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Robert Allan Maxwell

Senior Academic Professional

Applied and Environmental Microbiology



During my time at Georgia State University, I have had the opportunity to interact with a number of faculty members within Biology and across campus who have an interest in Higher Education instructional innovation. Through them I have learned about different pedagogical practices, such as case studies and use of clicker systems in class rooms, and a number of online references, resources and discussion groups. Each of these has led me to consider student learning styles, instructional delivery, and learning outcome assessment. Each semester I try new techniques to encourage student learning, and have never taught a lecture class the same way twice.

Exposure to instructional innovation at Georgia State University, and across the country, has led me to the instructional models which I currently use. What follows is a reflection upon my growth as an instructor to my current instructional views.

Before coming to Georgia State University, I had seven years of experience teaching at a community college in Albany, GA. There I was mentored in traditional lecture style pedagogy and learning assessment. While there, I was given the opportunity to attend the Board of Reagents Faculty Development workshop on instructional technology. This week long program focused on improvements to internet and software during the 1990’s, including the first Learning Management Frameworks. From that experience, I became an early adopter of many new technologies, seeing both flaws and benefits.

When I started at GSU, I wanted to continue incorporating technology in the classroom, but with one main purpose in mind. I wanted the students to study the material, not just rely on lecture. My time at a community college taught me that lecture only really reached a small portion of students, and that what most students needed was encouragement to study and a mentor to help them through the tough parts. To work on achieving a new relationship with students, my first step was to require an online quiz of readings before we met for class.

These quizzes were throw away assignments, as is often the case of quizzes built to determine reading comprehension. In fact, these were not meant to be reading comprehension quizzes. Each quiz contained 30 questions. Some questions were fill-in-the-blank style definitions, while the other questions were multiple choice style. About 10% of the question data were tough enough to require that the student have the textbook with them. These were online, and students were encouraged to have their books for reference. They could also take the quizzes multiple times, with the highest score counting. Each time they took the quiz, the database would randomize the 100-200 questions I had generated, so they never saw the same quiz twice.

Students who took the quizzes actually came to class with some knowledge of the subject. We could skip over easy parts of the material, and concentrate on those areas that prove to be difficult for students. Over time, more questions were added as book publishers began to provide electronic databases of test and review questions. Periodically I would review and alter the question database. Due to problems, I finally got rid of the fill-in-the-blank style definition questions.

While bringing me closer to the idea of a student-mentor relation, the use of online quizzes did not fulfill that ambition. The quizzes gave me an idea of whether students had spent time with the course material prior to lecture, but it did not help me identify those who were learning, and those who were just getting by. This is when I began adding writing assignments.

Most of the classes I teach are considered freshman and sophomore level. I see great anxiety when students are asked to write. The anxiety is even greater when they are asked to write an essay on an exam. From reading about instructional innovations across higher education, I came across the idea of using smaller assignments to work on student writing skill, and to take a look at what they were learning. Attendance at a Writing Across the Curriculum workshop eventually gave me more tools and ideas about these types of assignments, my first attempts were cumbersome to both me and my students; I bit off more than I could chew. I kept getting behind on giving students feedback on their writing. Though behind on grading, the results were encouraging. Whenever students were given a chance to write about what they were learning, they seemed to retain the information and build upon what they were learning. The problem was getting timely feedback.

I kept using small writing assignments, but looked for ways to get through the load more efficiently; to provide more timely feedback. I tried using discussion boards with rubrics found in uLearn, as well as discussion forums. Currently, I am using student blogs as a means of reviewing their learning. With blogs, students can express themselves in a low stress environment. They can receive peer review in addition to my comments. As the instructor, I can make this low point value with few requirements, thus making grading easier. The comments are ultimately more helpful than a grade when it comes to the blogs.

The idea of peer review was also inspiring, and I started looking into peer review techniques. I currently use a Calibrated Peer Review online process sponsored through the University of California. In this system, students upload their papers. After the upload period, students review an instructor prepared paper. This review calibrates their scoring of a paper to their instructor’s scoring. The student then reviews three student papers, and performs a self-review of their own paper using the instructor’s rubric. The resulting scores a student receives can be used as a grade in class, or just as a reference. I have found that using this review as a course score helps the student understand when a paper needs work, and points to where revisions are needed. I have used this technique successful in helping students build stronger papers. To show their growth, students post both their original and revised paper in their ePortfolios, along with their reflection of the assignment.

The inclusion of ePortfolios to the class is a recent addition to the course. While having reviewed different ePortfolio systems, I’ve adopted the use of the free ePortfolio available to all students and faculty through OrgSync. This system is designed for campus organizations, but also provides a basic ePortfolio framework. The idea behind an ePortfolio is for students to build a living document of their accomplishments, both academically and in life. This concept of documenting learning and experiential accomplishments has been used in prior learning assessment of adults returning to school, but is also used by employers and graduate programs to get a more holistic image of the applicant. For education, it provides a place for students to reflect and draw connections between assignments and courses. A robust ePortfolio can be used to help students build a perspective on their academic growth, as well as helping them to see their courses in context.

The use of ePortfolios has inspired me to look at what I want from student outcomes, reimaging what a student “looks like” when they leave my class. Over the last few months, I have been participating in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that deals with education perspectives in the world of Web 2.0 (the social web). The work in this course has helped me reformulate my ideas on student learning, assessment and outcomes. They have also helped me to build an interaction with students that is more of a mentor-student relationship than lecturer-student. Thanks to a grant opportunity from the Center for Instructional Innovation, I have moved my current courses to a different model.

This semester, I am using a hybrid online, face-to-face course model. Students do most of their work online. Daily throughout the week, students receive daily topics and challenges. They write blogs about these challenges, which eventually lead to milestone exams and papers. These milestone assignments then lead to the final mandatory assignments: a comprehensive exam and a learning summary paper. To reduce stress, there are many opportunities to earn points throughout the semester, in fact, more than are needed to earn an A+. Already students are picking and choosing assignments, and no student has earned the total possible points. Responses from the blogs are showing that many students are accepting the learning opportunity, but more importantly, they are building a learning community.