Graduate Teaching Certificate

The Graduate Teaching Certificate recognizes the participation of graduate teaching assistants (GA/RA/TAs) in the development programs offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. The certificate acknowledges these individuals’ commitment to effective teaching and can enhance their academic credentials. To qualify for this recognition, a graduate teaching assistant must have attended the full-day TA Orientation or one other daylong teaching effectiveness program made available to TAs and at least five (5) programs of shorter duration offered by Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

NIU graduate teaching assistants are encouraged to apply for the certificate by printing and completing the application found on the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center website at and mailing it to the Center. Once completed applications are received and processed, certificates are sent to the teaching assistants’ department to acknowledge their commitment to effective teaching and present the certificates to them. If TAs need a few more workshops to qualify for the certificate, they are encouraged to check the current schedule of TA programs on the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center website.

Using Concept Inventories to Improve Instruction

In many fields, “common sense” can lead students astray. Before stepping into a classroom, students have formed hypotheses and theories based on observations and experience, but what seems to make sense based on casual observation may be, in fact, false. These misconceptions can be worse than complete ignorance, as the misconceptions have to be corrected in order for new information to be learned. In fact, most of the time, students simply modify their existing understanding to accommodate the new concepts rather than internalizing the correct knowledge, leading to a mash-up of correct vocabulary mixed with partially correct theories (Hestenes, 2006).

There are several important questions related to student misconceptions. First, what misconceptions do students have when they begin a course? Also, is the course effective at replacing misconceptions with a deep understanding of the concepts which are essential to the course, or are students learning the material by rote? Finally, are some teaching methods more effective for imparting this deep learning? Obviously, these misconceptions can be challenging to assess using conventional methods.

One way to address these misconceptions is by administering a Concept Inventory assessment. A concept inventory is a multiple choice test that forces students to choose between the correct concepts and common sense alternatives (Hestenes, Halloun & Wells, 1992). The inventory is administered at the beginning of a course to get a baseline level of student understanding, and again at the end of a course. The difference between the scores represents the students’ change from misconception to accurate and deep understanding of the concepts.

Because concept inventories are designed to assess understanding of concepts, the questions focus on reasoning, logic, and general problem solving, rather than facts, definitions, or computations. Initial questions may be followed by a second multiple choice question that asks for the reason why an answer was given. For example, the following two questions are part of the Chemistry Concept Inventory (Mulford, 1996.) Answers follow at the end of the article.

  1. Two ice cubes are floating in water. After the ice melts, will the water level be:
    1. Higher?
    2. Lower?
    3. The same?
  2. What is the reason for your answer?
    1. The weight of water displaced is equal to the weight of the ice.
    2. Water is denser in its solid form (ice).
    3. Water molecules displace more volume than ice molecules.
    4. The water from the ice melting changes the water level.
    5. When ice melts, its molecules expand.

Unlike traditional multiple-choice exams, concept inventory questions are criterion-referenced, meaning the questions should be directly linked to the concepts and misconceptions the inventory is designed to assess. The distracters (incorrect responses) for each question should be matched to common misconceptions.

To create a concept inventory, begin by selecting the theories or concepts that are most critical to success in the subject area. Then, identify common misconceptions that students have about those concepts. For experienced faculty members, this could be based on observation and experience, at least initially. For greater accuracy, misconceptions can also be identified through open-ended exams that require students to explain their reasoning. Interviews with students are very informative about the common sense theories they have constructed. It also may be possible to review literature on common student misconceptions about the concepts.

Use the common misconceptions to develop multiple-choice questions that are problem-oriented and concept-based rather than computational or factual. To many faculty, the questions on a concept inventory seem to be too easy or trivial, but that is natural (Hestenes, Halloun & Wells, 1992). Because the questions are based on essential concepts as opposed to complexities, errors are indicative of lack of understanding, while correct responses may not indicate mastery as traditionally understood.

After administering the concept inventory as both a pre- and post-test, compare the scores. Ideally, the scores should improve substantially. If there is little change overall, or little change for a particular concept, reconsider the questions, and examine the teaching strategies used. If possible, it is particularly helpful for multiple faculty members to administer the inventory to multiple sections. Over time, continue to revise teaching strategies to improve students’ mastery of the concepts they struggle with.

Naturally, there are many factors that affect the results of a concept inventory. The ultimate goal is to identify student misconceptions and to determine whether those misconceptions are corrected. Hestenes and Halloun (1995) argue that a well-written concept inventory, like their Force Concept Inventory (FCI), is best analyzed as a whole rather than as individual questions. The result is an indication of how well students understand the concepts overall, as opposed to how they respond to specific questions.

Developing an accurate and valid concept inventory is a matter of research, time, and revision. Fortunately, many individuals who have already developed concept inventories welcome other faculty to use their exams and to add their data to the ongoing study of the instrument. Several of those examples follow.

Examples of Concept Inventories:

Concept inventories are most common in mathematics, the sciences, and engineering, but can be applied to any field. The first widely-disseminated concept inventory was the Force Concept Inventory (Hestenes, Halloun, & Wells, 1992), which assesses basic understanding of Newtonian physics. There are also concept inventories to assess introductory knowledge in chemistry, digital logic (a branch of computer science), and statistics, among many others. Use the links below to view several examples (some require a password that can easily be acquired by emailing the contact listed on the website.) Many of the teams welcome other faculty to use the inventories and contribute additional data to ongoing evaluation projects.

  1. Force Concept Inventory (FCI) –
    • First widely-disseminated concept inventory
    • Developed by David Hestenes,  Ibrahim Halloun, and Malcolm Wells.
    • Assesses basic understanding of Newtonian physics
  2. Chemistry Concepts Inventory –
    • Developed by Doug Mulford
    • Assesses topics generally covered in the first semester of a college chemistry course
  3. Dynamics –
    • Developed by Gary Gray, Don Evans, Phillip Cornwell, Brian Self, and Franceso Costanzo
    • Assesses understanding in rigid body dynamics and particle dynamics
  4. Statistics –
    • Developed by Teri Reed-Rhoads and Teri Jo Murphy
    • Assesses statistics understanding through 4 sub-tests: Descriptive, Probability, Inferential, and Graphical

Additional examples are available at (Allen, 2007).

Learn More

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center will be offering a workshop on this topic titled “Concept Inventories: Measuring Learning and Quantifying Misconceptions” on March 8, 2011 from 11:30 – 1:00. Registration details will be available soon.


Allen, K. (2007). Concept Inventory Central: Tools. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

Hestenes, D. (2006). Notes for a Modeling Theory of Science, Cognition and Instruction. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from

Hestenes, D., & Halloun, I. (1995). Interpreting the FCI. The Physics Teacher, 33, 502-506. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from

Hestenes, D., Wells, M., & Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force concept inventory. The Physics Teacher, 30 (3), 141-151. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from

Mulford, D. (1996). Chemistry Concepts Inventory. Retrieved October 1, 2010 from

Answers to sample questions

  1. C
  2. A

New Resource for Accessible Teaching

posted in: Newsletter, Resources | 0

Faculty can enhance instruction by considering how the design and delivery of their content in a digital and/or web environment can overcome barriers to learning.  For example, one might inquire whether ‘accessibility’ could revolve around how students with visual impairments can access video and multimedia products, or how faculty can ensure that a student who is deaf can access content in their audio podcast.

In the broadest sense, ‘accessibility’ refers to the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is accessible by as many people as possible. This brief article focuses on resources that promote accessible teaching in both digital (computer) and web (online) settings.  Berners-Lee, founder and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, defines web accessibility as putting the internet and its services at the disposal of  all individuals, whatever their hardware or software requirements, their network infrastructure, their native language, their cultural background, their geographic location, or their physical or mental aptitudes (Berners-Lee, Hendler, Lassila, 2001). Limited digital and web accessibility disproportionately impacts person with disabilities, who make up approximately 12% of the civilian non-institutionalized population in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). In higher education, 9% of undergraduates are reported to have a disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Barriers to access include visual (blindness, weak vision, color blindness), auditory (deaf, hard of hearing, high/low frequency hearing loss), mobility (repetitive stress injuries, arthritis, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs/digits), and cognitive/emotional (learning disabilities, psychiatric/mental health impairments).

Faculty Development is hosting a new website offering resources that promote accessible teaching for the NIU community.  The purpose of this website is to increase awareness of digital and web accessibility issues as well as offer faculty practical assistance in improving the accessibility of their online content and delivery.   The website is organized into several topic areas impacting accessible teaching: Pedagogy, Technology, Legislation, Guidelines, and Learning Management Systems.

Pedagogy -   In examining methods to improve instruction, faculty might consider how an accessible design might be used to expand access to all users, whether a disability exists or not (Brewer, 2003, slide 3). While accessible design of content is commonly believed to benefit only persons with disabilities, Anson, Marangoni, Mills, and Shah (2004, ¶1) report that accessible design as universal design, benefits all users, independent of disability.  Universal Design, according to Danielson (1999), “is the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to hear, see, speak, move, read, write, and a host of other cognitive functions (pp. 2-3).”   According to Scott (2002), “Universal Design Instruction offers a proactive alternative for ensuring access to higher education for college students with disabilities. By providing faculty with a framework and tools for designing inclusive college instruction, the dialogue surrounding college students with disabilities changes from a focus on compliance, accommodations, and nondiscrimination to an emphasis on teaching and learning (¶4).” This section of the website provides resources for faculty wishing to expand their knowledge of Universal Design principles, as well opportunities to view examples of best practices.

Technology – Adaptive technology refers to assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices targeting people with a range of disabilities. A faculty member’s approach to designing and delivering instruction can be better informed by having a greater understanding of how technology is used to enhance accessibility for students with disabilities.   In the context of digital and web accessibility, hardware devices and software products which increase computer access include accessible on/off switches, flexible positioning or mounting of keyboards and monitors, speech input, specialized voice and Braille output devices, screen readers, captioned videos, alternatives to audio output, and text to speech programs. The resources in this section of the website include overviews of adaptive technology and computer applications for persons with disabilities, as well as the training necessary to locate, compare, and implement adaptive/assistive technology.

Legislation –This topic area links to resources describing landmark federal and state legislation promoting expanded accessibility. Although these resources offer both a historical and developmental view of accessibility legislation, more importantly, they provide instruction on implementation. Legislation includes the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and more recently, the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act of 2008. Of particular importance is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 amended Sections 508 (1998) which mandates that programs and services be accessible to people with disabilities.

Guidelines – In promoting accessible teaching, it is critical to provide guidelines or standards that support an understanding and implementation of web accessibility.  The guidelines for Section 508 compliance and those provided for web content accessibility by the World Wide Web Consortium provide guidance for web authors in producing accessible webpages (Brewer, slide 20). In addition to reviewing guidelines and standards, users are encouraged to submit their course website for an evaluation of accessibility.

Learning Management Systems– Resources in this topic area are geared toward expanding accessibility for users of the Blackboard learning management system. Resources include a Blackboard Quick Start guide on universal design and accessibility, video sessions in which a user who is blind uses the screen reader ‘JAWS’ to interact with and complete various tasks in Blackboard Learn including submitting an assignment, taking a test, building content and grading students, and even a description of new features in Blackboard 9.1 on accessibility. There are a number of helpful resources for users of Wimba, a synchronous/asynchronous collaboration tool integrated with Blackboard. These include examples of applying accessibility technology, product accessibility templates, and an accessibility best practices guide.

In addition to being structured by topic areas, the teaching accessibility resources website is also organized by links to NIU-based resources, NIU support units, and general resources not affiliated with NIU.  Resources are provided in the form of organization/informational websites, blogs, videos, pdf documents, PowerPoint presentations, and even an archived Wimba session.  A principal feature of this website is the ongoing modification of content, with the addition of newly identified resources that become available, while outdated or inactive websites are removed.  In addition, it is anticipated that new resources, in the form of brief practical tutorials, will be developed and added to further enhance faculty skills in expanding accessibility for teaching. Users are invited to suggest additional resources not currently featured. Faculty are welcome to explore the many resources at:


Anson, D, Marangoini, R., Mills, K., & Shah, L. (2004). The Benefit of Accessible Design for Able-Bodied Users of the World Wide Web. Assistive Technology Research Institute at Misericordia University.  Retrieved  on September 20, 2010 from

Berners-Lee, T., Hendler, J., & Lassila. O. (2001). The Semantic Web. Scientific American, 2001 May 284 5:34-43.

Brewer, J. (2003). Online Overview of the Web Accessibility Initiative. Retrieved from September 29, 2010, from

National Center for Education Statistics (2002). Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Institutions: 1999-2000 Statistical Analysis Report.  U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, NCES 2002-168.

Scott, S. (2002). Universal Design for Instruction Fact Sheet. Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from:

United States Census Bureau, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2009, Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from:

What is Universal Design (UD)? (2008). Retrieved on November 1, 2010 from:

Teaching First-Year Students

posted in: Newsletter, Teaching | 0

With anticipation each fall, faculty look forward to a new year on campus: new courses to teach, new teaching strategies to try, and a whole new group of students. In addition to the returning students faculty have not met before, many of the new faces faculty see each new semester are college freshmen, otherwise known as first-year students. Although first-year students differ in age, experiences, traditions and backgrounds, the majority of them are between 18 and 22 years old.

According to 2009 Beloit College Mindset (Nief & McBride, 2009), students today are different than those of just a decade ago and include some of the following demographics.  More students:

  • are older than 25
  • are working while taking classes
  • are veterans
  • need remedial classes
  • are part-time students
  • are from single-parent or step-parent homes
  • have a minority or immigrant background
  • have English as a second language
  • have a learning or physical disability
  • have taken college courses while in high school

Here are a few tips and techniques that can help faculty understand, engage with and effectively teach first-year students.

Connect with First-Year Students

Make connections with students despite age, values and experiential differences. When discussing new or controversial course content, bring in examples to which students can relate. For example, use a reverse-debate format in which students take opposing side to what they believe.  Here are a few tips for interacting with first-year students in the classroom from Carnegie Mellon University (1997):

  1. Ask lots of questions in class that stretch students’ thinking. For example, begin with simple recall questions such as, “List the” and “Who did” and increase the complexity of the question to those that challenge students higher order thinking such as “Which _____ is the best? Why do you think so?” and “Give and justify your opinion on _______.”
  2. Mingle with students as they work in groups to encourage dialogue and interaction.
  3. Toss a Koosh ball to students. The student who catches the ball is expected to answer the question. Students can then toss the ball to another student, and so on. This interactive nature of questions and answers can lead to more engaged learning. The activity can also relieve stress, especially at the beginning of the semester.
  4. Have students write responses to questions on flip chart paper or white board using colorful markers.
  5. Use games and simulations to help students “visualize complex systems” such as simulating an environment otherwise not possible in the classroom. For example, provide color-enhanced images of the inside of a cell or show a video of chemical reaction. Each of these strategies can help students better understand the environment (Oblinger, 2004).
  6. Learn students’ names. Students are more likely to interact when called upon by name.
  7. Relate required reading to lectures and course discussions. Ensure course assessments (quizzes, exams, and assignments) include material from required readings.
  8. Arrange students to work in groups to encourage out-of-class interactions.
  9. As part of the non-instructional course objectives, teach first-year students how to prepare for assignments and exams. Provide previous exams and sample of graded papers so students get a feel for how course work is graded.

Be Personable

Share some personal experiences, such as how interest in the subject started or stories from college days. Faculty can let students know that faculty can be trusted and that students can share feelings and questions. This is especially helpful for first-year students seeking to establish a place in the university community. Sprinkle in a bit of humor now and then to reduce the formal nature of class.

Make Course Content Relevant

Relate what may be new course content to many first year students, to their knowledge and interests. Show students the importance of the content, how content relates to required readings, and how content can actually be used.

Give and Receive Feedback

Provide ways to give and receive feedback throughout the semester and use rubrics to help students understand expectations and methods of assessment. Grade assignments and exams quickly so students can use feedback to prepare for new content and future assessments. Give meaningful and timely feedback and solicit feedback to add credibility to teaching approaches. Some examples are:

  1. Give frequent quizzes – Blackboard is an easy-to-use venue for low-stakes assessments.
  2. Use email to set up appointments, clarify course expectations and communicate with students. Establish email protocols such as how quickly questions will be responded to, if questions  will be responded to over the weekend, how faculty would like to be addressed and if using complete sentences and proper punctuation (instead of “texting” language) is expected.
  3. Give short assignments that increase in complexity to measure comprehension of course content.
  4. Use “One-minute-papers” to get a snapshot of student comprehension of ongoing content. These papers allow students to quickly reflect on content just covered in class and will help identify areas that might need further review.
  5. Ask questions such as, “What was the clearest point in today’s class?” and “What the muddiest point was in today’s class?” Ask students to write their responses on note cards and submit before leaving the room. Incorporate student responses in the next lecture or address them directly in class.

Believe in Students

Begin each semester with the assumption that all first-year students come to class eager to learn. Although the faculty member is an expert in the discipline, students should be allowed to express their points of view. Listen to what first-year students have to say, allow discussions that diverge from the planned lecture and invite students to help devise course policies and rules related to projects and assignments. Students who have a voice in their own learning will find a more rewarding learning experience.


It is essential that faculty help first-year students successfully adjust to new living and learning environments. By understanding what it means to be a first-year college student and recognizing the demands first-year students face while transitioning to the university community, faculty can provide engaging, challenging and supportive learning environments.

Selected Resources and References

Carnegie Mellon University (1997). Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Best practices for teaching first-year undergraduates: Strategies for experience faculty.  Retrieved from PublicationsArchives/InternalReports/BestPractices-1stYears.pdf

Nief, R., & McBride, T. (2009). The Beloit College mindset list.  Retrieved from

Oblinger, D. (2004). Boomers & gen-xers millennials: Understanding the new students.  Retrieved from

Strategies for Managing the Online Workload

One of the foremost concerns of online instructors is that teaching online requires more time than the traditional face-to-face classroom setting. The Strategies for Managing the Online Workload (SMOW) video podcast offers a collection of short descriptions, tips, techniques, and methods developed and used by experienced online educators to manage their time more effectively in the online teaching environment. *Note – The free iTunes software is required in order to download and view the video podcast episodes.

Here’s a video introduction to the podcast by Larry Regan, Director of Instructional Design and Development, Penn State University World Campus:

Additional contributions to this collection are welcomed. If you have an idea of how to save time when teaching online, contact Larry Ragan at Penn State University at for additional information on how to add your idea to this collection.

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