Teaching Tip: Tis the Season

This week’s tips is more about surviving the effects of teaching than teaching itself.  Look around — do you see piles of papers and exams to grade, reports to submit, and just a general seemingly unbearable amount of chaos? That sounds like December to me.  At this time of year, even when we “take breaks,” it’s usually not to actually relax but to just complete other tasks that somehow don’t seem as daunting as the ones from which we are taking said breaks.  While I would love to recommend a long weekend in a warm place, I’m not that unrealistic (not to mention sadistic).  Here are a few quick ways to relax and take care of yourself so you make through this stressful time more or less intact.

Pay attention to your workspace: If you are sitting in front of a computer for long periods of time, check your alignment.  The top of the screen should be at eye level and about an arm’s length from your face to avoid eye strain and a stiff neck.  Your arms should be approximately level and your wrists in a neutral position to avoid numbness, tingling and eventual carpal tunnel. Your chair should allow you to sit up comfortably, preferably with your feet flat on the floor or a footrest.  Twisting into pretzel-like positions and hunching can lead to stiffness, sore backs, necks and shoulders and overall cranky attitudes.  Using a laptop for extended periods of time is a recipe for pain – it’s impossible not to hunch.  Get a separate keyboard or monitor so you can sit properly while using it.

Practice Pomodoro: Work for 25 minutes and take a five minute break.  After four of these (two hours, in other words) take at least a 30 minute break. During your breaks, don’t think about whatever you’re working on. Instead…..

  • Just breathe: Listening meditations can be done anywhere, any time.  They are perfect for rejuvenating the mind when you’ve graded one too many papers or exams in one sitting, don’t have time to get out of the office and regroup but truly need a mental break.  Sit comfortably upright or stand tall in Mountain pose (feet shoulder-width apart, palms forward, shoulders rolled up and back and down away from the ears, tail bone tucked, a bit of a bend to the knees, with the belly button pulled in). Then, close your eyes and allow the noise to happen– just don’t give it your full attention.  You may notice certain sounds, like a door slamming or a phone ringing, and you may even give them those names.  Don’t think on them, just let them pass.  The sound is there, and trying to ignore it will just be frustrating. Instead, as with any meditation, focus on the breathing you’re doing: in through the nose and out through the nose, slowly, in complete awareness of how that air moves through your body.  Notice how the chest rises and falls, how the abdomen expands.  Take slower, deeper breaths, eventually filling the chest fully and holding it for a moment before slowly letting it out and again holding for a moment before restarting the cycle. You may find it helpful to focus on doing this to a count of four or eight, pausing at the top and bottom of each breath to notice how that fullness and emptiness feels.
  • Watch your back (and neck and shoulders):  If you’re like me, you may find that you sit at a desktop computer for hours grading papers electronically or sit in a chair doing the same with real papers. The head, neck, shoulders, and back can get so tired, and there is a simple yoga flow of two asanas (poses) that can help to reinvigorate those areas: cat and cow.  Start down on all fours, making sure your knees are stacked under your hips and that your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in alignment, too, and flatten the back like a table top with the belly button pulled in. This is called “neutral spine.”  Inhale into cow, dropping the stomach the floor, tipping the head to look up and raising the tail bone high.  Then exhale into cat, reversing the stretch by moving through the spine to arch the back like an angry cat, slowly dropping the head and tucking the tail bone under.  Flow through these poses with your breath.  When you are done, finish the flow by sitting back into child’s pose, sitting your hips back on your heels, stretching your arms in front of you or wrapping them around your legs to reach for your feet, and letting your chest and head rest as low as is comfortable for you.

  • Hang Loose: Another way to loosen the back, shoulders, and neck is the asana known as rag doll.  If your balance is lacking, you may want to do this over the back of a stable (not rolling!) chair. From a standing position, with feet hips’ width apart, take a deep breath in, and then as you exhale, roll forward vertebrae-by vertebrae into a forward fold, arms dangling down loosely.   Then, grasp opposite elbows– right elbow in left hand, left elbow in right.  Make sure you gently drop the head and let it hang, releasing all tension in the neck and jaw and back and shoulders.  If you still feel tense through your neck, gently and slowly shake your head “no” and nod it “yes.”  If you feel tension through the back and shoulders, you can gently sway from the waist, twisting first to the left as you inhale and then to the right as you exhale: all movement in yoga is tied to the breath, so don’t move without breathing, and never hold your breath in a pose.  When you feel relaxed, don’t sit right up: slowly inhale and exhale as you roll up, one vertebrate at a time to avoid a head rush.

