Tag Archives: teachers

A Step by Step Guide to Creating Tag Clouds

Recently, we posted about Four Ways to Use Tag Clouds in the Classroom — with the promise that we’d follow up with a step-by-step tutorial for making these awesome interactive graphics on your own. Check out our earlier post for a quick background on what tag clouds are, and how they can be used to supplement classroom lessons.

Ready to get started? Today I’ll walk you through how to create two types of tag clouds: one that uses a set list of inputted words, and one that “scrapes” its words from a website of your choice. For both, we’ll create the cloud using a a great web program called Tagul.

To begin, visit http://www.tagul.com/ and register. Once you’ve created a username and accepted their terms and conditions, you can get started by clicking “Create” under the “My Clouds” heading on the right side of the screen.

Creating a Tag Cloud with a Set List of Words

1. Decide what you want the tag cloud to display.

For the sake of this example, let’s do a Valentine’s Day vocabulary list, with the goal of linking each word to its dictionary.com definition, so that students can click on any words they don’t know. Once you’ve compiled the list of words you want to include, you can copy or type it into the “text” section of Tagul. After entering the tags, hit “Fetch tags” to populate the list.

2. Size the information.

Since part of the fun of tag clouds is sizing the information intelligently, we have to decide how to weigh each word. For example, you might include the most difficult or most common vocabulary words most often. To do this, simply repeat these words to give them more weight.

3. Decide where on the web the tags will go.

As described in Step 1, in this case, we’ll use dictionary.com to get definitions for each word in the cloud. We can pull the “tag link pattern” for definitions from dictionary.com and replace the “$tag” marker with the actual vocabulary word. (You can easily find the “tag link pattern” on dictionary.com simply by inputting a sample word into the search field. No matter what word you enter, the URL follows the same pattern: http://www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/word).  This tells Tagul where the link of each word will go.

4. Style your cloud!

Pick a shape font, all the colors and the angles you want your words to go in. For this one, we’ll use a heart (a no-brainer), but there are also stars, rectangles, triangles, clouds, etc. We will keep these particular words flat at 0 degrees, but we can make the cloud much more interesting with new angles. Then hit “build cloud!”

5. Check the tags.

Once the cloud is built, you can check the tags (and erase any you want) and see the weights of each tag.

6. Add (more) style!

Color your words, create a background, set the rollover text animation speed and color under the “style options” tab. We’ll use some Valentine’s colors here by adding them to the right box.

7. Preview the cloud.

Make sure it does what you want, check the links, and finalize. Here is the finished product below- remember to rollover and click the links!

Pretty cool, right? Now, on to the next lesson…

Creating Tag Clouds that “Scrape” from Website Content

For these types of clouds, the tag cloud pulls its terms from a website of your choice (you don’t need to input any words!)

1. Decide what you want the tag cloud to display.

Let’s use the “Egyptian revolution” cloud I created for my earlier post as an example for this tutorial. This cloud scraped its tags from the NY Times’ “Times Topics” page on Egypt; this page displays the headlines and first few lines of all the Times’ articles about the Egyptian revolution. I used Tagul to pull the 300 most common terms from this page.

2. Copy the URL from your website to the “URL” section of Tagul.

Only the top 300 most common words will be pulled for inclusion in the cloud. Any good news website or article works, but news aggregators or RSS feeders also work perfectly with Tagul.

2. Decide where you want each word in the cloud to link.

In this case, I decided to link each term pulled from the Times webpage to the Google News search results for that term. For example, “Mubarak” was one of the words that appeared in my tag cloud. Clicking on this word would direct you to the current Google News results for “Mubarak.”

3. Set up the “Tags’ link pattern” to tell Tagul where the words should link.

The term “$tag” must be substituted into the URL wherever the actual word will go. For example, if you search Google News for “egypt”, you might get this URL:

Then replace the word you searched for with the “$tag” code to tell Tagul what to replace:

The latter URL can be copied back into Tagul. Hit “fetch tags” in Tagul to pull all the appropriate tags.

3.View the tags by weight.

