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In lieu of a spring break for this unusual academic year, Notre Dame has opted for a series of mini-breaks. These rest days are designed to protect the health and safety of the campus community not only by discouraging travel, but also by providing a brief mental respite for students and instructors. But what if your students are reluctant to put down their work and relax for 24 hours? Below are a few ways you can encourage students to take advantage of the downtime provided by mini-breaks.

Discuss the importance of rest and relaxation. We can’t remain well without taking time for physical, mental, and emotional restoration. Emphasizing this point to your students is one way to promote a culture of wellness in your classroom. Though personal wellbeing is more important than productivity, you can tell students, if it helps, that taking time to recharge can result in better productivity long-term. 

Carefully schedule assignment due dates. Notre Dame has requested that instructors refrain from holding exams or making projects due the day following the break. If you haven’t adjusted your schedule to accommodate the April 21 mini-break, do so as soon you can. If possible, consider working with students to collaboratively set assignment due dates, and try to remain flexible with individual students who are struggling. 

Build rest time into the course. Being thoughtful about your due dates is a great first step, but it might not be enough to encourage overwhelmed students to put down their work. Try incentivizing rest by making it a course requirement. Consider, for example, creating a low-stakes homework assignment that asks students to sit in a peaceful place on campus for 15 minutes without speaking or using technology; making ungraded journaling part of students’ weekly course ritual; or devoting three minutes of class time to a mindfulness exercise or to silent reflection. Bonus points if you can tie these activities in with your course learning goals. 

Share your own plans for the mini-break. Students aren’t the only ones who need rest and relaxation. Instructors do too! If you haven’t developed a plan to support your own wellbeing over the mini-break, make one, share it with your students, and follow through. Students will appreciate your example. 

Share resources for wellbeing. If students are not sure how to use their mini-break days, direct them to this McWell page, which not only lists wellness events for students but also information on the benefits of relaxation and a guide to creating a restorative routine. You can also direct students to the HERE page on emotional support and wellbeing, where they can find instructions for downloading the Calm app, which Notre Dame is providing to students free of charge. 

The next mini-break is on April 21. Encourage your students to take advantage of this rest time—and don’t forget to rest yourself!

Teaching metacognition and self-regulation through structured reflection can help students become better learners as they navigate the crucial weeks leading up to the end of the semester. 

Much has been said about cultivating a growth mindset, particularly in times of stress or anxiety, but this paradigm really goes hand in hand with metacognition and self-regulation as pedagogical practices that can help students change the way they learn. In educational development, metacognition refers to the practice of intentionally focusing attention on the act of learning and self-regulation is defined as the ability to control one’s body and self, to manage one’s emotions, and to maintain focus and attention on the activities at hand. Together, they are modes of leveraging student motivation. A student who can effectively self-monitor, evaluate their progress, and change behaviors to achieve a desired outcome is more likely to be resilient and successful in your course. 

However, it is important to remember that a growth mindset must be cultivated and student motivation may ebb and flow throughout the semester. We can help students stay motivated and become better learners by emphasizing metacognition.

Developing metacognition can increase student motivation and create a sense of belonging in the classroom community. If we explicitly teach metacognition through structured reflection, we can increase the effectiveness of learning activities and encourage students to incorporate feedback and grades from midterms in order to harness intrinsic motivation. This may also help disrupt harmful study behaviors (like cramming) and replace them with more effective and distributed practices. 

Self-evaluation after exams and large projects promotes students’ critical thinking about how they approached a task, what worked and what didn’t and why, how they might approach the task differently in the future, and how this particular task fits into the larger course goals. Research on student self-assessment suggests that self-assessment is most beneficial, in terms of both achievement and self-regulated learning, when it is used formatively. 

Exam reflections and narrative self-evaluations are two strategies that may help students develop the skills of metacognition and self regulation. These are also a great way to provide low-stakes grades and promote effective learning strategies. Remember that it is important to design these activities with transparency. Students should know why they are being asked to do reflection activities, they should be taught how to use the activities, and they should be prompted to set goals and make concrete plans to reach those goals. 

