Getting Students To Read

In this Teaching With Technology post I want to address an issue of interest to all instructors, those who teach online and those who teach on campus. Most college instructors will acknowledge that a rather significant problem exists on their campuses: Students simply don’t read the assigned material. Or, if they do, it is a superficial reading that produces little integration with long-term memory. OK, we’ve all had well-prepared students who completed the assigned readings before class and who were eager to discuss the ideas in class. But in my 30 years of teaching in a community college, those students typically constitute a distinct minority.

Some of my colleagues report – and I’ve heard it too – that students often ask questions such as “Do we really have to buy the book?” and “Will you be covering the important parts in class?” Not the type of questions that reassure us that these students are taking the reading requirement seriously! While there is considerable variation across disciplines, informal estimates BY “Do, the describes a rubric she developed to evaluate student performance. An important component of this rubric involves reading assigned material before class.

  • Maryellen Weimer in “Getting Students to Read” refers to a “quiz mechanism” that changed students reading behavior. (I have used the clickers in a pretest/post-test format with some success.)
  • Culver & Morse in “Helping Students Use Their Textbooks More Effectively” begin by stating “Most college students spend little time reading their texts.” They then provide a list of suggestions that encourage students to read more. While there is nothing revelatory about their suggestions, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of good ideas such as the following:

    1. State your requirements for the text on the syllabus.
    2. Communicate your expectations regarding the text frequently.
    3. Make it clear that textbook reading requires effort. (Students think that reading the text material quickly once is sufficient. It isn’t.)
    4. Use the text in class.

    What strategies have you found helpful in getting students to read?


  • The Course Syllabus

    hammockMost full-time faculty, at Palomar College anyway, no longer teach summer school classes. Now I’m not suggesting that they are spending the summer resting comfortably in a hammock – with a tropical drink close by – but it’s probably safe to say that most are not thinking of their fall semester syllabus right now!

    With fall semester about two months away, though, now may be a good time to reflect on changing our syllabus for next semester. This post doesn’t really feature technology or relate to online education, instead, this time I want to comment on two very different approaches to structuring a course syllabus. While each approach was highly successful, according the the respective authors, the approaches differ in tone and emphasis. I’ll attempt a brief description of each and list the links to the resource for anyone interested in following up.

    In A Behavior Contract That Made A Difference, Lori Norin and Tom Walton describe their list of behavioral expectations that they ask students to read carefully and then sign. Norin and Walton reported that ” . . . the contract positively impacted retention and behavior in the classroom as observed by us and noted by our dean.” Students, too, reacted positively,because the contract spelled out the rules of the class as well as consequences for not following the rules. The authors state that colleagues of theirs began using similar contracts and have also reported better retention and classroom behavior as a result. What is this “contract?”

    The contract Norin and Walton distribute to their students consists of some 21 rules or expectations that the professors have regarding student behavior. The contract reported in their report was a departmental one and individual instructors have the right to revise the departmental one (item 20: “I understand that each professor may add additional rules in writing to this departmental document.”). Rule 17 specifies that cell phones must be turned off or turned to vibrate and the professor may enforce a consequence for ringing or texting during class. Rule 18 prohibits iPods or MP3 players in class. Other rules cover attendance,assignments, electronic communications, and plagiarism. While expectations for student behavior were explicitly identified, I did not see any comparable statement regarding the instructor’s behavior. Maybe in another document? If not, I think students could justifiably request a similar statement of expectations regarding the professor’s behavior for the class.

    The second approach as detailed in Making A Syllabus More Than A Contract by Roxanne Cullen was very different. Cullen’s motivation for revising her syllabus was “to create a more learner-centered academic experience.” In this approach the syllabus became a document with three main categories and several subcategories. The first main category, Community, “includes subcategories that relate to the accessibility of the teacher, the presence of learning rationale, and evidence of collaboration.” The second category is labeled Power and Control and “the subcategories focus on teacher and student roles; use of outside resources, and the general focus of the syllabus . . .” The intent of this part of the syllabus is to focus on student learning outcomes. Here some accommodation to students is evident: for example, opportunities may exist to negotiate “policies, procedures, assignment choice, etc.” The third category Evaluation and Assessment, “subcategories examine the use of grades, the feedback mechanisms employed, types of evaluation, learning outcomes, and opportunities for revising or redoing assignments.”

