by Kara Hanson

Lately I’ve been thinking about a lot about those back-row students – the ones who attend class sporadically, come late, and are unlikely to participate despite the energy I exert trying to make my classes interactive and engaging. These students are a great frustration to me and to many of us, and I’ve complained about them many a time.  Recently, however, I have begun to approach these students from more of an investigational point of view, wishing to understand what is behind this behavior rather than just complaining about it. This shift in viewpoint has been spurred at least in part by parenting a child who exhibits some of these tendencies and wishing to help him overcome the obstacles that lead to this behavior before the academic stakes become high.  

Over the course of the past year, my perspective on this subject has been enriched by a book I read about the students in one high school ESL class and by a workshop I attended that was all about the human brain.  

The book – The Newcomers (available in the professional development library)

Helen Thorpe’s The Newcomers, published in the last year, documents of a year in a Denver high school’s newcomer ELL class. Taught by a Mr. Williams, the newcomer class consists of students from around the world who are brand new to the US and mostly absolute beginners in terms of English skills.  I have long wished for more opportunities to observe others teaching ESL classes but struggled to find the time to fit it into my life. I felt that through Thorpe’s careful observations, I was able to observe a master teacher in action and the book would have been a worthwhile read for this alone.  Another asset of the book is the solid review on language acquisition that Thorpe provides (she’s clearly done her homework in this area). However, the greatest strength of the book, in my opinion, is that Thorpe gets to know Mr. Williams’ students and their families outside the classroom, and from their stories we are able to see how what is going on in their lives outside the classroom affects their performance inside the classroom.  

   The students who most stood out to me were Mariam and Jakeen, two sisters who, with their mother and younger sister, fled first from Iraq to Syria and later to Turkey before finally being resettled in Denver.  The upheaval and trauma these young women experienced continue to impact them; they frequently miss school and struggle when there. Thorpe writes that “Sadness hung over the two girls like a bank of fog. Even while they were physically in Room 142, they spent an unusual amount of time on their phones. . . . I was perplexed by Jakleen and Mariam’s frequent absences, refusal to participate, and obsession with texting until I visited them at home again, and the girls explained that they were distracted because their close friends Haifa and Noor had just departed from Damascus, even though it was the dead of winter” and were about to attempt to cross the Aegean Sea in hopes of eventually making it to Germany (p. 128-129).  Reading Mariam and Jakleen’s story made me wonder what distractions glue our back-row students to their phones. I generally assume it is “only” addiction to technology (no small concern on its own), but no doubt our students are often distracted by larger concerns and if many could probably use more support and less nagging.

Thorpe provides a thoughtful overview of the issues that impact the ability of students to progress.  She explains that “the main issues that affected the pace of learning for the newcomers [were] language proximity, interruption of schooling, education of parents, trauma, and motivation” (p. 225).  In grad school I learned about language proximity (speaking a language more similar to English makes acquiring English easier) and motivation (intrinsic motivation providing better outcomes than extrinsic motivation), but I don’t remember the remaining three factors she mentions being addressed.  I am not sure how many of our students have had their schooling interrupted, though I’m sure it has happened to some. I suspect, however, that parental education levels strongly affect our students (how many of those back-row sitters are first generation college students, unaware of how to behave in a higher education setting, let alone in a foreign country?).  And surely many of our students have experienced trauma through the death of loved ones, severe illness, parental divorce, or other traumatic events.

I was intrigued when Thorpe suggested another crucial factor that impacts students’ ability to progress: volition. “Had a given student showed up in Mr. Williams’s classroom of his or her own choice?” Thorpe writes, “Or had the student walked into the room thanks to someone else’s decision making?” While volition was certainly a factor affecting Mariam and Jakleen, who were forced to leave their home and travel from country to country, it is also a factor affecting our students.  How many of our students are in our classes because their families want them to be, regardless of their wishes in the matter?

