The Welcoming Syllabus

The course syllabus is more than a simple contract or informational document for the students. The syllabus serves many purposes:

  • Welcomes students to the course,
  • Provides information (such as learning outcomes and prerequisites) to let students know if the course is a good fit,
  • Provides information to understand how the course aligns with other courses in a program,
  • Describes how student learning will be evaluated, and
  • Serves as a resource for students throughout the course to keep track of due dates, assignments, expectations, and other resources
The syllabus informs, welcomes, and provides a schedule.

A class syllabus is not only a record of assignments and activities; it is also a representation of who we are as instructors and the goals and ideals we wish to share with our students. The policies we choose to include in our syllabus – and the way we frame required policies – reflect our values and convey to students how we see them as learners and citizens in our classroom.

How the syllabus is written informs learners’ decisions to complete or withdraw from a course, shapes the way they view the course and interact with faculty, and informs their decisions to seek assistance when academic difficulties arise.

Developing a welcoming syllabus is a key first step towards creating an inclusive classroom environment.

Creating a welcoming syllabus also demystifies the language, expectations, and social mores of higher education that students who have historically been discriminated against, and first-generation college students, may not have been exposed to previously.

For example, I add a simple statement to my courses explaining what a syllabus is and why it’s important. Defining the word “syllabus” also helps concurrently-enrolled high school students who may not understand its importance. Defining the term helps to level the playing field and welcomes each student on equal footing.

 The syllabus tone sets the mood for the class and can range from pleasant and welcoming to formal and disciplinary, or even condescending and demeaning.

Language that is pleasant and welcoming can encourage and motivate learners; this is particularly important in courses where students face academic difficulty.

Welcoming language can also help readers recall information more easily than when they believe the language is unfriendly or punitive.

Harsh language in the syllabus can be intimidating and discouraging for some students and, as such, hinders their success.

An example that you can implement right away is to make a simple change from using the term “office hours” to “student hours”. This completely shifts the focus to the students, so they easily perceive that this is time that you have intentionally reserved for them.

Being warm and welcoming by including diversity- focused statements that invite students to interact with faculty and affirming students’ beliefs that you expect them to succeed are effective ways to engage with students through the syllabus.

Welcoming happy face for "Student Hours" and "Diversity Focused"

Less effective are ‘listers’ who specify the books and chapters that students must read each week with no rationale about why they were selected, and ‘scolders’ who provide brief course content and extensive details about the different types of infractions that can result in loss of points and other forms of punishment.

Students perceive the less effective styles and practices as mistrustful; they prompt learners to believe that their instructor does not expect them to succeed.

Other ways to implement a warm, welcoming style in your syllabus are to avoid third person. Instead of “The students will…” use “You will” and “I will” and “We”.

You will, I will, We will

Also, phrase policies in a strengths-based manner rather than framing policies in the context of penalizing students. For example, “You will receive full credit for assignments when completed on time. In instances where an assignment is submitted late, you will only receive partial credit of up to 90% of the total” rather than “For each day late I will deduct 10 percent of the grade”.

Remember that while the syllabus does contain important information about your expectations for students, it should not read like a rule-book. For example, instead of a “course policies” section, you could call it “How to be Successful in this Course”.

Unlike an instructor’s class comments, which may or may not ‘stick’ with learners, the syllabus is a physical document that students can access over the course of the semester. Therefore, it is important that we carefully choose language that welcomes, encourages, and motivates students.

Syllabus language often shapes students’ first impressions of instructors and helps learners discern the faculty’s attitude toward teaching and learning. When students believe language in the syllabus is friendly, they view their instructors as warm and approachable and believe they are highly motivated to teach. When syllabi contain punitive language, students are less inclined to approach an instructor for academic assistance; they do not feel welcome.

To ensure your students feel included and welcome, use an inviting and engaging tone in your syllabus, show your enthusiasm for the subject, express high expectations for your students, and explain how to succeed rather than how to fail.

Read your syllabus aloud. Does it something like something you would want told to you? Is it sending the message you want your students to hear?

Edit your syllabus; welcome your students.


Adams, M., & Bell, L. A. (Eds.). (2016). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Chicago, IL: John Wiley & Sons.

Becker, A. H., & Calhoon, S. K. (1999). What introductory psychology students attend to on a course syllabus. Teaching of Psychology, 26(1), 6- 11.

Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. C. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Calhoon, S., & Becker, A. (2008). How students use the course syllabus. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 1-12.

Canada, M. (2013). The syllabus: A place to engage students’ egos. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2013(135), 37-42.

Collins, T. (1997). For openers, an inclusive course syllabus. In W. E. Campbell & K. A. Smith (Eds.), New paradigms for college teaching (pp. 79-102). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. Chicago, IL: John Wiley & Sons.

Dowd, A.C. & Bensimon, E.M. (2015). Engaging the “race question”: Accountability and equity in US higher education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-367.

Habanek, D. V. (2005). An examination of the integrity of the syllabus. College Teaching, 53, 62-64.

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319-330.

Ishiyama, J. T., & Hartlaub, S. (2002). Does the wording of syllabi affect student course assessment in introductory political science classes? Political Science & Politics, 35(03), 567-570.

Ledesma, M. C., & Fránquiz, M. E. (2015). Introduction: Reflections on Latinas/os, affirmative action, and education. Association of Mexican American Educators Journal, 9(1), 6-12.

Lewis, C. W., & Middleton, V. (2003). African Americans in community colleges: A review of research reported in the community college journal of research and practice: 1990-2000. Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 27(9-10), 787-798.

Marcis, J. G., & Carr, D. R. (2003). A note on student views regarding the course syllabus. Atlantic Economic Journal, 31(1), 115.

Marcis, J. G. & Carr, D. R. (2004). The course syllabus in the principles of economics: A national survey. Atlantic Economic Journal, 32, 259.

Martin, D. B. (2000). Mathematics success and failure among African- American youth: The roles of sociohistorical context, community forces, school influence, and individual agency. New York, NY: Routledge.

Moses, R. P., Cobb, C. E., Jr. (2001). Radical equations: Math literacy and civil rights. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Perrine, R. M., Lisle, J., & Tucker, D. L. (1995). Effects of a syllabus offer of help, student age, and class size on college students’ willingness to seek support from faculty. The Journal of Experimental Education, 64(1), 41-52.

