Fall 2020: Looking Backward and Forward, Part 2

To continue evaluating my successes and failures from last semester: the attempt to create community in synchronous online undergraduate courses by dividing students into teams for breakout discussions, note-taking, and memo-writing.*

Zoom breakout discussions for reading responses worked fairly well. Before the semester started, I created a Google Slide file for each team to use for building presentations, and I randomly selected one team to present its conclusions once Zoom breakout rooms closed. I screen shared the presentation from my computer, since I had access to all the files. Students who did not participate in breakout discussions or in creating presentations were held accountable by their teammates in the evaluations completed at the end of the semester. The one aspect of breakout discussions that needs to change for next semester is also true for synchronous classes in general: students need to turn on their webcams. Video of faces is much better at facilitating community than black boxes.

Teams were allowed only one slide per presentation, but often the slides were badly designed — too much text, font too small, etc. In the future, I should require that students follow a specific format.

The Google Slide files ended up being a written record of breakout room discussions for each team; however, I don’t know if students used them as notes. Students definitely didn’t collaboratively write notes in the Google Doc files I had created. Teams either left these files blank, or just pasted screen captures from my PowerPoint presentations into them. Yet another example of students’ lack of note-taking skills.

The memo exercises were also a failure. In an individual graded assignment, students were supposed to make a recommendation in response to a prompt, and provide two different reasons in support of that recommendation. In teams, they were supposed to write a draft of a complete memo, guided by a template I had provided. I then chose one team’s memo at random to discuss as an example with the whole class. There were five iterations of this process. In the individual assignments, students sometimes submitted one reason, just stated in two different ways, in support of their recommendation. The drafts of complete memos produced by teams were usually disorganized and unpersuasive, and the quality of the writing did not improve with successive iterations. Most undergraduates simply lack the writing skills necessary for collaborating effectively on a task like this. Students should instead each write a single memo over the entire semester, in a step-by-step process requiring multiple revisions.

*Additional posts that were part of this series are here and here.