Exam Reflections 

All too often when students receive the graded exam, they focus only on the score. Guided reflections can help them to make sense of the grade, plan, monitor and evaluate their progress, and adjust learning strategies–make sure to share these benefits with students. 

When implementing exam reflections, consider providing a guided reflection sheet that asks students to: 

  • Identify areas of individual strengths and areas for improvement
  • Reflect on the adequacy of their preparation time their study strategies
  • Characterize the nature of their errors and look for patterns 
  • Set goals for implementation of feedback
  • Name at least one way the instructor can provide support to reach these goals

Narrative self-evaluation

This kind of reflection allows students to make personal connections between learning, course goals, and the wider context of their field of study. The purpose of these reflections is to improve learning through goal setting, self-regulation, making organic connections between experiences, identifying interests, and planning. 

When implementing narrative evaluations/reflections remember to share the purpose of the assignment and give specific instructions. For example: 

  • Contextualize your reflection: What are your learning goals? What are the objectives of the course? How do these goals fit in with the concepts taught in the course so far? 
  • Provide important information: What do you think you have done well so far? Can you identify a particular area/concept of understanding that you would like to improve? 
  • Analytical reflection: What did you learn in this assignment/unit? How do you contextualize this within the course and/or your field of study? 
  • Lessons from reflection: How did this assignment/unit fit with the goals and concepts of the course? What are your lessons for the future? How will you achieve your goals for the course? Name at least one way the instructor can provide support to reach these goals.

Self-reflection is not reporting what a student has done; rather, we are helping them to make meaning of their learning. Even if a student is a reflective, conscientious learner, everyone needs to learn how to effectively use that reflection. These exercises can help students to make sense of the course in the larger context of their educational journey. 

Other sample self-reflection activities: 

  • Exam Wrappers 
  • Create a quiz based on Bloom’s taxonomy
  • Illustrate learning with mind maps, concept maps, or other visuals and explain it in writing or orally to the instructor

What to Do After the Test – Notre Dame Learning | The Kaneb Center
Exam Review Self-Reflection – The Learning Center University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Student Self-Evaluations – Center for Teaching and Learning Hampshire College
Teaching Tips – 2018-2019 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium
How to Write a Reflection Paper – Trent University 
Kaplan, Silver, LaVague-Manty, & Meizlish – Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (2013)
McGuire & McGuire – Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (2015)

Switching to hybrid, online, or asynchronous modalities can present a number of challenges for instructors. When students and teachers have fewer face-to-face interactions in a shared physical space, it can be difficult to facilitate engagement with course material and foster student interaction and collaboration.

One partial solution to this problem is to make collaborative digital annotation or note-taking projects part of the course requirements. At the most basic level, these activities ask students to work together to create or comment on a shared course text. This can be done in pairs, with small groups, or with the entire class. And the collaborations might take a number of forms:

  • Students could collectively annotate a course reading with questions, clarifications, or comments. The shared reading might be a primary or secondary work, the course textbook, or any challenging text that students need to understand for the class.
  • Students could engage in a peer review of others’ work, providing suggestions or asking questions about the shared document. 
  • Students could work together on lecture notes, taking notes live in class or compiling a shared study document at the end of a course unit. 

These kinds of collaborative activities are incredibly flexible. You can use them to help students close read an intricate poem or solve a complicated equation. They can be done in or outside of class, synchronously or asynchronously. And they can be loose and informal or highly structured, with templates and individual student responsibilities. Individual students might, for example, be responsible for making connections to previous readings, for keeping track of the common themes emerging in the notes, or simply for organizing the material in the shared document.

