During the Semester

This guide can be read both linearly and non-linearly. To jump to a specific section, follow the links below.


Introduction to the Guide

This guide offers support for a number of issues you may encounter during the semester, building on our “Before the Semester” guide. While the guide is loosely organized to address topics as they might arise during the semester–such as how to use your syllabus to map your planning for the semester and establish a routine, and tips for a range of instructional models and how to cultivate and manage classroom dynamics–you can easily navigate to a specific section using the menu above. This guide can be read both linearly and nonlinearly.

Course Planning During the Semester

Figuring out when and what to prep

Once you have your reading and assignment schedule mapped out, you can begin to break down the semester and figure out what type of preparation is needed. If you’re working in modules, think about what needs to happen in each module, and, from there, in each week or class period. If you’re not working in modules, perhaps begin to break down your planning through high stakes assignments (such as an exam or paper) or using the calendar as a guide. Look also for natural breaks in the semester that give you more planning time, or an opportunity to to catch up.

Once you’ve divided the semester into smaller chunks, think about when you’ll prep for individual class meetings. How much can you get done before the semester starts? Will you have a day in the week that you’ve set aside for preparation? Think about scheduling your office hours in a way that maximizes them as prep periods (maybe before class to read the assigned reading or after to get a head start on marking papers). Your prep for each class meeting should include:

  • Reading assigned course material
  • Collecting and organizing background material: do you need to read any secondary sources or compile any background information?
  • Developing course materials: do you need to prepare a lecture, generate a list of discussion questions, build supplementary materials such as slides, images or references?
  • Crafting assignments: make sure you distribute assignment guidelines well before the due date. If you use a rubric or distribute any format guidelines, make sure you’ve prepared those as well.
  • Generating prompts/questions/quizzes/problem sets
  • Reading and assessing student work: don’t forget that assessing can be time consuming. If you’ve never done it before, leave yourself some extra time.

Tip: If you’re taking classes while you’re teaching or have outside deadlines for articles, conference presentations or chapter submissions, make sure you don’t lose track of those dates while you’re planning for your course. Figure out what times are going to be particularly busy for you as a student and a scholar and make sure that you find a way to do your class prep well in advance or make a plan for the class that does not require you to do much prep work (group presentations, teaching a text or topic with which you’re extremely familiar or you’ve taught before, etc).

Plan for Your Prep

It’d be great if you could plan for hours for each class session, but that’s rarely the reality of being a graduate student and teaching a course or multiple courses. You can take some steps during the semester that can minimize the impact of those inevitable moments when you haven’t had enough time to prepare. Make sure that you:

  • Remain organized
  • Keep your course narrative in mind
  • Know key dates and benchmarks throughout the semester
  • Keep a sense of your goals for each class, each unit, and the course as a whole
  • Anticipate potential rough patches and carve out extra time for those moments

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Lesson Planning and Building Lesson Plans

Some instructors walk in with pages and pages of lesson plans, some with an index card, and others will keep the plan in their head. If you can only bring three thoughts to class, make sure you know:

  • What you’re going to start with. Have a clear sense of what you’ll do with at least the first ten minutes of class (even if it’s a free write so that you can buy yourself a little extra planning time).
  • What you want to accomplish (and how are you going to do so?). It’s important to go into class with a clear purpose. You might shape that purpose around or in conjunction with the course objectives, but be sure to develop a rationale for why you’re doing what you’re doing. For example, if you know you want to have a class discussion, make sure you know what you want students to take away or what skill you want them to put into practice in that discussion.
  • What happened before and what happens next. It’s important that you have a sense of where you are in the context of the course narrative and the semester. What are you setting up for next time and what are you building on from the previous class? What connections can you help students make?

If you’re looking for lesson planning models, check out:

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Instructional Models

There are a number of ways that you can structure your class. Early on in your teaching career it makes sense to experiment with a range of approaches to assess your comfort level teaching across modes, and to see which kinds of structures allow you to best pursue your course goals. Below are some thoughts and suggestions about common instructional modes.


When people imagine what a college classroom looks like, there’s a good chance that they imagine a lecture course, with the faculty member standing at the front of the room as students dutifully sit taking notes, or, sometimes, dozing off. There is significant research on the efficacy of lectures, and debates rage within the scholarship of teaching and learning about whether they are an effective instructional model or not.

The goal of this guide is not to re-litigate those debates, but rather to help you think more critically about a range of pedagogical approaches that you can roll into your toolkit. We feel that lectures can most certainly be effective instructional tools. A good story or clear, detailed explanation can help students understand course material in a personal, affective way, as long as the lecture is reinforced by other elements of the class, including reading, writing, discussion, and assessment.

Effective lectures can fill an entire class meeting or punctuate sessions that mix modes of exchange… but those are different kinds of lectures with different challenges. Finding your voice as a lecturer requires preparation, organization, practice, and experience.
Tip: As you prepare your lecture, you might think of it as a model for how you’d like your students to present or make an argument (verbal or written). If you can model that form for your students–and make it explicit as a model–then students can begin to recognize how content is organized which will help them not only mimic that format but learn how to take and organize the notes they generate from your lectures.
Tips for Effective Lecturing:

Preparing your lectures

As you’re planning your lecture, be sure to connect it explicitly to  course materials. Explain:

  • What you expect students to be able to do with your lecture
  • The kind of content your lecture provides
  • The relationship between the lecture and the course readings
  • The relationship between the lecture and course exams or assignments

You might produce supplemental materials and distribute them prior to the lecture, or prepare slides for your presentation. For example:

  • An outline with major topics that will be covered
  • A printout of powerpoint slides
  • Key vocabulary, dates, titles, names, etc.

Think about time! Our instinct is often to pack more information into a lecture than we can reasonably cover given the length of time we have, and given the attention spans of our students. It could be helpful to think beforehand about the following questions:

  • Would it be helpful to break the lecture up with an activity or a different voice (an audio or film clip)?
  • If you’re planning a structured lecture for the full class period, how will you handle student questions, points of clarification and discussion?
  • If you save these for the end, be sure you leave enough time. Is it more effective to divide your lecture into sections and take questions after each section?
  • Do you intend to use another platform for lecture questions such as a discussion board or response paper?
  • Have you factored in time for reminders and/or questions about future assignments or reading?

Your lecture can take a variety of forms and shapes; think about how you’ll present your material. Will you talk and hope that students take notes? Will you supplement your talk with video or images, or will students generate some of the lecture content themselves–a lecture-discussion hybrid form–or will you intersperse activities, such as writing and/or problem-solving exercises, that keep students active in class?

For ways to make your lecture participatory, check out “Twenty Tips to Make Your Lecture More Participatory” compiled by Ellen Sarkisian for the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University.

  • Repeat key information: Say it again differently and give both physical and verbal cues
  • Students don’t always hear what you say the first time. Sometimes, the way you say things doesn’t quite land. Make sure, as you plan your lecture, that you find ways to stress key information and ideas both through repeating the information in different ways and stressing it both verbally and with a gesture.
  • Bring water! 
  • Check that your tech needs are supported before you show up to give your lecture
    • It’s a good idea to check the technology setup in your classroom before the semester even starts so that you can plan accordingly. A classroom designated as a ‘smart room’ usually has a ceiling mounted projector and a computer station with additional audio/visual controls to hook-up a laptop to the projector. If you use a Mac, make sure you bring a dongle adapter or request one from AV ahead of time. For some classrooms, you’ll need to request a technology set-up or borrow a technology cart prior to the day’s lecture. Most in-room technology requires a password to access the network. Make sure you have all of this information in advance (if you don’t know your password, contact tech support). If you need additional devices, for example a pointer, slide projector or VCR make sure you request these items in advance from the AV department and arrive early enough, if possible, to handle any potential snags.

