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Category: Student Engagement

Methods for engaging students in the act of learning

When Is Your Computer Unlike Mine? When We Consider Technology Opportunity Gaps

Regular readers of this blog will know that EvCC, like many community colleges across the country, continues to engage with knotty, challenging questions of equity in higher education. Conversations about equity have been central to Guided Pathways efforts at the college (and long before), and they’re also part of our work at the Center for Transformative Teaching. A few months ago, I wrote on this blog about my initial investigation of potential equity gaps in online course enrollments, and I’ve continued to think about this problem since then.

Equity in online, hybrid/blended, and technology-enhanced learning environments is in many ways a classic manifestation of the digital divide — inequalities in “access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies” (Wikipedia). The heart of the problem, in my mind, lies in the final part of that definition: the impact of technologies on the people using them. While we tend to be pretty good about asking important questions related to students’ access to technologies, all too often we overlook an even more significant question. Once we’ve ensured all students have access to learning technologies (for instance, through low-cost laptop rentals — a service we provide to students here at EvCC) what are we doing to ensure that the use of those technologies is providing the same advantages to all students? Are we inadvertently perpetuating inequities by assuming that the beneficial effects of educational technologies are evenly distributed and available to all?

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A Small Assortment of Ideas for the First Day of Class

Despite the dusting of snow on the ground in Everett this morning (and a few lingering flakes falling outside my window at this very moment), it’s officially the first day of the spring quarter here at EvCC. That means a new set of classes–and new opportunities to try out ways of engaging your students from the very first moment of class.

With that in mind, here’s a question for you to consider as you start each of your new classes this week: How do you engage students and welcome them into the intellectual and practical work of the next ten weeks?

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Bring Them or Ban Them? Laptops (and Mobile Devices) in the Classroom

In the list of perennial ‘controversies’ at the intersection of teaching and technology, the lowly laptop computer has always played something of an outsized role. I’m old enough to remember a time when the laptop’s extreme portability was breathlessly heralded as something that would revolutionize how and where learning would take place. (“It only weighs eight pounds; ten if you include the charger! Now students can read, conduct research, or write papers anywhere and everywhere! The era of ubiquitous learning has arrived!”) I also remember some of the dire predictions that were lobbed back in response. (“Students will be endlessly distracted! They will use their computers as intellectual crutches instead of learning to think and do for themselves! The end of deep, focused learning has arrived! Besides, what’s wrong with going to the computer lab — or using a typewriter, for that matter?! “)

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Rethinking the Syllabus

After a late-2017 hiatus here on the CTT blog, I thought the first post of 2018 should touch on something many of us might be thinking about as winter quarter classes begin at EvCC today: the course syllabus.

Useful information about constructing a course syllabus can be found almost everywhere these days: here, here, here — I could keep this up for a long time, but won’t since you get the idea (and know perfectly well how to perform your own internet searches). But over on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ChronicleVitae blog, Kevin Gannon last fall posted a series of musings that go beyond the general “how-to” approach you’ll find in most syllabus guides, tutorials, and similar resources. Instead, he invites us to ask what a syllabus is for, why it matters, and what we can do as teachers to bring the present-day syllabus back into the realm of “good pedagogy.”

Here’s a taste, from the first of the series, “What Is a Syllabus Really For, Anyway?“:

The key role of this document is spelled out clearly in The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach: ‘The syllabus provides the first opportunity faculty have to encourage and guide students to take responsibility for their learning…When reading a learning-centered syllabus, students learn what is required to achieve the course objectives, and they learn what processes will support their academic success.’ In short, students need to know what they need to do to succeed in your course, and how they’re being empowered to do it.

But the syllabus has evolved (hideously mutated?) from a course guide to its present-day incarnation as a lengthy compendium of policies and procedural statements where the course material almost feels like an afterthought.

So how do we reclaim the syllabus for its rightful purpose? The first step is to ask, What is a syllabus for, anyway? If we can’t answer that question concisely and unambiguously, then there are conversations that need to happen.

Read the full article here, then see Parts 2 and 3 of the DIY Syllabus series, “What Goes Into a Syllabus?” and “How to Move Beyond the Transactional“.

How do you approach your syllabus? Have your views on “what a syllabus is really for” changed in recent years? How do you keep your syllabus fresh, engaging, and useful as a teaching instrument?

 

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Incorporating Metacognition Practices Mid-Quarter

Image result for metacognition definition

At a recent conference on departmental support of evidence-based teaching practices in Biology (PULSE), I picked up two Metacognition techniques to bring into my classrooms. These seemed so powerful and, honestly, easy to implement, that I did it the following week.

This first idea stems from work that Ricky Dooley (new colleague in Biology) developed with Scott Freeman and others at the University of Washington. In my majors’ Biology class, I have weekly quizzes over the past week’s material.  Standard in-class quizzes, mostly multiple choice (taken with iClickers) with a short answer question here and there. Student performance was mixed, and when we went over the correct answers, many students had “ah-ha” moments when ideas began to click.

Of course, these ah-ha moments were a few moments too late to help on that particular quiz. What I’ve begun doing is flipping that around. First off, I’ve moved this quiz completely onto Canvas. And rather than the usual 10 questions/10 points, they are now 20 questions, still worth 10 points. The first question is the usual question I would ask (although I’ve added more short-answer questions, reflecting questions I will ask on the exams.). This first question (and all of the odd-numbered questions) are worth zero points, so there’s no risk to the student to do their best from their memory (no reason to cheat). The second question (all of the even-numbered questions) is the same question, followed by how I would answer the question. This question then asks the student if they think they got it right, wrong, or somewhere in between. If they didn’t get it right, I ask them 1) explain why they got it wrong, 2) what the right answer is, and 3) why is the right answer correct. This question is worth 1 point, and I grade it based upon how they’ve reflected on their work. Sometimes, within their summary explanations, students will still not fully understand the material. Here, it’s very easy for me to jump in (while grading) and help them individually. An additional benefit is that these quizzes, with the addition of more short-answer questions, more closely resembles the question types I have on my midterms.

The first time I did this (in the 5th week of this quarter), my last question asked the students their opinion on this new style of testing. With the exception of the one student who was already doing exceptionally well, feedback was very positive. They appreciated the ability to correct themselves, and feel that they better understand the material. Their explanations seemed genuine to me, so I’m hopeful that they’ll perform better on our midterms.Image result for metacognition

The second idea I implemented I borrowed from another biology colleague, Hillary Kemp. This I’ve done with my non-majors Cellular Biology course, one that is typically tough for many students, as they begin their path towards an allied health degree.  Exam performance on my short-answer questions is always spotty (lots of higher-order Bloom’s Taxonomy questions).  Usually I would go over the correct answer with the class, in the hopes that they’d do better on the final. Now, rather than go over those answers, I give them their marked-up short-answer sections back, and let them correct their answers for partial credit. I stress that in their corrections I’m looking for them to explain why they got it wrong, and why the correct answer is correct. This is worth just enough to eliminate the need to curve the exam (essentially, they’re working to “earn” the curved points). In my large class (n=48), results were mixed. Many students clearly explained why they got it wrong and understand why the correct answer is correct. However, others just put down correct answers or, worse, Googled the answer and put down technically correct answers, well above the level of our course. Again, I awarded points based upon their explanations rather than the correctness of their answers. I think this exam reflection is helping those students who genuinely want to do well in class, as opposed to those who are maybe not too sure about this degree path. I’m hopeful that performance on our comprehensive final will show improvement because of this reflection exercise.

This post was generously contributed by Jeff Fennell, who teaches in the Biology department at Everett Community College.

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Why you should appear (at least sometimes) in your course videos

First, a shameless plug: EvCC instructor Joe Graber and I will be teaming up to offer a one-hour workshop on October 3 on using the EvCC lightboard, built by a team of engineering faculty, to create engaging and effective instructional videos. If you haven’t already done so, mark your calendar!

With videos on my mind recently, and with this being a time of the year when many faculty are creating new videos to share with their students, I thought it might be useful to address a couple of the myths, misperceptions, and generalizations about instructional videos that I encounter most frequently.

Students don’t need to see me in videos. All they need to see are my slides and the information I’m presenting. (Besides, I hate being on camera!)

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Storyline helps you tell stories with data

How frequently in your teaching do you use simple data to help students understand an important concept or trend, or to create opportunities for students to incorporate data into their own critical thinking around a particular subject or topic? Chances are you use data of some kind fairly frequently, even in disciplines that aren’t known for being particularly data-heavy. (As an example, in literature courses I taught I would frequently talk to students about, say, trends in literacy rates during the period we were studying, or shifts in newspaper circulation and public library memberships. In other words, I would share data that helped contextualize what we were reading in contemporary social, cultural, and economic conditions.)

