Synthesizing the Literature

Writing a literature review is hard work if you want to do it well. A good literature review does not just describe what different researchers have done or what others have claimed, but synthesizes findings from multiple studies and authors into a concise summary. The purpose is not to fully detail what others have done in relation to the topic , but to give an overview of the extant literature on a given topic (McMillan & Schumacher, 2010). Students who begin writing literature reviews often describe one study, then move on to the next. It can take a lot of practice to learn to pull together the literature into summary statements. I finally developed a strategy that works for me and I will share it here.

This strategy begins with careful note-taking, which I will cover in another post. These notes then need to be indexed so that they can be organized by construct or theme, rather than by author or study. I do this in a couple of different ways. If I take notes in a Microsoft Word document, then I will read through my notes, highlight passages, and then use the comment feature to add one or more keywords. To see an example of this, take a look at my notes on studying non-returning college students. You will see that I highlighted passages, then used Ctrl+Alt+M on my keyboard to add a comment, such as findings, variables, sample, response rate, or student characteristics.

If I take notes using hypothes.is, I tag my highlights or annotations with keywords. In the example below, I highlighted a passage that said, “Three calls were made to each student over a period of around 4 weeks” (Aldridge & Rowley, 2001, p. 58), then used the annotation tool to leave myself a note that said, “multiple attempts to reach students in the evening hours”. To index this note, I added a tag “response rate”.

On the main page of your hypothes.is account, you can click on a tag to filter your annotations to just show the ones you have tagged with that label. In the example below, I clicked on “stereotype threat” and was able to see that I have three articles where I took notes using that tag. By reading through the notes I took from these three sources about stereotype threat, I was able to make a summary statement about this construct and cite three supporting works. Hypothes.is allows me to take notes and synthesize all in one, but it does not allow me to re-open files that were annoted on my local machine. Not all of my sources are available online, so sometimes I need to take notes in Word.

After indexing my notes in Microsoft Word using the commenting feature, I then create synthesis tables to sort and organize these notes. Click here to see my synthesis tables for the study of non-returning students. For example, as shown in the figure below, I copied my notes and quotations from articles about sampling and recruitment in studies of non-returning students into a table with the citation in the first column, details about their sample in the second column, details about recruitment strategies in the next column, the study method used, and their completion rate in the last column. With all of this data in a table, I was able to sort it and collect information about studies that used common methods.

When reporting on sampling strategies, I was able to pull together information from this table to state, “Some universities survey all first year students after the semester has begun and then correlate this data with high school statistics to provide early warning systems (Nelson & Thomas, 2012) or compare the data ex post facto between the students who return the next year and those who do not (Bennett, 2003; Coghlan et al., 2005; Heverly, 1999). “

Putting all of my notes into this table format helped me to see that response rates varied based on the method selected and the recruitment strategies used. I summarized this information in the following paragraph.

Recruitment strategies for encouraging students to complete participation in these studies varied widely along with their completion rates. Online surveys tended to have the lowest completion rates at a low of 7% for a school who contracted with a calling center to email and call non-returning students (Ninon, 2013) to a high of 28% when an announcement was sent in email, posted to the learning management system, and announced by instructors (Willcoxson et al., 2011). Surveys given during class time had a better return rate between 54% and 66% (Bean, 1980; Bennett, 2003), and phone surveys were even more successful in collecting data from a range of participants with participation rates between 48% and 86% (Aldridge & Rowley, 2001; Coghlan et al., 2005; Heverly, 1999; Institutional Research, 2007). The phone interviews that had the highest response rate (Coghlan et al., 2005) used a recruitment strategy of sending a letter from the Chancellor’s office to a stratified random sample of freshmen explaining the purpose and the importance of their participation, letting them know that they would be entered into a drawing for a $250 gift card for completing the interview. Phone calls were conducted primarily in the evenings on weekdays and included two rounds of interviews, with the first round conducted in the spring and the second round of just non-returning students in the summer.

In addition to the sampling and recruitment strategies table, I also made tables to organize my notes on why students report that they leave college, characteristics of students who leave, and interventions that have been tried. As I incorporate these notes into the literature review, I highlight them to keep track of which ones have been included and which are remaining.

If you would like to read the full literature review, you can access it online here: The Study of Non-Returning Students: A Review of the Literature. Learning to organize your notes can be very helpful in writing a high quality literature review. By indexing your notes using simple tools like the comment feature in Word or the tag feature in hypothes.is, you will be able to categorize your notes by theme or construct. Pulling together all of your notes on one topic will allow you to summarize the literature effectively, synthesizing what other research says. This will strengthen your literature review.

Do you have suggestions for writing a literature review? Leave them in the comments below.

References

Aldridge, S., & Rowley, J. (2001). Conducting a withdrawal survey. Quality in Higher Education, 7(1), 55–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/13538320120045085

McMillan, J. H., & Schumacher, S. (2010). Research in education: Evidence-based inquiry (7th ed). Pearson.

Responding to Novel Coronavirus: A Faculty Triage Guide for Decision Making

As more colleges and universities suspend in person classes or make plans to, faculty are left with the overwhelming prospect of continuing to teach in a new modality, while many of these faculty have limited or no experience teaching in distance education. Join 3 experienced instructional designers who have supported the transition to distance learners for hundreds of faculty in the University of Maine System as we share some practical and uplifting advice for how to make decisions about what to do with your course. Our hope is that you will leave this session with a clear understanding of what your next steps should be, a sense of calm and confidence, and some practical strategies for how to make the transition and where to find the resources you need.

Webinar Recording

Chat Transcript

Slides

Download the slides in pdf format.

Handout

You can contribute to the handout in google docs by adding your own resources here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nGZORhYsvqDGLGVFcec-IXuChvb9JZ_IVyaFE-fYWtc/edit#

Your Feedback, Please!

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Keep Calm and Go Online

First, take a deep breath. With all of the anxiety surrounding the spread of COVID-19, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and panic about how you will make it through the semester. Remember what your goal is: to share your passion about your subject with learners and help them meet your course objectives. You can still do this even with disruptions to your schedule and meeting format and I will share some suggestions with you here to do just that. It all begins with your goals.

Goals

Look back at your course objectives and student learning outcomes in your syllabus. What have your students already met? What remains to be addressed? Is there any flexibility with how these are met? Try not to get too hung up on following what you had planned for activities and assignments, as these are means to an end. You want to reach the same end but adjusting to distance learning will require perhaps rethinking the means. For each of those course objectives, you developed a strategy in your syllabus for meeting them by planning instructional activities, assignments, and assessments. Let’s look at how we can tweak that strategy.

In the table below, I have listed some common instructional purposes with traditional activities for meeting these goals in class, as well as some options for meeting these same objectives at a distance. This is not an exhaustive list but is meant to get your creative instructional juices flowing. As you will see, you likely are already doing some of the activities in the distance option columns, so no need to worry about entering a foreign land. Just begin where you are comfortable, and maybe try one or two new things.

Comparing In-Person and Remote Learning Activities

Instructional Need In Class Activities Synchronous Distance Options in Zoom Asynchronous Distance Options
Assessing and/or activating prior knowledge
  • Entrance tickets: Ask students to write down what they already know about the topic
  • Have a conversation about what students may know
  • Review earlier content/connections
  • Screen share a prompt or question while you wait for students to log in
  • Ask about previous knowledge in chat, for students to respond to
  • Create a guiding question or prompt before the content to help student contextualize
  • Create a checklist or a short video or text reminder of what was previously covered
Introduce students to content
  • Lecture
  • Presentation
  • Demonstration or whiteboard work
  • Reading
  • Lecture via Zoom
  • Screen share to present your PowerPoint
  • Use white boarding in Zoom or a document camera, and pen & paper
  • Read a passage over Zoom
  • Record an audio recording in 5-10 minute increments
  • Post written lecture notes
  • Create a presentation video
  • Add worksheets, or create a short video demonstrating a process
  • Assign Reading
Formative assessments and checking for understanding
  • Check faces for understanding
  • Clickers/Student response systems
  • Pop quizzes or quick-writes
  • Live survey
  • Use gallery view see student faces
  • Open “Manage Participants” to allow thumbs up/down for understanding
  • Use the poll tool in Zoom
  • Create a quiz in Google Forms for live results
  • Ask students to submit at least 2 questions they still have
  • Create a quiz in the LMS or in Google Forms
Student ability to engage with instructor and ask clarifying questions
  • Students raise hands
  • Students enter a question in the Chat panel
  • Open “Manage Participants” to allow the Raise Hand feature
  • Create a Q&A discussion forum in the LMS
  • Create a norm for students to reach out via email or messaging tool with questions
  • Give students a # to text with questions
Students exchange ideas with peers, engage in collaboration, reflect on content, and make connections with personal experience
  • Large or small group discussion
  • Pair and Share
  • Collaborative group assignment
  • Written responses or short projects
  • Large group discussion (be sure to review communication norms)Breakout rooms in Zoom
  • Links to collaborative Google docs/slides
  • Assignments submitted online
  • Discussion forum in the LMS
  • Small groups in LMS
  • Collaborative projects with Google Docs, Slides, or Sheets
  • Video-based discussion
  • Assignments submitted online
Students practice skills, with guidance
  • Worksheets
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Drafting
  • Hand-over-hand coaching and feedback
  • Worksheets and graphic organizers, shared in advance
  • Verbal guidance in large or small groups
  • Screen sharing drafts or collaborative Google Docs
  • Instructor coaching and feedback in breakout rooms
  • Digital worksheets and graphic organizers
  • Students share drafts, images, or recordings in LMS Groups or collaborative Google documents for feedback
  • Rubrics and detailed feedback is used, with multiple submissions enabled for revisions
Assessing student understanding and grading (summative assessments)
  • Papers
  • Presentations
  • Projects
  • Reflections
  • Exams
  • Breakout groups can work on Google projects and share out to large groups
  • Presentations
  • Individual projects and exams submitted online
  • Assignments, journals and exams submitted online
  • Group or individual projects and presentations submitted in Discussion forums
Modality Matrix developed by Anne Fensie and Heather Nunez-Olmstead.

Teaching online can initially feel like herding cats if you haven’t planned carefully and accounted for some unique aspects of distance learning. Important things to consider include the digital divide, communicating expectations, tools, logistics, and videoconference etiquette. Let me share some advice as an experienced cat herder.

Technology Accessibility

Technology can be both a bridge and a barrier to access for people, and this is an important concern when providing instruction at a distance. Not only do you want to ensure that you are not creating additional barriers to your course content, but this is now an opportunity to create additional access that might not have been available before. Electronic text is a fairly universal medium that can be read on a screen, printed out, or read aloud via a screen reader. It can be accessed on a computer, on a mobile device, through Wi-Fi, or SMS. Whenever possible, provide electronic text equivalents of your course content and try to ensure that everything can be downloaded at one go for students who have limited access to Wi-Fi.

Make the Implicit Explicit

Teaching online requires explicit communication. People new to distance education often do not realize how much is implied in our everyday interactions that can easily get lost in the translation online. Be specific about what you want your students to do each week. Include activities that are graded and those that you expect them to do even though they are not graded. Many students really appreciate checklists to follow so they know they are meeting your expectations. If you want them to submit something, be sure to tell them where to send it and when it is due, including the date and time.

Start Small

You don’t need to learn a lot of new technologies to make this temporary transition to distance learning. Faculty who have been teaching online for years and have a toolkit full of resources have spent years learning and compiling those resources. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a week. If you only know how to use email, begin there by sending out course materials and asking students to email you assignments. If you are comfortable with your school’s LMS, post your materials there, create assignment drop boxes, and places for students to interact and ask questions.

Don’t make too much work for yourself. When you ask a question in class, only a small percentage of your students respond. When you ask a question online, every single one of your students will respond which will vastly increase your workload. Plan carefully for what you want students to submit to you so you can make the time to review it and provide feedback. Prompt feedback is especially important for students at a distance as they can feel disconnected and concerned about their performance.

Web Conference Etiquette

One new technology you might be interested in experimenting with is Zoom, or another web conferencing platform like Skype or Google Hangouts. If you plan to conduct your class synchronously, this will be a must. If you plan to conduct your class asynchronously, this can be helpful for office hours, study groups, and providing one-on-one support to students. Here are a couple of quick tips for participating in a web conference that you can share with your students:

  • Test your equipment and connection in advance. Make sure your microphone (and video, if desired) is working.
  • Use a headset or earbuds if possible. This will reduce the amount of audio feedback.
  • Practice using the app before the first meeting. Find out where the mute button and chat are.
  • Stay muted unless you are speaking. The software will automatically switch to your video feed if you make a noise, like cough or if your dog barks.
  • If you are on camera, remember that you are on camera. Please turn off your camera if you are eating, blowing your nose, or walking around the house. This can be very distracting.
  • Follow a protocol for joining the conversation. For example, use the Raise Hand tool in the Participants window, unmute and wait for people to stop talking, or type, “Next, please” in the chat. There may be a time delay so you can interrupt someone without realizing it if you just start talking.
  • Be present. Try not to be distracted by other windows, applications, or your surroundings.
  • Let others in your environment know that you are joining a web conference, so they do not interrupt, keep noise to a minimum, and stay off camera.

The Bottom Line

You can do this! What is the experience you want your learners to have? How do you want them to feel about your course content? How do you want them to think about it? What do you want them to be able to do? Maintaining academic continuity requires us to go back to the essential purpose of our instruction. You can lead your students to the same destination, but you will take a different path to get there. Reach out to the knowledgeable guides on your campus to help you plan the journey and be flexible about this expedition. Keep your focus on the destination—the learning outcomes. It may take longer to get there, some students might stumble along the way, and the experience will be different. Just keep calm and go online!

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Building relationships with students through weekly reflection

reflection and relationships

I care about each one of my learners, and I tell them that, but how do I show them I care? Most of my students are nontraditional so they often face significant barriers to success in higher education. I want them to know that it is possible for them to succeed and I understand their challenges and want to help them. Many of them don’t believe they are “college material”, so I want to help them develop this identity and make them feel like they belong. To achieve all of these aims, I have to build a relationship with each learner. How can you develop a relationship with a student you only see once a week in person, or never if it is an online class?

My strategy developed by accident when I was trying to help my students develop their self-regulation. I recognized the importance of self-regulated learning in distance education and came across Paul Pintrich’s (1995) theory of self-regulated learning (SRL). He suggests that students regulate their actions, feelings, and thinking as learners and that the better they are at regulating these domains, the more successful they will be as students. To help students improve SRL in these areas, he suggests the following:

  1. Students need to have greater awareness of their own behavior, motivation, and
    cognition.
  2. Students need to have positive motivational beliefs.
  3. Faculty can be models of self-regulated learning.
  4. Students need to practice self-regulatory learning strategies.
  5. Classroom tasks can be and should be opportunities for student self-regulation

(Pintrich, 1995, p. 9-11)

In his later work, Pintrich (2004) identified four phases of learning where students self-regulate: planning, monitoring, controlling, and reflection and added an additional domain of context. The table below from his article describes each of the areas and phases of self-regulation.

Table I. Phases and Areas for Self-Regulated Learning
  Areas for regulation
Phases and relevant scales Cognition Motivation/Affect Behavior Context
Phase 1
Forethought, planning, and activation

Target goal setting

Prior content knowledge activation

Metacognitive knowledge activation

Goal orientation adoption

Efficacy judgments Perceptions of task difficulty

Task value activation

Interest activation

Time and effort planning

Planning for self-observations of behavior

Perceptions of task

Perceptions of context

Phase 2
Monitoring

Metacognitive awareness and monitoring of cognition

Awareness and monitoring of motivation and affect  

Awareness and monitoring of effort, time use, need for help

Self-observation of behavior

Monitoring changing task and context conditions

Phase 3
Control

Selection and adaptation of cognitive strategies for learning, thinking

Selection and adaptation of strategies for managing, motivation, and affect

Increase/decrease effort

Change or renegotiate task

Phase 4
Reaction and Reflection

Cognitive judgments

Attributions  

Affective reactions

Attributions

Choice behavior

Evaluation of task

Evaluation of context

(Pintrich, 2004, p. 390)

I decided to take this table and add questions that students could ask themselves to regulate their learning and came up with this:

I share this file with my students each semester and tell them that I am going to help them with self-regulation to help them be more successful. Each week, they complete an exit ticket where they answer the questions from the last row “Reaction and Reflection”. I created a template in a Google Doc that I copy for each student and share with them privately. This way, only the student and I can see what they write and they can feel free to be candid. I can then read and comment on these, and they can comment back. The same file is used each week, so we have a running conversation that goes on the whole semester. Here is what the document looks like:

Here is a link to the Google Doc that you can copy and use yourself: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1Jl0qLySU9_Q0K5fmYqSR_8NgVAOAxZSV06zyhexq7dE

It takes about 2-5 minutes to read and comment on each one, so with a class of 20 students, I set aside an hour a week to do this. This is probably the most valuable hour in my whole week. I’ve shared this with faculty who have large classes, and they have their TAs help them read through the exit tickets.

The students really share a lot with me that I wouldn’t know otherwise. They tell me what they are learning, what questions they have, how they are feeling, lessons they’ve learned, and even suggest things about the course that I could change to make it better. I’ve implemented lots of changes in my courses on the fly based on comments students make in their exit tickets. I get weekly updates on the things that are posing a challenge to their success and I get to offer suggestions and encouragement. I really feel connected to each learner, and they feel connected to me. I tell them I care about their experience and their success in higher ed, and now they know I do.

If you do something similar, share it below! If you try this with your classes, please let me know how it goes.

References

Pintrich, P. R. (1995). Understanding Self-Regulated Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1995(63), 3–12.

Pintrich, P. R. (2004). A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 385–407. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-004-0006-x