Effective Assignment Design – Workshop Recap

This past Tuesday September 16th, the WAC program presented a faculty workshop for effective assignment design led by myself and Roy Rogers. We had a wonderful turnout and some lively discussion about innovative assignment design approaches. Among the most helpful according to research in WAC pedagogy (see Bean, 2011 for a thorough description) are informal writing assignments, scaffolding, and typed assignment handouts. Please see our slides from this workshop HERE and our handout HERE.

Informal writing assignments are small, low-stakes (minimal points or ungraded) writing assignments that are often less structured than traditional formal assignments. Informal writing assignments are useful because they

  • provide a less anxiety-provoking route for discussing course content than formal assignments that are graded
  • allow students to grapple with difficult course-related concepts or topics
  • encourage creative idea generation and critical thinking
  • provide the ability for the instructor to check-in early with students to ensure they are on track
  • offer students an avenue to express confusion or questions related to the course content
  • ensure all students (even those that may be shy) participate and regularly engage with course material

Scaffolding is perhaps the MOST useful strategy for creating effective assignments. This refers to implementing multiple small, informal (or semi-formal) writing assignments that build up to a more formal high-stakes (graded and larger in nature) project in a course. They are beneficial because they

  • provide “levels” to your large assignments in that they allow for students to comprehend the information and practice the skills needed to do well before the big project/paper/lab report
  • allow students to build towards difficult larger assignments
  • offer instructors the ability to steadily assess student progress
  • support course learning objectives and make the goals and process transparent to students

Typed assignment handouts are most beneficial when they are provided to students both in class and on Blackboard or Openlab, are discussed briefly in class so students can raise questions if needed, and when they provide the expectations of the instructor regarding the assignment (even for informal assignments) in a clear manner. Typed assignment handouts are practical for both students and instructors because they

  • help students understand what they “need to do”
  • assist tutors in the Learning Center in providing appropriate assistance to students
  • provide a reference for instructors in later semesters, as it is easier to edit unclear wording, etc. for later courses when the assignment handout is readily available

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Wow, thanks for the enthusiastic response!

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to all the faculty who came out to our workshop today; so many, in fact, that we couldn’t fit you all comfortably in the tiny conference room we had reserved. We apologize to those who couldn’t stay because of space constraints, but we hope that won’t dissuade you from working with WAC this fall!

If you weren’t able to make it or weren’t able to stay for the entire time, check out our PowerPoint presentation and the handout on our workshops page. Feel free to be in touch with Justina or Roy if you have more questions for them or if you’d like them to meet with you to go over any content you missed, they did a great job on today’s workshop. And check back here on Monday for our recap of the workshop.

We promise a bigger room for our October 14 workshop, Effective Grading and Minimal Marking.

Notetaking by Hand, Writing-to-learn

A few weeks ago, this article crossed my social media feeds, and it initially piqued my interest because I ban the use of laptops in my classroom.

I ban phones, tablets, and laptops in class because I find them distracting as an instructor, and I know from some of my students that they find it distracting to see other students surfing the web or using social media during class. For some classes, this is obviously impractical, especially for those in technology, science, engineering, math, or design that rely on student access to a computer and collaborative work. Of course, we must also accmmodate students with learning disabilities who use adaptive technologies to learn. And as this article makes clear, “laptops do in fact allow students to do more.”

However, as the scientific study cited in this article shows, there is perhaps a practical reason to ban or, at the very least, limit the general use of laptops in the classroom. And this is because

those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

Our WAC experience certainly reinforces this concept. We know that using low-stakes writing assignments helps students learn through the very act of writing. When we ask our students to write short, informal assignments based on course content, they must synthesize a variety of different types of learning—what they’ve read, what they’ve learned through lecture, what they’ve learned through experience—into generating an original product. Even if students are just asked to summarize the day’s lecture, they must still find a way to process all the information, pick out the salient points, and describe them using their own language.

Notetaking is another kind of informal writing. It requires the same type of cognitive processing as low-stakes writing assignments, that is, students must “listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.” It requires active reading (or for lectures, active listening) in which students are being asked to question and process information, rather than passively take it all in.  Students are certainly capable of doing this on laptops.

