Three Types of Assignments that Speed Feedback, Boost Student Engagement

We often wonder what we can do to help students engage with the material so they can learn it at a deeper level. Students don’t make that an easy task. They arrive in class having not read the material or having not thought about it in meaningful ways, and that keeps them from being engaged in class. Several years ago, I read George Kuh’s article “What Student Engagement Data Tell Us about College Readiness,” in which he writes, “Students who talk about substantive matters with faculty and peers are challenged to perform at high levels, and receive frequent feedback on their performance typically get better grades, are more satisfied with college, and are more likely to persist” (Peer Review, January 1, 2007, p. 4; italics mine). Here are three ways I try to provide feedback that engages students and not overwhelm myself with grading tasks in the process.

1. Short essays – Whenever I mention essays to colleagues, they worry that I am suggesting they spend every weekend reading papers. I have found two shorter assignments that help students and me know if they are understanding the material and that can be graded quickly. The note-card essay limits student responses to a 3×5 or 4×6 card. One of my colleagues has his upper-level students create a question and then write a response to it. He uses the questions and answers on their cards to stimulate discussion in class. He finds that doing so draws out students who don’t often speak in class.

Also, I use one-page essays that focus on a single skill or idea, a technique I stole from Irvin Hashimoto’s Thirteen Weeks. In my freshman composition course, I assign several of these essays, but I grade them only for thesis and evidence (or whatever skill I’m having students practice). In a sophomore literature survey, they focus on one idea, such as reason or passion in The Enlightenment. Even in junior-level literature courses, the students respond to a quote from a critic, giving them practice at integrating and responding to quotations in their writing. Doing so helps them avoid the random sprinkling of quotations throughout their longer papers.

2. Online forums – Most college and university computer systems include some sort of forum or blog capability. We use Moodle, where I can set up a forum for students to post to and respond. In my upper-division courses, students post 150- to 250-word responses to the assigned readings. These responses are long enough to encourage interaction with the text but not so long that it takes me more than 20 to 30 minutes to read an entire class’s responses. Like my colleague, I use their responses to provoke class discussion. Having written a response, most students come to that discussion with an idea already in mind. This encourages those reluctant to participate to offer ideas and insights.

These online forums have other benefits as well. First, I do not have to spend class time on ideas students already understand. Since I read their posts before class, I can see that 15 or 20 of them have all commented on an idea I had planned to discuss. When it’s clear they understand the idea, I mention it briefly in class, praising them for recognizing its importance, and then I move on to some idea not discussed in their posts. If their responses contain evidence that they are confused about or misunderstanding an idea, I can address that in class. When I mention that several posts indicated confusion about an issue, students see that they weren’t the only ones not understanding something in the reading. Sometimes I intervene in the forum, offering clarification, but I still spend time on the idea in class to make sure it is clear.

3. Process writing – We tend to talk about the writing process only in freshman composition courses. However, using the process in all disciplines—where students sequentially turn in an annotated bibliography and rough draft, go through peer editing and conferences with professors, and then turn in a final draft—gives them consistent feedback throughout the process. They produce better papers as a result. You can help them deepen their thinking as they work on the paper. You can catch writing and bibliography problems and can raise questions about content that may be plagiarized. Talking with students about their topics and reading bibliographies is not time consuming, and taking such steps makes the writing process a richer learning experience. If they submit better papers, that speeds up the grading process at the end of the course.

Students are more likely to be engaged in classes when they receive regular feedback. It keeps them on track. Shorter assignments, technology, and process writing can help engage students, leading to better discussion and more complex thinking, and those results benefit students and teachers.

Reprinted from Quick Feedback, Engaged Students, The Teaching Professor, 26.9 (2012): 1.

Dr. Kevin Brown is an associate professor at Lee University.