Teach, Write, Talk

Winter Term is here. And, it can work.

Image result for winter termIt’s been some time since I’ve posted, but there’s something I think we need to discuss. So, here it goes…Winter Term.

Fall term is nearly behind us. YES! But, you know that only means Winter Term is closing in, right? For those of you who don’t yet offer Winter Term courses at your institution (you lucky few), Winter Term is a condensed or accelerated offering of your most needed courses between when Fall Term ends and Spring Term begins. They’re marketed as a way for students to “take advantage of winter break,” “make the most of their time off,” and “earn more credit hours toward their degree.” But, in reality (let’s be honest), Winter Term is a 3-week cram session of content that tries its darndest to meet course outcomes and learning objectives.

As educators and instructional designers, you may notice your tummy is probably doing flip flops and feeling uneasy at the thought of a sprint session like Winter Term. Because here’s the thing…it’s nearly impossible for a student to master skills or concepts in a matter of days. Take Statistics, for example, (a popular Winter Term offering at a local institution). In a matter of three weeks, students need to master six student learning objectives (SLOs) and 22 sub-objectives. That’s 28 SLOs over fewer days (21). Now, of course, not all of these are higher order skills, and many are calculations. But, I know as a former Stats student, this sounds ridiculous. Who would take such a course? I’ve heard one member of leadership say, “It’s ideal for those who weren’t able to complete the full-term course who would be already familiar with some of the content.” As in, maybe they didn’t pass the first time? Surely not…right?

But, maybe you’re thinking, “Well, I wouldn’t have all of the same content in a 3-week course as I do the 16-week course.” That’s fair. But, administration tells us that students should do the same amount of work regardless of course length. (We do, after all, have certain course hours to meet.) But, the reality is, I can either have my students become a jack of all trades and master of none, or I can have my students become masters of most trades and jacks of some.

With that approach, the good news is Winter Term can work. So, how do you do it?


Take a long, hard look at your SLOs. What absolutely must be met and what can be sort of met? I’m serious. Something has to go here. You simply cannot teach a condensed course the same way you do your full-term courses. You cannot, now hear me, you cannot just condense your calendar. If you do that, I’m virtually tsk-tsking you right now.


Look at your approach. Are you a constructivist at heart? Meaning, your students collaborate, build knowledge as a team, and learn experientially? Or, are you an objectivist? Your course is structured and a bit more rigid. You share knowledge; they replicate; you assess; cycle repeats. Regardless of where you fall, you need a mix. Incorporate some interaction and collaboration and provide some structured guidance. But, your large, collaborative group projects, they probably go. There just isn’t enough time to get through all of the stages of group development in three weeks.


Look at your assignments. Review ALL of your assignments, your readings, your activities–all of it–, and ask yourself several important questions:

  • How long does each assignment take?
  • What skills does each build or assess? Really think about how time-consuming each assignment is. Remember, you have about a third of the time to get through this stuff.
  • Does this DIRECTLY relate to a SLO?
  • Will I have time to reinforce this?
  • Is it attached to other activities? Will those go, too?
  • WHAT IF I WERE THE STUDENT? That’s a big one. If you were the student, could you complete all of this without feeling completely overwhelmed and bogged down (which negates any learning that might take place)?

And finally…

Trim the fat. Chances are that some things have to go. Kill the darlings, as a colleague once said. As my husband likes to say, if the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, it goes. Kill it. Seriously. Your students and you (when it comes to grading and returning feedback within a day or two in order to keep pace) will thank you.

Here are some additional tips for getting to the nitty gritty and helping your students succeed…

  1. Use selective readings: shared readings; broken down, smaller readings; or outlines/study guides/overviews
  2. Become a student coach: require first-day assignments; provide a “Week in the Life of an X Course Student” sheet; provide a complete and clear calendar up front; communicate early and often; provide just-in-time assistance
  3. Use technology wisely: extend your teaching through mini-lecture captures, screencasting, blogging, social media, web conferencing, and, of course, email

The key here is depth over breadth. Let me be clear, I’m not talking “dumbing down.” It’s just that the reality is, in a 3-week course, you can’t have both.

