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

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


Whether a pedagogical approach is affirmed by research and/or practical evidence intentional design and effective deployment of pedagogical strategies are essential. We will begin with an exploration of evidence-based design components, which build upon the characteristics of Project-based Learning (PjBL), as discussed in Project-based Learning (Part 1) – Architecture for Authenticity.

Getting Started

Begin with the end in mind. Take a moment to establish the outcomes, goals, and real-world connections that will underpin the project. Consider using the following elements as your guide.  

  • Identify the Course Learning Outcomes (CLO) students should be able to demonstrate upon successful completion of the course
  • Identify the intended project outcomes and the alignment to the course learning outcomes
  • Identify skills students will practice and master while engaging with the project 
  • Articulate the purpose of the project within the contexts of the course, academic program, field of study, and profession
  • Articulate authentic connections between the project, across academic disciplines, and professional practice
  • Connect the project to an authentic purpose that extends beyond the confines of the course

Course Design Elements

Next, reflect on how you can design your project to incorporate most of the following PjBL core design elements.  

Project-based learning process

Image credit: Gold Standard Project Based Learning by PBLWorks is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Authentic Challenge

Initially, consider creating an opportunity for students to self-select a challenge. This can be anything from finding a solution to existing problems, a remedy for historical barriers, answers for disciplinary relevant questions, or asking new questions. Whatever the challenge may be, a best practice is to contextualize it within a real-world context. Affirm student voice and choice by explicitly sharing how the project connects to the academic discipline, professional field of practice, and real issues by providing feedback. Lastly, help students to see how they can connect the challenge to themselves.

Authentic Product

Development of an artifact that is relevant, timely, impactful, and piques personal interest help to bridge the concepts to the real world. To effectively create an artifact that produces a public good, students should engage in an iterative process that includes: planning, prototyping, seeking and applying feedback from diverse stakeholders (i.e., public, target audience, instructor, peers, Subject Matter Expert), personal reflection, and revisions. To determine whether your project is authentic, consider whether the product(s) create a lasting and meaningful impact beyond the classroom. Examples of authentic products could include a business plan to innovate an existing accessibility tool, a podcast to share about (DEI) Diversity Equity and Inclusion practices or to generate oral histories (i.e., audio interviews) of underrepresented populations. 

Sustained Inquiry

Incorporation of formal and informal opportunities for students to question, research, gather information, conduct analysis, apply new knowledge, generate additional inquiries, and highlight evidence is key to the design. These opportunities should be integrated into the architecture of the project, but the actions should be student-driven. This strategy will help promote knowledge construction.

Student Autonomy

Create varied opportunities for students to make their own choices, both collectively and individually. Student-driven choice can extend to such elements as question development, selection of public a product, identification of target audiences, establishment of collaboration protocols, application of knowledge and feedback, and prototype revision methods. Doing so situates students as the diver of their own learning process and creates space for students to hone their metacognitive skills (i.e., self-regulation, monitoring, and self-directed learning).

Reflection

Due to its roots in constructivism, reflection is commonly used in PjBL. Reflection is used as a strategy to foster deep learning, personal ownership of learning, assimilation of new knowledge, integration of lived experiences, effective inquiry, assessment of quality, and the navigation of challenges. While serving as a guide on the side, consider integrating activities to foster ongoing reflection of critical questions. Such questions may include:

  • What is known?
  • What needs to be known?
  • What evidence exists?
  • Will the product have an impact on the world outside of the course? How?
  • Do I/we bring any personal biases to the project which impacts the design of the product?
  • Does the design of the product represent the diversity of the target audiences?  
  • What works or does not work? Why?
  • How can the product be improved? What is the rationale behind the recommended changes?
  • How can the quality and efficacy of the product be tested?
  • Does the project extend on what the academic domain and professional field have established? If not, how can the project be modified to contribute additional knowledge or insights?
  • How does the project connect to my life, my lived experiences, and that of others?
  • How will the project help me to develop my professional skills?

An example of a PjBL reflective activity is a design journal. Design journals can include text, visualization, and media elements. Each entry can be structured to cover the following: knowledge gained, ideas, sustained inquiry (i.e., questions, additional research needed), the rationale for product changes, and next steps.

Critique & Revision

Integrating activities, such as a design journal, provides students the opportunity to actively critique, revise, and obtain feedback throughout the duration of the project. There is a multitude of scenarios that may call for critique. Students may find their initial idea to be too broad or specific. The original line of inquiry may have been faulty. One may find the product does not generate the intended public good or service. Therefore, revising the goal and creating a new product may be necessary. Alternatively, situations can arise where students learn of a product’s unintended harm, so a new prototype may need to be created. The goal is to create a course climate that is psychologically safe enough to encourage iteration.

Success Tips

Please note that these best practices and design elements offer a framework. Your course is unique. There is an unending list of potential factors that can impact the design of your course and project (e.g., accreditation, professional competencies, academic rigor, program outcomes, administrative expectations, etc.).

  • Keep in mind that you do not have to incorporate everything and the kitchen sink. Take what you can from existing literature, practitioner testimonials, industry needs, professional practices, real-world examples, and lessons learned from your own lived experiences.
  • Begin with small additions to your course, assess the impact of those changes, and revise as you deem appropriate.
  • Remember that nothing will be perfect, and there are always opportunities to improve. Design with the best fit in mind!

Looking Ahead!

You are cordially invited to revisit the Ecampus Course Development and Training Blog for Project-based Learning (Part 3) – Practical Preparation. In the final installment of this series, we will explore additional project-based learning activities, identify opportunities to integrate technology and examine actual project samples.

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

This blog post is an Instructor Spotlight authored by Xiaohui Chang. Xiaohui is a Toomey Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Business Analytics in the College of Business. This post is a follow up to Improving Student Engagement and Connection in Online Learning: Part I, Proactive Support.


Introduction

Since the first post in the series appeared a few months ago, we have received plenty of feedback from other instructors who are actively engaged in online education. Some of the stories shared by them reiterate the points we discussed, and others included tips and techniques that have worked particularly well for them. Almost all of them agreed that teaching well online remains a challenging task.

“I love the notes on proactive student support … especially the notes on checking in with those who are behind. Sometimes all they need is a little empathy!”

Vic Matta, Associate Professor, College of Business, Ohio University 

“I regularly incorporate each of these in my relationships with my students, to include weekly zoom “what’s up” meetings with my students. I check in on them if they’re behind on assignments…Yes, it takes effort; but my mission is to help these students find the greatness within themselves to succeed.”

To quickly recap what we have discussed in Part 1, we touched on how to employ empathy statements in communications with students, restructure and promote the office hours, provide personal feedback for students, and periodically check in with students who are behind. You may also refer to the first article here: Improving Student Engagement and Connection in Online Learning: Part I, Proactive Support.

Continuing from the first post, Part II will revolve around six specific practices that I have found particularly helpful for online teaching and learning.

Practice 1: Adopt a variety of communication methods

I provide assignment instructions and guidance using a variety of communication methods including texts, diagrams, images, and short video clips. I have learned that instructions with screenshots and videos tend to be better in explaining complicated procedures than text alone.

Video Tutorial Example: Creating a random sample using XLSTAT

Practice 2: Create a Q&A Discussion Board

I have a separate discussion on Canvas for students to address issues with the class in general (content questions, technical issues, deadlines). Instead of emailing the instructor regarding issues other students may also have questions about, students are encouraged to use this forum so that all can benefit from the questions and answers. I usually wait for a few hours for students to answer each other’s questions first before I provide mine.

When students email me questions that are a good fit for the Q&A Discussion Board, I’d respond through email first and then recommend the students submit the questions to the discussion board so that other students can learn from the questions and answers. This discussion board also creates an inviting and engaging learning environment for the students who don’t get to meet their classmates in a face-to-face setting.

Practice 3: Estimate the amount of time taken for each assignment

I was skeptical of this at first as the time taken would vary drastically for each individual. However, student feedback indicates that estimated times helped them plan for the week and set aside an appropriate amount of time. We don’t need to worry too much about making the estimates accurate for everyone as students will automatically adjust given their own work styles. A workload calculator that I have found helpful is developed by the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, called the Workload Estimator 2.0.

For more information about estimation rates, see the explanation here – Workload Estimator: How We Calculated.

Practice 4: Ensure timely replies

This practice is obvious, but difficult to do when one is teaching multiple sessions with hundreds of students. For online classes, timely replies make students feel as though they are taking an in-person class with all of the built-in support and resources. I understand that we all have different teaching priorities and schedules, however, it all comes down to figuring out how to most efficiently organize our days so that we can be available to students.

Setting aside a couple of times a day for handling emails has worked quite well for me, e.g., the first thing in the morning, after noon, and before the end of the day. I try my best to respond to students’ emails within 24 hours and check my mailbox at least once every day on the weekends.

The timely replies in discussions were super helpful. It really felt as though I took this in person with all of the built-in help and support.

Student quote

Practice 5: Synchronize assignments with Canvas calendar

I have also synced all assignments and my office hours (renamed as Ask Me Anything Hours) on Canvas so that there are office hours available around when assignments are due. This proves to be incredibly convenient and useful for both students and instructors.

Practice 6: Reorganize course content

Here are several Canvas LMS tips that have helped in organizing the course content and saved my time. I try to organize everything in modules. Under each module, all items are split into two main components: resources and to-do lists, so students know exactly what assignments they would need to complete for each module. I also adopt a fixed set of systems for titling Canvas items. Items within modules are indented to help with organization.

Weekly agenda and announcements are also hyperlinked to guide students with the course navigation. I could not emphasize enough how much I value the internal messaging in the Canvas grade book that was briefly discussed in my previous post. This feature allows instructors to message students who haven’t submitted yet or who scored less than a certain point. Definitely a slick way to send quick emails to a target group.

Recently, I have been experimenting with a range of visual cues (e.g., emojis) to categorize course content. An example is provided below.

Screenshot of the module view of the course, demonstrating using of emojis as visual cues next to assignments. A written assignment has a pencil and paper emoji, a quiz has a question mark emoji, etc.

There was also a recent post on using emojis for visual way finding and fostering a friendly tone in online classes here: My Experience with Emojis in Online Courses: Affordances and Considerations.

Conclusion

It’s always best to keep an open mind when trying out new teaching practices and adapt them to your individual style and subject matter.

If you have any online teaching practices that you’re fond of, please feel free to contact me at Xiaohui.Chang@oregonstate.edu as I will be very excited to hear them and test them out. 

Tricks to creating a syllabus students want to read

In December 2021, CNN published a news story that went viral, featuring a Tennessee professor who hid in his syllabus a combination that led to a locker with a crisp $50 bill for the taking. When he announced at the end of the term that not a single student had claimed the prize, few were actually surprised. Hiding an Easter egg of this sort in the text of your syllabus is certainly a fun idea and a nice bonus for the most diligent student(s) who might find it, but there are other ways to get students to read what could arguably be the most important document in your course. 

A course syllabus has traditionally served many overlapping purposes. From an institutional perspective, a syllabus is a vehicle for sharing important policies, rules, and resources available to students. At some institutions, syllabi can be considered contracts between the instructors and students. For the instructor of the course, the syllabus serves as a published planning document, typically listing important information about the course such as dates, times, and locations of classes, office hours, required and supplemental materials and texts, course schedule and activities, learning goals or outcomes, descriptions of grading, and course or departmental policies. In addition to listing basic elements of the course, syllabi often include instructor contact information and explicitly provide course expectations and how to succeed in the course. One inclusion that has recently become important for OSU instructors to remember when creating syllabi is the recently passed Oregon Bill requiring schools to publish all materials costs and fees associated with a course. 

As students generally receive the syllabus in advance of or at the beginning of a course, it often serves as an introduction to the class and the professor. Students might get their first impression of the course and instructor based on this single document and it may weigh heavily in a student’s decision to register for or drop a course. Students often return to this foundational document throughout the course for guidance, and as such, it is important to make it easy to access repeatedly. Yet despite the fact that a syllabus is such an important document, unless there is a syllabus quiz they must take, students often merely skim or even skip reading it altogether. However, there are a few tips you can follow to make your syllabus more attractive and increase the chance that it will be read. Making your syllabus more visually appealing, providing a video tour or infographic, and using inclusive language with a warm tone are three student-friendly ways of increasing the likelihood of students reading the full document, and, coincidentally, have a positive effect on student impressions of the instructor. 

Student-friendly Strategies for Increasing Readership

1- Make it Visually Appealing

One way to increase the likelihood of your students actually perusing your syllabus at length is to make it visually appealing. If your syllabus could have been created with an old fashioned typewriter, you are missing out on a chance to use new tools to make a more modern and interactive document. 

Most students today already spend up to several hours a day reading, watching, and responding to online social media content, so asking students to read a text-heavy document can backfire due to overload. Enticing readers to take a closer look with interesting images and visuals such as graphs or diagrams, along with visually appealing organization, can be an effective strategy. Take a look at the sample redesigned syllabus above to see how one professor, Dr. Jenks, changed the format of hers to make it more visually appealing and readable. You don’t have to be a great designer to redo your own syllabus, as there are plenty of free templates available online (see resources below).

A beautifully designed syllabus can often open the door, encouraging text-weary students to take a look, but design alone will probably not keep them reading for long. Strategies employed in teaching reading are relevant in the discussion of syllabus language and design. Just as you would in an essay, writing a great opening or ‘hook’ can grab the reader’s attention and motivate them to continue reading. When deciding how to design a syllabus, instructors may want to consider using signaling (visually reinforcing important concepts), segmenting (chunking information into smaller units for better comprehension), and weeding (ridding of extraneous information), all of which can help create a concise yet effective document. Placing the most important information first for those inclined to give your document only a cursory glance is another great idea. Also, remember to ensure that your design does not interfere with and preferably increases accessibility. Additionally, some students might need a purely text document, so providing your syllabus in several ways is best practice.

If you have experience building Canvas pages, you could try out using some in-Canvas tricks to create a more visually appealing syllabus page, such as this example of a creative syllabus page design in Canvas: CS 271, Computer Architecture & Assembly Language.

2- Turn it into a Video or Infographic

You are probably already aware that if given the choice, many students tend to choose to view videos more often than read text documents. Recent research suggests that students increasingly expect video content to be part of their learning experience. You can use this to your advantage by recording a video tour of your syllabus to supplement the digital or physical document. Especially in Ecampus asynchronous courses where most of the work will be performed in Canvas, walking through the highlights of your syllabus and connecting what is written there to the pages, modules, and assignments in the Canvas course can help students gain a big picture view of the course and prevent questions later.

Especially in Ecampus asynchronous courses where most of the work will be performed in Canvas, walking through the highlights of your syllabus and connecting what is written there to the pages, modules, and assignments in the Canvas course can help students gain a big picture view of the course and prevent questions later. Using a video to introduce your course can help students better comprehend and remember the important parts of your syllabus by activating both the visual (pictorial) and auditory (verbal) processing channels that working memory uses. The same strategies mentioned as important for designing a visual syllabus can be employed (signaling, chunking, and weeding) to ensure viewers are not overwhelmed. This is one of the most effective ways to introduce your course to new students, with the added value of enhancing your instructor presence. It’s not as difficult as you may assume- OSU’s Canvas LMS has a built-in video recording tool, Kaltura Capture, with which you can create a screencast video.

Another option is to try something completely new- turning your staid, static syllabus into an infographic. Infographics have become more popular with the advent of quite a few online tools that provide a multitude of templates with simple drag and drop functionality, enabling instructors to reimagine how their syllabus information is presented (see below for resources). Infographics are appealing as a supplementary document even when a text version is evident, as they distill the elements of a course into easily presentable and understandable chunks, highlighting important information and saving longer descriptions for later. 

Infographic representing the important concepts in this article
Sample infographic based on this article

3- Consider your Tone and Wording

Another way to encourage students to read the entire syllabus in your course is to consider how the tone of the text is understood from the students’ perspective. Writing your syllabus in a warm (student-focused) tone communicates to students that you care about them as individuals and are rooting for them to succeed, which in turn motivates them to want to succeed, whereas writing in a cool (content focused)  tone can negatively impact students’ perceptions of the instructor and the course. There may be some hesitancy among instructors to shift from what is typically considered ‘proper’ academic language due to a conception that a syllabus should model this type of language. Some may be concerned that using informal or conversational language may muddy power dynamics, preferring an instructor-as-expert approach and mirroring that in their syllabus. 

While this may be the established norm, there are compelling reasons to tweak your writing style when drafting this first contact between instructor and students. Whereas in past decades teachers might have been expected to produce standard syllabi with purely academic, formal language, the more recent focus on concepts such as inclusivity, promoting diversity, and working toward equity has spurred many to take a closer look at how their syllabus language and presentation affects students and their sense of belonging when accessing higher education. Interestingly, using warmer language in your syllabus can actually impact how motivated students perceive YOU to be as well. Research from Richard J. Harnish and K. Robert Bridges determined that “a syllabus written in a friendly rather than unfriendly tone evoked perceptions of the instructor being more caring, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course.” Recent research from OSU’s own Regan A. R. Gerung and Nicole R. Galardi supports this, finding that syllabi written in a warm, friendly tone rather than a cooler, more academic tone tend to be viewed more positively (and resulted in more positive teacher ratings in evaluations). Instructors are often missing out on a wonderful opportunity to invite students into a mutually respectful class experience by distancing themselves by using an overly cold and academic tone in their syllabus.

OSU has expressed a strong commitment to using inclusive and affirming language, recognizing that how we use language reflects how we view the world and impacts others’ sense of belonging.One of the first things to consider is your audience- are you teaching a freshman level intro course, where students may be entering the world of formal academia for the first time? Many OSU Ecampus students identify as first generation college students or non-native English speakers, which might impact how they interpret the writing in your syllabus. If your syllabus uses language that seems cold, distant, formal, or unwieldy due to overly complex structures and style, students may fail to understand, become disinterested, and/or discontinue their reading of your syllabus. Are you teaching graduate students who might have a better comprehension of academic language? Even if you are, your syllabus may not be the place to showcase this type of language, which can impact comprehension. 

In addition to how friendly your tone is, consider the underlying message sent by how you choose to discuss subjects, especially aspects that are traditionally the sole purview of the instructor, such as the turning in of work, granting extensions or incompletes, and grading policies. If a syllabus contains frequent mentions of the penalties students will face, punitive measures that will be taken, or absolutes that will be enforced, students may be put off and decide the instructor is authoritarian, controlling, or overly strict. A lack of flexibility can seem particularly uncaring, causing students to be less likely to reach out if they encounter difficulties that may impact their ability to turn in work on time and participate fully. Instead, consider how you could offer more student friendly policies that offer students flexibility, choice, and empathy for students’ complicated lives.

The key, as in most areas of life, is finding the right balance that represents what you want to convey to students. The image below, taken from the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning publication Pedagogical Pragmatics (P2): Writing a Warm SYLLABUS, shows some examples of cool vs. warm syllabus statements. Small changes in wording can be enough to convey warmth and friendliness.

Examples of warm versus cool syllabus language in a chart
8/2021 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial 4.0 International License  WEB: Ctl.oregonstate.edu; TWITTER: @OSUteaching; BLOG: https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching

Looking to improve your syllabus? Check out these resources:


Sources and Resources

A professor hid a cash prize on campus. All students had to do was read the syllabus – CNN

Accessible Syllabus

Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate

Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course Richard J. Harnish ·K. Robert Bridges

Newly passed bills require Oregon public colleges to publicize information on student fees, other costs – OPB

Principles of Multimedia Learning 

Sample Visual Syllabus

STATE OF VIDEO IN EDUCATION 2019 

Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help – Regan AR Gurung, Noelle R. Galardi, 2021

Using a warmer tone in college syllabi makes students more likely to ask for help, OSU study finds | Oregon State University

Utilizing Inclusive and Affirming Language | Institutional Diversity 

Would a Course Syllabus Be Better as an Infographic? 

clipboard, green apple, notebook, hand writing with pencil, scissors and spool of thread emojis used in module items

What should you know about emojis if you plan to use them in your online courses? Not being an extremely online person and not, perhaps, of the right generation, I came to emojis later than others and felt uncertain using them. What did these symbols communicate to others, and how would it reflect on me if I used them in my work with instructors and students? Without research-based answers to these questions, I nonetheless began using emojis in online course designs for the purpose of visual wayfinding and for fostering a friendly, playful tone. After several terms of using emojis in this way, I wondered whether they were accomplishing my goals. Now I’d like to share the background on emojis I’ve researched—and wish I had had earlier—so that you can avoid any missteps.

Wayfinding

Using emojis in the Canvas Modules menu (which doesn’t otherwise permit any modification of its visual design) has been one way to increase the salience of certain items or to lend them a certain skeuomorphism. With ‘at-a-glance’ speed—faster than reading text—students can quickly identify their intended navigational path once they’ve grasped the symbolism of each emoji. I use these symbols consistently for assignments of the same type across weekly modules. Here’s how the emojis looked in a graphic design course, which itself featured a lesson on semiotics and the way icons, indexes, and symbols operate as visual shorthand:

There are 6 module items arrayed one on top of the other in a list. Each item title has a number, a distinct emoji, and a text-based title. The emojis used are a clipboard, green apple, notebook, hand writing with pencil, scissors and spool of thread.

All the emojis chosen for this course reference the domain of school or making—a scissors represents creative assignments, a spool of thread winks at the idea of “threads” in a discussion. The usage of emojis, along with other design choices related to page layout and color scheme, was a way to model the design skills being taught. Students could thus experience how thoughtful design influenced their interactions with a digital product, in this case, a college course.

Tone

I had also hoped that using emojis would communicate to students that a course was welcoming, approachable, and not all deadly serious. Much research has been done to understand how the set of emojis depicting faces influences the emotional reception of text-based messages, but my course designs have generally used non-face emojis. Research on this set of objects, the meaning and emotional valence of which might be more opaque, also shows that emoji objects communicate positive affect or playfulness, perhaps because they demonstrate that the user has invested care and emotion work in choosing an emoji appropriate for interpersonal exchange (Riordan, 2017). Whether that is appropriate within online learning is less clear; emojis were found to increase students’ perception of how caring an instructor was, but they also led students to perceive the instructor as less competent (Vareberg and Westerman, 2020). And while they might “lighten the mood,” emojis were considered inappropriate in contexts that students considered formal, such as email (Kaye, et al., 2016). Within the domain of commerce, emojis in ads were pleasing to customers when the product was perceived as hedonic rather than utilitarian, suggesting again that context is a critical factor in emoji’s reception. Another consideration to have in mind is the multiplicity of interpretations an emoji might have at the intersection of gender, language, culture, etc. (Bai, Qiyu, et al., 2019), and how that will affect your intended tone.

Considerations with Accessibility

In testing my emojis in Canvas, I relied on ReadSpeaker TextAid; this accessibility tool simply skipped emojis and read only the surrounding text aloud – which was fine, as the critical content I wanted to communicate was in text form, and the emojis were essentially decorative. Unfortunately, after reading a great post on the experience of emojis for individuals with sight impairments who use assistive technology, I discovered that the ReadSpeaker TextAid behavior wasn’t typical. Using screenreaders more commonly used by individuals with sight impairments, I then confirmed that when emojis are encountered, their official names are, indeed, read aloud. This means that my visually clever discussion title was now rendered in speech as ‘2.6 Spool of Thread Discussion,’ lengthening the time it took to get to the useful information and adding irrelevant content. Whereas an emoji can be hidden from assistive technology via html on a Canvas page or assignment, there is no mechanism to do this within the title of a page or assignment. This means that, if an emoji is a must-have, it should be placed at the end of the Canvas item title, where it will be read last and prove less bothersome to learners using screenreaders. For me, however, this creates a jagged, irregular visual appearance when viewed in the Canvas Modules menu, and coming at the end of the title, makes the emojis a less useful navigational shortcut for sighted students.

Emojis appear at the end of each module item in a list of six. Each item title has a different length, so the emojis appear at different distances from the start of each line.

For tips on accessible emoji use, you should read Emojis: Readibility Guidelines and “Do Emojis and Accessibility Work Together?”. If you need to identify an emoji’s official title as read by a screenreader, consult the emoji’s entry in emojipedia.org, which will also show you the varied appearances an emoji takes on different platforms—another consideration you’ll need to have in mind.

Is the Party Over? 🎉

Unfortunately, with this research in mind, I can no longer sprinkle emojis throughout my Canvas courses like so much happy confetti. Now, I’ll recommend to the instructors I partner with that they use emojis sparingly, for the purposes of communicating the emotional valence of a message (to ‘smooth out the rough edges of digital life,’ as so incisively put by Stark and Crawford, 2015) or to increase salience, but always in accessible ways, and always with a few caveats in mind.

References

Aitchison, Suzanne. “Accessible Images, Icons and Emojis.” Up Your A11y.

Bai, Qiyu, et al. “A Systematic Review of Emoji: Current Research and Future Perspectives.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10, Frontiers Research Foundation, 2019, pp. 2221–2221, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02224. Full Text.

Content Design London. “Emojis.” Readability Guidelines.

Finke, Beth. “Emojis and Accessibility: The DOS and Don’ts of Including Emojis in Texts and Emails.” Easterseals Blog.

Kaye, Linda K., et al. ““Turn That Frown Upside-down”: A Contextual Account of Emoticon Usage on Different Virtual Platforms.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 60, Elsevier Ltd, 2016, pp. 463–67, doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.02.088. Full Text.

Mace, Di. “Do Emojis and Accessibility Work Together?” Blueprint – Blog by Tiny.

Riordan, Monica A. “Emojis as Tools for Emotion Work: Communicating Affect in Text Messages.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol. 36, no. 5, SAGE Publications, 2017, pp. 549–67, doi:10.1177/0261927X17704238. Read via OSU Library.

Stark, Luke, and Kate Crawford. “The Conservatism of Emoji: Work, Affect, and Communication.” Social Media + Society, vol. 1, no. 2, SAGE Publications, 2015, p. 205630511560485, doi:10.1177/2056305115604853. Full Text.

Vareberg, Kyle R., and David Westerman. “To: -) Or to ☺, That Is the Question: a Study of Students’ Initial Impressions of Instructors’ Paralinguistic Cues.” Education and Information Technologies, vol. 25, no. 5, Springer US, 2020, pp. 4501–16, doi:10.1007/s10639-020-10181-9. Read via OSU Library.

This blog post is an Instructor Spotlight authored by Xiaohui Chang. Xiaohui is an Associate Professor of Business Analytics in the College of Business.


Introduction

Teaching an online course can feel like a solitary experience, and it can be isolating for students as well. Don’t we all wish we could get to know our students better? In this post, I’ll share some of my teaching practices that help me connect, support, and engage our online students. 

First, a little background about my teaching, especially online teaching. I have been heavily involved in undergraduate and graduate teaching since 2014 and have taught more than 2000 students (2047 to be exact) under a variety of teaching modalities including traditional face-to-face classes, online courses with Ecampus, synchronous class sessions due to COVID-19. The courses I teach are mostly quantitative, including business statistics and business analytics. Since my first online class in Summer 2017, I have delivered 8 online classes with 347 students in total. Besides my extensive online teaching experience, I have attended many workshops to improve my skills, had numerous productive conversations with colleagues and Ecampus instructional designers, and acquired knowledge in theory and practice from books and websites. Most importantly in the past several years after developing the tricks and practices described below, I have put them to the test in my online classes.

Most of my practices revolve around one key idea: provide proactive support to students, which is also advocated by Ecampus in their Online Teaching Principles. The two principles that touch on this type of proactive support are (1) Reach out and (2) Refer and Cultivate Inclusion.

What does this look like in action? In this post, I will share some examples of how I apply these principles to demonstrate care, connect with students, and proactively support those that may be struggling. My hope is that other instructors will find methods that resonate and work for your students as well. 

Employ Empathy Statements in Email and Other Communications

Empathetic emails and other communications are essential in establishing supportive interactions with students but they don’t get the amount of attention and effort that they truly deserve. First of all, emails are undoubtedly the most popular tool used by students to connect with faculty. On a 5-point Likert-type (1=never, 2=sometimes, 3=about half the time, 4=most of the time, 5=always), emails are rated 3.53 which is the highest among all tools used. Online instructors spend hours responding to student emails every day. I receive an email like the following anywhere between once a week to a few times each week.

“I am sorry for reaching you so late … I just realized this issue now with all of my classes. I might have been distracted by … at the moment, causing me to lose certain grades, but I am trying to be more attentive moving forward … Is there any way I could still get points for my missing assignments? Thank you for your understanding, and I’m sorry again for the trouble.”

Quote from student email

In face-to-face interactions, I try to be straightforward. My natural response to an email like this would simply be a description of the student’s missed assignments and a discussion of the late penalty policy in this course. After drafting a response email, I try to pause for a while, re-read the student’s email, and try to put myself in their shoes. 

After teaching at OSU for a few years, I noticed that many of our students are shouldering multiple roles and responsibilities while attending school full time. According to the 2020 OSU survey collected from a total of 1,190 students, close to 47% of the students are working full time, 20% are working part-time, and 29% are caregivers to a child or a family member. A few of my students have been serving in Afghanistan while taking my online classes. Students’ commitments outside of class increased even more during this unprecedented COVID era. I doubt I would do a better job than my students who are wearing multiple hats in staying focused in all of these courses and keeping track of tens of due dates every week. I strongly believe that getting into an empathetic mindset not only helps me relate to them, listen to their stories, and feel their frustration, but also makes students feel that they are not just another number. In my final response to the aforementioned email, I start my reply with a paragraph like the following and discuss the missed assignments and late penalties in the second paragraph.

“Sorry to hear that you’ve been distracted by …. I understand that it can get quite difficult to stay on top of everything at the moment. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or the Ecampus academic and student support services if we can be of any help to you. We are here to support all of our students to succeed.”

Instructor email response

This additional paragraph takes very little time to write but carries a long way to foster a supportive online learning environment. Some of my students shared this feedback in my teaching evaluations.

“For someone that is off-campus, this was a great feeling that I wasn’t just another student, I almost felt as if I was her only student, that’s what that little note meant.”

Quote from student evaluation

I highly recommend all online instructors to consider using empathy statements in their emails and other communications with their students. They mean more to your students than you believe. You can find more information about empathy in online instruction via Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s Humanizing Infographic and in the Humanizing Online Learning blog post by Tianhong Shi.

Restructure Office Hours – “Ask Me Anything Hours”

Research studies have shown that high-quality student-faculty interactions are linked with many benefits ranging from academic success to student retention (Kuh et al. 2010, Tinto 1997).

For online classes, besides email messages, virtual office hours are another useful way to engage student and faculty interactions. Nevertheless, in the 2020 OSU Survey, when asked which tools they use to communicate with faculty, the average score for emails was 3.53, compared to a mere 1.59 for virtual office hours. Smith et al. (2017) recommends that faculty and higher education institutions “make it explicit what students might get out of office hours”, “create nurturing classroom environments by promoting friendly and dedicate attitudes toward teaching among faculty,” and “openly and proactively promote office hours.” Because many online students are not aware of the purpose of office hours, following the suggestions from my colleague, Dr. Jason Stornelli, I have renamed all my office hours to “Ask Me Anything Hours” to make the sessions informative and inviting. I have also tried to proactively promote these sessions through Canvas announcements, groups emails, and one-on-one emails. The student attendance rate has gone up since then. This further cultivates a supportive and welcoming environment for the students, inciting responses such as the following:

I never got to take advantage of the office hours, but I’ve never had an online instructor who encouraged visiting them so much, which felt very inviting. I always felt like I had a voice and was cared about.

Quote from student evaluation

Provide Constructive and Personal Feedback for Students to Reflect and Improve Upon

Many of my students also appreciate the personal feedback they received after the exams and some important assignments. Modern technologies including grading rubric and speed graders in Canvas have expedited grading significantly, but may limit the personal and constructive feedback from the instructors. For online classes, personal feedback is particularly important because it provides learners with valuable feedback in which to inform, reflect, and adjust their learning. In my classes, I first organize all exam questions according to their modules. After students complete the exam, I go through every student’s exam and identify their individual points of weakness, i.e., the modules and the types of questions that they would need to improve upon. I also offer an extra credit assignment for students to make up some lost points from the exams; this will not change students’ grades substantially but offers an opportunity and an incentive for students to practice and learn from their mistakes.

I have never had a teacher email me personal feedback about one of my midterms. I went over the modules you said I should work on, and it really helped me on the final. The extra practice problems were very useful in not only raising my grades but also grasping the subject better.

Quote from student evaluation

Periodically Check in with Students Who Are Behind

Checking in with students who may be struggling in the class throughout the term plays a critical role in supporting our students. This has been made easier than ever by Canvas LMS. Under the Canvas gradebook, for each assignment, we can email those students who failed to submit an assignment or scored less than a specific score. For online classes with many assignments due every week, it becomes challenging to keep track of all the due dates even with the assistance of automatic to-do reminders from Canvas. In my emails, I also encourage students who are falling behind to seek assistance either from me, our Teaching Assistant, a private tutor, or TutorMe, which is an online tutoring platform for currently enrolled OSU Ecampus students, and connects them with live tutors in under 30 seconds and 24/7. Sometimes students are not aware or just forget about the many assistance and resources offered in this class. 

Online students often feel invisible and insignificant. They need to be seen and valued by instructors. Many of the practices outlined above can be easily done and are essential in fostering a supportive learning culture and ensuring the success of students. I hope you try out some of these practices in your online classes and find at least one of them helpful for you and your students.

Infographic created by Brittni Racek via Venngage

Feel free to contact me at Xiaohui.Chang@oregonstate.edu as I am always eager to hear your feedback and suggestions. Let us connect with and support each other in this online teaching journey as much as we do with our students.

Sources

Traditional learning materials such as textbooks can limit access to innovative teaching and learning practices. With Open Educational Resources (OERs), teachers and students are freed from the constraints of these materials and are empowered to adapt, use, and share learning materials created by others. This is a series of two blogs that will explore the importance of OERs and the resources needed for creating our own open resources for language learning?.  

First, let’s take a brief look at what makes OERs appealing, yet challenging to adapt and create in language education.

OER is sharing
Open educational resources. Source: Giulia Forsythe on Flickr, Public domain CC0 1.0

A Brief Overview

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are a key component of an approach to learning known as Open Pedagogy, which aims to leverage the use of shared resources to improve educational outcomes. Simply put, OERs include “any educational resources (including curriculum maps, course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, multimedia applications, podcasts, and any other materials that have been designed for use in teaching and learning) that are openly available for use by educators and students, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or license fees” (Butcher, 2015, p.5). OERs are usually shared under a Creative Commons license which allows users to revise, remix, retain, reuse and redistribute these materials without incurring any copyright infringement (The 5R activities).

“Going open is more a philosophy than a skill. But, obviously, it takes a handful of skills to be able to apply this philosophy in the classroom”

Małgorzata Kurek Anna Skowron

Language instructors and researchers have recognized the potentials that OERs bring to the language classroom. We call these potentials the ecology of OERs for the language classroom—the complex connections and relations that exist in the process of teaching and learning another language and its cultural foundations. In this ecology, we find benefits including adapting authentic materials, merging literacy and culture, and fostering multiliteracies (e.g., digital, information). Yet instructors and researchers also acknowledge the barriers to widely adopting open resources. 

Opportunities

OERs can engender creative and innovative practices for making language teaching and learning more meaningful, enjoyable, authentic, and democratic. Open resources can be game-changers that reshape the classroom ecology and its dynamics—fostering a hub for new social learning. These resources can challenge the social norms and behaviors expected in the language classroom, making instructors and students collaborators. Both students and instructors can become active producers of content, transforming the language class into more democratic and participatory. A participatory approach to making students content creators can promote opportunities for students to be exposed to authentic uses of the language and, thus, increase their motivation to learn and use the language in more meaningful and relatable ways (Blyth & Thoms, 2021).

OERs create opportunities for adapting and repurposing content to fit particular contexts and uses, levels of skills, student characteristics, instructors’ competencies, and available technologies. Both students and instructors can engage in higher-order cognitive processes as they retain, revise, remix, reuse, redistribute, and evaluate copyrightable works. OERs often come in different formats such as videos, interactive content, gamified practices, animated presentations, audio effects, etc. making the content and learning experience more engaging as well as connected to students’ language learning interests and needs. In addition, OERs are easily adapted, foster language and literacy skills for students, and are beneficial for the professional development of instructors. OERs can promote the development of digital multiliteracies for instructors (Mitsikopoulou, 2019), who could eventually integrate multiliteracies into their teaching practices organically. 

