Teaching tips for instructors

Here are some common challenges instructors face in the university classroom, along with some ideas and links to further resources.

Q: How do I increase active learning in the large classroom?  

Q: How do I know students are learning prior to a mid-term assessment?

Q: How do I motivate students to learn?

Q. How do I handle difficult students?


Q: HOW DO I INCREASE ACTIVE LEARNING IN THE LARGE CLASSROOM? Note: These ideas can be adapted and work equally well with small or medium-sized classes.

A: What is a large class? If you feel as though your class is large, then it is!

One of the easiest ways to increase active learning in a large, lecture-style class is with Personal Response Systems (known as clickers). You can find information about whether clickers are right for your class by going here.

However, there are many other options if you want to increase active learning in your class without personal response systems or in conjunction with them. Here are some ideas from the Faculty Focus special report:  Strategies for Teaching Large Classes (view entire report as a pdf). 

COOPERATIVE LEARNING GROUPS : Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 students and have them do some of the following activities throughout the course:

  • Jigsaws -- Students read and share research articles or other reading assignments they have done on their own. Then, individual students must teach the essential content to the rest of their group.
  • Research -- Assign each group in the class a specific topic to research, which they will then teach to the rest of the class. For example, at the University of Minnesota, groups in the veterinary virology class each are assigned a virus family to research and teach to their peers.
  • Group Tests or Quizzes -- Students take a test or quiz in two ways: individually and as a group. After the individual testing, students meet in their groups to take the same test collaboratively. The student's final grade is an average of both scores.
  • Discussion Groups -- Students discuss readings and video presentations as a group that they have previously viewed/read on their own. Students are required to turn in worksheets prior to the discussion to make sure they have done the assignment and are prepared to discuss it in their group. The TA checks for completed sheets when students come to class. Students also receive guidelines for having a successful discussion, including what kinds of things they are looking for in the reading and/or video. Several groups are randomly called on to present a report from their discussion to the rest of the class.
  • Fluid, Virtual Groups -- Group members are given the options of working face-to-face, by phone or online. The membership of the groups changes throughout the course. Brian Dineen ("TeamXchange: A team project experience involving virtual teams and fluid team membership" Journal of Management Education, 29(4), 593-616, 2005) found that 70 percent of his students chose the virtual group setting. The fluidity of the groups nearly eliminated social loafing -- team members relying on other group members to do the work for them. 
  • Online Discussion Groups -- Set up a discussion board on Blackboard and assign study groups of up to 10 students to engage in threaded discussions. Create a rubric for students to assess each other's work.
  • Check out this rubric for ideas about pairing students for cooperative learning exercises.

AVOIDING SOCIAL LOAFING -- In order to keep the groups on task and avoid one or two members doing all of the work, group members are assigned roles, such as recorder, gatekeeper (making sure all members participate), checker (checks for group member consensus and understanding) and divergent thinker (responsible for presenting the group with new ideas.) According to Deb Wingert and Tom Molitor, science faculty at the University of Minnesota, groups are accountable and graded for how well they work together as well as for producing completed assignments.
(See pp. 11, 12, 15 and 16 of the Faculty Focus report cited above for more information about collaborative learning groups.)

INTERACTIVE LECTURES : Chunking the lecture time into 10- to 12-minute pieces while interspersing them with other activities can help students grasp, apply and analyze the content rather than just memorize it, according to Wingert and Molitor.
One of their interactive lectures in a science classroom at the University of Minnesota might look like this:

  • an attention-getting introduction, such as music, a cartoon or a provocative question; 
  • 10 to 12 minutes of lecture; 
  • students working in small groups (two or three people) talking about, writing about and working on sample test items or problems from the lecture they just heard;
  • another 10- to 12-minute lecture chunk; 
  • more group work;
  • the class time ending with an assessment measure, such as a one-minute paper on the muddiest point of the class.
    (See p.11 of the Faculty Focus report cited above for more information about interactive lectures.)

USE PEER INSTRUCTION AND BECOME A CONVERTED LECTURER: "I thought I was a good teacher until I discovered my students were just memorizing information rather than learning to understand the material," says Eric Mazur, Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard University. "Who was to blame? The students? The material? I will explain how I came to the agonizing conclusion that the culprit was neither of these. It was my teaching that caused students to fail! I will show how I have adjusted my approach to teaching and how it has improved my students' performance significantly." Go here to listen to his talk on the S&T campus in March 2011.

CREATIVE QUESTIONING: Daniel Klionsky, biology instructor at the University of California-Davis, says that in a large class, students feel safe in their anonymity and it is difficult to get them to participate in their own learning. His remedy starts on the first day of class by setting the tone of active participation from the students. 

