About kate marshall

I work for the Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence at Texas Christian University. I am interested in technology, teachers, learners, and pedagogy - and the relationship(s) among these four. I also like cooking, knitting, and running (alas, in that order!).

Guest Post: High Stakes vs. Low Stakes Writing

This post is the fourth in our series of guest blog posts by graduate instructors Kassia Waggoner and Christopher Foreé about the ways they use blogs in their classes (first post; second post; third post). Kassia is an English PhD student who studies rhetorical approaches to 20th Century American Literature. Christopher is an English PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition researching civic literacy in the classroom and the civic mission of the university. His blog and links to his students’ blogs can be found at tcucivicliteracy.wordpress.com.

The majority of students who file into our writing classrooms often approach the subject with apprehension and/or dread. The fear of being required to write a college essay generates a palpable anxiety for many students. Our students have been trained to see writing as a “high stakes” activity. In fact the moment the essay is assigned, many students want to know what’s it worth or how much does it count towards my final grade? Students have been conditioned to assess the stakes of the writing they have been asked to complete for class. The real question they are asking is does this writing matter?

The conventional wisdom dictates that high stakes writing—like the college essay—matters, while low stakes writing—possibly observation memos, lab reports, or journal entries—don’t matter as much by both student definitions and the ways we choose to grade or respond to the work. We believe blogging assignments bridge the divide between low and high stakes writing. Blogging assignments often matter because they are both public and personal. Our students have a vested interest in saying something about the subjects they have chosen to blog about. However, students often feel this type of writing mirrors other forms of low stakes writing. Many times students view low stakes writing assignments as less concerned with the actual writing (focused on grammar, form, or style) and more invested in the information or ideas communicated. The result often represents thoughtful and engaged writing achieved without the typical anxiety or hand wringing that accompanies more formal assignments.

Peter Elbow suggests we should “assign lots of low stakes writing, students are much less liable to be held back by fear or inability to put what they know on paper when they come to high stakes writing.”[1] Elbow sees low stakes writing as a way to for students to work out ideas or concepts without the worry of getting the answer wrong. We would contend that blogging achieves these goals, but also provides the opportunity for the low stakes writing to generate a dialogue between the writer and reader. Students get to put their ideas on paper, but also possibly see how the reader reacts or responds to the writing.

In Chris’s class, students are actively encouraged to rewrite and revise their blog posts and many students generate a series of blogs that are in conversation with the other writers in the class. This low stakes writing becomes a collaborative exercise and students often find themselves teaching one another. In Kassia’s class, students blog about topics that may not be considered “formal” essay questions in favor of topics valuing personal experience and real-world examples. For instance, in her literature class, students are asked to find links to news reports or articles that pertain to the subject being discussed in class and explain how these outside readings are making connections to class readings. At other times, they may be asked to explain how they personally relate to the literature. In either case, students feel more comfortable expressing their opinions in a “safe” space rather than having to write for a test.

Elbow clearly sees a role for both low stakes and high stakes writing in the classroom environment. However there are clear benefits to incorporating low stakes projects in your syllabus, including:

  • Students can become more invested in the subject matter of a course through low stakes writing and find their own language to discuss issues. While we might not assign a paper for every unit or topic, we can assign a short, low stakes assignment to gauge student comprehension.
  • Because low stakes writing is often condensed or more focused, students produce writing with a more clear and lively voice.
  • Frequent low stakes writing assignments can improve high stakes writing assignments proving the old adage “practice makes perfect.” Students become more comfortable with the writing process.
  • Low stakes writing can help educators understand how students understand the course material and use the information we are presenting. Low stakes writing assignments can serve as a mirror to our teaching.
  • Consistently assigned low stakes writing assignments can be used to encourage students to keep up with reading.
  • Finally, Elbow believes some low stakes writing should be “zero response” assignments. These projects do not require or call for instructors to respond to the writing, but only noting the completion. Students need to understand they’re being read but don’t have to navigate a response from a teacher.

While these benefits are not solely designed for blog assignments, we clearly see how having our students blog can achieve these goals easily. Blogging becomes low stakes writing when designed with these outcomes in mind. In our classes …

  • Students control the topics of the blogs, but they must demonstrate some subject mastery in how these topics are discussed or how they formulate the post.
  • Students write very clearly within a narrowly defined topic—often defined by their own passion or interests. We have students effectively develop an authentic sense of voice through these projects.
  • Students don’t seem to dread blog writing and often evaluate these projects as their favorite type of writing. We have both had students comment that blogging helped them produce better essays.
  • Finally, we enjoy reading their blog posts and participating in the conversation. Their passion makes assessing the assignment more enjoyable and both of us find we often limit the way we respond to these exercises. Too often instructors feel compelled to over-respond to students, but the inherent nature of the blog has helped us be more concise and targeted when commenting on our students’ work.

