Brad Thames – St. Thomas E-Learning And Research
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Brad Thames

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Designing and Teaching Short Courses

This post originated as a presentation given to faculty on November 13, 2020.  You can view the recording of that session here

In this post, we will present some considerations and strategies to help you design and implement an effective short online or hybrid course. For the purposes of this post, a “short course” is one that is equivalent to a semester-long course in terms of credit hours but is condensed into a shorter amount of time (for instance, a course that would normally be 15-weeks long is instead 5-weeks long).  Sometimes called “compressed”, “intensive”, or “accelerated” courses, they present unique challenges to both students and teachers, especially when all or part of the course takes place in an online environment.

Don’t Merely Condense

For instructors accustomed to teaching semester-length courses, particularly those converting a course they have taught during a whole semester into the short-course format, the first temptation to guard against is expecting to be able to just condense the longer course into the smaller one.  This is often inadvisable for several reasons, and it’s important to reflect on these reasons so you can make wise choices about what to include or leave out. 


First, for many students, some activities cannot be sustained for the long periods of time that would be required to complete them in the shorter time frame required in a short course. Examples may include reading a challenging text, doing complex mathematical exercises, or listening to a lecture. Suppose, for instance, you assign students a challenging article or book chapter.  The average student may be able to spend a half hour or an hour at a time on the reading before their concentration drifts and they start to lose the focus required for deep comprehension.  With several days to complete the reading, this may not be much of a problem, but what if they only had a day to do it, or had to complete several such readings over a few days?  Students with less capacity for long periods of sustained concentration may not be able to complete the readings, or may only be able to do so with diminished benefit. 

RunnerWe can liken this to endurance athletics training.  If a running coach has her athletes run 5 miles a day over 6 days, can she just have them instead run 15 miles a day over 2 days and expect the same kind of performance and benefits?  Obviously not.  Something similar holds for many academic activities, which likewise require a kind of endurance and stamina. 

Processing and Internalizing

Secondly, and relatedly, it’s important to consider the time needed to not merely “get through” material, but to process and internalize it. A rapid-fire encounter with a bevy of topics, ideas, information, arguments, and the like, may allow a student to check off a requirement if she’s clever enough to perform well on exams, but she will be likely to forget them as quickly as she learned them.  And courses that involve critical thinking need to give students the chance to think critically, which requires time to ruminate and digest material. 

Instructor Overload

Third, consider yourself, the instructor, here.  Short courses are not just time-intensive for students but for the instructors as well. As a general rule, to ensure that students complete the activities assigned to them there needs to be an associated assessment (a quiz, grade, etc.), and as we will discuss later in the post, a crucial component of short courses is timely feedback. Are you prepared to provide a meaningful assessment – and feedback – for (nearly) everything you assign?  Are you going to be engaged in all of the online discussions you assign?  Teaching short courses online is frequently much more work than instructors realize, and so you want to avoid overloading yourself. This isn’t about laziness or making things as easy on yourself as possible; it’s being realistic about the fact that good teaching takes time, and you want to be thinking carefully about where you want to be putting in your time so that it’s being used most effectively. 

Clarify Course Goals

Having discussed why you usually shouldn’t just condense semester-length courses into short courses without encountering significant problems, the question now is how to make decisions about the material, activities, and organization of a short course. 

The first task is to think carefully and be explicit about the course goals. Those of you who’ve participated in our course design workshops or who’ve worked with instructional designers in building out a course will know all about the importance of setting out the course goals or outcomes right at the beginning, or at least as early as possible in the process.  As important as that is in designing a normal course, it’s especially important for a short course given that a lot of decisions will have to be made about what material and activities are essential and what are not. 

Similarly, if you have tended to focus on content delivery, you want to think about how to translate that into outcomes.  Why is it important for students to read a particular text?  Can the outcome of that be achieved by substituting a different, shorter text, a combo of text and lectures, etc.?  If you’re working from an existing course but haven’t spent the time to carefully articulate the outcomes or goals, this would be a good time to do that, and the instructional designers at STELAR would be more than happy to help as it can often be challenging to pin that down. 

Next, you want to think about how you would prioritize those goals or objectives, because that’s going to help when it comes time to deciding what content and activities may need to be cut or pared down.  This can be quite challenging in cases where an instructor may have a range of goals or content that she would like to include yet would be too much to fit into the course.  But bear in mind that what seems indispensable to a content expert with command of the subject, years of experience and study, etc., may not, in fact, be as necessary for the student to know.  There’s a temptation among academics to design courses as if they’re training up other academics.  It’s how they were trained up, at least those who went through graduate school, earned advanced degrees, and so forth. So they’re accustomed to teach as if they were training up people like them, thinking about the major theories, arguments, etc., that one needs to know to be an expert in the field. 

Short courses force one out of that mentality, and in doing so it’s helpful to think less in terms of comprehensiveness or breadth and more in terms of depth or “meatiness”.  A soup metaphor may be apt (Kops, 2009).  If you’re transferring soup from a larger container to a smaller one, some will inevitably spill over, but you will want to ensure that it’s only the broth that spills rather than the heartier bits.  One commentator has suggested, as an exercise to help make those distinctions, to consider what you would do if you had to teach a course in only 3 hours versus several weeks (Lee, 2002).

