Don’t Pick a Topic Which Bores You

My name is Theresa and in this session
“Don’t Pick a Topic Which Bores You!” I’m speaking to students, not to you. And I’m talking about it, hoping it can be as much of a conversation as possible. Because this is a problem that I see and I want to get a sense of what you see, and if you see it and how we can look at it together. And I work in the library, and therefore I’m talking about what I see when I try to help students. And the issue is that they don’t pick a real problem to grapple with. And instead, kind of end up with a more generic and high-level topic. And so I want to look at the reasons why students might do this. And also think about strategies that all of us, instructors, librarians, course managers. What we can do to help students feel permission maybe, to choose a personally meaningful topic for their papers, projects, etc. And maybe even identify strategy you could use in your next course. And so one thing I see, I work with the management programs a lot, and sometimes I see students choosing to analyze or study an aspect of a business. And they’ll choose a huge huge company such as Apple or Nike. And I think that it would be so much better if they could choose something that really reflected where they are in their career. or what the industry they want to go into. And I’m wondering if you see that also, because I can imagine it must get awfully boring to read the same paper over and over again. And so in this slide, I’d like you to type on the screen. Above the PowerPoint, you can see the icons, and there’s an icon alphabet letter key that you can choose and you could type, or you could also use the pencil. But I’d love for you to take a minute and tell us what you see in the way of these papers that are either a cookie cutter, or a paper that you see students write, that is very much something you can tell is near and dear to them or tackles a problem they know. And just think about it and feel free to write. If you’ve never used Blackboard write on the screen tool. You’re going to look at it and click on the little T. And then you can choose whatever color from the color wheel, default it as blue. And then you can just click anywhere on the screen, and start typing. And then when you’re done click out and it will show up. Because I really want to see…, you know I know what I experience when I’m working with students, in trying to help them. But I’d love to hear what you experience. And I can imagine what it’s like to to read a paper that is truly grappling with something that is meaningful to that student. And there as I said, there’s a lot of reasons why it’s either easy or hard to do this. But I would love to see and hear your thoughts. So anyway, I don’t see anything yet. But feel free also to use the chat, to ask a question or share something as we proceed. And keep thinking about it. Oh, we got one, let me go back. Relate to there… When you move it, clears it. Oh okay, Relate to their experience like… Sorry about that, I wiped out your typed in comment. But I think it was something about relating to their experience, connecting to the student and what they have as experience. And if I can just jump off on that, it may be that some of our students have less job experience, or some students may have less work experience that they can draw on immediately, but I know a lot of our students do. And especially since they’re older students, I would imagine there’s a lot of students who really do have work experience or have career goals they can connect to. So I want to think about some of the reasons why this might be in there. I’d love for you to add your ideas too. So the first and probably the most important thing that I see is that time is always of the essence. And students may not start really working on assignments until 48 or 24 hours before its due, maybe even a couple hours. And so, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for them to ponder the assignment. And to kind of finesse the assignment, to really take it in a direction that’s more specific and relevant to them. Another issue is they maybe are concerned about their grade. And they may feel that if they fully translate that assignment into something that they recognize, they may feel they’re giving up points, or they’re not going to do as well. So they may feel the grade pressure. And the third thing I see here is the assignment wording. And what I see as a librarian is a lot of times a student will I think struggle with the wording of the assignment and not fully understand it. Therefore when they reach out for help, they’re kind of spitting back the words of the assignment. And they haven’t really had a chance to go behind the words, or read between the lines to really get a sense of what they’re being asked to do. And of course, to do that requires inferring and synthesizing skills, and also maybe having a sense that they’re free to do that. But I think I struggle because sometimes what I’ll say to the student is, you need to translate this into something that you can research, and that can be difficult. Likewise, really getting a sense of the goal of the assignment can be challenging. Another thing is, they may be hesitant to ask for help. And it’s interesting because I may get questions from students that actually are for instructors or that I want to say, and I do say, please ask your instructor this question, because they’ll ask me to interpret their assignment. And so I think probably because we don’t grade, we’re not their instructor, we’re on the sidelines, they feel maybe, more able to ask for help, but they can sometimes be hesitant to ask for help from us too. And then lastly, I think it does take more time. It is perhaps easier to write sort of a high-level book report kind of paper, than really distilling that and applying that into a situation, so as you can see. And I bet you can think of many more reasons why it might be hard for a student to choose a real topic. So now this is one thing that I see as a librarian, I should say, we librarians see this. And this goes back to what I was saying about not quite understanding the assignment or getting beyond the language. So what a student may do is, they may either in a chat or an email, they may paste in the whole assignment and basically, say I need help and here it is. And of course, we as librarians are sometimes tempted to say, I can read too. But you know, of course, we want them to ask us a real question or to come up with their own topic. And so this is where I see some of the barriers is that…, and I think reading assignments is not easy. I think that being able to really read and think about it and figure out what is being asked for is not simple. And I think that because we have a curriculum that comes with preset assignments, I think that I can begin to think that it’s easy to figure out this assignment, but I think that doesn’t always mean that the student reads it and understands it. So there’s a lot there that can happen to indicate that they’re not quite seeing it. The next example is where really they’re just pasting in part of the assignment. So you can see with this it’s a shorter question, and they’re looking for help. But my guess is that the language there, “six competencies leaders look for in high-performing global-teams”, is probably the wording of the exact assignment, and then lifted out and just plugged there. Whereas, of course, what would really help us to work with that student is to know, what competencies do they want to look like? What are the aspects of global teams
that they want to look at? And what does high-performing mean? High-performing in the context of what? So and of course, we want to have as much of a dialogue with them as possible. But time is of course, of the essence. And what I’ve got here is, we use a tool called a topic triangle. And on it, one is guided to go from a large more global topic and to narrow and narrow and narrow until you get a specific topic. And you can see here that, I took the Leaders of global teams and I just went in my own direction. And I thought, okay what are the traits of team leaders, and then maybe conflicts between team leaders, could be an issue that the traits could address. And then at the very bottom, I’ve gotten even more granular and I’ve thought, well, maybe the issue is trust between team leaders. And how do these high-performing teams then deal with the trust issues or conflict or whatever? So I mean that’s just an example, but the ideal is to have a conversation with the student. And we often don’t have the luxury of questions. And I know that you are in the same situation because students have very little time. You’re in an online class, there isn’t a lot of
time between assignments or Discussion Boards. And there’s very little time to really connect, but what we aim for as much as possible is really to bring questions. So that we can in a sense do an interview and ask them you know, How do you see this in your workplace? What does this look like in your industry? And that’s challenging. And so what I wanted to do for this next section of my presentation, is just think about where in the Blackboard shell do you encounter students? And how can those parts of the Blackboard shell be used to help students to think about things? And to slowly circle the ideas that might lead them to a real topic, or real problem they could grapple with. And I think one area that I wanted to point out that might be underutilized is the Student Introductory Assignment, that is so much a part of every online
Blackboard course. And I wonder sometimes, I think this is entirely customizable by you the faculty, or you the course manager or whatever. And this is an example I found in a leadership course, that asked students to address the qualities that they’ve observed and that really connects to their experience. And also their experience maybe with a leader, who they didn’t admire. And then also, these could be something that you circle back to throughout the course. And I know it takes time, but if we can try to use the SIA to get to know the students and kind of lead them by their own desires and interests. I think that’s a real possibility. I took another example, this one really asked them to be specific about… it says, what you currently do for a living and what you hope to do once you graduate. And I think that’s a key area to connect and to really try to get them to articulate these things. So that you can jog their memory, and help them to try and apply it When you get to certain concepts, you can
ask them a question about, What is this concept, how does it show up in your industry or your workplace? Because most of our students aren’t going to be working for those huge multinationals like Nike and Google and Microsoft. I mean they may, they certainly may, but most often they’re working for a smaller company, a private company. And it’s great if we can get specific with trying to connect to what they know, and what they what problems they
encounter. So anyway, thinking again about the whole framework of the Blackboard course. One thing that I’ve observed and again I’m just an observer I am NOT an instructor. I don’t have the same experience as you. But sometimes I’ve seen announcements, and a lot is covered in a weekly announcement. So one of the things I thought about is maybe doing a special announcement just to unpack the assignment, just to really try and help them think about the assignments that are coming up. Or choose an example from your own experience that you think will help give them an example of what they might do with an assignment. So anyway I think that announcements could be another place where you really try to connect them, and point them to their own life and their own goal. And this, I think that I keep saying this, but there’s so little time and a course moves, It’s such a clip. But I think it’s really valuable if you can tell your story, your experience in the workplace, where you see the concept played out in stories of success or failure. And those stories can help ignite their thinking, to think about real problems they could grapple with. And you can always do that like, “a friend of mine encountered this experience”, or you know, be a little case study in your class. So that you can help illustrate the concepts in a real problem. So that’s just another idea. My colleagues and I work in discussion posts, and another thing that I think is another opportunity is, there are little windows were here and there you can connect with a particular student. In which you can kind of ask a question, that is a leading question. That hopefully makes them think about how they could use their own work setting, or own career goals to think about that concept or problem. So that when they get to the assignment it then has more resonance, or they’re kind of led on the path to think about it in that light. So and again I know that with discussion boards, if you have a lot of students, that’s a lot of posts. But maybe it’s just finding the opportunity here or there, and just to target what
you do see. Because I think that students are very suggestible sometimes, and when you come back directly to them, and you talk about, “well what you’re using is…” Like if you’ve heard them talk about their workplace, or their industry or setting, you’re using their language. And that’s kind of an uptake opportunity,
where you’re returning to them with their own language. And asking them about what it looks like, and how they encounter it, and how this could connect to the concept. And I think in a way that is very enlightening and flattering to
the students. Because it’s like, you listened to me and you kind of know a little bit about me. So anyway, in the Q&A, this isn’t just in the Q&A, this could be anywhere. But I was working with an instructor who has international students, and he said something to me once, that I thought was wonderful. Because he knew his students felt anxious about an upcoming assignment, and he knew they weren’t going to voice that anxiety or concern or questions. And so what he did is, he said, “I know if I were you and I was facing this, and I had only these many days and it was new to me, I know I’d feel a little panic, or a little anxious, or a little uncertain. You know, so, you may not be feeling that way, but if I were you I’d feel that and here’s what I would do.” But sometimes voicing that allows them to feel more invited to ask a question, or to feel what they’re feeling, which is confused or anxious or afraid. Or thinking like they don’t know enough, and they can’t handle the assignment, or paper or something. So one thing I was thinking about, the Q&A is maybe, and I think that this is just a question, but sometimes do you think the Q&A flies under the radar? And then after it falls below the discussion area where you’re moving on week after week, maybe you don’t see the Q&A and they don’t think about submitting questions. So maybe there’s a way to move those questions to an announcement. Or if you get a question, you broadcast it via email or something, so that they can see that there are questions and they may have the same question. So anyway, I’m just trying to think, I’m brainstorming of ways to engage them, and ways to help disarm them, and feel like yes it’s okay to ask a question. It’s okay to be confused or uncertain. Oh and here’s another thing I want to ask you, is the way that you communicate with students pretty much typed words? You’re probably not having a voice to voice, or phone call with your students. So the only opportunity you have is, kind of those typed words get in front of their eyes and grab their attention. So and I know that it takes time to type words and there’s so much to be done in a course. But if there are, little ways that you can embed, maybe it’s like, have a script. One of the things we do in the library a lot is, we try to create scripts. So that when we get the same question, or similar question, or similar assignment, we can try to out that script and then tweak it. So that we don’t have to write the whole thing, because it’s a lot of typing. But the more you can give little feedback and little encouragement, and little questions that really help them to think about how they can engage in their own real problems, that is I think powerful. The other thing is, they may not think about it, they may not take you up
on it. But the fact that they don’t right away
doesn’t mean that they didn’t hear you, and it doesn’t mean they might on the
next course or next assignment, or something else. So and then to return back to this, the most critical issue always for you, for me, for the students, course managers, instructors is time. And you don’t have a lot, and the student doesn’t have a lot. So that’s always the challenge. And that’s why I’m thinking of ways that this can be baked into a course early on. So that it’s part of the way we operate and can take the questions and put those little teasers. And so, I just want to invite you to think about these ways and continue the conversation with me. And because I know that all of you have the experience where you read a paper and you go wow, this student really made it theirs, and they took a real issue that they know, and boy did they apply it. And I sometimes think the students don’t really feel encouraged or fully that they have permission to do that, And so you know, the more questions
the better. So and do you have any questions? And I’d like to return to the goal and just say if anyone has identified a strategy that you can use in your next course. Feel free to plunk that into the chat, we only have a minute left. But think about ways that you can type these little things or build the script, or build it into a special announcement. Or tell a story about something that connects to an assignment. And I would love to continue the conversation. Feel free to reach out to me by email, or you know, call, stop by the library if you have that luxury. Most of you are online, so email. But I just, I really care about this, because when you see a student get really really into their real problem, it’s so exciting. Anyway, thank you so much.

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