Who am I as a leaner?

Question from: “What Future for Education?” a coursera MOOC

Question: Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? And what ideas do you already have about the future of education?

The first part of this question is easy enough to answer: inspiration.  Since 2011, I’ve gone through a number of MOOCs, and every time my ideas of education and learning change.  Sometimes the change is subtle, and at other times radical.  While course content plays a role, most of the change comes from when I interact with other course participants and facilitators.  I far too often get caught in my own head, especially if I am enacting change in the classroom.  Having a touchstone among other educators helps me to navigate the changes I’ve made, but it is also amazing what can be learned by the examples and ideas presented by others.  So I am looking for inspiration as a key by product of this course.

The future of education is something I think about a great deal, and what I see more and more is the state of flux we as educators are in with the new generations of students hitting the classroom (in my case, college students).  There are terms like ‘digital native’ thrown around, as well as different ideas about the motivation and ‘ability’ of modern students.  I’ve come to realize that most of this just muddies the waters, and distracts from many of the core issues.

Thanks to the internet, there is tremendous access to the bulk of human knowledge, as well as access to an enormous amount of drek.  One aspect of the future of education is to help students become self-actualized learners by helping them differentiate between vetted material and rubbish.  The second major goal is to help them build the context of a discipline, not just repeat facts or talk at the students.  With the discipline in context, the student can apply their knowledge, not just regurgitate what was written.  So two of the major goals for the future of education is helping students curate knowledge and assisting students build a contextual model of their academic discipline.

Going back to the title: who am I as a learner?  I always have to remind myself when I deal with students that finding motivation was always hard for me.  If I was interested in the material, nothing could stop me from learning.  Yet, if I found the material, or the teacher, boring, nothing could get me to learn, save sheer dogged determination.  As I’ve aged, I realize that my interests have expanded, and so too has my desire to learn from the models of other disciplines (such as education).  One major thing for me is that I like to learn as part of a group.


Are MOOCs dead yet?

or What I Learned from MOOCing…

The first MOOCs, now called cMOOCs (for connectivist or connectivity), were a breath of fresh air in academics.  George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and David Cormier created a vibrant, engaged learning community in which a variety of voices stepped forward to direct discussions.  There was no central instructional voice lecturing too the community, but colleagues discussing.  I learned more from the Change 11 MOOC than I had in over 10 years of higher education teaching.

By the end of 2011, I was experimenting with MOOC concepts in my class, and by the end of 2012, I had completely reorganized my classes and reconsidered what I do as a Teacher.  I also offered the MOOC concept to my campus administrators for some special projects they were considering, to no avail.  Of course, they would come back later and praise me being on the forefront of this type of concept.

But something happened in 2012: the MOOC bandwagon.  Suddenly everyone was offering MOOCs, but they were not the courses I had come to admire.  They were little more than repackaged online classes.  There was no engagement, no mentorship, and no community.  These xMOOCs, as they are now called, were built primarily to monetize the MOOC.  It seemed like every week there was a new “MOOC” coming on line, or worse, a new company offering MOOCs.  It was a nightmare, especially for people like me that were taking connectivist concepts that were the foundation of the MOOC, and applying them to our classes.

Connectivist MOOCs are still amazing, when you can find them.  Open, online peer learning communities that come up for a limited time for people to gather and discuss aspects of teaching and learning are amazing.  For this I’ll point to last year’s Learning Beyond the Letter Grade, which was another amazing opportunity for those ready to discuss how to deal with student assessment in the future.  Unfortunately, most of the MOOCs out there were pale imitations of these communities, or they were only automated online courses.

So, has the bandwagon left?  While I would like to see an end to poorly considered online courses, I think they will be around for a while.  It is thought time that we start to reflect on what we have learned or taken from our experiences with MOOCs.  A few years ago, I blogged about MOOCification; what can we adapt from the MOOC for our classes and learning communities?

Actually, the first thing I took away is to stop thinking in terms of classes, and instead think of my students as a learning community.  While it does not seem like much, cognitively, it was a major leap.  This one idea was a major take home message for me from Change 11.  Dialog between members in a learning community is a powerful engagement too, and really helps participants.  One thing I loved in Change11 was the daily newsletter.  Not only did it help remind me what we were discussing, it sometimes gave me more to think about, and it always showed me what other community members were discussing.  Even if I did not post or respond that day, it was a way for me to stay engaged.

I started doing this in my classes, and I love it.  Sending out a daily newsletter helps me to explore with students a topic in more depth.  It keeps our learning community connected, and I’m starting to see that it helps strengthen student engagement.

Another aspect that was amazing was the weekly guest lecture.  How amazing it was to actually hear from a person working on an innovation, instead of listening the one person each week talk about innovations.  Having new speakers, and then a chance to dialog with them and the community was an incredible opportunity.

A counter to the changing lecturer of Change11 occured in another pedagogy MOOC that I won’t name, and helped emphasize to me the importance of having multiple voices in a class.  Each week, the organizer would lecture.  These were horrible, as everything was colored by the presenters opinions.  Instead of being able to make our own determination about an innovation, or even have meaningful discussions about the innovation, the presenter gave us a packaged pseudoanalysis of the idea (and if it was not one of their ideas, it was deemed worthless).  In other words, it was an ego driven period of weeks where the presenter got to listen to their own voice.

I started working with this concept by inviting graduate students to come and speak to my freshman biology class.  Each week, a graduate student comes in and talks about their research, and puts it into perspective regarding our topic that week.  For example, someone comes and talks about a signal-receptor pathway during the week we are talking about cellular communication.  It gives students a practical outlook on the material, a new voice to hear, and it gives our graduate students an opportunity to work on their presentation skills.  For me, that’s a win-win!

The original MOOCs, and their cMOOC descendants, have a great deal to offer in the ways we approach teaching and learning.  The concept of social learning is critical, and Web 2+ and mobile media provides amazing tools to engage students.  While the cMOOC serves advanced active learners, methods from this form of learning community can be adapted for undergraduate classes.  Playing around with connectivity ideas, and adapting them to undergraduate classes has been extremely rewarding.  I would encourage others to look at some of the innovative course deliveries in the past five years, and look to see how they could be adapted for your setting.  Even if it does not work the first time around, I’m sure you will learn something about yourself as a teacher, and about your students.

Foundations of Student Engagement

Whenever I start looking at a new learning object, assignment or assessment, there are a few questions I ask myself.  One of the questions focuses on student engagement.  Before looking at another example of student engagement from the BOLO project and other classes I’ve taught, I want to take a moment to talk about what I see as the foundations of student engagement.

If you start looking into student engagement literature, you will find a plethora of models and terms that have been used to frame questions about engagement.  Sometimes the models may look different, but they are dealing with the same underlying concepts.  Same is true for some of the terms.  My foundation for discussions about student engagement goes back to a paper I came across a number of years ago: Educational Leadership:Strengthening Student Engagement:Strengthening Student Engagement: What Do Students Want. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2014, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept95/vol53/num01/Strengthening-Student-Engagement@-What-Do-Students-Want.aspx.  Yes, it is an old article, but it really helps keep me grounded when I start to think about why I want to change something.

The article gives four goals that are common to people who are engaged in their work:

  • Success (the need for mastery)
  • Curiosity (the need for understanding)
  • Originality (the need for self-expression)
  • Relationships (the need for involvement with others)
    • I add to this interactive digital objects or artifacts.  An interactive tutorial requires the student to actively participate, and so is engaging.

I keep these four goals in mind while working on learning objects, assignments and assessments.  How does the activity help them master the material (this is more than just learning content)?  Does it help the student further understand not only the discipline as a whole, but also previous material?  Does it help them connect to a learning community?  Does it allow the student to express their understanding in their own words, or in their own way?  It is not about a one way interaction: teacher lectures to student, or student responses to questions on an exam only seen by the instructor.  It is about breaking down traditional barriers and creating a dialog, a learning network or community.

