Monday, December 28, 2015

How to Showcase Creativity in Online Classes

One of the downfalls that many instructors find with teaching online classes is the sterile nature that these courses seem to take on.  Though interaction still takes place through the technological interaction of online classes, instructors often miss some of the creativity that students display in face-to-face classrooms.  There’s no doubt that there are several positive things about having a face-to-face environment.  With this sort of atmosphere, students are able to demonstrate their creativity through role-playing, leading discussions, giving presentations or speeches, or participating in lively debates (just to name a few).  In online classes, these things are instead converted to text on screen as a way of assessing the learning thought processes that are taking place.

According to Dr. Oliver Dreon, a professor at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, despite this usual recycling of instruction to response via text, online classrooms can still be a space that supports and showcases student creativity.  He states, “The learning management system can become a place where students expand their learning beyond traditional online means.”  How, you ask?

Here are some ways to better foster creativity in your online classroom.

  • Consider your classroom as a common meeting spot.  Often times, instructors view the content area of their online course to be the most significant.  After all, this is where you post all of the materials you’d like students to access in order to prepare for responses, study for tests, and demonstrate learning.  However, even though this is an important aspect of your class site, it shouldn’t be considered the most important.  Instead, consider the discussion tab of your online class as a more creative way of getting students to interact with material and with each other through discussion of specific issues, areas of confusion, or places of deeper connection.  You might even consider using discussion threads as a means for students to demonstrate their thoughts and ideas via more than just text.  Videos, podcasts, slideshows, and other creative tools can be uploaded to a group discussion board for students to demonstrate their creativity.
  • Create open-ended assignments.  By limiting your assignment requirements to papers and written responses, you are limiting your students’ ability to use their creativity. Consider utilizing other forms of response like videos, narrated animations, or photos.  Provide a choice for students to complete assignments in a variety of different ways so as not to leave any creative avenues restricted.  Consider providing these choices for major assessments such as quizzes and tests as well as minor ones like reading responses and critical thinking posts.
  •  Focus on the content.  Keep in mind that even though you are allowing students to showcase their creativity in a more flexible way, you shouldn't be distracted by the medium they may choose.  Keep your content requirements clear by providing a rubric or a checklist of areas you'd like students to explore.  Follow that same checklist when you are reviewing their projects for grading later on.  Even though it seems obvious, it can be very easy to overlook key elements of learning when faced with an impressive display of creativity.
Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser
Adapted from Magna Publications

Monday, December 21, 2015

Student Comments and End-of-Course Evals: The Battle

Now that courses are finished for the semester, it’s time to attempt to decipher the meaning behind the vague student comments that are left for you on their end-of-course evaluations.  This is by no means a simple task, as sometimes these comments can leave you left wondering, “Just what in the world are they trying to say?  Why don’t they write more specific things?”

The way I see it, you receive such vague comments for two big reasons.  1) Students are in the middle of wrapping up their semester, something that usually means late hours, more papers, tests, and projects to prepare for, and a constant busy mind.  This can distract them from writing things that are truly meaningful since they are often less concerned with the state of their evaluation than they are with their own ever-growing to-do list inside of their heads.  2) Students often don’t believe that evaluations are taken all that seriously among professors.  Not only is this because they asked to complete them for every class they are enrolled in, but also because they won’t be witnessing any changes or differences their evaluations make, as most students won’t be in your class again after the semester is over.

Several common things that students tend to comment on in their vague, clipped way are: organization, fairness, and what was most difficult about the course.  These seem pretty straightforward as far as answers go, but what is a professor to do with a comment like “disorganized” when they can’t think of a single time they demonstrated disorganization?

As it turns out according to a study performed by Carol Lauer, student and instructor definitions of these terms are actually different.  For example, nearly one third of the faculty surveyed by Lauer stated that they believed “disorganized” to reference a teacher who changes or doesn’t follow their syllabus.  When surveying a group of students on the same term, only 11% of them said they agreed that’s what the term meant to them.  Instead, students stated the term “disorganized” could mean a variety of things including lack of preparedness by the instructor, lack of lesson plan, and not returning work in a reasonable amount of time.

