Providing timely, useful feedback in English Classes

Last semester Professor X in English 305 designed a very good essay-grading rubric that helped TA’s offer timely, useful feedback to students.  The rubric provided guidance to graders and to students over six categories, organized along the y-axis: quality of thesis and strength of analysis; use of textual evidence; use of research materials; structure, organization and logic of argument; quality of writing; and MLA format.  On the x-axis of the rubric, the professor delineated what would be the features of papers with grades A, B, C, D-F.  Other TA’s told me they found rubrics too confining, but I did not find that to be a problem at all with this document.  In fact, the rubric helped me to organize my thoughts about individual papers and come to conclusions on grades quickly; it clarified for me what is often a vague, time-consuming process.

Using the rubric helped me provide fast, specific feedback to the students.  They received an understandable rationale for why they were graded at a B or C-.  I often put a few extra hand-written notes on the rubric, which did not take long to do and furnished extra explanations to the students. Ambrose et al. say that rubrics take time to develop but that they pay-off in saved time over the long run (231).  I agree.  This particular document was not developed from scratch last year but was the result of years of use and tweaking by Professor X; I feel the rubric was one of the most successful aspects of that course.  I should mention that last week the other English 307 TA’s and I decided we would assemble our own rubric for the essays we will be grading at the end of this semester.  As Ambrose states, a common rubric will assist us in ensuring “consistency across graders” (231), which the four of us recognize we need to attempt.  The English 307 professor supports this idea.

I have tried to leverage my weekly office hour to sit down one-on-one with students.  This permits time, albeit not much time, for students to speak with me directly.  I did not make it mandatory for students to come see me at least once a semester, though other instructors did.  My colleagues appeared to find the mandatory sit-down helpful to establish personal relationships.  However, in my case, I encouraged students to visit any week or weeks they liked.  Probably half of the students came to office hours, and to them I offered various kinds of assistance.  There were significant volumes of homework in the class; the students would visit me at office hour sometimes overwhelmed by the work and the detailed assignment instructions.  On these occasions, I would offer diplomatic commiseration (i.e. providing sympathy to the student without throwing the professor under the bus).

For the future, there are several ideas I would like to implement — not all of which originate from Ambrose — to make feedback more relevant to students in both large and small classes.  I like Harvey’s idea to assign students a reflective cover letter.  I admit this will require extra effort from the students, but it will also cause them to think about their papers a bit more, leading perhaps to revision and more recursive writing.  For me, the reflective cover letter should point to what the students are attempting to do (or not attempting to do) in their essays, saving me time by helping me organize my thoughts on the work.

Ambrose echoes Bass in calling for a prior knowledge assessment to “target an appropriate challenge level”.  I like this idea for a first-class activity and plan to do it in the future.  I can think of nothing more useful than to get to understand students’ prior knowledge and their strengths and weaknesses early in the semester.

The whole idea of scaffolding is problematic for large classes, but it can be made more manageable if assignments are shortened.  One could design a staged approach to writing a longer essay, too. However, in this case, one must be explicit in modeling to avoid the problems Cox encountered in modeling more than the instructor and students could scaffold (Ambrose 134).  Scaffolding is difficult in larger classes, but without it progress in knowledge acquisition can be slow to the point of being almost nonexistent in some classrooms.

Finally, I think providing models of target performance and models of what you don’t want to see are two great ideas from Ambrose Chapter 5.  Showing beginning university students what success looks like can make academic essay writing seem less daunting, and spotlighting what failure looks like indicates what they should not be doing.  I have a spectacular example of failure: my own first, jejune undergraduate English essay from 1984.  I plan to present it with the name removed and offer students a grading rubric.  After the grading is done, I will reveal to them who wrote the piece, and give them a copy of the original, complete with the professor’s perceptive marginal comments.  My hope is that the exercise will encourage students to start thinking about the writing process from the reader’s point of view; simultaneously, the assignment should show them that the “expert” in front of the class had fits and starts at the beginning of his own academic career.  Rather than being overwhelmed near the outset of their university careers by the task of writing literate academic papers, the students should get a boost of confidence.  It is a strategy worth a try at the very least to mitigate the ill effects of  “imposter syndrome” that beginning undergraduates often face.

