One of the major advantages of digital learning is that we can ensure our materials are accessible to all students. As such, at Ecampus, we are striving – and encouraging others to strive – for universal design, that is, design that anyone can use comfortably regardless of any impairments. In past posts, we have covered various ways of improving accessibility in a course, including how to fix PowerPoint or Word files. Today I’d like to focus on making Canvas pages accessible and making use of the on-page Accessibility Checker available in the Canvas Rich Content Editor.

Common Issues

Here are the main things you can do to ensure your Canvas pages (including assignments, discussions etc.) are accessible:

  1. Use proper hierarchy of headings and do not skip heading levels. You want to start with Heading 2 (Heading 1 is the title), then subordinate to that will be Heading 3 and so on. This is especially useful for screen reader users because it helps with logical page navigation. Some people choose their headings by the font size – not a good idea! If you want to adjust the size of your text, use the “Font sizes” option in the editor, after designating the correct heading level.
  2. Add an alt text description to any image or mark it as decorative. This is helpful for screen reader users and people for whom the images are not loading.
  3. Make the link names descriptive, rather than just pasting the url. For example, you would write Student Resources instead of https://experience.oregonstate.edu/resources. Also, avoid linking “click here” type of text. This helps screen reader users (which would read a url letter by letter), and it also makes it easier for everyone to scan the page and find the needed information.
  4. Ensure good color contrast. I often see instructors making their text colorful – in particular, red seems to be very popular. Indeed, a touch of color can make the page more visually pleasing and help bring out headings or important information! The danger lies in using colors that don’t have enough contrast with the background. This is especially problematic for people with less-than-optimal eyesight, but good contrast really just makes it easier for all of us to read. Also, a word of caution: Canvas has recently rolled out dark mode for mobile platforms and many people like to use it. Some colored or highlighted text may not look clear in dark mode.
  5. Add caption and header row to tables. These are extremely helpful for screen reader users, and the caption helps everyone to quickly see what the table is about. To add these things, you actually have to rely on the on-page accessibility checker – it will flag the issues and walk you through fixing them. While we’re on the subject of tables, you also want to avoid complex tables with merged cells because they are hard to navigate for a screen reader.
  6. Avoid underlining text. Underlining is normally reserved for links. Try using other means of highlighting information, such as bold, italics or caps.

Find and Fix

Canvas has a very useful tool that can help you find some accessibility issues as you edit your page. At the bottom of the editor, the icon representing a human in a circle will show notification when something is amiss.

Screenshot of bottom of editor showing the accessibility checker icon

When you click on that icon, the checker will open on the right-hand side, explaining each issue and allowing you to fix it right there.

Screenshot of the accessibility checker dialog window

This tool can find:

  • Skipped heading levels/starting with the wrong heading
  • Missing alt text
  • Insufficient color contrast – you can find a suitable color right here
  • Missing table caption and header row

It will NOT flag poorly formatted links or underlined text. So, for these issues, you’ll have to watch out yourself!

For a full list of problems verified by this checker, see this article from Canvas Community.

When you’ve finished building your course, you can also use UDOIT, the global accessibility checker, or Ally, if your institution has installed it. These tools can help you find additional problems, including embedded materials with accessibility issues.

To conclude, following these simple rules can greatly enhance the usability of your Canvas course. The built-in accessibility checker will help you spot and fix some common issues. Once you start paying attention, building instructional content with accessibility in mind will become second nature!

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

This is the final installment of a three-part series on project-based learning. The first two articles, Architecture for Authenticity and Mindful Design, explore the foundational elements of project-based learning. This article shifts our attention to generating practical application ideas for your unique course. This series will conclude with a showcase of an exemplary Ecampus course project. 

Over the last couple of years, as an instructional designer, I have observed my faculty developers shifting how they assess student learning. Frequent and varied low-stakes assessments are replacing high-stakes exams, in their courses. Therefore, students increasingly have more opportunities to actively engage in meaningful ways. What an exciting time!

Activity Ideas

Instructors commonly express that adopting a new, emerging, or unfamiliar pedagogical approach can be challenging for two reasons: 1) identifying an appropriate activity and 2) thoughtfully designing the activity into a course. Sometimes a brainstorming session is just the ticket. Here are a few activity ideas to get you started.

TitleDescriptionResource
Oral HistoryStudents pose a problem steeped with historical significance (e.g., racism). Students conduct research using primary sources which corroborate and contextualize the issue. Experts and/or those with direct/indirect experience are interviewed. Interviews are documented with multimedia. 
Oregon State University SCARC Oral History Program
Renewable Course MaterialsStudents write, design, and edit a course website that takes the place of a course textbook.Open Pedagogy Notebook
App LabStudents collaboratively design an application that will serve a relevant societal need, resolve barriers, or fix a problem.CODE
Problem solved!Students select a problem that affects the local, regional, state, national, or global community and conduct research. Students collaboratively create scenarios that authentically contextualize the problem. Students develop solutions that utilize the main course concepts while engaging with the problem within a real-world context.Oregon State University Bioenergy Summer Bridge Program
GenderMag ProjectGenderMagis a process that guides individuals/groups through any form of technology (e.g., websites, software, systems) to find gender inclusivity “bugs.” After going through the GenderMag process, the investigators can then provide recommendations and fix the bugs.The GenderMag Project

Take a moment to explore a few of the following resources for additional project ideas:

While exploring project-based activities and/or assessments, it may also be helpful to consider the following questions: 

  • Does this activity align with the course learning outcomes? 
  • What type of prerequisite knowledge and skills do students need?
  • What types of knowledge and skills will students need after completing the project?
  • Can the activity be modified/customized to fit the needs of the course?
  • What strategies will be employed to foster authentic learning? 
  • What strategies can be used to guide and/or coach teams through the activity?
  • How will the activity foster equitable engagement and active participation?
  • What strategies can be utilized to nurture and build a strong learning community?

Project Spotlight

Becky Crandall

Becky is an Associate Professor of Practice in the Adult and Higher Education (AHE) program at Oregon State University. We had the pleasure of collaborating on the Ecampus course development for AHE 623, Contemporary Issues in Higher Education. With two decades of experience in postsecondary settings, Becky came to the table with a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and strong perspectives grounded in social justice, all of which situated her to create a high-quality, engaging, and inclusive Ecampus course. When interviewing her for this article, she shared her pedagogical approach to teaching online and hybrid courses, which provides a meaningful context for the project design

“At the start of every term, I take time to explain the idea that shapes the approach I take as an educator and the expectations that I have of the class: ‘we are a community.’ Inspired by educational heroes like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Marcia Baxter Magolda, as well as the excellent teachers who shaped me as a student, I take a constructivist approach to teaching. I also center the ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ of the material we cover through active learning exercises that create space for students to reflect on their learning and its applicability to the real world. Admittedly, such active learning exercises are engaging. Research also highlights their effectiveness as a pedagogical strategy. More importantly, however, they provide a means of disrupting power structures within the classroom (i.e., the students are positioned as experts too), and they serve as mechanisms through which the students and I can bring our full selves to the course.” ~Becky Crandall

The Project

In AHE 623, students complete a term-long project entitled the “Mini-Conference.” The project situates students as the experts, “by disrupting traditional classroom power structures” and provides an opportunity to “simulate the kind of proposal writing and presenting they would do at a professional conference.” The project’s intended goal is to foster deep learning through the exploration of contemporary real-world higher education issues.

Design

The project is a staged design with incremental milestones throughout the 11-week academic term. The project design mimics the process of a professional conference, from proposal to presentation. The project consists of “two elements: (1) a conference proposal that included an abstract, learning outcomes, a literature review, policy and/or practice implications, and a presentation outline and (2) a 20-minute presentation.”  As the term concludes, students deliver the presentation (i.e., conference workshop) that actively engages the audience with the self-selected topic. Students have varied opportunities to receive peer and instructor feedback. The information gleaned from the feedback helps to refine student proposals for submission to a professional organization.

Becky shared how she conceptualized and designed the project using backward design principles. “Specifically, I began by considering the goals of the course and the project. I then researched professional associations’ conference proposal calls to determine what elements to include in the project. When developing learning exercises, I often ask, ‘How might the students use this in the real world?’” By using an intentional design process, the result is a project which is strongly aligned, structures learning, and has authentic application.

Project Overview Page

Delivery

The first delivery of AHE 623 was successfully launched in the Spring of 2022 with minimal challenges other than the limited time. “The students engaged fully in the mini-conference. As reflected in the outcomes, they not only learned but were left hungry for more.”  Requests flew in for additional opportunities to apply what they had learned! The students raved about this project such that they even asked if they could host a virtual conference using their presentations.The project proved to be a transformational experience for students. “Multiple students noted that this opportunity helped them refine their dissertation ideas and related skills.” As Becky looks forward, she hopes to consider restructuring the design into a rotating roundtable format. Doing so will ensure that students are exposed to their peers’ perspectives in the course.

Remember that course design and development is an iterative process. Please know you do not have to get it right the first time or even the tenth. Your students do value your enthusiasm for the subject and appreciate the effort you have put into crafting valuable learning experiences for them. You have got this!

Inspire!

Visit the Ecampus Course Development and Training team blog for application tips, course development and design resources, online learning best practices and standards, and emerging trends in Higher Education. We look forward to seeing you there.

Acknowledgments

Dr. Becky Crandall, thank you for candidly sharing your core pedagogical approaches, philosophy of teaching, and the course project with the Oregon State community. Your commitment to social justice continues to shine in your course designs and instructional delivery.

Research and strategies for implementing gratitude interventions in higher-education.

Every November for the past few years, my family takes a small uncarved pumpkin (leftover from Halloween), and we use it as a canvas. Every night after dinner we each write a word or phrase naming something we are thankful for that day. We have only one rule; you cannot repeat something already on the list. On Thanksgiving, we go back and read aloud all the things we have been grateful for throughout November, making  us laugh, reminisce, and feel full emotionally (on top of our full bellies). This practice of gratitude is simple, yet I find that as the list on the pumpkin grows each night, I feel a little happier and a little more content with my life. In reflecting on what we are grateful for, saying it out loud, and writing it down, we are allowing it to take up presence in our consciousness. By creating this space in our day for gratitude to flourish, we are exemplifying an important life practice. And as the word “practice” indicates, gratitude is a skill we can learn, hone, and grow. There is mounting scientific evidence that gratitude can serve as a major contributor to mental health, and there is a growing body of research related specifically to gratitude interventions in higher-ed.  

Whether we are faculty, staff, students, administrators, or leaders in the world of higher-ed, we are pulled in many different directions, wear many different hats, and have many competing demands. It is no wonder we often forget to pause and take stock of all the manythings for which we are grateful. How can we bring the practice of gratitude into our classes (regardless of the modality)? And further, why does it matter? What does the research have to say about gratitude and our health? What place does gratitude have in higher-ed? Let’s dive in and explore this topic through an evidence-based lens and then end with some easy ways to embody and enact gratitude in our higher-ed courses.

It may be helpful to define gratitude scientifically. A recent meta-analysis of gratitude and health characterizes gratitude as both a state and a trait. A state of gratitude is an emotional experience where we find value in something and realize that it has a positive outcome from outside of ourselves. Gratitude as a trait can be seen as a broader worldview, where one is more likely to observe and appreciate the good things in life. People who display trait gratitude tend to feel more fulfilled and have a greater ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. In either case, those who exhibit and experience gratitude often are more likely to show pro-social behavior and act with reciprocity. Researchers theorize that these behaviors help explain why gratitude is beneficial to both our physical and mental health. While the evidence that gratitude changes physical health is sparse in the literature, many studies demonstrate that gratitude (and specifically gratitude interventions) are associated with improved emotional well-being. Not surprisingly and likely linked, higher gratitude practice also facilitates social well-being. (Jans-Beken et al.,2019)

For those who wonder why gratitude is such a powerful tool emotionally and socially, Algoe (2012) posits that gratitude promotes opportunities to (1) establish new interpersonal connections, (2) remember extant social ties, and (3) maintain existing social relationships. It is no surprise that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, learners are more likely to experience stress and anxiety at higher rates. The pandemic interrupted our lives and our ability to be regularly social. College students have expressed increased rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, even as we have moved out of isolation (Jiang et al. 2022). Thus, it is important to note that dozens of research studies from the past ten years have correlated gratitude interventions with positive effects on our emotions, specifically helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Gratitude interventions could be a game-changer in higher-ed, as it stands to reason that learners who are less anxious and stressed will likely experience better learning outcomes (Hysenbegasi et al., 2005).

Many of the studies specific to gratitude interventions in college classes have shown that learners not only perform better in the course but also leave the course with more positive emotions, which can spill over into other aspects of the learners’ lives (Datu & Bernardo, 2020; Datu et al., 2022; Gleason, 2022, Grier & Morris, 2022). So what does it mean to have a gratitude intervention? In most cases, it was as simple as the researchers/instructors offering a weekly gratitude journal assignment. These low-stakes opportunities allowed learners to reflect on their lives and simply list a few (usually five) things/events/people for which they were grateful. Other interventions included writing letters of gratitude or attending one-time gratitude workshops. While these kinds of assignments might not be a fit for every class, there can certainly be a place for such interventions on occasion.  Student success teams could encourage these practices outside of class time, or provide gratitude workshops. Faculty could demonstrate and allow time for such practices in their high-stress courses. Online course designers could conclude modules or weeks with simple gratitude surveys. If we can help our learners to reflect on their lives with a gratitude lens, we might all benefit.

So, it turns out that my family’s little Thankful Pumpkin was onto something. My feelings of contentment after each night of adding gratitude to our gourd stems from something more profound. This little pumpkin is my family’s gratitude intervention, and now I want to figure out how to keep us all practicing and honing this skill all year long. So, if you have made it to the end of this blog post, I want to say thanks. Thanks for reading, and thanks for considering this blog post worthy of your precious time.  I am grateful that you are here. I hope that you are grateful for this message and will consider how you can carry it forward in your life and your work.

References

  • Cownie, F. (2016) Gratitude: does it have a place within media-practice education?, Journal of Media Practice, 17(2-3), 168-185, DOI: 10.1080/14682753.2016.1248192
  • Datu, J. A. D., & Bernardo, A. B. I. (2020). The Blessings of Social-Oriented Virtues: Interpersonal Character Strengths Are Linked to Increased Life Satisfaction and Academic Success Among Filipino High School Students. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(7), 983–990. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620906294
  • Datu, J. A. D., Valdez, J. P. M., McInerney, D. M., & Cayubit, R. F. (2022). The effects of gratitude and kindness on life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions, and COVID-19 anxiety: An online pilot experimental study. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 14(2), 347– 361. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12306
  • Ge, J. S., Berger, E. J., & Major, J. C., & Froiland, J. M. (2019, June), Teaching Undergraduate Engineering Students Gratitude, Meaning, and Mindfulness Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2—33358
  • Geier, M. T., & Morris, J. (2022). The impact of a gratitude intervention on mental well-being during COVID-19: A quasi-experimental study of university students. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 14(3), 937– 948. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12359
  • Gleason, L.U. (2022). Gratitude Interventions in a Biology Course to Foster Student Persistence and Success. CourseSource 9. https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2022.41
  • Henry D. Mason (2019) Gratitude, well-being and psychological distress among South African university students, Journal of Psychology in Africa, 29(4), 354-360, DOI: 10.1080/14330237.2019.1647492
  • Hysenbegasi, A., Hass, S. L., & Rowland, C. R. (2005). The impact of depression on the academic productivity of university students. The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, 8(3), 145–151.
  • Jans-Beken, L.,  Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2020) Gratitude and health: An updated review, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(6), 743-782, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1651888
  • Jiang, Z., Jia, X., Tao, R., & Dördüncü, H. (2022). COVID-19: A Source of Stress and Depression Among University Students and Poor Academic Performance. Frontiers in public health, 10, 898556. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2022.898556
  • Nicole T. Gabana, Jesse Steinfeldt, Y. Joel Wong, Y. Barry Chung & Dubravka Svetina (2019) Attitude of Gratitude: Exploring the Implementation of a Gratitude Intervention with College Athletes, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 31:3, 273-284, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2018.1498956
  • Yoshida, M.(2022) Network analysis of gratitude messages in the learning community. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 19(47). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-022-00352-8
courage
courage

Are you passionate for what you do? I do. I enjoy, treasure, relish what I do as an instructional designer. But I also realize that not everyone is able to work on something they are passionate about. As an educator, I believe we ought to stir up passion and values in the learners we serve. So, I started searching for ways to motivate, to stir up and help people find their passion. And I found these resources: books and podcast by Todd Henry on passion, and book and podcast by Liz Forkin Bohannon.


Todd Henry shared his recipe for finding the power to keep your passion firing for a lifetime by starting with a few simple questions.

  • What is something that you are willing to suffer on behalf of it?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What moves you emotionally?
  • What gives you hope?


Quotes from Todd Henry, author and experts on creativity, productivity, and passion for work.
Goal of life is not comfort, but conquest!
The love of comfort is often the enemy of greatness.
The seeds of tomorrow’s greatness is planted in today’s activities.
If you are intentional, and if you live by design, not by default, someday, in the distant future, when you lay your head down for the last time you can point to a delta, a body of work and you can say “yes, that represents me.”


Beginner’s Pluck is a 2019 book by Liz Forkin Bohannon (Podcast host, and co-founder of Sseko Designs). In this book, Liz teaches us that passion is not discovered, as we were told for so long, but rather passion is built step by step! And the first step is to find an interesting problem. And to have a posture of curiosity over criticism. The good news is the world is full of interesting problems!

This is a totally new perspective to me: passion is built and the first step to build passion is to find interesting problems. And this new perspective leads me to think how I could and should plan my instructional design work to provide room and opportunities in any course for asking questions that guide learners to build their passion. It could be in the syllabus, in each module’s content page, before or after learners work on the readings and lecture videos, or at the end of the module as a self-assessment. There are many different ways and places we can incorporate the building of passion into course design!


Conclusion: Build your Passion starting with questions and interesting problems. My questions for you, dear educator, “is there room in your teaching to ask an inspiring question that points your learners towards building their passion for life?” Or if you are reading this for your own benefit, consider what problems are interesting to you and start working on solving the problems, little by little. If you need to someone to brainstorm design ideas for infusing questions into your teaching, feel free to contact me at tianhong.shi@oregonstate.edu

References:

Bohannon, L.F. (2019). Beginner’s Pluck. Baker books.

Henry, T. (2013). Die Empty. Penguin Publishing Group

If you design or teach online courses, and the term Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) is unfamiliar to you, not to worry. It’s likely that you’ve already implemented some degree of RSI in your online courses. RSI is the US Department of Education (DoE) requirement for institutions receiving federal funds to “ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors” in their online courses. It was intended as a quality assurance and consumer protection measure, but it is also a key component of high-quality online learning. Simply put, student-teacher interactions must be consistent and meaningful throughout the delivery of an online course. There is a mountain of research supporting this idea by now, and we have long known that this type of interaction is an essential component of learning and has a deep impact on student experience and satisfaction with online learning.

word cloud containing high- frequency words from post
Word cloud created via WordItOut.com

Characteristics of RSI

You may be thinking that you already have plenty of quality interaction in your course. If you’re familiar with the Ecampus Essentials standards for course development (based on the Quality Matters course design rubric) or the Ecampus Online Teaching Principles, you know that teacher-student interaction is a basic component of effective online course design and delivery. You may also be thinking that “interaction” is a vague term. After all, interactions can occur synchronously or asynchronously via many different platforms. They can occur in response to student progress in a particular course or be an intentional aspect of the instructor’s course delivery plan. So, what exactly does quality interaction in the context of RSI entail? The DOE guidelines outline the main characteristics of regular and substantive interaction as follows: 

Instructor-initiated 

Instructor-student interaction should be an intentional component of the course design and delivery. While students should also be encouraged to reach out to the instructor as needed, interactions should be required and initiated by the instructor to be considered RSI. For example, ad hoc office hours and auto-graded objective quizzes would not be considered RSI, but requested office visits, individualized feedback on assignments or open-ended quizzes, and instructor-facilitated online discussion forums would qualify as regular and sustained interactions. Likewise, announcements tailored to the course content during the term of the delivery would also meet the guidelines for RSI.

Frequent and consistent 

Simply put, frequent and consistent interaction means that you are present in your course in an intentional manner regularly throughout the term. Instructor presence in online courses deeply impacts student learning, satisfaction, and motivation, so this is probably not a new idea for those who have taught online. Many online instructors maintain instructor presence through regular announcements or videos providing updates on student progress or feedback, adding to ideas presented in student discussions or other submissions, offering clarifications to questions regarding content or assignments, etc. There are many ways for instructors to be present in a course so that students feel that they are part of a community of learners. To meet the standards for RSI, the instructor presence should also be planned and occur regularly throughout the term.

Focused on the course subject

Interactions should be related to the academic content and help students to achieve the course outcomes. Assignments should provide a space for instructors to assess student learning through substantive feedback. Non-specific feedback (Good job!) or a grade entered without comments related to work on the assignment at hand would not count as RSI. However, communications providing reading guidance, posting examples with explanations, sending an announcement clarifying concepts students may have missed in a discussion are all good examples of interactions focused on the course subject. That’s not to say that sending a message of encouragement or celebration to students (Go Beavs!) would not be an important component of social presence in a course. 

Faculty member meets accreditation standards

This requirement presents a little bit of a murky area, and each institution will need to decide who would be considered a qualified subject matter expert based on their accrediting body standards. For example, Teaching Assistants (TAs) may or may not be considered qualified subject matter experts depending on where they are in their postgraduate journey. However, regardless of the level of expertise, the role of any TA or other course mentor can never be in lieu of the instructor interaction in a course. 

Increasing RSI in your course

Meaningful interaction may already be an integral part of your course design and delivery, or you may have some work to do in that area. Whatever your current level of RSI, there are many ways to increase or vary the interaction in your course. Some practitioners note that what constitutes “meaningful interaction” for the purposes of RSI compliance can be difficult to measure. In response, the DoE updated their definition of Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) in 2021 to further clarify the issue for practitioners. To be considered regular and substantive, interaction, “…must engage students in teaching, learning, and assessment, as well as two of these five actions: 

  • providing direct instruction;
  • assessing or providing feedback on a student’s course work; 
  • providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; 
  • facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; 
  • or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.”

The good news is that the DoE definition is broad enough to include a huge range of activities giving course developers and instructors many options for choosing how and when interaction occurs in a course. While not an exhaustive list, a few recommendations to boost RSI in your course include: 

Set expectations

Make your plan for interaction clear to students, and include them in setting expectations for both the instructor and the students. Your communication policy stating the response time students can expect from you on emails and assignment feedback should be stated in the syllabus and posted in the course. You should also tell learners how to communicate with you. Make participation expectations clear through discussion guidelines and rubrics for participation. You might also create an introductory activity in which students and the instructor make their expectations explicit through a negotiated process. 

Provide timely and individualized feedback

There are many methods for delivering feedback (written, video, audio, conferences, etc). In fact, using a combination of methods is good practice for incorporating elements of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Regardless of how you deliver feedback, it should add to or extend students’ understanding, make concrete suggestions for improvement, highlight what they are doing well, or provide models. 

Send regular announcements

Announcements are handy for sending reminders about due dates and other housekeeping items. As an RSI strategy, announcements present a useful vehicle for digging into course content and helping students to synthesize important information. You might use announcements to extend concepts from the previous week’s activities, contextualize content students will see in the coming week, or to identify sticky points or patterns seen in student work. While announcements can be used for on the fly reminders or clarifications, it is a good idea to establish a pattern for sending substantive announcements whether that be on Sunday evenings or at other intervals so that students know when to expect them. 

Incorporate tools for meaningful interaction

VoiceThread, Padlet, and Perusall are just a few examples of platforms that instructors can use to facilitate interaction. While it may be tempting to incorporate several tools to boost engagement, a more effective approach would be to avoid using technology for the sake of using technology. Instead, try incorporating one or two tools and create meaningful tasks around them. Use each two or more times during the term so that students spend their time engaging with each other and the content via the tool rather than learning how to use it. 

Conduct surveys and evaluations 

Midterm surveys on students’ experience in the course are helpful for second-half tweaks to stay on track toward the goals you set out to accomplish. They can also be useful for making adjustments for the next time you deliver the course. Ask students how they feel about the interactions with other students and the instructor. Ask how they could be improved, and encourage them to reflect on their own contributions. If there is group work involved, solicit opinions about how it is going and how you can support their collaborations. In doing so, you give learners the opportunity to ask for help where they need it, and you gain information to give you ideas for how to structure interactions for the next iteration of the course. A trusted colleague or an instructor designer can also be helpful in evaluating the level of RSI in your course. When you feel you have reached your goals around interaction and other markers of high-quality course design, consider asking for a formal review of your course to become Quality Matters certified. 

