Why aren’t we telling more stories?

By asking this question, I am clearly making an assumption that not telling stories is the reality. Do we really not tell stories?

I am talking here about the learning experiences most of us (and them) have in the virtual or physical classroom. The traditional setup of most online courses (and physical classrooms as well) is that I tell you what needs to be “covered”, if I am really serious about this, I will even tell you the learning objectives for the week or the session, and then give you a whole bunch of resources to learn from (or focus my lecture on a concept and go at it).

Context matters

It is important for the learner to know why they are doing the reading or viewing a lecture. What is their learning? Are they looking for anything in particular? To what prior knowledge or experience are they supposed to connect this new information? How does it all come together? (The latter is often addressed in the last unit, something like “Putting it all together”, sound familiar?)

A lot of energy and resources go into creating engaging content – is it as impactful as it can and should be without putting it into a context? Can a simpler and easier approach make a greater difference, leaving the existing resources somewhat average?

Others are doing it

Storytelling is not unique. First of all, we are certainly wired to connect to a good story. TLDR? A good story (whether in print, video, or audio (think podcast or audiobook)) is certainly easier to stick with (there is a myriad of resources on how to be a good writer, but this is outside of the scope of this blog post).

Connecting to a story is only part of it. The other part is creating what may be a more complete story.

Narrative medicine

Columbia University is doing it. “Narrative Medicine fortifies clinical practice with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness.” An illness is not a category – it is absolutely by every means is unique story of an individual, no matter how standard the bug causing it is (to be fair, they are probably not as much focused on common colds as they are on more complex issues). Apparently, it works better when your physician knows your story and can suggest ways to modify her treatment prescriptions so that you may heal or cope better.

Narrative therapy

Dulwich Center is doing it. “Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.”

Motivational interviewing is another strategy and practice that allows counselors to connect with their clients. Both are about learning and telling stories of clients by clients so that a more complete picture can come out of a diagnosis or condition and an effective intervention with the collaboration of the client may be put in place.

Can we collaborate and tell stories in the classroom?

Wikipedia says,

Narrative-based learning is a learning model grounded in the theory that humans define their experiences within the context of narratives – which serve as cognitive structures and a means of communication, as well as aiding people in framing and understanding their perceptions of the world.[1] Narrative contextualises abstract concepts and provides a scaffold for the transfer of knowledge within specific contexts and environments.[2] This model aligns with the constructivist ideals of situated learning—which theorises that active learning takes place within the context in which the knowledge must be applied.[3]

“Good stories do more than create a sense of connection. They build familiarity and trust, and allow the listener to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning. Good stories can contain multiple meanings so they’re surprisingly economical in conveying complex ideas in graspable ways,” claims Vanessa Boris from Harvard Business Publishing.

This last sentence is especially important and should be the best reason for using stories in the first place, as it essentially distills the learning power of storytelling.

How can you use stories?

There is no lack of advice on that – you just have to do it!

Use stories as illustrations or tell stories just for fun! Add a personal story as an announcement in your online course or as an anecdote to illustrate a concept in your lecture hall (if it’s funny, you will know how many people are listening if there is any reaction, even an eye roll).

Tell your story or have learners create a story of their own. Interpret a well-known story from a new perspective.

If you are already telling stories, you don’t have to limit yourself to just reading it – act it out! Elementary teachers know this well, we don’t have to lose this skill with older learners, adults included. In fact, a story may be as effective or more effective for adults for at least two reasons – they have more stories to tell (as well as opinions) and they may remove the ingrained sage on the stage image of the instructor. Stories shift the focus from the individual to itself.

Finally, writing your stories for yourself (not exactly storytelling for public, but storytelling nonetheless) claims that it may not just communicate what you are about and what story is; not just define you as a person and being, but also craft what you are and will be or may be.

How are you using stories with your learners?

Best Practices and Innovation

We often use the term “best practices” when we advocate for a certain practice and even policy. Beyond the attractive label, what hides behind the phrase and how really useful is it? Does it at any time come into conflict with innovation? Does one or the other take priority? Can they successfully coexist?

