Write This, Not That: A Class Activity

you make kitty scaredWriting a simple email message can turn me into an overthinking scaredy-cat. Am I using the right phrase? Do I sound like I’m apologizing too much? Am I oversharing? Am I being too vague? Ugh.

I end up evaluating, re-evaluating, revising, writing, and then erasing any time I have to send an important message. What should be an easy message telling someone my manuscript will be late or I can’t make a meeting becomes agony.

Imagine my joy when a friend shared Dani Donovan’s “E-Mail Like a Boss” matrix on Twitter. Even better, her “Write This, Not That” style suggestions are a perfect model for a classroom activity.

In the image below, Donovan (@danidonovan) concentrates the kinds of sentences I struggle with into short, direct ideas that avoid unnecessary apologies or padding:

E-Mail Like a Boss, by Dani Donovan

For students, this matrix can demonstrate two things. First, there is the obvious face value of the information: students gain some stronger ways to say things in emails and elsewhere. Second, each pair demonstrates the value of revision, showing stronger ways to phrase the same idea. To use the matrix in class, I would follow these steps:

  1. Students can work in small groups or as a whole class to discuss how the suggested alternatives improve on the original.
  2. Together, brainstorm other email sentences and messages that can be difficult to write. Students are sure to come up with some ideas immediately, such as telling a professor that they are ill and won’t be in class. While you will want to keep the scenarios they come up with appropriate for the classroom, try to push students to get beyond simple scenarios.
  3. If time allows, students can search their email for messages that they have struggled with and add those ideas to the list.
  4. As a class, review the brainstormed lists and identify nine situations to focus on.
  5. Assign each of the situations to a small group or pair of students. Ask students to create their own “Write This, Not That” style suggestions, using Donovan’s matrix as their model. The groups can record their suggestions in a shared class document if desired.
  6. Once all the groups have completed the task, ask groups to present their recommendations to the class, and arrange for everyone to have a copy of the suggestions for future use.

To go beyond the original matrix, students can think about other writing situations that they encounter frequently, creating “Write This, Not That” suggestions for other tasks they complete, such as description, persuasion, and research essays. As another option, students can review their own drafts, identify sentences or phrases that they have struggled with, and then work together to create “Write This, Not That” alternatives in a group peer review activity.

Final Thoughts

If you use this “E-mail Like A Boss” image with students, be sure to share Donovan’s ADHD Explained Using Comics collection as well. Donovan explains these ADHD webcomics this way:

ADHD can be difficult to explain, and even harder to talk about. We’re creative, friendly, and misunderstood by a lot of people. My hope is to help people with #ADHD feel understood and seen, and be able to share their experiences with others.

Her comics can inspire other writing activities as well as discussion of how to communicate ideas that readers may not be familiar with. If your class is exploring comics and graphic novels, this collection demonstrates how a comic designer has used the genre to share her message with readers.

If you try any of these activities, I would love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment to tell me how it worked in your classroom or share other ways to use these resources.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Daily Discussion Posts

Asian woman working on laptop at StarbucksFor several semesters now, I have made Daily Discussion Posts (DDPs) a key feature in my courses. At the beginning of the term, I explain that these posts meet three goals:

  • to highlight information directly related to projects students are working on.
  • to cover topics important to workplace writing that we are not covering elsewhere.
  • to share resources that help with workplace writing generally.

Originally, I devised these posts to meet another goal. My courses are entirely online. We never meet in the classroom. I found that students were checking in on the course website only once or twice a week. Predictably, the fewer times students checked in, the more trouble they had getting their work of the course done.

I considered punitive measure and complicated check-ins to solve the problem, but I don’t like negative enforcement strategies—and I certainly didn’t want to make more work for myself in order to track those solutions. These daily posts give students a reason to come to the site every week day, meeting my goal of encouraging more frequent engagement with the course materials.

Logistics for the Daily Discussion Posts

Every Tuesday through Saturday during the term, I post advice articles, how-to webpages, and other resources that supplement the textbook. I ask students to respond to the posts with significant, well-explained comments.

I emphasize that these posts are not the place for “yeah, I agree” or “me too” kinds of comments. Instead, I ask students to contribute ideas, engage with others, and extend the conversation.

Structure for the Daily Discussion Posts

I organize the Daily Discussion Posts (DDPs) around the series of hashtags explained in the table below. Note that Mondays are reserved for the Module Overview that outlines the work students need to complete for the week.

Hashtag Explanation Example*
#TuesdayTutorial These posts demonstrate something or tell students how to do something. #TuesdayTutorial: Convincing a Reader to Read Your Text
#WednesdayWrite Each post asks students to consider how you would handle a specific situation in the workplace or in the course. #WednesdayWrite: Share Your Workplace Writing Secrets
#ThursdayThought Every post presents an infographic or similar graphic about communication and writing in the workplace.

#ThursdayThought: Know Your Sources

#FridayFact These posts shares a specific fact about writing in the workplace, which students can compare to what they know about their career fields. #FridayFact: Informative Headings Help Readers
#WeekendWatch Every weekend post presents a video relevant to what we are covering in class or something else related to writing in the workplace. #WeekendWatch: Crafting Strong Email Messsages

*Because of the way our course management system (CMS) works, I cannot link to the examples.

Assessment for the Daily Discussion Posts

Students grade their own interaction with the Daily Discussion Posts by completing a weekly self-assessment, set up as a True/False quiz in our CMS. The self-assessment questions ask students to indicate what they have read and how many replies they have made. They also confirm that they have completed the self-assessment in accordance with the university’s honor code. When they submit their self-assessments, the points are recorded in the CMS grade book automatically.

I spot check students’ work, but I trust them to ensure that they record their participation honestly. In the semesters that I have used this system, I have only found one student who made a false claim. These self-assessments let me focus my attention on giving students feedback, rather than assigning letter grades.

Final Thoughts

Admittedly, these posts required a lot of work the first term that I used them. Writing five different posts a week took an hour or two each day. Now that I have a collection of posts, however, all I have to do is update and revise the posts. I can usually set up the entire week in an hour.

All in all, these Daily Discussion Posts give students extra resources and a chance to interact in a timely manner, and even more importantly from my perspective, they encourage students to check in on the course frequently.

What strategies do you use to engage students and motivate regular participation in your classes? I would love to hear your ideas. Just leave me a comment below.

Photo credit: Detail from “a cold, rainy night at Starbucks” by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

A Classification Activity Based on Visual Qualities

Today I have a classification activity that asks students to use visual design as they compare items by creating categories based on the visual qualities of the items they classify. The activity builds on designer Haik Avanian’s classification of 2020 presidential campaign logos, shared a few weeks ago by my colleague Shelley Reid.

In his Twitter update on the classification, Avanian explains that the logos are “loosely organized by visual qualities.” The original image included an incorrect logo for Tulsi Gabbard, so I have included the revised version (click the image to see an enlarged version):

Presidential campaign logos sorted by visual qualities

Share the image with your class to begin the activity, asking students to consider the categories and their effectiveness for organizing the logos. Encourage students to think of other visual categories that would fit the logos. The point is not to focus on the politicians behind the logos. Have students look at the designs and categories only. Naturally, if your class is discussing political issues, you can ask students to consider how political issues influence the logo choices as well.

Make Updates

Have students update the images as possible. Several of the campaigns have alternative versions. In particular, you will find color versions for most of the logos that are shown as black and white only. Students can consider whether the color versions fit the existing categories, making changes to the categories as appropriate.

Evaluate the Logos

Expand the discussion by sharing some of the replies that appear on Avanian’s Twitter update. Avanian analyzes some of the logos further in the replies, declaring Cory Booker the winner of the logo competition. In reply to a question, Avanian also explains this definition of visual qualities in art: “Visual qualities are essential elements that an artist uses in his art work. These are qualities that are visible and are used to express or convey the artist’s idea of his work. Visual qualities include color, shape, texture, form, etc” (emphasis Avanian’s).

Expand to Other Political Campaigns

Finally, show students the collection of 2018 U.S. Congressional campaign logos from The Center For American Politics And Design. While the collection of logos is useful as it stands, the filters on the site allow students to narrow the collection by design features such as logo color, iconography, and font, as well as by features such as political party and the state represented. Using the site, students can assemble their own custom collection of logos and then create their own classification systems for the logos.

Move Beyond Political Logos

To extend the activity beyond political campaigns, ask students to apply these same analysis and classification strategies to other logos they encounter. Since nearly every business has a logo of some kind, students can likely find a focus that relates to their personal interests. Here are some ideas that come to mind:

  • Professional sports logos
  • Restaurant logos
  • Department store logos
  • Bakery logos
  • Extracurricular club logos
  • Sporting goods logos
  • Technology company logos
  • Automobile logos
  • Game app logos
  • Television network logos

Alternatively, you can ask students to ignore what item or organization the logos relate to by collecting logos that share a design feature, such as red logos or logos featuring a typography. Once they have their collection of logos, students can work to classify their logos, using some of the same ideas that were applied to the political logos.

Final Thoughts

One of the biggest advantages of this activity is its flexibility. You can use it to talk about visual design principles, advertising, politics, and classification systems. Adapt the activity further by looking at changes to logos over time (e.g., how a corporate logo has changed), and consider why the logos have changed. Have students look at political campaign logos from another country, and ask students to consider how culture influences the logo design.

What ideas do you have for using this logo activity? I’m sure there are many more options, and I would love to hear what you could do with these resources. Share your ideas by leaving a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Designing a Twist on Active Learning Strategies

Asian woman pointing out information on a laptop during a College of DuPage Poster SessionLast week, I shared a series of active learning strategies focused on design principles, related to a research poster project that students are working on this month. That activity inspired me to consider how I could rethink active learning strategies to discuss design and visual rhetoric.

The result is my new versions of three activities, suited for analysis of a visual document design or a visual artifact (such as a poster). For each task, I explain how the original learning task is used, and then I follow with the prompt that I created for my twist on the strategy.

Active Learning Tasks

Muddiest and Clearest Points

Original: Muddiest-point and clearest-point tasks ask students to reflect on recent information from the class and identify the relevant ideas or concepts. The muddiest point is the idea or concept that the student understands least while the clearest point is the idea or concept that the student understands most fully.

The Twist: Examine the image or document and identify the muddiest point and the clearest point in the visual design. For the muddiest point, identify the place in the visual where the image, the text, or other aspects are hardest to identify and understand. It might be a place where the image is blurred, faded, overexposed, or in shadows. It could be a place where an element is small, cropped off or otherwise incomplete. Once you identify the muddiest point, consider what it contributes to the overall image or document and why it is minimized in comparison to other aspects of the image or document.

For the clearest point, look for the opposite place, where the image, the text, or other aspect is clearest and easiest to identify and understand. It might be a place that it larger, sharply focused, brighter, or highlighted in some way. Once you identify the clearest point, consider what it contributes to the overall image or document and why it stands out so clearly in comparison to the other aspects of the image or document.

Four Corners

Original: This active learning strategy relies on the physical layout of the classroom. The teacher sets up a station—with a discussion topic, problem to solve, or issue to debate—in each of the room’s four corners. Students are divided into four groups and rotate through the stations, or they visit only one station and then share the corner’s discussion with the full class.

The Twist: Focus on the four corners of the image or document you are examining. Label them as Top-Left, Top-Right, Bottom-Right, and Bottom-Left. Think about what appears in each corner—text, color, drawings, photographs, shadows, and so forth. In addition to considering what appears in each corner, reflect on aspects such as the size of the elements. Take into account how the content of the four corners relates to the rest of the image or document and how the corners relate to one another. After your analysis of the four corners, hypothesize what the corners contribute to the overall visual design.

Background Knowledge Probe

Original: Background knowledge tasks can take various forms, from freewriting about a previous lesson or experience to a scavenger hunt. The teacher either asks a question that will trigger students to recall prior knowledge about the topic, or the teacher can set up situations that require prior knowledge to complete a task. This strategy tells the teacher what students already know, so she can avoid reviewing information unnecessarily. Further, it helps students recall concepts and ideas that a new lesson will draw upon.

The Twist: Take the idea of a background knowledge probe literally. Examine the image or document, and focus on the background of the design. How does the background differ from the rest of the image or document? Does it complement the foreground? Does it provide a contrast? Is it a simple, blank canvas, or does it add information to the message? Based on your examination of the image or document, explain how the background contributes to the overall visual.

