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The following blog post from the University of Michigan invites us to thoughtfully consider the teaching challenges and opportunities afforded by this often hostile election season. It asks that faculty from all disciplines encourage students to think critically and hold civil discourse about the many fraught topics in the campaigns both before and after the election this November.

From the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching & Learning:
» Teaching and Learning in a Tense Election Season

class2Even if you have extensive teaching experience, the first day of class can create some nervous jitters. So, we’ve collected a few suggestions, tips, and resources here that will help your class get off to a good start.

  1. One of the most frequent recommendations we hear from faculty is to arrive at the room both early and well-prepared. If you’re using classroom technology, have it connected before the students arrive. (If possible, visit the classroom the day before, to make sure you know how to do that.)
  2. Susanmarie Harrington (UVM, English) says that conveying your own excitement about the topic of the course can make all the difference. “You only have one chance to make a good first impression, and the best way to help your students feel excited about your class is by being enthusiastic about it yourself.” While it’s common to spend time on preliminaries like going over the syllabus, try to leave time to dive into teaching. This lets your students know that you intend to make every class worthwhile and they leave feeling that they’ve already begun learning.
  3. As mentioned above, if you like to review the syllabus here are a couple of ideas to make this more meaningful.
    • Before the first class meeting, revisit and contemplate your learning objectives and your schedule and identify the overarching themes. When you review the syllabus on the first day, share this 10,000-foot view with your students and talk about how the key themes are woven throughout the schedule. This overview provides not only a conceptual map of the course, but a rationale for the work you will be asking them to do.
    • Make the syllabus review more engaging by including interesting visual elements, e.g., drawings, concept maps, or funny cartoons. Consider playing music. Helpful links: The CTL syllabus resources developed by the UVM Faculty Senate. Tulane University’s resources for designing an accessible syllabus.
  4. Icebreakers: If you don’t have much time, simply ask students to turn to their neighbors and introduce themselves, but if more involved icebreakers appeal to you, here are 37 Icebreaker Activities from the Center for Teaching & Learning, Lansing Community College.

  5. The following activity can help students understand how their own behaviors contribute to a meaningful class experience. From The Teaching Professor Blog by Maryellen Weimer, PhD:

    Best and Worst Classes – I love this quick and easy activity. On one section of the blackboard I write: “The best class I’ve ever had” and underneath it “What the teacher did” and below that “What the students did.” On another section I write “The worst class I’ve ever had” (well, actually I write, “The class from hell”) and then the same two items beneath. I ask students to share their experiences, without naming the course, department or teacher, and I begin filling in the grid based on what they call out. If there’s a lull or not many comments about what the students did in these classes, I add some descriptors based on my experience with some of my best and worst classes. In 10 minutes or less, two very different class portraits emerge. I move to the best class section of the board and tell students that this is the class I want to teach, but I can’t do it alone. Together we have the power to make this one of those “best class” experiences.

  6. If group work is emphasized in your course, an icebreaker similar to the one above may be valuable for preventing some of the common problems that students have when working in groups. Ask students to form casual groups of 4–6 with one person designated as the recorder. Give each group a sheet with 2 columns titled:

    “Group behaviors that are helpful”
    “Group behaviors that are not helpful”

    Have them spend 10 minutes discussing this and listing their ideas in each column. Spend another 15 minutes or so sharing these lists with the whole class.

    From: Barkley, E. F. (2010). Tips and Strategies for Promoting Active Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Here are some links to other Universities’ pages on the topic of the first day of class:

This post is contributed by Dr. Ellen McShane, Director of Academic Success Programs at UVM.

Author George D. Kuh (2008) has identified collaborative learning experiences as a “high-impact practice” that allows students to succeed in college. Collaborative learning experiences can include study groups in courses, team-based course assignments, peer tutoring, and cooperative learning projects that include research.

Sierra Kloutz, Class of 2015, tutors a student.

Sierra Kloutz, Class of 2015, tutors a student in the Learning Co-op. Sierra served as the study group leader for Psych 001 in Fall 2014 for CNHS first-year students.
Photo by Paul O. Boisvert

UVM’s Academic Success Programs (ASP) witnesses the impact of collaborative learning on a daily basis through the Learning Co-op’s Tutoring Program. Our statistics show that students who use tutoring services graduate in four years at a higher rate than students who do not use tutoring (Institutional Research, 2014).

Over the last two years, the Learning Co-op and the College of Nursing and Health Sciences (CNHS) have collaborated to place all first-year CNHS students in peer-tutor-led study groups through the college’s first-year experience course, NH 050.


Learning Co-op Tutors and Staff
Photo by Paul O. Boisvert

This year, the entirety of the first-year cohort participated; 246 first-year students were officially scheduled into study groups. Out of that group, 186 of them completed the requirement of attending six total study group sessions throughout the semester.

Of those who fell short, many of them attended four or five sessions. Of the 246 students we scheduled for sessions, only seven of them had zero contacts. In the end, over 97% of first-year CNHS students had at least one point of contact with a tutor this semester, with over 72% spending six or more hours with tutors. Some students chose to spend as much as ten hours in study groups.

We can say with certainty that no other college comes close to that amount of time spent in structured learning environments outside of lectures.

How has the collaboration between the Learning Co-op and CNHS impacted student success and retention? Stay tuned for another blog post next semester. We plan to gather data over the next several months to see how these efforts have impacted retention.

If you are interested in exploring a college-wide or course-specific collaborative learning experience, please contact Keith M. Williams in the Learning Co-op
at 656-7964.

Kuh, George D. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges & University Publishing, 2008.

As we all know, the end of the semester is a stressful time for both faculty and students. While we can’t eliminate most of the causes of stress, we can mitigate stress’ negative effects on our physical and emotional states by taking care of ourselves. Informing our students about resources to help deal with stress can go a long way towards helping them get through the end of the semester successfully.

The UVM Living Well program provides a smorgasbord of de-stressing events and services for students, such as office hours from Tucker the therapy dog, free massage, and drop-in meditation.

Letting your students know about these and other upcoming events reminds them that UVM recognizes the impact of excessive stress and that we care about their personal well-being.  Making an announcement in Blackboard (directions here) is a simple way to share this information.

Here are some resources you may want to share with your students:

GeeseAccording to Dr. Michael Wesch, his new website,, focuses on “the pursuit of joy in teaching and learning.” I first saw it in August and made a note to myself to share it here in mid-semester, when the geese are flying south and we aren’t sure if it’s getting colder and darker or just cold. And dark. Dr. Wesch’s work has been inspiring us for years now, so take a look his teaching notebook and, for even more of his work—videos, publications, presentations, and blog posts—see his Kansas State University website: Digital Ethnography (formerly “Mediated Cultures”).

Premise: all students want to text in class and will do so surreptitiously if they can, so many faculty feel the only way to keep students focused is to ban mobile device use altogether. Many blog posts and articles on texting, cell phone, or mobile device use in class seem to start with this ereaderspremise.

Responses to the growing use of devices in the classroom have ranged from that of complete control: “Put your device on the table as you enter the classroom. Pick it up when you leave” to the laissez-faire: “Students are paying the tuition. If they want to text during class and not learn, that’s their choice.”

Developing a cogent and workable mobile device policy for the classroom continues to be a challenge. The negative effects of multitasking or auto-switching are well documented and the possibility that students may be distracted by other students’ use of devices is also a consideration.

How to deal with the presence of these devices in the classroom elicits a multiplicity of responses from faculty. A quick search on the terms “cellphone, policy, syllabus” turns up a host of ways faculty are banning or limiting their use. In fact, Cortland has collected a list of mobile device policies from syllabi that might well have been titled “36 Ways to Say No.”

However, as the prevalence of these devices continues to grow many teachers are finding ways to make the use of mobile devices work for their students’ education rather than against it. Not surprisingly, these solutions tend to encourage the integration of inquiry-based or active learning practices.

Karen Eifler suggests that mobile devices can be used to capture, archive, share and use whiteboard work done in class as well as for real-time/just-in-time information gathering. (“Cell Phones in the Classroom: Is It Time to Reconsider Your Policy?”)