Commercial textbooks can become outdated quickly, and updating them can take a long time. In addition, instructors might find more challenges adapting or reusing these textbooks due to copyright laws. The open nature of OERs offers instructors the opportunity to adapt multiple resources to innovate their teaching practices and expose students to more realistic content that is current and relevant. Even further, using OERs in the language classroom may contribute to going beyond the goal of language education—from a communicative perspective where learners are expected to develop the language skills to communicate with other speakers of the target language to a learning experience that fosters literacy (Thoms & Thoms, 2014).

In broadening language teaching goals, instructors can become content-generators and create their own OERs. Instructor-generated OERs afford the opportunity for instructors to rethink their pedagogical content and practices in a way that can broaden their understanding and perspectives of the world. Instructors can integrate more content from the language and culture of diverse communities around the globe, decentering the language usage of a particular dominant group within the community of speakers. For instance, many Spanish textbooks in the U.S. focus on the Spanish language and culture from Spain, failing to embrace the multifaceted nature, complexity, and nuances of the language and culture in the other 20 Spanish-speaking countries in the world. 

Challenges

While interest in and implementation of OERs has grown across disciplines since the early days of the open education movement, adoption of these resources among foreign language educators has been slower and continues to present a number of challenges that may limit the efforts to integrate them into some educational contexts. Persisting barriers may include reluctance to reuse material created by others and share resources more broadly (Rolfe, 2012; Weller, 2011); lack of guidelines on the use and evaluation of OERs for quality and accuracy of the content (Adams et al., 2013); technical difficulties in access, development, and delivery of content; need for a sustainable team for development and authoring; and compliance with accessibility standards (Baker, 2012). It is notable that many of the challenges identified here represent a historical perspective of the OER movement. However, these potential obstacles, along with “a lack of research which investigates the benefits and challenges of FL learning and teaching in open environments” (Blyth and Thoms, 2021), continue to hinder the widespread use and creation of open resources among foreign language educators.

Supporting Efforts to Incorporate OERs in the Language Teaching and Learning

The benefits of OERs across disciplines has been by now well-documented. Language programs and educators weighing the barriers to creating OERs should not be discouraged. To the contrary, it is critical to support efforts to democratize education through the use of OERs and open education initiatives. These efforts include: (1) providing research-based and empirical evidence of the benefits and impact on language education, (2) grounding the development of OERs on theoretical and practical frameworks to ensure quality of learning experiences, (3) training users and developers of OERs on how to find, adopt, adapt, evaluate and create open resources, (4) supporting the use of technologies and Creative Commons licensing for OERs, and (5) creating clear guidelines for instructional practices (Zapata & Ribota, 2021). An important piece in adopting OERs and advocating for the open pedagogy movement is to support instructors who want to venture into creating their own OERs. How do we get started with our own OER project? What considerations are critical for this kind of project? What resources are needed and available? Who will be involved and how will their different areas of expertise be integrated? We believe it is necessary to discuss these questions (and possibly others). In Part 2 of this series, we outline a detailed process and structure for language programs to determine the appropriate scope and sequence within the larger curriculum, author rich thematic content, weave cultural and social justice topics into language skills content, promote multiliteracies, and produce media objects or search for existing media and images in the public domain.

References

Adams, A., Liyanagunawardena, T., Rassool, N., & Williams, S. (2013). Use of open educational resources in higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44, 149– 150. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12014 

Baker, J. (2012). Introduction to open educational resources. Connexions. http://cnx.org/content/col10413/1.3

Blyth, C. S., & Thoms, J. J. (Eds.). (2021). Open education and second language learning and teaching: The rise of a new knowledge ecology. Multilingual Matters. https://www.multilingual-matters.com/page/detail/?k=9781800411005

Butcher, N. (2015). A basic guide to open educational resources (OER). Commonwealth of Learning (COL).

Wiley, D. (n.d.). Defining the “Open” in Open Content and Open Educational Resources. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license 

Lesko, I. (2013). The use and production of OER and OCW in teaching in South African higher education institutions. Open Praxis, 5(2), 103-121. https://www.openpraxis.org/articles/abstract/10.5944/openpraxis.5.2.52/

Mitsikopoulou, B. (2019). Multimodal and digital literacies in the English classroom: Interactive textbooks open educational resources and a social platform. In N. Vasta., & A. Baldry. (Eds.). Multiliteracy Advances and Multimodal Challenges in ELT Environments, (pp. 98-110). Udine.

Rolfe, V. (2012). Open educational resources: Staff attitudes and awareness. Research in Learning Technology, 20, 1–13.https://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v20i0.14395 

Thoms, J. J., & Thoms, B. L. (2014). Open educational resources in the United States: Insights from university foreign language directors. Systems. http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume22/ej86/ej86a2/

Weller, M., De los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., Pitt, B., & McAndrew, P. (2015). The impact of OER on teaching and learning practice. Open Praxis, 7(4), 351-361.

Zapata, G., & Ribota. (2021). Open educational resources in heritage and L2 Spanish classrooms: Design, development and implementation. Open Education and Second, 25.

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

In my role as an instructional designer, the faculty I work with are often looking for ways to increase student engagement and add a “wow” factor to their online course. One way to do that is to add or increase active learning practices.

Active learning requires students to do something and think about what they are doing, rather than simply listening, as with a passive-learning lecture (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Active learning brings positive and lasting outcomes to students, including better retention and grasp of concepts, and is particularly evident when students work together to develop solutions (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

Tackling Discussions

In 2019, I worked with an instructor developing a biochemistry/biophysics course for Ecampus. The instructor loved the peer-to-peer interaction intended for discussions, but was discouraged by the often lackluster exchange commonly demonstrated in the posts. She wanted to liven up these conversations, not only to increase the strength of the community but also to have an impact on the value of the learning that took place.

Enter knowledge boards! With a simple but creative retooling of the predictable initial-post-and-two-replies format, the instructor found a way to reimagine the often mundane discussion board and transform it into a lively and highly engaging conversation and exchange of knowledge.

How did she do this? Rather than compel all students to respond to a narrow or artificially-constructed prompt, the instructor instead posted several relevant topics or short questions extracted from the concepts presented during that week’s lectures and readings. Topics might be a single word or a short phrase, and the questions were tightly focused and direct.

Choice and Agency

From this list of 5 to 10 conversation starters that give breadth to the topics, the students can choose which they want to respond to, often selecting what’s of greatest interest to them. These posts could be anything related to the topic or question, so students are free to approach from any perspective or direction.

The instructor found that the students more freely contributed ideas, insights, understandings, questions, confusion, and commentary. They were encouraged to ask questions of each other to delve into significant points. Students could engage in as many conversations as desired, at their discretion. As a result, they tended to be more actively involved, not only with the content and concepts from that week’s materials, but also with each other, producing a strong community of inquiry.

This simple change transformed the tired and (dare I say it?) potentially boring weekly discussion into a meaningful opportunity for a lively and valuable knowledge exchange. The instructor explained that students also report that this knowledge board becomes a study guide, summarizing multiple approaches and insightful content they use for studying, so many revisit the posts even after that week is over as a way to review.

But Wait…There’s More!

The instructor didn’t stop at discussions in her pursuit of increased engagement and active learning. Her next “trick” was to evaluate how the assessments, especially homework problems, were presented.

A typical format in many Ecampus courses is to have students complete homework assignments individually, and these are generally graded on the correctness of the answers. But once again, this instructor redesigned a conventional activity by applying principles of active learning and collaborative pedagogy to improve learning outcomes.

In the new version, students first answer and submit solutions to the homework individually, and this initial phase is graded on proper application of concepts, rather than on the correctness of the answer. Next, students work together in small groups of 3 or 4 to discuss the same set of problems and, as a group, arrive at consensus of the correct answers.

The active learning “magic” occurs during this critical second phase. If one student is confident about an answer, they present evidence from the lectures and readings to persuade their peers. And when a student is not certain that they correctly grasped the concepts, they discuss the problem and relevant principles, learning from each other through this review, hearing different perspectives and interpretations of the materials. It is through these vital peer-to-peer interactions that the active learning takes place.

As the last phase of the activity, the group submits their answers, which are graded for correctness.

This reshaping of a classic homework activity results in deeper levels of understanding and stronger knowledge retention (Weimer, 2012). And there’s an added benefit for the instructor, too. Since there are fewer papers to grade, formatting homework as a group submission means extra time to offer more and better feedback than would be feasible when grading each student individually. A win-win bonus!

Benefits of Active Learning

These are just two simple but ingenious ways to reformat classic forms of interaction and assessment.

Do you have an idea of how you can alter an activity in your course to make it more interesting and engaging? If you sense that your online course could use a boost, consider incorporating more active learning principles to add the extra oomph that could transform your teaching content from mundane to magical!

So let’s close this post in true active learning style and take a moment to reflect. What kinds of active learning practices have you tried in your course? How did those go? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, so please share in comments.

References

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom (Vol. Education Report No. 1). Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven Principles for Good Practice. AAHE Bulletin 39, 3-7.

Weimer, M. (2012, March 27). Five Key Principles of Active Learning. Retrieved from Faculty Focus: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/five-key-principles-of-active-learning/

Canvas Survey with Mud Card Questions

New online instructors often express concern about the loss of immediate student feedback they get by teaching in person. These educators count on in-class interaction to help shape their lesson plans in real-time. Student questions, lack of interaction, or even blank looks, help them understand what concepts are difficult for their learners. Others just feel more comfortable with the two-way nature of in-classroom communication.

But teaching in an online environment doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from gauging student interest and comprehension.

Mud Cards

child in mud puddle in rain boots

I was first introduced to the concept of “Mud Cards” or “Muddiest Points” through an open course MIT offered in Active Learning in College-Level Science and Engineering Courses. The instructor described handing out index cards to each student at the end of class asking students to write down an answer to one or more of a few prompts (MIT OpenCourseWare, 2015).

In an online course, this could easily take the form of a weekly survey that looked something like this:

  • What concept from this week did you find confusing?
  • Is there anything you found particularly compelling?
  • What would you like to know more about?

Potential Benefits

The answers received have multiple potential benefits. First of all, instructors will get to look for trends in a particular class.

  • Are learners missing something central to a course learning outcome?
  • Is there a concept they need additional resources to master prior to an upcoming exam?
  • What excites them the most?

Getting this information weekly can provide information that is normally gathered during in-class interactions. It may even be more informative, as participation is likely to be higher (or can be incentivized through participation points). This feedback can be used to add content, perhaps through an announcement at the beginning of the next unit, addressing any common problems students reported. It can also help improve the content or activities for the next iteration of the online course.

The second benefit of an activity like this one is that it is an easy way to introduce active learning to your online course. Active learning, with origins in Constructivism, includes the idea that students build knowledge through “doing things and thinking about what they are doing.”

Rather than passively watching narrated slide-based lectures or videos, or completing assigned readings, they are asked to think about what is being taught to them. Each student, by reflecting on questions like the examples above, takes some responsibility for their own mastery of the content.

3-2-1 (a similar tool)

I recently attended the keynote at the Oregon state Ecampus Virtual Faculty Forum by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2020). At the beginning of her presentation, she told all of us we were going to be asked to email her our “3-2-1.” A 3-2-1, she defined as:

  • Three things that are new to me
  • Two things so interesting I will continue to research or share with someone else
  • One thing I will change about my practices based on the information shared today

Even though I was very familiar with the underlying pedagogical practice she was leveraging, I paid significantly more attention than I would have otherwise to an online presentation. I wanted to come up with something helpful to say. To be honest, suffering from COVID related ZOOM fatigue, it also made sense to ensure the hour of my time resulted in something actionable.

A Word of Caution

The use of a tool like the Mud Cards or 3-2-1 will be successful only if used consistently and students see the results of their efforts. If not introduced early and repeated regularly, students won’t develop the habit of consuming content through the lens of reflecting on their own learning. Similarly, students who never see a response to their input, through a summary or additional explanations, will get the message that their feedback is not important and lose the incentive to continue to provide it.

Conclusion

Introducing a reflection activity like those suggested is a simple, quick way to incorporate active learning into a course while simultaneously filling a void instructors sometimes miss through being able to ask questions of their students in a classroom.

Canvas allows for building anonymous graded or ungraded surveys in which a weekly activity like this would be easy to link to in a list of tasks for a unit of study. It is a low development effort on the part of the instructor, and participation from students shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes.

I will link below to some of the resources mentioned that discuss the use and benefits of Mud Cards and active learning in instruction. If you try it out in an online course, I would love to hear how it works for you.

Resources


Rainboots photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash