Supporting At-Risk Student Success

Last week, I attended the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. While I was able to see a bunch of really gifted presenters who shared insightful and inspiring messages, one presenter really stood out. Dr. Newton Miller is the Associate Dean of the Department of Educational Studies at Ashford University. Dr. Miller shared research that examined ways to support men of color in collegiate academic settings. By interviewing at-risk students who had were successful academically, Dr. Miller was able to identify three critical “pillars of mind” that led to student success. These pillars include:

Pillar 1: Men of color were more successful when they had positive experiences with educators, curriculum interactions, and academic support teams for services.

Pillar 2: Men of color were more successful when they have an intrinsic commitment to well defined personal goals.

Pillar 3: Men of color were more successful when they use their responsibility to those depending on them to meet their obligations as a source of motivation towards success.

In his presentation, Dr. Miller outlined how these pillars can inform advising, teaching, and support services on all college campuses. Because the conference focused on online teaching, Dr. Miller condensed these three pillars of mind into five best practices for serving at-risk students in online classes. These strategies are critical for supporting at-risk students who Dr. Miller described as navigating a “survival mindset.” Like many recommendations, however, the best practices that Dr. Miller shared would actually work for all students in all classes.

  • Early in the semester, provide course at-a-glance tables to let students know what’s expected week to week and identify when the course is going to be the most demanding.
  • Provide scheduling accommodations when appropriate. Dr. Miller discussed how relaxing some deadlines can be a huge difference maker to at-risk students.
  • Schedule students as cohorts. This can help to build community and give students a support system when needed.
  • Personalize the course by providing testimonials from previous classes and individualized communication to students.
  • Collaborate with advisors and coaches to welcome students to classes and provide support when needed.

Looking across Dr. Miller’s recommended best practices, it’s clear that he is promoting strategies that support student growth and success. Reflecting on these strategies, I’m reminded of another conference session where a faculty member from Arizona State University shared her institution’s charter. She said that ASU is “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.” By incorporating more targeted strategies to support at-risk students, we can help all student populations feel more included in the ranks of academic success.


Immediacy Online

This week, I’m heading to Madison, Wisconsin where I’ll be presenting at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference. On Thursday morning, I’m leading a presentation titled Humanizing the Online Learning Environment where I’ll be sharing some strategies for making the online classroom (and online teaching) a little more of an affective endeavor. Most of the quality checklists that online teachers employ focus on design and facilitation elements that can make the online space more effective. While these are important, I think we as online teachers also need to attend to the emotional and human side of our instruction.

I’ve been thinking about this stuff since I read The Spark of Learning (Cavanagh, 2016) a few years ago. The book examines “the science of emotion” and discusses how different teaching strategies impact students’ motivation and emotional engagement and foster student learning. While the book focuses entirely on face-to-face classroom instruction, I kept thinking how it really relates to all classrooms, online included.

One of the emotional constructs that Cavanagh discusses in the book is called “teacher immediacy.” Online, we talk about “teaching presence” a lot but I think teacher immediacy is a little different. In the book, Cavanagh defines immediacy as “behaviors that are both spoken and unspoken that communicate to students that you are interested in them, the material, and the process of learning” (p. 100). In contrast, the concept of “teaching presence” (which comes from the Community of Inquiry framework) is defined as “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes.” While there’s definitely some overlap between these constructs, I think the focus on emotions is a much-needed addition to online teaching conversations.

So, how do we develop teacher immediacy online? Cavanagh (and others) actually subdivide the teacher immediacy concept into two separate areas: verbal immediacy and non-verbal immediacy. Here are some ideas for both:

Verbal immediacy:

  • Consider including humor in your video and audio recordings. I have some colleagues who wear funny hats in their videos or have amusing music playing during their introductions.
  • Disclose relevant information about yourself. A few months ago, I shared a blog post about research that showed teacher rapport increased when teachers and students shared common interests.
  • Use inclusive pronouns and first names.

Non-verbal immediacy:

  • For video and audio recordings, be mindful of your facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures. Instructors can communicate powerful positive and negative emotional content with a sarcastic comment, an eye roll or a hand gesture.
  • For email and discussion posts, consider the tone you use. Last fall, I wrote a post about “leading with empathy” and “assuming positive intent” helps to frame my written communication with students.

Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.

Intelligent Agents for Online Teaching

After a few weeks of traveling with my family, I’m back in work mode. I’m putting together a workshop online “advanced online teaching” strategies and one of the tools I’m planning to share is something called “intelligent agents.” Intelligent agents are automated notifications that can be sent to instructors or students based on a set of predefined criteria. Most learning management systems (LMS) use intelligent agents to generate automated emails where replacement text can be used to personalize the communication. Think of it a little like the mail merge feature in word processing applications where <Student Name> is actually replaced with the student’s name. With the host of options, intelligent agents can offer another level of efficiency and interaction to online classes.

