Teach, Write, Talk

Is your classroom a barrier or a breakthrough?

F gradeI just survived another round of my least favorite task in teaching: posting final grades. You would think this would be a freeing time of the term. Posting final grades means another class is in the books. Another round of students are moving on to the next phase of their academic pursuits. But what if they’re not? What if my class isn’t that breakthrough moment for them? What if my class is the barrier between them and moving forward?

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about final grading being an excruciating part of teaching at the college level, especially for those in developmental education or at a community college. When I taught developmental English, final grades were by far the hardest part of my job. At that level, students need reassurance. The confidence to know they’re making progress. The hope that they’ll earn the degree they need to take their personal or professional lives to the next level. For many of them, classwork is the barrier between them and their goals. I never wanted my classroom to be a barrier, but when I’m faced with a student whose work teeters on the edge of failing and passing, what do I do? If I were a hard ass and looked purely at numbers, I’d fail him. But my students are people, not numbers. We, as faculty, are humans not calculators.

I’m taken back to that promise I made last fall. “I promise to put my students first.” In putting my students first, that sometimes means putting the grades second. Rather than asking myself whether or not a student did well, I ask myself, “Did she do well enough?” Would moving her on be a hindrance to her success? Or, do I think she could make it? Did she do well enough to be able to pass the next course? Would failure here mean a barrier to her moving on at all? Is that putting her first?

Now, let me be clear. When a student’s work shows that he or she clearly doesn’t understand the concepts or displays significant errors that reflect poor quality and effort, I am never tempted to pass that student on. And, when I first see signs of struggle despite effort, I reach out to students to tap into support resources that are available, including additional one-on-one work. But it’s the students who really put forth effort throughout the term that present the grading turmoil. The students whose work makes progress but doesn’t necessarily reflect “mastery”, a term I see frequently in learning outcomes.

I even play my own devil’s advocate. “Well, in the workplace, sub-par effort isn’t acceptable, so I’m not doing them any favors by passing them on,” I tell myself. But, let’s be honest, I think we all see sub-par work in the workplace. We might even be guilty of it ourselves. Does that always result in firing or failure? Not always. Heck, sometimes sub-par work manages to be rewarded and promoted. But, is this even the lesson my students take away from a failed course? I can hear their inner-thoughts now when they see the F in the grading system, “Oh, I’m glad my teacher gave me an F. I appreciate the lesson of being taught to work harder.” Okay, I’m exaggerating, but I’m partly serious. For the student who worked as hard as he could from first day to last, does an F really teach him anything other than his hardest isn’t good enough? Is that putting him first?

So, I have no clear answers here. Grading sucks. For lots of reasons, but for me, it mostly sucks because sometimes I have to decide whether my class is going to be a barrier or a breakthrough.


Who are online learners?

Want to know more about your online learners? Aslanian Market Research Group and Learning House released their newest data on online learners. I’ve gathered their data into the infographic below. Any surprises?

online learner data

Weathering Winds of Change Without Losing Your Team

tornadoAre you in the midst of institutional or departmental change? Is your team struggling to make it through? Are you afraid of losing your greatest talent?

Gather some tips from my most recent post highlighted on the Online Learning Consortium’s blog.

Read it here.

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!

You’ll be fine: 5 Lessons Learned As a Working Grad Student and Mother

Everything will be fine

Photo by Rare Pearl, Deviant Art

For the last six years I’ve been working on either a Master’s degree or doctoral degree. I’ve been taking classes, writing papers, reading texts all while working full time as teacher and technical writer. And, while my time was divided between work and school, it was divided yet again among my two children and husband. One of my former students who recently graduated (and writes her own blog Scraps of Yarn) asked me how I manage it all.

I’m certainly no expert on time management or organization, but I thought I’d share how I keep it all going. I could write about how I’m always going over my lists, about how each morning I wake up and mentally run down what needs to be done (in triage order), about how there is never a moment when I can say “Everything is finished”, or about how I know that there will be times when I’ll feel overwhelmed, like a wave I have to let them flow over me, feel scared for a moment, and then come out the other side. But, if I had to give anyone a few tips about how to survive graduate school, a career, and a family, I’d say this…

  1. Start thinking about life in blocks. Once you teach or write for a while, you know how long it will take you to read a set of drafts, grade a stack of papers, or edit a document. So, for example, I know it will take me about an hour to read through a set of process document rough drafts. So, if my class starts at 9:25, I know I can drop off my kids at 7:30, drive to campus and park by 8:00, and read through drafts until 9:15. Is that cutting it close? Yes. Ideally, I’d take that hour the night before, but if I needed to cut it close, knowing the block of time that a task takes is helpful.
  2. Get used to feeling guilty. Honestly, if you’re caring for loved ones while working and going to school, you will feel guilty. Guilty because you didn’t read and instead played outside. Guilty because you did read and didn’t play outside. Guilty because you didn’t really want to do either. You just wanted to do nothing. Guilty because you had to say again, “I can’t, Sweetie. Mommy has to read, grade, work, etc.” It’s fine. Every graduate student, parent, employee does. The sooner you reconcile with that, the better. I once completely forgot about my daughter’s birthday while my husband was deployed, and I was working two jobs and going to school. But, you know what? She survived, and I did, too. And, when I took her to Chuck E. Cheese, suddenly her childhood was recalibrated.
  3. Come to understand that sometimes mediocre is the best you can offer. When your life is full of tasks and assignments and wants and needs, you need to understand that sometimes giving all you can means giving everything just a little. There will be days in your life when being jack of all trades and master of none will have to suffice. You will have those days. You will feel guilty (see #2). And, you will move on. Tomorrow you will be amazing.
  4. Let your husband fold the towels. Okay, so the folding of towels is one of my things. I like to have the towel closet look like a shelf in Macy’s. Each fold facing out. Every towel the same size. (It’s not just a freakish OCD thing. It’s how they best fit in the cabinet.) But, one of the ways I made it through it all was that my husband helped…a lot…and I let him. He’s folded laundry, helped with homework, cooked (and cooked, and cooked), and I had to be okay with whatever way the towels came out. Because during all of the mess of working through graduate school with a family, you cannot refold the towels every time. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Let the folds go. If they fit in the closet or cabinet, you’re good.
  5. Find your thing and do it. I’ve played soccer since high school, and I still do. Not as well and not as fast, but I do. Every Friday, no matter the papers due Monday or books to be read, I play. It’s something I enjoy and exercise that I so desperately need. And it’s time I can just relax. You need to find whatever that thing is for you and do it. Give yourself that hour or two a week that you look forward to and don’t feel guilty about.

About a week ago, I reached another checkpoint on the academic career path: I completed my comprehensive exams. It was a grueling, stressful, nerve-wracking, horrifying three-day process. There may or may not have even been tears involved at one point when a certain laptop shutdown for updates without saving a draft.

Since the last day of exams, though, I’ve finally felt like a normal person again, probably the first time I’ve felt this way in a very, very long time (about six years I guess). So, the best advice I can give is to keep it all in perspective. No matter what, you will come out the other side. No matter what, your family will love you. And, no matter what, you will be fine. Really. It will be a rough period of time with great highs and sucky lows. But, it will pass, and you will be a changed, improved person because of it. Enjoy the process. Learn from your friends. And, remember, you’ll be fine.

The single most important tip for online learners – Know your deadlines.

deadlineOnline learners hear me clearly—not having a handle on your course schedule and due dates is certain death in online learning. Your instructors will hold you to them, so you need to know them.

I just finished grading a set of assignments, and one student lost 30 points simply because she missed deadlines. That’s all. The work itself was pretty solid. But because she failed to meet two different deadlines, her grade suffered immensely. It was honestly painful for me to apply the deductions, but I had to. For several reasons that I’ll explain in a moment.

Now, before I get the reaction that I’m too much a stickler (I had something else written here first), let me provide some context.

Students know due dates way in advance. I provide my students with the entire term’s schedule on the first day of classes, and it’s rare that I make adjustments. That means, students know from day one when all of their tasks and assignments are due.

It’s always the same days. I also limit due days to just two days a week. Students only submit assignments on either Thursdays or Sundays, so when those days come around, that should be a trigger to check the schedule. And, every week there is something due.

They receive lots of reminders. I send out weekly emails to my students that list their tasks for the week and the dates they’re due. This term, I’ve actually sent out additional emails in case I’m not seeing the kind of activity I should the day before a deadline.

I give extensions. There were two parts to this particular assignment (an online presentation). The first was submitting their own presentation. The second was submitting a peer review the following week. Every student has the option to use a one-time extension on an assignment, as long as they let me know in advance they’ll be using it and indicate that in the submission. On the second half, I sent out a reminder to complete the peer review and gave an extra day to complete it.

All of this is to say, I don’t expect students to maintain their schedules without any prompting. I’ve been around the block a few times. My face-to-face students get prompted every time we meet, so I guide my online students through deadlines in the same way.

But, that doesn’t mean I’ll put everything on hold for them. The course will go on, so as an online learner, you must be committed to managing your calendar and keeping up with the due dates.

So, why not just cut her some slack and give her the points whenever she completes it? Because as her teacher, I’m preparing her for professional employment—in whatever form that looks like—so it’s my responsibility to make sure I teach students that deadlines exist for a reason and here are a few…

Deadlines create a fair playing field. It’s not fair of me to hold others to deadlines, those who do manage to work their required tasks into their already busy lives and complete them on time, but then allow others to complete work when it’s convenient or when they remember.

At some point you will come across an inflexible deadline. It might even be that you’re required clock in at 8:00 am. Not 8:03. Not 8:07. 8:00. I’ve worked for those places. If you clock in three minutes late, you’re sitting down with a supervisor having an awkward conversation. And if it happens a few times, you’re not clocking in there at all anymore. Grant writers know all too well that deadlines are brutal. We can all tell you stories of deadlines for applications passing without any wiggle room. I’ve even been standing at a desk signing off on a submission at the 11:59 minute and seen someone else walk in behind me only to be turned away because the clock ticked over to 12:01. The deadline-driven world is a harsh one. You have to start preparing sometime.

I schedule my time like everyone else. I work full time in addition to teaching which means my time is scheduled into blocks. Each week and day I know how much time I need to complete a set of grading, or writing, or editing. So, I set aside that time to complete that task. When your piece comes in after that block of time is gone, I now have to adjust all of my other blocks to work in that missing piece. The bottom line, you’re inconveniencing me and every other person involved in every other task that I need to complete when I need that extra time to devote to your tardiness.

Okay, so I think I’ve made the point. Online students, you need to manage your time and know your deadlines. So, how do you do it? Here are just a few tips and tools:

  1. Check your email…at least every other day if not every day. Every online instructor will communicate with you via email (whether school or personal). You have to be committed to checking that every day.
  2. Don’t just print the calendar. Online courses are living ecologies. As a student, you are part of a system of people, activities, tools, all working inter-dependently together. That means you cannot be a passive participant, print the calendar on the first day, and walk away, only checking in to submit your work. You’re a member of a community that needs your contributions, as well, to continue working toward that end goal of completing the course. You need to actively engage and contribute—on time.
  3. Get your calendar organized. Here are a few free tools to help you:
    1. Google Calendar
    2. Zoho Calendar
    3. Coolendar

Try one until you find one that works.

Online learning is not for the lazy. It’s not for the “I-just-want-an-easy-A” student. And, it’s not for the “I-just-keep-forgetting-to-log-in” learner. Online coursework is for the deadline-driven, self-motivated, stay-on-top-of-it student. Please don’t lose points just because you didn’t log in, check your calendar, or stay organized. Your success depends on you doing all those things—and I want you to succeed.

Get over it and take the selfie.

selfie definitionAlright, online instructors, it’s time to step up our game. Selfie was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2013. If you aren’t at least on board with these, you’re falling way, way behind (and I say that as someone who still isn’t comfortable taking them but does it because I know it helps my students). If you’ve been afraid or embarrassed, take your camera, turn it around, and snap a pic. It’s time to put yourself into your course.

In what has been defined as the “third generation” of online instruction, engagement with our students through multi-modal learning and connection is a must.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about the environment our students live in outside of class, whether traditional or virtual. It’ll help us think about our pedagogies differently. In their current world, students post and receive feedback from peers instantaneously. Information is at their literal fingertips. Their desk is always at hand; and their study environment is always in flux—their apartments, dorm hallways, breakrooms at work, coffee shops, and, if we’re lucky, libraries. They can video chat with complete strangers from around the world through a variety of apps. They’re working, listening, watching, texting, and studying—simultaneously. It’s true. I once sat in the coffee shop on campus for conferences and watched a student work on her tablet, phone, and laptop all at once with textbook in front of her. With little effort, she moved swiftly in and out of her technological network. It’s amazing what our students can do.

Now, let’s consider for a moment a student’s experience in a ho hum online class. The student logs in and peruses the course site. In it, the students sees a list of links to institutional policies, the syllabus written on a tab (with Word doc attached), discussion boards based purely on textual posts, assignments defined in, again, Word documents. And, maybe, just maybe, a few narrated PowerPoints. But no videos because you hate the way you look on video. And how weird is it to record? Where will you do it? It’s too much hassle. The narrated PowerPoints are fine. Are they? If you’re not keeping up with Web 2.0-level engaging content, 2015 is the year to do it. Because, guess what? We can do amazing things as their instructors, too.

Last term I made a concerted effort to include meaningful (remember this) videos into my courses. In my end-of-term reviews, I had students leaving comments like “It was like I was in the classroom with her” and “I loved seeing her in class without ever meeting her in person” and “this was the most engaging online class I’ve ever taken.” Were they uncomfortable to record? Very. In fact, sometimes I didn’t even watch them back all the way through. Did all of these videos take me time? Of course they did. This term, it took me even longer because I decided to re-record several of them. But, it’s time well spent, trust me. Get over your fear and get into your class—virtually.

Here are some tools to help you out:

  1. EyeJot.com – Allows you to record 5 minute emails and send them directly to your students. You can also type in or attach your transcript. A good first step.
  2. Animoto.com – Allows you to create videos using images, video clips, music and text. Easy to use and creates some really great videos to introduce topics or assignments.
  3. Screenr.com – Offers a free online screen recorder.
  4. Audioboom.com – Allows you to easily record audio from a mobile device or desktop. Start even simpler with this and at least put your voice out there.

Yeah, these are great tools to beef up your presence, but let’s go back to that word I used before—meaningful. Before you implement any of these, you have to consider why you’re doing it. What are your goals? How does this tool help you meet them? Does it strengthen your course in any way? How? These questions and your answers help ensure you aren’t just tossing shiny things into your course, turning it into a collection of internet junk rather than an effective learning experience.

Meredith Singleton selfieHonestly, get over your fear. This is probably the one thing I hear most from great instructors. I admit it took me time to get used to recording and, honestly, I still hate selfies. I rarely take them and post them even less. I’m only doing it now for the purpose of this post!

But, now’s the time and here’s the opportunity to put your students first and get in front of the webcam. Your students expect it. They deserve it. And you can do it.