The Practice and Design of “Humanizing” Learning Experiences

I was honored by an invitation from EdSurge to participate in a panelist discussion on How to Humanize Online Learning and Maximize Student Success (recording of webinar). I believe we had over 200 participants! As I reflect on yesterday’s panel conversation, and incredible participant comments and questions, I would have to say that my biggest takeaway around Humanizing is the word “caring”, as shared by my colleague, Di Xu. The concept of caring and empathy is woven throughout all the practices in Humanizing learning.

Given what the research tells us about the importance of Humanizing, intentionally and authentically humanizing the instruction is critical for students’ success.  In design, we can approach this through a variety of pedagogies, activities, and technologies that cultivate relationships and build community. I rely on many frameworks and theories, but one framework in particular is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), which looks at the intersection of teaching, cognitive, and social presence. I will speak to each of these through some examples.

With pedagogies, which is really about teaching presence, instructors can apply strategies that develop empathy and human connections. Essentially, this is about being authentic. A couple of examples that support this are:

  • Creating a welcome video where the instructor tells their story of who they are and perhaps their own experience as a student and how that has shaped their path.
  • Providing regular ‘touches’ or interactions with students. A personal example is in my online doctoral program where my instructor used video feedback. As a student, watching and listening to him, I truly felt like he was invested in my work, my growth in the course, and overall success. This was also conveyed in his non-verbals that can often be missed online

Along with pedagogies, we also humanize through the design of social learning activities. This emphasizes both social and cognitive presence. Creating opportunities where learners can collaborate with one another can connect them with one another and advance the learning outcomes because as construct meaning through shared purpose. This is also where instructors have opportunity to discover who their learners are, which is essential in connecting that cognitive element. Extending this to how they can inspire and reach them. An example of asocial learning activity is something I use in my blended, first year freshman course where humanizing is ever so important in creating a sense of belonging as these students transition into college life. In the first week, students participate in an online, asynchronous activity where they each “Share the Story of Their Name” supported by VoiceThread technology. Through video or audio they each share some aspect of their name, (e.g., where it comes from, what it means, background, nicknames, etc.) and reply to another another. I also share the story of my name as a way to connect to each of them. This is not only an early opportunity to bring themselves into the learning experience and share a bit of who they are, but it is also about celebrating and acknowledging the unique backgrounds and experiences that they each bring to the shared environment.

Finally, through the intersection of the pedagogy and the activities/content, we can leverage technologies to support the learning and connections. This is about how can we use digital tools to create opportunities where students feel like they belong in a community. One example is using digital technologies such as Issuu and Canvas to create an online, asynchronous “virtual conference”. (Remember the feeling you had at that great face-to-face conference where you networked others, shared your work, and walked away feeling inspired?) This is the premise behind the virtual conference where students present their culminating course experience/knowledge/skills by bringing in opportunity for peer-to-peer connections, insightful feedback, and a real-world interaction that shares their work more broadly.

Moving forward with Humanizing are these many opportunities to intentionally and authentically engage with our students. What are some of the things you do in your courses?


Another nugget that Dr. Xu shared from her research, were the five things that students want from their online instructor:

  1. Clear expectations and instructions
  2. Timely responses
  3. Feedback to keep them on track
  4. Rubrics and checklists
  5. Weekly communication

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based
environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and
Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.


Inspiration Everywhere

Last week, I was inspired by many people and ideas at CSU Fresno! The faculty are engaged in transformative practice and the Center for Faculty Excellence team is engaged in faculty partnerships that both ultimately impact students’ learning.

This was a day of exciting energy around their Canvas launch, but more importantly around the exploration of opportunities that highlight what the new technology can be through a re-thinking of one’s teaching, sharing with colleagues, and possibilities to connect students with the world.

Table Mountain Rancheria Reading Room, Henry Madden Library

I was honored by the invitation to provide the Keynote Presentation, “Canvas and the World: Inspire, Innovate, Impact” for their annual Technology, Innovations, and Pedagogy Conference. The emphasis was on how we can use technology to open up student learning to the world. We looked through the lenses of inspire, innovate, and example to dive into examples of how Canvas and related technologies opened these doors to the world.  One example included an activity in my blended public speaking course where students use VoiceThread to “Share the Story of Your Name”. This one activity has created opportunity for students to practice their speaking skills in the digital environment, acknowledged the diverse perspectives and backgrounds in the course, and created long-term connections between students. Fresno faculty shared what Canvas Panda at Fresno Stateinspired them as teachers; what innovations they are engaged in/planning; and ultimately how their practice impacts students in meaningful ways. One faculty member shared their inspiration in the work that their students are doing. Another shared how they are using ePortfolios for students to curate content related to their learning. They are engaged in amazing work!

After the keynote, three faculty lightning talks focused on community and humanizing the learning experience. These faculty members shared their research on the their teaching, the innovative use of technologies, and the impactful ways in which their students were connecting to one another through learning. Dr. Tayeb shared how he used Canvas discussions for study guides and exam wrappers as a way to find out what students were focusing on before the exam and reflecting after the exam. He also shared his strategy using anonymous Canvas quizzing to find out where students are struggling, e.g., muddiest points. Dr. Anzoleaga discussed a variety of technology uses to engage her students, including her use of Canva for students to create a bio at the beginning of the term. Dr. Aguilera shared how he uses digital tools and pedagogies to support the “humanized” experience of his students.

I am inspired to try new things this coming semester! I feel fortunate to work with so many amazing colleagues who are engaged in findings ways to reach their students in meaningful ways.  In terms of Canvas, my brain is going every which way about the many ways in which it can be used as an opening to the world.

Eleven Things You Should Never Say During a Presentation

Bravo! These 11 things really spoke to me in Marr’s (2017) post on Eleven Things Your Should Never Say During a Presentation.

As someone who teaches a required class on public speaking to college freshman, I remind them that everything they say impacts their credibility to the particular audience.   While their audience includes their peers, it is a great opportunity to practice for other audiences.  “I didn’t have much time”, or “I am running out of time” are better left unsaid.  My other big point is to remind them that the intro and conclusion are critical.  The “attention getter” at the beginning should do just that; grab attention.  Same with the conclusion – don’t tell the audience “now I am done”. If you have a good “clincher” the audience will know you are done. Being mindful of the ‘filler words’ is important, but also know that we are humans and a few ‘ums’ or ‘ers’ is not going to ruin the whole speech.

Effective Feedback to Speaker

If you think about a time when you have received useful feedback, what was it specifically that made it useful?

Just recently, I had a very technical presentation to a peer group and at the end one of the participants gave me some really useful feedback. He said, “your overall presentation was very organized and easy to follow because you had visual support and you walked us through each step.” Then he followed with, “you may want to consider increasing the volume of your voice so the people in the back could hear because there were times when we could not follow along because we could not hear you.”

Do you see how these two feedback comments included support for each statement made? My presentation was organized and easy to follow, BECAUSE of…  My voice was not loud enough so the people in the back of the room could not hear.  These are types of feedback comments that are the most useful to a speaker.  These are things that the speaker can do something about. It is not addressing the speaker’s behavior, it is addressing the speech itself.  As a speaker yourself, don’t you want to know what areas were strong and what areas you can improve upon?  I know that I do!

Here are some short tips to consider when providing feedback that is the most helpful to the speaker:

  • Start with positive feedback. This can reduce defensiveness and help the speaker to be more open to receiving your feedback.
  • Use the 90/10 principle 1. The basis of this principle is that a person’s weaknesses are not necessarily the opposite of their strengths; they are  “excesses” of their strengths. If you provide feedback on 90% of a particular quality as positive, then mention the 10% that worked in in the opposite way or against that 90%. For example: “Your physical variety really helped us understand your topic, however there were a few times that you ‘fiddled’ with your hair that made it distracting.”
  • Feedback descriptive rather than evaluative. For example, instead of saying the speech was disorganized, describe why it was disorganized, “you mentioned the cause and effect for two of your points, but I wasn’t clear on the third.
  • Feedback is specific. Instead of saying, “Your graph was interesting,” say, “Your GMO graph really helped us to show how much soy in this country is genetically modified.”
  • Focus behavior rather than on the person. – The speaker is less likely to take it personally if you use non-judgmental feedback.  For example: “When you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of sentence, and you’re making a statement (not asking a question) it makes you appear uncertain or lacking in confidence.”

The basic idea of feedback is sharing information with the speaker about the speech — not giving advice.

1 Sprague, J., & Stuart, D. (1984). The speaker’s handbook. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Asking Questions of Speaker


If you are part of the inquiry group (questions group): pay close attention to the content of each speech in order to ask informed and provocative questions.

  • Be respectful – think of the content of your questions as well as the tone. If you come off in an accusatory tone, you are much less likely to receive a direct and respectful answer.
  • Do not be overly argumentative the goal is NOT to argue points with speaker. The goal is to find out more. What did the speaker mean by referring to genetically modified organisms as “poison”? Ask for clarification in an inquisitive manner, not one with demand or dispute.
  • Ask effective questions – use questions that delve further into the speech topic. This is where you want to think beyond yes/no questions and move into more of the how/why questions. For example, instead of asking, “what town are you from?”, ask, “what is the town like that you grew up in?” This is more apt to get the speaker talking and get the audience more detailed information.


Speech Q&A Session

Your Q&A Session: 5 Tips for Success

After your speech there is a definite sigh of relief.  Don’t walk away, you aren’t finished yet!  One of the most important parts is the following Q&A session that comes after the speech. This is where your audience can find out more detail about some of the information you brought up in your speech.  After years of presenting my own speeches, and listening to others’ speeches, including many, many students, I have come up with a short list of tips to get you successfully through the Q&A session.

