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Instructional Resources

The Center for Faculty Excellence has identified numerous resources to help instructors answer some of the most pertinent teaching-related questions. Most of the resources referenced in response to the questions below consist of online tools and resources compiled here for convenient access at any time.  A few of the resources mentioned are books and CD-ROM recordings available for consultation onsite at the CFE.

Click on a question below to open access to the numerous resources.

For further assistance or help with questions that are not addressed below, please contact the Center for Faculty Excellence.

There are several factors to consider when drafting course learning objectives. Linda Suskie provides helpful tips in her book Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide. See especially chapter 8. She describes different categories of learning objectives, including ones that are about knowledge and conceptual understanding, thinking skills, attitudes and values, and integrated learning. She also describes “good ways to express learning goals” that will help ensure that they are framed in measurable terms.

The Teaching Goals Inventory (TGI) is an online tool that will help you to rate and identify which types of learning goals are most important for a particular class. Most of the goals in this inventory are written in broad terms (e.g. “Develop analytic skills”). You’ll need to take the results of the TGI and reword them into measurable student learning outcomes.

There are several taxonomies of learning. These can help you to specify the type and level of learning that you wish students to achieve. Bloom’s Taxonomy includes six levels of cognitive learning, which are, from lowest to highest, remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. For each of these categories, you’ll find corresponding verb choices that you can use to write your learning objectives. 

Learning is not confined to the cognitive domain. Affective learning objectives may also be appropriate for your course. Affective learning encompasses attitudes, motivation, and values. A useful taxonomy meant to supplement, not replace, Bloom’s Taxonomy is L. Dee Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning. This is presented in his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003). There is also a companion website, “Designing Better Learning Experiences” with numerous resources to help you develop learning objectives in each of the six categories for significant learning. Those categories are:

  • Foundational Knowledge
  • Application
  • Integration
  • Human Dimension
  • Caring
  • Learning How to Learn

Unlike with Bloom’s Taxonomy, the 6 categories of learning that comprise significant learning, according to Fink, are not presented in any hierarchy. Instead, the most significant learning occurs when learning objectives are present from all 6 categories. There are some resources within the “Designing Better Learning Experiences” website to help you accomplish this. From the website’s homepage, you’ll find a link to “Design Tips and Forms,” and within that page, there is a link to a useful .pdf article by Bob Noyd,“A Primer on Writing Effective Learning-Centered Course Goals.”

If you would like more help or input as you write or enhance your learning objectives, please contact the Center for Faculty Excellence.

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Assessment of how well students are meeting course learning objectives should ideally take place both before students are asked to take an exam or complete an assignment for a grade and then as part of those graded events (exams, essays, assignments, projects, etc.). The information and resources offered here are intended to help you with assessing student learning outside of their encounters with graded exams, assignments, etc. For help with graded exams, assignments, etc., please see “How do I create assignments and exams and grade students?”

Classroom assessment techniques, or CATs, are exercises that can help determine where students’ learning is in relation to course learning objectives. Typically, they are completed in class and are ungraded, though you can give students some credit for simply completing them, perhaps as part of their participation grade. CATs frequently ask students to reflect on and “repackage” the material that they are learning, so they also double as active learning exercises.

The “9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning,” developed by the American Association of Higher Education, apply to classroom-based assessment of student learning as much as they do to program-level assessment. These principles urge us to be attentive not only to outcomes, but also to the learning experiences that lead to those outcomes, and they remind us that assessment works best when it is ongoing, rather than episodic.

Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross (Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993) have inventoried and described 50 CATs. They align each of these 50 CATs both with the disciplines for which they are most appropriate and with the 6 distinct goal clusters from the Teaching Goals Inventory. For example, if you are a historian teaching a class that emphasizes basic academic skills, you will be able to find CATs that align with both history and basic academic skills (Exam Evaluations and Minute Papers). If, on the other hand, you are a physicist teaching a class that emphasizes higher order thinking skills, there are CATs appropriate to that particular alignment as well (Application Cards and Approximate Analogies).

Angelo and Cross urge instructors who are new to CATs to “‘get your feet wet’ by trying out one or two of the simplest Classroom Assessment Techniques in one of your classes” (p. 28). The simplest CATs are:

  • The Minute Paper—an instructor stops class two or three minutes early and asks students to respond briefly to some variation on the following two questions: “What was the most important thing that you learned during this class?” and “What important question remains unanswered?” Students then write their responses on index cards or half-sheets of paper and hand them in. (See Angelo and Cross, pp. 148-153).
  • The Muddiest Point—students are asked to jot down a quick response to one question: “What was the muddiest point in _____?” The focus of the Muddiest Point assessment might be a lecture, a discussion, a homework assignment, a play, or a film. (See Angelo and Cross, pp. 154-158).
  • The One-Sentence Summary—This technique challenges students to answer the questions “Who does what to whom, when, where, how, and why?” (represented by the letters WDWWWWHW) about a given topic, and then to synthesize those answers into a single informative, grammatical, and long summary sentence. (See Angelo and Cross, pp. 183-187).
  • Directed Paraphrasing—This exercise offers students practice in paraphrasing part of a lesson for a specific audience and purpose, using their own words. After selecting an important theory, concept, or argument that students have studied, direct the students to prepare a paraphrase for an audience or purpose that you have identified. Have the students write out their directed paraphrases for your assessment. (See Angelo and Cross, pp. 232-235).
  • Application Cards—After students have heard or read about an important principle, generalization, theory, or procedure, the instructor hands out an index card and asks them to write down at least one possible, real-world application for what they have just learned. This exercise lets the instructor know quickly and easily how well students understand the possible applications of what they have just learned. (See Angelo and Cross, pp. 236-239).

Barbara Gross Davis, author of Tools for Teaching, suggests on her website “Fast Feedback” several techniques for checking students’ understanding of the material, much in the spirit of CATs.

Sometimes we wish to know at the end of the semester what key concepts students have learned. Maryellen Weimer, in Learner-centered Teaching: 5 Key Changes to Practice, suggests the following open-ended query: Ask students to think back on the semester as a whole and write down the first 10 things that come to their mind as they answer the question: “What do you remember from this course?” (p. 165).

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  • Fast Feedback:


If you have already defined your course learning objectives, you’re off to a good start. Too often, instructors begin with the content that they want to cover, divide that content into 15 sections, and then plan their course by scheduling one content section for each week of instruction. Then, exams and essay prompts are usually determined by what was “covered” and what we hope students have learned along the way.

There’s a better way to design a course, which is often referred to as “backward” or “integrated” design. Instead of beginning with the content that you want to cover, start with the learning objectives, and work backwards. When you follow this approach, you’ll be asking yourself these questions, in this order:

  • What do I want my students to be able to do at the end of the course? Your answers to this question should inform your course learning objectives.
  • How will students be able to demonstrate that they have mastered the course learning objectives? Your answers to this question should inform your design of exams, quizzes, and assignments.
  • How will students learn what they need in order to meet the course learning objectives? Your answers to this question should inform how you plan to use class time and what you intend to assign for reading and other out-of-class assignments.

Note that your choice of reading comes last, not first as we are often tempted to do as we approach the design of our courses. Barbara Gross Davis, author of Tools for Teaching, reinforces this approach with a brief online overview of course design principles, “Preparing or Revising a Course.” The website “Designing Better Learning Experiences” has plenty more about integrated course design. In particular, under Resource Downloads, select “Design Tips and Forms,” and you’ll be brought to a number of helpful short articles and tools. Dee Fink also has a short handbook, “A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning,” available for download as a 37-page .pdf file. This handbook will walk you through the steps of integrated course design that are more fully developed in his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences.

If you wish to explore course design though a multimedia perspective, the Merlot ELIXR project features several case studies of course (re)designs.

If you would like more help or input as you undertake a new course design or redesign an existing course, please contact the Center for Faculty Development.