The trouble is, because students can type much faster than they write, they often copy classroom content verbatim, and they can “easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning.” Many of our students think that the best way to study is to review the lecture as it was given, or that the more notes they take, the better off they are, as though the content will magically transfer from a transcription of lecture into their knowledge base.

The same speed limitation means that students taking notes by hand are forced to do the same things that we ask when we give low-stakes, informal writing assignments: they summarize, they pick out the most important points, and they put concepts into their own words that they can understand. They are creating new neural pathways through writing, learning the content in a more holistic way that by simply transcribing a lecture. In this case, it really is quality over quantity.

The other major impediment to our students taking notes by hand is that many of them have never done it! This may come as a shock to those of us for whom taking notes by hand was the norm, but many students are terrified of the idea that they might “miss something important” by handwriting their notes rather than transcribing everything verbatim. As instructors, it is our responsibility to make sure students have these skills, even if we don’t think it’s “our job” to teach this.

A few notetaking tricks can help ease students into the new habit of taking notes. Some ideas include:

  1. Introduce a notetaking method, such as the double column method or the three-section “Cornell method.” These formats require reflection, summarization, and questioning, all forms of informal writing that better reinforce course content.
  2. Require students to turn in their notes, or do an occasional in-class “notebook check.” This can be graded, not for content, but simply whether the students did it or not, giving the students an incentive. Many will be relieved, in fact, to learn that they can earn points towards their grade simply by taking notes!

Let us know – do your students take notes by hand? Do you ban laptops in class for notetaking? What do your students think?

Writing to Calculate: Ideas for Incorporating Writing into Math Coursework

Estes (1989), in his discussion of the importance of writing in math, refers to writing as a “thinking clarifier,” in that the act of writing out a concept requires understanding that concept. This understanding may even occur in the sometimes painful process of getting a few complete sentences typed out. Unfortunately, though, “a major concern with writing projects in mathematics (and other courses as well) is that they often feel tacked on and artificial” write Parker and Mattison (2010: 47).  “The paper is something they had to do in order to receive ‘writing credit’ for a course. It’s a game and everyone is playing along” (38). Most of us—students, math faculty, and non-math faculty, can relate to this opinion, or recognize it.

Parker and Mattison astutely describe this discrepancy in attitudes toward writing, from one discipline to another, as being—in the case of math—the difference between “writing about math,” which often comes in the form of an assigned paper on a mathematician, and “writing math,” which is actually writing on math content concepts, to facilitate their absorption. Luckily, there are a number of ways to incorporate writing into the math curriculum, that are not only painless, but productive and purposeful as well. For example, they suggest a “textbook writing assignment,” which requires students to write out the mathematical equations they learn in textbook style, and also to explain why the equations are the way they are. By having students write out textbook chapters that will be distributed to the rest of the class, by way of making study materials for everyone, in this example, students are given a clear audience, beyond the professor, and an opportunity to uncover any difficulties they may be having with the material.

Alternatively, there are ways for math professors to incorporate less formal (more lower-stakes) math writing assignments, or instead to incorporate more writing into exams, and therefore into exam study guides. As Estes points out, including short-answer questions on exams need not merely be traditional math “word problems,” which are limited to a short section of the algebra curriculum. In other words, asking students to write out concepts taught, a step beyond only writing out the equations numerically, is beneficial for exams and for exercises to practice for the exams. Estes’ example prompt is as follows: “If two variables have a correlation coefficient of -0.98, explain the meanings of the negative sign and the absolute value of 0.98” (12).

While the non-mathematician reader may need to leave the details of this example aside, it is a helpful illustration of how such word problems may apply to other non-Humanities fields. For example, in my social science field, linguistics, I assign language datasets to my students, and when students volunteer a correct solution in class, I am usually obligated to ask, “and how do you know?” While our students often get the correct answer by calculating it, at other times they arrive at the answer by guessing, or—perhaps more common—by erroneously using incorrect reasoning that accidentally led them to the correct answer. We all know that this will not help them with similar questions in the future. So, this act of explaining out loud how the answer was determined is something we can all apply to our own classes. A parallel example to Estes’ (above) in my own linguistic coursework could be:

Question 1: “For the two morphemes below, identify which morpheme is inflectional and which is derivational.”

Question 2: “For the next two morphemes, explain why morpheme A is inflectional, and why morpheme B is derivational.”

My exams and assignments usually do include a “what is your evidence” question, but asking students to write this evidence out, in prose, is taking the process of writing to learn one step further.

For additional convincing and thought-provoking evidence that it is beneficial to integrate prose into math, Estes also describes an elementary math class lesson plan on fractions, in which the teacher starts with a sentence like “half of ten is five,” then replaces the numbers with digits, “half of 10 is 5,” then the remaining words with symbols, “½ x 10 = 5,” showing that the equal sign functions like the verb “to be,” and so on.

Another idea is to come up with reasons for mathematical concepts that students may not know. For example, Strogatz (2014: 287) describes the light bulbs that go off when he explains that the term “rational number” is so named for fractions like ¾ because that number is a ratio of whole numbers. He also finds it helpful to explain that “squaring” a number is so named because the results can fit in a square, like the number nine, illustrated below:

Without being able to predict exactly what would work for math professors here at City Tech, I imagine that, when I was a student in an introductory math class, I would have greatly appreciated answering an exam question such as, “Write out the meaning of and reason behind the term ‘to square a number.’ Feel free to provide examples and drawings to make your answer clear.”

What kinds of “word problems” do you use in your various disciplines?

 

References

Estes, Paul L. (June 1989). Writing across the mathematics curriculum. Writing across the Curriculum. 10–16.

Parker, Adam, and Mattison, Michael. (November 2010). The WAC Journal, 21. 37–51.

Strogatz, Steven. (March 2014). Writing about math for the perplexed and the Traumatized. Notices of the AMS, 61, 3. 286–291.

Avoiding Plagiarism–Guiding Our Students

As instructors, helping our students learn to avoid plagiarism while using sources to guide their work is an important role for us to play. We all have negative gut reactions to a student’s paper that seems to include evidence of plagiarized material or have a lack of appropriate citations, but approaching this topic proactively may be much easier on our students, not to mention on our tempers after reading a towering stack of papers with inappropriate uses of others’ scholarly work.

This semester, I have begun to focus on providing students with thorough guidance of how to effectively use sources in their writing, thereby helping them to avoid or at least minimizing unintentional plagiarism in their writing assignments. Giving students the benefit of the doubt in the beginning of a semester and taking on the tone of understanding in terms of how difficult it can be to learn how to properly use sources, as opposed to being the “police” of plagiarism in the classroom can be an effective avenue to take.

This inherently involves allotting some class time to discuss the issue. Doing so, makes your students aware that you place importance on this topic and that you are willing to assist them in this learning process. Providing students with a plagiarism quiz that gives examples of scenarios in which they decide whether a given situation entails plagiarism and then having a class discussion about what constitutes plagiarism allows for students to be honest about the areas they deem confusing regarding paraphrasing, citing, etc. Recently, two of our writing fellows, Syelle Graves and Heather Zuber in collaboration with Bronwen Densmore and Anne Leonard from the library, gave a workshop to faculty about avoiding plagiarism and using library resources. Their slides and handouts, including the aforementioned plagiarism quiz can be found HERE.

Additional ways to minimize plagiarism in your students’ writing (from my own experience as well as the workshop mentioned above):

  • Provide high-quality models of writing with correct citations and paraphrasing
  • In class, show students how to find scholarly sources through City Tech’s library databases (step-by-step demonstration including giving them a list of the best databases for your field)
  • As the instructor, model correct citations throughout the semester (in your syllabus, handouts, slides)
  • Provide handouts to students with links to other sources regarding paraphrasing and correct citation format for your field (links are included in the handouts for the aforementioned past workshop)
  • Require students to create annotated bibliographies for which they cite their sources and summarize the main findings along with the importance of that source for a later larger research project or paper in your course
  • Give a typed assignment handout that states the citation format (e.g., APA, MLA) they need to use for that assignment and the number of sources they need

Grading as Coaching, or, How to Spend Less Time Marking Papers

Recently, I sent a draft of some writing to my adviser with the comment, “the writing still needs some work, but please look at the overall points and let me know if you think I’m going in the right direction.”

Isn’t this precisely what all writers want? And doesn’t that include undergraduate students too?

When students hand in a draft, in a sense they are saying this exact same phrase to us as instructors: “here is some writing that I proofread [hopefully!] but it’s still marred by the limited time constraints of the assignment. I hope that the overall points are good and I’m going in the right direction.” Yet, we approach these papers with a copy editor’s eye and red pen, marking up every dangling modifier, incorrect word usage, subject/verb disagreement, or incorrect use of idiomatic English. In a sense, we are doing the opposite of what we hope anyone assessing our own work would do, even though we know from experience that copy editing is the final, not first, stage of professional writing.

We forget that we are not referees, but rather, coaches for our student writers. In her well-known essay on the “overgraded paper,” Muriel Harris writes

like student writers without a thesis or consistent perspective, the teacher who overgrades leaps from suggestion to correction to criticism, from being an editor to a coach to a reader. In noting many things, the instructor emphasizes nothing, and many students…retreat (92).

We fall victim to Harris’s well-placed critique of trying to do too much. And we do it with such good intent (“I want my students to be better writers! I’m trying to help them!) that we are blind to the ways it can be damaging.

The best technique is to mark less. Instead of reading the paper with red pen ready at the draw, try reading the paper with your hands empty. Resist the urge to correct that misplaced comma, or that use of “effect” when they should have written “affect.” After reading it, go back through and find the three or four places where the student author needs to clarify, expand, refine, offer another example, analyze or re-state. Be explicit about exactly what you want in your comments (ironically, simply writing the word “unclear” in the margin is, itself, unclear). After all, these are the things we most want to see improved, and that lead the student not only to write better but to learn the course content more comprehensively.

And all those pesky grammatical mistakes? Save those for a later draft, when the
“big picture” ideas are clearer. Or if you’re only doing one draft, mention them in an endnote: “you have problems with subject/verb agreement throughout,” or “I’ve placed a checkmark in the margin of lines with writing errors.” It turns out that once your students accomplish the higher-order thoughts and cognitive processes, their writing also naturally improves.

This way the student will focus on those higher-order issues you highlighted. I’ve given back papers with 20 or more markings on a page, and only one of them was something that would have seriously improved the content, rather than the execution, of the paper. Nancy Sommers notes that this kind of grading

encourage[s] the student to see the text as a fixed piece, frozen in time, that just needs some editing (151).

On the subsequent draft, my student of course obliged and addressed every marking I had made, except one, the hardest one. If that had been the only marking on the page, she would have been forced to consider the problem I posed, and possibly taken her paper to the next level.

For more, see our workshop on effective grading strategies from December, 2013.


Harris, Muriel. “The Overgraded Paper: Another Case of More is Less.” In How to Handle the Paper Load,  ed. Gene Stanford, 91-94. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33, no. 2 (May 1982): 148-156.

Why Using Samples?

Have you ever tried to solve a jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the cover? I have. It’s frustrating, and I gave up after a very short time. And yet, I handed many of those ‘blind jigsaw puzzles’ to my students when I assigned a writing assignment without explaining what the final result should look like. To my defense, I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s how I was taught to write, and it’s probably how must of us are, and were taught up until today. But when I started to progress from being an undergraduate student to I discovered how useful samples can be. Before writing my first grant application I gathered grant applications that have been successful. Before and while writing my first journal article I read many, many articles in the journal I wanted to submit the article to. I am not copying what has been written, but I am trying to get a sense of what the final result (the jigsaw puzzle) should look like to be successful.

For some reason, I have denied the same right to my students. I often expected them to come up with formal assignment that meets my expectations without ever explicitly showing them what those expectations are. Luckily, my students are vocal enough to let me know about their frustrations when trying to solve the puzzle. Their objections reminded me of my own frustrations when writing without knowing what’s expected, and I started to incorporate WAC principles, and my own experiences into my teaching.

Here is what I do:

  • I scaffold assignments, and assign many explorative writing assignments that lead up to a larger, more formal assignment. That helps students not to feel overwhelmed, and prevents the attempt to plagiarize.
  • All my assignments are handed out in writing, and as explicit as possible. I use Blackboard to post assignments, and I provide hard copies for students.
  • I always check in with students and ask if the assignment is clear (we do that during class time). If something is unclear, I make changes and ask my students to help me clarifying the assignment.
  • I do my best to provide samples for formal assignments. My formal assignments are often a combination of smaller, informal assignments. As a final step, I ask students to combine the smaller assignments they’ve done to a larger assignment.

