Photo of a young woman standing in front of a window wearing earphones with the caption "are you truly listening?"

Are You Truly Listening?

We may not want to admit it, but most of us are terrible listeners.  We’re distracted, mentally overburdened, and typically fail to practice perspective-taking. Too often, we interact with people on auto-pilot, without giving them much thought. In the busy worlds we live in, it can certainly be challenging to devote our attention to someone and eliminate distractions such as our to-do lists, electronic devices, and our own thoughts and feelings.

Being an ineffective listener can have detrimental effects on our relationships with students, colleagues, and our loved ones. But when we listen “mindfully,” we can be aware of these barriers and still remain open and attentive to the speaker’s message. Here are a few tips to practice more mindful listening:

Be present
When we listen mindfully, our focus is on the present moment, which means attending to the person with whom we are conversing.  This requires us to remove as many distractions as possible and commit to actively engaging in the conversation.

  • Workplaces and our homes are full of distractions. If you’re able, make your environment as quiet and distraction-free as possible (yes, that means silencing your devices and putting them away!).
  • If you anticipate the conversation will be important or difficult, take a moment to clear your mind before you meet with someone. Practice a few relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation, before the conversation.

Cultivate empathy
We each see the world through the lens of our own experiences, values, and opinions. Sometimes this can get in the way of mindfully listening because we, consciously or not, push our own perspectives onto the speaker.  But when listening mindfully and empathically, our goal is to understand the other person’s point of view and accept it for what it is, even if we disagree with it. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why he or she feels that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in his or her position. To better connect with and understand the person, try to remember a situation that inspired similar feelings for you and consider how you would like someone to react to your concerns.

When we disagree or are unable to genuinely empathize during a conversation, it’s important to avoid interrupting with counter-arguments or mentally preparing a rebuttal while the other person is speaking. And when you share your own perspective, express yourself using “I” statements to make it clear that your comments reflect your own thoughts and feelings rather than universal truths.

Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, paraphrase or mirror back what he or she said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include: “What I hear you saying is…” “It sounds like…” and “If I understand you correctly…” This gives the speaker the opportunity to correct you if you’ve misunderstood them.  But be careful to avoid parroting, which can sound phony. You don’t need to paraphrase everything; use your judgment to identify times during the conversation when providing a succinct synopsis would help you better understand the speaker and keep the conversation on track.

Ask open questions
An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”  They require more than one-word responses and, thus, encourage a fuller articulation of thought.  Examples of open questions include: “What was that like?” “What did you learn from that experience?” and “How did that shape your opinion?” Open questions encourage the speaker to think differently or more deeply about the subject and provide you with more information to help you better understand them. They also indicate to the speaker that you are interested in what they have to say (remember: expressing interest does not require you to agree with them).

Be present in your silence
Most of us have our responses playing in our heads before the other person has finished expressing what they want to say. Having a response brewing while the other person is talking is not being present or truly listening.  To encourage you to focus on the speaker, practice paraphrasing and asking open-ended questions as discussed above.

Use engaged body language
Show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment, such as checking your phone, and be mindful of your facial expressions (they often reveal how we’re truly feeling).

Avoid giving advice unless it’s requested
Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspectives and feel heard. So avoid jumping in right away with advice to “fix” the issue.  Offering unsolicited advice is often counterproductive and diminishes connectedness.

Mindfully observe what happens
This is one of the more challenging skills to practice, but it is worth the effort. When we are truly being mindful, we are able to observe, without judgement, how we are feeling while remaining attentive to the speaker.  Try the following and use your observations to inform your behavior during future conversations:

  • Notice when you choose to listen and when you become distracted.
  • Notice what it’s like to give a person your undivided attention without advising, correcting, or fixing.
  • Notice what happens when you interrupt and what happens when you don’t.
  • Notice what happens when you let go of your agenda, and instead focus on being empathic.
  • Notice how it feels to acknowledge your own reactions as they arise—thoughts, feelings, opinions, memories—then return your full attention to the speaker.

The next time a student approaches you after class, a colleague stops by your office, or a loved one gives you a call, challenge yourself to practice mindful listening.  It’s not easy and it takes continuous practice. But perhaps by improving our own listening skills, we can inspire others to do the same.  What would our communities be like if we were all truly listening?

Small Teaching Tip 14 Course Design with Accessibility in Mind
Accessibility, Best Practices, Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice

Small Teaching Tip #14: Course Design with Accessibility in Mind

A couple years ago, I had a startling wake-up call as an instructor.  While wandering the aisles at Target, I received an email from one of my students informing me that she is blind and may need accommodations in my class.  I leaned against my cart and realized I had never before considered how accessible my course is.  Most of my readings were scanned book chapters and articles that were not screen reader friendly.  None of the images I used included alt text.  Some of my charts and diagrams relied on color alone to convey information.  And I relied a lot on video clips.  

