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Modifying Assessment and Fine-Tuning Expectations in an Online Version of Introduction to Greek and Roman Mythology—Emma Scioli (2014)

Overview

A classics professor restructures an online course to align different types of assessment with one another while raising the level of rigor closer to that of its traditional, face-to-face counterpart.

Background

Classics (CLSX) 148 is the gateway course in the Classics Department and offers a broad overview of mythology, literature, and visual art helpful for students taking other classics and humanities courses. It invites students to analyze myths both in their cultural contexts and in various media. The goal of this redesign was to maximize the technologies available for enhancing online education to make the course as rigorous, serious, and engaging as possible. I did not want my online class to be either a third wheel to my face-to-face classes or an intellectual ghost of the standard, face-to-face version of the course.

Implementation

My redesign of the course was twofold. First, a major goal was to increase the rigor of the online course so that it was more closely aligned with the demands of its face-to-face counterpart while accounting for the specific expectations of the online course and its students. Second, although I previously had redesigned the format of the midterm to be more aligned with the course materials and expectations, the exam revealed that students were unprepared to answer the types of questions posed because they reflected a level of learning more typical for the face-to-face version of Classics 148. For the latter half of the semester, I keyed the final exam to the discussion board and writing assignments, which I created with a focus on the kinds of analyses that the final exam would require.

Student Work

The low scores on the midterm revealed an unexpected misalignment between the assignments and assessments. For the second half of the term, the final exam was keyed more consciously and specifically to the assignments, which were written with an eye toward the kinds of analyses that the final exam would require. The higher scores on the final indicate that the mid-semester redesign was successful.

Reflections

By teaching the same class with the same reading material in both the face-to-face and online formats, I learned a valuable lesson about the diverse ways in which this material can be presented to, and engaged with by, two different audiences. After I accepted the differences between the courses and their respective audiences I was able to approach these courses as distinct but related entities. I have come to appreciate the freedoms and exigencies of each course and I have tried to use and adapt successful assignments creatively across the two formats.


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Background

Classics 148: Introduction to Greek and Roman Mythology (pdf) introduces the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome through careful analysis of the literary texts produced by these cultures. This course focuses on literature from different genres, including hymns, epic poems, and tragedies. In addition to reading primary sources, students work in groups to investigate visual media’s use of classical mythology.

This course is the gateway course in the Classics Department, providing a solid foundation for upper-level courses in the department. Its goals are:

  • Breadth, acquired through studying ancient myths across a variety of literary and visual genres, and
  • Relevance, acquired by looking at how ancient myths shape modern culture, especially popular entertainment.

It invites students to analyze myths in their cultural contexts and to see how myths change across genres and historical periods. The class asks students to engage with myths that they are familiar with (often from popular culture), but perhaps had not considered beyond their function as simple stories or source material. By asking students to read primary sources, this class encourages them to understand myths not simply as stories to be excerpted from context and memorized, but rather as stories that informed often long and intricate narratives that revealed a culture's central ideas and concerns.

The course has an enrollment capped at 35 and has no prerequisites. Although it may be incorporated into the classics major, it functions as an elective for the vast majority of students. The course meets the arts and humanities requirement of KU Core Goal 3. The lecture-format section has traditionally attracted freshmen. The department offers multiple sections each year in a variety of formats:

  • Traditional, large-enrollment lecture format (200 to 250 students),
  • Small, discussion-based format (15 to 30 students, taught by a GTA),
  • Hybrid (face-to-face and online) format (30 students), and
  • Online format (15 to 30 students).

In fall 2014, 19 students enrolled in the course online. As an online course, it is theoretically open to students anywhere, but the students who enrolled were in the Lawrence area and were concurrently enrolled in face-to-face courses at KU. Unlike the lecture, enrollment in the online course was almost evenly divided between lower- and upper-division students (four freshmen, six sophomores, three juniors, and five seniors).


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Implementation

How difficult could it possibly be to translate a face-to-face class to an online format? Fall 2014 was the first time I taught Classics 148 online, after having previously taught it one time each as a hybrid course and a traditional lecture. Prior to fall 2014, the Classics Department had an online version of Classics 148 that was taught as a correspondence course, mostly to small numbers of non-traditional students or members of the public. Based on her own model for the face-to-face version, my colleague in the department had developed an online version of the course that was tailored toward the current audience for online courses: traditional KU students who are attracted to the flexibility of online courses. With her course and my own ideas from teaching the course in both hybrid and face-to-face formats to guide me, I set about creating a new online course for Fall 2014.

Initial Similarities
I imported several elements of the online course directly from the face-to-face course. As in the face-to-face course, all readings were of primary sources in translation, a choice that reflects a departmental commitment to presenting the material unabridged and in its original literary context. Quizzes, writing assignments, and tests all drew upon assigned readings; these assessments were thus in line with the goals of the face-to-face course, in which assessment drew heavily upon comprehension of the assigned primary texts. In the online course, I provided some optional support material: links to several online resources, such as the Oxford Classical Dictionary and the Routledge Who’s Who in Ancient Mythology. I also created a few illustrated PowerPoint videos that students were encouraged to watch before beginning a new reading. With my GTA, David Dyke, I created a document with study questions to guide the students through the readings by drawing their attention to some of the major themes and plot points within the assigned texts. As with the face-to-face course, students were required to complete short Blackboard reading comprehension quizzes before participating in the discussion boards and/or submitting writing assignments on a given week’s reading. As with a traditional course, I held office hours to help students in need of real-time assistance, although few students availed themselves of such help. Finally, students had to take the midterm and final exams on campus.

Initial Differences
At first, recognizing and adapting to the changed medium of interaction between instructor and students seemed most important. I distilled and translated lecture material into questions for discussion on the online discussion board, which I provided as an online medium for students to engage with the big picture of the material together and thus learn from one another. In the face-to-face course I use many examples from visual media, both ancient and modern, to illustrate points about the different ways myths are transmitted and about how mythological material is employed in different cultural contexts to convey meaning to that particular culture and time period. Since there was a limited opportunity to present this material in the online class without a lecture platform, I created a group blog project that allowed students to find visual material on their own by searching online image databases for ancient and modern examples of myths in visual media. Students were responsible for participating in a group blog project, in which they responded to the material their peers posted within these blogs, without any face-to-face or real-time interaction.

Midterm Redesign
The midterm revealed that students were unprepared to answer the types of questions posed because the questions were written to reflect a level of learning more typical for the face-to-face version of Classics 148. The average grade was a low C (72.3 points), the grade distribution was erratic, and at 51.5 points, the grade range was extreme. For the second half of the term, the final exam was keyed more consciously and specifically to the assignments, which were written with an eye toward the kinds of analyses that the final exam would require. Our thought process was as follows:

  1. Students struggled with basic recognition of the names of texts and their authors, so on the final we gave them the title of the work from which the passage came.
  2. Students struggled with relating the events of the given passage to events later in the plot, so on the final we cut down this type of question.
  3. Students struggled to support answers to essay questions with evidence from the texts that they had to recall from memory, so on the final we created questions that could be answered in whole or part by using examples from the passage ID section of the test. Thus, the final had the feeling of an open-book exam, and we could hold students to a higher standard since they had citable material right there on the test.
  4. Students had had no practice with the types of questions we asked, so ahead of the final David held virtual review sessions at which students could go over sample passages and questions with him, working on ways to approach similar material on the final.
  5. We encouraged students to take the discussion boards and writing assignments seriously as prep for the types of thematic questions they might be asked on the final. They were encouraged to review these and use them to review for the final.

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Student Work

Quizzes
Quizzes were intended to help familiarize students with the assigned readings by asking multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions that required very specific answers. The main goal of the quizzes was to ensure that students completed the readings and did not just limit their preparation to what was necessary for discussion board or writing assignments. They were open book and not restricted to a time limit. Eleven were given over the course of the semester, and together they comprised 11% of the final grade.

Some quiz questions would ask students to fill in the blank with a word missing from a reading passage of 5 to 10 lines. To answer this type of question correctly, a student would have to find the correct passage in context. Another type of question would involve asking students to arrange a series of episodes in a plot in the correct order. A successful response would indicate that the student had done and comprehended the reading, or would at least have gone back through the reading to recall the order of events. In addition to these, there were several other types of multiple choice, fill-in, true/false, and one-word or one-phrase ID questions, all of which were automatically graded by Blackboard.

Discussion Board
Students were assigned 16 discussion board posts (pdf) throughout the semester. Posts were completed in pairs, with each student responsible for one original post and one post that responded to a peer’s post, in eight week-long sessions. All posts were graded according to a rubric; at 1.5% for each individual post, the discussion boards were 24% of the final grade.

Short Writing Assignments
Students completed four 300-word papers over the course of the semester. For each paper, they were given the option of answering one of two or more prompts, and all papers were graded according to the same rubric (pdf). The short writing assignments together made up 12% of the final grade. These examples (all pdf) show A, B, and C level work.

Final Paper
The final paper allowed students to revise and expand one of the four short writing assignments they had already submitted. More specifically, they were asked to:

  1. Respond to the comments given on the earlier paper,
  2. Strengthen the claims from the shorter paper by bringing in one to two more examples from the chosen text, and
  3. Expand the introduction and add a conclusion to the paper.

Like other writing assignments, the final paper was also graded with a rubric. It totaled 8% of the final grade.

A third sample here (pdf) is an especially noteworthy example of how one student transformed and expanded upon an earlier response paper.

Group Blog Project
Students were divided into groups of three to five members. I initially intended this project to be produced entirely using the presentation tool VoiceThread, which enables asynchronous group collaboration on audio-visual media projects. The group project asked students to collect examples of and comments about the use of Greek and Roman mythology in ancient and modern visual culture. The project involved three phases of participation, with three separate due dates, each of which was worth 5% of the grade. The first phase of the assignment was designed for students to become familiar with VoiceThread and to see a model for presenting ancient and modern visual art. Within their assigned groups, students were asked to post responses to a VoiceThread I had created.

Because of technical difficulties using VoiceThread and problems synching it with Blackboard, we abandoned it after the first assignment and used the Blackboard blog feature for parts two and three of the assignment. The second part (pdf) of the assignment required students to search online using a site such as Google Images to find two visual images of their group’s mythological character. These images had to be from different time periods: the first from ancient Greece or Rome, the second image from the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries. The final step (pdf) of the project required students to look at and comment upon the research of other students, comparing others’ images with their own.

In these examples, the student first researched two very different images of Dionysus, one from the sixth century BCE and another from the Disney film Fantasia (1940). The second example, by the same student, compares the Disney portrayal of Dionysus with an image of Dionysus researched by another group member.

Final Exam
The final exam revealed that the mid-semester redesign was successful. The average grade was a mid-B (85.3 points), the grade distribution was a standard bell curve, and the range was almost half (26 points) of that on the midterm (51.5 points).

A comparison offers an example of how our changes came together on the final exam.

The format for the midterm was already a revision from the midterm given in the previous year’s hybrid course, an exam that students generally scored poorly on. The new version of the exam included passage IDs and an essay, and these were significant steps in the right direction. However, more work needed to be done to: 1. bring the final in line with other assessments in the course, and 2. revise its content and questions to reflect the type of preparation done for assignments leading up to the final exam. Comparing the midterm and final exam passages above, we can see several differences between them:

  1. Midterm asked for ID of text and author; final provided both.
  2. Midterm asked students to fill in the blank for a proper name; final eliminated this type of question.
  3. Midterm asked students to describe events that happen later in the work (question e); this was impossible if students could not recognize the passage to begin with. On the final, students were also asked to comment on events from the larger work outside of the excerpted passage, but the question was based upon material presented in the passage itself (“oaths”).
  4. Midterm passage was picked for its significance within the larger context of its work, but was not directly keyed to themes that students had been asked to think about for previous assignments such as DB and writing assignments. On the final, this passage, for example, asked students to think about “oaths,” which was the subject of one of the prompts for writing assignment No. 3. Writing assignment No. 3 pertained to Euripides’ play about Medea and Jason, while the passage ID on the final pertained to Medea and Jason in Apollonius’s epic poem.
  5. One of the essay questions on the final asked students to discuss the characterization of Medea in various literary sources; the passage ID above would have offered students a good passage to use in their argument.
  6. Midterm did not allow a choice for the passage IDs (students were required to answer all seven IDs for credit); final offered a choice of six of nine IDs. Midterm offered choice of two out of three essay topics; final offered two of five.

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Emma Scioli

Reflections

Different formats create different courses. By teaching the same class with the same reading material but in two formats, I learned a valuable lesson about how this material should be presented to, and engaged with, by two different audiences. On the one hand, the online class took a big-picture approach that was far less amenable to the memorization of details. On the other hand, students in the online course did more writing and discussion, and completed a group blog project. The goals became: 1. to enable students to trace themes and images within a text, and 2. to enable students to connect different texts by comparing their respective themes. These are the types of assignments that I will develop further in future iterations of the online version of Classics 148.

Although our redesign of the tests was successful, I hope to move away from traditional sit-down testing in the online class altogether. This is in part motivated by difficulties we experienced in getting students to come to campus on a given day when they are not expected to do so at other times in the semester, but also because I believe that memorization is not the goal in this course, but rather deeper engagement with the texts themselves. I propose a two-part redesign of testing in this course (i.e., assessments in addition to Blackboard quizzes, discussion boards, blogs, or writing assignments). The first part would be two to three short close reading assignments. These would be distributed as open-book assignments that students have two hours to work on within a 24-hour window on Blackboard. These would alternate with two or three essay tests that would ask students to compare two passages in essays that they write in a two-hour window within a given longer period. I plan to implement these changes in upcoming semesters.

There is no one-for-one transfer between a traditional lecture format and an online version of the same class. Some of the difficulties of teaching an online course are shared across all courses, such as getting students to read assigned material and then to participate in discussions (whether face-to-face or virtual) that allow them to engage with the material and use examples from it to support their opinions. However, in an online course, such difficulties are increased exponentially because there is no regular face-to-face interaction during which an instructor can model good learning behavior and pose questions to the group that then form the basis for discussion prompts. A goal for future redesigns of this course is to take advantage of the comparatively small enrollment in the online course and make maximal use of the available technologies to foster as much active and interactive learning as possible. In addition to adding more materials that will guide students’ focus as they engage with the readings (in the form of short PowerPoints, reading guides, and links to online resources), I intend to create assignments and assessments that reward deeper engagement with the targeted material, rather than emphasize breadth and memorization, as has been the case in the face-to-face course.

Instead of comparing online courses with those of a standard lecture-style format, independent study courses provide a more apt comparison. In both online and independent study formats, students are required to be highly motivated and responsible, and there is little interaction with the instructor. Yet the advantage of the independent study model is that it allows for active learning from the start since the instructor is not scaffolding student readings, but rather the students’ readings of the text are their first and primary engagements with the material and thus form the basis for engagement.

This raises an important question: Should enrollment in online courses be limited to advanced students? Should first-year students be discouraged from taking these courses and instead be steered into face-to-face courses their first semesters at KU? Few advisors would recommend independent study courses to novice students, and few if any professors would be willing to supervise them. The same precautions may be helpfully applied to online education, which requires a depth of maturity and a strength of focus that most freshman and even many sophomores have not yet developed. A problem with this approach is that Classics 148 is a lower-division course that satisfies a KU Core goal that students are advised to fulfill during their first two years at the university. Enrollment in the course would suffer if its clientele were limited. Furthermore, the course would no longer be a gateway for classics courses, nor would it serve to attract students into the major. Successful online education needs to sail between the Scylla of traditional pedagogical expectations and the Charybdis of new but untested assumptions surrounding online learning.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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