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Finding time to write: Important, yes! Impossible, no! Reviewing your student assignment practices

The best insurance policy for success in academe is to write (and publish) your work. Yet, you say, where or where do I find the time to write, especially with all the feedback and grading I have to do?

This article is the first in a four-part series focused on finding hidden pockets of time for your own writing. This article will reflect on one aspect of your teaching practice: the assignments you have students complete.

What happens when you hand out your syllabus in that first face-to-face class? The students breeze past your well-crafted course description, clearly written objectives, and inspiring teaching philosophy to one place in the syllabus—the assignments. They ask themselves, “What do I have to do in this class to earn a grade? How much work do I have to do?” Their behavior belies the fact that assignments are very important to them—as important to them, as they are to you.

Let’s discuss the first two steps to finding hidden pockets of time by paying more attention to student assignments.

Step 1: Reflection and evaluation of assignments

Critically evaluating every single assignment is crucial. What is your current practice? How many assignments do you give? How often are they due? What is the purpose for each one? After reflecting on these questions, dig down deeper:

  • Read the description in the syllabus. Were the students confused about the assignment description last time? Do you need to revise it?
  • Reread your course objectives. Check the match between the assignment and the course objectives. Where does this assignment fit in with the course? Does it reinforce learning through practice with course concepts? Extend learning to a new topic? Synthesize content read and/or discussed in class? Analyze material? Push students to be creative with the content? Or a combination of these?

On a scale of 1 (least confident) to 10 (very confident), the big question is how confident are you that the assignment really meets your course objectives? If you have any doubt that the assignment is busy work or redundant or too confusing for students, it is time to rethink, revise, substitute, or even eliminate that assignment. Checking the inherent value and contribution of the assignment to student learning is the first step in finding hidden pockets of time for your writing.

Step 2: Communicating Assignments Frequently and Effectively

Once upon a time a faculty member told me that it took her 45 minutes to explain an assignment. With just a 90-minute class period, I thought (but did not say, of course) “Wow! That is way too long. I like to use class time to teach content!”

In terms of assignments, how, when, and where you communicate the details about assignments will significantly impact your time and student response. Clear assignment expectations given to students in a variety of consistent ways saves time and fosters higher quality work by increasing confidence and reducing confusion. Let’s look at these different ways to communicate:

  • Use your syllabus: Provide detailed description of each assignment; use supplemental handouts when needed. If you use rubrics, cut and paste the assignment description from the syllabus onto the top of the rubric. That in itself often helps students see the link between the syllabus and assignment assessment on the rubric.
  • Crowd-source student questions: First night of class, divide class into small groups or online put students in break-out rooms to read through the assignments. Have them pool their questions to be asked when the whole group meets back together. Often they will answer each others’ questions and you won’t have to.
  • Make a screencast: Pull up the assignment on your computer screen and talk through your expectations using a video recording of your screen and your voice. I use Screencast-o-Matic for the recording and upload it to Youtube. You can also make a recording using the screen share and recording features on Zoom or use the audio feature on online course programs like Canvas or Blackboard. Students can be referred to the recording, play it at their leisure, and stop and start it to clarify confusing portions. One great advantage of this tool is that each student receives exactly the same instruction.
  • Create an FAQ (frequently-asked-questions) Sheet. You may not be able to cover all the details of an assignment in class or on your syllabus. However, an FAQ sheet can pick up the small details. For example, if your students are going off campus to observe a community meeting, an FAQ sheet might be very helpful in addressing your expectations for on-time arrival, appropriate dress, and friendly demeanor.

While I recognize that these extra efforts at communication will initially take time, in the long run they save time. You will benefit from fewer emails, fewer office hour appointments, higher quality student work, and faster grading—all because students know your expectations. The final result is more time for you and more time to write.

Read Part 2: Feedback on student work – a sinkhole or an opportunity: Finding time to write

Professor Emerita at Portland State University, Dannelle D. Stevens has authored numerous journal articles and five books. Her most recent book, Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice, is based on research and working with national and international faculty on the complex tasks associated with balancing teaching, writing, and publishing.