The Workshop – Brain Changers

On a Saturday last February, Kathleen Moon and I attended an all-day workshop at Corban University in Salem all about the brain called Brain Changers. The presenter, Jesse Payne, provided a variety of fascinating facts about the brain, but what stood out to me the most in terms of usefulness in our classrooms is that human brains are not fully developed until the age of 25 for women and 28 for men, and that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for tasks such as goal-setting, planning, and learning from mistakes. For me, learning this was a lightbulb moment in terms of what I see in the classroom. I am always relieved when I have a class with a lot of grad students or with a higher-than-normal ratio of women to men, and this workshop made me realize that there are brain-related facts that make it easier to teach classes like these: the younger students, particularly the younger males, simply don’t have as fully developed pre-frontal cortexes, and therefore don’t have the same organizational skills, impulse control, and focus as the more mature students.  Learning this made me wonder if we disadvantage our less mature students when we put in classes with students whose brains are more mature as it creates unfairly high expectations. While all our students are adults, there are biological reasons that they are not equally mature, and we need to set appropriate expectations for these less mature students, help them develop the skills need to be competent learners, and not simply grumble when they don’t already have these skills.

Recently I have been more cognizant of these brain differences and I feel that I have done a better job of meeting less mature students’ needs.  One the of the classes I taught this past fall provided an especially good opportunity for this as I had some of the most challenging behaviors I’ve dealt with in some time.  From the beginning of the term, however, I tried to determine the approximate age of the students, and so I was able to predict which students might struggle; my predictions proved correct as, just as expected, it was the youngest male students who struggled the most.  While their lack of skills in areas such as time management, organization, and following directions were still challenging to deal with, it was helpful for me to remember that these were developmental issues and that there were legitimate reasons they were behind some of their classmates in these areas.  Furthermore, being able to predict who might have these challenges helped me nip some behaviors in the bud by immediately talking to these students about areas of concern as they emerged. I look forward to seeing how I can continue to use this awareness of age and brain maturity to better help students in the future.


Payne, J. (2018, February). Brain Changers Workshop. Salem, OR.

Thorpe, H. (2017). The Newcomers. New York, NY: Scribner.

by Randy Rebman

Teachers have an vast array of multimedia and hypermedia options that they can integrate into their courses and host on their Canvas sites. However, with the use of these tools there comes issues of user accessibility. Creating content that is not accessible can create an additional learning barrier for our international students. In this post, I’ll share some points to help teachers improve the accessibility of their course content design and delivery by drawing heavily on the resources from Portland Community College (PCC) and web accessibility guidelines.

Defining Accessibility

PCC uses the following definition of accessibility on their page for accessibility instructional support:

“Accessible” means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability.

How to Improve Accessibility?

PCC outlines recommendations below that are recognized as best practices in accessibility as they follow the web accessibility guidelines WCAG 2.0 AA. You can also download the PDF version of PCC’s Web Accessibility guidelines.

  • Use properly formatted headings to structure the page.
  • Format lists as lists.
  • Write meaningful link text.
  • Create tables with column and/or row headers
  • Maintain a proper reading order in documents, web pages and slides.
  • Use sufficient color contrast.
  • Don’t use color alone to convey meaning.
  • Ensure that any action that uses a mouse, can also be completed by keyboard alone.
  • Provide alternative text descriptions for images.
  • Design clear and consistent navigation.
  • Eliminate or limit blinking / flashing content to 3 seconds.
  • Don’t require inaccessible applications be used.
  • Optional materials must include a balance of accessible options.
  • Write math and science equations accessibly.
  • Include the Accommodations Statement in your syllabus and link to accessibility or assistive technology user information for software or web applications that are required in the course.

PCC also offers a number of tutorials for instructors to use in order to improve accessibility of course content. They include tutorials on using Google Docs, Microsoft Office Suite Applications, PDFs, audio and video and more.