Along those same lines, you may consider refocusing your course a bit more radically, making a more minor or secondary goal into one of the primary ones.  For example, if a semester course aims to provide a wide survey of a particular topic, such that a subtopic is comparatively minor, you may decide to focus the short course on that subtopic; in other words, to make the course much narrower. Students may not get the survey you would normally provide, and there may be many gaps in their understanding of the subject, but they may come away having given quite a bit of thought, attention, and discussion to a few subtopics in a way that has shaped their capacity for skillful and critical reasoning far better than a cursory examination of a wide range of issues would. 

Course Design

When you’ve done the work of articulating the course goals and prioritizing the aims and content, it’s time to think about how to design the course.  Again, there are reasons to avoid automatically designing it as a shortened version of an existing course, and material may need to be rearranged.  In the next section, we will present some common challenges students face with short courses, which will then inform a series of design considerations in the section following. 

Holding the Wheel

Consider that in a high-intensity course, late-course fatigue may be more of a factor than in normal courses; even the most dedicated and determined students may find it harder to sustain their concentration or think creatively.  Moreover, students may have a more difficult time catching up if they fall behind, and because of that there’s a greater danger that they will fall behind more precipitously than in a longer course, or give up altogether

Sophie P., CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The endurance athletics analogy is apt again here. As to the first point, a major endurance or skills test – like a hill or a technical part of a course – is far more difficult later in a stage than earlier.  But the more interesting analogy pertains to the second point.  A phenomenon commonly-known among participants and observers of endurance events, such as marathon running or cycling, is that when an athlete in front gains a gap – even a small one – on the athlete behind, the psychological effects can be profound.  So long as the trailing athlete “holds the wheel” or “the heel” of the athlete in front, she can produce the energy required to keep up, even if it’s far more than what her body would normally produce.  But once the leading opponent opens a gap, her motivation is quickly sapped, and not only can she not sustain the pace of the person in front, the pace drops considerably more, even less than she might produce on her own due to the impact of discouragement.

Similarly, in a high-intensity environment, falling behind even by a small amount can quickly give way to complete abandonment. As the student struggles to catch up, she is aware that more and more is piling up, like game of Tetris gone bad, and this feeds a sense that no matter how much effort she puts in she’ll never be able to get back on track, so it’s better to just abandon and eat the costs. 

One more consideration needs to be kept in mind.  Students have different learning styles (viz., visual, aural, verbal, logical, social, and solitary).  While it’s important to acknowledge this in the design of any course, the fast-paced and intensive nature of a short course make it much more difficult for a student who favors one learning style to adjust or accommodate herself to a course that emphasizes a different style.  For instance, an aural learner may be able to adapt to a course with a heavy reading load if she’s given plenty of time, but that’s precisely what she’s not given in the short course. 

Design Choices

For reasons like these, a few design choices are worth considering.  Some of these are not ideal, and some may not be possible for a particular course.  That’s why they’re considerations rather than “best practices” (and that’s why we spent time discussing their grounds above, so you can determine whether they apply to your own particular course).  

  • If possible, arrange more difficult, complex material and topics to be earlier in the course so students can tackle them when they are fresher and have a bit more time. (This may not be as easy in courses where the difficult, complex material requires a solid foundation to be built first.)
  • Include shorter, more frequent assignments in lieu of longer, less frequent ones. This keeps students active and engaged, and gives them more opportunity to catch up if they miss something.  For instance, divide up an essay assignment into shorter parts that scaffold onto one another, which can help them avoid the blunder of starting too late on the assignment.  Include several quizzes comprised of questions that you would normally include together on a larger exam.  And so on.
  • Schedule the first assignments as early as you can, even if it’s just a quiz on syllabus, a survey, an initial outline or abstract for their assignment or something like that. With such a short time frame students will need to jump right in, and scheduling assignments early can help with that.
  • Vary the activities they will be engaging in throughout the day, as well as the modes of presentation and engagement: readings, video, audio; academic as well as popular pieces; individual writing assignments, group discussions, collaborative assignments, media production; quizzes and journals, etc.
    This can be important for three reasons:
    • Varying the activities and modes is a way to keep things fresh, which is important to avoid burnout.
    • It’s a way of responding to the differences in learning styles mentioned earlier, which, again, becomes much more important in this intensive format. If everything is designed for one type of learner, a student who is a different kind of learner is much more likely to fall behind or be unable to cope.
    • It can give students an “out” if they fall behind, especially when it involves alternative modes of presenting or engaging with similar kinds of themes, such as an article or book chapter as well as a short video presenting similar ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving students different options for achieving the same goal (although you could do that), but it can mean the difference between a rudimentary engagement versus no engagement at all.   
  • Finally, look through your material and consider whether there is something, especially something that involves listening, that they could do while working out or jogging, doing laundry, eating lunch, etc. If they don’t need to have a text in front of them or necessarily be taking notes, but just need to listen and absorb, you build that into the course and designate it as a “listen” video or something like that.

Course Delivery

In this final section, we will consider some strategies to optimize the delivery of your course. As before, many of these are ones that are important to consider for semester-length as well as in-person short courses but become especially important when a course is delivered in a condensed online format. 

Leverage groups

Dividing students into smaller groups for discussions, activities, and assignments can have numerous benefits in the short-course format. 

  • You can have students conduct peer reviews of assignments, or early drafts of assignments, as a way to facilitate critical thinking and take some of the burden off you, the instructor, to be the sole source of feedback.
  • In the short-course format, in which students may be less inclined to read through many of their classmates’ posts and will instead choose to respond to the first post, the shortest post, the post of their friends, etc., smaller group discussions can help ensure that they’re engaging with a wider variety of perspectives (you could even require them to respond to everyone in the group).
  • Create collaborative assignments, such as group presentations, that allow them to divide up time and responsibilities.
  • Students have often reported that relationships develop better in these environments – just as they tend to do when people share intensive experiences – so you can think of groups as providing opportunities for that kind of bonding.


  • For most students, the short course will require significant adjustments to their study habits, and communicating time expectations can help quite a bit, especially in the early days. *resource.  Indicating how much time should they plan to devote to various aspects of the course can help them plan their days as well as prepare them mentally for the effort involved. 
  • You should also provide resources for time management if those are available. At St. Thomas, all students are enrolled in Tommie Tech, which includes a page on Success Routines and Time Management.  If a student contacts you because he or she is having a hard time keeping up, you can point him or her to this resource, or better yet, include a link to this page in your Canvas site. 
  • It also may be worth checking in with students a week or so into the course to ask about the pace. Are they finding it too fast, or even too slow?  This can be a way for you to adjust if necessary, and at the very least it reinforces to the students that you are concerned about pace and workload rather than just wantonly piling things on. 

Be a Resource

  • Since students are often having to traverse a large territory in a short amount of time, reading and study guides are especially important to help them know what is essential for them to know and remember. 
  • When providing instructions for assignments, discussions, and the like, be as clear and explicit as possible.  Remember that in the intensive environment, students won’t have as much time to ask you questions, get clarifications, etc., nor will they have as much time to work out details on their own. 
  • Providing regular, timely feedback helps them stay focused, motivated, reminds them that you’re present and that they’re not just taking a correspondence course or the like.

Be available

  • Hold office hours regularly. 
  • Provide a Zoom link that serves as a “office door” – if you’re available (at your computer working, for instance), you can open Zoom like you might open an office door, even outside of regular office hours, in case students may want to pop in. 
  • Check email on a regular schedule, and communicate that with students.
    • For instance, you can communicate to students something like, “I’ll check my email every day at 8am, noon, and 4pm M-F.  So if you send me an email, you can expect a reply within 30 minutes of those times.”
      This is a great way to ease their anxiety and help them budget their time. If a student only has a small amount of time to complete an assignment but needs a question answered, knowing when to expect that answer greatly reduces stress and gives the student the freedom to wait on the answer before trying to proceed. 

Be flexible, supportive, and understanding

  • As we mentioned before, we have to be attentive to different learning styles and how it’s harder to adapt to a mode of delivery that favors a different learning style in such a short time frame.
  • Be ready to accommodate contingencies and off days. Everybody has the experience in which something unexpected comes up that draws you away from your work, or you’re simply having an off day in which you can’t focus or your body woke up but your brain slept in.  In a normal course a student can usually afford that, but an intensive environment, this can be disastrous. Once they fall behind a little bit, it’s not only hard to catch up, it saps your motivation and energy as we discussed earlier.  The question we instructors have to ask ourselves is, what do we want to have happen to a student who experiences that?  Do we want them to be left in the lurch or do we want to make sure they are able to be reintegrated with the class?  Assuming everyone prefers the latter option, as we design and deliver our courses we have to keep in front of us that student who will get sick, have to contend with a family crisis, have an off day, etc., and how we will help ensure that student will be able to finish the course successfully despite that. 
  • There’s also the anxiety and pressure, some of it due to the intensity of the course but much of which is due to the students being aware of everything we’ve been discussing – the fact that she has a different learning style, that he’s at home with his family, that if she has an off day or an unexpected demand she’ll fall behind and be unable to keep up. So being aware of and sympathetic to that in the way you design and execute your course can be very consequential. 
Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

A Taxonomy of Online Discussions

Discussions have always been a vital part of education. When education shifts to online delivery (at least partly), especially during times of necessity like the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, many instructors seek ways to translate the discussion strategies and approaches that have worked well in the traditional, physical classroom environment to the online environment and to take advantage of strategies and approaches unique to it.

In this post, we will help facilitate that by (1) outlining the most common types of discussion found in both online and physical classrooms. We will then (2) describe several ways in which discussions might be structured. Finally, we will (3) present a variety of ways instructors might approach an online discussion that can utilize these structures and fulfill the aims of one or more of the various types.

Many of these strategies have been discussed in more detail in other STELAR Blog posts about writing effective discussion prompts:

Review Planning and Facilitating Online Discussion Boards and visit the STELAR training courses for more important general guidelines, strategies, and advice. This is especially important for adapting these approaches to your own course with its unique aims and objectives. Faculty can find STELAR training courses on their Canvas dashboard.



Broadly speaking, whether inside of the physical classroom or online, discussions will frequently fall into one or more of the following types:

  1. General reflection
  2. Reading/media/lecture responses
  3. Application
  4. Debate
  5. Collaboration

The type of discussion corresponds closely to its objectives, and that, in turn, relates to the objectives of the course itself. So when we’re planning an online class, especially one that takes its bearings from a traditional physical course with an important discussion component, we want to consider what type(s) of discussion we’re seeking to facilitate in order to fulfill the objectives of the course.

When we discuss various approaches below, we will indicate the type(s) of discussion each approach can facilitate.

Most approaches can be structured in a variety of ways, some of which are more effective than others depending on the course, students, and content, so let’s first consider some of those structures before moving on to the approaches.



By “structures” we are referring to such factors as how the classmates interact with each other, the instructor, the course content, etc.; how the prompt is presented; how the response(s) are presented; and so on.


The standard and most common structure involves the instructor posting a prompt to which each student must respond. Typically students and the instructor will then comment on what other students have said in response to the prompt, and ideally that will instigate further dialogue.

This works quite well for many discussions, but often discussions can benefit from taking a different approach, whether because the different approach can better fulfill the goals of the discussion or just to mix things up a bit and make it more interesting and fresh for the students (and the instructor!). Just as in the traditional physical classroom, a different structure can “spice things up”. Here are a few such alternatives.


Students are divided into active participants and observers. (The name “fishbowl” comes from the physical classroom setting in which the active participants are often in the middle – the “bowl” – while the observers are “outside the bowl”.) By reducing the number of discussion participants, it can encourage more reticent students to participate, provide more impetus for participating students to prepare, keep the discussion focused, and so on.  And those who are in the observer role can process the discussion without the pressure (or in some cases, the opportunity) to contribute, which can also be pedagogically fruitful.


  • Part of the class discusses for 10 minutes while the others observe, then they switch.
  • Part of the class engages in discussion while the other half writes a reflection paper on the discussion.
  • At the beginning of the semester, students sign up for an equal number of sessions as active participants and as observers.
  • Each week includes two discussions, and each student is a participant in one and observer in the other.

Sequential prompts

Begin with simple or specific prompt, give them time to respond, then follow up with another prompt eliciting further complexity, depth, critical analysis, etc. For instance, instead of posting the entirety of a 2-part or 3-part at the beginning of the module, the instructor may post Part 1 on Day 1, Part 2 on Day 3, etc. Or post different parts in subsequent weeks. This can help students focus on earlier parts before moving on to the later parts, and it also can be an effective stimulus to critical thinking when the subsequent parts have them expand, reconsider, apply, or defend their response to the earlier parts.


  • Present the first part of a thought experiment and have them respond to some questions. Then, present a “twist” to it that upends assumptions, forces them to confront a possible conflict with their original response, etc.
  • Present a case study sequentially, only revealing a bit at a time. (This can impress upon them the importance of considering all the relevant information before forming judgments.)
  • Present a prompt having them reflect on an important concept before engaging the week’s content. Then follow up with a prompt having them consider the impact the content had on their original reflections.
  • Ask for an example pertinent to the week’s topic, then in a follow up have them turn back to something earlier in the course and consider how that example relates.

Student creates question

Designate a student or group to provide the prompt for the rest of the class. This can work especially well with approaches 1-3 below.

1 comment 1 question

Students are required to make 1 comment and raise 1 question in response to a prompt, another student’s post, etc.

Often providing a simple structure such as this can help focus student responses in a way that encourages them to engage multiple modes of thinking (it may be more difficult for a student to think of a question than to think of a comment, for instance). This approach can also rein in on some students’ tendency to be too verbose and/or unfocused and require them to sort through their ideas in order to select which one to post. Finally, when used as a requirement for responding to peers, it can facilitate interesting dialogue as the original poster has a multifarious response to consider.


Students are presented with a problem or claim or some other stimulus and debate about the best interpretation, response, answer, etc. This could be done in a “fishbowl” style with individuals or small groups debating while the others observe, or it could be done in larger groups.


  • Formal written debate: students/groups could be asked to provide, e.g., an “opening statement” on Day 2, a “response” to the other’s opening statement in Day 4, and a final “reply” on Day 6.
  • Informal debate (such as those one may find on social media platforms):  increase discussion requirements such as how frequently they are required to post, how many separate days, how many replies to peers, etc., while providing a similar overall word count requirement to other discussions.
    • Generally, the best informal debates will involve frequent back-and-forth and will avoid excessively long and detailed posts, so having a high number of posts/days/replies could be advisable.
  • Use this as a way to break up a Zoom class. Spend 20 minutes in a “Formal” debate between two individuals/groups, and the next 20 minutes opening it up to the rest of the class, followed by 20 minutes of instructor commentary.
  • Collaborate on a VoiceThread involving Side A’s opening remarks on a slide, Side B’s opening remarks on the next slide, etc., and the rest of the class can comment on each part.
  • Combine with the “Roleplaying” by assigning students a side to defend rather than allowing them to choose their own.



In this section we describe several different approaches instructors may take to the discussion, each of which could utilize any of the structures described above. For each approach, we have indicated which of the four discussion types the approach is particularly well-suited for, though there is no reason, of course, why they could not be adapted to other types. And we have included a list of variations, to which countless more could be added (and we heartily welcome any additions you might contribute).

A few things to bear in mind as you’re considering these:

  • Discussions may contain several parts (or be parts of a sequence), each of which incorporates a different approach (e.g., Part 1 is a Comparison, Part 2 is a Case Study exploring the practical implications of the differences; or Part 1 asks for examples, and Part 2 is a Proposal/Plan).
  • If you are teaching a course that includes asynchronous and synchronous components (e.g., students participate in an asynchronous, written discussion board before meeting together synchronously in a physical classroom and/or on Zoom), you could use one approach for the asynchronous part and another approach for the synchronous part.

Reflection Question

Basic Approach:

Possibly the most common type of discussion, this approach asks students to share their thoughts and reflections on a topic.

Discussion Types:

Naturally this is the paradigm of a Type 1 discussion, but it is also a frequent way to approach a Type 2, 3, or 4 discussion.


  • Should…?
  • What is your reaction to…?
  • What are your thoughts on…?
  • How should…?
  • Is X too…?
  • What does X mean…?
  • What are the 3 most important…?
  • What is the best way to…?
  • How is X understood by…?
  • Could you…?
  • How much do you know about…?
  • Have you ever…?


Basic Approach:

Students are asked to provide an analysis, interpretation, reaction, or some other response to the content. The quality of the discussion often depends partly on how well-crafted the prompt is. Vague or highly open-ended prompts may elicit good discussions, but just as often they may elicit long, rambling responses from some, vague and vacuous responses from others, and a lack of cohesion or focus overall. On the other hand, prompts that are too narrow or which have right/wrong answers may fail to generate depth, meaningful dialogue, or critical reflection.

On the other hand, instructors may intentionally craft a prompt that has these “problems” as part of a sequence or when intending to be heavily involved in facilitating the discussion.

Discussion Types:

This is primarily a Type 2 sort of discussion, but it could also be the stimulus for or a preliminary to Types 1, 3, and 4.


  • Many of the approaches described below could be considered variations of the basic analysis/interpretation approach.

Quote / Passage / Concept

Basic Approach:

The discussion or discussion threads center around a particular passage, quote, or concept encountered in the course material. It may ask for an interpretation, explanation, analysis, reaction, etc.

Discussion Types:

This is primarily a Type 2 sort of discussion.


  • “Explain to a child”: Provide the passage (e.g., a complex or challenging one), students are asked to summarize and explain it in terms that are simpler and clearer. Other students provide feedback. A downside is that students might rely too much on how their peers have responded. Here are some ways around that:
    • Set up the discussion so that students must first post before they can see what other students have posted.
    • Provide a series of quotes, students choose them on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Each student identifies a quote/passage and explains why it stood out, etc.
  • Save the last word“: Designated student(s) identify a quote and post it as the discussion prompt (or the start of a thread within the discussion) without comment. Other students comment for a few days, not knowing why the student chose that quote. After a period of time, the original student responds. See Karin Brown’s post for more details.

Question / Confusion / Muddiest Point

Basic Approach:

Have students identify something in the course content (readings, lectures, etc.) they are having particular trouble with.

Discussion Types:

This type of discussion is a response to course content, so is particularly well-suited to discussion Type 2.


  • Each student raises a question or confusion and responds to ones that classmates have raised.  Students should be prompted to explain the question or confusion.  May add a “first come, first served” element so students are encouraged to get into the discussion early.
  • Divide up the class into small groups (e.g., 5 students), have 1 present question, the others respond. Can lead to interesting nuances, reveal disagreements and deeper confusions, etc.


Basic Approach:

Students review the course content under discussion and raise a possible objection to some part of it. Alternatively, the instructor provides a specific argument, claim, position, etc.

Discussion Types:

Primarily either Type 1 or Type 2, it can be a good way to facilitate reflection, understanding, and critical thinking by being able to formulate an objection to an argument or analysis (especially when one agrees with it). It can also be a form of Type 3, especially since many objections will emerge as an argument or concept is applied to new cases.  It could additionally be the basis of a debate (Type 4).


  • Have each student raise a possible objection and respond to that objection from the point of view of the argument, then assess the strength of the response.
  • Divide the class into “Pro/Con”. Have half the class (individually or as groups) raise an objection and the other half respond.
    • This can be a good prelude to a synchronous discussion (physical or online) in which the class assesses the debate.


Basic Approach:

Students are asked to compare/contrast/relate different things. These could be readings, media, images, concepts, arguments, events, outcomes, plans, etc.

Discussion Types:

This could be used in any type of discussion.


  • Students identify 3 points made by author A that author B would contend with.
  • Relate a piece of fiction with a non-fiction piece.
  • Pair this with a “Roleplaying” or “Ask for Examples” discussion.
  • Analyze the strengths/weaknesses of rival methodologies in terms their applications.
  • Compare points of view within a text.
  • Compare the approach to an issue or problem of one discipline with that of another.
  • Students work on some project independent and compare their results as a form of collaboration.


Basic Approach:

Students are asked to assume a certain role and respond to the prompt from that perspective.

Discussion Types:

This works especially well as a Type 2 (Application) discussion when the role in question is that of someone having to perform a certain task.  It can also be a Type 1 discussion if adopting the role in question requires a grasp of the relevant concepts, facts, history, and so on. And it can be an excellent way to approach a debate (Type 4). As Karin Brown states, “this method works well if you want students to discuss a thorny issue that has many different viewpoints and stakeholders.”


  • Students are given the role of a professional (manager, caregiver, scientist, engineer, programmer, etc.), given a certain problem or case, and prompted to respond to it.
  • Students are given a text (or other source) with characters (real or fictional) and they have to adopt the perspective of one of the characters in response to a prompt (such as a scenario, a conceptual dispute, another text, etc.).
  • Can be used in conjunction with a debate-style discussion by having students take on the role of opposing sides in a debate.
  • To facilitate understanding, broad-mindedness, empathy, critical reflection, and other such virtues it could be instructive to have students adopt a role quite different from their own.

Case studies

Basic Approach:

Students are presented with a particular situation or problem and they must discuss how to respond to it.

Discussion Types:

This is a paradigmatic Type 3 (Application) discussion. However, these are often used dialectically in conjunction with a reading or lecture as a way to deepen an analysis, assess understanding, and so on. It can also serve as the catalyst for a debate by having students defend rival interpretations or responses, as well as a stimulus for general reflection.


  • Students are divided into groups and given different cases to analyze, then present a summary to the rest of the class.
  • Have students briefly explain and then apply a methodology to the case.
  • If there are alternative or rival methodologies and approaches, divide the class into groups, each of which takes a different one in response to the same case. This can be the foundation for a later synchronous discussion or a later part of a “sequential prompts” structure.
  • Have students analyze the conceptual issues questions that a particular case elicits without expecting them to resolve it. This can be part of a “sequential prompts” structure if they are later asked to discuss possible resolutions.

Thought Experiment

Basic Approach:

Students are presented with a scenario, but unlike a straightforward case study, the scenarios in thought experiments are deliberately designed to focus attention on some particular concept or problem.

Discussion Types:

Given that thought experiments are generally more artificial and contrived than a case study, they will often be more of a Type 1 or Type 2 discussion than Type 3 .  But like Case Studies, they can be the catalyst for a debate as well.


  • Present multiple versions of a thought experiment with slight but significant variations.
    • Have different groups analyze each one and discuss the similarities and differences that emerge.
    • Use the “sequential prompts” approach (above) to introduce the variations.

Ask for examples

Basic Approach:

Students are given a concept, problem, idea, theory, or other stimulus and asked to provide their own example of that.

Discussion Types:

Asking for examples is a very common and effective way of engaging students in general reflection (Type 1). The challenge of thinking up an example that represents a particular idea is a powerful way to gain or assess understanding of that idea and as part of the process of critical analysis, fitting with Type 2 . It is likewise a form of application given its practical, concrete character, serving as a Type 3  application discussion.
Moreover, it involves a significant amount of creative and original thinking that could lend itself to a Type 5  Collaboration-style discussion as a stage toward the completion of a project or assignment.


  • Examples from personal life
  • Examples from popular culture (literature, film, TV, etc.)
  • Examples from history, current events, etc.
  • Examples from professional experience
  • Examples students imagine or create


Basic Approach:

Students are given a scenario, case, problem, set of parameters or conditions, etc., and asked to draw up a plan or proposal for addressing it, or present an abstract, outline, bibliography, or something similar that will be the basis for an essay.

Discussion Types:

This is best as a Type 3 and/or Type 5 discussion. Working individually or in groups, students can apply the concepts and procedures they have learned in direct, concrete way. When the proposal or plan serves as a starting point for a project or assignment, students can use the discussion boards collaboratively to provide feedback on each other’s work.


  • Research proposal
  • Business model
  • Treatment plan
  • Essay abstract/outline/bibliography
  • Presentation outline
  • The Charrette protocol

This is a work in progress that benefits from contributions from others. Please feel free to share comments and suggestions.

This post was written by Brad Thames, Instructional Designer with the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Text-Expansion Software

Want to cut down on repetitive tasks while teaching online? Need a way to organize and retrieve bits of text?  Try text-expansion software!

What is Text-Expansion Software?

Text-expansion software (also sometimes called a “typing accelerator”) allows you to create a “snippet”, which can be anything from a single word or symbol to whole passages of text along with an associated abbreviation that, when typed, gets replaced by the text.  As I explain more below, if you find yourself typing things out on a regular basis, text-expansion software can greatly cut down on the time it takes to do so.

In addition, it can also be used as a helpful way to store and organize text, such as quotations and passages you want to save, posts or messages that you’ve written and want to reuse, bibliographical citations, etc.; and it can serve as an “autocorrect” feature of the sort you may be used to in programs like Microsoft Word.

In this post, I will explain how features like this have made text-expansion software one the most indispensable tools in my daily life and work, especially teaching online.

The software I use, and which I will showcase in this post, is called aText.  It’s been available for Mac users for years, and as of this 2020 it’s now available for Windows as well.  The Mac version costs only $4.99. The Windows version is $5/year for a subscription or $25 lifetime.

Another alternative for both Mac and PC is TextExpander.  It’s a bit pricier – $3.33-$4.16 per month, depending on the billing plan – but it is a bit more robust and works on more devices (such as phones and tablets).

There are some other programs, but I can’t speak to any of their features or quality.

How It Works

The primary function of the software is text expansion, but I also find it quite useful for organization as well. I will briefly explain how each of these works before saying more about how I implement these functions when teaching.

Text Expansion

“Text expansion” involves typing a string of characters (a shortcut, or what aText calls the “Abbreviation”), and the program replaces that with other text (called the “Content”).

Screenshot of a Snippet


Expansion with Trigger Character

In most cases you would begin the shortcut with a “trigger” character, which in my case is an apostrophe (‘).  For instance, if I want to quickly insert my email signature, I can type ‘sig, and the program will replace that with my full signature. (Using just sig as the shortcut for the full signature would mean that every time I typed sig it would replace it with my email signature, which would make typing a word like “signature” impossible – once I type the first three letters, the whole signature would appear before I can type the rest of the word; that’s why I use the ‘ as the first character of the shortcut.) But the trigger character can be anything you want. The key is to cut down on typing; I find the apostrophe the most accessible trigger, but others may prefer a different one.

Expansion Without Trigger Character

In other cases it may not be necessary to use the trigger, such as when you want the program to always change a certain string of characters.  For instance, I have things set up so that b/c automatically changes to because, w/ to with, lmk to let me know, thru to through, and so on.

In this short video, I write an email letting my students know about upcoming office hours (an email I might frequently send and thus have a shortcut assigned to it), and demonstrate the use of text expansion with and without a trigger character.


The program also provides a handy way to organize blocks of text that you may want to be able to find and retrieve. As we will see below, this is quite useful when it comes to organizing discussion posts, assignment comments, emails, and other ways of engaging with students. You may also, for instance, find yourself writing similar emails on multiple occasions, but not so much that you create a shortcut for it.

In such cases you can use the shortcut or “Abbreviation” space to instead write a tag that allows you to quickly locate the text you want, which you can then copy and paste. I use capital letters for that tag since I will probably never write those words in caps otherwise. Or, you may precede the tag with a character like !.

In this screenshot, you can see that some emails have a tag, because I write them more frequently, while others don’t either because I don’t write them as frequently or because I may have multiple versions stored in the Content window.

Screenshot of Abbreviations

Use in Grading

One frequent use is in written assignment grading for online classes or any class in which papers are graded with a computer rather than by hand.

Let’s begin by noting a potential advantage that computer-based grading can have over hand-grading: instructors can provide comments that (a) don’t fill up the page with ink and (b) are reusable, and so don’t require rewriting the same or similar comments over and over.  This is especially handy when it comes to making more detailed and substantive comments, and so computer-based grading offers the opportunity to greatly expand and enhance the feedback we provide to students while cutting down on time.

Text expansion software brings out this potential wonderfully.

I have a large database of generic writing comments that I use frequently, regardless of the course or assignment, and that can be triggered with a few keystrokes.  In the following examples, the shortcut – what I actually type – is the string of characters before the –>, and it gets automatically replaced with the text after the –>:


  • ‘inc –> This is an incomplete sentence.
  • ‘removeap –> Remove the apostrophe. This is a plural noun, not a possessive one.
  • ‘reword –> Can you reword this sentence to enhance its clarity and ensure that it’s grammatically correct?
  • ‘informal –> This language is a bit too informal or conversational in style. Academic writing is structured and formal. What may seem appropriate in everyday conversation is not necessarily appropriate for an academic essay.
  • ‘citepage –> You need to be sure to include the page, paragraph, or section number when quoting a text – something that allows the reader to identify as closely as possible where in the text the quote comes from.
  • ‘quoteexplain –> While it is good practice to support your arguments with relevant quotations, it is important to explain what you take the author to mean and how it relates to what you are saying in the paragraph, i.e., whether it provides a challenge or support for your own argument, and how it does so.  I should never be left wondering why you included a quote, or what role the quotation plays in the context of your own discussion.
  • ‘informal –> This language is a bit too informal or conversational in style. Academic writing is structured and formal. What may seem appropriate in everyday conversation is not necessarily appropriate for an academic essay.
  • ‘whom –> This should be “whom”. Remember to use “who” when referring to the subject of a clause, and “whom” when referring to the object of a clause.  For example, “this is the person who came to my house yesterday” vs. “this is the person to whom I gave the key to my house yesterday.”  In the first sentence, “who” refers to the person that did the action (the subject); in the second sentence, “whom” refers to the person that the action was done to (the object).
    Or: “who married Bill last year?” vs. “whom did Bill marry last year?”
    An easy way to remember this is to think about when you would use “he/she” vs. “her/him”.  “Who” is used in the same way that “he/she” is used, and “whom” is used in the same way that “her/him” is used.  For example, would you say “who wrote the letter?” or “whom wrote the letter?”  If you substituted “he/she” and “her/him”, you would find that “he/she wrote the letter” is correct, therefore “who wrote the letter?” is also correct.
    Or would you say “who did he write the letter to?” or “whom did he write the letter to?”  Substituting the other words, we have either “he wrote the letter to she” vs. “he wrote the letter to her.”  The second is correct, and so “whom did he write the letter to?” is also correct.
  • ‘notscholarly –> You need to be referring primarily to scholarly sources in your assignments.  Scholarly sources are ones in which the published material has been peer-reviewed by other experts in the field to make sure that the content is reliable and worthy of publication, and contains references and a bibliography to support the author’s claims.  If you need assistance understanding whether a source is scholarly or not, go to the St. Thomas Library website, click on “Research and Course Guides”, and “General Research Tutorial” on the right side under “How to do Research”. Then, hover over the “Selecting Your Sources” tab and click “Finding Articles”, which gives you detailed information and examples of scholarly and non-scholarly sources.


You can see how using text-expansion software provides that extra clarity and instruction to one’s comments that can substantially enhance the students’ learning but which would be quite burdensome if the instructor had to write it out each time, particularly when it comes to the much longer comments like the last few; instead, the instructor merely has to type in a few keystrokes.

See this in action here:


I also keep a large database of substantive comments on more particular topics; in fact, it’s generally the case that when I spend time writing out something substantive, I save it in my snippets. Since I don’t use these as often, I don’t assign a shortcut. Instead, I give it a label in all caps that helps me quickly identify it in the list of snippets, and I can then copy and paste it (or one of multiple variations I might have stored) into the comments.

Screenshot of Text Organization

Use in Discussion

As before, let’s first briefly acknowledge that online discussions provide unique opportunities, such as involving more students in discussions and encouraging contributions that feature greater depth and care.  Of course, there are many drawbacks, some of which are directly related to those advantages – composing discussion responses can take significantly more time than making oral comments within a face-to-face discussion, and when you often have to address many students rather than addressing the whole class at once, that compounds the time burden on instructors.

One way to cut down on that burden for instructors who teach similar courses over time is to be able to save and reuse discussion posts. Text-expansion software provides a helpful way to store such comments and quickly retrieve them when the occasion arises.

Screenshot of Stored Text


Many people are familiar with the autocorrect feature from using programs like Microsoft Word that automatically changes commonly misspelled or miscapitalized words as you type (like teh to the or i to I). Many people also know that you can customize that feature, such as by adding to the list of autocorrects.  Text expansion software allows you to do that same thing on any computer program, not just Microsoft Office products, most notably when typing in a web browser.

This is useful not just for correcting mistakes.  I frequently add words and phrases that are a bit of an annoyance to continually type out, either because of their length or their complexity.

I noted a few above, like changing b/c to because, lmk to let me know, and things like that. Over the years as I have written and taught philosophy, I have had to continually write out terms like “being-in-the-world“, “phenomenological” or “Categorical Imperative“, which I triggered with the shortcuts ‘bitw, ‘phenll, and ‘ci.  I’ve also used it to trigger Greek text by typing the English transliteration, such as triggering ευδαιμονία from ‘eudaimonia.

Every discipline similarly has technical or cumbersome words or symbols, or ones that require hunting, pecking, inserting, etc. These programs can save time and help you stay focused on what you’re writing rather than the task of typing, and they will work the same in any program you may be using.

Potential Problems

One possible drawback to the use of this software, especially in teaching, is that it may seem to encourage a form of engagement that is more mechanical and perfunctory, presenting only the façade of the kind of direct, personalized engagement they deserve. This is a legitimate concern, but not a necessary one.

Pre-written comments can – and usually should – be read through, adapted and customized to the particular context before being posted.  This makes their use not dissimilar to the way one might have a more-or-less memorized response to a common question asked in a face-to-face environment, but still express it in a way that is personalized to the particular situation.

We should remember that while the online environment provides great opportunities to engage with students in uniquely fruitful ways in comparison to traditional, face-to-face environments, such as by allowing our responses to students be more thought out, carefully expressed, and substantive, this comes at the cost of adding substantially to the amount of time the instructor puts into this engagement.  Text-expansion software helps to cut down on those costs while still allowing for the advantages to shine through.

As a final note, every time I used the term “text-expansion software” while writing this post, I was typing the abbreviation ‘te contained in a “Temp” folder within aText.  Another example of how widely useful a program like this can be!