Adobe Spark for Education: How to Wow Your Students and Yourself

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

If you haven’t already heard of Adobe Spark, it’s an amazing free tool for designing visually stunning presentations, social media posts, and videos. I first stumbled upon Spark when I was trying to find something to use to create a really awesome looking web page. Well, it didn’t quite fit the bill there, but I did realize that Adobe Spark is perfect for education. So I created this:

Welcome to ENG 102 Click the image to view my creation

This Adobe Spark page was my alternative to the usual welcome message that I post in Blackboard. I thought, why not start the year off with something fun and visually stunning that shows students that this writing class ain’t gonna be what they’re expecting.

The best part of all: this was a cinch to create. If I were to make something like this using PowerPoint or Google Slides, it would take me all day and the final product wouldn’t be nearly as beautiful (or mobile responsive (you heard me: mobile responsive!)).* I probably spent two hours on this, which might seem like a long time, but it’s something that I can use for years to come.

Adobe Spark isn’t just great for welcome messages though. You can use it for your presentations too. Even better, students can use it for theirs. No more boring bullet points.

Check it out and create a free account today at

*Yeah, I just parenthesized my parentheses. Sue me.

To They or Not To They

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

My sharing of this video, created by the Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre, is simply an attempt to gauge how many English teachers and grammarians read this blog. I know you’re out there, and once you watch this you simply won’t be able to keep your fingers from typing in the comment box. Continue reading

Working Towards Better Classroom Discussions

Working Towards Better Classroom Discussions

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

I’ve always been amazed by good discussion leaders.

You know, the sorts of people who can ask just the right questions at just the right times to just the right people in order to evoke participation from an entire room.

Maybe it’s just because I don’t have much time to practice leading discussions. Despite what you might imagine, we don’t have much time for discussion in my English classes – we’ve got too much writing to do! It might be a different story if I taught literature, but my classes are pretty much focused on research and composition.

Now, my faculty development classes generally offer more room for discussion. Though, since I’ve never seen myself as much of a discussion leader, I tend to shy away from them in favor of other instructional strategies.

Recently, though, I decided it was about time to start thinking about working towards getting better at leading discussions, so I did what any bookish introvert would do: I started reading.

Now, this post isn’t going to provide an in-depth literature review of my research on classroom discussions. Instead, I’m going to give you a quick overview of two of the sources I have perused and then share a guide that I created for myself as a tool for leading better classroom discussions. Continue reading

The 4 Step Lesson Plan

The 4 Step Lesson Plan

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Were you thrown a new course a week before it starts? A day before?

Or maybe you have been working as a microbiologist in the field for decades and decided it was time for a career change. You know every thing that there is about the subject matter, but you’ve never received any formal training in how to teach.

Or maybe you’ve been teaching the same prep for years and have gotten to the point that your lecture notes have yellowed to the point that they are illegible, and you’ve decided it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

In this post, I want to share a simplified framework for planning your lessons that should help you in any of the above situations and more. The goal of the 4 step lesson plan is to ensure that our lessons are doing more than just covering content – that they are helping students to meet the course objectives in measurable ways. Continue reading

Google Forms for Anonymous Student Surveys

Google Forms for Anonymous Student Surveys

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

A week or so before a big project is due, I like to collect feedback from students to gauge their muddiest points with the assignment. Then I try to devote a bit of class time to addressing the greatest needs among the class. Continue reading

5 Blackboard Hacks for Smoother Course Design

5 Blackboard Hacks for Smoother Course Design

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Have you been using Blackboard in the same way for the past five years? Are your Learning Materials still a dumping ground for every handout and PowerPoint ever?

These 5 Blackboard Hacks will have you running a smoother course (for you, and your students) in no time. And if you use another LMS, I’m sure many of these principles can be applied to yours as well – the technical details might just be a little different.

Hack #1 – Organize Your Learning Materials By Week

Pictured below are two potential filing methods for Learning Materials. On the left, we have materials sorted by type. On the right, by week.

