Teaching Tips


Tell us what practices work in your classroom! Submit your own tips at teach-learn@montclair.edu


December 2014 - Assessing Group Work

Various studies highlight both the benefits and the challenges of group work in the classroom. When it comes to assessing group work, many factors have to be considered before assigning a final grade such as whether all students participated equally, whether the grades will be fair, and the requirements of the assignment. Lambert, Carter, & Lightbody (2013) used a wiki as a collaborative platform to help with more just grading of individual contributions within a group project. Their grading suggestions include: initial grading of final reports; consideration of appeals process; and differential grading (p. 173). They illustrated the grading process through the following 4 steps:

*Review of the Activity by User Log: instructor reviews the wiki log to assess individual contribution by looking at "timing, page activity, comments, and total contributions" (p.175);

*Reviewing the Details of Individual Contributions: instructor reviews each student's activity in more depth to assess the quality of contribution;

*The Actions of Other Group Members: instructor reviews the Communications Page to assess the communication process among the students and the timeliness of actions (i.e. how quickly they shared or edited information);

*Summation of Evidence and Decision: instructor takes into consideration all the evidence and assigns different grades to students within the same group.


 Lambert, S.C., Carter, A. J., Lightbody, M. (2013). Taking the guesswork out of assessing individual contributions to group work assignments. Issues in Accounting Education, 29(1), 169-180. doi: 10.2308/iace-50637.

 How do you assess group work in your classrooms? Have a teaching resolution/tip to share? Send us your best practice and we will post them on our web site: http://www.montclair.edu/academy/resources/teaching-tips/

November 2014 - The Effect of Humor on Learning

Numerous studies looked at the effect of humor on learning and found that humor has many benefits when used appropriately in the classroom. According to Sousa (2006) humor has psychological, sociological and educational benefits such as getting students' attention, creating a positive climate, increasing retention and recall, improving mental health and providing an effective discipline tool (p. 63).

 Here are some humor strategies by Ronald A. Berk you can try in your classroom:

* Humorous material on syllabus: funny descriptors under course title or prerequisites, fictional instructor credentials, unusual teaching methods;

* Descriptors, cautions, warnings on the cover of handouts;

* Humorous problems/Assignments: funny real or made up situations in assignments both in-class and out-of-class, individual and in small groups;

* Humorous material on tests: unexpected descriptions, funny directions, notes, test items, content-relevant and content-irrelevant strategies;

* Opening jokes: stand-up jokes, quotations, proverbs, questions, cartoons, anecdotes.


Berk, R.A. (2005). Laughterpiece theatre: Humor as a systematic teaching tool. Teaching Excellence, 17(2).

Sousa, D. A. (2006). How the brain learns (3rd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


October 2014 - Sensory Environments for Recall and Problem Solving 

In studies conducted by cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer, results have shown that students in multisensory environments have more accurate recall, longer lasting recall, improved problem-solving and they even generate more creative solutions (Medina, 2008). Consider the following principles based on Mayer's rules when thinking about your presentations in your own classes based on using a combination of senses such as hearing and vision:


* Multimedia principle: students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone;

* Temporal contiguity principle: students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively;

* Spatial contiguity principle: students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near to each other rather than far from each on the page or screen;

* Coherence principle: students learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included;

* Modality principle: students learn better from animation and narration than from animation and on-screen text.


Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: Twelve principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

September 2014 - Excellent Online Teaching

Many professors today either teach online courses, think they will teach them sometime in the future, or are simply interested in what makes for a good online course. In interviews with successful online educators, Bailey and Card (2009) report that the following techniques for excellent online teaching emerged:

* Fostering relationships (showing empathy towards students, caring about teaching and students' success);

* Engagement (encouraging discussion through email, discussion boards, sharing students' biographies and group projects);

* Timeliness (providing timely feedback, replying to emails quickly to answer questions);

* Communication (timely responses about assessment, communicating course requirements and times they will be away);

* Organization (having all the materials and requirements set up before the first day of class so students know all that's expected of them in the course);

* Technology (develop technical competency and utilizing a variety of technological tools to teach);

* Flexibility (having an open mind, being adaptable and patient to overcome potential glitches, software and hardware failures, etc.);

* High expectations (communicate goals and objectives clearly, be specific, communicate high expectations of the students, tell them what they can expect of you).


