Design Principles from Career Field to the Writing Classroom

Virginia's Oldest Covered Bridge, Humpback Covered BridgeStudents typically know about design in their own career fields. Civil engineering majors, for instance, typically know what a good bridge, a well-designed intersection, or an efficiently designed airport looks like. They may not be able to design and build one yet, but they can tell the difference between a good design and a bad one.

This active learning strategy taps into students’ prior knowledge on design and then asks them to apply what they know to document design. The activity has two parts: first, students document their own knowledge, and second, they collaboratively draw conclusions about design and consider how the concepts apply to writing. The Individual Activity described below is presented as it would be to students while the Follow-Up Group Activities are presented as instructions for the teacher.

The Individual Activity

Before we begin our discussion of the principles of design that apply to writing, I want you to think about how design principles shape work in your own career field. For this activity, find an object related to your career field that demonstrates strong design principles and then prepare an informal presentation that explains the design principles to your group. Using the presentations from all your group members, you will reflect on what we can say about design across disciplinary and career fields.

Instructions

  1. Focusing on your career field, choose a well-designed object. A civil engineer could choose a bridge. A software developer could choose a program interface. A packaging science major could choose a reusable packaging system. A building construction major could choose a hand or power tool. Whatever you choose, be sure that you would say it is well-designed and that you are familiar enough with the object to talk about it.
  2. Brainstorm a list of features that demonstrate the object’s good design. Just jot down the features that come to mind. You will come back to this list later in this activity.
  3. Find information on your object that you can share in class. Ideally, find digital versions that you can incorporate into your presentation. Possible sources include the following:
    • Photos or screen shots
    • Drawings or illustrations
    • Instruction manuals
    • Schematic diagrams
    • Blueprints
    • Advertising materials
    • Demonstration or instructional videos
  4. Review the information you collected for additional features that point to the fact that the object is well-designed. As you find characteristics, add them to your brainstormed list.
  5. Create a chart that aligns characteristics that make the object well-designed with the evidence from the information you have gathered. For instance, you might point to details in a photo that demonstrate a feature that contributes to the design. You can add or remove features from your list as you work.
  6. Create a slideshow presentation to share the features you have identified as integral to a well-designed object in your field, following these guidelines:
    • Add a title slide that shows an image of your object and provides a title that identifies the object. For instance, you might use a title such as “Strong Design in the Humpback Covered Bridge.”
    • Add a slide for each characteristic of good design you have identified, following these suggestions:
      • For the title of the slide, use a word or two to name the characteristic.
      • Include the evidence that you found that demonstrates that characteristic.
      • Add a source citation for your evidence.
      • Do not add any more description or bullet points since you will explain the details to your group.
      • Add speaker’s notes if you like.
  7. Practice your presentation so that you are ready to share your well-designed object with your group. Aim to share your information in two to three minutes. Revise your presentation as necessary after your practice session.

Follow-Up Group Activities

  1. After students have their presentations ready, arrange the class in small groups and ask students to share their presentations with one another. Have students listen for similarities among the principles that are presented. Remind them that the same underlying principle or idea may not use the same name in every career field.
  2. Once students complete the individual presentations to their groups, ask them to identify five characteristics that transcend a single career field. Explain that students are looking for similarities among all the principles that have been presented. If students need additional help, suggest that they look at what the principles focus on. For instance, are there principles that focus on what the object looks like? Consider how they are similar.
  3. Have groups share their five characteristics by writing them on a section of the board, on a Google Slide, or on chart paper. Ask each group to explain their five characteristics briefly.
  4. Use a full-class discussion to look for patterns and similarities among all of the characteristics that have been posted. Ask students to share their immediate observations, and use questions to help them see any details that are less obvious.
  5. Display a well-designed document, or pass out copies for students to observe. You can also point to a document in your textbook. Ideally, choose an example related to an current or upcoming writing assignment.
  6. Invite students to apply the characteristics posted by their small groups to the example document. As necessary, ask questions that help students apply their career-field knowledge to the example. For example, ask students to apply design principles about an object’s appearance to the appearance of the example document.
  7. Synthesize student observations by listing the characteristics that apply to document design. Take advantage of the opportunity to introduce and discuss key principles of design (such as contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity) by connecting to the principles that students have identified.
  8. Follow this activity with one of the ideas from Examining Design Principles through Active Learning Tasks or ask students to apply the design principles discussed in the class sessions to the drafts they are currently working on. Alternately, students can apply the design principles to their presentation slides.

