…and April Is Especially Cruel for Those Who Assign Papers

Those of you who’ve taken the WI workshop series have heard our spiel about how to save time when dealing with papers.

Although it’s likely too late to redesign assignments, you might

  • Consider separating commenting from grading.  Research shows that students usually don’t carry writing feedback from the end of one class into the next semester.  Ever write comments on a paper due the last day of class–and find that many of your students don’t pick them up?  Sigh.

If you give students feedback on a paper in progress, however, they’re more likely to engage with it in the hope of improving their grade (or their learning–yes, we have those students, too).

  • Consider commenting early on a chunk.  If you have a paper due at the end of the semester, you might give some feedback on the thesis or introduction or give some feedback on a specific issue, such as organization.  You might collect a paragraph and note all the grammar errors that you expect to be eliminated throughout the final draft.
  • Consider making comments on the final paper only if students express interest.  Some professors ask for a self-addressed stamped envelope as a commitment.  Others schedule conferences (if you explain that there’s no penalty in just wanting a grade, a lot of students won’t sign up) and hand back the paper then or just comment orally.

You still have to grade, but at least you won’t feel as if you’re wasting your time casting pearls of wisdom that no one will bother to pick up.

Teaching Tip: April is the cruellest month (academic version)

This week, I was reading an email newsletter from Gina Hiatt, who runs online Academic Writing Clubs, and her opening line really struck me:  “It’s the time of flagging will power for every academic in the Northern Hemisphere.”  Her article goes on to talk about ways to manage the struggle to get things done as the spring semester starts to accelerate to its exhausting close. While she focuses on academic writing tasks, I think her message extends to all of our work here in academia.

What are some strategies you can use to get through the next few weeks of teaching, grading papers, keeping up with your scholarly and committee commitments, and trying to have some kind of life?

Make a master list.
Some people turn up their noses at lists, but I believe when used well, they can be a time and stress saver. Use whatever media that suits you – paper and pen, Google tasks, stand alone apps like Remember the Milk or ToodleDo.  Record every single thing you need to do between now and the end of the semester (well, not brushing your teeth).  Think of it as backing up your brain – once you have everything down on paper you won’t need to worry about forgetting something. The reason lists are sometimes less effective than they could be is that they must be complete if you’re going to get the full benefit of not worrying that you’ve forgotten something or left it off the list.   The minute you think of something new, add it to your lists.  Some people have home and work lists; I prefer one big list so I can see everything all together.  Just get it all down.

Prioritize and organize. Is there anything on your list that could possibly wait until the semester is over?  If so, put it off.  Is there anything on it that someone else could do?  Maybe you could hire a temporary helper for tasks that really don’t require your level of expertise.  For everything that’s left, establish a next step and a final due date.  Some things come with built-in due dates e.g. reports due or tests that need to be ready by test day.  For the other things, establish a reasonable due date and then order your list by dates.  If you have a big project with a due date, determine the next step, and give it a due date.  Then keep breaking down the project until you have it spread out however you would like it.  It’s completely up to you how you do this – for example a lot of experts believe strongly in daily writing, but it if doesn’t work for you, schedule it as a marathon.  Now take a deep breath, read it over and (I hope) find out that while there’s a lot of work, you know what to tackle first, and can skip the time-wasting fussing about the rest.

Lots of people don’t want to go through this process because in itself it takes some time.  But I bet you can do it in no more than an hour, and I bet it will save at least that amount of aggravation, worrying, forgetting and being late.

Monitor your progress. Once you’ve written the list, USE it.  Check it every time you have a few minutes to see if there’s something you could knock off in that time.  Sometimes this is where the process breaks down.  Perhaps you write your lists and two days later you’re not following it.  Why not?  There are several possibilities:

  • Life happens. A child got sick (or you did), the car broke down.  All you can do in these situations is regroup and reorganize your list.  Maybe look to see if there’s some way to move a few deadlines back. Just don’t throw the entire list away and go back to panic mode.
  • All work and no play. Please include at least a few minutes of down time for yourself, and try not to cut into your sleep if at all possible.  Tired, cranky people are not only unpleasant to be with, they make more mistakes and are less time efficient.  Allow yourself breaks without guilt.  Otherwise you are more likely to take a break by procrastinating but you won’t enjoy it. You’ll just Facebook your way into despair.
  • Inaccurate time estimates.  You thought you would finish grading in two hours but it took five. This is a learning experience for the future, but also look at your process to see if you can make it more efficient.  Were there a lot of breaks during that five hours?  Try the Pomodoro technique for tasks that require sustained effort like grading and writing (link).  It can help you focus your attention and has breaks built in.  It also helps you estimate how long tasks really take.
  • Fear. Procrastination often reflects a sort of performance anxiety.  If you find yourself putting off  things on your list that are important and really need to be done, ask yourself whether you are worried about somehow risking failure.  Perhaps your writing won’t be as good as you hoped, and you wonder if anyone will think you have something worth saying. Or maybe your students’ papers will be bad and you wonder if you’re really in the right profession.  We often avoid confronting unpleasant feelings by busying ourselves with soothing routines – cleaning, organizing and computer games come to mind.  So, you don’t feel the negative feelings, but they still exert a powerful influence on your behavior.  Becoming aware of this pattern can help you figure out how to handle it.

