Monthly Archives: June 2015

A luddite starts ‘flipping’: The beginning of a technophobe’s e-learning journey

At the end of year dinner organized by some of my students I won two awards, voted on by this years’ Vantage Arts cohort. The first was ‘Most Visited Professor’ (in office hours) and the latter was for the prof who made the ‘Best use of Technology’. Now, prior to announcing this latter award the MCs made clear that this could be an ironic, or comical award. Many student’s smiles and eyes immediately turned to me.   The winner was announced and I made my way up to the front to collect my ‘award’. I wasn’t offended at all, it showed a good sense of humour from my students and I am well aware that technology is not my friend (I myself would joke about my lack of abilities in class).

I struggled with nearly all of the computer/projector systems in my classes this year. To be fair every room I taught in had a different IT set up that required different cables and had a different process for sending things to the screen. Not what you need when you already hate technology. It probably didn’t help that two of my colleagues who also teach in the program are great with technology and did some pretty interesting stuff this year which made my efforts look pretty amateurish.

On top of this, I’ll admit it, I am just not a huge believer of ‘technology in the classroom’. There. I said it. Controversial.   A few concerns have placed me in this camp. I won’t bore you with them all, but here’s a few nuggets—particularly around the pressure to ‘flip’ my classrooms. The move towards a ‘flipped classroom’ largely (but not exclusively) involves creating videos of lecture material for students to watch prior to coming to class, thereby freeing up time from lecturing to engage in more active learning (AL) pedagogies. Now, I’m a fan and make use of a lot active learning strategies so this initially seems very attractive to me.

However, I currently intersperse ‘mini-lectures’ (between 5-30 minutes of lecturing) with a range of AL approaches (pair-shares, simulations, problem based learning etc). The lecture material is therefore fresh in students’ minds moving into the active learning. These AL techniques only work (in my mind) if students have the foundational knowledge to engage in them. If they’ve a) not watched the video in their own time or b) too much time has passed between watching the video and the activity, I feel I may as well throw the activities out the window. I’ll likely still have to do a quick run through of the material anyway to make sure we are all on the same page, so what’s the point of the fancy video productions?

Another one of my colleagues noted they were worried that students might become ‘obsessed’ with the videos, memorizing the content of the videos alone, and focusing on these before midterms and exams and not focusing on the active learning activities that accompany the videos in class. Given that it is the latter pedagogies where critical thinking skills develop, this concerned us. In creating videos we are in a sense reifying a very limited type of knowledge and given that this can be played repeatedly (unlike the AL activities) there is a concern that students will over-value these.

This all culminates in my (perhaps somewhat petulant child/cranky old prof personae) a belief that ‘one can’t learn about politics by staring at a screen’. You learn about politics by discussing, by ‘playing with ideas’ with others, by doing. I’d rather my students spend their time outside of class discussing politics with their mates in the café/pub than staring at a computer screen.  I suppose the lefty in me is also thinking about the growth of the neo-liberal university, where the goals of increasing student numbers and fees risks overtaking the goals of student learning and progress more generally. While it is perhaps silly to suggest that videos will every fully replace live academic bodies, I still wonder/worry about the repercussions on both students (and indeed the hiring of full time teaching staff) with the move towards technology and e-learning.

Now, despite my philosophical/political concerns AND (more importantly) my total lack of technological skills, I am taking a slow and cautious start towards a flipped classroom and greater integration of technology. With my newly hired Academic Assistant, I’ll be (voluntarily) working to slowly increase the use of technology in my classroom. Why you ask? Well, all of my above concerns are purely theoretical, and perhaps based more on my own fears and biases than experiences of technology not actually being pedagogically useful.* So like a good political scientist I will experiment, analyse and report back. I’ve decided to make use of three technologies this year

  1. A small number of bespoke videos produced specifically for my classes
  2. Integration of quizzes and opinion polls during lectures via our iClicker system
  3. Inclusion of twitter feeds in lectures to share information and gather student responses

Students should not expected to see all of these in all my classes, but I’ll be doing a pilot this year with some of these scattered throughout my various courses. Wish me luck, check back for updates and analysis and in the meantime enjoy (for the hilarity and sense of my current technological skill level), my first foray into making videos—the output of my initial training session with our wonderful Curriculum Manager, Brian.

*There is a wealth of research on flipped classrooms. Here are a few sources I have found useful:

Yarbro J, Arfstrom, AM, McKnight K and McKnight P (2014) Extension of a Review of Flipped Learning. Flipped Learning Network. Available at

Enfiled, J (2013) ‘Looking at the Impact of the Flipped Classroom Model of Instruction on Undergraduate Multi Media Students at CSUN’ TechTrends 57(6) 14-27

Roehl A, Reddy SL and Shannon GJ (2013) ‘The Flipped Classroom: An Opportunity to Engage Millennial Students Through Active Learning’ Journal of Family and Consumer Strategies, 102(2), 44-49.

Providing advice to students on requests to ‘bump up my grade’: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 2)

Following on from my last post, I want to be clear. Students absolutely have the right to discuss their grades with their professors. There are a variety of legitimate reasons for students to contact professors regarding their grades (the most central one being that students should talk to their profs about their grades and feedback with the aim of learning and improving for future assignments). One thing I think I can do better next year is make it much more clear to my students from day one what is and is not acceptable in terms of discussing grades with me (and other professors). This is particularly important in the intro classes.

Students: Below is a list of issues which I think are legitimate issues and questions to raise with your professors and advice on how to approach these issues.

Colleagues:  Perhaps this is a list you can adapt/share/discuss with your own students to save some of the stresses around requests for grade ‘bumps’ in the future and to try and encourage more fruitful and efficient discussions about grades more generally.

  • Questions about how the grade was calculated and a possible mistake (mathematical or otherwise) in this calculation. Note: If you are a student, make sure you have your maths right too before you approach your professor. Be specific about where you think the flaw is.  Did they forget that they gave you an excused absence for a quiz? Did they accidentally input 67 instead of 76 for your midterm? Do not send general emails saying ‘Did you calculate my grade right?’.
  • Questions about an inputted grade for which you did not receive feedback. I have had a few students request to see their final exam or discuss the participation grade they received for their tutorial—grades that are traditionally given without feedback being provided to the student. I feel students have a right to understand why they were given a grade so that they can understand what went wrong and how to improve in the future: Note: If you are a student, ask to come discuss your grade with this reason in mind. Do not send an email asking ‘did I really get that grade? That can’t be right’.
  • To inform the instructor of any extenuating circumstances which may have impacted your grade. This does not mean that a professor will automatically change your grade—but they can put you in touch with services on campus to offer you further support and ensure that you receive accommodations available to students in your situation.
  • To discuss legitimate concerns or confusion about a grade you feel is substantially lower than you deserve. If you feel you have a legitimate complaint about the grade you received, come prepared to have a reasoned, academic, intellectual discussion with your professor. Be prepared to respond directly and specifically to the feedback/critiques you were given. A student coming to a professor and simply saying ‘I don’t agree with the feedback’ probably won’t get very far. A student who comes with a specific concern will be taken seriously. For example, this year I had a student come to me concerned about feedback she had received on an essay that said she had not provided adequate case study material.   She had taken the time to go through her essay and highlight the places she had done this AND she had taken the time to explain to me in further detail why she thought that case study material had effectively proven her conceptual arguments. Through our discussions the student realized that these ‘further details’ should have been included in the paper itself—a good learning moment for how to improve on future assignments.
  • If after speaking to your professor (if you feel comfortable doing so) you are still unhappy and feel your arguments hold still, most universities will have appeals processes that you can look into—wrongs are sometimes committed.  If you are going to take this track you will need to put in the work to justify your complaint.   Your students’ union, student advising office or ombudsperson can provide you further advice. Your TAs and professors should always be your first call, but these offices listed above can also be consulted if for some reason you are unable to approach teaching faculty directly.

Can you ‘bump up my grade’?: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 1)

Weeks of intensive lecturing, writing, marking, examinations etc, whilst often rewarding is, well, just hard.  Even after a successful semester with few problems, one can’t help but take a few moments to do a wee dance (either in your head or in your office) after that last lecture is given.  There is often a huge sigh of relief, especially at the end of semester two, once those final grades are submitted, when one feels their summer work agenda can really begin.  I’m pretty sure my students feel the same. And whilst I too did a little jig at both of these moments, my transition into the summer term wasn’t without its own frustrations.  For a few days after the grades were submitted, I actually dreaded opening my email, which slowed the beat on my post-semester dance.

I’m not alone (I checked) in receiving emails from students who are upset by their final grade once these are posted. They often feel these are unfair (for a variety of reasons) or they are desperate (for another set of reasons) for their grade to be ‘bumped up’.  Sometimes I get a straight up, no holds barred ask for an increase in grades.  This is often the case if a student has just barely missed out on a pass, though I’ve also had this request from students who were sat just below an A-.   More common, however, are the requests from students to be allowed to do ‘extra credit’ in an effort to get the grade they really wanted.

In this first of two posts, I will explore this problem from the instructors point of view, with my next  post offering advice to students on how to deal with grade concerns professionally  (while the blog is primarily aimed at teaching staff, I know some of my students sometimes peruse the blog).

Prevention:  modelling and encouraging self-reflection and accountability

I’m not one for sporting analogies, but in this case I do think that the best offence is a good defence.  I think there are many simple things that we can do to reduce the amount of grade disputes and complaints we receive in a way that also improves student learning and accountability.  Yes, students earn the grades they are given; they are adults and need to take responsibility for their own learning.  However, most of are these are young adults and part of our role could (should?) be modelling/teaching what accountability for one’s actions looks like in a professional setting.  The term ‘life skills’ makes me squirm, but is apt here I suppose.

  • Do ‘progress’ check-ins with students throughout the semester. This need not be laborious.  Encourage students to calculate their grade for the class at pivotal moments during the semester.  Take these times as opportunities to invite students to your office hours to discuss any grade concerns.  Of course students should be doing this anyway, but I’m often shocked by the number of students who don’t seem to have a clue where they actually stand in the course going into the final and then come to me at the 11th hour shocked that they might possibly fail the course!
  • Have students set learning goals at the beginning of the semester via a self-assessment form*.  Collect these and return to students mid-term, after they have an assignment or two in.   At this stage ask them to reflect on whether they are meeting their goal, if they need to set new goals, why they have achieved what they have, and what they can do to set a new course at the mid-term.
  • Identify students at risk and reach out to them personally. This takes more effort than the above to options of course.  It may be something that a senior TA could do.  Students with poor attendance or a failed assignment could be emailed directly and asked to discuss their progress with you or the TA.  If this seems too ‘hand-holding’ for some, another more feasible option is to have whoever is marking simply write ‘please come see me’  at the end of any assignment that is below a certain grade.   I will say that this tactic has both worked (and slightly backfired) for me this year.  After taking this track following one the intro writing assignments I ended up having weeks where I was holding upwards of 12 ‘office hours’ as students took me up on my offer!  Whilst time intensive (and something my TAs will help more with next year) it did lead to improved performance (and thus less frustrating marking) on subsequent assignments.  It also helped me identify a few student wellness/mental well-being issues that may have gone undetected otherwise.

Responding to requests for increased grades and extra credit:

Many of the requests I have received for increased grades come with a back story that often pulls at the heart strings.  I’m not going to write here about perceptions of if these are legitimate or not—I’m rarely in a position to judge the veracity of these.  The point is, even at my  most crankiest of ‘cranky-professor’ moments (which I like to think are actually pretty rare, but maybe ask my students) I’m also human being, and saying ‘no’ to a student who seems to be writing from a place of total desperation can still be tough.

The pressures students face from family and society may be very real or FEEL very real to them. We don’t know their mental state, their financial situation, the list goes on.   Plus, whilst we know that failing Intro to XYZ  is not going to dramatically change their life course,  to some students a failure or not getting that A is the end of the world to them, in that moment.  I’ll never forget the student who upon getting a respectable B+ in a challenging course said to me ‘getting that grade made me feel like a horrible person’.  Dramatic?  Yes, from my perspective.  But it is easy for me to say that from the position of secure tenure track job in which I get to spend most of my time doing interesting things I want to be doing.  For a young person, uncertain about their future, unsure of what their skills actually are and what they even want to do with their lives,  a ‘bad grade’ (particularly on an assignment they were excited about) can be a blow.

Again, whilst we are not trained counsellors, there is much we can do to support students in taking ownership of the grades they have earned, and reflecting on their own behaviour.  Hopefully if we teach this to them at early in their undergraduate degrees, they will carry it forward with them.  Here is are some of my strategies for dealing with requests for extra credit or grade ‘bumps’.

  • Request, when possible, that the student come to office hours to discuss the issue face to face (perhaps with the exception of them pointing out a minor typo/grade calculation via email). This generally means that I am only discussing grade issues with students who have a legitimate concern—who are prepared to have a reasoned discussion with me.  I still get students coming in who don’t really have a reasoned argument,  but these students are generally highly stressed or very desperate so they are willing to make the trek to my office, which allows me to then direct them to other support mechanisms if needed.   Sometimes this can be assessed via email of course—I do send some students straight to student services depending on the content of their original email.
  • Help the student make a plan on how they will deal with the wider problem. Sometimes this is a simple academic issues that I can provide advice on (study habits, writing structure, time management etc).  However,  grade requests are often coming from place of panic or because a student has not made use of services that support mental/physical health issues faced by students.  I remind the student that problems that have impacted their grades in my course are probably affecting their grades in other courses, so the best course of action is to get professional advice on how to deal with their academic/health/financial problem holistically.  I’m not in a position to do that, the best place they can get help from these other student services.   Whatever the problem, make sure the student leaves the office knowing what they should be doing to rectify the problem.
  • Remind the student that there were multiple opportunities and supports in place to help them improve their grade over the semester. Talk to them about this—did they make use of the resources available to them? If not, why not?  What lessons can they take from this moving forward?
  • Remind the student that it would be unfair on their peers if their grades were simply ‘bumped up’ or only they were given extra credit opportunities. Ask them what they would think if it was the other way around—if they were in a class where only a small number of students were allowed to improve their grades, or the Prof simply raised the grades without extra effort. A simple ‘logic/fairness’ check usually works on students—and this technique can also sometimes lead to students opening up about issues they hadn’t raised before.  I had one student say to me ‘Yes, that would seem unfair to me, unless I knew that they had been looking after a sick parent all semester’.  Again, this allows me to move into a conversation directing students to the appropriate support services.
  • When in doubt, ask a senior colleague. Sometimes you just need a reality check.  I had a request this year to which I repeatedly said no.  The student kept protesting and emailing.  I started doubting myself.  ‘Am I just being totally heartless, unreasonable jerk here?’ I asked myself.  A two minute chat with a respected senior colleague saved me hours of self-doubt and stress.
  • Related to the above (note: I did not on the above occasion feel threatened by the student), don’t be afraid to tell you department head/line-manager if you are being harassed or threatened by a student. I don’t think this happens very often, but it did happen to me once to me early on in my career and I have heard some pretty upsetting stories from other colleagues. Sometimes we suffer from a ‘I should be able to handle this and if I say anything I will look weak’ mentality—especially as untenured faculty.  Frankly, that is garbage.  If you at all feel threatened or bullied report it immediately and be insistent on support and action from your institution.

* I have a form that I use with my first year students for this—please email me if you would like to see a copy.  It is by no means perfect, but I’ve found it useful.