[This is a guest post by Eric Hansen, a part-time faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in the College of Media and the iSchool at Syracuse University. He started the websites shiftlearning.com as a showcase of next-generation LMS technique, and tenprofs.com (@tenprofs) to rally gen-y/x professors in building an Information-Age successor to the death-by-PowerPoint model of higher education. Eric can be emailed, tweeted, poked, Googled and linkedIn.]
If you’re looking for a quick, road-tested tip, here it is: integrate checklists into your communication of assignment requirements and for improving the submission process. I recommend the Google Docs “New Form” tool, Wufoo.com, or formspring.com. What follows is a quick case study and how-to.
In honor of the 2011 GRE giving the axe to its infamous analogy questions, how about one more for the road?:
Surgeon : Malpractice :: Professor : [?]
Here’s my answer (and please respond with yours in the comments): Poor communication of expectations and requirements for assigned work.
The surgery will have been a success if professors reduce and eliminate student frustration during office hours; remove the phrase “that wasn’t fair” from their vocabulary; and, improve students’ end-user experience.
After absorbing the ideas in Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, I realized that a simple checklist was a missing feature of the bedrock assignments in my class. If the assignment instructions were a sort of flight plan, checklists would be my Air Traffic Control.
After all, what is an assignment, but a form of checklist? So I dipped my toe in the water: here’s an example submission checklist (scroll up to see the full assignment) which is a simple Google Docs form embedded in the assignment page.
But was it successful enough to dip the other tow in and use checklists for both requirements and submission?
“We were able to save him, but I’m afraid his banjo days are over.”
The surgery was a success and the patient lived. Well, I did lose a limb on occasion.
- Pros: Several students told me that it was a major improvement in the assignment process—it made the necessary act of jumping through hoops easier. Students responded that it added to their confidence when submitting work.
- Cons: It didn’t always clear up confusion, or prompt students to come to me at an opportune time to help them (e.g., before a deadline).
So I need to make some adjustments both to implementation and my expectations for this approach. What’s next? Like any good experiment, I was left with more questions than answers.
It takes two
Two types of checklists are outlined in the book: do-confirm (e.g., preflight), and read-do (e.g., a recipe). The submission checklist is the former, and the assignment requirement list is the latter. This means that the next opportunity is in creating a better read-do checklist (assignment).
Although I’ve put significant effort into building a better assignment “sheet” for the new media literate students filling up classrooms, it’s still a close cousin to a crappy read-do checklist. It does not ascertain from the student:
- do they know what the assignment deliverables and requirements are?
- do they have the skills necessary? (If no, it must link to on-demand micro-lectures, like Khan Academy.)
- are they comfortable in taking the first steps?
- do they need individual, group, or on-demand learning attention for this assignment?
- is this assignment redundant with something they’ve already done personally, professionally, or for another class? (If so, an alternate assign should be a click away.)
- and so on…
Don’t chase the paper, chase the dream
Despite many small and fascinating tweaks to this idea, the bigger picture is about what an assignment represents in an evolved learning experience, “The Dream” I refer to above.
But that’s for a future blog post on how to effectively incentivize work [YouTube] beyond traditional carrots and sticks.
Are you using checklists or other new ways of communicating expectations and avoiding confusion in class? Are there other, better uses for checklists in educational delivery? Let’s discuss in the comments, or tweet me.