Midterms are a great time to talk about rubrics. Rubrics are a concise way to convey your expectations to your students. After all, as a student, it’s much easier to perform exceptionally, if you know exactly what your professor thinks “exceptional” work looks like. And, as a professor, it’s much easier to recognize exceptional work if you’ve thought about what the essential attributes of exceptional work are before, say, the pile of work appears in your inbox.

How to get started?  You might check out the Quality Rubrics Wiki for their collection of resources and tools related to rubric creation (and if you need rubrics about rubrics, they’ve got those, too!).

Once you’ve perused the info on the rubrics wiki (including What Deserves a Rubric? and What Makes a Quality Rubric?), you may want to head over to The Rubric Library and see if there’s a general rubric there that you can tweak to reflect your specific assignment and learning objectives. Additionally, note that the Koehler Center has an online collection of rubrics, too.  Edit: this resource was removed.

If you end up amending a rubric you’ve found (or inherited), this list of tips on Designing and Using Rubrics might come in handy.

In closing, let’s consider the objections to using rubrics. One claim goes something like this: “Rubrics are impersonal”. It’s absolutely possible (and, in fact, encouraged!) to provide individualized comments when using a rubric. The most effective rubrics I’ve seen address all the common places in which students might succeed or fail on a given assignment (thereby saving the instructor from having to write the same phrases over and over), but also have a column / row / space for some additional specific feedback. Best, since your rubric has already addressed some of the issues, you can focus on the remaining points more efficiently.

The other anti-rubric claim is something like: “Rubrics are formulaic; Students could go in so many directions with this assignment and I will know excellence when I see it.” Rubrics are as formulaic as you set them up to be – as the instructor, you have a lot of latitude here. You also have the opportunity really think about what the learning objective of that assignment is and why you’re asking students to complete a given assignment. What skills are they practicing? How will you know they’ve succeeded? More importantly, absent your grade, how will they know they’ve succeeded? The answers to those questions provide the structure for your rubric, and, voilà, you’ve just produced a wonderfully specific, thorough rubric that you can use to help your students produce excellent work.


It’s that time in the semester when everything seems to flag: winter break is a distant memory and spring break still seems ages away.

Here’s a (not very creatively presented) list of some recent writing on the creative process, recapturing creativity, and using technology to unleash your own creativity. Enjoy! And let us know about the fruits of your creativity!

1. The Kaleidescope Mind: Some Easy Ways to Teach Creativity.  This recent-ish short article from the Atlantic got a fair amount of press when it came out. Who wouldn’t like a mind that is mind that is “agile, flexible, self-aware, and informed by a diversity of experiences  . . . [and] able to perceive any given situation from a multitude of perspectives at will — selecting from a rich repertoire of lenses or frameworks”?

2. Why Morning Routines are Creativity Killers. Of course, there’s still all that stuff that has to get done every morning, but, apparently, “imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.”

3. Is Your Creativity Blocked? A quick little rundown on some common creativity stumbling blocks.

4. Twelve Things You Were not Taught in School about Creative Thinking. Psychology Today presents this pithy, helpful list. As much as we know that creative thinking is work, we need to trust our instincts, the first good idea is just the tip of the iceberg, etc., the reminder is always good.

5. Five Ideas to Support Innovation in Higher Ed. The focus in this article is on the campus level, but the tips seem easily adaptable to the program, research lab, or classroom setting.

6. Writing Tips from Famous Authors. Take it from Margaret Atwood. Or Neil Gaiman.  Or William Safire.

7. Malcom McLauren: The Quest for Authentic Creativity.  The video is long, but it really gets at  the way in which creativity is process, not a product or a goal.

8. How to Model Digital Creativity. Who hasn’t been in this position at least once: “I am creating my own mentor texts just ahead of my students, and then sharing those reflections of my process with my class as a way to make visible the success and failures of my work”?

A Facebook Page for your Class?

Would you? Could you?

Despite the expansion of social media sites, a new study shows that students overwhelmingly prefer an official course Facebook page for class collaboration. Students have asked professors to set up these pages; absent instructor action, they’ve even done it themselves.

A course Facebook page wins big on the grounds of efficiency – most students check their Facebook pages frequently, and so would quickly see course news. It would be interesting to see whether students prefer a course Facebook page to course site within a learning management system (like LearningStudio). I can see that Facebook would work well with setting up study groups. But I think it would be easier to discuss readings within the format of a threaded discussion, and it seems much easier to share files within a course shell than over a Facebook page.

Of course, using Facebook as an additional venue for course information might not be a bad plan, but there are a few things to consider. Not all students have Facebook accounts or wish to mix their Facebook account with their school peer group; these students may be left out of the loop if the Facebook site eclipses the course shell as a collaboration venue. On the other hand, if the students themselves are setting up these pages, a professor might as well take the bull by the horns and publicly invite the whole class to join a Facebook page.

What do you think? Would you set up a Facebook page for your class? Would be bothered if your students did?

Tech Tip Round-up

Here’s a quick list of some cool apps / programs / tricks that I’ve run across recently. The goal here is to help you use technology more efficiently so that you can focus on teaching and research.

1. Backing up Google Docs. Insync is “free software that creates a folder on your hard drive and automatically syncs the documents in your Google Docs to it. Insync works in both directions—new documents added online are downloaded to your hard drive, and documents added to the synced folder are uploaded to Google Docs.”

2. iPhone Apps for Productivity. A nice little list of apps that “all do one thing and one thing only, and they place a premium on doing those things as quickly as possible, so you can spend less time on your phone, and more time doing other things.” If you want an app to remind you about tasks, upload digital copies of your receipts in your Dropbox folders, reduce the amount of paper junk mail you receive, or to help you stay on top of daily journal writing, then this is the list for you. The apps reviewed aren’t all free, but the ones that do cost money aren’t especially expensive.

3. OnLive Desktop. This is an app for iPads that turns your iPad into a functional Windows 7 machine. As David Pogue writes, “The full, latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader are set up and ready to use — no installation, no serial numbers, no pop-up balloons nagging you to update this or that . . . The PC that’s driving your iPad Windows experience is, in fact, a ‘farm’ of computers at one of three data centers thousands of miles away. Every time you tap the screen, scroll a list or type on the on-screen keyboard, you’re sending signals to those distant computers. The screen image is blasted back to your iPad with astonishingly little lag.” Now that is cool. The free version of OnLive Desktop gives you access to the full suite of Microsoft Office programs (not the stripped down app versions that so often abound). The catch is that “the only way to get files onto and off OnLive Desktop is using a Documents folder on the desktop. To access it, you have to visit OnLive’s website on your actual PC. ”

There’s also a $5 per month version (called OnLive Desktop Plus) that “adds Adobe Reader, Internet Explorer and a 1-gigabit-a-second internet connection. [This is] the fastest connection you’ve ever used in your life — on your iPad. It means speeds 500 or 1,000 times as fast as what you probably get at home. It means downloading a 20-megabyte file before your finger lifts from the glass. You get the same speed in both directions. You can upload a 30-megabyte file in one second.” Your iPad has just become the best Flash player ever. And, thanks to the addition of the internet browser in the paid version, you now no longer need to use the OnLive website as a portal for your files.
(If this interests you, you’ll also want to check out the follow-up Pogue wrote about the service.)

As always, let us know if you’re looking for solution to a problem, have found a great way to solve a problem that’s vexed you, or if you have comments about any of the above tips!

Re-Thinking Lecture

If you’re teaching fully online, you’ve likely already revamped the way in which you present information to your students. Perhaps you’ve decided to go with presentations / slideshows, audio / video clips, written text, or something else – or some combination thereof. In classes with a face-to-face component, there are lots of options for mixing it up. In particular, the flipped classroom model (where students learn the background information at home and then come to class to practice their skills) is receiving a lot of attention lately.

All of these approaches avoid the traditional lecture format. Lectures present information, but in today’s world, there’s no shortage of information. What a great learning experience provides is the opportunity for the learner to put this new information in context and work towards a deeper understanding of the topic – this is more than just listening and taking notes; these are the actions that are at the core of the educational process.

(However, in thinking about this narrative of the decline of the lecture, I’m struck by the comment another blogger made about the paradoxical popularity of TED talks in the age of the death of the university lecture. Given that TED talks are essentially lectures – and lectures that the vast majority of us are watching on a screen, not live – what accounts for the massive popularity of these talks? Are the people who give them especially magnetic, compelling, or skilled? Are they about the topics that seem truly important or interesting?)

TED talks notwithstanding, there’s ample research to suggest that learners learn best when they are actively engaged in doing something with the content. But what to do if you’ve got a large lecture class? Here’s a great story about two physics professors and their experiences with peer-to-peer instruction in the lecture hall setting. Why is this method so effective? One of the professors, Eric Mazur, notes that the great irony of being an expert in your field is that it is harder to teach the foundational concepts because you’ve become increasingly distant from the conceptual difficulties experienced by beginning students. When the students take time to discuss tricky issues with each other, they are more likely to help each other make the necessary connections. Those students how have mastered the material quickly recall the confusing points and see how a fellow student might have a different idea. With the benefit of a common vocabulary and similar background knowledge, students are well-poised to offer the kind of succinct, appropriate explanations that are sometimes elusive in large lecture classrooms.

