Quick Tips: Take Your Office Hours for a Walk

Spring is here and the end of the semester looms. Your students should be showing up Overhead view of five people walking along a path, casting long shadows.for office hours to discuss their progress. Are they? We’ve shared some tips on office hours in the past (Faculty Office Hours: The Instructor is In, June 6, 2017), but here is an interesting idea. When the weather is conducive, maybe you could consider taking a walk with your students during office hours.

The Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter shared this post Thinking outside the Office (Hours) by Fiona Rawle-Close, excerpted from National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 26, Number 4, May 2017. Rawle-Close says:

I was trying to think of ways in which I could make my office hours more effective in terms of connecting with students and having meaningful discussions. I noticed that some students often seemed intimidated in my office, and sometimes avoided making eye contact. I decided to hold walking office hours, where we walk on trails around campus. Being a parent, I noticed that my kids are sometimes more willing to talk about difficult subjects when they are in the car and aren’t making direct eye contact. I thought perhaps the same would be true of my students, as it is difficult to make direct eye contact when walking on trails. It became clear to me that walking office hours, although I’m not advising that they should act as a replacement for traditional office hours, are an excellent supplement.

She goes on to detail her methods and strategies. It should be noted that the walking office hours were in addition to traditional office meetings. She discovered that students came to the two sessions for different reasons.  “The walking office hour students asked questions about my research, my experience as a student, sought out advice for personal matters, or just wanted to chat about current events. During my walking office hours, students would rarely ask questions about test or exam marks or even about course content.” Obviously it is difficult to go over papers or problem sets in detail when you are out walking, so you may want to set expectations for the walking versus traditional settings.

Rowle-Close reminds us to keep the needs of mobility-challenged students in mind and makes some suggestions for accommodations. All in all, she felt that the additional time and scheduling was well worth the time given the success she had in connecting with students.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

What is Specifications Grading and Why Should You Consider Using It?

During the fall semester I came across the concept of specifications grading. We had a faculty member interested in trying it out, and another professor who was already using a version of it in his courses. For today’s post, I’d like to give an overview of specifications grading with resources to turn to for more information.

Note paper check list with pencil.Specifications grading is not a brand new concept. In the spring of 2016, both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education ran articles on this grading method. The Inside Higher Ed piece, Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade (January 19, 2016) was written by Linda Nilson, who authored the seminal work on the concept: Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Stylus Publishing, 2015).

Nilson starts her book, which is a relatively short read (131 pages of text), by giving an overview of the history of grading. While the origins of our university system goes back to the 6th century, grading students is a more recent idea, first appearing in the 1700s and becoming more formalized in the 19th century. There is little standardization across institutions and practices vary considerably. Nilson notes that grading on the curve, grade inflation, and interpretations attached to grades further complicate the practice, leading to a system that she characterizes as broken and damaging to both faculty and students. Moreover, it is not at all clear that grades are an accurate predictor of future success.

Nilson contends there is a better system (see summary pp. 129-131), i.e., specifications grading (also called specs grading), which will:

  1. Uphold high academic standards,
  2. Reflect student learning outcomes,
  3. Motivate students to learn,
  4. Motivate students to excel,
  5. Discourage cheating,
  6. Reduce student stress,
  7. Make students feel responsible for their grades,
  8. Minimize conflict between faculty and students,
  9. Save faculty time,
  10. Give students feedback they will use,
  11. Make expectations clear,
  12. Foster higher-order cognitive development and creativity,
  13. Assess authentically,
  14. Achieve high interrater agreement,
  15. Be simple.

Her grading construct, which can be adapted in part or fully (as she explains in detail in her book), relies on pass/fail grading of assignments and assessments, the structuring of course content into modules linked to learning outcomes, and the bundling of assignments and assessments within those modules. The completion of course modules and bundles is linked to traditional course grades. In the pure form of specs grading, students determine what grade they want and complete the modules and bundles that correspond to that grade.

Nilson provides a summary of the features of specifications grading (p. 128):

  • Students are graded pass/fail on individual assignments and tests or on bundles or modules of assignments and tests.
  • Instructors provide very clear, detailed specifications (specs)—even models if necessary— for what constitutes a passing (acceptable/ satisfactory) piece of work. Specs reflect the standards of B-level or better work.
  • Students are allowed at least one opportunity to revise an unacceptable piece of work, or start the course with a limited number of tokens that they can exchange to revise or drop unacceptable work or to submit work late.
  • Bundles and modules that earn higher course grades require students to demonstrate mastery of more skills and content, more advanced/ complex skills and content, or both.
  • Bundles and modules are tied to the learning outcomes of the course or the program. Students will not necessarily achieve all the possible outcomes, but their course grade will indicate which ones they have and have not achieved.