Final Thoughts

Writing and document design can feel alien to students whose area of expertise lies outside the writing classroom. This activity makes students experts in the classroom, telling us all about their career field and then applying that expertise to document design. Students work as active learners, building connections between what they know and the work of the writing classroom. How do you help students understand concepts in the writing classroom that may not seem obvious to them? Do you have classroom activities or assignments to share? I would love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below.

Photo credit: Virginia’s Oldest Covered Bridge, Humpback Covered Bridge by Don O’Brien on Wikimedia Commons, used under a CC BY 2.0 license

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

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.

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 Visual Outlines with Graphic Organizers

Rough outline of a talk on white collar work tips for developer types by Michael Cote on FlickI have asked students to informally outline all of their projects this term. I am not strict about the form of the outlines. They can use jot lists, topic outlines, tree structures, or any kind of map that shows their plans. I never use strict sentence outlines myself, but I believe that all writers can benefit from at least jotting down the plans for their documents.

As they begin work on their final project of the term, students will create visual outlines by designing their own graphic organizers as part of their work. Students are familiar with outlining and graphic organizers from their experiences before college. Both teaching strategies are widely used in K–12. After reviewing their prior knowledge on the topics, students are ready to create their own visual writing tools, as described in the activities below.

Background Readings on Outlines

Background Resources on Graphic Organizers

Class Activities

Think, Pair, Share, and Compare

This activity is a customized version of the active learning strategy Think-Pair-Share, which will help students recall their prior knowledge. Divide the class into two groups. Working independently, have individuals in one group think about and take notes on what they know about outlines while the individuals in the other group focus on graphic organizers. After students have had time to gather their thoughts, have them pair with someone who worked on the same topic. In their pairs, have students review their notes together and talk through their thinking.

Draw the class together as a whole and invites pairs to share their thoughts on how outlines work and then to share their thoughts on how graphic organizers work. Note their ideas on the board. Once all of the ideas have been shared, ask the class to reflect on the information and then compare the two strategies (outlining and graphic organizers). Encourage students to draw conclusions about how the two strategies connect to writing.

To strengthen their understanding of outlining and graphic organizers, ask students to read and review the background readings and resources listed above.

Design Graphic Organizers

Ask students to examine example graphic organizers (linked above) as a class or in small groups and to identify the features of the genre. In particular, encourage students to determine how shapes are used (like text boxes), how lines and arrows are used, and how labels and instructional text is used. Their prior knowledge about graphic organizers should allow students to gather this information in five to ten minutes.

With this information about graphic organizers established, students create graphic organizers for the kinds of writing that they are working on. Ask students to consider what they know about the kind of writing by examining examples and background material about the genre. Students can create graphic organizers independently, or you can walk them through some basic steps by asking questions such as the following:

  • What are the primary sections of the kind of writing you are examining?
  • What are the typical features of those sections?
  • What kind of information usually belongs in the sections?
  • How do the sections relate to one another?

Students can sketch out their graphic organizers on paper, and then use a tool like Canva to create final versions of their organizers. Note that Canva does have a number of existing graphic organizer layouts that students can use as models. Students can also create their graphic organizers in a word processor using the shapes and text box tools.

Do limit the time students spend creating their graphic organizers. The purpose of this activity is to learn more about how a kind of writing works, not to spend hours on images and design.

After students finish their graphic organizers, they can share them with the class for feedback as well as to create a library of graphic organizers that everyone can use. The organizers can be used both for writing projects and to organize the analysis of readings.

Final Thoughts

In my course, students are focusing on different kinds of writing, depending upon their majors and career goals. There is little to no overlap in the graphic organizers they are creating. With a more homogeneous class, students could design graphic organizers in small groups. They might work on the same task or on different aspects of the writing task, such as creating graphic organizers for gathering ideas, research, and beginning a draft.

This activity uses active learning strategies to get beyond customary pen on paper (or text on screen) strategies. Do you have similar assignments that break out of the traditional writing activities? I would love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below

Photo credit: Page 01: Idea for a talk on white collar work tips for developer types by Michael Coté on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

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.

Great Writing Resources from UNC-Chapel Hill

Recently I needed a resource to help students understand brainstorming. I knew that they generally understood the idea, but I wanted to encourage them to try some new strategies and stretch their invention skills a little. After a few disappointing Google search results, I found myself at the “Tips & Tools” page of the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center site.

There, I found perfect resources to share with students, including a Brainstorming tip sheet and this Webbing video:

I quickly realized that the site had much more to offer. The “Tips & Tools” page features nearly a hundred resources, organized into four categories:

  • Writing the Paper
  • Citation, Style, and Sentence Level Concerns
  • Specific Writing Assignments for Contexts
  • Writing for Specific Fields

The handouts range from ideas on Thesis Statements to basic strategies for working on a Dissertation. Some of the resources focus on general writing advice, such as dealing with Procrastination and Writing Anxiety. Others address topics frequently heard in the writing classroom, like how to use Gender-Inclusive Language and ways to work with Writing Groups effectively.

Perhaps one of the best things about the site is that the handouts are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License. That means, as the site explains in the footer, “You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” If you need a supplement for your class or a specific student, these “Tips & Tools” have you covered.

Have you found an online resource that is particularly helpful in the writing classroom? Please share your recommendations in the comments below. I’d love to see the sites you use with students.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Making Time for Software Instruction

Black student working at laptop outsideFor students to do well in the courses I teach, they have to understand how the course software works. Since the courses are 100% online, the spaces that our course software creates become the classroom where we interact. If students cannot get to those spaces or do not fully understand how they work, they can fail the course.

Given this potential, I make time for software instruction, no matter how packed the course is with subject area content and related work. Generally, I approach software instruction as needed to complete activities in the course. For instance, I talk about how to use banded rows to increase table readability as students work on an assignment that requires creating a table. The software instruction is directly tied to doing well on the activity, so students are motivated to learn the related technical skills.

The challenge is knowing when students will need help with the software that doesn’t relate to specific assignments. Students come to the course with a variety of experience, so I cannot assume that they all need the same instruction. I encourage students to help themselves by linking to the documentation from course materials. Beyond that, I’ve relied on two strategies:

  • Wait until someone asks.
  • Look for patterns that suggest students need help.

In both cases, I either provide a link to the documentation or provide a customized explanation with video or screenshots. These techniques work, but I’d like to do more.

This term, I decided to focus on software instruction from the first day of classes. I gave students a curated list of links to the student guide to the software. Focusing on the commands and tools that I knew students needed for the course reduced the number of documentation links 90%, from 241 to 24 links. No longer do students have to search through pages and pages of information to find what they need—and I benefit from linking to the official documentations, which I don’t have to maintain.

I asked students to read through the entire list. I don’t expect them to memorize the list or click on every link. I just want them to remember there was a resource that listed the main tools they need to use in the course. After skimming through the list, they chose at least one software task to learn more about. I asked students to read the details in the documentation and then try the tool.

For extra points, students could post a reply describing what they found in their exploration. To my happy surprise, the activity yielded 75 replies. Students explored a variety of tools, focusing on whatever interested them. Repeatedly, students explained that they had found some capability in the software that they never knew existed.

Will students remember everything they read? Undoubtedly not, but they do know where to find details on the key commands they need for the course. Since this was the first activity in the course, students and I can draw on it for the entire term. Overall, it seems like a successful strategy that I hope to continue using.

How do you make time for software instruction in your courses? What resources do you share with students? Tell me about the strategies you use by leaving a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Photo Credit: _MG_3783 by VIA Agency on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Zombies in the Writing Classroom

Six warning signs, all stating 'Keep Out - Zombie Infected Area'I kicked off Spring semester with some discussion questions meant to work as icebreakers. Two of the prompts are fairly typical: one asks students to talk about an object significant to their careers, and the other asks students to brainstorm characteristics of technical writing based on their experience and observations.

As an alternative to those two fairly customary discussion topics, I devised this third, more playful prompt, “Your Career and the Zombie Apocalypse”:

Imagine that the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. The walking dead are bearing down upon your part of the country, and everyone in the world is working to stop them and preserve life in the world as it was before the zombie awakening. As a way to introduce yourself to the class, write a reply that tells us the following:

  1. your major and career goal (i.e., what do you want to be when you graduate?).
  2. what one thing people in your career can do right now* to stop the zombies.
  3. how that one thing will be effective.

*In other words, this one thing needs to be a capability that your career already has. You cannot make up some solution that does not exist. That would be too easy :)

I’m delighted to report that the Zombies Discussion has been the most popular by far. Even more significant to me, students’ responses are showing a wonderful level of creative and analytical thinking. For instance, one computer science major suggested creating programs that analyze live video streams, comparing appearance and movements to what zombies look like and the ways that zombies walk in order to determine when zombies are near. Not a bad solution, I think. Even better, however, were the replies . One student asked how the program would tell the difference between zombies and people in zombie costumes. Another wondered how the program would differentiate between zombies and people with mobility issues, like senior citizens or people with injuries or disabilities.

Other students have talked about military drone strikes, protecting information systems, security of the water supply, crowdsourcing reports of outbreaks, social media survivor networks, cures and vaccinations, DNA modification, landscape barriers, and more.

Zombies aren’t really my thing, but the success of this icebreaker has convinced me that they have a place in this course. I am even wondering about an all-Zombie section of technical writing. Imagine the assignment opportunities:

  • Technical Description of a Zombie
  • Instructions for Trapping a Zombie
  • Directives for Zombie Safety
  • Zombie Sighting Field Report
  • Zombie Incident Reports
  • Recommendation Report on a Zombie Apocalypse Solution

There are so many options—and a good bit of fun to be had. I swear I would try this next term if we had a way to advertise a special focus section of technical writing on my campus. Who knew that an icebreaker would be so inspiring?

What kinds of icebreakers do you use? More importantly, are there zombies in your writing classroom? Leave me a comment below to tell me about your classes. I’d love to hear from you.

Photo Credit: Zombie Zone by Michel Curi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

What Counts as Academic Dishonesty?

Sad Kitten, with its head leaning on its paw, and the caption, What a Cat-astrope! Why did I plagiarize?!Every term, I end up turning in a few students for violations of the Honor Code. It sucks. I don’t like filling out the paperwork. I don’t like the feeling that students try to trick me. The students involved are all definitely unhappy.

The most typical violation has been copying passages from sources word-for-word without any citation—without even quotation marks for that matter. When challenged, most students have responded that they didn’t realize citations and quotation marks were required. I certainly understand errors in bibliographic format. That kind of error is easy to make, especially when citation styles change every few years. It concerns me, however, that students can get to Junior and Senior standing at college without understanding how basic documentation of quotations works.

Given what I have been seeing, I have stepped up my documentation lessons to take on the issue directly. Students read the information on research and documentation from their textbook. In my case, that includes the following from Markel & Selber’s Technical Communication:

  • Chapter 6: Researching Your Subject
  • Chapter 7: Organizing Your Information
  • Part A: Skimming Your Sources and Taking Notes
  • Part B: Documenting Your Sources

I also have students review the resources available on the Virginia Tech Honor System website:

In addition to this basic instruction, I asked students to discuss the intricacies of academic research in the class’s online forum. To get the conversation started, I asked students to read through the questions and answers on the Academic Honesty Quiz from the University of Rochester. After reviewing the quiz, I asked students to consider these questions, noting that they did not need to address every quiz question in their responses:

  • Do your agree with their results?
  • Would you offer a different answer?
  • Are there more options than the quiz suggests? What are they?
  • What would you do if you were the teacher involved?
  • What questions about plagiarism (or other academic dishonesty) do you have that aren’t discussed in the quiz?

Some of the situations in the quiz are relatively straightforward, but others led students to question policy and academic responsibility. The questions related to notes falling out from under a desk and failing to log off a computer in particular resulted in engaged conversation.

I will definitely use this discussion strategy again next term. I may also add some infographic representations of some of the basic principles that students should follow. The textbook and Honor System readings are long and dense. Highlighting some of those points in a more visual format should help emphasis the concepts. What do you do to help students understand the principles and ethics of academic research? How do you demonstrate and discuss documentation? Tell me about your practices or leave a question in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Image credit: Meme generated on the ICanHasCheezburger site.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.