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Multimodal assignments: Fun for students and us, instructor says

May 25, 2021, 10:53 AM

While all instructors strive to help students communicate their knowledge and ideas effectively, some at the University of Illinois have been looking beyond the traditional writing assignment to multimodal assignments as a vehicle for doing that.

Multimodal assignments use more than one format—the spoken word, written text, audio, visuals, and spatial modes, among others—to share knowledge, express ideas, and convey messages.

Why multimodal?

“People learn in a wide variety of ways,” one Illinois academic professional offered.

Students are “more engaged with the material,” a faculty member added.

“Different experiences help me remember things better,” “Trying to teach using all five senses,” and “We can learn from each other,” other faculty and staff said.

The comments came during the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning’s final Art of Teaching seminar of the 2020-21 year: An Exploration of Multi-Modal Assignments faculty panel presentation.

The panel consisted of Dawn Bohn, a Teaching Associate Professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) and Director of the Online MS in Food Science and Human Nutrition ProgramRachel Magee, a Youth Advocate and Assistant Professor at the School of Information Sciences (iSchool); and David Mussulman, an Instructional Technology Facilitator in Engineering IT at the Grainger College of Engineering and an Adjunct Lecturer at the iSchool.

CITL’s Senior Associate Director Robert Baird moderated the discussion, which explored a variety of topics from whether a podcast or TikTok video can achieve the same learning outcomes as an academic paper or has the same level of rigor to practical matters such as how to create or grade multimodal assignments.

Here’s an excerpt of the presentation:

Why Multimodal? Isn’t this more work for teachers and students?

“Switching to a multimodal assignment lets you see more of the creativity that your students can bring,” Mussulman said. “It certainly gives me a boost when I look at what I get out of it.”

Earlier, Mussulman shared a list of challenges with long writing assessments, including students don’t necessarily like them, and instructors don’t necessarily like to grade them, especially when the writing is poor. He recalled a colleague’s advice: “If you aren’t earnestly eager to review students’ work, then you probably shouldn’t be assigning it in the first place.

“I feel very self-conscious grading something I’m not directly teaching,”

Bohn said she began using multimodal assignments in her 400-level Food Ingredient Technology course as a way to her students, who have taken many science-based courses and mastered writing lab reports, be able to successfully communicate their scientific data and findings to their peers, the scientific community, even more general audiences.

That took redesigning her thinking.

“I try not to go into, ‘Is this going to be more work for me?’ It’s what’s right for the student. Having that additional competency of (scientific communication) and practicing it in a safe way … is a really important attribute they need to have upon graduation,” Bohn said.

Magee said she has noticed that students pay more attention to audience and gearing the message appropriately with multimodal assignments than they do with papers.

“That, to me, is a core part of why you turn in an assignment, (and) why you share your work in any kind of context,” she said.

She also saw the benefits as a student studying film, television, and creative writing.

“This is my way of learning and processing,” Magee said. “I don’t just write. I engage in other kinds of media as I’m learning. So … allowing these opportunities gives students the recognition that writing is not the only way to learn and share what you’ve learned and to open up their exploration … And in my classes, students get excited about the idea of playing with (different) formats and finding the best way to express not only what they’re thinking but to articulate the content.”

Multimodal sounds fun, but I can’t provide technical support for students doing this type of work.

Mussulman said that students’ need for tech support is surprisingly low.

“It’s not a barrier to enter this space because the students are already there,” he said, adding many have grown up with smartphones and other technology and are already comfortable using it.

“What you’re doing is shifting them from thinking about ‘Boy, have to write a paper,’ to ‘Hey, I can make memes about that,’ or ‘I found a really cool thing’ (that) gives them the excuse to play with the technology and tools … with the same kind of eagerness that we have when we think about doing this. It’s fun for the students, and it’s fun for us.”

Magee shared a Resources List for Multimodal Assignments, which she puts in her syllabus.

“Students get to decide what they use,” she said, adding they can also reach out to her for help. “Proactively providing resources … can really go a long way. There’s a ton of stuff online on how to do this.”

Magee also lets students know she’s not grading them on their technical ability.

“What I am looking for is exploration, trying something new, creativity, thinking about the best way to express what you want to express,” she said, adding students can also share their content with her in different ways. “For example, if they’re making a podcast, they can also share their script.”

How does one go about developing multimodal assignments that truly engage with your discipline, topics, and contents – in a discipline that doesn’t study communication explicitly?

Bohn said she was inspired to incorporate multimodal projects in her Food Ingredient Technology course after attending the Annual Faculty Retreat in 2017 and hearing Chemistry Professor Jeffrey Moore’s presentation on using collage journaling as a way to help students understand complex scientific concepts.

Bohn created a project, in which her students used commentary on food and ingredients in videos, memes, GIFS, etc., to create an online multimedia journal, Lipids in Frying Applications.

“In addition to bringing in their knowledge that they acquired from their curriculum, peer-review journals, texts, etc., they also brought in these nonscientific elements to it,” she said. “It was exciting for them to bring it all together and communicate it with other people.”

