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Supporting Students, Creating Intimacy, and Surviving Grading in a High Enrollment Course – Featuring Ti Macklin

What if you thought you were in a class with 25 people and then found out about hundreds of classmates that you didn’t know existed? “We got a lot of feedback from students saying they didn’t realize they were in a class with 275 people,” said English 101 Professor Ti Macklin, laughing.

Anyone who has taught high enrollment classes knows that managing, let alone successfully teaching, a group that size has lots of hidden challenges. How is it possible to craft a small-class feel in a course this size and achieve an extraordinarily low 4% DFW rate? With many people still reeling from COVID? In a first-year writing course where giving frequent, timely, detailed feedback is paramount?

It doesn’t happen by accident. It took a lot of careful learning design, lesson planning, and providing teaching assistants with support and continued coaching in order to gradually apprentice them into teaching.

“The first-year writing course is likely the smallest course that students take and it’s a course where the instructor knows their names, so we didn’t want to lose that,” said Dawn Shepherd, an associate professor of English and associate director of the First-Year Writing Program, who helped Ti to design the class.

“In our field, nobody teaches first year writing in a large class like this. Generally there are eighteen students per online class here and at other institutions.”

Changing the Way They Use TAs and Groups

TA training and support played a significant role in the success of the course. First-year writing TAs are typically the instructor of record for one class their first semester. Preparations in spring 2020, however, made it apparent that this model of TA preparation was not ideal. Due to the pandemic, the possible modes of instruction (online, hybrid, remote, etc.) for teachers were in flux as were plans for the safety and well-being of the TAs, thus making TA preparation nearly impossible to plan. In response to this need, Ti volunteered to develop a new model for teaching first-year writing and for preparing new first-year writing TAs in the summer of 2020. According to first-year writing’s professional organization, “no more than 20 students should be permitted in any writing class” and no “faculty members should teach more than 60 writing students a term” but a reimagined high enrollment/high impact (HE/HI) course could nearly meet these expectations. The resulting course structure was somewhat similar to a lecture/lab set up with the professor in charge of the whole class, and each TA responsible for small groups of students.

The course has been taught in fall of 2020 and 2021. New first-year writing TAs engaged in a pre-semester workshop and joined a fully online course with 275-300 first-year writing students. Ti developed and oversees the HE/HI ENGL 101 and also teaches the supporting graduate seminar on writing pedagogy. The goal of TA instruction in first-year writing is developing independent teachers, so TAs were responsible for 25 students (organized in small groups of around 10 students), which included grading, communication, and working through student issues. With Ti’s support, TAs were slowly apprenticed into responsibilities of teaching a first-year writing course. 

The first-year writing students responded well to the small-group organization of the course. Since they worked closely with one another, students tended to look out for their peers. On multiple occasions, students reached out to Ti or the TAs to check on their peers who missed a group assignment or hadn’t checked in with their group mates. 

Keep the Intimacy, Coach the Students, Survive the Grading

As you can imagine, a big reason writing classes are usually small is grading. “I like to separate grading and assessment as much as possible,” said Ti, and that happens through labor-based grading in this course. According to Ti, “grading is based on meeting the objective requirements of an assignment” whereas assessment focuses on “effort, growth, iteration, and working through a process.” In practice, this means emphasizing formative rather than summative feedback. Ti developed detailed rubrics with points focused on meeting the assignment requirements while allowing space to provide students with responses to their ideas, recommendations for revision, and forward-facing feedback to help students to develop as writers.

Grading gives students anxiety, too, and in a writing class, it’s often tied to confidence. Dawn explained, “What matters is the feedback on your ideas and what you’re learning about writing. Did you meet the minimum requirements? Yes? Then ‘full points.’ Their final grade is based on their investment in improvement and demonstrating growth rather than achieving mastery of writing.”

Another key was ungraded work. “Students like the ungraded work and they actually do it,” said Ti. This optional work helped students to struggle less, since the content complemented and enriched the weekly learning. Also, “students liked that they were trusted,” said Ti and that “their labor is worth it,” added Dawn.

How did they get students to work without attaching points to it? Ti created interactive text-based lessons that mixed theory, practical tips, freewriting exercises, reflection, and analysis activities. Delivered on a weekly basis, they are written in a conversational tone that helped Ti to connect with her students and walk them through the material. It also avoided lots of time-consuming video creation.

Looking forward

Creating the course took a lot of collaboration and work. Was it worth it? In the spring, Ti is piloting a large English 102 course that follows a somewhat similar lecture/lab format that will be delivered in multiple modalities (in-person, hybrid/online, and small group labs). She credits some of her willingness to innovate her teaching to the experience of building a successful high-enrollment class. According to Ti, this online class may be the best class she’s ever built, “partially because I have had great support and people pushed me to think and do things I’ve never done before. This team approach helped me bring everything together, and I’m a better teacher as a result.”


For help designing and teaching a high enrollment online course, or managing complicated group structures in online courses, contact eCampus Center and request a consultation.

Article Credit

Thanks to Dr. Ti Macklin, Dr. Dawn Shepherd, and Greg Snow, the eCampus Instructional Design Consultant who worked with Ti to design the ENGL 101 course.