Put a Tripwire in An Online Assignment (or How I Got a Free Book)

decisive.pngEarlier this year I got a free advanced copy of Decisive from Chip and Dan Heath before it was released to the public.  I got  it because of a tripwire. I’ll explain.

So, here’s how it happened. I signed up for the Heath brothers’ online newsletter so that I could download a PDF that summarizes their book Made to Stick. A few months later, they emailed to give me access to a chapter from their forthcoming book. Towards the end of that chapter, hidden somewhere in the middle of a page, they cached something like this in a parenthesis: “(If you email us some feedback about this chapter, we would love to send you an advanced copy of our new book Decisive.)” That hidden sentence was the tripwire. They could have put this at the beginning of the chapter, or in their email, but they wanted feedback from people who they knew really read most or all of the chapter, not just those moochers who wanted a free book that they might not even read.

In that book, Decisive, they explain how the band Van Halen required a bowl of M&M’s backstage as a tripwire for their shows. You can read the entire story by downloading the first chapter from their site: http://heathbrothers.com/books/

mmsSo, I thought I’d try this out with my online students. I had created a 10 minute screencast to coach my students on a particular phase of an assignment. It was critical that their teams watch all of it (it was a collaborative project). I knew that if they didn’t watch the entire thing, then I might have a bunch of confused learners, poor quality submissions, and a lot more work on my hands. So, I set a tripwire.

I told the students that somewhere in their screencast, they would find an unusual phrase. They needed to take the phrase and type it into the header of their next assignment. Without the phrase, their maximum grade would be an 85%.

It worked!

Here are a few benefits I noticed from using a tripwire in online assignments:

1) It saved me time and put the responsibility back on the learners. Usually, I’d be tempted to create a quiz or to have my student fill out something that said, “I’ve watched the whole thing…” Why should the instructor be doing more work in order to get students to meet basic expectations? This put the ball back in their court.

2) It created mystery. They were listening for the phrase and more attentive as a team to the screencast. Of course, I didn’t try hard to hide the phrase; in fact, I pointed it out, but they still had no idea at what minute and second it was going to pop up.

3) It was fun. I made the phrase silly. They all involved some small animal, a geographic location, and some kind of martial arts noun. For example. Galilean Ninja Weasel.

Try it out. How could you give teeth to an assignment like watching online lectures or completing reading or a screencast by using a tripwire?

Online Teaching Tip #21 – Engage More

unavailableYour online students presume that you are unavailable. That may sound harsh, but it’s one of the realities of teaching in the online context. What follows that belief is that your students will leave you alone. There are always the exceptions, the students who proactively email you every week, but most are content to believe that you are merely monitoring the course. It’s up to you to dismantle that belief (that you are unavailable) by making the first move and engaging your students. Student evaluations consistently give higher scores to instructors who are intentional about engaging their students.

How to Engage Your Online Students More (than you are right now) – 4 Ways

1. Know your means of engagement. Class-wide messaging, email, assignments, gradebook, skype, phone, letter (if you want to really get their attention). Make a list and know what’s available to you.

2. Create basic engagement habits. I recommend that you have at least two: your weekly email that goes out to the entire class, and that you work through your class list and send out a personalized email to every student in the course during the semester. Put it in your calendar, otherwise it just won’t happen.

3. Tell them. In all of your communications, remind them that you want to hear from them and are available.

4. Reply. I hate that I even have to include this one, but I see this way too often. Make a commitment to your students to return their emails, and set the expectation for a reasonable time frame. I recommend 48 hours. See Communication Expectations in online teaching Tip #8.

Online Teaching Tip #20 – When You Feel Overwhelmed

tempOverwhelm comes with the territory of the teacher. But the online classroom is especially fragmenting. I think this is due to the fact that we work with so many intangibles. Instead of a stack of papers, we have a set of online submissions. Instead of a series of conversations in person during a set time before or after class, communication with our students is distributed across our weeks, often in short replies to their emails, and embedded in online discussions. It demands more of our mental capacity. And when the demand on our mental capacity increases, the temperature on the overwhelmometer rises.

I was talking with a good friend this week who is teaching his first online course, and he is experiencing this in full force. I’d like to share with you the two pieces of advice that I shared with him.

When you are overwhelmed by your online course(s)

1. Give yourself permission to keep things simple. My friend is developing his course while teaching it. He’s teaching week one, while creating content and learning activities for weeks two and three. You can feel the weight of this can’t you? I told him to keep his course as simple as possible, to put 25% of his energies into development and 75% of his energy into facilitating the course. Student evaluations tell us this over and over: course design is important, but how we facilitate the course is what really matters to them.

2. Focus your teaching energy on the top 3 habits of the excellent online teacher.  The first is proactive communication. Be consistent with getting out your weekly email, and prompt in replies. The second is to be prompt in your grading. Put assignment grading in your calendar so that you can make sure it gets done. The third is to give your students meaningful and useful feedback in discussions and on larger assignments.  If you are overwhelmed, I want to be that voice of assurance that says, “You don’t need to work yourself to death this week; just figure out how you can engage these three things well, and you’re going to be okay.”

Online Teaching Tip #19 – Move the Ball Forward

Move the Ball Forwardmoveballforward

Motivation wanes in the the middle of the semester.  Our students are feeling the demands of school, and our contact with them online starts to feel more like business than learning. And this dynamic is a lot more difficult to navigate in the online context. The little things that keep us going, non-verbals from our students, interactions, even a simple smile, are just not there. This is when the teaching habits you’ve developed will pull you through: the weekly emails you send out, the positive tone you deliberately craft into your emails, your attention to address each student by name, your prompt and helpful responses to online discussions–all these little things push the ball forward a few more yards.

The basketball coach, John Wooden, was first and foremost an educator who cared deeply about the character and education of his players. I keep this quote taped to the bottom of my computer screen.

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…don’t look for the quick big improvement. See the small improvements one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens–and when it happens, it lasts.

– John Wooden

One strategy that has helped me in the past has been to keep an email folder or an Evernote note with encouraging comments from your students. When you need a shot in the arm to keep going, pull some of them up for 5 minutes and read over them. They will get you back in the game and ready to move the ball forward.

Online Teaching Tip #18 – Create an FAQ

FAQ Saves the Day!faq

I received a couple emails  from students who didn’t completely understand a research panel project I had designed for an online course. With the due date quickly approaching, they were already deep into the work on the their assignment. Instead of writing detailed emails to each of these students, I decided to try something different. I sent out an email to the entire class, asking all 24 students to send me more questions. I gave them a deadline (by noon tomorrow), and told them that I’d use their questions to build an FAQ.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve discovered from creating that FAQ:

1 – It saves a ton of time. Instead of responding to fifteen emails, I’m writing one long message, and making it available to everyone in the class.
2 – It helps me address their real questions. I’m so familiar with this assignment that I don’t know what they may need clarified. Of course, I feel like I’ve described everything clearly in the instructions and in the syllabus–but ten years of teaching tells me that there are always gaps in my communication, always.
3 – It’s reusable. I can use this FAQ in the course next semester, and I can build or alter it as I improve the assignment.
4 – It’s another chance to be responsive to my students and to communicate that I care about them and their learning process.

5- It’s concrete. Here are some of the questions that came from my students. “Can I use my notes during the panels?” “How long will the panel last?” “How much of the time should our team devote to interpretation and how much to application?” As teachers, we can get a bit abstract in our instructions. The FAQ helps us speak directly and clearly to our students’ concerns.

photo by a_kep

Online Teaching Tip #17 – Surprise Your Students by Noticing

Surprise Your Students by Noticingsurprise

Imagine that you checked your inbox today to find an unexpected email. It’s from a friend whom you had a conversation with last week and they wrote, “Insert your name, I was just thinking about our conversation last week and something that you said.”

They would immediately have your attention. You’d be thinking, “Something I said was important? I wonder what it was.” Your friend goes on to tell you exactly what you said, and the impact those words had on her. They end with a question for you.Now you feel even more important!

This kind of emails tells us 1) That our friend was listening, and 2) They value our perspective.

Those are two things your students really need, and they are two things that can nurture the learning process.

So, try it. Look over a couple assignments or discussions, then send a few of your students a personal email pointing out something they wrote. It can be brief, just one sentence. Follow that up with a question, one that seeks to get more from their perspective. You can do this in your discussions and in your email correspondence.

Some succinct and effective responses you could use:

1. Tell me more about this idea. (I guess that’s not a question 🙂
2. How does your idea relate to the reading you have been doing for the course this week?
2. Unpack that for me; I want to hear more about that.

Online Teaching Tip #16 – Your Core Question for Online Discussions

The One Question that Drives How You Facilitate Online Discussionbloom_taxonomy

Here’s the question: How can I move this student (or group of students) to the next level?

You’re probably thinking, “Aaron, where are you getting these ‘levels’.” I’m getting them from Mr. Bloom, and his associates (see Bloom’s Updated Taxonomy). Their taxonomies will provide you with grid to 1) Determine what level your student is on, and 2) Think through what would move them to the next level.

Example #1 – Cognitive Focus

If the discussion has a more cognitive focus, I’ll ask myself, “How could I move this student from understanding the content to applying it to a scenario?” or “How could I move this group of students from analyzing the data to evaluating its validity?”

Example #2 – Affective Focus

If your discussion goals are more affective, dealing with learners’ values and emotional responses to the content, then get familiar with the Affective Taxonomy. This taxonomy is more difficult for teachers to grasp, but it’s an essential tool  for learning. Here’s a great resource created by the National Science Foundation: Affective Domain Page. 

When addressing the affective domain, I’ll ask myself, “How can I help this student to become aware of the values latent in his response?” or “How can I challenge her to consider the values that undergird the opposing viewpoint?”

That’s just a few examples of how we can use one question to move our learners to the next level in online discussions.

Online Teaching Tip #15 – Your Role as Discussion Facilitator

Your Role as Online Discussion Facilitatorsteering

It can be difficult to feel out your role in online discussions. In my years of teaching online, I’ve come to see that the discussions don’t need managed, but they do need our leadership. Here are three different strategies you can use to take that leadership role with your online discussions.

1. Ask For More. This is particularly effective in the early stage of a discussion. Write a simple response asking a student to elaborate on their thoughts. Ask them to “Tell me more about…” or “Explain what you meant by…”

2. Resource. Give your students web links or textbook page numbers to help them explore the topic. They are new to the subject matter and do not always know how to find quality information about the topic.

3. Challenge. I like to take an indirect approach to this, especially as my students are getting familiar with me and still growing to trust me (which can take longer online). I’ll ask, “Suppose that a person were to disagree with your statement, ‘…’, How would you respond to them?” I enjoy playing the devil’s advocate, but I’ll often wait until later in the semester to do so directly.

These are the three foundational strategies that I’d recommend you add to your facilitation toolbox.


Online Teaching Tip #14 – Some Criteria for Online Discussions

Some Criteria For Online Discussionscriteria

In Online Teaching Tip #13, I explained how using the wrong grading criteria for online discussions can kill student interaction. Now I’d like to answer the question, “What criteria should I use when grading my online discussions?”

1. First get the big picture. Ask yourself what the learning goal is for your discussions or a particular discussion. Your criteria should correspond to your learning goals.

2. Require Interaction. How many posts/responses will you require?

3. What should characterize learner interactions? Critical thinking? Problem solving? Integration? Be sure to explain what you mean to your students when using those criteria.

4. Timeliness. You’ll need deadlines and timeline. How long will your discussion last? Within that discussion, when do posts and responses need to be made in order for the discussion to have a sense of continuity? Deduct for late posts. Discussions without post dates are like a shark with no teeth.

5. What about spelling and grammar? Don’t major on it; minor on it. I tell my students that there will be a 20% deduction for any posts wherein the spelling and grammar are of such a low quality that they make it difficult to read and understand their posts. If I’m having to reread a sentence three times, or trying to divine the meaning of their posts, then we have a problem. This would be the same criteria I would use in a face-to-face discussion.

Online Teaching Tip #13 – Discussions are Not Essays


Online Discussions are Not Essays

This can be a hard one. Here’s why.

As teachers, we are used to grading text-based documents a certain way. And those documents, research papers, essays, and the like, need to follow a very clear line of thought. They need to be free of spelling and grammatical errors. Citations are  are critical for both academic integrity and validating the information (the truth).

But the online discussion, though it is text-based, is a different animal altogether, and should be treated as such. It is a discussion. Discussions follow a line of thought, but it is often circuitous. There are interjections and rabbit trails, because it is dynamic, and because it’s a process of discovery. Imagine that you are in a discussion and someone corrects your use of English, or requires you to provide a citation (you may know people who actually do this–we avoid conversations with them). Such criteria stifles discussion. And when used, students stop sharing their opinions–a necessary initial phase of any discussion. They revert to writing mini-essays, and the emerging interaction between students withers on the vine.

In Sum: Using the wrong criteria to assess online discussions can be like an early frost–it’ll kill your discussions.

In future tips, I’ll spell out some criteria that will help you to both make your online discussions true discussions and help you hold your students to a standard of quality in their online interaction.