THE NEED: Not too long ago, I conducted a workshop entitled Cool Tools: Better Assignments, Better Learning for the Association for Talent Development . When I worked as an instructional designer in higher education, I found that professors developing online courses would often get stuck in a rut with their assignments, which predictably looked like, “Read Chapter 7 and answer the questions at the end.” Perhaps you remember completing those in your undergraduate days. Some profs would go the extra mile, and suggest the student select a topic covered in that material and write a two-page research paper about it, and if they were being REALLY creative, have them do a PowerPoint presentation around some of the content. I don’t know about you, when I taught, I’ve graded some really dreadful papers where students regurgitated content, or took a stab at developing a PowerPoint with no design skills, embodying the concept of Death by PowerPoint. It always made me wonder how much they were actually learning as they did so. As an instructional designer, it’s my job to work with content to make it sticky. Philosophically, I believe that learning should be interactive, and where possible, fun. These mundane assignments were certainly not accomplishing that. Learning online had some restrictions, but it certainly did not limit assignments to text driven pieces. My workshop was birthed to help teachers create better assignments for better student learning, and I wanted to teach them to use some of the fabulous tools readily available to them to do so.
THE TOOL: Enter SmartDraw. As one of this blog’s readers, I don’t need to sell you on how fabulous the tool is. You’re already a fan. You cannot imagine the excitement of the professors in my workshop when they were exposed to SmartDraw for the first time and they began to see possibilities. Here’s a sampling of the suggestions I gave them.
MIND MAPS I started with planning. I always use the mindmapping feature of SmartDraw to lay out any course that I teach. Beginning with the goal, I add the outcomes and enabling objectives, then assessments, followed by content and activities linked to each. This allows me ensure everything is aligned with the goal I’m trying to achieve. For students, this is a great way to plan out a report or a project, because ideas move around easily at this level, and function globally, rather than in a linear fashion. It helps students understand organization in ways that an outline never seems to accomplish.
PROJECT PLANNING Next, I moved to SmartDraw’s project management capabilities, which are especially helpful for students doing group work. Identifying tasks, deadlines and resources is an important skill for them, but key in the process is recognizing the interdependencies of the tasks and the impact of one missed deadline on the entire project. Using a project plan keeps students accountable to one another, and equips them with a critical tool for the business world. With SmartDraw in the cloud, everyone has access to the same diagram, and updates occur in real time, as individuals update their individual tasks. Students can even hop on a tablet or smartphone to make updates.
FLOWCHARTS After mindmapping and project planning, we talked about flow charts. I’ve used flowcharts in business to diagram processes, but in the classroom they can be effective tools to document the player journey in planning of a game, the hero’s journey in literature, adding in all of the influences impacting his or her decisions. Students can illustrate the step by step process of a lab, or create a how-to job aid for performing a task they just learned about.
TIMELINES Students can use the timeline features of SmartDraw to create a journey map of user interactions as part of design thinking, but could also build timelines from history, or the plot of a story when reading a novel.
CYCLE DIAGRAM The diagramming tools are some of my favorites in SmartDraw. This one comes from the Infographics section, but there are similar ones in the Marketing and Science & Education sections, and can be used to illustrate any kind of cycle. In the science classroom, this could illustrate biological lifecycles or ecological concepts.
CLUSTER WORD WEB In the Science and Education section there are pre-built templates like this word web which would work well for ESL learners as well as foreign language learners discovering relationships between words and concepts. Mapping them out allows the student to visualize connections. Adding the student’s simple sketches in each bubble can aid in recall.
STORY MAP SmartDraw has many built in templates specifically for education. This one can be used to summarize a book, play or movie, but could also be used to plan out a story overview, similar to the beat sheets used in screenplay writing. Having a big picture overview keeps the students focused on where things are going and reduces writers block.
THE DISCOVERY: A key point in all this is recognizing that we are teaching students to manipulate information. As teachers, we can give them these kinds of pre-filled diagrams to study, which aids in analysis, but when the student generates the diagram, they must think through the information at a different level. This is a critical differentiator.
When we have students create their own diagram, it brings them to a deeper understanding of the content we are trying to teach. If we look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, these activities force them into higher order thinking, which brings about deeper learning. Creating a Venn Diagram about a concept requires the students to understand the it, apply, analyze and evaluate words and ideas related to it to determine where they belong on the chart, and ultimately create a representation of it all to be shared with others, which brings us to the pinnacle of Bloom’s pyramid. It sure beats fill in the blank worksheets or answering questions at the end of a chapter…. which may or may not even aid in recall.
We want our students to be invested in their learning, and I’ve found using activities like the ones that leverage SmartDraw makes students proud of what they have accomplished when they are finished. That pride loops in all the positive emotions that enables even stronger ties to the learning.
Cool tools like SmartDraw enable better assignments, and better learning, which, after all, is the point of higher education, right? What can you use for your students? I’d love to hear your ideas for assignments using the tool.
About the Author Jean Marrapodi, PhD, CPLP is a learning architect based in Providence, RI, and a SmartDraw user since 2007. Read more about her at www.applestar.org, or on Twitter at @jmarrapodi.