High-Impact Practices for Achieving Greater Student Learning Outcomes and Retention

University communities across the country continually are striving to find ways to best maximize student engagement.  At the center of this issue is a question about which pedagogical practices are most effective at achieving student learning outcomes and maximizing retention.

The Association of American Colleges and University (AAC&U) has identified ten practices that have shown to have significant positive effect on students’ learning outcomes.  Each one of the ten practices identified by AAC&U is similar in that it requires students to spend an extended amount of time and attention to their assigned tasks or projects, to have sustained interaction with their peers and with their instructors, and to reflect or analyze the educational experience and make connections to their personal lives.  The ten practices that AAC&U has identified as high-impact practices are as follows:

  1. First-Year Seminars and Experiences
  2. Common Intellectual Experiences
  3. Learning Communities
  4. Writing-Intensive Courses
  5. Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  6. Undergraduate Research
  7. Diversity/Global Learning
  8. Services Learning, Community-Based Learning
  9. Internships
  10. Capstone Courses and Projects

Research conducted by AAC&U has shown that there are multiple benefits to implementing high-impact practices.  Having a project or multiple tasks sustained over a period of time gives students more opportunities to receive feedback, both formal and informal.  Another benefit is that students have an increased likelihood of experiencing diversity.  Goal 4 of UTC’s Strategic Plan for 2015-2020 is to “embrace diversity and inclusion as a path to excellence and societal change.”  High-impact practices support the university’s goal and priorities by encouraging students to engage with others who may be different from themselves in their classes and in the community.  Furthermore, students engaging with others who are different from themselves helps students to understand their positionality in the world and solidify their personal beliefs.

Potentially, one of the most important effects of utilizing high-impact practices is the potential equity gains.  When comparing student ACT scores against first year GPA, all students show improved GPAs when they have the opportunity to engage in high-impact practices.  However, those who enter college with lower ACT scores have shown greater GPA increases than their peers who enter college with higher scores.  In other words, high-impact practices help all students achieve at a higher level, but these particular pedagogical practices have been shown to help those who need it the most.

The Walker Center for Teaching and Learning, in supporting the needs of the faculty and encouraging innovative pedagogical practices, has developed the High-Impact Practices Development Grant program.  The grant provides funds for faculty to create or further develop high-impact practices in their courses.  Details about the grant program, a list of past recipients, as well as an application form can be found on the Walker Center’s High-Impact Practices Development Grant webpage.  For more information about high-impact practices or how to implement high-impact practices in your courses, contact the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning at wctl@utc.edu or 423-425-4188.

Connecting with the Disconnected Student

In the modern age of smart phones, smart devices, smart appliances, and smart cars, we are more connected to technology, news, people, and information than ever before. Students obtain information and interact differently today than in the past as learning environments and technology have evolved. Institutions and faculty are evolving in their teaching and learning methods whether learning takes place in a brick and mortar classroom or an online course, and technology plays a huge role in this evolution.

The way teachers and students connect in face-to-face classrooms shifts from reading nonverbal bodily expressions to completely relying on written dialogues.1 Developing a visual connection with your students can have a positive influence on learning outcomes. Whether you teach in a classroom, completely online, or in a hybrid environment, you can utilize modern technology to connect with your students. Learner interaction – with the course material, with the instructor, and with other learners – is also an essential Quality Matters standard.

Zoom Video Conferencing is a cloud based solution for hosting online meetings with the feel of a face-to-face encounter. Designed as an easy-to-use platform, anyone with a computer or smart device running any current operating system can connect to a Zoom meeting. Zoom is easy to use, compliant with accessibility standards, and works from anywhere with an internet connection.

As an instructor, you can use Zoom to host one-on-one meetings, host class meetings with the option of breakout rooms for group discussions, and host virtual office hours. By configuring a recurring meeting in your Zoom configuration, you can schedule your office hours and make yourself readily available to a greater number of your students. Once in a Zoom meeting, you and your students can have a high definition face-to-face conversation, collaborate on documents, draw on a white board, use simultaneous screen sharing, and more. Using Zoom’s ability to record meetings, you can also save sessions for later or share them with others.

