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We’re only two weeks away from the United States presidential election, an event that 68% of US adults report as “a significant source of stress in their life.” Some groups feel these effects more strongly than others. For instance, “The proportion of Black adults reporting the election as a source of stress jumped from 46% in 2016 to 71% this year.” We can safely assume that the election is also a significant source of stress for our students, particularly for those who belong to marginalized groups. 

For those of us who wish to broach the subject of the presidential election in our classes, these numbers can be daunting. How can we discuss the election in a productive and equitable way? How can we facilitate conversations that will help students learn without exacerbating election stress for more vulnerable individuals and groups? These are complex questions with complex answers. But what follows are a few quick tips to help you navigate the difficult election conversations you may wish to have in the next two weeks.

It’s important to begin by clarifying the objectives for the discussion and making sure that those objectives are in line with your overall course goals. How do the election or the issues raised by it relate to the disciplinary concerns of your course? What is it that you want students to get out of the conversation? How can you facilitate the discussion in such a way that those goals are met? Don’t forget to communicate these objectives to students as you begin the discussion.

As you consider the content of the lesson plan, make sure that the topic of discussion doesn’t inadvertently marginalize or traumatize certain students or groups. Remember that even a seemingly “neutral” viewpoint can be ethically questionable if it allows for racism, xenophobia, sexism, or other expressions of harm toward marginalized groups. 

Additionally, it’s essential to establish ground rules for discussion with students before you get started. You can begin by acknowledging the difficulty of the conversation you’re about to have and enlisting students to help you make it as productive as possible. If possible, ask students for their input in creating the rules of engagement. Remind students that their arguments should be based in evidence; they should disagree with one another respectfully, refraining from ad hominem attacks; and that they should avoid invalidating the feelings or experiences of others.

In many contexts, creating a sense of conversational structure can be helpful. If you’re facilitating a standard large-group discussion, try not open with big questions like, “What do you think about the election?” Instead, create specific, directed questions that contribute to your learning goals for the session and for the class as a whole. In addition to crafting structured discussion questions, you can also consider a structured discussion format. For instance, you might assign a think-pair-share activity, employ the five-minute rule, or facilitate some functional subgrouping.

Relatedly, make sure to build in time for processing and reflection. Stopping the discussion periodically to think quietly or write about what’s been said not only helps students speak more thoughtfully during the rest of the conversation but also helps create a more equitable environment for discussion. Students who process their thoughts through quiet reflection or writing rather than speaking will be more likely to participate in the discussion going forward.

Finally, have a plan to intervene if things go off the rails. If a student makes an inappropriate comment, it’s best to acknowledge and deal with the comment rather than ignoring it. Use the ACTION framework to develop strategies for responding: try to ask the student clarifying questions and help them explore the potential impact of their statement on others. If the conversation gets heated, consider implementing a writing activity or continuing that portion of the conversation at a later date. 

You can find additional resources for teaching around the election in this guide from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and this blog post from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. For more on this and teaching other controversial topics, join us for Wednesday’s Kaneb Center workshop on Difficult Conversations in the Classroom. And don’t forget to vote and encourage your students to vote!

As we approach what would have been Fall break in a typical semester, many of us–students, faculty, and staff alike–are starting to feel like we’ve hit a physical and emotional wall. Burnout and fatigue are common to any semester, but COVID has exacerbated these conditions. Acknowledging burnout at mid-semester poses interesting challenges and opportunities looking ahead to pre-Thanksgiving finals. If your course ends with a long research paper, you may be considering ways to simplify or refocus while maintaining rigor and effective evaluation. Redesigning the research assignment can help students to pace themselves and also manage our end of semester workload. 

Why consider alternative research assignments? 

The research paper has its own rhetorical components and methods that make it an important genre for undergraduate students to learn and practice. If course goals prioritize generic components like discipline-specific argumentation, or if your course requires a minimum page count, then research papers are natural and necessary modes of assessment. However, the research paper assignment also has other goals that are not bound to the genre. If your goals focus on the demonstration of foundational research skills, communication, synthesis and/or critical thinking, you could consider alternative capstone assignments. 

Alternatives can: 

  • lighten the grading load
  • scaffold the skills and strategies necessary for writing complex arguments 
  • develop and diversify student strengths and interests 
  • expose students to different voices and modes of communication
  • help students to experiment with audience beyond their professor 

How to create an alternative research assignment?

Standard research paper outcomes include research, argumentation, understanding of content, incorporation of evidence, citation, and synthesis. Think outside of the box and consider other outcomes that may assess the students’ abilities. Be sure to prioritize and connect assignment to course goals and consider the problems, skills, or knowledge the assignment will address. Consider devoting short segments of class time to tasks that will help students develop the skills necessary to complete the assignment. Call on colleagues, librarians, and/or technical experts to brainstorm alternative assignments. Remember: if you change anything in the course, be transparent with students about your reasons for doing so and make your evaluation criteria clear. 

Sample alternative assignments: 

  • All-but-the-paper term paper: students complete every step in the research paper process and then write the introductory and concluding pages, a detailed outline of the body, an annotated bibliography, and an abstract
  • Put on a class conference complete with poster sessions, panels, papers, etc. and let students choose how they will present research
  • Summarize the literature on a topic and present the findings
  • Create an anthology of readings complete with an introduction and reading summaries
  • Create, judge, and “fund” research proposals
  • Annotate an article for a novice reader
  • Create an advertisement
  • Analyze and respond to a case study
  • Create an infographic 
  • Explanation of a multiple-choice answer: students must explain why the answer they chose to a multiple-choice question is correct, or why the alternative answers are wrong
  • Meaningful paragraph: given a list of specific terms, students must use the terms in a paragraph that demonstrates that they understand the terms and their interconnections
  • Curate a portfolio to demonstrate evolution of work and thinking over time

As we begin the uphill push to the end of the semester, we can also think ahead to next semester and take stock of strategies that successfully motivate student learning and engagement under these unique circumstances. Above all, let’s continue to be patient and creative in pacing student work and assessment. 

References & Additional Reading:

Tip: Research Paper Alternatives,” Tips for Teaching Professors 
Alternatives to to Traditional Exams and Papers,” Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning IU Bloomington
Library Assignments / Research Paper Alternatives,” Carson-Newman University 
Alternatives to Research Papers,” University of Connecticut
Alternatives to the Research Paper,” Muhlenberg College 
Video Interview on UDL Assessment, Centre for Academic and Faculty Enrichment (CAFE) at Durham College
Remix Multimedia Resources, Hesburgh Libraries and the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning

During the COVID-19 quarantine times, I found myself filling time by playing the video game Celeste. In the game, you climb Celeste mountain as the character Madeline, who is coached along the way to overcome physical and mental challenges and reach her goal: make it to the summit. Each level consists of several short screens which the player must navigate flawlessly in order to progress to the next level. The ascent is full of not only deadly physical obstacles, but also the character’s unwelcomed critical inner voice pulling her down. Beyond the beautiful artwork, the immersive soundtrack, and the meaningful story of the game, Celeste offers an incredible user experience – one that had me relating myself to the learner, and the game to the teacher. No, this post is not a plug for the game; rather it is a story of how we can find parallels to good teaching practices from aspects of our everyday lives. Celeste is a game (course) that teaches the user (student) to play (learn) in an effective, meaningful way. 

The first thing I noticed and appreciated about the game is that if you die before reaching the other end of a screen, you are not punished harshly; you’re simply transported back to the beginning of that screen within seconds of committing your mistake. No cruel taunts, no entire loss of progress, which kept me motivated to continue and to enjoy the game. This design decision speaks volumes to how creating a safe environment to make mistakes helps us learn and grow from them, rather than be ashamed or frustrated by them. Cultivating positive attitudes around making mistakes requires a teacher’s positive attitude and careful use of language. “Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning.” Acknowledging and appreciating intellectual boldness even when a student is wrong, or admitting your own mistakes when they happen are great starts to creating comfortable learning environments. 

Another beautiful aspect of the game is that the gameplay itself teaches the player new mechanics along the way, but not through step-by-step tutorials or demonstrations. Instead, the design of the game encourages the players to learn by gently introducing them to new moves through an immersive experience. This feature reflects the importance of practicing active learning over lecturing alone. For example, a STEM professor could provide an opportunity in class for students to work through a difficult problem that requires more thought than simply reworking previously-presented steps. Students learn better by doing, not by watching. 

