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In my last blog post, we talked about the role of structuring an instructor's presence in asynchronous online classes. Today we will talk about how to develop a sense of community among students.

For some instructors, having students get to know each other in a face to face class might not be a goal, but it is for me. I teach at a small school and was vexed when, years ago, I was talking to a student who did not know "Joe" in our class. This, despite that "Joe" talked a lot in class, and I call on students by name. After that conversation, I set as a goal for every class that I teach that all students interact with each other and get to know each other. While it might seem like in an online asynchronous class that would  be harder to achieve, I have found the opposite to be true.

My classes always begin online with a "get to know you" week of introductions. The discussion boards for that week include prompts to get students  to introduce where they are from, their major, and why they took the class. While this is not the most robust of conversations that I'll likely read during the semester, it sets the tone.

I tell my  students that they must show a "sustained and persistent  presence in the course through their posts  in the discussion boards." They must answer the discussion prompts for themselves - their idea - and then also comment or ask questions of each other in a way that shows their engagement both with the content of the course and with fellow students.

I have had many faculty ask me - and students ask, too - if there is a "minimum" requirement for this. I resist this. I know that this is the Age of The Rubric and that assessment has ruled our teaching plans for many years. But I think it makes for a more authentic  discussion when students are led by their interest and curiosity in their posting and commenting. I want them to keep coming back to see what so-and-so said in response to what someone else said. I want the discussion to keep moving forward. I don't see how it can do that if a student says "well, I did my five comments; I'm done." I  explain all of this in videos and in a READ ME FIRST course guide that explains my ideas. Generally, once that explanation is given students understand and accept it.  Sometimes they ask me if they are "doing enough," and we have a conversation about that in the learning journal area.  And some students complain. But I hold my position, and last fall, I had robust and wonderful conversations among the students in all three of my classes. Sure, a few of them do not participate as much. They are graded accordingly with feedback about how they could improve.

Another issue is: should you, as the instructor, comment on students' posts?  There are many  ways to deal with this, but for me, I don't. The reason for this is that I want it to be their community  space. If they go off the rails on a topic, I will sometimes post an additional question. I keep that to one or two per module, and I don't always need to do  it. If there is something weird being discussed I don't want to "pick on" one person, so a rephrased question can often do the trick. Sometimes a short video correcting the discussion is needed. I had to do that one year, when students started talking about the "unicorns" in cave paintings in southern France. I was like, "Unicorns? Where did they get that idea?!" Because, of course, and sorry if this is a spoiler, there are no unicorns! I finally found an image on the official site of the Lascaux cave that called the painting "l'unicorne." Clearly the quotation marks had no effect. The students took this image to be an image of a unicorn. This is important since the main point of the cave paintings is that these people were representing elements found in their environments to elicit some control over their lives. And if there are no unicorns...

"Unicorn" by scorpiorules58 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Found through Creative Commons.

Discussion  boards are the heart of any asynchronous class. Some faculty hate them because they can not "hear" their students. But to that I say, in a face to face class, how many students do you really hear from during a discussion?  Five? Six or seven? Ten? Unless you work something into the class to make it happen, you likely do not hear from everyone.

With discussion boards, you do hear from every student. Every single one. So "Sue," who sits in the back and doesn't often answer because it takes her longer to  formulate a response, has just as many contributions in the class as another student who can think on her feet much faster.

To me, this equalizes the class and doesn't favor those who can think and speak more quickly than others. Discussion boards are not perfect, and it's important to design questions or prompts that will get a robust conversation going (quick tip: no yes or no questions!). But it's worth it. Because for me, hearing from every student one of the best outcomes of an asynchronous class.

In my last post I talked about the importance of grouping material  into modules. It helps organize your class and students can more easily navigate where they are in the course. If  you go by weeks only, it can seem to a student that it's endless and they might not see the cohesion  you have planned.

After setting up the modules and goals for those units and the course as a whole, you need to think about different "presences." Today we will talk about Instructor presence.  How do you, yourself, connect  with students In an asynchronous course when you are not "live?" Since you will not be  requiring all of your students log onto their computers to gaze at you in a box, you have to find other means to engage with your students and to be present with them. The good news is that you can.

How can you still be present when you can't be in person?

