NISOD Notices-Events, Webinars, & Articles; Articles 2016- 17

 This is a reprinting, but still very good advice.

Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXII, No. 11 | April 9, 2010

Things I Wish I Learned the First Year

This Will Not Be Your Last Syllabus.
I must admit that the first time I wrote a syllabus, it did not occur to me that I would be creating hundreds more, similar and different, as well as thousands of other documents. You might not believe how many files on my computer hard drive have some version of the name “Biology Research Project” (Fall, Winter, Summer, Spring; Regular, Honors, Interdisciplinary, Hybrid; 1996, 7, 8, 9; ad nauseum), or how many times I have made one small change to an assignment, only to scour 20 other documents that might have the same reference. (On the other hand, you might well believe me!) Well, call me slow, but only after 15 years has it occurred to me to set up a template, for all my course documents, based on one criterion: How can I alter this document in the future with the smallest possible domino effect? (I am still working on this one. Pointers welcome.)

Hunting for a Missing Folder Right Before Class Is the Real “Naked Teacher” Nightmare
Perhaps there is a career in which more paper comes across one’s desk than in teaching, but I do not know about it—textbooks; CD’s; years of grades; PowerPoints, other people’s PowerPoints; all those articles that I use in class; and worst of all, all those articles that I might use someday but have not yet. What is more boring than a filing system? I have wasted so much time scrambling to find those very important, yet missing, papers! A system should include hanging files and manila envelopes, labels, and, most important of all, a rationale—not obvious in the piles that I move from one surface to another so that a student can sit down. This goal is still a work-in-progress as well. Right now I have two bookcases, roughly sorted by course and relevance; eight unmarked file drawers which I intend to identify as “Administrative,” “Classroom,” “Reference,” or “Archives;” and, since I teach health and human sexuality, various portable bins of contraceptive methods, food labels, etc. (Have any other ideas?)

You May Not Be Able to Form Successful Student Presentation Groups, but Your Students Can
Before I even attempted student groups, I talked with other instructors. It was off-putting. Their complaints ranged from students’ not being able to make their groups’ meeting times, to being unprepared, reading notes in a boring manner, and not showing up on the day their presentations were due! So I decided that the groups needed to be formed on the basis of shared availability, I needed to coach the groups in creativity and contingency planning, and students needed to receive points for their contributions inside and outside of class. Since implementing these strategies, I have utilized groups effectively and entertainingly for a variety of assignments in all my classes. Students particularly enjoy the chance to be creative with filmed skits, original songs and poetry, and brochure designs. (Luckily, it did not take me 15 years to learn this one! I wrote about it in “Creating Student Presentation Groups that Work,” Innovation Abstracts, Vol. XXV, No. 6.)

To Know the Late Pass Is to Love the Late Pass
I learned about the Late Pass only a few years ago at a California Great Teachers Conference for distance learning. With it, each student receives the opportunity to turn in one assignment late—no questions asked, no points lost. Had I known about the pass in my first year of teaching, I would have avoided that depressing day after a student asked to turn in something late because her father had just passed away. When I needed to call her about something else, the person who answered the phone said, “She’s not here, but this is her father.” How many times have I set a standard and sworn I would stick to it, only to be swayed by a student’s particularly poignant set of circumstances or felt guilty because I was not swayed by another student whose story was not as compelling? The Late Pass, I am happy to say, has removed all such angst from my teaching life. (Many thanks to whomever for the suggestion.)

Write Pedagogically Sound Objective Test Questions!
I lucked into this one at an in-service seminar I was required to attend that first year. Most of my peers were good-naturedly griping about having to go, so who knew that a jewel was awaiting, nestled in the concurrent sessions? The esteemed instructor used Bloom’s Taxonomy to illustrate how true/false, multiple-choice, and matching items could be constructed to assess a variety of levels of learning, potentially doing away with the dreaded essay question—not that I do not need to include writing assignments for my students (a mandate) and not that I do not want to read about what they have learned. On the contrary, I look forward to reading students’ individualized self-assessments, as opposed to the same canned paragraphs again . . . and again . . . and again.

Afraid of It? OK! So Try It Anyway.
Sometimes I wonder if I might be the only technophobe teaching an online class. Surely other online instructors do not experience sheer terror when a program does not open, a student emails that s/he cannot get into the online test, or—worst of all—an ERROR MESSAGE pops up on the screen. It took me eight years to prepare to teach an online class, and I was not sure it would ever happen. But now it is one of the most rewarding classes I teach. Sure, students giggle, during our few mandatory meetings, if the monitor freezes or I cannot even turn it on, as they can practically count the seconds till my “fight or flight” autonomic nervous system response kicks in. But we get through it. I can always ask students for help, call IT, or even resort to “old school”—blackboard and transparencies! Some other frightening experiences include conducting workshops for my colleagues, presenting at conferences, and attempting new activities with students that I am not sure are going to work properly. I am a shy person, not a natural entertainer. But all turned out to be wonderful learning experiences! And I am quite a bit less shy.

Keep It Real.
That might sound like a corny platitude, but the Baby Boomer generation was right about some things. Why do we have labs if not to give students hands-on experience? Well, my courses in health and human sexuality do not have labs (just try to imagine a lab in human sexuality). But I began searching early on for ways to let my students view and manipulate real items. It is typical for students to handle contraceptive methods and read labels on food packages. But they also get to see my own infertility treatment needle collection, a friend’s pregnancy ultrasound photos, another friend’s open-heart surgery photos, and a Down Syndrome karyotype supplied by my doctor. When we study historical events, there is the Song of Solomon from the Bible; original pioneering documents from Kinsey, Masters, and Johnson; the U.S. government Healthy People 2000 project; and even my own previous incarnation in an army jacket and peace-sign headband. Students appreciate getting a glimpse into our lives. Their favorite part of my online health course is called “Lynda’s testimonials,” which describes life experiences I have had that illustrate our subjects—a bad car accident, my mother’s suicide, a thieving caregiver. Perhaps the most powerful: In a filmed interview, my father-in-law, who was dying of emphysema, continued to smoke while on oxygen. Every semester, some students quit smoking after seeing that one.

None of Us Wants to Bore Our Students or Ourselves!
Maybe it was the prospect of someday earning tenure, but something made me realize that giving the same lecture year in and year out would wear thin. Sure, enhancing the students’ experiences creates interest for me, too. But sometimes I need “big kid” opportunities.

I have been fortunate that Mt. San Antonio College is very generous with instructors when funding permits. I have been able to train in the Langford method of teaching and assessment; participate in two California Great Teachers Conferences (one for distance learning); attend seminars in health and human sexuality; write small grants for various student projects; develop the online course; study student motivation; develop an interdisciplinary course with an anthropologist; become certified to teach distance learning; develop an Honors course; develop assignments for Teacher Preparation students; use our Wildlife Sanctuary; have a free personal trainer at our Exercise Science and Wellness Center; and, the piece de resistance, take a one-year sabbatical to study plants as medicine and the natural history of coyotes in California habitats.
I am so grateful for those opportunities. They have made me a better teacher and a better person.

Lynda S. Hoggan, Professor, Biological Sciences

Fur further information, contact the author at Mt. San Antonio College, 1100 N. Grand Avenue, Walnut, CA 91789. Email Author.

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 16 | May 4, 2017

Teaching Community College Students the Soft Skills Demanded by Employers

Many of us in community colleges work with employers and students. Therefore, we seek to understand what employers need in future employees, then we prepare students to fill those roles. This process is relatively straight forward when it comes to teaching technical skills, but how do we teach students soft skills? Possessing the requisite technical skills may get students an interview. However, soft skills are what get students jobs and are what help them keep their jobs.

According to a 2014 study conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder, 77 percent of employers surveyed indicated they were specifically seeking candidates with soft skills, and 16 percent of those respondents considered such qualities more important than technical skills. The top 10 soft skills that surveyed companies were seeking in candidates included:

  • A strong work ethic (73%)
  • Dependability (73%)
  • A positive attitude (72%)
  • Self-motivation (66%)
  • Team-orientation (60%)
  • Organizational skills and managing multiple priorities (57%)
  • Working well under pressure (57%)
  • Effective communication (56%)
  • Flexibility (51%)
  • Confidence (46%) 

Teaching Soft Skills to College Students: What Works?

Based on a 2013 Seattle Jobs Initiative Study of four-year colleges, community colleges, and workforce development organizations, the best practices in soft skills development and assessment include:

  1. Setting clear expectations regarding soft skills.
  2. Incorporating soft skills in grading systems and assessment processes.
  3. Helping students continuously practice soft skills and providing them with feedback.
  4. Incorporating real-world situations and environments.
  5. Encouraging professional communication between students and their peers, faculty, and community.
  6. Maintaining a learning organization culture.

Clearly these best practices involve embedding soft skills into all aspects of the student experience and indicate that students need the opportunity to continuously practice these skills in real-world situations.

A study from the University of Portland’s School of Education tracked the ability of students to improve their listening, teamwork, and responsibility when soft skills content was embedded into regular technical classroom content. Through a focus on soft skills in different settings, how soft skills are manifested behaviorally, and helping students see when a lack of soft skills created problems, results showed students improved in these areas over the course of a semester.

While some instructors do well at providing opportunities for students to develop soft skills in their classes, it is important to remember that institutions hire instructors based on their technical skills and expertise in a particular field. While a Career and Technical Education instructor may be incredible at teaching students lean manufacturing, he or she may be less sure about how to adequately embed soft skills instruction into their course content.

While it is necessary to provide professional development to support all instructors in incorporating soft skills into their courses, perhaps a course that intentionally dives into soft skills development could also be offered as a supplement to technical education courses. In doing so, students are exposed to critical thinking and other soft skills at a deeper level. Plus, they have more time to focus on the analysis required to truly ponder big and complicated topics. Maybe by approaching soft skills with this multipronged approach, colleges can better support student success in this area.

Offering a Soft Skills Course to Supplement Technical Training

Based on personal experience in workforce development at a community college, it is not uncommon to hear employers say, “If you can find me someone for an entry-level position that will show up on time, be responsible, and get along with coworkers, I can teach them the rest.” When tasked with doing this through a grant-funded program that identifies, trains, and places economically disadvantaged students with inconsistent work histories into local manufacturing jobs, we developed a special course that emphasizes soft skills attainment.

The foundational program includes manufacturing content, basic academic skill development, and work hardening experience; however, in the end, the soft skills class called “Workplace Professionalism” is very popular. The course may be popular because, for the first time, many students are able to intentionally devote time to discussions, readings, questions, activities, and assignments that are all immediately relevant across every area of their lives.

While many students get this kind of guidance and support from family or other support systems, this is not the case for the economically disadvantaged students. In this instance, it is the first time ever many students peer into their future, have the opportunity to work intentionally with a dedicated instructor around their soft skills development, and get feedback on how to improve.

Although one course will not allow students to master the soft skills employers desire, in this case, it helps open students’ eyes and minds to a new way of viewing work and their ability to be successful in that world.

The remainder of this article highlights the “Workplace Professionalism course that our community college offers to supplement technical course work in a manufacturing program.

“Workplace Professionalism” – The Course

Session 1: Attitude, Goal Setting, and Life Management

A guided exercise called “Mirror Words” helps students identify their core beliefs about who they are. In-class discussions focus on identifying students’ personality traits and how these traits impact interactions with others. The session concludes with an exercise in goal setting, which walks students through the process so they can better understand how creating steps toward a goal is critical to achieving success.

Session 2: Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Students engage in discussions to understand the meaning of emotional intelligence (EI) and how it impacts their daily lives. Additionally, students take an EI assessment that reveals insights into their levels of personal competence (i.e., self-awareness and self-management) and social competence (i.e., social awareness and relationship management). After the assessment, students are divided into groups by their EI similarity and then use instructor-provided resources to identify how to build upon their EI strengths and overcome challenges.

Session 3: Time and Stress Management; Organizational Skills

This session covers physical and emotional responses to situations. Armed with this information, students better understand the negative impacts of stress, the level of which is revealed via a life stress quiz. Students practices strategies for dealing with stress and identify where and how time is wasted on unproductive activities every day, as well as how these activities result in having less time to focus on important things and/or feeling stress due to procrastination.

Session 4: Ethics, Politics, and Diversity; Accountability and Workplace Relationships

During this session, students dissect various types of power to see how they do or do not currently possess power, which helps them to better understand how and when different kinds of power are used. A guided self-reflection helps students uncover how they currently feel stereotyped, as well as how they may stereotype others. This session also highlights the implications of stereotyping in the workplace and ways to address or challenge co-workers and supervisors with regard to stereotypes.

Session 5: Quality Organizations and Services; Human Resources and Policies

Employee productivity and its impact on organizational success are discussed, with emphasis placed on the employee role in waste and profit. Examples of good customer service are provided for internal and external customers, and students revisit previous course content to reflect on how they would suggest dealing with challenging situations. The role of Human Resources is discussed to assure students are clear about the legal aspects of employee advocacy and protections. Important policies and legislation related to employer and employee rights are highlighted.

Session 6: Communication (Including Electronic Communication)

This session highlights the importance of good interpersonal communication skills, and students brainstorm negative consequences of miscommunication. Students work on identifying their own personal communication style and develop new tactics to listen and communicate more effectively. An activity about the use of slang light-heartedly emphasizes how easy it can be to assume understanding, when in reality the message one is sending can be very unclear. The session concludes by recognizing possible challenges in communicating clearly when communicating electronically.

Session 7: Motivation, Leadership, and Teams; Conflict Negotiation

Students discuss the various roles one can play on a team, then they work individually to identify the roles each student naturally tends to gravitate toward. The session presents a deeper analysis of conflict styles, and students provide examples of when each style does or does not work well. Students also take an assessment to determine their natural conflict style, then in small groups talk about when their conflict style had been either an asset or a detriment in different situations.

Session 8: Career Changes and Review

This final session discusses leaving employment on good terms, and students point out negative consequences of failing to do so. The instructor provides examples that highlight practical aspects of leaving a position, such as letters of resignation, employer references, and appropriate behavior. Additionally, the class discusses the importance of continual training and development. Students provide examples from the other sessions to demonstrate that their learning of these course topics should be lifelong.

Considerations for Further Discussion

While the above is only a high-level overview of the topics included in the “Workplace Professionalism” class, one can see the breadth of complicated and often subjective topics the class covers. It is relatively straight-forward to merely identify the topics discussed in the class; however, there are also critically important aspects of the course that help make it successful:

  • It is critical to start with a large group conversation to assure a shared understanding of terms and concepts. Traditional lecture style content delivery should be kept to a minimum to immediately engage students in applying the content to their lives.
  • Students have inconsistent and often limited work experience, so it is helpful to first let them apply the concepts to their personal lives, then move on to application in a work environment.
  • The use of abundant in-class assessments and activities provide tangible ways for students to immediately look more deeply into their reality.
  • As with any class, it is important to be fun and engaging!
  • One of the most critical aspects of the course is that the instructor is able to quickly develop rapport and trust with the students. This is greatly aided by the instructor approaching students from a place of respect; helping them feel safe in expressing thoughts and opinions; being aware of power dynamics; and being able to effectively facilitate productive and engaging conversations around potentially emotionally charged topics.

Having created a class at a community college to specifically develop students’ soft skills, the question becomes: “Is it possible to teach soft skills to students solely in a classroom setting in a way that allows them to masterfully develop and use these skills in their lives?”

I would argue that the answer to this question is “no,” because it takes real-world practice and application to truly master these sometimes fuzzy skills. However, I would also argue that there is a responsibility to enhance soft skills development through a dedicated course with a capable instructor, especially for students who lack support systems or mentors.

When an institution maintains soft skills development as a priority through interactions with students, emphasizes the importance of these skills through technical coursework, and provides students with feedback about their progress, the importance of soft skills becomes clear to students. Yet, by adding an entire course to help students personally wrestle with these often-challenging ideas, I believe the message we are sending about soft skills is even stronger and clearer. The message being, “We will not only help you develop your technical expertise, but also the life skills critical to achieving your goals. We value your development as a ‘whole’ person. We will support you in wrestling with personal reflections and critical thinking to develop all the skills needed to arrive at the future you envision.”

How do you help students develop soft skills? Tell us in the comment section or on Facebook!

Kimberlee Andrews-Bingham, Coordinator of Lifelong Learning

For further information, contact the author at Kellogg Community College, 450 North Avenue, Battle Creek, Michigan 49017. Email:


Harris Poll. (2014). Overwhelming Majority 0f Companies Say Soft Skills are Just as Important as Hard Skills, According to a New Careerbuilder Survey. Retrieved From

Pritchard, R. (2013). The Importance of Soft Skills in Entry-Level Employment and Postsecondary Success: Perspectives From Employers and Community Colleges. Seattle, WA: Seattle Job Initiative. Retrieved From

Waggoner, J. (n.d.). Nothing Hard About Soft Skills in the College Classroom. Unpublished Manuscript. Retrieved From

Opinions and views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of NISOD.