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“Active learning” is often used as an umbrella term to include all those moments in class when students are learning by doing something—that is, something other than sitting still and listening to lecture. Active learning can mean that students are physically moving around the classroom. It can mean that students are problem-solving, that they are learning by playing games, that they are working in pairs or in groups, or it can mean that students are silently writing or reflecting on their own. In short, there are a lot of options available for incorporating active learning into class.

Why consider active learning? Chickering and Gamson capture the argument well in their article “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987):

    Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.

If you’re accustomed to lecturing and you’re new to active learning, it’s a good idea to begin with one or two modest changes. Although some variety is usually helpful, you don’t have to have an enormous repertoire of different teaching strategies or techniques in order to engage students with active learning.

The Center for Teaching Excellence at George Mason University offers a helpful descriptive list of a variety of active learning approaches. The “minute paper,” which doubles as a Classroom Assessment Technique, and “think-pair-share” are two approaches that require little in the way of setup, take little time in class to complete, and offer students valuable opportunities to integrate what they’re learning with their prior knowledge.

If you’re concerned that frequent repetition of the same teaching technique will lessen students’ motivation, consider varying options within a single technique that you know to work for you. This is preferable to adopting an approach that may be overly complicated or too far removed from your learning objectives. A technique as simple as “think-pair-share” can take on a multitude of variants that will help prevent boredom in your classroom. For example, use think-pair-share to:

  • Engage a question originated by the instructor. (This is the most common usage).
  • Engage a question that originates from a student.
  • Engage in discussion around the correct answer to a multiple-choice question.
  • Engage in a learning point from a short video clip.
  • Generate discussion questions from assigned reading.
  • Compare visualizations of how something (a concept) might look as an image.
  • Generate two quiz questions and then (in pairs) decide which one is best.
  • Monitor current feelings of engagement in the class at a given moment.

Active learning is suitable to all disciplines. If you teach in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) discipline, this list of problem-solving exercises, originally posted to Faculty Focus, can assist you in designing in-class activities. And in a short blog post, “Black Revisited,” Maryellen Weimer describes a longer article by Kersey Black on active learning in a chemistry class. You can find that longer article, “What To Do When You Stop Lecturing: Become a Guide and a Resource,” [Journal of Chemical Education, 70(2) 1993: 140-144] here—please note that this is a link to the Journal of Chemical Education online, which is accessible from either the MSU Denver or Auraria Library computer networks.

L. Dee Fink, in his short handbook “A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning,” describes a strategy for incorporating active learning, which he approaches in three components: rich learning experiences, in-depth reflective dialogues, and exposure to information and ideas. To access this section of the handbook, jump to page 16 of the .pdf, “Step 4. Teaching/Learning Activities.”

If you’re interested in harnessing technology to incorporate active learning into your courses, MSU Denver’s Teaching With Primary Sources has compiled a list of Top Tech Tools for learning, which includes for each of the 14 identified tools “suggested uses for inquiry learning.”

Much active learning is also collaborative learning. Be sure to consult the resources on the CFD website that are identified in response to the question “How do I incorporate collaborative, or peer-to-peer, learning in my courses?”

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“Researchers report that, regardless of subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more and demonstrate better retention than students taught in other instructional formats. Students who work in groups also appear more satisfied with their classes, and group work provides a sense of shared purpose that can increase morale and motivation. In addition, group work introduces students to the insights, values, and worldviews of their peers, and it prepares students for life after school, when many will be working on teams” (Davis, B.G. [2009]. Tools for teaching. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, p. 190).

It’s no wonder, then, that the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has defined as one of the essential learning outcomes for college students in the 21st century that students should gain intellectual and practical skills, including “teamwork and problem solving.”

There is considerable overlap between collaborative (or peer-to-peer) learning and active learning. For example, an active learning exercise as simple as think-pair-share can facilitate collaborative learning. For the sake of clarity, resources in this section have been identified for the insights they offer into working in groups, including how to structure group work/assignments, how to organize and monitor groups, and how to evaluate students’ work in groups.

Barbara Davis offers suggestions to help you set up collaborative learning activities in your class on her website Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams. She divides her suggestions between general strategies, designing the group work, organizing learning groups, evaluating group work, dealing with student and faculty concerns about group work, and setting up study teams. Similarly, the George Mason University Center for Teaching Excellence provides some brief “Tips for Facilitating Learning in Student Group Activities.”

Collaborative Learning Techniques, by Barkley, Cross, and Major, is a handbook that describes 30 collaborative learning techniques, with preparation steps and classroom examples for each one.

Certain approaches to collaborative learning are more highly structured and oriented toward problem solving (problem-based learning, or PBL) than others. Cooperative Learning in Higher Education (Ed. Barbara Millis) features examples from multiple disciplines. Examples of team-based learning where teams are kept permanent across the semester, are found in this 12-minute video from the University of Texas at Austin.

MERLOT ELIXR case studies include several multimedia presentations of different approaches to collaborative, or peer-to-peer learning, including Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) and the use of “concepTests”.

Finally, the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning features several short videos of instructors explaining their approaches to collaborative learning. These approaches range from the very simple, less structured, and easily arranged (free-writing followed by think-pair-share) to the more structured options of debates and peer-coaching.

If you would like more help or input as you incorporate active learning into your courses, please contact the Center for Faculty Excellence.

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One of the most thorough and helpful sources for designing assignments/exams and grading students is Walvoord and Anderson’s Effective Grading. The following passage (p. 11) captures well their approach to grading:

Guba and Lincoln (1989) posit that evaluation is not only a judgment that outsiders pass upon inert recipients; evaluation is a socially constructed process with many participants, all of whom help to make it what it is. For example, if the evaluation is to result in improvement, those who have been evaluated have to buy in; they have to make the changes. Guba and Lincoln suggest that evaluators give up the false hope of achieving objective judgment and instead collaborate with the evaluees and other participants to construct a system that serves everyone’s needs… In their social context, grades play multiple roles that can be managed for the enhancement of learning. We identify four major roles of the grading process—evaluation, communication, motivation, and organization (emphasis added).

To ensure that your grading fulfills these four roles, Walvoord and Anderson offer the following 6 suggestions:

  • Begin by considering what you want your students to learn.
  • Select tests and assignments that both teach and test the learning you value most.
  • Construct a course outline that shows the nature and sequence of major tests and assignments.
  • Check that the tests and assignments fit your learning goals and are feasible in terms of workload.
  • Collaborate with your students to set and achieve goals.
  • Give students explicit directions for their assignments (pp. 17-18).

Barbara Davis, author of Tools for Teaching has two separate websites that are relevant to exam design and grading: “Quizzes, Tests, and Exams” provides an overview, very much in line with Walvoord and Anderson’s approach, of the process for developing quizzes, tests, and exams. “Grading Practices” describes some good practices (i.e. avoid grading systems that put students in competition with their classmates) and strategies to minimize student complaints about grading. This site also includes some recommendations for how to evaluate your grading policies.

The Center for Teaching and Learning at BYU has developed a handbook—available as a 31-page .pdf download—titled Principles of Test Creation. The stated purpose of the handbook is to help instructors create tests that meet the following goals:

  1. Be properly aligned with the course intended learning outcomes and what was taught in class.
  2. Assess higher-order thinking.
  3. Assess what the instructor intended to assess; not extraneous ideas or skills.
  4. Be clear and precise.
  5. Be properly formatted.
  6. Be easy to score.
  7. Be relevant to students.
  8. Discriminate between students.

This handbook includes guidance on how to construct multiple choice, matching, essay, short answer, completion, and true-false questions.

“Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams” is a short paper by Mary E. Piontek published by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan (part of the CRLT Occasional Papers Series). Piontek, echoing themes that run throughout all the resources identified in this section, urges instructors to focus on the most important content and behaviors of the course: “Start by asking yourself to identify the primary ideas, issues, and skills encountered by students during a particular course/unit/module” (p. 1). A table on p. 2 lists the advantages of disadvantages of different types of questions (true-false, multiple-choice, matching, short answer, essay), and Piontek offers general guidelines for developing multiple-choice items and essay items. Finally, she includes a sample rubric for scoring an essay.

Additional support for developing rubrics can be found at the Rubrics page of Wikipodia (not Wikipedia). This site includes steps for creating a rubric, guidance assessing and evaluating your rubrics, sample rubrics, and links to many additional resources.

If you would like more help or input as you develop your approaches to grading students, please contact the Center for Faculty Development.


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Syllabi can have many purposes, and before you set out to craft yours, you should decide for yourself what you want your course syllabus to accomplish. Syllabi can:

  • Describe for your students what they will learn and how they will learn.
  • Explain your approach to teaching and what that means for how students will experience your course.
  • Explain to students how they will be evaluated.
  • Motivate students to learn.
  • List course topics and assignments that students will be expected to complete.
  • Establish course rules.
  • Help students assess their readiness for your course.
  • Protect you (the instructor) from student challenges and grade appeals.
  • Direct students to supplemental resources.
  • Set the course in a broader context for learning.

An effective syllabus succeeds in producing two broad outcomes: It increases the likelihood of student success in your class, by establishing a climate for learning, and it decreases the number of problems and misunderstandings, by establishing rules and expectations. Mano Singham, however, argues in his short 2007 article “Death to the Syllabus,” that there can be a tradeoff between these two outcomes. As instructor, consider how you want to balance a focus on learning with the need to establish authority by including rules in your syllabus.

Roxanne Cullen and Michael Harris have developed a “Syllabus Assessment Matrix” that can help conceptualize and place syllabi on a spectrum between “teacher-centered” and “learner-centered.” They originally presented this tool in an online seminar; the CFE has a CD-ROM recording of this seminar available for on-site consultation. If you would like to receive by email a copy of the rubric (Syllabus Assessment Matrix), contact the CFE.

There are several resources available to you that describe the different components that typically comprise a syllabus. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach describes the components, explains how you can frame them with a focus on learning, and provides examples. On her website “Creating a Syllabus,” Barbara Gross Davis, author of Tools for Teaching, briefly lists and describes the basic components of a syllabus, and the short article “Writing a Syllabus,” by Howard Altman and William Cashin (IDEA Paper No. 27), likewise lists and describes the major components of a syllabus.

If you would like more help or input as you prepare your course syllabi, please contact the Center for Faculty Development.

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It’s tough to understate the importance of the first day of class. We know from studies that students form their opinions about a class—how hard they expect to work, how interested and engaged they are going to be, how much responsibility they will take for their learning—within the first week of instruction. Effective teachers can make use of the first day of class, thus, to motivate students, to signal how learning will proceed in the class, to establish expectations, to begin building a learning climate, and to “set the hook” by allowing students to begin articulating their own learning goals.

Before you decide how you’ll ask students to spend their time in class on the first day, consider what your goals are. This is what the instructors who are featured in the MERLOT ELIXR case study, "Goals for the First Day of Class," do.

Several blog posts have appeared on Faculty Focus that share ideas for how to use the first day of class. These include Kevin Brown’s “Don’t Waste the First Day of Class,” Maryellen Weimer’s “What Students Expect from Instructors, Other Students,” and Virginia Freed’s “A Classroom Icebreaker with a Lesson that Lasts.”

Magna Publications sponsored the online seminar “10 Ways to Engage Your Students on the First Day of Class,” facilitated by Mary C. Clement. The CFE has a CD-Rom recording of this seminar, available for on-site consultation. Additionally, you can read a Q&A with Dr. Clement, “Making the Most of the First Day of Class,” at the Faculty Focus website.

Barbara Gross Davis, author of Tools for Teaching, has a website “The First Day of Class,” in which she suggests several different approaches for accomplishing the three most important tasks for the first day: taking care of administrative tasks, creating a positive classroom environment, and setting course expectations and standards.

Gary Smith of the University of New Mexico has written a very helpful short article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum, “First-Day Questions for the Learner-Centered Classroom.” His experience provides us with a great lesson on how the first day of class can be used to help students become oriented to how they’ll be learning in that class.

If you would like more help or input as you prepare for your first day of class, please contact the Center for Faculty Development.

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