Small course modifications that can help all students succeed

27 August 2017

With the start of the new academic year nearly upon us, here are some relatively low stakes ways to help all students succeed in your courses. What approaches will you be using this term?

Develop a learner-centered syllabus that clearly identifies what you expect of students and what students can expect of you: (From “Weekly Digest #64: The Learning Centered Syllabus” by Sara Fulmer posted on The Learning Scientists Blog)

  • Syllabi exist on a spectrum from content-centered to learner-centered. A learner-centered syllabus helps students understand what they need to do in order to be successful in the course, warns students of potential pitfalls and how to avoid them, and explains the instructor’s rationale for course structure and assignments.
  • The syllabus should make proper use of the pronouns “I”, “you”, and “we” to appropriately signal what the students should do (“you”), what the instructor will do (“I”), and what will be communal (“we”).
  • Consider including syllabus statements from relevant Carleton offices and take a look at Tulane’s accessible syllabus website

Create a welcoming environment from the first day of class: (From K. Tanner, “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity”, CBE–Life Sciences Education 2013 and “Acknowledging Class in the Classroom” by Carleton TRIO/SSS staff)

  • Acknowledge the full range of backgrounds that your students bring to class. Be explicit about the importance of diverse perspectives in the classroom and acknowledge your goal of cultivating an inclusive learning environment.
  • Establish classroom community norms by explicitly discussing them on the first day. Remove uncertainty about your expectations.
  • Make students aware of and encourage students to use all available resources, including office hours, prefects, the academic skills center, librarians, etc. Let students know that these resources are not just for students who are struggling.

Use early assessments to identify students who might struggle: (From Teaching Unprepared Students by Kathleen Gabriel pg. 28-29, 82-83)

  • On the first day of class or using Moodle, ask students to write a paragraph on why they are taking your class or what they hope to learn. This allows you to get to know students as well as getting a glimpse into student writing abilities.
  • On the first day of class or using Moodle, have students complete a short reading and give them questions about the reading. This allows you to get a sense if there are any students who might struggle with reading comprehension.
  • Create an assessment to be administered on the first day of class or using Moodle, to assess students’ prior knowledge and understanding so that you can adjust the starting point of your course accordingly. In particular, Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo & Cross gives examples of two effective initial assessments: the Background Knowledge Probe (pg. 121–125) and the Misconception/Preconception Check (pg. 132-137). (Available in the LTC library.)

Explicitly encourage the development of metacognitive learning strategies (avoid the term “study skills”): (From Teach Students How to Learn by Saundra McGuire, pg. 84-89; available in the LTC Library).

  • Throughout a course, at the beginning of each week, have students write down their studying and learning goals, and at the end of each week, have students write a paragraph explaining how they did in terms of meeting their goals for studying and learning that week.
  • After you have returned students’ first quiz or exam, spend time discussing Bloom’s taxonomy and the study cycle. Treat this discussion as you would any other discussion in class so that students view it as being of equal importance to the course content.

Employ social-psychological interventions to help students manage academic setbacks and address concerns about belonging: (From Yeager & Walton “Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic”, Review of Educational Research 2011).

  • Explicitly discuss with students the idea of attribution (a social psychology term describing how we explain our experiences to ourselves), and help students identify what concrete actions they took in their studying that might have contributed to their success or failure. Help students move beyond the idea that they did not do well because they lack ability. Normalize the idea that students often struggle with the material, and if appropriate, invite alums or more senior students who struggled to share their experiences with students.  
  • On the first day of class, have students engage in a values affirmation activity to reduce stereotype threat. This type of activity can be completed in 10-15 minutes and has been shown to produce long-lasting benefits.

Clearly convey expectations for assignments: (From Transparency in Teaching and Learning Project)

  • Discuss with students what skills and knowledge they will need to use on the assignment.
  • The assignment descriptions should guide students to appropriate first steps as well as pitfalls to be avoided.
  • Share a checklist or rubric with students in advance of their turning in an assignment to encourage them to self-evaluate their work.

Design your assessments and feedback to minimize the dynamics associated with implicit bias and stereotype threat: (From “Inclusive Assessment of Student Learning” by staff at the Sheridan Center for Teaching & Learning at Brown University)

  • Consider using blind grading. Ask students not to include their names on the assignments that they upload to Moodle, and have the Moodle assignment setting set to “Blind Grading”.  Only after grading all the assignments will student names and grades be revealed to you as an instructor.
  • Critical feedback should be conveyed as a reflection of your high standards and students should be assured that they have the potential to reach these high standards. At that same time, you should provide students with substantive feedback to reach the standards asked of them. In addition to writing substantive comments on a paper, research has shown that writing, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” made students more likely to revise a writing assignment and more likely to improve their writing as compared to students who received the comment, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”  

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