Category Archives: Teaching

Cheat Sheets & Wrappers

Crystal candies

For the past year or so I’ve been allowing students to use a note card, essentially a “cheat sheet,” when completing the single in-class “exam” in my microeconomics course. I put exam in quotes because I refer to the assessment as a quiz. It’s essentially an exam; it carries the same weight as a test. But, like calling an assignment a warm-up instead of homework, naming it a quiz makes it somewhat less scary.

Students appreciate having their card during the quiz. From the learning standpoint, I see it as an incentivized study activity. To be most helpful during the exam, students have to really think about the content. What do they understand best? What areas are most confusing? How can they use the card to clarify understanding?  How should the content be organized? What are the priorities? What are the interrelationships between and among concepts?

Song, Guo & Thuente (2016) report a positive correlation between the quality of the card, in terms of organization and content presentation, and exam performance.  My students’ quiz track similarly to their card quality.  The key questions for me are: Do better students already know how to study and prepare the cards? Or, can weaker students be coached on card preparation as a study strategy, to improve learning and academic performance?

Focusing on the students who have been less academically successful, I’ve become very intentional about discussing study strategies during class this semester. I handed out the cards this week, describing their preparation as a learning activity, not just an aid during the quiz.

I set aside just a few minutes of class time to talk about how and when to prepare them. Preparing the card is best done after the student has invested some time in the material, discovering potential problem spots.  We discussed a timeline for gapped study.  I reminded them of practice questions, resources and active learning strategies.

Of course, I also reviewed the “rules” for the cards.

  • The card must only have information on one side.
  • Their name goes on the other side.
  • Cards are turned in with their exam.
  • Content on the card must be handwritten. No multiple reductions of cut-and-pasted content.

Another twist I’m adding this term is a post-quiz wrapper. Here are the details.

This activity is designed to give you a chance to reflect on your quiz performance and, more importantly, on the effectiveness of your preparation. Please answer the questions sincerely. Your responses will be collected to inform instruction; they have no impact on your grade.

  1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for the quiz? _______
  2. What percentage (%) of your time was spent
  • Reading or re-reading the textbook
  • Self-testing / reciting
  • Reviewing homework & classwork solutions
  • Reworking problems & in-class practice
  • Watching the screencasts
  • Reviewing your own notes
  • Preparing the note card

Other? Please explain.

3. What areas do you think were most challenging on the quiz?

  • Trouble with the computations
  • Unclear about vocabulary
  • Confusion about the graphs
  • Lack of understanding of concepts
  • Careless mistakes

Other? Please explain.

  1. Did you feel prepared for the quiz? Are you surprised by your grade? Please explain.
  2. What advice would you give to future students preparing for the quiz?

I’ll share the takeaways in a future post.  What are your thoughts or experiences with cheat sheets? Have you asked students to reflect on how they used them or what they discovered about themselves as learners from preparing them? Please share!

Reference: Song, Y., Guo, Y., Thuente, D. (2016). A Quantitative Case Study on Students’ Strategy for Using Authorized Cheat-sheets. IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference Paper. 10.1109/FIE.2016.7757656, 1-9.



Discourse in the Classroom- Now more than ever

I’ve often wished I taught in the humanities. I imagine lively discussions in classes dealing with art, poetry, history, and philosophy. Contrast this with my actual teaching: debits and credits, marginal cost computations, and graphical analyses. Integrating classroom discussion in technical contexts is difficult.

But working with faculty across disciplines reveals my imagination is vastly different than reality. Literature, history, philosophy and art teachers find discussion-teaching and promoting student interaction challenging too.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) survey findings on student attitudes toward free speech reminds me of the value of classroom discussion in learning. (Reported by Inside HigherEd here) Two points struck me:

  • About 92% of students surveyed believe it is important to be part of a campus where they are exposed to ideas other than their own.
  • When students hear an opinion they disagree with in class, about 60 percent said they would attempt to understand their classmates’ views — 28 percent said they might avoid future interactions with the person with a dissenting opinion, but only 5 percent thought the person shouldn’t have expressed it.

What are the implications for teaching and learning? More than half the students surveyed say they are willing to hear each other out, to consider alternate viewpoints. Are we taking full advantage of the opportunities to get students listening and learning from each other? What insights and perspectives might be gained as students, from a range of backgrounds and life experiences, share their understandings of content and issues?

