A Faculty Follow-up Discussion: Re-engaging Students for the Fall Semester

On Tuesday, November 8th, the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (CTEI) hosted a discussion on re-engaging students for the fall semester. At faculty request, this discussion was a continuation of one initially held in August, when participants explored the challenges they faced with the return to in-person teaching in Spring semester 2022. During that session, faculty offered potential ways to address disengagement in a student population who reported high levels of “stress, fatigue, and anxiety” in a post-pandemic world.male student staring at his computer This phenomenon has been noted in many media outlets, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently hosted a webinar on addressing student disengagement and summarized it in a follow-up article. Mike Reese, Associate Dean and Director of the CTEI, moderated the conversation.  

The session kicked-off with instructors offering their general sense about how student engagement in their Fall courses compared to their Spring courses. The overall assessment was that problems remained, though there were some bright spots:  

  • One instructor noted that attendance in his course’s Friday session, led by teaching assistants, was down almost 50% in the recent week.  
  • Another noted that Fall was “a little bit” better than Spring, when she was still teaching online via Zoom, but she continued to observe a lot of “struggle” among her students, exacerbated by a lack of knowledge of how to address it.  
  • One participant, who regularly polled his students on their overall well-being on a scale from one to five with five being the highest score, said he was seeing a lot of ones and twos among his students. However, he started this practice during the pandemic so he didn’t have any pre-pandemic data to baseline the response.  
  • A fourth participant had observed that her students’ behavior was better, but they also had large gaps in their subject-matter knowledge due to the instructional disruptions incurred by the pandemic. 

Time management issues quickly became the dominant topic when one faculty member pointed out that this was a particular problem for his students. Other participants also offered examples of students struggling with time management; one faculty member said that she had received a lot of requests for extensions from students who admitted these were due to poor time management, and another said that she observed an all-senior class – usually a population with a good sense of time management –also contending with this issue.group of students socializing The reason for this, attendees speculated, may have to do with the full return to on-site courses and residential campus life. Students may be excited to dive back into campus life, trying to take advantage of opportunities, like lab-based research, not available during the pandemic, and becoming over-committed as a result. Another reason offered was that the time management skills needed to negotiate pandemic life and instruction needed to be re-adjusted for more typical university life.   

The post-pandemic gap in content-specific knowledge, particularly in the STEM disciplines, has prompted some academic programs to start looking at ways to make changes to their large introductory or gateway courses. One participant said her program was looking to make data-based adjustments informed by placement tests, in-person attendance at office hours, and data from Canvas classrooms and learning-support software, such as ALEKS. 

As a group, the participants generated several useful ideas to enhance engagement in both large lecture-style courses and smaller seminar courses:  

  • Increasing structure for small-group discussions in large classrooms: One instructor had added question prompts and a pre-identified spokesperson to her small-group break-out discussions to increase student focus, participation, and output during these sessions.  
  • Flipping one class meeting a week to start homework: Another instructor had flipped one class meeting a week to provide students with a pre-determined timeslot in which to start their homework each week and receive real-time instructional feedback. This helped students with time management and on-time completion of the homework.  
  • Requiring a one-to-one meeting outside class: An attendee required that seminar students meet with him one-on-one at least once outside of class, which helped build relationships and comfort with class participation.  
  • Requiring student socialization outside class: A participant volunteered onegroup of students smiling approach that she heard about via the Chronicle Webinar: to require that students meet and socialize outside of class twice a month to work on “conversation fundamentals” – how to have a balanced conversation, how to use open-ended questions – to build “social sophistication and stamina” in in-person environments post-pandemic. 
  • Mid-semester surveys: Two instructors distributed mid-semester surveys to students that specifically targeted issues of classroom engagement, and one queried participants about their time-on-task for assignments and activities. Though survey participation was low in one course, both instructors were reviewing and integrating appropriate feedback.  
  • Panels of former students: One attendee noted that he had invited a panel of former students to talk about their experiences in the class and what contributed to their success. The credibility of the speakers and the authenticity of the guidance resonated with the current students.  
  • Strategic use of Learning Assistants or Course Assistants: Some instructors in large or introductory courses used Learning Assistants or Course Assistants – undergraduate students successful in the subject area who are trained to provide in-class instructional support – to scale up instructional reach and feedback. These assistants had been particularly crucial in courses that needed more hands-on instructional support, structure, and feedback.    

Many instructors found themselves structuring tasks and activities for students that, pre-pandemic, may not have required direct guidance and direction. Given this need, the importance of student meta-cognition – knowing how to learn something – was raised, which resulted in the following suggestions:       

  • Using learning science data to persuade students: One participant noted that her students were very responsive to research-based arguments. When she offered students evidence-based examples of effective ways to learn (she cited  The Learning Scientists blog as a good source of information), they responded affirmatively to these suggestions. Leveraging learning science research when suggesting better ways to study – retain, recall, and synthesize content – might be one way to help bolster meta-cognition.  
  • Building in self-reflection on effective learning approaches: An attendee recommended integrating opportunities for students to self-reflect on the usefulness of teaching interventions, such as the one-course-meeting-a-week flipped classroom for starting homework. Such reflection on why a certain approach worked (in this case, in-class time dedicated to starting homework with in-person instructional feedback) may help students build (or re-build) their meta-cognitive muscles.  

The conversation turned to tools that could support both targeted in-class instruction and meta-cognition skill development. Brian Cole, Associate Director of the CTEI, said that he had been investigating different technologies that would enable real-time assessment of content comprehension and upvoting of particularly confusing content areas. Melo Yap, the new Sr. Educational Research Consultant at the CTEI, volunteered Kahoot as a tool that could offer such flexibility. 