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How Do You Give (Formative) Feedback in a Large Class-Homework for 3/9

This past class we focused this week on providing feedback on essays, which is labor- and time-intensive. What are some ways that you can provide feedback to a large class, e.g.,  in less time-intensive ways?

  • Ambrose et al. in How Learning Works make some suggestions, so please look at them, but feel free to add others.
  • Please be detailed in your responses, e.g., not just “give group feedback” but how you figure out when that’s appropriate and what it might look like.
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Thoughts on Annotating

The question to be addressed: is there a way that we can read faster?

As I prepared for our pre-reading-week class, I had remembered that I needed to either take notes or annotate my text. I had begun working through the readings when I found my handwritten notes with the specific content that I needed to find in each text as I either took notes or annotated. I commented to no one in particular that it would take a really long time to complete my reading, with the addition of rather specific notes/annotating.

Although it was my initial intention to take notes, I ended up annotating because I felt like it would take less time overall. With my instructions close by for referencing, I went through the Graff article. It didn’t take much additional time. I completed the rest of the reading, including catching up on the material from the previous week. And then class happened, and I felt like I had a much more significant grasp of the material. My content knowledge was much stronger, as a result of deploying some strategic knowledge from the course.

Let’s go meta: using the scaffolding provided by Drs. Chick and Halpern, I changed my study habits for this exercise. Using a bunch of our terminology:

  • My efficacy expectancy was high. While each of the tasks on list combined were things I initially felt would take a good deal more time than just reading and highlighting stuff, I also knew I was capable of identifying arguments, finding points I agreed with/disagreed with/could connect to prior knowledge.
  • I had a number of goals, but most prominent was the performance goal. Dr. Halpern had suggested that we would be discussing our experience in the class which followed. (Narrator: they didn’t.) This suggests that I saw instrumental value in completing an annotated reading.
  • Having both a sense that the task was something I could accomplish, and with a goal I wanted to attain, I valued completing the task of annotating my text.

But now, would I say that I have mastered annotating my text?

  • I’ve acquired key component skills: I have a list of the things that I need to do to effectively annotate a text. These skills existed, but I had not effectively integrated them into my reading practice. This knowledge, then, was inert and needed to be activated; I was not activating it.
  • I’ve practiced integrating them effectively. My subjective experience of preparation and execution in class was different. I liked that I had done the necessary work and that it had an immediate payoff.
  • I’d suggest that any text I want to teach with or present on is one that I should annotate; however, I may want to adopt somewhat different strategies for working with primary texts.

As I write this post, thinking forward to class on Friday, I’m wondering where my list is. This suggests that I have achieved, at best, a level of conscious competence. I can recall three or four of the nine-ish items to look for while annotating my text. Maybe I’m still incompetent? I know I can do all of the individual components, but I haven’t yet integrated them into an unconscious practice.

Did anyone take notes? Did you have a similar experience to mine? Did it take a substantially longer amount of time? What other concepts might help to explain this experience of more effective learning?

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Pedagogy and Pop Quizzes

I am going to work with gender-neutral pronouns in this blog post to refer to students and professors.  I have never used these pronouns before.  I am trying them in recognition that the world is changing and out of respect for colleagues that value a non-traditional approach to pronoun usage.  If you have some familiarity with these pronouns, kindly point out to me any errors I may be making or improvements in how I use them.

A significant issue that we encounter as TA’s is lack of pedagogical input into our classes.  We can complain about institutional hierarchies all we want, but we are hired to take some direction from professors.  With certain professors, TA’s can suggest changes and alternative approaches — and I have done this in the past — but in a few cases, professors have certain goals of their own, ways they would like to see these goals accomplished, and lack of time to debate the pedagogical issues.

Here I discuss the pros and cons of the pop quiz, a classroom activity that I must present to my students.  Names and course specifics have been changed to protect the innocent and placate the powerful (!).

For an undergraduate English course, the professor informed the class that there will be five quizzes during the semester.  These will all be “pop” or “surprise” quizzes.  Ze explained to the TA’s (I am one of four TA’s assisting the professor) that the purpose of the quizzes is to ensure students are keeping up with the reading; thus, students will see content-based questions.  The quizzes are also helpful, it has become apparent to me, as tools to align what TA’s are covering in seminars with what the professor is stressing in lectures. Furthermore, the quizzes assist TA’s in understanding what the professor considers important information for students to retain. I should note here that these quizzes do not represent a high degree of grade risk for the students; each quiz is worth a small part of the 10% Attendance portion of the course grade.  I believe, then, that the professor is applying the whip as gently as ze can to the students: pop quizzes may be stressful, but if they are worth very little, people can blow off a bad result or two. Continuing the harsh language of the real world, sometimes the ends justify the means.  If, for example, we wish to make “Literary Thinking Visible”, as Linkon suggests, we have greater chances of success in modelling and scaffolding if students read the text prior to arriving in class.  Frankly, I am of several minds about this, so I welcome your input (see end of the blog for my questions).

Here are questions from the first quiz on Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn.

Answer whichever five questions you feel most confident about.  If you answer all six, only the first five will be marked.

  1. With whom does Huck live at the outset of the novel?
  2. How does Huck’s father meet his end ?
  3. Name (or describe) one character (besides Huck, or Jim) who rides on the raft.
  4. Name the two grifters in the novel.
  5. Why do Jim and Huck plan to take their raft on the Ohio River at Cairo?
  6. What does Tom Sawyer reveal at the end of the novel?


When I saw these questions for the first time, I thought that my students may have difficulty with the quiz; I had geared my teaching towards theme rather than to specific aspects of the plot.  Indeed, the results indicate that most students had trouble.  Eight people received a grade of 0.  The class average was 1.5 marks out of 5.  See histogram.  (I have assembled a histogram, but I cannot figure out how to post it here, so I will send a group email. Sorry)

Several students indicated to me they had read for theme and found the the quiz difficult as a result. While I was speaking with a few individuals after class, however, one person revealed that ze had not yet read the novel, so ze had no idea about any of the quiz questions.  Thus, people may have received low grades for reasons besides reading for theme over content.  I do not know how many others did not read, or failed to finish, the novel.  I had not set out to undertake research into that question, and the students are not expecting me to ask them research questions (the seminar may not even be the right forum for that kind of formal research), so I will not pursue the matter further.  In the end, neither I nor the professor can completely control which students read and review the literature before the class.  What we can control is how we offer the material to the students during class.  We will be reading another long novel in the class, A Prayer for Owen Meany.  Prior to leading the two seminars we have allotted to Owen Meany, I will think about developing activities to help students retain plot details in addition to the theme work and other work I am doing (and have been prescribed to do).

After the test, I talked with a student that was upset and thinking of dropping the course.  I realized after about five minutes of talking that ze did not really want to drop the course and was getting plenty out of it.  After we weighed hir options together, and after ze spoke to the professor, ze decided to remain in the course.

I also spoke with the professor, asking hir if ze intended to ask similar kinds of questions on future quizzes.  Ze told me “yes”.  Armed with this information, I held a quiz postmortem with the class, asking their impressions and then coming to the conclusion together that everyone needs to pay closer attention to plot detail, character motivations, and even names of characters in the texts.  We ran through some example questions that could be expected on the second quiz.  Though I had not read Linkon’s ideas on modelling for the students at that point, I recognize now I was doing that in the class.  I believe that the modeling exercise will result in better results, not simply because we modeled how to approach this kind of quiz, but also because the students have experience with these kinds of quizzes (i.e. they should be able to leverage prior knowledge in test-taking).  They will adjust, I am confident, for the second quiz.

As I suspected and hoped, the results for the second quiz were better: seven students still receive a 0 grade, but the number of 5 grades jumped to 15.  The class average more than doubled to 3.2.  See histogram (to be included in above-mentioned email)

The professor will expect procedural knowledge demonstrated on both exams and the final essay. The midterm and final will have some further content testing in the multiple choice sections, but students will also be required to answer short essay questions to demonstrate how they can apply what they are learning.  The essay, of course, represents final proof of procedural knowledge gained in this specific course and during the university experience generally.

I would like to end this post by asking for some practical advice:

In your opinion, is it up to the professor/TA to find means to ensure students are reading? What are your thoughts on the pop quiz as a strategy?  If you have issues with the pop quiz, do you have some alternative strategies or activities to the pop quiz for encouraging students to read texts prior to class?

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Real Roundtable: Dynamism in the English Literature Classroom

So much of the reading I have been doing in the Pedagogy class has concerned vitality, energy, dynamism in the English Literature classroom.  Much of the pedagogical literature notes that this dynamism is often missing in classes, that the problem has been ongoing for generations, and that it is a difficult problem to fix.  Randy Bass tells us there is a “widely held presumption that [teaching] can be done right, or that it need only be done competently…” but this attitude “has strangulated the development of teaching as an intellectual enterprise and analytic subject” (9).  Certainly, the trend in literary scholarship nowadays is to recognize a multiplicity of readings over singular, authoritative interpretation, so why should literary scholars assume pedagogy is any different?  Why would practicing only one or two teaching methods qualify as successful pedagogy in the contemporary classroom?   Nevertheless, all to often instructors rely on old methods and interpretations that worked well enough for us when we were undergraduates or graduate students, but by using the “tried and true” in our lectures today, instructors are not venturing forth (Bass 4; Linkon 35; Chick 42).  We are not blazing new trails!   At best, we are jogging in place; at worst, we are teaching in the past.


Linkon maintains that to create a dynamic learning environment in the literature classroom today, instructors need to focus more on imparting strategic knowledge than on simply offering content knowledge: “While our discipline is defined by its content, research on learning suggests that content knowledge becomes functional through the application of strategic knowledge” (3).  Linkon advises for instructors to approach instruction as a kind of mentorship process: “cognitive apprenticeship” is what she calls it, and she recommends a two-step approach.  First the instructor models important literary tasks in front of the students to allow them the benefit of the instructor’s expertise.  Then the instructor needs to build with the students a kind of scaffolding.  In other words, there must be opportunity for students to practice (41).  There are many ways of going about this: groupwork, web work, pairwork, roundtable discussion, games, question and answer, combinations of all these activities, and, undoubtedly, other means that I have not yet considered.  What is important is that some decentring occurs: not everything that goes on in the classroom needs to revolve around the instructor; there are as many legitimate voices as there are participants in the class.  Is it not possible that a more organic, all-embracing learning environment becomes established when more than one voice is heard in the class?  Does this not cultivate a more dynamic atmosphere?   This kind of literature classroom, when established, possesses the vitality of a healthy, functioning democracy.


Our colleague, Nancy Chick, calls for something much along these lines in her paper “Unpacking a Signature Pedagogy in Literary Studies”. Professor Chick observes that some professors tend to “pack” knowledge: they present to students their own textual interpretations as a kind of intellectual fait accompli  instead of teaching the class how to do their own interpretations (43).  One problematic result that Professor Chick notes is the “pseudo-Socratic” discussion to pull out the professor’s interpretations.  This approach seems almost ghastly to me now in how it limits literary interpretation, but I have used the “pseudo Socratic” method more often than I care to admit.


Professor Chick recommends “unpacking” instead.  Unpacking consists of “opening up something, sifting out what’s inside, and exploring the contents.  The process turns a singular entity (a text) into multiple elements.” (43).  The goal is to move beyond content knowledge towards a more strategic “deep disciplinary understanding” (44).  If instructors commit to go down this road, they will find opportunities to model important literary concepts and tasks.  They should also become aware of the necessity to build scaffolding, offer opportunities to practice. Rather than having English literature “done unto” them, unpacking includes students more actively in the learning process and works to create a dynamic classroom environment.


Dynamism in literary teaching is not a new value.   People have been calling for it for centuries.  How many of us learned about “Man Thinking” from Emerson’s “American Scholar” address?  Emerson was urging for dynamism in one’s approach both to life and to study.  Bass, Linkon, and Professor Chick are all working in a long scholarly tradition, one that recognizes something has always been wrong with the static, teacher-focused literature classroom.  These contemporary pedagogical scholars are shaping solutions to this ongoing problem.  Linkon says it is not difficult to introduce dynamism into the classroom (58), but even if it is difficult for some of us, it is worth doing and we need to try.  We do this to create a welcoming literature classroom, a vibrant centre for discourse that works for the many, not the few. We do this for those people that should be at the centre of our concern as educators: our students.

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Re: Reading Week

Seeing how Reading Week is about to end, and I have just returned to a massive pile of readings and assignments that I have unfortunately allowed to build up, I thought it would be a good moment to look at assigning readings over the break and the associated efficacy. Seeing how I am fairly fresh out of undergrad, I can attest that these habits were very much embedded in my early academic career.

I like to think of myself as someone with a decent amount of self-motivation, self-control, and organization; I keep calendars with everything carefully planned out, keep extensive checklists for everything I need to do in a day, and take great satisfaction in planning out everything in advance. I try to start on my work early, and plan out long term projects so I only have to panic a little when the deadline is approaching. However, I am also someone who has taken on an extremely heavy workload and have to prioritize my work. What that means is: I do things as they come up, sometimes doing my readings literally the night before, and my short term memory is forced to do the work while my long term memory is still processing the information from days before. Because comprehension and retention are very different things, sometimes I find myself slipping into the amnesia-fantasia-inertia loopholes.

We tend to expect a lot from our breaks: we want to get caught up, get ahead, get rest, and to do fun and exciting things. What ends up happening for me is a weeklong break followed by a hard reset back into the rapid gears of returning for work. And while this may not be the most effective, I can’t help but to also remember the times in undergrad when I did my readings beforehand, only to lose the details to the ether once reading week is over. Instead, I try to use the beginning of reading week (between my 18 hours of daily hibernation) to review, trying to combat the amnesia-fantasia-inertia I may have accumulated through the beginning of the semester.

Which brings me back to the question of readings over reading week. After this week’s chapter on feedback and practice, I wonder if we need to view Reading Week as a misnomer. Considering how it is placed at the middle of the semester, when students should be looking back at the work they have already completed and the work they are going to be completing. Perhaps, instead of looking it as a reading week when students are meant to be reading (either materials for the future or the materials they have been slacking on before), perhaps it would be more effective to relabel is as a review week or a response week and to move it away from the passive reading and into an active review /response activity. If the middle is where most people feel like they have reached a plateau, it is also a good time to encourage metacognitive analysis and to refine goals.

See you on Friday.


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Your Roundtable Presentation and a Real Roundtable

In class today, you gave your plans for a hypothetical roundtable presentation. Here’s an opportunity to present it in full: a short presentation on a concept or passage from the Sherry Lee Linkon that you’d like to introduce to your audience of fellow grad students and faculty from the department, something that really resonated with you. In the course of your presentation, please draw on a learning concept discussed in something else we’ve read this term.

And the idea to do an actual lunch roundtable for the department at the end of class is a fabulous one. Let us know if you have any further ideas about it. We’ll talk about it in class, too. The one thing I hear loud and clear is that it needs to be low-stress–we’ll take that as our foundation.


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Question of the Week: Why the Resistance to Teaching Strategic Knowledge?

Why do you think English departments as well as individual instructors either don’t think about or resist teaching “strategic knowledge”?  What’s behind that resistance, even though the advantages, as spelled out by Sherry Lee Linkon, seem considerable?

Is it connected to concepts like “expert blindspot” or “professorial packing”? I’m very curious to hear what you think.



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Meta Micro Teaching

I have been thinking about the meta question of how we were being taught during our first class, when we presented a micro teaching lesson to our peers.