Yesterday I was talking to a student who had one of my classes in the fall and  is in another one this coming spring. I told him I'd teach it the  same way, asynchronously. He tilted his head back and said, "Thank GOD! I wish other faculty would stop making us Zoom!" So take that for the anecdote that it is.

In any case, I plan to make my presence known in several ways. After deciding on the content of the module, I will figure out what is lacking or what ideas or images are particularly difficult, thorny, or if there just isn't enough information out there  to fully cover the artist. Unfortunately, I am finding that is the case with many African-American artists from the nineteenth century (like, no smarthistory.orgentry on Edmonia Lewis!? Come on, now!). Thus, I plan to make a narrated PowerPoint presentation on some artists for whom I have not found enough material to cover completely. But most of the content IS found on smarthistory.org and other educational sites. There  is a lot of  content out there, for free, if you take the time to search for it.

I will also record  videos of myself  introducing the course and each module. I also end each module with a  wrap up, but do not record those until I see what comments  students make as the class begins and rolls. These videos are a way to get your personality across and connect with your students.

But perhaps the best way to connect with your students  is through the learning journals. I find that this is one of the most important  elements  to an asynchronous class, especially at the undergraduate level. This is a  space where students reflect on their learning, ask  questions,  or just comment in general on how their experience in the class is going. Last semester I had many students on  my evaluations (yes, I know, I still read mine) talk about  this  feature as very important to feeling connected to the class and to me. I offer a few prompts, but usually I want students to set the tone and the topic. I want them to feel free to write anything - and I mean anything. It can be content; it can be personal. And I answer  every single entry. Every. Single. One. It's  a lot of work, but since my classes  are completely ready to go on Day  1, I don't have to "prepare" for each day the way I would for a more traditional face to face class. My time is taken up with responding to these learning journal entries. I learn so much about my students in this format; it's so important!  If you have not  tried this element of an online class, I urge you to do so, but you must make the commitment to write back to the students. Otherwise, your presence will not be felt.

Next time we  will talk about how to create a community presence among students through discussion boards and how to make them work and function well.

Week one of our spring 2019 semester is in the can. I'm not going to talk about the internet outage, the snow day, the delays, and the fact that I got sick and needed antibiotics all in the first week of class (ok, well maybe I'll just mention it). What I do want to talk about is a mental shift that I realized happened this week after I met all three of my classes.

It was suddenly less about the content and all about the students.

Now I have faces, not just names, actual people, in my classes. It's not just a roster. It's not just about the number of butts in the seats; I spent so much time fretting in December and early January about having only 12 in one of the classes. Now it's full. I spent tons of hours this past January building my hybrid class both in terms of content online, activities in the classroom, and navigation of the site itself. For my face to face classes I similarly thought deeply about new ways to include more visual analysis. After reading How Humans Learn by Josh Eyler, and expanding on an assessment of understanding international cultures,  I thought about how to extend an assignment about learning disciplinary perspectives. All of that is still there. It's in the syllabus, in my course notes for the semester, and I will be planning everything out a few days before that particular class will actually happen.

But now that all of that seems secondary. Because now I have the people. The students are now telling me in discussion boards about how this is the last class that they got to choose before graduation, and they wanted it to be with me. Another said that he regretted not taking art history so far over his four years, and after talking to students who had taken my classes previously, did not want to miss out in his last semester of college. Some need the classes for the completion of their minor, or it's a requirement for the major. There are a dizzying array of reasons why students are taking my three classes (History of Western Art II, Roman Art, Romanticism and Impressionism for those keeping score). And they are what matters now. The enrollment, the course planning, the content (which I love; these are three of my favorite classes to teach of all time), and the exercises are all secondary to those individuals who trust me enough to allow me to teach them, guide them, and educate them. I barely know all their names yet (working on it) but their faces - and stories - are all in my mind as we complete week 1.

This week the party really starts. And I can't wait.

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This past week I spoke at the annual NCAA Convention in Orlando, Florida. I was one of the speakers on a panel about engaging faculty with athletic programs and represented the NCAA's Division III. If you had told me five years ago that I would be speaking at the NCAA convention, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. And yet:

Dr. Gretchen McKay at the 2019 NCAA Convention, Orlando, FL.

The room was packed and there was really good energy in the room. I spoke about how I got here, and those who have followed this blog know about my "original football Romans" who took my class in the fall of 2015 and started me on this path. I decided that I would engage them in my course, which led me to want to know more about what they did as student athletes. Soon I was attending away games, which led to an invitation to become the faculty mentor to the team.

Who knew then where it would lead?

This post is for anyone who is on a path and can't quite see where it might lead. Keep going. I had no idea that I would eventually end up speaking to a room of about 500 people. And frankly, I am just getting started. I have more research to do on what student athletes do on the field and how that could be better translated into the classroom for their studies. I am planning to write a book that better explains the realities of the Division III student athlete. I hope to do some of the research for that book with student athletes this summer.

Today marks the start of the 2019 Spring semester for my school. I will teach my best. I will get to know my students. I will challenge myself to engage all students. I will go to "spring ball" football practices. And who knows what else may come up?

Because the truth is, you really never know where interests might take you. But if you remain authentically curious, take risks, and remain courageous enough to step onto an unknown path, you may end up in a place you never thought you would.

Like addressing a crowd at the NCAA convention.

Faculty Engagement Session, NCAA Convention, 2019

What kind of expectations should a professor have of her students? Of herself?

I am wrestling with both questions right now. I want my classes to always be engaging. I work very hard to find ways to not sacrifice content, but to have students more engaged in the material. I worry all the time about students "not getting it," and as I have posted previously, I am continually trying to think of ways to assess student learning not just for one class period, but how material is retained. And I'm not at all convinced that traditional exams lead to deeper learning or the retaining of information. I am a firm believer that that type of learning works for some students - mostly those who are already good students who master the material quickly and know how to take notes. Many of those go on to then perpetuate the same type of teaching method. But my experiences with engaged pedagogies like Reacting to the Past,case studies, debates and other forms of active learning have shown me how much more students can do if we give them a chance.

But that then "ups" my expectations for every class period. I want and expect deep engagement in every class period.  I don't want to lower those expectations. It would be much easier for me to lecture my way through 90 minutes than to sit and ponder how I could break up the time with something that the students do. And yet, I like to try to find new ways to approach the classroom and topics all the time.

Right now I am planning a hybrid class as well as two other classes that will meet face to face this coming semester which begins in one week. I'm trying to anticipate engagement with the material as well as finding out new information about the works of art I will teach.  I'm also trying some new game elements in the second half of the introductory survey course. I don't want to kill myself, but I want my classes to be the best that they can be.

Fellow faculty, how do you balance high expectations and making sure you do not blitz yourself completely?

Today I read this column by James Lang in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The title of his piece is "What Will Students Remember From Your Class in 20 Years?" Lang recounts how he had this discussion with faculty from different disciplines. Almost no one said anything about specific course content, and yet many of us teach that content as if content is the end of the world. "Oh, I can't not cover "x" work of art in the survey course!"

What do you want your students to remember?

I have already thought about this and this is what I want them to know. I want them to know:

  • How art historians think what they think and know what they know;
  • Why art historians have different ideas about works of art and that works of art can have multiple interpretations;
  • How to talk and write about works of art;
  • How to visually analyze works of art so that propaganda and commercialized ads don't lead us to decisions we don't think about first;
  • How to read a critical piece of writing that has a thesis and to determine if that argument is proved

That is just the start. I also want them to remember that they did things in my class. That they were involved. I do not want to them to ever remember me telling them everything. I want them to remember the debate they had about whether or not the Elgin marbles should go back to Greece, or if the Second Crusade should be aimed at Edessa or Damascus, and what the future of art should be in Paris in 1889.

I believe that these goals are all incentivized by active learning. If I tell them all the things, then they are likely not to remember it next year, let alone in 20 years.  James Lang is a proponent of making small changes to teaching that allows for more student reflection and activity. That doesn't mean that I sometimes don't have to just tell them things, but it does mean that wherever possible, they are going to be actively engaged in observing an Egyptian work of art, or designing a new type of church for Justinian, or debating the role of artists in fighting fascism.

I probably won't know if I make the mark in 20 years. But I am pretty confident I am laying the foundation firmly for them to do so.

