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Active learning is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2). Research suggests attention wanes after 15-20 minutes of a lecture. Active learning techniques can be used to re-energize and refocus a class.

In an active learning classroom, students must think, create and solve problems rather than passively listen to lecture. Active learning techniques and strategies can be used to develop quick activities that punctuate lectures. They can also be used to completely fill the class time.

During the break between semesters, our classrooms (Library rooms 501 and 502) were redesigned to support an active learning environment. An active learning environment is a flexible space that can be reconfigured quickly for a wide variety of teaching methods. An active learning environment supports student-centered learning and works best when you have furniture that allows students to easily shift from independent work to group work to class discussions and back again—without wasting valuable class time.

Active Learning Room 501 can accommodate a class-sized audience of 36. Active Learning Room 502 can accommodate a class-sized audience of 28.

active learning classroom
Active Learning Classroom (Library room 501)
active learning classroom
Active Learning Classroom (Library room 502)

students working in an active learning classroom
Active Learning in Action

Our classrooms are primarily used by faculty teaching regularly-scheduled university courses which make extensive regular use of multimedia materials, network communications, and/or active learning. Information about our approval process is available in our approval and assignment of Active Learning Classrooms and Teaching Lab document. Fill out our Classroom Request Form to request one of our classrooms.

Are you interested in incorporating active learning techniques in your classes? Here are a few resources to get you started:

We invite you to visit us if you are interested in taking a tour of our active learning classrooms.

image showing various disasters

Course delivery is vulnerable to unplanned events. Potential interruptions to class activities include but are not limited to natural disasters, widespread illness, acts of violence, planned or unexpected construction-related closures, severe weather conditions, and medical emergencies. Whatever the event, an instructional continuity plan will help you to be ready to continue teaching with minimal interruption.

For those who missed our "Preparing to Teach During an Interruption: Strategies for Maintaining Instructional Continuity" workshop and for those who want to learn more about instructional continuity, you will find a link to the workshop recording, PowerPoint slides, and resources discussed in the workshop here:

It's not too late to consider developing an instructional continuity plan for your courses. Visit our Instructional Continuity wiki for resources to help you develop your plan.

office desktop with My Plan written on notepad

Do you have a plan? If so, we would like to hear about it. If you had a classroom disruption and found a way for students to continue to make progress in your course, we encourage you to share it with your colleagues. Please email a brief description of what you did along with your reflections on how it worked for you, and we will post it to our Instructional Continuity wiki resource.

Image credits:
"The threat of disasters is real" by jflorent is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
"My Plan" by jflorent is dedicated to public domain under CC0 and is a derivative of office by FirmBee on Pixabay.

dog stretched out on the sofa

As you know, the flipped classroom relies heavily on students being prepared and ready to engage in the learning activities. What do you do when students come to class unprepared? Do you give a quick lecture to recap the pre-class content so everyone is on the same page? Do you give the unprepared students an alternative assignment? Do you kick the unprepared students out of class? Depending on your teaching philosophy and the classroom environment you want to create, you probably want to pro-actively design the learning environment using strategies to promote learning and personal development instead of relying on punitive measures to change behavior.

In a Faculty Focus article, Dr. Barbi Honeycutt recommended five things you can do to motivate unprepared students in the flipped classroom. Her recommendations are:

  1. Have a conversation.
  2. Review your pre-class assignment.
  3. Proceed as planned.
  4. Re-think participation grades.
  5. Set up a corner.

You can read more in her article Five Ways to Motivate Unprepared Students in the Flipped Classroom.

Additionally, we have a recording of The Flipped Classroom: Strategies to Overcome Student Resistance and Increase Student Engagement webinar presented by Dr. Barbi Honeycutt in our video library. Contact Carla Simmons if you are interested in borrowing this resource.

Image credit: "365-075" by kona99 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Infographics are likely a part of your everyday life. Infographics came into the graphic design scene about ten years ago. The increase of free, easy to use tools have made the creation of infographics available to many. They’ve become a staple for communication in classrooms, in the workplace, and across the web. Even if you haven’t jumped on the infographic bandwagon, it is likely that you have seen infographics as you scroll through social media and blogs.

Infographics are colorful and are very attractive to the eye. But what are they exactly, and how could you use them in your classroom? An infographic is a collection of imagery, charts, and minimal text that gives an easy-to-understand overview of a topic. They are more than a fad, infographics are useful tools to represent information in a compact way.

