Blog
Neelanjan Mehta
Maths Teacher

Nine Benefits Of Student-generated Discussion And Exam Questions

  As someone who mostly teaches composition and the occasional literature or creative writing class, I use quizzes most semesters, and occasional midterms and final exams. Over time, I have come to appreciate the value of short quizzes, in particular for reinforcing topics we’ve studied. I also use discussion questions for exploring my university’s annual common book, a required reading for all incoming freshmen. But writing these quizzes, exams, and discussion questions can be quite time consuming. So, several years ago, I decided to outsource these tasks to my students—or at least the first drafts of them. The results were far more useful than I’d expected. Admittedly, students are often not great at writing these kinds of questions—and why should they be? The truth is, most faculty aren’t great at writing exam questions either. In fact, there is both art and science to writing exam questions that are well formed, perform well, and ask for substantive information or analysis rather than trivia. But nevertheless, if you ask your students to write exam questions, the results can be incredibly beneficial, both for students and for faculty. These are nine of the benefits I have seen in my own classes: Benefits of Student-Generated Questions Having students prepare exam questions is a great way to test that students have read the text and to encourage them to put time into doing so. (Admittedly, they could try Googling “War and Peace discussion questions,” but I don’t think they often do.)The time they spend writing questions is time spent considering the text or subject, where they decide what is important or worthy of further discussion and where they think about what questions the text left them with. All of this is time well spent that should further their understanding of the content. As an additional benefit, they should also learn about developing good questions, which is something any composition class (and college in general) should ask of them. It’s a fairly easy assignment for students to do well on if they’ve done the work, and for faculty to grade, which makes for a win-win situation. It’s a great way to identify trends or problems in student thought about a text. This was tremendously valuable for me one semester when the discussion questions students wrote showed me that they had some very inaccurate and stereotypical notions about immigration and immigrants. I was able to take a couple extra class sessions to have students research and report on those misconceptions before moving on. Though it was time consuming, valuable discussion of the text itself would have been next to impossible without first addressing their inaccurate beliefs. Similarly, student-authored discussion or test questions can surface a variety of misunderstandings about a novel, cultural, or linguistic confusion, and uncertainty about how to perform experiments or calculations.While the questions may not be great as written, I’ve always been able to use them to help me develop fruitful discussion questions, or to act as a starting place for about half of the questions on midterms and finals. While there’s often a fair bit of editing involved, it’s still a very meaningful jump start on what can be a time-consuming part of course development. Another benefit is that students like having their ideas and writing direct the flow of their classes or exams. It gives them the sense that they are helping create the class by making them feel more engaged and their ideas more valued. This is especially useful because it can be the quietest students who write the best, most insightful questions. Getting their voices into the open is another win. If you like, and you use an open system for submitting questions (like Blackboard discussions), you can also encourage students to read other students’ submitted questions to help them study or think about a topic, while warning them that the questions and the proposed answers might have errors in them. As a final point, I also find it rewarding to read these clever and interesting questions. I have been positively stunned by the depth and insight some of them express. How much of this is the case for you will depend on your students—but I bet they will surprise you.  Student Instructions To help make the questions students write more useful, I provide instructions asking them to write open-ended discussion questions where the answer is complex rather than just a yes or no. For exam questions, I often ask for two multiple choice and a short answer or essay question. I generally use graded discussion boards in Blackboard for these assignments, though other technologies work fine, too. I recommend grading gently based on the question’s thoughtfulness rather than its suitability as a question. And I don’t lower their grade for misunderstanding or for holding misconceptions, unless it’s something they should clearly understand from their reading or studies.  This approach has worked well for me every time I’ve used it, and I find myself looking forward to reading and grading the results. Even better, students don’t complain about the work and they typically get it done on time, or nearly so. Note, that it’s important to get discussion questions submitted early enough to allow you to think about and revise them to suit your needs. Bio: Meriah L. Crawford is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) with an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in literature and criticism. Prior to working at VCU, her experience includes systems and business analysis, software testing and coding, technical writing and editing, graphic design, and project management at companies including Microsoft and Dominion.  Meriah Crawford’s website: http://www.meriahcrawford.com/ discussionexam questionsstudent autonomystudent-generated questions  

Astha Reddy
English Teacher

Good Questions For Better Essay Prompts (and Papers)