Bailey, C. J., & Card, K. A. (2009). Effective pedagogical practices for online teaching: Perception of experienced instructors. Internet and Higher Education 12(3-4), 152-155. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2009.08.002

August 2014 - Learning Strategies and Academic Performance

Simsek and Balaban (2010) looked into the relationship between learning strategies of university students and their academic performance. The results indicated that students who implemented more learning strategies, in frequency and variety, were able to academically perform better. To ensure that students in your classes succeed regardless of their individual preferences, consider allowing time for discussion and practice of different learning strategies such as:

* Rehearsal (going over the material repeatedly, reading aloud to yourself, making side notes for yourself, using a highlighter for important terms, using mnemonics);

* Elaboration (making summary of the read material, putting sentences into your own words, comparing material);

* Organization (creating outlines, tables, concept maps);

* Metacognition (being aware of own performance in school, reflection, better studying habits);

* Motivational (using time management, stress reduction, being focused, motivating yourself for success).


Simsek, A., & Balaban, J. (2010). Learning strategies of successful and unsuccessful university students. Contemporary Educational Technology 1(1), 36-45.

July 2014 - Syllabus Tone

Many factors influence student perceptions of their instructors such as gender, likability, formality of dress and also one that the professors can manipulate, the tone of the syllabus. A study conducted by Richard Harnish and Robert Bridges found that when students read the syllabus written in a warm, friendly tone the perception of the professor was that he was "more warm, more approachable and more motivated to teach the course" (2011). Other studies suggest that positive initial perceptions like this make for a better learning climate for more effective teaching and learning.

According to Harnish et al. (2011) some characteristic of a positive or friendly syllabus tone are:

* Using positive or friendly language;

* Providing a rationale for assignments;

* Sharing personal experiences;

* Using humor;

* Conveying compassion;

* Showing enthusiasm for the course.

For specific examples of both friendly and unfriendly syllabus tones, please see the full article.


Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students' perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education 14(3), 319-330. doi: 10.1007/s11218-011-9152-4

Harnish, R. J., O’Brien McElwee, R., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney, M. R., Shore, C. M., & Penley, J. (2011). Creating the foundation for a warm classroom climate: Best practices in syllabus tone. APS Observer, 24, 23–27.

June 2014 - Encouraging Risk-Taking in the Classroom

One of the trending topics among professors is what to do with students who want the professor to simply tell them what will be on the test so they can memorize the minimum and get a passing grade. Consider inviting your students to do more than just replicating what's in the lecture or in the Power Point presentation, invite them to embrace the risk and even failure. Let them try, err, and learn from the mistakes by reflecting on the process by asking themselves "Why didn't that work? Why was that wrong? Are there changes I can make so that it does work? Is my original premise flawed?" because this critical reflection is when learning happens (Olson, 2014).

Heidi Olson, Instructional Designer and Course Development Coordinator at University of Alaska Fairbank, suggests the following activities to encourage risk-taking:

* Discussion forums or small group conversations;

* Posted reflections;

* Draft/revision/final;

* Role-playing activities;

* Observe-and-predict scenarios;

* Rewards for giving peer review and encouragement;

* Assignment options (do 4 of 6);

* Final portfolio of assessments throughout semester;

* Alternative assignment mediums (audio, video, web interactive).


Olson, H. (2014). Risk taking: Failure is part of learning. UAF Elearning Instructor Training Online. Retrieved from http://iteachu.uaf.edu/2014/05/27/risk-taking/

Practice Tips from Faculty

Contributed by Steven Markoff, Instructional Specialist, Department of Accounting, Law, and Taxation

A constant lament among faculty is "how do we develop better critical thinking skills in our students?"  Then they proceed to tell about all of the various activities that they do in class and in their courses to develop this.  Yet still, it seems not to work.  Why?

Well, here's why.  Students ultimately learn to how they are tested and graded - period.  Too many teachers tell their students about how they don't want them to memorize - that they want understanding.  Then, when the test comes out, they test memorization.  The grapevine is frightfully efficient on a college campus.  If your exams emphasize memorization, they will know this from the very beginning.

I believe the key here is effective testing.  I do the following:

1) In my 300-level course, I give 3 midterms and a fully-comprehensive final.  By having more, each exam is less threatening and they always have an exam coming pretty soon. The fully comprehensive final makes sure that they don't just push "delete *.* " after an exam.

