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Community Team
Community Team

Simplifying Course Design

As we start the new year I am wondering if some people have decided to simplify their course design, cutting out content, activities or communications that do not contribute to the learning process or actually act to impede it?  As New Year's is often a time for cleaning and clearing away in other aspects of our lives, I'm curious...

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Community Champion

Funny you should mention that, because as our faculty return, I'm presenting a session I call "Canvas: Simplify!".

To be honest, though, it's more about simple hacks to their workflow (using certain settings and options to streamline processes, using rubrics to grade, organizing things in ways that make sense to them AND their students) than it is about paring down the content. That said, I AM actively pushing my "hide your unused navigation items" agenda Smiley Wink

Hello Tracey,

Is your presentation something you could share?

Thanks! Greg


 @scottdennis , thank you for starting this thread.

I'm personally super interested to read what you all share, because the idea that one could help students by simplifying the course design, even reducing learning activities was something of an epiphany for me when I first started using Canvas.

I've told this story before, but my first semester teaching on Canvas was when it was still in beta -- 2010! The team had just barely added in Quizzes, but they hadn't built the QTI importer yet, and there was no way I was going to re-build 13 quizzes in my online course by hand in the weekend before the class started.

So I thought, well, this will be a fun experiment! My online course was primarily project-based, but I did have weekly low-stakes quizzes, too  -- in hindsight, I don't know why. To encourage them to read the lesson, maybe. To ensure conceptual understanding, probably. Tradition, yeah, partly.

So my first semester teaching this online course on Canvas was also my first semester teaching this online course without quizzes. I found three things:

1. In this course, quizzes didn't seem to matter in terms of student outcomes. Comparing the course to previous semesters, final grades were not significantly different, nor were project scores.

2. Students did spend more time responding to and acting on project feedback. Honestly, this was probably attributable just to SpeedGrader and Notifications, but I like to think that by simplifying the course design and reducing the number of required activities, students, therefore, focused on the projects.

3. Doing more with less was invigorating. That not having my quizzes didn't seem to matter (in this course, anyway) caused me to rethink my assumptions. Were my quizzes poorly designed? Did students benefit from the quizzes at all? Does the final grade actually represent what I thought it represented?

And most importantly:

What else in my course design do I assume is important, but really could be simplified?

Community Champion

Oh, yes, very important question! And I remember your telling this story about the quizzes somewhere,  @jared ‌ ... maybe at that ask-me-anything last year. 🙂

I teach writing, which is inherently complicated because you cannot separate out the different skills that are involved in order to stage and sequence them in isolation from one another. You can quiz students on comma usage, sure, but I gave up on that approach long ago because I just was not seeing any good skills transfer from what they did on quizzes and how they managed their own writing and revision process. With every sentence, as students compose even a short piece of writing (my students are writing stories that are usually between 500-1000 words long), there is a LOT that they have to be thinking about. It's not easy. Mistakes are made. So, there is lots and lots of iteration: feedback, revision, more feedback, more revision. It's open-ended, subjective, messy, complicated... and very fun and unpredictable as a result! 

So my design mantra, instead of simplicity, is usefulness. Is each learning activity useful? Useful to the student at that moment and, ideally, useful to them in the future? Is the work they are doing useful to the other students in the class? To students in future classes? Useful to me? Useful to other audiences? The idea of re-use is incredibly important to me, and it is also a powerful motivator for the students. I think putting an end to disposable assignments is a really good goal, and if you Google the phrase "disposable assignments," you will see a lot of educators grappling with this challenge in different ways:

Google search for "disposable assignments"

I also work really hard on making sure the feedback I give to students is useful. I know I've gotten better at that, and it is a constant challenge to me, one that I really enjoy. It's worth the time I put into giving the feedback BECAUSE I am confident it is useful.

I've also been trying to help students learn how to give each other useful feedback. That is also a big challenge, but most of the students are pretty motivated to work on learning how to give good feedback: it's a generally useful skill, and not obvious or easy. Like writing, feedback is complex, multidimensional, not simple. But I keep working with students on that, finding good resources and strategies to share with them about feedback. We are colearners about the feedback, just as with the writing; I'm trying to improve both my writing skills and feedback skills side by side with the students. 

