The Value of Formatting





Formatting.  No, not a document, class formatting. I don’t know about you, but it seems like I try to stuff too much into class most of the time. Not because I want to, but because I want to share as much as I can with students. Everything is just “too important” or “really necessary”. So much info – too little time! How to cover everything? I really did not realize that I had the same organization until a student pointed it out to me by telling me how much he appreciated the same activities each class. After thinking about it, I realized I do have a ‘format’ to class. Here’s a couple of things that help me: 1) set up groups early in the class, and 2) use a standard format for each week:  Set a Theme – Do Reading – Talk -Watch – Discuss – Do.


To set up groups, I use colored card stock (4 colors, depending on number of students); each color is a group. So, whenever I tell the class to get into groups, I don’t have to waste time with counting off, or rows – they just get into groups. I do allow them to change if they wish.


  • The theme usually follows the textbook content, and I build everything else around it. For example, if the chapter is on writing a business summary, the theme might be e-Commerce. Everything else, then, is in the same theme.
  •  The reading is done outside of class from the chapter and outside reading from newspaper articles to web sources based on the theme.
  • We talk in class about what the theme – maybe some history or current events – and the goals for the week and for assignments and projects.
  • I usually show a video on the subject (as current as possible) or my own presentation, but no more than 8-10 minutes max. (OK – if we are pressed for time, this may not be shown.)
  • Then we discuss the reading, discussions, and video in class, and any questions that may arise thus far.


  • The “do” is usually in a group or with partners. It can be a quiz, pair and share, a journal writing, or assignments that are completed over a couple of classes.

For example, if I give a quiz, I may give it twice. The first time individually, which gives me a snapshot of their content knowledge. If time, I do the same quiz in their groups where the content is discussed and deliberated, and the answers are determined collectively and by consensus. Students study (and learn) content so they can pass the quiz, and then they learn more as their discussion with group allows them to understand it more deeply. It also helps them practice critical thinking skills. If it’s a project to reinforce learning, they must keep within the theme, and they sometimes work on and complete the project outside of class. For example, this might be time to work on a marketing summary, or class presentation.

Do I still try and put too much into every class? Yep. But I find that creating groups and keeping to a format really does help me see what’s been covered. It also helps create continuity so students know what to expect each class period. Any suggestions?


A Taste of Your Own Medicine

doctor   “Your Dad is going to be okay.” That’s what the doctor said right after his pacemaker operation early last week. Dad would be in the hospital 3-4 days, and then be sent home with medicine for recuperation. It’s been a scary month of doctor visits, new medicine, tests and more tests; and then more medicine. Then, oops! Well, guess he’s not okay. Back into the hospital we go. Not sure what happened, but it the medicine is fixed and we go home again; then back to the hospital. You see, this takes place in just a week. I’m behind in my grading, my copies and posting for class this week. There is no time to sleep, and, DANG, I haven’t finished by 9x9x25 yet (sorry, Todd).

Okay, now I see what my students see and feel – chaos. Especially those first-year students who are already on overwhelm, and we’re not quite at mid-semester. You know the defenses: “I’m having difficulty managing school, my job, my kids, and my family.” “There just aren’t enough hours in the day.” “I can’t come to class – couldn’t finish my assignment – my child is sick.” We’ve heard them all.

Breathe, I tell them. Just breathe. It’s just setting priorities -like medicine – creating a schedule for each category – reading – writing – studying – working – family. Allow some flexibility for those events you can’t schedule, like family illness. But, don’t forget to breathe.

Interestingly, this week’s focus is on brain care and balance – Exercise – Food – Sleep. Get enough of each. Shorting one creates disorder in another. “Just 30 minutes of exercise gives you increased blood flow and helps with concentration, memory, mood, learning, and stress, I tell them, and it will help you balance all those things you need to get done.” Eat good food – fruits and vegetables – good fats – feed your brain. Get good sleep. It’s proven that sleep actually has neurological benefits far beyond rest and rejuvenation. “Oh, and don’t’ forget to breathe”, I tell them all the time.

Ahem. Not quite so easy when the advice, or “medicine”, is for me. I have priorities. I have schedules. I’m really good at knowing what’s due and when. I have reminders to post information or make copies for class, or to remind students. There’s a different set of expectations from different places, and yet there’s no one to remind me of those priorities. No one to give me that medicine?

Today, I’m finishing up with required Instructor-Student meetings. It was my last student meeting today. She reminded me to just breathe?   breathe

What to do on your Summer Vacation…

OK – what are you doing on summer vacation?  Something totally outside of teaching, or do you have to prep for some new classes.  I just read an article on Faculty Focus, “Six Questions that will bring your Teaching Philosophy into Focus, by Neil Haave, Ph.D.   Dr. Haave reviews the notion that how we learn informs how we teach, and we should always be mindful of being a student; asking ourselves what it was like to learn a new concept or idea for the first time.  He asks six questions – from your best learning experience to what and how you are achieving objectives in your class.  

Ask yourself those six questions, but don’t forget to ask yourself what you didn‘t like – what you found frustrating – what could have helped you as a student, and how these answers can and should affect your teaching.

Neil Haave, PhD
Neil Haave, PhD

So, what are you doing over the summer?  Maybe I’ll be asking and answering some thoughtful questions!


So, this week’s challenge is to reflect on our 9x9x25 experience – what we would improve, what seemed to work. Well, actually, all of it seemed to work!

I found out so much from everyone; mostly about their commitment to students and teaching.  It makes me more thankful and thoughtful of those with whom I work.

I’m thankful I responded to the challenge.  Because of having to post weekly, I have a better sense of why my students sometimes get frustrated with one of my assignments (…why can’t she see that I have four other classes too?!).  Or comments about other instructors (…why can’t he see that I have four other classes too?!).   In reflection, I’ll make a concerted effort to remember those other assignments when I plan next semester.

I’m thankful that I really read your blogs.  It’s been inspiring, funny, thought-provoking, and interesting.  Seriously, I don’t know how I’m going to take all of your classes, but will just have to give it a go.  In reflection, your blogs showed me much more about you as a person, teacher, and colleague.  I got to read all about your humor, frustration, and commitment – to your students and to your profession.

I’m thankful to learn new ideas.  All of you shared some great stuff!  It was akin to what I ask students to share – new ideas – new thinking – different thinking – questioning norms in a participatory way.  In reflection, this 9x9x25 challenge was both a learning and social process or, if you will, a moderated discussion; exactly I want from students.  If I lecture students then test them, they aren’t learning a lot.  If I propose a set of new ideas, listen to what they have to say, encourage interaction with others, and manage conversations in directions that seem useful based on interactions, they are probably going to learn a lot.  Just as I did over the past nine weeks.

Improvements?  More ice cream; maybe wine – more participants.  I like the idea of a week of just commenting.


What I Learned Away from the Office

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

OK – I’ve had a couple of weeks in “God’s Country” – Montana and, yes, I am in love with Montana too.  My hubby and I needed to help his Mom (she’s almost 91) and as part of this fall trek, we traveled up for a cattle drive to the Northeast part of Montana, to a little town called Saco.  It’s about 25 miles south of the Canadian Border, and consists of predominately dry-land farming/ranching, and we have some really good friends there.  There is just about no cell phone reception, and Internet access is 40 miles due west, so you really do unplug.   Below are pictures of ranch views and the ‘thriving metropolis of Saco. The hottest place in town in OB’s Café.


saco3 saco4

My best thinking and best ideas have always come while I’m ‘away from the office’.  The daily prep, grading, emails, phone calls, self-created silos, and just the chaos of being at the office detracts from true thinking and letting my brain come up with better solutions to things – new ideas of how to improve things – reflecting on systems and solutions.  Having the space to just ‘be’ is, for me, critical.

I don’t have to tell any of you (and it’s been proven many times) that we are more productive if we can relax and get away once in a while.  According to a survey by Harris Interactive, Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012 — up from 6.2 days in 2011.

Think about your days and tasks.  How many days do you wake up already tired? Check email before you even get to your office (most days)?  Yep, I’ve gotten emails from some of you at 5:30 am.  You eat breakfast and lunch at your desk (most days)?  Run from meeting to meeting – class to class; responding to a meeting – running to another class – grade – grade some more.  What’s really being accomplished?  How is this constant pace affecting you?  Your teaching?  Your class? More?

So what did have time to think about?  I thought and wrote a new story board for a class – it’s in need of a real re-do to make it bitstripmore interactive.   I took Ruth Alsobrook-Hurich’s info on Bitstrips and created some fun announcements.  I also rewrote the welcome letter – boy was it stale.

Then I new syllabusre-did my syllabus to look more like a Newsletter (another Ruth tip).

Here’s what else I learned away from the office:

  • Breathe – it’s healthy & opens your brain to new ideas
  • Walk More – get fresh air at least once a day!
  • Sleep – Going to bed at 8:30 pm is really okay!  A 10-minute power nap works too
  • Read – something totally outside of any subject you teach   (I like historical fiction)
  • Try something totally new – I fed baby lambs – Adorable
  • Appreciate Balance – what and where & family and friends
  • Be in Awe – The Northern Lights really are a marvel.  Learning is like that too.

So, in just a few weeks all of us will have some time “away”.  What will you do?

Yep, Once in a While a Not-So-Good Day

Ugh – what do you do when your day just does not go the way you thought it would go?  Even worse – what if your class does not go the way you want.

As Sal Buffo blogged, in his Reminder from the Universe, sometimes it’s a good thing in retrospect to just let go.  Okay, I get it, but for those of us always want to be in control, it may be a little more difficult.

OK, I think none of us really blow it entirely, but when the technology ‘farts’, or we forget most of our notes  – always across campus or left on the kitchen table –  or the video blew up  and you get totally off topic.  Worse, students look at you like you’re from Mars, and have no clue as to what you are trying to tell them – it can be a little unnerving for the best of us.   Here’s another scenario: the first half of students entering class tell you how confusing that last assignment was – they didn’t do it.

So what to do?

  1. Admit that some things are not controllable – most students probably liked being off topic a little, and that the discussion may have been more lively than normal. Stop and ask students if they have ever had any bad days.  (Caution here – you may get some opinions on your assignments!)
  2. Admit that others may have questions (comments) on that last assignment.  Perhaps clarify what and how, and have the assignment orally that class.
  3. Find the positive in the situation.  Maybe that confusing assignment becomes the best discussion in class you have ever had.  I asked students what I could do to turn this around, and if they would rather have an oral assignment – yep!  After that, Voicethread was utilized, and I asked for more interpretation of the assignment.
  4. Add some humor – not the self-deprecating sort, but maybe have others tell how they got out of a jam when having a not-so-good day (not ‘bad’).  Not every day can be perfect.  If you learned something about yourself or the world, consider it a good one.
  5. Be flexible and don’t give up (frankly, you can’t until the end of the semester).  The not-so-good day may turn into good days; days that you remember when things seem to not work and yet it become one of the best days.
  6. Have faith in yourself.  Truly, you know what to do, and you are not the only one that had one of those days.

If it’s really not a good day, watch Rita Pierson’s TEDTalk.  You’ll be inspired.

More on (my) “Ignorance”

As a continuation of my previous post on “Ignorance” (You Gotta Be Ignorant to Learn), my new ignorance comes from Iain Davidson in the TeLS office.  Not that he announced my ignorance, but rather gave me a new awareness.

Each week on various days / time, we have an Adjunct Faculty “Alternative” Small Group Meeting in the GIFT Center on the Prescott Campus (will expand to other campuses next semester).  We have anywhere from 2-6 people who attend and have great discussions with campus staff, administrators, and faculty about various subjects that pertain to teaching and student learning.

Blackboard logo

Last week, Iain Davidson, Instructional Support Specialist, came to talk about Blackboard – some tips and maybe how to better utilize it in all types of our teaching – online, F2F, and Hybrid.  We talked a lot about how online classes are set up; how many buttons are too many; or if should the class be by week or by module.  We also talked about really using the gradebook to keep students involved in their classes, creating tests and surveys, and why a Blog or Wiki may be good for a study guide.

But…the BEST information that Iain shared was for all of us to be in a “state of ignorance” when setting up our courses.  That is, be a first-time online student.  A neophyte in an online class who knows nothing about navigation, discussions, or online assignments.  Iain challenged us to really think consider the following:

  • The overall look of the initial page – what should it be?  A bunch of instructions, or something to welcome students?
    – Oh, and the announcements from last semester really should come off.
  • Navigation Buttons – How many do you really need?
    – If you can’t keep up, you can bet your students can’t either.
  • Can they find your assignments?
    – How many clicks in each button must the student make to get to the assignments?  Really?
    – Does it seem like it’s a secret to find it?  If it’s too frustrating, guess who won’t do it.
    – Does your grade book have duplicate (and triplicate) assignments that you’ve copied?
  • Have you ever considered asking students what works and doesn’t?
    – Iain had some great advice for us – keep a running conversation (Discussion Board, Wiki, Blog) of questions students have had and have been answered.  You might see a pattern there.

So, maybe after a couple of semesters teaching the same class, it pays to be more “ignorant “and look at your class with the fresh eyes of the student.  Thanks, Iain!

Confucius quote