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

Quick Tips: Provide Your Students with a Roadmap for Class

This time of year is ripe for blog posts and articles on what to do on the first day of class. There is lots of good advice out there for easy picking. But I especially appreciate guidance that works for the whole semester—tips you can use for instruction in every class. An article in Faculty Focus by  Jennifer Garrett and Mary Clement Advice for the First Day of Class: Today We Will (August 23, 2018), meets the criterion.

Garrett and Clement advocate for building a positive classroom climate from the first moments of class so that students “feel welcome, comfortable, and engaged.” Making expectations clear can go a long way towards accomplishing that goal. Specifically, the authors recommend creating a “Today We Will” list on the first day of class and for every class session during the semester. This list should be on the board or screen or on a handout where you and the students can see it throughout the class.

Hands holding a folded paper road map.“The “Today We Will” list is a road map. It lets students know what will be covered that day. They can glance at it to check progress or to see if they missed any big concepts. The list also keeps instructors on task. As you move around your classroom teaching, the “Today We Will” list is a visual reminder of what you need to accomplish in that period. It ensures that you don’t skip any concepts that you want or need to cover, and it keeps you from veering too far off on tangents.”

For example, your “Today We Will” list might look something like this:

  • Beginning of class writing prompt on reading assignment (~5 minutes)
  • Share thoughts from prompt/reading assignment discussion (~15 minutes)
  • Lesson on [topic for session] (~10 minutes)
  • Activity in groups related to [topic for session] (~15 minutes)
  • Questions, wrap-up, preparation instructions/expectations for next class (~5 minutes).

While the authors don’t suggest putting in time approximations, you may find doing so will help set expectations for the students and keep you on track. On the other hand, the authors suggest that leaving some blanks on the list will allow for flexibility. The list should not be thought of as rigid. If you decide in the moment to spend more time on a stimulating discussion rather than cutting students off, you can remove something from the list. On the other hand, if you progress more quickly through an activity, you will want to have some items you can add to the day’s instruction.

Students should understand from day one that they are responsible for the material on the day’s list whether or not they attend class. As the instructor, you may wish to post the list on the course website before or after class so that students have a reminder of the important concepts covered.

Giving your students a roadmap in the form of a “Today We Will” list is an easy way to get yourself prepared, help your students stay organized, and create a positive classroom climate. You may be into your second or third week of teaching, but it’s not too late to start using this tip.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Pedagogy Unbound

When I discovered the Pedagogy Unbound website recently, it was like opening a box Screen shot from Pedagogy Unbound website showing a selection of articles, arranged as squares in a grid, to choose from.of assorted chocolates and being presented with a wide selection of delicious choices. Chocolate ganache? “Use Monte Carlo Quizzes to promote student engagement.” Raspberry cream? “Give participation marks two weeks at a time.” Caramel crunch? “Engage students with project-based pedagogy.” You could spend an afternoon and devour the entire selection.

Pedagogy Unbound is both a website founded by David Gooblar (lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa), and a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website. I was familiar with Gooblar’s columns; the Innovative Instructor has cited his work in the past. His advice in the articles is always thoughtful and useful.

The website “aims to provide a space for college teachers from all disciplines to easily share the practical strategies that have worked for them in their classrooms.” Not only can you benefit from the experiences of other instructors, you can share your own successful innovations by submitting a tip.

This summer, I encourage you to open a box of pedagogical treats by visiting both versions of Pedagogy Unbound and indulge.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Screen shot from Pedagogy Unbound

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

Small Changes That Can Make a Big Difference in Teaching

For many of us this time of year marks the beginning of a new semester. Even if your classes have already started up, it’s not too late to consider some tips for improving the teaching and learning experience in your classroom. James M. Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, has written two articles in a proposed series for The Chronicle of Higher Education “…making the argument in this space that small changes to our teaching — in things like course design, classroom practices, and communication with students — can have a powerful impact on student learning.”

Students given presentation to a class.

CC Photo by Creative Services: http://spirit.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/student-presentation-ncc.jpg

In the first article, Small Changes in Teaching: The Minutes Before Class: 3 simple ways you can set up the day’s learning before the metaphorical bell rings [CHE November 15, 2015], Lang states that “The more time I spend with students in that brief space before the start of class, the more I recognize that those warm-up minutes actually represent a fertile opportunity.” He recommends chatting briefly with students as they come into the classroom. By informally rotating through the roster of students, the instructor can create connections. The results can be striking—a more positive classroom climate, increased participation in discussions, better evaluations from the students at the end of the course were cited.

Land’s second recommendation is to “display the framework” meaning that helping students to organize the content they are about to engage in improves their understanding and learning. The approach can be as simple as using the board to write an outline of your lecture or list of discussion topics. Connections that are clear to you, may not be to your students. Creating this kind of agenda helps students see what is important and how topics are connected.

Third, Lang exhorts instructors to “create wonder.” He uses an example of an astronomy professor who before the start of each class puts up an image from the cosmos and asks two questions: “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” Using material related to your course content to stimulate informal discussion at the start of class can “can activate students’ prior knowledge, helping them form connections with what they already know. It also offers both the instructor and the students the opportunity to discuss how the images connect to previous course material.” As well, students see your excitement about the course content.

In the second article, Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class: 4 quick ways to shift students’ attention from life’s distractions to your course content [CHE January 11, 2016], Lang argues that “[t]he opening five minutes offer us a rich opportunity to capture the attention of students and prepare them for learning.” Students come into the classroom distracted and using the opening few minutes for logistics—taking attendance, making announcements—may not be the most effective strategy. Instead, Lang suggest opening class with a question or two, the answers to which will be uncovered during class. At the end of class, return to the questions so that your students can now formulate potential answers. This exercise allows students to see a purpose to the class session.

Another idea is to review what was covered in the previous class. Lang proposes that “… instead of offering a capsule review to students, why not ask them to offer one back to you?” He points out that learning researchers have shown that quizzing students works not only as an assessment of student learning but promotes it.

Not only will you want to review what you have taught, but you should “reactivate what [students] have learned in previous courses.” By asking students what they already know, you can help them make connections to the material in your course, and you can fill in gaps and correct misunderstandings.

Lang states that all of these activities will benefit from having students write down their individual responses before sharing with the class. “That way, every student has the opportunity to answer the question, practice memory retrieval from the previous session, or surface their prior knowledge — and not just the students most likely to raise their hands in class.” He advocates for “frequent, low-stakes writing assignments” to encourage student engagement.

All of these suggestions are low-barrier, easy to implement strategies. You don’t have to use all of them at once. Pick one or two and see how they work. I am looking forward to Lang’s next article in the series and to his new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, which will be published in March of 2016. 

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: CC Photo by Creative Services: http://spirit.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/student-presentation-ncc.jpg