Copy and paste for teachers

Photo taken from ELTpics by @mk_elt, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week I finally got started on grading and feedback in the latest iteration of my writing skills online course, and thought I’d do a brief post on my comment bank. Note to self: see if you can come up with a catchier title than “My comment bank”.

Last summer I was listening to an episode of the Professional Adjunct podcast, in which the hosts, Beth and Jim, discuss an article called “Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading”, originally published on Faculty Focus. I’m not a regular subscriber to this podcast, but the couple of episodes I’ve listened to have addressed various aspects of teaching online – the asynchronous kind, which I do.

When they got to point 2 – comment banks – I remember it only then dawned on me that I had in fact been creating a comment bank for a few semesters without having expressly set out to do so, or even realizing that was what I’d been doing. I mean, I teach English. I’ve used coursebooks with text banks in the back of the TB, so the concept is familiar. And yet the idea of a comment bank came as a surprise – not the I-didn’t-think-anyone-else-had-come-up-with-this kind of surprise, but more of an oh-I-have-something-like-that-who-knew kind.

I find this type of resource especially useful for asynchronous online contexts or whenever you need to give feedback on work submitted electronically. Once you’ve designed a course in an LMS that covers a whole semester, it’s likely to maintain a more or less similar structure for at least a couple of semesters. For instance, there will be a discussion forum in unit 1 – it may differ in terms of the reading the students need to do to take part, or in terms of the opening post – but they’ll still be taking part in a discussion and you’ll probably want to give them a grade and feedback on that.

I originally used to add comments under headings like “Unit 1, discussion 1” to a Word document, but after a while I switched to Google Docs as I can access the bank across devices. This morning, for example, I had an hour to kill on campus, so I used the office computer to add feedback – pretty convenient.

I have a rubric for each activity that I give feedback on, so if it’s a discussion, I’m looking for a minimum number of posts, minimum number of words per post, participation by deadline, relevance to topic – this is not in order of importance – and so I will usually first comment on how successfully the student has followed the rubric. This can be taken straight from the comment bank and requires minimal adaptation. Then, if there is anything specific to a particular student that I would like to address, I will add a personalized comment. I tend to end with suggestions on what to watch out for in the next discussion, and these are often from the comment bank as well, since they come up more often than you might expect. A case in point would be encouraging them to run a spell check on their posts and pointing them to a resource we have in the course where they can find more information on how to do that, should they need to.

A more recent addition to the comment bank has been marking sections of the text in different colors for convenience. There are at least 5 or 6 comments that I will be using and/or building on for an activity, so it’s far easier to find my way around if each is a different color. I wish I could say I was color coding them – it sounds more organized – but it’s nothing as sophisticated as that; I just mark them in different color so each comment stands out from the ones above and below.

So that’s it, really. It’s a significant timesaver, relatively simple to do – okay, it does take up a bit of time the first time around, but you’ll be tweaking it every semester anyway, so it doesn’t need to be perfect – and is very convenient if you’re doing your grading via an LMS. Plus I think it makes me look at student work more objectively and fairly, although that may just be wishful thinking.

Do you use a comment bank? Any tips you’d like to share? I’m particularly interested if anyone uses anything similar in a classroom environment.

Attendance woes

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Mandias: Perfect Attendance (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I thought I’d write this up as a post and see if anyone has any suggestions as to what I could do.

As the semester at my institution draws to a close, I’m supposed to go through the attendance records and see if there are any students who shouldn’t be allowed to take the final exam. A brief digression – when I taught at language schools, we were also required to keep attendance records, but these were then passed on to the language training coordinator at the company that paid for the classes and I have no idea what they did with them, or if there were ever any repercussions for those who didn’t attend classes regularly.

This is how it works in the setting I currently teach in (compulsory undergrad courses): three strikes and you’re out. These three times you can miss class – 6 hours out of 60 – you don’t need to justify/excuse your absence in any way. Some students manage that – not sure how many, but they’re generally in the minority. Many don’t. It would be wonderful if I could make a list of those who’ve only been absent three times or less, and tell all the others they’ve got to take the course again next year, but that’s just unrealistic.

So I try to be flexible and accept a couple more absences, and that usually works well. I’m left with a handful of students, which actually prompted this post.

This handful can usually be divided into two categories: those that missed 50% of the classes or more (and I have no qualms about telling them to come back next year) and those that are somewhere between those who toed the line attendance-wise and those I couldn’t safely say I recognize because I’ve seen so little of them. I don’t want to be too vague, so let’s say those who missed around 30% of the classes.

They were around often enough for me to feel that they should be entitled to take the exam, and will probably catch up on what they missed easily enough, so it would serve no purpose to make them sit through the course again next year. However… However, the group that were regular may feel a little stupid if they were to learn that they didn’t actually need to be quite so regular, because other people who missed 2 or 3 times as many classes as they did will also be able to take the exam. Yes, I know their motivation should come from within and not from a familiarity with someone else’s attendance record. I’m not taking that chance.

The usual thing to do, from what I understand, is to give these missed-more-than-they-were-supposed-to-but-the-instructor-still-knows-what-they-look-like students an extra assignment. Sounds fine to me.

This is where the problem lies, though. I hope I don’t come across as unreasonable when I say that I don’t want this extra assignment to be mine. I want it to be the student’s. I don’t see that there’s any reason that I should have to work harder because the student couldn’t be bothered to make the sessions regularly. An example of this would be a seminar paper – a typical extra assignment to make up for absences. I need to assign the paper, i.e., come up with a topic, and I need to at least read it and grade it, but I’ll probably want to give some kind of feedback and I’ll want to check for plagiarism. So, this is definitely at least a couple more hours of work for me, per student.

I was hoping that there’s something I can assign that requires a minimum amount of work on my part. Let’s not pretend that this is going to be viewed as a learning opportunity. I’m looking for an assignment that:

  • will take me no more than 5 minutes to check
  • will leave me in no doubt that the student spent a certain amount of time working on it
  • I can easily check for plagiarism (or dismiss the possibility straight away)
  • requires little or no feedback
  • will not scream “this is primarily punishment”, but will rather say “true, you are doing this because you were lax about attendance, but it’s not a complete waste of time” (optional)

If anyone is/has been in a similar situation, or has any ideas on what assignment would tick all the boxes above, I would be really grateful if you could share your suggestions in the comments.

Oh, right, and let me just reassure everyone that this doesn’t apply to your typical diligent student who was absent for a couple of weeks due to legit medical reasons. Those usually email as soon as the legit medical reason becomes evident and apologize in advance for the two weeks they’re going to miss.