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114 Posts authored by: Traci Gardner Expert

Last month, I shared a series of questions that can help with the process of Organizing Successful Writing Groups. Today, I want to share another resource that I’ve found that teaches students how to give one another feedback.


I love the video No One Writes Alone: Peer Review in the Classroom, A Guide For Students (6m 33s), which demonstrates how students collaborate and provide feedback on drafts for one another. I ask students to watch the video, paying attention to the kind of feedback people give and how the authors respond to the feedback. I had hoped that the video would provide enough modeling that students would be able to get beyond short, summative comments in their feedback to one another. I gave them the following instructions:


The online discussions that you have about your writing group should be much like the conversations that took place in the video. When you comment on someone else’s projects, you provide concrete details about what you see and what the writer can do to improve. When someone comments on your projects, remember to be open to suggestions and avoid becoming defensive.


Somehow, it wasn’t enough, so I have spent time in the last week looking for additional resources. I found a gem. Peer Review: Commenting Strategies (5m4s) from the University of Minnesota Writing Studies program demonstrates six concrete strategies for providing constructive and helpful feedback:



While the MIT video gives students some overarching suggestions for what peer review looks like, this University of Minnesota video gives students very specific instructions. If students are unsure how to make constructive comments, after they spend five minutes watching this video, they’ll know exactly the kind of comments to share with the members of their writing groups.


How do you demonstrate constructive feedback strategies for your students? I am always eager to find more resources to share with my classes, so please leave me a comment below with your ideas.

Infographic on How Project Feedback WorksMy summer course began last week, so I’m getting back into the habit of making new resources and revising old ones. This week, I want to share an infographic that I developed to explain how the project feedback process works in my courses.


My course this summer is 100% online. I never see the students in person. Most of them are not geographically near campus. This situation means that everything for the course must be communicated in writing. Even if I created videos, I need to have a written transcript to go along with them.


The challenge is getting students to read all that writing. I’ve found in teaching online courses previously that I can write very explicit explanations and instructions, but students frequently don’t read them or, at best, only skim them. My solution has been using infographics to explain course policies and content.


Explaining the feedback and assessment methods that I use would take only a few minutes if I were meeting face-to-face with students; writing them out, however, resulted in a full page of text, which I can’t be sure that students will read carefully. In the infographic that I created to explain the process, I hoped to explain the process while making it clear that there can multiple revisions before a project is accepted.


While explaining feedback and assessment, I wanted to emphasize the general requirements for major projects. The first step, where I check for completion, also highlights the importance of the self-assessment information in the process. I ask students to complete a checklist and add reflective comments with every project. In the past, students often forgot to include that self-assessment information, so the infographic stresses that they will not get feedback on the content or design of their work until they submit all the required information.


I have worked other information into the process in a similar way. I wanted to demonstrate that acceptable projects need both strong content and a strong document design. I created those two steps to indicate that expectation. In practice, I don’t strictly separate content from design, of course; however, showing them as different steps helps emphasize that both are important.


Finally, I wanted to reinforce the expectation for the involvement of writing groups in the revision process—and the writing process, overall. The revision section of the infographic shows specific steps for asking writing groups for feedback and for incorporating that feedback.


Students will receive the infographic later this week, and I look forward to hearing their reactions. One thing is sure: they are more likely to read through the infographic than they are to read the page of text that explains the process. If you have ideas on how to improve the infographic or ideas for explaining feedback to students, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

HPIM7056 by vxla on Flickr, used under a CC-BY licenseA few weeks ago, I shared Ten Activities Focusing on Visual Design that I plan to use to give students ongoing practice in document design principles. Another idea I want to try is a semester-long scavenger hunt.


I have a list of ten design tips that I refer students to if they need support on any particular design area:


  1. Use lists to organize information clearly. See Formatting Vertical Lists by Grammar Girl (check all 4 pages or listen to the podcast).
  2. Contrast is a critical ingredient in every design. Ensure good contrast between text and background.
  3. Make sure that your headings and subheadings create information-rich signposts for readers.
  4. Avoid presenting a "wall of text" by "chunking" text and visual elements.
  5. Limit typefaces to two per document. Any more than that gives your text a messy or unprofessional appearance.
  6. Use flush-left, ragged-right body text. Save centered text for graduation announcements and party invitations.
  7. Emphasize ten percent or less of text to make sure the key information stands out.
  8. Add consistency with repetition of design elements. Repeating patterns unify a document.
  9. Use alignment to organize a document visually, drawing the reader’s eye to the important info on the page.
  10. Group related elements together, in proximity to one another, to emphasize the connections visually.


Each week or so during the term, I will introduce a challenge related to one of these tips. We will go over the design principles and tips, and then we will look at an example that relates to the principle. In the case of contrast, for example, we can look at the image shown in this entry and talk about how increasing contrast could improve the sign for Advantage Wireless. Once students understand the principle involved, they are ready for the challenge:


 As you go about your daily activities, watch for documents that demonstrate the importance of contrast in document design. The documents can be positive or negative examples. Review the examples in this post, if your find has already been posted, you can like and/or comment on it. If you’ve found something new, take a photo of what you find and post it in the Contrast Discussions thread. Explain how contrast influences the document and, if relevant, what you would change to improve it.