The same disparity can be seen for the phrase “not fair.”  To instructors, this term means an issue in grading, but to students, it means a teacher who doesn’t treat all students equally.

With all of this said, there are three things to consider.

  1. How you communicate the impact of teaching policies and practices on efforts to learn with your students.  Keeping this conversation an ongoing effort in your course will essentially allow students to see a willingness on your end to make their learning experience the best possible.
  2. The use of mid-term evaluations (facilitated by your friendly CETL team) for your classes in the future.  Implementing mid-term evals is a good way to show students the efforts you are making to improve your course in the most efficient ways possible.
  3. Asking your students to be as specific as possible before they write their end-of-course evaluations.  Hearing this request in person rather than reading it on the form can help students to give more attention to what they are writing and how they are writing it. 
Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser
Adapted from Magna Publications 

Monday, December 14, 2015

From the CETL Library: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's

“To this day, when I speak, I find visual input to be distracting. […] That’s why I usually look somewhere neutral—at the ground of off into the distance—when I’m taking to someone.”

Published in 2007, this book isn’t one that is necessarily new to the scene of studies on autism spectrum disorders.  However, John Elder Robinson’s first-hand account of living with Asperger’s syndrome provides interesting insight into the learning experiences, struggles and accomplishments that accompany such a disorder.

As you may already know, Asperger’s syndrome was originally discovered in 1981 by Hans Asperger.  It was later added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1984 on the premises of Hans’ observations that children who were often intelligent with above average vocabulary skills exhibited autistic behaviors with pronounced deficiencies in social and communication skills.  Since then, research on Asperger’s and autism has expanded vastly, with recent findings discovering 1 in 150 people fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.  (Asperger’s was removed as a specified autism disorder in 2013, and was replaced with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder ranked on a severity scale.)

Why is this important to note?  Teachers are consistently told that they should get to know their students in order to build stronger rapport in their courses, thus increasing student motivation, participation, and achievement.  There’s no question that John Elder Robison’s autobiographical lens can be helpful to understanding autism spectrum disorders as he describes his own experiences growing up with the disorder, and thus lead to a deeper understanding of how to best reach students outside of the “neurotypical” population.

Most importantly, John Elder Robison’s story strengthens the need for differentiated instruction in classrooms.  Considering the best ways to understand, appreciate, and build upon student differences is one of the key ingredients to differentiating your curriculum, and getting a glimpse of a behind the scenes story provides a good way to gauge how to implement those concepts in your own ways.

A great read for those who are looking for a stronger understanding of their population of students, or are interested in reading a funny, descriptive, and memorable first-hand account of someone’s own experiences with an autism spectrum disorder.

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s can be found in the “Understanding the Student” section of the CETL library.

Review Provided By:  Jessica Moser

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Are Face-to-Face Office Hours Dead?

The age of quick and convenient communication is upon us.  One recent study conducted by CNN researchers found that more than one third of Americans prefer receiving text messages to phone calls.  Phone calls and face-to-face interaction have been on the decline in favor of the often more convenient email correspondence.
It’s no question that these societal changes have infiltrated the ways in which we handle out-of-class communication with students, and often times they help instructors answer questions quickly and efficiently from the comfort of their keyboard.  However, one writer and educator Margaret Sargent decided to put the concept of communication best practices to the test by surveying a diverse group of 33 students, and asking them to report on their perspectives, experiences, and preferences concerning out-of-class communication with instructors.  Surprisingly, most suggestions didn’t discuss the reliance on email, but instead dealt heavily with providing opportunities for face-to-face interaction.
Here are the top ten suggestions that students came up with, noting that they were among the most effective and productive for communicating with instructors, and encouraging out-of-class contact.
  1. Be there for office hours, keep scheduled appointments, and make time for students when they need additional help.
  2. Arrive to class early and stay after class, even if only for a few minutes.  This is the time when students with questions are most likely to ask them.
  3. Include an invitation in the syllabus to visit during office hours.  Give students a “by appointment” option, since your set office hours may conflict with their class or work schedules. 
  4. Tell students on the first day of class and regularly that you are available for extra help.  Let them know that you enjoy talking with students, particularly about the course, current research, and your discipline.
  5.  Regularly remind students what your office hours are, maybe even write them on the board during each class.  Say more times than you think necessary that you welcome questions, comments, and the chance to interact with students. 
  6. Use email in a way more than just to convey simple information.  In addition to prompt, brief responses, include a friendly opening and closing.  Students appreciate the time you take to address them in a friendly manner. 
  7. Work to learn students’ names, and make an effort to know them all towards the beginning of the semester.  Say hello to students when you see them around campus.  This acknowledgement doesn’t go unnoticed.
  8. Make your feedback specific on course projects, and provide opportunities for revisions prior to assigning a final grade on major assessments.  Tutorials or review sessions were also mentioned as helpful things for students to attend. 
  9. Schedule midterm consultations with each student.  Use these meetings to review the students’ progress in the course, talk about what they think is going well and what they would like to improve on, and set goals for the rest of the semester. 
  10. Consider providing an “emergency” contact to students.  This could be a home or cell phone number or some other means of communication that students know they will be able to reach you at during any time of the day.  Although most students will never use it, they appreciate this caring gesture and the accessibility it conveys.
Generally, students are looking for an accessible way to ask questions, clarify assignments, and work more closely with you during their time spent in the course.  As these suggestions prove, office hours aren't dead, and students still appreciate as much time that you can provide them to assist in achieving their academic goals. 

Adapted from: Magna Publications
Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

Monday, November 30, 2015

What's with the Flip? An Overview on Flipped Classrooms

Podcasts, videos, live streaming, – our world is engulfed in ways to send and obtain information.  So, the question on many college teacher’s minds is, why not utilize it?
Hence the birth of flipping classrooms, a way for teachers to provide lecture information to students in new ways outside of the classroom.  That’s right, lectures would take place outside of class time, freeing up the few hours a week you have with students to complete hands-on activities, involving them first-hand in their learning.
Flipping a classroom can be done by following these easy steps:

Plan: Decide on a lesson to flip and outline key learning outcomes to put together a rough plan.

Record: Instead of teaching your lesson as usual, record a video or podcast of your lecture.  Make sure  your lesson contains all the elements you would have if you were lecturing in person.  Make it interesting and engaging to watch and listen to.

Share: Share the video with your students and explain that its content will be discussed and used in class.

Group: Consider implementing discussion groups in your class in order to get students working with the topics for that day.  Give each group a task and a goal to work towards.

Regroup: Reconvene as a large group to share findings that students have discovered through their discussions.  Ask questions, offer opinions, and encourage discussion.

Then, Review, Revise, and Repeat!

While you might be thinking, “Well, that sounds great! Let’s do this!”  I do have to caution you on some of the issues that you might face if you do decide to give flipping a try.

Firstly, it requires a lot of extra preparation on your end.  Teachers have to set aside extra time in order to record, edit (if need be), and upload videos or podcasts of their lectures for student access, or finding supplementary materials and activities for students to work on outside of regular class time.  It is recommended that you don’t include your entire lecture in one video, but instead upload separate videos on each key term you’re covering so students may easily go back and re-watch specific content if they are confused or have questions.

Another thing to be aware of is the issue that students might have adjusting to the idea of a flipped classroom.  Because the concept of a class time used for lecture has been ingrained in their expectations, students might resist the change--questioning why they attend class at all.  You are also entrusting a large responsibility to them, trusting that they will take the time to watch or listen to your lectures outside of class.  And if students do complete the lectures outside of class, they might also believe that they don't need to attend class for the hands-on/activity-based portion.  Therefore, it's important for your to show research on how effective flipped classrooms can be when students put the effort forth.  Click here for 10 published results supporting the benefits of flipped learning.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

Monday, November 23, 2015

Failure with a Capital F = Learning with a Capital L

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker.  Failure is delay, not defeat.  It is a temporary detour, not a dead end.  Failure is something we can avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Denis Waitley

Mistakes are some of the most debilitating experiences to face, but they are also some of the most incredible and profound opportunities for learning.  Despite this realization and the constant recognition that failure is in fact, the best way to truly learn, we continue to operate in an educational tradition that encourages as few mistakes as possible.