    The tone and emphasis of these two different approaches to communicating expectations to students couldn’t be more different. The first is a tough love approach – we know what works best, here are the rules, follow them and you’ll be successful – that provides clear, precise guidelines for behavior and asks students to sign a behavior contract. The second is far more democratic and collaborative. At one point Cullen states that she wanted her guidelines to “look less like arbitrary laws set down by the teacher and more as though they served enhanced learning.” Significantly, Cullen states that “The most significant change I made was in the area of power and control. Instead of establishing an attendance policy, class participation rules, or penalties for late work, I indicated that all of these would be negotiated by the class.” Would this approach encourage more student ownership and buy-in and, therefore, more engagement and commitment? Or would it encourage an attempt by students to make the class as easy as possible?

    Well there we have it – two very different attempts to create a classroom conducive to student learning and higher retention. Both are reported to work well. Which approach seems more sensible to you? Or can we combine the best of both approaches?

    Wikipedia in College: A Bad Idea?

    I have had recurring discussions with my colleagues regarding our students’ use of Wikipedia in their writing projects. Some of my colleagues, whose opinions I respect a great deal, categorically forbid their students from using Wikipedia in research-based writing projects. Others will allow some use of Wikipedia references provided those are not the majority of references cited by the students. Still other professors take the position that Wikipedia articles are more likely to be accurate than other encyclopedias because of the open and ongoing nature of the way content in Wikipedia is edited, so, to the extent that encyclopedias are ok, Wikipedia is probably the best choice.

    With these thoughts in mind, I was particularly interested to read an interesting report by John Orlando, Ph.D. titled “Wikipedia in the Classroom: Tips for Effective Use”. Dr. Orlando begins his article by stating: “Most academics consider Wikipedia the enemy and so forbid their students from using Wikipedia for research. But here’s a secret that they don’t want you to know—we all use Wikipedia, including those academics.” I think he’s probably right that most of us in academia do use Wikipedia – at least occasionally. And why not? After all, Wikipedia is constantly being scrutinized by knowledgeable people, many in academia, who are eager to ferret out any inaccuracies.

    In a widely publicized report,the well respected journal Nature compared Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica online and found that “In the end,the journal [Nature] found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.” Not surprisingly, Encyclopedia Britannica objected to the results and Nature responded by saying they stood by their results and would not print a retraction.

    The part of Orlando’s article that was of most interest to me was his report of how Professor Beasley-Murray used Wikipedia with his class. Professor Beasley-Murray challenged his students to create articles that would be accepted by Wikipedia and – this was a key part of the challenge – students whose articles earned a Wikipedia rating of “Good Article” would receive an A in the course and any student whose article received a Wikipedia rating of “Featured Article” would receive an A+. This was a pretty high bar as, according to Wikipedia, 1 in 359 articles reach “Good Article” status, as judged by impartial reviewers and only 1 in 1150 is given the “Featured Article” designation. The students in Beasley-Murray’s class were clearly engaged by the project as, Orlando reports, “The students, who worked in groups of two or three, produced three Featured Articles and eight Good Articles, an exceptional result given how few articles achieve these levels.”

    Also, with respect to building student interest and engagement by employing Wikipedia, Orlando describes other Wikipedia projects: “One interesting site is Wikiversity, which provides a space for hosting courses or other content. An instructor can build a course page with syllabi, lesson plans, and other material for the students to access whenever they need it. That page can also be linked to other educational material such as videos.

    Best yet, students can be given editing access to the page to add their own material. Groups can be assigned to add material to the course, such as resources for further exploration of the topics. Another option is to have the students build self-tests on the material using free web-based quiz functions for future students. This will enlist the students in an ongoing project of developing knowledge that outlives their particular class and is passed on to future generations of students.”

    Wikipedia in the classroom – maybe not for everybody, but maybe an idea worth considering. What do you think?

    Wikipedia in the Classroom: Tips for Effective Use
    Researching With Wikipedia
    Nature responds to Britannica’s claim of bias

    Assessing Your Online Class

    Spring semester 2010 has just concluded and it’s way too early to begin planning for summer school! Or, maybe it’s not too early. In this blog post I want to share an interesting list of tips for doing an online class the right way. This list of tips or suggestions was developed at Humboldt State University and is titled
    A Checklist for Facilitating Online Courses.”

