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Category: Education (Page 1 of 2)

How the GMAT Algorithm Works

1. What’s an algorithm?

An algorithm, generally, is a usually efficient set of well-defined steps that are followed to solve some pre-defined problem. In the case of a CAT algorithm, the problem is to reliably and efficiently estimate a student’s ability in a reasonable amount of time. Some CAT algorithms seek to solve this problem by selecting one question at a time, each subsequent question selected based on all of the student’s prior responses. Other algorithms look only at the most recently-answered question. Still, others evaluate responses to specific groups of questions.

CAT algorithms also vary with regard to the explicit criteria they use to select the next question (or sets of questions) to administer. Some try to minimize total measurement error. Others try to maximize the precision and accuracy of measurement for each question administered. Still, others try to select questions that will most refine the current ability estimate. As a consequence, CAT algorithms can vary greatly from one to another, depending on the specific implementation of the algorithm, and the intent of the algorithm developers.

2. Why does the GMAT use an algorithm when the linear LSAT seems to be a pretty decent gauge of proficiency?

One of the common goals in using a CAT algorithm is to reduce the number of questions a student needs to answer in order to establish, to a specified level of reliability, an estimate of the student’s ability. CATs are often more efficient than linear tests, and so fewer questions are needed to reach a desired level of reliability. The LSAT needs over 100 items to reach that level, while the GMAT needs fewer than 80 to reach a comparable level.

3. Is the entire GMAT adaptive?

Almost all large-scale standardized tests contain some number of  “experimental” or “pretest” questions that are administered to the student but do not count toward the student’s final score. This is simply a way for the test makers to gather data on the questions, in order to determine how difficult they are and how well they distinguish between students at different ability levels. They also use the data collected to identify bad questions, so that they can eliminate or fix them before they count.

Some tests, like the LSAT, include all of the pretest questions in a single section. Others, like the GMAT, intermingle the pretest questions with the operational ones. Which section is the pretest section, and which questions are the pretest questions, is usually a well-guarded secret. It is a generally a bad strategy to spend time trying to guess whether a given question is operational or not. The price of guessing incorrectly is just too high.

4. How does the GMAT select which questions I get?

CATs like the GMAT have a blueprint — a set of specifications (difficulty, question type, content area, etc.) that define which questions you see. At the same time, each question has certain statistical characteristics that the algorithm uses, based on your response, to estimate your quantitative or verbal ability. The algorithm looks at your performance on the questions you have already answered and the characteristics of each question remaining in the pool and then selects for you the question that simultaneously best satisfies the blueprint and provides the most statistical information it can, to generate the best estimate of your ability.

How is the GMAT actually scored? Here are some more questions that students frequently have about its algorithm.

1. My score doesn’t seem to match my performance: I only got a few questions wrong, but my score isn’t as high as I thought it would be / I got a bunch of questions wrong, yet my score seems higher than it should be.

Most exams are linear assessments, like the SAT or your 10th grade history final. These are scored by counting the number of questions you answer correctly, and sometimes by penalizing for each question you answer incorrectly. The result, a raw score, is then converted to a scaled score, like the 600-2400 range for the SAT.

A computer-adaptive test (CAT) works very differently. It doesn’t really care as much about how many you get right or wrong, but rather which questions you get right and wrong. The CAT algorithm estimates your ability based on a variety of criteria, including the difficulty of a question. After each question, it evaluates your response and updates this estimate. When the test is over, the algorithm converts your quantitative and verbal ability estimates into the quantitative and verbal scaled scores, and then separately combines your quantitative and verbal ability estimates to calculate the overall score.

2. Do the first X number of questions matter more?

Many variables that come into play when the CAT selects your next question. One of them is the CAT’s current estimate of your ability. It uses this estimate to select questions that will be most useful in refining that estimate (if you’re a high performing student, giving you low difficulty questions isn’t usually as useful in discerning your true ability as giving you harder questions, and vice versa). What is important to remember is that you should not try to guess how you are doing by whether the question in front of you seems easy or difficult; every question deserves your full attention. With that understood, unless you have completely bombed the test, it is usually the case that missing a couple of very hard questions late in the test will have a smaller effect on your final score than missing a couple of very easy questions earlier, not because of their position within the test but because of their levels of difficulty.

3. How severe is the penalty for not finishing a section?

The penalty is significant. You can expect your scaled score to decrease by roughly 1 point for every question that you don’t answer. For example, if you correctly answer every question you encounter but fail to answer the last five, you generally won’t score higher than a 46.

4. I took the GMAT and got a 710, 44q/44v/6 AWA. A friend of mine happened to take the test 6 days later and get the exact same quant/verbal scaled scores but he got a 720. How this could happen?

Both the individual section scores and the overall score are calculated using an estimate of your Math and Verbal abilities derived from your performance on the CAT. Your overall score is not calculated from your section scores. Because your underlying ability estimate might be slightly different from your friend’s, your overall scores might be different.

For example, there are a range of ability estimates that translate into a Verbal score of 40, and there are a range of ability estimates that translate into a Math score of 42. Depending on which specific estimate is calculated for you, your overall score could range from 660 to 680. Please note that the Standard Error of Measurement (SEM) on the overall score for GMAT is 29 points, so scores of 660 / 680 all fall within the standard error.

How can my overall percentile be higher than both my quantitative and verbal percentiles?

Your overall score is calculated separately from your section scores, so you can score in the 99th percentile on the GMAT even if you didn’t score in the 99th percentile on either of the sections. For example, you could get a 48 on Quantitative (86th percentile), a 45 on Verbal (98th percentile), and a 760 overall (99th percentile).

Are the quantitative and verbal sections weighted equally in the total score?

Technically, yes — the estimates of your quantitative and verbal abilities that the CAT produces contribute the same amount to your overall score. However, the verbal section has a greater effect on your percentile rank because it is generally more difficult. If, for example, you scored a 40 on both the Quantitative and Verbal sections, your percentile rank for Quantitative would be 61st, but for Verbal it would be 91st. Your overall score (650) would be in the 84th percentile.

Why are scores above 51 rare? Why does the scale go up to 60? Can anyone get a 52?

For psychometric reasons, GMAC has truncated the scale at 51 (they do not report section scores higher than 51).

Why is it so difficult to create a good CAT?

A CAT needs to do many things well in order to reliably and accurately estimate your ability. It requires a robust algorithm to estimate your ability, a complex but speedy mechanism to identify the best question for you to see next, a rich pool of questions from which to select the questions, and a powerful scoring algorithm that translates the ability estimate into something meaningful.

Each test question has many characteristics that need to be simultaneously considered in the selection. The statistical characteristics of the questions all need to be determined beforehand through a process known as pretesting. Many, many questions are needed in order to be able to provide accurate assessment for all ability levels. And all of those questions need to be carefully constructed, reviewed, and statistically aligned so that they contribute meaningfully to your ability estimate.

How tests are scored

We’ve received grades all our lives. In fact, we’re so used to them that we often don’t think very much about what they mean, or how they are calculated. So today we’re going to look at some of the different ways in which tests are scored, and at what those scores mean.

In preschool, we receive grades in the form of category scores: gold stars, silver stars, or bronze stars. Sometimes we might get two gold stars, or even three gold stars. These kinds of grades divide the relevant universe of people into some small number of categories, usually low-medium-high.

Later on we start to receive simple tally scores: 8/10 or 23/25. Soon these are represented as percentages: 80% correct, or 92%. One of the funny things about grades is that by the time we’re in high school and college, grades have reverted back to category scores (A, B, C, D, F) through a transformation of the percentages.

Every teacher and school adopts slightly different transformations. In some places, a grade of A is reserved for 96% and above. In other places the cutoff is 92%. In still others, it might be 90%. So what an “A” means can vary widely from place to place.

Everyone knows that some test questions are more difficult than others. Occasionally, teachers will take this into account by awarding more points for the hard questions than for the easy ones.

The basic sequence for most kinds of scoring is this:

  1. Count the number of questions, or the number of points associated with each question, that you answered correctly.
  2. Subtract, if applicable, any penalty for incorrect answers. This result is your “raw score.”
  3. Apply some transformation to your raw score (e.g., divide by total possible points, or use some more complicated function) to arrive at your “scaled score.”

For those of you taking the GMAT, the basic sequence is very different. Because the GMAT is an adaptive test, it looks at your performance on each question as you respond to it, and estimates your math or verbal ability along the way. Then it uses that ability estimate to calculate your score. For the GMAT, the basic sequence is:

  1. Deliver a test question. Based on your answer, estimate your ability, based on a number of factors, including the difficulty of the question.
  2. Based on the current estimate of your ability, select a question that will maximize the amount of information that can be used to refine the ability estimate.
  3. Loop through (1) and (2) until the test is complete.
  4. Apply a transformation to the resulting estimate of your ability to determine your section score.
  5. When you have completed all sections of the test, apply a transformation using all of the resulting ability estimates to determine your overall score.

What the GMAT does explicitly is what all tests try to do implicitly, namely, try to ascertain what you know and are able to do, in some context or another. It’s a more responsive way of testing, and we use the same adaptive technology in our GMAT practice tests.

In a later post, we’ll talk about validity, which has to do with what your score really means within a context, and why anyone would care.

Until then, do your homework!

It’s Wordy, It’s Awkward, It’s… Correct!

Written by Joanna Bersin, Knewton’s resident GMAT Sentence Correction expert.

Like a salesman trying to trick you into purchasing an expensive item by appealing to your emotions, the makers of the GMAT try to trick test-takers into both “buying” grammatically incorrect answer choices by making them concise and eliminating answer choices that are grammatically correct by making them appear awkward and unwieldy.

How do we typically avoid splurging on unnecessary purchases? We train ourselves to shop wisely, basing our decisions on a range of criteria and not solely on what “seems” to be the most attractive option in the store. We focus on specific features, using logic to compare items. How can you choose the correct answer on test day? You don’t just listen to your ear; first make sure that each sentence you eliminate violates a concrete rule of English grammar. When choosing between the remaining, seemingly error-free, constructions, use the differences between the options to identify errors; all other things being equal, always pick the less wordy, less awkward, and more active answer choice.

But buyer, beware: The test-makers, like salesmen, want your ear to tell you what to do. Before going into “negotiations” with these tricksters, it’s best to learn some of their most common tricks. First, make sure to hold on to wordy and awkward but otherwise error-free constructions. The test-makers especially like to make choice A (the original sentence in the prompt) sound particularly awkward, even when it is the only error-free option. This encourages test-takers to eliminate it immediately, and then to waste time picking between the remaining options. They want us to think “This is the ‘sentence correction’ section, our minds tell us, so this sentence, especially a wordy and awkward one, must need some correcting.”  But not necessarily!

Next, do not waste time struggling with pronoun-antecedent errors in complex sentences. Because it is easy to spot a pronoun within a sentence, there is not much that the test-makers can do to create errors with an underlined pronoun. Therefore, do not let pronoun use distract you; check for a logical antecedent, and make sure that the pronoun agrees with this antecedent in number- and move on. On the GMAT, a pronoun is even allowed have two physically possible antecedents within a sentence as long as only one of these antecedents is logical.

On questions dealing with parallelism, items that are linked must be the same part of speech. Options that follow this rule are sufficiently parallel. Once you are choosing between sufficiently parallel options, look for other errors. On tough questions especially, the GMAT-makers will often make the most parallel-looking option incorrect for some other reason, luring you to into choosing it over a sufficiently parallel option without other errors.

For example:

“For the play, the creation of a humorous script and the care of the cast being chosen are important.”


“For the play, the creation of a humorous script and the care with which the cast is chosen are important.”

… are both parallel. The first sentence uses “of” after “care” and looks even more parallel than the second sentence. However, the less parallel-looking option is grammatically correct and logical, whereas the more parallel-looking option is awkward and unidiomatic. Don’t be fooled- appearances aren’t everything.

Finally, when down to those final two options, plug each back into the original sentence and check for sentence logic. An underlined portion itself may read error-free, but, when read in the context of the entire sentence, may be illogical. Which option clearly places all modifiers, especially adjectival ones, as closely as possible to the words they modify? Which choice connects clauses logically?

The salesmen use the same tricks over and over again. Learn the gimmicks and buy only what you came for.

GMAT test day, minute by minute

In reality, test day is not that different from any other day of preparation—test-takers must be attentive, focused, and fully prepared to bring their A-game. But for many test-takers, the term “test day” brings a variety of symptoms: cold sweats, night terrors, shakes, and so on. Knowing the nitty-gritty of what to expect when you get to the testing center can help relieve some of that unnecessary anxiety. Here’s Knewton’s minute-to-minute breakdown of a typical testing experience.

1. Arrive early, but don’t plan on studying at the testing center. 30 minutes before liftoff.

Show up to the test center 30 minutes before the official time, as the GMAC suggests. Although this may mean waking up even earlier than expected, avoiding any feeling of being rushed is priceless. However, many testing centers don’t allow studying in the waiting room, so don’t plan on getting there early and reviewing notes. Use the time before the test to relax and focus on the task at hand.

2. Locker Room. 10 minutes before liftoff.

After presenting your identification and test reservation, you may be given a key to a locker, into which you must put everything on your person other than your identification itself. This includes pens, paper, books, cell phones, house keys, lucky rabbit’s feet… everything. All you are allowed to bring in is your identification and the locker key itself. Think of this as a cleansing ritual, or a locker room warm-up. Although some centers may be laxer than others, in no circumstances expect to carry anything into the testing room.

3. Entering the Testing Room. 2 minutes before liftoff

The testing room will be a room filled with computers. It will be shut off from the rest of the testing center and under constant video monitoring. You may feel like the subject of some strange scientific experiment entering this room, but fear not. No shocks will be administered, and you will be far too wrapped up in your computer screen to notice the cameras or the half-lidded gaze of the proctors. Also note that you will be not only starting the test on a different schedule than other test-takers, but that it is likely that the others in the room may be taking different tests altogether. Whispering or passing notes is neither an option nor a temptation; this is not high school.

4. Tools of the Trade. Seconds before liftoff.

You will be provided with several tools with which to conquer the GMAT. The scratch pad looks and feels like a laminated legal pad; it is lined, yellow and shiny, and you will be provided with a thin black dry-erase upon which to write. These both work well, and you are allowed at any time to raise your hand to get the proctor’s attention if you need replacement pads or pens. You may also be provided with noise-canceling headphones (like those used by jackhammer-using construction workers). These work like a charm, even though the noise you’ll be canceling is the clickity-clacking keyboards of a dozen other test-takers.

5. Liftoff. The argument essay (30 min).

After signing in (perhaps with the proctor’s input), you’re off! You begin with the argument essay and are given a 30:00 ticking digital clock in the corner of the screen by which to measure your progress. Depending on your comfort with this time period, you may want to outline your essay on the pad before writing, especially noting which examples you expect to use and in what order.

6. Getting Personal. 30-60 minutes in. Issue Essay.

Same deal; you know the drill.

7. Eight is Enough. 60-68 minutes in. Break 1 (8 minutes).

You have the option to take an 8-minute break at this point. Keep in mind that the break starts the second you click “yes,” meaning that once you raise your hand to get the proctor, sign out by using your ID, and leave the room, you have less time than you might think to get back. This is enough time for a bathroom break or a breather, but no more. Up to this point, you have been at the test center for an hour and a half, and not yet seen one verbal or math question. So the first third of test day is all warming up and doing the essays; try to time your caffeine intake accordingly.

8. Test Day Begins. 68-143 minutes. Math  (75 minutes).

Test day begins in earnest. The quant section will come first, and you’ll have 75 minutes to complete it. Since the math section is considered far more difficult to finish in this time period than is the verbal for most test-takers, plan accordingly (and use timed practice to understand your own timing). The math section will have you using that scratch pad in earnest, and you may want to use it to virtually “eliminate” choices on the verbal section by writing out A, B, C, D and E and crossing out choices as you go. The number of each question (and how many are left) is provided at all times, as is the time.

9. Eight is Enough Part 2: 143 minutes- 151 minutes. Break 2 (8 minutes).

Just like Break 1, except it’s likely that you will need this break even more. Take it to get a breather and prepare for the next section. Shift from math to verbal mentally, with the different timing considerations in your mind.

10. The Home Stretch! 151- 226 minutes. Verbal (75 minutes).

Stay alert! You’ve been at the test center for almost 4 hours at this point, but your concentration and focus is as necessary as ever. Watch those questions count down as you go…

11. Getting Down to Business. Score Reporting Info. 226-234.

As your reward for finishing the test, you get to decide which schools get your (still unreported) score. Let visions of leafy campuses, whiteboards, and elbow-patched professors fill your mind as you enter the schools you’d like to receive your score reports.

12. Do or Die: Canceling Your Score. 234- 236.

Last step: you have two minutes (with a ticking clock) to decide whether to cancel your score or report it. What’s your final answer? If you decide to report the score, you will immediately be informed of your scores and percentiles on the math and verbal reports. Either way, after four hours, almost half of which did not involve any math or verbal questions, test day has become history. It wasn’t so bad, was it?

American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use

Today’s children grow up immersed in digital media, which has both positive and negative effects on healthy development. The nation’s largest group of pediatricians provides new set of recommendations and resources, including an interactive media use planning tool, to help families balance digital and real life from birth to adulthood.

Elk Grove Village, IL — Recognizing the ubiquitous role of media in children’s lives, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is releasing new policy recommendations and resources to help families maintain a healthy media diet.  To support these recommendations, the AAP is publishing an interactive, online tool so families can create a personalized Family Media Use Plan.

The AAP recommends that parents and caregivers develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child as well as the whole family.

“Families should proactively think about their children’s media use and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep,” said Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement, “Media and Young Minds,” which focuses on infants, toddlers and pre-school children. “What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.”  A second policy statement, “Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents,” offers recommendations for children ages 5 to 18, and a technical report, “Children, Adolescents and Digital Media,” provides a review of the scientific literature to support both policies. All three documents will be published in the November 2016 Pediatrics (online October 21).

The AAP recommends parents prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers. Some media can have educational value for children starting at around 18 months of age, but it’s critically important that this be high-quality programming, such as the content offered by Sesame Workshop and PBS. Parents of young children should watch media with their child, to help children understand what they are seeing.

For school-aged children and adolescents, the idea is to balance media use with other healthy behaviors.

“Parents play an important role in helping children and teens navigate media, which can have both positive and negative effects,” said Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement on media use in school-aged children and teens. “Parents can set expectations and boundaries to make sure their children’s media experience is a positive one. The key is mindful use of media within a family.”

Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning. Too much screen time can also harm the amount and quality of sleep. Organizations like Common Sense Media can help parents evaluate media content and make decisions about what is appropriate for their family.

Among the AAP recommendations:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

The Family Media Use Plan tool will be launched on on Friday, Oct. 21. A preview version is available for journalists to review at This link should not be made public until 12:01 a.m. ET Friday, Oct. 21.

Today’s generation of children and adolescents is growing up immersed in media. This includes platforms that allow users to both consume and create content, including broadcast and streamed television and movies, sedentary and active video games, social and interactive media that can be creative and engaging, and even highly immersive virtual reality.

“Even though the media landscape is constantly changing, some of the same parenting rules apply,” said Yolanda (Linda) Reid Chassiakos, MD, FAAP, lead author of the technical report. “Parents play an important role in helping children and teens navigate the media environment, just as they help them learn how to behave off-line. The AAP wants to provide parents the evidence-based tools and recommendations to help them make their children’s media experience a positive one.”

For an embargoed copy of the report, or to interview an AAP spokesperson, contact the AAP Department of Public Affairs.

End of the Year | Comment Ideas for Report Cards

Over 300 adjectives and phrases are available here for your use.

As one contributor points out, remember: “My main advice about report card comments is to tell the truth.”

  1. Is a good citizen
  2. Is learning to share and listen.
  3. Is becoming more dependable during work periods.
  4. Is developing a better attitude toward ___ grade.
  5. Is showing interest and enthusiasm for the things we do.
  6. Is learning to occupy his time constructively.
  7. Wants responsibilities and follows through.
  8. Can be very helpful and dependable in the classroom.
  9. Always uses her time wisely.
  10. Has strengthened her skills in ___.
  11. Has great potential and works toward achieving it.
  12. Working to full capability.
  13. Is strong in _____.
  14. Is learning to be a better listener.
  15. Is learning to be careful, cooperative, and fair.
  16. Is continuing to grow in independence.
  17. Enthusiastic about participating.
  18. Gaining more self-confidence.
  19. Has a pleasant personality.
  20. Has earned a very fine report card.
  21. Has improved steadily.
  22. Is learning to listen to directions more carefully.
  23. Now accepts responsiblity well.
  24. _____’s work habits are improving.
  25. Has been consitently progressing.
  26. Has shown a good attitude about trying to improve in ___.
  27. The following suggestions might improve his ____.
  28. I am hoping this recent interest and improvement will continue.
  29. Seems eager to improve.
  30. Has shown strong growth in ____.
  31. Is cooperative and happy.
  32. Volunteers often.
  33. Is willing to take part in all classroom activities.
  34. Works well with her neighbors.
  35. _____’s attitude toward school is excellent.
  36. Has the ability to follow directions.
  37. Hand work is beautifully done.
  38. Learns new vocabulary quickly.
  39. Has a sense of humor and enjoys the stories we read.
  40. Is a steadfast, conscientious worker.
  41. Is very helpful about clean-up work around the room.
  42. Anxious to please.
  43. Brings fine contributions.
  44. Has a pleasant disposition.
  45. Works well.
  46. Is hard-working.
  47. Is pleasant and friendly.
  48. Needs to increase speed and comprehension in reading.
  49. Needs to apply skills to all written work.
  50. Gets along well with other children.
  51. Your constant cooperation and help are appreciated.
  52. Has shown an encouraging desire to better herself in ___.
  53. Making steady progress academically.
  54. Quality of work is improving.
  55. Responds well.
  56. Is maintaining grade-level achievements.
  57. Works well in groups, planning and carrying out activities.
  58. Seems to be more aware of activities in the classroom.
  59. Takes an active part in discussions pertinent to ___.
  60. Accepts responsiblity.
  61. Extremely conscientious.
  62. Bubbles over with enthusiasm.
  63. Has a sense of humor we all enjoy.
  64. Has an excellent attitude.
  65. Work in the areas of ____ has been extremely good.
  66. Is an enthusiastic worker during the ____ period.
  67. Needs to work democratically with others in groups.
  68. Possible for ___ to exceed grade expectations.
  69. Grasps new ideas readily.
  70. Needs to develop a better sense of responsiblity.
  71. Enthusiasitic about work in general.
  72. Performs well in everthing he undertakes.
  73. Unusually mature.
  74. Seeks information.
  75. Mature vocabulary.
  76. Doing strong work in all areas.
  77. Is a clear thinker.
  78. Excels in writing original stories and poems.
  79. Is a good student who appears to be a deep thinker.
  80. Reads extensively.
  81. Has good organization of thoughts.
  82. Has a vast background knowledge of ___.
  83. Is a very fine and serious student and excels in ___.
  84. Rate of achievement makes it difficult for ___ to keep up with the class.
  85. Must improve work habits if ___ is to gain the fundamentals needed for ___ grade work.
  86. _____’s academic success leaves much to be desired.
  87. Handwriting needs to be improved.
  88. Cooperative, well mannered.
  89. Is a very happy, well-adjusted child, but ___.
  90. Makes friends quickly and is well liked by classmates.
  91. Cries easily.
  92. Good worker and attentive listener.
  93. Good adjustment.
  94. Good attitude.
  95. Capable of achieving a higher average in areas of ____.
  96. Has difficulty retaining process of addition, etc.
  97. Is inconsistent in his efforts, especially in ___.
  98. Sacrificing accuracy for unnecessary speed in his written work.
  99. Needs to listen to directions.
  100. Never completes assignments in the allotted time.
  101. Fails to finish independent assignments.
  102. Would improve if he developed a greater interest in ___.
  103. Comprehends well, but needs to work more quickly.
  104. Needs to be urged.
  105. Can follow directions.
  106. Enjoys listening to poetry.
  107. Enjoys listening to stories.
  108. Listens carefully.
  109. Evaluates what he/she hears
  110. Phonics – (is able to distinguish, has difficulty distinguishing) sounds in words
  111. Now knows and is able to use _____ consonant and vowel sounds
  112. Confuses the sounds ___ and ___
  113. Is able to blend short words using the vowel(s) _____ with /without assistance
  114. Is learning to attack words independently
  115. Uses the phonics skills to attack new words
  116. Reading is (smooth, jerky, hesitant, rapid, irregular, or fluent)
  117. Comprehends what he/she reads
  118. Is interested in books and reading
  119. Can read to follow directions
  120. Can now recognize ____ sight words
  121. Reads for pleasure
  122. Needs lots of repetition and practice in order to retain reading vocabulary
  123. Is still confusing words which look alike
  124. Is beginning to read words in groups (phrases)
  125. Reading is becoming (not yet becoming) automatic
  126. Enjoys discussing the stories
  127. Has had difficulty with learning ______ so in the coming term we will focus on ______.
  128. Speaks in good sentences
  129. Speaks clearly
  130. Has difficulty using (pronouns, verbs) correctly
  131. Enjoys dramatization
  132. Enjoys participation in conversation and discussion
  133. Expresses ideas clearly
  134. Has a good oral vocabulary
  135. Takes turns talking
  136. Speaks with confidence to the group
  137. Uses punctuation correctly
  138. Is able to place periods and question marks correctly
  139. Uses colorful words
  140. Uses (complex, simple) sentences
  141. Is now able to write a complete sentence independently
  142. Participates in group story telling (composition)
  143. Can write an original story of (one or two sentences, of a few sentences)
  144. Puts words in the appropriate order
  145. Is able to read his sentences back
  146. Shows self confidence in writing
  147. Can compose several related sentences
  148. Is building a good spelling vocabulary
  149. Uses his individual dictionary to find unfamiliar words
  150. Enjoys learning to spell new words
  151. Is able to learn to spell words easily
  152. Sometimes reverses letters in a word
  153. Has difficulty remembering the spelling of non-phonetic words
  154. Is helped by using hand or body motions to remember spelling
  155. When printing, often reverses letters, such as __, __, etc.
  156. Has good (poor) fine-motor skills
  157. Is able to print on the lines
  158. Spaces letters and words correctly
  159. Some printing is excellent but is often untidy in daily assignments
  160. Enjoys doing neat careful work
  161. Can work with numbers up to ___ with understanding
  162. Understands the signs +, -, = and uses them to make number statements
  163. Understands and uses basic facts of addition and subtraction to ____
  164. Reverses some numbers still
  165. Understands place value up to _____
  166. Can use manipulatives to add and subtract
  167. Can use manipulatives to show place value to _____
  168. Understands money (pennies, dimes, nickels)
  169. Relies heavily on concrete objects
  170. Knows the basic shapes
  171. Can count to ______
  172. Is able to create graphs using simple data
  173. Understands several methods of graphing
  174. Is beginning to memorize the number facts
  175. Is friendly and cooperative
  176. Cooperates well
  177. Helps others
  178. Has a sense of humor
  179. Has a good attitude towards school
  180. Is working well in all subjects
  181. Lacks independence / Is gaining independence
  182. Is too easily distracted
  183. Is becoming more self-reliant
  184. Is an attentive student
  185. All work is neatly and accurately done
  186. Is a polite conscientious pupil
  187. Is working above grade level in _________.
  188. Works too slowly
  189. Does not complete assignments in the allotted time
  190. Seems unable to finish required work
  191. Does colorful and interesting art work
  192. Is especially good at ______
  193. Requires too much supervision.
  194. Please encourage him to do things on his own.
  195. Should be encouraged to _____
  196. Needs frequent encouragement
  197. Is maturing
  198. Is learning to concentrate
  199. Is learning to listen carefully
  200. Is gaining self-confidence
  201. Often completes work early
  202. Is very thoughtful
  203. Takes pride in work well done
  204. Is eager to learn
  205. Makes little effort when not under direct supervision
  206. Often seems tired at school
  207. Is not very appreciative of the value of ( time, courtesy, sharing, neatness, accuracy)
  208. Shows initiative; thinks things through for himself/herself
  209. If a child is having difficulty – say so! Say what you have tried already to help him/her, and what you are going to do differently in the term to come to help the child.
  210. Never say the child is having problems without giving a possible solution you are going to try and what has already been tried.
  211. This shows you are doing everything in your power to change the situation.
  212. _____ has matured nicely this year, academically and socially.
  213. He/She assumes responsibility well and has a find attitude.
  214. He/She still needs strengthening in the concept of long division.
  215. Thanks for the help I know you have given her.
  216. There has been a noticeable improvement in _____’s study habits this reporting period, which is very encouraging.
  217. Please continue during the summer with ___________ review and as many reading experiences as possible.
  218. ___________ would benefit from reading many library books this summer.
  219. He needs to improve his reading speed and comprehension if he is to have success in the ________ grade.
  220. If ___________ will put forth in the future the effort he has shown in the past two reporting periods, he will receive a great deal from his schooling.
  221. With __________’s ability to apply herself to each task, she should receive much satisfaction from her school experiences.
  222. _____________ continued to blossom as the year progressed.
  223. _______________’s oral reading is very expressive and her oral reporting is excellent.
  224. Thank you for your interest in _____________’s attitude.
  225. Although he has had some difficulty adjusting to our room and various duties, he usually tries to cooperate.
  226. _____________ has had some problems adjusting to our room, as you know from my reports to you.
  227. Many of her difficulties occur on the playground and she then carries a poor attitude in the classroom.
  228. This hurts her academically.
  229. She is capable of much better work.
  230. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you this year.
  231. __________has made nice progress this reporting period.
  232. He is maturing nicely and I hope this continues.
  233. Although _____________’s growth in social maturity is continuing, it is not consistent.
  234. She still needs guidance and support from both you and me.
  235. Thanks for your cooperation.
  236. _____________ is a wonderful girl and I’m happy to have had her in my room.
  237. she has made many fine contributions to our class and is an inspiration to her classmates.
  238. With ____’s friendly, cooperative attitude, she will always be a pleasant addition to any class.
  239. I have enjoyed the association I have had _____________.
  240. His friendly, sincere way has made him a very popular member of the ___ grade.
  241. Regardless of how busy _________ is, he still has time to do something nice for someone. For this reason, he is one of the best-liked members of my class.
  242. I enjoyed having _____________ in my class.
  243. She is a sweet and cooperative child.
  244. _____________ is a pleasant, conscientious student.
  245. He is self-confident and has excellent manners.
  246. It has been a pleasure to have him in my class.
  247. I enjoyed having _____________ in my room.
  248. She assumes responsibility well, excels on the playground and is well liked by her peers.
  249. She’s helped to make my year a pleasant one.
  250. She is a big help in seeing that our room looks clean and pleasant.
  251. She has been most cooperative and only needs strengthening in social studies skills to bring her up to ____ grade level.
  252. ___________ is a fine citizen and takes a keen interest in school.
  253. I hope you enjoy your new home!
  254. __________ takes a keen interest in all work and is most agreeable and a willing worker. It has been wonderful having her in my room.
  255. Exhibits excellent attitude
  256. Possesses good self discipline
  257. Respectful of others
  258. Works independently on assignments
  259. Exhibits creativity
  260. Does good work
  261. Always cooperative
  262. Classroom attitude shows improvement
  263. Pleasant student to work with
  264. Quality of work has improved
  265. Hard worker
  266. Participates well in class
  267. A pleasure to have around
  268. Experiences difficulty following directions-when unsure needs to ask for questions
  269. Needs to actively participate in classroom discussion
  270. Needs better study skills
  271. Requires incentives
  272. Low quiz/test scores
  273. Assignments/Homework incomplete/late
  274. Needs to pay attention in class
  275. Disruptive in class
  276. Needs to improve classroom attitude
  277. Excessive tardiness
  278. Excessive absences
  279. Failure to turn in make up work
  280. A conference is requested
  281. This subject modified/ leveled according to ability
  282. Does not work up to his/her ability
  283. Student will be retained in current grade next year. Please contact the school to arrange a conference.
  284. Subject has been taught but no grade issued
  285. Makes careless errors
  286. Difficulty understanding the material
  287. Does not know math facts well
  288. Interrupts others
  289. Gets upset easily
  290. Work is not neat
  291. Disorganized
  292. Needs to proofread work
  293. Does not form letters correctly
  294. Assignments are not neat
  295. Excessive talking
  296. Needs to spend time on task
  297. Does not put enough time into assignment
  298. Needs to improve self discipline
  299. Needs to improve respect for others

6 Ways to Explore the Nighttime Sky With Your Kids

Are your kids curious about the night sky?

Do they stump you with questions like “How many stars are in the sky?” or “Why does the moon change?”

There are lots of fun ways your family can learn more about the night sky together, right from your own backyard or kitchen table.

In this article I’ll show you six easy ways to introduce your kids to astronomy and feed their fascination with space—no telescope required.

Discover six easy ways to introduce your kids to astronomy and feed their fascination with space—no telescope required.

Why Explore the Night Sky?

Take a few minutes after dark tonight to step outside with your kids and look up.

Keep looking…

Now, ask your children what they see.

Kids are naturally curious and the sky above us is full of amazing things that incite wonder: the stars, the moon, the planets and the vastness of it all.

Observe the sky several evenings in a row and your kids will notice that the sky looks different each night than it did the night before.

The moon may appear to be getting larger or smaller. The stars may seem brighter and more noticeable (or dimmer and harder to see). The sky itself may seem brighter or darker.

And, of course, they’ll wonder why.

Take advantage of this curiosity and introduce your kids to the wonders of the cosmos.

kids looking at the starts

The night sky is full of wonders to explore with your family. Go outside and look up! Image source: iStockPhoto.

It’s easier than you may think to teach your kids about astronomy. You don’t need to invest hundreds of dollars in a telescope or know much about science yourself to have a great time exploring space together.

This video shows how one family learned about the night time sky together.

You’ll discover six fun ways—from books, to phone apps to even a tasty snack—to feed your kids’ fascination with the starry sky.

You Will Need

  • 1 bag of mini-marshmallows
  • Toothpicks
  • White pencil or crayon
  • Black construction paper
  • Constellation diagrams (link included below)
  • Moon chart (link included below)
  • Books from the book list (many can be found at your local library)
  • Apps for your phone (can be downloaded with links included below)
  • Optional: binoculars or a telescope for outdoor viewing

Preparation Time

Most of the activities take less than 15 minutes of prep time; some will need to be completed at night when the stars are out

Activity Time

30 minutes to 3 hours (depending on how many activities you choose to do)


  • Most activities can be completed at home or in your backyard
  • Optional visit to an observatory or planetarium—they can usually be found within an hour of most locations.

Here are six fun ways to learn about space with your kids. Choose one or two, or choose all six.

#1:  Read About the Moon and Stars

Story time is a great way to introduce children to new topics or expand their current knowledge.

My kids always like to learn new words they can impress me with and reading together is one of the best ways to do this. Astronomy has a whole vocabulary of its own they can show off!

There are many wonderful books you can read together about the moon, stars and other things you see in the sky. Check some of these out next time you’re at the library or bookstore.

These books can answer a lot of your kids’ questions so you don’t have to. They’ll explain that a constellation is a group of stars that make an imaginary picture in the night sky. Kids will also learn that the moon doesn’t ‘change’ its shape, why some stars look brighter than others, and how a star shines.

Your children may beg for another trip to the library soon, to get more astronomy books!

#2: Create Your Own Constellations

After learning about the stories and pictures behind the constellations, surprise your kids with this fun (and yummy) project.

constellation supplies

Make your own models of the constellations from toothpicks and marshmallows.

Step 1: Choose your favorite constellation. Your kids’ favorite may be one that they can easily see in the sky or a myth or animal they like. We chose Orion, the hunter. His belt of three stars in a row is simple to find from where we live.

constellation orion

Choose a constellation you like. Draw it on black paper.

Step 2: Draw the constellation on black paper using a white pencil or crayon. Use constellation pictures from the books you read or from a constellation web-site as a template.

building a constellation

Build a model of the constellation using marshmallows and toothpicks.

Step 3: Construct the constellation using mini-marshmallows for the stars and toothpicks for the imaginary connecting lines.

marshmallow constellation

Marshmallow constellations—a fun and tasty way to learn about the stars.

This project is lots of yummy fun and it helps teach kids what to look for when they peer into the night sky at the actual stars.

#3: Track the Size of the Moon

Your family will love this activity as you head outside to search for the moon each night.

Print out a calendar page to use for this activity from Science NetLinks.

moon phases calendar

Print this calendar to keep track of the phases of the moon for a month. Image source:

Each evening or early morning, go outside with your children and find the moon. Sometimes you can locate it by looking out the window, but it’s best to head outside.

looking at the moon

Go outside and find the moon. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Draw the shape of the moon on the calendar square for that day. After a few days, they will notice that the shape of the moon is changing.

A ‘waxing’ moon is one that appears to be growing larger and a ‘waning’ moon is one that appears to be getting smaller.

lunar cycle

Track the moon every night for a month to see every phase of the lunar cycle. Image source:

You can also track the moon’s phases using apps on your phone. Download Moon Phases for the iPhone and iPad apps or Moon Phases Lite for Android.

Tracking the moon for a month will illustrate and reinforce one entire lunar cycle, bringing a concept that may be hard to grasp a little closer to home.

