By Morgan Rooney, Educational Development Coordinator, EDC
So, you’ve created a series of screen-capture lecture videos and linked students to other relevant resources (videos by third-parties, readings, etc.). Your content is wonderful, rich, informative, and easy for your students to access. Excellent! But, suddenly a voice in the back of your mind whispers, “how will you know that your students have had a meaningful encounter with the content you’ve assigned?” Naturally, some head-scratching may well ensue. How do you address that concern?
As teachers, we know too well that mere content on its own, regardless of its quality, is not enough to ensure quality learning—and if it were, textbooks and the internet would have long ago rendered teachers redundant. Students, however, require the structure, motivation, feedback, and encouragement that we provide. That voice in the back of your mind that worries about student engagement, then, is a reflex response that recognizes the central role that instructors play in helping students to learn. And what that voice is calling out for is some form of “check for learning”—that is, you want to see your students do something with the content so you and they both know they have had that meaningful engagement that we all know is required for real learning to occur.
Checks for learning can take many forms. If you routinely teach face-to-face courses, you probably have already assembled a series of activities and strategies you use for such comprehension checks—Poll Everywhere, reading and responding to facial expressions, asking questions and gauging responses, holding discussions and other activities, and so on. Many of these options, however, are not available to you when you’re teaching online, especially if your weekly lessons are largely or entirely asynchronous.
While there are a number of effective options for checking for understanding in the online environment—including discussion threads, automatically graded quizzes, and H5P lessons that feature embedded questions spread throughout the lesson—I’d like to describe and celebrate an option that is 1) perhaps more accessible because it doesn’t require any special tools or technological expertise and 2) scalable for courses that have markers-to-students ratios of about 40:1 or less: worksheets.
Worksheets are simply editable template files that include a series of questions and/or tasks for students to complete as they make their way through your online content. Instructors create the template, adding in the instructions and questions/tasks for students. On their end, students open the file and answer the questions or perform the task when prompted, either by the video or slides you create, or by the instructions in the template itself (or both).
In the end, what they submit is a completed worksheet that can provide you with rich evidence of their engagement with the content. While your students will no doubt provide evidence of confusion along with that evidence of learning, that misunderstanding is also something you can use to inform future instruction (i.e., the next lesson, or the upcoming synchronous component for the course, if you have that option).
To create an effective worksheet, all you require is:
- A clear sense of your learning outcomes for the weekly lesson
- Deep familiarity with the content you have created and/or are presenting
- Clear instructions for students to follow
- Basic knowledge of a program such as Microsoft Word and cuLearn
Knowing your learning outcomes for the week’s lesson is crucial because they should directly inform the kinds of questions and/or tasks that you ask your student to answer/perform in the worksheet. If, for instance, you are teaching your students about a theoretical model that they can use as a framework to evaluate or interpret something else, and you want them to be able to do that application, then you need to create an opportunity for them when they get some practice doing that evaluation or analysis. This is easily the most important step in creating an effective worksheet.
The second step in this process is to go through your content and decide when and where your students should stop engaging with the content and instead complete the next prompt in your worksheet. Ideally, you would create your lecture recordings with that awareness in mind so that there is plenty of signposting, but it’s not a problem if you take that step afterwards and only build the instructions into the worksheet itself. What matters is that students are receiving clear messaging about what they need to do, and when, as they make their way through your lesson.
With respect to instructions, be as clear as possible. And by that, I mean, tell students exactly what you want them to do, and at what point in the lesson they should do it. I also highly recommend setting minimum requirements for responses (e.g. for this prompt, provide me with this many sentences or that many paragraphs). Those minimum requirements communicate clearly the depth of engagement and thought that the question or task requires. Provide instructions, too, about where and when they are to submit their worksheet.
When it comes to technology, you can build your template in Microsoft Word; you don’t need to do anything fancy here, beyond highlighting your instructions using formatting features such as bolding, underlining or italicizing. To set your worksheet exercise up on cuLearn, you just need to know how to do a few simple things—specifically how to upload a document and how to create a submission form.
Assessing your students’ worksheet submissions need not be an onerous undertaking. I would recommend setting up a simple pass/fail rubric that features a small number of criteria that are easily assessed. So, for instance, you might have criteria such as the following:
- the worksheet does or does not follow all instructions, such as providing responses to all prompts;
- the responses do or do not meet the minimum length requirements stipulated; and
- the responses do or do not show evidence of engaging with the content of the lesson.
Using such a marking scheme, the marker would give a thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment on each criterion, so that the only grading options are 3, 2, 1 or 0.
You will notice here that one criterion I’m not recommending is the accuracy or correctness of your students’ responses. That’s on purpose: that kind of assessment requires a much closer and therefore time-consuming engagement from the assessor, as well as clear criteria in the rubric. Think of this worksheet engagement as the equivalent to overhearing your students’ responses in class: in that context, when they get things wrong, we simply intercede to correct them instead of docking marks. You want your worksheet check-for-learning approach to function in the same way.
You can, however, of course use the substance of your students’ responses—both the instances when students make powerful connections that show high quality evidence of learning, and when students demonstrate substantial misunderstanding—to inform future interactions (synchronous or not) with students and/or future lessons. If you see responses in the worksheets that suggest some major misunderstandings, you might want to start off the next week’s lesson with a quick video that responds to those, and which helps students to understand where they went wrong.
While I wouldn’t recommend giving worksheets a heavy weight in your assessment scheme (perhaps just one per cent per week, for a total of 10 per cent of your course grade, with the best 10 of 12 responses counting), they definitely need to carry some grade so as to incentivize students to complete them on a regular basis. Students are like any other adult: they set priorities, and instructors’ “must complete” items are always going to take precedence over those things we “strongly recommend” that they do but which we don’t check, reward or incentivize in any way. If you simply recommend that they do these worksheets but don’t collect and assess them, you are telling them that you don’t value the work they do. And we know how that ends: the work goes undone, and student learning and performance suffer accordingly.
Worksheets are an excellent solution for instructors looking to find low-tech, scalable options for building in a check-for-learning into their weekly lessons. They can provide you with tangible evidence of engagement as well as information about the quality of your students’ understanding. They also provide students with the structure and incentive they need to keep them on track and to engage with the content in ways that will help their learning. When set up right, the assessment mechanism for worksheets can simply be pass/fail or thumbs-up/thumbs-down on a small number of criteria that measure things such as completion of assigned prompts and engagement with ideas presented in the lesson itself. For examples of worksheets I have used in my English courses and in my EDC programs, click on the links below.
- Worksheets for three asynchronous lessons, FYSM course:
- Worksheets for two blended (synchronous, then asynchronous) lessons, EDC workshops:
- Worksheet for one synchronous lesson, EDC workshop:
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