Classically Inclined

October 2, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – the first year

Following on from my noodlings here about whether I should submit my gamification of intermediate Latin for a College Excellence Teaching Prize, I managed to put the paperwork in before the small boy appeared – and I’m delighted to say that I won one of the awards! The prize was awarded for “an innovative and creative project, which engages students from diverse backgrounds in motivational extracurricular learning”, which is rather nice as that was what I was after. As those of you reading who teach intermediate language classes will know, it’s probably the most diverse set of student experiences you find in a college classroom, and thus presents some really interesting challenges.

For those of you coming to this fresh – gamification is a strategy that tries to use the human enjoyment of games to enhance the learning experience within the classes. Last year, I reworked how I teach intermediate Latin to make the formative work I’d assumed students would do out of the goodness of their hearts into a tangible system of game-based activities. This would make the previously unspoken assumptions about the workload in the class clear and visible, and hopefully also give students the motivation to keep on top of the work required. The introduction of short-term rewards in a game format functioned through an insignia or badge system, where each activity had its own specific sticker type to collect. Students competed to collect the most insignia over the course of the term, with a ‘top three’ scoreboard updated regularly on Moodle. I wrote about how I thought things were going after one term here.


January 23, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – a mid-year update

When I posted that I was intending to gamify intermediate Latin, I got quite a positive response back, and I promised to give you an update on how it was all going. As we start the second week of the spring term, now seems like a good moment to review how things have gone so far. I should also add that I’m thinking of putting together an application for our college teaching excellence prize based on this, not least because (as a colleague pointed out to me the other day) the potential applications of the technique go beyond the languages, which is where I’d thought it might be useful – every subject has got its bit of ‘stuff we need students to put the work into, that doesn’t feature as part of the summative assessment, but that will impact students’ performance in the summative assessment’. When I explained what I was doing, she immediately thought of how useful it could be for statistics, which wasn’t something I’d thought of at all. At any rate, now seems like a good moment to reflect on the experience so far.

To recap, the goals I had in gamifying Intermediate Latin were:

  • Give students a short-term motivation and reward for doing work they otherwise wouldn’t see paying off until the medium or long term.
  • Increase participation rates in optional homework activities.
  • Through this participation, increase student confidence with vocabulary, grammar and other skills they need for in-class tasks.
  • Generate a bit of friendly competition in the classroom and thus build community among students on the course.


September 22, 2014

Gamifying Intermediate Latin

I said in my post about this year’s syllabus-wrangling that the biggest change in my teaching was going to be my gamification of Intermediate Latin. I figured the subject deserved its own post, so here it is. Gamification is rapidly increasing in popularity as a way to plug into our basic motivations as humans, in that we enjoy playing games where we get rewards, can follow strict rules and so on. Academic courses respond well to being gamified, because it is a way of making the implicit rules we expect our students to follow explicit, and associating them with a value system which the students buy into. This model of teaching is, as far as I am aware, doing particularly well in American institutions, at least in part because of the freedom to change assessment requirements in individual courses that instructors often have. This means they can link accomplishments within the course-game explicitly to a student’s final grade without having to run it past, for instance, a university registry office and external examiners to get their approval. However, just because I don’t feel I can go that far doesn’t mean that gamification is a lost cause.

This term, following my colleague Tim Phin’s lead (and very generous sharing of materials), I am trying to gamify Intermediate Latin. As I have implied, this won’t affect students’ final grades – they’ll still have their in-class quizzes and end of year exam to do that. However, what struck me teaching this course last year was that there is an awful lot of work expected of students that they don’t actually get any credit for, and I suspect that may be part of the reason why it often gets neglected. For instance, I expect students to be finishing off hand-outs and translations from class, doing translation and grammar homework, learning vocabulary, reviewing their performance on tests… none of which ever gets any recognition, except for the pay-off they hopefully receive in their grades for the in-class quizzes. For students who perhaps work better with short-term than medium- or long-term motivation, that’s not really a winner.

So I am trying to give that previously unacknowledged work a value by borrowing Tim’s system of insignia or badges. Tim structured his course so that students won insignia for in-class activities, homework and other challenges; the number of insignia won corresponded to the final grade in the course. I’ve taken his model and instead created different kinds of insignia for different kinds of tasks – there are insignia verborum for vocabulary learning and insignia grammatica for grammar-based homework tasks, for instance. Students can keep track of which insignia they have won by a chart and – you guessed it – stickers. When I first found myself thinking about gamifying the course, my mind immediately went to auto-awarded badges and technology and all the clever things you can do with programming – but actually, that’s all a bit of a distraction from the underlying gamification principle. It’s a nice add if you can have it, but if you can’t, stickers will work just as well to signify that the work is being recognised, and as things to be won and collected. I’ve even bought a special stickers, because what’s the point if you can’t generate some excitement? Mind you, my mind goes back to my first Latin 101 class at Rutgers. Whenever they scored over 90 on a quiz, as the quizzes were designed to let them, I would give them a little star sticker. After the initial ‘wait, we’re back in high school now?’ moment, the competition for those stickers and who got them on each weekly quiz became one of the most intense contests that I’ve ever seen in a classroom. Technology may be shiny, but never underestimate the power of a sticker.

