Friday, February 27, 2009

How inclusive are our classrooms really?

Look carefully at this picture. Is this the sign that is implicitly posted in our classrooms?

I thought that my teaching style was pretty inclusive for ESL students - I try to avoid or at least explain English idioms, I make a lot of eye contact and never speak to the board, I provide written as well as verbal instructions, I try to include cross-cultural examples, I ask students to work in groups so they can practice explaining concepts to one another...

But this past week I received a message from a student who felt that she had not done well on the first exam because her native language is Japanese, and it takes her longer to read and answer the multiple choice and short answer questions I required her to complete. I had prepared what I thought was a reasonable exam for a 45-minute time period - for an English speaker. It hadn't occurred to me how difficult my exam would be if you had to first break the language barrier before being able to really engage with the material.

I didn't know how to respond. Speaking English as a second language is not a disability, and therefore is not covered by the ADA academic accommodations policy. Generally my own policy is that unless a student has a documented disability, I don't provide accommodations that I am not willing to extend to all students in the class. I can't give everyone extra time (even if I wanted to, there's another class in the same room immediately before and after mine), and I can't make the exam much shorter without sacrificing the validity of the assessment tool (I wouldn't be able to adequately sample the material we had covered).

Unfortunately it seems that throughout higher education, unless they are taking an ESL course (such as those offered by our Department of Linguistics), ESL students have to "sink or swim". Is this the way it should be, or is there a way for me to provide ESL students with accommodations without native English speakers feeling that they have been treated unfairly? What is the equitable solution here?

I'm eager to hear your thoughts...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Timely, constructive feedback - it's not just for students!

Most instructors know that it's important to provide students with feedback on their performance early in the semester, so they have time to improve. But how many of us actually solicit feedback on our performance as teachers?

It's important that we get feedback on our teaching so we can continue to grow as instructors and provide our students with the best learning experience possible. There are several sources from which to pull - we can ask students to tell us what they think, ask our colleagues to observe our classes or review our materials and offer advice, and we can seek out those trained in teaching and learning in higher education (such as the consultants at CTLE) to consult with us and provide guidance.

So how should we respond to feedback once we get it? First, look for themes, and try not to take negative feedback personally. If only one person says they hate the way you dress, this is not very useful feedback. But if many of your students, and your colleagues, suggest that your lessons are disorganized, this is something to which you likely want to attend. Unfortunately, students usually won't be able to tell us how to fix the problem. However our colleagues can provide examples of approaches they've tried, and teaching consultants can offer ideas, workshops, and resources to help.

Some general advice, if you plan to change something based on feedback you've received, is to leave the structure of the course (e.g., course requirements and grading) untouched until the next time around, and to only change a few things rather than attempting a major overhaul mid-semester. Try to identify the one or two most important issues that could be addressed by making minor adjustments (e.g., incorporating more activities or discussion to liven up a long lecture class).

Finally, make sure that you let students and colleagues know that you appreciate their comments, even if you are not going to make all (or any!) of the changes they've suggested. For students, you can summarize the comments, touching on the major themes that arose, and let them know what you will be doing to address any concerns. If you are not going to make a suggested change, provide an explanation (e.g., I won't be grading on a curve, because I think it's important that you meet the course standards rather than be compared to one another, and for some grading on a curve could actually hurt their grades).

Did you know?

The Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence provides a wide variety of free and confidential services to help instructors at the University of Utah assess their teaching effectiveness, and we will also consult with you to help you interpret the feedback you receive and make decisions about how to make adjustments to your course. Review details and request services on our website.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Teaching ESL Students to Write

After my last post about writing, I received a message from Zuzana Tomas, a graduate student and instructor in Linguistics. She suggested that I share with you some information about the ESL Writing Initiative. According to their website, "The ESL Writing Initiative exists to provide accessible information to faculty members and instructors about how to teach, assign, and respond to the writing of students of English as a second language ("ESL students") across the U."

Although most of us support efforts to increase diversity in the classroom, we may not always be sufficiently prepared to adapt our teaching to the diverse set of abilities and needs that our students bring with them. In Fall 2008, 7% (or nearly 2000 U of U students) were identified as International Students, many of whom speak English as a second language. Furthermore, because of the diversity within the US, we would be naive to assume that all of our domestic students are native English speakers. Neverthless, the majority of our classes our conducted entirely in English.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to try to master a subject at the college level in a language with which you are not entirely familiar? This is the position many of our students are in, so we as instructors need to find ways to help them strive towards the same high standards to which we hold other students. Perhaps not surprisingly, you'll find that many of the techniques used to help support the learning of ESL students can also help native English speakers as well.

Do you provide both written and oral instructions when giving an assignment? Do you ask a colleague to review your assignment to make sure the instructions are clear? Do you provide models, perhaps through the use of student examples?

These are just some of the tips provided by the ESL Writing Initiative. What else have you done in your class to support ESL students in their writing?

Did you know?

Students appreciate having examples of past student work. These examples are most effective if you've included your comments and grading along with the example. Just be sure to ask for permission before using a student's paper as an example, and to create written assignments that discourage copying the example (e.g., require students to analyze a different case than in the original paper, or incorporate real-life experiences).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Minute Paper

Although the candle is likely now replaced by a desk lamp with an energy-saving bulb, the espresso with an energy drink, and the pen and paper with a laptop, staring at a blank page in the middle of the night has likely been a familiar, and dreaded, experience for college students of any era. How can we help our students avoid this predicament?

One way is to integrate low-pressure writing assignments into your course. The "Minute Paper" is a great example. This is likely the most commonly used classroom assessment technique (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Typically the way it is used is to ask students a question (e.g., What was the most important point from lecture today?, What is the main achievement of the first stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development and what new skills does this achievement support?), and provide them with one minute to write their answers on a scrap of paper. Some instructors ask students to write their names on the papers and count them towards class participation, but the most common practice is to have the papers submitted anonymously.

Typically, the main benefit of this exercise that is discussed is that it allows instructors to quickly assess student understanding. Even in large classes, the Minute Paper allows you to see how many students "got it", and perhaps what details you need to review. This approach is also useful for collecting quick feedback about group work or the use of a new technique.

An additional benefit to the Minute Paper is that you are encouraging students to write. Used often, this exercise provides practice in getting ideas down on the page in a limited amount of time. This could help student performance on essay exams and in other written work, as there will be less time spent staring at a blank page and more time writing down ideas.

One caveat to the use of the Minute Paper is that if you use them frequently but do not respond to what students have written, students may take them less seriously, thus making the exercise less useful (both for you and for your students).

Resource: Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wikis - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Wikis - you've probably heard of them, you may have even used one, but did you know that you can create your own?

Probably the most well-known wiki is Wikipedia. This is an online encyclopedia where anyone can create and edit entries. This brings us straight to the bad...and the ugly. Wikipedia in and of itself is a fantastic idea - it allows anyone to search for information on anything, and really it can be a very useful tool to get you started on learning about something new. Unfortunately, most undergraduate students don't understand that their next door neighbor Flo may have actually written the article on King Arthur based on her viewing of Monty Python's The Holy Grail, and the article was then edited by Joe in Idaho based on his memory of Disney's The Sword in the Stone. This is of course an invented example to make a point, the point being that most undergraduate students are in the process of learning how to evaluate a source, and Wikipedia looks official (and is easy to use) and thus is trusted. This is the bad - the ugly is when students copy an article in full and submit it as their own work.

So are wikis evil? Of course not, but they do require that we educate our students about how sites such as Wikipedia gather information and how this differs from the types of information they would find in peer-reviewed journal articles (for example). For an idea about where to get started, you may want to review Wikipedia's About Page (and have your students read it too). Another idea is to have students write a Wikipedia entry themselves - read about one such assignment here.

Wikipedia is only one example of a wiki. A wiki allows anyone (or just those you invite) to create, edit, or comment on a document, and tracks the changes for you. There are many sites that offer free wiki hosting, such as I've used wikis to schedule meeting times and agendas. I have colleagues who've successfully used wikis to conduct peer reviews of written work and allow for offsite group work. One of our TA Scholars, Rachel Eddington, is creating a wiki for the instructors in the Department of Sociology to post and share their teaching resources.

How have you used wikis in your teaching? Please share your success stories - and challenges you faced - in using wikis in your courses.

Did you know?

You can learn more about the TA Scholars program and read about the other exciting projects being developed on our website:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Blue Books"

This past week my students took their first exam. I had asked them to purchase "blue books" at the campus bookstore, as the exam had a written component. Then it dawned on me that it would be possible for students to write answers inside their blue books and then use them in the exam. It's not that I don't trust my students, but certainly I didn't want to tempt them, especially when they are under pressure to perform. So I asked around and got some advice from instructors and students alike. Here are some of their ideas:

1) Have students purchase the books and hand them in as they enter the classroom. Then you redistribute the books, so no one gets the one they came in with.

2) Ask students to begin writing their answers on the third page of the book, so the first few pages should be blank.

3) Instruct students to flip the books over and upside down, and treat the last page as if it were the first.

4) Supply your own blue books for the first exam and then use the ones students brought for the next exam. At the end of the year, you get "reimbursed" when students bring in books for the final exam, which you can use in a future class or return to the bookstore for a refund.

Did you know?

We post a teaching tip every Tuesday! To submit your tips, email us at and include "blog" in the subject header.

Friday, February 6, 2009

How can I use a blog to teach?

Many of you may be familiar with blogs - people use these web journals to keep in touch with family and friends, write about their own experiences, or comment on topics and issues they find interesting.

But can a blog be a teaching tool?

As many of us try to adjust our teaching to the new generation of students (known as the Millennials), we look for ways to make use of the technologies that many of these students are familiar with. Blogs can be a great way to make course content accessible to students (and promote learning outside the classroom)!

So what can you do with a blog? Some instructors use blogs to post updates and announcements about the class, or provide reflections on that day's lesson. Have you ever promised to get back to a student on a question, but then didn't have time in a later lecture? A blog is a great forum to provide supplementary material and answer questions that may be slightly tangential to the main thrust of the lesson.

Blogs can be interactive, too. Students can post comments and questions, or you can allow them access to create and post their own contributions. Potentially, you could use a blog to give students a forum to present their work. Imagine group presentations given completely online - with written work and embedded video! The comments function would allow classmates to leave peer feedback without the pressure of having to speak in front of the whole class. You may find that your quieter students, or those who need a little more time to think before answering a question in class, come to life online.

Of course, blogs have their drawbacks too. First of all, you need to learn how to use them. Luckily, there are many free blogs available (simply do a search for "blog", and you'll find a long list), and most have user-friendly interfaces and straightforward user guides. Also, the University of Utah has resources available for instructors eager to incorporate technology into their classroom. Drop by TACC (the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center located in the Marriott Library) and they can help lead you through using your blog.

Another consideration is that not all of your students may be familiar with blogs. You may want to take a few minutes from class time to provide a "guided tour" near the beginning of the semester (also a great idea with other online tools you will be using!), and create a document or page that outlines some frequently asked questions (like our "How to navigate the CTLE blog").

Now let's hear from you!

Have you used blogging as a teaching tool? What worked for you and what presented a challenge? Do you have tips to share? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts, ideas, and links to your blogs!

Did you know?

CTLE holds a Brown Bag meeting most Fridays from 12:30-1:30 in the Sill Center conference room. This is a time to chat informally with other instructors on campus. Share teaching ideas, ask questions, or try out activities - just don't forget to bring your lunch!

Our next meeting is Friday, February 20, 2009. Hope to see you there!

Monday, February 2, 2009


Welcome to the blog of the Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence at the University of Utah!

At CTLE, our mission is to promote and support excellence in teaching and learning at the University of Utah. We're hoping that you will find this blog to be a useful addition to the other resources we provide. Here you'll find reflections on teaching and learning in higher education, announcements about upcoming workshops and events, ongoing conversations about hot topics in higher ed, and ideas you can try in your own classrooms.

We also hope that you will contribute to the conversation. Ask questions, suggest topics, leave comments, and share your own ideas - we are always happy to hear from you!


You can subscribe to this blog by clicking on the selecting your favorite service from the "Subscrible" section on the left side of the page. Make sure you never miss a helpful teaching tip by having entries sent directly to your email inbox!