Category Archives: Uncategorized

Allowing Student Notes for Exams without Encouraging Cheating

The University Testing Center has just notified faculty that because of increased usage, Center staff cannot collect notes that faculty allow students to use during an exam.  Alternatives exist for faculty-created handouts (e.g. embedding them in ANGEL exam question sets), but how to deal with student-created notes is another challenge.

Many faculty allow students to bring in a page of notes to their exams because in preparing that page of notes, students review the material, synthesize it, and think about what is most important. All of these help students learn! 

However, other faculty are concerned that if students are allowed their own notes, some will take the opportunity to copy exam questions and pass them on to other students.  Is it possible to discourage such behavior, but still allow student-created notes?

Using a bank of test items and randomly drawing questions provides each student with a unique exam. If the bank is large and the questions sufficiently varied, there is little advantage to copying questions and sharing them with other students.  Faculty who use question banks should also take steps to ensure that each test is of comparable difficulty. Subdividing questions into different levels of difficulty and drawing a specified percent from each level is a good method to ensure that each unique exam is equally difficult.

A faculty member can also provide students with blank, but marked note paper, for students to use for their exam notes.  As a deterrent from adding notes during the exam, ask students to return the note paper in class after taking the test. Choose a marking that is difficult to replicate and easy to identify as an item student are allowed to use during the test.

While neither strategy is guaranteed to be 100% effective, both of them:
  a) communicate to students that cheating is unacceptable, and
  b) make it more difficult to cheat.  

Please share your thoughts on student-created notes and anti-cheating efforts. 

Classroom Management Redux

About two or three years ago it seemed that the most requested topic for faculty programming was classroom management. All we had to do was schedule an event with the words, management, incivility, or millennial in the title and it was standing room only. As styles fade, so do topics, and this was no exception. However, much to my surprise, this topic seems to be back in “fashion”, but with a twist – a rather serious twist. Now it seems, that it isn’t simply about that student snoozing in class or texting under the desk, it is also about true incivility, and, in some cases, true behavior problems. Faculty are being faced with students who, due to legitimate medical conditions, are struggling with how to interact appropriately in the college classroom. This is, of course, in addition, to the traditional, occasional, rude, inappropriate, and disruptive student. It is a difficult position to find oneself in. How does one differentiate between the student who simply needs a swift, decisive “reality check”, and one that is truly adrift? I wish I had a glib and easy answer. But, alas, I do not. One thing I can suggest is that it starts with the faculty member. Beginning the first day the students and faculty meet, the tone is set. The syllabus sets a tone. Language sets a tone. I am not suggesting a list of policies need to be handed out to students on the first day, however, I’m going to encourage each individual to think about how to convey a serious respect for the classroom and the learning endeavor, and how to demonstrate, thus command, respect for each and every individual. In addition, I’m going to encourage faculty to try and take themselves, and their personal biases, out of the equation.

Will you encounter problem “children” – most definitely. However, by managing “disruptions” with immediacy, firmness and discretion, the disruption to the majority of the attentive students will be minimal or completely unnoticed. For example, napping might drive you stark raving mad, but unless the napper snores, or tumbles out of their seat, it is a non-event to the rest of the class. My suggestion is to keep it that way.

If you have specific issues that you’d like to discuss, or you just need to vent, feel free to give SITE a call. We’re here when you need us.

New resource for teaching sustainability

A recent brown bag talk presented by James Hamilton, retired professor, and Susannah Barsom and Cole Hons from Penn State’s Center for Sustainability introduced us to a new online resource for faculty who want to address sustainability in their courses. Created with seed funding from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, the Field Guide to Teaching Sustainability is a place for instructors from all disciplines to submit their finest sustainability-oriented lessons, activities, and other pedagogical material into a searchable database. Once populated with activities, the database will serve the entire community as a storehouse that can be tapped by teachers who have never incorporated sustainability into their teaching before, as well as veterans searching for fresh approaches.

If you happen to have a sustainability-oriented lesson or activity that you’ve used successfully in your classroom, please go to the website and submit it. Submission is easy and your colleagues, who may be interested in sustainability but don’t have experience using it in their teaching, will be very grateful!

Paper or…electronic? Which is best for student reading?

Like a lot of folks who work at Penn State, I’ve spent much of this past week reading various articles and books. I always jot notes when I read, either on a separate piece of paper, or on a series of sticky notes. If I’m reading an article, I like to print it out and jot in the margins.

