ThinkSpace facilitates better learning and teaching (Inside Iowa State)

Holly Bender needed help.

Earlier in her career as a veterinary clinical pathologist at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Bender was tasked with teaching about 100 veterinary medicine students how to accurately analyze data on sick animals to make correct diagnoses. She needed to teach her students — who were used to only memorizing academic material up to this point — to truly think.

“I couldn’t clone myself to sit alongside 100 vet students and help them learn how to make a diagnosis, so my research team at Virginia Tech and I developed this tool,” said Bender, who today is professor of veterinary pathology and associate director for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) here at Iowa State.

The tool, called Diagnostic Pathfinder, allowed Bender to break down the complexities of diagnosing an ailing animal into a six-stage process. Each stage built upon the previous step and, in the end, students were guided to a conclusion. Once students submitted their diagnoses, Bender’s expert opinion popped up alongside their analyses so they could immediately compare notes.

“We like the students to be able to go out on a little bit of a limb, to be able to put their story together, but not so far that they get lost,” Bender said. “We’re just building expertise over time.”

Fast forward to Iowa State

Bender came to Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002, and she brought Diagnostic Pathfinder and her research team with her. As faculty in other disciplines witnessed Bender’s teaching successes with the tool, they wanted to explore options for their students. That’s when ThinkSpace was born.

What is ThinkSpace

ThinkSpace is an active learning and problem-solving technology platform with a set of teaching tools designed to help students decipher complex problems they eventually will confront in the workplace. It’s open-source software (not owned by Iowa State or any other entity), designed and developed by a small technology company, Sixth Edge, in a unique partnership with faculty. Development is largely funded by grants. Funding by CELT and the office of the senior vice president and provost for hosting and technical support from Sixth Edge makes ThinkSpace available for free to all ISU faculty and students.

Pete Boysen, now retired from information technology, and other faculty across campus helped Bender transform her original diagnostic application into a “Swiss army knife of instructional tools,” as she puts it. Today, ThinkSpace offers tools for writing, editing, team-based learning, essay draft development with feedback from instructors and students, and a carry-forward function that allows students to develop concepts in multiple stages.

Ideas for new tools are tossed around almost daily. For example, Jay Newell, associate professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, devised a “mark-up” tool, which allows him to review and comment on his students’ assignments without ever touching a piece of paper. The students, who also have access to the tool, can see Newell’s feedback, make changes and submit revised drafts for further comment by him or their peers.

“The thing that all these tools have in common is this ability to take big, complex problems, give them to students in bite-size pieces, and have them work on those little pieces and, in turn, get focused, frequent feedback from faculty,” Bender said.

Tool development

Kajal Madeka, CELT’s ThinkSpace program coordinator and instructional designer, leads the ThinkSpace Teaching and Learning Community, a group of about 100 faculty members who use ThinkSpace tools in their classrooms. Madeka meets with the group each month to share applications of ThinkSpace tools in different disciplines, discuss tweaks for existing tools and ideas for new ones, though not every idea makes the cut.

“There has to be enough support for a tool and buy-in from other faculty who think it’s necessary,” Madeka said. “The tool has to be impactful for students across campus.”

If an idea is approved, faculty members from the learning community work through the Grants Hub to secure funding for the new tool.

“It’s very grassroots,” Bender said.

Benefits for faculty, too

ThinkSpace helps students solve complex problems, but there are advantages for faculty, too. Some ThinkSpace tools require faculty to load assignment answers into databases in advance, requiring them to work through problems from the students’ point of view.

“The fact that the faculty already have input the correct data ahead of time was intentional,” Madeka said. “They already think like experts, but when they work through the data, they realize that they need to scaffold the information more for students. It’s all about intensive, critical thinking, not only for the students but for the faculty members.”

A change for the better

Bender is well acquainted with the difficulties of teaching complex subject matter to large classes. She came up with a fix years ago, and now instructors across campus are benefitting from her work.

