Prepare for class with an annotated set list

Simon Bates and James Charbonneau, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

We co-teach a large introductory (physics) class, with up to 300 students. The lectures are designed to be fairly active affairs (for the students mainly, also for us) and a typical 50 minute slot can easily comprise between five and ten separate segments, including exposition (mini lectures), peer instruction supported by clicker questions, questions from students, demonstrations/simulations and worksheet problems worked on in small groups of up to four.

Organizing these sessions necessitates advance planning and communication between the two of us as to who is going to lead on what segments. In practice, coordination is required between the three of us, as our large section is also supported by a lecture TA who takes an active role in the class.

We use a 'set list' (misspent youth at too many concerts perhaps?) to choreograph the sequence of lecture activities and share this between the three of us in advance. It turns out this simple document has a number of other practical uses, beyond the obvious, which we detail below.

1) Pre-class planning. It provides a heads-up during preparation, aiding with the scope and pacing of what will be covered in a given class. You can immediately see where there is too much talking (from us) and not enough doing (from the students).

2) Post-class reflection. This same document is a very useful place to make notes after the class about how things worked out in practice. This 2 minute reflection - which need not be anything more fancy than some hand written scribbles on top of the set list - is an invaluable investment for the next time the class rolls around, often a year later. I might remember that lecture 21 was on the Doppler effect, but a year later I'd be hard pressed to remember with any detail what sections students found most difficult, or what demos were most effective (or didn't work!)

3) Passing on the baton. Finally, when it becomes time to hand over the course to a colleague to teach, as teaching duties get rotated, how valuable to inherit not just the syllabus, and perhaps some notes and problem sheets, but also a series of reflections about what happened 'in the field,' as it were.

This is not rocket science and quite possibly many people do exactly this in their courses already. However, we had both been teaching for several years before really coming to appreciate the value of this self-generated feedback gathered shortly after the class happened, and having a convenient way to do it regularly. Creating the set list and generating the post class notes takes about 5 minutes per lecture (not including the content preparation time, of course). You can see an example of just how simple these set lists can be from our course at . We would even advocate spending 5 minutes less polishing your slides or notes ahead of class to make room for this activity, because the return on investment in the long term will probably be significantly greater.

Take a chance on student participation

Many instructors are in a bind when it comes to class discussions: they want everyone in the class to contribute, but they do not feel comfortable calling on students who do not raise their hands to speak. 

Kurtis Swope, in a 2006 article for the Teaching Professor, writes of an inspired technique to avoid this conundrum. He brings some many-sided dice (bought at a game store) to class, and whenever he asks the class a question, rolls the dice to determine which student is to answer. Swope notes that he still allows for open discussion in his classes, in which students freely respond to one another. But students quickly warm to the dice-rolling, Swope reports, adding that the technique "generates a sense of anticipation and attention because any student can be called upon at any time." 

It's a good idea, not least because it involves those students who are too shy to raise a hand or otherwise unwilling to volunteer in class discussions without singling anyone out. By leaving the decision up to chance, the technique takes a part of class that students can be quite sensitive about and turns it into something that's truly democratic and maybe even a little exciting. 

Source: Kurtis J. Swope, "Roll the Dice and Students Participate," in The Teaching Professor, April 2006, 20(4), 6.

Use Monte Carlo Quizzes to promote student engagement

In a 2004 article in College Teaching, Peter Fernald writes of a technique that improves upon the surprise quiz. Fernald was looking for a way to ensure that his students were doing all of the reading, but also hoping to encourage the right kind of reading, reading that actively engages with the material and lays the groundwork for real understanding. He evolved something he calls the Monte Carlo Quiz. 

At a certain point in each class period a student must roll a standard six-sided die. If it lands on an even number, there will be a quiz on that day’s reading. If it lands on an odd number, no quiz is given. If there is to be a quiz, the student rolls the die again, this time to determine which reading, or part of the reading, the quiz will cover (this second roll can be skipped if students only do one reading for each class period). Then the student rolls the die a third time, to find out which of the six pre-assigned questions the students will have to answer. 

Fernald uses the same six questions, derived from Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, throughout the term:

1. Knowledge: Describe the major thesis, the central idea or set of ideas, in the reading. . . .

2. Comparison: Identify two concepts or principles presented in the chapter or article and, when you first mention each, underline and define it. Then, show how the concepts or principles in some way(s) are both similar to and different from one another. . . .

3. Application: Select a concept or principle in the chapter or article, clearly define or describe it, and then indicate how it applies to you or someone you know. Provide sufficient details to justify convincingly that the concept or principle indeed applies as you suggest.

4. Critique: Write a critical perspective on some aspect of the chapter or article, citing evidence that prompts you to agree or disagree with the author’s perspective.

5. Passion: Citing page number(s), quote verbatim a statement or brief passage that elicits in you some type of emotional response . . . Then identify your emotional response, describe the meaning(s) that the statement or passage has for you, and provide actual or possible reasons for your response.

6. Student’s Choice: Answer any of the above five questions. 

The concept could work with other sets of questions as well, including those more specifically tailored to the course.

The real benefit of Monte Carlo Quizzes is that, because students don’t know which question they may have to answer, they must be prepared to answer any of the six questions. If you apply this strategy in every class period, as Fernald does, you ensure that the students always have an incentive to do the reading thoroughly. And yet, you are not forced to give over valuable class time to a quiz in every single class period; the first roll of the die should land on an odd number approximately half of the time.

Source: Peter S. Fernald, The Monte Carlo Quiz: Encouraging Punctual Completion and Deep Processing of Assigned Readings," College Teaching 52. 3 (Summer 2004), 95-99.

Engage students with project-based pedagogy

Angela Velez-Solic, Indiana University Northwest

An active learning strategy I employ and encourage of the faculty members I train is project-based courses. This can work for any teaching modality- traditional, hybrid, or online. Think about a big project idea that gets the students involve in DOING or CREATING something that is realistic, something that will benefit them in the long run, something that makes them a particular 'expert' on an area of content. Here are a few that I've designed:

1. 100-level reading, writing, study skills course: The big project is a plan to change something in their community that they want to see change-- a law, helping a specific group, advocating for animals, opening a soup kitchen, whatever they want. Each assignment has them investigating change, how people do it who are 'ordinary' but who do extraordinary things. One assignment has them looking inward and evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses for making a difference. In the end they have a plan that they may or may not see played out.

2. Professional/Business Writing. The project involves them opening a business branch overseas. They make up their business, its product or process, choose a country, a city, inform their employees of the branch overseas, write a letter to the media to quell rumors, design a brochure to lure volunteers, research the country and its communication preferences, dress code, business practices, food, entertainment, etc. and they create a handbook for employees. It culminates in a final presentation for employees and stakeholders.

3. British Literature. Students choose an author and they become an expert on him or her. Each assignment involves them investigating the author's personal life, climate of Britain and historical 'goings on' at the time period, the various works that person wrote and summary of them, and other projects. It culminates in a presentation of what they've learned about the author.

Students love how these are very real for them (well, British Lit, maybe not so much, but the other two definitely). They're learning how to write, how to communicate, and how to research, but are having fun and learning essential skills while doing it. The learning is memorable and sometimes life changing.

Start every class with a writing prompt

Here’s a strategy whose simplicity belies its usefulness: every class period, as the students come into the classroom, put a question or prompt on the board for the students to respond to, in writing. If you make this a habit, it has a number of important benefits.

  • It provides a clear break from the noise and distraction of the outside world and the focus you want to instill during class. A brief period—even five minutes—of quiet reflection and writing can help students better make this transition.

  • It lays the foundation for a good discussion. Not every student is good at thinking on her feet; many people benefit from having time to gather their thoughts and think things through before being able to discuss something constructively. In addition, those students who are shy or otherwise reluctant to speak as part of a class discussion may find it easier to do so if they have thoughts written down on the page in front of them.

  • Writing teaches writing. By making your students write about relevant subjects regularly, in addition to allowing them to think their way deeper into those subjects, you are helping them to become better writers. There is no better way to improve as a writer than to practice regularly. You may find this helps when it comes time to read their essays.

  • If you make the questions or prompts about the readings, this activity can take the place of regular quizzes. Having students regularly write a half a page in response to their reading can ensure that they’re actually doing that reading.

In regard to that last point, you may want to collect and mark these pieces of writings, even if it’s only a cursory grade to reflect a good-faith effort on the student’s part. You can have these in-class assignments add up to a very small portion of the students’ final grades, or allow it to play a significant role in the marks you give for participation. But if you do want the activity to impel them to do the reading, you will want to provide some kind of grade.  -DG


Variations on a theme: more uses for tent cards

Two teachers have written in with additional variations to the tent card tip submitted by Anne-Marie McAllister, who uses name cards to help her take attendance, and as part of an introductory exercise. Monique Finley, of Niagara College, in Ontario, writes that she has used the name card/attendance idea for some years now with one enhancement: on the inside of the tent card where they write the date they also have spaces to give feedback about the class:

  • Stop: where they write what is happening in class that they find distracting
  • Start: where they can give suggestions for class improvement
  • Continue: where they can voice their opinion on what is working well for them

So in addition to helping the instructor with their names and taking attendance, the tent cards give the students a chance to communicate with the instructor on classroom and curriculum issues.

Similarly, Jan Oosterhof-Contant, of the University of the Fraser Valley, writes:

"I, too, provide students with a tent name card, but I invite students to put the name they prefer to use in class on the card. (We have many International students who do not go by their formal name.) I originally did this to learn the students' names (this also helped me when first returning assignments to students), but I soon noticed that students in the class also addressed other students by name and soon everyone knew each other's name. Students in my classes also pick up their name tag at the beginning of class and return it at class end. In addition to using this method to mark attendance when students are working, I use the name cards to put any handouts that have been given to students that class or marked assignments that have been returned during the class in the name card of absent students, which I then put into a separate protective sleeve in a special binder. When students come to class and see that their name tag isn't available, they know to check the binder where they will find any returned assignments or handouts for that class tucked inside their name tag. This makes it easy for students and for me because the student doesn't miss out on handouts, and I don't have to remember to take extra copies of handouts to each class. Furthermore, students can come to my office to get any missed work even when I am not available, which means they do not have to wait until the next class to get their work. If I agree to do something for a student, I attach a post-it note to the name tag to remind myself , and I return the name tag when I have followed through; if I have 'information' for the student, I put it with their name tag in the binder.

"With so many students, I also find it easy to simply mark a student away without necessarily noting how many classes have been missed; however, the binder serves as a visual reminder to follow-up with students who are chronically absent. When I have been unable to reach a student by phone or email, I can also slip a note into the plastic sleeve asking that student to meet with me. Again, this can prevent an awkward moment for a student because I do not have to try to speak to the student with others listening. These 'notes' are always out of view for other students."

Shuffle name cards for a better discussion

 Kim Shankman, Benedictine College 

I have students write their name (the way they want to be addressed, formal or nickname) on an index card the first day of class. I use these to take attendance, but more importantly, I shuffle the cards and use them as my method for choosing students to answer questions. That way they all know that the process is random, I don't have to deal with the deer in the headlights ("please please don't call on me") looks scanning the class choosing someone to call on, and I also am not tempted to rely on the same group of "old reliables" (generally prepared students) to answer questions.

Help your students stay awake in class

Sean Heuston, writing in a recent issue of College Teaching, gives his students some simple ways to stay awake during class—surely a pressing concern for many students, and teachers. Heuston drove trucks when he was a college student, and learned a number of “trucker tips” that he now passes along to his students. These include lifting a leg three inches off the floor, or an arm three inches off the table, or merely standing up. His main point is that “muscle tension and muscle activity will keep them awake, which is why no matter how tired they are they will not fall asleep while walking to class.”

Heuston explains this concept on the first day of class, and lets students know that he understands that they are often running on very little sleep. He invites them, at any time during class throughout the term, to stand up if they feel like they are getting drowsy. He tells them he’d much prefer a class full of standing students to one full of sleeping, or even just sleepy, students.

The idea is a good one, not least because it takes the stigma away from tired students. And by acknowledging that students may have legitimate reasons to be tired, teachers can establish a rapport between themselves and their students, laying the foundation for a pedagogical relationship that is worth staying awake for.

Source: Sean Heuston. "Trucker Tips: Helping Students Stay Awake in Class." College Teaching 61.3: 2013. 108.

The Minute Paper: where you've been and where you're going

The Minute Paper is a flexible technique designed to get students to reflect and think critically about their learning, while giving teachers an easy way to assess how their students perceive their experience in class. It was first formulated, at least in a published form, by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross in their 1993 book, Classroom Assessment Techniques. It’s simple: ask students to briefly reflect on a learning experience and ask them to respond, in writing, to the following two questions: “What was the most important thing you learned?” and “What question or questions remain unanswered?”.

Angelo and Cross suggest using this technique in the last five minutes of class, to get students to reflect on that day’s content. This works to help solidify the day’s discussion in the students’ minds, but also allows the teacher, after collecting the papers, to see how the students experienced the class and what they still might not get.

Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones suggest that the Minute Paper could be used in any number of situations: at the beginning of class to review a homework assignment, or the previous class’s discussion; in the middle of class to reinforce what’s come before and point the way forward; or at any time to gauge students’ learning experiences that took place outside of the classroom (in previous courses, for instance).

It’s an easy way to focus students and teacher alike on the ground that has been covered and the distance left to run.  -DG

Sources: Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques : A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. 148-53. Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones. Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. 147-48.

Use "tent cards" to take attendance

Anne-Marie McAllister, of Georgian College in Ontario, writes in with a simple tip for reducing the time it takes to take attendance for a large class. At the beginning of term, she makes tent cards—pieces of card stock paper folded in half so they sit up like tents—and writes each student’s name on the outside of a card. These sit in a box on the her desk; when each student comes into class, he or she takes his or her name card and puts it on his or her desk. Filling out the day’s attendance is as easy as noting which cards are left in the teacher’s box. The strategy has the added benefit of helping the teacher remember the students’ names in the first weeks of class, as each student has his or her name displayed at his or her desk.

McAllister also uses the cards as part of a beginning-of-term introductory exercise. She has her students write important information about themselves on the inside of their cards, and then walks through class and shares some of what she finds with the class as a whole. At the end of the first class, after collecting the cards, she looks through them all to learn more about her students.  -DG

"Today We Will": A road map for each class

Here’s some good advice on in-class management from an excerpt, online at,  taken from a white paper published by Magna Publications, “Ten Ways to Engage Your Students on the First Day of Class.” The tip—to regularly make a “Today We Will” list on the board—is a good one, and not just for the first day of class.

The essence of the idea is to write, at the beginning of every class, a list on the board of what you plan to do in class that day. You write “Today We Will…” at the top, and then, underneath, chart the “road map” for that day’s class. It’s a sort of informal contract, a promise that gives your students a firm sense of what to expect at all times. Students who arrive late will know what they’ve missed and what they will be responsible for making up. All students will be able to see, at a glance, where you are in the class period’s overall plan.

For the teacher, the list is a handy reminder of what you planned to cover, keeping you on topic and discouraging long tangents that bring you further away from the topics at hand. Of course, there’s no need for the list to be rigid; you can feel free to erase items if you decide that you won’t have enough time to get to them.

Above all, the habit of a “Today We Will” list contributes to a teacher-student relationship based on clear expectations—a good basis for any pedagogical exchange.  -DG


Source: Jennifer Garrett. “Advice for the First Day of Class: Today We Will.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 12 August 2013. Web. 20 August 2013.

Term-long informal writing exercises

Devote the first ten minutes of each class to an informal writing assignment: give the students a prompt and have them write an answer in a specially devoted notebook. You can collect these student writing journals several times throughout the semester to check on your students’ progress and perhaps give them a grade. Some portion of the final class of the semester is devoted to an exercise that asks students to reflect on their writing throughout the term. You have them respond to four prompts:

            1) Go through and choose their strongest response of the term and briefly explain why it is the strongest;

            2) Choose the response that was the hardest to do and briefly explain why;

            3) Choose the response that “does the best job of stating their values and beliefs, and then … discuss how those values and beliefs have affected their ability to understand course content”; and

            4) Compare answers written during the first few weeks of the term with those written near the end of the course and describe the changes they see.  -DG

Source: Weimer, Maryellen. “Informal Writing Assignments: Promoting Learning Through Writing.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 6 November 2012. Web. 22 July 2013. Based on research by Hudd, S.S., Smart, R.A., and Delohery, A.W. “My understanding has grown, my perspective has switched: Linking informal writing to learning goals.” Teaching Sociology, 39.2 (2011), 179-189.


Low-stakes pre-writing

At the beginning of class, give students a question about their reading, the material covered in the last class, or a topic that will be relevant to that day’s class, and give them ten minutes to write an answer. This writing can go ungraded, or it can be turned in and count for a tiny percentage of the final grade. The writing gives students time to think, reflect on the material, and get into the right mindset for a discussion in class. It can also give shy students the confidence to speak up in class, because they only have to look down and read from their paper to make a contribution.  -DG

Source: Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 90-92.

McEvoy Minute Around

 Begin class by handing your watch to a student in the front row. Explain that each student will talk for a minute—an initial contribution to the day’s discussion, a response to the reading, a question to explore—before handing the watch to the next person. This is only practical, of course in smaller classes. “‘The longer my students sit without saying anything,’ one professor told [Ken Bain], ‘the harder it is to bring them into the discussion.’” The activity’s title comes from its progenitor, University of Wisconsin professor Arthur McEvoy.

James Lang adds that you don’t need to use the watch-gimmick. “Simply establish that at the beginning of the class, each student has a brief time period either to respond to a question that you pose, or to explain what she thought was relevant, or interesting about the reading or material for that day’s class. As the students offer their statements, you take notes, and use their comments and ideas to fill out or alter whatever discussion questions you have planned.”  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 130-31. Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 92.

End of class conclusions/questions exercise

 Leave 5-10 minutes at the end of each class. Ask students, “What major conclusions have you drawn from today’s class/reading/discussion?” and “What questions remain in your mind?” Have students write down the answers to these questions, then go around the room, asking for some of their answers. Let those answers drive a discussion that helps cement the content of that day’s class, and/or contribute to what you teach in the next class.  -DG

Source: Bain, Ken, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004, 103.