Published: June 9, 2014

Watch this video of Dr. Deserai Crow reflecting on pedagogy and her use of Google Drive for in-class group work in large Environmental Studies lectures.

Beginning in fall semester 2013, I began to teach much larger lectures than I had previously taught. This was in part due to moving my tenure home to ENVS, where classes are not capped due to accreditation standards (like in JMC). It is also in part due to the large size of our undergraduate student body and the curriculum needs of the program. Overall, I enjoy having a variety of lecture and seminar formats. This challenges me and makes my teaching more interesting. It does, however, pose new challenges for me as an instructor.

The problem I aim to tackle is my struggle with making larger lectures more interactive and interesting to the students, yet still teach important information. I am not satisfied with teaching in a stagnant lecture format that does not change from semester to semester. It seems that students respond best to interactive or entertaining lectures, but I struggle with the questions of when and how to use these approaches to avoid dumbing-down my lectures and expectations. I use PowerPoint, and I regularly include video links and current examples in lectures. I also ask questions of students to get response. However, I know that there must be better approaches to getting some student interaction, communicating information, and keeping class interesting. This balancing act is the problem I intend to try to work on during this seminar.

I believe that the reasons to address this problem include: 1) a potential for increased student engagement and learning outcomes, 2) making lectures more interesting for me and the students, and 3) more effectively or memorably communicate course concepts so that students not only memorize terms and concepts but also know how to use them with regard to real-world examples and challenges that they face. I believe that by improving the interactivity and engagement of students in my lectures, I will also receive higher FCQs and peer evaluations. I believe building these interactive elements into my courses will increase my own satisfaction with teaching, as well as student engagement and learning outcomes.

In order to successfully engage students in larger lectures (n=65 this semester), I plan to use three tools that I have either improved or learned this semester. While three tools may seem like a lot, I have purposely chosen a strategy to enhance student engagement that can use complementary tools which seem to be easy to learn and implement.

Course: ENVS 3032, Environment, Media & Society: This course is a lecture of 65 students which meets a requirement for ENVS, but also enrolls students from a variety of other majors, primarily in Arts & Sciences. Students come from majors such as Sociology, Film Studies, Math, and Physics, in addition to ENVS. This makes it fun but also assures that I cannot assume similar backgrounds or skill-levels!

Technology/Intervention #1: In-class group activities

I have used activities in the past in both seminars and lectures, but the ASSETT Teaching with Technology Seminar has given me more ideas about how to create more engaging activities and has also settled fears that this is not a legitimate use of class time. Pedagogical readings focused on student engagement have given me more confidence in using these activities. In five class sessions during this semester, at the conclusion of different content sections, I have created in-class activities. I have created these so as to get students who are working on a separate group project together to work through complementary course concepts that will help them develop their final project. It also serves to help them interact and hopefully work better as a group.

I previously received student comments such as “she doesn’t even teach!” on my FCQs when I used these types of activities. To dissuade students of the idea that this is not actual teaching, I now preface these activities by clearly explaining the goals of the work and my belief that they must be engaged in their own learning.

One struggle that I have had with group activities is that they often require readings outside of class. Getting students to do the readings in order to effectively participate has been a challenge. I have recently started to use easy 3-question quizzes to begin these activities. Students are warned that the quizzes will take place and are told that if they simply do the readings, they should get full credit. The success of this approach is yet to be determined.

Technology/Intervention #2: Use of Google Docs for Group Projects

In the ASSETT Teaching with Technology Seminar, I learned about Google Docs, which I sadly had never used before. Realizing the simplicity of the application and that every CU student has an account (and that it is FRPA compliant), I began using it this semester. Students are assigned to groups for a final project where they must create an advocacy communication campaign on an environmental topic of their choosing (groups are assigned based on student ranked preferences of the topics). I created folders similar to the ones used in the ASSETT workshop. I invited students to join the folders where they can interact and complete their mini-assignments that will build into the larger project. I am also able to view their work and understand better the level of participation by group members. This approach also makes submitting assignments simple for students. On due dates, I simply view their folders and read the assignments. This has been a very easy technology to implement, and it seems that students prefer it to Desire2Learn. It was much easier to set-up than D2L discussion groups, as well.

Technology/Intervention #3: VoiceThread for Final Exam Lecture Review

In the past, I have struggled with my frustration that students want PowerPoint lectures posted, and I fear that this will incentivize them not to come to class. I am slowly moving beyond this (perhaps). This semester, I am trying a new approach. I have not yet given them any indication that the slides will be posted. However, at the end of the semester I intend to post the lectures to D2L. I am also planning to try VoiceThread to help explain some of the tough concepts presented in lecture that they might struggle with. I will balance this with my aforementioned fears by focusing on a few complex and central concepts but then will expect that they will need their notes to fully supplement the PowerPoint slides. This is the last technology that I plan to use this semester and one that I have not yet used.

In future semesters, I am also interested in using D2L quizzes, where I can create a question library using Excel to upload banks of questions. This may be a task that I ask a TA to begin in the fall semester.

The primary goal of this project is to engage students in learning which will hopefully lead to more effective learning outcomes. I am attempting to accomplish this through the use of more in-class activities, interactive group assignment technology, and possibly the use of tools such as VoiceThread. I also expect it will lead to a more enjoyable teaching experience in these larger lectures for me as students become more engaged. In achieving greater learning outcomes, I hope to be able to move students up to higher levels on the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid, focusing not only on knowledge acquisition but also on the synthesis and analysis of knowledge. To do this, I will include three primary assessment strategies for my 3000-level class.

First, beginning next year I will conduct a survey at the beginning and midterm semester points. This survey will be a D2L survey so that students can get extra credit for responding. However, I will also make it an anonymous survey so that they are free to answer as they wish. The survey will focus on a few broad attitudes/opinions related to the primary course content. It will also ask some simple knowledge questions. In the same survey, I will ask students for feedback on lectures and assignments so that I can gauge student satisfaction at the same time. This survey, combined with final exam questions that are able to assess student knowledge and synthesis of course material will help me understand if they have made learning progress during the semester. It may also help to present the survey responses to class so that students can understand where they sit in comparison to other students (in aggregated data, of course).

Second, beginning this semester I will include more sophisticated exam questions in the final exam. Previously, I had included essays asking students to analyze course content. However, I think a more synthetic and applied approach will be to provide them with an example of media content (complementary to course content) and ask them to analyze it according to the concepts presented in class. This will require them to apply conceptual ideas to real-world examples. We have given students similar exercises during the semester in the in-class activities developed in this ASSETT project, so this should be a familiar approach for students. I believe it will also more authentically assess their learning.

Third, beginning next year, I will develop rubrics such as those presented in class to assess student assignments. Overall, I am happy with the assignments as they now exist, but I can work to improve the assessment of those assignments. The rubrics that include distinct criteria that are measured on a spectrum can be very useful to my grading and to student learning. These can be helpful to virtually all of the assignments that I use since they are often writing, analysis, or application assignments.

Generally, I think that these three approaches can help me understand actual student learning to a greater degree. I also think that they will help students understand their own learning and where they need to improve.