Friday, July 30, 2021

Responding to student course evaluations

There is a vast literature in education and related fields detailing the problems with student course evaluations. Evaluations have long been a seemingly necessary burden of teaching that yield questionable data for instructional improvements.

I didn't solve these problems, but I tried something different this past term: I responded to my class about the evaluations. While not a practice unique to online learning, I felt that responding provided a good way to close the communication loop in our remote (Zoom platform) online writing-intensive English course, the Literature of Business (1). 

As usual, after the term concluded and I submitted grades, I received my course evaluation results. I always read them with care and interest, and I assure my students of that several times in an effort to encourage them to take the evaluations seriously. This year, however, I added something else: I wrote them a detailed email responding to the evaluations.

I've been thinking about doing this for years, seeing it as a way of affirming for them that I read and take their comments seriously in the quest to improve my teaching. I had paused, though, on following through for various reasons, mainly because I didn't want it to appear that I was getting the last word on the students. This term, I just went for it, and I think--I hope!--I handled it well.

I bcc'ed the whole class, starting with this:

Dear students from ENGL308 The Literature of Business,
I hope the smoke has cleared from the spring term and you are into your summer plans and courses. I wanted to take a moment to respond to the assessments, ideas, and suggestions you provided in your course evaluations for our class. This is something new I am trying so you, the students, can see that I went through your evaluations carefully and thought about them. As I said, I much appreciate your input, and I want you to know that I hear you.

I noted their strong response rate, in this class 13 of 16 active students in the course. 

I then reviewed their responses to the objective, 1-to-5-scale questions. I explained the scale again and went through each question category, starting with questions about the course and moving to questions about their evaluation of their own performance to finally questions about the instructor (me!). I provided a brief summary of the numerical values in each category, trying to remain neutral in this summary (although I did thank them for what were positive responses about my teaching). 

I then summarized, using an occasional quote for illustration, their subjective comments, especially what they found "beneficial" and what needed improving.

In the end of my message, I focused on these improvement areas, writing, "Overall, these responses indicate that you were satisfied with the class and quite satisfied with my instructional efforts. However, over the summer I must think about two primary comments you made about the course": those two main areas were workload and grading.

Of workload, I wrote, "You view the workload as too heavy—and these were thoughtful comments, not complaints." Of grading, while I took the opportunity to describe how my grading of quizzes and informal writing works, I ultimately wrote, "I must continue to find ways to make the grading in my courses more transparent and fairer."

No student responded to this message, but I didn't expect that. I did want them to feel heard and to know that their comments for improving this course do not go into the void. 


1) The Literature of Business is a writing intensive course I developed. In the course, we read literary texts with business themes and complement them with non-fiction texts from business venues such as The Harvard Business Review. In most assignments, they write as the characters from the literary texts in professional genres, using the non-business texts to support their position. An example assignment is they read Melville's "Bartleby, The Scrivener" and an HBR article "How to Motivate Your Problem People" by Nigel Nicholson. They must write a letter as one of the characters in the story to a lawyer who is asking for statements about whether the boss is somehow to blame for what happens to Bartleby at the end of the story.

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Monday, May 31, 2021

Notes on getting going in my remote classes

We're never going back to where we were. We know that know. Many components of what we have been doing as online and remote teachers will remain with us, offering new ways for us to challenge and work with students. 

I've kept some notes about how I get things going in my remote classes, which for me means synchronous, Zoom-based courses. (Comment: I normally teach small-sized online writing/literacy courses, so everything here may not scale.)

Paper. I like computers. They are wonderful. They make me happy. However, paper and pencils remain great technologies. I always have brought hard-copy notes with me into my onsite courses (I have "packets" of notes going back to the 1990s), and I have maintained that practice in remote teaching. Interestingly, it often feels easier to refer to and use those notes when I'm on Zoom, where any paper shuffling is off screen.

