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Published October 23, 2011 | Social Sciences and Technologies

Wordle Works Wonders!

One of the challenges I've thought a good deal about as a teacher is how I can make student feedback explicit - both to myself and amongst my students. Recently, in one of my many visits to Raphael Scapin's office (fountain of all knowledge about educational technology), he demonstrated Wordle to me, showing me word-cloud images of speeches given by the leaders of our Federal political parties during the spring election. At a glance, it was obvious which cloud belonged to which party, what the main issues addressed in each speech were and, of these issues, which were most prominent.

Word-cloud images of speeches given by the leaders of our Federal political parties during the spring election

Word-cloud images of speeches given by the leaders of our Federal political parties during the spring election of 2011

This struck me as a great tool to capture the collective voice of students, and I decided to use Wordle as a way to help students contribute to a positive classroom environment. At my first class of the semester, I asked students to do a quick continuous writing exercise answering three questions :

  • What are your expectations of a good teacher?
  • What are your expectations of yourself in this course?
  • What are your expectations of your student colleagues?

This took about 15 minutes of class time. During our 20 minute break, I went through the answers, typing to a Word document the key words and responses of each student. When I got home, I cut and pasted the words to three Wordle documents (one for each question), then took a screen image of each and converted them to JPEG files. I then pasted the files to my Moodle page where students are able to view them. All of this took no more than an hour, and this was a first attempt for a not very technologically-inclined new teacher. In other words, it's really easy to use.

Teacher Expectations

Teacher Expectations

I will take to heart the messages I've received to date about what students expect of their teachers.

In my next class, I showed the Wordle images to the students. For teacher expectations, they were able to see the very diverse range of student expectations of their teachers - everything from being fair, understanding and knowledgeable to being funny and entertaining. I committed to do my level best to meet these expectations while commenting that, although I find my jokes funny, they might not always be! A great discussion then ensued when we looked at the Wordle about students' expectations of each other. The words "Non-judgment, Respect, Silence, No Cell-Phones, Friendly", jumped out colourfully on the screen, in addition to several other constructive suggestions about classroom behaviour. In the process of the discussion, each and every issue about class comportment and student discipline was addressed by the students themselves, and without the tedious exercise of the teacher having to read through a long list of class rules. The visually stimulating images enabled students to speak to each other about these matters and ended with a commitment on everybody's part to create a constructive, safe and respectful learning environment in their classroom space.

Student Expectations

Student Expectations

At the next class, I showed the Wordle image again, reviewing what students had said to each other.

Around mid-term, in one of my classes, discussion got off the rails somewhat, and a few comments were made that fell short of the expectations they had agreed to at the beginning of term. At the next class, I showed the Wordle image again, reviewing what students had said to each other about respect and non-judgment, and commented that in the midst of meaningful discussions about values and differing worldviews, now was the time to really take these words to heart. The class seemed to get back on track and a respectful atmosphere was restored.

I've also used Wordle to capture student feedback at mid-term about the course to date. Again, it evoked excellent discussion about teacher and student expectations, and made explicit the diversity of student preferences while also bringing to light the dissident voices and minority viewpoints.

As for myself, I will take to heart the messages I've received to date about what students expect of their teachers : "respect, support, understanding, kind, accessible and knowledgeable" amongst a number of other great suggestions (all visible at a glance with a Wordle image), and try my best to live up to them.

How have you used Wordle? Possibilities include as a revision tool, vocabulary expansion, and capturing keypoints. How do you break the ice at your first class? Have any of these activities proven useful at later points in the semester?

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