The left side appeals to the office organizer in us. Staples, tape, and paper clips go in one drawer. Pencils, pens, markers, and white out in another. And so on.

Ish Stabosz - Learning Materials

7 clicks on the left versus 1 click on the right

But courses aren’t office desks. Students don’t show up in your LMS and say, “Oh, I need a reading, where’s that? And now I need a quiz; let me go get one.” They log into your course at 10pm–after getting the kids to bed or coming home from their second job or what have you–and they say, “I’ve got an hour and a half to get my schoolwork done, what the heck do I need to do?!?!”

So, the less clicks the better.

Most courses progress in a relatively predictable chronological pattern, so if you organize your Learning Materials into weekly folders, each folder becomes a one-stop-shop for what students need to do at any given time.

But won’t my Learning Materials be really long? If I’m teaching a full semester, that’s sixteen different folders! My students will be scrolling for hours!


Calm down, calm down. There’s a hack for that too.

Hack #2 – Use Past & Future Folders To Keep It Clean

Instead of putting ALL of your folders into Learning Materials, you only present the current week’s folder, and hide the rest of the folders into two new folders called “Past Weeks” and “Future Weeks”. So, at week 2, your course might look something like this…

Ish Stabosz - Past and FutureEvery Friday, move your current folder into “Past Weeks” and then pull over the next week’s folder.

This method has the added benefit of providing students who fall behind with an obvious place to go to catch up, and it gives the go-getters a place to look at what’s coming up.

Slow down, Ish. My class is project-based. My students work on the same big project for weeks. Shouldn’t I use folders based on assignment rather than weeks?

-You again

IMHO… no. And that’s because you can always use…

Hack #3 – Focus Students with an Assignments Tab

There may be ways to make topic-based Learning Materials work, but I don’t think–in general–it will be as easy for students to navigate as chronological ordering.

Most classes progress at a pretty typical pace. You generally know what resources students will need to access and what milestones they’ll need to complete at any given point. If your course is more loosey-goosey, self-paced than usual, then I think it might work to organize folders by project.

Ish Stabosz - Assignments Tab

Wondering about that Zombie Survival, aren’t you?

Otherwise, I prefer chronological ordering of Learning Materials combined with an Assignments tab on the course menu. In the Assignments section, you can place all of the reference material and resources for each assignment or project.

That way, students who are sticking to the prescribed path can get everything that they need at any given moment in the Learning Materials for that week. And students who need to recheck the instructions, rubric, or graphic organizer for a project can just click on Assignments rather than digging through all of the past Learning Materials. Your assignments section might look something like this…

Ish Stabosz - Assignments Page

Hack #4 – Don’t Upload, Link

Okay, okay. I get it. I’ll organize my Learning Materials by week and I’ll create an Assignments section to organize materials by project also.

But what the heck is with that last screen shot? Where are all the document attachments?

– A slightly less skeptical, though perhaps more confused, You

Top secret information: I don’t attach files in Blackboard anymore. And it has improved my productivity by leaps and bounds.

Don’t you hate when you are teaching three sections of the same course, upload some assignment instructions to all three Blackboard courses, and then realize that you made a mistake.

Not only do you have to edit the original document. But you also have to remove all of the attachments and upload new ones (IN ALL THREE COURSES!!!). Imagine if you had that same file attached in more than one place on each course. Might as well just ignore the mistake and move on.

Enter Google Docs.

Google docs allows you to create documents (much like Microsoft Word) that can be shared via link. Wherever you paste the link, users can access the original doc.

Now, when I create my assignment sheet in Google Docs and paste the link into three different places on Blackboard, it’s much simpler to make edits. All I have to do is update the original doc and every course is immediately updated as well.

This post isn’t the place for a complete tutorial on Google Docs, but you can find some useful video tutorials over at Mr Ish’s Workshop, and Edudemic has a great post called 10 Things Every Teacher Should Know How To Do With Google Docs.

Hack #5 – For Extra Credit, Embed

I couldn’t think of another snarky comment to attribute to you.


– Me

Links are great. In fact, I spent exactly 223 words in that last section explaining how great they are. But sometimes, they aren’t enough.

Sometimes, you don’t want students to have to travel outside of Blackboard to access your content. Sometimes, as with a class agenda, you want it right smack in front of their faces.

That’s where embedding comes in.

Here is a screen shot of my Week 8 agenda embedded in Blackboard.

Ish Stabosz - embed

You might not be able to tell, but that isn’t a Blackboard content item, it’s a Google Doc, and all students need to do to view it is go to Learning Materials. No opening files or clicking on links. And I have the added benefit of being able to edit the agenda right from Google Docs, too.

This hack was tagged as extra credit because you might need to be a bit tech savvy to implement it, or at least be willing to jiggle the handle until everything works smoothly.

I’ll keep the tutorial brief. Two screen shots should be enough to help my more adventurous readers figure it out on their own. If you really, really, really, really want an in-depth tutorial, leave a great outcry in the comments. If there’s enough demand, I’ll post a follow-up.

Screenshot 1: What To Do in Google Docs

Ish Stabosz - Embed step 1

Screenshot 2: What To Do in Blackboard

Ish Stabosz - Embed step 2

Okay hackers. Get hacking!

Young Ernests Show You How to APA

Ish Stabosz - DJ

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Last semester, I began a new learning activity in my ENG 102 course: having students teach the class.

This is nothing new to academia. I remember my college years. Continue reading

5 Low Prep Student-Centered Learning Strategies



By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Sometimes, it’s easy to fall back on lecture or other teacher-centered instructional methods when crunch time comes. You’ve got a ton of grading to do, reporting deadlines to meet, and 1,001 emails waiting gloomily in your inbox.

There’s just no time to plan an engaging lesson.

Well, if you find yourself in such a situation, or if you are just looking for inspiration, here are five student-centered strategies that take very little prep time and can make a traditional lecture much more effective.


Instead of asking a question to the class and staring at blank faces until you call on that one go-to student at the front of the class who always has the right answer, try this.

  1. Ask a question or give a problem.
  2. Give everyone a chance to write down the solution on their own for a few minutes.
  3. Give students a few minutes to discuss their thoughts with a peer.
  4. Ask a few students to share their answer with the class.

Think-Pair-Share transforms an awkward Q&A into a chance for the entire to class to participate in the type of wrestling with a problem that your discipline involves. As an added bonus, students will share more deeply and more freely in front of the rest of the class if they’ve had time to think on their own and confirm their answers with a peer first.

The Minute Paper

It doesn’t have to be exactly one minute, sometimes two or three are okay. But the idea is that at the end of a lesson (or even in the midst of it) you give students a small amount of time to write down everything they know about the topic of the day in a focused manner.

For example, at the end of a lecture on the difference between summarizing an article and analyzing one, I might tell students “You have two minutes to explain to me how your approach to reading this article will be different if I am asking you to analyze it. Go!”

The Minute Paper serves as both an assessment for you (to gauge how well students absorbed the lesson) and also as summarizer for students (to solidify skills in their memory).

Concept Maps

A concept map is a visual depiction of how different ideas relate, like this:


Before a lesson or lecture, give students a list of 10 or so key terms, ideas, etc. that you’ll be working on today. Write them on the board or put them on a handout so that everyone can see them. During the lesson, have students draw a concept map to show the relationship between all of these terms. Encourage them to take other important notes in the white space on their map as well.

Priming Questions

If you are going to be lecturing or providing direct instruction, it’s a good idea to prime your students for the material by activating their prior knowledge. One way to do this is to use the first 10 minutes of class to allow students to think through a problem that the lecture material will help solve.

Think about why this material matters and pose a stimulating question to students. Give them a few minutes to write about their thoughts (even better, do a think-pair-share).

For example, if you are planning a lecture on capitalism for a political science class, you might ask students What do you think our society would look like if everyone was paid the same amount? Would you want to live in it? Why or why not?


A full scale debate might take a lot of prep, on your part and the students’. But, you can replace parts of a traditional lecture with a short mini-debate. Instead of lecturing on a topic that might normally take 20 minutes, pose the question addressed by your lecture to the class.

Then, divide them into two or more teams, and assign each team a different perspective. Give them 10 minutes to research (in the textbook, on Google, etc.) all of the evidence that supports their assigned position on the topic. Then give each team 3 minutes to defend its position.

For example, if this blog post were a class, I might pose the question Is student-centered learning worth your time?.

If your last name starts A – M, your on Team Red.

If your last name starts N – Z, your on Team Blue.

Team Red = Student-centered learning IS NOT worth your time.

Team Blue = Student-centered learning IS worth your time.

Defend your position in the comments. Go!

See what I did there.


Sustaining Student Engagement and Motivation

Ish Stabosz - marathon

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

If you’re anything like me, your motivation comes in waves.

At the start of a project, you’re all gung ho to dive in and get it done.

Then you get deep in it and realize just how draining all the fine details are. You get stuck in the weeds, so to speak, and your engagement with the project drops.

Maybe you start finding creative ways to procrastinate: You realize how messy your desk has gotten. You decide that stack of papers would be really fun to grade. You notice every 10 minutes that your coffee cup has gone empty. Continue reading

Timers, House Cleaning, and Student Success

Ish Stabosz - mop

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

PhD student Anjali Gopal recently wrote a piece for the GradHacker blog over at Inside Higher Ed called Setting Five Minute Timers.

In her article, Gopal talks about how the practice of setting short timers for herself has helped her check off to-do lists, get started on tedious task, and ignore the temptation to do everything perfectly.

Among Gopal’s experiences that I can relate to are the following…

  • Spending a half hour agonizing over the wording of an email
  • Ignoring the boring tasks (like tracking blog statistics) in favor of the enjoyable ones (like writing blog posts!)
  • Only taking 30 seconds to prep for a meeting (and maybe sometimes less)

Her solution to these problems is the five minute timer, the power of which she sums up as follows:

Using short bursts of high-energy work can be highly effective in finishing up stale tasks, getting started on daunting projects, and in giving thoughtful consideration to rushed decisions.

As I read Gopal’s post, I couldn’t help but think of FlyLady, one of my mother-in-law’s favorite internet personas. FlyLady encourages efficient and effective housecleaning and home organization to help her followers avoid “Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome”. One of her mottoes is “You can do anything for 15 minutes”, which she uses as a battle cry to inspire overwhelmed homeowners to de-clutter for 15 minutes a day (she even sells timers emblazoned with the motto).

Okay, okay. What’s the point?

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this on Forward Thinking, so am I.

No, just kidding. I’m getting there.

I’ve blogged about my 5-2-1-0 method for productivity in the past, but as I was reading Gopal’s post and contemplating the wisdom of FlyLady, I thought…

Wouldn’t it have been great to learn how to manage my time when I was a student?

Wouldn’t it have been helpful to learn how to organize a house before mine became a mess? (that is, exploded with children)

Seriously, I didn’t get productive until pretty recently.

I basically spent the majority of my life floundering around in all of my responsibilities until it became impossible to do so. That’s when I figured out how to get organized.

So, maybe I can do my students a good turn by helping them avoid the same pitfalls I fell into. I know I’m just an English teacher, but it shouldn’t be too hard to embed productivity tips into the course. One of the practices that Gopal mentions is to set a timer and then complete a task as if “that five minutes was the only time” she had to get it done.

That would be a quick and easy lesson to teach my students about rough drafts:

You’ve got an outline done? Good. Now pick one heading you want to work on. I’m gonna give you five minutes to write a paragraph about it. Pretend that’s the only time that you have. Ready. Set. Go.

And revision, students hate revision:

Listen up, kids. You can do anything for 15 minutes. We’ll practice it once in class today. But your final draft is due next week. Between now and then, spend 15 minutes a day revising your essay.

How about you? What are some ways that you can incorporate productivity lessons into your courses without losing instructional time?