  Most professors would admit that they’ve found themselves frustrated when grading papers. Yes, sometimes those frustrations might stem from students ignoring your clear, strategic, and explicit instructions, but more often, I’d argue, “bad” papers are a result of how and what we’re asking of students, and how well we really understand our goals for them. Further, we often struggle to strike a balance between providing too much information and too little, and placing ourselves in a novice’s shoes is difficult. In an effort to combat these challenges, I present a series of questions to ask yourself as you begin developing or revising prompts. 1. What do you want your students to learn or demonstrate through this writing assignment? Is an essay the best way reach these goals? If so, do they understand those learning goals? Assigning an essay is, for many instructors, our go-to. But paper writing isn’t always the best assessment tool. Think hard about what it is you’re hoping for your students to take away from an assignment. Are there other, better forms the assignment might take? And if the answer is a resounding, “This paper is the right venue!” you should consider whether you are explicitly conveying to your students why you’re asking them to do certain work. Transparency benefits them tremendously. Transparent assignment design—being explicit about how and why you are facilitating their learning in the ways that you are—helps all students, but it particularly helps those students who may not have the experience, networks, or models in college that other students have, such as first-generation college students, minorities, or students with disabilities. Whether in class discussion or in the written prompt itself, strive to follow these transparent assignment design principles.       2. Who is the audience (real or imagined) for the assignment, and what is the purpose of the text?For most writing assignments, the “audience” is, of course, the instructor, and students strive to meet that instructor’s expectations, even if they’re guessing about what this instructor knows, wants, and expects.Even assignments as specific as “Write a letter to the Editor on X topic” beg for more detail. (Is this for my hometown paper or the New York Times? Those letters will of course read very differently.) And when it comes to purpose or goals, while it might seem obvious to you what the purpose of this paper is, it might not be to your students. Work to be as explicit as possible as you can in what you’d like them to achieve in their paper. You might use language such as, “In this paper you are writing to an audience of scholars in X field, who are/are not familiar with your topic,” or “Your overarching purpose in this paper is to persuade your reader towards a specific, implementable solution to the problem at hand, and support your argument with scholarship in the field.” 3. Do you want to read their papers? This question may seem silly, but it’s not. In every field, professors have the capacity to set students up for authentic, engaging assignments. If you don’t feel excited to read the paper, you can likely imagine how difficult it will be for students to engage in the much more substantial process of writing it. So, consider retooling the assignment into something you look forward to spending time reading. Might you consider new genres, audiences, or purposes for their writing? Develop a traditional essay into a problem-solving task? 4. What does good writing look like in your field? How can you convey this to students? We all know what good writing looks like in our fields, but students sometimes don’t even understand that writing forms, expectations, and conventions vary from discipline to discipline. Whether we like it or not, and whether we think we have time for it or not, it is our job to teach students about texts in our specific disciplines. Maybe that includes offering them annotated sample papers. Maybe this happens over a series of beginning-of-class conversations as they’re drafting. Maybe it’s showing them some of your own work or looking closely at the writing in a flagship journal. Regardless of how you do it, be sure that a part of the writing process for your students includes exposure and at least an introductory understanding to what “good” writing is to you and your field. 5. Are your grading criteria clear—and thoughtful and reasonable?We know that clear grading criteria—whether in the form of a rubric or a narrative—is key to student writer success, but it’s not as simple as assignment weights to columns such as “Grammar” and “Thesis.” In order to think deeply about how we’re grading, we also have to interrogate what assumptions we have about our student writers? What do we think they already know? Why do we think this? What do we prioritize in an essay, and more importantly, why is that the priority? Do our priorities align with our learning goals for students? These answers to these questions too should be transparent to students as they embark on your writing assignments. 6. What support and structure are you able to provide?Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments illustrates that the kinds of prompts that allow students to write strong papers share certain characteristics, and among the most important is providing support, both materially and in their process (35). How are you going to facilitate the writing that you want to see your students develop and showcase it in your prompt? Can the assignment be broken down into smaller, scaffolded steps? Or, if you want the students to practice managing projects and figure this out themselves, how can you serve as a guide as they work through time and resource management in order to do so? As scholars, we are not expected to create excellent work without feedback, and we shouldn’t expect it of our students either. We’re not only teaching content and, as noted above, what writing looks like in our discipline, but we’re also working to instill a writing process. Before assigning a paper, be clear about how you’ll build in steps, support, and this process of feedback and revision into your assignment. 7. Does it make sense for this particular assignment and your particular class to include a reflective element? Research shows that metacognition and reflection aid in the transfer of knowledge and skills, so building in some way for students to reflect on the writing and learning they’ve done through your assignment is a valuable way to help them take that knowledge forward, into other classrooms and, later, the workplace. 8. How can you go through the writing process yourself to create the most productive possible prompt? Ask for feedback from colleagues—or your students! There’s no shame in showing students a prompt and revising it based on their questions, perceptions, and, after the semester ends to benefit your next class, their writing. Bio: Jessica McCaughey is an assistant professor in the University Writing Program at George Washington University, where she teaches academic and professional writing. In this role, Professor McCaughey has developed a growing professional writing program consisting of workshops, assessment, and coaching that helps organizations improve the quality of their employees’ professional and technical writing. In 2016, she was nominated for the Columbian College’s Robert W. Kenny Prize for Innovation in Teaching of Introductory Courses, and in 2017, she won the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Emergent Researcher Award. References: Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. (29 July 2013). Retrieved from http://www.elon.edu/ e-web/academics/teaching/ers/writing_transfer/statement.xhtml   Gardner, Traci. (2008). Designing Writing Assignments. National Council of Teachers of English. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/gardner/   essay promptsformative assessmentgrading paperswriting assignment strategieswriting assignments  

Astha Reddy
English Teacher

How Superheroes Can Bring Your Online Discussion Board To Life

  Editor’s note: This article was featured on The Teaching Professor in December 2018. For more articles like this, learn more about a Teaching Professor membership. Late last summer we set the goal to liven up our discussion boards. We wanted a forum that encouraged diverse points of view, student questioning, and respectful debate. We did so by creating the gamified discussion board called Discussion Hero. Discussion Hero has students adopt either hero or villain roles and earn points for their posts based on the performance within the assumed role. This allows students to compete with one another to reach a higher status on the leaderboard, fostering motivation and engagement. How Discussion Hero Works To get started with Discussion Hero, the teacher first identifies a discussion topic or topics. Students then choose an avatar and role from lists made available in a questionnaire given to them at the beginning of class. There are currently only two roles: hero and villain. Students are provided with general descriptions of how each might behave to guide their responses and are then free to create their own variations within those roles. Next, students post a response to the discussion board within their role. Heroes start by stating their position(s) and providing support for them. But heroes cannot exist without villains—adversaries that challenge heroes, making them stronger with each confrontation. Villains play a very necessary role in creating rich and dynamic discussions. The villain may take a controversial position on a topic or just a different perspective. Villains may be mischievous or simply take on the “devil’s advocate” role as they debate the hero, questioning their assertions while providing counter information and supporting evidence. One example of student engagement with Discussion Hero occurred during the latest iteration in an online graduate course called Effective Communication. Students participated in the Discussion Hero activity in week two, and were asked to discuss five dimensions on which an audience can be analyzed. One student took on the persona of Darth Vader. Throughout the discussion the student used villain terms related to their character (“dark side,” “force”) when challenging other students’ posts or asking questions. The student applied their character’s values on each topic.  For example, Darth wrote, “Allied, but not the Rebel Alliance. My workforce must be in 100% agreement with me in order for us to work together to achieve a win. Any doubts, discontent or weakness will not be tolerated. With building projects as large as the ones I manage, everyone must be of one (dark) mind.” Even while writing through the eyes of “Darth,” the student managed to stay on topic and apply the concepts with a fresh, entertaining, and exciting viewpoint. In response, a hero called “Constructo” countered, “Hello Lord Vader, while I am certain that your communication approach has served you well (evidenced by the massive death star that you own), I might suggest you try easing up on the demands and need for absolute loyalty and subservience. You might find that with a little freedom your followers might come to you with some inspiring ideas, like not building a death star with such obvious vulnerabilities. Remember that you too once weren’t always so dark. Maybe there’s a little light inside that could help take your goals of domination to the next level? I will be on my way now, I mean you no disrespect… wait, what are you doing? I can’t breathe! I was just trying to be constructive! Give me another chance Lord Vader! I am sorry for being insubordinate! It will never happen again I promise!” This little piece of banter proves that not only can students give insightful commentary, but they can do it while still having fun. Scoring As the discussion develops, students are rated using a five criteria rubric which scores the frequency of their posts, the quality of their initial post, responses from other students, (i.e., how much their activity drives the discussion), post content and references, and mechanics, such as spelling and grammar. While some of these criteria require the teacher to manually rate them, others will be automated with simple programming algorithms in planned future versions of the activity. Currently, a scoring spreadsheet is used to input values and generate a percentage rating for each student. This rating is then used to update the leaderboard. The default Discussion Hero rubric and scoring spreadsheet are shown below. The leaderboard shows students in groupings by hero or villain. Ratings are given by hero and villain token symbols, each of which represents 10 percent of the total possible score. As students receive more tokens on the leaderboard, their status increases until they have received 10 tokens, at which point they have reached either Superhero or Supervillain status, depending on which role they chose. Students then receive digital badges with their hero or villain status level at the end of the activity. Results Discussion Hero was piloted in David Noffs’ course in the spring of 2018. The results were extremely positive. Compared to the previous discussion, there was a 26 percent increase in participation, with many students taking roles that were different from what they normally would assume, i.e. most students actually asked to take on villain roles. When surveyed, students returned an overwhelmingly positive response. Sixty-seven percent of respondents claimed they were motivated to participate more than in a regular discussion, and more than 90 percent of the class said they would like or be willing to use the activity in other courses. Many students stated that the role of the villain made them feel comfortable enough to state ideas they may have otherwise kept to themselves. One student stated that, “In choosing a villain, I felt a bit more comfortable making pointed statements without seeming overly critical.” Still others said that they, “… enjoyed the low risk, competitive aspects.” Another commented that, “I loved the leaderboard, it was really inspiring and motivating for me!” And yet another student stated that, “I think the argumentative nature made the discussion posts more entertaining and interactive. Despite the positives, however, challenges still lie ahead. One student refused to participate because it was not “adult” enough, and others bemoaned the lack of instant gratification (it still takes manual updating of the leaderboard until programming is completed). Still others said they would like to see more flexibility in their roles. But despite these obstacles, Discussion Hero has come a long way in a short time to shake up discussions at Northwestern University. Bios: David Noffs and Jacob Guerra-Martinez are learning designers at the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies. This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on December 10, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. discussion board assignmentsonline discussion groupsonline engagement  

