OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Instructor: Rachel N. Baum

Department/School/College: Jewish Studies

 

Intervention Overview
This intervention focused on a series of optional online activities that aimed to address three specific pedagogical purposes in an online course: to increase student engagement online, to provide flexible learning paths for students to succeed in the course, and to give students a space in which to safely discuss their feelings about difficult subject material (the Holocaust). The results were decisive and very positive: students not only enjoyed the connection with their peers and appreciated the ability to earn extra credit, but reported that participating in these additional activities helped them to learn the course material on a deeper level.

Title: Jewish/Hebrew Studies 261: Representing the Holocaust in Words and Images

Level: Undergraduate

Mode: Online

Session type: 16-week semester

Enrollment: 40 students

This project was motivated by several pedagogical concerns. First, student success is strongly correlated with student engagement, and in the online environment, it can be more difficult for students to feel that connection. Second, students occasionally miss, for various reasons, a week or so of the course and then are unable to succeed or feel discouraged about continuing to work hard because they believe their grades have already been too negatively affected. While this can be an issue in any class, it is particularly relevant in online courses, which require a high level of student time management and which attract a higher number of working adult students. Finally, in this course, students sometimes stop participating because they become overwhelmed by the subject matter, the Holocaust.

An intervention was developed that allowed students to talk with their classmates about the course material, increase their sense of connection to the course and the material, allow them to share and work through their challenges, and also offer them multiple paths towards success in the course. Students could post to any of four optional discussion areas that were located in GinkgoTree and D2L. While having a forum for “thoughts, feelings, and challenges” might not work for every subject, managing student emotion is a pedagogical necessity in a Holocaust course. Students who are overwhelmed by the material will simply stop coming to class or participating in an online course. Providing a mechanism through which students can share their feelings, know that they are not alone in their experiences, and, perhaps, exchange ideas for managing them, is important in a Holocaust course.

In the past, a D2L forum was made available for students to post thoughts not appropriate for the other forums, but students hadn’t used them. By not providing credit for posting, however, students likely felt that these forums were not important to the course or linked to the learning goals. This intervention therefore integrated such a forum (and the other activities) into the course grading scheme as extra credit and legitimized the activities as central to the learning goals of the course.

Pre-Intervention

The activities were described in the syllabus as well as in D2L and in an email. Rather than being framed solely as “extra credit,” the intervention was introduced by telling students that student engagement in online courses has been positively correlated with student success and that several activities would give them more opportunities to connect to the course.

During the Intervention

The course activities in this intervention gave students the opportunity to comment on readings via GinkgoTree, an online reading platform; to comment in an open D2L discussion forum where students could share thoughts, feelings, and challenges outside of those addressed by the usual D2L discussion forums; to comment in an open D2L forum where students could post recommendations of books, films, and news articles related to the course; and to post D2L responses beyond what was required by the unit assignments

Points were offered for participation in these four areas, and specific prompts were provided in D2L and GinkgoTree to manage student expectations. The instructor allowed students to respond to one another to encourage peer-to-peer discussion, but if a student post received no peer responses, then the instructor stepped in to provide a supportive response.

Post-Intervention

Students could receive up to 100 extra points, or 10% of the final grade, for participating in the optional GinkgoTree and D2L discussion areas. Students were graded on whether or not they posted, not according to a rubric that measures quality, in part due to the sensitive nature of the response material.

Method

Students provided anonymous feedback on the intervention through an instrument that included closed and open-ended questions. These questions focused on measuring student satisfaction regarding the intervention, as well as the impact the intervention had on building online learning community, being engaged in the course, and feeling motivated to continue in the course. Students were also asked to reflect on things that worked well and convey constructive feedback for future changes to the intervention to benefit future students.

Results

18 of 40 students responded to the survey. All of the supplemental learning activities were judged valuable by the students, but the Ginkgotree discussions, the additional D2L posts, and the “Thoughts, Feelings, Challenges” forum were considered especially valuable. What is notable is that these experiences not only helped students to feel connected to the class and other students, but actually helped students to engage more deeply with the material of the class. One student wrote that the extra credit discussion opportunities “created a space for each of us to express our thoughts and feelings that related to the topic at hand. In realizing that others were feeling and thinking the same thing made it [sic] easier to grasp emotionally.” Another student said, “Other people’s connections helped me better understand material,” and yet another said, “It was engaging and increases the level of dialogue that you don’t usually get in an online class.”

This strategy supported me in several elements of my teaching philosophy. I want to meet my students where they are, which often, for online courses, means finding ways for working adults to succeed. I don’t want missing a single quiz or discussion post to tank their grade in the course. Also, I see learning as an experience (ideally, a life-changing experience!), rather than an amassing of knowledge. An experience must involve the whole student and offer the opportunity for them to bring their whole selves to the material—their thinking selves, their feeling selves, their working selves, their stressed selves, and so on. Because of this, questions of class engagement and connection (among students and between students and professor) are fundamental pedagogical questions for me. Providing multiple opportunities for my students to connect with each other, with me, and with the course material created a richer experience for my students.

I will definitely continue to use these tools in my future online courses. I’m not sure that I will continue to offer the recommendations forum, because that seemed less effective. The advice I would offer to a colleague wanting to use this strategy would be:

  • Be transparent in why you are doing this and how it supports your course learning goals
  • Trust your students, and make your trust explicit.
  • Rather than thinking of this as simply “extra credit,” think of it as “multiple ways to achieve my course learning goals.”