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Giving Directed Feedback

The biggest grading mistake I made as a first time TA was to give the kind and amount of feedback that I, as a graduate student, wished I would have been receiving from my professors. I spent hours grading student work, sometimes handwriting twenty thorough comments on a single short essay, only to watch in horror as nearly half my students recycled their graded drafts immediately after receiving them back.

Students need to learn the value of comments and feedback, and, as grad students or professors, it can sometimes be easy to forget that. It can also be easy to forget how disheartening and overwhelming it can be to receive massive amounts of feedback, or feedback that is more appropriate for a professional journal article than a lower level college course.

Here are two rules I now adhere to in all of my grading and feedback:

1. Students should know what their grade means without my having to explain it.

For me, this means that I use a clear and detailed rubric to show them where, exactly, they lost points on the assignment, and what they can do on future drafts to make up for those shortcomings. This allows me to give more directed feedback (a specific example here or there detailing how a sentence could be improved, or what sort of argument they ought to be making), and it allows the students to make decisions about how best to spend their time in revisions.

2. I never give more than two big-picture critical comments, and four or five smaller comments.

While this might not seem like enough to a grad student who is used to getting multiple pages of feedback, I find that it is plenty for an undergrad who is still very much in the process of learning how to receive and incorporate feedback. I always encourage students to come see me for more detail regarding the comments I’ve given them, and to ask me for more feedback if they’d like, and I actually find that giving less initial feedback makes students more likely to take me up on this.

This post suggests that the classroom should be considered as a model that students can use to achieve social justice in the world. This is a particularly urgent topic for those teaching at Notre Dame, since socially infused pedagogy is an integral part of its mission statement, which defines social justice in its promise “to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” The University’s Center for Social Concerns even has a specific research area focused on Social Justice.

In Teaching to Transgress, one of the seminal texts on social justice in the field of pedagogy, bell hooks offers a strategy to obtain the above mentioned goals of “human solidarity and concern for the good” that harnesses learning as “service to justice.” In particular, hooks challenges teachers to be vulnerable in the classroom and not to ask students to do anything that they would not be willing or comfortable doing themselves:

Empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive. In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share (21).

Though in this specific example, hooks’ is talking about personal narratives, the idea of professors empowering students to take risks by doing so themselves is translatable to multiple contexts and disciplines. This quotation both confronts how neutrality might function as a barrier in the classroom and challenges professors to question how they might make themselves vulnerable and join difficult conversations, thereby demonstrating to students that they are also willing to take risks, without recreating hierarchical power structures in which students perceive the teacher to be the main voice that matters. This question is particularly important given that a professor’s race and gender expression or identity play a major role in how much respect they are given by students and that this strategy of vulnerability may be even harder for professors who do not fit most students’ narrow views of what a professor should “look like.”

Some strategies include:

  • To co-construct a participation rubric with your students at the beginning of the semester, in which the class talks about what a classroom aimed at social justice might look like. This group conversation should emphasize your role as a professor while also drafting a list or statement of ways to create a safe space in which everyone’s views may be challenged, broadened, and learned from.
  • To frame the class with a reading such as hooks’ and engage with their ideas as a group so that a social justice framework is built right from the beginning.
  • To consistently remind students that there is not one specific answer to every problem and that students are welcome to bring their own viewpoints into the conversation, even if they are in opposition to yours, as long as they are respectful when doing so and have an argument that will support their view. (This likely, though not exclusively depending on the topic, applies more to the humanities and social sciences than those in STEM)

Reflection

When attempting to model social justice in the classroom, it is important to constantly reflect upon our practices. This blog post itself is a reflective response to feedback from a recent Kaneb Center workshop titled “Teaching Social Justice,” which suggested that a clear working definition of social justice should have been identified before the topic was opened for discussion. I have therefore been more intentional in my framing in this blog post by using the University’s mission statement as a guide.

We as educators should consistently evaluate our teaching practices, pay particular attention to the feedback we receive from students and other participants, and implement that feedback in order to make our classrooms and pedagogy more inclusive, and just.

Further Reading

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.

The number of students with disabilities attending post secondary education in the United States has been steadily increasing. As a faculty member and as a TA you might need to know a few things about accommodating students with disabilities in a collegiate classroom. The following guidelines and suggestions have been adapted from George Washington University, Heath Resource Center.

What constitutes a disability?

A disability is a condition caused by accident, trauma, genetics or ailments that may restrict a person’s mobility, hearing, vision, speech, intellect, cognition or mental function. A student may have more than one disability. Another challenge is that once students enter college they may be  reluctant to disclose their disability or self-advocate; thus, many students with disabilities may remain unknown because they are concerned about stigma, rejection or discrimination.

What legal mandates are relevant for the student in my course?

Several federal laws outline the rights intended for students with disabilities in colleges and universities: (1) The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), (2) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (504), and (3) The Higher Education Act (HEA).

What are accommodations?

An accommodation is a change or modification to the course, program, tests, assessments or exams that facilitates a student with disability to have equal opportunity to achieve a similar level of academic performance with students without disabilities. Accommodations may be  classroom modifications like enlarged copies of handouts or test-taking modifications like extended time on exams.

How does the student in my class obtain the necessary documentation?

It is the student’s responsibility to obtain necessary documentation and to inform the professor about the need for any academic accommodations. However it is a good practice to include a statement in the syllabus and to make announcements on the first day of class about accommodations for students with disabilities. You can share the web link / phone number / location of University of Notre Dame’s Sara Bea Disability Services . The staff at the Sara Bea Disability services will determine the eligibility and type of accommodation needed by a student.  

What should I do when a student provides documentation of the disability and requests accommodations?

Once the student submits the proof of disability, you and the student should outline a plan to implement the accommodation.  

Students with disabilities should be held to the same evaluation and grading standards as those for all students. Accommodations do not give the student with a disability an unfair advantage. Rather, ‘reasonable’ accommodations are intended to give students with disabilities an equal opportunity to achieve the same results that other students have the opportunity to achieve (Embry, Scott, and McGuire, 2004).

Online Resources:

Numerous websites provide additional information about students with disabilities in the college classroom.

  1. https://www.cornellcollege.edu/academic-support-and-advising/disabilities/disability-accommodations-faqs.shtml
  2. http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/counseling-and-advising/disability-support-services.html
  3. https://thinkcollege.net/
  4. https://ldaamerica.org/educators/
  5. http://www.washington.edu/doit/academic-accommodations-students-learning-disabilities
  6. https://www.heath.gwu.edu/students-disabilities-college-classroom

Citation

Embry, P., S. Scott, and J. McGuire. “The legal context for postsecondary students with disabilities, institutions of higher education, and faculty members.” Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability (2004).

 

In this post, I’m going to offer three very specific tips that I use to maximize the use of this technology in my teaching.

First: I think of my slides as a way of visually organizing my knowledge, and structuring the content I want to present. In addition to serving as a visual aid for students, slides can help structure a well-organized presentation. Take, for example, these two consecutive slides:

 

I know exactly what I want to say when it comes to distinguishing the three main branches of philosophy, so the first slide just reminds me to do so. It also reminds me to do so in an order that will help me set up for the point I’m about to make. By simply highlighting the relevant branches, and adding the label “Philosophy of disagreement,” I use the second slide to seamlessly explain a second point that builds on but extends our knowledge of the first. Note that, by doing this, I’m reminding myself of prior knowledge that it will be helpful to communicate to the students, and that I’m able to do this without writing out cumbersome paragraphs in an outline that I would have had to read or skim (interrupting the flow of the lecture, and risking the loss of my students’ attention).

Second: I use slides to build in breaks, discussion points, and comprehension checks. One of the most valuable skills I’ve picked up in teaching is learning when (and how) to slow down the process of learning. It can be incredibly hard for experts to gauge where students are at without checking every now and again. While I could just ask my students, “Does that make sense?” I find that this question is too general and too vague to be helpful. Instead, I tend to include slides with questions that are either very basic comprehension checks (e.g., “What is one assumption at play in Stroud’s argument for rational biases?”), or more open-ended discussion questions (e.g., “Is Stroud right in her descriptive claim that we do tend to be biased in favor of our friends?”). These slides, like plateaus on the path up the mountain, provide a break in the action where I can gauge student comprehension, collect my own thoughts, and continue to ensure that the information being presented is landing and resonating with the class.

Third: I use slides as an opportunity to present the content in a new way. Content connects with different students at different times and for different reasons, so I try and make sure that the point I’m making on a slide is made in a different way than they would have seen in other course materials. When I present from slides, I almost always have a handout as well. Often, I’m also presenting some content  that students ought to have seen before, in a previous class, in their readings, in discussion with peers online, etc.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m disguising the points, or making them unnecessarily complex, I just like to use small differences (say, in the kind of case I use as an example, or in the particular premise I focus on in an argument) to help students who may have missed an earlier point, and to expand the contexts and situations in which students who are already high-achievers will be able to apply their knowledge. Sometimes, this can be as simple as having handouts with the same structure as the slides, but that paraphrase various important points, or that offer different (but obviously related) examples.

