In Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s TED Talk “4 Pillars of College Success in Science”, he told the story of Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi’s mother’s famous question: Did you ask a good question today? Let’s pause for a minute and reflect: What is a good question? What questions do you ask most frequently? What questions do your students or children ask most?

Question
Question

Types of Questions

Teachers usually encourage students to ask questions. Dr. Peter Liljedahl, author of “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics” and professor of Mathematics Education at Simon Fraser University in Canada, however, points out that not all questions need and should be answered directly. According to Liljedahl, there are three types of questions and only one type of questions requires direct answers. Liljedahl categorizes questions in K-12 mathematics classrooms into the following three types:

  1. Proximity Questions
  2. Stop Thinking Questions
  3. Keep Thinking Questions (Liljedahl, 2020)
Building Thinking Classrooms Book Cover

Proximity questions refer to questions students ask when the teacher is close by, as the name suggests. Liljedahl’s research showed that the information gained from such proximity questions was not being used at all. Stop-Thinking Questions are questions students ask just to get the teacher to do the thinking for them, with the hope that the teacher will answer it and they can stop thinking, such as “Is this right?”, “Do we have to learn this?”, or “Is this going to be on the test?” Unlike the first two types of questions, keep-thinking questions are often clarification questions or about extensions the students want to pursue. According to to Liljedahl, if you have an authentic and level-appropriate task for students to work on, 90% of the questions being asked are proximity questions or stop-thinking questions and only 10% of questions students ask are keep-thinking questions. Liljedahl pointed out that answering proximity questions and stop-thinking questions are harmful to learning because it stops students from thinking.

Next, how could teachers differentiate the types of questions being asked? Liljedahl offers a simple solution to separate keep-thinking questions from the other two types of questions: Are they asking for more activity or less, more work or less, more thinking or less?

After differentiating the types of questions, what should teachers do with these proximity questions and stop-thinking question? Ignore them? No, not at all! Liljedahl emphasizes that there is a big difference between having students’ questions heard and not answered, and having their questions not heard. How should teachers answers these proximity questions and stop-thinking questions then?

Ten Things to Say to Proximity And Stop-Thinking Questions

Liljedahl provides the following list of ten responses to a proximity or stop-thinking question so that you are not giving away the answer and taking the thinking opportunity away from students. Basically, you turn the questions back to your students!

  1. Isn’t that interesting?
  2. Can you find something else?
  3. Can you show me how you did that?
  4. Is that always true?
  5. Why do you think that is?
  6. Are you sure?
  7. Does that make sense?
  8. Why don’t you try something else?
  9. Why don’t you try another one?
  10. Are you asking me or telling me? (Liljedahl, 2021, p. 90)

Cross-Discipline Nature of Good Questions

“Building Thinking Classrooms“  is recommended to me by some college biology  teachers in the US. Biology teachers recommending math teaching book, isn’t that interesting? The reasoning behind this recommendation is that the techniques being taught in this book could be easily applied to any other teaching context to get your students engaged in thinking, whether it is K12 education or college education, math teaching or teaching of another subject.

If this brief introduction got you interested in reading the rest of the book and find out the rest of what the author has to share, it is available at Oregon State University library as an ebook or you can purchase it online.

Asking Good Questions for Management and Education Administration

If you are not directly involved in teaching and learning, but in administrative or management role in an organization, Dr. Amy Edmondson has some practical suggestions for asking good questions to keep organization growing healthily. Dr. Amy Edmondson, author of  “The Fearless Organization”, Novartis professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, states that good questions focus on what matters, invite careful thought, and give people room to respond. Edmondson also suggests three strategies for framing good questions:

  1. To broaden the discussion. For example: What do others think?
  2. What are we missing? For example: What other options could we consider?
  3. How would XXX (such as our role model, our mentor, or our competitor) approach this? For example: Who has a different perspective?

With the above tips for asking questions, are you ready to ask a good question today?

References

Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hrabowski, F. (2013). 4 Pillars of College Success in Science. TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/freeman_hrabowski_4_pillars_of_college_success_in_science?language=en

Liljedahl, P. (2020). Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, Grades K-12 : 14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2020

This is a guest post by Ecampus Instructional Design Intern Chandler Gianattasio.

At DePaul School for Dyslexia, I teach 5th-8th graders conceptual mathematics, ranging from basic number sense to advanced topics in Algebra 1. Through this experience, I have discovered something I had never heard of before, a learning disability commonly seen coinciding with dyslexia, called dyscalculia. Many people describe dyscalculia as “dyslexia for math.” Dyscalculia affects one’s ability to take in mathematical information, connect with and build upon prior concepts learned, discern cues for application, and accurately retrieve information. DePaul provides an alternative education for students with learning disabilities, emphasizing explicit instruction to best support their students. In this post, I will discuss the common deficits that make up dyscalculia, where it falls in the realm of disabilities, and some ways we can accommodate students with dyscalculia in higher education. 

Having dyscalculia can be debilitating, making it seem nearly impossible to keep up with neuro-typical classmates, especially when your class is on a fast-paced schedule, and when you are subliminally being told that asking for extra help will make you appear like you are lazy, unintelligent, unable to help yourself, and will just be one more problem that the instructor has to resolve. In Figure 1 (seen below), I have divided deficits of dyscalculia into five categories: executive functioning deficits1, auditory processing deficits2, nonverbal learning deficits3, language processing deficits4, and visual-spatial deficits5. Each category has a set of commonly experienced difficulties below them. However, these lists of difficulties are not exhaustive. 

Figure 1. “Common Challenges Faced by Learners with Dyscalculia” By Chandler Gianattasio – CC BY-NC.

Looking at some of the common symptoms of dyscalculia, you may be thinking that many of these symptoms are also found in other disabilities, such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and more, and you would be correct. There is a large amount of overlap amongst developmental disabilities, and each disabled individual presents with their own unique combination of symptoms and, often, coexisting disabilities. To understand where dyscalculia falls within the world of developmental disabilities, I referred to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by the Department of Education. Through IDEA, 13 distinctions of disabilities were made:

  1. [Specific] Learning Disability ([S]LD)
  2. Other Health Impairment (conditions that limit a child’s strength, energy or alertness)
    • ADHD, EFD, NVLD
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder
  4. Emotional Disturbance 
    • Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, etc. 
  5. Speech or Language Impairment 
    • LPD
  6. Visual Impairment (including blindness)
    • VPD
  7. Deafness
  8. Hearing Impairment 
    • APD
  9. Deaf-Blindness
  10. Orthopedic Impairment
  11. Intellectual Disability
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. Multiple Disabilities 

From this list, you may notice that there are only three diagnoses recognized as LDs: dyslexia, a reading disability, dysgraphia, a writing disability, and dyscalculia, a mathematical disability. All three of these LDs, as well as the majority of the other disabilities, have very similar biological limitations, each with the potential for a visual-spatial deficit, language-processing deficit, nonverbal learning deficit, auditory processing deficit, and executive functioning deficit. Due to individuals within each diagnosis having their own unique combination of symptoms, some may not have deficits in each of these areas. Figure 2 represents the potential combination of deficits an individual with each of these LDs may have. For instance, if you were to draw a straight line from dyslexia to the outer edge of the figure, the various deficits intersected would be representative of the profile of one individual. This figure shows the fluidity between different diagnoses and how easily co-existing conditions occur, due to a very similar underlying makeup. 

Figure 2. “Potential Combinations of Deficits Behind Each Learning Disability” By Chandler  Gianattasio, CC BY-NC-SA.

Figure 3 is shown below to reiterate the significant overlap found between disabilities. Looking specifically at weaker listening skills in this study, a characteristic originally classified as an APD trait, is also a very prevalent trait in individuals with LPD, dyslexia, ADHD and other LDs.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Specific Language Impairment (SLI),  Learning Disorders (LD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). [Colors shown in the charts do not correlate with Figures 1 & 2].

Figure 3. Same or Different: The Overlap Between Children with Auditory Processing Disorders and Children with Other Developmental Disorders: A Systematic Review” By Ellen de Wit, et al, CC BY-NC-ND.

Supportive Instructional Strategies

Supporting Executive Functioning Deficits

Students struggling with executive functioning become overwhelmed often due to either external or internal stimuli. They often struggle with rejection sensitivity dysphoria, emotional dysregulation and “time blindness”. The most significant way you can support these students is by creating a safe, non-judgemental space for them to communicate with you, and encourage them to always self-advocate, no matter what. You can further support students navigating executive functioning difficulties by doing the following:

  • Providing easily accessible reminders of important events and assignment due dates. Time management can be a major difficulty, especially with projects over an extended period of time.
  • Giving lots of positive reinforcement, checking in frequently, and having regularly scheduled meetings.
  • Pointing out any prior knowledge that is being built upon, and have them answer any questions based on prior knowledge that they’ve mastered in class to boost their confidence and increase their motivation.
  • Reducing extraneous stimuli and eliminating background noise as much as possible – whether that be in their environment, on a worksheet, in a presentation, in reference material, etc. 

Supporting Visual-Spatial Deficits

Students with visual-spatial deficits often struggle with creating their own visual representations of concepts being discussed, especially abstract or microscopic concepts. When navigating directions, these students also struggle with orientation – both cardinal and left versus right. This often presents when they are performing calculations with negative numbers. Most students with dyscalculia learn adding and subtracting via number lines that they manually traverse to understand the connection between operations properly. To help your students who have visual-spatial difficulties, you could offer the following:

  • Providing tangible manipulatives that they can touch and physically move in order to see how parts function together 
    • This could be provided when introducing a new concept as an addition to 2D drawings or descriptions
    • It’s always beneficial to have manipulatives available for your students whether that’s physical objects for in-person sessions or interactive virtual manipulatives for online sessions.
  • Providing graph paper, templates, and/or graphic organizers can be highly beneficial to your students to organize their thoughts and break up information. 
  • Integrating as much UDL in as possible! Presenting information in multiple formats and allowing the students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways will allow these students to participate in class and showcase their knowledge confidently. 

Supporting Auditory Processing Deficits

Students with an auditory processing deficit struggle to comprehend directions and content from listening. The most significant way you can help your students who struggle with auditory processing is by doing the following:

  • Speaking clearly. 
  • Trying your best not to explain things too quickly.
  • Being very consistent with the terminology you use (try not to use multiple names for one entity or idea).
  • Checking in with students often to see if they understand what is being taught or asked of them.
  • Always encouraging students to ask questions as they work.

Supporting Nonverbal Learning Deficits

Students with nonverbal learning deficits are very literal and struggle to see the overall picture, especially when it comes to abstract concepts. You can support students with an NVLD by doing the following:

  • Creating a lot of associations and parallels between content and what they already know (common, everyday nuances) could help these individuals a lot. 
  • Teaching concepts alongside any procedural knowledge you want them to retain will help them significantly, as they understand the “why” behind the steps. 
  • Making sure to provide a lot of concrete examples, especially when introducing a new topic. 
  • Structuring classes, making them as consistent and repetitive as possible. If they know what to expect and they are confident that they know how to handle it, these students will thrive. 

Supporting Language Processing Deficits

Language processing deficits very commonly occur alongside auditory processing deficits. Students with this difficulty struggle with comprehending directions and content both from listening and reading. To help support these students, try the following:

  • Keeping language used simple and consistent.
  • Ensuring adequate (and modifiable if possible) background to text contrast/color.
  • Using 1.5+ line spacing and increased spacing between letters or symbols.
  • Chunking content and utilizing bullet points when possible.
  • Using consistent color associations with certain topics can go a long way (i.e. red for negative and blue for positive).
  • Starting lessons off with a graphic organizer or outline, showing how ideas fit together.
  • Including simple diagrams to illustrate concepts or procedures.
  • Highlighting keywords, numbers in word problems, or other important information you want to make sure they see.
  • Creating accessible asynchronous/recorded lectures. 
  • Providing access to pre-written notes, “cheat sheets” displaying steps and formulas needed and worked-out sample problems so students can see what they are to do.

Remember that improving the learning experiences of our learners with special needs almost never comes at a cost to the “typical” learner – improving access, accessibility, and support for one improves these areas for all.

Available Accommodations at OSU:

In the Comments Below, Tell Me: 

Do you have any experience designing for learners with dyscalculia? What are some strategies you have found beneficial?

Resources to Explore:

Information shown in Figures 1 & 2  derived from the following sources:

Dyscalculia: neuroscience and education” By Liane Kaufmann;  “Double dissociation of functions in developmental dyslexia and dyscalculia” By O. Rubinsten & A. Henik; “Numerical estimation in adults with and without developmental dyscalculia” By S. Mejias, J. Grégoire, M. Noël; “A general number-to-space mapping deficit in developmental dyscalculia” By S. Huber, et al.; “Developmental Dyscalculia in Adults: Beyond Numerical Magnitude Impairment” By A. de Visscher, et al.; “Working Memory Limitations in Mathematics Learning: Their Development, Assessment, and Remediation” By Daniel Berch; “Learning Styles and Dyslexia Types-Understanding Their Relationship and its Benefits in Adaptive E-learning Systems” By A. Y. Alsobhi  & K. H. Alyoubi; “The Cognitive Profile of Math Difficulties: A Meta-Analysis Based on Clinical Criteria” By S. Haberstroh & G. Schulte-Körne; “Mathematical Difficulties in Nonverbal Learning Disability or Co-Morbid Dyscalculia and Dyslexia” By I. Mammarella,  et al.; “Developmental dyscalculia is related to visuo-spatial memory and inhibition impairment” By D. Scuzs, et al.;  “Dyscalculia and the Calculating Brain” By Isabelle Rapin

The distinction of potential difficulties one might experience were determined by the symptoms commonly seen in the following disorders:

  1. Executive Functioning Disorder (EFD)
  2. Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)
  3. Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD)
  4. Language Processing Disorder (LPD)
  5. Visual Processing Disorder (VPD)

The concept of resilient teaching has come to the forefront in the 2-plus years since the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly and radically altered the landscape of higher education. As faculty, students, and administrators devise strategies to cope with the myriad changes brought about by the pandemic, questions are ubiquitous about how to best support students and colleagues; how to adapt to changes in perceptions, practices, and expectations regarding teaching and learning; and how to avoid burnout.

Definitions and Scope

What is resilience? Resilience, in the physical sciences, refers to “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.” Resilience, in a psychological sense, is “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” And a classic definition of ecological resilience states, “Resilience is the capacity of complex systems of people and nature to withstand disturbance without shifting into an alternate regime, or a different type of system organized around different processes and structures.” 

How about resilience in teaching? In the early months of the pandemic, Rebecca Quintana and James DeVaney of the University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation posited an emergent definition of resilient teaching

The ability to facilitate learning experiences that are designed to be adaptable to fluctuating conditions and disruptions. This teaching ability can be seen as an outcome of a design approach that attends to the relationship between learning goals and activities, and the environments they are situated in. Resilient teaching approaches take into account how a dynamic learning context may require new forms of interactions between teachers, students, content, and tools. 

As Quintana and Devaney note, resilient teaching goes far beyond pedagogy per se. Narrowly, resilient teaching might be seen as coping with the pivot to emergency remote teaching. More broadly, resilient teaching stretches to encompass course design, and includes the well-being of students and faculty, the capacity of instructors to avoid burnout and sustain productive careers, all while attending to the importance of student success, equity, and inclusion.

Need

Because totally asynchronous online teaching–the mode of most Ecampus courses–doesn’t involve synchronous class meetings, it may receive less attention than on-campus teaching in conversations about resilient teaching. However, the manifold effects and overall disruption created by COVID-19, and the importance of instructor and student wellness are profoundly applicable to asynchronous online learning. Resilient teaching is essential in all teaching and learning modalities.

How serious is the need for resilient teaching and learning? Nationally, faculty report A Stunning Level of Student Disconnection, and both faculty and administrators see the value of supporting students through trauma-informed teaching practices. Many institutions are also concerned about The Great Faculty Disengagement and anecdotal evidence that many faculty are Calling It Quits. UC Irvine has even created a new position for a pedagogical wellness specialist both to support the well-being of faculty and graduate teaching assistants and to train them in teaching practices that support student well-being. 

OSU Activities

An ongoing series of activities at Oregon State University is focusing on resilient teaching:

  • In preparation for the 2021-22 academic year, Inara Scott, Asst. Dean for Teaching and Learning Excellence in the College of Business, wrote about Increasing Resilience through Modular Teaching last September. Scott proposed modular course design of on-campus courses as a way to build in future flexibility:

Modular teaching allows us to transition quickly from in-person to remote synchronous or HyFlex teaching; it also creates pathways for addressing quarantines and family emergencies–both our own and our students. Finally, it lays the foundation for future blended learning experiences, where students might learn in a hybrid format with both in-person and remote online elements. 

Scott’s modular approach is in keeping with Ecampus online and hybrid course design principles, using backward course design to align learning activities, assignments, and assessments with course learning outcomes. Scott urges instructors to rethink activities that are “modality limited” to synchronous classroom delivery, and to be prepared for the exigencies of asynchronous or remote delivery. 

  • In April, the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning sponsored a Resilient Teaching Symposium. In the keynote, Inara Scott discussed exhaustion, cynical detachment, and reduced sense of efficacy as distinct types of burnout that could affect teaching faculty. Scott offered the modular design approach as a tool to build teaching resilience. 

Symposium participants reflected in small groups on their resiliency and evidence they’ve seen of possible burnout. Then they discussed potential strategies to avoid burnout and build resilience into their teaching and their lives. Their resilient teaching suggestions on a participant Jamboard included:

    • Taking stock at the beginning of each term to think about resilience. 
    • Remember to be kind! Being kind and flexible shows strength not weakness.
    • Finding ways to connect individually with my students, especially in my online classes where it’s easy to disconnect.
    • Curriculum planning with lots of options to pivot and adapt.\
    • Saying “yes” to most things and “no” to others.
  • This summer, a small group of OSU faculty is exploring resilient teaching in an 8-week resilient teaching faculty learning community, a professional development opportunity sponsored by Academic Technologies and the Center for Teaching and Learning. The group is learning about flexible solutions for teaching challenges, techniques for integrating in-class and online learning activities, and strategies to build resilience in teaching. Sound interesting? See the Call for Participation for the Fall ’22 resilient teaching faculty learning community.

Learn More

Want to learn more about resilient teaching? Recommended starting points:

Resilient teaching and learning will continue to garner much-needed attention as higher education moves through the long wake of the pandemic. What are your strategies for maintaining resilience? Let’s talk about it.

Introduction

Getting students to read the syllabus is often a challenge in online courses. It is not uncommon for students to ask faculty questions that have answers easily found in the document. Even if students do read the syllabus, they may only skim through it. Ways to encourage a thorough reading include strategies like “easter egg” hunts where students find particular items to pass a syllabus quiz. This article will explore another method that uses a software application called Perusall, which is designed to encourage close reading.

Perusall is used at the Oregon State University Ecampus as a learning technology integration with Canvas, the learning management system. Using Perusall, students can highlight, make comments, and ask questions on a document. There is a grading interface with Canvas and a variety of settings, including reminders for students to complete the assignment. It offers a useful way for students to engage with the syllabus together, which can lead to closer reading than if they had done so individually.

Results

To test this idea, a professor used this approach with a 400/500 class that involved multiple assignments in Perusall throughout the term. If the syllabus assignment proved useful in Perusall, then it would also serve as an introduction to the platform for students. Here are some examples of student engagement that resulted from this activity:

  • Requests for additional background material to check for prerequisite knowledge.
  • Interest in the website of the professor (linked to in the syllabus).
  • Shoutouts to the course teaching assistant.
  • Concerns about the prerequisites for the class, which were addressed by the professor specifically.
  • Questions about technology used in the course based on students’ previous experiences in other courses.
  • Gratitude for ending the course week on Mondays instead of Sundays.
  • Confirmation by a student that the textbook is available as an electronic copy at the library.
  • Inquiries into the length and other logistics of Zoom office hours.
  • Excitement expressed by a student about a focus paper requirement.
  • Queries about how grade numbers are rounded and types of quiz questions.
  • Exchanges between a TA and a student looking forward to further discussions in Perusall.
  • Clarifications about the different work expected for undergraduates and graduates.
  • Ideas about how to communicate as a class.
  • Questions about the details of major assignments.
  • Appreciation of opportunities to participate in frequent knowledge checks.
  • Thanks for the late assignment policy and statements about flexibility.
  • Advice about how to check assignment due dates.

Conclusions

Students’ comments and conversations helped to initiate a feeling of community in the course. Many logistical issues were clarified for students by providing and encouraging a forum for discussion. There were highlights and comments by students on seven of ten pages of the syllabus. The three pages that were not discussed were university required policies. There were no negative comments about using Perusall as a syllabus activity. So this seems like a good method to engage students at the beginning of a course to prepare them for success. It may be especially helpful for classes using Perusall in other assignments because it provides a way to practice using the application.

References

  • Johnson. (2006). Best practices in syllabus writing: contents of a learner-centered syllabus. The Journal of Chiropractic Education, 20(2), 139–144. https://doi.org/10.7899/1042-5055-20.2.139
  • Lund Dean, & Fornaciari, C. J. (2014). The 21st-Century Syllabus. Journal of Management Education, 38(5), 724–732. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562913504764
  • Sager, Azzopardi, W., & Cross, H. (2008). Syllabus selection: innovative learning activity. The Journal of Nursing Education, 47(12), 576–576.
  • Stein, & Barton, M. H. (2019). The “Easter egg” syllabus: Using hidden content to engage online and blended classroom learners. Communication Teacher, 33(4), 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2019.1575440
  • Wagner, Smith, K. J., Johnson, C., Hilaire, M. L., & Medina, M. S. (2022). Best Practices in Syllabus Design. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 8995–8995. https://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe8995

NDAs and Open Pedagogy

One of the principles upheld by the open pedagogy movement is that the role of the learner must be active and the tasks that they engage in must be meaningful. These are not new ideas by any stretch, but as we move toward a more open pedagogical environment, it becomes necessary to examine the types of assignments that we create and assign. How do these tasks contribute to efforts to democratize education and increase learner autonomy, engagement, and freedom? What makes an assignment open? To answer these questions, this post will explore the relationship between open pedagogy and open assignments. 

While interest in the topic of open pedagogy has steadily gained steam in the roughly 50 years since its inception, definitions of and familiarity with the concept of today’s open pedagogy vary among educational practitioners. Some discussions focus on the expansion of the use of these resources. You might be hard-pressed to find an instructor who hasn’t at least reused open content (See 5R framework of Open Content) or encountered such materials as a student. Other conversations emphasize the remix and revise aspect of open content and pedagogical practices, and the number of faculty-created Open Educational Resources (OERs) intended to replace the traditional textbook is ever increasing. Still others have turned their attention to implementation of open pedagogical practices that put students in the role of content creators rather than passive beneficiaries of innovations in open content. In our efforts to create tasks that accomplish this shift in the role of the learner, we must first ask what the value of the task is for the student, peers, and the larger community, and what life will such a task have after its completion. To answer these questions, we can look to the non-disposable assignment (NDA). 

Non-Disposable Assignments (NDAs) 

To define the characteristics of this type of assignment, it is helpful to first define what we mean by “disposable” assignment. It is safe to say that we are all familiar with these types of assignments: typically they include one-off or busy work tasks designed to be filed away and forgotten as soon as completed and graded. In his article What is Open Pedagogy (2013), David Wiley described the disposable assignment in this way: 

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world.

Online learning within the confines of a learning management system (LMS) is particularly ripe for these types of assignments. In fact, one could argue they are designed for this type of task. In an online course, instructors create and post the assignment, students complete it, instructors grade it, the course ends, student work is deleted, the course is rolled over, and the next crop of students begins the cycle again. The work is designed to be contained within the LMS for the duration of a course, not to be shared with a broader audience of students or colleagues. 

As an alternative to the disposable assignment in favor of more meaningful tasks, Wiley coined the term Non-Disposable Assignment. The NDA (also referred to as a renewable assignment), in contrast to its binworthy counterpart, is an assignment that “adds value to the world.” Later definitions, no doubt influenced by the growing open pedagogy movement and the promotion of the use of OER materials, go further and hold that an NDA ought to produce a resource that is openly published so that “others can find, use, and if desired, repurpose or update the work,” (Jhangiani, 2015; Wiley, 2013; Wiley et al., 2017; Wiley & Hilton, 2018). Such assignments put the learner in the role of creator and impact or benefit an audience beyond the instructor and student. Because the premise of the NDA is that it can not only be shared widely, but also revised and reused without permission by both instructors and students, the content should be openly licensed. Considering the role of learners as authors of the content, they should have a say in determining the type of open license appropriate for their work.

In the article A Conceptual Framework for Non-Disposable Assignments: Inspiring Implementation, Innovation, and Research, Seraphine et al (2019) provide a set of principles NDAs must adhere to. The Five Principles are summarized as follows: 

  1. NDAs fundamentally involve information collaboration and exchange.
  2. As forms of responsive and responsible pedagogy, NDAs involve communication throughout and opportunities for revision, creativity, modifying key terms and objectives, etc.
  3. While NDAs might not necessarily involve communal assembly, the resulting product or practice must always be shared outside the teacher-student dyad, creating opportunities for communal access of the NDA as an information resource 
  4. NDAs produce learning through cooperative critique.
  5. Because they are not exams or isolated writing assignments, NDAs involve innovation as a fundamental concept.

Benefits and Value of NDAs

Apart from their ability to reach a broad audience, NDAs increase student motivation, engagement and autonomy resulting in improved achievement of learning outcomes. (Ariely, Kamenica, & Prelec, 2008; Chalofsky & Krishna, 2009; Pink, 2011). While this claim may be at least in part anecdotal, it follows that when students know that their work may be used by peers, faculty, and colleagues across their field in the future, investment in the quality of their work increases. Non-disposable assignments and authentic assessments have the potential to add value in other areas by:

  • promoting community engagement.
  • fostering innovation. 
  • interrogating and dismantling systems of oppression by centering experiences of historically marginalized groups.
  • providing opportunities for culturally rich content (inject identity, student influence over content). 
  • cultivating information literacy skills.  
  • increasing accessibility to educational resources.
  • helping students communicate in writing to a general audience.
  • offering opportunities to collaborate with peers around the world. 
  • increasing self-regulated learning and autonomy.

Despite their numerous benefits, NDAs are not without challenges and risks. For example, some students may be resistant to the exposure and the vulnerability inherent in creating open content for broad use. In such cases, instructors must provide alternative assignments or options not to share. Because student-generated content requires substantial metacognitive skills, instructors must ensure that NDAs involve significant scaffolding at multiples stages in the learning process (Zimmerman, 1990; Zimmerman, 2002). Furthermore, the open nature of student-generated content presents a quality control challenge that instructors must anticipate and address by providing multiple opportunities for revision and peer review

NDA Design and Students as Producers

Implementing assignments that have the potential for broad impact beyond the typical instructor-student dyad can seem daunting. After all, conceptualizing and creating tasks that effectively revise the role of student from a passive one to actual content creators is no small feat. However, it is important to remember that the scope can vary widely. Indeed a well-crafted discussion between two students might form the basis for a renewable assignment. Other examples may include experiential connections such as student-generated podcasts; the production of flyers, guidelines, or materials for local community organizations; or even collaboratively created and maintained global resources such as wikis like the Chemistry Library. Whatever the scope, NDAs can—and arguably should—be iterative allowing for innovation and adaptation to various contexts. 

With the role of the student as producer in mind and an understanding of the potential pitfalls that an open assignment might present, faculty can then turn to the conventional principles of backward design to develop meaningful student learning experiences that add value for learners and their peers while also promoting community engagement.

Instructors should consider the role of students as they develop non-disposable assignments to put students in the role of content creators. Source: The Non-Disposable Assignment: Enhancing Personalised Learning – Session 1 Slideshare, CC Attribution-ShareAlike


Examples & Resources 

References 

 

Over the last couple of terms, I joined a series of reading sessions with instructional design colleagues to read Alfie Khon and Susan Blum’s book Ungrading. Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) and discuss the practices and implications of this approach to reconceptualize assessment design and the place of grading. This two-part blog aims to capture the takeaways from those discussions including the main concepts, approaches, types of activities, implications, and challenges of adopting ungrading practices. This first part of the blog covers a brief overview of the concept of ungrading, its major benefits, and design considerations; and the second blog will include a summary of the types of ungrading practices and challenges to implementation ––all derived from the authors’ extensive arguments and examples. For a detailed review and summary of the book chapters, you can also check the blog Assessment Design: Ideas from Ungrading Book.

Overview of Ungrading

The concept of ungrading is sparking widespread interest only recently even though educators have been studying and using ungrading approaches for quite some time. The foundational premise of ungrading is to move away from a focus on grades that judge, rank, sort, and quantify student learning to adopting an approach that focuses on using alternative and authentic means to assess learning such as self-evaluation, reflection, student-generated questions, peer feedback, to name a few. Along with that premise is the questionable ranking that comes with grading which makes students compete with one another in an artificial way. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) sees ungrading as a conversational method that facilitates the communication between instructors and students about how students perform in the class. If, as underscored by the authors, grading and the fact of assigning point values to students’ performance makes more harm than good, then, why use grading? Considering that grading is rooted in our educational systems, many of these authors conclude that it becomes inevitable to grade student learning as it is currently done today.  

A clock and a checklist

Several scholars and instructors consider grading to be problematic. First, grades are not good indicators of learning. Blum (chapter 3) argues that grading assumes all students are the same, does not provide accurate information about student learning gains, is consequential, adds fear and avoidance of negative consequences, and is arbitrary and instructor-led. Second, the overemphasis on grades can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation, students’ excessive anxiety, and the complexity of quantifying how learning happens (Stommel, chapter 1). Third, it can also decrease interest in learning, students may feel inclined for easier tasks, and critical thinking is lacking (Alfie Khon, foreword). Fourth, grading makes students be fixated more on their grades than on the process of learning, leading them to believe that grades are all that matters in school (Khon & Blum; Talbert, 2020). And finally, too much focus on grades can be detrimental to students’ mental health (Eyler, 2022). However, ungrading does not mean dismissing grades altogether. Instead, Stommel proposes creating a learning space that fosters critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition– all skills that are valuable for 21st-century education. Likewise, Alfie Khon contends that grading can be participatory since it does not require a unilateral decision, and thus, students can also propose their own grades (with the instructor’s reservation to accept them). 

