course design ideas
The design of assignments, that is, the actions required to complete them, shapes the learning that results. We know this, but do we make the most of what we know when we design and select assignments?
I’ll try to make the point with writing assignments. We have come a long ways since the days when term papers were the gold standard of writing assignments. Paper options now include authentic assignments that approximate professional writing tasks. The Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movement has introduced us to low-stakes writing activities from students jotting down a few ideas before they speak, to free writing that starts the flow of ideas, to journals that encourage personal connections with course materials. Technology adds still more assignment design options. Students can blog and respond to posts; they can write collaboratively on wikis and Google Docs. The options are many, but the features of each writing assignment directly shape the learning that results.
There has been significant and well-deserved attention paid to the first class. This class is critical in setting the tone and expectations of the course. Unfortunately, the same amount of attention has not been paid to the last day of class. To us, this class is as important as the first. It is the class where the professor has an opportunity to celebrate the learning of the students. Unfortunately, this day is usually saved for final exam review, finishing up projects or dealing with logistical details like date, time, and location of the final or where to pick up graded term papers. The course ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Introverts. Who are they and how do we ensure they thrive in active learning classrooms? If you have ever come to the midterm point of the semester and graded a stellar paper of a student whose name you don’t recognize and who has never raised her hand in class, you may have just identified an introvert in your classroom.
Last semester I implemented a different kind of final exam. In the past I have used the standard multiple-choice and short-answer exams. I was thinking about making a change when I discovered Beyond Tests and Quizzes: Creative Assessment in the College Classroom, edited by Richard J. Mezeske and Barbara A. Mezeske. The second chapter, “Concept Mapping: Assessing Pre-Service Teachers’ Understanding and Knowledge,” describes an assessment method that tests higher-level thinking. The author shared his experience using concept maps as a final exam, included an example of the final exam project, offered rubrics for grading, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the strategy. I decided this was the change I was going to make.
The Internet flipped learning before instructors did. Want to find out something? Google it. Wikipedia it. Use your laptop or smartphone or iPad. That’s where the “answers” are. Some of us initially reacted to this cyber-democratization of information asserting, “This isn’t right! The Internet is full of incomplete and simply wrong information.” But the challenge to the classroom was more profound. It has raised questions among students and even administrators about the need for face-to-face classrooms at all, as if correct information and unchallenged “opinions” were all that was needed.
In reviewing the research on active learning in statistics, the authors of the article cited below, who are statistics faculty themselves, found some research in which certain active learning experiences did not produce measurable gains on exam performance. They “suspect the key components of successful active learning approaches are using activities to explain concepts and requiring students to demonstrate that they understand these concepts by having them answer very specific rather than general questions.” (p. 3)
I’m betting that many of you are in the midst of grading a large stack of papers, projects or other final assignments. Too often these end-of-course pieces of work don’t live up to our expectations or students’ potential. It’s easy for us (especially the elders among us) to bemoan the fact that students aren’t what they used to be. It’s better to use our discontent to consider whether our course assignments are effectively accomplishing our course goals.
This study begins with some pretty bleak facts. It lists other research documenting the failure rates for introductory courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some are as high as 85 percent; only two are less than 30 percent. “Failure has grave consequences. In addition to the emotional and financial toll that failing students bear, they may take longer to graduate, leave the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines or drop out of school entirely.” (p. 175) The question is whether there might be approaches to teaching these courses (and others at the introductory level) that reduce failure rates without decreasing course rigor.
Thinking developmentally is one of those instructional design issues that we don’t do often enough. We understand that different learning experiences are appropriate for students at different levels. We expect a higher caliber of work from seniors than from those just starting college. But how often do we purposefully design a progression of learning experiences?
A new edition of a classic book on the curriculum suggests eight lessons from the learning literature with implications for course and curriculum planning. Any list like this tends to simplify a lot of complicated research and offer generalizations that apply most, but certainly not all, of the time. Despite these caveats, lists like this are valuable. They give busy faculty a sense of the landscape and offer principles that can guide decision making, in this case about courses and curricula.