Engaging Your Students Outside the Classroom

As any teacher knows, your job gets much easier when students are excitedly engaged in your class: asking questions, digging deeper and, well…not falling asleep.  Reducing student apathy means a more enjoyable experience for teachers, while students end up more satisfied, more likely to stay in school (yay retention!), and often with a better grade.

There are a lot of great teachers out there who have found effective ways to keep class-time engaging.  Former teacher Tristan de Frondeville suggests that engagement in the classroom begins with creating an emotionally and intellectually safe classroom. He also mentions in-class writing exercises, teaching self-awareness, and using class-wide questioning strategies.

One teacher in East L.A. recently gained notoriety for using Twitter to supplement his class discussions. He encourages students to be “plugged in” during discussions in his history class, and projects the class’s Twitter stream onto a digital chalkboard.  The result: the teacher knows more about his shy students, and has more data to modify his instruction to meet their needs.

But engagement doesn’t need to stop when students leave the classroom. Instructors have been using SAGrader to foster student involvement using at-home writing activities.

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Wrong Answers Can Help You Learn

In most classrooms, a teacher calls on a student then celebrates a correct answer and admonishes a wrong one. But research from U.C.L.A. suggests that allowing students to make errors can actually improve learning.

For years educators have assumed that repeatedly reinforcing correct concepts in class gives students exposure to the proper information, while shielding them from wrong ways of thinking. Errors are tolerated, of course, but only as temporary mistakes that should be quickly replaced by the right answer.

But as it turns out, people actually internalize information more effectively when they make an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the information, compared to simply studying the material. Trying to generate an answer, even when it’s wrong, improves learning.

This is an especially interesting finding in our internet-inundated culture, where easy answers are available at the click of a button. Before finding the correct answer, it may be more effective to take a guess first…then Google it to check your response.

A mini “pre-test” like this might seem like a little bit more work, and might not boost your confidence, but it’s a powerful way to learn.

Getting It Wrong: Surprising Tips on How to Learn [Scientific American]
Photo via

Highlights from the 2011 TeAchnology Conference

Two weeks ago members of the SAGrader staff attended the University of Missouri’s 2011 TeAchnology Conference in Columbia, Missouri. Instructors, course designers, and technology geeks from across the state were treated to talks and workshops by distinguished speakers and UM faculty on a wide scope of educational technologies and effective teaching methods.

The event kicked off Tuesday morning with Dr. Ike Shibley’s keynote presentation on blended learning (“hybrid learning” for you MU folks). Shibley’s engaging talk explored how technology can be used to facilitate instead of disseminate learning. Though Blackboard is ubiquitous on college campuses, most instructors use it as a glorified manila folder, a repository of documents available to download. But technology can be used more effectively by encouraging contact between students and faculty, providing prompt feedback and increasing time-on-task.

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Yes, grammar can be funny

Our programmers have been working hard lately beefing up our ability to assess the nuts and bolts of English grammar. Not an easy task. At least, I imagine it’s difficult. I haven’t actually helped, so I have no idea.

Instead, I’ve been finding ways to make grammar hilarious. This may be an even harder task.

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Incorporating Content-Area Writing in Your Class

There’s a great column over at visualthesaurus.com that recently featured some great tips for writing in content areas.

Content-area writing is all about getting students to write outside of English class to help them better engage with and understand course material. Enhancing the lessons of any subject with writing activities helps students build connections, demonstrate knowledge and retain information.

Though its educational benefits are clear, assessing content area writing can be intimidating to non-English teachers. As Debbie Shults notes “some content area teachers feel they are not up to the task of ‘teaching writing.'”

Fair enough.

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Combating Increasing Class Sizes

Classroom Pic by LAUSatPSUIn a recent post, ProfHacker Mark Sample outlines one of the issues facing schools across the country: increasing class sizes. As colleges continue to face an uptick in student enrollment, many are demanding that faculty fit more students into their classrooms. This increase in enrollment can lead to problems; including issues with how the class is formatted, an increase in instructor workload, and a decrease in personal attention given to students.

While the issue is multifaceted, one approach that Mark proposes involves leveraging classroom technology to help even the odds. Technology, when used effectively, can allow the instructor to engage with and assess a much larger class than would normally be possible. It can also promote a student-centered classroom by encouraging discussion and participation between students, instead of “bottlenecking” the learning process by requiring the instructor to be the conduit through which information is exchanged.

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SAGrader News: Product Updates

gearspicHere at The Idea Works offices the SAGrader development team has been hard at work ensuring that SAGrader is the best program available for improving student writing. While we are constantly making improvements to our software, two recent items deserve considerable mention.

Our Context engine
As part of our grading engine, SAGrader examines the context in which students use terms and concepts to determine whether the student understands the concept correctly. For example SAGrader can tell the difference between the two “Fords” in the following sentences.

“Ford did a great job when taking over for Nixon as President.”
“By mass-producing cars, Ford really helped the American people.”

SAGrader has always used this context engine, but we’ve recently made some improvements that make it able to handle more subtle situations that arise in the English language. These improvements increase grading accuracy overall.

Metrics in Short Answer Assignments
We’ve turned on the ability to add metric scoring and feedback (things like word count, spelling and grammar) to short answer assignments. Previously these features were only available on essay assignments. This flexibility provides even more constructive feedback to our students, and allows instructors to better structure assignments the way they want them.

Stay tuned for upcoming changes to our feedback as we work to improve its effectiveness.

Picture courtesy ralphbijker via Flickr.com

Calvin: “Writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!”

Calvin and Hobbes