Start Small

At first glance accessibility guidelines can seem daunting. My advice to fellow instructors is to start with a specific type of hypermedia or multimedia that you frequently use in your courses. Do you often create PowerPoint Presentations and upload them on Canvas for your students? Then start by reviewing Microsoft’s step-by-step instructions on making your PowerPoint presentations accessible. By making these small changes in our content, we can gradually move toward lessening barriers in our content that we use in our courses and put on our Canvas sites. Improving accessibility will not only improve the learning process for learners, but it also demonstrates that as an instructor and on a program-wide level, you/we are committed to quality in your instructional materials.

Related Links

by Randy Rebman

These sunny days have had me thinking of how I can get my class outside and out of their desks. In my advanced EAP listening/speaking course (051), we are preparing for the first listening quiz. Having taught this course before, I’m aware just how much of a shock the first quiz can be, so I wanted to prepare students for the types of questions they’d encounter and how they’d be expected to respond. In this blog post I’ll explain how I integrated two tech tools to create a more engaging lesson in order to get students prepare for their first quiz.

Prerequisite: Students had listened to a lecture from their textbook, took notes using the Cornell Notes technique and submitted their summary section of Cornell Notes in a Canvas assignment. They were asked to bring the notes to class for this lesson.

Materials/Setup Purpose:

  • A roll of tape: for taping up QR codes outside on structures near classroom building
  • QR Code Generator: for creating QR codes based on similar quiz like questions
  • MS Word Document: for pasting in separate QR Codes once they are created
  • Socrative Account: for asking groups to upload their collective answers
  • Transcript of Lecture that students listened to previously

Teacher Preparation Process

  1. Identify question types on upcoming listening quiz. I scanned through the listening quiz and identified the types of questions by what learning objective seemed to be tested in the test item. I identified the following types of objectives: identify main ideas, identify details, identify structure/topics/subtopics, and apply ideas to a situation/example that you are familiar with.
  2. Create sample questions from the lecture. I printed out the lecture transcript to save time and created my questions from different sections of the listening passage to have broad coverage of the listening passage. This would also favor students who took good notes. I numbered the questions and listed them on a google doc.
  3. Go to and create a new quiz. Create your 6-7 open-ended questions from the sample questions (you’ll use these later). Save your quiz and title it something like QR Code Scavenger Hunt Group Answers.
  4. Create QR Codes. I copied and pasted each question (including the number!) into the QR code generator. Once the numbered question is pasted into the QR Code generator, then you’ll have the option of saving it. I chose to save each one separately as a PNG file. Be sure that you name them base on the question number. For example, Question A/Question 1.  Repeat this process until you have went through all your questions. I recommend 5-8 questions. This could differ depending upon how many objectives you are preparing students to do. I selected 7 because that seemed to give them enough practice to go through 2 main idea & 2 detail questions in addition to the critical thinking and identify structure/topics questions.
  5. Print out QR Codes. Once you’ve labeled your QR code png files, then you need to open up word documents for the number of QR codes you’ve created. Simply paste in each image into the word document. If you want to avoid confusion, label the MS Word Document with the question number as well (I’d do this next time were I to do this activity again).
  6. Create the Scavenger Hunt. In the past I’ve started the scavenger hunt in my classroom by having one QR code hanging up in the classroom, but then it seems students take too long to get outside. So this time I had a few of my students help me tape the codes to the statues that are outside of our International Living Learning Center (ILLC) building while I began getting my class setup for the activity. The key here is to have it close to the classroom, and not too far so that students will be likely to get lost or wander off.
  7. Create the group question sheet. This is just a simple worksheet where you ask the students to write their answers in the blanks (The questions are typically stored in their QR Readers on their phones, so there is no need to write them down). You can find the Question Worksheet that I created here. I had 17 students in my class, so I created 6 groups (6 questions sheets).

Class Preparation/Introduce Activity

  • Write instructions on the white board or on projector/doc cam:
    1. Get into your groups (I grouped them by Marvel Superheroes for this activity)
    2. Collect your Cornell Notes and Summary from previous class
    3. Each group gets a Question Sheet
    4. Each group should have one or more person download a QR Code Reader on their phone
    5. You will use the QR code Reader to find the questions
    6. Use your notes to answer the questions in groups
  • Emphasize that each student needs to have their notes. This is important. Their answers will only be as strong as their collective note-taking abilities are.
  • Tell them to come to class as soon as they are finished and be prepared to share their answers.

