Friday, October 31, 2014

Scaffolding Asynchronous Learning

After last year, I was convinced that there was something to asynchronous learning but changes needed to be made in my execution. There were too many students scrambling to catch up at the end of the school year. I asked students to share advice for next year's students; overwhelmingly, they told students not to fall behind. Not to mention, I struggled with how to run labs and maintain test integrity in an asynchronous course all year. I knew big changes needed to follow in order to maximize asynchronous learning. The two major changes needed were a shift in mindset and scaffolding mastery. 

1) Shifting Mindset
I fundamentally believe students learn at different rates and some need more or less practice in order to learn a new concept. However, I didn't organize my course as if I really internalized those beliefs. I tried to have the best of two competing ideas. I let students work through units asynchronously with common deadlines, like when to be ready for exams or labs. I thought the exam dates would help motivate students to work as fast as possible, which it probably did for some; however, for students who truly struggled with the content, it encouraged them to rush right before the exam, which was counterproductive and anxiety producing. I finally decided that I couldn't have it both ways. To that end, I finally agreed:

A) Not all students will get through the entire course.
  • I've identified the most important units; some units will be mandatory, while others will be optional. Students who work behind, will be allowed to skip the optional units later in the course. 
B) Not all students will have the same final exam.
  • Students will be tested on what they covered throughout the year. Some finals will be about 15 learning cycles, while others will be about 12 cycles. Students will get two grades on final exams, one based on how well they performed on their version of the final, while the other will be based on how much content was on the final. I still need to develop this idea but I'm thinking, for example, a student could earn 98% on 80% of the content.
C) No more common lab or exam dates. 
  • Exams will be similar to the quizzes in that each student will have a different set of questions and take it when they're ready. As much as possible, labs will be truly inquiry-based where students design their own procedures. This should limit the pressure to perform the experiments as an entire class. 

2) Scaffolding Mastery
Other than a change in mindset, which led to its own set of changes, I was encouraged to scaffold mastery at a presentation during FlipCon15. Some of the struggles from last year were due to some student's inability to handle working at their own pace. They need to develop this skill. Instead of starting the year full fledged mastery, I started the class similar to flipped class 101 (video at home, application at school.) I told students what to do in class and for homework the first few weeks of school. If some students needed an extra day or finished a bit early, I allowed for that accommodation; however, major assignments had deadlines. This was important because students needed to adjust to the workings of a flipped class and standards based grading before handling the asynchronous part. 

After the first few weeks, the students became familiar with my way of doing things. At this point, I told students that they could work at their own pace but to use my pacing calendar as a guide.
Pacing Calendar
The calendar suggested which assignments to do in class and for homework. This allowed for more freedom while having some supports in place. 

After two weeks of encouraging students to use the suggested calendar, I had a check-in conversation with my classes. One student offered a game changing suggestion - ask students to plan their week. Eureka! At the beginning of the week, students now create a plan for the work they plan to complete each class and at home. I sign the plan to acknowledge agreement. These planning talks have been eye opening, especially the realization that some students have no idea how long some activities will take. 

I've recently put other supports in place to help students plan. For example, I've asked students to create their plan as the standing weekend homework assignment each week. This helps save precious class time. I want the students to start the week with the ball in their hand. I'm even encouraging students to send their plans to me via email so that I can send them feedback before their first lesson of the week. 

The second thing I did was to create a unit overview chart.
Sample Overview
The chart lists each activity sequentially with an estimated amount of time it will take to complete some activities. The chart also includes any useful notes. For example, I specify when an activity must be completed in class or without group members. I also list sub steps or special instructions when applicable. The idea is to offer a quick reference to allow students to make informed decisions about their plans. 

At the middle of the week, I ask them to reflect in their journals about their progress, then again at the end of the week. I also have a template or graphic organizer to help students save time recording their plan.
Template planning calendar
I'm hoping this constant cycle of planning and reflection, along with the unit overview and graphic organizer will help students improve their weekly plans. 

Asynchronous learning can improve student outcomes, as students are better able to meet their potential. However, students are not used to this amount freedom and run the risk of squandering the opportunity. As educators, we have to provide the guidance to help students maximize their learning. I hope the change in mindset and scaffolding mastery will accomplish this goal.