Tips to Engage Critical Thinkers & Writers – Transform Your Course Now!

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The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center is pleased to share a series of workshops designed to provide faculty, teaching assistants, and instructional staff tips to effectively engage students in critical thinking and writing assignments in their courses. The workshops include hands-on activities and strategies you can immediately apply in your course. Tips focus on providing effective feedback to students, managing the workload, avoiding plagiarism and more. Participants will learn and practice ways to engage students in the learning process. You may select individual workshops that meet your needs or attend all 5 in the series.

The workshops were first offered during the fall 2016 semester. Feedback from participants overwhelmingly indicated that the sessions will benefit both instructors and students.

Comments include:

I learned –

  • the value of using papers to motivate students
  • prioritizing feedback is key for both instructors and students
  • strategies for managing instructor workload by identifying trends in writing and commenting on trends rather than in-line editing
  • ways to add components to the classroom environment to require direct engagement
  • possible responses to plagiarism

Dr. Brad Peters from the Department of English will lead each workshop.

The Engage Students workshop series is sponsored by Writing Across the Curriculum and the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. Register Here

To share ideas for new workshop topics or if you would be interested in presenting at one of our Institutes, please contact Yvonne Johnson, Multimodal Teaching Coordinator at, 815-753-2690 or Janet Giesen, Instructional Design Coordinator at, 815-753-1085. We look forward to hearing from you!

Tips for Teaching During a Health Crisis

The H1N1 virus (Swine Flu) is expected to make a comeback to the United States this school year and officials say that college campuses could be impacted. It’s prudent for faculty to be proactive by considering how their teaching may be affected by an illness outbreak and exploring steps to continue teaching during such a situation. Here are a few suggestions as well as questions to consider when preparing for teaching during a health crisis recommended by a number of institutions. As these are simply recommendations, implement the suggestions that are applicable for your discipline and course as allowed by your college and department policies.


Preparing to teach a new course for the first time, as with any new experience, is a journey into unchartered waters. It is difficult to know exactly what to expect until actually experiencing the process. Regardless of how prepared one may strive to be, undoubtedly adjustments will be needed along the way. Each successive iteration of the course likely results in a refined and improved learning experience for students, incorporating revisions resulting from previous experiences.

No matter how familiar one may be with the course content, preparing to teach in a new format or environment involves recognizing a number of new variables and then incorporating them into the planning process. The challenge of teaching a class during a health crisis is no different from teaching in any other new instructional context, requiring adapting methods to meet the given context.

The possibility of teaching a class during a health crisis raises a number of additional scenarios and questions for consideration. A few questions that may come to mind when preparing to teach during a health crisis include:

  • What accommodations will you make for ill students?
  • What if ill students attend your classes despite health warnings to remain at home?
  • What if you become ill?
  • How will you continue the teaching and learning process during an extended illness?
  • What if classes are canceled?

These are just a few of the many questions that may likely surface when considering strategies addressing these issues. Preparation is necessary in any instructional environment, but even more so for a crisis scenario.

Tips for Preparing:

  • Plan ahead.  As the proverb states, “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” This may be stating the obvious, but it is always a good idea to plan as far in advance as possible when preparing to teach. Doing so helps alleviate stress caused by last-minute preparations.
  • Have an alternate plan. In addition to planning ahead, include alternate plans for as many potential circumstances as possible. Review your teaching plan and identify possible areas beyond your control that may impact your plan.  Then, develop a contingency plan to keep it on hand in the event that you need to deviate from your original plan.
  • Make your plan realistic. Keep in mind the full scope of your teaching, research, and service obligations as well as family and other personal commitments as you make your plan. Purposefully schedule your weekly class preparation time, office hours, and other teaching duties while balancing your other responsibilities.
  • Make your plan available to your department. Consider sharing your plan with your department chair and/or be prepared to do so with your department if for any reason someone else is needed to step-in and assist with or teach your course in your absence.
  • Keep yourself healthy. Take the recommended precautions to reduce the chance of becoming ill yourself and encourage your students to do the same. For suggestions on keeping healthy, visit
  • Become familiar with available resources. A host of support units, resources, and technologies are available for NIU faculty to utilize. A great place to start is the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, where you can find information and links to all the resources available for NIU faculty.  Perhaps consider attending a workshop on a new pedagogical approach or instructional technology or avail yourself to the wealth of step-by-step resources available at
  • Be aware of NIU’s news, information, and updates concerning H1N1. Visit the online resources available, including the NIU H1N1 flu prevention site at and the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center collection of resources for teaching during a health crisis at

Instructional Alternatives

An important component of the preparation process is identifying instructional alternatives that can be put in place if necessary to supplement and/or replace certain face-to-face interactions that are commonplace in the classroom setting. When contemplating the dynamics of teaching during a health crisis, consider how teaching the class with a diminished number of students will affect your teaching. What activities might need to be adjusted in the event of a health crisis?

