In Spring 2023, Faculty Senate approved a three-year pilot of a peer observation program at Mines run by faculty Peer Observation Fellows with support from the Trefny Center and oversight from Academic Affairs. See more about the pilot program here.

The Peer Observation Tool is based on the Characteristics of Effective Teaching, and this toolkit has been designed to provide instructors with tangible strategies, ideas, and examples of effective teaching practices that are intentionally designed, focused on learning, and supportive of students.

You can navigate the resource by using the toolbar on the left. We encourage you to use this toolkit to gather new ideas and self-assess your own teaching practices, even if you have not yet participated in a peer observation. Note: For best results, we recommend viewing this resource on a computer.

How does the instructor highlight the goals for the Class Session?

Highlighting the learning outcomes and goals for each class session can help students more easily recognize the rationale behind course activities and assessments, make connections between new and previous knowledge, and self-direct their learning by comparing their current proficiency with where they hope to be by the end of the class or module (see Davis 1993; Clarke & Reichgelt 2003; DeLong et al. 2005; Biggs & Tang 2011; Fink 2013). Communicating clear learning goals and takeaways for each class not only enhances student learning, but it also helps you as an instructor orient and organize your session materials and activities. Remember: it is likely that you understand your course design better than your students do, so make sure to explain how the activities and aims of one class session relate to the broader course as a whole. This means describing the “why” behind course tasks and activities and indicating for students how the activity or task connects to last week, next week, or builds toward their eventual achievement of particular course learning outcomes. Helping students see a more coherent picture of their learning journey—including how even the smallest classroom activity or online task is situated along that journey—can foster a “growth mindset” and help students feel more confident and in control of their learning (Dweck 2006; Ambrose et al. 2010).

Share learning outcome(s) for the class session (verbally or written)

Strategies to Try:

Begin each class by showing students the learning outcomes for the day’s session. Clearly outline what students should learn or gain from the session, and discuss these with the class. You might include a slide that reads, “By the end of today’s class, you should be able to…”

    • Calculate the velocities and accelerations of rigid bodies
    • Identify the assumptions made when solving these problems

Ask students to reflect on your learning outcomes. After outlining your learning outcomes, you might ask students to reflect on their prior knowledge or self-assess their proficiency with them. For example: As we get ready for class, consider the following questions:

    • What are rigid bodies? When is it appropriate to treat something as a rigid body? What is an example of something that can be treated as a rigid body? 
    • What are some of the assumptions we typically make when solving problems? For the homework assignment that was due today, what were some of the assumptions you made?
    • What do you still have to learn in order to achieve these outcomes?

End class with a formative assessment that asks students to reflect on their progress and to identify questions they still have. Students could write their answers on index cards and turn them in, on the worksheet that was used for the class activity, submit them using an online poll, or record them in a Padlet or Canvas discussion / quiz / assignment, etc. For example:

    • What were the main ideas from class today? 
    • What is the general procedure for calculating velocities and accelerations of rigid bodies?
    • What assumptions did we make today? Why were these assumptions appropriate?
    • What questions do you still have about calculating velocities and accelerations of rigid bodies?
    • What questions do you still have about making assumptions to simplify the problems?
Describe how class session relates to other sessions or the course as a whole

Strategies to try:

Begin each class with a simple review activity. During this activity, invite students to recall relevant prior knowledge from the previous classroom section. You might provide a think/pair/share discussion prompt or problem that relates to last week’s class, or use an online polling platform like iClicker, Kahoot, or Mentimeter to gauge student understanding.

End class by foreshadowing how what you’ve learned today will lead into what you learn next. This not only serves as a way to connect knowledge and skills between class sessions, but it can also spark curiosity and interest for the next class session. You might even propose an enticing question at the end of class so that students are encouraged to think about these connections prior to the next class.

Ask students to reflect on how course tasks or units build on one another. If you’ve sequenced your course so that students gradually build and refine skills over the course of the term, provide a reflective prompt that asks students to consider how the course sequence is aiding in their learning development. For instance, during “Unit 2,” you might ask students to reflect on how the skills learned during “Unit 1” helped them accomplish their most recent task. If students completed a small group presentation earlier on in the term, ask them to reflect on how that small group presentation helped prepare them for their individual presentation at the end of the term. This can help students understand the rationale behind your sequencing and identify the synergistic value of smaller, more discrete course tasks.

Indicate how course tasks and activities relate to your learning outcomes. While going over the day’s activities and tasks, you can communicate to students how each task connects back to your class or course learning outcomes. Alternatively, you might communicate this connection prior to each activity. For instance, prior to beginning a task or activity, you might show students a “Purpose for Activity/Task” slide in your presentation that briefly explains the purpose of the activity, as well as how the activity relates to your learning outcomes.

Discuss how class-level learning outcomes relate to your broader course learning outcomes. Help students draw connections between what they are learning today, what they learned previously, and what they will learn in the future. Facilitating these conversations will help communicate to your students the value and relevance of class material. 

Ask students to create a connection / concept map. If you’ve spent some time as a class discussing how your course activities and assignments relate to your course learning outcomes, why not give students a try at making these connections for themselves? During a brief in-class activity or take-home assignment, ask students to reflect on the activities of the class session (or week) and create a visual map of how they see those activities relating to the broader course learning outcomes.

Provide, or asks students to provide, takeaways for the class session

Strategies to try:

End class with a slide that shows the major takeaways from the day’s session. You might also use this time to re-emphasize why these takeaways are important and relevant to the social world.

Ask students to reflect on their major takeaways of the class session. You might ask the class using Mentimeter or iClicker: “What are the two most important things you learned today?” “What is something you unlearned?” You might also frame this question as part of a “3:2:1” exit survey in which students share 3 of the main things they learned, 2 potential real-world applications of those things, and 1 thing they are still unsure about.

Begin class by providing one or two “key questions” to guide student thinking throughout each class, and return to these questions at the end of class. Students can use these questions to anchor their learning throughout the class session, especially if you return to them throughout the class session. At the end of the class, students should be able to answer—or at least respond to and engage with—these questions.

How does the instructor carry out the plan for the class session?

Intentionally organizing your learning activities and adding structure to your course experiences is an evidence-based and deeply inclusive practice that increases student motivation and helps all students learn (Ames 1992; Ambrose et al. 2010; Tanner 2013). These practices range from keeping and communicating time, providing a structured overview of activities for the day, and implementing a variety of learning activities that help students connect with their previous knowledge, acquire new knowledge, practice new skills, and receive feedback. Something as small as beginning and ending class on time communicates to students that you honor their responsibilities and lives outside of your course (Findley & Varble 2006; Damour 2008). Starting class on time, even if not all students have arrived yet, maximizes instructional time (Saloviita 2013) while also establishing a norm that provides your course with a sense of consistency and clear expectations. By organizing a variety of learning activities and explicitly communicating this structure to students, you can help them understand what they will be learning, how they will be engaging, when they will be expected to complete relevant tasks, and why these tasks are important to their overall learning trajectory. Learning outcomes and activities which guide students toward achievement of those outcomes can serve as a useful overarching structure for each lesson plan.

Follow a well-organized structure

Strategies to try:

Organize your time and consider pacing. As you develop your lesson plan, indicate how long each component of your class session will take. When it is time to facilitate the session, print out your lesson plan or make a mental note of approximately when each activity should begin. Consider appropriate pacing and provide space in your plan to be flexible and responsive to student questions and ideas. Planning out the pacing of your lesson ahead of time can help you stay organized while identifying areas that may need to be readdressed during the next class session.

Communicate your structure to students. You might begin each class with a slide that provides an overview of the session’s goals and activities. Be sure to describe how these  activities/tasks connect with course learning outcomes. Students are more likely to recognize the value of your organizational structure if they are able to draw connections between each activity and their larger learning goals.

Build a learning pathway in your lesson plan by including connect, acquire, practice, and feedback opportunities. In other words, provide students with structured opportunities to recall previous knowledge and connect to their everyday lives, to acquire new concepts, to practice course skills in a low-stakes setting, and to receive descriptive feedback on that practice. By integrating (and communicating) all four components into your lesson plan, you can provide students with a highly-structured, supportive learning sequence that guides them toward achievement of relevant learning outcomes. 

Add variety and balance to your classroom learning experiences. As you develop your lesson plan, think carefully about how you balance opportunities for individual work, small group work, large group discussion, and lecture; how you balance instructor-led activities and student-led, active learning opportunities; and how you balance your use of communication modalities—written work, interactive models, slides, videos, online platforms, discussions, and so forth.

Start and end class on time

Strategies to try: 

Arrive early. Arriving early to your classroom allows you to set up your instructional technology or adjust your room formation. It also provides a window for you to check in with, learn about, and build community with your students.

Set a timer or alarm. If you tend to forget what time it is, try setting an alarm on your phone or computer to indicate when the class period is scheduled to end. Making sure that a clock is easily visible can also help you keep track of time.

Ask students to inform you when the allotted time for class is ending. Students may not feel comfortable interrupting their instructor to let them know that class time is up, so explicitly and repeatedly reassure students that you appreciate their reminders. When they inform you, be sure to honor their reminder by immediately ending class. 

Reserve the first or final five minutes of class for reflective activities or classroom assessments. This could mean incorporating a review question at the beginning of class, facilitating a “muddiest point” activity after each day’s lesson, or offering an online clicker quiz to quickly assess student knowledge on each day’s topics. Reserving these first and last five minutes of class for consistent activities can help ensure that you start and end on time.

Incorporate “start and end class on time” into your classroom agreements. Often times we like to emphasize classroom norms in terms of what students will do, but committing to what you, as an instructor, will agree to uphold can help frame your classroom as a mutually respectful and beneficial learning environment.

Inform students of time for activities

Strategies to try:

Explicitly communicate how much time students will have for any given problem, task or activity. During multi-step activities such as a “think/ink/pair/share,” provide students with a breakdown of how much time they will have for each phase of the activity. Indicating how much time students have to complete in-class activities can strengthen their internal locus of control and help them focus on the learning task at hand.

Add a timer to your slides. Many presentation platforms (Canva, Google Slides, Powerpoint) offer in-slide timers you can use to indicate to both you and your students how much time is remaining for any given activity.

During activities, provide verbal reminders to students about how much time is left. If you are providing students with 10 minutes to complete a problem or discuss a prompt in small groups, provide frequent verbal reminders to students so they understand how much time they have left. This could be as simple as communicating to students they have “5 minutes left,” “2 minutes left,” or something more informal like, “Take another minute and finish up your thought, and then we’ll come back together as a large group to discuss.”

How does the instructor create a positive classroom climate?

Students enter our classrooms with diverse interests, identities, stories, strengths, and needs. Creating an inclusive, supportive, and positive classroom involves recognizing this diversity as an asset—as something that can be mobilized to deeply enrich student learning and classroom community (Johnson 2019). We know that students learn best when they feel that they belong—that they are part of a community, that they are being seen, trusted, respected, valued, cared for, included, and that they matter not only as students but more holistically as human beings (Strayhorn 2012). Research indicates that a strong sense of belonging directly increases student engagement, motivation and perseverance (Wilson et al. 2015), decreases stress and depression (Choenarom, Williams, & Haggerty 2005), and promotes high-level learning, particularly for ethnic minority and first-year college students (Strayhorn 2022). We can foster this sense of belonging through instructional strategies that explicitly communicate care and centralize students’ whole-humanness (hooks 1994) to support their emotional, intellectual, mental, and personal wellbeing. Practices as simple as using student names, greeting students as they enter the room, getting to know about students’ lives and interests, normalizing mistakes, providing multiple and varied examples in order to reach with the broadest population of students possible, and offering opportunities for peer learning and social connection can help you ensure that you are creating positive, meaningful learning experiences for all.

Interact with students before/after class

Strategies to try:

Say hello. Greet students as they walk in and ask them how they are doing!

Ask students about their lives outside of the classroom. Show curiosity and care by asking students questions about their lives at Mines (how their other classes are going, how many midterms they have, what clubs they are in, what they are looking forward to this weekend, etc.).

Play music before class. Provide a space where students can request/vote for songs!

Tell students that you are there for them. While wrapping up class sessions, explicitly communicate your support for students and your availability, should anyone have any questions outside of class time. Invite folks with questions to come ask them immediately after class.

Ask icebreaker questions at the beginning of every class. If teaching in a large lecture setting, you might use a tool like Mentimeter or PollEverywhere to pose an icebreaker question on the projector as students trickle into the classroom. Students can discuss these prompts with their peers, or respond using their phones to see their peers’ answers appear on the projector in real time.

Provide a platform for student announcements. Reserve a minute or two at the beginning of class for students to make announcements about upcoming campus events or opportunities they want to promote.

Make a digital parking lot. Create a digital space (a Canvas Discussion, a Padlet) where students can ask questions or provide comments as they arise outside of class.

Extend learning beyond the physical classroom. You might hold office hours at a coffee shop on campus or plan a field trip or hands-on learning experience in the community to extend course learning beyond your usual space and time. (Be sure to communicate these expectations to students well in advance).

Schedule one-on-ones. If teaching a small class, schedule one-on-one meetings with each student (perhaps in lieu of class) early on in the semester to get to know them better and develop personalized goals.

Use student names

Strategies to try:

Ask students to introduce themselves during an in-class activity. At the beginning of the term, structure an introduction activity where students can say their own name and share a bit about themselves, including their nicknames and preferred pronouns. No one should be forced to share their pronouns if they don’t want to, but inviting folks to share (and sharing your own when you model the activity) can foster a sense of belonging for students by signaling that you support their whole-humanness, respect their identity, and celebrate diversity in your course. Throughout the term, you can also help students get to know each other by reminding them to introduce themselves during small-group activities.

Normalize self-identification early on in the semester. During the first few weeks of the semester, set a norm of asking students to say their own name prior to answering a question or contributing to discussion. Pay attention to the pronunciation they use. You might even say their name back to them and ask if you are saying it correctly. If you do this, make sure to do it for every student, not only students with names you are unfamiliar with. This will help you remember every student’s name and avoid singling anyone out. As you do this, write down student names phonetically on your roster.

Ask students to make introduction videos. At the beginning of the term, ask students to upload a 1-2 minute introduction video on Canvas. Not only will this help you remember names and get to know more about your students, but, if you also ask students to comment on each other’s videos, it will help students get to know one another as well!

Ask students to remind you. If you call on a student and do not remember their name, ask them to remind you and thank them when they do. There is nothing wrong with asking again—it shows that you’re making a real effort to learn student names.

Use name tents. Ask students to write their name in large letters on a sheet of folder paper or cardstock and display their name tent on their desk. Read these name tents when calling on students. Students can bring their name tents to each class, or you might collect them at the end of each class to take attendance.

