In the revision of APC 330: Technical and Professional Communications, Melissa and I worked together to design the “Ten-Minute Check-in” activity. This weekly, timed reflection ultimately helped Melissa adapt her teaching and learn more about her students during the Fall 2020 semester. If you’ve ever thought, “I wish I could read the room in my online courses to get a sense of how students are doing,” read on to learn about the activity that Melissa says changed her opinion of online learning.
Figure 1: Ten-Minute Check-in Question Text in the Canvas Survey Tool
Kristin: Why would you recommend the Ten-Minute Check-in to other instructors?
Melissa: I am a firm believer that online students need to be engaged in some way, shape, or form. In so many online courses—and I’ve taught them over and over—when students submit their assignments, they make passive-aggressive comments in the submission area. And it frustrates the students and the instructor. And when I say passive-aggressive comments, I mean the comments like “Well, I don’t know what you want, so I hope this is right” or “I’m not sure what this was asking, this was my best shot.” It’s just really frustrating as an instructor to get those.
And so, the check-ins alleviated all of that because they gave students a place that wasn’t public—like a discussion board—where they could ask questions that they may have felt dumb asking or didn’t want to ask. It almost forced them to do it because it was a required assignment that week, but it also allowed them also to share their knowledge gains or concerns that they were having. It also gave them a nice safe spot and created a level of engagement between me and the student.
So, because of these check-ins, I could answer students’ questions or see that there was a common problem with all or a majority of the students. I could address the problem right away rather than waiting until after the fact, getting passive-aggressive comments, and having to figure it out afterward.
Kristin: Did you notice any patterns of engagement? Did students take to it right away or did it take them a while to open up? Did student participation fall off as the semester went on?
Melissa: I would say that the level of sharing never changed throughout the semester. How they used it varied by the student. I would actually have students who missed the deadline, and they’d be like, “Oh my goodness, I want to complete this! I know I won’t get credit for it, but I have to tell you something,” or “I have to share this with you,” or “I have this amazing thing.” So they would ask to have it reopened even though they knew they’d get no points. They still wanted to complete them, and that caught me off guard.
They shared things like, “Hey, I really liked this concept, but I’m struggling with this part of it; can you help me understand it?” and “Hey, I had this unique situation happen that relates to this topic and I’m so appreciative that we’re learning about it. It helped me manage it.” I also got a lot of, “Hey I’m really stressed this week. I just want you to know that I’m really stressed. I don’t expect anything from you, but you need to understand where I’m at.“ This was a COVID semester, after all.
That all helped me adapt my teaching for those students. And it helped me be more sympathetic and empathetic to their situations.
Kristin: And that’s something I hear from a lot of instructors: “When I’m face-to-face with the students, I am able to gauge how they’re doing. I’m able to read their faces, read the room, and I can adapt my teaching.” This sounds like a great way to do that when students aren’t in front of you. And it sounds like you’re getting a lot more engagement than a “Raise Your Hand” discussion board that’s plunked into the course. And we all know that those are not used very often.
Melissa: Right. Probably because you don’t want to be the only person in the room that’s like, “I don’t know, and I feel dumb!”
Kristin: It’s like being the first person up to dance, right? You think, “I don’t want to be doing this by myself!”
Melissa: Exactly. I think the check-ins helped create an environment where you could read the student’s “face,” but the students also realized that the instructor was a real person.
Kristin: Instructional designers call that presence. This is a great example of it!
So these check-ins sound great, but is there anybody that you wouldn’t recommend it to? Like someone that doesn’t have a lot of time? What are the realities of implementing something like this?
Melissa: So, it does take a little bit of time, but it’s not overwhelming because the students only get a set amount of time to write. But, if you are a person that is really passionate about grammar, punctuation, and spelling, or you have a hard time deciphering information that may not be the best written, you should avoid doing this because it’s not for you.
That was one thing I made clear to my students: that grammar, punctuation, spelling didn’t matter because I knew they only had a couple of minutes to write. You also have to be very prepared that students won’t necessarily complete their thoughts because when the timer shuts off, the check-in closes. A lot of times it was like, “Ok, I want to know more.” You could tell when a student stopped mid-sentence, so you might have to do a little extra follow-up with that student.
Kristin: Why did you choose to add the timer?
Melissa: Personally, I like the timer because it forces them just to write. And they can’t think about it—can’t overthink it. They just have to let their words down. You get ten minutes, so write for ten minutes.
I think that’s important too. You have to make sure that it’s the right amount of time. We started with less time (5 minutes). Having more time benefitted the students. They loved it, and I loved it. I felt like their answers were more thought out and less rushed. It gave them a little bit of extra reflection time.
Kristin: How long did it take you to review the check-ins?
Melissa: I would start reading them as soon as they came in, but if I missed doing that, it probably took me a good hour to two hours to read them all. I didn’t respond to everybody, and that was hard for me. I like to respond to people; I want to make sure I’m giving them feedback. But, not all of them warranted a response, so I made it very clear ahead of time that I just couldn’t respond to everybody but that I would try to respond to questions. So that was a challenge.
I also looked for trends. If I saw some common questions come through, I wouldn’t respond individually; I would respond as a class discussion instead. So it’s just really managing your students’ expectations about a response.
One of the other challenges for me that I found—it wasn’t like a negative challenge, but it was still a challenge—was that students will respond to your comments within that submission area in Canvas, so if you leave them feedback there, they are likely to respond there. You have to make sure that you’re checking back in occasionally. I know Canvas can set up email alerts for this, so making sure those alerts are on is a major thing to keep in mind.
Kristin: You said the word ‘feedback’ and it made me think of how feedback is important in an online course. A lot of times feedback is something that happens after an assignment is already given. Do you have any insights? Did this change at all the way you think about how we’re giving feedback?
Melissa: Yes and no. I still give the feedback afterward, but I felt like students were more prepared for their assignments because they had the chance to ask questions upfront. So some of those questions that they may have had previously that they were too scared (or whatever) to ask, they asked. And so I actually felt like these helped improve assignments. It allowed me to tackle their concerns right away rather than addressing them after the fact.
Kristin: Were most questions students were asking within this check-in activity, or did you see any activity on a “Raise Your Hand” discussion board? Did these affect each other very much?
Melissa: I would say there were still questions on the Raise Your Hand. If anything, I think students were more likely to ask questions in the Ten-Minute Check-ins than they were in the “Raise Your Hand” discussion.
Kristin: So it didn’t seem that students were getting more comfortable asking questions publicly because of the Ten-Minute Check-ins?
Melissa: No. There was definitely more. I would say in my years of teaching that there were more questions asked this last semester than I’ve ever had before. And I really think it’s because it’s a safe space.
Kristin: Is there anything else you want to share besides the amazing information you’ve already shared?
Melissa: I think one thing that comes to mind that needs to be shared is that you have to be prepared for students to really share their personal life. It may not be every student, but it definitely happens. And you have to be prepared to know who to contact when a student reaches out to you with something that really needs to be escalated. And it might not be your course or course content. It might not even be related to the course at all; it could be a personal issue. Sometimes you as the instructor may not be able to help directly, but you can pass that information on to somebody who can make a difference. So you have to be prepared and knowledgeable about who to pass that on to.
Thankfully, this program has the student referral form, so it’s really easy to do that. But I would say situations like that are one of the hardest but most important things. You have to be prepared for the situations that arise that you can’t be involved in but you need to get somebody else involved with.
And then, I think it was so great because I met students on a different level. It changed my opinion about online learning.
Kristin: That’s pretty powerful stuff. Thank you for sharing the details of the Ten-Minute Check-in. I can’t wait to share this with other instructors.
Melissa: I hope others do it!
Kristin: Me too!
The idea for the check-in was sparked from a discussion Melissa and I had about adding a reflection component to one assignment. But why stop there? In our case, we tried this generalized approach and added a reflection every week. The effort was a success because students were excited to participate in the check-ins and were more prepared for and performed better on their assignments because they could ask questions in advance. It also allowed Melissa to get to know her students better!
There are many ways to build reflections into your course. It could be a check-in like this or assignment-specific. We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your own experiences with designing for reflection or if you are interested in adding a Ten-Minute Check-in activity to your own course.