Nilson’s article in Inside Higher Ed referenced above, gives a quick overview to specifications grading basics. It’s a good starting place to determine if the concept holds appeal for you. While any new system of teaching, including grading, will have a learning curve, specs grading offers a great deal of flexibility. In her book, Nilson gives examples of ways to partially integrate the concept into your course planning. It is also clear that once implemented, the system saves faculty time in making “hairsplitting decisions” about how many points to award on an assignment or test. Rubrics are required, but they are based on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory set of criteria, rather than spelling out what is expected for a full range of grades. Yes, faculty must be transparent and up front about this system with the students, but the anecdotal experiences that Nilson shares in her book indicate that students find specs grading to be less stressful and more motivating than traditional methods.

I recommend reading Nilson’s full book to understand the nuances and to determine which aspects of the system you will want to employ. To give you a sense of the scope of the book, following is an outline of the chapters and material covered.

Chapter 1: Introduction to and history of grading, and rationale for a new grading system.
Chapter 2: Discussion of learning outcomes and course design.
Chapter 3: Linking grades to outcomes—covers Bloom’s Taxonomy and how specs grading works in this regard.
Chapter 4: The efficacy of pass/fail grading.
Chapter 5: Details of specifications grading with detailed examples, including the role of rubrics, and adding flexibility through the use of tokens and second chances.
Chapter 6: How to convert specs graded student work to final letter grades. This chapter explains the concept of modules and bundling as related to levels of learning and grades that will be earned as modules/bundles are completed.
Chapter 7: Examples of specifications-graded course design. Nilson presents nine case studies from a variety of disciplines that include the types of activities and assessments that can be used.
Chapter 8: How and why specs grading motivates students—this chapter examines theories and research on student motivation to build a case for specs grading.
Chapter 9: Detailed instructions for developing a course with specs grading. This chapter includes tips for a hybrid course model that combines elements of specs grading with traditional grading constructs, and ideas for introducing students to specs grading.
Chapter 10: Conclusion and evaluation of specifications grading.

I also want to mention the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof Hacker Blog, Experimenting with Specifications Grading, Jason B. Jones, March 23, 2016, which reports on an instructor’s experience with specifications grading. It links to this blog post Rethinking Grading: An In-Progress Experiment, February 16, 2016, by Jason Mittell, who teaches at Middlebury College. The first-hand experience will be enlightening to those considering specs grading. Mittell includes the statement on his syllabus explaining specs grading to students, which will help you formulate your own explanation for this important part of a successful implementation of specs grading. You should also be sure to read the comments on the Prof Hacker piece for some additional ideas and resources.

As always, I am interested in comments from those who have tried or are considering this idea. Please share your thoughts.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Getting Your Students Names Right

A sheet of four names tags in red, blue, green, and purple, saying Hello My Name Is.Our last two posts have focused on diversity and inclusion in the classroom. Today I’d like to offer some resources for another important way to create a positive classroom climate: knowing your students’ names and pronouncing them correctly. A previous post Learning Your Students’ Names [September 6, 2013] will give you some tips for the first part. But making sure you pronounce names correctly can be challenging. Rather than stumbling through the attendance list on the first day of class, you can prepare ahead and know that you will be in the ballpark as you call names.

The first resource comes from the K-12 world, but is useful for us in higher education as well. Getting It Right: Reference Guides for Registering Students with Non-English Names (2nd Edition), gives a general overview of the naming conventions in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese languages.  Each section provides guidance such as the number of given names or family names and the order of these names.

The My Identity/My Name website’s Take Action section has a list of online resources with links to web tools and applications that will help you to correctly pronounce names (as well as geographical places, phrases, and words). Here is a partial version of their list with the resources that seemed most relevant:

Forvo is a great web tool to learn how to pronounce words from a wide array of categories including common words, phrases and people’s names.

Guiding Tech: 4 Useful websites to help you pronounce names correctly features four possible tools a teacher, parent or student may use to help learn the correct pronunciation of a name they wish to use. Within the article are the links to all 4 sites.

