Distance Learning and the Art of Note-taking

The move to distance learning during this fraught time has been difficult for most of us, especially those who have built years of experience and teaching methods on the basic assumption that you get to meet with your students in person at least once a week, usually more. In today’s blog post, in light of the adaptations we are having to make in terms of how we communicate with our students during this time and how they process that information, I would like to revisit the important theme of note-taking practices.

The WAC program likes to offer a student workshop on this topic each semester as we believe that best note-taking practices are the underpinning for student success at the college level. There is a huge step-up for many students between high school and college, where it is expected that for every piece of new knowledge you gain, you also respond and add to this knowledge with your own perspective and input. This higher expectation of their level of engagement is frequently only possible if the student has first digested properly the original information, and secondly has cultivated a conversation with themselves within their notes and materials that they can refer back to as an ongoing narrative that evolves in line with their thinking and learning.

In the context of distance learning, this internal dialogue within the student becomes even more crucial as a way to check in, problem solve, and develop new answers and theories in response to the task at hand. These actions become much harder in the absence of a spontaneous, collaborative learning environment that happens naturally in a physical classroom with twenty other students. When we adapt our courses knowing that the student will be receiving our material in isolation, probably at different hours of the day from a regular school schedule, and often in more challenging and distracting environments, we should help to counter these difficulties by making sure students are armed with the best tools within themselves to assess, quantify, respond to, and deliver new information.

So how to teach best note-taking practices? The first thing to do is assess the current note-taking habits of your students by testing their ability to record and then reproduce information. This is more difficult to do remotely, but a basic method could be giving a spontaneous, short lecture via a live online platform (live so they can’t press rewind later and thus must rely on the notes they make at the time!) on a new topic from the course, perhaps with one or two visual aids – remember that there are different styles of learning and some will be better at taking notes from a display such as PowerPoint than they will be just listening to your voice – then immediately asking students to free-write for 5-10 minutes in response to the topic discussed. This can and should be low stakes so they don’t feel the added pressure of assessment, but the idea is to firstly figure out who needs more support in their note-taking abilities based on the fluency and content of these responses. Holding an online blog discussion about current note-taking habits could be another way to get an idea of how students approach this topic, for example asking whether they typically take notes during lectures; how they mark important sections for themselves; whether they plan more lengthily assignments using their notes; and if they have unique methods for recording information (e.g. symbols, colors, splitting the page into sections). Starting a frank discussion around this topic will get some students to share methods, and others less well-versed in note-taking to start considering it as a viable way of learning. Some students may never have been taught how to take notes before, and thus never consider it as an option for themselves. We have all had a student who arrives to class without a notebook or pen, sits staring blankly for the duration of class, and then struggles later on with assignments.

Once you have an idea of what level your students are at with their note-taking, you can begin to introduce suggestions for how they can proceed to better this practice. The first thing to emphasize is that proper, effective note-taking is a cognitive skill and not the same as dictation. We should encourage students to think of their class-notes much like a journal; written for themselves, personalized with whatever flair they feel inclined to add that will help them engage fully with the material being taught, and requiring practice and commitment to improve the results. Secondly, it should be explained to students that the cognitive process behind effective note-taking involves encoding; that is, the interactive response to new material that allows someone to reword what they are being told in their own way in order to absorb, and later apply, that new knowledge. This act of encoding improves conceptual understanding in the long run because students are forced to summarize and re-think on the spot, making them adaptable to the material and more comfortable with shaping it in their own unique way when it comes to formal means of assessment.

There are many, varying methods for note-taking and it is also important to emphasize that there is not only one “correct” way to do this; everybody thinks and learns in their own unique way. Paraphrasing, symbols, abbreviations, made-up codes for words or theories, text language, writing in a mother tongue that might be different from the language being used by the instructor, and using the page however makes sense to that individual (split in half, turned upside down, etc) are all allowed. There are no official rules for how notes should look, and students should understand this as soon as possible so they feel empowered to make the process their own.

Research has suggested that handwriting is more beneficial over typing because the act of putting pen to paper is more involved than using a keyboard – something many of our students do without thinking thanks to the rise of technology use today especially in younger generations. That said, as long as the student is fully focused on the task at hand (i.e. not switching windows between the internet, social media, and their class-notes) it is possible for some of them to perhaps benefit more from the process of typing, which can be quicker and more efficient if they struggle to hand-write (also common these days). The three most important stages that should be included whatever the chosen medium and method are: Writing down the information, Questioning that information or contextualizing its logic and source, and Reflecting or Summarizing in one’s own words. If these three components are consistently being achieved during note-taking over the course of a lesson or private study session, then the student is likely to retain that information long-term and be able to use it in varying settings going forward.