Hold regular office hours

In order to qualify as RSI, office hours must be predictable, scheduled, and required rather than an optional feature of the course. While synchronous sessions should be kept to a minimum to allow for student flexibility, you can also facilitate meaningful interaction via a virtual meetings. If you give mini-lectures or provide models for specific lessons, for example, you might consider recording your explanations so all students, including those who cannot attend a particular session, benefit from the extra guidance. 

Resources

Poulin, R. (2016) Interpreting what is Required for “Regular and Substantive Interaction”. WCET Frontiers. Retrieved from https://wcet.wiche.edu/frontiers/2016/09/30/interpreting-regular-and-substantive-interaction/

Regular and Substantive Interaction. SUNY Online. Retrieved from https://oscqr.suny.edu/rsi/

Regular & Substantive Interaction (RSI) in Online Learning. Chemeketa Center for Academic Innovation. Retrieved from https://facultyhub.chemeketa.edu/instruction/rsi/

How to Increase Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) in Online and Distance Learning. OLC Webinar 2021. Retrieved from https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/webinar/how-to-increase-regular-and-substantive-interaction-rsi-in-online-and-distance-learning/

Quality Online Practices: Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI). University of Tennessee Knoxville. Retrieved from https://onlinelearning.utk.edu/online-teaching-learning-resources/quality-online-practices/rsi/

I was recently assigned to be the Instructional Designer for an introductory programming course here at OSU. While working with the instructor, I was happy to see his inventiveness in assessment design. As one example, the instructor created an assignment to introduce loops, a block of code in a computer program that repeats while a condition is true. Here’s how he described the assignment to the students:

Your assignment is to simulate the progression of a zombie epidemic as it spreads through Portland, Oregon, beginning in the year 2001 (which was about the time that zombies became unnervingly popular). This assignment will test whether you can use loops when translating from a problem to a computational solution.

(Scaffidi, 2019)

I was excited about the design possibilities this introduced to a usually dry topic. Zombies! I built the page in our LMS, Canvas, and was excited to review it with him.

“Isn’t this fun?” I asked, showing him the assignment page I had created:

Zombie epidemic programming assignment introduction

“I guess so,” he said, “is there any research to indicate that decorative graphics support learning?” he asked me. I guess that’s fair to ask, even if it was a bit of a buzzkill.

I had no idea if including cool pictures was a research-based best practice in online course design. While I really wanted it to be true and felt like it should be true, I could not immediately cite peer-reviewed studies that supported the use of zombie images to improve learner engagement; I had never seen such research. But, I was determined to look before our next meeting.

The instructor’s research challenge led me to discover Research Rabbit. Research Rabbit is a relatively new online platform that helps users find academic research. Research Rabbit has users organize found research into collections. As articles are added to a collection, Research Rabbit helps identify related research.

Without realizing how much time I was exploring, four hours quickly passed in which I was wholly engrossed in the search to justify including a zombie picture in one assignment for one instructor. Below, I will share a few of the features that enamored me with Research Rabbit and why I continue to use it regularly.

Why I love Research Rabbit

Visualization of Search Results

Rather than combing through reference lists at the bottom of a paper, you can quickly view any works cited by a paper you have selected or change views and get a list of articles that have cited the selected document. Those results are presented in a list view, a network view, or on a timeline.

A Tool for Discovery

Research Rabbit starts generating suggested additions as soon as you add a paper to a collection. The more papers you add, the more accurate these recommendations become. It works somewhat like personalized Netflix or Spotify recommendations (ResearchRabbit, n.d.), helping you discover research you may not have been aware of in this same area of study.

Using their discovery functionality, you can identify clusters of researchers (those that have published together or frequently cite each other’s work). You can also use the “Earlier Work” option to see when research on a particular topic may have started and identify foundational papers in the field. Looking for “Later Work” helps you find the latest research and stay current on your research topic.

Free Forever

The Research Rabbit founders explain their reasoning for keeping their tool Free Forever as follows:

Why? It’s simple, really.

Researchers commit years of time, energy, and more to advance human knowledge. Our job is to help you discover work that is relevant, not to sell your work back to you.

(Research Rabbit FAQ)

Research Rabbit Syncs Collections to Zotero

I would have lost a lot of enthusiasm for Research Rabbit if I had to manually add each new paper to my Zotero collection. But Research Rabbit integrates with Zotero, and automatically syncs any designated collections. If you use a different reference tool, you can also export Research Rabbit collections in common bibliographic formats.

A Tool for Sharing and Collaboration

Once you have created a collection, you can invite other researchers to view or edit a collection based on the permissions you set. Collaborators can also add comments to individual items. Research Rabbit also gives you an opportunity to create public collections that can be shared with a custom link.

How to Explore Research Rabbit on Your Own

The feature set of Research Rabbit is beautifully demoed on the Research Rabbit website. From there, you can explore how to visualize papers, discover author networks, and start building collections. There is also a growing list of introductory and instructional videos by the academic community online.

So What Happened with the Zombies?

You can review some of the research yourself by checking out my Research Rabbit Collection of Articles on Visual Design in Online Learning.  Much to my delight, after conducting my (4-hour) search, I did find some research-based evidence that aesthetics improved engagement and recall (Deanna Grant-Smith et al., 2019). Many of the studies, however, also suggested that visuals in online courses should also have some instructional function and help communicate ideas to avoid cognitive overload (Rademacher, 2019).

Maybe next time, I’ll suggest embedding this:

A flowchart of a conditional loop feature Zombie images.
Zombie Images by Freepik

References

Deanna Grant-Smith, Timothy Donnet, James Macaulay, Renee Chapman, & Renee Anne Chapman. (2019). Principles and practices for enhanced visual design in virtual learning environments: Do looks matter in student engagement? https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-5225-5769-2.ch005

Rademacher, C. (2019, May 13). Value of Images in Online Learning. Ecampus Course Development & Training. http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2019/05/13/the-value-of-images-in-online-learning/

Research Rabbit FAQ. (n.d.). [Online tool]. Research Rabbit. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://researchrabbit.notion.site/Welcome-to-the-FAQ-c33b4a61e453431482015e27e8af40d5

ResearchRabbit. (n.d.). ResearchRabbit. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://www.researchrabbit.ai

Scaffidi, C. (2019). CS 201: Computer Programming for Non-CS Majors.

In my last post, I wrote about how designing an ‘open course‘ empowers others to make desired edits more easily. One major component of an open course is providing adequate and accurate documentation for your intended audience. If you were handed a course to teach or redesign, what aspects about the course would you like to know? Probably as much as possible, which would require a strong set of documentation detailing design processes and decisions, learning outcomes, tutorials for using novel course elements, and so on. If you care about having a solid set of documentation for your courses, then you may be a ‘Documentarian‘. In this post, I look into some components of good documentation design from the software field, and apply them to instructional design.

Informing the recommendations of this post are the Documentation Principles of Write the Docs, a “global community of people who care about documentation”. As described by the Write the Docs authors, their set of principles:

“seeks to define similar standards for software documentation that, when practiced, will foster clean and intuitive content”

https://www.writethedocs.org/guide/writing/docs-principles/#documentation-principles

While software is the stated primary purpose of these principles, much of it is applicable across a wider range of subjects, with aspects of instructional design (such as design and code choices) falling into similar categories.

Why is documentation important?

Every Instructional Designer will work with many different people, known as stakeholders, across every project. The stakeholders of a project fulfill different roles and have distinct requirements. Fellow Instructional Designers, eLearning Developers, Middle and Senior Managers, Subject Matter Experts, and the learners themselves are all examples of stakeholders with different needs and roles. Each of the stakeholders on any particular project will require a certain level of documentation matching their needs. Use of an external tool, for example warrants instructions for how to incorporate the tool into an LMS and its functions for designers, but also instructions on how to use the tool as a user for the learners on the course.

Perhaps some of the most important people to consider when designing a course are the ones who will inherit it later on when the original designers have moved onto other projects. Because of this inevitability, proper documentation is key to understanding how a course was designed, the original intended audience or needs analysis (in case any prerequisite courses are changed in a way that breaks the flow of this one – example: switching from one programming language to another in the classes leading up to this, resulting in it not being fit for purpose), decisions made and why they were taken, how certain features work, just to name a few.

With these reasons for well-structured documentation in mind, what should designers include in documentation? For that, Write the Docs has some advice.

Write the Docs breaks down “good documentation” into multiple components. The full explanation of each can be found on their Documentation Principles page. Here, I will just use the summary of each one from the page.

The components state:

Documentation should be:

Precursory
Begin documenting before you begin developing.
Participatory
In the documentation process, include everyone from developers to end users.

The content (meaning how documentation is written) should be:

Arid
Accept (some) Repetition In Documentation.
Skimmable
Structure content to help readers identify and skip over concepts which they already understand or see are not relevant to their immediate questions.
Exemplary
Include (some) examples and tutorials in content.
Consistent
Use consistent language and formatting in content.
Current
Consider incorrect documentation to be worse than missing documentation.

Sources (meaning where content creators store documentation) should be:

Nearby
Store sources as close as possible to the code which they document.
Unique
Eliminate content overlap between separate sources.

Each publication (meaning the end product that users see) should be:

Discoverable
Funnel users intuitively towards publications through all likely pathways.
Addressable
Provide addresses to readers which link directly to content at a granular level.
Cumulative
Content should be ordered to cover prerequisite concepts first.
Complete
Within each publication, cover concepts in-full, or not at all.
Beautiful
Visual style should be intentional and aesthetically pleasing.

A documentation body should be:

Comprehensive
Ensure that together, all the publications in the body of documentation can answer all questions the user is likely to have.

Documenting course designs

Taking the above principles, which were initially designed for software, as a guide, we can see how they would fit into the field of instructional design.

General ideas

The principles of documentation being precursory and participatory are simple to follow, especially if one takes on a project management role in course design. Intake meetings and early plans are the first steps to crafting course design documentation. It is at this stage that the initial course design plans are mapped out by the stakeholders on the project. This includes Designers, Faculty, Project Managers and Product Owners (if these are separate people), to name a few. The initial plans for learning outcomes, assessments, and general ideas for activities on a more granular scale can all be converted into documentation on the structure of the course. These would usually fit into a ‘Design Solution’ document that gives an overview of how higher level course decisions are put into practice, or at least intended to be, once the course is running. An ID and the rest of the course design team could revisit this documentation during an evaluative stage to see if things were still going to plan, or modify it based on feedback.

Intended learner journey

I use the phrase “learner journey” a lot, but I am not entirely sure how well known it is, nor if I am using it in a standard way. So for this instance, my meaning of “learner journey” is the following: How the course developer is expecting the learner(s) to interact with the course site. This includes things such as: what learners are expected to click on when reaching the course landing page, the order in which they are expected to complete modules, how assignments are completed, etc. There is room here for interpretation, but it does not hurt to note the intended learner interactions and progression through a course. That way, other faculty members who may be teaching the course in the future can quickly understand learner progression too. This could take the form of a more technical document for fellow instructors, and a quick video for students (or more, depending on how in-depth you wish to go in the learner-facing side of things).

As an Instructional Designer, I often take on the role of the learner sometime during a course development. I will set out a specific meeting time with a faculty member to go through how I would approach this content as a learner, and ask them if this was an intended way for the learners to interact with the content. I usually start by following the order of the module, which is usually set up in the order a learner should complete tasks. What happens, though, if a learner decides that they are just not going to bother reading the Overview page for that week (or any week) and skips right to the Assessments? Is there anything preventing the learner from completing an assignment before they know important background information? Maybe some sort of purpose statement would help (e.g. “This assignment will test your knowledge of learning materials for Week 3. You should complete this week’s background reading tasks before submitting your work.”)?

Content, or how documentation is written

Most Instructional Designers will know about how to make a page more readable by including headings, descriptive hyperlinks, and other stylized formatting like ample paragraph breaks and correctly set up list items (ordered and unordered, for example). If you can create documentation in this way, it meets the skimmable principle and helps readers quickly identify the section they are looking for. I would also recommend adding a unique ID to each distinct section of each page so readers can quickly jump to it using a navigation menu. To find out more about this, see the W3Schools HTML id Attribute page. Once these are set up, you can link anyone to a specific part of the page.

In the previous article on designing the open course, I included a section on the “Side by Side Code Block Tutorials” I use to demonstrate new and complex course elements. This aims to hit the exemplary principle, as it gives readers a quick example of how certain elements work and how to manipulate them in the future.

Video tutorials

Video tutorials are another way to give examples using a step by step process, and provide an additional level of personalization that is often missing from text-only tutorials. There are some downsides to video tutorials, however, which may influence the decision to create them.

Each of the following involve the time commitment required to create videos in the first place, and the principle of staying current.