The decision to use slides comes with various risks, like information overload, but also presents pedagogical opportunities, and it’s important to keep in mind the various ways these technological tools can be used to enhance and build on lecture-based models, even in the context of flipped or participation-heavy classrooms.

Using Fall Break for Reflection

Congratulations, you are now halfway through the semester and you deserve much needed rest. However, this is also the perfect time to reflect on your teaching and make some adjustments for the future since the first half of the semester is still fresh in your mind. Make a list of class sessions, lesson plans, discussions, or assignments that were particularly successful as well as those you think could be improved upon. Then reflect upon what you could do in the future to improve the items in the latter list, especially ways in which you might implement them into the second half of the semester.

 

You are not going to be able to address everything you may want to address this semester, so don’t feel like you have to tackle everything. Try instead to focus on what is most pressing. For example: are your students normally very quiet during discussions? What might you do to improve discussions in the classroom? You may want to consult previous Kaneb blog posts for suggestions, browse the Kaneb Center bookshelf, and/or email the Kaneb Center for book suggestions. You are also welcome to schedule a consultation with the Kaneb Center to discuss strategies for the rest of this semester as well as future semesters.

 

Using Fall Break to Learn How to Teach Well Using Technology

Chris Clark, assistant director of the Kaneb Center, will be conducting workshops on how to better use technology in the classroom. These sessions are designed to help participants complete the Kaneb Center’s “Teaching Well Using Technology” certificate, in which participants earn badges for completing select online modules in four distinct categories. Details on the certificate can be found at the following link: https://twut.nd.edu/

All sessions in Room 331, DeBartolo Hall and open to graduate students, postdocs and faculty.

 

As we approach the middle of the semester, energy levels in the classroom may begin to flag. With students eagerly anticipating the reprieve of Fall Break, maintaining their motivation is more important than ever to ensure you and your students make the next week of classes count. Motivation is a complex phenomenon that varies from one individual to the next, but can broadly be broken down into two distinct but related kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from the inward disposition of the student, usually manifesting as interest in the subject and strongly held personal goals. Extrinsic motivation consists in the incentives offered by peers, instructors, and others that offer students an additional reason to complete a task. Although it can take time to build up and sustain intrinsic motivation, there are several steps you can take in your classroom that use some form of extrinsic motivation to cultivate and deepen student interest.

  • If your class size permits, try not just to know but to use your students’ names regularly. Building on the relationships you’ve already established with students will help here. If you know why they are taking your class or what their interest in the subject is, you can refer to this when moving toward your learning goals for the class. Draw students’ attention to the way in which the material you cover today pertains to their other interests and pursuits. Reaching out to your students this way also makes it easier to illustrate for them your own intrinsic motivation for teaching the class and will help you communicate your own enthusiasm more effectively.
  • Consider the impact the classroom setup and structure have on your students, based on your knowledge of their personalities and the learning goals for the day. Arranging desks and chairs into a circle or U-shape so they can see and respond to each other makes them active participants and encourages commitment to the classroom through engagement with their friends and peers. Not every class lends itself to this kind of discussion based format, so keep in mind other active learning methods that might suit your particular students and objectives.
  • You can keep your class relevant to students’ lives by using plenty of current events and real world examples. Finding recent opinion pieces or news stories that are related to the classroom conversation is an engaging way to explain the importance of the material to students and allows them to connect their own interests and passions to matter at hand.
  • Give the students ownership of their work by assigning papers or projects that require them to choose the particular topic or focus. Additionally, think of rewards or incentives to offer that will bring students together in pursuit of a shared goal. Shared work can foster relationships that are more likely to continue their interest once the reward or incentive is no longer in play. Through real world applications, the example of your own enthusiasm, and the experience of working with their peers to achieve a goal, you can cultivate a variety of motivational factors in the classroom to see you through the rest of the semester.

Related Kaneb Workshop materials can be found here:

Fostering Student Motivation through Instruction

Motivation and Learning

College instructors often list critical thinking as one of their central learning goals, but it is much easier said than done.  From the start, we need to recognize that our students may not know what we mean when we say, “think critically.”  In Teaching for Critical Thinking, Stephen Brookfield defines it as “A process of hunting assumptions–discovering what assumptions we and others hold, and then checking to see how much sense those assumptions make,” (p. 24).

Students will not automatically become critical thinkers just by sitting in a college classroom.  What steps can you take to teach critical thinking skills in your discipline?

  1. Learning to think critically is a process.  Treat it as such, and do not become frustrated if students stumble or seem to go back to old ways of thinking.
  2. Address students’ misconceptions that critical thinking is negative or is always intended to overturn what is known.
  3. Introduce a disorienting dilemma to compel students to think differently about a topic they already think they know something about.
  4. Model critical thinking yourself.  Think out loud for students, explain ways in which you have changed your thinking about questions in your discipline, or work through problems together.
  5. Introduce a simple framework for critical thinking that students can apply themselves.  Brookfield has a four-step process for gathering and analyzing assumptions.  I use the three A’s (author, audience, and agenda) as a starting place for students to read historical texts.
  6. Start critical thinking with impersonal problems or questions.  Students will be more receptive in learning the methods of applying critical thought before they question their own beliefs.
  7. Treat critical thinking as a social process.  The input and feedback of others, especially peers, helps us to identify our own assumptions, consider different interpretations, and articulate our reasoning.
  8. Consider borrowing problem-based or inquiry-based learning approaches that are suitable for your students’ level and discipline.

For more, see these suggestions for teaching critical thinking from Jessica L. Collett, an Associate Professor in Sociology and friend of the Kaneb Center.

It’s your first day of leading a classroom discussion as an ITA and you are anxious about facing a classroom full of American students.  Agonizing questions start to bombard your mind. Will they understand my accent? Will I be able to meet their expectations? What if my English isn’t good enough? What if I don’t know the answer to a student’s question?

Most ITAs face these common teaching anxieties when they learn that they are required to teach. This may be due to a lack of teaching experience as well as by a lack of language proficiency. The following suggestions will not only help you become more confident about teaching in an American classroom but you may also find teaching to be a delightful experience.

Communicating Without Words

These tips are adapted from Connie Van Zelm’s essay in The Foreign TA: A Guide to Teaching Effectiveness, Handbook of State University of New York at Buffalo, 1988.

  1. Become an actor. Great skill is not necessary, just a little boldness. If there’s a keyword you don’t know in English, use your hands, body and facial expressions to act it out. Don’t be afraid of acting silly or looking funny. Do whatever you need to do to get your point across and learn to laugh with the students. Your students will appreciate your efforts and enthusiasm.
  2. Use a chalkboard or a piece of paper whether you are dealing with one student or a whole class. Write down the keywords you use as you talk about them, and draw a simple picture, map, or diagram of what you are talking about. You can usually sketch examples of what you mean.
  3. If you are afraid that someone might misunderstand you, draw a picture of what you don’t want the students to do or think, and then draw a big “X” through it to show that’s not what you’re talking about.
  4. Instead of explaining a formula or an equation, show how it works, and if the students don’t understand the first time, try explaining it with the help of illustrative examples.
  5. Be creative. Use visual aids whenever possible. Have models available whenever you can, and consider using the students themselves to model how something works.

If you are willing to step out of your shyness and do all you can do to communicate with them, they will really appreciate it, no matter how good or bad your English is.

Additional resources for ITAs:

  1. Resources for International Faculty and TAs by Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning
  2. English for Academic Purposes at the University of Notre Dame

Additional Reading:

Sarkisian, Ellen, Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Assistants in Colleges and Universities. Harvard University, 1997 (accompanied with a video, Teaching in America)

Smith, Jan, et al, Communicate: Strategies for International Teaching Assistants. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.

There are many ways in which in-class instructional time can seem overwhelming, especially to first time teachers. During my first TA experience I remember opening up a word document with the intention of writing up an agenda for the first week’s discussion. I kept staring at the document like it was a vast open prairie, or an empty stage in a sold-out theatre. The time and space I had seemed expansive, full of possibilities and opportunities, but also shapeless and unstructured. In that moment, I found myself wondering: how am I supposed to fill every moment of face-to-face instructional time with meaningful, interesting, and valuable content, and how am I supposed to know after the fact if I’ve succeeded in this goal? In this post, I’ll argue that you can go a long way towards answering these questions for yourself by carefully crafting S.M.A.R.T. learning objectives, and by using these objectives to design and implement daily assessments.

First off, a learning objective is a brief, descriptive statement of one thing that a student will take away from a day’s lesson. They are typically determined by (and fit into) the broader “learning goals” that you set in your syllabus at the beginning of the semester, but are more specific, concrete, and active. Examples include: “By the end of class, each student will be able to distinguish between examples of substances and accidents, and to give an intuitive definition of each.” You might have just one learning objective for a class period, or, if you have more time or if the objectives are less ambitious, you may break it down into two, three, or even more. (For more helpful information on learning objectives, and the difference between a learning objective and a course goal, see this helpful handout. For a taxonomy of different kinds of learning objectives, and how to incorporate these into your course prep see this handout on class prep from the Kaneb Center.)