Find some support. Gina Hiatt leads writing groups for faculty who are trying to complete scholarly tasks (and by the way, MU will have a writing fellows program this summer – check the CTE website for details).  Support systems during the last weeks of the semester may include spouses and family members who take a larger share of household duties, paid help when possible and colleagues who share their grading tips or their latest jokes.  External accountability is really helpful – exchange lists with a colleague and check-in on each other’s progress.

One last thought — You might want to discuss end-of-semester crunch strategies with your students, who undoubtedly are just as snowed under as you are!

What are your end of semester survival strategies?

Teaching Tip: Balancing Flexibility and Fairness through Course Design

This week’s teaching tip is a guest post from Mark Potter, Center for Faculty Development at Metropolitan State College of Denver. http://www.mscd.edu/cfd/

●     “Prof. Smith, I won’t be able to make it to class tonight because unfortunately my flight back from vacation has been delayed by an hour and now I won’t make it back to Denver in time for class.  Is there supposed to be a quiz today and if so is there any way I can make it up?”

●     “Hey Professor, I am terribly sorry, but I am unable to attend class this evening due to familial issues. I am writing in an attempt to ascertain what precisely we went over tonight, and what I need to review in order to not fall behind my peers.”

●     “I will not be able to make it to class today due to a conflict with work but I have attached my re-write of the last paper and will get the notes from someone who was in class. Please let me know if there are any important announcements I will miss.”

We have probably all seen emails from students like the ones above, and in fact these are probably fairly mild examples; I have received far more outrageous–and inappropriate–student emails than these.  It is understandable if we react viscerally to them.  We may want to yell at the computer, reply with a snarky email, or, more to the point, penalize the student for missing class and/or assignment deadlines.  Students should just follow the rules and then, “problem solved,” right?

Well, sort of.

Perhaps there is a place for empathy and compassion toward the student whose work schedule changes abruptly, who has (even an unspecified) family emergency, or whose family travel plans become derailed in the middle of the semester.  Like it or not, student demographics are changing as are students’ priorities and work habits (Higher Education Research Institute, 2010).  More students work to cover costs while in college, more students attend college with specific job-skills development in mind, and the range of aptitudes, study skills, and college preparedness continues to widen.  Maryellen Weimer (2006) encourages instructors to put themselves in their students’ shoes by taking a college course outside their field of expertise every few years in order to experience all the aspects of learning, including balancing course deadlines with work deadlines, figuring out what the professor “wants,” and adhering to the rules and expectations that are particular to that course alone–all of which are juggling acts that our students must do constantly.  Still, while compassion and empathy may be warranted, we want to avoid granting special treatment to individual students, and it is important for the sake of our own workload and our own time management to hold students to reasonable standards, or “lines in the sand” (Robertson, 2003)

Learner-centered course design can help us to balance these competing demands between compassion and fairness.  Learner-centeredness shifts responsibility for learning to students while granting them more opportunities, control, and options over how they demonstrate their learning (Weimer, 2002).  We can use course design both to hold students responsible and to provide allowances for when life “interrupts” their studies, all while preserving our lines in the sand and our sanity.

Some course design ideas that accomplish this include:

●     Carrots that incentivize on-time submission of assignments.  I accept late papers (up to three days late) from my students, but only those students who submit their work on time have the option to rewrite their papers and to incorporate my feedback for an improved grade.

●     Bounded flexibility.  Alternatively, a colleague at Metropolitan State College gives his students a “syllabus quiz” in the first week of the semester.  Every student who passes earns 5 credits toward turning in work late (1 credit = 1 day).  Students can cash in all of their credits at once with one assignment, or they can split them across assignments at different times in the semester.