 How to Pronounce is a great web application to get the audio and text pronunciation, meaning and other information related to wiki pages, synonyms and antonyms for the searched word.

Pronounce by VOA News is one of the great free web tools for learning more about pronunciation of places and names. Founded in 2000, this Pronounce tool has a plethora of words and names to find from. 

Regardless of your preparation before you take attendance in your first class, you should always confirm with the student that you’ve pronounced their name correctly and determine what name they would like to be called in your class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Thursday, February 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing and Karen Fleming, Professor, Biophysics, presented on Fostering an Inclusive Classroom.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky led off by describing the Expository Writing program. [See presentation slides.] Students learn in small class settings (10-15 students) how to write and academic argument using evidence. The academic argument is framed as an ongoing conversation—they say (identifies the problem or viewpoint), I say (recognizes a flaw in the argument and establishes a thesis to correct the flaw), so what? (what’s at stake or what’s next?)—to which the student is contributing. The vast majority of her students are in the STEM fields. This is the background for Brodsky’s introduction of diversity and inclusion in the classroom.

Students bring their complex identities and a sense of whether or not they feel they belong on campus to the classroom. Brodsky seeks to make sure that her curriculum includes reading diverse authors. Students are given a number of choices for each major writing assignment so that they can find something that interests and speaks to them. Additionally, students do informal writing on topics fincluding What is College For? Learning (science of learning, recent research, advice), School (campus life, student realities, ideas for redesign), Stories—why they matter, Words (language change, texting, big data). For each topic area Brodsky identifies a number of articles that students can choose from to read and write a response.  She tries to make topics current and relevant, and to be flexible, for example, after the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, “I offered my students supplemental reading. I hoped to show how the JHU community engaged in local, ‘real-life’ struggles with rigorous, historically responsible, and creative thinking.” She encourages interdisciplinary conversations so that students don’t shut themselves off from possibilities.

Brodsky works with students who are afraid of writing and finds that different approaches work for different students. She is an advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In the classroom she practices eight ways of teaching.

  1. Giving students permission to fail successfully. The writing process is all about Slide from Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky's presentation listing 8 ways of learning.drafts and revisions; students learn that their first efforts may not work well, but they can learn from mistakes and rewrite.
  2. Using color highlighting while reading, by Brodsky and the students, to understand how an academic argument works.
  3. Sorting through key words used in an academic argument to understand how language works. For example, when identifying a flaw in an argument, key words are repudiate, contest, reject. Next, Brodsky has students perform textual analysis, by looking at a text and deciding whether it is either a conversation over coffee or actual textual analysis. For example, the text being analyzed is a comment on this quote (taken from a John Oliver segment): “A former British prime minister once described refugees as a “swarm of migrants.” Answer A is: “That made me crazy.” [conversation] Answer B is: “The word ‘swarm’ suggests invasion, threat, as well as equating humans to insects.” [textual analysis]
  4. Using Lego building blocks with statement taped to the sides, students “build their argument.”
  5. Learning to analyze and interpret by practicing describing things in different ways.
  6. Employing different ways of talking and discussing in the classroom. Students prepare elevator talks, engage in think/pair/share activities, anonymously share worries and wishes on index cards, and write questions to establish knowledge.
  7. Crafting a succinct “elevator pitch” to streamline their own academic argument.
  8. “What I mean here is to help and expect students to engage fully in their work on campus—not just their science brains for science, or even just their intellectual skills for their courses. Rather, they come here with richness of experience far beyond the academic classroom.”

In engaging students, Brodsky helps them to see frustration as unrealized potential and uncertainty as curiosity. She drew on a 2013 interview with British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips: “A student who’d been frustrated for weeks by my suggestion that thesis statements were probably not good things to have about works of literature began to recognize that her frustration was partly a fear of freedom. ‘You’re really just increasing my allowance,’ she said.”

By engaging in inclusive teaching practices, Brodsky has given her students the freedom to learn.

Karen Fleming started off by stating her goals for an inclusive classroom: To create a learning environment where everyone feels safe to express ideas and questions, where discussion brings multiple diverse questions and all opinions are considered, and where student experiences of marginalization are minimized. Two of the many challenges that instructors face are unconscious bias and student stereotype threat. [See presentation slides.]

Fleming noted that 99% of our cognitive processing uses unconscious reasoning. Unconscious bias stems from our experiential expectations; bias being an error in decision making. Expectation bias is grounded in stereotypes such as women are not as good at math or spatial learning; Hispanics and African Americans are lower achieving than Whites; Hispanics, African Americans, poor, and obese people are lazy; male athlete are jocks (muscular but not smart); Asians have higher math abilities; and blondes are less intelligent than brunettes. Stereotypes are cultural and both faculty and students have biases.

Fleming described a research study on science faculty and unconscious bias [Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male studentsPNAS 109: 16474-79.] The study was headed by Jo Handlesman, Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, Yale University. Fleming walked through the study details, noting that the institutions selected—research intensive universities—were geographically diverse, the demographics on faculty participants agree with national averages, and it was a randomized double-blind study (n = 127). Science faculty in biology, physics, and chemistry were asked to rate the application of a student for a lab manager position in terms of competency and hireability. Faculty participants were randomly assigned an application with a male or female name—the applications were otherwise identical and designed to reflect high but not outstanding qualifications.

Both male and female faculty participants showed gender bias by rating the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant. They were willing to offer a significantly higher starting salary (and more career mentoring) to the male applicant. And, perhaps surprisingly to women in the audience, both female and male faculty were equally likely to show gender bias favoring male applicants and to offer the female candidates a lower salary. One possible explanation? Male stereotypes meet the expectation for the lab manager position.

Slide from Karen Fleming presentation showing male and female stereotypes.Expectation bias occurs when we hold different groups accountable to different standards. When a man performs well in a traditional male-type task, this performance is expected. When a woman performs well in a traditional male-type task, this conflicts with stereotypic expectations. As a result, her performance is closely scrutinized, and she is required to repeatedly prove her competence.

We can check our biases using tests set up by Project Implicit. “Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” Look for tests on bias concerning gender, race, religion, disability, age, sexuality, weight, skin tone, and more  in the Social Attitudes section.

Fleming then discussed the issue of stereotype threat. For students, performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. And, culturally-shared stereotypes suggesting poor performance of certain groups can disrupt performance of an individual who identifies with that group. She referenced a study done by Steele and Aronson in 1995 [CM Steele and J Aronson (1995) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797-811.] At Stanford, 114 undergraduate students volunteered for the study. They were given a test composed of Verbal GRE questions. First they took a test that was presented as diagnostic, a measure of intrinsic ability, and then a test presented as non-diagnostic, a laboratory tool for studying problem solving. The results showed that invoking stereotype threat (diagnostic test) affects performance of students who identified as African-Americans in an evaluation setting. Further, having to identify their race before taking the test, “race-priming,” increases the results of stereotype effect on performance in an evaluation setting.

How can instructors be more inclusive? Fleming offers these suggestions.

  • Establish a Growth Mindset
  • Set clear, equal and high but achievable expectations for all students
  • Include material created by people of different backgrounds
  • Pay attention to group dynamics (especially compositions of small groups).

As both Fleming and Brodsky reminded the audience, instructors can change the way they teach to be more inclusive, identify their biases, and work to establish a positive classroom climate.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo (© CER), slides from Brodsky and Fleming presentations

 

Quick Tips: How to Manage Your Teaching During a Personal Crisis

There are a number of resources available to help instructors deal with teaching when an institution or our country has experienced a disaster or crisis [see TheSilhouette of a man seated with elbows on his knees suggesting despair. Innovative Instructor post Quick Tips: Teaching in Challenging Times and Facilitating Difficult Discussions, November 15, 2016], and this blog has covered how to handle student crises, real and not [The Dead Grandmother Syndrome and How to Treat It, December 7, 2016], but what happens when the death or serious illness in the family is your family?

A recent article in Faculty Focus, Teaching During a Personal Crisis (Elizabeth Barnett, February 2, 2018) deals with these issues. Barnett outlines 7 strategies, recommended by experienced colleagues and mental health professionals for teaching during a time of personal difficulty. These are: acknowledge the crisis, triage, consider telling your colleagues, consider telling your students, adjust your expectations, try new routines, protect yourself.

Telling your students may seem like the most controversial piece of advice, but Barnett says:

Wait, you say, this is totally inappropriate. And it would be if you told them in the same way as you did your colleagues, as peers. But if your performance and availability are limited due to the crisis, you can reduce guilt and minimize questions by letting them know something is going on. …[Emphasize] to your students that you don’t need help from them, you have that support elsewhere, and you only want to inform them of the situation.

In other words, you don’t need to go into the gory details, just let your students know that you are experiencing some personal issues that may affect your teaching, for example, that you may be absent, or that someone else may be filling in as instructor for some classes or handling grading of some assignments.

Barnett also offers some tips on dealing with a colleague in crisis, particularly how to listen respectfully and things that you can offer to do to help.

The article is short, but useful. If you have suggestions from your own experiences with dealing with personal crisis, please share them in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Subscribe to the STEM|PROF Newsletter

STEM|PROF Newsletter Logo.In order to keep the readers of The Innovative Instructor informed, I follow a number of blogs and read a lot of books and articles on pedagogy and instruction in higher education. Recently I became aware of a new-to-me resource that I’d like to share, the STEM|PROF weekly newsletter.

The newsletter is part of the outreach for a National Science Foundation-funded and Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning-supported longitudinal study looking at the effectiveness of professional development programs for STEM doctoral students on their early-career teaching. The website for the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars has a wealth of information on the research and related resources, including the STEM|PROF newsletter.

From the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars STEM|PROF webpage:

The Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars publishes a weekly newsletter, STEM|PROF, that helps advance the preparation of future STEM faculty as effective undergraduate instructors and mentors. STEM|PROF curates news, research, and events from four areas:

  • Teaching development for current and future STEM faculty;
  • Undergraduate STEM education;
  • Doctoral education in STEM fields; and
  • Academic career formation.

Articles cited range widely in topic and are relevant to those outside of the STEM disciplines. For example, a recent newsletter linked to an article in the Washington Post, Why we still need to study humanities in a STEM world (Valerie Strauss, October 18, 2017). Often newsletters include links to upcoming webinars and professional development opportunities. This week’s topics included a link to an article on strategies for generating discussion and engagement in large classes: Class Size Matters by Deborah J. Cohan, Inside Higher Ed, September 19, 2017. And there are links to useful teaching tools such as Icebreakers that Rock from the blog Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzalez.

To subscribe to STEM|PROF, send a blank email to join-stem-prof@lists.wisc.edu. The newsletter will be delivered to your email inbox on a weekly basis.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: STEM|PROF Newsletter Logo

Lunch and Learn: Creating Rubrics and Calibrating Multiple Graders

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, December 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 2017-2018 academic year.  Laura Foster, Academic Advisor, Public Health Studies, and Reid Mumford, Instructional Resource Advisor, Physics & Astronomy, presented on Creating Rubrics and Calibrating Multiple Graders.

Laura Foster led by giving us a demonstration of her use of Blackboard for creating rubrics. She noted that she might be “preaching to the choir” but hoped that those present might take back these best practices to their colleagues. Noting that many faculty have negative opinions of Blackboard, she put in a plug for its organizational benefits and facilitation of communication with students.

Foster started using Blackboard tools for a Public Health Studies class where she was grading student reflections. The subject matter—public health studies in the media—was outside of her field of physical chemistry. Blackboard facilitates creating a rubric that students can see when doing an assignment and the instructor then uses to grade that work. She showed the rubric detail that students see in Blackboard, and how the rubric can be used in grading. [See the CER Tutorial on Blackboard Rubrics and Rubrics-Helpful Hints] The rubric gives the students direction and assures that the instructor (or other graders) will apply the same standards across all student work.

It empowers students when they know exactly what criteria will be used in evaluating their work and how many points will be assigned to each component. Foster has found that using rubrics is an effective way to communicate assignment requirements to students, and that it helps her to clarify for herself what at the most important points. She noted that a rubric is very useful when there are multiple graders, such as Teaching Assistants (TAs), as it helps to calibrate the grading.

In response to questions from the audience, Foster stated that rubrics can be developed to cover both qualitative and quantitative elements. Developing good rubrics is an iterative process; it took her some time to sharpen her skills. There is flexibility in differentiating points allotted, but the instructor must be thoughtful, plan for a desired outcome, and communicate clearly. The rubric tool can be used to grade PDF files as well as Word documents. Foster noted that it is important to take opportunities to teach students to learn to write, learn to use technology, learn to read instructions, and learn to look at feedback given on assignments. Being transparent and explaining why you are using a particular technology will go a long way.

Reid Mumford gave his presentation on how he calibrates multiple graders (see slides). Mumford oversees the General Physics lab courses. This is a two semester, required sequence, so not all students are excited to be there. The sequences are on Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism; both labs are taught every semester with multiple sections for each course. Approximately 600 to 700 students are taking these lab sequences each semester; students are divided into sections of about 24 students. The labs are open-ended and flexible, so students aren’t filling in blanks and checking boxes, which would be easier to grade. Lab sections are taught and graded by graduate student TAs, with about 30 TAs teaching each semester. Teaching and grading styles vary among these TAs as would be expected. Clearly, calibrating their grading is a challenge.

Grades are based on the best 9 of 10 lab activities, which consist of a pre-lab quiz and a lab note. All activities are graded using the same rubric. The grading scale used can be seen in the slides. One of the criteria for grading is “style,” which allows some flexibility and qualitative assessment. Students have access to the rubric, which is also shown in the slides.

About three years ago, Mumford adopted Turnitin (TII), the plagiarism detection tool, for Screen shot of Quick Mark grading tool.its efficient grading tools. It works well for his use because it is integrated with Blackboard. TII does its job in detecting cheating (and Mumford noted that lots of students are cheating), but it is the grading tools that are really important for the TAs. TAs are encouraged to be demanding in their grading and leave a lot of feedback, so grading takes them two to four hours each week. TII’s Feedback Studio (formerly known as GradeMark) allows TAs to accomplish their mission. [See CER tutorial on Feedback Studio and The Innovative Instructor post on GradeMark.] It was the QuickMark feature that sold Mumford on Feedback Studio and TII grading. Using the rubric for each activity, QuickMark can be pre-populated with commonly-used comments, which can then be dragged and dropped onto the student’s submitted work.

Graph showing General Physics Laboratory Section Grading Trends.These tools helped make the grading load more efficient, but calibrating the multiple graders was another challenge. Mumford found that the TAs need lots of feedback on their grading. Each week he downloads all the grades from Blackboard grade centers. He creates a plot that shows the average score for the weekly lab assignment. Outliers to the average scores are identified and these TAs are counseled so that their grading can be brought into line. Mumford also looks at section grading trends and can see which sections are being graded more leniently or harshly than average. He works with those TAs to standardize their grading.

In calculating final grades for the course, Mumford keeps three points in mind: final letter grades must be calculated, there should be no “easy” or “hard” sections of lab, and distribution should not vary (significantly) between sections. He makes use of per-section mapping and uses average and standard deviation to map results to a final letter grade model. Mumford noted that students are made aware, repeatedly, of the model being used. He is very transparent—everything is explained in the syllabus and reiterated weekly in lab sessions.

In conclusion, Mumford offered these take-aways:

  • Calibrating Multiple Graders is not easy
  • Tools are needed to handle multiple sections efficiently
  • Rubrics help but do not solve the calibration problem
  • Regular feedback to graders is essential
  • Limit of the system: student standing is ambiguous

In the future Mumford plans to give students a better understanding of course standing, to calculate a per-section curve each week, and to overcome some technical issues and the greater time investment that will be required with weekly calibrating and rescaling.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo, slides from Mumford presentation

Thinking about Accessibility Part 2

Four universal signs for disabilities: wheelchair access, hearing access, captioning, visual accession. Signs are white on blue background.Last week ‘s post summarized the first part of an important article by Anne-Marie Womack, Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi, College Composition and Communication, February 2017. Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, encourages instructors to rethink accommodation as normative rather than an exception to a rule.

The second part of the essay focuses on creating an accessible syllabus both in theory and in practice by “moving from syllabus as contract to syllabus as accommodation.” This can be accomplished in a number of ways, starting by not limiting the notion of accommodation to a paragraph stating the institutional disability policy. Syllabi are often heavy on text and present inflexible policies written in a punitive and/or defensive tone. Womack suggests instead that instructors strive to create accessible documents that engage students with “cooperative language” and flexibility in assignments. She does acknowledge that it is important to consider the particular student audience in designing a syllabus—one solution doesn’t fit all. Instead, she suggests three strategies.

The first strategy is Creating Accessible Document Design. Reducing the amount of text in your syllabus is the primary consideration. Womack starts with the boilerplate policies that may be required by the institution, school, or department. Such information may be reduced to basics, linked to, or included at the end in an appendix. Other information can be provided during the semester as it is needed, e.g., assignment specifics, writing prompts.

How the text is formatted can make a big difference—Womack suggests trading some text for accessible images. This will necessitate the creation of alternative text (alt text) to describe the image for those who use screen readers. She suggests that alt text be “focused on data, not extraneous visual details.” Since images can introduce color that may not be visible to all readers, there are guidelines for best practices. (I’ve included some resources for creating accessible images and documents at the end of this post.) Womack shows examples of how she converted her syllabus from text heavy to accessible by using images, blocks of text, bulleted lists, and icons, and increasing the amount of white space. Using a larger font size and a san serif font will also improve readability. Your goal is to “make the syllabus user-friendly” because you want your students to use it. Other tips include creating a table of contents for improved navigation, making internal hyperlinks to connect items within the syllabus, using headings to establish hierarchy, bolding text to emphasize key ideas.

The second strategy Womack advocates is Engaging Students with Cooperative Language. You want to convey “approachability and empathy” rather than making students feel uncomfortable requesting accommodations. Don’t focus on negative consequences and punitive rules. Instead look at inclusive practices in your syllabus as a means to engage student cooperation.

Womack suggests beginning with an “inclusive learning statement” and offers an example:

Your success in this class is important to me. We will all need accommodations because we all learn differently. If there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning or that form barriers to your inclusion, please let me know as soon as possible. Together we’ll develop strategies that can enable you to succeed in the course.

I encourage you to visit the Office of Disability Services to determine how you could improve your learning as well. If you need official accommodations, you have a right to have these met. There is also a range of resources on campus, including the Writing Center, Tutoring Center, and Academic Advising Center. (Figure 5, p.513).

Further, she gives examples of positive versus punitive language, commands versus invitations, and cooperative versus paternalistic language.

The third strategy is labeled Empowering Students through Flexible Course Plans. Womack saw that “traditional accommodations, such as longer time and adaptable assessment, provide a starting point to improve course practices.” Citing a number of research studies, she states that students are more motivated to learn when they feel they have autonomy. Womack suggests ways in which instructors can give students control. She discusses allowing students flexibility in deadlines. Her approach combines student-set and instructor-set deadlines, which allows an extended time-frame but prevents students from falling behind. Low-stakes writing assignments and incremental assignments may also provide flexibility. Minimal grading for some of this work is recommended. Womack also examines building flexibility into grading distributions. She focuses on those which work well for her writing courses, including contract grading where a system of assessment is negotiated. While this aspect of flexibility may be more difficult to incorporate into large lecture courses, the point is that assessments and grading should be carefully considered. Allowing students to drop the lowest grade in a series of quizzes or homeworks is an easy means of allowing students flexibility and control in a larger class.

In concluding Womack reminds us that accommodation does not give disabled students an unfair advantage; “it is more likely all students have been given an unfair disadvantage through inaccessible pedagogy.” We should look at the “best versions of accommodation” as a way of teaching inclusively to a diverse audience and adapting in response to individual needs.

While Womack offers some good examples in her essay, there are some great resources with “how-to” guides available. Womack created a website at Tulane University on making an accessible syllabus that frequently cited, but alas, no longer “accessible.” However, you can view an archived image of the site here.

If you are someone who likes video tutorials, the University of Minnesota Accessible U has a series of video tutorials on creating an accessible syllabus and making accessible documents and accessible PDFs.

You will also want to check out the University of Colorado Boulder Universally Designed Syllabus Materials website “to employ best practices when creating a course syllabus.” Some of the material is UC system-specific, but much of the information is widely applicable.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Thinking about Accessibility Part 1

Four universal signs for disabilities: wheelchair access, hearing access, captioning, visual accession. Signs are white on blue background.Often I read an article or blog post and suddenly find that I am falling down a rabbit hole. Hours, or even days, later I emerge, having uncovered a wealth of information and resources that have to be edited down in order to present a reasonably digestible overview of a topic for you readers. Such was the case with David Gooblar’s post Now is the Time to Think About Accessibility on his Chronicle Vitae Pedagogy Unbound blog (August 8, 2017). From the links in his article, I went on to discover other great material on accessibility to share—enough good stuff for two posts. This first post will cover thinking about accessibility in your classroom in general; next will be a follow-up post focused on creating an accessible syllabus and other documents for your class.

Gooblar starts off by noting that for many instructors, accessibility is given a brief mention at the end of the syllabus and then forgotten. Accessibility is seen as “an exception to the norm” and given little thought. He then notes an article by Anne-Marie Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, which takes issue with that way of “conceptualizing accessibility.”

Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi (College Composition and Communication, February 2017) by Anne-Marie Womack should be required reading for all higher ed instructors. [Note: if the link does not work, try copying and pasting this URL directly into your browser: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0683-feb2017/CCCC0683Teaching.pdf.] It is an important document that asks us to rethink disability and academic accommodations. She starts by discussing “contemporary theories of disability to retheorize accommodation as the process of teaching itself.” Womack provides a history of disability law and American institutions of higher education, noting that students today must “pass substantial hurdles to qualify for accommodations” often at the risk of being stigmatized. Faculty, who may receive little institutional support, come to feel that they are the ones burdened by the process. Any resulting pedagogical changes are seen as affecting only the students with disabilities.

Womack argues that resistance to accommodation by university administration and faculty assumes that accommodations are an exception to a rule, to a best practice, or normal way of teaching. Womack states, “Ultimately, though, there is no normal, primary way of learning, only normalized methods made primary through frequent use. Material always changes as it moves from expert to novice. Every act of teaching is an accommodation because it creates certain conditions for students to learn and display learning.” Even though effective student learning means that the material is accessible, instructors have come to feel that “making material accessible to disabled students threatens academic rigor.”

Seen from another vantage point, inclusive teaching means eliminating barriers to learning, not eliminating intellectual challenges. Womack says, “Accommodation is the most basic act and art of teaching. It is not the exception we sometimes make in spite of learning, but rather the adaptations we continually make to promote learning.” She advocates accommodation of disabled students within a universal design framework.

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” Universal design is good for everyone. In your classroom, Womack suggests, for example, considering guidelines for dyslexic and blind readers, working under the assumption that by creating documents that more students can read, more students will read. She warns, however, that universal design must be used as a process, not to negate the need for accommodations, but to start to negotiate the means to accessibility for all.

In my next post I will look at the second part of Womack’s article, which provides suggestions for creating accessible documents, engaging students by using “cooperative language” and building flexibility into your course to empower students. “If instructors see the syllabus through the lens of disability, then the question becomes not how policies protect a normative standard but how far they extend inclusion.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

The Open Faculty Patchbook: An OER on Pedagogy

We are seeing an increased interest in Open Educational Resources (OER) in our library and among faculty. [See Consider the OER an Innovative Instructor blog post by Marian Feldman, November 7, 2016.] What is an OER? Wikipedia defines open educational resources as being “freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes.”

With the skyrocketing costs of textbooks used in higher education, colleges have responded to student demand by instituting programs to support the production of OER texts, especially for discipline-standard introductory courses. There is a listing of OER initiatives, resources, and projects on the SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) website. The Open Education Consortium also lists OER initiatives, including a list of open textbooks.

Image resembles a patchwork quilt with 26 hexagonal patches, each with a stylized image of a person representing the authors of the articles making up the book.By happenstance, I came across an OER written by faculty for faculty on pedagogy. The Open Faculty Patchbook was created by faculty at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario.  The Learning Design and Support Team at Fleming was tasked in 2016 with revising the faculty development model. Inspired by a presentation given by Robin DeRosa at the 2016 Open Education Conference in Richmond, Virginia, the team decided to create a how-to teach manual. They came up with the metaphor of a quilt, with each contributor creating a “patch” to add to the “community quilt of pedagogy.” Currently, there are 21 pieces describing how instructors do their work. Topics include cohort-based-learning, teaching within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, activating students’ background knowledge, formative assessments, facilitating deep learning, laboratory assessments, co-teaching, group work, and more.

The Patchbook was initially designed to cover the University of Michigan’s School of Education High Leverage Practices, which are described as “…the basic fundamentals of teaching. These practices are used constantly and are critical to helping students learn important content. The high-leverage practices are also central to supporting students’ social and emotional development. These high-leverage practices are used across subject areas, grade levels, and contexts. They are “high-leverage” not only because they matter to student learning but because they are basic for advancing skill in teaching.”

The patches in the Open Faculty Patchbook are relatively short, making this an easy to digest guidebook. It is also open to contributors for additional patches. At the end of the current book is the statement: “Future versions planned include ones focused on professional learning, digital pedagogy (online learning) and course design. If you would like to contribute, email ldsteam@flemingcollege.ca with the subject heading ‘I’m awesome. I want to add a Patch’. Your patch, when complete, would immediately appear on our WordPress site facultypatchbook.wordpress.com and be added to a Pressbook publication.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Open Faculty Patchbook