Category Archives: Classroom Management

Getting to Know

While preparing Community in the Classroom this past week, Andrew Porter and I discussed the question:

How do we keep our students from feeling isolated in class?

Our first answer, in simple terms, was: Get-To-Know-Each-Other.

A classroom where students feel like they are known enables them to feel like they belong.  Belonging breeds motivation, risk-taking.  Motivation and risk-taking generate learning, and learning is our goal.  But…

….getting to know each other involves getting closer to personal than can feel comfortable.

In order to help our students down this road, answering low-risk and entertaining questions at some point during class can help to break the proverbial ice over the semester.  No matter the size of your class, these questions can get conversation going between pairs, rows, sections, everybody.  10 minutes of getting to know each other may seem like a lot, but can lead to much richer learning over the long-term.

Below I’ve included 35 get-to-know-you-with-minimal-risk questions compiled and contributed to us by Heather Holleman, lecturer in English. Enjoy!

1.  What is the most interesting course you have ever taken in school?

2.  What is your favorite quotation?

3.  What is one item you might keep forever?

4.  What were you known for in high school?  Did you have any nicknames?

5.  If you could have witnessed any event in sports history, what would it be?

6.  What is something you consider beautiful?

7.  What was your first CD or song you played over and over again?

8.  What accomplishment are you most proud of?

9.  If you could be an apprentice to any person, living or deceased, from whom would you want to learn?

10.  What are three things that make you happy?

11.  What’s one movie you think everyone should see?  What’s a movie you think nobody should see?

12.  Who inspires you?

13.  What’s one thing you want to do before you die?

14.  Get in groups of three people.  What’s the most bizarre thing you have in common?

15.  Whenever you are having a bad day, what is the best thing you can do to help cheer yourself up?

16.  Have you ever experienced something unexplainable or supernatural?

17.  What was your best Halloween costume?

18.  You can choose the question you want to ask the class.

19.  What was the last thing you Googled?

20.  What YouTube video do you watch over and over?

21.  What’s the kindest act you’ve ever witnessed?

22.  Tell us one thing you know you do well (a talent?) and one thing you know you don’t.

23.  What is your favorite way to procrastinate?

24.  What is your favorite home-cooked meal?

25.  What was your favorite childhood toy?

26.  What do you do other than study?  What clubs are you involved in?

27.  What was your first job?

28.  Any brushes with fame?

29.  What’s the story behind your name?

30.  Do you believe in anything that most people might not believe in?

31.  I wish everyone would___________________

32.  What’s the best sound effect you can make?

33.  What’s the funniest thing you did as a kid that people still talk about today?

34.  What was the last thing you bought on eBay?

35.  Tell us something quirky about you. 


Classroom Management: What Would You Do?

Yesterday in the Course in College Teaching we introduced some classroom managment situations. It sounded like a lot of people could relate to them. In the spirit of continuing the conversation and sharing ideas, here are a few of the scenarios. Do any of these sound familiar to you? What would you do? Or what have you done in situations like these?

1) One of your students came late to the first few classes, interrupts your lecture loudly, doesn’t let others get a chance to answer questions and habitually forgets to turn off his cell phone. Most annoyingly, during class, he walks out of the classroom [across the front], and saunters back.

2) You are teaching in a computer classroom. Even though you are not using the technology at the moment, students are busily typing away. The clacking is making it difficult for some students to actually hear the material.

3) You are teaching a small lecture-type class and students regularly arrive 10 minutes late. In addition, others leave 10-15 minutes early. In a 55-minute class it feels like the comings and goings never end.

Classroom Behavior: Is it good, or is it LEARNING?

This week I ran across a blog that introduced me to a new phrase, which I now love:  behavior for learning.  The writer differentiates between ‘good behavior’ and the types of behavior necessary for learning to occur.  His point:  when a child sits quietly and follows the teacher’s instructions, she is being ‘good’….but is she really learning?

I read the blog with a smile on my face, envisioning the four-year-olds I work with at the piano.  Their behavior is inquisitive, energetic, often loud, mostly messy.  Our piano lessons are the opposite of what I’ve been told to call ‘good’ behavior.  And yet, if the attending parent expresses concern that the child is ‘not paying attention’ or is ‘acting out’, my response is: Great! 

My overall philosophy of teaching and learning: Let’s get our hands dirty, let’s make a mess, please–anybody?–let us have an experience.  There is, after all, a difference between ‘out-of-control’ behavior and ‘engaged’ behavior, and engaged behavior is what I want.  Always.  It’s behavior for learning, and learning is my goal.

Messy energetic learning might be easy enough to envision when considering four-year-olds, but what about our college classrooms?  Is it possible to create a classroom where college student behavior expresses learning, for learning, is learning?  And if so, is it valuable to do so?

 If we answer YES, then the remaining question is: How? 

In other words: 

What is required from you, the instructor,

in order to see behavior for learning in your classroom?

[We love to think about this stuff, so let us know how we can think about it with you!  And, look for upcoming workshops regarding active learning strategies and community building…]

Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom II: Continuing the Conversation

TECCE-final-pic.jpgNEW!!! For more information, see the “Difficult Dialogues” tab above.

The student-run media organization Onward State has provided some excellent coverage of the past weeks’ events via their webpage, liveblog, and Twitter feed (@OnwardState). Last week, student writer Dan McCool wrote a poignant piece voicing many students’ hopes about going home for fall break. Yesterday, John Tecce followed it up with The Break that Wasn’t – an article about his troubles connecting with loved ones outside Penn State:

It’s difficult to expect our friends and family at home to understand what the past few weeks have been like for us, and yet, we can’t help but do so. Unfortunately, all they know comes straight from the news vans we walk past every day on the way to class, hoping that maybe tomorrow they’ll be gone.

Both of these pieces provide some insight as to what many of our students are continuing to experience as members of the Penn State community. As teachers, it’s important for us to stay connected to these experiences so that we can attend to them if/when they affect the learning environment.

In the wake of the events, many faculty have implemented reflective writing assignments as suggested in the first Difficult Dialogues blog post we published. Although some students may be tired of discussing things openly in class (especially if course material doesn’t overlap directly), short reflective writing can still be useful at this time to help students air out tension or angst that could impede the learning process. Sometimes having fears or concerns heard about a difficult topic or challenging assignment can be enough to move forward with learning. Of course, the Critical Incident Questionnaire discussed earlier or other Classroom Assessment Techniques can give you important information about where students may be hung up, or what could be impeding their learning.

As always, we’re here to help. Feel free to contact us to schedule an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or to attend one of our many upcoming teaching workshops. Our services are always free and confidential.

NOTE: This post is republished here from a comment on the first Difficult Dialogues post here.

IMAGE: Ellie Skrzat, Onward State

Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Resources for Penn State Teachers

NEW!!! For more information, see “Difficult Dialogues” 

In light of the tragic events continuing to unfold at Penn State, we at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence recognize that there are many faculty and graduate student instructors who, while experiencing their own shock, anger, and sadness, are also looking to help their students process these events in a thoughtful and productive way.

Teachable moments can be found in this terrible situation, and thus can provide much needed support and healing through the learning process. Destiny Aman, with input from a number of other teaching institute consultants, developed the following tips for teachers interested in incorporating difficult dialogue discussions into their courses.

  1. Set Ground Rules. Encourage students to practice empathetic listening, use “I-statements,” and avoid personal attacks.
  2. Start with a guided reflective writing exercise – give students a chance to write about what they’re feeling and experiencing, but also incorporate questions to stimulate critical thinking.
  3. To give all students a chance to participate, and reduce the chance that a few individuals will dominate discussion, incorporate think-pair-share activities, dyads, or other discussion techniques that allow students to talk and process their ideas in smaller groups prior to speaking in the larger class setting.
  4. To the degree possible, connect the situation to course material and learning goals (keep in mind that while this might not directly relate to your course content, such discussions do overlap with learning goals such as critical thinking, reflection, and peer-learning).
  5. Recognize your own experience and role in the dialogue. Do not respond angrily or shut down students whose positions you disagree with – this will result in defensiveness and have a negative effect on student learning.
  6. End the session with a Critical Incident Questionnaire, and follow up with the topic as needed during the next class session or via email.