I have considered several aspects to help better define the concepts at hand.

Habits vs Best Practices

Best practices are approved and proven methods for delivering particular results. The definition clearly underscores their empirical, time-tested nature. They are based on experience, have been tried many times and are thus deemed effective.

It is important to note that best practices must change together with the needs as well as new and improved processes or demands. It is easy to see though that a practice, however effective at one point, may grow out of date, and thus be no more than an old habit which renders your processes stale and hard to explain and results dubious or insufficient. All practices need regular re-evaluation and, if found to no longer bring about sufficiently good results, revisions.

Standards vs Best Practices

It seems that best practices and standards are related and may be conflated under certain circumstances. Standards, however, are typically more settled, required or set forth by some authority and are often the result of an endeavor  – best practices tend to be more technique or method which results in meeting a standard if you will. Practices tend to vary and change as part of the process – standards tend to be more stable although subject to revisions.

Innovation vs Best Practices

Best practices being a result of many trials, innovation has to be at odds with practices. All adopted practices at one point served to address a problem (think Blackboard – if you find Blackboard LMS clunky, it is that the reality and demands have changed, but the platform may still be focusing on solving the old problem). That’s a sure sign innovation is needed and is critical. We tend to think of innovation as big, sweeping and rare – I would argue that frequent tweaking of existing processes and solutions is nonetheless innovation. By all means, a system that has exhausted its capacity for modifications is to be discarded, but many small changes along the way should ensure an organization’s agility.

What Innovation is and What it isn’t

Eric Reiss has defined innovation and laid down the law(s) for innovation. Here they are:

#1 If an innovation does not solve a problem, it will create one.

#2 Problems do not exist in isolation. Solutions often have unintended consequences.

#3 True innovation is impossible if you haven’t done the research or do not understand the research.

#4 Invention may be accidental. Innovation is always planned.

#5 Innovators understand the rules. This is the difference between innovation and idiocy.

#6 Intuitive solutions do not need instructions.

#7 Innovation almost always represents the combination of two well-known technologies to create a new, useful synthesis.

#8 Innovations can take a long time before they are accepted.

Once articulated, these are quite obvious and make sense.

How does your organization handle innovation? Is it encouraged and how does it coexist with best practices? Is innovation your deliberate practice?

Onboarding a new Instructional Designer

Instructional Designers (IDs) come from unique educational and professional backgrounds and therefore bring unique skills and interests to their roles. They may have teaching experience, video editing skills, learning management expertise, or a combination of other valuable skills. Though many interests and skills are common, like media and accessibility, a new ID’s experience is often varied and complex.

Our team of 10 recently acquired two new Instructional Designers. This was a great opportunity to evaluate our onboarding practices. Since the two new team members came with vastly different backgrounds and unique talents, we spent time thinking about our general expectations at the 30, 60 and 90-day mark.

At 30 days, our team expects a new ID to attend onboarding meetings with all departments in the college. After one month, they will be familiar with team-used software and attend regular meetings with a Peer Mentor. At this point, they have been introduced to all types of course development projects and will have completed a Course Copy and Quality Assurance (QA) with guidance.

At the 60 day mark, and building on the experiences that took place since day 1, we expect our new IDs to do some higher level activities. At this point, a new ID will have refreshed or updated a course with guidance. They will have a deeper, more developed understanding of team practices, and will complete some tasks on their own.

At the end of 90 days, new IDs will likely have experienced a full course cycle and will be exposed to all types of projects in some way. Three months in, new IDs will feel comfortable refreshing or updating a course with little to no guidance. They also may collaborate on a redesign or a new build.

Our complete Onboarding 30-60-90 day expectation table is a living document that can be edited by anyone on our team. Because this process is new for us, continual evaluation of our expectations has been helpful.

For your reference, review our Onboarding Table Template, a working document for onboarding new Instructional Designers.

Additionally, here is a blank template to get you started.

We use these resources to complete a gap analysis, and together with the new ID, come up with a plan for addressing any skills gaps.

The 12 Days of Course Development

magic, doves, sky, ring

What is Instructional Design?

When Christine B. shared with us Aesthetic principles for instructional design, it was like walking in a magic forest with fairy tales hopping from tree branches. Could we have said it better ourselves?

The instructional designer “sometimes acts in a role similar to that of the Greek chorus, commenting on the dramatic developments from a privileged standpoint.” 

And sometimes he/she “functions as a companion character  who is confidant to the protagonist and who might also act as provocateur or mirror, as Sam does during Frodo’s quest in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.”

“Instructional designers are also in the business of creating “refined and intensified forms of experience.”

In the spirit of the magic, and as a final blog post for this year (!), we are offering a collective effort at the season’s cheer and whatnot, with an aside note that some of us can even sing and/or play music!

The 12 Days of Course Development

sung to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas

On the first day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Make a timeline for your deliverabllllllles!”

On the second day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Use Bloom’s for the course objectiiiiiiiiives.”

On the third day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Let’s double-check those objectiiiiiiiiives.”

On the fourth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Align assignments with the course objectiiiiiiiiives!”

On the fifth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“DON’T USE Comic Saaaaans!”

On the sixth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Build rubrics to assess student performaaaaaaance!”

On the seventh day of course-dev my ID said to me –
(Deep breath): “Curate readings and multimedia for your students from the library and the weeeeeeeeeb!”

On the eighth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
(Deep breath; ⅔ the way there!): “Check for new editions and obsolete information in the resources you proviiiiiiiiide!”

On the ninth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
Record some new lectuuuuuuures!”

On the tenth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
(Cough…hack…wheez): “Make materials accessible to all students with transcripts and image descriptiooooooooons!

On the eleventh day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Check the course one last tiiiiiiiiiime!”

On the twelfth day of course-dev my ID said to me –
“Congratulations! The course is ready to laaaaaaauuuunch!”

Happy Holidays!


Parrish, P. E. (2009). Aesthetic principles for instructional design. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 57(4), 511-528. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/218022948?accountid=12756

The Twelve Days of Christmas, an English Christmas carol

What Happens in Those Writing Support Appointments Anyway?

The paper you’re reading has lost you: the commas are out of control, the word choices are weird, and that last paragraph doesn’t seem to have a point. It can be hard to know if lack of time was the culprit or if the student has not yet mastered the writing skills needed to express their ideas at the graduate level. Either way, a referral to online writing support is something you may have already done after struggling through a confusing piece of writing. Sometimes the paper comes back greatly improved; other times you may have wondered what exactly was discussed in that appointment.

Students contact us for a variety of reasons. Often it is because an instructor has suggested or required it, but some students are aware their writing skills aren’t that strong and their papers would benefit from some feedback. Even very capable writers can learn from having an objective reader check for clarity, so writing support doesn’t have to be remedial.

Once a student does reach out to us, what happens?

We set up an online web conferencing appointment and ask them to send their assignment description, draft, and specific areas of concern ahead of time. We read the draft, note suggestions, and then meet with the student to have conversation about their paper. By replacing the previous method of providing written feedback and sending the paper back, these conversations have allowed deeper explanations and hands-on practice of revision (making major improvements, especially focusing/ developing ideas) and editing (fixing mechanics).

Most students, and sometimes instructors too, want to focus on mechanics because those errors are the most easily identified and can be addressed with specific corrections. However, a better starting point for improving thinking and writing is working on answering several questions. Does the paper address the prompt? Does it have a thesis? Do paragraphs have topic sentences and supporting evidence? Are transitions used to show the idea relationships? Once these higher order of concerns are tackled, the grammar, formatting, and citation issues are next in line.

Writing tutors make it clear to students we are not proofreaders and editors.  Instead, we help them identify the sentence error patterns in the first part of the paper: this is a comma splice, and here are a few ways to fix it; these word choices could be more academic; this type of citation needs a signal phrase for better source integration. After practicing a few corrections with them, we ask students to apply what they’ve learned to the rest of the draft on their own.

Usually they do; sometimes they may not. Most, however, are pleasantly surprised at how helpful it is to talk through the basics of writing a good paper and better understand the difference between revising and editing. They are learning the vocabulary needed to discuss good writing and how to use the writing process more effectively. Hopefully, on your end as an instructor, you see are seeing the positive results as well!

Lori Rand is an Online Writing Specialist for the Student Academic Success Center.

Think pen and paper are obsolete? Think again.


In distance education, many students type lecture notes on their computers, rather than writing on paper. After all, students use laptops to watch lectures, answer assessment questions, and participate in class discussions. It’s only natural to use the same device for taking notes, too, right?

Not so fast.

Last year, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, studied how the two note-taking methods affect student assessment performance. The results? In short, they found that taking notes on a laptop can “negatively affect performance on educational assessments.”

If you’re reading this, perhaps you’re already nodding your head in agreement: Of course computers can harm learning—think of all those tempting and distracting online games and Facebook memes! But what’s really fascinating about Mueller and Oppenheimer’s experiments is that they relied on computers that were disconnected from the Internet. Without even a working web browser, students were free to focus on the lecture content. Nevertheless, those who took longhand notes consistently outperformed their high-tech peers when tested for conceptual recall. But why?

Mueller and Oppenheimer found that, when people type notes, they tend to write as much as possible, almost to transcribe every word. Those who take notes by hand are forced to summarize main points, and that process strengthens their understanding. Even when Mueller and Oppenheimer specifically told participants not to take verbatim notes, they still wrote far more words than longhand note-takers. The old quality-over-quantity standard strikes again.

So, how does this apply to distance education? Online instructors might encourage their students to grab a pen and sit back, away from their computers, to watch a full-screen lecture video. At first, students probably won’t like being separated from their keyboards and trackpads. But who knows? Maybe they’ll be pleasantly surprised when they see their next quiz scores.


Mueller, P. A., and D. M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159-168. Web.

Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK)

In the world of curriculum development and student assessment, there are many models that inform our work. Each model supports the design of relevant, engaging, and rigorous learning experiences. While Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy has served as the “go to” framework since the 1950s, it’s Norman L. Webb’s Depth of Knowledge system that has caught the attention of K-12 educators since the late 90s. His work continues to grow in popularity in higher education instruction as well.

What is Depth of Knowledge?

In short, Depth of Knowledge (DOK) is a framework for classifying content complexity in relation to the level and kind of mental demand that’s put on a learner to answer a question, solve a problem or to create a product. This work takes a different approach to learning frameworks than Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s work focuses on student action, the “what” of learning. DOK focuses more on the “how”.

Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Levels provide a vocabulary and a frame of reference when thinking about students and how they engage with the content. DOK offers a common language to understand “rigor,” or cognitive demand, in assessments, as well as curricular units, lessons, and tasks. Webb developed four DOK levels that grow in cognitive complexity and provide educators a lens on creating more cognitively engaging and challenging tasks.

  • DOK is NOT a taxonomy
  • ALL levels are important and are not linear levels
  • Each level has it’s own value
  • DOK is NOT about difficulty but is about cognitive demand
  • DOK is NOT based on verbs (like Bloom) but on the CONTEXT in which the verb is used and the depth of thinking required

Dr. Webb presents an overview of DOK

A Brief look at Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Levels

LEVEL 1 – Recall/Reproduction

    • DOK 1: A question you can answer by looking it up.
    • Every field requires a recall of facts, information or procedures.
    • Processing information on a low level.
    • We want students to be able to do things automatically. This is true in every field.
    • RECALL takes up about 30% of the curriculum, depending on what grade one’s in.

LEVEL 2 – Skill/Concept

    • DOK 2: A question or prompt that is routine but requires putting together more than one idea.
    • Use information or conceptual knowledge, two or more steps, etc.
    • If you think about level of complexity, connecting ideas, linking ideas, comparing and contrasting facts and information comes next.
    • SKILL covers about another 40% of the curriculum.

LEVEL 3 – Strategic Thinking

    • DOK 3: A prompt that requires a justified or supported response for one’s response, idea, opinion, or critique
    • Requires reasoning, developing a plan or a sequence of steps. There is some complexity and more than one possible answer.
    • This grew out of the notion of non-routine problem solving
    • Wanting students to do something they have never seen before, to apply what they know to something new leads to strategic thinking.
    • Students are reasoning, taking things apart and putting them back together again or creating something new
    • STRATEGIC THINKING covers about another 20% of the curriculum.

LEVEL 4 – Extended Thinking

    • DOK 4: Typically a project or research assignment, often a culminating work, often interaction with others is included or required — typically takes more time to respond to prompt
    • Requires investigation, time to think and process multiple conditions of the problem.
    • High cognitive demand and complex reasoning is expected.
    • This grew out of “wanting students to change the world.”
    • TIME is required to plan and execute– be it to research, explore, discover, create, etc.
    • EXTENDED THINKING covers about another 10% of the curriculum.

Some resources for applying DOK:

Learning Styles: How we engage with the world

If you have been following this blog, just a few months ago, we wrote about common learning styles and what effect they have on learners and teaching methods and practices, and that to a large extent these are not well-evidenced in either science or practice, but for some reason have a wide acceptance.

Today, we are tackling a different take on learning styles – rather learning preferences in ways we interact with the world along the continuum of how we do things (processing) and how we perceive things (think or feel, the perception continuum) as developed by Kolb and further modified by others.

I started doing research on reflective practice – one of many topics I am interested in! – and it eventually led me (should I say took me all the way back) to this source, which I found quite tangible. Reflective practice is an important process (practice) in professional and personal growth which starts with describing and identifying the problem, naming feelings associated with this, thinking through why a particular event took place, and finally developing a plan for dealing with a similar situation in the future or preventing it from happening in the first place, in a nutshell.

Then I ended up with Kolb’s learning styles (or preferences if you wish) and the continuums and the learning cycle, which all theorize learning in attempt to explain and leverage the process.


I believe that course design benefits from balancing a number of modes of student engagement and flexibility and student choice in the products they are required to submit as evidence of learning and mastery of concepts. Applying both Kolb’s learning styles/preferences and the modified learning cycle to a course, one can evaluate what sort of activities a particular course favors, if any, and if there are adequate (optimal) opportunities for engagement for all types of preferences.

If your course includes group work, are there also opportunities for students to reflect and process readings and thoughts? If your course is mostly based on readings and reflection, are there opportunities for students to take action in the real world and interact with other individuals in some capacity?

What are your thoughts about any learning styles, catering to various learning styles and this particular take on learning styles/preferences?

Sending email messages to students from a Blackboard course

We all have our workflow preferences and places that we check to stay connected. Some prefer using Course Messages (which in our configuration won’t send the message to a student’s email, unfortunately), and others prefer using actual email service.

There may be a practice compromise to accommodate both the need for convenience such as emailing a student (or a number of students) without leaving the course, and using email as a system, so that both students and instructors will get alerts when they receive messages.

Blackboard has emailing capabilities. While it email as a tool has been also disabled in our configuration, the workaround exists and instructors can choose to send an email directly from the course when using the Grade Center.

Here is how.

STEP 1: Visit Grade Center

In both Edit On and Edit Off views you have access to the “Email” button. Select a student you want to address, or several at once, and use the email options to send your message.

grade center view

STEP 2: Select your recipients.

You can add more if you wish on the next screen.

email from Grade Center

STEP 3: Edit your message, add recipients (optional), add attachments (optional)

edit and send your message

Remember that this email will be sent to you as well (the sender). The student then can reply directly back to you using email only. Consider this as an option.