Free access to Zoom is available for all University of Tennessee faculty and staff. All new accounts will default to a Zoom Basic account. A Zoom Basic account allows users to host unlimited meetings of 40 minutes in duration with up to 50 participants. If you need to host meetings longer than 40 minutes, you may request a Zoom Pro account through the UTK Office of Information Technology.2 For more information, contact the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning at 425-4188 or wctl@utc.edu.


1 Being a Supportive Presence in Online Courses: Knowing and Connecting with Students Through Writing. Diekelmann, Nancy, PhD, RN, FAAN; Mendias, Elnora P, PhD, RN, FNP, BC. Journal of Nursing Education; Thorofare44.8 (Aug 2005): 344-6.

2 https://oit.utk.edu/instructional/tools/liveonline/Pages/zoom-getting-started.aspx

Principles of Good Practice in Experiential Learning

This year’s Faculty Fellows are from all of the colleges and are focusing on Experiential Learning.  Their goals have been to complete the application process for designating an Experiential Learning Class and share what they learn with their colleagues.  They will also be discussing their year together at the Instructional Excellence Conference May 9 and 10, 2017. In this cohort, one of the resources we have used is the National Society for Experiential Education’s 8 Principles of Good Practice in Experiential Learning.

Many people ask me, “What is Experiential Learning?” and my answer is “Teaching and learning that takes theory through practice and results in critical reflection”…but that response is often only accessible with further explanation or conversation.  I often refer to these principles as they are simple, rich concepts that can help describe what makes learning experiential.

  1. Intention: All parties must be clear from the outset why experience is the chosen approach to the learning that is to take place and to the knowledge that will be demonstrated, applied or result from it. Intention represents the purposefulness that enables experience to become knowledge and, as such, is deeper than the goals, objectives, and activities that define the experience.
  2. Preparedness and Planning: Participants must ensure that they enter the experience with sufficient foundation to support a successful experience. They must also focus from the earliest stages of the experience/program on the identified intentions, adhering to them as goals, objectives and activities are defined. The resulting plan should include those intentions and be referred to on a regular basis by all parties. At the same time, it should be flexible enough to allow for adaptations as the experience unfolds.
  3. Authenticity: The experience must have a real world context and/or be useful and meaningful in reference to an applied setting or situation. This means that is should be designed in concert with those who will be affected by or use it, or in response to a real situation.
  4. Reflection: Reflection is the element that transforms simple experience to a learning experience. For knowledge to be discovered and internalized the learner must test assumptions and hypotheses about the outcomes of decisions and actions taken, then weigh the outcomes against past learning and future implications. This reflective process is integral to all phases of experiential learning, from identifying intention and choosing the experience, to considering preconceptions and observing how they change as the experience unfolds. Reflection is also an essential tool for adjusting the experience and measuring outcomes.
  5. Orientation and Training: For the full value of the experience to be accessible to both the learner and the learning facilitator(s), and to any involved organizational partners, it is essential that they be prepared with important background information about each other and about the context and environment in which the experience will operate. Once that baseline of knowledge is addressed, ongoing structured development opportunities should also be included to expand the learner’s appreciation of the context and skill requirements of her/his work.
  6. Monitoring and Continuous Improvement: Any learning activity will be dynamic and changing, and the parties involved all bear responsibility for ensuring that the experience, as it is in process, continues to provide the richest learning possible, while affirming the learner. It is important that there be a feedback loop related to learning intentions and quality objectives and that the structure of the experience be sufficiently flexible to permit change in response to what that feedback suggests. While reflection provides input for new hypotheses and knowledge based in documented experience, other strategies for observing progress against intentions and objectives should also be in place. Monitoring and continuous improvement represent the formative evaluation tools.
  7. Assessment and Evaluation: Outcomes and processes should be systematically documented with regard to initial intentions and quality outcomes. Assessment is a means to develop and refine the specific learning goals and quality objectives identified during the planning stages of the experience, while evaluation provides comprehensive data about the experiential process as a whole and whether it has met the intentions which suggested it.
  8. Acknowledgment: Recognition of learning and impact occur throughout the experience by way of the reflective and monitoring processes and through reporting, documentation and sharing of accomplishments. All parties to the experience should be included in the recognition of progress and accomplishment. Culminating documentation and celebration of learning and impact help provide closure and sustainability to the experience.

No single learning experience encapsulates all of these principles perfectly and determining how to best connect theory to practice is often an iterative process.  Although not required, instructors whose classes are already designated often submit changes to their classes based on the reflection required of their students.  Each of our Faculty Fellows noted that some of the principles were focused upon more than others in their specific disciplines or departments.  Each principle can sharpen an aspect of any Experiential Learning opportunity, and taken together they can serve as a guide for exploring and developing a learning experience for students.

Are You Using the UTC Learn Grade Center?

As we enter into the midterm grading period, it’s a good time to evaluate your use of the UTC Learn Grade Center. Why is now a good time? Because students want to be able to keep track of their grades throughout the semester. Using the grade center helps them stay informed and engaged in the class. Whether you are you an avid user or just getting started, the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning is here to help you.

If you are new to the grade center, start out simple. You can create a column in the grade center where you can manually add the students’ mid-term grades. Watch this video to learn more about navigating the UTC Learn Grade Center.

If you have been using the grade center for a while, now is a good time to give your grade center a “tune up”. Here are some tips to consider when reviewing your grade center setup.

  1. Did you import your course from a previous semester? If you did, you may have extra columns that do not apply to your current course.
  2. Verify that the total points available in your course match the total point values you are using for this semester.
  3. Are you having UTC Learn calculate your mid-term and final grades? If so, make sure your tests, assignments, and columns are all in the correct column (Manage; Column Organization) to insure correct calculations.

Whatever your need, the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning offers online tutorials, group training sessions, and individual consultations to help you get the most from your course in UTC Learn. Let us know how we can help you today!

That’s the Beauty of the Midterm Survey!

Traditionally, faculty receive feedback from students only at the end of the semester, when it is already too late to address their comments or concerns. What if you could get a feel for their experience while there is still time to do something about it?

That’s the beauty of the Midterm Survey!

By adding a short survey to your course midway through the semester, you can find out from students what issues there are that you may not be aware of, and address those concerns in time to help them get more out of the class. The students feel they are being heard, and you get the benefit of tweaking your teaching to make the students more successful in your class.

I have been talking to faculty about adding these surveys through UTC Learn, and have been able to share a sample survey with them that was created by Dr. Jennifer Ellis. She teaches Educational Technology and has been using the surveys for about 6 years. She originally pieced one together from questions she found from other schools, and she has also added a 15 minute chat component that she says takes the feedback to a new level. She is primarily connecting this way with her online students, but you could incorporate the Midterm Survey with any modality of teaching.

I spoke to Dr. Ellis about her use of the surveys and the data she gleans from the comments. She has found that any change to a course could be gauged by using the survey: for example, a change to a new textbook or eText, a new version of the learning management system, or even general changes you have made to a previously taught course.

I asked Dr. Ellis if she feels the students are honest in the surveys and take them seriously. She says that she does and she dedicates quite a bit of time to reviewing the data from the surveys and addressing what they have shared. She has the anonymous surveys, but then she also follows up with a Google Hangout or a Zoom with each student. She finds they are more candid in the anonymous portion, but together these two tools help her gauge if what she is doing is impactful, if the rigor is about right, and if they are putting in enough hours – especially in graduate level courses. For example, she expects them to put in 6-9 hours, and if they mention committing less than that to their coursework, she can let them know that may be a contributor to why they are making lower grades than they should!

