Are your students doing the reading?

How to validate that students complete their reading assignments before class?

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We are constantly told that students are bored looking at Powerpoint and want more engaging forms or classroom activity. In-class discussion is a terrific way to promote deeper learning and student synthesis of key concepts. While the flipped classroom is the model promoted currently for getting students to prepare for a class discussion, creating or sourcing video assets to flip your classes can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. A simpler option exists in setting reading assignments. Reading key texts before class can be a very useful way to get students prepared for in-class discussions.  Reading assignments are the original 'flipped classroom' model -- where students acquire the knowledge they need before class, and participate in deeper discussion in class -- but without the technical, time or cost constraints of video.

Unfortunately students don't always enjoy doing the reading, and don't always complete it before class. Or students only surface read the assigned texts, and the resulting discussions can be disappointing for the instructor, and also for those students who did the work but didn't get to participate in a discussion that engaged the whole class. Some popular technological solutions are to create formative (or very low stakes) MCQs as knowledge checks, or to create discussion boards to promote debate (often with regular topical questions posed by the instructor as prompts). While these innovations can work, there is a concern that knowledge checks may not support learning beyond the surface level, and that often students don't engage with the topical discussions beyond adding an obligatory comment that doesn't further discussion but only meets the minimum requirement.

To improve on using MCQs as knowledge checks we can use online tests to ask more open questions. Students could be asked to list the top 3 concepts they gleaned from the reading, and to reflect on one of these in more detail. Instructors can then use the answers as a guide to how students have parsed the text, and what ideas need to be discussed or fleshed out in more detail during the class discussion. To incentivise this, low stakes credit can be made available for an engagement component in the module assessment strategy. The component can be used to measure student commitment to reading assignments, so some marks can be provided for these student knowledge checks if the instructors wished to go the summative route. But the knowledge check could also be purely formative.

Students can have difficulty reading alone, so small reading groups can be used to focus the reading assignments. Perhaps different groups could reflect on different key aspects of a reading each week. Or each group would be asked to formulate a question for the class discussion. The Groups tools in Blackboard can be used to allow discussion for small groups where students could work collaboratively in this way.

Additionally, the knowledge checks could be used to trigger student engagement badges. A 'Class Ready' badge that represents that a student has completed the required reading could be released on completion of the knowledge check, or ad hoc by the instructor for students that contribute deeper insights on the knowledge check. The creation of Badges in Blackboard using the Achievements tool allows us to visualise successful activity recorded in the LMS. So, students who complete their reading could know in advance of class that they were well prepared.

Setting up knowledge checks (or online tests) and badges (called achievements in Blackboard) are relatively simple and  -- combined with open reflective questions that feed back into class discussion -- could have a very beneficial affect on engagement.

Get in contact with business.elearning@ucd.ie to find out more about about these and other ways of increasing engagement in large and small classes!

Niall Flaherty, Educational Technologist with The Business eLearning Team

Related Blackboard resources:
Creating online tests
Setting up groups
Badges and acheivements