Category: Teaching

I <3 Worksheets: Or, How to Help Students Develop Research Questions More Effectively

It seems to be widely accepted among college professors that the use of worksheets in teaching is lazy teaching. What I’ve learned, however—especially in the last year—is that students love worksheets.

Well, maybe “love” is too strong a word, but I do know from powerful recent experience that worksheets are effective when designed well. I expect this is partly because students are very familiar with worksheets by the time they get to college. Hand them one, therefore, and they will generally do it, willingly. This is true whether I hand them out in class, or post them online to print and fill out.

The reason this is so important for me is that it made for a huge improvement in the first few weeks of my sophomore composition classes last semester. The class is built around a single research project that each student develops and works on throughout the course. Due to a change in curriculum a few years ago, we no long have the first few weeks of class to work on developing the research question. So in the past, I’ve given them instructions and asked them to work on it themselves for homework. The instructions consist of demos of Google Scholar, and how to do what I call “level one research” to help develop a reasonable research question, with examples.

Photo by Chris Yarzab.

Photo by Chris Yarzab.

This is all well and good: the problem is, students don’t do it. They show back up in class, and few of them have done more than think about it in basic terms. Because the assignment wasn’t concrete enough (even though I specifically said, “come to class with a research question”), it became easy to ignore. I realized a year or so ago that a worksheet, with individual steps and spaces for them to fill out the results, would probably work better.

I was admittedly reluctant to actually put one together, because it felt childish—and they ought to just do the homework. But I finally decided that my reluctance was itself childish, because what matters is what works (and even my colleagues can’t make it through a faculty meeting without playing on their cell phones, so we’re in no position to judge). So, last winter break (“break”—lol), I made time to put something together.

And—WOW! Nearly everyone filled out the sheet in full, and I have never seen a group of students better prepared to discuss and refine research questions in class. It was a tremendous relief—probably for them as much as for me—and it simply worked. With slight revisions, the worksheet is linked below. I would be delighted to hear ideas about improvements—and meanwhile, I’m thinking about other ways I can use worksheets in class. I don’t see using tons of them, but a few more would probably be beneficial for all of us.

Happy teaching!

Level 1 Research Worksheet

The Joy of Assessment

The classes I teach—primarily sophomore comp—call for a ton of assessment via written assignments, most with significant (or, when the work is excellent, minimal) written feedback. I typically type my responses into blackboard. This way, students get feedback individually, as quicly as possible—and they don’t face the challenge of having to read my handwriting. I also offer in-class feedback on some work, and feedback orally during meetings in my office. It amazes me how often I have to tell them to take notes. It amazes me even more how often they elect not to make the changes I suggest.

The biggest challenge I face is the time it takes to respond to everything effectively. I have tweaked my approach over the years, offering more feedback on assignments that need to be really well done in order to ensure the following assignments have a solid foundation (for example, research questions, claims, outlines) and less on those assignments that students won’t be revisiting (like a synthesis assignment—unless it’s done incorrectly). Some colleagues have students do a form of self-assessment or peer assessment, but I haven’t given that much thought as yet. I’m dubious as to the value of it, though I’m interested in learning more.

We also have what we refer to as Unit 4—Argument in Translation. We have students take some aspect of the argument in their 11+ page paper (usually not all of it) and translate it into a different medium, such as infographic, video, Prezi, etc. This is quite a valuable exercise, though we don’t have time to explore it in the ways I would like. That means the grading is also fairly straightforward. If it’s good (it usually is) they get full points. If it’s clear they half-assed it, or it’s riddled with errors, they get less.

Something I have been wanting to try for a while now is one of those systems that lets you show a question on the screen and have students individually pick the correct answer—and then showing results on screen. In the olden days (2+ years ago), we would use clickers for that; nowadays, we can use students’ laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. I finally found the time and the impetus this summer. I wanted to deliver an online quiz for my students about the correct use of semicolons, colons, brackets, parentheses, ellipses, em dashes, and en dashes: advanced punctuation of the sort every college graduate ought to know, but (almost) no one actually teaches.

Finding an effective tool was no small task, especially because I needed separate tools for my in-person and online classes. Different approaches to the teaching part, too. What I tried with my online class was to assign them to read specific sections in our manual (short sections!), and then take the test through Blackboard. Technologically, this worked fine, and it fed the answers straight into the gradebook, which was nice. The scores, though? OUCH! Sigh.

For the in-person class, I talked them through all of the punctuation rules, and then used Socrative. I will let you find it and explore it if you’re interested in details, but I will note that it’s not terribly attractive or snazzy, and you have to pay if you have more than X students (25, maybe? I had less.). We also had some technical issues: one student, in particular, had repeated problems with entering her answers. I was able to look at her screen, and it was not user error. Possibly her laptop, though?

But, here’s the really cool thing: they liked it. Said it was fun. I suggested we stop halfway through (it was time-consuming as we discussed all of the answers where there seemed to be some real confusion), and they wanted to keep going. So weird! But YAY. The final screen shows which students had the highest scores, too, so I could award them extra credit. It was a great experience all-around.

What I will do differently next time for the in-person students is to use the same ol’ worksheet on the day I teach them about punctuation, and then use Socrative (or something similar) later in the semester, with advance notice, for an in-class quiz. And I think I’ll offer extra credit for anyone who scores above a 90, as added incentive.

For the online students? Hmmm. Maybe if I build a tool that walks them through the rules with examples and quick quizzes, followed by a longer quiz. But really, who has time for that? Another sigh. Maybe next summer, when I’m “off.”


Online Teaching Update

The online class I was teaching this summer is over–huzzah! It went well–better than I expected, actually. The students were generally very motivated and engaged, and participated in discussions, group work, and other assignments. Of course, there could have been more discussion, but that’s usually the case. And I definitely need a better tool for conversation!

I was especially pleased with how well students completed a group project, particularly given that I didn’t offer them a ton of time in which to complete it. I suggested a number of ways for them to communicate, but since many of them were out of state and out of the country–and thus in different time zones–most of their communication took place via e-mail. The project was specifically designed to facilitate their breaking the assignment into chunks, which they all seemed to do. The end results, and the discussion around them, were fantastic.

Interestingly, my in-person group balked at the notion of doing group work, given the same amount of time. I like to be flexible, so I gave them each their own projects to do. This actually entailed doing more work, but they were happier, and I was glad to have them do it. One unfortunate side effect was that, if a student was unclear about what to do and/or didn’t follow directions, they got to fail in front of the class. In practice, that was…unfortunate.

Overall, the experience was a positive one. It’s offered/offering me an opportunity to reconsider how I teach in person as well as online, which will be beneficial. I think online classes make it easier, in a way, to lecture, which is not something I do a lot of in person. (And I don’t see it as a good thing.) I will continue to work on finding more interactive ways to teach various subjects, both in person and online. I’ve come to think that using documents with embedded audio will be beneficial, in that it allows them to have and review and print the doc, while also letting me explain the content more granularly. We shall see how that goes.

I did try building a presentation in Canva, but MAN, it was frustrating. I kept wanting to twiddle things, and it wouldn’t let me. Super pretty, but…no. Can’t do it. So, there’s several hours of work down the tubes. Oh well. I should be able to transfer some of that work into another format, though. Not sure which one, yet. I’m focusing on another project right now. Well, several of them, really. But they’re SECRET. Shhhhh.


Stuff that’s out there

My current mission for the online class about teaching online that I’m taking this summer is to do a whole bunch of Googling for existing resources and tools that I can use to expand my teaching materials. Swell. The problem I’m having, as I more or less expected I would, is that I’m not finding a lot out there. There are a ton of resources aimed at K-12 instruction of the stuff I teach, and some of it looks interesting, but most of it is fairly elementary.

