“Yes, And” Your Classroom

They say you should do one thing every day that scares you. Eight weeks ago, that thing for me was going to the Village Theatre for my first improv class. Over the last 8 weeks, in addition to laughing a lot and making new friends, I learned that those of us in academia can learn quite a bit from the “rules” of improv. In this post, I’ll share a few of the insights most applicable to college teaching.

Rule 1: “Yes, And” Your Classroom

I first learned about “yes, and” from Bossypants, Tina Fey’s most excellent memoir. It’s the first and most important rule of improv, and it also works as an approach to the classroom. Improv works because you and your partner commit to saying YES to whatever gets thrown out on stage, then adding to it – that’s the AND part. For example: if I tell April I’m excited we’re on our way to see Huey Lewis after we eat at the Cheesecake Factory, she agrees, and then asks if I remember that time we saw Hall & Oates together. Boom! There’s a scene.

As I stood there standing in a circle week after week on stage with 11 strangers, playing word games, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and laughing until my face hurt, I realized that I had been “yes, and-ing” my classroom the whole time I’ve been teaching. Based on my experience, good face-to-face teaching relies on yes, and as a daily approach. If you’ve ever led a discussion based on a single question, or asked the students a question you intended to build a lecture from, guess what? You just yes, and’ed the class! If you’ve ever agreed with what a student said and added to it, you absolutely just yes, and’ed the class!

My goal moving forward is to simply be more conscious of that action, and look for ways to build in more yes, and moments. It’s a little easier in face-to-face instruction, but I’ve seen it work in online classes, too. For example, when I talk about transmedia in my Digital & Social Media graduate class, I don’t ask every student in the class to start a new thread about transmedia, which is the easy, sort of default way to start a discussion online. Instead, I ask the class to, as a group, come up with some ideas for a transmedia campaign. They aren’t graded on who starts what thread. They’re graded on the overall quality of the ideas they generate, based on whoever starts the idea and whatever other ideas get called up. In this case, the entire class participates in a yes, and environment, and you also see a lot of cool team building happen, if  it hasn’t happened in your class already. Speaking of groups, let’s talk about rule #2, which is:

Rule 2: Group Dynamics are Crucial

There were 3 different level 1 improv classes happening at Village Theatre this round of class sessions. Our group quickly identified ourselves as the Tuesday Tacos, since class was on Tuesday night. We started a GroupMe where we had side conversations all week long. We talked about who said something in class that kept us laughing all week. We talked about cereal. We made fun of Will. We talked about movies and D&D and karaoke. We even started to hang out outside of improv, going out for a beer after class and seeing each other on the weekends. (Wait a minute; was my entire improv class dating each other? Sort of sounds like it, now that I write it all down.) When we did a goodbye exercise in the last class, we almost cried. In short: our group became super close, and it made us even funnier, because the more we learned about each other, the easier it was to pull out funny stuff on stage.

Tuesday Tacos, right after slaying our graduation show!

So when a student from the Monday class joined us last week, he talked about how his class never really bonded like ours did. They had no GroupMe or week long conversations. They didn’t hang out after class. They didn’t really know each other, and they also rarely laughed at each other’s jokes in class. We were all super sad about that, because the group dynamics were what made our class stand out as unique, and what made every week fun. We truly became friends, and we will continue to hang out on a regular basis even though we’re all super busy, come from all walks of life (we’ve got everyone from college students to a neurosurgeon in the mix) and live scattered about the city.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the importance of cultivating a strong group dynamic in the classroom. Even though GroupMe and other group chat apps have been problematic from a cheating standpoint this semester, especially in our online classes, I’m still a fan of using GroupMe for out of class conversations – not cheating, but talking and regular collaboration. There have been some interesting things written lately about the usefulness of crowd sourcing lecture notes and even group exams (and the academic Twitter conversations on just how exactly we are to handle these sorts of things have been interesting, too). If you play your cards right, and work from the beginning to engage team building and collaboration in class, you might end up with a class that ends up working with you throughout the semester, creating a really positive class culture which could lead to empowering learning experiences.

Rule 3: Don’t Try to be Funny. You Are Enough!

