Instructional Approaches

Begin at the End
The backward design approach to course design shifts the starting question from,
“What does my course have to cover?” to, “What do I want my students to learn?”

In their book Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest these 3 steps:

  1. Identify the desired results: What do I want my students to learn?
  2. Determine acceptable evidence: How will I (and they) know that they have learned it?
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction: How will they learn it?

Your answers to the question “What do I want my students to learn?” form your course learning objectives which then become the foundation and guide for everything in the course.

It can be helpful to write: “By the end of this course, students will be able to…” followed by verbs that can tie into concrete assessment. For example, instead of, “Students will understand XYZ,” use more specific verbs such as, “Students will be able to identify and describe XYZ.” (See more about learning objectives.)

In this way you can connect everything that students engage with in the course—e.g. lectures, readings, discussions, assignments, projects, and tests—to a learning objective. Likewise, any instruction and activities that don’t have a clear tie to a learning objective can be eliminated.

Learning objectives should be included in the syllabus but also communicated to students throughout the course. Whenever you assign a learning activity, indicate how it will help them achieve one or more of the learning objectives.

Feel free to download this worksheet (docx) to help you articulate the learning objectives and identify how your students will achieve them.

This 8-minute CTL video describes more about the practice of writing learning objectives and aligning every course activity to them.

Active Learning Ideas

In-person Class Ideas

Before COVID 19, you may have had mixed feelings about the use of personal devices (i.e., laptops) in the classroom or you may have prohibited their use. Needless to say that we are teaching in radically different times. With this in mind, we encourage you to allow students to use their devices during class, as an intentional designed aspect of their classroom experience.

The ability to use collaborative applications or to access their Blackboard course space on their devices while they are sitting six feet apart, wearing masks may make some types of active learning not only possible, but also effective. Here are some concrete ideas for you to try:

  • Focus student attention and recall with short writing prompts. Using Microsoft Teams, create a shared document for students to write, brainstorm, build, or comment on each other’s work.
  • Use a “Quick write/Muddiest Point” prompt. Pose a question and ask students to write their answer during class. Example questions include: What was the most important things you learned today? Or, what was the most confusing thing for you today? If students have their devices with them, they can post to the Blackboard course space in a Journal, Discussion Board, or low-stakes Quiz. The Muddiest Point question is also useful for planning where to start in the next class session.
  • Try a Jigsaw activity. Students work in small groups and learn about an aspect of a complex topic well enough to teach it to others in the class. Traditionally this requires a lot of student movement around the room. Elizabeth Barkley offers a way to implement this popular student engagement technique using collaborative instructional technology. (Note this link will take you to Barkley’s book Student Engagement Techniques on UVM Libraries E-book collection and will require logging in with your UVM NetID and password.)
  • Use Polling. Try using an online student response system, like iClicker Cloud. If you become familiar with using online polling applications early in the semester, you are more likely to use them if you need to accommodate student absences due to quarantine or other reasons. You can also poll students using Microsoft Teams.
  • Promote active note-taking. Provide pre-class notes with examples or blank areas in your Blackboard course space. Students can download and print before class or download to their devices to fill in during class.

Online Class Ideas

Here are some ideas for integrating active learning into your online teaching.

  1. Build in activities for interaction.
    As a part of the course’s weekly schedule, include assignments or activities that require students to interact with each other.

    Without intentional planning, students may feel isolated in their online classroom. Requiring students to interact with each other is some way, can help them feel connected to the class and more engaged in their learning.

    • Discussion There are several options for discussion, text-based using the Blackboard Discussion Board or Piazza (useful for collaborative problem solving) or video-based using FlipGrid. Small group discussions (using Blackboard’s Group Tool), can help students go deeper in their peer conversations and help them manage their time, as there are fewer posts to read. Many factors contribute to effective peer discussion, most importantly: asking open-ended questions that invite multiple perspectives; articulating clear expectations for how students should respond; and providing models for how students can respond to their peers in ways that respectfully challenge ideas and use questioning techniques to promote clarity in expression. Please see the Association of College and University Educator’s Online Tool Kit for specific examples on “Planning and Facilitating Online Discussions.”

