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