Reminding students to go back to their notes to re-read and reflect is the final component to making sure they are getting the most out of this process. It isn’t enough to write something down once and then never revisit it. They must get into the habit of returning to and reviewing notes in order to grow in their awareness of what still needs to be worked on to make their understanding and application of the knowledge as full as possible. Writing down questions they have, especially when learning and internal processing is happening remotely, is a crucial component of this practice, as questions feed more investigations, more discussion, and ultimately more exciting and fresher ideas. If we can get our students to a place where they feel confident and imaginative in their own, initial responses to course materials, then the results of wider discussion and assessment become much more fruitful and we send them onward with a sense of independence when it comes to tackling new materials.

***Sending positive energy and thoughts to all of you during this tough time – may everyone you know, including yourself, be happy and well and safe.

Active Learning in the Classroom Part II: Pen and Paper

Active learning is a huge cornerstone of WAC philosophy, and is generally defined as: “any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing. While this definition could include traditional activities such as homework, in practice active learning refers to activities that are introduced into the classroom.” (Prince 2004) [1]

According to neuroscience research, the typical human brain can only maintain focus for approximately 15-20minutes at a time, so when we consider that our students are with us for roughly three times that per lesson, we cannot be too surprised when they become restless or disengage from the task at hand. Active learning activities therefore provide helpful and necessary shifts in the learning environment that immediately allow us to reset the focus and re-engage in materials.

What we are being asked to consider when we think about the role of active learning in our classroom is how our chosen teaching methods are directly influencing our students’ abilities to learn, and how that might look for each individual walking into our classroom. Are we satisfied with the way that students are learning in our classrooms? Some students are aural learners while others may be visual or tactile learners, so involving students in the process of learning with different types of activities, engages different parts of the brain and allows learning on multiple levels.

In a previous blog post Technology as Friend not Foe! I already discussed some of the ways we as instructors can introduce active learning strategies into our lessons to better engage our students in course material. This previous post focused on the beneficial role of technology in active learning, especially as something that oftentimes our students feel more comfortable using than we do. Online platforms such as discussion boards, forums, blogs, or social media sites such as Twitter, also extend conversations beyond class time so students may continue at home, and reach a wider social context than just the classroom that enables deeper analysis and learning.

Instead this time, I would like to focus on some of the ways we can introduce active learning strategies using the basic components of any classroom: pen and paper. One of the mantras of Writing Across the Curriculum is our belief that writing, particularly low-stakes writing, is a pathway to developing critical thought. This is because through the act of writing we engage with ideas and concepts by putting them into our own words and working through them in a way that forces us to take ownership of them, meaning we can go on to deploy these concepts in a variety of settings. Pen and paper are the easiest and most readily available tools; plus spontaneous writing exercises can happen at literally the drop of a hat in most classrooms.

It can be a good practice to get your students in the habit of arriving to class and sitting down to write a 5-minute journal entry or response to something either in the previous class or that they studied for homework. Immediately this gets them in the appropriate frame of mind to engage with your material, as well as forcing them into the role of having to decide on some level how they position themselves in relation to the information being received. Sometimes these brief responses can also form the beginnings of great research topics or ideas for larger, assessed work. Keeping tasks like this low-stakes means they don’t add to your workload as an instructor, but as a mandatory part of the lesson, students still tend to take them seriously. These informal journal entries can also happen at the end of class as a way to conclude, though I have found them most successful when put at the beginning, when they can then be used as an ice-breaker to initiate class discussion.

Brainstorming is another very simple exercise that promotes a high level of engagement with students almost immediately. John Bean suggests creating question-generating exercises that can lead to a more in-depth discussion as a class, for example: “Carefully observe this [poem, graph, statistical table, painting, advertisement]. What aspects of it puzzle you or intrigue you? As a group, pose three good questions that emerge from your observation of the item.” (Bean 2011) This strategy can be particularly effective if you feel you have some students that struggle to come up with original ideas on their own and who could benefit from a group-writing exercise.

In fact, any group work exercise can incorporate a writing component, so that again students must directly engage in the materials they are working with in order to reword concepts and ideas to present to the class. Debate scenarios can be an excellent way of promoting this skill of organizing and evaluating information and presenting it in a convincing argument. Asking students to each write up their proposed points and counter-arguments beforehand can also help them to synthesize and internalize information and give them study materials that they may refer to later on.