For more resources on preparing a lecture for a large class, check out “Handling the uber-large Lecture: an Interview with John DeNero” and “Six ways to make lectures in a large enrollment course more manageable and effective” both from UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Note-taking Techniques

Sometimes students don’t know how to take notes, don’t know that they’re supposed to take notes, or don’t know how to take notes and listen simultaneously. You can help mitigate problems or lost info by spending a few minutes at the beginning of the semester, or before an individual lecture, giving students strategies or materials to support their note-taking.

You might talk to your students about effective ways to organize their notes on the page/notebook. Should they be building connections across the page? Outlining what you say? Jotting down dates and names? Questions?

Be sure to tell students if you’ll post online powerpoint, lecture notes or other supplemental material before or after the lecture for their reference (some may want to print the material and make notes during the lecture, and others may want to refer to the lecture afterwards as study material). The materials you provide them to support the lecture may impact their strategies for engaging with your presentation.

You might also consider making your lecture notes a live, social document through a community composition tool such as Etherpad or Google Doc, or by encouraging students to annotate your lecture during or afterwards.

Don’t be caught off-guard if students ask if they can record your lecture. You might also choose to record your classes  and post them on an online platform that students can refer to later.

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Connecting With Different Learning Styles

Students learn through a variety of modes; consider designing your lectures to reach as many learning styles as possible. Recent pedagogical conversations have explored various learning styles and debated the merits of each one, but, generally speaking, in planning your lecture, it can be helpful to keep ‘the big four’ in mind:

Visual: visual information can range from writing foundational concepts on the board, putting key info on a slide, and generating detailed infographics to designing pictures that represent concepts or key points. Incorporating visual information into your lecture gives you another way to stress what you want students to take away, and it gives students another avenue to come into contact with that information.
Tip: think about the relationship between the visual information you use and what you’re saying during your lecture. How does each inform the other? What type of information is the visual providing? How are students meant to negotiate or synthesize the language of your lecture and the visual?

  • Is the visual giving extra information that is not contained in the language of your lecture?
  • Is it echoing or presenting the key points of your lecture in a different form?
  • The visuals you incorporate can help keep you on track or prompt you during your lecture. If you’re not reading a lecture, think about using your visuals as an outline or reminder of key points

Auditory: Lectures predominantly hit the auditory learning mode, but, as you prepare your course lectures, think about ways in which you can engage a variety of auditory cues by repeating key information the same way multiple times, repeating key information in different vocabulary, verbally inflecting certain points of your lecture, and incorporating audio clips and primary sound sources where appropriate.

Tip: Introduce a key term or concept on both sides of an example. If you use examples to anchor definitions or concepts, make sure you introduce the technical vocabulary both before and after you use the example. Incorporating multiple types of audio in a lecture, including video clips or pausing the lecture for a quick think-pair-share exercise or low stakes writing assignment, varies the register of the class and helps keep students engaged without overwhelming them with one type of register.
Tactile: Tactile learners learn best by doing, whether it’s taking notes, drawing diagrams, building projects or participating in labs. One of the easiest ways to hit this learning mode in a lecture is to ask students to take notes (remember to help them with notetaking strategies), but you can also incorporate writing exercises or small problem-solving activities into your lecture to prompt this mode.

Kinesthetic: A student who learns best through a kinesthetic mode learns by moving around and physically incorporating his body in the learning process. This mode might be one of the more difficult to hit in a lecture model, but, depending on the topic, it’s not impossible. Consider having students (or a few volunteers) act out lecture-specific dynamics or have students move around into different groups or configurations during the class.

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Think about time

Be aware of the length of your lecture and the attention span of the class.Is it helpful to break the lecture up with an activity or a different voice (an audio or film clip)? If you’re planning a structured lecture for the full class period, how will you handle student questions, points of clarification and discussion? If you save these for the end, be sure you leave enough time. Is it more effective to divide your lecture into sections and take questions after each section? Do you intend to use another platform for lecture questions such as a discussion board or response paper? Have you factored in time for reminders and/or questions about future assignments or reading?

Your lecture can take a variety of forms and shapes; think about how you’ll present the content. Will you talk and students take notes, will you supplement your talk with video or images, or will students generate some of the lecture content themselves–a lecture-discussion hybrid form–or will you intersperse activities, such as writing and/or problem-solving exercises, that keep students active in class?

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What is Class Discussion and why discuss?

Broadly speaking, class discussion is defined as moments where students are interacting verbally with one another and share responsibility for moving the class forward via their participation. Many faculty members initiate class discussions by asking a series of questions, and then working with student responses to generate momentum around a topic. This approach can be effective, but it can also lead to conversations that are dominated by a few strong voices or are unbalanced in other ways.  

As you are preparing for your class, you might consider more structured approaches to nurturing class discussion.  Modes of discussion can fall into three categories: informative, interpretive/analytical, and debatable.

In an informative discussion, students are supplying the content and data. For example, students might be reviewing or paraphrasing material they’ve learned in a previous course reading, class lecture or outside context. An instructor might ask students to generate a timeline of WWII and students might call out key dates or events.

An interpretive/analytical discussion requires that students examine a piece of data and make an argumentative or critical comment about it. An instructor might ask, for example, students, as a group, to evaluate and analyze the impact WWII had on the United States’ economic standing in the world.

A discussion structured as a debate asks the class to divide and take–usually opposing–sides on a particular issue and then present or argue for their stance or from a particular point of view. A teacher might, for example, make a group who is pro a particular military strategy and a group who is con, and then have a third team that judges the debate and evaluates the argument of each group.

A class discussion might move through all of these models in one day, or it might use aspects of each. Discussion offers students an opportunity to interact with each other, generate a shared knowledge base, and think through problems and issues as a group. Since in discussion students are interacting with each other, discussion can also foster a sense of  classroom community.

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Sites of Discussion

In-class: In-class discussion can happen across the class as a whole or you can break students into smaller groups, either with all of them working on the same topic or question or with each group having its own focus. You might consider having these groups report back to each other or present their conversation in another meeting or on another platform.  

Online: If you plan to conduct most or all of your course discussion on an online platform, think about enabling constraints you can incorporate to get students talking to each other and working through ideas. If your students are writing blog posts, one idea is to have rotating posting/commentating assignments (so, perhaps twice a semester, students are required to write a longer post, with longer post deadlines staggered throughout students in the class, but each week students are required to comment on the post). Another idea is to group students in threes and have one post, one comment, and one find a relevant article or video for the topic. Make sure that you have a clear outline of posting deadlines so that the conversation can develop over the course of the semester. You can also build online discussion by asking students to collaborate within the same document (for example, by using Google docs). Students can write together and annotate each other’s thinking, etc. Like with a blog post discussion community, you want to be sure that you’re clear about how the platform functions and what each student’s responsibility is. See our TLC Guide for educational technology for additional ideas and resources — https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/educational-technology/.

Hybrid: For many teachers, online discussions offer a way to continue the conversations started in class and/or start a conversation that will be explored further in class. Think about how you can use both platforms to round out a topic and explore it from a variety of perspectives. Using an online platform can be a great way to start an in-class discussion since students have time to write, read and reflect before they jump into a topic in class. If you’re asking students to collect media or materials outside the primary text, sharing them on a blog can allow you to extract from that material in an in-class discussion as well as ensure that all students have access to the material. See our TLC Guide for hybrid/online course development for additional ideas and resources — https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/hybridonline-course-development/.

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How to Prepare for an in class Discussion:

First, decide what type of discussion you want to have (informative, interpretive/analytical, and debatable). The starting questions you ask as well as the follow-up questions can help shape the direction in which you go. Combining models can also be effective: you might start with an informative discussion where students present or report the main topics, ideas or argument from a course reading, etc, and move from there to interpreting or problematizing that information. Knowing what you want out of the discussion is key and will help shape the types of questions you ask.

Leading a discussion is challenging, and it takes practice, and some trial and error. Just because a discussion goes great in one class doesn’t mean that it will in the next. And just because one group of students got a lot from the discussion doesn’t mean that other members of the class did. As you prepare, jot down some notes about the shape you hope the discussion will take. You don’t need to plan every move, but do consider a general trajectory. Think about how you’ll prompt information or participation from students. Do you want to begin with a low stakes writing activity or freewrite so students can organize their ideas before the conversation starts? Or do you want to do a freewrite in the middle of the discussion to pivot to a new question or topic? Will student preparation for the discussion start outside of class with a homework assignment or shared blog post/comment sequence that gets the conversation going before class starts?

Keep in mind, too, that it’s possible that participating in a discussion is new to the students in your class. It can be useful to talk to them prior to your first discussion about what an academic conversation looks like, and you might give your students some tips not only to help them prepare for the conversation but also to model what to do during the conversation–how to listen, how to participate, how to take notes, what to take notes on, etc.

Strategies for Navigating Discussion

People need time to think. Sometimes the hardest part of leading a class discussion is waiting patiently for students to have an idea, take time to articulate an idea or feel comfortable speaking up. Silence is ok! Don’t jump in and ask a second question or fill in the answer to the one you just posed. Be patient. Sometimes beginning the discussion with a quick free write on the topic, a homework assignment or an online discussion posts offers students a chance to collect and prepare their thoughts prior to the start of the live discussion. Once the conversation gets going, your job is to moderate it, keep it on track, and ask follow-up questions that steer the discussion in the direction you feel it needs to go to meet your goals for the class.

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Things to watch out for:
The Personal Example

Students recognize that to support a point they need to use examples. The examples most often within reach are personal ones (and frequently students have been pedagogically trained to connect course content to their own personal experience). These examples can be great, and they might even be part of the aim of your discussion; however, they pose a set of challenges:

  • you need to make sure the discussion does not move to commenting on, validating or challenging a student’s experience (the student’s experience should remain an example not the topic of discussion).
  • if the discussion is solely based on personal experience, then you need to manage how a person who does not/has not had that experience can still contribute to the conversation.
  • personal examples can charge the conversation in a way that can be helpful–it can take a theory that seems abstract and make it real and concrete; but, students might self-edit their comments so as not to offend anyone and therefore limit the scope of the discussion.

Depending on your objectives for the discussion, you can say before the discussion starts, and remind students during the discussion, that examples need to come directly from the text. Or, if it fits your discussion model better, you can make sure, by asking a follow-up question, that students take the step to move from the personal example to the analysis of the work the example is doing.

The Topic Switch/The Analogous Example

It’s helpful, when leading a discussion, to  keep in mind what you want to accomplish. If you’re looking for students to make connections outside the text, then the topic switch can work well, but if you’re trying to explore a specific aspect of a text/topic, then you’ll need to redirect back to the text after any attempted shifts. Comparative thinking is great, but often all the parts don’t match up. When you encounter the “Oh, that’s just like this situation where…and what happened then was…” move, you might write the comparison on the board as a point to come back to and then redirect the conversation to the original topic or, depending on your objectives, you might sidebar/detour and ask the students to think about the comparison: where is the comparison helpful in thinking about the topic at hand? where does the comparison breakdown? how does the relationship (both where it works and doesn’t) help to better understand the exhibit of your discussion?

The Over-talker

Often classes have one or two people who always speak up and/or speak over other students. To help support that each student has an opportunity to speak and be heard, you might, as hands go up or students indicate they want to say something, make a loose order before the discussion really gets going; this move can help draw the conversation away from one or two voices. Or, you might ask people to write down their starting points in advance so that each student has prepared something before the conversation gets going; a Socratic circle (inside/outside circle) can help distribute the speaking load. If everyone is required to participate, you might select names out of a jar or find other ways to randomize and vary who is speaking. When the Over-talker takes off, you might ask as a directed follow-up if anyone agrees with the student and can add to/support that point (this opens the point to more than just one person and can sometimes help open up the floor), or you might make a joke about the student carrying the load, and ask if anyone else is going to jump in to help him/her out. If the problem persists, you might talk to the student before/after class.

The Quiet Talker

As a moderator, you’ll want to be sure that you help restate what the contributor has just said. Often in a discussion students speak directly to the professor, and sometimes the sound does not carry. Make sure you look around the room and take note of whether other students have heard the comment or not, and, when needed, restate the person’s ideas/or use those ideas as a frame for a follow-up question. You can also ask the student to repeat himself: ‘that sounds super interesting, but I only heard part of it. Please say it again.’ Sometimes the quiet talker is shy and demonstrating that you recognize his ideas as important can help the volume problem, but sometimes not. If there’s no volume increase, you might make a joke about how far the sound traveled and ask the person to say it again. Or say, ‘I don’t think the rest of the room heard you, will you please repeat.’

The No-Talker

Some students don’t want to talk in class. They may come from a social or school culture that discourages students from speaking. They may have social anxiety or require an accommodation they don’t want to disclose. Sometimes the strategies for getting the student who doesn’t want to talk in class to talk in discussion start long before the activity: if you know that you’ll be teaching a discussion-heavy course, take the time at the beginning of the semester for everyone to introduce themselves, and repeat that activity for the first couple of meetings. Early in the semester do group work and frequently switch up the groups so that students can get to know each other and work together before you do a big group discussion. If a student feels like she has already talked to and thought with most the people in the class, she might be more likely to participate when the big group discussion happens.

On the spot, however, you can help facilitate a ‘no-talker’s’ participation by taking a few minutes before the discussion starts and having students write down a couple of points or questions they want to contribute to the discussion/have about the subject. You might make a rule that everyone has to say something at least once in the discussion, and you might stress that asking questions is a huge part of thinking through a topic as well. It might be that a student does not feel comfortable making a point but is comfortable contributing a question or follow-up question. Try to open up as many entry points into the conversation as you can. When the ‘no talker’ does participate reinforce that you’re enthused that she did to help encourage her to participate again. You can also talk to the student before or after class, either to comment on how much you appreciated a particular comment or to ask if the student might speak up more.

There might be some students who, for a range of reasons, never speak up in class, and you need to be as clear as possible both in your course planning and in your syllabus about what role discussion will play in the class: is it optional? Is it required? Are there levels of participation in a class discussion? Will you offer alternative paths of participation for students who don’t feel comfortable speaking up? Think about how you frame participation in a discussion: Is speaking up the only way or is it also considered participating if a person is actively listening and engaged in the conversation, jotting notes or nodding in response to a peer’s comment. If a student contributes thoroughly or extra on an online platform, does that assuage the discussion participation requirements?

The Unprepared Class

For class discussions to stay on topic and be rich, the class needs to have done the preparatory work, and sometimes that just doesn’t happen. If no one has done the reading, it’s hard to talk about the reading. To figure out where the class is, and how most successfully to manage the discussion, you might want to start by having students call out parts of the reading that interested them or places where they had questions. If you’re focusing on a particular topic, you might start by getting the shape/content of that topic on the board (Define the Exhibit). Before you can think about and problematize the topic of discussion, you need to make sure all students know what it is they are preparing to talk about. If students haven’t done the reading, you might direct them to a particular moment/concept on which you want them to focus and have them work individually or in small groups to digest the content of the material. Or, prior to the discussion, you can raise the stakes of the activity. If you’re dividing the class into sides, you can create an incentive for the ‘winning side.’ Or, you can preface the discussion as a review for an exam and have one or several of the exam questions come from the specifics of the discussion.

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Tips to Make Sure Everyone Participates

To make sure everyone participates, you might consider starting the discussion in a small group and asking students to each address specific questions/topics, or you might give the students a few minutes prior to the group discussion to get their thinking organized: through a freewrite, a practice quiz, or other low stakes assignments. If a discussion stalls, you might write the main ideas on the board and have the class work to connect them. Or draw out your starting place and map where you want to end or what ground you’ve covered. Interesting discussions are great, but sometimes students and you need to keep focus of what you’re after: what is the objective of the discussion and where have you moved from the start of class to the end?

Tips on Leading a Discussion

As the moderator of the discussion, you have to keep track of what people are saying, how the discussion is moving, who is checked in and who has totally checked out; you also need to feel when to introduce a new question or problematize what’s been said so far. You need to be comfortable letting the conversation take unexpected turns but know when to pull it back to the specific topic.

  • Don’t over-prepare: if you’re too tied to your questions, the discussion won’t have a natural flow and will feel more like a disparate Q&A response. It’s great to plan out your questions, and the ground you want to cover, but once the discussion starts, be flexible.
  • Have a clear objective: what’s the purpose of the discussion? It might be that you want students to practice verbally expressing their ideas, or have a verbal debate, or want to make connections to students’ everyday experience. There’s a ton of possibilities here, but it’s important you know going in why you’re making the moves you’re making.
  • Manage the room: How can you use the space, the board, and the way students are sitting to aid the discussion? Would the discussion be more effective in a circle? with students divided into sides facing each other? an inner and outer circle? small groups?
  • Watch the clock: Think before the discussion starts about how much time you want to spend on a particular topic. Sometimes students think of the discussion as just a chat and don’t take notes, and as the discussion progresses, they (or you) might lose track of where you started, where you’re headed and all the routes in between. If you’re planning on a lengthy discussion, think about sketching out the big topic or idea moves on the board or, in the middle of the discussion, verbally assess where you’ve been and where you now want to go / or what new questions arise based on the conversations you’ve been having.
  • Develop a community: Discussions often run better when students feel comfortable talking to each other. You can help facilitate discussions throughout the course of the semester by making sure students know each other’s names. Spend some time in the first couple of weeks having students introduce themselves (these introductions can range from formal introductions where students say their name and favorite film (or something) to a sort of quick attendance where students or you state names at the beginning of class. You can also help students learn each other’s names by calling a student by name when he speaks up or asks a question. Putting students in small groups early in the semester, and frequently rotating these groups helps, too. When you’re in a class discussion, model and reinforce that when students respond to each other, you would like them to do so by name (“To build on John’s point…).  
  • Set-up and Follow-up: At the start of the discussion, present to the class what the game-plan is, and, at the end of the class, wrap-up where you’ve been, what you saw, and what seeing it does. Move to connect the discussion to previous course sessions and/or future readings, etc. Talk about how students might make use of this discussion and/or digest it: is there a homework assignment that stems from the discussion? What bridges should the students make from the discussion to the next steps of the class?

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Problem Based Learning

Problem Based Learning refers to an instructional model in which students learn course content through engagement and work on an open-ended or ‘real’ problem. Designed to encourage students simultaneously to strengthen critical thinking and organizational skills while completing the course objectives in a problem-based situation similar to one they might encounter in their profession, PBL requires that students take on the responsibility for developing a strategy to address a specific problem while the instructor works primarily as a facilitator to help students enact that strategy. Students can work on their own, in small groups, or as a class, and the problem scenario might encompass the entire semester or a just a day or two of class time. For more information on the history of PBL and tips on transitioning your classroom, check out “Problem Based Learning” from San Francisco State.

While often geared toward the bench and social sciences, PBL can be incorporated across disciplines.

Below you can find a brief overview of three different types of Problem Based Learning:

Group Work

Group is one way to organize PBL. Students in the class are broken into smaller clusters to work on a particular task or problem. You can organize group work as an in-class or out of class assignment and use group work at nearly any point in the learning process. Group work often invites students who are hesitant to participate or ask questions in class discussion or during lectures and is a great way to build a smaller community. Group work also encourages students to become active Learners, often independent of the instructor, while still giving them a network within which they can ask questions and test their ideas.

Tips and Resources: Think about using online collaborative-friendly platforms to help facilitate group projects. Check out our past workshops on Social Writing and Social Reading for strategies and tools that support a group of people writing and annotating a single document or source text simultaneously. You might consider putting students in groups and then rotating the groups three or four times in the semester, or you might decide to put students in a new group each time an activity or assignment asks them to work together. Both models have benefits and potential drawbacks–by working together multiple times, students will likely feel increasingly comfortable with their group and method of working together, but once a group’s dynamic is established, it isn’t likely to change: the leader of the group will likely be the leader for the next project as well, some groups will work together better than others, people drop the class and shift the balance of a group, etc.

Place-Based Learning

Place-based learning involves students learning through direct interaction with a site. A place-based learning assignment is a great way to incorporate NYC-area resources such as museums, archives, street intersections or parks, etc into learning disciplinary skills or knowledge as well as incorporate primary sources into your syllabus.

Tips and Resources: Place-Based Learning is a great way to get students out of the classroom and exploring their environment. In designing assignments or, when applicable, course content, think of ways you can creatively engage the city. City Tech’s OpenLab has compiled a list of Place-Based Learning assignment and examples of class projects from around the city. Museums and other cultural institutions in NYC are often excited to work with instructors. Feel free to call the institution ahead of time and set something up with the education department. Also, CUNY students receive free admission to several cultural institutions such as MoMa and the Whitney Museum.

Flipped/Inverted Classroom

A classroom is flipped or inverted when the historically typical classroom activities, such as a lecture, for example, take place at home and class time is used for what was once considered ‘homework.’ The theoretical backing behind a flipped classroom is that students get exposed to new concepts and ideas on their own and then use class time to put those ideas into practice or synthesize a new skill set with the help of an instructor or through group work, discussion or other problem-based assignments.

Tips and Resources: As Cynthia J. Brame, Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University explains, Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson were among the first to promote the flipped classroom model in their book Effective Grading (1998). Part of the appeal of the model, they argue, is that it expedites the grading process since students receive feedback in class as they problem solve and instructors are no longer required to provide extensive written comments. Dan Berrett, in his The Chronicle of Higher Education article “How ‘Flipping’ the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture” offers tips and technological resources for flipping your classroom.

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Challenging Campus Dynamics

Teaching at CUNY is an amazing experience: the students are a diverse group in background, interests and aims; the teaching faculty is made up of a mixture of full-time, adjunct and GTFs, and while most of the time this diversity makes CUNY the vibrant and thriving community we all enjoy, there are times where this mixture leads to some complicated campus dynamics both inside and outside the classroom. In this section, we offer suggestions for how to share space politely, manage tricky classroom moments and problematic exchanges with colleagues as well as handle student requests and issues.

Shared Space Rules

Classrooms and frequently our “offices” are shared spaces. Be polite to the other people who will use the room. Ask your students to clean up after themselves so that the next class isn’t walking into a room full of empty water bottles and half-full coffees balanced perilously on the edge of a desk. If you moved the desks around, make sure that you put them back into rows; pick up any leftover handouts, log out of the computer, and erase the board!

Also, be aware of time. Don’t use the time between classes as a cushion to finish the last page of your lecture notes. Your class is over, and another is about to begin. Give students time to pack up and get to their next destination. If students have more than a quick question, offer to talk with them outside of the room, in your office or during your office hours. Give the instructor and students in your room next time to settle in. Conversely, if you’re about to teach in a room, don’t run in the minute a class ends. Respect that the instructor needs to collect her belongings and answer a few quick student questions. Try to wait until the instructor leaves or invites you in to enter the room.

Despite the fact that most of these suggestions are common courtesies, it’s likely that at some point in your CUNY career you’ll encounter an instructor with terrible shared space etiquette. We’ve compiled a list of suggestions for various classroom and shared office offenses, but if you’re running into repeat problems, feel free to stop by to talk to us.

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Strategies for Navigating Shared Spaces

Most of these suggestions revolve around keeping lines of communication open and politely asking the space offender to change something in his behavior. Sometimes a conversation isn’t enough, and you might need to seek alternative solutions.

