Five Things: What I learned from reading course evaluations for Fall 2020

I’ve just finished what turned out to be an emotional week reading all the course evaluations from the fall term and soaking up those powerful bite-sized reminders of the difficult times everybody has been through.  I saw reflected in those comments the typical mix of contradictory classroom frustrations: too much/little workload, too much/little groupwork, too much/little class discussion. On top and Interleaved with those were reports of students’ and instructors’ issues with the online course delivery media: internet connectivity and limitations of various software platforms. I read students’ reports of life frustrations and worries, for which we once believed the K bubble offered a degree of protection, growing beyond any assistance or support our tentative online classroom communities could ever provide.

Below I’ve summarized what I saw in student course evaluations around five themes:

  1. Comparison with previous terms: response rate and instructor rating
  2. A lot of students report experiences of transformational learning, without regard to the course delivery medium
  3. Course Structure and Instructor Feedback
  4. Students’ sense of vulnerability in the pandemic world
  5. Different students experience groupwork differently

1. How did course evaluations during the extraordinary online fall term compare with previous years?

Response Rate

In the paper-and-pencil era of course evaluations, response rates to the the in-class surveys were typically around 90% — dependent simply on the proportion of students in attendance on evaluation day. Winter 2020 was the first term of online course evaluations using the SmartEvals platform. Even with the disruptions of the rapidly emerging pandemic shutdowns on Thursday and Friday of tenth week and the winter final exam period in March 2020, the response rate was 85%. With the expectation that these online evaluations would be completed in the classroom during class time, there was every reason to expect response rates similar to the paper-and-pencil days.

Then spring happened. We all remember the widespread difficulties experienced by both students and instructors. Alarming numbers of students faded away over the course of that term, during what we’ve come to call “contingency online instruction.” The wave of protests and civil unrest in late May and early June drained whatever remained of class engagement at the end of that term. Those factors can be easily seen in the very low 35% response rate to online course evaluations for spring 2020.

For fall 2020, the student response rate to online course evaluations at K was 65%. That’s good news compared to the spring term, but far lower than we’ve come to expect. In the comparisons below, it’s important to keep that missing one-third of student voices in mind. I recently reached out to instructors whose students responded at high rates, and have compiled a blog post about practices they report using to encourage student engagement with the online course evaluation.

Instructor Ratings

In reading survey results, there is always a concern about over-representation among students who have strong feelings to express, both positive and negative. This concern is only heightened with less than universal response. Following up on questions from several instructors about that concern, I considered Instructor Rating scores from the fall. Averages don’t shed light on the question of bias toward stronger opinions. For that purpose a closer look at proportions of responses at each rating level can illustrate the issue and aid in comparisons. The chart below shows distributions of Instructor Rating responses for Fall 2020 compared with Fall 2019. The distribution of ratings is remarkably similar between these years. I think this gives reassurance about possible negative effects of online course delivery in students’ rating of their instructions.

The proportions at each level aren’t exactly the same between these two years, but the differences are well within the year-to-year variation over the past half-dozen years, illustrated in the next figure.

2. In this online environment, Students Report Familiar Experiences of Joy in Learning

As I read evaluations course by course and department by department, an unmistakable trend emerged that has left me feeling profoundly grateful to the K faculty and optimistic about the days ahead:  so, so many students reported on their experiences of transformational learning in courses this fall, in many cases without even mentioning the online delivery medium. For instructors, it’s all too easy to fall into a kind of despair, questioning the possibility of profound student learning outcomes without the traditional personal touch that has characterized the K student experience. Here are a few quotes from student comments that illustrate the learning experiences students experienced this fall:

This has been an incredible class, and I so appreciated all of the intersectionality and different topics we covered. I learned so much, and this class definitely reignited my passion for the subject!

…was phenomenal about reading where students were at, what kind of feedback they needed, and where they were struggling.” 

 I have been waiting to take [this course] since I started college, and the class did not disappoint. I found myself genuinely wanting to read and go to class due to the content, as well as the structure of class.

I totally understand why everyone wants to take this class before they leave K. 

… is the kind of instructor that I came to Kalamazoo College to learn from.

Je me sens plus confiant en mon francais grace a ce cours

I feel this is an excellent first year class as it has challenging academic readings daily and introduces students to academic thinking and writing. I feel I am better suited for college-level work because of this class.“  

this class encouraged and was centered around thinking of things from different perspectives and with your imagination, and [the instructor] always prompted us to think outside of the box and analyze things from a different point of view

3. Students report high levels of satisfaction with courses that provide clear structure and timely feedback

Without the in-person classroom opportunities for instructors to gauge where students are in their progress through the course and clear up misunderstandings, students reported confusion and mistaken negative assumptions about class structure that lead to irreversible dissatisfaction with courses. Only rarely did I read student accounts of courses that were able to overcome confusion about assignments, due-dates and missing grades. In those cases, the balancing factor was a strong relationship with the instructor and classmates through extraordinarily effective synchronous class meetings.

In the online environment, where the difficulties in establishing nuanced personal communication are widely acknowledged, clear structures and well-established patterns of frequent timely feedback were positively brought forward by students in reporting course satisfaction. And importantly the lack of those factors was the most frequently cited reason for course dissatisfaction.

4. Students’ overall satisfaction in courses this fall often boiled down to the perceived level of support and understanding of pandemic-related factors

I don’t have a quantitative measure of this phenomenon, but my reading of their survey comments convinces me that students this fall felt very vulnerable in the face of the pressures and anxieties of the pandemic world, and in many cases this formed the background for their nascent interaction with their instructors. In reporting their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with courses, students in many cases — far more frequently than I can ever remember from my work with student course evaluations in the past — tied their experience of the course with their perception that the instructor did (or sadly did not) truly care about them or what they were going through outside of schoolwork. Those students that gave more details in this regard pointed to flexibility with due dates, instructor responsiveness to student feedback about course structure and workload, and instructors reaching out with expressions of support, care and kind concern.

5. Students Loved/Hated Groupwork this term

A frequently reported feature of high student satisfaction courses this term was the effective use of breakout discussions and group work. Remarkably, the opposite is also true: many students reported low satisfaction with courses due to their experience in smaller group structures. In several cases, students in the same course experienced this groupwork as the make (or break) feature.

Several students acknowledged their negative experiences stemmed from the make-up of the groups: the familiar reports “I did all the work, nobody else did anything” were amplified by perceptions of disengagement in the video meeting setting (“cameras off”, “stays muted”, etc). Likewise, a number of students reported positive work together and friend-making from groups.

I didn’t gain any new solutions to this problem from what I read in the course evaluations, but it does strike me that because the breakout discussion is such an important part of the online class meeting, it will be important for us as instructors to give this issue some careful thought, with special attention to how group memberships are assigned and monitored for signs of distress. I’d love to hear your ideas about this in a #KTeachDev2020 post!

Five Things: Moodle Grading Workflows to fit my Many Moods.

Thing 1: The Quick Grading option

The name says it all! When I click on a Moodle assignment, I’m presented with two buttons below. For Quick Grading, I’ll choose View all submissions

two buttons:  View all submissions and Grade

The result is a screen (screenshot below) that shows all the enrolled students, a link to each submission that opens in a separate window, the status of their submission for this exercise, a place to enter a score, and several places to enter my feedback. For brief assignments this is my go-to option. Especially helpful is that students in this screen can be sorted in a number of user-defined ways: by date of submission, grading status, etc so that I don’t need to scroll through all the students to find the few that I haven’t yet graded.

the quick grading screen shows one row for each student with various columns

To be safe, remember to select Save all quick grading changes at the bottom of the screen when you’ve finished.

don't forget to select Save all quick grading changes at the bottom of the page

If you don’t see the columns with fillable Grade boxes, scroll down to the bottom and turn that on with the Quick Grading checkbox:

quick grading option specified with a check at the bottom of the screen.

The “+” and “-” symbols at the top of each column can be selected to either show more or fewer of the columns. That helps so that all the columns I want to see can fit the width of my computer screen.

If you don’t see “Feedback comments” column, edit the settings for the assignment. More about this next in Thing 2.

Thing 2: Set up activities to include the whole range of feedback types

I include all the possible feedback types in every activity. For a given activty, select edit and settings, then expand the Feedback types menu to check all the available options. We’ll see all those options in action in Thing 4 below.

Feedback types checkboxes:  Feedback comments, Annotate PDF, Feedback files, Offline grading worksheet

Thing 3: Use Moodle’s Duplicate function to carry your settings over to a new activity

Instead of counting on my memory to select the feedback types for each new assignment, I set up one initial activity carefully, and then use the Moodle Duplicate feature to use that previous activity as a template for all subsequent activities of that type. The properties I’ve carefully selected come along with the duplicate automatically.

 I used Moodle’s Duplicate feature: from my main page, select Gear icon, then turn on editing by selectin Editing is OFF. Now in the Edit drop-down menu on the right side of the window for a chosen activity I can select Duplicate

select duplicate from the dropdown menu

The result will be a new activity with all the settings as in the original. Drag the cross icon to move the new item where you want it in your Moodle page, and Edit settings to transform this into your new activity.

the result of duplicate is a separate item

Thing 4: The Grade Button

If I really want to grade papers, I should push Grade, right?

two buttons:  View all submissions and Grade

The result is a screen that shows everything possible for a single student’s submission: Notice that the feedback options we set in Thing 2 cause this screen to have

  • Annotate-able file
  • A text editor for typing instructor feedback
  • A place to upload a feedback document file
The Grade screen shows a big window with the students annotatable submission document, a box for entering a grad, a text editor box for typing feedback, a place to upload feedback files.  In the upper right is the change user dropdown menu

When I’ve finished working with this student’s submission, I can select Save and show next to move on to another student. To me, it is sometimes inconvenient that Moodle always brings me these papers in the same order: alphabetical by surname. It is possible to circumvent that a little by using the Change user dropdown menu in the upper right corner of the window. A helpful feature in that menu is that ungraded submissions are indicated with an asterisk *. This is especially useful when I’m going back through an assignment to see late submissions and revised resubmissions.

Thing 5: Downloads and Uploads

A few days ago I had a whole class roster full of long PDF final exam documents to grade. For each, I planned to reply with a PDF document of feedback. To streamline that workflow, I downloaded all the submissions choosing View All Submissions selecting Download all submissions from the Grading Options dropdown menu:

in the grading action dropdown menu, choose download all submissions
a zipped folder full of folders, one for each student.

The result was that a compressed (zip) folder appeared in my Download directory. Clicking on that revealed a whole folder full of folders, each one with the name of a student who had submitted work. For a given student, the directory contained all the submitted files. Being careful not to change the names of any of those files or of directories in which they were contained, I happily annotated the submitted files. I included in each student’s directory my own document file of feedback. The name of this feedback file isn’t important. The thing that matters is that my feedback file for each student got put in that student’s directory. When I was finished, I selected Upload multiple feedback files in a zip, and uploaded the modified zip directory. All the feedback files got to the right place, as did the annotations on the students’ submissions.

I then used the Quick Grade feature to enter the students exam scores in Moodle and I was done. Or…

Downloading and Uploading Grade worksheet

It is possible to enter grades for an assignment on your own device, then upload them all at once to Moodle. In the View All Submissions page, select Download grade worksheet from the Grading Options dropdown menu:

Select Download grading worksheet from the dropdown menu

The result will be a downloaded document that you can open on your device with MS Excel. Enter scores in the Grade column

in MS Excel, enter scores in the Grade column

Save the modified document (without changing the filename or filetype) and then select Upload grading worksheet at the Moodle Grading Action dropdown menu. The grades you entered will now appear in all the usual places in Moodle.

Five Things: Setting up my Moodle Gradebook to Match my Syllabus.

“How did my grade get so low? In Moodle it looks like I’m getting a B”


Students read the syllabus, right? Every course I teach has a syllabus section like in the screenshot below. It is completely clear that I use the percentages given there to compute students’ course grades. Trouble is that while I have the syllabus in my mind all the time, students take one (or fewer) look and move on! The students see Moodle every day, and the message they get from Moodle about their course grade is, in my experience, very vivid. What’s more, many come from high schools where the ability to “check my grade online” was central to their experience (and that of their parents!) Before I learned to make Moodle gradebook do my bidding, the student quoted above was in almost every course I taught!

Workload with relative contribution to your course grade: 
Weekly Live Sessions	 15%,	
Homework	25% ,
Project	15%,	
Exams	45%.
The section of my Syllabus that details the weights each component of the students’ work will contribute to the course grade.

Thing 1: The Simplest Thing — Hide the “Course total”

I like that students can see at Moodle which assignments they’ve completed and my feedback on each of them. Before I learned to bend Moodle’s “Course total” to my will, I took the simple step to hide that from students (it is visible by default at Moodle.) That gives a simple way for students to see feedback on individual tasks without getting a false idea about their overall grade. To hide the Course total, use the Gear icon, then Gradebook Setup, then select Edit for the Course total and select Hide.

Select Edit and Hide for Course Total
The easiest way to prevent Moodle from giving students a false sense of their course grade is to hide course totals!

With this safeguard in place, I exported Moodle scores and computed students’ course grades outside of Moodle in MS Excel. To export your Moodle gradebook, go to Gear icon, then Gradebook Setup, then at the bottom of the accordion menu select Excel spreadsheet under Export:

Select Excel spreadsheet in the Gradebook setup drop down menu

Thing 2: Get to know the “Exclude empty grades” checkbox

Moving on! If I want students to see a summary of how they are doing in the course — and for that reason decide not to hide the course total as in Thing 1 — I need to understand one key piece of Moodle’s default behavior. Here’s a scary real-life scenario: The student quoted at the top of this piece completes the first assignment of the course and scores 8 out of 10. Subsequently, this student leaves every other assignment untouched. With the default gradebook settings, when this student checks his grade at Moodle, the Course total will always say “80%”. That’s because Moodle’s default behavior is to exclude empty grades from total computations! Oh, honey.

To make the Moodle computed total reflect my gradebook reality, I turn off this default behavior with Gear icon, then Gradebook Setup, then select Edit for the Course, then Show More and finally uncheck “Exclude empty grades” as shown in the screenshot below.

uncheck the Exclude empty grades checkbox
By default in Moodle, “Exclude empty grades” is checked. With that setting Moodle computes a student’s course totals ignoring missing work.

Thing 3: Set up Categories

Time to get serious. To make Moodle gradebook reflect my grading scheme, I need to set up categories and corresponding percentages in Moodle to match what I’ve written in the syllabus. When I have this all set up, the student will be able to see in Moodle exactly what I would calculate using the syllabus percentages.

Start with Gear icon, then Gradebook Setup, then scroll to the bottom of the screen, where you’ll see the needed Add Category button.

select the add category button at the bottom of the gradebook setup screen

The result will be a screen with a place to name your new category.

Show More reveals the now-familiar Exclude empty grades checkbox (see Thing 2 above)

enter the category name and select natural aggregation.  under show more,  uncheck the exclude empty grades checkbox

Because I want students to see the actual total number of points earned, I chose Natural as the Aggregation method for this category. Picking the Aggregation that works for you might require some trial and error, or email Josh Moon! It’s important to note that for all this to work, the Course total aggregation method needs to at its default method Simple weighted mean of grades. Josh Moon described the aggregation methods like this: Natural totals points. Simple Weighted Mean of Grades means that items are weighted based on how much they’re worth (a 100pt assignment is worth 10x a 10pt assignment). Mean of Grades does the opposite (averages the 100pt, 10pt, and 1pt assignment all the same).

To specify the percentage weight for this category, select Parent Category, check the Weight adjusted box, and type in the percentage Weight to match the syllabus. Then Save changes.

in the Parent category sections, check the weight adjusted box and enter the percent weight

Repeat for each of the other categories you’d like to create. It is important to note that everything doesn’t necessarily need a category. A stand-alone item like “Research Paper” works fine without one.

Thing 4: Put Each Activity in its Category

In the Edit Settings screen for a given activity, select Grade and notice an Grade Category accordion menu that allows you to choose from the Categories you’ve created. Again, it is important to note that everything doesn’t necessarily need a category. A stand-alone item like “Research Paper” can work fine without one.

in the settings for an activity, in the Grade group, select the appropriate category from the drop down menu

Thing 5: Set up one activity in each category, then use that as a template with Duplicate

In this post and another one about workflows, I’ve shown some things about Moodle gradebook that I’ve found helpful. It all works if I remember to set up the Moodle Activities with the right collection of options and settings. To make that easier as the course went along, I used Moodle’s Duplicate feature: from my main page, select Gear icon, then turn on editing by selecting Editing is OFF. Now in the Edit drop-down menu on the right side of the window for a chosen activity I can select Duplicate

select duplicate from the dropdown menu

The result will be a new activity with all the settings as in the original. Drag the cross icon to move the new item where you want it in your Moodle page, and Edit settings to transform this into your new activity.

the result of duplicate is a separate item

Josh Moon has a very helpful video demonstrating these gradebook settings and many others. You can see it here: The Moodle Gradebook.

We need to talk about the size of your email inbox — Josh Moon

Information Services is in the midst of a long-term project to eventually migrate our email server to a “cloud” based Office 365 system.  When this happens – likely by the end of this academic year – email quotas will substantially increase.

While email attachments are quick and familiar, sending files to each other can fill up our Sent Items folders as well as the email storage of our recipients.

Follow this link for our five suggestions on how to get files to recipients without using email attachments and filling up your storage quota.

Five Things: Indoor Air Quality in Classrooms at K

**August 20, 2020 Update** A more detailed version of this information has been published at the College Covid 19 Site.

I had a really informative meeting with Susan Lindemann, Director of Facilities Management, about the ventilation systems in our classroom buildings and steps being taken to prepare for on-campus classes this fall. The College is following the Covid19 guidelines of the  American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Here are five things I learned

  1. Fresh Air
  2. Windows — please leave them closed.
  3. Air handling is different than temperature/humidity control, but those are related
  4. Different classroom buildings have different needs
  5. Portable air purifier units

1. Dilution is the Solution to Pollution

The key idea is to dilute indoor air, and any infectious material in that air, with fresh air from outdoors. The air handling systems in classroom buildings at K have the capability to do exactly that with large outside air intake devices on each building. In fact, that was the case before Covid19 too. In the past, the mix of recirculated air and fresh outside air was achieved automatically by instruments that detect and maintain carbon dioxide levels in the building at healthy levels while improving energy efficiency by recycling some of the indoor air that has already been heated or cooled.

As we turn our attention to preventing possible spread of Covid19 by particles and aerosols in the indoor air, these systems are being reconfigured to increase the amount of outside air being brought indoors. This, together with the lower building occupancy associated with the College’s distancing and de-densifying plan, increases the effective dilution ventilation per person.

2. The Unintuitive Thing About Windows — Leave Them Closed.

In my house, the easiest way to dilute the inside air with fresh air from outside is to open a window. The situation in classroom buildings is different: The systems that detect and control the amount of fresh outside air in the building are tied directly to the outside air intake location in each building and not to any given room. Opening a window in one room disrupts the fresh air sensing equipment for the whole building, resulting in less fresh outside air being brought into the other rooms in the building.

3. What you feel in the air: Air Handling and Temperature Control are Different Things

The aspect of the building’s indoor environment we are most aware of is the temperature and humidity. The environmental control systems in the classroom buildings at K maintain a comfortable interior environment by two separate processes: air handling and hydronics.

Air handling is what we’ve been talking about in the points above. The hydronic system involves moving air past coils filled with heated or chilled liquid. That heating and chilling happens in the boiler/chiller plant at the bottom of Academy Street, with the hydronic liquid passing through underground pipes to the classroom buildings.

The air handling systems will be configured to bring more outside air into the mix to achieve greater dilution in each building, but of course we know that for most of the academic year in Kalamazoo, that outside air is cold! The amount of fresh outside air that can be included in the air handling mix will need to be balanced with the capacity of each building’s hydronic system to maintain a comfortable and safe temperature.

4. Different Buildings, Different Systems

What about my building? Here are some things to know:

  • Dow Science building, because of its design for preventing airborne health hazards from chemistry and biology labs, has always included 100% fresh outside air in the air handling mix. There is no recirculation of interior air at all. The extra-high capacity hydronic system designed for that building maintains the indoor environment at comfortable temperature and humidity.
  • Olds-Upton Hall has an air-handling system which is adequate for its traditional usage, as well as high dilution with greater proportion of fresh outside air discussed here. The hydronic system in OU is undersized for that purpose however. For that reason, it is possible that temperatures in OU will be less comfortable this year. To help maintain interior comfort, portable electrostatic air purifier units are planned for classroom spaces in OU, allowing for fresh air levels to be better balanced with the capacity of the hydronic system while at the same time actively reducing the concentration of any infectious material in the air.
  • Dewing Hall is a tale of two zones. The air handling unit for the 3rd floor is not configurable to bring higher amounts of fresh outside air into the mix. For that reason, portable electrostatic air purifiers are planned for any classroom space in use on Dewing 3rd floor. The other levels of Dewing hall have a separate air handling system which allows for the greater dilution with outside air we’ve been discussing here.
  • Light Fine Arts has generally adequate air handling capacity for including greater dilution of outside air. The special purpose uses of many spaces in LFA — for activities that traditionally bring large groups together in close contact while singing, acting, playing wind instruments, etc — bring with it special considerations.
  • Upjohn Library Commons has generally adequate air handling capacity for including greater dilution of outside air. The need for special climate control in the rare book room brings extra considerations into play.

5. Portable Air Purifier Units

A lot of portable electrostatic air purifier units are on order now for use in classroom spaces in Dewing and OU, with deliveries scheduled to begin in the first few weeks of the term. As with other high-demand items — remember that every other higher education institution is making similar orders — the delivery dates are likely to change. These units are rated to handle large rooms from 1500 to 3000 square feet (1500 square feet is 30×50). We won’t know until they arrive how much sound they generate and the resulting impact on classroom acoustics.

Five Things: Library Resources to Support Teaching

1. Ask us for help

Do you need help finding a book, film, or other resources for your class? Having problems accessing library databases or an article or eBook? Any questions about library services? Email us at

2. Course Materials

Librarians are happy to talk with you about materials for your courses. We can help with off-campus links to articles and eBooks to make it easier for students to access the materials you assign. The library may have relevant eBooks, articles, and videos already in our collections, and we can suggest open access alternatives that may fit your course needs.

3. Customized Library Course Guides

We are more than happy to work with you to create a Library Guide tailored to your specific assignments. We can include video tutorials to walk students through how best to use library resources. Examples of Course Guides: BUSN/ECON 380 and HIST 242. Additional research guides include discipline specific research guides and the general Library Research Toolkit.

4. Embed a Librarian in your Course Moodle or Teams Site

Having a librarian partnered with your course is another way for students to connect with a librarian. We can answer questions from students and share appropriate resources in your course site.

5. Research Instruction via Teams, Zoom, or Stream

If you are holding synchronous class sessions, we can demonstrate resources and facilitate a discussion about research or information literacy. For asynchronous classes, we can recommend or create instructional videos to help your students understand how to access the library’s online resources. Individual students can sign up for Research Rescue through Teams or Zoom—thank you for continuing to send students our way!

Just ask!

Your librarians are available and willing to help make your classes this fall a success. Email or schedule an appointment to talk about your class needs.

Five Things to Promote Equity in an Online Class — Josh Moon

I started working in online learning ten years ago as a teaching assistant in graduate school. The idea of equity and compassionate practices weren’t on my radar then. We asked students to submit pictures to verify their activity outside of class, used digital plagiarism tools, and requested documentation when they missed time (including for funerals. Gross, I know.). It’s been a long journey to think about my own online teaching practices but I can say, thanks to the writing and collaboration of many far-more thoughtful writers on education, I am now more prepared to acknowledge online practices that marginalize, jeopardize, and insult students and consider how to remedy them.

As I said, I’m not an expert and I hang on the coattails of people like Chris Gilliard, Jessie Stommel, Maha Bali, Cathy Davidson, and many others. I’ve linked longer articles in a section of my Moodle page, but if you want my own summary impressions I’ll offer five things I feel like I’m learning about equity in an online class.

(Author’s note: I recognize that a lot of this work is conceptual and more about broad approaches to teaching online than “Hello unsure instructor, do thing X!” I wanted to provide something more concrete as well. Peralta CC has an Online Equity Rubric with multiple categories including Images & Representation, Content Meaning, and Technology. It could help one think about practices in your class.)

Trust students.

This might sound simple, but this is the pedagogical starting point offered by Jesse Stommel, co-author of An Urgency of Teachers and co-founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Recognizing our students’ humanity and integrity as a starting point allows us to cultivate authentic learning relationships built upon respect. If we are concerned about cheating online, consider what factors encourage academic dishonesty. How do we avoid presenting temptations to practice academic dishonesty? How do we craft learning experiences and assignments that make the work more attractive than the grade? What do we gain when we trust students?

Add multiple methods to engage content and build in redundancies.

I know we want to keep it simple but “provide multiple means of engagement” is one of the core principles of Universal Design for Learning. In discussing Resilient Design, Andrea Kaston Tange shares an anecdote about a colleague offering students an option to attend class or use the online discussion board if they needed. This could be expanded in an online context to allow multiple avenues for students to write – a discussion board for some, an individual writing assignment, or in-text annotation for others. Offer students choices. Do different things some weeks. This opens avenues for student agency and adaptation to their needs.

Consider Privacy, Access, and Student Data when Selecting Software and Platforms.

Every time we choose another digital tool for students to install, sign up for, and otherwise employ, we expose their work, identity, and information to a third-party. We also increase the risk of taxing their device hardware, internet connection, and ability to learn new tech. This doesn’t mean we can’t adopt innovative, helpful technology, but we should be thoughtful and perform vetting of technology tools. The slickest, most attractive technology product isn’t necessarily the company doing the most to value student privacy or to ensure that it is accessible to all.

Acknowledge trauma, grief, and distraction.

Cathy Davidson makes the claim that, “Trauma is not an add on. From everything we know about learning, if the trauma is not addressed, accounted for, and built into the course design, we fail. Our students fail. None of us needs another failure.” We have to account for this in our current pedagogical situation. We fail when we try to maintain a false sense of total normalcy. Students may wish to focus and absorb themselves in our classes, but trauma is not equally distributed along difference. Look for ways to acknowledge what students are experiencing while our courses are only one piece of their lives. Maha Bali is a great thinker on the Pedagogy of Care.

Recognize that Online Learning can Work and Respond Accordingly.

I admit that this might sound a little soapbox-y, but you’re still reading so here we go. The following statement is written by me, Josh Moon, and does not necessarily represent the view…you get it. Though we all recognize what a rich experience it is to be in the room with our students, discussing, challenging, exploring, and experimenting, we also need to recognize that nationally and globally students are learning online in huge numbers. There are opportunities to expand educational access, promote different types of learning, and model professional practices that students will perform outside of college on platforms like Slack, Teams, and others. To hang on to the idea that students can only learn and collaborate in a certain environment is a form of academic privilege. There are great online courses and conversely face-to-face flops even at private, liberal arts schools. Just like students, this is a place where the instructor’s attitude and approach impacts success. If we don’t engage the process, we reward the students who are going to achieve high grades regardless of what we do.

Five Things: What to Know if You’re New to Moodle — Josh Moon

1. Moodle is not connected to the Registrar

That means students will not be automatically added to your Moodle site.  The easiest solution is to copy and paste the URL for the course and email this to students.  That will lead them directly to your course.  They can also navigate to it in the categories at the College’s moodle home page.

2. Moodle sites are made up of Activities and Resources

You can add two types of elements to a Moodle courses – Activities and Resources. You might think of Activities as where students provide the content and perform tasks (Forums, Assignments, Quizzes, etc.) and Resources as elements provided by the instructor (Files, URLs, Lessons, etc.).  You can add these to any of your week modules and move them around as needed by drag and dropping.

3. Everything in Moodle has settings!

This might sound obvious, but as a community-build, open-source project, Moodle tries to be everything to everyone.  There are a number of settings for any particular element and most of those settings you will not need to worry about.  However, it is useful to be aware that the gear wheel icon ( ) on the main page of the course includes the settings for the class, while elements like Files, Forums, and others have their own “Edit” options to access the settings.  Don’t hesitate to ask if you have a question about what a setting does!  Also, Moodle’s question mark icons ( ) can be useful quick references.

4. The default format shows a preview of each week, not all the content.

Old Moodle themes used to place all the content in one long list resulting in what was commonly called the “scroll of death.”  Our Boost theme shows the name of the section and displays any text written in the week’s header (that’s what you access when you click “Edit Week.”)  Students can click the title of the week and that will take them to the Activities and Resources for that section with the General (top) section above.  This reduces the scroll considerably as the quarter goes on.  To maximize the value of this design, avoid putting too much content inside “Edit Week.” Use Labels and other Moodle resources within the section instead.  Place important material like the syllabus, non-time specific content, and course-long material in the persistent General (top) section.

5. Don’t go it alone as you start on the Grade Book

With some preparation and organization, the Moodle grade book will provide accurate grades for the instructor and to each individual student.  However, it isn’t completely intuitive in every situation.  Save wasted time and headaches by asking for my help with the grade book . That is what I’m here for!  If you want to jump in alone, please preview this video Moodle Grade Book – The Basics.

Five Things: Big ideas I took away from online workshops this summer — Rick Barth

I spent what felt like a lot of time this summer in online workshops about how to teach online. I learned a lot of things — both by positive and negative association! — that will help me make my fall courses have better online content. Here are 5 big things I have in mind.

  1. Community of Inquiry Framework in online course design
  2. Bloom’s Taxonomy and Synchrony
  3. Same Goals, different modalities
  4. Variety in instructional modes
  5. Sit in an online course yourself
A 7.5 minute video by Rick Barth

1. Community of Inquiry Framework and Supporting Discourse

The community of inquiry model is depicted as a venn diagram of three overlapping circles:  social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.

Like a lot of instructors at K, I’ve been thinking about how to foster community and support discourse among students in my classes. I’ve found myself stuck on that question and honestly discouraged by what felt like a lot of disconnected student experiences in my spring class. I gained some insight during an online session this summer centered on the Community of Inquiry Framework. In particular, my breakthrough moment came from looking at the pair-wise regions of intersection between the “Presences” — Teaching, Cognitive, and Social:

  • Selecting Content
  • Supporting Discourse
  • Setting Climate

In the spring I gave a lot of thought to Selecting Content, and in struggling with ways to Supporting Discourse, I hadn’t fully considered the role of my teaching presence in Setting Climate. As an example, is his piece at the TLC Summer Teaching Development site, David Rhoa talks about how he noticed that students, if left to make that decision on their own, would often turn off their web cameras during synchronous video group meetings and by doing so be effectively absent from the discussion. He says if he had to do it again, he would set the expectation that students take part fully by keeping their cameras on. That’s Climate Setting! Now that we have some experience about how things can tend to happen, we are in a better place to set climate from the start to support discourse.

2. Bloom’s Taxonomy and Synchrony

Synchronous or Asynchronous? That’s a question I’ve spent a lot of discussion time on, often framed by various concerns that don’t pertain directly to teaching and learning: Students scattered across many time zones and other scheduling difficulties, technical challenges of large live video meetings, technical challenges of producing compelling video content, etc.

I had a pleasant aha moment last week when a participant in a big teaching seminar mentioned this paper in passing. The figure below is modified from that paper. The idea that grabbed me was that in organizing the kinds of learning I want students to achieve using Bloom’s Taxonomy, the timeline of learning activities seemed to fit very neatly:

The Bloom Taxonomy Model is a pyramid of learning tasks.  From bottom to top are remember, understand, apply analyze, evaluate,   create.  We imagine synchronous activity to be most suited to the middle layers:  apply and analyze.

At the base of the pyramid, it seems clear to me that students read, hear, remember and understand concepts at highly individual rates. Those activities are perfectly suited for outside of class reading assignments, pre-discussion activities, and my recorded video lectures — all things that students can do at their own speed and in their own time.

The middle layers of the pyramid are better suited for real-time interactions: Discussions with and between students that suggest and interrogate connections and contexts for ideas.

Finally, the tip of the pyramid takes repeated concerted attempts and lots of time — more than can be sustained in a Teams meeting. That’s where asynchronous delivery returns.

I’ve heard Josh Moon say many times that real-time interaction with students should be spent checking in and having conversations. One-way communication of content is best done asynchronously.

3. Same Goals, Different Modalities

There’s a lot to be said for designing an online course using Backward Design Principles. Sometimes though I find myself thinking backwards in a bad way: I sometimes look at what a technology platform is capable of doing and then try to build a teaching and learning activity with that as the basis. I sometimes forget that effective teaching and learning activities aren’t good only because they’re in person and face to face — that just happens to be the only modality I was really fluent in before Covid 19.

This idea — adapting existing active learning practices to online delivery modes — is at the heart of this handy table which lists teaching goals, traditional classroom active learning strategies and then suggests adaptations to online asynchronous, synchronous virtual online, and physically distanced face-to-face environments. I’ve excerpted a few rows of the table below:

An example table entry that encourages us to think about a specific learning goal, the face-to-face learning activity that we would have used in the old days to achieve that goal, and modifications of the activity suitable to only asynchronous, online synchronous, and in-person but physically distanced.

4. Include a Variety of Practices

A piece in the July 8 issue of Inside Higher Ed discusses results of two nation-wide surveys — one of college and university students and another for instructors. The former study identifies eight effective online teaching practices and reports data that seems to make a strong connection between student satisfaction with the course and the number of these practices incorporated. In his piece in the TLC Summer Teaching Development collection, Jeff Bartz looks back at his experience online in the spring through this framework.

Recommended Practices: Assignments that ask students to express what they have learned, breaking up class activities into shorter pieces
frequent quizzes, live sessions for questions and participation, metting in breakout groups, personal messages to individual students, real world examples, group projects separate from course meetings.
Student satisfaction is greater in courses that employ larger numbers of the recommended practices.

5. Try it yourself

I don’t really think of myself as a person with a bad attitude. That changed this summer. To prepare better for my work with TLC on the Summer Teaching Development resource, I registered for a number of multi-day online seminars for college teachers in the emerging world of online instructors.

an invitation adverstisement to take part in a webinar on course design.

I was already starting to feel a skin-crawling discontent by the time I logged in at the website for the first seminar! Before I even knew my registration was successful, my email inbox began rapidly filling with dozens of “get to know me” emails from the other participants: “Hi, I’m Matt from Plynthville College, Looking forward to the seminar!” Upon signing in, I learned that the first assignment of all participants was to type a message board introduction myself and comment on several others: “Nice to meet you Matt. I’ve heard great things about Plynthville.”

an image of a large video meeting with many tiny webcam images in an array

Over the following few days, I learned that it is really hard to sit in front of the screen and stay connected with my 30 classmates during a 90 minute video lecture. I learned that “enter your response in the chat” in a group that size results in a rapidly scrolling stream of consciousness with only the first and last entries, or those that already contain the vocabulary we’re trying to learn, gaining the attention of the instructor. I learned that the “raise my hand” feature works just as well or poorly as in any other large lecture: unless carefully managed, the same person raises their hand and talks repeatedly, day after day.

I learned from that experience the powerful lesson that there are lots of online teaching practices that I don’t want to use in my own course! As they say “experience is the best teacher.” But as a person who is really curious about how effective teaching works, I think I discovered how to do some of those things better. Try it. What you don’t find helpful might be the most useful thing for you to learn.

Five Things: What students are telling us about online courses at K — Rick Barth

We’ve had one term of practice with online learning at K College. The lessons learned will be needed right away as we plan for a future of hybrid course design and delivery that we hope will be robust in the face of uncertain public health environment in this time of Covid-19. Throughout the spring quarter, we heard feedback from students about what was working for them. Much of their feedback fits into five big categories:

  1. Social Presence in a time of Physical Distancing
  2. Frequent Assessment with Rapid, Detailed, Personal Feedback
  3. Multiple instructional modes
  4. Transparent and frequently-repeated explanation of course structure and requirements
  5. Explicit attention to the new ways of learning students need to develop in order to achieve learning at a distance

Not surprisingly, the things that worked best for students are in many cases consistent with and predicted by work in the pedagogy literature. Here we weave together summaries of student feedback with a piece by Michelle Miller: “Online Learning: Does it Work?”

A 7.5 minute video by Rick Barth

1. Social Presence:

Throughout the spring term, we heard feedback from faculty about their sense of uncertainty in the absence of in-person face-to-face feedback from students. At the same time, students who reported positive experiences in their spring online courses comment again and again about instructors who found ways to create a sense of community and connection despite the distance learning format.

In her 2017 chapter “Online Learning: Does it Work?”, Michelle Miller writes:

Social distance is the flip side of the “social presence” concept first
articulated in the early days of telecommunications. It has to do
with the exchange of social cues and the feeling that one is authentically interacting with another person in the virtual environment. Creating social presence is another thing that online instructors need to pay special attention to, for example by encouraging students to offer personal information, eliciting supportive communications between students, and using communication tools that transmit facial expressions and vocal tone. Going the extra mile to do this doesn’t just make the class more pleasant, but is also an important predictor of success in the course.

The social feedback instructors get from students is also radically
altered in an online environment. In a traditional classroom setting,
students’ faces give you an instant read on confusion, disengagement, and other important problems. Students stop by before or after class to clear up muddy points or talk in-depth about topics that caught their interest, and the give-and-take of an interactive lecture gives you a good grasp of students’ level of understanding, at least for the ones who speak up. Online, these interactions are usually heavily time-delayed and mediated by text, particularly e-mail and discussion posts — two communication formats that have a well-known propensity to misrepresent emotional tone. To compensate, online instructors need to make formal inquiries to students about how the class is going, as well as keep a close eye on data such as frequency of log-in, late assignments, and assessment scores so that they can form an accurate picture of how students are faring.

Miller, M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

2. Frequent, Rapid, Informative Feedback

Students who reported the best experiences with online courses at K often singled out their appreciation of prompt, frequent, detailed and personal feedback on their work products. They often call out as a challenge those courses in which work that was graded as simply “credit” or “complete” without thoughtful formative feedback. In a format that brings challenges in traditional social connection, students found it very powerful to interact with their instructors through assessment products. Quizzes, short written pieces, class discussion forum posts, as well as longer more integrative work. As we put thought into the design of our fall courses, it will help instructors and students to develop assessment tools that allow for this deep engagement. For this to work, the balance of instructor time likely shifts from activities traditionally associated with “in class” to an intentional workflow of managing frequent, rapid, informative feedback. In addition to written feedback, some instructors at K this spring found found that Moodle’s audio recording instructor feedback tool lightened the burden of providing detailed feedback while simultaneously providing a socially present alternative mode of interaction with students.

Miller writes:

This traditional “best practice” is widely cited as one of the things
instructors should spend as much time and thought on as possible.
Teaching experts Eric Mazur and Carl Wieman have been passionate advocates of providing a more dynamic, feedback— rich experience in traditional lecture classes. Similarly, rapid feedback is a key feature of the best online learning experiences. There are myriad ways to accomplish this online, including peer feedback, auto-graded quizzes, and branching lessons that present varying content based on student input.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

3. Multiple Modes of Instruction

Students gave feedback that was, widely varied and on the surface contradictory: “Readings were perfect”, “impossible amount of reading”, “Loved asynchronous video lectures”, “Video Lectures were the worst”, “Loved synchronous class meetings”, “Synchronous classes were awful”. A more careful reading of this feedback suggests to us that students found success with many modes of instruction, but with some caveats:

  • 75 minutes isn’t what it used to be: Whether live or recorded, shorter (up to say 20 minutes) lectures were much more likely to be reported as helpful to students’ learning than attempts to “fill” the traditional class meeting period.
  • Variety was greatly appreciated: detailed instructor emails in a course structure containing other forms of interaction were highly appreciated. As the only form of interaction, students frequently reported with vehemence about the unsuitability of a “course by email”.

Online courses can be designed with an emphasis on alternating text with other forms of delivery, such as animated narration or Skype conversations, but it is difficult to get around the need for a great deal of written communication. This contrasts with the typical face-to-face course in which lecture, audiovisual demonstrations, and spoken discussion are a major part of the learning activities.

Students who aren’t strong readers, or who just prefer non-text
modalities, are at particular risk of falling behind in a text-heavy
environment. Unfortunately, we don’t have many solutions for these
less-proficient readers. Minding the reading level of material, keeping it to the level of a newspaper or lower, is one basic strategy.
When using synchronous, fast-paced activities like real-time chatting, it’s also important to weigh any potential benefits against
potential difficulties for slower readers. Building in lots of those
aforementioned alternate forms— narration, audio, and video— can
also give a boost to less-proficient readers.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

4. Transparency about Course Structure and Requirements

When students gave negative feedback about their experiences with online courses, it was often in the form of comments about not have a clear idea about what they were meant to be doing and when they were meant to be doing it. Frequent assignment with rapid feedback is only as effective as the students understanding of the details of the assignments.

This factor might fade as more students get experience with online
coursework and as online-course designers begin to converge on
commonly accepted conventions for course structure. In the meantime, though, students often come to online coursework with a less developed sense of how things work than they would for a traditional course. Traditional courses superficially resemble high school classes, in that they are organized around set times and places for meeting, textbooks, and schedules of deadlines— so even students with little or no college experience can fall back on this familiar script to figure out what to do next. Just showing up for class can assure these less-experienced students that they will probably get by. But how do you “just show up” for an online class? In an online class (or the online parts of a blended or combination online/traditional class), it may not be clear where to start, how to spend one’s study time, or when the work is due. Good design, of course, offsets the problem of orienting students to the layout of the assignments— but even in a well- designed online course, students as well as teachers have to work harder to establish a basic understanding of how the course will work.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

5. Help students explicitly develop the new learning approaches they’ll need for online courses.

A number of students who gave positive feedback about their experience in online courses at K in the spring reported a growth experience in their awareness of their own learning processes: The shift to online courses was difficult in the beginning and became more manageable as the students began to examine their own role as independent learners in environments that offered much less structure and many more distracting features.

Miller has a very thoughtful account of this:

More so than in the traditional classroom, students can seriously underestimate how much time and effort is required to succeed in online learning. Part of this problem may have to do with the much- vaunted “flexibility” of online coursework.

If the idea is that online learning fits in between family time, paid
work, travel, child care, and everything else in life, it likely ends up
an afterthought tacked on after all those other life activities are
addressed. And as we all know, exhausted, distracted, time- pressed students are unlikely to achieve stellar intellectual gains in any instructional format. Some experts argue that online learning’s tendency to become a “third shift”— i.e., something tackled after work and family duties are done— places a particular burden on female students, given their greater responsibility, on average, for the “second shift” of family work. Furthermore, in face-to-face teaching, you can ensure that some bare minimum of time is devoted to classwork (by policing attendance), and you can schedule classes when students are likely to be fresh (i.e., not in the middle of the night).

Neither of these basic strategies for ensuring maximal engagement
is easy to do online.Like many other quality issues, the third-shift problem can be addressed through forethought and savvy design choices. One good place to start is with a heavy dose of socialization at the beginning of the course about your expectations for student time commitment. Simply exhorting students that they will have to work hard and put in time has limited impact, but at least you can get your expectations out into the open early. Following through on your stated expectations, by having some small-stakes work due early in the semester, is another good practice for getting students into the right mindset.Beyond laying out your expectations and following through on them,
you can consider scheduling some synchronous-style work if you are concerned that students are just squeezing in little bits of work at odd hours. This approach has costs (such as potentially disadvantaging slower readers, as mentioned previously) and may be perceived as user-unfriendly by students, but it’s a clear way to exert more control over the pacing and timing of work.

M. D. (2017). Chapter 2: Online learning: Does it work? In Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press