I see engagement as the cornerstone of all forms of blended learning.  A “flipped” class in which an instructor provides recorded lectures without interaction has not engaged the student.  It is still a one way interaction, and the student is a passive observer of the lecture.

Don’t get me wrong, one way interactions still have their place.  An interactive learning module that walks students through course material is a one way interaction, but it does snap the student out of passive learning (it is interactive, it requires student responses to continue).  My concern is with passive one way interactions.

When I talk about what I’ve done with colleagues, one thing I emphasize is “why are you wanting to blend/flip/hybridize your class?”  This is where the four goals (SCORE) above come in handy.  If you don’t want to encourage success, curiosity, originality or relationships, what is the point of changing the way you teach?  People who are doing it “because it’s expected” or “admin is telling us to do this” are going to have a tough time creating effective, innovative classes.  Why, because they are not engaged; they are not vested in the new class models.  What has to be done is to help them change their thinking, and start thinking in terms of Success, Curiosity, Originality and Relationship (i.e., how to engage students).  Heck, it’s a win if a teacher stops think about change as something expected, and starts thinking about helping students succeed.

Daily Writing, a way to build engagement

During my first MOOC, I became fascinated by the daily newsletters and the interaction among people based on comments in these newsletters.  When I started adding connectivist (MOOC) constructs into my class, the first was to send out newsletters to challenge my students (and anyone else interested) to write and interact.  These were low stakes writing, and initially I had students maintain blogs to curate their responses and interactions.  I’ll talk about how disastrous it was for me, and how ultimately profitable it was for students, in a later post.  The main focus now is just the idea about daily writing for engagement.

The core of this construct was that the students received a daily newsletter about a specific topic that we were covering.  Usually this was a concept that students struggled with, or a topic that I wanted to integrate with central concepts of biology, like evolution.  If you’re interested, you can visit the newsletter archive here:  http://biomoocnews.blogspot.com/

At the end of each newsletter was a challenge.  The challenge fell into a few different categories:  Describe the topic in your own words; watch an expert in the field, then discuss what you learned in this topic; answer to a case study; relate to some real world example.  Student responses had to be a minimum of 150 words, on topic without hyperbole, and showing collegiate level writing.  They also had to respond to three of their peers.  Didn’t matter if it was right or wrong, it just mattered that they met the minimum requirements.  When they did, they got credit.  Usually they had 48 – 72 hours to write their post.  These were low stakes because I was not nit-picking their work to give them a “grade”.

I would go in and “rate” their post.  If it was particularly insightful, I might add comments.  If it was wrong, then it gave me a chance to go in and do some remediation with the student and class.  One semester, once the forums were closed, I would add my response.

Of course students grumbled and complained about having to write so much, but every time I’ve done this, I’ve found the students more aware of what was going on in class.  They could answer questions in class that students in previous semesters never seemed to get.  The biggest change was that the students didn’t feel they needed to cram for exams (when I still gave them).  They realized that they were studying all along.

One great anecdote was a student that came into my office after the final exam.  She complained about not learning anything in the semester, and that the writing did nothing for her.  She knew that she had failed the exam, and was telling me this because she was going to challenge the grade.  I just looked at her and said, “are you sure you failed the exam?”  Her jaw dropped open when I told her she got a high A on the exam (above 95%).  She fell into the chair in utter shock.  It took her a few minutes before she could speak, then cry.  She confessed that she had never done well in science, and by the end of the meeting she admitted that she must have learned something.  Other students have told me that they would actually ask each other questions to start online discussions in later biology classes.  I’m going to be sending out surveys to former students to see what they took away from my class, so that will be a future post.