All too often, when we use data in classes we treat it as something that is fairly static: a printed handout, an image on a slide, or a graph we draw on the whiteboard. There’s nothing wrong with that, exactly, but I often find myself wanting to give students a better entry point into data — and, more importantly, to help students understand the story the data can help us tell. “Teaching with data” is a broad category that can mean many things, but I take as one of its fundamental components a desire to teach students how to think with data and to construct meaning from it. So I was very excited to see that the Knight Lab recently released a tool for creating simple annotated charts. It’s called Storyline, and while its features are minimal I think it has great teaching potential.

Storyline is a web-based tool, and it’s so easy to use that if you know how to make a spreadsheet you can certainly make a Storyline. At the moment, Storyline makes it possible to generate a time-series line chart (essentially, a chart that shows a data variable over time) with up to 800 data points.

Unlike a static chart, Storyline allows you to attach brief textual annotations to individual data points. Here’s what it looks like in action:

The annotations are displayed in sequential order beneath the chart. Interaction with the chart can take two forms: clicking an annotated data point (those shown as circles on the chart) or clicking an annotation bubble beneath the chart. Go ahead — give it a try in the example above. And then keep reading to find out how to create your own…

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Why we should learn students’ names

Many of you know that one of my favorite bloggers is Maryellen Weimer, editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter. In a recent post in Faculty Focus, Weimer reminds us that learning students’ names is just good practice. However, the inability to remember the names of possibly 100 students each quarter, and remember them for long periods of times (till next quarter? next year? next decade?) plagues us all. She writes:  “Names … why do we have such trouble learning them? For those of us who struggle with names, it never gets easier, no matter how many tricks we try. It can be embarrassing—to ourselves and to others. I remember once visiting a mall while out of town and hearing someone calling my name. Soon, a vaguely familiar person was greeting me with enthusiasm. ‘I am so happy to see you! It’s been so long? How are you?’ ”

Over the next few weeks I will be writing posts about “The 4 Connections.” Here’s the back story: about 2 years ago I was at a party and saw my friend Elliot Stern. Elliot is the Vice President of Instruction (VPI) at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech). He told me that several people from LWTech had gone to an Achieving the Dream conference and one of them went to a workshop given by staff from Odessa College in Odessa, TX. Think oil wells and Friday Night Lights. By way of introduction, they shared that Odessa had a large percentage of students who were not only struggling in their classes, but were ultimately dropping out. There was also a high rate of failure and huge equity gaps. In fact, they had the highest drop rate in the country. After a lot of research and soul searching, they discovered that there were four things that all faculty who had low drop rates were doing. They presented their DRIP program (Drop Rate Improvement Plan) that ultimately not only improved persistence and retention, but closed most of the equity gaps. Today they are an Aspen Prize winning college.

My friend Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction at LWTech, ran with this idea, and summarized it as “The 4 Connections.” They are: Interact with Students by Name, Check-in Regularly, Schedule One-on-One meetings, and Practice Paradox.

Let’s get back to the first connection of   Interact with Students by Name. Yes, it’s difficult to learn (and remember) students’ names. I struggled with this for a long time. When I was teaching at Michigan Technological University, an engineering school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I swear every math class was populated by young men who all looked alike – 18 or 19 years old, blond, wearing a cap and Carharts. Of course we have a much more diverse population at EvCC, but remembering names is still a challenge. To address not only learning but remembering names, try this simple approach: On the first day of class, have paper and markers at each table (or easily accessible if there are desks). I like to raid the recycling bin for paper that has been printed on one side only and then discarded.  Have students make a name plate with the name that they’d like you to use. They should display it every day (for this reason I collected them at the end of class and had them available at the beginning of the next class). An added benefit was that if a name plate wasn’t picked up at the beginning of class, I knew that student was absent. Ask students to be sure to make their name legible and large enough for you to read from the front of the class. And, encourage students to address each other by name. Weimer writes, “Challenge students to learn and use each other’s name – None of this, ‘I agree with him.’ Who is he? What’s his name? Someone, please, introduce him to the rest of us. When you give students an activity like think-pair-share, always remind them to first introduce themselves to their partner.”

Two table name tags, one with the name 'Jason' and one with the name 'Debby' written on them. In the foreground are several blank sheets of paper and five markers.

