The Problem – My Assignment Fell Flat!
All of us professors have had it happen. We work hours and hours to create The Perfect Assignment™. We pour in our anxious hearts and troubled souls, doing our best to enrich students’ lives. Instead of enraptured students’ insights, we hear crickets. What went wrong?
What happens sometimes is that we make the perfect assignment for us, but not for our students. I don’t mean students generally. I mean our specific students at the given time. Do these students know why we’re covering the material? Do they know why it matters? Perhaps most importantly in an online class on Canvas – do they know Canvas well enough to feel comfortable engaging with the assignment?
In other words – sometimes the assignment makes sense to us from our perspective. However, it only makes sense to us or people very much like us.
The Solution – Developing Culture Literacies
The fix is this – Design our Canvas courses for our students, not for us! Be hospitable to students by developing cultural literacies and demonstrating them in the Canvas classroom.
ISTE Standards for Educators calls upon us professors to “Demonstrate cultural competency when communicating with students, parents, and colleagues and interact with them as co-collaborators in student learning,” (4d). Two key concepts in this charge can help us design more impactful courses – culture and collaboration.
We need to realize, first, that culture exists. For my purposes, I’m defining culture as “the way a group of people see things, interact, and get things done.” This definition works for large groups of people, organizations, and schools.
When we know we’re part of a culture; we know there are other cultures. Sometimes our identities may even include membership or ease in several cultures. Our students probably share some cultures with us but are also part of others we may not be as familiar with.
When we know other cultures exist, we can acknowledge them, learn about them, and try to speak the language of the culture (be it a literal different language or a metaphorical one). We need to develop cultural literacies.
The Solution – Becoming Co-Collaborators
This may seem like a philosophical question more than a practical one, but it can change everything – Do we design closed Canvas courses to disseminate information, or do we design our courses in a more open way to collaborate with others?
Arrange the Furniture.
Whether or not a student is familiar with Canvas, poor course design will frustrate and confuse anyone. Consider how easy (or difficult) it is for students to find important things like due dates, contact information, discussion, group membership, and important Announcements. If we expect students to make videos, do we create how-to videos highlighting Canvas Studio and its screencasting and closed caption features? Can students find your Speedgrader feedback?
Depending on the cultures to which a student belongs, they may be savvier with certain technologies than others. For example, some students may prefer to ask questions via telephone calls, while others prefer email. We need to make sure that students how to contact us in the method they prefer.
We can do this simply by highlighting Canvas’ built-in mail and chat features and filling out our Canvas profile to include other contact information. We can include integrated links to our personal websites, Twitter, and more. We can utilize apps like calendly or youcanbookme to help students feel welcome to contact us.
Language itself is intimidating at times. Does the text within our courses sound like a formal APA writing style, or is it conversational? Does it assume students are already familiar with the field’s jargon, or is it accessible to someone new? Do pop culture references in our prompts make sense to people who grew up when we did and enjoyed our entertainment, or can anyone understand what is being asked of them? Is it clear to students how formal or relaxed discussion posts and reflection papers should be?
After attending antiracism in writing seminars at my university, I’ve started specifying on most assignments that students’ deliverables can come in many forms and levels of formality so long as the learning goals/rubric items are fulfilled. For example, I might encourage students to write as if they were talking to a client in the real world, use their own voice in a reflection paper, or communicate responses via video, music, podcast, or whatever else makes sense to them.
Some of the best insights I’ve gotten about my students have come from the students themselves. That seems self-evident, but how often do we actually ask our students questions? One way to set an example and “arrange the furniture” is to ask students at the beginning of the class what their goals are, what they’re most excited about in the course, and what they’re most anxious about. Because I work at a Christian university, I also ask what I can pray about. When given the opportunity, many students will be more than happy to let you peek into their lives and therefore their cultures.
Additionally, I’ve learned a lot about our students and their unique needs from our recruiters and advisors. They speak with our students often and understand what drives them, where they get stuck, and what they find most rewarding about the journey.
Sometimes our Canvas assignments don’t land like we want them to because we don’t make them for our students. If we remember that not everyone thinks like us and that many cultures and identities interact to co-create the class experience together, we can make the Canvas classroom more welcoming and understandable to our students.
Behizadeh, Nadia. (2017). “Everybody have their own ways of talking”: Designing writing instruction that encourages linguistic diversity.. Voices from the Middle. 24. 58-64.
Canvas Team. (2020, October 28). 3 Tips to Drive Deeper Engagement Across Diverse Student Populations [Blog]. The Study Hall. https://www.instructure.com/canvas/resources/insights/3-tips-to-drive-deeper-engagement-across-diverse-student-populations-2
Cheung, F., Ganote, C., & Souza, T. (2021, April 14). Proactive Microresistance in a Microaggressive World | Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/academic-leadership/proactive-microresistance-in-a-microaggressive-world/
Green, N.-A. S. (2016). The Re-Education of Neisha-Anne S Green: A Close Look at the Damaging Effect of “A Standard Approach”, The Benefits of Codemeshing, and the Role Allies Play in this work. https://doi.org/10.15781/T24B2XM93
Steelcase Education. (2014). How Classroom Design Affects Student Engagement [White Paper]. https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/files/Post%20Occupancy%20Whitepaper%20FINAL.pdf