If you’re having trouble envisioning the possibilities with intelligent agents, I came across a great article called Conceptualizing Intelligent Agents for Teaching and Learning written by Ali Jafari in 2002 that can help. In the article, Jafari proposes three different ways to visualize the use of intelligent agents. Used strategically, intelligent agents can act as Digital Teaching Assistants, as Digital Tutors, or as Digital Secretaries. Let me explain each in detail.

Digital Teaching Assistants: Many larger universities use teaching assistants to assist with the instruction of a class or classes. These teaching assistants may help take attendance or monitor student progress or assist with other management tasks in the class. In an online class, intelligent agents can perform a lot of these same tasks. For example, I use intelligent agents to send a “welcome” email to students at the start of every new online class. If the student hasn’t logged into the class after a day or two, the intelligent agent sends another email that asks if the student is having technical issues. These management tasks would be much more difficult and time-consuming without the use of intelligent agents.

Digital Tutors:  The challenge with some online classes is that instructors don’t always differentiate instruction based on students’ needs. But the data available inside the LMS offers a ton of automated possibilities. An intelligent agent could be used to send recorded remediated lessons to students who had performed poorly on an assessment. The intelligent agent could also encourage students to seek assistance by attending office hours or setting up a one-on-one meeting with their instructor. Intelligent agents could also be used to send “Good job!” emails to students who did well on an exam or who showed marked improvement over previous exams.

Digital Secretary: There’s a lot of logistical and administrative tasks that can be automated through the use of intelligent agents. For example, maybe you want to know which students haven’t yet submitted a paper or haven’t completed an assignment. An intelligent agent can automatically send you email listing which students are missing work. They can also be used to alert you to “curious” behavior from students. For example, I’ve had students who had taken a quiz in my online class without ever accessing the assigned readings. I only noticed the behavior after seeing the students’ poor grade. Using an intelligent agent, however, I would have received an email alerting me to the situation sooner.

I’ve tried to use this post to offer different use cases for intelligent agents to give readers a sense of the possibilities that the tool offers. If you’re thinking that intelligent agents sound overly technical or cumbersome to use, they’re really not. If you’re new to the tool, I’d suggest talking to your institution’s instructional designer for a quick tutorial or to check out the support materials provided by your LMS. With a little bit of forethought and practice, you can use intelligent agents to create your own digital teaching assistant, digital tutor or digital secretary.

Jafari, A. (2002). Conceptualizing intelligent agents for teaching and learning. Educause Quarterly, 25(3), 28-34.

My biggest mistake

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d replay some posts from the 8 Blog archive. This post originally appeared in October 2017 and examined attendance policies in education. This is definitely something to revisit as we consider our syllabi for the Fall semester. Enjoy.

A colleague shared an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on whether university teachers should take attendance. The author, Kelli Marshall, draws on an essay from Murray Sperber and argues that, despite the mixed research on mandatory attendance policies, university faculty should forget about taking attendance. Marshall’s argument boils down to the three larger themes.

1. As instructors, we work with developing adults who need to take responsibility for the decisions.
2. Without an attendance policy, potentially disruptive students will choose not to attend.
3. Students choosing to attend can be viewed as an informal assessment of the class and the instructor.

While Marshall’s article offers some thought provoking fodder, it also reminded me of an attendance-related decision that I made over a decade ago. As I enter my 25th year of teaching, I count this decision as one of the biggest instructional mistakes I’ve made in my career.

I was teaching high school physics at the time and I had the privilege of teaching in a classroom that was the farthest point from the cafeteria. This always presented challenges, especially when teaching classes immediately after a lunch period. Because of the distance and the number of students walking in mass from the cafeteria, a few students would come to class late. One year, the occasional tardiness became a little more routine. Several students showed up late everyday, which I began to look as a complete affront to my power and legitimacy as a teacher. I had to do something.

I decided to institute a daily 10-point quiz that students completed when they walked into the room. If students were late, they wouldn’t get to take the quiz and their grade was impacted. After a few days, I had completely lost the class. They lost respect for me and many of the students who once enjoyed the class now saw it as a police state. As I created a policy to punish the students who were a few minutes late, I ended up punishing the whole class. I think some of the students never saw me the same way after instituting that policy.  That decision and the class’s reaction taught me two important lessons:

Pick your battles. Looking across the research the Marshall includes in her article, there are mixed results of instituting a mandatory attendance policy. One study, however, found that stressing over requiring attendance improved students’ rate of attendance, their academic performance and their attitudes about the class. I created a punitive policy that didn’t improve student tardiness but negatively impacted their perception of the class. Rather than instituting a punitive attendance policy, I should have just focused my attention on student learning and examined whether students’ tardiness had any impact on their academic performance.

Weigh the costs. In every instructional decision we make, there are larger impacts and costs. We may choose to spend more time on one subject, which causes us to spend less time on another. In this situation, I didn’t consider the larger cultural impacts of the decision and how it would affect students’ perception and attitude towards the class. And that’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from “my biggest mistake.” Classrooms are complex ecosystems that we as instructors need to manage with care. While some policies may seem to offer simple solutions, the resulting impacts are rarely simple.

Define your “moonshot”

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d replay some posts from the 8 Blog archive. With the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing, I thought replaying this post from April 2013 was appropriate. Enjoy.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas

In his recent Educause article, Josh Jarrett examines the different innovation strategies employed by institutions of higher education.  Of the ones outlined in the article, the concept of the “moonshot” really resonated with me.  Taken from President Kennedy’s iconic speech outlining the mission to the Moon, the moonshot as an innovation strategy involves clearly defining the operational goal yet recognizing the difficulty of the task.  In 1962, President Kennedy outlined the goal “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” At the time, this was a huge challenge historically and scientifically.  As many people know, the Russians had launched Sputnik into orbit five years earlier and were planning its own mission to the moon. Rather than sit idly by, the President pointed to the heavens and gave a clear destination.  “We choose to go to the moon.”

Examining America’s space program at the time, getting to the moon would be a nearly impossible task for the country.  Sputnik didn’t just mark Russia’s ability to achieve the world’s first artificial satellite; it showed the country’s dominance in space.  Weighing in at 185 lb., Sputnik far outweighed the 4 lb. satellite that America was developing.  How could a country that lagged so far in the space race be the first country to land on the moon? President Kennedy, speaking before Congress, outlined the challenges.  “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”  The moon was the goal, Kennedy repeated that day.  And the country got to work.

I think a lot about innovation and the work many of us do in higher education.  In many ways, the traditional academy is being challenged by outside forces.  There are for-profit institutions, online programs, MOOCs, and so many other “disruptions.” Much like America was concerned about its security and its long-term technical competitiveness in 1962, colleges and universities are facing some of the same concerns today.  How should we respond?  Do we hold steady and hope that we’ll weather the storm?  Do we allow our institutions to slowly evolve and transform into some unknown entity that may be more viable in the future? Or do we select some nearly impossible task, define it as our “moonshot” and get to work?  The choice is ours.

It’s important to remember that the “moonshot” involves more than just identifying the destination.  The “moonshot” recognizes that there are challenges ahead and that we’ll learn from the journey.  We just need to select the appropriate target and get to work.

Minecraft and the power of IKEA

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next couple of weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in February 2013 after reflecting on my kids’ addiction to Minecraft.

My children are living in two worlds.  Almost every evening, I have to ask my kids to shut down their iPod Touches and return to planet Earth.  After some minor protests, they’ll re-engage with my wife and I but I can see it in their eyes.  They long to return to the boxy world of Minecraft.  For those of you who may not know, Minecraft is an online application where players build their own worlds.  Minecraft functions almost as if someone had digitized an entire box of Legos and shipped them to an imaginary 3D world.  While it’s often called an online game, no one “wins” at Minecraft.  In fact, there aren’t any rules or points to score in the game. Players just build.

The game has two basic versions:  survival and creative modes.  In survival mode, players must survive an attack of zombies, monsters and spiders and maintain their health by collecting resources available in the Minecraft world. My children typically play in creative mode.  In creative mode, the objective is more free form and open: create your own world.  By assembling Minecraft blocks, my son and daughter build trees, houses and all sorts of different structures.  When I talk with my kids about their Minecraft world, they light up.  My son will show me the house he’s built inside a mountain and my daughter will show the elaborate forest she’s constructed.  Even though they’re just selecting and assembling blocks in a digital space, they’re proud of their work.  They’ll excitedly navigate through their Minecraft world showing me all of the products of their labor.