“Ultimately ungrading— eliminating the control-based function of grades, with all its attendant harms— means that, as long as the noxious institutional requirement to submit a final grade remains in place, whatever grade each student decides on is the grade we turn in, period.”

(Khon, 2020, p. xv)

While ungrading may be an innovative approach to assessments, it should be thought of carefully and adopted with a clear objective. Ungrading, as pointed out by Katopodis and Davison (chapter 7), needs a structure to be effective, allowing students to envision themselves as authoritative, creative, confident, and active, thus achieving a high impactful goal. As ungrading requires instructors to evolve in their approach to assessment, it does too for students who are expected to engage in a process of self-evaluation, self-assessment, and reflection. This requires engagement in metacognitive practices that many students might not be ready to embark on or don’t know how to do it. In addition, while ungrading is believed to be student-centered, it can deepen equity gaps if guideposts are entirely removed. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) believes that ungrading is a matter of social justice –going beyond the expected student agency and aiming at having students exercise their voice and participate in assessment decisions. 

As a whole, Blum (introduction chapter) provokes us all to rethink the nature of grading considering that students’ learning conditions vary, with many enduring inequities at many levels. Blum wants us to keep focused on how “varying assessment and feedback methods contribute to the real learning of real individual learners, rather than imposing an arbitrary method of sorting.” (p. xxii); all for the sake of healthy learning. 

These are a few key points about the arguments for ungrading. While this assessment practice is taking force in higher education, there are also many critics and skeptics. The purpose of this blog is not to enter into the discussion and controversy of ungrading, but to share a few perspectives and takeaways after an intense and well-structured book club discussion. In the following section of this part-one blog, I will share considerations for designing for ungrading. 

Assessment Design Considerations

Tasks and activities from a laptop computer

The educational system requires all instructors to submit grades at the end of every term. There is dissatisfaction with the current grading practices among many instructors and students as explained at large in the book. Here is where the ungrading movement takes force to provide alternative ways to account for evidence of student learning. Riesbeck (chapter 8) argued that by implementing ungrading practices, students can focus more on the content and feedback than on the grades. The use of critique-driven learning allows for more easily quantifiable efforts, progress, and accomplishment. Each ungrading consideration is dependent on a myriad of factors that may or not apply to each instructor’s context. The bottom line in ungrading is re-envisioning the teaching and learning process, engaging students in active learning, and active self-assessment through feedback. The following are design considerations:

Decenter grading and communicate (un)grading practices

Instructors can encourage students to focus on the process of learning, instead of talking about grades, Blums says, we should talk about the purpose and goals of the activities with students. These conversations can help develop relationships with students to encourage them to own their learning and have a voice in that process. Decentering grades also involves having an ongoing conversation with students, colleagues, and administrators about assessment decisions. Although each instructor exercises their academic freedom, it is also essential to share assessment practices that work and possible changes to implement.  In these conversations, it is also important to carefully use language that conveys a clear understanding of the concept and practice of ungrading to avoid confusion, anxiety, misunderstandings, and reactions that prevent its implementation. Having these kinds of conversations can help shift the mind from a grade-focused to a learning-focused approach. A key element in these conversations is to ensure that the pedagogical reason behind the adoption of ungrading practices is not only clear but well understood (and this may take time).

Set a structure for ungrading

As with other elements of exemplary course design considerations, the structure of assessment practices is necessary. Adding a structure for ungrading assignments gives students a clear objective, steps, and flow that allow them to be consistent and accountable to their own learning goals and strategies. 

Reflect on pedagogical and assessment practices

Instructors are invited to examine more in-depth their grading policies, why they grade in the way they do, what they are grading, and how they grade. In many cases, the path to ungrading is a response to dissatisfaction with grading policies. Aaron Blackwelder (chapter 2) says that, over time, he turned into a gatekeeper; he lost focus and was more interested in meeting institutional and “rigor” requirements than building relationships with students. His students had turned into competitive grade seekers. He questioned what a grade really suggests and posits that grades fail to communicate learning. The fact that grading allocates a specific number or letter that can bring some negative feelings to students, can also negatively affect the potential for learning. Sackstein (chapter 4) calls for a change in mindset to identify the way in which learning can be communicated and understood beyond the traditional use of numbers and letters.  While Blum also argues for assessing the entire learning experience (with portfolios, for example), Sacksatein suggests considering changes in the language of grading which can provide students with an opportunity to shift the way they feel and think about their own learning. 

Teach students to view mistakes as a necessary step in the learning process

Instructors are invited to reflect on how traditional grading practices are punitive, dehumanizing, and demotivating. Gibbs (chapter 6) points out that a system that punishes students for making mistakes reinforces the notion that all learning is flawless and therefore mistakes need to be avoided. Ungrading, on the other hand, aims to implement and cement the idea that learning is a process that needs constant feedback for that learning to be consolidated. Therefore, students need to be given opportunities not only to learn from their mistakes but to act on them in an interactive way. This requires instructors to plan for assessments that include steps for review (e.g., self, peer) to help the student build their skills, and knowledge over time.

Care for students and their learning

Instructors are also invited to demonstrate more explicitly that they care and validate students’ work. Further, Gibbs (Chapter 6) argues that her teaching philosophy is better summarized by the word “freedom”, the freedom that learners have to learn and grow at their rhythm and the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The role of the instructor is then to be supportive in that process through feedback and empathy. Ungrading, as it is overall discussed throughout the book, does not mean that there are no assessments or grading at all. On the contrary, the assessments should focus on helping students build their knowledge and understanding in less stressful ways, allowing students to build learning habits, develop creativity, become better communicators, and connect to their lived experiences and contexts. Caring for students also involves valuing their identity as learners and what they bring into the learning environment.  

Be aware that ungrading can increase student anxiety and uncertainty

It is critical that instructors who are considering ungrading be cognizant that it involves a high level of anxiety and uncertainty on the part of students. Let’s recognize that students are so used and “conditioned” to grades that they will find it confusing not to have a grade associated with each assignment in the course. Many students consider being successful if they score a perfect grade which can be overwhelming and obscure the value of learning. Instructors who adopt ungrading should explain why and how ungrading will be done in certain classes. This will add transparency to the expectations and assumptions that instructors have about students.

Implement student voice and choice supported with personalized feedback

Instructors can help students take ownership of their learning through hands-on, real-life activities that allow students to use the content they are learning in projects of their interest, conduct research, and solve problems. Students can choose their topics and projects and the instructors can guide them to narrow topics and ensure the projects are feasible within the course timeframe. Consider feedback as a formative assessment approach that enables students to make choices about their learning strategies and needs to improve their learning tasks. Sackstein (chapter 4 ) suggests teaching students to collect feedback and identify the strategies that work for different kinds of assignment revisions. This way, students can develop better strategies that move them from lower-thinking to higher-thinking processes. 

Since ungrading promotes the use of student-self assessment and reflection practices, it implies that instructors will need to personalize and tailor feedback to meet students where they are. In addition, instructors can consider setting a culture of feedback (Gibbs, chapter 6) where instructors teach students to use feedback to improve their work, provide peer feedback effectively, and see the value of learning from their mistakes. 

Promote peer support

Authors of several chapters in this book have posited that students are more likely to give each other better feedback in the absence of grades. This kind of feedback can allow students to help each other, learn from one another, expand their awareness of their own understanding, and develop skills for life. Peer support will also help students build their confidence and autonomy to learn from each other. 