Especially interesting from the educational technology standpoint is the way in which Mazur uses both a classroom response system (like clickers) during class and an online pre-class quiz to set up the day’s topics. Although there’s a fair amount of peer-to-peer discussion in the lecture hall, the professor hasn’t abdicated his role. Rather, there is still an intense amount of structure and content provided by the professor – the key is using technology to help meet the learners where they can best meet the material.

Doing What Works in the Classroom

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the Edtech blogosphere about this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education:  A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working.

The subject of the article is Michael Wesch, a popular, innovative professor at Kansas State who has garnered much recognition for his willingness to embrace a wide variety of technologies in the classroom, especially web 2.0 ones. But when other professors attempted to copy his approach, things fell flat. The article contrasts Wesch with another professor at the same institution, Christopher Sorensen: a highly regarded, lecture-loving, self-described “old fogy”. Both of these professors are beloved by students, and both do what they do very, very well.

After thinking about why his tech-intensive methods were not equally successful for other professors, Wesch has concluded that – more than technology – what makes for a successful learning experience is the bond between professor and student.

Here are a few excerpts from the great conversations this article has sparked:

EduGeek Journal: “I think at some point we are going to have to realize that old methods aren’t all bad, and new methods aren’t always the saviour.”

Lisa’s Online Teaching Blog: “Few of us were asked to consciously develop pedagogy when we began teaching. We were either left alone or given a specific model to follow (deliberately or accidentally). We assessed our own effectiveness through how well we thought students understood, and what grades they earned according to our standards. Most of us got upset when students did poorly, and changed our pedagogy and materials (often every semester) to try to “get through” and improve results. In this development, we came to believe that certain things were important and other things were not, and through experience created our own pedagogical framework. We operate within that framework every day, keeping what seems to work and changing what doesn’t. But we must learn to articulate why, to understand our own strengths and the reasons we teach the way we do.  . . .You cannot use a technique effectively if you can’t do it well, and none of us does everything well.”

Agile Learning had some great posts about this topic. First, check out his insights about about what wildly innovative teachers do (and don’t) bring to the table. Namely, good teaching is more than personality and smart technology: it’s the writing of measurable and specific learning objectives, the design of assignments, the depth of discussion questions, and the ability to keep the learner engaged, among other things. These are skills that can be emulated by professors across the university. The key is to use technology in service of these goals. On that note, he makes some great points about the ways in which one fairly easy educational technology, clickers, can help professors in many disciplines meet the needs of their learners.

Second, he’s also got a wonderful discussion of the principles of effective learning environments – an effective learning environment is, after all, the desired outcome, no matter the method. Drawn from the work on cognition and learning environments summarized in How People Learn, he recounts that optimal learning environments are learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered. Putting these principles into practice can use high-tech tools, low-tech tools, or even some of each in order to achieve the different goals. In fact, he’s written some wonderful paragraphs about the ways in which clickers can help engaged, thoughtful professors excel in creating each dimension of an effective learning environment (do go read his re-cap of each, if you’re at all interested – you won’t be sorry!).

Indeed, technology done well – thoughtfully selected, pedagogically grounded, and subject to careful reflection – can meaningfully enhance the learning environment (and may also let your personality shine through and build a bond between professor and student, as added bonuses).

Google Docs & Student Reading Progress

You have to love a post that begins: “I asked if everyone had done all the reading and the majority of the class avoided looking at me. Such are the occupational hazards of teaching.”

When students fall behind in the reading, class discussions can become strained: there’s “wait time” when you ask a question and wait for someone other than your usual suspects to respond, and then there’s “huh, wait a minute . . . ” time when it dawns on you that most of the class has no idea how to answer the perfectly reasonable reading comprehension question you’ve just asked. The latter is, obviously, undesirable.

I’ve heard of the quick-poll anonymous method of asking students to use a piece of scrap paper to write down what page they are on in the reading (or just all / most / some / none in reference to their progress on that day’s materials). But this method a) works better for smaller classes (flipping through 200 pieces of odd-sized scrap paper at the start of class takes rather more time than one would think), and b) doesn’t work at all for online courses.

Enter Google Docs.

Prof Hacker has a great post about how to use a Google spreadsheet to quickly and anonymously compute how much, on average, your students have read. Yes, your students will need computer access to do this – it’s great for online courses, and works well for face-to-face courses since all you need to do is share the link in advance (students can punch in their data whenever they realize they’ve done all the reading they are going to be able to do before next class) and then you can just check the spreadsheet shortly before class.

Now you’ll know if there’s just a lull in the conversation or if most of the class really isn’t prepared – and you can adjust your teaching methods accordingly.