Less is More: Intentional Teaching and Learning

The Online Learning and Teaching Student and Instructor Survey conducted by the University of Victoria (UVic) between late October and November 2020 reveal five convergent themes: workload, adapting to online, course quality, engaged learning experiences, and mental and physical health and wellbeing (2020). Both students and instructors are overworked—managing more readings, more assessments, more emails, more meetings, more prep. Are we doing too much in our online learning environment?

Last semester, several undergraduate students shared their experience managing five courses in the fall semester. Each course had weekly quizzes and discussion board prompts. Larger assessments, such as annotated bibliography, textual and visual analysis, and research papers, accompany the weekly activities. If we do the math, we realize some students may be completing 10 to 15 assessments per week: 1 quiz/week × 5 courses + 1 discussion board prompt/week × 5 courses + 1 larger assessment/week × 5 courses. Let’s say the students are only completing ten assessments per week. 10 assessments/week × 12 weeks = 120 assessments/semester. That’s a lot of assessments! Are all the assessments necessary?

Backward Design

Necessity and design intersect when the established goals, evaluation criteria, and learning events are aligned. If the goal is to foster critical thinkers, do weekly quizzes and discussion board posts provide evidence of critical thinking? There is often a misalignment between “short-term plan and long-term goals” (Wiggins, 2013). Backward design places the learning goals at the forefront and aligns the types of evidence and the learning activities towards these goals (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). What will learners be able to do by the end of this module? What evidence will demonstrate the students’ understanding and proficiency? What activities will equip learners with the tools for demonstrating their learning and achieving the learning goals?

Every activity, event, and process should be intentionally designed to achieve the learning goals. Many of us jumped on the bandwagon of adopting many low-stakes assessments in place of few high-stakes evaluations. How did students adapt to the change? Stephen B. Heard notes that weekly low-stake assessments are good in theory, but the nature of human behaviour complicates the situation (2020). We want our learners to engage in a deep approach to learning, rather than a surface or strategic approach to learning. Both Concordia and McMaster University report that students are overwhelmed with frequent low-stakes assessments. Instead of five deadlines per course, students were faced with multiple deadlines per week for each of their courses.

Clarity and Intentionality

The UVic Student and Instructor Online Experience Survey Report offers seven recommendations in response to the five convergent themes. The first two recommendations emphasize clarity and intentionality. The syllabus, announcements, and instructions should be clear, concise, and consistent (UVic, 2020). Establish routines outline and provide a weekly summary to help learners navigate the online environment. Focus on the essentials and keep in mind that we are all “trying” to work within a pandemic (UVic, 2020). Wiggins and McTighe identify two types of weak educational design: “hands-on without being minds-on” and “coverage” (2005). Hands-on without being minds-on leads learners through various activities without an end goal in sight, while coverage encompasses a wide array of content with little intent. The most commonly heard questions in both these scenarios are, “Why are we doing this? What’s the point?”

So, back to our original question, are all the assessments necessary? To answer this question, we need to reassess the learning goals, types of assessments confirming achievement of the learning goals, and instructional events facilitating the completion of assessments and achievement of the learning goals. Do the lecture videos, readings, and additional resource links support my learners in gaining understanding and proficiency? Do the weekly quizzes and discussion board prompts demonstrate achievement of the learning goals? The online learning environment has opened up the possibilities for content and resources, but students still only have “a finite amount of time” (Onorato, n.d.). Attending a live two-hour class is not the same as watching eight short videos. One of my students described how attending one live two-hour class is one item on their checklist, while watching eight videos is eight items on their to-do list. Check in with your learners. Find out what is working for them and what is not. I learned from my students that providing time advisories helps them organize their study schedule, and establishing routines restores a small slice of “normalcy” in their lives.

For those working within a teaching team, check in with your colleagues. Have you heard from students? How is the content creation coming along? How is grading going? If each student is submitting 120 assessments/semester, your TAs may be grading thousands of assessments per semester! Double-check that the instructional events and activities are transparent and intentional. Use the “Backward Design Template” to help you organize your thoughts. Align the instruction with the assessments and learning outcomes. As Cathy N. Davidson notes, “quantity is not rigor” (2020). The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to be more thoughtful and intentional in our course design. What is the point of the various instructional activities and assessments?

Final thought, last week, I attended the EDTA Speakeasy “Active Student-Centred Learning through a Wu Wei Lens.” Wuwei (無為) refers to “doing without doing” or “purposeful inaction” (2020). Laozi, a Daoist philosopher, recommends wuwei as a governance principle (Moon, 2015). The wuwei strategy uses less interventions to increase engagement in personal cultivation. The strategy makes me think back to Jesse Stommel’s tweet: “Prepared is best, but underprepared is always better than overprepared” (2014). Perhaps as instructors, we can adopt the principle of doing less to achieve more in teaching and learning.

Works Cited

Avenues: The World School. (2013, February 28). Grant Wiggins: Understanding by Design (1 of 2) [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/4isSHf3SBuQ

Bowen, R. S. (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/

Carleton University. (2020). Addressing Student Workload Concern During the Term. Office of the Associate Vice-President (Teaching and Learning). https://carleton.ca/teachinglearning/2020/addressing-student-workload-concerns-during-the-term/

Davidson, C. N. (2020). Quantity Is Not Rigor. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/05/13/academics-should-rethink-way-they-assign-homework-opinion

Heard, S. B. (2020). From One Big Midterm to Weekly Quizzes: What I Expected, and What Actually Happened. Scientist Sees Squirrel. https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2020/04/21/from-one-big-midterm-to-weekly-quizzes-what-i-expected-and-what-actually-happened/

McMaster University. (2020). Teaching Tips of the Week: Assessments. Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence in Teaching. https://mi.mcmaster.ca/teaching-tips-of-the-week-assessments/

Moon, S. (2015). Wuwei (Nonaction) Philosophy and Actions: Rethinking “Actions” in School Reform. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(5), 455–473.

Onorato, R. (n.d.). Assignments in the Online Course: How Much is Too Much? The Cengage Blog. https://blog.cengage.com/assignments-online-course/

Reis, C. (2020, January 21). Active Student-Centred Learning through a Wu Wei Lens. EDTA Speakeasy.

Stommel, J. [@Jessifer]. (2014, February 18). Prepared is best, but underprepared is always better than overprepared. [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/jessifer/status/435984562628214785

University of Victoria. (2020). Online Learning and Teaching Student and Instructor Survey Results. Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation. https://onlineacademiccommunity.uvic.ca/TeachAnywhere/2020/12/16/survey-2020/

Wiggins, G., and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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