Eat, sleep and move: Productivity drops off dramatically with sleep deprivation. You’ll grade more efficiently if you’re rested, you’ve eaten well, and gotten some exercise (now known to be critical for brain functioning).  Just keep reminding yourself and your long-suffering friends and family that finals are only temporary.

What gets you through the season?


Thanks to Wren Mills, Ph.D., Instructional Coordinator, Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching (FaCET) at Western Kentucky University for the yoga and meditation tips.



Teaching Tip #12 Situational despair: The end of semester paper

So, you gave a written assignment, with some directions and maybe even a rubric.  Now you’re sitting in your favorite grading spot and reading your students’ work.   The MIA thesis, the failing logic, the absent evidence, the atrocious editing – where did it all go so wrong?  Unfortunately it’s probably too late for this semester’s batch but how can you avoid repeating this experience?

First of all, realize that you’re not alone; I’ve experienced it and my conversations with faculty suggest that most of them have too.  I think that most of our despair stems from a common set of assumptions that many of us learned when we were students.  They go something like this:  Professor assigns paper with due date at the end of the semester and basic instructions.  No other communication is necessary.  Student hands in final paper; professor makes pithy and insightful comments.  Student internalizes said comments and applies them to papers at the end of the next semester, never making the same mistakes again.   Writing improves in a steady upward spiral. Grateful students send their donations and their children to the University.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Research on transfer of learning from course to course shows that it does not happen easily or automatically.  Many students who are told to provide more supporting evidence in History 211 are unlikely to provide it in Marketing 301.  They may not even provide it in History 212 without a reminder.  Students need your help understanding the requirements of the discipline and the requirements of your particular assignment before they can meet them.  Passing EN 101-102 is not sufficient preparation for writing papers in every other course.

Students benefit most from feedback that is provided BEFORE the final paper is turned in.  This is a form of “just-in-time” teaching i.e. providing instruction at the moment it is most relevant and helpful.  Requiring drafts and revision allows you to catch errors before students get too far afield, and you also can direct students who need extra help to the LRC before it’s too late.  If you do this up front, the final papers will have fewer problems and you’ll probably be able to grade them faster.  In addition, plagiarism becomes much more difficult when drafts are required, which minimizes another end-of-semester nightmare.  If you’re allowing drafts but not requiring them, you are probably noticing that the students who need the most feedback don’t submit.  That’s why I strongly suggest requiring them.

When it comes to encouraging students to use what they learned in their earlier classes, start by asking/reminding them about what they already know.  Then encourage them to think about how they can apply what they know to THIS assignment, and what they will need to do differently.  Students do not know automatically that the passive voice they’ve been hunting down and killing in English class is required for science writing.  As an added benefit, when you model the transfer of knowledge and skills between courses, students may learn to do it themselves.  **Promotion alert**   If you’d like to improve your quality of (grading) life by helping your students write better, consider attending a Writing Intensive workshop.  You’ll learn lots of helpful strategies that can be used in any class, not just WI.  Contact Sylvia Whitman for details at Sylvia.whitman@marymount.edu.

Now, you may wondering —  what has happened to students today?  After all, you WERE able to transfer information and you DID improve your writing with relatively little feedback and without what some would characterize as “hand-holding”.    And we all have at least a couple of students in each class who DO get it; who think critically, write well and make us feel so much better about our teaching.  Why can’t they all be like that?

As many of you have heard me say, our students are not us.  I sometimes think back to my own undergraduate years (yes, it’s increasingly difficult).  I would have been horrified to turn in poorly written work, but I wonder how many of my classmates were that picky.  For the most part, we who stayed in academia WERE those few students who did the outstanding work.  What was everyone else doing?  I have a feeling that many of them were like the majority of our students now, stumbling along but in need of much more support than they got.  Those students did not have the benefit of what we have learned about teaching and learning over the last 30 years.  Our students can get the benefit of that knowledge, if we are brave enough to try something different, and willing to meet them where they are and not where we think they should be or wish they were.

As a follow up to last week’s post about  final exams,  I couldn’t possibly write a better entry than this one from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brigham Young University:


As always, looking forward to your thoughts.  Procrastinate on that grading and post a few!