The Weekly Teaching Note

From the Cal Poly Pomona Faculty Center for Professional Development

What to Leave Out

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on March 4, 2009

There are two more weeks of instruction in this quarter before finals week. Many faculty – if not most! – are behind on their syllabus schedules. You meant to cover Chapters 1-10 this quarter and you’ll only get to Chapter 8. You wanted to talk about India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar, but dang, China was just so big! Oops, there goes the time for quantum mechanics!

How do you spend the last two weeks of class?

Most importantly, don’t try to rush and cram in the last two countries or concepts in the last day of class. Students will also cram this material for the exam, which nearly guarantees that they will not learn it deeply. It’s better to tell students up front that you won’t do this-and-that; allow them to relax and learn properly.

If your class is in a series or is a service course, you might ask for input from a few faculty who teach the next class. Give them a choice of concepts and ask what’s most important for students to know for their class, given the time constraints. This does not mean you don’t get to make the decision; it’s just extra information for you.

If you’re not teaching a prerequisite course, or the concepts are flexible, go back to essentials: what do students need to know or to be able to do to complete the class requirements well? If you have articulated learning outcomes in the syllabus, go back to those ideas – what do you want students to know or be able to do months or even a year or two after the class? Leave out any content or activities that do not contribute directly to those goals.

If you are lucky enough to teach a course where content is entirely flexible, you can ask the students what topics they are most interested in for the last two weeks. This is a good tactic because students’ interest will remain higher if they have chosen the material.

Be very clear about your expectations for the students. If you can’t spend class time on a topic, but you want them to read about the topic and (for example) know some basic definitions, give a glossary for them to fill out. Follow through by pledging that the exam will include only definition questions for this material.

Try not to cancel grade opportunities such as in-class quizzes. You may not be able to do so according to your syllabus. And, the more grade that rides on the final exam, the more anxious students get. Even a few points on a quiz can help people’s nerves, making learning easier.

Finally, learning takes place mostly through practice – the last thing you should cut when you’re running late is the practice time. Remember to schedule a review session and even to spend a few precious class minutes beginning to review now.

In short, try to relax in the last two weeks of class. Your students will finish with a much better frame of mind. Also, you will feel more satisfied by making rational choices about content coverage than by hurrying to try to cover it all.


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A Student’s Perspective

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on February 24, 2009

This Weekly Teaching Note is contributed by a first-year student (not at this university).

“A truly worthwhile assignment allows the student to be creative and invites the student to draw from personal experiences and interests. Every student is different. A student is more likely to even attempt an assignment if it can be related to his or her personal life. Characteristics such as the major/minor, hobbies, and extracurricular activities can all play a role in the excitement one might feel about an assignment. I am more likely to have fun with an assignment and get much more out of it if it can relate it to my individual interests.

“An assignment I had in the past that I consider worthwhile was to create a cognitive map of [the university town]. Beyond creating the map, I had to describe the various locations I depicted and why those places were important to me. I felt this assignment involved a lot of imagination and serious concentration. I am not originally from the city the university is located in, and the city is much larger than my hometown. I had to be selective in which locations I wanted to show: I knew I could not logically draw half the city on a single sheet of paper (I didn’t know what was located in half the city anyway), so I drew areas that held the most importance in my life at the time. With this assignment, the professor expected every student’s map to be different, and was able to learn about each student as an individual.

“Some assignments can be enticing to a student even if there is no actual credit involved for doing them. It has a lot to do with how the assignment is presented. One assignment I received a while back involved listening to everyday conversations, the radio, TV, and any other form of communication to record similes, metaphors, and clichés. The assignment, though only offered for extra credit, was completed by the majority of the class simply because it was something they could so easily fit in their busy lives. It was not hard to jot down the different sayings one heard from day to day, and most didn’t even need the extra credit. The assignment was worth the time and energy because the students could learn about grammar and have fun at the same time.”

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Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on February 17, 2009

Since the initial development of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives, a great deal of new understanding has occurred in the realm of educational psychology. Some scholars in the field felt it was time to revise Bloom’s classic taxonomy of cognitive processes.

