Skip to content

Author: Peg Balachowski

Why we should learn students’ names

Many of you know that one of my favorite bloggers is Maryellen Weimer, editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter. In a recent post in Faculty Focus, Weimer reminds us that learning students’ names is just good practice. However, the inability to remember the names of possibly 100 students each quarter, and remember them for long periods of times (till next quarter? next year? next decade?) plagues us all. She writes:  “Names … why do we have such trouble learning them? For those of us who struggle with names, it never gets easier, no matter how many tricks we try. It can be embarrassing—to ourselves and to others. I remember once visiting a mall while out of town and hearing someone calling my name. Soon, a vaguely familiar person was greeting me with enthusiasm. ‘I am so happy to see you! It’s been so long? How are you?’ ”

Over the next few weeks I will be writing posts about “The 4 Connections.” Here’s the back story: about 2 years ago I was at a party and saw my friend Elliot Stern. Elliot is the Vice President of Instruction (VPI) at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech). He told me that several people from LWTech had gone to an Achieving the Dream conference and one of them went to a workshop given by staff from Odessa College in Odessa, TX. Think oil wells and Friday Night Lights. By way of introduction, they shared that Odessa had a large percentage of students who were not only struggling in their classes, but were ultimately dropping out. There was also a high rate of failure and huge equity gaps. In fact, they had the highest drop rate in the country. After a lot of research and soul searching, they discovered that there were four things that all faculty who had low drop rates were doing. They presented their DRIP program (Drop Rate Improvement Plan) that ultimately not only improved persistence and retention, but closed most of the equity gaps. Today they are an Aspen Prize winning college.

My friend Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction at LWTech, ran with this idea, and summarized it as “The 4 Connections.” They are: Interact with Students by Name, Check-in Regularly, Schedule One-on-One meetings, and Practice Paradox.

Let’s get back to the first connection of   Interact with Students by Name. Yes, it’s difficult to learn (and remember) students’ names. I struggled with this for a long time. When I was teaching at Michigan Technological University, an engineering school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I swear every math class was populated by young men who all looked alike – 18 or 19 years old, blond, wearing a cap and Carharts. Of course we have a much more diverse population at EvCC, but remembering names is still a challenge. To address not only learning but remembering names, try this simple approach: On the first day of class, have paper and markers at each table (or easily accessible if there are desks). I like to raid the recycling bin for paper that has been printed on one side only and then discarded.  Have students make a name plate with the name that they’d like you to use. They should display it every day (for this reason I collected them at the end of class and had them available at the beginning of the next class). An added benefit was that if a name plate wasn’t picked up at the beginning of class, I knew that student was absent. Ask students to be sure to make their name legible and large enough for you to read from the front of the class. And, encourage students to address each other by name. Weimer writes, “Challenge students to learn and use each other’s name – None of this, ‘I agree with him.’ Who is he? What’s his name? Someone, please, introduce him to the rest of us. When you give students an activity like think-pair-share, always remind them to first introduce themselves to their partner.”

Two table name tags, one with the name 'Jason' and one with the name 'Debby' written on them. In the foreground are several blank sheets of paper and five markers.

Think about how this might improve the community in your classroom. Raid the recycling bin today and get ready for the start of Fall Quarter. And stay tuned for the next post on The 4 Connections.




Comments closed

Coming out of the cave

When I was cleaning out some papers in a desk drawer the other day I came across an article from the Community College Week magazine. I sometimes tear articles out of magazines or newspapers and keep them in a file for reference later. Of course sometimes I re-read the article and can’t remember why I thought it was important at the time, but when I saw the title of this article, Leave the Cave: Professional Development to Improve Student Success, I knew I had to share it in a blog post. The author, Christine Johnson McPhail, Managing Partner of the McPhail Group, said, “People need to come out of their caves!” She visited a community college and met with the school’s student success committee and president. The people she is encouraging to come out of their caves are faculty who teach and fulfill their contractual duties, but do little else. “They seemed disengaged from the greater strategic direction of the college. Their pedagogical practices were all over the map. They appeared to embody little commitment to tweaking classroom practices to improve student outcomes…the result was a cave-dwelling environment with a ‘do your own thing’ mindset.”

Note that there is light at the entrance to the cave image at the left. That suggests that it is possible for those reluctant colleagues to leave the cave – but there is no quick fix to this problem. Whose responsibility is it to help our colleagues see the light and move towards it?

McPhail suggests that we must first “assess the operative culture and climate in order to define student success and the existing professional development issues.” Do we all agree what student success means? Are we willing to have a conversation about our professional development needs? How are we going to answer these questions in light of our Guided Pathways work? What is it that all faculty need to know in order for us to have a shared vision of student success?

Let’s assume that all faculty (and staff) sign on for the work and vision of Guided Pathways (or just student success)? There are three areas that we must avoid as identified by McPhail:

  • The “That’s above my pay grade” mentality.
    • We all know that teachers are are poorly paid. Why should I work harder than I have to? I already spend hours grading and prepping!
  • The “This is my space” syndrome.
    • I have academic freedom. What happens in my classroom is my business!
  • The “That’s not in my job description” discussion.
    • My job is to teach. I shouldn’t have to serve on so many committees. Besides, that’s what administrators are for!

My guess is that we have all heard someone say at least one of these things. In fact, perhaps you have said something like this yourself (I think I am guilty of that at some point, especially when we seem to be adding one initiative after another, or at the end of the academic year when we are all hoping the quarter ends soon!). So here’s my question for all of you: How do those of us responsible for professional development on our campus help our colleagues venture towards the light at the entrance to the cave? Remember that the motto of the CTT (Center for Transformative Teaching) is Exploring Innovations in Teaching and Learning. How can we help you explore new ways to help students be successful?

Comments closed

Active Learning and Actively Learning

Do you remember your first year as a teacher?

I have (not so fond) memories of staying mostly one step ahead of my students that year, prepping the material I was supposed to cover the next day. Despite the fact that I had just graduated from college and thought I was fully prepared to stand in front of students and share my “wisdom,” it wasn’t until I was teaching the material that I really began to get a deep understanding of it!  You could say that I was actively learning that year. And actually several years after that as I taught more and different math courses, and when I began teaching college math courses it started all over again!

I just read an article by Neil Haave, Associate Professor of Biology at The University of Alberta Augustana Campus, who was considering the issue of actively learning after he implemented an activity in a class that required very little of him and quite a lot of his students. In other words, he had them do active learning in his class. All of the important facts had been covered in previous classes, and now it was time for students to begin synthesizing; he was pleased that students were really actively engaged in the material. Haave says, “This (activity) produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.”

A podium in a spot light on stage.

So there’s the rub. So many of us prefer the Sage on the Stage  approach rather than the Guide on the Side position. When we are teaching/lecturing, we begin to know and understand the material differently (and deeply) from when we were students ourselves, and that feels good. At some point we are no longer a step or two ahead of the students. But when we move away from the podium (literal or figurative) and let the students have a larger role in their learning, it does begin to feel a bit like we aren’t teaching. Coincidentally, students may report that they think you aren’t teaching anymore either! Perhaps you’ve even had student comments like that on your end-of-course evaluations, similar to what Haave did:  “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!

So how has Haave’s view of what’s happening in the classroom changed since he became an active learning instructor?  He writes that, “I am now learning which concepts trip up my students and how I can guide them through those bottlenecks. I’m also learning how to help them reflect on the misconceptions that prevent them from grasping the material at a deep level.”

Have you tried active learning techniques in your classes? What was the outcome? Many times I have tried new things and have experienced some degree of failure, only to discover that my directions were not clear or I hadn’t adequately prepared students for the work I anticipated they would be able to do. In reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, I recognize that most of the time I didn’t adequately prepare. Now, however, I have a few “back pocket techniques” (remember James Lang telling us in Small Teaching that we should always have a couple of activities that we can pull out of our back pocket when we want to turn things around without a complete overhaul?) that I like to use. Case studies is one, presenting students with “wicked problems” that often have no right answer. I also use Pass the Problem when I want students to get up and move while they are working together. At the conclusion of both of these activities I ask students to reflect on what they’ve learned. We’ve mentioned helping students to reflect on their learning in this blog before, and will continue to think of it as one of the most important ways to help students actively learn the material.

If you want to learn more techniques for bringing active learning to your classroom, be sure to let us know.




Comments closed

Is Innovation Just a Buzzword?

Have you been to a conference or a meeting on campus recently where the word innovation WASN’T used? It seems to be a buzzword not just in the halls of academia but in the business world as well. What does it mean to be innovative, and how do we incorporate innovations into our teaching practices?  defines the verb to innovate as: to introduce something new; make changes in anything established. Does innovation mean revolution? No – it can mean small changes, incremental changes, to your daily work. Think Small Teaching by James Lang, a book I wrote about in an early post. Lang writes about “back pocket techniques” that you can have at the ready to enhance student learning. I wish I had known that innovations could be small when I first started teaching. 

In my first several years in the classroom I struggled to “get things right” and when things started to go smoothly, I did what many of us do: I rested on my laurels. At that point I was mostly concerned about covering the material each day and not evidence of student learning.  Since then I have taken to heart this quote by 19th Century Clergyman William Pollard, “Learning and innovation go hand-in-hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday is sufficient for tomorrow.”

So, it’s not critical that you re-invent your course or yourself. What about starting with one small task next week? Yes, planning for innovation is a good way to make sure it happens. Consider this: On Monday, start class with this activity. Say to students: Before I introduce the next topic to explore in class, please find a partner and discuss the big topics we have learned so far. Make a list and be ready to describe how they are related.

Opening class with a “retrieval” activity will let you know how well students have actually learned the material, and is a great way to help students to see the big picture of the topics in the course. I should note that the first time you introduce an activity like this you may be surprised how difficult it is for students. I can tell you from experience that not all my innovative practices were a resounding success! Don’t throw away an activity just because it doesn’t work as well as you’d like the first time around.

Are there innovative practices that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!

Comments closed

Mid-Quarter Feedback

Student voice matters.

I think there is no way we can dispute this. If we wait until the end of the quarter and expect students to provide valuable information on their learning experiences in our class, chances are the disgruntled students (and aren’t there always a few?) will let us know what went wrong. Why don’t students tell us earlier if they want changes made in the course (and I’m talking about classroom activities, not course content)?

Because we didn’t ask them.

Mid-quarter check-ins are perfect opportunities to get feedback on how things are going. You may be familiar with my all-time favorite, PLUS/DELTA. A simple grid with 4 spaces for students to reflect on not only what the teacher is doing to help them learn (PLUS) and what the teacher can change to help learning (DELTA), it also includes spaces for students to identify their own behaviors that are helpful and those that should be improved upon.

The most important part of this process is reading and reviewing the anonymous (and I believe it should be anonymous) feedback from students, and then responding, closing the feedback loop.

Here’s the story of the first time I used PLUS/DELTA: I gave each student in the class a copy of the grid and assigned it as a reflective assignment for that evening. The following class period I asked students to team up in groups of 3-5 and to look for trends in the areas related to me, the teacher. I gave each small group another copy of the grid, and in about 10 minutes each group had 3-5 items in both columns, PLUS and DELTA. That night I read over the small stack of papers – only 1 from each team – and formulated my response. It started something like this: “Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. Let me share with you the things that you’d like me to continue doing in the class that are helping you to learn (and I put that list on the teaching station to share). Now let me share with you the things you’ve suggested I change (and I put that list on the teaching station). As you know, I can’t stop giving exams, but I can change the day of the week.” And so on. Interestingly, the class became much more engaged after that exercise! Before the end-of-quarter evaluations that quarter, I reminded students that their feedback helped make this a better class and me a better teacher, and I reminded them of the changes that were made because of their feedback. The next quarter when I was reviewing my IDEA results, I was pleased to read this student comment: “No one ever asked me before how I would change the class. Thank you!”

If you want to get feedback on a more regular basis, here’s one I found by a copy machine recently (I can’t give credit because there was no information on the handout!)

Directions: Please fill out one or both squares and drop in the basket up front before you leave. NO NAMES PLEASE! This is anonymous!


This week, what part of the lesson, or what point is still a bit unclear to you? What are you struggling with? And what could I, your instructor, have done/can do to make your learning easier?


This week what part of the lesson, or what point, was finally made clear to you? What was your “ah ha!” moment? And/or what did YOU do this week that made your learning easier?


Do you have favorite anonymous feedback examples you’d like to share? Let us know!

Comments closed

Making the extraordinary ordinary

“If we want students to learn, the most critical element is the teacher. So professional development is the overall most important thing we can do to help students learn.”  

Why Quality Professional Development for Teachers Matters by Ben Johnson in Edutopia

As a member of the Center for Transformative Teaching team, I think it’s important for me to continue learning deeply about the world of teaching and learning. Much of what I learn shows up on this blog and in the journal articles I post on the CTT site. To support my learning, I regularly read blogs, journals, and even take courses (online) that I hope will help me support you in this amazing work we do. To that end, I am enrolled in a MOOC called Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning through edX. In his introduction to the course, Don Peurach, Assistant Professor of Educational Policy, Leadership and Innovation in the School of Education at the University of Michigan says we are at “A moment of renewal and reinvention in education in the United States and around the world. Complex dynamics, social, political, economic are creating needs and opportunities to pursue new aims for student learning, new approaches to classroom instruction and new strategies for school and system organization. Addressing these needs and seizing these opportunities will require transformative innovation.” There’s that word again…transformative

Transform (verb):

1. to change in form, appearance, or structure; metamorphose.
2. to change in condition, nature, or character; convert.
3. to change into another substance; transmute.
What is it that the CTT is hoping to transform?  Employee retention, efficiency, skills, knowledge and abilities. To make the extraordinary ordinary, we need pretty big ideas and goals, yes?  If you check the CTT webpage, you’ll see that we list the following:
To help you improve your teaching and learning over time, we hope to provide you with ideas for enhancing your teaching, including:
  • Getting Feedback on Teaching
  • Developing Instructional Skills and Materials
  • Improving Course/Program Design and Alignment
  • Consulting with eLearning professionals about Teaching and Learning Issues
  • Learning More About Teaching and Enhancing Student Learning

If you have ideas for how the CTT team, including John Melson, Derek Jorgenson and me, please let us know. We are here to transform!


Comments closed

Does feedback enhance learning?

Each month I meet with a group of faculty in the New Faculty Academy to discuss chapters in the book How Learning Works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching (Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha Lovette, Marie Norman). Our discussions allow us to do a deep dive into our classroom practices, and because the faculty come from different disciplines and teaching experiences, there are always rich conversations that enhance our own learning.

Recently we discussed the chapter “What kinds of practice and feedback enhance learning?” There are 2 kinds of feedback that we tend to give students: formative and summative. Many of us rely solely on summative feedback, such as exams, projects, or papers. I recently heard someone describe the case of relying on exams alone as doing an “autopsy” on student work. Formative assessment is a way, as the authors state, to focus on ways to help students “work smarter.” The authors believe that “feedback plays” a critical role in “keeping learners’ practice moving toward improvement.”  Formative feedback that you might be familiar with would include things like the minute paper or the PLUS/DELTA mid-quarter feedback. Both of these address student learning and allow the instructor to make changes in their classroom practice in real time. Using the minute paper at the end of a class asking students to summarize the main ideas of the day allows an instructor to reflect on whether they were successful in getting those main ideas across. A PLUS/DELTA mid-quarter assessment allows students to comment on what’s working in the class to promote their learning (PLUS) and what changes they’d like to see in the class to help them learn better (DELTA).

Here is a short list of the strategies that the authors suggest for targeted feedback:

  • Look for patterns of errors in student work
  • Prioritize your feedback
  • Provide feedback at the group level
  • Design frequent opportunities to give feedback
  • Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work

Of these, I am most interested in knowing whether you have ever used the last type of feedback. Would this be valuable to you, the instructor, and to students? Do you think it would help students to connect the dots between different assignments?

If you’d like to learn more about other kinds of formative assessments, please connect with me!


Comments closed

Shared Expectations

During a casual conversation with a faculty member, we were talking about the then upcoming quarter and the planning she was doing (along with her department colleagues) to get ready for the beginning of classes. Coincidentally, an email from the Faculty Focus blog (written by my all time favorite blogger, Dr. Maryellen Weimer, showed up in my email inbox:  What Happens in a Course is a Shared Responsibility. Weimer says, “Early in my teaching career, I heard a wise colleague tell students, ‘It’s not my class. It’s not your class. It’s our class, and together we will make it a good or not-so-good learning experience.’ ” I looked back at some of my old syllabi and realized I made some of the same mistakes that many faculty commonly make. I outlined the expectations I had for students, including things like punctuality, adherence to class rules, and the cell phone prohibition. Where, I wondered, was my statement about what students could expect from me? I did all the things that Weimer talks about: “We can carefully prepare and organize course materials, design effective activities, treat all students fairly, offer clear explanations, and establish policies that promote learning.” But did I explicitly state what they could expect? Probably not.

Weimer’s article talks mostly about how to create a classroom with shared responsibility for students’ learning. Here are the three things she suggests will be contributing factors in their success:

  1. Students will take responsibility for their own learning.
  2. Students will support the efforts that the teacher makes to help them learn.
  3. Individual students can contribute to the learning experience of other students in the classroom.

One of the activities that we use in the 5-Star Consortium Best Practices orientation for new associate faculty each quarter is “Developing Shared Expectations.” This activity right at the beginning of the orientation helps us build community with a large group of faculty from all levels of experience (some from previous academic institutions and some from industry and some with no prior experience at all!) and helps them build community within the group. We ask, “what can we as facilitators do to make this a rich learning experience?” and “what will you do to make this a rich learning experience?” We encourage the new faculty to try this on the first day of class, and to post it in their Canvas class or even on the wall of the classroom so that it can be referenced throughout the quarter. We have found that when it is regularly reinforced in conversations in the class that students will generally meet the factors set out by Weimer in her article.

Are there activities that you use in the classroom that help to build shared responsibility? Let us know! We are always looking for topics to write about, and look forward to hearing from you!


Comments closed

Solve a Teaching Problem

I recently had the opportunity to spend some quality time with one of my teaching and learning heroes, Todd Zakrajsek. Todd is at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine. I met him several years ago at a multiple day professional development workshop – when I was first finding my way in the Pro-D world – and was immediately impressed by his approach to working with faculty. Just today I received an email from The Scholarly Teacher (one of the T&L blogs I read) and the latest post is by Todd: Students Who Don’t Participate in Class Discussions: They Are Not All Introverts. Take a look – it’s worth your time!

Let me get back to an idea that I have been reflecting on since my discussion with Todd: the Threshold Concept. Here’s how he explains it: many faculty are married to the idea of “I have to cover my content! I don’t have time for active learning because everything is important! I am a content expert! I can get through it only if I lecture!” Other faculty believe that lecture should be punctuated with activities. After 10 minutes of lecture about (name your topic) you should do something active to break up the lecture.  It’s something we do to keep students’ attention. Todd suggests that many people, especially our students, have a cognitive capacity that is reached in about 12 minutes. Isn’t that a perfect time to do “some” activity? Yes! But make sure that the activity is designed to solidify that content. Remember, he says, our job is not to cover the material – it’s to uncover the material for students. I know that sounds a bit like it’s coming straight out of a book by one of those educational consultants (believe me, I have plenty of them on my bookshelf!) Pause here for a moment – ask yourself, what do students really need us for? We ask them to purchase (very) expensive textbooks, and most, if not all of the material we cover in a course comes right from that text. Can’t a student who is motivated enough just read the text and “learn” the material?

Here are some questions for you to consider (think of this as your homework assignment):

Q1: Your expertise is important, and you were hired to teach in that discipline. If you do not have a background in education, how do you learn how to navigate a class (i.e. how to teach)?

Q2: How do you respond to the question, “What do students really need you for?”

Q3: Can anyone teach?

Q4: Where do you go to solve teaching problems? How do you recognize when you HAVE a teaching problem?

Q5: Interested in learning more about how to identify and solve a teaching problem? Check out The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation.

Share your comments and ideas!

Comments closed

What are exams for, anyway?

I was reading through several journal articles the other day, thinking about the difficult work of our faculty preparing for their final exams, and watching the exhausting work of our students pouring over their notes and books preparing for those exams. I came across an article in Vitae by Kevin Gannon, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. In this article, Rethinking My Exams, Gannon begins, “I’ve been thinking a lot about testing. That’s partly because I redesigned the survey course I’m teaching this semester. And overhauled the assessments I’m using. Ironically, the principal question that’s occupied my thoughts is the same one that regularly emerged in anguished groans at 3 am during my undergraduate career: Why do we even give exams in college, anyway? The answers I have now are different from the ones I had then (It’s always different on the other side of the podium.) College Me believed exams are similar to hazing – professors inflicted tests on us because they could, and since they were required to give us grades, something had to be there for us to try and earn points. Professor Me now knows that – when done well and designed appropriately – exams aren’t meant to haze, but rather, to measure student progress on specific course objectives.”

He goes on to describe why he’s given this so much thought (redesigning his course) before coming to the realization that his exams, comprised primarily of short-answer and essay questions (and occasionally multiple choice), looked like they did “Because that’s the way they looked in the courses that I was a TA for in graduate school, that’s why.”

I will admit to having some struggles with creating effective exams myself when I was in the classroom. And I realize now, because hindsight is always 20-20, that I was simply copying the exams that I had seen when I was a TA in graduate school as well. How hard can it be, after all, to create a math exam for an Intermediate Algebra course? Just use some of the homework problems, right?

Since that time I have come to view exams differently. As Gannon mentions, there are specific course objectives as well as core learning outcomes that must be measured, and in addition to students, we have external audiences (accreditors) that we must respond to. But I have also come to realize that it is not sufficient to give a grade on an exam. How can we turn our exams into real learning experiences? Exams are a little like a post-mortem – an examination and dissection of a dead body (in this case the exam) to determine cause of death (perhaps a failing grade) or the changes produced by disease (

Have you given any thought to how you might change your exams to create a positive learning experience for your students? We’d love to hear your ideas!

Comments closed