Your office mate leaves [fill in the blank] all over the desk

We’re all pretty particular about how we like our work space, and many of us recognize that when we share a desk we should leave a clean workspace for the next person. However, most of our days also have us running around the city carrying a bunch of heavy books and student papers–not so ideal. Many schools offer part-time faculty a drawer or part of a shelf where they can leave materials (if you don’t have a lock on the storage, don’t leave student papers around). If your officemate isn’t taking advantage of the paper storage space, and the issue is books and papers all over the place, your first step should be talking to your officemate. If your schedules don’t overlap or you don’t know who it is, you might stack the materials on the side of the desk and explain in a note that you’re worried about mixing up your papers with his. Hopefully, this move gets the point across. If the issue isn’t teaching material related but perhaps food or legos, again, start with talking to your officemate (in person is best, but a nice, non-aggressive email might work as well). If a conversation doesn’t fix the issue, and it’s making the space unworkable for you, you might consider talking to your department about shifting office locations for future semesters.

In the conference space where you do office hours, your colleague jumps into your conversation

Shared spaces are great for picking up some teaching tips, but it can be really frustrating if an instructor interrupts your meeting with a student with unsolicited advice. If you feel comfortable, try to navigate the intruder out of the conversation. If not, or if the interruptions happen more than once, consider talking to the person after your student leaves. Sometimes departments have conference rooms or there might be other open spaces on campus where you can meet with students. Think, too, about the student’s comfort level. If another instructor is in the space, both you and the student might feel uncomfortable talking, and it might be best to move the conversation elsewhere.

You and your officemates have office hours at the same time

Most departments work really hard to try to stagger office space assignments to avoid this situation, but sometimes schedules change at the last minute or a colleague might not schedule his office hours around his teaching schedule. Start by talking to your colleague. If it’s a one-time overlap, you can probably figure it out. If it’s an overlap that might cause problems throughout the semester, you might decide that there’s another space you’d prefer to work, or you might talk to your department admin to see if one of your might shift to a different office space.

What to do if you’re constantly walking into a messy classroom with a messy board

It’s annoying when you have to start your class by erasing someone else’s work on the board. If it’s only happened once, it might be that the instructor just forgot that day, but if each time you’re erasing a full board, you might try to catch the instructor, away from students, after class and ask if he can erase the board next time. If the problem persists, you might talk to your department’s administration to see if they have any tips or suggestions. Or maybe just incorporate what’s already on the board into your class.

Some classrooms don’t have trash cans in them and while the idea is to keep students from eating and drinking in the room, students will do so anyway (they’re busy too!), and they’ll have no place to put trash. Since some rooms see more than 1000 students a day, it can be hard to keep them sparkling clean. If your room is consistently full of leftover snacks and drinks, talk to the instructor who teaches before (remember, it’s likely his class is not fully responsible) to see if he shares your frustration, and let your department know. Make sure, too, that you remind your students to pick up their trash after class.

What to do if the instructor after you keeps barging in before or right after your class ends

If an instructor and her students consistently interrupt your class before it ends or right at the end, talk to her. Be sure to explain that you know her class is about to start and that you understand that she needs a few minutes to pack up, but that you need to erase the board and get your stuff up so she has a clean working space. Make sure that you’re aware of time and not running over or taking too long to pack up. If you have students who have questions, consider moving the conversation into the hall or your office. If even after you talk to the next instructor, the issue persists, consider talking to your department.

What to do if the instructor before you keeps running over time

It’s really frustrating if the person in the room before you doesn’t end on time. And, it can be a serious issue if it means your class is starting late. It takes a few minutes to pack up after class, and it takes some time to set up before class. If the timing isn’t working well, and the instructor before you consistently runs over his allotted time, start by asking what time his class ends. It might be that there’s not as much time as you think or the instructor is confused about his class time (hey, it happens.). If that doesn’t resolve the issue, catch the instructor after he finishes up and explain that you’ve been starting class late because the room changeover isn’t happening as smoothly as it might. Hopefully you can work together to find a solution (like he’ll end class earlier), and it resolves the problem. If it doesn’t talk to your department as soon as possible. It’s important that classes start and end on time. If your students aren’t getting their scheduled time, that’s a big issue that needs to be resolved.

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Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

The vast majority of folks who constitute the CUNY community are welcoming and supportive. Nearly all staff members are committed to doing their jobs, care deeply about the students, and are often frustrated by the same bureaucratic confusion that you’ve no doubt encountered.

Ever once in awhile you might have an exchange with a colleague that is less than ideal. These interactions can range from copy machine etiquette to inappropriate personal comments. Don’t hesitate to let us know–we’re here to help!–and it’s important that we know about these issues as they arrive. You can also talk to the chair of your department or your advisor for suggestions on how to deal with the colleague, and, if you are harassed, threatened, or discriminated against, you might go to HR to file a formal complaint. While each campus has a procedure for investigating formal complaints and will assist you, be sure that you document issues as thoroughly as possible.

Tricky Classroom Moments

While most of the time the classroom is an amazing space, there are times when something comes up that poses a problem. Whether it’s a student who is always making a scene by coming in late, someone who is constantly trying to text on the sly–or someone texting blatantly in the front row–or tension among students during class discussion, one of the best ways to stymie moments you don’t want is by being very clear upfront about what your classroom policies are. Make sure you take time in the early stages of the semester to explain how you hope the space will function and what your expectations are from students.

Even if you outline your policies and expectations, there still might be moments when things don’t go smoothly. Again, the first strategy for navigating these difficult moments is to be clear from the outset about what your classroom rules are. Make sure that when situations arise, you handle them fairly: if students think a policy is only for certain members of the class, that policy (and others) won’t last long. Below, we try to offer a few suggestions for the more likely situations, but if you encounter something not on the list, don’t hesitate to contact us. Every classroom is different, and what works well for one instructor might not mesh with another. Think about modifying these strategies to fit your teaching philosophy.

Class Expectations

Many instructors view the syllabus as a contract. It outlines what your responsibilities are as an instructor and what students’ responsibilities are throughout the semester. Instructors often include explicit information about student and class expectations on their syllabus so that if a situation arises throughout the semester where students are not meeting expectations, they can return to the document. If the class as a whole isn’t meeting your expectations, take some time to figure out where the breakdown is: are students not understanding the material? Are they not doing the reading or the homework? Once you figure out the specific moment where material isn’t clicking, you can develop a strategy to counter it: if students aren’t doing the reading, you might add a component, a response or a quiz, that demonstrates more formal stakes (ie grade implications) for doing the work. If students aren’t getting the material, try to figure out where the fissure is. You can always ask them! Would it be helpful to model how to take notes? Or to help them form study groups? Or to have them make a list of key concepts or questions that they can go back into the text or lecture with?

The phone (and other electronics)

It’s going to happen. At some point in the semester, someone’s phone will go off or a student will be texting away while you’re pouring your heart into the lecture, or a student won’t want to remove his earbuds when class starts or there will be an intense game of Solitare that draws more than one set of eyes to a computer screen otherwise void of class notes. Have a phone policy in place, but also think about your behavior. If your phone is on your desk, face down or not, it’s likely that their phone is going to be just as near. Even if you claim you’re using your phone as a clock, as many people do, it will still look like you’re checking your phone during class. If you want the space to be a phone-free or electronics-free zone, then make sure you follow that rule, too. If someone’s phone goes off during class, they probably know they need to turn if off, and, if they don’t, tell them. If it continues to be a problem, talk to the student about it directly. Remember, too, that students have complicated lives. It might be that they can’t turn their phone off because of a sick child or grandmother, etc. Is there space for that in your classroom? How will you communicate those rules, and what you are and aren’t comfortable with?

Late to Class

If a student is continually late to class, make sure that you reiterate and then enforce your late policy. If being late to class is becoming a trend for several students, think about moving an activity that has a direct grade impact–a short quiz or short assignment–to the beginning of class. But, think, too, about the environment and time during which you teach. Are you on the top floor of a building that has multiple broken elevators? Think, too, about where you want to draw your late lines. Is two minutes late the same as fifteen? And, again, be as clear as possible about your policies on your course syllabus.