One of the first scenes we did in class was the “you are enough” scene, in which we came up on stage in pairs and had a conversation. We assumed we were in a park. And the point was to just be ourselves, and talk. The point is to prove that you are enough! Whatever life experiences you have, or whatever you bring to the stage, is more than adequate to create a scene or even a laugh. Our host gave us a word to get us started, and then we talked, starting with something related to that word. In improv, trying to be funny can be detrimental to actually getting a laugh. Improv magic works when and if everyone on stage is themselves, and follows a few basic rules. Guess what? We found something to laugh at in everyone’s conversations that night, without anyone even trying.

I’m a big fan of appropriate humor in the classroom. Research supports the idea that humor can improve instructor immediacy, which can improve student motivation to learn. But: some of us just aren’t funny in front of a crowd, nor should we actively try to be funny. I think everyone can benefit from humor in the classroom if the humor comes from a conversational professor who is engaged with the class and the material. If you’re also yes, and’ing what your students throw out to you during your discussions and lectures, you’ll likely get a few laughs – because your life experiences, expertise, and passion for the subject combined with questions and comments from students eventually should lead to at least a few moments of laughter in your classroom. This is all dependent on the subject matter, of course. In something like the field of communication, where I live, one could easily go super serious all the time (especially in today’s political and socioeconomic climate), or one could build in the occasional lighter topics that make people laugh on the way to making your point about something important (like when I bring up this guy to talk about kids and media effects, and how Danish television can teach us a lot about some of the problems with American kids’ television).

Anyone else ever found improv to be a helpful tool in the classroom? Share your experiences here!


Which of My Students Actually Watched That Lecture Video?

Subtitled: A Slightly More Efficient Way to Determine if Students Are Viewing Online Content

Sub-subtitled: Not Gonna Lie, I Freaked Out When I Realized This Was a Thing in D2L

I’m going to start my post with a disclaimer. The only way to truly determine whether or not students are accessing the content you post online is to assess them on it. D2L’s metrics for seeing what students are, or aren’t, looking at your content are not 100% accurate. More on that later. But D2L does offer some insights on how active students are in the online part of your course. I recently found a trick that I didn’t know existed in D2L that makes my life much easier when trying to determine, generally, if my students are looking at all the stuff I’ve put in the course for them to learn from.

With my disclaimer in place, and a promise to unpack it by the end of the post, I’ll continue.

Until recently, the only way I knew to follow up and see if students were viewing my content was to go individually to each student’s progress tab under Classlist, and look from there. Under the “Student Progress” area, you will see a report of how much time, total, they’ve spent logged in to your online section, as well as a run-down of how much content they’ve completed.

This is great, but I’ve often thought it would be much more efficient, and helpful, to be able to look at student views by content item as opposed to by each student. It’s just cumbersome to click through somewhere between 25-50 students individually to see if they all read my online lecture notes for that week. It seemed impossible until I, as a last resort move, Googled it. And guess what? You can!

In other words: do you want to see exactly which students have read your syllabus? Now you (pretty much) can, with just a few clicks, and without going to each individual student progress tab!

The fine folks at Arizona put together this handy tutorial about how to see content views by each content item. You can find the tutorial here:


I cannot tell you how excited I was when I found it. But: Hidden under the Table of Contents? Seriously? I felt like I’d found the neatest D2L easter egg ever. You can also export the statistics into one file. My colleague/good friend over in Biology who asked me about this and I both were so excited when I found this solution, we may have used multiple exclamation points and typed in all caps in our emails back & forth for a while. Yes, we are nerds, and this is one of the reasons we are friends.

Now, before you get super excited and think you can/should tie grade items to whether or not students have viewed material: let me explain why this is not a perfect system, and why I don’t recommend tying a grade item to whether or not students are looking at the content based on the metrics D2L gives you.

It is possible for a student to access material that D2L does not recognize as “accessed.” Some of my fellow online ed coordinators and I have discussed this issue at length, especially because it tends to comes up in grade disputes in online classes. An instructor may claim that a student is not reading the material in the online section, when the student swears that s/he is. Should be easy enough to determine with these metrics, right? Wrong! It’s not always clear.

Let’s say, for example, you’ve included a .pdf of a journal article you want your students to read. If your students read the article locally in D2L by clicking the title or by clicking “View Topic” as you see below, then D2L registers that as accessed. However, if your students just download the article and read it offline or print it out to read later, D2L does not always register that content as accessed. So it’s entirely possible for a student to be reading/viewing the material you’ve got online, but they’ve inadvertently tricked D2L into thinking they’re not accessing it.


The graphic above highlights the difference as explained above. Clicking on the title of the content, or “View Topic” from the downward arrow beside the title, will make D2L think the student has completed the topic. But if the student just clicked download, and never clicked the title or the “View Topic” option, D2L will think the student didn’t access it.

So use these statistics and metrics with a grain of salt. Understand that they are not 100% accurate. Of course, you could explain all this to your students – let them know you follow up to see who’s looking at content and who’s not, and you would appreciate it if they do access the material to do it locally in D2L at least once just to trigger the system to register the content completed – but that does take time, there’s a learning curve involved with this for your students, and it might not be the best way to spend your precious class time, in person or online. My suggestion is to focus more on the assessments and incorporate assignments or activities that require students to obtain online content in order to pass them. Use these statistics as just one way to get a general idea of who’s viewing your content, and talk to your students frequently about whether the content you’re sharing is helpful or useful.

But still: finding new data and ways to look at it is always cool. If you want to be as excited about this option as I am, please feel free to do so, and share your excitement with me here in the comments. We can nerd out together. In all seriousness, I would love to know about your experiences with tracking student progress in D2L- let me hear from you!

Capitalizing on Cancelled Classes

It’s probably happened to most all of us at some point: we go from perfectly healthy to fever/chills/coughing/plague-like symptoms in the course of a few hours. Being sick is never fun, and it’s especially not-fun as a professor, when being out means rescheduling meetings with colleagues, students, and even classes. It’s a pain, on a number of levels. Obviously, there are times when a colleague can, and will, lead a substitute class for you. But that isn’t always a good strategy, nor is it even realistic in many cases. And offering students an additional discussion board or quiz to take is also not always the best strategy either – it may feel like busy work for students, and we definitely don’t want that infecting our classes! This blog will offer a couple suggestions on how to make the most of the days that you unexpectedly cancel throughout the semester due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances.

Video lecture: As soon as you’re feeling up to it, consider preparing a short video lecture on the content you were going to address in the class you missed. You can record lectures directly in D2L now, which is helpful. You may even find it more beneficial to adjust the syllabus to incorporate a video lecture a session or two out from when you missed, if the lecture you’re planning to give was on something you really needed to talk about in person for some reason. If you go this route, make sure you give the students plenty of time to catch up on the material and watch the content, and also make sure you incorporate time to discuss the material on another class day or require a discussion board where students address the main points you covered. Speaking from personal experience (I had what felt like the plague for the first three weeks of this entire year – prime time for pre-loading my updated video lectures! I’m still behind!), it is really hard to do a good video lecture if you’re really under the weather. So this tends to work only if you’re already on the mend and feeling better, but not at a point where you can be around other humans.

Incentivize a class meeting anyway: If your class is one that relies on projects or papers, offer your class some incentive for meeting without you and collaborating on the assignments. You can ask students to meet up with someone else who’s in the class (they don’t have to meet in the classroom – maybe meet outside the room and venture off together to the Starbucks) and peer-review each other’s paper drafts or work on their group projects.  Set up a discussion board where they submit evidence of their meeting (encourage the submission of selfies or something else fun/creative), and offer a tiny bit of extra credit for doing their own work during a time you weren’t in class.

“Spark” interest in the remaining classes: This is also a strategy that would work best if you incentivize it by offering marginal extra credit. But consider asking students to create a page or a post or a video in Adobe Spark based on a topic from the day’s readings that they would have liked to have heard about. See if students can come up with a short page or post that offers an example from the readings, or can use their page to pose a question to you about something that wasn’t clear to them. Have them share the links to their projects in a discussion forum. Then, you can use the Spark pages when you get back to class to lead your lecture. As an added bonus, consider incorporating information from the students’ pages in a future quiz or exam.