During subsequent class sessions, I can pull examples from the class responses to discuss in class. I will leave the threads open so that students can add to threads from previous weeks when they find examples. Students will need to find two or three examples during the term, not one every week.


By the end of the term, I hope that students will have developed a stronger sense of how document design affects everything around them, from billboards to posters on the bulletin boards in the hallway. That understanding should improve their own documents and their feedback during peer review.


What do you do to teach document design principles? Share an idea in the comments below.



Credit: HPIM7056 by vxla on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license

EMCC_Kiev_Day2_01 SD by ELSA International on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseWhile collecting materials for my summer course, I found the Writing Group Starter Kit from the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center. This fantastic resource is intended to help students organize writing groups independently; however, it has materials that with a little tweaking are perfect for writing groups in the classroom, as well.


The site has a series of six worksheets that help independent groups both manage the logistics of their meetings and communicate effectively about their writing projects. Admittedly, I was taken in by the title of the handout Thirteen Ways of Talking About Writing Groups. I was expecting something connected to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Instead, I got thirteen questions intended to help a writing group set up its ground rules—very good and helpful questions, just not the poetic treatment I was expecting. Despite misleading me, I will use the Thirteen Ways to talk about how I am using the UNC resources.


First, I need to provide some details on the goals for the UNC resources and the needs of my course. The UNC resources are meant to help writers who are organizing their own groups. Presumably they will be bringing their own goals to the group, which will apparently meet in person. They will set all their own expectations for what is shared, when it is shared, and how the group will interact. The students in my course will have some freedom in how they work together, but there are some decisions that are either dictated by the course or by my teaching philosophy. For example, I am teaching a 100% online course and students are not geographically nearby. They will not be able to meet in person, so questions about where to meet are irrelevant.


Since the UNC resources will not work for my course as is, I am going to divide the questions into two groups: (1) those that are predetermined or that I will decide about for the course, and (2) those that students can decide about. I am going to use the first group of questions to help explain the way that writing groups work in the course. By working through those questions, I can make sure that I include all the important details. I plan to use the second group, which students will answer, as inspiration for a Google Forms survey. A survey will organize the responses so that the online groups can move quickly through the process of making their final decisions. If students were to answer all the questions in a discussion forum or by email, I fear that they would be quickly overwhelmed by the length and variety of the answers. Since Google Forms provides a summary of results, the tool will make it easier for students to compare the options and make decisions.


So that’s how I plan to use the Thirteen Ways questions. I plan to take a similar approach to some of the other worksheets from the UNC Writing Center to help ensure students have the structure they need to make their writing groups successful. Strong writing groups should help with my overarching goal this summer to improve online discussion in the course as well. Do you have any strategies for supporting writing groups you can share? Please share in the comments below.



Credit: EMCC_Kiev_Day2_01 SD by ELSA International on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

Alphabet 1 by Brenda Clarke, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseIn every writing assignment, I ask students to use what they know about layout and design to create a project that is clear and easy to read. The work that they turn in tells me that I need to incorporate more support to help them understand new document and online design work. Students seem able to copy the models that I share, but they tend to be lost when there are no models or when their content doesn’t fit the model precisely. It’s time to reflect and rethink.


What I Have Been Doing

I always spend a week on assignments related to design. Students read the chapter(s) in our textbook and I ask them to discuss various examples. I particularly like Robin Williams’ discussion of the use of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (2014), so I add resources that include those ideas. Most recently, I have used tutorials that demonstrate the ideas, as students have free access to the videos at Virginia Tech. In addition, I share these infographics, which repeat and demonstrate the principles: 



We discuss these principles in our online forums, and I ask students to apply the principles to some of the documents in the course. I ask students to apply the principles to the infographics themselves, for instance, to give them some experience in paying attention to visual design. Finally, I ask them to apply the ideas to their projects specifically by mentioning it in peer review guidelines, revision checklists, and project rubrics.


As it stands now, I think students do not get enough practice in actually working through design principles. They analyze design, but their actual work is limited to applying that information to their projects. Additionally, I think students are trying to do too many new things at once. Because they focus on the content and requirements for their projects, design becomes a secondary concern, and, thus, it doesn’t get adequate attention.


New Strategies to Try

Here are a number of ideas that I have brainstormed (in no particular order) to give students more practice with design. In each, I have given students existing content so that they can focus their effort on design. For these particular activities, I am excluding video and audio projects.


  1. Plain to Formatted. Students will take a plain chunk of text, about one page long, and use the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to make the text more readable. The original and the formatted version must designed to be printed with a printer that only has black ink (e.g., no colors). They can use any basic typography (fonts, size, and so forth) as well as any layout strategies. They may revise the text to fit their new design, but for this particular activity they are limited to typography and layout. They may not add images, photos, clipart, or shapes.

  2. Highlight Your Inspiration/Beliefs. Choose an inspirational or important quotation related to your professional goals. The author of the quotation might be a business leader, a well-known scientist, or a relevant historical figure. Aim for a quotation that is no more than 10 to 12 words. Use document design to create an 8.5" by 11" poster that features the quotation. Use the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to make the key ideas stand out. Use color, images, photos, and/or shapes to complement your message. Your design should be something you would be willing to print out and hang up in your office at work.

