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Scaffolding the Kansas Landscape in Environmental Studies—Ali Brox (2018)

Overview

An Environmental Studies professor uses scaffolding to engage first-year international students with various research methods through team-based projects, guided learning prompts, and strategic rubric development.

Background

EVRN 172: Kansas Landscapes Projects is the third course in a three-course sequence of Environmental Studies classes for first-year international students who are part of the Academic Accelerator Program. In EVRN 172, they apply the ideas and skills they’ve gained from the previous two courses to a primary research project, in which they conduct research, analyze the information and data they have collected, and then present their findings orally and visually with a poster. I decided the best way to retain this third course’s continuity with the previous ones in the sequence was to make it a skills-based course where students apply interdisciplinary research skills to a particular Kansas landscape topic or issue.

Implementation

To meet the challenges of the course, I made changes to in-class and out-of-class materials and assignments. I made these changes with a couple goals in mind: to optimize in-class time for students to work with their teammates on specific research skills while I was present and could intervene, and to provide adequate individual and team opportunities to practice research skills that are integral to the final course project: a research poster and presentation.

Student Work

Four areas stood out when I evaluated the course changes. The scaffolded analysis assignments and the team-annotated bibliography were tied directly to the introduction, background, and history sections on the final research poster. Students who completed this scaffolding had more developed and comprehensive research in these sections of their posters. Citations and attention to detail were more pronounced, and my student’s understanding of history was greatly improved with the archival research project. Overall, after the course changes, the poster score range tightened, the lowest scores were higher, the highest scores were higher, and there were more high scores.

Reflections

As I was creating this portfolio, I discovered that a series of structured assignments tied directly to the final poster rubric helped English-language learners practice and develop analysis and critical thinking skills, which was indicated by an increase in average poster scores after the course changes. The mixture of individual and team assignments provided students with multiple opportunities to practice research skills individually and in collaboration with teammates. This in turn offered multiple opportunities for feedback and evaluation, which was beneficial for students and for me because I could identify areas that needed further instruction or assistance on individual and team levels.


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BACKGROUND

EVRN 172: Kansas Landscapes Projects is the third course in a three-course sequence of Environmental Studies classes for first-year international students who are part of the Academic Accelerator Program, which is a first-year program where international students take credit-bearing courses while also receiving additional support in their transition to living in the United States, such as English-language instruction and cultural experiences. Each course in the Kansas Landscapes Project sequence is a one-credit hour course with an enrollment of approximately 15-20 international students. Students in the AAP take a combination of English-language courses through the Applied English Center and courses in the College that count toward their degree requirements (like Environmental Studies, Math, Art History, etc.).

Consequently, a colleague and I created the three course-sequence specifically for the Academic Accelerator Program. It exposes first-year international students to the interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies Program. As a result, students in EVRN 172 have taken the Introduction to Kansas Landscapes and Understanding Kansas Landscapes courses (EVRN 170 and 171). In these courses, they are introduced to interdisciplinary ways of thinking about landscapes. Students learn about the different perspectives and research approaches that scholars from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences use to investigate environmental issues. In EVRN 172, they apply those ideas and skills to a primary research project, in which they conduct research, analyze the information and data they have collected, and then present their findings orally and visually with a poster.

Because this course represents the final course in a three-course Kansas landscapes sequence and serves as a culmination of what students have learned in the previous courses, students are applying skills and knowledge that they have been developing for a year. Additionally, students take this course during their final semester in the Academic Accelerator Program, and the course goals and objectives prepare students for the types of learning and projects they will do during the remainder of their time at KU. Primarily, the course goals and objectives are for students to develop written, oral, and critical thinking skills, to apply interdisciplinary research methods to a Kansas landscape topic and/or issue, and to develop collaborative learning skills.

Within this course model, students practice various interdisciplinary research methods individually and in collaboration with team members, which they apply to their specific team topic and project. Examples of assignments include almost weekly writing prompts that students complete individually as homework, as well as in-class prompts and problems that students work on with their team members and report out to the class as a whole.

For each research component, we review as a class a primary research skill or method that students learned about during a previous Kansas Landscapes course (EVRN 171). The types of primary research include archival research, surveys and interviews, and observation/field notes.

Two particular challenges for this course (and the redesign) are:

  1. students’ language proficiency, and
  2. when course meetings are scheduled; it is one credit hour and meets once a week for an hour during the fall and spring (two hours a week during the summer).

