Sunday, October 26, 2014

Safety Nets

As we get near the end of the semester, I can tell that students are more and more stressed out, and so I am very glad that my courses have a lot of "safety nets" built in. I do have high expectations for my students and the work they will do, but I also know that life can be kind of overwhelming sometimes, so safety nets are important... vitally important in fact!


BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are a variety of strategies I use that fall into the category of "safety nets" to help students cope when things don't go according to plan. These include both time scheduling strategies (Grace Period, Alternate Project Schedules, Late Projects) and flexible assignments (Half-Reading, Portfolio Option, Storybook Free Passes, and Extra Credit). It is my goal that every student should pass the class, and these strategies are designed to help them bounce back from anything that goes wrong and to keep on moving forward.


DETAILS.

Grace Period. I've written a post about the Grace Period, which is an automatic no-questions-asked extension for assignment deadlines.

Alternate Project Schedules. I need to write up a post about this, but the basic idea is that students can miss and/or repeat a given week in the Storybook or Portfolio schedule and still carry on using an alternate schedule. No backtracking, no making up missed work; instead, the schedule adjusts to the fact that they missed a week for whatever reason, and they carry on from there. You can see the alternate schedules for the Storybooks and the Portfolios here: Storybooks and Portfolios - see bottom of page for alternate schedules. I also have an FAQ about that for the students: Alternate Project Schedules.

Late Projects. The Storybook/Portfolio assignment is due at the end of each week, with a Grace Period that extends until Monday at noon. After this, students can turn in the project assignment for partial credit: later on Monday, 8 points (out of the 10 possible); Tuesday, 7 points; Wednesday, 6 points; by Thursday noon, 5 points. The hard deadline of Thursday noon allows me to still get comments back to the students by the end of the week. Admittedly, I do not always apply the late penalty. If I know that a student is struggling with something, I often tell them to turn in the assignment by Thursday noon and just to remind me not to count it late. Also, if someone turns in something late, but it is really excellent work, I don't apply the penalty, and I make a point of explaining that in the comments I send back. If, however, something comes in late and shows signs of having been done in haste, I apply the penalty and I do so without hesitation. The students can always make up the missing points with extra credit (see below), but I am frustrated when I see haste and sloppiness, and this is one way that I do indeed try to counter that sloppiness. Having students revise the work is, of course, the important way to counter that sloppiness, but I would rather put a stop to it earlier than the actual revision assignment!

Half-Reading Option. Each week the reading is split into two halves, with specific accommodation for students who end up only having time to do one half. I've written a post about the half-reading option here.

Portfolio Option. I've written a post about the Portfolio alternative to the Storybook; it's a new experiment for Fall 2014, and I would say it has been a big success.

Storybook Free Pass. This is something I have done in response to a student last semester who, when commenting on my idea for the Portfolio, suggested that I do something extra for the students choosing the Storybook since it is indeed more work than the Portfolio. I thought about that a lot, and it was pretty tricky because I absolutely did not want the people doing the Portfolio to feel penalized in any way for their choice. In the end, I came up with something I am calling a "free pass," and Storybooks have two free passes built into their schedule that the Portfolios do not. I need to write up a separate post about this because it is a little weird, but it has worked out wonderfully! Most of all, it has been a big help for the students who start out struggling a bit at first with the Storybook (which is admittedly more complex than a Portfolio), so that the free passes allow me to help students to really slow down and think about the organizational aspects of their projects without any points penalty. I need to write up a post about this. It's kind of complicated, but it has been a really great thing, both to create a sense of equity between the two different project options, but also as a way to help people do a better job with the Storybooks overall.

Extra Credit. I need to write up a long post about my whole philosophy of extra credit, but basically it is this: I can only ask students to do 6-8 hours of work per week... but there is so much more that I would like for them to do, especially on the interactive side of the class, reading and responding to other students. So, I have no problem at all of thinking up lots of great extra credit assignments, because they are exactly the assignments I would require of the students IF we had more time together. In that sense, there is really no difference at all between "required" and "extra credit" ... all points go into the same pot, and I consider all the assignments to be of equal value in terms of the overall learning experience and success of the class. They are "extra" only because I am asking the students for extra time. I do need to write up a post about this approach in general; it is one that is really important to how I see the overall course design and how, ultimately, student choice is the single most important factor in that design. To see how extra credit works now, check out the Myth Assignments and Indian Epics Assignments pages.


HISTORY.

