This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate 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.
Listen to the Episode:
Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora
Read the Transcript:
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.
This content first appeared on APUEdge.Com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education and Dr. Sylvia Nemmers, Faculty Member, STEM
It can sometimes be easy for online educators to “hide behind a keyboard.” In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to STEM professor Dr. Sylvia Nemmers about how she uses video to engage her students, provide information and feedback, and build a stronger connection. Learn how she overcame fears of recording herself and realized that using video actually saves her time and makes her more efficient.
Listen to the Episode:
Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora
Read the Transcript:
Dr. 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 Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We are here with my guest, Dr. Sylvia Nemmers from the school of Science, Technology, Engineering & Math at American Public University. So excited to have her today. And I would like to just welcome her, and we’ll jump right in. Sylvia, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Well, it’s really great to be here today. And I guess if I were to introduce myself, I would say I’m a person that’s always loved learning. I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s in biochemistry and a Ph.D in environmental chemistry, but I’ve also loved teaching. Of course, I’ve taught at the university level and at the graduate level, but I also homeschooled my kids. And a lot of my kids’ homeschooling happened when we lived overseas and it was distance or remote. So, I’ve really spent time trying to understand remote education as both the instructor, the parent, and I’ve taken courses online too, as the student. So, a broad look at different ways of learning and teaching.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Sylvia, thank you for giving us that little bit of background so our listeners know something about your orientation here to online. You really have a lot of experience and we’re so happy to have you today. Thank you for being with us.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. I’m wondering, in your experience with online education, what is something that you see as a helpful tool that, say, the instructor could use to work with students?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Well, when I think about online education, or even starting from distance, because my kids, we lived in Greece and they were doing homeschooling in Greece through a U.S. program. So it was always engagement. And then we come to online and there is a better way to engage because you can have discussions with other students, or you can have assignments that get graded and feedback in faster than three weeks with the mail system across the ocean.
So, as we make these advances in technology, we have new ways of engaging. And, I think that in the last three to five years with COVID and everything that’s happened, our level of engagement and our technology has even advanced further. So, my theory on getting the most on education in an online environment is trying to stay as current as I can with what’s available and try to see how that can make the experience more fluid and more connected, because I think it’s connection to your students.
I mean, you’ve got to love your material, but you also have to know and enjoy your students. So, I have always tried to say, “Well, what’s new?” And, for me, video has been the thing. So, if I can make an announcement to my students using video, I can connect with them. They can see that there’s a person behind the screen and behind the keystrokes. And I can say in a video announcement in 30 seconds more than I would probably ever type, and I can deliver it with some perspective and some connection.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s fantastic.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: And then beyond a video announcement, I actually really love doing video replies on discussion. So, a lot of online learning is based on discussion boards. In fact, for a while there, when we designed courses, we were feeling that it was really necessary to have a discussion every week. This may or may not be the case going forward for the courses that different people teach or design, but discussion boards are a big part of a very typical online course.
So, when I’m in a discussion, I even do my replies using video. Again, a short video can say a lot. I can do more than critique, but I can pull threads in how this, whatever I’m talking about, might relate to their life if it’s a Gen Ed course, or to their career, if it is one of the more advanced courses.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: All right. And in what you’ve shared here, I heard three different things that I think I’d just like to circle back to you, if that’s okay? The first one was that you mentioned how important it is to really engage with online students. And I’ve had that experience too, both on the faculty side, on the student side, and really there’s no substitute for that sense of connection. Whatever’s going to bring it. So, I appreciate you bringing that out and that this is a tool for helping that to happen.
And second, you mentioned the announcements. Announcements might be an area that some of our faculty would be a little bit more comfortable, like a little blurb in an announcement video might be short, right? Two or three minutes talking about the week. Then when you mentioned discussions, I thought, “Oh, this could be a new area for many online faculty.” So, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about how those work in discussions and maybe what your response has been.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Absolutely. So, to be honest, we all need to have the balance of keeping our students engaged and keeping them successful and also we have our work-life balance. So, part of what I do with discussions is for my own benefit. In that, I can generally reply to discussion boards so much faster using a video reply. And, like I said, I feel like I’m getting more value for my minute, as well. But, what I’m really trying to do when I do those replies is let that student know. Let’s say they have a challenge in their work that needs to be addressed.
In addition to telling them, I would like to see you add this. I can also say, because doing that will give you a chance to find out this or gain this skill. So, rather than taking a long time, and it takes me a long time to type and proofread because as the instructor, I’ve got to have better grammar and put-together format than my students do, because I’m that role model. So, this gives me the efficiency, it gives me the depth of communication and the whole, I think, it makes for a better experience.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: It does sound like it would do that. And, I’m curious, from the instructor side. If we were not thinking about engagement alone and we were thinking just about efficiency, maybe how fast we can give that feedback to make sure we get to everyone. I know we have some faculty in my school who use Dragon Speech dictate. So, it’s Naturally Speaking, I think it’s called. And they’ll type something but if they use the dictation software, they’re going to have three paragraphs versus a couple of sentences and it’s still going to be faster. But then the video could also be used for that purpose. And, I’m curious, what would be maybe pros and cons of those two, if someone was considering those?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Well, I’m actually legally blind. I use more speech to text than most people do, to be honest. And one thing with speech to text is you got to remember to speak your punctuation. And, sometimes you’re saying the word two, like to, and it’ll give you another form of the word to, so you got to still edit that because it’s not always going to get exactly what you mean. Whereas, the video is pretty fidelic in having that fidelity to what you’re saying so I think that’s an advantage to the video. But, like I said, also the connection to your student, actually seeing you there is a big plus for this. And, I actually teach my students. The system I use does have the facility for students to create videos. So, I teach my students to reply on discussion boards using video as well.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. And then they can see each other. That sounds like a great perk of doing that.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Absolutely.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: A little more sense of who we all are. Have you ever been able to compare courses where you’ve done this with those maybe where you haven’t? And do you notice anything if you’ve had a chance to do that?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Definitely, anecdotally from students and from end-of-course surveys. I often hear students tell me that they have never had a faculty member do this before and how much they appreciated the connection. A couple of courses that I do this in also have a team-project aspect, which is a conversation for another day. But, by having teams be able to video each other and leave those video notes, it’s really improved the engagement.
I think it lessens any potential concerns that students have about an assignment when they actually hear the instructor speaking to them and knowing they’re dealing with a human. A lot of it is about connection. And while I don’t have any data that I’ve collected, numeric data, I definitely have that anecdotal response to the students that they really enjoy it.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I can imagine, especially when the rest of the space is a bunch of texts and images. It’s not as engaging as a real person. I’m just curious. We might have some people listening today to the podcast who are super nervous about getting on video.
I remember when I used to make videos for my courses, maybe 10 years ago. I would make a take, I would edit it. I would really get all dressed up for this video and it was a big deal to me. Now, maybe not so much and I’m wondering how we might coach someone or encourage someone to start doing this without all that stress and worry.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: That is such a good point. That is really a great point. I think for me, we’re doing this podcast right now, you and I. We’re having a conversation just like the good old days when we used to sit together and have conversations.
I think of my videos in this framework, in the good old days, actually I think these are the good old days. I really love distance education and reaching to students I would never be able to reach before. But, we used to know that we needed to teach at a particular time of day. And we had our hair brushed and we had some clothes on and we went and taught. We didn’t have a script, usually. We had a frame of concepts that we wanted to cover and we did that and it wasn’t recorded. I kind of keep that mindset.
So, when I’m doing my videos, I actually put myself in the mindset that I’m sitting and talking to my student, as if we were just in the classroom and I was giving them the same feedback. I don’t script it and I don’t over critique it once I’ve said it. As long as the message I was trying to convey got there. I mean, a kind of a plus, because I could hit restart and say it again and I do that occasionally, if I really missed my mark. How nice to have that option as opposed to when it’s directly face to face and you don’t have that “Whoops, can I repeat that?”
So, you’ve got the plus of being able to restart if you need to, but I wouldn’t be over critical. And I wouldn’t think of it as a production of a commercial, but more of a conversation that you’re having that’s going to have some bobbles and imperfections in it. And that helps me a lot.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. I appreciate that. And as you were describing this idea of just imagining having a conversation. It also reminded me of sort of a theme in media right now, where a lot of people are putting their own businesses online. And in selling those things, one of the themes is authenticity and showing their humanness. So, you’ll see a person who started an online business with a picture of their family or their dog or whatever. And if there are mistakes in a video, they just leave them, so everyone knows they’re a real person and it’s not just some canned thing that’s kind of generic.
So, I love the fact that you’re thinking of it as that conversation. No conversation’s going to be perfect and it’s going to be more authentic. And hopefully, that helps our listeners to relax a little bit as they’re making videos and not be quite so worried about the perfect presentation. I appreciate those comments, Sylvia.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I would say rather than thinking of it as a video, think of it as a communication tool.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. And are there needs for worrying about the captions on those videos? What would you suggest there?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Yes. And this is particularly sensitive to me because I have struggled in my life to achieve certain goals due to some barriers and accessibility that I’ve been able to overcome. So, definitely wanting to make sure that your videos are closed captioned is very important. If you are using an online classroom, many of them have video capture available inside of them, with the ability to close caption.
