Creating a Course Toolbox

During winter break, I conducted a thorough self-review* of my online course in order to assess the quality of its design, delivery, and instruction. But like many self-reviews, mine led me down a different path than the one that I thought I needed.  After reviewing the areas of my online course that I had initially identified, I began to reflect on other areas of the rubric, particularly areas related to the support of the student experience. I was sure that my course was already well-equipped with ample supports for students and that I would score not just proficient, but exemplary in these areas.  As it turns out, I was far from even proficient.


The student support resources were scattered throughout my course. Exemplars for discussion boards were only posted in the first week. Tutorials on writing, audience, and expectations were posted alongside the first writing assignment. Testing and studying guides only existed in the folder with the first major exam. The problem wasn’t about a lack of resources, but rather, how my students accessed and used them. Students who were looking for my tutorial to help them on their second test (maybe because they didn’t review it before the first one) had to go digging around to find it. That didn’t seem to be an effective use of study time—or very likely.

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Opening the Gates for First-Generation College Students

With the changing demographics of higher education, we are beginning to really grapple with questions about the first-generation college student: what defines them, what drives them, and what gets them to graduation. First-generation college students lack a legacy of information or the institutional knowledge about college passed down through generations of familial and communal college graduates. Without informational sources and support, first-generation students find themselves wandering through a labyrinth of linguist and cultural barriers that define them as “others” in a system dominated by insiders. Like most cultural institutions, some of these barriers were created over time and out of convenience for the ultimate insiders—faculty, staff, and administration—to improve their ability to navigate the system. While other barriers were created as gatekeeping devices precisely to bar the way for these educational “others.”  Admissions processes, “weed out” courses, and academese are all part of the artificially created barriers meant to deter students who “shouldn’t be here.”

Wehler Blog

As a first-generation college student, many of my micro-barriers centered on asking for help whether it on a homework assignment, a graduate school application, or a letter of recommendation. It had little to do with people’s willingness to help me—when I ultimately did ask, people were delighted to offer their assistance—and more to do with my own insecurities about my place in the academic system. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I see this same scenario play out with my first-generation students who would rather send me an email to ask a question than raise their hands during class. I say this not out of frustration, but truly, out of envy. If email had been the preferred method of contact (or a method of contact) for any of my professors, I would have certainly taken the same path (of less resistance). That is why I hold such a hope for the ways that technology and online teaching can help us reach, retain, and graduate the first-generation college student. Read More

Best Practices for Teachers with Students with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

I started my college journey six months after brain surgery and my subsequent release from the hospital and retirement from the military.  I was apprehensive and nervous going back to school as I realized I was not able to function at the same level I performed at even six short months before.  It took me four times longer to read a passage or text, my recall wasn’t nearly as immediate or robust as it was previously, I had difficulty sustaining focus on a single task, I was constantly searching for words and my speech was slowed, and I had to relearn how to learn.  The remnants of the incident had since healed, but the mental scars still lingered and manifested themselves on a near daily basis.  Unfortunately, my story is a fairly common tale.  As a student veteran who suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I know first-hand the struggles many individuals, especially veterans, face when entering a higher education setting after an injury.  However, as we are each unique in our own way, the specific manifestation of a TBI or PTSD is also unique to each individual.  As my exact condition might not be identical to another’s, the basic tenets of what I learned as both a student, and since then as an educator, have given me an invaluable perspective which I hope to share in this post.

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Definition of a TBI

For background, a TBI is a specific type of brain injury resultant of an external force via a bump, blow, jolt, or barometric wave of energy to the head causing either an open or closed injury that disrupts the function of the brain (Faul, 2010).  A TBI can occur when a head hits a windshield during a car accident, shrapnel enters the brain after a blast, or even from the pressure of a nearby explosive event.  Conversely, not all head injuries result in a TBI, and the severity can range from mild (brief loss of consciousness) to severe (extended period of unconsciousness and memory loss) (CDC, 2011).

The recent rise in instances of TBI over the past decade can be attributed to the growth of knowledge in the subject and the attention it is receiving from the media and sports industry.  Although TBIs are often undiagnosed and not reported, it is more prevalent than multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, and HIV combined (Leibson et al., 2011).  Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy in perception with TBI.  It is becoming more apparent and stressed upon by the medical community that TBIs need be to seen and treated as a disability, but the majority of the population still do not see the critical nature of having these injuries examined.  This creates the larger problem of individuals going undiagnosed, which is especially difficult in higher education as the most common age range for a TBI is 15-26, and these individuals are less likely to seek medical attention on their own (Novak & Bushnik, 2008).

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On Failure and Fear in the Classroom

In a recent blog post, Nicole Matos, an English professor who writes extensively on student experience and pedagogy, shares valuable feedback from students in her developmental writing courses. Matos (2017) prompted this feedback by asking them a deceptively simple question: “What do you really, really wish your professors understood?” (para. 1).

Among the several answers students provided, one strikes me as particularly powerful and especially relevant to any instructor who encounters at-risk or “breakaway” (Jaschik, 2017, para. 1) students: “Don’t take our failures personally.”

Vickless Blog

Matos (2017) identifies the cognitive dissonance this situation creates: “[students] recognized — but also somewhat resented — that we [instructors] tend to hold a deep love for our subject, and unconsciously affirm it above all other demands. But students have fragmented, split lives, with many competing priorities, including finding transportation, maintaining housing, and putting food on the table.” (para. 13).

Matos’s point isn’t always easy for us to accept, especially if we see it as our duty to pre-professionalize students by holding them to the norms and mores of workplace culture.

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Collaborating in the Classroom

This is the final installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom. Other installments are: A Starting PlaceReflecting on PrivilegesKnowing Your StudentsQuestioning Your Assumptions, and Challenging the Status Quo. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

An inclusive classroom must be built on the foundations of collaboration.  When faculty members collaborate with students, they demonstrate their respect for the student experience by giving them a proverbial seat at the table.  In theory, many educators would agree that collaborative classrooms are ideal learning spaces.

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In practice, however, faculty members (and some students) find relinquishing even some control over the course to be at best uncomfortable and at worst unfathomable.  For these faculty members, collaboration might mean starting small:

  • polling students on what is / isn’t working in the classroom
  • giving students a choice on the format or medium for an assignment
  • asking students to be the discussion leader
  • providing different options for questions types on an exam

Such gestures demonstrate that the faculty member explicitly respects the students’ learning experiences and understands their unique needs.  By establishing this conduit for communication, the faculty member works to bridge the divide between themselves and the students in the traditional classroom hierarchy.

For collaboration to work, it must be woven into the fabric of the course.  Collaboration and inclusivity cannot be merely an afterthought or an attempt at ‘good will’ between faculty and students.  Instead, it should be communicated to the students as an integral part of the course on par with the learning objectives.  There are many ways to communicate this commitment to inclusion:

  • include a collaboration statement in your syllabus and assignment prompts
  • create an weekly collaboration learning objective
  • link assessments to the collaboration learning objective
  • build in reflective moments or assignments that ask student to critique their own collaboration

While there are many methods to forefront collaboration in the classroom, I am particularly fond of the co-authoring model wherein the students and faculty member write the course’s foundational documents together.  I have found that such methods not only produce a shared learning environment that promotes inclusivity, but also increases student buy-in and accountability in ways that the top-down teaching method does not. Some examples of co-authoring include:

  • course policies and course schedule
  • classroom ‘bill of rights’ and ‘bill of responsibilities’
  • rubrics (or grading criteria) for major projects or exams
  • assignment prompts, including requirements

Collaboration in the classroom puts into practice many of the aims of inclusivity: establishing mutual respect, including multiple perspectives, demonstrating awareness of differences, and questioning inherited structures.  When we value collaboration, we model inclusivity for our students, and perhaps more importantly, they model it for us.


About the Author

Wehler 2Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College.  Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl.  She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

Measuring Time: Course Workload in the Online Domain

At the turn of the century, prognosticators and provocateurs alike were quick to point to perceived shortcomings of offering credit-bearing college courses in the online domain. “Sage on the stage” had long been supplanted by “guide on the side,” but the concept of asynchronous teaching, or providing and facilitating instruction without static meeting times and locations, seemed difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Three hours of classroom time each week, coupled with outside reading/homework requirements, has often given way to some generic conflation of the two that is difficult to assess in a meaningful, holistic fashion. Additionally, students can end up with radically different “classroom” experiences not just across disciplines and departments, but within them as well. This gives legitimacy to student gripes about rigor, frustrating their (and our) expectations of college-level work.

Our faculty have begun investigating solutions to the problems that often result from inconsistent course workload expectations. Rigor—mentioned above—is somewhat of an elusive concept, as the subjectivity inherent in each of the various disciplines engender multiple definitions. Fortunately, there are technological tools that can help us evaluate rigor (specifically, how it is divided between classwork and outside work) in our courses. A particularly useful one is the Rice University Workload Estimator. This tool allows an instructor to set the parameters of a course (semester length, number of exams/reading assignments/writing assignments, etc.) in order to produce an estimate of the number of hours of outside work students are being asked to complete. Read More

Building an Inclusive Classroom: Challenging the Status Quo

This is the fifth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom. Other installments are: A Starting PlaceReflecting on PrivilegesKnowing Your Students, and Questioning Your Assumptions. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

The history of admissions processes and policies in higher education is a study of economic, social, and cultural gatekeeping with all the trappings of racism, classism, and misogyny you would expect to find in such a milieu. Even as higher education strives for inclusivity, the gatekeepers and the gatekeeping inherent in higher education continue to uphold this status quo.  Against this backdrop, inclusivity in the classroom represents a paradigm shift from the exclusionary gatekeeping devices of the teacher-centric model (sage on the stage) towards a learning-centric model (guide on the side).

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