.)

#2 Do a reverse outline “Put it in reverse” and “Reverse outlines to get you to the finish line”

So I wrote my stories. I crafted an introduction that directly addressed reason as a concept. My conclusion even expressed directly how my last story related to the framework in which reason had been presented to the students: You know, “Here’s how my last story proves my point….” That kind of thing.

But I still wasn’t sure the stories were holding together. I wanted each story to demonstrate a specific point. A-ha! I needed to do a reverse outline, to make sure the speech was doing what I wanted it to. So I took a piece of paper and began. I wrote down the key ideas in the introduction. Then I numbered each story: #1 college choice, #2 grad school choice, #3 should I get engaged?, #4 should I get married?, and #5 should I move to another state? Then I mapped each one to plot which personal values each story represented.

It was only AFTER I’d done this mapping that I saw that mostly I was doing what I had intended. Everything pointed at least somewhat to the fact that reasoning based on our personal values (as opposed to outside influences) leads to “freedom,” and that was my point. But the reverse outline showed me a few gaps, a few connections on the map that weren’t quite being made. And it annoyed me that I hadn’t thought to do a reverse outline earlier. Darn it. I teach this stuff! So, I’m here to remind you to practice what you preach.

The next time I’ll do the reverse outline when I have more than an hour to spare before the talk. A bonus for this time though: the reverse outline helped free me from my script (I didn’t have to read the whole thing), and it helped me know that the points were there. Next time, they’ll be crafted to be crystal clear for my audience. I think they’ll like that.


Ellen Sprague is a writing specialist and assistant professor in the Center for Teaching and Learning. Two (of many) favorite teaching gigs are ENGL 239: Intro to Creative Nonfiction and WLIT 131: Stories around the Globe, which will be taught on the 2019 Slovenia/Croatia/Bosnia Abroad.

Understanding routines: Connect, extend, and challenge

Yesterday I had my students lead a class discussion.  Since I wanted to make sure the discussion was centered around the text they had read, I decided to have them complete an in-class reading strategy first.  Using the “Visible Thinking” website from Harvard’s Project Zero, I chose one of the Understanding Routines: Connect, Extend, and Challenge. Each of these three of  concepts have questions to answer:

  • Connect: How are the ideas and information presented in the text connected to what you already knew?
  • Extend: What new ideas did you get that extended or pushed your thinking in new directions?
  • Challenge: What is still challenging or confusing for you to get your mind around?  What questions, wonderings, or puzzles do you now have?

On a handout that I had made, students took time to answer the questions prior to the discussion. The student-led discussion was the best I have seen from these students. By providing some time for the students to review the text, as well as directing them to think deeper about the material, I prepared them to apply the concepts and ideas from the text to the discussion instead of talking about what they liked.

By having the students re-engage with and review the text, I noticed that they were able to have a deeper discussion.  In addition, I was able to collect these pieces of paper as an informal assessment of whether or not they had completed and/or understood the reading.  I could also use this information to see what questions they may still have about the material.   I will definitely be trying this strategy again!

Small yet significant support

Recently, my students appeared to have a “case of the Mondays.”  Several of them were slumped over their desks or just seemed to emanate that “the struggle was real” vibe.  As I was thinking about how best to support my class, I realized that they just needed a break.  So I decided to let them out of class 10 minutes early.  While this may seem like a significant amount of time, I realized that in those 10 minutes, they were not going to be receptive to any concepts or ideas, so I felt it was better to let them out of class to recharge before their next class.  This small yet significant support for my students was necessary to help them recharge for their next class.  As we head into week 5, remember to take some time for them and for you. We still have several weeks before spring break, and I know the projects and assignments are beginning to pick up!                

4C’s reading strategy*

A few weeks ago while attending a grad school class, my professor used an in-class reading strategy that ignited our discussion. This strategy was extremely helpful and allowed me to review my reading and strengthen my comprehension.  Because I found this experience so helpful as a student, I decided to implement the strategy in my own class.  The students were engaged with the text, and I was able to conduct an informal reading assessment as to whether or not they did the reading or what they comprehended.

For this strategy, you will need:

  • Regular, square post-its
  • Giant Post-Its or a hanout
  • Markers or writing implements

To prepare for this activity, assign the students reading homework, and on your own (using the giant Post-its), draw a four square grid that has the following labels in each square: Make connections, identify changes, raise challenges, and note concepts.  Below is an explanation of each C:

  • Make Connections: In this space, students are encouraged to make connections between readings, their lives or experiences, other class discussions, etc.
  • identify Changes: Students write changes that have happened in their mind since reading or learning about the concepts.
  • Raise Challenges: This is an opportunity for students to raise questions about the concepts or challenge the author’s perspective with a statement or question.
  • Note concepts: I found this section to be the easiest because it is facts or ideas straight from the book.

During class, the students use the regular sized Post-its to write down their ideas, noticings, highlights from the text to fill up the four categories. Encourage the students to use page numbers on each Post-it.   The students work on this independently for several minutes.  Side note: my students sit at tables of 3-4 people.  For smaller classes, like my the grad school class I attend, have the students complete this independently and then have one Giant Post-it that they all add to.

Once the students have had some time to fill out their Post-its, they will put them on the giant Post-it.  Then, as a table  group, they can review and discuss all of their Post-its.  When I did this activity, I had my students rotate around the room to see group’s  ideas.  We then discussed the ideas as a whole class.  

If you’re interested in learning how to adapt this strategy for your class or discipline, then send me an email.  Happy reading!

*Strategy adapted from Ritchart, R., Chruch, M., & Morrison, Kk. (2011).  Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Welcome back! I mean Happy Week 3!

So I am a few weeks late in creating a Tuesday Teaching Tip so far this semester, and I apologize for that.  It isn’t like I haven’t been teaching; I promise I have!   I hope you all have had a wonderful first few weeks.  These past weeks have been about building my course community.  I am learning about my students as learners, thinkers, and doers.   I guess my teaching tip is to remember that we’re only (and already?) in week 3, so the students are still navigating being back in courses and managing their schedules.   As we continue to teach new concepts, remember to review and connect previous terms, concepts, or ideas to help the students build strong foundations for learning more.   So my tip for this week is to know that it’s ok if things seem to be moving slowly because they will pick up sooner than we realize. 

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.

Gratitude attitude

Last week I decided to have my students stop what we were working on and reflect on what we all appreciated.   First I had them generate a list (in their notebooks) of what they were grateful for.  I gave them about 5 minutes to generate their ideas. 

Then, I had them choose 3-5 items from their lists to display on the board.  While students were writing on the board, I noticed that some of them could not limit themselves to just 3-5 items, and I was ok with that. 

Eventually I stopped them and had them go to their peers’ lists and comment on the good.   The students could put a symbol or phrase to show they agreed.  Before I knew it, the entire board was filled with hearts, checks, “Amens,” and more.  It was clear that the students felt they had a lot to be grateful for and were receptive to see even more gratitude.   

After we were all finished at the board, I had my students tell me why they think I did this activity.  [I wanted them to have a little different mindset because they seemed to be dragging at the beginning of class].  Their responses were more insightful and deeper than what I had hoped they would get out of this activity.  It was clear that taking some time out of our regularly scheduled program to reflect on the surrounding good was what we all needed.   Enjoy the photographs of their gratitude!