Cameras on!? I still don't have a consistent "policy" or approach. Some days I think, "They all need to have their cameras on!" Other days, I agree strongly with those who have commented how intrusive and uncomfortable that can be for students. So I have let it go: They can choose whether they want a camera on. This term, I usually have about a quarter or a third of students with cameras on.

Jotting down names as students enter class. As students appear in the class, I jot down their names in the margin of those hard copy notes. It gives me a reliable attendance list. I also greet each student each day, and I knew everyone's name, pronunciation, and spelling from the go. This list of names also gives me an easy way to keep track of...

...Participation. In a strategy that will also work well for onsite teaching, I use that list to easily record participation. I've always had a participation component, even if it's just extra credit, and now I can write down a check or a + next to a student's name. I do hear those who suggest not grading participation (such as James Lang in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article), but for me participation can take many forms, including a chat comment or working together in breakout rooms (which I always virtually "stroll" through to see if they have questions).

Quizzes. I almost always start class with an easy reading quiz. All they have to do is read. (I wrote about this here a long time ago.) They take these timed quizzes for the first eight to ten minutes of class. In Blackboard, completed quizzes appear in the Grade Center under Needs Grading. While students are finishing, I start grading a few of them, which is not only a time saver, but it helps me make sure I haven't asked a bad question. The quiz opens two minutes before class starts so early risers can get at it. When everyone is finished, which I can see in Blackboard, we immediately review the answers; my hope is students have done well and feel good starting the class.

I have not required students to have cameras on during these quizzes; however, you can’t take the quiz if you’re not "in" class! I do think well of my students, and I assume they are not going to cheat. However, I can mix up questions at times through the use of Blackboard Questions Sets, which allows teachers to create random quiz questions. Again, the point of the quizzes is that they are fast-paced and easy--read and you're in great shape!--so I hope that discourages cheating.

Moderators, I've recently discussed using chat moderators. This is a good practice, even if the chat is often quiet.

ClassNotes file. I have a ClassNotes Word file to cut-and-paste text into the chat. It makes the flow in class smoother for breakout group instructions: I have the instructions readily available to clip into the chat.

Questions? After the quiz review, I always take a moment to ask if there are any questions. I'm patient, and I allow my "Any questions about what's going on?" question to linger for a minute or so before we get into class.

These are a few strategies that have helped me get my remote courses started. Some are carry-overs from onsite teaching. Others will help me with onsite teaching. And, of course, some just help me become a better teacher overall--which is the spirit of online writing and literacy instruction.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

If you're teaching writing or literacy online, you need a second screen

There was a time when I often wrote about using audio or audiovisual tools to respond to student writing (1), and to reinforce one point about the importance of these technologies for teachers, I would draw a comparison with roofing nailers, and how, since their development, asking people to crawl around a roof with a regular old claw hammer would be inhumane; while writing teachers don't risk falling, the repetitive writing and typing of comments could lead to crippling and career-disrupting wrist and hand issues like tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

I'm starting to get to the same mindset of conviction with second screens. If you are an online writing or literacy instructor, a second screen should be standard operating procedure. I have had a second screen for years, but only recently, driven by my pandemic at-home work schedule, have I really started using that second monitor for all of my online teaching and other work.

As many of you know who regularly use a second (or perhaps third) screen, it is indeed work- (and thus, life-) changing. 

For online teachers, a second screen is especially valuable if you teach with complex asynchronous discussions. Using discussions well is a central piece of my faculty development work, and a front-and-center question from participants is how to moderate and manage these conversations. I describe a straightforward process that involves having a Word notes file open while I am reviewing student discussion posts and threads, and I use those notes to cut-and-paste student comments and help prepare my individual responses and overall thread synthesis posts. 

I would like to see a biological eye fatigue study, but anecdotally I'm sure many people would reinforce my experience: It's a whole different experience simply to glance up or over at another screen that has these notes vs. using the ALT + tab (on PCs) to move among different windows. 

This isn't purely about ease of work or eye fatigue, either: It's about being a better teacher. It's kind of like moderating an onsite class in which the students make a bunch of comments and then you must exit into another room and then return to moderate the conversation. There would be a hiccup.

With the second screen open, it's all in front of you. You don't lose track of your place.

Also, and the same goes for responding to student writing, when we're tired we can become crabby, terse, and perhaps unfocused. Students might not be getting our best selves when we're clicking through various windows on our screens. We might want not to see a great point they made, for instance, so we don't have to click back to the notes screen to compose a response.

Second screens should also be standard operating procedure for remote synchronous teaching. I have done many presentations and workshops using a small Surface screen. I like my Surface a lot and it functions well, but to have available slide note files or the Zoom gallery of faces on a separate, larger screen--such functionality makes me a better teacher and workshop facilitator.

Many people in higher education believe we will not go back, ever, to pre-pandemic teaching practices. We will all continue to incorporate more technology-driven approaches. We need to have the proper hardware to do so, and a second screen seems to me to be such an integral piece of pedagogical equipment.


1) For example, “Streaming Media for Writing Instruction: Drexel’s Streaming Media Server and Novel Approaches to Course Lessons and Assessment” in Streaming Media in Higher Education, edited by Charles Wankel and J. Sibley Law (2011), or "Responding to Student Writing with Audio-Visual Feedback” in Writing and the iGeneration: Composition in the Computer-Mediated Classroom, edited by Terry Carter and Maria A. Clayton (2008).

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

More on modality

A few months ago, I posted thoughts about new ways to envision and describe our teaching modalities. Mainly, I introduced the term chrono-hybrid as a way to describe a fully online course that meshed regular synchronous meetings with significant, weekly asynchronous components.

I've been, I hope, refining those ideas since then; in fact, I'm polishing off my thoughts for a plenary talk this Friday at the upcoming fourth annual GSOLE annual conference, Visions and Sites. 

As I've researched that talk, I have found that others have been working on similar problems of describing course modalities. In particular, I was psyched to find this article: An EduCause piece from last September, "Bichronous Online Learning: Blending Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Learning" by Florence Martin, Drew Polly and Albert Ritzhaupt. (1)

We're discussing similar issues, but for them, the term is "Bichronous Online Learning," and they write, "Although the blending of face-to-face and online learning has been researched in many studies, the blending of synchronous and asynchronous online has not been researched to the same extent."

Citing others, they point out that online courses are being classified in an increasing variety of ways, ranging from asynchronous to synchronous to MOOC to blended/hybrid to blended synchronous. Now, HyFlex has also emerged.

Ultimately, they define bichronous online learning "as the blending of both asynchronous and synchronous online learning, where students can participate in anytime, anywhere learning during the asynchronous parts of the course but then participate in real-time activities for the synchronous sessions. The amount of the online learning blend varies by the course and the activities included in the course.” 

Interestingly, they are coming at this from the vantage of how synchronous elements can help an asynchronous online course be "more engaging" while "increasing learning outcomes, positive attitudes, and retention.” OLI and OWI doesn't start with a deficit of asynchronous experience, as our writing- and literacy-focused asynchronous courses are often rigorous and engaging and rigorous. However, introducing a terminology, whether bichronous or chrono-hybrid, that captures our balance of synchronous and asynchronous can certainly help us, and, of course, our students, understand these courses better.

In addition to Martin, Polly, and Ritzhaupt, as august a body as the Department of Education (DoE) (now freed of its hideous ex-administrators) has also re-thought modality, offering a Distance Education and Innovation Final Rule (2) that “simplifies clock-to-credit hour conversions and clarifies that homework time included in the credit hour definition do not translate to clock hours, including for the purpose of determining whether a program meets the Department’s requirements regarding maximum program length.”

