Michael Wesch -acue.org

Ensure a Strong Semester With These Strategies

The time between semesters is an opportunity to reflect. How have we been successful during the past semester? Where might we make some adjustments to our courses? Although we may not feel the need to do a full course redesign, even small changes to our teaching can have a significant impact on students’ learning experiences. Here are three practices you might consider implementing to ensure a strong start, paired with quick reads from some of our teaching and learning experts:

1. Use feedback from this semester’s students to inform adjustments to your instructional practices. Consider the responses you received most frequently from students in any solicited feedback—anonymous surveys, Stop-Start-Continue exercise, point-of-view postcards, your institution’s course evaluations, etc.—and informal feedback from speaking with students before/after class and during office hours. Compile a list of patterns in students’ responses, and then prioritize them based on which adjustments can be made and which will have the greatest impact on students’ learning. Additionally, if you kept a journal this semester, look over your notes from each class session to see what changes you might make based on your observations. Both mid- and end-of-semester feedback can be used to guide adjustments given the process of collecting and acting on feedback is similar (i.e., solicit feedback from students, identify common responses, make adjustments, and tell students why you are making or have made certain changes); that’s why our recommended reads include posts on midsemester feedback. 

Recommended reads:

• José Bowen: “Using Feedback From Students to Improve Your Teaching”

• Viji Sathy: “The Sweet Spot of Midsemester Feedback”

• Penny MacCormack: “A Metacognitive Approach to Midsemester Feedback”

2. Revise one assignment to make expectations more transparent for students. According to Mary-Ann Winkelmes of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project (TILT), focusing on the purpose, task, and criteria of assignments “promotes an inclusive learning environment where teachers and students engage in conversations about the relevance of academic work to students’ lives beyond college, as well as expectations for work process and performance.” By making assignments more transparent, students benefit from clearer instructions and from understanding the relevance of course tasks, and you save time assessing their performance. Winkelmes suggests starting small by revising one or two assignments. You can use the transparent assignment template as a guide, and read Winkelmes’s article below to learn more.

Recommended read: Mary-Ann Winkelmes: “Small Teaching Changes, Big Learning Benefits”

3. Prepare a syllabus that gets students excited about learning. As a supplement to your traditional syllabus, consider developing a graphic syllabus as a visual depiction of the relationships between course topics. Linda Nilson states that a graphic syllabus benefits students because “they get an overall big picture of the field, a big picture of the course. Their minds photograph it, so they have a general idea of the shape, the flow, and they follow it like a map. It helps students remember because it gives students a structure for their knowledge.” Alternatively, you might create a big ideas syllabus that lists the major concepts that guide your course and that you want students to remember, with the key assignments and activities aligned to each idea noted underneath. Michael Wesch recommends that you “go back to each of your lectures, for example, and think about ‘What is the actual big idea? What is the change I’m trying to create in my students through this lecture?’ Once you figure that out, you can reimagine everything else, like is that content you’ve been covering necessary for that idea or is there better content?” Resources like a graphic syllabus or big ideas syllabus can increase students’ engagement in your content and their motivation to learn. For inspiration on syllabus redesign, see our recommended read.

Recommended read: Michael Wesch: “What Inspired Me to Redesign My Syllabus”

For more teaching and learning resources, visit our community.

Juanita Eagleson

The Quizemption: When Opting Out Is a Positive Choice

By Juanita M. Eagleson

Juanita EaglesonThe tension is palpable. The air is rife with nervous energy, and anxiety is now a living organism. The men and women, the teenagers, the seniors, they all come to realize there is only one way out for them—back through the classroom door. Those who were quick enough to grab the front row seats would have the best chance of making a clean break for the exit. The less aggressive would likely be trampled as they fought their way to freedom. The aftermath—unimaginable. It would be pure carnage once again. Why, oh, why?! The simple answer: to escape the dreaded QUIZ!

Drama? Maybe not so much, but certainly general anticipation on the part of my students that something foreboding was on the horizon with a questionable outcome. For English Composition II at the University of the District of Columbia Community College, the culmination of the course is the academic argument (research) paper. Because there is a very deliberate process to constructing the paper, I administer short quizzes along the way to assess the students’ progress in understanding the elements of argument. There are typically six or seven quizzes per term, no more than 10 minutes in length, that are scheduled for the beginning of every other week.

As it turned out on this not-so-typical day near the beginning of the term, the quiz was supposed to be about ethos, pathos, and logos. I heard some groaning, as well as a few words of encouragement exchanged between two students sitting side by side. “I got this covered,” one student said. “I studied my notes from Martin Luther King’s Birmingham Letter,” the other responded. I chimed in with a few words of reassurance. “I’m sure you’ve all reviewed your notes and will do well.” At that point, I had planned to hand out the quiz.

On this occasion, however, a courageous student sitting in the back of the classroom raised his hand and said, “I’m not really prepared for this quiz.” I almost dismissed his comment but then realized that there were a few other students nodding their heads in agreement. So, I asked them why they were not prepared. The answers essentially boiled down to “I didn’t really have a chance to study.” Many of my students face daily challenges, family responsibilities, and personal obligations that encroach on what would ideally be considered study time. For the most part, their responses were not excuses; they were circumstances.

At that moment, I recalled a comment from one of the instructors in the ACUE module on “Developing Self-Directed Learners”: that faculty should enable students to make decisions as learners. I took that to also mean that students should have the opportunity to weigh in on the quiz process and take responsibility for being prepared. I saw this as a chance to gather feedback about how they prepared for quizzes. After some discussion, I decided to abort the quiz, review the material, clarify any confusion about the topic, and, finally, allow an additional week for them to prepare for ethos, pathos, and logos. While being fully transparent about the content of the quiz, even having them construct several of the questions, I wasn’t satisfied that this addressed the issue of future quizzes and the underlying objective of developing self-directed learners.

After scanning the resources provided in the ACUE module, I took a second look at the “Amnesty Coupon” and read what it was meant to do—that is, “to offer students flexibility with assignment and exam dates.” With that in mind, I explained to the class that they would each get one “quiz amnesty coupon” as an exemption to be used on the day for any quiz of their choice. Eyes glowed. Smiles bloomed. Being in control of this aspect of their class experience was a welcome bonus for them.

One student was quick to point out, however, that she had an instructor who dropped the students’ lowest grades. She wanted to know if using the coupon was the same. I explained that although both actions had an impact on the grade, by using the coupon, the result would be immediate. Moreover, the decision not to take the quiz was under the control of the student. For those who used the coupon, I calculated an average of the quizzes taken for the term. For those who didn’t use the coupon, I dropped the lowest grade.

I expected a rush of students gleefully and immediately handing in quiz coupons, but to my amazement only two students actually took the option of not taking a quiz over the 16-week course. I have only used the amnesty coupons for one term, but I look forward to using the “quizemption” next term and, perhaps, seeing fewer students running for the exit.

Juanita M. Eagleson is an assistant professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia Community College in Washington, DC. Her latest research includes the impact of ageism on student learning and faculty teaching effectiveness. She completed ACUE’s program in fall 2017.