John Thayer explains to his students how they will be using their devices for his Geometry class and closes with “we have work to do so please take out your phone.” (“Cell Phone Policy: A Letter to My Students”)

As New York prepares to lift its ban on cellphones in schools, many K-12 teachers will be preparing their students to use these devices responsibly and effectively. John Giambalvo explains that he will be starting slowly, using various apps as appropriate. For example, he’ll be “automating exit tickets — the micro-assessments that ask students to demonstrate their learning at the end of a lesson” using the Exit Ticket app.

Whichever mobile device policy you intend to use, it is most important to communicate it clearly to your students. As the SUNY Brockport policy on use of electronic devices in the classroom warns: “It is advisable for instructors to anticipate that issues with wireless communications and electronic devices may arise and publish any restrictions in their course syllabi.”

More recently, faculty advise having a discussion with students to build the policy together. Having students contribute ideas for a policy, and especially for how infractions should be dealt with, encourages them to consider both their own practice and their role in establishing a respectful and productive classroom for all.

UVM students in lecture hallIt’s that time of year again when faculty are thinking about how to better engage their students in the classroom. The first class meeting can often set the tone for the whole semester, and establishing norms for classroom interactions goes a long way towards creating a more welcoming and respectful learning environment for everyone.

One way you can help students feel more invested in these guidelines is to develop them together in class, and it is helpful to do this early on so that you can fall back on them, if needed, during the course of the semester.

Below are some examples from UVM faculty:

From Helen Read, Mathematics:

CLASSROOM ETIQUETTE: In order that we make the most of our class time, please make every effort to arrive on time and stay until class is dismissed. Please be respectful of the instructor and your fellow students, and refrain from any behavior that would distract from our work. Turn off and put away cell phones, music players, etc., before class begins, and close email, games, and anything else you have running on the computer that is not directly related to what we are doing in class.” H.P. Read –

Another example from Shirley Gedeon, Economics:

Classroom Etiquette & Policies

In class, address the professor as “Professor Gedeon”
In emails, start off with “Dear Professor Gedeon”

It’s a large auditorium, but I want to answer questions. I will do my very best to move around the room to make it easier to hear your questions. I welcome and respect all political and economic points of view and expect all students to do likewise.

Professor Gedeon writes and grades all exams.You have the right to petition grading on any question on any exam. Protocol for submitting petitions will be discussed in class.

The Teaching Assistant grades all homework. You have the right to petition grading on any homework assignment. Protocol for submitting petitions will be discussed in class.

Shirley Gedeon –

If you are teaching a class in which a number of sensitive topics will be discussed, it is even more critical to layout a thoughtful approach to classroom etiquette. This following example is from a syllabus for Introduction to Sexuality & Gender Identity Studies taught in 2010 by Reese Kelly:

Classroom Etiquette:

Out of respect for other students and the instructor, you should arrive in class on time and stay until class is over. Coming and going in the middle of a lecture is highly disruptive. Turn off your cell phones while you are in class. To be fair, my rule is that if your cell phone goes off in class, I get to answer it. Likewise, if mine goes off in class, you get to answer it.

If the use of computers or cell phones becomes disruptive to anyone in the class, including yourself, you may be asked to leave class. Recording lectures and using laptops to take notes is allowed as long as these activities are not disruptive.

Eating during lectures is discouraged, but drinks are acceptable.

You must enter the course willing to suspend, challenge, or even change many of your taken-for granted beliefs about gender, race, size, ability, nationality, sex, sexuality, class and so on. This is often difficult because the multiple layers of our identities are so deeply embedded in our daily lives including our sense of self and our intimate relationships.

You will find that being willing to examine multiple perspectives on an issue is your most important and useful tool for understanding the concepts we discuss in class. In this course, we will be covering some sensitive and controversial topics. Some of the issues we discuss may make you feel uncomfortable at times. However, in order for learning to occur, we must act respectfully towards each other, even if there is some disagreement. If, at any time, your behavior is viewed as disruptive to the class, you will be asked to leave. Personal attacks, rude comments, or harassment of any kind (racial, sexual, etc.) will NOT be tolerated! If you experience a personal attack, harassment, or if you feel as though your classmates are spoiling your learning environment, please inform me.

Reese C. Kelly,

A few more to look at:

Brian Ballif,

Alison Pechenick,

Larry Kost,

Enjoy the start to the semester!

Conducting research can be a transformative experience for undergraduate students, especially when their research supervisor serves as an effective mentor.

We invite you to join us for a 10-hr faculty seminar, beginning in late August, that examines how faculty can enhance their mentoring skills regardless of career stage. The seminar will use case studies, extensive discussions, reflection, and action plans to help faculty mentor more efficiently, communicate and establish expectations with students, address diversity issues in mentoring, assess student understanding and foster student independence.

For details, see: This seminar is sponsored by the Rubenstein School, CTL, and the Provost’s Office EPI grant program.

Applications are now being accepted for the May 2015 cohort of the UVM Hybrid Course Initiative program (phase 3). The deadline for applying is Monday, March 23rd at 5pm!

Please follow this link to learn more about the program and to apply.

We invite you to register for the upcoming info session,
“What’s the Hype about Hybrid?”
to be held this Thursday, March 11, from 1-2pm

Important dates:

Applications due: March 23, 2015
Accepted applicants notified: March 27, 2015
Full-day training: May 18, 2015

Recently, a new faculty member asked me about how David Kolb’s Learning Styles, that developed out of his Experiential Learning Theory, and the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) intersect or relate to course design. Why and when would you use one or the other when designing instruction? It took me some time to think about this question. This is because I don’t totally agree with the concept of specific learning styles as Kolb describes them, however I do think that most people have learning preferences. David Kolb developed an Experiential Learning Cycle and then developed four learning styles based on preference of learners working within this learning cycle.

In contrast, UDL is a way to think about designing a learning environment for all learners and all learning preferences. UDL is based on research in Neuroscience and the principles of Universal Design in architecture. More information about UDL can be found at the CAST website. The UDL model proposes a series of principles based on three brain networks used for learning. These brain networks, called Recognition, Strategic, and Affective, are each correlated to a set of practices that teachers can use to design instruction and learning environments. These practices are described in the UDL guidelines.  Read more about each of the practices here.

One way to identify your learning style, as defined by Kolb, is by taking an inventory. A learning style inventory asks a series of questions about how you prefer to work or learn. Upon completion of the inventory, you total the points to have an idea of what your own learning style is according to the assessment instrument. I think taking a learning style inventory as a group can be helpful, when working on a team. Each member completes the inventory and then the group intentionally discusses how each person prefers to learn and to work. This activity gives the team a common vocabulary to use when discussing each person’s results and preferences. It is also a way of creating team expectations and norms, as everyone discusses and reflects on their own preferences and how that relates to the whole group.

(Kolb’s website, has inventories available for purchase.)

When discussing learning styles/preferences, it’s important to keep in mind that a person’s preferences are not necessarily fixed; they can change over time or be expanded upon. The process of experiential learning that Kolb discusses is one of experience, reflection, and experimentation. This learning cycle takes into consideration many of the ideas in UDL. Learning by reflection and using critical thinking are key parts of the strategic brain network. As are the ideas and new experiments that come from reflection.

Here are the Stages of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle as cited from McLeod (2010):

  1. Concrete Experience – (a new experience or situation is encountered, or a reinterpretation of an existing experience).
  2. Reflective Observation (of the new experience. Any inconsistencies between experience and understanding are particularly important).
  3. Abstract Conceptualization (Reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept).
  4. Active Experimentation (the learner applies new ideas and modifications to the world around them to see what results happen).

Jim Julius, an education blogger, writes about learning styles in this post, on his blog, Education Everywhere. He brings up the idea that students can also use learning styles as a crutch or an excuse.  I recommend reviewing the comment section on this post.  Quite a few commenters on the post bring up UDL as a method they like when designing instruction.

The good thing about Kolb’s model and UDL is that both are getting educators to think about the learners in the classroom and how to design a positive learning experience for them.


Julius, J. (2012). Time for a Learning Styles Post. Retrieved from: . Retrieved: 2/26/15.

McLeod, S. A. (2010). Kolb – Learning Styles. Retrieved from .Retrieved: 2/28/15.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2014) What is UDL? Retrieved from Retrieved: 2/28/15.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2014) What is UDL? Retrieved from Retrieved: 2/28/15.

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2010). ‘David A. Kolb on experiential learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from: Retrieved: 2/28/15.


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