Faculty Focus

Finding the Instructional Value in Peer Review Discussion Boards

online peer review

In their article on the effect of instructor participation in online discussion boards, Margaret Mazzolini and Sarah Maddison (2003) asked if, “online instructors [should] be encouraged to take a prominent ‘sage on the stage' role, a more constructivist ‘guide on the side' role, or an ultra-low profile as ‘the ghost in the wings'” when they are facilitating asynchronous discussion boards. Fifteen years later, we are still debating this same question.

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A More Strategic Approach to Arranging Students into Groups

arranging students into groups

What’s the best way to put students into groups? It’s the first task that confronts teachers who want students to work together. And the best reply is one of those “it depends” answers. Here are the questions on which it depends.

Should teachers let students form the groups? Students often prefer this approach. They tend to pick people they know, classmates who are friends, those in the same major, and those who share the same race. It’s more comfortable working with people who are known and similar. When groups are composed of friends, they sometimes struggle with the transition to a more professional relationship. They’re used to socializing, but now there are tasks to complete and that means functioning in different roles. If the group work is a project that requires extended collaboration and will benefit from a variety of opinions and perspectives, letting students form the groups may not be the best approach. On the other hand, for short, ad-hoc group work and for students who may be shy and not used to working with peers, knowing others in the group makes the experience less intimidating.

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How Can We Amplify Student Learning? The ANSWER from Cognitive Psychology

cognitive approach to student learning

In the early 2000s, anyone learning about pedagogy might have encountered “learning styles,” a collection of theories that assert people learn differently, coupled with the advice to teach in ways that include visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic learning.

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Tips for Reducing Student Stress

reducing student stress

Students are stressed. A recent survey revealed that mental health issues, including severe stress, are on the rise. In 2016, 65% of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety during the previous 12 months, which is an increase of more than 7% from the 2013 data (National College Health Assessment, 2016). We also know from decades of research that arousal levels are strongly related to performance: not enough arousal and you don’t perform well, but too much arousal (which becomes stress/anxiety) and your performance is negatively impacted (Colman, 2001). Therefore, anything we can do as instructors to reduce students’ stress should have a positive impact on their mental health and academic performance.

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Remembering the Coach Who Was a Teacher

I lost a dear friend last month, the colleague and mentor who taught me more about teaching and learning than anyone else. Over the years, Larry Spence wrote a number of pithy pieces for The Teaching Professor. Here’s my favorite.

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Rejuvenating Online Discussions

Rejuvenating online discussions

When you picture an online discussion, your mind most likely envisions a text-heavy, threaded exchange of ideas among students who are primarily responding to an instructor’s prompt and then persuaded by the promise of points to respond to each other. Depending on a number of factors, the discussion can be dynamic, or it can fall flat. Because discussion forums are one of the most popular and frequently used technological tools in online and blended courses, instructors must take the time to ensure these discussions are effective.

Our simple model proposes a structure to help rejuvenate online discussions in three steps: prepping, discussing, and assessing. Prepping is an important and sometimes overlooked step, as we are all rushed for time when we begin our online or blended courses, but we argue that preparation is essential to reach your intended outcomes for your course. Some of the key aspects of prepping include creating clear criteria for your students, communicating expectations, establishing ground rules, carefully considering question types, and having clear goals or links to learning outcomes.

If it’s important that your students write over 300 words in a post, make that explicit. If you expect your students to respond within a week to two other students’ posts, write it clearly in your instructions. Better yet, make a video for your students describing your expectations. You might even consider having the students come up with the ground rules or netiquette for discussions. Making conscious decisions about the type of question(s) you are going to ask in a discussion forum is key. Try a case study or scenario and ask students to solve or respond to it. Ask students to role play as a particular character or historical figure as they respond to your prompt.

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Taking the Class Temperature: Cognitive and Affective Feedback

climate for learning: affective feedback

“Are students getting it? How do I know?” Instructors answer these questions through a variety of assessments, from small, informal methods such as asking students if they have questions, to formal, graded methods such as multiple-choice exams and research papers. These assessments provide cognitive feedback, whether in the form of a score, a correction, lack of an answer, or an abundance of questions. But is that the whole picture? While these assessments can help us gauge how well students are “getting it,” it often fails to explain why or why not.

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Ready for College?

Are these students ready for college?

Talk with almost any faculty member and they will tell you that many (sometimes it’s most) of their students are unprepared for college. They lack basic skills in reading, writing, and computation but also don’t have very effective study habits and techniques. Most teachers try to convey their concerns about this lack of preparedness to students, but often it feels as though those messages are falling on deaf ears.

In a survey, nearly 700 students, mostly sophomores, were asked how ready they felt for college. Did they think they were prepared for college-level work? Eighty percent of the sample had come directly from high school to college, and 70 percent said that their high schools had prepared them well for college. However, over 50 percent of these students considered college more challenging than they expected. When given a list and asked what two academic skills they wished that high school had helped them develop further, 48 percent said time management, 39 percent said exam preparation, 37 percent identified general study skills, and 27 percent noted independent thinking. Only 12 percent identified studying to understand and remember.

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Checking for Understanding

check on learning

Research shows that checking for understanding is perhaps one of the most important components of a teaching sequence. Most teachers provide instruction on a topic and follow up with some questions. On a good day, 4–5 students may volunteer and respond with the correct answers. The teacher then assumes that the majority of the class understands the concept and can handle a homework assignment. The teacher then moves on to the next topic.

The problem with this scenario is what the teacher concludes about the level of understanding within the class. Students who raise their hands are often more confident, verbal, or simply have better study habits. Many times, students who do not fully understand are reluctant to speak. Regardless, it is very difficult to informally assess the learning of an entire class based on the responses of only a few.

A variety of formative assessment strategies give teachers a better way to gauge the level of understanding within a class. For example, a teacher can ask students to answer several questions or do some problems displayed on a digital whiteboard. Then the teacher can collect students’ work and quickly see who gets it, who needs more practice, and who has no clue.

Checking for understanding is vital to facilitate true learning. When students are still unclear, confused, or misunderstanding, and are then assigned independent practice via a homework assignment, there is a greater risk that they’ll practice incorrect learning. Checking for student understanding can prevent this complication. Below are several strategies that instructors can use to check for student understanding, all of which have the added benefit of increasing student engagement.

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Leveraging Social and Political Issues to Promote Student Engagement, Improve Writing Skills

leveraging social issues

“Your students are failing because you are failing them.” These words can cut to the core of any professional educator who strives for excellence in teaching and learning. However, hidden within that criticism is a more useful message: “To help them succeed, you must inspire their imaginations and capture their attention through meaningful and creative engagement within the classroom.”

As English composition instructors, we are tasked with teaching students how to effectively express themselves through writing as well as understand why that’s such an important skill. Oftentimes this is executed by teaching out of a required textbook that addresses the various functions of writing. However, to make the writing assignments more interesting, teachers should consider allowing students to choose topics or, at the very least, assigning ones that hold current relevance.

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