Setting the Tone for a Welcoming Classroom with a Liquid Syllabus

At times, the syllabus can feel like a relic from a different age of academia: a formal, lengthy document that reads like a legal contract and lacks personality. In an attempt to make syllabi more engaging and student-friendly, some instructors have come up with clever ways of reimagining their syllabi. One example of this is the liquid syllabus.

What is a liquid syllabus?

Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s liquid syllabus from her Fall 2020 photography class.

As a part of her effort to humanize her teaching methods, Michelle Pacanksy-Brock—author, instructor, and faculty mentor for California Community Colleges—decided to redo her syllabi. She saw her syllabi as an opportunity to set the stage for an inclusive and positive learning environment, both in terms of language and format. Applying these concepts, she developed a new online syllabus for her photography class using Google Sites. Pacansky-Brock has branded this style of syllabus as a “liquid syllabus”, in which the word “liquid” refers to the fact that these syllabi are easy to access online and interact with, even on mobile devices.

As defined by Pacansky-Brock, a liquid syllabus is usually:

  • Public (accessible online without needing to log into a university account and often available to students before class starts)
  • Mobile-friendly (resizes responsively based on a user’s device)
  • Engaging (includes an instructor video and possibly other forms of media)
  • Student-centered (uses approachable, welcoming language)
  • Visually pleasing (clearly organized with stylistic touches)

The purpose of a liquid syllabus is to serve as a welcoming and encouraging introductory resource for students, while still fulfilling the requirements of a traditional syllabus.

Is creating a liquid syllabus worth the time and effort?

A liquid syllabus is no doubt a bit of extra work, but the research seems to support that creating a liquid syllabus is a great investment in terms of equitable teaching. Here are a few features of a liquid syllabus that you might consider implementing in your own syllabi.

Close equity gaps among your students.

A student checking her smartphone as she walks around campus.

By building your syllabus with a mobile-friendly, web-based tool, you are increasing access for your students. It’s no secret that students in higher education are more likely to have access to a smartphone than a personal computer. A mobile-friendly syllabus is easy to interact with on a smaller screen because it resizes automatically, unlike a PDF or Word doc, which are difficult to read on mobile devices due to sizing constraints.

Liquid syllabi also put a heavy emphasis on inclusive language. When writing a syllabus, it is best to avoid making assumptions about your students’ background knowledge. Transfer students, non-traditional students, international students, and first-generation college students may not be familiar with institution-specific terminology or higher education lingo in general. Try to avoid using abbreviations for your content area, your department, buildings on campus, etc., unless they are clearly defined in the syllabus. Also consider providing some student-centered contextual language before syllabus resources and policies.

Make a good first impression.

Students’ perceptions of their instructors can rely heavily on their first impressions (often more so than an instructor’s reputation and credentials) and studies show that syllabus tone can make a huge difference in these first impressions. Students perceive their instructor as more welcoming, friendly, and inclusive when the instructor’s syllabus uses such language.

As you rework your syllabus, think about ways you can make your language more encouraging. When it comes to classroom expectations, you might reframe your statements to focus on what students should do for success, rather than what they shouldn’t (e.g., instead of saying “academic dishonesty will be punished”, you could say “I encourage academic integrity”). By turning commands into invitations, the overall tone of your syllabus shifts from contractual to welcoming.

Welcoming Language: Examples of Commands vs. Invitations
Commands Invitations
“You must complete makeup work to receive credit.” “Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”
“You are allowed to…” “You are welcome to…”
“I only accept…” “I encourage you to…”
“Late work receives a 40% reduction.” “Late work is eligible for up to 60% of original points.”

Show students who you are.

An example of an instructor welcome video that has been captioned and embedded with a transcript player on the Syllabus page.

Most liquid syllabi also include an introductory video made by the instructor. In an online environment, instructor presence is particularly crucial for student feelings of connectedness, and a welcome video can be a great way to help meet that need. Cheer on your students and let them know that you are there to help them succeed. You can also use this as an opportunity for your students to get to know you a little bit—for example, you could introduce your pet on camera or briefly share about one of your hobbies.

Visual impact makes a difference too. In another study, students expressed more interest in taking a course when the syllabus was graphic-rich as opposed to purely textual. A syllabus doesn’t have to look cold and boring—it can be colorful, welcoming, and even playful, so get creative with your design. After you’re done, check things over to make sure your syllabus still meets accessibility guidelines. Add alt text to your images and captions to your videos as needed.

How can I create a liquid syllabus?

There are a variety of tools you can harness to develop a liquid syllabus. Like Pacansky-Brock, you could use a free website builder like Google Sites to get started. Or, if you feel comfortable using WordPress, you could also build your own site with UWGB domains. You can even use the Syllabus page right in Canvas. If you’d like to try making a liquid syllabus but aren’t quite sure where to start, CATL has developed a template in Canvas which is undergoing a pilot for Fall 2021. To learn more about the template or register to be a part of the pilot, please see this blog post. No matter which tool you choose, keep in mind accessibility and ease of access for students.

Do you have other ideas or suggestions for how to reinvent the syllabus? Share with us how you are transforming your syllabi by dropping a comment below or sending us an email at catl@uwgb.edu! We’d love to hear from you.

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.


 

An example of Student ePortfolio from Ntxhee Yee Thao

Are ePortfolios Right for Your Students?

Are ePortfolios right for your course? Spoilers: we think so. ePortfolios (web-based managed collections of artifacts or ‘evidence’—here of student learning) are one of the Association of American Colleges and University’s (AAC&U) 11 High Impact Practices (HIPs). ePortolios, and assignments tied to their creation, often fulfill a number of the eight key characteristics of HIPs. Most importantly, ePortfolios also help students integrate their learning and make connections between other HIPs.

Different types of ePortfolios help articulate how students must consider different audiences when demonstrating their learning. You can also blend them together for a customized student experience. You might do a course portfolio, a programmatic portfolio, or introduce students to the idea of a developmental or professional portfolio demonstrating their progress over time.

ePortfolios for Reflection & Assessment

Using ePortfolios for learning and reflection encourages metacognitive connections between skills, assessments, and learning outcomes. Reflection, which can be done either publicly or privately, can take many forms within a portfolio. When reflection is built into the assessments that may become artifacts of a portfolio, students will have already done some of this reflective work, making it easier for them to draw connections between and among course work.

Example of student portfolio from Cheynne Ver Voort
Example of student portfolio from Cheynne Ver Voort

Kris Vespia, Associate Professor of Psychology, adds mini reflections to the end of some assessments which ask students to write a few short sentences about the skills they learned while working on the activity, how they see themselves using these skills outside of the classroom, and which learning outcomes they see this activity or assessment fulfilling. Later, if a student takes Kris’s Psychology senior capstone course, they can use those assessments and reflections they’ve been accumulating to produce a programmatic portfolio. These portfolios contain artifacts of learning from across their educational careers that meet the Psychology departmental learning outcomes. The Psychology programmatic portfolios are intended for a public audience, so each item includes a short paragraph describing the artifact and the skills demonstrated through its creation. Here is one example of a student’s programmatic ePortfolio from Dr. Vespia’s capstone course.

After a few semesters, this project has given the Psychology department some very strong assessment data from which they can draw. Might your department or program benefit from a similar practice?

If assessing such a thing seems like a heavy lift, consider that the AAC&U recommends aligning ePortfolios with the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) and the General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) to articulate explicit connections between student learning outcomes and the work they’re doing. This may afford instructors and programs the opportunity to utilize the AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics as a starting point for assessing ePortfolios as an authentic assessment which can be particularly challenging to assess at scale.

ePortfolios for Professionalization

Example of student ePortfolio from Andrew Ransom
Example of student ePortfolio from Andrew Ransom

ePortfolios and a curated digital identity can help students demonstrate their abilities to integrate their learning across disciplines and feature digital literacy competencies making them marketable to employers and graduate schools. Portfolios are central places where collected work publicly shares the formation of career readiness. The process of creating a portfolio allows students to practice discussing the academic work they’ve done in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences. In this and other ways, a portfolio can better inform graduates for when they enter the job market as evidenced by The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). While NACE is somewhat proprietary, you can get a feel for the sort of competencies they’re after—all boxes ePortfolios help check—by looking at results such as these (in this case from California University of Pennsylvania).