Certain things like Zoom or other commercially available things are also having closed captioning as a part of it. Because as we moved into this brave new world and using these types of things became more necessary, and we knew that we all needed to be able to meet these ADA expectations for closed captioning. And on that, just real quickly, a lot of people think that, well, the ADA captions have to meet a certain percentage to meet the rules for ADA.
And, in fact, I’m not an expert on this, I’m not saying it from that point of view, but my knowledge does extend to the point that what we need to do to make sure that our videos are compliant with ADA and actually useful for our students is that we’re using the most advanced technology available.
So, if you are using one of the larger providers of online classrooms or you’re using Zoom or YouTube or whatever is the major provider of these closed captionings, that is what is needed. If you used a particularly complex terminology and you want to ensure that it’s good that’s a great thing to review those captions, they all have that facility.
But, for the most part, relying on the advanced technology we have available will get you where you need to go. And I don’t want us to not embrace the facilities and the advancements we have in fear of not being able to achieve certain expectations because we can do both.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s very encouraging. And I appreciate you mentioning all that. Now, of course, some LMSs, or some learning management systems, have embedded video recorders. Our system we’re using at American Public University has Kaltura and it also has this space where you could record it outside the platform and upload it, and then there’s the video-note feature. Do you have any ideas about how someone might include a video if their platform doesn’t have a really great way to do it, or they need to think about bringing it in from outside their platform?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Absolutely. This is not my area of expertise.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s okay.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: So, the best thing I can do is point you to the direction of our major providers, like YouTube and Zoom and the equivalence to these. Because they are doing this en masse and so they have very high standards that they’re holding themselves to.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. And actually, now that you’ve mentioned YouTube, I’m thinking of an instructor I noticed that was traveling, used a cell phone to create the video and then they uploaded it to YouTube and YouTube has pretty good captioning now. Might need an occasional edit, but it’s so much better. It’s come a long ways. So that’s another place where captioning could be automatic, but it does need to be proofed. So, yeah, good. Are there other ideas you have around video that you want to share with our listeners today?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I just would say, I think videoing as communication with your students is kind of like riding a bicycle. We all, at some point, we’re using our voices and our faces to communicate with our students in some form or another. And I think over time we’ve gotten pretty comfortable with our keyboards, but if we move ourselves back, you can do a recording with only audio. You can. It’s possible too, if that’s what you’re more comfortable with. But it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you get started with it. I was a bit hesitant at first, but once I got started, I just don’t go back. I actually, one last thing, I do my grades, if I have detailed grade feedback that I need a student to refocus, I do that with video too.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s wonderful. We haven’t really talked about grading feedback by video and I’ve seen a lot of different approaches to that. So, I want to just mention those for a minute. I did have a world language faculty member talking to the student, correcting a lot of pronunciation, because students submitted the video, so, he made videos in return that were quite effective in helping students figure out how to speak. It was a Japanese class, very, very helpful.
I’ve also seen people put the essay on the screen and use a screen recorder that also recorded the audio so they could walk through it and touch things with the mouse. And I’m curious, do you think that the assignment needs to be there? Is it enough just to have that video talking, what would be really the concern or the benefits or thoughts around that?
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I think the answer is it depends, as usual. Because, for example, we also, in our programs in STEM, we have had problems that students, they understood the concepts and the vocabulary. But, like you said, not the pronunciation because maybe they haven’t heard it. So, the more we can talk to our students using the language of the topic that we’re teaching, that helps them.
But, I think it really depends on the particular assignment that is being worked on. And the best thing is to just jump in and see what works. You may say, “Oh, that didn’t go as well as I want.” But guess what? The next time you do it’s going to go much better.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. Well, Sylvia, I want to thank you for being here with us today as our guest, talking about videos and using them in your online teaching. And, we’re going to have you back for a few more episodes in the future, which our listeners should return for and look forward to hearing from you. And as we close out, I just wanted to give you one more chance, if you have any final message for our listeners before we close our episode.
Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I just want to thank you for having this opportunity to speak with all of you. And I think we’re an interesting bunch as educators because we love our topics and we love our students. And I love to be involved in helping everyone learn new ways to do it and listening to the rest of your podcasts, where I get to learn so much from all of your other guests. Thank you so much.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you. Thank you again for being here. We appreciate the message you’ve shared today and look forward to more. We’ve been here with Dr. Sylvia Nemmers from American Public University and we wish you all the best this coming week in your online teaching.
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 switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.
This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Department Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler, Department Chair, English and Literature
Being an effective writer is a foundational skill but teaching students how to write can be both challenging and overwhelming for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to author and educator, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler about her strategies for teaching writing. Learn how she uses writing workshops to teach writing through the eyes of a reader and a writer, and why it’s so important to teach students how to properly critique each other’s work. Also learn about the building-block and essay-map concept she teaches to help students outline their papers as well as tips for grading and assessing student writing effectively and efficiently.
Listen to the Episode:
Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora
Read the Transcript:
Dr. 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 Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Today you’re in for a special treat. We have a guest with us, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler. She is the Department Chair over English and Literature at American Public University. Jackie, welcome to the podcast. For our listeners, would you mind telling us a little bit more about your background?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. Thank you, Bethanie. And thanks for having me on the podcast. I have spent the last three years at APUS and loving every minute, teaching and also being an administrator in the department. So, I’m the Chair of the English Department, as you said.
And before that I spent about four and a half years in the Middle East as a professor in Canadian University Dubai. And the way I like to say it, is I was an American woman of Irish descent living in Dubai and teaching at Canadian, pretty multicultural background right there. And I’m a writer. So, I write novels and I write memoirs and short stories, and I’m excited to be here.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Well, just to help you know a little bit about our audience here. We have online educators all over the world that listen to our podcast. So, they are in for a treat hearing from you. I’m just curious what one of your areas of focus might be in teaching writing online, specifically?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, the funny thing is, Bethanie, I write, I teach writing, I coach writing. Truly, I need maybe to get another exciting habit or hobby, but it’s one of the things I really love. And I think one of the ways I like to teach writing is through the eyes of a reader and the eyes of a writer. And I think so often we don’t do that. We teach writing as teachers and we forget that there’s an audience and that there’s somebody who’s doing it. So, one of the things I like to bring to my classes is the idea of writing workshops.
Even in an online atmosphere, it’s really fun, I teach the students how to critique each other’s writings. And by that I don’t mean give criticism, but actually critique the structure of what’s being put on a page. And what do I mean by that? Well, I want to know how the thesis statement works, how it flows when you read it, how somebody’s turn of a phrase works. So, we give writers the opportunity to see their writing through the reader’s eyes. And that’s an unusual thing. Usually, we put our writing out there before we understand how the readers will view it, and so it’s a really nice addition to an online classroom.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love the way you said this critique was more about structure. And what I heard when you said that was artistry, it made me think about an art critique.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. What I say to students all the time is, “Look, they’re words on a paper, don’t get overly focused on them being your words on the paper. They’re just words. And so, if somebody has a critique for you, if somebody says, “I’m not sure what that word means, and I’m not sure it’s helping the sentence,” for instance, don’t be defensive about it. Have an open mind, look at it the way the reader is seeing it and say, “Well, maybe it doesn’t belong there. Maybe I need to do something that reshapes that area so that it does read more fluidly for a reader.”
And the idea is, you want to write for an audience. You want to make sure your writing is understood by an audience, so be open, be flexible. And then, in the end, remember, you’re the artist. So, as a writer, you’re painting with words. That’s what you’re doing.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. That’s beautiful.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, it’s your choice on what paint colors and the texture and everything you use, but as any good artist would, they would open up to the critique from those who are looking at or reading the art.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Speaking of the critique. So, many of our educators that are hearing this podcast are not writing teachers. And I’m curious, what advice would you give them to get better at helping students in that area?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, we can’t expect students to just critique. They don’t know how to do it, so it’s part of teaching. So when I teach writing, I’m also teaching critique. And for those of you who think that’s a really hard job, it is. But in the end, you’re also teaching writing by teaching critique because we’re giving the writers the opportunity to learn how to critique themselves by critiquing others first.
So, our students come to the classroom knowing how to give criticism. So, something like, “I don’t like that. I don’t think it sounds good. It’s not really good.” Or the perennial favorite for students, “Yeah, it’s good.” And what does that say to the writer? Nothing. None of those criticisms say anything to the writer.
So, a critique is more focused. You learn the building blocks of writing: a thesis statement, a paragraph, how to write a topic sentence, how to be creative, how to join sentences together so it makes a variety, and it makes it interesting.
And then, you allow the reader to say, “I’m not sure if this paragraph is flowing the way it should? It sounds a little funny. Maybe you need some transitions. Let me give you an example of what I would say. I might put, for example, here.”
The difference is as a writer you know what you want to say, and you know what you have in your head, but we often time short circuit that we just put enough for us because we have it all in our head. As a reader, the reader is saying, “I get where you’re going, but I need a little bit more.”
And so, to teach critique to a student, to teach them how to critique, it requires the teacher to model it. So, in an online classroom, everything is written, and so one of the things I do is write out critiques for every student the first few weeks of my classes, for every student, for every building block.
And what I find is that students start to mimic what I’m doing in the classroom. They come up with their own ideas, but I use a lot of different colors. When I’m talking about a thesis statement, for instance, I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” And I put them in different colors so that students can see the critique right away.