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 Innovation Abstracts

 Volume XXXIX, No. 14 | April 20, 2017

Metacognition and Next-Gen Learning Models: Meeting Student Success Goals Through Information Literacy

Austin Community College (ACC) recently implemented a required student success course, EDUC 1300, to increase college readiness and student success for first-time-in-college (FTIC) students. The goals for this course include student engagement—which students refer to as “learning how to do college”—and student success in learning across the curriculum. During the development period, student development faculty took on the daunting tasks of:

  • Establishing a curriculum and a basic syllabus,
  • Selecting a textbook, and
  • Hiring and training more than 275 faculty members from a wide variety of disciplines to help teach the course.


One of the key concepts for instructor training and the course curriculum was metacognition. As such, faculty chose two specific definitions for metacognition:

  1. From J.H. Flavell: “Metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., learning relevant properties of information or data.” i
  1. From The National Research Council:Metacognition also includes self-regulation—the ability to orchestrate one’s learning: to plan, monitor success, and correct errors when appropriate . . .” ii

Metacognition is a self-awareness and self-regulation topic that faculty can weave into the curriculum, as Paul Pintrich also notes:

There is a need to teach for metacognitive knowledge explicitly . . . we are continually surprised by the number of students who come to the college having very little metacognitive knowledge; knowledge about different strategies, different cognitive tasks, and particularly, accurate knowledge about themselves.iii

The benefits of teaching metacognition in the classroom are numerous. Faculty find that through discussions, journaling, and self-reflection exercises, teaching metacognition can:

  • Improve students’ thinking skills;
  • Promote conceptual change and cognitive strategies;
  • Reduce the “illusion of knowledge,” the myth that young adults already possess a full understanding about how to find and evaluate credible information;
  • Improve students’ goal-setting skills and ability to achieve these goals (i.e., personal, financial, degree plan, lifestyle); and
  • Enhance students’ overall academic success.

The course curriculum also introduces metacognition as a means to reflect on the following themes:

  • Self-awareness
  • Task-awareness
  • Strategy-awareness and selection
  • Goal-setting
  • Self-monitoring

Information Literacy Integration

The ACC Library Services Information Literacy (IL) team aided in the development of EDUC 1300 course content due to their extensive online interactive presence for students and faculty, their ongoing efforts to integrate IL into current ACC coursework, and their membership on several collegewide committees. This collaboration helped to integrate information literacy and assessment into the new course. Although ACC’s IL integration model is more than 35 years old and discipline-specific, the IL tutorial design team created two engaging student success videos that introduce FTIC students to successful research methods using library services. The videos promote the assistance available from ACC’s expert librarians, the library’s high-quality online resources, and the library as on-campus and digital destinations.

Not only did the IL team want to produce unique resources for students, they were also interested in the critical placement of content. The team endeavored to integrate resources within the curriculum so that content was easily accessible to students, especially when those resources were most needed during the course. To do this, the team created a Blackboard template that includes various resources such as an EDUC 1300 Class Guide and the Student Learning Success Toolbox. The template also provides links to the new library videos and to existing IL tutorials for student success and assessment tools (e.g., Evaluating Information and Academic Honesty/Plagiarism). The overall goal of this initiative is to create more effective, self-directed, lifelong learners who seek out relevant, credible, and accurate information for whatever purposes they choose.

Collaborative Success

The critical success factors in this faculty and librarian collaboration were:

  • The integration of IL into the new student success EDUC 1300 course,
  • The design and inclusion of select tutorials, and
  • Early data about the impact of this integration on students and the faculty who teach the course.

During faculty training, the IL team introduces faculty to the library resources available at ACC, which also spurs a mindful discussion about how students evaluate information. In addition to deficient IL skills, students also lack the ability to look at an item online and understand what type of source it is (e.g., a blog, an article, etc.). Therefore, the IL team addresses two other types of literacy: visual literacy (i.e., how to understand the meaning behind an image or infographic) and technology literacy (i.e., how to select the best technology tool for the task). This collaboration resulted in:

  • Easy access to the various resources and tools in Blackboard,
  • Course integration with a library IL session,
  • IL training session with faculty, and
  • Copyright assistance for faculty training materials.

We invite you to review the resources mentioned in this article and the Research Success tutorials, visit the ACC Library Services website, and send us any feedback that you have about this project.

How do you incorporate metacognition and information literacy into the curriculum? Share your ideas with us in the comment section or on Facebook!

Courtney Mlinar, Head Librarian, and Co-Leader, ACC Information Literacy Team

Tobin Quereau, Professor, Student Development, and EDUC 1300 Curriculum Designer

For further information, contact the authors at Austin Community College – Elgin Campus, 1501 US 290, Elgin, Texas 78621. Email: and


i. Flavell, J H. “Metacognitive Aspects of Problem Solving.” The Nature of Intelligence, edited by L R Resnick, Lawrence Erbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1976.

ii. National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academies Press, 2000.

iii. Pintrich, Paul R. “The Role of Metacognitive Knowledge in Learning, Teaching, and Assessing.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 41, no. 4, 2002, pp. 219–225. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip4104_3.

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 13 | April 13, 2017

Technology in the Classroom? Instructional Technology Certification Program Increases Engagement

When I began teaching, which was initially in K-12, my school was not rich in resources. More times than not, I had to purchase copies of handouts for my English classes, and occasionally also purchase books that I assigned to my students. At the time, I did everything I could to help my students become better readers, writers, and thinkers. However, I did not realize at the time that the definition of literacy was evolving to meet 21st-century needs.

Now, literacy is no longer defined by the ability to read, write, think, and speak. Literacy today involves more complex skills—skills that are all connected to technology. According to the definition of 21st-century literacy by the National Convention for Teachers of English (NCTE), students are now expected to “develop proficiency and fluency with tools of technology” and “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts.” When I first learned about these new literacy skills, I was not in a position to help my students develop them. The extent to which I could use technology in the classroom was limited, primarily because the necessary equipment was not available. Teachers at my institution did not have classroom computers, nor did we have projectors or even a reliable internet connection. I did have an overhead projector, so the most high-tech tools I used were transparencies printed from my inkjet printer. I also used the one computer lab on campus, but could only reserve it at times when students had to write their academic essays. While I wanted to include more technology in my classroom, especially as I came to understood that I wasn’t fully preparing my students to be literate according to 21st-century standards, most of my “extra money” was spent on classroom essentials, and technology was a luxury that I just couldn’t afford.

When I later moved to Texas, I had the opposite teaching experience. Not only was there a copy center available for teachers and rooms filled with many sets of books I could use for my students, but also the district in which I worked was beginning a technological movement. Classrooms were equipped with computers for teachers, interactive whiteboards, document cameras, and software to support all of these technologies. By my second year, my school was a one-to-one campus, meaning every student had a laptop. Furthermore, my school had two campus instructional technology specialists (CITS), who were teachers with an additional certification in technology. CITS had to learn how to use the technology that was then becoming part of the classroom. Additionally, because they had experience teaching, CITS helped teach teachers and students how to use classroom technology in a way that enhanced learning. Technology became a priority for the district—the expectation was that all teachers who had technology would use that technology. Personally, when I began to integrate technology into the curriculum, I found that my students were more attentive, engaged, and performed better. Their success motivated me to continue searching for new ways to include technology in the classroom, beyond what I was learning through my campus professional development. Soon, teaching with technology became instinctive.

Eventually, I left K-12 and entered the college classroom where I had access to some technology. Teacher computers, projectors, document cameras, and computer labs were available to students and me. Yet, though technology was in every classroom, I discovered that instructors did not always use technology effectively or to its fullest potential. Moreover, many of the students coming from K-12 districts, much like the district I came from, were still ill-equipped to handle the technological demands put upon them. As a result, students lacked 21st-century literacy skills and were underprepared to enter a workforce that now expects them to have certain abilities and competencies related to technology. Instructors struggled to help students gain these skills because they were also unfamiliar with instructional technology, and our campus did not have CITS to help faculty learn how to effectively integrate technology into the classroom. Our campus did have instructional technologists who could help teach certain technological applications like Microsoft Office, or who could help faculty with our Learning Management System (LMS) and software programs used for online instruction. However, faculty wanted easy-to-use instructional technology tools that we could simply integrate into our current curriculum for online and face-to-face classes.

My Quest for Instructional Technology

It became my own personal mission to find technology I could use for presentations and assessments. On my quest for technology, I found many applications, websites, and programs, but not all of them found their way into my classroom. Because I am an instructor, I do not have the money nor the time to try to figure out how to use the latest technology. On my search for technology that I could integrate into my classes, I wanted to find tools that were free (or very inexpensive) and easy to use. And I found them—many of them.

As I began to use the discovered technologies in my classes, they quickly became a part of the learning process and not just a cool new thing for me to use. My students were engaged, the content was more accessible, and students were learning. Students began to appreciate using technology, and they wanted more. They wondered why other instructors did not teach using the same techniques; so, because I wanted all students to benefit from this way of learning, I began sharing my ideas with other faculty. Every time I learned something new, I shared it with my fellow faculty. Each month, it seemed that I found a new way to present content or assess student learning with technology. A colleague of mine suggested that I put together a method by which I could teach other faculty what I was learning. This brief conversation turned into the Instructional Technology Teaching Certification Program, or ITCP, at Lone Star College-Tomball.

What is the Instructional Technology Certification Program?

Over the course of one summer, I put together a 10-session program that teaches higher education faculty how to create technology-rich lessons, learning activities, assessments, and teaching materials. The first nine sessions of the program are instructional and, in each session, participants learn about several tools that they can integrate into their current classes.

The titles and descriptions of the nine instructional sessions of ITCP are listed below:

  1. What is Instructional Technology? Participants begin with an overview of instructional technology and an introduction to the technological tools available on campus.
  2. Beefing Up Your Current Learning Materials: Participants learn ways to enhance learning materials through pre-created PowerPoint presentations and Word handouts. By making learning materials look more professional, students can better and more easily understand the content.
  3. Creating Engaging and Interactive Presentations: Instructors now begin to step out of their comfort zone and learn about presentation software beyond PowerPoint.
  4. Keeping Up in the 21st Century: This session presents technology that helps instructors manage their lessons, their students, and students’ progress.
  5. Using Video to Enhance Instruction Part 1: Participants learn about the video tools available for enhancing discussion and lectures, promoting interaction, and receiving student feedback.
  6. Using Video to Enhance Instruction Part 2: This session helps participants learn about tools to create instructional videos.
  7. Let’s Get Visual! Instructors learn how to create infographics and incorporate graphic organizers into their lessons.
  8. All About Google: Participants learn different ways that Google can be used to facilitate learning.
  9. How to Handle Social Media and Networking in the Classroom: Participants learn about websites and applications that allow students to capture what they are learning and express what they learn socially.

Each session is three hours and, at the end of each session, participants receive a homework assignment to apply one or two of the tools presented in their classrooms.

In order to become ITCP-certified, instructors must participate in all instructional sessions and complete a portfolio, which is a collection of all homework assignments, as well as anything created during the sessions. In the tenth and final session, participants showcase their portfolios to their colleagues. Through ITCP, instructors earn 30 hours of professional development for the academic year and a certificate that cannot be earned at any other higher education institution.

In addition to these tangible outcomes, participants walk away with other benefits, including:

  • Exposure to new and emerging teaching techniques;
  • Cross-disciplinary relationships, and enhanced relationships between full-time and adjunct faculty; and,
  • Opportunities to think about instruction in a new framework.

Who are ITCP Participants?

We launched the pilot program during the 2016-2017 academic year. In the initial cohort of participants, there were 17 faculty—6 adjunct faculty, 10 full-time faculty, and 1 continuing education instructor—and one librarian who taught a range of courses. Participants had varying levels of experience using technology in and out of the classroom. It was important to me that this program did not exclude any faculty member based on their current technological skill.

The program was designed for full-time and adjunct faculty in any discipline, and for individuals with varying levels of experience with technology. However, the program can also be implemented for K-12 instructors. At the college level, adjunct faculty should have at least a year’s worth of teaching experience at the college, and each person must receive a letter of support from his/her department chair.


  • The tools are easy to use. Participants are able to complete the assignments with little to no further direction. This speaks to the intuitiveness of the topics introduced.
  • There is something for all disciplines. While not every participant is able to incorporate every tool into their lessons, there is at least one tool per session that is useful for each participant. Additionally, everyone learns at least one thing new during each session.
  • Students notice! I had a student who told me that she had noticed a change in her instructor’s PowerPoint presentations. The presentations were more engaging because he began using more color and visuals; overall, his presentations were more interactive. Other participants have said that their students prefer the new instructional technology to the traditional PowerPoint presentations. Additionally, after being exposed to more technology through instruction, some students have started implementing the tools for class assignments and presentations.
  • Participants are getting more than they imagined. Most participants had their own definition of instructional technology upon entering the program. Many expected ITCP to focus on online instruction and our institution’s LMS, and some also became skeptical of the program when they learned during the information session that this was not only for online classes, but for face-to-face classrooms as well. Participants quickly learned that the information presented in this program could help enhance all instruction regardless of modality.
  • The technology can be used anywhere. Our college is privileged when it comes to having technology; we have several computer labs, a few collaboration classrooms, and even an Instructional Media Assistance Center on campus. However, ITCP participants learn techniques that can be used in any classroom and in any setting. In other words, most of the tools presented in the sessions simply require the instructor’s computer and students’ mobile devices.


In an increasingly technological world, we have to acknowledge that sometimes technology is lacking in our classrooms. Unfortunately, even if our institutions and classrooms have an abundance of technology, there are still teachers and students who do not use them because they don’t know what’s possible when instructional technology is incorporated into a learning environment. The Instructional Technology Certification Program is unique in that it does not require admission into a graduate program or the need to study for a comprehensive exam. Instead, ITCP provides participants with the time to focus and develop their skills using instructional technology. Those who complete the program are equipped to transform their classrooms into spaces where students can acquire the literacy skills that are expected of them in this century.

Do you have experience integrating technology into the classroom? Share your ideas with us in the comment section or on Facebook!

Latoya Lewis, Professor and Faculty Fellow, Center for Organizational and Teaching Excellence

For more information, contact the author at Lone Star College-Tomball, 30555 Tomball Parkway, Tomball, Texas, 77375-4036. Email:

Opinions and views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of NISOD.

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 7 | March 2, 2017

Action Learning in the Classroom

What is Action Learning?

Action learning is an approach to solving problems that involves taking action and reflecting on the outcomes. According to the World Institute for Action Learning:

Action learning is a process that involves a small group working on real problems, taking action, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organization. It helps organizations develop creative, flexible, and successful strategies to pressing problems.

Action learning is fundamentally based on achieving optimum learning through the actions of programming, questioning, and reflecting, which leads to the action-learning equation:

Learning = Problem + Questions + Reflection

Action learning is a team- or group-based learning approach that requires a facilitator who enables the learning activity. Developed by Reg Revans in the early 1980s, the concept of action learning was first applied to support organizational and business development, problem solving, and improvement. Several scholarly publications determined action learning can have a very effective impact on developing individual leadership and team problem-solving skills, justifying the extensive integration of action learning as a component in corporate and organizational leadership development programs. The figure below summarizes the basic requirements of action learning.

Figure 1. The problem-solving concept within action learning.

Focusing on the classroom setting, action learning must create an experience that engages learners who then debrief the experience and, based on their results and findings, generalize lessons learned for the future. Despite the efficacy of action learning, integrating this method into classroom environments presents challenges that we identify and address in this article.

Why Action Learning?

As Marquardt (1999) states: “Education is not truly valuable unless it is translated into action.” The rapid changes seen in today’s world prove that the traditional form of education is inadequate for identifying and solving tomorrow’s challenges. While the world enters an era of quantum computation and artificial intelligence, the traditional, individual-based learning process is insufficiently responsive to the needs of our quickly evolving and emerging future. Therefore, it is necessary to integrate action learning into all aspects of education in order to facilitate transitioning from the industrial era to the information era. Action learning provides solid resources for educational institutions to successfully identify imminent problems and respond to future needs by developing an advanced, interactive form of education.

Our approach to action learning in the classroom builds upon the initial concept to improve teaching and learning. Additionally, our approach draws from problem-based learning and active-learning approaches to instructional and teaching development.

As we consider students’ classroom learning, we are mindful that effective learning is often a result of multiple actions. The widespread accessibility to technology and multimedia disrupts the way students learn today; therefore, teaching and instruction must adapt to be effective. When considering effective classroom strategies, we go back to fundamental educational psychology. Learning is essentially a step-by-step process in which individual experiences become permanent, lasting changes in knowledge, behaviors, and/or ways of processing the world. Creating an action-learning strategy depends on the specific context of classrooms and students and, consequently, instructors must adapt the strategy to their classroom’s learning framework. In a sense, action learning is not a “one size fits all” solution.