The taxonomy was revised to include 6 new names to describe the levels of cognitive processing:

  • Remember : The learner retrieves factual information .  A sample performance statement could be – “Recall the importance of subject X.”
  • Understand : The learner develops meaning from presented information .  For example, “Compare subject X with subject Y.”
  • Apply : The learner implements the material in a particular manner .  For example, “Show how subject X can be used in this setting.”
  • Analyze : The learner breaks the subject matter down into parts and interpret how these parts are interrelated .  For example, “Distinguish between subject X and subject Y as they relate to concept A.”
  • Evaluate : The learner makes a judgment based upon certain criteria or standards .  For example, “Determine whether or not the conclusion of person B is appropriate given the discussion held in class.”
  • Create : The learner places the parts of the subject matter into a different form. For example, “Based upon ideas we have discussed in class, generate a new way to look at subject X”

and to include a knowledge dimension that includes four types:

  • Factual Knowledge : This type of knowledge focuses upon basic information required to show proficiency with a specific discipline .  Examples include vocabulary, symbols, and formulas.
  • Conceptual Knowledge : This type of knowledge focuses upon the connections of the basic information within a larger structure . Examples include theoretical ideas and organization of ideas into timelines or categories.
  • Procedural Knowledge : This type of knowledge focuses upon the implementation, or putting into action, the material that has been learned .  Examples include subject-specific skills and techniques.
  • Metacognitive Knowledge : This type of knowledge focuses upon a broad understanding of cognition, as well as one’s own cognitive processes . Examples include how to outline or categorize information in a manner that works best for the learner, or awareness of the learner’s strengths and weaknesses for writing reports and presenting information to the class.

The cognitive process dimension and the knowledge dimension are arranged in a grid pattern — students can be asked to develop ideas that would combine, say, Evaluate from the cognitive process dimension with Procedural knowledge from the knowledge dimension.  The cognitive processes focus on the actions to be done while the knowledge dimension focuses on the objectives to be accomplished.


Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D.R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives . New York: Longman.

Contributed by:

Lorin W. Anderson and David R. Krathwohl
Teaching & Academic Support Center (TASC)
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
(859) 257-2987 ext. 256

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Digital Storytelling

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on February 10, 2009

Looking for an alternative to the 8-10 page research paper? In digital storytelling, students interact with course material through the media of narrative, still pictures, and music.  There’s no shortage of writing in this assignment, but added to that is group collaboration, creativity, practice with fairly common software (iMovie or Moviemaker), and—thanks to YouTube—a great opportunity to “publish” student work.  The Center for Digital Storytelling ( can provide more information and some examples, but they have broken down the process into 10 steps for students to follow.  Add Step 11, a written reflection, to increase the amount of writing in the project.

  1. Write a script
    • 1 ½ double-spaced typewritten pages = ~3 minutes
    • Establish a point of view with the narrator
    • Make it emotional
  2. Record the script
    • Desktop microphones will do, but have students check campus resources
  3. Storyboard the script
    • Decide what should be showing for each part of the narration
  4. Gather images (about 20 should do, but good to have plenty to draw on)
    • Scan if necessary (at least 200 dpi, saved as JPG)
    • Digital images from Web (be sure not to violate copyrighted material)
  5. Edit images: Keep a folder with all the unedited, full size images as a backup—duplicate these when editing. Use Photoshop or other image editing software to crop as needed and perform image correction (contrast, brightness, color, etc). Save as JPGs
  6. Import images and sound file into iMovie or MovieMaker
  7. Place images (clips) onto timeline at appropriate spots
  8. Make transitions (fade in and out, dissolve, etc—easy to do in these programs)
  9. Add music if desired (avoid vocal music—it will distract from narrator)
  10. Upload to YouTube or another website and/or make DVD
  11. Write at least a three-page critical reflection paper that explains your project and its connection to content in the class.

This is a time-consuming project but one that students often find very rewarding.  Many of them share the YouTube link with friends and family – and how often does the typical term paper get viewed by an audience larger than one?

Contributed by:

Paul Quick and David Noah

The Center for Teaching and Learning

University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia

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Question Templates

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on February 3, 2009

Isadore Rabbi, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, tells a story of his childhood in the Jewish ghetto of New York.  When the children came home from school, their mothers would ask them, “What did you learn in school today?”  But Isadore’s mother would ask him, “What good questions did you ask today?”  Dr. Rabbi suggests he became a physicist and won the Nobel Prize because he was valued more for the questions he was asking than the answers he was giving (Barell, 1988).