And what I find after a couple weeks is students begin to use colors in the same way too. Or they begin to look at, for instance, how punctuation works. I know it sounds like just punctuation, but semicolon makes a big difference sometimes, or a comma might make a difference, and so students begin to mimic the way I’m teaching them to critique. And they recognize early on, because I’m really clear about it, it’s not about the author, it’s not about the writer, it’s about the words on the page.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I hear that. And you said something that I was going to ask a question about, I’m sure listeners probably wondering this too, you said something about building blocks and then I heard you say, “topic, argument, three-point essay map.” Could you explain a little bit what some of those things are?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, the thesis statement, which is the English teacher’s favorite, favorite thing to teach. In my life I’ve maybe taught it 110 million times, but it’s important for every new group of writers—and now we’re talking academic writing—for every new group of academic writers, they have to learn how to write a thesis map. It is a thesis statement. It is exactly what it says. It’s giving the topic.
So, in a thesis statement, the way I teach it is I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” An essay map tells us how we’re going to argue the argument. And each of those points become the topic for the body paragraphs. So, once you write a good thesis statement, you have your whole essay mapped out, which is cool. I remember in college writing my first paragraph and thinking, getting through it after hours and saying, “Oh gosh, that was great. I’m done. Oh no, I have more paragraphs to write, what am I going to write next?”
Well, if you spend the time on one of the building blocks, which is a thesis statement, you know exactly where you’re going for the whole rest of your paper. So that’s why we talk about building blocks, one would be a thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement has three parts, topic, argument, three point-essay map.
My next building block would be to take the three-point essay map and then to use that to build the three topic sentences for the three body paragraphs. And that’s how we teach it, one step at a time, one step at a time.
So, once you break up an essay into steps, students can start to see the critique. “Oh, this would work better if you did three points in your essay map instead of two, or this would work better if you used your essay map to write your topic sentences.”
So, once you take it from the big elephant in the room, the essay, down to its smaller components, students will find it easier to create them—essays—and also students will find it easier to critique them.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. That sounds like a really easy flow to work from. And I was playing in my head as you’re explaining this to me and to our listeners, I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I could just throw out a thesis idea and you could tell me how I could make this better.”
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Just because at the time of this recording it’s winter, and, of course, our listeners might listen to this at any time of year, but that just jogged the idea for me of snowmobiling, right?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I was thinking, well, let’s just say, for example, I’m going to write my essay on snowmobiling.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So that’s your topic.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And I’m thinking, everyone should ride a snowmobile to work in the winter because it’s exhilarating, it’s gas efficient, which is probably not true, but we’re going to pretend, and then because it will renew your zest for life.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Okay. They’re your three essay map points, right?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So now you have your topic, which is snowmobiling to work. So, you narrowed your topic a little bit, snowmobiling to work, and your argument is everybody should do it. So, you’re going to prove that everybody should do it. Now, one of the things I would say to a thesis writer is “Are you sure you want to say everyone? So, what about the guy in Fiji who doesn’t have snow?”
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah, I think he’d wreck his snowmobile.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, we always talk about, in academic writing, narrow your audience, because if your audience is everybody, your audience is nobody. So, narrow your thesis statement. So those who live in winter climates, do you see how it narrows it down?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Where there’s a snow floor, yeah.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Where there’s a snow floor. Now you have your argument, your topic and your three-point essay map is great, because what you’ve done is each of those become the topic of your body paragraphs. So, the first would be all about it being exhilarating. The first body paragraph would be all about it, it being exhilarating. I forget what the second one, oh, it’s gas efficient. The second paragraph would be all about being gas efficient. And it gives you a zest for life would be the third body paragraph. So, with one sentence you’ve outlined your whole essay.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I like that. That’s nice. And then, I’m curious about how one would come to that thesis in a concluding paragraph without simply just saying it exactly the same way.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Oh, Bethanie, I think you might be a budding English teacher over there.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, what we always say is, you paraphrase yourself. In your concluding essay, you want to take your thesis statement and you want to restate it in a way that captures the topic and the argument. And if you want, the essay map, but you don’t have to, but you want to do it in a way that the reader doesn’t recognize the words.
English has 800,000 words to choose from, and you could put them together in so many different ways. You don’t have to use the same words that you used in your original thesis statement to say some of the same things. And so, the idea is to just turn the phrase, paraphrase yourself in a way that concludes your essay. Can you imagine if I say to a student, “If you write a good thesis statement, you have your concluding sentence for your whole essay.”
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that. And that simplifies it, I think, for the student too, especially, who’s not feeling confident about the writing.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yes.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, Jackie, we were talking about how to help a student learn to write an essay, how to lay it out. I’m wondering if there are any other tips about the writing part before we go on to maybe the evaluating, grading that many of our listeners are also wondering on about.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, one of the things that I always say to students is “Variety is the spice of life.” If you’re an American, you know that saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” In other words, the more things change up, the more exciting they are. And it’s the same with writing. Variety is the spice of writing.
So, you can write a simple sentence, you can write a complex sentence, you can write a compound sentence, you can put sentences together and build one long sentence out of two or three or four shorter sentences, the idea is you work with all of those in one essay.
What that does, let me give you an example, one of the best novels I’ve ever worked with that showed this is Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” And what he does beautifully is he moves from short, choppy sentences where your heart is beating, to longer, more sonorous sentences where you feel relaxed.
And then he comes in again with the short, choppy sentences and you’re taken off guard and your heart starts to beat again. And so, that’s the kind of stuff you want to do in writing. Even in academic writing, you could write these long, beautifully, complex sentences, follow it up with something really short and to the point so it wakes up your reader. You want to have that kind of variety in your sentences.
And one of the ways I talk to primarily American students, because students who learn English from other languages don’t have the same problem, but grammar is such a beast for students in the United States. And one of the reasons is, because they just don’t understand that the words that we’ve chosen to name our grammar, nouns, and verbs, it’s all from Latin. And it used to be that we all learned Latin in university, but not anymore.
So, our students, they have a hard time with the words. And so, one of the things I do in any writing class is I start at the very beginning. So, I explain to them what each of the Latin words means so that they can finally get a grasp on grammar. And then I say to them, “Hey, let me tell you this, if you are writing, 85% of what your words say is the important part of an essay. 15% is the grammar. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about the grammar, but that shouldn’t be the only worry.”
And this is the way I like to tell my students, “If you were lucky enough to go by a beautiful Monet painting, you flew to France and you bought the Monet and you came home and you went to put it on your wall and you realized you didn’t have a frame for it, and you went down to Walmart and you bought a 99 cent frame to put your beautiful Monet painting in, the Monet will not have changed because of the frame, but it will detract from the Monet because of the frame.”
And that’s the same with grammar, you want to put your writing, your words, the painting with your words in a beautiful frame, which is grammar. And the frame allows the beautiful words, the painting with words to be enhanced rather than the frame taking away from the understanding of the words. Does that make sense?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. And it sounds like you have to craft with the grammar what supports it to flow well, or to show the beauty of what you’re saying.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Right. You want your words, the words that you’re painting into a beautiful picture to mean the same coming from your mind into the mind of the reader. And the way we do this is we have this shared structure, this shared format. And we use nouns, and we use verbs, and we use punctuation and they only account for 15% of the final overall painting, but it’s an important 15% because it puts us all on the same page. We all know, reader or writer, what you’re doing with a period, what you’re doing with a verb, what you’re doing with a noun. And so, that’s why it’s important.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to just shift gears a little bit to the evaluating part, the grading. One of the complaints online faculty sometimes have is that grading writing takes so long, it’s so involved. And I want to just make a confession right here that when I was first teaching online, I would bleed all over the essay. I would be doing what I’m sure you’re going to say we should not do, and that it was editing. So, I’d be making a comment here, there, everywhere. Since then, I totally approach it differently, but I would prefer listeners hear from you about what they should do, what your suggestions might be.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: There’s a couple ways to go at this. What I say to my faculty members, “Remember, English we grade 500 to 600 pages of writing every single week. And so we need to teach. That’s why we do assessments, to teach through assessments, but we also have to be reasonable with our time so we can teach in the classroom.”
And so, I always say, “If you spend more time writing than the students spent writing, you’re doing it wrong. You’re not engaging a paper for a long-term affair. This is speed dating. You want to be thorough, but you don’t want to be in there all day long. So, you’re not making a commitment to the paper, you’re going through it.”
And here’s the first thing that we do wrong as academics, as teachers in general, we correct every single mistake. And that’s a mistake, because we’ve done the work and now we understand how, for instance, grammar works, but we’ve done all the work for the students and so therefore they haven’t learned anything.
So, you’re not an editor. You’re right, we often edit. What you want to do is you want to read through the paper. If you see that there’s issues, for instance, with grammar, you want to pinpoint about three big pieces of grammar, the things that you think, if they were cleared up, the paper would be more intelligible.
And then you clearly correct it and give a comment that says, let me give an example, “This sentence is a run-on sentence, that means you have two or more sentences smashed together without the correct punctuation. Let me show you how to fix it.” Fix it. Then you fix it. And then you say in a comment, in the end of your comment, “I want you to go through your paper and find all of the run-on sentences and correct them. Next time I grade your papers, I’m going to be looking for the fact that you corrected your run-on sentences.” Do you see what I mean? You tell them what it is, you define it, you show them how to fix it, you tell them that’s how they’re being evaluated in their next piece of writing.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That sounds like a wonderful approach. It’s going to save us lots of time and energy. So, I’m hearing you say that we should ask for a second submission.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, a lot of times in writing we do a second submission in English papers, but I’m also comfortable if it’s a single paper and the next time they’re doing a paper on something else, I make it clear, “When you write your week five paper, I’m looking for this.” So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be another paper or resubmission. You hope that they take your feedback and rewrite all the run-on sentences, but they may not. I don’t think I did when I was in college, but you hope. But you make it clear that you’re looking for them in the next paper.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That makes a lot of sense. And then if you’re just telling the student to just apply this, you don’t necessarily have to track each one, follow up, see that they did it, you’re just advising, basically.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. You’re not the police. You’re there to give support, to teach, to help. And you don’t want to forget the lesson that you taught in the first assignment. You want to make sure that that lesson was understood.
Because sometimes they don’t understand what you’ve said. You may think you put the most time into your comments on a paper and you find that nothing’s changed in the next paper. Well, maybe they didn’t understand. And so, you want to give another opportunity for them to succeed.
So, the idea in writing is you want people to succeed. So, you point it out, you define it, you correct it, you show them, you tell them what you want them to do for the next paper. And if they don’t do it, you do it again.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Gain confidence.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Gain confidence. You don’t let it die. You’re right, Bethanie, gaining confidence is important when you see it done well. The students in my class laugh because I teach the semicolon rule, an easy way to fix a run on sentence is to take the period, where you would put a period, for two sentences and put a semicolon in. It’s the easiest rule. And so, when I see it on papers, I make a big deal out of it, “Semicolon, this is great.”
And so, they get the idea that I’m looking to see what they do well, as well as what they don’t do well. And I think that’s important because all of us sometimes accidentally do something well. And so, if a teacher points out, “This was perfect, this was so well said, this was so well done,” if it was one of those moments when it was accidental, you’ve gelled, “Hey, I did this, right and I didn’t even know I did it right, but I’m going to do it like this forever now.” That’s the hope.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that you’re pointing out a positive as well, because I think when you’re working online, oh, maybe you’re doing this eight hours a day, all week-long kind of thing, if it’s your full-time gig, you’re really spending a lot of time. And I know it’s easy to get fed up with the same problem you see, and have a difficult time being positive. Sometimes you see that same thing over and over, especially if you’re correcting it or stating the problem and explaining and it’s not getting fixed. So, bringing out the positive probably helps balance it for the student too and ensure that you’re not just getting stuck in that negative zone.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: No. And I don’t think corrections in writing should ever be a negative. I think it’s support. It’s a writing workshop where I’m saying, “Let me give you some advice on how to make this even better.” Years ago, I gave up using a red pen. Years ago. And it’s because people saw red pen and panicked. So even if I wrote something nice with a red pen, students weren’t seeing that.
And so now I just dialogue, I consider it a dialogue. So even when I say this is a run-on sentence, this is what it means, okay, a run-on sentence isn’t good, but I don’t make the student feel like, “She found a mistake, I did something wrong.” No, of course you’re going to make mistakes. You’re human. Welcome to the human race. And so, it’s okay. Make a mistake. I’m going to define it and teach you how to not make that mistake. If you want to learn how not to make that mistake, I’m going to give you that opportunity.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I know we’re getting short on time for our session here or our episode, I’m wondering if we were to pull all this together for some key points that we really want listeners to take away, what would those be?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, I would say the first thing is that writing is never a punishment. So, for anyone out there who thinks I’m going to make you write a theme for doing something wrong, please don’t do that. Writing is the articulation of your innermost heart and your innermost thoughts. And so, what a beautiful gift to give to our students, to teach them how to write in a way that the reader can understand, fully understand, the expression that’s coming from their heart and minds. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is if you think about teaching writing, instead of, one of the things I always say to students is how do you eat an elephant? It’s overwhelming. Think about eating an elephant. It’s about 26,000 Big Mac’s if you sit down to eat an elephant. How do you do it? And eventually someone will say one bite at a time, and that’s it.
So, if you think about the essay like the elephant, how do you do it? It’s one bite at a time. So, you teach the building blocks. Let’s start with a simple thesis statement, it’s one sentence. One. We can write that. And when they do it, well done, let’s go on the next building block until they get to the essay. It doesn’t take that long to do it that way.
And then, finally, as we’re looking over it and providing feedback, remember feedback is not a “gotcha.” It’s not a moment of “you made a mistake and I’m going to point it out.” That’s not what it’s for. A feedback is to help the student improve. I’m going to give you the key that if use it you can unlock a more fluid, more interesting, more understandable writing style. And as teachers of writing, you’re not editors. So, when you are grading it, your feedback is a dialogue between you and the student. You’re not an editor, save that for the publishing companies.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Nice. I think that’s going to help a lot of our listeners relax a little bit, realizing they don’t have to catch every little thing that’s wrong with someone’s writing.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, some of the things that are wrong is what makes the writing good. So, we teach the rules all the time, but I always say to students, “When you’re really good at writing, when you learn all the rules, then you could break the rules, and that makes your writing special.”
So sometimes, when I write, I know what a fragment is, an incomplete sentence, but when I write creatively, I use a lot of fragments in my writing. And it’s not a mistake there. It’s intentional. And the reader knows that I know how to write a complete sentence. So, when I write a fragment, it’s for reason, it’s to pay attention here, I’m breaking the rules. And so, I think if we look at the idiosyncrasy that everybody brings to their own specific writing, I think, in the end that ends up being beautiful.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes, it does. Well, Dr. Fowler, I want to thank you for being with us today. It’s been a true pleasure to hear your thoughts about writing, but also your enthusiasm. You’re really inspiring to speak with because you have this energy about writing and it’s not this overwhelming thing, when you’re sharing all these points, it’s very encouraging. And I hope our listeners today will take that away and be able to apply that in their online work and their online teaching with students and just spread the wealth about how much fun this can be and how not overwhelming it can also be.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, writing is always hard, even when you love to do it. The hardest part is starting. But once you start, you move.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Sounds so true. Thank you again for being here. And we’re going to say goodbye to our listeners and wish them all the best in their online teaching 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.
This content was first posted on APUEdge.Com
Helping students succeed in the online classroom requires a student-centric approach from attentive and skilled faculty. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to APU faculty director Dr. Doris Blanton about training faculty to help students access and use virtual tools for research. She also provides teaching tips like the importance of providing timely feedback and focusing on both areas of improvement as well as noting what students have done well in their research and writing.
Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora
Read the Transcript:
Dr. 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 Online Teaching Lounge podcast. With me today, we have a guest, Dr. Doris Blanton. You’re in for a real treat. Doris has a lot to share with us, and I’m so pleased that she was able to join us today.
You know on the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, we focus on students, on best practices, on engaging media, and your life and your work online. You’re going to get a lot of those areas today, as we focus on Doris’s expertise and what she can help us with in our online teaching and our online work with students.
Very excited to have you, Doris. Thanks for being with us. Doris, can you tell us a little bit about yourself so we can get to know you and how you came into your online role?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Hi. Thanks, Dr. Hansen. Thank you very much for having me join your podcast to talk a little bit about student and faculty success, more so, helping faculty aid in our student retention. A little bit about myself. Unknown to many of my peers, I was a high school dropout. I quickly discovered as adults were bowing their head in a sort of disappointment, because at the time when I was a high school dropout, that was back in the 70s, and what you did was you got married. So it was unlikely for a teen mom to return to high school after I dropped out.
But after overhearing a lot of these adults that were pretty important in my life, and what I’d overheard them saying as they bowed their head was, “Oh, another statistic.” I was never a bad student, but I couldn’t just quit high school. I had to manage this new season in my life. So I quit school, but I actually went back to night school about six months after having my son. And I actually finished high school six months before my original graduating class. So I knew that it was just a season of change.
What I did after I finished my high school diploma was I enrolled at the local JC. I had to do something with my time. And it wasn’t long after starting junior college that my then husband and I realized, as two young adults, we weren’t even young adults then. We really didn’t have the skills to equip us for being parents, let alone being partners. And so, that ended quickly, but I learned that school was my only legitimate thing that was mine. And it was something that I got to work for and learning wasn’t hard for me. I liked it.
But after this unexpected journey that took me from my teens through my twenties, I finished my bachelor’s by the time I was 30. Of course, working two and three jobs, which is like a lot of our students now, I ended up pursuing my Master’s by the time I was in my middle 30s. And I pursued my doctorate by my late 40s. School has always been a staple, that constant for me. And I did enjoy learning, so it was something that I’ve maintained as a lifelong learner.
I landed my job in academia by total accident. Prior to working in academia, I had worked for a large grain cooperative in the Dakotas, but I returned to California as my folks needed some help. And I transitioned from agriculture into a new industry in banking, which was really interesting.
My background prior to banking had been almost 20 years in various service or hospitality industries. I did have a really fun stint in radio, which is how I landed the job at The Elevator, which allowed me to learn how to buy and sell commodities.
While at The Elevator, I also created a scholarship program for the cooperative members there, and a communications plan, which I was able to diversify for the 13 different communities that The Elevator operated in.
Landing a job at the bank when I returned to California, it was fine, but really a slow pace from having a phone on each ear when I was buying and selling commodities to a banking job where it was Monday 9-5, so to speak, and it was a little slower. But I discovered at that bank, they had tuition assistance. So I immediately, after I finished my probationary period, that’s when I enrolled in my master’s program. And I finished that master’s in about 15 months because like I said, learning was fun. I enjoyed it. And it was something that worked really well for my schedule.
While I was going to school and still working at the bank, I was actually asked by the college if I would apply for an academic role as an academic counselor. And I thought, “What the heck?” So I landed the job. And that’s when I discovered that I had a little bit more academia in me than I realized. I loved it.
I stayed at that gig for 15 years and it ran its course. I took a break due to some life changing events, and I went to care for my then 99 year old grandmother, which was probably the best two and a half years of my life. I was decompressing from 15 years of heavy-duty work and higher education. And another life changing event transitioned me to where I am now, where my primary role now is teaching.
But I have just over 100 faculty that report directly to me, for whom I coach. I mentor them with a consistent goal, a constant goal, of helping other peers like myself develop stronger classroom excellent strategies.
So classroom excellence for me comprises of just a few faculty standards and they fall into either social, teaching, or cognitive presence in the classroom. And what that means in a social presence is how faculty flex that social muscle. How do they develop their student-centric behaviors of getting to know their students early on, meeting them in the first few days of the online class, and then maintaining that welcoming environment, that tone throughout their term in the semester, that teaching presence?
Well, that’s what we do as faculty. How are we teaching students or providing those nuggets of learning? It’s not necessarily content driven, but it’s definitely a way for faculty to teach students by way of how faculty contribute to student learning in the faculty’s feedback.
That cognitive presence is where faculty are asking students those probing questions, often times bringing their content expertise from the industry back to the classroom where faculty are nudging the students to just take that extra step, add to their layer of learning.
I love working with faculty, especially who are newer to online teaching, just to help them get their little online sea legs going. But working with those seasoned faculty who need assistance, primarily in an online environment where more seasoned faculty might need help adapting to new online skills, I’ve discovered that one of the key things for those faculty that are more seasoned is to remind them you’re not just a content expert, but remember when that class was new to you?
Bringing that back to that entry level every class is something that I enjoy. It allows faculty to kind of slow things down because we can often expect a little too much from students at a lower level when we are definitely content experts. We need to make sure that we’re bringing it back down every term, to the beginning. And every class needs to be fresh and new for the students, even though it’s not fresh and new for the faculty. So that’s kind of where I’ve landed here.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow, that’s quite a journey, Doris. Thank you for sharing all of that. So Doris, it occurs to me that when you introduced yourself and kind of share this background of all the diverse paths that brought you to where you are right now, that you have this recurring theme throughout this time in your life, from your youth all the way to now of helping people and of education.
You mentioned you were an advisor, and I know you’re a life coach also. And I’m curious. When you talk about helping faculty remember, “Oh, this isn’t the first thing” or refreshing understandings, what do you think about this part of you that is so helpful to other people? How do you orient yourself to thinking that way?
Dr. Doris Blanton: That’s a great question, Bethanie. I think discovering early on, and I think I really discovered it when I was in my Master’s program was I’m a servant leader. And accepting that and embracing it and not fighting it has allowed me to develop skills in other areas, not only in the classroom. But when dealing with faculty, if I can serve them, I can also lead them. And it’s a nice harmony for me.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. Thanks so much again for sharing all that. Now, what might you share with our listeners today about working with online students?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Great question, Bethanie. Honestly, working with online students really isn’t different than working with students that are attending brick and mortar institutions. And what I mean is, students no longer have textbooks, even at the brick and mortars. And that was a huge shift for me in the first three years of higher education, because I had had textbooks throughout my undergraduate and graduate. And then we went to no textbooks. So that was kind of a transition for me, but something I embraced.
So what I discovered for working with students online or face-to-face was teaching students how to use virtual tools, their virtual books, the virtual libraries. Teaching students how to do their research the same as for both face-to-face classrooms, as well as our virtual classroom. I was the student that walked across the quad to the library and pulled out all the books. That’s not necessary anymore. Assisting how to use tools that are available to everyone is invaluable.
Teaching faculty how to use those tools is equally important. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a handful of students who spend just as much time looking for ways to circumvent finding credible resources, helping faculty discover where those students are finding these ill-advised or plagiarized sources is a way for faculty to develop their researching skills. But to also help students discover you’re not using credible research when you’re gleaning a little here or gleaning a little there, helping faculty develop their skills on how to research helps them to coach students on how to research.
Because I think a good majority of our students come in thinking that well, “I found it online, it must be good.” Teaching how to research is very, very important and helping faculty develop those skills first allows them to further help our students online.
Another thing that I share with faculty when I work with them is that a good majority of our students already feel that imposter syndrome when they walk into the classroom. “I’m not worthy of being in school. I’m not academically ready for school. I’m not even mentally up for the challenge.”
And all of that is pretty bogus. We know those things are untrue. We’ve all felt those things. Reminding faculty that they too probably had those imposter syndromes, and to aid faculty in allowing those conversations to happen. And I do it upfront. I do it early on in the classroom so that students can let that guard down and let it be known maybe I am where I’m supposed to be even though it feels off is a way to help disarm students and allow them. That’s when the learning can begin. Over the past year, especially in COVID, a good majority of institutions have transitioned to an online environment.
The beauty of APUS is, of course, we’ve always been online, so our faculty were really able to help embrace a new student population that were impacted and forced into an online environment without making the choice, as our students make that choice upfront. And over the past year, I’ve actually read an awful lot of student feedback, especially students that were formerly in traditional environments, who shared that they felt really liberated in their learning. No longer forced to be in a class at a certain time.
It kind of reaffirmed that the student, number one, made the right choice going online. But they discovered for the first time, those students that were traditionalist before, school fit into their life at a more convenient time. It affirmed their online choice.
I think that our students are pretty acclimated to the online groove after about weeks two or three, but when they’re not, faculty are provided with the freedom and the autonomy to meet with those students. Our faculty are stewards of the classroom and they are the ones that can ensure that students are in the right place, at the right time.
Faculty have the freedom and are encouraged to meet with them one-on-one, have Zoom meetings, let the students call you. They need that reassurance that where they are is at the right place at the right time. And that’s some of the keys that the faculty can help unlock for the student.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, I really appreciate all that you have shared so far, especially this idea about imposter syndrome. And when you were talking about this for our students, it occurred to me that even faculty have imposter syndrome at times, depending on what the context is and what we’re talking about.
And I’ve also coached some folks who are in the business world, who also experienced that. I think that’s a very frequent thing to have the experience personally with. And we may not realize others feel the same way at times. So I appreciate you bringing that out.
Now, as you mentioned, students have needs, and they’re not all the same. So I’m wondering what are some of your strategies for meeting their individual needs?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Wow, Bethanie, that is a great question. I like it. Well, some of the strategies for meeting our various online students can be some of the things that I do. I host a new-student orientation. I bring together newer students sharing with them who their programmatic experts are; who can they contact about content? I bring in librarians and they get a library tour. A lot of students are completely unfamiliar with it. They might know where the library is, but how to use it? The beauty of our librarians is they’re available for students almost 24/7 to help them get acclimated with library tours, I like to call them.
There are various ways for faculty to assist students through their writing, their citing, perhaps sharing with students who’ve been enrolled a little bit longer, some of the extracurricular or honor society, student clubs, student activities. Those are things that further aid in student retention, their persistence in the classroom.
But most of all, I think what I really bring to students is that they have academic advocates and their greatest academic advocate is themselves. And so I think that further allows students to feel empowered, but it also allows students to feel confident in saying, “Wait a minute, I have a question. Wait a minute, I need some help.” We possess the knowledge of where the resources are pointing them to it is without a doubt what we can do as faculty in the classroom. It’s help them find the resources that they need.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Oh, that’s super helpful. If our listeners notice that a student is ignoring the help, especially something really standard like grading feedback. And maybe our listeners get frustrated about that as the teacher or the faculty member. What kind of suggestions would you give them to help them stay focused while they’re trying to re-communicate and somehow get that through?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Bethanie, this has to be one of the greatest frustrations faculty across disciplines and institutions share. How do I get students to read the thorough detailed feedback I spent so much time providing for them? I remind faculty all the time. We can certainly lead a horse to water. We can even push their head into the water, whether they drink is entirely up to them. It’s sad, but true. One strategy that I encourage faculty to do is to ensure that their feedback is timely.
Nothing is worse than getting feedback from a faculty the day that I’m submitting my next assignment. That is neither timely, nor helpful. So being timely in their feedback is critical. The sooner I can get feedback to a student, the sooner they will be successful in their next written assessment, whatever that might be.
Another strategy that I recommend to faculty is if they’ve taught the class a few times and they can see where students tend to experience that muddy point, create a little mini-lecturette prior to the assignment being due so that you can walk students through that muddy point, to help them get to it before they submit the assignment. So that what they submit to you is more in aligned with the quality work that you’re expecting.
Another tip that I provide faculty is I encourage faculty to pick one or two items. If they’re turning into an editor, that’s definitely not anything that a student wants to read. Their paper, in some instances may look like the faculty bled all over it.
So I encourage faculty pick one or two things that you can focus on. And then in their paper, one of my pet peeves is contractions, so I might point out a few contractions and maybe I’ll point out a few syntax or grammar areas. But then I go look for the content.
And I think we can definitely summarize what the student has missed in their paper and what their shortcomings are. But if we’re not highlighting what they’ve done well, why would they read their feedback? If all I did was something wrong, they didn’t even notice what I did right. It’s important for us to tell students not only where you have opportunities to make improvements, but look at all the things you did right.
And there’s a nice, delicate balance. And I think it’s important that faculty embrace not only where they can help students make corrections, but there’s no reason to edit an entire paper. Pick a few things. Students are pretty consistent with their errors. I don’t need to point them all out.
Focus on the ones that are important so that they can make those improvements and then focus on something different the next time. But ensuring that you are identifying both the good and the opportunity is invaluable for students to be affirmed. “Yes, I’m doing some things right. And okay, I don’t mind making those improvements where I have opportunities in areas where I missed the mark.”
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, that sounds like great encouragement to help faculty and instructors who are teaching online to really strategize preventative ways of reaching students. So by giving that positive, as well as the critical feedback, you’re giving them a complete relationship with you and a reason to keep looking back for your comments and your communication. That’s just beautiful. Thanks for sharing that.
And thanks for all that you’ve shared with us about working online and working with online students. Is there anything more you’d like to leave us with today to help us in our online teaching?
Dr. Doris Blanton: Thanks, Bethanie. Maybe a couple of things. I thought about this for some time. And I think one thing that’s important to leave our listeners with, is that in every class we teach, especially those classes that we’ve taught repeatedly, we know the content inside and out. We know the assignments. We know the rhythm of the course. I remind faculty that students don’t. Students don’t know the class. To be student-centric, we need to keep in mind that when students enter our classroom, they do not possess the knowledge of the course.
Every time we teach, we have to be mindful of our learner. For example, I’ve had some of the most brilliant faculty who teach at the doctorate or master’s level. They’re phenomenal. But those are the same faculty who I might ask to teach one or two classes at the undergrad level. Unwittingly, they expect those undergrad students who are just diving into like-content as the masters or doctorate level, they don’t have that level of experience, and faculty sometimes are unwittingly expecting undergrad students to possess those same skills and knowledge and ability that they come to expect from their master level students.
So ensuring that when faculty start every class, it needs to be rinsed and then repeated. So bring it back to the beginning every term. Being student-centric is a behavior we work on. It’s leaning in. It’s working with students and being mindful that not all students need that additional nudge. It can almost be like the Pareto principle where 20% of your class needs 80% of your time.
Preparing every class by the way of reviewing the materials as if it was fresh and new will further ensure that your classes are playing on a level field. It comes down to being mindful of your learner and their learning level.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, thank you again for being here with us. You’re very student-centric and I am certain that your faculty and your students really benefit from your approach. And I could tell also that you care about them and that you have a lot of warmth in what you do and how you communicate. I just appreciate you sharing with us today. It’s been a pleasure to meet with you.
Dr. Doris Blanton: Thank you, Dr. Hansen. The pleasures been mine. Have a great day.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: You too. So thank you for all of our listeners also for being here. Joining me for this interview with Dr. Doris Blanton, who is a faculty director at American Public University. We hope you’ve enjoyed all that she shared today and wish you all the best in your online teaching this 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.
This content originally appeared on APUEdge.com.
Feedback is an important part of online learning. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips and strategies about how to provide effective feedback to students. Learn how to garner feedback based on students’ work, tips on giving effective feedback to help students, and why feedback is a critical part of the learning process for both students as well as teachers.
Listen to the Episode:
Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher
Read the Transcript:
Dr. 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.
It is hard to believe it’s been an entire year since we started this podcast, and thank you for being on this journey with me. It’s exciting to finish with episode 52 today, and we’re looking forward to the coming year with plenty of guests, new topics, and a lot of help and support for you as an online educator. I hope you’ll keep with us for the journey, and again, thank you for joining us today and over the past year.
What is Feedback?
Today, we’re going to talk about effective feedback in your online teaching. What is feedback? Well, feedback is the process of taking the invitation to respond. Student’s assignments are a response to what we’re teaching. This gives us some feedback about what they can do with what they learned, and whether they learned anything from us. And our comments to them throughout the discussions can challenge them, prompt them, and help them think in new ways.
Grading online assignments is not just about marking a score, giving a letter grade to your students. It’s one thing for you as the educator to recognize what is A level work and what is not, and how to rate or rank your students on the work they’ve given you.
But it’s something else altogether to tell your students what they did well, where they needed to do something differently, and how they can improve. This effective feedback helps them successfully meet their course objectives, as well as knowing if you have taught them accordingly.
Feedback Can Help Students Improve and Reduce Complaints
With this second type of grading, your feedback is something that helps students improve. It helps them stay motivated and your feedback can even help students perform better on their next assignment. So, why should you care about the quality of grading feedback that you provide?
First, there is the practical reason that when students receive a score or a grade with no feedback to help them, they don’t understand the basis for that grade, they complain. Student complaints can raise your anxiety and stress levels and student complaints take more time to address. They also impact your job satisfaction as an educator, and they are preventable much of the time.
You can prevent student complaints most of the time by communicating well with your students about their work. After all, no one likes to be given some kind of score or rating without the idea of how to fix it or improve, especially if they took the time and really put their best effort into that project or that assignment.
Second, the quality of your grading represents part of your teaching. As an educator, you’re more than just a person who tells other people about the subject matter you teach. Although, sometimes we have this idea that a teacher stands in front of the room and lectures about a subject matter and eager students are sitting there taking notes, drinking it all in. There’s much more to effective teaching than just this idea of lecturing in a one-way direction.
Teaching and learning work together, it’s a two-way street. Whatever your teaching methods are, students provide you with an essay, an assignment, or other items and they help you know what they’re learning, and your feedback is part of that exchange. It’s where you keep teaching and it keeps the conversation going back and forth.
And third, feedback in your grading provides you and your students the ability to adjust on this learning journey together. Your students learn about where they are related to the objectives they need to achieve in your class. And you, as the instructor, learn what you need to do to alter your approach so that your teaching is much more effective.
And as you provide feedback, you can see some feedback to you about your teaching approach and your students’ work. This is really one of the most important parts of revealing your students’ work, and one that we often overlook when we’re teaching online.
Ways to Get Feedback from Your Students’ Assignments
When you’re evaluating students’ online assignments, how can you get this feedback about your teaching? Well, you can review students’ work to identify the ideas you taught and see where they appear. For example, are your students able to comfortably use any of the special vocabulary that goes with your subject? And, do they communicate about the ideas with some clarity? Second, in the work they have submitted, do most of your students seem to be learning what you’re teaching?
Based on your teaching methods and your subject matter, you can look for even more evidence of learning in your students’ work, and you can directly connect their work with the course objectives to determine where they stand in relation to where they should be by the end of the class.
Robin Jackson, who wrote, “Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching,” said, “It’s one thing to collect feedback about your students’ progress, but if you simply collect the feedback and never use it to adjust your instruction, then you’re collecting it in vain. The data you receive will give you feedback about the effectiveness of your own instruction.”
It’s important to remember that feedback is information about how we’re doing in our efforts to reach a goal. If we’re teaching other people, we’re putting effort into the goal of educating them. I’ll give you an example of this whole idea in action. When I was a freshman in high school, my chemistry teacher, Bruce Fowler, returned the results of our assignments at the end of a learning unit.
He spoke to us pretty candidly and told us we all failed that assignment. And he realized that he wasn’t really teaching it well, it wasn’t possible for every single person to fail if he had taught it effectively. So, he scrapped his plans for the coming week and he retaught all of that material in a totally different way, and then he reassessed us.
He expressed a lot of care for us as human beings, and he focused on his own continuous improvement in teaching throughout the year. It was pretty obvious, this was a man who focused on feedback for both of us. He gave us the feedback to help us know where we were as learners in our own performance, and he used our performance to give himself feedback about his teaching. Now, this chemistry class was many years ago and obviously not an online class, but we can use the same principle in our online teaching, even if the course is standardized and designed by someone else.
Adapting Your Teaching Based on Feedback
I’ll give you some examples of how this might be done. As a faculty director, observing the teaching of many online educators, I’ve noticed that some instructors adapt after evaluating students’ work by creating videos to address the entire class. And in this whole class feedback, a few of the instructors I’ve seen have mentioned some of the bigger errors students have made in their assignments. Then they give their students additional explanations, guidance, and teaching on those areas to help them adjust so they can move forward for the next unit or topic.
I’ve also noticed some other faculty members have done the same thing in a course announcement, and still, others have added resources and documents with tips, additional information, and reteaching. Whatever the format, you can give your students guidance and feedback to help them understand what they all seem to miss or what a great majority of them seem to miss. And this is a great way to use your students’ work as feedback in your own teaching, and then respond in ways that help your students keep moving forward.
Ways to Give Effective Feedback
What kind of feedback do students need in your grading and your comments? A well-known education writer, Grant Wiggins, shared seven keys to effective feedback. And these keys are:
- That it is goal referenced
- It’s tangible and transparent
- It is user-friendly
For online teaching specifically, I’m going to focus on four of these areas today, which are even more important and I’ll share some special ideas with you.
First, let’s talk about goal-referenced feedback. Goal referenced feedback means that it’s tied to the course objectives. We have some kind of clear goal to be achieved in what students are learning, and when they complete the assignment, it’s tied to this goal. Then the feedback comments we give them about their work while we’re grading it, should also relate to the goal.