We hope everyone has enjoyed our thoughts on blogging as an alternative to the traditional writing assignment, and we hope you’ll consider assigning a blog in the future.

To see other perspectives on low stakes and high stakes writing, watch…


[1] “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” by Peter Elbow. New Directions For Teaching And Learning, No. 69, Spring 1997

Social Media for Teaching and Learning

Nearly 8,000 professors were surveyed about their own social media habits, their use of social media as an instructional tool, and their perceptions about the way their students use social media. Pearson* and the Babson Survey Research Group conducted the survey, and Edudemic has posted the results and the infographic below.

Looking the results and thinking about my own experiences, I have a couple of questions.

First, I’d love to know more about how professors are using social media, not just which forms of social media are being used most frequently. In particular, I’m wondering about the intensity of use. Sure, Facebook can be a teaching tool if you accept friend requests from your students; but if you’re holding Facebook chat hours and supervising a class Facebook page where your students are also posting, well, then, you’re really using Facebook as a teaching tool.

As an aside, I’ll share that I recently ran into a professor who joined LinkedIn primarily to connect with alumni of her current institution. Her goal was to find participants for a career panel in order to demonstrate how her department’s major can lead to a variety of exciting careers. Social media: it’s not just for teaching, it’s also for mentoring.

Second, regarding students and social media, this survey hits on something that I’ve been mulling over lately: the tension between the benefit of having students write for a larger audience and the cost in terms of a loss of privacy for the students. It does strike me as reasonable that if we are asking students to wrestle with big ideas, we ought to also allow for the protections that privacy affords as students refine their thoughts. And yet, research demonstrates that writing for an audience beyond the classroom has clear advantages. I’m interested in hearing what others think about this issue.

(click to enlarge)

social media statistics - faculty us climbing, conerns about privacy remain.Source: http://www.edudemic.com/social-media-in-education/

*While Pearson is the company behind LearningStudio (which we use here at TCU), there’s no larger connection between Pearson and this blog post.

Trick or Treat!

I am not a fan of scary movies, so I can’t say whether the link below is more treat or more trick. It is, however, free multimedia online.

Four Horror Classics Free Online

Boo!

If you’re looking for video that more closely reflects accepted science, check out this sweet animation about why studying physics is worthwhile.

Just as a reminder, here is blog post with more information about using videos in your course as well as the Koehler Center list of internet streaming video resources.

Getting the most out of PDFs

I wanted to pass along two great resources for helping you get the most out of PDFs. (This is a topic near and dear to my heart: I’m a bit of a PDF hoarder. Between work-related items, research articles, and knitting patterns, my computer desktop always has a healthy number of PDFs on it!)

1) Twelve Powerful PDF Tools. This article lists some helpful PDF resources.

I’m especially intrigued by PageFlipFlap, which turns PDFs into flippable book pages. You simply upload your PDF and then wait for an email with a link to your content. You can view the flip book on your computer, share the output to social media, or embed it on your website using the code provided. The service is free – and seemingly without limit to the number of documents or pages in your document (as long as you are wiling to tolerate some advertising). One other thing to note: PageFlipFlap uses flash. Sorry, iDevice users.

I’ve used BlogBooker in the past, and can attest to the fidelity of the PDF provided. This is a great way to archive a class blog. I love that it captures images and comments. Best, the PDFs it generates are purely your blog’s content without advertising or information about BlogBooker itself. To use this, you need to be the administrator of the blog in question, since BlogBooker generates the PDF file from the export file provided to blog admins by most blogging platforms.

Check out the rest of the PDF options!

2.  Annotating PDFs. It’s really helpful to be able to highlight or add commentary and notes to PDFs (see our earlier review of Highlighter for a social / course-based component to PDF annotations).

Looking through my own notes, I ran across a Profhacker article recommending the app PDFpen. It might be as amazing as the author contends – in particular, the OCR feature to convert items into searchable text does seem really useful for some researchers – but I’m cheap. Thus, unless I’m really going to use all the features, the $14.99 iPad / $60.00 Mac price tag is a bit steep.

My old standby, iAnnotate, is only $2.99 and works well with the iPad. For those looking to economize even more, Skim is free PDF annotation software for Mac computers.

I’m always on the hunt for new tools – what do you use to annotate PDFs? Moreover, what neat and new things are you doing with PDFs? Share away in the comments!

Request Your Spring 2014 LearningStudio Course Shells

TCU faculty, it’s that time again!

Request A Shell
Faculty* will go to http://www.my.tcu.edu to make requests. A new, blank course shell will be created as a result of this request.

If you are team teaching, please have the lead faculty member request your course (and any additional sections) to prevent duplicate requests.

Use the HOW TO INSTRUCTIONS to walk you through the new process.

