Kevin Kelly headshot

Working With Our Students to Foster Learning Equity

Learning from my students

Kevin Kelly headshotMy students have helped me foster learning equity, even before I formally included them in the process. At first they did this without me fully realizing their role in helping me choose more equitable teaching practices. Students would let me know about barriers that were preventing them from successfully completing course activities. For example, early in my online teaching a student informed me that requiring him to save assignments as a PDF (Portable Document Format) created a barrier for students who only had a smartphone. Each time, I would make changes to address a challenge in a way that would support all students. However, as a fairly new online teacher, I needed to know more about the students as humans and to be proactive in supporting their success.

Similarly, my students showed me that I should be checking our collective progress toward increasing learning equity. One student in particular helped me see that, although I had adopted various research-based teaching practices, I did not know how well they actually supported student success. In this case I had adopted the Transparent Assignment Template throughout my entire course. I had seen the research that showed how using the template benefits students—especially first-generation, low-income and disproportionately impacted students. That summer I went through my entire course and converted all of my assignment instructions to follow the template’s format. I also did this with all of the prompts for reviewing content and for engaging in course activities.

The subsequent fall semester went well and at the end I received an email from a student who had gotten an A grade. He had failed the course the previous spring because he had stopped doing the work. He wanted to thank me specifically for revising the instructions throughout the course, closing his note with a powerful statement: “This time I knew what I was supposed to do.”

Being more intentional when including students

Ironically, my students were showing me that I should practice what I teach. My general education course, “How 2 Learn w ur Mobile Device,” teaches students about metacognitive strategies, or ways for them to improve their own learning. Together we use a simplified process—Plan, Do, Reflect—to gain self-directed learning skills. Instructors can take a similar approach to creating and facilitating equitable courses. First, seek awareness of equity-based challenges students face. Next, take action—use a strategy that has been shown to address a challenge. Last, conduct a formative assessment. Review the results of your equity-related actions, and determine what worked and what to adjust next time.

Rather than wait for students to report challenges, now I involve students more intentionally. To gain better awareness of the equity-related issues my students face, I use an anonymous survey at the beginning of the term. I ask them to identify or describe the biases, assumptions and barriers that negatively impact their motivation, opportunities or achievement. Early versions of the survey drew ideas from the research-based criteria on the Peralta Equity Rubric. To gauge the effectiveness of specific equity-related strategies, I include questions on evaluations conducted in the middle and at the end of the term. Once in a while, comments or trends inspire a discussion thread in the Community Café forum.

Putting it all together – addressing potential interaction bias

My online class is large—50 to 100 students enroll in it each semester. When I finished reading a research study about bias in online classes, I changed my discussion forum practices. My first thought was, “Do I do that?” With so many students, my practice had been first to reply to students with no replies from classmates, and then to address questions that had arisen in the different discussion threads. However, I did not know if my strategy confirmed the bias found in the Stanford study, so I decided to manage the potential for bias by keeping track of my replies to each student.

There are no learning management system tools or features that allow you to track your responses to each student, so I created a Google spreadsheet to track it myself. In the first column, I pasted the students’ names from my course roster. Then I created a new column for each discussion in my class. Over 16 weeks, we engage in at least 10 discussions, some of which are small group discussions and the rest of which are whole class discussions. After participating in a discussion each day, I put my initials in that column for each reply to a student. Last, I inserted a column right after the students’ names. In this column, I counted the total number of replies I had written to each student. Before I went to the discussion forums each day, I checked to see who had the fewest total replies from me. They were the first ones to get a reply that day.

Some students have fewer replies because they have not posted anything. In those cases, I encourage them to participate. I let them know that I value their contributions and that I understand they may have competing obligations like employment or caretaking for family.

After that first iteration of using a spreadsheet to track my feedback to students, I added a bullet to my syllabus statement about teacher participation: “Discussion forums: This is a large class! While I may not be able to reply to every one of you in every discussion forum every week, I am committed to equity. I will be keeping track of my replies to each of you throughout the semester so that every student will get equal attention and feedback from the teachers.” In my start-of-semester survey, I ask them how they feel about instructor replies and feedback. In the mid-semester (informal) and end-of-semester (formal) evaluations, I ask how well I did in creating an equitable environment that made them feel welcome and included. I still have a lot to learn, but luckily my students are great teachers.

Baker, R.; Dee, T.; Evans, B. & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence From a Field Experiment. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Winkelmes, M.-A.; Bernacki, M.; Butler, J.; Zochowski, M.; Golanics, J. & Weavil, K.H. (Winter/Spring 2016). A Teaching Intervention That Increases Underserved College Students’ Success. Peer Review, 18(1/2).

Kevin Kelly is an ACUE Educational Advisor and a Lecturer Faculty member in the Equity, Leadership Studies and Instructional Technology Department at San Francisco State University.

Jennifer Ault Headshot

Faculty Reflection: Making Microlectures and Teaching Note-Taking Skills

Jennifer Ault Headshot

I am a self-proclaimed pedagogy enthusiast. It’s something that I like to research and read about on a regular basis. One of the things I greatly missed while teaching at home during the pandemic was the opportunity to collaborate with my peers and regularly participate in professional development events.

Therefore, I was thrilled to be invited to take the Promoting Active Learning Online microcredential course offered by ACUE.

As a performer who became a teacher, I always have audience (student) engagement in mind when creating online content. At the outset of the pandemic I wondered how I was going to help students from 16 different countries, who speak multiple languages, navigate the technology of all of these learning platforms; let alone keep them motivated and engaged.

Although not without challenges, learning to teach online in an engaging way has provided some of the most rewarding professional growth I have had. I cannot possibly cover all the techniques recommended in ACUE’s course, but I would like to share the two that had the greatest impact on my approach to online teaching.

Developing Effective Modules and Microlectures

The use of microlectures to introduce my class was, hands down, the things that my students responded to most positively. Microlectures are a way for instructors to break up larger chunks of content into shorter video lectures.

At first, I thought it would be incredibly time-consuming to make these videos, but I had it completely wrong! Making these videos ended up saving me time because I wasn’t spending as much time after class, or during my office hours, having to explain the content I had covered during synchronous class sessions. These shorter videos allowed students to watch, multiple times if needed, at their own convenience, to deepen their understanding.

Learn more: How to Record Effective Microlectures

I created three or four videos per concept for each learning module. Students commented that it was easier for them to pay attention when watching shorter videos than when I explained the concepts in our live class sessions. They knew that there were short quizzes at the end of each video, so they were motivated to pay attention and listen more actively.

But the most beneficial result is that class time became a chance to apply and practice what they had learned together. The increase in student enthusiasm was palpable when engaging with the course content this way. Most importantly, it resulted in significant improvement in student outcomes.

Learn more: Engaging Students in Readings and Microlectures

Teaching Powerful Note-Taking Online 

Were you ever instructed on how to effectively take notes? I certainly wasn’t. When I was a college student, I all too often relied on my memory to cram for exams because I could not make heads nor tails of the notes that I had taken.

In the earlier stages of their academic careers, many students try to capture everything in their notes as they have a difficult time distinguishing what is important. ACUE’s module on Teaching Powerful Note-Taking Skills Online was an excellent reminder that by providing structures for note-taking, students can focus on what was important and learn more deeply.

As a result of this module, I provided an organizing framework for students to take notes on course content. In addition, I provided focus questions for the course readings to guide their notes. I also began incentivizing note-taking by allowing the students to use their notes when taking their online exams. Consequently, I found that my students began taking better notes, more frequently. They started to compare their notes with their fellow classmates, without prompting from me, to make sure that their notes were as thorough as possible. The students started to practice note-taking when having group discussions and would upload their discussion notes to a shared Google folder, so that they could all succeed together.

Learn more: How to Help Students Take Better Notes

This was all done without my prompting. It truly amazed me that, with a little guidance, how much improvement my students made on their note-taking skills in such a short period of time.

I can say with great confidence that I have become a more confident and reenergized online instructor as a result of studying with ACUE. Thank you for adding tools to my teaching toolkit that help me to keep my students more actively engaged.

Jennifer Ault has been working as an ESL/EAL professional for over 20 years. She is currently an instructor for the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) at Queensborough Community College.