Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Inside The Online Cl@ssroom - Improving Discussions

Anyone who has taught online knows discussion forums sometimes illicit perfunctory, ill-considered student responses: “Good job. I agree with you.” OR “I like what you wrote. It is important.” Often the discussion goes nowhere, along with the instructor’s goal of creating an active, engaged learning environment.

Lolita Paff, associate professor of business at Penn State-Berks, offers tips for creating memorable interactions in the April 2015 edition of The Online Cl@ssroom. Paff recommends three changes to the way most discussion forums are run.

First, carefully consider the content of such discussions, making sure they are relevant and interesting to students. After all, Paff notes, “Indifference is the bane of noteworthy discussions…Online, the content may matter more because people aren’t physically together.” If students don’t connect with a topic, they will simply go through the motions, meeting the instructor’s minimum requirements. To help students engage in a topic, Paff suggests using current events, case studies, and what-if scenarios. Find ways for students to use their own research and personal reflection to provide input and ideas.

Second, creating community is vital to maintaining quality discussions. Paff endorses the idea of having a “discussion about discussions.” Have students define participation for themselves, explain why it’s important, and describe how it can bridge the distance between all class participants—professors and students.

Third, relinquish some control in online discussions, just as you would in face-to-face discussions. Paff points to research indicating that students are unlikely to participate if the professor seems to be the only source of classroom knowledge. Moreover, she remarks, “Unscripted, happenstance, and disorderly describe the lively exchanges most often remembered.” Still, Paff clarifies that online instructors must actually plan if they want online discussions to have an impromptu feel. Online instructors should scaffold discussions so that students have an increasing amount of control over what happens.

If you would like to examine Paff’s entire article or read more from The Online Cl@ssroom, a copy is available in the Center for Teaching Excellence. Stop by, visit us, and maybe even have a cup of coffee.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What About……Using the Annotated Bibliography in lieu of a Research Paper?

Many instructors want to incorporate writing assignments into their courses, but assigning a research paper seems daunting. Perhaps assigning an annotated bibliography will do the trick. 

An annotated bibliography is a method of demonstrating to readers an understanding of a topic and the research that supports it. The annotated bibliography allows students the opportunity to select a topic of study (or be assigned one) and to conduct scholarly research about it. Students then evaluate what research would effectively support a thesis concerning the topic. By locating and reading research concerning a topic of study, students must critically think through the topic, gaining perspective about the subject matter. 

After this process, students then prepare an annotated bibliography that presents a thesis and lists each piece of research deemed important to the topic. The annotated bibliography includes a summary paragraph of each research piece and an explanation as to how the research supports the thesis. In this way, the annotated bibliography will provide you with evidence that your students have read about a topic and made analysis of it. Depending on the depth of study you want from your students, the annotated bibliography might be two pages or longer. Plan to allow students several weeks to construct their annotated bibliography and encourage them to contact our librarians for additional help in locating research. The beauty of using this format is that it can easily be used with any subject matter at any time during the term, and it can be as involved as you want it to be.

For suggested tips on how to prepare this type of assignment and a sample of an annotated bibliography entry, please visit the CTE website/Teaching Tips or email Carole Kendy at

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Change-Up Your Teachable Moments with a Word Cloud

In the Environmental Science class at LCC, students will generate a lot of data while completing their labs and discussion boards.  In one assignment in the online sections, students are required to take a 20 minute walk and make a list of all of the litter they see on their trip.  It’s amazing what they find: all kinds of plastic wrappers, one shoe, and even an entire couch.  In previous semesters I would provide feedback to individual students in the gradebook but never tried summarizing the overall results.  It seemed like a wasted opportunity for “in the moment” sharing and learning.

Representing the data in a graph seemed too formal a process for this assignment (and a little too much work), so I tried out an online tool called Wordle.   Wordle is a program which takes a list of words to generate a “word cloud”, the size of the word loosely representing the number of occurrences in the complete set of text.  To create a Wordle for the students’ responses I copied all of their lists of litter and combined them into one big, messy Word document.  I then copied the text into the textbox on the website, which also lets you select a layout and color scheme. The result is a visually interesting way to represent the top 100 words found in the students’ lists.  Because of the nature of the assignment, the graphic also conveys a powerful message. 

To learn how to use Wordle or to share your ideas, visit us in the CTE or email Meg Elias at