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A common assignment given in an online class is for students to participate in a discussion forum. Many online discussions forums are setup so that students are asked to respond to a prompt and reply to posts from their classmates. The discussions are likely to be underwhelming if the discussion forum is not setup to encourage substantive discussions.

When planning and facilitating quality online discussions, you should provide:

  • Discussion prompts that encourage student engagement
  • Clear/specific instructions and expectations
  • Specific/descriptive grading criteria
  • Strategic feedback

The Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) developed a set of resources to help instructors teach effectively, whether in an on-campus classroom or in a virtual learning environment. Online Teaching Toolkit has resources and recommendations that can be immediately put to use by instructors, to benefit both faculty and their students. ACUE’s Plan and Facilitate Effective Discussions resource, which is a part of the toolkit, has recommendations for a general rubric for discussion forums, reflection activity, and discussion feedback that you may find helpful.

In a recent Quality Matters (QM) Success Story Webinar, Lisa Kidder and Mark Cooper shared a resource that has suggestions for Alternative Discussion Structures. The resource includes specific learner instructions and grading criteria for each alternative discussion format. Some of the alternative discussion formats in the resource are reflections, case studies, timeline collaborations, student facilitation, small group/share, video analysis, in the news, and debates. The resource explains where the connection to QM Specific Review Standards and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines for the discussion formats are.

If you are new to using discussions in Brightspace, you can find how-to resources for discussion forums on our blog.

Image credit: image by geralt from Pixabay

laptop screen with image of Zoom window with camera screen on

Many faculty find themselves teaching remotely because of the pandemic. One topic related to remote teaching that comes up often is student engagement during Zoom class meetings. Instructors who meet their students synchronously through Zoom want to know that the students are paying attention and are engaged during the class session. Some instructors feel that for student engagement in a synchronous class they should force the students to turn their cameras on during the class meetings. This article by Karen Costa, a Faculty Development Facilitator, explains why it is a really bad idea to force students to turn their cameras on from a trauma-awareness and equity perspective.

Are you looking for ideas for student engagement in Zoom sessions that do not require you to force your students to turn their cameras on? In an article posted on LinkedIn, Karen Costa provides some practical strategies that can help you to engage your students in a Zoom session. A few of her strategies are:

  • Encourage students to use non-verbal feedback including raise/lower virtual hand, answer yes/no to questions, speed up/slow down, and emoji reactions (clapping hands, thumbs up).
  • Ask informal questions throughout the session and encourage students to use the chat to engage with you and their peers.
  • Use formal and/or informal polls.
  • Embrace the pause. Pause during the class session to give students time to think and answer.
  • Invite students to share out via audio and or audio/video in addition to answering in the chat.
  • Teach students how to be on-camera in a Zoom session (e.g., lighting, background, virtual background, mute/unmute microphone).
  • Normalize the fear of being on-camera.
  • Try using breakout rooms.
  • Make the chat the heart of your session.
  • Set the tone for engagement from moment one.

If this has piqued your interest, you can read more about these strategies in Karen’s Making Shapes in Zoom article.

Also, we have Zoom how-to resources on our CAT FooD blog. You can find links for the Zoom how-to resources here:

Photo credit: “Zoom call with coffee” by Chris Montgomery from Unsplash

backgammon game board

Gamification is making a boring process interesting by using fun elements from games. Gamification is not the same as playing a game. Educators have been using gamification even before there was an official term for it.

Yu-kai Chou (2015) defines gamification as:

The craft of deriving fun and engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or productive activities.

Why Use Gamification?

Clearly gamification is a motivation tool. So why would you take the time to set-up a gamification component to your courses? In an LearnDash blog post Justin Ferriman lists some benefits of gamification to consider. Those benefits are:

  • Provides Instant Feedback – Learners receive instant feedback on their understanding of the course content. This instant feedback highlights what they need to spend more time reviewing.
  • Prompts Change in Behavior – The ability to earn points and badges reinforces certain behaviors. Cashing in the points and badges for something tangible or real makes this even more true.
  • Better Learning Experience – Gamifiying a course offers the opportunity for learners to engage with the content in various ways.
  • Safe To Fail – Gamification can incorporate the “loss” of a reward instead of earning a reward. Making it safe for learners to fail and to learn from their mistakes.

What is considered as fun in games?

Winning or beating an opponent is an obvious answer. However, pleasure is also derived from activities such as:

  • problem-solving
  • exploring
  • creating
  • imagining
  • collecting
  • role-playing
  • collaborating
  • simply chilling out

What gaming elements can be used in the learning process?

Gamification strategies include elements such as gamifying grading, incentivizing students with rewards and adding competitive elements such as leaderboards. From the non-exhaustive list of gaming components and mechanics, here are a few from a Bright Classroom Ideas blog post by Savas Savides, which can be particularly useful to educators:

  • Narrative - Nothing can beat a well-told captivating story, whether you are a child or an adult. Text, audio, video, cartoon, they all have the same denominator: a storyline.
  • Progression - Learners need to know they are acquiring skills and getting better. Student portfolios and ‘can-do’ statements help them reflect on their own learning.
  • Challenges - Tasks should be easy enough to tackle, but hard enough to challenge and motivate. And, following the previous point on progression, they should have a gradually rising level of difficulty.
  • Competition - Motivates students to perform better. Through competition, students not only do what is required to accomplish the required goals, but also do the best they can do. Competition allows the students to come forward with better ideas and clearly highlight their skills in front of their teacher and classmates. Competition is closely linked to rewards.
  • Cooperation - Apart from competing against each other, students also like working together. Never miss an opportunity to form pairs or groups to work on a project. It is more fun than working alone.
  • Rewards - With tangible rewards there is always the danger that they may substitute for the intrinsic motivation. It is better to use intangible rewards (e.g. points). Remember that the game is ultimately its own reward.
  • Win States - When the outcome is a winner.
  • Achievements - Create tangible things that serve as proof of student achievement. They can be certificates, posters, photos, videos etc.
  • Badges - Another tangible proof of individual achievement. They can be stickers, stamps, even your own drawings on the board.
  • Leaderboards - A classification of all learners-participants according to their performance. A really powerful motivational tool.
  • Points - Instant intangible rewards that help create leaderboards.
  • Teams - Either working with each other in a team or cooperating to beat another team, students can overcome shyness and benefit immensely.

A well-designed gamified course can grab and keep students’ attention, improve students’ knowledge retention, and improve students’ overall success in the course. Gamification may not suit everyone. But for those who use it, the benefits of gamification can be substantial.

For more information on gamification, check out these resources:

Image credit: image by Al Buettner from Pixabay

All we have to do is click with the right clique.

Anyone who has spoken with me in the past month knows that I am not a fan of synchronous remote teaching. Beyond the basic belief that teaching in the classroom and teaching online are two radically different pedagogies (in other words, A ≠ B (in other words, "You can't fit a square peg into a round hole")), there is the greater problem of imposed pedagogy -- requiring faculty to teach in a specific way rather than empowering them to teach in the way they think best. Moreover, the use of Zoom and other teleconferencing systems as a means of achieving that required synchrony have raised other concerns, such as the unfortunately named zoombombing, wherein bad actors disrupt the virtual classroom, often with hate speech, and the as yet unnamed problem of invading our students privacy.

Despite all that, I have done my best to follow the expectation to meet online with my classes according to the original class schedule, and to be honest, many of those meetings have not gone well, in part because getting students to engage in a large-group synchronous discussion online is even more difficult than getting them to do so in person. I find they are more willing to do small group discussions, using Zoom's Breakout Rooms function (here's a quick tutorial on setting up Breakout Rooms), but I have learned over the years that while consistency in teaching is good, redundancy in teaching is not good. So, I've been trying to find ways to run my classes that give them work that both challenges them but that keeps them connected to the actual class.

Photograph of Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden / CC BY

One of the classes I'm teaching this semester is called Dystopias, Real & Imagined (I think I deserve some kind of award for that level of prescience, to be honest), so for the past six weeks, I've been able to do a lot more just-in-time teaching than I had anticipated. Last weekend, I came across a video interview with Edward Snowden talking about the risks to civil liberties that come with the COVID-19 pandemic. Under normal circumstances, I would have posted the link to Brightspace and told the students to watch it on their own before Thursday's class, since under those normal circumstances, I don't like using class time to deliver content. Given our current circumstances, I thought about using Zoom's screen sharing function to watch the video together during class, but I've seen other people try this, and the video usually ends up being unwatchable (choppy audio and such).

So I did what I often find myself doing and borrowed an idea from my wife, who teaches high school English. Since going remote at her school, she has been using EdPuzzle, a site that lets you create assignments by embedding videos and inserting questions and commentary at specific points during the video. While this can be used to simply test understanding/attention (by asking a simple multiple choice question about something that was just said in the video), they can also be used to encourage/demonstrate critical thinking and to prepare students for a post-video discussion.

Active Listening

At one point in the video, Snowden starts to talk about the expanded surveillance powers the federal government gave itself after 9/11. Before he does so, I inserted a multiple choice question that asked students when they thought those emergency powers were retracted. After they answered the question, the video resumed, and Snowden gave them the correct answer. (Take a look at the screen shot below for the answer.)

Screenshot of the multiple choice question about the Patriot Act.
A question like this one about the Patriot Act prompts students to speculate on what is about to be discussed in the video. Prediction is a key function of active learning.
Screen shot of the question as presented to students during the video.
Making personal connections to course content is another important aspect of critical thinking.

At another point, Snowden explains how our cellphones are being used to analyze social distancing at the local level. Here I paused the video and gave the students a more complex task by asking them to use Unacast's Social Distancing Scoreboard, a site that uses the data Snowden discusses in the video, to look up the county in which they are currently living. Although the text box seems small, it expands with whatever the students type. A few of my students wrote short essays on why they think their home counties are getting such bad grades for social distancing.

One of the best functions of EdPuzzle is that you can prevent students from skipping ahead or even going backwards, so in order to answer these questions, they had to watch the entire 22-minute video. While this is a useful way to monitor student engagement, it's also, I think a way to make the task more transparent -- the system makes it impossible for the student to misunderstand what is being asked of them. Moreover, EdPuzzle tracks everything they do with the video -- when they started it, how much of it they watched. For the MC questions, EdPuzzle will automatically grade them; whereas for the open-ended questions, I went through after class and read each one and awarded the points.

To be honest, I was hesitant to use this. The interface for EdPuzzle is clearly designed for grade school teachers, as are many of the settings (EdPuzzle integrates very well with Google Classroom, but not at all with Brightspace). Also, sometimes my students get frustrated with my attempts to trick them into learning more actively. Two things convinced me I was wrong to worry though. First, about a third of my students, without any prompting, told me how much they enjoyed this activity.

this is a really cool activity

Second, once everyone was done with the video (after probably about 40 minutes, since some wrote really long answers), we had the best discussion we've had since going remote. Both these things really moved me. I don't know about you, but this past week, the students have really seemed to sink deeper into the malaise they've been in since going remote. They've been a lot less engaged, so it was great to see that must natural positivity coming through the screen.

laptop computer

A common assignment given in an online class is for students to participate in a discussion forum. Most discussion forums are setup so that students are asked to respond to a prompt and reply to posts from their classmates. Do you want to setup your online discussion forums to encourage substantive discussions among your students?

In a recent Inside Higher Ed blog post, Dr. Steven Mintz (Senior Adviser to the President of Hunter College for Student Success and Strategic Initiatives) writes,

We don’t simply want our students to respond to a question, but, rather to engage with the course material and take part in a genuine dialogue.

In his blog post, he goes on to give strategies for better ways to embed dialogue and interaction into asynchronous online classes. The strategies he suggests are:

Provide Better Prompts – Prompts that involve higher-order thinking skills and require the students to apply, analyze, compare and contrast, critique, evaluate, explain, infer, predict, propose, solve, and synthesize.

Ask Students to Do Something – Ask students to solve a problem, analyze a case study, take part in a debate, adopt a role or relate the topic to a current event.

Raise the Stakes – Ask students to rate individual posts. Nothing focuses the online student’s mind better than a sense that their writing is being evaluated anonymously by their classmates. You can also raise the stakes by limiting the number of students who participate in each discussion and asking the rest of the class to provide feedback on the discussion as a whole (not on individual postings).

Reimagine How Online Conversations Are Displayed – Help students better visualize the discussion by displaying networks of comments or use word clouds to underscore the key issues that have arisen.

Adopt a Different Model – Perhaps it’s a mistake to transpose a mode of communication that works well in face-to-face, synchronous or one-on-one contexts into the asynchronous realm. There are other ways to create a sense of community, promote collaboration and elicit meaningful ideas and debate.

If this has piqued your interest, you should read Dr. Mintz's, Beyond the Discussion Board, blog post.

ICYMI, read my Improve Online Discussions Using ABCs blog post for suggestions on giving feedback that impacts student performance.

If you are new to using discussions in Brightspace, you can find how-to resources for discussion forums on our blog.

Image credit: image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay

Class Engagement 1.0

Image Source: Duke Innovation Co-Lab [CC0]
Most anyone who has heard me talk about teaching in recent years knows that in every class I have a Class Engagement grade that counts toward 10-15% of the student's final grade. I started including this a number of years ago because I wanted to help students understand that simply showing up for class isn't enough. So I borrowed quite heavily from Stephen Brookfield (who encourages people to borrow from him) and his "Class Participation Grading Rubric". What I like most about Brookfield's approach is that he provides students with an extensive list of ways they can contribute to the learning that takes place in his classes, including  ways that deviate quite a bit from the basic ideas of asking and answering questions. For example, active listening is a completely acceptable way of being engaged, according to Brookfield ("Use body language (in only a slightly exaggerated way) to show interest in what different speakers are saying"), as is encouraging other students to be a bit more mindful ("When you think it's appropriate, ask the group for a moment's silence to slow the pace of conversation to give you, and others, time to think"). Brookfield's rubric greatly expands what many of us (and many of our students) think it means to be engaged in a college classroom.

Engagement does not necessarily mean talking a lot or showing everyone else what you know.

As I said, for many years now I've used this model to assess my students for good engagement. Theoretically, during every class, I would give each student one of the following "grades":

  • ✔+ (In class on time with good engagement.)
  • ✔ (In class on time with adequate engagement.)
  • ✔– (In class on time with no participation; or in class late.)
  • ✘ (Not in class; or in class but actively disengaged.)

So — theoretically — each week, the students would get a grade through our LMS showing them how engaged they'd been according to me. For the most part, this worked pretty well over the years. When I started, I was worried that students would complain about receiving such a grade, but not only did I not receive complaints, I saw some students adapting to the expectations. They would actually do the things listed on the assignment sheet! Not all of them, of course. I've had plenty of students over the years who have ended up with Cs for their Class Engagement grades because they did little more than show up for most classes.

The problem with this is that it's difficult to keep up with in anything other than a very small class. For the first two or three weeks of the semester, as I'm still learning everyone's name, I can't really assign the grade at all. Then, during the last few weeks of the semester, I'm on a sort of autopilot, and I often forget to make notes about who does what. Last semester was perhaps the worst experience with it, as I was teaching two sections of Xavier's still new XCOR 1000 class, which meant I had 50 students who I only saw once a week, so I had a lot of trouble being accurate with my weekly assessments.

Class Engagement 2.0

This semester, I'm trying something slightly different, in order to A) take some of the burden off my shoulders and B) add a degree of reflection to the assignment. This semester in my XCOR 3010: Dystopias, Real & Imagined class, the students will be grading their own class engagement.

Figuring out how to do this was a bit of a challenge. Brightspace has a Self-Assessment tool, but that's not an accurate name: In Brightspace, Self-Assessments can't be graded. Instead, I set up a weekly quiz that asks students two questions:

  1. Briefly provide examples of your engagement with our class this week. (This is what Brightspace calls a Written Response type question. It provides the students with text box.)
  2. Please rate your own level of engagement in class this week. Based on the input you provided in the previous question, how engaged were you, on average, this week. (This is a Multiple Choice type question, using the same language as the rubric I included above.)

Each week, after our second class, that week's quiz will open up and remain open until the next Sunday evening. Students will have until 6pm on Sundays to submit their self-evaluation of their class engagement for the week. I've set the quizzes to allow the students to revise/resubmit their answers as often as they want during the open window, just in case they have second thoughts (This happens to me every year when I submit my Faculty Update: Within a few hours, I remember some important thing I did that I forgot to include.).

This image shows the settings in Brightspace for the Multiple Choice question and the weighted answer options.
Settings for the Multiple Choice question type in Brightspace.

The quizzes are worth 6 points each. The multiple choice question is worth 5 points, and Brightspace allows you to Add Custom Weights on Multiple Choice questions, so instead of there being a "right" answer on this question, each option is weighted (see the image above for details).

The Written Response question is worth one point (because you can't have a question in a Brightspace quiz that isn't worth anything). At first I was annoyed by this, as it will require me to go in and grade each response, but now I think that will be a good thing, as it will require require me to go in and pay attention to each response. This will also give me a chance to comment on and evaluate the students' self-evaluations.

How will this work? We will see. Look for a follow up post around mid-term. In the mean time, feel free to take a look at the assignment sheet for my modified Class Engagement assignment: Class Engagement Assignment Sheet.

syllabus graphic

In an Inside Higher Ed blog post, Travis Grandy, PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes,

Do you ever feel like you want to get more out of your syllabus? Sure, it plays center-stage during the first day of class, but does it really have to end there? Perhaps it’s a matter of presentation.

He goes on to express his frustration of writing a carefully detailed syllabus only to see his students tuck it away never to be seen again; assuming they read the syllabus in the first place.

After seeing an article on creative approaches to the syllabus, Travis felt his syllabus had a design problem as his syllabus had over the years ballooned to over two thousand words, single-spaced, with a few bullet points.

Travis redesigned his syllabus to not only make the content more useful for his style of teaching, but also easier to use and visually engaging. His revised syllabus ended up being full-color, using illustrations and visual metaphors to convey content, and was intentionally designed help students more easily find the information and get excited about the core purposes of the class. It is important to note that to make his syllabus accessible, Travis made his syllabus available in other formats as well.

Travis’ strategies for a syllabus redesign and ways to better integrate the syllabus into teaching and learning are:

Have Your Syllabus Reflect What You Value Most

Design elements to draw attention to the things about your course that you most want to stick with students. This should not come at the expense of being detailed about your classroom policies or meeting institutional requirements for what should be listed on a syllabus.

Tips for the Design Process

  1. Start from a Template: Templates can include great options like two-column newsletter style or a table of contents to make your syllabus easier to reference. MS Word and Google Docs are easy to intermediate skill level tools you can use to create your redesigned syllabus. A few intermediate to advanced skill level tools you can try are Smore and Populr.me.
  2. Get Visual: A visual doesn’t have to be elaborate, but strategically using images, shapes, or flow-charts can be an equally effective way of drawing attention to the most important parts of your syllabus.
  3. Design with Accessibility in Mind: You want to make sure your syllabus is accessible for all students. This should include providing your syllabus in multiple formats and also using easy to read fonts and high contrast colors.
  4. Build Your Design Knowledge: Educate yourself on effective design practices and visual rhetoric.

Beyond the First Day of Class

Use the syllabus at key moments: A great time to ask students to look at the syllabus is when you transition between major units or assignments of the course. You can turn this into a class activity such as having students write a short reflection about how their work in the previous unit helped them develop competencies or achieve course outcomes.

Reinforce concepts from your syllabus in assignments and grading: Use concepts from your syllabus consistently in other course documents including assignment prompts and grading rubrics.

If you do decide to redesign your syllabus keep in mind that accessibility is very important. Don’t assume that a full-color syllabus is accessible to all students. For accessibility, provide multiple options for students to access the content so they can choose what works best for them. This can include printing in color or black and white, sharing the syllabus as a PDF (with character recognition), and using alt-text and captions for images and diagrams.

For more information read the Inside Higher Ed blog post, Give Your Syllabus an Extreme Redesign for the New Year.

Other great articles on syllbus redesign are Writing Syllabi Worth Reading and the Chronicle of Higher Educations's How to Create a Syllabus: Advice Guide.

Additional resources you may find helpful:

Interactive syllabus examples:

Image credit: "27Apr09 ~ Planning" by grace_kat is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

keyboard with an accessibility key

Although there are legal mandates requiring institutions of higher education to make educational materials accessible (e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act), accessibility is fundamentally just good design. Content that is accessible is better organized and therefore more usable by all. Accessible content renders properly on a wide variety of devices, it is easier to navigate, and it conveys information in a consistent, logical manner. Moreover, changes in how we view the content are occurring. More and more content is being displayed on mobile devices. For content to appear properly on all devices, it must be well designed.

In my recent series of accessibility tips, I identified some things you can do now to design with accessibility in mind as you are creating content and setting up your courses. Designing with accessibility in mind will save you some time in the event you do have a student with a disability. Remember accessible content is not only for the impaired.

Just in case you missed my accessibility series of blog posts, I provided links to them here:

Image credit: "Accessibility First" by Poakpong is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Active learning is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2). Research suggests attention wanes after 15-20 minutes of a lecture. Active learning techniques can be used to re-energize and refocus a class.

In an active learning classroom, students must think, create and solve problems rather than passively listen to lecture. Active learning techniques and strategies can be used to develop quick activities that punctuate lectures. They can also be used to completely fill the class time.

During the break between semesters, our classrooms (Library rooms 501 and 502) were redesigned to support an active learning environment. An active learning environment is a flexible space that can be reconfigured quickly for a wide variety of teaching methods. An active learning environment supports student-centered learning and works best when you have furniture that allows students to easily shift from independent work to group work to class discussions and back again—without wasting valuable class time.

Active Learning Room 501 can accommodate a class-sized audience of 36. Active Learning Room 502 can accommodate a class-sized audience of 28.

active learning classroom
Active Learning Classroom (Library room 501)
active learning classroom
Active Learning Classroom (Library room 502)

students working in an active learning classroom
Active Learning in Action

Our classrooms are primarily used by faculty teaching regularly-scheduled university courses which make extensive regular use of multimedia materials, network communications, and/or active learning. Information about our approval process is available in our approval and assignment of Active Learning Classrooms and Teaching Lab document. Fill out our Classroom Request Form to request one of our classrooms.

Are you interested in incorporating active learning techniques in your classes? Here are a few resources to get you started:

We invite you to visit us if you are interested in taking a tour of our active learning classrooms.

image showing various disasters

Course delivery is vulnerable to unplanned events. Potential interruptions to class activities include but are not limited to natural disasters, widespread illness, acts of violence, planned or unexpected construction-related closures, severe weather conditions, and medical emergencies. Whatever the event, an instructional continuity plan will help you to be ready to continue teaching with minimal interruption.

For those who missed our "Preparing to Teach During an Interruption: Strategies for Maintaining Instructional Continuity" workshop and for those who want to learn more about instructional continuity, you will find a link to the workshop recording, PowerPoint slides, and resources discussed in the workshop here:

It's not too late to consider developing an instructional continuity plan for your courses. Visit our Instructional Continuity wiki for resources to help you develop your plan.

office desktop with My Plan written on notepad

Do you have a plan? If so, we would like to hear about it. If you had a classroom disruption and found a way for students to continue to make progress in your course, we encourage you to share it with your colleagues. Please email a brief description of what you did along with your reflections on how it worked for you, and we will post it to our Instructional Continuity wiki resource.

Image credits:
"The threat of disasters is real" by jflorent is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
"My Plan" by jflorent is dedicated to public domain under CC0 and is a derivative of office by FirmBee on Pixabay.