Check in as much as you can: This one isn’t so much a strategy but a suggestion for keeping students on track. As you are able, check in to the class either through announcements in D2L or class emails. Let them know you have not forgotten about them, about your plans for returning to class, and also remind them frequently about the work and assignments they will have due in the near future. It’s easy for students to get confused about due dates and schedule adjustments when professors are out for any reason, so the more you can communicate openly with them about what’s going on and what adjustments are made, the better.

And be flexible! Of course, it’s always good to build in a flex day or two in your syllabus so you have room to move a few things around (or adjust based on weather cancellations). But hopefully these strategies will help keep your students interested and engaged, even though their favorite professor can’t show up for a while.

What strategies do you use when you have to cancel unexpectedly? 


Using Text-Based Grade Items for Participation Grades

Welcome to 2018! I’m looking forward to continuing to share tips and tricks on the blog this year. Before I dive too deep into this post, I have to acknowledge that this one and the one that will follow next time are inspired from email conversations I had with faculty members (one from SOCM, and one from a mentor/friend over in Biology!) at the end of last semester. Your questions and comments are so super helpful to me in helping you use online teaching tools for the benefit of our students. Please keep your comments and questions coming this year, as I am learning so much about D2L and other resources from the conversations we have about online education! I love talking about this stuff.

Many of us have some sort of attendance policy that results in a deducted letter grade after a certain number of absences. In fact, for many common courses in SOCM, it’s standard policy to deduct a letter grade after 3 absences. And most of us who’ve used that sort of policy in the past have received at least one frantic, end-of-semester email from a student who missed more than 3 classes but didn’t understand why their calculated grade in D2L and the grade displayed in Banner were a full letter grade apart.

If I was a student, I’d probably be in touch with you about my concern, too! If you don’t already have a participation grade item set up in your grade book, it can be unclear where the grade deduction is coming from – no matter how many times you may have referred to your policy in the syllabus or you have expressed your concern about your students’ grades being impacted by multiple absences.

However, setting up a text-based grade column will allow you to clarify that confusion pretty easily, with a minimum time investment on your part at the end of the semester.  Here’s what you do:

In the “Grades” area, click on “Manage Grades.” Then, create a new grade item that is text-based. The option is the very last one on the list.


Call it something like “Notes on Participation Grade,” or “Participation Comments,” or “Participation Explanation,” or “Grade Deduction for Participation Notes” or something else clever and catchy. (My creative energy is low since this is the first actual work-related thing I’ve done in about 2 weeks! Ack!)

Save & close once you give it a title, and you’ll see the item appear on your list of grade items. You can use this grade item throughout the semester to let students know when they are approaching the maximum number of allotted absences by saying something like “you’ve missed 2 classes; after the next, final letter grade is reduced 10%” or a more subtle “email me asap to discuss your attendance” or a more threatening/Star Wars-y “your grade is in grave danger of reduction; better attendance is your only hope.” Pick the wording that works best for you and your personality, of course.

Additionally, at the end of the semester, use this column to note if you had to reduce a grade because of poor attendance. A quick “final grade reduced 10% due to absences on 1/31, 2/20, 4/18, 4/20; see syllabus policy for details” should suffice.

Having this grade item in place on the first day of class, and explaining its purpose to your students early on, will serve as a reminder to students that their grade can be reduced because of attendance. And it will serve as another way to communicate openly with your students through the semester about why their attendance is important.

Displaying Final Grade Calculations to Students

I always find it helpful for students to not only see the grades on each individual assignment in the D2L gradebook, but also for them to see an updated final average every time I enter grades. It’s not intuitive, but there is a way to get D2L to display final averages to students, and it’s not too complicated!

First: set up your gradebook. Even if you’ve already run the Setup Wizard in D2L, you can make the adjustments here without impacting anything you may have already entered in the grades area. The steps to pay most attention to are:

Step 2: Final Grade Released – make sure to check “calculated final grade.”


Step 3: Grade Calculations – make sure that you drop ungraded items, or else it will look like everyone is failing the course because your ungraded items will be given 0’s! This just means you need to manually enter any earned grades of 0. Also make sure that you have checked the box to automatically keep the final grade updated.


Step 6: Student View Display Options – make sure that you check the box to display the final grade calculation to users.


Once you’ve made sure your gradebook is set up with those options, then go in to your grades area and click “Enter Grades” to actually display the final grade calculation to your students.

See the column that says Final Calculated Grade? If the grades are there but there’s a “null” looking symbol, which I think is supposed to be an eyeball with a slash through it, the students cannot see the final calculated grade.


To fix it, click the arrow going down beside “Final Calculated Grade,” and then choose “Grade All.”


This will take you to a screen where you can select all students in the list – do so by checking the box beside the ruler/grade icon. Once all students are selected, click “Release/Unrelease.”


You’ll then notice that the column that says “Release Final Calculated Grade” has been checked for all students.


Make sure to click “save and close,” and it’ll take you back to the main grades area.

From there, double check to see that there is an open eyeball beside the grades in the Final Calculated Grade column, and you’re all set!


Best of luck, and let me know how this works for you.

End Date vs. Due Date

Those of us who encourage or require online submission of assignments through D2L are faced with an important decision: should I use an end date or a due date? This post will explain the differences in the two settings and hopefully help you make an informed decision about which one is better for you and your classes.


Whenever you set up your Assignment folders, under the “Restrictions” tab, you’ll see a screen that looks something like this picture. The start date refers to the date that the folder will become available for students to view and use. I generally don’t include start dates on my folders because I want students to always be able to see and submit assignments. If you only wanted to give your students a brief window of time to submit an assignment, then definitely consider setting a start date.

The tricker decision comes down to figuring out if you’re better served with an end date or due date, or even both.

The “due date” refers to the date and time the assignment is due. This date should correspond to the deadlines you’ve set up in the syllabus and discussed with your class. If you ONLY choose to have a due date – not an end date – students can still submit papers after the deadline. D2L will flag the assignment as late, but it will still enter the assignment folder.

The “end date” refers to the date and time the assignment folder will close. If you choose an end date and time, then students cannot upload documents into the folder after that date or time. 

For a long time, I always set a due date AND an end date. My assignment folders shut down for future access at my assignment deadlines. I don’t accept late work, so why wouldn’t I cut off access at deadline? Several others I’ve talked with have also adopted this strategy. As long as the students are aware that the folder will shut down at the deadline, then there’s nothing stopping you from having a final cutoff facilitated by the end date.

However, I’ve changed my strategy this semester, mostly because I routinely got emails from students who were in the process of submitting an assignment at 11:59:59 and got locked out of the system. Though I still don’t accept late work – and submitting an assignment at 11:59:59 is really pushing that deadline! – I leave the assignment box open so that last minute submissions are not automatically rejected. It started becoming a burden to deal with the frequent student emails, screen shots, and attached assignment documents the day after an assignment was due. What I tell my students now is that the assignment due date and time is non-negotiable, and I don’t take late work – so any assignment that has been submitted past the deadline of 11:59 pm will not be graded. I generally stick by that rule, with the occasional exception of work that appears to be in the folder at 12:00 am on the nose. I don’t mind giving a second of leeway in what can be a tricky online environment to navigate.

Another benefit to only setting a due date, as opposed to an end date, is that if students are having technical difficulties, they can email you to let you know about their issues while still having the flexibility to submit an assignment past the deadline, without you having to open up the assignment folder later. Remember, as long as your due date is set, any assignment submitted past the due date and time will be flagged as late, allowing you to make a determination about whether or not to grade it.

Top 5 Ways to Successfully Start a New Semester

Welcome to Fall 2017! It’s hard to believe we are here. Did anyone else’s summer go by too quickly? I taught one online course, built 2 online courses, did several online course reviews, and prepared a tenure dossier, so I feel like I lived in front of my laptop! At least some of those hours of work were spent outside on my deck with an ice cold La Croix, enjoying the sunshine. And, it was nice to have a break from making the daily commute to campus and meetings on top of meetings on top of more meetings.

I created a short, 9 minute welcome back video to talk about my top 5 ways to successfully start a new semester. I’d love to hear what you think, as well as any other strategies you have for success each new year. Welcome back & I look forward to working with many of you for your online education needs this year!