Off-Topic Questions

If a student continues to interrupt the class with questions that seem completely off topic, you might indicate to him–by stating it directly–that now is not the time for questions, but that you’ll be happy to answer them later. If you’ve already addressed the questions (perhaps before the student came in), tell the student that he can ask after class or get the notes from another student. Don’t let the conversation, and what you want to accomplish in that class session, derail because of one student.

Students being Disrespectful to Instructor

Part of being respected as an instructor is genuinely respecting your students and the space of the class. If you’re antagonistic or dismissive, you’re more than likely to encounter that attitude in return. Part of building that respect is establishing a classroom community–online or in a physical classroom–where the dynamics and rules of conduct are clear. If a student continually oversteps, intentionally or otherwise, indicate to him, after class if it can wait, that the interaction isn’t appropriate. Try not to escalate the situation by saying something disrespectful or aggressive back. If a student is disrespectful to you because of your age, race, gender or orientation, don’t hesitate to contact your department or us. If you feel physically threatened or that the situation is unsafe, you can always contact public safety.

Students being Disrespectful to other students

Sometimes students are intentionally disrespectful to their peers, but sometimes it’s because they genuinely don’t know what they’re saying might be offensive. If a student uses language that is inappropriate in your classroom (for example a slur), you might stop her and explain what’s problematic about it. If you’re worried about embarrassing the student, you might make a note of it and circle back to the language choice later in the discussion or before you switch activities so that your comment is not so directly tied to the student who said it. If the student is being intentionally disrespectful, you might consider noting it immediately. You can explain why you think what the student said is inappropriate and ask that she continue in a different manner. If the problem continues, talk to the student after class, and make it clear that her behavior is not ok. You can ask the student to leave if she continues being disruptive. If the problem continues over the course of the semester, talk to your department. If the situation escalates and you feel unsafe or think someone in the room might not be safe, don’t hesitate to contact public safety.

Political Differences

One of the qualities that often makes discussion in a CUNY classroom so rich is the range of opinions and backgrounds, but sometimes these voiced differences can escalate to create a situation that prohibits learning and where students may feel unable to express their thinking because of what they perceive as a lack of respect and understanding from their peers. One way to avoid a situation where a student feels attacked for his thinking is to make sure you keep the conversation about ideas and content and not specific students’ backgrounds. If the conversation gets out of hand and is uncomfortable to the point where people are shut out or no longer want to participate, consider stopping it: you can stop it and move on to another activity, or you can stop it and discuss why the direction in which it is heading is difficult or not appropriate. Sometimes you can preemptively avoid these issues by spending time in the beginning of the semester establishing your ‘rules’ for a classroom community.

Student Requests and Communication

Office Hours

Instructors are expected to be available to students outside of class time. Many instructors devote an hour each week and hold regular office hours. Others might let students know that they are available by appointment. The CUNY contract rules state that instructors teaching “at least six contact hours at the same college will be paid at 100% of their teaching rate for one additional weekly hour. Instructors are expected to use this hour for professional development or regular office hours.” For more information, visit the PSC “Adjuncts Rights and Benefits” brochure.


If you feel uncomfortable meeting a student in your office, for whatever reason, find another place to meet the student (such as an open, public workspace, etc) or consider meeting when someone you share the space with is in. Think, too, about leaving your door open or cracked.

Setting email expectations and guidelines

Consider incorporating some language about your email policies in your syllabus or talking it through with students during the early stages of the semester. Many students want to know how quickly they can expect a response back, how many times they can email you with questions about an assignment, etc. Some instructors have rules such as they won’t answer questions about an assignment 24 hours before the assignment is due (in hopes, partly, that students will get an early start and, also, in hopes of avoiding the last minute barrage of panicked student questions. If you’re not really an email person (hmm?), tell them that you’ll be slow to respond but that you’re happy to meet during office hours or before or after class. Tell students what you expect to see in their email: their full name, course section, complete sentences? Some thinking or situating of their question, etc. Some departments are developing email policies (instructors must be available by email, etc). Make sure that your rules follow your department’s guidelines.

Overstepping Professional Lines

If a student oversteps in an email during the semester, make sure that you indicate that the email is not appropriate, etc. If the problem continues or makes you uncomfortable, alert your department chair and come see us.

Letters of Recommendation

Since students might request a Letter of Recommendation from you, it’s important that you think about your letter writing policy. Keep in mind your rank, role and whether or not it’s appropriate for you to write a letter for the particular student and circumstance. Some GTFs have a no recommendation policy while others will write a letter for in-campus programs and support but not outside activities (or vice versa). Others will only write a letter if a student has been in more than one of their classes or visited frequently during office hours, etc. If you decide to write a letter, it might be helpful to ask the student for her resume or a list of activities. You might ask the student to write you a few sentences about why he’s excited for the particular program, etc. If necessary, most department’s have letterhead that they can send you so that you can attach it digitally; otherwise, you can ask for paper with letterhead and print on it. If you don’t think you can honestly write a positive letter of recommendation for a student, politely decline their request.

Students in Crisis

Most campus have a specific office that works with students in crisis. Visit our Navigating CUNY Guide for more information. If a student tells you that she is in crisis or if you suspect a student is in crisis, don’t hesitate to contact the office and perhaps your department’s administration as well.

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The first steps in developing a mode of assessing student work is to figure out what you’re looking for and how you want a student to interact with your marks. Your assignment should indicate to both you and your students what the expectations of the task are, and you might use that assignment as an informal or formal guide (rubric) for how you’ll respond to the work. In terms of the type of comments you’ll make, there are a range of options from a quick check for completing the assignment to line edits and pages of written feedback. In determining how you’ll respond, think about time management and function.

Responding to Student Work

One of the biggest frustrations for instructors is spending hours marking papers with perceived helpful comments only for students immediately to drop them unexamined into the scary depths of a mid-semester bag. If you want students to look at, consider and implement the feedback you’re giving them, it might be helpful to build either an assignment or a step of an assignment off previous feedback.

Pick an assessment strategy for a reason

Make sure that you’re picking your assessment strategy for a reason. If, for example, you assign a set of math problems, you might choose to spot check five out of twenty, or you might check all of them and simply mark them as correct or incorrect, or you might highlight the line in the work where the solution goes astray, etc. Each option has an increasing time commitment on your end, and it’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you want to mark where the problem goes astray, are you planning on asking the student to rework the problem? If you spot check five, will students compare their other answers before you move on to the next set or will you post the solutions? Are you spot checking because you want to indicate quickly to the student where he stands with the material?

Think about marking time in relationship to assignment stakes

Think, too, about the stakes of the assignment. If it’s a low stakes task, then your assessment method should also be relatively brief and “low stakes.” Again, in order to manage your time, think about what you want to see the student accomplish through the assignment, and mark accordingly. If you’re reading a political science paper, and the dominant aspect of the assignment is for the student to respond to a particular position, then you can skim through and find those moments where the student is directly responding, but if the assignment asks the student to build a strong and coherent argument with specific textual examples about a particular position, then you have to evaluate each of those instances in the student’s work.

Think about how the assignment fits in with others in the semester

Think about where the assignment falls in the sequence of assignments for the course. Is it a one-off or will the student see another assignment like this one or will this assignment build directly into the next? If the type of assignment will be repeated, then you might want to give the students a few comments about how he needs to adjust his response in order to meet what you hope to see next time. If several of students have made the same wrong turn, then rather than writing comments to each of them (time!), you might take a few minutes in the next class and explain, perhaps with an example, what you want to see next time or you might post a model response online so that students have a template for the next assignment. If the assignment will lead directly into another one, you might offer comments to help the student bridge the two: what does he need to do in order to strengthen his next benchmark in the sequence?

Getting students to read your feedback

One of the most effective ways to get students to see the feedback they receive on an assignment is to get them to do something with it. If you correct an error in one paragraph, then just mark the error in the second, you can ask the student to go back in and make the corrections in the second paragraph and then ask him to look at the third paragraph to see if the mistake pops up again. Sometimes instructors ask students to write a cover letter for each essay in which they detail the feedback they received on the previous assignment and explain how they addressed the feedback in the new assignment. If you’ve offered feedback on two problems, then the student can go back and apply that feedback to the rest of the set, etc. While ideally students would look to incorporate the feedback automatically into the next assignment, etc, sometimes they need some prompting to do so.

For tips on establishing semester-wise grading criteria, visit Brown University’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning’s “Creating Grading Criteria.” For time management tips, visit Vanderbilt’s Teaching and Learning center’s “Making Grading More Efficient” or UC Berkeley’s Graduate Division Teaching and Learning Center’s “Tips on Grading Efficiently.”

For tips on grading Lab Reports, check out University of Michigan’s “Best Practices for Grading Laboratory Reports,” and for tips on responding to student writing visit our WAC/WID Guide.

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Using Rubrics

Rubrics break down the assignment expectations into categories and enable students to complete the assignment with those specific categories in mind. They offer instructors the opportunity to check how well students have mastered targeted skill areas. Rubrics can save instructors’ grading time since they offer a way to communicate outside of marginal comments or line edits. Further, rubrics take subjects or assignments that are frequently seen as “overly subjective” such as oral presentations and writing and demonstrate a way to explain the rationale behind the grade. While rubrics are commonly thought of as an assessment tool, they can also be useful for students as they complete an assignment, and can provide clarity on peer review and group projects.

Types of Rubrics

There’s lots of existing rubrics that you can take in full or modify for your classes. Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center has collected rubrics for a range of assignments including papers, projects and oral presentations. Check them out here.  Berkeley’s Graduate Division’s Teaching and Resource Center has a list of examples for a range of disciplines as well, and DePaul’s Teaching Commons gives examples and breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of different rubrics here. Rubrics often resemble a grid or chart with the skill listed in one column and the success-level of that skill in rows (or vice versa). Some rubrics include detailed descriptions of expectations for each category while others indicate level of mastery.

Tip: If your rubric indicates level of mastery, make sure that you discuss in class what qualities the skill needs to demonstrate to fit the various markers.
If you’ll use the same rubric or one that is extremely similar throughout the course of the semester, consider passing it out outside the context of an assignment and spending some time as a class or in small groups annotating the various categories. Ask students to return to their annotated rubric throughout the semester and revise or add to it as necessary.

Building your own rubric

To generate your own rubric, think about what your assignment is designed to measure and what its objectives are. Make a list of components you want to see in the assignment and arrange the list in categories. Another approach is to develop the rubric along with your class. Have students work together–in small groups or as a class–and read through the assignment instructors. Ask them to underline key information and requirements as “Skills Headlines” or major target area. Then ask students to draft a list of components that need to happen in order for those skills to be completed successfully. For example, if you’re asking students to write an argumentative essay, one “Skill Headline” might be that the paper needs a thesis statement, and the components for that skill to be accomplished successfully might include, among others: does the statement speak to a specific issue or idea and is it debatable.

Be sure to consider the following when designing your rubric:

  • Be mindful of how many target areas can fit on a page.
  • Return to your Course Outcomes/Objectives and incorporate that language into your rubric
  • List the skill categories on your grid in order of most important to least important (heavily weighed to least heavily weighted in terms of grading)
  • Write out a description of what each evaluative category means both in terms of grade range and in terms of specifics. So, for example, a “proficient” thesis statement puts a student in x grade range and requires that the statement has a, b, and c elements.
  • Test your rubric against the assignment instructions. Do they mesh? Does the assignment indicate the categories that appear on the rubric?
Distributing the Rubric

It’s often helpful to distribute the rubric alongside the assignment. For you, the demand of generating a rubric for a particular assignment will ensure that you have clear expectations and targets for the assignment, and it will also give you a way to ‘proof’ the assignment directions. For students, it not only supplements the expectations and requirements of the assignment, but it frames those expectations and directions in a different format. You can refer to the rubric during class when you’re working on a particular skill or activity that relates directly to what students will be asked to do in the assignment.

Benefits of a Rubric

Rubrics are designed to make assessment efficient and transparent. Rubrics break down and explain a student’s final score as well as identify skills that need further attention or that have successfully been synthesized. For instructors, the checkmark system of a rubric alleviates the need to write time-intensive endnotes and helps ensure that assignments are graded consistently across the class.

Rubrics generate a shared technical vocabulary across the class, and they can help students communicate perceived strengths, weaknesses or areas of questions or confusion to the instructor.

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Student Self- and Peer Evaluation

You should not be your students only source of formal and informal feedback on assignments. Having students evaluate their own work or their peers’ is both a time saving strategy and extremely beneficial, but you need to install clear expectations and guidelines. For example, you might ban all moral judgement-driven language (such as “good” or “bad”) and ask them to describe what’s happening or where they get confused, etc. You might tell students to treat the text or assignment they’re reviewing as they would treat any other text they encounter in your course. You might give them specific strategies, ideas, structures, or other elements to focus on in their feedback.

Student Self-Assessment

Self-Assessment can encompass anything from a student filling in the rubric you’ll use to grade the assignment as part of their drafting or revision stage, to writing a letter detailing his experience of doing the assignment to collecting past assignments, revising and arranging them in a portfolio. If you’re asking a student to do a self-assessment of a particular assignment, it’s imperative that you know why you’re asking them to do so and what the objective of the assignment is.

You might ask students to write out the three or four points within their assignment that they want feedback from you on, or, conversely, you might highlight a few points or objectives and ask students to evaluate how successfully (make sure you define what would be successful) they accomplished the task. You might ask students to think through the assignment in relation to the course objectives and identify what skills or knowledge they gained in relation to the expectations of the course.

Or you might ask students to develop a mini-rubric that works in conjunction with the one you’ve developed for the class. This rubric should be tailored to their own interests and goals for the assignment. You might prompt them by asking what they hope to get out of the assignment, or, in addition to the requirements of the assignment, on what do they want to focus? These mini-rubrics can help students generate additional connections in their learning and encourage them to stake out their own learning goals.

Peer Review

You can also ask students to exchange papers, projects or problem sets with each other and share feedback. You might assign peer review as a homework assignment or do it as part of class-time. Peer review is typically most effective when students have specific instructions and clear expectations. Some instructors incentivize the reviewer’s job by assigning a grade to the work, but often students are enthusiastic about helping students’ strengthen their ideas and thinking. Consider pairing your assignment rubric with peer review. Incorporating the rubric into peer review reinforces the target or focus areas for the assignment and offers students an opportunity to identify and evaluate the success of those skills on the rubric in a peer’s writing before they return to their own. Or, you might have several students work on the same paper and compare notes so that a student can test his mastery of identifying the rubric elements and ask any questions about them and revise his own writing as necessary. Click here for more tips on organizing your peer review.

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Record Keeping

You’ll want to keep records for a variety of purposes: to make sure that you’re calculating a student’s progress in the course correctly; so that you can access how well students, as a class, are synthesizing the course material; and so that, in the case of a grade dispute or other inquiry, you’re able to provide a detailed record of what was required in the course, how it was accessed as well as how a student met those requirements.

What records to keep & how to keep them
The majority of information you want to record (attendance, assignment and exams scores, etc) can be recorded in a gradebook (by hand, on Blackboard, or in a spreadsheet. MIT has collected the “Best Free Excel Grade Tracking Workbooks For Teachers,” and UCSD has a step-by-step tutorial on tailoring spreadsheets to your grading needs), while the rest of it (assignments, emails, course policies, etc) you might keep organized in a folder (electronically or otherwise).  

What records you keep is, in part, determined by your course policies. For each policy you outline on your course syllabus (attendance, late papers, plagiarism etc) you’ll need to develop a system to implement and record necessary information. Check out Course Planning for more information on establishing course policies, and remember to make sure your policies are in-line with your department’s. Be sure to keep the information for up to two years (depending on your campuses’ rules. For more information check out Record Keeping in the TLC’s After the Semester guide.

A few tips: In addition to recording scores for each assignment, make sure you keep a copy of each assignment you distribute. Also save standout responses to use as examples for future classes or to include in your teaching portfolio, but remove the students’ names and ask their permission and perhaps with the names removed, as examples for future classes or to include in your teaching portfolio. Depending on the campus where you teach, you might need to provide the faculty member observing you with a few marked assignment so that he/she may offer feedback on how you comment on papers, etc. If so, be sure to collect a range of graded assignments for your observations

  • Be sure to keep emails back-and-forth between you and students.
  • Make a copy of your gradebook if you’re keeping it by hand or back-up your records if you’re grading online.

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Sharing Records

Understanding FERPA

The 1974 FERPA Act or Buckley Amendment is designed to give students some control over how their information is shared and amended. Universities have slightly varying policies about how to disseminate student information (even to the students themselves) such as grades, etc in compliance with the Act. Some schools interpret the Act to mean that no grade information may be shared over email, while others allow grade information sharing through the internal school email system, and others still allow comments and scores on individual assignments but not midterm or final grades. If you’re unsure of the policy on your campus, ask your department or the campus registrar.

CUNYFirst includes contains a FERPA statement that includes the following:

Students [have] certain rights concerning their student educational records. Students have the right to have some control over the disclosure of information from the records. Educational institutions have the responsibility to prevent improper disclosure of personally identifiable information from the records. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and do not release student educational information. Contact the Office of the Registrar for guidance. (xxxxxx)

Sharing Grade information with Students

One of the easiest ways to communicate students’ grade information is by grading on a private platform such as Blackboard where students can check their grades whenever they want. Some factors to consider if you’re not posting grades to a platform the student can access:

While students may receive scores on individual assignments, they might not know how to compute these scores to find their course grade. You might include on your syllabus a breakdown of how you calculate grades that includes both the letter grade range (ie A: 100-92%) as well as what percentage each assignment is worth. You might write out on your syllabus or spend a few minutes in class explaining how students can add their scores together to figure out their course grade. If you use this model, note that sometimes students will want to check in with you about the course grade because they want to confirm that no calculation error–on their part or yours–has occurred.

Keep in mind that grade checkins happen predominantly at three points in the semester: before/after the midterm exam, right before the last day to withdraw from the course and right before the final exam. These times are usually busy for you as an instructor so think about how you want to manage these requests. You might distribute formal or informal ‘progress reports’ or grade information to students in advance of these dates, for example.

For tips on how to assess and comment on student work as well as how to share those comments, please visit the TLC’s “Assignments and Assessment”

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Teaching Observations

Teaching Observations are intended to give you feedback on your teaching practice. Typically once a semester, a member of your department’s faculty will observe a class session, perhaps look at your teaching materials such as a syllabus or graded assignments (not the case at every institution), and then the observer will talk to you about your teaching practice. These conversations can be a great opportunity to ask questions about pedagogy and course materials. The observer will write up a report on the observation and conversation that will be submitted to the chair and then put in your file. You have the opportunity to respond in written form to the observation, if you find a response is necessary.

What the contract says

The full set of rules and guidelines for course observations are available in Article 18 of the  PSC-CUNY contract. Some schools have slight variations or additions to these rules, so it is best to check with your department ahead of time for more information about expectations and rights. But the general format is as follows:

  • You should be observed once/semester until you reach ten observations from one institution.
  • You should be given at least 24 hours notice prior to the observation.
  • The department is responsible for assigning someone to observe your course.
  • Within two weeks from the date of the course observation, you and the observer meet to discuss the class and the observation, sometimes with the department chair..
  • The observer prepares a document (often a form from the department) which includes his/her observations from your course as well as from the discussion that followed the observation.
  • You have the option of responding to the observation in written form and attaching it to the document the observer signed.
  • Your signature is required on the course observation.
  • The observation report is reviewed by your chair and then put in your personnel file.

Tips on Being Observed:

Let your students know you’re being observed

It’s a good idea to give your students a head’s up that you’ll be observed. There’s going to be a stranger in your class, and students might be hesitant to participate if they don’t know what’s going on. Explain what the observation is–make sure that you stress it’s about you and not them. You might consider talking to them about what you’d like to happen in the class period (remind them what the reading is, let them know how the class will run, what you’ll do and what you hope they’ll do).

Design a class that highlights your strengths

Often observers will give you a few dates to pick among when scheduling your observation. Think about where your class is and what each class would demonstrate. Within the options, is there certain material you’re more comfortable with than others? Or do you have a lesson plan or activity that you think will work particularly well for the observation? Think, too, about the rest of the schedule: is there a day that works better when you factor in the rest of your academic responsibilities and deadlines? Once you pick a day, think about what skills or pedagogical practices you want to demonstrate during the observation.

Contextualize your class for the observer

It can be frustrating to get a comment like, “The class was great, but I wish the instructor covered x” when you plan on covering x the next class. Make sure you contextualize your lesson plan in a larger context for your observer. If your syllabus is designed in units, let the observer know that the particular lesson he’ll observe is part of a larger unit; if you’re spending three days on a topic or text, tell your observer, and let him know on which day he’s joining you. While this information is on the syllabus the observer will likely request, it doesn’t hurt to write a few sentences when you send the material to let him know any key information.

Prepare copies of the reading and/or any handouts

It’s a nice gesture to prepare a copy of the lesson’s materials–any readings or worksheets, etc–for the observer.

Personalities/what people want to see

Not each observer thinks the same qualities make a great class. Instructors frequently have strong feelings about what is and is not a good pedagogical practice, and this position might conflict with feedback you’ve received in the past or your own beliefs about best classroom practices. Don’t try to please your observer. Teach your class as you always do.

Don’t flip the script

The day of your observation is potentially not the best day to try out a totally new tactic. It could work and be amazing, but it also might confuse your students or disrupt the flow of your class or you might spend the entire class period trying to figure out how to turn on the computer. The observation is about demonstrating who you are as a teacher and how your class typically runs.

Incorporating Observation Feedback into your classes

The observation is a great platform to get feedback from someone who has been teaching–potentially even the same class you’re teaching–for several years. Look through the comments: pay attention both to what the observer said you did well and what she recommends for improvement. Think about how you can incorporate her suggestions into your teaching practice. Make notes about how you’ll use this feedback the next time you teach the course or what you might adjust this semester to fit the comments you’ve received.

Observations and professional development

Many job applications ask that you include a course observation or two from a faculty member review. You should photocopy the signed observation reports and keep them in a file or scan them for a digital teaching portfolio.

What to do if you disagree with an observation report

Whether you disagree with a portion of the report, disagree in whole or want to offer more context or explanation, you have the option of responding, in written form, to your observation. You can write a letter addressing any of your concerns or any of the comments you’ve received. The letter will be attached to the observation report and be reviewed by the chair as part of the total report. And, finally, remember: people have different opinions; everyone has off days. Take a look at the feedback again in a week and think about what might be there that’s helpful. Also, brush it off and keep teaching!

What happens if you get an unsatisfactory report

Typically at the end of the observation report, the observer checks either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” (sometimes there are more detailed options, and sometimes these options are checked for each evaluated category). If you receive an unsatisfactory report, start by looking at the comments. Do you agree with them? If not, respond to them in written form and attach your letter to the observation report. You might consider meeting with the chair and/or requesting another formal observation.

Whether you agree with the comments or not, take another look and think about how you can address the feedback in future classes and future semesters. If you understand the comments, but you’re not sure how to address them or want to broader your approach, consider visiting us for office hours and attending our workshops.

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