Trust students

One critical aspect of assessment is trust –trust that students do the work they are expected to do by themselves. Instructors have legitimate reasons to express their concerns and create course policies about academic integrity that lead them to adopt plagiarism systems and surveillance tools to monitor and proctor students’ work. In adopting ungrading, trust is fundamental to change the way learning and performances are assessed. It involves helping students think differently about what it means to learn. Instructors can help students evolve in their approach to learning to move away from grades to focus on their learning by including in assessments strategies for building capacity for metacognition, confidence in their skills, life-long learning goals, and owning their learning. 

Ungrading does not mean instructors don’t grade and students don’t receive grades on their work. Ungrading, as posited by the authors in the Ungrading book, is a mindset to approach student learning differently. In the second part of this blog, I will share the types of ungrading practices, implications, and challenges as presented in the book. 

References

Project

By: Ashlee M. C. Foster MSEd, Instructional Design Specialist | Oregon State University Ecampus

Did you know a pedagogical approach exists that positively impacts student academic achievement and engages them as active participants in learning? Great news…there is! Let me introduce you to the world of Project Based Learning (PBL). 

What is PBL?

PBL is a student-centered pedagogical approach where students, both individually and within small groups, engage with meaningful, relevant, and authentic projects which result in a product. Oftentimes, PBL is commonly associated and/or thought to be interchangeable with Problem Based Learning. However, there is a distinction between the two. The principal focus of PBL is on the active construction of knowledge. Additionally, student autonomy, beliefs, values, and motivations are situated as a fundamental driving force of the instructional approach.

What are the characteristics of PBL?

The essence of PBL is anchored in attributes, which foster high-quality learning experiences. Direct instruction is no longer the principal mechanism for delivery. Negotiation of knowledge between the educator and the students occurs through an exchange of ideas, questioning, inquiry, considerations, and perspectives. PBL often engages students in an ongoing process consisting of investigation, collection, analysis, prototyping, testing, peer/instructor feedback, revisions, and reflection. Learner autonomy is key in that students make their own decisions about various aspects of the projects (i.e., line of inquiry, collaborative processes, application of feedback, types of revisions, solutions).

Is it effective? Prove it!

As reported by Chen and Yang (2019), a positive impact on student achievement has been observed across 20 years (i.e. 1998-2017) of PBL peer-reviewed literature. The researcher’s principal investigation was to compare traditional instruction with that of PBL. Traditional instructional delivery was found to prompt students to apply low-level cognitive processes (e.g., understand, remember). Whereas, PBL can encourage the development of (HOTS) Higher Order Thinking Skills (i.e., analysis synthesis) and metacognitive skills (i.e., regulation, monitoring, self-directed learning, evaluation, assessment). According to the meta-analysis, the aforementioned benefits were found not to be impacted by academic discipline, educational stage (undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, graduate), or geographic location. This is great news for our distance and hybrid learners!

How do I get started?

When considering PBL there are a few questions to reflect on before implementing this practice. First, ask yourself, is this a best-fit approach? Consider the academic discipline, subject content, course learning outcomes, your instructional style, student attributes, and the intended goals to answer this foundational question. A word of caution is to use PBL in a way that is relevant, authentic, and collaborative in nature. Steel clear of using projects as a shiny solution. Lastly, contextualize the project. Doing so will help students connect the project to their academic career, professional development, and personal growth. Remember to share the ‘why’!

Project Examples

Here are a few project examples to spark some ideas: 

  • solve a problem (e.g., uninformed voting) 
  • generate a plan (e.g., foster sustainability)
  • create a product (e.g., computer/mobile application, oral history interviews)
  • seek valid answers and recommend solutions (e.g., electing national officials) 
  • engage with a persistent issue in a tangible way (e.g., advocating, protesting, public speech) 

Do you have an example to share?

Respond in the comments if you currently use, have used, or intend to incorporate PBL in your course. Do you have any tried and true strategies for effective projects? Have you experienced any wins or challenges? Share with the community and join the discussion. Make sure to return to read Project-Based Learning (Part 2) – Mindful Design for practical implementation tips! 

References

Adapted from Leo Babauta’s excellent Zen to Done, (itself a remix of sorts of David Allen’s Getting Things Done), this guide has been extremely helpful for my ever-growing to-do list over the years. Whether you’re an instructional designer, faculty member, student, or administrator, I hope this list helps you in your day-to-day tasks!

  1. Collect: Have an idea? Remember something that needs doing? Get it out of your brain!
    This tool should be simple and something handy, like a small notebook or a trusted app. Look for something that is portable that you’ll usually have on hand and don’t mind keeping with you. You’ll also want something you’re comfortable with—you’re more likely to use it if you like using it. The simpler and faster you can get those ideas collected for later, the better! Also think about where other items collect on their own—email inboxes, phone messages, etc. How many inboxes do you have?
    • What do I use? A mix between a Moleskine notebook for analog capture and Todoist on either my laptop or phone for digital capture, plus my email inbox.
  2. Process: What do you do with all those things you’ve collected and all your various inboxes? I schedule time (usually first thing in the morning as I’m getting started with my day and in the afternoon after lunch) and go through each item in each inbox and follow the ZTD suggested order for making decisions about each one as I process each individual inbox (no need to compile, since anything leftover will be added to a to-do list):
    1. Do it (if it takes 2 minutes or less): quick email replies, simple and short tasks, etc.
    2. Trash it: newsletters after reading, junk email, information I no longer need, etc.
    3. Delegate it: tasks for assistants, tasks I need assistance with, etc.
    4. File it away: information I need to hold onto, but don’t need at the current moment—bookmarks, files, etc.
    5. Put it on my to-do list: the things I need to schedule time to do!
      I usually allow for around 30 minutes for each process session so I have ample time to attend to everything, including those short tasks, without feeling rushed.
  3. Plan: Now that your list is narrowed down to larger to-do list items, can you identify 1–3 “most important tasks” (MITs) for your current day? How long do you think each task will take? Can you prioritize your MITs for earlier in the day? The more experience I get with this step, the more accurately I can guesstimate how long certain tasks will take and create a daily schedule. On days when I already have a lot of meetings and other obligations, it can be tricky to get a lot done in the small pockets of time between events, so I try to have a prioritized list that I can chip away at as I have time. Anything that doesn’t get done that day is rescheduled for the next as an MIT.
  4. Do: Arguably the most important part of this list, actually doing the tasks you’ve selected is next! Now that inboxes are sorted, this is the perfect time to turn on do-not-disturb, close distracting apps and windows (and all those notifications!), and focus on your selected task(s). If you do get distracted, remember to collect those thoughts/ideas for later so you can get back to the task at hand.
    • What do I use? I really like the Pomodoro technique for tasks I expect to take 2+ hours, mostly because it schedules in short breaks that I am prone to skip without it.

There is a lot more to both ZTD and GTD, but these four steps are a great start for taming an unruly to-do list. In the process, you might also find it possible to achieve “inbox zero” (at least during each process step) and reduce some digital clutter and stress in your day-to-day activities.


This past February, I was putting together a proposal for the 2022 Distance Teaching & Learning (DT&L) Conference, and I shared my draft with a couple of my colleagues for feedback.

Typically, when requesting feedback, our team relies on Google Docs, which has a nice feature set for suggesting edits.

However, I was not using Google Docs. I explained that they would be viewing my formatted document on HackMD, a collaborative web-based Markdown tool.

One of the colleagues I had asked for feedback responded:

What are the pros and cons compared to a google doc, may I ask?

That question inspired this blog post.

What is Markdown?

Markdown is a plain text format with a simple syntax to add formatting elements (headings, lists, quotes, bold, italics, etc.). It is easy to convert Markdown files into other formats, such as PDFs, HTML, and rich text. One of the primary uses of Markdown is creating content for the web, which can be done with almost no knowledge of HTML. The first Markdown specification was developed by John Gruber and Aaron Swartz in 2004 and released as Open Source.

What Are the Advantages of Writing in Markdown?

It Is Easy to Learn and Fast to Write

Most markdown syntax is intuitive. Perhaps you are writing a document, and you decide you want to emphasize some text using bold or italics styling. In Markdown, you can surround the words with underscores or asterisks rather than select content and apply a style from a menu or keyboard command. For bold text, add either two asterisks or two underscores before and after the word (your choice, most editors support either syntax):

**bold**
__bold__

For text that you want to be displayed in italics, use one underscore or asterisk before and after the word:

*italics*
_italics_

Creating hyperlinks in documents, a somewhat tedious process in a word-processing program or HTML, is as easy as putting a descriptive link text in brackets and then an address immediately following in parenthesis, like this:

[OSU Canvas Dashboard](https://canvas.oregonstate.edu/)

which in my document becomes: OSU Canvas Dashboard.

It Is Just a Text File

A Markdown file with the extension “.md” is just a plain text file. Storing information in plain text files has several advantages:

  1. Text files are future-proof. You can open a plain text file with any editor on any platform. You are not hostage to the proprietary format chosen by an application developer. You are not dependent on any particular software program still being around to open your Markdown files.
  2. Text files require very little storage. This blog post, written in Markdown, was almost 250% larger once converted to a Microsoft Word document.
  3. Text files are platform-agnostic, making them easy to share with other people or multiple devices. A text file can be opened on a Mac, on Windows, in Chrome OS, in a web browser, on an ios or Android smartphone, or on a Linux machine.
  4. If you open up one of your Markdown text documents in platforms like Box or Dropbox, it automatically renders the HTML.

Markdown is Highly Portable

One of the most significant advantages to writing in Markdown is how easy it is to convert Markdown into virtually any other file format:

  • HTML: With no knowledge or experience in web development, you can quickly convert Markdown to HTML. There are many ways to convert Markdown to HTML. You can use a web-based tool such as Markdown2Html or StackEdit or work in a text editor with support for exporting Markdown in various formats like Brackets.
  • RTF: An RTF file keeps basic formatting, such as links or emphasis, while retaining a text file’s flexibility and small size.
  • PDFs: Many Tools support applying CSS-based styles during a conversion. On my Mac, I use Marked 2 and several of the Marked 2 – Custom Styles to create beautiful PDF files.
  • Word: Markdown formatting information (titles, headings, quotes, paragraphs, lists, etc.) is retained during conversion. Suppose you convert a document from Markdown to Word. You can then apply any of the built-in styles available in Microsoft Word to format your file instantly.

For a much longer list of the supported conversion file types, explore Pandoc, a universal conversion utility. Using Pandoc, I have converted markdown files into a slide deck, a mind map, a Google Doc, and a Microsoft Word doc, but there are dozens of additional options.

It Is Easier to Read and Write Than HTML

Let’s look at a numbered list with some simple formatting. I have applied bold to item 1 and italics to item 4:

  1. Analysis
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Implementation
  5. Evaluation

Here is what that list looks like in Markdown:

1. **Analysis**
2. Design
3. Development
4. _Implementation_
5. Evaluation

If you were to write that same list in HTML, it would look like this:

<ol>
<li><strong>Analysis</strong>
</li><li>Design</li>
<li>Development</li>
<li><em>Implementation</em></li><li>Evaluation</li>
</ol>

Even if you are comfortable coding in HTML, writing the list in Markdown is much quicker and can be quickly converted to HTML at any time.

You Can Write Without Distraction

Using Markdown, I can focus on content rather than the formatting. I can indicate how something should be formatted (as a hyperlink, heading, paragraph, etc.) and then let a MarkDown tool transform my document to numerous other file types. I don’t have to look at dozens of text and paragraph formatting options on a ribbon toolbar or interrupt my writing to apply them.

What Do You Need to Get Started?

A Text Editor

You can write Markdown in any text editor. However, many tools provide a real-time preview of your formatted document and give you several export options. These web-based Markdown tools are free options worth exploring:

  • Dillinger is a great place to start. You can experiment with the syntax and instantly preview your content without installing any software on your computer. StackEdit works much the same way. Both are free, and both support export to HTML and PDF.
  • HackMD is another web-based tool, also free, which has collaborations options.

If you prefer working in a desktop application, there are also many options. Here is a nice write up of several Markdown Editors.

Learning the Syntax

After choosing your editor, you need to get familiar with some basic syntax. The most common and helpful Markdown syntax is very easy to master. You saw bold, italics, and a Markdown link earlier. Here are a few more examples:

Headings

To place a heading in the document, precede the text for the heading with one or more hashtags. Here’s a level two heading:

Level Two Heading

In Markdown, you would write it like this:

## Level Two Heading

Many Markdown editors also support the use of an id in a heading:

### Level Three Heading {#custom-id}

When converted to HTML, this will give you an anchor that you can use to link directly to that heading.

<h3 id="custom-id">Level Three Heading</h3>

Lists

Lists look much like they would in any other document. Here is a numbered list:

  1. trumpet
  2. french horn
  3. tubal
  4. trombone

which in Markdown is:

1. trumpet
2. french horn
3. tuba
4. trombone 

and an unordered list:

  • cymbal
  • drum
  • marimba
  • tambourine
  • xylophone

looks like this in Markdown:

- cymbal
- drum
- marimba
- tambourine
- xylophone

Or you can use the single * with a space to make a list of items like this:

* string instruments
    * cello
    * violin
    * harp

Note the support for indenting lists using spaces in the example above, which would work with either * or -. The Markdown list above would render like this:

  • string instruments
    • cello
    • violin
    • harp

Hyperlinks

To make a hyperlink in Markdown, you write a descriptive title in brackets, followed by the URL in parenthesis, as mentioned above. You can even save yourself the trouble of manually creating markdown links through the use of one of the many available browser extensions like this one for Chrome or this one for Firefox, which allow you to copy a website address as a Markdown link.

Rather than document the complete set of Markdown formatting options, I will refer you to the Markdown Basic Syntax Guide or in Markdown:

[Markdown Basic Syntax Guide](https://www.Markdownguide.org/basic-syntax/)

MultiMarkdown: An Expansion of the Language

The Markdown language is Open Source. Since its inception, other developers have enhanced the language to include options beneficial to academic writers. These include:

  • tables
  • blockquotes
  • citations
  • footnotes [^1]

Adding specific examples of these items is beyond this basic Markdown blog post. Instead, I recommend reviewing the MultiMarkdown v6 Syntax Guide. As you will see, the syntax for the new items follows the same spirit of being easy to add to a document and relatively intuitive syntax.

Advanced Tools and Applications

If you want to do a deep dive on Markdown, here are a few resources you can explore:

Yes, But What Are the Cons?

You may recall that my colleague asked about the pros and the cons. So, as much as I love writing in Markdown, I should be transparent about the limitations I have encountered.

  1. Collaboration. Both Microsoft Word and Google Docs support providing feedback on documents using the review or suggestion features. I have yet to find a Markdown editor that supports this type of collaboration. When I want to have a document reviewed, I convert the Markdown document to one of those other formats and then convert it back after implementing the feedback. Converting from Markdown to something, as I have said, is something most markdown editors already do. Converting from some other format to Markdown may take more effort. In this case, I used a Google Doc add-on, Docs to Markdown.
  2. Citation tool support. When writing in academia, I use an integrated tool for citation. Zotero, when installed as an add-on to Word or Google Docs, will help generate bibliographies and inline citations. I have managed to integrate Zotero integrations into my Markdown editor of choice (Visual Studio Code), but it was very fiddly. I followed the setup described in this video: Setting Up a Scholarly Writing Environment With Markdown, VSCodium, and Pandoc. Not for the faint of heart, with a very detailed how-to, step-by-step video, it still took me the better part of a Saturday, with reasonably in-depth knowledge of Markdown, Zotero, and my editor.

Conclusion

To begin your Markdown journey, I suggest starting here: Markdown Guide. The easiest way to learn Markdown is to start using it; you can learn the basics in minutes. Once you do, you will find broad application and support. You can use Markdown to write HTML, draft blog posts, create documentation, and post messages on messaging platforms or forums such as Reddit, Discord, and GitHub.

[^1]: It seems worth mentioning, in a footnote, that I wrote this blog post entirely in Markdown. Feel free to download it and take a look. To see it with the formatted HTML, try pasting it in the online markdown editor Dillinger.

By Susan Fein, Ecampus instructional designer

If you use slide presentations to deliver information and then provide a digital version of the slides to support learners, this post is for you!

Instructors teaching online or who use a companion LMS or website to accompany in-person classes often upload the slide file to aid students in notetaking. However, you may not be aware that digital files are not automatically accessible to those using assistive technologies, such as screen readers. Following a few simple and easy guidelines will improve accessibility of your materials for all students and demonstrate your thoughtful attention to inclusivity and equity.

Who Benefits from Accessibility?

Everyone, not only those with disabilities, benefit from accessible learning materials. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 40 million people in the U.S. with a disability, so odds are good that some of them will be in your courses.

Accessibility practices support all learners, not just those who require them. In 2016, the OSU Ecampus Research Unit conducted a nationwide survey about student use of video closed captions. In that study, 70% of respondents who did not self-identify as having a disability used captions at least some of the time.

I asked OSU’s disability access center how many online students request disability-related accommodations. So far this year, 23.9% of those served by their office are Ecampus students. Last year, nearly 40% of all Ecampus courses had at least one student with an accommodation, and nearly 15% of all online-only students used a disability-related accommodation.

To ensure equity, regardless of who does or does not depend on accessibility support, it is vital to make all learning materials compliant with accessibility standards. When educators intentionally create fully accessible materials, we more equitably serve all online learners.

What Can You Do?

Here are five easy-to-follow tips that elevate your commitment and ability to create accessible materials.

Tip #1. Use a template. Templates are important because basic formatting for accessibility is already built in. By inserting your content into designated sections, you preempt some accessibility issues without any extra effort. For example, when you insert the topic of each slide into the designated title field, the slide structure maintains the correct sequence in which a screen reader encounters the various elements on the slide. If you are concerned about being too constrained or predictable, these designated fields accommodate your creativity! It is okay to reshape, resize, or reposition a field if you do not like its default appearance or location.

Regardless of which end of the design spectrum you lean, always start with a template. If you are not fond of colorful designs or fancy formats, there is a basic, unadorned template you can use. If you are a fan of fun, frivolity, or fabulous, select one of many free template options found online to suit your theme or topic. Check out the different templates Ecampus has developed with college-specific themes. One of them might be a good fit for you.

Tip #2. Enter a unique title on each slide. Each slide in your presentation must have a unique title. This permits a screen reader to navigate easily from one slide to the next. What happens when you have segments of the presentation that require two or more slides to fully deliver the information? No problem! There are various ways to address this.

When several slides focus on a different aspect of the primary topic, use that in the title. For example, you are creating a presentation about Health and Wellness and have multiple slides on the topic of Cooking. You want to introduce the topic, describe meal preparation, and offer ideas for healthy snacks. Since these are three distinct subtopics, a good approach is to label the slides as Cooking: Overview, Cooking: Meal Preparation, and Cooking: Healthy Snacks. Repeating the main topic in the title helps the learner connect each segment but still delineates separate subtopics.

If the subject matter does not neatly break into clear subgroups, it is fine to use a sequential number, such as Cooking Part 1, Cooking Part 2, etc. Since most creators develop a presentation’s content, sequence, and flow thoughtfully and logically, if you take a moment to consider why you grouped together specific ideas, the unique titles will likely emerge.

Tip #3. Follow best practices. If you search online for guidance about how to create effective slide presentations, you will discover that many sources offer similar suggestions. Most of these include recommendations about text (contrast, font size, font style), use of images, page structure, and so on. Use this short list as a helpful reminder of these other accessible-friendly best practices.

  • Text should be easy to read, with good contrast. Black text on a white background is ideal and classic. Be cautious of templates with too subtle contrast. They might not meet accessibility guidance for visually disabled learners. Use 18-point (or larger) sans serif font for readability.
  • Use images judiciously. Pictures convey themes, present an idea, or evoke a mood. However, too many can detract from the message, be confusing, or appear unprofessional. Aim for a “less is more” approach. (Learn more about accessibility for images in the next tip.)
  • Include adequate white space to separate and group content. Bullets are optional. Keep slide structure simple. Use phrases or a few words rather than full sentences. Break up content into multiple slides to avoid crowding.

Tip #4. Create alt-tags for images. A screen reader recognizes the presence of an image but it cannot discern the content. To be accessible, that information is provided as a text description or alt-tag.

If you have images in your slide deck, each must have an alternate text description. The alt-tag describes and explains the content of an image. Usually it is not accessible or helpful to use the file name. And beware of tools that try to divine the content of an image and insert descriptions. These are usually wildly inaccurate and unhelpful.

The majority of images in an effective presentation should be essential to the learner’s experience; the image is required for accurate comprehension of the content. The are images such as charts, graphs, photos, maps, or data. Other images may be optional or decorative; nice to have but not essential to the learning and, if not seen by the student, do not impede the learner’s ability to grasp the material.

For essential images, write a brief (1-3 sentences) text description. No need to include lead-in words like “this is an image of…” Describe the key educational value of that image. What about it is important to the learner? What is the essence of the information you want the learner to know about that chart, graph, or photo?

Screen shot of alt text box for an image from Office 365 PowerPoint
Screen image from Office 365 PowerPoint

Decorative images have two options: enter a description or skip over the image. To skip, enter null text (“ ”) as the alt tag or, if available in your version of PowerPoint, select the “decorative” option. Both choices direct the screen reader to ignore the image. If you prefer to tag a non-essential image, use a simple description, such as “team logo” or “Professor Kumar.”

Understand that writing good alt tags is a challenging skill that takes time and practice to master, so do your best. You may want to confer with the Disability Access Center, an instructional designer, or other faculty support group if you need assistance.

For more information about how to write effective alt tags, refer to these or other resources.

Tip #5. Use meaningful text to format links. Please do not insert a full URL on your slide. Screen readers recognize a URL link and read aloud every individual letter and symbol, often in a monotone mechanical voice, depending on the specific assistive tool. Think about how frustrating, confusing, and unhelpful that is. Instead, format each link using meaningful text, as demonstrated in this post. For example, the two resources linked above use the article’s full title as the meaningful text. Also, avoid the over-used, too generic “Click here for more information,” with the word “here” formatted as the hyperlink. Instead, select text that specifically identifies the URL content, such as “Visit the Disability Access Services web page for more information.”

Accessibility Supports Equity

Demonstrate your commitment to equity! With just a few extra minutes, you can easily meet minimum accessibility standards by following these tips and using the accessibility checker tool built right into PowerPoint!

Reference

Linder, K. (2016). Student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts: Results from a national study. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.