It was one week before the semester started.  I was screwed.

Ultimately, however, the student and I worked together to make her experience in my class positive.  I learned about optical character recognition (OCR) and how to make PDFs “readable” by software like JAWS.  When grading, I recorded audio feedback rather than using Word’s track changes and discovered almost all my students preferred this method.  And I provided typed descriptions of important visual elements in the videos I showed in class.  While I was able to ensure this student had access to everything the rest of her classmates did, it was a lot of work and a lot of last-minute scrambling.

Thus, I want to encourage you to not make the same mistake.  Now is the time to think about accessibility, not when you receive an accommodation letter from a student.  Yes, it will add preparation time up front, but it is much more efficient to be proactive than reactive.

What can you do as an instructor to ensure all students have equal access to your course materials and learning environment?  Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Information must be presented to students in ways they have the ability to comprehend (it can’t be invisible to all of their senses).  For example:
    • Provide text alternatives for non-text content (such as full-text transcriptions).
    • Include appropriate alternative text (alt text) that provides an equivalent to image content.
    • Provide captions and/or alternatives for audio and video content.
    • Make content available to assistive technologies, such as screen reading software.
    • Use sufficient contrast to make things easier to see.  For example, use dark background and light font or vice versa.  A contrast checker can help determine if your materials adhere to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.  Also, do not rely on color alone to convey meaning.
  2. Make sure all users can navigate and interact with your learning environment.  For example:
    • Make all functionality keyboard accessible, rather than requiring a mouse or trackpad (e.g. keyboard shortcuts).
    • Give users enough time to read and use content (e.g. additional time to take an exam).
    • Do not use content that may cause seizures or sensory discomfort (e.g. rapidly flashing animations).
  3. Avoid hyperlinking phrases like “Click here,” “More information,” or “Continue.”  
  4. Ensure technology tools, websites, or other outside resources used in the class are accessible to all students. 
    • For example, if you will be using a textbook publisher website, it is your responsibility to confirm their website is Section 508 compliant.

These additional resources will further help you design your course with accessibility in mind:

This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

Small Teaching Tip 13 Building Stronger Learning Communities
Best Practices, Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice

Small Teaching Tip #13: Building Stronger Learning Communities

In higher education, teaching is often perceived simply as the transmission of knowledge and that can contribute to our focus on content delivery at the expense of other elements of effective teaching.  Educational philosopher John Dewey argued that effective teachers do more than deliver content to their students.  They also value learning by doing rather than simply listening, giving students the freedom to explore and create their own meaning, and encouraging the application of knowledge to their lived experiences.

In order for these values to flourish in the college classroom, students and professors must build a safe, supportive learning community.  After all, the goal of teaching is not simply to build knowledge and competencies, but also to grow a network in which learners feel comfortable sharing perspectives, challenging one another’s world views, and stretching their thinking.  So the following are a few simple ideas to build greater community in your own classes.

  • Add clear statements to your syllabus that explain expectations regarding community and communication (and discuss them during the first week of class). Consider including topics such as:
    • The roles of students and instructor (e.g.  the instructor may initiate discussion, but students are responsible for facilitating).
    • How you want students to communicate with you and with each other (e.g. behavioral expectations, technology tools, etc.)
    • If you’ll be incorporating online interaction, include a section on netiquette.
    • What students can expect from you in terms of communication (e.g. response time to emails, making appointments, etc.)
    • Your expectations for quality participation (e.g. what “counts” as contributions to class discussion).
    • How students can get support and help when they need it (e.g. your office hours, Center for Student Learning, Helpdesk, etc.)


  • At the very beginning of the semester, send students a “welcome” video introducing yourself and the course.  Voicethread is a fantastic application to use for this purpose because it combines online discussion with multimedia content delivery.  For example, you could combine Powerpoint slides that contain information about you and the course with a webcam video of you discussing this information.  Then, students can leave audio, video, or text comments to introduce themselves and ask questions.  Creating such a presentation serves multiple purposes:  First, because you can cover typical syllabus information in the video, it frees up the first day of class for icebreakers and discussions.  Second, if you share personal information and use a webcam to record yourself talking, it allows students to get to know your personality better.  Finally, if you use an application like Voicethread, it allows students to engage one another in conversation and start building community.


