Blog
Umaprasad Venktesh
Chemistry Teacher

Educating The Digital Native: Teaching Students In A Binge-watching World

Educating the Digital Native: Teaching Students in a Binge-Watching World No matter your specific discipline, teaching in the 21st century can often feel like you need an advanced degree in IT if you want to reach your students. After all, the majority of students are millennials or Generation Z, meaning most of them grew up with some form of technology in their hands. The theory that the best—really the only—way to get through to these digital natives is to speak their language, the language of tech, sounds plausible, but is it accurate? What is the best way to teach students in a binge-watching world? It’s Not About the Tech Whether you’re a veteran educator or you’re just getting your feet wet in the classroom, it can sometimes feel as though leaning heavily on tech in your teaching is the only option. There’s so much hype today surrounding the “technology-enhanced” classroom, anything less than a wholehearted leap onto the ed-tech bandwagon can seem like an abnegation of your responsibility to your students. But that is the danger. As Samuel Buemi discusses, amid all this fervor over screens and apps and VR, it’s far too easy to get misdirected, inadvertently focusing more on the technology than on the student. Besides, as anyone who taught before the digital revolution fully took hold knows, technology is by no means the only way to build connections with your students or to do productive, even life-changing, work in your classroom. Sometimes, you can go further with a stack of index cards or a pair of dice than you can with the coolest, most state-of-the-art gadget. It’s Never All or Nothing Of course, taking a bit of a step back from all the fervor doesn’t mean renouncing tech altogether. You may very well have a student riot on your hands if you tried. However, it does mean using tech more conscientiously and more deliberately. It means embracing strategies and systems that truly do seem to provide a measurable advantage over more traditional methods. For example, studies show that students learn more efficiently and retain information better if they develop some sort of emotional connection with the material. Technology can be immensely powerful in helping students achieve this emotional response, such as old-school film adaptations that can humanize Shakespeare for students struggling to connect with Elizabethan English. Or consider today’s innovations in virtual reality, that could, for instance, enable your class to “walk” together through the internal systems and structures of the human body. The Greatness of Gamification In addition to using tech to help your students connect emotionally with challenging content, tech can also be a great way to make your classroom more interactive. In fact, this is probably the attribute that has received the most attention in recent years. While we certainly don’t subscribe to the hyperbolic claims of ed-tech as some sort of teaching panacea, there seems to be little doubt about the efficacy of gamification in learning. There’s an old teaching aphorism that the student can’t really be said to have truly learned the content until they can use the material in some way. This is what gamification allows: students can use gamification technology to systematically master highly complex material, charting their progress through incrementally greater levels of difficulty. Students can be rewarded, both inside and outside of the game, for persevering through and ultimately overcoming learning content challenges at each gaming level. Best of all, the social nature, along with the surge of competition, can be particularly motivating for students, helping them to engage with material that was presented from a textbook page or classroom lecture. The Takeaway Teaching is one of the greatest, and one of the most difficult, professions there is. It is a calling of the heart. But to serve today’s students well, it is incumbent upon teachers to understand if, when, and how to incorporate technology into the classroom. While some measure of technology is not only beneficial, but necessary, for optimizing the education of today’s digital natives, it must be used with care, deliberation, and strategy if the reality is to live up to the promise.

Umaprasad Venktesh
Chemistry Teacher

Leading Our Classes Through Times Of Crisis With Engagement And Peace

Leading Our Classes Through Times of Crisis with Engagement and PEACE The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has caused a fast and radical shift across colleges and universities to remote and online teaching models.  As such, our face-to-face courses have been taken out of the physical classroom and thrust into virtual domains.  While many instructors are fluent and may prefer online teaching practices, others are struggling to rapidly expand their skill sets and become fluent in technologies they have never, or perhaps only briefly, explored. Although this transition to a remote teaching and learning format is uncomfortable for many of us, it has been inspirational to witness the collaborations that have emerged as a result of this pandemic.  More specifically, in order to support these hasty efforts to move teaching online, a variety of communities of instructors have emerged to provide guidance, advice, tutorials, and other resources to help themselves and their colleagues achieve “good enough-ness” in continuing to teach their students. The recent emphasis on logistical resources and teaching-related information is understandable.  Anecdotal accounts abound of instructors experiencing great anxiety at having been directed simply to “put classes online”, and these resources and information can help alleviate that anxiety and empower instructors to keep teaching.  What has received less attention, however, has been discussion of how we as instructors should lead our students and inspire them in this time of emergency.  Indeed, it is important to remember that while this is a new and unsettling experience for us, this is an equally new and unsettling experience for our students. How we address these changing circumstances to our students will markedly impact their own reactions.  We have an opportunity to use our teaching personas, philosophies, and practices to both help our students understand and manage the gravity of this current crisis and reassure them that we have some control, even in this uncertain situation, to create positive personal and professional experiences through our continuing academic connections.  Below, we provide recommendations for how we can use our teaching personas, philosophies, and practices to lead our students during this crisis. Acknowledge, and accept, that things are different now for us and our students.  We could not anticipate the essentially universal transition to remote learning models.  Many instructors do not want to teach online, and many students do not want to learn online.  We are justified not only in our frustrations caused by this transition, but also in our desire to commiserate briefly with colleagues about how difficult and scary this will be.  But rather than focus on the negative, we recommend that instructors immediately transition to discussing with their students how they are ready to accept and lean into these changes.  As instructors, we have the unique opportunity here to provide guidance, excitement, and inspiration about the changes we are facing.  We have the opportunity to communicate with our students the value of this modified educational experience, which is a much more effective use of our time and skills than grieving about how things were or could/should have been. Show your students that you will be reasonable and empathetic.  Once you have acknowledged the changes and guided your students to accept that these changes will happen, you have the opportunity to reassure your students that, at least academically, things will be okay.  Explicitly state to your students that you will shepherd them through this difficult time by making changes to their academic experience that are reasonable and fair.  Share with them your empathy to their experiencing potential crises in many domains of life.  Your student athletes may have had their seasons cancelled.  Your senior students may not see their friends again or experience walking across the stage to receive their diplomas at graduation.  Your students, or their family or friends, may be impacted directly by COVID-19.  Let them know that you recognize that your class is not the only responsibility or concern they have right now, and let them know that they can trust you to continue to promote their learning and academic success through this difficult time. Model engagement, optimism, and PEACE for your students.  Our teaching philosophy is called “Trickle Down Engagement,” and is based on the idea that instructors’ engagement in the course and the content will impact students’ engagement, and ultimately, will facilitate their learning.  Our Trickle Down Engagement teaching philosophy is based on theories of self-determination, intrinsic motivation, positive psychology, and emotional contagion, and our data supports this link between instructor engagement, student engagement, and student learning.  We believe that in times of crisis, instructors have the unique opportunity to model their engagement intentionally and palpably to their students to guide and inspire them through that crisis.  Instructors have the opportunity to model acceptance of and optimism about the situation.  Further, instructors have the opportunity to bring PEACE to their students.  In saying this, we mean not only that instructors can promote a sense of calm, reassurance, and positivity to their students  while teaching remotely, but PEACE is an acronym the describes the teaching persona they should make apparent to their students all the time. Instructors should explicitly manifest the attributes of Preparation, Expertise, Authenticity, Caring, and Engagement to their students.  By doing so, instructors can use their teaching personas intentionally to inspire their students to persevere through the challenges we currently face. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world and will fundamentally change how we face many aspects of life.  The transition of education to remote teaching models has been and will continue to be difficult for instructors and students.  While this pandemic is temporary, we may make permanent impressions on our students by focusing on more than how to deliver our content in online modalities.  We as instructors have unique opportunities to use our teaching personas, philosophies, and practices to inspire our students to keep learning, especially as we keep teaching in engaging and PEACE-ful ways. 

Mrigankasekhar Meenakshisundaram
English teacher

Eight Steps For A Smoother Transition To Online Teaching

Eight Steps for a Smoother Transition to Online Teaching As universities rush to get all their courses online quickly, there’s a high probability of error but also a lot you can do to succeed. Problems may occur due to overtaxed technological infrastructure, yourstudents’ disorientation and fear, and your own learning curve. On the positive side, you learn for a living, so you are good at it! Being open to the current crisis-driven educational opportunity is a call to action. The reputation and integrity of your institution—and you!—depends upon your offering engaging online classes. (No pressure.) Below are a few tips to get you started. Be a Learner:  You’re used to being an expert. But now you may be facing a situation where you aren’t an expert. For most of your students, taking all their classes fully online will be a new experience. If it’s new to you as well, don’t be afraid to let your students know that you are learning with them. Keep a beginner’s mindset. You don’t have to have all the answers. Just know how to point your students in the right direction. There are many free resources online to help out. And as you would tell your students, there are no stupid questions. Ask away. Do a Google search, check in with IT, phone a friend, or ask your students. They will be happy to help if you make it clear that having a great online course is a group project. Use Technology as a Means to an End: Don’t confuse technology with teaching. The goal is to use technology to facilitate engaging and effective teaching and learning. Know that technology’s tools of engagement (like discussion boards, wikis, journals, blogs, etc.) are just that—tools, not the engagement itself. What is the secret sauce? You are! Along with the community of learners that includes your students, your fellow faculty members, and every teacher on the internet! An LMS or Zoom can’t stand in for a trusted advisor, mentor, or experienced subject-matter expert like you. If you are new to online teaching, take it slow initially, but don’t leave out engagement. Don’t be “the Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain.” High “instructor presence”—the feeling that an instructor is still present in an online educational experience—is more critical now than it has ever been. Log into your course every day. Yes, every day. You don’t have to promise a 24-hour turnaround for responses. In fact, that will quickly exhaust you. A 48-hour turnaround response time is typical. But do respond to your students’ posts if you have a discussion board.  Set expectations of when you will and won’t be available. Don’t make Sunday night off-limits if you have an assignment due on Monday. That’s not fair. Make use of group communications, like the announcement function in your LMS, to touch base with your students every few days. Instructor presence is established when your students feel that you are there for them. It doesn’t have to be 24/7, but your students will miss you! So, stay in touch.   Know the Gotcha’s: Partner with IT to determine the top five to six technical issues that students are likely to encounter when accessing a course online. This may be a forgotten password, a pop-up blocker, or a browser issue. Educate yourself around what the issues could be because students will turn to you for technical support. To avoid spending more time troubleshooting technical problems than teaching your content, develop FAQs or links to websites or videos that provide solutions to the most common problems. You don’t have to become a programmer to intervene effectively on technical matter. You just need to tell people where they can find good information. Encourage all students to help one another, as well. If you begin to feel bogged down or frustrated with tech support questions, remember that you want to help. It’s part of the reason you chose this profession! Promote Engagement: In a pinch, there may be an impulse to use the LMS as a content repository: upload all the relevant docs, schedule a lecture in Zoom, and voila you have an online course! But such a course will not promote lasting change—as you would expect your classroom course to do. As you construct your class—even if it’s on the fly—ask yourself if your expected learning outcomes will be achieved. Avoid the trap of choosing “coverage” over engagement. Let students take turns week to week leading online discussions, either via Zoom or on the discussion board. Add peer-to-peer support, try virtual group work, and provide frequent opportunities for feedback. You don’t have to be technologically inclined to let your students know that you care about what they have to say. Upskill, Upskill, Upskill. Just as you shouldn’t overemphasize the role of technology in this educational moment, you don’t want to underplay it either. Everyone (faculty, administrators, and students) will need to upskill themselves in educational technology quickly. There are many free resources out there to get you started. Check out LinkedIn (which merged with Lynda.com) to find short videos on how to work in an LMS. If your university’s IT department is overloaded, take matters into your own hands by using OERs (Open Educational Resources). OERs provide a wealth of information and resources (such as videos, articles, examples, case studies, rubrics) and other things useful for you and your students. Creative Commons is a good place to start, and YouTube has some very helpful videos, as well. Survey Often and Early. Survey your students about how it is going early into your tenure as an online instructor. Fear not. You can handle the truth!  Quick surveys are a way to take the temperature of the room, a sense of the meeting. They provide an early warning system. The point is not to give yourself a grade but to find out which students are struggling and what they are struggling with. A simple 3-question questionnaire will do. Use a tool like Survey Monkey if you don’t know how to set up a survey in your LMS. Ask simple open-ended questions like: “What is the best thing about this experience so far? What would you do differently? How can I help?” An instructor may be unaware that half of the class can’t access one of the assignments because of a pop-up blocker or some other easy-to-fix issue. Believe it or not, communicating with your students online may give you the opportunity to be more connected to them as individuals. Keep it Simple. Think of your first online course as Version 1.0. Remember that the first time out of the gate won’t be perfect. Long past the national health crisis, there’s likely to be a version 2.0 and 3.0. Keep track of what you “wish you had known” as you go through the rest of the semester, and plan to use these nuggets of knowledge in future online courses. If you don’t have time to make videos, post your PPTs. If you don’t have PPTs, post your notes. If you don’t have notes, dictate your expertise into an audio recording application (such as VoiceThread) or just use your phone to create an audio (MP3) or video (MP4) file. All of this being said, don’t be too hard on yourself. You are, after all, making the plane while flying it! Allow yourself to make mistakes. Experiment. Have fun. You know this teaching-with-technology thing has been on your to-do list for a long time. So, let this be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. You are not alone. The whole world—your students, their parents, your colleagues, and your family and friends—are pulling for you right now. Our higher education system depends not upon your technical expertise, but your pedagogical passion. Keep your love of teaching front and center while you learn this important 21st century skill!

Mrigankasekhar Meenakshisundaram
English teacher

Nine Benefits Of Student-generated Discussion And Exam Questions

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. 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  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.

Divya Mathew

Good Questions For Better Essay Prompts (and Papers)

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.