Peer-review is another in-class exercise that provides a context for active learning through putting pen to paper. Ideally peer-review would happen later in the semester when students have grown more familiar with one another, and when there is a larger writing project in mind that they are working towards, for example the Final Research Paper. One topic of focus could be the use of supporting evidence (tracking where it is / isn’t used, and suggesting improvements), and you divide the class into groups of 4-5 to take it in turns reading each person’s draft then giving collective written feedback. In this scenario the original writer is able to receive responses from their peers, as well as contribute to feedback on other’s work, allowing for both a verbal and written exchange of ideas and support that is invaluable for students to evolve and progress.

The link between active-learning and note-taking, or putting pen to paper, is just as important as its link to technology, and both remain crucial in the experiences of our students as they navigate the pressures of managing several course-loads of material. Thus as instructors, if we can vary our approach in what we ask from our students, we give them the best possible chance at success.

[1] Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-31.

Final Exam Templates in the Spirit of WAC!

Related to our faculty workshop, Minimal Marking and Effective Grading (the last one in our series this semester), I would like to discuss a couple of options for how to design the final exam for your course. While the workshop presents various strategies for saving time on grading and giving feedback, I want to focus here on exam formats that are designed with these time-saving methods in mind. One will be a broader template that can be adapted to any discipline, and the other will be more geared towards the humanities and social sciences, where a longer essay answer is an appropriate format for testing the students’ knowledge and skill set. My goal is to present two options for the final exam that allow students to shine on the page according to the main tenet of WAC pedagogy; that writing to learn and learning to write are equally important tasks that should be supported with ample scaffolding.

So how do we balance these seemingly contradictory goals of providing ample scaffolding and feedback while sticking to “minimal marking” strategies? And how do we make sure that the work we are assigning to students is actually useful to them, even as we prepare them for standard department tests at the end of the semester that can seem to contradict the main message WAC promotes about writing i.e. that it should be a carefully thought-out process with preparation and planning?


My students were always excited by this prospect when I introduced it to them in the second half of the semester. The thinking behind collectively writing the exam is to allow students to take ownership over course material and decide for themselves what was most impactful in terms of their development and learning.

Students prepare for this at home ahead of time by looking back over their notes from the semester, and then deciding what they would like to see appear on in the exam itself. When they come into class, you firstly split into groups to vote for people’s favorites, and then together you decide which questions should make up the final exam. This conversation is usually very lively and gets the students deeply engaged in the course material while they work to justify to each other what should and should not appear.

Once these decisions are made, the exam is written up and given to the students ahead of time, so they are able to work on prepared responses at home that hopefully mimic the redrafting process that is so crucial to WAC pedagogy. This method also allows them to become more comfortable in an exam setting once you take away the anxiety of the “unknown”.

Here is a suggested template for designing the exam, taken from a former ENGL 220 course:


Definition and Example questions (in the exam you will choose 3/8)

You will be given 8 key words (literary terms, characters, themes or ideas; in STEM these can be formulas, symbols or methods that need explanations) and you must choose THREE to write about. You will define the term and then give me an example using one of the texts/theories we have studied this semester, stating its importance or relevance in the context of that work.

TOTAL POINTS: 15 (5 per question)


Identification of a Passage (in the exam you will choose 1/5)

You will be presented with three excerpts taken from the poems/plays we have looked at this semester. It will be your job to pick ONE to write about. You will identify the author, and the poem/Hamlet, and then discuss its relevance in relation to one of the key themes/ writing features we have been discussing this semester.



Essay Question (in the exam you will choose 1/8)

You will write an answer to ONE of the essay questions, using the whole hour (writing a mini plan is encouraged) to talk about at least TWO of the texts we have studied this semester. The questions will focus on issues we have discussed throughout the semester and will use familiar terminology e.g. epiphany / the sublime / sane vs. insane.



Come up with the following to present to the class during our next session:

5 possible key words/terms

2 examples of passages

3 possible essay questions

*(providing examples of whatever you are asking for is a good idea here – I usually go over the exam format in class time first before asking them to prepare it themselves at home).


The second exam model I propose is more suited to humanities and social sciences subjects in which the bulk of course material being assessed can be presented in an essay-style response. It involves putting together a selection of prompts that cover a variety of topics and then students choose one to answer in the exam in the form of a long, essay-style response. Similar to the strategy above, you could have students look over their notes at home first in order to come up with suggestions for what kinds of prompts could appear on the exam, then together as a class you decide on the selection that will be offered. You can set requirements for what their answers must include – for example at least two different authors / characters / themes / time periods etc. – but importantly it should be up to the students to come up with the wording for questions, which helps them to internalize the material being treated on the exam.