Once the top 300 tags are pulled, you can view them, by weight, in the “tags” tab on Tagul. This is a good time to “blacklist” the common English words (“the,” “and,” “or,” etc.) or weird non-words that are irrelevant to your tag cloud (by hitting the “x” next to them). These words will not appear in the cloud.

4. Add Style.

Choose your color, shape, and more! Check out steps 4 and 6 in the Valentine’s tutorial above for more details.

5. Enjoy your cloud!

Roll over individual words and click to read the most recent news stories for each word.

Four Ways to Use Tag Clouds in Classroom Lessons

Back in the days before the Internet, when teachers needed to give students important lists of facts or vocab words, they had few options other than handing out boring, photocopied sheets of paper. Needless to say, technology has progressed a bit since then.

Looking for a 21st-century way to spice up your lessons and engage your students? Check out tag clouds.

Tag clouds are similar to the “word clouds” that many news sites use to show the trending topics; they can scrape a website and pull all the terms that are used, and weight them by how many times they’re used. Tag clouds have one advantage over word clouds, though; they are all separate links to more information. There are several programs that can be used to create these tag clouds — I recommend Tagul because it’s easy to use and free for the first 20 clouds!

Soon I’ll post a step by step guide to creating tag clouds — but for now, check out these four awesome classroom applications. We’ve made all our tag clouds holiday-themed to help break up those mid-winter doldrums! Be sure to click around to get the full experience.

1. Valentine’s Day: SAT Vocab List

Vocabulary is one of the easiest, but most effective pedagogical uses of Tagul. Throw your favorite word list into the system, weigh the words by their importance, or difficulty, and link each word to its definition in your favorite online dictionary — I used dictionary.com. Check it out below: hovering over any word highlights it, and clicking on it takes you directly to the definition. You’ll have the snazziest vocabulary list your students have ever seen (and then, of course, you can teach them to make their own!).

Go further:
• Use the cloud for prefixes or suffixes and link to word lists.
• Create clouds for names, terms, dates, ideas.
• Have each student answer a survey and make a cloud of the results, link to an appropriate site so that other students can research the answers.

2. President’s Day: Matching Influence to Size

This tag cloud contains the names of all the U.S. Presidents. Sure, it looks good; but what does it do? Well, for one thing, it’s organized by time in office. The Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin) have a combined 6 terms of elected office, while lowly Garfield and Fillmore have but one. Secondly, every name links to the Wikipedia page about the president. Have your kids never heard of President Arthur? By the time they finish clicking through this tag cloud, they’ll know so much about him they’ll be calling him Chester! This tag cloud would be a great discussion piece for a social studies classroom.

Go further:
• Size the states by electoral representation
• Size the world leaders by the population of their country
• Size countries by their number of nuclear weapons (or Nobel prizes, or literacy rates, etc.)

3. Black History Month: Parse a Famous Speech

This tag cloud takes the text of the “I Have a Dream” speech and sorts it by word popularity. Tagul lets you scrub out common English words (“that”, “with”), so you’re left with pure semiotic history. You can see King’s religiosity (Isaiah, mountain, faith), his hopefulness (hope, justice, that giant freedom) and the historical details of the time (Alabama, Georgia, urgency, segregation).

Go further:
• Parse several speeches or articles and compare the clouds. Do certain words come up more often based on the speaker?
• Use this cloud method on short stories for close-reading.
• Consider politics and rhetoric; parse a speech or article from the past and a current one about the same topic.

4. The Egyptian Revolution: Media Literacy/Current Events

In this tag cloud, we’ve scraped the NY Times topic page on Egypt, which updates in real time as news about the country is published. If you click on an individual word in the cloud, it links to Google news search results for that word. This is a great way to illustrate the important players and themes in an ongoing news story.

Go further:
• Watch how current events develop over a day by rebuilding the cloud.
• Parse a sales website and see what words are used for persuasion.
• Teach digital literacy and politics; how can you parse a site to determine the “talking points” behind

A 7-Step Plan for Using Blogs in English Classes

Whether you’re a techie who holds after-school Skype seminars or an old-school prof who demands stapled, hard copies on your desk by 5 PM sharp, you can use blogs to keep students engaged in and out of the classroom.

