Some reflection

Something that I have learned thanks to the experiences and experiments of the last year is that it is really important to formulate the didactical ‘problem’ before starting out. It never benefits a course when the lecturer decides to use a tool that looks nice or ‘because it is there’. A ‘problem’ may be that students are not that engaged during contact hours; that there is a lack of literature for the course; that students are not able or willing to provide peer feedback on written work; that group sizes are too large to provide personal attention to each student; and so on.

When the problem has been formulated the most suitable tool to solve the problem should be selected. But how? Anna Benjamins, who supports the use of blended learning at Leiden, has provided this toolkit (in Dutch): http://www.hum2.leidenuniv.nl/ECOLe/story.html which contains introductions to a great number of tools. Once a selection has been made – usually by creating accounts to different tools and comparing their functions and ease of use, as well as considering online reviews written by colleagues – it is time to reconsider the course outline and redesign it. The main questions are: which aims of the course can be fulfilled outside of contact hours by using this tool? Do these changes contribute to solving the ‘problem’? If not, then the ‘problem’ should be solved in a different way. However, if the blended learning can solve didactical problems, it is worth the investment of time and effort.

Zaption 3: evaluations

It is remarkable how much students enjoyed the Zaption clips. They were unequivocally positive about how Zaption clips contributed to their learning. I think that it may indeed be refreshing to learn in a different way sometimes – even if it is only a very small component of the course. What they most appreciated was that they could see academics in action – especially Mary Beard and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill – and that they could see that Beard and Wallace-Hadrill, at times, thought differently about an issue. The most notable example that – on the basis of the same evidence – Beard argues Roman baths were very dirty; and Wallace-Hadrill that the Roman world was actually pretty clean. I asked the students to take sides and explain why they thought their ‘winner’ was right and this provided for some really interesting answers. I would get those answers up on the projector during class and discuss them. This added a very interactive element to my class, and stimulated the students’ critical thinking.

There were some complaints about technical matters: students were disappointed they could not watch the clips on their devices when they were on the move; and that they could not download the clips.

My thoughts about Zaption are that it is a very useful and user-friendly tool, but that it costs a large amount of time to collect and edit the clips and that this investment is only worth it when the course is taught more than once.

Zaption 2: use and issues

The use of Zaption is very intuitive ( http://www.zaption.com/ ), although there are certainly issues with some of the features. The most notable issue is that it is impossible to cut the clips at exactly the time you would want; and it does not seem possible to download the clips you have produced – a real problem considering the stability of the platform (Important: Zaption cannot be used anymore. Alternatives – according to Zaption! – are: Nearpod, EdPuzzle, HapYak or H5P. This is why I will not spend too much time considering the technical features of Zaption in what follows).

My students had to watch one clip every week, normally about 5 minutes long, and answer a number of questions in preparation for the lecture. Usually, I would extract two or three clips from documentaries on YouTube and then insert questions where students would need to compare two opinions, provide source criticism, or simply reproduce something from Beard.

I did not check whether or not each student had indeed prepared before every lecture, but students knew that the Zaption quizzes were also part of what they should be learning to pass the exam. I did ask one question about something which had only been discussed in Zaption – not in Beard or the articles – and most students answered the question correctly. I assume, then, that most students have watched the clips at some point.

Zaption 1: the problem

My course, titled ‘Pompeii and Herculaneum: life and death of two cities’, has been developed and taught by me in 2013-2014. It was very well attended and students (BA2/3) were very enthusiastic about the course. In preparation for the 2015-2016 rerun (catering, again, for around 60-80 students) I had one major issue: the last time around, I had not been happy about the literature the students read as preparation – although there is an abundance of literature about these two cities there are not that many suitable introductions. The ideal book(s) would cover much ground, are not aimed at a specialist audience, touch upon the (methodological) issues I address in my course, are not expensive and easy to obtain.

I used Mary Beard’s Pompeii both times the course was taught and was/am quite happy with this. It is well written and much denser in terms of content than appears at first sight. However, I needed more – preferably with a focus on Herculaneum (Wallace-Hadrill’s book is wonderful but too expensive to oblige students to buy). After much consideration, this time around I decided to supplement Beard by a number of articles as well as weekly clips and quizzes in Zaption. Zaption is an online tool in which lecturers can load clips from YouTube and so on and cut and edit these, at the same time inserting questions that students need to answer before they can continue watching the clip.

Socrative 3

What did my first year students think about all of this? I asked them to fill in a questionnaire, which 39 of them did. Although statistics are meaningless here, there are still some interesting percentages. 77% of the students found the questions useful. 2.5% did not, and the others did not have an opinion. However, only 35% was motivated to pay more attention  and around the same percentage said they understood the materials better. 23% said they did not, the others did not have an opinion. Of course this means there is still much room for improvement!
In a more qualitative sense, students said the advantages of the use of Socrative are that the lecturer and students see which topics are considered to be difficult; and they mentioned the fact that I could (and did) adapt my lectures on the spot if the answers showed they found a particular topic more complicated than I had first thought. They also enjoyed the increased interaction. Disadvantages were that logging in and so on takes time away from the lectures and that not everyone would want to use their phone for this purpose (if the battery is low etc.). Also, phones are seen as a distraction from the lecture.
Was Socrative a userfriendly tool? Most students thought is was easy to use Socrative, and around 60% found they enjoyed answering the questions and would want to work with Socrative in the future (10% did really not enjoy the use of Socrative, and the others were neutral).

Socrative 2

It has been very important to consider the reason WHY I would want to ask the students questions. I cannot ask them to apply theory to more practical situations in the way Eric Mazur can. However, there are a few reasons: to engage students; to prepare them for the exams; and for me to know which passages they found difficult in the handbook (and adapt my lecture accordingly).

 

Engage

For example, after explaining the intensity of trade in the Bronze Age, I told the students about the Uluburun shipwreck and asked them what they expected the ship carried. After they had answered, I could tell them what was actually in it (exceeding every of their expectations in terms of quantity and quality).

Kim Beerden Socrative 4

 

 

Which topic in the textbook did you find most difficult this week?

At the start of a lecture, I would ask what they found most difficult – sometimes with unexpected results:

Kim Beerden Socrative 3

 

 

 

 

 

Exam preparation

A few times (this was most effective when exams were coming!) I used some old multiple choice exam questions to test the students’ knowledge. They are tested by means of essay questions, but the multiple choice questions did show in how much detail you needed to know the textbook. For example the following two questions (and part of the result sheet, right): Kim Beerden Socrative 2

Kim Beerden Socrative 1

It was interesting to see (in retrospect) that many students who gave two wrong answers were also the students taking resits.

 

Socrative 1

Over the course of the first semester of 2015-2016 I have been using Socrative as a tool for interaction during my first year lecture series (Introduction to the Ancient World). The semester before that, my experiments with Mentimeter were more or less successful. More or less, for the reason that although I could not pinpoint the exact added value of using this tool over, say,  students raising their hands when I ask them something. Even when groups are big, this is an option. My motivation to try asking quiz/online questions again became more pronounced after Eric Mazur came to Leiden and explained his use of classroom-voting: https://youtu.be/wont2v_LZ1E . The main gain is, he argues, that students commit themselves to a particular answer. If they are then stimulated to discuss the different answers they have given in their small groups and try to convince one another, they have engaged in peer-learning. Peer-learning is a more active form of learning and students are supposed to remember the issues better in this way. I was very impressed with his lecture and his findings, but I also wondered if this method is also useful for teaching in the Humanities, and for the teaching of History in particular. Mazur’s students are Science students and he can explain a theory to them, after which his questions deal with the application of the theory in practice. However, in my introductory course my students are expected to remember an outline of the history of Greece and Rome – a different ballgame. So my problem remained the same: how can I ask my students questions in ways that allow them to understand the materials better (instead of just replicating facts and dates).

Mentimeter evaluation

We have been experimenting with the use of Mentimeter this semester – my previous post already indicated I was planning to use Mentimeter throughout the term. I have done so, and I am quite positive about the experiment. The use of Mentimeter gave me the opportunity to check if students had understood my main point, but also – and perhaps more importantly – to interact with the group (of 50 students) a bit better.  I should like to illustrate this by providing some examples from various lectures:

Kim Beerden tentamenvragen

Kim Beerden tentamenvragen

Kim Beerden hongersnood

Kim Beerden hongersnood

 

So although I am positive, as always, there are some issues to take into consideration. Most importantly, students do tire of having to get out their phone and answer your questions. At first, it is of course a novelty – however, during the third lecture I did notice that some people were sighing when I announced a Mentimeter poll. ..they clearly preferred just to listen. During the last lecture, there were around 50 people in the audience but not everyone cared to respond, as shown by this poll about whether or not I should continue the use of Mentimeter:

 

Kim Beerden Mentimeter afsluiting

Kim Beerden Mentimeter afsluiting

My solution has been to use Mentimeter sparingly and only when it was really useful – see the examples provided above.

Mentimeter

Mentimeter has recently become available at Leiden – an online ‘quiz-tool’ which allows the lecturer to quiz and poll students during a lecture. This seems especially useful for bigger lecture series where there are 20+ students participating; however, smaller groups might also take advantage.

I have tested Mentimeter for the first time during the first lecture of the series ‘Life is short: death in the ancient world’. Around 50-60 students turned up, which made this lecture a perfect opportunity to see if Mentimeter is useful. My first reaction was very positive: Mentimeter really allowed me to interact with this big group of students.

How did this work in practice? When starting the lecture, I first introduced some ‘practice questions’ which allowed the students to get used to Mentimeter. My questions were: are you a History, Classics, or minor student (multiple choice); do you have any questions related to the practical matters related to this lecture series (open question)? Not all students were ready to answer this question because they had to find out how Mentimeter works. However, the response was as follows:

Wat ben jeAnd there were no questions related to practical matters: Continue reading

Presenting results

Wouter and I have presented work-in-progress results at a Faculty meeting at the end of last semester. The audience was mixed – from students to senior administrators – but everyone seemed interested. The presentation was very much in a workshop style, leaving plenty of room for discussion and questions – and Wouter and I made clear in advance that we did not have all the answers but could only explain the choices we had made.

Some of the main issues that were raised:

Q: How does the Facebook group relate to the use of Blackboard for this course? A: All official communication goes via Blackboard because this is still the platform that everyone goes to for more ‘static’ information like timetables and deadlines. The Facebook group did not mention ‘static’ information.

Q: Did the students contribute posts, or was it mainly you providing content? A: Certainly the latter, but students certainly responded and some of them did have something to post – just not that many. However, we thought this was perhaps a bit much to expect. One person in the audience came up with the idea that we could introduce ‘dare-to-ask-thursday’ where students could mention their questions. I have done this twice since and especially when coming close to the deadline for papers, this was a good way to get students to ask things!

Q: Do you become friends with your students? A: No – it is perfectly possible to be in a group together without being friends (which I do not think is a good idea).

Q: Are you always on Facebook to respond to issues? A: No, I am not on Facebook privately so the only reason I log in is for this group. I do this at work so over the weekend, things will simply have to wait. For me, this ensures there are some boundaries between my private life and work.

We were very happy about the positive response. Also, I have been nominated by students for the Carla Musterd teaching prize and one of the things they mentioned in their report was the use of Facebook groups. All this positive response leaves us with the idea that this project was a success and that we should think about how we can continue.