Blackboard Ally: Helping You Create Accessible Documents

We, as a University, work to be inclusive and to ensure that all our students can access the materials they need. And let’s face it: we also want to be sure that we are meeting federal guidelines. To do so we need to create accessible documents. Enter Ally for Blackboard!

But first, just what are accessible documents? They are electronic documents that are as easily readable by a low vision or non-sighted reader as they are by a sighted reader.  They allow individuals to move through documents using a screen reader, by providing features that make it possible to skim or jump from one part of a document to another, to hear descriptions of images on a page, and to identify contact and reference information. In other words, to have equal access to the document overall.

How does it work? As you upload files to Blackboard, Ally will immediately begin to analyze them. In a short amount of time it will display an accessibility meter next to each document. Clicking on the meter brings you to a screen that tells you what issues could be improved, guides you through making those changes, then lets you upload the fixed file back to Blackboard.

Are accessible documents only for those who use screenreaders? Not really. Let’s consider elevators. An elevator may have been installed to provide accommodation for people who have difficulty climbing stairs, but even if you tend to climb instead of ride you may still find the elevator useful when carrying a heavy load up several flights.

So, too, with accessible documents. Ally can generate on-the-fly alternative versions of your accessible documents to accommodate different needs. For instance, students who could benefit from the alternative format files include:

  • Your time-conscious bus-riding student who would find it nauseating to read on a bus may better keep up with the reading if the article is provided as an mp3 file to which they can listen, or
  • A student who has not requested accommodation but can read more easily if the font of the document is larger, or
  • The student who is comfortable reading on a phone as long as the page can reflow to fit, or
  • A student with an ebook app that lets them take notes on an epub file.

In addition, as more and more attention is paid to how well universities are meeting their accessibility responsibilities, Ally can help UVM show that progress through its variety of reporting tools.

Must you make all your documents in all your courses 100% accessible immediately? Of course not. But we would like to “move the needle” on as many documents as possible over time.

That’s where the Ally help materials, and the folks at the CTL, can help: learn more about how Ally works and how you can get help by visiting our Ally web page.

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The Power of Five Minutes

Red squirrel in bird feederI’ve been observing the red squirrels in my woods as they live up to the verb of their names – squirreling away food in anticipation of the upcoming winter months (they particularly love to “store” birdseed in my perennial beds, but that’s a conversation for another day). I also have a powerful tendency to squirrel. And while I do have a snack drawer at my desk, I’m thinking right now about my rather healthy collection of bookmarked teaching resources webpages. It is from this archive that I’d like to summarize and share two articles.

I like considering these two articles in the context of one another because they address the bookends of any class session: the first and final five minutes. I was trained as an educator to think about chunks of 20 minutes when planning a class, given research on attention spans. But when I start with a 20-minute chunk right out of the gate, I’m missing an important opportunity for intentional transition to the class. Likewise, if my focus is on a final 20-minute activity, I may be wrapping up that piece, but not necessarily the whole class session. These articles have changed my teaching practice, and I hope you find some useful ideas, as well.

The first five minutes of class

James Lang, author of (amongst other texts) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, wrote a blog post on Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class. Read more about his four ideas for helping students become present in class:

  1. Opening question(s)
  2. Recalling what was learned in the last session
  3. Reactivating prior knowledge on the subject
  4. Low-stakes writing

Last semester, I started every class session with a 1- to 5-minute writing activity and then sometimes had students share their ideas with a partner or the whole group. The prompt might be a question to get their gears turning about the focus of the upcoming class or it might be related to previous learning. This writing became a ritual in class. Additionally, students were given the chance to shift, from their busy lives, into the learning environment in a meaningful way.

The final five minutes of class

Classroom assessment techniques (CATs) have long been encouraged as useful for both students and faculty to generate a picture of where learning is solid and where more time needs to be spent to promote understanding. The blog post on Disrupting Illusions of Fluency by Desai, McCray, & Todd provides an interesting framework for the purpose of CATs – namely this idea that students may be disillusioned about their own competency, highlighting the need for facilitated metacognition.

I don’t think these illusions are intentional by students. This semester, I’ve been taking a weekly strength training class at the Patrick Gym. Having minimal previous exposure to the majority of activities we engage with each week, I am definitely approaching the class with beginner’s mind and body. An observer would probably chuckle, at my “illusion of fluency,” as our patient trainer corrects my form despite my absolute certainty that I’m doing a move perfectly! This disruption of my illusion creates opportunities to then ask questions and make adjustments, which are critical to my progress.

Close up of an analog clock showing the minute handIn most classes, students’ beginning mastery of content knowledge or a skill is less visible than in my strength training class. Faculty can’t just look at students to assess their progress. Spending the final five minutes of class engaging in a one-minute paper, a muddiest point exercise, or a class wrapper (as described in the blog post) can unveil the areas where students are leaving a class falsely confident about their knowledge and fluency with course materials. With this information, in the very next class, new opportunities can be created for further clarification, hence disrupting the illusion of fluency, replaced by actual fluency and deeper understanding.

I end each class session asking students to self-evaluate their participation and engagement. I’ve long understood that I have a fairly narrow view of students’ engagement during class. Therefore, I turn over that portion of the grading to the students. They assign themselves points in five categories (preparation, listening, focus, presence, spoken contributions). More importantly, they respond to an open-ended question about how they have promoted (their own and their classmates’) learning via their participation. Finally, I also ask questions such as “Because of this week’s assignments and/or class, I’m still thinking about/wondering about/want to know more about ….” I write a response to each individual student (in a class of 18, max) and can summarize themes or really insightful reflections in the next class session. By asking students to be transparent about their engagement, they practice metacognition and I have a much more authentic understanding of students’ thinking and learning.

Your turn – please comment!

What are your ideas for effectively starting and ending class, being mindful of the intentions and suggestions posed in these two articles? How you can you leverage the power of those 5 minutes?

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Hold That Thought! Helping Students Choose Research Topics

Written by guest blogger Trina Magi, UVM Reference & Instruction Librarian
This is the first in an occasional series of posts by UVM Librarians that addresses information literacy and using library resources in teaching.

Students often believe that research begins only after they have chosen a topic. Some even go so far as to write a draft paper before beginning their research.

Deciding on a topic usually feels like a relief to students. But deciding too soon and without first looking at the literature can set students up for later frustration and the feeling that they’re doing something wrong when research turns out to be more difficult than expected. It can also limit students’ learning if they immediately become focused on finding material to prove predetermined points.

Instead, we want students to approach the research process with an attitude of open inquiry that allows them to learn from what the literature has to say1. With some simple but important adjustments to syllabi and assignments, we can help students understand that good research is an iterative process, that attempting to answer a question often leads to more questions, and that a research topic may change over the course of a project.

Consider the following suggestions:

  1. In your syllabi and assignments, use language that indicates research is an iterative process. Explicitly tell students that you expect their topics may change over the course of a project as they learn more about them.
  2. Rather than asking students to find literature to prove a point, make assignments that encourage students to approach the literature with an open question. Ask students to notice if there is convergence or dissent around a topic, and allow for the possibility that some (many?) questions may remain unanswered.
  3. Tell students it’s normal to have feelings of uncertainty and confusion at the beginning of their research process. Invite them to think of themselves as explorers heading out to sea and talk with them about the characteristics and behaviors of good explorers: bravery, curiosity, flexibility, patience and tenacity. Tell them about your experiences with your own research projects.
  4. Ask students to generate two or three potential topic ideas, and require students to do some exploratory research on each before selecting one. The goal of the exploratory research is to test the viability of each idea and to uncover interesting and previously unknown aspects of the topic. It will also help students determine if an idea requires narrowing or broadening to fit the scope of the paper or project. It doesn’t make sense to attempt a 25-page paper on the confidential marketing strategies of an obscure private company. Conversely, “global warming” is too broad for a short five-page paper.

Librarians can be allies in this process.

Reference and instruction librarians can work with you to create or adjust assignments to encourage exploration and inquiry. Feel free to contact your liaison librarian. Reference and instruction librarians also are accustomed to helping students explore and select topics. Invite your students to meet with a librarian—either at the reference desk or in an individual consultation—to do some exploratory searches in various databases. Librarians also can point students to high-quality topic overviews such as subject-specific encyclopedias and current affairs reports. Browsing these can stimulate ideas and provide clues about the extent of information available about a topic.


1See Association of College and Research Libraries. (2016). “Research as Inquiry,” In Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Retrieved October 9, 2018, from

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Kidder Award Congrats!

Dr. Annie Murray-CloseWe are thrilled that one of our CTL Faculty Associates, Dr. Annie Murray-Close, won the 2018 George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award! Annie is an associate professor in the department Psychological Science. She’ll present the George V. Kidder Lecture, “Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice? Understanding the Development of Relational Aggression in Girls,” on Tuesday, October 30, 2018. Read more and register on the UVM Alumni Association website.

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Screencasting: What and Why?

Screencasting is a technique that allows you to record everything that happens on your computer screen then turn that recording into a video. Not very exciting, right? But think about all the things you do on your computer. More importantly, think about what you do on your computer that you would like to show to, or share with, others.

What can you put in a screencast?

“Course trailers”:

Just like a movie trailer, a course trailer can help generate interest from prospective students to your course. Or, you can create a trailer for the students who have already enrolled. The trailer could lay out the goals of the course, the expectations, the organization, the workload, or any special activities. [1] See Duke University’s “Best Practices: Creating Video Course Trailers” for samples and more information.

Course tour:

Even the most well-organized Blackboard course can leave students without a clear idea of where they should begin or what, exactly, the course contains. A course tour video can help guide students through the course in the early days and, especially for those new to the field, act as an introduction to the terms used, and conventions followed, in that field.

Demonstrate a process:

Whether it’s working through a math problem, graphing an economic calculation, analyzing lines of computer code, or pointing out important facets of a work of art, a poem, or a musical composition, showing is often better than telling. A screencast can walk a student through a process rather than simply showing a result. Here’s an example of how to calculate the area of a triangle.

Answer a question:

A screencast can be used from semester to semester to explain perennially difficult concepts or to address common questions. For example, here’s Bonni Stachowiak’s video that shows her students how to create a quick bibliography in the citation program Zotero.


Narrate a slideshow:

Some versions of PowerPoint allow you to narrate a slideshow and save it as a video, but there are some compatibility issues between Mac and Windows versions and editing that sound is not easy. You can, instead, screencast your slideshow while you narrate it. This gives you a soundtrack that is easier to see and edit  in the screencasting program (take out the ums and ahs!) and it will be compatible on either Mac or Windows.

Provide student feedback:

Providing detailed formative or summative feedback is known to be effective, yet students do not always read your extensive notes. Sometimes you may want to show students how they can improve a piece of writing rather than simply describing what is problematic. Screencasting the process provides a way to accomplish both. In these two examples, Megan von Bergen describes how screencasts can help with both formative and summative and Ron Martinez describes his feedback process for student essays. For more on this topic see Cambell and Feldman’s “The Power of Multimodal Feedback.”

screencast checklist imageScreencasts do not have to be cinematic masterpieces. Students appreciate the authenticity of your voice. This screencast checklist checklist can help ease the process and give you good results in a short amount of time.

To create a screencast you will need screencasting software. Many of these exist, some with very limited capabilities are even free, but CTL recommends and supports the following:
Screencast-o-matic: There is a free version that allows you to capture but not edit. We recommend instead that you get the “Pro” version which costs $18 a year.
Camtasia: Educational pricing is $169 per license (can be installed on two machines per user. Volume discounts also available.)

To learn more about screencasting, see our CTL Screencasting page or come visit during our Open Hours.

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Online Course Teaching Tip

Thank you to Katherine Merrill, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics & Statistics, for contributing this post.

As an avid learner, I have always been amazed at students who think that the instructor is solely responsible for their learning. And this is especially so for an online course.

In the past, I have used Discussion Boards to solicit and encourage communication between the students and with myself. However, I noticed that students do not want to bare their souls in a discussion board. And I as the instructor needed more sharing of their experience, rather than through frantic urgent emails. I decided to try the Journal tool in Blackboard because it provides a communication tool between each student and the instructor preserving privacy.

In Blackboard, I created a journal titled, “Your Private Journal.”  Here are the instructions for the journal assignment:

Hi. This is where we’re going to spend time together and build a successful strategy for completing this course. Here are the types of journal entries I want you to make:

    • Where are you located while taking this course?
    • What does your schedule look like for the next 6 weeks (other courses, work, plans to be offline)?
    • What is your major/area of study and why are you taking this course?
    • Tell me about your family, pets, etc.
    • What do you like to do for an avocation or any special interests that you have?
  2. After reading the chapter and watching the lecture videos:
    • Post a new concept/idea for you that is cool or post an idea that you need help.
  3. After tackling the practice problems
    • Post what problems you did (just list by number)
    • Post about the problem(s) that gave you the most difficulty to work out or that you still need to understand
  4. After taking the QUIZ and EXAM
    • Post a reflection about the problems that you got wrong and how to do them correctly (or ask for help)
  5. Weekly post a self-reflection about the material and what’s going on with you (really busy, or whatever)

Basically, I am looking for you to comment on the materials each week. For example in Week 1, comment on your work for Chapter 1, Sections 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 including YOUR WORK TO PREPARE FOR THE QUIZ (READING THE BOOK, THE RECITATION PROBLEMS, ANY EXTRA PROBLEMS), A REVIEW OF THE QUIZ, (WHAT YOU GOT WRONG AND HOW TO DO IT CORRECTLY, OR ASK FOR HELP), AND FINALLY A REVIEW OF THE EXAM.


As for grading, I created a spreadsheet with columns representing two possible points for each week’s entries. I just did a check mark for each item required for the week. If there was no entry, the student received a zero. If they did part of the work, the student received a one. If they did it correctly and completely, they earned two points.

Yes, it was a lot of work. I was committed to reviewing every detail of their writing, including correct use of vocabulary and content. I also showed interest in them as they struggled with time-management of coursework, internships, summer jobs, and family commitments. BUT IT HAD A HUGE PAYOFF. The students enjoyed the course and course evaluations were improved. Most importantly, I felt like they were getting the attention they deserved AND they were developing good learning habits by reviewing their work.

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Welcoming and Supporting Students During Office Hours

Some content for this article was adapted from a submission to the Teaching Tips Consortium of the POD Network by Judy Ableser, Director Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Oakland University.

For many years, a major part of my staff role was supporting first-generation college students. Often, when I’d suggest students visit faculty during office hours, I would be greeted with a blank stare or sometimes even the air of panic.

Office Hours Sign

Research shows that relationships with advisors and other staff and faculty on campus is integral to student retention and success. One critical way these relationships are built is through office hours, which allow for more informal interactions and where a significant amount of academic and professional mentoring occurs.

However, it’s valuable to remember that office hours are a new phenomenon to many students. Most high schools don’t have such a structured way for students to connect with teachers. And, students may feel more intimidated by their college professors, uncertain about how to engage during office hours or even why to go.

While the value of student/faculty relationships has been well-documented, it is imperative to remember that students success is driven when faculty are responsive, supportive and accessible (Kuh et. al., 2010; Tinto, 2012). Interactions during carefully advertised and facilitated office hours can be one bridge to help build these important connections and reduce the fear factor some students may experience regarding interactions with their professors.

Below, find some suggested practices to encourage students to attend office hours:

  1. When advertising office hours, use student-welcoming language. An example might include, “I am here to support your learning. I encourage you to meet with me when you feel that you need support or assistance.”
  2. Include both set office hours and “by appointment” to accommodate students who cannot attend during scheduled time.
  3. For online courses and for students who have difficulty meeting during set times, offer virtual office hours using Skype or Zoom.
  4. Hold your office hours at the Davis Center, Library, or in other central locations (students may feel intimated to come to your office).
  5. Divide the class into groups of 4-5 and assign them a time to come and visit you in your office. This can be a short (10 minute) introductory meeting. This may help “break the ice” so the students are more comfortable to come back when they need help.
  6. Reach out through a personal email/text, early in the semester, to students  who are struggling, and invite them to meet with you.
  7. When students do come, provide them prompts and questions so they can articulate their needs. Remind them of how much time you have for the meeting and give them reminders a few minutes before it is time to leave.
  8. Have candy, snacks, or coffee available if possible.

What other suggestions do you have for building productive relationships with your students?


Kuh, G., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J., Whitt, E. (2010). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Tinto, V. (2012) Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

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Are effective group work assignments possible?

How often have you heard things like: “Oh no, not another group assignment!” from students? Or from faculty, “Why don’t group projects go the way I intend?”

We know that valuable transferable job skills are learned during group work and students can learn from each other and develop the skills they need to practice. Planning ahead and getting the groups functioning well over the span of a longer assignment is the key to success.

Here are 5 tips to help you get successful group work assignments going in your class so that students enjoy participating in them  and you enjoy giving them:

  1. Link your course learning outcomes to the group work assignment. This helps students understand the purpose of the group work. They know they aren’t doing group work just to do it.
  2. Provide very clear directions for each task of the assignment. And allow some choice, if possible, on topics or options for the presentation at the end.
  3. Ask each group to do a resume for the overall assignment.   (For an example, download this Resume Template from the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center). After the group resume, have them define and assign roles for the tasks they need to accomplish during each meeting session. This can be either in-class or outside of class. (Download Group Work Roles [.doc] from the Eberly Center)
  4. Use self and group assessment/feedback throughout the assignment. This is key to knowing if the groups are functioning well or if they need an intervention. (Template downloads from the Eberly Center: Group Work Self Evaluation [.docx] and Sample Self Evaluation Form  [.docx]
  5. To ensure fair grading of all group members, give both a group grade and an individual grade and include this within the points structure for the assignment. Assign due dates and points for each increment of the assignment.

Group work assignments can be engaging and fun for students and for faculty. It’s great to see what the students come up with for results. So, be creative and clear with the assignment options, allow for assessments along the way toward the final product and enjoy the process.


Sample Group Project Tools” Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center
Using cooperative learning groups effectively” Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

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Blackboard Tip: Making Sense of Those Tiny Icons in the Grade Center

If you use the Blackboard Grade Center to record your students’ grades you have probably noticed small icons scattered throughout the page. There is an Icon Legend button in the lower right corner below the grade columns but here is what the icons mean:

image of Blackboard grade center icons

Blackboard Grade Center Icons

User Unavailable: the student has dropped the class or become inactive.

Column Not Visible to Users: students will not see their grade in MyGrades for this column.

Completed: A Survey or other activity has been completed by the student.

Needs Grading: Student work, for example an Assignment or an Essay Question in a Test, is waiting for you to grade it manually.

Override: You (or your TA) has overriden a previously given grade, either to make it lower or higher.

Attempt in Progress: Student is still working on it (example: they are in the middle of taking a Test).

External Grade: The Total column carries this designation by default. It is designed especially for K-12 where a teacher may want to share a grade with the student’s parent or guardian. We do not use that feature, but if you want to delete the Total column you must set another column to carry the “External Grade” designation before you can delete the column. Choose a different column to carry this designation by selecting “Set as External Grade” option in the drop-down menu for that other column. Once done, the Total column will be freed up and you will find “Delete Column” as an option in its drop-down menu.

Grade Exempted for this User: You or your TA has chosen to Exempt this grade, i.e. not include it in the calculations for that student, by clicking on the cell for that Grade and choosing “Exempt Grade” from the cell’s drop-down menu.

Does not contribute to user’s grade: Typically you see this icon when you have set an Assignment or Test to allow for multiple attempts. You must designate which single grade should be counted (ex: the last attempt, the highest grade attempt, the first attempt, the lowest grade). This icon tells you that the student made other attempts and received other grades for this specific activity.

Error: Means what error always means–an undefined problem has occurred!

Not participating: The student is not participating in , or has been exempted from, this activity. For example, the activity may have been created for a specific group but not for the entire class.

Anonymous Grading is enabled for this item: You may add a layer of impartiality to your grading so that you aren’t unduly influenced by a student’s previous performance, past participation, race, gender, or perceived student aptitude.

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Facilitating Classroom Discussions

UVM Students in Discussion-Based ClassroomThis summer, I revisited the excellent book Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. I’d like to share some key ideas from their text (and encourage you to check out the book from the Bailey/Howe collections).

I should note that the ideas and approaches shared in this book can be applied in classrooms with a range of size and content areas. Even in a large course, there are opportunities for students to simply pair with a neighbor and engage in a discussion. After all, according to the authors, discussion is “an alternatively serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique” (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 1, Section 2).

To unpack the definition a little further, there’s something lovely about being given the expectation of mutuality, when opposition and polarity seem to inundate the airwaves. To be clear, in a discussion, while opposing ideas may indeed emerge, perhaps with no consensus reached, by Brookfield and Preskill’s definition, the people engaged are doing so with the common intent of learning and growing by listening, thinking, and articulating.

Consider, then, these four purposes of discussion outlined in the book:

  1. to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration,
  2. to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique,
  3. to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and
  4. to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 1, Section 2).

What I appreciate about these purposes is the challenge they provide me, as a teacher, to create opportunities for my students where the discussion is elevated and potentially transformative. Please do recognize that I use the word “challenge” with all honesty. Facilitating discussions that meet these purposes is not always easy. Fortunately, Brookfield and Preskill provide more than a philosophical perspective. They also share numerous techniques and approaches, from setting expectations to navigating the complexities that social identities (race, class, gender) bring to participating in discussions.

I haven’t counted, but I think there are close to 100 tips in this book. I’m going to share three, and hope you comment with additional ideas (from the book or your own experiences):

Hatful of Quotes: The instructor/facilitator chooses 5 or 6 quotes from a reading, and puts multiple copies of each quote into a hat (enough so there is one slip of paper for each student). Students draw a quote out of the hat and are given time to read it silently and reflect on the content. Then, in no particular order (popcorn style), students read their quote out loud and share some reflection. If students are shy or wary of speaking, they may wait until the end and at least read their quote; perhaps they will feel confidence to agree with other interpretations or supplement with their own ideas. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 4, Section 8)

Buzz Groups: These small groups can be used during a lecture-heavy class (suggested to be facilitated once or twice per session). Three to four students join together for three minutes to discuss a topic raised in the lecture. Examples of question prompts the authors suggest include:

  • What’s the most contentious statement you’ve heard so far in the lecture today?
  • What’s the most important point that’s been made in the lecture so far?
  • What’s the most unsupported assertion you’ve heard in the lecture so far?
  • Of all the ideas and points you’ve heard so far today, which is most obscure or ambiguous to you? (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 3, Section 3)

Students are asked to keep track of points of consensus or disagreement. Then, the instructor asks (in the full group) for a representative sampling of comments.

Conversational Moves: Students are given, randomly, a slip of paper when they enter the room with an instruction (a “move”) for participating in that day’s discussion. The authors provide 12 examples including:

  • Ask a question or make a comment that shows you are interested in what another person has said.
  • Ask a cause-and-effect question – for example, “Can you explain why you think it’s true that if these things are in place, such and such a thing will occur?”
  • At an appropriate moment, ask the group for a minute’s silence to slow the pace of conversation and give you and others time to think. (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005, Chapter 5, Section 5)

Instructors could come up with any moves they would like. It is recommended that time is saved for the end of class to hand out the full list of questions and debrief the experience.


Brookfield, S. D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

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