Tag: Disposable assignments (Page 1 of 3)

If You Can’t Write a Letter of Rec for Every Student, Change the Way You Teach

 TLDR: Replace your course rubric with a letter of recommendation.

It’s time that we take responsibility for knowing our students. If you can’t write a letter of recommendation for your best students, you should rethink your teaching. If we center the letter of recommendation at the core of our assessment strategy, we can create a more student-centered classroom that recognizes and advances the goals of students.

Start the Semester by Drafting an Opening Paragraph for Each Student

Start off the semester by getting to know your students. Whether you use an icebreaker or an ungraded formative writing assignment, ask your students what they’re interested in and how your class can help them grow. Ask them what their majors are and how they envision those degrees helping them in life. Ask them what they’re passionate about and how college can help to deepen that passion. Ask them how they got to where they are and what they’ve done to prepare themselves for life after college.

Take the student responses and write a paragraph about who each student is, what they want, and what you can do in your class to help them. If you don’t do anything else, you’ve already shown interest in each of your students and thought about how your class relates to them.

How Does Your Course Help Your Student Grow?

Can you identify something you did for each student in your class that helped them grow both academically and towards their long term goals?

Now that you have a sense of who your students are and what they are hoping to gain from your class, you can use that to assess their performance in their class. How does the project they are working on for your course advance their goals while also demonstrating mastery of the course material? How does their participation in in-class debates demonstrate skills like critical reasoning and oratory that will benefit them in both their future jobs and make them better members of society? In what ways do they display leadership in your class? If you see them struggling, can you coach them on ways to develop both their grasp on course material and soft skills?

While it’s relatively easy to find things that the best students did well in your course, the goal in using these letters of recommendation is reorienting your teaching towards helping each student grow. What did the best student do in your course that they couldn’t / didn’t do before? How did you help other students improve their writing, speaking, or analytical skills? As the semester goes along, can you identify something you did for each student in your class that helped them grow both academically and towards their long term goals?

End of Semester Reflection

At the end of the semester, have students reflect on what they have learned from your class and how they’ve grown. Give them back copies of whatever they wrote at the beginning of the semester or remind them of what they said, and have them evaluate their advancement. Then meet with each student for 15 minutes and talk with them about the class.

Students don’t always recognize the underlying intentions behind various course activities, so take this opportunity to ask them if they got what you were hoping for out of your activities and class as a whole. This is useful feedback in the iterative design of your class, so take seriously their feedback, both positive and negative.

Sample Letter of Recommendation

Dear Search Committee,

I am happy to give the strongest possible recommendation on behalf of Jane Doe. I had the pleasure of teaching Jane in my history of science course at the University of Oklahoma. I think Jane will succeed in whatever she decides to do next, but she seems particularly suited to graduate studies. She is one of the rare students who values learning over grades. Based on her commitment, leadership, and creativity, I believe that she will succeed both in pursuing a master’s degree in Organizational Dynamics and as an entrepreneur.

In talking to Jane, I have been struck by the diversity of her life experiences. Before taking my class, Jane spent a semester abroad studying development in West Africa. She drew on this experience in my class by researching the history of mining and metallurgy in Ghana

Jane’s leadership was also noteworthy. Early in the course, she took the lead on a group project in which each team edited a Wikipedia article related to our course. One of Jane’s teammates became interested in the subject they were working on and edited an additional article in his own time. Although Jane had nothing to gain personally, she came to my office and advocated on the other student’s behalf for extra credit.

Jane would make a great addition to your program. Based on my experience teaching graduate students, I feel that Jane’s internal motivation will propel her through the sometimes fatiguing and frustrating challenges of completing a master’s degree.On many of the assignments for the course, Jane not only exceeded the requirements but provided genuinely entertaining, humorous, and interesting contributions. I am pleased to give Jane the strongest recommendation possible and am sure that she would be a valuable addition to any graduate program.

Game Design as Project Based Learning

2016 still sounds more like a made up year in the distant future than that time “a couple of years ago.” Nonetheless, a couple of years ago, Scott Wurdinger came out with a book called The Power of Project-Based Learning

There is a great deal of debate over how to define PBL. Wurdinger recounts how John Dewey had a falling out with his student William Kilpatrick when Kilpatrick (1918) said that a project could be just about anything as long as it was initiated by the student, including just sitting and listening to music (p. 14). Dewey insisted that a teacher needed to be involved to guide learning.

Kilpatrick eventually acquiesced, but we are still left with a broad definition of PBL as projects initiated by students and guided by teachers to achieve desired learning outcomes. Projects can be more or less narrowly defined to fit the subject content of a particular class or a desired final product. A math teacher might ask students to use protractors and planes to build a birdhouse, instructing students along the way to identify the various angles of the walls and their combinations. The staging of a play can be used to discuss the history of food, clothing, politics, and gender roles. Such projects bear a family resemblance in that active students engage for a prolonged period in something that is hopefully memorable, meaningful, and authentic in the contextualization of skills and knowledge. Additionally, project-based learning challenges students to deploy a variety of real-world skills like project management, teamwork, research, design, goal-completion, and on and on.

In this blog and more generally in my work with Keegan Long-Wheeler, I have talked a good bit about using games in the classroom to bolster learning. As with PBL, I think games offer memorable experiences that help to contextualize knowledge.

However, game play is in some ways closer to traditional lecture or text-based instruction than to PBL, in that game play relies on the consumption of a media produced by others. My ‘reading’ of a game, my particular experience of it, is of course grounded in my own experiences and can’t be separated from them. The active playing, especially in terms of the social elements, creates a unique or at least specific experience, but so too can reading when accompanied by a good discussion.

Instead of game based learning (or even gamification) as a parallel to project-based learning, we are working through the concept of game design as project-based learning. Rather than having students play games designed by the teacher or third party games like Civilization, Minecraft, or Reacting to the Past, what happens when students design new games?

Project-based learning and experiential learning more generally rely on feedback loops. The various schema used to describe these loops are all derivative of Dewey’s “patter on inquiry:” 1) identify a problem; 2) pose a solution; 3) test the solution against reality; 4) reflect. David Kolb adapted this model into his schema for “experiential learning:”

David Kolb's 4-part experiential learning cycleSimilar wheel-type schemas have been designed for project-based learning:

This PBL diagram from the Buck Institute for Education suggests a more proscriptive approach certainly than what William Kilpatrick would have wanted. In the modern age of narrowly defined grade-level standards in K-12 schools and integrated learning objectives in higher education curricula, it can be difficult to give up class time and control. Nonetheless, the prompts for projects, the problems being addressed, can provide direction for both the subject matter and skills that the project will develop.

Game Design as PBL

There are several models for game design, but many are variations of an iterative/looping cycle:

As with project based learning, game design starts with a problem or prompt for the students to address. In an English course this past fall, Prof. Honorée Jeffers challenged her students to design a choice-based story (game) that retold a classic children’s story. Students brainstormed alternate plot lines and endings. Then, Keegan coached them on how to build out these games in the text-based game software Twine. The students then built a minimum playable game. Play-testing and modification fed an iterative design loop until the project was finished.

After submitting their games, students reflected with Prof. Jeffers on the structures of their narratives, identifying the inflection points in their alternate plots and the choices that authors make as they write.

Prof. Jeffers’ original writing assignment was already a project-based learning approach to understanding literature. Rather than just reading and dissecting classic children’s story, students produced their own modifications as way to practice the skills they were studying.

The added dimension of game-design helped to further highlight the choices the students were making in their stories. Rather than distracting from the focal content and skills of the English class, the game-design project foregrounded that material. In addition to highlighting character choices in a reading or even creatively writing new choices, the game-design project asked them to map out these choices and figure out why they would be interesting and fun for a game player. Game-design thus reinforced the learning objectives and also introduced students to further skills like project management, multimedia asset (images, audio, & video) sourcing, and some coding.

Digital Note-taking in the History Classroom

One of the projects I’ve been most excited about this semester revolves around an effort to teach history students how to take notes using an online database. The central point of my own digital history project, Situating Chemistry, is that we as historians should be sharing notes, both to accelerate historical research and to model our practices for students. For this course project, I have built a Drupal database specifically for upper level undergraduates to take notes on primary sources related to Spanish colonial history.

I posted a while back about the original conceptualization of this project. Now, we have an operating site:

Screenshot of Spanish Borderlands

The students in Raphael Folsom’s Spanish Borderlands course read primary sources on a weekly basis. Rather than taking notes on 3×5 index cards as we did when I was a kid, the students take the same type of note in the Drupal system. They fill out some basic bibliographic information about the source, write a short summary of the source, and then take a note about an interesting facet of the text.

Screenshot of the Add Note Card form.

Once the student has completed their note card, they can duplicate it and take a new note on the same source without having to reenter the bibliographic information.

There are several reasons why I like this project. The first is that it puts primary sources and note taking at the center of the course. Rather than focusing on lecture or textbooks, students are doing the practice of history.

Secondly, it teaches students how to take notes. Raphael can give formative feedback on the note cards themselves and share best practices. Class time can also be used to discuss the ontology of historical evidence and the epistemology of critical reading and constructing valuable notes.

Screen shot of the CardStack in Spanish Borderlands

Finally, when it comes time to draw on the notes, students can draw on the total Card Stack: the pool of notes for a given source, a set of sources, or even all the sources in the system. They cite each other as the originator of a thought about a source, emphasizing the communal construction of understanding about a historical event. They also cite the original source itself preserving the bibliographic practices at the center of traditional historical practice.

Developing skills is a key part of upper-division courses, but one that can be a bit opaque for history and other humanities courses. We have students read, but actually modeling note-taking and the synthesis of source material can be difficult. This project centers students in the making of a digital resource and the remolding of history into an open and collaborative practice.

Please note: For more information on some of the technical crafting of the site, please read Digital note-taking, part 2. Currently, the course site is behind a login wall to give the students some time to get comfortable, and give us, the designers, some time to work out the kinks. It will be made public later in the semester. 

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