[dropcap]C[/dropcap]hances are you have a Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard, Canvas, D2L, or Moodle at your school. But how do you use it
? The findings from a recent survey by Pomerantz, Brown, and Brooks (2018) of U.S. learning institutions are rather alarming. Despite the integration of an LMS in 99 percent of schools and universities, and adoption by 88 percent of faculty to support online or blended learning environments, the platform is most frequently used for largely administrative tasks. Instructors use a dropbox to collect assignments and often treat the LMS as a file repository for copies of slides used in class and to house the course syllabus. Some will make use of the announcements feature to centralize critical communication.
Regardless of the LMS being used, there is a significant opportunity to move students from passive observers to active participants by leveraging tools both inside and outside the system. These engagement activities are particularly effective for informal assessments within blended and online classes. They can be quickly and easily adopted by faculty using a simple set of strategies honed from well-accepted methods and approaches to student-centered learning. Best of all, many tools and techniques for supporting increased engagement are free, easy-to-implement, and do not require a high degree of technical savvy.
Traditionally, assessment has been used as a means of evaluating student performance for a grade—you assess students’ knowledge and/or skills and assign a grade based on the percentage of correct answers. This sets up a linear relationship: teach then assess. But assessment can be used as a teaching and learning tool. Learner-centered education integrates assessment into the entire learning process in both informal and formal ways. Such assessments are often brief, ungraded, and most often anonymous, providing useful “real-time” information. Informal assessments can be used at any point during the class: at the beginning to pre-assess, throughout the class to confirm understanding, or when the session ends, as exit tickets for post-assessment.
Quick and easy informal assessment activities
Some of the most common and easy-to-implement informal assessment activities are polling, word clouds, focused listing, postcards, elevator pitch, and how squared.
- Polling. Mobile apps are increasingly being used in place of traditional “clickers” to ask questions, poll students, assess general knowledge, and generate feedback. One popular example is PollEverywhere, a web-based survey and real-time feedback provider allowing students to interact through a smartphone app, text message, or a website. Most LMSs feature some version of online polling or interactive quizzing.
- Word Clouds. Word clouds are images composed of words associated with concepts, questions, or reactions sought by an instructor; they are fast, engaging, and can provide an emotional connection for students. Think of the powerful insights a facilitator gains by simply asking students to report a single word describing how they feel about their progress on a project? The more frequently a word appears, the larger it gets, which allows the instructor to address most pressing concerns and simultaneously confirm the positive feelings revealed. Similarly, word clouds can be used to support brainstorming (e.g., in a case discussion the instructor might ask: “what kinds of obstacles might we face if we made this choice?”). Wordle and TagCloud are two popular choices for creating word clouds.
- Focused Listing. Focused listing can be used before, during, or after a lesson. This method helps you to gauge student learning and allows your students to monitor their own Select a topic or concept and describe it in a brief word or phrase as the heading for the focused list. Set a time limit or a limit on the number of items to be listed. Ask students to make a list of words and phrases that are related to the heading. This engagement activity can be implemented on a whiteboard, using a polling system, or in a discussion thread.
- Postcards. To wrap up a lesson, ask students to write a postcard to a “pretend” student who may have missed class that day. Students will need to explain the key ideas and takeaways from the lesson. Think of a postcard…you have just a little space to write your thoughts, so whether written by hand or electronically, the notes should be brief and concise.
- Elevator Pitch. As a review activity, ask students to summarize main ideas or key topics in fewer than 60 seconds. A fun variation of this approach is to have students present to a classmate acting as a well-known personality or theorist who works in your discipline. After summarizing, students should identify why the famous person might find the idea significant. An elevator pitch can often be recorded using a native recording tool in your LMS. Students can also use their mobile device to record these brief pitches then upload to a dedicated discussion thread.
- How Squared. At the end of a lesson, module, or class, pose two questions to your students:
- “How does something you learned connect to what you already knew?”
- “How did it extend your thinking further?
Use a blank notecard in class and students can drop the card off in a box as they leave class. One could easily implement this through email or a discussion too. This brief exercise will provide you, the facilitator, with a rich assessment of the learning your students just experienced.
Guidelines for implementing engagement activities
If you want to increase student involvement, interest, and motivation within your blended and online classrooms, here are some guidelines for developing engagement activities.
- Keep it simple. Start with an easy and low stakes activity. This approach will enable students and you to gain a level of comfort, foster engagement, and provide an enjoyable learning experience.
- Ensure the engagement activity aligns with the learning goal. Select an engagement activity that will provide you with what you want to know and what you want students to gain from the activity.
- Prepare students for the activity. Explain the purpose of the activity. Do not assume students will understand what you are doing and why, especially if they are accustomed to being in a traditional learning environment. Tell them what you have learned from the outcome of the activity and/or assessment when previously used.
- Design your own engagement activity. You may want to design an activity that fits the specific needs of your If you do design an engagement activity, ask a few colleagues to try a “dry run” with you so that you know it works and will achieve the purpose.
- Change engagement activities throughout the course. Do not use the same engagement activities all of the time. Switch up and try different activities for different purposes. If you use the same activities consistently, you may run the risk of student disengagement. There is an element of entertainment and interest generation within the practice of engagement—you don’t want to be a one-trick pony!
- Informal assessments should be ungraded and anonymous. The purpose of these assessments is to solicit and provide feedback as well as to assist students with self-assessment and self-regulation of learning. Assure students these assessments are ungraded and anonymous so they do not feel anxious and they are genuine in their responses.
- Explore free apps and LMS-specific features, and then test them before using in class. A sundry of open-source and free-for-academic-use software is available to allow for interactivity and real-time collaboration in the blended classroom.
- Talk to colleagues. Share your experiences with colleagues and inquire about what they have implemented. Sometimes an activity another faculty member has used can be adapted for your
Whatever the tool or medium (online, through a real-time polling system, or traditional pen and paper) engagement activities are powerful ways to enhance learning in face-to-face, blended, and fully online classrooms
Jonathan M. Dapra is an assistant professor of management at Plymouth State University and Marcia A. Wratcher is an adjunct professor of education at Northcentral University.
Pomerantz, J., Brown, M., & Brooks, D.C. (2018). Foundations for a next generation digital learning environment: Faculty, students, and the LMS.
Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, January.
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