Scaling Mountains of Marking

As many of you know, I can get quite stubborn about the value of comprehensive feedback on student writing. I learned effective writing strategies as a student through tough, detailed commentary on my expression, then took the same approach when evaluating student essays and reports in courses I taught over many years. It always seemed common sense that this kind of feedback helps students learn not just how to avoid specific mistakes but to become alert and careful editors of their own work over time.

Admittedly, with large enrollments, this approach can be crippling, particularly with multiple large classes and quick turn-around goals. Experienced writing instructors tackling this problem in a Chronicle of Higher Education Forum (“Freshman Composition/Writing Courses: Class Sizes Up and Up? What to do?”) volunteered tolerable enrollment caps of up to 24 per section. The Association of Departments of English (ADE) supports even lower enrollments of “no more than” 20. ADE’s statement of policy and Alice Horning’s “The Definitive Article on Class Size,” explain exactly why small class sizes should be protected for writing-intensive courses.

Needless to say, instructors don’t have the power to set class-size limits. This year, some class enrollment caps have been set 30% higher than last year’s, and it’s up to us to find a way to maintain pedagogical standards when faced with mountains of marking. One strategy could be to give individualized feedback on the first assignment and then follow-up in-class exercises or mini lectures on common errors throughout the semester. Comments on the rest of the assignments would be limited to summaries of strengths and areas for improvement. Such summaries can’t fully replace inserted commentary, but they can encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning, and so instill a reflex that presumably is at the core of higher education.

You can find articles on how to mark efficiently elsewhere on this blog, but this year’s class sizes require some pragmatic cost-benefit analysis that we haven’t been faced with in the past quite as much. A Procom colleague, Susan Cody, who has served on teaching committees at Ryerson, drew my attention to an article on efficient grading methods that takes into account students’ possible responses to correction. You may also want to plough through the comments on the linked Chronicle forum for more tips and reflections, expressed with a little more passion than I’ve indulged in here.

Sessional Solidarity

When in the academic year is it an opportune time to bring up precarious employment in academe? It occurred to me that the answer is never.  In the spring we’re worried about getting rehired and don’t want to think about the worst-case scenario.  In the summer we’re hoping to catch our breath long enough to conduct research, reduce our teaching load or take a much-needed break.  In the fall, we need morale to focus on our students.  Just before the scheduled breaks, we definitely don’t want to think about the challenges of our position, so my apologies in advance for raising this issue now.

However, I’ve come across some useful information about the sessional instructor juggling act that you might find interesting now that your marking is (temporarily) behind you. The first is the teaching newsletter, Profession, produced by the MLA. Like me in a previous post, the editors thought of Sisyphus when choosing their featured image. The link is for this fall’s special issue, but you’ll find many other well-written articles about university teaching, specifically in the field of language and literature, in past issues.

The other resource is an article in Quill & Quire on a research project by an undergraduate student at Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver that documents the punishing workload of contingent professors.  Though the project focuses primarily on the difficult trade-offs of instructors in the creative industries, much of the discussion applies to all disciplines.

Both resources explore the unfortunate compromises inherent in our roles.  Still, you’ll find hope alongside the angst.

How Not to Overprepare


James Lang, a veteran professor writing for ChronicleVitae has some great advice for making classes less time-consuming to organize.  He suggests lots of engaging, pedagogically valuable strategies for in-class assignments that prompt student self-efficacy and allow for flexible, ad-hoc coverage of the course material.

Though as a School we routinely use in-class exercises as teaching tools, we don’t always see them as moments when students internalize their own responsibility for learning.  As we brace ourselves for the fall, it’s not a bad idea to remember that we can relax a bit and trust the learning will happen if we just create the right conditions.

Mining Student Curiosity

A post in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education Newsletter summarizes a teaching conference session that demonstrated the power of the “Naive Task,” an exercise assigned, often at the beginning of a class, before any principles, theories or facts have been covered.  The reasoning is that students will pay more attention to what the professor has to say about the subject if they’ve already tried to puzzle out an answer with their peers.  You can read the account here: The Power of the ‘Naïve-Task’

You may find this paper on team-based learning, published in the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, useful for planning this kind of activity.

An experiential exercise in my Interpersonal Communication Class on the ideal problem-solving group size, which is a kind of naive task, does engage students on more than one level.  I plan to try this approach in other classes this fall.  If you already throw students in at the deep end, and have observed the results, please share your experience!

eBook on Reading, Rhetoric and Writing

Though Hearing Ourselves Think: Cognitive Research in the College Writing Classroom was published in 1993, I think the book has much to offer today. Ann Penrose and her co-authors present findings on the ways various students process information when struggling to analyze texts and writing situations.  Observational research (documented as transcribed recordings of students’ reflections) complements discussions of theory and practice.

As dry as that may sound, the content provides a fascinating insight into what different students are thinking when they wrestle with similar writing problems to the ones we design for our classes.  Chapters 8 and 9 cover audience analysis.  Chapter 1 explains the rationale for the cognitive approach.  Here’s the link to the eBook version in the Ryerson library.

More on Teaching Evaluations

Not long after our grades are in, we’ll have access to online teaching evaluations for the term.  If you’ve had a class with high rates of plagiarism or low marks during the evaluation period, you might hold your breath before clicking to see the report.  Will the few students who filled out the online FCS be those who needed catharsis or who wanted to express appreciation?  Will enough students provide written comments to guide adjustments or confirm what worked? Will feedback from less than 10% of your class have an impact on your employment?

In an article in the April 25 Issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michelle Falcoff considers these issues. She summarizes the results of a 2016 faculty survey, and referring to her own experience directing a program in communication and legal reasoning at Northwestern, she points out that a required course, offered in the first year, with high standards and much critical feedback can lead to highly negative teaching evaluations. This suggests a more widely applicable definition of bias than that used in a recent study on gender bias and teaching evaluations.

In the same issue of the Chronicle, Karen Kelsey focuses on the ambiguous wording of evaluations and notes ways to make the exercise more accurate and useful. Falcoff recommends peer review to contextualize student comments.  She points to a resource from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) that provides an extensive list of measurement approaches that can put imperfect instruments such as the FCS into perspective. You may find some ideas for your teaching dossier on that list.

Those of you relatively new to Procom who still have to submit to peer evaluations may feel anxiety about faculty bias as well.  Another helpful resource from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching acknowledges this concern.  Click to “Possible Limitations of Peer Review.”

Finally, and more depressingly, are the implications of a 1993 study, which found that teaching evaluation results at the end of term were highly correlated to the impression students had of an instructor’s nonverbal behaviour in the first 30 seconds of the first class. Are our carefully constructed lectures, exercises and instruction, not to mention agonizing over grades, all for naught?

This is an area that makes contractual lecturers feel very vulnerable.  Perhaps it’s time for us to work more closely as a group to discuss how to make the teaching evaluation process more meaningful and fair.



Fair Dealing in Higher Education

Many of Procom’s introductory communication courses have  been slowly transitioning from textbooks to digital readings of one sort or another.  We save students money on a course requirement that some are hard-pressed to afford and many are reluctant to read.

I haven’t seen much evidence that students value print versions of communication textbooks even if they shelled out as much as the cost of two months of cell-phone expenses.  Tests and exercises compel reading, no matter the medium.  This has been the case for me in CMN 314, which uses Richard McMaster’s recommended online textbooks and CMN 288, which uses various articles and chapters via D2L’s one-stop course readings.

In her copyright lecture to my CMN 288 classes, Ann Ludbrook, Ryerson’s Copyright and Scholarly Engagement Librarian, warned that we’re in danger of losing this access to free online materials if copyright law is amended to curtail fair dealing. She urges students and teachers to persuade the government to reconsider:

Right now the government is gathering opinions about things that were added to the Copyright Act in 2012 (like fair dealing for education). This is the copyright review year which consists of consultations which will wrap up in early 2019. Right now they are planning a process of public consultations in face-to -face meetings (one of them will be in Toronto) and calling for feedback from Canadian citizens in the way of written submissions, and consulting specific interest groups. 

The Committee invites Canadians to submit written briefs not exceeding 2,000 words. Briefs may be sent to:

For more information on how to prepare a submission, please consult the Guide for Submitting Briefs to House of Commons Committees. 

Additional information can be found in the INDU news release, Ottawa U law professor Michael Geist’s summary update and former university administrator Michael Proulx’s op-ed on the potential impact on the free exchange of ideas.

You’ll also want to check out Catherine Jenkins’s submission to Fair Dealing ©anada, a site launched by the Association of Research Libraries. She provides both the student’s and teacher’s perspectives.

More Advice on Efficient Grading

We’re more than 365 days  away from truly putting this year’s final assignments behind us, and sometimes it can be disheartening to provide detailed feedback while suspecting most students look at just the mark.  If we ask for hard-copy final reports in Week 11, that can mean a pile of stored assignments with hand-written comments which only the dust mites see. The eventually shredded documents can trigger pangs of regret for having spent precious time on unappreciated labour.

One approach some instructors have taken is to provide just general comments in the D2L dropbox, or a grade accompanied by an invitation to students to ask for more detailed feedback, if they need it. If you worry about having evidence for a later appeal of files graded online, you could create general categories (such as “expression,” “structure,” “layout”) in GradeMark to drag and drop.

If you have the time or the inclination to provide comments, then you might want to consider tips from seasoned professors. Last year I posted a link to a helpful article for streamlining grading. This year, The Chronicle of Higher Education offers tips from history professor, Kevin Gannon, Director of the Center For Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Some of us already use some of his techniques, such as giving oral feedback, using rubrics, and copy/pasting common errors. For those who don’t, his explanations provide a rationale for using the strategies he recommends.


The Science of Learning

An old friend of mine, a professor of electrical engineering at U of T who was awarded The University of Toronto President’s Teaching Award in 2016, recommended a book, Make it Stick, as a must-read for those of us who teach at a post-secondary institution.  Drawing on research in cognitive science, and writing engagingly about the data, the authors build a persuasive case for how we learn.  One of their more controversial arguments challenges the long-held assumption that durable learning is possible through repetitive exposure to what you need to remember. Here is a Chronicle of Higher Education review of the book. You can find an eBook copy at our library.