Week One: Silence

By Judith Dutill, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence

Excitement. Anticipation. Enthusiasm. These are all words I would use to describe how I feel in the weeks and days leading up to a new term. Yet, despite my eagerness, even my widest smile, best jokes, and most engaging team building icebreakers are sometimes met with silence so great, the only thing that can be heard is the sound of my proverbial bubble bursting.

I know that if I hunker down and weather the first few days or weeks of awkward silences, things might pick up once we all get to know one another. But what if it doesn’t? (And, sometimes it doesn’t.) I have found that it is better to work on getting my quiet classes talking earlier in the term than if I let the inactivity persist to the point that silence is what ultimately defines our time together.

Now that a new term is underway, if you feel like you are the only one in the classroom with something to say, try one (or several) of these techniques to get your quiet classes talking…

On-ground classes

  • Keep students moving; try setting up learning/activity stations around the classroom, have students work in small groups before reporting out to the larger class, let students share ideas by writing on the board or creating a post-it wall.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Use positive reinforcement; notice and acknowledge when class is going well, thank students for their participation and responses.
  • Begin class with a discussion icebreaker such as a current event or a provocative image or news story.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Create homework assignments that will connect with the next class meeting’s discussions so students are more likely to arrive prepared to discuss the day’s topics.
  • Use classroom games such as Jeopardy, Bingo, or poling games such as Kahoot.


Online classes

Quiet classes can occur in any modality. If you have a quiet online class (which I currently do), you may need to think creatively to get them talking.

  • Reach out to students via email as a reminder that the discussion board needs attention from the class.
  • Ask students what they need to get more engaged in the class. Use an anonymous survey or poll at the end of class to capture feedback.
  • Model a post by creating a starter thread for student reply.
  • Post a mid-week discussion or deploy a mid-week poll (use a polling tool such as Poll Everywhere) on a current event/relevant controversy.
  • Assign student discussion leaders; allow students to create the prompts and facilitate the discussion.
  • Provide multiple discussion prompts so students can find their way to the discussion topics they are most interested in.
  • Use the Groups tool in Blackboard to create small group discussions. Students may be more willing to open up at the beginning of the term with a small group versus the larger group.
  • Encourage students to end their discussion post replies with a lingering question. This will provide other students with a springboard for their replies.
  • Encourage students to share relevant examples by posting multimedia in their discussion posts.
  • Engage students with activities other than discussion boards; try using a VoiceThread asynchronous video discussion, building a class Wiki, or deploying a PlayPosit interactive video (tip: students can also create PlayPosit videos for their peers).

What techniques do you use to get students talking? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Ending the Term on a High Note: Punctuate, Synthesize, and Reflect

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Joshua Eyler, Director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, recently shared his blog post, The Final Class of Semester, emphasizing the importance of meaningfully punctuating the time we have spent with our students.

This made me think about my own classroom tradition of ending the term by asking students to write and share haiku style poems that encapsulate their biggest takeaways; I typically use this activity in introductory-level courses. Many students bring humor to the table and it is a great reminder, before we part ways, that we enjoyed the time we spent learning together.

My favorite haiku from ENG 110:

Public speaking is

Not as scary as it seems

If you breathe and smile

Memorable to me not just for its optimism, but also the affectionate debate over the number of syllables in the word smile that ensued.

Share your favorite end of term traditions in the comments section!

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Teaching with Current Events

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

On September 11, 2001 I was a junior in college studying communication and working as the program director for our campus FM radio station. It was a frantic and confusing day on campus and I spent most of the day working at the radio station, making sure we stayed on the air. September 12, 2001 was just as frantic and confusing; I remember feeling especially homesick and scared. I wanted to be with people (and going home was not an option for me), so I made sure I went to class, Survey of Mass Media.

My professor walked into the room waving a copy of The Wall Street Journal. The headline read: “Terrorists Destroy World Trade Center, Hit Pentagon in Raid with Hijacked Jets.” My strongest and most vivid memory of this time is from that day when the professor shared with us that this was the first six-column headline The Wall Street Journal had run since Pearl Harbor. The professor explained why this was significant and for the remainder of the class we engaged in dialogue about the events of 9/11, all framed around the role of media during times of national crisis and tragedy. It was not lost on me that we were living history (and my professor emphasized this), but more importantly there was comfort for me in this dialogue. The conversation the professor facilitated brought order to chaos; everyone in the classroom that day shared the same fear and confusion but theory and knowledge became our flashlight to see through the darkness.

The events of the past month remind me of this time. There is confusion and fear, misinformation and disinformation – but we can bring order to the chaos and comfort to our students by inviting current events into the classroom and structuring our discourse, to the extent that it is possible, around the unprecedented events of the day.

Noliwe M. Rooks wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Knowing When to Teach Current Events which offers faculty five questions to ask ourselves when determining whether or not a current event should be brought into the classroom:

  1. Does including the topic allow me to teach students something that, within the context of the overall aims of the course, I think is important for them to learn?
  2. Am I familiar with enough scholarly sources to contextualize the moment or event beyond what is readily available in newspapers and social media?
  3. Is more gained by my teaching this topic than by my leading a town-hall meeting, urging students to organize a panel, or allowing them to discuss the issue during the first few minutes of class?
  4. Is this my “lane”?
  5. If I introduce a new topic into the course, am I prepared to teach students what they don’t know but may need to know in order to fully understand it?

Current events can bring life to your classroom discussions and may even light a spark that creates moments of learning so significant that fifteen years later (or more) your students will still remember them. What more could an educator ask for?

Do you bring current events into the classroom? Tell us about it in the comments section!


We are having a paper fight! Ready. Set. Go!

By Benjamin Lipschutz, Business and Accounting Instructor

How do your students learn? How is it that they take their prior knowledge and experiences, combine that with what they are currently being asked to intake, and create real and meaningful knowledge? Experiential learning theory explores this process by breaking into steps how individuals learn. According to researcher David Kolb, experiential learning starts with learners having a concrete experience. They do, see, feel, read, or hear something that passes all their filters and actually leaves an impression. They then require a reflective observation period to mull over what has just occurred. When they have internalized what has happened, they can go through abstract conceptualization and truly learn from the experience. Finally, through active experimentation, they can test what they have learned. This cycle repeats, leading to growth.

A question remains: What does this really mean, and how can/do we apply this in our classrooms?

Let’s start at the beginning. We often ask our students to read text, watch a video, or review presentations to gain a scaffolding of understanding, and then we fill the spaces through our instruction. However, Kolb theorizes that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984), and that the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations is most readily imparted through new experiences.

One classroom activity that truly encapsulates this learning model is the “paper fight.”  I ask for eight volunteers from my class of 30 students. I split them in groups of 4, place them on opposite sides of the room and give each a small stack of paper. I then declare that we are having a paper fight. Go!

What happens? Usually, the students hesitate, but then organize themselves and start throwing paper at one another. Some crumple and launch the paper, others throw the entire stack, some throw at their own group, and others throw at the opposite group. In general – it’s chaos. However, it is a CONCRETE experience. I capitalize on this experience the students just had and lead an in-depth discussion about what just transpired. Too often, this time for reflection, understanding, and convergence of ideas is cut short, and students are left floundering with partially formed ideas that fall by the wayside. There must be facilitation to point out and smooth over any inconsistencies between the experience and their understanding and we have to provide adequate time to allow this to happen.

Some probing questions I use to help students come to a conclusion about the previous fight are: Who won? Why did they win? What was the goal? What was the purpose? What were the objectives? The abstract conceptualization comes into play by allowing them time to reflect on the experience and then come up with a novel idea or concept — in this case, a new mission, vision, strategy, or objective.

I then allow for a round of active experimentation. I run a second round with another 8 students, but allow them 30 seconds to strategize. The process begins again. This activity continues with me slowly incorporating more information and details and highlighting the various aspects of management I am teaching in the unit’s lesson.

Key Takeaways 

  1. Experiences are the basis for learning
  2. Allow enough time for true reflection and understanding before moving on
  3. Encourage and give theopportunity to create their own opinions
  4. Create an activity where they can test out their idea.


Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Benjamin Lipschutz is an instructor in the School of Business at Central Penn College. He holds degrees in Accounting, Business, Business Education, and Special Education with PA State certifications in Business Education and Special Education Pre K-8 and 7-12. His focus is in student centered learning and engagement and he enjoys teaching at all levels, from students here at Central Penn College to kindergartners with Junior Achievement.

Bringing the “Back Row Student” to the Front of the Class

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The under-engaged student is perhaps the most elusive types of students you will encounter during your teaching career.  More often than not, they are the disembodied names on your roster, the ghostly presence of a student that you might begin to think was never real at all.  When they come to class, they are usually late, sit in the back row, put their headphones in, and their head down.  In an online class, they tend to vanish suddenly and quietly, reemerging to take an exam or submit an assignment.  These “back row” students present some interesting challenges, but also some of the most rewarding teaching experiences.

Here are some quick techniques on bringing the “back row student” to the front of the class:

  • It starts on the first day. Setting the right tone of the first day is crucial to engaging the under-engaged student.  Ask them to weigh-in on the “rights” and “responsibilities” for the class.  Allow them to vote on any negotiables such as assignments, readings, and topics.  By doing so, they have a hand in their learning experience and feel more responsible for its outcome.
  • Give it a personal touch. Whether you are online or face-to-face, find ways to engage students in the learning process.  Send a personal email.  Respond to every student at least once on a discussion board.  Come to class early.  Stay late.  Even the smallest gesture can make a big impression.
  • But don’t take it personally. Too often we don’t engage the ‘back row student’ because we take their non-participation personally.  We see their texting, yawning, or ignoring as an indictment of who we are as educators and human beings.  Rather than put ourselves out there (even as we ask them to), we shut down.  Instead, take a quick survey (I like the “Keep doing, Quit doing, and Start doing” survey) to refocus on the classroom experience from the student’s perspective.
  • Move it! When you stand at the front of the class, you are going to engage the students in your direct sphere of influence.  Walking around the rooms and through the aisles helps you communicate to students that you are targeting each one of them with your message.  In an online class, this might mean doing a weekly ‘check-in’ post to let students know that distance doesn’t mean distant.
  • Move them! If possible, on the first day, ask students to move into the empty seats in the front rows by using a “light touch”: a joke, an anecdote, or a simple “I’d appreciate it.”  If they try to move back to the last row, ask again (and again) until they realize that there is no “back row student” in your classroom.  Moving online students can be difficult, but there are ways to do it.  Create a quick video response to a discussion board post, ask a follow-up question, and write on students by name if they are being too quiet.
  • Round robin. Have students complete a quick feedback assessment and go around the room to ask for their responses.  Make it clear that you can’t “opt out” of participation even if you have to “come back to them”—demonstrating that students can’t hide from engagement. For online students, you can rotate a discussion leader position for each week, so that everyone has the chance to share in the responsibility.

When we can engage an under-engaged student, we may make a positive, lasting impression. As faculty members, we play a crucial role in the acculturation of a student to college and eventually to the world beyond it.

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind,  Transnational Gothic,  and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.


Lunch & Learn Highlights: Strategies for Using Group Work in the Classroom

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Sometime today, take a few minutes and type “I hate group work” into YouTube. Your search will return about 144,000 results including many videos created by college students lamenting over their hatred for and the injustices of the group work expectations in their undergraduate courses. One student vlogger shared: “When I die, I want every single person I’ve done a group project with to be at my funeral so when they bury me they can let me down one last time.” Talk about having some very strong feelings!

Teachers know that group work plays an important role in today’s classroom. Group work affords students the opportunity to practice the important soft skills they will need in their careers including collaboration, communication, problem solving, leadership, and organization.

On the other hand, from the student perspective, group work can seem like a frustrating and unnecessary burden. Students’ lives are so busy that coordinating collaborative sessions with team members who have equally busy lives can feel impossible. A commonly shared complaint is, “I don’t like group work because I just wind up doing all of the work myself!”

How can we help students see the value of group collaboration while also equipping them with the skills they need to collaborate successfully with their peers? On Friday August 26, 2016 a group of fourteen faculty members gathered for a roundtable discussion to consider this challenge and to discuss strategies for using group work in the online and on-ground classrooms.

Lunch and Learn August 26

Here are some of the strategies suggested by the group:

  • Students do not always know how to function in a group – scaffold group assignments by providing resources that help students understand how to collaborate. Examples of resources you can share with students include:

Infographics: Tips for Online Students: Successfully working in Teams or Pairs

Videos: Thomas Frank’s YouTube video 5 Tips for Dealing with Lazy Group Project Members

Embedded tutorials: Embed the Learn to Work in Groups Module into the Groups in Blackboard

Reading assignments: eLearners – How to Survive Virtual Group Work

  • Teach students about online collaboration tools such as the Blackboard Groups tools and Microsoft 365
  • Have students negotiate their roles and sign group contracts or submit communication plans
  • Allow group members to evaluate and rank one another (make their peer evaluation part of the assignment grade)
  • Do not prolong group assignments
  • Reframe “group work” as “team work” or something with a more positive connotation
  • Give students the choice to opt out and work independently
  • Help students avoid procrastination by requiring timely check-ins, progress reports, or submission of work periodically throughout the term
  • Use classroom assessment tools such as surveys to check in with groups and to evaluate their learning experience
  • Assign students to groups strategically so students can support and learn from each other
  • Clearly articulate expectations to students and spend class time reviewing the assignment and the way the groups will be graded

How do you use group work in the classroom? What strategies do you employ to set students up for success while working in groups? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Additional Resources:

Every person who attended the Lunch and Learn received a copy of the Faculty Focus Special Report: Effective Group Work Strategies for the College Classroom. Use the link to download your free copy!

Using Classroom Rituals

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Do you remember homeroom in high school? It probably looked like some combination of visiting your locker to collect your belongings, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the national anthem, and listening to the morning announcements. This homeroom routine is an example of ritual behavior. People take comfort in having a prescribed order to things; rituals can be used to set the tone in a classroom, establish expectations for behavior, create classroom memories, and bring a peaceful climate.

Here are some examples of routines/rituals that can set the right tone and bring comfort and order to your classroom:

Outline the day

On the left or right side of the classroom whiteboard, write a bullet point outline of the objectives, activities, or topics that will be covered in class. Not only does this outline serve as a helpful organizational and time management tool for the professor, it also serves to set expectations for the class meeting and help students organize their notes and stay engaged.

Tips for using this activity:

  • At the beginning of class, review the list with students as a preview for your meeting.
  • Cross off items from the list as they’ve been covered in class.
  • Include major assignment/project due dates on your list. I use this method and I split my list into “this class” and “next class.”

Create a classroom soundtrack

Use the classroom computer and speakers to play music for students before class. This method is great for setting atmosphere and starting social conversations with students. When students walk into class, they will enjoy hearing music. You will get to know each other through your song choices and preferences.

I previously worked with a professor who would create an electronic playlist that included all of the songs from class that she would then share with students at the end of the term. How fun and memorable for the students!

Tips for using this activity:

  • Choose songs that set the right mood for the topic you are about to discuss.
  • Use music as an opportunity for having informal conversation with students. As class settles in, talk to your students about your song choice for the day.
  • Let students join in the fun by inviting them to serve as guest DJs. Ask student volunteers to bring in songs to get class started or allow them to select a song from your playlist.

What’s the word?

I had a professor who began each class by asking us, “What’s the word.” He did not explain the activity, he just called on a student by name and popped the question, “Hey Joe, what’s the word?” Each class, every student would be asked to share a word. It didn’t take too long for the class to catch on to the fact that this would be our daily ritual. Students would bring their most silly, clever, or complicated words to join in the fun.

The professor used this activity to socially engage with students and to learn names and take attendance.

Tips for using this activity:

  • Occasionally replace the question, “What’s the word?” with more meaningful questions. For example, during the holiday season ask students, “What are you grateful for?” or during stressful times of the term when students are more likely to get homesick ask, “Who do you miss?”

Rituals are not just for the beginning-of-class; a ritual can be established for any point during a class meeting. One example of an end-of-class ritual is to have students report on their muddiest moment from class by writing down a concept or topic they find unclear or confusing. This routine lets students know that class is winding down and offers students an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned and what they still need to understand. It also provides another channel of communication between the professor and the students. Use their feedback to begin the next class meeting.

Do you use a classroom ritual? Tell us about it in the comments section!

The First Day of Class

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Make a great impression and leave them wanting more. This is the advice my peer advisor gave me as I prepared for my first day of college teaching. He knew (and I quickly learned) that the first day of class is one of the most valuable. The first day is when you begin to build your classroom community and set the tone for the entire term.

Do you want to spice up your traditional first day of class activities this term? Here are some suggestions from author James M. Lang:

Syllabus review
Rather than reading the syllabus to students, use syllabus review time as an opportunity to get students engaged and participating early.

  • After distributing the syllabus, have students work in pairs to review the syllabus and identify three questions they want to know about the course. Then, ask students to share their questions so you can answer them.

Ice breakers
Use ice breakers to foster a feeling of community and allow students to share in the ownership of the classroom space.

  • Stand by the classroom door, shaking student hands and introducing yourself to them by name right away.
  • Pass students dry erase markers as they enter class and have them write their names on the board before they sit down.

First impressions
Spend the first day or two of class trying to find out what information students know (or think they know) about the subject matter.

  • Ask students to write a paragraph in response to two or three substantive questions about their past experiences with the course topic. (For example: “Describe for me one work of visual art that has really impressed or interested you; what made it stand out for you?”) Afterward, have students pair up to share and discuss their responses before inviting students to share their responses with the class.
  • Use students’ responses to help you plan the content you cover in the first week or two of classes.
  • Revisit students’ first-day responses at the end of the term to close the loop on the conversation and to acknowledge new insights students have gained throughout the course.

Big and interesting questions
Develop an activity that invites students to engage in the intrigue of course-related central questions, mysteries, or puzzles.

  • Example 1: A statistics professor informs their class that, “once there are thirty people in the room, the probability that two people have the same birthday is more than 75%” They then poll students until they find the birthday matches in the class (they report they’ve always found at least one).
  • Example 2: A writing professor shows their students a poem that presents the reflections of an older narrator on a childhood experience with his father (one that many students are able to identify with) and asks students to write down in their notebooks whether they believe the narrator’s attitude towards this experience is positive or a negative one. This activity leads to a group discussion about the influence of past experience on understanding. The group also discusses analysis, using evidence as support, and other skills that students need to be successful in the course.


Another worthwhile first day activity is to collect student contact information. At a recent professional development meeting, Dr. Scolforo suggested distributing index cards and having students write down the following: their phone number, the phone number of a close contact, scheduled events during the term, and current obstacles to success. Having this information readily available makes it easier to reach out to at-risk students later in the term.

Do you do something noteworthy on the first day of class? Tell us about it in the comments section! Did you try one of these ideas on your first day? Let us know how it went!


Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.