I wanted to design a course that addresses these obstacles, and to do so in a way that allows our graduate teaching assistants from different disciplines to teach it as well. I decided the best way to do this and to retain its continuity with the other courses in the sequence was to make it a skills-based course where students apply interdisciplinary research skills to a particular Kansas landscape topic or issue. Previous iterations of this course contained less scaffolded assignments, so the increased time between class meetings had a largely detrimental effect on retention and students’ ability to connect skills and lessons from week to week.


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IMPLEMENTATION

To meet the challenges of the course, I made changes to in-class and out-of-class materials and assignments. I made these changes with a couple of goals in mind: to optimize in-class time for students to work with their teammates on specific research skills while I was present and could intervene, and to provide adequate individual and team opportunities to practice research skills that are integral to the final course project: a research poster and presentation.

The following provide a snapshot of the methods and materials I use to achieve the main goals of the redesign.

In-class

I use a variety of teaching methods during class time: discussion, group work and report out to a larger class discussion, and lab-style activities where students work on particular parts of their research project while I walk around to check in with groups and answer questions specific to their topic. These teaching methods facilitate students’ achievement of course goals by allowing them to apply skills during in-class time that have been introduced to them in a homework assignment. Routinely, students have completed an individual homework assignment about a particular research approach or skill; during class they have the opportunity to discuss this skill again with teammates and the class as a whole. I can gauge how well students have mastered a skill or concept and can intervene with particular teams or individuals during class time.

I measure student learning via these methods in formal and informal ways. When we have in-class discussions or student groups work on an activity and report out, I can assess their understanding and assess the learning through oral comments. During most class periods, students complete some sort of written assignment—either a quiz or group work activity. I measure student learning for these activities more formally by evaluating them for grades in the class. In general, these are low-stakes assignments. Overall, the teaching methods allow me to provide feedback to students in various ways and on multiple assignments for the same skill or concept. There are multiple opportunities at both the individual and team level for feedback before the information, data, or evidence ends up on the final poster and presentation.

Outside class

The course incorporates a variety of activities outside of class. The main project for the course—the research poster and presentation—involves teamwork and primary research that occurs mostly outside of class. The following are examples of course activities outside of class, the ways they relate to the overall course goals, and how they contribute to the final course project.

Spencer Research Library

Students practice archival research as one of the primary research skills they use for their final projects. To do this, students visit the Spencer Research Library on campus where they receive a tour of the library and are introduced to University Archive materials that relate to their particular projects. An additional benefit of this visit includes the opportunity to expose students to a resource on campus—the research library—that they may return to during future classes or semesters.

The week before we visit the Spencer Research Library as a class, students practice analyzing archival materials in teams during class and again as an individual homework assignment. During our class visit, students look at materials that are specific to their projects and complete an assignment about the materials from the archives. Students begin the assignment while on the class visit but many return to the library outside of class time to complete the activity. The archival materials are a necessary component of their final research poster. In terms of assessment, I evaluate the homework assignment and students write about the materials they analyzed. Students share the individual documents they analyzed with those their teammates analyzed and collaborate on writing that eventually ends up on the final research poster.

Conduct a survey

Students practice additional research skills—conducting a survey and coding data—that they use for their final research posters. Like the other outside-of-class work that students complete in this course, these skills are structured to provide multiple opportunities for learning and mastering the skill. To begin, students watch a video-lecture about surveys and interviews for homework and complete a writing prompt about the material. They also take an in-class quiz about the material. They do an additional reading about ways to conduct a survey and different types of survey questions. They practice writing survey questions for homework and then have an in-class workshop with their teammates where they share the questions they wrote for homework and finalize their team’s survey. Students distribute the survey outside of class; each team member must gather a minimum number of survey responses. We then have an in-class workshop about how to code the survey data, analyze it, and create graphs for their final posters. Students learn how to use Excel to analyze quantitative data. The graphs students create are necessary elements for the final poster, and the data summaries and conclusions they write are tied directly to the poster requirements and rubric. The structured nature of this research skill allows for multiple levels of assessment on both individual and team assignments.

Team conferences with the instructor

At least once during the semester, each team is required to meet with me outside of class to check in on the status of their project. I can answer questions about the research process that are specific to each team as well as intervene on particular areas if necessary. At the bare minimum, these conferences allow me to help students figure out what remains to be done for their final project and to review the requirements of the final poster and presentation assignments. The team conferences are evaluated based on preparation for and attendance at the conference.

Video-lectures

Recorded video-lectures are course materials that I have integrated into the EVRN 172 class, and they are also used in the other two courses in the sequence. This hybrid-style learning tool allows students to watch lectures as homework. We then discuss the material during class time. For the EVRN 172 course, many of the video-lectures are a review of materials, skills, and concepts from the previous EVRN 171 course. By having students watch the lectures as homework, I can use class time to identify where additional explanation and/or application of a skill is needed. Individual quizzes and in-class team work are used to evaluate student learning from the video-lectures. Teams work on a problem or situation that relates to material in the lecture and report out orally about the prompt and submit a written component.

Course Materials

In addition to the video-lectures already described, the materials for this course include readings and handouts designed specifically for elements of the research project. The materials are posted on the course Blackboard site. For example, a graduate research assistant created materials for the unit on surveys. She developed a reading about survey questions, designed a homework assignment where students practice writing survey questions, and wrote a handout for students about how to input, code, and analyze data in Excel. Students use these course materials for individual and team homework assignments as well as for their final research poster. Similarly, another graduate research assistant generated materials for ways to design research posters in PowerPoint. We use these materials during an in-class workshop, but they are also a useful reference for students when they are working on the final design and layout of their team poster. Finally, students in the course sequence have a field notebook that they use primarily in EVRN 170 but are encouraged to keep and use in EVRN 171 and 172. Some students use this notebook for class notes and observations while in the field, depending on their team’s project.

Choices to promote student learning

During the course redesign, I made choices about teaching methods, materials, and assignments that would promote learning and help students meet course goals. For example, I chose to record video-lectures so we could maximize the minimal in-class time we have each week (one hour), and students could spend time during class practicing with their teammates the research skills they need for their projects. In addition to limited in-class time, another challenge of this course is students’ language proficiencies. I chose to include a mixture of individual and team assignments because I expect that multiple opportunities to practice and discuss with teammates will allow for better mastery of the skills and ultimately better research projects.

The choices I made during the course redesign build on what students have learned in the previous Kansas Landscapes courses and help prepare them for broader the university curriculum. Students in the EVRN 172 course apply ideas and concepts from EVRN 170 about ways of thinking about landscapes, and interdisciplinary research methods from EVRN 171 are used in a primary research project about a campus landscape topic or issue. Through the interdisciplinary research project, students begin to understand how scholars across disciplines converse and how different disciplines approach environmental issues or topics, which is a primary objective of the Environmental Studies program. The students gain undergraduate research experience during the course, which corresponds to the type of writing, data analysis, and citation methods they will need in future courses at KU. By designing a research poster and presenting their research orally, students develop critical thinking, writing, and speaking skills that will serve them well in the broader university curriculum and in their future endeavors beyond graduation. Finally, students develop collaborative learning skills through the team-based projects, which are important for future courses at KU and professional aspirations beyond graduation.


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STUDENT WORK

Four areas stood out when I evaluated course changes.

Area One:

The scaffolded archive analysis, Spencer Research Library assignments, and team-annotated bibliography are tied directly to the introduction, background, and history sections on the final research poster. These parts of the research project connect to the overall course goal of students using interdisciplinary research methods for their research projects. While many students are familiar with the idea of using observation or data for a research project, particularly in an environmental field, the inclusion of humanities-style research may not be as familiar.

The student examples illustrate that students during the Fall 2016 semester have more developed and comprehensive research in these sections of their posters. Students during the Fall 2016 semester seem to have a better understanding of how history and archive research relates to a landscape topic than previous semesters.

Student examples:

Area Two:

Students display a better understanding of citation style and the ability to differentiate between research that does or does not require a reference on the final poster after the course changes (i.e. primary versus secondary research). These improvements can also be tied to the archive assignments and team-annotated bibliography. Students have multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback on how and when to cite sources.

The student examples show a range of overall scores. A poster from Fall 2016 that did not score well overall still included a citation section. This may be tied to the emphasis on multiple assignments in the course to work on citing sources.

Student examples:

Area Three:

A notable problem before the course changes was a lack of attention to specific areas or sections of the final poster. For example, I found myself writing comments on multiple final posters about the absence of research methods or conclusions sections. This issue obviously came up when evaluating the final posters, but it was also apparent for students during the poster presentations at the end of the semester. Visitors will often ask students what they did for their research project, and this aligns with a methods section. Through these experiences, students begin to learn the conventions of a research poster; in other words, this is what the genre typically includes. After the course redesign, the sections of the research poster are tied directly to the final poster rubric and to an individual homework assignment: writing for the final poster. Students receive credit (and feedback) for writing paragraph drafts of the necessary content that could eventually end up on the final poster.

  • I used feedback I gave based on the assignment sheet to develop a rubric for Fall 2016. The rubric has evolved even more (Fall 2017)
  • For future versions of this course, I am considering developing (or working with my graduate research consultant to develop) a lesson and assignments that provide students practice writing bullet points, particularly for data summaries and project conclusions.

The student examples demonstrate the detrimental effect on the overall poster grade when a section is missing. The introduction of the “writing for the final poster” assignment after the course design has not completely solved the problem. That assignment is completed individually, and each team member writes for a different section of the poster. If an individual student does not do his/her part, then often the final poster will not have that section. In subsequent semesters, I have asked students to write about more than one section for the homework assignment, with some overlap, so even if one team member does not do the assignment, someone in the team has written a draft for that section of the poster.

Student examples:

Overall, the student examples demonstrate some of the places for intervention and reflect that the course revisions were effective for developing skills over time that lead to one of the main course goals: successful completion of the final research project. The use of the final poster assignment rubric helps students recognize the connections between in-class and homework assignments to their final project. Similar language and evaluative criteria and comments are used throughout the course. In general, the final posters have fewer typos and usage or grammar errors. I think this reflects the additional opportunities for feedback on writing that are built into the course assignments.

Area Four:

Final assessments:

  • From Spring 2016 to Fall 2016, after the course changes, the poster score range tightens, the lowest scores are higher, the highest scores are higher, and there are more high scores.
  • I taught one section of EVRN 172 in Spring 2016 and three sections in Fall 2016, and the average poster scores in the fall accounting for all three sections are higher, including the scores from the fall section that was offered on the same day as the spring section (Wednesday).

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Reflections

Professor Ali Brox

Ali Brox

As I was creating this portfolio, I discovered that a series of structured assignments tied directly to the final poster rubric helped English-language learners practice and develop analysis and critical thinking skills, which is indicated by an increase in average poster scores after the course changes. The mixture of individual and team assignments provides students with multiple opportunities to practice research skills individually and in collaboration with teammates. This in turn offers multiple opportunities for feedback and evaluation, which are beneficial for students and for me as the instructor because I can identify areas that need further instruction or assistance on individual and team levels.

As a result, this informs my future teaching practices by demonstrating the effectiveness of detailed rubrics and a series of assignments tied directly to course objectives and goals. The mixture of individual and collaborative work helps to reinforce skills and concepts that are tied to overall learning objectives, and it also alleviates some student anxiety about the ways individual course grades will be assigned in a team-based projects class. Finally, by examining student work in EVRN 172, instructors can continue to implement small changes or redesign in the pre-requisite courses (EVRN 170 and 171) that could be targeted specifically to goals we want students to attain in their primary research projects during the third course.

In Fall 2017 I developed a final presentation rubric similar to the one I created for the final poster assignment. While I have developed some informal and more formal ways for students to practice written skills during and outside of class, I could incorporate oral presentation skills into the day-to-day activities of EVRN 172. Students in the course sequence do give presentations in previous courses (EVRN 170), but speaking about primary research and a research poster can be different than giving a PowerPoint presentation. Students and teams report about in-class team work, but a more formal, low-stakes presentation assignment earlier in the course could be good practice. For example, I could ask students to present one of their documents from the Spencer Research Library to the class.

For future iterations of the course, I plan to consider choosing a single theme or topic that all teams research. The research questions would be specific to each team but everyone would focus on campus transportation, for example. This could allow more in-depth research because as a class, we would focus on a smaller set of data and experiences. It could also create learning opportunities through discussions with the other teams about how their projects relate but also differ slightly in their approach and/or conclusions.

Finally, I had originally thought I would develop a detailed rubric for the annotated bibliography assignment, which is one of the series of structured assignments in the original course change. Upon further reflection, I did not assign the team annotated bibliography assignment in Fall 2017. With our limited in-class time, the preparation needed for individual and team instruction and practice for an annotated bibliography was trying to do too much. Instead, students complete an assignment that allows them to practice individually the skills of an annotated bibliography: summary, evaluation, and citation skills. I have tried to preserve the spirit of the team assignment by maintaining opportunities during class for students to discuss with teammates the sources they found individually at the Spencer Research Library and how these fit with the team project.

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


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