This week:

  • I pass along one reader’s approach for helping new students acclimate to college courses.
  • We ask if you’ve encountered less motivated and engaged students this year, as we’ve heard some readers have.
  • I share a reader’s question on what changes Black Lives Matter has inspired departments to make and which ones they plan to keep.

Take Note

As an instructor for an introductory course with 1,500 students,Tanya Martini thinks a lot about what first-year students need to succeed.

So a question we posed in a recent newsletter — from a dean looking for ideas on how to help this cohort of first-year students, whose educations have been so affected by the pandemic — resonated with her.

Martini, a professor of psychology at Brock University, in Ontario, wrote in to share the guided note-taking format she and her co-instructors use in their introductory psychology course, currently offered online to combined sections. The professors landed on the format ahead of the pandemic, but Martini thinks it might be especially helpful now, given students’ fractured attention and uneven preparation.

For each lecture, the instructors give students an outline of the lecture’s key points and a template to fill in. Martini hopes to roll out a color-coded “road map,” visually laying out the lecture, this coming fall.

The instructors strive to break up their lectures with activities, but they still ask students to do a lot of listening. And the students, they find, struggle with “knowing what to write down,” Martini said in an interview. “The guided notes were intended as a means of helping students to recognize what was central. And then, as they evolved for me, additionally it became a tool to help students retain a sense of the big picture.”

Martini, who shared in a previous newsletter how she makes explicit to students the skills they’ll develop in her courses, sees extracting the important information from a lecture as an important skill. Students might not know how to do it in their first year of college, but they’ll be expected to in future courses. And though they might not regularly listen to someone talk for an hour or two in their professional lives, being able to identify the main point someone is trying to make helps in just about any context.

Martini sees this effort as in keeping with the ideas of two teaching experts she follows: Viji Sathy’s emphasis on structure as important for inclusive teaching and Dan Willingham’s idea of building a lecture around questions in order to help students remember information.

Students appear to like the support; it’s something that comes up spontaneously in course evaluations, she noted.

Martini has wondered what happens to students who benefit from guided note-taking and aren’t given the same kind of structure in subsequent courses. So she tries to help them think through how they might do something similar going forward.

Do you give students a form of support they’re unlikely to receive in other courses? If so, how do you prepare them for the transition Martini describes, to recreate this resource for themselves? Share your example with me at and it may appear in a future newsletter.

Are Your Students Disengaged?

We’ve been hearing some troubling stories lately about student disengagement. The other week we shared a reader’s question about how to reach first-year students who were not doing the work and then failing out. Recently Beth talked to a faculty member at a large public university who said that many of her students aren’t coming to class, doing assignments, or participating in either classroom or online discussions. It has been a problem across her campus, in both introductory and upper-level courses.

Covid rates on her campus have been high, the professor notes, so that could be a factor. She and other faculty members have tried to be flexible with attendance, assignment choices, and due dates. But nothing seems to have an effect. “It’s kind of like nobody actually wants to be in college right now,” she said.

Have you seen a rise in problems with engagement or motivation among your students? If so, we would like to hear from you. You can fill out this Google form or write to Beth at

This ties right into the next session of our Talking about Teaching series of virtual forums. On Friday, February 25, Beth and I will talk to a panel of experts about motivation and engagement. Have questions to raise, or strategies to share? Send us an email, or join the Slack channel for the event. You can register here.

If you’re new to the newsletter or weren’t able to make the first session in our series, it’s not too late to watch the recording here.

Department-Level Changes

Stephanie M. Ernestus has seen many examples of changes made at the course and college level as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. But Ernestus, an assistant professor in psychology at Stonehill College, wonders about the level in between: academic departments. Her department has created a diversity chair, a role she’s currently filling. Ernestus wants to hear what other departments are doing.

“For example,” she wrote in an email, “we created a diversity requirement, where students have to take at least one class specific to issues of diversity within the major (currently Psych of Women and Multicultural Psychology) to graduate.” The department also designated a week early in the semester in which all professors discuss diversity in class, and partnered with its student-psychology club to put on events. Has your department made changes to respond to Black Lives Matter? Have they made a difference? Do you plan to continue with them? Let me know at, and your response might be included in a future newsletter.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at or

— Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.

Correction (Feb. 17, 2022, 7:15 p.m.): In a previous version, the newsletter item on Tanya Martini’s guided note-taking practice indicated that students currently receive the color-coded visual road map, which is still in development. The newsletter has been corrected.