Author Archives: Paul Walsh

Students and Reading


 horses“You can’t lead a horse to water, but you can salt his oats so he’s damned thirsty when he gets there.”

I’ve heard from many faculty who lament that their students just don’t do the reading. If we put aside the exorbitant cost of some textbooks, why are students not reading and what can faculty do about it?

For some students reading is work, not pleasure. When many students read it is only so deep (let’s say the first two level of Bloom’s Taxonomy – knowledge and comprehension). Moving from who and what to why and how are difficult steps particularly with heavy texts. Even if they can give you back what the reading said, it is far from any kind of interpretation. And honestly, if they just wait long enough odds are you’ll tell them anyway. Will the text tell them something that you won’t? Does it introduce material of just reinforce it? Students are figuring this out in the first few days of class and/or asking former students if they really need the textbook.

Make reading count by counting it. For every reading there should be a quiz, report, or some kind of assessment. Try open book or group work quizzes (additional information).  Be sure to dedicate some time to discuss the reading too. Try the jigsaw cooperative learning technique, have students formulate test questions, guided reciprocal peer questions, or have them collaborate on a concept map.

Difficult Online students


Dealing with difficult students in an online class presents some unique challenges. Certainly, faculty are aware that there is a line of abusive language that must be dealt with directly and in conjunction with others at the University (remember the Dean of Students can be your greatest resources in such situations).  But what about the disruption that is less hostile – the discussion post that is critical of the course organization, the complaints that go to other students instead of you, or the message dripping with sarcasm?

angry studentTeaching online is more time consuming than teaching face-to-face and the prep time is probably double. It is that preparation that can make
the difference in heading off the critics. Good course design and a comprehensive syllabus are the foundation of a successful course and fewer jabs from the disgruntled student.

Sometimes the difficult student is venting and needs just to be heard. Courses can be daunting and both personal and work demands can take a student to the edge. Dr. Alan Lyles at the University of Baltimore describes his approach as one of “compassionate rigor.”  Can we address the disruptive student’s behavior with compassion without bowing to a lessening of standards or course expectations?

In his paper on Dealing with Problem Students and Faculty Thomas Tobin reminds us that we all know at least one faculty member who is disorganized (I’d respectfully add thorny and/or cantankerous). The breakdown in organization and communications can often be the source of complaints.  Are you are willing to examine the causes of difficult students or only make it a student issue?

In a face-to-face environment we might use non-verbal to address a difficult student. Giving a student “the eye” or standing a little closer to their desk as you continue teaching are strategies that can’t be reproduced online. You can however try a few of these techniques:

  • acknowledge the difficulty of the assignment, provide additional instruction( if necessary), and encourage the student
  • allow a draft submission or create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes
  • make your learning objectives realistic and achievable
  • build relationships with your students that allow for both your praise and critic
  • keep it simple. Make your instruction as clear and yet comprehensive as possible.
  • provide timelines not just deadlines
  • ask students to contact you with questions
  • set firm rules for decorum and interaction (between students and with you)

What the plagiarism detection software isn’t detecting

image of cheat sheet cupped in a hand

wikimedia commons – labeled for reuse

Our University is revising an outdated Plagiarism Awareness Tutorial that does little to prevent plagiarism but does provide the “we told you so” necessary when a student actually gets caught. Like many universities, we are users of originality detection software that can review word use, phrasing, and citation with an immense database of journals, internet sources, and previously submitted work.

What these tools are missing is the student who uses a piece of work not for lifting text but for copying structure. If I want to make a case for electric cars and find a great article that lays out an ideal argument and then use the organization of that article to write my piece, I have plagiarized.

Thomas J. Tobin, at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, recently co-authored “Evaluating Online Teaching: Implementing Best Practices.” Last year Tobin wrote a piece in Faculty Focus that explored originality on three levels – content, design, and method. Including structure in a university definition of academic honesty and showing students how to avoid this aspect of plagiarism is as vital as any tool. Tobin encourages the use of originality software but also encourages faculty to get to know their students, to discuss issues among faculty, and to model processes and content for students.



My father worked in a steel mill most of his life, did a tour in the Army, and was raised on a farm in western Ireland. Brilliant mind in a tough-guy wrapper. Much to our surprise growing up, my siblings and I learned he didn’t do well with the sight of blood. I am not sure if it was related to a particular incident in his past but it was a trigger that left him squeamish and light headed.

Image showing a small drop of blood on a fingertip Image labeled for Reuse

There is discussion in Higher Ed about whether it is good practice to give our students a heads-up about the content of our coursework that may trigger in them a negative or even a traumatic response.

In one of my recent classes I asked how many students had heard gunfire in the last month. I also asked how many knew someone who’d been shot. To both questions I was surprised by the high number of hands in the air.

Can reading the books and articles in my class elicit a PTSD response? Should I be censoring or providing an alert prior to showing my students certain movies or images? What if the image isn’t related to violence but affronts a student’s values instead, where is the line? There are many who’d consider any trigger warning requirement a challenge to academic freedom. A recent American Association of University Professors (AAUP) report by a committee looking at  academic freedom and tenure included, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

Each professor will have to decide what stance they wish to take on providing guidance or warnings associated with their materials. Professor Ari Kohen, University of Nebraska in Lincoln, was quoted on WNYC Radio and Public Radio International (source) to say that “In my human rights classes, I’ve always told students from the first one that the material is potentially very upsetting because we’re dealing with torture, genocide, and sexual violence. The potential there, I think, is quite real to be not simply disturbing.” Kohen went on to provide a few tips for how students should approach difficult material (note – “approach” not avoid) so that they’d be prepared to come to class ready to discuss the material.

Improving Teaching Online – Comparing Apples and Oranges?

Creative Commons image of apples and oranges from

Creative Commons image

Is there a fundamental difference between how a liberal-arts course is presented online and how online courses from other majors/programs or from research institutions are constructed or evaluated?

In a recent post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog, Jeffrey Young shared information on a new consortium of liberal-arts colleges looking at pooling resources in support of online offerings. This consortium has membership overlap with edX, the  MOOC provider.

I recognize that there is a difference in teaching style between colleges and that that style translates to differences online particularly when it comes to specific tool usage and approaches within an LMS. I also see that goals for moving online at all may be different between liberal-arts and research institutions. I question, however, whether that difference is big enough to warrant a consortium that in its structure may miss the opportunity to see how other institutions and programs are utilizing tools and methods for student success online.

While a driver here is not reinventing the wheel (of support and resources) for consortial members, I wonder if there isn’t already a wheel in place – or a tire store. OLC (formerly Sloan-C), Quality Matters, and Educause all have a wealth of resources targeting online course support. Liberal-arts schools may have lagged behind in moving online but why would liberal-arts schools, who embrace learning across the curriculum as a part of their nature, want to form a club that could potentially exclude lessons learned from the last two decades?

Best of SoTL Articles


Dr. Maryellen Weimer from the Teaching Professor Blog has compiled a list of top SoTL articles from her constant scan of pedagogical resources. You might not find all of these journals via our campus library, but they are worth looking for. Here is her list and rationale for why you should take the time to read each:

Boud, D., Lawson, R., and Thompson, D. G. (2013). Does student engagement in self-assessment calibrate their judgment over time?  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38 (8), 941-956.
Why read it: Despite its importance, self-assessment is not a skill that’s taught explicitly in most curricular programs. What more can we be doing?

Burgess-Proctor, A., Cassano, G., Condron, D. J., Lyons, H. A., and Sanders, G. (2014). A collective effort to improve sociology students’ writing skills.  Teaching Sociology, 42 (2), 130-139.
Why read it: Five faculty members decide they can do more to improve student writing collectively than they can individually.

Burkholder, P., (2014). A content means to a critical thinking end: Group quizzing in history survey.  The History Teacher, 47 (4), 551-578.
Why read it: Offers a quizzing strategy with substantial impact for learning and raises questions about content that we aren’t asking often enough.

Carmichael, A. M. and Krueger, L. E. (2014). An examination of factors and attitudes that influence reporting fraudulent claims in an academic environment.  Active Learning in Higher Education, 15 (2), 173-185.
Why read it: Prepare to be stunned by how easily and readily students reported making up excuses.

Corrigan, H. and Craciun, G. (2013). Asking the right questions: Using Student-Written Exams as an innovative approach to learning and evaluation.  Marketing Education Review, 23 (1), 31-35.
Why read it: Students write their own exams using a well-designed approach that grades their questions and answers.

Offerdahl, E. G., and Montplaisir, L., (2014). Student-generated reading questions: Diagnosing student thinking with diverse formative assessments.  Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 42 (1), 29-38.
Why read it: Want your students doing the reading and asking better questions? Here’s an approach that accomplishes both.

Rublee, M. R. (2014). Rubrics in the political science classroom: Packing a serious analytical punch.  PS, Political Science and Politics, 47 (1), 199-203.
Why read it: Rubrics can do so much more than expedite grading. You don’t have to teach political science to benefit from this article.

Seidel, S. B. and Tanner, K. D. (2013). “What if students revolt?”—Considering student resistance: origins, options and opportunities for investigation.  Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 12 (Winter), 586-595.
Why read it: Find here a veritable cache of wisdom on dealing with student resistance.

Take note of this interesting data



laptops in classroomsThe June issue of Psychological Science included a study of the use of laptops in classrooms and examined whether note taking was best done with the pen or the keyboard.

Laptops have always raised the ire of faculty. Competing against Facebook and Pinterest is humbling when you’re standing in the front of the room. We know that students want good grades and see the laptop as a self-destructive distraction to their own success. Even those who are actually taking notes may not be as productive as those who are writing down their notes.

This study provides initial experimental evidence that laptops may harm academic performance even when used as intended. Participants using laptops are more likely to take lengthier transcription-like notes with greater verbatim overlap with the lecture. Although taking more notes, thereby having more information, is beneficial, mindless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review.  (Mueller & Oppenheimer)

Synthesizing and summarizing ideas instead of trying to capture every word can translate to more knowledge retained. What do you do with laptops in your classroom?

Who Cares?


A recent Gallup-Purdue University study on undergraduate experiential and deep learning had a number that really jumped out at me.

My professors at [College] cared about me as a person. – Strongly agree – 27%

This morning I read Dr. Sam Brown’s recent article in the Chronicle on “Why Professors Should Give a Damn.” Almost more interesting are the sometime heated comments in response to this article from professors across the country. Some agree that compassion is needed in the classroom and that students deserve to be treated with care while others firmly believe that students need to be held accountable and that they are doing their students a service be holding fast to deadlines and not taking excuses.

A Faculty Focus article also recently addressed this topic. Dr. John Orlando wrote ‘Students will never say, “I missed the exam because I was out late last night—it was one dollar taps at the Silver Horse, you know how it goes.” As a result, teachers must have a policy for handling these situations, which invariably involves a decision on trust.’

As I think about what changes I might make for next semester, one of the most intriguing suggestions came from a response to Orland’s article. Lee Jordan-Anders, a Professor of Music and Artist-in-Residence at Virginia Wesleyan College, commented by sharing how she structures her grades…

Long ago I stopped trying to play God in the classroom and decide which excuses were valid. Instead I offer “alternative points.” All students may elect to take advantage of a varied shopping list of opportunities to earn points. Who’s to say that taking a 4-chapter in-class test represents a better gauge of what a student has learned than an in-depth research project on one of the topics within a chapter, completed outside of class? Students are also permitted (encouraged!) to design their own creative alternative projects, and many of them have surpassed any kind of learning experience that I could have designed for them. Students simply earn points–it’s not important if they earn them in the class (clearly the easier ones to earn) or out. Sometimes students have difficultly grasping the concept that they take responsibility for earning the points necessary for the grade they hope for. But the numbers don’t lie. It’s a great system that not only gets me out of the judgment business but teaches students something about personal accountability and responsibility.

Evaluating Online Courses


We know that online courses are different from the traditional classroom, so shouldn’t evaluating them be different too? Beyond student course evaluations, how would a peer provide feedback or a program director?

UB has a long history with Quality Matters and their nationally recognized peer-based model for continuous improvement and the QM Rubric for applying quality standards to course design. We’ve had several courses go through the QM process (successfully, I might add) and recognize its value. On a smaller scale, however, there are options for providing local feedback and conducting evaluations online.

Peer Evaluation – Learner interaction, learner assessment, a review of objectives, course material and competencies, as well as an evaluation of course organization are all included in West Carolina University’s checklist for constructive peer feedback. 

Administrative Evaluation – There are administrators who’ve never taught online and might not know where to start an evaluation of an online course. While I would stress how important it is for to partner with someone with online teaching experience I would also point out Thomas Tobin’s article on Administrative Evaluation of Online Faculty. Although written in 2004, Tobin’s writings are still relevant. He provides factors unique to online courses, technological considerations, helping administrators unfamiliar with online courses, and national standards, rubrics, and benchmarks.

Other Rubrics – More? Glad to. Here are a few additional sites for quality assurance and evaluation.

UB’s e-Learning Center staff are happy to discuss the Quality Matters Rubric or how other checklists and rubrics can be used to evaluate online courses. There are those among us teaching online who are skeptical of evaluation but clearly, there will be less opposition if it is based in constructive feedback and sound online teaching practices.