Non-Traditional Assignments Workshop

As instructors, we somtimes feel the temptation to spice up our coursework. We may feel a bolt of jealousy, for example, when we hear a colleague’s idea for a brand new approach to an old-school assignment (I’m looking at you, humdrum 10-page research paper). While reflection and refinement should be the standard to which we inspire, we should not seek novelty simply for novelty’s sake.

When seeking to craft a non-traditional assignment, we should be guided by our core educational goals, many of which cluster around critical thinking and thoughtful creativity. By foregrounding these goals it’s possible to conceive of new ways we can express our interests or student passions. In other words, the search for non-traditional assignments should be in service to expressing “traditional” education goals in new ways. Specifically, in ways that appropriately reflect our course content, student skill sets and interests, or general teaching philosophy.

I should note, it is also far easier to integrate a non-traditional assignment into a course when that course is designed “backwards.” By starting with and thinking through the learning outcomes we can more easily conceptualize the myriad ways in which they can be actualized. In contrast, if you start by thinking through all of the assigned readings written by scholar for scholars, it’s pretty natural to envision all student assignments in the same fashion, i.e. as variants of scholarly writing. Indeed, one of the first limitations you may run into with “backwards design” is that all of those scholarly monographs you assigned just do not work and need to be trashed mindfully returned to their bookshelves. (I apologize to the international cartel of scholars, please do not put cyanide in my afternoon tea. You weren’t getting any royalties from your book sales anyway…[1])

If you are not undeterred, below I offer several of the slides I presented for a non-traditional assignments workshop organized by my university’s Summer Teaching Institute for Associates program. I will also provide commentary to the slides. This workshop was far more “workshoppy” than my previous ones, thus there is much on my handout that is not covered in my slides. [NonTrad Workshop Handout]

We began the workshop by discussing the reasons why instructors might seek out non-traditional assignments. I tried to focus on the fact that traditional university research papers are a very specific genre that most students will not use later in their life. In addition, we may also recognize that this genre does not adequately reflect the goals or “spirit” of our courses. Accordingly, we might open up to the possibility that there are other modes and media more reflective of student interests, skills, and real-world needs that still ask them to engage the critical skills we value.

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A limitation of my workshop was the presumption I held for what a “traditional” assignment embodied – this is not the same across disciplines. In planning this workshop I decided to use my disciplinary expertise (as a historian of religious studies) as the norm which often assigns a printed paper meant to inform or persuade a well-informed (scholarly) audience. This is an assignmentt type that certainly resonates across much of the humanities.[2]

By highlighting the various rhetorical elements of genre, purpose, audience, and medium, I suggested during the workshop that the alteration of any of these aspects constituted a move towards non-traditional assessment.

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Before we moved on to discussing how we might alter each of these four variables, I suggested that a non-traditional assignment could also verge on becoming “creative” or even “experimental,” a side of the assignment spectrum that should be approached with care. I suppose I cannot dislodge the traditionalist voice ringing in my head (I am a historian of religious studies), but I suggested that truly creative or experimental assignments be paired with a more traditional writing assignment, like a cover letter offering an analysis of the assignment through the lens of course concepts or a reflection on the process of creating it (really, reflection is a good idea with any assignment). Fundamentally, this is a concern over evaluation (grading); we have to remain equitable in the assessment of our projects, an issue which arises as they turn more radically away from standard critical writing (this is discussed more on the handout). Additionally, I argued that more focus has to be placed on process and discussion as the more creative or experimental the assignment becomes. Feedback, necessary in any assignment, is simply more integral when the students are engaging in genre forms that are unfamiliar to them.

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We then moved into a discussion of the variables for crafting assignments (genre, purpose, audience, medium). Considered individually for heuristic purposes, these elements are actually closely interrelated. For example, changing just one of the variables may be enough to inspire a wholesale shift in the other three. As we discussed these variables, I had the participants fill out the four-field “matrix” on the handout as new ideas came to life.

If I had to give one suggestion, I would say reconceiving the audience functions as a powerful motivation for shifting an entire assignment. Instead of assuming an ill-conceived set of imaginary scholars (or the sole instructor or TA), which new audience could students address armed with their new knowledge? What would an assignment look like if the students had to talk to the general population or to people who held conflicting views on your course materials? What if your students spoke to a local community or to different organizations in your school? Or, perhaps, you could imagine them addressing a historical person or even a living political entity.[3]. Ultimately, the object of this exercise was to let the creative juices flow and sort the pieces afterwards.

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The last slide addressed some concerns I felt pertinent to exploring non-traditional work. It foregrounds the facts that many students may not have the required skills, money, or free time to do what you hope (or expect) from them. Student familiarity with or simple access to computer programs or the ability to go to a museum exhibit or performance may be stumbling blocks to some. Some of this could be circumvented with good planning.

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The rest of the workshop was devoted to discussing potential ideas and beginning the process of putting those new sparks of insight into words.

Below is a list of potential ideas

  • Have students draft a lesson plan (LO & assessment) and lead an activity on a concept for the class
  • Have students or instructor create Twitter or Instagram accounts and post regularly on course content (blogs are an “old-school” option)
  • Visit your university library archives or special collections and have students select a document or artifact and give a mini-lecture in class
  • Analyze the different views and approaches on a course-relevant topic by both a scholarly peer-reviewed article and something written for the public (news article, magazine article, YouTube video, etc…)
  • Hold a class poster presentation session (held in the classroom or hallways of your department) and have students comment on one another’s work (written peer-review)
  • Have students create a podcast or video on a tricky concept and use as an instructional aid (remember to keep create a catalogue of past work!)
  • Have students write in a “popular” genre relevant to course materials (e.g. magazine article, pamphlet, poster, newspaper opinion article, letter to the editor)
  • Visit a local site and have students document and analyze their visit or schedule an interview with someone about the site
  • Set up a formal class debate about central themes of the course (randomly assign “for” and “against” teams)
  • Establish a scenario and have students role play figures central to your course
  • Have students craft an annotated bibliography or literature review on complementary aspects to your course
  • Have student create a material object relevant to course material (e.g. alter, home shrine, model, etc…)
  • Compile a list of available public media on a course theme and evaluate the quality of each item’s content and post the evaluations online
  • Create an infographic about a topic or theme, or create a concept map/knowledge map of the course materials
  • Have student keep a course journal where they reflect on difficult topics and plan what they will focus on for next lecture/discussion
  • Design (/and implement) a collaborative on-campus project
  • Have student write a book review of a source read in class
  • Have students interview a professor about their current research (or an influential paper)
  • Volunteer at a local nonprofit or attend a community meeting or group and write about the experience related to course themes
  • Visit a local museum exhibit and have students analyze artifacts according to course themes
  • Atten a local performance and have students analyze experience according to course themes
  • Assign “On-Going Conversations” to students where they talk about a topic and take notes on the interaction
  • Have students do 4-Sentence Papers (They say…, I say…, One might object…, I reply…)
  • Using free online applications, have students create a map and timeline of important course events and figures


*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

[1] Clearly, knowing the abilities of your students matters. The core of the concern is not so much the selection of works, but the training in reading and note-taking skills which allows students to truly access these works. Developing necessary reading and note-taking strategies is too often overlooked by instructors.

[2] Unsurprisingly, I had math and foreign language instructors attending the workshop, so we also talked about “traditional” assignments in their domains and folded them into our discussions as best we could. It seems some of the strategies we discussed were also effective in inspiring them.

[3] A colleague whose name unfortunately escapes me had students address the famous Chinese Empress Wuzitian and make an impassioned plea for imperial support of either the Buddhists or Daoists!

Handouts 101 Workshop

What is the quality of your students’ lecture notes? If you were to read the research on this topic, you might think the answer was unbelievable. Yet, study after study confirms the unbelievable: most students, especially first-years, do not possess the skills necessary to take quality notes. Students routinely miss more than 50% of the critical information in lecture, sometimes reported as a 70% loss of crucial content. We can chalk this up to a variety of potential factors, such as the newness of the lecture format, the complexity of the content (and resulting cognitive fatigue), the student’s inability to identify main points, or the lecturer’s inattentiveness to signaling important information amid a mass of presented material (often as text on lecture slides, or “death by PowerPoint”).

Lecture note-taking should be recognized as a multi-faceted challenge for many first-year students. Unsurprisingly, note-taking skills are rarely taught explicitly and it is worth outlining a “best-practices” for your students dependent upon your teaching methods, materials, and lecture structure.[1] Another important intervention for poor note-taking is the wise and timely use of handouts.

A handout is just another tool in your pedagogical toolkit. Ideally, it complements the other items in your teaching arsenal, namely your oral presentation, lecture slides (or board work), readings, and classroom discussions. Taken together, these different modalities help students to build robust conceptual models and form a deeper understanding of the material.

Below, I offer several of the slides I presented for a workshop organized by my university’s Summer Teaching Institute for Associates program. I will also provide some commentary and context to the slides themselves. My “Handout of Handouts” can be found here –> [The Handout of Handouts].

Using Mentimeter, I first asked the workshop participants about their current attitudes towards using handouts. Interestingly, among our small cohort, most regularly provided their class lecture slides to students (the yellow bar below), which as we will see has its benefits and drawbacks.

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Based on the literature I summarized above, I was curious to see what our participants believed about their first-year students’ note taking abilities. While everyone believed students could benefit from additional training, few were able to predict the dire assessment of the research, namely that students would routinely miss more than 50% of the critical information.Question 2.png

After review the reseach findings we assessed the possible interventions for students, leading to the potential value in helping students take notes through the strategic use of handouts. Overall, I addressed nine different types of handout, loosely categorized under the headings of advanced organizers, worksheets, and graphic organizers (the first and last being “jargon-appropriate” if you want to do more research).

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The first grouping of handouts can be placed under the category of “advanced organizers,” which as their name imples allows information to be presorted to allow easier integration and less taxation of the students’ cognitive load. This includes the circulation of lecture slides and detailed class outlines. While numerous research papers show these kinds of handouts are preferred by students, anyone who has implemented this practice may come across the problmes of decreased attendance. More importantly, it is likely that students will not learn effective note-taking habits and skills since they work is already done for them. Thus, it is encumbent upon the instructor to develop effective teaching strategies when using these types of handouts. For example, it’s generally a good practice to not have the oral lecture be redundant to the slides (text or image), meaning that students should need to take notes on what is said in class (and also tested on it). Or, the handouts could be limited in their content, only providing vocabulary terms or names and dates of historical figures. These still serve the purpose in helping the students organize information, but also require their focused attention. Additionally, by incorporating blank spaces in the handouts, it requires students to remain attentive thorughout the lecture, filling in answers as they are discussed.

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The next grouping of handouts I categrozed under the generic name of worksheets, perhaps the prototypical type of handout in many STEM classes. This includes the use of “adjunct questions” sheets, or test-like items preceding or following certain content. These can be used to cover the entire lecture, but are more regularly used for certain classroom activites, like reading a passge or watching a short video. It is important to note that questions will cue students to certain information, which will lead to retention, but it will also limit their focus on more global (or incidental) issues and potentially limit the types of questions they bring to the material. When providing problem sets (or passages to read and respnd to), this encourages the application of knowldge, and when used in conjunction with group activities, these will refelct more active learning environments. I also included the popular classroom assessment techniques (CATs) of the “minute paper” and “muddiest point paper” as different types of effective worksheet handouts, especially for students’ reflection on their learning progress.

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The last grouping covered “graphic organizers,” which visually represent relationships between concepts. Concentrated research on graphic organizes only began in the late 1960’s (when they were originally called advanced organizers) and developed with the schema theory of knowledge which posits that newly acquired information is accepted and assimilated into existing cognitive structures. This means a focus is placed on relational knowledge. This is important because notes are often organized linearly as lists or outlines (a format encouraged by digital note-taking), while a graphic organization of information is far better for retention and recall. Most student will only reread or recopy their notes when studying for an exam, but instead of employing redundant strategies students should re-organize their notes, looking for associations between ideas. By providing graphic organizers, blank or partially filled out, this would help students in this process. We ended the workshop by looking at a variety of examples and discussing their potential uses in our courses.

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*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

[1] This is worth more discussion than I can provide here. It is not uncommon to find students only taking notes of lecture slides, and nothing else. Instructors need to decide if this is sufficient, or if they need to train students to take notes on what is also verbally presented, or the insightful comments of other students, among other considerations (class activities, videos, readings, and so forth). In addition, note-taking is not transcription. Students need to appreciate the cognitive value in taking notes, a particular method of information processing and meaning-making. A handout on effective note taking for students is included at the end of this paper.

Acting Tips for Lecturers Workshop

Most classrooms are designed the same way as theatres. Typically, there is a performance space separate from the audience space; one for the teacher and the other for the students. Not coincidentally, the larger the lecture hall the more evident the need to put on a rousing performance for those in attendance. Because of the structural (and even social) similarities between the classroom and the theatre, university instructors could bear to learn from the dramaturgical expertise of actors. While straight lecturing is only a single modality of teaching, it is a modality that can greatly benefit from training in oration and stage performance. This was my reasoning, at the very least.


This past week I attended a workshop on Acting Tips for Teachers, led by the exceptional Hala Baki, a Doctoral Scholars fellow in the Department of Theater and Dance at UCSB. The room was cleared of its chairs, we stood (shoes optional) and waved our arms, and we shouted across the room at one another – in other words, the workshop matched perfectly with my imagination of an LA acting class. All jokes aside, these various exercises were devised to train specific aspects of performance for those who ply a trade on a stage: mastery of the body, mastery of breath, and mastery of speech.

In addition to exercises that cultivated these skills, another regular refrain made a lasting impression. In our role as performative lecturers we need to disrupt predictable patterns and break the “fourth wall” in as many ways as possible. We can break them down with our voice, break them down with our body, and break them down with our physical presence. Through employing physical and vocal animation, or even storytelling and suspense, we can stimulate our students instead of lulling them to sleep by the monotony of our voice and flickering of our slides.

Furthermore, woven throughout the workshop were subtle hints reminding us to make the lecture classroom an active learning environment. The structure of the classroom (and its theatre cousin) can overdetermine social interaction, namely, that students should remain quiet and listen like a audience. A good teaching performance should not only grab attention, but encourage “audience participation,” having students engage, think, and communicate. By breaking the fourth wall we are breaking the presumptions of student passivity.

The initial workshop exercises worked on developing our posture and breathing. Using a basic scanning method (based on the Alexander technique), we made sure our standing posture was balanced and erect, thus demanding attention and channeling confidence. And breathing from the diaphragm we ensured we had the respiratory capacity to project our voice.[1] Anxiety, fatigue, and poor habits all work against these foundational components of good lecturing, thus it’s worth checking in with our body and breath periodically.

Next, after vocal warm-ups, we worked on projecting our voice by imagining trying to hit a target in the back of the room. We practiced this by having everyone line up in two parallel rows across the room from each other. We then tried to project our voice across to our partner who attempted to pick it out among all of the other voices. I think the acoustics in the room made this particularly difficult, but I nevertheless liked the idea of “throwing” my voice to a partner like it was a ball. If anything, I thought this was a helpful conceptual cue I could use in a large lecture hall.

We then turned to practicing vocal articulation, running through a range of vowel and consonant exercises. This included practicing voiced and voiceless plosives (p-b, t-d, k-g), ultimately leading to a game of repeating “topeka-bodega” in a variety of iterations. We finished with a round of old-fashioned tongue twisters, involving both Sally’s seashells and Peter’s peppers, among few others.

After our voices were prepared we engaged in several voice modulation exercises. These were particularly insightful because they forced us to consider where we placed the tonal emphasis when we spoke. More specifically, it asked if we could make a question better by modifying our intonation patterns. By switching the emphasis from, “can *anyone* add something to that comment,” to “ can anyone *add* something to that comment,” it moves the focus from trying to find a willing speaker to the operative directive, namely generating news ideas through “addition.” A subtle change surely, but one I believe could have a cumulative subconscious impact on ourselves and our students. If we are always “begging” our students to speak through our intonations, it creates an expectation that they normally do not have to participate.

All of these elements came together when we added motion, both through gesticulation and walking around the classroom. Not only does motion add dynamism and excitement to what we say, it can add important paralinguistic (kinesic) cues which can modify, clarify, or nuance verbal meaning in important ways. Ultimately, by wisely employing vocal and physical animation we can disrupt patterns in our teaching performance and elicit a more engaging classroom setting. In addition, these actions need not be overly dramatic to be successful, as good posture, strong vocal projection, and a wisely placed pause or intonation can create the desired effect.


[1] To notice the rhythms of our breathing, we placed one hand on our chest and another on our belly and tried to identify which moved more when we breathed. The positioning of the hands added a subtle physical cue to help draw our breath into our diaphragms.

Learning Outcomes for the Masses

My first few rodeos of teaching did not take the learning outcomes [LOs] in my syllabus too seriously.[1] They were window dressings. Today, they significantly shape the courses I create, indeed, they are the foundation. This is my conversion story.

Of course, those familiar with “backwards design” (from the Understanding by Design framework) know the entire process of designing a new class begins with drafting LOs. LOs are the skills, habits, and patterns of thinking that students will cultivate in your classroom. It is worth noting that LOs only have minimal overlap with content. In other words, these define what the students will do with the content. For folks who prefer to start designing their courses by curating appropriate readings, for example, this approach may seem, well, “backwards.” The name “backwards design” reflect this. It also represents the opposite direction from the perspective of the student in the course.

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Thinking “backwards” allows us to focus on what matters, to not lose the forest for the trees. Our courses should – or at least can – change how students think or even act, not just what they know. When we just focus on our lecture material or the content of proposed readings, it is easy to forget these larger aspirations. We should not only be concerned with our students learning facts, but what they can do with those facts.[2]

Like many novice instructors, even when I had these grand aspirations the stress of putting together a new syllabus often pulled me back to the “basics” – the basics of deciding reading material and crafting lecture notes. As I was recently telling several new instructors, I did not appreciate the power of LOs because I was struggling day-to-day. I had long given up on the big picture. In my experience, even after the first time I designed a course starting from the LOs, I was unconvinced by their ultimate value.

After I built up some confidence teaching – specifically getting my “reps” in teaching freshman writing, an explicitly skill-based course – and learning I could survive day-to-day, I became dissatisfied with my assessments in my other courses. Uninspired quizzes, midterms, finals, and papers were the rigmarole. I soon started to think the problem was how I was conceiving of my courses’ role in the lives of my students. Did I just want them to memorize facts and become trivia masters? By continually focusing on texts I also funneled my assessment onto low-level tasks of comprehension and memorization.

Inspired to try and have my students train in higher-level orders of thinking, most specifically in analysis and evaluation, I first changed my daily reading assignments. Instead of having students summarize the main argument, I asked them about their opinions (gasp). Specifically I asked them which passages struck them as interesting and why, which passages were confusing and why, which passages were they critical of and why. In other words, I started to think “backwards.” My students were now directly practicing – sometimes imperfectly[3] – the skills I wanted them to develop. Class conversation immediately perked up. This was a small revelation. My thinking process then filtered up into the types of essay prompts I devised. Now, all of my assessments are derived from my LOs. My reading and lectures are – and I only mean this in a relative sense – irrelevant (shun me if you must).

In my retelling, the crux of my conversion story fall upon tyring to reconceive my assessment strategies. Now, when I think about readings, I also have to consider their capacity to help me reach the objectives I have set for my students. Sometimes, this forces me to “create” a lot more (like podcasts), but in return I also ask students to “create” a lot more – I consider this a win-win.

What Does a LO Look Like?

There are many many many introductions to crafting Learning Outcomes online, here are my crib notes:

Well written Learning Outcomes:

  1. Tell the studentwhat they will do (not what the teacher will do).
  2. Use “thinking” action verbs that help measure the level of learning (see Bloom’s taxonomy)
  3. Refer to specific content (and/or clearly telescope to particular assessments, i.e. are measurable)
  4. Are concise and clear

Generally, a LO will often take the form: Actor/student + Bloom’s taxonomy verb + topic/content/related activity/assignment.

Also, it is advisable to exercise these verbs and phrases from all LOs: learn, know, understand, appreciate, be aware of, and be familiar with. I’ll admit, these are often the terms we instructors think with when we causally reflect on our classes. But these actions cannot be measured in an activity, assignment, or exam.


[1] I don’t want to get into too fine grained detail, but there is a distinction between “learning outcomes” and “learning objectives.” In my run down, objectives refer to the content of the course or goals of an activity (think: list X, discuss Y, state Z), while outcomes reflect what the student will do to achieve that objective (think: analyze, evaluate, create). The latter, being more directly student-oriented, are often included in course syllabuses. In practice, however, these terms are often interchangeable. Specific differences in objective and outcomes are discussed here.

[2] There are clear disciplinary differences here. From my many consultations with instructors and teaching assistants from across disciplines, skills are more at the forefront of STEM (think: how can I apply this formula to this problem). Unfortunately, folks in the humanities (students and instructors) too-often think memorization of content is the apex of learning.

[3] This point is often overlooked. For the most part, students have been trained to summarize – this is the easiest thing to test on standardized tests. Thinking with the text is a new skill, please do not think students will all be masters at this skill immediately, it needs to be modeled, practiced, failed, and retried.

Asking Thought-Provoking Questions Workshop

Questions drive thinking.

As I’ve argued before, straight lecturing has its rightful place in the repertoir of a university instructor. When we lecture, however, we are often placed in the role of having to answer questions posed by students. An equally important skill is the ability to ask probing questions of students. When we want to stimulate class discussion, having the ability to generate, hold, and gently direct conversation requires mental dexterity and social finesse – built upon a foundation of effective questioning strategies. I’ll freely admit, discussion can be a slog at times. But having a range of questioning strategies can make us better prepared to face the wilds – and natural beauty –  of the discussion-based classroom.

Below, I offer several of the slides I presented for a worhsop organized by my university’s Instructional Development program. I will also provide some commentary and context to the slides themselves.

