And, We’re Back…

Steve Volk, August 17, 2017

(Note: A version of this article appeared on published August 22, 2016; this is an updated, expanded version.)

The summer is over (at least as far as the “Article of the Week” is concerned), and we’re back in business. It’s been an eventful three months, and we’ll have much to talk about as classes approach. But first, here are a few of the themes covered over the past few years, organized by topic, that you might find useful as you finish off your syllabi and plot your classroom adventures for the semester. We will soon be sending the faculty a survey that we hope you’ll fill out and return. It should help CTIE better plan events for the coming year.

For those of you on campus, my office has relocated (with me in it!) to the new Gateway center next to the Hotel. I’m in 213, second floor in the back. Stop by and say hello and grab a cup of coffee while you’re here.

Thinking About the Syllabus

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

Backward Design: From Course to Class (Feb. 27, 2017). Applying syllabus-level backward design to the class level.

In Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching (Oct. 10, 2016) Elizabeth Hamilton discusses the principles of universal design as applied to teaching.

The Dual Life of a Syllabus (August 4, 2015) discusses the syllabus as both a “legal” contract and a learning document and suggests approaches to both aspects.

Sharing Syllabi (March 7, 2016) introduces a syllabus sharing project run out of Columbia University and evaluates the pros and cons of making your syllabus publicly available.

In the Classroom:

Active Learning

In Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques (Oct. 25, 2015), Marcelo Vinces looks at the research on the positive impact of active learning techniques in STEM fields.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning (Feb. 8, 2015) explores the concept and theory of active learning and offers advice on how to help prepare students for collaborative, communicative classroom practices where they can learn as much from each other as from the instructor.


Wendy Hyman, in ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’: New Approaches to Assignments (April 17, 2017), suggests ways to incorporate student voices to the design of assignments.

In Designing Assignments for the New Semester (Jan. 25, 2015), I discuss the elements of “backward design” and how to craft assignments that are aligned with an instructor’s learning goals.

Secret HandshakesRevealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design (Sept. 27, 2015) argues that there are a variety of ways in which academic success has always been an “insiders” game, and that if we are to give all our students the best chance of success, we need to design assignments clearly, explicitly, and in a way that all can understand.

Beginnings and Endings

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community (Aug. 29, 2016) explores how to use the first day of class to talk about something more important than the syllabus.

In The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins (Feb. 8, 2015), I argue for the importance of using the few minutes before class actually begins to help create an environment where students are at ease and attentive.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning (April 20, 2014) examines relatively traditional ways to end a class (e.g., talking faster to get in everything you wanted even as the students are packing their bags and heading for the door) and suggests better ways to make productive use out of the last five minutes of class.


Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom (Sept. 26, 2016): How to help students talk about difficult or controversial topics.

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Inksheds and Eggshells (April 10, 2016) explores a technique whereby students free-write on a topic, then pass their comments to a second student, and so on for about 20 minutes until the discussion moves to the class as a whole.

Let’s Talk about It: Fostering Productive Classroom Discussions (Sept. 6, 2015) considers ways to set up a class so that discussions have the greatest chance of supporting student learning. In particular, it provides approaches to help students be responsible talkers and listeners when working with their peers.

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class (Sept. 20, 2015) offers ways to structure student discussions of course material outside of the class.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively (Sept. 14, 2014) argues why discussions are an important pedagogy for learning, and offers advice on how to set up discussion groups, structure small-group conversations, and bring the learning occurring in the break-out groups back to the class as a whole.


Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia? (Nov. 8, 2015) looks at grading practices and asks if there are better, or at least fairer, ways to evaluate student work. The article explores, in particular, “specification grading,” a form of “contract grading” (see below).

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading (March 27, 2016) contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment. There are a variety of ways to engage in “contract grading” (three are discussed in this article), but all attempt to clarify the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions.

Group Projects

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Group Projects: It’s Better Together – But Only if You Plan (April 10, 2017): The benefits, and common pitfalls, of group projects, as well as information on how to grade them.


The Sound of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening (Feb. 20, 2017): On the role of silence in the classroom.

Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand (Feb. 1, 2015): A synopsis of Lee Knefelkamp’s (Teachers College, Columbia) technique for helping students listen for understanding: i.e., for meaning, the impact of affect, communication, and response, in a responsible fashion, and in order to expand the complexity of one’s own understanding.

Presentation Software

PowerPoint: Let’s Make a Meal of It (Oct. 3, 2016): Best practices when using PowerPoint in your classes.


Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Reading: A Short Guide to Contemporary Practices (and Problems) March 27, 2017: towards an ethics of reading.

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills (March 29, 2015) provides an introduction to the “Active Reading Document” approach developed at Texas Lutheran University as a way to help students at all levels of reading get a better grip on the practice.

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables) (Sept. 23, 2012) considers the question of how much reading should be assigned, offering some tips on how to figure this out for your specific classes.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr (March 1, 2015) addresses the question of how much reading is too much reading (tl;dr = too long, did not read) and how to help students be better readers.


Image from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

Image from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

Cortney Smith, in Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking (Dec. 5, 2016), presents some strategies to help student speaking and methods for evaluating their speaking.

Good Job! Responding to Student Answers in order to Spur Learning (Sept. 19, 2016) suggests that how one responds to students’ classroom comments can help (or hinder) their learning.

A Teacher’s Identity in the Classroom

The ‘Us’ in Teaching (Oct. 31, 216). What parts of you do you leave outside the classroom; what parts do you bring in?


Lids Down! (Oct. 5, 2014) summarizes some of the research on laptop use in the classroom concluding that they probably do more harm than good except in specific contexts.

Visualization Strategies

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization (Feb. 14, 2016) points to the evidence that links image and understanding, particularly in the sciences, where visualizations can be integral to the teaching of complex concepts. Visualization, teaching students to illustrate concepts, can be an effective way of helping students understand complexity in a variety of fields and communicate with clarity.

The Honor Code

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation? (Nov. 22, 2015) traces the history of the honor code at colleges and universities and argues that there are a variety of assumptions built into this traditional pledge that need to be unpacked and discussed. The article also suggests that we need to be paying particular attention to how international students, who may have very different understandings of “honor,” understand and observe the code.

Equity and Specific Student Communities

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias

Child.Jade.braindrainMarcelo Vinces, in From “Between the World and Me” to “Whistling Vivaldi”: How implicit bias trips up our brains…and what we can do about it (Nov. 21, 2016), offers strategies for identifying and getting beyond implicit bias.

The Stereotype Threat (Feb. 28, 2016) discusses research on the ways in which we carry around sets of implicit biases that can negatively impact our students’ ability to learn and reach their full potential.

Students on the Autism Spectrum

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (April 19, 2015) lists some approaches for teaching students who are on the autism spectrum.

International Students

In Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges (Nov. 1, 2015), I take account of the fact that the number of international students enrolled at liberal arts colleges is increasing at a rapid pace. The article provides specific advice for how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the remarkably diverse population which is now present on our campuses, and explores specific approaches or practices that may prove difficult for international students: working with open-ended assignments, receiving feedback on assignments, class participation, etc.

Information Literacy

Women's March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

Women’s March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

With Rosalinda Linares, The New Information Literacy (Jan. 23, 2017): Working with librarians to separate fact from fiction, fiction from politics.

Finding Our Voice in a ‘Post-Truth’ Era (Dec. 12, 2016). “Post-Truth” and our responsibilities as teachers.

New Pedagogies, New Approaches

Stand and Deliver: (March 6, 2017). The pedagogy of movement in a classroom

In The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom (March 12, 2016) Sebastiaan Faber argues that the ability to take risks with one’s teaching in order to make classroom teaching a collaborative endeavor where students take ownership over their own learning and become accountable for it as well, depends on building trust, accepting one’s own vulnerability, and suspending one’s authority in the classroom.

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time (Oct. 4, 2015) discusses techniques for slowing down so as to help students build their capacity for deep analysis, the basis of slow pedagogical techniques.

Tania Boster, in Community-Based Learning at Oberlin: Democratic Engagement Plus Significant Learning (Feb. 13, 2017), discusses the pedagogy of community-based learning and research.

Listening to Smart People (Feb. 6, 2017). What we can learn from different kinds of learners.

Office Hours

Office Hours: The Doctor is In (Sept. 13, 2016): How to make optimal use of office hours – and how to get students to come.

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

Teaching in Troubled Times:

Student activism has been a major part of the higher education environment in the last few years. You’ll find some of my remarks on this in New Student Activism: Stops on the Road to New Solidarities (April 24, 2017).

The Past as Way Forward: Finding a “Useful History” (March 13, 2017): How learning communities joining different campus communities can help us build trust on campus.

You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back” (Nov. 14, 2016). What difference teachers can make in a difficult world.

My take on Bertrand Russell’s “Decalogue” for teachers, presented in an article I title, “Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism” (May 8, 2016).

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