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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner, one of our Graduate Teaching Associates, speaks about her successful teaching practices. 

Kimberly Turner is a 4th year Ph.D. student in the RWL program. Her field of interest is writing program administration, with a special emphasis on graduate student writing. Before coming to the University of Tennessee, Kimberly taught composition courses at a Florence-Darlington Technical College, the University of North Carolina (Charlotte), and Francis Marion University. Although she has taught composition courses to a wide range of students, she particularly enjoys teaching freshmen writing, and she is especially thrilled to be able to share her love of true crime writing her students at UTK.

The Composition Office recently interviewed her to find out more about her experiences using a website to supplement her courses. The website she refers to in this interview is listed here.

 

Our interview follows: 

1) What made you decide to make a course website? Do you have websites for all your courses or certain ones? How do you decide which courses need websites and which ones do not?

As a graduate student and teacher, I’ve worked at three different institutions, and each school used a different course management system. I had to learn the ins and outs of D2L, Moodle, Blackboard, and now, at UTK, Canvas. While I find course management systems really helpful for grading, I noticed my students, particularly freshman who were new to the course management systems, were very often having trouble accessing the websites, locating material, using compatible apps on their phones, etc. I felt like a separate course website, which my students could easily bookmark on any device, would be a constructive solution, so, in 2013, when I was working at Francis Marion University, I began researching free website makers and discovered Weebly.

As an instructor at UTK, I have created websites for both my 101 and 102 courses, and I will also be creating a website for my upcoming 255 course. I originally created the class websites for freshmen English students because I remember being overwhelmed by Blackboard when I began college. I didn’t have a Blackboard primer; everything I learned, I learned on my own. I didn’t want my freshmen to be as frustrated as I was, so I began building a website that I thought was fairly easy to follow. I think this is especially useful for our FYC sequence because our students do quite a bit of work outside of class and, if they have questions, they can use the course website (usually) to find the answers.

Because I have found course websites so useful in freshmen English courses, I’ve started using them in upper level courses as well.

 

2) What are some pros/cons of having a course website? What kind of time investment is it, and what kind of results have you noticed as you’ve used this course website? 

The obvious con for me is that I have grades in one place and course materials in another place. That can be a bit annoying, especially on the first day of class when I’m explaining the set-up of the course to my students.

My students also don’t get a notification every time I add new material, so they are ultimately responsible for checking the course website. While this is a con to them, I actually think this is a useful pedagogical tool in that it helps them cultivate a sense of personal responsibility for their own work.

In my opinion, of course, the pros of using a course website outweigh the cons. Having a course website:

  1. Allows me to organize course material in the way that makes the most sense to my students – that is to say, usually by assignment
  2. Allows me to update and rearrange course material easily
  3. Affords students the ability to check their daily plans everyday
  4. Keeps students streamlined and focused on the course material since it is separate from the rest of their courses

The last pro is, of course, I spend way less time in line at the copier!

As far as a time investment, I find that I can put together a succinct, cohesive, organized course website in about one afternoon. Weebly is especially user friendly; most of the building can be done by simply dragging and dropping a desired feature (like a text box) from Weebly’s tool bar to the website in progress:

I can also customize the website to reflect the theme of the course. For example, my 102 course focuses on crime and writing, so my course website plays on the dark, noir, hard-boiled elements of crime writing and reporting.

I’ve noticed that students generally find the course website easier to navigate, and they appreciate having all of their materials arranged by assignment. If I get e-mails from students now, they are usually asking me about how to complete an assignment rather than asking where they can find certain materials or letting me know that Canvas is down.

 

3) How have you noticed your students reacting to the course website? Does it affect their class engagement in any way?

Generally, I find most students really enjoy having an easily accessible course website. I include quite a bit of supplemental material on the website, and I have had students express thanks for including materials that they can then use as a starting place for their own assignments. For example, I have curated a list of true crime podcasts which students can use for their archival assignment. The list is available to them on the website, which they can revisit anytime they need. I found a number of students use these and other supplemental materials in their assignments even if we haven’t covered the materials in class. In this way, I think the course website becomes a hub for class rather than simply a place to go check their grades. In fact, having the course materials separate from their grades forces students to divest themselves from obsessively checking their grades and instead focus on what is in front of them.

I also think students engage more with a course website because it’s not just another tab on their Canvas dashboard. The course website is separate, individual, and personal. I have found that students are more willing to sit with course websites and actually search for information when they feel like you’ve put in the time and effort for them.

 

4) How did you set up your course website? Did you do everything yourself or did you get some help? What are some tips and recommendations you have for teachers who may be interested in setting up their own course websites?

First, I tried setting up my course websites by type of document/file, but I found this a bit tedious and not that different from a course management system. I then tried organizing material by assignment/unit, and I found that arrangement was much easier for both me and the students. I can also quickly add interesting articles I find that I think might be useful for the students and easily hyperlink course readings, homework assignments, and supplemental materials from tab to tab within the website. You can see how I’ve organized below!

I set the websites up myself through good old-fashioned trial and error. To be completely honest, Weebly is pretty idiot-proof, so I was able to put together the course websites with relative ease. If you can use social media, you can certainly create a course website. It really is that easy!

My tips for other teachers interested in setting up course websites will resemble the advice we give our students. (How apropos!) First, don’t be afraid to be creative! Your students will really appreciate that you put in the effort, and I think it makes the experience of using digital media in class much more personal. Secondly, remember your audience. Organization is key! Students get easily overwhelmed when they can’t find what they’re looking for, so the easier and clearer you can make your website, the better! Thirdly, plan for a few panicked looks when you first tell them you’re using a course website. Some will be resistant, and that’s okay! Spend some time in class on the first day going over the website and showing them what’s on each tab. Finally, keep in mind that your students are generally between 18-20. Many have not been asked to check a course website daily for updates and reminders. They will probably grumble at first, but I find they quickly realize how much easier a course website can be.

Most importantly, though, have fun with your website! Technology is an incredible gift to the composition classroom.

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