Pliner, S. M., & Johnson, J. R. (2004). Historical, theoretical, and foundational principles of universal instructional design in higher education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 37(2), 105-113.

Roberts, Maxine T. Center for Urban Education.  “The Syllabus:  A Tool that Shapes Students’ Academic Experiences” PDF download.

Rubin, S. (1985). Professors, students, and the syllabus. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 56, 31-35.

Smith, M. F. and Razzoul, N. Y. (1993) Improving Classroom Communication:  The Case of the Course Syllabus. Journal of Education for Business, v68 n4 p215-21 Mar-Apr.

Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31.


  • Developing an Inclusive Syllabus (University of Utah)
  • Diversity and Inclusion (Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning)
  • Effect of Syllabus Tone [Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011)]
  • Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the Course Syllabus: Considerations for Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69-79.
  • Grunert O’Brien, J. (1997). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker.
  • Grunert O’Brien, J. G., Millis, B. J., & Cohen, M. W. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Guertin, L. (2014, August 27). Getting students to read the syllabus with a syllabus quiz [Blog post]. Retrieved from the American Geophysical Union website at 
  • Harnish, R. J., McElwee, R. O., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney, M. R., Shore, C. M., & Penley, J. (2011). Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate. APS Observer, 24(1).
  • Sample Syllabi, UCLA Inclusive Syllabus Design
  • Sinor, J., & Kaplan, M. Creating your syllabus. Retrieved from 
  • Smith, R. (2014). Conquering the Content: A Blueprint for Online Course Design and Development San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Active Learning in Zoom

computer open to web conferencing app

Active Learning in Zoom Blog Post August 2020

Active Learning

Active learning, in which students participate in the learning process by discussing, problem-solving, questioning, and interacting, combines focusing on how students learn with what students are learning. Thirty years of research has proven that active learning techniques significantly reduce students’ probability of failure while making classroom environments more inclusive. Active learning cuts the achievement gap in half while virtually eliminating the gender gap.[1]

Passive learning, in which a student listens to an instructor lecture, lacks student involvement. Worse, years of passive learning actually trains students to be passive listeners and thwarts students’ initiative and agency. Passive learning is a “one-size-fits-all approach”[2] that reinforces archaic, hierarchical structures of education for a privileged few.

Active learning in the brick-and-mortar classroom involves students working in teams or pairs, sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, and discussing concepts. Students participate in constructing their knowledge with their peers, guided by an instructor. Implement active learning strategies into the remote classroom via Zoom (or another web-conferencing tool) by following the guidelines below, compiled from resources provided The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University, Oregon State University, The University of Melbourne, and the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation.

Planning Considerations

As you do with all learning activities, make sure you are aligning the active learning strategies to course learning outcomes. The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University shares three questions to think about when considering active learning strategies in Zoom:

  1. What skill should my students be able to perform by the end of our online class session?
  2. Which active learning strategy will allow my students to practice this skill?
  3. When will my students encounter and engage with information and ideas? When will they reflect on what they have learned? (Any of these active learning components can be done before, during, or after the remote class session.)[3]

These questions can help you think about the pacing of the class session as well as the content you plan to cover. Next, some specific strategies to consider implementing into your remote Zoom class sessions.

Active Learning Strategies

1 Polling

From Columbia University, “Polling is a quick, easy way to check the opinions or thought processes of your students by posing a statement or question and gathering their responses in real time. Zoom’s Polling feature allows for simple multiple-choice polls, including Likert-type questions that ask your students to state their level of agreement with a statement, assessing the level of student interest on a list of topics, or binary yes/no or true/false questions. Simple polls can be used at the start, end, or at select points during an online class session to engage and assess your students.”[4]

To implement using the Zoom Poll, Columbia offers this advice: “Determine your purpose for conducting a simple multiple-choice poll in your online class session by considering the following:

  • What information would you like to get from your students in real-time?
  • How will you use the poll results / information collected?

Here are some possible ways you can use polls for active learning in your online class session:

  1. As an ice breaker to create a class environment conducive for active learning (e.g., Which of the following career paths is your top choice at this moment?)
  2. Check background knowledge to determine what information your students should encounter or engage with next (e.g., Which of the following best represents your familiarity with the concept of atomic orbitals?)
  3. Assess opinion on a debatable issue based on what information your students have encountered so far (e.g., “Genetically modified foods should not be permitted for human consumption.” Agree or Disagree?)
  4. Frame / bookend the lesson to focus your students as they engage with new information (e.g., Which of the following factors do you think has the largest impact on the rate of DNA replication in a eukaryotic cell?)
  5. Choose the next topic based on student reflection on what they need help with (e.g., Which of the following topics would you like to go over as a class?)
  6. Get feedback based on student reflection on what helps them learn most effectively (e.g., Which of the following activities are most helpful in helping you learn the skills required for this course?)

Create the Zoom poll (see Zoom Help Center to learn how) and determine how much time your students will need to respond to it. Make sure the question title and prompt is clearly worded and not open to misinterpretation.

Prior to launching the poll, provide verbal and written instructions on how to complete the poll. Once launched, you will be able to see in real time the number of students and the percentage of the class that have responded to the poll, the time elapsed, and the results of the poll.

End the poll when the allocated time is up. You can then choose whether to show the class the results of the poll. Either way, be sure to directly address or have your students respond to the results of the poll, and relate it back to the purpose of the poll.”[5]

2 Think-Pair-Share

From Columbia University, “This active learning strategy involves posing a short problem, scenario, or question to your students and giving them the time and opportunity to complete the following steps:

  1. Think through the problem, scenario, or question individually.
  2. Pair with a partner to discuss.
  3. Share their findings or takeaways with the rest of the class.

This strategy not only gives your students time to process and apply their knowledge and skills on their own first, it also gives them the opportunity to consult and collaborate with a peer. This process usually elicits more thoughtful responses while also lowering the stakes of sharing with the rest of the class.

