“It’s 2 a.m. and you need to make your next assignment available to your students A.S.A.P. So you read the assignment you used last semester and remembered that you wanted to change it completely because the article is outdated or because the prompt just didn’t work very well… But, it’s too late now, so you change the dates and push it to your students through your course site. You’ll get it right next semester…”

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In our urge to get everything done, we sometimes forget to take a step back and reflect.

In this article, we present practices (in the context of your course site in the learning management system of your choice) that you could adopt to take stock of what works and what doesn’t, and to make sure you take actions to improve your courses over time. We also explain how to use this data for your teaching dossier to demonstrate how your students are improving. 

Look at the data

Learning management systems provide a surprising amount of data about the behaviors of your students. A well-designed course site should have a sustained activity level throughout the semester with spikes around times when assignments are due. A simple way to see if your students are engaged with your course is to look at when and how often they login to look at your course site. Another proxy for engagement is when (or if) they submit the assignments.

canvas_1In Canvas, course analytics provide an overview of student engagement in the course. (Right, image source: Canvas guides).
In Sakai, the Statistics tool provides insights on student behaviors. Note: It has to be enabled at the beginning of the semester to start collecting data (Image below).

This high-level data can reveal that students did not understand the need to start engaging in the course right away, and how that lack of engagement could affect their experience and grade in the course. Revealing that information to your students early in the semester might give some of them the push they need to get going. In a weekly announcement, you could use a sentence like this, for instance:

“So far, only 30% of the students have already participated in the discussion about module 3. Don’t wait too long, as this discussion will help you with assignment 2 that’s due a week from tomorrow.”

sakai-1A simple message like this might help students realize that their behavior, when benchmarked with their peers, is not quite optimal to keep pace. Try to see if students start submitting a short time after one of these messages was sent out. That will give you an indication if students are attentive to your messages and if they prove to be effective at preventing students from falling behind.

You can also look at your own behaviors. For instance, how much time has passed from the due date of an assignment to the time you grade them and return them to students? Are there times in the week where you can’t commit to grading and therefore should avoid setting due dates?

Look for patterns in student responses

When you ask students to answer questions, either in a paper, a quiz, or a discussion board, you usually start seeing patterns in responses. Those patterns might reveal one of the following:

  1. Your students understood the concept and it’s OK to move on.
  2. Your students didn’t understand the concept or developed a “misconception.” The misconception needs to be addressed in upcoming weeks.
  3. Your students all answered the same way. Your question was too easy, biased, or leading in some way.
  4. Your students missed the point and answers are all over the place. Your students require more guidance from the question or its supporting materials.

One suggestion is to copy and paste (or take screenshots) of some of the typical (anonymized) responses to either use as examples as a follow-up with your current students or for upcoming semesters. Typical or exemplary responses also make a great addition to your teaching dossier, showing how students get better at providing thoughtful answers over the semesters.

Assess your prompts and assignments

If you are happy with all your prompts and assignments, great! Chances are though, some of them might need some work.

Here are some guiding questions in how to make your prompts better:

  1. How can I connect this question to my course learning objectives?
  2. How can I assess whether students have answered properly and demonstrated that they have achieved one of the learning goals associated with this question?
  3. If the answers are visible to all (like in a discussion board, for instance), how many answers does it take before every angle is covered and answers become stale?
  4. Have you allowed enough time for this assignment?
  5. Could the learning outcomes related to this assignment be better achieved through a revision process, a peer review, or a group activity?

We suggest you document the original and revised prompts, and keep track of how the changes have modified the students’ responses, so you can add that to your teaching dossier as well.

Use a staging site

Don’t wait until the next semester to make your changes. Ask for a staging site in your learning management system (Canvas or Sakai)  A staging site is another course workspace that you can use to prepare for the next time you teach the course. That way, you will start your next class with updated materials and prompts instead of fighting an uphill battle to get everything done at 2 a.m.

In your staging site, you can also prepare your announcements in advance, so that all you need to do is tweak them and release them when the time comes the next time. All these tricks will allow you to spend less time making changes to your courses and more time doing what matters most: interacting with your students.

Once a new semester rolls in, remember to make a copy of your staging site into your new course site, instead of copying a course from a previous semester.  

We hope this advice will help you make better use of your course sites to improve student learning outcomes and redesign learning activities.

Assistance for all of the recommendations in this article are available at Faculty Commons.  Visit 116 Pearson Hall, email faculty-commons@udel.edu, or call (302) 831-0640.

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