What will you carry forward?

Article by Todd Dresser.

Last spring, we all talked about how the pandemic would re-shape higher education. Now, a year from the beginning of the pandemic, we want to look at how those discussions have evolved. What questions did we ask? How did instructors answer them? What new questions emerged? And what will we carry forward from teaching in the age of COVID as well as the overlapping crises of the past year? Since all politics are local, I spoke with three instructors at UW-Green Bay to get their perspectives.

I spoke with Jillian Jacklin, a lecturer in Democracy and Justice Studies who had the serendipitous experience of starting her journey at UW-Green Bay in the Spring 2020 semester. I spoke with Kiel Nikolakakis, a lecturer in Natural and Applied Sciences who has a broad array of teaching experiences in lab courses, Gateways to Phoenix Success (GPS), as well as in UW Collaborative Programs. And I spoke with Heidi Sherman, Associate Professor of History and Humanities, who has experience as a chair, advisor, and instructor.

The discussion below should provoke thought as to how the last year has changed our teaching practices. It’s not an exhaustive compendium of experiences by any means. In fact, we wish to hear your stories as well, so please see the opportunities to continue this discussion at the bottom of the post.

Blending online and face-to-face strategies

In 2020, “hyflex” was in the air. This term combining hybrid delivery and flexible participation has been around since 2006 but has been a niche format with much of the research on its effectiveness centered on graduate education. Yet, suddenly, higher-ed circulated podcasts and think pieces about its applicability to the pandemic context.

These offerings had two main themes. First, as Brian Beatty put it “a well-designed HyFlex class, with effective alternative participation modes that all lead to the same learning outcomes, can provide meaningful learning opportunities for all students.” Second: “resiliency.” Again, from Brian Beatty, “looking ahead, if it becomes necessary to close campuses again for almost any reason (natural disaster, smoke and fire threats…) students and faculty in HyFlex classes should be able to continue without interruption.” Hyflex held out hope of maintaining quality education resilient against future disasters.

Yet, even the textbook on how to create a hyflex course acknowledges that it takes multiple semesters to develop a truly hyflex course. So how did instructors blend online and face-to-face methods together? How did it go? And what will remain?

Online discussions give all students a voice

Dr. Jacklin teaches two sections of History 206, each capped at 65 students. Stimulating discussion in large classes is challenging face-to-face and often favors those more comfortable expressing their ideas publicly. She noted that in “lecture halls students don’t get to see each other’s ideas. A lot of people talk on Canvas who wouldn’t talk” in a lecture setting. Though she plans to return face-to-face in Fall, she intends to “spark discussions in Canvas” to allow “all students to continue to have a voice.”

Dr. Nikolakakis also found virtual discussions let students gather their thoughts. He had his first-year students prepare PowerPoint slides in response to discussion prompts and describe their ideas in VoiceThread. This exercise led to a “higher degree of engagement” than classroom discussions and “students did a better job” getting into depth on course materials.

Both Drs. Jacklin and Nikolakakis found online discussions alleviated some anxieties of in-class participation and allowed students to express their ideas in a more relaxed way leading to more complicated insights.

Digital spaces for digital faces

Discussions around “synchronous online” also evolved. Dr. Sherman described how the “virtual classroom” allowed students to discuss complex material more comfortably. She noted the virtual environment “alleviates the social anxiety that weighs on you” when trying to unpack primary historical sources in front of peers. She allows students to participate with webcams off, which turns their voices on.

Dr. Jacklin held online “venting” sessions where students decompressed, which were important given that much of the material she covered in her courses overlapped with news events about racial injustice.

Dr. Nikolakakis faced the challenge of preparing students to conduct labs. In a typical semester he would offer an overview lecture prior to the lab, but classroom restrictions meant he could not lecture to everyone at once. Instead, he created mini-lectures students could watch ahead of in-room labs. Many of these lectures will be available for future use.

These are all creative examples of how instructors have adapted and enhanced their synchronous teaching in ways that the prognostications from last summer did not anticipate.

Getting your digital feed beneath you

Both Drs. Jacklin and Nikolakakis developed a rhythm for teaching in distance environments. For Dr. Nikolakakis, Fall semester felt “more chaotic” than Spring 2021. While this feeling of relative ease comes from many sources—practice, for example—he noted creating modules in Canvas mimicking a calendar (so students know what to expect every week) works for him. He found that students use the Canvas calendar as their to do list and has made sure his assignments appear there.