I've always let students work ahead, and I still consider that the single best safety net of all: if they can work ahead, instead of waiting for the deadline, then they have a built-in cushion to accommodate anything unexpected. When I first started teaching online, I was very naive about that: I assumed that all the students would work a day or two ahead, and maybe a week or two, and that would be all the safety net I would need. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. Even when given the opportunity to work ahead, most students wait for the deadlines; I'll blame the schooling environment for that bad habit. Given that students are rarely given the opportunity to set their own schedules and work ahead, it's not surprising that the habit is hard to adopt at this late date in their school careers.

So, as a result, I've added in these different safety nets over time. I'll try to list them here in the order that I have added them over time.

Extra Credit. This is something I also had from the start. I originally intended it as a way for students to build up credit in advance, but it quickly became obvious that they also needed extra credit options to make up for missed work.

Alternate Project Schedules. I probably started this a year or so into my online teaching career since it was a natural feature of the Storybook project. There's no specific reason why a Storybook has to have four stories total in the end — three stories or even just two stories can make for a good project. As a result, I early on decided to make it easy for students either to miss a week and/or spend an extra week on revisions, with the alternate schedules showing how they would then proceed to the end of the semester.

Late Projects. This is something I started doing around 2005 or so. I originally accepted late projects without penalty up until Thursday noon, but this became so onerous for me in terms of the workload I had at the end of the week, trying to get comments return to everyone by the end of the day Friday, that I had to institute the partial-credit policy.   I feel badly about how that works (I don't like the idea of penalties at all, and I do call it "partial credit"), but so many students are oriented towards the deadline for an assignment that, without a real distinction between the soft deadline and the hard deadline, they will indeed wait for the hard deadline.

Grace Period. This is one of the single best things I ever came up with, and I guess it dates to around 2007. The students certainly did not enjoy writing me to ask for extensions (and I had students writing me basically every day), and I certainly did not enjoy hearing about whatever particular problem it was that prevented them from completing an assignment before midnight. I realized that of course it didn't matter to me whether an assignment was done at midnight or 3AM or 10AM for that matter, as long as it did not affect the overall workflow of the class. I wish I had thought of this sooner: it's been great for both the students and for me, given me a chance to send out a reminder email each morning that really is a big help to some students who do just need a last-minute nudge. They do their work mostly in the evenings and at night; I do most of my schoolwork during the day. The Grace Period is a perfect way to take advantage of that fact!

New for Fall 2014: This semester has been a time of all kinds of changes in my classes, and I am so happy with how those changes are going! In terms of safety nets, these three are new in Fall 2014: Half-Reading, Portfolio Option and Storybook Free Passes.


GOALS. Quite simply, my goal is for every student to pass the class. If a student fails a class simply because of poor time management skills or poor workload management skills, that seems to me a very bad business indeed. It means the student has lost out on the money they have paid for the class, and they have an "F" on their record which really does not indicate engagement with the course material one way or other other; instead, it usually just represents a failure to engage at all as a result of poor time management and workload management skills.


GENERAL THOUGHTS

I really believe that addressing the issues of time management and workload management head-on are is an incredibly important aspect both of course design and also of our day-to-day interactions with students. Some people might say that in a college course, it should be all about the content and it should be left entirely up to the students to do their own time management and workload management; to design a course with these factors in mind is considered by some of my colleagues to be "pandering to the students" or "dumbing down" of the class. I disagree. If the end result of these strategies is to increase the OVERALL level of student engagement with the coursework, then the exact opposite is true: by strategizing about time management and workload management, I am "smarting up" the class rather than dumbing it down!

2 comments:

  1. I'm using some similar strategies in my courses. My motivation is primarily to get students to take responsibility for judging where they are at, and to accept consequences.

    If they meet Friday night's soft deadline I can leave comments over the weekend - that helps me so they'll get a bonus mark. If they have to wait until Sunday night's hard deadline no bonus is possible, and after that they will lose marks.

    They can choose between a weekly tweet or a weekly blog entry. Tweets are capped at 75% of the total for this assignment.

    If they work ahead and submit more than 7 days early, I'll mark it straight away letting them choose whether to take the feedback into account and re-submit, or to accept the mark and draw a line under that requirement.

    I also use the LMS facility to send out friendly reminder messages.

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  2. Exactly, Marj - that idea of consequences is one that really makes sense in my Indian Epics class since KARMA (literally, consequences of actions) is a big theme in that class.

    I used to give bonus marks for working ahead, but so few students chose that option, I decided it was better to invest my time/attention in finding other ways to build flexibility into the schedule. It was amazing to me that people did not jump at getting extra credit for working a week ahead - normally extra credit has supernatural magic powers. But when I saw that fewer than 5% of the students took advantage of it, I figured I would focus on other things. Working ahead is its own reward anyway, since they don't have to put up with all my reminder emails, ha ha. :-)

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