In fact, I recently typed “fear of failure” into a Google search and was rewarded with 141 million hits in .67 seconds.  Sites that offer studies, statistics, and therapeutic ways to overcome this incredibly prevalent phobia.  This poses the question that I believe most people have: if learning from mistakes is such a natural phenomenon, even one that is encouraged in some instances, what happens when we put students in situations where they are required to avoid making any mistakes at all costs?

By the time students arrive to college, they have an ingrained sense of what education is about.  For most, this means they attend class, pay attention, write notes, take and pass assessments, and move on to a more elevated course.  Once the class is completed, there is little to no reflection on the material “learned” in it. If our focus remains on outcomes and not the learning process itself, we will continue to lose sight of the value of learning, and students will miss out on gaining a deeper understanding and use of course material.  However, in order to begin developing a more deeply dependent course on learning, there are several things you’ll have to consider. 

First, it means designing or redesigning a course that provides students with multiple opportunities to participate in low-stakes formative assessments.  This means you’ll have to work with corrective or prescriptive directions that demonstrate to students how to learn from mistakes that are made.  Ask yourself three questions concerning your course and the things you hope students to gain from completing it. 
  • How do I shift my focus to celebrating mistakes rather than eliminating them?
  • How can I encourage and reward mistakes for students that have demonstrated they have learned from the experience?
  • How many times should I allow students to make mistakes and then demonstrate they have learned form it as a measure of learning and success?
These are questions that you must answer yourself using your own teaching philosophy and the experiences you’ve witnessed in your classroom previously concerning student struggle, involved learning, and demonstration of knowledge.

To get you started, here are five ways to celebrate mistakes in your course (and have students recognize, reflect, and learn from them):
  1. Utilize repetition.  Break your projects or papers into pieces for check-points to be made.  These can be done via peer evaluation or by providing a checklist for students to assess on their own.  Have students keep these check-points as artifacts to discuss in a final reflection paper after completing the project.  Simply providing students with the opportunity to review assignments through the lens of reviewer can prove to be very insightful.
  2. Give several shorter exams/quizzes that are cumulative.  This is a great alternative to a single midterm or final exam because it considerably lessens stress placed on students to achieve highly on a single assessment.  Instead, repeated cumulative testing provides more exposure to content and relies on students being able to recall it for the entire semester, thus maintaining and building their understanding of it.
  3. Let the class correct themselves.  This can be done via polling, asking verbal questions, or providing small group discussion time.  Have students provide answers to a question at the beginning of class, and then give them guided questions to consider in small groups.  These questions should help them to consider the answers that were offered and make learned decisions on which one is actually correct.  This provides students with the opportunity to not only find the correct answer, but to determine why the other answers were incorrect.
  4. Purposefully make errors.  This can be done in lecture, on PowerPoints, on calculations, with polling or Clicker questions, whatever you prefer.  Encourage students to catch your mistakes. This creates a fun atmosphere where students are focused, reflective on knowledge they’ve accumulated about a topic, and encouraged to participate.
  5. Show them what they will learn.  At the beginning of the semester, provide students with an assignment (either ungraded or part of a participation grade) that they will be able to do at the end of the semester, but can’t yet.  This sparks their interest about the course, as well as their intrinsic motivation to discover what they will gain in order to solve the problem that you’ve provided to them.  Reference this assignment throughout the semester during key points of the course so students can reflect on changes they would make to their first attempt in order to reach success.  Finally, at the end of the semester, have them attempt the same assignment again.
Recognizing how to effectively learn from and move past mistakes is an important life skill.  Fostering this concept in your classroom will ultimately instill humility, responsibility, forgiveness, and accountability in students, and encourage them to drop their fear of failure and embrace an appreciation for the process of learning. 

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser
Adapted from Berkeley University

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Life After Midterms

An often heard complaint in college classrooms is that from students pertaining to classroom exams.  Students are appalled at the fact that the exams they encounter don’t match up with lecture content word-for-word.  Most often, this is due to the fact that professors would prefer their exams to be more than just a simple test of route memorization, but more towards the experience of learning and applying that knowledge to new circumstances.

Bob Jacobsen, a Physics professor at Berkeley University states that there are just a few simple questions you can ask your students after they’ve completed an exam to encourage students to understand the material so that they can apply it in new and effective ways.

He spends one class period re-doing the exam with the students at the front of the class.  For each problem, he asks a series of questions that students must answer for that problem in order to explain its purpose and relevance on the exam itself.  They include:

1)      Why did I ask this question? 
2)      What were the big areas of understanding I was trying to assess? 
3)      What specific ideas, pitfalls, etc. were involved?
4)      What does a good solution look like? 
5)      What needs to be commented on, what can be written down, and what needs to be worked out? 
6)      How were points awarded or taken away?

Going through these questions illustrates to students how the content studied previous to the exam can be applied through understanding how to effectively use it in new circumstances.  Afterwards, Jacobsen mentions that he usually sees a positive change in approach from students in following exams and assessments.

Another way for students to actively consider an exam and its content in relation to course understanding is the following adaptation from Ed Nufler from Idaho State University. It’s helpful to complete this exercise a day or two after the exam has been handed back so students have had time to look over their answers, and consider the areas that they struggled with.

Then, ask students to bring their graded exams to class, and provide ten minutes or so to answer the following thee questions on 3 x 5 notecards that you provide.

1)      What did I do well on this test and why? 
2)      What did I do poorly on and why? 
3)      What am I going to do about this problem the next time?

You can make this exercise casual without requiring students to include their names on their cards, or you can include it as a small percentage of their grade for the course.  This also provides you with opportunities to summarize comments of importance in following classes.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

Monday, November 9, 2015

Teaching Millennials: Bridging the Gap

Examples not working?  Jokes gone flat?  Seinfeld references missed faster than you can say, “No soup for you?”  Don’t worry, it’s not just you.

College faculty all around the nation are struggling with teaching to the millennial generation.  With a population steeped in YouTube videos, Tweeting what they had for breakfast, and asking Siri what the weather’s like, it’s no wonder you are beginning to hear nothing but crickets after your best punch lines.   

Here are some things you should know about millennials in order to better connect with them.
  1. Millennials are used to being protected.  They’re used to their parents hovering over them or sweeping in to save the day.  Terms like “helicopter” or “lawnmowerparents” are now truer than ever.  Keep that in mind. 
  2.  Millennials are team-oriented.  Crowdsourcing is something they’ve grown up with, so group work and relying on a team is nothing new to them. 
  3. Millennials are achievement-oriented.  Keep in mind that this generation above all others has been exposed to standardized testing and education movement.  This provides them with an internalized value of results far above the process of learning itself.
  4. Millennials are pressured.  Due to this focus on achievement, they’ve been feeling the pressure to be the best for quite some time.
Not only is it important to consider these elements in order to understand your students and the generalizations about their generation, but it’s also important to reflect on how we can move beyond these generalizations to build a pedagogical approach that benefits our courses, our students, and ourselves.  Consider these tips for teaching today’s college student:
  1. Get to know your students.  It’s impossible to connect with students on any level until you gain an understanding of what sort of knowledge and experience they are already bringing to your classroom.  Start out with a formative assessment of some kind to allow students to share what they know, and what gaps they may have in understanding your class content. 
  2. Show your students ways to organize and apply knowledge.  Millennials are used to getting information at lightning speed, and usually in various different ways, so teaching how to process all of this material is a good place to start.  Incorporating different types of materials for teaching each concept can be helpful as well.
  3. Discuss the value of failure.  Because this generation is so focused on achievement, they often lose sight of the ways in which failure can work as a good learning tool.  Provide opportunities in your classroom that are low stakes, and focus on working on the process involved in learning a concept rather than the product.  These could be group activities, discussion posts, or hypothesis-driven activities.  Emphasizing the importance of the learning process is also a good way to establish intrinsic motivation. 
If you’re still wondering what to do about those Seinfeld references whipping over your students’ heads, well, let’s just say we know what your first homework assignment should be.