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Small Teaching Online

January 7th, 2020

I recently read a book titled Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes by Flower Darby with James M. Lang.  My approach to teaching is very practical and application based so I appreciated some of the ideas shared in this book. Some were new ideas to me, some not, and I’ve compiled my favorites below.

First, I’ll share the premise behind small teaching online, which is “Paying attention to the small, every day decisions we make in teaching represents our best route to successful learning for our students, in almost any learning environment we can imagine.” (p. xxii)  Essentially it is applying small, actionable modifications that can be integrated into existing teaching practices.

  • Transparent Assignment Design. Sharing the What, Why and How for assignments.
    • Make assignments transparent by sharing the what, why and how:
      • Here’s what I want you to do: Explain the task.
      • Here’s why I want you do to it: Explain the reason this task will contribute to students learning.
      • Here’s how to do it: Include detailed instructions, checklists, examples and grading rubrics.
    • Evidence-Based Research:  Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Project, by Mary Ann Winkelmes.
  • The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching and Writing in Higher Education
    • Three educational researchers examined the kinds of writing assignments students found meaningful. They include:
      • 1) Those that allowed multiple opportunities for engagement throughout completion of their assessments.
      • 2) Those that allow students to see connections between course work and their own experiences.
      • 3) Those that allow students control over the writing process.
      • It is helpful to provide checklists for students, especially for larger assignments with incremental deadlines.
  • Design and Teach for Cultural Inclusion
    • Help all students feel a sense of belonging.
    • Increase awareness of the ways that cultural contexts influence online student behaviors and levels of engagement.
  • Using Nudges
    • Send personalized emails to students who don’t log in within first few days of class.
    • Nudges can show struggling students that you are paying attention and that you care.
  • Control and Value
    • When students feel they have control over their learning and feel value in what they are learning this can increase motivation and learning. Help students see the meaning and value of class activities by helping them make connections between new and pre-existing knowledge.
  • Ideas for using Selective Release
    • If there is any requirement for mastery of content or specific course terminology you can use selective release so students can take a quiz on specific content or terminology before moving on.  This can be an effective way to provide multiple opportunities for engagement.
    • Have an open ended quiz where students need to summarize the key points of the previous module and predict how it will relate to the new module.  The purpose of this is to practice retrieval and look for connections between previous module and the current one. Once they submit this quiz the new module can become available.
  • Guiding Questions for Audio Lectures
    • Do you ever wonder if students really listen to your audio lectures in their entirety? Or at all?
    • Provide guiding questions for students to answer while watching the lectures. Helps students actively engage with videos. or include a short, graded assessment after a watching a required video. This can help demonstrate that students have watched the video, thought about the content and can apply it to their context.
  • Provide the framework
    • Provide a partial outline for students to complete while watching lectures or reading articles.
    • Such a framework can help students to build accurate connections with the structure. Used with an online lecture it can encourage active listening and focus processing of new information.
  • Frequent Reminders of the Purpose of content and activities
    • Written instructions, video announcements and consistent weekly reminders help students clearly see the purpose behind course activities and assessments. 
    • These types of reminders can help students make the connection between what they are being asked to do and learning outcomes and make it feel less like ‘busy work’.
  • Be flexible
    • Taken from specification grading strategy – build in one (or two) ‘oops tokens’ for a class. Students can turn in a token for deadline extension, opportunity to revise and resubmit, or make up an assignment, etc..
    • Reasoning- helps to convey empathy toward students.
  • Giving Feedback
    • Divide comments on students work into two categories: ‘this time’ and ‘next time’. This time focus on assessing their performance on the current assignment and for next time with some instructions on how to improve for next time.
  • Get creative with virtual office hours
    • Rebrand them to ‘happy hours’ or ‘coffee breaks’
    • Reduce frequency to a few times per semester, before exam, or after major assignment
    • Offer incentives
  • Choice in online discussions
    • Provide multiple questions for students to choose from for a discussion.
    • Provide multiple articles for students to read and ask them to choose a subset of such articles and share their take aways from the article. This allows students to inform each other about the readings without having to read all articles.
    • Include a question about how the content for a particular module impacts them personally – their experience at work, or other changes they may have made as a result of the content.
  • Personalize Learning Networks and fostering lifelong learning
    • Lifelong Learning Log or journal. Students write in this regularly, or weekly, to describe the actions they have taken to formalize and expand their PLN. (ie connect with people on LinkedIn, mentorships in community, volunteering in community). As students make connections with the course and beyond the course they engage with the course material in new ways.
  • Avoiding instructor burnout
    • Edna Murugan and Noura Badawi use a term called ‘instructional vitality’ as a strategy for helping to avoid burnout and keep you engaged.

This book, Small Teaching Online, referenced shared many additional books and resources that I’m hoping to dig into soon. I’ll share some here:

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