Last Week’s Teaching in 2020 – Episode 5

Last Week's Teaching in 2020UA faculty describe their experiences teaching during the 2020-2021 academic year. Share your ideas and experiences here, and your entry could be featured in the next episode.

NEXT WEEK: What is your remote teaching setup? Some of us have used Legos, stir sticks, textbooks, and more. Send a picture of your rig to!

Revamped Final Assignment Cures End-of-Term Grading Woes

My radically revamped assignment is possibly the best decision of my teaching career. I am about 1/4 of the way through them, and I have had more that have been so good they brought tears to my eyes than ones that are disappointing in any way. Wow.

Plenty of us lament how our intro students make bizarrely wrong claims in their writing assignments. Each semester I spend a couple of painful days giving so much corrective feedback that I spend maybe 10 minutes on the accurate assignments. Have you been there, too? I chose to stop this by revamping my final assignment.

I took my inspiration from Walter Freeman’s idea (see that students bring something of themselves to their final projects. Ruth Poproski shared a course design process to keep everyone on track with their final projects.

There were 165 handed in (enrollment after the drop deadline was about 170). I got through 46 of them the first day of grading, which is about the pace I was going for, so it should take about 4 days

What is the assignment description?

Here are my assignment instructions:

The creative project overall is worth 24% of your grade (2% for proposal, 0.5% each for your 4 peer reviews of other student proposals, and 20% for the final project).

The scientific topic of your project is something related to the content of the course. This could be any aspect of our course!

The format of your project is how you are presenting the topic; this could be a traditional paper or it could be something completely different that you enjoy (Painting! Short story! Music video! Ad campaign! Jewelry!).

In most cases, if your format is not a traditional paper you will need to also include a scientific statement that explains how the scientific topic is portrayed in your work (not more than half a page).

Think of this as a plaque that’s next to a piece of art in a gallery that an artist uses to describe their work. If you see only the art, you might not appreciate what the artist put into it and the choices they made, but once you have read the plaque then you can see it all and understand it in a completely new way. This will be particularly important if your format is visual. Make sure I don’t overlook that effort!

If you are unsure whether you need a scientific statement, ask on the discussion board (in a Course admin thread) or by email.

“How long should it be?”

Because of the variety of formats, this is a hard question to answer. Word limits (minimum or maximum) are always problematic because they make you care more about how many words you use than what the words are, which is what I actually care about, and they’re completely nonsensical when applied to a painting or a sonata.

The final project itself is worth as much as 2.5 topical exams. You should convey a depth of understanding of your topic commensurate with that. For a traditional paper, this might roughly correspond to 2–5 pages of single-spaced text, but use the depth of understanding as your guiding principle on “have I done enough?” — not length.


It is difficult to create a rubric that is both general enough to cover all of the types of projects and not so generic as to be useless, but here is a formal guide to what I am looking at when I grade. I am considering each of these components roughly equally:

  1. Scientific understanding: How correctly do you convey an understanding of the scientific topic of your project?
  2. Depth of thought: Do you delve deeply into your topic or just give surface-level information (e.g. lists of uninterpreted facts)?
  3. Creativity and/or artistic quality: Have you done a good job with the medium you are using? For a traditional paper, this might correspond to the clarity of your writing; for art forms, I am not judging you compared to Georgia O’Keeffe or Sidney Poitier, but do you use the medium effectively?
  4. Truly exceptional projects might receive more than 100%.

Altering a Lab Helps Students Do Science

I’ve been teaching an online science lecture and lab this semester. We typically have a lot of in-class discussion and participation; this was made more difficult by our current circumstances and the varying needs of students. One of the ways I’ve been getting around this is by creating labs that have an in-person and online option for the same information.

For instance, one lab asks students to gather data on the microclimates around campus using scientific instruments. For the students who could not gather data with us, I altered the assignment so that they gathered their data from the network of weather stations that are available on Weather Underground.

Whereas the students on campus looked at hyperlocal areas that were within walking distance, the online students looked at inner cities vs. suburbs. Both groups were asked to make hypotheses and test them. Both were asked to create graphs, analyze their data, and relate their study to a peer-reviewed research article that I supplied to them.

Although the lab needs tweaking (what new lab doesn’t need tweaking) they came up with some pretty good science. I call it a win.

Tiered Feedback Just Might Enhance Communications with Students

I offered weekly online “student hours” this semester by posting a Zoom link and my availability. So far, I am using that time to grade and prepare for upcoming class sessions. Nobody has visited. This situation will change slightly in the coming weeks at the close of the semester. Some students may wish to improve their final grades. Not much of this is different from other semesters. Changing the name from “office hours” didn’t make much difference (though I have kept it), and I do not have a good pedagogical rationale to make visiting the instructor mandatory.

To address both phenomena – silent student hours and panicked end-of-term visits – I plan to highlight a tiered feedback structure in my course design. The idea is simple, but it requires a lot of initial effort to ensure students know the structure and to implement the base-level:

  1. Each assignment gets its own, specific grading rubric with a very limited number of expectations that I associate with color codes. I ensure the assignments are aligned with the rubrics, and I ensure the formatting requirements relate to specific rubric expectations. When grading, I plan to highlight rubric-related sections with the corresponding color. I will return the assignments and clearly state a time period to request further guidance (e.g. one week).
  2. If a student asks for more guidance within that time period, I can then go back to those specific sections to make detailed annotations. I plan to return the annotated assignment with an invitation to “student hours.”
  3. Within the second week of an assignment’s return, my student hours just might include focused discussions of assignments.

I’ll have to wait and see.