  • Use the minutes before class starts to get to know your students better.  Many of us arrive to our classrooms without time to spare.  We then concentrate on taking attendance, turning on the computer and projector, and reviewing our lecture notes. Meanwhile, our students sit silently, gazing at their phones.  We may not consider the minutes before class begins as consequential, but they offer a fertile opportunity to get to know our students better and build a more positive classroom environment.   A number of studies suggest that learner satisfaction is related to the social presence and immediacy of the instructor.  So make it a goal to arrive to your classroom early and use those extra few minutes to chat with your students and set the stage for the rest of the class period.


  • Incorporate more opportunities for student collaboration.  Yes, students often grumble about group projects, but there are so many other ways to include collaborative learning in your classes.  Consider including more low-stakes opportunities rather than only culminating projects worth a significant portion of the students’ grades.  Peer teaching is one great option and a significant amount of empirical research indicates that working with peers has a positive influence on students’ psychological wellbeing, including autonomy, environmental mastery, and personal growth.  The research of Eric Mazur, who popularized peer instruction in the hard sciences, demonstrates learning gains frequently double and sometimes triple when peer instruction is integrated into class time.  To get you started, check out this post about peer teaching strategies and this one about facilitating drama-free group projects.


  • Create an online space where students can “hang out.”  This allows students to build community in a less formal way than structured assignments and in-class discussions.  This digital space could be used for students to ask one another questions, form study groups, and provide support.  There are numerous ways this can be accomplished, including using the OAKS discussion board, social media such as Twitter, Google Hangouts chat,, or RealTime Board

These are just a few ideas to start building community in your classes.  What ideas do you have?  Please share in the comments!

This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

Best Practices, Pedagogy

Energize In-Class Discussions

Last week, I was commiserating with an instructor about her struggle to engage students in discussion during class.  “Sometimes it’s like talking to a brick wall,” she lamented.  Facilitating lively conversations that require students to apply, synthesize, and evaluate their knowledge is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.  Even the most brilliant lecturer can be stymied by an unresponsive class.  So these are my top tips for improving class discussions:

Plan your discussion prompts in advance.  Thought-provoking questions are challenging to come up with on the fly.  So when planning your lectures and in-class activities, craft prompts as well.  Without prior contemplation, we may resort to asking “any thoughts about that?” and be discouraged by the blank stares we receive.

Use hooks to launch the discussion.  Rather than starting a discussion with a single question, consider building up to that prompt with a hook to pique your students’ interest and start their thinking process.  For example, present a short case study, tell a story, recite a witty quote, show a video clip, or share a current event.  These serve as points of departure that contextualize your questions and give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge.

Ask better questions.  Often because we haven’t given them much thought in advance, our discussion prompts fall flat.  Our questions are too vague, too long-winded, or limited to yes-no answers.  Instead, make sure your questions are succinct, clear, and open-ended.  This may seem obvious, but I often ramble a bit when asking questions forcing students to inquire, “so what’s the question again?”  Some ideas for discussion prompts

  • Ask for students’ input: What should ___ have done? What would you do in this case?  Have you had a similar experience in your life?
  • Ask “how” and “why” questions: How might this argument be made more persuasive? Why do you think the author made this argument?  How does ___ compare to ____?
  • Ask evaluative questions: How compelling is the author’s argument?  What are the implications of ____?
  • Ask prediction questions: What will occur next?  What might happen if. . .?
  • Ask justification questions: What evidence led you to conclude that…? What is the reason…?

Give your students a chance to think.  Many of us are uncomfortable with silence, so when students don’t immediately respond to our questions, we continue talking.  It’s easy to forget that students are disciplinary novices who need greater time to ponder than we do.  So when asking a question, pause for a good 30 seconds before probing further.  Don’t surrender and answer the question for your students.  Force yourself to endure the silence.   

Think-pair-share.  Many faculty turn their noses up at strategies implemented in K-12 classrooms, but that’s where a majority of innovative pedagogy comes from.  Think-pair-share is a simple but brilliant way to encourage conversation. First, after presenting your hook and prompt, let students jot down their ideas on scrap pieces of paper.  Then, ask them to turn to their neighbors and share their ideas.  Finally, bring the entire class together and have the pairs report what they discussed.  This gives students the chance to think and talk through their ideas before being put “on the spot” in front of the entire group.

Use positive reinforcement.  When students contribute to class discussion in ways that demonstrate higher-order thinking, acknowledge it.  Saying, “that’s a great question” or “good point” is an effective start, but be more specific with your feedback.  For example, “Sam makes an excellent point. I appreciate how you supported your claim with evidence from the reading.”  This demonstrates to students what a “good” response sounds like, providing a model they can all use.

Ask follow-up questions. When students respond with brief or incomplete answers, don’t miss the opportunity to ask a follow-up question such as, “Could you tell me more?” or “Why do you say that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?”  You can also pull in other students to contribute: “Let’s help Jamie out, why might we reach the conclusion that. . .?”

End discussions purposefully.  Before moving on to the next lecture topic or question, summarize what was discussed or ask a student to do so.  This helps students to synthesize new information and integrate it with existing knowledge.  You could also consider ending your class with some type of “exit ticket” such as a minute paper or Poll Everywhere poll (which is a free tool for CofC students and faculty).  Exit tickets are a quick and easy method to help students solidify their understanding as well as communicate to the instructor what they still have questions about.

Do you have other suggestions for facilitating engaging class discussions?  Please share!

For help improving discussions in your online course, check out this post written by my colleague, Mendi:

Boy with an F grade
1-1-1, Best Practices, instructional technology, TLT

Guest Post: I Flunked Blogging…But Learned A Lot In the Process

Our guest blogger this week is Louise Ackerman from Health and Human Performance.


That might be a slight exaggeration. My experiment with blogging wasn’t a total failure, but it also was not the resounding success I envisioned.


As the faculty coordinator for Public Health Internships one of the challenges I face is finding ways for students to share insights as they navigate their field experience. Internships by nature require students rarely to be in the same place at the same time. Yet on the few occasions when they do get together they benefit greatly from comparing notes and “talking shop.” After learning about blogging at the Summer 2014 Faculty Technology Institute, I though I had found a way to bridge the gap.

Over the subsequent two semesters I implemented a class blog, the purpose of which was to provide students with a virtual “space to share experiences—discuss issues and ideas relevant to young professionals, help one another manage field-related problems, raise work-related concerns, and fill each other in on information and opportunities in the Pubic Health arena.”

Public or Private? 

I knew what I was aiming for, but was not clear which platform would be most suitable. With the help of TLT consultant, Laura Plotts, I settled on Google Blogger. Because internships are about preparing students for the real world, I wanted a platform they could easily adapt to life and/or work after graduation.

Google Blogger allows you to create a public blog, accessible to anyone with an internet connection, or a private blog, which is accessible only to invited viewers. I opted for the latter for two reasons: I thought students might speak more freely knowing the blog was for class eyes only, plus I was concerned that some might unthinkingly post comments that could jeopardize their internship should co-workers or a supervisor see them.

Lesson #1: I now recommend not going private. If you’re going to ask students to blog, let them get used to the idea that what they post may be read by anyone, anytime, and blog responsibly. Better to learn that lesson now than when a real job is on the line.

Lesson #2: If you want to have private conversations, you don’t need a blogging platform. The OAKS Discussion tool will likely work just as well.

If I Build It, Will They Come?

Developing the assignment was the next task. Normally when it comes to classwork, I’m all about crossing t’s, dotting i’s, and leaving nothing to interpretation. This assignment, however, seemed to call for a more free-wheeling paradigm. After all, blogging is essentially about finding your voice: having something to say, and saying it in a way that engages others. I wanted authenticity, and I had hoped that providing less-than-my-usual structure would spur honest, interesting, creative, provocative, and/or helpful posts.

It didn’t.

After a couple rounds of vapid posts I revised the assignment, taking topic selection out of the hands of students, and instead provided prompts to which they were required to respond. While the quality of posts improved immensely, I sacrificed the authenticity I was looking for. The blog went from student-focused to teacher-led (exactly what I wanted to avoid).

Lesson #3: A student blog should be student-directed. In a traditional class setting students would have time to develop a blog that reflected their interests and concerns within the confines of the course. The structure of this course made that unfeasible.

Topic Selection

Over the course of two semesters I played around with types of prompts, trying to find the ideal mix. I was never able to come up with a topic that generated a true discussion—a back and forth similar to what takes place in a classroom. At best students posted well-thought out comments; beyond that they rarely challenged each other or dug deeply into issues, despite grade incentives to do so.

Lesson #4: The prompts that led to the best posts were inspirational, thought-provoking, and/or relevant to students at this time in their lives. (TED Talks were a great resource.). Prompts requiring free writing yielded the least interesting posts. (Students simply followed the lead of the person who responded first.). I had medium success with prompts that asked for helpful information (e.g. job search strategies and exploring solutions to common internship problems).

Lesson #5: Given the lack of meaningful back and forth, simple reflection assignments would be a viable alternative.


To earn the minimum credit students had to respond to my prompts; they could earn additional credit by responding to their classmates’ posts, which was my way of encouraging discussion. They were given guidelines for what constituted acceptable original posts and reply posts.

Lesson #6: Grading blog posts is challenging but doable. It’s wise to set an approximate word length (I used a minimum of 250 words for an original post and 150 for subsequent posts), and details for what constitutes quality comments. For me that was:

  • Thoughtful and/or provocative
  • On-topic
  • Well-articulated
  • Add to the discussion (e.g. comments such as, “I agree” or “I had the same experience” do not count as moving the discussion forward)
  • Respectful

Bottom Line

I’m not sure if I’ll revise the assignment and try again. While there is plenty of tweaking that could be done, I’m not convinced that blogging is suitable to my objectives for the Internship class. I am, however, thinking of ways I can utilize the technology in a traditional classroom setting.

Best Practices, Pedagogy, Teaching Advice

Making the Most of The First Day of Class

The countdown to the fall semester has begun.  I’ll give you a moment to sob or stomp your feet…

Despite our wish for a never-ending summer (perhaps without the humidity), the reality is classes begin soon.  As you work on your syllabi and OAKS courses, give some thought to how you approach the first day of class.  Do you read the syllabus to your students line-by-line?  Do you have students play an icebreaker game that makes them sigh and roll their eyes?  Or do you simply introduce yourself, tell students which textbook to buy, then let them go after 5 minutes?

When I first began teaching, I admit to doing all three of these.  I was young and nervous and awkward.  But in the years since, I’ve learned to embrace the awkwardness of the first day and use that class period to set the tone for the rest of the semester.  So I challenge you to give more thought to what you do on the first day of class to set expectations and start building your classroom culture.

In a previous post, I discussed why you shouldn’t treat your first day as “syllabus day” so I won’t belabor those points here.  But I will offer a few additional suggestions:

Introduce yourself as a human being.  If students are so inclined, they can look up your bio on the department’s webpage.  They can Google you.  So instead of telling your academic story, consider telling a more personal story.  Share your hobbies and passions or something students would never guess based on their first impressions of you.  This is more than being personable; it’s about being authentic.  When I introduce myself to the class, I share quirks and pet peeves.  These usually get a chuckle and make me seem like a human being rather than a lecturing and grading robot.  I once had a professor who played a piece of music he wrote as a way to introduce himself.  I still remember him vividly 12 years later.

Find an icebreaker that isn’t trite.  I know, I know.  Icebreakers are awkward and many of them are incredibly boring.  But there are ways to encourage your students to get to know one another that don’t make them want to gouge their eyes out.  Remember, by the time students get to your class, they could have already suffered three or four terrible icebreakers.  So rather than the usual “let’s go around the room and each person tell us a little about themselves,” spice it up with an activity or game, even something silly.  For example, I have had students engage in “speed dating” where they have 2 minutes to chat before the bell rings and they have to move to the next classmate.  We’ve also played “6 degrees of separation” where they make a list of 5 things they have in common with a classmate, then they have to find someone else in the room who has at least one of those things in common.  Then those two students make a list of 5 similarities and the game continues.  Students may roll their eyes at first, but by the end of class, they are laughing and I notice friendships forming by the next class period.  So try something new this semester to encourage your students to talk to one another, rather than spending the minutes before class begins texting on their phones.

Establish intentions.  Rather than spending time listing policy after policy, consider setting intentions for the semester and involving your students in this process.  What do you hope they accomplish and what do they want to learn?  What do you expect from them and what can they expect from you?  Is there a way both parties can be satisfied?  For example, after I explain a few of the more important policies, I ask students to compile a list of what they would like from me.  Punctuality, availability, and fairness are usually mentioned and these are qualities that I already deem important.  But because students composed the list themselves, it gives them the sense that I’m willing to share my power and that I’m open to their perspectives.  We also spend time establishing a classroom code of conduct.  Some of you may find this infantile, but I believe it’s one of the best and easiest ways to establish a respectful classroom culture.  When students generate the rules, they own them.

Showcase course content.  Some of you may disagree with me on this point as well, but sometimes we have to convince students to buy what we’re selling.  The first day is all about introductions and the course content should be included.  But rather than provide a regurgitation of the course catalog description, pitch the course as something students will find exciting and, yes, applicable to their lives.  And just as important, tell students why this is content you love and why this is a course you want to teach.  Enthusiasm is contagious.  I also recommend you start teaching the first day.  Students may look at you with incredulity, but it communicates that you take the course and their learning seriously.  In contrast, if you let them go after ten minutes, it communicates the course isn’t important.  So use this time to jump in and provide an outline of the fantastic content you’ll be sharing.

The first day of class is ripe with possibilities.  Make the most of it and it will set you up for a successful and enjoyable semester!