Tag Archives: college teacher

Hooking Students in First Five Minutes of Class

Have you ever tried to start class only to be greeted by sounds of unzipping backpacks and chattering classmates? Sometimes coaxing students to focus at the beginning of class can be a challenge. However, we miss a golden opportunity to create an engaging atmosphere that inspires active learning if we let those first minutes slip by.

Although we all have days when we must begin with routine announcements or other business, you may want to consider some alternative strategies to grab students’ attention immediately—and keep it.

Begin with questions. Try projecting several questions about the day’s topic for students to think about as they seat themselves. For example, say the day’s lesson will focus on the direct organizational strategy. Questions that might encourage students to think about the lesson could be Why do many colleges use the direct strategy when sending rejection letters? or Do you ever have a difficult time finding specific information in an e-mail? Questions from the previous night’s homework can also prepare students for attentive behavior.

Review material. Help students recall what they learned in the prior class by asking them to volunteer specific ideas or concepts. Write their responses on the board, making sure to revise for accuracy, and use the exercise as a segue into new material. If you take roll, you can ask students to respond with a fact they took away from the last class session when you call each name.

Assign quick writes. A low-stakes writing exercise helps cement new ideas and retrieve prior knowledge. (It’s not necessary to collect the papers as long as you monitor students’ activity to ensure they stay on task.) Just the act of writing—especially in writing courses—helps students transition to the classroom, where they are expected to think and focus. Try asking the class to compose a tweet that encapsulates a learning objective or to write a quick summary of a news item you exhibit.

Create a loop of slides. Put together a series of slides that feature course-related content for the day, multiple-choice questions, quotes from readings, or fill-in-the-blank sentences. Or you might want to remind students of due dates or long-term project milestones they should be thinking about.

Practice grammar. The first few minutes of a class session are a great time to present a quick grammar lesson that becomes part of a midterm or quiz. Starting these lessons the first minutes of class can encourage students to arrive on time, too!

Allow teams to collaborate. If you have a group project, allow teams the first minutes of class to catch up with one another, even if it’s just to discuss a time to meet outside of class. Students will become engaged instantly if they’re working together.

The semester flies by, so taking advantage of those first minutes of class to reinforce learning makes a lot of sense!

What do you do to make the most of the beginning of your classes? Start a conversation!




Avoiding the Black Hole of Grade Appeals


Students rush to exit the room except for one, who approaches the lectern gripping a paper, eyes bulging.


Professor, why is this a B+ instead of an A-?


Drops head in despair. A tear trickles down his face.


All kidding aside, most of us could happily live the rest of our lives without ever hearing a student question a grade again. Grade appeals can lead to a host of negative outcomes, not the least of which is the threat to non-tenured faculty of being asked to not return the next semester. Contested grades can also be a black hole for instructors’ time. However, several strategies can help minimize student confusion about or complaints over grades.

oct_shutterstock_391193044Use rubrics. Many grade appeals occur because students consider grading written work subjective. One way to avoid this particular complaint is to use rubrics. Much literature has made a case for using rubrics. (See last month’s post on grading strategies.) Because rubrics provide specific criteria by which student work is considered, they can make grading quicker and more transparent for instructors. When instructors clarify expectations, students understand where they fall short or succeed on a given assignment.

Make participation expectations clear. Do you mark students down for non-attendance or tardiness, reduce grades for late work, or assess participation? If you include these aspects as part of students’ final grades, assign a clear percentage to the criteria and display the policy prominently on your syllabus.

Begin each day with a quick quiz. Perhaps you do not want to measure attendance or tardiness but still want to encourage regular participation. Consider beginning each class session with a quick quiz instead. This way, performance on the quizzes offers concrete indications of student performance and participation.

Discuss the repercussions of plagiarism. Part of any course involving writing must contain a definitive policy addressing plagiarism. In both your syllabus and in class, discuss academic dishonesty and its ramifications. Better yet, provide a hands-on, in-class refresher, re-acquainting students with the mechanics of proper citation. If you suspect a student has either wittingly or unconsciously committed plagiarism, communicate—and document—your skepticism clearly. Consider writing a no-nonsense statement such as “I am giving this paper a “0” because it contains no citations” or the like on the paper in question. Then, with the student, discuss how to remediate the lacking skills.

Respond to student requests with empathy and fairness. Who hasn’t had a student ask for an extension because of illness, a family situation, or any number of legitimate (or not so legitimate) situations? Decide ahead of time how generous you want to be. Many instructors find that if they respond to such student requests with empathy but also reiterate their policies, they avoid contentious exchanges.

Be consistent with grading policy. Once you have made your grading criteria clear, stick to them. This is the best way to avoid grade appeals, especially those in which students point to another student’s grade. It is also the fairest and most equitable way to treat all your students.

How do you deal with grading complaints? Start a conversation!


Okay with Being Labeled “Tough”

by Janet Mizrahi

Perhaps I’m a “hard” teacher because I went to college when it was unthinkable to turn in a paper late or not complete assigned readings. I hold my students to the same standard. Or maybe it’s my mother’s influence. A 30-year teaching veteran, she advised me to always start out tough and set high goals. You can always get easier, she’d tell me, but you can never get tougher.FEB2016_shutterstock_93835213

Mother knew best, and I wear the mantle of a tough teacher unapologetically. As an instructor whose students will likely never have a writing class again, I feel it is incumbent upon me to show them a slice of real life, where bosses will have little patience for late or careless work. I know I do, and my courses reflect my expectations.

It’s not easy, granted. We all live or die (or at least stay employed) by how students rate our courses, but I’m certain driving students hard is in their best interest. Not long ago, I read an essay in the Wall Street Journal that backed me up. Here’s what it said that corroborated my approach.

Constructive, even painful feedback is key to achieve expertise. Research has shown that top performers in every field pick “unsentimental coaches” who challenge and drive them. While my friend Amy didn’t pick her first writing teacher, she does credit him with teaching her to write—and that was after he marked her first college paper with a “D,” crossed it out, and replaced the “D” with an “F.” Was she mortified? Absolutely. But when she recently reread the paper, she agreed, with chagrin, that he was right.

Rote learning has gotten a bad rap. Rote learning is not much in favor these days. Why make students memorize anything if the answers can be found in a calculator or by searching online? Because research shows that repeating skills leads to mastery. I’ve watched students learn. As writing instructors, we know that the more students practice, the better their work. Is it fun? Maybe not, but it’s crucial to learning a skill.

Failure IS an option. What message do we send our students if we allow them to think their poor work is acceptable? What good do we do their future employers by sending these students into the workplace unprepared? Knowing failure is an option keeps my students from thinking they can disregard assignments or expect passing grades from sloppy, careless work. I’ve found that just their knowing I’d fail them makes them do their work.

Strict trumps nice. See above. If you believe your students have the potential to be better, it’s up to you to hold them to that standard. That’s hard to do when you’re their buddy.

Grit wins every time. It takes tenacity to make it through a tough teacher’s class, but research backs up the notion that students whose teachers push them hard make the greatest gains. My youngest daughter started at the bottom of the heap in her college ballet class. Still, she looks back fondly on her first-year ballet teacher who repeatedly told her, “That was HORRIBLE. Do it again.” His bothering to correct her meant she wasn’t hopeless, and she knew that. I’m convinced her grit, her sheer will to improve, took her through four difficult years until she received her BFA in Dance.

Praise should be earned. I remember being crushed when I received a B on a college English paper. But I got over it and went on to become a professional writer. I wholeheartedly believe giving false praise hurts more than it helps. When I tell a student “You nailed it!” that student beams because she knows I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. If you really want to boost your students’ self-esteem, teach them to be better writers so they feel the confidence of achievement.

Resilience comes from coping with difficulty. We keep hearing about the stress our students are under, and I see it regularly. But we also know that learning to cope with stressors and life’s challenges makes us stronger and more resilient. Isn’t that the goal? Offering our students the support to improve while honestly assessing their work will net stronger, more resilient citizens.

My experience tells me my mother was right about starting tough and just as right about easing up once the standards have been set. I know this because at the end of each quarter, my students write confidential narratives assessing their experience of my course and of me. I don’t expect 100% positive ratings, and I do not receive them. But the majority give me high praise for forcing them to work hard. “Definitely challenging, but worth it” is a common refrain. I also regularly receive unsolicited e-mails in which former students tell me how grateful they are to have learned the skills I taught them. I even get and return hugs as the students file out on the last day of the quarter.

It’s not always easy being the tough guy—but it’s worth the effort.

How do you feel about being labeled tough or easy? Share your views with us!