Great places to find answers to this question are the Lilly Conferences on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning held annually at six sites from coast to coast. These conferences invite participants to engage in lively dialogue about the scholarship of teaching and learning, share best practices and hone teaching skills. Lilly Conferences are not specific to any course modality; they cover classroom, hybrid and online teaching. I found the three topics from August’s Lilly – Asheville Conference of particular interest: alternative approaches to traditional grading, faculty and student empathy, and strategies to enhance the effectiveness of lectures.

Alternative Grading Systems

Michael Palmer,  director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence, challenged conference attendees to address the question “How does grading influence learning?” He then encouraged examination of alternative approaches to traditional grading practices, and explained specifications (“specs”) grading, which he personally uses. Briefly, specifications grading involves:

  • Grading assignments and assessments on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis, where mastery (passing) is set at a “B” level or better.
  • Bundling assignments and assessments together and allowing students to select these “bundles” based on the final course grade they are seeking. Bundles are aligned with specific course learning outcomes. Higher final grades require students to do more work and/or more challenging work.
  • Building in flexibility by giving students a few tokens at the outset that they can trade in for an extension on an assignment or an opportunity to revise/redo an unsatisfactory assignment.

Advocates of specs grading tout its effectiveness in motivating and engaging students while restoring rigor, providing actionable feedback (Palmer gives audio feedback) and supporting deep learning. To learn more, see Linda Nilson’s book Specifications Grading. Regarding ways to provide feedback that enhances learning in online courses, see Wanted: Effective Instructor Feedback.

Empathy and Student Success

Katherine Rowell of Ohio’s Sinclair Community College spoke eloquently about “The Importance of Teacher and Student Empathy in Student Success.”

  • She noted that positive faculty-student relationships are a principal factor predicting student success. In fact, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue survey found that college graduates were far more likely to be engaged in their work and thriving in key areas of well-being if they had one or more positive relationships with faculty.
  • Rowell encouraged the audience to learn more about the role that empathy plays in student success, and to look at how empathy—by both instructors and students—is manifest in the college classroom, including the online classroom.
  • She recommended Christopher Uhl and Dana Stuchul’s book Teaching as If Life Matters which encourages teachers to nurture students in ways that make learning beneficial for a more meaningful life. In this regard, OSU Business instructor Nikki Brown’s recent post in this blog on meeting students where they are is a excellent place to start.

Improving Lectures

Todd Zakrajsek of UNC-Chapel Hill presented evidence-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. His message can be applied to asynchronous online learning as well as to on-campus courses:

  • Lectures and active learning are not mutually exclusive. Using lectures, including short online lectures, plus active learning can reach more learners better than using either technique in the absence of the other. Think of strategies to get learners to interact with the lecture content!
  • “We have to stop thinking there’s only one kind of lecture.” Just as there are many varieties of active learning, there are multiple kinds of lecturing!  The classic college lecture model is continuous expository lecturing, which can effectively stifle student engagement when delivered non-stop in one-hour doses! It’s useful to consider how other approaches such as case-study, discussion-framing, and problem-solving lectures can be used in online and hybrid courses.
  • We all benefit from examining the research on how learners learn, and applying this knowledge  to inform course development and teaching, including lecture design. For more on this, see The New Science of Learning, co-authored by Zakrajsek and Terry Doyle. Also consider meeting students where they are.

What are your experiences with these topics: Have you explored alternative grading systems? How do you use empathy in your teaching? What are some strategies you use to improve lecture effectiveness and incorporate active learning? Please share your ideas here.


Along with the vast growth of fully online education, a corresponding trend is the growing popularity of hybrid (or blended) courses and programs. OSU defines a hybrid course as one that includes both regularly scheduled on-site classroom meetings and significant online out-of-classroom components that replace regularly scheduled class meeting time.

The blended learning mix map from the Blended Learning Toolkit is a widely used tool to visualize a hybrid course under design or redesign. This simple template of two overlapping circles provides space to list online learning activities, face-to-face learning activities and possibly activities that occur in both learning environments. For example, discussions may be a regular course activity online, in class, or in both environments.


Blended Learning Mix Map

Much of the real value of developing a mix map is gained from drawing arrows to connect each element of the course to one or more other elements. For example, an arrow may show that course videos are linked to weekly quizzes that assess student mastery of the video content. Arrows can also be used to add information about the the pedagogical purpose behind the connection of elements as in a sample mix map from Univ. of Central Florida’s Kathie Holland.

Anthony Klotz, OSU assistant professor of business, illustrates 10 weeks of teaching-and-learning progression with his sample MGMT 453 mix map. He shows that discussion, review and Q&A take place throughout MGMT 453 both online and face-to-face. OSU’s Hybrid Learning website provides downloadable mix map templates and more sample mix maps.

If sketching out a mix map for a whole course seems daunting, then beginning with a mix map of a typical week of the course may be the place to start. A weekly mix map, as a representative chunk of the course may provide a conceptual template for many of the other weeks of the same course.