  • Instructional presentation. What is the primary method for sharing instructional content with your students? Are in-class lectures crucial for students to grasp the concepts covered and meet instructional objectives? Numerous alternatives exist to traditional in-class instructional presentations, including using an online collaboration tool built in Blackboard called Wimba Classroom for replicating rich collaborative interactions from the classroom online.
  • Class discussion. Once students complete required readings and/or view instructional presentations, how will they process the information and interact with one another in the learning process? Both synchronous and asynchronous tools within Blackboard can be used to facilitate discussions, either class-wide or within smaller groups for students who can’t attend class sessions.
  • Class news and announcements. How will students be informed of class-related news and announcements that they would otherwise receive during class? Consider alternative avenues for communicating class news and announcements. Blackboard includes both email and announcement tools, making it possible to easily post an announcement for the class and simultaneously email the announcement to all students in the course. In addition, if students choose to install the new Blackboard Sync applications, either for their Facebook or iPhone / iPod Touch, they can receive class news and announcements on these platforms as well.
  • Student questions. How will students receive answers to questions that otherwise would be addressed in class? The Blackboard Discussion Board is a great location for addressing student questions. Once the faculty creates a forum for questions and answers, students can post questions and faculty or other students can respond in a centralized location. A subscription feature is available that when enabled, emails any new postings directly to the subscriber. Faculty who choose to subscribe to a forum will receive student questions via email and can respond promptly in the discussion board and even follow-up via email if necessary.
  • Assessment of student learning. How will students demonstrate competence in meeting course objectives? Several online assessment tools are available within Blackboard that can be used to facilitate the assessment process. For example, online quizzes can be conducted via Blackboard in place of in-class paper-based quizzes.

Ideas for continuing the teaching and learning process during an extended illness:

  • Record short instructional presentations to supplement in-class presentations. Using Wimba Classroom or another presentation recording and authoring tool, record short presentations that introduce the materials for the week or perhaps recap important points discussed. Make the recorded presentations available for students to view online and/or as a podcast for viewing offline on their computer or mobile device.
  • Move class discussion online to allow all students to participate in course discussion activities. Create a forum within the Blackboard Discussion Board for the given week or content unit and prepare questions for students to respond to. Inform students of expectations for substantive responses and criteria for evaluating their contributions. By enabling the grading feature for the forum, faculty can easily view the posts from a given student and assign a score for their participation.
  • Conduct online office hours instead of on-campus office hours, allowing students, who perhaps are still ill, the ability to connect with you, ask questions, and remain involved in the teaching and learning process. Consider archiving these sessions for students who are unable to attend to view the recordings later.
  • Post grades and feedback online so affected students can view their individual graded assignments. Access to assignment scores and feedback posted in Blackboard is restricted; students can only view their own individual scores and available feedback from the faculty.
  • Conduct low-stakes online quizzes to assess whether learning is taking place outside class sessions.  Provide an opportunity for affected students to take an alternative form of in-class quizzes that may be drawn from a pool of questions from course readings or class notes.
  • Present lectures online in lieu of selected in-class lecture presentations if you are familiar with online lecture technologies and such alternatives are appropriate. Using the Wimba Classroom tool in Blackboard, give live online lectures in which students can see presentations materials, hear and see the instructor, and interact with the instructor and fellow students in real time. Students who are ill or concerned about being in close proximity with other learners can participate from any computer connected to the Internet. Archive the sessions for students who are unable to attend so they can view the recordings later.


Not only must instructional alternatives be considered, but also accommodations for students who miss class in the event of an extended illness. It certainly may be challenging to maintain academic rigor while also accommodating the physical needs of students. It is important to become aware of university and departmental policies addressing interruptions caused by extended illness. After reviewing existing university recommendations, you may wish to develop your own strategies for accommodating students affected by a health crisis.

Suggestions for accommodating students during a health crisis:

  • Keep students up-to-date when they miss class for an extended period of time. Communicate with students, either via phone, email, or online announcements in Blackboard.
  • Collect assignments electronically instead of in paper form. Provide students who are unable to attend class the opportunity to submit work in electronic form, either via email or using the Assignment Manager in Blackboard.
  • Develop guidelines for make-up work. Identify possible alternatives to assigned in-class work that could be completed outside of class. For example, if students are ill and unable to complete a required lab activity, how will this situation be addressed?  You may ask the student, once healthy, to come to a lab and complete the assignment outside of class time.
  • Provide instructional alternatives. Contemplate how students who are unable to attend class will have access to information covered. Ideas might include recording lectures and posting as podcast, providing class notes electronically, and/or requesting that students share their hand-written notes with affected students. Perhaps discuss with the class what instructional alternatives they would find most helpful.
  • Prepare hard copy packets. For affected students who may not have ready access to the Internet, you may consider preparing hard copies of reference materials, assignments, etc. to distribute to ill students in addition to posting online in Blackboard. These materials could be mailed to students and would be available when they return to campus.

Institutional Resources

Begin your preparation efforts by becoming familiar with the available resources specific to the support services, guidelines, and directives from NIU. To find and the news, information, and resources from NIU regarding teaching during a health crisis, visit Among the notable institutional resources available there, you will find:

Additional Resources

Additionally, a number of local, state, and federal agencies are providing current information online concerning preparation and response to H1N1 flu, including:

If you are in need of further assistance in your teaching or teaching-related activities, contact the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at 815-753-0595 or email

Timesaving Tips Using the Blackboard Grade Center

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Beginning with Blackboard 8.0, the former Gradebook has been rebuilt and includes many new features for managing student grades and feedback. Here are a few timesaving tips for using the newest features in the Blackboard Grade Center.

  1. Hide unnecessary columns
    Blackboard by default adds several new columns to the the Grade Center, including: Username, Student ID, Last Access, and Availability. Hide the columns that you don’t want visible in default and custom views. How to: Click the down arrows next to the title of the column, then click Hide Column.
  2. Organize columns
    New columns added to the Grade Center are by default added at the end of the Grade Center, with Total and Weighted Total columns near the beginning. Reorder columns to a logical order, such as sequential order by due date. Note – The order in which students see their individual assignment scores in My Grades is the order of the columns in the Full Grade Center View. How to: Select Manage from the Action Bar, then click Organize Grade Center. Click and drag columns to reorder.
  3. Freeze columns (student names still visible when scrolling)
    Grade Center columns can be frozen in place so they do not move while scrolling through column data. Last Name and First Name columns are frozen by default. Freeze any additional columns that you desire to remain visible while scrolling. How to: Select Mange from the Action Bar, then click Organize Grade Center. Click and drag columns above the gray bar to freeze.
  4. Customize grading schema for automatically computing letter grades
    A grading schema can be configured to match the grading scale used to compute letter grades. Once customized, this grading schema can be applied to display a students individual assignment grade, running total, or even final grade as a letter. Apply your grading scaled for assigning letter grades to the grading schema. How to: Select Manage from th Action Bar, then click Grading Schemas. Click the Modify button for the existing Letter schema. Remove unneeded letter grade values, such as plus and minus grades, and adjust existing percentages of letter grades to match grading scale. Click the Submit button to save.
  5. Add custom categories and apply to grade columns
    Categories assigned to columns are included in students display to clearly identify the category that an assignment is applied to and can be used to easily sort columns in Smart Views. Add custom categories to match the types of assignments used to assess student learning. Then, when adding columns, assign a category to each column. How to: Select Manage from the Action Bar, then click Categories. Click the Add Category button and enter a name and description if desired. Click the Submit button to save.
  6. Shorten column titles by adding Grade Center display name
    In addition to the descriptive column name assigned to grade, a shortened Grade Center display name not exceeding 15 characters can be added that will display as the column header in the Grade Center. How to: When adding a new column, enter the shortened column title in the Grade Center Display Name box.
  7. Enter grades directly into cells
    Enter grades directly through the Grade Center spreadsheet. How to: Add a grade column and then enter the grades for students directly into the column cells. Click in a cell to add a score, then press the Enter key to save and move to the next row.
  8. Add due dates to grade columns
    In addition to tracking when a column was added, add due dates to columns corresponding to assignments with due dates. This provides a visual reminder to students in My Grades of when a given assignment is due and can be used to dynamically assign columns to a grading period. How to: When adding a column, click the option for Due Date and then assign the date.
  9. Provide feedback on any student scores
    Comments can be added to any score. Add comments to student scores when desiring to provide individual feedback or clarification on a score. Comments are visible to students in My Grades. How to: Enter the score in a cell. Then, click the down arrows and click Add Comment. Enter comments in the Feedback to User box. Optional Grading Notes can also be added available only for instructors and teaching assistants..
  10. Display score and percent or letter grade for the same item
    Once entering a student score as, a secondary display can automatically be also displayed, also showing the percentage or letter grade equivalent of the score earned. Add a secondary display to any column where this additional grade view would be helpful. The secondary display is only available in the Grade Center and not My Grades. How to: Click the down arrows next to the title of the column, then click Modify Column. Select the desired format of the additional grade display from the Secondary Display drop down menu.
  11. Exempt a grade for an individual student
    For a student who has a legitimate reason for missing an assignment, that score can now be exempted from the student’s cumulative grade. Notation that a score has been exempted is visible in the Grade Center and My Grades and can be reverted if needed. The original score assigned can also still be found. Exempt scores for students who aren’t required to makeup missing assignments. How to: Click the down arrows within a cell and then click Exempt Grade.
  12. Email students from the Grade Center
    The Email tool allows for sending emails to students or select students directly from the Grade Center. This feature is especially useful when desiring to email several students who have not turned in assignments. How to: Check the boxes next to the students you wish to email, then select the Email option from the Action Bar at the top.
  13. Create calculated columns
    In addition to adding standard grade columns, calculated columns can be added to provide additional statistical display information, including: Weighted Grade, Average, Total, and Minimum/Maximum values. How to: Select Add Calculated Column from the Action Bar at the top and then click the type of column you wish to add. Follow the prompts provided to configure the column and click the Submit button to save.
  14. Create customized “Smart Views”
    Smart Views provide the ability to categorize students into groups based on selected criteria. Once created and saved, these customized views of the Grade Center area available from the Current View drop-down menu within the Grade Center. How to: Select Manage from the Action Bar, then click Smart Views. Click the Add Smart View button. Enter a name for the view and then select the type of view, criteria, and any desired filtering. Click the Submit button to save.
  15. View Grade Center statistics
    View statistical information related to columns and students, such as average, median, and standard deviation. How to: Click the down arrows next to the title of the column, then click Column Statistics or click the down arrows by a student name and select User Statistics.
  16. View Grade Center history
    The Grade History feature provides a record of all changes which occur to grades within a course. Accidentally entering or changing the wrong student’s grade or inadvertently clearing a student’s grade can be identified and resulting grades reset. How to: Click the Grade History button in the Action Bar located near the top of the screen.
  17. Automatically drop the lowest grade
    An assortment of new grade computation features are available, including the capability to easily drop the lowest grade from scores within a given category. Columns containing scores must be assigned to the same category. How to: Click the down arrows next to the title of the Weighted Total column, then click Modify Column. Select the categories you wish to include in computing the weighted total grade and note the percentage weight for each category. Under Drop Grades for the category, enter 1 in the lowest grades box. Click the Submit button to save.
  18. Weight grades either proportionally or equally
    Grades can now be weighted either equally or proportionally. Weighting proportionally will accommodate instances where assignments within a given category have different point values. Click the down arrows next to the title of the Weighted Total column, then click Modify Column. Select the categories you wish to include in computing the weighted total grade and note the percentage weight for each category. Choose Proportionally for any categories in which the assignment values vary. Click the Submit button to save.
  19. Print/run reports
    Printable reports, like a progress report, are available. How to: Click Reports in the Action Bar and define the report data. Click the Preview button to preview the report or the Print button to print. Reports pring the data for one student per page. Reports can be customized in a variety of ways, include report header and footer information.

A printable version of these tips is available at

Preparing an Effective Course Syllabus

Ever wondered what to include in a course syllabus? Janet Giesen, Ed.D., Instructional Design Coordinator of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, provides NIU faculty and staff the basics of preparing a course syllabus.

Additional full-featured presentation formats, including text transcript, are available at