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ES 2018 – keynote: Helping Students Learn In An Age Of Digital Distraction May 10, 2018

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is an annual series of workshops on teaching and learning at the University of Michigan. This year’s keynote address was “Helping Students Learn In An Age Of Digital Distraction” by Katie Linder. You can watch the presentation on the Enriching Scholarship website. Here is my summary of what I thought the important points were, and a little of my own commentary.

Dr Linder started the session with a website: http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/. Try it.


There were two reasons for her use of this site. The first was to illustrate that two minutes can really feel like a long time. If you tried it, you were probably watching the count down, or tempted to check your phone, or you just gave up on it. It’s very difficult to just stop, even for two minutes. The other reason she used it was because you never know what the other people are brining into a room. Students might be worried about another class, a friend, a romantic partner, a parent, or what they’re going to wear to the bar tonight. Instructors also bring outside worries into the classroom. In fact, your list of worries might look a lot like the list of worries of your students. You don’t have to take 2 minutes of meditation at the start of every class, but an acknowledgment of the outside world and a moment to “be here now” can help everyone center and focus.

So, now that I’ve got your attention…

First and foremost, we have to get rid of the notion that “digital distraction” is a problem with “this generation.” As evidence, she offered this image of Vatican Square:


It’s Vatican square.

Those people are NOT teenagers.

We need to let go of the idea that our students are the ones with a problem with digital distraction. Most of us have, at some point, experienced an event through a screen even though we were present at the event. We check email or news before getting out of bed in the morning. We text our family at lunch time. We pull out our phone during dinner to find out more about the thing we were just discussing. We feel like we’ve left an appendage behind when we forget our phone. The only real difference is that we’ve had more time to develop coping strategies and awareness.

We often focus on managing the distractions available to the students. For example, laptop bans, network restrictions, and browser lockdowns. These strategies are useful for some things, like giving online tests, but they aren’t a good model of the real world. There will be no laptop ban for meetings at the company they go work for after graduation. If we want our students to be professionals from the day they graduate, we need to prepare them to be professionals.

We can start by trying to consider what they are brining with them into the classroom. Acknowledge they have lives outside this class and try to consider that when creating assignments. Give them that moment at the beginning to re-align their minds to your class. Explain why you’re asking them to do things, especially if you implement restrictions like a laptop ban. Consider the skills they have, and the ones they need to build. And don’t assume you know what those skills are – ask them.

If you really want them to engage with your class, you have to let them find their passion. Dr. Linder asked us to think for a moment about the last time we became so engrossed in something we were learning that we lost track of the time, then share it with our neighbors. The room became very animated with discussion, and several people were anxious to share their experience. Many people did their research digitally, using resources like Google and YouTube. However, interest in the subject enabled them to ignore distractions like email, even though many people always have email open. Additionally, when discussing it, audience members became deeply engaged with each other, even if they didn’t have the same personal interest in the subject. Try to find projects that your students can become passionate about, and share your passion for your subject, and your students will be less tempted by distractions.

Of course, not everything can be that engaging, and we need to train our students for those times too. Help students reflect on learning with short assessments like minute papers and mini reflections. Design assignments incorporating grit (perseverance, especially after failure.) Praise effort over intelligence, especially in formative assessment. Talk about learning and share cognitive literature with them. Model professional behavior for them, including the use of technology like smart phones as professional tools: research shows they tend to use their phones for entertainment and communication only. If they think of their phone as entertainment, it’s harder to resist the distractions, so share strategies for distraction management. Include them in the discussion: tell them what works for you and ask what works for them.

As a first step toward this, she suggested thinking about an area of focus for your students like meta-cognition, multitasking, cognitive load, or information literacy. Pick one area to start with, and write an appendix for your syllabus that explains its importance, cites the literature, and includes class and professional etiquette. If possible, tie a brief assignment to it. See for example, this excerpt from Sharmila Murthy’s syllabus.

Additional Resources

Enriching Scholarship 2017 – Coaxing Canvas to Support Gameful Pedagogy May 8, 2017

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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“Gameful” is a model where students build points by completing talks and assessments. In a fully gameful class class, students have an array of options with point values associated with them and they are told what score they have to achieve to earn a particular grade. They then have the freedom to choose which tasks to do and how hard they want to work to achieve a particular grade. Many classes are only partially gameful. Rather than full flexibility, students must complete certain tasks (e.g. a midterm and final) but then have options in other areas (e.g. out of 20 at-home assignments, complete 10.) Some material may even be optional (e.g. you have to know the difference between a terrestrial and jovian planet for the exam, but you have the option of completing a project to assess whether 10 exoplanets are likely to be terrestrial, jovian, or something else). This means some students will need extra resource material, and a different set of assignments. Getting Canvas to do that takes a lot of planning and preparation, but is very possible.

Before deciding to go gameful there are two very important things to consider. First is that it requires a lot of planning and preparation up front. If you’re doing this 2 weeks before the start of the semester, stop. Run a traditional class. Do your planning for next term along the way. Feel free to share the optional materials with your students and create alternate assignments along the way this term, but please do not try to go gameful on short notice. The second thing is that it works best for students with good executive skills. The easily distracted, non-prioritizers and procrastinators have a high rate of failure. They put off doing assignments and skip the exam because they think they can make up for it later in the term. Are you prepared to deal with the student who thinks it’ll be ok it they don’t do any work for the first half of the class and comes in crying and begging for a C- the day grades are due? If not, you may not want to go fully gameful. You can always sneak it in as an array of n projects that can replace up to m homework assignments, or by providing 2 or three options for each week’s assignment.

The most important step is planning out what you want, because that will determine what tools you choose. No matter which choice you make, it’s important to know how many points you will have and how they align to each letter grade. After all, the idea is to start from 0 and accumulate points, not maintain some percentile with respect to the other students. It’s common for gamified classes to have huge numbers of points, similar to a video game. Once you know how many points students need for a particular grade, you can enable a course grading scheme. If you do a custom scheme, you can add extra categories, like “enrolled” for 0 – 10%, “member” for 10-15%, “participant” for 15 – 20%… so students don’t have to see “E” for half the term.

If you want the fully gameful, rack up the points option, you may want to consider gradecraft. Gradecraft allows students to accumulate points and earn badges for completing tasks, reaching milestones, and achieving learning goals. The badges in particular can be useful motivators to keep procrastinators on track. It supposedly integrates with Canvas now, so you can still use Canvas as the single portal to everything.

If you want a mixed class where some assignments are required and others are optional, you want the regular Grades. Racking up a score works best if you don’t use weighted assignment categories. Even if you have categories, if you don’t weight them, you can choose to have Grades display points instead of percent. This makes it easier for students to tell if they’ve reached the score they want.

If you want to use weighted categories, students will see their total grade as a percent. This makes it VERY important to get all the assignments in and published at the beginning of the term, even if they aren’t available to the students. Otherwise as you add assignments it looks to the students like they are loosing points. However, weighed categories makes it easier to make sure your required assignments carry the proper weight at the end of the term. Also, if you want to provide a menu and let them pick n of m assignments to complete, you want categories. Within each category, you’ll set a rule to drop (m-n) assignments.

Once you have your gradebook / Assignments set up, you’ll have to decide how students should access them.

Assignments is the most straight forward way. For each Assignment, you can set an availability and due date. Students won’t see it until it becomes available, and it will show up it their calendar in due date order. However, it doesn’t easily show things like “do one of the following”, nor does it show upcoming big projects, or related resources. For that reason you may want to create a page or use Modules.

Pages are basically webpages. They are probably the simplest solution if you want to provide a menu of options. In particular, you can create a page with a table showing the options for this week, resources needed for each options, and the things you think students should be working on right now.

Modules allow an enormous amount of control. You can choose to do anything from a list of associated assignments and resources to a branching set based on time and performance. For example, you can set up a module so students see what the reading is, then get access to a reading quiz the day before class. If the quiz is self graded, you can set it so they have to get a specific minimum score before they can move on to the next item, maybe the in-class assignment. Alternatively, they could get some additional reading and a prompt to take a similar quiz before they get access to the next in-class assignment and homework. Or, if they get over some higher score, they skip the second reading and quiz and are given a choice of projects to do instead of the regular homework. If you want to get very complicated (like re-doing quizzes or requiring quizzes before they can get access to their project of choice) make sure you test it out in your sandbox. In particular, test to make sure students can do things like change their mind.

Finally, keep in mind that one of the goals in gameful pedagogy is to allow students the chance to fail without failing. if you’re going to offer options like a big project to replace a couple homeworks, make sure if the student has the options and time to succeed in the class if s/he fails on that project. The point is to let them take risks and explore their interests, not to punish them for not following the traditional path.

Enriching Scholarship 2014 – Large class engagement May 13, 2014

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is “a week of free workshops, discussions, and seminars… for instructional faculty and staff” at the University of Michigan. On Wednesday I attended a session on best practices for large lectures sponsored by the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT). The CRLT formed Faculty Learning communities centered around large courses, focused on improving the classes and engaging students. Part of the goal is to find a way to engage the students not only during lecture, but also outside of class.

Michaela Zint

Michaela Zint uses Piazza as an exam study tool. She put study questions into Piazza about a week before the exam, and assigns a couple of questions to teams of  2-3 students. The teams post solutions, then review another group’s solution to a different questions. She also reviewed answers, up-voting good ones and commenting on incomplete or erroneous ones. Student’s exam scores improved some, but their participation improved significantly, and carried through into lecture. However, there were a few important things she has found about using Piazza.

If the faculty doesn’t use piazza, it isn’t useful to the students, and they hate it. If the prof. is active, they love it (how you use the tool is more important than the existence of the tool). Allowing students to post anonymously makes it a safe-to-fail environment, but faculty can still see who participated, so participation credit can still be assessed. Without credit, it doesn’t get used much, so low stakes assessment is needed to ensure participation. For exam prep, she found it was better to include some points for accuracy of answers too. Participation is additionally increased by a “bargin” where she agrees to help the students based in part on how much work they put in.

There is a significant added load in the week before exams (especially since she needs to assess the essay-type answers to make it truly valuable) BUT it significantly reduces the repeated “when is the exam” type of email, so on average it actually reduces her load (note to achieve this reduction, it is important to make sure students are using piazza, not email). Additionally, she sets a time limit after which she is done for the day and won’t answer any more questions.

One other note: although piazza is incorporated into CTools, ITS and 4-help are not very familiar with it. The piazza support people are really great though, and they can handle most questions.

Jim Morrow

Jim Morrow was looking for a way of increasing engagement outside the course, and giving them practice with analytical reading skills. He wants them to be able to analyze current events on their own.

For class, he has them write papers, and gives essay questions on the exam. He uses Lesson Builder in CTools to give them practice doing an “annotated news story.” The assignments are practice only, not for credit. However, he talks about why it’s useful in class, and the GSIs review the stories in discussion, so it is clear that it is important.

In Lesson Builder, they get a story with a writing prompt. After reading the story with the prompt in mind, they can look at an annotated version to check their answers. After they open the answer, the next question becomes available, then the next answer, etc. He is working on ideas for actually grading the activities.

Doug Richstone

Doug was looking for ways to address 3 vexing issues: limited engagement in the subject,  shallow comprehension despite good factual knowledge, and Friday class/low attendance. The things he tried: lots of low stakes assessment, including frequent quizzes, harder homework with optional/bonus questions that were even more difficult, think-pair-share and clickers, and bonus points on Friday.

The one thing that worked unquestionably were the bonus points on Friday – much better attendance.

During the class, students did a lot of struggling to keep up, but there was a larger “A” group (20% instead of 5 – 10%) than in past semesters. He also had a larger early attrition rate than in the past. Maybe this was an unusual year though, because there seemed to be a lot of people with flu, or it could have been a quicker wake-up call to get rid of students who  wouldn’t have done well and would have dropped latter. The few late drops he did talk to thought they couldn’t achieve the grade they wanted, so better clarity of grading is important. Many did not realize that the optional assignments could raise their grade by one full letter!


After the presentations, there was a lot of time for discussion, including suggestions for participants.

In a class on archeology and pseudoscience, the prof. shows a youtube video, then has class discuss it. She also gives candy and stickers for participation (which the students seem to love and it frees her from having to track points).

To track in-class work, she uses a Google form instead of clickers so she can collect better responses than a multiple choice question. If multiple choice is useful, she  can use  a”select from list” type of question, but mostly she uses the text box. Several other people use  google forms for minute papers. HOWEVER, if it’s required and requires a device, equity is a problem. Not every student can afford a laptop!

Clickers are cheap, so everyone can afford them, and they are purchased with books, so financial aid covers them. Clicker questions break up lecture, give a quick check of how students are doing and frees the instructor to move around the room. However, you MUST have tough questions. Students don’t like it if it’s only for attendance, and it’s not really useful that way.

Other alternatives to the laptop: hand in work on paper; don’t require laptop based work (e.g. no credit for Lecture Tools); use whiteboards and group work; texting (faculty are less likely to have this than students); or arrange for students to borrow a laptop from ISS. Whatever you do, decide what you want to achieve first, then look for the tools that will do that.

One of the participants teaches a medical course where attendance is a problem. The lectures are streamed online, so students can watch from anywhere. Lecture gives them the information, but then they have to do something with that. Students who watch video do much worse than those who always come to class – Why is a current research project, though most students watch the video at increased speed, he thinks that’s why they do worse.

To break up the information delivery, you have to develop your own style – e.g. wear a t-shirt relevant to today’s topic. Look for teachable moments – spice drops are just sweet (not spicy) if you plug nose before eating them. Find something to do to illustrate difficult concepts to make it worthwhile to come to the live lecture. Skeletal pots may be helpful to increase attendance and get people to engage in good note taking (not transcription). In other words, do something to make coming to lecture really worthwhile.

Another participant uses a “TA of the day“. Once during semester each student is assigned to work a problem before class, then help peers with problem during class. That student is also required to report back on misconceptions and problems.

How to deal with lecture hall space: block off some seats to ensure you have aisles; ask some students to leave the room while they work on something in small groups; do something that requires them to move around the room, like changing partners or structured activities.

How to handle learning disabilities? Do not single the person out (it’s hard to deal with 300 students filing past if you get extra time – you might prefer to take a hit to your grade over being an example). ASK THE STUDENT what they want. Talk to services for students with disabilities. Require them to bring the form to you outside of class (e.g. office hours), and talk to them when they bring the form in. The test accommodation center is a hassle to use (and not very friendy to instructors), but it IS a quiet place with assistive technology. Be aware that things like rooms can be a problem because it takes a long time to compose and run a message through spell check, so you really need to have an alternative for things like office hours.


Enriching Scholarship 2014 – round table May 5, 2014

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is “a week of free workshops, discussions, and seminars… for instructional faculty and staff” at the University of Michigan. The first session of the week was From Inspiration to Implementation: Teaching and Technology Today and Tomorrow. The second half was a breakout roundtable discussion. I sat ein on a discussion of using online public resources as student projects to enable learning, lead by Lauren Atkins.

Lauren discussed an example of a class that develops real websites in an archive that real people who have no background in the subject are likely to use. Although the students start the semester with no previous knowledge (like their readers), by the end of the semester they are demonstrate a deep understanding of the issues and are able to create websites that are useful to others, and that they themselves are invested in and proud of.

We also discussed examples of blogging to get students involved in a topic, and communicating with each other. By making materials public, especially if they know they have an audience, the students have a vested interest in making them good.

However, most class projects include a formal assessment component. So how do we grade these assignments, especially in large lecture courses? In general, the material has to be hand graded. One option is to use something like a blog or wiki for students to practice, share ideas, and test out material for a final project, but only the final project is actually graded. Another option is to use peer evaluation, similar to a MOOC. ISS has access to Coursera software, so instructors can try out some of the things like the peer evaluations. Rubrics have to be carefully crafted, which is very hard to do the first time you give an assignment.

That discussion lead to another idea: ask students to develop a mini-curriculum for one section of a course, and also asking them how they would assess whether or not someone had learned the material. Rather than grading their work, use their work to develop the exam questions.



P.F.Anderson attended the Active classroom roundtable. Her notes are available here https://docs.google.com/a/umich.edu/document/d/1–xX8fvrlKJike5SwQYJ_Fm1Uh4jpcjZydEvx9zlzcI/edit#heading=h.gpngvwrwbvms (and she is totally awesome for doing that!)