 

Providing my students with samples of what that formal assignment should look like has produced very good results in my students’ writing, and they have found the experience to be much less frustrating.

Updates + WAC Beyond City Tech

What’s new at City Tech WAC?

On Tuesday, February 18, 2014, Jacob Cohen and I presented a faculty workshop on thesis statements. If you missed it, you can view our slides here, and our handout here.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, March 11, 2014 Fellow Heather Zuber and I will be giving our next faculty workshop, “Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Library Sources,” in collaboration with Instructional Design Librarian Bronwen Densmore, and Instruction/Reference Librarian Anne Leonard. Please attend! Our other upcoming events include our workshop on working with English learners in April, and a workshop on incorporating technology, creatively, into your classes, in May. Please check out our flier with all of these workshops and information for how to RSVP, here.

In other news, you can now follow us on twitter, here.

WAC Elsewhere

It is always useful and inspiring to hear about how other institutions are promoting and continuing the WAC movement. Exploring the work of like-minded WAC philosophy-followers is validating, and fun, especially when expressed via media, and not just written articles. For example, here is a short and informative “cheat-sheet” video on WAC practices by Purdue Owl.

A great resource on WAC philosophy, and on incorporating WAC principles into your classroom, can be found at the WAC Clearing House. The Clearing House folks eloquently cover all of the topics in our work and workshops this year, plus more. One aspect they highlight well is one that is particularly relevant for faculty in our CUNY system: an assurance that adding more writing to coursework across the curriculum will not increase grading or prep time much, if at all. For example, see this link on peer review and supplemental writing assignments, and this one on how to handle responding to draft grading, with links on time-saving tips such as using shorthand for grading, and not correcting grammar too much.

For any faculty who don’t have a chance to go through these links, and even for those who do, our workshops are a useful shortcut, and they even come with lunch. We can also be contacted, as always, for an appointment for an individual consultation.

Tailoring Expectations

One useful perspective-realignment I’ve found useful raising to faculty, particularly those who don’t teach strictly “English,” is the that many assignments have implicit writing assumptions which must be made explicit.  It is difficult sometimes to see the necessity of writing underlying even ostensibly non-“expressive,” or technical, assignments.  This sounds like an easy, or superficial suggestion, but consider, for instance, courses which integrate design and writing in an integrative and mutually-informing manner — in order to produce any sort of finished, visually appealing document, the writing present within must be coherent and “finished;” yet, this expectation is often only alluded to tacitly.  Further, even if one is actively grading “writing,” it is often difficult to break down this “writing” requirement into constitutive units the students can follow, or knowingly deal with on an individual, then total, basis. As an added benefit, when students are made more conscious about articulation, even in a small way regarding a tangible quality of writing, it makes them more aware of the total flow and logic of their work.  (These tangible qualities are then able to compound, and inform one another.)

One possible suggestion:  Perhaps (even as a sort of pedagogical thought experiment), try outlining one or two explicit qualities of writing to be graded, or paid attention to, in a non explicitly English or even humanities assignment.  As we often discuss at WAC, try to scaffold, or otherwise anticipate the exact skill you would like them to exercise by introducing it earlier than the exact moment you wish them to recall or produce it.  Then, see if, for example, should you ask them to pay attention to something like topic sentences, or even choosing neutral, or discipline-specific jargon for the assignment, whether the overall clarity of thought, and quality of product produced, improves.

This means of “tailoring” expectations, or honing in on required, but implicit, qualities of writing in assignments, is also transferable to other areas, such as peer review.  Rather than asking students to holistically grade entire documents for “quality” or “followability,” try to hone in on two or three qualities (perhaps even breaking a “thesis” question down into a subcategory or two), and set firmly-defined timelines for how long students spend on each portion.  This means of narrowing the scope of the students’ attention will likely improve the sharpness and nuance of the skills paid attention to, and overall improve the logic, thinking, and argument of the writing, and writing-reliant aptitudes, required.