From my perspective, what I found from doing this:

  • Most students meet the 150 word limit, stay on topic, and show collegiate level writing.
  • About 60-75% of the class will actually write significantly more than 150 words.
  • More students respond to my in-class questions, and they do better on in-class case studies.
  • The average on the final exam went up 10% or higher from classes where I didn’t do this type of activity.
  • Students started to spontaneously bring in news articles (newspapers, popular magazines) about biology that had interested them.

Ultimately, the students are building a learning network (aka, a learning community).

Now for the challenge:

The first time I did this was with blogs.  That was a horror story to maintain and grade.  I was a wreck by the end of the semester, so I moved to forums.  That’s better, but you still have to go in and mark each student; a task that becomes progressively harder when you have more and more students.

What I have been working on now is automatic completion status in MOODLE for when the students meet the criteria (thanks to my GTA Kyle for helping with the programming).  Hopefully we can get it so that students get the completion once they post and reply three times (the tricky part is getting it to accept word count and key words).  I can always go back and adjust if I find a student that did not do the work, but that is easier than making sure everyone got the completion status manually.  This will give me more time to respond.


What is student engagement?

When a student is invested in their own learning, they become engaged.

The concept of student engagement really didn’t hit me when I first started teaching.  I was too busy building lectures (we used acetate slides and chalk boards back then), exams, and grading.  In the back of my mind I knew I needed to help motivate students, and so I started experimenting with different assignments and projects.  In reflection, I was working on engagement, but in a haphazard, unfocused way.

The scholarship regarding engagement is down right confusing.  It seems there is a new model of engagement every few months, and people keep throwing money and terms at the issue.  There is an issue there, tangled and thorny, but there are problems with student motivation to learn.  I guess it starts with our society mandating twelve years of primary – secondary education, and then shaming you if you don’t complete a bachelor’s degree.  Let’s face it, no one like being told what to do, and we always seem to turn it into a chore.  Doesn’t matter if it is “good” for us or not, we still perceive it as an inconvenience, waste of time, or an invasion.

During GSU Incept, our Freshman Orientation, I speak at the Academic Meeting, basically a little show where we tell students what we expect out of them.  There are three things I try to bring up to our transitioning high school students:

  • Forty can’t tell twenty, and twenty won’t understand until their forty.  Stop this cycle, we have been where you are, and we know what it takes to get where we are!  Learn from our successes and failures!
  • There are no elevators or escalators to the top of the Ivory Tower of Academics, you have to walk, and don’t expect to be carried.
  • College is an opportunity!  You will be presented with opportunities to learn, to do, and to become.  You won’t have these later.  Parents, don’t you wish you had time to do now all the things you could have done in college?  Students, don’t waste these opportunities; they don’t come around again.

This gets to the heart of motivation and engagement, you ultimately have to want to learn.  But that seems like a rarity in students.  Don’t get me wrong, I see many eager students, but do they want to learn?  Most loose that eagerness when they start realizing that I meant what I said about my expectations, namely that I am expecting students to study at least 12 hours every week.  They’re shocked when I show little sympathy because they just had to go on a week long vacation in the middle of the semester (I have one of these students every semester).  Students are even more shocked when I ask them to map out everything the did the previous week, and then asked them to list their priorities based on that map.  So far, studying or learning has never been at the top.

So, how do you build engagement when intrinsic motivation is lacking?  That is my ongoing internal debate and organizing point when I think of my classes.  I’ll admit, depending on the class, the carrot/stick model is used, but I don’t see that as an effective model in most situations; I mainly use it in classes where student safety is a concern, i.e., lab.  This is where I start having problems describing some of what I do, hence the blog as a way of reflection.

The best way for me to approach this is to talk a little about some of my non-content objectives for students.  Yes, I have course objectives that are not related to the content.  I would like to thank Dr. Sandra Demons for helping me put this in perspective (one comment from one meeting can have a profound impact): “I have to teach them to be adult and professional.”  Dr. Demons taught at Atlanta Metro, a community college in the economically depressed south Atlanta area, and I’ve seen the result of some of her students; they were far better than most.  That one encounter helped me to take some of the things I was already doing, and bring them into focus.  So, what are some of these objectives?

