Monday, June 18, 2012

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Getting to know you: The first week of class and beyond

The first week of class… Whether on-campus or online, we always plan a few orientation and get-to-know-you activities in an attempt to get our courses off on the right foot. I actually really enjoy these activities, but I always look for new ways to accomplish my objectives. One thing I’ve learned is that, especially in online courses, orientation and get-to-know-you activities cannot – and should not – just be addressed during the first week of a class. To really support students and help build a productive learning community, these types of activities need to occur throughout the semester. Below are a few activities I have used and am planning to use in my online course this fall.

Orientation –
In an on-campus course, it can be deadly boring to spend the first class meeting reading through the syllabus. However, there is important information in the syllabus that we want students to know and keep track of. In online courses, it can also be boring…and, therefore, students sometimes don’t go through all of the course materials as precisely as is need to be successful in the course. Here are a few things I have done, and am doing, in my online course this semester to help students with orientation.

Orientation videos: One of my biggest additions this fall was the inclusion of orientations videos for my online course. I created three 5-minute orientation videos, with each video walking students through a different aspect of the course shell, learning activities, and projects. Using Jing, I was able to create a screencast showing them all around the course shell. I interjected my sense of humor where possible, told a couple of stories, and provided explanations for my design decisions. These three videos not only oriented students to the course, but to me as well.

Course & syllabus scavenger hunt: Using the quiz feature in my learning management system (LMS), I created a course and syllabus scavenger hunt that students had to submit by the end of the first week. To complete the 12-question scavenger hunt, students had to read the syllabus, locate materials in the course shell, and watch the orientation videos. The results of the scavenger hunt reassured me that students were locating and tracking important course information, and alerted me to any misconceptions or confusions that individual students had about the materials. Example questions:
  • In your own words, what are the learning objectives for this course? What is the reason for listing the ILT competencies with the learning objectives?
  • Why is "creative" part of the course title?
  • There are four projects for the course: Presentation Makeover Magic, Job Aid Makeover Spectacular, Presentation Prowess, and Design Lessons Learned. Which project are you most looking forward to working on? Why?
  • Why are the weekly agendas for each week's learning activities hidden at the start of the semester?

Weekly announcements: At the start of each week (which in my online courses is Monday since I set up the weeks to go from Monday to Sunday in the course shell), I post a new announcement orienting students to the activities of the week. Even though this information exists elsewhere in the course, I like to provide a more personal announcement about the week. I start each announcement with a brief description of my weekend with a photo (usually of me and my family). Then I provide a reminder about how they should focus their time and energy. I end each announcement with a reminder about how to connect with me, and a wish for a great week.

Weekly agendas: For each week in the course, I have a weekly agenda checklist that students can print out to help them track what they should be working on during the week. Again, although this information exists in the course’s master calendar, it helps to have the week’s activities laid out in checklist format.

Getting-to-know-you –

I don’t think it is very realistic to get to know people – especially in an online course – with one share-your-bio activity during the first week of class. Building relationships and community requires multiple opportunities to share and connect. So, every week or two, I reengage students in getting-to-know-you activities. Here are a few of the activities I am using in my online course this semester.

Superhero powers:
For this activity, students responded to the following prompt:
What are your superhero powers? What is your superhero moniker? And, how do your superhero powers help you in life?
Using VoiceThread, students share a photo and record their response (see below). Their creative responses are so fun…and the results are that we really learn about the assets that each person sees as her or his strengths. It is a very positive approach to a typical share-your-bio activity that also results in learning more about each person’s playful side and creative spirit.

Virtual paper bag: For this activity, I asked students to each pick five items that represent who they are and what is important to them. They pulled together visual representations of their five items for a virtual paper bag. They posted their five images to Flickr (or another tool of their choosing, as long as the rest of the class could easily access their collection in the end). Once everyone had posted their virtual paper bag collection of images, students reviewed each other’s collections, and engaged in discussion of why those items were selected and what the items "mean". The results were that students learned about each other’s passions, values, families, and the like; learned about differences and similarities; and learned each other’s stories. This activity helped students feel more connected then they did before. And they remember details about each other because of the items and stories...because of the emotion involved in the sharing.

“If you were a tree” Wordle: Similar to the virtual paper bag activity, for this activity I will ask students to create a Wordle word cloud using 20 words that represents who they are. This activity is scheduled for next week, and I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with!

Soundtrack of your life: As another way for students to get to know each other, I ask each student to share a playlist of six songs: two that represent their past, two that represent their present, and two that represent their planned/hoped for future. After students share their playlists, the group asks questions about the songs -- sort of a 20-questions activity -- to figure out why each student selected the songs she or he did. They students consider the group’s shared interests, differences, and so on (e.g., how many folks like jazz, or female songwriters, or sad songs). I use Songza for this activity, but there are many digital jukebox tools out there to choice from.

A 5-minute conversation: During the first few weeks of my online course, I invited students to participate in a 5-minute phone conversation with me. I did this so that the students and I might feel more connected and less distant from each other, and so we could hear each other laugh. About half of the students have taken me up on it so far, and my plan is to keep inviting students at different points throughout the course to make sure all who do want to talk have a chance to.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Using teaching assistants effectively

Recently, due to a new policy in our school connecting Teaching Assistant-eligibility with class size (specifically for online courses), I am asked by colleagues if I have any advice for effectively using teaching assistants (TAs). My record of effectively using TAs, however, is hardly stellar. I have had just as many failures as successes. For me, "effectiveness" has come down to two things:

  • Hiring a great TA who can take on responsibility that actually helps with workload, and who needs little management after initial explanation. My preference is to hire a TA who has previously taken the course with me because she or he knows the content, course structure and requirements, and my style.

  • Clearcut, time-consuming assignments that the TA can be responsible for. The issue is workload, so if there are specific activities that the TA can do that reduces workload, yippee!

What I look for is a TA who is able to help without my constant guidance...if I have to manage everything, then a TA doesn't help the workload issue. Once hired, I meet ASAP with the teaching assistant and provide needed training to ensure she or he is comfortable with the course format and structure. I try to be very clear about roles and responsibilities -- mine and the TA's, not only for the two of us but for the students (e.g., I am available for these types of questions, issues, and so on; and the TA is available for these types of questions, issues, and so on). I try to be clear about the amount of time expected, if possible, and exactly what to do when; I set up both a master schedule and weekly schedule that we both reference to direct our efforts and time. I also set up a regular weekly time when we check in with each other, to make sure we are on track and that expectations are clear.

If possible and appropriate, I will use a TA to support some of my grading activities. When I do this, I provide my TA with “models” of graded work from a prior semester. I also make sure that the TA understands the assignment students have been asked to complete, why they've been asked to complete it, and how it is to be assessed; rubrics and similar assessment tools really help to make the assessment criteria clear to the students and the TA, making the grading process easier. To ensure consistency, I have both of us grade 1-3 randomly selected assignments and then meet with the TA to compare results. This helps the TA, and me, feel more confident about the grading.

In terms of who grades what, I tend to lean more towards having assignments that the TA grades completely, as opposed to splitting the grading of each assignment between the two of us. My reasoning has to due with grading consistency and equity. Although we can achieve some interrater reliability (especially when using a well-developed rubric or assessment tool), this takes time. For me it is more efficient to hand over a grading assignment to the TA. I base my selection of grading assignment on the requirements and complexity of the assignment -- saving the higher-stakes, more complex grading assignments for myself -- and the constraints of my own schedule (having the TA grade assignments during busy times).

I have also found it helpful in terms of workload to have the TA involved in help sessions and discussions (especially threaded discussions, if an online or blended course). For example, for more technical courses, I ask the TA to hold weekly help sessions where students can get specific technical assistance. Similarly, because I tend to set up my online course schedule so that assignments are due end of day on Sundays, I will ask the TA to be available to answer assignment questions throughout the weekend since there tends to be more questions right before the deadline.

The right TA can be a fantastic addition to a course. Spending the up-front time necessary to find the right TA and determine how you will use the TA in a way that really helps you teach the course -- enhancing your experience as well as the students' experience -- makes all the difference in the world.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Three-pronged approach to online discussions for learning

Although I have of late neglected this blog while writing for other venues, I am stimulated to regroup after attending a few sessions about online teaching and learning at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual conference. I have no beef with the research methods described by presenters. Instead, I find it disconcerting when researchers fail to attend to basic, foundational needs when designing the online discussions they research. In my mind, designing and facilitating online discussions for learning requires a three-pronged approach. The three prongs are: relevance, expectations, and preparation. And, if you haven't adequately addressed these three prongs, then the research results will likely be shallow and lack meaning.

This seems obvious, but for some reason it is often missed. Students are busy folks...they don't have time for busywork and resent activities that feel like phluff. An online discussion for learning needs to be relevant – have a clear purpose – for students to attend to it in personally, professionally, and/or academically meaningful ways. If the online discussion they are being asked to participate in is seen as irrelevant – from their perspective...which is what counts when considering student engagement – then they will fail to contribute to the discussion as you had hoped, and will fail to take anything of value away from the discussion. Even when you have set up a relevant online discussion, you still may not attract the student participation you are looking and hoping for. Hence the next two prongs...

“I asked them to post twice, and [with a disheartened tone] they only posted twice...” I'm not quite sure why we expect students to do more than we ask them to do. Let's face it, we get what we ask for; if we ask for two posts, that's what we will get from busy people (especially if the online discussion is seen as irrelevant). The “post x number of times” strategy for encouraging participation is a downright horrible way to go about this. In an on-campus course, when was the last time you said, “Class? During today's discussion of the readings, everyone must contribute one original statement, and comment on one peer's statement”? Never, because if we did that it would lead to a very strange, unnatural that didn't even resemble the fruitful, organic discussions we want to facilitate.

But, if we don't specify how many posts we want students to contribute, how we will ensure that discussion happens? If you want a deep discussion, you have to set up the discussion to encourage depth; I've shared a number of strategies in this blog, such as discussion protocols, inspiration points, and one-minute papers. For example, if at the end of a week-long online discussion I ask students to submit a one-minute paper (note, not really a one-minute paper, but inspired by the concept) that addresses the following --
  • Summarize the discussion in 150-250 words
  • Share your most important contribution, and describe in 150-250 words why it was important to the discussion (include how others reacted to your contribution)
  • Share a contribution that someone else made that was of particular value to you. In 150-250 words, describe why it was of value, and how you and others responded to that contribution during the discussion
-- then students will not necessarily just post twice. Instead, they will post to contribute something of value to the discussion. That may take only one post (although unlikely) or 15 posts. But, since they have to ultimately summarize, share, and describe the discussion, they will more than likely fully attend to the discussion...especially if it is relevant and tied to assessment.

Assessment is an important part of expectations. If we expect students to put time and energy into an online discussion, then we not only need to tell students what we want from them in an online discussion we need to make their discussion participation worth points towards final grade. Again, using the one-minute paper example, if you tell students up-front that you require a one-minute paper submitted at the end of each discussion, what the paper must include, and how you will assess it and award points, students are more likely to produce what you am looking for. And, the online discussion activity will more likely lead to something students see as valuable as opposed to busywork.

What I’ve shared above is all well and good if students know how to participate in an online discussion. Too often we assume they know what to do, when they don't. Online discussions are nothing like face-to-face discussions, so students need assistance preparing for and participating in online discussions. Setting expectations, as described above, can certainly help. But, providing students with guidelines for posting comments (e.g., post early in the discussion to ensure your peers will see your comment, be sure to read everyone else's post in the thread before responding), examples of fruitful and not-so-fruitful online discussions (with you pointing out what makes them fruitful or not), and models of appropriate online discussion posts (which you can do by being active in the online discussions yourself) can help students develop the skills of online discussion.

Final thoughts...researchers, if you attend to these three foundational needs and then run your study, the results will more likely lead to important contributions...and I will happily be in the front row at your conference presentation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Determing the essential learning objectives for a course

Recently, I've had to do some thinking about how to design and facilitate effective accelerated courses. We are implementing an accelerated format -- Maymester -- over a three-week period of time between the spring and summer terms. This is a popular approach at many institutions, allowing students to take another 3-credit hour course before leaving for summer break (or, for those year-round students, it gives them a way to take 6 credits between mid-May and the end of July).

Those who have taught an accelerated course already know the challenges, such as determining how much preparation (including reading) students can realistically accomplish between Wednesday and Thursday; how to address both formative and summative assessment needs that require quick turn-around to be useful; how to structure daily 3-1/2 hour class sessions that are engaging; and how to thoroughly cover all of course content. There is certainly a lot to consider to ensure that the quality of an accelerated course is high.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the challenges, I have found that a close examination of the course learning objectives to be a useful starting place. The point of reexamining them is to make sure you are focusing on the essential learning objectives as you develop the accelerated course. For example, in looking at a course I typically teach during a 15-week semester, I saw that I had included a mixture of both essential and nice-to-have learning objectives. For the accelerated format, I want to focus on the essential learning objectives, and make sure I am developing learning activities and assessments that map to those objectives.

How am I defining essential? The essential learning objectives are those that, if not reached by students, would negatively influence students’ (a) abilities to continue on in the program (or with the next course/s); (b) professional preparation, including abilities to do well on professional exams and certifications; and (c) confidence and efficacy as university students and emerging professionals. In other words, the essential learning objectives are those that make-or-break the course.

To help my colleagues and I determine the essential learning objectives for an accelerated course (or any course for that matter), I came up with a few prompts:
  1. What should students be able to do as a result of this course that they cannot do now?

  2. How do you want students to be changed as a result of this course?

  3. For this course, what are the culminating performances of learning and achievement (e.g., the highest stage of development; performances that are significant, critical)?

  4. What learning objective(s) have the most positive influence on students’ ability to be professionally and/or academically successful?

  5. What learning objective(s), if not achieved by the students, would cause you to see the course as having failed?

  6. What is the single, most important takeaway from this course?

These prompts may not be useful to everyone developing an accelerated course, but I have found it a helpful starting place in my own process.

[Note: On a related theme, please see my post on the Problems of Practice (PoP) approach to course/training design.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The 22-page long syllabus; or How much to share with students at the start of a course

A year or so ago, I shared my Adult Learning and Education syllabus with a colleague as part of a discussion on enhancing adults' motivation to learn. When he saw that it was 22 pages long, he laughed. What was I trying to do, scare them off?!? And kill more trees?!?

Although afraid I would scare them off, my thinking about how much to give students up front was -- and continues to be -- pretty simple: as much as I can. Why?

My students are pretty busy. They work at least 20 hours a week (with most of them fully employed), and many of them have families. Most of my students take 6 credits per term on top of everything else they are doing.

My courses are fairly challenging. They are project-oriented, with the projects reflecting the true complexity of the workplace and profession for which the students are preparing. This means that the projects typically have multiple deliverables, and require collaboration with others.

The combination of busy people and challenging courses can lead to low performance, dissatisfaction, lower efficacy and confidence. Talk about enhancing adults' motivation to learn! So, my strategy is to give students all of the information they need up front so they can quickly determine if they can fit my course into their lives, and be successful while staying healthy. So, as part of my syllabus package(please also see my other posts on jazzing up the syllabus and using scavenger hunts to ensure students read the syllabus), I give my students:
  • Syllabus, establishing relevance of the course and course activities in terms of professional preparation, format and structure of the course, grading expectations and criteria, policies, required materials and texts, contact information

  • Calendar with all due dates

  • Class meeting agendas detailing what is expected each week in terms of reading, discussion, activities, and project work

  • Full project descriptions with corresponding assessment tools for all graded projects

  • Strategies for success in the course
There is no question that this is a lot of content to present to students during the first class meeting. But, in my experience, students appreciate having the details up front. Besides helping them determine if they can fit the course into their busy lives, they can plan out their semester. This is especially helpful for students who travel for work and can only work on coursework at certain times during the week. And, I have found it helpful for myself. It is nice to have a clear plan in place from the get-go.

And anyway, if printed on both sides, it really is only an 11-page syllabus...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Voting a question off the island; or, different ways to think about quizzes and exams

Given the nature of the courses I teach, I tend to use authentic projects for assessment purposes. However, because of recent conversations with students, I've been reconsidering my avoidance of quizzes and exams. What I have heard from students is that quizzes and exams help them gauge their acquisition and comprehension of content, which can be very helpful for formative reasons in advance of project work. These conversations spurred me to reexamine my past uses of quizzes and exams, and explore different ways of structuring quizzes and exams for formative and summative assessment needs. Philosophically, I am more interested in assessments that are learning opportunities for students than I am in assessments that function as judgments of performance. Here are a few quiz and exam ideas that reflect (hopefully) that philosophical stance:

  • Collaborative exams. I like collaborative exams, in general, because they can address both formative and summative assessment needs. Under this category, I have tried three different strategies --
    1. I have students in small groups (typically 2-3 people) complete the exam. One exam is submitted between the three of them, with the responses a collaborative effort. I do this in class, as opposed to as a take-home, so I can monitor participation and contribution.
    2. I have students in small groups spend half the class time discussing the questions, and then use the remaining class time complete an individual exam. Although the responses are not collaboratively composed, each student's responses are (hopefully) enhanced because of the preceding conversation with their peers.
    3. Finally, following a three-step process, each student submits two versions of the exam. Step 1: Each student completes the exam alone as a take-home, prior to the in-class exam session. Step 2: In class, students come together in groups of 2-3, discuss their answers to each question, and select the answer they want to formally submit as a group (or construct a new answer). Step 3: Students submit their original individual exams, and their collaborative exams (with each being worth a certain number of points towards overall exam grade).

  • Student exam construction. I have found that the questions students ask about a topic says a lot about their understanding of the topic. Therefore, I really like having students develop questions. So, for this strategy, I ask students to construct an exam. I ask students to construct an exam, and provide a rationale for why it is an appropriate exam and why all of the questions are important to include. Sometimes this is the end of the assignment, and my assessment is strictly on the exam and rationale. Other times they are then given the exam to complete, and the assessment is based on both activities. It depends on my learning objectives. I have also had students do this as individuals and in small groups. I prefer having them do it in small groups because I believe the exchange of ideas, priorities, and rationales is a valuable learning activity.

  • Got-it-'til-you-get-it exam. Especially with the support of technology (such as the quiz/exam tools within a learning management system like eCollege or Blackboard, a form created in Google Docs, or any number of data-collection web tools), it is easy to make an exam available to students for extended periods of time, and allow them to continue to work on their exam responses -- receiving feedback throughout -- until mastery is accomplished. What I like about this strategy is that it attends to both formative (via feedback on responses as they approach mastery) and summative (once mastery is accomplished) assessment needs.

  • The People's Choice exam. When possible, I like to give students choices. It is hard for me to write a question that speaks to everyone in a class. Instead, I construct 2-3 questions for each topic or sub-topic, and ask student to select the one they wish to answer. Students report that they appreciate being able to choose the question.

  • On-the-spot quiz construction. For quick-and-dirty quizzes on a recent set of readings or activity, I will ask students (as individuals, pairs, or small groups) to write a question on an index card with their name(s) included, and throw the cards into a hat. Then I will pull three questions from the hat that everyone must answer. I like this strategy because I want students to enhancing their questioning skills, and like that they have some say in the questions that they respond to. I ask for names on the cards to make sure that students take the question writing seriously.

  • Quiz-plus-one. Another strategy I like is to pass out a quiz minus one question. I then ask students to construct the missing question and answer it. This gives students a chance to answer a question they'd really like to answer (one I may not have even thought of), personalizing each quiz. It also gives me a bank of questions I can use in the future!

  • Voting-a-question-off-the-island. This strategy allows students to make a choice about which questions "count" and which do not. I have done this in one of two ways: students can choose not to answer one question (leaving it blank), or students answer all the questions but indicate which one they do not want counted in their grade. I prefer the latter tactic because it provides me with valuable information; it tells me which question(s) students struggle with, and the nature of the struggle because I have their attempted response available. Knowing this helps me make instructional decisions to make sure that students understand and appropriately apply the challenging content.

  • Stump-the-professor, Phone-a-friend, Are-you-smarter-than-a-5th-grader?, and other game-like exams. I like using games and game-like strategies throughout my courses. In terms of assessment, I like to use games such as --
    • Stump the Professor is a strategy I've used in various contexts, and it works well for quizzes. I will ask small groups of students to compose a question they think will stump me, write it on an index card (along with their names), and throw it into a hat. Then, I pull out each question one at a time. For each question, students have a certain amount of time to respond in writing (either as individuals or in their original small groups) -- depending on how many questions there are -- as I work out my response. They submit their response, and then I share mine. Sometimes I am stumped, and I distribute points for that. This strategy helps them enhance their question construction, gives them some ownership over the questions, and is fun.
    • Phone a friend. For this strategy, small groups of students support each other as they each complete a quiz or exam. As a small group, they decide which question they need help with. They then construct no more than two questions they can ask me about the question (or, alternatively, I have allowed groups to ask me up to 5 yes-or-no questions). This strategy encourages students to consider what questions they can answer with each other's support, and which question they really want help with. They have to be very thoughtful as they construct the questions they ask me to make sure that after there "phone call" with me that they can proceed. It offers them additional opportunities for learning -- not only from each other, but also from me.
    • What's my line? Similar to Stump the Professor, small groups of students construct a question they can answer but they think will stump the other groups. I collect the questions, share each of them -- one at a time -- and give student groups a certain amount of time to respond to each one. Students receive points for correct answers, and points for the number of other groups they stump with their question.
    • Name that answer! For this strategy, I develop 3-5 complex questions about the topic, and a set of corresponding hints. Small groups of students compete to see which groups can determine the answer to a question with the fewest number of hints.
    • Are you smarter than a 5th grader? The idea behind this strategy is to have student groups compete on quickly answering questions. I use this strategy for quizzes when I do not need to consider the quality of the response, just if it is correct or not. If I am not using a student-response-system (e.g., Clickers), then I pass out different instruments (e.g., bell, whistle, drum) to small groups so that they can chime in when ready to respond.

  • Quizzes about content of collaborative projects. I use a variety of strategies to assess individual student contribution to collaborative projects, and this strategy is one I frequently use. Once I receive a collaborative project, I will construct a quiz about each project. Then, I will require each student to complete the quiz about her or his project. Students know about the quiz in advance (as part of the project description, as incentive to attend to the details of the project and participate fully), and well complements the other tools I use for group projects (e.g., team contracts, team member assessment tools, structured walk-throughs).

These are just a few ideas for using quizzes and exams in support of student learning. In addition, I have found these strategies to be valuable in providing me with data that formatively informs my teaching and the direction of the course. Although quizzes and exams are not typically my first choice of assessment approach, these strategies have the potential to enhance student learning, and give them confidence as they prepare to work on more authentic activities and projects.