Teaching Advice

What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You

One of the things that I enjoy most about being an Instructional Technologist is that I am constantly required to stay up to date on the newest learning technologies and instructional strategies. Part of my job involves designing and delivering professional development sessions to faculty at the College of Charleston. As we all know, technology is constantly evolving, new tools are being developed and released daily, and old tools are updated with new features multiple times throughout the semester. On several occasions, I’ve spent weeks or months preparing a session on a particular web tool, only to realize an hour before faculty members are set to arrive that the site navigation has changed, the tool’s features have been removed, altered, or upgraded, or the tool was pulled from the web. In those moments when I’m scrambling to pull together a session on something totally unfamiliar, it’s easy to become stressed or anxious, wondering whether attendees will see me as unprepared or unqualified. Surprisingly, some of these sessions have been among my favorites and have received the highest ratings, and I believe that the reason for this is that I was able to better understand how my attendees viewed the content since it was new to me, too.

I recently had the opportunity to read “Teaching What You Don’t Know” by Therese Huston, who is the Founding Director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (now the Center for Faculty Development) at Seattle University. As the title suggests, the book provides strategies to help faculty members who are tasked with teaching outside of their areas of expertise. As part of her research for this book, Huston interviewed 28 faculty members on topics related to teaching what you don’t know, which seems to often be the norm in academia.

While Huston understands the disadvantages of teaching what you don’t know, she also identifies some of the benefits to being what she calls a “content novice” early in the book along with a reminder that instructors should focus on creating an environment conducive to learning rather than feeling discouraged because they see themselves as givers of information.

How can your lack of expertise in a certain area actually help you in the classroom? According to Huston, some of the advantages are:

  • Content novices can better predict the steps that it will take a beginner to complete a task. It makes sense that someone who has only recently studied a topic in depth would be able to predict the steps that a student would go through to learn the same information.
  • Content novices are capable of relating difficult concepts to what the student already knows. Without higher level knowledge in a particular content area, content novices often make sense of difficult concepts by considering how they apply to everyday scenarios rather than connecting them to abstract theories.
  • Novices are better able to assess the amount of time it will take a learner to complete a task. Because they are rather new to a particular topic area themselves, content novices remember the amount of time it takes to learn new concepts, and according to research, people who have a little experience in a particular area are actually better at estimating the time that it takes to do something than both people with no experience and experts. In fact, experts were actually worse at predicting the amount of time it will take a beginner to complete a task than someone who has never completed the task before.

So next time you’re tasked with teaching a class that may be a bit outside your comfort zone, remember that there are benefits to your situation. That new course that you’re prepping may just become one of your most successful due to your ability to reach your students in a different way.


Huston, T. (n.d.). Teaching What You Don’t Know. Cambridge, MA 2009: Harvard University Press.

Best Practices, Pedagogy, Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice

Small Teaching Tip #4: Incorporate Active Learning into Your Lectures

Most faculty members have lectured to their students at some point in their careers. In traditional lectures, this means that the instructor speaks while students listen. While some lectures can be dynamic, engaging, and even entertaining, research has shown that student concentration typically drops after 10-15 minutes. With many questions during a traditional lecture being purely rhetorical, there are few opportunities for students to engage with the material or their instructor and classmates. What can you do to be sure that your students are engaged?

Try implementing low risk, high impact strategies such as interactive lecturing. Instead of a traditional hour-long lecture, break the content into several 10-15 minute “chunks.” In between each chunk, incorporate small, structured activities. This can be as simple as asking a question that requires student responses, encouraging students to participate in a brief think-pair-share exercise, or having students complete a one-minute paper. These active learning strategies will re-focus student attention as soon as concentration begins to drop while also giving you the opportunity to assess student comprehension throughout the lecture.

What kind of active learning strategies have you used to enhance your lectures? Please share your tips!

This post is part of a series which will present low risk, high reward teaching ideas. Inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, this series will inspire you to implement small but powerful changes to your teaching.

Best Practices, Pedagogy, Teaching Advice

Strategies for Unmotivated Students

As instructional technologists, we often get questions from faculty members about student motivation. What happens when you plan engaging lessons and your students still are not interested or participating in class? This is an area of concern for many faculty members, and unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all solution.

After getting a question about this in one of my recent sessions, I decided that I wanted to find out more about strategies concerning unmotivated students. I found a great article from Jennifer Gonzales at Cult of Pedagogy that addresses this topic and wanted to share it here.

According to Gonzales, current research about what motivates students says that:

  1. Having a positive relationship with one’s teacher can influence a student’s motivation.
  2. Students are more motivated when they are allowed to make choices related to learning and coursework.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, extrinsic rewards actually negatively affect student motivation.
  4. In order to be motivated, students must feel like there is room for improvement in a particular task.
  5. Students are more motivated to learn things that they believe are relevant to their lives.

