Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence: Teach Your Course

Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence

Teach Your Course

You've designed your course - what next? These resources provide a brief introduction and guide to a successful semester of teaching. We draw in large part from Linda Nilson's Teaching at Its Best (2016), a great resource for educators. You can find online copies of the book through the Perry Castañeda Library.

For additional information about any of the topics below or to schedule a consultation with CATE, please reach out to us at MoodyCATE@austin.utexas.edu

Communication and Engagement

Creative a positive, welcoming, and inclusive classroom climate and using clear and regular communication are among the most important things any instructor can do to set the tone and manage the class. One of the best ways to ensure a successful semester for you and your students is to take the time to cultivate a welcoming, supportive, and inclusive climate. There are many benefits to doing this – students are more likely to achieve the learning outcomes of the course, develop higher-order thinking skills, be motivated to learn, and be satisfied with the course (Cornelius-White, 2007; Granitz, Koernig, & Harich, 2009). Build rapport by incorporating icebreakers early and often, have the teaching team participate. Consider using a survey to learn about your students – their interests, goals, needs, etc. Learn and use students’ names. Get to class 10 minutes early and stay 10 minutes late to make space for informal time. Incorporate inclusive teaching practices (more on this below). Tell students that your class welcomes different viewpoints and that you will not tolerate insensitive remarks – hold them accountable as necessary. Share your enthusiasm for the subject and for their learning; excitement and positivity are contagious. Finally, solicit student input and feedback throughout the semester. This gives them some agency in their learning and makes them feel included and heard.

Additional Resources:

UT Center for Teaching and Learning - Icebreakers
UT Center for Teaching and Learning - Starting the Semester Strong

Facilitating discourse during the course is critical to maintaining interest, motivation and engagement of students in active learning” (Anderson, et al, 2001). 

Communication is critical to establishing trust and fostering student engagement. Instructors should plan to communicate often throughout the course. In long semesters, plan to communicate with students at least once a week – more frequently early in the semester. At the start of the course, tell students explicitly what to expect regarding communication – preferred method of communication (email, online discussion tool such as Slack, phone/text), when can they expect a response from the teaching team, when are office hours, if and when they’ll get reminders about assignments or exams. Be creative and use different modalities – for example, use the video feature in Canvas to create a video announcement instead of the usual text. Encourage students to come to office hours and not only when they have a question about the subject matter. Reach out, as possible, individually to students just to check in and see how they are doing. Don’t wait for them to have a problem and come to you, as we know, some of them never will. When teaching, share parts of yourself – use anecdotes and examples from your life to activate emotions. Not only do student remember good stories, they’ll also feel connected to you and appreciate your willingness to share. Finally, model active listening strategies and do your best to facilitate this in your students. Communication works much better when we listen to understand each other.

Student motivation is both intrinsic and extrinsic and can be inspired by a variety of goals including good grades, high paying jobs, social belonging, personal growth and development, and more. Not all students will be motivated by the same things or in the same ways so it’s important to use many different motivational strategies to reach as many students as possible. Nilson (2016) provides a list of 55 Strategies for Motivating Students broken down into variety of methods including your persona, the subject matter, your teaching, and assignments and tests. Strategies include getting to know your students and vice versa, delivering presentations with enthusiasm and energy, fostering good communication, maintaining classroom civility. Additionally, allow students to contribute to course content and design, explain to students why you have chosen certain materials or methods, teach by inquiry, ensure accessibility of materials, and set high expectations but realistic performance goals. Finally, be fair and equitable, provide prompt and regular feedback (and don’t forget about positive feedback!), give second chances, allow options for demonstrating learning.

Discussions, when effectively facilitated, can be a great complement to lecture and help students meet learning outcomes such as active listening, critical thinking, oral communication, and application of the information they’re learning. Consider the timing and placement of discussions in your course, prepare students to engage appropriately by setting both expectations and ground rules for participation and civility. You can use policies, such as grading, to encourage participation, but often participation will come down setting a positive and inclusive class climate (see above). When managing the discussion, be proactive about reducing barriers to participation, for example use a low-stakes warm up topic to get students talking, use thoughtful pauses or create time for students to make notes before opening up for comments, use small groups and share outs, continue the discussion with blogs, wikis, Canvas posts, etc. Just as important as managing the discussion is asking good, deeply probing questions. Consider using Socratic questioning or use questions at each cognitive level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (see Nilson, 2016). The goal is to get at high-order thinking and not just recitation. Finally, as the instructor you do not always need to be leading the discussions. By modeling and facilitating productive discussions you can train students to lead discussions, ask good questions, and engage one another.

When it comes to difficult situations in class, anticipation and prevention are key. Establishing your classroom presence with a balance of authority and approachability, will set a tone of respect for you and for the class space. Set class norms and expectations early and refer back regularly while encouraging students to hold each other accountable. Consider setting these collectively as a class so that students buy in. When something does happen, in the moment you can ask students to pause and reflect before engaging. This also gives you a moment to gather your composure. Ask everyone to use “I” statements and not to speak for someone else. Depending on the situation, you may need to address things directly with the group or you may be able to address it individually on a break or after class. It can be critical, in the moment, to acknowledge an incident and damage it may have caused but it can be equally critical to not let it derail the class or take up unwarranted space. This will likely be a judgement call for you. Afterwards, be sure to follow up and check in with individuals as needed. You may also wish to make space in the next class or later in the semester to address the issue in more depth as a group. Remember you are not alone in dealing with these situations and can draw on support and ideas from colleagues or CATE staff.

Teaching Methods

The methods you choose to teach should be based the desired result of learning as defined by your learning outcomes. Your teaching methods should also be aligned with the way you intend to assess student learning to support their successful performance. Teaching methods include all learning experiences you provide in the form of assignments and activities whether in class or outside of class. A wide variety of teaching methods are available, such as lecture, interactive lecture, recitation, discussion, writing exercises, classroom assessment techniques, group work, peer feedback, case method, problem-based learning, project-based learning, service learning, role plays, games, simulations, debates, and fieldwork and clinicals. Some teaching methods can be used to support learning outcomes at most levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example, writing exercise, problem-based learning, project-based learning, and case method can be used effectively to address most cognitive levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Other methods are more limited. For example, lecture-only, interactive lecture, and recitation support learning outcomes at the lowest level in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

An excellent summary of teaching methods aligned to different levels of learning outcomes is available in Teaching at Its Best by Linda Nilson (2016). See also the section on “teaching moves” in the same book.

Lecturing is one of the most prevalent teaching methods in higher education. Although there is ample evidence that learner-centered active methods are more effective for promoting higher order thinking and deep understanding, lectures are effective for conveying factual knowledge. Avoid lecturing on material that is available elsewhere or duplicates other course material. Define the learning outcomes for each lecture, and inform students of the outcomes you expect. Limit the scope to a few main concepts. Include a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction should provide context and review of material covered in the previous class session. The body of the lecture should be divided into 10- to 15-minute chunks. Make the organization clear by providing an outline. Use concrete examples to elucidate concepts and connect with real-world experience. The conclusion should provide students with the opportunity for retrieval practice to promote retention. This can take the form of oral summaries by a few students, a free-recall writing exercise or one-minute paper, or a quiz.

The most common problems with lectures are trying to include too much material and delivering the material too fast. Pace yourself as you are speaking. Let your enthusiasm for the material show. Lecture slides should contain minimal text focusing on high level main points. Incorporate graphics or short videos to increase engagement and illustrate concepts.

Students’ attention begins to wane after 10-15 minutes, so plan two- to five-minute breaks between the segments of your lecture. The good news is you can use these breaks for active learning tasks that reach higher cognitive levels than just conveying factual knowledge. Depending on the activity, students will work individually or in pairs or triads. Common activities include think-pair-share, pair and compare notes, free-recall of main points, reflection or reaction paragraph, multiple-choice poll question followed by paired discussion, students write a multiple-choice test question, pair or group graphic (e.g., concept map, graphic organizer, flowchart), or a small group discussion of open-ended question.

At the simplest level, experiential learning allows students to construct knowledge through direct experience. Experiential learning is often thought of as experiences outside the classroom, such as internships, field work, or study abroad. But experiential learning can take place in an academic setting or a real-life setting. Benefits of experiential learning include developing deep understanding of subject matter, promoting critical thinking, applying knowledge in complex circumstances, providing deeply engaging experiences, fostering key professional skills, such as leadership, teamwork, communication, and problem solving.

CATE’s views on experiential learning are closely aligned with UT’s Center for Teaching and Learning. According the the Center, experiential learning includes several key components: “Experiential learning opportunities offer students assignments and activities based on real-life situations or primary research that engages them in reflection and problem-solving with multiple avenues of inquiry.” Assignments parallel the activities and thinking of professionals. Students works with raw data, text, or artifacts that have not be pre-processed to understand their significance. Students reflect on what they have done and concluded to analyze their learning. Students use evidence they can collect to analyze and synthesize conclusions. Students have agency to make decisions about their process and product. The UT Center for Teaching and Learning has compiled an excellent Deeper Dive Instructional Guide on experiential learning. Members of the UT community can self-enroll. Join with your UT EID.

The benefits of group learning are numerous, including improving student productivity, critical thinking, self-esteem, intercultural relations, and interpersonal relationships. Students often dread group work because they have been in a group that was not well-organized or had members that did not carry their weight. To avoid the potential pitfalls of group learning, it’s important to carefully structure group assignments and support group formation. Group learning requires students to become active problems solvers, take risks, take personal responsibility, become interdependent with their team, and see their peers and themselves as sources of knowledge. The instructor’s role also changes from being expert provider of knowledge to being a facilitator and coach.

In successful groups, members are individually accountable but interdependent. Each member does their fair share of the work and feels personal responsibility for the success of teammates. Here are some suggestions to encourage interdependence and accountability: Require teams to develop and sign a team contract. Allow time early in the semester for teams to agree on how they will deal with non-contributing members. Give all group members a group grade as well as an individual grade. Provide information or resources to individuals so they have to share with the team. Assign individuals a part of the overall task. Randomly call on students to speak for the group. Require all members to edit or sign off on the final product. Provide criteria for team members to evaluate themselves and their peers, and count that in their final grade.

Avoid letting students form their own long-term groups. Assign them to groups based on their interests or some other criteria. Take care to form groups that are heterogeneous in terms of ability, race, gender, and other characteristics. This contributes to developing social skills, helps students understand and get along with people of different backgrounds, and learn the material better.

Allow some time in class for team meetings. Avoid assignments or projects where it’s easy to simply “divide and conquer”, thereby not reaping the benefits of group learning. Group assignments should pose a legitimate challenge that requires higher order thinking by more than one student to solve the problem within the time limit. There should be multiple acceptable solutions or multiple means of reaching a solution. Explicitly discuss the qualities that make good teammates (e.g., active listening, being prepared, sharing resources, giving constructive feedback, etc.) and include those among the learning outcomes for the group assignment. Give groups a structured task that requires a specific product at the end. For long-term group projects, set interim deadlines for the components (e.g., pitch, outline, data collection, first draft, etc.)

Facilitating Learning

Learning is the responsibility of the learner; however, many students do not know how to learn. Instructors can take a number of steps to teach students how to take responsibility and guide themselves through the learning process. When possible, encourage self-regulated learning, which is the process of conscious planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s learning. Students often use ineffective learning techniques so it’s important that you teach them effective learning techniques and help them to be better learners. Incorporate opportunities for goal setting for learning in your class and encourage connecting their goals to the learning outcomes. Knowledge surveys at the beginning and again at the end of a course can help students to see where they started and how much they grew over the semester. Including lots of active learning followed by reflection keeps students engaged in the learning experience while facilitating the reflection and processing necessary for self-regulated learning. Using techniques such as minute free-writes, pair and share discussions, reflective writing assignments, and self-correcting exams gives you and your students opportunities to check in on their learning and make adjustments as needed. Students learn in different ways and at different paces, it’s important to give students agency, with support, throughout the process. It’s important to show compassion – remember a time when you were learning something new and both the challenges and rewards of your hard work.

Additional Resources:

“Learning (Your First Job),” by Robert Leamnson (2002)
“Learning to Learn,” by Karl R. Wirth and Dexter Perkins (2008b)

There are a multitude of reasons that students may not adequately prepare for class, many of which are out of the hands of the instructor. That said, there are steps you can take to incentivize preparedness, starting with clearly conveying your expectations about preparation in the syllabus and at the start of the semester. When assigning homework, include study questions or another small assignment to complete while they read, view a video, listen to a podcast, etc. Use class time to answer questions and clarify content from the homework but not to lecture the same material. Use inclusive teaching practices (see below) to increase engagement, for example allow students to choose some readings, podcasts, or films or ask them for input on an assignment. If they’ve helped to curate the materials or create the assignment, they’re more likely to complete it. It’s also helpful to assess students regularly using low-stakes quizzes, group assignments, or discussion posts that require them to have completed the readings or other homework. Finally, make sure that homework is tied to the learning outcomes for the course and make this explicit to the students, that way they understand the “point” of the homework.

Additional Resources:
11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What's Assigned from Faculty Focus
How to Get Your Students to Come to Class Prepared from Faculty Focus

CATE recommends using multiple teaching strategies to best serve the wide variety of learners in your classes. While students may have learning preferences, using multiple teaching modes will ensure you reach all students and that all students are challenged to learn and grow in new ways. More abstract material should be paired with more concrete material. Modes can include reading, listening, speaking, writing, visual, experiential, and more. Research shows that the more modes that are activated in a learner, the more learning takes place. Using active learning strategies, such as brainstorms, group work, case studies, projects, games, or simulations, is a great way to use multiple modes and keep students engaged. By teaching in multiple modes, you are also practicing inclusive teaching (see more below) as you are offering student a variety of ways to access and process the information. It also provides multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge and participate in the class, which benefits everyone.

Using inclusive teaching practices benefits all students and it’s easier than you may think to incorporate into your existing or new courses. You may find that you’re already using a lot of the strategies mentioned below and that you can make small adjustments to make your teaching even more inclusive. To start, you’ll also want to consider accessibility in both your course design and in your teaching modes and be proactive about using practices that limit barriers whenever possible. Learn about Universal Design for Learning and review the CAST Guidelines, to better understand how greater accessibility, and inclusive teaching, benefits all learners, not just those with documented accommodations.

To be inclusive in your teaching, set clear expectations and refer to them frequently. Get to know your students and use their names at every opportunity. One idea is to use a survey at the start of the semester to ask about who they are, how they like to learn, and what they’re excited about in your class. You may be able to use the information you get to update your course to fit the needs and interests of the group. Use a variety of communication methods, including Canvas announcements, individual emails, video, and audio messages. Reiterate important messages in class, when possible. Vary your teaching methods (see section on multiple modes), assignments, and learning materials. Use learning materials with broad representation including texts, images, voices, names, examples, and case studies in your assignments. Not only in the content of what you’re sharing but also look for diversity in who is writing and/or producing the material. You can foster equitable participation by offering multiple ways to participate including large group discussions, small groups, writing activities, online posts, etc. Do your best to give all students equal attention and make plenty of space for those who you feel may not participate as much. Check in with students periodically (anonymous surveys are a great way to solicit honest feedback) to ensure your teaching style and materials are meeting their needs and where you might improve to better facilitate their learning. Whenever possible, be flexible.

Finally, it’s important to be intentional in thinking about how to best support students from historically underrepresented groups. Culturally responsive pedagogy, developed by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, is a student-centered approach to inclusive teaching that “recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Awareness and intentionality in your teaching will go a long way to better serve all students. For example, consider students who may come from cultures that value community over the individual, or students who may have cultural reasons for feeling uncomfortable asking for help. You can use culturally responsive teaching to improve the learning experience for all of the students in your classes.