2) I write all of my own exams from scratch, for every class. And I give back the exams, so that they become more than just an assessment tool - they become a learning tool as well. No test banks. No repeating old exams. I know it's a lot of work, but it pays off.

3) I allow my students one 8.5 by 11 sheet of notes, in their own handwriting, with no more than one line of writing per line on the paper. They have only one side of the paper and they can't use tiny writing, so they really need to prioritize to decide what is important enough to put down. There is no need for them to memorize formulas, etc. This really makes me think extra hard about my exam too. After all, if they are sitting there with a page of notes, it forces me to create an exam that goes far beyond what they can write down on a note paper! It also makes writing test a lot more fun and challenging for me!

In the end, students will learn in the manner that they think you are going to test them.  If you want students to think outside of the box and creatively, you have to test that way.

May 2014 - The Last Class

One of the possible assignments for the end of the semester is what Professor Elizabeth Bleicher calls, "The Last Class", an assignment that "constitutes a metacognitive exercise that requires students to use the critical thinking skills developed in the course to process the educational experience in which they have been mutually and individually engaged" (2011). She reports that students enjoy this exercise because it gives them a clear summary of the semester's worth of learning, encourages collaboration and participation in shaping the course, and it builds community of engaged and active learners.


Here are some of the prompts Professor Bleicher uses for "The Last Class" to engage students in critiquing the class they just completed:

* Readings - what readings did you enjoy, which reading were valuable, are there any readings that shouldn't be used next semester, would you like to suggest any other readings;

* Units - which units were the most valuable, and which were the least valuable, were they presented in a good order, would you like to recommend any other units;

* Writing - which assignments should be used the following semester, were the instructions helpful, would you change anything;

* Activities - what activities did you like the most, which didn't you like;

* Suggestions - do you have any advice for improving the class, what could we do without, was there anything you would change;

* Favorites - what did you like the most about this class, what did you like the least about the class;

* Advice - what is your advice for future students in this class;

* Big Questions - what was this course about, what questions did this course try to answer, are there any other questions you would like to have discussed;

* Films - can you suggest any films that cover the issues we discussed;

* Media - can you advise on which media to use (artifacts, audio or video clips) to start our discussions;

* Future - would you like to stay involved and assist with the course after the semester is over (please include your name).


Bleicher, E. (2011). The last class: Critical thinking, reflection, course effectiveness, and student engagement. Honors in Practice - Online Archive. Paper 130. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1129&context=nchchip

April 2014 - Provoking Creativity in Groups

When organizing group work in their classes, faculty are often times faced with many difficulties, ranging from lack of student motivation, to procrastination, varying work ethics, and uncertainty of how to fairly assess all the group members and the final product. One of the difficulties reported is also lack of creativity. Numerous studies suggest that creativity is not an innate trait of the genial few, but rather, that training in creativity can hone creative thinking skills in any student.

Dr. Sunwolf generated thirty six techniques that provoke creativity in groups (2002, p.208). Consider using some of them listed below to assist your students with tapping into their own creative potentials (to read all her tips on generating creative opportunities in group work, check out the book, available in Sprague Library):

* Crystal Ball is a technique that will help students envision the future by imagining various possibilities (outcomes, results, situations) for their end goal;

* Reverse Brainstorming requires students to change the usual process of brainstorming by coming up with ideas that would make their problem even worse and then creating a list of ideas for doing just the opposite;

* Role Storming technique will have students experience problems from different points of view as they are brainstorming possible solutions to problems from perspectives of people affected by the problem;

* Six Thinking Hats is a technique in which students visualize themselves wearing different color hats and, depending on the color they are "wearing" at the moment, they focus on new aspects of problems (e.g. white - facts and figures, red - emotional views, black - negative aspects, yellow - positive possibilities, green - creativity and new ideas, blue - control of thinking and focus);

* Buzz Groups technique includes students discussing a specific issue and generating a variety of ideas in small groups which are then analyzed by the whole group;

* Wildest Idea will challenge students' mind-sets by encouraging them to come up with the wildest ideas, think of possible variations, and then find practical uses for each idea


Sunwolf (2002). Getting to "groupaha!": Provoking creative processes in task groups. In L.R. Frey, (Ed.), New directions in group communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Pp. 203-217.

