Collaborative Post!

This blog post is a collaboration between myself and Emily Burns, Jonilda Bahja, Logan Perry, and HokieInstructor. 

In a post from Hybrid Pedagogy, author Sean Michael Morris writes that “just as the pedagogue will enter a room and rearrange the tables and chairs to suit his purpose, so too will the digital pedagogue happily hack [traditional learning spaces], opening it to the wider web, or using it as a portal to a more expanded learning environment.” We wanted to write a team blog post about some of the tools we’d use from the ‘wider web’ to create a more modern learning space, as well as some pros and cons of each. 


Pro: This is a free* software that we might normally associate with younger learners, like in elementary education. It allows for fun exercises and competition-based activities (think trivia, scavenger hunts) that really get the students excited about the material or lesson. It works just as well for college students, but it might require some introduction by the instructor. You can choose how to name your ‘character’, so it can theoretically be anonymous. It also has some really great features. Because this is widely used and there are paid accounts, there is a really robust community of users (and it has an App) and there is support for technical issues. ALSO THERE IS MUSIC! Case Study: One of us attended a two day conference called Braille Boot Camp. After each “mini” presentation, we answered questions on Kahoot! Although I attended this conference in 2016, I still remember how much fun I had trying to win! My colleague won the entire competition. His prize was a cool 3-D printed heart with printed pieces that fit inside the heart. 

Con: As a tool originally designed for younger learners, it can feel silly or childish in higher education. So it might require some introduction to clear the air and let the students know that being silly can be a good thing! *There is also a maximum of 50 people on the free account, so you may want to look into institutional access.  

Poll Everywhere

Pro: I have been using this every semester before we talk about political opinions and polarization. No one wants to raise their hand and tell a class of strangers they are a Republican or a Democrat. Using anonymous polling let’s us get real without lower personal risks. Being able to have a dozen questions pre-loaded and using things like multiple choice, word clouds, and free association is also a huge benefit that can be used from semester to semester.

Con: I tried to use Poll Everywhere once for an online course, but I could not figure out how to post my questions. After I created an account, Poll Everywhere sends me emails that clutter my email box. I ended up having students self-reflect for five minutes and then share their thoughts in groups.


Mentimeter is an interactive online tool that helps you prepare fun and interactive presentations, polls, and quizzes. You can use mentimeter during all the process of teaching to present information to students in a fun and interesting way, engage them with the content and ask them questions and visualize the responses in real time, and follow up with them on sharing. Mentimeter is used by 80 million people around the world. 

Pro: Allows you to gather feedback from the entire class in realtime and gauge the mood about particular topics. There is also no limit on how many people can participate. This is extremely helpful in big classrooms because you get the results of the poll live and visualized. Students get excited and consider it part of a game and they engage with it and use technological devices to participate and advance their learning. To create questions 

Con: Because students are allowed to post anything they’d like, it can be difficult to keep unwanted or inappropriate responses off the screen.  

Google Docs

Pro: This tool is student-directed. You get to step back and the students get to build the content. Students can collaborate in real time during class when using this tool. I have been using this to encourage students to create a joint-notebook that builds off of key terms I assign them and questions that certain students are tasked with adding. It is important to remind students that the settings should be turned on “editable” for anyone who has the link so all students can use it.

Con: Sometimes the student content is not…er, correct. Also, if you have students use Google Docs within a writing group, students will need to give direction on how to give feedback appropriately.  


So these are just some suggestions based on our personal experiences. If you have your own experiences with these tools or other ones you think should be on our radar, please comment below!

Dear Future Self: Beware (and Prepare) for Problem-Based Learning.

For today’s blog post, I wanted to talk about teaching through problem-based learning (PBL). Much of what I have read has emphasized that teaching in a PBL setting can be difficult, and is a skill that takes time to master. As a current PhD student with little in my teaching portfolio, it seemed like a bridge too far to write a post on how I would adopt a PBL strategy for a fictitious course that I might teach in the future. So, rather than doing that, my goal here is to just reflect on the approach and identify strengths and limitations of PBL. I hope that I will remember this post in 5-10 years, when I am in a place to implement this novel approach to teaching.

Problem-based learning is well described in this article from Stanford University. The authors write that in a course using the PBL approach, there is a focus on group-oriented work attempting to solve complex problems. Learning outcomes are to develop content knowledge comparable to a lecture-based course, but also other skills like problem-solving, reasoning, communication, and self-assessment skills. PBL’s can vary in course structure and format, and in the actual problems that are at the core of this approach. In the Stanford article, the authors discuss at length “ill-structured problems,” which they define as open-ended problems that have multiple solutions and require students to think critically to solve them.

The first piece of advice I will give my future self is to avoid these open-ended and evolving ill-structured problems and to replace them with tried and tested case studies. As outlined in this article from the University of Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, the ‘case method’ is a subset of PBL and uses participatory and discussion-based learning that focuses on critical thinking and communication in a group setting. While problem-based learning in general may be quite open-ended (and importantly, may require constant attention and modification by the instructor), using existing case studies that have been tried and tested provides a means of engaging students in the approach without having to reinvent the wheel. For example, The University of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching provides a number of excellent examples (link here).

Some strengths that I recognize with PBL’s (again from the University of Illinois article) are that the approach promotes “contextual learning and long-term retention.” I love to spin a good yarn and the use of stories and high-level engagement can create a scenario where deep learning is achieved. I have experienced that sort of learning mostly through field experiences, and I am really excited by the opportunity to provide that level of experience in the classroom. Doing so would eliminate the hurdles of getting folx into the field, and I think would help increase engagement and achievement of students. The other benefit that resonated with me was that PBLs provide students with the opportunity to “walk around the problem” and to see varied perspectives. I really value inter- and multidisciplinarity, and giving students the opportunity to learn from their peer’s diverse viewpoints is quite appealing.

A major challenge that I see with case-based approaches is that finding appropriate means to assess successful learning can be difficult. For instance, a multiple-choice test is not able to assess the critical thinking that is perhaps the primary learning outcome from these approaches. And to write (and grade) thoughtful exams is a serious commitment. Another concern was raised as I read an article, Grappling with Real-World Problems, which discussed PBLs at a public charter school in Washington DC. The authors discussed how first grade students were exposed to PBL by roaming school fields to look at spiders. The goal was to work as a group to try and reduce people’s fear of spiders by leveraging their own experiences with them. Though the learning outcomes may be profound for these students, trying to wrangle 20 or more 6-year-olds can be nearly impossible (my spouse was an elementary educator for 8 years and can vouch). Regardless of the level (K-12, undergraduate, graduate education) at which PBLs are applied, this approach will require additional levels of supervision, and a single mentor, teacher, or moderator is unlikely to be enough. My last piece of advice to future Sam is to go in eyes wide open, and to recognize the level of faculty or TA support needed for these approaches to succeed. To go it alone seems like an ill-structured problem itself, and is likely to let down both the instructor and their students.