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This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education 

Providing students with choices in assignments can add excitement and increase student creativity. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about ways teachers can add more choices in the online classroom.

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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the podcast, today. I want to talk all about choices and the choices I’d like to share with you are especially for online students. You know, when we have choices, there’s something about that that’s just tantalizing and exciting. In fact, it makes it a little bit more fun. Now, I’m going to give you a little bit of an analogy. But, before I do, I want to encourage you to open your mind and think about choices in your own online teaching.

And we’re going to introduce this with this analogy. So, I have the Fitbit app, and I wear a Fitbit wrist device that measures my steps. I’ve worn this device for many years. And for the longest time, I have weekly challenges with my sister.

I have had these challenges with my sister, oh, for at least five years, almost every single week. And we used to do this thing called the workweek hustle. You can set your Fitbit device to measure your steps every day for the five days of the workweek. And then, you’re competing against one or more other people; you can invite a whole group of people. And it’s kind of fun because every day when you upload your steps, or you sync your device, you can see where you stand compared to the other person or the other people.

As you do this, the main idea is that it’s going to encourage you to get out and be active. And being active is definitely something we as online educators need to consciously think about, because we sit around a lot. Now, that’s not the point of this story, of course, the analogy is a lot about choice.

Now, I have a choice of what kind of activities I’m going to do to win the workweek hustle. And the more I do the workweek hustle, the more I want to win it. Well, once in a while, it gets a little boring because all I’m doing is counting my steps for five days at a time. And, if I’m doing this every week, year in year out, once in a while I’m going to skip it. It might get old, it might get boring, and maybe I’m not very active that week so I don’t really want to participate.

But, introduce the premiere version of this app. So, in the premiere version, there are different kinds of challenges that make it so much more fun. When I discovered this using a trial version of the premiere version of Fitbit, I discovered that we could play bingo. Now when we’re playing bingo, we’re trying to complete a certain pattern, instead of just a certain number of steps during the week. Now we’ve got active minutes, numbers of miles and numbers of steps. And we compete using these different things.

There’s a little bit of strategy to it. It takes some critical thinking. And as I’m planning out what I’m going to do for the day to be active, I might be thinking about maybe I want to make sure I hit that two mile mark so I can check that box on my bingo sheet. Or maybe I want to spend 60 minutes or 35 minutes or whatever it is that I need to fill in on my bingo page. I have choice in terms of what I’m looking for and what I’m doing and that makes it all the more exciting.

But it gets even better. Because when I click certain squares on the bingo sheet, it gives me fun options. Like it’s going to cut one of my little tokens in half, or it’s going to give me a bonus number of steps that adds to my total, or it’s going to give me a free flip. So, I have all of these different options available when I’m playing the bingo game. Now, I want to liken this to our online students’ experience in our classes.

Our online students come into our classes knowing they’re going to learn something about the subject matter. They probably have the assumption we’re going to have some discussion forums, we’re going to have some major assignments, we’re going to have some readings. And, in general, most online classes are designed with these basic structural elements. And, of course, there are some kinds of assignments in the end that demonstrate their learning.

But what about when students are presented with a choice? There are several kinds of choices we can include in our online classes. But that element of choice takes the whole thing up a level, it becomes less mundane, less boring and less routine, and much more engaging for our students just like that premiere version of the Fitbit app makes me want to play. It makes me want to get out and be active and to be active in more creative ways, even using the strategies to win the bingo game.

Offer Discussion Choices

Our students want to have a better experience also. One of the things we can give them choice with is the discussion area. If we have a discussion area in our online class, we might offer several different choices of prompts to which they can answer and engage with the class. So maybe I have two or three different choices. And you can do this in several different ways. You can have entirely separate discussion spaces, where students can read the different prompts and only see and engage in that discussion.

Or you can have a single discussion that lists the three prompts all within that one introduction. And they just choose one for their initial posts, but they can engage on any of those topics throughout the week. I like the second option, where all of the choices are presented at once. Because then the students are more likely to engage in a variety of discussions; they’re going to get more of a picture of the subject matter. And they’re going to get a little deeper in some of those areas they care more about. We’re going to expose them to more of the topic and generate a richer cognitive discussion. I love that option of giving students choices.

And when you go to grade this, how hard is it to grade those choices? Well, if you have a fairly generic rubric that you use to grade your forum discussions, content can be a percentage of it. And then whenever the content changes, it’s not a very big deal, you’re still grading on the same type of criteria. If you don’t have a single rubric, I would encourage you to build one. That way, you’re able to always look at the discussion posts for certain types of things. Maybe 60% of it is the content. The other 40% would be peer replies, formatting, grammar, timeliness, or whatever you’re going to grade on. So, whenever you’re doing your choices with your students, think about what’s going to give them variety, in terms of what they’re most interested in.

Offer Assignment Choices

The assignment space is a second area where you might offer students an element of choice. One university where I used to teach part time, five or more years ago, this university always had choices between three different assignments. These were graduate classes, and the students were in the education degree program. And when the choices were presented, they were typically all looking to achieve the same end result, that the student would demonstrate a certain type of knowledge. But the method of demonstrating it was widely varied.

For example, in one choice, a student could write a traditional essay, informative or persuasive, about the subject matter. In another, the student could design a speech and deliver the speech and record it. And then in the third one, the student could create some kind of a Prezi, where there are slides, there’s a little narration, and there’s some movement in between. So, we’ve got totally different presentation modalities, but a very similar outcome. We’re able to measure what the student knows, and what the student can do with the information.

In terms of grading these kinds of choices, again, you could have a fairly generic rubric that has the formatting, the grammar, the structure, the citations, and all those things as different parts of your grading. And then the content itself could be either broken down into the pieces you need, or a more general category of a certain percentage. So, your grading rubric does not have to be different for each of these modalities. You could create one that works for all three of the modalities. So, modality choices are one way to give assignment options to your students, but what about completely different assignments?

Let’s think about, say, music history class, because that’s my specialty area. I’m kind of thinking about demonstrating that we have a mastery of who the composers are and what period they lived in, and what their musical genres were. As we’re thinking about these kinds of things, one thing that comes to mind that I love to do is the Knovio project. I like to have my students do a composer biography, highlight a few pieces of music that are exemplars of that composer, that would be music that a lot of people have heard maybe they’re commonly known in movies, or they’re used in a lot of popular media. And then there are some YouTube links in the slides that they’re going to include. And it’s a traditional presentation uploaded into Knovio and then narrated on video by the student. So, it’s both a slideshow and a spoken presentation.

Another thing I could do is have the student write a mini screenplay, maybe a story of a day in the life of that composer that weaves in some of these same elements to show that the student understands who this person is, and what their impact was in society and in music.

And then, a last thing could be they’re going to stage an interview. And they’re going to do this mock interview where two different people could be sitting down having the conversation, and one of them is the composer telling all about their life and capturing it on video. Now all three of these types of assignments are very different. But all three of them could be equally interesting ways to demonstrate one’s learning. These kinds of choices, just like the Fitbit bingo game, make learning so much more fun for our students.

They help our students to get creative, to think about how they could really apply the knowledge and think through what they would like to demonstrate best in that final assignment. As we create options for our students, what comes to mind for you, what kind of games or gamified situations would really light up your students, when you think about your subject matter? What kinds of demonstrated ways of knowing are common in your field?

Of course, as I’ve shared my examples, something might come to mind for you. But maybe other things would work better. For example, if you’re in a science class or something more applied, you might have an experiment students are going to carry out. Perhaps they have to go out into the community and document the adventure and their learnings throughout that experience. Maybe there’s some kind of reflection at the end and that could be one opportunity.

And perhaps there’s a choice of doing a whole different kind, maybe it’s a review of presentations other people have given in the past, or reviews of websites. Or maybe you even want them to write a Wikipedia article using all the information that’s out there about the subject, but rewriting it based on scholarly sources and actually submitting it to Wikipedia to revise an entry there.

There are so many options you could choose, all the way from the essay to the purely applied project-based learning. Offering your students choice brings excitement and zest to your online classroom. And finding a way to evaluate these with some kind of a rubric that can loosely be applied to all of the choices will make your job easier in the long run as you’re helping your students enjoy their learning. I want to encourage you today to think about offering choice and how much fun it’s going to be for your students online to try something new, and not all have to do the exact same project. I wish you all the best trying out these elements of choice either in your discussions, or your assignments or both this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.