Using Mentimeter, I first asked the workshop participants “Why should we ask students questions? (Why not just lecure at them all the time?)” This was a not-so-sly way to introduce two different techniques I would discuss: Entrance Tickets (“Priming the Pump,” see below) and the critical rephrasing of questions (“Stirring the Silence”). Nevertheless, I was not expecting such thoughful, insightful replies created on the spot (I should have known better):

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After recapping some of the comments (and asking about some of the jargon in the responses), it was clear the room was already actively engaged, which is the purpose of an exercise such as this. After noting the importance of using questions to drive and develop student thinking, we dove into several actionable strategies. Overall, I planned to adderss six different sets of techniques and protocols.

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The first group of strategies was oriented around fielding potential discussion topics and  priming the students to think about the day’s material. Moreover, asking questions as soon as students arrive in class creates an expectation that they need to engage and, hopefully, contribute to our discussion (if not indivdually, in small groups).

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Priming the Pump Strategies

The second grouping of strategies concerned the general phrasing of questions. Several very common forms of questions, while valid in certain contexts, can also sometimes be squealing-brake showstoppers. These are potential problems that need solutions.

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Phrasing Effective Questions Strategies

We next moved to a series of strategies developed to provoke more complex conceptual processess. These form a broad category of questions sometimes called Checking Questions or Checking for Understanding Questions. When weilded artfully, these can  turn a rather blasé response into a moment of valuable class reflection. Truthfully, many of us already have these in our repertoir, with the most common simply being the follow-up question, “why?” (under “justification” in the slide below).

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Checking for Understanding Strategies I

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Checking for Understanding Strategies II

The next set of techniques are used to try and “decenter” the classroom from the instructor. The back-and-forth “yo-yo” pattern between student and instructor is modified to include more inter-student “cross-talk.” In many cases, the instructor still remains the moderator, but that largely depends on the purpose of the discussion exercise.

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Redirection Strategies

The last pair of strategies were protocols I’ve casually developed when consulting with other TA’s and instructors about how they handle general classroom unresponsiveness. Specifically, when a question to the class appears to be “dead-on-arrival.”

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Stirring the Silence Strategies

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Revivign the Dead Strategies

In the last few minutes of our workshop, we turned to the potentialy awkward social scenario of a “wrong” or “non-optimal” student response to one of our questions (I prepared no slides for this, I preferred to hear what others thought). We discussed some ways that we’ve maneuvered through this scenario, always mindful of not chastising or “isolating” the student. Depending on the type of question, I’ve often found asking “why?” helps to determining the student’s reasoning. In some cases the rationale may be sound, but just not what I am “looking for,” and thus allows me to thank the student (“That’s a good take, I didn’t think of that”) and pivot to another response. Otherwise, if there’s a problem in the rationale, I may try to give clues to see if the student can find his or her own mistake (or problematic assumption) and offer a chance to respond again. Other times, I may ask for another student to provide a counterargument. In the end, I usually try to validate some aspect of the student’s original response, if possible. (Particualrly sensitive or controversial views may need a different approach, but that’s a discussion for another workshop.)

I closed our workshop by handing out “Exit Tickets” – providing a moment of reflection for people to think about something that was meaningful or even unclear to them. I was curious which strategies were the most helpful to my workshop attendees; I received a range of replies. Around half explicitly noted the value of Redirection. Another large chunk approved of the Reviving the Dead, and the rest were evenly split between Checking for Understanding and Priming the Pump (Mentimeter is frequently a hit).

Last Thoughts: This was my last Instructional Development workshop for the academic year and the amount I’ve learned in the process has been quite gratifying. Of the workshops I’ve given, this was probably the most time intensive and interesting for me to think about, as well as the best attended (with Managing Teaching Anxiety being a close second). Is it just coincidence that the two workshops I’ve offered that most directly deal with student interactions were the most attended? Nevertheless, I will now be transitioning into my role as a facilitator for the Summer Teaching Institute for Associates, more workshop planning abounds!

*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

Efficient and Effective Grading of Student Writing Workshop

Once, over the coure of five weeks, I graded – and commented upon – just over four hundend student papers. It was mind-blistering work. I was asked by a colleague if this experience passed a cost-benefit analysis. Many of these papers were drafts (or important student reflections), and thus demanded more care; students would be building their ideas off my comments. In the end, their final papers – which received minimal comments from me – were mostly enjoyable to read. My work had paid off. Ultimately, efficient and effective gradings requires the frontloading of teacher effort.

After several years, I like to think I’ve become somewhat better at offering constructive criticism of student writing. It’s never become “easy,” but I think I’ve become more effective in advancing students’ writign abilities and efficient in my time spent on the task. Below, I offer some of the slides I presented on this topic for our university’s Instructional Development program for TAs and add some additional commentary.

Our workshop was fairly small and thus I wanted to start by survying our group’s attitudes towards elements of the writing process. Using Mentimeter, the first question asked the worksohp attendees to rate their opinions of the importance of drafting, peer-review, and creating rubrics:


The numbers above represent the averages of the individual responses (“5” being the most “necessary”). Of those, creating grading rubrics was deemed the most important among our group. Happily, this aligned with the workshopping component of my presentation. Drafting and peer review require some “experice” (ahem, failures) on the teaher’s part to get it “right.” Nevertheless, I consider all three to be closely related, I’ll return to this below.

The second question asked the participants to do a cost-benefit analysis of creating rubrics, setting up peer-review, and giving ample commentary:


Not surprisingly, providing feedback was the most time-intensive, but it’s value was on par with crafting a good rubric. As I noted above, there’s an inverse value to feedback as the semester progresses. It’s most valuable early in the term, when students can adjust their habits and styles (and build their ideas); there is minimal value on maximal feedback at the end of the term.

The final question was more straightforward: how long does it take to read, comment significantly, and grade a five-page paper?


I asked this question to get a sense of how others operate – we instructors often don’t talk about these types of things with each other. At the very least, I think its important to have an internal estimate of our grading times so we do not go overboard with commenting. Personally, I have not been able to break the 15 minute barrier for five-page papers. I average about 18 minutes. As such, I set a timer for each paper I read at 20 minutes and always try to “beat” it. (Perhaps I can call this a variant of the Pomodoro Technique.)

Before diving into my presentation formally, my favorite suggestions for managing paper load comes from Shelley Reid’s insightful thoughts posted in her “Shelley’s Quick Guides for Writing Teachers.” Many of Reid’s principles are sprinkled into my presentation here.

I start by asking why instructors should assign papers at all. I think its important to keep in mind the value of writing in that is often recruits “higher orders” of thinking, which are all but impossible to access through multiple choice exams. It is also important to think about which orders of thinking writing prompts address; some writing prompts may only ask students to list elements of a concept or theory. This remains in the lower order of “remembering” (see Bloom’s Taxonomy below).

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There are several things we instructors can do to off-load more of the conceptual “heavy lifting” to students – and thus have them build more of the conceptual “muscle.” Having students draft is an important step in the writing process because it allows them to develop (and become more invested in) their ideas. If you pair this with a structured peer-reivew, there is actually minimal work for the instructor. (Of course, anyone will tell you that peer-review requires a lot of structure and guidance. Students need to practice and learn the skill of truly constructive criticism. Perhaps I will run a workshop on the practices of drafting and peer-review in the future…)

I offer the next few slides with only minimal comment.

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“Before you Grade” considerations


After reviewing the basic components of grading rubrics (criteria, description, scale), we spent time lookign for relevant rubric templates online – there is no need to re-invent the wheel! There are many resources available that can inspire your rubric divisions. I provided the following handout for consultation: Creating Grading Rubrics Handout.

After discussing some strategies “before you grade,” I swith to pragmatic suggestions “while you grade.”

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“While you Grade” considerations


I have long been a covert to audio commentary and have suggested it to many of my colleagues. If you have the space (the one limiting factor is you need a generally quiet locaiton), it’s worth a try. Finally, I ended with a few thoughts on “after you grade.”


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“After you Grade” considerations


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*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

Edit: This post below addresses several similar issues, but adds other interesting insights:


Managing Teaching Anxiety Workshop

The first time I ever taught a class I was given two days to plan a three hour lecture. I had just finished a master’s degree with a focus on Buddhist ethics, so I was tasked with translating my work into a serviceable lecture. I had barely participated in classroom discussions when I was a student, thus the idea of lecturing to a group of sixty students was utterly terrifying. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and my mind raced with all of the potential student questions I couldn’t answer.

When recently given the opportunity to offer a workshop for Instructional Development on managing teaching anxiety for new TAs and instructors, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only had I suffered from it greatly, but I also overcame it quite thoroughly. The first part of the workshop focused on reframing teaching anxiety before talking about specific strategies to overcome it.

As was my experience, teaching was not an inborn gift, but a skill that needed to be cultivated over time (see slide below). Part of my anxiety was performing a skill I knew I was not particularly good at –  indeed, a sense of competency, even mastery, comes with time and persistence.

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I created a simple handout for my workshop that asked participants to freewrite about their anxieties and then rank them from most to least anxiety inducing. After this exercise (essentially asking folks to identify and name their anxieties), I started by addressing the most general strategies for combatting stress (see below), including the all-too-forgotten “Great Triad” of sleep, diet, and exercise. I was only recently introduced to the excellent research on sleep by Matthew Walker, and mentioned several ideas he recently discussed on a podcast. In addition to this, our university has great resources for both creating a nutrition profile and exercise options, thus I made sure everyone was familiar with them.

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The first grouping of targeted teaching anxiety issues revolved around stage freight (see below). I had read that having people stare at you triggers part of our natural fear of predators and being eaten! In any regard, part of reducing stage freight is minimizing the unknown and creating a classroom “ritual.”

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The second grouping of targeted teaching anxieties focused on imposter syndrome and the fear of “not knowing enough” (see below). In my experience, the most challenging – and most impactful – change was “stepping into” my ignorance (bullet point #3). I do not always have to play a gatekeeper of knowledge, but can side with my students as an explorer of the unknown. By letting my students know the breadth and complexity of a disciplinary field I can also introduce the wonder of doing research and the reality that many issues still need to be explored. Having a student ask a “tough” question does ntm have to be a monent of embarassment, but a moment to model how you would think through the problem and assess possible solutions.

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The third grouping dealt with the fear of creating student interest in the class. To me, this can be alleviated once an instructor acquires a repertoire of teaching strategies that can be deployed when necessary in order to create an engaging classroom culture.

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We finished by talking about strategies for dealing with potentially combative students and anxiety around time management and preparation.

*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

Group Activities Workshop

Yesterday, I gave a short demonstration and workshop on how to perform in-class group activities. My path to embracing group activities has been…long. As an undergrad, I absolutely despised group work. This was partly due to my stubbornness and partly due, as I’ve come to understand, to poorly executed planning by my old (but dearly valued) instructors. My views on group work shifted significantly when I was trained to teach freshman composition and rhetoric at UCSB and thus I returned to my old seminar yesterday to offer my insights to this year’s new batch of writing instructors.

Slide 1

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The class was comprised of about twenty graduate students who all had some previous teaching experience. To begin, I asked how many of them alreadly included group work as an intergral part of their classroom practices. Less than one-quarter of them raised their hands. This was not surprising, I’ve found many others have had similar negative experiecnes of group work as students as myself. I then turned to giving an outline of the potential benefits and drawbacks of group work [Slide 1]. Ultimately, I’ve come to feel that the negatives associated with group work can be significantly mitigated (except for the extra time it takes to do it) and the benefits can be amplified if the group activities are structured well.

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I spent a significant amount of time discussing the elements of an effective group activity [Slide 2]. Group activities need to be started early and often in the term to establish them as a regular part of class meetings – they should not be treated as a special event nor added to a course halfway through the term when a classroom culture has already been established. Groups should always be kept relatively small so no one can “hide” or easily shy away from conversation. I’ve found that three members per group is fairly optimal (groups with too many people invite “social loafing”).

Ideally, activities should be oriented around open-ended questions that require creativity or discussion/argumentation among the memebers. The questions the students are addressing should be clear (written on a slide or board) and the time limits should be strict. I always prefer to keep the timing tight, giving students only 3-5 minutes to complete most tasks (the tasks are often not very complex). I feel this creates an energy and motivation to work quickly and effectively.  Importantly, the goups should always need to produce a “deliverable” – either shairing their ideas verbally with the class, handing in an assignment, or posting on our course website. To facilitate this, I will always ask that someone operates as a scribe to take notes for the group. When the activity allows for it, I will provide separate roles for each member, with the “skeptic” being the most interesting for some students. Their duty is to offer disagrements (ideally, counterarguments) whenever possible, to halt any chance of “group think.” Finally, I often allow a minute or two of off-task time before or after an activity to let the students get to know each other and build classroom camaraderie.

Slide 3

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Since this short commtarial lecture was for a class of new writing instructors, I provided them with instructions of how a group activity built for them might look [Slide 3]. Note the question was simple and direct and I provided some examples to stimulate ideas. In addition, there was a clear expectation that the response needed to be written down and there was a clear (short) time limit.

I spent the rest of my class time talking about processes – namely, writing, researching, and reading – which I will return to in a later post.

*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.