Category: Education

Flashcard Machine

I’m not a big fan of flashcards, although I have found an interesting use for them. Flashcards take the material you’re learning out of context making it harder to learn, but easier to memorize. Students can use flashcards, for example, to memorize the bones in the body. They will be able to remember that the ulna is in the arm, but without context, they won’t know the ulna’s relationship to, say, the humerus. Having said that, the sheer memorization that flashcards afford does have a place. If you want to just learn new vocabulary words, flashcards can certainly help.

Having said that, I have a colleague (shout out to Liz Hammer at Xavier University of Louisiana!) who suggests having students create application cards. For each concept in a course, ask students to generate an example of that concept from their lives or from other sources such as news media. Students write the concept on one side of the card. On the other side, students provide an example of the concept. Now picture these as virtual cards where all students have access to the card deck… on a website or on their mobile device. The exercise’s greatest power comes from generating examples, but students being able to see an example, and then trying to figure out what it is an example of makes use of the testing effect where the act of retrieval strengthens memory.

There are a bunch of flashcard makers out there, but I’m particularly enamored with Flashcard Machine. Creating flashcards is easy through both the web interface (free) and the mobile app (iOS and Android for a small fee). A group of students, or an entire class, can share flashcard sets.

On the mobile device, students will see the “definition,” in our case an example, come up. Tapping the bottom of the screen will reveal the term that goes with the example.

In one chapter of the textbook I use, I count about 30 terms. If, say, 30 students each generated one example for each of those terms, that would be 900 flashcards – just for that one chapter. Perhaps students could be in groups of 5. That would be 150 flashcards per set. It would require some background work, but students could have editing power for their own group’s flashcards but be able to see and use the flashcards of other groups. Want to increase accountability or grade individually? Have each student initial their cards. Or perhaps each student makes their own set of (gradable) cards but then makes them available for their group members to use. Or each group member could choose their best cards, and copy those cards into the group set that each group member could use for studying.

Creating flashcard sets

After creating an account, click on “New Flashcard Set.”

Enter the “General Set Details,” including a short title and description. Leave the “Flashcard Library” disabled if you don’t want the set to be publicly available. Enable “Private Sharing” so you can give the url to other students in the course allowing them to use the flashcards without the power to edit them. Enable “Collaborative Editing” to invite students to add flashcards.

After saving the set, you will see the editor tool bar. Click “Quick Editor.”

In the Quick Editor, add the term in the first box, add the example in the second box. Then click “+Add Another” to add another new card.


Students click on the flashcard set they want to study, and then click “Start Study Session.”

On the “Configure Study Session” page, students should select “Definition then Term” since, for our students, examples have been entered on the definition side of the card. When given an example, can students identify the term?


If your students try Flashcard Machine, I would love to hear what they think of it! More importantly, when your students create examples and work with examples created by others, do you see an improvement in exam scores?

ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology

EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) conducts an annual survey of undergraduate students regarding their use of technology. Read more about the 2013 study. In this post I give some commentary on the data presented by Eden Dahlstrom, Director of Research at EDUCAUSE, in her 11/12/2013 webinar. Want to watch the very well-done, hour-long webinar? Watch it here. Want to just see the slides? They are here. In 2014 EDUCAUSE will include a faculty study. Want to participate?

The slides are ECAR’s; the commentary is mine.

Here’s the survey methodology for the 2013 student survey.

Students see the value of technology, although only 61% perceive it as helping them “prepare for the workplace.” Is this because students don’t know what technology is being used in the workplace? Or even what their future workplace will look like?

Two-thirds of students that we, as faculty, “have adequate technology skills,” “use technology effectively,” and “use the right kinds of technology.” What do the other 1/3 think we should be doing? But what’s most fascinating is that only 52% think we “have adequate technology training.” What are those 52% of students seeing that make them think that? Are we fumbling too much with the classroom computer? Are we being compared to their instructors who are early adopters of technology?

Even though half of our students don’t think we’re adequately trained, more than 2/3 want us to train them in the use of technology. I’m not entirely sure what to make of these data. It sounds like 60% or so of students would like to have a technology module added to their face-to-face content courses.

The student/technology landscape changed considerably between 2010 and 2013. Course/learning management system (CMS/LMS) use jumped from around 73% in 2011 to about 97% in 2012. Interestingly, that number dropped to 91% in 2013. This could just be sampling error. Or it could be a reflection of an actual drop in the number of faculty using a CMS/LMS. Anecdotally, I have been hearing from more and more faculty who are interested in developing their own websites. Partly it’s driven by wanting to make content available to students before/after the course is over, partly it’s driven by a frustration of updates to their institution’s CMS/LMS or movement to an entirely different CMS/LMS platform, necessitating a boat-load of work on the part of the faculty to port their courses.

Less surprisingly we see big jumps in the use of web-based citation tools and e-books. For those who aren’t familiar with those web-based citation tools, look for an upcoming blog post on that topic.

This was the first year for the open education resources and simulations or educational games options. I’m curious to track those responses in future surveys.

CMS/LMS use is high, although about half of us are not using their full potential.

And 2/3 of students think we should use them more. I’m not sure what features students would like us to use, though. This is an opportunity to check in with your own students. If you aren’t using a CMS/LMS, would your students like you to? If so, why? If you are using a CMS/LMS, do your students want you to “use it more”? If so, what would they like?

Students overwhelmingly prefer print books over digital. If they have to go digital, they prefer to read on a desktop/laptop. David Daniel, psychologist at James Madison University, has data on the difference between reading a textbook in print versus reading a digital version; it takes students longer to read a digital version. I’m not all surprised that reading a textbook on a smartphone came in last – tiny print and frequent page turns. If you increase the size of the print, you have to turn the page even more frequently.

Almost 75% of students say they “studied differently with e-textbook than paper textbook.” Given the number of students who prefer print textbooks, “differently” was evidently in a less desirable direction.

Students aren’t impressed with the “features” that may be packaged with e-books. Largely if they’re using e-books it’s because they’re less expensive. David Daniel has also found taht those “features” in e-books serve as a distraction. If I’m reading, I want to read the narrative. I don’t want to stop mid-paragraph to click on a link to a video or mouse over a word for a definition. If I do that, I lose the thread. I recently read “The Telling Room” where the author made liberal use of footnotes. He used them purposefully as a distraction from the main text, and that they were. I finally got to the point where I skipped the footnotes until I had finished a chapter.

A big deal has been made of “digital natives.” If you’re a follower of this blog, you know my thoughts on this already. People know what they know. Younger students are masters at texting and downloading music. That does not mean that they know how to leverage technology to help them learn.

Students perform better in hybrid courses compared to online or face-to-face courses. See South Texas College, for example. You can find additional references in this 2004 Academic Quarterly article.

MOOCs are a tiny piece of the puzzle. While the number of students taking a course completely online may increase, I don’t anticipate MOOCs having too much impact on undergraduate education. Who are taking MOOCs? People who already have degrees or people living outside the U.S. Read more here.

To paraphrase one participant in the webinar, do institutions have strategies for “badging competency-based learning”? I would add, how many institutions have a “MOOC strategy”? The sense I get is that most are in a wait-and-see mode while letting others venture out into that particularly murky mess. San Jose State decided to try MOOCs for their remedial math courses. Those of us in community colleges weren’t surprised at the results. “In January [2013], San Jose State announced plans to offer three online math courses in the spring semester through the Udacity platform, which students could take for just $150 each and receive credit for if completed. However, pass rates for the courses turned out to be worse than for students who took the comparable courses on campus.” (See full article here.)

Students are ready to use more technology in their courses. Do faculty know how to make use of those technologies?

I’m not surprised at the increase in the number of students who have smartphones. The increase in the number of desktops does surprise me, though. I’m not sure why it should. After years of being desktop-free, we recently bought a desktop for my wife’s office. (Shout out to Puget Systems who custom-built it.) Desktops have a lot of power for a lot less cost. With cloud-based email and file storage, the need to have a laptop as one’s primary computer is behind us.

Students seem pretty comfortable mixing and matching operating systems. Laptops and desktops are Windows, tablets are iOS, and smartphones lean toward iPhone, but Android has a healthy share of the market.

The checkmarked items are ones institutions can help with. With better campus wi-fi we eliminate “slow network,” “cost of data service,” and “limited network access.” While we can’t improve battery life, we can go the route of airports, and make more outlets available. One person in the webinar said that his institution’s library has installed charging stations.

What are you and your institution doing to make use of student-owned technology?

I am surprised that students aren’t using technology to connect more with other students. What can we as faculty do to foster greater communication among and between students?

I can’t blame students here. I also prefer to keep my social and academic lives separate.

These graphs seem to be largely a lesson in normal distributions. The early alerts graphs skew more toward desiring these resources, though.

Students want more face-to-face interaction, more email, and greater use of the CMS/LMS. The presenter noted that in focus groups students said they like email for documentation. “You said I could turn this in late. Here’s the email you sent me.” Or “I turned in that assignment before the due date. Here’s the email I sent with the assignment attached.”


There is a lot to think about in this data. In the comments, please add your reactions to the survey results. Are you going to do anything differently with your students?





EduCause Annual ECAR Student and IT Survey

Free webinar.

November 12, 2013 at 1pm ET (10am PT).

The EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) conducts an annual study about undergraduates’ technology experiences and expectations in higher education. The results of this study provide a unique look at students’ perceptions about technology use, trends, challenges, and opportunities in higher education. In 2013 ECAR partnered with 251 institutions and surveyed more than 112,000 undergraduates about their technology perspectives. Join us for this webinar to learn what students say about their technology experiences and hear ECAR’s plans to expand this work to include faculty perspectives. Participate in polls and backchannel discussions to inform ECAR about what matters most to you and your institution regarding research about technology in the academic community.”

I blogged live from this webinar in 2011 if you’re interested in seeing the kind of information they present.

I hope to see you at the webinar! Register here.

If you can’t make it, I don’t know that I’ll blog live or just hit the highlights afterward, but you’ll be able to read more about their findings here.

It’s Not About the Technology

It’s about how you use the technology.

I recently read author and commercial pilot Patrick Smith’s book, Cockpit Confidential. His pet peeve: When people say “Planes can practically fly themselves.” He assures us that they cannot. He notes that the claim that technology is all that and a bag of chips is not unique to aviation. Smith quotes author and surgeon Atul Gawande from a New Yorker essay, “Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology… But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology.”

My favorite example is in construction. A nail gun is more efficient than a hammer. But if you don’t know how to actually build anything, the nail gun isn’t going to magically give you that knowledge. You will still build a crappy house, but you’ll do it faster.

It’s not all that different in education.

Except you don’t have to use technology at all to teach well. Years ago I had two colleagues who taught history. One was a brilliant lecturer; he could keep a class riveted for the entire hour. The other was a brilliant discussion leader; he could engage students, think on his feet, and get everyone to the same place at the end. I don’t think either of them ever so much as picked up a piece of chalk.

Technology can be used to provide an out-of-class forum where the lecture students could write or tell their own stories – or discuss the day’s lecture. Technology can be used to provide an out-of-class forum where the discussion students can continue their discussions – or write or tell their own stories. Technology can be used to enhance learning.

But every instructor who has tried a new technology with students knows that it’s not a Field of Dreams. If you build it, they may not come. If technology is being implemented with students, students will need some guidance in how to use it. And to the IT folks, the same goes for when you bring in a new technology. Don’t be surprised if faculty and staff don’t immediately glam onto it in droves.

A panel of instruments – in a cockpit, on medical equipment, in a course management system – needs someone skilled at using them to truly make them useful.

Much has been made of “digital natives” – people who have been raised on the internet and all the gadgets that come with it. Too much has been made of them. Remember the first word processing program you learned how to use? You figured out how to use the features that you needed. When you got your next word processing program, you figured out how to make your new program do what your old program could do. You probably didn’t take the time to learn the new features of the program – perhaps even promising yourself you’d look into it later. And now how many generations removed from that first program are you? I confess that I never bothered to learn “styles” in Microsoft Word. I see the style buttons at the top of the screen taking up a boatload of real estate, so I figure someone must be using them. They’re probably pretty useful. But honestly, I have never had a compelling reason to take the time.

Our students are the same way. A colleague related the following encounter that took place in her class.

Student: I completely forgot to do the assignment!

Instructor: Did you put it on your calendar?

Student: I don’t have a calendar.

Instructor: Don’t you have an iPhone?

Students: Yes, but I don’t have a calendar.

Instructor picks up student phone and taps the calendar icon. Calendar pops up.

Student: Wow!

Our younger students are masters at text messaging and music apps. If they haven’t had a need for using the other features of their phones, they may not know what they are. [And I bet there are some older smartphone owners who have mastered the calendar, but are now thinking, “Wait! I can play music on my phone?” Yes, yes you can.]

Take the time, right now, to decide what technology you’re going to try this week. It could be new technology or features you haven’t used in a technology you’ve been using for a while. As for me? I’m going to check out the MS Word styles buttons.

Tweet2Cite: Twitter Citation Generator

With evolving modes of communication comes evolving means of citation. Tweet2Cite is a handy tool. Enter the URL for a tweet, and get the citation, in MLA or APA style.

Getting a URL for a tweet

This took a little effort to figure out. It’s not obvious.

In Twitter, under the tweet you would like to cite, click “Expand.”

Directly under the blue-fonted options, the time and date the tweet was sent will appear. To the right of that, click on “Details.”

This will open the tweet on its own webpage.

Copy the URL from the browser’s address bar. [Keyboard shortcut: CTRL+L will move your cursor to the address bar, highlighting the entire URL. CTRL+C to copy the selected text.]

Creating the citation

Paste the tweet’s URL in the box. [Keyboard shortcut: CTRL+V to paste.] Click “Go!”

Within seconds you will see the original tweet, and then the MLA and APA citations. Copy and paste to wherever you’d like to save the citation. [Keyboard shortcut: In Windows, place the cursor over a word. Double-clicking the mouse will select the word. Triple-clicking will select the paragraph. In this case, triple-click over a word in one of the citations to select the entire citation.]


This is indeed the citation format recommended by and For APA style, the parenthetical citation would be (Twitter handle, year), in this case (Sue_Frantz, 2013). Remember, if you are citing multiple tweets from the same person in the same year, in your parenthetical citations letter the year as in (Sue_Frantz, 2013a), (Sue_Frantz, 2013b), etc.

Happy citing!


“So find something new to try, something to change. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail. Write about it. Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

This is the final paragraph in Atul Gawande’s 2007 book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. While his advice is directed at newly-minted physicians, it’s more broadly applicable. In our case, let’s talk higher education.

1. “Find something new to try, something to change.”

You’re reading this blog. That puts you solidly in the camp of people who are interested in trying new things. Not all new things are better, of course. What works for me may not work for you. But if you don’t try new things, how will you know?

2. “Count how often you succeed and how often you fail.”

Gawande writes about Virginia Apgar, a physician (anesthesiologist) who created a scoring system (rubric) for evaluating the health of newborns, now known as the Apgar score. “Published in 1953 to revolutionary effect, the score turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept – the condition of new babies – into numbers that people could collect and compare. Using it required more careful observations and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores – and therefore better outcomes – for the newborns they delivered.”

The Apgar score improved neonatal care. The act of measuring was enough to prompt changes that resulted in better outcomes. The behavioral change research tells us that’s exactly what we should expect to happen. If you want to change a behavior, the first thing you need to do is track how often you do/don’t do it. Want to exercise more? Track how often you exercise. Want to eat better? Track what you eat.

This is what the push for assessment in higher education is about. What outcomes are important to us? Let’s measure those outcomes; think of these as Apgar scores for each of our students. If we’re not happy with those scores, we can see which parts of the rubric are bringing our scores down, and then refer back to #1, “Find something new to try, something to change.” And this is why I strongly advocate for classroom level assessments as opposed to something at the college level. I can change something I’m doing with my students. If the college learns that our students are scoring in the 60th percentile on a standardized test, say on critical thinking, I don’t know what to do with that information. My students might be improving over the course of a term on critical thinking, but when assessed at the college level I can’t see that.

3. “Write about it.”

We need to share what we learn, where you share doesn’t much matter. Present at a conference. Write for a newsletter. Create your own blog. Send what you learn to your professional listservs. Sharing gives others something to try. I’ve also found that writing helps me sort through my thoughts and disentangle the mess that they often create.

There’s a movement afoot to get more people involved in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL – pronounced sew-toll). A lot of us are doing #1 (find something to change) and #2 (counting how often we succeed/fail), but we need to do more #3, sharing what we’re learning.

4. “Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

Gawande brings this up in the context of making a connection with others, e.g., patients, nurses, other hospital employees by asking “unscripted” questions – “Where did you grow up?”, “What made you move to Boston?” Anything, really. While we all have our roles, it’s nice to remember that we’re all people first and foremost. Chat with your students before class. I know you’re busy. I know you’re rushed. But is it time to rethink priorities? That email you want to get sent off before you go to class will still be there when you get back. It’s not life and death. It’s just higher education. Email can wait. In fact, that’s what email was designed for – something that can wait until you have time to get to it.

The value of unscripted conversations also applies to our colleagues. I work in a very collegial department, but our collegiality is not an accident. Like any relationship, collegiality needs to be tended to. We meet, on average, every couple weeks – on Fridays, and our meetings typically last 2 to 3 hours. It’s not because we have that much official business to cover – generally we don’t get through our modest agenda as it is – but because we all value the camaraderie. We talk about our week’s trials and tribulations both in and out of the classroom. We seek and share advice on dealing with particularly difficult students. We discuss how we approach different topics in our courses. We discuss new assignments we’re trying and how those seem to be going. Yes, of course, we’re not working in utopia. Sometimes we get irritated with each other, but our frequent meetings let us work through those rough spots quickly.

Finally, #5. This is my suggestion, not Gawande’s. Read widely.

You never know where you’ll find inspiration.

As we begin a new academic year, what are you going to do to get better?