  3. Increase the Wow Factor. Visit the Campus News site and choose a story that would be of interest to students at the university. Use the content from the news story to create a one-page, single-sided 8.5" by 11" poster that could be posted on the many bulletin boards in the hallways of buildings on campus. Sticking to the facts of the original news story, create a poster that will catch the attention of students casually walking down the hall. You can use any document design elements, and you can revise the text of the story, as long as you do not change the facts or add misleading information.

  4. Revise to Solve a Problem. Find a short document (no more than one 8.5" by 11" page) that violates one or more of the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and/or proximity. Use the document to create a how-to explanation on how to improve the design in order to increase readability and interest. Your how-to should show the original document and a revised, improved version (a before and after).

  5. Focus on Headings. Choose a page from the Historical Digest pages for any Virginia Tech President. These pages are basic text, broken into paragraphs. Copy the historical information to your word processor, and add headings that provide information-rich signposts to the document. Once your headings have been added, a reader should be able to scan down the page and see the key achievements or events relevant to the particular president.

  6. Convert the Table. Review the content from the table on the Virginia Tech Enrollments page. While the information is clearly arranged, because there are over 100 lines in the table, you may find that it is hard to do more than scroll up and down the page. Use what you know about document design to present the information in a better way that will be more readable for visitors to the site. You can use any document design elements, but do not change the facts or change the layout or design in ways that would mislead readers.

  7. Pin It! [Part One] Find three images online that demonstrate each of the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (for a total of 12 images). Copy and paste the images into a word processor document, and add a description that explains which principle the image illustrates and explains how the image demonstrates the principle. Alternately, if you have a Pinterest Account, you can make a Document Design board, and pin the images you find to that board. Be sure that you include the description.
    [Part Two]
    Once you have gathered your 12 images from online documents, go through your own work and find two more examples for each design principle (for a total of 8 more). Take screenshots or photos of your work, crop the images to focus on the use of the design principles and add them to your word processor document or Pinterest board.

  8. Syllabus Redesign. Take a section from a syllabus from another course that you are taking, and use the document design principles to revise the information to make it more readable. A student who looks at the syllabus after your revision should have an easier time finding information in the section and understanding the details related to the course. Turn in your "before" and "after" versions of the syllabus section with a description of what you changed and how the changes reflect better document design. For the purposes of this assignment, you may not use any syllabus or course documents that the instructor has written.

  9. Slideshow Redesign. Choose either a slideshow that you have created for another course OR a slideshow that someone else has created. Find a slide in the slideshow that can be improved by applying document design principles. Revise the slide to improve its readability, paying attention to how the slide will be projected onto a screen. Think in particular about the size of fonts needed for the audience to read the information. If needed, you can convert your one slide into more than one slide to make it more readable. Turn in your "before" and "after" versions of the slide with a description of what you changed and how the changes reflect better document design. For the purposes of this assignment, you may not use any slideshows that the instructor has written.

  10. Show Your Style. Create a style guide for yourself, your company, or an organization you belong to that outlines the key elements of document design that you will follow, including typography, color, contrast, and layout. The goal is to create document design guidelines that will give the work you compose unity and coherence. The guidelines should help set a document design brand for you, your company, or your organization. Once you have established your guidelines, apply them to a short piece that you have written recently. Incorporate the "before" and "after" versions in your guidelines to demonstrate how the principles should be applied.


What activities do you use in your classes to teach students document design principles? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


 Credit: Alphabet 1 by Brenda Clarke, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Computers & Writing Doge MemeI love image-based memes like the doge graphic on the right. Their combination of linguistic text, visual image, and arrangement makes a perfect example for discussions of multimodal texts. Everything matters with these images. The linguistic text has to connect to the image. Separately, the words alone or the image alone would have an entirely different meaning. The arrangement of the image and the words changes the meaning further. In the case of the doge image, the words float around the image, mimicking the idea of thoughts that the animal is having. You can learn a lot more about this particular meme on the Know Your Meme site.


Kitten memeA few years ago, I began adding memes to the daily course blog posts. I either found or created memes that somehow tied to the activities we were working on or to current happenings. The kitten meme on the left is one of the favorites of those that I created. This poor, sad kitten showed up on the class website on the day that we discussed the importance of documentation. As students worked on their multimodal projects, it can be tempting to save assets (like images they find that relate to their projects) as they come across them. If they don’t also write down where these assets come from, they too will be sad kittens when it comes time to all documentation to their projects. You can see all the other memes I have collected in my Tumblr collection.


Because I enjoy these memes so much, I love sharing them with other teachers, so at the 2017 Computers and Writing Conference (hashtag: #cwcon) earlier this month, I presented a mini-workshop on using memes in the classroom. My session was titled, Write Like You Meme It: A Hands-on Intro to Memes in the Classroom.


During the workshop, we explored reasons to incorporate memes in the writing classroom, looked at a variety of examples, explored tools for making memes, talked about potential challenges, and then created memes using simple, free tools. You can find links to the free tools, background information, possible assignments, and other resources on the session webpage. We had a great deal of fun making our conference and teaching themed memes. The doge meme above was created by the whole class. I displayed the Doge Meme Generator on the screen, and attendees shared phrases to add to the image. The bottom-most phrase, “Go Elkie,” refers to the conference chair, Elkie Burnside.


To end this week’s post, I want to share the other memes that were created by attendees during the session. Just click the Play button below to see them all:




Have you used memes in your classes? My students always enjoy the chance to make memes. I have created a similar slideshow of Student-Created Memes that you can view to see their work, and check out the session webpage for details on the guidelines and assignments that I share with them. If you use memes with your students, tell me about your experience. I would love to hear more in the comment below!

TechRhet LogoI spent last weekend at the 2017 Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay, Ohio, where I found that many of my colleagues hadn’t found the new home of the TechRhet discussion list. This week I want to share details on what the list is and how you can join the conversation and connect with colleagues who are doing cool things with digital technology in the classroom.


What Is TechRhet?

TechRhet is an online discussion list, managed through Google Groups. If you want to join discussions about using digital technology to teach and research composition, rhetoric, literature, and other topics, TechRhet is the place for you.


The genealogy of TechRhet began with Megabyte University (MBU-L), started by Fred Kemp at Texas Tech University about 1990. MBU-L morphed into the discussion forum for the Alliance of Computers and Writing (ACW-L) and in mid-2005 Kathy Fitch created TechRhet on the Interversity site. When the Interversity went dark in 2016, I created this new home on Google Groups to allow us to continue our conversations.


Ugh, Google Groups. Really?

Yes, Google Groups is free and easily has the bandwidth to manage anything we might come up with. If I hosted a list on my own server, we’d find ourselves constantly bumping up against server load issues. Google Groups comes with a web-based archive of all messages as well, which allows us to return to conversations whenever we like.


More importantly, those of you who want to keep these conversations out of your email inbox can. But just as importantly, those of you who want email messages because you do not want another site to remember to visit can do that, too. It is a very flexible tool that can do everything we need as a community.


How Do I Use TechRhet on the Web? How Do I Get to the Archives?

After you join the group, go to!forum/techrhet, the group homepage. You can scroll through the messages if you'd like to browse. Use the Search box near the top of the page to search the archives.


How Do I Sent TechRhet to My Email Inbox?

After you join the group, go to the My Groups page. Be sure that you are logged into the account that you used to join the list. On the My Groups page, you’ll see a list of all the groups you belong to. Find TechRhet on the list, and choose the way you want your messages to be sent to you from the pull-down list (highlighted in yellow in the image below). The changes are saved automatically.

Google Groups Screenshot showing Message preference pull-down list


Any rules?

The rules for this discussion list are simple: Be collegial. Be thoughtful. Don't be a jerk. Spammers will be removed without warning. With those basic guidelines in mind, jump in and join the conversation. Don't be shy! 

A screen for the fingers by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseLast week’s Chronicle article “Why We Dread Disability Myths” reminded me that I need to think about accessibility as I pursue my goal of improving online discussion. Slack’s iOS and Android apps are accessible, and the company is working to build further support into the tool. As an example, a company blog post explains how to change the tool’s settings to better support those with color blindness.


There’s more to accessibility than just having tools that are accessible, however. As I have written about in a previous post, Tara Wood and Shannon Madden’s “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements” on the Kairos PraxisWiki explains how much more can be done to provide students equal access. Following their ideas, I need to foreground accessibility information for Slack on the assignments and course website, much as I did when I worked on Improving My Accessibility Policy on my syllabus.


The Help with Slack page that I designed for my course doesn’t even mention accessibility. It should be readily available at the top of the page. As I revise the page for the next time I teach, I’ll add the information on using the iOS and Android apps for best accessibility, as well as the information on changing settings as needed to improve visibility on the site.


In addition, I want to create an Accessibility Statement for the website, which explains the accessibility goals for the site and how to contact me. There is even an Accessibility Statement Generator to make the process simple and easy.


Finally, I want to create an Accessibility Guide for the entire course, which includes details on Slack as well as the rest of the resources we use in the course. Inspired by the CCCC Conference Accessibility Guides (like this one from the 2017 conference), I will create a document that treats the course website and the tools that we use as places, explaining how to navigate and use the resources. I’m thinking more of something that explains how to walk through the resources, find what you might need, and locate the access aids that are available. I imagine that creating the document will be a lot of work at the outset, but it should be easy to maintain unless something major changes (like the campus CMS).


Overall, these are challenging goals, but they’re critical to making sure that everyone can take best advantage of the course. In fact, I hope that these changes will help all students. It can’t hurt for everyone to know how the different portions of the sites and tools that we will use work. What do you do to make sure that the resources in your courses are accessible? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.



Credit: A screen for the fingers by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

emoji on iPod touch by choo chin nian, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseWhat is the most important thing for the success of online discussions? Students need something engaging to talk about. I have spent the last month talking about my Goal to Improve Online Discussions. I have talked about providing more preparation, increasing low-stakes discussions, and getting more involved in the discussions myself. None of those strategies will work, however, if I don’t have strong discussion prompts and assignments. So, this week, I’m going to think through an assignment.


Purpose of the Assignment
The goal for this discussion is to talk about audience analysis and the impact of the choices writers make when they compose messages. I am designing the activity for students in technical and business writing courses, but it can easily be adapted for any course, which I will address at the end of this post.


Underlying Theory for the Approach
Students are language experts who have great skills at communicating. CCCC’s resolution on Students’ Right to Their Own Language (1974, reaffirmed in 2003) outlines the expertise that students bring to the classroom, including the details on the dialects and language variation that make their communication unique. In this activity, students explain their understanding and use of language and then work to align that understanding with communication in new settings and uses.


Specifically, smartphone-toting students love emoji, sometimes sending entire messages consisting of the images. They are experts in this visual language. In this activity, students talk about how they use emoji and then consider how the visual language works in other settings.


Background Readings for Students
Prior to the discussion, students will read about audience analysis, purpose, and emoji. For technical and business writing students, the chapter in the course textbook on audience and purpose is the obvious choice. Online resources are also available, such as the Purdue OWL Audience Analysis Overview.


Additionally, students read some resources about the use of emoji in professional settings, such as the following:


Discussion Prompts
For this activity, students will begin with a very specific use of emoji in the workplace. After this discussion, they will react to one another’s opinions and then create some guidelines for using (or not using) emoji in professional communication. Students will begin with this prompt:


Share an audience analysis of an emoji. Choose an emoji that no one else in your group has written about, and explain what the emoji means and how it is used. Consider the ideas about emoji in the workplace from this week’s readings as you make your selection. If you have trouble, think about how you use the emoji and how someone older might use it. Have some fun with this, but keep the explanations polite.


  • Go to the Slack channel for your group.
  • Choose an emoji that shows up in Slack (See emoji help in Slack).
  • Write a post that includes the emoji and explains how different audiences might interpret it. Provide some examples.
  • Discuss whether you would use the emoji in the workplace, explaining what audiences and situations it would be appropriate for as well as when it would be inappropriate.
  • Once you post your analysis, read through the posts by others in your group and add responses to at least three. You can write replies and/or use emoji


As I am by no means an emoji expert, I should easily be able to enter the discussion (in line with my goal to get more involved myself) by asking for clarification on the explanations that I don’t understand. To prepare for my interaction in the conversation, I have brainstormed some potential questions and responses that I can use. Here are some examples, which use “[insert emoji]” to indicate where I would add the emoji that the student was discussing:


  • I wouldn’t have guessed [insert emoji] had that definition. How do you think that meaning evolved?
  • Are there any nuances to using [insert emoji]? Is it always okay [or wrong]?
  • Would there be circumstances when you would use [insert emoji] differently?
  • What would you do if you used [insert emoji] in the wrong context or the reader didn’t understand?
  • It looks as if [insert emoji] and [insert another emoji] mean the same thing. What’s the difference?


I would also have some general questions ready to share, such as these:


  • How often do you string together emoji to express an idea? Are there any rules to using more than one? When are they used?
  • What can you do to make sure that everyone on your team understands the emoji you want to use in a message?
  • How does connotation work into what an emoji means?
  • What ethical considerations must you consider before using emoji in your communication?
  • How do global and intercultural issues influence decisions about using emoji?


Once the first round of discussion is over, I’ll ask students to collaborate on group guidelines for emoji use. At this point, the discussion will become turn to analysis of the conversation, synthesis of the ideas, and logistical considerations of the writing task.


Create guidelines for the use of emoji in professional discussions. As a group, write a single document that outlines the following information:

  • when to use emoji (and when not to)
  • what emoji to use
  • what emoji not to use and why
  • how emoji work in special contexts, such as with clients and customers or with international audiences
  • what to do if emoji use goes wrong
  • any additional tips or advice

The document that your group composes will guide your use of emoji in this course, so consider the students in this course as your audience for the guidelines. For examples of what your document can look like, see these resources from “the government’s internal design agency, 18F, about how they use emoji in Slack, including one on how they use emoji to document shared knowledge” (From the Profhacker post, Getting More Done with Emoji).


As students work on their documents in groups, I will take the role of coach in the writing groups, by providing encouragement, responding to questions, and suggesting ways to improve the document. This part of the discussion activity is parallel to the conversations what would happen in the classroom as students collaborate on a document. The discussion activities will conclude when students share their documents with the other groups in the course.


Customizing the Activity for Other Courses
To use this activity for other courses, just change the focus on business and technical writing to an area appropriate for your course. The simplest solution is to change the references to workplace writing to academic writing, asking students to think specifically about the use of emoji in the course throughout the discussion. Other options will depend upon the course. For instance, in a course on managing social media, students can focus the discussion on emoji that are appropriate for public social status updates.


Assessment and Final Thoughts
As students work in these discussions, I will rely primarily on public comments that praise good ideas. These remarks should become models for others in the course. To help students who need to work on their ideas more, I will use the same kinds of comments that I would in face-to-face discussions, asking questions such as “Can you add some examples here?” and adding requests such as “Tell me more about this idea.” If I notice any students who are struggling or need extra help, I will send private messages.


I hope that by building on a topic students already know about, this activity will give them much to talk about. Furthermore, the activity allows everyone to build some a shared understanding of what is appropriate in our online discussions. If I’m lucky, I hope I will learn a bit more about emoji myself from the discussion. I would love to hear what you think about this topic. Please share your comments or advice below. I’d love to hear from you.


Credit: emoji on iPod touch by choo chin nian, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

Preparing for presentation by Bill So, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseNow that the semester is over for me, I can put more energy into my work to improve discussions in my online classes. As I have discussed in earlier posts, I plan to spend more time preparing students for discussion, and I intend to increase low-stakes discussions in an effort to encourage more conversation. This week, I want to consider what I need to do myself to improve students’ discussion.


Each week, I asked students to discuss various topics. Sometimes, they responded to webpages or infographics. Other times, they shared drafts and gave one another feedback. Just as I would do in the face-to-face classroom, I checked on all of the groups. Since the class was 100% online, I skimmed through their discussions, paying attention to who contributed and noting any questions that came up. Occasionally, I answered a specific question or left some emoji thumbs-up feedback.


At the end of the week, students reported on their work by completing a weekly checklist that provided links to their Slack posts and replies. I used my spot checks of the discussions and the weekly checklists to gauge the success of the discussions. I hoped that feedback on the previous week’s contributions would improve the conversations during the next week. Unfortunately, discussion stayed rather flat, with students completing only the bare minimum to meet the requirements.


During the last weeks of the course, students were working on a large group project. There should have been a lot of discussion in Slack to coordinate drafting, feedback, and revision. I decided to ask them directly, using a version of this question in each team’s channel:

How are things going with your project? I see several of you have posted recently, but I know there are 11 people in the group. I'd like to hear from all of you so I can tell that you’re on track!

Students began responding almost immediately, telling me what they had accomplished, asking questions about their work, and sharing plans for finishing their project. The Slack channels were alive with conversation for a few days that week, and I suddenly realized my own failure in making our online discussions successful.


In the face-to-face classroom, students know you are there watching them. Although I was constantly reviewing what students were posting in my online classes, they had no idea that I was there. While I answered questions and added some happy-face feedback, I wasn’t doing enough. I needed to engage students with questions, feedback, and encouragement more frequently. In retrospect, it seems completely obvious. I wasn’t talking to students. Why would they talk to each other?


Going forward, I realize that I need to get much more involved. The best option is to add comments frequently that respond to students. Those comments will depend upon the context of the discussions, so it is hard to guess the exact comments to add in advance. To prepare, I have gathered some potential discussion starters that I can customize when the time comes:


  • Ask students to check in and tell me how their work is going
  • Respond to a specific student (e.g., What do the rest of you think of Pat’s analysis?)
  • Request details on current projects (e.g., What questions do you have about the assignment? Anyone need help?)
  • Ask for clarification and explanation (e.g., Can you explain this idea more?)
  • Call for examples (e.g., What are some examples from the document? Can you show me what you’re talking about?)
  • Request synthesis after students share ideas (e.g., Okay, how can we tie all these ideas together? What’s the take-away?)


There are more discussion starters in the article “50 Questions To Help Students Think About What They Think” While the article focuses on younger students, the questions can work for any level. To prepare even further, I want to take all these discussion starters and organize them into potential scenarios (like questions for peer feedback or questions for responding to an infographic). That project is on tap for another week. For now, I feel like I’m making good progress. I would love to know what you think. Please leave me a comment on how you engage students or what you use as discussion starters.



Credit: Preparing for presentation by Bill So, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

01.Sweetgreen.LoganCircle.1471P.NW.WDC.28April2011 by Elvert Barnes on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA licenseThis summer, I plan to work on structures and resources to improve the online discussions in my writing courses. Last week, I talked about Improving Online Discussion with More Preparation. This week, I’m concentrating on some of the discussions themselves.


Several of the class discussion topics were low-stakes activities. For instance, students posted a professional bio and discussed four infographics early in the term. This work was graded on completion. As long as students put in the effort and did the work, they got points in their weekly activity grade. I also included optional discussion topics, like my AMA discussion, which many students participated in.


After that first week, however, I turned to the specifics of the major writing assignments. Students had little motivation to chat beyond answering specific questions about their writing strategies and progress. As a result, I think I harmed the community building that was underway. Next time, I want to include more low-stakes discussion opportunities to engage students, and I want these discussions to last through the term.


I found an infographic on 10 Tips To Make Slack Even Better For Your Company that inspired me to add these semester-long channels to the Slack team next term:


  • #suggestions—for improving the course
  • #kudos—for praising anyone in the course
  • #extrapeerreview—for feedback outside of writing groups
  • #resourceshare—for links or details on professional writing how-to’s and advice
  • #inspire—for examples and things you wish you made
  • #hokiespirit—for discussion of campus events, athletics, etc.


The conversations in these channels will be open to everyone I am teaching. The other discussions that students participate in will be small writing-group discussions, where students work together to improve their own writing and collaborate on group documents.


I am also thinking of adding a #dailycreate channel, modeled on the assignment in ds106 courses. My idea is to give students a daily workplace challenge to respond to. Of course, my worry is that it is a DAILY create. Can I come up with enough prompts for every day? While I try to figure out the answer, what suggestions do you have for on-going, low-stakes discussions? Please share your suggestions in the comments below.



Photo Credit: 01.Sweetgreen.LoganCircle.1471P.NW.WDC.28April2011 by Elvert Barnes on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA license

DiscussionImageFinal by Rabin Pamela on Flickr, used under a CC-0 license (Public Domain)As I wrote last week, I want to improve online discussion in my courses and increase students’ acceptance of the online discussion tool Slack. The first thing I want to do is rethink how I prepare students to use the technology, as well as how I prepare them for discussion and collaboration.


What I Did

At the beginning of this term, I provided students with some documentation that outlined the basic commands and features that I thought they would need. My Help with Slack page included all of the following:


  • instructions on signing up
  • information on choosing a username
  • tutorials on the Slack site and on (free for students at our university)
  • links on how to format posts and use emoji
  • details on how to link to posts
  • directions for sharing documents in Slack channels


I focused on making the instructions short and simple, relying on existing resources on the Slack site rather than writing my own documentation. I assigned the help page during the first week and asked students to complete activities that would rely on those instructions (like creating a username and writing some posts).


Assuming that these materials would adequately prepare students to use the technology, I moved on to preparing them for discussion and collaboration. My strategy was one I have used for years: I asked them to jump right in and post on a number of topics. Specifically, I asked students to participate in an AMA discussion, post a professional bio, propose how to arrange groups, and discuss four infographics. My plan was to get them chatting immediately so that they would learn how Slack worked before we moved on to doing group work.


We ran into trouble almost immediately. The usernames that students chose didn’t match the guidelines that I had set. Posts ended up in the wrong channels. Students emailed in confusion when they were asked to turn in links to their work. There was little interaction, but lots of single posts that worked to meet the requirements. Looking back, it isn’t surprising that things went wrong. I had 90 people attempting to have conversations in five different channels, and only two or three had ever used Slack before. Things could have gone more smoothly if students had read all the technical documentation, but even with that, I asked them to do too much too fast. My dual-pronged preparation plan didn’t work.


What I’ll Change and Why

The first, and possibly most important, thing is to arrange students into small groups on the very first day of the course. Discussion is bound to be smoother with ten students, rather than 90. I delayed setting up small groups to give students input on how the groups were arranged. Based on their input, I let them arrange their own groups. Some from the same major wanted to work together; others wanted to have eclectic groups. The groups ended up wildly uneven, ranging from four members to twelve. In the future, I will create groups randomly in Canvas (our CMS), and use those random groups to set up channels in Slack. Working in these smaller groups from the first week will better prepare students for the collaborative peer review and feedback that they will begin a couple of weeks later.


Next, I need to explicitly introduce students to the ways that they can connect to Slack. After all, you have to have the tool in order to use it. My Help with Slack page told students, “You can access Slack in your browser. If you like, you can also download a desktop or mobile app.” I thought that would be enough for students to embrace the mobile apps and access Slack notifications in real time, all the time. I need to include the link to the apps in the resources list on the course syllabus and tell them that it’s required. I hope that requirement and frequent references to the apps during the first week will keep students from defecting from Slack and moving to GroupMe text messages.


Finally, I need to prepare them to use the features of the technology. There’s no way to force them to read the documentation, so I need to devise a system where they want to find the information. In ways, the commands in software are a lot like grammar rules. You only learn them when you need them; and they only make sense to you in context. With that notion in mind, I am going to try to think of situations where they need the features. I imagine I need to create a game-like series of challenges that will lead them to finding and learning to use the different commands.


It will take some research and work to figure out this last part of the preparation, so I will leave the gaming-inspired idea there for now and come back to it later this summer. Meanwhile, if you have any suggestions for teaching students the commands in the online tools that they use or anything else to help me with the preparing students, please leave me a comment below. I would love to hear some of your ideas!


Credit: DiscussionImageFinal by Rabin Pamela on Flickr, used under a CC-0 license (Public Domain)

Slack by Giorgio Minguzzi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseIn the online forums for my writing courses, I ask students to conduct peer review and feedback, collaborate on major writing projects, and discuss the readings and work of the course. Since I am teaching 100% online, online discussion takes the place of the conversations and interactions that would otherwise take place in a physical classroom. I hope it is easy to understand, then, that online discussion is critical in my writing classes.


Because online discussion is so important, I have been on a search for the right tool ever since I returned to the classroom. Thought I have tried a number of tools, none of them does quite what I want:


  • The discussion tool in Scholar (our installation of Sakai) typically confused students and felt awkward to me. Our university is sunsetting Scholar in May, so it is no longer an option.
  • I set up my own bulletin board system with phpBB. The site worked well, but I was completely responsible for the technology. I worried frequently about downtime or errors. I decided that I didn’t want the technical responsibility.
  • The discussion tool in Canvas (our new CMS) supports group discussion, but I found its threading capability difficult to manage. The tool always resulted in endless scrolling to find what I wanted.
  • I switched to Piazza, which describes itself as a Q&A platform. I liked the look of the tool, and I loved that it was a company founded by a woman engineer. Unfortunately, I was stuck on its setup for Q&A-style discussions. It is great for students to ask and answer questions, but it was limited for sharing drafts and feedback. Further, I had difficulty managing messages, frequently being unable to tell what I had read and replied to and what I hadn’t.


So my unending search brought me to Slack at the beginning of this term. What I like about Slack is its similarity to Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels. Many of the same commands work, since the tool was originally based on IRC. I have used IRC for years, so Slack felt immediately comfortable and easy to manage.


Slack met all of my qualifications. It lets me set up groups easily as well as have private conversations with individuals or groups. The tool has built-in support for emoji, threaded discussions, and links to outside documents and images. Best of all, the free version has everything I need, so we can use a popular tool, endorsed by many companies, without any financial investment. I like Slack better than any of the discussion tools I have tried in the past four years. For me, it’s a great choice.


My students, on the other hand, are in full revolt against the tool. A vocal majority HATE it. A small group of students have mentioned that they appreciate the chance to use Slack before they enter workplaces that rely on the tool, but their numbers are dwarfed by those who are resisting the site.


Students’ biggest complaint is that they cannot tell when others are active in their channels. Since the class is online, they are never in the classroom, using the tool together. Instead, students visit the discussion channels whenever they have time, and they appear rarely to be online simultaneously. It is an understandable frustration: They cannot tell when others post something, so they don’t know when they need to login and respond. Several writing groups are so unhappy with Slack that they have rejected tool completely, setting up group text messaging on their own with GroupMe, even though the assignments and syllabus tell them to use Slack.


The students and I have come to an impasse. I want to stick with Slack, but for this term, I have given up on succeeding with student buy-in. Instead, I am taking notes on changes I can make to improve Slack discussions, and I have great hope for the future. During the next few weeks, I will share some of the specific challenges I have encountered and the strategies that I am planning to use to meet them in the future. Most of these issues could apply to any discussion tool, so I hope that you will find something you can use—and if you have suggestions for improving online discussion, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


Credit: Slack by Giorgio Minguzzi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

Untitled by Neil Conway on FlickrI always spend the largest amount of time on the comments when I grade students’ writing. I can frequently tell with a quick skim what needs attention. The work comes in determining the best way to help the student understand, finding resources in the text or online to support them, and encouraging them to keep writing.


In my post about Explaining Labor-Based Grading to Student Writers, I found an idea that inspired me to make an immediate change by stopping my practice of writing end comments and long annotations. So this week, I am not only thinking about students’ labor, I am also focusing on the labor that I bring to the course.


Asao Inoue, whose research has inspired me, writes about the workload involved in assessing student work on their labor in his article “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” Inoue explains, “Since I only read the writing, and do not grade or even respond to most of it, weekly work goes smoothly and quickly . . . I’m only looking for patterns of issues and examples to use in class discussions” (91).


Students know about this practice from the beginning of the course. The contract that Asao Inoue used at Fresno State discusses the “culture of support” that the course will build as they provide feedback for one another. Inoue tells students, “Always know that I will read everything and shape our classroom assessment activities and discussions around your work, but you will not receive grades or comments directly from me all of the time.”


Inoue’s ideas made me wonder why I was spending so much time on individual comments. Frequently, I was repeating the same basic ideas, as I wrote unique comments for each student. I was putting in a lot of work, and I wasn’t sure that students even read it carefully. Since my classes are all online, I couldn’t discuss patterns and examples in class, in the way that Inoue mentions. I realized though that I could accomplish the same thing with a grading summary post after I finished reading through students’ work on an assignment.


My first assessment summary was Grades on the Analysis of Writing Project. As with my end comments, I started out with comments on what students had done well and moved on to frequent errors and improvements that they could make. I don’t think it's the best advice that I will ever write, but I’m happy with it for a first try. In particular, I liked the fact that with the audience of the whole class (rather than one individual student), I could put the praise and advice in a broader context. Students were not alone in the additional work that they needed to do. They knew that others needed to make the same or similar changes.


I also used this grade summary page to outline the options for revision. Since I have not totally converted to a system of grades based on labor, I had a series of reasons that students might need to revise that ranged from forgetting to include the self-assessment checksheet and reflection to not turning in the assignment at all. Instead of writing specific instructions into an end comment for each student, I wrote one list that included the options for everyone.


I am still adding annotations with the SpeedGrader tool in Canvas (our CMS) to point out strong work and ask questions to help students revise, but I have stopped adding most of the end comments. I am saving myself a little time, since I don’t write all the individual comments. Better yet, I feel as if these comments to the whole class remind everyone about ways to improve their writing. I haven’t gotten much feedback from students yet, so I would love to hear what you think about this system. Please leave me a comment below, and let me know.



[Photo Credit: Untitled by Neil Conway on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license]

When Your Grades Are Based on LaborI have been working this year to shift my assessment practices toward grading students less on error and more on the labor that they bring to their writing for the courses that I teach. Ever since I heard Asao Inoue’s plenary on “Racism in Writing Programs and the CWPA” at the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference last summer in Raleigh, North Carolina, I knew that I wanted to give the strategy another try.


It is a pedagogical tactic that I have been developing on and off since my first year of teaching. At this point, I am in an in-between place: I am currently blending in some of practices that Inoue describes, and I am developing resources for a more complete conversion by the fall.


Recently, I have been focusing on that ways that the grading system is discussed. The contract that Inoue used at Fresno State is long and, well, contractual. It’s a three-page document that outlines everything about how the work in the course is assessed, beginning with the approach and ending with details on requirements and logistics. As you would expect of a syllabus-style discussion of course requirements, it is explicit and detailed.


Obviously, courses need this kind of document, but I wanted to break the explanation up into a series of shorter pieces. To begin, I wrote When Your Grades Are Based on Labor, a webpage that introduces the key aspects of the system from a student’s perspective. As I explained last month, I have been using Infographics as Readings in an effort to align course materials with students’ reading styles, so I also created the infographic on the right to present the ideas.


My goal is to list the basic details in the infographic, with additional information explained on the webpage. I would love to get some feedback on whether I’ve succeeded in the comments below.


Additionally, if you would like to know more about this assessment strategy, read Inoue’s publications on anti-racist assessment and on grading students’ labor on his page.



Credits: Infographic was created on Icons are all from The Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license: report by Lil Squid, Fluorescent Light Bulb by Matt Brooks, analytics by Wilson Joseph, aim by Gilbert Bages, Switch Controller by Daniel, and Gym by Sathish Selladurai.