Amazing, fun, engaging, therapeutic, *useless* course: how I plan to make my course better next semester

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes, 28 seconds

I got my student evaluations yesterday. This is sometimes a really emotional moment, and I’m sure many who teach will agree. I’m writing this post to partly vent about one part of the evaluation I’m fixating on, but also partly to help myself think more positively about my course next semester, because I was already making plans. It is self-therapy. And maybe doing it in public will help others.

We know student evaluations can be biased, and we know they’re not the best measure of how good a course or teacher are, but I believe it is important for an institution to get feedback from students about courses. We hope students will all answer surveys, so that we have a balanced view of the course, and not just what those extremes who loved and hated it think. Our university re-designed the evaluation questions, made it slightly shorter (I think). My department was part of this process, and I personally helped conduct/interpret focus groups and surveys with faculty, students and department chairs, and was involved in the long process of senate approval over something like 7 versions. The open-ended questions reminded students to highlight what they think was beneficial about the course, and how the course could be better.

This semester’s student evaluations: a quick reflection/rant

I was excited to read my course evaluations this semester because I felt the class generally went well, and the final reflections were generally really positive, emphasizing things like how students felt the class helped them make friends and know people, how the community was good, the discussions and activities were good, how they learned a lot of digital skills and literacies, how they improved their writing via blogging, how they liked the informal atmosphere on Slack, how they liked having agency/choices in some of their assignments, how satisfying it was to create their own digital game about a topic they valued, how they found the peer-review process constructive. They complained about workload, they always do, even after I adjust and adjust and adjust again.

So now, the evaluations. If I had to look at my own evaluations this semester objectively (and there is no such thing), I would have to say they were REALLY good. Only 8 of 20 students responded (it’s hard to get them all to respond, even if you make time for it in class). The quantitative results are really good, maybe among the highest scores I’ve ever gotten (I don’t track too much, but I can see it). For some reason, the university is reporting the median, so my medians are usually 5 (highest) and not the mean for each question [I just looked again and the means are there, but the median is the rightmost column so my eyes had gone to it first]. That’s kinda weird, but it has a good psychological effect.

I don’t think I’m allowed to quote student evaluations in a blogpost, but just the title of this post is like a word cloud of the common phrases in the three open-ended questions: most beneficial part of the course, what can be improved, and other comments/suggestions. So basically, things like fun, interactive, engaging, amazing, thereapeutic, enjoyable, stimulated thinking, learned a lot… and… “useless course”.

OMG USELESS COURSE???

So there were a lot of immediate reactions, the first of which is, how could your answer to “most beneficial” be “useless course”????

A couple of other reactions were to fixate on this and wonder who said it? Was it one of the students who always came late and missed many classes and submitted work late or not at all? Or was it someone who told me to my face that they loved the course or enjoyed it, but deep inside them didn’t like it? Or was it maybe just someone who was an introvert and hated all the community-building work? No, that did not make sense, many introverts liked the small group activities and participated in them well. I could not see their mouths because of masks, so I could not see smiles, but I could see their body language and hear their chatter and they genuinely seemed engaged and to be enjoying it. I also got feedback so many times throughout the semester, anonymous and not, from people at my center coming into class while I was not there and surveys and Slack and stuff. I guess it’s hard if only one or two students hate the class to say it aloud in the midst of all the others. Or maybe the hater missed that particular session. I don’t know.

But then I had a delayed reaction. Wishful thinking, but worth entertaining. Perhaps the student meant to say “useful course”??? The term “useless course” appears twice in my evaluation. Once where they should be saying something positive, and once where they say something negative. I can totally see someone who thinks a course is useless deciding to put that *useless* piece of feedback in those two places, but it’s weird. OK it is wishful thinking to think they meant to say useful. I did look at all the other questions though, and I don’t have anything less than a 5 or 4 under instructor. But I could be a good teacher and still have a useless course, right? OK, so then there is a question about “unnecessary overlap with other courses” and there is one Strongly Agree there. That is completely possible, but I doubt the entire course could overlap with any other, because there is a very strong digital literacies part AND a very strong intercultural element. Very few courses do BOTH, but of course some courses have parts of both, so if there is like 20 or 30% overlap with another course or two, I guess someone could say that. There is also a question of whether students would recommend the course to others, and most said “strongly agree” and only ONE said “neutral”. No one said “strongly disagree” or “disagree”. Wouldn’t someone who thought the course was useless then NOT recommend it to others?

Ah well :)) That’s the end of that rant!

Plans to Improve the Course for Next Semester

I’ll start with the things I should continue doing:

  1. Doing warm-up activities every class that help students get to know one another. I always did some kind of warm-up activity in class, but sometimes those were focused on interesting content, or watching a video and discussing, etc. I still do those things, but I think the beginnings that focused on having students interact with each other made a huge difference especially in the post-online-learning socioemotional needs of students, and in my liberal arts option course, where few students know anyone else in the class because they all come from different majors
  2. Asking about their wellbeing & start with talking about trauma-informed approaches – they remembered and appreciated this, and that I did it in different ways each time, and it made all the difference
  3. Annotating the syllabus at the beginning of the semester – students valued this and some remembered it towards the end as well
  4. Digital narrative game project. I keep wondering if this project is worth it, but students this semester seemed to especially enjoy it even though it took them longer to finish. I need to help them finish it faster (esp that next semester we have Ramadan in April) but still do it – and also, continue the extensive peer review process. It does take up a lot of class time, but it helped students build community, and a couple of skills I don’t explicitly mention in my syllabus: the ability to give constructive feedback, and to listen to and act upon feedback from peers.
  5. Experimenting with Theater of the Oppressed techniques in class. I’m doing a sort of “course”/community with Theresa Ronquillo and Tikka Sears where I practice embodied facilitation techniques, and I’ve tried a few in class. It’s a little awkward for both me and my students, but it is also energizing and I sense an 8:30am class will SO need some movement to keep us all awake! I am sure I will get better at it, and they will get more comfortable with it when they get used to it. I felt last semester that with masks covering our facial expressions, using bodies to express ourselves could have new meaning.
  6. Giving breaks and bringing snacks. I used to occasionally bring snacks to class for different reasons. Last semester, I brought snacks EVERY class session and gave a 5 min break most class sessions so students could walk out and take a breath, take off their masks, whatever they needed. It made a hell of a difference in their focus when they came back. And they were almost always back on time. Sometimes, I gave them a group activity and I would say they have e.g. 20 mins + 5 min break – if they finish early they can take a longer break. If they wanna do the group activity outdoors, they could do that. That was also really good to account for just the fact that some groups worked faster than others! There is no good reason to assume everyone will take the same amount of time. Especially with group work, where some people discuss a lot, or struggle more, while others power through.

Things I plan to modify

  1. Adjusting reflection workload: Students tend to perceive the workload as high, but it’s really just that they submit an assignment every week worth a small percentage, and there are no exams. Even the big project for the digital narrative games is split up into 5 phases worth 5% each. It’s really manageable, if they understood that. Which I should maybe discuss with them some more, but I could also do something slightly different that allows me to have them submit things, better gauge participation, and still not make them feel like they’re doing a lot at home.
    • I’m thinking of having two Google forms that I use occasionally. One Google form can be used at the beginning of class. When students have done a reading, instead of necessarily blogging a reflection on the reading, they can write into the Google form a quote they found interesting, or a question they have about the reading/video/etc + how much they enjoyed and learned from that particular text. The other Google form which I could use on different days, is like a “minute paper” where they do it at the END of class, and they reflect on what was the most important thing they learned, and what is still confusing or questions they still have. And then, given that these two forms of “writing” are not really “assignments” (but can be graded like in really small ways, like 0.5%), they can do a larger assignment synthesizing what we learn in each topic and reflecting and applying to their own experiences. I’d have to think of good prompts here, but I think they might feel less pressure and at the same time, they’d have their responses from Google forms already (I make it to automatically send them their responses), and they’d feel it was more like one larger written assignment every 2-3 weeks not once a week. Maybe. I’ll try it and see
    • I could also use Spiral journal. I’ve almost never used it as a warm-up or cool-down activity. They could spiral on paper in class then upload parts of it they’re willing to share onto a Jamboard or something.
    • Use Hypothesis more often and create a new private group for it. I ended up not using Hypothesis a lot this semester, but I noticed before that it makes my own grading process easier, and some students really enjoy it. Or I could give students a choice (after they’ve tried Hypothesis a couple of times) to either use Hypothesis OR reflect on their blogs. Use of Hypothesis would be an alternative to that first Google form with selecting quotes/questions, but they would do it as an assignment before class so I could see their responses before class time.
  2. Punctuality: I’m teaching an 8:30am class for the first time. I used to teach at 10am. I have always been flexible with “lateness” to class, understanding that this is the way Egyptians are. Not punctual. Also, that there are sometimes reasons like oversleeping, Uber coming late, difficulty parking, crowded gate on arrival, etc., that make students late. However, this fall semester, it started to annoy me that sometimes at 10am I would only have 3 or 4 students. It is ok if 2 or 3 students are late, but not when MOST of them are late. So we had a conversation about this, trying to find out the reasons they were late, and people started suggesting to each other what they could do to be on time. e.g. some gave tips on where to park when it was too crowded, how to set your alarm so you do not snooze it by mistake, etc. Next semester, I hope to make more of a point of this, because even though I care and understand why they might be late, I think it is important to help them develop a sense of punctuality and respect for other people’s time. It disrupts other students’ time when some are late. If they have a good reason to be late and let me know, occasionally, that’s one thing. But if they do it constantly and think it’s OK, that’s not OK. I don’t accept lack of punctuality from myself, or from my daughter, and I should not just let it go and let students keep doing it. But my solution is not to punish them for it. My solution is, I think, to work with them on how to improve it. Figure out what their challenges and barriers are, and work through them. Funnily, I think traffic and parking will be less of a problem with 8:30am, plus I am hoping people who take the 8:30am class are people who know they’re willing to wake up early. I hope!!!
  3. Tinkering throughout the semester: every semester since I started teaching this course, I’ve added more and more “tinkering” with digital platforms activities, and most students seem to enjoy them. As home assignments, they don’t take up a lot of time (mostly) and at first, I would give them a choice of ds106 assignment as “bonus”, but they enjoyed them so much I started doing some in class, and then I added them as an option in the “digital literacies pathway” (full assignment description and video) assignment. They could either “tinker” with ds106, or take “taught” modules on All Aboard, or “theory” from Mozilla Internet Health report
  4. Sustaining Wellbeing: I’ve been doing assignments related to wellbeing – doing things like gratitude journaling or meditation or whatever suits them, and last semester, I had planned 3 blogposts and one presentation. It ended up being 1 blogpost and a light presentation. I think I need to both reduce the workload of this, and increase the frequency at the same time. So I think it might need to be something they do during class time (reflecting on it) a few times, and maybe write about it once. I used to have this as a “flexible deadline” assignment, but I think might give it a week window deadline with several choices, but I need to do it still. And the totally flexible/soft deadlines confuse undergraduate students. I think I can use more class time to do warm-ups related to wellbeing, with prompts like bringing a photo of something that delighted them that week, or reflecting in writing on what is leaking their power/energy, or what relationships they have that sustain/nurture them, and submitting to me and sharing in small groups. That way, I’ve got both the warm-up and the wellbeing in one activity, done several times a semester.
  5. Academic Integrity stuff. I always tend to talk about academic integrity with students. In small ways, we learn about copyright and using copyright-free images, and citation, and linking to sources when we’re blogging. Students tend to say they appreciate having learned that in the course. They say this like a LOT. But most of them still don’t do it consistently and it annoys me. So I plan to talk about it some more and perhaps more explicitly include things in the assignment descriptions, such as “every blogpost must have a thoughtfully-chosen featured image and a citation for that image – maybe even an explanation of how you found it and why you chose that particular one”. And maybe a few more in-class activities to practice doing this right (I already have a couple, but maybe they need more so that it can sink in). I also want to discuss with students more about why we have academic integrity challenges on campus. Some semesters students open up about this, some they don’t. One of the semesters they opened up the MOST about it was when we were online and ALL CAMERAS WERE OFF. I think this helped them open up, actually! I’ll what happens. Maybe we can create a digital game AS A CLASS about this. Or co-author an article about it.
  6. Pre-Survey on Skills. I do a pre-survey in the class to get to know them a little. I plan this semester to add how strong they find themselves on skills like learning new digital platforms, on writing, reading, listening, speaking in class, creativity, time management, leadership, etc., so I can consider sometimes grouping them for in-class groupwork in teams with diverse talents.
  7. Mission in Life & Importance/Urgency Matrix. I want to, early on, have students reflect on the Live, Love, Learn and Leave a Legacy thing (from Covey’s book First Things First). I’ll start it early in the semester, make connections to other aspects of the course, and make it part of their wellbeing as well. The Importance/Urgency Matrix might help them with managing time but also just general priorities. This is always something I wanted to help students improve upon.
  8. Buddying. I tried buddying in trios before and it did not work well. However, I think I can ask them to buddy up for the “digital narrative games” project and the “digital literacies pathway” assignment (maybe call it project???) even if they’re working alone. So they can work alone on their actual game/pathway, but they have a buddy (one or two) to discuss it with, get feedback from regularly, etc. If they do their game in a pair, they can buddy up with one person, if they are doing it alone, then three people can buddy up. It could work. Because I realized those who work in pairs do better work because they’re a pair! Others who work alone may or may not struggle more. If they had some moral support, maybe occasional technical support and a critical eye, it could help.
  9. Consider different approaches to ungrading. I’ll have to do some more reading and discussion to see what feels right to me for next semester. I want to encourage certain behaviors but not punish anything that stems from privilege, you know? I usually have students self-assess, and most semesters it works out ok, but this semesters too many students over-estimated their performance, and that’s not OK. I don’t know if I have time to meet every single student to discuss this in the middle of the semester, but I probably either need to make time for it, or find ways to help them do better at working it out.

I have a few more notes that are very specific to my own course content, so I’m not going to share every single thing, but I just wanted to put some of the more general things here.

3 thoughts on “Amazing, fun, engaging, therapeutic, *useless* course: how I plan to make my course better next semester

  1. Thanks for sharing! Many of your reflections resonate with me – students are calculative they don’t feel its worth their effort to do multiple activities for a few marks. Less complaints when its formative in-class activities.

  2. Yes, framing activities with detailed whys helps create more involvement (and less complaints). E.g. to develop professional judgement – a rubrics for self assessment that requires evidence to substantiate e.g. screenshot, exact location of report

  3. From someone who took your class before, it is USEFUL.course. I loved it and very glad for every moment I had been in your class. Thank you awesome professor and human being for adding a valuable impact on the whole education process on different phases.

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