Based on public comments, this language was introduced in the Final Rule:

Allowing asynchronous delivery of come courses or portions of courses delivered as part of clock hour programs. The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with new technologies have encouraged States, accrediting agencies, and licensing boards to reconsider earlier restrictions on the use of asynchronous distance learning technologies to deliver portions of programs that are typically considered to be hands-on programs. Commenters suggested that the Department permit the use of asynchronous learning in clock-hour programs, and the Department agreed , as long as licensing bodies permit the use of asynchronous learning and will include clock hours earned through asynchronous learning toward the clock hour instruction requirements.

Similar to Martin, Polly, and Ritzhaupt's article, the DoE statement works in the context of asynchronous learning being lesser or inadequate vis a vis synchronous educator. Still, it too provides guidance and a framework for understanding what students and teachers are doing in asynchronous environments.

Classwork. Homework. Time-in-seat. These one-time simple concepts continue to emerge as terms we must re-think in efforts to describe in what ways we're teaching--and in what ways our students are learning.


1) Florence Martin, Drew Polly and Albert Ritzhaupt. "Bichronous Online Learning: Blending Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Learning." EduCause, Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

2) U.S. Department of Education. “Distance Education and Innovation.” Federal Register. Vol. 85, No. 171. Wednesday, September 2, 2020 / Rules and Regulations. 34 CFR Parts 600, 602 and 668 [Docket ID ED–2018–OPE–0076] RIN 1840–AD38. 54742-54818.

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Friday, November 27, 2020

Getting more out of your course chat, especially with student moderators

We're almost all teaching online, and many of us are in remote synchronous situations, using platforms ranging from Bb Collaborate Ultra to Zoom to Microsoft Teams.

We've faced challenges teaching in these environments, especially back in the spring when we all scrambled through "emergency remote" scenarios, with students who had expected onsite courses suddenly being faced with online learning.

Participation is one major obstacle. I have worked with faculty from institutions around the country, and many have expressed how difficult they have found it to cultivate the conversations they were accustomed to in their years of onsite teaching. They describe being faced with a student presence that consists of black rectangles with names in them. It can indeed be tough.

Like many teachers, I don't think it's appropriate to require students to turn on their cameras. They may not want their environments to be seen. I get it. Also, some of them are mic shy and are reluctant voice participants.

But I do say that if they don't have their cameras on and are unwilling to participate by voice, then they need to participate by using the chat, typing their questions and thoughts.

As a result, my classes often have lots of chat activity. Good things happen in that space, with students posing thought-provoking questions and responses and often supporting each other with the kind of brief messages that characterize digital writing spaces.

For teachers, the chat can be daunting. It can take some skill and patience to manage the messages that are popping up simultaneously with spoken conversations.

To help with this, I strongly recommend the use of student chat moderators. These student moderators have become a key part of the participation element of my synchronous online courses.

At the beginning of the term, I ask each student to sign up for a class period to moderate. I email moderators instructions the Friday of the week before their assigned day:

Hi Alex and Jasmine,

Thank you for signing up to be our chat moderators next week.

This is not a difficult task, as you have seen. Synchronous class moderators will simply help me keep an eye on the chat stream during that class session. Please do the following:

  • Pay extra attention to the posts in the chat.
  • When a post appears, announce it to me and the class. Please do not worry about interrupting me!
  • I can take it from there, but you are more than welcome to comment on the post.

If you like, you can put a post or two on the chat to stimulate conversation.

My thought in assigning chat moderators is that there can be lots of activity in the chat. Sometimes, though, it’s pretty quiet—if it’s quiet, that of course is no reflection on you!

This is low-stakes work that will receive a low-stakes writing grade.

Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions,
Prof. Warnock

First, moderators add a level of participation simply because someone other than me, the teacher, has a regular voice presence in the class. As you can see, I encourage the moderator to interrupt me by reading or summarizing chat messages.

Second, the moderator, by their presence, appears to encourage conversation. None of them wants to get stuck in a "lonely" chat room, so they help each other out! Also, I get the sense that they enjoy hearing their messages being read or summarized by the moderator.

