Educational Development Digest: March 2022

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Pedagogy in Practice

Rigor and Flexibility: A False Dichotomy

Pedagogy in Practice
By Catherine Ford

The last two years of the pandemic have brought heightened attention to flexibility in the classroom. Some faculty feel strongly that an increase in flexibility is in direct correlation to a decrease in rigor. Why are these put forward as a dichotomy? Where did this come from? How can we instead hold these two values as simultaneously true? How can assignments or assessments be both flexible and rigorous? 

Let’s take a step back and check our assumptions.

How do you define rigor? Is it steeped in quantity of work and corresponding hours required for task completion? Does the task have a characteristic of a sieve to sort students into categories based on who survives or thrives? Does it mean achieving high standards? What are these high standards? Is it rooted in critical thinking and application? What are your assumptions around these ideas?

I contend rigor is that which challenges students in deep learning and critical thinking, and more so, rigor and flexibility do not need to be at odds with one another. Campbell, Dortch, and Burt (2018) broadly view rigor, “as academic challenge that supports learning and growth in students…and that ‘challenge’ is only meaningful to educators if that challenge produces learning or growth” (p. 12). This shifts emphasis to the learning process and the degree to which learning has occurred rather than what is ambiguously considered “hard work” or dictated by the time spent on a task (Campbell, Dortch, & Burt, 2018).

This perspective is in alignment with a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Rigor should not be contingent upon passive student learning experiences. Constructivism theory maintains that students are not passive receivers of information; rather they construct knowledge as they engage actively in activities and dialogues intersecting with prior knowledge, questioning points of new knowledge, and reflecting on learnings.

With this constructivist perspective, it may be easier to see how rigor and flexibility do not need to be opposites. The follow-up question then may be “how”? How can I create an assessment that has intense focus on learning and construction of knowledge accountable to course learning objectives? The good news is it is possible; however, it likely falls outside of traditional teacher-centered approach to teaching and learning. One answer to “how?” is to allow students choice. This can be choice of which prompts to select (i.e. reply to 2 of 3 prompts), choice of format to demonstrate understanding, or choice that appeals to student’s values and interests. Furthermore, flexibility in assessment while maintaining rigor can extend to timelines and weighting of assessments.

Now to push you a step further and perhaps out of your comfort zone. I want to showcase an authentic assessment that can be both rigorous and flexible: The Unessay.

The unessay is a highly flexible, rigorous, authentic assessment that is both compelling and effective in presentation. Attributed to Daniel Paul O’Donnell in 2012, the unessay continues to be applied across disciplines (see Sample assignments from Geeky Pedagogy). The unessay allows students to draft a proposal of a plan of how they intend to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of unit or course learning objectives. Students are active participants in constructing meaning about the content that engages relevant, applied, and critical thinking. Along with an unessay proposal, some instructors also require a reflection or project statement and request student suggested grading measures that speak to the ways in which the assignment demonstrates successful completion of the learning objective.  Instructors Ryan Cordell, Jodie Mader, and Cate Denial , among others, have written about their experiences with unessays and share guidance and reflection. If you are intrigued, I encourage you to learn more by checking out their writings on this topic.

If this assessment suggestion pushes up against your comfort or you are quick to dismiss it as not relevant to your content area, or as not rigorous enough, then I encourage you to reflect on why. Is it in contrast to long held teaching approaches and strategies or your personal educational experience? Do you hold rigor and flexibility as binaries? What will it take to shift to a both, and mindset about rigor and flexibility? One value does not have to be significantly diminished or absent from the other. We can still challenge students in deep learning and critical thinking by doing both.

Campbell, C. M., Dortch, D., & Burt, B. A. (2018). Reframing rigor: A modern look at challenge and support in higher education. New Directions for Higher Education2018(181), 11-23.

Academic Technology Tips

Leveraging Gamification Principles

Academic Technology Tips
By Brock Behling

Leveraging gamification principles can help motivate students and has proven effects on improving learning outcomes. A common method used to help reinforce learning concepts is to incorporate low stake assessment opportunities. These activities can be aligned with gamification principles to enhance the learning experience. Some important concepts of gamified learning include, offering rewards for effort and outcomes, providing opportunities to observe individual progress, and ensuring clear feedback that either reinforces or redirects behavior.

Badge example
Source: Bemidji State University

D2L has a built in awards tool for badges or certificates that can be used as rewards, progression updates, or learner feedback. An individual award could be used to exemplify all three of these fundamental principles associated with gamified learning. D2L’s awards can be connected to activities and can be automatically issued when specific tasks are completed or when certain levels of mastery are reached. Examples and steps on creating customized micro-credentials with the awards tool are shared on the Brightspace community site.

D2L also has checklists that can provide quick ways to reflect on what has been or needs to be accomplished. This tool offers an opportunity for learners to actively monitor individual progress where the class progress tool can help track progress and completion with multiple reporting indicators.

Kaltura’s video players have built in progress bars to show viewing completion and the remaining duration of the viewing experience, but video navigation doesn’t need to be linear. Hotspots can be used to navigate through videos, incorporate additional clarification on content, or add motivating and dynamic branching content to existing videos.  These hotspots can act as links to supplemental materials, timestamps in the video, or they can be used to mask content and then be removed to provide a revealing effect. If you want a more informal way than the video quiz, this method of presenting content can allow for additional reflection time while leveraging retrieval practice to make potentially passive video experiences more engaging and interactive.

Zoom provides opportunities to share reactions, annotations or polls that all allow for collaborative work, but it now includes advanced polling functionality, where questions can actually be converted to quizzes with correct answers being set.  This functionality allows you to provide immediate individual feedback to the participants. After sharing the results, the participants can see how they did and compare themselves to the group’s summary of responses. Questions can be displayed in a random order and the quiz can be launched multiple times in the same session. Reporting features are available in real-time or after the sessions for further analysis and for an opportunity to acknowledge participants’ achievements. 

If you are looking for additional engagement opportunities and want to incorporate some variety, these features allow for a quick way to incorporate basic gamification principles. By allowing participants to see their individual progress, adapt to the immediate feedback provided, and feel rewarded for their effort and outcomes you are incorporating the fundamental components of gamification into your learning. Even if you never intended to be a professional game master, I encourage you to play around with these fun tools that can help enhance the learning experience. 

Did You Know?

Z-degree Update

Did You Know?
By Megan Babel

Eleven Minnesota State institutions are participating in the Z-degree Project. Z-degrees are a complete associate or bachelor’s degree program that exclusively use course resources that are no cost to students, such as: 

  • open educational resources (OER) 
  • open textbooks   
  • library-curated materials  

What institutions are participating? 

  • Anoka-Ramsey Community College (Completed) 
  • Central Lakes College* (Completed) 
  • Century College (Completed and expanding) 
  • Hibbing Community College (In-process) 
  • Lake Superior College (Completed and expanding) 
  • Mesabi Range College (Completed and expanding) 
  • Minneapolis College (Completed) 
  • Minnesota State Community and Technical College (In-process) 
  • Minnesota West Community and Technical College (In-process) 
  • Northland Community and Technical College (Completed and expanding) 
  • St. Cloud Technical and Community College (In-process) 
    *Self-initiated, completed outside the Z-degree Project 

Three additional Minnesota State institutions (Inver Hills Community College, Saint Paul College, and St. Cloud State University) are exploring Z-degrees. 

What Z-degree courses are available? 

Z-degree institutions are also participating in the Course Markings Project. Students at these institutions can use the Advanced Search feature in the registration process to search for courses that have no cost for textbooks and course resources. 

Try searching for Z-degree courses to see for yourself! Use the Minnesota State course search tool and select a Z-degree institution. Expand the Advanced Search option and filter courses by textbook cost. 

Do you have interest in redesigning your course(s) around OER? 

Consider joining an OER Learning Circle! Offered each spring, summer, and fall, Minnesota State faculty can work together with colleagues from around the system who are committed to saving students on the cost of textbooks and course resources.  

OER Learning Circles is a 10-week program (5 weeks in the summer) organized by Minnesota State OER Faculty Development Coordinator Karen Pikula. Participants can join weekly virtual meetings and are provided a D2L Brightspace course to support faculty along their journey. 

Apply for summer 2022 OER Learning Circles by April 15! 

Learn more 

Join the next Campus Academic Technology Team (CATT) meeting on March 29, 2022. The meeting topic is “How have campuses used Open Educational Resources and Z-degrees to advance equity and inclusion efforts?” Add this event to your calendar

Visit to learn more about OER at Minnesota State.  

Contact Tim Anderson with questions. 

From the ASA Technology Council

Watch the following short video overview of the last ASA Technology Council held on February 9, 2022.

ASA Technology Council Meeting Updates
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