Workshop Recap: Effective Assignment Design

Last Thursday WAC kicked off the fall semester with our first workshop, Effective Assignment Design. For those who couldn’t make it, or those who want to refresh their memories, here’s a quick recap:

Writing Fellows Claire Hoogendoorn and Drew Fleming began by explaining the difference between formal and informal writing. Many of us are familiar with formal student writing, end-of semester term papers are a classic example, which can be categorized as writing to communicate. Informal writing is writing to learn and it can take any number of forms, including:

  • Notetaking
  • Paraphrase or summary
  • Generating questions
  • Reflection or response

What informal writing tasks have in common is that they are not focused on grammar or organization, and they are low-stakes (they are ungraded or have a minimal impact on the course grade).

An effectively designed formal assignment should include a number of smaller informal or semi-formal assignments that help students develop the required skills to achieve the grade they want. This is called scaffolding, and all high-stakes assignments can benefit from it.

Scaffolding will look different for each assignment and each instructor, the point is to put steps in place so that students practice the skills they will need to succeed before the final assignment comes due. This may mean giving informal assignments in which they defend a thesis, write out methodology, explain a key concept, or paraphrase a source. Again, the number and type will vary.

The workshop wrapped up with a reminder of how important it is to give students typed assignment handouts. Handouts minimize student confusion by providing all of the details of the assignment, such as:

  • The specific task(s)
  • The assignment requirements (such as formatting and citation)
  • The audience for the assignment
  • Grading criteria
  • How many required drafts

The workshop PowerPoint and handout can be found here:

PowerPoint Slides


Remember that this is workshop one of four offered this semester. Workshops are open to all faculty, regardless of whether they are going through the WAC certification process. If you are interested in hearing more about the WAC certification process (there are still some open spots in the program this semester) or if you have further questions about WAC, feel free to email a WAC Fellow or leave a comment below!

Student note-taking workshop: Recap

Last week on February 10th two of our WAC fellows, Jake Cohen and Louis Lipani offered a free CityTech-wide student workshop regarding effective note taking strategies which can be found HERE. They introduced the Cornell Method to students and thoroughly explained the reasoning why this method is so useful to many people. Often students are not taught how to take notes, though this is a learned skill that is clearly pertinent to their success within the educational context. We view note taking as one of the many necessary skills college students need initial guidance on and which they can eventually master throughout their undergraduate careers. Therefore, feel free to provide the information offered here based on Jake and Louis’ efforts to your students. Better yet, take a little time within your own classrooms to discuss the importance of note taking and the empirically-based strategies mentioned in this blog. Doing this will likely allow students to realize they are not alone in being concerned about note taking or that they have not been taught this information in the past. We hope that offering this information to them will give them an understanding of how to best utilize note taking towards better comprehension and ultimately better grades in their courses. For us instructors, note taking is one more way to implement informal writing into our classrooms, which is a strategy towards increasing the amount of low-pressure writing students are doing in order to have them better learn and internalize the material.

Note taking “best practices”:

  1. Write it down: Empirical evidence based on neuroscience research suggests handwriting notes allows for better retention of information and a higher-level of understanding for the content (Jacobs 2008; James & Englehardt 2012; Mueller & Oppenheimer 2014).
  • Differentiate important from non-important information
  • Summarize and paraphrase (students should do so in their own words)
  • Use symbols, abbreviations, lines, etc. in order to show importance and speed up the writing process for notes (whatever key or style works best for an individual student)
  1. Question/Context: Questioning and putting information into context is a way to ensure deeper critical thinking. Students that feel comfortable acknowledging their questions on course content and who attempt to put the information into context will likely understand the material at a higher level later.
  • Write down questions but also your own thoughts about the material that are supplementary from the instructor’s lecture
  • In order to have better recall course information later, indicate your feelings, opinions, or simply what is occurring around you during a specific portion of the class
  1. Reflect/Summary: Reflection is a way to ensure you remind yourself about the content a second or third time and summarizing ensures you can grasp the most important parts of the class and piece them together.
  • Fit content into your previous knowledge related to it
  • Attempt to identify the themes of the lecture (overarching important aspects)
  • Reflect and attempt to summarize the class content after the class but before going to sleep that night

Technological advances to support students in handwriting notes or annotating readings:

  • Styluses and smart pens now allow for handwriting on our beloved digital devices to help bridge the gap between students’ tablet/laptop usage and the beneficial effects of handwriting (see Stern 2015 for more information on this technology which is the last link in this blog below)
  • The GoodReader App is an inexpensive ($5) way to organize PDFs and take notes on them, make annotations, and write comments

Helpful links to additional relevant sources

Cornell method of note-taking:

Relevant studies:



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.

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?

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.

Using Blogs in the Classroom: Some Quick Ideas

As instructors, we frequently hear pleas from our administrators and departments to integrate more technology into our classroom teaching, to meet our online-savvy students on ground with which they’re already familiar. Yet, we often come up short when it comes to actually implementing “technology,” which is itself so broad and varied a term that it suffers from its own lack of specificity. What do “they” mean by “technology”? And more importantly, how do I use this “technology” if I’m admittedly not tech-savvy?

One easy way to incorporate a technological platform into the classroom is with a class blog. Blogs are an interactive place that can serve as a locus for discussion and group study outside of the classroom, allowing you as the instructor the opportunity for creating writing assignments without using up valuable class time devoted to course content. And one great aspect of this is that with a well-designed low-stakes assignment, your students will do most of the work and you can just sit back without taking on a mountain of extra grading.

At CityTech, we have a great blog platform in OpenLab, already available for every class. OpenLab has an excellent introductory guide for faculty, and their staff is also happy to work with faculty to design a site and assignments that can work for them. Once you’ve figured out the basics, there are a number of ways you can make the blog work for you using low-stakes, informal writing:

  • Create a short prompt. This can be a provocative question related to course content, a response to an article or statement made by a public figure, or a response to a particular aspect of the course content.
  • Post a piece of media for the students to “dissect”: either a clip from a film or TV show, a short piece of a documentary, a song or other piece of music, a news report, or a photo.
  • Have students post a critical review of an article, news report, event, museum/gallery/concert visit.

Require every student (or select a small number which rotates weekly throughout the semester) to write a short blog post. Then require every student to comment on at least two posts. This last part is key, because it requires the students to read and engage with each other’s work. You’ll find that the students begin to engage with each other in a highly collegial and productive exchange of ideas. As with all assignments, it’s important to still make sure we’re telling our students exactly what we want them to do and how to do it.

As an example, here’s a blog-based assignment I used when teaching music appreciation at Baruch College, and here are the student responses. I wanted students to use the vocabulary of the course to engage with music that they enjoy and doesn’t get covered in class, thus reinforcing core concepts such as form, harmony, melody, and rhythm.

We know that students enjoy this sort of online interaction for a number of reasons: it varies their mode of learning; it provides a way for them to engage in the class outside of the classroom; it prepares them better for class; it fosters discussion (and can be great especially for students who shy away from in-class speaking); and it utilizes technology that students know and with which they feel comfortable. A post last year from the Metawriting blog shows that one professor’s students responded “with overwhelming strong agreement” that “the instructor uses technology to establish good relationships with students.”

We at WAC support class blogging because it provides a platform for students to do expressive, low-stakes writing that isn’t graded in the traditional sense. Similar to using a journal (which we wrote about in this post from last fall), this kind of writing fosters “the building of connections between course content and real life experiences within one or two pages of writing.” In turn, students practice writing-to-learn, engaging with course content in a risk-free environment.

Have you used blogging in your classes? Share your experiences below in the comments.

WAC Workshop–Tuesday, November 13th, 1:00-2:15pm, V806

Please join us for our next WAC workshop, “Learning Course Content
through Writing.” Writing can be a tool to demonstrate what one has
learned; it can also be a tool to facilitate learning. In this workshop
lead by WAC Fellows, we will explore various methods for fostering
learning through writing in courses across the disciplines. Please see
below or click on the poster for further details.

“Learning Course Content through Writing”

Workshops are open to all City Tech faculty and staff.

DATE: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
VENUE: V 806, Voorhees building – 186 Jay Street
TIME: 1.00 p.m. – 2.15 p.m.

Lunch will be served.