“I want to break faculty out of grading jail,” Bender said. “I feel like I’ve been totally set free. I see so many faculty who are dedicated and want to do the right thing, but they get totally burned out in the process. ThinkSpace takes all that away.”

Give it a try

Anyone from Iowa State can access ThinkSpace online at Select “Join ThinkSpace” and complete the registration information. Faculty should indicate they are an instructor, which will give them access to the tools already available. Madeka encourages instructors to first explore what ThinkSpace has to offer, and then consider how the tools may apply to their classes.

“If you really want to teach critical thinking, if you want to engage students in deeper, real learning, then you should try ThinkSpace,” Madeka said.

Instructors who need assistance exploring ThinkSpace or help with developing a course or assignment should contact Madeka at 294-5299.

Re-posted from Inside Iowa State (2017, April 6)

Demonstrating the Team-Based Learning (TBL) teaching approach in Math

In 2016, CELT visited with professor of mathematics Elgin Johnston and senior lecturer of mathematics Heather Bolles as they were using the Team-Based Learning (TBL) teaching approach in their MATH 166: Calculus II course. The course is held in an active learning classroom (213 MacKay Hall). View the Demonstration of the Team-Based Learning (TBL) teaching approach in Math 166: Calculus II YouTube video.

Math faculty examine numbers to improve student learning (Inside Iowa State)

Below is an excerpt from a March 23, 2017 Inside Iowa State article by Paula Van Brocklin that describes Johnston’s and Bolle’s successes. The full Inside Iowa State web article is available at Math faculty examine numbers to improve student learning,

On to calculus

Over the past few years, professor of mathematics Elgin Johnston and senior lecturer of mathematics Heather Bolles have transformed their calculus sections for greater student success using team-based learning (TBL).
What is TBL?

TBL is a form of active and small-group learning that can be implemented in a large classroom. It requires students to do assignments before class in order to inspire more engaging classroom discussions. During class, students work on significant team projects, applying calculus concepts. With support from a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, Johnston and Bolles, with input from faculty in science and engineering, have spent years developing and refining their TBL materials.

Johnston and Bolles assign their students readings, videos and a quiz prior to class. When class convenes, students work in their assigned groups of five to seven individuals, and take the quiz again.

“They almost always do better after the team quiz,” Johnston said.

Greater student success

Bolles said one of the positive outcomes of TBL is that more students physically come to class.

“We’ve had significantly higher attendance rates,” Bolles said. “We had rates as low as 60 percent before the TBL implementation, and now we’re at 85 to 90 percent.”

Johnston attributes the increased participation to students feeling accountable to their teams.

“Some teams get very close by the end of the semester,” he said.

Like McNicholl, Johnston and Bolles measure students’ calculus knowledge at the beginning and end of the semester. What they’ve found is that the students in TBL sections score higher than students in non-TBL classes. In addition, TBL students earn higher scores, on average, on the departmental midterm and final exams.

“TBL lets students be actively engaged in the classroom, and their learning is better for it,” Johnston said.

Team-Based Learning at Iowa State

Iowa State has an active and vibrant group of faculty and graduate students involved in team-based learning. Each semester, CELT offers a team-based learning workshop to help teachers implement this flipped classroom method. CELT also supports an ongoing faculty learning community. After completing the TBL workshop, participants are invited to join the Team-Based Learning Community for additional support from others who are also using TBL in their courses.

To learn how you can get involved with TBL, visit CELT’s Team-Based Learning website.

Strategies to Re-engage Students After Spring Break

Welcome back to campus! Spring Break has come and gone and now is a great opportunity to consider new ways to re-engage students after the break. I came across this resource on active learning strategies a number of years ago and have referred back to it many times. The CELT version of this resource is available for download via 226 Active Learning Techniques (PDF) link.

It has over 220 active learning ideas to choose from (which can be a little overwhelming), but the list is categorized by what action the instructor takes as well as the student actions. It further organizes the activities based on overall class size and by student group size (i.e. pairs or small groups). It’s worth a quick look to see if there is something you might want to try in your course over the next few weeks.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Director
Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Seeking Applicants for the Preparing Future Faculty Program (PFF)

The PFF program supplements departmental graduate preparation by offering new teaching, mentoring, and learning possibilities, which give postdoctoral fellows, Ph.D. students, and master’s students further credentialing for a competitive academic job market. PFF’s goal is to better prepare graduates for faculty careers through a combination of seminars, mentoring, and practical classroom and departmental service experiences. There are a few remaining open slots for the 2017-2018 academic year—interested graduate students and postdocs should submit applications by April 15. To learn more and apply visit CELT’s How to Apply and Information for New / Continuing PFF Participants website.

Reminder: The SoTL Scholars Program Proposals are due on March 27

This yearlong program provides a framework and mentorship to help a faculty member complete a scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) research project. Sara Marcketti, CELT Associate Director for SoTL leads this program and guides participants through a series of activities all aimed toward a completed and publishable SoTL project. Deadline to apply is March 27, 2017. For additional information and the form visit CELT’s Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Scholars Program website.

View Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL) Overview YouTube Video

POSTPONED: Advance Workshops: Diversity & Inclusion Training presented by Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble (CITE) (Mar. 27)

About ISU Advance

ISU ADVANCE has become Iowa State’s most prominent vehicle to recruit, retain, and advance women and people of color in faculty positions. We are known for a well-managed network, innovative research, and an integrated approach to change at all levels of the university. We work within departments using a collaborative transformation approach to improve the work environment for all faculty members. Our program identifies cultures, practices, and structures that enhance or hinder the careers of ISU faculty, and works with faculty and administrators to transform university policies, practices, and academic culture in pursuit of a diverse and vibrant faculty in all academic disciplines. For more information, contact or visit the ISU Advance website.

The First 5 Minutes of Class

The calendar shows we are more than half way to May and most of us are comfortably into the rhythm of another semester. With that in mind, it might be time to mix it up a bit and help students re-focus their efforts in your course as they prepare for the last push to finals week.

I recently came across an article titled Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class. In it the author suggests incorporating four simple actions at the beginning of class to help focus student attention. It helps set the stage for what will be taught that day and pulls them away from the plethora of distractions many walk into class with each day. The ideas are simple, straightforward, and easy to implement:

  • Open with a question or two related to the course material for that day. This helps frame what will be taught that day and can also help them understand the relevance and relationships of course content.
  • Ask students to summarize “What did we learn last time?” Having students summarize rather than the faculty member summarizing for them, helps students reengage with the course material.
  • Have students describe or consider what they have learned in previous courses, inside or outside of the discipline, so they make connections to what they already know as it relates to the course material at hand.
  • Have students write down answers to the questions you posed about the day’s topic, their summary of what they learned last time, and or connections to their prior knowledge. Writing their responses helps formalize the connections and gives them something tangible to refer back to after the class session ends.

Here’s hoping everyone has a great Spring Break!

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Director
Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Update on the Learning Management System (LMS) Review

On March 2, 2017, the Iowa State Daily published a story entitled, “Seeking more reliability, Iowa State breaks up with Blackboard.” The story reported on the Learning Management System (LMS) review update presented to the Government of the Student Body by Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Director, CELT. The original published article had multiple errors in it. Upon notification of these errors, the Daily staff quickly corrected the online article and re-titled it, “Seeking more reliability, Iowa State explores new LMS options.” In addition, the Daily staff will be providing an update to the March 3rd printed edition.

It is important for the campus community to know the following:

  • The current LMS license with Blackboard Learn ends December 2017. ISU has extended the license to accommodate the LMS transition until June 2018. All spring 2018 courses will be taught in the new LMS.

    This is stated on the LMS Review website.

  • Iowa State has not selected a new LMS.

    ISU’s Procurement Services: Request for Proposal (RFP) process provides concrete ways for Iowa State University to explore and evaluate multiple LMS options. To learn about Iowa State University’s process and access the LMS RFP visit ISU’s Procurement Services: Current Bid Solicitation.

  • The five phases of the LMS review process and timeline (organization, evaluation process, demonstration, migrations and implementation, and ongoing operations) are outlined on the LMS Review Process and Timeline website.

If you have any questions about the LMS review process contact LMS Review Co-Leads via email or contact Dr. Ann Marie VanDerZanden (, Director Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), or Mike Lohrbach (, Director IT Services Systems & Operations, Information Technology (IT).

If you have questions about the LMS RFP contact Eric Johnson ( or call 515-294-4701.

Call for Proposals: Annual Statewide Teaching and Learning Conference

education tree

Best Practices in Fostering Student Engagement

July 10-11, 2017 (Monday & Tuesday)
DMACC Ankeny Campus, FFA Enrichment Center
2006 S. Ankeny Blvd., Ankeny, Iowa

Conference Mission Statement:

This conference aims to improve educational practices of Iowa teaching faculty in higher education institutions by sharing and advancing the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Conference goals:

  • Provide a central location for advancing knowledge in teaching and learning by sharing resources and engaging in scholarship activities related to teaching and learning.
  • Dialogue and network with Iowa colleges in order to advance the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning in higher education.

​Conference Fee

  • DMACC faculty/concurrent -free
  • Regular attendee $75 both days (3 meals)
  • Presenter: free
  • Adjunct attendee and/or graduate student: $65 both days (3 meals)
  • Registration Information (Registration is not yet open)

For additional information visit the Annual Statewide Teaching and Learning Conference and DMACC Summer Institute website

Proposal Submission Guidelines​​

Proposal Categories:

  • Best Practices in Assessment of teaching and learning
  • Best Practices in Academic administration and/or adjunct perspectives
  • Best Practices in Classroom activities or projects that work for various learning styles
  • Best Practices in in Classroom activities or projects that work for vocational programs
  • Best Practices in Flipped classrooms and team based learning
  • Best Practices in Online teaching and learning
  • Best Practices in Research of teaching and learning
  • Best Practices in Service learning and project based learning

Proposal Types:

  • Practice session and/or panel discussion: Sharing and discussing best practices in higher education teaching and learning, while allowing for interaction with and among session participants.
  • Research session: Designed to inform participants of the design, implementation, and results of empirical research focused on teaching and learning in higher education.​
  • Poster session: Allow for the discussion of scholarly research and/or practice addressing higher education pedagogy with conference participants.
  • Conversational session: Designed to inform participants of the various topics on teaching and learning in higher education and open up the discussion for the audience.

Proposal Submission:

To submit your proposal use the Submit Proposal web form.

Proposal Submission Deadline:

March 20, 2017

Contact Person:

Please contact Dr. Anna Conway,
Director of Teaching & Learning

Still time to register for the 17th Annual ISCORE

Conference Registration

Friday, March 3, 2017
8 AM-5 PM
Memorial Union

Conference sessions >>
Conference morning address and keynote >>

The Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE) is the university’s local initiative designed to provide an ongoing platform of sharing and applying new knowledge through presentations and workshops. The conference support the university’s Mission to “create, share, and apply knowledge… and make Iowa and the world a better place.”

This comprehensive forum on issues of race and ethnicity is free and open to the Iowa State University community (students, faculty and staff).

Pre-Conference Professional Development Registration

Wednesday, March 1, 2017
11:45 AM- 5 PM
Memorial Union

Pre-conference program and sessions >>
Pre-conference keynote at 3:10 p.m. >>

The Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE) offers a professional development opportunity for all faculty, professional and merit staff. These sessions provide a structured environment to enhance your understanding and sensitivity to cultural differences. Many of the sessions will focus on providing tools to improve employee interactions and create inclusive workspaces.

Please note: that the pre-conference is open to faculty and staff only. If you are a student and would like to register for ISCORE, please visit the ISCORE full conference registration page.