An important part of this model is insisting that student’s write out their practice answers ahead of time, so that their response becomes the product of drafting and redrafting that will happen naturally during their revision process and exam preparation. Allowing them to see the questions ahead of time and select which topic to write on encourages students to order their thoughts the way they would do in an assessed paper, with more thought being given to structure and natural flow of an argument than they perhaps have time to do in a more typical exam setting when they haven’t seen the question first. The action of “writing from memory” that this sort of exam preparation leads to, can greatly improve the confidence students have in their own ideas and work, and again lessens the anxiety that can be triggered by feeling caught out or tricked on an unseen exam.

In the end, however you decide to design the final exam for your course, making sure that the format supports the same kind of development you are hopefully nurturing in your students’ writing over the course of the semester is important. By design, if students are able to prepare their responses for the final exam ahead of time, it should mean that they turn in a better product, which ultimately supports their development as writers as well as allowing them to handle course material confidently in an exam setting.


Low-Stakes Writing as a Pathway to Critical-Thinking

One of the central beliefs of WAC pedagogy is “writing-to-learn” and that there are many different ways to introduce writing into the classroom whether your field is writing-based or not: even the most complicated mathematical equation still needs to be put into words to help explain its logic and function to someone new. Our first faculty workshop which was held last Thursday on Effective Assignment Design discusses several methods for incorporating writing into our students’ learning process, and you can review this presentation and others on our WI certification page. Perhaps the most useful writing-to-learn method, and one which may sometimes get overlooked because it doesn’t hold the same prestige of a paper or term-project, is low-stakes or informal writing.

In simple terms, low-stakes writing is any writing related to your course that does not have an official grade attached to its production. In fact, WAC practices often encourage the instructor to not have a pen in-hand at all when reading low-stakes assignments to avoid the temptations one might have to line-edit or overwhelm the student with feedback. This is because the primary function of low-stakes assignments is not for the instructor to assess, but for the student to explore. Exploratory writing allows students to tap into their own ideas and reactions to course content in a safe and private space on the page first.

Low-stakes writing is usually shorter in length, and consists of an informal response that encourages students to use and develop their critical thinking skills by focusing on big-picture ideas and themes rather than getting stuck in the logistics of structure and presentation. Concerns such as grammar, spelling, and formatting (spacing, citations) are not the focus here. Instead, students are stimulated to focus on higher-order concerns that form the basis for any great paper: do they have a clear argument? Have they provided any evidence to back up their view? Is it obvious that the student understands the course material, and that they can adapt it to suit the question at hand? When students are given the opportunity to practice these skills in an informal way, they often respond with the kind of flair and confidence that can be difficult to tap into under stressful conditions such as approaching a paper draft for the first time, or responding to an exam question.

So, what do low-stakes assignments look like? Brief periods of 2-5 minutes of silent, uninterrupted writing can happen at several points throughout class-time or at home, and they can be given with or without a prompt. At the start of class it can double-up as a means to take attendance; I know several instructors who have their students come in and write a 5-minute response straight away to that day’s reading assignment. This is a great way of making sure students are actually doing the reading, as well as providing them with the space to work through questions or difficulties they might be having without fear of judgment. It can also serve as a way of reviewing material from the previous session (especially helpful in STEM subjects e.g. describe the logic of this particular theorem and give an example…) or as a way of encouraging speculation on a new topic that is introduced.

In the middle of a class period, a break for low-stakes writing can be a great way of cementing a new piece of knowledge for the student – getting them to rephrase a theory or method in their own words – or it can serve to redirect attention elsewhere if discussion has become heated or is lagging. Alternatively, at the end of class a brief writing session can allow students to sum up in their own words what they have learned that day, or what questions they may want to follow up on at home or before the next class. Essentially, any kind of low-stakes assignment should ultimately be urging the student to engage in a conversation with themselves on the page in order to get as comfortable as possible with course content as well as their personal approach to that content. These exercises can often help students to form meaningful ideas for more significant projects like a final paper.

At home, these low-stakes responses might take a slightly longer form with students writing for a set period of time (10 – 15 minutes) to answer a course-related question. These questions can ask students to pose an opinion for or against a topic; to analyze or interpret materials; or to relate their topic to current affairs. Low-stakes assignments can also form the basis for class discussions in which students are invited to share their responses. They have already had the opportunity to think about their position and present this on the page before responding to their peers verbally, which stimulates deeper conversations around course content. This kind of “padding” for their ideas can be especially helpful for students who need a little more time and space to think through difficult concepts, or for ESL students who may struggle to find the right wording the first time around.