To understand why we focus on action learning, it is important to describe the context for which our strategy was initially developed: the Bachelor of Science degree program in Construction Project Management at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). Designed to meet the growing need for management professionals who play an important role on project teams, SAIT’s Bachelor of Science in Construction Project Management is a construction degree with a management-based course of study that prepares students for leadership roles in the construction industry. Within the context and framework of this program, our goals and objectives behind implementing an action-learning strategy include:

  • An effective transfer of knowledge;
  • Performing and learning;
  • Enabling and promoting team learning; and
  • Developing capabilities for creative thinking and leadership competencies.

What are the Basic Components of Action Learning?

Action learning as described in the definition above includes the following key and necessary components:

  • A Problem: The problem should be urgent and significant and the responsibility of the team to resolve.
  • An Action-Learning Group or Team: The action-learning team is composed of four to eight people, ideally with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
  • A Process of Insightful Questioning and Reflective Listening: The process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem is a pivotal part of action learning, followed by reflection and identifying possible solutions. Questioning builds group dialogue and cohesiveness, generates innovative and systems thinking, and enhances learning results.
  • An Action Taken on the Problem: Action learning requires that the group take action on the problem. Members of the group must have the power to take action themselves or know that their solution can be implemented by others. If the group only makes recommendations instead of taking action, it loses its energy, creativity, and commitment.

Additionally, team members must commit to learning individually and as a group. Finally, the facilitator acts as a coach and guides the questioning and reflection processes, thus enabling the team to learn from these processes.

What is the Process of Action Learning?

Instructors can design the process of action learning with an educational emphasis using the following steps:

  1. Present a problem, issue, or challenge.
  2. Have teams/groups create constructive questions to challenge views, perceptions, and assumptions.
  3. Invite teams to share knowledge about solutions and recommendations.
  4. Offer insight and understanding of ideas for taking action.
  5. Have students test out actions.
  6. Students report results regarding what worked, what did not, and why.
  7. Draw conclusions and lessons learned from the experiences before integrating new knowledge into the practice.

In action learning, learning and team development are as important as solving the problem.

Action Learning in the Classroom

Aside from fundamental concepts in construction project management, students acquire essential learning through problem solving and critical thinking. Building experience acumen, while also empowering leadership skills and team-based collaborative engagement, can be increased through action-learning activities. Below is an example of how we implement action learning in the classroom.

  • Strategy
    We apply single-project strategy in some senior construction management courses to implement the action-learning process. The professor integrates several student groups into action-learning sets to work on a project (i.e., problem), which the professor also provides. The groups’ productivity directly depends on the level of critical thinking, collaborative problem analysis, and interaction with internal and external resources.

Introductory Period: Students are placed in learning groups for an assignment or final project to explore the nature of the problem (i.e., questioning).

Diagnostic Period: Students share their individual understanding and definition of the problem. In a later stage, the groups develop a cumulative knowledge and understanding of the problem.

Consultation Period: Students examine other available resources (i.e., other professors, industry experts, etc.). Then, the groups use critical-thinking methods to collectively redefine the problem based on their own understanding and perspectives from external resources.

Implementation Period: Students develop an action plan from their collaborative query and problem identification.

Review Period: Students share their learning with the professor and apply the proposed solutions systematically to each step of their project.

  • Challenges
    There can be a few challenges associated with implementing effective action-learning practices. We find that the major barrier to successful action learning is the reliance and assumption about students’ individual readiness, engagement, and commitment. Additionally, assuring students that their solutions to the problem can be implemented as a way to validate the process proves difficult. This is especially true given the time and physical constraints of most problems brought forward as part of the action-learning process.

It remains to be validated whether a lack of engagement results from students not having a stake in the recommended actions, from their reluctance to group work, and/or from their rejection of the method. However, despite mixed student feedback, more than 50 percent of students report a positive acceptance of action learning and substantial learning of the content.


Action learning in education has outstanding benefits that support successful learning. Most importantly, it helps build students’ individual skills. However, prior to implementation, instructors must address students’ readiness and preparedness in order to achieve a successful leaning experience.

Do you have ideas for implementing action learning in the classroom? Share them in the comment section or on Facebook!

Azzeddine Oudjehane, Instructor, Construction Project Management

Shahab Moeini, Instructor, Construction Project Management

For further information, contact the authors at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), 1301 16th Avenue NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2M 0L4. Email: and

Join the authors during NISOD’s March 9 webinar and continue the discussion on implementing action learning in the classroom. Register now!


Gray, D., 1999, “Work-Based Learning, Action Learning and the Virtual Paradigm,” retrieved from

Marsick, V. and O’Neil, J. 1999, The Many Faces of Action Learning in Management Learning. Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi Vol. 30(2): 159–176.

World Institute for Action Learning:

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2 Free Webinars for all NOVA Faculty and Staff

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Thursday  March 09

Action Learning in the Classroom

Action learning, an interactive dialectic-based approach, is an educational method that engages students in the process of defining, redefining, and solving real-life problems. This webinar identifies strategies to create a classroom experience that enables critical thinking and engages students through team-focused learning. Action learning requires direct participation, so join the webinar facilitators as they demonstrate action learning “in action.”

Azzeddine Oudjehane and Shahab Moni, Instructors, South Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

2:00 pm – 3:00 pm


Tuesday  March 28

Collaboration: Connect With Me

In our global world, what methods do we use to communicate and are those methods effective? There is a saying that mobile devices allow us to connect with people half a world away, while ignoring people just across the table. As instructors, we challenge our students to communicate with each other in on-campus classes, but how do we connect them in online environments? What steps can we take to help students continue those efforts in communication after the semester ends? How do we encourage the development of soft skills needed to be successful in the corporate world? Join this webinar and collaborate on ways to connect students with us, each other, and course content!

Joey Bryant, Adjunct Faculty Trainer, Forsyth Technical Community College (NC)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

2:00 pm – 3:00 pm


Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 6 | February 23, 2017

Interdisciplinary Instruction: An Honors Program Requisite and Informing General Education Courses

With the implementation of Common Core-guided curricula in 42 states, the incoming class of college students will be significantly different from students who enrolled as recently as three years ago. These incoming students expect, and deserve, a more robust and engaging educational experience as an extension of the deep thinking required in the Common Core standards. After being exposed to the conceptual framework of the Common Core initiative, today’s freshmen require an integrated approach to education. Indian River State College’s Honors Program provides an exemplary interdisciplinary experience for our students, and we believe this model has the potential to revolutionize the general education delivery currently in place at community colleges around the nation.

The Honors Program commitment is to provide an engaging learning experience that enhances students’ communication and critical-thinking skills, promotes community involvement, and prepares students to succeed academically, professionally, and personally. The core requirement of the Honors Program is a combination of courses (i.e., five three-credit courses from each of the general education areas) that are thematically related and “tell the story” of the human condition. These five courses reveal the interrelations and interdependence of interpretive subjects (i.e., philosophy and literature) and scientific disciplines (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Taken together, the five courses outlined below meet the general education requirement:

  • BSC 2010 General Biology I, Honors
  • ENC 1101 English Composition I, Honors
  • IDS 1110 Pursuit of Knowledge, Honors
  • PSY 2012 Introduction to Psychology, Honors
  • STA 2023 Elementary Statistics, Honors

Each course meets Florida’s standard course descriptions and outcomes (as defined by Statewide Course Numbering System); however, they have been redesigned to also meet the outcomes of the Honors Program. Specifically, each course aims to support the theme of the Honors Program: a narrative about the ways in which STEM and the humanities, arts, and social sciences are mutually supportive fields of inquiry and include opportunities for applied learning and student-directed scholarship. Each course is intertwined as described below:

  • BSC 2010, General Biology I: This course emphasizes the impact and importance of evolutionary biology and the theory of natural selection on contemporary views of human origins and the human condition. The course links the evidentiary foundation of natural selection to discussions in statistics (STA 2023) and philosophy (IDS 1110), in the interest of revealing the logical and empirical support of the theory. Additionally, the course discusses the advances in technology that have yielded additional evidence for the theories of modern biology, and the points of connection between biology and modern psychological theories of mind and behavior (PSY 2012).
  • ENC 1101, English Composition I: This course explores key themes related to perennial human concerns (IDS 1110) and links them to contemporary discussions of science (BSC 2010) and the mind (PSY 2012). Students produce essay-length researched arguments that demonstrate their new perspective on topics including empathy, self-identity, and diversity, and impact of technology on the human condition.
  • IDS 1110, Pursuit of Knowledge: This course examines what it means to be a “scientific citizen,” in order to better understand and participate in the process by which science comes to conclusions about the natural and social world that influence our society. Philosophical theories and problems are explicitly connected to the issues raised in composition (ENC 1101) so students see:
    • The intersection between descriptions of the human condition and normative claims about our responsibilities to others; and
    • The gaps and linkages between scientific explanation (BSC 2010 and STA 2023) and non-scientific assertions that arise in areas such as ethics and politics.
  • PSY 2012, Introduction to Psychology: This course serves as the connecting piece between discussions of science/scientific methodology and the descriptions of the human experience. The course shows how social science methodology:
    • Is connected with and differs from the methods of the natural sciences; and
    • Can be applied to well-defined problems in the humanities. Additionally, the course examines key assumptions in the context of contemporary psychology regarding reductionism, human biology, and the connections between mathematics (STA 2023), science (BSC 2010), ethics (IDS 1110), and literature (ENC 1101).
  • STA 2023, Elementary Statistics: This course not only covers the study of statistics, scientific methodology (BSC 2010), and the logic of induction, but it also introduces students to philosophy (IDS 1110) and composition (ENC 1101) in a study of educational philosophy/learning. The purpose of the course, in addition to teaching statistical methods, is to build an appreciation for empirical methodology and the relationship between observations and theoretical assertions.

The coursework culminates in students’ grasp of the similarities between the natural and social sciences—hence the nature of empirical evidence in a variety of domains—as well as the challenges to scientific explanation presented by humanities disciplines, subjects that explore human motivations and values. Since these courses also cover general education competencies, the Honors Program core extends and elaborates students’ understanding of the general education learning outcomes for the Associate’s degree. At the same time, the courses keep the core of the human condition central to the learning experience within the Honors Program.

A student response from an attendance assignment in STA 2023:

I am taking this course in hopes of learning something new . . . Being an honors course, this class excites me because I found all my previous honors courses to be the best educational experiences. I always strived to receive the best grades in high school, but as I switched to college classes . . . I strive for something greater. About two years ago, I would be writing this essay . . .  to boost my GPA, but now I can honestly say I am taking this class to better myself through education, knowledge, and, especially, experience. This semester, I plan to get the most out of all the opportunities I am offered.

In the Honors Program, we see the above sentiment from the majority of those who graduate. Our goal is to have students seek learning for intrinsic reasons, so we believe this model has generalizability to the current General Education delivery model.

The core principles of a successful interdisciplinary program include:

  1. Administrative Support: Administrators supported the development of the Honors Program core narrative and continue to support the growth of the program as it progresses to include more courses, different learning environments (e.g., distance learning), and a larger number of participating students. For example, faculty involved in the Honors Program are given special recognition, and their involvement in the process counts toward their committee responsibility. Administration supports offering Honors-designated courses with lower enrollment caps in order to foster the professionalization of students and provides an Honors-designated space (i.e., a classroom) in the center of the main campus to serve as a meeting space and resource room for Honors students and faculty.
  1. Innovative Faculty: This has to be a faculty-led effort. Faculty need to commit to adjusting their teaching and connecting their discipline-specific curriculum to the interdisciplinary mission. For example, it is necessary to have a statistics instructor who is confident in grading students’ philosophical essays, or a composition and literature professor who encourages students to examine the origin of language and delve into scientific theories on morals and ethics.
  1. Core Focus: The goal of the Honors Program is to intertwine typically separated general education core disciplines to address concerns about the human condition. This philosophical principle is found in all five core courses, just as each of the courses requires communication, scientific reasoning, and mathematical reasoning skills. In the statistics course, for example, students spend the first week of class discussing, and eventually writing about, what an education means to them. For a final project, students complete real research, either biological or psychological, on the people of the Islands (a virtual world) and make a presentation about their findings, which relate directly to the human condition.
  1. Student Engagement and Responsibility: The Honors Program nurtures and rewards the motivation of our gifted and engaged students. Although Honors students choose to enroll in a selective admissions program and pursue challenging curriculum, students blossom with the opportunity to lead discussions (be the expert for the day), present their research, and receive constructive feedback from their instructors and their equally engaged peers. For example, in the Honors Statistics, Honors Psychology, and Honors Composition courses, students choose a research topic, conduct the research, and present their findings—with minimal help or interference from the professor. Consequently, self-directed learning is integral to the process. This level of student engagement and responsibility is accessible to the majority of general education students. As with the Honors curriculum examples above, students can flourish in this kind of rigorous curriculum with a little more instructor-directed guidance in general classes.
  1. Time: An interdisciplinary education requires time to collaborate, plan, implement, assess, revise, and repeat. Our institution created the Honors Program on a small scale, involving only a few very dedicated instructors and classes. To implement a program system-wide, most faculty, at least in the first semester, would need some relief from normal duties and/or teaching load to complete the arduous task of preparing new syllabi, lessons, labs, and assessments.
  1. Authentic Assessments: For this program to work, the major assessments need to be productive. Program instructors do not advocate a complete elimination of objective testing, but most of the weight should be on authentic assessments. There are still exams to determine the students’ mastery of vocabulary and concepts in the statistics course, but they only account for 30 percent of the overall grade, while the final research project and presentation account for 50 percent.

By its very nature a general education exposes students to courses from various disciplines. The explicit connections and interdisciplinary links embedded into the Honors Program courses reinforce for students how STEM disciplines are integrated with and supported by the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Honors Program courses are designed with an eye towards innovation and student engagement through a curriculum replete with applied learning projects, student-centered classes, and interdisciplinary material. Students have the opportunity to explore their personal interests and grow as independent learners, while dedicated faculty provide coaching and encouragement. The commonality of these assignments rests on the high level of critical thinking and necessary clarity in their communication skills, which remain paramount to the Honors Program objectives. While the Honors Program serves as the sandbox to develop and implement these innovations, faculty frequently find ways to bring these methodologies and assignment ideas to all our general education courses, thus creating a more robust and engaging experience for the general student population.

What are your thoughts on the integrated approach outlined above? Join the conversation in the comments below or on Facebook!

Sarah Mallonee, Professor, English, Honors Program Coordinator

Carl Clark, Associate Professor, Mathematics

For further information, contact the authors at Indian River State College, 3209 Virginia Avenue, Fort Pierce, Florida 34981. Email: or

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 5 | February 16, 2017

Building Technology That Works for Teachers, Not the Other Way Around

In the early 2000s, my job as an IT professional in higher education was to support the technology needs of the faculty, staff, and administrators on my campus. Time and again, I saw that the technological tools teachers had to work with didn’t suit the everyday, practical needs they faced in the classroom.

I began to ask the same questions to my peers on campus, and later on other campuses, public and private:

  • What does technology do to help teachers teach and students learn?
  • Is technology actually improving student outcomes?
  • Is technology helping teachers to better prepare students for success in the 21st-century workplace?

The most common response to these questions was a blank stare, and when I did receive answers, they weren’t good.

I came to the conclusion that the learning management systems (LMS) that have pervaded institutions over the past few decades were not designed to move us forward in the quest to modernize education for the 21stcentury. LMS do a great job with certain reporting and administrative needs, but the user experience really just digitizes an outdated pedagogical model that doesn’t keep pace with what today’s students need to succeed.

Today, institutions and faculty require a digital learning tool that:

  • Aims to make the learning experience more engaging and immersive for teachers and learners;
  • Provides teachers with better data and new kinds of control over their content; and
  • Helps students gain important soft skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration.

Educational technology should help address the broader goal of helping institutions better serve their students, and putting tools in the hands of educators in order to prepare students for success in today’s world. The lessons I’ve learned in my conversations with educators all over the country have implications for any institution trying to boost retention, lower students’ costs, and empower graduates to face the ever-changing challenges of the modern economy.

Retention Demands Engagement

Boosting retention and graduation rates is an important goal for many community and technical institutions. A 2016 report from the American Association of Community Colleges found that just over 38 percent of students who begin a course of study at a two-year public institution complete a degree after six years. While some students continue classes, fewer than half of those original students are still enrolled: they have left the institutions without achieving their goals.

Many different factors influence retention rates at community colleges. The improving economy has sent enrollment down for the past several years. Tuition and textbook costs can also be a barrier. Student diversity at these institutions—from full-time to part-time learners who also hold down various levels of employment and household responsibilities—adds to the retention challenge.