Personally return assignments. If your class is small enough, help yourself learn student names by returning assignments individually. You can use this practice early in the semester to help you learn names, even if you don’t use it for the whole semester.

Encourage student contributions and normalize mistakes

Strategies to try:

Stage “show-and-tell” or “teach-the-class” activities. You might ask students to bring in a story or object that relates to themselves or the course material, or provide students with opportunities to teach their peers in formal (presentations, projects) or informal (discussion, group work) settings.

Offer a variety of avenues for students to contribute. This can include a digital space where students can submit questions, an online poll where they can voice their preference anonymously, an opportunity to ask their peers during a think/pair/share, or through a written prompt during a weekly “check-in” on Canvas.

Normalize questions and mistakes. For many students, it can be intimidating speaking in front of their peers, and the prospect of making a mistake or asking a question in front of others can be associated with self-doubt or shame. In order to help students feel comfortable, you might try the following:

Tell students that they will make mistakes, and that it’s okay! Explain concepts such as growth mindset, which indicates that intelligence is not fixed, but something that grows from our mental efforts. Mental effort literally changes the brain and increases its capacity (e.g., the brain responds to mental effort the way our muscles respond to exercise).

Normalize sharing struggles as a classroom community. At the beginning of class, ask students to share what problems (or parts of a problem) they struggled with. Work through these problems as a class and check for understanding throughout the process.

  • Tell students about your own struggles in the classroom or in the field. Check out Failure Fridays. Share mistakes you’ve made on relevant problems/tasks in the past. If you make a mistake during class (it will happen!), use it as an opportunity to normalize making a mistake in your classroom. In class, ask students to share mistakes they’ve been making and explain how they ended up correcting them to a peer. 
  • Be mindful of your language when using rubrics. Using “still developing” rather than “needs revision” or “fails to meet expectations” encourages a growth mindset by emphasizing learning as an ongoing, iterative process.
  • Be mindful of your language during class discussions. Asking “What questions do you have for me?” rather than, “Does anybody have any questions?” helps to normalize learning struggles and questions. Similarly, avoid telling students that the work is “easy” or “obvious.” Specific concepts or tasks may indeed be easy for you given your own experiences and expertise in your field, but remember that students are coming to the material from radically different positions. If a student finds themself struggling to understand a concept that was presented as “easy,” they may begin to think negatively about both their capabilities and potential for future learning. 
  • Utilize a “muddiest point” activity at the end of each class. At the end of each class, ask students to reflect on what points of confusion and questions remain. Ask them to submit their questions or points of confusion anonymously. During the next class, address these points of anxiety by working through problems or concepts that caused the most confusion.
Ensure all students are included, supported, and engaged

Strategies to try:

Communicate care. Explicitly reassure students that you are there to support them as learners and as human beings. Make yourself available before or after class so students can approach you to discuss any questions and concerns they might have. Frame your office hours as a welcoming space that you have set aside just for them. Encourage students to visit even if they wish to talk about something unrelated to the course, or if they aren’t exactly sure what support they need.

Express confidence in students’ ability to overcome challenges. How often do you explicitly tell students that you believe in their ability to succeed? Try emphasizing positivity, reassurance, and encouragement to your students in order to boost their confidence.

Include campus and community resources on your syllabus. See this syllabus template for more information. Include Mines resources such as the Counseling Center, Center for Academic Services and Advising, Institutional Equity & Title IX, Diversity, Inclusion & Access, and Student Outreach & Support. You might also list relevant community resources, such as local services related to food and housing security.

Utilize inclusive language. Use “we” when referring to your classroom community to emphasize mutual learning. Avoiding the use of gendered language (e.g., addressing your class by saying “you guys”) and idioms. These turns of phrase (such as “a piece of cake” or “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”) are context-dependent and can create unnecessary barriers of understanding for international students or students learning English as a second or foreign language.

Provide students with multiple, frequent opportunities to offer input—for example, feedback about how the course is going, a digital space where students can share real-world examples of course content, clicker questions that ask students to indicate their confidence as it relates to a particular concept or problem, and so forth).

Assign roles during group work. Or, you might allow students to come up with their own roles, so that they can utilize their own unique strengths and interests while collaborating. Some common roles include: notetaker, project manager, communication lead, graphic designer, interviewer, speaker, and learner (who pushes the group by asking questions). Consider asking students to switch roles for each new group activity: this helps students practice different skills and can help prevent students from ending up in gendered roles (e.g., women as notetakers and men as project managers). 

Monitor small group activities by circulating around the room and checking in with student groups to make sure everyone is included and to provide additional support. 

Provide an opportunity for peer learning. We learn when we teach each other. Whether it’s a peer review activity, a think/pair/share discussion, a cooperative quiz, or a “teach-the-class” presentation, collaborative learning activities help build community in your classroom while also enhancing learning.

Encourage all students to contribute. You might notice that a few students continually raise their hands to speak, while others do not. Speaking is by no means the only way to participate in class, but be mindful of who you are calling on during classroom discussions, and try to encourage new, unheard perspectives.  You might (co)-create norms with students that invite them to “share the mic” and be thoughtful in choosing when to actively listen or when to speak.

Harness digital tools to facilitate collaboration. Make it easy for students to collaborate by creating centralized places where students can meet, discuss, and work together. You can do this by creating discussion boards, working groups, and peer reviews in Canvas; group channels in Microsoft Teams or Slack; collaborative documents in Microsoft Office Online and Google Workspace; or tools such as Padlet, Google Jamboard, Zoom Whiteboard, Excalidraw, or Miro, which provide spaces where students can co-create knowledge in real time.

Use, or ask students to provide, multiple and varied examples

Strategies to try:

Provide multiple and various examples. For any given concept, provide a few examples instead of just one. By offering multiple examples, you can provide students with multiple entry points into the material. Add variety to these examples by choosing case studies and materials from a range of industries, historical periods, and areas of the world. You might ask ChatGPT to help you generate multiple examples of a concept, keeping in mind your aim to offer a range of examples that resonate with diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests. You can also add variety in terms of how students engage with these examples (e.g., ask students to read an article, listen to a podcast, look at a Twitter thread from an industry professional, watch a video, or listen to you share a personal story).

Include course materials that highlight diverse backgrounds. When looking at your course materials, consider what perspectives and identities have been marginalized and systematically underrepresented in your field. Select guest speakers, authors, and examples with those perspectives and identities and incorporate them into your syllabus, so that all students can see themselves as belonging in the field.

Ask students to find, generate, or share their own examples. Task students with finding their own real-life examples that connect with the course material. You might structure this informally (e.g., provide a digital forum where students can share links to examples with their peers throughout the term) or ask students to sign up and “show and tell” their peers during a brief in-class presentation.

Ask students about their interests and previous experiences in a pre-course survey. While you might not be able to tailor course content to fit every one of your students’ interests, collecting this information early on in the semester can help you determine what kinds of examples might speak to and resonate with students in your course.

How does the instructor convey the content and its relevance?

Effectively communicating course content involves ensuring that students can see you, hear you, and successfully access course links and materials. It also necessitates developing materials and examples that are engaging and illuminate the relevance of the skills and knowledge that students are learning in your course. When students fail to see the relevance and usefulness of course tasks, they are more likely to view course tasks as “busy work” that is “assigned just for the sake of assigning work” (Cochran 2016: 160). This may cause students to lose motivation and adopt a “get it over” mentality, approaching tasks with only the minimal effort required to “get the grade” (Cox 2009). In other words, students are more motivated to engage with course material when they understand how what they are learning is relevant to their professional and personal lives (Ambrose et al. 2010). By explicitly describing the relevance and real-world application of your course material, you can help students shift their view of learning away from “busy work” toward something that is more “authentic” (Wiggins 1990) insofar as it equips them with tangible, valuable skills and prepares them to impact the world around them. As suggested by Ambrose et al. (2010: 83-84), you can establish relevance and value in your course by connecting what you do in your course to students’ everyday lives, to other courses in the department, to future careers, and to real-world events and scenarios.

Clearly communicates course content

Strategies to try:

Speak loudly and/or use a microphone. Even if it feels a bit awkward, boosting your voice will help to enhance your communication of course content. Ask students if they can hear you prior to communicating course information.

Ensure your writing is clear, concise, and large enough for students to see. You might also ask your students if they can see/comprehend your visuals. This can be especially important if you are writing on the white board or solving a problem on a tablet.

Enhance your lectures with real-time closed-captioning and alternative text. Most presentation platforms, including Powerpoint, offer options to make your slide shows more accessible with live transcription.

Make your slides, videos, and/or lecture recordings accessible and available online. This allows students to return to and reference course concepts again and again. Remind students that these resources are available.

Invite students to interrupt you if they can’t hear you or read your writing. Students may feel intimidated or nervous interrupting your lecture, so explicitly tell them that it’s okay to do so!

Ensure that students have successfully accessed online polls, links, and QR Codes before changing slides. You might ask students, “Give me a thumbs up if you’ve successfully accessed the link,” “Is anyone having issues accessing the link?” or “Does the QR Code work?” Invite students to help each other access your materials.

Be intentional with your slide design. Slides that feature too much information can overwhelm student listeners and detract from your learning experiences. Design your slides to be inviting, accessible, concise, and when possible, fun and engaging to look at! You can do this by adding photos, GIFs, video clips, and a variety of themes and designs. 

Give, or ask students to provide, real-world examples
Strategies to try:

Share a variety of real-life examples, case studies, and current events. Are there particular historical events, personal anecdotes, current events, or popular media that speak to the importance of your course concepts? 

Draw connections between course concepts and their industrial, economic, cultural, and social implications. Ask students to consider the various ethical implications and stakeholders associated with a given concept. How might community members be impacted by a decision? What happens if a mistake is made? Is this concept being used ethically today? You might facilitate these discussions informally as a large group, or ask students to prepare a brief presentation that connects course concepts to a specific historical/current event or news article.

Ask students to find, generate, or share their own examples. Task students with finding their own real-life examples that connect with the course material. You might structure this informally (e.g., provide a digital forum where students can share links to examples with their peers throughout the term) or ask students to sign up and “show and tell” their peers during a brief in-class presentation. 

Ask students to rewrite textbook problems to include more social context. Invite students to give real-life context to textbook problems that are “close-ended or decontextualized” (Johnson et al. 2022). Rather than having students solve a numerical problem, invite them to re-write the problem to include stakeholders that may be affected by the result of the problem—for instance, the labor conditions or health risks of workers involved, or the communities impacted by a particular design or policy decision. You might also have students find a real-life case study that relates to their exam question. Ask students to share their rewritten questions with each other, edit them, and compile them into a student-generated exam.

Connect content to students’ prior knowledge, coursework, or future careers, or asks students to do so

Strategies to try:

Consider why students need to achieve the learning outcomes for your course. How will they use what they learn, now or in the future, professionally or personally? Describe the relevance of your learning outcomes for the day when introducing them to students.

Implement “authentic” learning activities.  You can make your learning experiences authentic by mirroring the kinds of tasks, deliverables, and scenarios associated with a career in your field. Some ideas include: inviting students to create something that has “use value” outside of class (e.g. a professional portfolio, mobile app, a working model, a social media campaign, a creative-writing cookbook, etc.); simulating an scenario, event, or task that asks students to “do” the subject (staging a debate; conducting an experiment; giving a conference presentation; writing a grant proposal, white paper, or business plan; troubleshooting code; holding a public performance, and so forth).

Begin class with a “connect” activity that explicitly asks students to activate their prior knowledge. You might ask students to generate real-life examples, create a mind map, reflect on how a concept has impacted society or their personal life, brainstorm what they already know about a topic, write a minute paper, or answer a clicker question related to their previous knowledge. You can also encourage this “connection” during lecture by simply referencing or briefly reviewing material from previous class sessions.

Share anecdotes from your experience in the field. Draw on your own experiences to explain the importance of course material and assignments. Share with students how you’ve used particular theories or concepts in your life. Or, if your course helps students develop their teamwork or communication skills, share a story about a time when you had to use these skills at your job. 

Explain how the learning outcomes relate to the necessary skills and knowledge in your field. You might reference MyNextMove or even bring in a job posting from your field and discuss it as a class. What knowledge and skills are being emphasized? How will the activities in this class session, unit, or course help equip students with these skills?

Ask students to identify relevance. Rather than telling students that a particular activity or learning outcome is relevant, ask students to reflect on how the learning outcomes of the class, unit, or course might be relevant to those working in their field. In small groups, students might generate a list of “real-life” situations in which the skills and knowledge learned throughout the course become essential.

What opportunities does the instructor give for the students to practice the content?

Practice is essential for the formation of memory, knowledge transfer, and the achievement of more complex knowledge and skills (Campitelli & Gobet, 2011). Providing students with low-stakes, ungraded opportunities to practice relevant knowledge and skills and to receive timely, specific feedback not only increases student confidence in the material and promotes a positive classroom environment; it also enhances students’ intrinsic motivation to invest in their own learning (see Butler and Nisan 1986; Kalchman, Moss, & Case, 2001; Stommel 2020). Coupling this practice and feedback with opportunities for revision and reflection also helps students learn about how they learn. Although educators are sometimes hesitant to incorporate reflective activities and assignments due to concerns that they will take up too much time, research shows that metacognition is an “essential variable for producing positive learning outcomes” (Millis 2016; Wang, Haertel & Walberg 1990) and is directly linked to increased student performance on assessments (Stanton, Sebesta,  & Dunlosky 2021), as well as increased motivation, critical thinking, self-evaluation, and self-regulation skills—all of which are sure to serve students in both their future careers and everyday lives (see Hacker, Dunlosky & Graesser 2009; Ambrose et. al 2010; Lai 2011). 

Pause to let students think or ask questions

Strategies to try:

Wait for student responses.  After asking a question, wait 3-5 seconds—this is sometimes called “Wait Time 1”—before soliciting an answer from students. This time provides students with an opportunity to process the question and begin to develop a thoughtful response.

Wait after student responses. Once a student responds to your question, wait for another 3-5 seconds—this is sometimes called “Wait Time 2”—before responding. This wait time creates opportunities for the student to further clarify their answer, for the instructor to develop their response, and for other students to think about and even respond to what was said.

Embrace and invite quiet, reflective thinking time. Sitting in silence as a class can feel awkward or even unproductive at first, but trust this inclusive process! You might explicitly signal for students when this thinking time is beginning (e.g. “take a moment and think quietly”) and ending (“Now that you have had a moment to think, what insights did you have?”).

Ask questions to further student thinking

Strategies to try:

Ask open-ended questions. Where possible, avoid “yes” or “no” questions in favor of open-ended questions that facilitate critical thinking and deliberate practice of course skills and knowledge.  

Utilize a variety of question contexts and formats. Review questions after a lecture, Padlet posts, warm up questions that activate prior knowledge, one-minute writing prompts, questions during a worked example or prior to a demonstration, confidence meters, think/pair/share discussions, self-reflection questions, online polls, iClicker practice problems—build in a variety of ways that students are being asked to answer and engage with course-related questions.

Practice active listening. It can be tempting to take a students’ response and reword it so that it fits into your larger point. This can be an effective way to communicate course content at times, but it also runs the risk of flattening the nuances of student responses. Be sure you are listening intently to student questions, comments, and responses so that you can accurately capture their understanding and dignify their contributions.  

Ask students to respond to students’ questions and comments. If a student poses a particularly illuminating question or idea, you might throw it back to the class for further conversation. This can help you avoid “call-and-response” conversations and instead build more emergent, lively discussions between students.

Draw connections between student responses. Another way to avoid the “call-and-response” dynamic is to connect student ideas in order to build understanding. This not only enhances their learning, but also motivates them to contribute to the conversation by signaling that you are actively invested in what they have to say. A few examples include, “That reminds me of what [student] said…” or “[Student 1] and [Student 2] are both pointing to the various social implications of this problem—does anyone else have another example they can think of?”

Dignify errors and ask probing questions to understand gaps in understanding. If a student answers a question incorrectly, respond from a place of curiosity: Where is that student coming from? What assumptions do they have? Ask follow-up questions that help students self-identify their errors and gain a more comprehensive understanding. Chances are, there are multiple students in your class who are struggling with the same problem or concept. While doing this, be sure to dignify student errors by explicitly giving voice to aspects of the students’ response that demonstrate original thinking or a clear understanding of the material (e.g., “I see what you were thinking there,” “You’re on the right track here…”).

Implement activities to help students practice learning outcomes

Strategies to try:

Scaffold practice opportunities to ensure an appropriate difficulty level. To ensure that students are challenged but not overwhelmed while practicing, you can scaffold—in other words, break down a complex task into pieces and provide additional levels of support during—these practice tasks, which temporarily relieves some of the cognitive load that might eventually be involved.

Offer opportunities for low-stakes individual practice. Where in your course can you integrate low-stakes, ungraded practice opportunities? Some ideas include: ask students to solve a practice problem and use their phone to record their answer during lecture; give students a chance to self-assess a practice task using an instructor-created rubric; assign individual practice problems outside of class and discuss them together during the next class period; provide in-class time where students can practice coding, writing, problem-solving and other relevant tasks. Reference the Active Learning Library for additional ideas.

Offer opportunities for low-stakes collaborative practice. Where in your course can you integrate collaborative, active learning into your practice opportunities? Dedicating ample time for in-class, ungraded practice and discussion can help reduce the stress associated with learning new concepts. Some ideas include: an in-class group practice quiz; a peer review assignment in class or on Canvas; an in-class send-a-problem activity; an in-class session where groups can co-create a study guide or run through their upcoming group presentations; a “teach-the-class” jigsaw where student groups are responsible for teaching their peers a particular application, concept, or problem; a small group discussion where students debate a scenario, solve a problem, or apply a concept to the real world. Here are a few activity ideas you might try. Reference the Active Learning Library for additional ideas.

  • Think-Pair-Share. Facilitate a think-pair-share activity where students first work individually, then share and compare their answers with a partner before discussing together with the larger group. 
  • Peer Review. Structure activities where students can review each other’s works in progress, whether that be an essay, a design project, or a practice problem. Provide instructions or a rubric to encourage specific, targeted feedback.
  • Student-Generated Questions. Ask students to work in pairs to generate questions (and answer guides to those questions) they might see on the exam. You can also use this activity to have students generate broader questions they are having as they relate to course logistics or concepts as well. 
  • Jigsaw Discussion. A large topic is divided into smaller, interrelated “pieces.” Student groups are assigned one of the pieces to review/confirm knowledge. Then, the groups “jigsaw” so that there is a representative from each piece in each new group. Students then teach each other about their piece. 
  • Communicate the Problem. Ask students to solve problems or questions in pairs. One student takes the role of speaker, while the other student acts as the writer. The speaker must verbally explain to the writer how to solve the problem. The writer must follow the instructions of the speaker. Once the problem is solved or time is up, you might allow students to reflect on the process and highlight different ways to solve the same problem. Switch roles for the next problem. 
  • Team-Based Game Show. Prepare a “jeopardy” board of questions and categories. Stage a game show where students can work in teams to answer questions and gain points. Make sure to allow for “steals,” so that if one team gets an answer wrong, the next team can have a chance to gain points. This will help keep all teams actively engaged. Mix in a few fun challenges.
  • Quadrant Discussion. In large lecture situations, divide the room into 4 quadrants. Provide 4 different questions on the projector. Assign each quadrant a particular question and allow time for peer conversation before returning to a large group discussion or review. 
  • Review/Concept Stations. Designate different areas of the classroom to be review or concept “stations.” During class, students can move to different stations to explore or review concepts based on their needs and interests. You might prepare a worksheet or a few tasks for each station, or encourage students to work with their peers to create a study guide based on the station’s concept. 
Include an activity to help students reflect on learning

Strategies to try:

Begin class with a pre-assessment. After introducing the day’s learning goals, ask students to reflect on what they already know about the topic. You might ask specific questions as part of a pre-assessment survey, or invite students to make a mind map or illustration of their current understanding. A few universal prompts to try: What do students know that they know about the topic? What do students think that they know about the topic? What do students know that they don’t know about the topic?

Invite students to create a personalized study/project plan. At the end of a class session, invite students to take a few minutes to reflect on what they know and what they need to brush up on. Ask them to create a study plan with tangible steps they can take to prepare for the next class, exam, lab, or project. 

Ask students to reflect on their “muddiest point.” Invite students to take a quiet moment and write down one thing they are still unclear about (their “muddiest point”) as they leave the class session. You might have them submit their muddiest point on a piece of paper, on a Canvas discussion board, or even using an online platform or polling software. Once students have submitted their “muddiest point,” look for patterns and address these concerns during the next class session.

Facilitate a quick 3-2-1 activity. This activity asks students to reflect on 3 things they learned during class, 2 things they liked or found interesting, and 1 question they are still having about the course material. Another variation asks students to reflect on 3 moments during class when they felt most engaged, 2 moments when they felt least engaged, and 1 thing they plan to do before the next session in order to enhance their learning.

Encourage students to reflect on, share, and crowdsource their study strategies. Begin or end a class session with a think/pair/share where students can share their exam preparation strategies.

Add a reflective component to group work. If your course has group work (group quizzes or projects, for instance), ask students to reflect individually on their experience working as a team. This could include a reflection on their own contributions, challenges, and adjustments and strategies they used to meet those challenges. Students could submit a survey to provide this reflective information, or write an essay detailing their experience. 

Invite students to set personalized learning or participation goals. Students can self-assess their participation by setting goals and reflecting on their progress throughout the term. 

Structure self-evaluation activities. Ask students to self-assess their practice problems/tasks. Instruct them to: identify areas of individual strengths and areas for improvement; reflect on the adequacy of their preparation and study strategies; characterize the nature of their errors and look for patterns; and communicate what they would do differently next time. 

Assign a reflective blog, letter, or journal. These written reflections allow students to reflect on (and demonstrate) their thinking and growth over the term. You could also structure this writing as an end-of-the-term letter to the instructor (or to a future student) in which they identify specific areas of growth, classroom moments they enjoyed, challenges that they faced, and strategies that they took to overcome those challenges. 

Give students feedback about their learning

Strategies to try:

Enhance in-class practice activities with varied and targeted feedback. Whether it be self-assessment using a rubric, a peer review activity, a question-and-answer session, or a large group debrief following a practice task, be sure to provide students with varied opportunities to receive and incorporate specific verbal and/or written feedback on their practice. Ideally, students will receive multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback prior to being formally assessed (and graded).

Collect formative data about student learning and use it to guide student learning. This data can be formal (e.g. a quiz, minute-paper, or homework assignment) or informal (e.g. a class discussion, “muddiest point” activity, online poll or practice problem), but be sure to regularly collect information that helps you gauge student understanding at any given point in the term. Using this information, you can then provide formative feedback that can steer, course-correct, guide, and ultimately support student learning prior to summative assessment.

Look for common themes/mistakes in student assignments and address them as part of a large group feedback session. This can be especially useful in large classes.

Ask students to identify 2-3 areas of feedback they would like you to prioritize. For certain assignments or in certain contexts, it may be helpful for students to identify 2-3 things they would like you to prioritize while leaving feedback. This strategy can help students practice self-evaluative thinking while also helping you manage your workload.

Create (or add more) feedback loops in your course. The idea is simple: Students do something, get feedback, think about the feedback, make changes based on the feedback, and do something again. The cycle continues! You can work feedback loops into every aspect of your course, from in-class practice problems to final group projects. The key here is that you move away from “one-and-done” learning toward opportunities for reflection, iteration, and growth.

Offer opportunities for students to provide you with feedback as well. You can refine your course design and learning experiences by asking students for feedback. Whenever you solicit student feedback—be it through a mid-course survey, “suggestion” box, or more frequent course check-ins—be sure to discuss the results with students. Look for patterns in the results and bring in a few anonymized quotes to show students. You might even display two student perspectives that disagree. Perhaps one student indicated that they would like more group discussions, while another expressed that they would like less group work and more time dedicated to individual practice. Showing students these various perspectives can lead to productive conversations about the learning process and the reasonings behind course tasks and approaches. Be sure to thank students for their thoughtful comments, and discuss changes you will be making based on their feedback. Also outline changes you will not be making, and explain why. See this resource for more suggestions on how you might structure this debrief discussion.