  • First, he tells the students he not only welcomes but highly encourages questions. In a class of 300, he explains, if one student has a question, there are likely a dozen other students with the same question.
  • Second, he makes the entire class raise their hands in his initial class, then divides the class up and has different sections raising their hands at different times. This exercise shows them they are clearly capable of raising their hands in class and should do so whenever they need to.
  • Third, he gets them to interact with him on the first day of class by asking a question that they can guess the answer to and are not penalized for answering wrongly.
  • Fourth, he coaxes questions until he elicits a response. If no one responds to his query, "Are there any questions," he follows with, "So if I were to ask this question on a mid-term, everyone would know how to respond?" This usually elicits several responses.
  • Fifth, he phrases questions in a way that is less risky for a student to answer. Rather than asking one student to come up with a particular number for the question, "Where does our water fall on the hardness scale?" he can ask, "Raise your hands if you think our water has a hardness of less than two," etc. The latter is much more likely to draw a response and get students to participate in the discussion.
    (For a full explanation of Klionsky's creative questioning techniques, see pp. 13-14 of the Faculty Focus report cited above.)

Additional resources:

Teaching the Large Class: A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes  (Heppner, F., San Franciso: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty , edited by Christine A. Stanley and M. Erin Porter.

CERTI Active Learning webpage

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A: Finding out how well students are learning content in your classroom has traditionally be done in a summative fashion -- that is, formal testing at the end of a unit, at mid-term and/or at semester's end. However, if you want to ensure better learning outcomes at the end of the course, the best way is to assess student learning while it's happening, also known as formative assessment.

Here are some ideas for formative assessment:

1. EMPLOY CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques) . The handbook Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd Edition describes 50 different techniques for teachers to use to monitor learning, as well as the purpose, suggestions for use, and estimated levels of time and energy required to implement each one. A copy of this manual is available on loan from the CERTI office.

Here are a few of the easiest CATs to try if you are just getting started:

  • The Minute Paper -- asks students to respond to two questions at the end of class: What was the most important thing you learned today? What questions remain uppermost in your mind as we conclude this class session?
  • The Muddiest Point -- At the end of the lecture, students are asked to write brief a brief answer to the question: What was the muddiest point in my lecture today?
  • The One-Sentence Summary -- Students are asked to summarize a large amount of information in a condensed format by responding to the prompt: Who did what to/for whom, when, where, how and why?
  • Directed Paraphrasing -- Students are asked to paraphrase a concept or procedure they just learned for a specific audience in two or three sentences.
  • Applications Cards -- After students hear or read about an important concept or procedure, they are given an index card and are asked to write down at least one possible, real-world application for what they have learned.

For CATs that are  more specific to science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, check out the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG) website, in particular the Tools page for proven assessment techniques.

Higher learning web site pages with more information on CATs: National Teaching and Learning Forum; Iowa State Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning; Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas

2. USE INFORMAL STUDENT EVALUATIONS. Another way to assess learning/teaching is to have students evaluate the class before mid-term. Do a free-hand, one-page student questionnaire called "How Are We Doing So Far?" 


  • What are three important things you have learned so far? 
  • What are three aspects of the class that have been of the most help to you in learning so far?
  • What are three things you wish were different? 

Tabulate the answers and present the information to the class. Explain why you need to do certain aspects that may have elicited complaints. Make any changes you are able to immediately, pointing back to the student feedback. (Borrowed from Craig E. Nelson, nelson1@indiana.edu, emeritus professor of biology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, http://mypage.iu.edu/~nelson1/)

Another similar procedure is the 3-2-1 evaluation. Students are directed to state three themes or concepts they learned during the unit, two questions that they still had, and one idea they wanted to share with others. (see p. 8 of Put to the Test: Making Sense of Educational Assessment, a Faculty Focus special report.)

3. USE PRINCIPALS OF JUST-IN-TIME TEACHING. " Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT for short) is a teaching and learning strategy based on the interaction between web-based study assignments and an active learner classroom. Students respond electronically to carefully constructed web-based assignments which are due shortly before class, and the instructor reads the student submissions "just-in-time" to adjust the classroom lesson to suit the students' needs. Thus, the heart of JiTT is the 'feedback loop' formed by the students' outside-of-class preparation that fundamentally affects what happens during the subsequent in-class time together." (Excerpt from the Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis website on JiTT. Go here for more information.)

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A: Student learning is closely tied to motivation, which can be both external (grades, money, other rewards) or intrinsic. How can instructors tap into students' intrinsic motivations to learn? Here is what the research reveals about intrinsic motivation in the classroom: 

--Involve students' natural curiosity in the learning process. Asking questions in teaching rather than only presenting facts improves learning. Questions that arouse curiosity about things already familiar to the student are the most effective. Go here for more information on the types of questions to use in improving student learning. You can also check out the Good Questions Project from the Department of Mathematics, Cornell University. 

--Give students choices and a sense of personal control in their own learning. "We learn best what we feel we need to know. Intrinsic motivation remains inextricably bound to some level of choice and control." (Dr. Barbara J. Millis, Director, The Teaching and Learning Center, The University of Texas at San Antonio)

--Give students feedback about how they are improving throughout the course. Give students the opportunity to succeed. If they are doing poorly, provide encouragement and guidance for improvement. If they are doing well, present new challenges.

--Involve students in cooperative learning and other peer instruction methods. Hear from Eric Mazur, Harvard physics instructor who developed peer instruction, about his personal journey in teaching on this YouTube video.

--Establish specific, challenging goals for individual students by having them write their goals regarding what they want to get out of your course (other than a good grade!).  Then, have students develop a plan of action necessary for achieving these goals and have them record progress toward their goals.

The above information taken from "McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers," McKeachie, Wilbert J., Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA, available from the CERTI library.

Other resources: Faculty Focus special report, Building Student Engagement: 15 Strategies for the College Classroom.
Also, On Course instructional principles for successful students (and instructors).  

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A: Difficult students may range from those who come tardy to class each session to those who are verbally or physically abusive to the instructor and other students. 

The "ounce of prevention" strategy is typically the best one. Here is a sample "Contract on Classroom Behavior" from Dr. Delaney R. Kirk, professor of management at the University of South Florida (reprinted by permission). This contract could be included in the course syllabus and given ample time for review on the first day of class.

By Dr. Delaney R. Kirk

1. Class begins promptly at the beginning of the class period. You should be in your seat and ready to start participating in
class at that time. That same rule also applies to me – I should be ready at the start of class, which means having the
technology operational.
    a. Always bring the required supplies and be ready to be actively engaged in the learning process. This
communicates preparedness and interest.
    b. If you come into class after an assignment has already been passed back, please do not ask for your assignment
until after the class is over. It’s unfair to the other students in class to wait while the professor searches again for your
paper because you weren’t there the first time. Just ask for it after class, and I’ll be happy to supply it to you.
    c. In deciding whether to attend class, please do not ask your professor if she/he is covering anything important on
that day. The course is carefully planned out – every day is important.

2. If you bring a newspaper to class, put it away before the start of class. If you sat in a business meeting and read the
Wall Street Journal while the boss was outlining a new strategy, you’d likely be fired or demoted. The same standard
applies here. In return, I promise to listen when you are talking to me and to treat you with respect.

3. Similarly, do not study material from other classes during this class. If you feel that you must spend our class time
studying or doing homework, please go to the library.

4. Turn your cell phone off or to vibrate before the start of class. I’ll also turn mine off.

5. It is fine to bring a drink or a snack to class, as long as it isn’t distracting. However, please remember that someone
else will be coming into the room after your class is done, so PICK UP YOUR TRASH. You wouldn’t visit a friend’s house
and leave newspapers, cans, bottles, and wrappers lying around after you left, so please don’t do it here.

6. I expect to have your attention for the full class period. This means:
    a. Avoid conversations with people sitting around you. It’s a small room – even if you whisper, please realize that
other people can certainly see you, and that’s distracting to them (and to me.)
    b. Do not start zipping up your backpack and rustling papers before the end of the class period. There’s sufficient time
for you to get to your next class to another without disrupting the last few minutes of this class. If one person does it, it
seems to trigger others to do it, and it makes the last few minutes (when announcements are often made) less than
optimal for everyone.

7. If you know that you’ll need to leave before the class is over, try to sit as close to the door as possible so as not to
disrupt others. Similarly, if you arrive in class late, just slip in as quietly as possible and take the first available seat you
come to.

8. If you are so tired that you cannot keep your head up, you should leave. I realize that environmental factors affect this,
including warm rooms, dimmed lights, and material that may not be interesting to you. However, laying your head on the
desk or sleeping in class is rude, and it is distracting to others. (Would you consider me rude if you invited me to a party
and I slept on your sofa during the party?) I’ll try to make class interesting, but remember that my primary goal is to teach
you, not to entertain you.

9. Turn in assignments on time. Earthquake, fire, flood, and catastrophic illness are the only reasonable excuses for a late
submission. You want the professor to know who you are for the right reasons.

10. Being courteous in class does not mean that you have to agree with everything that is being said. However, you will
rarely get your way with anybody in life by being rude, overly aggressive or just plain hostile. If you disagree with me (or I
with you) it is a good idea to wait and discuss the situation when you are not angry.

11. The rules of the syllabus, content of the exams, content of lectures, and calculation of the grade you earned are not a
starting point for negotiations. While I am always willing to work with students on an individual basis, I cannot negotiate
individual terms with each student.

12. Your questions are NOT an imposition – they are welcome and one of the professional highlights of my day. Chances
are, if you have a question, someone else is thinking the same thing but is too shy to ask it. Please – ask questions! You’ll
learn more, it makes the class more interesting, and you are helping others learn as well. But when you have a question
or comment, please raise your hand first. Blurting out a question or comment when someone else has already raised their
hand is rude – it’s like jumping ahead of someone else in line.

13. If emergencies arise that require an absence from a session, be sure to get the notes and all other information that
was covered in class from a colleague you trust. Expecting the faculty member to outline the class session in an
independent message to you is not realistic as a professor typically has approximately 100 + students in his/her classes
each semester.

14. The time to be concerned about your grade is in the first fourteen weeks of the course, not in the last week.

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