Many questions we ask about our disciplines can be simplified into “templates.” When students do not know how to ask questions about a reading or activity, it may be because they have not realized that “thinking” can follow patterns that are applicable across a wide range of topics or situations.

These question prompts help students to develop critical thinking tools and to frame their own discussion questions.  Developed and researched by King (1992; 1990; 1995), these question prompts or stems are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchical way of analyzing levels of thinking.  The nature of the prompt requires students to come up with questions that go well beyond factual recall. Requiring students to email you the discussion questions or to post them to BlackBoard prior to a class session can encourage students to read assigned materials.

Process: Assign outside reading or conduct a short lecture on a topic.  Students use the generic question stems or prompts as a guide for formulating their own specific questions about the content.  You can email the following list to students (or post to BlackBoard), telling them how many questions, all with different prompts or stems, they should submit for discussion.  They fill in the blanks with appropriate content from the reading/lecture material.  You can encourage them to make the questions authentic, ones they truly want to discuss rather than ones they already have a pat answer for.

Generic Question Prompts/Stems:

Explain why ____.  (Explain how ____.)

What would happen if ____?

What is the nature of ____?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of ____?

What is the difference between ___ and ___?

Why is ____ happening?

What is a new example of ____?

How could ____ be used to ____?

What are the implications of ____?

What is  ____ analogous to?

How does ___ affect ____?

How does ___ tie in with what we learned before?

Why is ____ important?

How are ____ and ____ similar?

How does ____ apply to everyday life?

What is a counter-argument for ____?

What is the best ____, and why?

What is the solution to the problem of ____?

Compare ____ and ____ with regard to ____?

What do you think causes ____?  Why?

Do you agree or disagree with this statement: ____? What evidence is there to support your answer?

What is another way to look at ____?

What does ____ mean?

Describe ____ in your own words.

Summarize ____ in your own words.

After using the question prompts a few times, a good classroom exercise is to see if the group can generate more template questions for the discipline.


Barell, J. 1988, cited (p. 59) in Costa & O’Leary, Co-cognition: The cooperative development of the intellect. In Davidson, J.  and Worsham, T (Ed.) Enhancing Thinking through Cooperative Learning.  (Ed.) (1988, April). Cogitare: A Newsletter of the ASCD Network on Teaching Thinking, 3(1).

King, A. (1990).  Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Educational Research Journal, 27(4), 664-687.

King, A. (1992).  Promoting active learning and collaborative learning in business administration classes.  In T. J. Frecka (Ed.), Critical thinking, interactive learning and technology: Reaching for excellence in business education (pp. 158-173). Arthur Andersen Foundation.

King, A. (1995, Winter).  Guided peer questioning: A cooperative learning approach to critical thinking.  Cooperative learning and college teaching, 5(2), pp. 15-19.

Contributed by:

Barbara J. Millis, Director

The TEAM Center

University of Texas at San Antonio

San Antonio, TX

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The Value Line

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 27, 2009

This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Get your students out of their chairs and standing up to their opinions on controversial topics. A “value line” requires students to line up according to how strongly they agree or disagree with a statement or proposition.  You can then structure four-person discussions that include a range of viewpoints in each group.

State the issue, perhaps giving arguments for or against the proposition.

Ask students to consider the question, then to choose a number on a one-to-five scale that best describes their position on the issue.  Have the students jot down their numbers.

Ask students who have chosen “one” to stand at a designated point along the wall of the room.  The students who have chosen “two” follow them, and so forth until all students are lined up.  Stretch the line to avoid crowding.

After the students have formed a line, identify the median person.

Group students for a discussion (make sure to prepare discussion questions ahead of time). Form the first group by taking one student from each end of the line and two from the middle.  The last few groups will have less extreme differences of opinion among their members. That’s okay; just be aware of it and perhaps plan to prod those groups to explore their moderate views more carefully.

The value line is useful because it lets students see very clearly that other people both agree and disagree with them. Because the activity does result in a very public display of opinion, use it only if you feel that the class has established some trust and rapport, and establish clear ground rules for civil discussion.  Carefully monitor the discussions by sitting in with groups.

Other Applications:

  • In an online setting, students can email their “one-to-five” number to you. You can then form discussion groups for a threaded discussion based on the student responses.
  • You can use a similar line-up to identify “study buddies” or to form review or coaching sessions with students lining up based upon their confidence in their content knowledge or skill abilities.

Examples from various disciplines: Instructors could ask students to respond to the following statements:

  • The United States was justified in dropping the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
  • Science majors should be required to take business courses.
  • Embryonic stem cell research should receive federal funding.
  • Every woman is entitled to abortion on demand.
  • The United States should adopt a flat income tax rate.
  • Affirmative Action is a productive way to ensure diversity in the workplace.

Contributed by:

Barbara J. Millis, Director

The TEAM Center

University of Texas at San Antonio

San Antonio, TX

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What are They Thinking? Mid-Quarter Feedback

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 21, 2009

Do you wonder how your class is going? What might show up on the end-of-quarter evaluations? Asking students for feedback during the quarter, ideally before the mid-term, is very valuable. You can make some specific changes to benefit the current students. Some problems can be dealt with. Students appreciate being asked to give input, and learning what students like and consider valuable about the class can provide a morale boost for you.

Individual students tend to be shy about giving feedback, no matter how welcoming you are. It’s better to have an organized way of asking for student comments. One effective way of gathering feedback is to have someone come and interview the class in your absence. This works for both large and small classes. At your request, Faculty Center staff can interview your students and talk to you confidentially about the results. Email Victoria Bhavsar at to request an interview.

If you cannot have someone come into your class, you can still ask for student feedback. The easiest way is to ask students to take 10-15 minutes at the end of class to write down answers to three basic questions:

  • What is helping you learn the material in this class?
  • What makes learning hard in this class, and how could that problem be dealt with, by you or by the teacher?
  • What other suggestions do you have to improve your learning experience in this class?

When you present the questions to the students, explain that you want to make the class the best learning experience for them that you can. Tell them that you will take their ideas seriously although you may not be able to make all the changes they want. Ask them to focus their comments on learning: if they say they “like” or “dislike” something, they should follow up with explaining why their learning is affected.

Students will be honest only if they are assured that any criticisms they give will not hurt their grades or make you angry. It’s best to have someone else gather the papers and type up the comments for you so that recognizing their handwriting is not an issue.

It’s critical to go over the students’ feedback quickly and carefully so that you can talk to them about it the very next time you see them. If you do not talk to them, they will consider the activity a waste of time, which is even worse than if you had not asked for feedback at all. At the least, thank them for their ideas and assure them that you are taking time to consider carefully.

It’s also very helpful to talk with someone, such as a colleague or someone from the Faculty Center, about the feedback you receive.

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Writing Your Own Assignments

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 14, 2009

If you’re staring down the barrel of a quarter full of grading less-than-compelling student papers – instead of writing your own research and scholarship – here’s a fresh idea that might help with both problems.

One professor of sociology got tired of receiving bland, ill-written papers in return for assignments that she thought should have been interesting. To help address this problem, she started writing responses to her own assignments and giving them to the students as examples of the type and quality of writing that she wanted from them.

She says, “I give students a series of brief writing assignments for the first few weeks of the semester.  For the course I taught [recently], I posted my own responses to these brief writing assignments on the class BlackBoard site.  This served two initial purposes: one was to model for the students the kind of writing I wanted them to do; the other was to reveal some aspects of myself to them.

“That strategy proved so successful that I expanded the practice to a more significant assignment.  I expect students to undertake a piece of empirical research appropriate to their developmental level.  This assignment includes a research proposal and one or more focused research reports.  Most students have not had an assignment like this before and many clamor for a sample to guide their work.  So, I wrote a research proposal and two research reports based on the work I had outlined in the proposal.

“The results were incredible in terms of the improved quality of student writing, the relative ease with which they incorporated their own experiences into their narratives, and the ways that my writing about myself made them feel more in tune with me as a person.