  • Engage with your discipline on a daily basis.
    • A biologist isn’t a biologist only when they are in a class, and a doctor thinks about medicine even outside of work.  Your discipline becomes a core model/paradigm through which you see the world.  Even if it is not an obtuse academic tome, you are constantly reading in your discipline.  This is not something that comes naturally, it is something you have to start doing.
  • Growing to be an independent learner.
    • There is no way any instructor in biology can cover the full content of a class; that is, read the book or publisher PowerPoints to students.  Instead of seeing the instructor as one who lectures to you, start seeing the instructor as a mentor who is there to help navigate, encourage and redirect.
  • Understanding and meeting expectations; become adult and professional.
    • If a doctor has to write a report about a patient going into surgery, does she have the luxury to turn it in late? NO
    • Does a nurse have the option of “questioning” her score on the NCLEX license exam? NO
    • When working in industry, does an industrial biologist have the option to miss a project deadline because they didn’t feel it?  NO
    • Does a research scientist have the option to not turn in a final report to a federal agency just because they didn’t want to?  well, they could, but they will never get money again.
    • Learning to be adult and professional is not something that just happens.  It actually takes time and practice to build those personality patterns.
      • Over the last few years, I’ve spent time looking at Student Handbooks and syllabi from various professional schools, and talking to Nursing and Med School faculties about their expectations.  Frankly, my students aren’t ready.  Listening to professional school faculty, they admit that it is a hard road for most of their students, hence the Drop/Withdraw/Fail rates.  I’ll get into some specifics in later posts that deal with individual classes, but I do want to mention this next one.
      • The following two comments come from the Georgia Regent’s University, Medical College of Georgia’s student policy guide, and both are grounds for expulsion from med school:
        • There are no challenges of exam question answers.
        • Discussion of the exam outside of the exam review is prohibited unless otherwise specified by the faculty. 
        • How many of your students would survive in an environment like this? How many would struggle?  AND YES, people are expelled for doing this, even for challenging one question.  Where is the transition point where they learn these professional personality traits?
      • I’m not going to be this harsh with my students, but I am going to let them know what is coming up.  I’ll let them know that they will have classes where there is a 24 hour turn around time for a 10 page, fully referenced report about a clinical experience.  I’ll even give them assignments to help them get use to rapid response papers.  The thing is, I have to work on getting them to realize that ultimately it is their responsibility to meet the expectations laid out.

So, how do I engage my students not only in the content, but to become adult learners?  That will be in my next few posts.


Engagement: Understanding the Students We Encounter

14-0070 football players in classI started teaching in Higher Ed in 1993, and like so many in STEM disciplines, I used class syllabi, lectures and assessments from colleagues as the starting point for my classes.  Throughout the rest of the 90’s I worked on different ways to getting students excited about the material, and more importantly, to study.  I did even more when I went back to teaching in 2005.  I did’t see any of this as working on student engagement, but now I realize how central this has been in informing the changes that I have implemented in my classes.  From experience, there are some common threads among students when it comes to motivation and engagement.  To understand engagement, we first must understand the types of students we may encounter.

Passionate Students

There are some students that are passionate about a subject.  They stop by the office just to talk about something they learned or saw.  These students have a strong intrinsic motivation for the class, but they are also the minority.  Most students may start the semester assuming they have this passion for the subject, but it can quickly fade when they are faced with the workload that accompanies courses in STEM disciplines.  The difference in the Passionate Student and other students is that the Passionate Student continues to investigate the discipline outside of the formal class.  Like other students, they may be daunted by the workload, but even when stressed about assignments and grades, they still look at the world through the growing lens of what they are learning.  They keep reading and learning, even things not assigned in the class.  CHALLENGE:  not to stifle or quell the students passion.

