CURRENT ARTICLE • June 8th avatar-man in hat

Channel Your Inner Avatar and Add Interest to Your Online Content

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Have you ever experienced the eerie, but familiar, sensation that your students have not done the required reading and are not prepared for class? We all know that our class sessions would be a lot more enjoyable—for us and for our students—if our students were better prepared for class discussions. After one particularly challenging session, we discovered that while our students spend around 20 hours a week preparing for class, they spend about 10 hours a day using a variety of digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, PCs, video games, and TVs.

After some contemplation, we decided to embrace our inner avatar! We found CrazyTalk Animator 2, which enabled us to put a face, body, motion, and a voice to the instructor. This program allows users, even those without any coding experience, to create short video clips using a selected avatar and voice. The avatars can run, smile, frown, dance, write, and do a number of other things. Moreover, the user can simply drop the avatar into any PowerPoint presentation to add an additional component of animation to an otherwise lifeless slide. We created the avatars to present short, focused discussions of course topics.

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Screenshot of Having a conversation about a challenged grade June 8

Having a Conversation About a Challenged Grade

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Conversations about grades are difficult—particularly if you’re a newer faculty member and you haven’t experienced many of them.

But it is possible to make such conversations constructive—even instructive. This on-demand program, delivered in an innovative format, will show you how.

Having a Conversation About a Challenged Grade is a collaborative-learning course. It illustrates common student grievances about their grades, and provides effective strategies to turn discussions about them in a positive direction.

You will work through specific scenarios—e.g., a student protesting that he worked hard and did not get the grade expected, or that her classmates got better grades for similar work, or that you are simply being subjective.

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adult student talking in class June 7

Improvising Great Classroom Discussion

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I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

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student engagement June 7

Classroom Discussions: How to Apply the Right Amount of Structure

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While preparing for a Teaching Professor Conference session on facilitating classroom discussions (much of which applies to online exchanges), I’ve been reminded yet again of the complexity involved in leading a discussion with students new to the content and unfamiliar with academic discourse.

One of the most vexing complexities involves finding the balance between structure and the lack of it—between controlling the content and opening it up for exploration. Without structure, discussions tend to wander off in different directions, and what should have been talked about isn’t discussed. A single comment can take the discussion off track, and once it’s headed in the wrong direction, it’s tough to get it back. Open-ended explorations are potentially productive, but too often the wandering doesn’t go anywhere and little learning results.


dandelion-student reflections June 6

Learning the Lessons of Silence

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“The lessons of silence.” I found these four words in Lao Zi’s book, the Tao Te Ching. I have been ruminating over them lately. In our modern society, more and more individuals fear stillness. In our classrooms, fewer students appreciate the sound of silence. Their faces light up when I give animated lesson presentations but wilt whenever I ask them to pause and think about the ideas we have just considered. Outside my classroom, I seldom see them minus headphones, earbuds, or cell phones. They (and some of the rest of us) have yet to learn that the most profound ideas are born in moments of silence.

In my teaching, it is in the moment of silence where I come to understand whether students are learning or not. It is when the whole class stares at me in silence that I realize I need to rephrase my question. It is when a student pauses while reciting that I see some concepts I’ve taught are not yet clear. It is when a student does not say anything but smiles sweetly that I know my ideas made an impression. It is in the silence of my classroom after the last student has left when I reflect on my own teaching that I better understand how to impact their learning. It is in the silence of my office after typing the last sentence in my manuscript that I learn to think deeply about what I have just written. There is an analogy that perfectly captures all of this for me: it is the silence that follows the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Those notes are meaningless unless one appreciates the sound of silence that surrounds them.

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online student June 5

The Power of the Short: Making the Most of Brief Instructional Videos

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When it comes to instructional tools, few can deny the benefits of using videos in the classroom. Since the days of the filmstrip, this medium has been used to supplement classroom instruction. Today’s classrooms are filled with a myriad of images, video clips, and other multimedia resources. Integrating multimedia elements is how we gain students’ attention and engage them in our content. Videos can also improve working memory and learning, especially with focused attention on visual-spatial and pictorial elements (Gyselinck et al., 2000). However, if multimedia content is not used effectively we lose the opportunity to harness this powerful tool.

Many believe that brevity is key to using multimedia elements in the classroom. There are many news outlets espousing that human attention spans are shrinking. While this has yet to be proven in actual research, it does highlight the fact that this perception is prevalent. Think about how this perception pervades our society with short snappy headlines, hashtags, text language, emoticons and other social networking pictures and posts.

Brief videos can not only capture students’ attention, but are also quite effective for learning. Think back to the days of School House Rock. During the 1970s and 1980s, these short, animated films were a staple of the Saturday morning cartoons. The educational influence of these short videos was, and still is, tremendous. Many children learned multiplication, grammar, and even memorized the Preamble to the Constitution through these engaging short films, which live on through a dedicated YouTube channel.

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student studying in library June 5

Students’ Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Five Ways to Break the Cycle

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Faculty are often confronted by the ghosts of educators past. In the writing intensive courses I teach, those ghosts usually manifest in one phrase: “I’m a bad writer.” This embarrassed confession bespeaks an educational experience fraught with negative beliefs and expectations, not just about their writing but about their ability to succeed in general. The phrase becomes an inescapable prophecy lurking in every writing assignment prompt. “I know I’m not going to do well on this assignment,” they explain to themselves, “I’m just not a good writer.” They do not seek help, ask questions, organize their notes, or create outlines and rough drafts of their essays because the outcome is a foregone conclusion. And of course, because they do not do these vital steps in the writing process, they receive poor grades—and the prophecy is fulfilled. From the front of the classroom, however, I can see the reality: the student is not a “bad” writer but merely under-practiced and under-prepared. But how can I help students to see it for themselves? How can I support students to move beyond negative past experiences and make positive ones? How can I empower students to break these cycles?


Professor in classroom June 3

Teacher Behaviors Checklist

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Master teacher. The idea is a bit of a misnomer. It sounds intimidating. It suggests a long, protracted process—maybe even an elite status. But that’s not what it is at all.

There are no years of required experience. No official credentials. Rather, it is far more aspirational, as it refers to a set of behaviors that distinguish the great teachers from the rest.

Below is a list of 28 traits taken from a study conducted by Buskist & Keeley (2005). Both faculty (N=118) and students (N=917) had to agree for a trait to be listed. Students provided examples of corresponding behaviors (listed in parentheses). Asterisks indicate the top 10 traits rated by students. Caret symbols indicate the top-10 traits rated by faculty.

Master Teacher Traits

^ Accessible (Posts office hours, gives out phone number and e-mail information)

* ^ Approachable/Personable (Smiles, greets students, initiates conversations, invites questions, responds tolerantly to student comments)

Authoritative (Establishes clear course rules, maintains classroom order, speaks in a loud, strong voice)

Confident (Speaks clearly, makes eye contact, and answers questions assertively)

* ^ Creative and Interesting (Experiments with teaching methods; uses technological devices to support and enhance lectures; uses interesting, relevant, and personal examples; not a monotone presenter)

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student struggling with test June 2

Too Much Jargon: A Barrier to Learning?

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The language of our disciplines is complex—it has to be. What we study is specific and detailed, and it needs to be described with language that precisely captures essence and nuance. However, for students being introduced to our disciplines for the first time, it’s all new language, and it’s mostly new language for students now learning about our fields more in depth at the postsecondary level. Moreover, many students now come to college with limited vocabularies. They might be learning in a second language, or simply not had educational backgrounds that promoted vocabulary development.

Most introductory courses contain literally hundreds of terms that are unfamiliar to students. When learning a foreign language, students are helped by knowing what the new word refers to. When they learn that the French word chat means cat, they know what a cat is. But when it’s a term like sidereal time or pyrimidine, not only is it a new phrase or word, it refers to something also unknown to students.