“Buoyed by the success of my trial run, I’ve already started to implement this practice in both of the [upcoming] courses I am teaching.  Because I’ve started writing the assignments while my course syllabi are still in draft form, I’ve been able to make minor adjustments in the wording of the assignments themselves as I discover ambiguities or unnecessary limitations in the options I’ve given the students.

“Remarkably, the research proposals I’m writing for the [upcoming] classes are of a caliber that I can and will turn them into pieces of scholarship.  This was a totally unexpected outcome—and the semester hasn’t even started yet!”

This is a great way to have your teaching contribute to your research scholarship, complete with built-in deadlines. Of course, students may need some reassurance that you don’t expect them to write just like you!

This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.


Donna C. Bird, Ph.D.
Director of Faculty Development Initiatives
University of Southern Maine
Portland, ME

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The Big Question

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on January 7, 2009

As we start both the new quarter and what promises to be a very interesting and in some ways tumultuous new year, here’s an idea for beginning classes in a way that can help students make sense of it all.

This Weekly Teaching Note is contributed by a member of the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain describes how many of the teachers that he studied prepared to teach by devising a “big question,” one that their course would help students address.

I use a “big question” to encourage students to reflect on what they have learned in a course. In the first class meeting of a [term], I present a big question that the course will address and I ask the students to write a page or less in which they reflect on the question. They write a response to the question as they would answer it now, and they indicate what knowledge they used to formulate their answer. This provides me with an understanding of the knowledge base and potential misconceptions that the students bring to the course.

As they write this initial paper, I indicate that there will be a second part to this assignment: they will respond to the same question at the end of the term. At the end of the term, I ask the students to address the original big question again. I encourage them to revisit their response paper from the first class. (I give points for completing the “big question” assignment only if both papers have been submitted.)

Students use varied approaches when they respond to the question a second time. Some students incorporate comments from the first paper into the second paper, often refuting points made in the first paper with new insights gained through the term. Other students write the second response and do not look at their earlier response until they have completed the second paper. Still other students start with their first response, and then expand on that first response to create a second response.

Regardless of the approach taken, students are much more expansive in the second response than they were on their earlier attempt to answer the question. I have found that having students answer the same big question for the course at the beginning and again at the end of the course serves multiple purposes including encouraging students to reflect on their learning and address misconceptions, while providing a very practical way for me to assess the impact of the course on student learning.


Contributed by:

Mary Stephen, Director

Reinert Center for Teaching Excellence

Associate Professor, Educational Studies

Saint Louis University

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The Stakeholders’ Exercise

Posted by weeklyteachingnote on November 25, 2008

Keeping students motivated is a constant struggle for teachers. “Trust me, you need to learn this,” is what we’d like to say, but we all know how (in)effective that argument is! Especially at the last couple of weeks of the quarter.

One professor of criminal justice decided to help his students see that he is not the only person who cares whether they learn or not. Every time he begins a new unit, he asks his students to brainstorm the different groups of people who might be affected by how well the students master the material.

For example, when beginning a unit on domestic violence, his students came up with this list of stakeholders in their learning:

  • Themselves, their supervisors, their partners, and their own families
  • Courts, police, lawyers, medical staff
  • Victim or victims, victims’ children and relatives
  • Suspect and suspect’s relatives
  • Neighbors

They could have gone on to say, “The whole world,” maybe, but the point is clear: Students’ learning is not just about them.

The professor who created the exercise also found two more benefits: students come to see that their instructor is responsible to the same stakeholders for the students’ learning. And, they come to realize that his teaching strategies are carefully selected based on his beliefs about learning. In other words, he would not ask them to do the learning activities he requires if he did not deeply believe it was the best way.

Now, criminal justice is pretty compelling all on its own (or else why are we watching those Law and Order re-runs?). But for every class that students take, other people are invested besides them and their instructors.

For example – who cares whether engineers learn calculus? Everyone who drives over a bridge! Who cares whether engineers learn history or political science? Everyone who might lose or gain something based on where, how, and for whom a bridge is built. Who cares whether art majors learn astronomy? Well, Vincent van Gogh did paint The Starry Night .

The idea for the Stakeholders Exercise came from the National Education Association Advocate Online ( , verified 24 November 2008).

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