Online Assessments that Engage Them…and You

This is a long post; just a warning!*

Okay, let’s say the brutal truth: Grading assessments for a large class can be exhausting. Please don’t do what I used to do: I’d count every assessment, multiply it by the number of students in that course, then do the same for the other courses I was teaching, and add them together. That total went up on a sticky note in my home office. Every Friday I’d revise the number down. There were days when it was so depressing!

My key piece of advice is to accept that not everything has to be graded. So construct assessments that you believe will interest your students without the pressure of knowing they all will have to be graded by you. I would read everything each student in my 300+ student class wrote, but not all assessments were graded. Some of the assessments were simply marked “did/not done.” This is an easy way, for example, to assess “exit questions” at the end of class. Each student who either posted to an online discussion board or who answered a brief online form, earned credit. Read them all and then grade perhaps, 10% of them for points. Rotate which students earned points (as opposed to “did the work” points) and use their answers to discern which concepts you might need to go back over (perhaps in a quick video or a post to the class). Make these low-stakes assessments such that each student actually earns a grade, perhaps five times during the academic term. For the “did the work” grade, students needed to have turned in at least 80% of these assessments.

Note: not every learning management system allows you to grade P/F or better, “Did/NotDone,” so I had to use a spreadsheet to record these grades. I would assign this grade twice—once at midterm and once at the end of the term. Students could always ask me to see how their grades were being calculated.

Graphic: says "Online Discussion" and then has many hands held upDiscussion Boards:  Let’s get this kind of assessment out of the way first. If you choose discussion boards as an assessment, you’ll need to create groups. Students need a much smaller “place” to post and to wrestle with the material. I suggest having groups between 20-25 people, maximum. Most all learning management systems now make it easier to post a discussion question across multiple groups at one time, so be sure to learn that technique.

If you use discussion boards, I have a few ideas on how to use them well:

    • Post an example of a “good post” – I suggest it has to include, in a clear and manifest way, at least one concept from the course (or the section of the course you assign).
    • Set clear guidelines about what should be in a post:
        • It should use the student’s own words.
        • Quotes (from the text, websites, etc.) need to be in quote marks and have a citation (it is up to you whether it is a complete citation in a style you select or whether you allow for a truncated kind of citation).
        • Quotes should be used sparingly, must be clearly marked, and only to illustrate something the student has already written about in her/his own words.
        • Have a range of lengths that are likely will reflect enough content to possible earn points.
        • Are there words/abbreviations, etc., which are unacceptable? Tell your students about them and why they are not (perhaps refer to your institution’s code of conduct, etc.).
    • Post a few examples of “bad posts” – from an “I agree with X’s post” to other common errors you have seen.
    • For the first post, have students respond individually and “close” each reply, so that only you and the student can see it. You will have to find the right amount of time for this kind of post—I wouldn’t suggest more than 2-3 days, maximum. I’ve found this, more than anything, prevents the “Yeah, I agree” kind of comment. Assess each individual post as you had planned. Then, open up the posts for perhaps 48 more hours (at least to each student’s group, if not to the entire class) and require each student to reply to a set number of other students’ posts. Again, give an example of what would be a “good” and “bad” reply, pedagogically. You want students to engage with each other and show evidence of learning. Assess their comments as well.
    • Assessments have to be worth enough points that students will do them, but not too many points.
    • What kinds of discussion prompts work best? Obviously, this will be impacted by your discipline, but try to write prompts that require critical thinking and reflection, not just a “Yes” or “No” reply. Some prompts could be:
        • Compare/contrast theories/theorists.
        • A short video or news article which can be analyzed.
        • Application of theory/concept to real-world situations. For example, I might ask students how theories of socialization would “see” the debate over “free range children/parenting” (there would be a video for all to watch about the topic embedded in the prompt).
            • Think carefully about discussion prompts about current events (i.e., the pandemic, Mr. Floyd’s killing by police officers, social justice marches, local or campus events) which could either make students feel they must represent a particular group or which might (re)traumatize them.
            • Even if your content fits with these real-world events (e.g., a course in policing, or public health), consider having a choice of prompts so that students can choose to engage the material and current events or not.
      • Give the case study to read and then ask different groups to respond to unique prompts, about different aspects of the case study. Then switch that group’s topic with a different group’s and have them respond to each other’s ideas.

So discussion boards can be used in an online big class, but to be manageable, you will need to form smaller subsets of students and have students engage most of the time with that smaller subset.

Machine-graded Assessments 

If you are using a text which comes with online support, it likely will have quizzes either already written or which you can construct and have the software grade for you. USE THIS OPTION! Once you set them up (assuming you use the same texts), all you have to do is change the dates for the assessments. In my large face-to-face classes, I created a 5-point quiz that assessed learning from that day’s meeting. Students had 24 hours to complete the quiz. In an online environment, one could do a similar quiz, perhaps at the end of each week or module.

If your readings are online, can you embed reading questions in them? That way students can receive feedback “in the moment,” which can help their learning. Again, some publishers are creating online content that does this (primarily for introductory courses though). I used these embedded-in-text questions as “pre-class” quizzes. Students could take them as often as they wanted—until class—in order to earn maximum points (but 95% of the students only took them once). Something similar could be used to begin sections of an online course—these kinds of quizzes can alert students to key concepts (thereby shaping their reading and studying). Again, the fact that they are machine-graded means that all you need to do, once you have set them up, is answer any questions students might have about the answers—and contact those students who didn’t take them on time. (Communicating with students is so important in an online large class—so much so that it is the subject of next week’s post!)

Group Projects

Infographic that says "Project" and has icons around it about different possible tools needed (e.g., calendar, bar graphs, etc.)Again, you will need to divide the large class into smaller groups. Most learning management systems will allow you to separate students into such groups. Group projects reduce the number of assessments to grade while involving all students in the learning process. There are several group activities that you can use to assess student learning.

      • Projects that relate to a case study, given to either the entire class or better yet, just that group. Ask the group to either
          • Problem-solve ways to gather data about the problem
          • Apply theories/concepts being learned to the problem
          • Discuss ethical issues related to data collection (if you teach a discipline which studies humans or one which does animal research)
          • Create a video which presents their “final decisions”
      • Projects that ask groups of students to create/find examples of concepts/theories being learned. This might be
          • Original photos and then written explanations linking the photo to the concept/theory (for lots of reasons, including legal ones—have it be original photos!)
          • Poetry and explanation of how the poem illustrates concept
          • Songs and how they illustrate theory/concept (if the songs are original, the group could record them singing, etc.)
          • Illustrations to show that students understand the scientific principles being studied
    • Laboratories
        • Probably want to divide the class into much smaller groups (as you would in a face-to-face class)
        • Give these smaller groups deadlines to complete tasks (e.g., doing an actual lab or watching a video of it being done)
            • Again, keep the assessment “closed” so that only you and the particular small group of students see the results (either always or until you want to open the results up for the entire class to see)
            • If possible, I would suggest that videos “doing the lab” (if they are necessary versus students being in the lab to do it themselves) showcase students, not you, unless it is not possible, time-wise.
            • Be sure these videos show likely mistakes; why they might be made and what/how they misunderstand the material. It’s good if the video could stop and allow students individually to write what they think about the error, before the video continues on, with you and the students being filmed explaining what might have happened, etc. These interactional “breaks” in the video can keep students engaged and can be set up to be machine graded for low-stakes points.
    • Student-led teaching and discussion
        • This can be a good assessment if the topic for the teaching and discussion are known in advance (ideally, several weeks in advance).
        • Be sure that any readings or visuals the student group needs to do the project well are available in advance.
        • Develop a rubric or a guide for each group so that students know what materials should be covered, how you want them to cover the material (e.g., is an original skit acceptable? Could the group create a video that covers the material? A PowerPoint slide deck about the material? Define what you want, but also allow for the group to be creative. Allow a group to contact you in advance of working on it if it has a novel pedagogical method it wishes to use which is not listed in your directions for the assessment), how you want them to create discussion prompts, and how you want them to monitor/lead the online discussion. Again, this should be available to all students well in advance of the first group’s due date. If correct definitions and original examples of terms are required, be sure the rubric states that and awards points for this evidence of learning.
        • If the topics under study are “difficult” ones, consider asking each group to locate a group that is working on the topic and helping to make social change.
        • It probably works better for smaller groups (5-7 at most) and not larger groups. So you will have to decide if this size makes the assessment unworkable for a big class.
    • Debates
        • Assign groups to various sides of a debate. Ideally, try to have more than just 2 sides!
            • Have each side provide a handout with a summary of its presentation, in advance of the “debate day” (graded)
            • Perhaps each group could also do a PowerPoint presentation about its argument, again, posted in advance of “debate day” (graded)
        • Assign another group to find resources for all sides (this group might have to work off an earlier due date than the other groups) (graded)
        • Assign other groups to be what I like to call “a prepared audience.” They have read the resources, presentations, and come prepared with questions for all sides (graded)
        • Some of these assessments could have a simple rubric of “not met the requirements;” “meets requirements;” and “strongly meets requirements” with a set number of points (e.g., 0, 5, 7 points respectively plus comments).
        • The “debate day” could be synchronous – Zoom or some other software – or could be asynchronous, where each side sends a video to the other side(s), they respond, then all posted for the prepared audience to reply, etc. Asynchronous debates need to be planned over a longer time period—you might only want to do 2 or 3 during the entire semester, so that each student can be on a “debating” group and either the resource or prepared audience group, etc.
  • Readings and groups
      • It is possible to have groups analyze a complex reading. Expect to be an active guide in the process though.
            • Consider using a modified jigsaw activity (see Resources).
            • Assign different groups sections of the reading
            • Give each group either questions or a list of key concepts/theories—these can serve as a guide through the content
            • Have the group write up answers/key concepts/definitions as well as questions the group or members of it still have
            • Then mix up the groups, so that one or two members of the original group are combined with similar sets of students from each of the other “reading section groups” you created.
            • Give these new groups time to teach each other content of the reading.
        • Create an assessment that measures each student’s learning of the reading. Ideally, create explanations for any incorrect answer (if you do not always do that), so that students can be confident about their learning

For each of these group project ideas, be sure to ask each group also to craft  memo about their processes, including

        • Attendance at “meetings” (e.g., Zoom, Slack, etc.)
        • Who did what during their processes (this could be in a table which lists name, tasks, was task completed, etc.)
        • Any other “facts” which you feel you need to assess group participation
        • Questions for other groups to answer about what they worked on
        • I award a small number of points for this “group process” memo. I made students use what we learned about how groups work in the memo and illustrate those concepts/theories with examples from their work – I realize I am blessed to teach sociology, where I can do that. But if you teach a different discipline, think about developing a form which gets at this kind of data—it helped me to discern if the free-rider problem occurred in the group or not:
            • Who led each step?
            • What steps were created? Using what deadlines?
            • How did they lead? Did they focus most on tasks to be done (instrumental leadership) v. the emotions of the group (expressive leadership) or both?
            • Did everyone meet their deadlines?
            • Did everyone keep communicating well with each other, using the tools the group decided to use? Who did/not?

Individual Work

If you want to do this (I did, but keep reading!), get creative. Don’t have students write “traditional papers” if you can help it. Instead, construct assignments like “Bingo” – where you create things for them to do in each square of a Bingo card you create and the student has to spell out “Bingo.” One letter might be “analyze an online interaction you took part in, using Goffman’s dramaturgical theory. Maximum 2 pages.” Have the Bingo assignment available on the first day of class and go until perhaps, the 3rd week before the end. Be sure that you have concepts/theories from each part of the course (ending about a week before it is eventually due). (I want to thank several colleagues in sociology for this assessment idea.)

This was a 10-page paper to read, but students completed it at various rates. By midterm, about 40% of the class had already completed it. About another 30% turned it in between midterm and the due date, so I had about 100 to grade when it was due.

Consider giving students options: a paper such as described above or a group project. The points would have to be worth the same, so think about that as you craft your learning objectives for each. But you might expect about a third of the students might choose the solo paper versus the group project—so your grading time just was reduced.

In these pandemic times, I would not suggest what in sociology is (unfortunately, in my opinion) a common paper, the “break a norm/be deviant for a time and then analyze the interactions” paper. I have ethical issues with that writing prompt at all, but I also think that asking students to break a norm either on or off campus in the middle of a pandemic and social justice protests, is just not a good idea.

Tests as Assessments

I’d like to save this for another blog post, okay? Because this is a crucial type of assessment and there is so much to unpack—intellectual honesty/cheating, measuring learning, how to grade them, group v. individual testing, etc.—that I want to give it its due.

Wait, Is She Crazy?

Female teacher, grading on laptopI admit, I gave lots of assessments and despite having some graduate assistants working with me, I graded each and every one of them. My advice about teaching a large section online is to rethink how many assessments you need to get an accurate picture of the learning your students are doing. Assign more “did it/didn’t do it” assessments and then sample the class and give everyone feedback based on how the students in the sample gave evidence of learning and where the students in the sample had problems. Use machine-grading for low-stakes assessments which help you to diagnose where there might be students struggling with course content.

It will take more time than you think (LOTS more time) to create your presentations – making video and audio and transcripts, especially the first time you make them, so please factor that into your thinking about assessments of student learning.

I believe that the more you can interact with individual students that learning is enhanced. So next week, we’ll turn to tips about online communicating with a large class.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

*Note: I realize that good pedagogy, let alone good online pedagogy, requires that content should be “chunked” into smaller amounts. I had to balance that versus trying to get all my thoughts about teaching a large class online completed before the start of Fall 2020 begins–which is why this post is not chunked. I still have 4 more posts in the series (communication; software; testing; and confessing errors I have made).


Transitioning to Online Teaching

Creating an Online Community, Class or Conference – Quick Tech Guide (Google document)

Miller, J.A. 2020. “Eight Steps for a Smoother Transition to Online Teaching.” Faculty Focus (March 20)

Muhlenberg College’s Camp Design Online

Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered & Adaptive Strategies in the New Higher Ed Landscape

Rutka, J. 2020. “7 Ways for Professors to Manage the Transition to Online Teaching During COVID-19.”

Whitaker, M. 2020. “What an Ed-Tech Skeptic Learned About Her Own Teaching in the Covid-19 Crisis.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 28).

The Facebook Group, “Pandemic Pedagogy” (must be accepted by organizers)

Case studies

Effective Online Case Teaching: How to Engage Your Students from Afar

Simmons, Emma. “Making cases work online.”

Schwartz, Laurel. 2019. “Making Learning Relevant with Case Studies.” Edutopia (June 4).

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching’s webpage on Case Studies

Discussion boards

Ho, Yvonne. 2020. “How to Create Engaging Discussion Forums.” eLearning Industry (February 19).

Page, Amanda and Miriam Abbott. 2020. “A Discussion about Online Discussion.” Faculty Focus (February 3).

Simon, Edwige. 2018. “10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions.” Educause (November 21).


Designing for and with Accessibility (pt 3 in a series of teaching large classes online)

Zoom class pictureGoing online in the best of times can be an exhausting process, made worse if one is forced to due to social distancing required during a pandemic with no end in sight. So let’s talk about how you can deliver content online in ways that are accessible. I have tips and I have questions for you to be asking your instructional technologists and teaching and learning center staff. Don’t be shy – these are important questions for you, your students, and your institution. Don’t think you are the first to ask, either!

Questions about the Learning Management System (LMS)

-Which one does your campus use? Is it a proprietary one or an open-source one?

-If it is proprietary, I would ask your institution’s TLC if that staff believe it truly is accessible. For example, if it uses a lot of icons for key sections of the course, is there an “alt text” already embedded in the LMS’ code, so that students who use text readers will know what the icon means? If there isn’t, is this a possibility? How hard is it to do for someone not used to coding?

-Can your LMS easily create smaller groups, for collaborative work?

-Will you automatically be made a part of each of the groups, if it does? You might not want this, given (hopefully) the amount of contact they will be having with each other.

 Creating Slides for Learning

Fonts and Font Sizes

Presenting in a large classroom requires slides that are designed for this size audience. Designing for a large audience means that you pay careful attention to the font used, the size of the font, and the color. Most design advice sites suggest a font size of 28 or larger. You might think that if you are planning for the slides to be seen online, that you can go smaller. But test it out on several sized screens, including a mobile phone, and find the size that works best. Many designers suggest using at least a size 16 on text for mobile phones.

Now, you know what a “sans serif” font? Here’s a sentence: “I want to see my friend, so we will meet at the zoo’s giraffe pen.”

The Times New Roman font uses serifs (look on the ‘y’, the ‘s,’ and the ‘f’) – a stroke attached to the main form of a letter – but serif fonts are more difficult for text reader software (used by students with visual disabilities) to discern. On small screens, like a cell phone, lines of serif font can blend into each other more than sans serif fonts, so plan on using san serif ones. Gill Sans is a commonly used sans serif font.


Lots of advice columns say to limit the amount of text which you put on presentation slides. They continue by saying, “Don’t use full sentences.” While I second that advice, I also want to tell you a story about one of my most epic fails as a professor, which is about what I did and didn’t put on presentation slides.

Picture of sand; someone has scratched the phrase "Messed Up" in it, and a rubber eraser is next to itIt was my first time teaching completely online. Luckily I had a wonderful colleague, Dr. Kimberly A. Tanner, who was co-teaching the class, on Disability in Society, with me. We were fortunate to have an embedded instructional technology graduate assistant who also worked on the course. We used films as our primary “data” for students to engage with and discuss. I worked really hard on a slide presentation about “theories of disability” and we put it up. I think it was the second day that it was up and the graduate student called me and asked “If I wanted to drop by to see how my slide presentation sounded for a student who might use a text reader due to visual disabilities.” I figured that the call really meant there was a problem, and I headed over immediately to visit with him. He pulled up a chair and called up the presentation. I settled in to listen. About 3 slides in I knew why he wanted me to listen, in person. Text readers need punctuation—since I hadn’t used any (following the common advice) and the text reader software read ALL 45 slides as one—very long—sentence. It took nearly 20 minutes for the torture to end. I was stunned, embarrassed, and angry with myself. Why hadn’t I ever taken the time to learn about this technology? I thought about all the students I had who never told me about how slides sounded to them. I went home, tracked each down, and wrote an apology letter to them.

So—please use punctuation! Here’s how I do it, since my “internal editor” won’t let me write incomplete sentences with punctuation:

      • I write short bursts of text (usually incomplete sentences).
      • I then add punctuation for students who use text readers.
      • Then I make a transcript of the slides (usually in Word) and I’ll edit them visually so they do not use as much space/paper. I will also make the transcript available in other formats (HTML, accessible PDF).
      • I change the font color of the punctuation only, to that of the slide background (slide presentation software). Why? Because this allows the text reader to stop and make the content meaningful but doesn’t impact those who are seeing the slide and its content.
      • It’s a win-win ! (An example: When I wrote this column in Word, I made a punctuation mark immediately after the 2nd “win” in the above line, but then I changed the color of it to white, so that you cannot see it; you can only see the second one, in black font).

Helping Students to Focus

Look, in any learning environment a student might “tune out.” One might think that in an online environment, the student would immediately replay what he or she missed, but that might or might not happen. So what I have done for all classes, no matter how I delivered the content, is this: I built the slide presentation as if it were an outline and color-code the background of each slide according to its pedagogical signifcance. Here are my outline’s color codes:

Topic of the day:  black background with white font

I. First main section: dark grey background with black font

II. Second main section: dark grey background with black font

Subsection 1: light grey background

Subsection 2: light grey background

Subsection 3: light grey background

III. Third main section: dark grey background with black font

Subsection 1: light grey background

Example 1: white background (or Application 1, etc.)

Example 2: white background

Subsection 2: light grey background

I teach this background color-coding often in the first few weeks of class. Periodically in a face-to-face class, I stopped and asked students to explain the level of significance of a slide. You could do the same in an online presentation. Once they understand it, they love it. Many compliment it on student evaluations, saying it helps them and prevents them from having to ask another student, “Where are we now?”

I use a system based on the book, Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, to craft my slides and the outline for the class; it makes it easy to color-code slides. But if you are creating a presentation from scratch, it is still easy to color code. In PowerPoint, go to the slide sorter view and hold down control and click on all the slides you want the same color and change the font background. Then do the same for the next color, and so on.

Here’s a picture of what a slide presentation might look like:

A picture of 30+ slides with the suggested color-coded backgrounds

Don’t feel you have to be “flashy” and “cute” – stick to basics as you begin to develop the class. Don’t use “fly-in text” (again, difficult for text reader software) or too many presentation gimmicks like that. Talk with your students; tell them if you are just developing these skills; ask them for advice and guidance—let them help you to present the content they need to succeed in your class. It’s a great thing for them to see you as a person who is learning new skills. Be human with them.

Some other standard advice about accessibility:

-If you create tables, be sure to create them using a standard software’s table function, which will embed (hidden) codes to alert text reader software to skip to next column, etc. If you just create boxes and then begin to insert data—without these codes—it won’t be accessible.

-Be sure that you use “Styles” to create your syllabus. If you do, it will automatically embed codes for different level headings, etc., which will be more accessible. BUT—if that’s all you do, you have not done enough. First, be sure you paginate the document. Then, go and create a Table of Contents (again, don’t just create one on your own—it needs those codes!). It will capture all the headings/subheadings you used, match with the correct pages, and will insert it at the beginning of the syllabus. NOW you can make a PDF of the syllabus and there will be hyperlinks that will allow students to click on a heading/subheading in the Table of Contents and take the student directly to that section. Without such a hyperlinked Table of Contents, the student would have to listen to the entire syllabus to find perhaps the one paragraph she needs. With syllabi as long as mine were (20 pages)—you can see how frustrating and inaccessible that would be.

-Caption all videos. If you are using videos you did not make, be sure that they are captioned. You might need to show students how to turn captioning on—different software does it differently. And again, captioning helps all students. In this time of learning from home, being able to watch a video with the sound off and captioning on could be a lifesaver for a student with small children or who is caregiving for sick person, etc. If you are not sure how to caption a video you create, I have some links below to help. Your institution’s office which works with students with documented disabilities might be able to offer assistance with how to caption. Please know, however, that right now their staff if probably overwhelmed, so look online to see if they or the IT staff or the staff of the Teaching and Learning Center might have put up a page about captioning to help faculty.

If you are embedding a video in your presentation where it will automatically play (versus the students having to click on a link to watch a video), be sure that the captioning is turned on and will show when all students look at the presentation.

If you are using an older video which isn’t captioned, then you will need to create a written transcript and make that available to all students. Post it in the learning management system (or whatever you are using) – ideally post the transcript right below the presentation itself, so that it is obvious to students that they are linked.

I suggest you contact a librarian at your institution if you have questions about the length of videos you can use in a presentation without violating copyright laws, etc.

-Use primarily black and white for colors of backgrounds and fonts. Some styles (discussed above) use a different color for certain levels of headings—it is relatively easy to edit that color (perhaps change to black but italicize, etc.) before using a selected style. Save your revised style and it will be there when you next need it. Use lots of white space—don’t cram too much into any one slide!

-Use “Alt Text” when you insert a picture. Some of us think if we put a caption beneath a picture, that that is enough. But again, text readers look for the “Alt Text” content to read to the student, not a caption. Usually, you can find the “Alt Text” box by right-clicking once you have inserted the picture or using the “edit” function for the picture.

There is always more to learn about making class content accessible, so do what you can now. Attend workshops if there are some offered by your institution, and be open to students, staff, and colleagues who might offer suggestions of how to do better.

Next week: Assessments that engage them–and you!


About Typefaces/Fonts

About Alt Text

How to Caption Videos and Narrate Presentation Slides,video%20you%20want%20to%20caption.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Backwards designing your class (pt 2 in a series about teaching large classes online)

In this post, let’s continue our conversation about taking a large class (or really any class) online, no matter the subject matter. Here are the links to other blog posts in the series: first one (questions to consider).

To backward design a class (also labeled “UbD” for understanding by design) is to think critically about who your students are (not who you would like them to be), what you want your students to learn when you and they will cover the course content, why they need to learn it, how you want them to practice what they have learned, and how you will assess their learning. Knowing all this means that I can then construct interesting, accessible, and intriguing content that, hopefully, will want students to engage with it, each other, and with me.

Cognitive profile -- words which illustrate the types of learning tasks asked of studentsThis step is crucial no matter the means of course content delivery—planning what you want students to know and why they need to know it. So please forgive me if this doesn’t seem all that “online-focused” – it’s just about good pedagogy. I promise that coming posts will be directly focused on creating a large class in an online environment.

[An aside: there are terrific websites and books about backwards design and I will include some at the end of this post. I don’t want to take credit, nor merely repeat, what these fantastic scholars have already done. They will outline the process from learning goals, to objectives, to assessments, to delivering content in the detail you’ll need.]

Often I’ve used lots of color-coded sticky notes around my office as I thought through the best way to design the course. I’d ask myself the following questions:

  1. What should my students know at the end of class? Think about what they might need for the next class if it is in a sequence or if it isn’t, what are the learning goals, objectives, and outcomes for the course?
  2. What are the “tripwires” in my course? By that, I mean what content confuses students the most? It might be a theory, or a particular concept or the ability to compare and contrast two theories, etc.—list what they are. You’ll want to be sure that you have a variety of ways of teaching these tripwires and ways to assess student learning.
  3. We know the course will be online, but will it be synchronous or asynchronous? I am assuming that a large class will likely be asynchronous but with some of the “returning from pandemic” options, such as HyFlex, you might be delivering content both in-person and online. Knowing this in advance will help you to backward design the course.
  4. How long will the course be? An entire term, be it a semester or a quarter? Half of that? Four weeks? Knowing this will help you to consider the pacing of content and assessments.

So let me talk about the large Introduction to Sociology class I taught.

Who:    In the fall, it was about 98% brand new first-year students; in spring about 90% first-year students, but they had more familiarity with my institution’s learning management system than the fall students did. My students were primarily first-generation college students, who were not working (but looking for on-campus work), who were nervous about succeeding in college but willing to work hard.

Why:    Nearly all our lives, humans participate in social groups, be it in our interpersonal relationships, at work, in our volunteer activities, etc. So understanding how groups shape individuals and how individuals can shape groups, is central to the student doing well in life.

What:   I had five questions that I wanted students to be able to answer, which I framed as puzzles we would unpack as the term unfolded. These formed the five sections of the class. I’ve listed in italics some of the key concepts covered  during each section of the class:

        • Do sociologists see the world differently (especially as compared to psychologists)? And if so, how? [the sociological imagination, culture, taking the role of the other]
        • How does life in groups work? [culture (continued), norms, values,  ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, social structures, statuses, roles, and sanctions, how groups influence us and us, them]
        • Who are you? Who am I? The puzzle of socialization [Theories of socialization (psychological and sociological), nature v. nurture]
        • How do sociologists think and act? [sociological theories and perspectives, sociological methods, statistical analysis, the ethics of  studying humans]
        • Culminating in:  Why is life not fair? Why are there social inequalities and injustice? [racism, sexism, economic inequalities, how these are interrelated, ways to create social change].
      • When:  I devised the course to work through those sociological puzzles in that order because it allowed me to scaffold not just the assessments but the key concepts in ways that built students’ sociological skills so that by the time we got to the “Life’s Not Fair” section, they had the skills to wrestle with data, find data, and analyze the data using sociological perspectives.

How:    I had to think about what kinds of assessments would help me to know how well each individual student was learning as well as trends in the class so that I could quickly intervene if there were difficulties. I decided that much of the class would be very low stakes assessments (1 point per question “clicker” questions, 5 point after-class quizzes, and 1 point exit questions). These low stakes assessments kept students connected to the material on an almost daily basis. In addition, I had three major tests. Many of the assessments were online or could easily be shifted to an online format (more on assessments in 2 weeks).

Each major question/part of the course had what I call “tripwires,” content which, based on test scores and other assessments, with which most students struggled. So I built more of these low stakes assessments around that content, and I had more examples in my repertoire so that I was never at a loss for illustrations, etc.

Will the environment of the course impact how you design it? That is to say, will the course be either synchronous, asynchronous, HyFlex, or not? Of course, this decision will shape some of your pedagogical decisions. Will your course be recorded for those online? Will you be meeting all students in an online environment or some face-to-face and some online? Can students shift between these, as their health risks or their schedules require? What will happen should you become sick? These are questions that will have to shape some of your pedagogical decisions—but let’s be clear—good pedagogy must drive your planning, be it for any one faculty member’s classes or for an institution’s.

I realize that sociology is a discipline that might be easier to think about taking online—especially in a hurry—than say a lab science or lab art class, etc. That is true, in part. But I have seen wonderful pedagogical innovations, no matter the academic discipline. So be brave and dive in–lots of us are here to help. Just reach out! Email me or write in the comments.

Next week: Designing for and with accessibility in an online environment. As you shift to an online delivery method, there are ethical choices to make (yes, there are also legal ones, but since I am not a lawyer, I would rather talk about the ethical choices to make).

Resources on Backwards Design (many of these URLs link to further resources),final%20results%20of%20the%20course.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Pandemic Lessons

Image of COVID-19 virusAs the academic term is winding down for most (and for some, summer term has started), it’s time to reflect on what happened. Have you taken some time to do that? After you’ve gotten some rest and relaxation, of course!

Three blocks that spell out "You"About Yourself

-What new skills did you learn (by choice or by necessity), either for teaching or for interacting with members of your department and university?

-Are there ways you can continue to build on those new skills?

-How can you use those skills in your future pedagogy?

-What did you enjoy about the last two or so months of teaching?

-What did you come to detest about the last two or so months of teaching?

-What did you learn about how you handle unexpected change? How you need support? How you offer support to others?

-How did your pedagogy change (I’m assuming that it had to, at least in some ways!) during this time of staying-at-home-teaching?

-How did you manage the changing workload this academic term brought? What time management steps did you learn? Wish you had learned?

-How have your relationships with others at your institution changed over the last few months?

-What did you learn about your communication style and how others react to it?

About Your Students

-How did they rise to the changes in your courses?

-What strengths did you see in them?

-How did they cope with the transition to being away from campus, if they were primarily an on-campus population?

-How many online campus services did they access?

-What new skills did they learn (or were forced to learn) in order to continue with the term?

-How can you create future class content to leverage their new skills?

-What did they teach you about your pedagogy and how to better meet their needs?

-Are there skills you thought your students had learned that you feel they need to still work on, in order to succeed in courses and the labor market?

-How did they do working in teams (if they did)? How can you help them to strengthen these people skills?

Sign in 4 directions, which say, "Respect," "Ethics," Integrity," and "Honesty"About Your Institution

-What software worked best for communicating with others on campus?

-What software did not work as well for you?

-What surprised you about your campus/department/program’s leadership team and their decision-making? Good surprises and not-so-good ones?

-How well did you feel your institution communicated with you about CV-19 on campus, in your community, and the plan for trying to reduce its spread?

-How well did you feel your institution communicated its pedagogical plans to you, to staff, and especially to students as the transitions occurred?

fountain penShare Your Thoughts, Constructively

In this time of Zoom meetings and such, people might be “screened out.” So I suggest you consider doing something “old fashioned”—drop a few handwritten cards or notes to those individuals who were really there for you, your program, or your students. That might be your Teaching and Learning Center staff, your Instructional Technology staff, your Library staff, the faculty member who had more online teaching experience and helped others out, your Housing and Residence Life staff who helped students to exit campus safely, your campus security, your Human Resources staff, or a particular administrator whose deft touch in campus communication helped the transitions which had to occur. Even if you have ideas for improvement, a short note might be heard better than a long email.

You might even consider writing yourself a letter—memorializing what you have learned, how you have changed as a teacher, and how you want to keep changing in the academic terms to come, given that the virus looks like it will still be on campus, in our communities, and in our lives, for at least the near future. Open it as you begin fall planning.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Regrets, I have a few…

Tiles that spell out "Regret"I read Facebook and Twitter and hear the exhaustion, sorrow, and sadness of so many of my friends whose lives have changed so drastically, due to the coronavirus. Some were experts at online pedagogy and are thriving—at least in their teaching—at this time. Others are struggling with transitioning laboratory classes to an online environment. Many are juggling life as an online teacher with being parent-teacher—online and in person—to their own children as well. As a non-parent, I read those posts and admire each of them for multitasking so diligently. I realize that how one did yesterday does not mean how today is going.

I’ve had lots of regrets. Did I retire “too soon,” given this pandemic? Could I be useful now, teaching a large online class of students in these tense times? Could my senior capstone course help advisees and majors about to graduate think smartly about how to find jobs in this weak job market? Should I have gone into public health instead of sociology (has long been an interest of mine; about 5 years into my teaching career, I had an opportunity to enroll in a MPH program and really had to think hard about it)? [I’m thinking of seeing if my local public health department needs contact tracing volunteers.]

"I wish life had a rewind button"My guess is many of us have similar thoughts—should I have done . . . ? But rethinking choices can be difficult in times like these. Be kind to yourself. Realize that during times of stress it’s easy to wish for a different present, just in case it might help create a different future. But we’re living, teaching, and surviving in this pandemic.

Up here on the mountain, self-quarantining is our way of life anyway. Even before the virus, we tended to go to the store once a week (or less) and run all our errands during that one trip. I’ve been going into the stores because my husband is older than I am and well, I’ve seen the data about the mortality of this virus and males. So I am doing most of our trips out or Frank’s coming with me, but staying in the car. Though North Carolina doesn’t require it, we’ve started using masks when we go out (we found several which our contractors and carpenters left in the garage!).

My husband and I are blessed and we know it. Of course, that could change, but for now, financially we are so much better than most, so we are doing what we can to help out our local food bank and local companies.

All we can do is to live—and teach— in the moment—be it one of calm, stress, anxiety, fear, or just exhaustion. We need to help our students to be in this same moment and to look, not long term, but to near-term horizons. Help them to get through this week’s classes and to plan for next week’s. Help them to assess accurately their health status (physical and emotional) and access resources they need. For those who will be graduating soon into a labor market that has crashed, give them hope that their degree will provide skills they can use in a variety of jobs let alone careers. This is the time to really be sure their resumes list skills they have (e.g., data analysis, qualitative and quantitative research methods [many jobs will need staff who can, with a bit of training, provide contact tracing, for instance], cultural competencies and how to handle customers from a variety of social locations, etc.).

Stay honest with yourself, about yourself and your pedagogy. Stay honest with your students by modeling truthfulness. Be gentle with yourself and with them. The goal of “finishing the term” needs to be flexible and reflect the pandemic realities of the last few months.

Know that there are many people, like myself, who are here to support you all as you live and teach in these historic, scary times. Stay inside, stay healthy, and be strong. You are doing hard things very well. But remember, you are entitled to “down time” – even if you are online, you don’t have to be “working.”

Meme that talks about it is okay to have a variety of emotionsIt’s okay to cry, scream, to need a break, to take time to meditate or exercise, to chill out with your favorite comedy or Hallmark Christmas movie or whatever it is. Be kind to yourself. There will be time for whatever comes next—make this moment, now, count. Know lots of us are here to support you.








Teachers and professors too are on the front lines of this pandemic. Many have been forced to transition pedagogical strategies in just days—a week at the most. Students need you now, not just as their educators, but as lifelines, creating routines and a sense of steadiness in the midst of chaos and upheaval.

Unlike retired medical professionals, there isn’t a call for retired professors to rally to help—though I know many of us would like to do so. Instead, many of us are trying to support our friends still teaching, albeit differently, and the staff who have become academic coaches and advisors, online helpers, etc., regardless of their official job descriptions.

These abrupt transitions must be difficult enough, but additionally, many faculty and staff are now becoming teachers in a different way—for their own children, who are at home with them full-time. Parents are always teachers, but transitioning to stay-at-home teaching and oversight of their little ones who are suddenly learning online, simply adds more stressors.

So what I want to offer today is a set of values and behaviors for those of you doing the hard work of pandemic educating:

Believe Breathe. Be still for a moment. Every day, take a moment to quiet, to center yourself, to ground yourself in whatever ways fill you up. That might be prayer, meditation, communing with nature, whatever works for you.

Expect the UnexpectedExpect the unexpected. Whether it be a storm that knocks out the Internet, or a student whose online post causes pain to another, or finding out a friend or loved one has tested CV-19 positive—something likely will happen today that will overturn your plans. And it’s okay. Plans don’t have to be completed in the chaos of the now—do something to advance the goals today.

Like yourself in the now. No one should be judging others or oneself in these times. Each of us should be extending a hand and an open heart. But it’s not the time to say “wow, her classes are going better than mine” or “he seems to be managing teaching/parenting better than I am.” Do what you can. That is enough.

Graphic: magnifying glass enlarging block of text that repeats FACTS over and overInvestigate—be a knowledge seeker. Listen to what you hear on the news, in social media, or from family and friends, but be sure to check out the source of information. Official websites are much more likely to be sharing the best data we have about the virus, the economic distress spreading across the globe, and potential treatments. Help students to sort through sources to find ones which are more trustworthy.

Experience what is happening. Whatever it is, live in the now. Be that sadness, fear, or the joy of a happy pedagogical moment online—feel it. Know that you are not alone. Luckily, children can help to show those of us who are adults how to do this. So watch a child for a moment—the laughter, tears, seriousness, and back again—can be great life lessons during these stressful times.

Value what is most important to you. Family, health, social connections, faith as one understands it, life-long learning. Share yourself with your students—we all need to see each other’s humanity during the pandemic (and afterward too), and the more students see you as a person who is trying to live out personal and professional values and ethics, the more comfortable they will be in creating their own set. As our society—and the world—begins to rebuild itself, we will need to act in ways that reflect our better values—sharing with each other for the common good, be it supplies like food and paper products, wealth, access to education, health care, or internet access. There will be time for political conversations, to be sure, but conversations about equal access to resources shouldn’t be about politics, but about our shared humanity and weaving the social network tighter, to catch those who are in danger of falling through it.

ExhaleExhale. Let it go—whatever the ‘it’ might be. Tears of frustration, fear, the screaming at the frozen screen in front of you, the child who seems to step on your last nerve—try to step away for the moment to rebalance. It’s far easier to say than to do, so don’t worry if you don’t always succeed at letting things go. Do the best that you can and be kind to yourself, your loved ones with whom you are “staying at home,” your students who are worried about their learning, their health and economic future, their loved ones, and your colleagues who are simply doing the best that they can too.

We always are constructing our individual lives but now, in this pandemic moment, we are caught up together in constructing the history of our nation, it’s young, and our world. Do today what you can. It is more than enough.

Just believe.

Don’t Really Know What To Say–Do Any of Us?

I feel like I’ve let all my professional colleagues down by retiring in 2018, given what the past 10 days or so have been for them. There’s no way I can understand the stresses they are feeling–for their students, for their colleagues-the techy ones and the ones who feel they are so lost right now trying to transition to new learning and teaching modalities, for their families, for our communities, our nation, and the world.

We’re stressed about and for friends whose jobs are have disappeared in less than a week. Some of us know people who are Covid-19+ or waiting to hear if they are. Fewer of us probably know someone who has died of it–so far.

Some of the people we are worried about might be students, others are friends, others are family members. My husband’s family lives in NYC and mine in Seattle–so we listen to the news about the two US hotspots nearly every moment of the day.

Our world is radically different. Teaching, learning, is different now too, if only because for now, it often takes a back seat to the virus and what it means for our lives, now and in the future.

So be kind. First, to yourself. Especially be kind to yourself if you are trying to convert classes in order to finish the term and provide continuity of learning. What centers you, in this new reality? Do it as often as you can.

Be kind to your students. They likely are overwhelmed with family, financial, school, mental health, and technological stresses. They may or may not share that with you, but it’s there. So assessments need to be rethought (e.g., the type, the number of them, the grading). Err on the side of grace.

Be kind to your family, however you define that term. That cup in the sink, the dishwasher still not emptied, the little one who is crying because she knows something is “wrong” but doesn’t have words to talk to you about–take a breath or two or three.

Help out. Every community is different. Research what it needs. A colleague started a GoFundMe for wait staff from local restaurants (many who are students). Or contribute if you can to your favorite charity. Log on to social media and see if there’s something that needs to be done. In a nearby town where I live, more people are signing up for going out and cleaning up trash on local highways. Families can do it yet still practice social distancing. Social science research has shown if we do something to help others, we often feel more in control when life is chaotic.

But most of all, know that we are in it together. So here’s one way I want to help. Anyone need a video guest for class conversation? Count me in. Here’s some of my specialties:

-teen Satanism

-new religious movements

-gender and religion

-social construction of reality, especially about the social construction of social problems

-how media construct social problems

-Class specialties: Introduction to Sociology, Soc of Religion, Social Problems, Constructing Social Problems

Email me at

Be kind. Take breaks (emotional and physical ones). Hug someone you love if you can or reach out via social media. Stay in touch. We’ll persist…together.

I have never been so proud to say I am (albeit retired) an educator as I have been these past two weeks.





Tips for Writing Successful Letters of Reference for Graduate School

Woman standing on road with two branches - one shows a career path and other, graduate schoolLast week I wrote about ways to reduce the time needed to write a letter of reference for an undergraduate student applying for a job. This week I want to build on that by sharing how I would write a letter of reference for a student applying for graduate school, medical school, law school, or social work (by far the type of program that I wrote for the most).

I used a version of the Word document which I would send to the student who was requesting the letter from me. Here’s what it would include (italics are unique to the request for a graduate school reference letter):

    • Full name and student identification # (please alert me if name changed for any reason—marriage, transitioning, etc.)
    • Major and minor
    • What classes they took from me (course number and name) and grade received (I shared that I would verify with my own records/official transcript)
    • When they took classes
    • Were they an advisee, also? If so, when?
    • Were they ever a peer tutor who worked for me? For anyone else?
    • Research paper topics if they wrote any – please give lots of details about a senior thesis or major research paper on topic in discipline applying for
    • How the student felt s/he performed in my class(es) and why (give me details). I would tell students that one didn’t have to be talkative for me to consider them a leader in class, etc.
    • Any work experience that fits with desired discipline of the graduate program (before, during, or after college)
    • Any volunteer/community experience that fits with the graduate program’s discipline (before, during, or after college)
    • Any academic or personal issues they had (e.g., illnesses, family troubles, etc.) that might have impacted academic performance (i.e., “please remind me if I already knew it”) and I asked if I had permission to mention any issues in the letter (a “yes” or “no” box on the form)
    • What kind of a time management skills do you have, given school (if in it) or work, personal life, relationships, etc.? How do you feel adding graduate school to the mix would change your ability to manage your time? 
    • How well did the student do on the best standardized test for the program the student wants? (i.e., GMAT, MAT, GRE, LSAT, etc.)       
    • Evidence of intellectual curiosity in the last 6-12 months (could be non-required nonfiction books have read; podcasts listen to regularly; learning new language, etc.) This is especially important to me if student been out of college for a while.
    • How well do you work in groups? Many people believe that to be successful in graduate school requires a person to find a group of like-minded student peers to study with, etc. That’s not to say one cannot be successful in graduate school “solo,” but it can be more difficult.
    • Brief statement about why student wants this particular degree, at this particular graduate school (especially if there is something in the degree program that appeals to the student, like a rural focus, etc.). How and why did the student choose this degree path? This is useful if the graduate program is not very closely related to the student’s undergraduate degree.
    • If student has a master’s degree and is applying for a doctoral program, I also ask
        • Why a doctoral degree? Why now? What do you feel the doctoral degree will allow you to do that a master’s degree would not (i.e., work advancement, etc.)
        • What kind of writer have you become during your master’s degree? Do you have a reading-writing process that allows you to read much material, process it, and analyze it? If not, what plan do you have to create such a process?
        • Have you thought about the financial obligations of graduate school and how they might impact your life and your relationships? 
        • Are you planning to apply for any and all scholarships offered?

Complete information about graduate program and school applying to

    • Name of whom to write letter
    • Address
    • Complete name of graduate program (preferably send a URL for me to review)
    • Date letter of reference must be submitted
    • URL if to be submitted online

Obviously, I require the student requesting a letter of reference from me for graduate school admission to do a bit of work, in order for me to write the strongest letter I can on the student’s behalf. If the student was not an advisee or did not take my Senior Capstone class (where we spent a lot of time discussing graduate school, how to be successful in it, and reasons to go and not go), I usually request a conversation with the student (in person, or over the Internet) so that we can do that now. Most students said that my information form took about 15-30 minutes to complete. Several said that some of the questions they had not thought about before and helped them to better shape their statement about career goals that the application asked them to write.

I use a template to write the letter for the student. The first paragraph would talk about the student by name, the program to which the student was applying, and how long I had known the student and in what capacity (i.e., only as the student’s professor, advisor, employer, etc.).

Three sheets of paper, labeled "Test scores," "GPA," and "Extra curriculars"The next few paragraphs I spent trying to create a verbal description of the person as a student. So I would talk about the student’s cumulative GPA, the GPA in the major (if that was a statistic I thought would help out the student’s application), and my overall assessment of the student as an undergraduate, in particular about writing, academic focus, and group work, as well as how well I feel the student’s standardized test score reflects their graduate education potential. Is there something in the student’s academic background that could show how the student overcame a problem – say by going to the Writing Center or Tutoring Center – and achieved success? I try to answer in advance any academic worries the program might have about admitting this student.

Picture top half of a person, wearing glasses. Surrounding head are questions marks, as if drawn on a blackboardIn the next several paragraphs I would go into detail about the student’s academic history—how was he or she as a participant in classes they had with me? How was the student’s ability to read information, see similarities and differences, and then analyze them? Could the student do a wonderful analysis but then not be able to express it in an academic writing style? If so, do I believe that could that be a skill the student could improve on easily? Did the student show intellectual curiosity while in my classes – as evidenced by coming in and wanting to talk about the material more or asking about other books/blogs to read, or showing the ability to link course content with other courses the student had taken or was taking? What about since graduation—does the student talk about still being intellectually curious?

Then, I’d share how the student came to decide on that school and its program. I believe that programs like to know that students have not just applied everywhere and anywhere, but have thoughtfully considered the advantages of its program and chose to apply there with intentionality. I know when I was on graduate admission committees, too often it felt like  students weren’t even sure which program they’d applied to—and I hated that.

Wordle, terms all about professional ethicsIf the profession the student wants to enter post-graduate school requires fulfilling an ethical code (such as counseling, social work, etc.), do I feel the student has the ability to learn about and ultimately abide by that code? I often shared incidences where I saw the student resist peer pressure to cheat or who would lead a group study session versus studying on own, etc.

I would end the letter with a brief description of who I was—how long I had taught, been a faculty advisor, etc. I’d talk about the class sizes of classes the student was in, so that future employers could tell if I really had a chance to get to know the student. I’d sometimes end with a few of the teaching awards that I had won, to sort of round out my credibility.

My last paragraph always included a statement that I would be happy to answer questions the possible employer might have and included at least 2 ways to reach me (phone and email). I also wished the employer luck with the search. Again, we sometimes forget there’s another person, reading the letter, who just wants to finish the search, successfully!

So readers, how do you write a letter of reference for an undergraduate applying for post-graduate education? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.


Is It That Time of Year Again?: Writing Undergraduate Job Market Reference Letters

Happy 2020! My intention is to write 50-52 blog posts again this year. So let’s get started.

Wordle of key words involved in the writing of reference lettersFor a while, the requests for letters of reference were an “only in early spring term” phenomenon, but with more and more undergraduate students graduating at the end of fall term, it can seem like this is a year-round activity. I love writing reference letters for them, but to do them well can also be a bit of a time-suck, so here are some tips that can shorten your future labor. This post will be about writing letters of reference for jobs and next week’s will be about writing letters for graduate programs.

  1. Create a form (I used Word to create mine) to gather the information which you feel you need to write the best letter possible. Send it out to the student requester when you get an email asking for the letter. I told the student, in my email reply, that unless I got the form back, completed, in four working days, I won’t write the letter. This helped me to plan out my time more efficiently. It also meant that I didn’t get any “I need this tomorrow” kind of requests!

What information did I want to know from my undergraduate students?

    • Full name and student identification # (please alert me if name changed for any reason—marriage, transitioning, etc.)
    • Major and minor
    • What classes they took from me (course number and name) and  grade received (I told them I would verify with my records/official transcript)
    • What term(s) they took classes
    • Were they an advisee, also? If so, when?
    • Were they ever a peer tutor who worked for me?
    • Research paper topics if they wrote any
    • How the student felt s/he performed in my class(es) and why (give me details). I would tell students that one didn’t have to be talkative for me to consider them a leader in class, etc.
    •  Any work experience that fits with the job applying for
    •  Any volunteer/community experience that fits with the job applying for
    •  Any academic or personal issues they had (e.g., illnesses, family troubles, etc.) that might have impacted academic performance (i.e., “please remind me if I already knew it” or share now) and I asked if I had permission to mention any issues in the letter (a “yes” or “no” box on the form)
    • Complete information about job applying to
      • Name of whom to write letter
      • Address
      • Complete name of job (preferably send a URL for me)
      • Date letter of reference must be submitted
      • If the student’s experience does not seem to fit with the job, why are applying, so that my letter can reinforce the rationale, if possible

Three rows of words: Trust, Honesty, RespectI tell students that I will not lie. If I don’t believe I can write a strong and truthful letter, that I will let them know within 48 hours of their request, so that they can find another reference. There were a few students where I said ‘no’ – in particular, students who cheated in my class (twice!) and yet who asked me to be a letter of reference for them, and a work study student who repeatedly blew off hours and asked me to “fudge” the time sheet.

  1. I also created a template for the letter of reference, that allowed me to use the information from the student in a logical way. So, for instance, the first paragraph of the letter would always include the following information:
    • Full name of student
    • Job title to which student was applying
    • How long I had known the student and in what status(es): professor of (name of class[es]), advisor, work supervisor, etc.

Image of hand, holding ballpoint pen, having just written the word "Dear" on the paperThe next few paragraphs were about my recollections of the student in class, as an employee, or as an advisee, or several of these statuses. How strong was the student as a thinker? A writer? As a participant in discussions in class or online? As a leader in class? How was the student’s follow-through if had sought out advice? Did I see growth over time in their study skills, their time management skills, their abilities to balance multiple classes with the rest of their lives, if I had known them for a long period of time? These paragraphs were where I added a lot of the personal details about the student and why I felt they would be a strong new employee. I also tried to minimize, if I felt it was required, things like a not-so-stellar first two years of grades. I’d talk about how many students from my university had a “rocky” start academically. I’d calculate the student’s GPA once had settled on a major and showed how (inevitably for those I wrote for), the GPA had risen significantly and talked about how interest, determination and having a clear goal had let to a more focused student and how I felt that was a skill that would continue in a job, etc. If I knew, for example, that a student’s parent had died during one semester, and the student had given permission to mention that, I might say how that explained lower grades that term, etc. I would talk about how future academic terms showed the student’s resilience and focus.

  1. I would end the letter with a brief description of who I was—how long I had taught, been a faculty advisor, etc. I’d talk about the class sizes of classes the student was in, so that future employers could tell if I really had a chance to get to know the student. I’d sometimes end with a few of the teaching awards that I had won, to sort of round out my credibility.
  1. My last paragraph always included a statement that I would be happy to answer questions the possible employer might have and included at least 2 ways to reach me (phone and email). I also wished the employer luck with the search. Again, we sometimes forget there’s another person, reading the letter, who just wants to finish the search, successfully!

Usually my letters for undergraduates were from 2-3 pages in length (single spaced). I sent a copy to the student, so would know what I had said. I saved each letter using a file system of “Student’sLastNameJobTitleDate” so that it would be easy to create similar letters, should the student need one.

So readers, how do you write a letter of reference for an undergraduate going on the job market? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Goodbye 2019…

Crystal ball dropping in NYC, 2019Last December, I vowed to write 52 blog posts in 2019—one a week. It’s been a year of changes for me—moving from where we’d lived for 34 years, the joys and tensions of building a house, and then of course, the big move into the house, which was delayed for 3 months, while we lived in rented cabins. We’re just beginning to find a new community in our new location—trying to find ways to meet people at concerts, a nearby university, political activities, and potlucks. At times it has been lonely and other times so busy it was hard to keep up with everything the 2 of us were doing. It has been a very good year, overall.

I’ve written 56 posts, for when things in higher education news struck me, I replied with an extra post. I’ve reposted one—the “letter to parents as you drop your child off at college for the first time” at the start of the academic year, because many people asked me to do so (I tweak that one, but will continue to post it every August because so many professors and parents have found it useful).

I’ve shared pedagogical ideas, tips on writing and working with a journal editor, self care, how moving made me reconsider my teaching style, just to name a few things.

Text is "2020" and fireworks exploding in skySo I’m ending 2019 with this post, but I’ll be back in 2020 with more pedagogical thoughts.

Thank you to all who have read these blogs, shared them, liked them, and commented on them. I’d love to have even more conversations in 2020. Let’s do this.

Happy holidays. Happy New Year.