Three Questions to Ask Before Using ANY Digital Resource in Your Classes

So here we are – in the virtual world of teaching. Just a few weeks ago, the online classroom was still the exception, the majority of classes were still being taught in the traditional classroom, although in many different formats. However, over the past week, almost every educational institution across the country has begun a forced migration to the virtual environment, and as a result, if you are an educator, you are probably scrambling to find the resources that allow you to get out of this semester alive, and possibly even meet your course goals.

I have spent the past decade working with instructors on how to effectively use digital resources in their classes. And what I’ve learned is that there are three simple questions that you need to ask yourself before implementing any digital resource in your class:

What Specific Need You Are Trying to Address?

Ask yourself – what is the one thing that I want my students to take home from this lesson?  Go back to the learning objectives that you’ve written for countless institutional committees and accreditation processes. Then, write it down, put it on a post-it note on your computer. Your effort from this point on needs to specifically address that one item. Everything else is secondary. That does not mean that it’s not important, just that it’s tangent to your one stated outcome. You can change outcomes later, but now is really not the time for that.

What is the Value?

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear my good friend Steve Sullivan, a professor of Biology and A&P instructor at Bucks County Community College, talk about the importance of value when designing assignments for students. As Steve mentioned, too often we think of value as being about points and grades. While it’s true that grades are an important way to motivate students to actually complete an assignment, there is another aspect of value – the value that the instructor personally assigns to the assignment.

This was the “a-ha” moment for me, and the key to student engagement with assignments. As an instructor, you need to value their work by interacting with it. No one likes busy work, you would hate it in your professional setting, and students despise it in their world. So what do you do?

If you assign anything, and I mean anything, make sure that the results of that assignment are discussed with the entire class. Any provider of digital content allows for some form of assessment (if they don’t .. then get out of it now!). What you need to do to assign value is to run the reports, determine weak spots or problem areas that the assignment discovered, and then present that information back to the class. In the virtual world, add it to the discussion board, the weekly live video, or any other format that you use to communicate with your class. Make it simple, for example, “Three Things Everyone Missed on the Assignment This Week”… or “Hey, You NEED to Know This!”.

Now that you have identified the concepts that the students don’t know, or where they are struggling, do something about it.  Share resources, such as animations, that address that specific topic. Record a short micro-lecture (1-2 minutes) of you talking about that topic, or post it back to the discussion board for them to discuss. Show them that you took the time to value the work they did and that you are trying to help them.

I noticed that once I did this in my classes, two things happened. First, more students completed the assignments. It was no longer busy work, it was part of the course, and they recognized that it was something that had value (meaning it was probably going to be on a test), and therefore important. Second, there were better questions being asked, both online and in the class. Gone were the days of me asking “Any questions?” to a room of 250 blank faces. Now the question was, “Why do you think that you missed this question on the assignment?”

How Will I Assess this Resource?

Let’s be truthful, not all online assignments will work. Some will take too long, be too vague, or simply not engage the students.  But the only way you will know that is to assess what you are doing. You don’t “know” anything without data. You may “perceive” that you are being effective, but you can only know something once you have assessed what it is that you  “know”.

This does not have to be complicated. Feedback can be as simple as a single question: “Do you feel as if the assignment prepared you for the quiz this week”? That is all you need to know right now so that you can better design a better version of next week’s lesson.

If at the end of the semester you want to dive deeper, then every learning platform has the reports and data to critically assess the effectiveness of assignment types over the duration of a course. But, that is for after you survive the semester, not now.

Does This Work?

You are probably thinking that you don’t have time for this, or that your online course has to be an exact replicate of your traditional teaching style. Given where we are today, and the reality of time, that is not going to happen. This approach will help you keep a little sanity over the next few months, while at the same time making the lives of your students a little less stressful since nobody likes busy work.

Some of my greatest achievements as an instructor, and an author, have come when I have had to step outside of my own mind and look at what I was doing from a student perspective. Once I adopted this approach, I found that my teaching improved, the classroom environment changed, and time was freed up to not only do different things in the class, like active learning or a deeper exploration of a topic.

Give it a try, you have nothing to lose.

Thoughts or Questions?

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