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.

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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.

Making the most of face time

Campus where I teach, photo taken from srce.hr
The campus where I teach, photo taken from srce.hr

The winter semester at the institution where I teach my online course started two weeks ago*. As has by now become somewhat the norm, we had a couple of F2F sessions – six hours this time instead of the usual eight because one of the days we were supposed to have class inconveniently turned out to be a public holiday. Inconveniently – ha! I guess most people consider holidays a blessing, but I still can’t shake the attitude that is ingrained after years of work in the private sector where for a language school every holiday means less money, especially in (the second half of) June, when Croatia practically comes to a standstill owing to the rich combination possibilities afforded by two secular holidays, a religious one, and the law stipulating that the previous year’s vacation days must be used up by June 30 of the current year. But I didn’t start out to talk about holidays.

I thought I would describe what we did in our F2F sessions prior to starting a four-month online course. A little bit of background: the course is a compulsory one aimed at second-year communication science majors, there are roughly 15 people in the group (although the exact figure varies each semester) and we have a sprinkling of Erasmus students as well. The online part is carried out, mostly asynchronously, in Moodle, hosted and administered by Zagreb University’s Computing Center.

When you know that you will be spending most of your time in an online environment, with no possibility of meeting F2F before the final exam, you realize that you need to give very serious consideration to what you want to cover during the limited classroom time. My current position is that anything content-related can be introduced online and that face time is best spent on fostering a group atmosphere and getting the group to gel as best it can. Of course, you’ll continue to work on this throughout the semester, but if you get a good start offline, it’ll be that much easier in Moodle.

The first time I met this semester’s group I knew I would be doing – wait for it – some kind of getting-to-know-you activity. A very brief digression: do see the third graph in this post by James Taylor for alternatives to getting-to-know-you activities with a new class, guaranteed to make you smile. During the summer I’d come across the idea of using selfies as an ice-breaker in this post by Jill Walker Rettberg, and immediately knew I wanted to try it out. Okay, I’m not teaching a module on digital self-representation, but it is a topic future journalists and PR majors can reasonably be expected to encounter at some point during their studies. More immediately relevant to my course is the belief that having everyone share a selfie with the others will increase their feeling of group belonging a least a little. As the course is online, for some this will be the only opportunity to see their classmates’ faces (they don’t take all of their on-campus classes together). And, yeah, let’s not forget it’s fun! Unless you’re pathologically averse to selfies, but I wasn’t going to force anyone to take part if they really didn’t want to.**

I got everyone to line up according to height (to split them up into random groups) and sent them out for five minutes to take selfies. They could have just stayed outside in the hall, but they all left the building and took the pics outdoors. When they came back, they uploaded these to a Padlet wall I’d prepared the day before, and added a caption. Before starting on the activity, I’d also checked that we had a sufficient number of smartphones, and I’d added my selfie to the wall to demonstrate how Padlet works. When all the pictures were up, we viewed them on the projector screen and the students shared some more details about themselves. Later, I added (a link to) the selfie wall to a prominent spot on the online course home page, inviting those who missed the first session to add their pics. I can already see I’ll be checking it out increasingly often as exam time rolls around to remind myself of what the students look like.

We followed this up with an activity designed to see how the class feels about writing. Normally the students get a somber black and white handout, as opposed to the tequila sunrise color combo pictured here, but that’s what comes of wasting time playing around with PowerPoint backgrounds.

Raising awareness about writing
Raising awareness about writing

I like to get a discussion going – if that is the right word to apply to undergraduates being asked to exchange opinions on a topic such as writing, in the morning, in a foreign language, while the jury is still out on just how much effort they’re going to have to put into the class. Still, I make sure everyone gets to say something, as this is also a good chance to see what their spoken English is like. In addition to checking to what extent they enjoy writing, if they proofread their work, etc., I use the opportunity to explain how correction and feedback will be dealt with online, and prepare them for something they will be doing quite a bit of – reading their classmates’ writing. This is something they wouldn’t normally do in an offline environment.

If there are no time constraints, I like to do an activity designed to raise awareness about text quality as well, but this time we had to skip it.

Raising awareness about text quality
Raising awareness about text quality

Our second session was devoted to demonstrating how Moodle and Mahara work. As I have by now repeatedly discovered that first steps in the online environment are not as intuitive as digital native proponents would have us believe, I’d decided that this semester I would book the computer room so that I could walk everyone through logging on and creating an e-portfolio page for the course. Unsurprisingly, it then turned out that not only was the room unavailable, I also couldn’t for some reason copy last year’s course – an activity that takes all of three minutes and doesn’t usually require admin assistance, so I’d perhaps somewhat thoughtlessly left it until the night before the demo session.

Change of plan. I listed all the important steps in a Google Doc and took the group through these together, using last year’s course to illustrate. Thinking about it now, I probably should have included screenshots too. The trickiest step for most seems to be creating and sharing a portfolio page, and this time was no exception. I subsequently recorded a screencast on how to do this and added it to the course – something I probably should also have included in the Google Doc right from the start. Ah, well, there is always next semester. Of course, the document was shared after the session with everyone enrolled in the course.

Finally, in the third session I opted for two activities – not exactly bonding experience material, but important to cover face-to-face nonetheless. The first was freewriting. I like to get an idea, at the beginning of the year, of what the students can do without the help of the internet and assorted reference materials. It’s not exactly scientific, but it does usually give me a pretty accurate impression of what I can expect throughout the semester. Some people find it really hard to get started, so this time I included a couple of sentence beginnings – vague enough not to require the students to stick to any particular subject – to help along those who weren’t feeling particularly inspired.

I decided we would also cover the basics of formal writing in the last session for a very simple reason. This is the one section of the course content that I haven’t transferred online, and I figured I would avoid doing this if at all possible. Yes, this is content-related and not about fostering a group atmosphere. Yes, I know what I said at the beginning. But adapting offline materials for an online course takes time. And I have this presentation which has been tweaked and polished over the last couple of semesters, perfect to use with a class about to start on a writing course. Incidentally, when I say formal writing, I don’t mean EAP, but rather things like reminding students that linking words other than ‘and’ or ‘but’ exist and that people do employ them occasionally.

This was as much face time as we got this semester. I feel we managed to squeeze in everything we really needed to before moving online, and paved the way for a more or less successful course. As I write this most of the students have completed the introductory online activities and made a start on the course content, so all is well. Almost all, at any rate. But that is material for another post.

* three weeks ago, actually, by the time I finally got around to wrapping the post up

**at least one of the students who missed the first session and added their pics later explained that she is alone in the picture because her classmate doesn’t like selfies