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Revisiting Three Teaching Classics

The fall semester is in full swing and hopefully you and your students are hitting your groove! As we move into week five (!), if you are ready for ways to level up your teaching then look no further; as this post offers you ideas about how to elevate three classics from the classroom: Group assignments, discussions, and writing tasks.

Woman sitting on the floor, holding a light bulb sign above her head, with ideas scribbled on the wall behind her.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Effective (Semester-long) Group Assignments (framework by Dr. Shawn Simonson)

An effective group work experience depends on its structure and students’ understanding of their purpose in the group. Some characteristics of successful group assignments include that the project is relevant, authentic, and well-defined. Further, it encourages distinct contributions from the perspectives of multiple participants, includes opportunities for collaboration, and clearly communicates individual and team accountability.

Not all students will welcome collaborative work with open arms. It is thus even more important to inform students why you are having them work in teams and about the purpose of the assignment for the course and their future careers. This also means telling students on the first day of class (or early on in the semester) about the project and eliciting student attitudes towards teamwork. Make it interactive! Ask what worked for them in the past and what did not work. Be transparent about instructions and expectations and provide students with the tools to work effectively in groups. For example, how can students use Canvas to communicate with each other? You can also assign certain roles to each student and rotate the roles throughout the semester or project. Some role examples include: Manager, Recorder, Spokesperson.

To make sure groups are on track to succeed, check in frequently and provide opportunities for groups to work on their project in class. Yes, class time is a valuable resource but you will be glad to get a close view on where each group is with their work and you can offer support before it is too late. Don’t forget to generate excitement! Showcase excellent work from past student projects and build in an element or two of choice about how the project will be presented?

The main thing to consider about any group assignment is that it’s all about what was learned along the way – by them and by you. Don’t get caught up in the end project but consider the students’ progress over time in terms of the content discovery, team building and team work, or the evolution of the result.

Meaningful and Inclusive Discussions (framework by Teresa Focarile)

Leading meaningful class discussions may as well be considered an art. Some days, conversations are lively and productively on fire. Other days, you may be pulling strings on all ends trying to get students to converse. To help in times like those, let’s look at a few primary observed hurdles in class discussion and how we can mitigate them.

Only a few students regularly contribute to the conversation. We all have been there. You can always count on the one or two people who just can’t wait to participate and voice their perspectives. We value their thoughts and even rely on their enthusiasm from time to time. However, hearing multiple ideas and stories is key for successful discussions. How can we encourage others to join in?

  • Be clear about your expectations for participation in class discussion. How much weight do you assign discussions and what do you expect from students when chiming in?
  • Incorporate friendly competitions and games (e.g., debates or a game show).
  • Make the discussions fun and worthwhile by assigning interesting topics and prompts.

Students are reluctant to speak. There can be many reasons why students don’t feel comfortable speaking in class, such as shyness, fear of being wrong, differing cultural standards, self-perception of their language skills, and many more. To establish a supportive environment, you can

  • Poll students to see how they would prefer to participate and provide an alternative discussion format, like a chat app or written reflections
  • Group students into small groups first or assign a pair-share activity before moving to a large group discussion. This can help students generate their thoughts with reduced anxiety.
  • Let students know that it’s okay to be wrong. You can even share personal experiences if you feel comfortable.

Students are not always prepared for the discussion. Frustrating, isn’t it? You have the whole lesson planned out and planned discussion prompts but it becomes clear that the students have not done the preparation for the discussion.. Here are some strategies to try:

  • Let students know ahead of time that you will be discussing a specific topic. Explain that they might be asked to share their ideas and encourage them to take notes on the material.
  • Provide guided reading prompts for students that help prepare them for the class discussion.
  • Think about the level of difficulty of the reading and make sure that students are equipped to tackle it successfully.

Transparent Writing Assignments (framework provided by Dr. Daniel Sanford)

Transparent writing assignments make it easier and more straightforward for your students to grow as writers, while allowing you to focus your efforts and enjoy grading student work that aligns with your expectations. We can distinguish between formal (summative) and informal (formative) writing assignments. Here are a few categories to keep in mind when creating meaningful writing assignments.

What is the purpose of the assignment? Include specific learning outcomes and describe the value of the assignment to students. You can do this by making connections between this assignment and future work.

What do you want students to do? Make sure that the tasks align with the purpose, the type of the assignment (e.g., “research paper”) is clearly defined, and the completion steps are clearly explained and well-paced. Additionally, introduce the genre of the assignment and how it relates to their learning.

How will you evaluate the students’ work? Ensure that the evaluation criteria are specified and different levels of performance are delineated. The purpose and task should clearly align in the evaluation criteria as well.

One last important aspect: Consider writing and the Hidden Curriculum. Often, we think that students should know how to write a research paper, how to cite in a certain format, or how to conduct research. Yet, we cannot be certain that these skills were either taught at all previously or that each student was taught in the same way. To encounter these hurdles, ask yourself: When I am not  transparent, who succeeds? What does it mean to say “they should know this by now?” How can we best mentor students as writers in the disciplines?

Your turn!

Remember, that even small changes and adjustments can make a big difference for you and your students. Now, which strategy will you try in your classroom? Contact us if you wish to talk more about these strategies and how to update your use of these teaching classics.


Sarah Lausch