I hope others will chime in here in response to  @scottdennis 's question! This is such a great topic to ponder as people are (re)designing courses for the Spring. I'll be doing the soft launch for my classes already on Monday, eager as always to see if the changes I've made for this semester will be keepers or not. 

That's a really great distinction:

Laura Gibbs wrote:

So my design mantra, instead of simplicity, is usefulness. Is each learning activity useful? Useful to the student at that moment and, ideally, useful to them in the future?

I also love that you called out "disposable assignments" -- something we've all experienced as students, and a continual challenge for teachers.

While the "Eisenhower matrix" is typically used to prioritize personal time / effort, it's also helpful in instructional design as a means of first acknowledging and then prioritizing learning outcomes or objectives:

Important & Urgent > Important & not urgent > Urgent & not important > Not important & not urgent

Acknowledging all the great learning outcomes that you could achieve is similar to the effect of writing down "to dos" -- by listing them externally it seems I am somehow less attached to them mentally / emotionally, and can then deal with them more objectively. This seems especially effective when designing learning collaboratively, since everyone has their own ideas for what should be "covered".

Community Champion

YES  @jared  ! And graphics like that are so helpful not just in and of themselves but also because they are a great point of intersection for me and my students: as I am thinking about how to optimize my work as a teacher, I can share some of the models and processes I am using with them to see if that can help them as they optimize their learning, time management, etc. Colearning at its best.

That's why, much to my surprise, Harvard Business Review is actually the most useful source of new ideas and information for me as an educator. Way more so than traditional edu-research journals. I find so many articles in HBR that help me and which my students are also genuinely interested in as they manage their lives as students and also contemplate their future professional lives.

Related note: I started using that Five-Whys which you shared in some Canvas talk, I don't remember when exactly, as a writing prompt for my students; it is very useful!

Community Contributor

Thankeee for reminding me of the Eisenhower matrix, had forgotten it...downloaded it! Smiley Happy

Community Coach
Community Coach

I’m working on something kinda crazy right now that sorta fits with this theme. Background: This semester I’ve got an online math 113 course and a hybrid math 113 course that I’m teaching as one big course (40+ students) and allowing the students in either course to decide on any given week if they want to come in during our class meeting time (this traditionally is the hybrid meeting time) or not. So online students can come in if they want help and hybrid students don’t have to come if they don’t need the help or if life has happened that week. This is my attempt of meeting the students where they are and giving them the support they need to be successful. Class time won’t be traditional and will focus on the needs of the students who came to class that week. So this could include mini lecture, board work, working through a data set, breaking off into groups with similar questions so students can help each other, me bouncing around from group to group or person to person seeing what they need help with. 

The change in the assignments for this new type of course is because I realized I needed to go through and simplify things for their sake and mine! My first step was taking out my beautiful tabbed pages - I love them, but I don’t think they are working as well for the students. Too much “stuff” and not enough focus.

The next step and the one I’m working on/struggling with is trying to figure out what the students “really” need to know and how I can achieve that they best way possible without having too many assignments. Right now I have quizzes, discussions, homework, projects, and feedback exchanges. Yes, a little of all of these types of assignments every week! It’s a lot to grade and I often wonder if all of it is really necessary. So back to the basics I go... or at least I’m trying...

I love the projects - this where students really have to understand and “get” the material in order to analyze the data and write up their results. There are 4 of them, they are all application based, have multiple parts that get turned in along the way, and we are always working on one of them during any point in the semester. In general I get good feedback from students that they like the projects. 

I also really like most of my weekly discussions and feel strongly that they contribute to the big picture learning of the class, conceptual understanding, and help keep students engaged with each other and me (because yes, I participate in my discussions!). I normally get good feedback from students on these as well. 

I’ve just started adding “homework” to the course over the last few semesters. These are worksheets in as untimed Canvas quiz. I addded them because it seemed like students needed the extra experience with Minitab (Statistical software we use) and working through a data set. It also seems to help them do better with the projects and students have indicated that the homework has helped them understand what they are doing. 