Think about how this might improve the community in your classroom. Raid the recycling bin today and get ready for the start of Fall Quarter. And stay tuned for the next post on The 4 Connections.

 

 

 

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Using Zotero in the classroom

Comic-book style graphic of explosion with the word Zotero superimposed
Pow! Zotero sure is exciting!

In a previous post, I introduced Zotero–a free, open-source research tool–and suggested exploring ways to use it in classroom activities and student assignments. Zotero has been part of many librarians’ research and instructional toolkits since its early days, so the idea that it should have a place in the classroom is by no means a new one. Instructors have also been incorporating it directly into their courses for some time, often with the explicit goal of improving students’ literacies and familiarity with individual and collaborative research practices.

One of the hardest things to do in the span of a single class is to contextualize new information so that students learn to see individual facts or concepts in relation to one another. A shared Zotero collection is one way to engage students directly in that process of contextualization, helping them develop a more realistic view of the depth and breadth of a particular field of study than is often possible in an introductory or survey course. As a bonus, it happens to be useful to you as an instructor as well, since the collection created by one cohort of students can become a resource to be used in future courses or, perhaps, to provide new examples or readings you can add to the course when revising it.

Let’s say that I’m teaching an introductory environmental science course whose purpose is to give students a broad conceptual foundation for studying both the environment and the impact of human activities on it. I’ve decided that I’m going to unify the various topics we’ll cover by focusing on a common theme that we’ll return to throughout the quarter: modern agricultural practices and the challenges of mitigating their environmental consequences while also feeding a rapidly growing human population. So while the course as a whole will include units that introduce atmospheric science, ecology, biodiversity, and so on, each unit approaches those specific topics by considering their effects on some particular aspect of agriculture, and vice versa. For example, a unit that addresses freshwater ecosystems might include a discussion of the effects of nitrogen runoff resulting from industrial agriculture.

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Coming out of the cave

When I was cleaning out some papers in a desk drawer the other day I came across an article from the Community College Week magazine. I sometimes tear articles out of magazines or newspapers and keep them in a file for reference later. Of course sometimes I re-read the article and can’t remember why I thought it was important at the time, but when I saw the title of this article, Leave the Cave: Professional Development to Improve Student Success, I knew I had to share it in a blog post. The author, Christine Johnson McPhail, Managing Partner of the McPhail Group, said, “People need to come out of their caves!” She visited a community college and met with the school’s student success committee and president. The people she is encouraging to come out of their caves are faculty who teach and fulfill their contractual duties, but do little else. “They seemed disengaged from the greater strategic direction of the college. Their pedagogical practices were all over the map. They appeared to embody little commitment to tweaking classroom practices to improve student outcomes…the result was a cave-dwelling environment with a ‘do your own thing’ mindset.”

Note that there is light at the entrance to the cave image at the left. That suggests that it is possible for those reluctant colleagues to leave the cave – but there is no quick fix to this problem. Whose responsibility is it to help our colleagues see the light and move towards it?

McPhail suggests that we must first “assess the operative culture and climate in order to define student success and the existing professional development issues.” Do we all agree what student success means? Are we willing to have a conversation about our professional development needs? How are we going to answer these questions in light of our Guided Pathways work? What is it that all faculty need to know in order for us to have a shared vision of student success?

Let’s assume that all faculty (and staff) sign on for the work and vision of Guided Pathways (or just student success)? There are three areas that we must avoid as identified by McPhail:

  • The “That’s above my pay grade” mentality.
    • We all know that teachers are are poorly paid. Why should I work harder than I have to? I already spend hours grading and prepping!
  • The “This is my space” syndrome.
    • I have academic freedom. What happens in my classroom is my business!
  • The “That’s not in my job description” discussion.
    • My job is to teach. I shouldn’t have to serve on so many committees. Besides, that’s what administrators are for!

My guess is that we have all heard someone say at least one of these things. In fact, perhaps you have said something like this yourself (I think I am guilty of that at some point, especially when we seem to be adding one initiative after another, or at the end of the academic year when we are all hoping the quarter ends soon!). So here’s my question for all of you: How do those of us responsible for professional development on our campus help our colleagues venture towards the light at the entrance to the cave? Remember that the motto of the CTT (Center for Transformative Teaching) is Exploring Innovations in Teaching and Learning. How can we help you explore new ways to help students be successful?

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