Facing these challenges makes it vital that institutions offer a learning experience that is dynamic and highly engaging, an experience that empowers students to take some level of control over how they interact with course content. Community colleges have to capture students’ interest and hold onto it in a way that clearly communicates that this investment of their time and money will pay off in the form of success in the workforce. Students must see a direct link between the knowledge they are receiving and their ultimate goals.

It’s easy to look at educational technology as a simple slam-dunk for student engagement, but simply putting the latest “bright and shiny object” in the classroom isn’t going to change anything. Furthermore, anyone who thinks that technology can replace the role of good teachers is in very dangerous territory. Based on my experience, I believe certain factors such as real-time data, a dynamic user experience, and options that can lower student costs can lead to the kind of student engagement that boosts community college retention rates.

Providing Real-Time Performance Data

Traditional assessment tools such as standardized tests only provide post-mortem data. Teachers need data that allow them to assess student performance in real time so they can make appropriate course corrections in a sensible fashion. In a 2005 article for the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, education consultant Jeffrey Wayman notes that “schools have been ‘data rich’ for years,” but “information poor,” because the vast amounts of available data these institutions have are often stored in ways that are inaccessible to most practitioners. Easy access to this information is essential.

By combining the best of instructional design theory and data-driven decision-making technology, an educational platform can help teachers deliver better learning experiences and produce more actionable, real-time metrics. For instance, rather than looking at students’ performance individually—as in a traditional gradebook—teachers should have access to high-level perspectives that offer the ability to drill down into the specifics of how students are performing. This means measuring students’ time spent reading and viewing content and time spent completing formative assessments, as well as performance on those assessments.

While evaluating students, teachers should also have access to tools they can use to evaluate course content. Well-designed assessments placed after each course concept can help teachers see which concepts students are struggling with, and help teachers make adjustments that will benefit current and future students.

Creating an Immersive, Engaging Experience

Today’s students are some of the most sophisticated consumers of information ever to enter a classroom. They need a learning experience that matches the interactive, individualized environment they encounter every day online. In addition, research over the past few decades has given us a much clearer picture of the various learning styles exhibited by students in a single classroom. The challenge, then, is to build a learning environment that includes the engaging functionalities of modern e-commerce, gaming, and social media, while also allowing students to personalize the learning experience to best meet their needs.

The following approaches are extremely helpful in engaging students:

  • Allow students to access content in the sequence they choose: replay lectures, point out connections between different course concepts, and attach relevant supporting information found online.
  • Use game-theory-based tools such as progress bars to indicate progress and completion, which motivates students to move through content. To encourage students to efficiently manage their time so they don’t fall behind, allow students to see exactly what activities they need to complete and how their progress compares with the class average.
  • Make discussion easy and dynamic. The first key to accomplishing this is to ensure the discussion forum is highly visible and easy to use. Added features like flagging, favoriting, and filtering posts foster active collaboration among students that can bridge the gap between the classroom and independent study.

Reducing Costs

Rising textbook prices are a growing concern for students. A 2016 study found that half of community college students had used financial aid to pay for textbooks. High costs can, at times, cause students to forgo buying books altogether. This is not a recipe for effective learning.

Open educational resources (OERs) are freely accessible, openly licensed materials. Many institutions make it a priority to adopt OER course materials in an effort to bring down textbook costs. This can create confusion and extra work for faculty who have the additional challenges of first finding the best OERs for their class and then providing them in a manner that’s in the best interest of students.

It is my experience that OERs have great potential, but institutions must make the effort to adopt them within a well-designed user experience so they don’t become just a digitized version of a textbook. For many students, a traditional (and expensive) textbook is a lot easier to use than a PDF or digital version of the same text. The content must be reformatted so it’s suitable for digital presentation. For instance, digital content like OERs can be broken into smaller concepts that students can digest within a 15-20 minute session, versus the longer chapters found in traditional textbooks. A truly interactive platform can allow students to organize and interact with these smaller concepts in a sequence that makes sense to them, creating a more personalized experience. It’s also important to build in frequent formative assessments that allow students and teachers to see which concepts have been mastered and which are proving more difficult.

If done right, the adoption of OERs has the potential to reduce student spending on course materials by up to 90 percent. These savings can result in students enrolling in more classes per semester and make them more likely to return for classes the next semester.

Students’ Learning Needs Have Changed

Today’s students enter a world vastly different from what existed even five or ten years ago. Employees now need the ability to acquire new skills throughout their careers, as new technologies, jobs, and needs enter the marketplace. From social media pioneers to academics, many people observing education today are sounding alarm bells that the current system isn’t getting the job done.

Today’s educators need tools that convey course content in a way that also equips students to be lifelong learners, or to “learn how to learn.” This ability comes with the engagement functionalities and personalization discussed above; however, learning experiences should also foster soft skills that today’s employers are looking for: critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. One of the most important ways to foster soft skills is to encourage non-linear thinking. True mastery of a concept comes when students can apply it across different disciplines, and this process encourages the kind of problem solving and critical thinking that is crucial in the knowledge economy.

All of these goals—boosting engagement, providing better data to teachers, reducing costs for students, and building the skills necessary for today’s workforce—are achievable with technology solutions built with special attention to the specific needs of teachers and students. By staying focused on exactly what teachers need to do their jobs better and more efficiently, we can create an educational model that fits the needs of 21st-century learners.

What technological components do you rely on to engage and motivate students? Share your ideas with us in the comments section or on Facebook!

Joshua Moe, Co-Founder and CEO, Odigia

For more information, contact the author at 300 South Liberty Street, Suite 210, Winston-Salem, North Carolina 27101. Email:

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 3 | February 2, 2017

Navigating a Topsy-Turvy Classroom

“The only constant is change.” In fact, even that well-known saying was altered from the original: “Change is the only constant in life.” Either way, as educators, it’s safe to say we’re familiar with change. Often, the hardest adjustments—decisions made by campus administrators, the community college system, or the state legislature—come in the form of directives. Sometimes these decisions are welcomed, and sometimes they’re not. For example, in North Carolina we’re weathering another mandated policy that impacts students’ starting point on campus; the policy determines whether students start in developmental education English or math courses, or go straight into college-level courses. There are arguments to be made on either side of the issue; however, what is of greater importance, no matter the change being implemented, is how instructors adjust when such turbulence touches the classroom. While it’s one thing to recognize how we feel about change (i.e., early adoption, acceptance, ambivalence, burying our heads in the sand), it’s imperative to realize that our students are just as affected by these adjustments and, correspondingly, by our reactions to them.

The good news is there are strategies we can implement to help navigate a topsy-turvy classroom. First, allow me to provide a glimpse into where these ideas originated. As chair of a community college developmental studies department, I have the privilege of frequently observing and overhearing instructors in action. As it happens, developmental studies/developmental education instructors are often on the frontlines when students first arrive on campus, and they serve thousands of beginning students each year. Their teaching practices, then, must convey knowledge of the curriculum content and of the college operations, since they also assist students through the assimilation process of seeing themselves as college material. Therefore, the tips below come directly from the field, from lifelong educators on our team, as well as my own teaching practice. It’s also important to note that these tips are simple actions you can take regarding the delivery of content and instruction, rather than revolutionizing the curriculum itself. Instead of viewing these strategies as big changes, think of them as little ripples that can have a positive and immediate impact.

Tips for Tackling Turbulence

1. Provide Explicit Instruction and Directions

One of the most anxiety-inducing moments for students is when they’re facing a wordy, one- to two-page assignment. In that scenario, it helps me to remember that students are likely not panicking about the assignment itself, but rather their ability to negotiate it. If you help students break down the assignment into smaller, more manageable chunks, it lessens the intimidation factor and they can redirect their panic to focusing on the process. Also, make your instructions as direct and concise as possible, and invite opportunities for questions and/or discussion for clarification. It can be dangerous to assume what students do or do not know (trust me, I’ve found this out the hard way), and it doesn’t hurt to explain the same assignment in a variety of ways. Here are a few other ways to connect the dots for students:

  • At the start of each class session, discuss the goal(s) for the day. This provides students with context and gives them access to a plan. For example, recently, when a math instructor took students to the computer lab, he said, “The goal for today is for you to become familiar with login, navigating, and accessing assignments in this math program so you are confident in your ability to complete the nightly homework.” Setting the stage for students at the beginning of each class also provides an opportunity to draw connections between daily goals and broader course outcomes.
  • Share (and voice) your expectations for students. Students aren’t necessarily skilled at negotiating instructor expectations, so this tells them exactly what you expect. For instance, after demonstrating a math problem on the board, this instructor said, “I want you to feel comfortable working with these numbers.” In saying such, she showed her students that there is more to working equations than merely copying a problem on the board. Another way to set expectations is through group work. Before you assign students to work together in a group, talk about your expectations for what their individual participation will look like within a group dynamic. Then set them forth to collaborate.
  • Whenever possible, connect course assignments to college knowledge. For example, in our Integrated Reading and English courses, one of the first assignments for students is to send the instructor an email from their college email account. Not only does this provide the instructor with a preview of students’ writing skills, but it also reinforces the fact that student-instructor communication is crucial to students’ long-term academic success.

2. Translate the Content

Speaking of communication, closely related to clear delivery is the ability to decode information for students. For example, when students are panicking about a wordy assignment, remind them about a few useful strategies, such as skimming and previewing. Prompt them to look for the bolded words and the bullet points, or ask, “What jumps out to you on the page?” Sometimes students just need to be nudged in the right direction. Also consider these as additional opportunities to practice your translation skills, as well as occasions to reinforce students’ confidence in their own abilities:

  • Academic vocabulary can be intimidating. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid it altogether, but you can provide students with context clues and visual aids to support their understanding of what a “literary analysis” or “annotated bibliography” actually means.
  • It’s OK to check for understanding. Overheard in another math class, an instructor asked, “What is a positive number?” I’m assuming the instructor would have changed her instructional approach for the day if students weren’t eager to share their understanding of the term. Similarly, here’s an easy and nearly universal exit ticket prompt for the end of class: “What was today’s muddiest point?” Not only does this encourage self-reflection, but you can use these responses as a launching pad for the next class session.
  • Whenever possible, model and scaffold instruction. Before I have students write a paragraph on their own, I demonstrate the paragraph-writing process on the whiteboard, thinking aloud about the topic sentence and the details that will support it. Then I put students in pairs and direct them to write a paragraph with their partner. There is often a level of comfort when working within a small group or with a partner that provides a safe avenue for asking questions that students might not feel comfortable asking in front of the entire class. By the time students finally sit down to complete their own paragraph assignment, they’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice the skill while also building confidence.
  • Toward the end of the course, provide a preview of the following course. For example, when I teach an introductory curriculum-level English course, I provide a preview of the next class. In this case, students are moving from ENG 111 to ENG 112, so we discuss the ENG 112 textbook, syllabus, and curriculum. Additionally, invite the instructor who teaches the next-level class to visit the classroom and talk to students.

3. Maintain Consistency

I look forward to Fridays for multiple reasons, one of which is “Coffee Friday,” my excuse to visit a local coffee shop before arriving on campus. Admittedly, I also have a tendency to name days for a course, such as Grammar Tuesday or Workshop Wednesday. As nonsensical as it seems, naming days provides students with a sense of routine each week, which can be especially calming in the wake of frequent change or with respect to their lives outside the classroom. Here are a few other ways to be consistent in the classroom:

  • Start each day the same way. One of our longtime instructors, Mr. Z, begins every class the same way, so much so that I can set my watch by him. At 8:00 a.m., he takes attendance. At 8:03 a.m., he’s warming up with the joke of the day. Routinely groan-worthy, this anecdote or riddle often lightens the mood and gives students a way to ease into the morning: they laugh/groan together, their shoulders relax, and then they’re ready to begin. By 8:05 a.m., Mr. Z has turned everyone’s attention to that day’s topic. Conversely, another colleague begins her class with a short, instructor-led meditation that provides students a few minutes to breathe deeply and center their focus on the task at hand.
  • Create a consistent classroom climate. Along with a sense of humor, a consistent demeanor in the classroom makes a big difference. Not only do we need to drop our assumptions at the door before we enter, but our bad day cannot make its way into the room either. I’ll never forget the humbling experience of walking into a class a few minutes early to find students deeply engaged in a conversation regarding the county food assistance program, and realizing that brainstorming for an upcoming essay is always going to be lower on a list of priorities than figuring out how to feed one’s family. Students are juggling multiple needs and demands—don’t add your bad mood to their burdens.
  • Have dependable deadlines. Whenever possible, I try to set deadlines for major assignments so that they fall at the same time and day each week (i.e., every Friday at 11:55 p.m.). It’s a simple touchstone that sets a rhythm for our class, in addition to Grammar Tuesdays and Workshop Wednesdays. Speaking of deadlines, Stephen Covey notes that we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their behavior. Be honest: Are you holding yourself to the same deadlines and expectations you set for your students? Are you providing timely feedback and grades?

4. Build Confidence

We know that self-confidence, self-awareness, and students’ readiness to see themselves as college material are crucial to their success. With that in mind, here are some ways to bolster students’ confidence and sense of self-worth in the classroom:

  • Share the classroom. A shared classroom shifts the dynamic from you, as the sole provider of content, to an open classroom where students are also viewed as content experts and teachers. Certainly, this requires flexibility and planning on the part of the instructor and it places more responsibility in students’ hands. However, it also provides a space for responses, questions, and revelations you might not have anticipated. Sharing the classroom also demonstrates that you value and understand that students’ experiences outside the classroom can also have great relevance inside the classroom. Bring the real world in and use it to your (and their) advantage.
  • We’ve found it helpful to build in reflection points throughout the course. For example, when returning exams or essays, I also give students a reflection sheet with prompts to respond to related to their performance on the exam (e.g., “Do you feel your grade reflects the amount of time and effort you put into studying?” or “What did you do well? What do you need to improve?”). Midway through the semester, I ask students to assess their personal work ethic by rating their attendance, character, teamwork, productivity, and organizational skills. Then, at the end of the semester, I have students reflect on the class as a whole, looking back at what they learned during the semester and providing suggestions for future classes. In addition to increasing self-awareness, these exercises provide students with solitary thinking time, and serve as a counterbalance to heavy-involvement activities such as group work or class discussions.

Finally, Use Your Resources

Developmental education, by definition, is the integration of classroom instruction and support services. I urge you to take the time to learn about the support services available to students on your campus, and even schedule tours or a speaker to introduce your students to these services. If you and your students are better informed about the resources available on campus, it will be easier to help your students when they need it and easier for them to achieve their academic and other goals.

What classroom strategies do you use to deal with change? Share with us in the comments below or on Facebook!

Joanna Bolick, Chair, Developmental Studies

For further information, contact the author at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, 340 Victoria Road, Asheville, North Carolina 28801. Email:

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 2 | January 26, 2017

Don’t Reinvent the Critical Thinking Wheel: What Scholarly Literature Says About Critical Thinking Instruction

As colleges face accreditation requirements, or as departments undergo program review, they generally seek to integrate formal statements about critical thinking into their documentation. Yet, it is not uncommon for these institutions to be unsure about how to integrate such statements. Frequently, faculty meet to seek consensus about the meaning of critical thinking, as well as how it should be taught and measured. Because faculty have discipline-specific expertise, they may not be familiar with literature about critical thinking from the fields of cognitive science, education, development, social psychology, and even neuroscience. This can result in well-intentioned, but sometimes misinformed efforts. The goal of this article is to present an overview of what scholarly literature tells us about critical thinking, its instruction, and its assessment, in order to assist institutions and faculty align their efforts with the most current scientific knowledge and best pedagogical practices.

In 1988, a group of nearly 50 experts in critical thinking from the fields of education, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines sought consensus about what characterizes critical thinking, and how to best teach and assess it. Led by Peter Facione of Santa Clara University, the group produced two documents: The Delphi Report and an executive summary of The Delphi Report. While both documents are exceedingly valuable, the 19-page summary provides more than enough information to orient any college or institution in its attempts to define critical thinking and implement programs to enhance its delivery and accurately measure the results.

The executive summary offers various findings regarding critical thinking and includes 15 recommendations for institutions regarding the “instruction and assessment” of critical thinking. Interestingly, the committee of experts specifically targeted the essential parts of critical thinking “which might reasonably be expected at the freshman and sophomore general education college level,” delineating six “cognitive skills” that make up critical thinking: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation. More than 95 percent of the committee agreed on three key terms: analysis, evaluation, and inference; a slightly lower percentage (around 87 percent) also included the other three items.

