Creating Community V: Final Touches

Some final attempts to build community into my courses before they start this week:

I scheduled a few Zoom meetings at different times so students could test their access and ask me questions. I had created a poll with the following questions as a way for them to assess their readiness (possible answers were “yes,” “no,” and “unsure”):

  1. I will have reliable and convenient internet access when the semester begins.
  2. I feel comfortable learning how to use Zoom.
  3. I am looking forward to the fall semester.
  4. I am worried about the possible effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on me or my family members.
  5. I am worried that non-academic demands on my time, such as employment or care for family members, might interfere with my studies.
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Creating Community IV: Access and Culture

Taking a step back from collaborative exercises and assignments, and in line with Simon’s recent post:

If students are to develop a sense of community in a course, they have to know how to access it and they need to be aware of its cultural norms. For us, both are obvious, because we designed the course. For students, neither might be immediately apparent. Since I’m teaching fully online, partially synchronous undergraduate courses for the first time this fall, I decided to create a pre-semester checklist to inform students about basic technological requirements and behavioral expectations. A template for you to use to create your own checklist is below. A specific example of what I’ll be sending students is here. Feel free to use both. As usual, the views expressed herein are my own and not those of my university; your needs may differ.

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Creating Community III: Memo Exercise

More on creating community in an online course (previous posts are here and here): a collaborative writing exercise.

For several years, I’ve used memos as an authentic writing assignment. Or tried to. Often the results haven’t met my expectations. I have had students write multiple complete memos in a course, all in the same format, assuming that they will apply my feedback from the previous memo to the next one. Instead, students repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

For the upcoming semester, I decided to turn memo writing into a group activity, on the chance that collaborating with peers might produce better results. As in previous semesters, I will provide source material and the prompt. In a graded individual assignment, each student will write only specific portions of a memo, described below in the sample instructions and rubric. Students will be able to use a new memo template and guidelines that will be available on Canvas.

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Creating Community II: Class Notes

As promised in my last post on the subject, here is another way to create community in your online or hybrid course: collaborative note-taking.

There is some empirical evidence that collaborative note-taking benefits student learning, but rather than repeat the details, I’ll refer you to this 2015 study by Harold Orndorff. [Update: Brielle Harbin, assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy shared her work — here and here — with me after reading today’s post.] Collaborative notes might also help resolve my perennial problem of students not taking notes during face-to-face classes. So, having decided that this change might be worth making, here is a synopsis of my thought process so far:

Step 1: Choose a platform

While many online collaboration platforms exist — Padlet, Slack, Microsoft Teams, to name a few — I wanted a tool that both I and my students are already familiar with, so I chose Google Docs.

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Creating Community I: Reading Response Discussions

Per Amanda’s last post about platform options for online group projects, over the next several weeks I’ll throw out some of my plans for exercises that I hope will create community in the two fall undergraduate courses I’ll be teaching online. I’ll start simple and gradually get more complex.

In the physical classroom, I still use reading responses to generate discussion among students and minimize formal lecturing. Online, I’ll do this with breakout rooms. In the classroom, I typically ask each group of students to summarize for the rest of the class the consensus position it has reached on the reading response; the pattern that emerges from polling groups in this manner often leads to additional discussion. I think this process will be tedious for students in an online environment, so I will tell students that each breakout room needs to create a document with three bullet points that support its argument. I will randomly choose one group of students to present its conclusions to the rest of the class after the breakout discussions are completed. The group will display its three bullet points to the class via screen share. I can ask that other students submit questions or opposing points of view, perhaps through text chat, for follow-up after the presentation. Throughout the process I’ll be asking “Why?” in Socratic fashion.

Technology note: Zoom has had breakout rooms for a long time. Cisco says that an updated version of Webex with this capability will launch at some point in September. There is apparently a method of creating breakout rooms with Microsoft Teams, but to me it looks complicated.

Preparing Students for Online Learning

Students, like many of their professors, dislike change. Much of the student dissatisfaction with last semester’s shift to “remote instruction” ultimately derives from the fact that online education is different from what they had previously experienced. Well, guess what? The fall semester will also be unlike what many of them have grown to expect.

As a faculty member, you’re probably spending the coming weeks or months thinking about how to teach in an environment of lower enrollments, less frequent face-to-face classroom interaction, and hybrid or fully online course formats. It’s doubtful that students are thinking about how their own behaviors as learners might need to change.

To get students to think about tools and habits that they might need for the next semester, have them do an online readiness self-assessment. Directing them to general advice about online learning either before or after a self-assessment might be helpful also.

Call for Reviewers

The Journal of Political Science Education (JPSE) is looking for manuscript reviewers. JPSE, one of the four main journal of the American Political Science Association, publishes articles on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), political science instruction, reflections on teaching and the academy, and reviews of educational resources.

Manuscripts submitted to JPSE as examples of SoTL discuss empirically-based research and contain a rigorous qualitative or quantitative analysis. Political science instruction manuscripts explain how to use the pedagogical technique being described, but they do not need to include evidence of effectiveness like SoTL pieces. All submissions, regardless of topic area, need to be evaluated with a critical eye for rigor, clarity, and style. Reviewers must be willing to reject manuscripts that do not merit a revise and resubmit. They also need to complete their reviews in a timely manner.

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New and Improved

As I mentioned back in February, there are some glitches in the WordPress software that drives this blog. Probably I need to install an updated version of PHP to increase the blog’s security and stability, and this will force a change in the blog’s appearance. In other words, a new look, but same content and mission.

Along those lines, I would like to invite ideas for guest posts about the new assignments, exams, and techniques that all of you are now developing for an unprecedented fall semester. These ideas can be sent to us at The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing a radical re-think of teaching, and we all know that even the best-designed experiments often do not perform as desired. We welcome examples of failure as well as success, since the former is often more instructive than the latter.

Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions

[Updated: This post describes my experience delivering a simulated classroom lesson, part of my university’s effort to evaluate potential solutions to the challenges posed by the upcoming fall semester — a process that is, or should be, occurring on your campus as well. Testing is a necessary part of the design process, and the process of evaluating potential solutions rarely goes as expected in its initial iterations.]

Last week I simulated fall semester teaching with some students in the physical classroom and others connected remotely via Webex. My main objective for the demo was to identify possible points of failure in the technology that my university is thinking about purchasing, and in this I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

The lesson was organized as follows:

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