The challenges of assignments in the COVID-19 era: strategies for an active process

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged education worldwide, forcing universities and community colleges in the U.S. to turn online. While there is immeasurable “learning loss” during the last almost three years, there is also an opportunity to ensure that writing is a tool of self-expression that engenders political, economic, and social change. In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, college classroom has changed forever, and there is opportunity for more and different cross-curricular writing than before.

In a complex interconnected world of increased poverty and inequalities, cross-curricular writing has the power to give young people access to the academic and professional world.  If education is freedom, writing is the tool of self-expression to transform it. It is our duty, as teachers and students, to transmit that across our academic communities. We must interact with students’ assignments in a more meaningful way, so we go beyond reviewing grammar, spelling, and style.

From 2019 to 2022, during which I was teaching at Brooklyn College, I did my best to bring critical consciousness to the classroom. But this became particularly challenging when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, as not only the class turned online but students were also struggling to adapt to the new world as well as to concentrate on the writing and other assignment processes.

Our solution was to go together through the online learning process, so students had an active role to play on it instead of being a passive recipient of knowledge. For instance, we had collaborative writing assignments—when students had to work in zoom breakout rooms to write an analysis of one international organization—and research papers, which were divided into several steps during the semester, including feedback from me and the other students in the classroom.

Yet, it was only more recently, as a WAC fellow at City Tech that I had access to a broader variety of pedagogical strategies on how to best make writing a process of critical thinking for students. In the insightful “Engaging Ideas” by John C. Bean and Dan Melzer, there are a variety of ideas that apply to pedagogy in general and can be particularly helpful for engaging students in times of online learning. Let me share three strategies from “designing productive small-group task” (Bean and Melzer. Engaging Ideas, 2021, chapter 8) that I found most useful for online assignments and my reflection about how they help to overcome the challenges of online teaching.

First, the template strategy, in which the instructor provides a template frame to shape a short essay. Students must create the content, developing the argument for each section. What appeals to me in this strategy is that students are free for thinking but at the same time have a clear structure to guide and develop that thinking. Moreover, students usually have difficulty to develop their ideas in a structured manner or a way the reader can understand. This is particularly good for online teaching and addressing concentration issues: with clear guidance, procrastination and distractions become harder.

Second, the question-generating strategy, in which the instruction breaks the students into groups to brainstorm possible questions related to the topics in discussion. Students must select 2-3 best questions and explain why they are good ones. Although the format – breakout groups – is like what I did before, I wish I had known about this strategy before as it focuses on question-generating rather than on the students answering the questions I was posing. This strategy incentivizes students to collectively think and build arguments because they need to justify why a specific question matters as well as to try convincing each other. One of the online teaching challenges is that, given the environmental distractions, students need extra incentive to actively engage in class discussion and assignments.

Third, the evidence-finding strategy, in which an instructor asks students to use evidence to support an assertion. In my field, international relations, this means finding textual details from primary documents. The way of doing this online is breaking the students into smaller groups and suggesting a topic for them to find evidence. For instance, looking at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and world leaders’ official statement, both usually available online, for evidence to support their argument on whether some leader is violating a human right.  The beauty of this task is that often we learn together how evidence is actually selectively chosen. Since this task challenges students to search and prove a point, it incentivizes them to move away from distractions and try to convince their peers.

To transform education with WAC, we must take the opportunity of the pandemic and construct together the change we want to see.  The strategies already exist. It’s our job to adapt and use them for the online learning and teaching world, which came to stay.


Works cited:

Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas. 3rd Edition, Jossey Bass, 2021.

One Reply to “The challenges of assignments in the COVID-19 era: strategies for an active process”

  1. I’m struck by Giovanna’s framing of writing as “a tool of self-expression that engenders political, economic, and social change” as well as the challenges brought from online learning through the pandemic. And as we’ve transitioned to more in-person learning, much of these pedagogical strategies can also apply to non-digital formats. I want to write a little about the second activity Giovanna mentions—a “question-generating strategy”—because it’s one I’ve deployed with great success in a variety of classrooms. I also suspect it’s one that instructors in the natural sciences, business, and non-humanities more generally can use with effectively to engage students in writing.

    Giovanna explains that this strategy uses writing to “brainstorm possible questions related to the topics in discussion. Students must select 2-3 best questions and explain why they are good ones.” I agree with Giovanna that I’m compelled by the focus on questions rather than answers. Too often, in higher education that demands more and more professionalization, we focus on answers—i.e., “facts,” data, claims. But any worthwhile research endeavor, whether a short paper or a dissertation, begins with clear, well-phrased questions. The evidence we find, the claims we make, the facts we stake as “true,” all depend on the questions we ask. And too often, our students have little practice in forming rigorous, discipline-specific, expansive, and worthy intellectual questions.

    One of the common misconceptions about incorporating writing into the classroom is that the writing must take the form of an essay or other recognizable academic genre. That’s not that case, and, in fact, at times, writing 2-3 sentences for one class period—if those sentences are attended to by both instructors and students—can advance learning more regardless of the goals.

    I teach English—both literature and writing—and I’ve used this strategy with some variation in just about every class I’ve taught in the past four semesters. For literature seminars, I use a weekly question-formation activity to achieve two main goals: to prepare students for discussion about the assigned texts and to provide a weekly opportunity for students to practice forming good analytical questions.

    Here’s what I do: The first few sessions of the seminar, students read a text or two, and we come into the classroom to discuss them. At this point, I generate 4– 6 analytical questions (not questions with a definite answer) related to the texts that are intended to spark discussion, display those questions on the board, and ask them to guide student discussion. As we talk about the text, I often interrupt and talk explicitly about the form of the questions—what kind of a question is it, what other questions might we ask instead, what kind of evidence are we looking for, what kind of research would this question lead to? In this way, I’m modeling what the students will soon do themselves.

    After a few class periods of this modeling, students sign up in pairs to lead one or two discussions throughout the semester that are based on assigned reading. Their task is to generate 4-6 analytical discussion question and send them to me the day before class. I look at them quickly and give feedback, sometimes telling them if a question will not be helpful or whether they might re-frame one of the questions. On my part, this critical feedback takes just a few minutes. Then, student discussion leaders come to class with their revised questions, and we have an agenda for the discussion that day. It helps me know how the discussion will go, it puts some control in the hands of students while fostering their natural curiosity, it relieves some pressure on me to organize the discussion, and, ultimately, it begins a semester-long process of explicit student engagement with writing good analytical research questions. By the end of the semester, the students know what kinds of questions are weak and what kinds are strong, what kinds are too broad and what kinds are too narrow. The final research papers are much more coherent and focused not necessarily because we’ve done intensive writing workshops but because we’ve spent the semester focusing on writing a research question well. It is the lynchpin of both the written and the discussion-based activity.

    This question-formation strategy can be adapted to any discipline. Instructors might shy away from analytical questions toward more practical ones, and explicitly frame this as a disciplinary norm. Or if discussion is less prominent, instructors can still have students practice question-formation at the beginning of class, as homework, or in response to lectures, videos, or other class activities.

    In short, individual or group question-formation strategies allow instructors to practice writing on the level of the sentence while also instructing students on the conventions of the discipline. They are also the key to what most students need at the undergraduate level: not the answers from the instructor but a method of finding the answers for themselves.

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