The other big problem is that the materials don’t necessarily teach things up to my standard. Not to sound all pretentious, but the Youtube videos about ethos, logos, and pathos are pretty dreadful (unless I’m missing something), and almost none of them address kairos, which I also think is important. Logical fallacies, another important subject, is similarly taught in vastly different ways, and none of them cover the breadth of material I want in the way that I want. This video about paragraph structure is pretty good, but it’s really more about topic sentences than the whole paragraph. So, I use it, but it’s not ideal. In many cases, therefore, I will need to build it myself. In addition, in some of these cases, I just happen to really like my current approach. I teach fallacies by having students develop definitions and provide samples, and then discuss online–all of which works way better than having them watch a video or listen to me talk.

I did recently find Kahoot while looking for quiz tools that would be easier to work with than what’s built into Blackboard. It’s a tool really designed for in-class use, and generally aimed at K-12 educators, but unlike a lot of similar apps, it’s free (entirely so at present) and not limited to a number of seats. I think it will be great for my use with my in-person classes. I asked a teenager recently if she’d heard of it, and she said she loved using it in school. Weird. I’m going to use it for review of some things we’ve done this summer and see how that goes.

I’d like to find a good video for teaching about the Toulmin approach to argumentation, but what I’ve found is often overly long and detailed. For example, it’s common for videos to talk about the history of this model and the dude who invented/defined it. And really–who cares? I don’t even care if they know the name of it; why would I waste their time on that? Many videos also go into more detail than I do. And others are…excessively casual. I have also tried regular Google (rather than just video), and have concluded that my simplified approach to Toulmin is something I just have to build a video (or Prezi or screencast or whatever) for myself. I don’t think it benefits my students to go into Stephen Toulmin’s full-blown process in detail. They will surely forget it as soon as they’ve learned it, and be confused in the process.

Hugh Laurie looking confused and adorable in a bathtub.

At the same time, I’m pretty excited about the tools identified in two pages about storytelling online. I think they represent more of an opportunity for me as a writer than as a teacher, but it did encourage me to check into adding audio to Word files, which is something I’ve realized could be helpful. There are times when the video alone isn’t optimal, and the doc alone is too bare-bones. Offering both a video and an audio-annotated doc will sometimes be optimal, I believe. The process looks fairly straightforward, so I’ll have to play with it. I will just add that date-limiting searches when seeking technology solutions is essential, in order to avoid hopelessly outdated information. I’ve been doing a tremendous amount of that lately, and it’s a huge time saver.


What I’ve really been wanting to do…

…is go through student reflective letters and use their insights to help future students. Like this one:

Not-only-did-I-feel-most (1)


Day one of UNIV200

claim without research


Course goals or learning objectives

Syllabi are a PITA, but they are necessary. They act as a contract, spelling out in writing what the student must do and when, as well as details relating to behavior, attendance, scheduling, and so forth. (No explosives in class, guys! It’s in the syllabus!) Syllabi are also there to explain to students what the objectives of the course are: a combination of “here’s what you get out of it” and “here’s what we expect you to know by the end.” In my program–sophomore composition–this section is standard and, in theory at least, we’re to use it unedited. I wonder how many of my colleagues have read it and really thought about it recently. I haven’t.

But now, I’m being called on to examine others’ approach to goals or learning objectives in three syllabi for similar courses. The first of the three I found was fairly detailed, ill-organized and confusing, and listed all of the usual sections except for objectives or goals. Presumably the chief goal is to pass and move on with your life. The second syllabus…well, it includes everything except for a calendar of assignments, but has only a course description explaining what students will do in the class. There is one brief sentence explaining who the course is for (“students whose academic or career objectives will benefit from strong, professional-level writing and research skills”–or, in other words, everyone). How odd. The third syllabus actually has an entire module of the class (which is online) dedicated to explaining the importance of the course, which is interesting. It’s something I address in person on the first day, but probably not enough in the online version. There is also a very short bulleted list of four course outcomes, which lists standard skills one should improve in such a class. (In brief: research, topic development, synthesis, writing.)

In our syllabus, the objectives are much more detailed, and are also skills based. That’s the nature of our program–and of most writing classes. While there are some specific terms and concepts we want them to learn, for the most part they are enhancing skills they will apply to the rest of their lives. In other words, I teach the most important course at VCU. 😉 In a sense, it also makes it easy for me to teach effectively: provide direction and feedback, and let them learn by doing. (Well, at least it’s easy in theory. Not so easy in terms of time and effort.) I also allow students a ggreat deal of latitude in selecting a research topic. Lame topics are off limits (body image and the media! performance enhancing drugs in professional sports! violence on TV!), and I strongly encourage them to pick a topic relevant to their intended career, so it’s helpful to them in multiple ways. But from there, students steer their own course. This makes it harder for me, in some ways, but more valuable for them, by far.

As for whether students feel especially inspired by these syllabi and the stated or implied goals: I doubt it. Thing is, students take these classes because they are obliged to, not because they want to. I can tell them about the value of the course, but mostly they just want it over. By the end of the semester, I believe they’ve seen value, both in terms of the knowledge they’ve gained and the skills they’ve enhanced, but it’s a struggle sometimes. And in some cases, the horse you’ve led to water just isn’t interested in your watering trough. Where does that leave me? With ideas (that I’ve been tossing around for a while now) about using prior student feedback on the class to help students understand the value going in–and to provide a more dynamic, visually interesting version of the syllabus online. Unfortunately, I’m still obliged to use the boilerplate text…but I don’t necessarily have to foreground it. Whether that will make much difference to my students will be interesting to see.


This Whole Online Teaching Thing

My first writing assignment for my online class about online teaching is requiring me to talk about how I feel about online teaching. This summer is my first time teaching online, but I’ve taken a few online classes before and, frankly:

I feel you, bro. My main issue with the classes I’ve taken, however, has been that they’re usually a bunch of bullshit. That online continuing ed class I took to maintain a certification that shall remain nameless? It replaced 8 hours of in-person training with less than 45 minutes worth of trivial crap I mostly already knew. *yawn* And the delivery? Oh, sure, I’d love to read several pages of text and then do a poorly-written quiz. Youbetcha.

As for my students, I worry a lot about procrastination. Some of them are on the ball, but the process of refining a research question, which usually takes 5 minutes in person, is taking forever with some of them. This is partly because they don’t always communicate well or in detail via e-mail, but also, they’re busy. Working, out of the country with family and friends they haven’t seen in months, whatever. It’s so, so easy to just avoid that particular website–and then, before you know it:

Students also have other issues, like messing up or being confused. And while I’m online a lot, I do sleep from time to time. Sometimes I even leave the house. And then stuff happens.

I also know that, while people have happy, rosy dreams about MOOCs, the reality is that they typically educate the educated–and, worse, they have insanely high failure rates. Have you ever bailed out on a MOOC you signed up for? I have.

And now, thanks to Twitter, I have something new to worry about: cheating. Did one of my students change writing styles between assignments, or did I imagine it? Why did she switch fonts? Is there even any way for me to tell if they’re paying someone else to do the work?

But, on a more positive note, I do think there’s a ton of potential in online classes. For some people in some situations, they’re a great (and perhaps the only) choice. And they certainly can be designed and executed well. Best of all, they offer a tremendous opportunity for faculty:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go design an online course to MAKE ME MONEY. (OK, no, I really just need to grade a ton of papers.)


Clever, witty musings, coming soon. Money back guarantee!*

I am being required to blog by a nasty bunch of people at my school who want me to be able to teach more effectively online. Alas, cruel world. I have no choice. More soon.

*This is a lie.