 A faculty member suggested developing a toolkit with proven meta-cognitive strategies that could be inserted into the Canvas sections of each course. Instructors and students could access this toolkit on-demand and integrate into it their course design for both “just-in-time” support (e.g., before a high-stakes test) and more long-term development. The CTEI offered to collect any already-available guidance to help students learn more effectively in an effort to start collating this information in one place.  

Caroline Egan
Caroline Egan is a Project Manager in the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, supporting instructional training and development for Hopkins faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and staff.

Mike Reese
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation and associate teaching professor in Sociology.

Image Source: Unsplash

Faculty Discussion: Re-engaging Students for the Fall Semester

The return to in-person teaching last year brought with it a high degree of uncertainty for students and faculty. Professors reported that stress, fatigue, and anxiety contributed to higher levels of student disengagement, disconnection, and languishing than in pre-pandemic courses. college students in lecture hallFaculty at other schools reported similar trends with several articles and essays published in the NY Times and Chronicle of Higher Education over the past several months. At faculty’s request, the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (CTEI) hosted a discussion for instructors to share their experiences and brainstorm solutions for Fall 2022 and beyond. Over thirty instructors participated. Brian Cole, Associate Director of the CTEI, moderated the discussion.

Faculty attendees reported that students seemed to struggle transitioning from online classes to in-person classes last spring. One person shared that colleagues at other institutions were reporting the same concerns. The behaviors described included students:

  • expressing concerns about being prepared for high-stakes exams
  • regularly being distracted by devices during class
  • skipping class more frequently than before the pandemic
  • requesting more mental health accommodations
  • acting more aggressively toward  instructors (One instructor said this behavior is more likely seen by instructors of certain races and gender.)

Participants felt these behaviors could be traced to several sources. The pandemic was traumatic for many students suffering from social isolation and the stress of living under the threat of COVID. Faculty also felt some students were not as prepared for their classes because pre-requisite college classes or high school courses were online and employed pass-fail grading schemas. Other instructors reported students feeling stressed about other global events (e.g., political polarization, Ukraine war).  While the pandemic may be fading or becoming normalized, faculty shared that other stressors are constants that continue to weigh on students.

This led to a discussion about when it was appropriate for faculty to engage students about their stress and anxiety over global crises. Instructors teaching in the social sciences can more easily integrate discussions of current events into their curriculum. Is it appropriate for faculty in science and engineering to dedicate class time to social stressors that affect students? Most participants said yes. Several shared they provide opportunities for students to talk about current events that may impact them and ask students openly, “How are you doing? What’s going on with your peers?” to give them space to talk. stressed out male student looking at his laptop Several faculty participants asked for advice on how to set boundaries on the amount of time to dedicate to these discussions during class and what types of topics to discuss. Those that dedicate class time to talking about global issues or student mental health concerns felt it was appropriate to occasionally dedicate 15 minutes of class time to connect with students and build relationships with them. As for topics, instructors should choose topics they are comfortable discussing.

Another source of stress mentioned was the number of hours students are working. One professor shared he has seen an increase in students trying to work full time while attending school. It’s not a large number, but definitely an increase that was likely precipitated by the flexible schedules during COVID when classes were more likely to be asynchronous. Another instructor shared that she observed an increase in students working part-time jobs during COVID. She felt it was important to be more explicit with students about expectations for deadlines and the time it takes to complete assignments to help students balance working outside of class. However, many participants felt it was not appropriate for students to work full-time. Another instructor reported an increase in students continuing summer internships into the academic year. Students see this as a pathway to a job after graduation and are motivated to continue working. This may be a good opportunity, but again, faculty are concerned students are overcommitted.

Some faculty record their lectures for students to review later, while others questioned if this would result in students skipping class. Several faculty responded with strategies to encourage students to attend. These included using activities that motivate students to show up and awarding points for participating in those activities.  One instructor said he records the videos, but shares them with students only upon request. If a student is regularly requesting them and not showing up for class, he engages them to learn more about why they are skipping to address any issues. He shares all of the videos with students the week before the exam. Another instructor said she has recorded her lectures for 15 years, and uses activities to encourage student attendance and engagement with each other. She stresses, “I’m not the only person in the room. You also learn from the other students when you are here.”

Another instructor asked if recording the class discourages students from asking questions. Two instructors responded it did not affect behavior in their classes, but that could be because they teach large courses so students are generally less likely to ask questions during class meetings.

While the pandemic was stressful for everyone, faculty reported it provided opportunities to experiment with new teaching strategies. Many are now trying to evaluate which changes to keep or drop. One instructor said their decision is based on the time required to implement the strategy and its impact on student learning.students doing an activity with post-it notes on a whiteboard Another instructor said she offered more low-stakes assessments while teaching online. She felt this helped reduce the stress of high-stakes assessments, but she is now considering if she is requiring too much of students. The value of offering more low-stakes assessments is that students get more regular feedback throughout the semester.

Another instructor is hearing from students that instructors are assigning more applied learning assignments that leverage technology (e.g., arcGIS) which require significantly more time to complete. While it’s good to have interdisciplinary projects and collaborate with other groups, such as data services at the university, we need to remember that this also requires students to work with different groups and learn additional skills, all of which take time.

