My pedagogical goals are twofold: first, to help students reach their potential as developing readers, writers, thinkers through assignments that are both accessible and assessable; second, to help students uncover and develop connections between their academic work with their lives beyond the classroom (digital or face-to-face). Informed by both the principles of Backwards Design (beginning with the big questions and goals of the course and coming up with readings and assignments that support deep thinking about the questions and assessable achievement of the goals) and Universal Design for Learning (namely providing multiple ways to access course materials and assigning tasks that can be completed in a variety of ways), I strive for these goals in a few key ways:
- I provide multiple avenues for accessing information/lessons and communications, often using a multimedia component and multiple avenues for completing assignments.
- I include iterative assignments and course activities that allow students to reflect on both their skills, the course materials and the connections they are making in our course/s together.
- I explicitly describe my expectations, means of assessment and purpose for every assignment. I ask students to create their own expectations, means of assessment and purpose, as well.
In the fall 2016 semester, I taught three new-to-me classes in the English department (ENG 280, 356, 368). Before that I was teaching three IAH courses each semester (207, 221b, 241c). Because of the repetition I tried different formats (face-to-face, hybrid and online) with each course. I also experimented with deeper aspects of the class structure. For example, in FS15, I revamped one of my courses (IAH 241c: The Artistic and Cultural Traditions of Europe) into a kind of choose-your-own-adventure-game. This adaptation and its results are described in sub-section 1 (The Quest) below. When I moved to the English department and found I had much smaller classes, I was able to make my students partners in building courses that would best serve them while still fulfilling the learning outcomes and goals around which they were designed. An example of this partnership can be find in sub-section 2 (Student Partners in 280) below.
1. The Quest
I had been teaching my Arthur Through the Ages version of IAH 241c for a while and while students seemed to enjoy it, I found that I was struggling to explain or convince students that there is any relevance or meaning in studying the legends of King Arthur today. And, while I think the enjoyment of literature, visual art and film is an end in and of itself, it is important to me that my students (and I) can articulate an answer to “So What?” for both large and small aspects of our classes.
Speaking with other instructors who were either gamifying elements of their courses or re-structuring their courses to be inquiry-based, I learned they found students not only responded well to these structures but were also buying into the stakes of the problems addressed in each course. At first I was skeptical that it would be possible to create something like that in a reading/writing intensive course with fantastical subject matter. But then I realized that the questions surrounding the quest, the young hero’s development into his (or her) heroic self are of continuing issue (hence the popularity of the Harry Potter books)—more than that, since many of my students are young adults, they can see themselves at the beginning of their own quest for their adult selves. While reading major works of Arthurian literature, watching Arthurian film and looking at Arthurian art, they were completing their own quest. I just needed a format to help them see that.
I scrapped my old model for the course—only maintaining the same course texts. I built a new syllabus that had as its centerpiece the construction of fictional personas whose stories the students would create and complete over the length of the course. Instead of a reading response, weekly assignments involved adding specific elements from course texts into their own tales. To provide an element of both fun and additional challenge, there were times when their hero’s adventures would have to change based on the roll of a die. When students’ characters successfully beheaded their first giant, they were knighted with an in-class ceremony, which I’m proud to say made it onto one of MSU’s snapchat stories. They were also asked to use our online discussion forums to determine aspects of our class-court-culture (e.g., In our classroom/kingdom should slavery be legal? Should a knight’s primary loyalty be to his/her ruler or lover?). Students who had never been “good” at writing were composing novellas! Students who had never done anything creative were making comic books based on their heroes’ stories. One student filmed a puppet show version of his character’s tale that must have taken hours to simply film and edit, let alone create the puppets, the stage, etc. In other words, students were all in. When at the end of the course I asked students why people are still telling the same stories, especially focusing on King Arthur, they had no trouble coming up with answers that were meaningful to them.
2. Student Partners in ENG 280
In fall 2016 I taught ENG 280 Foundations in Literary Study II for the first time. Not knowing what students knew and what they expected from the course, I began by administering a survey. I asked them to rank their understanding of the course subject matter (basically, literary criticism and its history). I also asked them what they wanted to do in our class together and what they would hate to do. Based on their answers, we edited the syllabus for the course.
For example, one student said that she would hate to have one large assignment that would outweigh everything else in the class. The class then took a D2L survey about adding a weekly assignment which would remove points from the final project and distribute points more evenly across the semester. I gave students several options for this but the class came to a consensus. This ended up not only being good for their grades, but it kept them more engaged with the readings throughout the semester (since they had to post something about each one).
Another thing that came out of the survey surprised me. Several students said that they would hate to do presentations and some would hate to do group projects. While a couple of them were afraid of public speaking, the majority of those who said they would hate to do presentations were skeptical about the inscrutability typical when assessing student presentations. Similarly, while a couple of them work best on their own, the animosity towards group projects came from situations where everyone in a group got the same grade regardless of who put in what or how much work. After several “what if”s the students and I wrote a proposal for the assessment of a group presentation that would please everyone.
There would be three components of the assessment: students would describe their own contribution to the project and that of their partners; the liveliness of the Q&A after the presentation would also contribute to the overall success of the assignment; And, finally, in groups, they would write their own rubrics for me to use to assess them. Many of them created rubrics and standards far more stringent than mine would have been. Not only did this relieve many of them of their fear of both group projects (they could devise rubrics where each person in the group could be evaluated separately) and presentations (they could assign 0 points to creativity, if they did not think that was important to the assignment), it also had other benefits. Most importantly, they took ownership of both their projects and their criteria for evaluation: in other words, they got to determine the “So What?”
This approach has perhaps surprising alignment with UDL and accessibility. By making students in charge of both their projects and their standards for assessment, students with different strengths and abilities could approach the material, its presentation and their assessment in ways that would work best for their learning style and skillset. At the same time this assignment continued to encourage growth in critical and analytical thinking, communication skills and citizenship.