Feedback exchanges are something new I’m formally adding this semester. I’ve been informally doing it to increase engagement and I’ve seen some wonderful results and gotten great feedback from the students. I could write a lot about it, but the gist of it is that for this semester I’m going to have a weekly survey where I ask students for feedback on the class materials, class assignments, and then for the student to reflect on how they are doing in the course and where are they having problems and where do they think they could improve. I’m going to review this feedback and the students work/grades and then respond with my own feedback on what I’m seeing and my recommendations for what the student could be doing to get more from the course. I’ll also take into account the feedback on the course materials and assignments and use this as a way to improve the course, if not for this semester then for the next. I’m also going to have students respond to my feedback with some type of acknowledgement so I know they at least saw my feedback. And if a real conversation comes out of this, then bonus!

Quizzes... quizzes were originally put in place because they cover the main “big” concepts of the course, and we - me and the other person who teaches Math 113 ( @James ) - felt it was important that students were assessed on these concepts that we cover, but might not get assessed directly in a project or discussion. If I remember correctly the quizzes were also added because overall course grades had gotten disproportionately higher without the feeling that students understood the material as well. This was after the course went from a traditional exam based course to a more project based course. Right now quizzes are untimed, open for 1-2 weeks before the due date, and students are normally given 5 attempts on each quiz with the average used at their score for the quiz. So not traditional quizzes and more like homework. Yet, students tend to not like them and in some cases I wonder if some of the quizzes are focusing on things that don’t really matter as much anymore - ex: hand calculations. 

My plan is to review all of my assignments and try to tighten things up and see where I can cut, and I’ll be honest, quizzes were the first place I was going to look. Yes, they are the easiest for me because they all autograde, but are they helping students as much as they could? Or, is it just another thing they have to do and they aren’t really focusing on it anyway? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

Community Champion

Wow,  @kona ‌, this is all so fabulous... and I am sure you are going to get really good, and maybe even surprising, ideas back from the students as part of that course feedback process. Plus you will get to see one of the biggest problems that we face teaching big groups of students like this: there is a real variety among the students in terms of what works (or doesn't work) for any individual student, what they like / don't like, what is / isn't convenient for them, motivating for them, etc. etc. That is one of the biggest design challenges of all, and by building in that feedback from the students you will get really important information you need to face that challenge.

Even better: it will also create a real bond of trust with the students. When you ask for feedback and rely on their feedback, the students can tell you really care about doing a good job, and I think that really inspires students to care right back. After all, if they are taking four or five courses, and they can tell one teacher really cares and another honestly doesn't seem to care all that much, it just makes sense to invest in the course with a teacher who clearly cares!

Something I keep trying to do is to get students to be more self-aware of themselves as learners so that they can make good choices about the strategies they use, and also making sure I introduce them to LOTS of strategies since you never know what will click with one student as opposed to another student. One big new experiment for me this semester is promoting different kinds of note-taking strategies. When I look at my students' blogs, the weakest part for many students is their reading notes, and I think that for at least some of them it is because they are so used to "reading-to-take-a-quiz" in all their reading for school, they are not good at "reading-for-curiosity" which is the goal in my classes: being curious, and learning new things they can use in their own writing. I don't decide what's useful or important in the reading; they do. Some students totally get that, but other students really struggle, so I have prepared a long list of different note-taking strategies, and I am going to try to get them to at least TRY one or two new strategies every week and then see what strategies work for them. This is totally new; I've always taken a pretty much hands-off approach to their note-taking because I definitely don't want to dictate what they do, but some students need to be encouraged to experiment. I am excited to see what happens! This will probably take a few semesters for me to get right, but here's the list of strategies I am starting with:

Online Course Wiki / note-taking styles 

It's always a little scary but mostly fun to try a totally new experiment for the semester and then see what happens!

Anyway, all the stuff you are doing in your classes sounds wonderful, and I hope you will report back on what is working / not working and any surprises along the way. Thank you for sharing all your great ideas here!

Thank you for the feedback and encouragement!! This all got started over last summer when I was reading through all your growth mindset stuff!

Community Champion

It's contagious! We can pick it up from each other, and then of course there is all the great back-and-forth with students when we are learning/growing together. 🙂

Hi Kona,

Can I ask what age group you are teaching with this class?

The reason I ask is id love to see comparisons between this approach delivered to say 13-15year olds, 15-18, 18-22 etc to track engagement between the groups Hybridge/Online. 