    • Peer Feedback Assigning students to provide feedback on each other’s work is a valuable learning experience, as it not only provides them with an opportunity to practice the art of providing effective feedback (a desirable skill in the work place) it also helps them to self-assess their own work, based on the feedback of their peers. In order to be reciprocal, it is good to:

      Articulate the purpose of peer review, including its value as a life skill, your expectations for quality feedback, and how peer feedback will be assessed.

      Provide students with the tools they need to succeed. For informal, lower stakes review (which may be a good practice assignment before higher-stakes review), the Blackboard Blog tool is a good tool. If you are expecting more detailed review (such as involving document mark-up), then provide students with the file exchange tool in Blackboard groups. Consider providing a rubric to guide students in providing feedback to each other.

      Allow student enough time for the peer review so that feedback can be incorporated into the next draft or final work. Consider breaking your peer review assignment into multiple parts over the course of the semester. This allows your students to benefit from their peers’ feedback early on.

      Model respectful, specific comments and ask probing questions when providing feedback. It might be helpful to have a class discussion on what constitutes helpful and unhelpful feedback.

  2. Develop assignments that ask students to apply content knowledge.
    Even if your course learning objectives focus primarily on knowledge comprehension, assign students to apply content. For example:
    • Have students participate in decision-making scenarios.
      Provide a short description of a thorny problem related to the course content that requires a decision. Ask students (working in groups or individually) to arrive at a decision and explain their reasoning.
    • Provide low-stakes quizzes or other activities that require information retrieval. The relationship between frequent, low-stakes quizzing, retrieval, and increased comprehension of course content has been well documented. Not only will this activity support student engagement in the course, it can actually help them save time studying in the long-term for comprehensive exams. Using the Blackboard Test/Quiz tool faculty can design self-graded knowledge check quizzes that automatically provide feedback for incorrect answers. This type of formative assessment provides students and the instructor a snapshot of understanding.

    Use Assignments That Require Students to Engage with Content

    • Assign regular activities
      This will help students keep up with the course and focus their attention on what is important. If you explicitly state your rationale for assigning this work, you are less likely to get push back for perceived “busy work.” The Association for College and University Educators describe some strategies (PDF) including providing guiding questions for readings, asking students to annotate readings, and asking students to share calculations.
    • Support students’ metacognitive skills development.
      Most students will benefit from identifying what they want to learn, where they are now, and how they can close that gap. As Weimer (2012) notes, “We must regularly ask, not only ‘What are you learning?’ but ‘How are you learning?’” Asking this question is particularly important for online students to help keep them on track in the course.

      You may not realize the many different ways in which you support students during class time—everything from clarifying assignment details to answering complex questions about the content. Since those structural supports are missing in the online environment, consider way that you can deliberately help students set goals, prioritize work, monitor their own progress, and understand how their behavior impacts their academic success. Consider using practices such as Exam Wrappers (or Cognitive Wrappers), One-Minute Papers, and using the Blackboard Journal Tool for reflective journaling. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching offers helpful resources on metacognition, for helping learners “think about their thinking.”

References and Resources

We are still collecting all of the citations, so check back soon.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum

Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass. (Note: this ebook is available through the Howe Library, but requires you to create a free Internet Archive account to view the entire text)

Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). Teaching an online synchronous session.

Jackson, T. (2020, March 27). COVID-19 and videoclassism: Implicit bias, videojudgment, and why I’m terrified to have you look over my shoulder. Linkedin.

Lederman, D. (2020, July 8). What worked this spring? Well-designed and -delivered courses. Inside Higher Ed.

Penn State IT Learning and Development. (2018, June 15). Zoom: Questioning strategies to increase engagement. (Note, while this document is branded as being useful for Zoom, the suggestions work equivalently with Teams)

Richardson, J. C., Sadaf, A., & Ertmer, P. A. (2012). Varying your discussion prompts as an instructional strategy. Purdue Repository for Online Teaching and Learning.

Santhanam, S. P. (2020, April 29). A reflection on the sudden transition: Ideas to make your synchronous online classes more fun. Faculty Focus.

Sathy, V. & Hogan, K. A. (2019, July 22). How to make your teaching more inclusive. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Weimer, M. (2012, November 19). Deep learning vs. surface learning: Getting students to understand the difference. Teaching Professor Blog.

Chick, N. “Metacognition.” Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. Retrieved, July 22, 2020.

« Back to Plan, Build, and Teach Your Course