Monday, October 28, 2013

Well, duh. Lessons from marketing & branding

As I was prepping my lesson for today, I realized that a PowerPoint presentation that I'd done a few years ago needed some work. Although my slides contained all of the necessary information, and didn't violate any major PowerPoint rules, there was no clear organizational structure that carried over from slide to slide.  Here's what I mean:

Slide 1

Slide 2
Both of these slides contained all of the information students needed in a reasonably organized format. But it occurred to me that it would be better if all of the slides had the same basic structure to help students organize the relevant information more easily. So I made a table for each sound, clearly identifying the relevant points about each sound in a way that was consistent across sounds. My slides contain all of the same information as the originals, but now it's much easier to quickly identify the relevant information about each sound.

Slide 1 with table
Slide 2 with table

Interestingly enough, today as I was circulating around the class helping students with homework, I noticed a lot of students had either pulled up this slide from my PowerPoint, or had printed it and had it out next to their computer. Partly this is because this is one of the newer concepts that we've studied, and they had to answer a question about when each sound was used.

/ɾ/ or /r/?
But then I realized that they also needed to answer a question about when each sound was used from the information on this slide, and I didn't see anyone with this slide pulled up or printed out. I would like to say that it's because this information is slightly older and they know it already, but I don't think that's the case (based on reviewing homework assignments).

/m/, /ɱ/, /n̪/, /n/, /ɳ/, /ɲ/ or /ŋ/?

Again, this slide is reasonably well-organized and easy to read. But which gives you a more efficient and accessible summary? The above slide, or the one below?

Same information, but in a table.
I mentioned branding & marketing in my title because over the last few years, my university has been proactively pursuing creating a unified brand. When I first heard about this, my reaction was less than favorable. I thought, 'We're a university, not a business! Why are we talking about branding and creating a cohesive, unified brand?' (Although I was excited about the resulting PowerPoint templates, to be sure. :) )

The short answer (and most likely dumbed down for academics who twitch and start to foam at the mouth when universities use corporate-speak) is that it makes it easy to identify something as pertaining to the university, and easier to find information. For example, prior to the development of a webpage template, all colleges and departments were free to develop their own webpages as they saw fit. That was a recipe for disaster, because there was no internal cohesion between pages on the university webpage, which made it incredibly difficult to navigate, and by extension, difficult for people to find information they were looking for. ('Here's your navigation bar over here! Oh, but on this page it's at the top of the page! And on that one it's in the right sidebar!') In addition, let's just say that some of the pages looked like a three-year-old designed them. In some cases, you wouldn't know that it was a university page unless you looked at the address, because there was no indication anywhere on the page itself that it was part of the university. Implementing a single template meant that the basic structure of each page is the same across colleges and departments, which makes it much easier to use (and also appears much more professional).

As I was thinking about my PowerPoint slides, I realized that branding principles can apply here, too. If there's consistency between slides in a single presentation, or better yet, between slides across presentations, it's much easier for students to find the information they're looking for, which reduces the amount of time they spending clicking through presentations trying to find the information they need. It seems blindingly obvious to me now that I think about it; hence the 'Well, duh' directed at myself in my post title. :)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Settings for grading online homework assignments: Why I don't instruct Blackboard to take the most recent grade

In the interest of efficiency, speed of feedback, and mastery learning, I've designed a number of online modules for various Spanish classes I've given. I've described some of these projects in detail in my portfolio, so if you're interested in details, that would be a good place to look.

This semester I'm offering two fairly challenging courses that include these modules, Spanish phonetics, and Intro to Spanish linguistics. For all homework assignments, students are allowed (encouraged, and occasionally required) to submit multiple attempts of the homework. The number of attempts is limited, so students can't "game" the system by simply changing answers until they get them correct (see my portfolio for strategies to create assignments that promote real learning), and while they can see when they get something right or wrong, they never see the correct answer, so they can't simply copy and paste correct answers into subsequent attempts.

At the beginning of the semester, students asked what would happen if they got a lower grade on a later attempt. Would Blackboard keep the higher grade, or the more recent grade? I have Blackboard set to always take the highest grade, and my main reason for doing so is this: I want to encourage mastery learning. I want students to keep trying to do better and figure out where they're making mistakes. Which grading option best promotes that goal? Highest grade, or most recent?

Instructing Blackboard (or any other course management system) to take the most recent grade is enormously demotivating to students. Let's say a student gets a B on the assignment. If they know that they keep the B no matter what, they can afford to take risks and try for an A. But if they know that if they try again and get a C, their grade will go down, then a B might be good enough, because you don't want to have to do the assignment two, three or four more times just to get back to the grade you received on your first attempt.

I saw how important this was over the summer, when my sister was enrolled in an online graduate class. She's a teacher working on her second master's degree, so she's an extremely motivated student. For her online class, though, the assignments were set to take the most recent grade, and I had the opportunity to observe the cost-benefit analysis done by a highly motivated learner enrolled in a graduate program regarding whether it was worth it to attempt an assignment again. Her general rule of thumb appeared to be that a B was sufficient, although not desirable, because she didn't want to end up with a lower grade if she repeated it and didn't do as well on the second attempt, and she wasn't interested in repeating the assignment four or five times just to get back to her original grade. {Side note: I actually looked at these assessments, and they were spectacularly poorly designed. So it was just adding insult to injury to have a terrible assessment and then penalize students for repeating it.} This is noteworthy to me, because my sister is obsessive about getting As in her classes. She's not normally the type of student that's satisfied with a lower grade when she knows she can get a better one. Now imagine that you have an average student, not really interested in the course content, but needs the course for his/her major. Will that student try the homework if s/he manages to get a C on the first attempt? Most likely not, although a better mastery of the content is well within the student's grasp if the assessment is well-designed.

So I tell Blackboard to always take the highest grade. Persistence is key to learning, and if we discourage student persistence by our grading policies, we're doing our students a huge disservice. A recent article in the New York-Times pointed out a connection between high achievers and their musical abilities. Researchers don't know what causes the connection, but one of the high achievers said this:

“I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.” 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Back in Nebraska, and some news!

I know I've broken every rule of blogging by not updating the blog for five months, and I apologize. But I do have a very good reason for not blogging, which I was not at liberty to post in June. I am happy to announce that my husband and I are expecting our first child sometime near the end of January! During the summer, I was suffering from debilitating nausea, which was worse if I used my computer, so my computer got a summer vacation this year. I am finally starting to feel better, but now classes are in full swing, so I'll do my best to update regularly from here on out.

In light of our news, today's post is a TED Talk by Dr. Patricia Kuhl, discussing how infants are born with the ability to learn any language in the world, but by 10 months, their brains have been trained to ignore sounds not in their ambient language. So now I'm wondering how many languages I can expose baby to in the 6-10 month window. :)