#4: Head Outside and Locate Constellations

On a clear evening, spend some time outside looking at the stars together. It’s a fun activity to do after a hike or a picnic dinner and it’s just as fun to simply turn off the TV or computer and step outside for awhile—no planning required!

watching the stars

Go outside and watch the stars come out.

We’ve had the best luck with seeing constellations and even some viewable planets by heading to a local park and away from the streetlights.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a large state or national park, they are optimal places for viewing the stars, as they have limited light pollution coming from artificial lighting.

Some stars have names. Others are actually planets. Occasionally you can even see the international space station zooming past.

You can print a map of the stars in the sky where you live (to the nearest city).

Get a map of the sky wherever you live. Image Source:

For a mobile approach, these apps will help you identify the constellations you can see in the night sky above you, right from your phone.

skyview app

Simply point your iPhone, iPad, or iPod at the sky to identify stars, constellations, planets, satellites, and more!

Try SkyView for iPhone, iPod or iPad.

With these apps, all you need to do is hold your phone up to the sky. Your phone or tablet’s camera will read the stars to identify the location of the sky above you. You’ll be able to see the constellations on the screen as you try to search for them in the sky directly above. It’s pretty cool.

star chart

Point your Android device at the sky and Star Chart will tell you exactly what you are looking at.

If you have an Android, you can use an app such as Star Chart.

Note: The sky map for your area will change with the seasons as the earth’s tilt shifts so make sure that you have the correct map for the current season or things will seem confusing. Sea & Sky has a complete list of constellations that can be viewed each month.

There are some wonderful celestial events that occur each year and many can be viewed with the naked eye. Kids will enjoy viewing the sky during these events:

For more information on using star maps and star wheels, see this video from Sky & Telescope.

#5: Visit a Planetarium or Observatory

Are your kids addicted to space yet? After reading about the moon and stars, tracking the lunar cycle, making models of the constellations, and going outside for some good old fashioned star gazing with a modern technological twist, they’re probably begging for a visit to your nearest planetarium or observatory.

Many cities have planetariums or observatories that are open for public viewings and shows.

Observatories are buildings that house very large and strong telescopes that allow people to view stars, galaxies and celestial bodies. Families will get a great introduction to the stars and planets by viewing them through high-powered telescopes.

inside observatory

Visit an observatory to see the stars up close through a powerful telescope. Image Source: Steve Jurvetson

We had a great time during our visit to a local observatory. The viewing included stars in other galaxies, three planets and some amazing constellations. Find an observatory near you.

inside planetarium

Check the show schedule for your closest planetarium and find the one that’s best for your kids’ ages. Our local planetarium has a wonderful ‘Sesame Street’ showing for young kids.

#6: Add some ‘Twinkle’ to Your Room

If your kids are like mine, once you start to learn about space together, they won’t want to stop. Here are a few ways to bring the stars right into your children’s bedrooms.

southern cross

Create glow-in-the-dark constellations for your kids’ rooms.

My kids loved creating glow-in-the-dark constellations using peel-and-stick star kits that can be found online. I would suggest that you make them on paper that can then be hung on the wall or ceiling of your child’s room. The light during the day energizes the stars so they’ll glow at night.

constellation toys

Fun toys that allow kids to explore the stars from their own bedrooms.

There are also several toys and projectors that will shine constellations on the ceiling of a dark room. They’re a fun way for your kids to explore constellations every night.

So read them a book about the stars as they’re going to bed. They’ll be able to see those very stars on their ceiling as they’re drifting off into pleasant dreams.

Some Final Thoughts

We love to go outside and look up at the nighttime sky. It’s a great way to spend some quiet time together, away from all the distractions indoors. I hope your family has fun exploring space and learning more about astronomy, too.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear about your astronomy adventures!  Please leave us a message or photo of fun ways you’ve explored ‘galaxies far, far away’ so we can all travel to the ends of the universe together!

How to Create a Comic Strip With Your Kids in 7 Easy Steps

Does your child love to draw or tell stories?

Do you want to share your kids’ masterpieces with the world (or at least with Grandma)?

In this article, I’ll make you a hero by empowering your kids to write, draw and publish your very own comic.

It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s lots of fun.

Comic strips for kids: here's an easy way to bring out the artist and storyteller in your kids, in seven easy steps.

Why Make a Comic Strip?

All children are artists.

They draw, play and use their incredible imaginations to create fantasy worlds and characters that are funny or powerful or really, really silly.

comic strip is a new way to channel their creativity—to capture it in pictures and words.

No doubt you have a refrigerator covered with various works by your child at this very moment.

art work on refrigerator

Does your refrigerator look like mine—covered with your kids’ art?

It’s only as we get older we convince ourselves that our art is “bad.”

When you teach your kids to make a comic strip, a medium where it’s ok for your art to look silly or imperfect or childish, you’ll nurture their creativity and imagination before it gets stamped out.

Creating comics may also help your children develop a love of reading and improve their handwriting, without them even realizing it.

In the video, you’ll see me create a professional comic from start to finish, compressed into about a minute.

I’ve simplified the comic-making process into seven kid-friendly steps that you can do together.

Have fun!

You Will Need:

  • Standard 8½” x 11″ copy paper
  • Pencils
  • Regular black pens
  • Sharpie Ultra Fine pens (Optional)
  • Ruler
  • Crayons
  • Stapler
  • Foam board 20″ x 30″ x 3″
  • X-ACTO knife
  • Large eraser
  • Wite-Out correction fluid
  • Scanner or camera phone
  • A Blogger account

Preparation Time:

10 minutes to cut out the foam border template

Activity Time:

30 minutes per comic to trace border, pencil, letter, ink and scan


At home

Here are seven steps to your kid’s next comic:

#1: Find Inspiration for Your Comic

The first step is to choose an overall theme for your comic. Who are the characters? What is the setting?

There are a couple of different ways to find inspiration:

First, find something your child is passionate about.

Do your kids love superheroes? Are they into ponies or fairies or monster trucks? Choose a subject or character that excites them and create a comic about that.

My daughter owns a bearded dragon lizard so she decided to make her comic about herself and her pet.

child and pet

Isabel and Fluffy: A favorite pet could inspire your child’s comic.

Second, you could also borrow the style of an existing work.

That’s okay!

Nearly every cartoonist has a story about their first comic being a knock-off of something that inspired them.

Do some research online to get ideasShow your kids a few family-friendly comics and see if anything sparks their interest.

Here are a few examples:

In Zorphbert and Fred, two aliens disguise themselves as dogs to live among humans. This comic is perfect for animal or alien lovers!

zorphbert and fred cartoon

Z&F brings classic cartoon silliness.

JL8 is the story of Superman, Batman and their friends as children attending elementary school. JL8 is my favorite choice for little superhero fans!

jl8 cartoon

What child wouldn’t want to be classmates with Superman?

Sheldon is a family tale of 10-year-old billionaire Sheldon who lives with his grandfather and a talking duck. Sheldon is another great choice for animal lovers. It has lots of jokes hidden inside for grownups!

sheldon cartoon

A wise-cracking duck and adventurous gecko will draw in any child!

Whether inspired by their reading or their own lives, the important thing is to choose characters and a topic that interest your kids and will stimulate their imagination and creativity.

#2: Sketch the Characters

Now that you know what you want your comic to be about, it’s time to sketch what the characters will look like, in both words and drawings.

Have the kids jot down notes about the characters they’ve imagined. One may be a grumpy old man, another may be a happy-go-lucky elf. Our comic featured my daughter as herself and a talking lizard with a sense of humor.

character sheet

Isabel works out how these two characters’ personalities will interact.

Next, draw pictures of your characters. The key is to create characters that look nothing like one another so they’re easily distinguishable on the page.

pet sketching

The inspiration for our comic was my daughter’s pet.

#3: Write the Story

Think about the overall story you want to tell with your comic series. Choose between a storyline or gag-a-day style.

storyline or story arc is like a comic book, with each comic strip in the series carrying over to the next and building an ongoing story. Vox in a Box is an example of a storyline-style comic.

storyline comic

A storyline comic continues the story over several days.

Gag-a-days are self-contained jokes that do not carry over to the next day’s or week’s strip. Vinnie the Vampire is a wonderful gag-a-day comic.

gag a day comic

Gag-a-day comics finish the story or joke in one day’s strip.

I recommend that you begin with gag-a-day. They’re easy and don’t require a long-winded story, just something funny!

Gag-a-day Comic Format:

Most gag-a-days are made up of three panels:

  • Introduction
  • Build-Up
  • Punchline

Here’s what my daughter, Isabel, came up with:

  • Panel One (Introduction): Isabel: “Hi there. This is my bearded dragon, Fluffy. But he’s not a real dragon!”
  • Panel Two (Build-Up): Isabel: “Real dragons have wings!” [Behind her Fluffy has grown wings.]
  • Panel Three (Punchline): Isabel: “And they breathe fire.” [Fluffy is melting a chair with fiery breath.]

After you write out the story, it’s time to create the comic strip.

#4: Make the Borders

First, create a border template so that all of your comics will be the same size and shape.

Use foam core board from an art store for your template.

Measure a 10″ x 5″ (25 x 12 cm) rectangle.

cutting border one

Measure a rectangle 10″ X 5″ (25 x 12 cm).

Use an X-ACTO knife to cut it out. [Caution: An adult should do the cutting.]

Then measure a half-inch (1 cm) inside the edges of your rectangle and cut out another rectangle 9½” X 4½” (24 x 11 cm).

cutting border two

Make a frame for your comic panel.

You’ll be left with a 1/2″ (1 cm) wide frame. This is your template.

Next, it’s time to draw the borders for your comic.

Place the template over a standard 8½” x 11″ (22 x 28 cm) piece of paper lengthwise and trace the inside border to create the panel.

tracing border

Trace the inside border onto a piece of paper.

#4: Do the Lettering

Lettering is the secret benefit to creating a comic by hand. Do your kids groan when you ask them to work on their handwriting? Can you recall a time when they rushed through their homework, leaving a penmanship mess?

When you make a comic together, the lettering gives your kids the important handwriting practice they need, but it’s fun!

child drawing with pet

Isabel got some penmanship practice. Fluffy supervised.

Here’s how to get started:

Start at the top of the panel you drew. With a ruler, lightly trace horizontal lines about a quarter-inch (.5 cm) apart. Be sure to use a pencil. These will be erased later.

Make a series of lines that cover the top third of your panel. You should end up with about eight lines in all.

tracing lines

Draw lines lightly. They will be erased later.

Now your son or daughter can begin to pencil in the words. Refer to the storyline you wrote earlier.

Have them shape the sentences so they make ellipses. You’ll draw word balloons around them later. (This may be difficult for younger kids to grasp. Don’t worry, you can reshape the words when you make the balloons. More writing practice!)

child lettering page

Write words in ellipses so that you can make word balloons around them.

You can have your kids use any type of lettering you want them to practice, but I recommend that you write in block letters (all caps) for clarity.

Proofread their words together and help them correct any spelling or grammatical errors.

When they’re done, praise your children on their excellent lettering work.

#5: Penciling

Now let’s see some art!

Have your kids draw the characters in pencil underneath the words they’re saying.


Anything goes in the pencil stage – have fun!

Encourage them to take chances and get crazy with the faces and expressions.

While your children are drawing the pictures for their comic, the dreaded “My art is terrible!” may rear its ugly head. To boost their confidence, pick one thing you really like about the comic and praise it. “I really like how Snail-Boy is falling backwards in panel three. It makes it a lot funnier!”

Remind them that these are cartoons. They’re supposed to be silly!

Next, draw word balloons around the letters. Be sure to include a “tail” going to the appropriate character.

word balloon 2

Have them draw the ellipse as best they can.

With a ruler draw two vertical lines separating each panel. The lines should be quarter inch (.5 cm) apart. The space in between them is called a “gutter.”

The key to every comic is clarity. If the reader can understand what’s happening, that’s a successful comic!

#6: Inking

Take the border template you made in the beginning and line it up over your penciled border.

Carefully trace the penciled border with a thin black Sharpie pen.

inking 1

Use long, sure strokes to keep the pen from “blotting.”

Be careful not to draw over the gutters you made between each panel.

inking with arrows

Gutters let each panel be a separate moment in time.

Next, your kids get to show their lettering skills once again when they carefully ink over the words they penciled earlier.

NoteMake final corrections before laying down the permanent ink! Review the dialogue and edit punctuation and grammar.

If necessary, change the layout of the sentences to fit into word balloons (see our example in the middle panel of the photo above).

After the letters are done, draw and ink the word balloons. Then your kids can begin to ink the characters, background and props that they drew earlier.

inking over pencil

Turn those pencil sketches into finished art!

Finish inking the entire comic.

If you or your kids make a mistake, don’t worry—they’re easy to fix. Use correction fluid, such as Wite-Out, to cover errors. Be sure to give it lots of time to dry before inking the area again.

correct mistakes

I prefer the correction fluid pens for accuracy.

Once everything is dry and complete, hold firm to one end of the paper and erase the pencil lines with a large eraser. Use a single “brush away” motion.

NoteNever erase toward where you’re holding the paper, you’ll crinkle it or worse, tear it!

Now your children’s comic is finished! Read it together and congratulate them on a job well done.

inking 3

Your child has just made a masterpiece!

To color or not to color.

I suggest that you keep the comic black and white. Children tire quickly of coloring multiple comics by hand.

Look at the comics page in a daily newspaper together and show them that most comics, like this one from Jabb, are done in black and white.

black and white comic

You can tell great jokes in black and white!

If your kids insist on adding color, give them some crayons or markers and some construction paper and ask them to make a colorful cover for your comic strips (see below).

#7: Publish Your Comic

Your kids have just made art. You need to share this masterpiece with grandmothers and Facebook friends!

Create a Digital File of Your Comic

The best option is to scan the comic as a black-and-white document.

Scanning Tips

  • If you intend to print the comic, scan at 300 dpi (dots per inch).
  • For web viewing, you only need to scan at 72 dpi for a clear image.
  • I generally save my comics at about 800 pixels wide.

If you don’t have a scanner, you can use a smartphone with a camera to convert your comic from paper to digitalTake a picture of the comic in a well-lit area and crop out everything but the comic itself.

Publish Your Comic to an Online Site

There are dozens of options for publishing your comic online. I use Blogger. It’s free and easy to use.

To create an account, just sign into Blogger using a Google account, pick a name such as and begin publishing right away.

publishing one

Setting up a Blogger account just takes a few clicks.

Upload the scan or photo of your comic to your new blog.

Make sure to include the title of the comic and then share it! Grandma will love it.

publishing two

The finished comic is ready to be seen by family and friends.

Create Another Comic (and another, and another)

Don’t stop at just one comic! Together, you and your kids created the template, developed a storyline, introduced some great characters and established an online site for publishing it.

Everything you need is already in place to make a whole series of comics, so keep it going.

Make a Comic Book

If you or your kids want to keep a physical copy of the comics you made, you can make a book. Have the children create a colorful cover for your book out of cardstock or construction paper. (For the cover, it’s ok to get out the crayons or markers!)


Isabel wanted an upbeat cover – High-fives with Fluffy!

Stack all the comics for your series in order and staple them into the cover. Now your kids can show their friends the amazing comics they made with the help of their equally amazing parents!

Some Final Thoughts

Creating a comic together with your kids is a lot of fun for everyone. It’s a great way to stimulate kids’ creativity and to get a peek into what they think about. There are some fantastic educational benefits as well.

Encourage your children to keep reading the online comics you showed them in Step #1 (finding inspiration). They may keep coming back to read more and become better readers just by doing something they enjoy.

child reading

Isabel reads for hours on her own – and it all started with comics!

Look for short novels that dovetail with the theme of the comics they’re reading. Did your kids like Zorphbert and Fred? They might enjoy a book about extraterrestrials such as My Teacher Is an Alien.

Writing is another benefit to making a comic. When they letter their comic by hand, your kids learn to write legibly with the intent to spell words right the first time!

What do you think? What kind of comic did your family create? I can’t wait to see what you and your kids create! Tell me about your comic (or better yet show me) in the box below.

How to Plan a Backyard Campout Adventure With Your Kids

Are your kids begging to go camping, but you just don’t have the time?

Want to expose them to the great outdoors without leaving home?

Pitch your tent, grab some marshmallows and have a fun family campout in your own backyard.

A backyard campout has all of the joys of camping without the cost or time spent traveling. It’s the perfect solution.

In this article I’ll show you how to have a fantastic, adventure-filled campout right in your own backyard.

Want to expose kids to the great outdoors without leaving home? Try a backyard campout. Pitch a tent, toast marshmallows and sleep outside for backyard fun.

Why Have a Backyard Campout?

A backyard campout is a quick and simple way to enjoy the fun of camping without some of the hassles. You can take your kids on an outdoor adventure with very little planning, and you never even have to pack the car.

Camping is a great way to bond as a family, talking and telling stories around a campfire. It helps teach kids the value of working together to pitch a tent or cook a meal (or a s’more). And it’s a great way to get kids outdoors, watching the clouds or the stars instead of videos; playing live games instead of video games.

If you’ve got reluctant or first-time campers in your family, a backyard campout is a great way to ease them into the experience and get them hooked so they’ll be eager to try camping somewhere else.

Pitch a tent, start a fire (whether real or make-believe) and prepare food together. Explore play games, sing songs and tell stories around the campfire. You’ll have a blast with your kids, and create fun camping memories that’ll last a lifetime.

We all need a break from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, as well as the electronic devices that keep us connected. Studies show that when you get out into nature, it helps reduce stress and keep us healthy. And if you don’t have the time or money for a family getaway, it’s easy to create a calm space in your own backyard.

To encourage families to connect through camping, the National Wildlife Federation created the Great American Backyard Campout. Every year, thousands of families pledge to camp out in their backyard through NWF. (This year it’s June 28, 2014.) If you don’t want to camp in your own backyard, partner with friends and family. Or camp at one of NWF’s public campout events.

great american campout

The National Wildlife Foundation emphasizes the importance of camping with the Great American Backyard Campout.

Backyard camping’s a wonderful summer adventure. Invite friends and neighbors to join you. You can even have a campout-themed birthday party.

celebration with cupcakes

Campout to celebrate the end of the school year, in honor of someone’s birthday or just for fun.

Camp out once a week or once a month. Every adventure can be different, but just as exciting!

You Will Need

Camping Equipment:

  • Tent
  • Tarp (ground cover)
  • Sleeping bags
  • Pillows
  • Matches (for parental use)
  • Firewood
  • Newspaper or other kindling
  • Flashlight

Food and Cooking:

  • Cooler with ice
  • Hotdogs, hotdog buns, relish, mustard, ketchup OR sandwiches
  • Chips & dips
  • Cut-up vegetables
  • Roasting sticks
  • Marshmallows
  • Chocolate
  • Graham crackers
  • Eggs OR cereal and milk
  • Granola bars
  • Drinking water
  • Additional food
  • Additional drinks

Games and Activities:

  • Stickers
  • Large bucket
  • Water hose
  • Cotton string
  • 2 wooden dowels, sticks or PVC
  • Paper and pen

Personal Items:

  • Sunscreen
  • Warm clothes
  • Bug spray
  • Soap
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush

Preparation Time

  • 1 hour shopping for and preparing food
  • 1 hour collecting your camping gear

Activity Time

  • 1-2 hours setting up your campsite
  • 8-12 hours playing camping games, finding sticks, telling stories and sleeping under the stars


Your backyard

A backyard campout is fun for the whole family. Unroll your sleeping bags and let’s have an adventure!

#1: Plan Your Campout

Start with a family meeting. Share the idea of going on a backyard campout, and get input from the rest of the family. Pick a day that works for everyone and talk about the different things you can do during your campout.

Want to expand your camping adventure? Call friends and family and invite them to join in. Once you have the day and number of campers, make a list of everything you’ll need.

Gather your camping gear: tent, tarp, sleeping bags, pillows, pajamas, sweatshirt, toothbrush and so on.

camping checklist

Make a list of everything you need and put everything together beforehand. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Identify cooking and campfire options: Do you have a built-in firepit in your yard, a firepit table or another place where you could safely build a fire in your backyard? Do you have a grill or camp stove?

backyard firepit

A backyard firepit or fire table is a perfect place for your backyard campfire.

If none of these are available, don’t worry! You can build a fake campfire like this one made of tissue paper. Or place several candles or flashlights (beam pointing up) together in the middle of a table or patio. Your fake campfire will be a nice centerpiece to tell stories around and get the full campout experience!

tissue paper fire

If you don’t have a space for a fire in your backyard, make a fake one.

Idea: If your family really loves backyard camping, you may want to build a backyard firepit. It’s a big job, but all the fun family nights spent around the fire will make it well worth it.

Plan your meals: If you’ve got a firepit, grill or camp stove, you can plan meals to cook outside. If you don’t have a fire, plan meals that don’t have to be cooked: sandwiches for dinner, a no-cook dessert and granola/cereal or muffins/bagels for breakfast.

Be sure to bring a large cooler with ice to your backyard campout, so your food stays fresh.

Before the campout, decide when it is and is not okay to go into the house. For example:

  • You can only go in the house to use the bathroom.
  • If you don’t have a cooler, you can only go inside to take food that is already prepped for camping and sitting in the fridge.
  • You can’t go in the house to replace something you forgot. If you forget to pack something (unless it’s something like a sweater and you’re really cold), you’ll have to make do.
  • We’re camping—no electronics allowed. (That goes for you, too, parents!)

If you have older kids, give them different tasks: planning games, looking up song lyrics, deciding the menu and gathering gear. Young ones can team up with a sibling or a parent. Or do all tasks as a family.

Get everyone excited from the planning phase, and you’re sure to have a wonderful camping adventure.

#2: Set Up Camp

Look around your backyard for the perfect campsite. It should be flat, free of rocks or sticks, open and easy to make camp. Clean it up if necessary.

Lay a tarp on the ground. This will help keep the tent bottom dry and clean.

Then open up your tent and set it up. Don’t forget to stake it to the ground. Older kids love to hammer the stakes into the ground!

Always take off your shoes before going inside your tent. This will keep your tent nice and clean.

Roll out the sleeping bags and set up your pillows.

boy in tent

Set up your backyard campsite.

Now it’s time to build a fire. Remember, if you don’t have a firepit or safe place to build a fire, you can craft a make believe fire. If you don’t have any dry wood or sticks in your backyard, you may need to purchase some wood when you go shopping or find some scrap lumber, cut into short (1-2 foot [30-60cm]) lengths. (Don’t use plywood or other chemically treated wood. The fumes are toxic.)

Building a fire’s a great team-building exercise. Allow little kids to try their hand at lifting woodlet the older kids show the younger ones how to build a pyramid with the wood. Everybody can stuff newspaper in the center of the pyramid to help start the fire.

tabletop campfire

Everyone can help put together the campfire.

Once the fire setup is complete, adults take over and light the fire or an older kid can do so under adult supervision.

In the case of a fake fire, turn on the flashlight or electronic tealight in the middle of your staged fire.

#3: Play Games

There are plenty of campout.

kids playing in dirt

Games are a must for any camping adventure. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Mosquito Bite’s fun to play before dinner. Give everybody 12 stickers. The stickers can be any shape or size. Just use what you have around the house.

Once the cooking starts, so does the game. The idea is to get rid of all of your stickers without anybody knowing. You have to be sneaky because if somebody catches you biting them then they get to put that sticker back on your sheet, plus one more. The winner is the first one to get rid of all of their stickers.

More Campout Games

Telephone Game: Player #1 whispers something in the next person’s ear. They pass it along to the next person and so on until the phrase get back to the first player. See if it’s the same whisper when it gets back to player #1.

Simon Says: One person plays Simon. “Simon says” the other players need to do certain things. The players are supposed to follow along, unless a command is given that isn’t preceded by the words “Simon says.” If you do something that Simon didn’t say, you’re out. Winner plays Simon in the next round.

Truth or Dare: People ask each other if they would like to tell the truth or would they like a dare. The player must choose between truth or dare before they know the question or the dare. If they pick truth, they must tell the truth; if they pick dare, they must act out the dare or they are out.

Don’t Blink (a.k.a. Staring Contest): Two players sit facing each other and stare into each other’s eyes for as long as they can without blinking or laughing. The first one to blink or laugh is out. Everyone needs to play until the Don’t Blink champion is crowned.

Name That Tune: One player sings or hums a tune. Everybody else tries to guess the name of the song. The person who guesses right is the next one to sing or hum a tune.

Sing Row Row Row Your Boat in the Round: One person starts off the song and everybody catches on singing in the round. Go faster and faster and see who can keep up. This isn’t really a game, but it sure is fun!

Plan out your games before your backyard adventure begins. Assign one or two people as the game director(s). They’ll prepare any props or toys you need for your games and will lead campers in the fun.

#4: Cook Your Campfire Dinner

Time for dinner! If you’re not cooking, lay out the sandwiches and other items and enjoy a picnic near the tent.

If you are cooking, put the hot dogs on your roasting sticks and hold them over the fire.

If you have young children, let them put the dogs on the ends of the sticks, while someone helps them cook. They can help set up the hot dog buns on the plates too. This is also a great time to break out the chips and dips.

roasting hot dogs

Roast a hot dog over an open fire or prepare a no-cook dinner. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Not into hot dogs? Try a tinfoil dinner. There are lots of options for cooked and no-cook campfire dinners.

#5: Do Fun Camp Activities

After dinner while it’s still light out, try some fun outdoor activities. Have a photo scavenger hunt, go on a nature hike through your neighborhood or collect rocks for a rock garden.

Or have a bubble-making contest and see who can make the biggest bubble. Here’s an easy way to make the biggest bubbles you’ve ever seen:

Pour 1 cup of soap into a large bucket. Fill it with about 3 inches of water. Mix it a little using your hand.

These are just approximate measurements. You’ll have to test out your soap mix to find the perfect blend.

You may want to add corn syrup, which helps keep the bubbles together. Plus, humidity changes the ratio: you will need more soap if it’s humid, less if it’s dry.

Take two PVC or wood dowels and tie a 6′ ½” [2 m] piece of cotton string between them. The string should be 2 feet [60 cm] across the top and 4 feet [1.2 m] hanging in a loop on the bottom.

The knots should be at the top, around the sticks. The middle of the center loop should be completely free from knots. You can also purchase pre-made bubble wands, but it’s more fun to make one yourself.

making big bubble

Everyone loves to blow bubbles. The bigger the bubble, the better.

Dip the sticks and string in the bubble mix with the two sticks touching. Then slowly open the sticks and move backwards to make your bubble. The slower you open and move, the bigger your bubble will be.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone loves to make bubbles. Especially these giant ones!

#6: Make Shadow Puppets

As the sun goes down, look up at the clouds in the sky. Decide what shapes and creatures you see. Usually when a bunch of people look at the same cloud, they all see something different.

When it gets really dark, move inside the tent. Take your flashlight< and shine it on the tent wall and make shadow puppets. Using your fingers, make shadows and have everybody around the campfire name the animal or letter you made.

shadow puppet

Make shadow puppets when it starts getting dark. Image source: iStockPhoto.

To add some extra fun, tell stories about each shadow puppet. Everyone can have a turn making up stories. Or do an add-a-line story, where you go in a circle and everyone adds the next line of the story. The story can be silly, scary or both.

#7: Enjoy Campfire Dessert

Playtime was so much fun. It’s time for a sweet treat.

If you don’t have an actual campfire, make s’mores brownies ahead of time. If you do have a campfire, make s’mores. It’s a campout tradition, even when you’re camping in the backyard.

Take out the graham crackers and stack them in sets of two. Place a square of chocolate in the middle of each set, and set aside. Roast the marshmallows until they’re hot, but not on fire. It should look like it’s ready to melt off the stick.

roasting marshmallow

Roast marshmallows and place them inside the graham crackers along with the chocolate to make s’mores.

Place the hot marshmallow on top of the chocolate and cap it off with the second graham cracker on top. Sweet perfection!

child eating smores

S’mores made over a backyard fire pit are just as delicious as the ones from a campfire in the woods. Image source: iStockPhoto.

While you’re enjoying your delicious treat, tell stories, sing songs or play games like Name That Tune, Truth or Dare or the Telephone Game.

#8: Sleep Under the Stars

Get ready for bed: wash up, brush your teeth and put on sleep clothes.

Then snuggle up in your sleeping bags in your tent. This is a campout, so there may or may not be a lot of sleep involved—it’s just too exciting!

This is another opportunity for family bonding. Talk about your day and have everyone share their favorite campout activity.

family in tent

Snuggle up in your tent and enjoy sleeping outside—in your backyard. Image source: iStockPhoto.

You can also play the listening game. Close your eyes and take turns listening to all of the cool and interesting nighttime sounds. This may actually lull the little ones to sleep.

#9: Make a Campout Breakfast

Rise and shine. Before you conclude your campout, have one last outdoor meal.

Those cooking can make an omelet in a bag or another easy campfire breakfast.

making omelet

Cap off your campout with a yummy breakfast.

If you need a no-cook option, make no-bake granola bars ahead of time. Or just enjoy a bowl of cereal outside.

Before you pack up and go inside, take a few minutes to reflect on your experience. Grownups and older kids can write down a favorite camping memory. Young ones can draw a pictureSave all of your camping stories in a camping journal that you add to on future campouts.

Some Final Thoughts

Camping with your family will provide years of wonderful memories. But it’s so much more than that. The tasks your kids perform when planning and enjoying a camping trip will provide them with skills they’ll use throughout their lives. Teamwork, communication and bonding are just a small part of that.

Whether you camp in your backyard or head out to the wilderness, and whether you camp every week or just once a year, you’re bound to have lots of fun!

What do you think? Have you ever done backyard camping? What was your favorite part? Do you have any special treats you like to eat while camping? Are you planning to sign up for the NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout? We’d love to hear about your backyard campout experiences. Leave a message or picture in the comments below.

How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education

Matthew Carpenter, age 10, has completed 642 inverse trigonometry problems at
Photo: Joe Pugliese

“This,” says Matthew Carpenter, “is my favorite exercise.” I peer over his shoulder at his laptop screen to see the math problem the fifth grader is pondering. It’s an inverse trigonometric function: cos-1(1) = ?

Carpenter, a serious-faced 10-year-old wearing a gray T-shirt and an impressive black digital watch, pauses for a second, fidgets, then clicks on “0 degrees.” Presto: The computer tells him that he’s correct. The software then generates another problem, followed by another, and yet another, until he’s nailed 10 in a row in just a few minutes. All told, he’s done an insane 642 inverse trig problems. “It took a while for me to get it,” he admits sheepishly.

Carpenter, who attends Santa Rita Elementary, a public school in Los Altos, California, shouldn’t be doing work anywhere near this advanced. In fact, when I visited his class this spring—in a sun-drenched room festooned with a papercraft X-wing fighter and student paintings of trees—the kids were supposed to be learning basic fractions, decimals, and percentages. As his teacher, Kami Thordarson, explains, students don’t normally tackle inverse trig until high school, and sometimes not even then.

But last November, Thordarson began using Khan Academy in her class. Khan Academy is an educational website that, as its tagline puts it, aims to let anyone “learn almost anything—for free.” Students, or anyone interested enough to surf by, can watch some 2,400 videos in which the site’s founder, Salman Khan, chattily discusses principles of math, science, and economics (with a smattering of social science topics thrown in). The videos are decidedly lo-fi, even crude: Generally seven to 14 minutes long, they consist of a voice-over by Khan describing a mathematical concept or explaining how to solve a problem while his hand-scribbled formulas and diagrams appear onscreen. Like the Wizard of Oz, Khan never steps from behind the curtain to appear in a video himself; it’s just Khan’s voice and some scrawly equations. In addition to these videos, the website offers software that generates practice problems and rewards good performance with videogame-like badges—for answering a “streak” of questions correctly, say, or mastering a series of algebra levels. (Carpenter has acquired 52 Earth badges in math, which require hours of toil to attain and at which his classmates gaze with envy and awe.)

Initially, Thordarson thought Khan Academy would merely be a helpful supplement to her normal instruction. But it quickly become far more than that. She’s now on her way to “flipping” the way her class works. This involves replacing some of her lectures with Khan’s videos, which students can watch at home. Then, in class, they focus on working problem sets. The idea is to invert the normal rhythms of school, so that lectures are viewed on the kids’ own time and homework is done at school. It sounds weird, Thordarson admits, but this flipping makes sense when you think about it. It’s when they’re doing homework that students are really grappling with a subject and are most likely to need someone to talk to. And now Thordarson can tell just when this grappling occurs: Khan Academy provides teachers with a dashboard application that lets her see the instant a student gets stuck.

“I’m able to give specific, pinpointed help when needed,” she says.

The result is that Thordarson’s students move at their own pace. Those who are struggling get surgically targeted guidance, while advanced kids like Carpenter rocket far ahead; once they’re answering questions without making mistakes, Khan’s site automatically recommends new topics to move on to. Over half the class is now tackling subjects like algebra and geometric formulas. And even the less precocious kids are improving: Only 3 percent of her students were classified as average or lower in end-of-year tests, down from 13 percent at midyear.

For years, teachers like Thordarson have complained about the frustrations of teaching to the “middle” of the class. They stand at the whiteboard, trying to get 25 or more students to learn the same stuff at the same pace. And, of course, it never really works: Advanced kids get bored and tune out, lagging ones get lost and tune out, and pretty soon half the class isn’t paying attention. Since the rise of personal computers in the early ’80s, educators have hoped that technology could solve this problem by offering lessons tailored to each kid. Schools have blown millions, maybe billions, of dollars on sophisticated classroom technology, but the effort has been in vain.

Khan’s videos are anything but sophisticated. He recorded many of them in a closet at home, his voice sounding muffled on his $25 Logitech headset. But some of his fans believe that Khan has stumbled onto the secret to solving education’s middle-of-the-class mediocrity. Most notable among them is Bill Gates, whose foundation has invested $1.5 million in Khan’s site. “I’d been looking for something like this—it’s so important,” Gates says. Khan’s approach, he argues, shows that education can truly be customized, with each student getting individualized help when needed.

Not everyone agrees. Critics argue that Khan’s videos and software encourage uncreative, repetitive drilling—and leave kids staring at screens instead of interacting with real live teachers. Even Khan will acknowledge that he’s not an educational professional; he’s just a nerd who improvised a cool way to teach people things. And for better or worse, this means that he doesn’t have a consistent, comprehensive plan for overhauling school curricula.

Whatever Khan’s limits, his site has become extremely popular. More than 2 million users watch his videos every month, and all told they answer about 15 questions per second. Khan is clearly helping students master difficult and vital subjects. And he’s not alone: From TED talks to iTunes U to Bill Hammack the Engineer Guy, new online educational tools are bringing the ethos of Silicon Valley to education. The role these sites can (or should) play in our nation’s schools is unclear. But classes like Thordarson’s are starting to find out.

Teachers have long known that one-on-one tutoring is effective, but in 1984, the education scholar Benjamin Bloom figured out precisely how effective it is. He conducted a metastudy of research on students who’d been pulled out of class and given individual instruction. What Bloom found is that students given one-on-one attention reliably perform two standard deviations better than their peers who stay in a regular classroom. How much of an improvement is that? Enough that a student in the middle of the pack will vault into the 98th percentile. Bloom’s findings caused a stir in education, but ultimately they didn’t significantly change the basic structure of the classroom. One-on-one instruction, after all, is insanely expensive. What country can afford one teacher per student?

“We’ve always known that one-on-one is the best way to learn, but we’ve never been able to figure out how to do it,” Khan explains when we first meet at his small, four-room office in downtown Mountain View, California. A hoodie-clad 34-year-old with big brown eyes and a mass of jet-black hair, Khan leans back in his chair as he talks, cracking a steady stream of jokes. He has a kinetic sort of wit; he’s like a nerdy, South Asian-American Seinfeld, except for the occasional “y’all” that punctuates his speech, a vestige of a youth spent in New Orleans. His desk is made out of old telephone poles and is scattered with books on investing, physics, and heart disease—subjects for upcoming videos. Khan keeps up a breakneck pace of productivity: He has recorded every one of the videos on the site himself and produces up to eight new ones each workday. His offerings run from the straightforward—science and math topics like “Pythagorean Theorem 2,” “Dirac Delta Function,” and “Why Gravity Gets So Strong Near Dense Objects”—to the quirky, including a series of muckraking analyses of the Geithner bank bailouts. It helps that he has a ton of formal schooling, including three degrees from MIT (a BS in math and a BS and MS in computer science) as well as a Harvard MBA. But he also frequently goes outside his areas of expertise, hitting Wikipedia, the web, his personal library, and his long list of brainy friends to bone up on new topics until he feels competent. His office contains several Idiot’s Guide to … books.

Khan never intended to become an education revolutionary. Talented at math in high school, he initially hoped to be a Richard Feynman-style theoretical physicist, before realizing he was far more likely to make his mark in computers. After finishing at MIT and working for a few Silicon Valley dotcoms, he headed to Harvard Business School in 2001, where he claims his main motivation was to get married. (“I’m dead serious,” he says. “Silicon Valley in the late ’90s was the absolute worst place to find a wife or a girlfriend.” He found one and married her—a med student who’s now a doctor in Mountain View.)

After business school, Khan went to work for Wohl Capital, a hedge fund, where he researched companies to find solid investments. At Wohl, he learned how to quickly orient himself in unfamiliar territory. (He also amassed an epic store of mental trivia. While we’re having lunch, he casually mentions how many eggs the average chicken lays in a year: “It’s 260!”) Dan Wohl, his boss, discovered that Khan seemed unusually driven to teach. “I’d come back to the office,” Wohl says, “and giant math equations were scrawled across the board.” Khan was training the junior staff in the nuances of finance. “It’s not the usual cutthroat Wall Street thing to do,” Wohl adds. “But he had this natural gift and a really selfless approach.”