If you’re new to integrating blogging into your lesson plans, here’s a sample plan of action.

1. Decide which blogging platform to use

Blogging platforms like Tumblr, WordPress.com, Edublogs.org and Blogger.com provide free, easy ways to create blogs for your students — no technology knowledge needed!

Choose one platform and require every student to use it – no matter their personal preference. Even if students already maintain a personal blog, be sure they create a new blog solely for the purposes of class. Collect each student’s blog address and distribute the list to the class via email.

2. Start with an assignment that works as an old-fashioned English paper

God forbid that technology should actually detract from the goal of your classroom—which is to explore the art of written communication. Ease into incorporating blogs into the classroom by assigning a “traditional” English assignment, but requiring students to post their finished product on their blog.

Let’s say you’ve tasked your class with the following assignment.

Be sure to define the parameters for the assignment – their blog shouldn’t be an excuse for students to slack off! Clearly identify grading criteria, and make sure students understand that if you ask them to post the final draft of a paper on their blog, you will hold it to the same standards of grammar, style, and mechanics than you would a printed essay.

3. Get those comments rolling

Once students have taken the first step – posting their “traditional” English paper on their blogs – it’s time to exercise the full capacity of the blog genre.

Instruct students to read each others’ essays and post comments on, say, 6 or 7 of them. Indicate that you will check to make sure they make the required number of posts. Encourage students to offer both praise and constructive criticism of their peers’ work, and spell out your standards for respectful online interaction. When properly monitored, internet forums give even the quietest students a chance to enter class discussion.

Read all the posts and summarize the discussion threads in the classroom the next day, and open up the online discussions to the class.

You might also ask students to write a reflection post about the above activities, answering questions such as:

  • What comments on your paper surprised you?
  • How do you think you might have improved your argument?
  • What did you learn about the writing or reading process with this assignment?
  • Do you have any plans to expand your 2-page argument?

For the midterm or final paper (whether it’s a 5- or 15-pager), allow students to build upon their essay.  Have them blog about the process of expanding the paper – ask them to post their revised thesis on the blog, or to document their research questions. The key is to make students feel a sense of ownership over their work in the class.

4. Encourage discussions between assignments

After their first assignment, students will be more familiar with the workings of their blog — if they weren’t already. Instruct students to post questions (about classroom material) or writing/research challenges they are facing on their blogs. Offer extra credit to students who post helpful feedback on other students’ blogs; consider grading “blog participation” as a component of students’ class participation grades.

5. Reflect on the research process

If you incorporate any amount of research in the class, you may have students post about their research efforts—what’s working for them, what’s not and how they see their work evolving. Encourage students to use their blog to link to helpful resources they’ve found on the web.

6. Showcase creative talents

If you incorporate any amount of creative writing into your English class, blogs are a great way to help students “jump into” different characters. Students might post full stories or poems on their blogs – or they might post individual scenes, character descriptions, or “free-writes” to get their creative wheels turning. If creative writing is the main purpose of your students’ blogs, it might also work to create a single class blog, like the one above, where students can share their own work or inspirational excerpts from the work of published writers.

The advantage of the blog format here is that students who are usually paralyzed by the blank page may find it easier to write when publishing and feedback can happen more instantaneously.

7. Explore other assignments

Depending on the English class you’re teaching, you may have the opportunity to incorporate “top ten” lists, opinion articles, and “how-to” essays into your syllabus. These assignments lend themselves well to being published on blogs. If you’re teaching a “specialty” class like Journalism (see below), a class blog might also be a helpful resource.

How to Improve Student Content Retention: A Tale of Two Classrooms

American math teachers frequently complain about the mastery level of their incoming students. College professors are frustrated because they find themselves having to teach high school level material. High school teachers are frustrated because they have to teach middle school material. Middle school teachers are frustrated because they have to teach elementary school material.