Faculty could easily use these guidelines in the process of defining critical thinking. For example, by taking the three cognitive skills most endorsed by the expert panel—analysis, evaluation, and inference—a college could create specific goals for any or all of these skills. However, as the Delphi Report points out, as well as a large body of scholarship before and after the report, these terms have precise meanings. While it is not uncommon for people to conflate “analysis” with “evaluation,” sometimes even using the terms interchangeably, these terms have very different meanings in the world of critical thinking. “Analysis” refers to making explicit the relationship among facts, lines of reasoning, and conclusions drawn from that reasoning. “Evaluation,” on the other hand, involves judging the truth, credibility, or validity of statements or arguments. Therefore, using the guidelines of the Delphi Report requires care and understanding of the technical sense of the terms, or skills, that make up critical thinking.

While the Delphi Report offered definitions of critical-thinking skills, the document also carefully delineates a second, essential part of critical thinking often ignored: dispositions. The report states explicitly and clearly that critical thinking is composed of (1) the skills necessary to perform cognitive tasks, such as analysis and evaluation, and (2) the disposition to use those tools in a conscious and reflective manner. In fact, extensive research in dual process theory confirms the distinction between critical-thinking skills and critical-thinking dispositions. In cognitive science, dual process theory claims that the human brain employs two cognitive systems (at least), each with its own distinctive tendencies. Labeled simply “System One” and “System Two,” the first corresponds to a quick, intuitive way of thinking that is often affect-laden; the second refers to a more deliberate way of thinking associated with careful, effortful reasoning. Hundreds of experiments in fields ranging from social psychology to neuroscience confirm the distinct workings of these brain systems and, consequently, reveal important information about student’ intellectual habits. As educators, failing to understand this fundamental functional makeup of the brain can lead us down the wrong path when defining effective strategies for critical-thinking skills and dispositions instruction.

Colleges seeking to increase critical-thinking competencies and dispositions among their students naturally want to know what pedagogical options are available to achieve their goal. Literature reviews (meta-analyses) and other studies of pedagogical strategies for critical-thinking interventions identify four methods of delivery: general, infusion, immersion, and mixed. The general method involves targeted instruction in critical thought in which traditional content (e.g., content of a history or psychology course) is absent or deemphasized; this method could be called “content agnostic.” The infusion approach entails explicit instruction of critical thinking in conjunction with traditional content; this method also requires that students think deeply about course content. The immersion approach requires cognitively challenging tasks related to course content without explicit instruction in critical thinking. The mixed method combines the above pedagogical methods, usually in conjunction with a separate emphasis on critical-thinking skills.

Although studies that test these different pedagogical methods vary greatly in many factors, meta-analyses reveal something about the efficacy of each. For example, a 2014 meta-analysis found the highest gains in critical-thinking abilities in courses deploying the general (targeted instruction) method, followed by the mixed method, the infusion method, and finally the immersion method. According to two separate meta-analyses, the immersion method is by far the least successful in generating gains in critical-thinking abilities, which is particularly interesting because the vast majority of college courses follow this method: they do not present explicit instruction in critical thinking. Meanwhile, numerous studies have found that deliberately teaching critical-thinking skills and habits increases student performance in measureable critical-thinking tasks, whether that instruction comes via a separate class in critical thinking or purposeful instruction in critical thinking within the content-based course. However, targeted instruction seems to create more generic—and therefore potentially transferrable—skills.

Colleges will rightly want to know what the targeted or purposeful instruction of critical thinking entails. Are some methods more effective than others? It is not uncommon for faculty to confuse a requirement that students “think critically” with instruction in critical thinking. Most often this effort involves assigning questions to students that require that they do more than memorize—even if such a requirement involves nothing more than offering a personal opinion. There is no evidence that this method enhances critical thinking. In other words, merely requiring students to “think critically” does not seem to have the desired effect.

Nonetheless, some methods do work better than others. Unfortunately, not all studies report the specifics about methodologies used, which limits readers’ abilities to properly assess particular pedagogies. However, critical-thinking interventions that involve argumentation have received positive attention. Among these, argument mapping stands out. Argument mapping is a practical implementation of a theoretical concept that entails visually making explicit the relationships among evidence, reasons, and conclusions in an argument. Research—and practically every community college instructor’s experience—shows that students have great difficulty following text-based arguments. In fact, students don’t commonly see arguments as arguments, but rather as series of facts composing a story; or worse, as disjointed facts that need to be memorized. To help students see the connections between evidence and conclusion in an argument, some interventions use mapping software that helps students visualize the structure of an argument. Individual studies as well as meta-analyses of the effects of argument mapping on critical-thinking abilities claim truly impressive gains, sometimes on the order of a standard deviation of improvement between pre- and post-test scores. However, these gains may be partially attributable to other factors, such as feedback, amount of practice, teacher ability, and teacher training.

Teacher training seems to be a significant factor in students’ critical thinking gains. From a purely common-sense perspective, it is reasonable that teachers unfamiliar with the pedagogy of critical thinking or argumentation would be less equipped to inculcate the desired skills in students. The scholarly literature lays out this intuitive conclusion: gains in student abilities in critical thinking are tied to teacher preparation, such as in-service or other formal training.

From a practical standpoint, an instructor, department, or college could begin efforts to implement evidence-based practices to enhance students’ critical-thinking abilities by becoming familiar with the fundamental definitions of critical thinking in widely-accepted documents like the Delphi Report. This can help faculty clarify specific outcomes for students. Next, it would be appropriate to seek in-service instruction, particularly from experts in methodologies that have shown promise, or from local faculty members who have gained expertise in the instruction of critical thinking. Faculty may want to begin slowly, targeting one specific skill, such as argument evaluation, to incorporate into an existing class; or departments may decide to implement entire courses in critical thinking based upon the evidence from current scholarship. As faculty gain confidence in the targeted instruction of critical thinking—a skill that should not be limited to those who teach stand-alone critical-thinking classes—they should consider standardized, reliable assessment instruments that measure critical-thinking skills and dispositions. This final step can provide valuable information for instructors, as well as the institution. If standardized assessment instruments involving pre- and post-tests prove too formidable, even qualitative information like student feedback can be a valuable source of information for local improvement.

The scholarly literature on critical thinking, its instruction, and its assessment is quite extensive. While the conclusions that various researchers draw are somewhat diverse, one finding predominates: measureable gains in critical thinking among college students are obtainable by implementing proven methods and best practices, which always include explicit instruction in critical thinking.

What methods do you use to promote students’ critical thinking? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook.

John D. Eigenauer, Professor, Philosophy

For more information, contact the author at Taft College, 29 Emmons Park Drive, Taft, California 93268. Email:

NISOD is excited to have John facilitate the session, “Teaching Critical Thinking,” at the first-ever Regional Workshop in Chattanooga, Tennessee on February 10. Learn more about the workshop and register online!

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By | January 25th, 2017|Categories: Innovation Abstracts|Tags: |0 Comments


Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIX, No. 1 | January 19, 2017

Teaching Applied Education Courses Online

There is growing demand for online courses in higher education, and applied education courses are no exception. This alternate mode of delivery leverages advances in information and communication technology to increase the geographical reach of education and training. Not only does online learning offer a wider geographic range, it also accommodates the needs of students with different learning styles. However, this educational opportunity also comes with challenges to teachers—namely transitioning courses from traditional in-class delivery to online delivery cannot be achieved by simply copying files from one folder to another. It is a shift in paradigm from teaching to facilitating learning.

The strategies proven successful in the classroom are not always effective in online learning. Although blending online learning with classroom teaching has become fairly routine, questions remain about how to fully deliver online courses, as well as about their effectiveness. In this article, I discuss my experience as a student and as a teacher and summarize the outcome of my research in online learning. Online learning, for the purpose of this article, is the use of internet and e-resources for the delivery of online courses. Although my research and my teaching experience is primarily in applied education, this discussion should be equally applicable to all branches of higher education.

Old-School Mindset and Enlightenment

In the mid-90s, the internet was still at a nascent stage and its use for education was mostly limited to reading a guidebook about how to use the internet. Although distance education was practiced, the marriage of applied education to distance learning never seemed practical. Moreover, distance learning in formal education didn’t have a significant presence before the ubiquity of the internet. Educated during the old-school era of learning from a “sage on the stage,” it was hard for me to convince myself of any other ways of teaching or learning. This idea was further reinforced after I taught classroom-based applied and technical courses for many years at colleges and universities. Despite the fact that I was using the internet to learn about various software, updating my know-how about state-of-the-art technologies by reading online reviews, and fixing my home furnace by watching online videos and following step-by-step instructions online, I held a firmly entrenched belief that online learning was not suitable for applied education.

However, I changed my stance when I had to develop content for a construction risk-management course, of which a significant component needed to be delivered online. I began reflecting on my teaching, and it immediately struck me that I was already heavily relying on online learning. I was asking my students to review online lessons to clarify their understanding of diagrams representing the influence of force on building elements, to watch videos about the operation of excavators at construction sites, and to research online different connection types of steel structures.

Not only has online learning been successfully used in applied education, but it has also become an essential component for effective learning. Instant availability to information and access to resources have changed the way we teach and the way our students learn; therefore, online learning has become a formidable part of teaching and learning.

Investigation in Online Learning

The goal of applied education is to prepare job-ready graduates to contribute to the economy in a socially responsible way. The market focus and society readiness of applied education graduates is a driving factor for students. Adamuti-Trache, Hawkey, and Schuetze (2006) conclude that “graduates from applied education programs experience a more rapid integration into the labor market as compared to graduates from liberal arts education programs.” Although it is now routine to blend online learning with in-class delivery, online learning as the sole mode of delivery in applied education courses is generally still considered impractical.

However, online learning is gradually gaining currency as an alternative, and often the preference, to traditional classroom-based teaching and learning. Additionally, many applied education degrees now offer online modes of delivery. Some research also suggests that student performance in online learning is either similar or better when compared to traditional modes of learning. On the other hand, however, there are concerns about online learning, which range from the efficacy of the technology to student performance.

I was motivated by the question regarding the effectiveness of online learning. I began to research the effectiveness of online learning for applied education from the perspectives of students and teachers. During my research, I took and completed online courses, reviewed online courses that were available publicly by different institutions, and conducted a questionnaire survey with students and teachers. This article summarizes some of the outcomes of my research.

Interaction is Less in Online Learning

For the questionnaire survey, I approached students enrolled in a variety of construction courses and instructors who taught students enrolled in various applied education courses. Out of 3,646 students and 906 instructors, 191 (5.2 percent) students and 107 (11.8 percent) instructors responded to the survey. One of the outcomes of the survey was that students and instructors felt there is less interaction among students, as well as less interaction between instructors and students, in online courses compared to courses held in the classroom. Additionally, of the respondents, 69.2 percent of students and 72.6 percent of instructors felt that interaction among students is significantly less or slightly less in online courses. Similarly, 65 percent of students and 72.6 percent of instructors feel that interaction between instructor and a student is significantly less or “slightly less” in online courses compared to classroom-based courses. While this information is similar to my personal experience as a teacher and a student, it is insightful that a comparable number of students and instructors felt that there is less interaction in online courses.

Addressing Lack of Interaction

As noted above, one of the challenges in online learning is the lack of interaction, which we can address in two ways. The first way, and perhaps the most obvious, is to create an environment conducive for interaction among students. Teachers should also foster an environment where students can interact with them as they would in a traditional class setting—a place where students can raise their hands, ask questions, and the teacher responds immediately. Today, there are innovative learning platforms and delivery strategies to address this issue.

Yet, the second and more meaningful way to address a lack of interaction is to recognize it as a limitation and then design courses in such as a way that students can achieve optimal outcomes. This can be done by making course objectives more descriptive and content more interactive. For example, a learning objective in a physics course, such as “Solve problems involving motion in one dimension,” is clearly written and follows a standard practice of good, objective writing. However, for students working independently, the statement doesn’t define the depth and breadth of anticipated knowledge. A search using Google for “one dimension motion” results in documents with contents ranging from a few pages to a few chapters. In a classroom setting, the objective is only a framework that is explained and worked out during the teacher’s interaction with the class. For an online learner, ambiguity in depth and breadth of coverage can be frustrating. Learning outcomes and objectives for online learners need to be further expanded to include the expected depth and output.

It is essential that online courses not only expand objectives, but also organize content to suit students’ needs. The availability of information does not necessarily equate to access of such information. One of the key findings of my research and my experience in classroom is that students need strong motivation and encouragement to go to and use available resources. In online learning, the onus is on students; therefore, students need to be proactive. The role of instructors, then, is to be facilitators—to guide students so they can achieve learning outcomes efficiently and effectively. In my in-class courses, I notice students often skip reading assignments or the videos posted on their learning platform. Students are more eager to complete reading assignments and watch video resources when I create guided questions and quizzes that connect learning outcomes to the resources. When I took online courses, one strategy that I found that worked for me as a student was having the content divided into components, with each component followed by quizzes or exercises.

Additionally, as a teacher, I realized that my students may need input for translating the information given to them into knowledge. In the pyramid of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, data is at the bottom and wisdom is at the top (Ackoff, 1999; Bernsetin, 2009). Students, especially online learners, often spend a lot of time navigating through data and information, without gaining the ability to process the information and climb to the higher levels of knowledge and wisdom. Input from the instructor is critical during the processing stage where scattered information is connected to build knowledge.

Furthermore, students should be able to relate that knowledge to real-life problems. This is more important for applied education courses, as most of the students in applied education courses know the career they will be entering. In the same questionnaire survey mentioned above, 84 percent of the students responded that they enrolled in courses “knowing exactly” or “with some knowledge” about the career goal of those courses. Because students in applied education know the career they’re entering, it is frustrating for them to acquire additional information without knowing its practical significance. In the absence of valuable interaction with teachers, and in order to keep students engaged, online learners need dynamic content that shows a link between individual course components and how it contributes to their career goal.


Online learning is already a large part of in-class teaching, and there is also a growing demand and need for offering courses completely online. In offering online courses, the challenge for teachers is that simply duplicating the content of in-class teaching is not sufficient. For an optimum learning experience in online courses, students need a clearer description of depth and breadth of the expected learning objectives. Furthermore, learners may get lost in the flood of information; therefore, it is the teacher’s role to facilitate students to connect information and build knowledge.

What techniques have you used to make online learning more effective for your students? Let us know in the comment section below or on Facebook!


Jishnu Subedi, Faculty, Construction Project Management, School of Construction

For more information, contact the author at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, 1301-16 Avenue NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2M 0L4. Email:

Join Dr. Subedi in today’s NISOD webinar, “Online Courses: Increasing Learning Effectiveness,” as he continues the conversation about how to increase the effectiveness of online learning. Register now!

Works Cited

Ackoff, R. L. (1989). “From Data to Wisdom.” Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16, 3-9.

Adamuti-Trache, M., Hawkey, C., and Schuetze, H. G. (2006). “The Labour Market Value of Liberal Arts and Applied Education Programs: Evidence from British Columbia.” Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 36(2), 49-74.

Bernstein, Jay H. (2009). “The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy and its Antithesis.” Proceedings North American Symposium on Knowledge Organization Available online from

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXIII, No. 12 | April 15, 2011

Check out this article from April 15, 2011, titled “Building a Community in a College Classroom,” about creating a comfortable, yet engaged environment for students.

Building a Community in a College Classroom

Aristotle once said that man is a social animal, and modern research confirms that people thrive best in an environment to which they feel connected. No matter how esthetically pleasing, any environment soon becomes dull and meaningless if there are no people to humanize it. Humanization requires emotional connection. The classroom is a focal point for laying the foundation for this connection to college environment, but that initial interaction does not happen by accident. It has to be carefully orchestrated and engineered by the classroom guru, the instructor.

Many college students are too busy in their personal and academic lives to be engaged with other students—even if they are savvy enough to know how important engagement can be. In addition to their college courses, they hold jobs, run households, and have extensive family obligations. Often, the only contact students have with the instructor and other students occurs during class. When students are given the opportunity to connect with other students, they not only become more conscious of the tremendous benefits of collaboration but are more willing to make efforts to maintain that connection.It is crucial that instructors lay the groundwork early in the semester for connecting the students to each other, anchoring them to the college, and facilitating interaction throughout the semester. To achieve this goal, instructors, especially those who teach developmental courses, must design assignments that meet a three-prong test. One, does the assignment connect students to each other in and outside the classroom? Two, does the assignment connect students to important and relevant events on the college campus? Third, does the assignment deepen students’ understanding of related events in their communities as a result of individual and collective involvement in and out of the classroom?

Laying the Foundation
On the first day of class, I give students notecards and ask them to write their name, address, phone numbers, and any other contact information they want to share. I jokingly assure them that I will only call them with issues that affect their grades. I started this practice after years of frustrating and fruitless effort to contact students through the contact numbers they provide on the college profile. I also divide students into groups and give the class a few minutes to meet, greet, introduce themselves, and choose a group leader. At the end of the meet-and-greet, each group introduces its members to the whole class and gives me a list of members’ names and contact information they want to share. I inform students that the list they give me is for my use and that I will not share any of the information, including with members of their group; therefore, they will need to exchange phone numbers with more than one member in their group. Collecting this list may seem redundant, but I sometimes find it useful because students may include contact information they have not listed on the notecard or elsewhere. I also stress the importance of respecting each other’s privacy by not sharing phone numbers without asking permission and that the information we gather will pertain only to the class. I encourage students to call each other when they miss class, go over notes, and obtain other information about activities that occurred while they were absent.

Another important strategy for keeping the members of the group connected and engaged is to give them multiple opportunities to work in groups. At least once a week, I ask students to sit in their groups and go over certain assignments, brainstorm on an assigned topic for an essay, or proofread paragraphs.

I inquire from group members the whereabouts of students who are absent. At first, students seem puzzled or even irritated but soon become willing to be their neighbor’s keeper. This particular technique has been most helpful in locating students who suddenly disappear from class. I have found students are sometimes the only and most effective links. For example, about the ninth week of one semester, a student, let’s call him Jim, who had been attending classes regularly and was doing very well, stopped attending class. My efforts to contact him failed. His group members noted that he had also stopped coming to the math class they take with him. Every class, I asked if they had heard from or seen Jim. One group member reported that when he called Jim’s home number (different from the one I had on record), the message was that his answering machine was full. Finally, one student revealed that he lived in the same building with Jim and promised to check on him. Later, he reported that no one answered the door. Finally, about two weeks later, when Jim was no longer incommunicado, he came to my office, quite excited because he learned that the whole class had been concerned about his well being. With help from his group members, he was caught up in no time and finished the semester successfully. Other examples demonstrate that group members often are more effective in helping other students get back on track than are instructors.

Building a Bridge in the Classroom
Group projects are an important collaborative experience. At the beginning of the semester when students are divided into groups, they are instructed to choose one episode or scene from a novel we read and prepare to dramatize the scene in class. As students read assigned chapters each week, they are instructed to note specific episodes that they can use for their group projects. Periodically, I check with each group to see if it has come to agreement about a chapter or episode. In their regular group work, I sometimes give them extra time to decide an episode or I end class early and give them the remaining time to meet and work on their presentations. By week eight, each group is required to turn in a written explanation of its project. About the twelfth week, students make a mock presentation to the class. The presentations are critiqued by the class, so each group has an opportunity to improve before the final presentation, which takes place during the last week of the semester.

This group project is by far the most meaningful experience the students have to connect to characters, settings, and actions in ways they cannot possibly do by just reading the novel. For example, a popular episode from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the church scene in which Sister Monroe experiences the Holy Spirit, and ecstatically calls out “Preach it!” The scene is humorous and entertaining; it resonates with many who have experienced this phenomenon and provides a background for others. Another episode involves Mama and Maya going out to look for Bailey at night. This scene was powerfully evoked when students switched off the lights, closed the blinds, and came in with lighted lamps. Students also reconstruct an object in the novel and use it in the project. For example, one semester when the class read Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson, one group made an outstanding replica of Count Luigi’s Indian knife with exquisite gemstones for less than a dollar of materials from a thrift store. Every semester, I am surprised at the different scenes students choose and how powerfully and imaginatively they evoke them.

Extending and Bolstering the Bridge on Campus and Beyond
I also invite students to other activities on campus—e.g., poetry forum or chess club. This gives students opportunities to show talents or creativity that they may not have had opportunity to share in the classroom. It boosts their self-confidence. I ask students to memorize and recite particular poems for extra credit. They can collaborate on longer pieces and do dramatic readings at the campus poetry forum. Another assignment for extra credit is to bring in a newspaper article that discusses any topic with which we have dealt in class. For example, one semester, the Cleveland Plain Dealer offered an article about why Mark Twain continues to be topical. A student brought the article to class and shared the main ideas with the class.

Creating the right assignments to help students connect with each other and life outside the classroom requires extra effort, but the benefits are incalculable. Students become more critical thinkers and active, creative, and independent learners. These attributes will serve them well in other subjects and areas of life even after they have forgotten your class.

Christie Okocha, Professor, English

For further information, contact the author at Cuyahoga Community College, Metro Campus, 2900 Community College Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115. Email Author.

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXVIII, No. 29 | December 1, 2016

Using a New Tool in a New Way

Many students find studying difficult, perhaps because they’ve never been taught how to study. There is ample evidence that shows repeated exposure to course material, especially in different contexts, helps move course material into long-term memory (Baddeley, 1997). Furthermore, processing that material more deeply by engaging with it in a meaningful way or through elaboration—rather than simply memorizing isolated pieces of information or focusing on surface details—also helps retain this information in students’ long-term memory for later retrieval (Baddeley, 1997; Craik & Lockhart, 1972).

Most educators already know these strategies for helping students retain information; however, our students often fail to apply these principles that can help them succeed in their courses, if they even know them at all. This difficulty in retaining information makes it especially important for instructors to create opportunities for students to learn and practice good study skills, to model them for their peers, and to also use them in their other courses. Reviewing material regularly is one such strategy that can be easily applied in any discipline.

A New Tool

An inexpensive tool that I use in my general education psychology courses is the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT). Created by Epstein Educational Enterprises, the IF-AT is a form similar to the Scantron form commonly used for exams. Yet, instead of answering a question by filling in a bubble, the IF-AT form requires students to scratch off their selection, much like a scratch lottery ticket. If the answer is correct, the scratch off reveals a star. (Note: As the instructor, you must ensure that you arrange the answer choices based on the IF-AT answer key that Epstein provides.) If the answer is incorrect, students can try again and scratch another choice, earning partial points for that question. This idea of allowing students to try again is the reason the tool is often referred to by its creators as the “IF-AT first you don’t succeed” technique. Although its original intent is for formal assessment, I use it to help students review course content, thus ensuring repeated exposure and rehearsal.

Using IF-AT for Review

When I first heard about this tool, I feared using it for exams (as intended) for two reasons:

  • Students may be more apprehensive using this method, which could increase their test anxiety; and
  • There isn’t an automatic machine scoring method as there is with Scantron forms, which means instructors have to hand score exams. Because I teach a large number of students, the thought of hand-scoring exams gives me test anxiety!

While I don’t use the IF-AT for formal assessments, I do use it almost weekly to help students review course materials. During class following the end of a unit or chapter, I begin by distributing a set of 10 multiple-choice questions related to the unit’s content and an IF-AT form to each group of three to five students. Students then work together to determine the correct answer and scratch the corresponding square on the form. If they are correct, they move on to the next question. If they are incorrect, further discussion ensues and they proceed to select another answer.

Scoring works very intuitively as well. Students earn full credit for questions answered correctly on the first attempt (e.g., three points). For each subsequent wrong response, a point is removed. I use three points as the highest possible score per question to make the math easier for students: full credit is three points with three unscratched boxes; a successful second attempt yields two points, with two unscratched boxes remaining; a third attempt leaves only one unscratched box and is worth one point; and a fourth attempt yields zero points. Each group calculates their own score as described and hands in their IF-AT form so I can do a quick calculation of the scores before determining the winner.

This is a very low-stakes task in my class, so students seldom feel stressed about completing it. Some weeks, IF-AT is worth one to two percent of their final mark, so some students seem to benefit from this additional motivation to participate in the activity. I encourage a little competition by giving candy to the winning group, but sometimes I also reward all of the students simply for their overall participation in the activity.


This kind of peer learning benefits all students. Academically strong students benefit from the group discussion, receive immediate feedback about their performance, and confirm that they mastered the previous week’s material. IF-AT may also help them focus their studying and reviewing for an upcoming formal assessment. Students who are academically weaker can gain a better understanding of the course content through the group discussions. These students may also benefit from the scaffolding that peers provide during the group activity. There is evidence that peers who are also novice learners may be in a better position to help fellow students grasp concepts, as their knowledge networks are more similar to each other than with the instructor’s (Bowman, Frame & Kennette, 2013).

In all cases, group activity using the IF-AT may increase student motivation by allowing a less formal (i.e., more fun) way to engage with the course content. The form’s design is different from what we normally use in class, and this novelty can be fun in and of itself. When I first used the IF-AT as a review activity, I asked my students whether they liked using the IF-AT, and all of them said they enjoyed it. The majority of students agreed that it would be valuable to continue using it every week for review.

Importantly, this activity serves as another way to help students develop essential employability skills (EES) in our classrooms. Employers want students to graduate with more than just domain-specific content knowledge. IF-AT develops primary EES, including teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, and, potentially, conflict resolution—all of which are important in the workplace. Students have an opportunity to build teamwork skills by determining how the group will function, collaborating with group members to reach correct answers, and determining who will scratch the IF-AT. Critical thinking skills are developed, first when determining the correct answer, but also when students have to determine the validity of their peers’ arguments. When disagreements arise within the group, students may be able to use or develop their conflict resolution or mediation skills. Peer-to-peer interactions have also been shown to increase students’ acceptance of diversity (Poole & Sewell, 2007).


As with every tool, technique, or activity, it’s important to consider the disadvantages as well. First, instructors can only order the IF-AT forms from Epstein Educational Enterprises. The cost is approximately 18 cents per form, plus shipping charges, with a minimum order of 500 forms. In my class of 60 registered students, I typically use only 10 forms, so 500 forms can supply my classrooms for numerous semesters. Perhaps very crafty instructors with small classes could engineer their own forms; however, IF-AT features make cheating nearly impossible, such as printing black bars on the backside of the form to ensure answer stars are not visible.

Additionally, this technique requires some planning. Instructors must create questions that coordinate with the answer key that accompanies the forms. In most cases, instructors can simply reorder their test answers so they coordinate with the IF-AT answer keys. Social loafing, where one student does all the work or all the thinking, can also be a concern in this activity. However, actively monitoring groups while they answer questions, which is a best practice for any group activity, should minimize social loafing. Finally, although most of my student feedback is overwhelmingly positive, a handful of students dislike the group work, a key aspect of this activity.


I receive very positive feedback from students using this technique in my courses. For a small investment, I feel students obtain great long-term benefits using this unique tool—and they seem to agree. Forcing students to review course material employs the principles of learning, backed by empirical evidence, that educators know students should use to be successful.

Lynne N. Kennette, Professor, Psychology

For further information, contact the author at Durham College, 2000 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa, Ontario L1H 7K4, Canada. Email:


Baddeley, A. D. (1997). Human Memory: Theory and Practice. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Bowman, M., Frame, D. L., & Kennette, L. N. (2013). “Enhancing Teaching and Learning: How Cognitive Research Can Help.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching: Brain-Based Learning (Special Issue), 24(3), 7-28.

Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). “Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Poole L. D., & Sewell, P. (2007). “The Key to Employability: Developing a Practical Model of Graduate Employability.” Education + Training, 49(4), 277-289.

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXVIII, No. 28 | November 17, 2016

Teach Students HOW to Learn: Metacognition is the Key!

“Miriam, a freshman calculus student at Louisiana State University (LSU), made 37.5 percent on her first exam, but 83 percent and 93 percent on the next two exams. Robert, a first-year general chemistry student at LSU, made 42 percent on his first exam and followed that up with three 100 percent grades in a row. Matt, a first-year general chemistry student at the University of Utah, scored 65 percent and 55 percent on his first two exams and 95 percent on his third exam. And I could go on. I could tell you scores of stories like this from the last 15 years of my teaching career.”

Those are the opening sentences of Teach Students How to Learn, the book I wrote to convey that educators can teach students simple, straightforward metacognitive strategies that have the power not only to dramatically improve academic performance, but also to transform students’ approach to learning. When students are taught how to learn as deeply as possible, those students become progressively skilled as learners and increasingly more intelligent throughout the course of their lives. Conversely, if students stick to rote learning and cramming, their intellectual lives stagnate at an early age, and their full potential is lost to society. I present workshops and webinars about teaching students how to learn so anyone can introduce students to powerful and transformative learning strategies. Participants learn, step by step, exactly how to deliver the strategies in an engaging, interactive manner. In this short article, I introduce two of the most effective metacognitive strategies, explain the theoretical framework behind the development of these strategies, and describe individual and group interventions to present these strategies to students.

One of the first strategies I introduce to students is an approach to reading. Students’ ability to comprehend and digest extensive reading assignments in a timely fashion is crucial for success at the undergraduate level and beyond. This reading strategy involves a three-step process. The first step, surveying or previewing, involves skimming through a sizable chunk of assigned reading and noting only chapter headings, subheadings, and bold or italicized terms. For novels or essays, students can preview the first and last sentences of every large section or paragraph. The second step requires students to generate questions, based on their previewing efforts, that they want the text to answer. For example, a subheading might read, “Strong Acids” or “Marx’s Critique of Hegel.” Corresponding questions might be: “What is the difference between strong acids and weak acids?” or “What did Hegel believe and what did Marx disagree with?” The third and final step equips students with a method for reading efficiently without repeatedly needing to re-read. Students should read only one paragraph at a time and then paraphrase the paragraph in their own words aloud and/or by writing it in their notes. After doing the same with the next paragraph, they should then fold in the new information with everything they have read up to that point (i.e., review). Therefore, at the end of every paragraph, students have an integrated, comprehensive understanding of the text they’re working with. At the end of a large section, say an entire chapter, students can undertake a more extensive review, making connections across subtopics. After giving one freshman this strategy the night before a psychology exam, he scored 82 percent compared to 52 percent on his previous exam.

STEM students, whose homework primarily consist of problem sets, should use the following strategy to do their homework in a way that trains them to demonstrate mastery of concepts. This strategy differs from how most students do their homework. Typically, students work on problems while simultaneously looking at solutions to example problems in the textbook or in their class notes. Instead, students should first study the information that the homework covers before looking at any of the assigned problems. When they come across examples, they should work the example problems straight through—without looking at the solutions—until they get an answer. Once they have an answer, they can check to see if they got it correct. If the answer is not correct, students should go back to the text or notes to figure out where the mistake was made, still without consulting the solution. The process of figuring out where the mistake was made is very important to gain a deeper understanding of the material. After they have correctly worked through all of the example problems, students should then work on their assigned homework problems. However, students should approach their homework as if they are taking a test; trying to solve problems at a quicker pace in order to simulate similar time constraints under which they are tested.

When students do not use this homework strategy, they become like runners who show up on race day only having trained in much easier conditions. Even though it is nearly everyone’s first instinct to work on a set of assigned problems alongside solved examples, the comparison to competitive running makes it clear how senseless it is to follow that instinct. When students treat homework as an opportunity to train themselves to solve problems independently without any aids, their exam performance often skyrockets. After one physics student learned this strategy, she made 91 percent on her next exam, compared to 54 percent on the one before.

The idea underlying these two strategies is metacognition, often described as thinking about thinking. When students use metacognition, they monitor the workings of their own minds and learn to become much more aware of how deeply they understand subject material. Instead of being overconfident or hoping for the best, they learn how to figure out what they need to do in order to get the results they want. Before I introduce metacognitive strategies to students, I do a short, simple exercise to help them understand why they need metacognition. First, I ask them to articulate the difference between studying and learning. Answers vary, but most students express a contrast between shallow and deep understanding. Next, I ask students whether they would rather work harder to make an “A” on an exam or teach a classroom of students the material on that exam. They quickly realize that deeper understanding is necessary in order to teach the material and that, if they want high grades, they should seek that depth of understanding. I then show them Bloom’s Taxonomy, a framework of six learning levels that range from the lowest, remembering, or rote memorization, to the highest, creating, or having mastered information so completely that students can use it to invent new ideas, concepts, or apparatuses. I ask my students at what level of the taxonomy students need to operate in high school, and they usually respond with level 1 or 2. Yet, when I ask them at what level they need to operate in order to excel in college, they respond with level 3 or 4. At that point, I give them a way to ascend Bloom’s Taxonomy: The Study Cycle, using Focused Study Sessions. The Study Cycle has five steps:

  • Preview material to be discussed in class (5-15 minutes);
  • Go to class;
  • Review material after class (5-15 minutes);
  • Study using metacognitive strategies during Focused Study Sessions; and
  • Assess mastery and adjust methods if necessary.

Focused Study Sessions happen in a specific time window of intensive concentration, not necessarily an hour, with four steps:

  • Set a goal (1-2 minutes);
  • Study with focus (30-50 minutes);
  • Take a break (10-15 minutes); and
  • Review (5 minutes).

I advise students to complete three to five Focused Study Sessions per day, sandwiched individually or grouped in sets of two or three in between classes and/or other activities, so that students never face unending, amorphous blocks of five or six hours of time during which they are supposed to “study.” Here it becomes clear that even though metacognitive strategies seem to work like magic, the secret is that students are actually going to class and spending dramatically more time working productively with the information they need to master. There is no mystery.

