Supporting student success in your teaching


This session was designed to help faculty learn about effective ways to (re)design their courses and use active learning techniques to stimulate greater student learning. The way our courses are designed and the activities we have students complete can have a big impact on student learning. Rethinking how courses are designed, taking into account advances in cognitive and learning science, can help students succeed and persist in the geosciences. Pedagogies that actively engage students with the material and each other can lead to deeper learning and more retention.

The active learning posters for this session were designed to be easily printed and used in a variety of contexts. There were formatted so that they can be printed out at full size and used with jigsaw (as below) and gallery walk exercises or printed out letter-sized to use as handouts. These posters have been used in stand-alone workshop sessions outside of this original workshop session structure.

Session goals

At the end of this sessions, participants will

  • Be familiar with the principles of backwards course design;
  • Be familiar with several different active learning strategies;
  • Have begun developing plans for implementing active learning strategies in their courses;
  • Be familiar with a range of evidence-based assessment strategies they can use in their courses.

Workshop session structure

When we used these materials in a workshop for geoscience faculty members (see the March 2016 Change Agents workshop program), we structured the session as follows. Details of the timing are listed below. This presentation, by Jan Hodder and Heather Macdonald, outlines and accompanies all of the following activities: Supporting student success in your teaching (Acrobat (PDF) 3.7MB Jun23 16).

  1. Scenario discussion
    • Each table of participants was assigned one of two scenarios to read and discuss. The scenarios are related to how the design of courses and activities can affect student learning. Participants read individually, discussed one scenario at their table, and then engaged in a whole group discussion of the issues raised by both scenarios.
  2. Course design process: presentation and activities
    • We presented information on "backwards course design" (Wiggins and McTighe, 2006), in which the design of the course flows from first articulating the goals and desired outcomes for student learning.
    • Writing goals exercise
      • Participants practiced writing learning goals for one of their own courses, considering the course context (size, format, and student population within that particular course). They were encouraged to use verbs that evoke higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy for the cognitive domain and to choose goals that can be assessed in multiple ways.
  3. Active learning strategies
    • Participants were split into groups and assigned to a poster with information about a particular active learning strategy. Each group summarized the method and answered the questions: When would the technique be especially useful? For what courses/topics might the technique not work as well? How much preparation before class does the technique require?
    • Participants then returned to their original tables. They each taught their colleagues about the strategy they learned about at the posters. The tables ranked the methods by time required for preparation. Each group then outlined and described teaching activities to help students interpret graphs using 3 different active learning strategies.
  4. Assessment & Feedback
    • We presented a number of strategies that can be used to provide formative and summative assessments of student learning. Emphasis is placed on "FIDEilty Feedback": Frequent, Immediate, Discriminating, Empathy.
  5. Reflection
    • Participants reflected on the morning's activities, writing about what they had learned and would use in their own courses, in answer to the following questions:
      • What ideas from this session are potentially useful for your teaching?
      • Why?
      • Which of those ideas is likely to give you the biggest "return on investment" – i.e., have the highest impact on student learning – while still being manageable?


The session was designed to last for 2 hours, following a mid-morning break and lasting until lunchtime.

10:00 AM - Scenarios and Discussion
10:20 AM - Slide presentation about Course Design, Goals, and Outcomes
10:40 AM - Goal Writing Activity
10:50 AM - Introduction to Active Learning and the Active Learning Jigsaw Activity
11:30 AM - Discussion of Assessment Strategies
11:45 AM - Individual Reflection
12:00 PM - End

Additional resources

Detailed information about teaching with active learning strategies are available through Pedagogy in Action:

Additional pedagogical resources are available via the Teach the Earth portal for Earth education resources, including


Note: Additional references are cited in the presentation and the posters.

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010) How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching

Handelsman, J.S. Miller & Pfund, C. (2007). Scientific Teaching.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design.