TodaysMeet: Using Backchanneling During Class to Maximize Repetition

I recently read the book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, by Eric Jensen, and it highlighted something that I need to do more deliberately in my classroom.  In his explanation of the need for repetition in order to strengthen connections in the brain, he discusses the use of pre-exposure, previewing, priming, reviewing, and revision.  Though I regularly do all of these when teaching, I am rather informal with the three that happen immediately preceding, alongside, or directly after the learning in the classroom; previewing, priming, and reviewing.  

Pre-exposure usually occurs days or weeks ahead of the actual learning.  I introduce topics using collaborative Google docs, and more recently a Facebook group.  Both of these platforms introduce material to students ahead of time allowing them to explore and discuss concepts and strategies before we dig in in the classroom.  These are great formative assessment tools as the allow me to observe their discovery virtually, and it helps me to better structure my lessons.  I am also able to jump in when there are misconceptions or the occasional exasperated student :-). 

Yesterday, my students were having an engaging discussion about how to process data for their enzyme design labs.  It was clear that repetition was going to be necessary, but as always, time is a factor.  I decided to be more deliberate about using previewing, priming and reviewing during my lesson today.  Enter TodaysMeet

TodaysMeet is essentially Twitter without all of the distractions.  It is perfect for the classroom, because it allows students to ask questions, discuss what is being presented, and reflect on their learning alongside live presentations. 

TodaysMeet is simple to set up.  If you click on the image below, it will take you to the site.  No sign-up or e-mail address is required. 

All you do is: (1) Name your room.  (2) Select the duration that you want the room data to be saved (this can be anywhere from 2 hours to 1 year).  (3) Create class. 

That will take you to the chat space.  Here you just enter your name and select join. 

Now you are ready to post!  Anyone with the link can join the chat.

Previewing is supposed to take place minutes or hours ahead of the learning.  I used TodaysMeet as a tool to get kids to check-in and review the material that we were going to discuss in class.  At the beginning of class I had them look over their lab draft, and post any key observations, questions, or difficulties that they had with the lab the previous night.  This not only forced them to focus on the material, but it also gave me the information that I needed for some “just-in-time teaching”. 

I then asked for volunteers to project their lab and Excel spreadsheets so that we could reflect, question and provide feedback as a class.  While the student volunteer explained their decisions, strategies and methods for processing, the student in class were instructed to use TodaysMeet to record their questions and observations without interrupting the student presenter.  It is important to establish protocols for commenting so that the students are respectful to the presenters as you can’t edit comments. 

After the presenter finished, I discussed each aspect one section at a time and made suggestions.  At the end of each section, I had the students review their own work and reflect using TodaysMeet. 

At the end of class I had the students post any remaining questions.  I then read through the TodaysMeet transcript which is hyperlinked below the chat box and collated any remaining questions on a collaborative Google doc that was shared with the class.  This will encourage students to continue their discussion allowing for the necessary revision to take place before the final draft is due in the next class. 

As my first class was leaving, I overheard a student telling a few students from the next period that class was great today…really helpful.  So a big thumbs up for TodaysMeet. 

Howard Gardner, the Synthesizing Mind, and Biology

Last night, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture at our school given by Howard Gardner.  For those of you who don’t know who he is, you can read up on his contributions to cognition and education at this link. In his lecture he discussed his book, Five Minds for the Future. Two of the “minds” resonated with a struggle that I have been having with my 10th grade biology students: the disciplined mind and the synthesizing mind. We are currently studying digestion. As an introduction to mechanical and chemical digestion, we followed a meal through the system in an organ sequence. As with most topics in biology, there is a large amount of vocabulary involved.  After doing several activities, I quizzed the students over their knowledge of the enzymes, substrates and processes involved in digestion and discovered a contradiction in their learning. The good news was that the majority of my students had managed to memorize the information. The bad news was that they memorized the information as a series of discrete, disconnected facts that followed the sequence of organs in digestion and could not apply them to the bigger concepts in biology.

What my students lacked was the ability to synthesize the large volume of information they had learned and apply it to different contexts.  So today in class, wrote a jumble of 26 words on the white board including two words that we had not discussed. 

I then divided them into mixed-ability, collaborative groups and instructed them to create a concept map that would connect all of the words on the board in a way that accurately showed the relationships between the words.  The only rules I gave them were that they could not repeat words in their map, they could not use organs or organ sequence as an organizational strategy, and anything they didn’t know they had to discover on their own using internet resources.  For added incentive, there was a prize for the first group that could convince me of their organization of terms. 