How do we best deliver these strategies to students? I have already described the heart of the intervention, which includes asking students self-reflecting questions before presenting Bloom’s Taxonomy, metacognitive strategies, and the Study Cycle. Here I discuss how to prepare students for an intervention, how to elicit commitment from students, and how the intervention can be delivered one-on-one or to groups of students.

Students are best prepared to receive the intervention after they receive the results of their first major assessment. Otherwise, they have little to no interest in changing their behavior. Additionally, educators should not inform students that learning strategies will be presented in class; students should assume that class will cover regular course content. Another important way of getting students’ buy-in is to present before-and-after grades of students who have already successfully used metacognitive learning strategies to turn around their academic performance. After presenting the core of the intervention, it is important to elicit a commitment from students to actually try the strategies. If they don’t try them, they can’t know how well they work or get excited about continuing to use them. Ask students to choose two or three of the metacognitive strategies you have presented and then have them explain exactly how they will try them.

This intervention appears to work not only one-on-one, but also in groups. Cook, Kennedy, and McGuire (2013) describe the association between a 50-minute intervention given to a large lecture-style class at a public university and the students’ final course grades. The students who attended the intervention lecture received an average final course grade of 81.5 (B), while those who did not attend received an average final grade of 72.6 (C). Students had no way of knowing that learning strategies would be presented in class, rather than regular course content, and Cook et al. (2013) discusses additional steps taken in order to isolate the effect of the intervention as strongly as possible. Through group interventions, the potential to disseminate metacognitive learning strategies to large numbers of students is vast.

Teach Students How to Learn also contains four additional core strategies for students; more detail and guidance about delivering the intervention; time management, study, and test-taking tips; ways for instructors to helpfully structure their courses; crucial information about non-cognitive factors like mindset and motivation; how to partner with the campus learning center; and more. I wrote the book to be a relatively quick, fun read because I want every instructor, administrator, parent, and student to be aware of metacognitive strategies and their transformative power. I used to believe that some students were smart—cut out for high-level subjects like physics and philosophy—and that other students were less smart. Now I know that, aside from enormously gifted outliers, students who appear smarter than others are simply using learning strategies, perhaps intuitively, while students who appear less smart have not yet been given the strategies to unlock their full intellectual potential.

Every student can excel if they are given the right tools. I want to live in a world where every adult who influences a student’s education knows that the sky is the limit for any student, no matter how terrible their initial assessments may be. An LSU math major who flunked out of school, not once but twice, invested in metacognitive strategies and ultimately graduated from LSU with a 3.4 GPA. He is now living his dream of teaching middle school math and coaching football. It is true that to reach some students requires quite a bit of patience and creativity, but motivated students who believe in themselves can do anything they put their minds to. We can teach every student how to be motivated, positive, hardworking, and successful. If we can do that, why wouldn’t we?

Saundra Y. McGuire, Author, Teach Students How to Learn; Assistant Vice Chancellor and Professor of Chemistry (Retired); and Director Emerita Center for Academic Success, Louisiana State University

Interested in learning more about metacognition and the learning strategies described above? Join Dr. McGuire in NISOD’s December 1 webinar, “Teach Students How to Learn: Metacognition is the Key!” Sign up today!


McGuire, S. Y. (2015). Teach Students How to Learn. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Cook, E., Kennedy, E., McGuire, S. Y. (2013). “Effect of Teaching Metacognitive Learning Strategies on Performance in General Chemistry Courses.” Journal of Chemical Education, 90, 961-967.

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Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXVIII, No. 26 | November 3, 2016

Is Fair Grading Futile? Evaluating and Rethinking Assessment

Teachers often replicate what they experienced as students.” –Pula Stitt

Educator Challenges

What is one of the most challenging aspects about your job as an educator? The usual suspects come to my mind: time constraints, course load, and student and faculty interactions. One survey found that educators’ top five concerns are teaching specific technology skills, letting students create content, collaboration, communication, and the topmost concern, increasing student engagement. While each of these issues prove challenging, the purpose of this article is to tackle another issue not mentioned above: grading. Many faculty members spend a considerable amount of time grading students’ work, and many of us find time constraints and fairness to be the most challenging aspects of that very important responsibility. This article highlights how to make grading fairer and more efficient, resulting in less time being spent grading students’ work.


Consider how from time to time you may have bent a rule or two to accommodate a student’s needs. For example, one of my students sent me the following email regarding missing class:

“I am so very sorry for missing class, again. I was incarcerated for defending myself against my ex-fiancé . . . only I had a bat. I know I screwed up, but I’m out now. And I’m continuing to try and stay strong. This is why I haven’t written my paper on domestic violence yet. It hits too hard. But I will get it done. I am SO SORRY.”

What would you have done in this situation? When I pose this question to other educators, unsurprisingly, I receive a variety of responses. The variety of responses is part of the challenge of fairly grading students’ work. Given that there are so many different responses about how to tackle this or a similar issue, it is helpful to ask whether each of the responses are fair, because they are surely not consistent.

Rate My Grading

Students quickly pick up on their educator’s inconsistency. Below are just a few comments from RateMyProfessor that highlight the issue of fairness and inconsistency:

  • “If you don’t come up with what she is thinking, you are completely wrong. She says she is ‘fair,’ which is completely untrue.”
  • “He is extremely unclear about what he expects and he changes his mind daily about what should and should not be included in your stories.”
  • “Assignments were very vague and unclear. Never quite sure what she wanted or what she was going for.”

The above comments illustrate a few concerns students have about inconsistent grading. How can we minimize these perceptions? One way is to take a closer look at how we assess students using rubrics. However, simply having a rubric is not sufficient. Rather, in order to achieve more accurate assessments, it is imperative that we create and use well-designed rubrics. Below are ways to maximize rubric effectiveness. However, first let us consider several reasons for seeking to practice fair and consistent grading.

The Selfie Generation

The millennial generation (aka, the selfie generation) is often accused of being entitled. Time magazine once called this cohort “The Me Me Me Generation.” If millennials are entitled, then we should expect to see a rise in student demands for better grades, as well as accusations of unfair grading. Whether these issues are true or simply anecdotal is not important; it is important, however, that educators legitimize their grading processes in order to ward off any assertions of unfair grading. And if we can grade in a more efficient manner, then all the better!


In sessions during which I discuss how to grade fairly, I often show a video of a student giving a presentation about basic sociological principles. I ask each person in the session to grade the student’s level and quality of eye contact during the presentation. Invariably, the audience has a range of scores; in short, their grading is inconsistent. Why wouldn’t it be? Each member in the audience uses their own specific criteria to evaluate the student’s work.

This example leads to a question about whether each person grades objectively or subjectively. Some educators may look at the number of times the student gazed up from his or her notes or, alternatively, they may focus on the quality of the student’s gaze, all of which results in a debate about quantitative or qualitative grading. In addition, discussions often arise about whether the grading was a formative or summative assessment.

Objectivity, Quantity, and Types of Assessment

There are three factors necessary for fair grading to take place: objectivity, quantity, and summative assessment. Many educators argue that objective grading is in the best interest of the learner because it fosters fairness and equality. Other educators argue that quantity is the most efficient way to measure what students have learned. While qualitative review is necessary in certain disciplines, it does increase the possibility of grading bias and subjectivity. Therefore, measuring of the number of times a student was grammatically incorrect is safer and more accurate than assessing whether a student’s use of “fantastic” was a better word choice than “amazing.” Certainly, qualitative assessments have their place; however, I contend qualitative assessments are necessary at the formative level when learning happens through scaffolding and repetition. Moreover, in summative assessment when grades and fairness are especially important, it is best to apply a quantitative approach. Clearly, an effective rubric can eliminate subjectivity and other issues . . . right?

Consider the result of subjective terms within a rubric. For instance, perhaps we collect a random and non-scientific sample of 10 online rubrics that assess writing in a variety of disciplines such as from science, communications, psychology, English, and sociology. Some of the criteria within these rubrics include the terms “fresh,” “thorough,” “sloppy,” “excessively brief,” “haphazard organization,” and “visually appealing.”

Do the above terms provide students with clear, objective, and measurable criteria? While having a rubric is a strategy for fair and consistent grading, the components within the rubric need to reflect objectivity. This means that the rubric should outline specific criteria for grading. Instead of using the word “sloppy” as an evaluation of a student’s work, use a term that can be quantitatively evaluated. Below is an example of an effective rubric with specific criteria.

The essay should be free of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax errors and should reflect an academic writing style.
Exceeds Expectations
(10 points)
Meets Expectations
(8-9 points)
Approaches Expectations
(6-7 points)
Below Expectations
(5 or less points)
0-1 of these errors are evident. 2-3 of these errors are evident. 4-5 of these errors are evident. 6 or more of these errors are evident.


Notice that the above rubric does not evaluate students’ writing based on how “fresh” or “sloppy” it is. Instead, the rubric measures spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax mistakes, which are far more quantifiable.

Rubrics should continuously evolve to detect and eliminate subjectivity and increasingly include quantitative, reliable, and objective measures. How can you revise your rubrics to include more objective criteria? Don’t feel you need to completely revamp your rubrics. Instead, try improving upon the good work you have already produced.

Samuel Buemi, Instructor, General Studies

Join Sam as he continues the discussion about fair grading in NISOD’s November 10 webinar, “Is Fair Grading Futile? Exploring a New Type of Assessment.” Register or learn more here!

For further information, contact the author at Northcentral Technical College, 1000 West Campus Drive, Wausau, Wisconsin 54401. Email:

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Free Webinar   NOVEMBER 10

Is Fair Grading Futile? Exploring a New Type of Assessment

How confident are we in believing our assessments are graded fairly? For many educators, assessment is one of the more time-consuming, difficult, and even frustrating parts of the teaching side of education. During this webinar, learn and explore how to grade more fairly while doing so more quickly.
Eastern: 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

Register  :  For User and Password, please contact Robin Muse at



Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXVIII, No. 25 | October 27, 2016

Using Dilemmas and Case Studies to Promote Critical Thinking and Interpersonal Skills

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” – Albert Einstein

For many of us, our student populations are diverse—military, veterans, fathers, mothers, grandparents, siblings, caretakers, high school students, first-generation college students, students with undergraduate and graduate degrees, working professionals, single parents, non-citizen U.S. nationals, and students with full- and part-time jobs. With such diversity, there is an opportunity to experience different perspectives, backgrounds, and cultures in the classroom. One way to capitalize on this valuable opportunity is through classroom discussions.

Lecturing, as an instructional method, is not sufficient. Lecturing is teacher-centered, demonstrating what instructors know. Whereas discussion, an active approach to learning, is student-centered and allows the instructor to discover what students know. Active learning may also involve activities or experiences that encourage practice and application, as well as add value to the content; going beyond the surface-level of content helps students contextualize their learning. According to 2014 research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), science, engineering, and mathematics students showed improvement in grades and reduction in overall failing grades in classes where students were actively engaged versus in classes that were only lecture-based. Active learning promotes critical thinking and enhances interpersonal skills that serve students well not only in the classroom, but also in their careers.

Adding Value Through Engagement

Has a student ever asked, “Will this be on the test?” There is no argument that students want to be successful and, as educators, we want them to be successful, too. However, in some cases, this question may imply a motivation or preference to be taught directly to the test. Occupations require problem solving and critical thinking around general concepts. According to an article for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Teaching to the Test, by W. James Popham, “Cognitive demand does not change when teaching test items.” Translation: Students do not need to think much when being taught directly to the test. ASCD suggests instructors “direct your instruction toward the body of knowledge or skills that a test represents.”

I find that some students are more comfortable memorizing than conceptualizing. Knowing particular facts, algorithms, and core knowledge is important. There are also cases where memorization is necessary (i.e., administering accurate doses of medicine, pilots’ step-by-step procedures when all engines stop running during flight). However, conceptualization helps with retaining and shaping information so judgments and decisions can be made about how to apply core knowledge.

Students view some courses as simply a means to an end and don’t see the value in the course or content, but instead focus on the value of some end goal. For some, the end goal may be a grade point average boost, fulfilling an undesirable but necessary prerequisite, a college degree, a certificate, a job promotion, or to enter a field that offers higher wages. The reality is that all students are not going to share the same level of enthusiasm we have about our content or professional skills. Enthusiasm is not a requirement for learning; however, I continually strive to seek ways to stimulate intellectual curiosity and critical thinking in the classroom.

Students see value in courses of interest or where real-world implications are obvious. Some courses naturally include opportunities to apply content or skills (i.e., nursing, culinary arts, teaching, electrical wiring, truck driving), while other courses or content can leave students wondering where or how they’ll ever use the information. According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement’s report, Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students (High-Impact Practices for Community College Student Engagement), information is best retained when connected to students’ major areas of study, their lives, experiences, or interests. Students can benefit from opportunities to engage in discourse, to hypothesize, investigate, discuss, confirm, or reject ideas and strategies.

Dilemmas and Case Studies

Dilemmas and case studies are excellent ways to encourage cognitive apprenticeship—a form of apprenticeship that focuses on thinking. As educators, professionals, and experts, we know our field well; however, we should not assume that our students have the same awareness or skills to successfully navigate the content.

Many students are likely to have misconceptions related to our content. In an article published by the American Psychological Association, How do I get my Students Over Their Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions) for Learning? Removing Barriers to aid in the Development of the Student, authors Joan Lucariello and David Naff argue that misconceptions are common and hinder learning. Misconceptions are not always easy to change and nearly impossible to identify when lecture is the sole method of instruction. An active approach to change inaccuracies and promote critical thinking is to challenge students to provide evidence from reputable sources in their assignments. Another approach is to have students investigate and reflect on content through application. This strategy can be accomplished using dilemmas and case studies.

Students may not be eager to share or question what they know or think they know. Some assume they do not have any skills or knowledge to contribute to discussions. A strategy to encourage discussion among students is to select or create dilemmas and case studies connected to things students relate to or that may appeal to their curious nature. For example, students in my introductory psychology courses tend to be the least interested in, and to have the most difficulty with, research methods. With this in mind, one of the ways I introduce research methods is by sharing a relatable case (i.e., a texting and driving story), followed by jargon-free discussion questions. The questions are structured around the objectives for the content so class discussions are purposeful. After questioning, I acknowledge participation with praise and restate some of the students’ responses as a display of appreciation for contributions. To stimulate intellectual curiosity, I usually refrain from providing responses to their questions right away. As we begin to discuss research methods, we refer back to the texting and driving case as often as necessary to make relevant connections (i.e., how hypotheses are generated, types of research, ethical considerations).


Dilemmas and case studies may be found through internet searches, consulting with campus research librarians, news media, film, television programs, cartoons, or by sharing personal or professional stories.

The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed cases online that are written by faculty members. There are dilemmas and mini case studies provided for nearly 80 different disciplines and for 10 different educational levels. Disciplines covered in the NCCSTS include agriculture, anatomy, biology, business/management science, civil engineering, computer science, economics, food science/technology, forensic science, journalism, linguistics, mathematics, nursing, nutrition, physics, psychology, public health, sociology, sports science, teacher education, toxicology, veterinary science, and many more. Educational levels span middle school to graduate school, professional degree programs, clinical education, continuing education, and professional development.

Additionally, the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism publishes case studies through an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal titled Case Studies for Strategic Communication. These case studies are designed for use in a classroom environment and cover a wide variety of disciplines such as marketing, development and fundraising, investor relations, and internal or employee communication.

Other internet resources include:

Considerations for Discussions

In addition to cognitive skill development, interpersonal skills are important. Promoting interpersonal skills involves social awareness, listening, and effective communication with others. In my face-to-face and online courses, students have opportunities to test their thoughts and strategies with classmates, provide evidence for their claims, and share relevant background knowledge. When it comes to discussion in face-to-face courses, it is ideal to have small groups of three to four students, which offers students an opportunity to interact and hear a variety viewpoints or different ways to solve problems. Based on my experience and from reviewing literature on groupings, pairs are more likely to veer off topic, depending on how much time you dedicate to the discussion. Pairs also have a greater risk of both students being misinformed, potentially perpetuating misconceptions. Large groups tend to be dominated by a few students, and may even encourage social loafing or lack of participation for students who do not want to interact with others.

Discussions are a way to practice helping others, listening, and working through challenges and disagreements. If students are hesitant to disagree, encourage groups to designate the role of a skeptic for each topic or problem. A skeptic’s role is to question, present an opposing viewpoint, or challenge the group to be more reflective.

Instructional Methods

One consideration when integrating these activities in the classroom is time. There are different instructional methods for integrating dilemmas and case studies into courses. One of the quickest ways to integrate a dilemma and assess student knowledge is by discussing a brief prompt, such as “Would you rather…?” An example for a psychology course might be, “Would you rather have issues with your temporal or occipital lobe?” For a business course, an example might be, “Would you rather invest your money into an established business or start your own business?”