S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym often associated with productive goal-setting in general, and I forget where I even first came across it (see here, here, and here). The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-bound, and I find these criteria immensely helpful in crafting good learning objectives. I won’t go through detailed descriptions for each criteria (for such descriptions see the links above), but to get an intuitive sense, consider the following two objectives:

  1. By the end of class students will be able to analyze philosophical texts well.
  2. By the end of class, students will be able to isolate Singer’s “Obligatory Giving” argument and distinguish its major premises, and give one reason why they agree or disagree with each premise.

Objective 2 is clearly better along each of our five dimensions.

S.M.A.R.T. objectives can help structure in-class time in at least two ways. First, they can help you determine what information you need to present and what sorts of activities you need to have your students engage in, and what to prioritize in the distribution of class time for any given meeting. If objective 2 was one of your objectives, for instance, you’d need to make sure to leave time for the students to read and mark-up a paragraph of text (3-5 minutes), share their thoughts with a neighbor (2-4 minutes), and collaborate on reconstructing the argument as a group (5-8 minutes). If you have three or four other objectives for that day, you might think about simplifying the task, or about giving them a little more help along the way.

The second way S.M.A.R.T. objectives can help you structure in-class time is in a more global, semester-level sense. S.M.A.R.T. objectives — if crafted well — naturally give rise to concrete assessment mechanisms (they are, after all, Measurable, Results-focused, and Time-bound). To expand upon our example: you could ask your students to write down the premises and conclusion of Singer’s argument on a half-sheet of paper and turn it in. If pressed for time, you could cold call on three students and ask each to offer a premise and a brief reason to agree or disagree with it. If the objective and content are crucial to the course as a whole, and directly related to your overall learning goals, you might hand out a worksheet at the end of class, or have students take an online quiz to ensure that they’ve attained proficiency. This feedback is an invaluable resource in helping you to determine where to spend valuable future class time.

As college instructors, we get precious little face-to-face instructional time with our students, so it’s important that we structure the time we have effectively. S.M.A.R.T. learning objectives can help us to do that, and in a way that isn’t overwhelming or overly time consuming. Moreover, I’ve found that pairing my objectives with daily assessment mechanisms, and even using the process of designing such mechanisms to clarify and evaluate these objectives, allows me to foster a more “communicative” classroom experience; i.e. one in which I’m getting feedback from the students that I can use to create future objective-based learning goals that are responsive to their needs.

 

 

Links and citations:

“Goals vs Objectives.” University of Iowa Information Technology Services, Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2017. https://teach.its.uiowa.edu/sites/teach.its.uiowa.edu/files/docs/docs/Goals_vs_Objectives_ed.pdf

“Articulating Learning Goals: A Path to Increased Efficiency and Improved Student Performance.” University of Notre Dame, Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2017. http://kaneb.nd.edu/assets/75457/learninggoalsho.pdf

Image source: http://habitica.wikia.com/wiki/SMART_Goal_Setting

Requiring an early assignment be handed in and graded provides a mutual check-in for you and your students.  You students will get a preview for the bigger assessments later in the semester.  They will understand the kinds of questions you ask, the amount of time it takes to complete assignments in your discipline, and the ways in which their work will be assessed.  Your feedback will help them to understand how they should focus their time and energy for their upcoming midterms. On the other end, you will get more insight about your students’ learning. You may find widespread patterns across the student work that need to be addressed.  Perhaps your students lack either a skill necessary in the course or have become confused about a topic you discussed in class.

Early feedback can set up success later in the semester.  The pedagogical literature suggests giving students a modest boost in confidence early in the semester improves motivation.  Moreover, students who feel capable in a course are less likely to engage in academic dishonesty. (Lang 2013) However, if any students are particularly struggling with time management, the prerequisite skills of the course, or the standards of academic work, an early, low-stakes assignment can alert you to problems and give you time to intervene early in the semester.

While it is important to grade the work in some way to give your students feedback about their work, that grading method does not have to be traditional.  It could be worth only a very small fraction of their final grade.  You might give feedback with no letter or number attached.  Or you could grade it using a system that is less intimidating to students and appropriate for a low-stakes assignment, using a check system or a rubric, for instance.

In my own course, I asked students to write a short reflection paper evaluating a controversial question using sources from the class.  I discovered that my students were more skilled in some areas than I anticipated, but they struggled with an important skill that they would need for their next assignment.  Having realized my assumptions were incorrect, I adjusted by devoting time to additional in-class instruction and practice targeted to the area of weakness.  With some practice and feedback behind them already, my students have a leg up on the first substantial assignment for the semester due this week.

 

Additional reading:

On designing rubrics for low-stakes assignments, see the resources from our previous workshop.

Lang, James. Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Walvoord and Anderson. Effective Grading:  A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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