Reflecting on the academic year that was, part three (“pie in the sky”)


In my past two posts I’ve reflected on what went well, and what was a hot mess, during the academic year 2014-15. In this last “academic year that was” post, I’m going to share three things that I’ve decided I’d really like to try in my classrooms next year. If any of you have experience with any of these, please share them in the comments! I need top tips, as well as fair warnings.

  1. Peer teaching. (IE: when students teach each other, and learn in turn that their peers actually know some valuable stuff.)

In the same way that I’m committed to doing a better job of peer evaluation next year, and along the same lines as my scheme to get my students to create their own supplementary readers online (see my last post for details on both of these things), I want to try more and better peer-teaching techniques in 2015-16. Madison (my ace T.A.) and I did some of this in 20th Century Theatre this past year, and I relied heavily on pairs and group work in my smaller theatre classes (because lecturing to just five people is just plain weird). Both of those experiences taught me, however, that peer teaching is hard to do properly: like peer evaluation, it requires very careful calibration by and support from an instructor.

I have lots of experience facilitating group discussions but not that much with bona fide peer teaching, and I’m always casting around for excellent examples of peer teaching exercises. Recently, one from the sciences crossed my desk – its creator is University of Michigan engineering prof Steven Yalisove. Trying to figure out how to balance “clickers” as a student engagement tool alongside lecture material, Yalisove decided to ditch the lectures entirely and use the principle behind clickers – how much are you learning, and where are you falling short? – to develop this peer-teaching model:

In class, Yalisove employs clicker-based quizzes to find out how much students actually learned from the text. Sometimes, if it’s clear they haven’t grasped a concept despite valiant efforts, and they’re frustrated, “then a short lecture can be very useful.” But he keeps it to about 10 minutes. He also assigns difficult homework guaranteed to stump his students. When they return to class, he has them work in teams using whiteboards to try to solve the homework problems. Three instructional aides – undergrads who took the course the previous year and are essentially the students’ peers – advise the teams. After each assignment, students write a “reflection” on their experience, and they’re graded on their effort, not their results.

(The above text is excerpted from an article by Thomas Grose in Prism 24.4 [2014]; it’s available here.)

What I love about this model is the fact that it’s not driven by the notion that students are “experts” (students don’t actually buy this claim, in my experience), nor is it something that happens once in a while and is thus marked as special. It’s fully integrated into the week’s work in class, every week, and it casts students not as teachers but as problem solvers, working in teams. That sounds an awful lot like life in the real world to me – built in learning outcome! It ALSO sounds like an ideal way to encourage students to recognize the inherent, knowledge-making value of their role as homework-doers and textbook-readers: both of these things, in Yalisove’s model, count as means to a clear end – tools that will be used and further developed in class in order to figure out a challenge important to the course’s stated objectives.

I’m not yet sure how I’m going to adapt this model for my own classrooms, which are smaller than Yalisove’s and do not involve clickers of any kind, but I suspect it will be a really fruitful way to work through the theoretical concepts that I introduce throughout my 20th Century Theatre class, as well as in my performance studies and performance theory classes. I especially like the idea of assigning homework with the caveat that it’s not going to be “gettable” in one reading, nor should students try to master it at home; if you break down half way through and throw the book across the room, that’s FINE – just make a note of where, and why. If the goal of the homework is simply to prepare some way toward figuring it out together, in class, with a peer partner… will students be more inclined to do the reading? I’d like to find out.

  1. Student “crits”.

This speaks to my interest in peer evaluation, and to my goal of finding ways to make it both more normative in all of my classes and less of an emotional strain for students not used to judging each other (at least, not out loud and to one another’s faces!). Anyone who went to art school knows what “crits” are – you present your work publicly to the department, and then your teachers and peers rip it apart. Well, that’s the nightmare version anyway. At their best, critiques are a chance to present work in progress, and to hear what an audience of peers thinks is working well, and what needs some improvement in the time and space remaining before the assignment is due. Really, “crits” are what we do for one another all the time when we ask friends and colleagues to read our stuff and offer feedback, and I’ve used them to greater or lesser extents in research essay assignments for a while now. But I think I could use them more, and better, and in relation to a lot of assignments – especially the ones that cause real anxiety, like presentations. This might seem counterintuitive – if students are stressed because they have to stand up and speak in front of the class, won’t getting peers to critique them out loud make that anxiety worse? – but as I noted in my comments on class presentations in my last post, I suspect the outcome could well be that students a) take the presentations properly seriously, and b) begin to understand that critique is a GOOD thing, and that receiving critique well can lead to a better grade, not a poorer one.

One thing is for certain: as I develop mechanisms for regular in-class crits, I need to ensure that students experience the crit at the true midpoint of an assignment’s allotted duration. I also want to build crit participation into the grade structure for any such assignment, so that giving generous and helpful critique, as well as taking others’ critiques seriously, gets clearly, tangibly rewarded as part of the task at hand (I’m hoping this may be a clever way to disrupt the “criticism = bad grade” formula so many students cling to). I also need to make sure that assignment rubrics are nice and clear, so that students know both what is expected OF them, as well as what measures to use to focus their critiques of each other. As Johanna Inman argued in a recent article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum (24.2, February 2015),

… prompts such as “Is this work effective and why?” or “Does this effectively fulfill the assignment?” or even “Is the planning of the work evident?” generally lead to more meaningful conversations than questions such as “What do you think?” Asking students to reserve judgment responses in the beginning of the critique is helpful to prevent generic comments such as “I like it.”


  1. Inviting greater student input on…assignment dates.

Yup, I think we’ve hit that point. I never seem to get it right: my Big Paper is due the same day/week as everyone else’s Big Papers, and the students freak out because, well… time management is a problem that we’re also working on. At Queen Mary, assignment dates were out of my hands, which proved to be a very good thing; students still complained, because to be honest due dates still overlapped horribly even when centrally planned, but I had no say and could send them away to grouse at someone else. I also had no authority to set extensions; that’s something I truly came to appreciate and it’s a policy I’ve adopted back at Western. When papers are due on a Friday students are given the opportunity to take the weekend for a flat “fee” of 3%; otherwise, late papers are penalized at 2% per day, and (as of next year… I’m declaring it here and now) any paper more than a week late may be received until the end of the semester, but will be eligible for a top grade of 50% and no feedback. I give no extensions beyond the weekend option; if something happens that requires accommodation students need to go to academic counseling to get an official request for clemency.

This hard-ass (ok, medium-hard ass) approach has already saved me more than a handful of headaches, and I’m loving it. And to my great surprise, faced with the no-extensions policy students this past year handed stuff in more or less on time! At first the “cheap weekend” deal freaked a few of them out: was it an extension or not? Should they take the minor penalty, or not? I told them it wasn’t up to me; they needed to decide whether or not the extra time was worth it to them. I told them I might well, in their shoes, have taken the weekend, at least sometimes. The idea that THEY got to decide, that the choice, and the consequences, were in their hands, seemed incredibly empowering, at least for some of them. And I had a lot less admin crap around extensions to worry about!

So now I’m interested in extending this policy a bit, and at the same time tackling both the time management issue and the overlapping due dates problem. What if students were given not a due date, but a date range, for each assignment, and were then required, at the start of each semester, to declare their own specific due dates compatible with their personal calendars? (I’ve not yet worked out how this would function in terms of my calendar, except to say I think it might ease the marking challenge for both me and my TA if we get smaller piles of papers spread out across the deadline period.) My logic is this: if you’ve picked the date, you live or die by it, barring unforeseen issues for which academic accommodation is appropriate. Furthermore, and in keeping with what seems to be a theme emerging from this series of reflections, a date you’ve picked is one you, in theory at least, feel greater responsibility toward: not keeping it means you have failed yourself, not me.

I also hope this could be a really helpful tool for teaching students time management, which starts with looking ahead at your whole term and plotting out your labour while you’re still in the glow of September, the nothing-is-due-yet month. Next year I hope to expand the “essay road maps” we tried out (with limited success, admittedly) in 20th Century Theatre over the winter, in order to get students checking their progress regularly against a plan they have made themselves; to further keep students on track when deadlines are floating, I plan to require them to book 15-minute check-ins with me at least once before each assignment is due. It would be their responsibility to make the appointment and to keep it, and I think it will be easy enough for me to keep a log of missed appointments, or those not made, and to build a penalty into each assignment for such misses.


So there we go. I think what this tripartite reflection exercise has revealed to me, overall, is that I’ve learned this year the value for them, and the gratification for me, of giving students the opportunity to take real, concrete responsibility for their own learning, in clearly framed and ultimately impactful ways. From choosing readings and due dates to engaging extensively in peer critique, online learning, and team problem solving, next year will hopefully involve lots of opportunities for my students to take ownership over elements of our course(s), to recognize themselves as responsible for knowledge-making in class and beyond, and to look to themselves as the point at which the proverbial buck stops. I’m sure it won’t all work, and some of it may be a spectacular failure. (But, yay failure! So instructive.) It’s also clear to me that it’s going to take a lot of forward planning, and not just in August, so I’d better get to work!


(Emma, Rachel, Nora, Jonas, Kim, and Sarah: History of Performance Theory, emoji version)

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on the academic year that was, part three (“pie in the sky”)

  1. I had a professor who, in trying to address both the frequent overlap in due dates and the time management challenges of her students, offered two due dates for essays. In the course syllabus she had two separate due dates with two batches of essay topics. Essay batch 1 would be due relatively early in the term (second week October/February, let’s say) and would cover topics based on the first half of the course. Essay batch 2 would be due around the end of November and would tackle the second half of the course’s work. It gave students the opportunity to make their own deadline (sort of) while also breaking up the amount of incoming marking for her. It encouraged the class to also consider their other course work and think about their own schedules.

  2. That’s a super suggestion! It’s a nice compromise and I can see would streamline the admin around due dates (which is something my choose-your-date version will struggle with, I know). Thanks Mel!

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