Last spring, one of my high performing students protested the “extreme workload” in my English 1B class. We were already several terms into pandemic teaching, and I had assiduously scaled down, lowered stakes, and increased flexibility. Taken aback, I tried explaining the purpose of the assignments, their sequencing, and their relative weight, but he was more concerned about numbers than about pedagogy. “Bottom line, is it worth it for me to do these assignments?” he asked pointedly.
As teaching professionals, our answer to this type of question is likely to be an automatic “Of course it is!” Every activity has a purpose. Every assignment and every assessment is part of a larger plan.
I understand this student’s concern, though, and he is not the only one expressing it. Dr. Betsy Barre, Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, addresses students’ perceptions of workload in a recent podcast: “…This is a pandemic; our students are struggling; let’s lower the stakes on things; let’s be understanding. And so one way to do that is by having smaller low-stakes assignments, so instead of a big midterm, you have multiple weekly check-ins. But of course, our students can interpret that as, ‘more work,’ because if you’re just counting work by counting the number of assignments, then it is, by definition, more work.” According to Barre, a “too much busywork” perception has surfaced in survey results across her institution, from the law school to the divinity college to the general education classes.
At Riverside City College, we have all likely witnessed similar student perceptions of excessive workload expressed anecdotally, in student surveys, and during IOIs, especially recently. I know I have.
And it is easy to see why. Watching today’s college students navigate through their classes reminds me of the way I used to approach short-answer exams. If there were a lot of questions and a strict time-limit, I would answer the ones worth the most points first and save the ones worth the fewest points for last. That way, if the clock ran out, only the questions with the lowest stakes would remain unanswered. With so much competing for our students’ time and attention, we should acknowledge that no matter how beneficial low-stakes assignments and assessments might be, many of our students will prioritize the activities they perceive as having the highest stakes.
Am I suggesting, then, that students are too busy to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, so we should move away from this approach? Of course not. Decades of research have shown positive correlations between low-stakes activities and faculty-student interaction, student attention and motivation, student self-efficacy, and deep learning. Frequent low-stakes activities might even make our classes more inclusive. In chapter 7 of his book Small Teaching, James M. Lang, Director of the D ’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, argues that such activities—especially when they are highly structured—offer affirmation to those students who already feel adequately prepared and reassurance to those students who do not: “[T]hat extra work ensures that fewer students are left behind in the classroom, and more students feel like they belong” (183). The merit of frequent low-stakes activities is clear—at least to us.
What I am suggesting is that we assist our students in shifting their emphasis from stakes to value. As Lang points out, “If we really want to inspire students to learn in our courses, we need to focus more of our attention on building up intrinsic motivators, leading them to learning with the same wellsprings of desire and interest that drove us into our disciplines and teaching careers” (196).
Of course, proselyting the merits of low-stakes activities is probably not going to change student perception of their relative worth, as I learned last spring. Small pedagogical changes, however, could make a difference, and if they are strategic, students might stop counting the number of assignments they are being asked to complete and look instead at what those assignments accomplish.
Lang’s book houses these small changes within a larger framework of cognitive activities that foster student knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. He asserts that students place more value on activities that repeatedly tap into prior and recently acquired knowledge because they feel that the work of gaining that knowledge has been acknowledged and appreciated. He suggests making small adjustments to our predicting, retrieving, and interleaving (reinforcement) activities accordingly. “Such activities, leveraged into the first and final minutes of a class session, can provide a powerful boost to student mastery of knowledge; so, too, can simple tweaks to the organization of your course and the order in which you introduce new material and review older material” (18).
Lang also claims that in order for students to value their understanding of subject matter, they have to form “meaningful and effective” connections to it themselves: “Your task [as an instructor] is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections rather than simply lecturing them about connections” (98). He proposes that making small changes to—and allowing more time for—connecting, practicing, and explaining activities will make the class concepts more relevant, practical, and applicable for students, thereby making them more worthwhile.
Finally, Lang points out that students tend to place a higher value on activities that inspire them: “Classrooms are thoroughly social settings, and our connection to the people around us—or lack of connection—can have a significant impact on the quality of our learning” (159), and making small adjustments to activities that foster belonging, are motivating, and help students understand their own learning process will lead to inspiration. If we are bonded with our students, they might react more positively to the enthusiasm we have for our subject matter and trust our teaching expertise, which in turn could make those frequent low-stakes assignments more acceptable.
Lang’s book lists dozens of specific teaching strategies that I am not sharing here for two reasons, the most obvious one being the current length of this blog. The other reason is applicability: not every strategy works in every situation, for example, classroom vs. online or English 1A vs. English 1B. Furthermore, a strategy that works for one class might not work for another, for example an 8 AM class vs. a 6 PM class or a multi-day lecture vs. a once-a-week flipped format.
What I want to share instead is a suggestion and some thought-starters: If we would like our students to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, we should look closely at our own classes and ensure these activities are truly worthwhile.
For instance, Barre brings up how much more labor intensive discussion board postings are than the in-class conversations they are intended to mimic because students will worry more about wording and grammar both in their initial post and in their replies to peers. So is it really necessary to have multiple discussions each week? (This is a question I am asking myself right now.) Or, as Barre suggests, could students record their spoken answers instead of writing them down?
What about the way we approach assessment? For example, is there a way to make reading quizzes more about retrieving learned information and less about demonstrating that they have read the assigned literature? Could students take turns writing and administering their own quizzes instead and then have those quizzes lead the discussion of that day’s stories?
And on the subject of grading, are we indeed differentiating between low-stakes and high-stakes activities in our syllabi and gradebooks? Evaluating our assignments’ relative worth might help us better explain that worth to our students the next time they express concern about workload.
—Brit Osgood-Treston, Ed.D., Associate Professor of English, Riverside City College Department of English and Media Studies
We have learned so much together over the course of our community of practice sessions this year. Thank you to all of you! I’ve gotten a wealth of ideas, food for thought, and books to read from this work—and then, of course, oh yeah, Covid and learning to teach online—literally all at once! That you’ve maintained the momentum, the commitment to continuing to learn and to improve our practices is a testament to the passion and genuine care for our students in this department. I am still experimenting—even now—with some of your ideas, with small scale ways to improve the final part of the semester for my students even as I’m already thinking about ways to do it better from the ground up next time.
The simple answer to how can we take everything we have learned (and are learning on the fly) and implement it all at once is—you can’t. And you can’t beat yourself up about that—as the last community of practice session emphasized, the “okay is good enough for now” mantra is essential to keep us functioning and grounded enough to give what we can to our students in this incredibly stressful situation. BUT we can do something(s)—bite sized bits that can have a real impact for our students, and our anchor text for this community of practice, James Lang’s Small Teaching, offers a wealth of terrific, small scale things to try to help our students better learn and retain information, and better apply, connect and understand what they’ve learned. But the bits we take from Lang (and from all the other great material we’ve studied together) need to be chosen strategically and intentionally and they need to be chosen with this question in mind: how will this transform my students’ experience of and in my class? Please notice the focus here on students’ experience—of course we want more of our students to succeed and we want to do everything we can to support them and give them a strong foundation as they move forward. But even if they don’t pass the first time around or even if they withdraw—things happen—what was their experience in your class and how do they come out of that feeling about whether or not they belong in college, whether they have what it takes, their capacity to continue to learn and grow? So the student experience, for me, is my key focus.
“What we believe determines what we’re willing to do, to try.” Lasana Hotep —equity training RCC April 24
I’ve come to think that what is most crucial to being able to create classroom experiences and course designs (virtually as well as F2F) that transform our students’ experience is critical self-reflection or what I try in design and practice and implementing any one of the wonderful suggestions we’ve been given may not truly transform my students’ experience. Let me explain. As Lasana Hotep pointed out in our most recent equity training at RCC, there is no simple, technical response—no silver bullet strategy or activity or technique—that by itself will improve equitable outcomes for our students and our students’ sense that they belong in college—even if there are bumps along the way. First and foremost we have to challenge the assumptions and narratives behind how we’ve designed and conducted our classes. We can’t simply lay strategies—no matter how wonderful—over the same old assumptions about our students—who they are, what they should know, why they do or don’t succeed, what they should be able to do coming in the door, who they should be as students. Without interrogating the assumptions (and the narratives behind those assumptions) that I make (often unconsciously) about my students, any strategy I use will be limited in its efficacy. So with this framing, let me dive in, if we can’t do everything at once, what can we do, what can we try to support our students’ learning in and experience of our classes?
Lang’s book divides the small teaching strategies (and by small teaching he means bite-sized doable things to try in our course design, in our day to day classroom practice) into three categories: Knowledge, Understanding, and Inspiration.
For knowledge, he has chapters on retrieval practice, predicting as a tool for learning, and interleaving—“spacing and mixing learning activities”—so a kind of cumulative learning that keeps returning to earlier material and skills even as new material/ skills are added rather than discrete units which is a hallmark, really of our process oriented composition classes (Lang 68).
His chapters in the section on understanding include connecting, practicing/ applying (this was the primary focus of Carolyn’s Active Learning community of practice—developing learning spaces where students not only get “knowledge and skills” but “get to practice this in relevant ways”). The final chapter in this section is on self-explaining—the work of having students work on explaining what they are doing and how they are doing it to themselves and others to help deepen learning, correct misunderstandings—the kind of practice we encourage when students write self-reflections on essays they turn in or when they do peer review.
The final section of Lang’s book turns to broader based themes of motivation (how do we help students develop and maintain motivation), growth (fostering growth mindset in our students, but in ourselves as well), and expansion (thinking beyond traditional pedagogies to include service learning/ activity or project based learning) but still offers bite-sized strategies.
He concludes with a framework for thinking about and using what he’s presented in the book embodied in these questions:
1) What can I do in my next class session? (and the next, and the next…). This is important for us now as we try to navigate ourselves and our students through the end of this chaotic term. And this question reminds us, that we don’t have to wait for next semester or the next time I teach this class to make changes—I can make small changes—right now! (and tomorrow, next week…) The temptation to sort of write off a semester, gut it out and think, “it will be better next time when I can fix this” is strong! But we still have time and opportunity now, this semester, with these students (and we might learn something that will make our plan for next semester stronger).
2) What can I do as I design/ tweak my classes for next semester (syllabus, assignments, assessment, pacing)? This is crucial for us as we face the reality of a summer term—and a fall term—with entirely online classes. What have I learned? What can I do differently given what I learned this semester? And what have I learned that I’ll keep no matter what? There have been opportunities as well as challenges in this experience!
3) What do I want to work on long term—what is a long term goal for how I’d like to transform my classes?
Small Tweaks, Adjustments, Experiments with Equity in Mind
What I would add to Lang’s framework are six principles from CUE (Center for Urban Excellence) for thinking about these changes with an explicit equity minded lens because we know, as I was reminded in the CUE seminar with Jennifer Ortiz (Chair, English, LA Trade Tech), implicit bias tends to intensify during high intensity, high stress times such as we’re experiencing now. Our stress levels, the rapidity with which we’ve had to make changes without time for a great deal of (or any) planning will be impacting how we respond to students, and without explicit equity focused intentionality, will impact decisions we make about how to structure our online classes, our WRC, etc. Equity outcomes suffer in challenging environments without intentionality. Here are the six principles Jennifer Ortiz presented:
1)Deconstructing—decentering whiteness in our classrooms; engaging in and fostering critical awareness and examination of assumptions, beliefs, dominant social norms in how we develop the content and approach in our class.
One small way I have been trying do this, beyond some basics (inclusivity in course materials, giving students more agency, and other great suggestions covered in earlier posts) is by being willing to be vulnerable, share my own education story, and in particular in this moment, my own very real struggles to learn on the fly and adapt—and admitting when I make a mistake or find a better way. Part of deconstructing is deconstructing my students’ assumptions about me—the assumptions they make about all of us by virtue of our position, how we look, how we sound, etc.
And incorporating reflective practices into class can help aid in this effort to decenter. Audrey’s dissertation research has underscored the power of reflective practice in the classroom. It Creates transformational learning as learners question problematic perceptions that they have/have had, and restructure perceptions to be more open-minded and empathetic (Caine & Caine, 2006; Canlas et al., 2015; Merriam & Bierema, 2014) . It Motivates learners’ consciousness by giving learners a sense of closure and clarity, allowing them to be aware of the new connections that they have made in learning new concepts and successfully engaging learning (Wolfe, 2006). It Invokes empathy & prompts radical listening (Rosen et al., 2014) It Create collective consciousness, coalition building, compassion (Canlas et al., 2015) Prompts reflection about students’ positionality and privilege and how identity shapes experiences in contrast to others (Bettez & Hytten, 2013 ; Smele et al., 2017 )
2) Welcoming—communicating clearly to our students at every step of the way and every facet of our classes that they are welcome in and belong in our class, that they belong in college
As I know so many of you are doing, I’ve been reaching out even more than normal to my students. I email. I post announcements. Discussion boards include check-in type questions. I start every Zoom session or office hour with a check in before we even start to think about course material or assignments. I include encouraging notes and questions about how they are on every paper I return—I’m eager to hear what else you all are trying! I’m communicating more intrusively and I’m trying to mindful of tone—not where have you been? But are you ok? How are you doing? What do you need? As Alex’s post on Emotions in Learning made clear, acknowledging the very real—and difficult emotions—we’re faced with right now and being transparent about our own struggles, too, can help students feel like they still belong—that they are somehow not suited to college because they aren’t feeling as motivated right now and the like.
Ortiz’s department has also been working on doing more discipline/ department based welcomes that include a lot of basics (details about accessing academic support, getting into Canvas basics, for us it could be details about the WRC and what support services are available) that students as a whole—say all students in English 1A—could really benefit from and they’ve been doing this with video. She still does an individual welcome video of her own for her classes, but the department/discipline level one helps and may be more efficient for some kinds of information. The key, in any event, is humanizing ourselves as instructors as a team ready to work to support students.
3) Validating—consistently communicating our belief that our students are capable of and expected to succeed
Since the 2nd week of our time online (so end of week 6), I’ve been posting (and sending) a wrapping up the week and getting ready for next week message for my students. In the wrap-up I praise—specifically—what went well in the discussion boards or a great zoom conversation and often I praise not even the content of what might have been in a post or reply, but the fact that I can tell they did the reading with care and thoughtfulness or the way in which they responded to a peer—supporting, drawing out, and being specific in what they appreciated in a particular post. I praise their efforts in making this transition, getting the work in despite the fact that I know (because they’ve told me) they are working more hours, or caring for family members, or just plain feeling seriously unmotivated and struggling to manage time without the normal structure of going to school F2F. And I remind them that yes, this is challenging—we are all doing the best we can and I remind them what tools they have to still succeed (I expanded the number of my late slips, for instance, which give students an extra week to get something turned in). And I ask specific questions at the end—the how are you doing, what do you need, kinds of check in questions—and because I email this out as well as just posting it, they are replying—we’re keeping up a dialogue.
4) Representing—yes, being inclusive in our course materials so that students can see themselves and explicitly, people who look like them who have important ideas and perspectives to engage.
Star’s post and the thread on culturally responsive teaching made it clear how crucial this is and gave us several ideas for how to do this better. But her post and all the trainings on equity I’ve been able to be a part of this year have made it clear that simply including (the old model of cultural diversity) is simply not enough by itself. It is crucial but it can’t be the only strategy.
5) Demystifying—providing clearly and accessibly (simple language as well as ease of access!) information students need to succeed
This is some of the work we did on syllabi and prompts in January. In the midst of the current situation, on a week by week basis I’ve been “translating” the sometimes difficult to understand policies and resources being put in place for students in the midst of this crisis and sharing that with them—announcements, email, and the like. And there is work we will need to do individually and, I think, as a discipline/ department to make sure our students –especially students who will be new to RCC this summer and fall–understand all the basics—how to access Canvas, how to come to office hours, how to get into and “do” the lab.
6) Partnership—communicating in all aspects of our class and our communications with students that we are committed to working with them
And I think this also means communicating our own curiosity and willingness to learn from them—and being transparent that we are human, too, and as Jan pointed out in her post, they will need to be patient with us because we need to be flexible, too, as we navigate the current situation
These principles offer a framework for the kinds of strategies—the small tweaks and adjustments (let alone any of the big ones we may be envisioning)—we strategically and intentionally choose to use and how we use them. (These are similar—but not identical—to Darla Cooper’s 6 factors for student success—I’ll include a link to those at the end of the blog—this is another terrific framework and there is a lot of overlap).
Simply including culturally diverse texts or picking techniques from the rich menu of strategies our series and work together has offered will not fundamentally, deeply transform the experience of my students—especially minoritized students—if I am not also willing to interrogate my own assumptions, to fearlessly look at my data—again and again—to cultivate curiosity and growth mindset for myself and a willingness to truly know my students, believe in them, meet them where they are (which sometimes means going more than half way to meet them)
Reflective teaching is “the sustained and intentional process of identifying and checking the validity of our teaching assumptions and the habit of constantly trying to identify, and check, the assumptions that form our actions as teachers…[in order] to help us take more informed actions so that when we do something that’s intended to help students learn it actually has that effect” (Brookfield, qtd. In Neuhaus 92-93).
Our work together and the equity work I’ve been able to be part of this year have challenged me to keep asking: What profile do I have in mind of my students when I build my syllabus, design my class, construct my policies, offer an “analogy” in class to help explain an idea (what are the analogies I reach for saying about the assumptions I make?)? Is this who my students really are? What am I assuming? What don’t I know? As Tina pointed out in her post “Whether we know about each individual student’s story or not, we need to be aware of how past learning experiences and financial and familial burdens affect the success of our students.” I recommend Jessamyn Neuhaus’s chapter on Reflection in Geeky Pedagogy (chapter 3) and Stephen Brookfield’s Book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher for a good discussion of the value, the necessity of self-reflection for our teaching practice.
In the April installment of RCC’s equity training series with Lasana Hotep, he offered this take on being self-reflective as educators: being reflective means that I accept that there are some things I am doing that aren’t working (or that aren’t working for some of my students—your data will help you see this). These things are often grounded in assumptions and narratives I have absorbed/ inherited (narratives about wealth and poverty, about education, about race, among others). I have to reconstruct—starting with my own attitudes. And this takes us back to Star’s emphasis in her post that we need to stop, observe, detach, and awaken—SODA—often, and courageously interrogate our efforts. Star, like Tina, reminds us that “We need to see our students as people who need our guidance, understanding, and sometimes, dare I say, mercy…they are people who deserve to be seen, heard, and acknowledged” people with whom we are in a messy, dynamic partnership of teaching and learning.
So What Next?
As we move forward and tweak, adjust based on what we’ve learned this semester, can we approach our choices with a willingness to think through assumptions we may be making about our students that bear no relationship to the reality our students are actually living? My point is that we need to be strategic and intentional in the practices we choose to adopt. And to be strategic and intentional, we have to engage in self-reflection and examination. We don’t have to change everything all at once—we can’t. But we can continue the journey, continue the progress, continue to find small ways day to day—even right now, and semester to semester to transform the experience of students in our classes.
We have a lot of amazing strategies, tips, techniques to try out and experiment with; we’ve all learned a lot this year and a lot this semester that will inform how we construct our online classes for summer and fall—and we’ll be sharing some of this at the upcoming institute on May 14th!
But I would reiterate, that perhaps the most important change—and it isn’t so small—is a willingness to work on myself, to question my assumptions, to focus on intentional principles to inform and prioritize our choices, to err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt, and to keep being gentle with ourselves—small changes are okay. They accumulate if we keep at it! And right now, okay is good enough.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned this semester about who your students are that you hadn’t realized/ been aware of before?
What is one small change you made this semester once we went online (not the big one of going online—but a tweak you’ve made since then)? Why did you make it—what were you hoping to address? How did it go? What did you learn?
What is one change you know you want to make next semester? Why—what do you hope it will accomplish?
What ways do you think self-reflection (of you, the instructor) can be used to examine your own positionality in the classroom in order make positive changes?
How do you avoid the trap of turning critical self-reflection into everything that is going wrong/ beating yourself up over challenges in your teaching and in your students’ learning/ success?
What kinds of self-reflection activities do you use to get students to consider the narratives of others in the classroom?
What do you think is the biggest barrier to making changes in our teaching practice? What gets in the way?
Community of Practice Session
Pedagogy in Practice Spring Institute: May 14 11-1 Zoom
How Do I Do This All at Once Community of Practice Session May 29 1-2 pm Zoom
Resources/ Works Cited
Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons for the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016.
Neuhaus, Jessamyn. Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia, UP, 2019.
Ortiz, Jennifer. Webinar II – Equity-Minded Online Teaching: Using Canvas as a Model – Thursday, 4.30.2020The recording for webinar 2 is available at: bit.ly/cuewebinar2recordingThe transcript for webinar 2 is available at: bit.ly/cuewebinar2transcript Follow CUE on twitter: @Center4UrbanEd
“The Consciousness Gap in Education—An Equity Imperative” March 10, 2014. Lasana Hotep shared a key portion of this talk in one of the equity trainings this spring—it is a powerful call to action to examine our own assumptions and narratives. It is worth watching the whole talk.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche 2009 Oct 16. Many of you know this well and even use it in your classes—but if you don’t know it, take a listen! It comes at this idea of the narratives that drive how we interpret the world in a really powerful way.
Here are some resources from Audrey on the power of self-reflective practice in the classroom and for the self-care we and our students can really benefit from: