How I Almost Undermined My Ungrading System

It seemed like a simple explanation at the time. By the time I was almost done, I realized that I had almost undermined my entire ungrading system.

This fall, I have a few hard deadlines. Most work has a grace period that does not end until the last full week of classes. For example, peer review activities have a firm deadline for technical and logistical reasons. I explain the system in my Short Guide to the course:

Firm Due Dates explanation, transcript at the link

I further explain the two rounds of peer review in a course FAQ:

How do the two rounds of peer feedback work? Do I have to do both of them?

The idea of two rounds is more to help people who are working more slowly. Nearly all students I’ve had either choose the first round or the second-chance round. I don’t remember anyone trying both, but you can. You do provide feedback to 2 other people whenever you participate (but you get feedback from 2 people too). The activity is essentially the same. It’s just the time frame that changes.

Despite the fact that information is out there, some students remained confused. I wasn’t worried. Students cannot possibly remember everything I tell them or recall where are the details are in the course documents. What did worry me was that their email messages communicated a bit of panic through comments like this one, “I missed the feedback post. Can I still achieve the grade that I want?”

My first impulse was to find a way to clarify in a way that would calm the panic (and end the extra emails I was receiving). I decided that perhaps students needed a better understanding of the expectations for the work. For the peer review work, they needed something to clarify that I only expected them to complete half of the posted activities (either the first or second opportunity).

I immediately thought, “Infographic!” and I worked up the image below. Pie charts seemed like the perfect way to express the expectations. I started with the “Complete Half” section of the graphic and then added the other sections to represent all the work in the course.

I was quite pleased with the emerging look of the graphic: very polished, and very Virginia Tech (If I do say so myself). It was that “Complete Most” section that started my teacher-senses worrying.

Activity Expectations, with transcript at link

I couldn’t decide how much of the pie chart properly represented “most” of the work in that section. Obviously more than half. And the image needed to be visually distinguishable from the Half Pie. Alternately, shading 3/4 of the pie seemed wrong too. I didn’t want a pie chart that suggested a firm number. I wanted a visual representation that was less specific. I settled on approximately 60%, as shown in the image.

I felt that the infographic was about ready to go and turned my attention to writing up the transcript. As I wrote it up, I realized that it was likely to raise more questions:

  • Exactly how many is most?
  • How many activities are there? I need to figure out if I have most of them done.
  • What if I completely only 51% of the activities? Is that most?
  • If I have 60% of the work done, can I skip the rest?
  • What happens if I don’t complete all of the activities in the “Try to Complete All” section?

As these questions bubbled up, I realized that I had almost undermined the entire system. The moment I started to put numbers on the work, I turned on the traditional grading system. Students were going to shift immediately from a focus on improvement and their best effort to an obsession with reaching the right number. And so this infographic will never be used in my courses. Instead it prompts me that I have to be careful to return students to details on the ungrading system when questions come up. I have to remind them that they are in charge of their grades. I have to turn the question to them. When a student asks, “Can I still achieve the grade that I want?” I need to remember to reply, “Are you putting in the effort that grade would require? Does your work represent your best effort?”

Transparent Feedback Strategies

A Guide to Feedback on Your Writing, with transcript at linkMy assessment this term focuses on feedback, asa part of the #ungrading approach I have adopted. Since I do not put A’s and B’s on student work, feedback is critical.

Understandably, some students are a bit nervous about this approach. In particular, they worry that they will not be able to tell what the feedback tells them about their work. Their uneasiness is a strong indication of how they have used grades to determine their accomplishment in the past. Combine their apprehension about #ungrading with the fact that every teacher provides feedback differently, and it’s little wonder they aren’t quite sure how all this feedback is going to work.

As I began adding feedback to the work they have submitted, I realized that I could tell students more about the logistics of my feedback system—and that it was in my benefit to do so for several reasons:

  • I do not comment on every piece of writing students do, but they have no way of knowing whether the lack of a comment means I haven’t seen their text or I saw it and chose to say nothing.
  • I use boilerplate for those frequently-used comments, but students do not know why I might repeat exactly the same feedback.
  • I automate some feedback in Canvas on activities that count like check-ins. If students have not done those activities, Canvas can assign them an Incomplete (or zero). They need to undertand how to use that feedback as a reminder to get the activity done.

To explain all these practices to students, I created the simple infographic on the right, with an online transcript of the text. I aimed at short and clear explanations, without expansive details on pedagogical or practical reasons for the different strategies.

I plan to share it on Tuesday, after our Labor Day holiday. I’m hoping to hear that the details help make the logistics more transparent.

Rethinking the Syllabus Quiz

Game of Thrones character Eddard Stark meme with the caption 'Brace yourself . . . a syllabus quiz is coming'Since my summer course, I have been using an #ungrading approach, built on the anti-racist assessment strategies that I used previous semesters. With such an approach, the standard syllabus quiz is a poor fit. I don’t have any interest in tricking students or torturing them with “gotcha” questions on minor details.

During the last several years, I have used a short syllabus confirmation-focused quiz. I set up a True-False series of questions that asked students to confirm they understand basic policies and course setup. Here are some examples:

  • I read and I understand the Short Guide to Technical Writing and the Technical Writing Course Manual, including all information on in the section on “Assessment & Grading Policies.”
  • I understand that this course uses Modules to organize the readings and activities for each week, and I reviewed the page that explains what a Module is in the Short Guide so that I understand how Modules work in this course.
  • I understand the details on Accessibility in this course. If I need special accommodations, I will send a message using the Canvas Inbox during the first week of the course to give you more information.

All straightforward questions, but they aren’t very engaging. Students could easily click True, True, True, down the page without reading the statements carefully or looking for more information on anything they didn’t understand.

I asked colleagues for advice on alternatives. Since my course is fully online and asynchronous, I wanted a new way to get students to read the main details. Susanmarie Harrington, from University of Vermont, suggested The Interactive Syllabus Project. Guy McHendry (Creighton University), creator of the site, explains on the About page:

</SYLLABUS> is an interactive course syllabus built on a popular survey platform. The interactive syllabus is sent to students before the first day of class. The interactive syllabus takes students through all of the material on a traditional syllabus but also asks students questions about their goals, concerns, and questions about the class empowering professors to engage students from day one.

McHendry uses Qualtrics to create the survey for his courses. I liked the approach, but wanted to avoid linking in yet another piece of software. I prefer to keep everything in Canvas and Google Docs. I attempted to set up my questions in Google Forms, but they don’t support images. Since most of the text explanations I used came from my Short Guide, I definitely wanted to keep my images.

I settled on using the Quizzes tool in Canvas. Because the New Quizzes tool has no HTML editor access, I used the classic tool in order to control the layout of the text and images with in-line CSS. The resulting questions include multiple choice and essay questions that ask students to read and respond to the policies and logistics of the course. Where the previous confirmation quiz asked students to affirm their understanding of the Modules system, my more interactive activity explained the Module system and then asked the following:

Do you feel confident about using Modules in this course?

  • I’ve used Modules before, so navigating the course should be no problem.
  • I’ve never used Modules, but I think that understand how they work.
  • I’m not sure I understand, but I’ll try it out.
  • I may need more help before I understand.

The responses students provide with their choices are much more useful than the affirmations of the previous system. Later questions ask students to explain their responses in their own words and offer them the chance to ask about anything they don’t understand. Those who responded to it in my summer course liked the system. The students in my Fall courses are taking the Syllabus Review (as I have named it) this week. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

If you would like to see the full version of the questions, check out the PDF version of the Syllabus Review.

Decoding Racist Language in Technical Writing

Yesterday’s Marketplace broadcast included a story that demonstrates the power of racist coding in less than 2.5 minutes. “Can changing home appraisal language help close the wealth gap?” examines how the word choice in home appraisals, which are essentially technical descriptions, communicates who lives in a neighborhood and impacts the value assigned to homes.

After listening to this story, technical writing students can look for similar coded language in other documents:

  • How are workplace locations described in job ads?
  • How are possible building sites described in proposals?
  • What descriptive words and phrases are used in incident reports?

These conversations can move beyond the language used to describe places to many other kinds of technical writing as well:

  • What coded language do you find in job ads? How is the kind of person wanted for the position described?
  • How are potential contractors described in RFPs and applicant analysis?
  • Is coded language used in dress codes or social media guidelines?
  • Does coded language appear in employee evaluation documents?
  • How are the words professional and professionalism used to communication information about race?

Listen to the story below or on the Marketplace website:

Making Outlines Work in Tech Writing

Beginning of an outline for a technical reportI am not a fan of outlines. I never could figure out how someone was supposed to know all the bits of their document before they wrote it. Sure you can make a working sketch of what you want to cover, but all that I. A. ii. a. stuff? How about no?