Then, in 2004, Khan’s 13-year-old cousin Nadia, who lived across the country, asked him for help in math. Khan agreed to tutor her on the phone. To illustrate the mathematical concepts he was describing, they’d log into Yahoo Messenger and Khan would use the program’s drawing window to write equations while she watched remotely. When they couldn’t meet, he’d just record a lesson as a video, talking through the material while writing in Microsoft Paint.

One day Nadia told him she didn’t want to talk on the phone anymore; she wanted him to just record videos. Why? Because that way she could review the video as many times as she wanted, scrolling back several times over puzzling parts and fast-forwarding through the boring bits she already knew. “She basically said, ‘I like you better on the video than in person,’” Khan says.

A lightbulb went off: Khan realized that remediation—going over and over something that you really ought to already know—is less embarrassing when you can do it privately, with no one watching. Nadia learned faster when she had control over the pace of the lecture. “The worst time to learn something,” he says, “is when someone is standing over your shoulder going, ‘Do you get it?’”

He also discovered that the state of math education in the country was pretty awful. He began tutoring several other cousins (word had gotten around the family: free lessons!), and he was disturbed to find that their grasp of the basics was shaky. Even on simple division questions, they answered tentatively and slowly. Khan wanted to get the kids to the point where they could confidently bark back these answers—they had to have this kind of automatic mental processing before they could handle more-advanced material.

What his cousins needed, he decided, was drilling. He programmed Java modules that would fire questions at them automatically. If they got 10 questions right in a row, the software would push them to the next level, which had harder problems. (As a bonus, he could peek at the database online to make sure they were actually doing the practice.) Though Khan didn’t know the academic terminology at the time, he was implementing classic “mastery-based learning”—requiring students to prove they’ve conquered material before advancing.

Word soon spread to the rest of the world. Khan discovered that thousands of people were watching his videos on YouTube. Some were students mystified by physics, others were adults brushing up on basics before relaunching a stalled college degree. Khan gradually became more and more absorbed in his site, staying up past midnight crafting new videos and software lessons. Email messages poured in from fans, startling him with their intensity.

“You made me realize that anyone can learn the material when it is presented in the right way,” wrote Tom Brannan, a 19-year-old about to enter a Pennsylvania college. After dropping to a C in math, Brannan learned enough from Khan to ace his last few high school tests and now plans to pursue a degree in computer science. “I had been struggling with the unit circle, essentially trying to learn it out of the textbook,” Brannan wrote. “I watched your videos and it all clicked.”

In 2009, Khan decided to turn his hobby into a full-time job. He formed a nonprofit and got a small donation from Ann Doerr, wife of Silicon Valley investor John Doerr. Demand had taken off; now tens of thousands of people were watching his videos every month. Khan quickly got to work recording more clips in his closet.

Then, last summer, he received a text from Doerr, who was attending the Aspen Ideas Festival: “Bill Gates is talking about your stuff onstage.” Khan dialed up the online video from Aspen and watched Gates, whom he’d never met, singing his praises; indeed, Gates revealed that his own kids were using Khan Academy as a study aid. (“I shit a brick when I saw that,” Khan says.) He met with Gates soon after and received $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Google kicked in another $2 million.

“Math is the killer,” Bill Gates says. If you ask people why they didn’t pass the police exam or land that nursing job, “math is often the reason.”

“Math is the killer,” Gates told me recently. His foundation had researched unemployment and found math to be a significant stumbling block. “If you ask people, ‘Hey, there are these open nursing jobs, why don’t you go and get one?’ math is often the reason they give for not applying,” Gates says. “‘Why didn’t you pass the police exam?’ Math.”

In the new era of popular, YouTube-friendly education videos, Khan’s site is unique in that it’s ruthlessly practical: It’s aimed at helping people master the basics, the humble bread-and-butter equations they encounter in elementary and high school. Traditionally, these kinds of videos can be dry and difficult to slog through. But Khan manages to pull off his lessons with a casual air that keeps the viewer engaged. He says his relaxed approach isn’t faked—it’s a result of the way he prepares. He never writes a script. He simply researches a topic until he feels he can explain it off the cuff to “a motivated 7-year-old.” (Preparation can take anywhere from 10 minutes with a familiar subject like algebra to nearly a week in the case of organic chemistry.) Khan also never edits. Either he nails the lecture in a single take or he redoes the entire thing until it satisfies him.

Khan suspects there is a hidden power in the fact that he never appears onscreen in his videos. The only visual is his handwriting, slowly filling the screen. “That way, it doesn’t seem like I’m up on a stage lecturing down at you,” he says. “It’s intimate, like we’re both sitting at a table and we’re working through something together, writing on a piece of paper.”

After you’ve listened to a lot of Khan’s stuff, instructional videos by for-profit educational firms begin to sound gratingly phony. At his desk, he pulls up a YouTube video about how the sodium-potassium pump in a cell membrane works. As the video plays, a singsongy female voice-over fills his office with the cloying, condescending tone of a teacher who’s convinced her students are idiots. “I mean, I can’t pay attention for one minute to that,” he says.

Several students I spoke to also pointed out that Khan is particularly good at explaining all the hidden, small steps in math problems—steps that teachers often gloss over. He has an uncanny ability to inhabit the mind of someone who doesn’t already understand something. “He explains things step by step, rather than assuming you already know how to get from A to B,” Brannan says.

“It’s just super-impressive that Sal explains stuff so well,” Gates says. “The fact that one guy can do so many subjects is pretty amazing.”

Last November, Khan Academy made the jump from hot new website to actual classroom tool. Khan had coffee with a member of the Los Altos school board who suggested that the district try using Khan’s system. Three schools offered up classes as test subjects—two fifth-grade classes (including the one run by Kami Thordarson) and two seventh-grade classes.

Khan thought he could offer teachers crucial new insight into how students learn. He envisioned a dashboard system that would track students’ individual statistics, showing them and their instructors how many videos they’d watched, how many questions they’d answered, and which ones they’d gotten wrong or right. Normally, of course, teachers fly blind. They use quizzes, homework, and their own observations to try to figure out how much their students understand, but it’s a crude process. Day to day, it’s hard to know what a student is and isn’t learning. A dashboard, Khan says, can change all that.

In the fall of 2010, flush with the infusion of money from Google and Gates, Khan hired a programmer, Ben Kamens, and a designer, Jason Rosoff, and tasked them with, among other things, building the dashboard. These sorts of performance-measuring apps have become increasingly common in the business world, so the duo didn’t think teachers would be terribly impressed by their software. Wrong: They were astounded. “We’d go collect some data and make a chart, and the teachers were blown away—every time,” Kamens says. “This isn’t taxing the edge of technology. But they were completely shocked, as if this had never existed before.”

Among those impressed was Courtney Cadwell, a seventh-grade math teacher at Egan Junior High in Los Altos. When I visited her class, she pulled me over to her laptop and showed me her kids’ statistics. She flicked through screenfuls of colorful charts illustrating what subjects the kids were working on and how many videos they’d watched and problem sets they’d done. The software even told Cadwell how many minutes the students had worked at home.

“Oh my gosh,” she exclaims when she gets to one student’s account. “Kristofer, he’s working on systems of equations and subtracting fractions?” Clearly, even after working with the system for almost five months, it still has the ability to surprise her. A look at the data shows that the students seem to advance in spurts: A kid will grind away at a subject, seemingly stuck, until suddenly something clicks and he vaults forward, sometimes going on a tear and mastering several new subjects in a day or two.

Cadwell has already gotten so used to these metrics that she feels unmoored in her other classes, where they’re not yet using the system. “In those, I get to a quiz or a test and I’m blindsided when they don’t know something—or when they ace something.”

Cadwell needs all the help she can get: She teaches remedial math to the school’s struggling students, some of whom come from immigrant families with parents who don’t speak English and can’t easily help with homework. When her seventh-grade class arrived last fall, some barely had third-grade math skills. But by being able to target her students for special help exactly when they needed it, Cadwell saw stunning results: The class’s test scores improved more than 106 percent in half a year. One girl I met in the classroom had advanced an astonishing 366 percent. “I hated math,” the girl tells me cheerfully. “But now it’s actually fun.” She began the year unable to do basic fractions; during my visit, I watched her plow through complicated long division, carefully working problems on the Khan software.

Borrowing another trend in software, Khan’s team also added gamelike rewards to the interface. They came up with a welter of points, badges, and awards that kids can vie for. The Los Altos teachers were surprised—almost flabbergasted—by how powerfully the rewards motivated their students. When I visited the fifth-grade class of Kelly Rafferty at Santa Rita Elementary, the room teemed with kids milling around the school’s laptops, checking out one another’s latest achievements and trying to help each other on various modules. Rafferty pointed to a boy pecking away at division problems. “He’s done something like 500 multiplication problems,” she said. “Could I ever get him to do 500 of anything? No. So it’s funny the things that motivate them.” She noticed that one student had worked on problems at home from midnight to 2 am the night before.

Of course, kids who’ve grown up on computers are quick to spot the weaknesses in Khan’s system. They discovered ways to cheat on the drills: In the logarithms unit, for example, they noticed that the third multiple-choice answer was always the right one.

Some students also told me they were unsettled by their teachers’ ability to monitor precisely how much work they’ve done. “I just think that’s kind of awkward,” Maddy Zib, 12, said to Cadwell the day I visited. “It’s like you’re able to spy on our progress! I know you’re the teacher and that’s your job … but it’s just a bit weird.”

Not all educators are enamored with Khan and his site. Gary Stager, a longtime educational consultant and advocate of laptops in classrooms, thinks Khan Academy isn’t innovative at all. The videos and software modules, he contends, are just a high tech version of that most hoary of teaching techniques—lecturing and drilling. Schools have become “joyless test-prep factories,” he says, and Khan Academy caters to this dismal trend. Khan’s approach “suffers from this sort of ‘school über alles’ philosophy: They’re not going to question anything the schools do. They’re not going to challenge any of the content.” Stager admires the fact that Khan is trying to improve education, but he says research has shown that kids who are struggling at math won’t be helped by a “filmstrip.”

As Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, a nonprofit focusing on technology in the classroom, puts it, “The things they’re doing are really just rote.” Flipping the classroom isn’t an entirely new idea, Martinez says, and she doubts that it would work for most kids: If they can’t understand the lecture in a classroom, they’re not going to grasp it better when it’s done through a video at home.

Khan’s critics are mostly “constructionists.” This school of thought holds that kids lose interest in math because it’s so often taught as a bunch of mechanical routines you follow to solve problems disconnected from everyday life. Constructionists argue that it’s better to give kids activities that let them discover the principles of math and physics on their own—for instance, having them play around with kid-friendly programming languages like Logo. “Students ‘fumbling around’ is actually where the learning happens—and there’s no shortcut for this process,” Martinez wrote in a blog post savaging Khan’s system. Gates and Khan claim they’re trying to shake up the classroom, but Khan’s critics say he’s not being radical enough.

As you might imagine, Khan heatedly rejects the notion that he’s promoting a return to rote learning. “It’s the exact opposite!” he says: The more that teachers flip their classrooms—with students watching his lectures at home—the more time is freed up for creative activities during the school day, like arts, games, or collectively brainstorming more abstract stuff. “You’re actually liberating the classroom; you’re making it more human,” he says. He takes a dim view of the constructionist idea that students won’t really understand math unless they discover each principle on their own. “Isaac Newton would not have invented calculus had he not had textbooks on algebra.” Bill Gates is even more scathing: “It’s bullshit,” he says. “If you can’t do multiplication, then tell me, what is your contribution to society going to be?”

Another limitation of Khan’s site is that the drilling software can handle only subjects where the answers are unambiguously right or wrong, like math or chemistry. And Khan has relatively few videos on messier, gray-area subjects like history.

And Khan and Gates both admit there’s no easy way to automate the teaching of writing—even though that subject is just as critical as math and students score equally poorly on it in national tests. Khan thinks one way to teach writing online is with peer review—have kids upload their writing so that the entire class can read and comment on it. (Many teachers, in fact, already do this.) In the next year or so, he wants to launch a community section of Khan Academy, where students can help each other with writing. He envisions students posting questions they can’t solve and getting guidance from other students or teachers around the world, any time of day; those who offered the best help would get voted upward.

Even if Khan is truly liberating students to advance at their own pace, it’s not clear that the schools will be able to cope. The very concept of grade levels implies groups of students moving along together at an even pace. So what happens when, using Khan Academy, you wind up with a kid in fifth grade who has mastered high school trigonometry and physics—but is still functioning like a regular 10-year-old when it comes to writing, history, and social studies? Khan’s programmer, Ben Kamens, has heard from teachers who’ve seen Khan Academy presentations and loved the idea but wondered whether they could modify it “to stop students from becoming this advanced.”

Khan’s success—and tech-darling status—has injected him into the heated wars over school reform. Reformers today, by and large, believe student success should be carefully tested, with teachers and principals receiving better pay if their students advance more quickly and getting canned if they fall behind. They’re generally in favor of privately run charter schools and hotly opposed to the seniority rules of the teachers’ unions, if not the existence of unions altogether. Though the ranks of reformers include many Wall Streeters and Silicon Valley honchos, Khan himself winces when I apply the label to him. He says he has no particular animus toward the public school system; in fact, his experience with Los Altos has shown him that public school teachers can be as innovative as anyone else. “Don’t call me an education reformer, all right?” he says. “We’re not out to fight some political battle. We’re out to build stuff that’s useful.”

Khan doesn’t seem to care whether he changes the school system. Indeed, he’s leery of working too closely with school districts, because it would require him to adhere to their rules and expectations. Until now, he has followed his own instincts in building his library of videos and software—recording the subjects his cousins needed, then gradually adding those that he found interesting or that he thought students would benefit from. But schools have a firm curriculum they have to march through, and the Los Altos teachers often find they’re moving on to subjects that Khan hasn’t covered in detail.

Khan is gamely attempting to fill those holes. But he’s not breaking his back, because he doesn’t want the school system and its byzantine standards determining what he does with his site. Indeed, he argues, trying to serve taskmasters in different districts in 50 states is one of the reasons so many educational software companies produce such dull sludge: Much like teaching to the mythical “middle” of a class, the process strips teaching materials of any eccentricity and playfulness. “I don’t want to be a vendor,” he says with a shrug.

In essence, Khan doesn’t want to change the way institutions teach; he wants to change how people learn, whether they’re in a private school or a public school—or for that matter, whether they’re a student or an adult trying to self-educate in their kitchen in Ohio. Or Brazil or Russia or India: One member of Khan’s staff—now up to 13 people—is spearheading a drive to translate the videos into 10 major languages. It’s classic startup logic: Do something cool, do it quickly, and people who love it will find you.

In the spring, Cadwell’s principal visited her classroom to see how Khan Academy was working out. The students were watching a video with their headsets on. Each was viewing it in a slightly different way, pausing and rewinding the parts that confused them and writing down notes—which is precisely what customized learning ought to look like. But Cadwell realized that, as she sat there watching, she—the teacher—appeared to be slacking. “It was just very weird when the kids had their headphones on, all watching the same video and listening to the same information, but I wasn’t in control of it!” she says.

But the principal didn’t object. As more high-quality lecture materials go online, teachers and administrators alike are beginning to realize that when it comes to simply explaining something, there’s probably someone out there who’s doing it better. So, they tell me, why compete? Focus instead on offering the sort of fine-grained, personalized help that only a live teacher can offer.

As it happens, even some teachers who’ve never heard of Khan Academy are already practicing some of Khan’s ideas: They flip their classrooms and use free tools like Google Docs to make their students’ learning as visible and trackable as possible. Many teachers are resourceful, and they’ll use any tool at their disposal—sanctioned or not. It could be that the kind of fundamental changes promised by sites like Khan Academy are going to upend the classroom, no matter what happens at the district or state level.

For his part, Khan says he’s now considering starting his own private school, as a way to see just how much you could wrap learning around Khan Academy. His ideas are intriguing: Among other things, his school wouldn’t divide kids by age; teenagers would mix in with kindergartners. “I have no research to back this up,” he says, “but younger kids act more mature around older kids, and older kids act more mature around younger kids.” If the classrooms were fully flipped, students could spend more of the school day doing creative activities. He’d use board games to teach negotiation, and he’d teach history backward. (“Why are the Israelis and Palestinians pissed at each other? Let’s go back a couple of years. Wait—they were pissed at each other even then! So you go back even further …”) He also thinks he’d teach kids subjects that have more real-world applicability—like “statistics, law, accounting, and finance. Why are you teaching people civics? Teach them law. That’s more relevant, and you learn civics at the same time.” He calculates that it would cost only $10,000 per child, “affordable for professional couples out here.”

If Khan does start such a school, he’ll have a powerful advantage. He’s been posting videos online for five years and students have answered more than 50 million questions in his software: Khan and his team are now sitting on a massive pile of data about how people learn and where they get stuck. He plans to mine the information to discover previously invisible patterns. How many times do students need to view the statistics video before they can answer questions about the subject? If you examine all the kids who stumble on, say, fractional division and basic algebra, can you predict what other subjects they’ll have trouble mastering? In the long run, Khan believes, such data mining could help him create customized lessons that are perfectly keyed to each kid’s learning style.

But in the meantime, he’s got videos to record. Back at his office, he slips on his headset. His next video will be about diabetes, and he’ll use the subject to sneak in some tricky, Khan-style math—calculating how many teaspoons of sugar are floating around in your bloodstream. “It’s almost 1 teaspoon per average-size human at any point in time!” he says somewhat gleefully. Then he turns around, hits the record button, and starts talking.

44 Proven Ideas Parents Can Use to Help Their Children Do Better in School

Making Time Count

1. Put specific times on your calendar each week when you will spend time with your children. During that time, focus your love and attention on your child.

2. Use car time to talk with your children. There’s no phone or television to interfere. No one can get up and leave. And kids know they really have your ear.

3. Plan to eat at least one meal together as a family each day.

4. Look for things to do together as a family. Get everyone involved in choosing how to spend your time together.

5. Try giving children television tickets. Each week, each child gets 20 tickets. Each ticket can be used for 30 minutes of TV time. Any tickets remaining at the end of the week can be cashed in for 25 cents each. Parents can still veto a certain program, of course.

Reading to Your Child

6. Try relaxing your family’s bedtime rules once a week on the weekends. Let your children know that they can stay up as late as they want, as long as they are reading in bed.

7. Help your child start a home library; paperback books are fine. Encourage your child to swap books with friends. Check used book stores. Give books as gifts.

8. Want your children to be good readers? Let them see you read.

9. Try holding D-E-A-R times at your house. “DEAR” stands for “Drop Everything and Read.” During DEAR time, everyone in the family sits down for some uninterrupted reading time.

10. With young children, try reading to them during bath time.

11. Use the “Rule of Thumb” to see if a book is on your children’s reading level: Have them read a page of the book aloud. Have them hold up one finger for each word they don’t know. If they hold up four fingers and a thumb before the end of the page, the book is probably too hard for them to read alone. But it might be a great book to read aloud.

Building Self-Esteem

12. Have children make a “book” about themselves, with their own illustrations and wording. “A Book About Me” is a great way to help your child see themselves as “somebody.”

13. Help your child discover their roots by talking with family members during holiday and other visits.

14. Constantly look for ways to tell your children what you like about them, and that you love them. There is no age limit on this. “When I do something well, no one ever remembers. When I do something wrong, no one ever forgets.” Those words were written by a high school dropout.

15. Let kids overhear you praising them to others.

16. Try “King/Queen for a Day” for good report cards.

17. Help kids learn from problems, not be devastated by them. Many parents don’t ever use the word “failure.” They may talk about a “glitch,” a “problem,” or a “snag.” But even when something doesn’t work out as they’d planned, successful people try to learn something from the experience.


18. In good weather, put two angry kids on opposite sides of a strong window or glass door. Provide each with a spray bottle of window cleaner and a rag. Then let them “attack.” Their angry words will turn to laughter…and your window or door will be clean!

19. Try role playing to eliminate constant fighting. For five minutes, have the fighters switch roles. Each has to present the other person’s point of view as clearly and fairly as possible. Odds are, they’ll start laughing and make up. Better yet, they may come up with a compromise solution that both parties like.

20. For better discipline, speak quietly. If you speak in a normal tone of voice, even when you’re angry, you’ll help your child see how to handle anger appropriately. And if you don’t scream at your kids, they’re less likely to scream at each other or at you.

21. Try a “black hole” to keep toys and other belongings picked up. All you need is a closet or cabinet with a lock—the “black hole.” When something is left out that should be put away, it gets put into the “black hole” for 24 hours. Once a favorite toy or something your child needs is locked up for 24 hours, there is greater incentive to keep it where it belongs. This works best when the whole family participates.

Solving School Problems

22. Try looking over children’s study materials and making up a sample quiz as they study for upcoming tests.

23. Visit your child’s school in a time of peace before major problems develop.

24. Make report cards a positive experience. Preparation: Ask, “What do you think your report card will tell us?” Getting ready is helpful. Perspective: Understand that a report card is just one small measure of your child. A child with poor grades still has plenty of strengths. Positive action: Find something to praise. Focus on how to improve.

25. Be aware that your attitudes about school affect your child. If you hated math, be careful not to prejudice your child.

Motivating Your Child

26. In addition to the three R’s, children need the four A’s: Attention, Appreciation, Affection, and Acceptance.

27. Some researchers believe every child is gifted, if we will just look for the ways. Helping children see their giftedness is very motivating.

28. Encourage children to read biographies about successful people. As children learn about the traits that made others successful, they are often motivated to adopt those same success patterns in their own lives.

29. Motivate your children in math by challenging them to figure out how much change you should get back from a purchase. If they get the amount right, they get to keep the change.

30. Praise children constantly.

Building Responsibility

31. Try a simple cardboard box to help make your children responsible for school belongings. Have them choose a place for the box, perhaps near the door or in their room. Every afternoon, their first task should be to place all belongings in the box. When homework is finished, it goes in the box, too. In the morning, the box is the last stop before heading out the door.

32. Help children understand, and take responsibility for, the consequences of their choices: “I chose to do my homework; the result was that I got an ‘A’ on my math test.” “I chose to get up 15 minutes late; the result was that I missed breakfast and nearly missed the bus.”

33. Try giving your child the responsibility of growing a small garden, even in just a flower pot. The positive and negative results of carrying out their responsibilities are very clear.

34. One way to keep children moving in the morning: After they wake up, begin to play their favorite CD. Give them until the CD plays through to get dressed for school.

Reinforcing Learning

35. Encourage kids to collect things. Whether they collect rocks, shells, leaves, or bugs is not important. By collecting, children are learning new ways to make sense of their world.

36. Estimating is an important math skill. We estimate how much our groceries will cost. We estimate how much time we’ll need to complete a project at work. You can help your child learn to estimate at home. Here’s one idea: As you’re driving, estimate the distance to your destination. Then estimate how much time it will take to get there. Use the odometer or a map to check your work.

37. Talk about geography in terms children can understand: Go through your house and talk about where things came from. A calculator may have come from Taiwan. A box of cereal may have a Battle Creek, Mich., address, or White Plains, N.Y. Talk about where the wheat for your bread came from. Where was the cotton for your blue jeans grown? Tell your children where your ancestors came from. Find the places on a map.

38. Show your child that writing is useful. Have them help you write a letter ordering something, asking a question, etc. Then show them the results of your letter.


39. Try playing “Beat the Clock” with your child during homework time. Look over the assignment and figure out about how long it should take to complete it. Allow a little extra time and set a timer for that many minutes. No prizes are needed. There is great satisfaction in getting the work done on time.

40. Teach your child to use the formula “SQ3R” when doing any homework assignment. The letters stand for a proven five-step process that makes study time more efficient and effective: Survey, Question, Read, Restate, and Review.

41. Here are tips to make homework time easier for you and your child:

  • Have a regular place for your child to do homework. Use a desk or table in a quiet room. Be sure there’s plenty of light.
  • Find a regular time for homework. You may want to make a rule: “No television until homework is finished.”
  • During homework time, turn off the TV and radio.
  • Help your children plan how they will use their time.
  • Set a good example. While your child is doing homework, spend some time reading or working yourself. Then when homework is done, you can both talk about how much you’ve accomplished.

42. Nitty gritty homework tips:

  • Do the most difficult homework first. Save “easy” subjects for when your child is tired.
  • Do the most important assignments first. If time runs short, the priorities will be finished. Do what’s required first.
  • Finish the optional assignments later, even if they’re more fun.

43. Look over your child’s homework every day. Start at an early age and keep it up as long as you can. Praise good work. Your interest will encourage good work.

44. Try having your child teach you the homework. The teacher always learns more than the student.

Teaching Resources

Use these resources to inform your teaching as well as help departments, programs, and Schools with programs like TA training. Also, the Stanford community can browse or borrow from VPTL’s library of practical and theoretical works on teaching and learning in Sweet Hall.


Planning Your Approach

Defining Your Own Teaching Goals

Consider the following teaching goals and decide for yourself which are most relevant to the material you teach and the role you want to play in your students’ intellectual and personal development.


Every aspect of your teaching will be shaped by the role you want to play in the mentorship and development of your students. Every nuts-and-bolts teaching strategy, even the most practical advice about lecturing or writing exams, serves the goal of helping you become the kind of teacher who has inspired you.

Below are some examples of some of the highest teaching goals to remind you that great teaching is more than a handful of teaching tricks strung together with modest aims and sufficient expertise in your field.

Inspire Students

Nothing pushes students to do their best work like a professor who takes pride not in his or her own accomplishments, but in helping others realize their potential. “

—Jason Dent, Philosophy, ’05

Your effort and enthusiasm as a teacher directly influence students’ commitment to your course and interest in your field. Great teachers inspire students by demonstrating belief in their students’ abilities and by providing the support students need to meet challenging academic demands.

Facilitate Mastery of a Field

In choosing my area of concentration I decided to combine two of my interests, sports and medicine, and study sports medicine. Initially I was just mildly curious about the field. However, after taking a class on exercise and physiology by Dr. Anne Friedlander and talking with her outside of class, my interest became more than just academic. She opened my eyes to the practicality and numerous applications of sports medicine. In a few weeks I will begin a sports medicine internship with a grassroots organization that encourages older individuals to maintain health through an active lifestyle. Thanks to Dr. Friedlander I am learning more about sports medicine and enjoying opportunities to apply that knowledge in everyday life.

—Angela Markham, Human Biology (Sports Medicine), ’05

Your classroom is a training ground not only for future study in your field but also for many aspects of life. Great teachers help students master the fundamentals of their subject matter, which will pay off both for advanced study in their field and for students’ everyday understanding of the world.

Mentor Young Intellects

I attribute a great deal of my intellectual growth at Stanford to my advisor’s mentorship and guidance. I came to her last year as someone who was completely intimidated by economics. But from the first day of my research assistantship she pushed me to challenge myself academically and personally. For the first time, I began to understand what it meant to set high goals for myself without fear.”

—Felicia Estrada, Public Policy, ’04

Long after individual facts and phrases are forgotten, your students will carry with them the intellectual skills you help them develop, from critical to creative thinking. Great teachers prepare students for lifelong learning.

Help Students Find Their Voice

“Although I had been very outspoken during high school, initially it was very hard to find my ‘voice’ at Stanford. I think my breakthrough came during an African history class. The professor showed that he valued our class participation both in the grading of the course and by encouraging every student to speak at least once during the quarter. He received our comments in such a nonjudgmental way that after a couple weeks I felt much more confident speaking up in all my classes.”

—Andrea Snavely, International Relations, ’04

Once you’ve helped students find something they want to say, you need to help them find a way to say it. Great teachers give students the skills to communicate effectively and the confidence to express what they think.

Help Students Articulate and Follow Their Values

“It’s all too easy for students to think the learning process is limited to lectures, readings, or problem sets. It takes a great professor or TA to take course material outside the context of the classroom and remind us that we study in order to better the world. I remain impressed with instructors who take time to do this in traditional classes, not just those labeled as ‘service-learning courses.'”

—Felicia Estrada, Public Policy, ’04

One of the main goals of higher education is to help students figure out who they are and how they can be of service to their community. Great teachers help students understand the social responsibilities of their field and the social impact of their choices.

Back view of male prof lecturing to large class in lecture hall, many students

As an academic you may at times feel the attractions of teaching and research as opposing forces. Promotion processes, as well as your own desire to advance your field, usually require that you devote considerable time to research, publication, and presentation.  On the other hand, teaching is one of your primary obligations as a scholar. How can you strike the right balance?


Caucasian and Black male scientists, white lab coats, in lab, look at data together

Before you reconcile yourself to the idea that excellence in teaching and research are mutually exclusive, consider the similarities between the two endeavors.

  • Presenting at conferences and fielding questions from the audience requires the same skills as lecturing.
  • Designing an outstanding course outline and syllabus uses many of the same skills as putting together a literature review or grant proposal.
  • Both teaching and research help you develop insight into your field, refine your communication skills, and draw on your ability to select and organize content in a meaningful way.

Because they require similar skills, you will find that improvement and advancement in one feeds back into improvement and advancement in the other.

Manage your time

New instructors’ first concern is often one of simple time management. The following suggestions may be helpful as you first establish the balance between teaching and research:

  • Consider doubling your teaching load during one quarter so that you have at least one quarter free for time intensive projects, such as major grant proposals.
  • Invite your colleagues to give guest lectures on their areas of expertise, and volunteer to do the same for them—it will give you a chance to practice speaking about your research to a nonexpert audience.
  • Build a teaching library of videos, class activities, and presentations that you can draw on when you become unexpectedly overwhelmed by other demands.
  • Your research program can also enrich your classes. Stephen Bostock of Glyndwr University, Wales, has identified four effective ways for instructors to bring the process as well as the products of research into the classroom:
  1. Use current research perspectives, paradigms, and debates in the classroom to show that knowledge is contested and growing, rather than accepted fact.
  2. Include recent research results as part of curriculum content.
  3. Introduce both generic and subject-specific research skills and scholarly activities into course assignments, including literature review, experiment design, peer review, book review, conference paper presentation, and grant application.
  4. Invite students into your research community in small ways by requiring them to join scholarly email lists or discussion boards, use online conference proceedings as resources for class assignments, or attend departmental talks.

Male and female observers look through large window at class in next room

Inspire students to work with you

You can view your classroom as a pool of potential research assistants and honor students (who often contribute greatly to a research program). Undergraduate RAs bring enthusiasm, time, and a fresh perspective to your work. There are some drawbacks, such as the training and start-up time, but the rewards are great. Many RAs who are inspired by a specific course will stay with a faculty member or graduate student for much of their time at Stanford.

Consider coordinating a course on current faculty research in your department, with faculty rotating as speakers. This may count toward your teaching requirements while helping to match interested students and faculty.

Be on the lookout for research directions

Finally, there is always the possibility that questions that come up in class will inspire new directions for your research. For example, Professor Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, potentially the most well-known research study in Stanford’s history, was inspired by an exercise in his psychology class. Other Stanford professors report similar classroom inspirations.

Psychology professor Ewart Thomas says this phenomenon is particularly likely to occur in those classes where “we are operating at the borders of what is known and what is not known.”

Teaching Improvement

Most instructors regard their teaching as an intensely personal matter. While they may be more than willing to allow colleagues to critique their written work, they are unlikely to invite them into their classrooms to observe and make comments. However, teaching is like any other academic endeavor—it is an acquired skill, one more easily gained if you get specific feedback on how you are doing.

If you decide that you wish to make significant improvements in your teaching, the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning can help you identify the specific skills and strategies that will enhance your teaching style. This is particularly true when you aren’t quite sure what needs improving. For some faculty and TAs, it has taken as little as a student small-group evaluation to enhance their questioning technique or grading policy. For others, it has required considerable time to learn better methods of organization or delivery. VPTL events and workshops can be a source of new ideas and support to try them. The crucial factor in each case has been the teacher’s willingness to recognize the need for change and to try new approaches.

You may be motivated by a specific goal, such as the desire to try a particularly innovative class format or to increase the average attendance in your large lectures from 60 to 90 percent. In this case, turning to the collective wisdom of your colleagues, the advice of students you know well, the Teaching Commons website, or the resource library available at the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning may be enough. VPTL, on the fourth floor of Sweet Hall, has a wide collection of books and journals on almost every aspect of teaching. You will find dozens of ideas on better lecture techniques alone, for example.

Any steps that you take to improve your teaching are likely to be worthwhile both professionally and personally. Faculty at research universities are increasingly expected to teach well, as has long been the case at student-oriented liberal arts colleges and most state colleges and universities. When well done, teaching can be a source of enormous personal satisfaction and pleasure. Successful contact with students can balance the sometimes lonely aspects of pure scholarship; it also gives you a chance to pass on those values, ideas, and passions that are at the core of your commitment to scholarship.

Characteristics of Effective Teachers

Effective teachers appear again and again to display certain characteristics, while ineffective teachers tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Below is a look at some of the things more effective teachers tend to do right and less effective teachers tend to do wrong.

Organization and Clarity

  • explains clearly
  • is well prepared (see Preparing for the First Day)
  • makes difficult topics easy to understand
  • uses examples, details, analogies, metaphors, and variety in modes of explanation to make material not only understandable but memorable
  • makes the objectives of the course and each class clear (see Course Design, Course Goals and Learning Outcomes)
  • establishes a context for material

Analytic/Synthetic Approach

  • has a thorough command of the field
  • contrasts the implications of various theories
  • gives the student a sense of the field, its past, present, and future directions, the origins of ideas and concepts (see Consider Your Audience)
  • presents facts and concepts from related fields
  • discusses viewpoints other than his/her own

Dynamism and Enthusiasm

  • is an energetic, dynamic person
  • seems to enjoy teaching
  • conveys a love of the field
  • has an aura of self-confidence

Instructor-Group Interaction

  • can stimulate, direct, and pace interaction with the class (see How to Lead a Discussion)
  • encourages independent thought and accepts criticism
  • uses wit and humor effectively
  • is a good public speaker (see Speaking at the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking)
  • knows whether or not the class is following the material and is sensitive to students’ motivation
  • is concerned about the quality of his/her teaching

Instructor-Individual Student Interaction

  • is perceived as fair, especially in his/her methods of evaluation (see How to Evaluate Students)
  • is seen by students as approachable and a valuable source of advice even on matters not directly related to the course (see Interacting with Students)


Doing the right things with your teaching is of course critical but so is avoiding the wrong things.  Richard M. Felder, North Carolina State University and Rebecca Brent, Education Designs, Inc., have come up with a list to the ten worst mistakes teachers make.  They are summarized here in increasing order of badness.  Further details and additional material can be found at Richard Felder’s Home Page.

Mistake #10: When you ask a question in class, immediately call for volunteers.  When you do this most students will avoid eye contact, and either you get a response from one of the two or three who always volunteer or you answer your own question

Mistake #9: Call on students cold. If you frequently call on students without giving them time to think (“cold-calling”), the ones who are intimidated by it won’t be following your lecture as much as praying that you don’t land on them. Even worse, as soon as you call on someone, the others breathe a sigh of relief and stop thinking.

Mistake #8: Turn classes into PowerPoint shows. Droning through lecture notes put into PowerPoint slides is generally a waste of time for everyone.

Mistake #7: Fail to provide variety in instruction. Effective instruction mixes things up: boardwork, multimedia, storytelling, discussion, activities, individual assignments, and group work (being careful to avoid Mistake #6). The more variety you build in, the more effective the class is likely to be.

Mistake #6: Have students work in groups with no individual accountability.  The way to make group work work is cooperative learning, an exhaustively researched instructional method that effectively promotes development of both cognitive and interpersonal skills

Mistake #5: Fail to establish relevance. To provide better motivation, begin the course by describing how the content relates to important technological and social problems and to whatever you know of the students’ experience, interests, and career goals, and do the same thing when you introduce each new topic.

Mistake #4. Give tests that are too long. If you want to evaluate your students’ potential to be successful professionals, test their mastery of the knowledge and skills you are teaching, not their problem-solving speed.

Mistake #3: Get stuck in a rut. Things are always happening that provide incentives and opportunities for improving courses. This is not to say that you have to make major revisions in your course every time you give it-you probably don’t have time to do that, and there’s no reason to. Rather, just keep your eyes open for possible improvements you might make in the time available to you.

Mistake #2. Teach without clear learning objectives. A key to making courses coherent and tests fair is to write learning objectives-explicit statements of what students should be able to do if they have learned what the instructor wants them to learn-and to use the objectives as the basis for designing lessons, assignments, and exams.

Mistake #1. Disrespect students. If you give students a sense that you don’t respect them, the class will probably be a bad experience for everyone no matter what else you do, while if you clearly convey respect and caring, it will cover a multitude of pedagogical sins you might commit.

Teaching Strategies

Great teaching occurs both in traditional classroom settings and outside the classroom. In this section, we offer some practical advice specific to a variety of teaching contexts, from lectures to laboratories to office hours. This advice is just a sample of teaching strategies that will apply to instructors in any field; for more detailed advice, or for strategies developed by instructors in your field, consult the many resources available elsewhere at this website.

Great Beginnings: Things to do early in your class

Checklist for Effective Lecturing

Be Prepared

  • Outline clear objectives for your lecture—both what students should know after the lecture and why it is important.
  • Develop a lecture outline and any audiovisuals.
  • If you are nervous about the lecture, write out your introduction and rehearse it.

Keep Your Focus

  • Limit the main points in a lecture to five or fewer.
  • Create effective visuals, analogies, demonstrations, and examples to reinforce the main points.
  • Share your outline with students.
  • Emphasize your objectives and key points in the beginning, as you get to them, and as a summary at the end.

Engage Your Audience

  • Focus attention early on using a quote, a dramatic visual, an anecdote, or other material relevant to the topic.
  • Integrate visuals, multimedia, discussion, active learning strategies, small-group techniques, and peer instruction.
  • Link new material to students’ prior knowledge, such as common experiences or previous coursework.
  • Show enthusiasm for the topic and information. Remember, you are modeling your discipline.
  • Give students time to think and genuine opportunities to respond.
  • Plan for diverse learners. Use verbal, visual, and kinesthetic approaches such as hands-on exercises and simulations.

Get Feedback

  • Observe students’ non-verbal communication: notetaking, response to questions, eye contact, seating patterns, and response to humor. Are they “with” you?
  • Use the “minute paper” or other assessment techniques. Ask students to respond in one or two sentences to the following questions:What stood out as most important in today’s lecture? What are you confused about? Do this every few lectures—it will take you about 15 minutes to review the responses and you’ll learn an enormous amount about your students.
  • Give quizzes periodically on lecture objectives, not obscure material. Are they getting it?
  • Conduct midterm teaching evaluations or simply ask the students for suggestions and comments at the midpoint of the quarter.

Laboratory Teaching Guidelines

The laboratory is an exciting place where students investigate, analyze, and reflect. They test and apply theories and make abstract concepts concrete.

However, the processes of investigation don’t always run smoothly, and students need guidance to make sense of their results. Here are some strategies for designing and supervising effective lab sections.

Course Planning

Planning a laboratory course involves making several kinds of important decisions:

  • What projects/experiments will you assign?
  • How can you best integrate the teaching of theory with the related labs?
  • How will you balance and organize cooperative and independent study in the lab?
  • What equipment will you need?

As a first step in making all of these decisions, consider both the content and the inquiry skills that you want students to master: your content goals indicate what you want to cover, while your inquiry goals should direct how your students will interact with this material and which skills they will need.

Choice of Projects

Base your choice of projects on the stated goals of the course’s lab component. In general, appropriate goals are:

  • to help students understand theory by observing and verifying concepts
  • to have them go through research and design processes
  • to help them improve their powers of reasoning by manipulating cause-and-effect relationships
  • to acquaint them with essential equipment

These goals involve higher-order thinking skills that cannot be attained without the direct, creative involvement of the student. If we routinely structure the learning to “make sense,” or to ensure a certain result, we short-circuit the processes that inquiring learners might follow and limit the skills they will develop in the process.

Projects driven fully by student inquiry require time, careful planning, and close, interactive support. The payoff for such effort is the increased level of student engagement and the development of analytical and problem-solving skills.

Integration with Theory

When planning the course schedule, it is essential to coordinate the teaching of concepts with their laboratory applications.

As you attempt to blur the line between lecture and lab, think broadly about real constraints and accept as few artificial disjoints as possible. What bridges can you build between the two? Are there aspects of your lab course that can be brought into the lecture room and vice versa? Be sure to coordinate lectures, assigned readings, and supplemental references.

Group Work

Many laboratory projects are conducive to group learning, which can take place both inside the lab and outside of class, during post-lab discussions or small-group study sessions. Besides offering students the benefits of learning from each other, group work readies students for conditions in the outside world, where most scientific or technical projects involve teams of people.

Early in the course, you may want to divide your students into lab and/or study groups of two to four partners. Because different experiments require different numbers of apparatus, some weeks you may have to consolidate two of these small groups or otherwise reorganize things, but keep in mind that four is a good upper limit if you want each student to actively participate.

It is especially useful to ask the students to divide complex projects into parts and to coordinate individual tasks. If needed, a lab assistant can help with the coordination. With this approach, students can take responsibility for one part of the project while maintaining an appreciation for the design and concepts of the whole project.

Appropriate Equipment

Select the most appropriate equipment for each experiment and make sure that it is in working order, with clear instructions for its use available to students. The equipment should be neither so complex nor so rudimentary as to undermine the point of the procedure.

Plan Each Experiment

To ensure that lab exercises run smoothly and that students don’t run into ambiguous directions or computational difficulties, follow these planning steps before every experiment:

  • The professor and lab assistants or TAs should rehearse the procedure before the lab sections and review the results afterwards
  • Prepare lab assignments at least a week in advance
  • Try out each experiment, or have a TA try it out, before giving students the assignment sheet
  • Make sure that the requirements are feasible and clearly stated and that the specific numbers chosen produce the desired results

Student-Teacher Communication

Designing Effective Discussion Questions

A good question is both answerable and challenging. It will inspire analysis, synthesis, interpretation, and critical thinking. Below are several types of questions and suggestions about when to use which kind. You’ll also find useful information on how to manage group dynamics.


Experienced instructors learn to prepare a mix of questions— those that are easily answered, slightly challenging, or highly complex—that they can draw on as the discussion develops.

  • Begin with material students are familiar with or feel comfortable with. This might be a question that can be answered with information from general experience or from basic data in the subject area.
  • Once students are warmed up, ask questions requiring students to explain relationships among the units of information and to form general concepts.
  • Let the discussion peak by asking questions that require students to apply concepts and principles they have developed to new data and different situations.


Here are some types of questions that tend to facilitate thoughtful, sustained discussions:

  • Analysis
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Cause and Effect
  • Clarification


Here are some types of questions that you’ll want to avoid and that can lead to dead ends in discussions:

  1. Simple Yes-No
  2. Elliptical
  3. Leading
  4. Slanted

Managing Group Dynamics

Choosing what questions to ask is only half the battle, however. How and whom you ask can also influence their effectiveness with the group. Pay particular attention to the following aspects of group dynamics:

  • Decide whether to ask questions of a particular individual or the whole group. Sometimes calling on an individual may help to get a slow class going, but it can release the other students from the responsibility of formulating answers for themselves. It also puts students on the spot, which can decrease goodwill and intellectual risk-taking. Directing questions to the entire class may mean waiting longer for an answer.
  • Leave sufficient wait time after asking a question before answering it yourself, repeating it, rephrasing it, or adding further information. Wait at least ten to fifteen seconds before making any change in your question.
  • Avoid rapid reward for responding. Rapid reward means calling immediately on the first person who indicates an answer or approving immediately of a correct response that a student has given. This prevents other students from evaluating the response for themselves and interrupts their thinking process.

Interacting with Students

When you ask a teacher what the best part of teaching is, the response almost always describes some aspect of the teacher-student relationship. Whether it’s the one-on-one conversations in office hours or the joy of seeing a classroom discussion come alive, positive interactions with students remind us why we became teachers and scholars.

Small Groups and Discussions

How to Lead a Discussion

Be Prepared
  • Carefully consider your objectives for a discussion. Do you want students to apply newly learned skills, mull over new subject matter, learn to analyze arguments critically, practice synthesizing conflicting views, or relate material to their own lives? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they require different types of direction.
  • Use discussion to help students link concepts to their own lives; to encourage students to evaluate material critically; and to address topics that are open-ended, have no clear resolution, and/or can be effectively addressed through multiple approaches.
  • Provide students opportunities to “warm up” through brief (one- to five-minute) in-class writing exercises on the topic, three- to five-person mini-discussions, or a homework exercise prior to the session that focuses students on the topic(s) to be covered.
  • Consider using a variety of question types such as exploratory, relational, cause and effect, diagnostic, action, and hypothetical.


  • Provide clear guidelines for participation. Discuss them beforehand, stick to them, and enforce them during the discussion.
  • Share your planning decisions with your students. Let them know what your focus is, and why it is important; also invite students to contribute suggestions for discussion topics and formats.
  • Make sure the assigned material is discussed in class; if the students don’t come prepared with questions and responses, do not let the discussion wander. Bringing in specific quotes, problems, or other samples of the assigned material can ensure that even underprepared students will have something to talk about.
  • Distributing study questions in advance demonstrates your own interest and helps focus their preparation. Consider asking students to email you their thoughts to one question. This will also give you insight into the students’ thoughts while you plan the discussion.

Facilitate, Don’t Dominate

  • Use open-ended questions and ask students for clarification, examples, and definitions.
  • Summarize student responses without taking a stand one way or another.
  • Invite students to address one another and not always “go through” you.
  • Pause to give students time to reflect on your summaries or others’ comments.
  • Consider taking notes of main points on a chalkboard or overhead, but, if you do, write everyone’s ideas down.
  • Toward the end of the discussion, review the main ideas, the thread of the discussion, and conclusions.

Creating a Good Climate for Discussion

You can also significantly increase the quantity and quality of participation simply by creating an encouraging environment for discussion.

  • Know and use the students’ names. In addition, make sure that the students know one another’s names.
  • Arrange the room to maximize student- to-student eye contact; e.g., chairs around a table or in a circle. You might vary where you sit from time to time, to break students’ habit of staring at the front of the room.
  • When students ask questions, try to help them find the answers for themselves.
  • If arguments develop, try to resolve the disputes by appeal to objective evidence rather than authority of position. If the dispute is over values, help students clarify their values and respect each others’, even if resolution is not possible. Disputes can often form the basis for interesting writing assignments.


  • Notice how many students participated in the discussion.
  • Notice who did and who did not participate (look for gender and racial biases).
  • Check the tone of the discussion—was it stimulating and respectful?
  • Ask students about their reactions to the discussion session.

Leading Discussion Groups

Explain ground rules and expectations

Generate discussion by

  • asking questions
  • having students ask questions
  • having students assigned to introduce material
  • breaking into pairs or groups

Vary the kinds of questions you ask

  • Exploratory questions
  • Relational questions
  • Cause and effect questions
  • Diagnostic questions
  • Action questions
  • Hypothetical questions

Evaluating Your Teaching

In May 1977, Stanford’s Faculty Senate approved a resolution calling for universal evaluation of courses by students at the end of each quarter. Since then, course evaluations have become a standard fixture of teaching life at Stanford. And, indeed, they can be a source of essential feedback to teachers on how a course has gone and how it might be strengthened. However, a vast literature on student evaluations of teaching also indicates that these evaluations in and of themselves—while generally valid and reliable in their data—do not necessarily lead to improved teaching. Alone, the questionnaire data do not seem to motivate teachers to change. Instead, change is more likely to occur if teachers discuss their evaluations with a sympathetic and knowledgeable colleague or teaching consultant. At Stanford, the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning will provide you with a consultation.

Moreover, there are other often more timely ways to evaluate how well your course is going. You can arrange some of these methods yourself; others are available through the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.

• Midquarter, pass out your own carefully thought-out questionnaire for students to fill out anonymously. Focus on those issues that are of most interest or concern to you. Follow up on the students’ feedback; consider discussing the feedback in class and letting the students know what changes you will be making.

• Talk to some students informally after class or during your office hours about how the class is going. Ask them what’s gone well and what hasn’t worked. Choose students who you think will be comfortable giving you feedback. Even then you will have to be careful that they don’t feel “on the spot.”

• Ask a friend, a colleague, or a consultant from the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning to observe your class. VPTL has trained consultants who have learned specific observational techniques and have considerable teaching experience. If you invite a friend or colleague in, brief them carefully on what specifically you would like them to look for. Colleagues, especially, tend to focus exclusively on content unless you also ask them to attend to how ideas are presented and how students respond.

• Be videorecorded. This is the only evaluation method that lets you see your teaching more or less as your students do. Although teachers generally feel great anxiety about having it done, most feel reassured and motivated when they go over the recording with a consultant afterward. You can arrange free videorecording and consultation through the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.

• Have a small-group feedback session (SGFS) conducted by VPTL. At your request, VPTL will send a consultant to your class during the last twenty minutes of the period. Once you have left, the consultant will divide your students into groups of six (or fewer if it is a small class). Each group is given ten minutes to select a spokesperson and agree on what they value about your course, what areas need improvement, and what specific suggestions they would make for change. At the end of the allotted time, the consultant canvasses each group and makes a record of their comments. He or she then summarizes the results, identifying patterns of agreement and clarifying areas of disagreement. The information is given to you later in a private consultation.

Evaluating Students

When we assign a grade to a student, what are we evaluating? Teachers vary in what they consider “fair game” for grading, but most often a grade represents a combined assessment of each student’s learning achievement (testing what the student knows or knows how to do), general performance (the quality of work that the student produces for the course), and effort (how hard the student worked in the course). To reduce the amount of time and energy you and your students spend worrying about, or negotiating, grades, it is vital that you provide clear grading guidelines and enforce them fairly.

Academic Honesty and Dishonesty

Academic honesty and dishonesty are both moral and administrative concerns for a teacher at Stanford. Stanford University’s Office of Community Standards administers the student judicial process for Stanford and works toward an honest and responsible community. Under the process, students are held accountable for adhering to established community standards including Stanford’s Fundamental Standard and the Honor Code. The Fundamental Standard states:

Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.


Spend some class time at the beginning of the quarter discussing the code, as well as the broader topic of academic honesty; clarify expectations and answer any questions students have.

If you are TAing, you should discuss the Honor Code and academic honesty with the faculty member in charge of the course at the beginning of the quarter. Make sure your interpretations are compatible and you agree on what to do if violations occur. This will ensure that all students in a course are treated fairly.

Three main points should be emphasized in discussing the Honor Code with students:

  1. The Honor Code was not imposed upon the students by the administration or faculty. The students originally assumed its responsibilities at their own request.
  2. Those who suffer most from students’ academic dishonesty are not administrators or faculty but the honorable and conscientious students. Hence it is in their interest to make individual and collective efforts to see that the highest standards of honesty are always maintained.
  3. For questions about appropriate procedures in particular cases or ambiguous areas, the Judicial Advisor may be consulted. TAs, students, and faculty are all encouraged to use the services of the Judicial Advisor with regard to the Honor Code.


Not only should you inform students about the Honor Code and procedures in regard to violations, you should also try to create a learning environment that will reduce the temptation to cheat:

  • Make sure students know your grading criteria, what kinds of exams they will be given, and what materials they are responsible for.
  • If you assign any term papers, you ensure higher quality work if you regularly check on students’ progress on their papers during the quarter. You may ask them to submit their first draft early on or to turn in rough copies along with the finished version. This reduces the likelihood of receiving “file” or purchased papers.
  • The issue of plagiarism should be discussed in some detail, particularly in introductory or writing-in-the-major courses, since not all forms of plagiarism are understood and recognized by students.

Effective learning does not occur in an atmosphere of suspicion. You have an obligation under the Honor Code not to proctor exams or to take unusual measures to prevent cheating, and to treat students as if they are honest, until proven otherwise.

Assessing Student Learning

How do you know if your students are achieving your specific learning goals for a course? Class evaluations and observations provide excellent feedback about student satisfaction and teaching style, but they don’t provide the important detail of how much your students are learning. Changing the way you assess student learning can dramatically improve your teaching effectiveness, as it provides immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.


Traditionally, many teachers have evaluated their students’ knowledge by giving examinations and papers, often only at the middle and end of the quarter. As a result, a professor lecturing to a large introductory class might not recognize until final exams are finished that students consistently confused two important and closely related ideas.

Other professors, who track their students’ work more regularly—through problem sets, for example— might assume that such written homework is helping achieve a major goal of the course, such as to develop students’ general problem-solving ability. Yet students who do well on homework might be unable to apply their knowledge to the novel situations created for exams; they’ve learned how to follow the textbook examples without understanding larger principles of problem solving.

In-course assessment techniques systematize the process of getting useful and timely feedback on student learning.


Because in-course assessment techniques are designed to gauge the effectiveness of the teaching and the quality of the learning taking place (and not simply to see who is or isn’t studying), they are usually anonymous. These anonymous assignments typically can be completed quickly, and focus on three areas:

  1. students’ academic skills and intellectual development (e.g., do students have sufficient background knowledge or academic skills to move onto the next topic?)
  2. students’ assessments of their own learning skills (e.g., do students feel prepared to learn new material from the textbook, without classroom review?)
  3. students’ reactions to various teaching methods, materials, and assignments (e.g., do students believe the exams fairly cover the material stressed in class?).

Based on this feedback, faculty can adjust their teaching to help students learn. The following are some examples of assessment techniques you might consider using:

Documented Problem Solution

Rather than simply requiring students to do a number of problems for homework, the instructor asks students to solve a problem and also to write down step-by-step what they were thinking at each stage of the problem-solving process. Reading through these solutions gives an instructor a sense of how well the students are developing their problem-solving skills and can help the instructor determine how much class or section time should focus on improving this academic skill.

Studies of Time Spent Learning

This technique asks students to estimate, check, document, and reflect on how well they use study time. Using one assignment or activity, students estimate how much time it should take to finish the task and then monitor themselves as they complete the assignment. Afterward they write a brief account of the process and the results. In reading these accounts, teachers can gain a sense of how well students use their time and whether students’ learning skills are developed sufficiently to handle the course load. Students become much more aware of their habits regarding study time and this awareness usually encourages them to use their study time more effectively.

One-minute Papers

The teacher ends class a few minutes early and asks one or two questions that students answer, on index cards or notebook paper, and hand in. Questions often asked are, “What were the main points of today’s class?” or “What point or example in today’s lecture would you like to see reviewed or clarified?” Even in a large class, reading through student responses takes relatively little time. At the next class session, teachers can address questions or problems students have raised.

In short, good assessment techniques both assess and teach; the time spent doing these assignments helps students learn more effectively and efficiently. When students are encouraged to take the time to gauge what they know and how well developed their learning and academic skills are, they begin to recognize the importance of learning how to learn, as well as the importance of course content.

Promoting Active Learning


“Active learning” means students engage with the material, participate in the class, and collaborate with each other.  Don’t expect your students simply to listen and memorize; instead, have them help demonstrate a process, analyze an argument, or apply a concept to a real-world situation.


Whether you’re facing a lecture hall filled with 300 students or a seminar table with 15 students, one of your primary goals for the class should be to actively engage students with the material. Students learn more when they participate in the process of learning, whether it’s through discussion, practice, review, or application (Grunert, 1997). This is in stark contrast to traditional styles of teaching, where students are expected to sit for hours, listening and, theoretically, absorbing information presented by the instructor.

Incorporate active learning strategies into every component of your course design. For example, encouraging short partner discussions during lectures (i.e., think-pair-share), adding problem- or case-based research projects to the curriculum, and incorporating time for small-group critical analysis exercises during seminars are all great ways to actively engage students in learning.

Because it can take time and creativity to develop active learning exercises, we provide many examples on the Teaching Commons website, particularly in Teaching Strategies. Keep reading for some sample strategies to help get you started.

Facilitate independent, critical, and creative thinking

Ask students to analyze, synthesize, or apply material, both during lectures and in assignments. Some examples include:

  • Case-based problem solving exercises – these types of exercises help students develop analytical skills and learn how to apply academic theories to real-world problems. Use case studies in a lecture and have students work out their solutions independently or in small groups, or use case studies as the basis for major projects or exams.
  • Debate – this is another active learning technique that helps develop critical thinking and logical reasoning skills. Present competing viewpoints in lecture and assign students to defend one, or both, of the viewpoints in a short (five-minute) written exercise or classroom debate.

Encourage effective collaboration

Collaborative group work can be an extremely useful addition to a large class. Some examples include:

  • Small-group discussions– there are many benefits to taking short think-pair-share breaks during a lecture. These small-group discussions help students understand and retain material, while also serving the broader goals of developing their communication skills and increasing their awareness of their classmates as learning resources.
  • Peer instruction exercises– one minute paper reflections or speed problem solving questions, paired with peer to peer discussion, can be a very effective teaching strategy. Upon completion of the question and at least one iteration, tally the answers.  Once the results are in, explain the correct answer and demonstrate why the other options are misleading (Mazur, 1997).

Research from cognitive psychology has shown that one of the best ways to improve understanding is to teach material to a peer (Topping and Stewart, 1998). Build this exercise into your classes through presentations, study groups, and quick, breakout “teaching” sessions, such as the one described above.

Increase student investment, motivation, and performance

When you invite students to actively participate in the learning environment, they take more responsibility for their performance in the course. Similarly, when they have an opportunity to make decisions about what they learn and how they use that knowledge, students see a course as more valuable and more directly related to their goals. For example:

  • Brainstorm learning objectives – if you involve students in the development of classroom activities, e.g., allow them to choose the topic of a short discussion or generate ideas about how a concept could be applied to a problem that interests them, it automatically increases engagement levels. Involving students in classroom activities also requires them to assess their understanding and skill and rather than allowing them to rest comfortably with a surface knowledge, it forces them to develop a deeper understanding of the material.

Incorporate active learning into your curriculum and transform your classroom into an exciting, dynamic learning environment.

Best Active Learning Strategies

1. Think-pair-share

Perfect for collaborative and cooperative learning, faculty briefly pause their lecture and ask students to pair up and discuss the material that was just presented. Students are then asked to prepare questions or share observations with the entire class.

An active learning technique like think-pair-share is effective after the first few lectures, especially if your class’s attention span for your course material is beginning to dip. This technique can also help to recapture enthusiasm, and remind students that their learning is not taking place in isolation.

2. One-minute papers

Towards the end of the lecture, students answer a question about the course material either individually or in small groups—give them about a minute. The submitted responses from this active learning activity can be used to gauge student learning and comprehension of the material covered in the class period.

Educator James Lang, author of Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, is a proponent of active learning—particularly the one-minute paper. Lang says that this learning activity is perfect for students to connect their ideas with the wider aim of the lecture. It will also allow students to reflect on what was taught before class is dismissed—in person or online. Pose one of the following two questions to students at the end of class:

What was the most important thing you learned today?

What question still remains in your mind?

The first question requires students to remember something from class and articulate it in their own words. It also encourages students to think on the spot. The second question encourages students to consider what they haven’t understood. To answer the second question, students have to decide where confusion or weaknesses remain in their own comprehension.

3. Quick quizzes

This active learning activity can be administered at the start of class or part way through a lecture. It should count as formative assessment—not for a grade, but to assess comprehension. These no-stakes quizzes provide an opportunity for students to reflect and recall information that was just covered before the instructor moves on to the next topic.

Students can complete these quizzes at the start of class to challenge pre-existing assumptions. You may want to ask the same question at the end of class in order for students to compare their understanding to the start of class. It will also allow you to engage in a meta-analysis of students’ performance. Frank Spors, Associate Professor of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences, leveraged these informal assessments to guide his lecture. “The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help,” he says.

“The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help.”

By facilitating pre-tests and post-tests, you can compare and pair the results of the two quizzes and get instant feedback about the effectiveness of your lesson. Did students understand, or do they need more clarification on a topic? Quick quizzes are a beneficial teaching strategy for helping you understand and collect student insights in the moment.

4. Muddiest point

This active learning activity pinpoints the area(s) that students are least confident about in the course material that was just covered. Students note the most confusing part of a lecture or course content and instructors can use these insights to determine how and where to focus future teaching efforts. Consider anonymizing student responses in order to make students feel comfortable. While the goal is to encourage participation, it’s equally important to respond to student feedback during the next class or as soon as possible after. Responding to students shortly after—when their curiosity is already primed—will help them link ideas together and encourage them to critically reflect on what they do and don’t understand.

5. Debates

Having students defend different viewpoints is an effective way to engage the entire class. With remote learning, debates help instructors check student comprehension and help students learn from one another—despite not seeing each other face to face. This activity works well in small groups versus large classes.

Role-playing provides a safe and fun way to explore new concepts and ideas, as Tony Crider, Professor of Astrophysics at Elon University, North Carolina, argues. In his classes—which are infused with active learning techniques—students are assigned roles of historical characters. One of his classes is called the “Pluto Debates,” where leading figures of the astronomy world argue over whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet.

Every student has a character sheet, with their victory conditions. For instance, the conditions outline: “You’ll win if the vote turns out this way or that way.” For Crider, the aim of this active learning approach is getting his students invested in how astronomers make sense of objects and how they make decisions together. The simulation aspect of this approach drew students into the point where they’ll often prepare more for Crider’s class than others.

6. Case studies and problem-solving

In this active learning strategy, students work in small groups or individually and apply knowledge gained from lectures or reading materials to a given scenario. This is more spontaneous than setting multi-week, large group projects. Provide students with a real-world contemporary case related to your curriculum and learning outcomes. It’s best to pick a case study or event that is a) relevant and timely and b) well-known to ensure all students are comfortable participating. Students respond to a set of questions prepared by you, which ask how the case study intersects with course material and the relevance of the case in comparison to another timely topic.

Large group discussions aren’t always possible—or easy to facilitate—with remote learning. Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at the University of Mississippi, suggests an alternative for small group discussions: breakout rooms. Instructors should consider breaking students into small groups with the understanding that they will need to report back and share their responses either live or via a discussion board or learning management system (LMS).

7. Peer instruction

In this active learning activity, students prepare and present course material to the class or in small groups. This approach encourages interaction and trust-building between students—especially important at a time where learning heavily takes place online.

Facilitate this active learning activity early in the semester to help students get to know each other. Thomas Hayden, Founding Director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication Graduate Program at Stanford University, teaches environmental journalism—an experiential class that mixes humanities and science students. The difference in academic backgrounds provides an opportunity for mutual learning powered by students’ own knowledge.7

Hayden explains: “As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. This class is half science students and half journalism students, so the science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”

“As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. The science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”

Hayden adds a twist: he bans students from using PowerPoint slides. This strengthens their creative and critical thinking skills on how they can communicate what they know to an unfamiliar audience. The result is a class primed to learn outside of their field and, equally as important, helps form peer-to-peer relationships that are so important to the higher education learning experience.

8. Flipped classrooms

Students’ attention fatigues over time—and this concern is even more pertinent when there’s no instructor present. James Lang finds that change renews attention and can help students focus more on the task at hand. However, in a flipped classroom, students watch pre-recorded lectures aligned with learning goals as homework and spend class time engaging in active learning activities. This alternative approach to the traditional classroom ensures students are actively involved in the learning process.

Flipped classrooms not only position students as more active recipients of the learning journey, this model additionally saves faculty time when planning instruction. Rather than delivering an hour long lecture, the flipped classroom favors short, concise lecture recordings that students can view on their own time. Flipped classrooms are dedicated to exploration, collaboration and interaction—three pillars critical to a largely remote active learning environment.

During class, students can actively apply concepts from lectures, readings or simulations through peer learning, minute-quizzes, case studies or other active learning strategies mentioned above.

The teaching resource pack includes:

Activities to Boost Student Engagement

Case Method Teaching

In Case Method Teaching, students review a real-world situation (a case) that poses a thought-provoking problem or dilemma. Students are placed in the role of decision maker and asked how they would resolve the problem. The real-life nature of cases brings interest and relevance to the application of abstract concepts and theory in practice. Students have to sort out and analyze data presented in the case, consider relevant theory, draw conclusions, and present solutions. Through teamwork and whole-class discussion, collaborative learning plays a large role in uncovering different solutions, understanding the pros and cons of each, and weighing benefits. First used in the professions, especially business, case method teaching is now widespread across disciplines. Case libraries have grown, and cases may be presented in a variety of media. Now, as online learning grows, educators are exploring case-based learning in online environments.

Coached Problem Solving

In Coached Problem Solving, small groups of students work on solving a problem by applying concepts just taught. The instructor facilitates, monitoring group progress and offering just-in-time coaching at each stage of the problem solving process. Embedded within a class, coached problem solving sessions are short, informal, and ungraded. Actively involving students in their own learning, such sessions are designed to develop and deepen students’ understanding and application of content just taught. As coach, instructors encourage students, help with problem solving strategies, and clear up misconceptions. They can informally assess individual and group understanding, and adapt instruction to enhance learning before moving on to new material. The value of coaching is not limited to in-class problem solving. Many team-based project courses rely on the guidance of team coaches who advise throughout a project. Peer coaches also can be effective in helping each other to solve problems. Early research on automating coaching gave impetus to development of more recent AI applications in teaching and assessment.

G+ Hangout sessions

G+ Hangout Sessions employ Google’s online group conversation to nurture interaction and to engage students in collaborative learning activities. G+ (Google+) is Google’s social networking site, which through Hangouts offers opportunity for free group video conferencing, and sharing of photos, emoji, and other visuals. Although in 2013 Hangouts are limited to 10 participants at one time, anyone can join using a computer, Android or Apple device. Hangouts On Air allows live video streaming for YouTube webcasts, which are concurrently recorded for replay on Google+ and YouTube. Through Google+ Hangouts, study groups and project teams can interact and develop ideas; teaching staff can hold live office hours for groups of students, host discussions on course material, and answer student questions outside the traditional classroom venue; and experts can be invited to share knowledge and experience from a distance. Such ongoing exchange of ideas is directed at heightening learning by cultivating student interest, involvement, excitement and motivation to learn.

Guided Discovery Problems

Guided discovery encourages students’ natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. Carefully constructed puzzles, problems, and questions push students to go beyond facts to discovery of principles in solving problems. Discovery learning is an inquiry-based instructional technique where students ‘learn by doing.’ Jerome Bruner, a renowned cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, promoted the approach on the basis that students are more likely to remember concepts and principles when they discover them on their own. Guided discovery problems may precede introduction of relevant content, allowing students to begin building their knowledge of the subject before class discussion. For example, in one example of a guided discovery problem on the phases and eclipses of the moon, students confront potential misconceptions about the moon’s movements around the earth. Using a polystyrene ball and a light source, many students are surprised to find that the moon’s phases are not caused by Earth’s shadow. Whether students collaborate or proceed individually, they are developing skills in disciplined inquiry fundamental to many areas of knowledge, and particularly to the sciences. As online learning grows, games of discovery will likely grow as well, bringing more sophisticated resources and real world challenges to guided discovery learning activities.

Just-in-Time Teaching

Just-in-time teaching actively engages students in learning new material and gives the instructor information on students’ existing knowledge before teaching on the topic begins. First, students respond to a Web-based set of questions, usually open-ended thought questions or exercises, about new material before it is covered in class. After reviewing student submissions, the instructor adjusts teaching activities to meaningfully address student shortcomings and misconceptions – just in time in the learning process. Through these warm-up questions and exercises, students and instructors are primed for a more productive instructional experience. In-class and out-of-class learning activities become more interwoven and pertinent, enhancing learning for students whatever their initial level, motivating active learning, and improving classroom climate. This interactive technique also provides baseline assessment of the state of students’ initial understanding of the content to be learned, including misconceptions. Such baseline information can be compared to similar information after instruction not only to assess individual student learning, but especially the effectiveness of instruction.

Online Forum Discussion

Through Online Forums, students can have discussions with each other on course-related topics. Students contribute to the discussion by posting messages to an online message board. A forum has a tree-like directory structure, which can accommodate numerous discussions and sub-discussions (sub-forums) down to a single thread of discussion on a topic. A new discussion initiates a new thread, with as many students joining the discussion and posting topic-related messages as want to comment. A chain of messages then document the conversation and may be archived for a period of time. While online forum discussions are relatively open, students sometimes must log in as authorized participants to post messages, and messages may be reviewed by a moderator before posting. Through learner to learner discussion, online forums engage students in active learning, and promote growth of collaborative learning communities. Online forum discussion is used widely in Stanford University courses. Stanford’s course management system, CourseWork, offers a software tool for online forums, CourseForum.

Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning focuses on real solutions to a problem. Once a problem is identified, student teams develop and demonstrate their understanding of the problem by proposing one or more solutions, often designing, constructing, and delivering a prototype. The focus is on building students’ ability to develop creative, realistic, tangible solutions to sometimes difficult problems through teamwork. Once a solution is agreed upon, the team must decide how to realize that solution with a product or service. Attention then turns to designing and developing a prototype of the product or detailed definition of the service. When completed, teams may present their solution to the class or in a demo session to a broader audience. Frequently combined, problem-based, project-based, and team-based learning are well-established teaching techniques at Stanford University. All are collaborative and involve active learning. Student teams may be interdisciplinary and, with online technologies, globally distributed. Problems may have local or global significance, and in some cases are provided by corporate and other partners.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning engages students in the process of problem solving: how to think about the problem and to find possible solutions. The focus is on developing students’ ability to think critically, creatively and productively about a problem, while also nurturing team skills. Challenged with a complex, real-world problem, students work in collaborative groups or teams to understand the problem and propose solutions. Often such problems do not have an obvious solution, but are examples of challenging, open-ended problems faced in our world today. Students must analyze the nature of the problem, identify what they need to know and how to find needed information, reach informed judgments, and apply what they learn to generate ideas for possible solutions. Frequently combined, problem-based, project-based, and team-based learning are well-established teaching techniques at Stanford University. All are collaborative and involve active learning. Student teams may be interdisciplinary and, with online technologies, globally distributed. Problems may have local or global significance, and in some cases are provided by corporate and other partners.

Retrieval Practice

To study for a big test, many students reread their books and notes. But even more effective would be to try to remember the material on their own. That’s retrieval practice. It is a kind of active learning that many students don’t make use of. The key idea is that retrieval can turn passively-absorbed information into true understanding and knowledge. In other words, when students recall what they’ve learned, on a quiz or practice test with the book closed, it improves their knowledge. They’ll do better on a test a week later than the students who just reviewed the material (Karpicke, Roediger III, 2008).


In Role-Playing, a student assumes the perspective of a participating character in a scenario designed to create greater understanding of a topic, surrounding issues, and human interaction. Although student input may be sought, the instructor stages the role-playing exercise, identifying the topic, characters, issues motivating interaction, and purpose. Before the play begins, students should research the topic, study their roles, and have a preliminary knowledge of the context and meaning of the situation presented. The playing out of the scenario can be relatively unstructured, allowing students to express the perspectives they represent, and how they impact or are impacted by the situation. Role-play is followed by a small group or class discussion to guide and consolidate learning. Role-play has wide-ranging educational applications, from the professions to the humanities, on any topic calling for understanding of diverse perspectives and attitudes. Today, online role-playing scenarios and virtual learning environments are possible and potentially available.


In Send-A-Problem, student teams participate in a series of problem solving rounds, and then evaluate alternative solutions offered by the different groups. Groups of two to four students work on different problems during the same period of time. Each group receives a problem, discusses issues, and offers possible solutions. Problems can reflect a variety of complex questions, often without one right answer. Teams record their solutions for later evaluation. Each group then passes the problem to another group, which also contributes a solution and passes the problem on. After a number of rounds, time is called and each group evaluates and selects a best solution for one of the problems and reports their conclusion to the class. Send-A-Problem nurtures collaborative problem solving and related thinking skills. The process encourages creativity in problem solving and emphasizes the value of different perspectives. Originally used in class, Send-A-Problem can be adapted for online learning through use of online forums.

Team-Based Problem Solving

In Team-Based Problem Solving, students form collaborative teams to solve a problem or undertake a project. Across each team, members should bring a diversity of complementary talents, knowledge and experience to the problem solving process. Team-based learning has many pedagogical benefits. Students engaging in teamwork typically develop greater problem solving skill and content understanding, higher motivation to learn and enthusiasm for course content, and present higher quality solutions. At the same time, through ongoing, focused team interaction, they develop more effective communication and interpersonal skills, and greater comfort participating in collaborative groups. With learning teams, the instructor takes on the important role of facilitator. Beginning with group assignment, the facilitator must nurture student groups to become functioning, self-directed, productive teams. Frequently combined, problem-based, project-based, and team-based learning are well-established teaching techniques at Stanford University. All are collaborative and involve active learning. Student teams may be interdisciplinary and, with online technologies, globally distributed. Problems may have local or global significance, and in some cases are provided by corporate and other partners.


Think-Pair-Share is a short activity designed to engage students in thoughtful consideration of a topic, and may serve effectively as a warm-up to instruction and class discussion on new course material. First, students individually think for a few minutes about a question posed by the instructor, then get together for a short period in groups of two (pair) to four students to discuss their thoughts, and one or more groups share the results of their discussion with the class. In addition to engaging with course content, students can reflect before speaking, and share their ideas in a low-risk situation before participating in full class discussion. Thus, both the quality of class discussion and students’ comfort in contributing to class discussion may improve. Think-Pair-Share also allows instructors to assess students’ initial knowledge and to modify instruction to bolster understanding and clear up misconceptions. Developed for use in class, this technique is just beginning to be adapted and experimented with in the online environment.

Remote Labs

Remote Laboratories are designed to allow a student or researcher to remotely conduct real experiments across the Internet. The experimental laboratory space, materials and operating equipment are in one geographical location, while the researcher is controlling experiments from a different, sometimes very distant location. In education, remote laboratories allow students to understand scientific principles and resulting phenomena through hands-on laboratory experience, “learning by doing,” from wherever they are located. Asking questions, systematically and objectively gathering data, and testing hypotheses to find answers is the essence of scientific inquiry. The conduct of scientific inquiry remotely has been practiced for years. Look, for example, to the many experiments conducted through NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. However, remote laboratory applications in teaching are newer, and are given significant impetus by growing research in robotics. Increasing demand for online learning similarly drives development, especially with the potential of reaching learners of all ages who are remotely located and without laboratory resources.


Grunert, Judith. The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co, Inc, 1997. Mazur, Eric. Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1997. Topping, Keith and Ehly Stewart, Peer-Assisted Learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1998.

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