If this is of interest to you, feel free to expand the list below for details on some skills closely associated with ePortfolio work.

One thing that will likely influence students' success, whether they are continuing their education past their master’s degree or entering the job market right away, is their comfort level with computers, applications, software, and social media. Employers often have some unrealistic or misaligned expectations for new hires who are just leaving college—they assume that because students use technology and social media in their personal life, they’ll understand how to use it for professional purposes, too! This is assumption is often incorrect, but an ePortfolio project can help give students some experience with using technology for professional purposes. By creating a portfolio, students can also start thinking about their professional digital identity, which has become crucial in a world where networking on sites such as LinkedIn is instrumental in finding a job.

Digital Technology is #4 on the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) list of 8 core skills for career success. Employers are looking for candidates who have demonstrated competency in existing digital technologies and the ability to adapt to new and emerging technologies. 

Learning how to use a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, which is one of the tools that we recommend using for creating an ePortfolio, is another skill that students can add to a CV or résumé. Even though students may not imagine themselves using website builders or CMSs in the future, they may find that these skills will still come in handy. Ask your colleagues—some of them are even asked to add things to our campus websites using a CMS called Kentico in order to fulfill public posting requirements for grants!

Career Management is #7 on that list from NACE: The ability to identify and articulate skills, strengths, and experiences in a way that's relevant to the position students desire is a skill that a portfolio can help students develop because they can practice thinking and describing projects and assignments to different audiences; proficiency in exploring and pursuing job options and the ability to self-advocate in the workplace can stem from this kind of practice.

Explaining how projects and assessments from undergraduate and graduate academics apply to skills listed in a job posting is one of the things students will likely be asked in an interview. Students might want to express how they could potentially grow into that entry-level position by sharing the skills they’ve cultivated in a project that indirectly relates to their field of study.

Communication is #2 on that NACE 8 core skills and competencies list: the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in both written and verbal contexts. Think about how appropriate it would be to be able to share how courses, course work, and projects from undergraduate and graduate careers can apply to the skills in a job description. Creating a portfolio is basically practicing those interviewing skills so that students have some vocabulary and examples to pull from directly.

Getting started with recommendations for students

Getting started with an ePortfolio project or assignment can sound like a daunting task, but it’s not so bad if we keep in mind that what we’re really after is helping students collect and describe the work they’ve already done. The list below summarizes some of the key considerations to start with.

As an instructor, you can guide students in this process. You can also use the structure of your course to establish baseline groupings—e.g. “Theory, Research, Practice.”

Ask yourself: what patterns are you seeing? Hopefully your work is at least linked by your major, minor, and/or emphasis. How might you articulate these patterns using portfolio sections, categories, or pages? 

Don’t forget about group work. Are any of these projects the result of group work? If so, you must get permission from your team members to share the work publicly (if that’s your plan). It might be necessary to redact or remove other student names from the work—but don’t mischaracterize or pass off their work as your own. Alternatively, feature only the sections you’ve worked on by yourself. In your portfolio, you’ll need to articulate how these are a part of a larger project. 

Who is your portfolio for? Peer reviewers? Instructors? Employers? Graduate Schools? If you want a public, web-indexed portfolio, consider choosing a medium like WordPress (see below), Wix, Weebly, or Google Sites.

As an instructor, make it transparent what you anticipate students will do with their portfolio. Is it just for this class? Do you intend for it to go beyond the course? How will this influence the way you have students engage with it as a medium?

As an instructor, this is a great first assignment for ePortfolios.

Write a résumé or CV. Make a “web safe” version if you’re making a public portfolio so that it doesn’t have your home address or phone number on it.

Meet with Career Services for feedback!

Each time you finish a paper, project, grant proposal, or other artifact that you’re proud of, save it somewhere (see Collect your work and think of how it fits together above) so that you can add it to your portfolio. A you make progress, you can also add it directly to your portfolio if you’ve already started one.

As an instructor, consider how your existing assignments might fit into a scheme suitable for a course or program-level portfolio.

Claiming a UWGB Subdomain & Installing WordPress

One way students can create an ePortfolio is by building a UWGB-hosted WordPress website in which they can add pages, images, documents, and other educational and professional artifacts. This starts with claiming a UWGB web domain and installing WordPress. The steps for doing this are available in this document.

Below are some examples of student portfolios built in this way:

Stay in touch.

Have you or your program used ePortfolios in the past? We’d love to hear about your experiences. What tips do you have for other instructors starting out with this sort of assignment? Or perhaps you’ve never used ePortfolios before, but are thinking about incorporating them into one of your courses—what questions do you need answered to get started?

Drop us a line via email or comment below!

If you’re interested in beginning a portfolio project in your course, request a consultation with CATL and one of our team members will get back to you about how to get started if you would like some guidance.

 

Hands of students completing a cloud-shaped puzzle which reads "Online Collaboration"

Up and Running with Remote Group Work

A Case for Group Work

Group work can elicit negative reactions from instructors and students alike. Often enough, students groan about doing it and instructors dread grading it. The process is ripe for communication breakdowns resulting in stress from both perspectives. On top of this, the digital learning environment tends to compound these issues. Why then is group work so prevalent?

The answer is that, when done well, group activities help foster engagement and build relationships. Collaborative work helps students develop important skills like effectively articulating ideas, active listening, and cooperation with peers. Collaborative assignments correlate strongly with student success positioning them as one of eight high-impact practices identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Making group work a worthwhile experience for students requires extra consideration and planning, but the positive gains are worth the effort.

Designing Group Work for Student Success

How can we design collaborative activities that are a quality learning experience for students? Scaffolding makes sure students are confident in their understanding of and ability to execute the activity. UW-Extension has created a helpful guide on facilitating group work that outlines three key suggestions to get you started. First, be sure students understand the purpose of the activity, in terms of what they are supposed to learn from it and why it is a group activity. Second, provide support so students have the necessary tools and training to collaborate. You are clear how and when students are to collaborate or provide suggestions. You ensure students understand how to use the needed technologies. Finally, providing opportunities for peer- and self-evaluation can alleviate frustrations of unequal workload by having students evaluate their own and their peers’ contributions. As challenges arise, guide groups toward solutions that are flexible but fair to all members. When embarking on group projects, be prepared to provide students with guidance about what to do when someone on the team is not meeting the group’s expectations.

One example of this as you design your group projects is to ask yourself whether it’s important students meet synchronously. If so, how might you design the project for students with caregiving responsibilities or with full-time or “off hours” work schedules? These students may not be able to meet as regularly or at the same time as other students. See below for how this might play into assessing the group project. You might also consider whether all students need to hold the same role within the group, or if their collective project be split up based on group roles.

Consider how the group dynamics can impact student experiences. Helping students come up with a plan for group work and methods of holding one another accountable promotes an inclusive and equitable learning environment. Consider any of these tools to help your students coordinate these efforts:

Assessing Group Work

Equitable, specific, and transparent grading are crucial to group-work success. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence of Carnegie Mellon University has a great resource on how to assess group work, including samples. This resource breaks grading group work down into three areas. First, assess group work based on both individual and group learning and performance. Include an individual assessment component to motivate all students to contribute and help them to feel their individual efforts are recognized. Also assess the process along with the product. What skills are you hoping students develop by working in groups? Your choice of assessment should point to these skills. One way to meet this need is to have students complete reflective team, peer, or individual evaluations as described above. Finally, outline your assessment criteria and grading scheme upfront. Students should have clear expectations of how you will assess them. Include percentages for team vs. individual components and product vs. process components as they relate to the total project grade.

Tools for Working Collaboratively

Picking the right tool among a plethora of what is available is an important step. First, consider how you would like students to collaborate for the activity. Is it important that students talk or chat synchronously, asynchronously, or both? Will students share files?

The following suggestions include the main collaboration tools supported at UWGB. Click to expand the sections for the various tools below.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these tools, consider scheduling a consultation with a CATL member.

Canvas discussions are one option for student collaboration. Operating much like an online forum, discussions are best suited for asynchronous communication, meaning students can post and reply to messages at any time, in any order. If you have groups set up in Canvas, you can create group discussions in which group members can only see one another’s posts. You can also adjust your course settings so that students can create their own discussion threads as well.