●     Cooperative/collaborative learning.  If students have to miss a class session in a course that incorporates group learning, they have a resource–their fellow students–on whom to rely to try to catch up, rather than coming right away to the instructor to find out what they “missed.”

●     Technology.  Web-based tools, including the course Learning Management System (for example Moodle or Blackboard), Wikis (for example PBWiki), and Google Docs can reinforce cooperative learning and the sense of community within a course.  If students find unexpectedly that they need to miss a class meeting, they can turn to these online resources where they might find threaded discussions designed to supplement in-class learning or examples of student work/reflections completed in class and posted to a Wiki.  Students may also be able to use the online tool to contact their “group” for help.

Of course, students need to know that the interactions and engagement that occur in class are not replicable and that missing class means missing out on an opportunity to learn.  Still, the premise of this essay is that life sometimes gets in the way of the best of intentions, and providing some opportunity for students to learn–an opportunity that does not rely on the instructor delivering instruction twice over–is preferable to penalizing the student by doing nothing.

Additional Resources:

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “A Snapshot of the First Year Experience.  Accessed on July 15, 2010 at http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/briefs/HERI_ResearchBrief_OL_2009_YFCY_02_04.pdf

Robertson, D. (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2006). Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature That Makes a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Going multimodal

Multimodal teaching was a hot topic on one of my listservs recently.  The question there was:  is there evidence that multimodal presentation is really helpful for student learning?  The answer:  yes.

What do I mean by multimodal teaching?  In a multimodal teaching segment, students encounter the same material in different ways.  Research from cognitive psychology tells us that people learn best when they are exposed to information multiple times using varied sensory modes.  Why?  Since information from different senses is coded and stored differently, multimodal teaching gives students’ brains several “hooks” on which to hang their learning.   While helpful for every student, multimodal teaching is particularly helpful for students from different cultures or those  with various learning weaknesses that can limit their ability to learn in traditional classrooms .

Nilson (2010) describes the primary modes used in the classroom as follows:

  • Verbal — reading and writing (formal and informal), e.g. responses, directions, instructions or outlines
  • Verbal/Oral –Auditory —  Lecture or podcast (these work best if they are in the form of stories or narratives), discussions
  • Action/Experience – role plays, simulations, case studies, service learning, physical models and demonstrations , animations, virtual worlds
  • Visual – concept maps, flowcharts, graphic metaphors, images, matrices

Many of you already combine modalities, but with a little thought, you can extend what you do into even more modes.  For example, you may already have students read for background information (verbal), watch a video (visual and auditory) and discuss it (auditory).   Follow up that experience with some kind of writing (verbal) or a concept map (visual) to add in another dimension.  To include an action experience, students could role play or solve a case study based on the video or the readings.

To enhance a lecture, consider podcasting it first (auditory, perhaps some visuals) and then using class time to engage in problem solving (action), responding to written questions, writing step by step directions for problem solving (verbal) or creating a flowchart (visual).

In a studio setting, students might first read about a particular method (verbal) create a design (visual, action) then write a description of their process (verbal) or a reflection on what went well and what did not.  Or, they could narrate a podcast to go with their works (auditory).

It is usually not hard to think of ways to add another modality to your current favorites, but is it worth the time and effort?  The research suggests that it is, in that students learn and retain material longer and better.  The benefits of multi-modal teaching also include deeper conceptual understanding and easier recall of information. The course design issue is figuring out how to move some student experiences out of the classroom so you can use class time to focus on other experiences during class.

What’s a common but not particularly helpful use of multi-modal teaching?  Assigning a reading and then lecturing “over” the reading.  While this is sort of multi-modal, it’s mostly a really good way to make sure students don’t do the reading.  Instead, give the students the lecture before class (as a podcast) and work on understanding the reading in class if it is difficult.  (Presumably the lecture content will help them with this.)  Or, give the class some easier and more engaging reading for homework and make sure that your classroom combines lecture and action that requires them to use what they read.

What are some fun ways that you are going multimodal in your classes?

For more on student learning styles and multimodal teaching, check out this powerpoint by Linda Nilson from the 2010 Lilly Conference (and think about attending a Lilly Conference on Teaching!).


Writing (Teaching) Tip: The Art of Giving Directions

I was talking yesterday with an MU class of graduate students preparing for careers as nurse-educators.  One spoke scornfully of “vague” and “wordy” assignments, pages of directions, when he felt that a few sentences would suffice.

It’s a tricky balance–providing enough but not too much direction.  Many of us lay so much groundwork because we’ve been burned in the past. Sometimes it feels as if we’re practicing defensive teaching: we lay out each and every margin, primary source, deadline, etc.  so that when a student comes complaining we can say, Look: I told you to do X and you did Y.  And sometimes it feels like hand-holding.

But there are many more positive reasons for explicit and detailed (and yet concise!) writing assignments.  Carolyn and I lay out some of the reasons behind our assignment checklist in the WI workshops, but one of the most important ones is Carolyn’s mantra, “They’re not all like us.”  For every competent and impatient graduate student there are many more undergrads at MU struggling to master college-level work.  Most are not like you as a college student; most are not destined to be academics.  Laying out your expectations, you are helping them think about audience, purpose, and rhetorical context for a writing assignment.  Thorough directions are the sort of accommodation for differing abilities that may help every student do better.  Able students can skim directions–and sometimes they find something they might otherwise have overlooked.

I’m always happy to be a sounding board for anyone working on a writing assignment.  There are also innumerable resources about assignment design on the Web, such as this Columbia College faculty development PowerPoint.



Writing (Teaching) Tip: Teaching Students to SCROL

Yes, with one L.

I’ve been reading about teaching reading to second-language students, and this little exercise using headings and subheads in a text might benefit any student.  It’s quick to teach and focuses on the organization of a text in a way that’s useful to both readers and writers.

It’s called SCROL (Grant 1993, as described in Tricia Hedge, Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, 196-197).

S–Survey the headings before reading.  Ask for each one: What do I know about this topic already?   What information might this section contain?

This draws on students’ background knowledge and gets them actively engaged in reading through prediction.

C–Connect the ideas in the headings.  Ask: How do they relate?

Students begin to see skeleton of the text.


Students are not approaching the text cold.  Encourage marking.

O–Outline.  Outline major ideas and supporting details in each segment.  To check how well you remember the article, write the headings on a separate page and try to recreate the outline without looking at the text.

L–Look back.  Check remembered outline against text and fill in gaps.

Teaching Tip: Just Ask

What’s one of the best, quickest things you can do to improve your teaching?  Get formative feedback from your students BEFORE the semester is over.  I know that you already will be encouraging students to complete end-of-semester ratings forms, but those forms frequently don’t tell you what you want to know for several reasons.  Students may not complete them thoughtfully (or at all), they may interpret the items differently and the items themselves may be unclear.   If students don’t feel that your feedback helps them learn, what are they looking for that they aren’t getting?  The best way to find out is to ask your students for feedback now, while there’s still time to change things.

There are lots of ways to do this, from simple to complex.  The easiest way is to ask simple, open-ended questions.  But do NOT ask students what they liked and did not like about the course so far.  That’s an invitation for comments on everything from your clothing to the heat in the classroom.  Ask them what helped them learn the most and the least.  One approach I like is to ask students three questions:  1) what aspects of the course would you keep exactly as it is; 2) what would you keep but improve;  3) what would you toss?

A mid-semester evaluation doesn’t have to be that broad.  Perhaps you’d really like to know what students think of a particular assignment or reading or maybe you’ d like their feedback on a broad issue like class participation, group work  or the attendance policy.  Create a series of questions that will give you more in-depth understanding of just that aspect of your course.  You may also want to ask students to honestly (and anonymously) tell you how often they do the reading or how much time they spend out of class studying.  This information can help you better understand the rest of the feedback and it also may give you some insights into overall issues in the class.

In her book Inspired College Teaching, Maryellen Weimer points out that student end-of-course evaluations don’t really help students themselves – maybe future students will benefit, but not those filling out the forms right now. This fact, coupled with limited evidence that their evaluations actually result in change, makes students less motivated to complete evaluation forms.  But mid-semester assessment means that there’s still a chance for students to make a difference in ways that directly impact them.  If students are concerned about confidentiality, you can have the assessments administered by a student worker or colleague and collated by the office (the CTE can help with this if needed).  Or you can devise a survey that doesn’t require handwritten responses.

What do you do with the feedback once you get it?  Share it with students!  If they are dissatisfied with something that you cannot or will not change, you can at least explain why.  If you can make a change, students get to see that their opinions are valued, and the class develops a sense of collaboration.   According to Weimer, students also learn when you share and reflect on their feedback in class.  For example, if you get vague feedback (“that reading was bad”),   you can reflect out loud about how difficult it is to improve without more specific information – what made it bad?  Was it too long? Too difficult?  Students see the need to be more detailed and constructive.  Learning to give constructive criticism is like most other skills; it needs practice and feedback.  And if students know you are going to heed it, they will be more likely to deliver helpful responses.