For example, if students are supposed to write an argument paper, our feedback might remind them that the argument paper needs to cover how well they take a position and effectively support it with evidence and commentary. And then we’re going to give feedback about the degree to which they did this and how they could do it even more effectively.
Actionable feedback means that it’s concrete, specific, and useful. Wiggins said that effective feedback is concrete, specific, and useful. It provides actionable information, thus “Good job,” and “You did that wrong,” and “B+.” These are not really feedback at all.
We can easily imagine that the learners are asking themselves in response to these comments, “What specifically could I do more or less of next time, based on this information? I have no idea.” They don’t know what was good or wrong about what they did. This includes feedback about what they specifically did right and what they did well. This feedback is objective, rather than your opinion or your judgment of them.
User-friendly means that feedback can be easily understood by the person who’s receiving it. It’s not highly technical or confusing and it is focused. Wiggins tells us an example that’s really good at illustrating this: “Describing a baseball swing to a six-year-old in terms of torque and other physics concepts, will not likely yield a better hitter. Too much feedback is also counterproductive. Better to help the performer concentrate on only one or two key elements of the performance, than to create this huge buzz of information coming at them from all sides and at too high of a level.”
Lastly, timely feedback. Timely feedback means fast feedback. The sooner our students get the feedback from us about their work, the more they can adjust and improve. If there’s another assignment coming up and students are busy preparing for that, they can’t really do this effectively without getting feedback from the previous assignment. And even more difficult, if several weeks pass before their feedback is received. By that time, they have moved on.
Giving helpful feedback can really take time on your part and it might be a large part of what you do when teaching online, but it’s also still part of teaching, not just support for the grade. So, to keep teaching in a way that helps your students the most, giving timely feedback is essential.
Make Sure Students Receive Feedback
Now, how can you help your students see this feedback and actually stay connected in this cycle of teaching and learning? After getting some feedback about your teaching, through your review of students’ assignments, and then giving them feedback about what they demonstrated in those assignments, the process completely fails if students cannot see the feedback you gave them. And online, it’s entirely possible students will miss your feedback completely.
To help you make your feedback have an impact, we’ll close today’s podcast with some practical tips about making sure your students can find it and how they can keep moving forward because they’ve received this feedback.
Tell Students to Expect Feedback on their Work
First, before the assignment starts, before it’s even launched, give your students help to prepare to complete this assignment successfully. This help might include guidance about what to expect, what to include in their work, and then how to submit the assignment.
I suggest also stating exactly how this assignment relates to the course objectives and how it relates to the real world so students can have more context and more buy-in. You might provide this guidance in a course announcement or in an email to the class. Either way, you want to ensure that everyone receives it.
Announce When Feedback is Available and How to Find it
Second, when you’ve evaluated students’ assignments, send out an announcement to let them know your feedback is available to them. You can include screenshots of where they will find this feedback in your online classroom and what it looks like. If your feedback is outside the platform, like maybe it’s in Turnitin GradeMark viewer, you might even need to include a short video showing them what to click on to get to the viewer. And when they get there, what to click on to make the feedback visible.
Be Receptive to Requests for Feedback
Never assume that students know where to find this feedback. And throughout this whole process, third, always be open to students who reach out, asking for more feedback. As Errol Craig Sull wrote in his faculty focus article on the subject, even if the student’s primary reason for asking is to receive a good final grade in the course, this gives you an opportunity to teach a bit more. So, be sure to respond to the student in a timely manner by email, audio message, or phone.
Sull reminds us that when students ask for clarification or more feedback, it’s not about you or whether your feedback is good enough. It’s about the students being interested in improving their work. If we keep this in mind, we’re going to be able to have the space to respond enthusiastically and not take it personally.
So, there you have it. What is good feedback? What should it include and how do you take this to improve yourself and your teaching, as well as how do you ensure your students find all of this feedback so they can use it and keep learning.
I hope that as you move forward in your online teaching this week, you’ll think about feedback in all of these ways and use one of these strategies to improve your practice. Thank you, again, for being with me for the past 52 episodes, this first year of the Online Teaching Lounge. Come back again for the coming year when we’ll have guests and new topics that will help you continue working and teaching online and achieving balance in your work and life. Best wishes in the coming week and the exciting year ahead.
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.
This content was first published on OnlineLearningTips.Com.
Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Military students, especially those on active duty, are a unique segment of the online student population who have specific needs. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides advice and recommendations for instructors about teaching military students including encouraging them to ask questions, making accommodations for unexpected deployments, focusing on real-world connections with learning material, helping them with time management strategies, and much more.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen:
Welcome to episode number 31, teaching military and veteran students online. 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 episode today. Thanks for joining me for the podcast. I’m happy to work with you on teaching students who are either currently serving in the military active duty or perhaps they are veterans students. Either way, we have a special population who needs a little bit of attention and understanding.
I work at a university where we have a very high percentage of military and veteran students. And I personally have really enjoyed what these students bring to the experience.
By definition, for today’s discussion, student veterans or military students are either currently serving, they have served in the past. They could be undergraduate or graduate students. They might be active duty, National Guard in the Reserves, separated from the military, or retired.
This is a broad definition, and for today, I’m just going to talk about these individuals as all being in the veteran population. We’re going to get started with a little bit of understanding to help out if you’re new to teaching military and veteran students, or if you’d like a little grounding on what I’m going to talk about.
Military Students are Highly Disciplined, Structured, and Team Players
The first thing is, veteran students understand roles and hierarchy. In the military, you might understand that there is a chain of command. There is a military commander who has the authority in a given situation. There is a tradition of receiving and obeying orders of various kinds. They are followed, and they dictate a lot of one’s work, one’s existence in the military structure itself.
There’s also a lot of discipline that military individuals bring to their studies and to their work. And they’re used to working on teams and interacting with others and having their results also depend on other people as well.
Encourage Military Students to Ask Questions and Provide Them Clear Instructions
Because of this, there are a lot of things we do as online instructors, where we might catch military or veteran students off guard just a bit, and we might need to let them know they can approach us with questions. They can ask questions to clarify things. They don’t need to take things just on face value and walk away and try to guess.
If requirements are not very clear, we want to encourage them to reach out, communicate, ask questions. If they have a special situation or a circumstance that takes them out of class, we also want to reach out to them to communicate that we’ll be flexible with them and we’ll work on things.
Some communication basics that will help you in working with military and veteran students are to be clear and concise with all of your communications and your instructions. Be direct. Keep it brief.
Act first and ask questions later is a mantra for a lot of veteran students. So giving a lot of information up front will help them because they might not ask first.
Apply Andragogy Theories to Teaching Military Students
They give respect and we want to demonstrate respect in our teaching toward them as well. As I mentioned, there’s a chain of command that exists in the military. So there’s this understanding of the hierarchy of the top-down leadership. You as the instructor, they might be perceiving in that way.
Some of the work and life experiences that military and veteran students bring to their learning really center on the principles of andragogy, which is adult learning theory. And Malcolm Knowles is widely known for this theory as are many others.
Some of those things about the art and science of adult learning really apply here. Our military students are self-directed, autonomous, and they need to be able to control a lot of things in their learning experience.
For example, they might want to plan their own learning. They might need to work ahead. They might want to decide their project, based on the parameters, and just jump in. Their learning experience is the main resource in who they’re going to become as a student. If they have life experience that you can tap in to the work they’re doing in the online classroom, this is going to really help drive home the concepts they’re learning. It’s also going to really personalize it for them.
Help Students Make Real-World Connections to Classroom Learning
If students in the military and veteran population understand why they’re learning something, they just show up ready to learn, and they have intrinsic motivation, for the most part, to get it done.
An example of this life experience and work tying into online learning comes from the course that I taught. I did a research experiment with students who were in a music appreciation class and also in an art appreciation class. In this course, during week one of the forums, I specifically asked them: What was their life experience with the music or art of other cultures? Had they been to other countries? Had they seen the art or heard the music of other people who were maybe new to them?
I had students with the whole barrage of different experiences. Some had served in Japan, some in Korea, some in various countries in Europe. Some had served in the Middle East, some in Africa. They were able to draw on those experiences before the class really started rolling along. And as they were learning different musical things and artistic things, they were also able to make more connections because we had tapped into that experience early on.
Then at the end of the course, I asked them the questions again. How does this help them frame the experiences they have had with other cultures, and what might they do in the future? Some students even said they wished they had had a course like this before serving in those other countries, so they could value the culture more and really taste of the different offerings, different cultures, and different countries provided to them.
Anything that we can do to tap into their existing knowledge, their life experiences, and their learning is going to really help the military and veteran student, and for that matter, even the whole adult learner population.
Familiarize Yourself with the Language of the Military
There is some special vocabulary you might encounter when you’re working with military students. For example, there are common military terms. You might hear the words TDY, or the abbreviation TDY. TDY stands for a Temporary Duty Assignment. There’s also TDA, and it could be called TDT, Temporary Duty Travel. It could be TAD, which is Temporary Additional Duty in the Navy and the Marine Corps, or TDI, which Is Temporary Duty under Instruction. And that refers to a training assignment.
All of these kinds of things are going to take a military or veteran student out of the classroom. They’re going to be on an assignment where they may or may not have internet. There might need to be some flexibility with due dates, with the weeks where they’re actually showing up in the forum discussion; and there might need to be some either opening assignments early or giving them flexibility to complete the work when they get back from those temporary assignments.