Based on the research, here are some suggestions for unmotivated students:

  1. Use icebreakers, journals, and one-on-one conversations to build relationships with your students.
  2. Allow students to choose how they’d like to complete assignments when possible. Some students may prefer creating a multimedia project to writing a paper. Can a particular learning goal be met using different modalities? If so, allow students to choose how they’d like to show their knowledge.
  3. Focus on the value of a particular task. Explain how a student’s participation in the task will benefit the student outside of the classroom.
  4. Provide specific feedback on student work rather than generalized statements such as “needs improvement.”
  5. Make connections between classroom content and students’ lives or current events.

Gonzales included many more suggestions and resources for things that you can do to improve student motivation in your classroom, including questions to ask yourself about your own teaching, which can be found here
What are some ways that you plan to use these strategies in your classroom?

Best Practices, Teaching Advice

Seeking Student Feedback Throughout the Semester

feedback528x352As the semester comes to an end, many faculty members are anxious to read their students’ evaluations. As instructors, we can use student feedback in a variety of ways to improve our own teaching. We all know that giving our students timely feedback is important, but what about receiving timely feedback from our own students?

I recently ready a blog post by Jennifer Gonazales at Cult of Pedagogy about why instructors should seek their own student feedback instead of waiting for the end of the semester for course evaluations. There are many benefits to asking students to give feedback throughout the semester, including:

  • Increasing student engagement by figuring out what types of activities students enjoy and adding more of these to your courses
  • The ability to adjust instruction to meet students’ needs
  • Self-preservation! As Jennifer writes, “Instead of waiting for the ‘official’ forms to be distributed to students, get ahead of the curve by asking for similar feedback early, while there’s still time to troubleshoot.”

Jennifer’s blog post has many great examples of questions to ask your students, how to actually implement this idea, and most importantly, how to act on the feedback you receive. You can read Jennifer’s post here: 5 Reasons You Should Seek Your OWN Student Feedback

For more strategies on using student feedback, this article on going above and beyond the typical student feedback requirements is a great read, as well: Feedback From Students Becomes a Campus Staple, but Some Go Further

While it’s too late to implement these strategies for the fall semester, it’s the perfect time to reflect on this semester’s teaching and look forward to a new year and a new semester! As you review this semester’s course evaluations, I challenge you to think about how you may be able to incorporate more opportunities for students to share their feedback throughout the next semester.

Tech Happens! Un-Grant, TLT

Guest Post: Archaeology meets Technology in Transylvania

College of Charleston Professor Alvaro Ibarra applied for and received one of TLT’s Ungrant awards in Spring 2015. He requested a Bushnell Range Finder with the funds he was awarded from TLT. He used the range finder over the summer in his work with the Brasov Archaelogical Projects in present-day Transylvania. Here, Professor Ibarra explains more about his work in archaeology, how the range finder was used, and how his research will benefit students this semester.


Professor Alvaro Ibarra
Professor Alvaro Ibarra

Alvaro Ibarra is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Architectural History at the College of Charleston. He specializes in Greek and Roman art, architecture, and archaeology. His current research revolves around the strategic uses of Roman military installations on the frontier of the Roman Empire in eastern Transylvania.

Part of this current research project includes the examination of various passes in the Carpathian Mountains, vital lines of communication in the ancient world. In particular, accurate measurements of the width of these passes and first-hand experiential analysis of the terrain aids in gauging their tactical efficacy. These conclusions will help clarify the debates surrounding the Roman invasion of Dacia (present-day Transylvania) and Rome’s strategic use of occupation forces. Such a study is timely in the midst of America’s own occupation of foreign territories.

At the College of Charleston, students frequently experience the benefits of having professors pursuing archaeological endeavors. Active projects expose students to the processes of the discipline of archaeology; they are able to better understand how an idea develops and makes its way from the excavation site to their textbooks. Professor Ibarra will be lecturing on his current findings in his course “Imaging Warfare in the Ancient World” (ARTH 290) this fall.

BAP member, Jeremy C. Miller (S&ME Cultural Resources Management, Charleston) measures the width of the exit to the Tornu Rosu Pass near Boita, Sibiu County, Romania.
BAP member, Jeremy C. Miller (S&ME Cultural Resources Management, Charleston) measures the width of the exit to the Tornu Rosu Pass near Boita, Sibiu County, Romania.

Members of Brasov Archaeological Projects are using the Bushnell Range Finder during the 2015 season to accurately measure the width of various mountain passes used by the Roman army in the conquest of Dacia (present-day Transylvania) in the 2nd century CE.

There are three passes of interest this season through the Fagaras Mountains, the southernmost chain of the Carpathians. These entry points gave the Roman army access to the Transylvanian Plateau, the heart of the kingdom of Dacia. Only archaeological remains serve as evidence of Roman presence, and the extent of their use during the emperor Trajan’s campaign of conquest is up for debate. Textual accounts are fragmentary and sometimes contradictory.

Roman Fort of Arutela, Caciulata, Valcea County, Romania, 2nd to 3rd century CE.
Roman Fort of Arutela, Caciulata, Valcea County, Romania, 2nd to 3rd century CE.