Hari Om Bhaskar Sajjangadla
Telugu Teacher

Finding Our Way To Equity

  By now, most educators have seen the images of equity versus equality versus justice, and we argue over the merits of these images. What’s missing is a deeper conversation about what equity means, and how our various curricular initiatives contribute to transformation. We tend to talk about equity in ways that strip it of its revolutionary call for social justice. I see the problem as one of orientation. We are orienting to equity like it’s the North Star.  Because it’s a fixed point, Polaris or the North Star, is used in Navigation. The North Star is also used as a metaphor to mean an individual’s internal purpose and meaning in life. We operationalize equity as the North Star to establish the fixed point we are trying to achieve—percentages and quotas. However, setting equity as a North star fails in two significant ways. First, focusing on the North Star fails to signal the complexity of achieving equity. The terrain people must traverse to achieve equity is complex. Telling those in an academic institution to set equity as a fixed point does little to help teachers, academic support staff, and other frontline administrators as they confront institutional issues, policies, and practices that prevent equity. Second, we run the risk of stagnation and burnout. Teachers committed to equity in their classrooms and others who aspire for equity across the institution may get tired of always striving for equity and still seeing little progress.  We need a different way of orienting that recognizes the complexity of the equity work we’re being called to perform. That concept is wayfinding. Ancient navigators traversed and populated the Pacific using stars, the sun, the moon, weather, waves, and other signs of nature. Present day wayfinders spend a lifetime studying nature to help them find their way. In preparing to voyage, Nainoa Thompson studied the stars—all of them—and out of that study, he developed the star compass so he’d know star houses (where stars rise and set). Wayfinders study the weather to notice what’s up ahead, and how it compares to an hour, two hours, a day ago, all to determine the best path forward. And in the dark of night, with no other signs of nature, astute wayfinders can lie in the hull of the canoe to determine wave patterns to find their bearing.  If we want to find our way to equity, then we can’t continue imagining that by looking in the direction of the North Star we’ll find our way there. We need to be like wayfinders who study to figure out the equivalent “stars,” “weather,” “waves,” “sun,” and “moon” to help us find our way to equity. Further, we need to understand that this work of achieving equity is our avocation in life; achieving equity is the result of on-going praxis—reflection in action in our classrooms and across campus. Most importantly, we need to understand that we always find our way in community.  When we wayfind, we move forward by building on the collective capacity of everyone on the boat, everyone in our community.  It’s not one person reading the stars or waves. It’s not one person or one committee that champions equity or has the knowledge. We find our way to equity together; we do it in community.  In high school, I read John Donne’s Meditation 17, published in 1624: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man/ is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Donne is right.  People are not islands “entire of itself.”  But he’s also wrong because islands are not solitary pieces of land that extend out of bodies of water. They are connected. Take the Hawaiian islands, formed from a hot spot under the Pacific plate. Magma continuously erupts forming masses of land, and as the plate moves, the magma flow continues as well. As the Pacific plate moves, new islands form, all still connected below the ocean and not readily visible.  People are not islands. We are connected by bonds that we are not always able to see. We focus on the water that separates, rather than the bonds that flow and connect us.  So, as we move forward finding our way to equity, we need a new orientation that recognizes the bonds that connect us. That helps us focus on building our individual and collective capacity by learning together in classrooms and beyond them. May we soon come to realize that the path to equity is always about finding our way.  *Some ideas originally shared at Equity Institute 2.0.  Bio: Lauren Servais is a coordinator with the California Community College Success Network, where she collaborates with other educators to design professional learning experiences that embody what we know about powerful learning and equitable learning environments. Her varied professional interests are firmly rooted in her experiences of growing up on Oahu, talking story, speaking Hawaiian Creole, and being mixed race, multiethnic, and a first-generation college student.  Servais’s main inquiry has been how to most effectively help first-generation, linguistically and culturally diverse students acquire agency in higher education and gain access to multiple literacies, including academic discourse, to transform their worlds. She is also an English instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she co-coordinates the Asian and Pacific Islander American Student Success Program. classroom equity