AFTER the initial survey she holds a short, online, individual chat with each student. After that initial online meeting, they are more likely to reach out to her on chat again in the future when something isn’t clear. She tells them “don’t spend hours trying to figure it out, get help, ask me.” Before it ends, she invites them to engage her online in the future. After the online chat, Dr. Ellis says the 2nd half of the course tends to go more smoothly.

We talked about the opportunity for specific changes to the course, and I asked her what is the biggest change she has made that came about due to student feedback? Dr. Ellis said, “On the front end, explain the “why”. Explain the reasons for assignments, and link them back to the course outcomes. Their “voices are heard”, especially when she can see trends on certain assignments, if there is one that gets mentioned over and over. If they say they don’t see how it relates to the course learning outcomes, they may need a bigger picture explanation. She might then go back and create a short video instruction, or give more details in the textual instructions, to help them make that connection.

We spoke about the impact the surveys have on student perceptions of her, her teaching, and the course.

She has created a very transparent process. She publishes the results with comments. They can tell she has reviewed the data and spent the time needed to analyze it. This shows her support of their learning, especially the asynchronous online portion: they are allowed to be ‘seen’ and captured during the learning process.

After reading some of her survey data, I told Dr. Ellis I found this student comment fascinating, “Less discussion boards. I rarely, if ever, have gotten anything out of a discussion board in any online course I’ve taken.”

She gave me a great response! “I love all the contradictory comments I get on my Midterm evaluation. Most of the time it all balances out and I have to make minor adjustments.”

I asked her about that comment, how she addressed it, and she said she addressed this by justifying the why and going back to the course learning outcomes.

Also, she said lots of times the comments will be at both extremes: “this was the best tool, this was the worst tool”. She said you can choose to share that kind of data or not, but if you do share it, address it and give your rationale.

The Midterm Survey evaluations offer a more “timely response” than the end of semester, when there’s no chance for more clarification.  This can also help instructors professionally, as when they are looking at tenure it is another data source to help guide your pedagogical decisions.

Faculty, if you would like to try a Midterm Survey with your classes, contact us today at wctl@utc.edu . We’re happy to meet with you and get your started!


Preparing to Teaching Online – a spring 2017 seminar series

Just as online learning is different for students, online teaching is different for instructors. This spring, I will be offering a series of sessions on the topic of preparing to teach online. The first session is – Is Online Teaching for You? In this session, we will talk about how online teaching is different from teaching in a physical classroom. What is the role and responsibilities of the instructor? What is the role and responsibilities of the students? If you already know you will be teaching online soon, or are new to teaching online this semester, consider attending the other sessions in the series:

  • Designing an Online Course using Best Practices
  • Learner Engagement
  • Testing, Grading, and Feedback

The content of these sessions is based on Quality Matters (QM) standards. UTC adopted QM in the summer of 2015 and it is the goal of the institution that every online and hybrid course be aligned with these evidence-based standards. There are 42 QM standards in 8 general categories. One of the central tenets of QM is alignment. This means that the content, activities, and assessment in a course are aligned with module/unit outcomes which are in turn aligned with course student learning outcomes. In the Designing an Online Course session, we will delve into the alignment standards in more detail. Another important aspect of QM is that learners are engaged! Learners are engaged with the content, the instructor, and each other. An online course cannot be passive and meet course outcomes; there must be interactivity. An example of learner engagement is the use of course tools such as discussion forums and wikis to promote student-to-student interaction to achieve a learning goal. The learner engagement session will provide information about how to set up these active learning activities. The last session in the series is about designing tests, grading efficiently online, and the use of feedback to interact with students and improve their learning. Critical to the success of an online course is designing assessments that require critical thinking. Yes, multiple-choice tests are fine, but should be supplemented with additional assessments that require higher order thinking. I hope you will join me this semester as we explore these aspects of online course design.

To register, visit our webpage and look for the Preparing to Teach Online series.

UTC Learn Key Dates

Welcome back!  We hope that everyone was able to get some much needed rest during the holiday break.

In this blog entry I wanted to provide you with the timing of several key events in UTC Learn that recur every semester.  I will present each event, and then provide the applicable date for the Spring 2017 semester in parentheses, Summer 2017 semester in brackets, and Fall 2017 semester in braces.

  • Courses for a new term are created eight (8) weeks before the first day of classes. (11/14/2016) [3/22/2017] {6/26/2017}
  • Instructors are added to courses on the same day that they are created. Courses will be available to instructors by 8:00 am.  (11/14/2016) [3/22/2017] {6/26/2017}
  • Course merge requests begin processing on the same day that courses are created. (11/14/2016) [3/22/2017] {6/26/2017}
  • Students are added to courses one (1) week before the first day of classes. Student enrollments will be processed by 8:00 am.  (1/2/2017) [5/10/2017] {8/14/2017}
  • Course merge requests must be submitted by two business days before the first day of classes by 5:00 pm. (1/5/2017) [5/15/2017] {8/17/2017}
  • The previous term’s courses are made unavailable to students on the last business day before the first day of classes. This event will occur after 5:00 pm.  (1/6/2017) [5/16/2017] {8/18/2017}
  • All full-term and part of term 1 courses are made available to students on the first day of classes. This event will occur at 12:01 am.  (1/9/2017) [5/17/2017] {8/21/2017}
  • All part of term 2 courses are made available to students on the first day of the part of term 2 classes. This event will occur at 12:01 am (3/6/2017) [6/28/2017] {10/16/2017}

Another question that we often receive is “How long will my previous semester’s courses be available to me?”  For Fall and Spring terms, the current UTC Learn course retention policy states that courses will be made unavailable to instructors in UTC Learn of the last day of midterms of the corresponding semester one (1) year later.  For example, FA16 courses will become unavailable the last day of midterms of the FA17 semester.  For Summer courses, they will become unavailable at the end of the following summer term one year later.  For example, SU16 courses will become unavailable on the last day of the SU17 semester.

Finally, I would like to address how instructors are placed into courses in the learning management system (LMS).  UTC Learn has an active integration with the institution’s student information system (Banner).  This system is authoritative over the LMS.  An instructor will not be added to a course in UTC Learn until they are listed in Banner as the official instructor of record.  This integration runs every two hours on the even hours.

I hope that this information is useful to you, and everyone from the Walker Center wishes you great success in the new semester!

Keeping Students Engaged Immediately Before and After Spring Break

March is upon us and Spring Break is right around the corner! While this is a welcome break for many, it can also bring about certain challenges for instructors.

Although the expectation is that students will be present in class the days leading up to Spring Break, this is often not the case. Some students will choose to start their break a few days early, and in anticipation of the break, the students who are physically present in class may not be at their full capacity to learn and retain information. Including an interactive activity instead of a typical lecture is a great way to modify your class plans while still achieving the course goals you established.

While some students may be headed to a tropical paradise, others stay on campus, work, or do community service projects over the break. Therefore, coming back from Spring Break can be difficult for faculty members and students alike. Don’t be afraid to connect with students upon their return. Something as simple as asking students about their break can show that you value them. Showing interest in your students increases the likelihood that they will in turn show interest in your course.

After Spring Break, there are only a little over five weeks left in the semester. In this time, it is important to motivate students to finish out the semester strong. Students will need to be intrinsically motivated to succeed, but you can still do a few things to encourage and motivate them. For example, providing a review of the material that has been covered thus far can help show students how much progress they have made. Additionally, it can be helpful to go over what topics will be covered in the coming weeks and remind students that the end of the semester is in sight.

Simple things such as inviting a guest speaker, showing the class videos, and letting students pick music to play before class can also encourage and motivate students to be engaged in your course. If you have any suggestions you would like to share, feel free to comment below! Have a great Spring Break!

Smartphones and Tablets: Should you be using them in your course?


Imagine this: You’re standing at the podium, giving the biology lecture you spent hours preparing, and out of nowhere you hear the random sounds of the latest viral YouTube video being mistakenly played through a phone. You immediately know that one of your students was browsing social media instead of learning the material.

Recreational phone use during class time has become an epidemic. Many instructors have a difficult time managing student phone use, especially in a lecture-hall setting. So the question is, how can we make lemonade out of lemons? Gikas and Grant (2013) have examined the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating mobile computing devices into student learning. They defined this concept as mobile learning: formal or informal learning that is delivered and supported by mobile computing devices, such as cell phones, smartphones, or tablet computers.

One of the biggest advantages of mobile learning is the availability of content. With a mobile device, students can quickly access course content anywhere and everywhere. Mobile devices also allow for quick and convenient collaboration for both instructor and student through use of social media and apps specifically designed for course learning. They also offer a variety of ways to learn, particularly in regards to active learning techniques. Students can use mobile devices to easily create pictures or video projects related to course objectives.

When using mobile devices to enhance classroom learning, instructors must be aware of possible device challenges, such as malfunctioning apps, small keyboards, or complicated app interfaces. These devices may also serve as a distraction. Students may be tempted to quickly answer that text message or hop on Facebook in the middle of an assignment. As an instructor it is important to conduct activities that are fast-paced and engaging to discourage use of mobile devices for purposes outside of learning.

UTC has their own mobile learning app: UTC Learn Mobile. Instructors and students may use this app to check grades, view course content, receive alerts about the course, and more. For more active student learning in real-time, the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning recommends using the free REEF Polling system, where students can answer questions and collaborate together in real time, right from their devices. Find out more about REEF here: https://blog.utc.edu/walker-center-teaching-learning/2015/05/22/iclickergo-replaced-with-reef-polling/

Mobile computing devices can be a great asset to your students’ learning when employed effectively. Instructors should actively lead all classroom use of mobile devices and create a clear standard of participation to discourage potential misuse of these devices during class time.


Reference: Gikas, J., & Grant, M. M. (2013). Mobile computing devices in higher education: Student perspectives on learning with cellphones, smartphones & social media. The Internet and Higher Education, 19, 18-26.

Best Grading Practices: A Student’s Perspective

One of the biggest areas of concern for students is their grades. Many students incur a significant amount of stress agonizing over their scores on exams or assignments. Although students must work hard to obtain good grades, there are a few things you can do as an instructor to alleviate a bit of the stress.

Providing clear instructions for assignments and providing accurate, specific, and timely feedback are critical components of an effective grading strategy. It is helpful to provide students with your specific grading policies and procedures in the syllabus at the start of the semester. This information could include the frequency of feedback students should expect to receive, as well as when and how they will receive it. This helps give students a sense of control, as they know when to expect certain assignments to be graded. Providing students with this information also helps you hold yourself accountable for grading in a timely manner.

Another area of grading that can cause stress for students is if some students receive feedback on an assignment before others. A good grading practice would be to release all student grades on an assignment simultaneously, instead of one at a time as they are graded. This way, no student receives feedback before another student. This practice can contribute to feelings of equity and fairness among students.

To utilize this grading practice in Blackboard, go to Full Grade Center. Then, access the column for the assignment and select the dropdown arrow. You can then either select “Hide from Students (on/off)” or “Edit Column Information”. If you choose the “Edit Column Information” option, you will need to select “No” when presented with the option to “Show this Column to Students”. A circle with a diagonal red line should appear next to the column name in the full grade center, indicating that this column is hidden from students.

It is important to remember to take these steps prior to grading students’ assignments. Once assignments for all students have been graded, you will need to go back into the Full Grade Center and make these columns available so that students are able to view their grades.

These are just a few of the many grading practices you can utilize to help alleviate the stress surrounding student grades. They may not work for every instructor, so it is important to determine what strategies work best for your teaching style and course structure.