Though they struggled quite a bit at first, I was impressed by the engagement of the students at all levels and the learning that went on throughout the process.  The hardest part for the students was to think of the concepts as disconnected from the organ sequence. Once they started to regroup the terms using different organizational rules, they began to visualize them in a different context and were able to grasp the larger applications of enzyme digestion.  What surprised me the most was the fact that the groups came up with logical arrangements that I had not predicted.  By the end of the activity even the weaker students experienced “aha” moments.

In Gardner’s book, Five Minds for the Future, he quotes a navy captain:

“You feel it creeping up into your brain like a numbing cold and you just have to choke it all down, sift faster, and stay with it. [It’s] challenging to be sure, but if you practise it, you develop a good tool…”

…or perhaps a synthesizing mind.

The Ig Nobel Prizes for Improbable Research

If you have never heard of the IgNobel Prizes for Improbable Research, you must check out the research of some of the winners from years past.  Tonight they are having a live webcast of the ceremony.  I have used data from some of the research in my IB classes to teach statistical analysis.  It is always a big hit as the subject matter is always entertaining. 


I created this word-graphic on Wordle by entering in my class notes on transcription (and deleting the insignificant words) for a terminology preview of this unit.  This was so easy to do, and I think it does a great job of highlighting important terms.  You can even “cheat” a little by duplicating terms in the text that you really want them to notice. 

I created this word-graphic on Wordle by entering in my class notes on transcription (and deleting the insignificant words) for a terminology preview of this unit.  This was so easy to do, and I think it does a great job of highlighting important terms.  You can even “cheat” a little by duplicating terms in the text that you really want them to notice. 

Quizlet: "The best way to study languages, vocabulary, or almost anything"

Quizlet is an online flashcard tool that I have used extensively in all of my classes.  The reason that I like it so much is that you can create groups for your classes and they can share sets of flashcards. This cuts down on the time spent creating flashcards and maximizes the time spent learning the information.  If you don’t want to use it for this purpose, students can also search for sets on any topic, including things like SAT vocabulary, without being part of a group.

One great thing about Quizlet is that it not only has basic flashcard review functions, it will also automatically transform the flashcards into test questions or memory games.

The students select test from the study options, and then they can format the test in the following ways: 

  • Choose type of question:  multiple choice, true/false, matching, written or a mix
  • Choose whether they want to be prompted with the term, definition or both
  • Choose the number of questions

After making their selections, they just click reconfigure and they can take the test and receive immediate feedback on their answers.

The games feature on Quizlet is what makes this a big hit with my students as they can compete with each other in a group for high scores on the different games. 

Space Race is my favorite as it is similar to Space Invaders, an Atari classic that I played when I was younger. 

The students have so much fun trying to get the high score that they don’t realize that they are learning!

You can create sets for the group if you want, but I have had no problems having students take responsibility for this.  In IB Biology, my students contribute to collaborative learning docs for each unit, and one student has to sign up on the doc to do Quizlet sets for the unit.  My only piece of advice is to take the time to teach students how to make flashcards first, and make sure that they make everyone an editor so that you can go in and clean them up if necessary.  We don’t want kids learning the wrong information! 

To get started, create your free account at

Virtual Labs: A Possible Solution for International Science Teachers

Now that the school year is well underway, the first round of SAISA trips are about to begin.  One reality for all international teachers is the fact that students travel for every activity or sport causing different groups of students to miss class at different times.  Then there are the extended vacations… :-)

Sometimes it seems as if there is not a week in the year when our lessons are not interrupted by student travel.  This is particularly tricky in courses packed with required content, especially when physical presence is imperative as is often the case in lab courses. Or is it?  Fortunately, technology has made this issue relatively easy to resolve as long as you are willing to flip your teaching and assume the role of facilitator in your classroom as opposed to a more traditional approach. 

Today in our faculty meeting we discussed ways to ensure that meaningful learning is going on during these periods of time for all students whether they are in the classroom or not.  For science teachers, one key component to flip teaching is to ensure that the hands-on, visual aspects of instruction are incorporated in the learning.  Over the past few years, I have collected activities, simulations, games, and virtual labs that can be used as substitutes for certain laboratory activities so that the students can participate in the learning along with the class from remote locations (provided they have access to the Internet).

