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.