  • Think: First, pose a short problem, scenario, or question for your students to work through on their own for about 30 seconds to a minute. Read the question out loud while also displaying it on a slide that you share with your students using Zoom’s Share Screen feature. As your students are thinking through the problem, click on Zoom’s Breakout Rooms tool so you can enter the number of breakout rooms needed in order for each to contain a pair of students. Zoom conveniently displays the number of participants per room based on the number of participants present and the number of rooms you select. If you have an odd number of students, subtract one from the total number of students and divide that by two to get the number of rooms you should create; Zoom will automatically assign one of the breakout rooms with three students instead of a pair.
  • Pair: When your students are ready to pair up, let Zoom automatically assign them to the breakout rooms. Give your students about 5 minutes to introduce themselves to their partners and share their thoughts on the assigned problem. To help your students keep track of the given problem and directions, you can broadcast the problem and instructions through a message to all the breakout rooms.
  • Share: When your students are ready to share, close the breakout rooms so all your students return to the main room. Ask for volunteers to share their answers or discussion takeaways by having them use the hand-raise feature in Zoom. Unmute one volunteer at a time so they can acknowledge their partner and share their response with the entire class. Mute the volunteer who has spoken before unmuting the next one. Repeat this process until you are satisfied with the number of contributions and/or perspectives shared.

Alternative active learning strategies with similar setups

  • Note-Taking Pairs: Students work in pairs to improve their individual class notes.
  • Three-Step Interview: Students work in pairs and take turns interviewing each other, and report what they learn to another pair.
  • Peer Instruction: Students first answer a given poll question on their own. Then, students pair up and explain their rationale. Finally, students answer the poll question again.”[6]

3 Minute Paper

“A minute paper is a short “paper” that students individually complete in a minute (or more realistically, under five minutes) in response to a given prompt. Minute papers provide students with opportunities to reflect on course content and disciplinary skills as well as their self-awareness as learners. This active learning strategy simultaneously allows you to quickly check your students’ knowledge. Minute papers can be assigned at the start, during, or at the end of your online class session as you see fit.

Before your online class session, write an open-ended prompt that students can respond to in less than five minutes. You can vary the prompt to target specific knowledge and skill sets or solicit big picture free responses.

Example prompts include:

  • What questions about today’s topic are you most interested in exploring?
  • What was the most important point of today’s lesson?
  • Share an experience from your everyday life that illustrates this principle.
  • What steps will you take to maximize your learning for the upcoming test?
  • Reflecting on the essay you just submitted, what would you have done differently that would improve your essay?”[7]

After the class session have the students submit their paper in a Blackboard Assignment for you to review.

4 Small Group Discussions

“Small group discussions are one way for your students to delve more deeply into a given problem or issue. You can pose an open-ended question or problem, or provide your students with a scenario or case study to work through. The duration is dependent on the task. Groups can then present their results or findings to the rest of the class.

Reflect on the learning objective that would most benefit from small group discussion. From this learning objective, develop the discussion prompt that you will assign to your students. For example:

  • Learning Objective: Analyze Figure 3 of the assigned research article.
  • Discussion Prompt: How well does the data shown in the figure support the author’s claims?

When assigning the small group discussion, be sure to include clear instructions on what your students are supposed to do. Examples include:

  • How many students will be in each group
  • How much time they have for the discussion
  • What they need to report back to the class and how much time they have to do so
  • Upholding discussion guidelines that they previously agreed to

Because your students are having these discussions completely online, it is best not to have too many students in each group; 3-4 students per group for a 10-minute small group discussion allows each student to contribute substantially to the discussion.

To help facilitate the small group discussion and ensure that all students engage, either assign or have your students volunteer for the following roles:

  1. Facilitator + Timekeeper—keep the discussion focused on the assigned prompt
  2. Notetaker—record the main points of the discussion on a collaborative document like Google Docs or Slides
  3. Challenger—push the group to view the problem or issue from different perspectives
  4. Reporter—report the main takeaways of the discussion back to the rest of the class

You could have students rotate roles across the semester so that they get to experience and learn the different skill sets associated with each role. 

Let your students know that you may be dropping into each breakout room periodically to check their progress and answer any questions, but that they do not have to stop their discussion if they do not need anything from you.

After providing your students with both verbal and written instructions, give them a minute to ask you any clarifying questions before you send them to their breakout rooms.

When the class is ready, use Zoom to automatically divide your students into breakout rooms. You can set the breakout rooms to close automatically after a set duration. This adds a countdown timer in the breakout rooms informing your students of the remaining time they have. As students are discussing in their breakout rooms, stop by several breakout rooms to see how the discussion is going and answer any questions, if any. You may also broadcast a message to all breakout rooms to solicit questions. Your students can always request for help from their breakout rooms by clicking the Ask for Help button, which alerts you to their request and prompts you to join their breakout room.

When time is up, if you did not set the breakout rooms to automatically close, manually close them so all students return to the main room. Ask all the student reporters to identify themselves using the hand-raise button (part of Zoom’s Nonverbal Feedback feature). When a student reporter is ready to share with the class, unmute that particular student and have them share their screen with the class. Other students can ask questions via the chat window. When the student reporter is done presenting, you can unmute the rest of that group to allow them to solicit and answer questions from their peers.”[8]

5 Student Presentations

Short presentations provide an opportunity for students to engage in peer instruction. This type of activity invites students to synthesize and communicate their knowledge. Students can be asked to research an issue of interest to them that is related to the course topic or work on a problem outside of class, and to present their findings during an upcoming online class session. This allows students to link course content with their own interests and lived experiences, and learn from their peers.

Identify a course learning objective that would greatly benefit from having students explore the topic further on their own. For example, you could have students use their analytical skills that they developed during the course to analyze a different area, setting, artifact, or scenario of their choice. Alternatively, you could have your students design proposals to address a problem raised in class.

Assign student presentations with sufficient time for your students to prepare their presentation, e.g., at least one to two weeks in advance. Be sure to provide specific instructions regarding the format and duration of the presentation, e.g., “The presentation is 5 minutes long with 10 minutes for audience questions,” as well as any criteria for evaluation, which could be represented as a rubric.

This strategy works best if you provide students with preliminary feedback on their presentations prior to your online class session. Consider having a short online meeting with each student presenter or checking in via email to provide feedback on their presentation and to answer their questions at least a few days before your online class session.

When it is time for your students to present during your online class session, first remind the class of the purpose and format of the student presentations. Encourage your students to be active listeners during the presentation, e.g., reflect on how the presentation might apply to your interests, explore how the presentation enriches your perspectives on the topic, type your questions into the Zoom chat, or write down your main takeaways from the presentation.

When the student presenter is ready, unmute their microphone and allow them to share their screen with the class.

While the student is presenting, you may monitor questions that are being submitted by other students to the Zoom chat. Once the presentation is finished, select a few questions for the presenter to address.

When the student presenter is done answering questions, consider having all your students reflect on what they learned. For example, you could ask your students to summarize their main takeaways from the presentation or describe how the presentation connects with different aspects of the course. Have your students share their reflections on a discussion board”[9] in Blackboard.

6 Group Projects

Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation suggests using the Groups tool inn Blackboard to set up persistent student groups where students can post on a group discussion board and share files.

During the live Zoom sessions, you can replicate the Blackboard groups in the Zoom Breakout Rooms so that students can touch base in real time to work on their projects and/or plan their next steps.

7 Jigsaw Activity

For a Jigsaw activity, use the Zoom Breakout Rooms to put the students into small groups. Assign each group a topic to research and explore together so that the individual groups become experts in their specific topic – for example, a portion of an assigned reading. Once each group feels confident that the members can explain their topic, reassign the Breakout Room groups so that each group contains an individual member from each of the original groups. Now, have each person in the new group explain their topic to their peers.

8 Online Discussion Boards

Use the Discussion Board in Blackboard to supplement your Zoom session – you can start a discussion in the live session and have your students continue the conversation asynchronously.

9 Building Community

Just as you spend time in a seated classroom getting to know your students, you can use Zoom feature to get to know your remote students and to help them get to know each other.

Use the Zoom Whiteboard to let students brainstorm ideas or draw images – try “Pictionary” with vocabulary words.

Have students upload a photo of themselves on their Zoom account so that you can still “see” them when their cameras are off. To mix it up, have them occasionally change their photos to something else – a favorite animal, a travel destination – to make the use of images engaging. Change your own image occasionally.

Assign classroom roles, and rotate them regularly:

  • Attendance taker – can record who is present
  • Chat monitor – can alert you when someone posts a question in chat.

Setting Expectations

Oregon State University offers this advice:

  • Set clear expectations. Any explanation of expectations should include a clear relationship to learning outcomes. Provide a code of conduct for interaction, performance expectations related to the task, etc.
  • Prepare instructions in advance. Provide students with a clear task and deliverable. Include any resources needed to complete the task. Outline the deliverable or provide a model so that students understand what is expected. 
  • Guide students in how to self-organize. Assign roles or ask students to assign them (host facilitator, notetaker, timekeeper, and speaker who reports back to the class). 
  • Provide technical support. A tip sheet for the technology can be helpful in case they get stuck, for example. 
  • Monitor. Circulate as you would in your face-to-face class by joining breakout rooms to check in. 
  • Report back. Ask students to present a summary slide (groups might contribute a slide to a class google presentation), share group’s response, etc. Follow up with whole-group sharing in some form.[10] 

Cornell also reminds us:

  • If using online discussion boards, consider providing examples of a good post and your expectations (e.g., the post refers to the reading, poses a question, considers evidence, etc.).
  • If doing a peer review assignment, give examples of constructive feedback and/or provide a rubric.
  • Be clear about grading and deadlines. When are activities due? Are they worth any points? What if students cannot attend or miss a deadline? Cornell instructors have reported that having some flexibility (e.g., dropping lowest grades, student choice in ways to participate or type of assignments) has been helpful especially in accommodating students’ varied circumstances.[11]

Challenges and Solutions

From Cornell:

“Students are silent in the breakout rooms, or one student would like to talk, but no one else participates or turns their video or audio on.

  • Spend time building a sense of community, especially in the first week, but also throughout the semester. Give students time to get to know each other so they are more comfortable in talking with one another.
  • Consider asking students for their input on online etiquette, use of Zoom features, and expectations for participation, either with the entire class or as an exercise in building a team contract (if working in permanent teams). This is a good activity in the first week of class
  • Students may not see the purpose or value of the learning activities and discussions. Make sure that activities are well aligned with the learning outcomes and assessments for the course. Talk with students about the goals of the activity and the educational value of discussing with others and applying what they are learning
  • Consider having more accountability: tell students that each group needs to post an answer in chat, or that groups will be called on to report out, or will need to submit a document
  • Assign roles (like notetaker, reporter) to the group members (and rotate)
  • Try adjusting the group size to see if larger or smaller groups seem to work better. Generally, we suggest around 3-5 students in a group, but it may depend on your class
  • Consider having permanent groups throughout the semester by pre-assigning breakout rooms in Zoom. Working with the same group each time may help students feel more comfortable in talking. If groups are responsible for assignments, a peer feedback survey around mid-semester can help identify and solve problems in group participation[12]

“Some students cannot easily participate in synchronous activities (unreliable internet access, no quiet space, not in the same time-zone)

  • Take advantage of asynchronous options: posting to online discussion boards, downloading/uploading worksheets, short quizzes after lecture videos
  • Allow a window of time to complete activities (e.g., 24 or 48 hours)
  • Organize student collaboration groups by time-zones to make it easier to find a time to meet that works for them
  • Offer different options for participation, for example students who cannot participate with video/audio in Zoom, can post their comments in the chat box.[13]

Final Tips

Practice, be patient, and get students’ feedback. If an activity doesn’t go well the first time you try it, troubleshoot it with students’ feedback and try it again. Plan your activities in advance and practice with the tools so you are comfortable.


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed). Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. 

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons

Bonwell, C.C. & Eison, J.A. (1991). “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.” ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 1. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University.

Brame, Cynthia J. Active Learning. Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and Learning.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, Rodney R. Cocking, editors. How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC. 2004.

Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning –

Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation –

Darby, Flower. How to Be a Better Online Teacher (Northern Arizona University)

Elkins-Tanton, Lindy – Slate – “No Student Should Have to Sit Through a Zoom Lecture” July 27, 2020

Facilitating and Promoting Student Engagement in the Online, Synchronous Classroom (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning) (YouTube video; 12+ minutes).

Fink, D.L. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hersh, Stephen. “Yes, Your Zoom Teaching Can Be First-Rate.” July 8, 2020 Inside Higher Ed

Mazur, E. (2013). Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual. Pearson Higher Ed.

Online Instructional Activities Index (University of Illinois, Springfield)

Oregon State University –

Tips & Tricks: Teachers Educating on Zoom (Zoom) 

The University of Melbourne –

Image by Armin Schreijäg from Pixabay

Judith Littlejohn – August 20, 2020

[1] Brame, Cynthia J. Active Learning. Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and Learning.

[2] Elkins-Tanton, Lindy – Slate – “No Student Should Have to Sit Through a Zoom Lecture”. July 27, 2020.

[3] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning –

[4] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning –

[5] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[6] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[7] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[8] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[9] Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

[10] Oregon State University –

[11] Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation –

[12] Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation

[13] Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation

Dispelling Neuromyths

Neuromyths – misconceptions about about learning and/or how the brain works – plague higher education. How often have you heard someone refer to themself as “left-brained”, or “a visual learner”, or “using only 10% of their brain”?

It may seem harmless, but neuromyths persist because people not only believe them, they pass them on to our students.

In early October, 2019, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) published a research report on neuromyths, revealing that faculty, instructional designers, and administrators in higher education are all susceptible to believing at least a few neuromyths.

Read the OLC blog post about the report here:

You can download the report itself here:

There is a Google Form with the Neuromyth Survey Questions on it; go ahead and see how you do:

Go forth and dispel neuromyths!!

Using Mastery Quizzes in Online History Classes

Teaching history survey courses online has its challenges, but ensuring that students attain the foundational knowledge required to move onto assignments requiring higher order thinking skills is not challenging if the instructor can implement adaptive, mastery quizzing.

On our campus we use WWNorton Publishing for many of our history textbooks, and Norton has a quiz tool called “InQuizitive” that allows students to master their foundational knowledge in a fun way.

With InQuizitive, students see a questions and wager points based on how confident they feel about knowing the correct answer. This is an excellent way for students to realize how much or little they know about a topic, increasing metacognition.

InQuizitive also mixes up the question formats so students do not get bored with the same old multiple choice questions. There are map-based questions, video-based questions, matching, sorting, true and false, and other types of questions to add variety to the students’ experience.

These quizzes are adaptive, too. Students are presented three levels of questions. All aspects of a particular chapter are addressed in level 1, and the level 2 and 3 questions circle back to topics the student answered incorrectly. Feedback is provided for each response, whether the students answers correctly or incorrectly.

I have used InQuizitive for several semesters and have received extremely positive feedback from my students. They initially dislike the quizzing because it takes longer than they expect – between 60 and 120 minutes for them to attain a score equivalent to 100%, or ten points in the gradebook. Once they become accutomed to how the wagering works and how the feedback helps them they start enjoying the quizzes.

Norton also gives the instructors access to data about each question – the difficulty rating, related learning objective, and how my students did on a specific question compared to global users. Plus, instructors can customize quizzes to a certain extent, eliminating questions that do not align with their course objectives.

I would, ideally, like to move my courses to Open Educational Resources (OERs), but I cannot replicate this type of formative, adaptive assessment on my own. Fortunately Norton is relatively inexpensive; the students pay less than $50 for access tot he ebook and quizzes.

I would love to know how other online history instructors ensure their students attain foundational knowledge. Please email me or post a comment if you use a different product or have come up with a different method.

Here are more resources about InQuizitive, including a link to the old video game QBert, which the InQuizitive icon reminds me of daily:



About HyFlex Courses

Laptop and books

SUNY, the State University of New York, has announced its current working definition of HyFlex courses:

Combines online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously into one single course section, with the mode of direct instruction determined by each individual student. Students are able to choose how to participate in any given class meeting – online or face-to-face.” (1)

Here at Genesee Community College, we use this definition:

Students may choose, on a day-by-day basis, to participate in-person or online or through a combination of online and in-person.  Students may also complete all or part of the in-person component of the course using “zoom” or similar technology from any location. This option offers the student the most flexibility. ” (2)

Both adequate definitions, however, since they are written from the student perspective, neither one clarifies the instructor’s responsibilities in a HyFlex course.


The most misleading part of HyFlex for instructors is the idea that all they have to do is record their live course sessions, upload them to the Learning Management System, tell the online asynchronous students to watch the videos, and call it a day. The truth is, HyFlex courses must have fully built-out online, asynchronous modules so that students who never set foot on campus have an equivalent learning experience and meet all the Course Learning Outcomes. This means that, prior to the start of a HyFlex course, the online portion of the course must be completely set up and reviewed for design quality and accessibility. As with every online course, this must be built via backwards design, meaning the content is created after the learning outcomes are established and all course activities and assessments must align with the learning outcomes.

Another surprise to some instructors is the idea that distant students will participate in the course virtually, in real time, via web conferencing. This means the instructor must consciously pay attention to the monitors in the classroom, as well as the backchannel, to include remote participants in conversations and activities. This will be easy for some, but a learning curve for others; hopefully the instructor will have someone in the room to assist them with the technology.

We’ve been creating a HyFlex Course Development Guide to assist faculty in their development process; the GCC HyFlex Team will be posting resources online soon and is happy to answer questions: 


  • (1) via SUNY Workplace DOODLE Group
  • (2) GCC HyFlex Course Development Guide
  • Image from Pixabay


Understanding by Design

Best practices for Online, Hybrid, and HyFlex courses

Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [July 12, 2018] from
  • Overview
  • The Benefits of Using Backward Design
  • The Three Stages of Backward Desgin
  • The Backward Design Template


Understanding by Design is a book written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe that offers a framework for designing courses and content units called “Backward Design.” Instructors typically approach course design in a “forward design” manner, meaning they consider the learning activities (how to teach the content), develop assessments around their learning activities, then attempt to draw connections to the learning goals of the course. In contrast, the backward design approach has instructors consider the learning goals of the course first. These learning goals embody the knowledge and skills instructors want their students to have learned when they leave the course. Once the learning goals have been established, the second stage involves consideration of assessment. The backward design framework suggests that instructors should consider these overarching learning goals and how students will be assessed prior to consideration of how to teach the content. For this reason, backward design is considered a much more intentional approach to course design than traditional methods of design.

This teaching guide will explain the benefits of incorporating backward design. Then it will elaborate on the three stages that backward design encompasses. Finally, an overview of a backward design template is provided with links to blank template pages for convenience.

The Benefits of Using Backward Design

“Our lessons, units, and courses should be logically inferred from the results sought, not derived from the methods, books, and activities with which we are most comfortable. Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results… in short, the best designs derive backward from the learnings sought.”

In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe argue that backward design is focused primarily on student learning and understanding. When teachers are designing lessons, units, or courses, they often focus on the activities and instruction rather than the outputs of the instruction. Therefore, it can be stated that teachers often focus more on teaching rather than learning. This perspective can lead to the misconception that learning is the activity when, in fact, learning is derived from a careful consideration of the meaning of the activity.

As previously stated, backward design is beneficial to instructors because it innately encourages intentionality during the design process. It continually encourages the instructor to establish the purpose of doing something before implementing it into the curriculum. Therefore, backward design is an effective way of providing guidance for instruction and designing lessons, units, and courses. Once the learning goals, or desired results, have been identified, instructors will have an easier time developing assessments and instruction around grounded learning outcomes.

The incorporation of backward design also lends itself to transparent and explicit instruction. If the teacher has explicitly defined the learning goals of the course, then they have a better idea of what they want the students to get out of learning activities. Furthermore, if done thoroughly, it eliminates the possibility of doing certain activities and tasks for the sake of doing them. Every task and piece of instruction has a purpose that fits in with the overarching goals and goals of the course.

As the quote below highlights, teaching is not just about engaging students in content. It is also about ensuring students have the resources necessary to understand. Student learning and understanding can be gauged more accurately through a backward design approach since it leverages what students will need to know and understand during the design process in order to progress.

“In teaching students for understanding, we must grasp the key idea that we are coaches of their ability to play the ‘game’ of performing with understanding, not tellers of our understanding to them on the sidelines.”

The Three Stages of Backward Design

“Deliberate and focused instructional design requires us as teachers and curriculum writers to make an important shift in our thinking about the nature of our job. The shift involves thinking a great deal, first, about the specific learnings sought, and the evidence of such learnings, before thinking about what we, as the teacher, will do or provide in teaching and learning activities.”

Stage One – Identify Desired Results:

In the first stage, the instructor must consider the learning goals of the lesson, unit, or course. Wiggins and McTighe provide a useful process for establishing curricular priorities. They suggest that the instructor ask themselves the following three questions as they progressively focus in on the most valuable content:

What should participants hear, read, view, explore or otherwise encounter?

This knowledge is considered knowledge worth being familiar with. Information that fits within this question is the lowest priority content information that will be mentioned in the lesson, unit, or course.

What knowledge and skills should participants master?

The knowledge and skills at this substage are considered important to know and do. The information that fits within this question could be the facts, concepts, principles, processes, strategies, and methods students should know when they leave the course.

What are big ideas and important understandings participants should retain?

The big ideas and important understandings are referred to as enduring understandings because these are the ideas that instructors want students to remember sometime after they’ve completed the course.

The figure above illustrates the three ideas. The first question listed above has instructors consider the knowledge that is worth being familiar with which is the largest circle, meaning it entails the most information. The second question above allows the instructor to focus on more important knowledge, the knowledge and skills that are important to know and do. Finally, with the third question, instructors begin to detail the enduring understandings, overarching learning goals, and big ideas that students should retain. By answering the three questions presented at this stage, instructors will be able to determine the best content for the course. Furthermore, the answers to question #3 regarding enduring understandings can be adapted to form concrete, specific learning goals for the students; thus, identifying the desired results that instructors want their students to achieve.

Stage Two – Determine Acceptable Evidence:

The second stage of backward design has instructors consider the assessments and performance tasks students will complete in order to demonstrate evidence of understanding and learning. In the previous stage, the instructor pinpointed the learning goals of the course. Therefore, they will have a clearer vision of what evidence students can provide to show they have achieved or have started to attain the goals of the course. Consider the following two questions at this stage:

  1. How will I know if students have achieved the desired results?
  2. What will I accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency?

At this stage it is important to consider a wide range of assessment methods in order to ensure that students are being assess over the goals the instructor wants students to attain. Sometimes, the assessments do not match the learning goals, and it becomes a frustrating experience for students and instructors. Use the list below to help brainstorm assessment methods for the learning goals of the course.

  • Presentations.
  • Short-answer quizzes.
  • Free-response questions.
  • Homework assignments.
  • Lab projects.
  • Practice problems.
  • Group projects.
  • Among many others…

Stage Three – Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction:

The final stage of backward design is when instructors begin to consider how they will teach. This is when instructional strategies and learning activities should be created. With the learning goals and assessment methods established, the instructor will have a clearer vision of which strategies would work best to provide students with the resources and information necessary to attain the goals of the course. Consider the questions below:

  1. What enabling knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) and skills (processes, procedures, strategies) will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  2. What activities will equip students with the needed knowledge and skills?
  3. What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught, in light of performance goals?
  4. What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals?

Leverage the various instructional strategies listed below:

The Backward Design Template

A link to the blank backward design template is provided here (, and it is referred to as UbD Template 2.0. The older version (version 1.0) can also be downloaded at that site as well as other resources relevant to Understanding by Design. The template walks individuals through the stages of backward design. However, if you are need of the template with descriptions of each section, please see the table below. There is also a link to the document containing the template with descriptions provided below and can be downloaded for free.

Backward Design Template with Descriptions (click link for template with descriptions).

Grid of the three ideas to write out for course development

Learn More


  1. Sample, Mark. (2011). Teaching for Enduring Understanding. Retrieved from
  2. Wiggins, Grant, and McTighe, Jay. (1998). Backward Design. In Understanding by Design (pp. 13-34). ASCD.

Creative Commons License

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Edited 3/31/19 by jmlittlejohn – accessibility and other updates.

About Open Pedagogy

students producing OER, student choice, connecting to wider networks, open-ended, increasing access, transparency in teaching and learning, equity and social justice in teaching and learning.

The idea of “open” in higher education confuses many, partly due to the varied terms thrown around – OERs, MOOCs, open education – but mainly due to the assumption that “OERs” (open educational resources) and “open pedagogy” are the same thing.

Open educational resources (OERs) are the texts, quizzes, maps, blogs, videos, podcasts, websites, or articles that you, the instructor, share with your students to engage with in order to learn more about a specific subject that are free (open) to reuse, remix, retain, revise, and redistribute. These are the learning materials someone created for students to freely use. This is pretty straightforward, and there are many repositories and websites that you can use to find OERs.