Our task entails measuring the average width of the so-called Tornu Rosu Pass, a second unrecorded pass to the immediate east of the Tornu Rosu Pass, and the Bran Pass. These accurate physical measurements will be compared to geo-referenced data on three more entry points in the western Carpathians. The end result will be a quantification of the completed widths alongside analyses of topographical characteristics for each pass. This assessment will reveal patterns to help scholars better understand the decision-making processes of Roman military tacticians, particularly in campaigns involving mountain warfare.


The Bushnell Range Finder allows project members to accurately record data without having to risk life and limb in especially treacherous terrain. Strategic points atop heavily forested and craggy mountainsides and across the cliff sides of deep ravines in the unforgiving landscape of the Carpathian Mountains are now easily accessible through a welcome bit of technology.

BAP thanks TLT at the College of Charleston for their contribution to this ongoing investigation.

Alvaro Ibarra

Assistant Professor

Department of Art History

Collaboration, Facilities, Innovative Instruction, Tech Generation

Makerspaces in Higher Ed

Makerspaces are a relatively new trend in education. Makerspaces are physical spaces where students can get together to work on creative projects and often contain 3D printers, innovative software, electronics, craft and hardware supplies, and other materials. In education, makerspaces can be thought of as a combination of a classroom and a workshop or lab. But why do we need makerspaces, and why are they relevant in higher education? Andrew Kim, a Steelcase education researcher said, “…we have found that, at the same time that technology is reshaping education, the importance of face-to-face learning is also growing, providing new opportunities for hands-on learning instead of all lecture-based.” Unlike traditional classroom environments, student learning in a makerspace is hands-on and self-directed. Georgia Tech’s makerspace, called the Invention Studio, has been incredibly successful and is often used as a model for others in higher education.

Do you think makerspaces have a place in higher education? If you were designing a makerspace, what equipment, software, or tools would you like to see included?

1-1-1, iPad, Mobile

Guest Post: How a Calendar Service Saved and an App Nearly Destroyed My Sanity

Our guest blogger is Gretchen McLaine, Associate Professor of Dance. Gretchen was a participant in the 2014 Summer FTI, and this post is a review of Gretchen’s experience integrating two new tools into her courses.


If you are like most faculty here at the college, you embrace any opportunity to make more efficient use of your time and simplify your work life. Being the lone full-time faculty member and director of a vibrant, new program, I appreciate any chance to make my job a bit more manageable. However, with so many options from which to choose, I turned to our Faculty Technology Institute last summer for finding ways to make my life easier.

One of my favorite time savers is YouCanBookMe. If you do not currently use this website, you should. YouCanBookMe is a free service where anyone with your URL can schedule an appointment with you. Not only does the site sync with your Google calendar, it only shows your availability, not any personal information about your appointments. You can also decide specific times of each day to make yourself available/unavailable. My URL is included on my syllabi as well as on my office door. All of my advising appointments are scheduled through this amazing, free service, which has stopped the endless hours of emailing back and forth with students as we try to coordinate schedules.

My experiences with the Grader application has almost cost me my sanity, and has certainly cost me a lot of wasted time. Available for iPad, this app is supposed to integrate with the College’s learning management system, otherwise known as OAKS. One of the advantages of its use is the ability to grade files submitted to OAKS dropbox folders without requiring Internet access. However, before you can grade offline, you must go through the app while online and download the contents of these folders, remembering to hit the download buttons on each folder and then hitting the sync icon. If you are unable to do this, then the app isn’t useful. And even if you grade while off-line, you must sync again whenever you regain Internet connectivity for those files to be returned to the students. For some reason and on multiple occasions, I have graded papers only to have lost them when I synced the folders. And while there have been some improvements in the stability of this app over the past year, I have also experienced this app freezing while grading (losing graded papers in the process) on multiple occasions. Maybe it is user error, but my experiences with this app have proven more frustrating than fruitful.

Innovative Instruction, instructional technology, Mobile, social networking, Teaching Advice, Tech Generation, TLT

Teaching Digital Natives

Did you know that the average college student spends 8 to 10 hours per day on a mobile phone? Whether texting, using social media applications, or browsing the internet, we can all agree that students are more connected than ever. But what does this mean for our teaching? Continue reading “Teaching Digital Natives”

instructional technology, Productivity

Top 10 EdTech Tools for 2015

Welcome back, faculty! Whether you’re new to the classroom or a veteran professor, the beginning of a new semester is a busy time for all of us in academia. Between planning and preparing courses, attending faculty meetings, and getting to know new students, you may feel that there is little time for seeking out or implementing new technology.

With your busy schedule in mind, the folks at Top Hat have put together a list of the Top 10 EdTech tools for 2015. These tools can be used in your courses to increase collaboration, improve organization, and encourage participation. Many of these tools are also relatively simple and can help set up your classes for success this semester.

To view the complete list on the Top Hat blog, click here.

As always, if you find a tool that you may be interested in using this semester, you can contact your Instructional Technologist for ideas or assistance.