Friday, January 30, 2015

Belonging II - Word Clouds

How do we help our students feel that their opinions, interests, or questions are not just unique to them? Faculty regularly suggest that if one student has a particular question, it is likely a question that many of their peers have as well - yet it is still often difficult to elicit those questions in class despite our strongest assurances that those questions will be well-received. Fortunately, there is an incredibly efficient way to collect evidence from an entire class that will help each student self-assess their level of concept understanding and hopefully of belonging. I use word clouds.

Real-time digital conversations during class

At the end of a recent class, I asked students to log onto the course site I opened at

If you haven't seen this site, you should definitely check it out. It is simple, which means it has hundreds of uses. In essence, it is a chat room on a web page. This site is free to use, and nobody has to create an account. The instructor makes a simple name for their page (I use and distributes the URL to their class. Each student with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop simply types in their name (or, better yet, an anonymous nickname) and joins the digital conversation. I use this site for collecting minute papers, exit tickets, and other forms of assessment.

Word cloud workflow

This day, at the end of the class session, I asked the students to tell me what they had learned in class that was new to them. Their comments on this question appeared on the course web page in real-time. After class, I copy-pasted the transcript of the webpage contents, which included this excerpt,

into Excel. The reason this step is to eliminate all of the interleaved lines of text that note when each comment was posted - these words negatively impact the effectiveness of using a word cloud. I sort the cells of text alphabetically, so that each of those interleaved lines (each of which starts with a numeral) are all collected at the top of the spreadsheet. Then, only the actual comments, part of which are represented in the bottom six rows below, can be copy-pasted onto

Word cloud generators, like wordle, do one task: they count the number of times each word is represented in the entire set of words, and prints more frequently used words in larger sizes. Additionally, the instructor has control over the shape and color scheme used to visually display which words were more commonly (and more rarely) used:

When should the word cloud be showed to the class? I used it at the beginning of the next class to stimulate a quick review of what we had discussed during our previous meeting, focusing on the most frequently-appearing terms.

I heartily endorse this approach to showing an entire class (including the instructor) the current state of understanding. With this word cloud, for example, I discovered that most of my students had never heard of haplotypes, but that much of the rest of the content I had covered was perceived as review. This is certainly useful feedback for me, but I also hope that the same is true for the students, who can see how frequently various terms (topics, questions) are represented among their peers.

They will see how much they fit in.

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