Community Coach
Community Coach

 @training4 , higher ed and for this particular group I'd say they are mostly in the 25+ age group. Yet, I think that's one of the reasons I think it will work (or at least hope!) - these are mostly older students who have lives and commitments that go way beyond school. It would be interesting though to see if there is a difference in age and how the students do... hmm...  

At 25+ I would expect having the option to study when and how the students like would be a benefit. I know I would have appreciated this while at uni.
In saying that, I do find at one company i work for, that having only Online as the mode of study to be quite a hurdle for students 35+. It often takes quite some time to onboard students and have them comfortable managing their own studies, using the platform, especially when our classes are entirely Asynchronous, no due dates for assessments, just a start and finish for the entire qual. 
It leads me to wonder, if students at 13-18 or 20-25 are introduced to this mode of study, do they pick it up quicker because they may not have the same history of study or experience with traditional classrooms, is it a generational thing, an aptitude for technology etc? 

I wish you all the best with this. I know if I was one of the students, im sure I would benefit from the model you've put together.

Community Coach
Community Coach

Thanks! We are in the second week and it seems to be going ok so far. The real test is going to be starting next week. That’s where the content actually starts getting a little more complicated and where most students would really benefit from coming to class. 

Community Team
Community Team

Personally I am not an instructor and haven't ever taught a fully online course so I hesitate to share opinions on that experience.  I am however currently taking an LMS-based fully online graduate level course.  The course format is about as tradition to online as you can get - post to the discussion by Wednesday and drop off your written assignment as well as respond to two classmates by Sunday at midnight.  When I first logged in and reviewed the format I was disappointed that we wouldn't be doing something more novel but I have found that I'm very much enjoying the course and getting a lot out of it.  The online publisher provided content is really easy to use - the periodic self-checks really do help me check my understanding of concepts and the book wasn't expensive.  I pretty quickly learned which of my fellow students are actually researching to find good sources that add to the course text and their own experiences as opposed to the students who appear to be randomly grabbing the first source whose title kinda, sorta matches up with the discussion topic.  Having only one written assignment per week allows me the time to really dig into it and return to it several times throughout the week. 

As a side note; It feels somewhat heretical after having spent as much energy as I did in the past trying to convert people to the open content movement but after buying an online textbook from a publisher for thirty eight bucks that is actually good content in a convenient platform, maybe the movement has had the effect on the industry that we all wanted for so many years?

 @scottdennis , thank you for this valuable insight! I really do wonder what my students think... and then wonder where their thoughts/opinions are coming from... Do they just not want to do as much work? Do they not want to think? Do they really want to dig in deeper with the content? I have lots and lots of questions, which I'm hoping to address in my Feedback Exchange, but it's good to hear from an adult learner that I trust is taking the course to really "learn" and expand his knowledge.

Thank you, Kona.  At this point I really don't need another masters degree for anything other than personal reasons and a desire to hopefully become more effective in my professional life.  I feel like the format of the course I'm taking gives me sufficient opportunities to interact with the other students and the professor and plenty of time to dig into the materials on my own time.   If the course had a lot more activities and hoops to jump through I don't think that would make me learn more or faster.  I realize that this is just one learning scenario for one learner but if you boil education down to giving the student information, helping them interpret it, and then giving them opportunities to assimilate the concepts into their own experience and demonstrate that they understand them, I too wonder how much of what we do in extraneous?

I too wonder how much of what we do is extraneous?

Yep, THIS ^

Yet, as a teacher it's hard to remove assignment/content that you really like. It's also hard when at times you added the assignment because students didn't seem to be getting the material or because students didn't seem like they were spending enough time really thinking about the material and/or working on things.

I think a lot of what is formally known as "course design" can indeed be extraneous. I like to get the course all set up in advance, but then I don't make changes to it during the semester. Instead, I really focus on being present for my students, reading as much of their work as I can, and giving them feedback. It's that quality of presence and engagement that I think is really valuable: the time I spend engaging with students is never wasted... while sometimes I wonder with other elements of the class whether what I am doing is really going to be important/useful or not. But giving feedback to students: I never have any doubts at all about whether that is useful.

I really like working with the students in the blog network space because they are publishing stuff all the time so, if/when I have time, there is always something I can read and comment on.

I am just in the midst of writing comments on the students' very first blog posts of the semester right now! Yes, the stream is up and running, yay!

Myth blogs

Indian blogs

I am so glad I learned this nifty way to get the blog streams to show up in Canvas. That is the most important content of the class for me after all. 🙂

Community Champion

Laura's quote below is it in nutshell of what is important! I don't teach but I help students navigate online courses and Canvas in general. In some cases yes courses should be simplified but more often the issue is a poorly designed course with little interaction from the instructor or the course is designed on the fly during the semester. I often see designing on the fly with adjuncts who only got assigned the week before classes start. Both of these situations really put a damper on student learning. Institutions need to provide better faculty support to overcome both situations. We are trying to fix poor design with offering summer faculty academy with stipends for faculty to participate. This hasn't been easy with the Illinois budget crisis for the last two years. Designing on the fly is a harder issue to fix since that is a more systemic issue with regards to how institution politics and the HR system works. We are trying to encourage academic departments to develop a course base for frequently used courses that can be shared on the Canvas Commons so adjuncts don't have to start from scratch. 

Laura Gibbs wrote:

I like to get the course all set up in advance, but then I don't make changes to it during the semester. Instead, I really focus on being present for my students, reading as much of their work as I can, and giving them feedback. It's that quality of presence and engagement that I think is really valuable: the time I spend engaging with students is never wasted... while sometimes I wonder with other elements of the class whether what I am doing is really going to be important/useful or not. But giving feedback to students: I never have any doubts at all about whether that is useful.

Community Champion

I can definitely see how there could be a very negative domino effect if faculty are scrambling to design on the fly after finding out about the course at the last minute! Along with simplicity, I know students really appreciate stability. It varies, of course, but a lot of students find it very reassuring that I do have the courses all ready to go: all the assignments, all the dates, etc. loaded up at the start of the semester. I do that for my own peace of mind, but for students who are already kind of nervous about my (weird) courses, it's reassuring to see how it will go all semester.

Over the years, I've developed a definite approach that could really work for any Humanities subject area now, but it took a long time for that to evolve! When I first started, my Myth course and my Indian Epics course had a lot of different assignments, but now they are IDENTICAL. Just the reading changes. It sure makes my life easier to have the courses be identical in format except for the different in the reading!

At the college I worked at it seemed like the dean and department leadership made all the difference.  If they were organized and got the schedule put together with plenty of lead time, those of us who supported the instructors who used online and classroom technology could usually help them get prepared.  When the dean scrambled at the last minute to fill overflow sections, usually with ill prepared adjunct instructors it could turn into a real dog's breakfast.

Thanks for sharing your experiences  @scottdennis ! This is such a good reminder of how there will always be a VARIETY of solutions to all the different choices we make both as teachers and as learners.

For me, the reason for going beyond the textbook is that in my classes, I really want students to be able to choose from a WIDE variety of reading options. There is nothing like core content that I need to cover (unlike other classes, where content coverage is a main purpose of the class); instead, I want students to get excited about reading stories and about telling their own stories. That element of EXCITEMENT is the key, and it is more likely to happen when students are choosing their reading material based on what they like, not based on what I like (especially since my likes are very eccentric ha ha). When I am using free, instantly available resources (online books, books in our school library), then I can offer students lots of choices... and they do indeed choose very different kinds of materials because they have their own distinctive interests, their own curiosity.

Here's a fun little video about the importance of excitement for learning in terms of the brain chemistry of excitement. I am looking forward to sharing this with students:

Growth Mindset Resources: Learning with Passion and Enthusiasm 

Keeping it fun and exciting and customizable and simple and hitting the core concepts... How hard could it be?  Smiley Happy

Community Contributor

Not quite New Years, but last month I wrote Anywhere, Anytime: My Adjunct Faculty Experience with Canvas Teacher. Pairing down content to take advantage of Universal Design for Learning, Open Educational Resources, enhanceable content types (for example; tabs from the Style Guide and accordions from H5P) and mobile-friendly assignments provided lots of insight for me as a course designer and faculty member.

The talk of project-based for adult learners is often missed at my university, as faculty cling on to 15 page papers like it is their job. Well, it is...but it isn't. This is the mindset I most often wish my faculty had:

Accounting teacher jumping on desks with his students

Eeeek, 15-page papers. Especially ones written the week before they're due. Or the night before. (SHUDDER)

Of course, if a student ever came to me and said, "You know, instead of this website project where we work on the writing week by week and page by page, I'd really like to do a 15-page paper instead. Double-spaced,and with footnotes!" then, yes, I would find a way to make that work in my class.

But of the couple thousand students I've taught, no one has ever come to me with that request. 

And thanks for the link to your blog post. I missed that one; will go read now. 🙂

Community Contributor

Christopher, H5P is new to me and looks like it could really open some doors! I see there is a Moodle plugin advertised - is there a Canvas one per chance or are you saving content to H5P?



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Community Contributor

 @a_craik ‌, H5P has been a major success on campus. Unfortunately, they do not have a Canvas LTI and they state that one is in the works.

Right now, I am creating the content on their servers and embedding it into Canvas. Doing so, we get a few wins:

  1. Accessibility.
  2. Mobile-friendly.
    • For an iOS-based scavenger hunt designed for first-year students, we used H5P to embed BuzzFeed-style personality quizzes and they work flawlessly via the Student app. That was super.
  3. Doesn't break content pages.
    • When Canvas starting depreciating some of the jQuery scripts that we used for accordion menus, H5P offered solutions that could work across web and app versions. Because they are hosted on their own site, there is no worry for faculty to get into the code of the Canvas content page and "move things around."
  4. Open Source
    • With such a push for OER on campus, this fits right into the vision.

Always happy to talk more about creating interactive, engaging content!

Community Contributor

This is a revelation - it almost seems too good to be true! After spending a fair amount of time learning about what can be done with jQuery in Canvas, and then being dissuaded from introducing it into designs in light of the depreciation, I don't think I can overstate how excited I am to explore H5P! Thanks cgaudreau! Smiley Happy

Community Contributor

Community Contributor

Hi Chris

not sure if you've seen this but there's a feature request for H5P Canvas integration - it's at 96 votes up so needs a little nudge!



OERs, yes! Such a great way to engage students with both Canvas and additional free education resources! Thank you for sharing your blog post, I am about to dive in! 

Community Member

I'm trying to keep Canvas looking more spare using Content pages to chunk content.  No need for each reading or weblink to get its own line in a module: list them on a content page!  

And the great thing about chunking is that each item then has a web address of its own! That is one of my favorite things about Canvas compared to D2L (which we used for many years at my school). Everything has a normal URL that you can link to and share.

I use blogs for my content for the same reason (I have too much content to try to maintain it in Canvas): being able to link to a specific item of content is so convenient when you need to send students there. Just link, click, and go! 🙂

"Everything has a normal URL that you can link to and share."

Thanks for calling out that little (but deliberate) design choice, to make Canvas page URLs as usable as possible Smiley Happy.

Community Champion

Linkiness: my favorite thing about the web. 🙂


Thanks so much for starting this discussion,  @scottdennis ‌! It's certainly a worthwhile conversation to have as we traditionally kick off the spring semester.

Like you, I have never taught online (or face to face for that matter)...nor would anyone want me to!...but I do have one thought and a project that  @kschneider25 ‌ and I are working on.

In our Canvas instance, we link to a Student Quick Guide in our main menu (so, theoretically, every student sees it). The thought came up awhile back that it needs some love and care...and maybe a hug or two. It's outdated, has information from when we migrated 6 years ago, and just needs to be visually updated. So Kori and I are in the process of fixing this bad boy, making it efficient, and ensuring it is actually useful for our students. Why does this page really matter? Do they even look at it!? Our Quick Guide is actually the highest viewed page in our instance according to Google Analytics! 

Reading through this thread has now got me thinking - what else can we do? It's not just a matter of what we think, but we need to know what our students think. We already have plans to survey the students to know what they are using and what they have problems with as a start to what to put in the guide - but now I'm realizing that's just scratching the surface. What can we do other than that? How else can we simplify the Quick Guide but make an even greater impact?

Asking the students is always the way to go IMO,  @kenneth_rogers ‌! My experience is that they will give you really useful ideas.

One way I like to pose questions to students that seems to bring out more substantive comments is: What advice would you give to other students about ___? What advice would you give to instructors who are trying to ___?

There's something about asking the question that way, in terms of giving advice (instead of just "what do you think?") which brings out some good altruistic energy and more detailed responses!