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Grouping Students Differently

I’ve always struggled with creating student groups for projects.  It’s especially difficult when I’m trying to form groups at the start of the semester for some ongoing assignment that may take a few months.  At that point, I don’t really know the students or their strengths and weaknesses.  I don’t know which students are going to work well together or which students, when assembled, will form an explosive critical mass.

Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of techniques to group students.  I’ve tried mixing under-class students with upper-class ones.  I’ve tried partnering students based on their academic interests and grouping students randomly.  I’ve even allowed students to select their own groups.  Regardless of the method I’ve tried, inevitably, some groups are really successful and others languish.

This semester, I thought I’d try something different.  My wife is a school counselor at a local high school and has used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to help her students identify possible careers.  I was discussing my grouping problems with her recently and she suggested trying to use the MBTI to form groups.  While I recognize that some people question the validity of the MBTI, I also realize that using the Myers-Briggs to organize student groups couldn’t be worse than some of the other methods I’ve tried.  I also did some research.  I found a study in the Journal of Information Technology and Application in Education that examined how the MBTI could be used to foster positive collaborative groups for Information Technology projects.  Another study in College Teaching Methods & Styles Journal looked at how the MBTI could be used for team-building projects in business classes and found that the method helped in selecting team leaders and identifying group responsibilities.  After reading the studies, I felt using the MBTI to create student groups was something I should at least try.

This week, I had each student take an online typology test based on the MBTI.  The test took about fifteen minutes and I had each student write down his or her personality type (ENFJ, ISFP, etc.).  Rather than just have them look for people different than themselves, I had students identify their temperaments and then create groups with mixed temperaments.  One of the studies I read discussed how professor-created groups based solely on MBTI reduced student ownership and buy-in, which created productivity issues later in the semester.  To assemble project groups in my class, I allowed students to choose classmates as long as they had a mix of temperaments in each group.  While the process didn’t exactly go smoothly and several students initially resisted the process, I was able to eventually create project groups successfully.  Some challenges emerged, however.  Since I was doing this in an education class, there was a great deal of similarity across personality types and temperaments.  For instance, the majority of the students had the exact same personality types (ENFJ), which made it somewhat difficult to assemble diverse teams.  It was also difficult to get students to take control of selecting groups.  Since the process created an odd middle ground between instructor-assigned groups and student-selected groups, many students didn’t know how to react.  With a little guidance and some patience, however, students groups were assembled.

I honestly don’t know whether this grouping technique will work or not.  Since this a semester-long project, I won’t know the final outcome until later in the year.  Check back later in the semester for an update.

Teach like Batman!

I’m a huge comic book fan.  As a child, I remember distinctly stopping by the comic book store every Wednesday to pick up new releases and anxiously thumbing through the pages to see if my favorite super heroes survived their latest battles with some menacing villain.  As I read the issues, I often thought about the special powers the heroes had and which ones I wished I possessed.  It would be great to fly like Superman or have super speed like the Flash.  Maybe I could be super stretchy like Mr. Fantastic or turn into a muscular monster like the Hulk when I became angry.  With so many super powers available in the comic book universe, it’s hard to settle on a single one.

Growing up, my favorite hero was Batman.  I liked the costume and the Bat Mobile.  Batman was a brooding, complex character who fought crime in the shadows and used his mind to solve the crimes of Gotham City. I especially liked the fact that Batman didn’t have a super power.  He was just a guy who trained hard to become a crime fighter.  He wasn’t born on some other planet.  He didn’t get his powers by putting on a special ring or by being bombarded by cosmic radiation.  He just worked hard and was committed to his craft.  This mindset really resonates with me.  Looking at the numerous movies, books and television series that have been dedicated to the character, it seems that Batman’s mindset must resonate with others as well.

As the semester starts at my institution, I’m hoping to channel Batman’s mindset and work hard to be the best teacher I can be.  Good teaching is hard work and to be a good teacher requires that we adopt a Batman-like dedication to the craft.  While it would be great to have some teaching super power, the reality is that there are no short cuts to becoming a good instructor.  I’m reminded of this as I read a recent report on Flipped Classrooms that was compiled by Faculty Focus.  While many instructors have tried flipping their classrooms, many instructors report that it’s hard work and requires a lot of time to do it well.  As I’ve written before, I think flipping classrooms is a novel teaching strategy that utilizes classroom time differently.  It helps foster more collaboration in classroom and dedicates more time to group problem solving and authentic application of classroom content.  But it’s not a super power that instructors can develop overnight.  No instructor is going to suddenly become a better teacher by assigning some videos for students to watch outside of class.   Like Batman, instructors are going to need to work hard and dedicate time and energy to becoming better at flipping.  While flipping may be hard work, the Faculty Focus study also shows it’s benefits.  Instructors who utilized the flipped classroom model saw greater student engagement and increased student learning in their classes.  I’m sure even the Caped Crusader would be proud of those outcomes!

It’s in the syllabus.

As a new academic year begins in many parts of the United States, my social network is being flooded with colleagues’ painful posts about getting students to read the syllabus.  Many complain that students just don’t read the syllabus and constantly ask questions that could easily be answered if the students more closely examined the document.  This week’s post is dedicated to strategies to help instructors “teach the syllabus” and to reduce the need to say, “It’s in the syllabus!”

1. Don’t hand them out during the first day of class.  While many students expect to receive the course syllabus from you on the first day, they may be receiving four or five other syllabi for other courses during that first week.  As they’re being bombarded with syllabi from many different classes with different attendance policies and grading criteria, it’s understandable that some students may have trouble separating the content.  Introducing the syllabus during the second class could help focus the students’ attention on the syllabus content and provide time for building classroom culture and a collaborative learning community.  Note: some universities may require distribution of syllabi during the first day of class.  Check with your administration to be sure.

2.  Screencast your syllabi.  Instead of spending time in class going over the whole syllabus, consider recording yourself introducing the major aspects and posting the video online so students can refer to it as needed.  Industrious instructors could take it one step further and record a series of screencasts that chunk the syllabus into digestible bits.  Maybe have one video that focuses on grading policies and another that focuses on the major assignments of the class.  By creating a series of recordings, students could refer back to only those videos with which they have questions.

3.  Flip it.  Instead of taking time during the first class going over the schedule and procedures, flip the lesson to focus more on application of the syllabus content.  In this strategy, students would watch recorded syllabus videos before coming to class.  During class, the students would be presented with application-based scenarios that they would need to solve based on their understanding of the syllabus.  For example, students could be asked something like:

“Mary hands in an assignment on Wednesday.  The assignment was originally due on Monday.  How much of a reduction in grade should Mary expect based on the grading criteria in the syllabus?”

This would help students not just focus on the content contained in the syllabus but also how the content are applied in real scenarios.

4.  Jigsaw it. Rather than painfully reading the entire syllabus to your students, hand out the syllabus in small groups and have them each examine a section in detail.  After each group has fully examined their assigned section, assemble individuals from each group to present to one another.  This helps to provide a more holistic view of the syllabus and puts the students in charge of their learning.

5.  Have students sign a contract.  The Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State University recommends using contracts with students.  Having students agree to the “schedule and procedures stated therein” may help motivate them to read the syllabus before signing their name on the dotted line.

6.  Quiz them.   In a study published in 2002 in Teaching Psychology, instructors at Clemson University examined the impact of quizzes on students’ knowledge and comprehension of syllabus content.  Students were given true/false and short answers questions that related to the syllabus.  The researchers found that the quiz helped motivate students to better read the syllabi in depth since they knew they would be assessed on it.  Some innovative instructors may want to combine strategies and embed questions in a recording of a syllabus.  By using a site like EdPuzzle, instructors could introduce the syllabus and assess their understanding simultaneously without using class time.

What’s the credo of your class?

This morning, I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with Tim Draper, a venture capitalist who founded DFJ and Draper University.  Draper is also hosting a new reality show called StartUp, which pits teams of entrepreneurs against each other to design and develop companies and marketable ideas.  In the interview, Draper discussed the credo of Draper University and how students must recite the credo each morning as part of the school’s “Super Hero training.”  Included in the credo are the following statements:

“I will promote freedom at all costs.

I will do everything in my power to drive, build and pursue progress and change.

I will explore the world with gusto and enthusiasm.”

While it would be difficult to get my students to recite a credo like this before each class, Draper’s interview got me thinking about what a credo of my class would look like and what statements I would include.  A few years ago, I shared the contract from a local TEDx event and discussed how I planned to use it as part of a collaborative assignment with my class.  But a credo is something different.  While a contract includes language that binds a person to a set of actions and behaviors, a credo represents a person’s fundamental beliefs which will purposefully guide their activities, choices and decision-making.  A credo for my class wouldn’t just bind my students to a specific list of activities but would communicate the teaching and learning ideals on which the class was built.  As I thought about this, I jotted down a few statements that I would have my students recite.

Learning is not a spectator sport.  I need to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty to be successful.

Learning is not a solitary venture.  I will learn more by interacting with my classmates and my instructor.

Learning is difficult.  I may fail multiple times before I succeed.  But I will succeed.

Learning isn’t a competition.  I know that the only real race I’m running is against my own commitment to excel.

The greatest influence of my educational success is my dedication and hard work.

Learning is more than memorizing facts and figures.  To truly learn, I will need to synthesize information and connect it to things I already know.

Learning is a journey not a destination.  If I’m truly engaged in my learning, the process is not segmented into classes, semesters or academic years and does not have defined starting and ending dates.

Please understand that this is a rough draft of the credo of my class.  I’m open to any suggestions that readers may have.  Feel free to add a comment of some things I may have missed.

Reducing classroom cheating

I recently finished Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by James Lang.  While some of my colleagues believe that cheating is on the rise on campuses, Lang shows early in the book that the rate of cheating by students is comparable or less than rates at other times in recent history.  Lang also explains that while students ultimately choose to cheat, there are classroom factors that promote cheating.  He provides four classroom features that pressure students into cheating and presents case studies (some educational and some not) that exemplify each of the features.  Later in the book, he showcases different educators who have redesigned their classroom environments to not just reduce cheating but to make their classes more authentic and supportive learning spaces.  Wondering whether your classroom culture promotes or reduces cheating?  Here are the four features that Lang presents as pressuring individuals to cheat.

1.  An emphasis on performance.  A student’s grade in a class should be dependent on their performance, right?  That’s the prevailing procedure in most classes.  Students take exams or write papers and then get grades.  Lang argues for more of a mastery approach to learning.  Rather than judging on performances like exams or papers, allow students to develop mastery by retaking exams or revising their work.  The increased focus on learning rather than performance helps to reduce student cheating on single assignments.

2.  High stakes riding on the outcome.  I had several classes in college where the entire semester grade was determined by a single assessment, the final exam.  This high stakes pressure influences students’ decision to cheat.  When there is a lot to lose from failure, students see a great benefit from cheating.  To reduce this high stakes pressure, provide more opportunities for students to showcase their learning through varied assessments.  Instead of scheduling a handful of exams during a semester, provide additional quizzes or assignments to assess student learning.

3.  An extrinsic motivation for success.  Students cheat more in environments where there are extrinsic pressures to succeed.  While there are times when we as individual educators can do little to reduce these outside motivators, we can foster more intrinsic motivation by structuring our courses differently.  One way is to make the assignments more relevant and authentic for students.  When students see the real-world applications of what they’re learning, they can become more personally invested in the process and less motivated to take short cuts to insure their success.

4.  A low expectations of success.  Some professors’ exams are legendary on campus.  I’m sure there’s a certain level of pride that comes with creating challenging exams that become the thing of lore with students.  When students perceive a task as being impossible, however, there’s an increased likelihood that they will cheat.  In the book, Lang does not suggest that we lower standards so students cheat less.  Instead, he suggests providing more opportunities for students to develop mastery with the content and increasing the amount of feedback that faculty provide to guide students’ academic development.  He also suggests helping students develop the metacognitive skills that help them to attend to their own learning to prepare better for difficult tasks.

The power of hybrid

I bought a new car this week.  After a lot of research and some personal analysis, my wife and I decided to purchase a hybrid vehicle.  As I’ve been driving around in the car, I’ve been thinking about the motivation behind companies designing hybrid vehicles and consumers buying them.  Initially, my thoughts went to the financial aspects.  Hybrid vehicles are a way for companies to increase their car sales by offering consumers a way to save money.  I commute about 35 miles to work each day.  In my new hybrid, I averaged about 50 miles per gallon on my trip today, which is double the fuel efficiency of my old car.  Over the course of a year of commuting, I’m going to save a lot of money.

To be honest, however, that’s not the only reason I purchased the car.  I wanted to drive something more ecologically friendly and the economic benefits are a bonus.  I think car companies recognize this motivation from consumers.  The car is designed to give feedback to drivers to help them drive in a more environmentally friendly manner.  The car assesses how I brake, how I cruise and how I stop to help me drive more efficiently.  The feedback is instantaneous.  There’s a nifty gauge next to the speedometer that rates my driving and gives me a score.  From this data, I have started to tweak how I accelerate from stops and how I brake so I can improve my “performance.”

As often is the case with my brain, I have been drawing parallels between the innovations in car design and the innovations in teaching and learning.  Much like the car industry, the last decade has been a very innovative time in education.  Amongst the many innovations, we’ve seen the emergence of MOOCs, online classes, and a variety of “hybrid” classroom models.  Instead of utilizing gas and electric engines, however, the educational hybrid utilizes online and face-to-face modes of delivery and interaction. But what are the motivations for exploring hybrid models?  I’d like to say that the motivations are solely based on educational improvements but economics and convenience are strong driving forces here.  Students (and instructors) like the flexibility and convenience of hybrid and online classes and the market is demanding more of them.  But there are educational implications to moving to hybrid modes of instruction.  Research is starting to emerge to show that there are real educational benefits to utilizing hybrid models like blended learning and flipped classrooms.

In addition to the growing research base, I wish there was some method of providing instantaneous feedback like my hybrid vehicle offers.  It would be great to see a gauge showing the effectiveness instantaneously of a given method so I could respond appropriately.  Then again, maybe something like this is on the horizon.   In the July/August 2015 issue of EDUCAUSE review, Malcolm Brown writes about the Six Trajectories for Digital Technology in Higher Education.  Amongst the innovations Brown sees on the horizon is the increased used of “learning analytics” to drive instruction.  While I doubt we’ll see a nifty gauge in the corner of our classrooms that shows in real time how our instructional choices are benefiting students, I see an increase in data-driven decision making in the near future.  With the increased use of learning management systems and adaptive learning technologies, instructors will have loads of data on student performance.  Only time will tell whether these improvements will help to sell the educational hybrid.

Ten ways for online students to engage with content

Recently, I’ve been working with a few different colleges to help them develop online classes for their graduate programs.  In a conference call last week, one of the faculty members asked about ways that online students could interact and engage with content in her class.   With online classes, instructors can often fall into a cycle where students are reading text-based content then posting text-based responses to discussion forums.  This type of class can become really boring for students (and instructors).  I offered some ideas at the time but realized it would be a great topic for a blog post.  So, here are ten ways to get your online students to engage with content differently.

1.  Build a class glossary.  Dedicate a discussion forum where students are assigned different terms or topics to define for the class.  The student-built glossary will serve as study guide for students as they progress through the class and the change in focus of the discussion forum will give them a sense of ownership over the collaboratively created document.

2.  Jigsaw the content.  Online students often feel like that they’re jumping through hoops by participating in discussion forums, especially when the entire class is answering the same prompts.  By breaking the class up into different content groups, the students could be asked to read different material.  Each group would discuss their assigned content and then a selected group leader would present a synopsis to a whole class discussion forum.  This helps to build positive interdependence between members of the class and increases the value of the discussion forums.

3.  Ask different questions.  While there are a variety of ways to structure discussion forums, a few years ago I wrote about a four question strategy for building more critical thinking in online discussions.  While the questioning strategy can become monotonous if overused, it provides a good scaffolding system for discussing challenging content.

4.  Use case studies.  Students respond positively when they feel like they’re engaging with authentic problems.  While they can be a little challenging to create initially, case studies are an ideal way to incorporate problem-based learning in online classes.

5.  Post to Twitter.  Some instructors choose to move their class outside of the learning management system and have their students use Twitter to discuss content.  Instructors can create a unique hashtag for their class and then ask students to post reactions to content using the hashtag.

6.  Role play.  Assign your students different roles to adopt as they discuss content.  For instance, what would a historical figure think about an assigned reading?  How would a stakeholder react to a reading?  By changing the point of view, students would need to conduct additional outside research to fully examine and evaluate the content.

7.  Debate the issue.  Many issues in our classes are ripe with controversy.  These topics provide great opportunities for creating classroom debates.  This can be structured in many ways.  I’ve had individual students take both sides of an issue and create short videos and online cartoons outlining opposing position on a topic.  This could also be structured in a synchronous environment where students are assigned position teams and debate their positions on Skype, Google Hangouts or Blackboard Collaborate.

8.  Mix it up.  Rather than just assigning text-based content, have students feast on the multimedia available online.  Assign podcasts or simulations to help them build their understanding on content.   Check out the options for Open Educational Resources online.

9.  Present to the class.  Building on the jigsaw concept, students can be assigned different topics to research.  In a chemistry class, for instance, students could be assigned different elements to research.  In a human sexuality class, students could be assigned different diseases.  Students could present their research in synchronous environments or screencast short presentations to give to the group.  To close the assessment loop, the whole class would be assessed on the content shared in the individual presentations.

10.  Write exam questions.  A few years ago, I wrote about the research on a site called Peerwise where students participated in online communities to create exam questions for one another.  Participating in the site positively impacted student learning and their motivation to learn.

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