Remember that the purpose of low-stakes writing is primarily to get students thinking and responding originally to course content – not to grade them in these efforts. Think of low-stakes assignments as their rehearsal space. Naturally, the more we provide opportunities for practicing writing in a relaxed, informal way, the more all of our students will feel prepared to tackle the demands of good writing on their own when the stakes are higher.

(For other ways to assign writing in your classroom, take a look at this handout: https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/files/2016/01/Assignment-Scaffolding-CityCollege.pdf)

Some Thoughts on Revision and Feedback

Inspired by Nancy Sommers[1]

Spring break has now passed, which means a lot of us are preparing for the final push towards the end of the semester. Many students will be planning, drafting and revising final papers, while their instructors prepare for the assessment work ahead. Whatever approach we take to revision and feedback, the time commitment required is in some ways unavoidable. After all, it is important to give adequate and equal attention to our students’ work when they have made it through a semester under our care and instruction, and have produced something to show for their efforts. Equally, we want to make sure that their work is properly celebrated and recognized, and maybe even offer some direction for what the student could focus on in their work to improve as they continue moving through their education.

On the topic of responding to student writing, Nancy Sommers has written a wonderful guide[2] that includes some tips for how to grade both low stakes and high stakes assignments that have both the instructor and student in mind. Central to her discussion is an attempt to solve the issue of how instructors can meet the needs of their students through certain grading and feedback practices, but avoid sacrificing huge amounts of time and mental space.

Sommers begins her discussion by pointing out a simple and true fact, that as writers “we need and want thoughtful commentary to show us when we have communicated our ideas and when not, raising questions from a reader’s point of view that may not have occurred to us as writers.”[3] Essentially, the process of providing feedback as an instructor (in any discipline) serves to “dramatize the presence of a reader”[4] for our students and is a crucial part of the writing process. A symbiotic relationship of instructor-student feedback-response encourages students to engage in their work on a deeper level once they recognize that they are writing for someone and not just into the void.

Then Sommers gives some great suggestions for how instructors can best support students’ writing through written feedback. These include: creating a motive for revising; making an effort as much as possible to remove the intimidation and judgment that can sometimes be involved in the editing process; forcing students to focus on whatever the ‘Big Picture’ idea is before getting into the nitty-gritty of syntax and grammar; and not taking attention away from what the student is trying to do/ say. This last point is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to providing feedback on early drafts, as there is often a danger of us falling into appropriation of the text, i.e. forcing the student to make the changes we want to see, instead of the ones that are most suited to their overarching point or theme.

This misdirecting of attention is also a common trap to fall into when we correct grammar or spelling mistakes on a first draft without considering the larger context of what the argument is doing or what the student is trying to say. When we do this, we give the impression that diction and grammar is as important as meaning and ideas, which should never be the case. As WAC research and practices clearly show, meaning should always be discussed and  verified before moving on to surface level issues such as syntax.

Sommers agrees with this foregrounding of higher order concerns, noting that if you tell a student to try and tackle meaning and grammar at the same time, chances are they won’t do either, or they will struggle to do both simultaneously and well. It can also be difficult for students to know what to prioritize if our comments are scattered and broad, so having a structure to our responses can be helpful. But how should this look? Sommers proposes a very simple plan towards the end of her guide, and one I have used myself as an instructor with much success.

Essentially she suggests structuring end comments as a letter to the student, using familiar language from the classroom and a conversational tone. We should begin by acknowledging something good that the student has accomplished in their draft, and then suggest one or two higher order concerns and no more than one lower order concern to work on in the revisions[5]. End comments on final papers or projects follow a similar format: first offering praise and then perhaps one lesson to take away from the experience.

While this may seem like a lengthily response if we know we have to complete one for every student we have in a course, the idea is that as much early investment as we put into a project will pay off in the long term, both for the student and instructor. The more precise we can be with feedback at the early stage of a draft ensures less work on later drafts and a better final product. Also, as you will see below, it is possible to give the student vital feedback in a concise way. Here is one recommended outline for how to order feedback to the student:

  • Opens with a salutation: “Dear Sonia”
  • Highlights the paper’s strengths: “You bring in excellent evidence to support your argument”
  • Highlights the paper’s weakness: “You expect the evidence to be self-evident”
  • Links marginal comments with the end comment: “Marginal comments #1–3 highlight the ratio between quotation and analysis in a single paragraph”
  • Provides guidance across the drafts: “For your next paper, focus on a deeper analysis of the evidence”
  • Reinforces the writer-reader relationship: “I look forward to reading your next paper”
  • Closes with a signature: “Sincerely, Professor Henry”[6]

As Sommers points out, we are constantly challenged in our role as instructors to “develop comments which will provide an inherent reason for students to revise…”[7] and not only this, but encourage them to embrace and take pleasure in the revision process. Thus the more we can inspire excitement and a sense of possibility through our feedback, the harder our students will work to improve their writing, and the more this will be reflected in their final grade.


[1] The information in this blog post is adapted from an article by Nancy Sommers, “Responding to Student Writing,” in College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, May 1982.

[2] Sommers, Nancy, Responding to Student Writers, Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2013.

[3] Sommers, College Composition, 148.

[4] ibid.

[5] For a more detailed discussion of what exactly to include in end comments, as well as more discussion on the how, see the WAC fellow’s PowerPoint, “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading”: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/wacdigitalinitiativeswritingintensivecertification/2018/03/08/minimal-marking-effective-grading/ Web, accessed April 29, 2019.

[6] Sommers, Responding to Student Writers, 24.

[7] Sommers, College Composition, 156.

Technology as Friend, not Foe!

Our faculty workshop last week discussed various active learning strategies to use in the classroom to better engage students in the learning process. One aspect of this discussion was thinking about the ways in which technology can support the work our students do in class and help them to understand and internalize course content better. (You can take a look at the presentation on our Faculty Workshops page to see the various resources and programs that were mentioned in this workshop.)

For many of us, especially in the arts and humanities, incorporating technology might not immediately seem in line with our course goals and objectives. Ironically, this view is very similar to the one that doesn’t immediately see a place for writing in the classroom when the topic does not traditionally focus on constructing prose e.g. STEM subjects. What this comparison should tell us is that there are multiple ways we can be biased about what activities enter our classroom but there is space for BOTH writing and technology, and each technique can be highly effective if employed in the correct way.

One reason technology has the potential to yield powerful results is that it uses skills our students already have to our advantage – they are on their phones or online for more hours a day than ever before, and bringing this context into the classroom can introduce a new way for them to interact with course content that is already familiar to them in other settings. In a lot of cases, our students are going to be more adept with technology than we are, so engaging them on this level also helps to rethink the instructor-student hierarchy and invite our students into a position of authority and expertise, hopefully giving them a boost of confidence which they can then directly apply to the task at hand.

Technology is also a real world tool that students will have to know how to use wherever they go after college. This means that as educators we have a responsibility to professionalize students in this area and make sure they understand how to best use technology to their advantage. Technology also expands the classroom in the sense that communication can now happen at any time and across any city or continent. Online platforms such as discussion boards, forums, blogs, or social media sites such as Twitter, extend conversations beyond class time so they may continue at home, and also extend to include a wider audience: students from different sections can discuss and compare materials, or they can communicate with other professionals in the field wherever they are situated, who would otherwise be out of reach without the internet.

All of that said, the use of technology has to be designed with specific educational goals in mind in order to be effective. In other words, just opening up your classroom to laptop and cellphone use is not going to magically yield better engagement levels and better test sources. In fact, it is likely to have the opposite effect: one study showed that, “When students have free rein to use their cellphones in class, they perform half a grade lower than when they don’t use their cellphones. (Cognitive psychologists explain these results as a product of divided attention and the myth of multitasking: that people think they can effectively pay attention to multiple stimuli at once.)”[1]

Rather, activities should be structured and have clear ground rules e.g. For an activity like Poll Everywhere (a web-based audience response system that allows people to respond to questions/a discussion on the web or via SMS texting on their phones), cell phone use would be allowed for whatever portion of class was going to use this program, but then restricted otherwise. You would need to be explicit about what kind of language is acceptable – non offensive, inclusive, discipline specific etc. – and give clear instructions on what form their answers should take. Poll Everywhere can be a great way to generate discussion at the beginning of class by asking a simple question about the homework/reading for that week and getting students to text in answers that are then displayed on the board via a projector for the rest of the class to see. This kind of multimedia learning greatly increases students’ retention of course material because it engages them on multiple levels, involves them in the act of “doing”, and makes it possible to encode into their memory using both visual and auditory information.

Remembering the need for nuance when we use technology in the classroom will help ensure success whenever we are introducing new strategies to structure discussions and deliver content.

[1] Taken from ‘Technology in the Classroom: What the Research Tells Us’. Web. Accessed 3/24/2019. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2018/12/12/what-research-tells-us-about-using-technology-classroom-opinion

A WI-Certified Fantasy Syllabus

Some sentiments I want to express about writing and how important it is for your life*

By Laura Malhotra


This course is WI-Certified through the WAC Program at City Tech. This means that I am fully qualified and equipped to coach you on all aspects of your written communication skills and help you along the never-ending path to becoming a better writer. YES! This is important for you even if you are majoring in a STEM subject. And YES! It will be fun.

Course description

This course will focus on developing your skills in close reading, critical thinking, and critical writing. No matter where you go from here – what major you choose or where you end up working – knowing how to express yourself in writing is a crucial and valuable skill. My aim as your instructor is to help you grasp and internalize the core concepts of (insert discipline/topic here). However, this work is of little value if you cannot express what you have learned effectively through writing!

Hence my other, equally important aim as your instructor is to make you a confident writer, and arm you with the ability to critically engage with and respond to other people’s writing. We will achieve this through short in-class writing exercises, writing workshops, peer review sessions, written responses at home, and by completing two assessed papers.

Course objectives/goals

With special emphasis on close reading and analytical writing, this course is intended to develop in students the analytical and interpretive skills necessary for both written and verbal critical response to core materials that is firmly grounded in the text. It equips students with the vocabulary and techniques for describing and analyzing core concepts, with an emphasis on developing critical writing skills specific to (insert discipline/topic here). In addition, this course develops in students an appreciation for and understanding of the aesthetic qualities of writing, as well as the awareness that written communication skills are a lasting part of what makes our society civilized, and part of a larger ongoing cultural, social, and historical dialogue that informs, influences, and inspires our experiences. I.e. YES! Even in 2019, it is still imperative to know how to write suitably, and at length, on any topic you can imagine. And YES! This will make your social media posts more compelling and effective.

By the end of the semester, students should be able to:

  1. Write thesis-driven analytical essays of 3-5 pages on any topic of their choosing, that incorporate evidence from scholarly texts and demonstrate close reading skills.
  2. Write an analytical research paper of at least 5-7 pages that demonstrates close reading skills and the appropriate use of evidence from academic texts; the ability to create a clear thesis statement; and the ability to incorporate and engage scholarly critical sources as part of a well-organized, thesis-driven argument.
  3. Discuss any of the core concepts of (insert topic here) verbally through the use of close reading skills and, where appropriate, discipline-specific terminology..
  4. Establish a journaling practice that encourages freewriting exercises both inside and outside of the classroom, pertaining to studies or otherwise (the point is to write and write as much as you can – writers improve through more writing!).
  5. Write better Instagram captions and Twitter responses.

Note: “Better” writing is of course subjective, depending on who and where and what. So in an academic and professional setting, knowing how to use proper grammar and adhere to the conventions of your discipline will go a long way. BUT! This training should not stifle your style of individual expression linguistically (a.k.a. your idiolect) in other settings or on other platforms. So be free to explore the many possibilities of representation and expression that writing can open up to you!!


Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (I will provide electronic copies)

Birkenstein, Cathy, et al. “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, with Readings. W.W. Norton, 2015.

Miller, Susan. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. W.W. Norton & Co, 2009.

Course Anthology – printed by me (to save you $$$) more details to come!


Criteria for evaluating core concepts will be discussed in class. Criteria for evaluating your writing will follow the “Higher vs. Lower Order Concerns” course rubric printed on the back of this syllabus. You will also be evaluated on low stakes assignments throughout the semester (a.k.a. Scaffolding – your new best friend) to prepare you for your assessed papers. This will allow time to practice concepts and techniques and to become comfortable with course content.

To ensure your success, I pledge to:

Design effective assignments​;

Establish clear grading criteria (see above)​;

Hold a class discussion about all assessed papers​ (with options for brainstorming sessions);

Meet with students (one-on-one or if necessary in groups);

Show examples of past students’ work;

Conduct peer reviews that we will discuss during class time.

Plagiarism and academic misconduct

Plagiarism usually happens as a result of one (or more) of the following: time management, lack of self-confidence as a writer, bad paraphrasing, and improper citations. But really there is no excuse for plagiarism, because everyone – YES! You! – has something interesting to say about a text or topic if they put in the work.

As your WI-certified instructor, I will take the necessary steps to ensure that you understand plagiarism and the many forms it can take. I will also teach you how to document your sources properly and use paraphrasing to avoid plagiarism altogether.

The best way to contact the instructor

Speak to her immediately before or after class. Your other option — attend my office hours because I love to talk to students one-on-one and I’m honestly happy to help with ANY questions and concerns – IF! You can adequately put it in writing first 😉

Email: writingacrossdisciplines_isthewayforward@gmail.com


*Idea adapted from the recent, hilarious (and equally relevant) article by Julie Schumacher for The New York Times titled, “An Adjunct Instructor’s Final Syllabus”. Web. Jan 29, 2019.

(Original link: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/18/opinion/sunday/adjunct-instructor-syllabus.html)

A Compassionate Approach to Plagiarism

Allow me to paint a picture: It is late on a Saturday night, and you are still awake trying to finish grading a stack of papers. The task for this particular assignment is to build an argument about the role and presentation of women in Hamlet. You want to finish grading tonight so that you can go to bed with a clear mind, satisfied in the knowledge that this duty to your students has been fulfilled and you can enjoy your Sunday at leisure. The respite will be brief – there’s always the next assignment to consider – but well-earned.

Three papers from the end of your pile you discover that one of your students has regurgitated almost word-for-word the CliffsNotes summary and analysis pages of this play that appear online. You know this before you even look up the website to check, because this genre of online summaries is so recognizable; the language informative but repetitive and somewhat elementary. You groan as alarm bells start to go off in your head, the CUNY Policy on Academic Integrity flashes through your mind, and you frustratingly ask yourself a stream of rhetorical questions: Why on earth have they done this when you gave plenty of notice for the paper? Why do they have to do this for YOUR class? How do they have the gall to literally copy and paste so boldly from another source into their own paper? Do they not understand how blatant it is when work from anywhere else is copied into their essays?

It can be difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of our students, especially given that we are professional educators and so presumably did not struggle enough with our own essays at undergraduate level to veer into the murky realm of plagiarism. But the fact remains this is a very real and serious problem at college level.

Our faculty workshop last week on “Avoiding Plagiarism” discussed various factors that can contribute to the conditions in which a student feels they have no choice but to copy someone else’s work: poor time management, a lack of self confidence in their own work, and instances of bad paraphrasing and improper citations which lead to acts of plagiarism that are sometimes unintentional on the student’s part, but an issue nonetheless. Solutions to these issues were discussed in the workshop’s presentation, which is available to view online.

Another set of factors to bear in mind, and the ones I would like to focus on here, are the external pressures that many of our students face outside of their education. Most CUNY students juggle part-time or full-time jobs along with their studies, sometimes multiple jobs. Some students have issues at home with either unstable environments in which to study, or family concerns that can pull their attention and focus away from school (more than once I have had a student let me know they have a sick relative for whom they are the primary carer, and hence lessons have to be missed because of hospital visits, and assignments have to be scaffolded earlier etc). Other students might not have such external pressures, but instead are struggling with debilitating internal factors such as anxiety, depression or other mental or physical illnesses that prevent them from performing to the best of their abilities.

Why should we concern ourselves with these external or personal pressures of a student if our primary role in their lives is to deliver an education and assess their ability to apply that information? Firstly, I believe it is our responsibility as instructors to cultivate a general awareness of what the lives of our students look like outside of the classroom, so that we may better support them inside the classroom. This means being open-minded and flexible enough to look beyond their performance on paper and assess who they are on a human level. So when a serious issue such as plagiarism enters the classroom, we must take the time to stop and think about the root causes of why a student might have resorted to that behavior, and not rush to presume it is arrogance, laziness, or just bad organization skills. Secondly, your openness and approachability as an instructor can help to avoid issues such as plagiarism to begin with, because the student feels comfortable enough to be open about their struggles from the beginning and then you can work together to figure out the best course of action.

There are many ways to manifest this compassionate approach in our classrooms. It could mean making an announcement on the first day of class, or adding a section to your syllabus, that explicitly states the fact that you understand and are aware of these pressures and will show compassion and offer support where necessary to help them succeed as best they can in your course. Another option is being upfront about the things we might juggle ourselves as instructors (especially those of us who are adjuncts and have second jobs or PhD’s to work on besides teaching) which can make us seem more approachable and responsive to their individual situations. Some instructors make it mandatory for students to attend office hours at least once in the semester which can be another way of building a working relationship, especially with those students who find it hard to take the initiative to ask for help even when it is desperately needed: having them come and visit you to talk one-on-one can open up this dialogue. It can also be as simple as figuring out ways of bringing current events into class discussions in the context of course material, so as to show sensitivity and awareness about what they might be feeling and experiencing in reaction to the outside world, and incorporating that into their studies so as to provide an outlet.

My point here is not to take on the task of being a hybrid instructor / therapist. Actually, being a supportive instructor means we can be the first step towards their figuring out what other resources are available, and where they can get adequate help and support from the appropriate places. Rather, if we can develop strong enough relationships with our students to really know them, then we can spot potential problems, such as the likelihood of acts of plagiarism, early enough to prevent them. This also means less instances of disciplinary action to deal with later on, which is good news all around! If we can lead with compassion, we can support and encourage students to successfully manage their various pressures both in and out of the classroom and still produce good, honest work.