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#28: Five Ways to Make Online Forum Discussions More Creative

#28: Five Ways to Make Online Forum Discussions More Creative

This podcast content initially appeared on OnlineLearningTips.com.

 

Transcript:

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.

Thank you for joining me today. We’re going to discuss online discussion forums and specifically, creative ideas to make those discussions more educationally valuable, help your students connect more, and help them to learn as well.

The typical discussion practices that we find in online, higher education across the board are to respond to a question reply to two peers. Well, when you reply to two classmates, often a student can post their answer, go back the very same day, respond to two others, and never enter that discussion again. Unless there’s a really compelling reason for them to do so, that often is the case.

When we create interesting and creative discussions that further their learning, as well as tapping into their creativity and apply to their real lives, the future, and their higher thinking, there’s a better tendency for students to engage in return and talk some more.

We want to be creative as much as we can to really engage the students in their learning. We also want to use a variety of instructional practices, as well as those active verbs from the taxonomies about thinking. These might range anywhere from factual level, all the way up to analysis and synthesis and creation.

The way we write the discussion forum has everything to do with what we get out of the end, where the students are writing and answering that discussion.

Today, I have five creative ideas for you that I think you’re going to enjoy, and I hope they liven up your discussion forums now and in the future, and that you will also enjoy creating more.

 

In a short piece called Generating Lively Online Discussion by John Orlando of North Central University, John tells us about how students are more likely to get involved in a discussion that is already active. If we have a discussion that really promotes activity early in the week, or instructions that ask students to engage early in the week, this is going to provide that kind of high level of interactivity.

In addition to that, we want the instructor to set a schedule for engaging and also responding to all the students that are there. This is going to give students a reason to check-in, return, see the latest posts, and engage further in that discussion. John’s tip about the activity level really comes from two things.

One is part of the instructions for a discussion forum, and the other is the way the instructor responds to students throughout the course and engages in that discussion.

Now, in my role, I have observed a lot of faculty over the course of the last several years, and I’ve noticed there are people who believe that the students should talk privately in that discussion with little intervention from the instructor, and then the instructor comes in later in the week and just adds a little bit or steers it. Then there are other people who post early in the week and are an integral part of that discussion. There are benefits to both of these approaches.

As you write the discussion questions, you want to consider your own involvement. How much will you be there? What kind of responses do you anticipate getting from your students, and will this really foster higher thinking? Will it help them dig into their learning a little bit more and apply the skills that you want them to have? Will it liven up that classroom?

Another thing John Orlando mentions is that students are more comfortable participating when they feel some kind of emotional bond of trust and comfort with others. That’s what he says actually makes the difference between productive discussions and those where there might be flaming comments or inappropriate types of interaction, like you might find on social media.

Be Creative with Week One Forum to Encourage Interaction and Create Psychological Safety for Students

Now, this kind of emotional bonding can occur when you have a bio at the beginning of the course. We’re talking about the week one forum discussion.

Idea number one this week is about your week one introductory forum. The idea is that you would post your bio as a model for students of what you expect, and also have a forum discussion where they introduce themselves, and they share something about their experience in the subject matter, and maybe even answer a creative question in that first week to help everyone get to know them.

You might further consider having a webcam that you use, or using some kind of digital storytelling John recommends, and narration over imagery, or a video where they just introduce themselves, and also type up a little bit.

In that week one discussion, I’ve tried this in my own online teaching, and I find that there’s an interesting thing that happens when you add questions about the subject matter. I’ll tell you about this. The example prompt I’m going to share with you today comes from a music appreciation class, which is the subject I spend a lot of time in, and this is a personal introduction for week one.

Students are asked to answer all the questions, consider numbering them, so they’re easy to find as you read, and pacing the questions into the post just to type in between the questions. Here are the questions that are asked:

  1. Introduce yourself: Where you are from, your profession, your family, your major, where are living now generally, and so forth.
  2. Have you had had any experiences in other cultures or countries? Have you experienced music in your native land, in another country, or in another culture?
  3. If you have experienced the music of any other culture or historical era prior to our course, please share your perception of one or more significant experiences you had with other cultures or eras.
  4. What are your learning goals or expectations for this class, and what do you hope to gain from obtaining your degree?
  5. How might learning about music benefit you?
  6. What kind of music do you connect with most and why? Feel free to share a sound, or video link to a sample of this kind of music to share with classmates.
  7. Tell us about your music or non-musical background, whether you have read music, sung in choir, played an instrument or more. Tell us about you and your feelings or experiences with music. If you have no musical background, don’t be afraid to say so.

Now by asking all these different questions for the first week forum, I’m pretty certain when I have a student truly engaging in the class and when I have one that’s just copying and pasting their initial post from some other course they’re also taking. I also get to know their background in the subject matter, and these are fairly non-threatening questions. They don’t have to study in order to answer these questions. They don’t have to know anything from the class, and they can fully engage in that very first week.

The week one introduction is a creative way to get to know your students, help them get to know each other, but also create that idea of psychological safety. That way, they’re going to be comfortable trying new concepts and doing the more difficult discussions, where they have to think more deeply in the future weeks.

The more you engage throughout that first week and provide encouraging feedback, and give your students your encouragement, positivity, and inspiration, as well as your acceptance of what they bring to the situation, the more they’re going to be comfortable and ready to go in the following weeks. That week one discussion idea is to tap into their existing knowledge and experience, and really bring it into the class from the very beginning.

Scaffold Complexity to Foster Critical Thinking and Increase Psychological Safety

A second idea you might really enjoy for creative discussions is more a strategy that starts in the beginning weeks of the course, and it increases throughout the class. Now this one I think is clever because it also creates a level of psychological safety. It helps students move from a very basic level of their understanding and their engagement in the discussion, and it takes them to higher levels throughout the course. This one is from Rob Kelly in a called How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions.

Rob has a suggestion here that he got from an interview with Marcus Tanner, Jillian Yarbrough, and Andrea McCourt in an interview about online classes at Texas Tech University. Now, these instructors were talking about principles of designing and managing threaded discussions typical of most online classes.

One of the more interesting takeaways from this article is about crafting the discussion questions, and this part is about how lower-level questions early in the course that really don’t tap into the analysis synthesis, or higher thinking too soon help students become comfortable with the content. It also helps them participate while they’re learning their way around the course for those first few weeks, understanding the new topics, the content they’re learning, and really starting to build confidence in the way they engage in the discussion.

Even though a question might be a lower level question for your forums, you would still want them to be open-ended questions. Definitely don’t want closed-ended questions that ask a yes or no question. And if you can have it open-ended that invites a little bit of creativity, students can share in a way that is not threatening, and also enables them to have uniqueness from one student to the next.

I can’t tell you how many times I have taught a class where students read each other’s posts, and then they wanted to reply with their initial post on the exact same topic, instead of reaching outside the box, or being creative.

The more you craft your discussion posts, you want to encourage them to choose a topic not covered yet, an angle not covered yet, something like that that’s going to help them not reproduce the person right before them.

Another idea that has to do with this scaffolding is that in later weeks, you’re going to want to vary that and add more in-depth analysis, synthesis, and higher-thinking activities. You’re really getting to see what students truly understand, and they’re also increasing in complexity, so students are learning at a deeper level throughout the course.

You could, for example, have multi-part questions where in the first part, they’re answering a lower-level thing, and then the second part is going to be more mid-level thinking. Even in the same discussion question, they suggest here that you use more than one level of Bloom’s taxonomy, so that you’re challenging students to think higher and higher and higher as they go through.

If all of your discussion forums are graduated from the very basic level and scaffolded up to the more complex level that you want them to get at during the class, you’re setting them up for a high level of success, and you’re helping them build their confidence where they’re going to be able to engage better and better.

That idea supports three different example forum prompts that I’m going to share with you. Early in the class of, again, I’m going to refer to music appreciation here because that’s my example subject today, there are three different types of discussion prompts that illustrate this scaffolding idea.

The first one would be describing music. You might not know this, but students who are new to thinking about music from any viewpoint other than hearing it need a lots of opportunities to slow down, actively listen, and describe what they’re hearing. It just doesn’t come naturally for most people. In fact, many people remark that they’re used to hearing music in the background, and they’re not really focused on what the music parts sound like.

Active listening can be a challenge, and we discuss it a lot in the forums throughout the music classes. It requires that active listening and some picking apart what they’re hearing, identifying, and then writing about it, discussing it. Then later in the course, we want to move up to more than just descriptions.

That first discussion where they’re using what I call level one skills, they might be identifying the instrument sounds and the basic musical aspects, and maybe they could use some level two skills as well, like describing the music elements they’re hearing.

Then later, we can add level three skills like applying terms to what has been heard, predicting what might happen next in the music, and analyzing the overall musical arc of what has been played, or what has been listened to.

Prompt 1: Select one music selection included in a list provided here (and then the instructor would list six to eight different choices that are applicable to the weekly content), develop an initial forum post that describes the music you selected. Be sure to include the following:

  1. Write the name of your chosen music selection in the title of your initial forum response, so that everyone can tell which piece you chose before reading your post.
  2. In the body of the post, describe the following music aspects within the piece as you heard them: instrumentation, overall mood, tempo, dynamics or loudness and any changes you noticed, tone quality or timbre, melody, harmony, and any other aspects you would like to describe. In your answer, keep in mind that others are reading your initial post, who have not listened to this musical selection. Your description of the music might be the only way they can connect to it. Provide as much description as possible and give details and examples from your listening experience. Be sure to use music terminology.

This idea of using the academic terms and just starting with descriptions is a great way to dive into content the first week of any class. The second idea would be to compare and contrast some concepts. Again, taking from the music appreciation idea, we can compare and contrast two different musical styles to different historical periods, to different performances of a single song.

You could, for example, take a performance that is in front of a live audience of rock music and a performance in front of a live audience of what we call Western art music, and students could compare those.

Those kinds of posts and forum engagement, that kind forum topic, really does require a little guidance from the instructor to ensure that the examples they choose are really what you’re looking for, so be sure to explain fully.

Here’s an example prompt from that idea:

Read chapter four of your textbook about the classical period. Listen to the linked examples while completing your reading assignment. After listening to two examples of Mozart’s music as listed in the book, and also listening to two examples of Haydn’s, compare the styles of these two composers.

In your post share, which four pieces you sampled and by which composers. Tell about your initial impressions of the pieces. What musical similarities and differences did you note between the two composers? Use at least four specific key musical terms, like instrumentation, tempo, mood, texture dynamics, and so forth to discuss. After comparing and contrasting the two composers, which one do you prefer and why.

Then we could take this up another level and in another forum week, we could do the analysis.

This example is about commercials on television. Consider commercials you have watched on television and think about the music that accompanied them. As noted in your textbook, music powerfully affects the conscious and subconscious emotions of listeners. Select a television commercial that has music in it. Post a description of your selection using as much detail as possible about the music used. Provide the YouTube link if possible. Explain the qualities you heard in the commercial and tell about the music’s attractive traits if any. Then answer the following questions:

  • What makes music effective for its advertising purpose?
  • How do you respond to music and advertising, like the example you chose?
  • What role did music seem to play in the commercial?
  • Was the music in the background or more prominently in the focus of the commercial and why?
  • What kind of image or mood did the music seem to convey?

As you think about writing your forum discussion prompts early in the course at a more simple level and later in the course at a more complex level, and scaffolding your students through, this second strategy to writing forum discussion prompts will really help you increase the student’s confidence, continue to build psychological safety, and more effectively guide them to discussing and writing about things in greater depth.

Now, these next three examples come from a presentation that I witnessed that was sponsored by Quality Matters, and it was called Alternative Discussion Structures by Lisa Kidder and Mark Cooper from Idaho State University. It was just this past year, and it was really full of great discussion ideas.

The three I’m going to share with you as part of my five ideas today are case studies, alternate histories, and debates.

Using Case Studies in Discussion Forums

We’ll start out here with the case study idea. And in their suggestion of a case study, it was suggested that the learners will read a real-life case, then answer, discuss, or argue open-ended questions. A question might be something like: What would you do in this situation? Or you might come up with other questions to apply that pertain more to your subject matter. Or they could develop solutions with accompanying data to analyze. Case assignments can be done individually, or in teams so your learners can brainstorm solutions or ideas and share the workload.

A major advantage to teaching with case studies is that the learners actively engage in figuring things from the examples. This develop skills in problem-solving, analytical skills, quantitative or qualitative analysis, decision-making and coping with ambiguity.

Another thing we know students love about case studies is that they’re connected to real life. They’re storytelling. They’re informative. The examples help them to apply the concepts they would otherwise be reading about in the class. A case study can be particularly useful if you want students to be able to apply this knowledge later on outside of class. If your subject matter is particularly applied, that’s a great way to go.

Case studies could involve more than one example, or students could have to come up with their own example, and then share it with classmates who then discuss their case study. Either way, you want to be very clear about what they should discuss, what should they bring in, how they should apply it, how they should approach it, so that you don’t end up with students who are all discussing the exact same example in the exact same way.

You would evaluate the forum posts, basically using your criteria that you establish and advance. Now, the presenters here who shared this example discussed connecting the assignment to previous posts, also drawing insightful links between the case study and professional practice, and application to the real world. Some explanation of their own personal lives, or practice as they apply and also connecting ideas with classmates. Case studies are a fantastic way to bring in all kinds of new ideas, especially if they’re not specifically illustrated in the course content. Good stretch opportunities as well.

Using Alternative History in Forum Discussion

Next, we have the idea of alternate history and in this forum kind of prompt, you would ask students to discuss the way something might have unfolded if something in history had been done differently. The overview of this one is that in an alternative history, that you’re going to pose questions to your learners, like “what might’ve happened different if,” or simply “what if?”

This is going to help your students gained some understanding of the significance of a historical event and also the cause and effect relationship, the chain reaction of the way history unfolded afterwards, and also help your students discuss past and current conflicts. An even better way to write the alternate history is to then say, “After you’ve suggested all of this, how does that connect to things that are happening now?”

The idea is that an alternative history discussion works really well in a discipline that studies and analyzes historical events that already occurred. It can be really difficult to determine what you want to do with some historical topic if you’re not a history teacher. This one is a great way to get your students involved and be really creative about your approach.

Setting up a Debate for Discussion

Lastly, we have the example of a debate. Now the debate can be online. It can be synchronous in real time, or it could be done in your threaded discussions that are asynchronous.

A debate online can be set up between two or more groups or teams, or it could be between students who have been assigned one side of the topic and everyone can be discussing at once. Debates work really well to practice critical thinking skills, argumentation, support for ideas, details, and critical thinking, and it also, of course, actively engages your students.

Some suggestions about when this might work for you are leadership, when students have had limited exposure to different kinds of forums and need some kind of leadership themselves to lead out with ideas. Not everyone’s going to be saying the same thing, so this is an opportunity for them to take a leadership role.

It could also work really well when students need to interpret some kind of literature. It’s a great way to pull out some different interpretations of the texts. This is appropriate for not only texts that have clearly defined opposing views, but also something that could be situated that way. And you might have to provide some context in doing that.

Another time this works well is in theory. The forum discussion might have differing schools of thoughts. Maybe there are several theories within a discipline, or maybe we’re talking about different philosophers and their theories of how things are. This could be exciting for them to engage in the challenge of a typical wisdom exchange or Socratic discussion, or full-on debate within the structure of the formal discussion forum.

Another time it might work well to have a debate would be when you want students to consider ethics. Maybe the best way to explore this idea without controversy would be the devil’s advocate approach. This could be for sensitive subjects. May be difficult for students to remain objective when topics are emotionally charged. You have to be really involved as the instructor and help navigate that debate as it’s occurring.

And another one would be current events. If there’s a current event happening, we might want to debate the implications of it, or how it could be organized differently, or how things might unfold in the future. There are a lot of different angles you could take for relevant topics, and also ways to help students engage in an academic way, supporting their thinking without just throwing personal opinions around and accusing each other.

When you set up debates, you want to give clear instructions about the guidelines. It can be very difficult to get students to argue things from an academic perspective, especially if they have heated emotional feelings on the matter.

You want to choose something fairly simple at first and move up to the more complex, but also I suggest using a debate after they’ve already written a few discussion forums and engaged with each other, where they have practice supporting their ideas in a non-debate situation.

A lot of practice, a lot of context, and you can have great success with debates, where your students will be able to overcome limiting thinking, expand the way they see something, take on different perspectives, and see things from a number of points of view. Debates are a good thing.

Share Your Own Creative Forum Discussion Experience

Today we’ve looked at five different ideas for creative ways to use your discussions, creative discussion prompts. I hope you will try one or more of these and definitely stop by the feedback area at bethaniehansen.com/request. Share your ideas about whether these work for you and if you have suggestions about topics we could cover about discussion forums for the future.

The goal here is that we all know discussions are a great way to connect students to each other and to their faculty member who is teaching the class, but we really want to get out of that rut of having things being repetitive and using the same prompts all the time, where students are likely to just repeat their own ideas, or worse, use the ideas of someone from a previous course. Maybe it’s their friend, or something they found online. Changing your prompts is also a great thing.

If you continue to use the same discussion approaches over time and never try a creative approach, that might work for you just fine. But if you continue to work for the more creative and applied ideas, thinking about the way students move from factual recall up to synthesis and analysis, and scaffolding that process in your discussions, you’re going to have a lot more success with your students.

You’re going to be giving them a little bit more nurturing and mentoring along the way, and students are going to walk away from your class with some real insights and a lot more learning. Creative discussions can really win for your students and for you. I hope you’ll try it this week, and I wish you all the best 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 wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

 

Resources:

 

Hansen, Bethanie. Teaching Music Appreciation Online, Oxford University Press, New York: NY, 2020.

Kelly, Rob. How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions, in Teaching Strategies for the Online College Classroom: A Collection of Articles for Faculty, Magna Publications, p. 108-111, 2016.

Kidder, Lisa C., and Mark Cooper. Alternative Discussion Structures. Quality Matters Webinar. 2020.

Orlando, John. Generating Lively Online Discussion, in Teaching Strategies for the Online College Classroom: A Collection of Articles for Faculty, Magna Publications, p. 150-152, 2016.

 

This podcast content initially appeared on OnlineLearningTips.com.

#26: Strategies for Effectively Grading Online Assignments

#26: Strategies for Effectively Grading Online Assignments

This podcast and article were originally published on Online Learning Tips.Com.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a major shift in U.S. education. K-12 schools, colleges and universities switched from in-person classes to online education, a transition which was challenging for many instructors and school administrators.

Grading assignments in online classes can be difficult and time-consuming due to the high workload and lack of support that’s often found in traditional classrooms. In this podcast, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides a comprehensive strategy for online teachers to effectively grade assignments. Learn about FOCUS-EQx2, a teaching strategy to help online instructors streamline their grading and manage their time so they can provide students with effective comments, feedback, and evaluation.

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.

If you’ve taught in traditional settings, traditional on-the-ground universities in live classes, you’ve likely used a lot of different approaches to grading your students’ work. Here are some that might be missing when you’re online teaching.

First of all, in a live class — especially at larger universities — there might be a testing center. A testing center is a place where your students can go — their identity is verified, they are monitored to ensure they’re doing the work honestly and without tools, notes, or other items, and then the answers might be run through an automation that grades it. For most online teaching, there is no testing center, especially if your students live far from the university or the college.

You might have a second tool like teachers’ assistants who took your class previously and now they’re back because you trust them. And those teaching assistants might’ve taken attendance or collected assignments and graded students’ work for part of the class or even much of the class. Teaching assistants have lightened the load for faculty to focus on teaching strategies and methods, so you can help your students learn most effectively.

Teaching assistants are largely absent in online education. I’ve seen some universities try this approach, and there are a few pilots out there doing it. But it really is a lesser-known model in online higher education, so it’s unlikely that you have a teacher’s assistant helping you grade your work.

Thirdly, you might’ve had peer-evaluation practices. On an assignment, this might help everyone improve and you might use an entire class session where students do sort of a workshop together. And when students see the assignment from an evaluator standpoint, they take on a new perspective and they might make some more connections to the subject matter.

Peer evaluations can be a really great way to help students improve their work while they’re lifting your grading load. And usually, this activity is done in real time and you’re guiding it and telling them what to do with each other and what to look for.

Now, this can be done online, but it does require a lot more guidance to be done well. That’s helpful to know; peer evaluation might not be totally absent, but it’s not as strong of a practice.

In your online teaching, it’s very possible that you’re missing these elements and so your grading load is a little bigger, but also we have the physical demand. And instead of writing just a few comments or a grade on the paper, giving it back to the student face-to-face, and talking about the general strengths and areas for growth to an entire class when they’re seated right in front of you, all that you need to tell the student must be typed on the essay.

It actually has to be typed somewhere, unless you’re using a really innovative strategy of providing something like video feedback, which can also be time-consuming. So there is a physical demand involved in online grading.

And lastly, the truth, right? Some teachers just don’t like grading, and it’s easy to put off. If you’re a person who dislikes grading and when you get a large number of assignments all at once, it can feel like a huge task to evaluate them quickly and to get them back to your students in a timely way.

Managing that time and the work of doing it is very challenging if your favorite part of teaching is the class, the face-to-face stuff where you’re helping others explore the subject.

With all of this said, I want to dive into the idea of effective online grading. And I’m going to give you a strategy today that I hope will really help you rein it in, put some limits on this and make it more manageable for you.

The problem is that grading assignments and online classes can be difficult and time-consuming. And if you’re typically a face-to-face teacher and now you’re teaching online, it’s also a big mindset change. There’s a lot that’s different about this.

Now, at a basic level, the work your students are going to submit does need some kind of grading and evaluation from you as the instructor, and this grading needs to be clear. There are a lot of different ways you might grade things, which could include rubrics, grading to a standard or a set of standards. You might have a pass/fail type of grade depending on the item, grading on a curve, and there’s also holistic grading.

Whatever approach you’re going to use, your students just need to know it up front before they submit their work. And they need to receive your grading clearly tied to whatever method or model you’re using.

For example, if you’re using standards in your grading, you would want to include these standards in the assignment description so students know it. If you use a rubric, you would provide a copy to students with the assignment description and then return a marked-up rubric with the graded assignment so they can see their performance in each area.

Understanding your grading is the most important thing here because if you give a student a B, or a C, or a D or whatever on their assignment, they definitely need to know how they earned it, why they got that grade, what they need to improve in the future, and so forth. All the different information that you need to give your students is in your grading and evaluation process.

For anyone who normally teaches live classes in higher education, when you begin teaching online and students are not coming to campus, your experience is missing a lot of those supports that used to be there to minimize the grading workload and to make it a lot easier.

Your online teaching experience is basically asking for much more from you in the grading and evaluation of students’ work. This is why grading assignments for online classes can be difficult and time-consuming, especially if you compare it to traditional experiences I’ve just described.

You might be feeling a little bit overwhelmed with the way your workload has changed and maybe some of the ways you need to evaluate your students’ work.

So let’s look at what will happen if you don’t give students the clear grading and evaluation of their work. First of all, they’re going to continue to make mistakes, or they will fail to grow in their learning. It’s difficult for a student to know if they’re even on track when they don’t get feedback. And of course, there’s the possibility that they will complain that you are not helping them, and they will eventually appeal the grades you give them and the final grade for the course.

Your grading and evaluation must be supported and without support, it’s very difficult to defend it. What will happen if you’re too thorough? Have you ever been too thorough when evaluating your online students’ work? I know I have, especially early in the game when I was first learning how to do this.

And if you’re too thorough, this takes a lot more time, and it can be overwhelming when you have many classes to teach and a lot of assignments to grade. Ultimately when you’re teaching online, you need some kind of strategy and you need a few tools to help you give your students effective, genuine guidance through your grading and evaluative feedback. And you need a system that’s going to help you have efficiency while you’re doing it.

Today, I’m sharing a strategy for grading online students that I’m calling “FOCUS-EQx2.” This strategy is going to help you effectively move through a student’s assignment while you provide the evaluation and feedback. The FOCUS-EQx2 strategy is going to give you specific areas to look at for truly effective grading, and it will help you focus your evaluation overall.

Now in a future episode, I’m also going to tell you about a few tools to help you become more efficient so that you can manage your time well and create a system that works for you. So we’re not talking about tools today; we’re talking about strategy.

Now, let’s dive into this strategy. I’ve been an educator for 25 years, and I’ve taught online for more than 10 years in higher education. I’ve managed hundreds of faculty at an entirely online university in two different schools and in six different departments.

I’m only sharing this background with you today so you know that there are a few details about my background really pertinent to this topic, and I have some perspective on these teaching topics and particularly grading. When I’m managing faculty, one of my roles is to evaluate them and I’m often looking at the quality of their grading and the type of grading they provide.

Now, I want to tell you a little bit about my early experience when teaching online. I struggled to know what I should include in grading comments. I really wanted to help students and I evaluated essays and pretty soon I was putting a lot on there.

It seemed to take me just a lot of time, and it was a lot of effort to provide all of those comments. Some were about grammar and writing and some were about the content and some were about the way things were organized, but it was really just all over the place. So I was making a lot of comments and thinking about a lot of different areas of grading all at once.

And I’ll give you an example of why this was such a big deal. I had one eight-week upper division writing class that I was teaching, and it had one written assignment every week. Each assignment built on each other until the final Week 8 essay, which was a 10-page paper.

Now, all of these assignments needed comments and guidance from me on the paper itself, and they all built on each other leading into that paper, so the feedback was critical. Now that final 10-page paper also needed detailed feedback. You can imagine with very many students this is a large load of grading, right?

Every week, this feedback had to be returned quickly. I was teaching several other online classes at the same time and I sat for hours at the computer; I found it to be really challenging. There were some really late nights and giving all of this evaluation was taking away from time I wanted to be putting into other parts of my teaching, like being in discussions and sending messages to less active students and all those kinds of things, and maybe even making some instructor videos or creative announcements or things like that.

I asked a colleague for tips about how to make this more effective; I really wanted to focus my strategy. She suggested looking at a few key areas and doing them well, and she listed them for me and I started to do them.

Since then, I’ve added to that strategy and it has made my grading so much more effective. This is going to reduce your overwhelming grading load, it really is, and it reduced mine. It also gave me a lot of focus to the process and made the whole practice of giving effective feedback much more streamlined and much more effective.

The strategy can easily be remembered through this acronym: FOCUS-EQx2.

Focus stands for formatting, organization, content, understanding and support. And EQ stands for editing quality, and it also stands for evaluation and qualitative comments. There are two EQs in this strategy and that’s why I’m calling it EQx2.

As you begin to read your student’s paper, you’re going to notice that each area of the FOCUS-EQx2 strategy is going to change. It’s going to be based on and the type of assignment that you’re looking at.

For example, if you have a formal essay or a research paper, we’re going to use all of these areas in detail. And if you’re a grading a multimedia assignment or just a short written reflection, maybe you’re only going to use a few of them.

Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what kind of assignment, having a helpful strategy like this is just going to help you keep yourself organized and avoid getting runaway with just one part of this process or ignoring things that you should really pay attention to.

Let’s talk first about formatting. For each assignment, your students are going to submit, there’s some kind of formatting involved. These are things like the appearance of the assignment and the heading that might be used, the way sources are formatted at the end, how the spacing is between the lines, those kinds of things.

To evaluate the formatting, you can just scan the visual appearance of the assignment. And if that paper should be double-spaced or have a heading in a certain spot, or maybe it needs to use a style like APA or MLA or Chicago, you can add a brief note to commend the student for their excellent formatting or give some guidance about their errors and how to fix them next time.

It’s really important to give this kind of feedback about formatting because we want students to keep learning throughout their education. And we also want them to know what academic writing or different formats that you might be asking them for should look like.

The truth is formatting is very superficial; it’s a really small part of any assignment and you shouldn’t overdo it here. You just want to give it some attention, make a comment, keep it brief and move on quickly.

Second, look at organization. As you start to read through your student’s assignment, you’re going to look for the way the information and the ideas are organized. You’re going to give some feedback here. And in the case of something like a formal essay, maybe the paper usually begins with a paragraph that introduces the topic.

That’s going to give some kind of thesis that tells the main point or the argument or the claim that you’re going to read about in the paper. There’s going to be a body paragraph or many body paragraphs, and each paragraph should be clearly about a topic or an idea that’s organized in a way that makes sense.

Most of the paragraphs in the essay should have a topic sentence at the beginning and the topic sentence really just tells what’s in that paragraph. At the end, there should be a closing paragraph or a conclusion that ties it all together, restates the main point, and brings the important ideas to bear.

When you look over the assignment to evaluate organization, thinking about this kind of structure, all you need to do is look at the opening paragraph and read the first sentence of each body paragraph, and then read the last paragraph to see the organization.

If you can’t find the flow of the topics or really get an idea for what the student is writing about just by reading the topic sentences, then there’s probably a problem with the overall organization of that assignment or essay.

Here you might need to make a suggestion. Maybe you want to suggest using topic sentences in the paragraphs, or you might have bigger advice to give about the overall way that the paper is laid out and organized. Either way, the organization will either be very clear or somewhat unclear, and you can give some commentary and some feedback about that without dwelling on it too long.

The third area is content. This is, of course, one of the bigger parts that you will be evaluating and this is what the student actually addressed. Did they use the right topic, for example? Did they use the academic words they’re supposed to be using? We call that academic vocabulary.

For example, if I’m teaching a music appreciation class, are they using words like tempo, dynamics, form? Are they using those words correctly? Are they actually giving enough description that I can tell what they’re describing? Is the scope of what was covered appropriate to what should have been covered?

Now, that area you want to really focus on because that is the main point of the assignment, right? To cover the content and the next couple of areas, understanding and support.

So when you start to make comments on the content you can do this by way of suggestion, you can make a statement; you can note where they actually covered the key points that you’re looking for. Either way, there should be some kind of comments you’re providing your student about the content.

The fourth area, the understanding, now this is where you’re going to find out the student’s ideas. There are many, many areas that they might go into.

For example, a student might describe something; they might discuss it. They might have analysis that they’ve created. They might make connections between two different ideas. They might show how they demonstrated their understanding and learning through what they’ve written, but what they understand about the topic that they’ve written about, it must be obvious and it needs to be clear.

If you have a student who is taking a lot of sources, they’re paraphrasing and they’re quoting a lot and there’s just not a lot of content they wrote, it’s very difficult to see what they understood. This area could be missing entirely or it might be incredibly pervasive throughout the whole assignment, but you want to look for understanding and evaluate it and give some feedback about that as well.

And then lastly, the support. Support is a tricky area. This is the details, the examples and evidence that were used to support their ideas. And it also includes sources — how they were used, how and where they were included — and potential plagiarism.

If a student uses a lot of supports without citing them and quoting them and all of that kind of thing and if it shows up high on your originality checker, whether it’s SafeAssign or Turnitin or something else, you definitely want to address that. Coach students, if necessary. Deal with the plagiarism concerns and so forth, so support is both about ideas and also about sources.

As you review each area, you want to find a way to at least evaluate and give a little comment about those things. You’re coaching the student in their academic learning, but you’re also mentoring them somewhat in the subject itself.

Now after you’ve reviewed focus, formatting, organization, content, understanding and support, the next area is the EQx2. And this is the editing and quality, and finally the evaluation and qualitative comments.

The editing would be just notes that you might make about writing errors. For example, if you think they’re not using capital letters, if they’re using texting lingo, if they talk about themselves in first person but it should be in third person. If there are just run-on sentences or fragments, things like that, I always suggest marking a few of them in the beginning paragraphs and not dwelling on them throughout the rest. It will take all of your time if you spend time editing a student’s paper; that’s not your job.

If you use something like Grammarly or if you use the features in Turnitin’s GradeMark suite, there is an editing area there and you can actually have students find the editing mistakes themselves. If there are a lot of errors you want to make some kind of comment about that, and you might even direct them to writing help or a tutor if those things are available to you.

The quality is the writing quality. So that also has to do with their tone, their language, the way they’ve presented their writing overall, and again, if necessary, a comment or two could be made there.

Now in the evaluation and qualitative comments, I consider these to be the summary comments you would give at the end of the assignment. So all the rest of these things that I’ve mentioned would be given on the body of an essay or an assignment, or depending on your learning management system you might actually have the ability to highlight, tag, or put little notes next to the paper.

There’s a lot that can be done nowadays in a learning management system, but also in Turnitin’s GradeMark suite. Or if you really want to download the student’s paper in Microsoft Word and just use track changes and put reviewer’s comments and bubbles on it, you could do that as well.

All of the things I’ve covered so far under focus would be brief comments made on the actual assignment. These last two, evaluation and qualitative comments, those could be done at the top of the essay or assignment just in a paragraph. Or they could be done in the grading feedback box when you’re returning this assignment to the student.

The evaluation is your overall statement about the essay. What did they do well, and where do they need to improve?

What did they do well is really important. As faculty and as teachers, it’s really easy for us to always be looking for mistakes. That’s also the default of the human brain; it’s a problem-solving machine so we’re often looking for what’s wrong.

When you give your evaluation, be sure to say something that was strong in the paper, even if it was only the topic choice and is a very weak paper overall. Give some encouragement through that evaluation, but also be specific and tell them what the main area is to focus on for improvement.

And then, the closing is the qualitative comments. That’s part of your summary and that would just be your pros, what you’re writing to the student. You want to say something encouraging and close it and wish them the best on the next assignment and move on.

When you use this method of FOCUS-EQx2 a few times, at first it’s going to take a lot more thought and effort to touch on each area, but soon this strategy is going to give you the effective grading and evaluation that you’re really looking for to help your students the most.

You also want to give structure in your approach to keep it organized and help your time stay in check, and this FOCUS-EQx2 strategy will do that for you. Although your online teaching asks a lot more of you in grading and evaluation detail, this is also an area where you can keep teaching and keep getting to know your students.

I encourage you this week to try the FOCUS-EQx2 strategy on your next round of grading, and I wish you all the best in your online teaching.

Meet with Your Online Students Through Zoom Video

Meet with Your Online Students Through Zoom Video

You can meet with online students through Zoom video. Some institutions provide Zoom accounts to their faculty as part of their IT infrastructure. If an account is not provided by your school, you can create a free Zoom account.

Zoom meetings are a great way to build teaching presence and social presence. Through live video, students can see you, trust you, and become secure. Positive student-teacher relationships are particularly valuable online, where it is difficult to connect. Similarly, video meetings let you get to know your students. This connection will help you stay motivated throughout your teaching.

Although live video calls might not be standard in your online course, live meetings can be offered as an option to support students. And Zoom calls can be recorded, with captions added for diverse learners.

For a helpful array of tools that will support your online Zoom meetings, visit https://us02web.zoom.us/docs/en-us/covid19.html. 

Zoom provides features to help you connect with students in a secure and effective way. Visit this link to learn about recent updates.

As an educator, you might be concerned about security, privacy, and managing the Zoom room. Each of these areas is covered in an educator guide. This guide explains how to use the “waiting room.” How to lock access. How to mute and remove participants, and more! Click this link to access the educator guide.