Integrated Learning Model – 2016

Integrated Learning Model – 2016

Last August, I published a simple model for helping students engage in better synthesis and integrate scholarly thought, personal experience, and biblical truth & Christian wisdom into discussion forums and academic writing. I am convinced these three domains represent distinct but crucial arenas essential for vibrant Christian higher education. The model labels these as Academic/Scholarly, Practical/Experiential, and Biblical/Spiritual.

The model has now been updated to a new, improved version based on experiences of several of our faculty using it this last year in OKWU’s adult degree programs. This new 2016 version is much more visually interesting and cleaner. It also now includes a separate tool for learning to use it in critical thinking, asking good learning questions, class discussion, or reflective writing and analysis.

Original model

Original model

New updated version

New updated version

View the full model document here.

It can be tempting to read this as a variation on the head/heart/hands motif often used in Christian ed and discipleship, but it isn’t for the simple fact that cognition, emotion/belief, and behavior are intrinsic in all 3 domains independent of the other. Rather, each of the three dimensions is differentiated on the raw ingredients and kind of learning that happens in that domain. The model emphasizes that the best learning occurs where these three meet.

Academic/Scholarly is more than merely cognition and the mental thinking processes involved in learning. It relates to objective data, research, information, the raw “content” around which learning and practice happen. It emphasizes that learning, belief, and practice is and ought to be more than one’s own preferences or inclinations, that learning must be more than subjective affirmation or experience.

Practical/Experiential is more than just behavior or action. It focuses instead on the skills, systems, processes, and environment in which learning and life are lived out and understanding or assessing one’s own experiences within that environment. It emphasizes that knowledge and learning must ultimately be useful to an appropriate end — thought I vehemently oppose utilitarianism or functionalism as a base educational philosophy — and that it can or ought to shape the way we act.

Biblical/Spiritual is more than just the affective domain of value or emotion, though those are certainly vital. It emphasizes the role of one’s worldview and fundamental value systems as the foundational lenses through which learning and behavior are often governed. It deals with the underlying ethical questions about the nature of truth and right/wrong in both intellectual and behavioral endeavor.



Better Grading for Better Learning

Better Grading for Better Learning

In this post, I share some suggestions and practices for grading that I have found to be helpful in online teaching. In the first section, I share a bit of my grading philosophy and how I communicate with students. Then I talk about the value of a clear grading philosophy and how to set yourself and your students up for an optimal experience when it comes to course grading. Finally, I offer a few specific tips related to giving feedback.

On the first day of a class, I typically will share something similar to the following announcement:


Class, please read the following carefully as I want to clarify my general philosophy of grading.

  • I usually try to give a little bit of feedback for each grade. However, I do not generally ever give 100% points, largely on the basis that there is always room for improvement.
  • I tend to think in terms of letter grades, A/A-/B+ and so on.
  • If you give me everything that the assignment asks for and its thoughtful and clear, it will be an A- (90-93 or thereabouts).
  • If you do all of that PLUS add some significant insights, analysis, research, or in-depth argument that shows me you’re going well past what is expected, that’s what gets an full A. Sometimes, though, the distance between the A- and the A is closed by just a little more time spent digging deeper. To me, an ‘A’ (93-98) represents stellar work that really excels and goes above and beyond what I expect. It is, in a real sense, the “WOW” factor.

Bottom line: If you are getting scores of…

…93-98 (A),  you did stellar work that really excels and shows me the ‘wow’ factor.  (Your work was above and beyond what was expected.)

…90-92 (A-), you did thoughtful and clear work for all that the assignment required, but…recognize you can do more. (You did great work.)

…87-89 (B+), you are really close to giving me everything the assignment calls for but just need to beef up one or two areas a bit more. (You did above average work but need improvement.)

…80-86 (B-/B), you are doing average work, mostly meeting the requirements (just barely) but needs significant development is several areas. (You did average work but generally hit everything.)

…73-79 (C/B-), you’ve done the assignment, but are missing some critical pieces or have done only superficial work on them. (You did below average work and left some critical pieces out.)

…under 73 (D/C-), you left some major parts of the assignment, did not do it all, et. (You might need to reread the instructions or pay more careful attention to the assignment next time.)

I expect most good students to fall between a B+ and an A- (percentage points between 87-92).

I take this approach with the ‘A’ because I recognize that many students are looking for the lowest threshold to still get a high grade (which I certainly understand), whereas a few students really want to push themselves and go deeper. It’s important for me as a teacher to reward those who will push harder than what is asked for in the class.


I have found that this kind of philosophy and explanation at the front end of the course has helped significantly reduce the number of questions and complaints about grading from students. But there are several other important steps we can take to help provide better grading for students that can lead to better learning and greater clarity.

First, communicate grading philosophy early and often in your course. If you do not have an explicit, written grading philosophy, I would strongly encourage you to develop one. It will be a tremendous help you and your students alike.

Second, grade the first 2 weeks of the course hard and give very detailed feedback. This may seem counterintuitive, but it actually produces a better environment for everybody. Commit to coming out of the gate with a pretty tough approach to grading work and explaining to students very specifically how they can improve to hit a higher grade level. At times, many of us have probably done just the opposite: grade easy to allow the students time to acclimate and then make the grading harder as the course progresses. But research and experience shows the opposite works better. In accelerated courses, students very quickly look to establish a baseline for their performance: what does this instructor expect and how do I need to work? If the first week especially is graded easy and with little feedback, this tends to become the baseline for future weeks. So when you come along in week 3 or 4 and suddenly start grading harder, students may feel like you’ve changed the rules or shifted the requirements. This is what leads to frustrated phone calls or emails to faculty or advisors.

By grading hard with detailed feedback at the start, you set a much more realistic reference point for students. You will also find that your students will actually tend to appreciate this approach once they’ve recovered from their initial shock.

Now, of course, I don’t mean go through and give everybody bad grades just to do it. That’s not legitimate. You may certainly have a few students that from the beginning are doing stellar work. But as a rule of thumb, in week 1, I mentally think of everybody as starting out at a low B level (80-85%) With that kind of a grade and detailed feedback, the climb up to an A- or even an A still seems very doable and realistic. My detailed feedback gives them very explicit clues as to what needs to happen next time.

Use a comments file for quickly replicating common chunks of feedback. In the past, I have maintained Excel spreadsheet of commonly used comments and explanatory notes that I would have open to copy=and-paste from as I’ve graded. More recently, I have begun using a powerful little utility called TypeIt4Me (I use a Mac) that is a text replacement tool on steroids. And I now use Dragon Naturally Speaking’s voice dictation feature to turn running audio commentary into written text. Whichever process or tool you use, these kinds of approaches saves a great deal of time while still allowing me to give substantive feedback, thus making me a much more efficient and effective grader. I am able to give better feedback in less time.

On major papers, I encourage faculty to allow rewrites on papers and encourage students to submit drafts for faculty review prior to a final version. My approach is to give detailed critiques and feedback on papers and if they are below a certain level (usually a C- or worse), I will privately extend to the student one chance to revise their paper on the basis of my comments and then resubmit it for a better grade. Some will take advantage of this, others may not.

Many of us routinely deal with students who struggle in their writing. Poor writing and the use of APA are near-chronic issues — and not just at OKWU. We do not currently have a formal institutional tutoring or writing support center available, so partner with advisors for tutoring. If you have a student who really is struggling far worse than normal with writing or comprehension, gently encourage that student to reach out to their academic advisor about finding tutoring help. While our resources are limited, at the moment, our advisors are the ones in the best position to help direct the student to the right places.

Finally, be firm but patient in your grading expectations and activity. But, most importantly, over-communicate! Communicate in written announcements, emails, and video or audio introductions to the course. Most of the complaints I get in my office that relate to grading come down to a lack of communication or understanding. Students don’t know what is being asked for or why they were graded down.

Some practical tips for leaving feedback

If your institution or LMS allows, use TurnItIn for handling student’s written work. In addition to the originality indexing and plagiarism tools, TurnItIn’s GradeMark feature provides a very powerful and user-friendlyh built-in, customizable library of grading comments. These comments blocks can be easily dragged-and-dropped into the paper and its very easy to add your own blocks for constant reuse. Plus, there is a tool for building rubrics or grading forms on the fly for any assignment or paper. TII also allows you to leave general audio comments (up to 3:00 in length) for a student’s paper. This can be a great way to add a personal note of encouragement or affirmation to individual students.

Post video explanations of major assignments ahead of time. I found this out more by accident in a recent class I taught. I put together a short YouTube video of my walking through the instructions of a weekly paper for the class. I basically read the instructions right from the class but added a bit of commentary at certain points: I am looking for this or I would suggest you do this or Please make sure to pay attention to this requirement. I treated it as if I were standing in front of the classroom going over with students this particular assignment and talking about what it would take to make a high grade on it. I did this in front of the camera, uploaded it to Wistia (or YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) and shared it with the class.

I had numerous requests to do the same thing for the major paper in the class. So I put together another one for the final paper. It was about 15 minutes long, but I posted it anyway. I had numerous comments about how helpful that was for students (this was in a graduate course with 14 students). After grading all of the final papers (which were substantially long at 15-20 pages), I am convinced it made a big difference in student performance.

This particular final paper had a literature review section. Looking back, it was obvious that almost none of the students had any idea what a literature review was or how to do one. If I had a do-over or in a future course, I would make another video explaining what a literature review was and how to do one.

Providing explanations and clarification about assignments before students complete them is a type of formative assessment. This is assessment related to helping students know how to perform better. This is different than summative assessment which relates to evaluating how students actually performed on the work. Formative assessment is more like coaching in practice, its working with students to know what is needed or how to perform better prior to them actually having to perform for the grade.

To summarize,

  • develop a specific grading philosophy
  • communicate that early, often, and clearly
  • grade hard early and give detailed feedback
  • think in terms of coaching for success: give specific feedback for improving performance
  • use the power of personal videos to clarify expectations

Updated Nov. 2016. This post was originally written and posted on the faculty development site for Oklahoma Wesleyan University in June 2015.

Dwelling Among Us

Dwelling Among Us

Written as a brief reflection for the final 2015 issue of Oklahoma Wesleyan’s Connect:ED faculty newsletter.


As I write this, I am sitting in my daughter’s room at St. Francis Children’s Hospital here in Tulsa. She was admitted yesterday with a severe eye infection requiring several days of antibiotics. For the fifth time in the last 18 months, I have again been deeply touched by the ministry of the nurses and doctors who serve in these hospitals. They treat my daughter like family. They are kind, patient, loving, and servant-hearted. They have brought her Christmas gifts, changed bedding, and hunted down a favorite pudding flavor. Above all, they have been great sources of encouragement and hope.

Some of those who serve in this hospital or those like it all across Oklahoma and even Kansas are OKWU graduates. I am yet again aware of the effects on society that your ministry as adjunct faculty and Christian educators makes every day. Whether it be in the life of the senior pastor leading a small rural congregation, the store manager at the local Home Depot, the pediatric or emergency nurse, the assistant principal at the nearby middle school, or the young professional seeking training in apologetics in order to connect to non-believing coworkers: these are the real people whose lives you are helping shape. And they, in turn, are touching countless numbers of other lives every day. Week by week, the influence of Oklahoma Wesleyan ripples across the world quietly by powerfully. There are times when that influence is very public, like when Dr. Piper’s post that OKWU is a university and not a daycare recently went viral. We are grateful for the publicity and exposure those events afford us, but the long-term measure of OKWU’s vision is in the day-by-day work of our students and alumni wherever they are.

So, today, I am looking at our work not through the eyes of a dean or professor but of a father who deeply loves his hurting, suffering daughter. At this Christmas season, we remember that God is also a father looking with compassion upon a groaning, broken creation that he loves. Out of that deep love for us, he incarnated himself, he embedded himself into our circumstances, he identified with us in our humanness, he did what we could not do for ourselves: he closed the distance between us and himself.

As we celebrate Christ’s birth and real presence in our world, let’s take time to see our work as adjunct professors as an expression of God’s incarnation in the lives of our students. Look for opportunities to engage them as real people with real lives. Find ways to identify with them in their calling, their passions, their fears, and even their life challenges. Share those burdens as they struggle to balance work, family, and education. Be a listening ear as they face the stress of falling behind on assignments because of sick kids or problems at work. Be flexible and gracious in allowing opportunities to handle these challenges. But at the same time, point them to a better future. Challenge them to see the possibilities of who they can become as a result of attaining their education. Set the standards for quality high and then push them toward that with love, encouragement, and firm gentleness. For when you do — when you become incarnate in the lives of your students and help them become the best they can be in the midst of the messiness of life — they become vessels well-equipped and ready to embrace the challenges of the world into which they are called to serve.

As I sit and watch my sick daughter be ministered to by her nurse through excellent professional training wedded to deeply compassionate humanity, I am watching the reality of God made flesh at work in the world. Because God was man, we can love and truly serve others as God does. Because God was man, he can work through our lives to heal, encourage, or equip others. In Jesus, God dwelt among us as one of us. In the Holy Spirit, God dwells in us and works through us for the redemption of creation. So, this Christmas, live and teach out of the incarnation of a loving, good, compassionate Father who wants nothing but the best for his children. Let’s let that reality characterize the way we approach our teaching ministry to our adult students!

Merry Christmas and may you know the rich presence of Jesus this week,

BRE signature

Simple Model for Content Areas of Good Learning (infographic)

Simple Model for Content Areas of Good Learning (infographic)

A new idea I am working on. This is a tool for sharing with students in online courses to help better integrate scholarly thought, personal experience, and biblical truth & Christian wisdom into discussion forums and academic writing. I am wanting to help students come at this kind of classroom work in three ways:

  1. the academic/theoretical side (what does research, history, philosophy tell us),
  2. the practical/experience side (what have you encountered in your life), and
  3. the spiritual/faith side (what does Scripture and Christian faith call us to be like).

Not too sure about the title, but I’m more focused on the substance at the moment. If anybody has developed something similar, I’d love to hear about it and see where I could learn.



Ask Great Questions to Create Great Dialogue

Ask Great Questions to Create Great Dialogue

In The Prince, Machiavelli famously wrote that a great prince must “certainly be a great asker of questions” (ch. 23). This is certainly true of great teachers and engaged learners. In the vast majority of our AGS online courses, discussion forums are a significant part of the course grade. In the face-to-face courses, while class discussion may not be as heavily weighted, it is nonetheless an important part of the learning environment.

While there are different ways to adapt these kinds of discussions to each teaching mode, good dialogue is essential in any learning context. However, asking good questions is both an art and a science that takes some work to master at a high level. You don’t have to be a master teacher to recognize that good dialogue can be hard to bring about, especially in online courses. It is one thing to throw dialogue questions out there for the class to tackle. It’s quite another for those questions to be great questions that really stimulate deep learning and understanding.

Disciplined dialogue is one key to effective learning through class discussions. According to Brookfield and Preskill (Discussion As a Way of Teaching, 2005), dialogue is disciplined when students remain focused on the selected topic, explain or support their arguments, critically synthesize multiple points of view, connect new and prior knowledge, and demonstrate how the discussion has changed their thinking.

How many of us have struggled with watching students, whether it is in class discussions, online forums, or in written assignments, struggle to think critically, defend an argument, synthesize their previous knowledge with new information from the class, or apply new concepts to real situations in an in-depth way? This struggle is partly where our ability to ask the right kinds of good questions becomes of critical importance to both faculty and student success.

The path of least resistance is to ask students to merely summarize or describe basic knowledge. This is the lowest level of cognitive learning in Bloom’s taxonomy. Using the suggestions from Brookfield and Preskill that I have summarized here, you as the instructor can push your students to higher orders of critical-analytical thinking, engagement, and, ultimately, understanding and wisdom.

Brookfield and Preskill offer the following sets of questions that you can use to more effectively facilitate this kind of dialogue.


  • What is the connection between your comment and what was just said?
  • Can you explain how your idea is helping us make sense of this subject matter?
  • We seem to have wandered away from the main topic. What do we need to do to get back on track?
  • Who has a comment or question that can help us regain our focus?


  • How do you know what you say is true?
  • What evidence do you have to support this claim?
  • What is the source of that point of view?
  • Whose work that have we studied confirms what you are saying?
  • By what process of reasoning did you reach that conclusion?


  • How has this discussion changed the way you are thinking about this topic?
  • What is the most memorable thing you have heard here today?
  • What question(s) does this discussion prompt you to ask?
  • What is something that you learned or relearned here today?
  • What do you know now that you did not know before this dialogue began?
  • What assumptions you had about this topic have been confirmed or questioned for you by this discussion?

The next challenge from here is helping students learn to be great askers of great questions. But the first step is in modeling that for them in the kinds of questions we ask.