*Only faculty assigned to a course may make the request. Please use Class Search for class information and to confirm your assignment. If you find that you are not assigned to your course, please contact your department.

More information is available on the Koehler Center website.

Easy Scheduling with Doodle

We’ve reached the point in the semester where it’s time for review sessions, discussions of in-progress projects, and other small-group meetings with students. Suddenly, office hours are getting a lot busier!

Perhaps you’re considering adding extra office hours. But which times? And how will you know that students really intend to come and see you?

Introducing Doodle, an easy, free, online scheduling tool. Best, no account set-up is required for the organizer or the attendees. An organizer simply enters the days and times available for meetings. Additional settings allow for if-need-be dates, confidential replies, limiting the number of time-slot selections attendees can make, and limiting the number of attendees per time slot.

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Schedule availability is then published on the web as an interactive form.

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You can send the link to the Doodle through your own email, or create an account and enter the email addresses of potential attendees to have Doodle send the link automatically. As an aside, if you do create a free account, Doodle will sync with calendars on Outlook, Yahoo, Google, and iCal.

As the organizer, you have a separate link that permits you to edit the Doodle.

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Free accounts have advertising, but the ads are pretty unobtrusive. The premium account allows you to collect email addresses and phone numbers of potential attendees, send reminders, sync with iCloud, and use themed designs.

Of course, there are always those students whose schedules render them unable to attend your office hours. With Doodle, you’ll be able to see that – thanks to the “Cannot make it” button – so you can reach out to those students individually.

Students working on group projects or forming study groups can also use Doodle for their own scheduling purposes. This is a great tool to share with them as you introduce resources to help them with their group projects.

Likewise, Doodle can help you coordinate faculty schedules, making it easy to schedule committee meetings or even meals and meetings on the sidelines of professional conferences.

(h/t NorthStarNerd)

Online Exams in Pearson LearningStudio

First, a secret: although this task goes by the moniker “exam,” you can use a exam content item to give much lower-stakes assessments like weekly quizzes or reading checks. (Hey, I didn’t promise you it would be a juicy secret, did I?)

I’m addressing online exams today as a result of reading a very informative post about online quizzes from the Academic Technology blog at the College of William and Mary. They are a Blackboard school, so the post discusses quizzes in Blackboard – but all of their wise words are equally true for Pearson LearningStudio users here at TCU.

In particular, they list five reasons to use online quizzes: 1) Flipping the classroom’s low-hanging fruit; 2) Easier than clickers; 3) Students do a lot for a few points; 4) Instant gratification; and 5) Self-scoring. I’d encourage you to go and read their supporting points for each reason.

I’d like to address points 1 & 5, however. Using class time efficiently and in a manner that honors each student’s current abilities is always challenging; this is doubly true for prep time. Online quizzes / exams / reading checks give you the opportunity to move the less interactive pieces of instruction out of the classroom, meaning that you can devote your time with the students to more robust and individualized active learning experiences. After all, waiting for that last handful of students to finish their quizzes means that the rest of the class is, well, waiting.

But if I move items online, will students cheat? They key is asking some questions that go beyond rehashing the reading. What would another scholar say about the reading? What piece of evidence did the authors use? What piece of evidence – had it been found – would have falsified or strongly supported the argument? Why did the authors say they did x, y, z? What will happen if a, b, c are not present? Perhaps, in conjunction with your question design, you decide to let students consult course materials in some instances. In this case, you might stress that, while the exam is open book / note, your questions really require students to have read and thought about the content in advance. Of course, no one wants students to treat an exam or quiz as a scavenger hunt through the text. Yet, if students are consulting the reading in order to engage with your well-written, high-quality question, that seems like a reasonable scholarly pursuit.

The LearningStudio exam set-up also has the ability to pull from a question pool (so not all students will see the same questions), to randomize questions (so not all students will see the questions in the same order), to display one question per page, to prevent students from navigating back to earlier questions, to prevent / allow re-takes, and to set a time limit on the exam.

You can, indeed, have LearningStudio auto-grade the exams and auto-post the scores in the gradebook (on that last topic, this is one of our most commonly asked questions regarding exams and the gradebook). Note that you can also have LearningStudio grade the multiple-choice, true / false, and matching questions on an exam and then you can go in and grade the short answer or essay questions. Thus, you might have a two-part question in which the first part requires an answer that can be auto-graded, and the second part asks students to explain why they selected that answer. Bam! Two question reading quiz: done! The larger point, though, is that online exams need not be a fully auto-pilot enterprise: there are options for students to explain their reasoning and for professors to score those elements individually.

Intrigued? Check out our how-to documentation on LearningStudio exams. We also have video guidance on all aspects of LearningStudio exam use. For example, here’s the video on creating exams: