This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Learning Beyond the Grade: Gamification and Badges

I have been playing role-playing games since I was 8 (which ultimately means four decades...yikes, that is what this birthday is).  When I was a kid, I even used the codes from magazines and books to build computer games on my Apple II.  My calling wasn't computer games or RPG design.  I've done some of it, and have had friends in both industries that I've talked to about gamification of courses.

I started about a year and a half ago with badges.  University Relations at GSU helped me make the badges (I am still saddened by my originals which I gave to them :).  We created a set of badges for what I was doing at the time.  Here are some of the examples of the PAWS UP! badges.  NOTE: the name comes from our campus mascot, Pounce the Panther.  Unfortunately, the faculty is not allowed to use Pounce.  Only athletics gets to use Pounce (GRRRR!).  So I decided to use the pouncing panther paw, so PAWS UP!

This is the Apprentice Biologist badge, which is given at the course completion (even to people who come into the LMS and complete the online/hybrid component of the course).  There is a criteria of tasks to complete to earn this badge.

The next badge is regarding Milestone.  At three points in the semester, students have to present a milestone paper which is a summation of what they have learned during the preceding weeks.  Once aspect of the paper is as a study guide for their Milestone Exam.  At the end of the semester, students will clean up their individual milestone papers, combine them, and add reflections.  This will ultimately be part of their portfolio, and also act as a study guide for higher level classes.  Completion of the paper and exam (which is 70% in numbers) gives them the milestone badge.

Students also have to participate in daily forums.  There are badges set for when they complete a certain number of posts (the automated system on this one broke this semester...still working on fixing it).

When I first attempted gamification, it was a disaster.  The problem was turning traditional assignments and grades into a gamified system.  I tried different ways of doing it, but they all ended with points.  Even the badges worked that way.  In reading literature and blog posts, I rarely found models that I could reinterpreted for biology.

This semester, I have a new tactic with grades.  All assignments are completion based, and final grades are determined by task/assignment completion.  I'm still in shock at how motivated most students are this semester, but it has been a drain setting up the system and refining it during the semester.  My goal is to reimagine the badges so that the achievements they represent become the assessment of the students performance.  In other words, grading based entirely on achieving course outcomes instead of looking at graded performance on assignments.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 3)

In my last post, I discussed my syllabus from a 2007 Principles of Biology I course.  Now I'm turning my attention to my current Principles of Biology I syllabus, and looking at the changes. 

The first change in the syllabus is to rearrange it into a number of easily identifiable web pages.  The goal of this was to help students easily reference sections in the syllabus, and to easily find how they will be assessed.  In terms of looking over the syllabus, I first want to focus on the tab labeled "Instructional Model."

From conferences and workshops, I've heard repeatedly that instructors should be open about how they plan to teach the course.  One aspect of college courses I've come to notice is that we focus a great deal on the material (especially in the sciences), and less on being successful (both in academics and the world).  Many of my students have come from secondary schools burdened by standardized tests and unrelenting oversight, with the result being most have never learned to take notes, study, or more importantly, be active learners.  In many cases, I think the idea of learning was beaten out of them and replaced with the idea that learning is a chore.

While helping my partner study for a leadership course (he had gone back to school for another degree), I came across the idea of situational leadership.  I loved the idea from the moment I read about it, and I could see the idea fit perfectly to the transitional stage that freshmen and sophomores goes through.  I kept reading about the application of this model to business and education, and decided to use it as the model for the class:  trying to help students move from dependent passive learners to independent active learners. (NOTE:  still working the bugs out, but I have to say that students are responding better than I had thought).  Assignments and due dates are all based on getting students to actively engage in the material, hopefully on a daily basis.

Why daily?  The goal of the undergraduate degree is to start thinking in your academic discipline.  For me, biology is a daily activity.  When I watch TV, when I read, heck, even when I eat, I can find my thoughts going to things I've learned or worked on in biology.  What I have found is that our graduate faculty is expecting that our Juniors and Seniors have started to think like biologists.  From what I've gathered from professional schools, they are expecting the same thing.  The problem, I don't see it in my juniors or seniors.  They are still too concerned about the grade.  Thought they don't realize it at first, the instructional model is a trick to get them to start thinking about biology daily.

The "Learning Objective" have become more integral in my course design.  Instead of taking something from another instructor or a publisher, I presented the competencies I wanted the students to have at the end of the semester.  Each of these is ultimately reflected in the assessments.  At the end of the semester, I have to assign grades to the students.  This semester though, I decided to take the learning objectives and instructional model to heart.  No assignment has a letter grade; the assignment is either complete or incomplete.

"Grading" is based on task completion.  The student (now called a Learner in my LMS) is presented with a number of Learning Opportunities or Learning Tasks.  It is now up to them to complete the assignments they want. 

In some categories, like projects and personal development, there are more opportunities than they need.  They get to pick what they want to do.

You will notice that there are exams.  These are multiple choice online assessments to see if they are showing an adequate level of understanding (70% on the exam is what I eventually went with).  It doesn't matter if you got a 71% or a 99%.  Reason:  majority of the time, the student that got over 90% crammed, which means they don't understand the topic later in the semester.  I don't want them to cram, I want them to demonstrate their understanding, their learning.  (As a note:  the milestone papers are due before the milestone exams.  Writing the papers in previous semesters increased exam scores about 10%).

There is a final exam, but unlike most, they have two attempts.  It is a comprehensive final.  If they don't do well on the first, they get a second attempt.  I've done this in previous semesters, and generally most people can pull up the grade.  The few times it does not work, either the student really did not know what was going on (they low balled the semester) or they just could not let go of just memorizing facts (the stated goal was that they should understand the biological process, and not just the chemical or cell names).

A+ has the most stringent requirements.  The A level is achievable by most students. 

Why all the work? 
When you have a job, you are not given a letter grade, and you will be working on multiple projects at the same time.  Part of your yearly evaluation is on what you have accomplished.  Are you known for getting tasks completed?  Are you know for the quality of your work?  Even in professional schools, you have to perform.  The goal is to get them to start working at a higher level, move them to a point where they realize that engaging with material is critical to learning.

So far, the results have been amazing.  I have students tell me that they are actually thinking about things we talk about in class.  When we dealt with metabolism, a student told me she was actually talking about the breakdown of sugar over lunch with friends.  Students are writing forum/discussion responses almost daily, and they are starting to read various levels of articles.  I'm getting more questions in class, and the students seem more engaged.  We are now moving into the guest lecture and case study phase, so I'm eager to see how it works.

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 2)

As part of the affordance & limitation of letter grades module (#beyondlettergrades), I'm spending some time comparing one of my old syllabi with a more current one.  Both syllabi come from BIOL 2107 - Principles of Biology I.  The course is intended for individuals majoring in biology or working on requirements for Pre-Med.  Though many don't get it until it is too late, students really need to get an A in this class if you have hopes of going to Med school (this is from our Pre-Med advisory board and talking to Med school admissions).  More important than the grade is the idea that this is a foundational class for all of our other biology courses.  The material that students are exposed to will appear again in every course they take, and I have had far too many seniors that did not remember the basics reviewed in this course.
I mentioned the grade because this is a driving force for students that want to get into medical school.  They will take easier classes, get good grades at first, but then over their undergrad, they start having problems with higher level classes.  One of my goals for about five years is to work on ways of getting them to stop focusing on grades, and instead focus on learning.  But 40 can't tell 20, and 20 won't understand until their 40.  (so I started tricking them).

The first syllabus is from 2007 Spring Semester.  The document is a PDF in Google Docs with public access.  It was originally a single web page that was loaded into our LMS (hence some strange format issues).

As a state school, there are a number of things we have to put into our syllabi.  Not everyone put them in, but over the last few years there has been a concerted effort by the administration to make sure all required areas are in the document.  One area that is required are the "Course Learning Objectives".  Most of these I got from other instructors, and some I decided upon.  The issue though is that they really never directed the course, for me or the colleagues I talked with about the course.  Instead, we just tried to make it through all of the chapters of the textbook that were assigned for this class (about 25 chapters).  The textbook is a TOME.

About four years ago, I realized that the textbooks for general biology had become unwieldy.  They were reference books, not instructional books.  Everyone crams too much in without regard for what is critical for students to learn; hence my renaming them as reference books instead of textbooks.  What got me more though as the idea that I was letting a publisher (who may not even have a degree in biology) decide what was important to teach students.

Students see course objectives as meaningless, because teachers have a tendency to down play them.  Each semester, I've asked students if they ever look over then.  I'm no longer surprised when they say no.  As for this 2007 syllabus, the learning objectives play no role in how the students will be assessed.

Next stop is with the class policies.  The first is about assignments (think mini-papers), and you will see No Late Assignments Are Accepted.  Of course, this is tempered with reason.  If someone is sick for three weeks (and it has happened), then I'll work with them.  The one thing I don't work with is someone waiting until the last minute.  Should make a note here:  our campus assumption is that all students have access to the internet.  It is part of the student handbook that they can either use private access or school access (many computer labs).  Even in 2007, internet access was not a problem.

I've come to realize that for many educators, the idea of work at your own pace has become important.  One problem I have with that concept is that we also need to train people to be successful.  Most of these students want to either be in medical school or research.  Medical doctors don't have the luxury of waiting a few weeks before they get a patients file over to a hospital for a critical surgery (with the doctor's notes on the patient).  If you do research with industry, your on a time line.  If a meeting is called, and your suppose to show results, then you need to quickly make a presentation about those results.  I always give time limits on assignments in order to help them learn to work in what can be high pressure fields.  

Next comes the exams, and you will find that there is a cut off for when you can start the exam.  This policy was based on a few ideas: 1) I don't want to give out an exam after people start leaving the exam, and 2) you don't get to come late to a pre-professional exam. 

(I've been trying to finish this post for nearly six days, so I'm going to jump down to the grade breakdown)  The grade distribution is based on a 1000 point scale that is easily converted to a percentage system.

25% of the grade is determined by their lab.  The lab is taught by Graduate Teaching Assistants, and is coordinated by a separate faculty member.  I have little say in the grade that is given to me regarding their lab performance (and little to no influence over the lab).  When it comes down to performance in my class, it counts as 75% of the grade.

Three exams constitute 30% of the grade, so 10% of the grade is determined by a single exam.
The final exam counts for 20% of the grade, so exams in general count for 50% of the grade.

25% of the grade is determined by formative assessments and projects, with 18% of this counting for pre-lecture quizzes.  These are online quizzes that students take prior to the topic section, and are meant to gauge the students understanding of their reading (they get to take the quiz multiple times, and the highest is kept).

I kept looking at how I was designing the course, and how I was assessing the students.  One big question I had on my mind was: "what do I want these students to look like when they finish my class?"  In other words, where do I want their competencies (this was a thought that finally matured when reading over information from the Bologna Accords and the participating in a Lumina Degree Qualification Profiles evaluation).

My next post is regarding my current syllabus, and the transformations that have taken place.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 1)

As I finish inputting grades for the minimester Freshmen Learning Community, I've been thinking about the Affordance and Limitations of Grading module for #beyondlettergrades.  The module asks us to look at a syllabus, but what I really want to do is a look back at my teaching and how I've viewed grades; a retrospective as it were.

I started teaching after finishing my Masters of Science degree in 1993.  My Master's experience was HORRIBLE.  The one ray of light was that I loved teaching labs.  I got a job at Darton College in Albany, GA.  At the time, it was a two year community college, and I loved it (I think my love of teaching Freshman came from there).

As with most science teachers, I had no formal training in education save for the experience I gained from good and bad professors.  I was in my early twenties, and a little out of my depths.  My chair, who was a biologist, gave me their syllabi and copies of their tests.  No homework assignments, just tests.  Three tests and a final to be precise.  My chair also coached me a little, and would observe my progress over the next few years.  I did exactly what I had gone through:  lecture, test, lecture, test.  Over the years I started to change things up.  I built PowerPoints (new technology at that time), animations, and even HTML and Hyperstack based quizzes. 

The most amazing thing about Darton College was the president.  Dr. Peter Sireno was above the curve when it came to vision.  He was eager for us to embrace new instructional technology.  I always felt the campus to be an encouraging place to experiment with education.  During my time there, I was even given the opportunity to go to a series of digital training workshops sponsored by the GA Board of Regents (our higher ed governing body).  Unlike most administrators I've known since, Dr. Sireno would listen to us when we talked about the benefits and drawbacks of instructional tech.  If we said something didn't work, he wouldn't push it.  Instead, he would let us look for other options.  (Of course, I know that some colleges from back then will have different impressions.  For me, it was an encouraging environment).

It was during that time that I started experimenting with different ways of assessing students.  In the end, exams were still the mainstay, but I was branching out.  I tried quizzes, worksheets, and projects.  As reference, the main classes I taught were Anatomy & Physiology and Microbiology for nursing students.  I had great success during October when students would buy a cheap skeleton and build muscles on it.  Still, the main focus of the class was lecture.  I was still clinging to the idea that if I did not address all of the topics, the students would not feel they needed to learn it.
In 2000, I left to finish my Doctorate.  My head was clearing from my Masters degree, and I found I wanted to do research again.  I still loved teaching, but decided to finish this degree.  While completing my doctorate, I helped some of the faculty with instructional technology.  I built online quizzes for labs as well as tutorials.  After my doctorate, they needed someone to take over a class, so I agreed to come on board as a PTI.  This quickly changed to visiting lecturer, and then I got a job as an academic professional (Faculty/Administrative) in charge of microbiology and genetics lectures/labs (really it is the labs, but I work with the lectures to make sure we're all on the same page). 
When I first started, I wanted to bring new ideas to the classroom.  Nothing extreme, but I had the students do quizzes before lecture based on their reading (heck, I wanted them to read).  The first semester was difficult.  It was Anatomy and Physiology, and I didn't lecture.  I started the class seeing if they had questions about their reading.  We went from there (OK, only three students ever had questions).  Half the students were not doing the quizzes, even though the online assessments were a significant part of their class.  They were not interested in actual cases, and even when I did lecture on difficult topics, most people slept.  It was heart breaking, but an instructive lesson.  Every semester I adapted, altering assignments, altering feedback systems, changing lecture modes.

At this point, I should mention a few things.  I started using digital presentations back in the 90's.  I even taught a Continuing Ed series on Power Point.  I even did informal experiments where I would use Power Points in one class, but the chalk board and overhead acetates in another.  I realized that PowerPoint dumbed down my students.  If I gave them the slide ahead of time, they zoned out.  If they had to copy them in class, they stopped listening.  The classes were I didn't use PowerPoint always did better.  I only use PowerPoint now for images/art/cartoons, and that is so I don't have to draw out every structure.

The second thing are clickers.  Back in the 90's we did a number of things that involved clickers.  Heck, one classroom was rigged so that there were buttons on the desks that corresponded to A-E.  Even when I started teaching again in 2005, I used analog systems (e.g., index cards)to do classroom polls.  I HATE THEM.  I HATE CLICKERS.  Yes, I said it.  I have yet to get meaningful results back from students; instead, I've found that they focus on the question, and not the concept.  Most are utterly confused when they see a different example of the same concept.  It just goes hand in hand with all multiple choice:  the answer is here, just pick it.  I've had better luck getting them talking about the concept, and then letting them dissect the examples.

A moment about multiple choice:
I realized a while back that I want to train my students, not just in the discipline material, but in being successful.  Most of the courses I teach have either a large number of pre-nursing (pre-allied health) or pre-medical students.   Both groups have to take multiple choice pre-professional exams.  Most of these students don't know how to effectively take multiple choice tests.  Yes, they have done them for years, but do they do it effectively?  No.  They make common mistakes, like comparing answers to each other and not the question, or more importantly, they don't read the question.  Multiple choice for me is a chance to help them learn where they make mistakes on "objective" tests (NOTE:  I really don't think they are all that objective...we just say it to make ourselves feel better).

At Georgia State University, I continued to "experiment".  I made the labs I teach writing intensive, and in most cases rapid turn around (nursing and med schools are brutal...finish a clinical and have 10 page paper ready the next day).  My "lecture" classes had a large number assignments for the students, and I was regularly marked down on end of the semester student feedback for "expecting too much" or "being hard."  My goals for my students evolved during this time:  Instead of teaching them, I wanted to help them be better learners.

In 2010, I started to hear about MOOCs, and started to join some of the ones being offered.  I slowly but surely kept changing things in class.  #change11 changed everything, and it was during 2011 that I yanked the bandage off my classes and changed everything.  They are still a work in progress, but I am far happier with the outcomes.  Happily, our administration (especially our Provost, Dr. Rita Palm), was very supportive of faculty exploring new methods.  We even have a "Digital Champions" program to help encourage people to break out of the old school instructional box.

In 2012, our system changed our LMS to D2L.  I had been exposed to D2L, and was initially happy with the switch.  Then I discovered that our system was using the old D2L (not the current), and had either not purchased or locked down the functions I was happy about.  I frequently say that the current LMS has pushed us back a decade.  I had established external portals before the switch, and have returned.  One lesson learned:  Bureaucrats who don't involve educators can seriously screw up educational innovations. 

In the next blog, I'm going to look at a syllabus from 2006 and my current one.
If you're interested in some of what I'm doing, you can visit my course portal at: