Skip to content

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.

I have been teaching for over twenty years and higher education is under tremendous pressure and my college is experiencing this as well. I just started reading Jeffrey Selingo's book There is Life After College. I am doing this to try to understand the role of higher education in America now. It's very different than it was even a decade ago, and Selingo offers some context for that.

I have done a lot of reading because I want to provide the best education and experience for any student who comes across my doorway, either the doorway of my office or my classroom. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed at the different issues I must focus on. When I have a student  in my office, or when they come to my class, I am thinking of any number of things, like:

  • "It is my responsibility to teach this student and to be sure my course helps her on her way to graduation."
  • "I need to make sure this student understands and can communicate the skills he has learned in my class in any interview situation so that he can get the job."
  • "I need to retain this student because her continued attendance at my institution is important."
  • "I want to be sure that I engage these students so that they continue to want to learn and finish their degree."
  • "I want to be sure that this student doesn't end up a statistic of the millions who have some college, but no degree and student debt."

At times all of these thoughts can overwhelm and paralyze. And nearly all of those sentences should have an exclamation point after them, because each one seems pressing and necessary and URGENT. Sometimes I think I should just teach and NOT think about all of this. But is that really the extent of my job? Just teaching art history? I don't think so. I do think that my role at a small, liberal arts college is not just to teach. It's to help guide.

And yet, the more I read about our changing economy the more stressed I become for our students. The stakes are high. More and more it seems that the value that we place on individuals is really all about money. We do not hear about movies over the weekend that were good in a creative sense, just which ones made the most money at the box office. Everything is a value exchange.

I teach art history. How do I translate that so that my students can benefit from the skills that my discipline offers, while still helping them be successful in their eventual careers? How do I do that when art history is usually the degree that is maligned, as in a 2014 speech by then-President Obama (which you can read here). Or when it's mentioned in a podcast as a major that even students police among themselves: "Why are you majoring in Art History?!" according to William Deresiewicz in a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative podcast (you can read about/listen to it here).

My institution is wrestling with the big question of the role of our college in society, what we teach and our mission. We are a private, liberal arts college and I know we help students. I know we're important. Yet, so much is changing around us. I believe strongly in the core of the liberal arts and want my students to be successful. Ultimately that is why I am mentoring students that happen to be on the football team, because I see such potential in them, and yet also a reticence among some of them to be disciplined enough in academics to have it help them launch a career.

I'd love to hear from my former students about how their experiences launched them - or did not. What would you do differently? What do you wish your alma mater did differently?

And today, I'll decide how best to teach tomorrow, and I'll also be planning mentoring meetings this week with students. That work must carry on.

As I look over this past year, I have had a full-on education as the faculty mentor of the McDaniel College football team. I now have seen first-hand a full year of the playing of the season, the recruiting of the team, and summer camp. I have met some of the new recruits, and have gotten to know some of the coaches a bit better. It's been a long process, but one that has been very interesting. And because I am curious and love learning new things, it's been very exciting.

And while there is always more to learn, I have learned a lot. Here is a list of some of those things:

  • These students move around constantly at practice. Sitting still in a 90-minute lecture must be brutal. Enter active learning, for at least part of every one of my classes.
  • Higher ed systems are sometimes murky and unclear to students. Many students on the team are first-generation, a trend that will only continue. They are not sure what questions to ask, let alone who to ask. Sometimes our offices can act, perhaps unintentionally, that if students have to ask, maybe they should not be here.
  • Money can be a real issue and they are not thinking long-term of how the degree will help them after college. Goal-setting and motivation for post-college plans are really important.
  • Mentoring is not advising. I can help students navigate their course requirements as an advisor, but mentoring requires a different tack. To mentor a student is to see the whole student. I see them as football players as well as academic students. They share with me their struggles in their lives and their goals and dreams. Faculty need to know that there is a difference between these two roles, and both are very important to student success.

What I have witnessed makes me more committed than ever to supporting the student athletes in my classes. I will get the chance with twenty (count 'em up, I did!) players in my Art of the Medieval World class coming this spring. I will need to be on my game for them, and those of you who read this blog regularly know that I will be. It will be a challenge, but I am determined to meet it!

I hope to be sharing some of the techniques for supporting student athletes as a consultant in the coming months. I am going to be doing further study about what these players need in their lives as students to be successful on the field, in the classroom, and in life. I want to be as much of a part of that success as possible, and I want our institution to support them in as many ways as possible.

If you are student athlete, what additional help would you like to see from your institution?

Photo credit: Morgan Scott

Shown L to R: Drew Scott, 55; Bamasa Bailor, 1; Vince Gorgone, 54

Today’s post is about curiosity. It’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot as it keeps coming up in books and podcasts.

First, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about curiosity in her book Big Magic. I read that book awhile ago, but I keep coming back to her explanation that curiosity is more important to follow than “passion.” Curiosity is questioning. It can be a niggling to know more about something, or a real search for a Big Answer to a Big Question. I am curious about so many things, something I think I inherited from my Also-An-Aquarius Dad (thanks, Dad!).

Right now, I am curious about two interrelated things: how student athletes learn best, and more specifically what it is about the combination of Reacting to the Past role-playing games and D3 football players that gets so much engagement in the classroom. I use Reacting games, as I’ve posted here many times, but I’ve noticed increasing engagement over the past two years from the football players that take my classes (many of them enroll because I am the academic mentor to the D3 McDaniel College football team – go Green Terror!). And because so many of them enroll (fourteen players were in my 24-person Roman art and architecture class), I get a front-row seat to observe what inspires them, moves them to do more and better work academically, and gets them excited in the classroom. And it has led me to want to research more deeply to find out what is going on, rather than simply watching it and taking anecdotal notes. So, that is where curiosity is leading me right now.

I am also thinking about curiosity from the student side.

When students sign up for an elective course, there must be some element of interest there, some amount of curiosity about the topic to make them choose that course over another that fulfills the same general education requirement. Even if the course is a required course for the major, and the students “must” take it, their choice of that major was likely sparked by some element of curiosity about that discipline or the career to which they hope it will lead.

This leads me to the question for faculty: how can you keep that curiosity going?

I really believe that keeping students actively engaged in the classroom can keep that initial curiosity alive, or rekindle it in the case of a required class in a major. I firmly believe that we must allow students to actively engage in the material of the major, or the course, or the topic, for them to really feel an affinity with the subject and learn it deeply and well. Of course, they might not be able to do everything an accomplished art historian, biologist, sociologist, or poet does when taking such a class. Some of them may never have the zeal to stay with that discipline, let alone profession. Truly: how many of our college students are really going to major and go on for an advanced degree in our disciplines? How many should?

Continuing on for an advanced degree should not be the main or only metric of success for all students. When they signed up for a class, there was something, some amount of curiosity, that led them to that course or that major. How can we keep it going?

I would argue that it’s engagement that will keep the curiosity going, that kindle of interest burning. This reminds me of my blog post from November of 2015  in which I pondered, “What is a faculty member’s role in student engagement?” That post garnered a lot of comments, some of them from students themselves who were in my Roman Art and Architecture class in the fall of 2015.

I am still committed to reaching every student, because I believe that finding a way to keep that curiosity kindled is the way to keep students engaged and ultimately learn skills and content to be successful in the world, regardless of major. That is what general education requirements are all about at a liberal arts college.

In my teaching, blog and workshops, I am committed to helping others to find ways to engage students to continue to keep the curiosity alive and help them succeed in their chosen classes and majors.

How do you keep students' curiosity kindled as a faculty member in the classroom?

I was interviewed yesterday by Inside Higher Ed about my role in the Council of Independent College's online humanities consortium for this article that appeared today on Inside Higher Ed. Here is the link to the story:

https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/06/21/cic-consortium-offers-way-small-colleges-develop-online-courses

I absolutely loved working on this project and it taught me so much about teaching. I will be offering the Byzantine art course, Ways of Seeing Byzantium, in the spring semester of 2018 as part of the on-going consortium.

I am also intrigued and talking with the organization College Consortium (https://www.collegeconsortium.org/ ) and hope that they can help "co-host" my course for more enrollment, and perhaps help me enroll students in the future.

What are your thoughts on online teaching and learning?

 

[ssm_form id='346']

css.php