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute  has created a set of great virtual labs that would be suitable for advanced biology high school courses (AP or IB) or first year university courses.  I particularly like the transgenic fly lab, as we all know how messy those fruit flies can be!  

I have compiled a selection of links to science simulations and games for chemistry, physics, and biology on this collaborative doc if you find something great to share, please add it to the doc!  My only request is that you keep to the format of the doc so that others can easily search for activities and labs that fit their curricular units. 

Immune Attack!

I am participating in a game evaluation of Immune Attack, an educational game developed by the Federation of American Scientists.  They are looking for other science teachers to carry out trials in their classes and evaluate the game as a learning tool for cell biology and immunity. If you would like more information and/or are interested in participating with your classes this fall, register at this link.  Let the games begin!  (Too cheesy?)

Blood Typing

This game simulation is a great 5-10 minute introductory activity to do with students when learning about antibodies and antigens.  You are presented with three patients who need transfusions.  The students draw blood and then test the blood by mixing it with vials of A antibodies, B antibodies, and Rh antibodies.  They then have to select the bag of blood to transfuse into the patient.  The reason that I like this activity is because when you get to the AB- patient, they end up needing four bags of blood and they only have one AB-.  The students then have to decide which other blood types would be acceptable. The visual models of antibodies and antigens provide a good starting point for discussing antibody response.  There are several other games for biology that you should check out on the Nobel prize website

Jeopardy Anyone?

Jason Gots, a blogger for Big Think talked about teaching with, not to the test (standardized tests).  He points out that tests can be a valuable learning tool when used effectively, particularly when the testing is low stakes, and the learning environment is enjoyable and interactive.  I have been doing quite a bit of research on games-based learning, and this sentiment seems to be echoed by many experts in the field.  Jeopardy Labs has created a format that is ridiculously easy to use.  In fact, when I break my kids up into groups in IB Biology to differentiate learning for the different levels, I occasionally have my Standard Level students create their own jeopardy games.  I then have them play and edit another student’s game.  I have also broken the entire class into teams and used it to review before tests.  Here is an example of one that I created for a unit over the Chemistry of Life

5-4-3-2-1: Feedback that Feeds Forward

I just received a frantic e-mail from a 10th grade chemistry student confessing that his group had not measured the final mass of the silver in their experiment.  To make matters even worse, they left the beaker out next to the oven for someone (read me) to clean up, and when they went back on a Saturday to measure the mass, it had mysteriously disappeared. No mass = no actual yield.  Sound familiar? 

Now fast forward a year to my first year IB biology classes.  While it is less likely that they will be as negligent in the lab, we all know that very few of them will be successful the first time out of the gate when they are assessed against the IB Internal Assessment rubric.  To receive a complete on any aspect of the rubric, the labs have to be nearly perfect.  I find that the majority of my students spend a great deal of their IB career in Partial Purgatory with no idea how to get themselves out of it because of the vague descriptions used to describe student performance on each aspect.

Fortunately, we all know that somehow, regardless of how hopeless it might seem, the majority of them CAN climb out of Partial Purgatory if they are provided with specific feedback and instruction.  As a result, I developed a formative assessment tool that is filled with positive feedback and specific, manageable constructive criticism meant to focus their efforts along the way.  I call it 5-4-3-2-1 feedback.

  • 5 minutes
  • 4 things I liked about your lab
  • 3 benchmarks you excelled on
  • 2 quick fixes
  • 1 major focus for your next lab

This forces me to say seven positive things about the student before I focus their attention on three things that they need to work on to improve their results.  The students are motivated by the praise.  The quick fixes show them that with just a few easy tweaks they are already moving along the continuum towards their goal of receiving a complete, and the narrow focus makes their goal seem attainable. 

To make this even more accessible, I created a google form that is shared with each individual student.  When I grade their labs, I fill out this form, and it automatically logs the feedback in a spreadsheet that they can access at any time to track their progress over the two-year course. 

I have included links to a sample form and a more detailed explanation of this assessment tool if you would like more information on how I use this in the classroom.  The link to the form opens to the spreadsheet used to collect the data.  For those of you that are not familiar with google forms, if you click on forms in the toolbar, and then go to live form, it will take you to the form that I fill out while grading my students’ labs.