Illustration of TacitusA central assumption that I make about student engagement is that students have to find value in the course assignments in order to become engaged in the course. Without understanding that value, the assignments appear to be busy work or even worse: meaningless. To address this issue, I specify in writing the connection between the assignments for the module and the course goals. These connections appear in a list of topics and assignments for each module. For example, in module 2, in addition to explaining the value of writing in class, I address the value of writing a well-structured argument: “Students will be able to develop a historical argument by writing a short paper about Aristophanes' depictions of Athenian culture in concise and well-structured prose based on the synthesis of information provided in lecturers and readings.” Before engaging in this relatively high stakes assignment that utilizes the skills of synthesis and interpretation near the high end of Bloom’s taxonomy, students will have engaged in relatively low stakes quizzes and discussions of the material. In other words, in addition to providing students with the value of the assignment, it is also necessary to provide the necessary support, preparation, or “scaffolding” as it is sometimes called, prior to the assignment.

One challenge that is somewhat peculiar to the Humanities is to remove the impression that grading is arbitrary or subjective. For this reason, I assign a series of relatively low-stakes formative assessments as part of the scaffolding for the higher stakes summative assessments: the papers and the final exams. For each module I have a few multiple choice format assessments that begin with very low-stakes video-quizzes and clicker questions. 

The video-quizzes consist of a screencast video that I create using Camtasia to produce an mp4 file, similar to this one for the module on the Romans. 

At any time during the semester students can watch these videos within the Learning Management System. I then use the Playposit plugin to Canvas to overlay questions into this short (roughly 7 minute) video. Students can then take the quiz built into the video, which covers the fundamental concepts for the module or topic that we are covering. Because each of these video-quiz assignments only constitutes approximately 1/200th of the overall course grade and because the information contained in the video is central to the material we are covering, I allow students to take these video-quizzes as many times as they like. These exercises provide early opportunities for success in each module, and the possibility of doing well is very high. They can retake the video quizzes as many times as they like until they achieve 100%. And when clicker questions have a correct answer (many of them do not), I tend to either lead them toward the answer or I ask about something fairly straightforward that we just covered. These very low-stakes exercises are partly intended to build confidence.

A slightly higher stakes formative assessment involves the Perusall assignments. Students have quite a bit of control over their grades in the Perusall assignments because they can improve their comments until the achieve the maximum grade of 25 points on any given assignment. To do so takes time and commitment. However, I provide the Perusall grading rubric in the LMS so that they can see how Perusall scores their annotations. Then they can review their scores as they interact with Perusall and can continue to improve their Perusall score until they are satisfied with their grade. On one level I am allowing them to game the system. On another level, I am putting them in charge of a small portion of their overall course grade, which they can improve with some additional time and effort. It is fairly easy to obtain full credit if one is willing to spend 20 minutes on reading and annotating the document in Perusal. In two recent Perusall assignments related to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Hammurabi’s Code, for example, seventy percent of students participating scored the maximum possible score.

Epic of Gilgamesh:

Epic of Gilgamesh Perusall statistics

Hammurabi's Code:

Hammurabi's code Perusall statistics

The most heavily weighted of the formative assessments involves the module quiz. Each of the six modules concludes with this type of quiz. Because the module quizzes are intended to be a form of preparation for the final exam, I want to encourage students to take them seriously. However, if other commitments keep students from adequate preparation and they consequently do not perform well on the quiz, students can rebound because I drop their two lowest scores. They have to be judicious in this process because I do not provide make-ups unless the situation is truly exceptional. 

Because the course learning objectives emphasize the construction of a well-supported and well-crafted analytical paper, I treat the paper writing assignments as summative assessments. During the course of the semester, students write two papers. The first of these papers counts for 13.33% of the course grade and the second one counts for 23.33% of the course grade. I provide detailed feedback on the first paper assignment so that they can use that feedback to improve on the second paper assignments. The two papers use the same rubric and include the same expectations which are available along with the paper assignments themselves from the first day of classes. If students plan ahead, they can spread out their work on these summative assessments over three to five weeks. These papers focus entirely on material covered in the assigned readings, which are covered in the formative assessments.

At the end of the semester I have traditionally given a final exam, which counts for 16.67% of the course grade, and consists of an essay (topic given in advance), short answer, and identification questions. The questions and terms featured on the final exam study guide come from the various module study guides. As long as students prepare well for the quizzes by reviewing the module study guides, the final exam has virtually no new material. On the final exam I ask them to synthesize approximately four weeks of lectures related to the final exam essay question, which I introduce about six weeks before the final.

Prior to taking this approach the final exam performance was very uneven, and I often found myself having to curve the final exam grades. I addressed that problem by making sure to populate the study guides for each of the six modules with questions that are likely to be on the final. In a sense they are working on the final exam all semester. I have also recently made the quizzes cumulative throughout the semester so that students do not just forget the material from one module as they head into the next. Instead, they need to review the previous modules throughout the semester. My initial impression is that this approach is improving student success on the final exam. However, I have yet to devise a reliable measure for student improvement on the final.

The purpose of the scaffolding approach to the summative assessments (the papers and the final) is to convey to students that they have a clear path toward success in the course. According to How Learning Works (Ambrose, et al.), students are more likely to be engaged if the course provides a clearly articulated supportive approach to the material. In other words, for many students engagement relies on support or scaffolding. Because we seek to develop the higher order skills of synthesis and interpretation, we should help students develop those skills by modeling them in class (with discussions), by practicing them outside of class (Perusal assignments), and by ensuring that they learn the necessary facts (with clicker questions and quizzes) so that they can establish the requisite knowledge for the higher order skills. 

The most recent addition to this approach has been the adoption of the Perusall assignments. Previously I utilized discussion forums in D2L. I found the current LMS to be deficient in terms of its discussion capabilities. Consequently, I looked for a new solution, and Perusall seemed to be the best fit for what I was trying to accomplish. Based on anecdotal evidence, the quality of the in-class discussions has improved since adopting Perusall. More students come to class familiar with the readings. The in-class discussions are livelier. It may be that I have particularly interested students this semester, but the students’ awareness of the readings as we discuss them has improved. I will know after several semesters with Perusall if I can base this conclusion on more than anecdotal evidence.

In some ways the Humanities and other writing heavy disciplines are swimming upstream in a culture that is becoming less literate. Snapchat is the social media app of choice. Students are communicating more with images and less with words. Fewer students read for pleasure than even a decade ago. Our culture once revered literacy. Now such reverence seems quaint to many. Attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other elements of careful writing has fallen by the wayside. Higher order writing skills related to thesis development, topic sentences, and essay coherence are often completely alien to our students. Consequently, the course learning objectives related to writing are somewhat culturally alien to many students. 

In addition, many students develop unhealthy study and work habits in high school. Many think that they can just cram for the final or the paper by pulling all sorts of material off of the internet. That assumption tends to seduce some students into skipping classes and tuning out or ignoring the formative assessments. One of the fundamental challenges that faculty in these introductory core requirements courses have to undertake is the teaching of more effective study habits and practices. I hope that the scaffolding approach that I described above is a step toward that process of introducing more effective learning strategies and that these strategies will help me to reach students from a broader array of backgrounds.

I have established a baseline to quantify student attendance rates and how they influence success rates in the class. Based on data collected pertaining to clicker scores and attendance, it is fairly clear that students who fail to come to class or who fail to pay attention to material covered in class are at much higher risk of performing poorly in the course. While this observation is hardly revolutionary, the clicker data provides insight into who those students are at a fairly early stage in the semester. This information will allow me to contact those students to give them a friendly nudge to pick up their attendance and participation in order to avoid a less than satisfactory outcome in terms of the final course grade.

I have a lot of work to do in order to improve student achievement. One of the most effective ways to evaluate improvement beyond looking at grades and clicker scores is to employ outside observers to measure classroom activities. Therefore, I have taken advantage of the COPUS and BERI observations to measure student activities as they pertain to my actions as an instructor. COPUS and BERI are acronyms that refer to protocols that measure student engagement and instructor activities during a class session. The data is collected by trained observers, provided by ASSETT, who sit in on class sessions and observe student and instructor behavior and mark their observations according to rubrics established for this purpose. So far, the data confirms that clicker questions do change the nature of student activities in the classroom and provide important breaking points in discussion and lecture activities.

I have also offered this course both online and in honors seminars. Unsurprisingly, the students in the honors seminars perform much better on the assignments, while many of the online students tend to drop the course. The withdrawal/dropout rate for the online class is fairly high (40%) probably because many of them assume that the course will be really easy. The withdrawal/dropout rate for the in-class version of the course is fairly low (10-15%) by comparison.

My assumption is that clickers have increased attendance in the in-class version of the large class and that the increased attendance has caused fewer students to withdraw from the class. I will be employing the gentle nudge explained above to continue to encourage students to attend class, and I hope to continue to explore ways of increasing the engagement of those students who are in the classroom.

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