  1. Scripting and editing
    • Usually a video tutorial, or series of videos, involves scripting what the person giving the tutorial is going to say. With written documentation, this would usually be the end of the process – but with videos, it is only step one. The written form then needs to be spoken, correctly, and edited to make sure any mistakes are removed or audio synched up with what is happening on the screen.
  2. Editing mistakes or changes
    • It advisable before creating a video tutorial to check if the procedure, process, or system is going to remain in place for long enough to make the time investment making a decent tutorial video worth it. It is a lot easier to change text-based tutorials when something changes than record another video. Additionally, videos are a more personalized version of a tutorial, and if the initial video creator moves on to another position or institution, it would no longer be possible to keep the consistency of any other videos in the documentation.

Those who write documentation with others will know about the importance of an agreed upon style guide. Using the same style of writing, formatting, and terminology across pages and writers ensures that no one section or page stands out or looks jarring in comparison to another, thus fulfilling the consistency principle.

Sources, or where content creators store documentation

For an Instructional Designer, it is not always possible to include documentation directly next to the thing it is explaining. For example, certain Learning Management Systems will remove code comments from all pages, leaving just the content. This is contrary to software development in general, where comments can be left inside code without issue. Therefore I recommend expanding the definition of ‘nearby’ when it comes to documentation for online courses to get around this potential problem.

How you, or your institution, store documentation will have a large effect on how people interact with it. Some institutions use specialized software such as the well-known Confluence by Atlassian, which allows collaboration between users. Other platforms such as Google Workspace are easier to start using for universities and colleges, which often already have Google accounts ready to go, and can be used without extra costs. A similar outcome is offered by other platforms such as a WordPress installation with multiple users creating and contributing to existing articles. Depending on the Learning Management System, it is possible to include documentation closer to the course files (such as attaching files to pages), which is recommended under the nearby principle. Using a single repository for documentation is important so that similar and identical information (such as tutorials on the same topic) are not unnecessarily duplicated (i.e. kept unique) in multiple places such as on an LMS, blog, shared docs. For example, a user of Canvas duplicating tutorial pages across courses leads to problems if part of the tutorial needs to change. This means numerous edits across multiple courses as opposed to pointing to one central location that requires edits only once.

Publications, or how someone can find what they are looking for

Continuing from the previous paragraph on Sources (where the writers store documents), the discoverability of the documentation is key. Where are faculty, designers, and support staff likely to look for help on various topics? Consider linking to the established repository where possible – rather than duplicating it across multiple sites. This will make it easier for others to find the help they require. In a previous section, I included a link to the W3Schools HTML id Attribute page. Specifically here, we are interested in the “HTML Bookmarks with ID and Links” section which tells us about how to jump to different “bookmarks” of a very long page. This is handy when you want to point someone directly to a smaller part of a more complicated and longer page. Doing this manually, however, can take a lot of time, but there are shortcuts for creating these IDs.

When writing documentation, I often use Markdown and then export to HTML. During this conversion process, the headings are automatically given a unique ID in HTML. When pointing people to this part of the documentation, I just need to append a # and the ID name of the heading to the end of the URL. This is known as making the documentation addressable, and links the reader directly to where they would be helped the most. For example, I might want you to go directly to the General recommended documentation principles section of this page, and you can do so with that previous link.

The Write the Docs authors ask the following question:

Can a reader follow your entire body of documentation, linearly, from start to finish without getting confused?

Answering “yes” to this would fulfill the requirements of being cumulative, and this is important when writing something like a tutorial for faculty from start to finish. I try to structure HTML tutorial documentation with the absolute basics first, using headings to structure the page, so that if an instructor already knows basic HTML/CSS principles, they can just skip to the sections that are important to them. If they know nothing about it, however, they should be able to start at the beginning and go through the steps in order.

Completeness of a document increases in complexity depending on what you are writing about. Rather than overpromising what will be in the documentation, state to the reader which parts are covered and stick to those. For example, if there are five assessment criteria for an essay titled Essay 1, only covering three of those in a document titled “Assessment Criteria for Essay 1, Explained” would be misleading.

The beauty of a page is subjective, but proper document structure can help enormously. Things like logical reading order of headings, use of whitespace, properly sized images with captions/alt-text go a long way to making documents more readable.

Documentation Body

The time required to make your institution’s documentation comprehensive also depends on the complexity of the systems in use. Write The Docs defines comprehensive documentation as being able to answer all the questions a user is likely to have. Instructional Designers are often connected to all aspects of the course, and can work with the various teams involved to provide the informative questions and answers required to be as comprehensive as possible for all stakeholders.

Conclusion

Creating successful documentation in the Instructional Design field starts from the inception of a project. It begins with the very first needs analysis and ends with a fully comprehensive set of publications that are easy to access by both writers and readers. It is a collaborative process and involves promotion and discoverability. but once created, it provides opportunities for learning, understanding, and importantly, modification and revisions to existing projects. For those thinking of designing an open course, or if you simply like learning more about how things work, perhaps you too are a Documentarian.

References

  1. Chambers, P. (2022, May 23). Designing the open course: Why Instructional Designers should follow a “right to repair” plan. Ecampus Course Development & Training Inspire Blog. https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2022/05/23/designing-the-open-course-why-instructional-designers-should-follow-a-right-to-repair-plan/.
  2. HTML id Attribute. Retrieved from https://www.w3schools.com/htmL/html_id.asp.
  3. Mundorff, M. (2022, April 18). An Introduction to Markdown. Ecampus Course Development & Training Inspire Blog. https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2022/04/18/an-introduction-to-markdown/.
  4. Write the Docs, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Introduction

When I hear the word presence, I’m reminded of a teacher taking attendance at the beginning of class. I picture the teacher calling out each student’s name, the students responding either “here!” or “present!” in turn. In this scenario, though, while the students each affirm their presence, the teacher’s presence is a given. The teacher doesn’t mark herself present in the attendance record. The teacher doesn’t need to prove they taught class or prove they exist to students. As one might suspect, this is an area where online asynchronous courses differ from traditional classrooms: one’s presence is not a given. Presence becomes even more important in online settings. Perhaps that’s why we hear so much about it. Online presence. Social presence. Instructor presence. But, what do these words really mean in virtual classrooms?

There are many ways to define presence. The first entry in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines presence as “the fact or condition of being present.” This entry directs readers to present (adjective, entry 3 of 4), which defines present as “now existing or in progress.” There is an immediacy to these words, a temporal aspect, and a physicality: Presence. How do we reconcile the temporal and physical connotations of this term with online, asynchronous interactions?

In this digital age, I think most folks would agree that it’s possible to experience presence online, to feel that someone is real, even if they’re not standing in front of you. But, how do we define it within this context? How do we describe presence to someone who’s attempting to achieve it virtually? For myself and other instructional designers tasked with guiding faculty to design and prepare to facilitate an online course, where they’re told their ability to establish presence will directly impact student success, what advice do we offer? Simply put, how is presence communicated in an online, asynchronous course?

To begin answering these questions, I’ll provide an overview of Garrison et al.’s (2000) Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, which defines three presences for computer-mediated communication (i.e., the communication that occurs in online courses and other digital environments). Then, we’ll briefly consider how you might think about presence in your own online courses. 

Overview of Community of Inquiry (COI)

We’ll start with a brief overview of Garrison et al.’s (2000) model of Community of Inquiry (CoI). CoI is a conceptual model that identifies three presences that are essential for online classrooms. It’s worth noting, too, that this model was created to provide a framework for presence mediated through the use of digital technologies. The three presences are 1) cognitive presence, 2) social presence, and 3) teaching presence.

Cognitive presence refers to the opportunities learners have “to construct meaning through sustained communication” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 89). This is considered a foundational element of the model and might include, for example, an instructor providing feedback to students or students engaging in peer review.

Social presence includes opportunities the instructor and students have to share personal details within the classroom environment. Social presence supports cognitive presence and plays an important role in meeting course goals that are explicitly affective (Garrison et al., 2000).

Teaching presence is divided into two functions: structure and process. The structure can be thought of as the design of the educational environment and the process is often thought of as the facilitation of the environment (Garrison et al., 2000). Although different people may be involved in each function (e.g., an instructional designer and teacher might design a course, but a different instructor and a TA might be responsible for facilitating the course), both functions play a role in teaching presence.

While we don’t have enough space here to dig into each of these presences, I highly recommend checking out the article, “Designing a community of inquiry in online courses” (Fiock, 2020), which lists many instructional activities that can be implemented to support each type of presence.

Suggestions for Moving Forward

Ultimately, you might find it hard to keep these presences straight, and that’s okay! Richardson and Lowenthal (2017) point out that academic publications don’t even use the same terms to describe various online presences. Acknowledging that there are different interpretations of presence in online contexts and different approaches for achieving presence online is the point of this post. In the future, you can always refer back here or save the resources listed below for reference later. In Ecampus, we try to emphasize instructor-student, student-student, and student-content interaction, an approach you might find easier to remember.

What I hope you take away from this post is that it’s not as important to remember the differences between each of these presences as much as it is important to include a variety of strategies in your course to communicate and establish presence. I’d also encourage you to occasionally try new approaches and to strive to communicate presence in multiple ways, without getting locked into a narrow view of presence and what it means in online classrooms. 

References & Resources

Fiock, H. (2020). Designing a Community of Inquiry in online courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(1), 135-153. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v20i5.3985

Garrison, Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6 

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Presence. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/presence

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Present. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/present

Richardson, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. (2017). Instructor social presence: Learners’ needs and a neglected component of the community of inquiry framework. In A. Whiteside, A. Garrett Dikkers, & K. Swan, (Eds.), Social presence in online learning: Multiple perspectives on practice and research (pp. 86-98). Stylus.

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

Are you searching for a way to increase student-to-student interaction in your teaching? Would you thrill at the idea of more creative online discussions? This post describes a well-tested approach that supports strong inter-student interaction and avoids the typically mundane discussion activity. Best of all, this approach works effectively in multiple STEM disciplines, including mathematics, engineering, coding, and other problem-solving orientated subjects.

Creative Discussions

Since I always look for ways to make online discussions more engaging and meaningful for students, I like to share instructors’ creative and fun approaches. Several years ago, I wrote a blog post explaining how a math instructor engaged students, asking them to find examples of parabolas they were studying that week in their local environment and post pictures on the discussion board. It was a huge success and had students enthusiastically sharing their discoveries.

I’m currently working with an engineering instructor to develop a series of graduate-level online courses. The challenge is how to approach a series of homework activities. The assigned problems are difficult, so solving in small groups is beneficial. However, the instructor also wants to make sure that all students independently develop a firm grasp of the principles and processes, but without worry about right answers.

Enter the two-step problem solving approach. Here’s how it works:

First, students review a complex scenario-based problem, which they attempt to resolve individually. Students are assessed on accurate application of the proper processes, formulas, or steps to solve the problem, not on whether they come up with the correct answer.

In the following week, students work in 3- or 4-person teams, uploading and sharing their individual responses on the group’s private discussion board. This leads to the second step, where students review the logic and processes taken by team members. To reach agreement on the correct answer, they collaborate and discuss all the proposed approaches, actively engaging with and educating each other, citing resources that support why their approach is correct. Ultimately, each small group must interact and debate until they reach a consensus, which is submitted and graded for a correct (or not) answer.

Successful Outcomes

The engineering instructor has implemented this approach for several terms and finds it successful in several ways.

  • The individual first attempt minimizes the potential of a student shirking their duties or not giving their full effort to the group activity.
  • Being assessed on approach and application of appropriate principles eases the anxiety of getting the right answer, which minimizes the temptation to use shortcuts or unethical options.
  • The group discussion supports active learning and requires students to present their solution. When the student believes their answer is correct, they confidently cite evidence and reference applicable resources to explain their rationale.
  • Given today’s global business environment, the ability to succeed as part of a team is an essential skill to master, requiring effective communication, persuasion, and negotiation to arrive at a consensus.
  • Working as a team alleviates pressure and allows everyone to contribute, more or less evenly. Students must interact with peers and learn to respect and appreciate individual differences, skills, and perspectives.
  • Although most problems have a “right” answer, solutions often include a more nuanced response that highlights the need for some degree of subjective judgment.

Using this two-step approach has been valuable for students. It reinforces their efforts to grasp the formulas and processes related to the problem, while simultaneously providing the space to learn from their peers. And as noted earlier, this method is easily adaptable to many disciplines and subjects. If you are searching for a way to increase student-to-student interaction in your teaching, you may want to give this two-step approach a try.

We’d love to hear your feedback and comments, so please post if you want to share your experience with this or other creative approaches. Good luck!

Susan Fein, Ecampus Instructional Designer, susan.fein@oregonstate.edu