After attending the Alliance for the Arts in Research University’s 2019 a2ru annual conference, she added zines to the mix. One called Plant Proteins in Foods was shared with the Food Assistance & Well-Being Program at the Activities & Recreation Center (ARC) on campus, and another, Understanding Sweeteners in Your Foods, was shared with the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.

“How does one go about doing these assignments? You’ve just got to start and do some research on those great tools to make the students feel confident and comfortable,” said Bohn, who uses multimodal assignments in several courses now. “Our students are very much willing to try if they feel supported … You can’t just throw these assignments at them. They have to be well thought out … and explain to them the why.”

She also turns to educational journals and other resources, illustrating what’s been done, for inspiration.

“Then I start to think about what I would want, how I would like to design the assignment, what is it that I would like to see,” said Bohn, who called the assignments “freeing.

“Your opportunities are endless at this point. You don’t have to stick to such a structured written assignment,” she said, adding creating a multimodal project asks more from students—and ends up being more rigorous—than writing papers, but are more fun for them and her.

How important is it to provide clear instructions, rubrics, feedback, and guidance to students working on multimodal projects?

Magee said giving her students the freedom to select the format for their assignments has generated some creative responses.

“I have students who have amazing TikTok series,” said Magee, who created an account to watch their videos.

She added she’s more focused on whether students’ content shows their understanding of the course content and their audience.

“I have found that students really fly when you have it a little bit open-ended,” she said, referring to things like format and length of a video or podcast.

“I think the freedom is the fun part of it,” Mussulman agreed.

He pointed to a class he teaches—Race, Gender, and IT—which has a social-emotional learning component. While his multimodal assignments are rigorous and have clear learning outcomes, he said the rubrics are simple.

For example, he said, he might ask students to upload to a slideshow an image of George Floyd and the social justice movement sparked by his death. For another assignment, he might require them to compare and contrast two images from that movement.

“There’s a challenge to giving up some control on the assignments. But it pays back in dividends,” Mussulman said, adding he’s been amazed by students’ creative and thoughtful responses. The projects “are exciting to grade, and it’s dynamic to see that part of the students’ engagement with it. And it might be very different to what you’re seeing in other ways.”

Like Bohn, Magee pointed out that some of her multimodal projects have had applications beyond class.

“So many of my students put these into portfolios that they share online when they go out on the job market,” she said, pointing out that’s far less likely to happen with a paper.

Do you have tips for the best ways for instructors to review, collect, present, curate, and share student multimodal projects? Isn’t this a bit more challenging than a stack of papers?

Bohn said her students use Adobe Creative Suite software and Google Drive to create their zines. She advised instructors to make sure students are creating their work on secure sites.

“I try to encourage them to always use things that have been embedded through the university,” she said, acknowledging they don’t always do that because some of the materials they want to use are on different platforms.

Magee recommended that instructors make sure there aren’t any accessibility issues with the software or platforms students are using.

“That’s really the only problem I’ve ever had, and I’ve been doing this no for five or six years,” she said.

She also reminded instructors to be mindful of privacy requirements and get students’ permission to share their work before doing so.

Mussulman said instructors can get creative with grading assignments and suggested they “flip the dialog” by providing multimodal feedback.

“It’s got me thinking, ‘How would I grade their paper with a meme?’” he mused.

Mussulman recalled that in some of his previous courses, he required students to make websites. He evaluated the work by printing it out and then writing his critiques on the printouts.

“That seems like such a dated concept,” he said, adding today, he might record himself on video reacting to their websites, “which is closer to how we would evaluate those kind of usability things in real life.”

Mussulman also pointed out that Canvas has a SpeedGrader feature, which gives instructors multimodal options for grading.

“It’s recognizing that multimodal feedback is already here and present and could be a solution to problems currently even if students are doing a traditional assignment,” he said.

Why do you enjoy multimodal assignments (and any parting thoughts)?

Since she’s given her students the freedom to make podcasts, TikTok videos, and do other multimodal projects, Magee said that grading has become a more joyful experience.

Mussulman encouraged colleagues to give multimodal assignments a try.

“Treat it as something formative,” he said, adding instructors don’t have to be experts on the formats. “It’s not about perfection … It’s about a creative approach to engage with students in different ways and be part of that process.”

“For me, this exploration, this putting trust in students just goes along with a certain pedagogical approach, which is to acknowledge we all learn from each other and that our students have a lot of expertise to bring and that by removing some of the constraints or boundaries in traditional formats, we actually have a lot to play with and learn from,” Magee added. “So, I would just say … think about your orientation to your students and bringing in that perspective of, ‘Yeah, let’s figure this out together.’ … That’s the core disposition that we talk about modeling to young people: “I don’t know if I know this will work, but let’s try it. Let’s figure it out.’ I think that’s a really useful way to think about our instruction as well.”

Watch the full presentation, “An Exploration of Multi-Modal Assignments,” and learn more about the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning’s Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series 2020-21.