Now, there are also some different phrases that might be interesting and new. For example, the phrase “embrace the suck” is a phrase that a lot of my students used to throw around in class. It means to love it when work gets tough, because when it’s over, you will better appreciate the not so tough work that you’re going to do.
It could be referring to a class they didn’t really want to take. Maybe it’s a Gen Ed class, something like that, but they’re going to just power through it and do the best they can to get the tough work done.
Another one is Lima Charlie, that means loud and clear, or in other words, I heard and understood what you said. Another phrase might be “to nug it out,” which is to get it done. Also, there’s a WARNO, W-A-R-N-O, which means a heads up that a project is coming soon. Literally, it’s a warning order.
So military students do have a lot of jargon they might use. In the transcript notes from this podcast, I’ve given you some links to translations and glossaries so that if you are not experienced in the military, and if you do teach a lot of military students, you can meet them where they’re at. You might look up some phrases you might see in discussions or in messages that they send you.
Disruptions or Challenges Facing Military Students
Now, back to this idea of disruptions. Students who are actively serving in the military or in the reserves might be called away unexpectedly. They might not be able to tell you that they are now out of the classroom.
When you see them missing, definitely reach out in the messages or the email, whatever your method is, so you can connect with them and reassure them that when they get back in the course, you’re going to be there for them and able to help them catch up or get back on track.
They might have longer work hours. They might be using government-issued computers, which is an issue when you’re using something like YouTube videos. There are certain kinds of videos and media that might actually be blocked on government-issued computers.
So they might be using a common or shared computer with other students, with other people in the military, or with others in a government organization. In those shared computers, they may or may not have different software or permissions. This is something important to be aware of.
They’re likely taking more than one class online at a time. A lot of military students that I’ve worked with, as I’ve taught online, have been taking three or four classes simultaneously. They’re out of the country, away from their family. They’re filling their free time with learning to take advantage of it, whether it’s to advance their career, prepare for time after the military, make a rank advancement. There are lots of reasons that students will do that.
Assisting Them with Time Management Strategies
For you, and for your students who are in the military, time management is essential. You have many roles, instructor, developer, researcher, advisor, all kinds of things that you do in your online teaching job. And also some physical and time boundaries of work and home life to navigate. Just like you have this time management and boundary stuff to navigate, your students do too. They may be stretching to develop new strategies and be student while also serving. And you may need to coach them in planning their work and working their plan if it doesn’t show up automatically.
Some ways to limit distractions, there are several apps and programs that can help you out. There’s a limiting program called keepmeout.com and another called stayfocusedapp.me. Both of these are worth looking at to limit distractions, to really focus when you’re in your online space, and also to encourage your students to try new tools to help themselves get the work done quickly and get done.
You might consider, for both you and your students, using a timer, setting a work area with your ringer on your cell phone turned off. Maybe set “Do not disturb.” Establish the school working hours, set boundaries for work personal and family time. Let others know that you cannot be disturbed. And then, if you’re teaching at more than one institution or your student is taking more than one class, you might consider how they’re going to juggle the demands of various assignments and put those all on their calendar. Also, use a planner yourself to make sure that you’re on track and able to return grading in a timely manner, and stay engaged.
Ensure Assignment Instructions are Comprehensive and Clear
Some helpful adjustments as you’re working with military and veteran students, you might want to detail the development of the assignment itself. What are the steps to complete the assignment? What should it look like when it’s done? Make sure the assignment description stands alone. It doesn’t need to require you to give more explanation or send additional emails or announcements to help students figure it out
We want the assignment description to tell students how long the finished product should be. Is it going to be a written paper, a slide show? What is it? Whatever the approximate length is going to be, students need to know in advance.
They also need clear and specific requirements and invitations to contact their instructor and receive guidance should they need extra help. Some students might also need the opportunity to resubmit after they have revised the work, especially if they were unclear and acted before asking the questions, which might be common.
Lastly, we need a lot of tools for our military and veteran students to reach out for all kinds of help and support. For example, if there is a writing center at your online school, you want to give them that information. If there is some kind of tutoring or help improving the essay or the assignment, we want to give them that kind of stuff too. So definitely give your students tools for outreach of various kinds, whether it’s tech support, academic support, or other help.
If you have large class sizes or several classes you’re teaching at once, where you have more to read, more to grade, you want to communicate and personalize your messages to students.
I recommend trying Dragon, naturally speaking. It’s a product sold by Nuance, and it helps you to dictate the things you’re going to say into written documents. You can dictate into your announcements, your discussion forums, your other messages that you send students, and also into your grading feedback. This is going to give you a chance to be more personalized with all of your students and connect with them even better.
You might consider keeping a roster of each student and noting what background they have. For example, if they’re out of the country, if they might have internet issues, if they’re currently active duty serving somewhere.
When you make notes like this, you’re going to be able to adjust to your students’ needs much more quickly, and also anticipate the fact that they might have connection issues. Or they might have changes that come up during the semester or session that impact their ability to do the work and do it on time.
You also want to be aware that there might be different expectations, requirements, and standards that students need to learn when they’re in your course, that might not necessarily be the same everywhere.
Anticipate the Needs of Military Students
One thing I highly recommend when you’re working with military and veteran students is to anticipate what they’re going to need as much as possible. You can do this by giving them some screen overviews of your course.
You can use Screencastify, Screencast-O-Matic, or a paid app called Camtasia. You can record walkthroughs of the classroom to give them a guide around the place and where they need to engage, where they need to read things, where they’re going to find their assignments and all of that.
You also can give them a netiquette guide. I’m going to give you a sample netiquette guide in the transcript of this podcast as well. If you want to click on the hyperlink, you can visit the site that has the downloadable netiquette guide.
You can, of course, personalize this to work more for you. But when you tell students upfront how to dialogue in the forum, what you’re looking for and what you discourage, that’s going to help them show up the right way from day one.
Lastly, you want to guide them to shift their level of conversation from casual into academic conversation. Some students approach their online learning like they would texting. And so, language can be brief, abbreviated, and more concise than we would like.
Modeling forum posts, giving that netiquette guide, and sharing what makes a good reply, maybe in your announcements or other feedback that you share, that is going to help your military and veteran students know exactly what’s expected. It’s also going to empower them to meet your expectations much more quickly and more fully.
Think about these things that are going to work for you in working with your military and veteran students. Some of the things that I covered so far really are ways to adapt and help meet them where they’re at.
Think about also genuine teaching engagement when you’re working with them. How can you guide them to participate the most effectively that they can by launching things up front, proactively giving them some steps to do things, and giving them a lot of examples and guidance? Then when you give your grading feedback, how can you be as rich and informative as possible so students can really improve rapidly for the next assignment?
Recommendations for Instructor Tools
You might consider trying some automated grading tools that give you even more additional feedback space. One of those that I highly recommend is this add-in toolbar for Microsoft Word. If you download load your essays in Microsoft Word, and you like to give annotated comments on essays, this add-in toolbar is called GradeAssist. It’s sold by a company www.educo360.com. That’s spelled E-D-U-C-0 360.com. This allows you to create comments that you would normally give, for example, formatting style, quotations, grammar, a lot of those standard things. Then you can also add personalization because you can speed up the process of the more common feedback and give yourself the space and the time to give more personalized feedback as well.
I don’t really recommend using automated tools for all of your feedback. Students need personalization, and they need to know that you read their paper and you’re not just saying the same things to everybody.
Other efficiency tools that can help you meet their needs would be to try auto text expanding apps like TextExpander or ActiveWords, or TypeItIn. All three of these are great tools.
You might consider investing in two computer monitors. When I’m working with my online courses, and especially when I want to give better feedback and more quality engagement, I’ll put part of the class on one monitor and part of the class on the other, so I can move between spaces. Having two computer monitors is going to make your online teaching just a lot more pleasurable and efficient.
If you grade early and handle things only once and return things quickly, it cuts down the overall time you’re going to spend giving feedback, because students can make the adjustments more quickly.
Also, you might have military and veteran students reaching out to you to extend the due date on something. If you’re pretty firm about due dates, and you’re going to move that due date for a student, be sure to give them a week at a time when you extend a due date, because they may not be in class the very next day or two.
So if you only extend a due date by one or two days, that’s not going to help them very much. Extending it by a week or longer, that’s going to be better, so they have a chance to get back into the classroom and see your communication, and then do the work. This is a great strategy in working with all kinds of adult learners, who just might not be logging in every day in addition to the military and veteran population.
Writing Assistance for Military Students
Military considerations that I want to bring to the forefront here, as I tie up these comments today, is that military personnel is often guided to be as succinct and direct as possible in their writing. If you’re working on quality writing with your military and veteran students, keep this in mind. You’re going to coach a lot and you’re going to give a lot of examples to help them grow.
When you’re grading their work, look for potential jargon use or excessive brevity, where guidance and coaching could be helpful in developing more complete ideas. Then make your feedback relevant, personalized, and helpful. They’re going to continue improving and learning and be very efficient at doing that as you give them that quality feedback.
So thank you for being here as we talk about working with military and veteran students online today. This is a wonderful population of students who are going to do a great job with you as you meet them and give them proactive strategies upfront, and also understand a little bit more about the culture they’re coming from. It will help you be more effective, and you’ll enjoy your work with military and veteran students all the more.
Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week. And definitely reach out using the request form on my website. If you would like to share any comments about this podcast or suggestions for future episodes.