Overall, faculty felt the goal is not to penalize disengagement, but to encourage students to engage. Faculty participants shared additional strategies to address student disengagement which are summarized below:

  • Eliminate online tools for the course that are not critical.
  • Offer asynchronous work days. This is not an off day, but a chance to work on class assignments.  One instructor shared that students really liked having a day to work on their projects.
  • Clearly communicate expectations for class (e.g., assignment deadlines, pre-class work expectations) on a regular basis and in multiple modalities (e.g., verbally in class, on Canvas, via class email).
  • Build in flexibility to assignment deadlines. One instructor allows students to skip up to two assignments, and their grade is replaced by the average of the existing assignments.
  • Another instructor shared a similar approach: she does not permit any extensions on homework even if a student is sick, however, she replaces missing grades with the average of the other assignments if the student presents a viable excuse for missing the deadline. The instructor uses this approach because it allows her to share the homework solutions immediately after the deadline while students are still intellectually engaged with the assignment.
  • Another instructor builds in quizzes related to the homework to encourage students to look at it early. For example, the day after homework is posted, students are presented with a quiz asking them to describe what the homework is asking them to do. They don’t need to solve it, but it motivates them to look at it early instead of waiting until the last day when they will have less time to get help.
  • Consider using the discussion board in Canvas or encourage students to attend office hours if you don’t want to dedicate class time to check in with them.
  • Share wellness resources from JHU including the Student Well-being blog about talking with students about current events: https://wellbeing.jhu.edu/blog/. They also provide a page for dealing with more acute issues when students are in distress: https://wellbeing.jhu.edu/resources/faculty-staff/
  • Consider limiting the use of devices (phones, laptops, etc.) to minimize distractions during class.
  • Share mental health resources with your students including Mental Telehealth (free counseling via video chat), Calm app (great for sleep, focus, mindfulness), A Place to Talk (peer listening), Stress and Depression Questionnaire (10minute confidential assessment with feedback w/in 48 hours from a Hopkins clinician).
  • Share how you manage your stress to demonstrate that students are not the only ones dealing with these issues. One participant said, “We might feel it, but if we don’t say it, they don’t know it. If you talk about it, then you open up a space for students to talk about their own stressors.”
  • Consult inclusive teaching practices and Hopkins Universal Design for Learning resources which can help instructors build flexibility into their teaching. One instructor said that being flexible includes building in processing time to help students prepare for their assignments. This includes emotional processing time on difficult topics.

female student smiling in classroom with other studentsClare Lochary from the Office of Student Health and Wellbeing shared that the Counseling Center sees two clear spikes in incoming clients each semester. The first is six weeks into the semester when students begin to realize they aren’t doing as well as they want in their courses. The second  is during the last two weeks of the semester as they prepare for final papers and exams. Faculty should be aware of these cycles and pay special attention to student behavior  so they can refer students to help resources or address concerns about academic performance.

Mike Reese
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation and associate teaching professor in Sociology.

Image Source: Unsplash

Lunch and Learn: Inclusive Pedagogy

On Tuesday, October 19, 2021, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted a virtual Lunch and Learn: Inclusive Pedagogy. Karen Fleming, Professor in Biophysics, and Mike Reese, Associate Teaching Professor in Sociology and CER director, each presented strategies that are important to them in helping to make their classes more inclusive:

  • Recognize that everyone comes from a different place with different experiences. Fleming mentioned The Privileged Poor, a book by Anthony Jack, that addresses the struggles faced by less privileged students after being admitted to elite universities. She explained that taking students’ backgrounds into consideration and embracing differences is vital to their success.
  • Try to instill a growth mindset. In her teaching, Fleming acknowledges to her students that the work is difficult, it can be a struggle at times, and it’s ok if you don’t get it right the first time – this is all part of learning. She tells her students that everyone has unlimited potential and encourages them to keep practicing and they will come away with new skills. Fleming stressed the importance of trying to get students to internalize this way of thinking and offers her students a great deal of positive reinforcement throughout the semester.
  • Show the humanity of science and diversify materials. Fleming described how she makes an effort to showcase diverse scientists who are working in the field – people of color, women, etc. Students need to see role models and images of people that look like them. Like Fleming, Reese explained how he also makes an effort to display photos of diverse experts in the fields as he discusses key findings or theories in sociology..
  • Learn students’ names. Reese acknowledged this can be a challenge if the class is large. He suggested instructors print out the student photo roster from SIS and/or bring tented name cards to the first class for students to display on their desks (if teaching in person) to help learn names. Reese stated that students are more engaged and come to office hours more often when he makes an effort to learn their names.
  • Use non-competitive grading strategies. Reese noted that this was one of the recommendations in JHU’s Second Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE2) report. Using straight grading, rather than curved, is one example. Another example is to add a standard number of points to every students final score if they overall average is lower than expected, which might suggest the test was more challenging than intended.
  • Conduct a mid-semester survey. Reese described how he administers a brief mid-semester survey that is anonymous. He tells students ahead of time that he may not be able to address every concern, but will do his best to support them. Once submitted, he summarizes the results for students and outlines any changes he plans to make.
  • Explain the purpose of different components in your class. Reese gave the example of something basic like office hours. First generation students may not understand the purpose or value of office hours – it is a chance to ask for help but also discuss career goals with instructors. Taking the time to explain resources that are available to students has proven very useful.
  • Follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is an approach to designing instruction in flexible ways in order to reduce barriers to learning. For example, instructors can provide alternatives when giving an assessment – some students may take an exam, others may submit a paper, etc. Reese acknowledged that this often means more work on his end, as he will be grading different types of assignments. He noted that although the format may be different, he is assessing students according to the same learning objectives.

The presentation continued with faculty attendees offering comments and suggestions of their own:

  • One faculty member explained how she thinks very carefully about what language she uses with students to mitigate her own implicit biases. She thinks about how certain words (i.e. binary language) may unintentionally signal something to students and is careful to avoid this whenever possible. Fleming agreed and stated how important it is that we all regularly examine our own biases; we should be open with students and let them know we are making an effort to communicate without bias. Reese mentioned the Harvard implicit bias test which is a tool that can help all of us discover our own hidden biases.
  • Another faculty member shared how she has found success with specifications grading to help instill a growth mindset. With specifications grading, students have multiple chances to succeed and are given lots of feedback to help them reach their goals. The faculty member also pointed out that using specifications grading is another example of a non-competitive grading strategy as students are only graded on the work they choose to complete.
  • An engineering faculty member has made an effort to proactively host events that feature speakers of varied races, cultures, and identities in order to show students who make up this particular field of study.
  • Another faculty member stressed the importance of using live captions and how beneficial they are to students and how much students appreciate them.

Towards the end, there were a few questions from the audience:

Q:  Regarding growth mindset, what exactly do you say to students?

A: Fleming responded that she tells her students everyone can be successful with whatever task they are working on, that practice is important, and failure is ok. Some students feel that if they don’t succeed quickly, they are a failure and may lose motivation to persist on difficult topics. She described how she explains the process to students like a journey – you will get to a better place than you are now and you will become more confident with time and practice. Fleming gives her students lots of encouragement throughout the semester.

Reese added that he consistently provides feedback to students throughout the semester and continually shows them examples of their success.

Q: What about students’ own biases? This comes up in teaching evaluations.

A: Fleming explained how she includes a discussion about implicit bias with her students at the beginning of the semester. She tries to make her class a positive, inclusive environment and asks that students do the same by honoring and respecting others’ opinions. She also discusses stereotypes of scientists and asks students not to evaluate her in that way.

Q: I find that most of the time, female students do not speak up. What can we do about this?

A: Reese responded that if working in groups,  a best practice is to ensure no group contains a minority of underrepresented minorities. For example, with groups of 3 there should be 0,2, or 3 woman in each group. He also suggested giving students multiple ways to participate, such as sharing questions through different modalities (email, chat, raising their hand to comment).

Q: Can we expand the time on assessments to accommodate everyone?

A: Reese replied yes, giving everyone more time will lower the pressure for everyone on that assessment. However, there are rules that still need to be followed. Reese suggested working with Student Disability Services if there are specific questions about accommodating students. Another option would be to allow students an alternative to a timed assessment.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Lunch and Learn Logo, Pixabay

 

Quick Tips: Alternative Assessments

Throughout the past year and a half, instructors have made significant changes to the way they design and deliver their courses. The sudden shift to being fully remote, then hybrid, and now back to face-to-face for some courses has required instructors to rethink not only the way they teach, but also the way they assess their students. Many who have previously found success with traditional tests and exams are now seeking alternative forms of assessment, some of which are described below:

Homework assignments: Adding more weight to homework assignments is one way to take the pressure off of high stakes exams while keeping students engaged with course material. Homework assignments will vary according to the subject, but they may include answering questions from a chapter in a textbook, writing a summary of a reading or topic discussed in class, participating in an online discussion board, writing a letter, solving a problem set, etc.

Research paper:  Students can apply their knowledge by writing a research paper. To help ensure a successful outcome, a research paper can be set up as a scaffolded assignment, where students turn in different elements of the paper, such as a proposal, an outline, first and second drafts, bibliography, etc. throughout the semester, and then the cumulative work at the end.

Individual or group presentations: Student presentations can be done live for the class or prerecorded ahead of time using multimedia software (e.g., Panopto, VoiceThread) that can be viewed asynchronously. Depending on the subject matter, presentations may consist of a summary of content, a persuasive argument, a demonstration, a case study, an oral report, etc. Students can present individually or in groups.

Reflective paper or journal: Reflective exercises allow students to analyze what they have learned and experienced and how these experiences relate to their learning goals. Students develop an awareness of how they best acquire knowledge and can apply these metacognitive skills to both academic and non-academic settings. Reflective exercises can be guided or unguided and may include journaling, self-assessment, creating a concept map, writing a reflective essay, etc.

Individual or group projects: Student projects may be short-term, designed in a few weeks, or long-term, designed over an entire semester or more. If the project is longer term, it may be a good idea to provide checkpoints for students to check in about their progress and make sure they are meeting deadlines. Ideas for student projects include: creating a podcast, blog, interactive website, interactive map, short film, digital simulation, how-to guide, poster, interview, infographic, etc. Depending on the circumstances, it may be possible for students to partner with a community-based organization as part of their project. Another idea is to consider allowing students to propose their own project ideas.

Online Tests and Exams: For instructors who have moved their tests online, it may be worth considering lowering the stakes of these assessments.  Instead of high-stakes midterms and finals, replace them with weekly quizzes that are weighted lower than a traditional midterm or final. Giving more frequent assessments allows for additional opportunities to provide feedback to students and help them reach their goals successfully. To reduce the potential for cheating, include questions that are unique and require higher-level critical thinking. Another consideration is to allow at least some of the quizzes to be open-book.

It’s worth noting that offering students a variety of ways to demonstrate their knowledge aligns with the principles of universal design for learning (UDL). Going beyond traditional tests and exams helps to ensure that all learners have an opportunity to show what they have learned in a way that works best for them. If you’re looking for more ideas, here are a few sites containing additional alternative assessment strategies:

https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/post/alternatives-to-the-traditional-exam-as-measures-of-student-learning-outcomes

https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/course-design-guide/design-effective-assessments/alternatives-traditional-testing

https://cei.umn.edu/alternative-assessment-strategies

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Strategies for an Inclusive Classroom

This summer, the Center for Educational Resources offered a multi-day Best Practices in University Teaching workshop for JHU faculty to learn about evidence-based teaching practices. Participants explored topics such as best practices in course design, active learning strategies, and various assessment techniques. One of the many sessions that generated a great deal of discussion was the Inclusive Pedagogy session, which addressed the importance of accommodating the needs of diverse learners in a supportive environment.  The session was led by Dr. Karen Fleming, a professor in the Biophysics department who is also nationally recognized for her efforts in raising awareness on overcoming biases and barriers to women in STEM.  I played a small role in the presentation by providing a brief introduction and overview of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a research-based educational framework that helps remove unnecessary barriers from the learning process.

During the session, participants were encouraged to examine their own biases by reflecting on an unconscious bias test they took just before the session. Many were clearly dismayed by their own results; Fleming reassured them that we all have biases and that accepting this fact is the first step in addressing them.  She then shared a real-world example of unconscious bias toward women in STEM that is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The shocking results of this study, which show that even women faculty in STEM display a preferential bias toward males over females, resulted in an engaging discussion. The dialogue continued as participants then debriefed about a video they watched, also before the session, which featured a teaching assistant (TA) stereotyping various students as he welcomed them to class.  The video was intentionally exaggerated at times, and participants were eager to point out the “over the top” behavior exhibited by the TA. Participants were inspired to share personal experiences of bias, prejudice, and stereotyping that they’ve encountered in the classroom either as students or instructors.

Toward the end of the session, the focus shifted to thinking about strategies that would mitigate instances of biased behavior and instead encourage a more inclusive classroom environment. hands reaching toward each otherAs a culminating exercise, we asked participants to consider the principles of UDL as well as ideas and discussions from earlier in the session to complete an “Inclusive Strategies Worksheet;” the worksheet would contain concrete strategies that would make a measurable difference in terms of inclusivity in their classrooms. The participants were very thoughtful in their responses and several of their ideas are worth sharing:

  • Administer a pre- or early-semester survey to get to know the students and build community.
  • Include a “campus climate” section in the syllabus with language expressing a commitment to respecting diverse opinions and being inclusive.
  • On the first day of class, have students create a “Community Agreement” to establish ground rules for class discussions, online discussions, and group activities. This can be revisited throughout the semester to adjust what is working/not working.
  • Acknowledge that there may be uncomfortable moments as we face mistakes and hold each other and ourselves accountable. Encourage students to “call in” when mistakes (intentional or not) occur, rather than “call out” or “cancel” so that we may learn from each other.
  • Work collaboratively with students to develop rubrics for assignments.
  • Include authors and guest speakers with varied cultures, backgrounds, and identities. Include images, readings, examples, and other course materials that are diversified. If opportunities are limited, have students do a reflective exercise on who/what is missing from the research.
  • Share content with students in multiple ways: research papers, videos, images, graphs, blog entries, etc.
  • Increase the number of active learning activities to enrich the learning experience.
  • Offer options to students: vary the types of assignments given and allow for a choice of ways to demonstrate knowledge among students when possible.
  • Follow accessibility guidelines: ensure video/audio recordings have closed captioning and/or a transcript, for example.
  • Create opportunities for students to discuss their lived experiences in the classroom and/or on assignments.
  • Provide opportunities for students to participate anonymously without fear of judgement (i.e. using iClickers or Jamboard).
  • Conduct activities that engage students in small groups so they get to know one another. Encourage students to use these connections to identify study partners. Consider switching groups throughout the semester so students meet additional partners.

Do you have additional strategies to share? Please feel free to add them in the comments.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Best Practices in University Teaching Logo, Pixabay

Lunch and Learn: Working with Teaching Assistants

Lunch and Learn LogoOn December 16, 2020, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted a Lunch and Learn: Working with Teaching Assistants (TAs). Rebecca Pearlman, Senior Lecturer in Biology, and Reid Mumford, Instructional Resource Advisor in Physics and Astronomy, shared strategies for how to best work with TAs to support student learning. Mike Reese from the CER moderated the discussion.

Pearlman manages a mix of graduate and undergraduate level TAs in the Biology department each semester and has worked with hundreds of TAs during her career at Hopkins. Mumford manages approximately 30 graduate level TAs each semester as well as a group of undergraduate learning assistants who help with classroom tasks but do not take part in grading. The following is a combined list of strategies that the presenters shared during the presentation:

  • Set clear expectations – This could include a contract, job overview, checklist of duties, etc.
  • Provide tips for TAs so they are prepared for the semester – This may include training documents, resources, and tools they will need.
  • Take advantage of technology – Google Forms for identifying availability, Doodle polls for arranging meetings, Blackboard site to store answer keys, Slack/MS Teams to communicate among the instructional team.
  • Build community – Take an interest in the TAs and get to know them. This helps to establish positive relationships between the instructor and TAs and among the TAs themselves.
  • Meet weekly – Review upcoming course content, monitor progress of each section, ensure TAs understand their upcoming tasks. Mumford also uses his weekly meetings to provide feedback and encouragement to the TAs.
  • Designate a head TA, if possible – If you have a large number of TAs, it may be beneficial to designate a head TA to help you manage the rest of the group. With his large number of TAs each semester, Mumford relies heavily on his head TA to make sure weekly instructions and tasks are assigned appropriately.
  • Consider feedback from students – TA evaluations can offer helpful feedback to both TAs and instructors. Pearlman noted that student feedback is especially helpful if she needs to make decisions about rehiring a TA. She can pull quotes directly from the evaluations. Mumford noted that he always meets individually with each of his TAs to review their evaluations.group of people having a discussion in front of bulletin board

There were some questions from other faculty members after the presentation:

Q: To what extent do you use undergraduate TAs?

A: Mumford responded that by policy, all of the TAs in his department are graduate students. He went on to say that he finds that experienced TAs are valuable, but it is harder to change their behavior. If they are first year TAs, he has more of an opportunity to shape them.  He does hire undergraduate learning assistants who assist with day to day tasks in the classroom but do not take part in any grading.

Pearlman stated that it seems to vary by department, but in biology, they have a mix of graduate and undgraduate TAs, and all of them participate in grading. She enjoys working with both populations, noting that the undergraduates tend to be self-starters, while the graduates bring a wealth of knowledge from the lab.