Instructor Facilitation TIPS & Process

During QR Code Scavenger Hunt

  • Be sure to help direct students to where they can first start finding the QR codes. Two of the students who helped me set up my QR codes were now in groups, so I instructed them to help any students who might need help finding their QR code questions.
  • I also spend a little time walking around outside making sure that the groups have their notes with them. As an alternative, you can have groups return to the classroom once they’ve collected the questions and finish answering their questions and reviewing their notes in their groups.

Post-Scavenger Hunt/Transition To Socrative Activity

  • Return to the classroom and project the computer and bring up your Socrative account. Select “Launch Quiz.” Make sure that the quiz is individual paced.
  • As students begin to trickle back into the classroom, write the directions on the board.
  • Directions for entering the Socrative Quiz:
    • One student will complete answers for your group
    • Go to Socrative
      • Student Logon
      • Enter your group’s name (My groups were all Marvel characters, so Spiderman, Thor, Hulk, & Daredevil each had their own group)
      • Select Classroom: (This is where you the instructor write your classroom on the board). Mine, for example, is RANDYSCLASS
    • Complete each question with the answers that your group came up with.


  • If some groups finish early, hand out the transcript of the lecture and have them identify the major sections of the lecture. Then identify main ideas for each section.


  • After students have entered their questions, end the quiz and go the results table of Socrative.
  • Go through each question and explain which of the group’s responses would be acceptable on the quiz and which would not and explain why.
  • Download the quiz and post on the Canvas site so the class can review the answers on their own.

Wrap Up/Debrief Questions

Here are a few ideas for how to wrap up/conclude the class. I wouldn’t suggest all of them. You may decide to focus on different questions depending upon your goal.

  • Ask students for a Rose/Thorn for the QR Code Scavenger Hunt
    • Rose: One thing that was positive/good about it/what you took away from this activity
    • Thorn: One negative aspect/difficulty
  • What did students notice about the level of notes that helped them answer the questions?
  • Do you think the level of note-taking you did was good enough for answering the questions? If not, what do you need to change in preparation for the quiz?
  • If your group didn’t answer all the questions, what kept your group from being successful?

Related Lesson Links:

by Amy Nickerson

10 Time-Saving Strategies for Enriching Writing Instruction

1) Collaborate Across Courses

a. Use same text/vocab/content

2) Assign Reasonable Writing Tasks

a. Short paper vs long paper and expectations

b. Manageable number of sources

c. Sequence assignments

d. Activate background knowledge

3) Provide Clear Assignment Guidelines

a. Overview, length, due date, purpose

b. Structure–format, etc.

c. Rubric explanations

4) Modeling

a. Sample papers written by students/teachers

b. Cognitive model–”How would I do it?”

c. Social model–peer review

5) Maximize Available Resources

a. Tutor, writing center, librarian

b. Collaborate with other teachers

c. Assess L2 needs and seek out online resources

6) Assign in-class Writing

a. Observe writing process, strategies, typing, time management

b. Assess issues and give immediate feedback

c. Compare in-class and out-of-class work

7) Use known Text for Source-based Writing

a. Theme-based approach

b. Research Papers

c. Ss submit outside texts and highlight parts used

8) Optimize Feedback by Priority Concerns

a. What is your focus?

b. Limit number of issues

c. Align feedback with class lessons

d. Ss journal about what they want to focus on

9) Self-timing Strategies

a. Set a goal for feedback

b. Set a max time limit and reward yourself

10) Ss Self Submission

a. Build a rubric for the Ss to fill out to self-check: It’s like a dialog and gives Ss autonomy for their work


by Randy Rebman and Elisabeth McBrien

In this blog post we provide some ideas on how to make use of the first week of classes. We share icebreakers as ways to build classroom community, techniques for reviewing the syllabus and methods of conducting a needs analysis. Hopefully this post will give you some new ideas for the first week of classes or help you dust off some old ones.


