iStock_000059103460_Medium.160516 May 16

Backward Design, Forward Progress

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Readers of Faculty Focus are probably already familiar with backward design. Most readily connected with such researchers as Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Dee Fink, this approach to course construction asks faculty to initially ignore the specific content of a class. Rather, the designer begins the process by identifying desired learning goals, and then devising optimal instruments to measure and assess them. Only thereafter does course-specific content come into play—and even then, it is brought in not for the sake of “covering” it, but as a means to achieve the previously identified learning objectives. Courses designed this way put learning first, often transcend the traditional skillset boundaries of their discipline, and usually aim to achieve more ambitious cognitive development than do classes that begin—and often end —with content mastery as the primary focus. Although the advantages of backward design are manifest, it’s probably still the exception to, rather than the rule of, course planning.


students in lecture hall April 11

Six Things You Can Do to Deepen Student Learning

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For baseball fans and players, springtime can only mean one thing: spring training. Every year professional baseball players head to Arizona or Florida to hone their craft. These are professionals mind you, but they continue to spend hours each year working on many of the same things Little Leaguers work on during the start of their seasons—throwing, catching, hitting, base running, and so forth.

As they make minor adjustments in these fundamentals of the game, the overall outcome is a major improvement. The same is true for faculty who remain mindful of their fundamentals, and make small, incremental improvements to their teaching.


student blogging April 1

A Blog Assignment with Results

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Blogging can be a tool that aids learning. “Blogs provide students with an opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ to make meaning through interaction with the online environment.” (p. 398) They provide learning experiences described as “discursive,” meaning students learn by discussing, which makes blogs a vehicle for knowledge construction. They exemplify active learning and can promote higher-order thinking. Potential outcomes like these give teachers strong incentives to explore their use.


professor and student discussing grade March 21

Using Rubrics as a Defense Against Grade Appeals

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Faculty dread the grade appeal; anxiety prevails until the whole process is complete. Much has been written about how to avoid such instances, but the potentially subjective assessments of written essays or clinical skills can be especially troublesome. One common cause of grade appeals is grading ambiguity in which the student and faculty member disagree on the interpretation of required content. Another cause is inequity, whereby the student feels others may have gotten more credit for very similar work or content (Hummel 2010). In the health-care field especially, these disagreements over clinical-skills assessments can actually result in student dismissal from the program and may lead to lawsuits.


students writing in class March 7

Unexpected Benefits of Grading Effort and Habit

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Effort and habit are instrumental to learning and writing, but they are often dimly lit in our grading systems. That light needs to brighten with the help of new research and popular literature that highlight how essential habit, effort, and perseverance are to learning. I’ve used an effort-aware grading system in my teaching for some time now, a B-grading contract that locks hardworking students into a minimum final grade of B. For grades rising above B, the quality of the writing is the focus (the product), but only for students who fulfill the contract (the process).


Three college students January 15

Goldilocks and the ‘Just Right’ Strategy for Helping Students Acquire New Content

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When Goldilocks visits the three bears’ house, she tastes the porridge they left out in the kitchen; papa’s porridge is too hot, mama’s is too cold, but baby bear’s porridge is “just right” for her. Believe or not, this notion of “just right” is meaningful to college professors as they prepare content for their classes.


online student on laptop December 7, 2015

Built-in Self-Assessment: A Case for Annotation

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we want students to be critical thinkers, we must routinely and explicitly give them structured practice opportunities to critically examine their own thinking. Squeezing two or three metacognitive activities into a hectic semester teaches students that such reflection is only for special occasions. Rather, student self-evaluation should be a daily course routine.


students in library November 30, 2015

Problem-Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement, and Assess

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Twenty-first century skills necessitate the implementation of instruction that allows students to apply course content, take ownership of their learning, use technology meaningfully, and collaborate. Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is one pedagogical approach that might fit in your teaching toolbox.


study group October 29, 2015

Peer Assessment that Improves Performance in Groups

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Peer assessment in groups has been shown to effectively address a number of group process issues, but only if the peer assessment has a formative component. Many studies have shown that if peer assessment is used at the end of a group project, group members will punish their dysfunctional members—those who didn’t do work, didn’t turn work in on time, didn’t come to meetings, and didn’t do quality work—but they won’t confront those group members when they commit those dysfunctional behaviors. After-the-fact peer assessment gives the teacher input on who did and didn’t contribute in the group, but it doesn’t change what happened in that group or help students learn how to confront group member problems when they emerge.


instructor thinking October 19, 2015

Refresh Your Course without (Too Much) Pain and Suffering

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See if this sounds familiar.

You’re scheduled to teach a course you have taught before that desperately needs revision. The content and pedagogy go back for a decade or more and are both sadly obsolete, or the grades have been abysmal and the students are threatening to revolt, or someone (the department head, a faculty committee, or you) has decided to offer the course online, or maybe you’re just bored and dread the thought of teaching it again.