Additional suggestions for integrating dilemmas and case studies include:

  • Give “hooks,” or snapshot previews or reviews of cases, during the first three to five minutes of class.
  • Flip the classroom. Have students review content independently and apply it during class.
  • Integrate the dilemma or case study at different points throughout a lecture.
  • Assign group projects.

Workplace Implications

Employers will expect graduates to demonstrate more than basic knowledge. There is a desire and need for graduates to think critically, be efficient problem solvers, and able to effectively function within the social culture of their workplace. The classroom is an ideal environment to practice and hone these skills.

Kentina Smith, Assistant Professor, Psychology

For further information, contact the author at Anne Arundel Community College at 101 College Parkway, Arnold, Maryland 21012. Email:

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NISOD Notice Updates to Remember

Striving for Excellence Professional Development Series

Striving for Excellence is a partnership between NISOD and Cengage that features a series of webinars, podcasts, and blog posts covering professional development topics for adjunct faculty and administrators. Learn more.

NISOD Regional Workshop

NISOD is pleased to announce its first Regional Workshop, to be held on February 10, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This one-day workshop is designed specifically for community and technical college faculty members. Led by two of the nation’s top facilitators, this workshop provides participants with practical strategies they can apply to become a more effective educator. Learn more.

 January 9th 

Call for Presentations

NISOD is currently accepting proposals to present breakout sessions, roundtable discussions, and preconference seminars at the 2017 International Conference on Teaching and Leadership Excellence to be held May 27-30, in Austin, Texas. Share ideas about cutting-edge teaching and learning strategies, leadership programs, and inspirational innovations that promote student success. Learn more

 January 27th Student Art Contest

One winning student artist will receive $1,000 award; five poster-size copies of the winning artwork; receive the honor of having their artwork serve as the front cover of the 2018 Conference Program; and receive up to $400 in airfare, three nights lodging, and a complimentary conference registration to attend the 2017 International Conference on Teaching and Leadership Excellence. The winning student artist’s college will receive a complimentary NISOD membership. Learn more

 February 3rd Scott Wright Student Essay Contest

Student authors are invited to describe a faculty member, staff member, or administrator who encouraged him or her to reach their goal. Three winning students will each receive a $1,000 check. The faculty members, staff members, or administrators featured in the winning essays will also each receive a $1,000 check. Learn more

 February 3rd NISOD Excellence Awards

Do you know awesome faculty, administrators, and staff—the ones who are a testament to the important work done on your campus every day? Don’t miss this opportunity to show your appreciation for their dedication and contributions by submitting their names for the NISOD Excellence Awards! Learn more.

March 17th Conference Scholarship

Faculty members from NISOD member colleges can apply for a scholarship to attend our annual conference. This benefit provides up to $400 in airfare, three nights lodging, a complimentary conference registration, and complimentary participation in the trip to San Antonio. Learn more.

Innovation Abstracts

Volume XXXVIII, No. 24 | October 20, 2016

What You May Teach Without Knowing It

Consider the things you learn without being fully aware that you are actually learning them. For instance, what can you learn from simply walking into a new building for the first time? With everyone and everything you observe, your mind is giving you feedback based on a multitude of judgments: what people are wearing, their body language, and their responses to your gestures. Each of these observations teaches us something in a relatively short timeframe. These judgments may seem like second nature to some, yet in these observations and judgments is, essentially, teaching and learning without calling it either. I have found this to be a fruitful concept from a pedagogical standpoint: “What am I teaching students and what are they learning, even if I don’t realize teaching and learning are occurring?”

Whether you are an educator in a secondary or postsecondary school, research has shown that actively engaging students in the classroom results in increased understanding, retention of content, and comprehensive learning. How educators promote interaction with and among their students varies, such as class discussions or group projects. Regardless of the methodologies facilitated by an instructor, the challenge is in addressing how much time educators allocate for allowing students to practice such beneficial interaction in the classroom.

It may be helpful to review the correlation of two aspects found in our classes on a daily basis: our expectations of student engagement and our time spent lecturing. First, how efficient do we expect our students to be in collaborating, actively listening, and making their own inferences? Second, what amount of time do we spend lecturing? Perhaps an instructor lectures for a majority of the semester, only periodically allowing students to actively engage in the class, aside from a typical question-and-answer session. If this is the case, the instructor may find his/her expectations exceeding students’ collaborative skills, since students in those circumstances don’t have much opportunity to interact with one another or the instructor.

However, the trend toward student-centered learning continues to progress. According to a 2014 report from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, lecturing has continued to decrease on a large scale since 1989. However, 2013-2014 research cites that 50.6 percent of faculty surveyed nationwide still rely on lecturing to a significant degree for at least part of each semester. The data show improvement in learning taking place, but not necessarily as quickly as one might assume. Of course, there is a place for lectures, and class size will limit some courses to such, which is arguably why we continue to see a high percentage of faculty using lectures. However, most educators would argue that lecturing is never as effective as facilitation, where the instructor directs the conversation and infuses the knowledge necessary to spur dialogue among students. While being aware that we are teaching content through lecture, we may be unaware that we are also teaching students to forego skills, such as being constructively critical, speaking, and arriving at conclusions.[i]

Many educators, myself included, feel as though they cannot cover enough content without integrating lecture at least proportionately with class discussions or similar activities. This is a valid concern. That being said, if research proves pedagogical and andragogical are effective strategies that call for student interaction among peers, do we forego quality for quantity? Our goal as educators should be to achieve content coverage and active student engagement. Through adapting curriculum, as well as assessments, it is truly an attainable goal.

I have found that in postsecondary history courses, the relevance of the material to my students’ lives is, in most cases, sufficient to generate student discussion throughout the semester. Therefore, adequately covering the necessary content does not create an obstacle. There is no doubt every discipline has advantages and disadvantages in terms of how a class must be structured for success; however, for educators of all disciplines, teaching philosophies are more than theories. They are experiments where pragmatic planning is indispensable. Potential activities that focus not only on collaboration, but also critical thinking include:

  • Informal, student-led discussions about specific content covered in the course.
  • A formal research paper/presentation requiring unique, student-developed arguments, teaching the utility in creating genuine inferences and corroborated research.
  • Student-generated questions posed to their peers for responses in an informal context.
  • Student-led critiques and analyses of research provided by the instructor.
  • A discussion about the contemporary relevancy to the material being studied.
  • Student debates involving the ethical implications, the progressive or regressive effects, or the effectiveness of using current practices within specific industries. This activity is useful across many disciplines, including the sciences, communications, business, education, history, and more.

Nevertheless, if someone walked into a classroom as an instructor was assigning students a project that required collaboration, and the students reacted with confusion or lack of confidence, that person might question the underlying reason. Yet, the answer is clear: we all do well at what we practice. As educators, we should challenge ourselves to break down into percentages the degree of emphasis and the time that we allocate in our courses to help students develop the skills with which we expect them to become proficient. Are we teaching our students how to be active learners when we have classes with limited collaboration or student input?

Perhaps we are teaching students to be inheritors; students inherit information, rules, culture, and so on, instead of contributing or adding new ideas. Looking back on our own experience as students, how often did our instructors ask for our opinions? Or, instead, did they offer their own opinions, in which case we were not taught how and when to be pragmatic, nor how and when to challenge the status quo.

If we forego opportunities for student-centered learning, then perhaps we are unwittingly proliferating confusion and diminished confidence when our students are asked to practice critical thinking in a context outside of the classroom. Aside from content, let us take note of what we are teaching our students, even when we may not realize we are indeed teaching them.

Dale Schlundt, Adjunct Professor, History

For further information, contact the author at Palo Alto College, 1400 West Villaret Boulevard, San Antonio, Texas 78224. Email:

[i] Eagan, M.K., Stolzenburg, E.B., Berdan Lozaon, J., Aragon, M.C., Surchard, M.R., and Hurtado, S. (2014).Undergraduate Teaching Faculty, 2013-2014 HERI Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Volume XXXVIII, No. 22 | October 7, 2016

Creating a Culture of Evidence With Course-Level Dashboards

At many community colleges, faculty and administrators have a long list of unmet data needs. In order to submit a data request to a typically small, overworked Institutional Research (IR) department, faculty and administrators often need to know specifically what they are looking for—and then wait until IR has time to get back to them, which could be weeks or even months.

Yet we are increasingly asked to help improve student outcomes, especially regarding retention, completion, and closing achievement gaps, with little or stale data from which to work. And while IR departments are often able to provide data at the institutional level for retention and completion, current data at the departmental and classroom level are often unavailable. How do we increase student success at the departmental and course level without knowing how students are currently doing at those levels?

At Pierce College, we found ourselves facing this data deficit. We knew we wanted faculty and administrators to have access to timely, accessible data on their desktops. We determined we needed two things to start: a data dash-boarding tool that would be simple and powerful to use, and the human capacity to create it. Fortunately, we had access to Tableau software’s dash-boarding tools through the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, and we had just hired a third person in our IR department with the skill set needed to create the dashboards we needed. The resulting dashboards allow users to dig into the data, and sort them using a wide array of variables. They leveraged the collective knowledge of faculty and administrators to create a more data-transparent and data-driven decision-making culture. In essence, the Tableau dashboards have been a game changer.

In 2010, we began earnest work to increase student retention and completion, while also closing achievement gaps. In 2012, we decided we weren’t moving quickly enough and joined the Association for Talent Development (ATD). As we began working with ATD, we started to share disaggregated institutional data at summits and department meetings on a regular basis. It quickly became apparent that even though we were sharing details about our students’ success at an unprecedented level of detail, it was still at a scale difficult for individuals to act upon. We could see our overall retention rates and the differences in student populations, but we could not see how students were doing in specific fields, such as chemistry or psychology.

An additional insight occurred when we began a complete redesign of our precollege math sequence. Like most colleges, the majority of our students started in precollege math, and the majority of those students never completed a college-level math class. As we began placing students in higher level math classes with the necessary support strategies, shorten the precollege sequence, and create STEM and non-STEM pathways, we determined that we needed to hold a series of focus groups to better understand the student experience.

We asked students who were successful in our existing precollege sequence to tell us what mattered most in their success. The response was surprising and a bit troubling: students felt that the biggest factor in whether they would be successful was which instructor taught the course. With certain instructors, they told us, you would almost certainly be successful, with others you would not.

Based on this finding, we disaggregated our precollege math data based on instructor. What we found confirmed what the students told us. For some instructors, the number of students successfully completing the course was consistently around 30 percent, while for others it was consistently 95 percent. For students, being successful in precollege math was a roll of the dice. As we began to dig deeper into the data, it became clear that this range in success rates by instructor was ubiquitous across the college. Furthermore, not only were faculty not aware of the range in student success by instructor, neither were administrators. The faculty realized that they needed a way to see their course-level data term to term, as well as the data of their colleagues, and they asked if that were possible.

In responding to this request, the question was not whether we should allow everyone at the college to see course-level data, but how we could do it in a manner that would create a sense of curiosity and a desire to address the issue of student success, especially on the part of faculty. How could we avoid creating a punitive culture of blame and having a handful of resistant faculty thwart our efforts? We believed that, faced with the facts of how student success varied across departments, faculty would take on this issue and the responsibility of norming how they were grading and interpreting course outcomes. Our focus became how best to get this level of data into the hands of those individuals who ultimately would need to do the work of norming outcomes and grading.

To roll out the dashboards to faculty, staff, and administrators, we decided to borrow a page from E.M. Rogers’s 1962 diffusion of innovation theory. The theory describes the adoption of innovation as being very dependent on human capital; there must be wide adoption in order for the innovation to be sustained. Rogers divided those adopting innovations into four groups: early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Our idea was to not mandate that faculty, staff, and administrators use the new dashboards, but to first approach the most innovative individuals to be early adopters, or beta testers. As the earliest adopters shared their impressions about how useful and insightful the dashboards were, more and more faculty, staff, and administrators began asking for access to the dashboards. In this voluntary manner, we quickly reached a tipping point at which a majority of faculty and administrators were using the dashboards. Today, users have live access from any device, and nearly all full-time and an increasing number of part-time faculty use the dashboards. All administrators and many staff do so as well.

Today, we continue to develop new dashboards; there are more than 250 dashboard users, with faculty representing 67 percent of all users. The dashboards have been a game changer here at Pierce College. Decisions are made based on evidence, whereas in the past they might have been made based on anecdotal information. We no longer wait so long for answers to our data-related questions that we forget what we asked in the first place! Very importantly, our IR staff has been relieved of their duties as data “wait staff” and can engage in more meaningful and in-depth institutional research.

Most important, we are seeing real changes in student outcomes. With norming work completed or underway in nearly every academic department, student retention, course completion, and degree completion are rising. Faculty now know how students are doing in their classes and those of their peers and that, we are finding, is the most important precondition for improvement.

Thomas Broxson, District Dean, Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Join Tom in NISOD’s October 12 webinar, “Empowering Faculty With Course-Level Data to Drive Institutional Change,” as he continues the discussion about providing faculty and administrators with data that promote student success.Sign up or learn more here.

For further information, contact the author at Pierce College, 1601 39th Avenue SE, Puyallup, Washington 98374. Email:

Examples of Dashboard Data

CCSSE Benchmarks: CCSSE Standardized Benchmark Scores (2011 and 2014) for Academic Challenge, Active and Collaborative Learning, Student Effort, Student/Faculty Interactions, and Support for Learners. View graph.

Selection criteria includes campus, enrollment status, race/ethnicity, gender, first-generation, developmental, credits completed, and age.

Capacity and Fill Rate: Class capacity and fill rates by campus and division. View graph.

Selection criteria include program/discipline, time of day, and instructor status.

Course Enrollment and Grade Distribution: Enrollment and grade ranges, annual and quarterly averages, and decimal and letter grade (e.g., incomplete, withdraw) distributions. View graph.

Selection criteria include year, quarter, modality, department, course number, placement test, campus/location, instructor status, and instructor name.

Custom output filters include age, gender, race/ethnicity, enrollment status, family status, first generation, Running Start status, veteran benefits status, placement test status.

FTE and Enrollment Report: FTE targets, comparison, and transactions with headcount and demographics. Comparison and transactions by academic year and quarter. View graph.

FTE comparison selection criteria includes academic year, quarter, funding type (state, contract, self-funded), FTE type (reportable, non-reportable), and site/location.

Custom output filters include administration unit, department, age, gender, race/ethnicity, enrollment status, family status, first generation, Running Start status, veteran benefits status, Pell grant recipient, international, work first, and worker retraining.

Headcount and Demographics: Unduplicated headcounts for students with breakouts for total headcount, race/ethnicity, kind of student (e.g., workforce, academic, basic skills), highest enrolled programs, age, first generation, gender, family status, enrollment status, and veteran benefits status, and a mapping/location function. View graph.

Selection criteria include year, quarter, modality, department, course number, placement test, census race, campus/location, instructor status, and instructor name.

Quarterly Waitlist: Current quarter waitlist by Campus and Division. View graph.

Selection criteria include waitlist status, campus, division, program/discipline, course number, and course start time. Running Start status and enrollment status are also available.

Student Achievement Initiative (SAI): SAI point (2012- 2015) funding -% share of system, point comparison, and trends with benchmark colleges and Washington state CTCs. View graph.

Point comparison and trend selection criteria include student achievement point measures, year, and comparison colleges.

Student Degree and Certificate Completion: Academic awards based on five years (2010-present) of ATD (new, degree-seeking students) fall cohort data. Also, includes distribution of all degrees and certificate completions by program broken out by age, race/ethnicity, family status, gender, first generation, enrolment status, Running Start, and Pell status. View graph.

Cohort selection criteria include cohort year,completion type (no degree/certificate, associate’s degree, certificate, high school completion, workforce, and general studies).

Degree by program selection criteria include academic year, cohort year, award type, education program code, and degree title.

Student Retention: Five years (2010-present) of ATD (new, degree-seeking students) fall cohort data, broken out by annual and quarterly retention rates, age, race/ethnicity, family status, gender, first generation, Running Start, and Pell status. View graph.

Cohort selection criteria include cohort year.

Demographic selection criteria include cohort year, selected demographic, and academic quarter.

Subsequent Course Completion: For questions about the balance between success rates and maintaining course rigor. View graph.

Initial course selection criteria: year, quarter, course, instructor, grade (decimal) quartile, time of day, and modality.

Subsequent course selection criteria :year, quarter, course, campus, time of day, and modality.

Custom output filters include age, gender, race/ethnicity, enrollment status, family status, Pell recipient, first generation, Running Start status, veteran benefits status, and placement test status

Successful Course Completion: Number and percentage of students successfully completing their classes (2.0 or higher). View graph.

Selection criteria include year and quarter, modality, time of day, department, course number, item number, placement test status, campus/location, instructor status, and instructor name.