Assessment, Teaching & Disciplinary Writing

My colleagues and I recently published an article on our experiences creating a senior portfolio of writing samples, and assessment. In this piece, we acknowledge that faculty begrudgingly participate in assessment directives from administration. However, we also show how assessment – conducted as social scientific research – can provide valuable insights on student learning.

Most of us have probably heard someone say something along the lines of “we know best” while providing a series of anecdotes or talking about “common sense.” This, however, is not scientific. Such assumptions about teaching do not exemplify the critical thinking skills we supposedly teach our students. As sociologists, we regularly teach our students that common sense, might not be reliable or accurate. As such, applying sociological insights to teaching and learning can help us critically think about pedagogy.

With 215 portfolios, consisting of 1,028 student papers, collected and assessed we have solid evidence on the strengths and weaknesses of our students. An unsurprising finding in our research is that student writing could use a great deal of improvement. However, we also have evidence linking this to the inability to apply theory and write a decent literature review.  In other words, components of good sociological writing. This is something, I’ve touched upon in my blog.  Good writing, on some level, means disciplinary writing. It means writing for an audience e.g. fellow sociologists. This involves prose, as well as different styles of citation

Right now, my grant supported research is delving into this problem through the angles of community building and co-curricular activities. Put simply, will identifying as a sociologist – as a fellow social scientist – improve a student’s writing? Using surveys, focus groups, and existing assessment data, I am tackling this research question – as research.

This project is ongoing, and I’ll likely have a post on it once it’s completed. However, I’d like to end this post by saying, assessment doesn’t have it be assessment. I can be research as well. This is research that can inform one’s teaching, as well as curricular changes.  Importantly, it can do so by using evidence rather than anecdotes.

Back to School: Desire2Learn Tips

Splatter Backpack

This was originally posted on the KU Converge website.

It’s back to school time. Despite the semester starting last week, I’m still making last minute tweaks to my courses on Desire2Learn. This blog post is dedicated to the various tricks I’ve developed over the last few years. It’s a solid learning management system that has lots of useful functions if you know how to access and use them. I’m hoping that these tips not only help make your courses more effective, but it saves you time in grading, organizing content, and even assessing program goals.

1. Online Test and Quiz Security

Randomizing your questions in a single folder is not enough. There are problems with balance between chapters and cheating in the form of so-called buddy testing. Essentially, I try to make it difficult or inconvenient for a student to ask a friend to take the exam for them.

  • I always have the exam scheduled for regular class time. This is particularly important when there are multiple sections of the same class.
  • I have a mandatory question where the student enters their student ID number. Not only does this make it more difficult for the student to have another student login for them, the results for this question can be downloaded (for all students) as an Excel file and compared to student ID numbers in the class roster in a separate spreadsheet column.
  • I have more questions in the test bank than the number I actually have on the exam. The more you have the less likely two students will have the same exam.
  • The key to having a balanced exam (e.g. having all chapters covered evenly) is to have multiple random folders.

2. Export Statistics is Your Friend

Being able to export results/statistics from quizzes, discussions and surveys is an incredibly useful tool. I teach large classes with over 100 students. So for participation points, I typically have students discuss various topics on D2L as homework. In order to give them simple participation points such as a simple complete, incomplete or zero, I export the statistics on a discussion topic and then re-import them into the gradebook using Excel make sure the file is formatted correctly.

  • See below on how exporting statistics can be use for assessment purposes.

3. Peer Review for Papers Online

Using the group dropbox, you can have students review each other’s work. This worked out pretty well in an online course recently. Simply put students (or the whole class) in a group, and then assign that group a dropbox that allows multiple submissions. Everyone should be able to see all the submitted papers, including Turnitin scores if that function is turned on. If the class is online, you can then have the students discuss and critique papers via the discussion forums.

4. HTML and custom CSS

For faculty that enjoy customizing their course content, you can upload web content directly (such as HTML files). You can’t upload JavaScript, but you can use custom CSS stylesheets. Yes, you can keep your course content simple. However, using a little CSS can make important material “pop” a lot more, as students go over outlines, summaries, etc. For instance, you can have different mouse roll over effects or even a simple menu in place.

5. Surveys for Assessment

At present, the sociology program is using D2L to assess senior portfolios. Each semester graduating seniors submit a pdf of their writing to a D2L course where all sociology faculty are listed as instructors.  Each faculty member fills out an anonymous survey on the student’s work via D2L. This saves time in that it allows me to compile and average scores quickly and efficiently. D2L also allows us to easily notify the student of the outcome.