2014 Teaching Assistant Orientation – A Great Day of Learning

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Over 200 graduate teaching assistants and presenters gathered in the Duke Ellington Ballroom on the morning of August 19, 2014 for a full day of learning and preparing for their role as teaching assistants. The annual Teaching Assistant Orientation provides an opportunity for new and returning teaching assistants to learn more about teaching and supporting students while networking with their fellow TAs. In the welcome, Dr. Bradley Bond, Associate Vice President for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate School, summed up the value of graduate teaching assistants by saying, “All of your contributions are important to NIU’s teaching mission and can have a profound impact on our students.”

Matt Streb speaking
Dr. Matthew Streb, Associate Profesor and Chair of the Department of Political Science, providing the keynote for the 2014 Teaching Assistant Orientation

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center coordinated with not only the Graduate School to facilitate this event, but many other departments and support units to provide a valuable experience for new graduate teaching assistants. The annual event is always well attended and attendees consistently agree or strongly agree that this event will potentially benefit their students. If you weren’t able to attend, you can access any of the handouts and resources here.

three experienced teaching assistants on a panel
Teaching Across the Disciplines – Experienced TA panelists share valuable lessons learned

One of the highlights of the orientation each year is the Teaching Across the Disciplines panel of experienced teaching assistants. This year was no exception, and the five members of the panel shared helpful tips and strategies for being a teaching assistant. On the evaluation, one participant commented, “I really enjoyed the orientation, especially the panel discussion with current TAs. I was not required to come to the orientation by my department, but I am glad I did!”

Dr. David Changnon presenting
Providing Teaching-Related Support breakout session, presented by Dr. David Changnon, Department of Geography

The Teaching Assistant Orientation is offered, each year, to new teaching assistants to begin to develop their skills as TAs, along with introducing them to university resources that will support their work. The general session was followed by 5 breakout sessions in which participants were able to select which to attend. The breakout sessions included Providing Teaching-Related Support, by Dr. David Changnon, Using Grading Strategies to Promote Student Learning, by Dr. Stephen Wallace, Presenting / Communicating Effectively, by Dr. Joseph Scudder, and Teaching Strategies for Engaging Student, by Dr. Jenny Parker. Finally, for experienced TAs who attended the orientation, Dr. Janet Giesen offered Finding Your Teaching Style.


Thank you to all of our presenters and collaborators for their commitment to providing inspiration and direction to the graduate teaching assistants.

Matthew Streb (Department of Political Science) Sarah Klaper (Office of Ombudsperson)
Tim Paquette (Counseling and Student Development Center) Leanne VandeCreek and Larissa Garcia (University Libraries)
Jennifer Pippen (Disability Resource Center) Jason Rhode (Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center)
Brian Glick (Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct) Tyler Mitchell (Department of Mathematical Sciences)
AnDrea James (School of Music) Steven Battaglia (Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences)
Rayanne Nguyen (School of Family, Consumer, and Nutrition Sciences) Jeff Paris (Department of Kinesiology & Physical Education)
David Changnon (Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences) Stephen Wallace (Assessment Services)
Joseph Scudder (Department of Communication) Jenny Parker (Educator Licensure and Preparation)
Janet Giesen (Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center)


Fall 2014 Teaching Effectiveness Institute Focused on Effective Teaching and Cooperative Activities in the Classroom

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Jeanette Rossetti presenting at TEIThe Two-Day Teaching Effectiveness Institute began on Thursday, August 14 with Fundamentals of Effective Teaching, an all-day event with sessions designed to introduce faculty to the basic principles of teaching, share information about teaching-related support resources available at NIU, and inform faculty on the ways they can address students’ learning needs. We greatly appreciate the time and commitment of the NIU faculty and staff members from a range of academic departments and support units offered who shared their expertise during the Institute.

Ten informative sessions focused on energizing the classroom experience, constructing a syllabus, assessing student learning, preparing successful writing assignments, and teaching and research support from the university libraries. Participants also learned about how to assist students with emotional and behavioral concerns and those with disabilities, as well as ways to manage academic integrity and difficult students. Participants left the Institute with a wealth of information on the fundamentals of teaching to help prepare them for the new semester ahead.

The second day of the Fall 2014 Teaching Effectiveness Institute on Friday, August 15, engaged participants in the workshop, Using Cooperative Activities to Foster Deep Learning and Critical Thinking, presented by Barbara J. Millis, Ph.D., former director of teaching centers at the University of Texas at San Antonio, The University of Nevada, Reno, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Dr. Millis presented a highly interactive day-long workshop in which she demonstrated ways to sequence structured assignments and activities to foster students’ deep learning and critical thinking. The workshop was designed around three key learning principles by John D. Bransford and colleagues (2000) that support students’ motivation to learn: Prior Knowledge centers on how students construct new knowledge based on what they already know (or don’t know); Deep Foundational Knowledge states that students need a deep knowledge base and conceptual frameworks in which to learn new content; and Metacognition where students need to identify their own learning goals and monitor their progress toward achieving them.

Each of these learning principles can be addressed in the classroom through simple yet meaningful cooperative activities. Throughout the workshop, participants worked with partners and groups in orchestrated activities that can be immediately applied in many classroom situations. For example, students can use a deck of playing cards with hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs to facilitate team roles and activities that rotate once a week. Another range of activities called Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs), can help students reflect on their own learning while informing the instructor of their progress and how well they understand the content. For example, students can write a type of Minute Paper in which they answer questions or complete sentences before handing in a paper or project:

  • “I’m most satisfied with…, I’m least satisfied with…, I’m having problems with…”
  • “In this paper, what did you learn that surprised you? When editing your paper, what were you unsure about?”
  • “This assignment is important to my role as a professional in this discipline because…”

In another activity, Think, Pair, Share, students are asked to personally reflect on a question or prompt, after which they turn to a partner and discuss their individual thoughts, preparing for a whole class response. The instructor then asks for feedback from just a few of the pairs as time allows.

As a final example, students can be assigned to complete a Jigsaw Graphic Organizer. Graphic Organizers are “visual depictions that suggests relationships and can help [students] structure homework assignments” (Millis, 2010). In a Jigsaw Graphic Organizer, each student in a heterogeneous team is responsible for completing a part of a complex assignment by using a partially completed graphic organizer in which they fill-in blank sections. Each student then becomes an “expert” in their assigned area of the assignment. When back in the classroom, students form “expert teams” made up of other students who had the same part of the assignment/graphic organizer. In their expert teams, students discuss, share notes, and prepare how they will present their information to their original groups. Back in their original groups, student experts will explain their new knowledge to others who did not complete that part of the assignment.

By the end of the second day of the Institute, workshop participants experienced the type of active and interactive learning experiences that can help students to become more motivated, energized, and accountable to both themselves and others in the classroom. Participants also received several resources that can be used when planning interactive learning experiences for deep learning and critical thinking throughout the semester.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Millis, B. J. (2010). Idea Paper #47. Promoting deep learning. The Idea Center. www.ideaedu/org/sites/default/files/IDEA_Paper_47.pdf

For further information on these topics and other teaching-related issues, contact Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at facdev@niu.edu or 815.753.0595.


Blackboard Open Labs August 25 – 29

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Blackboard Open LabEvery day this week, August 25 – 29, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center will be hosting a Blackboard Open Lab. This is an excellent opportunity for NIU faculty, staff, and TAs to ask specific questions about how to set up their courses in Blackboard. Whether you want to know how to communicative effectively with students to increase retention, add videos that stream flawlessly, set up your weighted grading formula in the Grade Center, or establish Groups to simplify collaboration, the staff from Faculty Development will be on hand to answer your questions individually.

The Open Lab is available Monday, August 25 through Friday, August 29, from 11 am to 1 pm every day in Adams Hall, Room 323. Feel free to drop in – no registration required! Unfortunately, we cannot provide a general overview of Blackboard at this session, but will be happy to answer specific questions about using Blackboard.

How to Go Beyond the Textbook Using Open Educational Resources

Almost 30 participants braved the extremely cold weather on January 10, 2014 for the afternoon session of the second day of the Spring Teaching Effectiveness Institute on Beyond the Textbook: Using Open Educational Resources.

Tracy Miller, presenting
Tracy Miller, Online Teaching Coordinator, introduces Open Educational Resources at Teaching Effectiveness Institute

Creating educational resources for students can be time-consuming and potentially expensive. Open Educational Resources (OER) are free resources that can supplement teaching and learning needs. OER can include lesson plans, learning modules, videos, and interactives, just to name a few. However, Institute participants wanted to know: How do we find reliable resources, do we have permission to use them, and how do we add it to our courses?

The workshop began with a quick lesson on how to search, find, and evaluate open educational resources. Facilitator Tracy Miller suggested some search strategies, which can increase the likelihood of quick success. Every search should begin with your learning objectives in mind. Next, consider the type of resource you are looking for: an image, a lesson plan, a video. She offered some techniques to search for and find valuable OER to enhance courses. The first technique was to start at common places people search for resources such as Google or YouTube; however consider adding “scholar” or “education” to the search field or URL. Including such words can help refine and locate more reliable resources. But, always make sure you completely review the resource before sharing it with students.

Next, participants explored OER repositories such as OERCommons or Merlot. These repositories are designed to target searches and organize resources. Repositories are also a great place for faculty to share the learning objects and course materials they have created. Faculty who share their materials with the open community offer great recognition for themselves and their university.

Another option is to begin searching for OER by using Creative Commons (CC). Materials with a Creative Commons license are available for faculty to use, share, and adapt (depending on the specific CC license). Creative Commons allows individuals to use the work of others free of charge and provides clear guidelines on how the author prefers others to expand and share their original work. If you decide to share your materials with the open education community, Creative Commons can provide you with a license to copyright your work the way you choose.

Once you have found a potential open educational resource for your course, evaluate it carefully before sharing it with students. First, be sure that it aligns with learning objectives. Determine if the copyright or Creative Commons license allows the resource to be modified or shared. Check that the resource is accessible to all learners. When in doubt, ask colleagues for their opinion of the resource.

Participants also learned how to embed OERs into Blackboard Courses. Dan Cabrera provided best-practice methods for embedding videos and other popular resources. Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center staff can help you learn how to best incorporate OERs into your course. Doing so can be as easy as linking to the resource or embedding the resource within your Blackboard course.

The afternoon wrapped up with a discussion on incorporating OERs in active learning strategies. Here are some tips from Jason Rhode for introducing active learning activities to your students by using OER in your courses.

  • Keep your course objectives in mind
  • Identify activities and resources you currently use to create key learning moments
  • Look for activities or resources that will enhance the learning experience
  • Be explicit – Provide clear guidelines and expectations for students on assigned resources and activities
  • Help students realize why resources and assigned activities are not just “busy work”
  • Whenever possible select resources and activities that all of your students can access
  • If multiple resources or activities are available, let students choose the option that fits them best
  • Consider incorporating student-generated content for future classes


Spring 2014 Teaching Effectiveness Institute Focused on Creating Excitement in the Classroom

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Todd ZakrajsekThe first day of the Spring 2014 Teaching Effectiveness Institute brought together over 60 NIU faculty, instructors, and teaching staff in two workshops presented by Todd Zakrajsek, Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

Zakrajsek led two engaging half-day sessions: Critical Challenges in Teaching and Learning and How to Best Address those Challenges and Creating Excitement in the Classroom: Teaching for More Engaged Learning. In the morning, Zakrajsek discussed how to set a positive tone in the classroom and how to respond when problems arise. In the afternoon, he focused on how students learn and strategies faculty can use to increase student motivation and engagement to further student learning.

Participants practiced with Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) that are proven to facilitate meaningful teaching and learning. For example, faculty can ask students to write a one-minute paper at the end of the class period to further engage with content and check their understanding of material covered. Zakrajsek also stressed that expecting students to memorize content is not a particularly effective technique for moving content into long-term memory. Instead, he recommends helping students become more engaged with content through authentic and engaged learning activities. Examples of what he calls “significant learning” activities include students caring about and connecting with their feelings, interests, and values (as well as those of others); becoming self-directed learners (students taking responsibility of their own learning); and becoming life-long learners (where students develop an extrinsic sense of learning).

Zakrajsek further recommends building students’ self-esteem through real (substantive) feedback beyond using simple comments such as “good work” or “nice job.” In real life, he says, “everyone doesn’t get a trophy.” Real feedback should get students’ attention by offering them ways to improve and move forward. This type of feedback can help students realize that they shouldn’t focus on having lost but that they just haven’t won yet!

Many institute participants commented that the first-hand anecdotes and stories will help them implement more engaging and exciting classroom experiences, and they would have liked to have even more time at the institute in order to learn more strategies for creating an exciting classroom.

Dr. Todd Zakrajsek is an Associate Professor in the School of Medicine and the Department of Family Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has published and presented widely on the topic of student learning, including workshops and conference keynote addresses in 42 states and 6 countries.

For further information on these topics and other teaching-related issues, contact Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at facdev@niu.edu or 815.753.0595.


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