As in the example below, infographics use striking, engaging visuals to communicate information quickly and clearly.

Accessible PDF version of Course Design Zen infographic.

Visuals in an infographic must do more than excite and engage. They must help us understand and remember the content of the infographic. The best infographics have an equal balance of text and visuals.

Why should you use infographics? Infographics are great for making complex information easy to digest. They can be helpful anytime you want to:

  • Provide a quick overview of a topic
  • Explain a complex process
  • Display research findings or survey data
  • Summarize a long blog post or report
  • Compare and contrast multiple options
  • Raise awareness about an issue or cause

There are many options for using infographics that do not include creating them yourself. Found infographics (infographics created by others) can be much easier to integrate within instruction. Original infographics (graphics created by you or your learners) can be an excellent format for educators and students to synthesize complex concepts and data.

If you are interested in creating your own infographics, here are some tools you can try:

Whether you use an original or a found infographic, you should always ensure the infographic is accessible. For accessibility:

When you need to give someone a really quick rundown on something that can be hard to explain in words alone, an infographic is a good way to go. Remember, the best infographics use a combination of text, images, and data to inform and engage.

For more information about using infographics in education refer to this New York Times article: Data Visualized: More on Teaching With Infographics.

* Course Design Zen infographic was created using Canva.
Featured image by rawpixel from Pixabay

The more I learn about eportfolios in theory, the more I think that's not the right attitude to take.

Having an integrated eportfolio platform has become a pretty standard option for learning management systems (LMS) in recent years. At Xavier, we adopted D2L's Brightspace last year, and with it, we gained D2L's rather blandly named ePortfolio system. So when we started discussing the use of eportfolios in the classroom and for other purposes, we focused much of our attention on the system we're already paying for. But the more I learn about eportfolios in theory, the more I think that's not the right attitude to take.

The main thing to realize is that an eportfolio is really just a focused and purposeful web site; therefore, in reality, any system you can use to create a web site, you can use to create an eportfolio. A system like Brightspace ePortfolio has some advantages because it's so integrated into the LMS, but as is so often the case, it also has plenty of disadvantages. In another blog post, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of Brightspace Portfolio.

The better practice I often hear from people who are heavily involved in eportfolios at their schools is that when requiring someone to create an eportfolio, you shouldn't require them to use a specific platform. It's sort of like word processing programs. We don't require student a to use Microsoft Word when writing a paper; rather, we give them the specific requirements they need to meet and tell them to use whatever tool they're moat comfortable with that can meet those requirements. Portfolios are even easier in this regard, as they don't require a specific program to access them -- any web browser should do the trick.

Here are a few of the many options available to someone wanting to create an eportfolio outside of their LMS. All offer free access, although most require a subscription for full features:

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film strip, film reel, and clap board

Traditional writing assignments are appropriate for many types of assessments, but there is no law that says traditional writing assignments are required for all.

In a Faculty Focus article, Dr. John Orlando explains how student videos can be used to demonstrate learning. He writes,

A good video assignment is to put students into small groups with instructions to make a video that teaches a key concept related to class. If done well, the video not only demonstrates students’ understanding of the concept, but also serves as a resource that can be used by others.

Recent technologies have made video creation remarkably easy and video assignments can be shared in Brightspace. However, you should opt to have the students upload their video files to a video sharing site like YouTube and just provide a link to the video inside Brightspace.

If you are interested in video assignments, you can read more in Dr. Orlando’s “Ask Your Students to Create Videos to Demonstrate Learning” article.

Additionally, I prepared some instructions for recording, uploading, and sharing video on YouTube that you should provide to your students to help them post a link to their video in Brightspace.

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Being prepared is a must for teaching online. In addition to using better practices for online teaching you should be thinking about how to deliver your online course for maximum success while avoiding the 7 deadly sins of online course design.

globe with a computer mouse and teaching online text

In an IDDblog blog post, Alex Joppie listed a few tips for keeping your online course running smoothly. I’ve combined his tips with a few of my own to provide you with suggestions to help your online course run smoothly. Those suggestions are as follows:

Before the semester starts—touch base with your students

Send an email to your students before the first day of class. In your email,

  • Make sure students know they’re enrolled in an online class. Some students take online classes because they think it will be easy. When in fact, some students struggle in online courses because they do not have the skills to be self-directed learners. You should let the students know that online classes take time and self-discipline.
  • Inform them of technology requirements, textbooks, and other required materials. This will help them hit the ground running.
  • Let the students know when your Brightspace course will be available.
  • Let the students know you’re there. This email can also serve to ensure to students that even though the entire course is going to facilitated by computers and networks, that there is a human being involved who cares about their success.
  • Make sure they got the email (and read it). Ask students to respond to the email. You may need to pursue other means of communication if a student doesn’t seem to be getting your email.

Additionally, take advantage of intelligent agents to automate sending email.

The first week—setting the tone

Follow these steps to set a healthy culture for the course and make sure everyone gets off to a good start.

  • Make sure students log in to your course. Use the Class Progress Tool to check to make sure everyone has logged in sometime within the first few days of class.
  • Create a welcome video for your course. Using a short video clip of yourself helps the students to have a picture of you in their mind. This video will help you to become a “real” person to your students.
  • Add a profile picture to humanize your course. Humanized learning increases the relevance of course content and improves students’ motivation to log-in to your course week-after-week. Your profile picture will create an inviting space for your students.
  • Create a more personalized learning environment in your course by using Replace Strings. Replace Strings allow you to create personalized messages for your students. A personalized welcome message, for example, will make your course feel more inviting to your students.
  • Be active in introductory discussions. Your introductory discussions will set the tone for the entire course. Make sure there’s a positive culture in your discussions by being engaging in the first one.
  • Encourage students to select their Brightspace personal preferences by configuring their account settings and notifications. Also encourage students to use the Brightspace Pulse app to keep up with critical and timely course related information and assignments.
  • Utilize the Brightspace Class Progress, Completion Tracking, and Checklists tools to help students stay on track. Students are more likely to be successful in an online course when they check-in regularly and keep up with their coursework. If a student falls behind early, they may never catch up.

Mid-course—checking in

  • Give your students an anonymous survey to get feedback from them on how the course is going. Do this sometime after you feel your students should have gotten a sense of the rhythm of the course but you still have time to make meaningful course corrections based on the feedback. This is especially important the first time you teach a new course.

Every week—the routine

Provide students with weekly communications that recap the previous week’s activities and prime students for the following week:

  • Highlight insightful discussion posts – Draw students’ attention to important points made by their classmates. It’s positive reinforcement for students and shows that you’re engaged.
  • Respond to gaps in student learning – Did everyone miss a question on the quiz, or skip over an important point in a discussion? If so, address it.
  • Contextualize the week’s main topics – Tie the week’s activities back to the learning goals of the course. Why is what we did this week important?
  • Prime the students for the next week’s main topic – Give some context about why they should care about what’s coming up next.

Consider presenting your weekly communications in the form of video announcements. Doing so will give your students more exposure to you as a "real" person speaking to them while giving them a presentation of material or virtual tour of the week's lesson.

Here are a few more ideas to keep your online course interesting.

End-of-semester evaluation—develop your teaching persona

  • An end-of-semester evaluation is a good opportunity to get feedback from your students to help you develop your teaching persona. Getting a “learner-sighted” view of the course-experience can add to your understanding of the learning environment, including aspects of your teaching persona that have framed it.

Studies show that students withdraw from online courses at a higher rate than in face-to-face courses. There are many reasons for students withdrawing from an online course. Some reasons are beyond the instructor’s control. Educators do not like to see students withdraw from courses for the wrong reasons. The suggestions in this blog post will help you to improve retention and reduce attrition by making sure that your students are prepared, that they get off to a good start, and that they’re engaged.

CAT+FD Online Teaching Resources logo

In a US News and World Report article, Ian Quillen identified six signs of a bad online instructor. The list included things like a syllabus that is unclear, no set timetable for responding to emails, and simply converting print resources used in the face-to-face class. Ian’s article was intended to help students access the quality of an online class and be able to withdraw if necessary. However, this list can also be used to help online/hybrid instructors recognize where their course may be in need of improvement.

Additionally, we developed an online teaching resource to help faculty develop or improve their online and hybrid courses. Check out our updated CAT+FD Online/Hybrid Teaching Resources and let us know what you think.

image showing unhappy team member

Most students have mixed feelings about group work and usually moan and groan when they find out they are required to work on a group assignment. This is also true for students taking online classes. Group work is more challenging for online students because they may have to work with peers in different time zones, use different technologies for online collaboration, and communicate in ways that can make it difficult to understand someone’s personality or tone.

Many students cite lack of cooperation, work equity and dependency on others as major factors in disliking group work. Ironically, this is precisely why group work is essential for learning.

Online Group Projects — Yikes! You can hear the moans and groans of students echoing through your computer monitors as you start the first week of your online course. The reasons for requiring a group project vary from one discipline to another, but there are educational and career motives for requiring group projects.

Steven Johnson’s "Where good ideas come from" video gives an excellent explanation as to why group work is important.

Successful online group collaborative assignments can be a challenge in an online course. In a Faculty Focus article, Gregory Wells, instructional designer at Colorado State University, provided a few suggestions for improving online group work assignments. Those suggestions are:

Define the Project - the project should be integrated into the course objectives and not be viewed as an extra assignment or busy work. The project should allow students to practice specific skills based on the objectives of the course and demonstrate the ability to apply learning to a specific project.
Establish Milestones - the project should include specific milestones during the course. For example, require an outline, a project scope, a requirements document, and other pertinent deliverables.
Use the Learning Management System (Brightspace) - offer private group discussion areas and other collaboration tools that will encourage both communication and participation.
Simplify and Clarify Grading - it is imperative that you establish clear grading expectations for the group project.
Provide Encouragement - it is important to encourage and communicate the specific details of the project. Instructors can not assume students have the knowledge, competencies and skills necessary to engage in group work. They must prepare students for the obstacles they may face.

Following Gregory’s suggestions will not eliminate all of the potential issues that come into play with online group work, but these suggestions will certainly minimize the issues and can turn those moans and groans into excited and energized students that understand the importance of group work.

For more information on Gregory’s suggestions, read his article, “Five Steps to Improving Online Group Work Assignments.”

teamwork word cloud

Additionally, you may find helpful information in the following resources:

female staring at sheet of paper she is holding in one hand while holding pencil in the other hand

In a Faculty Focus article, Dr. Linda Shadiow and Dr. Maryellen Weimer suggested using end-of-semester evaluations to get information from your students that can help you develop your teaching persona (the slice of your identity that constitutes the “public teaching self.”)

Your teaching persona should be created from a series of choices made with the aim of enhancing student learning. In the article Drs. Shadiow and Weimer write,

By the end of a semester, we have a sense of how a course went and what activities and actions supported student learning. But through some painful experiences we’ve learned that sometimes what we thought happened was contradicted by what students experienced.

Getting a “learner-sighted” view of the course-experience can add to your understanding of the learning environment, including aspects of your teaching persona that have framed it.

The authors suggest you begin by telling students that you’re asking questions only they can answer. Explain that this is feedback that can help you become a teacher who helps students learn more effectively. Here is their sample note that introduces students to the concept of evaluating the course experience and some examples of sentence stems that can yield useful information:

Your insights into your learning in this course can help me see our course from your side of the desk. Please respond to any three of the statements below (more if you’d like). Submit these anonymously; I will use them as I plan for my courses next semester.

In this course …

it most helped my learning of the content when…because…
it would have helped my learning of the content if…because…
the assignment that contributed the most to my learning was… because…
the reading that contributed the most to my learning was… because…
the kinds of homework problems that contributed most to my learning were…because…
the approach I took to my own learning that contributed the most for me was…because…
the biggest obstacle for me in my learning the material was… because…
a resource I know about that you might consider using is…because…
I was most willing to take risks with learning new material when… because…
during the first day, I remember thinking…because…
what I think I will remember five years from now is…because…

What are good ways to gain insights from student feedback? Put some distance between the course and the feedback. It’s particularly beneficial to review the feedback when selecting course materials, developing assignments, and constructing the syllabus for the next semester. Another option is to have a colleague compile the results and return them to you prior to planning for the next semester.

For more information read the Faculty Focus article, A New Twist on End-of-Semester Evaluations.

Additionally, Brightspace has a survey tool that allows you to get anonymous feedback from your students. You can get more information about using Brightspace surveys in my Get Feedback from your Students tip.