Similarly, Dr. Jacklin noted she has gotten better at “scaffolding” assignments so smaller assignments help students build toward larger ones.

Technology and equity

We never signed up for distance education but found ourselves online, so questions arose about how to serve students ensuring equitable access and ability to complete course materials.

A map of public wi-fi locations helps document a scramble to assist those without robust internet access and conjures the feelings of dislocation and unease which made the map necessary. The ramifications of teaching across the web raised concerns. Bryan Alexander argued in a widely circulated blog post that “students would be better served by dialing back the Zoom and shifting instead to a greater emphasis on asynchronous tech” noting “live video means assuming students have access to infrastructure.” In a world where people were learning from parking lots over public wi-fi, that was not a safe assumption.

Nonetheless, virtual classroom emerged as the most common teaching mode at UW-Green Bay. How did we go from a reluctance to a reliance? And, how has equity fared?

Virtual classroom revealed accommodations I didn’t know I needed

Just ask Heidi Sherman. Dr. Sherman was initially reluctant to teach via virtual classroom out of a concern for student access. Her colleagues relayed they were able to have good conversations with students over web and her experience as an advisor showed many students preferred virtual classroom to other distance modes. So, she took the plunge this Spring.

She found virtual classroom enabled deeper connections with students and course material than even face-to-face allowed. As a historian, Dr. Sherman teaches through primary sources and these sources (in Islamic history and Medieval history) are complicated and difficult to parse. As a someone who is visually impaired, Dr. Sherman notes that she “needs to hold a book close to my face” while helping students unpack the readings.

Virtual classroom alleviated some of tensions felt while teaching face-to-face. The documents are still complicated, but she and the students can do so with webcams off, meaning students do not have to put their struggles on stage and that Dr. Sherman can read in relative comfort. She noted, “when the teacher is comfortable; the students are comfortable” which enables freer and deeper discussions than were possible face-to-face.

Teaching through web conference revealed other troublesome aspects of face-to-face, but she thought she would just “have to deal with.” For example, the “clock in a regular classroom is not easy to see,” which makes it hard to pace a lesson. Similarly, the computer monitors in physical classrooms are small and hard to work with. Also, students in virtual environments are not “distracted by all the social things” that “weigh on you” in a classroom where they struggle more publicly with difficult material.

Betty Friedan famously described “the problem with no name” which arose from a “strange stirring” that many women felt in the 20th century when the world as it was did not match the world as they were told it should be. So too did Dr. Sherman note that virtual classroom revealed “accommodations I didn’t know I needed.” She thought the unease of teaching face-to-face was part of the job. Teaching virtually put a name on a set of accommodations which unlocked teaching as it should be for her and her students.

The conversation about synchronous online teaching began from a concern about equity related to infrastructure. While those issues undoubtedly remain, what emerged is a more complicated relationship between technology and equity. Dr. Sherman notes that the constellation of attributes for virtual classroom align well for her but that it has opened a deeper discussion about how to align “technology with equity” so all people have access to an education (and a workplace) to take advantage of their assets.

Further explorations into technology and equity

Dr. Sherman is not alone, Dr. Jacklin also explored the equity–technology relationship by deepening her relationship with Open Educational Resources (OER). While she uses an open textbook for her class “Who Built America?” because the publisher serendipitously decided to make it open, it has grown into a passion for how OER can alleviate important pressures for students.

Similarly, Dr. Nikolakakis has recorded many mini-lectures for his chemistry courses which extend and reinforce his instruction. He plans to continue to continue using this large outlay of labor for students in the future who need reinforcement or who have planned absences.

What about you?

The Center wants to hear your stories. How did you think last year would go? How did it? How did you manage? What will you carry forth?

Join us synchronously on May 14 at 11 a.m. via Microsoft Teams where CATL and the Center for Civic Engagement will host a discussion on “The Things We’ll Carry.” You’ll even get to talk with Jillian Jacklin herself!

Also, please respond to this survey where we will collect more stories about what people will carry forth from the year and use the responses to help inform future opportunities from CATL and the Center for Civic Engagement.

Finally, we encourage you to comment below and keep the conversation going!

Article: Applying Flexible Teaching Practices in a Post-COVID World

Article by Sam Mahoney

It is no secret that COVID-19 profoundly changed the landscape of higher education. At this point, words like “pivot” and “flexibility” have become synonymous with the effects of the pandemic. Though the pandemic’s effects were widespread and hard-hitting, a given semester in any “normal” academic year still has its share of barriers that students may face. We can take some of the lessons we’ve learned about flexibility during COVID-19 and apply them to our pedagogy going forward, creating a more equitable landscape that gives student the support they need to succeed, no matter their unique circumstances.

Why is flexibility important?

Each student brings their own distinct background, experiences, and challenges with them to the classroom. The challenges that students face are wide and varied, and many students refrain from disclosing these barriers, leaving instructors to wonder why an otherwise “good student” may be missing class or have slipping grades.

While by no means a comprehensive list, some frequent barriers students in higher education face include:

  • Work. In a 2018 report by Georgetown University, almost 70% of all college students in the U.S. work while in school, and of those, 43% are considered low-income students. That same report also determined low-income students tend to work longer hours and have lower grades than their high-income peers who have the luxury of working more limited hours or not working at all. Black, Latino, female, and first-generation college students make up a disproportionally large part of this low-income working group.
  • Family. Many students, both traditional and non, are parents. In fact, a 2014 report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 26% of students enrolled in postsecondary education in the U.S. support dependent children. Female and non-White students once again make up a disproportionally large sector of this group. Add to this that those without children might still be expected to help care for younger siblings, parents, grandparents, or other relatives. For parents and non-parents alike, the responsibilities of caring for family can be physically, mentally, and financially taxing.
  • Health. Ongoing physical and mental health concerns as well as unexpected illness or injury can either prevent students from attending class or cause them to under-perform when they do. Mental health problems in particular impact a largely hidden portion of college students. In a 2019 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, almost 11% of college students reported having a medically diagnosed mental health condition and a staggering 45% self-reported having at least one severe depressive episode in a given year. On top of chronic mental health conditions, stress, anxiety, and grief brought on by the loss of a loved one or other traumatic events can negatively impact a student’s ability to learn and succeed.

In order to offer all students the highest chance of success, it is important to maintain a degree of flexibility while still keeping expectations for achievement high. In the next section we’ll take a look at some flexible teaching practices you might have already implemented during COVID that may be worth continuing in future semesters.

What does flexible teaching look like?

Flexible teaching can be manifested in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this article we’ll be focusing on flexibility as it relates to offering multiple means of engagement (which just so happens to be one of the principles of universal design). Consider the ways in which students can interact with you (their instructor), with their peers, and with the course materials. Are you already offering multiple methods for each of those interactions? Are students given a choice in which methods they use? How might you supplement the existing means for engagement you already use in your course?

Let’s take a look at a few practical examples.

Content delivery through in-class lectures is a quintessential pieces of the higher education experience. However, if this is the only means by which students obtain the course’s content, some students may find themselves unintentionally isolated. If the classroom technology allows, you might consider recording segments during lectures for students to re-access later, recording your lecture audio to provide a transcription, posting annotated PowerPoint slides in Canvas, and/or providing a location for students to share their lecture notes and asking students to sign up to do so each week. Many instructors even choose to record shorter dedicated lectures of particular sticking points for students to (re)engage with the material online. The key is that these techniques provide alternative means of engagement to those students who were absent or unable to fully engage during class. They can also serve as a resource for all students to review if needed.

It’s also common for instructors to use in-class comments and questions to assess students’ participation. While in-class discussion is a very important form of participation, students that need to miss class or have barriers that prevent them from fully engaging in a class discussion may be unfairly penalized. Some instructors have sought to remedy this by creating alternate methods for earning participation points. For example, you could let students post to a Canvas discussion board or ask a question during an online review session via Teams or Canvas Chat as a way of earning participation points. Students then have the option to mix and match how they want to earn credit for their engagement and always have an alternative method of “making up” points if they are unable to meet the quota through traditional in-class participation.

Assessment can also have built-in flexibility if you are thoughtful when designing assignments, quizzes, and exams. One way is to emphasize the role of course outcomes in assessment; this can open you up to offer students choice in which assignments or quizzes they want to engage with if the same learning outcomes are assessed in multiple places across the semester. If you have a number of assignments tied to the same outcome, you might consider dropping the lowest grade among them giving students the option to choose to which they can devote the most attention. If a student is less confident in a particular area, they can also commit to doing all of them; knowing that the lowest will be dropped can reduce some of the pressure and allow them the flexibility to make and grow following mistakes on an early attempt. Our article on using Canvas to be more flexible expands on this idea further, as well as offering up some other tips and tricks in Canvas.

Do you have other ideas?

What pandemic-created strategies would you like to apply or reinterpret for future semesters? Do you have other ideas for applying what you’ve learned about teaching during the pandemic to make your classes more accommodating for students facing barriers? Let us know in the comments below!

Designing with Equity in Mind: Reflections and Assessment of an Online Chemistry Class

Article by Bree Lybbert

With the abrupt transition to online learning in Spring 2020, followed by a summer of reflection guided by CATL’s Pivotal Pedagogies online course, I found myself feeling inspired to design my new online class for the fall with equity in mind. CHEM 108 is an introductory chemistry class that is primarily designed for pre-nursing students. Fall 2020 was the first time the course was designed to be online for the BSN@Home nursing program. It is a very content-heavy course that moves quickly with one or two chapters of content per week. To help students keep up with the class, I needed to give them the proper supports to succeed yet keep the logistics of the course as simple as possible. To this end I focused on four main elements in the design of the course that tend to decrease equity gaps: 1) an organized and consistent course design, 2) multiple methods for students to engage with the course material, 3) scaffolded assessments and 4) timely communication and feedback.

Organization and Consistency in Design

Utilizing a highly organized and consistent course design in Canvas was quite easy thanks to CATL’s Foundations of Teaching with Canvas course, which provided a template for instructors to use and adapt. The course lends itself very well to a repetitive weekly schedule where students engage with the content during the week and then complete a homework assignment and quiz at the end of the week. Wash, rinse, repeat… for 14 weeks. Each weekly module was organized in the same way: Overview page, Learning Materials page, Homework Instructions page, Homework Assignment (as a “quiz”), and finally the Weekly Quiz. Within a week or two, students knew exactly what to expect from week to week, as everything was laid out in a repeating pattern on the course home page.

Multiple Methods of Engagement

The biggest concern I had in designing the course was how to deliver all the content that students needed and how to do so equitably. Rather than expecting students to learn directly from the textbook(s), I incorporated my existing lectures and notes into the course. Similar to a face-to-face class lecture, I recorded myself using a webcam and a document camera talking through and writing out the notes for each week. Students were provided with blank skeletal outline notes as well as the completed lecture notes so they could follow along with the videos. These recordings were then uploaded to Canvas where students could view and download them to learn the material. I did not limit the length of the videos (though I tried to keep them to 15-20 minutes each), but I was cognizant of the total length of the videos for each week. I tried to keep the total amount of “lecture time” close to three hours each week, like a face-to-face class.

In thinking about equity, I also had to realize that not all my students were going to be able to engage with the lecture videos. As such, I made sure that the students had a choice in how they would prefer to learn the material—either by watching videos and filling out the notes or by reviewing the completed lecture notes. Although I preferred and saw value in students learning the material by watching the lecture videos, I could not deny a student the ability to learn the material in other ways, and therefore provided them with multiple methods to learn the content.

Scaffolded Assessments

Assessing my student’s knowledge of the material was going to be challenging in an online class. Unlike my face-to-face classes, students would have access to their notes and other resources for quizzes and exams. To address equity, I chose to make all quizzes and exams open-book and open-notes without the use of proctoring software. The assessment of the students’ knowledge was scaffolded such that homework assignments (set up as an auto-graded quiz in Canvas) were lower stakes with fewer points and had unlimited attempts. The weekly quizzes (also set up to be auto graded) were a bit higher stakes than homework (worth more points and two attempts, rather than unlimited). Exams, which were mostly auto graded, had the highest stakes, and therefore were worth the most points and had only one attempt.

Although I feel students had sufficient practice via the homework and weekly quizzes to know what to expect on the exams and to do well on them, I do wonder how well the quizzes and exams gauged student’s learning versus their ability to look things up quickly. Additionally, without the use of proctoring software (which has raised some equity concerns), I am depending on each student’s own sense of honor to only use the approved materials and complete the assessments themselves.

Timely Communication and Feedback

The simplest (in principle) way to promote equity in the class was to encourage communication and ask for feedback from the students. As an online class without synchronous class meetings, I strived to set the tone in the “Week 0 – Course Orientation” module that I was open to frequent communication with each student. This invitation was reiterated each week in announcements and videos. As the semester progressed and especially when the content got tough, many students took my invitation to heart and reached out for help.

Additionally, rather than only rely on written text for communication, I became adept at recording a quick announcement video or an additional content explanation video so the students could see the instructor behind the course and know that I was keeping track of their progress from week to week. After the first exam, I solicited feedback from each student in the form of a discussion post. I was happy to see that students were very open to sharing what was going well for them, how they were effectively studying, and that they were just as open to sharing what they were struggling with and aspects of the course they didn’t like (such as one question at a time exams!).

Another important part to soliciting student feedback was acting on the feedback. I recorded a short video responding to the class’s feedback, making sure to address their concerns and provide context for certain aspects of the course but also to let them know I would make changes to future quizzes or exams based on their feedback. These videos also allowed to me give encouragement and praise as well.

In Conclusion

Having designed and taught this online class exactly once under stressful, pandemic times, I can’t say for certain that my design choices allowed for full equity for all students in the course, but I hope to at least be able to say that I did address some equity concerns in the course. I will no doubt continue to learn and adapt to my students’ needs and be mindful of equity concerns for the next session of this class as well as all my other classes.


About Bree Lybbert

Bree LybertBreeyawn (Bree) is an Associate Professor of Chemistry with research interests in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Her SoTL projects have included the use of the Calibrated Peer Review (CPR) program as a writing-to-learn tool to help students develop and assess their critical thinking skills and she is also interested in helping students develop the math skills necessary for their pre-nursing chemistry coursework.

10 Tips for Reworking Online Discussions

Tips collected by Luke Konkol

We often hear that asynchronous online discussions “just don’t seem to work.” The reasons why run the gambit from feeling like busy-work for students to simply being too much to read. This post shares ten quick ideas (in no particular order) instructors might consider to tweak their online discussions and make them a better experience for instructors and students alike.

1. Make reflection and drawing connections central

We often drop a prompt in a course assuming students know why it’s important—sometimes the prompt itself is even “why is this important?” But if the purpose of discussions is to serve as the mortar between the bricks of your course content, feel free to say so. Add a sentence or two at the start of your prompt saying, “In the last unit, we discussed concept X. In our readings for this week, so-and-so builds on that idea in the context of Y.”

2. What are the objectives?

How is this discussion tied to particular course objectives? Make this explicit, too. This may even influence the depth and breadth of the discussion. Are you having students discuss because one of your objectives is to engage in a certain type of scholarly discourse? Or are the prompts content-based?

3. Use rubrics

Rubrics make your job easier if you grade discussions. More importantly, they make what you expect students to do more transparent. How much weight do you put on conventions? Where do you want students to look? Do you expect references to course materials? Outside materials? How important is the community-building aspect of these discussions? Or are they more like open essays?

Click on the headings below for some samples of discussion rubrics and reach out to CATL if you’d like a file you can import into your Canvas course.

Relevance: The overall relevance and development of discussion in your posts. 

  • 4.0 pts: Excellent
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts
    • Posts are detailed and on topic
    • Prompts further discussion
    • Clearly develops new ideas or builds on them
  • 3.0 pts: Good
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts
    • Posts are detailed and on topic
    • Prompts further discussion
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Posts are clearly related to the discussion prompts and mostly on topic
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Off topic or not clearly related to the prompt
    • Remarks lack depth
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

Quality: The overall quality of the posts made

  • 3.0 pts: Strong
    • Comments are appropriate, thoughtful, reflective, and respectful
    • A good argument is made and supported
    • References course materials appropriately
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Comments are appropriate, thoughtful, reflective, and respectful
    • An argument is made
    • Has an understanding of course materials
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Comments are respectful
    • Post shows minimal effort (e.g. "I agree…")
    • Missing an understanding of course materials
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

Community Contribution: Contribution of posts to the learning community / overall discussion.

  • 3.0 pts: Strong
    • Represents a developing class culture
    • Motivates further discussion and encouraging of classmates
    • Creative approach to the topic / presents new ideas
    • Responses are frequent and thoughtful
  • 2.0 pts: Satisfactory
    • Represents a developing class culture
    • Attempts to motivate further discussion and encourage classmates
    • Creative approach to the topic Responses are thoughtful
  • 1.0 pts: Needs Improvement
    • Posts are essay-like or do not go far beyond recounting course materials
    • Responses are minimal
  • 0.0 pts: No Post
    • No posts made or posts are disrespectful

 

Adapted from Dr. M. Rowbotham (SIUE) 

Subject knowledge and integration of material

  • Excellent (2.0): Discussions reflect integration of required readings and supporting the key issues and topics of material. Discusses your reaction to the content; cited appropriately in post if needed.
  • Proficient (1.5): Sound grasp of material. Some discussion of your reaction to content: appropriately cited.
  • Sufficient (1.0): Familiarity with most material and principles in the discussion. Lacks substantive use of readings. Minimal discussion of your reaction to content. Absent citations.
  • Needs Improvement (0.5): Poor grasp of material and principles in discussion. No discussion of your reaction to the content.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

Critical analysis of topic

  • Excellent (2.0): High level analysis; Provides useful feedback appropriately. Adds new ideas and/or relevant questions to discussion.
  • Proficient (1.5): Sound analysis of discussion. Provides feedback to group. Adds some new ideas.
  • Sufficient (1.0): Missed some of the main issues. Analysis is simplistic or sketchy. Little substantive feedback provided to colleagues.
  • Needs Improvement (0.5): Lacks analysis of topic. Provides unsubstantiated opinion and anecdotes. No feedback to group members.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

Timely and complete participation

  • Excellent (1.0): Posts on time. Responds to questions and others with clear understanding of content.
  • Satisfactory (0.75): Posts on time. Responses show some understanding.
  • Partial (0.5): Post is late, or adds little to the discussion.
  • Minimal (0.25): Posts are too late to enable others to respond.
  • No Post (0): No post made or replies are disrespectful.

 

Adapted from Purdue University 

4 Points: 

  • 3-4 or more postings; well distributed throughout the week
  • Readings were understood and incorporated into discussion as it relates to topic.
  • Two or more responses add significantly to the discussions (e.g. identifying important relationships, offering a fresh perspective or critique of a point; offers supporting evidence).

3 Points:

  • 2-3 postings distributed throughout the week.
  • Readings were understood and incorporated into discussion as it relates to topic.
  • At least one posting adds significantly to the discussion.

2 Points:

  • 2-3 postings; postings not distributed throughout the week
  • Little use made of readings.
  • At least two postings supplement or add moderately to the discussion

1 Point:

  • 1-2 postings; postings not distributed throughout the week
  • Little or no use made of readings.
  • Postings have questionable relationships to discussion questions and/or readings; they are non-substantive.
  • Postings do little to move discussion forward.

0 Points:

  • No post made or replies are disrespectful 

4. Emphasize and recognize student labor

Depending on whether your discussions are high- or low-stakes and the frequency with which they’re required, it’s worth noting how much work students put into them to make sure it maps onto what you expect them to be doing. It’s worth doing an informal poll of your students to get a better sense for how much work they’re putting into discussions and what could be done to make them more valuable.

5. Divide that labor to achieve quality over quantity

Along with #4, you might also consider requiring fewer posts over the course of the semester, breaking students into groups, or assigning sets of ‘leaders’/‘original posters’ and ‘researchers’/‘respondents.’ One common problem in online fora is redundancy. This usually happens when the topics of discussion are limited to a few possible tracks coupled with a class size of any more than a dozen students. In cases like this, many “first posts” look the same and many “responses” fall in the “I agree” category. Dividing labor up in this way opens you up to set higher expectations with regard to what initial and responding posts should look like. One example is to have initial posters provide a précis or summary and one engaging, open-ended question to which their classmates respond.

6. Everyone gets feedback

While many situations make it virtually impossible for you to respond to everyone, discussions where everyone gets some feedback are ultimately more engaging. You might consider integrating this into the assignment by suggesting that students only reply to posts that do not have a response yet.

Another strategy is to respond less directly to multiple students at once. Consider checking in mid-week and posting a separate response addressing common themes or recurring ideas. Maintain the feel of an engaged community by ‘citing’ the posts you’re replying to in lieu of blanket statements. E.g., say “Verna and Cary raise a critical issue with regards to X” or “Randall, Leona, and Austin all note Graves’s concept of Y” as the lead into a posed question rather than simply “a number of you have asked…”.

7. Provide clear guidelines

It’s easy to assume online discussions are all the same because there are limits to the tools available to us, but a new version of an old joke applies: ask 10 instructors about online discussions and you’ll get 11 different opinions. It’s worth providing a stand-alone document explaining your vision for discussions in your course. What is the goal of your course’s discussions—developing ideas? Sharing progress? Providing critique? How do you want discussions to “feel”? Is this an informal community? A scholarly dialogue? A debate? What is the format—can (or should) students use emoji? Do you require citations? Course or outside readings? In short: What does an effective, constructive, discussion look like in this course?

This is also a good place to articulate your expectations for discussion leaders, share your rubrics, and guide students in budgeting their time based on what you expect.

8. Disagree—or encourage others to do so

Many asynchronous online discussions infamously turn into “I-agree”-fests. Injecting a little pushback or instances of “how would the author respond to X critique” can help prevent this. Consider encouraging this on the part of students as well through a rubric or expectations guide (above).

9. Mix it up.

Even the best-laid discussion plan can devolve into a quote hunt as the semester goes on. While it’s not the worst thing for students to learn what to look for when engaging with course materials, it’s worth mixing it up so students develop a wider set of these skills. Mixing up discussion leaders (above) can help, but, if you prefer to write your own prompts, consider a using a variety. Here are few types of prompts to consider:

Depart from what the key thinkers say and ask students for their own opinions. Invite them to support those opinions with evidence or articulate how they’ve arrived where they’re at.

  • How might you respond if …
  • How would you suggest …
  • What might happen if …
  • To what extent do you agree with …

Provide a prompt which zeroes in on a key concept or responds to particular passage or other source. Give students free reign to respond however they like within the subject matter rather than providing them an anticipatory suite of possible responses.

  • What was the contribution of …
  • How would … respond to the critique …
  • What does … mean when she says …
  • How is the notion of … related to …

Treat the discussion forum as a poll or conduct a poll of the class prior to opening the discussion and share the results asking students to respond.

  • Identify commonality or explain sources of difference
  • Compare poll results to those of another group
  • Describe whether the results map onto expectations given course topics
  • Use the results to drive opinion questions
Assign students précis or summaries of particular reading sections, materials, or current events they find on their own. Invite them to pose open-ended questions of their own in response.
Consider working with a colleague to add them as a TA in your Canvas course. Invite them to lead a discussion related to a topic about which they are passionate. This can be especially effective if it presents an interdisciplinary approach.

There are a number of ways to creatively integrate this type of discussion.

  • Working on a two-sided topic or ongoing academic debate? Integrate this into discussion by assigning sides or allowing students to pick one.
  • Rotate students in roles as respondents of a particular stance.
  • Have students take on the point-of-view of key thinkers or theorists and respond not as themselves but as those figures.
  • Have students create “character sheets” (think Dungeons & Dragons) for particular figures or generalized schools of thought and use those to simulate a debate.

10. Bring it back around

Discussions are most effective (and more engaging) when treated as means rather than an end in themselves. Much as you might provide feedback (above), consider ways you can draw from what students draw out as key points or issues in discussion during “class time”—be this synchronous sessions or asynchronous materials. Drawing connections between the course materials and student contributions helps to reinforce the relevance of their work and underscore the community-building piece which is so central to good discussion.

We’d love to hear from you!

Let us know how you do discussions. What strategies have you employed? What works? What do students like and what are some areas to avoid? Feel free to share sample prompts and success stories. Also let us know if you’ve done interesting things with online discussions that we haven’t had the space to cover here (like video-posts, word clouds, or wiki-building). Comment below or drop us a line at catl@uwbg.edu.

Organizing Canvas to Improve the Student Experience

Article by Sam Mahoney

We’ve all been there: someone told you to finish that thing, and you remember seeing the file somewhere a few weeks ago, but you just can’t remember where you saved it. Or when it’s due. Or maybe even what it was called. Maybe it was this file titled “download_040521”? No wait… maybe download_064053?

Now imagine yourself in that same situation, but you’re a student. Between unclear file names, multiple methods of communication, and so many places information can be posted, it can be frustrating to keep track of all the details in an online class. That’s where organization and consistency in how you use Canvas can save your students a lot of headache and you from the burden of answering a dozen emails a day from confused students. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by UW-La Crosse, students cited clear organization in Canvas as one of the most important things their instructors did that helped them during their Fall 2020 classes. Read on for some suggestions on getting more organized in Canvas so you can help your students be more successful in your classes.

Organizing Course Content

When teaching online, an important consideration is how to arrange and present your content. For maximum clarity and visibility, we recommend organizing your content in modules on the home page. Students are generally used to working through online content sequentially, so arranging modules chronologically with the first week/unit at the top is ideal. You could also arrange your course’s modules in reverse chronological order, publishing the most recent one at the start of each unit/week, so the current module is always at the top of the page. If arranging your content chronologically doesn’t seem like a good fit for your class, you could also try grouping content in modules by project instead.

GIF of reordering modules on the course home page
Modules can be rearranged by clicking and dragging the stacked dots in the top left corner.

Once you have decided how you would like to set up your modules, consider the order in which the content within the modules appears. The first item in a module is nearly always a page. This page should provide students with the context they need to successfully read/watch the necessary materials and complete the necessary activities for the week or unit. You can also use this page to provide an introductory paragraph with other necessary contextual information, as well as the learning objectives or goals for the unit/week. Depending on the depth of the material, you may also consider breaking this information down into multiple pages.

For example, your overview page in each module might include:

Briefly introduce the materials and concepts covered in the module.

Provide any necessary background information students may need to know before engaging with the "meat" of the content. 

You can also link to relevant, optional "pre-reading" materials that might be useful for some students to review before diving into the new content. 

Concretely describe what you would like students to know or be able to do by the end of the week/unit's activities.

For more on crafting objectives, see this guide.

Link to online articles or documents uploaded in the files area in Canvas.

Make sure all readings are accessible—PDF scans of physical textbooks, for example, are not usually readable by e-readers unless they have been OCR-scanned.

A quick way to check: can you copy and paste the text? 

Embed your pre-recorded lectures for the module in sequential order. 

Try to break down lectures into shorter, more digestible videos. Studies have shown that 6—9 minutes may be the sweet spot, and a conversational tone is equally important (Brame, 2016).

Link directly to Canvas activities that students are to complete for the week/unit (assignments, discussions, etc.). 

Include both graded and non-graded activities. 

After the overview page, add any relevant Canvas activities to the module, such as discussions, assignments, and quizzes, all with appropriate, descriptive and consistent namesIf you are using a weekly or unit-based module system, only add the activities that will be due that week/unit. In general, all Canvas assignments, discussions, and quizzes should also have due dates assigned to them in Canvas, as this will add the item to students’ to-do list and calendar in Canvas. These due dates, combined with adding those activities to the appropriate module, will let students see at a glance what is due by the end of the week or unit. Keep the content in the modules simple and high-level in terms of information—save the specifics for the assignment, discussion, or quiz details. 

Linking Related Materials 

It may be tempting to link all your readings, resources or other materials for a unit in the modules on the home page, but the more content students see in the module, the more overwhelmed they will feel. Instead, it is a good idea to keep materials related to each project, assignment, or other activity in the activity description itself. 

With Canvas’s Rich Content Editor, which is what you use to edit the descriptions of assignments, quizzes, and discussions, you can add links to files (documents that you have uploaded to the files area), content within Canvas (published pages, discussions, assignments, etc.) and external URLs (online articles or other websites that have content or activities you would like students to engage with). You can also embed videos that you have created (Kaltura/My Media videos) or videos from other sources that support embed codes (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.). Use this to your advantage by linking all relevant materials needed for completing an activity in the description for said activity. After you’re finished, it’s a good idea to check over the links in your course with Canvas’s link validator tool to make sure you don’t have any broken links.

How to link a file with the New RCE menu bar
Demonstration of how to link a file with the Rich Content Editor.

It’s not enough to just add links, however. Any materials that you would like students to engage with also require clear, concise instructions for what you would like students to do with the content that you’ve linked. 

Here are some questions to consider when you are adding materials to your assignments, discussions, and other areas of Canvas: 

Use the exact name of the article or video, or a clear, concise description for the inline text when you create a link.

For an article, for example, is your intention for students to skim it? Do a close read? Annotate it? Take detailed notes?

Include page numbers for readings and timestamps for videos, when applicable.

This information also allows students to better gauge the amount of time they will need to complete an activity.

Provide instructions on how you would like students to apply what they have learned/accomplished from the linked material to the activity.

Decide if you want students' use of the material to be open-ended or specific (e.g. for a discussion, do you want students to submit a free-form reflection on the reading, or answer specific discussion questions?).

Consistency is Key

However you decide to organize your course, it’s important to keep things as consistent as possible from week to week or unit to unit. This includes:

  • File naming conventions
  • Assignment/discussion/quiz naming conventions
  • Layouts on pages
  • Layouts in modules
  • When, where, and how students can find the instructions for an assignment/discussion/quiz
  • When, where, and how students are to submit an assignment/discussion post/quiz

You’ll find that students will become quickly habituated to doing things a certain way, so if you change up, for example, the location in which students can find the weekly PowerPoint slides, it will likely disrupt students’ learning and cause unnecessary confusion and frustration. Studies have shown that consistency in course design is one of the keys to student success in an online environment (Swan, et al, 2000).

Other Ideas

Have you found other creative and effective ways to organize your course content in Canvas? Let us know by dropping a comment below! Or perhaps there’s something you read about here that you’d like some help implementing in your own course—consider emailing us at catl@uwgb.edu or filling out our consultation request form to chat with a CATL member.


The content of this post has been adapted from CATL’s Pandemic to Online Teaching course from January 2020.