Do Your Students Understand the Assignment?

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention this past week: The Unwritten Rules of College by Dan Berrett (September 21, 2015), profiled art history professor Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her quest to help students learn how to learn.

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.Winkelmes, the former director of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, has also trained faculty in teaching at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and, currently, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where she is principal investigator of  Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. This project seeks “to improve higher education teaching and learning experiences for faculty and students through two main activities:

  • promoting students’ conscious understanding of how they learn, and
  • enabling faculty to gather, share and promptly benefit from current data about students’ learning by coordinating their efforts across disciplines, institutions and countries.

A primary focus for Winkelmes has been reaching out to students who are first generation college students or otherwise may not understand what she calls “the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college.” [See: Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. “Equity of Access and Equity of Experience in Higher Education.” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24, 2 (February 2015), 1-4.] “As an increasingly broad and diverse cross section of students enters higher education, knowing those rules matters more than ever. Without them, students stumble. They might miss the point of a paper, drift during discussions, or feel overwhelmed or aimless. But all students can thrive, Ms. Winkelmes says, if the tacit curriculum is made plain.”

Winkelmes’ findings from the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project point to giving assignments in a transparent manner as having a “significant effect on students.” Faculty involved in the project considered three questions when creating assignments: the task, the purpose, and the criteria.

Defining the task means that the students are told exactly they are to do. Students should also know the purpose of the assignment. Why are they being asked to do this and what is the instructor’s goal? What are the criteria that will be used to evaluate the work that the students submit?

The article provides details on how several faculty took assignments they had used in the past, reviewed them using the three questions, and then implemented improved versions of the assignments in their classes. While some faculty have pushed back on the process, others have found it to be valuable, saying that clarifying the assignment at the outset helps save time in the long run.

This relatively easy technique has proved to have a big impact. “In the classroom, knowing the task, purpose, and criteria can help motivate students and make their courses relevant. In other areas, the information can help them navigate an intimidating system. To Ms. Winkelmes, the protocol helps students meet higher expectations of rigor, which, in turn, can ensure equity in educational quality.”

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

The CIRTL MOOC is Back!

Last fall I blogged several times about the CIRTL MOOC. CIRTL—the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning—is an NFS funded consortium of 21 universities whose “…mission is to enhance excellence in undergraduate education through the development of a national faculty committed to implementing and advancing effective teaching practices for diverse learners as part of successful and varied professional careers.” CIRTL promotes three core ideas: Teaching-as-Research, Learning Community, and Learning-through-Diversity.

Screenshot of Coursera course description page for An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching.CIRTL offers a number of courses, some of which are open to participation to those who are not in CIRTL member institutions. Last fall (2014), An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, developed by CIRTL member faculty at Vanderbilt University, Michigan State University, Boston University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, was launched. You can see this description on the CIRTL website:

  • Instructors: Faculty and staff from across the CIRTL Network.
  • Duration of course: September 28, 2015 – November 20, 2015
  • Format: MOOC on Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/)
  • Suggested Credits: Coursera version is noncredit; local MOOC-centered learning communities may offer credit locally.
  • Open to: Early or advanced graduate students, post docs, academic staff and faculty
  • Technology Requirements: internet access
  • Accessibility: We strive to be inclusive of anyone interested in participating in our activities, programs, and courses. If you have specific accessibility needs, please let us know in advance so that we may make the necessary accommodations.

The Coursera website description adds: “This course will provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to evidence-based teaching practices. Participants will learn about effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them, and they will apply what they learn to the design of lessons and assignments they can use in future teaching opportunities. Those who complete the course will be more informed and confident teachers, equipped for greater success in the undergraduate classroom.”

I took the course last fall and found it to have great videos on topics such as learning objectives, assessment, peer instruction, inquiry based labs, learning through writing, and problem based learning. My assessment is that it is not just appropriate for STEM instructors; anyone teaching at the higher education level could benefit from the course content.

Here are links to last year’s The Innovative Instructor blog posts inspired by the course content:

One thing that I really like about MOOCs is that if you are not taking one for credit or certification, you can go at your own pace, take what you need and skip over content that is not relevant. Moreover, in this case, you will continue to have access to course materials after the MOOC has finished. While you lose the benefit of participation in discussion threads and getting feedback on assignments, being able to view the videos and readings has value.

Whether you are STEM or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), just starting out in your teaching career or a seasoned professional looking for some new ideas, sign up for An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Screen shot https://www.coursera.org/course/stemteaching

What to Do When Your Students Arrive Late

It’s the beginning of the semester (or quarter) and already you are experiencing the problem. Maybe it starts with just one student, who every class comes rushing in late. Or perhaps a small group saunters in just as your lecture or discussion is getting going, fresh coffees in hand. Then there is the snowball effect—it starts with one or two latecomers to your early morning class, and then gradually the numbers increase until the disruption of late arrivals is too much to ignore. Whatever the scenario, is there a solution?Digital display You Are Late in white letters on blue background.

The answer is yes, but how you choose to handle the situation may depend on the size of your class, the culture at your institution, and your teaching philosophy. Some instructors take a hard line approach, others may attempt to deal with each offender individually. The latter concept, to speak individually to students who arrive late, is worth considering. If your institution has a large campus, or several campuses from which students may be arriving, it could be that they don’t have sufficient time to change classes. Or there is the possibility that another instructor is consistently running late, leaving students to race to their next class. It is appropriate to work with students to find a solution, before penalizing them and before getting too far into the semester when habits may be harder to break.

Advice from various sources provides a range of strategies. In Late Again? (The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2015) Stephanie Reese Masson, an instructor of language, English, and communication at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, recommends talking to your class about lateness and potential motivators for punctual arrival. She chose two tactics—marking late students as absent with a grade reduction after four absences and periodically offering unscheduled, short, in-class, extra-credit activities at the start of class. Her essay includes other ideas as well.

Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence has a page of advice on reducing late arrivals, including arriving early yourself so that you can interact with students as they come into class. “If you arrive to class early, you show your students that you value your time with them.  By arriving early, chatting with students, answering questions and starting on time, you build rapport and model proper classroom etiquette.  Do not try to embarrass late students in front of the class.  Statements such as “I see you’re late again,” or “Why are you late, Mr. Watson?” beg for a reply and can easily domino into greater classroom distractions.  A better approach is simply to welcome the late student.  A welcoming recognition of a late student lets the student know that you are aware of his/her lateness without giving opportunity to spiraling incivility.  If a student is habitually late, ask to talk to the student after class and express your concerns to him/her in private.” Other suggestions include starting class with an activity or with something that will intrigue your students.

The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University has a section on their website called Solve a Teaching Problems, which is a great resource for a range of issues instructors are likely to encounter. For each issue, potential reasons are identified and appropriate solutions and strategies are offered. For Students come to class late, possible reasons include: students don’t take responsibility for themselves, students’ expectations are out of line with the instructor’s, students don’t recognize how their lateness affects others, students don’t perceive the beginning of class as important, there is no consequence to being late, students are trying to challenge the instructor’s authority, students are experiencing emotional or psychological problems, and students have physical or logistical reasons for coming late. Each link will take you to a page with applicable strategies.

The key take-away from all the advice offered is that to solve the problem of student tardiness, you must first understand the reasons that students are arriving late.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image courtesy of Stuart Mills at FreeDigitalPhotos.net