ePortfolios in Undergraduate Biology Research: Transcribing Data, Translating Learning

The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology states that cellular information is stored in DNA, converted into mRNA to leave the nucleus, and finally turned into proteins. These processes make sense of the stored information in order to do the actual work of the cell. All the while the cell is sending and receiving signals from both its internal and external environment that drive these processes.

Learning in the biology laboratory can be likened to this in that our students will rely on their knowledge, knowledge gained from the scientific literature, and guidance from their mentor to generate, analyze, and place their results into the bigger picture driving scientific discovery. Novel questions are addressed through the process of the scientific method – a recursive experience with no finish, only more questions. Communication between mentor and student is critical. Communication between the lab and the greater scientific community is also critical. Often overlooked, though, is the necessary communication between the student and themselves. Making sure these dialogs are rich and meaningful can be a challenge when research takes place at the undergraduate level.

How can we facilitate this multi-modal communication to develop critically thinking experiential learners that work towards solutions for the problems they have set out to solve?

                                    Enter the e-portfolio.

Mentors communicate with students

Our student researchers spend only a short time, when compared to students in graduate programs, investigating research questions in our laboratories. Their energies are also spread out in many ways: classes, athletics, and oftentimes jobs. As such their ability to grow in the lab setting is less than if their focus were solely on research full time. However, for the undergraduate student who does not conduct research full time there are less obvious opportunities to interact and provide regular feedback. E-mail is helpful, but not an ideal strategy. Specifically, there needs to be an ongoing dialogue with each student about the progress and pitfalls of their project and email is not setup to meet this need. Through e-portfolios we do have the ability to have regular dialogue with students and the technology can be set to alert us to any student initiated changes, generally the addition of questions, data tables or figures. With this centralized site we are able to review their work in a timely fashion and not have to sort through clogged email inboxes to figure out where the information is. Students progress and benefit as we can catch errors in procedure early and correct them. Posting questions to students has also facilitated a deeper understanding on their part as they can reflect on our questions prior to answering when asked ‘on the spot’ in the lab.

Students talk to themselves

The role metacognition, or the awareness and analysis of one’s own thinking, plays in deepening student learning is well-established. A simple exercise in self-reflection can be implemented into the undergraduate research experience to deepen students’ conversations with themselves about what they know and don’t know. Through regular reflection and posting to the e-portfolio, research students can visualize a time-stamped progression of their learning. They can more easily identify the missing pieces and work to determine why they think what they think. In-turn, this leads to more meaningful interpretations of data, linking their findings to the big picture, and articulating to their mentor (knowingly or unknowingly) gaps in understanding making it easier for mentors to mentor. Students’ critical reflections are essentially conversations with themselves and demonstrate the learning experience unique to each student. This experience, in itself, better prepares students to have these same conversations with others (e.g. in interviews or future collaborative work).

Archive and pass the baton

In research labs students are taught to keep all of their data in a laboratory notebook. This is ideal to ensure nothing is lost, but challenging to sort through after students have left and we need a specific image or data table that we think a particular student generated. With the e-portfolio we can encourage them to archive the ideal images and final versions of data tables that are based on what is added to a notebook on a day to day basis. This obviously facilitates data retrieval after the fact, which is the norm with the pace of data collection. Current students are supplementing or creating protocols that will live on the e-portfolio site allowing each future user access from any internet portal. This is ideal as we can lock down editing on a master version and have students work from a copied version on their portion of the site. This allows us to preserve an original and note additions and deletions added for individual projects.

Benefits to current students may be obvious, but to the next student we think they are even greater. When we open access to the site to a new student they are given existing protocols and can see how data should be archived thus reducing the learning curve and hopefully ensuring more productivity than in the past. This ‘passing of the baton’ from one student to the next also ensures we have an obvious record of who contributed what to any one project.

Share with others

Whether our research students are building upon a shared e-portfolio for the laboratory, or generating their own unique sites, they are exercising their communication skills. They will have virtual conversations with us as their mentors that allow for deeper learning, more rapid identification of “teachable moments”, and self-correction. The use of the e-portfolios is also ideal for future considerations about authorship, or acknowledgements, in publications. Finally, the records are permanent scholarly showcases that Fisher students can maintain for free even after graduation.

Links to Biology students’ e-portfolios

These students have given permission for us to share their work.


Written by Kristin Picardo and Ed Freeman, Biology Department


What is a Smartpen?

At St. John Fisher College, Office of Academic Affairs supports students with disabilities by loaning Livescribe Smartpens. The smartpens enable users to capture, search, and share handwritten notes. The smartpens synchronize handwritten notes with recorded audio. Currently we have three models available for loan; Echo, Sky Wifi, and Livescribe 3 smartpens.

How do smartpens help students with learning disabilities?

  • Note-taking help, homework help and before a big exam
  • Tap your notes and the smartpen will play back the professors explanation word for word
  • Organize your notes; play back controls allow you to slow down or speed up the audio recording, even bookmark key information
  • Capture everything you hear and write – be confident never miss a word
  • Capture words, scribbles and diagrams & syncs everything to what is said

Not all professors allow students to use tablets or mobile devices during class, students take notes via pen and paper.  It is still the most popular method of note-taking. Shocking but true. Reading your notes and/or listening to your recordings within a web based application such as Evernote allows users flexibility and control when reviewing what was captured, making the Livescribe pen a useful tool for today’s digital lifestyle.

The smartpens have an embedded infrared camera that detects pen strokes on special Livescribe paper. Below are my reflections on the 3 models and best use practices. More detailed information can be found at livescribe.com.

The newest smartpen is the Livescribe 3, this pen uses bluetooth technology; notes appear on your tablet or smartphone instantly when paired with the Livescribe+ mobile app.  Your notes are organized, tagged, searchable and can be converted to text.  Turns your words into action!

smartpen3Livescribe 3 smartpen

To transfer your handwritten notes to Livescribe+, connect your Livescribe 3 smartpen to an iOS device that is Bluetooth ready.

  • iPhone 4S or newer
  • iPad 3rd generation or newer
  • iPod touch 5th generation or newer

Notes:  Need iOS device and Livescribe+ app (free), additionally if your iOS device is NOT bluetooth ready, you can still use the Livescribe+ app to open and review pencasts that are send/shared with you by other Livescribe+ users.

Ease of use/setup:

  1. Download the free Livescribe+ app – via App store designed for both iPhone and iPad
  2. First time, pair device.
    • iOS device- ensure Bluetooth is on
    • Turn on your smartpen, by twisting the middle ring clockwise
    • Open Livescribe+ app – device automatically detects your smartpen
    • Tap/touch Pair when prompted, after it connects the LED on smartpen turns blue and  smartpen icon appears top right corner of Livescribe+ app.

smartpen3onFeatures of Livescribe+ app:

  1. The app can be installed on multiple devices- up to four.
  2. Real-time transfer of notes to supported devices.
  3. Enable sign-in and send notes to an existing Evernote account, as well as OneNote.
  4. Send each page or snippet as an image file, or PDF.
  5. Notes can be sent directly to your OneNote Notebook and/or Evernote app.
  6. Notes taken while audio is recording appear in green on your pages and you can play the recording while in Pencasts view.
  7. Rename, delete, and share pages of your Notebooks.
  8. Add content to handwritten notes, add photos, text, and audio as well as converting handwriting to text. Swipe from left to right- reveal the converted text.

My observations:  At first review of this product I was extremely excited not having to be dependent on Wifi and the ability to sync my notes to OneNote.  The students ( I worked with) who wanted to try the newest smartpen used their cell phone- none had an iPad.  I use this pen for meetings, conferences, and other business situations during my work day.  If you are asked to be a note taker – the smartpen can be a life saver!

The Sky WiFi smartpen records everything you write and hear using WiFi technology.  This smartpen can also connect to the internet through your computer and the Livescribe Helper application. This is an alternative for updating and synchronizing your recorded notes and audio with Evernote. Your words, your ideas, any time, anywhere!

skypenSky Wifi Smartpen

It takes 4 simple steps to get started:

  1. Create a Livescribe account- it is free  www.livescribe.com/setup
  2. Link and/or create an Evernote account – its free and need to authorize (link Evernote and Livescribe accounts)
    Both of the steps above need to be done before you can begin to use your Sky Wifi pen.
  3. Activate your smartpen- enter the characters displayed on the screen of the smartpen and connect to WiFi.
  4. Download and Launch Livescribe Helpter – I use the helper app to update the firmware on the smartpen.  If you don’t have access to WiFi this app is a convenient way to backup/synchronize your notes and audio.

helperRecording audio using the embedded microphone for smaller recording environments such as classroom or conference room.  For larger lecture hall, use the Livescribe 3-D Recording Headset, which contains a microphone in each earbud.  I recommended that students sit close to the front of the classroom to ensure that the audio is captured clearly.

The Echo smartpen uses USB technology to transfer notes from smartpen along with Livescribe Desktop software.  Notes can be shared to Evernote and exported in PDF format.  Capture it, Replay it, and Send it!!

echoEcho Smartpen

Get started by:

  1. Download Livescribe Desktop software – available for Windows or Mac OS.
  2. Connect the Echo using the USB cable to your computer. Connecting the smartpen will transfer your notes and audio to Livescribe Desktop automatically.   Don’t disconnect until transfer is complete.
  3. Register and rename smartpen.

My Observations:  I found this pen more time consuming when loaning out to students, depending on the age of their computer, installing the software can take time.  The Echo smartpen ties the student to their desktop/laptop to transfer/sync notes & audio files.  I have students who prefer this model, but struggle when their computer isn’t working or when they purchase new a computer and transferring notebooks/files.

What do all the smartpens have in common?

  1. Sync and transfer notes from smartpen
  2. Use the Livescribe Dot paper
  3. Search handwritten notes
  4. Replay audio from devices
  5. Direct sharing to Evernote
  6. Send/Share via email
  7. Export audio files
  8. A great tool for everyone- no student should go to college without one!  (my opinion)

Livescribe has a great Comparison Chart for you to reference/view all 3 smartpen features side by side. – See more at: http://techtips-rs.blogspot.com/#sthash.P2rrHoX3.dpuf


Livescribe Smartpens. (2014, October 17). Retrieved from Livescribe, Inc.: http://www.livescribe.com/en-us/smartpen/

ePortfolios: Benefits, Tips and Ideas for the Future

Like many academics, I have a healthy skepticism of assessment. As a social scientist, I usually object on methodological grounds. In particular, assessment instruments often focus on immediate or short-term gains and do not account for deeper and longer-term learning. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for assessment, I have come to appreciate the increased intentionality that comes from participating in formal assessment. Thinking about assessment increases the amount of thinking I put into assignment and course creation. In other words, assessment usually produces shallow understandings of student learning but it does make me a more effective teacher.

In most courses, most of us typically assess a small sample of students on a few assignments. While this is very useful for thinking about the content and approach to a specific course, this does not really speak to questions about durable learning, i.e., the acquisition of skills across an undergraduate career or throughout a course of study. E-Portfolios offer a remedy to this problem.

This platform, available to all Fisher students via access to Google sites, allows students to archive and reflect on their entire collection of undergraduate work. The space also allows students to establish a professional web presence that may be of use as they apply for graduate school or enter the labor force. The Google E-Portfolio offers a number of advantages that can benefit the student and the faculty member, including:

  • It is intuitive, free, and easy to customize.
  • They platform is portable and students will retain control over the context after they graduate.
  • The College has developed a generic template that provides a useful structure for organizing student work. This template has built in categories that provide spaces for students to upload files and engage in meaningful reflection on the value of that work for designated requirements, i.e., the first-year program, the core, etc.

Click image for larger view


  • Individual departments may also amend or expand the generic template to serve their own needs (more on this below).
  • Students control the privacy settings that range from closed, i.e., not visible to anyone other than the student, all the way to publically visible to anyone.

I have been using the E-Portfolios in most of my courses for a few semesters, including major courses, core courses, and courses in the first year program. The results have been uneven but are improving. Below, I have listed some tips that I believe enhance the quality of the portfolios and stimulate more metacognition through directed reflection.

  • Introduce the E-Portfolio early in the term and walk the students through setting up it up using the computer and projector. Reinforce this by distributing the link to the online help (http://www.sjfc.edu/campus-services/ed-tech/technologies/eportfolio/).
  • Show students an example of a complete and successful E-Portfolio. This can help students develop a sense of buy-in. Have an in-class discussion on how a successful and professional E-Portfolio might help the student, e.g., providing a professional showcase for their work that might help with graduate school admissions or landing a job.
  • If you plan to use the space as a means to collect written work (or plan on grading the E-Portfolio, including student reflection) you should spend additional time on the privacy settings. In my courses, I require all students to set the privacy settings so that any member of the Fisher community can see their portfolio. This limited visibility serves several purposes. It allows other assessors, e.g., the Core Committee, to review the work. In addition, by opening the E-Portfolio to campus visibility it creates some incentive for students to take the work seriously.
  • Require students to post the artifact and author reflection as part of the grade. This, too, helps create an incentive for students to think more carefully about creating a professional looking E-Portfolio. In the first few term that I used the E-Portfolio, I required that students post the artifacts and author reflection by the end of the term. I quickly realized that this was a bad approach since most of the students waited until the very late minute and the quality of their E-Portfolio suffered as a result.

All of the preceding commentary is in the context of an individual class. However, it is possible to use the E-Portfolio to assess a body of student work over multiple terms. Political Science, for example, has recently agreed to create POSC 400: Portfolio and Presentation. This one-credit course is required in the major. In order to pass the course, students will have to create an E-Portfolio that explicitly articulates how the cumulative body of their political science work meets our departmental learning objectives. The culmination of this work is an oral defense. We are hoping that we can record these defenses and then have the students embed them into their E-Portfolio (and this might be useful for a range of oral presentations). We plan on introducing these requirements next fall and our plan is that students will be working on their E-Portfolio as their work towards completing the major. In doing so, we hope that students will engage in more reflection and metacognition.

Be Sure You Pack Your Librarian

Nearly two years ago on campus, Dr. Joellen Maples waved in my direction, “Get ready!” she laughed. “I am taking my capstone course online… and I am taking my librarian with me!” While I had no idea of the details of her statement, I was thrilled to be included. Joellen’s remark acknowledged the value of Lavery and research skills as a vital part of the course experience. So, let the adventure begin.

Piece of cake, right? Hundreds of times I had conducted 55-minute face-to-face library sessions that positioned students to perform research efficiently and effectively. What could be so difficult about using yet-to-be-determined technologies to transform that same 55-minute session into a virtual experience that would occur without a physical classroom and within a flexible timeframe that allowed students to work at their own pace? Looking back, without a doubt I have had a marvelous growth experience and a ton of fun partnering with Joellen and the College’s Educational Technologist, Katie Sabourin to create an online Library Module tailored to a specific course.

Between Katie and Joellen, I had two capable folks to help me. And, I knew my material well. Still, I had no idea where to start. So as I do when planning a face-to-face session, for my first step I met with the professor so that I could understand my role in the course. Dr. Maples was ready for me. She explained that Week 2 would be where the students would complete the Library Module. The timing was selected so that students would have time beforehand to determine the focus of their literature review. Week 2 signaled the beginning of their literature review research. I would be entering the online dynamic at the optimum moment that librarians call “the point of need”. Student motivation and engagement are at their peak at the moment students are poised to begin research.

My second step was to complete the College’s Online Education Workshop and Fundamentals of Online Teaching, both offered by Katie Sabourin. These are definite Must-Do’s. The structure I learned gave me the theoretical framework for all that I created; it also provided guidance concerning my online interaction with students in the course.

Next, I identified technologies I’d use. For a few weeks I immersed myself in TechSmith’s Camtasia. I broke apart the face-to-face session’s material into 11 segments and wrote scripts explaining each segment. Then, using my scripts and the library’s databases, I created 11 brief online tutorials totaling 26 minutes viewing time. In this way students would be able to view and review each video as needed. I also used Camtasia to create and record a step-by-step overview of the components of the Library Module. All of this material I uploaded to YouTube and then into the Library Module folder in Blackboard. Here is one of the mini-tutorials I created:

Using Doodle, I created a calendar where each student could schedule his or her follow-up one-on-one virtual meeting with me via Blackboard Collaborate. I posted the Doodle link in Blackboard with instructions to the students. I prepared for each virtual meeting by reading the course discussion boards in Blackboard to gain an understanding of each student’s area of research so that when we met online I was able to efficiently discuss their research needs. During our meeting, Collaborate’s screen-sharing feature allowed me to share my screen with a student so that I could model search strategies and database use. For the weeks that followed, I monitored the discussion board in Blackboard in order to make research suggestions if needed.

Dr. Maples selected the Library Module as one of the course’s “accountability moments”. As a result, she requested I create a quiz in Blackboard. Students were required to complete the library quiz with 80% or better in order to continue in the course. Each student was given two attempts to successfully complete the quiz. I structured the quiz with feedback for each question. In this manner, for any incorrect answer, I was able to indicate to the student the specific video in which the correct answer could be found along with a suggestion to review the video before re-taking the quiz.

Each term since summer 2013, I continue to assist Dr. Maples by providing the Library Module for her capstone literacy course. The course always culminates with an evening of student presentations. Dr. Maples plans for two or three virtual performance rooms in Collaborate. In each room over the course of the evening, students present their capstone research to a virtual audience of peers, family, and friends who are able to attend simply by logging onto a computer anywhere with an internet connection. The evening is taped for later access. I have the honor of hosting one of the rooms. What a joy it is to participate in a moment filled with such student accomplishment.

Joellen and I are thrilled by our observations regarding student engagement in the Library Module. The online library module demands active participation by each and every student in the course. To both of us the quality of research being performed in the literature review appears better since moving to the online format as a result of student engagement in the library module. Occasionally, we are even amazed and amused by the unprecedented student embrace of library resources. For example, a student once exclaimed, “Oh, I just love Ulrich’s! It is such a lifesaver!” Haha, rarely does a non-librarian articulate such passion for a library resource.

At the end of each semester, we confirm with each other what we observe individually. When we are engaged, students are engaged; they participate, they support each other, and they enjoy the online experience. In the future, I hope to work with additional faculty to provide a virtual library module as part of their online course. Is every course meant for the online format? Probably not. Still, if you have thoughts of taking your course online, take your librarian with you! The course experience will be the richer for it.

Reflections on Flipping: Three Semesters Later

At some point, I heard about flipping. I heard students liked it but more importantly, I heard it “worked,” anecdotally. As an economist, I wanted to know if it actually worked. Was there a significant improvement in student learning? Could I quantify an effect of flipping the classroom on undergraduates’ learning? My curiosity as an economist and my desire to change up my class, to make it more hands-on and more student-centered, drove me to flip my course.

For a few semesters, I had felt guilty lecturing for an entire class period. I wanted to make class more engaging for the students, who at times looked like they were being tortured. I know, you’re thinking, “It’s econ! How could students not be engaged? How could they not be at the edge of their seats every minute of class time?” Trust me, I hear you. At the same time, I liked to give students hands-on time with the material. I wanted to give them more hands on time with the material. I had heard about some “fun” activities to do in class to illustrate economic concepts, but I had no idea how to add in these activities without cutting material. Of course, I could not cut material. That would be blasphemous. Therefore, flipping, if effective, seemed like the answer to all of my problems.

I also thought if I was going to do this, I was going all in and I was going to flip my entire course. Not only that, but I was going to attempt to quantify the “flipping effect” and determine if there was a significant difference in student outcomes by teaching one class in a traditional manner and one class in a flipped manner. This would enable me to change up my teaching, to do something innovative and breathe new life into my course, and to do some research on the topic.

I next had to decide how I was going to have the students experience the lecture in the flipped class. It was very important to me that the students had some sense of continuity throughout the course, especially as this class structure would be completely foreign for most of them. I also wanted the students to know that I was in it with them, so I decided to make all of my own videos. Furthermore, because I was implementing a treatment-control experimental design, I needed the lecture notes to be the same for the two groups of students.

My basic inspiration for the videos was the Khan Academy. I had seen a couple of those videos, and I really liked how they conveyed information. I believe in economics it is important to see equations solved and graphs drawn by hand, so I knew I wanted the ability to talk through the graphs and equations while writing them out by hand, just as I would do in a typical lecture. Katie Sabourin helped me identify the technology needed to make the videos: Echo 360 to record my computer desktop and voiceover and a Wacom Tablet (pen-tablet) so I could draw on the screen.

All of my videos had the same format: a PowerPoint shell with a black background. I pre-loaded definitions, data, and some text into the PowerPoint presentation, where they would animate upon a click. Using the screen-capture technology, I recorded a voice-over of the PowerPoint slide show, and where appropriate, I annotated the slides using the pen-tablet technology. For example, axes and titles of graphs were animated to “draw” on the screen. Meanwhile, I hand drew the supply and demand curves, shaded in the areas of consumer and producer surplus, and solved calculations by hand. As another example, table shells were pre-loaded into the PowerPoint, but I explained how to fill them out and filled them out by hand on the recordings as I talked through the tables (just as I would do in a lecture class). To keep the videos “interesting” (as if the content weren’t enough!), I included relevant graphics. The videos ranged in length from 4-21 minutes, with an average of 11 minutes.

Here is a short clip from one of my video lectures to give you an example of how the lectures looked online and what I meant by “pre-loaded” and being able to annotate them.  It also illustrates that both the audio and video don’t have to be perfect (which was hard for me to accept as I made the videos):

Interestingly, figuring out how to get the content or lecture to the students was the easiest part. The next step was figuring out what to do during the class time. I now had 3 hours of empty space to fill each week! We started off each class with an open notebook, 5-minute quiz based off of the lecture material from the videos that were due for that class period. This had the additional benefit of incentivizing students to watch, take notes on, and pay attention to the videos. After the quizzes, students engaged in different activities depending on the day and material. They participated in economic experiments, discussed and analyzed popular press news articles or video clips from tv shows, created mind and concept maps, and completed worksheets for each of the activities. Students also completed worksheets identical to those the traditional class completed for each chapter. Finally, they also spent one day per week working on online problem sets. To keep it interesting, sometimes we worked together as a class as a whole, while other times students worked in small groups, pairs, or individually, depending on the content and the activity. While the students were engaged with the activities, I circled the room and answered questions that they had. Actually, I tried not to answer the questions that students had, but instead, I tried to get them to learn how to figure out the answers for themselves. Sometimes, if I noticed the same question over and over, I’d have them take a mini-break while I did a mini-lecture.

This is my third semester teaching in a flipped format. Why do I continue to do it? First, it works. My analysis indicated that students in the flipped class scored significantly higher than in the traditional class on midterm and final exams. Controlling for student academic and demographic characteristics, the effect had a lower bound of roughly two-thirds to an entire letter grade. (Note: It worked in economics. It worked in a small, introductory economics course. My findings do not indicate that it will work in every single class. In fact, I have no doubt that there are classes out there for which this structure just wouldn’t work. I also can think of other classes of mine for which a full flip wouldn’t work either, but a partial flip might. So, it still depends on the instructor’s desire to flip, the content and course, and a host of other things.) Second, the students seemed to like it. Okay, they didn’t hate it. Some of them really liked it. Some of them indicated that this structure taught them about themselves as learners! Once I saw that flipping worked, and once I saw that the majority of students didn’t hate it, I wasn’t sure how I could go back to teaching this class in a traditional manner.

From a personal standpoint, the marginal cost of flipping from one semester to the next is pretty small. I also really enjoy the format, as each day is a little different. Every semester, I look to improve the flip, change activities, make sure activities work out the way they should, etc. I still think that there are some topics that are better suited to a flipped structure than others. I continually worry that class is not engaging enough, or that students resent having so much problem solving and group work in class when they might want lecture (okay, maybe I’m projecting here, because I loved lectures and was not a fan of group work as a student). I’ve found that flipping helps me to get to know my students more. I have a better sense of who is keeping up with the material and who is falling behind.

Flipping has also changed my outlook on some of the other classes I teach. When you flip your class, you have to change the way you think about it. You start to question things you teach, why you teach them, and how you teach them. I find this is helping me in my other classes as well, and I am working to identify different ways to keep improving my courses. For example, in the future, I want to implement partial flips in different classes, such as statistics and econometrics. I think there are some topics that are appropriate for out of class delivery and some topics for which I really must do a “live” lecture.

My advice: flip a class you know. Flip a class where you can anticipate the questions because you already know where the students struggle. It will also help you to decide how to best utilize your class time.


Video Papers


As a third-year faculty member, I’ve begun to cross over the bridge between teaching mostly new preps every semester to repeating some of my favorite classes. I’ve reached a point where I can focus on improving the experiences within the courses I teach, as opposed to being primarily concerned with having a lecture and activity ready for each day. One of the classes that I’ve been lucky to teach more than once and have begun to refine is SPST 270, Culture Through (Sport) Film. Per the course description, “This course uses sport films to examine relationships of power in society and the way those relationships are contested and reinforced.” This course provides a great medium for examining race, class, gender, and socioeconomic status through sport documentaries. For example, in past semesters we watched “Kicking It”, a documentary about the Homeless World Cup and discussed the use sport to stimulate social change. We analyzed power, support structures, and resources after we watched “Chiefs”, a documentary about high school basketball players on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming.

I love teaching SPST 270 and have found that students really enjoy the experience. Many sign up for the course because there’s an assumption that the course is easy and that we’ll watch popular movies like Varsity Blues, so of course it’s going to be fun as well. After the initial shock of realizing that we primarily watch documentaries, and that many are in foreign languages with subtitles, the students typically respond in two ways: 1) a few students check out and refuse to become engaged, and 2) most students rise to the challenge and get excited to learn about sport and culture, beyond what they’ve seen on Sports Center.

For each class period, students are expected to come prepared having read journal articles related to the film’s dominant themes. The class period begins with a pre-lesson, and then we watch the movie and finish with a group discussion. In my first two semesters teaching the course, I utilized traditional papers as the primary means of assessment. Each week students were required to analyze the culture specifically portrayed in the movie and the themes from the reading and pre-lesson. The benefit of using the traditional paper assignment was that the format remained consistent throughout the semester. Students felt confident in the format of the papers, which aided them in focusing on developing their cultural commentary, as opposed to stressing out about the structure of the assignment. The detriment of such an assignment in this course is that it got very repetitious and by the fourth paper of the semester the analyses becomes somewhat rote. Over time I noticed that the quality of the commentary dropped off and students wrote generalized statements about culture instead of focused analyses on the particular social world we viewed in the film. In addition, in a class of 30-32, grading that many papers each week became quite tedious.


So what did I do? I started brainstorming (and Googling – why reinvent the wheel?) ideas to shake up the class. I wanted to get the students more actively participating in the cultural analyses and find a way to develop skills in addition to writing, like oral presentation skills and the digital literacies required to create and deliver a presentation using a technological solution. I recognized that the students would benefit from the practice of making an oral argument in a traditional class presentation activity. The problem with in-class presentations was that I had 30ish students each semester. To go through that many presentations would have eaten up a substantial amount of class time, and the chances of keeping the whole class engaged during that time was slim to none. So, I opted to assign video papers instead.

What is a video paper?

The idea behind my video paper assignment was that the assignment remained the same, the mode of delivery changed. It was a bit of a combination between writing a paper and presenting orally. Students were required to answer seven questions that were designed to build upon one another. This design allowed for a smooth transition between topics and created the sense of a naturally flowing conversation. The only thing I changed in adapting the assignment was to include technology requirements and clearly spell out the professionalism expectations for a video presentation, as you typically would do with an oral presentation assignment. I was particularly interested in getting students who would not dialogue in front of the rest of the class to be able to speak intelligently on the topic in a confident manner. Ultimately, I wanted them to be able to verbalize their analysis while speaking in a “normal” voice, speech pattern, and tone. I wanted students to recognize that they could give a formal presentation, but still be themselves, not a stuffy “official” version of them.

(Key Lesson Learned: One component that I added to the assignment after trying this the first semester was the requirement that students cannot read from a script. Some students resisted the change in modality, wrote the regular paper, and then read it in front of the camera. I added a clause in the assignment that stated that any student who appeared to read a script/paper was automatically assigned a zero. It seems harsh, but it prevented students from reading a paper verbatim and ignoring the intent of the assignment. I’ve never actually had to assign the zero once this rule was implemented.)


I worked with Katie (McDonald) Sabourin to prepare the assignment and make sure I had all the technical support the students would need. Katie sent me a list of technical requirements that I was easily able to copy and paste into the assignment. Students used SJFC computer lab computers, personal computers, tablets, and cell phones to record their videos. Some devices produced a better picture and provide for better audio than others (i.e., computer over cell phone), but the assignment was not about production value, so that did not impact my assessment of the students. Katie worked with me to set up server space using Ensemble for the videos and a link on Blackboard for submission. For a detailed look at the assignment and the technology details, you may access the assignment by clicking here: Final Movie Review.

My results

The following is a summary list of the results I experienced over two semesters of assigning video papers as final assignments:

Introverted Students Embraced It

Students who didn’t participate much in class embraced the format and went at the assignment with gusto. Students who barely spoke in class were quite articulate and thoughtful in their commentary. It reminded me that there is a difference between students who check out/ zone out and students who aren’t comfortable with sharing in front of a large class. This is particularly relevant to this course because with a P5 Core designation there is typically substantial variance in the majors represented. The students don’t necessarily have the level of comfort with their peers as they do in a major course. Unfortunately, this difference in assignment did not seem to make a difference with the students who were truly checking out/ zoning out.

Do Overs Made a Difference

Overwhelmingly, students expressed an appreciation for being able to pause their recording, regroup, and then proceed. They were happy to be able to record one answer, review it, and then rerecord if they didn’t like it.

Students Had Fun

My impression was that students who wanted to have fun with their assignment were more likely to do so when they risked being “geeky/nerdy/dorky” in front of their professor only and not their peers. For example, one student who was generally reserved in class recorded his video paper in eight or nine different segments. He changed his tie every single segment. He never drew attention to it in the video, but commented to me later that he was hoping I’d notice and find it funny.

You can also see an example of a video paper that was turned in the second semester I assigned the video papers here.

This student put a little polish on her video by adding some graphics and music at the end. Students knew that this was not an expectation, nor would it directly relate to their grade, but some still put the extra effort into they assignment.

Technology Can Still Be an Issue

The biggest technical obstacle to the video papers was the uploading part of the submission process. Generally speaking 95% of the students had no problem. However, students off campus tended to have more difficulty in getting the videos to fully upload. My suspicion was that this problem was related to network speeds. Students had a much easier time uploading videos on the campus network. So, for commuters my recommendation was that the students uploaded their video while on campus and not from home.

Personal Messages

At the end of approximately 25% of the videos submitted, the students gave me personal messages. Some were reflections on how much they enjoyed the assignment. Some were commentary on the course and me as their professor. While there is no guarantee of receiving such a message, it is quite touching to get a personalized “thanks for the semester” message. Each time it’s given me the warm, fuzzy feeling that we often need during finals week.


The video assignments did not lend themselves to giving detailed feedback. Unlike with a traditional paper, it is impossible to circle words, sentences, or phrases and write a comment about them in detail. However, they worked perfectly for giving overarching feedback on analyses and delivery. This is part of the reason why I felt the video paper was particularly appropriate as an end of the semester assignment. Although the videos felt more fun to grade because they got me out of my habits as well, they were not any faster to grade. Students recorded videos that varied in length from around five minutes to around 20 minutes. Instituting a cap on time may be beneficial for some assignments.

In terms of student performance, what seemed to change the most was the depth of the cultural analyses. I believe the assignment modality itself led to this, but I’m not exactly sure why. The content of the assignment was almost exactly the same as previous traditional papers assigned in the course, but with a different film. This was the eighth time in the semester that students answered this set of questions. There’s always a chance that the film was more accessible and they had a great degree of practice in answering the questions, so that resulted in a deeper cultural analyses. However, anecdotally the assignments seemed better than even the traditional papers turned in the week before that corresponded with a very engaging film.

The Biggest Take-Away

Ultimately, the biggest take-away for me was that the students were engaged and produced quality work, and the introduction of a video paper brought variety into the course. I didn’t need to know that it was more effective than a traditional assignment. Rather, I was pleased that it was different and effective.

If you would like to learn more about my experiences with assigning video papers, don’t hesitate to email me at kburakowski@sjfc.edu.

3D Printing @ Fisher!!

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, we in the Biology department were able to acquire the newest 3D printer made by Makerbot. Here I will try to briefly explain what 3D printing is all about, with the goal of encouraging anyone in the Fisher community to have access to and take advantage of this machine. I will also mention in passing a new silhouette cutter we recently acquired.

What is 3D printing?

The idea of 3D printing comes from the concept of bottom-up construction or manufacturing. Instead of cutting pieces of materials and then putting them together, one can design a 3 dimensional structure and have a machine “print it” by depositing melted plastic on a very fine scale.


What machine did we acquire?

The new Makerbot Replicator Mini makerbot_mini



Why did you buy this?

The Nanobiology Lab at Fisher builds microfluidic devices; we need to produce custom-made cases and scaffolds for the chips we make.

What things can I make?

That’s where your imagination comes into play. Anything you can design/draw can be produced (within certain limits of size and resolution). If you have never used the free versions of SketchUp from Google, you will find it a very approachable modeling program that will produce files our machine can print. There are also plenty of already-designed objects that can be downloaded either for free or for a fee.


What are they made of?

PLA, a biodegradable plastic derived from corn starch.

What is a silhouette cutter?

Think of a printer that instead of depositing ink, has a blade that cuts the pattern you feed into it. It is used to cut a range of sheet-format materials, like paper, cardboard, silicon sheets or vinyl.



Where can I go to learn more about this?

Who do I contact to start 3D printing?

You can contact myself (fontiveros-llamas@sjfc.edu) or Mike Boller (mboller@sjfc.edu) in the Biology Department.

We are excited to have this kind of equipment and happy to share it with anyone interested in using it!!

To learn more about the Nanobiology Lab at Fisher, please visit our site.


Dealing with Student Resistance to Changes in Teaching Strategies

As we start another academic year, there are many faculty on campus who are trying new teaching strategies in their courses. These may include many forms of the flipped classroom style of teaching, incorporating more active learning activities during class time, encouraging more collaborative and team-based projects and assignments, or maybe using student polling for the first time. Some of these techniques may involve a new technology and some may just be an adjustment to the way class content is designed or delivered. Regardless of the type of change you might be making to your course, it is very common for some students to show resistance. Change in itself is not easy and students have very clear expectations on how learning should happen, mostly based on a long history of their previous experiences in educational settings where they have been exposed to what they would consider the “norm” or traditional style of learning (Johnson, A., Kimball, R., Melendez, B., Myers, L., Rhea, K., & Travis, B. 2009). In most cases, the expectation is to get to class on time, sit in your seat quietly and listen to the instructor unless directly asked a question. Though this passive participation in class is what might be most comfortable for students, it does not mean it is the most beneficial to their learning and growth.

If you are experiencing this type of resistance to change in your courses, don’t give up! This issue is a common occurrence for many faculty and there are things you can do to respond to student concerns and reinforce your intentions with students to make the transition easier for everyone.

One of the main strategies to address this issue is to confront it head on early in the semester. Talking with students directly about your plans for the course and how it will work, what will be expected of students in this new course style and the reasons why you have made the changes are all important points to discuss as a group. The changes made in the course may require students to take more ownership of their own learning. Clearly identifying this change and examples of how that might be seen in student actions should be outlined. Felder and Brent (1996) provide the suggestion “to minimize resistance to any student-centered method, try to persuade the students from the outset that you are neither playing a game nor performing an experiment, but teaching in a way known to help students learn more and understand better.”

Another key strategy is to collect feedback on how things are going periodically throughout the semester. This may be done in the form of a mid-course survey to all students, anonymously asking how the techniques used in the class are helping them learn the material of the course. It is a good idea to share with students the feedback you are receiving and the specifics on how you plan to use it. It may be that the resistance to the new style of teaching only comes from a minority of the students and sharing overall survey results with the group will allow those student to see it is working well for others and possibly be more open to the change (Felder 2011). Creating an open environment of communication will provide you with insights that will allow you to improve your technique with the new teaching strategy and its overall impact on students.

In the article “Sermons for Grumpy Campers”, Felder provides a series of possible responses to common student complaints related to the transition to more student-centered teaching methods. The student remarks might be very similar to those you have heard in the past from your own students. Felder’s responses are helpful if you struggle to find a response to these kind of comments. He always shares with students his motivation to improve their overall learning experience. Just as an example, here is one of my favorites:


“Those group activities in class are a waste of time. I’m paying tuition for you to teach me, not to trade ideas with students who don’t know any more than I do!”


“I agree that my job is to teach you, but to me teaching means making learning happen and not just putting out information. I’ve got lots of research that says people learn through practice and feedback, not by someone telling them what they’re supposed to know. What you’re doing in those short class activities are the same things you’ll have to do in the homework and exams, except now when you get to the homework you will have already practiced them and gotten feedback. You’ll find that the homework will go a lot more smoothly and you’ll probably do better on the exams. (Let me know if you’d like to see that research.)

Even Jose Antonio Bowen’s, a strong advocate for active learning and the author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning has experienced the phenomenon of student resistance to changes in  course delivery strategies. “The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors, after all, and so fundamental change may be even harder than it initially seems, whether or not laptops, iPods, or other cool gadgets are thrown into the mix” (Young 2009).

Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning also happens to be the Book of the Month in the new Teaching and Learning Book Collection located in the Educational Technology Instruction Room in Lavery Library, room L109 (Yes, that was a blatant plug!) and is an excellent resource for those of you looking for ideas on how to create a more active and student-centered course experience. His book includes both the research on why these kinds of teaching strategies work to improve student learning, as well as practical tips and ideas that are easy to apply in a variety of content areas.

It is important not to give up too soon on the new strategy, technique or technology you are trying to implement in your courses. It takes time and practice and even a few failures to learn what works best for you and your students. Teaching in a new way requires a willingness on the part of both instructors and students to work outside your comfort zone, but can result in great outcomes and increased engagement with students.

What other techniques have you found to be helpful when dealing with student resistance to change in teaching strategies? Please leave your ideas in the comments section.


Bowen, J. A. (2012). Teaching naked: How moving technology out of your college classroom will improve student learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction. College Teaching, 43(2).

Felder, R. M. (2007). Sermons for grumpy campers. Chemical Engineering Education, 41(3).

Felder, R. M. (2011). Hang in there! Dealing with student resistance to learner-centered teaching. Chemical Engineering Education, 45(2).

Johnson, A., Kimball, R., Melendez, B., Myers, L., Rhea, K., & Travis, B. (2009). Breaking with tradition: preparing faculty to teach in a student-centered or problem-solving environment. Primus: Problems, Resources & Issues In Mathematics Undergraduate Studies, 19(2), 146. doi:10.1080/10511970802409164

Young, J. (2009). When computers leave classrooms, so does boredom. Retrieved from: http://chronicle.com/article/Teach-Naked-Effort-Strips/47398/

autotext apps are a shot in the arm for your grading blues

Barney’s and Jeremy’s posts about electronic grading got me thinking:  is there an autotext app that would work across platforms, whether we’re grading in Word or Blackboard or googledocs or Pages?  For years I’ve used the Quickwords function in WordPerfect – I type a short word like /awk and it inserts an entire comment about what’s awkward about the sentence in question.

Program-linked utiliies have their problems, though.  My Quickwords don’t work when I’m grading in Blackboard or turnitin or Word.  And every time I update my software or hardware or use a different computer, I have to remember to recopy the template file, and it’s buggy and doesn’t always work properly.

The freeware utility PhraseExpress is the solution to this dilemma – and almost too good to be true.  Download, install, and, from the system tray (remember to turn on the icon) it allows you to copy frequently used snippets of text and insert them into any document, any program, any platform. . .except, naturally, Macs (see alternative below).  Now, no matter what program I’m using, when I type in the word “orgno,” PhraseExpress inserts my suggestions about how to reorganize a chaotic paragraph.  I have a library of these snippets from my 25 years of teaching, and it took me about half an hour to insert all of them into PhraseExpress.  When I create new ones, all I have to do is click the icon, select “new snippet,” and it’s added to my library.


There’s a USB-based portable version of PhraseExpress if you use multiple computers.

PhraseExpress also allows you to import a variety of files like Word AutoCorrect and AutoText entries so that you don’t have to retype the snippets you’re already using.

A couple of suggestions:

When you name a snippet, give it a name that doesn’t correspond to an existing word.  My system of naming enlists an abbreviation of the issue (such as “org” for organization problem) plus the word “yes” (for “you’re doing it well!”) or “no” (with instructions about how to do it better).

I keep a list of these snippet names next to my computer for easy access when I’m grading.

For Mac users, AutoTextExpander is a similar utility.  I found it slightly less intuitive than PhraseExpress, and it costs $29.95 after a brief trial period, but it’s a full-featured alternative that works in both Mac and Windows.


Happy grading!

– Lisa

A Review of the Blackboard Online Grading Tool

Regardless of the specific tool used, online grading offers a green solution that is more easily archived for students’ use. In addition to eliminating problems of not-so-legible handwriting, students and teachers benefit when a student can read over a professor’s comments prior to coming to class, and only ask questions after having time to contemplate the feedback. Microsoft Word offers this capability and two previous posts on this blog have covered shortcuts available with this option. However, Blackboard now provides an online grading tool distinctly different from Word.

Comment and Score

The grade and feedback section in the Blackboard Grading Tool.

The most significant advantage of the new tool is a simplified workflow. With Microsoft Word, one must download the papers after they are submitted through the Assignment feature. Each paper is graded and either uploaded back into Word or e-mailed to the student. With the new integrated Blackboard tool, students more reliably receive and keep the graded paper. Additionally, since all grading is completed in Blackboard and a final comment and score can be included to the right of the paper, the grading process is faster. (See the screenshot to the right.)

After submitting a student’s score, Blackboard automatically switches to the next paper. Each comment is saved as it is made, and the dilemma of where to put the final summary feedback in Word is eliminated. (I always used to debate between including this final comment on the paper itself or placing it within the feedback section in Blackboard.)

Notably, the options available for grading are quite different from Microsoft Word. While Blackboard does not include the ability to create keyboard shortcuts, other convenient tools missing in Word are available. A cross-out tool allows an instructor to place a line through unnecessary text and make a quick comment above (or fill in a more appropriate word choice.)  Three separate tools allow one to comment on highlighted text, a user-defined rectangle, or a specific point placed anywhere in the document. Microsoft Word requires that each comment be placed with highlighted text, but highlighting an entire paragraph can be messy and confusing.

The Blackboard grading tool also offers the ability to ‘draw’ on the student’s paper, which can come in handy if one wants to suggest moving a given paragraph to another location in the paper. A text tool allows the instructor to write anywhere on the document. This technique more closely simulates grading with pen or pencil on hard copy than any of the Microsoft Word options.

The instructor can use highlighting, comments, flexible placement of text, and strikeouts when grading.

The instructor can use highlighting, comments, flexible placement of text, and strikeouts when grading.

While the screen size appears to be an issue as it can be hard to see the paper and the comments at the same time, Blackboard fortunately offers a full screen mode accessible by clicking on the four arrow icon in the upper right. (See the first screenshot above.) In this mode, the screen is more open and ample area exists in which to grade.

One small problem that I’ve noticed (at least on the Mac): when resizing the screen using Command-Shift-‘+’ or Command-Shift-‘-‘, the comments can get shifted from their original placement.  Returning to the original magnification fixes the problem.  An easy solution would be to set your magnification before starting to grade a given paper and don’t change it during the process.

I’ve tried to work with the Blackboard Grading Tool on the iPad. A single option allows the user to click anywhere on the document and type a comment; the full screen mode creates a reasonable workspace. However, the onscreen keyboard makes the workflow cumbersome; those using an external keyboard will likely find this process more efficient. Improvements are coming, including the ability to write comments right on the iPad screen with a finger—although that recreates the problem of potentially bad handwriting. A quick Google search suggests that alternative grading options for the iPad exist, so this topic could be another post for Geeking Out at Fisher. (Anyone want to be a guest blogger?)

Despite some limitations, and the fact that the ability to add keyboard shortcuts should be part of Blackboard’s next upgrade, the convenience of grading and commenting in one place, along with the combination of drawing tools and text fields, make the Blackboard Grading Tool worthy of consideration both for those already using another online grading tool and for those interested in trying online grading but concerned with the logistics of using Microsoft Word.