Q: To what extent is it useful for TAs to TA twice?

A: Pearlman responded that the undergraduate TAs often stay with her for years. They help each other and learn a lot by continuing in the role. They enjoy teaching the material more than once.

Q: How do you select your TAs?

A: Pearlman replied that the graduate level TAs are assigned to her department, but the undergraduates apply for the position. In the Fall 2020 semester she had 50 students apply for 18 positions. She uses a Google Form to ask them questions such as “why are you excited to be a TA? – or “what can you bring to the position?” Pearlman says she does review their grades, but they are not necessarily a priority; it often comes down to who is available at the right time.

Mumford responded that graduate TAs are assigned, but for the undergraduate learning assistants, he relies on referrals from the graduate TAs. He specifically asks them to recommend  great students. He then follows up with an interview process. Mumford is able to choose his head TA and strongly considers diversity when choosing this person.

Other faculty shared various characteristics that they use to select TAs: enthusiasm for the subject matter, respect for others, patience with students, familiarity with course material, interest in teaching, and above average grades.

Q: What can I do about TAs who do not prioritize their TA duties, such as grading?

A: Reese suggested making expectations very clear but acknowledged that it is a struggle when the TAs have obligations to research faculty as well as their TA duties.

Mumford responded that he checks in with his TAs every week to try and keep them on task. If they are non-responsive, he escalates the issue to the graduate committee to handle. If it continues, he will also reach out to the student’s research advisor and discuss the situation with that person as well.

Pearlman suggested contacting the people who run the graduate program or the department chair for assistance. She also suggested bringing the issue up at a faculty meeting.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Lunch and Learn Logo, Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surviving to Thriving: Reflections from Teaching Online

On Friday, December 11, 2020, the Office of the Provost, in conjunction with teaching and learning centers across Johns Hopkins University, sponsored a half-day virtual conference titled “Surviving to Thriving: Reflections from Teaching Online.” Faculty, graduate students, and staff came together to share ideas, challenges faced, and best practices when teaching in a virtual environment. Highlights from a few of the sessions are below:

Engaging Students in the Virtual Environment: A panel of faculty representing the School of Education, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Whiting School of Engineering shared strategies for how building community, synchronous sessions, and using specific tools can help to engage students online.

Building community in an online course helps students feel more connected with each other and can lead to more productive learning. Strategies for community building shared by faculty include:

  • Using ice breaker questions at the beginning of every class
  • Learning student names
  • Setting up sessions to get to know one another (in breakout rooms, online discussion boards, Google Sheets)
  • Offering frequent feedback in multiple formats (email, audio recordings)
  • ‘Humanizing’ situations by admitting mistakes and struggles with technology

Synchronous sessions allow students to experience learning with their peers in a real-time, interactive environment. For students nervous about speaking up during live sessions, faculty members suggested giving them a choice to either use the chat feature or the microphone. One faculty member required his students, in a seminar style class, to ask at least one question during the semester, which helped to build confidence. Another faculty member described posting a ‘speaker list’ ahead of each class so students knew in what order they would be speaking. Not only were students more prepared, but the sessions ran more efficiently. Faculty discussed the challenges of holding synchronous sessions with students in multiple time zones. While most faculty recorded their lectures and made them available online, some offered to give their lecture twice, and allowed students to choose which session to attend.  Technology can be another challenge when holding synchronous sessions. Faculty suggested offering material in multiple formats in order to meet the needs of students who may be having technological difficulties. For example, post slides in addition to video.

There are a variety of online tools that can be used to engage students online. Faculty in this session discussed the following:

  • Padlet – tool that allows students to collaborate synchronously or asynchronously
  • Loom – video recording application that allows students to create and send recordings
  • Flipgrid – video discussion board tool
  • Slack – communication platform used for information sharing, individual and group communication, synchronous and asynchronous collaboration (similar to Teams)

(Note: Instructors are encouraged to contact their school’s teaching and learning center before deciding to use third party tools that may or may not be supported by their institution.)

Jazzing Up Online Presentations: A panel of faculty representing the School of Education, the School of Medicine, and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences shared strategies for how to strengthen online presentations and keep students engaged. One idea is to maintain a balance between synchronous and asynchronous sessions to help avoid Zoom fatigue. Another idea is to keep sessions interactive by using breakout rooms, videos, knowledge checks, and other active learning techniques. Modeling online navigation for students is another way to help make sure they are staying engaged. For example, if referring to a particular discussion board post, share your screen with students and navigate to the post, read it with students, and discuss together. Consider using a different tool, other than PowerPoint, for your presentation, such as Genially or Sway. Lastly, don’t be afraid to put your personality into your presentation – pets and silly bow ties can make a difference to students!

Student Perspectives: A moderated panel of four students from across the institution shared their experiences with virtual learning this past semester. When asked what has been the most challenging aspect, several students mentioned Zoom fatigue. With the many hours of online lectures they were expected to attend, students reported that it was often difficult to stay engaged. Zoom fatigue also made it a challenge to participate in outside events or clubs since they are virtual as well. Other challenges: difficulty connecting and networking with people online and students living in different time zones.

When asked what techniques they wished more faculty were using, one student mentioned following best practices of online learning to ensure consistency across courses. Another student appreciated how one of her professors asked how students were doing at the beginning of each class. This was a small class, and the student acknowledged that it probably wouldn’t be possible in a larger setting, but that it helped to build community among class members. Another consideration mentioned is to build in breaks during the lecture. Other techniques suggested were the use of collaborative assignments, to help students keep each other accountable, and breakout rooms (in Zoom) with a structured task or purpose in mind.

