Crowd-source teaching: extra credit “challenges”

Last year, I tried out a technique for enhancing student engagement in online courses: crowd-sourcing representative examples of course topics.

Responding to a complaint from students that online quizzes were too difficult and extra credit options were needed, I offered students an opportunity to demonstrate comprehension by locating their own musical examples. This can be a tedious part of my work — finding “exemplary” musical passages that demonstrate each facet of a lesson. This way, I open up the possibility of getting something out of it, too; the best submissions can be incorporated into my course materials.

The process is simple: I create a Dropbox folder for each lesson in which students may submit three examples that fit specified constraints. One task, for example, was to submit (on annotated sheet music) three examples of musical modulations that exhibited different approaches: pivot modulation by common chord, direct modulation, and pivot modulation by change of chord quality. To earn full extra credit, they needed to find one of each and they needed to be correct and correctly labeled. Their examples also had to be unique among the class; no choosing a passage that had already been used by another student. If examples did not earn extra credit, the student may submit more batches of examples until they get it right, but only before the weekly unit quiz.

Once I received their files, I would add markup comments on their PDFs to show if each example was correct or incorrect, and make a note about why it was a good or weak example. Since the Dropbox folder is public, students could then examine their peers’ examples and learn from the successes and shortfalls.

In the end, a few problems sullied the process:

  1. Most students failed to earn extra points. It’s hard enough for me to find great examples, and I have ideas about where to look for them (in musical forms, music by particular composers, etc.). Students seemed limited to the repertoire they were studying in their lessons, so piano students had a great advantage over others.
  2. Most students started too late in the week to have a chance to resubmit if they missed the mark. Since most submissions came at the end of the unit, students also had very limited time (if they tried at all) to benefit from the work of their classmates.
  3. I didn’t get many great examples to add to course materials since most of the correct passages submitted by students didn’t fit my criteria for teaching the perfect tune.

I like the approach, though, and plan to refine it over the coming semester. If little else, it provided an opportunity for many students to engage the course more fully, and was a pathway for them to engage me as their professor, both through online correspondence and in person (this activity drew many to office hours who otherwise never came). I also hope that the challenges will provide progress from semester to semester, since I can make the examples available to future “generations” of students.

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