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How did I get from professor, teaching art history, to a consultant, speaking about supporting student athletes? This fall in particular I have been looking back over the steps that got me here. I'm trying to figure out what it is that links them together. And I think I know what it is: curiosity.

I wanted to engage the five football players that I had in my class in Roman Art in the fall of 2015 after I saw them play in a home game. I was curious and wanted to know: what made them tick? What would engage them in my course material in the classroom? I did research, asked questions, took a few risks in the classroom and followed up a year later with them to assess what they learned and what had "stuck." That led to a conference presentation and a published chapter in a book on active learning. All because I was curious.

In the fall of 2016, I went to an away game of the football team in Gettysburg. I had a few more students in my classes and I wanted to see them play after winning at home the week before. So I went. And the next Monday, I was invited to be the faculty mentor to the team. I had no idea what that would entail, but I was curious. So, I said yes. And I had an eager and willing Head Coach, who said he'd figure it out with me.

That was two years ago. I have figured out some of it. What I have figured out so far has led to a book proposal about how faculty and institutions can support student athletes better. Student athletes make up about 40% of our study body, so finding ways to engage them and support them only makes financial sense, if no other reason (like simply wanting to support them because they are our students) comes to mind. And it has led to workshops on supporting student athletes, like my conversations at the Maine Maritime Academy this past March (2018). And later this fall I will consult with Barton College in Wilson, NC, where they plan to add a football team next year.

Most of all, I'm remaining curious. I think that the true mark of intelligence is to realize what you do not know and to be brave enough to ask questions to learn. Right now my curiosity centers around how *exactly* a game plan for the opponent is constructed. I know as I write this on a Sunday morning that the coaches are watching tape. I know from asking players that they will watch and analyze film throughout the week. I know that the game this past Saturday will be analyzed for what went well (shut-out!) and what did not (penalties!).

I hope that the coaches, the players, and the parents (yes, I'm coming at you next!) are ready for my questions. As the students (and coaches) likely know, I ask a lot of questions. As I told the students at one of their summer camp meetings, your curiosity has to be bigger than your fear of looking dumb. And my desire to know outweighs that fear, even if it might be there. So I will keep on asking questions, and keep being curious. Because there is so much more to know!

 

Today I am thinking about jobs. Even though my job is to educate, I want my students, after they are educated, to be able to find good jobs. This article talks about 7 critical skills for jobs of the future and was published last summer. I'd like to focus on this one: Curiosity and Imagination, which is #7 on this list.

I have written a whole post about curiosity and its importance for developing keen minds. It’s part of the liberal arts spirit. It is when students ask questions about topics that I had not considered or when they ask about things I do not know. I LOVE IT when that happens. That did happen at the end of the Roman Art class in spring 2017. In one particular class near to the end of the semester, they were asking me all kinds of questions and I didn’t know the answers. Finally, I said, “you all have those phones. Let’s get ‘em out and look it up!” They did and we talked about the sources they were reading from. It was a good exercise in assessing and analyzing information as well as a way for them to use technology, and it satisfied their curiosity on the spot. And it was kind of fun, too.

I think that most of my active learning situations have some aspect of imagination and creativity built into them. They role-play as advisors to an emperor, or they must think like architects to design a building that reflects theological ideas, or they try to sell art at the 1889 World Exposition in Paris to buyers who are not clearly identified at the culmination of my Art in Paris Reacting to the Past game.

I think the final part of the article on the 7 critical skills sums up well my approach  in the classroom and by advocating for active learning:

“There is a stark contrast between these seven survival skills of the future and the focus of education today. Instead of teaching students to answer questions, we should teach them to ask them. Instead of preparing them for college, we should prepare them for life. Beyond creating better employees, we must aim to create better leaders and innovators.  Doing so will not only radically transform the future of education and the workforce, it will also transform the world we live in.”

I simply love it when my students are curious enough to ask questions. I would love to find a way for that to happen more. The Roman Art class in the spring of 2017 indicates that they will tend to do that if they have had a whole semester of active learning in which they are engaged in the material in different ways. And I'm still thinking and planning!

 

I try to employ active learning in every one of my classes. This past spring semester in my Medieval Art history class that I've blogged about before, we played both a short Reacting game on the use of icons in the church and a longer game on the Second Crusade, I used several case studies in which they had to solve an art historical problem, conducted several in-class writing assignments in addition to out-of-class papers, and students wrote a weekly blog post.

However, at one point in the semester, when we were reviewing material that I thought they had learned, they could not remember details. It was so disheartening. I worry nearly all the time about what they are learning. Many of my colleagues would probably say I obsess over it. One weekend during the past semester, during a Twitter exchange, I noted that I worry they are having a "grand time," but that I wonder if they are learning anything.

Cathy N. Davidson was talking about assessment, and how our assessment right now is giving us information on the twentieth-century products we are producing through our educational system. I agree so much with her and want to tell everyone to read her book, The New Education. It is inspiring and so important. During the twitter exchange she noted to me:

"As long as I go to the meta level and then they can (I use Think-Pair-Share a lot for this) I feel sure they are learning. Focusing on what you want think they need to learn on a meta level is great."

She also sent me a link to her blog post from June 18, 2015, entitled "Why Start with Pedagogy? 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions."

This has me pondering. Yes, I can "Think-Pair-Share" my way through each class, but how do I know any of that is sticking after the class? The students may have learned the material during the 90-minute class period, but what about a few weeks later? Do they still remember it?

I'm considering more "in-class assessment instruments" for the fall semester (but would like to call it something else...not quiz...not exam). I do not want it to be high-stakes and stressful, but I also feel an obligation to them to ensure that their education is leading them to know new things and remember them. This past spring when I was feeling this way I put them in groups and had them prepare questions that then two groups answered, and the group who created the question decided who answered better. So, some competition in there, as well as ownership. That worked fairly well, though I was making up a lot of it as I went. I might try to do something like that again, but with a bit more pre-planning.

Readers: if you employ active learning, how do you ensure learning is taking place? How can you tell? By what means do you check to see if learning manifests?

Students: how would you like to prove that you have learned? I hear all the time how you hate tests - so what are some alternatives so we can know if you're learning?

[I am trying really hard not to use the words assessment, metrics, rubrics...or any of the buzzwords for teaching and learning right now - and it's hard!!]

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My grades are in (though they are not due until tomorrow). We will graduate a new crop of McDaniel College students on Saturday. I always look forward to that day, but it is always bittersweet for me. This time of year is always bittersweet for me.

I work hard to create community with my classes. Connecting with each of my students is also a goal of mine, and one I most often reach. The most challenging class for me in that regard with the thirty-person Medieval Art course. But I managed to find a way to build a bridge to each student, and to make each of them feel important. If I had not, I’m not at all sure that they would have been so eager to have this picture of the class as a whole (thanks to Dr. Lyndsey Smith, who acted as a T.A. for this semester, for taking the picture):

The departure of students from The Hill, our nickname for our college campus, depresses me slightly every year. I don’t know how many other faculty feel this. It seems counter-intuitive to the trends I see on Twitter and elsewhere about “grades are in!” and “Let the summer begin!” Of course, I have projects and writing that I wish to do, but I seem to make progress on those as I am teaching my students, not in spite of them. I had a book published this spring semester by the University of North Carolina Press: Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, a Reacting to the Past game that was co-authored by Michael Marlais and Nicolas Proctor. That book was not written in the summer(s).  I also had a chapter published in the following book on active learning: Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation and Creativity, Anastasia Misseyanni, Militiades D. Lytras, Paraskevi Papadopoulou, eds. Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018. My chapter was on my experience with the football players in the Fall of 2015: “Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art” (187-209). Both of these projects were peer reviewed (the Reacting game extensively), and most of the final work was done in the fall semester. Thus, summers are not always the time that we have laid at our feet to do our work as scholars. Somehow, I always manage, even when I am in the midst of classes to teach, papers to grade, and students to mentor.

I am not advocating for not having a free summer. I am not saying that at all. I know I need some mental time to reestablish other routines, and just to have a rest from the relentless (self-imposed) pressure to create an engaging classroom experience every class period. But right now I feel sad.

So, really what I am seeking is advice. For those who find the departure of students to be alarming, distressing, or even depressing: what do you do? How do you transition to summer?

 

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