Additional Resources:
UT Center for Teaching and Learning – Inclusive Teaching and Learning
CATE's Best Practices in Teaching and Learning
Columbia's Guide for Inclusive Teaching
How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive from The Chronicle
5 Principles as Pathways to Inclusive Teaching from Inside Higher Ed
What is Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Assessment, Grading, and Feedback

Assessment is about more than just assigning a grade after learning has occurred. Assessment can also be a vital part of the learning process. Keep in mind that there are different types of assessment. The two most important in teaching are 1) Formative Assessment: monitoring student progress toward the learning goal and providing feedback to help students iteratively improve, and 2) Summative Assessment: evaluating whether students achieved the learning goals, i.e., assigning a grade. Formative assessments are often no-stakes or low-stakes (ungraded, or low grade value) such as a short quiz or reflection assignment. Summative assessments are often high stakes, and high stress, such as a final exam or final project.

As you plan how you will assess student learning, consider how you can incorporate low- or no-stakes formative assessment to help you monitor student learning, and to help students monitor their own learning. Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) are an easy way to integrate formative assessment into class time. With regard to summative assessment, having a small number for high-stakes assessments can increase student anxiety, and their motivation to collude or cheat. Having more frequent, lower stakes tests or assignments can reduce the stress and the temptation to violate academic integrity. Additionally, more frequent deadlines prevent students from falling too far behind.

See also assessment techniques.

Additional Resources:
Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) (Vanderbilt)
50 CATs (UCSD)

Your choice of assessment techniques should be driven by your learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are measurable statements of what learners will be able to do as a result of learning. Well-designed learning outcomes clearly indicate the cognitive level in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Numerous assessment techniques are available to evaluate student learning. Many instructors rely on objective quizzes, test, and exams that typically involve multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank, or matching questions. A big advantage is that they can be automatically graded (e.g., by Scantron or within a Canvas quiz). A limitation is that these types of questions can assess learning outcomes only at the lowest cognitive levels. They cannot be used to assess ability to organize, communicate, or create.

Another commonly used assessment technique is called constructed response. This includes essay questions and writing assignments. While constructed response assignments can be used to assess learning outcomes at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, they may require significant effort to grade. Using a rubric can make grading writing assignments more efficient.

Assessing learning outcomes at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy is often best achieved by performance tasks and projects that are open-ended, complex, and authentic. Authentic tasks parallel the processes and products of working professionals. Some examples include working with a real client to design an advertising campaign, conducting original research and submitting it for publication, writing a screenplay and pitching it to a production company, creating a software training video that can be used by next semester’s students. As you plan how to assess your students, consider how to make their assessment products renewable rather than disposable.

Additional Resources:
UT Center for Teaching and Learning - Check for Learning
UT Center for Teaching and Learning - Creating Checks for Learning

Test preparation is important and there are a lot of things that instructors can do to help students to feel well prepared for any exam. Exams are not just for evaluation but can also be great opportunities for learning, which means that teaching students to properly prepare for an exam is also enhancing their learning in your class. There are many strategies you can use to help students to prepare starting with teaching them proper reading and note-taking techniques right from the start. Students will then have a good base of information when it comes time to review the course content in preparation for an exam. Organize formal study groups as a way to encourage group-facilitated learning and have students hold each other accountable for their studying. Encourage distributed practice (spacing out study activities over time) rather than massed practice (cramming at the last minute). You can create study guides, but be sure to include some guidance on how best to use them. Provide sample tests, if possible, or provide a list of questions to review that connect to the class learning outcomes and represent the different formats they will find on the exam. Suskie (2009) suggests using a test blueprint, in which you write out the learning outcomes you want to assess and then create your test questions for each outcome. Students can use the blueprint (which should include content areas, their relative importance, and a list of what you want students to be able to demonstrate for each area) to prepare for their test.

You can also host a review session, which many students want, but it should come after students have had ample opportunity to use other preparation methods. It’s best not to use these sessions as review for readings and course content, but to have students do that on their own beforehand, using methods above, and then use the time in the session for Q&A and review questions. When possible have the students answer each other’s questions (retrieval practice) and work in groups or as a class to answer challenging review questions. You could use techniques such as think-pair-share to engage the whole group in the review. You can also have students come up with questions that they feel would be appropriate for the exam and then actually use the best ones.  

Finally, you can take steps to reduce anxiety and build confidence in your students. Having review sessions and study guides, using encouraging words and positive reassurance, and reducing interruptions during the exam can all help students to accurately demonstrate their learning.

The purpose of feedback is to 1) reinforce the learning outcome, 2) confirm progress toward the outcome, 3) correct mistakes, and 4) guide future actions. It often means pushing students out of their comfort zone into a place of ambiguity and uncertainty where real learning strides can happen. It’s always a good idea to tell students what they have done successfully and express appreciation of their ideas, connections, creativity, or conclusions. When giving feedback, state your tangible observations, not your interpretations. Be specific, sometimes more explicit than you think is needed. Especially when pointing out mistakes or shortcomings, address the product, not the person. E.g., Rather than “you didn’t use APA format” say “the citations do not conform to APA format.” Frame comments in terms of “I” rather than “you”.  E.g., Say “I don’t see any evidence for this claim” rather than “You didn’t provide any evidence for this claim.” Use questions to identify errors. “What evidence is available to support this claim?” Suggest how the student can do better next time. “In revising this report, I suggest providing at least three reasons to justify the method used.” Finally offer encouragement and express confidence that every student can achieve the learning goal.

It is critical to solicit feedback from students on your course both during (formative) and at the end (summative) of the semester. At CATE, we suggest starting to collect feedback early in the semester as students will more often take time to give thoughtful, useful feedback if they know it will be incorporated into the rest of the class and impact them positively. Some ways you can solicit helpful feedback are to conduct a survey at the start of the semester to get to know students’ preferred names, pronouns, interests, learning preferences, and constraints. Run polls throughout the semester to get input on student well-being, attitudes, preferences, and needs. Reinforce, at different times and through different channels (e.g., in the syllabus, in class, announcement), that you value student input and will try to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate student needs. After collecting feedback, explicitly tell students how you used their input to make adjustments to the course. Send multiple reminders about Course Instructor Survey (CIS): before it opens, when it opens, and just before it closes. Give a point-based incentive for completing the Course Instructor Survey.

Here are some tips for boosting your CIS return rate

We are all affected by different types of bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that supports one’s prior beliefs and values and dismiss evidence that does not support prior beliefs and values. Implicit bias is unconscious attitudes and stereotypes associated with categories of people. Implicit bias can affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious or unintentional manner that may be inconsistent with our conscious values. Consider a situation where student A pays attention in class, actively contributes in discussions, and turns in assignments on time. Student B is distracted in class, seldom contributes to discussions, and turns in assignments late. Do you think bias could influence how you grade these students?

Three proven strategies for minimizing bias are blind grading, rubrics, and calibration. In blind grading, student identifiers are removed before review. It improves student belief in accuracy of assessment when they are aware of the practice. In Canvas, anonymous grading hides students’ names form the grader when viewed in SpeedGrader.

A rubric defines the criteria and performance levels for grading a particular type of student work. There are numerous benefits for using rubrics, including defining evaluation criteria for both learners and graders, providing a framework for giving feedback, promoting consistency if there are multiple graders, and supporting consistent grading across semesters. Creating a rubric in Canvas take a bit of time, but it saves time when grading in SpeedGrader.

Calibration is a technique for minimizing variation between grades. Graders first review and discuss the rubric. They select a sample of student submissions and all graders independently score each submission. Then they compare their results and decide what adjustments are needed. Finally, they divide the remaining submissions and complete final scoring. If a submission is difficult to score, the grader should check with the group or the grading leader.

References

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. and Archer, W., (2001). Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context.  Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), 1-17.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113–143. doi:10.3102/003465430298563

Granitz, N. A., Koernig, S. K., & Harich, K. R. (2009). Now it's personal: Antecedents and outcomes of rapport between business faculty and their students. Journal of Marketing Education, 31(1), 52–65. 

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (Fourth edition.). San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Suskie, L. A. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.