1. Relax. The formal speech is over. But don’t relax too much because the Q&A session is still a part of your speech presentation. Keep the same professionalism and attention to your audience by using the same language style that you used in your speech (not resorting to slang), don’t resort to leaning on the desk or podium and keep your eye contact. Knowing that your speech is finished is a relief, however, you still want to finish with a strong Q&A.

2. Come Prepared. Anticipate that your audience will have questions about points you made in your speech. For example, you could expand on one of your stories that you provided in relation to your points.

3. Invite Questions. If your audience is a bit quiet at first, give them time to gather their thoughts. This is also a time for you to bring up more details on a specific part of your speech that might ignite questions. For example, “when I mentioned that GMOs are becoming more prevalent even in rural areas, I was referring to areas such as Humboldt.”  This is a time for your audience members to show their interest in your topic by asking questions about things that you couldn’t fit detail in due to the time limit.  Remember, this is where you pull all that research out of your back pocket and provide more interesting information to your audience.

4. Respond with honesty. If someone asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, say so. Honesty truly is the best policy. You might even suggest, that you will go research it and come back to share at a later point. Feel free to post your feedback on the course Moodle site to share with the entire class.   This contributes to your credibility as a speaker and your audience is more likely to have trust in your ability as a speaker. If you receive a question that challenges what your belief and/or speech addressed, validate the person’s opinion and reiterate some of the points you made in a non-threatening, non-challenging manner. For example, “I hear and respect your points on this issue. One of the points I made addressed the need for more homeless shelters based on data from these two credible resources.”

5. Explain with clarity. Be sure to respond to questions specifically and clearly. Going off topic can frustrate the person asking the question.  Again, if you don’t have a solid answer, admit that you don’t and

The Q&A session is a great time to learn more about what interested your audience members and what they took away from your speech. This can also help guide you in making improvements in your next speech. Audience questions are a good sign that they were listening and are interested in your topic.




Introduction to a Lesson – the “Flight Plan”

Preparing the introduction for my lesson reminds me of preparing a ‘flight plan” before take off.  Everything needs to be in order, in my mind. I go over my notes, my materials, do a run-through in my mind, check and re-check.

cockpit by berin

These “starter sets”, or introductions, can include a variety of different elements to “hook” your students into the lesson as you get started.  It is important to grab them at the beginning and begin to turn that attention into engagement with the lesson concepts.

Yesterday, in my public speaking class, we were focusing on using “attention getters” and “transitions” in a speech.  I began by asking the students about what exciting adventures they had over Spring Break.  That was my lead into the lesson, which began with my exciting adventure over spring break. The personal story that I shared with them to introduce the lesson was sprinkled with a variety of “attention getters” such as:

  • activity and movement (which you can’t “see” in this audio below)
  • proximity (referring to someone else in the room)
  • novelty (the type of therapy I spoke about)
  • familiarity (a different personal story I shared with the class a few weeks prior when we worked on introductions)
  • suspense (building the students up after telling them I got 50 injections)
  • a bit of humor (joking about how I handled the injections better than my husband who was only watching)
  • “the vital” (which appeals to audience sense of value, make life better, save time, save money, etc.).

I noticed that my transitions were not as smooth as I had hoped to demonstrate for my students. I used a lot of “ands” and “sos”, rather than varying my transition words, or using pauses.  We discussed this after my intro and did a fishbowl activity in which two groups were able to orally practice “attention getters” on a given topic. This was followed by a brief discussion of “transitions” as compared to driving a stick shift with smooth shifting (no grinding of the gears effect!). The students then had practice with coming up with transitions in the following “Transition Card Pair-Share”:

  1. Students partnered up and came up with one sentence (absolutely anything!)
  2. I passed out a sentence that I created on a slip of paper to each pair
  3. The pair worked together to create a transition statement to tie the two sentences together smoothly.
  4. Much hilarity ensued due to the nature of the funny statements I gave them, i.e.: There are many things you can say about your dog, but not your roommate.

Overall, this activity was very successful in that students really understood and practiced how to create transitions, which are critical to a fluid speech in order for the audience to follow.


Note: To get my audio recording, I did the following:

  1. Recorded my intro via my iPhone 5s (using VoiceMemo app)
  2. Emailed the VoiceMemo to myself
  3. Downloaded the VoiceMemo (Mp4)
  4. Logged into my SoundCloud free account and uploaded the Mp4
  5. Once uploaded, I selected the Share menu and copied the provided code and pasted it into this WordPress post (this last step can be a little tricky as free WordPress pages don’t seem to like the code). Feel free to keep in simple and just create a hyperlink to the URL of your SoundCloud audio file.