My Top 5 Teaching Tools

I have a confession: I love finding, trying, and ultimately discarding (oops) teaching tools. I religiously listen to the recommendations portion of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, constantly check Jeremy Caplan’s Wonder Tools lists, and otherwise, am always on the hunt for new ways to make my teaching more effective and efficient.

The problem? My desire to explore and implement all of the coolest and newest tools often results in a lot of wasted time and energy that I spent integrating tools I don’t really need or work the way I imagined.

So, I thought it would be fun to share five tools that have worked. The tools that have stood the test of time. The tools that have said “Hey now, new and cool tool, you can’t displace me in Nikki’s classroom!” The tools that… well, you get the point.

Disclaimer: I have only used these tools when teaching in higher education but am pretty confident they’d be useful at any level.

#1: Calendly

Calendly is, by far, the tool I’ve seen the greatest impact from as it provides an easy way to coordinate and schedule meetings with students.

A screenshot of what it looks like when students open the Calendly link

How it works:

  • Create a calendar of your available days and times. You can create multiple calendars, such as ones specific to “office hours” or “mentoring,” which then integrate into your existing calendar system.
  • Send/post your Calendly link to your syllabi, emails, etc.
  • Once a student signs up for an appointment, it’ll notify you, put it in your calendar, and the best part: send a reminder email to you AND the student before the meeting. Calendly also allows students to provide information about what they’d like to discuss (e.g., prepare for the test), allowing you to more properly prepare for the meeting.

Why I love it:

I used to provide available days and times for my office hours, such as Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-3pm. Most of that time ended up being me sitting in my office, alone, afraid to work on anything too cognitively involving. Once I started using Calendly to coordinate my office hours, I noticed two massive changes. First, so many more students came! Allowing them a way to have some of my time (without awkwardly standing around the door, trying to see if someone was already in my office), opened up a barrier I didn’t know existed. I literally went from 0 people coming to office hours to 1-3 a week. Second, I found that my time ended up being used more efficiently once I knew who was coming and for what reason.

How much does it cost:

If you’re only using one calendar, it’s free! If you need more than that, Calendly has different pricing plans, ranging from $8-$16 a month.

#2: Remind

Remind is a messaging platform, allowing instant and pre-scheduled communication between you and your students via text.

An example screenshot of what the course landing page would look like in Remind

How it works:

  • Create a class in Remind
  • Have students sign up for that class, either by manually enrolling them or distributing a link for them to self-enroll. Students can choose whether they want the messages to be sent via the app, to their cell phones, or to their email.
  • Send annoucements and messages to your entire class or specific students!

Why I love it:

If Calendly is what I think has been most helpful in my teaching, Remind is what my students would say has been the most helpful- particularly for online, asynchronous courses. I started using Remind two years ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when I was concerned students were juggling more than they signed up for. All of their courses went online and that meant a lot of due dates interspersed throughout the week with email becoming the main form of communication. I tried sending a weekly email with upcoming due dates but students voiced those tended to get lost in the clutter… So I turned to Remind.

Remind allowed me to send pre-scheduled texts to students reminding them of assignments due that day or to communicate emergency information (e.g., D2L was down). It also provided a way for us to easily communicate (if you’re okay with that). Nearly every student during the first semester I incorporated Remind praised it in the end-of-semester evaluations, saying it was a “game-changer.”

How much does it cost:

Nothing! Remind is free for individual instructors and classrooms.

#3: Camtasia

Camtasia is an all-in-one software for filming, editing, and distributing videos.

A snapshot of what Camtasia looks like.

How it works:

  • Camtasia allows you to film in a variety of different ways, such as just your screen, just your person, or a combination of the both.
  • After filming or uploading your videos, you can edit them, such as by adding text, effects, and other features.
  • Directly upload it to a connected platform, such as YouTube, or export it as a MP4 to your local computer.

Why I love it:

I’ve tried a lot of the cheaper and/or free video software out there because I not only use videos for my online courses but for my in-person courses, as well. Videos are so, so important in demonstrating how to do things, like navigating the LMS system or using specific databases, that may not warrant classtime for but still need to be communicated. More so, if the course is online, videos became (in my opinion) a necessity for creating engaging lectures. Camtasia has been my favorite way to make/edit my videos, thus far. It’s generally easy to learn, relatively powerful compared to competitors (such as Loom) and has become a staple program in my toolkit.

How much does it cost:

My university has a license to use Camtasia (making it free for me), so I would check to see if your university does, too. If not, Camtasia is the most expensive tool I’m recommending… sorry. An individual plan is $161 per year for the education plan.

#4 TextExpander

TextExpander is a program that allows you to create “snippits” (shorthand codes) for text, images, phrases, and paragraphs of information you regularly need.

An example snippet I have in my grading list.

How it works:

  • Create an abbreviation (e.g., zgood) that corresponds to certain text (e.g., You did a really good job).
  • Type that abbreviation and hit space anytime you want that connected text to appear.
  • Save time typing and finding obsecure information.

Why I love it:

TextExpander has saved me so much time. It may sound complicated but it’s actually quite simple to use. Rather than remembering obscure information, hunting through your computer for templates, or constantly typing the same message over and over again, you just have to remember a short snippet to access that needed information. For example, when a student asks for a letter of recommendation, I have a snippet (zrecommend) that contains an email template clarifying my process, listing what information I need from them, and telling them how long I’ll need in advance. I have another snippet for my Calendly link, my university ID number, grading rubrics, etc. I was initially worried that I wouldn’t remember my snippets, negating the whole point of this, but since I could create my own abbreviations, it ended up becoming quite intuitive.

I will admit that I sometimes find my typing to act wonky if TextExpander is running with certain programs. But, I find the benefits to largely outweigh the minimal times of annoyance.

How much does it cost:

TextExpander is the only tool I personally pay for, so that should probably show how much I love it. An individual plan is roughly $40 a year.

#5: LMS Templates

Templates are a way to easily create consistent, organized, and informative modules in your LMS system.

An example “Meet your Instructor” template page

How it works:

  • Find and download template packages for your LMS system
  • Upload those template files into your LMS system
  • Use templates to organize your modules and content pages!

Why I love it:

I’ve found the organization of a course page to be a massive determinant of whether students succeed and enjoy my class. An easy way I’ve made my courses more organized and user-friendly is by using consistent templates and themes within the course page. My current university uses D2L and by using this template, my pages have been noted by students as being very organized, easy to understand, and extremely professional looking (I think the work they actually used was”aesthetic”). I hope to eventually write a blog post about how I organized my LMS pages, but if you’re not using templates, that’s always my first recommendation. Most template packages will also have fancy elements to help communicate complicated information or to just jazz up your page.

How much does it cost:

I’ve only ever used free templates, but I’m sure there are many others that you can purchase. If you’re good at HTML coding, you can even create your own!

Are there any other tools that you love using? Let me know! And as always, thanks for reading.

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