Grade Focus

Most of my classes are of interest to those who want to go into Nursing, Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Physician Assistant, and other medical related fields.  They have a goal to get in to a professional program, and they know high grades will be critical.  Grade Focus makes for some of the worst students*.  They do not see how knowledge fits together, and they don’t see the benefit of spending the time to master discipline foundations.  They may get good grades thanks to cramming for exams, but they never seem to master material.  In higher level classes, many are still struggling with core concepts, and never get the depth or integration of knowledge.  CHALLENGE:  getting them to realize that a good grade without learning ultimately leaves them in worse academic shape.

From Spaced Repetition by Gwern Branwen

*Worst Students:  This is not about the letter grade a student gets at the end of the semester.  It is about their learning.  Repeatedly, I’ve had students in lower level classes that “did well” by conventional grading standards, but who showed no real learning when I had them in higher level classes.  From surveys and assessments, it was clear that they had not learned the foundation information of the discipline.  This change in definition of what we see as Good and Bad students has been a growing concept with me for years now.


Goal Driven

While it may seem similar to Grade Focus, it is vastly different.  Seen mainly in non-traditional students who have come back to fulfill prerequisites for professional school, the Goal Driven student knows that they need a solid foundations before getting into the program they want.  They are still concerned about their grade, but they also want to make sure they understand core concepts.  Yes, this is about maturity level.  Individuals over 23 have started to realize that there is a consequence for not learning fundamental concepts, and that there may not be an opportunity to work on them later.  The best case scenario comes from when these students work with younger students.  CHALLENGE:  balancing the student’s desire for a good grade with real learning opportunities.

The High School Scholar

One of the most challenging students, this is common in Freshman/Sophomore classes.  Students rarely realize until it is too late that Higher Education is different than secondary school; expectations are vastly different.  Higher Education Instructors, no matter the title, will not hold the student’s hand, remind them that their assignments are due, and rarely tolerate late assignments.  In other words, they hold their students to a higher level of maturity and scholarship than most students experienced in high school.

In Biology, I commonly get students who tell me that they were A students in high school, and so can’t understand why they failed an assignment or test.  Worse, they can’t understand why I won’t let them finish work just because they went on a week long family holiday.  There is a disconnect!  Most did not realize I was serious when I told them that they would have to student at minimum 12 hours a week to pass the class.  They thought that their high grades in high school would allow them to coast through a college level class.  These students experience a harsh reality check.  These are also the students most likely to tell a teacher that their tests are too hard, challenge grades, protest to any level they can, and even try to get their parents help to deal with the teacher.  Why, because it worked before in high school.  Again, a harsh reality check is in store. CHALLENGE:  Helping them make the transition without crushing their enthusiasm.

From 5 tips to avoiding boring PowerPoint presentations, by Thomas Umstattd, Jr.

The Blasé Student

Normally experienced in the Junior level classes, these students have been around the Higher Education block a few times.  They feel that they have done and seen it all.  Worse, they have the idea that they know how to “game” classes and teachers.  I personally feel that these are High School Scholars that never got the reality check (or didn’t think it applied to them).  They think they can coast through upper division classes without a problem, and without studying.  I find these the most annoying students to work with.  They will look at you with disdain during case studies, and sigh heavily whenever called on to answer a questions (so far, none have been able to answer a question successfully).  They will also challenge every grade, every exam, every assignment, and are not beyond threatening to go to upper admin (luckily, I’ve built a strong hide against these arguments).  Strangely, this attitude typically changes in the senior year when they realize that they are not going to get into med school (or other professional program).  CHALLENGE:  You can’t pull a student out of a blasé state!  I have tried and felt battered and bruised as a result (this is one reason I HATE JUNIOR LEVEL CLASSES!).  From bitter experience, I’ve realized that this is a student you just have to endure.  NOTE:  not all juniors are like this!  Hopefully most have made the necessary transitions, but when they don’t, they become a soul sucking experience for the instructor.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it sets the stage for discussing student engagement.

