My (Current) Favorite Teaching Tips

A friend who has been out of the classroom for a few years in admin recently asked me to share my best protocols, requirements, expectations, etc. for the college classroom. I’ve compiled a list of them here, focusing on those that support equity, access, and inclusion and are easy to implement and maintain and so are sustainable.

I’d love to hear your favorites, too!

Rebecca

Enact a respectful late work policy that saves you time and energy.

Because my classes don’t typically require sequencing of material to build skills (exceptions are in social science research methods and stats), I allow late work without any need for excuses. If it’s late, I grade it at the end of the course for up to 60% credit. That’s enough to provide incentive for students to turn it in eventually, but a 60% on an assignment (or two) is recoverable. And almost always I just check for plagiarism and then award a 60%–no need to remember how many days late it is so I don’t have to calculate how many points to deduct or provide a lot of detailed justification for the grade. 

The exception is quizzes and exams, since the answer key is released for other students once the quiz or exam is over. When a student misses a quiz or exam–for whatever reason–they have an opportunity starting on reading day to take an alternative for up to full credit. It’s always an essay exam. Since the quizzes and exams are always easier than an essay, students have a lot of incentive to avoid missing them–but if they must, they can earn full credit. 

How does this promote equity, access, and inclusion?

Students have a right to privacy and do not need to inform me of why they are unable to complete their work on time. Whether it’s because they mismanaged their time, are struggling with mental health, need to support a loved one, or are sick, it’s not my business unless they ask for my help. I care about their struggles not by penalizing late work but by helping them find solutions to their problems, which shows investment in them–a high impact practice. I show trust in students’ decision-making abilities, which fosters a sense of responsibility for their learning, and I don’t risk making a decision based on implicit bias. By allowing late work to be submitted any time after its due date through the final day of class, I recognize that the kind of emergency that might make a student miss a deadline isn’t necessarily solved within 24 or 48 hours–or even a week, especially if they are also struggling to get caught up in classes that penalize late work with daily grade reductions. My late work recognizes that they might better use their time immediately after a crisis attending to things other than late work, including no longer falling behind in classes. Because my classes tend to have lots of assignments, a single late assignment will not change a final letter grade in a course, so there is no larger penalty for a one-time emergency. 

How is this sustainable for me?

I do not have to track late work or nag students to turn it in. I don’t have to grade it on their timeline (since I clearly state that I grade it during finals week), and I don’t have to provide detailed feedback. I don’t have to collect or evaluate excuses. I don’t have to weigh which kind of excuses should be recognized with extensions and which are so undeserving that I award the work a 0. I don’t have to sit in judgment of excuses but can focus on supporting students and their learning. 

Use the opening moment to help students prepare their contributions.

I start each class session with an independent activity, typically putting it on a screen or the whiteboard or chalkboard as soon as the class session starts and including a time limit for working on it. For example, in a lesson on poverty, I might ask them how much money they would need to earn, if they were part of a family of 4, to not be poor and give them 5 minutes to calculate an answer. I have them write their answer on a 3×5 card, along with their name and the date. I either collect the card then or at the end of the class as a way to take attendance. 

How does this promote equity, access, and inclusion?

A few quiet minutes at the start of class allows students who are running late to enter the classroom without interrupting someone else who is speaking, which is disrespectful to students, especially if they are sharing vulnerable information. This “flex zone” for arrival (which I don’t tell students about) also means that those who would be too embarrassed to come a few minutes late can still do so since they know they won’t be interrupting a lecture or discussion. The quiet, independent work allows students to focus on the content of the day, priming them for discussion. It’s especially important for students who need time to gather their thoughts or express them best orally if they can write them down before discussion begins. When students who need this processing time have it, they enrich the conversation and provide a valuable check against students who may be verbally dominant simply because they can find words faster, which is good for my faster-to-talk students since they face less pressure to fill up silence since everyone has, right in their hand, something to say.

How is this sustainable for me?

Depending on the initial exercise or question, I then use the notecards as conversation starters (“Turn to one or two people around you and share your answer”), to sort students into small groups for additional work (“If you chose X as your answer, move to this corner of the room”), or to create data sets (“10 of you said $60,000…”). This allows me to teach students based on who they are, what they already know, or what they already think to be true–so I’m adjusting each lesson in real time based on what I’m learning about them. I also use these notecards to later enter attendance into my attendance record. When I get back to my office, I wrap a rubberband around them and drop them into a deep drawer so that, if there is a later discrepancy regarding attendance for the day, I can return to the stack of cards for that date to check if a student was indeed present. 

Assign reading journals to help students learn more from what they read.

In any class where students have to read difficult material, I assign a reading journal: a two-column journal in which they record, on the left, paraphrases and quotations, with page numbers, and, on the right, their response, including questions, connections to other course material or content from other domains, and personal reflections. These journals promote reading and engagement without the need for pop quizzes, which students are often willing to face without preparation.

How does this promote equity, access, and inclusion?

A dismaying number of college students haven’t read a book from cover to cover in a long time, and many are unsure of how to approach long or difficult (even if short) texts. A guided approach that encourages them to focus on individual passages and respond to them as they are led is gentle, breaking down the text into manageable units and allowing them to explore and connect, not just search for the answer to questions the teacher has already decided are important, as a reading quiz does. They come to class having read (which reading quizzes do not necessarily move reluctant readers to do) and with words on a page to discuss. Again, this helps students who may be slower to process or speak, which, in turn, creates deeper, richer classroom discussions and helps students who are quick to talk pull back and listen since they are no longer the only speakers in the room. 

How is this sustainable for me?

Reading journals are graded based on completion, typically on a scale of 0 (not done) to 10 (the most common grade, once you teach students what you want them to do). I comment heavily on the first few, until 100% of the class understands the expectation, then focus my comments on expressing surprise, interest, or encouragement. I scan for references to anything of concern (disclosure of something I’m required to report) and then pull out one or two specific student reflections/comments to respond to, even if it’s just to say “Thank you for sharing this story with me.” I only offer more critical comments if a student makes a comment that suggests a lack of comprehension, and this is typically to direct them to where in the course they can learn what they need, or if a student makes an ill-informed comment about race, gender, sexuality, disability, or something else they need to master to be  good peer (for example, correcting students on terminology regarding race). I can typically grade 20 of these in about an hour. 

Keep your focus on your learning objectives, not your personal preferences for how students meet them.

Give students options for how they can show you what they’ve learned. For example, if a learning objective is that students will be able to analyze a visual artifact to see how it supports the social construction of gender, let them do that in an essay, video essay, or live presentation (if you have time in class). If the goal is that they can write an argumentative essay, let them choose the topic. If the goal is that they can collaboratively work with a community stakeholder to propose a plan for research on a problem of concern to that stakeholder, let them choose the stakeholder. Even if you provide a set of choices (“You can work with any of the following local nonprofits…”) you give them the opportunity to explore their interests, inviting them to authentic problem solving. You may wish to include, among your options, “Propose something else that will require approximately X hours of work and [other requirements, like sources they have to use or skills they have to demonstrate] that shows me that you can [learning objective].”

How does this promote access, equity, and inclusion?

Students who see themselves as genuine problem solvers invest more in their own learning. They are able to bring their whole selves–or at least as much of their whole self as they want–to an assignment, which fosters vulnerability and sharing, which in turn invites others to share. Students express their learning in ways most suitable for their own abilities, lessening the need for requests for disability-related accommodations since flexibility is built into the assignment. For example, a student with extreme social anxiety may choose to record a presentation rather than deliver it live–without ever having to reveal to their professor that they have social anxiety. A student who lives in a household bustling with others may not have a quiet place to record a video but can write an essay. 

How is this sustainable for me?

After the initial work of creating multiple assignments, I get to enjoy seeing students do their best work, which isn’t always the work I would assign them to do. They are happier, learning is easier for them, and I learn more from them because they invest more in what they produce. They are also less likely to cheat on an assignment because it’s an extension of other things they care about. 

Let learning be easy. 

I was once told by a dean that my teaching was lively and engaging–and that this was a problem because my students often failed to realize that they were being taught something since they were having too much fun. She suggested that, instead of teaching inductively, starting with observations (some of which I asked students to gather), I write the key points for the class session on the board at the start of class and then point out to students when I was teaching them these points. 

I ignored her, as was appropriate for the content I was teaching. (And if you think you are this dean, you are not.) Her plan would have stifled the thrill of discovery and the accompanying satisfaction that students feel when they stumble upon new insights (granted, some of them planted in their way by me). Plus,their work on assessments showed that they were mastering the course objectives. 

I am not talking about paraphrasing hard concepts for students or whittling big ideas down into small ones or only assigning texts written in easy-to-grasp language. I mean that learning can be joyful, exciting, fun, and, most of the time, relatively easy if we give it the time and space it needs. That doesn’t mean that ideas themselves won’t challenge students, either in our understanding or our acceptance of them. (Students typically don’t understand the social construction of reality the first time it is presented, and then some of them really rail against it.) But it means that learning doesn’t have to be unnecessarily challenging. The challenge should be worthwhile, in that it builds skills and stamina. 

 So look at your syllabus and see where you’ve set up too many barriers to understanding the material. Take the time needed to set up your LMS course site to make it easy to use and to give students tools that make success easy. Add the due dates for assignments, which then populate their course calendar, making it easy for them to plan for their work. Link directly to the readings so they don’t have to dig through files to find them. Label readings consistently. When possible, allow students to read or listen to (or both) course content. Let them download slides so they can take notes on them. Only use video if you are showing content, not just if you’re talking. (If you are just going to be a talking head, create a podcast so they can listen while they walk or drive and so they don’t have to use so much internet bandwidth.) Limit your kinds of assignments to just a few: no more than 5 grade categories (quizzes, objective exams, papers, reading journals, presentations, projects, midterms, final exams, essay tests). Repeat kinds of assignments rather than vary them so that students can get good at a kind of assignment rather than do it once and then never get to apply your feedback. 

How does this promote equity, inclusion, and access?

A simply organized class allows students to focus on content, not management of course details. That means more attention and energy for learning. It is better for all students, whether they face few obstacles to learning or many, and it’s especially humane for students with processing disorders or who are in other ways neurotypical–or even just those who have a lot of obligations, which is more typical of first generation and nontraditional students. 

How is this sustainable for me?

It takes a little more prep work to run a simple class where all the material is on hand, but it means less scrambling throughout the semester. Students are less likely to miss deadlines, which means less complaining, excuse-making, and late work. They are more likely to learn from feedback and apply it to later assignments, which means better student work that is more enjoyable to grade. Clarity and simplicity in course design also make it easy to pinpoint what’s not working in a course so I can correct it. And course evaluations are higher. 

Panel 58 by Jacob Lawrence shows three Black students–one in a red dress, another in a yellow dress, and another in a blue dress–standing facing a chalkboard.

Like AGT? Support it!

2 thoughts on “My (Current) Favorite Teaching Tips

Add yours

  1. I love this post, especially coming when some folks want to return to post pandemic “rigor.” Tip, from my father: treat ppl the way you want to be treated. In general, just give grace.

    Question: Rebecca, do you do paper reading journals or online or students’ choice? I am trying to imagine how it works online as so much more happens on my LMS than in fall 2019.

    1. I collect them online for all classes because I don’t like to handle the paper, deal with the germs, and track when stuff was turned in. The disadvantage is that students don’t have their writing in front of them then. The advantage is that I can set the due date before class and even read them first to help me pull out points for discussion.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: