Archive for the Teaching Category

Do you still use closed book exams? Why or why not?

A question from The Chronicle:


Do you still use closed book exams? Why or why not?


Yes and no.


I do not believe that closed book exams are necessary for most courses. For most people, it is a far more important skill to know where to find the information they need to answer their question and to have the skills to evaluate the information.


At the same time, I teach a 5/5 load with six different preps in rotation. To devise  a course that does not rely on closed book exams at all seems overwhelming at the moment.


I have different rules depending on the course. In an online course, the exams are timed and multiple choice, yet students can use their books and notes (just not each other). In upper-level face-to-face courses, I prefer giving students essay questions ahead of time and then randomly selecting from those questions, the questions they get on exam day. I really like this exam method. This strategy combines open book with closed book. Students have all the informationt they need to prepare, yet, have to rely on memory at the time of the exam. These are essay exams, however, and I have to account for grading time. My final exams are typically scheduled over the same last two days of exam week without a full 24 hours for me to get final grades submitted for the last scheduled exam. Due to the time crunch, I opted for multiple choice, closed book exams again this semester.


Honestly, exams in most sociology courses make very little sense. I would much rather students spend time writing well-developed research papers that draw on the material we cover in class. Perhaps phasing out exams should be part of my five-year teaching plan?

Broken Links and OER

The problem with OER…


Broken links


And students who don’t tell you a link doesn’t work…


One of the examples I use in Intro to Soc when we talk about gender is the John/Joan case. I had a lovely reading linked from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. I asked my class to tell me about hte John/Joan case. Crickets. I remind them that it was one of the readings. A couple of minutes later a student tells me that the link is broken to that article.


This tells me a couple of things:


  • Most students are doing any of the reading and never encountered the broken link.
  • Those students who did encounter the broken link chose not to report it to me.
  • OER that relies on linking to websites is risky. I’m not going to go back and assign a new reading at this point to account for that particular broken link. The reading will be missed. I’ll have to reevaluate what reading should be used in its place.


Supplementing an OER textbook with articles linked from the web is necessary to maintain coverage, but the risk of broken links has to be taken into account.

Arial? Times New Roman? Which Font to Use to Increase Accessability

Over the summer, I read somewhere that Arial font is the ideal font for online media for readability and accessibility issues. I have since opted to use Arial for everything. My preferred font to this point was Times New Roman. Times New Roman just looks so grown-up! I typically only used Arial when I was an undergraduate and needed one more paragraph to make my page length requirement.

Of course, I can’t find the original article that prompted my switch to Arial, but I wanted to read a bit more on the topic. In typical fashion, now I’m more confused and second-guessing my use of Arial based on articles such as this one.


I came across a post expressing hatred towards Verdana, but the author’s main point is that Verdana takes up more space in print, therefore uses more paper (like my Arial font strategy I used as an undergraduate).


I’m not sure how scientific this study is (I did no digging to find out), but I like the post because it lays out examples of different fonts side-by-side, so that you can see what the difference looks like.


Finally, I found a document about accessibility for both online and print documents that is useful.


Beyond readability issues, I had no idea that some fonts simply are not viewable on both Macs and Windows computers. While most of my students are using Windows, some are using Macs.


Why does this even matter? I’m thinking about my students. My students who have documented disabilites, but also those who don’t. Some students have undocumented disabilities. Some refuse any accomodations, while others simply do not know what accomodations are available to them. Moreover, I want to make sure my classes (both online and in-person) are accessible to all students. It is much easier to be proactive and make them accessible from the start rather than to revise in rush because of one student with a documented disability.



I’m still torn with which font works best for which setting. I’m sticking with Arial for now, but plan to do a bit more research on the topic.  Before I do that, I need to figure out how to change the font on this website…


Government Shutdown Snag Using OER

As I was finalizing my presentation on getting started with open education resources for tomorrow’s ICCFA conference, it dawned on me that under my list of potential resources a teacher could use, I include government sources (yes, I realize this is not strict OER). Uh oh! I am using government sources this semester. I reviewed my syllabus for the rest of the semester and found six readings that are linked to government sites. Fortuntately, only two are at shutdown links and I have printed copies of the readings. So this morning, I had them scanned so I can add them as .pdf files to Canvas.

In-Class Topic Brainstorming: In Action

Each time I assign a research paper, I require that topics be submitted for my approval early in the semester.  Most students submit a topic, but they are often very broad and poorly developed (i.e., I have an idea, but I have no idea what my research question might be). I read about in-class topic brainstorming at The Society Pages over the summer and decided to try it out this fall. I think it worked well. The topics students turned in were much more developed. Students also benefited in that I walked around the room and sat down with some of the groups to help them brainstorm, which they did not get from me under my previous method (i.e., turn it in and I’ll approve it or not). I had a better idea of what kind of topics students were interested in before I sat down to review their topics and could help guide them at an earlier stage. In-class topic brainstorming is definitely staying in rotation as a regular feature of any course with a research paper. 

What Does Universal Design have to do with Starbucks?

Reading about Starbucks’ plan to now offer braille gift cards year round, reminded me of universal design. I clicked around on the links to the Starbucks’ story and came across a checklist for web accessability. While the checklist is useful for a site such as this, I thought it is probably more pressing to make sure my online courses meet the guidelines. As usual, course revisions are a work in progress, but I plan to slowly work my way through the document.

Universal Design: PowerPoint Accessibility

Years ago I learned to avoid red, green, and yellow on PowerPoint presentations because these colors are difficult to distinguish for color-blind viewers. And, let’s be real, yellow font should never be used on a presentation and green and red are often hard to see on a presentation even for those of us who can see the full color spectrum. This is just good advice all around. Actually, this fits right into the idea of universal design.


I attended the 2013 ASA Section on Teaching and Learning Pre-Conference Workshop, “Universal Design: Interrogating Inequality in Learning.” The theme of the workshop was centered on moving from accommodating students with disabilities to making the classroom accessible to all. For example, avoiding red, green, and yellow on PowerPoints isn’t just accommodating color-blind students, but makes the PowerPoint presentation accessible to all. I don’t have to work so hard at reading your yellow font and can instead focus on your message. The goal is to move beyond accommodations by focusing on accessibility and therefore, reaching more students almost by default.


Universal design emerged from architecture. My favorite example from architecture has to be drinking fountain placement. By placing drinking fountains at an appropriate height for someone in a wheelchair, children also benefit because they can now more easily reach the drinking fountain, too. The original intent may have been to accomodate one type of person, but the unintended benefit is that other groups are also better able to reach the drinking fountain.


So, back to the PowerPoints. I must admit, that my PowerPoints are only accessible based on color-scheme. That’s it. I didn’t realize that there is more to having accessible PowerPoints until I attended this workshop. In my notes, I scribbled “black & white/high contrast” and “test access in ppt.” So, I found information on how to Check for Accessibility Issues. The PowerPoint presentation I made on Friday fails the test. I have an image on every slide without alternative text and no titles. To be fair, this presentation should actually be a screencast video, but I have not figured out how to do that on my Android tablet (which students are using in the class). The PowerPoint presentation was a compromise. I took screenshots of each step and then typed out what I would have said in the video. It isn’t perfect, but it will do for now. I know what I need to do to fix it, and that is now on my to-do list. (The alternative text will be an easy fix. The titles are trickier on this particular presentation or this would be done already because I almost always use titles. I might even just do an audio recording over a slideshow of the photos.) Of course, some will say that I should just do away with PowerPoint altogether. I disagree. PowerPoint can be useful, though most often PowerPoint is just misused.


While using the Check for Accessibility Issues feature is useful, this is after the presentation has been created. I’m all about doing things right the first time. So, Creating Accessible PowerPoint Presentations (also PowerPoint tips from Penn State) is helpful reading to make beneficial adjustments from the start.


Why is universal design important? I have students (and you do to) who may not realize they have a disability. Or, they know they do and do not want to be treated differently so refuse some or all of the accommodations they have a right to. Making the classroom accessible to all helps you reach these students. Moreover, it makes you better able to reach those students without disabilities, too. Think about it. Titles on PowerPoints not only help you reach those students who are having the slides read to them, but also those who are reading the slides themselves. Titles help the listener/viewer to follow the logic of the presentation. I really like the idea of making the classroom accessible from the start rather than layering in accommodations after the fact.

Image for Sociology of Deviant Behavior

2013-08-12 20.27.09I snapped this photo at a Duane Reade in NYC last week. I’m using it on my syllabus for Sociology of Deviant Behavior. Feel free to snag it and use it in your own class (with credit). I wonder how many people used their bare hands before DR decided to post a sign. Of course, this was at Times Square, so it’s possible there were cultural differences among tourists that influenced the sign.

Including Resume Items on a Syllabus

I am experimenting with including an entry called “Resume Items” on my syllabi this fall. I can wax poetic about what I believe college should be for, but the reality is that for most students (at least at my institution), they are after a credential to secure a job and hopefully experience some upward mobility. Combine this with the other known reality in that years later, students can’t recall what exactly they learned in a sociology course that was particularly useful or relevant to her or his life. My “Resume Items” entry hopes to correct for this to some extent.


Here is what the entry looks like for my Sociology of Deviant Behavior course (lower-level undergrad):



Upon successful completion of this course and all course requirements, you should be able to include the following items on a resume:[1]

  1. Use computer resources to develop a reference list
  2. Identify ethical issues in research
  3. Teamwork skills in diverse groups
  4. Critical thinking and analytic reasoning
  5. Written and oral communication


I suggest opening a word document with the above items noted and begin keeping a record of the ways in which you practice these skills during this course (and others). At the end of the semester, you will be the best judge as to whether you can demonstrate these skills and talk about them in a job interview. You might also specify your degree of skill: beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert, and so on.

[1] American Sociogical Association. 2009. 21st Century Careers with an Undergraduate Degree in Sociology. Washington DC.


I struggled with how many items to include. I made sure that they follow the learning outcomes for the course and the types of assignments students will actually complete. Each item comes directly from the ASA’s publication noted above.


I gave students some guidance as to what to do with this information, because I want students be clear about how they should use this information. They should not just copy and paste the items to a resume. They have to decide whether or not these are skills they can claim. 


What do you think? What would you include in your course? Do you include “Resume Items” on your syllabus?

Monographs for Deviance?

Here is the question I posed to the Teaching Sociology Google Group yesterday:


I am teaching Sociology of Deviant Behavior this fall and I am looking for suggestions for monographs. I plan to have students write book reviews, but need some ideas for books for them to review. What are books that you and your students like in deviance?


Some background: I teach at a community college. Most of the students in the course should be sophomores, but there will be a few that will be freshman. They have a range of reading levels. Many are planning to continue in criminal justice or social work, so I would like to have a few books with a criminal justice or social work bent. The class overall, is weak regarding deviance at the global level, so suggestions here would also be appreciated. We already use Adler & Adler’s Constructions of Deviance and Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for Day as our course texts.
So, tell me, what are your favorite monographs for a deviance course?