And these collaborative activities have several advantages:

  • They deepen engagement with course material, making students active rather than passive listeners, readers, and note-takers. This can also help students take greater ownership over the course materials and over their own learning.
  • They encourage students to interact with one another at times when student interaction can be difficult to facilitate (like during a pandemic!).
  • They help students learn from one another, exposing them to the wide range of perspectives, approaches, and strategies that their classmates bring to the table.
  • If students enter the course with differing levels of preparation, they can help level the playing field, leading to more equitable and inclusive learning environments (see Brielle Harbin’s work below).
  • They allow instructors to easily track student comprehension, often in real-time. 

If you’re eager to get started on collaborative annotation or note-taking, check out the resources below to read more about these activities and the digital tools that can help facilitate them. And be sure to check out last week’s Kaneb Center workshop on using Perusall for Collaborative Reading.


If you are interested in alternatives to the traditional point-based grading system, I’m here to say that you don’t have to dive in all at once. Last semester, I dipped my toes into this whole new world by incorporating specifications grading just for assignments. 

Here’s how I did it:

  1. I gave my students very clear, detailed specifications for what constitutes a passing (acceptable/satisfactory) homework assignment.
  1. Then I graded student submissions as Pass/Fail, provided written feedback, and gave students an opportunity to revise and resubmit (if necessary).

And here’s what I saw:

  • With the opportunity to resubmit, students were willing to take on harder assignments and felt comfortable admitting “I don’t understand how to do this part. Please help!” 
  • Grading was much faster
  • Students actually read my written feedback 
  • There was no fixation on points

Two of my learning goals for this course were for students to clearly communicate mathematical ideas and solutions and to exercise persistence by working through perceived failure. Simply put, meeting these learning goals would not have been possible without specifications grading. The first was explicitly stated as a specification for the homework (“The solution is neatly hand-written or typed, using complete sentences, and each step has a sufficient explanation.”) and the second was a natural product of allowing resubmissions. 

The rest of my course structure (quizzes, exams, group work, etc.) remained the same. I only used specifications grading for homework assignments. And what a success it was. I’m thinking about going in the deep end (by structuring a whole course with specifications grading using “bundles” of assignments and tests)… or at least into deeper water.

For more information on specs grading, here are some great resources:

And there are other alternatives out there (e.g. contract grading, mastery-based grading, and ungrading)! If you want to hear some experiences from Notre Dame faculty that have used these alternatives to traditional grading, I recommend attending the Kaneb Center panel discussion on Alternatives to Traditional Grading on April 27, 2021.

Learning Student Names

Students are more receptive to your teaching strategies when they know you care about their learning. What’s one concrete way to show that you care? Learn their names! Knowing your students’ names builds community in your classroom, creates a sense of mutual respect, and helps you seem more approachable. 

Here are a few tips to help you quickly learn your students’ names this semester:

Printed photo sheets – Go to onlinephoto.nd.edu, or ask the primary instructor for the class to do so, and print out a roster with names and photos. Take a few minutes each day to review and quiz yourself by covering up the names to see if you can recall them just by looking at the photo. 

Name tents – On the first day of class, bring cardstock and sharpies for the students to create name tents to display on their desks, and ask them to bring their tents with them for the first couple of weeks. Having an in-class visual of the student and their written name can make learning names easier. Bonus – having students write their names on both sides of the tent helps everyone in the class learn each other’s’ names, not just you!  

Seating charts – Having names associated with where students are physically located in your classroom can help boost your name recall abilities (and matches well with a seat reporting mandate!). Create a sketch of the classroom and fill in the names yourself, or print off a seating chart of your class here.  

Ask students something about themselves – associating a fact about a student with their name can help with name recall. If your class size allows for student introductions on the first day of class, ask them to also state an interesting fact about themselves. 

Practice calling students by their names often – Practice, practice, practice. Interacting with your students regularly and getting to know them as individuals will make name learning come naturally. 

Pronunciation – If you are worried about pronouncing a name correctly, ask the students to introduce themselves first. Another option is to collect google form surveys from students on the first day of class, that include a question on how to pronounce their names. 

Don’t expect to have all your students’ names memorized right away. Give yourself time to learn and make mistakes. If you’ve forgotten early in the semester, just ask. Students will appreciate your efforts. They’re meeting new people too and can likely relate to the struggles of getting everyone’s name right.  This student quote from a study in a large enrollment biology class summarizes the effect of knowing your students’ names: 

“I know there are close to 200 kids in this class and I’m not in any way a top student or someone special, but I sure felt like I was when the instructor knew my name.”


The Importance of Learning Students’ Names” – Glenz

Getting Names Right: It’s Personal” – Igwe

Learning Student Names” – Middendorf & Osborn

20 Tips for Learning Student Names” – University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. The Ohio State University
What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom” – Cooper, Haney, Krieg, Brownel

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of an unprecedented, non-stop semester. During this interlude between holidays, I encourage you to (1) reflect on your classes this fall and (2) start planning for the spring.


Before diving into your CIFs, take a moment to evaluate your own teaching. What went well this semester? What would you do differently next semester? Did you make any mid-semester changes? If so, what was the impact? Did your students meet the learning goals for the course? Overall, what did you learn (about effective dual-mode practices, about your students, etc)? 

Now, consider the student perspective. Read your CIFs with care and consider only the feedback that is constructive. Treat your course evaluations as a self-assessment exercise. If you’d like guidance in interpreting your CIFs or reflecting on your teaching practice, feel free to schedule an individual consultation.


Incorporate your reflections and feedback from this semester into the next, and start planning early. Our programming this winter focuses on specific things you can do in December and January to be ready for the Spring semester.  

If you’re planning to teach a new (or new to you) course, consider attending the Course Design Week in January for an in-depth look at course design. Each morning, you will learn about a key step in course development and begin drafting your materials.  

If you’re updating an existing course for the spring semester, consider attending the 2021 Course Tune-up. In this workshop, you’ll answer some of the following questions: What tweaks do you need to make to your existing course to get it ready for a potentially bumpy Spring 2021 semester?  How do you rethink your assignments and exams to be more meaningful for you and your students while also being less likely to cause stress or be vulnerable to cheating? How will you approach class time to best promote learning in a masked, distanced, dual-mode environment? 

These are just two of many workshop offerings–for more information and to register, click here. We also continue to offer drop-in office hours Monday through Friday from 9am to 11am or consultation appointments throughout the week. 

We’ll be back with more blog posts in the new year. Until then, we wish you a restful holiday break (and happy planning)!

If you haven’t yet, read part one of this post here, which outlines the way I draw parallels from the video game Celeste to positive attitudes, active learning, and metacognitive techniques in the classroom. This post focuses on parallels between the game and teaching strategies in introductory courses specifically. 

I am not an experienced video-gamer myself, so I started playing the game with a huge disadvantage compared to my friends who have been playing platformer games like this since childhood. Before ever picking up the game myself, I’d watch them play and I never imagined that I could make it past the first level. When I did decide to play, I found myself dying hundreds of times on screens that they were able to get through with fewer than 10 deaths. We often see this in our large introductory courses, where a small population of students begin their college coursework at a disadvantage compared to their classmates due to lack of resources or opportunities in their high schools. What can we do as instructors to help close this opportunity gap? How can we support these students and boost them up to a level playing field with the rest of their classmates? 

One feature Celeste offers is an assist mode that players can activate to get extra practice while equipped with infinite jumping power or immunity to falling. Assist mode in the classroom may mean providing opportunities for students to get extra help, which could take the form of extra problem sets with easier problems occupying the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. This sort of resource allows students to practice and hone skills in a low stakes environment, so that they can catch up with their peers.   

The main challenge of the video game is in the levels called “A sides,” which players need to complete to beat the game – just get to the top of the mountain. However, there are also collectable items scattered throughout the levels that players can go out of their way to grab. They’re not required to complete the game, but they serve as an extra challenge and help players build skills. Players whose only aim is to “survive” try to make it to the summit without putting in the extra work, while players who take the time to hone their skills and collect all the items “thrive” in the game. We can encourage our students to “thrive” in courses, and not just “survive,” by creating smart learning objectives for the course and effectively communicating them with our students. For example, instead of setting the following goal for students in an introductory chemistry course: 

By the end of the course, students will understand the basics of chemical equilibrium,” 

we can be more specific about our high expectations for students with the following goal:

By the end of the course, students will be able to use qualitative and quantitative routes to determine which chemical reactions will occur and to what extent.” 

Let’s challenge students to gain a deep understanding and intuition of the subject they’re studying, starting by defining quality learning objectives that push students to thrive. 

Players can also search through the A side levels for hidden cassette tapes that unlock B sides and C sides levels in the game, which require fine-tuned skills and finesse to complete. These next, more challenging, chapters require players to apply what they’ve learned in the A-sides to new situations, much like introductory gateway courses are meant to provide a foundation of skills for students to be successful in more challenging upper level courses. Including “challenge problems” on homework assignments or problem sets gives students opportunities to push themselves without having any extraneous stress of completing assignments for credit. This type of work allows students to build solid foundations for future courses. 

Finally reaching the summit leaves you with the feelings of relief, achievement, and pride – A similar feeling to passing a difficult course, graduating from a program, or in the case of 2020, finishing this wild semester.   

As a first generation college student, I always felt like I was the only person struggling in the classroom. To compensate, I put incredible pressure on myself to perform what I thought was a successful student persona. This led to more anxiety and poor grades. Fortunately, my professors noticed and did two very simple things: they listened to me and shared their own struggles and wellbeing practices. I couldn’t name them at the time, but these simple pedagogical strategies worked for me and my peers on a small and large scale. When Hurricane Katrina struck (many students had deep connections to New Orleans) these professors shared resources and provided safe space in class for students to reflect. During the 2008 presidential election, several major party candidates actually gave speeches on our campus and again the professors devoted class time to discussion and asked students what they needed. When I followed the unlikely path to graduate school, I made a conscious effort to incorporate these strategies into my own teaching practice. 

Of course, nothing could prepare any of us for teaching, learning, and living in 2020. This has been a semester unlike any other, and while we may have grown weary of the adjective “unprecedented,” I think it’s worth reaffirming that this is an unusually difficult time for all of us. The ongoing pandemic stresses compounded by the looming election and the tragic loss of two members of the Notre Dame community have left faculty, staff, and students in significant distress. To mitigate stress and anxiety we must attend to wellbeing both outside and within the classroom. 

Student wellbeing and learning are linked in important ways. Research shows that student wellbeing is enhanced when students are holistically supported and when they feel that they are learning successfully. Inclusion is also an important component to wellbeing, and authentic connection to the intellectual community in the classroom is just as important to student wellbeing as those in social and residential settings. As instructors, we are well placed to lower the levels of distress by listening to student needs, making space for reflection, and helping them understand wellbeing in a way that does not diminish integrity or standards of accountability. 

3 tips to support student wellbeing:

Acknowledge the importance of balancing academic and nonacademic demands

  • Engage in conversation not directly related to the course 
  • Remind students that their grades do not determine their worth 
  • Ensure that the workload is reasonable 
  • Clearly communicate grading and assessment policies 
  • Do not require proof from students experiencing a crisis 
  • Incorporate reasonable flexibility into the grading and deadline system
  • Talk about work-life balance with students

Create a safe classroom environment

  • Solicit and incorporate student feedback (especially as it relates to the end of this semester)
  • Take breaks during challenging discussions   
  • Respect student autonomy and provide avenues for student choice
  • Acknowledge that the university can be intimidating and overwhelming
  • Establish a relationship based on trust and shared expectations
  • Explicitly thank students for bold but wrong intellectual efforts; if you slip up early in the semester, highlight it as an example of how to recognize and correct incorrect claims
  • Ensure that discussions allow space for different perspectives and opinions 
  • Use inclusive language 
  • Address safety and support early on in the term 
  • Assess student participation in multiple ways

Openly discuss wellbeing related topics

  • Remind students about campus resources and where to find them
  • Ask students how they are doing 
  • Discuss your own wellbeing practices
  • Check in with students who appear to be struggling
  • Address campus issues that affect multiple students 
  • Share general information about mental health and wellbeing with students 

Simply sharing and opening safe space in the classroom is an important step toward encouraging student wellbeing. In Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, bell hooks writes, “when teachers teach with love, combining care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, we are often able to enter the classroom and go straight to the heart of the matter, which is knowing what to do on any given day to create the best climate for learning.” Embracing an attitude of openness, hooks insists on community building as a means of supporting student success. Building a healthy campus is an ongoing project, but we can implement small, intentional changes to support students and walk with them through this difficult time. 

Key Takeaway for Fall 2020

Ask students how they are and what could help, listen to their responses, and work with them to address these needs.

Suggested Reading: 

5 minute Wellbeing Activities, Simon Fraser University
Being Sweet: Caring for the Brains in Our Bodies, Bayan Learning Community Southwestern College
“Creating New Connections and Conversations in the Classroom,” Inside Higher Education
Take a Break, A Guide to Creating A Restorative Routine, McDonald Center for Student Wellbeing
Teaching and Wellbeing, University of British Columbia
Wellness in the Virtual Classroom Toolkit, Stanislaus State
“What to Say After a Student Dies,” The Chronicle of Higher Education

We’re only two weeks away from the United States presidential election, an event that 68% of US adults report as “a significant source of stress in their life.” Some groups feel these effects more strongly than others. For instance, “The proportion of Black adults reporting the election as a source of stress jumped from 46% in 2016 to 71% this year.” We can safely assume that the election is also a significant source of stress for our students, particularly for those who belong to marginalized groups. 

For those of us who wish to broach the subject of the presidential election in our classes, these numbers can be daunting. How can we discuss the election in a productive and equitable way? How can we facilitate conversations that will help students learn without exacerbating election stress for more vulnerable individuals and groups? These are complex questions with complex answers. But what follows are a few quick tips to help you navigate the difficult election conversations you may wish to have in the next two weeks.

It’s important to begin by clarifying the objectives for the discussion and making sure that those objectives are in line with your overall course goals. How do the election or the issues raised by it relate to the disciplinary concerns of your course? What is it that you want students to get out of the conversation? How can you facilitate the discussion in such a way that those goals are met? Don’t forget to communicate these objectives to students as you begin the discussion.

As you consider the content of the lesson plan, make sure that the topic of discussion doesn’t inadvertently marginalize or traumatize certain students or groups. Remember that even a seemingly “neutral” viewpoint can be ethically questionable if it allows for racism, xenophobia, sexism, or other expressions of harm toward marginalized groups. 

Additionally, it’s essential to establish ground rules for discussion with students before you get started. You can begin by acknowledging the difficulty of the conversation you’re about to have and enlisting students to help you make it as productive as possible. If possible, ask students for their input in creating the rules of engagement. Remind students that their arguments should be based in evidence; they should disagree with one another respectfully, refraining from ad hominem attacks; and that they should avoid invalidating the feelings or experiences of others.

In many contexts, creating a sense of conversational structure can be helpful. If you’re facilitating a standard large-group discussion, try not open with big questions like, “What do you think about the election?” Instead, create specific, directed questions that contribute to your learning goals for the session and for the class as a whole. In addition to crafting structured discussion questions, you can also consider a structured discussion format. For instance, you might assign a think-pair-share activity, employ the five-minute rule, or facilitate some functional subgrouping.

Relatedly, make sure to build in time for processing and reflection. Stopping the discussion periodically to think quietly or write about what’s been said not only helps students speak more thoughtfully during the rest of the conversation but also helps create a more equitable environment for discussion. Students who process their thoughts through quiet reflection or writing rather than speaking will be more likely to participate in the discussion going forward.

