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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The flipped learning model of instruction has begun to make the transition from an educational buzzword to a normative practice among many university instructors, and with good reason. Flipped learning provides many benefits for both faculty and students. However, instructors who use flipped learning soon find out that a significant amount of work is sometimes necessary to win students over to this way of conducting class. Even when the benefits of flipped learning are made clear to students, some of them will still resist. And to be fair, many instructors fail to listen to what students are really saying.
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I was looking at one of my old teaching and learning books, Kenneth Eble’s 1988 book The Craft of Teaching. Some parts are now a bit dated, but many are not. It was one of those books that greatly influenced how a lot of us thought about teaching and learning back then.
But I found something in the book that was even older. Eble includes a discussion of and several quotes from an 1879 book (actually the ninth edition) by Josiah Fitch titled The Art of Questioning. Eble writes that it’s a small book and was originally aimed at British Sunday school teachers. Here’s the quote that caught my attention.
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Many faculty now have students work in teams to complete course-long projects that are designed to accomplish multiple course objectives and that count for a significant part of the course grade. These groups do not always function well, which concerns faculty. If experiences in groups do not develop good teamwork skills, then maybe it’s better not to use groups and have students do assignments individually. Frequently that’s what they prefer anyway.
Many of us have encountered cohort groups in our teaching, and by that I mean those groups of students that proceed together through a program, typically a professional one. They take all or most of their courses together, often in lock step. Cohort teaching happens to some degree in most courses. Students in a major at smaller institutions often end up taking many of their courses together. Sometimes there are cohort groups within a class, say a group of commuter students who went to the same high school, or students who live on campus in the same residence hall, or a group of adults taking a work-related course.
When Sheri Litt became dean of arts and sciences at Florida State College’s Open Campus, one of her priorities was to address the issue of online learner satisfaction and success. “We started looking at the data,” Litt says. “We looked at students’ comments on surveys to find out what they were disappointed with in their online courses. And a lot of comments [said, in essence,] ‘I felt my instructor didn't care’ or ‘I felt my instructor would just log in once every six weeks’ or ‘It would take an entire semester for the instructor to grade an assignment, and [he or she] didn't really give me any feedback so I could develop my skills.’” Based on this qualitative approach, Litt and her colleagues developed a set of best practices that have improved student motivation, satisfaction, and success.
In the spring of 1991, I returned to teaching after more than five years as a Benedictine monk. The monastery had been founded in China in the 1920s, and when exiled after the Chinese Revolution, the community had relocated to the Mojave Desert in California. During my novitiate, I had taken up a private study of modern Chinese history, even though my research and academic formation at Cambridge University had been in early modern English puritan studies. When my community sent me to study theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, I also studied the history of missiology and continued to read about the modern emergence of Christianity in China. So when the history department of a small liberal arts college in Santa Barbara asked me to teach a non-Western course after I left monastic life, I suggested Modern Chinese History.
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Students can be pretty demanding about wanting the teacher's PowerPoints, lecture notes, and other written forms of the content presented in class. And a lot of teachers are supplying those, in part trying to be responsive to students but also because many students now lack note-taking skills. If they can’t take good notes, why not help them succeed by supplying them with notes?
In the final post of 2014, I shared some comments about blog “conversations,” wondering what else we might do to take our exchanges to the next level. The comments made in response to a post are typically shared across a period of time. If you’re one of the first to comment, do you return later to read what other folks had to say? I’m doubtful that many us of have that sort of time.
Faculty regularly face the problem of getting the students most in need of help to come to the office for help. Not only do a small number of students take advantage of office hours, typically those who show up are not those who most need to be there. In previous issues we have reported on research that offers some reasons why this happens. When students start getting feedback that they are doing poorly, some begin to doubt their abilities. They conclude that they just don't have what it takes and so getting help isn't going to make any difference. Other times, it's the stress of having to face the professor with their failure. Some students are so lost, they don't even know what to ask, and their confidence is so shaken, they have trouble processing helpful information when it's delivered.
Imagine a world where students came to class prepared. Class time would be so much more productive and enjoyable for teachers and students alike. We would have informed class discussions and focus on students applying, analyzing, and evaluating the material under our expert guidance.
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They’re the kind of questions that promote thinking and result in sophisticated intellectual development. They’re the kind of questions teachers aspire to ask students, but, according to research, these types of questions aren't the typical ones found on most course exams. Part of the disconnect between these aspirations and the actualities results from the difficulty of writing questions that test higher-order thinking skills.
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The discussion forum is an essential part of online courses. It’s where students interact, reflect, exchange ideas, and expand their knowledge base. The quality of the discussion forum depends on the ability to develop a sense of community, the clarity of the discussion questions, and the use of a grading rubric that includes standards of performance.
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"Teaching is such a challenge! Just when one thinks improvements are happening, the goal post of perfection moves further away. A bit like getting better headlights on one’s car: now you can see as far as the next corner, but the final destination remains out of sight!” Thanks to Nigel Armstrong, whom I met during a professional development day at Niagara University, for this insight.
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New technology continues to emerge and influence the classroom learning environment. Students now have immediate and unlimited access to digital content, resources, and databases. To capitalize on the wealth of available Internet resources, many educators are joining the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative, which encourages students to use their own personal electronic devices (smartphones, tablets) during class time to augment and support learning. For example, students search for definitions and websites that enhance the course topic being discussed. Or students (as a class or in small groups) use online resources to solve a posted scenario.
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Institutions of higher education are increasingly using online courses and fully-online programs as tools to increase enrollment. There are many issues surrounding the subject of online education as an enrollment strategy. For instance, attrition rates are higher in online courses and online programs than in the face-to-face environment (Carr, 2000; Moody, 2004). It has been well-established that academic and social integration are key factors influencing retention, yet many institutions do not take a systematic approach to ensuring adequate integration opportunities for online students.
Faculty members, at the front-lines of the retention issue, can help to improve student success rates by providing a sense of community in the online classroom and making meaningful interaction and student engagement a priority. Functional units of student services should work collaboratively with faculty members to expand the breadth of support for online learners, with the conviction that retention is everyone’s issue, and fostering student success is everyone’s responsibility.
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Optimism is generally a good thing, but it can sometimes interfere with learning. Some students are overly optimistic about their learning progress and anticipated course grades, with weaker students being more likely to overestimate how well they are doing in the course. This can hinder their academic success. There’s no reason to adjust their behavior (say, by studying more) if they believe they are already doing well.
The 2014 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Pearson and Tyton Partners, reveals the number of higher education students taking at least one distance education course in 2014 is up 3.7 percent from the previous year. While this represents the slowest rate of increase in over a decade, online enrollment growth far exceeded that of overall higher education.
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“Online teaching can be a bit of a juggling act,” says Oliver Dreon, PhD, associate professor in the School of Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Instructors must be able to handle student concerns, subject material, and delivery modality to create an interesting, engaging course.
Providing students with useful information about how to function effectively when they work in groups stands a good chance of improving what the group produces. It also helps students develop important skills they can use in group activities in college and beyond. Providing the information doesn’t guarantee that students will make use of it, but it’s a better option than not providing it.
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