It reminded me in a sense of a course I took during my Soci degree, a fourth-year course on small group dynamics. Little did we know initially, but we were the small group in question. During the first class period, the professor told us that we’d be videotaped, and our own conversations would provide the class material. We all signed informed consent documents. Then, during the second class period, the professor did…nothing. He sat there. For 75 minutes. We waited. He waited. Eventually–I don’t recall how–we began to “teach ourselves” small group dynamics. It ended up being a very fascinating and memorable course.

In the case of our micro-teaching activity, again, we were presented with something we (or at least I) hadn’t expected on the first day: an actual and immediate opportunity to demonstrate our own pedagogy.

Since then, we’ve talked through some of the reasons we felt our five-minute lesson may not have worked for our potential/fictional students. But what did it mean for teaching us about pedagogy?

  1. Teachers as much as students will choose familiar, comfortable strategies (just as in the Manarin reading).
  2. This is likely to look like lecture rather than meeting students where they are
  3. We struggle to break down “unconscious competence” with only a few minutes’ planning time: what is close reading? What are its component parts? What do we value most in our students’ learning?
  4. Teaching a lesson and seeing it taught in several different ways shows us that there are already several different strategies we hadn’t thought of.

So in terms of teaching the course, we were presented with an activity that would find its echo in several of our upcoming readings. While the activity superficially placed us in the role of teachers, it simultaneously put us in the role of students: we didn’t have control over the activity or how or when it would be presented; we were expected to demonstrate competence without much warning; and we were concerned with how we would be evaluated.

Especially important was the role of the time constraint, as most of us commented in the discussion afterwards. At first I thought twenty minutes would be more than ample for planning a five-minute lesson, but in fact, discovered that a shorter lesson is more difficult to plan than a longer lesson. Another reason to return to strategies that have proven effective before, such as lecturing! There seems so little time available that we get stressed and forget students’ needs in centering our own. (Remind anyone of about week 9 in the semester?)

So why, for the purposes of this course, do we front-load it with the mini-lesson activity? I think it does several things that our readings suggest we do for students:

  1. It acts as a pre-test or concept inventory that shows us our starting point as teachers. We can remember it as we learn new strategies. “What I should have done was…”
  2. In the discussion afterwards, we talked about what concerns or worries we had when presenting the lesson–which we begin to think about more deeply when we talk about what we value, and what we hope students will take away.
  3. We learn what misconceptions we have about teaching, such as “if I lecture well I will reach them! If I lecture longer I will reach them!” (driven by the time constraint.)
  4. When we read case studies, we don’t get too arrogant, because we all know we have this very awkward lesson in our past!

This has been your moment of meta.


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Encouraging students to share their collective prior knowledge

At the end of the last lecture on Jan. 26, our teaching seminar reached another new level of inspiration. Dr. Halpern brought three pottery bowls created and made by a potter, herself, and her daughter, respectively. Initially, however, we were given no clue to these three unique artworks and their mysterious creators. Only three bowls of different shapes and colors were displayed in front of our eyes. Using our acquired prior knowledge about the art of pottery, we started to analyze their features, such as their decorative and functional qualities, production technology, and their use of materials. In turn, we checked three bowls with our hands and eyes, gaining a visual and subjective observation of these unknown objects.

Dr. Halpern asked us to consider together the question of who had made each of the bowls. Based on our collective prior knowledge about pottery, an unexpected idea emerged that the biggest bowl, with its flawless surface, seemed to be produced by a machine instead of human hands. In reality, we embarked on the wrong road to approach the truth. The biggest bowl was actually made by a proficient potter whose skillful craft defied the assumption, or even the supposed authority, of prior knowledge.

It indicates that the prior knowledge affected our thinking pattern, and then drove us to believe in a self-assumed conclusion. A useful lesson I learned is that the earlier gained knowledge can’t be guaranteed to work as the universal foundation for the construction of real learning at a new situation. To some extent, thinking outside of the box may transfer the prior knowledge into true learning. Thus, in confronting the issues of literary appreciation in literature teaching class, a potential instructor may encourage the students to share their collective prior knowledge, and then help them to reconstruct their prior learning to analyze the literary materials from a new point of view.

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