Midterm Inspiration

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Midterm is a stressful time for students and professors alike; sometimes we need a little extra inspiration to get us over that midterm hump. Kevin Gannon, professor and chair of the History Department at Grand View University, provides us with a healthy dose of motivation in his recent article, Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Through the lens of critical pedagogy, Gannon reminds us that reflective teaching can be used to refresh and re-energize our teaching, especially when we feel drained or defeated.

If you enjoyed Gannon’s article, check out his interview with Bonni Stachowiak on the Teaching In Higher Ed podcast. 

What do you do to refresh and re-energize your teaching? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Rubrics and Creativity

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

A grading rubric is a great tool for communicating with students about our expectations, preparing students to use detailed feedback, encouraging students to think critically, and bringing efficiency to the grading process. However, some professors worry that using rubrics will take the creativity out of their students’ work; this does not need to be the case!

In her article, Imagine Creating Rubrics That Develop Creativity, Linda Payne Young (2009) argues that the higher-level thought processes of imagination and creativity should be a valued part of our assessment process. Payne Young states, “When imagination and creativity become components of the classroom experience where students are routinely encouraged to generate new and novel ideas, we can freely include imagination as part of classroom assignments” (p. 75).

Some examples of rubric criteria that develop and encourage creativity include:

  • Uses non-conventional modes of thinking
  • Recognizes ideas worth pursuing
  • Uses new ideas or new approaches
  • Questions or analyzes assumptions
  • Works to overcome obstacles
  • Tolerates ambiguity
  • Takes reasonable risks
  • Solves problems
  • Embraces contradictions
  • Connects, synthesizes, transforms
  • Communicates divergent and creative perspectives

Do you use rubrics in your class? How do you balance using rubrics and encouraging student creativity? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Want to learn more about rubrics? Check out the Training Archive in the Center for Teaching Excellence on Blackboard for our webinar and resources on creating and using grading rubrics.

Additional Resources:

Arter, J. and Chappuis, J. (2006). Creating and Recognizing Quality Rubric (CAR), Portland: Pearson Assessment Training Institute.

Association of American Colleges & Universities. (2014). Creative Thinking VALUE Rubric. Retrieved August 01, 2016, from https://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/creative-thinking

Brookhart, Susan M.. How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading. Alexandria, US: ASCD, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 1 August 2016.

Stevens, D. D., & Levi, A. (2013). Introduction to rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback, and promote student learning. Sterling, Va: Stylus Pub.

Turley, E. D., & Gallagher, C. W. (2008). On the uses of rubrics: Reframing the Great Rubric debate. English Journal, 97(4), 87-92.


Young, L. P. (2009). Imagine Creating Rubrics That Develop Creativity. English Journal, 99(2), 74-79.

Invitation Only: Guest Speakers in Online Classrooms

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

We all know the benefits of inviting experts into our classroom space: abstract theoretical concepts become more relatable and concrete; difficult, contentious topics have a knowledgeable spokesperson; essential skills and ideas are given professional application; different perspectives on discussed topics, just to name a few.   When teaching online, however, we tend to forget about these ‘guests’ and the rich experiences to our onsite classrooms.

Online classrooms, whether synchronous sessions or asynchronous lessons, can benefit from inviting experts to speak about topics.  Here are a few ways to invite experts into your online course:

Guest Lecturer

For onsite classes, many of us already use guest lecturers as a way to put a face to a debate, theory, or idea.  The same thinking should apply in an online course.

Creating It

In my online courses, I use the guest lecturer in two different ways.  First, I might use an internal guest lecturer for a particular topic.  This might be another faculty member or a staff member (such as Career Services, Counseling, Library, or The Writing Center).  Another way to use a guest lecturer is to invite an external expert.  This might be someone who has particular knowledge or experience that will enhance the student’s understanding of the topic.

Using It

In either case, I will embed the video into Blackboard and surround it with directions on how to view it (“Please pay particular attention to this question/answer.”) as well as critical thinking questions (“What did you notice about the emphasis placed on this concept?”).  I will ask the students to follow up on these points in a discussion forum, a journal, or a blog.



Interviewing an expert helps students to learn more about the topic by interjecting the ‘human element’ into the conversation.  Moreover, by watching you interview an expert on the topic, students learn how 1) to engage in critical thinking and analysis, 2) to ask probing, thoughtful, and respectful questions, and 3) sustain a collegial discussion and debate with a peer.

Creating It

Obviously, when taping an interview, it is important to have the written permission of all involved and let them know the terms and conditions of recording process.

Using It

For an online course, there are several ways to use this recorded artefact: 1) to augment a particular topic, 2) to lead off a discussion board forum, and 3) to provide a starting place for a blog or journal.  You can also students the opportunity to do a synchronous ‘Q&A’ if the participant is available.



If you want a less formal format than lecturing and interviewing, storytelling is a more informal approach.  When you invite an expert to ‘tell a story,’ you are giving your students an opportunity to apply their observation skills and synthesize examples with topics.  I use storytelling in my courses as ‘case studies’ when I am trying to highlight a particular topic as well as give students an opportunity to hear examples from experts in their field.

Creating It

When you ask a guest to ‘record their story,’ you want to provide them with the class topic and perhaps present them with a certain scope.  This will help them frame their experiences and provide you with applicable material.

Using It

Much like interviewing, you can use this artefact 1) as a ‘case study’ to augment a particular topic, 2) as a prompt for a discussion board forum, and 3) to provide a starting place for a blog or journal.  You can also students the opportunity to do a synchronous ‘Q&A’ if the storyteller is available.


Are there other methods that you use to ‘invite’ expert voices into your classroom?  How do you frame these experts in an online environment?  Have you ever tried a ‘Q&A’ session?  What has been your students’ feedback about these ‘guests’?

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: Classroom Assessment Techniques

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

Today’s Lunch & Learn was a big success! The event featured roundtable discussion, resource sharing, and pizza; thanks, again, to those who attended.

Faculty Lunch & Learn

All attendees were asked to bring their favorite classroom assessment technique to share. Shared techniques included:

  • Having students interview professionals in their chosen field and report back to the class
  • Having students interview one another
  • Bringing a question to class (or posting a question on the Discussion Board in Bb)
  • Having online students create video presentations with Screencast-O-Matic
  • Giving students random functions to demonstrate for the class (especially great for tech classes)
  • Using games (Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, or board games like Apples to Apples)
  • Letting students work in groups to create test questions and including some of their questions on the exam
  • Pairing students together by pairing high-performing students with at-risk students

Here are links to the resources we discussed today:

Do you have a favorite classroom assessment activity? Leave it in the comments section!

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!

Online Instructor Presence

By Judith Dutill, Instructional Design Technologist

In her 2010 performance, The Artist is Present, Marina Abramović demonstrates the power of human presence.  During her performance, Abramović sat silently in a chair in the Museum of Modern Art. Visitors were invited to sit across from her, make eye contact with her, and simply share in the same space. After the exhibition, visitors reported on the affecting nature of this experience, often describing it as unforgettable. Despite the surrounding crowd, the sense of immediacy created by the act of sitting together led visitors to feel they had shared an intimate moment with the artist. Abramović, herself, said that the show changed her life forever.

Learning in the classroom happens because you are there to facilitate interaction, collaboration, activity, and even play. Your presence in the classroom transforms the student learning experience; the online classroom is no exception.

Unfortunately, our online students largely miss out on their instructors’ presence. This is a problem; literature shows that lack of instructor presence can have negative consequences for the student.

We can solve this problem by becoming more present in our online courses. How do we get started? Instructor presence relies on three elements: teaching presence, instructor immediacy, and social presence.

  • Establish teaching presence
    • Use a consistent organizational structure
    • When things are out of the norm, keep students informed in announcements and the weekly overview
    • Facilitate the use of course materials with clear and detailed instructions
    • Provide direct instruction
    • Summarize weekly discussions
    • Create videos (e.g. course overview and weekly overviews)
    • Use microlectures
    • Create unique lessons for your students
    • Embed instructions on how to submit assignments, access grades, and read feedback
  • Employ instructor immediacy
    • Use humor
    • Promptly respond to students’ questions and concerns
    • Address students by name
    • Participate in discussion boards and model expected communication
    • Encourage students to participate in discussion and to share personal stories
    • Commend exceptional participation or contributions to classroom discussion
  • Establish social presence
    • Incorporate your personal interests and experiences into your teaching
    • Model open and respectful communication
    • Create a welcome video

Try some of these or all of these and if you need assistance, let the Faculty Support Center staff know. Whatever you do, remember this: Be present for your students. Nothing replaces you in the classroom, even online.

What do you do to establish your presence in the online classroom? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Additional Resources:


Akers, M., Dupre, J., Chermayeff, M., Abramović, M., In Shepherd, E. D., Halpern, N., HBO Documentary Films, Music Box Films. (2012). Marina Abramović: The artist is present.

Olubukola Afolabi, R. (2016). Emphasizing instructor presence in digital learning environments. In S. D’Agustino (Ed.), Creating teacher immediacy in online learning environments (pp. 37-54). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2013). Lessons from the virtual classroom: The realities of online teaching (2). Somerset, US: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

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.

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