  • One of my favorite icebreakers to get groups mingling is a snowball fight. This activity gets students moving around quickly and talking to everyone right away. I find that the playful nature of a snowball fight helps overcome some of the shyness and awkwardness of those first class meetings. Make sure to have students shield their eyes when the snowballs start flying! I often use this after going through a name game activity.
  • Building on the name game, a fun twist on that can be to add an alphabet game to it. This memory/alphabet game works for level 2 and above. Students start with “Yesterday at the store I bought…” and then they name something according to the letter of the alphabet. For example, “Yesterday at the store, I bought Apples.” The next student says, “Yesterday at the store, Elisabeth bought Apples, and I bought Bananas.” Students start out naming regular grocery items, but it’s fun when things get a bit silly, and someone says, “Yesterday at the store, Elisabeth bought Apples, Randy bought Bananas, and I bought…. a Camel (or Car or Castle or something like that).”
  • Two other icebreakers that gets students laughing are Two Truths and One Lie  and Find Someone Who.

Reviewing the Syllabus

  • Quizzes and scavenger hunts can make going through the syllabus fun and memorable.
  • No time to write a syllabus quiz? Have students develop their own questions in class about the course and syllabus before you hand out the syllabus:

1) Students develop 2 or 3 questions about the course/syllabus in pairs or small groups. You can also say, “Use a gerund in one of your questions,” or “Write one easy question and one difficult question,” or add other limitations that force your students to get creative as they write questions.

2) Students add their questions to the board or Feel free to add your own bonus question to the board about a point in the syllabus that you want to emphasize or have students read and understand in particular. If it’s a listening/speaking class, you could skip the writing on the board: Have your students say their questions out loud to the class to practice listening and speaking.

3) Instructor hands out the syllabus and has the class find the answers to their questions from the syllabus. Review anything important that wasn’t covered from students’ questions.

Needs Analysis/Classroom Contract

  • Part of building a classroom community involves building students’ trust in you as their teacher. This trust can be built by showing that you care about their own individual needs as learners and adults. Below are two ways that can easily be implemented during the first week to address students’ goals.
    • Needs Analysis Survey–Use Google Forms or Survey Monkey to create a brief survey to solicit information from your students. Some of the information you can consider requesting includes L1 background & L1 literacy skills, educational background, goals, support, barriers and other factors. Be sure to taylor your questions towards the skills that are to be addressed in the course. Post your survey link to Canvas and ask that students complete it during the first week of classes. Follow up on the survey results by explaining to students what needs and goals will be addressed or not addressed in the course so that they feel that the course is designed towards meeting their needs.
    • Classroom Contract–Creating a classroom contract during the first week of class helps students understand that they are responsible for helping create the classroom community that will help them achieve their learning goals. This process can be empowering for students, especially for many of our international students who have come from predominately teacher-fronted classrooms.

Related Links

This winter, I set out to ascertain to what degree my teaching practices match my values. I like to think that I create rapport in my classroom, but I wanted to take a closer look. A study on the relative merits of various reflective observation tools (Fatemipour, 2013) ranked diaries as the most effective, followed be peer observation. I decided to keep a journal throughout the term and to ask a few colleagues (Larry Javorsky, Sandy Riverman, and Amy Nickerson) to observe me.

Before the term began, I decided on the format and content of the journal. Not all journal entries yield equally useful information; in years past, I might just have made notes of activities that happened and whether or not I subjectively deemed them successful, or I might have commented on procedural issues—timing, instructions, etc. This time, I wanted a bit of a deeper focus, going beyond what Insuasty and Zambrano Castillo (2010) label “how-to” questions. I brainstormed several values statements related to rapport, relationships, and participation. To keep the project doable and measurable, I limited myself to 10 yes/no statements, four based on students’ observed behavior and six on my own behavior. After class, I ticked “Yes” or “No” and wrote a few (usually brief) follow-up comments. The prompts were:  Continue reading

In this blog post, we are interviewing INTO OSU Instructor Allison McMurtrey on her approach to teaching summarizing & paraphrasing. We hope to feature a couple of these interviews each month on the blog as a way to share the unique contributions that teachers at INTO OSU provide to the center.

Q: At one of the past PEDs you presented on a unique approach to summarizing & paraphrasing that included breaking down ideas in a passage among other steps. What led you to develop this approach?

A: It came from two places. My dad used to tell me that any process is “awfully simple” if you knew the next step and “simply awful” if you didn’t even if you could see whatever your ultimate goal was. I also used to do tech support (live and over the phone) for people who really struggled with computers, and I developed a reputation for doing click by click instructions. I realized that even when students know what a summary or a paraphrase is supposed to look like, they may not know how to take the right steps to accomplish that. Therefore I broke paraphrasing down into the smallest  8 steps I could; summarizing soon followed. Continue reading

The resources here are curated in order to provide a more in-depth knowledge of language assessment and testing.

Online Resources in Testing and Assessment

  • Language Testing Resources Website — a website maintained by Professor Glen Fulcher that provides a wealth or resources related to language testing. Fulcher mentions that it features “resources on language testing, such as articles, features, videos and audio, [which] are made freely available for language teachers, language testers, and students of language testing, applied linguistics, and languages.”
  • International Language Testing Association (ILTA) –ILTA is an international group of language testing and assessment scholars and practitioners whose dedication and work are respected both within and outside the profession, and who together define what it means to be a language tester.
  • Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)–a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.
  • Midwest Association of Language Testers –The purpose of the Midwest Association of Language Testers (MwALT) is to foster understanding of the principles of language assessment in educational settings in the Midwest.
  • Association of Language Testers in Europe –ALTE is an association of language test providers who work together to promote the fair and accurate assessment of linguistic ability across Europe and beyond. They also feature resources on their site that are helpful for designing assessments related to the CEFR.
  • Canadian Association of Language Assessment –CALA is a professional and academic association dealing with language assessment in Canada.

Academic Journals

Continue reading

If you have ever written a conference proposal and gotten rejected, then you’ve probably been left wondering why your proposal was not selected over others. Writing a successful conference proposal continues to be a daunting task for us as teaching professionals. Whats more, the feedback we receive on rejected proposals is often written in cryptic commentaries that provide little to no direction on how to better successfully meet future proposal expectations. We know that the work that we do both in and out of the classroom is valuable and can help make a difference in our field when shared with others, but the conference proposal for many of us continues to be a murky genre navigate.

In this blog post, I’ll cover share some of the genre expectations behind the conference proposal and provide you with some tips on writing one. This post is written with a nod to a Swalsian genre analysis perspective of the conference proposal in that it attempts to identify the major moves of the genre. Continue reading

Publishing online course content to Canvas has almost become a necessity for us as teachers. We need to make our content accessible to learners and cut down in printing costs. But how effectively do we design our courses? Are they readily accessible to our students?

In the following blog post, “Seven Deadly Sins of Online Course Design,” DePaul University instructional designer Adam Sanford outlines some of the biggest mistakes that teachers make when designing content online. He then recommends how these pitfalls can be avoided.

I know that I have sometimes made the mistake of what he calls digital hoarding, where I overshare by providing a number of assignment related materials with too little context. This was a good reminder that more is not necessarily better when it comes to providing students with resources. And by providing a short description of a resource (perhaps in parenthesis) students will be able find the resources they need to complete a task more efficiently, which is much better than dumping a big heap of uncurated links and files on a page in Canvas.

In my experience, digital hoarding comes about because students are not meeting the expectations for a specific task or assignment. For instance, in one class I found that, as students were struggling with their reading response assignments, I continually uploaded more materials online in an attempt to help them. The problem wasn’t a lack of materials, though. Rather, it was that the assignment and grading criteria needed to be completely revised to provide more clarity. I simply needed a few quality materials, not a large quantity of them.

Which of Sanford’s 7 sins of course design seem especially salient for you? Where do you think you can make improvements in course design?

Related Links: