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June 1 2012

eCoaching Tip 98: Best Practices for Summer Courses – You Might Like One of These

Summer courses are fast-paced, concentrated and focused. Summer courses can also be intimate and inspiring.
Here are five best practices for great summer courses. Pick one for this summer that fits how you teach and live. Just using one of these practices can make any summer’s learning experience even better for you and your students.

1.  Keep your finger on the pulse of how students are doing and feeling. Check with them frequently and be open to their requests.

The number one feeling that students taking summer courses have is always being on the verge of losing their carefully planned out balance of life and work. This means that surprises, unknowns, difficult instructions that they are probably reading while multitasking, can quickly throw them off balance.

Our first response is often, “But, it’s all right there in the syllabus; what is so unclear?”  “Or it’s right there in the Assignments tab.”  A common response from learners in reply can often be, “But can you just tell me and save me those minutes, those clicks!”

Here are a couple of strategies for staying close to how your students are doing.

  • Post a general, “How are you doing?” question in the discussion forum at least once, twice or even three times during the summer. This question is not intended as an official survey, just a casual inquiry.  It is a question that shows caring about how things are going.  With this simple question, you are basically asking, if there is anything that would help the course experiences go a little more smoothly.
  • Be a bit more flexible with due dates and assignments. Students do like to do good work, and can be very frustrated if they totally run out of time for doing at least reasonably good work and thus learning what they want to learn. This doesn’t mean that you should be a pushover; rather it suggests being more like a willow tree bending with the vagaries of the flow of learning and yet being firm enough when really needed. Life brings changes and surprises no matter how much effort we — or students — put into planning.  Learning in the summer is a short term experience, but the learning is for the long haul.

2.  Reaffirm frequently the core concepts, big ideas and the course big picture.

Earlier tips (#78 and #94) encouraged creating a visual knowledge frame for your students.   A visual knowledge frame is a graphic or big picture of course concepts, relationships and patterns. Keeping the big picture front and center is particularly critical for summer courses. The speed with which new ideas, vocabulary and clusters of new details assail learners can make them feel as if they are drowning in bits and pieces of data, uncertain of which are the really important bits.  Add to this situation the fact that there is little time to reflect and figure out how they all the pieces fit together. While we cannot reflect or create an internal knowledge structure for our students, we can provide the tools for reflection. A concept map — or some type of visual frame — can be a big help. Frequently reaffirming the big picture, the visual frame, the core concepts and how the ideas all fit together can be incredibly helpful for students to understand where to focus their energies for building knowledge structures of their own. This clarity goes a long way in easing student anxiety.
Here are a couple of strategies for reaffirming the big picture throughout the term.

  • Keep referencing and have “at the ready” the big picture of the course that shows relationships and patterns. This big picture can be a concept map of the big ideas that you have developed or a graphic that captures the core concepts and relationships of the course content. Or it can be a short list of really important key concepts. Keep this concept map, graphic, or list at a prominent place in the course site, and refer to it frequently as you discuss or introduce new content. This will aid the students’ understanding of the new content’s relationship to the other content and most importantly the core concepts.  
  • Refer to this concept map or visual frame as you are summarizing a discussion topic, or as you are introducing key readings or assignments. Simply state how certain topics relate to, echo the pattern of, or describe the characteristics of key relationships within the concept map. All it takes is a sentence or two, answering the question, “Why are we doing this?” that states clearly how the content fits into the overall big picture of the course.

3.  Use content immersion activities such as case studies and problems.
You may think using problem-solving in summer courses is counter-intuitive, as we know that problem-solving takes time and makes it difficult to “cover” all the content. On the other hand, the challenge of covering all the content is often a primary source of summer stress anyway. So switching the course design from a focus on imbibing content to using and applying the knowledge to cases and problems shifts the focus to integration. We can still stress about not “covering” all the content, but the focus is now on using content in meaningful ways.
Here are a couple of strategies to try, even if you are in the middle of a summer term.

  • Identify a case, scenario or narrative that can make use of the core concepts. It would be best to find such a case within some content that you already have planned for the course. Then, you might consider swapping out a planned discussion forum to focus on how this case might play out in a context that is personal to each of your learners. Have the learners apply the content suggesting how the problem might be solved, interpreted or addressed with core concepts.
  • Search out a case study or scenario from current news stories that might be changed, illuminated or reshaped with course knowledge and insert it into a discussion as an informal challenge or as a separate bonus discussion forum. As learners think about how to use their knowledge in a specific context applied to some current news, they can then share this story around the barbecues and campfires, reducing the social distance from family and friends during this highly focused learning time.  

4.  Give your learners choices in how they learn and provide evidence of their learning.
Learners instinctively embrace learning experiences that challenge and stimulate them. A corollary to this is that learners instinctively reject and push back on assignments that they feel are unnecessarily rigid and do not promote their growth. How do we provide this level of personalization to our learners?  Here is a very simple idea that has been in other tips that you may not yet have had time to try.

  • Let your students make choices among their resources. For example, in an education course on special populations, the course included a textbook and a required supplemental book — The Road of Lost Innocence — and then provided a choice from eight other books. The students created a wiki of book summaries, reviews, and idea comparisons from the supplemental book that they chose from the set of eight.  The faculty member really enjoyed this strategy as it broadened her repertoire of a deeper understanding of a larger library of literature.  The faculty modifies the set of eight books over different terms, enhancing her ability to share patterns and relationships among many different experiences.

5. Help yourself and your learners be organized. Provide tips, next steps, daily hints, summaries, and checklists, and encourage learners to support each other.

Online learning has lots of moving parts. This best practice has lots of implementation possibilities. The goal is to really support the processes of learning.

  • Post frequent announcements with tips and hints.This lets learners know that you are there and that you care.
  • Find ways to have them "do something" as well as listen and read. Our brains need variety; they need time; they need fun.
  • Provide a friendly forum/cafe where students can help each other with clarifying directions, finding rubrics, and just "being there" at midnight.

Conclusion

Some of these ideas can work extremely well in regular term classes as well. Try one or more and keep what works for you, your learners and your content. Enjoy and have fun this summer. Find ways to broaden your discipline repertoire as well.

References

Boettcher, J. (2007, 2012) Tip 43 Customizing and Personalizing Learning. Retrieved October 30, 2012 from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip43.html

Boettcher, J. (2010) Tip 78 Content Framing and Case Studies: Design Strategies for Summer Intensive Courses. In the SLPA Faculty Webinar site and http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip78.html

Boettcher, J. (2011) Tip 88 High-Impact Practices for Summer Courses: Reflections and Patterns. In the SLPA Faculty Webinar site and after June 5 2013 at http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip88.html

Boettcher, J. (2011) Tip 94 Creating a Syllabus that Jumpstarts Learning. http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip94.html

These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by designingforlearning.org.

 

 

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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013