Group Work: Part 1 – Making Marks Fair

Students often comment that their group work partners do not always contribute equally; deadlines are missed, communication is lacking, and quality is poor.  On the other end is students that complain they have done considerably more work for the same grade; these are the students acting as the ‘assembler’ for the project, fixing up everyone else’s contributions, handling the missed deadlines, to get the project turned in on time.

One way instructors can handle this is by building in a caveat in the course outline’s methods of evaluation area that says “The instructor reserves the right to adjust individual marks to reflect contributions to the group assignment.”

This provides instructors with the ability to adjust marks when students are not contributing fairly to the team’s objectives, or to recognize that member that has gone above and beyond to make the project work.

Grade adjustments should always be justified.  By having frequent check ins with the team, reviewing an individual’s draft component if needed, checking group meeting notes or correspondence, can all be used to check on contributions.

Building this message into the grading component, and checking in on both team and individual contributions, can help students navigate the stress of team work and make the experience more productive.


Four Powerful Teaching Tools

One of the podcasts on education that I enjoy listening to is the Cult of Pedagogy.  In a recent episode, the host provided four tips for making teaching more powerful.  They center on the concept that, as educators, our role is to help students be able to recall information; essentially move learning from short term memory to long term memory.  The four practices are things that many of us use already, the point of the podcast was to suggest being more deliberate and planned so that they are more effective in their purpose.

The concept to use them more deliberately all come from a book called Powerful Teaching, where the authors present ideas to improve student performance based on: retrieval practice; spaced practice; interleaving; and feedback-driven meta cognition.

Retrieval practice is the point of building time into each lesson to have students recall what was taught.  Plan mini-quizzes, ask questions, do anything that is beyond just repetition.  Instead of just repeating materials for students to pick up, this tip is aimed to plan time for students to recall information that was shared.  As the information is recalled, it pushes students to move the learning from short term to long term memory.

Spaced practice is similar, but done over a longer term.  Retrieval practice is about what was covered recently, in spaced practice, the instructor is planning when to have students recall information that was taught further back.  This calls for planning when to link information back to earlier classes, deliberately leading students to make connections between current materials and earlier concepts.  Ideally, students recap the information and recall it, again reinforcing the long term memory of the earlier materials. It’s important to realize that there may be gaps or errors in this information, instructors need to be prepared to help and correct students.

The third power tool is interleaving.  This is also related to recall, but now instructors are asking students to recall information that is not related.  When having students recall information, it’s easy to fall into patterns or habits.  Students pick up on this and can anticipate where the questions and recall is going, they are no longer thinking but just reciting ideas.  Instructors can mix up the recall of information so that there are only limited patterns, pushing students away from recital and into thinking.

Feedback-driven meta cognition is about planning recall on information that students are struggling with.  Most students find it easy to study materials they know, they review what they are good at and shy away from stuff they are struggling with.  As instructors, we can review the mini quizzes we use in class, the formal quizzes and tests from a course, to see where errors are occurring.  They bring that material up in class for review and recall, pushing students to look at areas where they are struggling, taking them out of their comfort zone.

These four tips are likely things that are already in your lesson plan without realizing it.  Putting some thought into them can make them a more powerful part of your teaching day.  If you want to know more, check out the podcast here:



Nexus Tip of the Month: Email

Nexus has it’s own email function and email addresses, separate from the Outlook email address.  This email system has the ability to do a mass email with no fear of missing students or getting addresses wrong.

To send an email to a group of students or a student in the full time programs:

  • Log in to Nexus, go to your program, on the ribbon bar select CLASSLIST.
  • When the page opens, there are three tabs, select the tab labelled STUDENTS
  • Scroll to the bottom of the page, ensure that you are viewing the whole class by selecting a view setting of 100+.
  • Scroll up, select all (just below the word email), and then press EMAIL.
  • A page will open that is an email message to the class, with everyone’s Nexus email addresses filled in.
  • Change the subject line and write your message.  Send is in the top left corner of the email message.

If you want to send to an individual student, just click on that student’s name.

When you have received a Nexus email message, you will see an orange dot on the envelope icon at the top of the screen to the right of centre.

This email feature is contained within Nexus.  It does not send or receive emails outside of the Nexus system.  Especially in our full time programs, it is great way to communicate with the class en mass, and Nexus becomes a one stop shop for sharing content, receiving assignments, and communicating.

Preparing students for exams

While not teaching to an exam and giving students either the questions or answers, part of an instructors role is to prepare students for any exams or tests that a course may have.

This can be done throughout the course by asking students review questions that mimic (but not duplicate) questions from the exam.  This exposes students to the format, language, and difficulty of what the final exam will contain.

Instructors should also set time aside to talk specifically about answering questions on their specific exam: how long is a response to a short answer question?  How much formatting should be put into a long answer question?  Where to record the answers to multiple choice questions?

Just recently, one of our full time courses uses ‘bubble sheets’ to record the responses to the multiple choice questions.  It was the first time the majority of the students had ever seen a bubble sheet.

Some time in the class before the exam can help students to understand what the expectations are from the individual instructors, and helps to alleviate student stress with exams.

The use of silence in the classroom

When posing a question to a class, many instructors get a sinking feeling in their stomach as the room goes quiet.  No one is volunteering an answer, and the instructor speaks up to fill the void, giving the answer to the question.

Instead of fearing that silence and filling the gap, instructors should be patient.  Give students time to think of the answer.  For many of our students in particular, they need time to hear the words, translate them, think about the answer, translate the answer, and then speak.  If you are too fast to fill the void, students miss the chance the answer, to confirm and demonstrate their understanding.

The next time you pose a question and no one answers, take a moment to let the class think. Take a sip of water / coffee, count to ten, restate the question, and invite a reply.

Bad examples can be good

Quite often students look to instructors to provide a sample of an assignment, something they can use as a template or guideline.  Giving an example can be helpful, provided that students do not just copy the sample and turn it in.  That’s where a bad example can be of assistance.  Instead of providing an example of the ‘ideal’ submission, supplying an example of how not to do the assignment can be used.

Provide the ‘poor’ or ‘below expectations’ assignment in advance of the class.  After discussing the materials for the assignment, give students an opportunity to review the example and identify errors and omissions.

This can be a good way to confirm understanding of the concepts in the classroom.  No marks are involved, so it is a low stakes discussion.  Students can discuss their answers without fearing any consequences.  Both instructors and students receive feedback; students on their understanding of the concepts, and instructors on how the teaching went.  Critiquing a piece of work is also a higher level skill.  Students are not only being asked to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts, but to pick out errors and correct work.

Bad examples can be good for students.

Nexus Tip of the Month: Assignment Folders

When creating Assignment folders, or dropboxes as they used to be called in the full time programs, adding a “Category” to the folder helps to group the folders and make your course stand one.

When creating the folder, on the first screen, where you enter the folder name, scroll down the page and you will see a box for CATEGORY.  The first time you use it, you need to click NEW CATEGORY next to the box.  Enter your course name.  Next time you create a dropbox, just select your course from the drop down menu.

This will group all of your Assignment folders together and allow both you and the students to find them quickly.

The Grecian Urn Assignment

Listening to one of the podcast’s on teaching that I enjoy, The Cult of Pedagogy, the host was cautioning the audience to ensure value in the assignments they create, and not to fall victim to the Grecian Urn assignment.

The Grecian Urn assignment was from her experience working at grade school level.  In learning about ancient Greece, students are assigned to make their own Grecian Urn using a balloon, paper mache, paint, and their imagination.

While it’s a fun assignment (for most students), it’s extremely time consuming, has very little attachment to the learning outcomes, and there is no grade for the assignment.

The host’s point being that taking a large amount of a student’s time, and the class time, for no grade is not a good use of time.  The issue of not being connected to the learning outcomes is, of course, a concern, but I’ll save that for another post.

As we design activities and assignments in our classes, which are often so compressed, it’s a good concept to keep in mind: is the value of the work connected to the amount of time and effort the students are putting into it?  Is the value of knowing the learning outcome reflected in the amount of effort that is being spent on it?  Is the amount of time being spent justified?

Whether it is an in class activity, or a take home assignment, some thought about the effort and value is worth considering.

NEW A/V Feature

With the upgrades to the AV connections in the PACE classrooms, there is a nice feature added: Freeze.  The Freeze button is located on the wall switch, where you select from laptop or PC.

The freeze button freezes the view being displayed, so that the instructor can do other work on their laptop or the computer.  Basically the system creates a picture of what is currently showing and continues to display that until the freeze feature is turned off.

This allows the instructor to modify a slide, enter a password, change the view, etc..  All done without the class seeing what is happening.


SmartBoard Tip

With the introduction of Smartboards into nearly all of our PACE classrooms, we are providing instructors with the latest generation of interactive projectors.  They serve as an opportunity to enhance the lessons in the classroom and make them more beneficial for students:

– through the use of the SmartBoard app you can share the whiteboard? No app or special device is required by the receiver of the sharing request.  It can then be used interactively by everyone, and students can save a copy of the work to their device for studying later.

-SmartBoard files can be exported to a USB as  PDF file for sharing and later use

-if you don’t want to switch between a PowerPoint presentation and the SmartBoard white board, put in a blank slide.  With the SmartBoard hook up we have you can use the pens to write onto the slide and use it as a whiteboard – you can even save it after!

-the SmartBoards have a built in browser.  You can preset any web pages or videos you want to use during your lesson so that you can access them quickly without having to leave your PowerPoint.

By Monday, we will have finished our upgrades to most of our classrooms.  If you need an orientation to the new AV setup or the SmartBoards, be sure to reach out to the PACE office or the PACE Academic Program Manager.