SITE Stories: Diversity Circles

diversity_circles_template1.pngAt the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, we’re always interested in innovative teaching practices. When we heard about Jennifer Crissman Ishler’s “Diversity Circles” activity, we wanted to learn more. Below is a description of the activity and its pedagogical benefits. Jennifer Crissman Ishler is a senior instructor in human development and family studies.

In all of the courses taught by Jennifer Crissman Ishler, students experience an activity called “Diversity Circles.” She’s been using the activity for 14 years, in classes ranging from 20 to 150 students, and it’s consistently mentioned positively in her SRTEs and other course feedback.

The rationale behind the activity is that it helps students deal more successfully with the diversity they will encounter in their classes, their residence halls, and their future careers. Crissman Ishler urges her students to listen and learn when exposed to diversity and to try to avoid making assumptions. While the activity seems like a natural for the counselor-education and human-development courses she teaches, she believes it can be useful in other courses as well, since students in any discipline will encounter diversity throughout their lives.

The activity goes something like this: Each student privately draws a circle, places his or her name inside, and then draws lines connecting to four smaller circles.

In each of the smaller circles, the students write down a trait that expresses who they are as a multicultural being–traits such as gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. Crissman Ishler then asks the students to think about one of the circles they felt happy to be part of, as well as one circle where they’ve experienced awkwardness such as being singled out in a negative way by others. They share their feelings in small groups and, if they wish, with the larger class. Students play “break the stereotype” by stating “I am a _____________, but not a _________________.” In the first blank, the students state a multicultural identity they embrace, while in the second blank they state a stereotype that doesn’t fit them in relation to that identity.

Often the sharing time includes nervous laughter. Crissman Ishler helps the students process the experience, asking them: “Why are we laughing? What’s awkward about this?” During the processing of the experience, students think about how language like “That’s so gay” or “That’s so retarded” can wound others–often without the speaker even knowing it, since many elements of identity are invisible.

The in-class processing of the activity is crucial. At the beginning, Crissman Ishler tells the students: “I’m going to put you on the spot today. It’s about you–your interpersonal reflection. I’m asking you to share, to take risks.” The point is to have fun, and also to learn. But she also sets ground rules so that the students can feel safe in their sharing: While there will be a variety of opinions, they must be expressed politely–and students are reminded that the information their classmates share is to remain confidential.

“I continue to use it because I think it’s got great value,” Crissman Ishler says. “It’s something simple they can all relate to. With the right processing, it can lead to an aha! moment. It’s the one thing that always stays in my curriculum.”

If you’d like more information about the activity and how it might be adapted to your own teaching, please contact Jennifer Crissman Ishler at

Meet with the SITE Consultants in 109 Whitmore Lab

Since last fall, the SITE consultants have been offering office hours at a centralized location on the UP campus. Our intention in doing this was to encourage more “drop-in” consultations and we hoped that being centrally located would be an advantage. Most of the time during these office hours, we don’t have many drop by for a visit. Through the years I have heard faculty say that students seldom take full advantage of office hours. I have wondered why that is when we know that faculty and student interactions have long been deemed essential to learning in higher education and have been noted not only “as a means by which the transmission of knowledge and student intellectual growth is best facilitated, but as an educational goal in and of itself” (Wilson & Woods, 1974).


While the SITE consultations are not the same as traditional faculty office hours, we do know that interpersonal interactions are beneficial. Thinking through and discussing instructional issues collaboratively with a consultant can help you to implement and evaluate changes in your classrooms.


Our doors are always open and we are looking for ways to make ourselves readily available to you. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with your questions and thoughts about teaching and learning. And please check the SITE website for more information about our office hours.

Don’t use your words: evocative visuals and active learning


As educators, we spend a lot of time explaining things. We (and our students) value clear explanations. Sometimes we want our students to practice observation or interpretation skills, or just discover that there is more than one way of looking at a piece of information or a problem.


In such cases, it may help students if we teachers don’t use our words. 


I was talking with a faculty member who coordinates teaching assistants. One of her perpetual challenges is helping new teaching assistants learn to recognize when students working in class need their help, and determining what kind of help those students need. “They only listen to me so much,” she mused. “It’s like they have to go out and experience such a situation before they can understand how to deal with it.” We concluded: she can talk all she wants, but the TAs really need practice identifying and responding to challenging groupwork situations. 


A day before that, I was sitting in a talk with a bunch of engineers. Now here are some folks who like to solve problems! The speaker knew her audience. She showed them a photo of a traffic jam and asked them “What is the problem here?” 


We receive new information all of the time. But if we are actually going to use it, we have to grapple with it on our own terms. Not everything can be explained to us; we have to engage in our own discovery and interpretation.             


In what cases can visuals help your students have those experiences? 


To think about how you would do this in your own teaching, consider the following technique:  


Put an evocative visual (photo, video clip), a powerful text passage, or a quantitative chart in front of the class. Select an item that will engage students both emotionally and cognitively and are likely to elicit multiple interpretations.


Ask students to interpret the item by asking a question such as “What do you see?” What’s going on here?” After students brainstorm their analysis, ask a question such as “What does it mean to you?” or “What do you think it means?”


Source: Frederick, Peter J. 2002. Engaging Students Actively in Large Lecture Settings. In Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty. Anker, Bolton, MA.    


SITE Stories: TA for a Day

At SITE, we’re always interested in innovative teaching practices. So when a couple of people mentioned Jennifer Chang Coupland’s “TA for a Day” activity, we wanted to learn more. Below is a description of the activity and its pedagogical benefits, written by Professor Chang Coupland, a clinical associate professor of marketing.
I have found over the years that students can often provide outstanding insights when it comes to teaching material. I teach marketing, which is a topic that has definite theories, frameworks and strategies, but the content is dynamic. Every semester (or minute!) consumer preferences change, buying habits alter, the economy shifts, brands and media move through trends and macro forces in the environment. When I started teaching 15 years ago, the examples I used were fairly relatable to students as we were close enough in age and marketing-related interests. As I’ve aged and my students haven’t, I find myself grasping for relatable, timely examples. 
In my honors marketing seminar a couple years ago, I had students volunteer to “teach” the class for 10 minutes at the end of the semester. They could choose any topic covered in the course but discuss the topic in their own way with their own examples. I found that this provided me with many great ideas for future semesters.   
I wondered if I could take this “teacher” concept to my large Principles of Marketing course in the Forum, which seats 350 students. I like the idea that students are at once “students” who learn the basic course content, “consumers” who know about the real-world of brands and media and what it’s like to sit in the large classroom setting, and “teachers” who can marry these concepts together.   
So, after consulting with my TAs and some undergraduates, I came up with a concept called “TA for a Day,” which is an optional extra credit assignment due at the end of the semester. Students can earn up to 1% extra credit to their final course grade. Below are the instructions:  
“You may submit your own original ideas for in-class activities (include title, materials needed, specific procedures, instructions, expected results, relevant textbook page # or course topic), multiple choice exam questions (be sure to include the correct answer, textbook page #, relevant image), or lesson plan ideas for MKTG 301 in the Angel dropbox, ‘TA for a Day Extra Credit.’ You may submit this form of extra credit at any time before ___.”  
As a result of the submissions, I’ve obtained a wealth of new content, some very innovative. For example, Jon Slomka came up with an in-class game for a lecture on product quality, entitled “Real of Fake? Test Your Product Wits” in which students try to use product quality lecture objectives to determine which products are real or fake. Greg Newman came up with an elaborate in-class activity to illustrate the personal selling process and a key stage known as “prospecting and qualifying.” And many additional students have come up with other great ways to help their classmates learn.
What I like about these activities is that the student has clearly thought not just “about” the lecture material but thought “through” it. Not only do I learn from the students, but they themselves learn by doing. They come up with their own specific examples and creatively apply the content. I believe students are more likely to fundamentally remember marketing in a useful way through this exercise. Future students also benefit from a novel, relatable idea.      

Mentoring for Online Instructors

Online learning at Penn State continues to grow. A whopping 42% of our resident students have taken an online course. Predictions are that the number of online students will continue to increase and as a result, we are thinking of how to best help faculty in their transition to online instruction. One tactic is to encourage mentoring of new faculty and last fall the Faculty Engagement subcommittee of the Penn State Online Coordinating Council and the Schreyer Institute piloted an online mentoring program for those new to online teaching ( The intent of this effort is to provide instructional support for those teaching online and to create opportunities for networking with others teaching online.

The online mentoring experience is intended to last a semester and is, first and foremost, a collegial relationship. Through the mentor’s personal guidance, the prot�g� can question and explore online teaching strategies and expectations. Dialogue drives this relationship, but the mentor can also review online course activities and interactions. What is needed and how to go about getting those needs are met is something that is left to the devices of the mentor and prot�g�.

What do you think — would a mentor be helpful to you as you begin teaching online? Or would you like a mentor even though you have taught online? By engaging in a mentoring relationship, you can ask questions, share comments, voice concerns, dissect instructional strategies, and feel connected to someone else who has walked in your shoes.

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. 

Ray Schroeder on MOOCs

I recently attended a talk sponsored by Penn State’s new Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The speaker was Ray Schroeder, from the University of Illinois, Springfield. Ray used his website as the anchor for the presentation, taking the audience to several different MOOC providers as well as illustrating the various models employed by MOOC providers like Coursera and Udacity

During Ray’s talk, a few interesting thoughts came to mind. Ray started out by discussing the promise of MOOCs. Essentially, the MOOC model might be a way to deliver educational content an an affordable price, of high quality, and accessible anywhere with an Internet connection. He talked about traditional models, and how most traditional models can only get two of these three criteria right. One example is that a student can likely take an online course anywhere with an Internet connection that is high in quality, but likely not very affordable. This reminds me of the triple constraint, a project management concept that deals with a project’s timeline, cost and scope. From a project management standpoint, it’s very challenging to manage a project that’s completed quickly (timeline), cheap in cost and large in scope. 
Schroeder emphasized that the current trend of rising tuition coupled with the decline in average family income is simply not a sustainable model for higher education. Will MOOCs play a role in defraying the cost of higher education? Possibly. Another interesting anecdoate Ray shared dealt with a recent visit to the Gate’s foundation. Most academics in attendance, when asked what employers look for in graduates, cited things like critical thinking and problem solving. They then had a panel with HR representatives at large, United States-based companies talking about what they are seeking from recent college graduates. These companies cited very specific skillsets, such as accounting, java programming, .NET programming and so on. Again, Schroeder theorized that MOOCs might help play a role in helping some of the country’s largest companies find skilled employs to fill many of these skill-based jobs. 
COIL plans on hosting more guest speakers in the spring and I look forward to continued engaging discussions around various online learning topics and how they might apply to Penn State.

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.

All Students Can Recognize Good Teaching: Just Ask Them

This fall semester is about over and soon students will be responding to the SRTEs. For many students, the opportunity to give feedback to their instructors, is a phenomenon that begins in college. That trend, however, is changing. According to the article “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers” a growing number of American schools across the country are asking their students, some as young as kindergarten, to evaluate their teachers.

Some interesting findings are emerging. Student ratings tend to be fairly stable from class to class and from fall to spring. Race and income done have much impact on results. What is clear is that students are looking for a classroom where the teacher has control and makes learning challenging. And one city, Memphis, has become the first school system in the country to link survey results to teachers’ annual reviews by having the surveys count for 5% of a teacher’s evaulation. 

A variety of questions are being asked on these surveys, but the five most correlated with student learning are listed below:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

What can those of us in higher education learn from this article? Are we, for example, asking the right questions? Are we using the information we gather from students to define quality teaching and to inform better practice?

Faculty Spotlight: Rosalie Ocker

“The longer I teach, the less I lecture.”
Rosalie Ocker, Ph.D.
Professor of Practice

Dr. Ocker, the recipient of the George McMurtry Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award for 2007-2008, leverages a wide variety of active learning strategies and methods to engage students in the classroom. “I put it on them [the students]. You walk into class, you’re quizzed, before we talk about anything.” Dr. Ocker’s typical class involves a short lecture, followed by a student-centered discussion, and then a closing activity. Dr. Ocker’s course is structured similar to a flipped classroom approach. “The longer I teach, the less I lecture. I’m putting more onus on the students, then using the time together for solving problems or applying knowledge.”

ocker_vertical.jpgThis model stays consistent across her various courses, whether she’s teaching 30 students or 125 students. Dr. Ocker also teaches online, and states “If I excel in teaching, I should be able to excel across different venues. This includes online.” All these experiences, Dr. Ocker reflects, add to her toolbox of teaching skills and techniques. “Online teaching has improved my resident teaching, without a doubt. It has forced me to be more organized, clearer. I remember, in the past, not having a course schedule finalized at the start of the semester. I would never do that now, in any course. Online courses have brought a discipline to my teaching.”

When asked how she goes about planning her course, Dr. Ocker stresses the need to think critically about what knowledge we want the students to walk away with. “We could teach less content, and they would still learn the essentials. We need to clearly identify the top 3 to 5 things the students need to get out of the course and focus our energies on that. Sometimes less content is better.” When thinking about the students, Dr. Ocker states, “Every instructor that a student has thinks differently. That’s like having 5 different bosses at once.” Dr. Ocker always takes the students into consideration, and understands that each student is likely to be in many different courses at the same, with instructors that are using different styles, approaches and tools to teach.

One approach to course design that is consistent across all of Dr. Ocker’s courses is the use of student teams. Specifically, Dr. Ocker focuses on partially-distributed teams (PDT), where two or more team members are located in one geographic area and two or more team members are located in other geographic areas. Throughout her teaching, Dr. Ocker incorporates PDT projects, where students in the College of IST are in teams with students from other universities around the world. When talking about strategies to implement teams in a course, Dr. Ocker emphasizes that students need to be taught how to work in teams. “Be prepared to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly when working in teams.” Instructors also need to allot plenty of time for student teams to work through the teaming process, and in Dr. Ocker’s courses this includes in-class time to work on team projects and provide team status updates to her each week.

An important aspect of teaming projects, Dr. Ocker states, is to identify what you want to assess. For instance, is the goal of the teaming project to illustrate how to work in teams and collaborate, or is the goal to produce a final deliverable or outcome? “You cannot manage what you do not measure,” says Dr. Ocker.


Be sure to create a grading mechanism that fairly and accurately assesses the teaming process and output (depending on what your learning goal is for the team project). For Dr. Ocker, factors that are often included in the assessment of the teams include observations, participation, multiple peer evaluations, team status meetings and so on. Even though these are team projects, Dr. Ocker assigns both a team and an individual grade. If the team assignment is worth 100 points, Dr. Ocker includes an individual grade, often based on peer evaluations and feedback that is also worth 100 points.

Dr. Ocker received two different Teaching Project Grants from the Schreyer Institute to assist her with teaming initiatives, the most recent grant focusing on educating students around aspects of cultural awareness and sensitivity when working in global teams. She also attended several Schreyer seminars, including OL 4000, a collaborative seminar designed, developed and delivered by the Schreyer Institute and World Campus specifically for online teachers.