Creating a Course Toolbox

During winter break, I conducted a thorough self-review* of my online course in order to assess the quality of its design, delivery, and instruction. But like many self-reviews, mine led me down a different path than the one that I thought I needed.  After reviewing the areas of my online course that I had initially identified, I began to reflect on other areas of the rubric, particularly areas related to the support of the student experience. I was sure that my course was already well-equipped with ample supports for students and that I would score not just proficient, but exemplary in these areas.  As it turns out, I was far from even proficient.

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The student support resources were scattered throughout my course. Exemplars for discussion boards were only posted in the first week. Tutorials on writing, audience, and expectations were posted alongside the first writing assignment. Testing and studying guides only existed in the folder with the first major exam. The problem wasn’t about a lack of resources, but rather, how my students accessed and used them. Students who were looking for my tutorial to help them on their second test (maybe because they didn’t review it before the first one) had to go digging around to find it. That didn’t seem to be an effective use of study time—or very likely.

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Opening the Gates for First-Generation College Students

With the changing demographics of higher education, we are beginning to really grapple with questions about the first-generation college student: what defines them, what drives them, and what gets them to graduation. First-generation college students lack a legacy of information or the institutional knowledge about college passed down through generations of familial and communal college graduates. Without informational sources and support, first-generation students find themselves wandering through a labyrinth of linguist and cultural barriers that define them as “others” in a system dominated by insiders. Like most cultural institutions, some of these barriers were created over time and out of convenience for the ultimate insiders—faculty, staff, and administration—to improve their ability to navigate the system. While other barriers were created as gatekeeping devices precisely to bar the way for these educational “others.”  Admissions processes, “weed out” courses, and academese are all part of the artificially created barriers meant to deter students who “shouldn’t be here.”

Wehler Blog

As a first-generation college student, many of my micro-barriers centered on asking for help whether it on a homework assignment, a graduate school application, or a letter of recommendation. It had little to do with people’s willingness to help me—when I ultimately did ask, people were delighted to offer their assistance—and more to do with my own insecurities about my place in the academic system. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I see this same scenario play out with my first-generation students who would rather send me an email to ask a question than raise their hands during class. I say this not out of frustration, but truly, out of envy. If email had been the preferred method of contact (or a method of contact) for any of my professors, I would have certainly taken the same path (of less resistance). That is why I hold such a hope for the ways that technology and online teaching can help us reach, retain, and graduate the first-generation college student. Read More

On Failure and Fear in the Classroom

In a recent blog post, Nicole Matos, an English professor who writes extensively on student experience and pedagogy, shares valuable feedback from students in her developmental writing courses. Matos (2017) prompted this feedback by asking them a deceptively simple question: “What do you really, really wish your professors understood?” (para. 1).

Among the several answers students provided, one strikes me as particularly powerful and especially relevant to any instructor who encounters at-risk or “breakaway” (Jaschik, 2017, para. 1) students: “Don’t take our failures personally.”

Vickless Blog

Matos (2017) identifies the cognitive dissonance this situation creates: “[students] recognized — but also somewhat resented — that we [instructors] tend to hold a deep love for our subject, and unconsciously affirm it above all other demands. But students have fragmented, split lives, with many competing priorities, including finding transportation, maintaining housing, and putting food on the table.” (para. 13).

Matos’s point isn’t always easy for us to accept, especially if we see it as our duty to pre-professionalize students by holding them to the norms and mores of workplace culture.

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Collaborating in the Classroom

This is the final installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom. Other installments are: A Starting PlaceReflecting on PrivilegesKnowing Your StudentsQuestioning Your Assumptions, and Challenging the Status Quo. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

An inclusive classroom must be built on the foundations of collaboration.  When faculty members collaborate with students, they demonstrate their respect for the student experience by giving them a proverbial seat at the table.  In theory, many educators would agree that collaborative classrooms are ideal learning spaces.

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In practice, however, faculty members (and some students) find relinquishing even some control over the course to be at best uncomfortable and at worst unfathomable.  For these faculty members, collaboration might mean starting small:

  • polling students on what is / isn’t working in the classroom
  • giving students a choice on the format or medium for an assignment
  • asking students to be the discussion leader
  • providing different options for questions types on an exam

Such gestures demonstrate that the faculty member explicitly respects the students’ learning experiences and understands their unique needs.  By establishing this conduit for communication, the faculty member works to bridge the divide between themselves and the students in the traditional classroom hierarchy.

For collaboration to work, it must be woven into the fabric of the course.  Collaboration and inclusivity cannot be merely an afterthought or an attempt at ‘good will’ between faculty and students.  Instead, it should be communicated to the students as an integral part of the course on par with the learning objectives.  There are many ways to communicate this commitment to inclusion:

  • include a collaboration statement in your syllabus and assignment prompts
  • create an weekly collaboration learning objective
  • link assessments to the collaboration learning objective
  • build in reflective moments or assignments that ask student to critique their own collaboration

While there are many methods to forefront collaboration in the classroom, I am particularly fond of the co-authoring model wherein the students and faculty member write the course’s foundational documents together.  I have found that such methods not only produce a shared learning environment that promotes inclusivity, but also increases student buy-in and accountability in ways that the top-down teaching method does not. Some examples of co-authoring include:

  • course policies and course schedule
  • classroom ‘bill of rights’ and ‘bill of responsibilities’
  • rubrics (or grading criteria) for major projects or exams
  • assignment prompts, including requirements

Collaboration in the classroom puts into practice many of the aims of inclusivity: establishing mutual respect, including multiple perspectives, demonstrating awareness of differences, and questioning inherited structures.  When we value collaboration, we model inclusivity for our students, and perhaps more importantly, they model it for us.

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About the Author

Wehler 2Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College.  Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl.  She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

Powerpoint Top 10

Top 10 Best Practices for PowerPoint

During our training today, we created a top ten best practices for using PowerPoint.  The faculty and staff who attended the training would like to share this crowd-sourced list with you. 

Powerpoint Top 10

Start with instructions and objectives.  The first few slides of a presentation should include the learning outcomes you are going to address.  These outcomes provide students with a “map” to the following presentation.  You should also give instructions on what you want students to do with the information (note-taking reminders, critical thinking questions, and the like) to give students guidance on how they will use the information.

Think like a designer. Presentations are a visual medium, which means you need to take full advantage of this delivery method.  Create slides that forefront visual learning with icons, infographics, and other visual elements.  Visuals provide another point of entry into the material and give students another opportunity to understand, remember, and apply the information.

Build in pauses.  When building a presentation, you should strategically incorporate places that prompt discussion, reflection, and critical thinking.  These “pauses” will allow students an opportunity to work with the materials you just presented, ask follow-up questions, and actively engage with their peers.  Pauses can take the form of 1-minute papers, a series of reflective questions, or a quick poll.

Grab their attention.  Professional presenters know how to grab your attention at the beginning of a talk by giving you a startling statistic, asking a provocative question, or providing an anecdote.  Beginning your own presentation with an attention grabber engages students and readies them for the material.

7 x 7 Rule. No more than seven lines per slide and seven words per line.  This rule helps to reduce the amount of text per slide, so that students can focus on your instruction rather than trying to read from the slide.  It will also prevent you from using the slide as crutch (rather than as a tool!).

Remember the white board.  Slides can be like whiteboards in the sense that they offer you a space for publicly displaying ideas.  Like whiteboards, you don’t need to / want to write down everything you say—and you especially don’t do it in long form.  Instead, keep your slides clutter free and use bulleted lists to provide talking points.

Think before you animate.  Animation has many useful applications, but it can also be a distraction if it is overused or used incorrectly.  Students might be watching text flying in from all sides while trying to learn a new theory or concept.  Before animating a slide or an element, think about your purpose in doing so: do you need to control the flow of information? do you want to emphasize a point?  draw attention to a particular visual?  These questions will help you make good choices when choosing to animate.

Make use speaker’s notes.  The speaker’s notes (located at the bottom of each slide) will help you in a variety of ways, including providing yourself with important presentation reminders and using later as a transcript for the presentation.  Students may also avail themselves of your notes (if you provide them) while studying or trying to learn (or re-learn) a concept.

Get to know “presenter mode.”  Presenter mode (located under Slideshow>Set Up Slide Show) provides faculty with an opportunity to see their notes during presentation.  This mode will help you to stay on track with your presentation and focused on achieving your stated outcomes.

Say no to karaoke.  While you may be encouraged to read from the screen at your local karaoke bar, you don’t want to bring that same habit into the classroom.   Reading from a slide can undermine your ethos in the classroom by suggesting to students that you need to read from the slide in order to be certain of what you are discussing.  It also suggests to the students that you don’t see them as capable of reading the information for themselves.  And, finally, it’s just plain boring.

Stay tuned for upcoming training sessions on this and other tech topics!

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A special thank you to those in attendance, including Dr. Matthew Ademola, Kim Bateman, Dr. Brant Ellsworth, Ben Lipschutz, Dr. Marcie Rovan, and Dr. Melissa Wehler.

Creating Syllabus Policies

By Melissa Wehler, PhD, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The syllabus functions as a contract between the students and the faculty member regarding the academic experience in the classroom and the standards for that experience.  Often, when writing our syllabi, we get lost in the legalities of our policies, trying to out-maneuver that loop-hole driven student just waiting on our rosters. (The old adage that faculty “can write a student’s name next to every syllabus policy” comes to mind.)   While it’s important that we are clear and concrete in our policies, it is equally as important that we use this document as a space to demarcate the learning environment: what are your standards for student work and engagement? how do you see your role in the classroom? what standards do you have for participation? how should students conduct themselves in discussion?  Focusing on these questions help us to build an engaging learning experience not simply avoid a disastrous one.

When creating policies for your syllabus, keep in mind some best practices:

Keep the audience in mind. Since students are the audience, you will want to use clear and specific language and avoid being overly long, complicated, or detailed. Try to keep them to a short paragraph and consider using bullet lists.

Read for tone.  The syllabus establishes the classroom guidelines, and as such, the rules for behavior and performance.  Syllabus policies should have a positive tone even as they create these parameters. 

Consider the course.  Each course will have its own unique set of policies that are tailored to the way you teach it.  For instance, if you teach discussion-based courses, you might want to create a discussion policy.  Or if you teach a presentation-based course, you might want to have a policy on professional dress or appearance.

Remember the level. The level of the course will also help you to establish behavior, performance, and participation expectations.  For example, if you teach an introductory course, you want to have a stricter attendance policy, so that these new students acclimate to this reality of campus life.

Avoid distractions.  It may be tempting to change fonts or colors, but these attempts to draw students’ attention to the seriousness of your policy can instead negatively communicate something about you.  Instead, use bold on certain parts of a policy to help students locate the information quickly.

By keeping these best practices in mind, you will help students to not just to understand your standards for academic work, dialogue, and engagement, but to see themselves reflected in the learning experience you are building.

 

About the Author

13240559_10101056173646389_348591978591550789_nDr. Melissa Wehler serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

Wehler Publishes Article on Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Dr. Melissa WehlerOn June 5, 2017, Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences and CTE@CPC blog contributor, published an article entitled “Students’ Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Five Ways to Break the Cycle” in Faculty Focus, an online teaching newsletter. Faculty Focus is published by Magna Commons and reaches an international audience of higher education professionals.  The article provides educators with practical tips on how to help students break negative self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom, including providing opportunities for metacognition, flipping roles, creating check-in points, building in moments for dialogue, and pointing it out.

Wehler’s other publications include book chapters in various edited collections, including “”The Haunted Hero: The Performance of Trauma in Jessica Jones” in Jessica Jones Anthology (McFarland, 2017, forthcoming), ‘Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky’: Neil Gaiman’s Extraordinarily Ordinary Coraline,’” in A Quest of Her Own: The Female Hero in Modern Fantasy (McFarland, 2014) and “The Haunted Transatlantic Libertine: Edmund Kean’s American Tour” in Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century (Ashgate Publishing, 2013) where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also will be co-editing a collection about CW’s adaptation of Supergirl (McFarland, 2018, forthcoming). She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

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