Students were asked about the positive aspects of virtual learning. One student from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) explained how students from all three SAIS campuses were able to participate in all classes together, and how beneficial it was for students to experience the others’ perspectives. Another student found it extremely helpful that faculty would record their lectures and post them to Blackboard for unlimited viewing.  Students also greatly appreciated the creativity and support of their instructors and teaching assistants.

Other topics presented at the conference include: student wellness, assessment, accessibility, and more. The Provost’s office has made the full day of recorded sessions available here with JHED authentication.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Teaching Online: What Have We Learned?

On Friday, October 9, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted an online session, “Teaching Online: What Have We Learned?” where faculty were able to share and discuss best practices based on their experiences teaching online.  Mike Reese, director of the CER and faculty member in Sociology, and Allon Brann, teaching support specialist at the CER, moderated the discussion, structuring it with a few guiding questions as outlined below:

What is something you are doing differently this semester online that you will continue to do when you are back in the classroom?

Jamie Young from Chemistry described how he is using tools such as MS Teams and Slack to build classroom community. He anticipated students feeling isolated in an online environment, so he set up spaces for casual conversation for them to communicate and get to know one another. He said it has definitely encouraged and increased conversation among students. When asked how he motivates students to participate in these environments, Young responded that he made their participation a very small part of their grade. Young and his TAs make it a point to respond right away when students post to these spaces so that students know this is an active space and that they are being heard. This level of responsiveness has also helped boost participation. Back in the classroom, Young plans to continue using these tools for informal office hours.

Rachel Sangree from Civil and Systems Engineering shared that she has been holding evening office hours and what a difference it has made in the number of students who attend.  Acknowledging that it is sometimes exhausting, she stated that she sees more students now than ever before. When we’re back in the classroom, Sangree plans to continue to hold evening office hours, but perhaps not quite as late as she offers currently.

Alison Papadakis from Psychological and Brain Sciences described how she has adapted the “think pair share” active learning strategy to an online environment. Students are split into groups and assigned breakout rooms in Zoom, then use Google Sheets to record their ideas and notes while they’re in the rooms. This allows Papadakis to monitor the progress of students without having to manually drop in to each of the rooms. She is also able to add her own comments directly to the sheets in real time as students work on them. It was noted that separate tabs are created for each group in Google Sheets, so each group has its own space to work.  Initially Papadakis was concerned that students would feel like she was ‘spying’ on them and wouldn’t like this method, but so far the feedback has been positive.  Jamie Young shared a tutorial he put together on this topic: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1uvRB38GHIKNaxQL-dN-9vpWgC43Yslssyz_jh2uPtno/edit

Francois Furstenberg from History shared how he is using the e-reader platform Perusall which allows students to collaboratively annotate their online readings. The annotations inform Furstenberg what parts of the readings students are finding interesting and are helping to shape the in-class discussions. He plans to continue using this platform when in-person classes resume. It was noted that instructors need to have copyright permission before uploading reading material to Perusall. If they have questions about obtaining copyright, they are encouraged to contact their university librarian.

David Kraemer from Mechanical Engineering mentioned that he mailed USB oscilloscope boards and a kit of devices to each of his students so they could perform “hands-on” experiments at home. He recognizes the value of these kits whether or not students are learning online, and plans to keep using them when in person classes resume.

Joshua Reiter from the Center for Leadership Education described how he adjusted his approach to assessments by breaking up large exams into more frequent quizzes throughout the semester.  Some of these quizzes were meant to be ‘fun’ quizzes for participation points, but he noticed that students were feeling pressured when taking them, defeating their purpose. Reiter changed them from individual to group quizzes, using the breakout room feature in Zoom.  Since then, he’s noticed a significant reduction in stress among the students.

 

What is something that you are still struggling with?

Several faculty members mentioned that their workload is significantly higher this semester as they do their best to recreate their lessons online.  Some feel like they are putting in three times the normal amount of preparation time and as a result, are experiencing technological overload, having to learn and keep up with so many tools. Many faculty mentioned that their students are feeling this way, too.  It was suggested that adding technology should be done in a purposeful way and that faculty should not feel compelled to use all of the available tools. Some faculty acknowledged that although it has been very challenging, they have learned a great deal about tools that are out there, and which ones seem to work better for students.

Similarly, a faculty member mentioned how difficult it is to multitask within the online environment; for example, keeping up with the chat window in Zoom while lecturing synchronously. Many faculty agreed, commenting that they feel pressured to keep up with everything going on and that it often feels like a performance. Someone commented that sharing concerns with the students helps to humanize the situation, while setting realistic expectations helps to take pressure off of instructors. One instructor mentioned how he purposely builds pauses into his lectures to allow himself time to catch up. Others mentioned that they use their TAs to monitor the chat window; if the instructor does not have a TA, he or she could ask a student.  Another general suggestion is to ask students what works best for them, instead of trying to monitor everything.

Academic integrity was another issue that came up. At least one instructor acknowledged multiple instances of students cheating since moving online, while others shared that they are concerned it may happen to them. A brief discussion followed, with instructors sharing strategies they use to try and mitigate cheating: using online monitoring tools, lowering weights of exams, making all exams open-book/open-note, and placing more emphasis on project-based work.

Some technical questions also came up, such as how to recreate an interactive whiteboard. The responses ranged from configuring Powerpoint in a certain way to using multiple devices. Jamie Young shared a tutorial he put together that uses Open Broadcaster Software (OBS): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JXptPGjnAOiqbpvrXJPGWDcbqE_l95C6Cm0moYpaelk/edit?usp=sharing  Faculty are welcome to contact the CER for help with this and other specific technological challenges.

Anything you would like to share with others?

A few faculty members shared how they are taking advantage of the online environment. Andrew Cherlin from Sociology mentioned how much easier it is to schedule outside guests, such as authors, since there are no travel arrangements, logistics, etc. to be worked out. He has had several guests this semester already. Cherlin also described how he has taken advantage of Zoom to meet with each student individually for about fifteen minutes to check in with them and make sure they are on track. He acknowledged that this is not practical for large courses, but it has been very beneficial to those in his seminar style course.

Lori Finkelstein from Museum Studies described how being online has reshaped her assignments. She usually has students go out into the field to different museums to conduct research. This semester, students are taking a look at what museums are offering virtually and whether or not they are successful, what seems to be working, what is not working, etc.

Lester Spence from Political Science is teaching a course with instructors from Goucher College and Towson University. Students from all three schools are collaborating together as they work on group projects, something that would not necessarily be possible in a face-to-face environment.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Building Community in an Online Course

Although a formal decision has yet to be made about the Fall 2020 semester here at Johns Hopkins, many instructors are beginning to prepare for the possibility of teaching online. Building community in an online course can be a challenge, especially if instructors are used to teaching in a face-to-face environment. The strategies below are meant to provide students with a sense of belonging, reduce feelings of isolation, and ultimately help keep them engaged throughout the course. 

Let students get to know you, take time to get to know them:

  • create a short video introducing yourself, including some personal details, not just academic credentials
  • convey enthusiasm for the course
  • create a survey asking students about themselves, their level of comfort with technology, what timezone they are in, etc.

Create opportunities for students to get to know each other:

  • use ice breaker activities: ‘introduce yourself’ discussion board forum, intro videos, etc. Relate the activity back to course content if possible (e.g,. “What is something innovative about your hometown?” used in an Urban Studies course.)
  • design activities that require student interaction: group work, peer review, etc.   

Create a safe and inclusive environment:

  • invite all voices to the room – listen to students, validate their points, and when possible, weave their examples into your lecture (Schmitt)
  • if possible, dedicate the first part of class to allow students to share challenges, coping strategies
  • if possible, hold some synchronous sessions to allow students to see each other
  • acknowledge and share your own struggles
  • remind students of the basic principles of netiquette when communicating online
  • facilitate a group discussion around setting ground rules and/or mutual expectations for dialogue and collaboration in class   

Communicate regularly/Be Present in the Course:

  • post daily/weekly announcements
  • send weekly email check-ins
  • remind learners about due dates, special events, share authentic news, share grading progress on assessments
  • encourage questions: set up a Q and A discussion board forum
  • make a commitment to respond promptly (daily, every other day) to student posts on discussion boards
  • consider using video in your communication with students at least some of the time, as they appreciate seeing and hearing directly from the instructor  

 

References: 

Schmitt, R. (2020, May 14). Fostering Online Student Success in the Face of COVID-19. The Scholarly Teacherhttps://www.scholarlyteacher.com/post/fostering-online-student-success-in-the-face-of-covid-19?fbclid=IwAR3v8lBQhOxT5fFU_q1HahnJVg6nCEvfGqeD_ZZHQ7gZHZkkH0LHuFGcX6g 

Amy Brusini
Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Quick Tips: Formative Assessment Strategies

Designing effective assessments is a critical part of the teaching and learning process. Instructors use assessments, ideally aligned with learning objectives, to measure student achievement and determine whether or not they are meeting the objectives. Assessments can also inform instructors if they should consider making changes to their instructional method or delivery.

Assessments are generally categorized as either summative or formative. Summative assessments, usually graded, are used to measure student comprehension of material at the end of an instructional unit. They are often cumulative, providing a means for instructors to see how well students are meeting certain standards. Instructors are largely familiar with summative assessments. Examples include:

  • Final exam at the end of the semester
  • Term paper due mid-semester
  • Final project at the end of a course

In contrast, formative assessments provide ongoing feedback to students in order to help identify gaps in their learning. They are lower stakes than summative assessments and often ungraded. Additionally, formative assessments help instructors determine the effectiveness of their teaching; instructors can then use this information to make adjustments to their instructional approach which may lead to improved student success (Boston). As discussed in a previous Innovative Instructor post about the value of formative assessments, when instructors provide formative feedback to students, they give students the tools to assess their own progress toward learning goals (Wilson). This empowers students to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and may help motivate them to improve their academic performance.

Examples of formative assessment strategies:

  • Surveys – Surveys can be given at the beginning, middle, and/or end of the semester.
  • Minute papers – Very short, in-class writing activity in which students summarize the main ideas of a lecture or class activity, usually at the end of class.
  • Polling – Students respond as a group to questions posed by the instructor using technology such as iclickers, software such as Poll Everywhere, or simply raising their hands.
  • Exit tickets – At the end of class, students respond to a short prompt given by the instructor usually having to do with that day’s lesson, such as, “What readings were most helpful to you in preparing for today’s lesson?”
  • Muddiest point – Students write down what they think was the most confusing or difficult part of a lesson.
  • Concept map – Students create a diagram of how concepts relate to each other.
  • First draft – Students submit a first draft of a paper, assignment, etc. and receive targeted feedback before submitting a final draft.
  • Student self-evaluation/reflection
  • Low/no-grade quizzes

Formative assessments do not have to take a lot of time to administer. They can be spontaneous, such as having an in-class question and answer session which provides results in real time, or they can be planned, such as giving a short, ungraded quiz used as a knowledge check. In either case, the goal is the same: to monitor student learning and guide instructors in future decision making regarding their instruction. Following best practices, instructors should strive to use a variety of both formative and summative assessments in order to meet the needs of all students.

References:

Boston, C. (2002). The Concept of Formative Assessment. College Park, MD: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED470206).

Wilson, S. (February 13, 2014). The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments. The Innovative Instructor Blog. http://ii.library.jhu.edu/2014/02/13/the-characteristics-of-high-quality-formative-assessments/

Amy Brusini
Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay