Lessons from the IRS

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Kieran Mathieson

Faculty Focus has an article on Five Lessons Online Faculty Can Learn from the IRS, by Miriam Bowers-Abbott. Skilling does some of these things already, but will do more in the future.

1. Simplify messages, but provide access to detailed information

Skills courses should haveĀ dozens of hands-on exercises. Students can easily lose track of what is due when.

The situation is worse for mastery courses. Students don't just submit-and-forget. They get to resubmit exercises they don't complete the first time around. They have to track their feedback, know which exercises they need to resubmit, and do those as well.

Skilling helps. Here's a screenshot from a site, when logged in as a student:

Exercise status

The timeline on the left shows detailed exercise data. You can see all of the due dates. The symbols tell you about the status of each exercise: not submitted (like Weather), waiting for feedback (e.g., A new dog), etc.

That's too much detail to process at a glance. Let's give a simple message suggesting how students should feel about their progress? Good? Bad? Panicked? It's how they feel that will motivate behavior.

That's what the emoji in the toolbar is for:

Progress emoji

The emoji's expression ranges from ecstatic to panicked, depending on how much the student is ahead or behind in their exercises.

This is the first IRS suggestion at work: Simplify messages, but provide access to detailed information.

2. Promote positive behavior with a signature box

Bowers-Abbott writes:

The IRS has found that online signature boxes improve integrity and accountability...

Skilling doesn't do this yet, but it will. Soon there will be a new widget on the exercise submission form. Students will type in their names, to assert that they are handing in their own work.

Update: Skill does this now.

3. Separate tasks

Bowers-Abbott writes:

In a well-designed online classroom, due dates and deliverables are available in a designated area for students to locate easily and where they will not be lost in a sea of (other data).

The timeline discussed above does that. Another example is the way exercises are shown in lessons. For example:

Exercise display

The exercise has its own visual container. It's labeled as an exercise, a task to be done. There's also a list of all of the exercises in the course.

4. Build a sense of progress towards a goal

Bowers-Abbott writes:

... a well-designed syllabus communicates to students the work that must be accomplished for success and helps keeps them motivated by tracking their progress.

The timeline and emoji help, but Skilling could do better. Maybe a chart showing student submissions over time:

Progress line chart

Although a gauge would be easier to interpret:

Progress gauge

I'm not sure what display would be best, but something will be added to Skilling.

5. Use social norms

Bowers-Abbott writes:

The IRS suggests that issuing reminders that compliance is normal and common ... is an incredibly persuasive tool.

Skilling's characters serve that purpose.

Better skill learning

Bowers-Abbott's article has some useful tips. Using them helps students get more value for their time and money.



I used to feel bad that my math courses weren't helping students. But I have to get the publications, to keep my faculty job.

Now I teach flipped, with a Skilling course I made. I feel much better about teaching, and I have the time to do research.

If you're faculty, you should look into this.

You can help students, and have enough time to get the pubs.



Marcus is right.

Students go into debt to pay our salaries. We should help them learn the skills they need.

We can teach well, and do research, but we have to be systematic about both. Skilling helps you be systematic on the teaching side.

That's the Skilling secret: it helps you be systematic.



I agree with my colleagues. Georgina, Marcus, and I help students learn the skills they want.

Students love us for it, by the way. They see what they're learning.

We get our publications, too...

Hey, wait a minute. Did you just social norm the reader, using three characters?

Yes. Socially-based emotions are powerful, dear reader. (Yes, I'm talking to you.) You may have noticed your emotions over the last few seconds. You may notice them now. Some of you may be angry that I tried to manipulate you (though you might ask yourself why I pointed out the manipulation - so meta!).

Social norms work, whether they are "everyone knows that cheating is OK if you need to pass the course," or "people think that paying your taxes is a good thing," or "people think that universities owe students." Skilling has tools like characters, that can help you influence social norms. Use them, or not. Your choice.