• Hunter Hall

How instructors' use of blackboard affects how students learn

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

(For William & Mary's Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation)

William and Mary prides itself on faculty-student relationships, and over the course of my college career, I’d have to agree that is a strong suit. My experiences with professors have been the highlight of my time here. That being said, there is always room to make those connections stronger. As a senior at William and Mary, I’ve taken a range of classes from a variety of professors which have deepened my perspective on how William & Mary professors excel and how they can better work with and for students.


One area that I’ve seen as an opportunity for growth in making strong connections is professors’ use of Blackboard. Last year I took a literature class that required several short papers throughout the semester. At the same time, I was taking a creative writing class that required weekly drafts to be turned in. Assignments in the literature class were significantly easier to complete and turn in because they were due on blackboard while my creative writing assignments were due in paper format by the beginning of class. While this might seem like a very small distinction, I found that the general class experience and ease with which I was able to complete goals was significantly altered by these different approaches.


 [Find out more about Universal Design for Learning]


Over the course of my time at William & Mary, I have noticed how helpful even a small amount of effort put into a class’s blackboard site can be for managing workload and organization outside of class. Students' demanding schedules make it important that resources are readily available. A professor’s willingness to take small steps towards bringing their classroom online can make a significant difference to their students. Some of the best uses of Blackboard I’ve experienced include:


Digitizing Course Materials

Printing is not only a pain, but can also prove to be expensive if a student does not have a personal printer (or even if they do). Digitization of class resources and online submittals of assignments significantly cut down on the use of paper, ink, and time.

“I don’t like paper,” said Suzanne Raitt, chair of William & Mary’s English department, when asked about her use of Blackboard. “So I have tried to become familiar with many of the different things that Blackboard will do.”


[Find out where in Swem you can digitize your stuff]


Aggregating Content

Professor Raitt uses Blackboard to aggregate assignments, readings, and materials, allowing students to easily find what they need through an organized homepage.

“Everything should be together somewhere online where students can access it at any point.”

Blackboard presents a shared space to access assignments for both instructor and student.


[Watch STLI's series on organizing your Blackboard site here]


Flexible Deadlines

Online uploads allow a student to turn something in at any time of day, not just in class; in classes that do this, I have found that my writing has been more thought-out because I’ve been able to work through ideas and issues on my own time, without the burden of an in-class deadline.

“I think it’s great that I can give [students] a deadline that’s not a class because they don’t have to hand me paper, which means that I can have them turn stuff in on Sunday at midnight to give them the weekend to do their papers.” Professor Raitt uses Blackboard submissions to set deadlines that might better conform to the busy schedule of a William & Mary student, allowing them more flexibility with how and when they work.


Access to grades

On the other side of the assignment is the ability to make grading more accessible and comprehensive. Students can access grades and critiques at their own convenience, and online rubrics allow an instructor more in-depth ways to convey information on a graded work.

“If you don’t use a rubric, you end up writing similar things on a lot of papers… If you use a rubric, you don’t need to keep repeating the things that are true that are common areas of improvement,” said Raitt. “You can focus on the specifics.”


[Watch our tutorial on setting up Grade Center]


Along with its advantages, Blackboard does also have its pitfalls—sometimes it seems that professors feel the need to shoehorn features into their syllabi. Take, for example, Blackboard discussion posts: the best use of Blackboard discussion posts that I have experienced has been low-stakes and low-commitment. Requiring a quota of discussion board posts can turn a function meant to facilitate student input and class discussion into a chore—I have taken multiple classes that required students to not only submit multiple discussion board posts per semester, but also make comments on others’ posts. This barely incentivizes students to engage with the course material, at least not in the same way an in-class discussion would. When considering integrating blackboard into a class, an instructor should think about whether the effort expended to set up and participate in a feature is worth the potential pedagogical benefits of the feature. Additionally, the ways that students actually use Blackboard could differ from an instructor’s intentions— the conversation and analysis taking place on Blackboard discussion boards is not going to be as earnest or deep as it is in the classroom, especially when a certain number of posts are required.


Blackboard, therefore, is not always a universal boon, and does not always make a student’s life easier. However, when leveraged in the right way, it can relieve unnecessary stress and material burdens. Ease of access on Blackboard is what differentiates classes in my mind. Can I easily find what I need to read? Can I easily turn in an assignment? Small efforts placed in the right areas can make a noticeable difference, creating a classroom experience that is easier and more engaging for both instructor and student.

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