Evidence backs up their collective lament. According to multiple international assessments, American high school students rank in the bottom half of industrialized countries when it comes to math achievement. Numerous East Asian countries boast much better test scores and content retention even though countries like China, Japan, and South Korea spend less per student and often have larger class sizes.

So what are teachers in East Asia doing that helps students retain what they learn? Turns out, there is a key difference in pedagogy that Western teachers can emulate.

Lesson Structure in the U.S.

In the United States, a typical math lesson looks something like this:

  1. Teacher introduces and explains a new concept
  2. Teacher demonstrates several sample uses
  3. Teacher gives students related problems to solve in class
  4. Students complete homework and eventually take a quiz, both of which contain similar problems to the ones in class

A lesson on exponents, for example, would begin with the teacher writing 2^3 on the board,  telling everyone that it signifies 2 × 2 × 2, and then giving more examples. The second half of the lesson would be arithmetic problems where students compute 3^3, 5^3, and so on and so forth.

A general rule of communication is that what you end with is what you emphasize. Therefore, in the lesson structure described above, the emphasis is on problem solving, not on the actual mathematical concept. The implicit and often explicit lesson to students is:

“Don’t worry about understanding the math: just try to get the questions right.”

It turns out that this method may be less than optimal, both for learning math and also for acing standardized tests.

Lesson Structure in Japan

Japanese classrooms, by contrast, use the exact opposite structure. A typical math lesson in Japan looks something like this:

  1. Teacher presents a problem
  2. Students attempt to solve this problem using their existing understanding.
  3. The teacher works with the class, using the process to help students deduce a new concept.

For example, in Japan, instead of just explaining the rules for exponents and then spending forty minutes on practice problems, the teacher will start by showing students 2^3 = 8 and 3^2 = 9 and focus on getting students to see the pattern and deduce what operation leads to these results.

By “proving” the mathematical concepts and making them the focus of the lesson, East Asian teachers can significantly improve long-term retention of content.


The goal in all teaching is to leave students with the feeling “I have this new skill / understanding that I did not have at the start of class!” instead of “Great, now I may do a little better on my standardized tests.” The latter sentiment motivates only the high-achievers and sends the message that what you are teaching lacks intrinsic value.

Though this lesson structure is particularly applicable to math, it can be applied to almost any subject. Making an effort to ensure students understand the concepts involved rather than just demanding rote memorization will pay off in the end.

If you’re a teacher looking for new ways to engage your students, try it out!


Five Ways to Make Math Lessons More Engaging

One of the most pressing questions faced by math teachers is, “How do I keep my students interested?”

It’s a challenge faced by all educators, but overcoming boredom may not be as tricky as you think. The secret is to remember to illustrate the big picture. For students, math can easily feel like a tedious jumble of facts; it’s not always obvious how the parts join together to become a  coherent whole. A pile of cardboard pieces is not very interesting — until someone reveals that they fit together to create a puzzle.

Below are five suggestions that will hopefully help your math students see the method behind the madness. At Knewton, we’re focused on creating engaging online lessons for our Math Readiness program and our GMAT course, but these tips will be helpful whether your preferred lesson medium is PowerPoint or poster board.

1. Tell a Story

People naturally find characters and narratives interesting.  Stories are easy to remember because they’re not a random assortment of information. They have a beginning, middle, and end. In the same way, your lesson should have a narrative arc. It should include an “a-ha” moment, a point where all the pieces come together.

In one of our lessons on probability, we introduced a basketball player named Michael Yourdon and used him to cover a variety of concepts.

A concept like probability tends to produce eye-glazing on its own. Relating it to a basketball player students have already gotten know (Michael Yourdon! The legend!) puts the math into a context that’s easy to grasp.

Story characters don’t always have to be fictional, either. Ancient thinkers such as Pythagoras, Archimedes, and Euclid asked very basic questions about the world around them, questions that your students might even ask themselves. Tying a lesson to the historical figures that grappled with it — or simply sharing your knowledge about a mathematical concept’s origins — can help students make connections to study material that would otherwise seem remote or abstract.

2. Open with a Hook

This can be a real-world example, an interesting problem, or a novel way of looking at a familiar situation. In one lesson, we used the game of Flip Cup (which we were pretty would resonate with our college-age audience) to show the applications of probability in everyday life.

This “hook” should then reappear in different contexts throughout the lesson. By examining a single problem from different angles, you maintain a sense of familiarity (essential to storytelling) and help students to see how ideas relate to each other. Presenting new concepts in familiar situations allows them to build on what they already know.

3. Emphasize Your Main Points

Don’t keep students guessing what the point of the lesson is. Put your takeaways in bold or outline them in orange, and make sure that they reappear throughout the lesson. Students shouldn’t be surprised by the lesson’s conclusion; they should be able to see the ending well in advance. It also helps to include a final page where you summarize all of the lesson’s main points.

4. Choose Images over Words

No need to insert blocks of text. You’ll be present to provide the details and explanations. Diagrams, images, arrows, color coding – the more ways you can connect ideas to visual reminders, the better. It’s a lot easier to remember a picture than a paragraph. Keep in mind that in order to be effective, the image should connected to the storyline; it should drive the story forward or illustrate an important point.

5. Address the “Why”

Math was created by people for people. Math is anything but arbitrary and haphazard, though it can frequently feel that way to a student. Above all, it was designed to be user-friendly. As often as possible, you should address the question, “Why was this math subject necessary here in the first place?”  The more students can see that math was developed for their benefit — to simplify their world — the more they will trust their ability to use it.

For example, in addition to explaining what percentages are, don’t forget to share why they are helpful and why we came up with them to begin with. For one thing, they make comparing fractions a lot more intuitive.

Thinking about Thinking: How Metacognition Can Help Students Learn

In our latest research at Knewton into how students learn, we’ve found that one of the best ways to get students to think more deeply is to get them to engage in metacognition, i.e. thinking about thinking. All this thinking about thinking about thinking (meta-metacognition?) has led to a few conclusions that can be applied in any classroom.

1. Students learn better when they understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Studies show that high-performing students tend to have a very accurate understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as learners while low-performing students tend to greatly overestimate themselves. This may appear to be a chicken-and-the-egg type of correlation, but I’m not so sure. I believe that by helping low-performance students gain a more accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses (gently; nobody needs a laundry list of everything they don’t know), we can help them to hone their studying on the subjects they really need work on, abandon practices that don’t work for them, and embrace ones that do.

To achieve this, we need assessments and feedback that focus on identifying specific areas of weakness rather than assigning scores; we need to ask questions that prompt students to reflect on their strategies, study habits, and thought processes  (whatever they may be), rather than just providing statements that dictate what those strategies should be.

2. Following up closed-ended questions with metacognitive ones helps students — even if they got the first question right.

Metacognitive questions are not just for helping students who are struggling with questions to look back and figure out where they went wrong. They can also help cement already-learned concepts in students’ minds and help prevent moments of “Wait, I got that right — but I have no idea how or why.” By asking students to explain their answers to other students, real or imaginary, or to think about what finally helped them get it right this time (Was there something different about the question itself? Did they change their strategy? Did it just finally click after a certain number of repetitions?), we can help them walk away from a lesson confident that they have truly learned the concept they set out to learn.

3. The magic of metacognition comes from students learning about themselves, not teachers learning about them.

Asking students these types of open-ended metacognitive questions might seem like a good way for us as teachers and course developers to learn about them and change what we do. It certainly can be, but this should not be the real purpose of metacognitive questioning. Studies conducted on students using computer-based learning systems such as ours found that students benefited greatly from being asked metacognitive questions even if nobody ever read their answers. In other words, we don’t necessarily want to ask questions that we’d like to know the answer to; we want to ask questions that will get students to think in ways that support their own learning.

These are the kinds of issues that we at Knewton spend hours, days, and weeks thinking about. This research is an ongoing process, but we’re already excited about the ways in which it’s shaping our approach to teaching, course design, and adaptive learning.