Of course, getting students to talk, particularly about sensitive topics isn’t easy. Many students don’t want to participate. Others do so reluctantly, offering short, tentative comments. When only a few students participate, the rest of the class gets tired of hearing them. The class may stop listening. If only a few students answer, rather than thinking about the question, the rest of the class may wonder when the over-participator will speak up. If the students who are not speaking are waiting for the over-participators to speak, they aren’t developing critical thinking skills, crafting a response, or defending their position. Class discussions can become narrow in focus, representing only the views and perspectives of the small percentage of students who choose to speak.

It’s not just students who hesitate to engage in classroom dialogue. Discussion teaching presents challenges for the teacher too. Discussions are unpredictable. Outcomes are messier to obtain and define. Teachers need to shift from expositor of knowledge to discussion facilitator. That requires a different set of skills, not typically part of graduate training and different from the ways in which many of us were taught.

But teachers are in a unique position to provide opportunities for students to practice discourse, as part of discipline-based learning. Now, more than ever, students need opportunities to learn how to discuss topics with reasoned statements, supported by evidence, without resorting to name calling and hostility.

Here are a few resources on facilitating classroom discussion, to help you get started or reinvigorate your discussion-teaching repertoire.

Brookfield, S. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Jones, R. C. (2008). The “Why” of Class Participation, A Question Worth Asking. College Teaching, 56(1), 59-63.

Petress, K. (2006). An Operational Definition of Class Participation. College Student Journal, 40(4), 821-823.

Welty, W. M. (1989). Discussion Method Teaching: How to Make it Work. Change, July-August, 40-49.

Fitbits, Feedback & Framing

I recently purchased a Fitbit. I’d always wanted one but walking used to be painful and I didn’t need to wear a gadget to remind me how little I was walking each day. But with a new hip, counting steps is fun. The techie-nerdy-competitive aspects of my personality are thoroughly enjoying my new toy.

Every hour it gently buzzes my wrist. A humorous/encouraging message follows: It’s step o’clock! Take me for a walk! Just ____ steps to reach your goal!  Ten mins to get ______ steps!

If I take the hint and get moving, it buzzes again when I reach the hourly target (250 steps). It buzzes furiously and showers my screen with fireworks when I hit my daily goal. It also sends updates when I’m over the target, calling me an overachiever.

Who wouldn’t love a gizmo like that?!

The answer: my sister. She hated hers. She has an earlier generation. It tracked steps but didn’t provide the encouragements. At the end of the day she simply got feedback telling her she didn’t reach her goal. It was discouraging.  She stopped wearing it.

How much does the feedback we give our students resemble my Fitbit? How often is it more like my sister’s? In the past, much of the written feedback I gave students was in the context of graded assignments. Often the focus was on what they missed. Based on how well my Fitbit’s encouragement motivates me, I’ve increased the number of times I provide formative feedback.  I try to comment on the positives, not just what was missed. I’m also much more aware of tone and word choice when delivering correction.

One of the features I like about the Fitbit software is the graphics. Little red dots accumulate throughout the day as the hourly target is met. Gaps, representing hours where I sat too much, bug me. It’s a game-like quality where I am competing with myself. That motivation is more powerful than I appreciated, suggesting it’s probably worth exploring how adding game components in my instructional repertoire might improve motivation for some of my students.



My Fitbit also taught me how important it is to frame experiences carefully. Each hour and day is an opportunity to meet small and large goals. While the American Heart Association recommends 10,000 steps per day, my step goal is lower, recognizing that I’m still healing. Similarly, students start from different places.  The goals they set should reflect that. I’m not suggesting lower standards or expectations.  But teachers do need to recognize student differences within each class. “One size” instruction doesn’t necessarily fit all.

Here are additional questions for teachers to think about:

  • Are there numerous opportunities to meet small and large goals throughout your course?
  • How frequently are students given formative feedback?
  • Is the tone of the feedback encouraging?
  • If corrective feedback is necessary, is it presented as a growth opportunity?
  • Do students have a say in establishing goals and deadlines?
  • Do assignments and assessments integrate prior learning and feedback?  Meaning- if we bother to write and provide it, does it matter?

What other questions come to mind?  Please share below.

The bottom line for teachers: we need to recognize that some students respond to negative feedback as a challenge to do better. But others may withdraw or give up. Motivation matters. Corrective, negative feedback is a necessary part of learning and teaching. Let’s be sure we’re giving it often, kindly, and in time for students to learn from it. Perhaps more important, let’s remember the power of encouragement in spurring students to persist and succeed.

Recommended reading:

Bies-Hernandez, N.J. (2012). The Effects of Framing Grades on Student Learning and Preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3): 176-180.