New start to an old blog

I migrated my LearningReflections blog over to this site as my focus has been more devoted to what I have been doing with the BOLO project. BOLO started in 2011 when I started experimenting with MOOC concepts in my biology classes. It may be more accurate to describe the process as adding connectivist constructs to my classes. I generally described this a MOOCification of my courses.

After three years, I want to spend time reflecting on the classes, assignments and assessments. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to write about various aspects of the class, some evidence, and what I want to do moving forward.

Reflection of Fall 2013: Reaching a limit

Fall 2013 is where I met my limit to how much I can do.  Our campus move to D2L was anything but seamless, and the administrative decisions left the system outdated for what I needed.  In frustration, I decided to take all of my classes and labs to my old LMS (Moodle Based).  I made the decision late, and ended out  building things all semester for 5 different classess affecting >350 students.  

This semester is going better, but I reached the point where the changes burdened me and affected my instruction.  Nothing was particullarly new (except how final grades were calculated), and individual components had been used before; the burden came from transferring and building the various activities.
Now I have the answer for people about when does flipping/hybridizing a class become too much.

Learning Beyond the Grade: Gamification and Badges

I have been playing role-playing games since I was 8 (which ultimately means four decades…yikes, that is what this birthday is).  When I was a kid, I even used the codes from magazines and books to build computer games on my Apple II.  My calling wasn’t computer games or RPG design.  I’ve done some of it, and have had friends in both industries that I’ve talked to about gamification of courses.

I started about a year and a half ago with badges.  University Relations at GSU helped me make the badges (I am still saddened by my originals which I gave to them :).  We created a set of badges for what I was doing at the time.  Here are some of the examples of the PAWS UP! badges.  NOTE: the name comes from our campus mascot, Pounce the Panther.  Unfortunately, the faculty is not allowed to use Pounce.  Only athletics gets to use Pounce (GRRRR!).  So I decided to use the pouncing panther paw, so PAWS UP!

This is the Apprentice Biologist badge, which is given at the course completion (even to people who come into the LMS and complete the online/hybrid component of the course).  There is a criteria of tasks to complete to earn this badge.

The next badge is regarding Milestone.  At three points in the semester, students have to present a milestone paper which is a summation of what they have learned during the preceding weeks.  Once aspect of the paper is as a study guide for their Milestone Exam.  At the end of the semester, students will clean up their individual milestone papers, combine them, and add reflections.  This will ultimately be part of their portfolio, and also act as a study guide for higher level classes.  Completion of the paper and exam (which is 70% in numbers) gives them the milestone badge.

Students also have to participate in daily forums.  There are badges set for when they complete a certain number of posts (the automated system on this one broke this semester…still working on fixing it).

When I first attempted gamification, it was a disaster.  The problem was turning traditional assignments and grades into a gamified system.  I tried different ways of doing it, but they all ended with points.  Even the badges worked that way.  In reading literature and blog posts, I rarely found models that I could reinterpreted for biology.

This semester, I have a new tactic with grades.  All assignments are completion based, and final grades are determined by task/assignment completion.  I’m still in shock at how motivated most students are this semester, but it has been a drain setting up the system and refining it during the semester.  My goal is to reimagine the badges so that the achievements they represent become the assessment of the students performance.  In other words, grading based entirely on achieving course outcomes instead of looking at graded performance on assignments.

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 3)

In my last post, I discussed my syllabus from a 2007 Principles of Biology I course.  Now I’m turning my attention to my current Principles of Biology I syllabus, and looking at the changes. 

The first change in the syllabus is to rearrange it into a number of easily identifiable web pages.  The goal of this was to help students easily reference sections in the syllabus, and to easily find how they will be assessed.  In terms of looking over the syllabus, I first want to focus on the tab labeled “Instructional Model.”

From conferences and workshops, I’ve heard repeatedly that instructors should be open about how they plan to teach the course.  One aspect of college courses I’ve come to notice is that we focus a great deal on the material (especially in the sciences), and less on being successful (both in academics and the world).  Many of my students have come from secondary schools burdened by standardized tests and unrelenting oversight, with the result being most have never learned to take notes, study, or more importantly, be active learners.  In many cases, I think the idea of learning was beaten out of them and replaced with the idea that learning is a chore.

While helping my partner study for a leadership course (he had gone back to school for another degree), I came across the idea of situational leadership.  I loved the idea from the moment I read about it, and I could see the idea fit perfectly to the transitional stage that freshmen and sophomores goes through.  I kept reading about the application of this model to business and education, and decided to use it as the model for the class:  trying to help students move from dependent passive learners to independent active learners. (NOTE:  still working the bugs out, but I have to say that students are responding better than I had thought).  Assignments and due dates are all based on getting students to actively engage in the material, hopefully on a daily basis.

Why daily?  The goal of the undergraduate degree is to start thinking in your academic discipline.  For me, biology is a daily activity.  When I watch TV, when I read, heck, even when I eat, I can find my thoughts going to things I’ve learned or worked on in biology.  What I have found is that our graduate faculty is expecting that our Juniors and Seniors have started to think like biologists.  From what I’ve gathered from professional schools, they are expecting the same thing.  The problem, I don’t see it in my juniors or seniors.  They are still too concerned about the grade.  Thought they don’t realize it at first, the instructional model is a trick to get them to start thinking about biology daily.

The “Learning Objective” have become more integral in my course design.  Instead of taking something from another instructor or a publisher, I presented the competencies I wanted the students to have at the end of the semester.  Each of these is ultimately reflected in the assessments.  At the end of the semester, I have to assign grades to the students.  This semester though, I decided to take the learning objectives and instructional model to heart.  No assignment has a letter grade; the assignment is either complete or incomplete.

Grading” is based on task completion.  The student (now called a Learner in my LMS) is presented with a number of Learning Opportunities or Learning Tasks.  It is now up to them to complete the assignments they want. 

In some categories, like projects and personal development, there are more opportunities than they need.  They get to pick what they want to do.

You will notice that there are exams.  These are multiple choice online assessments to see if they are showing an adequate level of understanding (70% on the exam is what I eventually went with).  It doesn’t matter if you got a 71% or a 99%.  Reason:  majority of the time, the student that got over 90% crammed, which means they don’t understand the topic later in the semester.  I don’t want them to cram, I want them to demonstrate their understanding, their learning.  (As a note:  the milestone papers are due before the milestone exams.  Writing the papers in previous semesters increased exam scores about 10%).

There is a final exam, but unlike most, they have two attempts.  It is a comprehensive final.  If they don’t do well on the first, they get a second attempt.  I’ve done this in previous semesters, and generally most people can pull up the grade.  The few times it does not work, either the student really did not know what was going on (they low balled the semester) or they just could not let go of just memorizing facts (the stated goal was that they should understand the biological process, and not just the chemical or cell names).

A+ has the most stringent requirements.  The A level is achievable by most students. 

Why all the work? 
When you have a job, you are not given a letter grade, and you will be working on multiple projects at the same time.  Part of your yearly evaluation is on what you have accomplished.  Are you known for getting tasks completed?  Are you know for the quality of your work?  Even in professional schools, you have to perform.  The goal is to get them to start working at a higher level, move them to a point where they realize that engaging with material is critical to learning.

So far, the results have been amazing.  I have students tell me that they are actually thinking about things we talk about in class.  When we dealt with metabolism, a student told me she was actually talking about the breakdown of sugar over lunch with friends.  Students are writing forum/discussion responses almost daily, and they are starting to read various levels of articles.  I’m getting more questions in class, and the students seem more engaged.  We are now moving into the guest lecture and case study phase, so I’m eager to see how it works.