I’m prepping my own 3-week courses now, so share your experiences and thoughts with me by commenting or emailing.



Are Tech Comm classes doing it right? Help me find out.


I need techies who aren’t writers or editors of any kind to give me some feedback on your workplace writing process by completing this short survey.

Tech Professional Writing Process Survey

Here’s why…

I’m not going to surprise any writing teachers when I say I don’t think my students are reading my feedback. Gasp!

So, that got my colleague and me wondering why we were spending so much time commenting if we knew students weren’t reading it. But more importantly, we wondered if we should be doing the whole rough draft, feedback, revision process differently. Because, let’s face it, in tech-centric professional writing, this isn’t really the process we follow.

Typically, when I work on a project, I’m given an assignment. I ask questions. I get sent off to write a draft. I present the draft. And my boss says, “Yeah, these are things I want you to fix”–in broad terms. There’s very little editing, red marks, etc. I’m expected to know that already. Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, and make sure it matches our stuff (read style guide).” And that’s pretty much it. There isn’t this line-by-line, comments-in-the-margins-explaining-what-they-want, telling-me-how-to-fix-it stuff. So, why, if the tech comm class is preparing students to participate in the professional writing process do we continually teach the process this way? Well, I think it’s largely because that’s the way we were taught. Technical and professional communication pedagogy picked up on the feedback strategies emerging from the composition field and ran with it. But, we’ve not really looked into whether or not this practice best mimics the field. We think we have a good alternative through collective feedback, but we need to know more about the writing processes of techs in the field.

As part of my dissertation research into online tech comm teaching strategies, I’m looking for those in tech fields to complete the short survey above on their writing practices. It should only take a few minutes. And, remember, I need non-writers here. Thanks!

Frequent assessment in accelerated learning: How do I do that?

building-block-growth-strategyToday I presented to a group of faculty on the topic of redesigning an accelerated course based on an existing full-term course. A great little nugget on how to incorporate frequent, formative assessments came from our discussion, and I thought I’d share.

I started our talk by returning us to the basics of course design. We started with a brief exploration of objectivist learning versus constructivist learning to help us form the foundation for creating quality learning outcomes. From here, we talked about how to assess those measurable outcomes. We know, from work out of Quality Matters, the Online Learning Consortium and others, that any well-designed course starts with strong, precise, measurable learning outcomes.

I then shifted our talk to assessment and the notion that smaller, more frequent formative assessments work better in accelerated courses than larger summative assessments. In an accelerated course, summative assessments, like exams or large projects, induce cramming and panic–two behaviors you desperately want to avoid in an accelerated course. Instead, assessing students more frequently and in less intimidating ways can lead to improved student success and retention. But how do you do that effectively in an accelerated (in this case online) course?

One faculty member shared with us the idea that she has students perform a self-assessment at the beginning of the term to determine how much time they should spend with introductory material. She bases this self-review on concepts from prior classes and basics materials that she introduces first in her course. But what if we adapted that strategy to a unit or modular level?

Introducing a short knowledge assessment at the beginning of each unit (designed in alignment with the learning outcomes) would provide a starting point for both students and faculty. Noting where students performed low or scored well would indicate where both student and faculty should place emphasis. If this same smaller assessment were performed at the end of the unit, faculty could determine how well students were meeting outcomes. Or, they would indicate where faculty needed to spend additional time reviewing as they moved to the  next unit or module.

You might be thinking, “Aren’t these the same as short quizzes over material?” Yes, and no. Yes, these are short quizzes, but the emphasis on these isn’t grades. These low-stakes assessments (perhaps not even graded) emphasize attainment of outcomes rather than penalizing students based on performance.

So, I’ll be giving this a try in my courses, and I’m curious if you have other ideas to share regarding incorporating formative assessments in accelerated courses.

In the age of “Retweet” and “Share”, do students really know where the plagiarism line is?

did i plagiarize

From lifehacker.com

Recent frustrations with students pulling work from the web has me wondering.

At first, I was adamant that they must know. I teach a 300- or 400-level writing course. Surely they must know by now what plagiarism is. They’ve had at least two other writing courses before mine as part of their general education requirements, and yet, the issue plagues them still…at this level.

I’ve tried the “head-them-off-at-the-pass” approach. I tell them at the beginning of the term, “I’m a professional researcher. Please don’t think that if you find something online I can’t or won’t. Because I can, and I will. And, I’m sharp enough to know when a junior in college produces something versus when a professional does.” Yet, multiple times this term I’ve received submissions from students that have clearly come from an online source. Documentation from which students lift copy, images, and organization. Sure, they edit the text a bit, but 80 to 90 percent of the content comes from someone else, somewhere else. It’s incredibly frustrating.

My husband, who always plays devil’s advocate, meets my frustration with, “Are you sure they know?” To which I respond, “Yeah, they know. Of course they know. Come on.” But do they? Maybe I’ve been answering that question with my academic blinders on instead of taking a minute to really consider where my students are coming from.

This weekend a comment on a Facebook post really got me wondering if maybe in this age, students really don’t know where the line is. Recently on a Facebook news article, someone posted a pretty interesting and amusing comment. Someone else replied to that comment with, “Great comment. Definitely stealing that.” I dismissed it at first. But when I reviewed a student assignment this week that was clearly lifted from another published text, I returned to that comment. If students live and communicate in the world of retweets and copied posts (which rarely cite source other than through its label of “Retweet” or “Share”), do they really understand where to draw the line on reusing information? How would they? Do we talk about plagiarism in the context of this age of recycled content? Some I’m sure do. But, I don’t.

Check out this list of “What plagiarism is” from plagiarism.org:

  • Turning in someone else’s work as your own
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • Changing word but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not

Now, consider this list given our use of social media. How often do we use quotation marks? How often do we provide a source? How often do we change content? Not often. But, again, those of us made within higher ed get the difference. But for those not, like our students, do they?

So, maybe it’s time for a refresher. Not just of my students and what plagiarism is. But to my explanation of it. It’s time for me to change the lens through which my students view “copying” work. In our academic world, we attribute everything to the original author. In the social media world, that often doesn’t happen. It’s time to show our students where their two worlds collide. Where is it okay to copy and paste, and where is it not?

So, I’m back to benefit of the doubt, and I’ll be revisiting this topic in my courses in a new context. Maybe this visual from lifehacker.com is a great start to that conversation.

Using Canva to help students recreate themselves and not the wheel.

canvaI’ve mentioned before that I’m always on the lookout for web-based tools that I can bring to the classroom. But, they have to provide some meaningful use, so with the vast array of shiny new tools out there, we teachers have to be a bit picky.

This weekend while I was out scouring the net and catching up on my interesting articles, I found a piece from Geekflare.com that recommended several online visual resume builders. Both of the courses I teach incorporate some form of job search writing, so I find these kinds of articles always interesting and sometimes helpful. Lately I’ve been looking for tools to help my students recreate themselves in visual form, though, so in this case, the article unearthed a tool I’ll definitely be using with my students.

Canva.com is an online, web-based visual document builder that uses drag and drop features to create everything from resumes to email headers to presentations. This multi-use tool is user friendly and provides a lot of bang for the buck—especially when that  buck is free. Yeah, it’s worth looking at.

Here are the pluses of Canva.com…

  1. It really can be used for free.

Most of us are familiar with “free” tools that either require a credit card to use or charge for every feature. Not the case here. Canva offers a robust selection of templates, images, fonts, shapes, and more without any strings attached. They don’t even feature a watermark when downloaded.


  1. It keeps it simple.

As a techie at heart, I don’t mind a little tinkering to get what I want, but with Canva, I really don’t have to. The tool uses drag and drop to easily add images or elements to your design. You can also upload images from your desktop or computer through this method or by browsing. They keep color choices simple (but allow you to enter Hex codes if you want), and the work space is wonderfully clean.


  1. It’s built to educate, too.

Yes, it’s fun to use and easy to navigate, but it also has a feature unlike many others. Canva offers an area on its site for educators. With pre-built lectures, tutorials and challenges, you can easily incorporate Canva into your curriculum without having to start from scratch and creating your own materials. This would be a great tool for students at any age or level.


  1. It lets students focus on the visual.

This is why I’m most excited to work with Canva in the classroom. While Photoshop, Illustrator, and all those design tools are great, unless I’m specifically teaching a design course, the learning curve is so steep, we spend more time on learning the tool than integrating the ideas. With Canva, my students can start playing with creating their visual selves from first log in. It’s so intuitive that I turned my text-based resume into visual version in 20 minutes. I can easily see this taking a class period and giving us plenty of time to work with the tool and come out with a great draft.

  1. It gives you options to save.

The last huge plus that I’m going to highlight is that Canva gives you choices for saving and downloading. I’m able to save and download files as a pdf, png, or jpeg. And, I can share the link via email, or via Facebook or Twitter. These are absolutes if I want my students to put their information out there in the job search realm.


So, honestly, Canva may be my new favorite tool next to Pikochart (I’ll be writing up on this tool soon!) to integrate into visual assignments. It’s easy to use and completely functional at the free level. Not only that, my students can focus on recreating themselves visually rather than recreating the visual design wheel.

What I learned about teaching from a terrible NFL playoff game.

sad fan

Photo courtesy of theodessyonline.com

I’m a big football fan. In fact, my very first blog post was also focused on what I learn about writing from football. This past weekend’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, though, has had me in deep contemplation. You see, my Cincinnati team suffered a terrible loss. While I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of their self-destruction, I will say that the disappointment is still with me. So, here are my “teaching moment” takeaways…

1. It’s never too late to screw things up. Now, this is a lesson we often forget. In the game, our team had thought they’d sealed the deal with only a minute and a half left and possession of the ball. (Bengals fans are forever optimistic.) But, turns out, you can lose a game in the last seconds. You make a bad play, turn over the ball, and suddenly you’re crying in your cheese dip.

The same can happen in the classroom. We’re two weeks from the end of a course, and everything is smooth sailing from here. Or is it? My students complete final group projects, and I used to wait until the last days for them to present their materials. Until one night when all of my groups presented, and I realized they’d completely missed the mark. I had been checking in on them regularly. I’d provided them all of the materials they needed to succeed. I’d asked them questions and met with them individually. I honestly don’t know what happened between weeks 15 and 16, but something did. So what do you do?

This is the takeaway here. Now, after learning my lesson, my due dates are several days before the last day of classes or exams which allows time for course correction.

2. Don’t show your worst side in the face of adversity. Stay classy, right? Sunday night, when our team started losing and the pressure started rising, the football wheels fell off—of both teams. Honestly, I’ve never seen such a lousy display of sportsmanship on a field.

But, I’ve seen similar acts of childishness and anger at work, too. Football field or academic institution, I’ve seen so many students, faculty, and staff lose their cool when the pressure was on. Deep breaths. Calm thinking. Strategic next moves. Nothing good ever comes from losing it when you need it the most.

And let hot-head Bengal Vontaze Burfict teach you a lesson. Your actions have consequences. At the least, they leave you with a reputation. Whether he’s right in the mix or defending another player, Burfict is going to be the guy everyone turns to as the instigator and troublemaker. Is that the reputation you want?

3. Sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you get it wrong. But you make the call. As a former athlete, I try to give referees, line judges, umpires, whatever the benefit of the doubt. Why? Well, they’re human. I tell my kids, no team ever leaves a field and says, “Man, those refs got it all right.” I started thinking about this when I read Joe Posnanski’s article “Official Decision” on NBS’c Sportsworld. Referees are what they are. They make the calls which sometimes make the game. They have the tough skin to leave a game and know the decision they made is final.

As the instructor of the course, you are the referee. Your call goes. All you have to do is follow the rules as best you can. Now, here’s the question. Are your rules clear? When you lay out your syllabus, are you clear about what you expect and how you will manage the course? It’s to your advantage and that of all of your students to do so. Don’t force yourself to make calls on the fly. Lay it out. Be clear. And be decisive.

4. Let everyone know why you call the plays you do. In so many football games, we fans wonder why coaches call certain plays. To the outsider, they make no sense at all. Why call a run play when a pass is “clearly” best? Why go for the extra two when there’s plenty of time left? We fans all have these moments.

But, do not leave your students wondering why. Why is my course set up like this? Why are we doing this assignment? Why does my teacher post things in that way? Communication is key for students. Explain how to navigate your course. How you’ll communicate with them. Where to find information, assignments, grades and feedback. Don’t leave your students in the dark about why your class is the way it is. Frequent and regular communication with explanations and details (rubrics, too) help students understand why and how the course (and you) works the way it does.

So, that’s about it. Yes, I’m still sad and angry and disappointed. But, as an optimistic Bengal and teacher, there’s always next year, and there’s always another semester.


Own your mistakes. Good things happen.

responsibilityI know all you faculty out there will understand the scenario I’m about to explain. It’s all too common and, in many ways, pretty sad. But, nonetheless, this time it reminded that owning your mistakes can be a good thing.

It’s our final week of classes. For students, that means actually logging in to the course site and checking grades. With only a few days left in the semester, they realize “Oh, I’d better see where my grades are.” Yes, as faculty, we say, “Gosh, they should’ve been doing that all along.” Then comes the flurry of emails. “Why did I get this grade?” “Why is there a  zero there?” “I know I submitted that.”

And, so, then go out my typical responses, “Well, actually you didn’t submit it which is why there is a zero there.” But last night, I received an email from a student regarding the last major assignment submitted that simply read something like:

Prof. Singleton,

I was checking grades and saw a zero for this assignment. Would you check to see if that went through? I thought I submitted it.

This email had followed an email from earlier in the day regarding a 30-point exercise (which in total, all exercises only account for 5% of the grade) that went like this:

Mrs. Singleton, I’m sure you can appreciate that we are all busy students who are taking 6 courses, working full time, and juggling many assignments right now. I don’t appreciate receiving a zero for an assignment that I mistakenly posted in the wrong spot. I take my grades seriously, and receiving a zero for work that I actually did doesn’t seem right.

Now, I could turn this into a lesson on tone and rhetoric, but not for today. Let’s just let those ruminate a bit.

So, for the first email above, I went back into the system to check for a submission. As I thought, nothing there. So, I responded to the student and told her there was no submission. Her response, though, surprised me. She wrote back and said, “Oh, I see. I submitted the rough draft not the final. Thanks for checking.” I responded back and asked if she meant that she only completed the rough draft portion and not the final assignment. Again, her response surprised me. “Yes,” she said, “I didn’t upload my final draft. My mistake. I’ll take the hit.”

What?!? It is rare that I receive an email from a student with this level of honesty and responsibility. I was pleasantly surprised. I firmly believe that part of my job as an upper division instructor is to prepare students for the workplace. This response showed me this person is ready for the workplace. Did she not complete a task, follow directions, etc.? Yes. But she owned it. I love that. And so, I rewarded her for it. I agreed to grade her rough draft in place of the final, and explained to her why. Will it be a great grade, maybe not. But it’s miles better than a zero.

Her response back to me made me feel even better.

Prof. Singleton,

AH! I know you don’t have to do that. Thank you so much. It’s so nice to catch a break sometimes. Thanks, again!

So, moral of the story. Students, listen up. If you take the stance of “I screwed up. I own it. My bad,” you’re far more likely to receive a positive response. Try it next time with your instructor. It might just work.