An increasing number of individuals are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), particularly the higher functioning form of autism previously known as Asperger’s disorder. Many of these individuals choose to attend college and it is no longer unusual to encounter them in your classes. Although they can be excellent students, those with ASD may come across as odd or eccentric with idiosyncratic behaviors and interests. This can make their presence in the classroom somewhat vexing for instructors who do not understand the challenges and strengths of these students.
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We know a lot about teaching and learning, but our knowledge is scattered across three separate domains.
The first knowledge domain is centered on the world of educational research that’s been advancing what we know about teaching and learning for more than a hundred years. There’s hardly an educational issue that hasn’t been studied in education or its associated subfields, like educational psychology, adult learning, and higher education. On this large empirical foundation we could rest a more evidence-based instructional practice.
Online discussions are often implemented in college classes to allow students to express their understanding and perceptions about the assigned readings. This can be challenging when the reading is particularly complex, as students are typically reluctant to share their interpretations because they are not confident in their understanding. This can inhibit meaningful interactions with peers within an online discussion.
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While college and university faculty are paid to teach, we are often hired because of our scholarship. We are evaluated in the hiring process by the strength of our publications and conference presentations. Therefore, it makes sense that most of us in academia allow scholarship to drive our teaching. Yet the need to focus on scholarship also results in a common complaint that teaching interferes with our time for research. I believe that if we creatively reconsider the relationship between teaching and scholarship we can improve both. I argue that teaching is an undervalued resource that can directly enhance our scholarship—and not just the scholarship of teaching and learning.
The design of assignments, that is, the actions required to complete them, shapes the learning that results. We know this, but do we make the most of what we know when we design and select assignments?
I’ll try to make the point with writing assignments. We have come a long ways since the days when term papers were the gold standard of writing assignments. Paper options now include authentic assignments that approximate professional writing tasks. The Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movement has introduced us to low-stakes writing activities from students jotting down a few ideas before they speak, to free writing that starts the flow of ideas, to journals that encourage personal connections with course materials. Technology adds still more assignment design options. Students can blog and respond to posts; they can write collaboratively on wikis and Google Docs. The options are many, but the features of each writing assignment directly shape the learning that results.
You’re asking the wrong question. No, seriously, you’re probably asking the wrong question.
Yeah, that’s a pretty bold statement. But I've read tens of thousands of questions meant to prompt discussions in online course rooms, and the odds are I am right.
The landscape: You have taught a class in-person for five years and due to a variety of reasons you have the option to teach it online ... next semester. You need to quickly transition your in-person curriculum into a creative and successful online course. Here are five steps to get you there.
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I've been asked to give a talk that explores some of the top teaching-learning lessons learned in the past 15 years. It’s a good reflection exercise that also brings up those lessons we haven’t learned or aren't yet finished learning.
I’m figuring the best place to start is with technology. During the past 15 years, technology has become a dominating force in every aspect of our lives and that includes education. As it descended upon higher education, we didn't start out asking the right question. We got focused on the mechanics of “how does it work” (or, in the case of those us not all that adept at mastering technology, “why doesn't it work?”) and “what can we do with it?” The better question is whether a new technology promotes learning. We are asking that question now, but still struggle with the balance between what’s possible and what promotes learning.
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Student-Generated Reading Questions: Diagnosing Student Thinking with Diverse Formative Assessments, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 42 (1), 29-38. The Teaching Professor Blog recently named it to its list of top pedagogical articles.
As instructors, we make a myriad of assumptions about the knowledge students bring to our courses. These assumptions influence how we plan for courses, what information we decide to cover, and how we engage our students. Often there is a mismatch between our expectations about what students know and how students actually think about a topic that is not uncovered until too late, after we examine student performance on quizzes and exams. Narrowing this gap requires the use of well-crafted formative assessments that facilitate diagnosing student learning throughout the teaching process.
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Take a moment right now to ask yourself who your best teachers were growing up. Now list the qualities that made them your best teachers.
Looking at your list, you will probably notice something interesting. When I have faculty do this, they invariably list qualities such as “cared for my learning” or “cared for me as a person.” They do not list qualities such as “the most knowledgeable person in their field.” In other words, they list relationship qualities as the factors that make for a great teacher, not knowledge qualities.
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"From the way students act at the beginning of a class we can tell a great deal about the profs who taught them previously." It's an insight offered by David Johnson and Roger Johnson, the well-known cooperative learning researchers and advocates.
I am not an athlete. I lack coordination and have some physical limitations. My husband, on the other hand, is an excellent skier. He isn’t a teacher but he believed I could learn to ski, convinced me to try, and partnered with me in the learning process, like the best teachers do. Learning to ski taught me 10 coaching strategies bridging four areas: establishing a safe space to learn, sharing responsibility, providing feedback, and empowering the learner. I apply these strategies to facilitating online discussions, but they relate to a range of learning contexts.
Pedagogy specialists including Armstrong & Hyslop-Margison (2006) support democratic collaborative activities as a positive predictor of student satisfaction. This transfers to online and hybrid (blended) courses. A sense of democratic community within an online course encourages engagement, which can promote higher-level thinking. This raises the question: How can instructors create successful collaborative learning communities online?
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The evidence that students retain content longer and can apply it better when exams and finals are cumulative is compelling. When I pointed to the evidence in a recent workshop, a faculty member responded, “But I can’t use cumulative exams. My students would revolt.” Students don’t like cumulative exams for the very reason we should be using them: they force regular, repeated encounters with the content. And it’s those multiple interactions with the material that move learning from memorization to understanding.
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Nearly every teacher has experienced students forgetting something important. This forgetfulness comes in various forms. It might involve not following instructions for an assignment, missing a due date, forgetting important details on a test, or even forgetting to take the test itself. Whatever the memory infraction, there are usually good reasons why students forget. Gratefully, there are a few simple ways teachers can build context to help students achieve deeper and longer lasting learning.
“Am I writing to myself?” That’s what I used to wonder when I first started teaching Spanish online a year ago. My learning management system, message boards, and group emails were impersonal and unresponsive—more like writing in my diary than sharing information with my students. I never knew for certain who read and understood my announcements or received an (electronic) handout or assignment directions. In the traditional, on-campus classroom, I’m a very interactive, hands-on kind of instructor, so I also went from knowing each and every one of my students by name and even a little bit about them to having nothing more than a roster with 115 names and majors. I just wasn’t satisfied, so I did something that others in the field had encouraged me not to do; I created a Facebook group for the class, and I’m not going back.
Is it time to change the online learning conversation? The debate about whether online courses are a good idea continues with most people still on one side or the other. Who’s right or wrong is overshadowed by what the flexibility and convenience of online education has offered institutions and students. Those features opened the door, and online learning has come inside and is making itself at home in most of our institutions. No doubt the debate over the value of online learning will continue, but perhaps it’s being judged by the wrong criteria.
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“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is master of himself if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”
William James, (1842 – 1910)
Looking out at our students in classrooms today, with their texting, Facebook updates, Instagram messages, e-mail checking, Google searches, and tweeting, it’s hard to imagine what was so distracting for college students more than 100 years ago when James made this statement. Yet, even then, he recognized the propensity of the mind to constantly seek novel material, to leap from thought to image to belief to fear to desire to judgment and back again — all following one’s own quirky train of thought resembling the chaotic movements of a swarm of bees around a hive. Time passes through a warped dimension when the student finally returns to some semblance of attention, unaware of all the cognitive detours taken between points A and B. And that’s just the internal process, prompted by nothing in particular. How much more distraction is invited by today’s mobile technology?
Instructors, particularly in online schools and those with open admission policies, often work with students who struggle with a lack of communication skills (namely writing) and professionalism. This is particularly troublesome for business schools that want to graduate students who possess a certain level of these skills in order to best represent the school in their professional lives. Schools that solely operate in the virtual environment are already subject to more scrutiny than their bricks and mortar counterparts. Graduating students who lack critical skills perpetuates the stigma that is still associated with online schools.
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The emergence of different kinds of group work is a welcome outgrowth of the move away from lectures. There’s still plenty of lecturing going on, but there’s less than there used to be. In its place are a variety of activities that more effectively engage students; one of the most common being the use of group work.
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