I was having lunch with the Liberal Arts teaching group at University Park campus, and the conversation turned briefly to how students don’t seem to read much these days, but when they do, they seem to prefer paper copies of things to electronic versions. (In fact, many of us in the group had printed out paper copies of an article the group was discussing that day). I said I wondered if students prefer a format they can physically annotate.

We talked about NB, a software package developed at MIT that students can use to annotate electronic text. None of us have used it, but we are wondering if anyone at Penn State has.

I took a brief turn in the “sandbox” (NB’s demo) and noticed the software has ways to annotate text and share with a group, or jot notes to oneself. Check it out:


Reading text and marking it up with notes and questions seems to be an important part of how we learn, but it’s not something students are able to do naturally or easily. See this article from this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education:


How much more would our students read if we modeled how to interact with a text through annotation? And what if we had an effective way of doing so electronically?



What is college for?

How would you answer the question “what is college for?” I think most of us would agree that the goal of a college education is to provide individuals with a satisfying job at a reasonable salary. But is that all? According to Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University, it isn’t. In Delbanco’s recent book, “College, What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” published in March of 2012, he argues that college should do much more. In addition to providing economic success for individuals and, by extension, the nation, college should helps students learn how to contribute to our democracy, which depends on an “educated citizenry.” Furthermore, college should provide students with experiences that enhance the joy of living.

In his introduction, Delbanco suggests that college should help students “develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship” which include the following:

“a skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past”
“the ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena”
“appreciation for the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of arts and sciences”
“the ability to imagine experiences from experiences other than one’s own” and
“a sense of ethical responsibility”

Delbanco suggests that these qualities cannot be developed by study within a single discipline. His compelling arguments follow from a fascinating analysis of the history of colleges and universities and a comparison of the past with the present.

What do you think of Delbanco’s ideas? Do you think Penn State is successful at helping students develop these “qualities of mind and heart?” If not, how might we do a better job?

Replacing misconceptions and myths

I just finished reading an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about why incorrect or inaccurate ideas and information persist even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. The story is Why Lies Often Stick Better Than Truth.”

The educational research literature on misconceptions has clearly shown that learning can be significantly impacted by contrary pre-existing beliefs and conceptions.  What is really great about this article is that it provide a link to the Debunking Handbook, which has some excellent suggestions that faculty should find interesting.  It’s a quick and very useful read!

Cook, J., Lewandowsky, S. (2011), The Debunking Handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland.

Listening to Our Students: Comments from a Student Panel on August 23, 2012

We started this school year off by co-hosting, along with the Alumni Center, a student panel for Penn State new faculty. Hearing student voices and their sometimes opposing viewpoints certainly helped each of us in the room to think a bit differently about our students and their perspectives. Dr. Mark Maughmer, an aerospace engineering professor who is one of this year’s Alumni Teaching Award winners, moderated the panel of seven undergraduates and one graduate student. The event, slated for an hour, ran a bit longer because, once the students started, it turned out they had plenty to say!



Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Group of students.jpgTo set the stage, Dr. Maughmer asked about the students’ use of technology. Hearing they send and receive some 200 daily text messages brings home a point – technology is a constant in their lives. When asked if we (faculty) should be worried about all of this technology usage, one student’s reply aptly sums up their feelings, “Are you open to communicating with us? Will you use today’s media?” They expect not only to communicate via technology, but they expect current technologies in their learning. As pointed out by one student, “The worst way a professor can use technology is to NOT use technology.” They want their syllabus and other materials electronically available. While ANGEL got mixed reviews from these students, most still expect it to be an integral part of their classes. A real benefit to ANGEL is that they feel it “helps us to operate efficiently.” And being efficient is an underlying operating premise for these students. Although when they brought up that ANGEL is down every day from 4:00 to 6:00 am, you wonder how efficient they can be if they are up at these hours! They also anticipate mediated materials will not just be given to them by a professor, but instead suggest integrating technology into instruction. Developing rich resources is only one part of the equation as explained by one student, “if you are going to use technology, make sure you come with it rather than on it.”   


When asked to explain how they know a class will be good, their answers didn’t contain any surprises. Yet these answers brought home, once again, important things to remember. Be passionate, for it is contagious. Show your students why you are interested in the course material and why it is important for them to know it. Be organized and make sure your syllabus reflects this and provides specifics. Use language that is appropriate for undergraduate students – they made it clear that they recognize you are smart. You don’t need to tell them that. What they need from you is empathy and the ability to help them learn. Provide ways for students to make connections and see the relevancy of this content, otherwise they think it is just “mumble jumble.” Make learning active. As one student noted, “I loved going to his class. The topic wasn’t really my thing, but I had to take the class. The professor taught what he needed to teach in ways that helped me remember. It wasn’t just how he went over the material, for we did activities that helped to illustrate principles.”


Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ThreeStudents.jpgPowerPoint was almost a sore subject. Comments like “a bunch of slides will make a student pass out” and “sometimes I can’t help it, but I fall asleep with PowerPoint” made us think. Dr. Maughmer asked, “Is it PowerPoint or is it PowerPoint used badly that causes you such angst?” The trouble is that far too often the students find it misused. One student added, “A lot of students don’t fall asleep on purpose. There has to be some kind of effort made to keep us engaged.” They all pretty much confirmed that if the professor is just there reading the slides, the students have checked out.


Another issue that distracts students is lack of communication from their professors. Not all that is taught comes easily to the students and they need help when the material is tough. Several suggested that it helps when an instructor acknowledges that the material is tedious and one succinctly remarked “don’t pretend it is the best and instead be candid when it is dry.”  Another student added faculty should try to be honest by saying “we are going to go through this with as little pain as possible. You need to learn this.” Dr. Maughner remarked that “brain biology results in our minds needing a little rest every 10 or 15 minutes.” He peppers his students with distractors when he feels he is beginning to lose their attention. If you wonder what happens when a grasshopper goes into the bar, stop by one of his classes. His intention, to help the students reflect and think about what they have just learned before they move on, seems to work since it gives students a bit of a mental break before they have to continue with the complex processing. And a little laughter seems to help keep students engaged.


One dilemma discussed was the role of the professor and the textbook. One of the panelists vehemently wants professors to structure the class just like the textbook. This student only goes to class if it is mandatory because he finds “I am one of those who doesn’t go to class. I read the textbook and that works for me.” He claims that as a self-motivator, he doesn’t need a professor to help convey the textbook and that his approach is efficient. Ironically the student sitting next to him had taken a class with him where both of them had made A’s, yet this student always went to class and never reads the textbook. For him, it is the professor who will make or break a course. Their pronounced preferences helped us to think about the differences in our students and recognize that one size doesn’t fit all.


The graduate student who has been teaching gave us a closing call to action. She stressed “the more demanding you are, the better your students will perform. If you expect excellence of your students, they will perform with excellence. You have to do this from the beginning by making this clear on your syllabus and continuing the whole way through. These undergraduates are capable of so much.” And Dr. Maughmer concluded “they are capable of so little if you don’t.”




Part-time Faculty welcome at Penn State’s teaching center

The article below from the Chronicle of Higher Education found that Part-time Faculty, aka Adjuncts, feel that they lack instructional resources.  Please help us get the word out to all part-time faculty teaching Penn State students that they are welcome to work with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence instructional consultants, participate in our programs, and access our resources!  

Adjuncts’ Working Conditions Affect Student Learning, Report Says
By Audrey Williams June
Short-notice hiring and a lack of instructional resources are major impediments to effective teaching, says the report, based on a survey of adjuncts last fall.

Give Penn State Learning your Inquisitive, by Neill Johnson

This post was authored by Neill Johnson, Director of Penn State Learning.

“Give me your tired, your poor,” says the Statue of Liberty in that famous poem by Emma Lazarus. If we take this approach to tutor referrals, we perpetuate the image of academic support resources as anchors for students adrift.  In learning as in life, nobody wants to be lost, not even temporarily. However, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be skilled at asking and answering questions. That’s why I implore you, please, to “give Penn State Learning your inquisitive.”  We want and need students who enjoy asking questions, who are eager to be challenged, and who are eager to help their peers “get it.” We also want students who aren’t afraid to say they don’t know. We annually employ over 100 inquisitive writing, foreign language, and math tutors and over 20 equally curious leaders of drop-in study groups for various accounting, economics, math, statistics, and physical science courses. All members of these learning communities are undergraduates, all are fairly compensated, and all take either English 250 or Curriculum and Instruction 200 and receive ongoing feedback from mentors and supervisors.


Without these inquisitive student leaders, no peer tutoring operation has a ghost of a chance of helping all the students who haven’t yet figured out how to ask their own questions and who dread being asked something they can’t answer. So in addition to your inquisitive, yes, give us your shy, your timid, your quiet novices yearning to speak free. We want them, too. In your syllabi and on your ANGEL course sites, please encourage your students to stop by our labs, visit our study groups, and check out the “Employment” and other links from our home page,