Home » 2020 Fall

Category Archives: 2020 Fall

Alternative assessments

At this meeting, we discussed several types of alternative assessments for fully online learning, meaning assessments other than traditional exams. Participants contributed ideas based on our experiences, and brainstormed best practices.

Participants agreed that proctoring software is likely not the best approach, for the following reasons:

  • Students have the option to refuse
  • Students can easily find ways to use a second device even if proctored (e.g., their phone)
  • Online proctoring feels invasive and somewhat antagonistic, which is not the type of relationship we want to cultivate with our students

Here are the ideas we discussed:

Writing assignments

  • Prompts that require students to connect course concepts to their own experiences or to current events
  • Narrative or storytelling prompt, with a list of key terms to be included
  • Analysis/interpretation of original data
  • Case study analysis
  • Reconcile two opposing viewpoints (provide sources with differing viewpoints)
  • Tips to make grading writing assignments easier
    • Keep track of common misconceptions and provide feedback once for the whole class
    • Create (and share with colleagues) rubrics (click-and-grade option/)
    • Save a document with your feedback for common errors and misconceptions, so you can copy and paste as appropriate
    • Post video responses (individually or for the whole class)
    • Post a “wrap-up” announcement after each assignment

Lab reports

  • Analysis of data, creating graphs or charts, tables, Venn diagrams, etc.
  • Interactive websites, such as those that use student’s individual input to calculate an individual carbon footprint (students could then list 5 ways to reduce it, or complete a personal nutritional analysis and list 5 ways to improve it
  • Citizen science applications such as those for which students submit personal observations (such as iNaturalist) and/or look up data for particular locations (which could be unique to each student to reduce plagiarism)
  • Online interactive activities that require generation of data and variables that can be manipulated, so that each student’s input is slightly different
  • Tips to make grading lab reports easier:
    • Interactive websites that require answering questions in order to get to the end—have students submit a screenshot of the last screen to verify completion. Our group has generated a lengthy list of websites with virtual lab activities, as well as best practices for online labs on our Academic Commons webpage (see Spring 2020 notes).
    • Use charts, tables, and graphs, which are quicker to grade than written answers


  • Choose prompts with more than one “correct” response, or have students contrast two opposing views
  • Consider dividing students into smaller groups for discussions, rather than whole-class discussions
  • Discussion prompts that connect course concepts to personal experiences or current events
  • Have students propose hypotheses or experimental designs and then “add value” to each other’s hypotheses (in other words, suggest s way to improve the hypothesis or experimental design)
  • Have students find someone they disagree with and explain why in their response
  • Provide model posts and responses so students know what constitutes a “good” or “excellent” discussion post
  • Have students create video posts
  • Divide tasks and assign roles to students in each group (1st poster, question, answer the question, etc)
  • Blackboard can be unwieldy for reading and responding to posts (both for students and faculty)—consider alternatives such as padlet (com).

Online exams

  • Since these are necessarily “open-book,” consider some of the following ways to create exams that allow students to demonstrate what they have learned rather than what they can look up
  • Ask “What is the most interesting thing you have learned about _____________?”
  • Use a graph or other image that you have generated yourself, and ask questions about it
  • Instead of releasing answer keys, require students to email you if they want to know why they lost points on any particular question
  • Use multiple answer questions (“choose all that apply”)
  • Create test pools, and set up exam so that each students receives a random subset of equivalent exam questions (these can be grouped into blocks by topic)
  • If exams are multiple choice, set time limits that minimize opportunity to look up answers
  • Write the learning objective(s) and then ask students to list what they learned that best illustrates each concept
  • Consider using audio or video assignments or exams so students must explain their answers or their thinking orally

Conducting remote/virtual research with students: Resources and tips

For our second meeting of the fall semester, we:

  • Shared resources for conducting remote and/or virtual research with students
  • Discussed how to use these resources effectively

A summary of our discussion follows.


  • Schedule adequate time to explore the resources before beginning any projects with students. This will probably be a lot more time than you would normally need for project planning, as the topics and procedures are likely to be different from the research you normally conduct.
  • As you review available data sources, jot down as many possible research questions as you can. Then curate the research questions, ensuring that related hypotheses can be tested with available data. This will provide students with a variety of viable options to choose from, according to their interests.
  • Use YouTube videos (or videos you create yourself) to help students learn how research is done. For example, there are many short, high-quality how-to videos available on topics such as selecting a research topic, doing a literature review, reading and understanding primary literature, properly formatting references, properly formatting in-text citations, etc.

Data resources:

  • Science Forward: This website from CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College includes a links to collection of resources for helping STEM students do remote/virtual research. I found many of the data sources listed below on this site.
  • Global Biodiversity Information Facility: This website contains links to MANY high-quality open biodiversity data sets from all over the world. https://www.gbif.org/what-is-gbif
    • Click “Get data” at the top left to start exploring
    • Use it to find a specific data set (see examples below), to locate occurrence data for specific organisms, or to examine trends in biodiversity.
      • Examples of available datasets:
      • eBird from Cornell’s Lab or Ornithology, with species occurrence data
      • Paleobiology Database, with info on the location and age of countless fossil species
      • iNaturalist species occurrence data (research grade)
      • Many taxonomic databases (plants, animals, marine species, etc)
      • DNA barcode database (International Barcode of Life)
  • World Health Organization: Here you can access the World Health Data Platform, with MANY open data sets https://www.who.int/data/collections
    • You can explore the data and trends by country and year for topics such as immunization data, maternal health, antimicrobial resistance, invasive disease vectors (such as Anopheles mosquitoes), etc.
  • USDA: I was surprised to see how much is available on this site. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/
    • It is geared toward economic data, but other data are available as well, such as information on the adoption of genetically engineered crops in the US.
  • US Geological Survey: Includes open data on topics such as volcano and earthquake hazards, phenology, and water resources in the US https://data.usgs.gov/datacatalog/#fq=dataType%3A(collection%20OR%20non-collection)&q=*%3A*
  • US Department of the Interior: Includes open survey data for topics such as disturbance due to fires, seafloor topography, etc https://data.doi.gov/dataset
  • gov https://www.data.gov/ is a clearinghouse for all open US government data, and includes data related to climate, human health, energy, agriculture, maritime, etc.
  • Cancer BioPortal: open data related to cancer genomics https://www.cbioportal.org/
    • Here you can perform sophisticated queries and harness the power of data submitted from numerous studies on cancer genomics. The site provides tutorials (it’s a steep learning curve) and free, professional data visualization tools
  • BudBurst (open phenology data) https://accounts.budburst.org/data
  • The National Phenology Network https://www.usanpn.org/usa-national-phenology-network You may contribute data or analyze existing phenology data, exploring questions related to climate change, invasive species, etc.
  • NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) hosts open databases and many data analysis tool on its website https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ Data and software starting page: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/guide/data-software/

Online data analysis tool and resources:

Citizen science websites:

Active Learning Strategies for Online, Asynchronous Courses

At our first fall 2020 meeting on Sept 29, we discussed ideas and suggestions from the articles listed in the references at the end of this post, and then participants shared their own ideas for active learning online.

Highlights from our discussion included:

  • Why do faculty and students generally believe that in-person learning is superior? Riggs & Lander (first paper above) argue that this is because we know the value of engagement and active learning, and we assume that these are more likely to achieve in person. However, Riggs & Lander point out that engagement and active learning in an online, asynchronous environment are possible—it is only a matter of training and experience (professional development opportunity).
  • Riggs & Lander outline suggestions to improve active online learning in three areas:
    • Course architecture
    • Web tools
    • Discussion boards.
  • Here are the suggestions offered by the STEM FIG participants:
    • Include instructor profile with photo
    • Have students upload an image that is meaningful to them if they do not want to upload a profile photo or turn on their camera
    • Form small groups of students for online discussion or lab (4-6 students)
      • Assign group leaders (rotate weekly or monthly)
      • Survey groups anonymously about participation of group members
      • For lab reports, assign one student in each group to write Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion and make one student the lead author. Rotate these roles with each lab report.
      • Have students use wikis on Blackboard as a joint study guide
    • Give specific instructions/rubric for discussion boards
    • Decreasing “copy and paste” in student submissions
      • Require students to explain course concepts in plain English—decreases plagiarism and forces students to write in their own words (see website https://splasho.com/upgoer5/)
      • Have students google real-life applications of the concepts being taught, or apply the concept to their own experiences
    • “Botany walk”—have students take a walk outside, or examine their own refrigerator and kitchen to identify various plants and do plant dissections.
    • Live organism observations—for example, recording observations of vertebrates in the park or pets at home
    • Using iNaturalist app or website (https://www.inaturalist.org/) to record observations and share with the wider scientific community (citizen scientist opportunity)
    • Provide students with two articles or two videos on the same topic, and have them compare or identify similarities and differences between the sources
    • Consider the amount of work assigned each week—the group consensus was to assign three activities for “lecture” and three for “lab” each week.
    • Permit multiple attempts or extra credit options to incentivize additional practice of the concepts without adding to mandatory workload


1.Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Classes (paper posted at both of these links, in case one doesn’t work)



2. Active Learning for the College Classroom (the original paper has been adapted to give tips specifically for online learning)


3. Tips for Creating an Engaging Asynchronous Online Learning Environment (from Wiley Education Services)


4. Developing curiosity and challenging students to solve problems (NYT has a paywall if you are not already a subscriber, sorry!)