SIP 6.15 Skills-based Syllabi

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Regardless of the topic or level of the course—intro-level general studies or upper-division requirement for the major—we have all heard our students ask, “Why do I have to take this class?” While this is a genuinely annoying question, the “translation” might inspire a bit of empathy: when students ask “why,” they are generally wondering what skills this class is giving them that will be applicable to their post-graduation plans of work or further study. How can we better connect in-class work with our students’ post-graduation goals and dreams?

Take a SIP of This: Skills-based Syllabi

A skills-based syllabus is conceptually focused on the behavioral changes that you wish to produce in your students. These changes are intended to produce measurable learning outcomes that prepare students for professional or post-graduate educational experiences. In addition, highlighting the skills that a student learns in your class will allow them to understand the concept of learning outcomes and how they relate to skill transferability—that the skills they master in a history class, for example, may actually be applicable when they study math for their business degree.

Try these tips for re-organizing your syllabi in order to highlight the skills students will gain from your class:

  • Identify three to five skills that you want your students to learn. These may coincide with the student learning outcomes of your course, and that’s ok. But keep in mind that an “outcome” can be less engaging to students and may not seem as immediately applicable to their career or further study as a “skill.” Skills may include the obvious, such as “public speaking,” or they may be more esoteric depending on the course, such as “teaching,” “leadership,” “staff development,” or “community organizing.”
  • Create a simple graphic organizer, such as a table or chart, and create one space for each skill. Then, go through your syllabus and put each content topic and activity listed into one of the skills spots. You may even choose to color code the table and then use that color throughout the rest of your syllabus or course materials to indicate connection to a particular skill.
  • Integrate the skills you are fostering into the activities and work products of the course in a meaningful fashion. For example, engage students in a post-assessment that asks about both the activity/test/project/etc. and about theactivity itself. Some questions you might ask: “How did this activity encourage the development of leadership skills?” and “How were your leadership skills enhanced by doing this activity? Give examples.” This type of assessment will validate students’ development of skills and will allow them to learn how to talk about how their work in class has prepared them for professional work at a job interview, for example.
  • Encourage your students to keep track of their skills development in an e-portfolio system such as Portfolium — coming soon to MSU Denver for incoming first-time-to-college students (later to be scaled to all MSU Denver students). Students can then share their e-portfolio with potential employers and, regardless of their prior work experience, speak meaningfully about the skills they can bring to the new position.
  • Also encourage your students to develop a LinkedIn page (or similar). This will help them to build their professional presence on the web and can also contribute to the development of their resumé or curriculum vitae when the time is right.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Skills-based Syllabi

For related information on how to create a learner centered syllabus, check out SIP 2.14 at The Well.

Frischmann, R. M. (2013). A Skills-Based Approach to Developing a Career

For info on Portfolium, please contact Elizabeth Parmelee, director of Undergraduate Studies, at

Encourage your students to visit MSU Denver Career Services on campus early and often!! The talented staff there can help students to further develop presentation of their skill sets and foster career readiness. In addition, Career Services offers a LinkedIn workshop for students in the fall, and they perform continuous reviews of LinkedIn profiles and resumés by appointment!

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SIP 6.14 Exemplars

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At this time in the semester students are often in a panic about what exactly professors want for an assignment, even though there are directions. Students know from prior experience that every professor has a few idiosyncrasies and preferences, which means directions can be open to some interpretation.

Rather than having students guess what best looks like, instructors can make expectations more transparent through providing exemplars of assignments. No matter how clear your instructions are, some students will respond better to a visual example—maybe even an annotated exemplar.

They help students better understand the assessment criteria for a task, but also what a finished piece looks like at different levels.

Take a SIP of This: Exemplars

There are 2 different ways to go about providing exemplars – providing a few different examples of what “high quality work” looks like or providing examples of “best,” “good enough,” “not quite there,” and “not cutting it”. These examples can be useful in providing students with a concrete understanding of what works meets the standard and why. Make sure to anonymize the work. Exemplars can be used for peer assessment and self-assessment.

Examples of high quality

Instructors who choose this route want to make sure to provide three to four examples so that students do not all mimic the one, good example. Highlighting the diversity of ways that students can produce good work will give students more ideas about how to do their own version of good. Make sure the examples also illustrate different ways of meeting the assignment requirements. Cull these from student work from previous iterations of the class. Make sure to anonymise the work.

Examples of variable student work

Instructors who choose this route will want to choose 1 example of each: “best,” “good enough,” “not quite there,” and “not cutting it” and make sure the differences between them are clear to anyone learning about them.

How to use exemplars in class

Rather than just posting these in the learning management system, bring in the exemplars as a teaching tool. Instructors can go over what makes something good or

can give students the directions and the scoring guide/ rubric/ etc and have students score the existing work so that they are engaging with the exemplars, rather than just reading them. If you teach online you can annotate the exemplars with points you want students to notice about the piece. Some faculty post a video of talking through the exemplar while focusing the lens on the assignment and explaining the strong and not so strong points of the piece of work. This added element can help make these documents accessible online.

By examining errors and strong work, teachers create learning opportunities for students. Discussing errors and examples of strong work helps to clarify misunderstandings, encourage justification, and involve students in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the papers (The Learning Gap, 1992).

Notes of caution

Sometimes exemplars are not what you want to use. They can dampen creativity. Some students think the exemplars are the only way to show expertise rather than varieties of expertise. Others want to see the exemplars over and over in the semester to make sure they are on the right track with an assignment. These situations take forethought and conversation to minimize.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Exemplars

Making productive use of exemplars: Peer discussion and teacher guidance for positive transfer of strategies

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

SIP 6.13 The Snowball

April 19, 2018

Thirsty for Strong Instructional Practice?

The SIPsquad is excited to bring you this Throwback Thursday selection! Take a look at this gem from Year Two: the Snowball

As the weather gets warmer, the Snowball is sure to make your classroom chill with a fun and inclusive activity that encourages whole-class participation — even from students who seem to be languishing with spring fever. 

Still thirsty? The Well has a bunch of archived offerings; stay tuned to your Thursday Early Bird for more Strong Instructional Practices, too!

Take a SIP of this: The Snowball

Snowballing (or pyramiding, another term that is used) involves participants working first alone, then in pairs, then in groups of four, and then in groups of eight.


Snowball Discussion Instructions:


Take a few minutes to find one sentence from the reading that struck you in some way.  It might be something you agreed or disagreed with, something you had questions about, or something you connected with.  Write it down, with the page number.


In turns, share your sentence with your partner.  Explain why you chose it.  Each person should speak for 60 seconds without interruption.  Then, the other person can ask questions.

When each person has shared their sentence, continue discussing the articles, either working from what you already talked about, or talking about other issues raised in the articles.

Together write down the main idea of the article.  What is the big idea that the author is trying to get across?


Two pairs of students join to form a group of four.  One person from the first pair summarizes their discussion by speaking for 30 to 60 seconds.  The students from the other pair can then ask any questions they have.  Repeat this process for the second pair.  Continue with a general discussion.

Three possible tasks for the group of four:

  1. Write a question to ask another group of four.  This should be based on the issues you have been discussing.
  2. Decide on a short phrase that summarizes your shared understanding of the article (no more than five words).  Write this on a large post-it note and put it on the board.
  3. Pick a speaker who will share one idea from the chapter that your group finds interesting.

GROUPS OF EIGHT (after task A in groups of four)

The procedure from the group of four is repeated with the larger group of eight.

After the discussion, as a whole group, pick one word to write on the provided paper.  What single world summarizes your discussion of these articles?


If someone said, “What did you learn in class today?” What would you say?  Write down a word or phrase that reflects your understanding of today’s discussion.

The Snowball technique can be used for a variety of topics and/or tasks.  It does not simply need to be used to encourage students to review material for class lectures.

This technique fosters the involvement of students and helps develop their capacity to put forward their own ideas. Not only do students learn to participate but also to become aware that their ideas are part of the whole effort of a group. It is a way to expand the variety of perceptions: every time the group expands, a new idea is evaluated, improving the quality of the overall discussion.

These directions were adapted from:

Davis, C. (2011, March). Using snowball discussion. Paper presented at Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching, Lilly West: International Alliance of Teacher Scholars, Pomona, CA. (March 2011).

Still thirsty: Take another SIP of The Snowball


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SIP 6.12 The Difference Between “Methodological Variety” and “Universal Design for Learning”

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Two professors were overheard chatting about their classes: 

Professor A:  This semester I am really doing a lot in my classes! Over the course of the semester, all of my students do paired work, group presentations, individual projects, and other fun activities in and out of class. 

Professor B:  Cool! This semester, I am using Universal Design for Learning. 

Professor A:  Isn’t that the same as what I just described? 


In fact, methodological variety does not necessarily constitute Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a set of principles that go beyond methodological variety in that its purpose is to make material and concepts accessible to the widest population. UDL seeks to make accommodations for individual students obsolete by incorporating accessibility into the very design of the curriculum and the methods used to teach and learn content. 

Take a SIP of This: The Difference Between “Methodological Variety” and “Universal Design for Learning” 

  • Planning a course using UDL requires in-depth consideration of the needs of the many different learners who enter your class.  As Mark Emmert writes in the foreword to Burgstahler and Cory’s Universal Design in Higher Education (2008), “Instead of creating courses, services, information technology, and physical spaces for the ‘typical’ student and then making modifications for students for whom they are inaccessible, this approach pro-actively addresses the needs of people with the broadest range of characteristics during the design process.  This approach leads to educational products and environments that are welcoming, accessible, and inclusive and that address all aspects of diversity, including disability” (p. x).   So how can we use UDL to design and teach our courses?  Here are a few tips: 
    • Remember that the goal of UDL is to allow access, but this does not mean to lower your standards. Always start with your course learning outcomes and build around those while allowing UDL to guide you. 
    • Take a minute to think back on some of the challenges that students have had in your courses. In particular, think about students who have approached you requesting accommodations. As you design your course, incorporate those accommodations into the design, thereby eradicating the need for students to request them.  For example, incorporate class notetaking into the design of your course makes it unnecessary for students to ask for this common accommodation. See SIP 1.1 “The Class Notetaker,” for more on this.  
    • Curriculum, classroom activities, and assessment that adhere to the philosophy of UDL are underpinned by the following three premises: 
    1. Multiple means of representation—faculty teaching with UDL should always be conscious of representing each aspect of their course content in a variety of modalities that allow all students to access it.  For example, cover the same content in many different ways: in-class lecture, out-of-class reading, subtitled video, kinesthetic and/or practical application of learning by doing. If all representations are made available to everyone in your class, students can pick and choose the method that best serves their needs in order to learn what you are teaching.  See SIP 1.9 “Beyond the Lecture,” for more on this. 
    1. Multiple means of engagement—provide students with a variety of opportunities to manipulate the course content. For example, you may let students work in groups, work alone, do some writing, create a video, embed the material in a script for a play, etc. Allowing students a diversity of engagement will let them bring their own interests and skills to the table and make the learning more meaningful and long-lasting.  See SIP 2.23 “Differentiated Assignments,”  or SIP 2.16 “Assignment Menus,” for more on this. 
    1. Multiple means of expression—create different ways of assessing mastery of course content. Not everyone does well on an exam, a written paper, or an oral presentation—provide students with multiple avenues of demonstrating that they are meeting the learning outcomes of your course.  See SIP 2.24 “Universally-designed ‘Value Rubrics’,” for more on this. 

    Always keep these three ideas in mind while writing your syllabus, designing your curriculum, and implementing class activities. 


    Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of The Difference Between “Methodological Variety” and “Universal Design for Learning” 

Burgstahler, S. and Cory, R. (2008). Universal Design in Higher Education. Boston:  Harvard Education Press. 

Check out the CAST website. CAST connects the neuroscience of learning to UDL practices in order to help faculty create curriculum and methods that promote student success. 

CAST offers a fabulous resource that offers tips and tricks for designing courses for higher ed by using UDL: UDL On Campus. You can really find everything you need to get going there! 

There are many SIPs that touch on Universal Design! Visit The Well to read them all. 

The MSU Denver Access Center has great information on UDL on their website. Check it out to learn about designing your course with UDL. The Access Center also hosts an annual award to recognize faculty excellence in teaching with UDL. Check out the list of past winners and ask them about their work! 


Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

SIP 6.11 Sustaining Resilience in the Race to the Semester Finish Line

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No matter when the semester break occurs nor the length of the respite, the last weeks of a semester regularly fill with malaise, procrastination, anxiety, and exhaustion. When the weather is inviting, attendance and productivity wane as students (and faculty) prefer to be outdoors more than indoors. You might find yourself pleading with students to “show up” and “turn something, anything, in” to pass the course. In many courses, the remaining weeks of term include a major project or exam that not only proves student mastery of content but also establishes whether the student passes or fails. Meanwhile, the cycles of life speed up. Soon-to-be-graduates are processing what life will be like after school, planning the next phases of their adult lives. Upperclassmen are rushing from advising appointments to the career center to the financial aid office in hopes ensuring that they’re on-track to graduate. Some students are interviewing for summer jobs. Faculty are counting down class sessions and tallying up grades. We are all balancing full lives with additional seasonal obligations and planning for what’s next.

All these stressors produce feelings of resistance. We might imagine giving up. This is the time for persistence. Our students and ourselves will sustain a successful and engaging learning environment by approaching the final push more as the last step. To do so, we often require small reminders that we are capable. Upturn those negative perspectives by taking inventory of the semester’s training and skill building. Remind students and yourself that the majority of the tough work – the foundational learning – has been accomplished. Time now to muster our academic resiliency.

Take a SIP of This: Sustaining Resilience in the Race to the Semester Finish Line

  • Ask students about their stress levels. Reserve five minutes at the start or end of a class period to talk to students about the importance of preparing now for the rush of papers and exams. Ask them how they’re feeling about your upcoming project or exam – and make planning discussions part of your day’s lesson plan. Hold student office hours. Suggest students make appointments at MSU Denver’s Tutoring Center or Writing Center and reward extra credit for seeking assistance.
  • Show more empathy. Remember that every student and coworker is a person with a life beyond campus. When a student complains about an assignment
  • or mentions feeling stressed, acknowledge their feelings. Students frequently believe that an entire semester’s learning is at stake. Perhaps for some, this is true. For many, the majority of the learning is finished. Remember that colleagues are also completing end-of-year projects, attending department events, and grading, grading, grading. Active listening and providing perspective lessen the pulls of anxiety.
  • Reassure students and yourself that perfection is unrealistic and unnecessary. Discuss self-efficacy in terms of do-ability and quality over quantity.
  • Encourage wellness. Warn students of the dangers of pulling all-nighters and of bingeing on caffeinated drinks and junk foods. See more tips in in SIP 5.15 Helping Students Practice Self-Care.
  • Bring your class to one of twelve MSU Denver’s Healthy Pursuits weekly, free, on campus mindfulness classes.
  • Draw strength from the community. End-of-semester events are designed to break-the-monotony of work through socialization. Announce events to students. Take time to join in these upcoming campus events: · The Health Center at Auraria is hosting the workshop “Yoga Psychology: Management of Emotions and Anxieties,” on Wed., April 11, Tivoli 444 12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.
  • Auraria hosts the annual Spring Fling, Wed., April 18 and Thurs., April 19.
  • MSU Denver’s Student Academic Success Center and Auraria Library are bringing doggies– yes doggies! – to campus for a Paws and Relax, Tues., May 1, 10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., Auraria Library.
  • MSU Denver Faculty and Staff Appreciation BBQ, Tues., May 1, 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., 9th St. Park
  • MSU Denver’s Office of Student Activities are offering MSU Denver students free breakfast and lunch and free greenbooks and scantrons, Mon., May 7 and Tues., May 8, Tivoli Multicultural Lounge.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Sustaining Resilience in the Race to the Semester Finish Line

Cassidy, S. (Nov. 18, 2016) “The Academic Resilience Scale (ARS-30): A New Multidimensional Construct Measure,” Frontiers in Psychology,

Cassidy, S. (Nov. 27, 2015) “Resilience Building in Students: The Role of Academic Self-Efficacy,” Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1781. Retrieved from

Duckworth, A. (2013) “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” TED Talks Education [Video]. Retrieved from

Eisenberg, D., Lipson, S. K., & Posselt, J. (2016). “Promoting Resilience, Retention, and Mental Health.” New Directions For Student Services, 2016(156), 87-95. doi:10.1002/ss.20194

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

SIP 6.10 Proactive Accessibility

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How do you feel at the beginning of the semester when you know students are going to give you letters asking for accommodations (accessibility letters)? Do you think about what you will have to change on a day-by-day basis or the extra work you will have to do to email someone your notes? What if you did not have to worry about these letters at all (or not much)? This is a possibility when you incorporate proactive accessibility in your classroom.

Take a SIP of This: Proactive Accessibility

The idea behind proactive accessibility is to organize your syllabus and your day-to-day activities thinking about the general accommodations students are going to need – before you ever get a letter from a student. Think to yourself, what if no student ever needed their accommodations letter in my class – what might my class look like to make this possible?

Your response to it can help students with an accommodations letter and the other 83% of students who have been diagnosed with a learning disability but do not use the Access Center (The State of Learning Disabilities, 2014). It helps countless other students with diagnosed or undiagnosed disabilities. It helps students without disabilities who just need a little flexibility. It helps the instructor to preplan accommodations so there is less to accommodate on a day-to-day basis.

Common accommodations and how to proactively address them:

  • Extra time on a test: Instead of having to find a way to add time to a test, plan for a test to take only ½ of the class time but give all students the whole class period for an in-class exam. Or rework the test as a take-home for everyone. Or, do not have a test at all – move to application-based forms of assessment like project-based learning, place-based learning, or problem-based learning. See SIP 1.14 and SIP 3.23.
  • Note-taker: Instead of having to ask a student to take notes for another student, set up a schedule for each student (or 2 per class to have redundancy and different note taking modeling) to take notes over the course of the semester and post the notes for everyone in the class. If a student is allowed to audio record class, ask that person to post the audio files if you are comfortable with that. Post power point slides so students have an outline for the class when they come into class, or let students know you will post them after class for everyone. Several SIPs have addressed note-taking. See SIP 1.1 and SIP 3.18.
  • Post all materials to the learning management system: If you post all materials on Blackboard, students can preview materials prior to class if needed. This includes materials that will be reviewed/ discussed during class, such as an article. Let students know ahead of time that the class will be doing an activity based on the material so that students who read slower, take longer to process, or need the assistance of a screen reader can review the material prior to class.
  • Alternative assignments: Instead of having to think how one student might engage with a course differently, plan assignments where students can choose from a few (or many options) on how to show what they know. If you make sure assignments prioritize different modalities, students can show what they know in a variety of ways (visual, presentation, tech-based, etc). See SIP 2.23.
  • Alternative presentation styles: Lecture is the least effective way to engage students in a classroom. If instructors look to make time for students to read, write, speak, and listen in every class, you are sure that class will engage all students in their areas of comfort and discomfort. See SIP 1.9.
  • Brain breaks: Some students need an accommodation to be allowed to take a break during class. Rather than a break being the exception, make it the rule. Students should be able to excuse themselves as needed in class, and instructors should say this out loud, but instructors should also plan in small breaks in short classes and longer breaks in longer classes. Most adults can pay attention for about 20 minutes before the brain wanders – so rather than losing students’ attention, change up class, let people move around, make people move around, take a break (Gallo, 2014). It refreshes students and instructors alike.

The ideas above will make it so most of your students’ accommodations are met most of the time. You will still have a few students who will need to take a test elsewhere or need another form of accessibility, like a screen reader, that does not work for everyone in the class. Work with the student and the Access Center to make sure you are fulfilling these obligations.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Proactive Accessibility



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SIP 6.9 Specifications Grading

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?








It is 9pm on a Sunday night. You spent much of yesterday and most of today grading and you still aren’t done. You try to provide such thoughtful feedback to your students, but you can’t be sure that they read it. You picture the student who will ambush you after class, send a barrage of emails, and plead injustice during office hours, insisting that they “are an A student.” In thinking about your lost weekend, you wonder aloud, “Is there a better way?”

Take a SIP of This: Specifications Grading

Specifications grading could be that “better way.” Specifications grading is much the same as more traditional approaches as students engage with course content and complete assignments as they are designed by the instructor. Specifications grading is different from traditional grading in that students choose their final grade, complete a “bundle” of assignments and assessments that correspond with that grade, and individual assignments are evaluated on a pass/fail basis with feedback as appropriate with no opportunity for partial credit.

Using specifications grading, faculty:

1. Create assignments and assessments that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills based on the course outcomes.

2. Establish criteria for successful completion of an assignment and/or criteria for passing an assessment.

3. “Bundle” assignments and assessments into groups that represent levels of learning consistent with final grades of ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’. Bundles increase in size, scope, and sophistication as the final grade get higher. The graphic below represents one conceptualization of this idea.

4. Evaluate student work using pass/fail criteria. Individual assignments may include comments and feedback.

Using specifications grading, students:

1. Identify the grade they would like to earn for the course.

2. Complete the bundle of assignments and assessments that corresponds to their selected course grade.

3. Ensure that their work meets the criteria for completion and quality, knowing that poor or partially completed work will not earn credit.

4. Have a predetermined number of assignments they can revise and resubmit for credit.

Based on reports of those who have tried it, proponents of specifications grading state that it encourages students to be self-directed in their learning and achievement; it reduces opportunities for negotiating grades; it allows for increased freedom in providing more choices to students; and it reduces the stress associated with grading schemes that require the instructor to assign specific point values.

Detractors of specifications grading point out that it requires a comprehensive plan for the course before the semester begins; lack of familiarity can cause confusion or frustration; there are fewer opportunities for making adjustments to the course after the semester begins.

Regardless, most reports on specifications grading indicate that it is a good opportunity to reexamine course goals and how students are meeting them. Adult

learners typically respond positively to having more control over their grades and how they are earned. Pass/fail grading can decrease the emphasis on individual grades and refocus on course learning. Look at some of the resources below to decide whether specifications grading could be beneficial to both you and your students.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Specifications Grading

· Podcast with Dr. Linda Nilson author of Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students and Saving Faculty Time

· Jason Mittell’s blog posts in which he shares his exploration of his use of specs grading including things that worked well, things that didn’t work well, and his adaptations. Rethinking Grading: An In-Progress Experiment, First Update on My Specifications Grading Experiment, Return to Specifications Grading and Specifications Grading for a New Course.

· In Rebecca Dean’s blog, she reports on her experiences implementing specifications grading in a large biological anthropology course. Old Bones specifications grading part 1, part 2, and part 3

· Google+ group on Standards-Based and Specifications Grading for discussion, questions, sharing of materials and research and making connections with others interested in improving the practice of student assessment.

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

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Call for “Guest SIPs”

Inspire instructors and benefit students by sharing your own Strong Instructional Practices

We invite our readers to share their Strong Instructional Practices through the Submit a SIP! page on The Well. Many will be shared with all MSU Denver faculty and staff through our regular Thursday distribution or posted on The Well. We look forward to reading about your Strong Instructional Practices!

About The Well

Metropolitan State University of Denver appreciates and practices inclusive excellence. A significant part of inclusive excellence is instructional practice that supports the social and academic achievement of all students.

The Well serves as a central repository for university faculty to share ideas and resources for strong instructional practice. It is maintained by the sipsquad, a group of MSU Denver professors who study and use inclusive pedagogy in their teaching.

The sipsquad publishes weekly SIPs written by us and other MSUD faculty who practice inclusive pedagogy. We invite instructors to submit their own SIPs using the “Submit a SIP” form on this site.

In addition, we look out for resources related to strong instructional practice in higher education and share those through the “Sources for SIPs” page and the MSUDenverSIPs twitter feed. We encourage you to send us links to resources that will benefit the university faculty.

Drop us a line at  😎

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