The mix map serves multiple purposes:

  • It gives a snapshot of the balance between online and face-to-face components. For example, does the proposed mix map for your course seem to show a classroom course with some online supplements? Or does it show an online course with an occasional face-to-face check-in?
  • The mix map is valuable to diagnose whether a hybrid course under design is actually a course and a half. Has a 4-credit course taken on the appearance and corresponding student workload of a 6-credit course? If you add a time estimate to each course element on the mix map (for instance, 2 hours to complete the weekly reading), what do all the activities in a week add up to?
  • The connecting arrows are useful to assess whether the course elements are well integrated. Are the online and face-to-face learning activities deeply interwoven or will students perceive the hybrid course as two separate courses, one online and one in-class, running on parallel tracks?
  • The mix map can be used as well to check alignment of learning activities with course learning outcomes or with more granular weekly learning objectives. Ask yourself, how do specific activities and the forms of assessment connected to them on the mix map align with your learning outcomes?

Consider using a mix map! Faculty developing blended courses frequently find that spending even 10-15 minutes sketching out their planned hybrid courses on these “magic circles” can lead to significant insights about course design.

What does the latest research say about the most effective approaches to online and blended learning?  Consider adding one or more of these peer-reviewed journals to your summer reading list:

International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning – The current issue of this twice-a-year journal is a special edition on the hot topic of open educational resources.

Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks – Articles in the latest issue delve into mobile learning, e-portfolios, and student engagement.  JALN is published by the Sloan Consortium, whose website has a wealth of resources about online and blended learning.

Journal of Interactive Online Learning – Recent articles cover learning analytics as predictive tools, the challenge of establishing a sense of community in an online course, and a comparative study of student performance in online and face-face chemistry courses.

Journal of Online Learning and Teaching – The current issue of JOLT (the best journal acronym here!) includes such diverse topics as instructor-made videos as a tool to scaffold learning, comparative usefulness of web-based tech tools in online teaching, and student perceptions of online discussions.  JOLT is published by MERLOT, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, a great collection of peer-reviewed open educational materials that could be useful in your online or classroom teaching.

Every term a group of OSU faculty participate in the hybrid faculty learning community.  Group members each redesign a classroom course for hybrid (a.k.a. blended) delivery in which a substantial portion of the course learning activity takes place online, and face-to-face meeting time is typically cut in half.  In this video, Eric Weber of the College of Education describes his hybrid design for SED 412/512 Technology Foundations for Teaching Math and Science.

Beyond individual hybrid courses on the Corvallis and Cascades campuses, some entire OSU graduate programs are now offered in a hybrid format through Ecampus, such as the College of Education’s doctoral program in Community College Leadership.

In what ways are hybrid and online course pedagogy the same?  In what ways are they different?  For more information about hybrid course design and delivery, visit the Hybrid Course Initiative.  And, if you’re interested in participating in the hybrid faculty learning community, see the Request for Proposals for the Fall ’13 program; the proposal deadline is April 30.


Whether you’re a regular visitor to this blog or you just stumbled on it for the first time, you may be curious about where to learn more about the world of online education, particularly from an instructor’s perspective. You could start with a Google search for “online education,” but sorting through the 14 million results would be very time consuming!

To substantially speed things up–so you’ll have time to watch the leaves turn–here are four great sites where you can access a wealth of information, tools and resources about teaching online and the growing field of hybrid (“blended”) learning. Check them out!

  • EDUCAUSE Learning Initiativea community of higher education institutions and organizations committed to advancing learning through information technology (IT) innovation”
  • Merlota free and open online community of resources designed primarily for faculty, staff and students of higher education from around the world to share their learning materials and pedagogy”
  • National Center for Academic Transformationan independent non-profit organization dedicated to the effective use of information technology to improve student learning outcomes and reduce the cost of higher education”
  • The Sloan Consortium“a consortium of individuals, institutions and organizations committed to quality online education”

An approach known as “inverted” or “flipped” learning is gaining momentum in contemporary higher education. Inverted learning figuratively flips the traditional lecture-plus-homework format of many college courses on its head. Rather than using class time for the largely one-way delivery of information from instructor to student, the lecture material is made available online for students to study prior to class. Then classroom time can be used for face-to-face interaction that includes clarification, amplification, small-group work, problem solving, review, and assessment of learning built on the foundation of online course content and readings.

As illustrated in Robert Talbert’s presentation, “Inverting the Classroom, Improving Student Learning,” the inverted learning model moves more of the transmission of information outside the classroom, so that class time can be devoted to higher-level assimilation activities. A growing body of research, including a widely publicized University of British Columbia study published recently in the journal Science, points to the efficacy of devoting class time to learning activities other than lectures.

By nature, inverted learning is well suited to “hybrid” courses, which include both regular classroom meetings—with class meeting time typically reduced by 50%—and significant online content delivered via a learning platform such as Blackboard. A pilot program for development of hybrid courses is the centerpiece of OSU’s new Teaching & Learning Technologies Initiative. A request for proposals to participate in this pilot program will be distributed to OSU faculty by early September.