Digital Skills Quiz

Digital SecretaryI try to model the information literacy skills we think are important for students to acquire. I also heed Nina’s caution against fostering learned helplessness. Yet I’m seeing students who lack even the most rudimentary technological skills like knowing how to download a document file so that they can read it off-line. This puts me in a bind.

My first thought was to specify the fundamental digital knowledge and skills that students must possess to get through any of my courses:

  • Regularly access your university email account and the online course management platform with your username and password.
  • Download files to a device, with names and to locations that enable you to easily find them later.
  • Save/save as/export files in required formats, with files appropriately named, to personal computing devices and the course management platform.
  • Proofread your writing without using automated spell-check features.
  • Back up work on external devices (USB drives) or cloud services like the course management platform, Google Drive, or DropBox.
  • Set the preferences in your course management platform account so that you are notified of course updates in a timely fashion.
  • Use the library’s website and databases to locate assigned readings.
  • Contact the IT Help Desk, librarians, and other campus technology support services when you have questions about any of the above.

I could put that list on the first page of all my syllabi, but that essentially goes against what we at ALPS stand for. Reading a list once doesn’t change behavior, and my students don’t really read the verbiage on a syllabus anyway. The real reason for me to include such language in a syllabus (which is a perfectly valid one) is that it helps protect me when a student fails a course.

A better approach might be to format the list as a quiz at the beginning of the semester that is worth a tiny fraction of students’ final grades. The quiz questions could require some action by the student that demonstrates that he or she is actually able to perform the skill that is referenced by the question; for example, “download this one-page file, insert your name at the top, and then upload the new version as a pdf to this file folder.”

The above option assumes that students actually take such a quiz, and that they try to remedy any skill deficiencies that the quiz identifies. This may not happen. I re-instituted an open-book syllabus quiz in all my courses this semester and a few students chose not to complete it, while others scored badly. Given that I already see a loose correlation between students’ scores on the syllabus quiz and their overall course performance, a quiz on digital skills might provide additional support for my hypothesis that I can accurately predict any student’s final grade after only the first two weeks of a semester — but that’s a subject for another post.

Sweet Briar College Announces Closure

Canary on PerchSweet Briar College in Virginia announced via video today that it will close as of August 25. The college is rural, women-only, and has suffered from declining enrollment and deteriorating finances since the beginning of the Great Recession. Additional details are in this Inside Higher Ed story.

Another canary in the coal mine has fallen off its perch.

Edited to add:

Those who are interested in the future of higher education ought to listen to the interview broadcast today  on NPR’s Fresh Air with Kevin Carey, author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. Many of his points are detailed in the posts listed on this blog’s higher ed page.

How to present

You know what I mean, right?

Reading this post from Sarah Knowles got me thinking about public speaking, for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s a really important part of what we do as educators. And secondly, it’s something that a lot of us worry about.

Effective speaking really matters, because it’s the primary communication tool in the classroom. Whether we flip it or not, we need to be able to deliver meaningful content to students, in a form that they can understand, process and then use in their learning.

All of Sarah’s points are good ones, but to them I would add one more: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

This is the subtitle of one of the many books about speaking/negotiating that sit on my shelves (and also get used, to be clear). Essentially, it’s just about reminding yourself that all your internal processes and previous experiences are not shared through your communication, until the words and forms that you do actually use. Similarly, those you communicate with will be bringing their own thoughts and experiences to what you say.

The upshot is that you not only have to be clear for yourself, but clear for others.

This sounds a bit like a truism, but it’s actually quite tricky to follow, precisely because you so dominate your thinking. To step outside of yourself and ask what it is that someone else will understand of what you say takes a degree of self-awareness and empathy.  You not only need to think about what those other people know, but also how they might feel about the subject.

To take a pertinent example, I’m in the middle of a run of events at other universities, talking about different learning & teaching matters. Sure, I’ve got ideas and opinions about what we’re discussing, but I’m having to moderate that against the context in which we sit. That means thinking about the institutional context (if we’re doing a programme validation), the personalities involved, and the ultimate objective of the exercise. With all that in mind, communication can be better framed to move us all in that direction.

But perhaps it’s easier* to put it this way: you wouldn’t talk the same way to your boss as you would your mates in the pub (probably), just as you know how to talk with your best friend, because you know how they tick. Think about why that is, and then extend it much more widely.

In short, you’re most of the way there.


* – And there I am, trying to think about how you’re reading this [sic]

Puzzle Pieces: Part 1

Jigsaw Puzzle 1In the spirit of sharing, here is the first of a series of examples on the continuous-improvement approach to course redesign.

In the fall semester I will teach for the second time a seminar on disasters and survival to incoming college students. I thought last year’s inaugural version of the seminar was acceptable but that it definitely had room for improvement.

My intended outcomes for the course remain the same and act as my basic design constraint:

  • Create a classroom environment that doesn’t drive down my university’s retention rate, mainly by getting students to interact with each other as much as possible.
  • Foster higher order thinking skills so students become better decision makers (an outcome revealed by the CATS self-assessment for another course that I teach).
  • Encourage awareness of and respect for people who have cultural backgrounds and perspectives that are different from those of the students. (My research on global empathy did not detect any significant improvement on this the first time around.)

Given students’ responses to my online survey at the end of the semester, I knew that assigning different books might strengthen students’ achievement of the third outcome. Students reacted very positively to the book I assigned at the beginning of the semester, An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina, about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. However, some students said that they found the seminar’s other two books to be dull or confusing. Also, I realized after the books had been ordered that all three were written by and about men. It’s easy for me to be Exhibit A for white male privilege, but I do try to avoid it, especially since enrollment at my university is more than sixty percent female and contains a sizable proportion of first-generation college students.

So the first puzzle was finding two new books about disasters that affected people outside the USA, with at least one of them authored by a woman.

I am not be teaching introduction to IR in the fall, which means I can pull the book Chasing Chaos out of that course and into the first-year seminar. The author of Chasing Chaos is female, and the book is an autobiographical account of her experiences as a humanitarian aid worker in far-flung locations around the world. Check marks for relevance of content and author’s gender. Chasing Chaos has another benefit, referenced in the linked post above, but I’ll discuss that in detail soon in another post.

This left the third book, and I already had a few possibilities in mind: My Life As a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani; When Broken Glass Floats, by Chanrithy Him; and Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt. All are autobiographical, written by women, and discuss survival in extreme conditions.

My Life As a Traitor is about Ms. Ghahramani’s incarceration in Tehran’s Evin Prison for political activities that Iran’s government deemed subversive. It’s well-written and the author was a college student at the time the events described in the book took place. I was worried though that it would reinforce students’ pre-existing negative stereotypes about the Middle East — with no prior study of the region, it would be easy for them to attribute the treatment of Ms. Ghahramani to religion rather than to an authoritarian state that attempts to use religion to justify its oppression of citizens. So I removed the book from consideration.

When Broken Glass Floats is about the author’s childhood during Khmer Rouge Cambodia, a subject with which I am extremely familiar. This book would be very easy for me to use to stimulate class discussions. However, I realized that both it and An Ordinary Man are about genocide, and I didn’t want to make genocide the focus of the course. So I ruled this book out.

Even Silence Has an End is about the author’s six years as a hostage of the FARC in the jungles of Colombia, a story that probably a lot of people find riveting. But this book is over five hundred pages long — too much for the last third of the semester. I was not willing to drop An Ordinary Man or Chasing Chaos to fit it in. What to do?

In one of those minor epiphanies that sometimes happen when thinking about teaching, I remembered that 1) Chasing Chaos concludes with a chapter on post-earthquake Haiti, and 2) I use a book about the same topic in a graduate course — The Big Truck That Went By, by Jonathan Katz. Disaster, check. Cultural milieu that is different from that of my students, check. Short enough to fit? Check.

I have identified my three books for the next version of the course, and none obviously conflict with my learning outcome criteria. Now I have a framework on which to hang the rest of the course.

Let’s Move! Political Science Edition

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia.  

Having taught squirrely twelve-year-olds in addition to tired undergraduates, I am always looking for ways to get my students out of their desks. Kinesthetic activities that ask students to move around a classroom require students to get out from behind their notes and to interact with their classmates. Getting students to move interjects energy into the room and aids retention of content. Finally, moving around the room helps create a sense of comfort in and ownership over the classroom, and, by extension, the learning process.

In short, asking students to be active learners isn’t just about active brains.

What kinds of activities am I talking about? My favorite simple activity is a “line of contention.” In political science, we discuss plenty of contentious issues. Rather than simply ask students for their opinions on some topic, such as “Gender issues should be considered a part of U.S. foreign policy,” or “The U.S. should intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict,” I ask students to take a stand– literally. I designate one side of the room as “Strongly Agree” and the other as “Strongly Disagree.” I ask students to get out of their desks and to create a human Likert scale by arranging themselves on the continuum.

Students must align themselves on the spectrum according to their opinion on a particular issue. Once students have placed themselves on the spectrum, I ask students to defend their own views while considering the merits of opposing opinions.

This activity and others like it have helped my students grapple with difficult material, synthesize course content, and vary the means of expression.

In my experience, K-12 educators are way ahead of college instructors on this front. When it comes to tactics for student engagement, my most valuable tools (like the one above) have been borrowed from K-12 educators or have been born out of desperation. (Summer jobs teaching twelve-year-olds for six hours each day forced me to pull out all of my tricks and create some new ones.)

My colleague, Kayce Mobley, and I have compiled a collection of kinesthetic activities available here. The article, “Ditching the Desks: Kinesthetic Learning College Classrooms,” includes kinesthetic activities and examples of ways we have used these activities with college students. What are your best tactics to get students active? What kinds of classroom activities have you used to get students moving?

The Chasm of Ignorance

Toroweap OverlookNina’s recent post about the possible but unknown effect of active learning pedagogy on student retention and my last post about classroom assessment techniques dovetail with a recent discussion with my campus colleagues about our university’s future direction. Much of the conversation centered on information — what do we think we know about the university, what do we not know but should, and how can we use information to maximum effect?

Answering these questions is difficult, for several reasons:

  • Some data that could be very useful isn’t being collected. For example, at the institutional level, teaching ability is measured almost entirely by student course evaluations, even though everyone knows that the evaluation instrument is seriously flawed and that the results are extremely biased. And I seriously doubt we are tracking whether or how the retention rate correlates with the academic majors declared by incoming students.
  • Other data is being collected but it isn’t shared across different units of the university. I can and do contact the staff person in charge of students’ so-called first-year experience to learn, in aggregate terms, the socioeconomic and ethnic composition of the freshmen class. Why? I want to know what kinds of students I am encountering in the classroom. I could probably also ask every department chair how many students are enrolled in the different majors that are offered by each department. But none of this information is automatically disseminated to the entire faculty.

This information gap makes the university much more systemically fragile than it needs to be. We have a small enrollment and lack the necessary resources to be all things to all people. Yet we don’t know which niches in the educational marketplace we are best positioned to exploit, we probably could be better at serving the market niches that we do operate in, and we lack a strong brand.

Does Active Learning Increase Student Retention?


What are the effects of our choice to engage in active learning on the college’s overall health?

It is admissions review season for us at F&M. It is the period of time that we think about bigger picture effects of our teaching and learning models. As advocates of our method, we should be aware that our penchant for manipulation and game play just might play a role in overall student happiness, connectedness to the faculty, and retention at our home institutions. As I went in search of research that might support this inkling, I found a few sources like the work of John Ishiyama. But it appears uncommon to try and situate the active engagement in game play into this bigger picture of keeping butts in seats for the entire institution.

So it is your turn…. what hypotheses are available? How can we study this? Personally I could imagine a somewhat nuanced relationship between active learning in the classroom and its effects on connectedness to a campus identity. But conversely, I suspect that personal academic performance isn’t a conscious factor for student attachment to a particular place….

What do you think? Does active learning affect college retention? How so?