Using OERs in a class is great. It saves the students money, it allows students to be fully prepared for class on the first day, and OERs can be tailored to meet the specific learning outcomes you want your students to attain. However, the use of OERs is not the same thing as open pedagogy. You can print copies of chapters of OER textbooks, hand the chapters out in class for your students to read, have them write a response and submit it to you for grading, and call it a day – this is not open pedagogy. There is nothing wrong with this type of assignment, it just cannot be classified as open pedagogy because the students are engaging with the material in a closed setting and creating a “disposable assignment” which will be graded and returned to the student for filing or discarding.

Therefore, the use of OERs does not guarantee open pedagogy.

What is open pedagogy? The librarians at the University of Texas Arlington have a great starter definition:

Open pedagogy is the practice of engaging with students as creators of information rather than simply consumers of it. It’s a form of experiential learning in which students demonstrate understanding through the act of creation.” (UTA Libraries)

“Sharing” is missing from this definition. In open pedagogy students create content and somehow share it with someone other than a “submit” button in a learning management system.

So, in the previous example, if the students read the OER chapter that was handed out to them and then made a word cloud out of the key concepts they uncovered in the chapter and shared that word cloud on Twitter, that would be an example of open pedagogy. The students in this second example are creating and sharing content.

To further confuse the issue, however, open pedagogy can take place with propriety materials. In other words, you do not have to use OERs to engage in open pedagogy. As long as your students cite their sources properly and give credit where credit is due you can develop an open pedagogy project utilizing copyrighted materials.

Not everyone agrees that open pedagogy can happen with proprietary materials, but here are two examples that prove it is true:

The first example, an open pedagogy project I have done with one of my online classes, is the “Teach with Wikipedia” project. This is a great project in which students edit or create Wikipedia articles. Students contribute, and their work is live on the internet – it is empowering for the students! However, while the platform is open the sources the students (and all Wikipedia contributors) use a mix of open, or public domain, sources and copyrighted sources.

A second, somewhat similar example is a peer review project I’ve done several times in my classes. The students write essays citing their sources (including their textbook publisher) and post the essays in an open Google Drive folder. I have them use code numbers instead of their names to encourage honest, robust feedback, and I put all the feedback in a Google Sheet so that the students can compare how they scored an essay to how other students scored the same essay. The students benefit from viewing all the feedback on all the essays; they also see my feedback on all the essays as I consistently use the code 9999 so they know it’s me. My point here, however, is that this is truly an open pedagogy project even though it does not rely fully on OERs. Google is open and free, and the students could seek out OERs or public domain content if they wish (I teach history, by the way, so older publications, in most cases, would be fine), but they generally use their textbooks as a starting point and cite them properly.

OERs and open pedagogy are both good things, but they are not the same thing.

The most important thing is that you are creating assignments that are centered on the learning outcomes. A very close second most important thing is that the students can access the learning materials you require – whether they are OERs, low-cost publisher materials (I use Norton a lot), or accessible library articles and books. An additional important thing is that you give the students an opportunity to take some ownership over their learning by creating shareable content for their peers.


Teach with Wikipedia

Twitter – open pedagogy

UTA Libraries

Image from Slideshare


How to Add the GCC Course Policies Module to Your Blackboard Course

With recent changes to the Plagiarism Policy and the Accessibility Statement, plus the importance of including the Student Code of Conduct and the No-Show Reporting Criteria in courses, we’ve created one module that you can use to efficiently share this information with your students.

Here is how you can add it to your Blackboard courses:

1 Open your course.

2 At the top-left of the course menu click the “+” to add content; select “Module Page” from the dropdown list of options:

add module page

You’ll see this box:

name module page

3 Add the name, “GCC College Course Policies”, check the box to make it available to users, and click “Submit”:

make module page available

Your new module page will be at the bottom of your course menu.

4 Click on GCC College Course Policies in your course menu and, at the top of the page, click on “Add Course Module”:

add course module

5 You’ll see the list of modules next; scroll down to “College Course Policies” and click “Add”:

add college course policies

6 That is all you have to do; feel free to locate the Course Policies module near the Accessibility & Privacy Policy module – both modules are meeting legal and accreditation requirements. Module pages are updated system-wide, so, as long as you leave them in your courses they will be kept current.

Questions? or

Copyright and Course Content

Break time between semesters is a great time to review and update course materials. It’s easy to grab images and articles from the web, but, how can we be sure to do so legally?

Here are some guidelines and resources to help ensure you are not breaking any laws when adding images, articles, videos, power points, or other materials to your courses:


Adding images for discussion or adding cartoons to lighten the mood can foster engagement in your class. Before snipping an image from an ad or online newspaper be sure to follow these basic rules:

  1. Cite your sources, just as you would expect your students to. This is a great opportunity to model proper citation style.
  2. If you plan to use multiple images from the same source, check to see if your usage meets the fair use criteria.
  3. If you are unsure whether it is legal to use a specific image try to find a similar one in the public domain. There are great sites, such as Pixabay, where you can freely download and use images.
  4. On January 1, 2019, many, many materials enter the public domain. Check this Smithsonian article for an interesting read about that.


To share research articles or opinion pieces with students follow these guidelines:

  1. The safest way to post an article in your course is to link to the source so that the students can access the content themselves.
  2. A PDF of an article from a database like jstor is also acceptable – remember to add the permalink and cite the source.
  3. Do not add a scanned copy of an article from a magazine or newspaper; locate the original online and link to it. If the article you need is behind a paywall contact the librarians for help – they are an outstanding resource for helping you obtain content legally.


Videos are a great way to bring your subject matter to life. Videos are also one of the most commonly pirated types of content on the web. Follow these tips to avoid legal issues with videos in courses:

  1. YouTube has some great channels for educational videos; Crash Course is one of my favorites. Again, link to the original source. If you are using videos from YouTube you can use Blackboard’s Mashup tool to easily insert them into your course; check the box to allow the YouTube information to show in the course so that your source is cited.  Make sure you select videos that are properly closed-captioned so that all students can access them. Be sure to check the links before expecting the students to access them in case a YouTube channel owner has changed or removed files.
  2. Video subscriptions are available, too. If you would like to have students watch an entire movie you should check with our librarians to find out if the college already has access to the movies you need; if not, they will help you find other avenues.
  3. There are websites, such as Khan Academy and Annenberg Learner, that post videos and other content – check their copyright policies before linking directly to their content. Khan Academy will allow you to link right to a specific video, but for Annenberg Learner you must link to their main page unless you pay for a subscription.
  4. Of course, you can make your own videos. We have resources on campus for you to do that (use our Digital Creation Space), or you can make them on your own. Be sure you have the legal right to use any images you include, cite your sources, and caption the video before adding it to the course (you can do this in your Ensemble library here at GCC; contact the Helpdesk for more information).


PowerPoints, Google Slides, or other presentation creations can be a great way to combine images and text to emphasize specific points and enhance learning. You can either create your own presentations, use publisher materials that may be bundled with the textbook you use in your course, or you may find them online in a site like SlideShare.

There are key points to keep in mind when adding presentations to your course:

  1. Presentations you create yourself:

    1. When creating a presentation try to use a built-in theme. This will alleviate most accessibility issues as long as you do not edit the built-in layout too much. Be sure to do the following:
    2. Give each slide a unique title. If the topic you are discussing requires more than one slide, use names such as “Evolution 1,” “Evolution 2,” “Evolution 3” etc., or “”Bitcoin, 1 of 3,” “Bitcoin, 2 of 3,” “Bitcoin, 3 of 3.” This clarifies the topics for students while maintaining accessible navigation.
    3. Be sure to add alt text to all images you use.
    4. Be sure you are using images that you are legally able to use through copyright permission, fair use, ownership (your own artwork), or public domain.
    5. If you create a narrated, or voice-over, PowerPoint, caption it before adding it to the course. We use Ensemble to store our videos and can easily have captions added via Ensemble – be sure to do it.
  2. Adding publisher PowerPoint presentations:

    1. As long as the publisher materials are bundled with the textbook you are currently using in your course, and that students are purchasing, you can add them. Do not re-use presentations from textbooks you are no longer requiring for the course, especially if you change publishers.
    2. Even publisher materials need to be accessible; check them before you add them.
  3. Presentations you find online:

    1. Be sure to check for copyright and accessibility as you would with a video or image.

Other Materials:

Open Educational Resources (OER) are materials freely available to use in courses. Typically, you can remix, reuse, revise, redistribute, and retain OER materials that you edit for your course provided that you attribute the original creator and abide by any rules stated in the materials’ Creative Commons License. There a lot of OER resources for you to learn more.


Copyright and Fair Use:


Open Educational Resources:




Ensemble Video

Hawkins, Sara F

University of Alaska Southeast


Why Grading Makes Us Anxious Too

anxious cartoon face

anxious cartoon face

Submitted to 2018-2019 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium by Ileana Hernandez, Ph.D., LMHC, Florida International University

“There is nothing more demoralizing than the thought that the countless hours we spend grading might be dismissed as meaningless.” – Elizabeth Barre

Although many students think “they are the only ones who worry about grades,” writes Elizabeth Barre, in a recent blog post, “anxiety about grades is also a central feature of faculty life.” While students often worry about how their grades will affect their progress toward graduation, faculty often worry about whether their approaches to grading are valid, fair, and efficient, or as Barre puts it, “meaningful, moral, and manageable.” This tip explores ways to better align learning and grading, so attention to one translates to attention to both.

Are my grades meaningful?

When considering whether her grades are meaningful, Barre thinks about grades as measures but wrestles with what they are actually measuring: “performance, competency, growth, or effort?” To make grades as meaningful as possible, we must first define clear goals for student learning. Then, we can design assessments (e.g. projects, tests, quizzes, assignments, and so on) that collect evidence of students’ progress toward those goals. If our assessments measure what we intend for them to measure, the grades students earn with their work will align more closely with their progress toward accomplishing the goals of the course–and therefore be more meaningful.

Are they moral?

When exploring the morality of her approach to grading, Barre is really concerned with the issue of fairness: creating “a system of grading that ensures students in similar circumstances will be treated similarly.” Because developing them helps us define evaluation criteria, rubrics are invaluable tools for making grading more fair. They can help keep us focused on the most important aspects of an assignment as we evaluate each student’s work. This helps us to avoid deducting points for minutia irrelevant to the learning goals we’re trying to assess.

Two additional strategies related to fairness are grade norming and “blind grading,” or grading anonymous student work. Grade norming entails working with colleagues in an effort to evaluate student work more consistently. It’s particularly important for instructors working together to grade student work within the same course. To grade anonymously, we can easily use the anonymous grading feature in Blackboard. We can review student work, provide feedback, and assign a grade without seeing students’ names.  

Are they manageable?

Rubrics can also help with the management of grading. Starting with clearly defined criteria for success can improve the quality of the assignments you receive. This clear picture aids students in getting closer to accomplishing the goals on each attempt, allowing for more targeted feedback. Many colleagues have shared with us that dividing up the work of grading (e.g. grading only five projects in one sitting) also helps make the task more manageable and less overwhelming.

Barre experimented with using specifications grading in her course and reported that “the grading was most certainly faster and less anxiety inducing, as I expected it would be.” Her post describes her approach to using “specs” grading in her course, and it also links to several sample syllabi from other courses in which faculty adopted this method.

Rubrics in Blackboard

In addition to anonymous grading, Blackboard also contains a robust rubric tool to simplify grading.

Rubrics can be created for any type of assignment. It is easy to edit rubrics to meet specific needs; they can be copied and modified within a course and exported to share across courses.

Rubrics can be viewed by the students and used by the faculty for point-and-click grading with built-in feedback plus additional space for unique comments.

Blackboard has rubric information on their website for you to learn more. Please note – Blackboard sets rubrics up with criteria in ascending order, from the lowest criteria to the highest or best. If you choose to use Blackboard Rubrics your first step should be to edit those columns so that the students see the highest, or best, criteria first. Your highest expectations should be the guiding force for students to create their best work, which you can then grade fairly and efficiently with less anxiety.

For help developing rubrics at GCC please email or


Barre, E. (2016) Meaningful, moral, and manageable.  The grading holy grail.  Rice University. Retrieved from:

Levine, M. (2014) Specifications Grading. University Times: Pittsburgh, PA.

Submitted by:

Ileana Hernandez, Ph.D., LMHC, Assistant Director for Assessment, Evaluation, and Teaching Assistant Development, Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Instructor, Department of Psychology, Florida International University

Edited by:

Judith Littlejohn: corrected spelling, grammar, and hyperlinks; added rubric information and conclusion.

Image by Pixabay.