March 2014 - Engaging Diversity in the Classroom

Lee, Williams and Kilaberia (2011) analyzed journals of a student cohort of a first-year experience course to see what activities they reported to have engaged them most with diversity. Students reported that three components, classroom climate, interactions with diverse content and peers, and formal, structured reflection were essential to the process. Three effective activities in particular were Biographical Object assignment, Common Book assignment, and the High-Stakes Collaborative Project. For the Biographical Object assignment, students chose an object and described its importance for their cultural identity to their classmates as part of the verbal component, and wrote a paper as a written component. In the Common Book assignment, all the students read the same book, discussed and debated it in class, explored various perspectives and contexts, visited a lecture by the author or the author visited their class. For the High-Stakes Collaborative Project students worked collaboratively on a research topic, presented it, and submitted a written assignment about it.

With our increasingly diverse classrooms and workplaces, it is important that we help develop these competencies among our students. According to the tips from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and Barbara Davis (1993), consider implementing the following practices for engaging diversity in the classroom:

* Develop a syllabus that explores multiple perspectives on the topic (aim for an inclusive curriculum, incorporate materials, assignments and topics to include different cultures, racial and ethnic groups);

* Design classroom instruction and materials with a diverse group of students in mind (be sensitive to terminology, select readings and texts that are gender-neutral and free of stereotypes, consider different approaches to teaching to accommodate for different learning styles);

* Create opportunities to get to know your students on an individual/personal basis (learn their names, meet with them outside of class, involve them in your research, encourage them to come to office hours);

* Design opportunities to interact with each other in respectful and meaningful ways (assign group work, allow for collaboration, suggest meetings outside of class);

* Activate student voices (encourage all students to participate in class discussion, show them you value all comments by providing a safe environment, do not allow discriminatory behaviors);

* Generate a challenging but vibrant learning process that encourages students to develop their creative, critical, and analytical thinking skills (set classroom norms and expectations, ask students to consider multiple perspectives and present all sides of an issue, allow for application of theoretical knowledge, allow for formal and informal reflection on their learning, provide feedback);

* Invite guest speakers to class to enrich the experience (faculty or off-campus professionals).


Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. Teaching in racially diverse college classrooms. Retrieved from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/TFTrace.html

Lee, A., Williams, R., Kilaberia, R. (2011). Engaging diversity in first-year college classrooms. Innovative Higher Education, 37(3), 199-213. doi: 10.1007/s10755-011-9195-7

February 2014 -Ideal Teacher Behaviors

Knowing what traits students prefer in a good professor is important because those qualities are linked to students’ perception of the value of the course, motivation to do well, their learning and performance in the class. However, students differ in their academic self-efficacy and motivation and because of that they place different value on traits in their ideal teacher (Komarraju, 2013).

Intrinsically motivated students, more independent and self-sufficient in their learning, are assured that they can put in the effort and have successful outcomes and because of that they do not place great value in their professor’s caring of professional traits. On the other hand, extrinsically motivated students, students who are unsure of their ability to succeed and anxious students who worry about their performance, strongly value when their teacher is caring and professional. Here are some examples to consider in your classroom to create a learning environment for those students who need your assistance:

-display caring traits  i.e. be a teacher who encourages and cares for students, who provides praise for good student work, helps students who need it, offers bonus points and extra credit, knows student names, builds rapport, provides constructive feedback, and is accessible, humble and understanding;

-display professional traits i.e. be a professor who effectively lectures, presents current information, relates topics to current, real life situations, uses recent videos, magazines, and newspapers to demonstrate points, talks about current topics, uses new or recent texts, who is well prepared, confident, authoritative, knowledgeable, and punctual.

To find out whether your students are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated and to assist the ones who will be receptive to your efforts, try assessing them early on in the semester by surveying their motivation for attending college, interviewing them during your office hours, or by keeping track of data such as attendance, completion of assignments, both in-class and homework.

Komarraju, M. (2013). Ideal teacher behaviors: Student motivation and self-efficacy predict preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 40(104), doi:10.1177/0098628312475029.

January 2014 - Asking Questions

Asking questions in class is an important teaching skill that encourages students to think and learn. Students' answers also help faculty assess their learning. However, not all questions effectively do that. Questions you ask your students should "capture students' attention, arouse their curiosity, reinforce important points, and promote active learning" (Davis, 1993).

Consider using the following tactics for effective questioning:

* Ask one question at a time because multiple questions at once may confuse the students;

* Avoid yes/no questions and ask "how" and "why" questions instead;

* Pose questions that lack a single right answer to elicit discussion about a variety of theories and possible answers;

* Ask focused questions because overly broad questions may steer discussion off topic;

* Avoid leading questions to allow for a range of possible answers;

* Pause in silence after you ask a question to allow for students to think about the answer;

* Search for consensus on correct responses by involving other students in discussion;

* Ask questions that require students to apply knowledge and demonstrate their understanding rather than just asking them "Do you understand?", to which the answer is yes or no;

* Structure your questions to encourage student-to-student interaction by asking them to respond to one another;

* To encourage the quiet students in the class, pose your questions as if you're musing on it such as "I wonder if ...", rather than seeking right or wrong answers such as "What is the definition of ...";

* Use probing strategies by asking follow-up questions such as asking for specifics, clarification, relationships, explanation, etc.;

* When talking to a student, move around the room to include other students in the discussion.

Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Practice Tips from Faculty

Contributed by Steven Markoff, Instructional Specialist, Department of Accounting, Law, and Taxation

A Teaching Resolution

I always have a goal to become a 5% better teacher every semester.  The time in between semesters is a great time to set some teaching goals for the upcoming session.  So I’d like to suggest one which will have the power to make your teaching more effective and more enjoyable.

More and more, we are being asked to develop critical thinking skills in our students, and that means switching from the old role of conveying information. To this end, almost all classes could do with a lot less professor talking, and a lot more professor listening.  Of course, in order to listen, there must be something to listen TO, hence, the need to ask questions. Are you asking enough questions?  If not, that’s a real good goal for the new semester. As James Thurber, the celebrated journalist once said, “it is better to ask some questions than to know all the answers.”

So, if you want to set a goal to ask more questions, and become a better questioner, here are some things that, over the years, have worked for me and others:

1. Ask tons of questions – the more the merrier.  Remember, unless you ask questions, you have nothing to listen to – and then all you can do is talk!

2. Use questions that teach, and not merely assess – Albert Einstein once said “most teachers waste their time by asking questions that are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning is to discover what the pupil does know or is capable of knowing.”  Questions should be teaching tools, not merely assessment tools.

3. Ask students what they think of others’ answers – I am always going around the room doing this. “Ms. Wayne, what did you think of what Ms. Lazzara said?” or “Ms. Lazzara just said such and such.  What was she assuming when she said that?”  This helps develop their ability to listen, and also to think critically about what others are saying.  An added bonus – it keeps them awake in class, as they always know that you might spin around to them next and ask them to comment in this fashion.

4. Embrace wrong answers – that’s part learning. If you are constantly getting correct answers, then you are probably not asking good probing, challenging questions.  Try not to focus on whether or not an answer is correct or incorrect, otherwise, only people who know they have the ‘right’ answer will want to contribute.  Let the students know that incorrect answers are okay as well.  I often will call on a student that I know will give an incorrect answer, not to humiliate them, but rather, to promote further discussion of the question and to step through the thinking process from the ground up.

5. Ask tough questions – I’ll be frank – I love asking questions, but asking questions when you know that the students know, is a complete waste of time.  If all you do is ask questions that they know, then quite honestly - they don’t need you.  Your job is to expand their abilities and challenge them.  To do that, you must ask tough questions, and help them to get from where they are now, to the answer.

6. Test the way you teach – students learn according to how they are tested, and they figure that out pretty quick.  You can ask them to stretch and think critically all day long in class, but if you do not test that way, they simply will not learn it.  If all you are going to do on your exam is ask them to memorize and regurgitate, then forget #’s 1 - 5 above as none of it will matter.

Make a New Year’s resolution to ask more and better questions in class and you will see your students learning more right in front of your eyes, and you will learn and grow as a teacher as well.  Plus, it makes teaching a heck of a lot more fun, interesting and challenging.


How to use the Socratic method in the classroom. Retrieved from http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/socratic/fourth.html

Lam, F. (2011).  The Socratic method as an approach to learning and its benefits. Dietrich College Honors Theses. Paper 134. http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1126&context=hsshonors

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach Like a Champion. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tell us what practices work in your classroom! Submit your own tips at teach-learn@montclair.edu