Since I have bad feelings about outlines, I didn’t ask students to do more than a jotted plan for the sections of their work. For shorter documents, I didn’t even ask for that. That all is, until recently. My experiences during spring semester and the summer term have changed my thinking. When I added a formal outline assignment to the technical recommendation report project, students were more likely to include all the required elements in their drafts.

Previously, students left sections out, combined sections, and added sections that didn’t fit the project. No matter how many times I suggested that they look at the sections in the textbook and examine the structure of the sample reports, I failed. I couldn’t consistently persuade students to use the structure appropriate for the genre.

Frustrated with the challenge, I tried explaining how I would approach such a project, providing step-by-step instructions for how to create an outline that would ensure structure of the project included all the required elements.

Whenever I am working on something with a specific structure, from a conference proposal to a formal report, I copy the required structure (or type it if it’s not something I can copy), and paste the information into my draft. Frequently, I copy any instructions, notes, or tips as well. As an example, If I were writing a proposal for the Call for Proposals: 2021 CPTSC Research Grants to Promote Anti-racist Programs and Pedagogies, I would copy everything in the “Organization of the Proposal” section, paste it into my draft, and then convert it to a formal draft with notes. The resulting outline would look something like this:

  1. Cover sheet
     Include applicant name(s), institutional affiliations, contact information for the project leader, and project abstract of no more than 200 words (this page does not count as part of the length requirements). After this cover sheet, please do not include any information that references your name or institution, so that entries can be peer reviewed without mention of names or specific institutions.
  2. Problem Statement
     Explain the problem or question that the research project is attempting to solve.
  3. Background
     Describe the significance of this question or problem by situating the proposed project in the context of current and previous program-based work in the field, drawing on field literature.
  4. Methodology
     Outline the proposed method(s) and methodology 
  5. Timeline
     Include an annotated project timeline that notes the various major research activities/tasks associated with the project, including IRB approval if necessary. (For applicable research, funding will not be released until an IRB approval or exemption has been obtained and submitted to the grants coordinator.)
  6. Budget: Include an itemized project budget. Funds may be used for research expenses only, including materials, research assistants, travel to collect or analyze data, software, etc. Funds may not be used for salary, release time, or conference travel. Institutional overhead and indirect costs are not allowed. Proposals with matching or in-kind contributions are strongly encouraged.
  7. Statement
     Include a statement that the researcher(s) understand and are willing to adhere to the requirements of the grant recipient.

The assignment I set up has students Outline Their Recommendation Reports using the same basic strategy. The assignment asks them to customize the information to their report topics, with this instruction: “Revise the basic information you have copied to make it specific to your report. Just copying over the basic outline is not enough. You need to add details that demonstrate your plans for the report.”

The results of the assignment have been fantastic. Students who completed the outline activity went on to include the required sections and in the expected order. Other activities in the unit reinforced the structure of the reports. The outline assignment does not deserve full credit, but it certainly made a good start!

Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment

Large white poster on a bulletin board with the message: Don't stress about midterms...Just study until you're too tired to feel emotion...It feels like just yesterday I was setting up my course for the summer session—and now, suddenly, midterm is upon us as we begin the third week of this six-week course. By the end of the week, students will turn in a course progress report that reflects on their accomplishments. I’m using a new ungrading approach this term (more on that in a future post), so I need to revise my progress report assignment.

I used a similar progress report assignment in previous courses, requiring students to describe their work on a research report in a memo. In those courses, students typically struggled with accomplishing the goals of the progress report assignment. I provided examples, textbook explanations, and advice from journals and blogs. Among the difficulties students faced, a majority struggled with the requirements of memo format and document design. Over several semesters, I tried providing more support, even designing a Memo Format Self-Review activity to help them get the format right. But they still struggled. I wanted to find supporting resources that worked.

The Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment I came up with for this term asks students to “Complete a progress report memo form that reports on what you have accomplished so far in the course and proposes the tentative grade you should receive for your work in the course up to midterm.” It goes on to urge students to “Use details and examples from your work logs and writing activities to support your argument.” The instructions for the assignment begin by having students gather evidence of their work in the course:

Review your work logs and gather your data. You are conducting primary research on your accomplishments in the course so far. You should find much of what you need in your Weekly Work Log. Consider these questions:

  • What work have you completed so far in the course?
  • If you have taken additional time on any assignments during the first half of the term, have you caught up? Are there still tasks that you need to complete?
  • Which document demonstrates your highest quality work so far? Why?
  • What work demonstrates that you have invested your best effort so far?
  • How have you supported classmates in your Feedback Discussions?

The rest of the assignment is probably what you would expect. It asks students to write a memo that describes and evaluates the work they have completed, proposes a tentative grade for their work so far, and outline the goals they have set for the remainder of the course. What the assignment still didn’t do however was provide a better strategy to help students with memo format and document design, the two areas I know they struggled with in the past.

I turned to the book I’m reading, James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016). Lang examines small, research-based changes teachers can make to increase student learning. As I worked on the progress report, I decided to try some of Lang’s suggestions. The assignment already incorporated interleaving, the subject of Lang’s third chapter. Interleaving folds knowledge from previous course work into the current unit. As Lang explains, interleaving “involves two related activities that promote high levels of long-term retention: (a) spacing out learning sessions over time; and (b) mixing up your practice of skills you are seeking to develop” (p. 65). The progress report asked students to use the research skills from the second week to conduct primary research on their own work logs, spacing out and practicing the skills during the third week.

While it reinforced the skills from the previous week, the progress report assignment wasn’t doing any of the connecting work that Lang examines in his fourth chapter. Lang relies on an analogy to small, disconnected islands (borrowed from George Orwell) to describe the connecting challenges that students face: They have isolated bits of knowledge and must work to find and create connections among the information and skills. They need to build bridges and shipping routes among all those disconnected islands.

The expectations for my progress report assignments during previous semesters asked students to bring all their skills to bear on a single document. They had to determine the information to report, organize it in ways that work for the audience and purpose, use document design strategies to add headings and lists, and do it all while following the requirements of the memo genre. It’s no wonder students struggled to get it all right in a single project. They had all those skills to navigate and no pathways built among them.

To help students build the connections they needed, I adapted Lang’s model of providing a framework. In Lang’s use, the teacher provides a partial outline, or framework, for the material to be covered, and students build connections as they take notes, filling in that framework. My technical writing students aren’t taking notes on content however. Their job is to apply the different skills as they produce content. I created a framework, a Progress Report Form, that students fill in with the evidence they have gathered. The accompanying Form Instructions outline the information to provide in each section of the framework.

To ensure that they are more successful with memo format and document design, the Report Form includes standard memo headings. Students don’t have to worry about setting the memo correctly; they only have to provide the specific content in the provided framework. Likewise, the body of the memo in the form has ready-made headings for the information students need to provide. The primary document organization is already there. Students only need to organize the information that they include under each heading. Finally, the framework gives them a head start on document design too with headings in a larger, maroon font and the space for the information students will add in the normal, black font. Later in the term, I’ll have students write memos without the supporting template as well as to apply their own document design strategies.

I’ll find out at the end of the week if this new framework provides students with the support they need. If it works, maybe they can avoid that midterm panic that inspires posters like the one in the image above. I’ll let you know when I review their work.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Midterm Advice by Eric E. Castro on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Rethinking the Structure of My Online Assignments

Maroon front cover of the book Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online ClassesFull of specific and practical suggestions, Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (Jossey-Bass, 2019), by Flower Darby with James M. Lang, is a book I wish I had had when I first started teaching online. I’ve read the book twice, once when I bought it in Fall 2019 and again in January of this year as part of a book club I was participating in.

Early in the book, Darby urges readers to “Create assignment instructions that provide a clear rationale for the work your students will do, as well as clear directions for how they can accomplish it successfully” (p. 15). This advice holds for any teaching format: online, face-to-face, hybrid, flipped, hyflex—any of these teaching situations will benefit from clearly articulated directions and rationale.

When I read the book again this year, I rethought my assignment structure, based on Darby’s example. In the book, Darby describes the template she has designed for her assignments, using these three headings:

  • Here’s what I want you to do: I explain the task.
  • Here’s why I want you to do it: I explain the reason this task will contribute to the student’s success in class and beyond.
  • Here’s how to do it: I provide detailed instructions, rubrics, checklists, and exemplars to help students clearly see and understand my expectations. (p. 17)

I liked the directness of Darby’s headings, though I tweaked them a bit. After a bit of experimentation this Spring Semester, I have settled on these headings:

  • Goals: a list of the course objectives addressed in the assignment. (required in our program)
  • What I Want You to Do: a brief summary of the activity and its relationship to the rest of the course activities
  • Why I Want You to Do It: the reason I have designed the assignment and how it connects to larger course goals.
  • Where You Can Find Help: a list of references to the course textbook, and links to course webpages and other resources.
  • When to Do It: Relevant due dates and how they fit into the larger course schedule
  • How to Do It: the step-by-step instructions for the assignment.
  • How to Assess and Track Your Work: the assignment criteria, and details on feedback and revision.

Three of the headings correspond to Darby’s. I added Where You Can Find Help to make the resources in the textbook and other course materials easier to find. Previously, I added these materials in the step-by-step instructions, but students had to read through those instructions to find them. The change pulls those references out into a more visible location.

Our LMS (Canvas) adds details on the due dates and deadlines at the end of every assignment, but they are simple dates with no explanation. I added the When to Do It section so that I could explain the specifics of the suggested due date, the grace period, and the last day the work is accepted. All that information is in the LMS notation, but students have to understand the jargon that the system uses. I prefer to explain in plain English to avoid any confusion.

Finally, I added the section on How to Assess and Track Your Work, to provide links to activity checklists as well as peer review guidelines and assignments. Since I use an #ungrading approach, students need reminders on how the system works and what they need to do to track the work that they put into the course.

I know that is a lot of sections to develop for each writing assignment and class activity, but I hope it will guide students to the information that they need quickly. Now I just have to convert all my assignments so that they consistently use this structure before the Summer I Session starts on May 24!

 

White Paper Assignment Series

Black person typing on a laptop, at a wooden table with notebooks, coffee cup, and phoneI just updated a series of assignments related to writing a white paper, in response to a colleague’s request. The series includes a series of four assignments, which are listed and linked at the bottom of the Overview page. Students also wrote a short, informal progress report, which is not included.

Students worked through all of the assignments with few major challenges when I taught this series. The assignments connected relatively well, but the projects had the typical issues I see when assignments are not as authentic as possible. Specifically, the imaginary companies students created were not always an exact match for the projects. When I teach this series again, I will pay more attention to the Info Sheet assignment and ask students to change companies if they do not fit the expectations.

Another challenge, students were required to make up information for some of the writing projects. In more authentic writing scenarios, all the details would be established and known. If you choose to use this series, I encourage you to make the activities more authentic.

Photo credit: pxfuel, used under public domain

Do You Know Where To Find The Answers?

Students are accustomed to the campus classroom, where the teacher is available regularly to remind them how to find the resources that they need to complete activities in a course.

Instructure’s Trenton Goble suggests the five questions on this infographic “as the foundation for improving communication processes—wherever and however learning happens.” Goble is addressing K–12 teachers, so I adapted the purpose of the questions to address the needs of college students.

Every teacher uses Canvas differently. My answers to these five questions tell students how I use Canvas tools in my course.

Infographic: Do You Know Where To Find the Answers?
Click image for larger version.

You can use the infographic as is, if it fits the needs of your course. It’s shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial Share-Alike 4.0 International License.

If you need to tweak the infographic to work for your course, visit the template on Canva (a drag-and-drop web-based design tool). You will need to create a free Canva login to customize the image.

If you do use the infographic, remember to also provide a transcript for students who cannot view the image. I handle this transcript by repeating the text beside the image itself, as you can see on this page from my current Technical Writing course.

This text version of the infographic gives you another option for sharing these ideas with the students you teach. You can also skip the infographic altogether, copy and customize the text from the transcript (linked above), and publish the resulting version as an Announcement in Canvas.

Infographic ceated on Canva.com. Transcript at tracigardner.com/fivequestions. Images from The Noun Project Pro. Inspired by Trenton Goble’s “Fundamental Five: A Framework for Improving Communication Processes.” Content text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial Share-Alike 4.0 International License.

This post originally published on the Teaching Online 911 blog.

How to Restore Deleted Files in Canvas

My favorite hidden feature in Canvas is the ability to restore files and other resources that you have deleted.

Warnings:

  • Warning IconThe tool is not 100% effective, so be cautious when you remove information from your course.
  • The tool only restores your content. Any related student submissions or responses may not be restored.

Use these instructions to restore items in your course:

  • Navigate to the Home page of the course where the file previously existed.
  • Click in the address bar in your browser after the course number:
    Link in Browser Address Bar
  • Remove any other information in the address bar.
  • Type /undelete after the course number in the address bar:
    Browser Address Bar with /undelete Added
  • Press Enter, and the browser will load a page with files and other resources that have been deleted from the course:
    Restore Deleted Items Page
  • Find the item in the list that you want to restore.
  • Click the Restore button next to the item you want to restore:
    Restore button on Restore Deleted Items page
  • Click the OK button, and the item will be restored:
    Confirmation Dialog on Restore Items Page with OK button

This post originally published on the Teaching Online 911 blog.