Third, I think moderating is a good skill for them to practice. They will certainly be working--and playing--in remote-type environments for the rest of their lives.

Finally, note that I grade the chat moderating. It's a low-stakes writing grade, and all I ask is that they engage to receive full credit.

When you first encourage chatting, it can be a little overwhelming, but I have seen so much good writing and thinking in the chats that I wonder if I should carry this over to my onsite courses, perhaps even projecting on the wall a running commentary about the spoken discussion that they can add to via the devices they all bring to class anyway.

The course chat provides a good way to get students who might not otherwise do so to participate in your courses. Using student moderators to help you manage these conversations provides a number of additional learning advantages.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Syllabus language for participating in an online or remote course

I have included versions of the following on my online course syllabi for many years, and I recently further crafted this information to account for our collective move to remote learning. The goal is to address straightforwardly at the start of the term some primary concerns students have about learning online. 

Participating in an Online Remote Course 

As you know, [course name] is an online remote course. We will meet both synchronously and asynchronously, using the many educational technology tools available. Synchronous meetings, which include classes at the listed times as well as one-on-one conferences, will take place via Zoom or Blackboard (Bb) Learn Collaborate Ultra [your video platform]. We will try both and see which one works best for you. For asynchronous interactions, we will work primarily on [your LMS] Discussions. Such conversations are a component of most of my classes, and I especially use them in online courses. [Describe other asynchronous methods you might use.

Those of you who are nervous about working in this way should contact me immediately. [Describe here briefly your experience teaching online if you like.] 

Video Presence 

Unlike your typical class experience in which you sit in a classroom, you will be participating in much of this course via synchronous video media, and, in many ways, you have more freedom to choose how you present yourself. Consider that your instructor and your peers can see and hear you: How will you want to present yourself and your environment?

While I would like you to use your camera as much as possible, I am empathetic to those who do not want their cameras on at all times. You don’t need to have a reason. However, if you don’t have your camera turned on, you must periodically post a comment in the course chat. 

Factors to Help You Succeed in an Online Course 

This may be your first time in an online remote course. You’ll no doubt find this a different experience than that of an onsite class. Following are some things to consider as you begin this online learning course. 

*Follow the course schedule.* I create a careful course schedule to help you stay organized. If you closely read and follow the schedule, you significantly increase your ability to succeed in the course. 

Deadlines. It is crucial that you adhere to the class deadlines. 

Motivation. Research about student behaviors in online courses has shown that students who participate early in these courses, particularly on message boards, have higher grades in the courses overall. You can’t control everything, but you can control when you get involved in class discussions. Post early—and often—during our online asynchronous conversations! 

Contact. You can contact me via: [Tailor this based on your communication preferences.]

  • Phone. Don’t hesitate to call the number listed on the syllabus. 
  • Discussions. We can have conversations on our Bb Discussions. 
  • Email. You need to become familiar with your school email account. That account can easily be forwarded to another account, but I will use your school account to send you mail. We’ll do a lot of corresponding that way. 
  • Chat. Sometimes we will correspond via chat, particularly the day before an assignment is due. 

I will spend time checking email and Discussions for course messages each day. Basically, I will be quite plugged in to what is happening in the course. 

You may be tempted in an online course to think of your professor as a robot who never sleeps. While you are college students, and you may do some of your most productive work at 2:00 a.m., I am an old(ish) man who goes to sleep at 10:30 p.m. Remember that when you email me in the wee hours of the night. If you want to meet in person, the three-dimensional me can be found in [office location].

Space and time. You’re working online. Where should you do this work? Sitting at a desk or a table in a space with minimal distractions is ideal. 

There is a big difference between working at home and homework. While we will work in a primarily synchronous way, when we have asynchronous work, you need to treat that time when you are writing and thinking about the class material as real class time, and, again, you need a quiet work space. In fact, you will have a lot more success in college if you learn to carve out a space when you study. When possible, ask your friends, roommates, and/or family to give you a break during a set time each day. I know you are probably all skilled multi-taskers, but if you get into bad study habits early on, they will be hard to break later. 

Feeling isolated? Remember, while our class is online, I’m a real-live human being. If you have concerns, reach out to me.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

New teaching modality terms: chrono-hybrids and spatio-hybrids?

The frenzied move this spring to remote and online and distance learning pushed the limits of how we characterize our courses. Teachers, administrators, and schools ran into a classic language problem: Our experiences became more nuanced than our words allowed, so we needed new words.

I’ve been exploring some new terminology to account for increasing ways teachers are using--and being asked to use--our teaching time and spaces: chrono-hybrid and spatio-hybrid.
A spatio-hybrid is a more specific term I am using for what has commonly been called a hybrid or blended course, one in which students meet onsite in a room one day a week (or so) and engage in a range of online work for the rest of the week.
A chrono-hybrid is a course that has scheduled synchronous videoconferencing some days and  asynchronous activities other days. Chrono-hybrid courses are different from remote courses in that a remote course implies that all classes will meet synchronously throughout the term. As an example of a chrono-hybrid, this spring, in my MWF course that was scheduled remotely, I conducted three chrono-hybrid weeks. Twice I replaced the Friday Zoom meeting with a two-post, two-deadline discussion conversation of a complex reading, and one Friday I assigned a robust, structured discussion board peer review. I designed this work to be equivalent to the work of that Friday hour--for both me and my students.

So, let’s tease this out with these new terms:
  1. Onsite/face-to-face: We understand this.
  2. Spatio-hybrid: This means you’re going to be in a room at some point with other people and you'll also be teaching some of your course online.
  3. Remote: You're in a fully digital course with regular, scheduled synchronous meetings.
  4. Chrono-hybrid: This is similar to remote in synchronous scheduling, but some of the work will instead be asynchronous.
  5. Online/distance: Asynchronous with no scheduled synchronous meetings.
  6. Low-residency: Some version of one of the options above (except #1) with a rare (once a month, perhaps) onsite meeting; this might be a version of #2, although campus low-res programs have generally not been called "hybrids."
Why introduce these terms? I had a good conversation to help me think this out with my friend Jason Snart of the College of DuPage, who is an expert on hybrid writing instruction; some of the material in this post is from emails I sent to him.
For one, it's clear we are going to see increasing examples of chrono-hybrid teaching, so we need to think about what that means, and I think applying a term to it will help a great deal.
Two, in our online writing instruction community we have come a long way in helping people understand that asynchronous modalities are effective and maybe preferable for writing instruction, and I see us losing some ground in the recent rush to remote, for many reasons: e.g., parents don’t think asynch is valuable, students think they must have a camera running for a class to be "real." If instructors understand the concept of a chrono-hybrid, they will be able to better develop asynchronous components of remote courses, using the kind of careful planning that should categorize online learning.
Also, we must account for teaching time in higher education. While there are flaws in the Carnegie Unit as a  model for the traditional onsite three/two-day-a-week set-up, it’s how things are for now. Accreditation bodies want to know that you’re filling the time—I’m stating that a little pejoratively, but teachers must show that their asynchronous lessons meet established time structures. These terms help do that, I believe.

Finally, over the past few months, working with teachers at many levels across the country, I have repeatedly run into issues resulting from conflating remote and chrono-hybrid. Faculty can easily get their minds around the idea they have to be in front of a camera several days a week on a schedule; quality, training, and preparation are separate issues, but the concept of how to spend the time is not. What I am referring to as a chrono-hybrid gives us a “classifiable” method of taking remote synchronous days and, and as I said above, developing quality asynchronous instruction instead.

Simply put, the terms spatio-hybrid and chrono-hybrid could help us communicate more precisely how we are using our time and our spaces to teach our digital courses.

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