    The checklist identifies four important roles for an online instructor: managerial, pedagogical, social, and technical. For each of those roles the checklist lists specific tasks. In addition, the checklist groups the specific tasks by the time in the semester in which they should be done. For example, in the Before The Class Begins time period, a list of managerial, pedagogical, social, and technical tasks that should be considered before the class starts are presented. Other tasks in each category are associated with During The First Week, Throughout The Course,and During The Final Week.

    A major value of this “best practices” guideline is that it helps us to think through the process of delivering a robust,well thought-out online class. If you take the time to go through the document you will undoubtedly get some good ideas about things to include in your online class. And even if you decide not to use many of the ideas in this guideline, just reading through them will almost certainly stimulate you to think of other things to do in your online class.

    What are some of your “best practices” tips – one or two things you’ve found to be very successful in your online class?

    Blackboard Faculty Spotlight

    During 2009 and Spring 2010, the Palomar Academic Technology Committee (ATC), in response to ACCJC recommendations, embarked on a series of related projects to establish processes that would ensure the quality of online classes.

    Ensure Quality of Online Classes

    The Academic Senate requested that the ATC devise some means of validating that instructors were prepared and able to develop a high quality online class. The first step involved reaching agreement about what constituted an “Accomplished” or high quality online class. An ATC workgroup researched the literature to discover published best practices and to review what other colleges and universities had done to assess the quality of their online classes. Combining several well reviewed assessment rubrics, an ATC workgroup developed an “Online Class Validation Checklist.” This checklist is intended to assess 5 important areas of an online class:

    1. Online organization and design,
    2. Interaction,
    3. Appropriate use of technology,
    4. Universal Access, and
    5. Assessment and Evaluation.


    Once the full ATC had endorsed the checklist we devised a pilot-test during Spring 2010 in which we assessed 6 current online classes using this checklist. The full ATC participated in this pilot-test evaluation. The result was that the checklist was deemed useful in assessing the quality of online classes but it required some modification. The most extensive modification was to Category 4: Universal Access; this category was revised to reflect current universal access practices.

    I’ll have more to say about this “online class validation” process in a later blog but here I want to focus on the high quality of the online classes that we looked at. Of course to be candid, the people who volunteered to have their online courses assessed, in all likelihood, believed that their courses were well developed – and they were right! All the classes the committee reviewed were developed using the Blackboard system,the course management system used at Palomar.

    Representative of the excellent online classes offered at Palomar College is an Introduction to Sociology class taught by Professor Terry Humphrey. Terry’s Introduction to Sociology class illustrates many of the best practices that contribute to an effective and accomplished online class. I’ll highlight a couple of these features here and encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to view the video interview with Terry in which she shows her course and describes her intent in developing it. Terry’s course did an excellent job in the following areas I thought:

    • Structure and Organization – the course was organized on a weekly basis,with all the assignments, tasks, writing, quizzes, discussion board and so on grouped by weekly folders; students knew exactly what was required of them each week
    • Good use of Announcements – Terry posted announcements on a regular basis, calling the students’ attention to important details; she also made a practice of emailing those announcement directly to students (an automatic option in Blackboard) and this she felt made a big different in terms of student involvement
    • Regular and varied assessments – student learning was assessed in a variety of ways which gave students the best opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned

    It seems like the things that produce the best learning outcomes in an on-campus class are the same things that work in an online class: engaging learning activities, regular assessment and feedback, and an involved instructor who values and rewards student participation. No secret here and it’s encouraging to know that it can be done with online students as effectively as with on-campus students.

    Interview with Terry Humphrey about her online class

    Online Class Validation Checklist

    Online Cheating

    With final exams coming up soon I want to return to a topic that virtually all online instructors struggle with: how to provide fair, convenient, comprehensive tests to online students.

    Academic cheating has always existed of course and some reports suggest that the extent and scope of the problem has increased over the last few decades. Kitahura and Westfall (2007) provide these data:

    • a 1999 survey – over 75% of college students “admitted to some form of cheating;”
    • a 2002 survey – 74% of high school students admitted to cheating;
    • a 2003 national survey – 41% of students said plagiarism occurred “often” or “very often.”

    Online instructors are particularly sensitive to the issue of academic cheating as, by its very nature, distance education implies less control and physical contact with students. Take, for example, the fact that it is not uncommon for friends or family members to register for the same online course. Does this increase the likelihood of cheating? Not necessarily but it does make it more convenient if the students were so inclined.

    So, given that cheating is a long-standing reality, and that it is more difficult to detect in an online course, what can an online instructor do to increase academic honesty? Well, actually, quite a lot.

    Here are some practical measures online instructors have taken to reduce cheating.

    • Write a personal letter to your students about the topic (see link to example letter below)
    • Explain to your students exactly what plagiarism and academic dishonesty are
    • Include a statement in your syllabus of your institution’s academic honesty policy and your expectations of your students
    • Require all tests to be taken on campus in a proctored environment
    • Require all tests to be proctored by an authorized supervisor (e.g. Company Commander for soldiers in Iraq)
    • Require some tests to be taken in a proctored environment while some can be taken online
    • Provide many small assessments of learning that are given many times throughout the course
    • If you use the Blackboard testing system there are a number of things you can do such as: specify a certain time limit for tests; create tests using the Test Manager’s “random block” tool in which students are given equivalent but different test questions; select the “one at a time” option so that students answer one question before seeing the next one; use the “no print” code that prevents students from printing tests

    secureexamSome institutions are exploring innovative uses of technology to ensure honesty. Troy University,for instance,has implemented the Securexam Remote Proctor to reduce cheating on online exams. The device consists of a video camera with a 360 degree field of view and an omnidirectional microphone. It has a fingerprint sensor in the base of the unit and connects to a USB port on the student’s computer. It is, in essence, like having a proctor in the room with the student no matter where he or she is. The results are still out on the success of this approach but it may well strike some as overkill. My preference is more toward educating the student about academic honesty and plagiarism and then providing numerous assessment options at weekly intervals throughout the term. I would be very interested in hearing your views on this issue.

    Promoting Academic Integrity in Online Distance Learning Courses
    Letter To My Students

    Social Networks and Loneliness

    David DiSalvo in Scientific American Mind January/February 2010, examines linkages among social networking, social anxiety, narcissism, and loneliness among other topics. DiSalvo makes the observation that “As social networks proliferate, they are changing the way people think about the Internet, from a tool used in solitary anonymity to a medium that touches on questions about human nature and identity: who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and how we act toward one another.”

    Some of the early conclusions about people who used the internet for social interaction claimed that the experience made people even lonelier. Social networks were robbing people of face-to-face interactions, promoting more disconnection and isolating people from healthy relationships this argument went.

    More recent, better controlled studies have shown this ominous prediction to be unfounded. A 2006 study by University of Sydney psychologists ” . . . found that the amount of time spent interacting online is unrelated to higher levels of anxiety or depression – typical cohorts of loneliness.” A 2008 study by California State University, Los Angeles psychologists found much the same thing “Neither total amount of time spent online nor time spent communicating online correlated with increased loneliness.”

    What was particularly interesting to me was that while social networks don’t make people more lonely,they also don’t make people less lonely. This finding was established with studies that used imaging techniques to examine the human brain while people viewed both positive and negative images. People who scored high on a loneliness measure were shown to have a greater brain response to unpleasant images of people,”suggesting the attention of lonely people is especially drawn to human distress.” The point is that they carry this mindset with them when they visit social networks: someone who doesn’t respond immediately to their chat post must be ridiculing them behind their back, only having 15 or 20 online friends when others have 50 or 60 must mean that people really don’t like them, and so on.

    The conclusion in this line of research seemed to be that “the social networkers who fare the best are the ones who use the technology to support their existing friendships.” It seems that we bring our real life persona online with us; people with poor social skills might try to become outgoing and friendly online but will have a difficult time maintaining that unfamiliar persona. “Social networks might not make people anxious and fearful, but if they feel that way to begin with, others will know soon enough.” There is a lot more to say about the influence of social networks, but that’s enough for now!

    Twitter in Academia?

    My teaching with technology comment this time was stimulated by a conversation I had with another instructor who knew I teach online classes. His daughter was going to take a class at Palomar and he asked my opinion about online versus on-campus classes. After listing the pros and cons of taking an online class, I concluded by saying “If someone can take a class online or on-campus, I almost always recommend that he/she take an on-campus class.” The reason is that the social dynamic in an on-campus class cannot easily be replicated in an online class.

    Shortly after having that conversation I read an article published in the Journal of Information Systems about using Twitter in higher education. We’ve all heard or read about people using Twitter to comment about immediate, ongoing events such as during natural disasters and political events but is there a place for Twitter in education? After all, the 140 character limit that Twitter imposes encourages short, ungrammatically constructed posts and discourages deeper, reflective discussions. Or so I thought.

    After reading some articles about how professors are using Twitter in higher education though, I am starting to change my mind. I’ll mention two articles that influenced me to reconsider my bias against using Twitter in higher education.

    Dunlap and Lowenthal in Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence, argue that Twitter can be a valuable tool to increase “social presence” in an online class and point out the positive correlations that exist between (a) social presence and student engagement in the class and (b) with student satisfaction in the class. The authors cite 10 constructive ways they have used Twitter in their online class. One example: A student, puzzled by something she read in the textbook or with a class assignment, tweets (posts) her question to the class from her mobile phone. within 10 minutes she receives two clarifying responses. The ability to tweet and receive tweets from anywhere is very powerful.

    Dave Parry, blogging at AcademHack,was initially very skeptical about using Twitter in education,and now argues for its educational value. Parry uses Twitter with his on-campus class and provides a number of examples of how he believes Twitter has enhanced the students’ experience of the class. One of the first observations Parry made was that communications among students increased – both inside and outside the classroom as a result of Twitter. Parry found that Twitter enabled students to develop “more productive classroom conversations” and become more engaged with each other, both inside and outside of the classroom.

    Bottom line for me: While not yet ready to drink the Twitter cool-aid, I now see how others have used it to promote their educational goals and I am ready to experiment with it myself. What are your views: To tweet or not to tweet?

    Audio of Blog:

    Getting To Know Students

    Many professors make an effort to get to know their students – at least as many of them as they can. Educational research supports this effort as many studies have found that developing a personal connection with the course instructor is more influential to student success than a class with great content but a remote or unapproachable instructor. And when students rave about a wonderful class they took, they are almost always talking about the instructor more than the content.

    While many techniques exist to help on-campus instructors get to know their students, it is a little more difficult with online students. One of the Blackboard tools I have found to be helpful is the student homepage. Student homepages allow students to introduce themselves, comment on their academic pursuits, hobbies, and so on. They can upload a photo and personalize the page by adding favorite web sites. Other students can visit the student homepages and discover common interests they share with their classmates, develop friendships, form study groups, or even agree to carpool to on-campus classes. I ask students – in both my online and on-campus classes – to develop their student homepages as it allows me to review them and even print them for a class record. It is an easy way for me to find out things about my students that I probably wouldn’t discover otherwise.

    See the following “How-To” video if this idea interests you.

    [vodpod id=Video.2893856&w=425&h=350&]

    First Day of Class

    When I first started teaching a Palomar College I asked one of the senior professors in my departmentwhat he did the first day of class. He said “Oh, you just hand out the syllabus and tell them to go buy their books.” Many years later and now a senior professor myself, I recognize this as very poor advice.

    So, with the first day of the new semester right around the corner, I would like to offer some different words of advice to consider. First as many have observed, we only have one chance to make a first impression. With that in mind consider the following points gleaned from surveys of successful instructors who were asked what they would advise instructors to do the first day of class.

    • visit the classroom a week before class to make sure it is set up the way you want and has the equipment (i.e. data projector and internet) you’ll need
    • arrive early the first day and write your name and course name on the board
    • begin by introducing yourself and telling the students a little bit about yourself
    • be well organized and prepared: explain the course organization, requirements, assignments, and policies – it is a mistake to simply direct students to “read the syllabus”
    • on the first day use some of the teaching methods you will use throughout the semester such as giving a short lecture, showing a video clip and asking for responses, arrange small group discussions if you do this during your classes, use the “clickers” to get students actively involved right from the beginning – give students a good idea of what your class will be like
    • make sure you use the full amount of class time as this communicates that class time is valuable and something important will be accomplished each class period

    What about with large lecture classes? See the videos linked below to observe how one award-winning professor handles large classes (the link will open in a new window).

    Welcoming Students on the First Day