Classroom Stories

Classroom Stories: Missing the "Aha!" Moments during Online Teaching

By Stacy Palen

I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the transition to online instruction. Most of these conversations have been with people who are not academics and who seem to have the idea that I sit around eating bonbons and drinking bourbon in the afternoon now that I don’t have to “actually” work. Once I take a deep breath, I find myself saying, “I hate it,” which gives me the opportunity to reflect about why I hate it.

I had not taught an all-online course before, so there was an enormous learning curve. This problem was magnified because I was moving five distinct courses online between the spring and the fall. So I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think hard about what I was doing in any one of them. Just keeping track of what I had finished and what I had just thought about took multiple “to-do” spreadsheets. So that’s part of it: feeling like it’s the first time I’ve ever taught, and it’s all too much.

But there’s something else, too, something more fundamental. I’m missing the “Aha!” moments. When I teach in person, much of the time is spent moving around the room, listening to conversations, and nudging students to think differently or ask different questions. Most of the “lecture” time is spent answering questions and having wide-ranging discussions sparked by the material. At least once in every class period, some student would say, “Ooooohhhh!” or “Aha! I get it now!” as we finally figured out where they had gone off track, or what misconception they held without knowing it.

I miss that. It turns out that those “Aha!” moments were a primary motivator for me, as a teacher. That’s where I found joy. More than once, I’ve told friends, “If this is what teaching was when I started, I never would have done it at all. I would’ve been an engineer, instead.”

Well, so...enough complaining. Nobody would have asked for a giant global pandemic. What can I do about it? I’ve poked around a little bit, looking at “best practices” for student engagement in online courses and haven’t found my own “Aha!” yet about how to find what I’m seeking. I’ve had a couple of thoughts, but Im still mulling over the direction I want to go.

I have discussions open in Canvas every week and have managed to mostly respond to comments posted in those discussions, but students generally don’t respond to my responses. These are “graded,” but I set them up to be, fundamentally, a participation grade. In Astro101, I’m using open-ended “What If?” questions to spark discussion, and students do occasionally talk to one another there. In other classes, I’ve made them prompts about their struggles with assignments; however, students rarely comment on those. Going forward, I can modify these discussion prompts and grading practices for the upcoming semester to see if I can make them more useful but not onerous.

I’ve been available for students in my Zoom-room 15 hours a week, and I often have students drop in for a minute or two to ask a specific question (or I have students from the Physics with Calculus lab who stay signed in for three hours while they work through the lab and occasionally ask me questions). But much of the time, I’m doing other things—like grading, or chasing down why my Kaltura links are broken—while the box in the corner of my computer screen stays empty. I could make some of those times into synchronous instruction, or make it required for students to drop in and talk to me. But I hesitate because some of my students are already so stretched…so I’m not sure about it.

I’m still thinking about this problem, and I welcome ideas from professors who’ve taught online before. What practices are you using to help stay connected to the things that bring you joy in your teaching? I’d love to hear about them in the “Comments” section below!


Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses: Part 3

By Ana Larson

Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, gives us one last post about how to reduce cheating in online courses. 

To discourage academic cheating at the start of each quarter of my online courses at Seattle Central College, I started with an assignment where students had to complete a graded quiz (multiple takes permitted) on the content of the course syllabus and the policies and procedures of the college. Extra emphasis was given on the college's honor code and what, exactly, cheating included. My syllabus included explicit examples of what constitutes plagiarism and the consequences when unreferenced direct sources are used. In the last 5 years or so, students could use up to 3 outside sources, but those outside sources needed to be properly referenced using correct MLA or APA format. Students were given examples and helpful web links to show them how to do this.

Every quarter, there were at least 3-4 students in my course who lacked even the basic study skills. I envisioned them reaching a conceptually difficult concept, and rather than taking the time needed in a quiet, dedicated study area, immersing themselves in social media, texting, playing games, and cheating to find the answers. How are we supposed to teach study skills as well as astronomy? What if our departments require a definite amount of material that we are required to cover each term? Holy macaroni! We have families, other responsibilities, places we need to be, and people we must meet! It was frustrating to me that I spent a lot more time with some students and disproportionately less with the rest.

Unfortunately, over the 20-plus years I taught at the college, I did not keep records of the number of students who cheated, how they cheated, or whether (if any) a change in my policies or procedures made a difference. The course enrollment was limited to 30 students. Out of the number enrolled on the first day of class, usually 20-24 students completed the course. Those students included late registrations to replace students who dropped, complicating what would already be small-number statistics.

Fortunately, there are formal studies on academic cheating to which we can refer. I've mentioned the book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by James M. Lang (Harvard University Press, 2013), which is an informative source covering various aspects of how students cheat and case studies of instructors who were able to reduce cheating and improve overall student performance. I recommend this book as he also brings in research from many instructors noted for their expertise and excellence in teaching.

The 4 features of a learning environment that may pressure students to resort to cheating are [1]: 

  1. An emphasis on performance
  2. High stakes riding on the outcome
  3. An extrinsic motivation for success
  4. A low expectation of success

With an emphasis on performance, students just need to demonstrate that they know the right answer at a certain time. A common example of high-stakes pressure is an exam or assessment that determines a major fraction of a student's grade. When an extrinsic motivation for success came from parents who placed a much higher priority on good grades than students, those students were more likely to cheat [2]. Most, if not all, of us have had students who believe that they cannot "do" math or science. They have not been successful in the past and thus carry a low expectation of success in astronomy. If students need a natural world or quantitative analysis course for their majors, they might just do everything possible to pass.

These considerations would seem to involve modifying our course content while simultaneously trying to survive the transfer of our in-person courses to online settings! During my two decades of teaching online courses, I had two main goals for making changes each quarter: 1) reduce cheating and improve learning through increased intrinsic student motivation, and 2) keep myself from becoming bored or complacent with the syllabus.

Let's start with increasing the intrinsic motivation for learning astronomy. Bring in a graded discussion forum for each lesson that has students comment on something current and related to the lesson. For example, news about potentially hazardous asteroids can cover telescopes, orbits, life on Earth, and so much more. How do we use Kepler's and Newton's laws to track these objects? I have also used the web-research topics given in Stacy's textbooks. If students can see the connection between astronomy and how it relates to what they already know or have read about, their personal motivation to learn should increase [3].

How might we move from grading a student's performance in a class versus assessing their mastery of the concepts? We don't keep what we want them to learn a secret. What are the learning goals for the lesson? For which learning goals will students need to have advance preparation for the assignment? How do we give them that preparation? We make sure that the assignment teaches to those learning objectives, whether they are broad or narrow in scope. Our quizzes and exams then bring in questions that directly assess their learning. At the start of each term, give students examples of how a learning goal leads to assessing their learning. I have had students request study guides for midterms and finals. My response: You already have that in the learning goals for each lesson. "You mean we need to study only that material?" (Well, yes, and the topics we've covered related to those goals.)

Consider lowering the weight of exams in order to reduce students' inherent stress in taking them. How often have we heard: "I don't test well”? Some instructors lower the stakes by giving multiple quizzes in order to drop one or more low scores. Another instructor might make a final exam optional or one that would only count if it increased a student's grade. This works if students have had a number of assignments over each term. In my online course, students had multiple assignments each week: a discussion post, a web-research assignment, a pre-activity quiz, an activity (from Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy), and a post-activity quiz. The discussions and web-research assignments were easy to grade because the guidelines given were clearly stated. The quizzes were multiple-choice, leaving the weekly activity for "line-item" grading. Since each lesson was structured the same, students (especially those new to online learning) gained practice in transferring learned skills to the increasing complexity of topics in a typical astronomy textbook.

From the research, Lang summarized: "The more times we test students in their recall of our course material, the more we are helping them learn it." [4] (The Lowering Stakes chapter pushes against a lot of preconceptions we might have on how students learn.)

Lang brings in research that states we should use formative assessment during our teaching. This involves brief, low-stakes activities that students do so that they and their instructors get feedback about levels of understanding. For in-class courses, these involve think-pair-share activities, minute papers, and clicker questions [5]. For online courses, these could be incorporated by using student groups or a dedicated discussion forum. The Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook has associated pre- and post-activity quizzes for each activity. My solution, in addition to the multiple assignments and structured lessons, was to spend a lot more time in emails with these students and in answering specific questions they had about parts of an activity before they submitted it. There were cases where deadlines were extended and students resubmitted assignments. This was possible because the classes had less than 30 students. I have no answers for those online classes that have more than 50 students and welcome all suggestions and stories!

[1] Lang, James. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard University Press, 2013. Print, p. 35

[2] Ibid., p. 46

[3] Ibid., p. 63

[4] Ibid., p. 114

[5] Ibid., p. 131


Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses: Part 2

By Ana Larson

Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, returns this week to discuss cheating in online courses. 

Those of us who have taught introductory astronomy in a classroom are quite aware of the number of ways students can cheat (a one-word catch-all for "academic dishonesty"). None of us should be surprised that teaching courses either partially or totally online brings in even more ways. The easiest to catch were those that were not in the student's own words. A quick search on the Internet using part or all of the question text would reveal the source. Here I cover one of the Internet sources (there are multiple similar sources online) for student plagiarism that I discovered in my Seattle Central College (SCC) introductory astronomy course, and the actions I took to deter students from cheating.

Under my policies, the first time a student's cheating was discovered, they got a 0 for that question. If they did it again, for even just 1 question without a citation, they got a 0 for the whole assignment. Since I wanted them to learn the material, which required doing the activity correctly on their own, I allowed these students to resubmit the assignment for at least partial credit. Students attending open enrollment colleges and universities can face personal, family, work, insufficient academic preparedness, and other challenges that interfere with assignment deadlines. With a few exceptions, students appreciated this additional opportunity to do well in the course, a two-way dialog was started, and their motivation for learning and doing well in the course seemed to increase.

Being a co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy lecture workbook, I had the opportunity to use some of the activities starting in ~2017. By autumn quarter, 2019, I had put together a curriculum that successfully had these online students using all of the features of 10 activities found in the 2nd edition workbook.

By better preparing students for the activity, I felt that students would be less inclined to cheat. (Small number statistics precludes any conclusion, however.) I include a partial autumn quarter 2019 syllabus at the end of this blog.

Most of the students submitted multiple-page images for each activity through Canvas. Over the ~2 years of using the 2nd ed. activities, there were at least 2-4 students (out of an average of 22 students per quarter) who cheated by plagiarizing Internet sources. For me, the most distressing examples of plagiarizing involved students sending in images of complete pages of the workbook to Chegg.com and asking for "help." There were at least 3 "experts" who answered every question for students who submitted pages. Students would then use those answers verbatim.

Something you might consider: I ended up subscribing to Chegg.com over a few quarters in order to have access to all answers. There was a fee, but access saved me time overall, and I was better informed during discussions with students about how problematic this use of the Internet was. Plus, students recognized their instructor was Internet savvy! I then allowed students to resubmit their assignments.

While conducting some independent research, I found a question posed on Quora.com and particularly liked this answer to "Is Chegg cheating?" by Jiří Lebl:

Mostly, yes (it is cheating and you shouldn’t do it). It is also the worst way to study. At least in mathematics (I teach mathematics), homework assignments are exactly that. Exercises. Using Chegg is like going to the gym to watch other people exercise. Actually worse, you are paying other people to exercise in front of you and then telling other people you have exercised.

What drove my efforts to combat this behavior over all quarters was the possibility that students would encourage others to sign up for my online course because they were able to cheat without getting caught. Maybe saying, "I got a good grade and didn't even have to try!" Fortunately, no student ever implied anything close to this based on teaching evaluations.

There is action being taken to reduce this cheating at some of the very-top-needed levels! Reading these documents gave me hope, and I strongly recommend them to you as well.

In order to deter students from cheating in my own course, I use the syllabus as a contract for learning and include language that emphasizes the risks that come with cheating. Here’s a partial sample of my online course syllabus at SCC for Winter, 2020:

Astronomy 100 0L - Syllabus -Winter 2020 QUARTER

You should consider the syllabus for this course as your contract for learning. I will uphold my end and I expect each of you to adhere to course policies and procedures in addition to those set forth by Seattle Central College.

Academic Integrity
By participating in this course, you have agreed to the following: "Academic integrity is a basic guiding principle for all academic activity at Seattle Central Community College, allowing the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest, and responsible manner. In accordance with the College's Code of Conduct, I will practice integrity in regard to all academic assignments. I will not engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation or deception because such acts of dishonesty violate the fundamental ethical principles of the College community and compromise the worth of work completed by others."

PLUS: It is expressly forbidden under the honor code of Seattle Central College for students to extract information from the Internet without proper referencing, claiming it as their own.  When a student plagiarizes, I give a 0 for that assignment.  I will be reporting the dishonesty to the eLearning office unless the student can give me a good reason why I should not.  I will be examining that student's answers very carefully in all future assignments and it is quite likely that that student will simply fail the course if he or she does not actually answer questions with their own words.

Mon Feb 24, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Discussion - A cross-section of humans versus a cluster or birth of stars due by 11:59pm

Wed Feb 26, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Web Research - Planetary Nebulae and White Dwarfs in the News due by 11:59pm

Thu Feb 27, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Activity - Preparation and Math Review Quiz 7 due by 11:59pm

Fri Feb 28, 2020 Assignment Lesson 07: Activity - Determining the Ages of Star Clusters due by 11:59pm

With each assignment, students also had to agree to the following: "The answers provided here are mine alone unless otherwise referenced." Combined with the language in the syllabus, this served as a successful deterrent for the most part, but a few students would still take the chance each quarter.

The assignments listed here for Lesson 7 were typical for each lesson. Spacing the assignments over the course of a few days each week helped me identify which students were procrastinating and needed nudges. The preparation and math review quizzes were the pre-activity questions from the 2nd edition of the workbook. The questions were multiple choice, and students could take each quiz twice. Students were given a 3-day grace period for turning in assignments, without penalty.

We can't overemphasize the importance of making it clear to students (and checking that each student understands) what our policies are when the school's honor code is broken. Find out what the policies for cheating are in your department and college. Hopefully you are not left to make policies on your own and are also free to add personal requirements.


Classroom Stories: How to Handle Cheating in Online Courses

By Ana Larson

This week, we have a guest post by Ana Larson, co-author of the Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy workbook, from the University of Washington. 

First, an introduction: twenty-two years ago (1998), as adjunct faculty, I developed an online course for Seattle Central College (SCC), which was Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) at the time. Online courses were just starting to become more available, and the learning management systems (LMS) were quite rudimentary compared to what we have today. I taught the online Astronomy 101 every quarter, every year, up until the 2020 Spring quarter, which is when enrollment at the college dropped.

In addition to required textbook reading, this online course consisted of three assignments each week: posting to a graded discussion board (and responding to other posts), a web research essay, and a lab-like assignment. As the years passed and the LMS became more sophisticated and included many more options for instructors and students, I added tutorials and short quizzes to prepare students for these assignments. 

This past decade has seen greater numbers of students enrolling in online courses, becoming better at self-motivation, and getting assignments in on time. However, there have always been those students, roughly 10-20 percent of the class, who just did not want to do the steps needed to learn the material. 

At first, this took the form of plagiarizing content from the Internet, primarily Wikipedia, but other sources were used as well. These instances were fairly easy to catch because the wording of the answers was obviously not in the student's voice. In these early days, some students copied and pasted material directly, including the links to other websites! Over the past few years, however, cheating has been harder and harder to catch, due mainly to websites like CourseHero and Chegg.

In an effort to help you discourage cheating in your own online/hybrid classrooms, I've listed my three best practices to discourage cheating in my online course below:

1) Give explicit information: The very first assignment that students had to submit was a graded quiz on the content of the course syllabus and the policies and procedures of the college. Extra emphasis was given on the college's honor code and on what, exactly, cheating included. My syllabi included explicit examples of what constituted plagiarism and the consequences when unreferenced direct sources were used. In the last five years or so, students could use up to three outside sources, but those outside sources needed to be properly referenced using correct MLA or APA format. Students were given examples and helpful web links.

2) State consequences: Students were told that they could get a 0 on an entire assignment even if only one answer involved plagiarism, which was the most common way of cheating in the course. I also outlined what was acceptable when students worked together, which I encouraged. In practice, if students were working on an early assignment and only a few of their answers involved cheating, I gave 0s for only those answers, with the caveat that any future instances would result in a 0 for the entire assignment. 

3) Immediately follow up: I interacted directly with students via course email and discussed why they got the grade they did. Most of the time, students were allowed to resubmit the assignment. I can think of only one or two examples where students did not respond to an email and continued plagiarizing. Those students failed the course.

Cheating is always upsetting, in any course, but in Astronomy 101, we have a unique opportunity to redirect students who cheat "by accident" by giving them the benefit of learning these important lessons without suffering from long-term consequences.


Classroom Stories: T-5...

By Stacy Palen

This fall feels weird. Really, really weird. Watching the pandemic erupt at higher-education institutions all around the country has filled me with anxiety: for my students, for my colleagues, and for myself. I feel very lucky that my University is primarily a commuter campus, so we are insulated from at least some of the pressures that are occurring at other places.

These are emergency times, and so I try to remember to be a little kind to myself. I’ve learned at least eight new kinds of software and picked up rudimentary skills in half a dozen fields that I never expected to need, like music editing and network maintenance. I don’t feel competent at any of it, but it’s unreasonable to expect that of myself. I’ve had just a few months of self-directed learning…in the middle of a global pandemic and civil unrest.

In times like these, it can be really hard to pick up your head and look forward to the “after-time.” But there will be a time after COVID. And I’m already finding things that I want to pull through into that time. Zoom office hours, for example. Would I have ever bothered to learn how to do that if not for the pandemic? Now that I’m setting up office hours for my students, it strikes me as an obvious thing that I will want to do for all my non-traditional, commuter students in the “after-time.” An introductory video to post to Canvas before class begins every semester is also a good idea, even for a face-to-face class! And weekly discussions, where students can ask and answer questions about the topics of the week—these don’t have to be confined to class time. I’m embarrassed that I never thought about these things before…but I was busy. Teaching.

This week, I am polishing up my “prep” on six courses to teach online for the first time in my life. (SIX! Yikes! Our enrollment is through the roof…we are all teaching overload…) I anticipate that next week, there will be some “fires.” Lots of things will not go as planned. Lots of things that seem like great ideas now will seem incredibly naïve later. It’s important for me to recognize that there are a whole lot of things that I have no control over at all.

We’ll see how all of this goes. I have been telling our students (in the introductory videos) that we are having ADVENTURES. As I write this, I am five days out from the first day of the semester. It feels very much like waiting for a rocket launch, with the same kind of hopeful uncertainty. I’ve done as much preparing as I possibly can. Now I just have to push the button and see what happens.

Best of luck to all of you. I hope you find some time to reflect, as you go along, about things that you will want to keep doing in the “after-time.” I’m sure there will be lots of great papers to write, about online teaching and learning, after the emergency is over. I look forward to reading all of them, and writing some of them.


Classroom Stories: The Problem of Students at Home

By Stacy Palen

I don’t know about you, but I have learned more about my students’ living situation in the last six weeks than I have any right to know. I learned that one of my students was homeless and living in her car. I learned that one of my students is living in his parents' unfinished basement with his wife and two children. I learned that two of my (senior-level physics majors) didn’t have computers or laptops of their own, and have always done all of their schoolwork on campus. I learned that several of my students have children and live in studio apartments (and I know what those children are studying in THEIR online classrooms). I learned that one of my students has two very young special needs children who refuse to wear anything but “Underoos” when they are at home in the house, even if mommy is meeting with her professor on Zoom.

And I learned that a whole lot of my students do not have reliable internet access. Of course, I suspected that already—because late last summer, a Facebook friend posted an article about students writing essays on their phones because they lack access to the internet in their homes.

A second friend who teaches English composition at a community college commented that she has a unit on “how to write an essay on your phone,” specifically for this reason.

Back in September, that sent me down a little rabbit hole to this blog post from 2018 which summarized a report from the US Department of Energy.

The take-home message is that while nearly all children ages 3-18 have a computer at home (94%), only 61% have access to the internet.

My University made what I consider to be absolutely heroic efforts to loan technology (tablets, laptops, and desktops) to students who did not have it. For weeks, they kept an office open on campus so that students could come and borrow whatever was available.

Many students were able to take advantage of this, but in the end, there was not enough to go around. (There is also a food pantry which has now moved to three locations off-campus.)

I thought a lot about all of this while I was (rapidly and unexpectedly) preparing to move my classes online. I thought about all of these problems for students:

  • Lack of internet access.
  • Having to share bandwidth with their school-aged children and their spouse working from home.
  • Having to share space with children and a spouse who is maybe not working from home.
  • Hunger, and the plain fundamental stress of major life changes brought on by a global pandemic.

And then I tried to think of the best way to ensure that this unprecedented situation “did no harm;” I wanted students to still be able to learn and make progress if they had the mental bandwidth to get it done. These problems were the primary driver behind my decision to make all of my classes asynchronous.

While I feel a deep sense of loss from not interacting with my students in real time, I’m convinced that this was the best decision for the majority of them. Many students “handed in” their homework in the dead hours of the night. Many students sent me emails at those times as well. Many students thanked me for shifting to asynchronous teaching, although some complained that they “were left to learn it all on their own.” It’s a fair criticism, especially since none of these students actually CHOSE an online course!

After I made this decision, I saw a number of articles from more experienced online teachers, who promoted the idea of asynchronous online classes. And several colleagues (here and at other institutions) reported that they tried to have synchronous classes, but attendance dropped precipitously, and they wound up shifting to asynchronous instruction.

As I think ahead to how I might best organize an online class in the next few semesters, I’ll keep these limitations for students very firmly fixed in the front of my mind.


Classroom Stories: Cheating and Exams

By Stacy Palen

We are just past finals here at Weber State, and we have been having a lot of discussions about how the transition to online learning went. Among those discussions is a big piece about student cheating. This was prompted by a faculty member who has taught the online astronomy course for a long time (27 times!) and has usually proctored closed-note exams. During the second half of this semester, those exams changed to open-note exams taken at home (presumably!) without a proctor. The average of student course scores rose 8%, and for the first time ever, no one earned a “D” or failed the class.

Clearly, this was not a controlled experiment. There are several possibilities for why student scores rose, which are not mutually exclusive:

  • Students who are uncomfortable with going someplace new to take proctored exams were more comfortable at home.
  • Students who are normally overwhelmed by a closed-book exam did better with an open-book exam.
  • Students cheated with one another by sharing answers.
  • Students cheated by looking things up online.
  • Students used a “service,” such as “Take My Online Exam” or “Online Class Hero,” or something similar.
  • Something else we haven’t thought of yet.

Figuring out what’s going on here, and why, will take more data, and probably some more experiments. We feel compelled to figure it out, because we want to maintain the integrity of the profession, and we want to help guide students to be better people.

Fighting against cheating can be draining. I recall a professor, for whom I was a TA in grad school, who carried out quite sophisticated statistical cross-correlation analyses of the in-class multiple-choice tests in order to catch people cheating on exams. He seemed to enjoy the challenge. I did not, and I found that spending so much mental effort on distrust really damaged my ability to find joy in my job. (Not to make it all about me…but I think students benefit when I’m full of joy, rather than furious.)

I take a different track. Even in my face-to-face classes, I give take-home, open-book, open-note, and written exams that students have several days to work on. I came to this solution by focusing really hard on what I actually want students to know or be able to do.

I don’t actually care if students can recall things; I care if they can figure out things. I also care to give them feedback about their reasoning. Consequently, I don’t give multiple-choice exams. All by itself, that makes cheating a lot harder. (Yes, it’s a gigantic pain to grade 120 final exams by hand. But it’s also a gigantic pain to run sophisticated statistical cross-correlation analyses, and change them every time the testing software changes.)

I don’t think students will ever not have Google (or something similar) at their fingertips, so it’s fine with me if they look things up. I write an exam that presumes that they actually do have Google, or the textbook, at their fingertips to look things up. Making this assumption lets me ask questions that are a lot harder to figure out, and therefore a lot harder to Google directly.

I do care that they “attend” class (for a certain pandemic value of “attend”), so on the exam, I ask several questions that are trivial if they’ve actually been in this class for this semester, but are impossible if they haven’t. (And I vary my lectures and materials accordingly.) This has the added benefit of automatically penalizing students using a test bank or an online service; they can’t get those points, and I don’t have to do anything special about it.

But the most important thing I do is try to make the exams personally compelling. I write a story for them, and then I drop them in it. For several years now, I’ve used a “zombie apocalypse” narrative. (In the post-COVID world, that might not be the best choice!) I used to drop them on a desert island.

In the future, I might try having them imagine they are teaching their kids about the sky, or they’ve been abducted by aliens, or that a time machine has transported them to the deep future. The common feature underlying all these scenarios is that they are on their own. I think the story matters; it makes the material feel relevant (even if they know zombies aren’t real), and it gives them an incentive to try to solve it themselves.

This semester, in the abruptly online experiment that we were all thrown into, I found that I had little to change about this practice. I had to think a little harder about the fraction of “attendance” questions that I wanted to ask, and what made for a fair question of this type. (I specifically referenced Astronomy in Action videos instead of our in-class lecture.) In my class, the average on the pre-COVID midterm was within a few points of the average on the post-COVID final, and the overall course average was just over 75%, which is where it usually is.

There are so many tools now, and so many different ways, to carve up a class into compartments that teach or test each content area, skill, or attitude; take a look at them, and figure out which ones will do the best job for the things you care about. Be sure to start by asking yourself this important question: What is it that you want them to know or be able to do? What are the deeper values you bring with you to the classroom?

Then, figure out how to design your assessments to reach those goals and teach those values. This may be overwhelming this semester, but as you look ahead to future semesters, you may find that you are changing a lot of things anyway. Changing the way you write your exams may save you the time and effort you currently spend on arranging proctors or catching cheaters, which will ultimately make it harder and less rewarding for students to cheat.

 


Classroom Stories: It’s a Learning Experience!

By Stacy Palen

I remember when I was in school, things would occasionally go badly, or at least unexpectedly, and a teacher would often say “It’s a learning experience; it builds character!”

Well. Here we are in the midst of a global pandemic, building character all over the place!

My university is in finals week, and I’ve just finished grading my astronomy exams for both Astro101 and the Junior level cosmology class.

It’s a good time to reflect on a few things.

First, I started with the driving directive that I would “do no harm.” I took note of the scores for each student when we were all sent home and decided that this would be the lowest grade that the student could earn. I felt that this was only fair since an online class is not the same experience at all. If they had wanted an online class, they would have signed up for one!

As it turns out, about 75% of the students improved their score (some only slightly), while 15% of their scores dropped only slightly—not enough to matter in the final letter grade. That left me with a handful of students (10%) who reverted to their earlier score. These were clearly students who eventually stopped handing things in altogether; a couple of them let me know their very good reasons for doing so.

I think those results are interesting and would love to know if others had similar results in their classes!

Second, what an amazing opportunity this is to identify which things students can learn just by reading, and which things students need real live instruction in order to learn! Maybe I would call this “learning by conversation” to distinguish it from Learning by Doing. We were sent home right at the transition from the Solar System to stars, so all of stars, galaxies, and cosmology was carried out by asynchronous online instruction. I noticed the following in my Astro101 exams:

  1. My students basically understand the H-R diagram; they can add new stars to it and identify regions and stellar properties like temperature. However, they do not understand evolutionary tracks, and the misconception about stars evolving ALONG the main sequence remains, even though it is explicitly addressed in the text. I do not have this problem when I teach the topic “live.”
  2. Special and general relativity are full of misconceptions. It seems as though reading about it reinforces what they already think is true, even if what they are reading is actually saying the opposite of what they already think. They miss the subtleties and re-interpret the text to match what’s already in their heads from Star Trek or wherever. For these topics, they absolutely need to have someone see their foreheads crinkle in confusion and give them the chance to ask questions as they have them.
  3. Every misconception about the expanding universe is still there, even though the text tries hard to counter this. And the videos. And the simulations. This is fascinating. These misconceptions persist in part because we didn’t get to do the hands-on “balloon universe” activity (can your students find balloons in their house? I don’t have any). But partly, it’s because they don’t get to hear someone ask the question “but if everything’s going away, doesn’t that mean there has to be a center?” and get the answer 8 or 10 times in a class period.

I’m sure there will be more examples as I process, and think about how to learn what I can from this unplanned experiment. I’d love to hear what you are noticing about this idea of “learning by conversation.” It will help me think about tools to develop over the summer in case we are all teaching and learning online again in the Fall.


Classroom Stories: Electron Transitions in the Atom

By Stacy Palen

Before we all were sent home because of COVID-19, my class completed a short in-class activity that was intended to prepare them for the study of stellar spectra. This activity can also be done by students taking online courses, although the big advantage of doing them in class is that it gives such insight into where students are struggling with the material!

This activity is all about transitions in the atom. I thought it was interesting that many of my students did not know about energy level diagrams (which I didn’t really expect), but I was surprised to learn that a fair percentage of them had never even heard of the Bohr model of the atom.

After listening for a while to the discussion, I was reminded that a fair number of my students are concurrent enrollment; they are actually high school students who are taking this course to fulfill their science credit. We can argue about whether that’s a good idea (I do not think that astronomy is a good substitute for chemistry).

The fact remains that they are taking my course and I need to teach them about a subject that is completely foreign to them.

This activity introduces the concept of electron energy levels, emission, and absorption. I struggled a bit here to introduce the idea that in order to make an upward transition, the electron has to get energy from somewhere, and therefore the “rest of space” will have less energy in it. I didn’t want to introduce Kirchoff’s laws yet, and they hadn’t yet seen an absorption spectrum. But they got the point, despite my unhappiness with the imprecise language I used.

Click here to access the activity for yourself and let me know how it works for you!


Classroom Stories: Light as a Wave

By Stacy Palen

Typically, I lecture about light as a wave by showing students images of waves and describing wavelength, frequency, and velocity. Then I tell them that wavelength and color go together; that light of a particular color has a particular wavelength.

However, when we would get to the Light and Spectra activity, it was clear that they had not fully internalized this information. Given that I’m not lecturing at all this semester, I invented a short activity (which can be accessed by clicking here) that unpacks this relationship a bit.

The activity uses an LED light tower that I happen to have. You can find this specific one here, but the activity could be adapted for use with spectral tubes or images from the internet.

I cannot darken the room this semester, so being able to adapt this activity made it indispensable. I also could not use the spectral tubes for my students because they simply weren’t bright enough to see. I wound up using the online images from the light and spectra lab. Without this activity students would not have been able to use their spectrum glasses in the classroom at all!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, no, it doesn’t work to try to project the spectrum tubes using the document camera.

Despite the difficulties in using the online images, student performance on the light and spectra activity was better than in the past. They also seem to have acquired a clear understanding that color and wavelength are related.

You can check out the activity yourself by clicking here!