Final Thoughts

Like the active learning strategies that I shared last week, the three active learning strategies above ask students to look at the design of an image or document from different perspectives. By focusing on a specific area of the visual message, students isolate how the various parts of the visual contribute to its overall message.

Do you use active learning strategies in the classroom? How do you ask students to examine the way that visual design contributes to a message? If you have classroom activities to share, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below to tell me about your strategies.

Image credit: See Writing Differently 2018 7 by COD Newsroom on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Examining Design Principles through Active Learning Tasks

Open design sampler demonstrating the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximityMy students are beginning research posters this week, so the course is returning to information on effective design and in particular the design principles of Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. In today’s post, I’ll share the active learning tasks I’m using to ask students to recall prior knowledge and give them hands-on work with the design principles.

Active learning tasks ask students to engage directly in their learning process by “involving [them] in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison 1991).

A simplified explanation of this teaching strategy compares students’ minds to sponges and to mechanical gears. Passive learning strategies, such as lectures, treat the student’s mind like a sponge, ready to absorb ideas as it creates a repository of information. It aligns well with Paulo Freire’s banking model of education. Active learning strategies, alternately, engage the student’s brain as if it were a machine made of interlocking gears, turning and churning as it tests hypotheses and creates knowledge.

The series of tasks I describe below asks students to recall what they know about the design principles, to apply the principles through several analysis activities, and to forecast how they will use the principles in their research posters.

Background Readings and Resources

Basic Activity Logistics

The course includes weekly writing and revision activities that students complete individually and in groups. Discussion prompts and related activities are posted as weekly activities. Since I teach a fully-online course, this work is submitted as a discussion post to me in the course management software. These tasks are much like the in-class activities that would be part of a face-to-face course.

The tasks below give you the short version of the prompt. I add more specific details on how to post, share, and reply to one another in the assignments shared with students.

Active Learning Tasks

Design Principles Scavenger Hunt

Go on a hunt on campus or online for a good or bad visual. It can be any kind of visual—a digital sign, a full-page ad in a magazine, a billboard, and so forth. It doesn’t have to be a research poster. Here’s one way to find a visual for this discussion: Find a bulletin board on campus. Stand across the hall from it, and identify the one piece on the bulletin board that grabs your attention.

Take a photo of the visual you find or save the visual if you found it online. Add a paragraph that tells us why it is a good visual or a bad one. Use the ideas from the textbook to support your ideas.

Design Principles Prescription

You are the Design Doctor. Choose a visual from the Design Principles Scavenger Hunt or one that you have found elsewhere, and consider how well the visual uses the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. Respond in three parts:

  1. Describe how the visual uses the design principles.
  2. Diagnose the design shortcomings of the visual.
  3. Prescribe solutions that will improve the visual.

Positive Application Task

Choose a visual from a previous project in the course or one that you are planning to use in your research poster. Annotate the visual with details on how you have used the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. Label features of the visual with arrows that pair with related descriptions and explanations of the design principles. Use Figure 11.1 on pages 251–52 of Technical Communication as the model for your response.

Research Poster Design Plan

Based on what you know about the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity, create a design plan for your research poster.

  1. Brainstorm a list of ideas you want to emphasize in your poster.
  2. Apply design principles to the ideas, indicating strategies you can use to highlight the content on your poster.
  3. Create a style sheet for your poster, outlining the design decisions you have made. For instance, your style sheet should cover information such as the following:
    • What font and font size will you use for regular text?
    • What font and font size will you use for Level 1 headings? Level 2 headings?
    • What colors will you use on the poster, and where will you use them?

Final Thoughts

These four active learning activities seem relatively simple on the surface; however, they build on one another to lead students to recall how the design principles work and then apply those principles to their own work. What strategies do you use to encourage students to apply composing and design strategies to their own work? Please tell me by leaving a comment below.

References

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (30th Anniversary edition; M. B. Ramos, trans.). New York: Continuum.

Photo credit: The Open University Brand Design Guidelines by DAMS Library, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Casting a Wider Research Net: Checking for Variety

Two students working at a table near bookshelves in a libraryLast week, I shared an activity encouraging students to move beyond using a Google search to find research. This week’s activity asks students to check the resources they have found for variety.

As was the case last week, Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg’s 2010 article “How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students” inspired the activity. Head and Eisenberg found that students typically searched only for the kinds of sources required by the assignment. For instance, if the assignment asks students to find two books and an online source, students find only those items.

Instead of prescribing sources for students’ work, this week’s activity asks students to look for variety in their sources and provide brief annotations that explain how they will use the sources.

In the activity as shown below, I removed some information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. The five kinds of research sources came from the course textbook, Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication (12th edition). You can easily customize the activity for your class by using the list of resources from your course textbook. Any textbook that covers writing research projects will include a similar list.

Checking for Variety in Research Sources

Review the information in the section on “Types of Secondary Research Sources” (pp. 123) in Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication. The section discusses the following five kinds of sources:

  • Books (including ebooks)
  • Periodicals: Journals and Magazines
  • Newspapers and online news sources
  • Government documents
  • Websites and social media

Checking for Variety

  1. For each type of research sources above, list the sources you have found so far that fall in the category, using the example to guide your answers. Include the following information for each source:
    • Bibliographic citation, using whatever format is appropriate for your field (e.g., Electrical engineers use IEEE).
    • A one-sentence (or fragment) summary of the information included in the source.
    • Details on how you plan to use the source in your project.
  2. Once you list all of the sources that you have found, evaluate whether your sources show variety, using the following questions:
    • How many different kinds of sources you have found? If a type of secondary research source is not appropriate for your project, explain why.
    • How varied are the sources in each category? Consider the author(s), publisher, publication date, and other relevant factors.
  3. Review your audience analysis for the project, and state the kinds of research sources your readers will expect in your document. Explain how your sources meet the audience’s expectations.
  4. Explain whether the research sources you found show variety, using specific details.
  5. If your sources do not demonstrate variety, set additional research goals to find more secondary sources. Specifically state the additional kinds of sources you will look for in a paragraph or list.
  6. Review your answer to make sure it uses business-appropriate spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Students are still working on this activity, so I don’t have results to share. I hope students will develop a habit of examining their research for variety. By having them include annotations that indicate how they will use the sources, students should move beyond variety simply for the sake of variety. Their choices have to be useful to their projects. I’m looking forward to reading their responses.

I would love to hear your responses to the activity too. Please leave me a comment below telling me your thoughts or sharing strategies that you use when teaching research projects.

Photo credit: A place to study. by San José Public Library on Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Inspiration in Letters of Note

This week, I have a short post on a great resource (and one related class activity) that I found on Twitter as I was reading through messages with the #womeninTC hashtag. The TC stands for Technical Communication. The hashtag is a great source of ideas, articles, and support for those of us who teach technical writing.

Here’s the Tweet from Dr. Amelia Cheley (@plaidsicle) that inspired this post, with a transcript following:

Image of Chesley's Tweet, transcript follows

Transcript, with capitalization consistent with the original:

dr. amelia chesley (@plaidsicle): for the first day of class this week, I had my tech com students analyze several random, real memos (including this one lettersofnote.com/2010/08/star-t…) and then each compose a random, imaginary memo themselves. I am loving what they’ve come up with so far! #womenintc [3:26 PM 16 Jan 2019]

The activity sounded like fun, so I immediately clicked through to see the STAR TREK/Casting memo. Not only did I find an entertaining memo, but I was sucked into the website’s assortment of letters, memos, and other notes from the famous, the infamous, and the unknown. It is a rich collection of primary material that could be used in many classes, not just in technical writing.

My imagination is spinning with the options. I’m sure I will have some specific writing activities to share in the coming weeks, but for now, I’m going to end with a list of ten favorites from the site:

  1. SEVEN LITTLE MEN HELP A GIRL
  2. Subject: Toilet Paper
  3. SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS TO PLAYERS
  4. Gee whiz, that master alarm certainly startled me
  5. On bureaucratese and gobbledygook
  6. IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER
  7. Is there a space program which we could win?
  8. The Tiger Oil Memos
  9. To All Potty-Mouthed Inbetweeners
  10. I was ready to sink into the earth with shame

As you wander through the site, I am sure you will find something entertaining. Let me know what you find, and share any ideas you have for using the site. Just leave me a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Ten Active Learning Strategies Using Word Clouds

Last week, I reviewed several word cloud generators and suggested a few ways that you can use word clouds in the classroom. This week, I am sharing some ways that you can use word clouds in your classes to engage students directly in the learning process. The ten active learning strategies below ask students to move beyond the absorption of ideas typical of a lecture-based class to deep engagement with the ideas and development of relevant content area and critical thinking skills.

1. 25-Word Summaries

With 25-word summaries, students summarize (or otherwise discuss) their reading in 25 words or less. Students must concentrate their ideas and make every word count. Once students submit their summaries, combine them in a single document, and generate a word cloud that reveals the 25 words that students mentioned most. For nonfiction readings, the resulting word cloud can show the main points of the reading, significant facts that are included, and key issues that stand out for students. For fictional readings, the word cloud can reveal significant features from the reading, such as themes and symbols.

The word cloud below is the collected response to the discussion question “What are the main themes in A Raisin in the Sun?” For accessibility purposes, include the table of word frequency, which screen readers will be able to read.

Word Cloud on the themes in A Raisin in the Sun

Word Frequency
family     21
african     16
people     14
dream     10
dreams     10
abortion       8
act       8
knowledge       7
raisin       7
africa       6

2. Icebreakers with Survey Responses

Choose your favorite icebreaker question: What’s your favorite food? What’s the last book you read? What kind of texts have you written in the workplace? Ask students to respond with online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter. Both of these tools allow you to present the survey responses in a word cloud, so you do not need any additional software. The cloud appears on the survey website as the responses are added.

3. Directed Paraphrase

Check students’ comprehension by asking them to paraphrase the most recent lesson or activity that the class has completed. Encourage students to put the content of the lesson into their own words, rather than parroting back what they have seen or read in the class. Collect all of the responses in a single document, and generate a word cloud of the most commonly repeated words. Share the cloud with the class and ask them to consider why certain words showed up and why others were missing. Be sure to ask them to comment on how well the word cloud represents the lesson or activity they paraphrased.

4. Prediction

Before students read the next section of an article or chapter of a book, ask them to suggest what they think will happen next. As with other activities, gather the responses in a single document and create a word cloud, which will identify the most popular predictions. Ask students to discuss why certain predications were popular, connecting to the available evidence from the reading they have completed.

5. Muddiest Point

Ask students to write down whatever is most unclear about the lesson, in a word or two, before leaving the classroom for the day. Collect students’ responses and assemble them into a single document, from which you can build a word cloud of the points that most students noted. Open the next class session with the word cloud, and address the concepts that students have identified.

6. Focused List

Build a focused list by asking students to respond to a question about a topic. This strategy can be used to stimulate prior knowledge by asking a question such as “What have you learned about the topic already?” Give students time to brainstorm a list of concepts that they recall, and create a word cloud of the ideas they have shared. Use the word cloud to extend discussion of prior knowledge by asking students to explain the concepts that appear in the word cloud.

7. Version Comparison

As part of a research project, ask students to find two articles on their topic, ideally two that focus on different perspectives. Have students make a word cloud for each of the articles and then compare the two clouds. Specifically, ask which words that the two versions have in common as well as what their most significant differences are. Have students determine which of the most frequently used words communicate facts and which communicate opinion. If there are terms in the word clouds that students have not found elsewhere in their research, encourage them to examine these words further as they relate to the topic.

8. Role Play

Again, set up a survey using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter, but this time ask students to answer from another perspective. In literature courses, you can ask students to answer as they think one of the characters would respond. The activity can be used as a Prediction activity (#4 above) by asking students to predict what someone in a reading might do next or a decision the person would make. For any reading that students complete, they might respond as the author would. If you are studying argument, students can answer as someone on a particular side of the issue might. These role-playing surveys will result in interesting word clouds that reveal how well students understand whatever they are reading or studying.

9. Quiz-Style Games

For this activity, you create the word cloud yourself. You could choose keywords from a text and manufacture a cloud, or paste in the text of a reading to create a cloud. Ensure that your cloud does not include the title of the piece or other words that would make the source immediately obvious. The word cloud above for A Raisin in the Sun would work for this activity. Use the resulting word clouds to quiz students: By looking only on the cloud, can they identify the piece that the cloud represents? Students could work individually or in teams to propose their answers, similar to a game show. This activity would work particularly well as a review exercise before an exam.

10. List-Cloud-Group-Label

With this modification of the List-Group-Label strategy, you can stimulate prior knowledge as you introduce a reading, a unit of study, or a course theme. Write a word or phrase related to the subject area on the board. For instance, if the course will explore popular culture, you might focus on the word popularity or the phrase popular culture itself. Have students brainstorm related words and phrases using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter (or in an open Google Doc). Make a word cloud of students’ responses. Next, arrange students into small groups, and ask each group to examine the word cloud closely. Groups can add or remove words or phrases as well as decide on whether particular items on the list should have been larger or smaller in the word cloud. Once they have considered the words, ask groups to arrange the words into several related subtopics and to provide a label for each subtopic. Have groups present their subtopics to the whole class and explain their arrangement. The whole class can compare the different subtopics that groups have created. Later in the course, after you have begun your exploration of the reading, unit, or theme, ask students to return to the labeled groups of words and consider how well they relate to the topic as it has evolved during the course.

Final Thoughts

As you can see from these ten ideas, word clouds can be a versatile tool in the classroom. They can be used for analysis, description, summary, and more. Perhaps my favorite thing about these uses of word clouds is that the results are always different. Although my classes may study the same topic or readings from one term to the next, the way that they create and analyze word clouds is always unique—and every so often, they reveal an idea that surprises me.

What are your thoughts on word clouds now that you have seen some ways to use them? Do you have additional strategies to try? Would you complete one of these active learning strategies in a different way? Tell me your thoughts in a comment below. I can’t wait to hear from you.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Updating Your Word Cloud Tools

Word clouds can give writers helpful information as they revise their work. As I explained in my previous post Word Clouds as Revision Tools, “Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often.”

Using Word Clouds

In the writing classroom, word clouds can help students identify words that they have overused or identify themes in their writing. In technical writing classes, I ask students to create word clouds from their job application materials and then evaluate whether the words that they use the most project the image that they want potential employers to see.

In classes that focus on reading, students can use word clouds to analyze passages from poetry, essays, fiction, and other readings. The resulting word clouds can help students identify themes and symbols in the texts, just as a concordance might. Here’s the word cloud for the 50 most frequent words in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Word Cloud for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Once a word cloud like the one above is generated, students can talk generally about the frequently-used words, and then search for the words in the original text to see how they are used.

Problems with the Most Commonly Used Word Cloud Generator

So word clouds can be a fun tool to use in the classroom; recently, however, I have run into trouble when assigning word cloud activities. My go-to tool, Wordle, is no longer working consistently. When I follow their troubleshooting instructions, I end up finding this Java error:

Java error: The Chrome browser does not support NPAPI plug-ins and therefore will not run all Java content. Switch to a different browser (Internet Explorer or Safari on Mac) to run the Java plug-in.

Wordle has been my favorite and the tool that I have seen other teachers use most frequently, but with the end of Java support, I can’t rely on Wordle anymore. I need to find tools that students can use easily and reliably.

Word Cloud Alternatives to Try

After testing several options, I found three alternatives that seem useful:

These three tools create word clouds easily, giving the user the same basic settings. Word Cloud Generator (for Google Docs) is limited in the ways that you can manipulate the layout of the words. For instance, to switch to the landscape layout shown for The Waste Land example above, I had to open the image in Photoshop and rotate it. It’s not a hard change to make, but it is an extra step. Word Cloud Generator includes the unique ability to add a table of the most frequently used words and their frequency of use to the end of the analyzed document. To share this add-on with students, use the How to Create a Word Cloud in Google Docs video and instructions.

Pro Word Cloud (for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint) does allow you to change the layout of the words, giving you a range of options that includes Higgledy Piggledy. I love anything that offers me the chance to make things “Higgledy Piggledy.” This Word add-in falls short, however, since it has no option to exclude words from the cloud. There is a check box to “Remove common words,” but no option to customize the words that are removed. To share the add-in with students, you can use the Create a Word Cloud in a PowerPoint Presentation video and instructions. The instructions are generally the same to install and use the add-in in Microsoft Word.

WordClouds (for web browsers) is the best choice if the source text for your word cloud is a web page or PDF. You can upload a file or enter a web link, and the tool will make a related cloud. WordClouds also includes the largest number of options of the three tools. In addition to the customary settings for the color, font, and the layout of the words, you can change the shape of the cloud (e.g., a heart, an apple, a cat), set the distance between words (or the gap size), and add a mask. The shape option includes not only basic shapes, but also the ability to choose a letter or number as the shape of the cloud and the ability to choose a colorful icon (such as a rainbow). There’s even a sneaky way to track multi-word phrases (e.g., writing center). Just add a tilde (~) between the words (i.e., writing~center). While there is no page of instructions for WordClouds, students can use the Wizard on the site to get started and find the answers to any questions on the FAQ page.

Final Thoughts

I am always looking for more ways to use word clouds in the classroom. They are so easy to create, and they quickly reveal keywords and themes in the analyzed texts. I am working on some additional word cloud activities for next week’s post. If you have an activity to share, please leave me a note below, and be sure to come back next week for those additional assignments that use word clouds.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Asking Students to Visualize Their Progress

Since I am currently teaching technical writing, progress reports are on my regular list of assignments this term, but I also use them in both my first-year composition (FYC) and my digital media classes. The assignment works well in the middle of a longer project, be it something like a research project in FYC or a documentary video project in a digital media class.

At its most basic, the progress report is a simple genre with a organizational structure that makes sense to students. I ask students to focus on three sections:

  • Section 1: Tell me what you have done
  • Section 2: Tell me what you still need to do
  • Section 3: Tell me how you will get the remaining work done and let me know about any of your concerns

Students can often accomplish the task in a quick one-page document. The activity works well as an in-class writing exercise, since it requires no research and has a set structure with clear requirements. When students work on progress reports outside of class, I can step up the expectations. For instance, I frequently ask students to include a calendar or a table that shows their remaining milestones or to add specific information that shows their progress.

One of my favorite additions focuses on using visual elements in their progress reports to demonstrate something about the work they have completed or the work they plan to complete. To explain the expectations for this visual addition to the assignment, I post the following description and example on the course website:

Visualize Your Progress

You can often show trends and comparisons with graphical elements better than with text descriptions. Consider the difference between describing the performance of a stock or a portfolio during the last year and showing that performance with a line graph. Here’s an example from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report [an investment portfolio managed by a student at Virginia Tech]. Which seems easier to read and process to you?

Text Description

The portfolio performed relatively in line or slightly below the respective benchmark until the final quarter, as shown in Exhibit 1. We included the Consumer Price Index as a preservation of spending power benchmark to monitor changes in our real returns. From mid-November to year-end, the portfolio significantly outperformed and finished 2016 with an active return of 5.13%. In order to calculate our risk-adjusted return, we incorporated our portfolio’s beta of 1.2 and historical average for yields on the 1-Year Treasury note (1.84%) in order to compute a CAPM-based implied alpha. This calculation resulted in an implied 2016 alpha of 3.11%.

Line Chart

SEED 2016 Performance

For my money (pun intended), the line chart is much easier to understand quickly. In many circumstances, you will include both a text description and a graphical representation, which helps ensure accessibility for all readers. The point of today’s post is that the graphical version is not just an illustration. It is critical to showing the reader information about the topic.

Think about how you can add graphical representation of information in your progress report. The infographic How to Think Visually Using Visual Analogies from Anna Vital to see a collection of charts and graphs you can use to communicate information. Once you explore the options, add a pertinent visualization to your progress report.

After this reviewing this information, students have improved their progress reports by adding visual elements like pie charts and timelines as well as photos and screenshots that show their work. It’s definitely one of my favorite class activities because it takes students from reflective text descriptions to considerations of visual rhetoric in just one class session. Have you tried an activity that teaches students to make and use visual elements in their writing? Please share your ideas in the comments below. I’d love to hear about what works for you.

 

Image credit: Graph from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.