Incorporating In-Class Activities to Strengthen Understanding of Class Concepts

I have learned, both first-hand and by observing my classrooms, that students learn more when they actively engage with class material. When I first began teaching I noticed that students often learned more in the project-focused lab I taught (for which I barely lectured at all) compared to my lecture-only course. In the lab, students had to design their own research studies and test other students in the class in order to collect data that they then analyzed together. I observed that students were personally invested in the activities, were actively engaging with and learning from their peers, and had an easier time targeting areas or steps they didn’t understand.

Given my observations, I began to slowly incorporate in-class activities into my introductory neuroscience lecture course and I immediately saw a shift in student excitement, exam grades and quality of class discussions.

An effective problem-oriented class activity asks students to apply course concepts to novel problems, requires students to provide a rationale for their solutions, and promotes working together in small groups. This can facilitate learning in the following ways:

1. Students become active instead of passive learners

This means that students are involved and take an active role in their own learning. Active learning develops critical thinking skills by utilizing course content rather than passively acquiring it. By providing a problem-centered task, it provides an entry-point for engagement and further exploration. We want to teach students not only the class subject matter, but we also want to develop critical thinking skills to effectively interact with the subject matter. Courses that are purely lecture-based thus only provide the subject matter, but do not require students to critically engage with it.

2. Students have to provide an argument for their solution

By providing a problem-based task and asking students to formulate and justify their own ideas, we are helping them develop important critical thinking skills. Not only that, the activity can at the same time help clarify a content-specific problem that many students have a difficult time understanding. For example, I noticed that students had a difficult time understanding the various brain-slice types in my neuroscience course, so I found a video illustrating all the different types and developed a task that involved estimating the brain area and slice type being shown in various images. As a team, students had to describe the features they saw and justify their answers. Students were not graded on being correct, but instead shared with the class why they thought a specific brain image was from a certain brain location. The goal of the task was not to get the ‘right answer’ but to develop critical thinking. In addition, in order to formulate their own ideas and justifications, students tie new material to previously acquired knowledge and personal experiences. This process helps students integrate course content with previously learned concepts to promote learning.

3. Working in small groups promotes participation and understanding

Studies support that students often learn more from peers compared to those with more advanced knowledge. This is in part because peers struggle with similar confusions and can often help clarify concepts more effectively than teachers. In addition, working in groups helps develop comfort as well as friendships among students, which can often increase participation for shy or quiet students. Often times, small group work will contribute to more productive and energizing class discussions, as students are more comfortable with one another (as well as the class concepts being discussed).

Difficulties I experienced when integrating tasks into the lecture class include pinpointing what class concepts students find most challenging, and finding the time and creativity to develop activities that capture and clarify these concepts. But tasks can be developed and integrated slowly over several semesters, and you can monitor student responses to further tweak the assignments. In addition, to decrease the focus on getting the ‘right’ answer, assignment completion is calculated into student participation grades and I often incorporate similar problems on exams.

Assignments can be written (e.g., do you agree/disagree with a certain statement, explain your position), task-oriented (e.g., solve the following problem and justify each step) or can involve games (e.g., jeopardy). You can get as creative as you want! In fact, our next workshop titled ‘The Creative Classroom’ will focus more on developing fun in-class tasks that promote active learning, critical thinking and collaboration. Join us on Tuesday December 9th at 1pm in Namm 1105 to learn more.

Workshop Recap: Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Library Resources

On November 11, WAC Writing Fellows Claire Hoogendoorn and Jake Cohen, together with Bronwen Densmore of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library, led a faculty workshop on avoiding plagiarism and using library resources.  This was a lively workshop in which WAC Fellows and City Tech instructors shared their understanding of and experiences with plagiarism.

The presentation was organized around three main topics: understanding plagiarism, strategies for preventing plagiarism, and responding to plagiarism.  Some key points from the discussion are highlighted below.

Understanding Plagiarism

  • In order for students to avoid plagiarism, it is critical for them to know exactly what it means. The NYCCT statement on academic integrity is a necessary first step in this regard.
  • Not all plagiarism is equal: there are different kinds and levels of plagiarism.
  • Students commit plagiarism for a host of different reasons. Sometimes plagiarism involves an instance of pure cheating, however other times citation errors and/or bad paraphrasing are to blame.

Strategies for Preventing Plagiarism

  • Educating students about plagiarism – i.e. having an open and honest conversation about the topic – is the first step toward preventing plagiarism.
    • To this end, the WAC Writing Fellows will be organizing a student workshop on the topic next spring.
  • Part of the education process includes outlining the pedagogical purpose of research, providing examples of plagiarism, and modelling correct citation format.
    • There are also online quizzes (e.g. via the Baruch College Library) that can be used to reinforce the lessons.
  • Creating high quality assignments is a fundamental step in preventing plagiarism: Scaffolding assignments remains one of the most effective methods.
    • It is also helpful to use details in assignments and to empower students.
  • The City Tech Library has a number of resources to assist students in doing research and completing assignments.
  • Paraphrasing is difficult! This is true for both native and non-native English speakers.  Developing paraphrasing skills requires proper training and practice.

Responding to Plagiarism

  • Refer to the Academic Integrity Policy Manual for information about how to report cases of plagiarism.
  • We have to report every case of plagiarism.
  • There exist electronic resources for suspected plagiarism, e.g. SafeAssign

The slides and handout from the workshop are linked below…

PowerPoint Slides Handout


Workshop Recap: Effective Grading and Minimal Marking

Last week Tuesday October 14th WAC writing fellows Louis Lipani and Bisola Neil led a faculty workshop on effective grading and minimal marking. We had high attendance and instructors shared their many experiences with grading assignments. Our workshop focused on two main goals of effective grading, which are 1) improving student writing and 2) developing efficient grading strategies.

In order to improve student writing, we need to identify and prioritize which higher-order and lower-order concerns are most important, and provide strategic forward-looking feedback.

Some higher-order concerns can include:
• Thesis statement
• Quality of argument/ideas
• Evidence used correctly
• Logic of conclusions
• Use of topic sentences
• Organization of paper
• Demonstration of understanding of class material

Lower-order concerns may include:
• Spelling
• Grammar (agreement)
• Formatting (font, spacing)
• Citation
• Punctuation
• Sentence structure
• Vocabulary/word choice
• Style

To develop more efficient grading strategies, keep in mind that efficient feedback is minimal, strategic and organized. Providing too many comments on lower-order concerns may communicate to students that these aspects are the most important, and they may then pay less attention to the one or two important comments on higher-order concerns. By prioritizing comments, first highlighting higher-order issues and then identifying one or two patterns of error for lower-order concerns, students will have a clearer idea of what needs to be improved for their next draft. Lastly, organizing grading procedures with a rubric or grading key can save time for the instructor and help clear up confusion for students.

When grading low-stakes (or semi-formal) assignments, you may want to consider:
• Putting your pen down while you read
• Having a conversation
• Asking the student question

While for high-stakes (graded and larger in nature) assignments you may want to:
• Do a few line edits (not the whole paper)
• Provide end comments
• Develop a grading key

Lastly, be mindful that students receive most feedback from instructors as criticism. Students may find it easier to accept feedback when instructors provide positive comments, engage students with questions and frame constructive criticism in a forward-looking way.

You can find the slides for the workshop HERE and handout HERE.

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.

Welcome back! Fall 2014 WAC Workshops

We at WAC hope that you had a relaxing and productive summer! We’ve got a ton of great writing ideas and pedagogical tools and strategies to present to you in four workshops this fall semester. Workshops are open to all faculty and staff, are free, and include lunch (and cookies!). Location TBD, but please save the dates and times below for our WAC workshops

  • Tuesday, September 16, 1pm: Effective Assignment Design
  • Tuesday, October 14, 1pm: Effective Grading and Minimal Marking
  • Tuesday, November 11, 1pm: Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Tuesday, December 9, 1pm: The Creative Classroom

Check our workshops page to find details about the next workshop, and also to peruse last year’s workshops. All this year’s workshops will be updates of previous ones, so even if you attended last year, you’re bound to learn something new this year. And follow our Fellow’s Corner page to see weekly blog posts on writing strategies, assignment design, and other writing across the curriculum philosophies written by our talented Writing Fellows.

If you would like us to present a workshop to your department on one of these or a related topic, or if you would like to work one-on-one with a Writing Fellow on improving your students’ writing and your feedback, please contact our co-coordinators, Rebecca Devers or Marianna Bonanome.

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.

Writing to Learn

As the fall semester of 2013 draws to a close, it is useful to reflect on what we have accomplished over the course of the semester. We the Writing Across the Curriculum fellows have led three main faculty workshops since September: Effective Assignment Design, Peer Review, and Effective Grading. Despite the three varied topics of these workshops, they share a common thread, which is the WAC philosophy of “writing to learn,” and in addition, their content overlaps nicely.

In order to highlight WAC principles, I wish to focus on one particular aspect of the effective grading strategies that Jake Cohen and I discussed in our workshop on Tuesday, December 12 (the last of the semester). We went over some techniques to improve student writing and work, most of which also incidentally result in reduced grading time, which is always welcome, especially at this end-of-semester crunch grading time. To view our workshop slides, please click here, and check out the handout. (You can also visit this page to download documents from all of our workshops.) We discussed minimal marking, supportive responding when writing comments on student papers, rubrics, and planning assignments ahead of time to make grading more efficient. This last category is closely related to the two previous workshops from this semester: assignment design, clearly, and also peer review, in that having students assess each others’ work can save time, and greatly improve student writing.

This assignment design category is also the “one particular aspect” that I choose to elaborate on for this post. Among the several techniques we suggested for planning ahead to make assignments more “gradable,” one sticks out as being particularly WAC-esque: the uncollected writing assignment. The value of this notion, which is generally under-utilized by faculty in all departments, is two-fold: It is easy to see how uncollected assignments decrease the overall amount of time we spend grading work, of course, but why assign them at all? The answer lies in the foundation of WAC philosophy, which is that people learn by doing—and more specifically, by writing. So, what kind of uncollected writing do we recommend you assign, how do you enforce such assignments without collecting them, and, finally, how do students “learn by writing”?

One of the best illustrations of this concept is provided eloquently by Toby Fulwiler in “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place”: “Writing the thought on paper objectifie[s] the thought in the world… [which] even happens when I write out a grocery list—when I write down ‘eggs’ I quickly see that I also need ‘bacon.’ And so on” (127). This concept works well for professors across the curricula: Think about assigning a five-minute, in-class free-write asking students to describe course content covered in the past month/week/hour, by way of ensuring that they can articulate it well for whatever type of exam they have coming up, and by way of allowing them to discover holes in their understanding of what you have covered so far. If you are concerned that they won’t oblige the assignment without the potential for reward, then you can choose, for example, to select three at random to read aloud in class, or to be posted on your Blackboard/OpenLab page that same evening.

We hope that those who incorporate this technique will ultimately find that the grading process of the final papers you assign will be ameliorated, in that the students have now had a chance to “practice” or “train” for the final writing process, something akin to athletes who could never run a marathon without similar training, without you having been required to grade an intermediary draft. Ideally, as students come across “holes” in their own comprehension of your course content, they may come to you with more questions, or make better use of your office hours. I know that they will arrive at a deeper understanding of your course material in the same way that I have done regarding WAC philosophy, in the process of writing out this blog post.

Happy Holidays!