Image by Benjamin Abara from Pixabay 

My family and I were preparing for a move. We packed up some of our things, removing extraneous items from our walls and surfaces and preparing our house to list and show. Not willing to part with these things, we rented a small storage unit to temporarily warehouse all this extra “stuff.” Well, as it turned out, we ended up not moving at all, and after a few months went to clear out the storage unit and retrieve our extra things. The funny thing was, we could hardly remember what had gone in there, and as it turns out, we did not miss most of the items we had packed away. We ended up selling most of what was in that storage unit, and shortly thereafter, we did even more “spring cleaning.” One of the bedrooms, which also doubles an office, needed particular attention. The space was dysfunctional, in that multiple doors and drawers were blocked from fully opening. After a little purging and reorganization this room now functions beautifully, with enough space to open every door and drawer. I have been calling this process “moving back into our own house,” and it’s been a joy to rethink, reorganize, and reclaim our living spaces.

Course Design Connection

As I have been working with more instructors who are redeveloping existing courses, I have been trying to bring this mindset into my instructional design work. How can we reclaim our online learning spaces and make them more inviting and functional? How can we help learners open all the proverbial doors and operate fully within the learning environment? You guessed it: While our first instinct might be to add more to the course, the answer might lie in the other direction. With a little editing and a keen eye on alignment, we can very intentionally remove things from our courses that might be needless or even distracting. We can also rearrange our pages and modules to maximize our learner’s attention.

Memory and Course Design

Our working memories, according to Cowan (2010), can only store 3-5 meaningful items at a time. Thus, it becomes essential to consider what is genuinely necessary on any given LMS page. If we focus on helping learners to achieve the learning outcomes when choosing the content to keep in each module, we can intentionally remove distractors. There can be a place for tangential or supplemental information, but those items should not live in the limelight. To help get us started on this “cleaning process,” we can ask ourselves a few simple questions. Are there big-ticket items (assignments, discussions, readings) that are not directly helping learners reach the outcomes? Are we formatting pages and arranging content in beneficial and progressive ways? Might we express longer bodies of text in ways that are more concisely or clearly? Can we break text up with related visuals? Below are some tips to help guide your process as you “clean” up your course and direct your learners where to focus.

Cut out the Bigger Extraneous Content

It is simple to assume that for your learners to meet the course outcomes, they must read and comprehend many things and complete a wide variety of assignments. When planning your learning activities, it’s crucial to keep in mind the limits of the brain and also that giving learners opportunities to practice applying content will be more successful than asking them to memorize and restate it. For courses with dense content, lean into your course outcomes to guide your editing process. Focusing on the objectives can help you remove extraneous readings and activities.  This will allow your learners to concentrate on the key points. (Cowden & Sze, 2012)

Review Instructions

For the items you choose to keep in your course, reviewing assignment instructions, and discussion prompts is helpful.  Consider inviting a non-expert to read these items.  An outside eye might help you to simplify what you are asking your learners to accomplish by calling to your attention any points of confusion. You may be tempted to add more detail, but try to figure out where you can remove text when possible. Why use a paragraph to explain something that only needs a few sentences? Simplifying your language can enable learners to get to the point faster. (For more on this, see the post by intern Aimee L. Lomeli Garcia about  Improving Readability). When reviewing your instructions and prompts, think about what learners want to know:

·       What should they pay attention to?

·       Where do they start?

·       What do they do next?

·       What is expected?

·       How are they being assessed/graded?

(Grennan, 2018)

Utilize Best Practices for Formatting

Use native formatting tools like styles, headers, and lists to help visually break up content and make it more approachable. Here are some examples:

If I were to list my favorite animals here without a list, it would look like this: dogs, turtles, hummingbirds, frogs, elephants, and cheetahs. 

Suppose I give you that same list using a header and number list format. In that case, it becomes much easier to digest mentally, and it looks nicer on the page:

Julie’s Favorite Animals

  1. Dogs
  2. Turtles
  3. Hummingbirds
  4. Frogs
  5. Elephants
  6. Cheetahs

Provide High-Level Overviews

If an assignment does need a more thorough explanation, and your instructions are running long, you can always create a high-level overview, calling out the main points of the page. You could place this in a call-out box or its own section (preferably at the top). This is where learners can quickly look for reminders about what to do next and how to do it. Providing a high-level overview alongside detailed instructions will cater to a variety of learning preferences and help set up your learners for success.

Module Organization

Scaling up beyond single pages and assignments to module organization, consider the order you want learners to encounter ideas and accomplish tasks. Don’t be afraid to move pages around within your modules to help learners find the most efficient and helpful pathway through your material (Shift Elearning, n.d.).

Wrapping It Up

The culture of “more is better” is pervasive, and it’s almost always easier to add rather than to remove information. In online learning, when we buy into the “culture of more” we can impede the success of our learners. But more isn’t always better; sometimes more is just more. Instead, don’t be afraid to dust off that delete button and start reclaiming and reorganizing your course for ultimate learner success. Sometimes less is best. For more on the art of subtraction, see Elisabeth McBrien’s blog post from February of 2022.

References

Cowan, N. (2010). The magical mystery four. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721409359277

Cowden, P., & Sze, S. (2012). ONLINE LEARNING: THE CONCEPT OF LESS IS MORE. Allied Academies International Conference.Academy of Information and Management Sciences.Proceedings, 16(2), 1-6. https://oregonstate.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/online-learning-concept-less-is-more/docview/1272095325/se-2

Grennan, H. (2018, April 30). Why less is more in Elearning. Belvista Studios – eLearning Blog. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from http://blog.belvistastudios.com/2018/04/why-less-is-more-in-elearning.html

Lomeli Garcia, A. L. (2023, January 17). Five Tips on Improving Readability in Your Courses. Ecampus Course Development and training. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2023/01/17/five-tips-on-improving-readability-in-your-courses/

McBrien, E. (2022, February 24). Course design challenge: Try subtraction. Ecampus Course Development and training. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2022/02/24/course-design-challenge-try-subtraction/

Parker, R. (2022, June 30). Why less is more for e-learning course materials. Synergy Learning. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://synergy-learning.com/blog/why-less-is-sometimes-more-when-it-comes-to-your-e-learning-course-materials/

Shift Elearning. (n.d.). The art of simplification in Elearning Design. The Art of Simplification in eLearning Design. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/the-art-of-simplification-in-elearning-design

University of Waterloo, Queen’s University, & University of Toronto; and Conestoga Colleg (n.d.). Module 3: Quality course structure and content. In High Quality Online Courses . essay, Pressbooks Open Library, from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/hqoc/chapter/3-1-module-overview/

Online writing support center appointment options. 50 minute Zoom or written feedback via email

Ecampus students have access to a number of online resources to support their academic success at OSU. Receiving guidance and feedback on their writing assignments can be helpful across courses, throughout their planning and revision process. In this post, we will share more information about the current writing resources available to students, no matter where they are located, along with resources for faculty.

OSU Writing Center

The OSU Writing Center supports any type of writing project, during any stage of the writing process. Instructors can share this resource with students, or even integrate the writing center’s support as a step to receive guidance and feedback from a consultant in coordination with a class assignment.

Online Writing Support (OWS)

According to the OWS website, both written feedback and virtual support (held over Zoom) are available to all OSU community members, including Ecampus students.

Any OSU community member can submit writing for written feedback or schedule a Zoom appointment. This includes students, faculty, staff, and alumni. However, graduate students working on dissertations, theses, IRB applications, grant applications, manuscripts, and other advanced graduate projects should connect with the Graduate Writing Center for support.

Students can choose one of the following appointment types when they submit their request online:

  • Consultation (50 minutes, Zoom)
  • Written Feedback (Replies are usually within 24 hours, Email)
Image of the appointment options on the OWS website. One is a writing consultation over Zoom and the other is written feedback via Email.
Scheduling options for Online Writing Support (OWS)

The Writing Center’s website includes answers to common questions. Here are some of the responses to questions students might have about this resource:

  1. How often can I use Online Writing Support?
    • You can request written feedback on up to three writing projects (or three drafts of the same project) per week. You can make Zoom appointments as often as you like. We welcome repeat writers as we enjoy being a part of your writing process. You cannot schedule an appointment more than two weeks in advance, but we invite you to work with us often. 
  2. What kind of writing can I submit for written feedback?
    • You can submit any kind of writing, as long as it doesn’t exceed 25 double-spaced pages (around 6,250 words). Ideally, for longer projects, you should be prepared to request several written feedback consultations, each focusing on a different section of the project.
  3. How can I provide my instructor with confirmation that I used Online Writing Support?
    • All OWS consultations will receive an email confirmation after the appointment occurs or after the feedback has been sent to you—usually the next morning. If your instructor requests confirmation that you sought assistance from the OWS, you may forward or capture a screen shot of the confirmation email.

For more information about the type of support the Writing Center provides, please see their overview video below.

An overview of the resources provided by the OSU Writing Center and how to submit requests via the website

Academic Success Center – Writing Resources

Student Resources

  • Academic Success Workshop Series – Each term the ASC hosts a series of workshops on a variety of topics. Their remote series is available for online registration and hosted via Zoom.
    • For the Spring 2023 term, the workshop schedule is listed below and features a writing-focused workshop in Week 6.
    • The details of the workshop series, along with links to register, are available on the Remote Workshop Series website.
  • The Learning Corner – The learning corner provides a number of online tools, such as guides and fillable worksheets, to support students in reaching their academic goals.
  • Services & Programs – Supplemental Instruction (SI) is available for certain courses via Zoom, as well as academic coaching support.

Faculty Resources

A number of faculty support options are offered on the Faculty Resources page, including an optional Canvas module, PowerPoint slides, and a sample Syllabus statement. The Online Writing Support group and Academic Success Center partner with faculty to collaborate on assignments and course-specific tips for implementing writing support for their online students.

Instructors can email writing.center@oregonstate.edu to discuss ideas for implementation in their course.

Word cloud with words of encouragement

There is a lay phrase that goes somewhat like this: “it is more important how you say it than what you say”. This phrase relates to the fact that the tone we use to communicate with others matters. Tone might be easier to identify in oral discourse; however, tone might be more nuanced when the communication is in writing. Oral discourse can be characterized by intricate grammar (e.g., long and spread-out clauses), discourse markers (e.g., to indicate pauses or change of ideas), or the use of non-verbal gestures; whereas written discourse has more embedded and complex clauses (e.g., more tightly connected clauses). While there is not an absolute difference between spoken and written discourse (Biber, 1988), communicating in writing might need some more context and clarity. Because the proximity between the writer and the reader is non-immediate, clarifications about meaning do not occur at the moment. Therefore, when communicating in writing, one needs to be more explicit, convey clear information, and choose words that the reader will likely understand within the specific context where the information will be handled. This is even more necessary in asynchronous online teaching and learning environments where most of the content is provided via written text. 

While reviewing some of the instructional materials for a few courses in the past year I have come across several pieces of content, including instructions in assignments and lectures, criteria in rubrics, and descriptions in the syllabus that signal an authoritative and punitive approach. The instructor does have authority in the course and can convey this throughout the course and in the communication with students. Why then is the tone and choice of words problematic? The fact that instructors have authority does not preclude them from using tone and words that are welcoming, student-focused, and that signal they care about students. Tone and choice of words are important to create more inclusive learning experiences. As written elsewhere, Oregon State University is committed to fostering a culture of inclusivity through more inclusive and affirmative language to denote respect for others and contribute to developing a sense of belonging.

How do we recognize that the tone and choice of words may not be adequate for students? First of all, we need to become more aware of how the college student population is likely changing and becoming more diverse. For example, undergraduate enrollment in higher education shows an increase between 2000-2016. Hispanic student enrollment increased by 134% from 2000 to 2016 and Black student enrollment increased by 73% from 2000-2010 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019). Second, since the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated growth in online learning or a combination of in-person and online learning, more students are showing a preference for these modalities (Kelly, 2021). Third, Oregon State University Ecampus offers educational opportunities to veterans and employees, extending access to education to a different group of potential students. With this educational landscape, our online students are likely to come from different backgrounds and it is safe to assume that the written communication sent to these students will be perceived and interpreted differently. Therefore, we should all strive to write learning materials that acknowledge, respect, and value the individual differences of students.

Considering that language can be a powerful tool that can “draw us closer together or drive us further apart” (Akbar, 2021, p. 3), the words we use in written (and oral) communication matter. If we truly want to create welcoming and psychologically safe spaces, we need to stop for a moment and revisit the written messages we craft. Let’s look next at some examples of tone and choice of words that could elicit negative interpretations from students.

Example 1: Instructions on an Assignment

Original:

You have to complete this assignment by Friday at 5:00 pm with no exceptions. If I see an assignment is late, I will dock 10% of your grade. If you don’t complete the assignments on time or it is of poor quality, you will hear from me via email.

What is the problem in example 1? The tone of the instruction might be perceived as threatening. Students may interpret it as if they will be scolded via email. 

Improved:

In assignment instructions: “Complete this assignment by the due date (Friday 11:59 pm) and read the rubric carefully to see how the assignment will be graded.” 

In the syllabus: “All assignments should be submitted on time by the due date indicated in each assignment page in Canvas. If you have a personal experience that prevents you from completing your assignment on time, please email me before the due date or as soon as possible.” 

Note that while a “personal experience” could prevent a student from emailing them before the due date, the tone and choice of words indicate respect and empathy for the student.

Example 2: Instructions in Lecture Slides

Original:

In this assignment, you will work in teams. The team leader needs to contact the pack and manage the herd to complete all stages of the project on time.”

What is the problem with example 2? The use of the words “pack” and “herd” might be interpreted as offensive. While it might sound informal or fun, this choice of words could be interpreted in its literal meaning leading students to wonder whether they are compared to a group of cattle or goats. 

Improved:

  • Team assignment:
    • A team effort: Each member is responsible for completing the project stages. 
    • Managed by team leader: The team leader should contact the team members (in the Group discussion board) to discuss the tasks, roles, and deliverables to be submitted.” 

Example 3: Instructions in Group Project

As a team, you are responsible for catching bad errors such as bad spelling, grammar, and content that does not match singular and plural gender-specificity. For non-English students, you are !!!STRONGLY!!! advised to turn in well-written materials. English native speakers are not free from sin; you have not reached a good level of writing yet and need to ensure your materials are proofread and grammatically correct.”

What is the problem with example 3? Many. First of all, the use of capital letters and exclamation marks may be interpreted as if the instructor is shouting at students. Second, singling out students whose first language is not English and calling those students whose first language is English “native” could send a negative message, diminishing the cultural background of these students. Third, equating writing mistakes to an immoral action and transgression that comes from religious perspectives may be considered not only offensive but culturally inappropriate. 

Improved:

The success of the team is the result of collaboration, individual accountability, and collective responsibility for turning in the project report to meet the assignment expectations. I highly encourage each team to make an appointment in the Writing Center for assistance with the development and structure of ideas (ask for an email confirmation of the consultation and submit it with your report). 

Your team should submit a report that has been proofread and revised for grammatical errors (e.g., spelling, subject-verb agreement, conventions of the citation style MLA).”

Taken together, tone and choice of words characterize communication of instructional content in more constructive and respectful ways. Using a friendly and welcoming tone and choice of words in instructional content and materials could be one step towards supporting students in how they see themselves, the value they have, and how they are respected in the class. 

I would be interested in learning your comments about instances where tone and choice of words could be misinterpreted.

Note: This blog post was written entirely by me (a human) and peer-reviewed by one of my colleagues (who is also a human).

Image of a black chair in an empty room

Have you implemented office hours in your online course, with few students taking advantage of that time to connect? This can often seem like a mystery, when we hear so often from Ecampus students that they desire to build deeper relationships with their instructors. Let’s dive into some of the reasons why online students may be hesitant to attend and identify a few ways we can improve this in our courses. 

Who are our learners?

To help us address this question, let’s first consider who our learners are. The vast majority of Ecampus students are working adults who complete coursework in the evenings and on weekends, outside of regular business hours.

Ecampus learners reside in all 50 states and more than 60 countries. The people who enroll in Ecampus courses and programs consist of distance (off-campus) students — whose life situations make it difficult for them to attend courses on Oregon State’s Corvallis or Bend campuses — and campus-based students who may take an occasional online course due to a schedule conflict or preference for online learning. Here is a student demographic breakdown for the 2021-22 academic year: Approximately 26% of OSU distance students live in Oregon. The average age of OSU distance students is 31.

Data shared from Ecampus News

Considering this data about our online population, along with qualitative survey data and insights from our student success team, we can also deduce some additional factors. Our students are:

  • Working professionals, balancing family and personal commitments
  • Concerned about time
  • Often feel stressed and overwhelmed
  • Seeking flexibility and understanding
  • Located in a variety of time zones, with mixed schedules
  • From a number of cultural backgrounds and perspectives
  • Looking to identify the value of tasks/assignments and seeking how their education will benefit them personally
  • May experience self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or hesitancy around their ability to successfully complete their program

Identifying the barriers

Now that we have a better understanding of our online learners and some of the challenges they face, let’s consider how they approach office hours. The slide below, shared at a TOPS faculty workshop in 2020, outlines some of the self-reported reasons that students may not be engaging in support sessions or reaching out for help.

Slides shared from TOPS presentation, February 2020, by Brittni Racek

Students may have the connotation that office hours are for ‘certain types of concerns’ and not see it as a time to connect with their instructor on other areas of interest (i.e. graduate school, career planning, letters of recommendation, etc.) They may also see it as a sign of weakness or fault, rather than a strength for being able to utilize that time to build a relationship or increase their learning. Students may have also had past experiences, at OSU or elsewhere, that have formed an understanding of what office hours entail and what is allowed at these meetings.

Student feedback

In the Ecampus Annual Survey (2020), when asked about faculty behavior that made them feel comfortable attending office hours, students shared that instructor friendliness, promptly answering student questions, providing accessible and flexible office hour options, and demonstrating strong communication throughout the course were specifically helpful in encouraging use of office hours. (Ecampus Annual Student Survey)

Those who had not taken advantage of office hours shared reasons that generally fell into four categories:

  1. Office hours conflicted with life and were not accessible to them
  2. The student had not yet needed to use office hours
  3. Using other forms of communication to ask for help
  4. Lack of awareness of if or when office hours were offered

Alternative approaches

Rename and reframe ‘office hours’

To help students identify the purpose of your Office Hours time, and to make it a little less intimidating, you might consider renaming these hours. Some ideas include Student Hours, Homework Help, Ask Me Anything Hours, Virtual Coffee Chat, etc. Some instructors separate times for course related questions from times that are more for connection and talking about outside topics such as current industry news, future planning, etc.

It’s important to be clear with students what they can discuss with you at these times, and to also encourage their participation and welcome it. You could do this by choosing intentional wording in the way you share your hours, and also sending reminders by announcement or direct message.

Offer flexibility

To help make your hours accessible to a variety of students, you might consider offering a number of different times throughout the term, staggering when those are available (i.e. morning, lunch, evening, or a weekend day). You can also offer the option to request office hours by appointment.

Another strategy would be to survey your students at the beginning of the term to see when the best times are for the majority of the class. You could also leverage this survey to ask about topics of interest or to see if they have any concerns or questions starting off the term.

Consider the tools

For synchronous virtual meetings, we would recommend using Zoom as most OSU students are comfortable with this tool, and everyone has free access to it. Zoom links can be shared, and also integrated into your Canvas course using the tool in the Canvas menu. For asynchronous questions, you might create a Q&A forum for each week or module of the course (and subscribe to ensure timely notification). If you are using Canvas messaging, we recommend outlining that in your communication plan so that students know the best way to reach you.

Some instructors have also experimented with outside tools, such as Gather. Gather is a platform for building digital spaces for teams to connect at a distance. It is free to use for spaces that allow up to 25 users at once. You can chat, enable your mic and camera for audio/video interactions, and create specific areas for small group conversations.

Demonstrate care and community

One of the best strategies for encouraging students to utilize your meeting hours or to reach out for help in other ways, is to demonstrate care throughout your course. This can be done by using welcome and inclusive language in your Syllabus and written course content, having a warm and friendly tone in your media (i.e. recorded lectures and videos), and reaching out proactively to students who may be low in participation or struggling academically.


Resources

  • Office Hours for Online Courses – This guide was created by our Ecampus Faculty Support team, and provides a great overview for best practices and implementation.
  • Office Hours Explainer – This PDF was designed by OSU’s Academic Success Center, as a student-facing resource on Office Hours. It explains the variety of topics available, steps to take, and preparation for the student. There is a specific section about online courses, but the majority of the guide is applicable to Ecampus students.
  • Effective Office Hours – This faculty guide, created by the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan, offers some ideas for how to leverage virtual office hours, including specific strategies from an instructional perspective.

The idea that students learn best when they have the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-world contexts is the basis of Experiential Learning Theory (ELT). Learning by doing is at its core, and as a high-impact practice, there is increasingly more emphasis on experiential learning in higher education. There is plenty of evidence that supports the benefits of this type of learning. It affords students an opportunity to connect knowledge to authentic situations and increases learner autonomy, motivation, and overall satisfaction (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). Many OSU Ecampus Courses feature such experiences. In fact, OSU’s Honors College requires all courses to include experiential learning components, and this is increasingly the case across disciplines at OSU. 

What does experiential learning look like? 

Kolb's Cycle of Experiential Learning
The Experiential Learning Cycle, image by Izhaki via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Many of us may think of community engagement, project-based learning, or practicums when we consider what constitutes an experiential learning experience. While these are solid examples of ELT in practice, experiential learning can take many forms across learning environments. David Kolb describes experiential learning as a four-stage process in his cycle of learning (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). According to Kolb, learning is a process where knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Students can engage with the cycle at any point in the experience as long as they engage with all four stages. The flexibility of hybrid and online learning presents rich possibilities for incorporating this process. The four stages of Kolb’s experiential learning process include:

  • Concrete learning: engage in a new experience or critically interpret a past experience. 
  • Reflective observation: use experience and background knowledge to understand the relevance or meaning of the experience. 
  • Abstract conceptualization: gain a new understanding of the experience by adjusting thinking based on reflection. 
  • Active experimentation: engage experimentally by applying new insights to the situation in a practical way.

Kolb’s theory is not without limitations in that it does not provide clear answers about how collaboration between learners affects reflection, and it doesn’t account for learning that occurs without reflection (Psychology, 2022). While his model isn’t the final word on all of the ways learners make sense of the world, it does provide a good starting point for understanding and designing effective real-world learning opportunities. 

What makes a good experiential learning experience? 

Regardless of the activity, both the experience and the learning are fundamental in experiential learning scenarios, and the ongoing engagement of both the instructor and the student is critical. In experiential environments, students take ownership of their learning process by taking a more active role such as in posing questions, experimenting, and constructing meaning through their persistent participation in the experience. The role of the instructor, on the other hand, is to ensure that the experience is of high quality and in alignment with the stated learning outcomes while also supporting the learner to develop autonomy in using the principles of experiential learning as defined by The National Society of Experiential Education (NSEE)

Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities 

  1. Intention: the activity is structured around a formal process and the purpose and rationale for why the activity was chosen is transparent and clear to students.
  2. Preparedness and planning: students understand expectations for engaging in the learning experience and have the necessary background knowledge and preparation to participate in the planned learning with support throughout the process. 
  3. Authenticity: the learning experience is relevant and designed in response to an authentic context or situation in collaboration with those affected by it. 
  4. Reflection: the experience is transformative and allows for knowledge discovery through a process of making and testing decisions around expected or observed outcomes and through consideration of assumptions and implications related to prior and present learning. 
  5. Orientation and training: learner support and guidance include sufficient background preparation needed for successful achievement of learning outcomes. 
  6. Monitoring and continuous improvement: students receive continuous feedback and support to enhance the learning experience and ensure achievement of learning outcomes. 
  7. Assessment and evaluation: students receive helpful and timely feedback from the instructor and any external facilitators, and monitoring and adjustments to process are made as appropriate to ensure achievement of outcomes.
  8. Acknowledgement: All students and external stakeholders or facilitators are recognized for their work, progress, and contribution to the experience. 

Experiential Learning in OSU Ecampus Courses 

The following examples illustrate a small selection of the many creative experiential learning opportunities OSU faculty developers have incorporated into their online and hybrid courses in collaboration with Ecampus instructional designers. 

  • Build a community of writers online. Students read, critique, write, edit, revise, and share original pieces of creative writing. An activity modeled after the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and implemented in a creative writing course.
  • Discover and Promote well-being in an Online Community. Students in a philosophy class engage in activities in their local community and online to talk about topics around well-being. They then reflect on those experiences and dialogue before compiling a “happiness toolkit” and sharing it with peers. 
  • Explore health and fitness assessment techniques used to measure cardiovascular health. Through a series of hands-on labs, students monitor volunteers’ exercise regimes and calculate cardiovascular fitness values to make recommendations based on the data collected. 
  • Collaborate in a team to study and analyze management case studies. Students work through complex and ambiguous problems to solve a workplace challenge and find solutions before participating in an authentic human resources simulation.
  • Write and perform music. Students in a performance-based music course write and perform original pieces of music.
  • Examine poverty and its effect on students’ local communities. Students complete a public health scavenger hunt guided by specific questions, reflection, and peer collaboration. They then create a guide describing public health issues and potential solutions.
  • Investigate the necessary conditions for designing effective teams and work groups, including best practices and processes needed for maximum productivity, strategies to resolve common issues in teams, and methods to evaluate team performance. Students then apply their learning by leading a team in real life. 
  • Analyze and conduct research on a local public health issue. Students partner with community organizations in their area to identify needs and apply principles of public health to authentic contexts.

The list is far from exhaustive. New courses featuring experiential learning are currently in development across disciplines. Faculty interested in learning more about how to get started learning by doing in hybrid and online courses can learn more by checking out the Ecampus experiential learning resources page.

Resources

Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2023, from https://www.nsee.org/index.php?option=com_content

Inside Higher Ed, Roberts, J., & Welton, A. (2022, August 3). The foundational best practices in experiential learning. Inside Higher Ed. 

Kolb, AY & Kolb, DA 2017, The experiential educator: Principles and practices of experiential learning, EBLS Press, Kaunakakai, HI.

Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2018). Eight important things to know about the experiential learning cycle.

Proposing Experiential Learning Opportunities (ELOS). (n.d.). Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning, Revised March 2019.

Psychology, P. (2022, December 6). Experiential Learning (Definition + Examples) | Practical Psychology. Practical Psychology.

The following is a guest blog post from Aimee L. Lomeli Garcia, MLA. Aimee completed an Instructional Design internship with OSU Ecampus during the Fall of 2022.

Have you ever found yourself reading the same paragraph over and over again only to not retain any information? Or been so overwhelmed with the content you’re trying to read that you’re unable to absorb any of it? Odds are that it may not just be the content you’re trying to read; it may be the way the information is laid out. One way to help read and retain information is to make the text more readable.

Making information readable in your online course can seem overwhelming, but there are a few steps that you can take to make the content more digestible for students.

What is Readability?

First off – what is readability?  Readability is defined as “the ease in which a reader can comprehend text” (Calonia, 2020). Readability is a vital aspect to keep in mind as you design online courses. It not only makes the content of the class easier to read but increases the likelihood that students will understand the faculty’s content through lectures and discussions.  Better readability also decreases the risk of students misunderstanding the content, experiencing frustration, and increases the risk of students becoming disinterested in interacting with the course.  Though there are multiple options to make content more readable, there are five ways that you can adapt the content in your course: chunking content, using whitespace, avoiding wordiness, creating infographics, and utilizing color.

Chunking Content

What does “chunking content” mean? Chunking means breaking content into smaller chunks to make it easier to understand. This strategy originates from the field of cognitive psychology, which has proven that the human brain can “process, understand, and remember information better when broken into smaller pieces” (Moran, 2016).

Let’s demonstrate!

Below are the first two paragraphs of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:

Chapter One
The Boy Who Lived
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

When reading through this excerpt, it’s easy for your eyes to scan through the information without comprehending it.  There are a few common methods that will help with chunking your material: make your paragraphs shorter, add space between your paragraphs, and develop clear hierarchies of text.

Utilizing these methods, let’s make this paragraph more readable:

Chapter One

The Boy Who Lived

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Using Whitespace

Whitespace is defined as “empty space between and around elements of a page” (Babich, 2017). Whitespace creates a backdrop or frame to make your content easier to read.  Like chunking information, whitespace allows the eye to find information easily.  Take these slides for example:

“Plastic Coffee Cup on Book” by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Do you notice how much easier it is to read the different types of coffee drinks on the slide that has more white space? In a study done by Wichita State University, research confirmed that increasing the amount of whitespace actually improves reading comprehension!

Avoiding Wordiness

We’ve all experienced reading material that has excessive wordiness. In a manner of speaking, “wordiness means using more words than necessary within a sentence, especially short, vague words that do not add much meaning” (Eliminating Wordiness, 2022). Unfortunately, the overuse of unnecessary words can muddle ideas and cause confusion for students.

To decrease wordiness, focus on the key points you want to convey and use an active voice instead of a passive voice. Consider the following example:

All of the students who are new to this university are required ot attend an orientatin that has been scheduled for December 1st.”

When reading this sentence, it’s difficult to decipher what the necessary information is for the reader to understand. Instead, let’s focus on the key points and use an active voice in this sentence:

“New students are required to attend orientation on December 1st.”

Here, we eliminated the unnecessary wording, allowing readers to understand the message the sentence is trying to convey.

Use Visuals

Pictures speak louder than words! Using visual media, such as infographics, pictures, videos, animations, and films, make content easier for students to understand and could decrease the amount of writing you have to do for the class! You can obtain visual media through free online resources such as Pexels, Pixabay, or Openverse or created on your own (Canva is a favorite for me).

So, instead of using this:

Cells are the building blocks of life. A cell is composed of cytoplasm, a nucleus, ribosomes, and mitochondria. Cytoplasm is made up of a jell-like structure that contains the contents of the cell. The nucleus serves as the command center and is typically the largest part of the inside of the cell. Ribosomes are tiny parts of the cell that make proteins and mitochondria are jelly-bean shaped and create energy from the food we eat.

Try this!

Labeled animal cell
Image by brgfx on Freepik

Color

Color makes a significant impact on the readability of your page. This can be easy to overlook, as we typically use the standard black font/white background combination. However, adding color to words or backgrounds can bring attention to a message you’re trying to convey. There are ways to do this successfully and ways to add color poorly.

Color choice example - difficult to read.

Looking at the red text on the first example can be challenging for someone with no vision issues. Imagine the difficulty students who have a visual impairment can have – in particular, red/green color blindness.

On the second example, having a text color that is nearly the same shade as the background can make reading the text nearly impossible. It takes effort to read the quote in the example – can you imagine reading a scholarly journal with the same formatting?

Don’t let these examples dissuade you from trying text colors and backgrounds! To verify if a color combination is readable, visit the Contrast Checker page, enter the RGB or RYB codes and the website will notify you if the color combinations are reader-friendly.

Color showing higher contrast

Conclusion

Drafting your site can be overwhelming when considering readability, but there are several steps you can take to make the course content easier to understand.

  • Chunking content helps break text into smaller pieces so content is easier for students to digest.
  • Whitespace provides empty space for your content to pop
  • Avoiding wordiness can make your content and message clearer
  • Using visuals allows you to utilize pictures, videos, infographics, and other media to convey content
  • Strategic use of color on your page can make reading the material more comfortable and less straining for all students, including those with vision impairments.

Below are links to resources and tools if you’d like to dive into more information about readability and the impact it has on the success of students of online students. Thanks for reading!

References

Babich, N. (2017, June 30). The power of whitespace. UX Planet. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://uxplanet.org/the-power-of-whitespace-a1a95e45f82b

Calonia, J. (2020, September 2). What is readability? Grammarly Blog. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/readability/

Eliminating wordiness. (2022). Hamilton College. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/centers/writing/writing-resources/eliminating-wordiness

Moran, K. (2016, March 20). How chunking helps content processing. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/chunking/

Sabo, C. (2018, June 19). Getting started guide: using infographics for teaching and learning. Learning Technologies. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from http://www.codlearningtech.org/2018/06/19/getting-started-guide-using-infographics-for-teaching-and-learning/

Wordiness. (2022). Las Positas College Reading & Writing Center. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from http://www.laspositascollege.edu/raw/wordiness.php#:~:text=Wordiness%20means%20using%20more%20words,main%20focus%20of%20the%20sentence

As a new term begins, we are often thinking about the logistics of our courses, the Syllabus and course schedule, and ensuring everything is working properly. For our students, these early weeks set the tone for what they might expect from their courses and from their instructors. Your first announcement, the language and tone in the Syllabus, how you greet incoming students – these small actions all help to create a welcoming environment for your course. When students feel included in a positive course climate, they are more motivated and engaged in learning.

In the weeks ahead, some students will likely reach out to you with concerns or information about major events going on in their lives. Faculty are often the first to hear of health issues, death in the family, deployment, financial matters, and a variety of mental health concerns and needs. In prior surveys, Ecampus students have shared that the most important relationship in their college career is with their instructor(s), rated higher than their advisors or other student support professionals around campus. When life happens, you are often the first person a student thinks to reach out to for support and direction. Last year, Ecampus put forth the Online Teaching Principles, derived from research-based best practices. The principle “Reach Out and Refer” directly relates to what we can do when our students need some additional support.

Check in with students who may be struggling, and refer students to the appropriate technology, academic or student support services in response to their articulated or observed needs.

Oregon State University Ecampus, Online Teaching Principle: Reach Out And Refer

When students reach out, your care, concern for their well-being, and support is sometimes enough to help the student. That may look like an assignment extension, acknowledgement of their circumstances, setting up a time to speak, or a variety of other measures. At other times, there are situations when making a referral to the appropriate resource or department is the best course of action. In these instances, it is important to remain calm and formulate a plan.

OSU’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) department shares the following about making student referrals:

When to Make A Referral

There are situations when making a referral is the best option for both you and the student. For example:

  • You know that you can’t handle the request or the behavior. There are limits to the kinds of help a faculty or staff member can provide.
  • You believe that personality differences will interfere with your ability to help.
  • You know the student personally and believe that you could not be objective.
  • You feel overwhelmed, pressed for time, or stressed.
  • The student acknowledges a problem but is reluctant to discuss it with you.
  • After working with the student for some time, you realize that you don’t know how to proceed.
  • The student’s problems are better handled through services such as CAPS, Financial Aid, the Registrar’s Office, Affirmative Action, or Legal Advising.

How to Make a Referral

Some people accept a referral for professional help more easily than others do.  Here are some tips for making a successful referral.

  • Let the student know that it is not necessary to know exactly what is wrong in order to seek assistance.
  • Assure the student that seeking help does not necessarily mean that their problems are unusual or extremely serious.
  • Be frank with students about your own limits of time, energy, training, objectivity, and willingness to help.
  • If appropriate, suggest that the student consider talking with family members, friends, clergy, community agencies, and campus offices.

CAPS provides consultations to faculty and staff who have urgent concerns about a student. If you have an immediate need, please call 541-737-2131.  Phone counselors are available after hours. If you or a person of concern are experiencing an emergency, please call 911 off campus or 541-737-7000 on campus.

The Student Care Team has compiled a chart (pictured below) of Resources For Consultation and Referral for AY 22 that can be referenced via their Box folder.

Resources for instructors

There are a wide variety of concerns that a student may bring to you. It can be time-consuming to identify the available resources and get students to the right area. There are a few main webpages you can bookmark that outline the resources available to our Ecampus students.

  1. Student Resources For Ecampus Students – This page on the Ecampus website maintains a comprehensive list of all resources available to Ecampus students. It includes academic resources, emergency food and housing, disability access services, mental health, technical support, and more. This is a great page to bookmark and/or print the PDF version that is linked at the bottom of the webpage.
  2. Student Care Team – This Box folder contains resources for faculty including a referral and consultation chart and tips for working with distressed students.
  3. In Crisis Support For Students (CAPS) – 24/7 support for students in crisis. Includes contact information for CAPS, Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, and more.
  4. If You Are Concerned About A Student (CAPS) – Faculty/staff member consultation form. You can also call 541-737-2131 for a more immediate response.
  5. Ecampus Student Services – If your student is not in crisis, but you are unsure where to start, directing them to our student services representatives is a great option. They assist students with navigating OSU resources and are the first point of contact for student inquiries. Phone: 800-667-1465 (select option 1) or Email: ecampus.ess@oregonstate.edu.
  6. Ecampus Student Success Coaching – If you feel that your student(s) could benefit from individualized, strengths-based academic counseling, you can refer them to the success coaching team. This group works with all undergraduate Ecampus students.

The following is a guest blog post from Michelle Coxey. Michelle completed an Instructional Design internship with OSU Ecampus during the Fall of 2022.

Bolsover Castle
“Bolsover Castle” by David Merrett is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ian Wilkins is a high school language arts teacher, but besides the students, his passion is social justice. He shares a powerful metaphor that education is like a heavily gated castle. Those inside the castle are comfortable and safe and do not realize that the people outside are hungry (Chardin & Novak, 2021). If someone opens the gate and admits a person from the outside, would that person feel comfortable and safe inside like everyone already there? Would they know the rules of the castle? Would they feel like they fit in and deserved to be there? Would the food inside reflect their own tastes, needs, and preferences? Would they stay, or would they want to return to their own comfort zone outside with their family?

If higher education is the castle, who belongs inside the castle?

Because of financial aid and diversity efforts in admissions, first-generation and low-income (FLI) students usually have access to higher education. But 90% of FLI students do not graduate from college within six years (Zinshteyn, 2016). The gates to the castle are open, but why don’t FLI students stay?

Inclusion goes beyond admissions. A student’s experience and motivation to stay is heavily influenced by the inclusiveness of the design in online courses. As a result, instructional designers are in an ideal position to design courses that are more aligned with life for FLI students outside of the virtual classroom. 

Imposter Syndrome

If you are reading this, you have experienced it at some point in your career, no doubt. Imposter syndrome is that uncomfortable feeling that you are incompetent and have fooled everyone into thinking that you belong. Imposter syndrome is a nearly universal experience and has been studied since the 1970’s. However, in the last few years, researchers and social justice activists have suggested that imposter syndrome is actually the result of systemic bias. As white people, especially men, advance in their education and careers, they develop more confidence, and the feelings of imposter syndrome usually go away. However, because of systemic bias, people with marginalized identities feel more like a fraud the further they advance in their education and careers (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021).

College is a breeding ground for imposter syndrome. Most new college students have a steep learning curve and feel insecure, but the struggles are amplified for FLI students. The structure and culture of higher education is very different from the circumstances and environments they grew up in. Many FLI students blame themselves, assuming they aren’t working hard enough. Yet, cultural and social differences are to blame for their imposter feelings. 

Instructional Designers Can Help

Former U.S. President Barack Obama (2010) said, “The best anti-poverty program is a world-class education.” If he is correct, instructional designers hold a lot of power because we are working to provide a world-class education for others (U.S. News, n.d.). Plus, we have managed to successfully navigate higher education ourselves and have constant access to learning in our jobs. Additionally, instructional designers are on the front lines of dismantling imposter syndrome by guiding and training instructors and designing courses and learning activities with FLI students in mind.

In addition to the research-based best practices for engagement, inclusion, and assignment transparency when designing online courses, instructional designers should consider the income demographics of online students. Online students are often FLI students. Fifty percent of online students’ family income is below $39,000 a year (Classes and Careers, 2018). Online students are likely to be working and juggling family responsibilities in addition to taking classes (OSU, 2020). They may not be taking classes online because it is the ideal learning environment for them, but because they need to fit education into their other responsibilities. Additionally, some online students pursue disciplines and majors they don’t love because of scheduling convenience or because a particular degree will bring financial security.

Instructional designers can relieve some of the pressure and insecurity for FLI students by intentionally creating an inclusive space in every course. Here are twelve research-based suggestions for how instructional designers can be inclusive of FLI students when designing courses and collaborating with instructors.

  1. Find out who the FLI students are in each course. In addition to helping instructors understand the demographics of Ecampus students, designers could encourage instructors to learn which students are FLI students. Instructors could have an informal conversation or could give an assignment where students share how their background and culture relate to the class subject. Andragogy emphasizes the importance of student experience in learning. When instructors help students see that their social class affects their college experience, the student’s life experiences can be an anchor to attach what they learn in class (Checkoway, 2018).
  2. Help students embrace their identity. Find opportunities for students to embrace their identity, regularly share about their lives, and solve problems in their own families and communities. Give students plenty of choice, provide examples using a variety of cultures, and consider topics and stories that people with a low-income can relate to. Students should analyze case studies involving situations and organizations they are familiar with. If material is real to the student, they can grasp it quicker. For example, students could learn velocity using the model of car they drive, or write an essay on a policy issue they care about (Checkoway, 2018).
  3. Encourage Small group work. Higher education in the U.S. caters to an individualistic, independent, and merit-based culture. This is even more true in online courses where everyone works asynchronously. However, FLI students often come from interdependent cultures (Canning et al., 2019; Stephens et al., 2012; Townsend et al., 2021). Group activities help students collaborate and connect with each other, supporting students that struggle with imposter syndrome or that feel more comfortable working with others.
  4. Eliminate competition between students. Competition in STEM classes increase feelings of imposter syndrome for all students, especially FLI students (Canning et al., 2019). Encourage instructors to eliminate competitive activities, such as requiring students to promote themselves in online discussions. Also, grading on a curve creates a hierarchy that causes anxiety and self-doubt in a lot of students. And last, encourage instructors to include opportunities for collaboration and cooperation and be clear that all students can succeed.
  5. Double down on inclusion in STEM classes. Extra care should be taken to support FLI students when designing and teaching STEM classes. In STEM programs, the number of FLI students is only 20 percent (Peña et al., 2022). This is especially problematic because the stakes are high for FLI students in STEM classes because students who pursue STEM careers earn significantly higher salaries. Instructional designers should design activities that help students see themselves as scientists.
  6. Design low-stakes formative assessments. Design several low-stakes formative assessments early in the course to address learning gaps in students with less confidence or experience. These assignments help FLI students learn the “hidden curriculum” of higher education, which includes expectations about assignments that are often “unspoken” or implied (Tyson, 2014). FLI students may not know to ask questions, so these assignments should be designed to provide early feedback, identify students needing more support resources, and clarify misunderstandings about policies and expectations.
  7. Use Inclusive language. Encourage instructors to use supportive and inclusive language and avoid jargon in syllabi, assignment instructions, and informal videos. This helps students without experience feel like they belong in the course.
  8. Apply course concepts to the real world. Help instructors become transparent with how assignments and course outcomes develop skills that are useful in the real-world. This effort benefits all students but especially helps students that are in danger of dropping the course see the long-term value of sticking with it.
  9. Design social annotation activities. With social annotation, students collaborate to annotate an open educational resource (OER). This learning activity promotes interdependence and shared meaning-making among classmates. Hypothesis, NowComment, Perusal, and Diigo are a few popular tools for social annotation (Farber, 2019).
  10. Identify career paths. FLI students may not have access to insights about careers, education, research, or internships. Encourage instructors to share details about their own career path and professional development as well as how to navigate different careers within the discipline. Instructional designers could create a discussion board for students to ask and answer questions with their peers about future careers.
  11. Encourage financial sensitivity. Consider using low or no-cost learning resources. Use OER, older editions of textbooks, and if a high-cost text is necessary, justify it. Also, work with the campus library to see if required textbooks can be made available online. And last, encourage instructors to teach students how to access, read, bookmark, highlight, and annotate digital resources so they can get the most out of their study sessions.
  12. Explicitly explain office hours. Explicitly state that students are encouraged to contact the instructor with questions. Explain what office hours are, that they are useful for creating supportive bonds between instructors and students, and that students are invited to go anytime. Many FLI students feel intimidated by going or do not even realize how speaking with the professor would be useful (Tyson, 2014).

Circling back to the castle metaphor, the castle is comfortable if you already are used to the structure and culture of higher education. But to help FLI students feel confident and successful, instructional designers can design courses more in line with life for FLI students outside the gates. Instead of molding FLI students to fit in at college, instructional designers can adapt to them, designing courses with a focus on interdependent and collaborative learning activities.

References

Canning, E., LaCrosse, J., Kroeper, K., & Murphy, M. (2019, November 19). Feeling like an imposter: The effect of perceived classroom competition on the daily psychological experiences of first-generation college students. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(5), 647-657. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1948550619882032

Chardin, M. & Novak, K. (2021). Equity by design: Delivering on the power and promise of UDL. Corwin.

Checkoway, B. (2018, August 20). Inside the gates: First-generation students finding their way. Higher Education Studies, 8(3). https://doi.org/10.5539/hes.v8n3p72

Classes and Careers. (2018). Online College Student Trends [Infographic]. https://www.classesandcareers.com/online/online-college-students-growth-demographics

Farber, M. (2019, July 22). Social Annotation and the Digital Age. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/social-annotation-digital-age

Obama, B. (2010, January 7). Remarks by the President in State of the Union address [Speech]. The White House. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-state-union-address

Oregon State University Ecampus. (2020). OSU Ecampus annual student survey report. https://ecampus.oregonstate.edu/services/student-services/student-survey-2020.pdf

Peña C., Ruedas-Gracia N., Cohen J.R., Tran N., & Stratton M.B. (2022, October 6). Ten simple rules for successfully supporting first-generation/low-income (FLI) students in STEM. PLOS Computational Biology, 18(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010499

Stephens, N., Fryberg, S., Markus, H., Johnson, C., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178–1197. https://doi-org.ezproxy.proxy.library.oregonstate.edu/10.1037/a0027143

Townsend, S., Stephens, N., & Hamedani, M. (2021, February 9). Difference-education improves first-generation students’ grades throughout college and increases comfort with social group difference. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(10), 1510-1519. https://doi-org.ezproxy.proxy.library.oregonstate.edu/10.1177%2F0146167220982909

Tulshyan R. & Burey, J. (2021, February 11). Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome

Tyson, C. (2014, August 4). The hidden curriculum. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/04/book-argues-mentoring-programs-should-try-unveil-colleges-hidden-curriculum

U.S. News & World Report. (n.d.). Oregon State University. Best Online Programs. https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/oregon-state-university-3210/bachelors

Zinshteyn, M. (2016, March 13). How to help first-generation students succeed. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/03/how-to-help-first-generation-students-succeed/473502/

Four students working together on a project
Four students working together on a project

A term paper is a common final assignment, but does the final assignment have to be a paper? The answer depends on the type of course and the learning outcomes. If the final assignment can be an alternative to the term paper, we can consider other types of assignments that allow students not only to accomplish the learning outcomes, as expected, but also to engage more deeply with the content and exercise critical thinking. A caveat related to the discipline is important here. Fields that require a writing component may necessarily rely on the term paper which can be scaffolded through a set of stages. For assignments with a sequence of tasks, refer to staged assignments (Loftin, 2018) for details on how to design them.

A first step in moving towards considering other types of assessments is to self-reflect on the purpose of the course and what role it will play in students’ learning journeys. You can use some of the following questions as a guide to self-reflect:

Focus levelInitial self-questions
Course What is the nature of the course (e.g., practice-based, reading-intense, general education, writing-intensive, labs, etc.)?
What are the outcomes?
What level do the outcomes target (e.g., recall, analysis, evaluation)?
Discipline What do people in the discipline I teach regularly do in the work environment? Do they: write grants? or develop lesson plans? write technical reports? write articles or white papers? build portfolios? demonstrate skills? and so on…
Do all students need to complete the final assignment in the same format or can the format vary (e.g., paper, presentation, podcast)?

Taking some time to reevaluate the assessment practices in your course might be beneficial for your students who seek meaningful learning opportunities and expect relevant assignments (Jones, 2012; ). Students might also welcome variety and flexibility in how they learn and be evaluated (ASU Prep Digital, 2021; Soffer et al., 2019). 

Let’s explore alternative and authentic assessments next.

Alternative assessments

Alternative authentic assessments tend to focus on high-order and critical thinking skills –skills much appreciated these days. These assessments aim to provide more effective methods of increasing knowledge, fostering learning, and analyzing learning (Anderson, 2016; Gehr, 2021). Research also suggests that authentic assessments can increase students’ employability skills (Sotiriadou et al., 2019). However, the implementation of alternative assessments needs to transcend the status quo and become a critical element that allows instructors and students to focus on societal issues, acknowledge the value of assessment tasks, and embrace these assessments as vehicles for transforming society (McArthur, 2022). A student-centered environment also challenges educators to search for alternative assessments to make the learning experience more meaningful and lasting –fostering student agency and lifelong learning (Sambell & Brown, 2021).

Authentic assessments

I recall that when I was learning English, some of the types of practices and assessments did not really equip me to use the language outside the classroom. I thought that I would not go around the world and select choices from my interlocutors as I used to do through the language quizzes in class. I have been motivated by the Task-Based Language Teaching framework to focus on designing tasks (for learning and assessment) that help students use their knowledge and skills beyond the classroom –more useful and realistic tasks. 

Authentic assessments provide students with opportunities to apply what they learn to situations that they likely will encounter in their daily life. These situations will not be well-structured, easy to solve, and formulaic (like the English language practices I had); to the contrary, these situations will be complex, involve a real audience, require judgment, and require students to use a repertoire of skills to solve the problems and tasks (Wiley, n.d.). 

As you may see, alternative and authentic assessments can overlap, giving educators options to innovate their teaching and providing students opportunities to increase interest and engagement with their learning process. Below, you will see a collection of ideas for assessments that go beyond the term paper and give room for course innovations, learning exploration, and student agency.

Examples of Alternative and Authentic Assessments

You can select one or more assessments and create a sequence of assignments that build the foundation, give students an opportunity to reflect, and engage students in the active application of concepts. Diversifying the types of assessment practices can also serve as an inclusive teaching approach for your students to engage with the course in multiple ways (McVitty, 2022).

Introduction to New Concepts

students to these new ideas by designing simple and direct tasks such as:

  • Listen to podcasts, watch documentaries/films: write summaries or reviews
  • Conduct field observations: report what was observed, thoughts, and feelings
  • Create fact sheets and posters: share them with peers and provide comments
  • Study a case: write a report, design a visual abstract, create a data visualization or presentation
  • Create an infographic or digital prototype: present it to peers for feedback
  • Write a short newspaper article: contribute to the class blog, post it on the class digital board
  • Provide insights and comments: contribute with annotations and posts (e.g., Perusall, VoiceThread)

Reflective Practice

Reflection allows students to think further about their own learning process. If you are looking for activities to instill in students higher-order thinking skills and metacognitive skills, you can consider designing one of the tasks below. Remember to provide students with guiding questions for the reflection process

  • Review assignments and describe the learning journey: Create a portfolio with reflective notes
  • Develop an understanding of concepts by identifying areas of difficulty and feedforward goals: write a weekly learning log, create a learning journey map/graph 
  • Describe your learning experience through personal reflection: write an autoethnography
  • Connect course concepts and activities to learning experiences: create a think-out-loud presentation, podcast, or paper
  • Self-assess learning and progress: take a quiz, write a journal, create a learning map: “from here to there”)   

Theory Application

  • Demonstrate a solid understanding of key elements, theory strengths, and weaknesses: write an application paper to explore lines of inquiry, create an infographic connecting theory and examples, write an article or artifact critique through the lens of the theory
  • Dissect a theory by identifying and organizing the key components of theoretical frameworks: develop a theory profile document or presentation (instructor can create a dissect theory template)
  • Anchor course concepts in the literature: write a position paper, a response paper, or a commentary for a journal. 

Application Tasks

  • Guided interviews with professionals
  • Digital and augmented reality assets
  • Grant/funding applications
  • Project/conference proposals
  • Annotated bibliographies, article critiques
  • Reviews (e.g., music, videos, films, books, articles, media)
  • Oral discussion group exam (e.g., cases, scenarios, problem-solving) w/reflection
  • Conduct Failure Mode and Effect Analysis studies/simulations
  • Book newsletter, blog, and book live event Q&A (e.g., students plan the Q&A)
  • Create a student-led OER
  • Patchwork Screencast Assessment (PASTA) Reflections

The list of alternative and authentic assessments provided above is not exhaustive and I would welcome your comments and suggestions for the activities that you might have designed or researched for your online or hybrid courses. I would love to hear more about your approaches and thoughts on alternative and authentic assessments.

References

Anderson, M. (2016). Learning to choose, choosing to learn: The key to student motivation and achievement. ASCD.

ASU Prep Digital. (2021). Why Do Students Prefer Online Learning? https://www.asuprepdigital.org/why-do-students-prefer-online-learning/ 

Gher, L. (2021, March 11). How using authentic digital assessments can benefit students. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-using-authentic-digital-assessments-can-benefit-students/#:~:text=With%20this%20method%20of%20assessment,of%20the%20comments%20and%20responses.

Jones, S. J. (2012). Reading between the lines of online course evaluations: Identifiable actions that improve student perceptions of teaching effectiveness and course value. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(1), 49-58. http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v16i1.227

Jopp, R., & Cohen, J. (2022). Choose your own assessment–assessment choice for students in online higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 27(6), 738-755. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2020.1742680

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McArthur, J. (2022). Rethinking authentic assessment: work, well-being, and society. Higher Education, 1-17. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-022-00822-y

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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.