While thinking of the pleasure that my children derive from playing and building in Minecraft, I heard a news report on NPR that discussed the IKEA effect.  Researchers at the Harvard Business School examined people’s affection for products they had assembled from IKEA.  Compared to products that came pre-assembled, individuals valued objects they had assembled themselves significantly more.  People value the products of their labor when they are able to successfully complete a task, the researchers claim. Put more simply, labor leads to love.    Even though the participants in the study were simply following step-by-step instructions when assembling the IKEA products, the researchers found a greater valuation of these objects in comparison to similar pre-assembled ones.  But the research wasn’t just limited to chairs and bookshelves from IKEA.  Researchers found similar effects to more hedonic products like Origami flowers and Lego structures.  When studying the construction of these objects, researchers found that the participants valued their creations so much that many expressed a desire to showcase the objects to others.

And that’s the motivation behind Minecraft.  Give players the opportunity to build something and they’ll value the experience and the product of their labor.  Even when applied to a virtual space where players assembled objects from a finite number of pieces, the IKEA effect can be powerful.  Just look at my 6-year-old son and my 11-year-old daughter.  They’re absolutely under the influence of the IKEA effect.  The IKEA effect explains to some degree why it’s so difficult for them to shut off their iPods and return to the land of the living.

But the IKEA effect isn’t negative.  It actually can be really powerful when applied to our classrooms.  Consider incorporating opportunities for students to create something in your classroom.  Maybe have them create a digital story. Or conduct some research.  Or even build a website.  While the labor for these projects may not necessarily to lead to love, it may help build ownership into the classroom content and have them value the course content even more.

Biking through Scaffolding

The 8 Blog is taking a few weeks off while I do some traveling with the family.  Over the next two weeks, I thought I’d replay some “family-inspired” posts from the 8 Blog archive.  This one was written in September 2012 after teaching my daughter to ride her bike.

Like many parents, I taught my children to ride a bike.  I have to say, as an educator, this was probably one of the most difficult lessons I have ever tried to convey.  In my twenty years of teaching, I’ve taught students integral calculus, thermodynamics and the theory of relativity.  In comparison to these lessons, teaching my children to ride a bike was much more challenging.  Our initial bike riding lessons incorporated falls, crashes, bleeding, bandages and tears. Even though I am an experienced educator, my patience was tested at every turn.  Teaching a child to ride a bike is hard work.

The challenge, however, was not based on the cognitive difficulty of the subject matter or the physical dexterity of my daughter or son.  To be brutally honest, I place all of the blame for any learning challenges squarely on… myself.  My initial bike riding lessons were traditional ones.  I took my daughter to a small hill, positioned her appropriately and let her go.  I figured she would learn through the shear necessity and immediacy of the task.  It was sink or swim.  And she sank.  Or rather, she crashed.  And cried.  And bled.

After several days of regrouping, we attempted lesson two in bike riding.  For this lesson, I took my daughter to a level parking lot and pushed her.  Really fast.  Running behind her bike, I shouted commands like “Pedal!” and “Steer!” and “Keep your head up!”  while trying to keep her from falling.  But she fell.  And cried.  And bled.  And threatened to never speak to me again if I forced to her ride her bike again.

Frustrated and more than a little ashamed, I figured there had to be an easier way.  After a few quick Google searches, I came upon the instructional method that turned my children’s bike riding world around.   Bike New York promotes a “balance-first” approach.  In this method, the pedals of the bike are removed and children focus solely on balancing their bike by walking it around a level surface.  After mastering this task, children begin scooting and then begin to tackle other skills such as pedaling, steering and stopping.  It was a novel approach.  After the traumatic experiences I’d put my daughter through, I was willing to try anything.  I removed the pedals from my daughter’s bike and within a few hours, she was riding.  By moving slowly through different steps, she was able to master the complex task of riding her bike.  The best part?  She didn’t fall once using the “balance-first” method.  No crashes.  No tears.  No bleeding.

But this post isn’t really about the best way to learn how to ride a bike or how wonderful (or horrible) of a parent I am.  It’s about learning.  Liev Vygotsky promoted the concept of the “zone of proximal development” to describe what learners could achieve with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other.  In this concept, the knowledgeable other provides initial supports to help students learn a task.  As the learner masters this task, the supports (or scaffolds) slowly fade until the learner can tackle the task on his/her own.  The focus then shifts to a more complex task with new supports which also eventually fade.  Little by little, the learner moves through new scaffolds and new zones until s/he eventually can tackle a complete, complex task individually.

Traditional methods of teaching bike riding involve little scaffolding.  The learner attends to all of the complexity individually with little support from the more knowledgeable other.  In the “balance-first” approach, however, the whole activity is deconstructed with the learner being scaffolded through intentional, developmental stages that build appropriately to the entire activity.  While the “sink or swim” methods of teaching bike riding might be more traditional, the “balance-first” method was definitely more instructionally sound.