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Updated: 36 min 39 sec ago

Breaking the ice – 5 tips for getting your discussions started in myCourses

Wed, 08/19/2015 - 15:56

Welcome to our first post of the 2015 academic year! Keep an eye out for lots more in the coming weeks. And now onto some great tips on using discussions in myCourses.

Classes start in just over two weeks, so it’s the perfect time to start getting your myCourses pages ready for the semester. The Discussions tool can be a great way to add an online component to your course. This blog post contains recommendations for creating exciting online discussions, with a focus on how you can leverage online icebreaker activities as an opportunity to introduce students to the Discussions tool.

1. Add a photo

It’s hard to communicate with faceless avatars. Photos add a personal touch and allow students to associate a face with a name. It doesn’t need to be a picture of you—it could even be your cat! Encourage your students to add a photo, as well. This can be done by updating your profile.

2. Run an icebreaker activity

Run an icebreaker activity in the online discussion board to allow students to introduce themselves and so that they can get to know their classmates. This can take the form of some guiding questions that you would like students to answer. Designing activities that are engaging, productive, and – most importantly, worthwhile – can be difficult. But to get you started, here are some recommendations for running an icebreaker activity to get your online discussions going:

  1. Relate the questions to the course material. If students end up doing an icebreaker activity in each of their courses, you want to design it such that their responses are related to the course context and thus cannot be copied and pasted from one course to the next. For example:
    • Why did you register for this course? What do you expect to learn?
    • What is your interest in this material?
    • What do you already know about X?
    • What do you want to know about X?
    • What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear of X?
    • What’s the most confusing thing (muddiest point) you hear in the news about X?
  2. Model ideal responses. Be an active participant in the icebreaker. Some things you can do are:
    • Put yourself in the students’ shoes: answer the questions as you would when you first took a class like this;
    • Set expectations and provide resources: let students know where they can get more information about their muddiest point;
    • Address misconceptions: for example, if a student expects to learn something that won’t be taught in the class, let them know.
  3. Connect the questions to any upcoming activities. Many classes feature a group work component, so asking questions about general interests (food, hobbies, etc.) helps students get to know each other. Also, in group-work intensive courses, consider asking students about their most memorable and/or most positive group work experiences and what made them as such. This can help you establish the protocols for upcoming group work activities.
  4. Design the activity so that interaction is necessary. By adding a requirement that students reply to one another – for example, to at 3 least classmates’ posts, this changes the “introducing yourself” model from one-to-many to many-to-many. In that sense, the discussion board becomes not only a place to post one’s thoughts but instead a hub for peer-to-peer interaction. It’s also easy to view discussion statistics, so you can see at-a-glance how many of your students have authored, replied to, and read the various discussion posts.
  5. Integrate photo, audio, and video. myCourses makes it easy to include photos, audio, and video. Students have access to the text box editor while using the discussion board. By integrating photo, audio, and video, your icebreaker activity becomes an audiovisual experience, bringing the level of discussion to one that exceeds text. In disciplines that are particularly visual, you could ask students to post a photo or video of the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the topic and explain why they chose it.
  6. Use the information from the icebreaker activity to make slight modifications to your course. The answers to these questions can help you design your course materials, choose examples to meet students’ interests, and to address students’ muddiest points.
3. Take advantage of the options in the Discussions tool

There is an option in which “Users must start a thread before they can read and reply to other threads.” This means that students will not be able to read others’ posts until they write one of their own. After students author their posts, ask them to review their peers’ posts and reflect (through a reply!) on how their peers’ reactions to the course material differed from their own.

4. Have the class set guidelines

Have the class set guidelines as a group on how they would like to use the discussion board. When students become part of the process of creating the rules and expectations, they are more likely to become invested in the tool and see it as a vehicle to achieving the course’s learning outcomes. This could take place in the form of a 10-minute in-class (or better yet, online!) discussion on “How do you envision using the myCourses discussion board in this course?” As an example, discuss whether your students feel comfortable with enabling the “up-vote,” “up-vote or down-vote,” and/or “five-star rating schemes.” In some circumstances, using the five-star rating scheme in a discussion on controversial topics could make things very interesting, very quickly—provided protocols on decorum are first established.

5. Aim to be an active participant

Being an active participant doesn’t mean you need to monitor the board 24/7. Modelling the participation you expect from students is another way to keep your discussions thriving. With that said, one of the biggest concerns from instructors about using the discussion board is that it is going to take a lot of time and energy to monitor. Let students know when and how often – and which parts of it – you plan to check. Make this expectation clear from the beginning. For example, you may wish to create a “Questions for the Instructor” topic that you check regularly. Note that you may also subscribe for email alerts for the discussion topics you don’t want to miss.

Have you run an exciting icebreaker or online discussion activity? Let us know so that we can share it with the community!

More tips about the Discussions tool is available in one of my previous blog posts, “Making the Most of Online Discussions in myCourses.” To request a one-on-one consultation or a custom group workshop to learn more about any of the tools available in myCourses, please fill out this form.


Peer review with 500 students

Fri, 06/05/2015 - 14:56

This post featuring Prof. Lawrence Chen is the latest installment in our ongoing series about assessment tools for large classes. On March 17, 2015, Lawrence was the guest speaker at a brown bag lunch session on Evaluation and Feedback for Large Classes. In his presentation, Peer Review as an Active Learning Strategy in a Large First Year Course, Lawrence shared his thoughts on the pedagogy and logistics related to his experience implementing a peer review writing assignment with nearly 500 undergraduate Engineering students, as well as his students’ thoughts on engaging in this peer review task.

Highlights from Lawrence’s presentation in Q and A format with one of the presentation organizers:

Before we get into the details of your peer review assignment with nearly 500 students, can you tell us how you understand peer assessment?

Sure. I’ll give you a quotation. Peer assessment is an instructional approach where “learners consider and specify the level, value, or quality of a product or performance of other equal-status learners (…) Peer-assessment can be summative  or formative” (Topping, 1998).

What is the context for the course where you tried out this peer review assignment?

The course is called Introduction to the Engineering Profession (FACC 100). It’s a gate-way course taken by all first-year Engineering students, which means about 850 students a year. I taught the course in Fall 2013 and had two sections with a total of close to 500 students.

What were the writing tasks that would be peer reviewed?

There were two assignments – a 1-page reflection and a 1-page process description. The reflection was designed to introduce students to the interdisciplinary nature of the Engineering profession. The process description called upon students to choose one of two situations they might encounter as Engineers where they would have to make a decision according to an ethical theory and/or decision-making process discussed in class. Using specific criteria, they had to justify their choice of decision-making process. Intentionally, these assignments didn’t have right or wrong answers.

How did students know what to address in the peer feedback?

We created rubrics so that students would have criteria to follow. Reviewer students first had to provide a one-sentence summary of the content. Then, they had to give a numeric score according to specific criteria. Finally, they had to justify that score with brief comments. In order for students to be able to give good quality feedback, I asked them to read each assignment twice: once in order to understand the content and a second time in order to give thoughtful feedback according to the rubric criteria.

I should also mention that students were able to see the rubrics before submitting their writing assignments. That way, they knew what to do in order to meet the criteria.

Example rubric from one of Lawrence’s peer review assignments in FACC 100

How much of students’ final grade were these assignments worth?

Each of the two assignments was worth 10%, but that 10% was based on peer feedback and instructor/TA feedback. Let me explain the break-down: 5% of the grade was assigned by peers. Each student’s assignment was reviewed by three peers. An average of those three grades made up 5% of the mark. The other 5% of the grade was based on students’ participation in the peer review process. TAs and I assessed the quality of each student’s feedback and assigned the balance of the grade based on the quality. We did not grade the students’ papers, only the quality of their feedback. In the end, a total of 10% of students’ final course grade was assigned by peers.

What did students have to say about the task of reviewing their peers’ work and assigning a grade?

Evidence suggests students were amenable to the peer review assignments.

Actually, I did a survey to find out what students thought. It was a paper and pencil survey. We received 314 responses, of which we analyzed 35%. Here are the results:

  1. Did you enjoy reading other students’ papers? Yes: 82%; No: 6%; Indifferent: 7%; No answer: 5%
  2. Did knowing your paper would undergo peer review change the way you approached your writing? Yes: 50%; No: 39%; Somehow: 2%; No answer: 9%
  3. Is this a useful exercise? Yes: 77%; No: 9%
  4. What are ways to improve this assignment? Responses to this question were grouped into categories:
  • Bias in peer’s grading
  • Acquisition of new skills
  • Grading scheme
  • Rubrics
  • Roles of TAs and course instructor
  • Quality of writing
  • Out of the nearly 500 students who took the course, I received only two emails with complaints.

I also read the course evaluations for comments on the peer review assignments. Out of about a 45% response rate, there were only two or three negative comments across two sections.

So, overall, it seems students were satisfied with the peer review assignment.

Why did you decide to have students do a peer review assignment?

I like my students to develop their critical analysis skills, to develop an ability to follow standards and to be able to provide and receive feedback. These skills are important for their future, whether they start practising as engineers and especially if they continue to graduate studies.

Do you feel the peer review assignment supported your students’ learning?

Yes, but in the future, I’d like to do a better job of communicating to students what to do with the feedback. Students got feedback from their peers, but there was no requirement to act on it or process it in some way. I might consider doing one peer review assignment and giving students the opportunity to revise their writing based on the feedback.

I also plan to do a calibration exercise as an in-class activity. I would give students the rubric and a paper to grade. Then, they would discuss in class how they approach assessment of peers’ writing.

Can you tell us about the logistics of doing a peer review assignment with a large class?

It was a challenge. It was a double-blind review process for academic privacy reasons and because I wanted to mimic the academic peer review process. I tried to run the assignments and reviews through myCourses, but unfortunately, the software is not designed to accommodate blind reviews. In addition, students were not attentive to instructions such as, “Don’t identify yourself by name or ID number anywhere in the assignment or in the file name.” In the end, I went through each file—assignment submissions and reviews—one by one to remove identifying information. And because myCourses isn’t designed for this type of exercise, grades had to be recorded manually and then entered into myCourses. Logistically, it was a frustrating and time-consuming endeavour. Really, McGill needs a suitable peer review platform, and I know TLS is looking into it.

In light of these challenges, do you think you will try this assignment again?

Yes, it’s definitely an assignment worth repeating because Engineering students have to become more aware of the importance of communicating effectively in writing for being successful professionals in the field.

After Lawrence’s presentation, colleagues posed questions. Below are selected questions along with Lawrence’s answers.

Q: This is an ambitious project. You deserve a lot of credit for it. What was the average score given by students?

A: The average grade received overall, with both parts combined, was generally about 8/10, which means students were giving an average grade of 4/5. Some students scored consistently high or consistently low; others made use of the full rubric scale.

Q: Was there a change in how reviewers provided comments from the first to the second assignment? Did the comments improve as reviewers saw how they themselves were being graded?

A: I didn’t analyze this metric although the data is available. We’d have to go back and look at that.

Q: Knowing undergraduates, would it be beneficial to have assignments with an actual “right” answer?

A: Well, if it were a technical question in Engineering, it would require more content expertise. Students in this first-year course wouldn’t necessarily be able to adequately assess technical problems.

Q: What were the TAs’ impressions of this peer review assignment?

A: Generally, they felt frustration, which can be attributed to the logistical problems. But when I explained why we were doing what we were doing, they said, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” But I don’t really know to what extent they felt the assignment had value.

Q: Would it be logistically simpler to use paper submissions?

A: I originally avoided paper for environmental concerns, but in light of the logistics problems, I intend to have printed submissions in future, which will be scanned personally to ensure they are double-blind. Of course, I may yet find a way to run this automatically. Also, McGill is in the process of investigating software for peer review, so maybe a tool will eventually be in place.

Other teaching initiatives in the Faculty of Engineering

Click to read more about teaching and learning in McGill’s Faculty of Engineering.


Expanding boundaries and increasing diversity by teaching with technology

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 11:55

Originally posted on Arthropod Ecology:

“As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse”.

That’s a quote from a paper by Josh Drew, published last week. In this paper, Drew provides some fascinating case studies about how teaching with technology can help break down some strong barriers in higher education, with a focus on STEM disciplines. For example, students from the LGTBQ community, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups are often at a distinct disadvantage in a university context, whether it’s lack of access, finances, support, or mentorship. Drew argues that teaching with attention to this problem, and in a way that embraces diversity, is critically important, but is also a challenge. Technology can be a potential facilitator for this, and help overcome the challenge. To help…

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Ephemeral art

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 13:06

Adam Finkelstein:

An interesting post from Chris Buddle about a rogue artist in his class. What a wonderful way to start your class every week! Has this ever happened in your class?

Originally posted on Arthropod Ecology:

It’s a difficult time of year for many people: Instructors are looking at how many lectures are left before final exams, and starting to panic about how much material hasn’t yet been covered! We are planning field seasons, applying for research permits, juggling meetings, and starting to think about how the summer’s work-life balance will play out. As we approach the end of term, stress levels in the classroom are also building. Students are working madly on term papers, scrambling to get things organized for summer jobs or internships, and looking ahead to final exams.

It’s busy. Everyone is too busy. The days are too full and it’s not easy.

Then this happens:

A gift on the chalkboard

I teach with chalk, and in my lecture hall there’s a vertical sliding chalkboard. When I enter the room, the front, upper board is where I start the lecture and as…

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