Finally, have a plan to intervene if things go off the rails. If a student makes an inappropriate comment, it’s best to acknowledge and deal with the comment rather than ignoring it. Use the ACTION framework to develop strategies for responding: try to ask the student clarifying questions and help them explore the potential impact of their statement on others. If the conversation gets heated, consider implementing a writing activity or continuing that portion of the conversation at a later date. 

You can find additional resources for teaching around the election in this guide from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and this blog post from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. For more on this and teaching other controversial topics, join us for Wednesday’s Kaneb Center workshop on Difficult Conversations in the Classroom. And don’t forget to vote and encourage your students to vote!

As we approach what would have been Fall break in a typical semester, many of us–students, faculty, and staff alike–are starting to feel like we’ve hit a physical and emotional wall. Burnout and fatigue are common to any semester, but COVID has exacerbated these conditions. Acknowledging burnout at mid-semester poses interesting challenges and opportunities looking ahead to pre-Thanksgiving finals. If your course ends with a long research paper, you may be considering ways to simplify or refocus while maintaining rigor and effective evaluation. Redesigning the research assignment can help students to pace themselves and also manage our end of semester workload. 

Why consider alternative research assignments? 

The research paper has its own rhetorical components and methods that make it an important genre for undergraduate students to learn and practice. If course goals prioritize generic components like discipline-specific argumentation, or if your course requires a minimum page count, then research papers are natural and necessary modes of assessment. However, the research paper assignment also has other goals that are not bound to the genre. If your goals focus on the demonstration of foundational research skills, communication, synthesis and/or critical thinking, you could consider alternative capstone assignments. 

Alternatives can: 

  • lighten the grading load
  • scaffold the skills and strategies necessary for writing complex arguments 
  • develop and diversify student strengths and interests 
  • expose students to different voices and modes of communication
  • help students to experiment with audience beyond their professor 

How to create an alternative research assignment?

Standard research paper outcomes include research, argumentation, understanding of content, incorporation of evidence, citation, and synthesis. Think outside of the box and consider other outcomes that may assess the students’ abilities. Be sure to prioritize and connect assignment to course goals and consider the problems, skills, or knowledge the assignment will address. Consider devoting short segments of class time to tasks that will help students develop the skills necessary to complete the assignment. Call on colleagues, librarians, and/or technical experts to brainstorm alternative assignments. Remember: if you change anything in the course, be transparent with students about your reasons for doing so and make your evaluation criteria clear. 

Sample alternative assignments: 

  • All-but-the-paper term paper: students complete every step in the research paper process and then write the introductory and concluding pages, a detailed outline of the body, an annotated bibliography, and an abstract
  • Put on a class conference complete with poster sessions, panels, papers, etc. and let students choose how they will present research
  • Summarize the literature on a topic and present the findings
  • Create an anthology of readings complete with an introduction and reading summaries
  • Create, judge, and “fund” research proposals
  • Annotate an article for a novice reader
  • Create an advertisement
  • Analyze and respond to a case study
  • Create an infographic 
  • Explanation of a multiple-choice answer: students must explain why the answer they chose to a multiple-choice question is correct, or why the alternative answers are wrong
  • Meaningful paragraph: given a list of specific terms, students must use the terms in a paragraph that demonstrates that they understand the terms and their interconnections
  • Curate a portfolio to demonstrate evolution of work and thinking over time

As we begin the uphill push to the end of the semester, we can also think ahead to next semester and take stock of strategies that successfully motivate student learning and engagement under these unique circumstances. Above all, let’s continue to be patient and creative in pacing student work and assessment. 

References & Additional Reading:

Tip: Research Paper Alternatives,” Tips for Teaching Professors 
Alternatives to to Traditional Exams and Papers,” Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning IU Bloomington
Library Assignments / Research Paper Alternatives,” Carson-Newman University 
Alternatives to Research Papers,” University of Connecticut
Alternatives to the Research Paper,” Muhlenberg College 
Video Interview on UDL Assessment, Centre for Academic and Faculty Enrichment (CAFE) at Durham College
Remix Multimedia Resources, Hesburgh Libraries and the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning

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