Even in classes where course content does not overlap, the learning environment will continue to be affected as news breaks on a daily (or even hourly) basis. Many students are struggling emotionally and psychologically, and may find it difficult to focus on course material. All students should be made aware of resource centers on campus where they can find a supportive, safe, and productive space to process their experience. These include:

Counseling & Psychological Services
Center for Women Students
LGBTA Resource Center
Pasquerilla Spiritual Center

As always, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence stands with all who teach at Penn State, and especially now as you work through this difficult time. If you have questions, concerns, or would like more suggestions related to teaching at Penn State, we are happy to schedule an individual consultation.

Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Thoughts from Inclusive Excellence Series Workshop #2

This academic year, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops, the second of which was held last week:


In the workshop, we imagined the ideal class discussion (the one we each dream about), and we tackled some common issues, or “scary scenarios” that arise in facilitating inclusive discussion.

In this blog post, I wanted to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the workshop, and also post some resources for further reading on the topic.

First, here’s the workshop prezi:

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1. Cultivate a Sense of Community: It’s hard to stick your neck out in front of a group of people you don’t know – or worse, people you suspect might not care about you or what you have to say. In a class discussion, both teachers and students can have these feelings – sometimes simultaneously (crickets, anyone?). In the fantastic Brief Guide to Facilitating Discussion, Katherine Gottschalk gives some great tips for creating rapport in a class. In our workshop, I recommended the following: 

  • community.jpgSpend some time getting to know the students (especially their names!), and letting them get to know one another. Getting to Know You activities and Ice Breakers are clich� for a reason – they are often a quick and effective way to begin building trust and a sense of teamwork between people who don’t know each other.
  • Consider having students complete a pre-course questionnaire or a brief autobiographical essay for their first homework assignment – this can give you valuable intel about why students are in your class and what they hope to gain from their experience (which you can then use to design activities that may be more engaging and relevant to students). Ask students about their background with the material, how they learn best, or their biggest hope/greatest worry for the class.
  • Consider having students generate themes and topics for discussion – this increases the chance that material will be relevant to the students, and gives them a stake in the discussion being successful.
  • Build in multiple ways for students to participate (besides speaking extemporaneously in front of the entire class). Not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of a large group. Short individual writing activities (like Minute Papers or the Critical Incident Questionnaire), Think-Pair-Share activities, or small group discussions can be used alone or in combination with a larger group discussion. Doing so gives students a chance to chew on the material and formulate their thoughts before being asked to speak to a larger audience.

2. Build a Safe Space for Students to Practice New Skills: Think about your expectations for the students and for yourself, and build a suitable space to practice the skills they need to succeed. 

  • SBTrapeze.jpgDon’t assume students know (or agree upon) what a good discussion looks like. Consider having the class talk about what makes a good discussion, and then develop ground rules together to encourage participation. Revisit or reevaluate the rules if needed as the semester goes on.
  • Allow students to rehearse skills needed for high-stakes discussions earlier in the semester, with lower-stakes topics. For example, a discussion about the banning of caffeinated alcoholic beverages like 4Loco would likely lead to a spirited (ahem) class discussion, and would provide an opportunity for students to practice constructing an argument, using “I-statements”, showing respect for others’ views, storytelling, and avoiding personal attacks. A discussion like this would be best-placed before one on immigration policy or abortion.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of warm-up and ritual. Give students an easy question or simple activity at the beginning of the class to get the juices flowing. Repeat certain activities regularly (for example: a warm-up activity, a Think-Pair-Share activity, a large group discussion, a summary of the main points, and a minute paper at the end of every class). Over time, these rituals will enable the class to spend less time on process and jump into the content more quickly.

3. Plan for Conflict: Conflict is inevitable in the classroom, but it’s not always a bad thing. Depending on its nature, conflict can add energy to a class, increase student engagement, and promote critical thinking.

    • Think about how you typically respond to conflict, and plan some strategies that work for you. If you know you tend to avoid conflict, then focus on coming up with ideas for how to revisit a situation later, if needed (a Critical Incident Questionnaire or a post-class anonymous ANGEL survey could be used here). If you tend to freeze up, practice having students write their thoughts or answer a Minute-Paper question while you gather yourself and decide how to move forward. If you tend to get defensive or respond very intensely in conflict, be sure to have some good questions in your pocket (“I’m not sure what you mean by that, could you explain?”) to soften your response.
    • In Working With Strong Emotions in the Classroom, Heidi Burgess from the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium offers great tips for de-escalating and resolving planned and un-planned emotional situations, like reframing an attacking student’s comment into a less personal statement, and asking the student to explain the reasoning behind their comment.
    • As we discussed in the workshop, it’s important to distinguish between a comment made while legitimately discussing and working through course material, and offensive remarks or jokes made to distract from the discussion or purposely alienate others. The intent of the commenter in each situation is different, and strategies for handling them typically differ as well. In Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, Lee Warren presents several examples of finding the “teachable moment” in otherwise difficult situations. 
    • If a remark is made that is unrelated to course material, or is purely meant to disrupt, attack, or alienate, it becomes an issue of classroom incivility. The UC Santa Cruz Center for Teaching & Learning has a number of recommendations for handling student incivility. Here at SITE, we periodically have workshops on classroom management, or if you have a specific situation you’re dealing with, you can always talk to one of our consultants.


The inspiration for this workshop came from materials and presentations generated by the Difficult Dialogues Initiative. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, this 2-year initiative focuses on promoting civic engagement, academic freedom and pluralism in higher education. The Start Talking handbook was developed out of the initiative by faculty from University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.

The handbook (available for FREE in pdf format here) includes specific chapters on developing ground rules, facilitating debate, teaching about race, class and culture, reconciling science and religion, and others.

If you have thoughts or ideas about this material, or know of other useful resources, please post them in the comments section!

Midsemester Feedback – 10 Tips for a Better Class

It is now midway through the semester.  How is your course going?  How do you know?

Now is the perfect time to start soliciting formative feedback from your students.  Collecting feedback from students can serve many purposes.  You can ascertain what students are and are not learning as well as how they are learning it, get formative feedback on your teaching, tailor your course to student needs, increase student motivation, improve student learning and give students an avenue to openly communicate with you about the course.  These tips will help you collect, analyze and implement student responses and forward formative teaching and learning excellence in your classroom.

1.       1. Tell your students that their feedback is important, why you are collecting it, and what you plan to do with their input.  If you let them know how they are going to benefit from their efforts you will get much more thorough and thoughtful responses.

2.       2. Give your students precise instructions and examples of how to present constructive feedback.  Often students do not have experience giving formative (midsemester) responses and may never have been asked their opinions about their own learning experiences.  One of the best ways to solicit good feedbacks is to make feedback a routine part of your course.

3.       3. Let your students know that you are looking for constructive feedback (keep reinforcing this) that you can respond to during the current semester.  You are much more likely to be able to respond to concerns about the pace of your course or difficulty/style of exams rather than pre-determined situational factors such as location, time that the class meets, text book etc…

4.       4. Make sure that you only collect data that you can and will respond to.  One of students greatest complaints are assignments and tasks that take/waste time and aren’t useful to learning outcomes- asking for feedback you can’t or won’t use wastes both your and your students’ time.

5.       5. If you are teaching a large class you may want to use an online polling system to collect your feedback.  Angel, SurveyMonkey and Google Forms all offer anonymous submission options for you to more easily collect, organize and analyze data. 

6.       6. Focus your feedback questions around the following ideas:

a.       What helps you learn in this course?  Examples?

b.      What changes would make the course more helpful? Suggestions?

7.       7. Assess your positive feedback.  Look at what you’re doing well, what the students are responding well to, and what is aiding in student learning.  Keep it up!

8.       8. Carefully look at your feedback and make sure not to focus on a few negative comments.  Compare the responses to your goals and objectives for the course and assess what changes you can make to facilitate student learning.  You may want to review the data with a colleague or make an appointment with a consultant at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence.  To look more deeply into comments and concerns you may find it helpful to watch yourself lecture or borrow students’ lecture notes and compare what you’re teaching with that students’ are writing down.

9.      9.  It is vitally important that you promptly share your students’ feedback with the class and let them know your plans.  You most likely will not be able to attend to all of the concerns and comments, but your students will appreciate knowing what you plan to do, what you cannot do, and why.

10.   10. Follow-up!

Here’s to formative excellence in teaching and learning!

We have a wide variety of resources available at SITE which you can look at in more depth here or contact us at!

Other resources:

University of Sydney’s Quick and Easy Feedback Strategies:

Cornell’s Teaching Evaluation Handbook:

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Now and again I ruffle a few feathers. OK, more than a few. I don’t mean to, but I sometimes have a unique perspective on teaching. Lately, if you want to get a good, heated discussion going, mention the phrase “attendance policy” (I originally mistyped that as “attendance police”- I nearly left it for entertainment purposes).  Why, one may wonder, is a mere attendance policy such a hot button issue? Well, it’s really pretty simple. Many of these policies have nothing at all to do with learning. Seriously. Nothing. Here’s a short list of some of the attendance policies that I’ve encountered lately:


* Three strikes and a student’s grade gets lowered. (An aside: I don’t know why the baseball analogy, and not football – 4 downs, or basketball – 7 fouls before the double bonus. )No matter what level of work the student is doing in class. No matter what the student is earning on tests or assignments. The absentee student loses points and often an entire grade. Harsh.


* A second type is even more confusing, conflating behavior with attendance. These policies usually have very elaborate points schema for how to score “attendance”.


* A third is mixing attendance with in-class participation. I know the theory “if a student isn’t there, he/she CAN’T participate”. Yes, true, however, the demonstration of the participation is what’s important here.


When a faculty member develops a policy, it is usually with the most noble of intentions. However, the policy sometimes has unintended consequences. Let’s review those that I mentioned.


The “three strikes” policy has a few permutations. Sometimes the policy will state three “unexcused” absences, with no description of what an excused absence actually is. This is sometimes intentional and leaves students with the impression that as long as they tell you ahead of time, it’s “excused”. Some faculty ask for some kind of documentation for the absence. After all, medical/dental/psychological/legal professionals generally work a 9:00 – 5:00 day. In the case of a family death, I’ve seen faculty ask for death certificate copies or newspaper obits. In a few horrifying instances faculty have asked for the phone number of the medical professional or institution so they can “check”. Here’s my advice, stay away, far, far, away, from asking for this type of documentation. This is HIPPA territory. I even checked with one of our university legal eagles. The bottom line – health and wellness issues are the third rail of “excused absences”. Do not touch. Yes, students may be…ummmm…obfuscating, but, it simply isn’t worth the possible angst it will cause you. And frankly, I don’t think I’m smart enough to decide if a sick child or an extra shift at work is a good excuse or not.


Attaching in-class behavior with attendance is truly confusing. Some policies take off attendance points if a cell phone rings, if a student is texting, or if a student comes in late, as well as a standard deduction for absences. What message is being sent by mixing up in-class behavior with attending class? That these activities are the same? And are they? And worse, how much valuable teaching/learning time is wasted with taking role and ticking points off a roster as transgressions occur. You are a discipline expert. Do you really want to document behavior instead of discussing viral replication?


The third policy substitutes a “fanny in a seat” for actual in class work, and the students know it. If there is actual work required, no matter what it is, and the student is a no-show, he/she will lose those points for the day. They are thus automatically penalized for not attending. They are also not practicing what you have decided that they needed to learn for the day and will probably suffer the consequences on a future test or assignment.


An attendance policy is certainly discipline and course dependent. A studio course, or a limited meeting course, will certainly have different requirements. But, no matter what path one chooses it is in everyone’s best interests to describe your policy as clearly as possible. This is no place for grey areas or fuzzy math. Also think about how the actual mechanics of the policy will affect your teaching. The following is an example of a clear participation policy, with the bonus of rewarding attendance.


* Students will earn participation points by taking part in daily classroom activities. There will be, at least, one learning activity in each class session, and these activities must be completed during the class period in order to receive credit.

* Activities may include:

– Quizzes

– Short essays

– Problem solutions

– Mid-semester evaluations

– Etc.

If you find you are having behavior problems in your classroom, sadly, you are not alone. Give SITE a call and we will be happy to help you better manage these specific problems. However, with the policies above the message seems to be that learning may be secondary. I know you don’t believe that.


Finally, food for thought.


Over 120 years ago, Harvard University issued a statement to faculty that grades were to be assigned on the basis of academic achievement ONLY, and no deductions were to be made because of absence, tardiness, and other forms of student misconduct (Making sense of college grades: why the grading system does not work and what can be done about it, Milton, Pollio, and Eison, 1986).

Writers in the measurement field (Gronlund, 1990;   Mehrens and Lehmann, 1991) advise against including student behavior factors (e.g., students’ effort, interest, attitudes, improvement, class participation, and attendance) because they contaminate [emphasis mine] the grade as a measure of achievement of the course objectives. (Jacobs, & Chase, 1992)

And you didn’t think I’d write an entry without mentioning course objectives, did you?



Stop, Go, Change…

If I had a nickle for every time I’ve recommended the mid-semester evaluation to my faculty friends, I’d be spending my days sitting on a beach, with an umbrella drink, reading trashy novels.  (And now you know my plan for retirement.) A “well conducted” mid-semester evaluation can gather a plethora of interesting and useful information for the faculty member. We here at SITE recommend a mid-semester evaluation as one of the tools a faculty member should use in almost every consultation we do. I sometimes feel like a doctor explaining why exercise is the key to good health. Don’t you get tired of hearing that? Is it only the fact that it is undeniably true that keeps you from banging your head on the nearest desk? Such is the case with mid-semester evaluations. They are sometimes scary, sometimes a PIA (you can look that up in the Urban Dictionary), but yield fascinating information when done well.

My prescription for a well done mid-semester evaluation is pretty simple (some of my colleagues will disagree with my contentions, but that’s OK too).

  • It should be short – really short. The average student should not need more that 5 minutes to complete it and it will be easy for you to evaluate.
  •  It should appear random and not systematic. Like anything else, a student who becomes inured to an activity will begin to feel bored with it.
  • It should solicit information that you actually may be able to use.
  • Debrief, debrief, debrief. No matter what kind of feedback you get debrief it with the class. Of my four elements for a valuable mid-semester evaluation this is the most important.

Keeping in mind these simple rules I am “presenting” a new, to me, mid-semester evaluation that is both elegant and easy.

It’s called Stop, Go, Change and it goes like this:

Distribute file cards to the class and ask them to make three comments as follows:

1.      Stop: something you don’t like – can be about the professor, the class, the material, your fellow students, yourself, anything at all.

2.      Go: something you do like – ditto above.

3.      Change: something about your own learning – what do you need to do [more of or better] to succeed in this class?

Th  That’s it. Give your class about 5 minutes (maximum) to complete the evaluation, collect the cards as they leave. Now sit down with your favorite comforting beverage, and read through them. You will get lots of information, and most of it will be interesting, if not useful. If there are suggestions that you can implement immediately, do it! If there are unreasonable suggestions (e.g., stop assigning homework), explain why your homework assignments are an integral part of your teaching and perhaps ask what might help the class complete homework assignments.

Th   Debriefing is the key to any good mid-semester evaluation. It says you heard and responded, even if you can’t do what they ask.

 If    If you need help interpreting your evaluations, feel free to come in and speak to any one of us. We’ll be delighted to give you a hand.

      Try it, you’ll see – you won’t be sorry.