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Midterm exams…don’t just freak out your students.

exam stressDaylight savings time has passed. Spring is in the air. And midterms are freaking out students everywhere.

We’ve reached midterm at my institution, too, so I like to recommend to my fellow faculty that you take the time not just to regroup (or freak out your students with exams), but also examine how your course is going. Using tools like student feedback surveys help you know exactly what your students perceive as strengths and weaknesses in your course. And, midterm reviews provide a great starting point for any remodeling you might need to do for the second half of the term.

As I’ve been evaluating my own course this term, I recently came across a great list of questions from Edutopia.org meant to help you determine if your classroom is student-centered. Check them out here. These questions provide some nice starting points for evaluating your face-to-face classrooms. But what about your online learning environments?

With some small adjustments, these questions also make for great questions to start thinking about any changes you might want to make to the learning environment you’ve created for your online students.

  1. In what ways do your students feel respected, valued, and part of the group? In your online course, how do you engage with your students and through what language? Do you provide balanced feedback, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses, that uses specific examples from their work? Do you respond to emails in a timely manner and create an environment where students feel comfortable reaching out? In an online classroom, students need to feel engaged and welcomed, and meaningful feedback and communication help do that.
  2. In what ways do students have ownership, making decisions about resources, environment or use of time? This is a great question because sometimes in online classes we give our students too much ownership. For example, I started noticing that one of my students sent frantic emails when he was checking email on his phone at work, causing him to read too quickly, miss attachments, and confuse instructions. So, I suggested to him that he only check email when he was ready to work on his assignments (at his laptop, on his tablet, at his desk, etc.). He took the advice and the frantic emails stopped coming. Sometimes we assume our students know how to manage their schedules, coursework and course load without guidance, giving them full ownership in these areas. That’s just not the case. So, be careful not to give students too much ownership. Guide them along the way, too.
  3. Do they have ownership in their learning, having choices about projects, assignments, or partners? I can remember courses from college that never gave me the freedom to choose my topics. This created situations where I didn’t feel invested in the work at all and couldn’t wait for it to be over. Now, in online coursework, we often do need to guide students more. In my courses, I provide my students with the framework (and I select the groups to balance skills), but I allow them the freedom to take the project in the direction they believe appropriate. I provide some management tools, and I have them check in with me periodically on their progress and thinking (again, not too much ownership). But I balance that with giving them the project steering wheel and letting them drive (while I sit beside them in the passenger seat ready to pull the emergency brake).
  4. When are students comfortable with expressing who they are and their thoughts and ideas? Do you currently have a course netiquette policy? Do you provide examples of the constructive feedback you’d like posted in your discussion boards, wiki posts, or chat rooms? If not, creating one of these can provide the foundation students can build some comfort on. Certainly encourage a collegial atmosphere, but also be clear that rude, inappropriate, or flaming comments are not acceptable in your course. Serve as an example and always provide constructive, supportive comments to your students.
  5. When do you inquire about your students’ needs? How often? In a face-to-face environment, we continually make adjustments when an activity isn’t working, when a discussion isn’t going anywhere, or when students aren’t progressing as they should. Don’t be afraid to make these same adjustments in your online course. Midterm is a great time to do that. Ask for student feedback. Gauge whether or not your students are progressing as they should. Determine if you need to adjust your choice of assignments or pacing. Just because the delivery is online, don’t be afraid to monitor your students and respond just as you would in a traditional classroom.
  6. How are desks arranged? Think creatively here. You may not have a physical setup to your classroom space, but consider the virtual space you’ve created. Are students engaging with one another? Are you present in the course through discussion posts, lectures, frequent communications, and course materials? Or, did you set it and forget it, with maybe the exception of a weekly email? Insert yourself into the classroom. Consider how and when you’re asking students to engage with each other, the course content, and you. A successful online learning experience is much more than just learning the material. It’s an active learning experience created through student-student, student-content, and student-instructor interactions.
  7. As the instructor, what is your “air time”? How much instruction do you provide? How might you move toward more facilitation? There’s a great balance to be struck in online teaching between being a micro-manager (which no one enjoys) and a phantom instructor students get a glimpse of when lucky. Students do need you there, but consider serving as a coach rather than a dictator or talking head. Provide guidance and resources but give students freedom (and the confidence) to be problem solvers and experimenters. Provide project frameworks (see #3) but allow some leeway in getting to the end goal. This prepares students to be confident, independent thinkers when they emerge from your course.

So, don’t just use the midterm to freak out your students. It’s also a great time to examine your course. Think about how well things are working (or not) and use this opportunity to address any weak points or celebrate any successes.

Here’s to a great second half!

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