Monthly Archives: October 2012

Holidays – Time to relax and think

Picture of nice beach

Cable Beach, Broome, Western Australia. (cc) John Benwell, www.flickr.com/jwbenwell

Posted by: John Benwell, Principal Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

As this is my last tomtom post for the year, I wanted to share with you a successful redesign of a course (subject) I was involved in recently. It was a traditional course, face-to-face, and consisted of a lecture and a tutorial. The student satisfaction went through the roof after it was redesigned, and the lecturer, tutor and students were all very pleased. You might like to think about how you could redesign your course over the upcoming long break.

No content changed, but without setting out to include online activities, the method resulted in a blended solution: face-to-face and online activities are now embedded in the course.

We started by reviewing the course guide, and listing the learning outcomes. Each learning outcome was then assigned to a lecture, and from that, weekly learning outcomes (WLO) were generated. These weekly learning outcomes could be seen as components or contextualisations of the overall course learning outcomes.

We then created a table in a spreadsheet, and for each WLO, we then added the following columns so each WLO had an appropriate set of activities:

    • Activity to review and revise lecture material
    • Tutorial activity to reinforce and practice WLO
    • Activity to test learning and get feedback
    • Information to extend learning and research deeper
    • Activity to assess learning.

The spreadsheet turned out to be rather large, but it constructively aligned the course learning outcomes with the activities and assessments. The planning and redesigning was not about what the teacher would do, but what activities the students would do and how to involve and engage them in their own time.

Activity to review and revise lecture

The traditional lectures were captured with Lectopia, and we made the recordings available to the students though Blackboard. Over half the students watched all or some of the lecture playback. We also made some short (2-3 min) videos with Echo360, focusing on special topics, or areas where the students were seeking clarification. Other short videos included: Tips from 2nd year students, Meet our librarian and Go to the bookshop. These were all posted on Facebook.

Tutorial activity to reinforce and practice learning outcomes

After reading the WLOs, the tutors were much better at helping the students in the tutorials. Tutors were aligned with the learning outcomes. Activities were generated that also aligned with the learning outcomes. This provided the students with a connection between the lecture and the tutorial, plus they now understood what they had to learn. Most tutorial activities were problem-based to get them applying and using their newly learnt skills.

Weekly activity to test learning and get feedback

Next, we wanted the students to assess themselves on what they had learnt from this process. With over 80 students, we did not want any paper-based tests, so we created a question pool in Blackboard, and had a weekly quiz set for the students to complete. The quiz was designed as a learning activity, so students were given the answer immediately after they had answered and feedback was configured to help the student understand when they got it wrong. The quiz could be taken more than once if required, but the students got different questions each time due to the system randomising the questions from the pool. A bit of effort went into creating all the question pools, but they will be used again next year.

Information to extend learning and research deeper

Especially for students who grasped the topic quickly or for those who were independent learners, we provided a list of further readings, websites, companies and resources to allow the students to enquire further. This was very valuable for the quick learners, but was also used by others who had a keen interest in a particular topic.

Activity to assess learning

Every few weeks, another special quiz was set. A random set of questions was displayed, and students had 30 minutes to complete the quiz in one go. They were shown a mark at the end, and again received feedback on their incorrect answers, but they only had one attempt. These special quizzes were a part of the assessment for the course. The previous exam was dropped.

Communicating and community

To build the learning community, we created a Facebook page. Each student joined it, and this enabled communication amongst the students as well as with the tutors and lecturer. One learning activity was designed so each student had to research a topic and put a 1 minute video on Facebook. Then all students watched it, and commented. This created a great learning atmosphere where the students learnt, created a movie, and then learnt from their peers. This was a very powerful learning method, and one everyone enjoyed.

It was never our intention to ‘go online’, but how else would we easily create randomised quizzes, create a 24/7 community or publish movies? On paper? I think not. Online was simply the only option. All the quizzes were instantly marked, and the student advised of their mark. It was also simple for the lecturer to check who had not done the quiz, and then contact them to see how they were going.

Happy Holidays

So over the long break this year, you might like to try chunking your activities using the bullet points above to think about how you could redesign your course based on structured weekly learning outcomes. Learning and Teaching Advisors in your school will help you with Blackboard and together you can get your own site up and running.

Millennial (or ‘Generation Y’) students in particular will love it: it has online components, face to face interactions and communication in a medium that is familiar and part of their daily life. The quizzes are constructive, with formative feedback and by making and publishing videos on a topic, peer learning was included. Students also had the ability to move at their own pace, do the quiz when it suited them and research further areas independently. The simple act of constructively aligning the lecture’s learning outcomes provided the framework for all the activities, as well as informing the students of our educational expectations. The weekly program was also published in the first week so the students could map their own way through the course at their own pace.

For me, the greatest moment as a Learning and Teaching Advisor was when the tutor emailed me during the break after the teaching satisfaction scores were published, saying: ‘I have never, ever, seen a score that high.’

Hope you enjoy the break and have time to think about redesigning and blending your course to assist your students learning time outside the classroom.

Have fun! :)

Share your thoughts about blended learning and redesigning courses in the comments below!

What is inclusive teaching, and why is it important?

Guest Post by Dr Kylie Murphy, Academic Development Group, College of Science Engineering and Health.

Students browse bookshelves at Carlton Library

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Access and equity are hot topics in Australian higher education lately. The university sector is under pressure to massify. Rather than reinforcing the social class structure, Australian universities are now tasked with the challenge of helping students to transgress social class boundaries and break generations-old cycles of economic disadvantage. Indeed, there are significant financial incentives for universities around attracting and retaining students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. University teaching staff should be in no doubt about the importance of supporting more first-in-family students to come to higher education and ‘stay the course’.

What should we do?

But how are university teachers supposed to help students who lack the sociocultural capital of more ‘traditional’ university students to persist with their studies and succeed? Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds not only lack the financial resources of their middle and upper class peers. Many also:

  • have less time and space in which to study
  • lack the academic literacies taught more readily in selective-school classrooms
  • lack the language skills often modelled from birth by tertiary educated parents and
  • lack the understanding, support, and advice of university-experienced friends and family members.

If success in higher education is to be more accessible to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, perhaps we need to make it easier for all students to get a degree than in the past?

Are more lenient standards the answer?

Lowering academic standards or reducing the expected capabilities of graduates is, of course, not the answer.

Two students studying at Brunswick Library

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Australia’s economic health (to say nothing of other social benefits) needs more people who are as knowledgeable and skilful as graduates have long been, not an increased number of graduates who are less capable than before. Undergraduate degree students each bring tens of thousands of dollars to the university they are enrolled at. To attract increased and more diverse student enrolments and then simply lower the bar for students to step over is, if nothing else, completely unethical. The answer, instead, lies in transforming universities into places of truly inclusive teaching.

How can inclusive teaching help?

If inclusive teaching doesn’t mean lowering academic standards, what does it mean? Broadly, it means teaching in such a way that maximises the capacity of all students to reach meaningful standards of success. In other words, it means teaching so that all students in the course can meet the learning objectives. It’s not surprising, then, that there are many ways to conceptualise inclusive teaching. But while writers in this field may revel in exploring the complexities of inclusive education as an abstraction, a stack of slightly differing definitions and conceptual deconstructions are of little help to academics who just want to know how to teach their next class more inclusively or how to re-design an assessment piece for greater inclusivity.

What makes teaching inclusive?

Inclusive teaching manifests as many specific practices, adapted and contextualised as appropriate to the area of study and learning objectives in question. Instead of itemising possible inclusive practices, here, I offer three criteria that stand out to me as ready litmus tests for determining whether or not any particular thing that we do as a teacher or lecturer is ‘inclusive’. When selecting content for a course, when devising, explaining, and providing feedback on learning and assessment activities, and when otherwise communicating with our students, these three questions are critical considerations:

1        Will this content, range of activities, communication style, feedback, etcetera allow all of my students to feel respected and valued — or might some students feel overlooked and unengaged?

2        Will it help all of my students to maintain or develop enough confidence in themselves, in my approachability, and in the relevance and flexibility of the curriculum so that they will persist when challenges arise — or might students with more than their fair share of obstacles become disheartened and give up? and

3        Will it help all of my students to move step-by-step from the knowledge and skills they each have, now, to the knowledge and skills that I want them ultimately to attain — or does it fail to clearly communicate the steps required?

An attitude more than a checklist

I see inclusive teaching as an attitude as much as a checklist of actions. To me, it’s an ongoing process of aspiring to answer ‘yes’ to the above three questions regarding every aspect of our teaching and assessment practice, even though the implicit ideals are not always achievable. In my own teaching, I try to satisfy the above three criteria — aiming to help all of my students to feel respected and valued, to feel confident enough to keep trying despite setbacks, and to achieve the learning objectives in an appropriately scaffolded way — but I sometimes run short on the necessary resources, including time and know-how. And I know my efforts don’t always work for every one of my students. There are some factors that affect student learning and success that teachers simply cannot change.

Something to be proud of

Student Services Office, Bundoora Campus

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Inclusive teaching is not easy and it’s no panacea. However, our many teaching staff at RMIT who do continually try to enable all of our students to feel respected, to feel confident enough to persist despite difficulties, and to ultimately achieve the intended learning outcomes — even though they don’t always achieve these objectives with every student — are important agents of social change and incredibly valuable assets to the University. For those vulnerable students whom our inclusive teaching efforts have helped, and do help, the positive impact of our efforts, especially combined with the efforts of other inclusive teachers and student support staff, is potentially enormous.

Learn more

Read what Australian low socioeconomic status students say about inclusive teachers, and what inclusive Australian academics say about low socioeconomic status students, at www.lowses.edu.au. This website contains well-researched practical advice for university teachers and policy makers. And stay tuned for RMIT’s launch of its own professional development and support opportunities arising from the University’s Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices project.

Get Onboard

The transformation of higher education institutions from places of exclusivity and pre-existing privilege to places of inclusivity and life-changing opportunity is well underway in Australia. Australian universities now serve students of varying levels of socioeconomic advantage, including students from under-privileged backgrounds who we know, with good teaching, perform as well as or better than their wealthier peers. But, still, students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds remain proportionally underrepresented in Australian university enrolments.

The challenge lies, of course, not only in attracting more high-potential socioeconomically disadvantaged students to our universities, but also in ensuring that we capitalise on their potential, maintain their confidence and motivation, and appropriately scaffold their pathways to success once they arrive with us. This two-pronged challenge is being addressed on a global scale, including in the UK and the US as well as in Australia. Whether it’s social justice or economic pressure that drives you to teach as inclusively as you can, the imperative is strong — and it’s not going away.

Share your thoughts on inclusive teaching strategies in our comments section!

Plagiarism and academic integrity

Posted by: Meredith Seaman, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Perhaps we are better at detecting plagiarism because of software such as Google and Turnitin. Or perhaps we forget that every generation, at least since the ancient Romans and Greeks, complains that the next one is composed of lazy, possibly illiterate, youngsters willing to cut ethical corners.  

- Jeff Karon, A Positive Solution for Plagiarism, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2012

late_afternoon_student_studyingIt can seem from recent news articles that the more technology universities adopt to detect plagiarism, the more students have easy access to online material, social media networks and professional online services to break the rules. But whether on the increase or not, and what or whoever is to blame, fostering academic integrity in students can feel like an overwhelming challenge for teachers and institutions.

If there is one element in all of the discussion that seems to underpin most of the suggestions and strategies, it is the benefit of moving the conversation from one about plagiarism to the broader topic of academic integrity.

Less emphasis on punitive strategies and more on what we could call ‘health promotion’ strategies seems intuitively to me the right way to go. My alternate title for this post was: “Strategies to foster academic integrity with an emphasis on prevention rather than cure”.

While it may be challenging, research papers, web resources and blog posts are full of these positive suggestions and potential ways to improve learning cultures at the same time as mitigating risk.

This post will survey a few of these and add some examples from our own context here at RMIT (the paragraphs beginning ‘In practice…’) of a large first year social sciences course that were kindly shared with me for this post.

There are many strategies and interventions that can help your students demonstrate academic integrity and avoid plagiarism, but no magic bullet. I want to suggest three key aspects from ‘Minimising Plagiarism’ at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education (The University of Melbourne) that may provide a framework to reconsider the elements of academic integrity in your course:

1. Make expectations clear to students

Modelling good behaviour, talking about your academic values with students, and making your expectations about referencing and originality of work clear in course guides and in-class can help. Share your expectations with your colleagues too. We don’t all start paraphrasing and referencing at the high standard of peer reviewed journals and we shouldn’t expect that from students new to tertiary study. Unpacking appropriate standards for students as a teaching team, then with students, and providing clear guidelines and examples of referencing appropriate to the discipline are critical. RMIT’s Learning Lab (see below) has modules that you could consider incorporating into your course.

In practice: Colleagues embedded a short module on plagiarism, referencing and paraphrasing including short diagnostic exercise into a large first year class using discipline-relevant examples. They also did a formative quiz with students on their perceptions of what was and wasn’t plagiarism, and paraphrasing and referencing exercises. This cleverly included the issue of whether internet content was in the free public domain (or needed to be cited and so on) which is commonly misunderstood. The module and associated quiz was part of a process of developing consensus amongst teaching staff and the students about what constituted ‘cheating’ and/or plagiarism, and making sure all students were aware of expectations. It was done early in the class so that anyone that didn’t sail through the quiz (most did) could get appropriate support and feedback.

2. Revisit course and assessment design

Students are more likely to cheat if they feel a course is unimportant or badly taught. If they feel ignored or cannot understand the purpose of the assessment or believe they are being asked to reiterate well-worn ideas rather than create their own, they cut corners … 

- Jude Carroll, Deterring, detecting and dealing with plagiarism at Brookes University (UK)

One of the best ways to tackle plagiarism and associated problems may be by focussing on innovative and flexible assessment tasks that feel authentic. Refreshing assessment tasks each semester, requiring students to show drafts, or unpack their learning and the processes they have undertaken in their assignments may be some simple ways to design against plagiarism.

Another factor may be the timing and overloading of assessment tasks. If assessments are carefully staggered across the semester and subjects/courses, and if students are supported through good assessment design to plan ahead, then there will be less of the last-minute pressure that has been shown to be one cause of students submitting work that isn’t their own.

In practice: Colleagues used online Turnitin submission in a first year assignment, providing students with access to be able to check their own paraphrasing and referencing before formal submission of the work for grading. Students are able to see a visual representation of the extent of their work’s originality.

3. Visibly monitor, detect and respond to incidences of plagiarism

This tip partly takes us back to making expectations clear.  Reinforced in guides on preventing plagiarism is the importance of detection and response as part of the overall package (but not in isolation). Using Turnitin as part of your Blackboard assignment submission is one way to openly demonstrate to students that work will be checked for originality, and can also be used as an educational tool.

Further resources or prevention is better than cure:

Resources that highlight strategies and solutions to promote academic integrity and prevent plagiarism (these cover everything from induction, learning outcome design, creating a culture of learning, all the way through to assessment):

RMIT-specific resources:

  • At RMIT, Turnitin is now embedded in Blackboard assessment tools.  Click on the link to find out more.
  • Academic Integrity: an essential requirement in tertiary study (PPT 45 KB)
    This is a basic and easy to use PowerPoint suited to introducing students to the concept of academic integrity which can be adapted to your teaching context
  • Assessment Plagiarism at RMIT (PPT 76 KB)
    A PowerPoint explaining to staff the importance of assessment practice in minimising plagiarism.
  • While best done in a discipline context, RMIT’s Learning Lab resources include a video, online tutorial and pdf quicktips on referencing, integrating references into written work, and tips on avoiding plagiarism for students that could be embedded into your course. See their Referencing section.

Recent articles to share with your colleagues and students which may help you unpack academic integrity and plagiarism in your classes:

Thanks to Rachel Chamberlain and Rosy Peake from the School of GUSS for their input into this post and for sharing their experiences and clever solutions.

Share your thoughts on academic integrity and strategies to develop and promote it in the comments below!

The last class

Posted by: Helen McLean, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Sunset over waterIt’s nearly the end of semester and you will be thinking about the last class with your students. How memorable do you want it to be? Will it involve a celebration or will it be a protestant lock down until the bell goes? Is there content still to be mopped up or revision needed for looming exams? Perhaps it will incorporate a flourishing submission of the final assignment or coverage of logistical details like exam timetables, collection of assignments and completion of course surveys. Will the spirit of the class be an ungainly scrabble for closure or will it be a time for considered reflection?

The last class of the course is an opportunity to acknowledge the passing of time spent together as a community of learners. There is a sense of relief in having conquered the learning schedule presented at the first class but there may possibly be a sense of regret that perhaps not all expectations in the room have been met. It is a surety that you won’t be coming together in this course any more to discuss, challenge, ponder and learn together and perhaps that is a little sad. But it is also a time to affirm what has been achieved in those hours spent in company and to give space for the sense of wonder about the meanings that each student has made of the subject area and how they have demonstrated what they have learnt.

Will your students be feeling that they have arrived and are ready to move on?

Will the last class be a time to celebrate the community that has come together for 12 weeks, and acknowledge their pride and achievements, both collectively and individually?

Will it allow students a safe space to express their disappointments, talk about their interpretations of events and share their frustrations?

The final class is a transition space where students are about to leave familiar territory and embark on another beginning, whether that be to progress to the next stage of their study or to graduate from university. Will the final time together be about what has happened and what’s ahead? The time they have spent together with you is not an isolated event in their study but a bridge in their journey of learning. Have they been able to make their own meaningful connections with course content and previous experiences to create new knowledge and understanding that will be relevant to the future possibilities before them?

Is the final assessment a part of that experience of moving forwards? Is it a recap or an opening? What sort of feedback will you give them? Perhaps you could ask what they would specifically like to receive feedback on for their last assignment? They should now be in a better position to know what they need for their next steps of learning.

In the last class I will have with my students, I want them to celebrate the time together both as learners and as a community and to reflect on how they have learned as well as what they have learned to strengthen what has happened during the semester. I want them to revisit the objectives and expectations they stated at the beginning of the course and consider how well these were met and whether they feel more prepared for whatever is next in the their learning. I want them to own the experience of the semester and feel that the effort they put in as learners and a community was worthwhile and relevant for what’s ahead.

The types of questions I will consider asking them to ‘Think, Pair and Share’ include:

  • What did I expect to learn in this course? Did I learn it?
  • How have my opinions and views changed as a result of this course?
  • One thing I will take from this course is… because…
  • I would like to learn more about…

(See Humboldt State University’s page: The Last Day of Class: Beginning at the End for further suggestions).

Activities like these can shift the focus from marks and grades by getting students to think about their learning and celebrate and own their achievements, to find closure for the time and effort they committed to your course and to consider where this experience can lead them next.

Share your thoughts about finishing a course and final activities in the comments below!

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