I’ll be keeping close tabs on how this strategy works over the coming year, and will report back on how well or otherwise it works. I’m optimistic, but it will only work if my students buy into it.

December 10, 2013

Getting student feedback: the ‘Dear Liz’ letter

I mentioned on Twitter that I had decided, after some reflection, to return to asking my students to write me ‘dear Liz’ letters. 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what they are, so here’s a blog post to do the job.

I picked up ‘dear Liz’ letters in the US, as a strategy that complemented the one minute papers I’ve written about before. When I came to Birmingham, however, I had a rude awakening – students in my ancient religion course responded pretty well to one minute papers, but absolutely hated the ‘dear Liz’ letter, and were happy to tell me so! So I dropped them, and moved on. Fast forward to this year, when I’m teaching far more language than I usually do. I wrote in that post that I wanted to use one minute papers to get a clear grasp of grammar that was causing problems. However, despite good intentions and introducing them at the start of the year, I haven’t actually used one minute papers. At all. They don’t seem helpful – my classes are such small groups that I’m engaging with each student heavily in each class session, and it’s easy to flag up areas of confusion through obvious problems of translation and comprehension. I don’t need one minute papers to tell me what I already know. Equally, the Euripides course doesn’t encourage me to use one minute papers either – my students are in single numbers, meaning that debate and questions flow comfortably. If anything the CIQ would have been a better fit here. However, while I feel I have quite a good handle on how individual classes are going, I don’t have any way to take the temperature of the course more broadly. As I’ve got to know the students quite well, I now think they’ll respond well to this reflective assignment.


July 18, 2012

New assignments – final reflections

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:05 am
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Well, the end of the teaching year has come and gone, so it’s more than time to have a last look at the new assignments I put in place this year and to see how they went. I have to say that I don’t think my feelings have changed much since I did the mid-year review, but it’s good to close the circle. I also wonder whether the reason my thoughts haven’t changed much is because I didn’t do enough myself as a teacher to change what was happening, or whether the way I incorporated the assignments in the first place simply wasn’t right.

I should note that although I picked up some new courses in the spring term (most significantly the Augustan and imperial literature core course), I did not make any innovations in how I was teaching those courses. (The additional workload may also explain why I didn’t make more of an effort with the new assessment strategies I felt were failing after the first term.) For the Augustan course, this was a simple matter of survival as there was a lot to prepare and cover, and mastery of the material was more important than innovative teaching with a course that was compulsory for so many students. However, I think I may have missed a trick with Latin IV, where I could have done some more interesting things with the teaching and how I chose to approach language instruction. That said, I did pick an unusual text (some of Seneca’s Epistulae Morales), and given all the other things I had on my plate for spring, that was probably enough extra innovation to work with.

  • Learning journals/reflective journals: the update on these continued to be poor, particularly the reflective journals for the religion lecture, and I’m afraid I wasn’t proactive enough a personal tutor to keep pressing my first years on their learning journals. I do think that this has got some potential as a tool, in a pastoral rather than a teaching setting, and I need to think about how best to optimise that, but I suspect I’m not going to go back to the journal as a teaching tool until I’ve seriously rethought it and read around a bit more about UK-specific successes with the strategy.
  • Blog posts: I continue to be really pleased with the way that these worked to get students thinking about secondary literature and engaging with it properly. Some of my colleagues have done other interesting things with blogs to get students to engage with primary sources in a similarly reflective way; perhaps next time I’ll think about doing something like that as well, if there’s an appropriate source to use. But I’m delighted to have finally found a way to get students to critically engage with secondary literature in a fairly deep and thoughtful manner that helps them develop the sorts of skills I want them using as they deal with that body of material in a supportive and useful environment. The one thing I do want to think about is how to get students commenting on each other’s blogs more – they were good at posting the original entries and at discussing responses in seminar, but less at engaging in discussion on-line.
  • The Critical Incident Questionnaire: my use of this has really made me think that I need to do more with it. I want to try using it with other classes and see what sort of responses I get. I’ve asked the students from the epic seminar to give me some feedback, but I think there’s some scope here for a bit of concentrated research and thinking about it as a strategy within classics more broadly. For that, I’ll need more students to experiment on… but this definitely feels like a technique with some potential.
  • Twitter: now, I’ve had a bit of a volte-face on this. The introduction of hash tags for each course definitely didn’t work – but over the last term, I’ve had more and more IAA students following me on Twitter. The Latin IV students have been particularly vocal, including one student who used the medium to arrange a pre-exam meeting to go over some passages we hadn’t got to in class.  I know my colleague in Law Martin George uses Twitter a lot to communicate with his students off-site (as it were); I’m wondering whether this more informal kind of contact, where students find you if they want you, is a more useful way of encouraging continued thinking about the subject than trying to impose formal hashtags and assessments which work better in an American-style assessment system (where students can hypothetically be given credit for participating in out-of-classroom discussions – much harder to work into a UK marking scheme, especially whilst in a one year position).

What I end up trying next year on the basis of this will depend on what I end up doing next year… so stay tuned!

May 21, 2012

Communicating with students: the one minute paper

I realised recently that when I’ve been talking about the Critical Incident Questionnaire on the blog, I’ve talked about it as a natural progression from the one minute paper technique. Without ever writing about the one minute paper technique. So, for those of you who haven’t come across this method of feedback before, here’s how it works and some thoughts on using it in the UK and the US.

The method is taken and adapted from Cross and Angelo’s Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, which is the bible of Cool Stuff For Your Classroom from which most people who run workshops on this stuff tend to draw their material. The purpose of using the one minute paper is that it serves as quick and instant mechanism to pass feedback and other communication between students and the lecturer; it’s a method with a low time cost; and it encourages reflective learning in students. The process works as follows:

  • The final slide in every lecture asks students to answer two questions:
    • What was the clearest point made in class today?
    • What was the muddiest point?
  • Students anonymously write down their answers on a notecard or piece of paper and hand them in to the lecturer as they leave.
  • The lecturer (or postgraduate teaching assistant, if one is available for a large class) goes through the answers looking for broad themes of clarity and confusion.
  • Some possible responses:
    • If one big issue has confused students, write a handout addressing the issue and make it electronically available.
    • If one big issue has caused confusion, allocate time in the next lecture to resolve it.
    • If many little issues have come up, pick three or four questions that best reflect common areas of confusion; write a handout that answers those questions and make it electronically available.
  • At the start of the next lecture, the lecturer begins class with a one minute summary of the one minute paper issues, or a reminder that the handout is now available on WebCT.


May 9, 2012

Exams from the other side of the fence

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 10:22 am
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Although none of my students will feel at all comforted by this, I have been finding this year’s round of exams profoundly unsettling. Last week, as I acted as senior invigilator for an afternoon, I honestly found myself experiencing the cold grip of fear that I haven’t felt for – well, since I took my qualifying exams for the doctorate, I think. There is a very simple reason for this, which is that I am adjusting to cultural differences in the way that the UK university system copes with end of year examinations compared to the way that the US deals with it. For those of you not familiar with both sets of variations, let me set the scene.

In the US, end of year exams tend not to exist; instead you have end of course exams, which happen at the end of semesters. The final exam counts for a significant proportion of the grade, but not all of it – other assessments, like attendance, participation, quizzes, papers and projects as assigned by the instructor, have already been banked to the students’ credit. In the case of a course that is not being team taught, or does not fall under some kind of higher jurisdiction (like multiple sections of the same Latin 101 class, for example), the instructor has full authority over the final exam. She sets it; she administers it, at the time set by the central examinations office; she marks it; she enters the marks into the university’s grading system. That’s it. She is, in short, judge, jury and executioner. There are some local variations on how this process is managed; for instance, faculty may have to fill out a report explaining how every D or F grade has been earned, or the notorious hand of the athletics department may descend on an unsuspecting instructor’s shoulder. But, in the main, faculty just get on with it, with very little external moderation. This is the system within which I taught for three years.

In the UK, the end of year exam, for the classics student, forms a hefty part of the final grade for many modules. There may have been a paper due after the Christmas break which will form 50% of the grade, but often the final result is down to what happens in those three hours. Accordingly, the examination process is overseen much more rigorously. Exam questions are produced well in advance (I had to have mine written before the end of the autumn term) so that they can go past the scrutiny of the exams committee and the external examiner (an unknown beast in the US, to the best of my knowledge). Exams are printed and administered centrally by the university; here, academics are required to be present for the first fifteen minutes of an exam they have set, but otherwise their presence is not required. Students sit examinations with other students sitting different examinations, rather than just their own class – hence the ‘Great Hall’ phenomenon – and there is a thick handbook for senior invigilators full of guidance about proper procedure, announcements to make, paperwork to fill out in case of irregularities and so on. Examinations, once sat, must be processed by an administrative office (the exams office, the department or both) before they are available for marking. The exams go through the process of first and second marking and are then open to the external examiner for moderation. Finally, grades go before the Examination Board, so that the end of year mark for each undergraduate can be decided.


January 9, 2012

New assignments – mid-year review

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:41 am
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I promised myself I’d devote some time in the Christmas vacation to reflecting on the new assignments that I including in my teaching during the term, and how they are working. (I wrote about them in these two posts.) Now that they have been in place for half the teaching year, I can have a look at them and work out whether they are doing what I wanted them to be doing – and if there is anything I can do to salvage them, should there be problems, or whether these assignments will be one-offs in my teaching history. The whole process of teaching is about recognising when things don’t quite work, and I feel as if last term clearly demonstrated that some things worked better than others. (more…)

December 12, 2011

The Blue Form Of Death: end of term evaluation forms

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 12:02 pm
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Over the last fortnight, I’ve been distributing Module Evaluation Questionnaires to my students, this year printed on fetching blue paper (hence this post’s title riff on MS’s Blue Screen Of Death). Most of them went out on Friday the week before last, and I gave any stragglers the opportunity to fill out one in the last lecture of term, most of which I gave last Friday.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that on the Friday when I first distributed the forms, I was not a happy bunny – I had, like an idealistic novice, looked straight through the evaluations to try and see any patterns or information that would be of use. Which meant I was looking at the tick-box scales – you know the ones, the ones which ask students to score on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree with statements like “the module was intellectually stimulating” and “the module was well structured”. I’m afraid I flicked through the tables and the written feedback, and all of the really negative material jumped out at me, in the way it always does, and my confidence in my teaching abilities plummeted to the floor.

However, last week I started dealing with the forms in a rather more systematic way; someone else will collate the numerical data, but I like having a record of written feedback, both to remind me what students have said as positive, but also as pointers for what I might work on improving next time. With some feedback, of course, you just can’t win – for my religion lectures, I had responses praising my use of Powerpoint juxtaposed to requests for the slides to contain more detail and more information. For that lecture, too, I had students expressing appreciation for the detail and depth of the lectures next to responses requesting that we do more analysis and suggesting the course should be more challenging (particularly difficult when I know I have students with greatly varying prior knowledge in the room, which makes it a challenge to teach at a level where everyone is going to get something out of the lecture).

What really struck me, however, was the disjunct between the written feedback and those blessed ticky-boxes, which are considered so important as a numerical metric of our teaching ability and effectiveness. They just didn’t see to add up with the written feedback. I’d have an enthusiastic comment about the course content, with only a 4, or even a 3, ticked for ‘the module was intellectually stimulating’. There seemed to be a lack of understanding of what these forms were for, or how they were going to be used once students had filled them out. (more…)

September 27, 2011

An update on those new assignments

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 1:35 pm
Tags: , , , ,

So, back in August I posted some random noodlings about what innovations I might incorporate into my teaching for the coming year. Now that the syllabi have gone live and I’m starting to implement those ideas, I thought I’d let you know what form they finally took…

  • Learning journals/reflective journals – I ended up using two versions of this for different purposes. As planned, I’m asking my religion students to keep a reflective journal that expects them to do quite a lot of thinking about their learning experience, how things are going, that sort of thing. I’m also asking my first year tutees to keep a learning log, which is a rather more basic kind of journal – all I want them to do is log how much time they’re spending on each activity for each course, as a way for them to be aware about how they’re spending their unstructured time at university. They’re serving two very different purposes, and I’m hoping that they’ll both work well.
  • Blog posts. I have followed through my original idea of getting the students in my epic seminar to contribute to a group blog, and decided to do it via WordPress; I’ve set up a ‘private blog’ that seemed to be the best option, given that I didn’t feel I had enough time to get to grips with how the  built-in blog function in WebCT works. I will admit to a minor crisis yesterday morning when I managed to convince myself that I had just invited all the students to have complete control over this blog rather than managed control over their blog (hello tech paranoia), but now that the first group have taken up their invitations I can see that the permissions are working as I hoped they would. Now I just have to hope that the blog does its bit in starting some significant discussion on secondary literature!
  • The Critical Incident Questionnaire. Again, I’m following through with this for the Epic seminar; small numbers are definitely the way forward. Until I’ve actually had a few weeks of this in practice, though, I won’t be able to say how it’s working.
  • I did indeed go ahead and work in Twitter. All my classes have hashtags assigned as an optional extra way of discussing the course material, so if anyone fancies uses that casually, they can.  I’ve also gone the extra mile in expecting my first year students to set up and maintain a Twitter account for the purpose of keeping up with developments in the classical world – the latest archaeological discoveries, for example, the latest department under threat, the latest from Classics for All, or the current Big Classics Television/Radio Programme. It also will hopefully give them a bit of an insight into the norms of academic practice, given that I’ve given them a starting list of Tweeters who are professionals in the field.

All in all, quite a lot of innovation there, although it’s mainly to do with community building and reflective learning rather than formal ‘written’ assessment – but then, these kinds of reflective and formative activities make improvement in those formal assignments possible. I’ll keep you posted on how things develop…

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