If you’ve never seen VoiceThread, imagine a PowerPoint presentation in which students can leave audio, video, and text comments on every slide. It is a great tool for virtual presentations, as students can pre-record narration for slides and then embed their projects in Canvas pages, discussions, etc. to share with the rest of the class. Keep in mind however that it may take students longer to grow comfortable with VoiceThread than a tool like Canvas discussions or Office 365, which they may already be familiar with using.

Office 365 refers to the online Microsoft Office Suite, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Students can work collaboratively and asynchronously on projects using online document versions of any of these software, which updates changes in nearly real time. Microsoft Office 365 has partial integration with Canvas, allowing students to set up and share Office documents from within Canvas using the Collaborations feature. Students will have to log in to Office 365 through their Canvas course before they can use most features of Canvas and Office 365 integration.

Collaborate Ultra is one of two web conferencing tools supported by the university, the other being Teams. Collaborate Ultra has full integration with Canvas, meaning students can access meetings and recordings from within a Canvas course. As such, it is generally easy to for students to access and use. One downside to Collaborate Ultra is that it is a purely synchronous meeting tool, so students will have to coordinate their schedules or find other ways of including members that may not be able to attend a live meeting.

Microsoft Teams is a collaboration tool that combines web conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous text communications (in the form of chat and posts), and shared, collaborative file space. Students can create a new team in MS Teams for their group project or operate in a channel of an existing class team. Microsoft Teams also has partial integration with Canvas, meaning students and instructors can create and share Teams meeting links within the New Rich Content Editor of Canvas (in pages, announcements, discussions, etc.).

Putting It into Practice

When we ask students to work collaboratively, it’s important we reveal the “hidden curriculum” by building in the steps they should take to be a successful team. As a starting point, asking students to answer these questions helps clarify the work of the group:

  • “Who’s on the team?”
  • “What are your tasks as a group?”
  • “How will you communicate?” (Asynchronously? Synchronously?)
  • “How will you ensure everyone can meet the deadlines you set?”
  • “If or When someone misses a meeting, how will you ensure that everyone has access to the information they’ll need to help you all complete the project on time?”
  • “When will you give each other feedback before you turn in the final assignment?”

For a ‘bare bones’ group assignment, take the above considerations on designing and assessing groupwork into account and create a worksheet for the student groups to fill out together. Create a Canvas group assignment to collect those agreements, assign it some points that will be a part of the whole project grade, and set the deadline for turning it in early so that students establish their plan early enough for it to benefit their group. Scaffolded activities that give students enough structure and agency is a delicate balance, but these kinds of guided worksheets and steps can help students focus their energy on the project, assignment, or task once everyone is on the same page.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

Do you have some tried and tested strategies for helping students coordinate and complete group work online? Send them our way by emailing: CATL@uwgb.edu or comment below!

Experiential Learning

The following resources were created and compiled by Kerry Kuenzi, Assistant Professor, Public and Environmental Affairs.

Introduction

Hands-on learning experiences and assignments help students to move beyond memorization and conceptual learning toward deep learning – the process of fusing this earlier type of learning with real-world situations. Although the evidence on learning styles of types of learning is not uncontested, it is apparent that “practicing” skills and concepts can help us to move toward mastery. It’s why you can learn the basics of cooking by watching a cooking show, but can improve your skills through the practice you get in the kitchen!

The benefits to these type of assignments are well-documented in the literature (and are covered further on the next page). Further, UWGB students have found the experiences to be highly valuable.

Speaking about a community-based learning experience, one student in Public and Environmental Affairs noted, “Sometimes you’ll take a class and you can go, ‘What did I learn?’ This is, this is a case where for me at least it solved a big portion of it.”

While these learning experiences are extremely impactful to students, implementing them in an online or blended environment may be challenging especially in reconciling being hands-on while being social distanced.

Students presenting at a poster session

What is experiential learning? Engaged learning? Deep learning?

Hands-on learning experiences have a variety of different names for closely related but not always equivalent learning experiences. There is not wide agreement on what exactly constitutes each type and how they differ.

Some of the commonly used terms include:

  • Service Learning
  • Experiential Learning
  • Community-based Learning
  • Project-based Learning
  • Engaged Learning
  • Deep Learning
  • Inquiry-based Learning
  • Problem Based Learning

The terminology as well as the type that is most common or that works best is likely driven by discipline as well as expected course outcomes.  Typically, these experiences involve students applying their conceptual knowledge in a real-world context in some capacity.  Shared characteristics and key components across types include reflection and big picture/meta-level thinking.  These help students bring insights to life, connect theory to practice, see insights within themselves, and help students to make connections in a complex wold to identify their role in it.

A good open resource for more information on experiential learning is the Carleton University’s Experiential Education website. Here is how they distinguish what makes a learning experience experiential:

“Experiential learning is the application of theory and academic content to real-world experiences, either within the classroom, within the community, or within the workplace, which advances program or course-based learning outcomes…

Experiential Education:

  • Combines direct experience with focused reflection;
  • Builds on past knowledge and experiences;
  • Requires active involvement in meaning construction;
  • Encourages collaboration and exchange of ideas and perspectives;
  • Can be course focused or in-class, community focused, or work focused.”

Rather than engage in the debate to distinguish types, in this resource the term experiential learning will be used to characterize the wide array of experiential educational endeavors.

Illustration of Experimental Education

Photo Credit: Association for Experimental Education

What types of experiences are experiential?

There are a wide range of of activities that would qualify based on the above definition. Using the course-community-work distinction, these experiences can include:

Experiential Education Strategies

Source: Carleton University’s Experiential Education Website

Why design experiential learning into your courses?

Research on teaching and learning has found that “connect” activities are often associated with higher rates of retention and understanding than absorb or doing activities alone  (e.g. Blooms Taxonomy and/or the Learning Pyramid).

Evidence includes:

  • Enhancements in student’s academic and life skill development1
  • An increased  sense of civic responsibility  and community participation2
  • Increased exposure to new people and ideas3
  • An increased ability to understand and solve social problems4

Some types of experiential learning, particularly those designed into regular courses  have also been found to increase equity for traditionally underrepresented groups, as many of these students cannot participate in individualized learning experiences such as internships5.

When is experiential learning appropriate and how do I go about designing one of these experiences?

Experiential learning experiences need to be designed carefully and thoughtfully in order for the students to have a meaningful experiences and to achieve desired outcomes.  Further, careful design and implementation of experiential learning experiences can be labor intensive for instructors so I encourage thinking about where they best fit will result in better quality (instead of quantity).  It cannot be emphasized enough that experiential learning experiences should be designed carefully and thoughtfully.  Therefore, a guide of best practices can be found here, Best Practices of Experiential Learning.

Considerations:

  • Student population and their needs
  • Appropriate activities based on course content
  • Potential implementation issues
  • Assessment
  • Your Role as the Instructor

Importance of reflection in experiential learning

Regardless of the type of experiential activity you design, the level of class, or other considerations, the reflection stage of experiential learning is critical as it the opportunity for students to bridge concepts and experience.  Reflection opportunities also foster problem solving and professional development, promotes conscious action and self-awareness, and contributes to deeper understanding of issues.

In reflection activities, the instructor encourages students to critically analyze their experience.   Encourage students to reflect as they go but provide an opportunity for a longer, more critical reflection once the experience has been completed.  Instructors can provide prompts or questions to the student to get students to consider multiple perspectives or to make connections.  Examples of activities include:

  • Discussion questions
  • Relating to academic/practitioner literature
  • Letters
  • Journaling
  • Structured papers/evaluations
  • Essays

Here is an additional resource, a Guide for Reflection in Your Course, that also includes frameworks for reflection and a list of prompts that can be used to facilitate reflection.


1. Boss, 1994; Kendrick, 1996; Astin & Sax, 1998; Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001; Ash, Clayton, & Atkinson, 2005; Sherman & MacDonald, 2009
2. Astin & Sax, 1998; Eyler, 2010
3. Jones & Abes; 2004; Fitch, 2005;  Lundy, 2007
4. Eyler & Giles, 1999; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005
5. Cantor, 1995


Tips for adding experiential learning to your class

  1. You can start small
  2. Be explicit with your students about your expectations including that they will have to drive some of their learning and that you expect high quality work when engaging with a community partner
  3. Students may need help connecting the pieces so consider opportunity for them to get feedback and engage in reflection across the semester rather than just at the end
  4. Have a contingency plan for the unexpected