The game slowly increases in intensity, building off previously-learned mechanics, much like a well-designed class allows students to gradually master content by building off previously-learned concepts and skills. This feature of the game design leaves players feeling satisfied while looking back to the beginning and reflecting on how much they’ve improved since first picking up the controller. So fittingly titled, the “Reflections” level of the game has the Celeste “students” doing just that: reflecting. Even several levels in, after making significant progress, Madeline hears her inner voice sending doubts her way. She experiences a huge setback after stumbling down hundreds of feet. But with help and encouragement from friends whom she encounters on the mountain, she confronts her doubts and worries, and continues on with more determination than ever. The parallels to pedagogy here highlight the importance of metacognition in the classroom. Having students take time to reflect on their progress, what they’ve learned, and how far they’ve come since the beginning of the semester can boost understanding and confidence. This may take the form of a five minute reflective writing time in class followed by group discussion, or a short written homework assignment. Now, in the middle of the semester, is a great time to incorporate this practice into your course. 

COVID-19 has clearly changed our classrooms—from social distancing and mask-wearing to dual-mode delivery. But how has COVID-19 changed our courses? 

In the following blog post, Judy Ableser of Oakland University recognizes COVID-19 as a relevant, meaningful, and authentic learning opportunity and advocates incorporating it into our courses via intentionally designed assignments and assessments.


Authentic Assignments- Applying COVID-19 into your Courses

By Judy Ableser

We don’t know how this coming year will play itself out, yet we do know that COVID-19 will continue to impact our teaching, learning and life for some time to come.  Consider creating authentic assignments that directly connect your course’s learning outcomes to COVID-19. Authentic Assignments provide rich, meaningful and relevant opportunities in any discipline connected to COVID-19.

Authentic Assignments/Assessments

  • Relevant, meaningful, practical assignments that connect “real-life” situations to the course content
  • Engaging and interesting learning experiences 
  • Authentic Assessments directly measure students’ performance through “real life tasks” or “situations” that resemble “real life situations” (Wiggins, Grant. (1998). Ensuring authentic performance. Chapter 2 in Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 21 – 42.)
  • Often used synonymously with “alternative assessments” or “performance assessments”
  • Examples often include demonstrations, debates, field work, simulations, problem solving
  • Align with learning outcomes of course

How are Authentic Assignments different then Teachable Moments-  teachable moments are unplanned opportunities that arise due to a situation in which the instructors turns the experience into a learning opportunity.  Authentic assignments are planned experiences incorporating “real life” situations into the assessments.  

How to create an Authentic Assessment relating to COVID-19

  1. Begin by designing your course’s learning outcomes as you normally would.
  2. Create Authentic Assignments that align your learning outcomes with COVID-19 topics, issues and themes.  Be creative.  Be interesting.  Be relevant.
  3. Develop rubrics or marking schemes for your authentic assignment.
  4. Introduce and discuss COVID-19 as it relates to your course with your students
  5. Provide current resources and references on COVID-19 for your students to use in their assignments.
  6. Plan for additional “marking time”.  Using the rubric will help make your marking more efficient and effective but will require more time than giving a “traditional test”

Examples of Authentic Assessments relating to COVID-19 by discipline

  • Math- have students predict the spread of the virus based on current trends and statistics. 
  • History- compare previous pandemics to this one. 
  • Biology- analyze and compare the Coronavirus with influenza or other illnesses
  • Chemistry- explore and analyze research being done  vaccinations and treatments for COVID-19
  • Communication and Journalism- analyze different news coverage of the illness.
  • Psychology- have students interview others (virtually) about their stress and coping mechanisms. 
  • Business- analyze the economic impact of COVID-19
  • Nursing- develop strategies to support dying patients and their families when they cannot be together due to COVID-19
  • Nursing- analyze the threat to COVID-19 spread when limited PPE and how to address and reduce the threat
  • Public Health- analyze CDC updates and predictions
  • Social Work- develop strategies and interventions to help reduce domestic abuse due to stress and “stay home orders” during COVID-19
  • Engineering- develop plan for transitioning from building automotive parts to building ventilators
  • Additional Resource with some great ideas- Transforming COVID-19 into Learning Activities  (developed by Nanda Dimitrov Centre for Educational Excellence * Simon Fraser University)

* Today’s blog comes from the 2020-2021 Teaching Messages Collection, a collaboration of over 30 institutions of higher-education. This post is written by Judy Ableser, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Oakland University.*

Moving Online: Quick Tips

Notre Dame announced last week that due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases on campus it would move all undergraduate instruction online at least until September 2. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Please be kind to yourself, your students, and your instructor this week; it’s a stressful time for everyone. 

What follows are a few things you can do to make the next few weeks (or more) of online instruction better for yourself and your students. 

Clearly communicate expectations: Transparent communication is critical in the online environment. Hopefully, if you’re a TA, you’ve already communicated with your professor about new expectations for your online course and clearly conveyed that information to students. But don’t stop there: be more diligent than usual in reminding students about changes to course procedures, assignment deadlines, and the time and (virtual) place of your office hours. Their minds, like yours, are probably in a hundred places at once right now, and they’ll almost certainly appreciate these reminders.

Check in (and adjust) often: Students, like instructors, are facing unprecedented challenges this semester. So, while it’s important to communicate your expectations to them, it’s also important to check in with students to gauge their current needs. Remember, many students are sick, quarantined, or otherwise distressed; nearly all of them are more stressed than usual. Assess their needs frequently and make appropriate accommodations. Try to remain empathetic and flexible for the next few weeks. The mental and physical health of you and your students should come first. 

Facilitate community building and active learning: In last week’s blog post, Alex Oxner, Assistant Program Director for Inclusive Pedagogy the Kaneb Center, wrote that within the first days of class, “It is crucial that instructors work to generate support systems among their students.” These support systems are more important than ever when classes move online. Make sure you’re taking advantage of online tools to help students build a class community and engage in active learning practices. If your class is primarily asynchronous, consider creating a student discussion board or small study groups. If class is conducted synchronously, make use of the breakout rooms on Zoom to help students connect with one another. 

Use your resources: The Kaneb Center has a number of resources available to support (emergency) online teaching. To start, you can consult this Checklist of Key Steps for Teaching Online, this ND Learning article on Effective Online Teaching, and the Resilient Teaching website.

This semester will feature challenging and uncertain circumstances, so we want to welcome students back to campus by communicating our expectations with care and transparency. This work should begin on the very first day of class as instructors establish new relationships with their students and set the tone for the semester. Whether you are teaching in-person, fully online, or in a dual-mode capacity, the resources below will provide an introduction to designing a safe, inclusive, and interactive first day.

Safety Norms: This semester will require an extra layer of trust between members of the campus community as we all do our part to wear masks and practice social distancing. The first day of class is the perfect opportunity to set the tone for a safe semester that is based in a mutual desire to protect ourselves and our students. Remind students that their physical and mental health are priorities. Consider including a COVID-19 statement in your syllabus and spend time discussing your expectations surrounding this policy on the first day. What should students do if they are experiencing symptoms? Will there be any remote access to your course materials if students are sick or quarantined? How will you maintain social distancing and masking within your classroom? What steps might you take if a student forgets their mask or does not want to comply with social distancing? The answers to these questions will vary depending upon your course goals—think through these concerns and be prepared to address them with your students in order to alleviate any anxiety.

Active Learning and Community-building: In the midst of the presidential election, a racial justice movement, and the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, student emotions and opinions are likely to be strong. It is crucial that instructors work to generate support systems among their students. One method for building community involves active learning, or engaging students in the discovery of a learning process. This form of discovery “occurs when learners take control” and direct classroom dialogue, partly by understanding that their instructors “value both process and product” (Persellin et al. 2014). Instructors can use the first day of class to model this process by inviting students to share their ideas and experiences.

  • First day icebreaker. Ask your students to participate in an activity that requires them to reveal some of their interests, attitudes, values, or thinking processes. Icebreakers need to remain socially distant, so consider activities in which students can share their experiences verbally or through a written medium (rather than by huddling into groups, passing around a shared object, etc.). For example, students could describe their life as a movie (or book, manga series, etc.) to reveal their creative interests, collaborate to determine how they’d survive together if stranded on an island (pg. 19), or contribute to a class-wide Google Doc in which each student responds to a prompt or question set. When possible, explicitly link the icebreaker to your course material to reinforce the relevance and importance of group discussion. (For instance, in a course on supernatural fiction, I ask my students to tell me about their favorite horror story, myth, or folklore and to explain why they think it is effective. In an engineering course, the instructor may ask students to research articles or pop culture examples about the relevancy of engineering within our current society.)
  • Student information forms. Collecting information about each of your students can help you design a more directed and tailored course that meets your students’ learning needs. Information forms allow students to communicate individually with their instructor about their preferred name, pronouns, major, etc. This semester, you may also consider including questions that prompt students to share potential health or access issues, remote learning needs, and anxieties or special circumstances. Phrase questions as invitations to share information and avoid requiring students to answer all questions (i.e. avoid forcing students to disclose information). For example, rather than stating, “Please tell me about any health issues that may prevent you from attending class regularly,” you may ask, “Do you have any special circumstances you’d like me to be aware of?” Because remote/dual-mode instruction is a possibility, you may also wish to ask your students about their technology needs: “Please tell me which types of technology you will be able to use for this class (smart phone, laptop, headphones, etc.).” If students do not have access to the devices they will need to succeed in your course, direct them to the Office of Student Enrichment.

Student Interaction: By the end of the first day of class, each student should have spoken or interacted with at least one other student enrolled in the course. If possible, facilitate an exchange of contact information by having students share their university e-mail addresses (preferably after they’ve had some time to chat or participate in an icebreaker activity together). Research shows that collaborative learning and social interaction enable deeper thinking on course subjects and generate higher levels of student engagement.

References & Additional Reading:

A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning: Six Evidence-Based Principles and How to Apply Them, Diane Persellin, Mary Blythe Daniels, and Michael Reder

Collaborative Learning,” Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation

First Day of Class,” Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

How to Teach a Good First Day of Class: Advice Guide,” James Lang

Make the Most of the First Day of Class,” Carnegie Mellon University’s Teaching Excellence Center

Practicing Inclusion: Icebreakers and Team Builders for Diversity,” Stonehill College’s Office of Intercultural Affairs

The First Day—And Beyond,” from Stephanie Chasteen’s How do I help students engage productively in active learning classrooms?

(This post is based upon the Kaneb Center workshop “Setting the tone: Using the first day of class to establish norms for safety, conversation, and community,” facilitated by Alex Oxner and Kristi Rudenga. More resources are available on the Google Slides and Zoom recording.)

End of the Year Round-up

Congratulations! You’ve (almost) made it to the end of what sometimes felt like an apocalyptic semester. Classes are over, and for many of us all that remains is a pile of papers or exams to grade. In the midst of all the end-of-semester chaos, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for all you’ve accomplished in the last few months. We’ve all moved mountains this semester, and it’s important to acknowledge our successes. 

As you wade through that pile of final assignments, you may be interested in our previous blog post on strategies for efficient evaluation. As you receive the results of your CIFs, you may be interested in this post on using course evaluations as a self-assessment exercise. But remember, this has been an extraordinary semester, and we should approach course evaluations with altered circumstances in mind. Your CIFs, like everything else, will be affected by the online transition, so remember to treat them with care and consider only the feedback that is constructive. 

We hope the summer will provide some time for you to catch your breath and also to hone your teaching skills. Consider taking advantage of Kaneb Center resources over the next few months. If you’d like guidance in interpreting your CIFs, designing a course for the fall, or just reflecting on your teaching practice, feel free to schedule an individual consultation. If you’d like to learn more about teaching remotely, consider signing up for our graduate summer course on How to Design Online Courses (GRED 64600). Keep an eye on the ND Learning Pedagogical Support website for our summer pedagogy workshop schedule, which will be announced in early May.

We’ll be back with more blog posts in the fall. Until then, we wish you a restful summer!

 

Take a minute to visualize your students studying. What do you expect them to be doing? If you were to make a study guide for your students, what would it look like? What skills or processes do you expect to be automatic? What concept is usually the hardest for students? How do you classify content and draw connections among ideas? 

 

In my mathematics courses, I receive many requests from students for “formula sheets” and “study guides”. This happens every semester, like clockwork, so last year I implemented a midterm exam wrapper to determine how my students prepare for exams. I was shocked to find out that some students study for math tests by just re-reading their notes. It was then that I realized the importance of modeling effective, discipline-specific study practices.

To be sure, there are scientifically proven good study habits (like minimizing distractions, getting enough sleep, testing yourself, teaching others the material, etc.) that we can all share with our students. But there are also practices that are especially effective for our disciplineand this is the subject of today’s blog post.

As an example, I’d like to share a few of the practices that I model and activities that I encourage students to do as they study for my calculus courses.

 

Revisit big ideas and classify course content. It’s easy for students to lose sight of the big picture and, as a result, students often struggle to see how topics are related. Before an exam, I dedicate 10-15 minutes of class time for reflection, recall, and the creation of a simple concept map.

Provide a fill-in the blank study guide. This is a great way to provide structure for student studying while still allowing for the benefits of note-taking. For each topic, I ask my students to fill in (i) the formula, (ii) the main idea, (iii) a connection to another concept, and (iv) an example problem.

Encourage repetition. For some computations and processes, practice makes perfect. I encourage my students to go back and work through old homeworks and quizzes with our concept map in mind and their study guide in hand. Not only does this promote proficiency and automaticity, but also metacognition.

Create a practice exam. This requires some extra work on my part, but is important for reducing test anxiety. Distributing a practice exam allows students to predict the structure, level of questions, and time constraints of the actual exam. And, of course, a practice exam is an opportunity for more practice.

 

As we approach finals week, I encourage you to think about what study practices are most effective for your discipline and to share them with your students.

 

The sudden shift to online learning can deepen existing inequalities.The digital divide (uneven distribution and access to technology) combined with the implications of a global pandemic for different socio-economic and racial groups means that many students will be disproportionately affected by the shift to remote work. For instructors, this means that we need to think about logistical and technological concerns as inseparable from pedagogical ones. Considering all of the factors that may be affecting student performance also means curating an inclusive pedagogy that prioritizes equitable access to the learning environment. 

Inclusive pedagogy asks us to consider how we can help all students succeed. Facilitating inclusion in the physical classroom often means creating spaces where students feel valued and included, setting clear expectations, and making learning and assessment accessible to all students. Though the online shift can complicate these strategies, the principles remain the same. Adapted to online teaching contexts, inclusive teaching and learning requires transparency, accessibility, and flexibility.

Transparency

Clearly communicating the rationale behind instructional choices can motivate students to learn and make them more successful. However, the additional challenges of remote learning make it even more important to be mindful of hidden curricula and expectations we may take for granted. As such, we must make sure that we are not making any unnecessary assumptions about what our students know and what they are able to do. Inclusive strategies center transparency through clear, shared expectations for students and instructors. 

Accessibility

Students working from home may not have access to stable, high-speed internet service or top of the line software and hardware, and/or they may have to share bandwidth and devices with parents or siblings who are also required to work from home. Students who rely on mobile devices may have data plans that run low or run out before the end of the semester. Unfortunately community-based resources that we may want to direct students to, like libraries and coffee shops, are probably closed now due to state and local regulations. For students with disabilities, remote learning can be even more difficult. 

Flexibility

Equitable and inclusive teaching means working with the diversity of students across multiple dimensions. Right now, that means also considering the varied ways that their lives are disrupted. As we adjust to the new normal of remote teaching and learning, it is important to be as flexible as possible. We can accomplish this by adjusting our approaches to teaching: Consider balancing synchronous and asynchronous tools and course materials so that students have multiple points of access, re-center active learning strategies, provide multiple means of assessment and evaluation, and allow students–within reason–flexibility to meet deadlines. 

More tips for increasing equitable access: 

  • Survey students about their needs and wellbeing
    • Ask students about technology, availability, and anything else they would like you to take into consideration
    • If you have a student who anticipates or who has demonstrated accessibility concerns, ask them what they would need in order to participate more fully in the course or submit work
    • Use the results to inform your decisions about the course
  • Consider the Universal Design for Learning framework
    • Use the results from surveys to inform your decisions about the course: revisit your goals, materials, methods, and assessments, and make sure they are accessible to everyone
    • Create flexible paths of learning for each student to progress
  • Ensure lectures and synchronous sessions are accessible 
    • Record live sessions to be uploaded to Sakai or emailed 
    • Create captions on videos
  • Ensure asynchronous and other written materials are accessible
    • PDFs are generally more accessible for students with disabilities who may rely on screen-readers, and more accessible on mobile devices
    • Work with the library and bookstore to make texts accessible to students who may not be able to afford the necessary materials
  • Provide opportunities for low tech and alternate assignments 
    • Offer flexibility or alternatives to students when access is an issue 
    • Create a menu of options for students to choose from in order to meet assignment and course learning goals
  • Solicit feedback on online instruction
    • Ask students what is working for them and what isn’t
    • Students are well-placed to assess their abilities 

Inclusive environments value and include everyone. During this unpredictable time, everyone will experience high levels of stress and anxiety stemming from physical, emotional, cognitive, and financial challenges. Students and instructors alike will be significantly impacted by this disruption, which can have a negative impact on motivation and performance. Students will be affected in ways they may not even wish to share. So when possible, offer all students the benefit of compassion and understanding with deadlines, workloads and the necessary time to adapt to our ever-changing environment. 

Additional Resources: 

Maintaining Equity and Inclusion in Virtual Learning Environments
Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely
Accessible Teaching In The Time Of Covid-19
An Equitable Transition to Online Learning: Flexibility, Low Bandwidth, Cell Phones, and More
You Have to Put Your Class Online: Simple Things to Think About
Reflections by Dr. Jason Petrulis 

This post was adapted from a Kaneb Center mini-workshop. For additional resources, suggested reading, and sample rubrics, check out the mini-workshop presentation slides, as well as this Kaneb Center presentation on creating and using class-based discussion boards

Now that classes have moved online for the remainder of the semester, many instructors have implemented online discussion boards as a course requirement. But it can be tricky to evaluate student participation on these boards, especially for instructors who have little experience with them. What follows are some tips about how to assess online discussions. 

Establish expectations and craft a rubric: Before you begin grading discussion boards, you’ll want to be clear, both to yourself and your students, about the purpose of the discussion board. How does the board fulfill your learning goals? What are the ideal learning outcomes for your students? Let these questions guide your evaluation criteria, and make sure those criteria are communicated to students as early as possible. Consider creating a rubric to share with students that clarifies both the quantitative and qualitative expectations for student participation in the discussion board or forum. 

Prioritize quality of engagement: While your rubric should include quantitative elements and objective measures—like post frequency, post length, and timeliness—make sure to emphasize qualitative ones as well. Discussions might be graded on elements like the demonstration of critical thinking; strength of argument, analysis, or interpretation; use of evidence; and application or synthesis of concepts. Likewise, though considerations like grammar and mechanics are important, the point of these boards is to help students exercise their skills in higher order thinking. Make sure your rubric prioritizes and rewards this kind of substantive student engagement. 

Prioritize interaction and collaboration: Discussion boards work best when students substantively engage not only with the discussion prompt but also with their fellow classmates. Make sure your rubric evaluates students in part on the frequency and quality of their interactions with others. Productive interaction doesn’t always come naturally to students, so consider providing frameworks that help them learn to advance the conversation. For example, you might ask students to respond to each other using a 3CQ, in which each student’s reply must include a compliment, a comment, a connection (3C) and a question (Q).

Keep feedback and grading simple: If you have a large number of students posting to a discussion board every week, it can be difficult to provide frequent individualized feedback. Instead, you might try providing collective feedback for students. Have a class conversation early in the process about participation in the discussion boards: what’s working and what could use improvement? To give students some ideas about how to improve their participation, you might also consider allowing them to evaluate their own contributions according to a set of criteria you provide. When it comes to grading, keep your systems as simple as possible: consider credit/no credit grading; roll discussion boards into a holistic participation grade; or use a simple points scale. 

Discussion boards can be tricky to evaluate, but they’re great tools for developing higher order thinking skills and for building classroom community. With a little thought and planning, you can create a set of evaluation criteria that not only make grading easier but also help your students realize these goals.  

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