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Feb 02, 2011

Sample Writing Assignment for an Introductory Science Course


I teach a one-semester course that is an introduction to both physics and chemistry for non-science majors. Most of the students are freshmen who usually have weak science backgrounds and typically take this course merely to fulfill a requirement. In order to make the course more meaningful, I try to show how physics and chemistry are involved in the students’ daily lives.

I think it is important for students in any course to write a paper, but I have struggled to find an appropriate writing assignment for this intro course. Ideally, the topic would be interesting to the students, not require a high level of scientific knowledge, and yet require some literature research and analysis. The writing assignment has evolved into a four-page paper on a scientific topic of current interest in the news, such as “Nuclear Power Plants - Should We Build More or Not?” I place slips of paper with different topics (see below) into a hat and have students draw their topic. If a student has a different topic about which s/he would like to write, I allow the topic if it is reasonable. All topics have “two sides to the coin.” Students must research both sides and discuss the positive and negative aspects in their paper. In their conclusion, the students must state their personal opinion (pro or con) on the topic and briefly explain their position based on their research.

Students pick their topic in the second week of the semester. Besides written directions, I give them a rubric so they will know how I will grade their papers (see below). Grades will be based on content as well as on writing style/correctness, following instructions, and timeliness of the draft and final paper. Their final paper is due near the end of the semester, but I require a draft by mid-semester. The purpose of the draft is to provide general feedback, point out possible plagiarism, and help students manage their time.

This writing assignment seems to meet most of my criteria stated above. Moreover, students often have told me that they enjoyed learning about their topics.

Examples of Topics
  • Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – should we drill for oil there or not?
  • Nuclear power plants – should we build more or not?
  • Should research using embryonic stem cells be restricted or not?
  • Should ethanol from farm crops be used as a partial substitute for gasoline or not?
  • Should the U.S. try to put humans on Mars or not?
  • Will battery-operated automobiles become a major means of transportation or not?
  • Should wind power be pursued as an alternative energy source or not?
  • Should solar power be pursued as an alternative energy source or not?
  • Is the cost of prescription medicine in the U.S. reasonable or too high?
  • Global warming is caused by human actions – fact or fiction?

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.
Ernest C. Linsay
Director, Faculty Development & Support
Wilmington University

Author: francine_glazer

Jan 25, 2011

Learning by Writing

Try this experiment: ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion on the topic. You don’t need to grade it or even collect it, although you might want to use the students’ work as a way to take attendance. Why do this? Research findings suggest that students who write about topics learn more than those who do not.

Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10-minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on exams given later in the semester. Students who were assigned to write about the topic prior to discussion performed better on both factual and conceptual questions than did students who thought about the topic prior to discussion. Interestingly, the improvement was greater for the conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.

Brief, in-class “process” writing has other advantages. Students who are reluctant to contribute to class discussion are more likely to do so if they have had a few minutes to gather their thoughts and write them down. You can avoid calling on habitual responders and randomly ask students to share what they have written. 

In-class process writing can also serve to quickly assess student knowledge about a topic. You can use it as a pre-test, to assess reading comprehension, or as an application exercise. None of these writing assignments need to take more than a few minutes of class time, they require little time to grade, and they enhance student thinking and learning.
  • Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 172-176.

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Carolyn Oxenford
Director, Center for Teaching Excellence
Marymount University

Author: francine_glazer

Jan 17, 2011

Semester Beginnings


First Impressions matter. The first two days of class – even the first 15 minutes of the quarter – will make or break it.   The first class is your opportunity for culture-building. It’s crucial that you get students talking – that you not just hand out a syllabus and send students off to do their homework, already numbed to the prospect of another quarter of the teacher talking at them.
~ Luke Reinsma, Seattle Pacific University
Today, it is recommended that instructors use that [first] class to set the tone (anticipate challenge, but expect my support), actively engage students with the syllabus, and use activities to exemplify what students can expect.  Many instructors now create a mutual dialogue with students about what instructors expect of students and what students expect from instructors. 
~ Hawai'i Pacific University FAQ: Start-up Activities for a New Term
To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.
~  bell hooks, from Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge (1994)

Try a new strategy to build trust, add warmth and increase participationA great joy of academic life is the fresh start offered by semester, quarter or term organization. Even after 45 years, I still have “butterflies” before a new class or workshop, but I thrive in the opportunity and excitement of trying new things, seeing new responses, making improvements. As you polish plans for the first days of class, consider a fresh idea.
  • Familiarize students with the value of feedback to you. In the essay “Evaluation Anticipation” (January 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education), John Lemuel notes the challenge of sorting useful from simply ego-bruising feedback: (A teaser:   I've started introducing the topic of student evaluations early in the semester, mainly to point out the folly of saving up grievances to unload anonymously after grades are in. I can't deal with problems I don't know about, and finding out about them sometime next semester won't help the students currently afflicted. So I tell students, try talking to me, and see if we can't resolve the problem. If . . . some learn self-advocacy in the process, that's a plus. But I know I won't appeal to every student, so I ask them to write only comments they could sign their names to, and some actually do. Explore the many advantages of asking students for feedback within the semester, and discover some ways to get that feedback.
  • (Jan-Feb 2009). 
  • Try some community-building activities. They help you learn student names and help students to learn each other’s names. A powerful resource for name-learning strategies is an article by Joan Middendorf, Indiana University: Learning Student Names . That article begins: :In his 1993 book, What Matters in College, Alexander Austin reviewed the literature on college teaching, finding two things that made the biggest difference in getting students involved in the under-graduate experience: greater faculty-student interaction and greater student-student interaction. Though learning student names may seem a trivial matter in the entire university enterprise, it is a powerful means to foster both of these interactions."
  • Use the first class meeting to process your syllabus. Have students read (and in groups, derive questions/concerns from) selected parts of your syllabus; then answer the questions. By using groups you preserve anonymity. By compelling students to process parts of the syllabus in class, you assure it will be reviewed even if not read in its entirety.
  • Make a strong start. Introduce rich, engaging content immediately (but make it possible for late-starters to catch up). Offer flavor by modeling strategies you will likely use again.  
  • Make expectations clear in conversation, and ask students what they expect of you. Most faculty include course expectations in a syllabus. Some engage students in discussion of the syllabus, fewer ask students what they expect of faculty. Rarely, a faculty member engages students in co-development of expectations. Mano Singham, at Carnegie-Mellon University, did an experiment in which he ditched his “rule-infested” syllabus and asked his students to build a syllabus with him. Another idea to explore is talking openly with students about (a) what is reasonable for you to expect of them, e.g. in preparation; (b) what they expect of each other in class or online (forestalls potentially uncivil behavior) and (c) what they expect of you. In the conversation, drill deeper from non-specific terms, like “well-prepared,” to what those words mean in behavior.  
  • Stay open to skill development. We often assume that students already know the skills they need to thrive in your classroom. The harsh reality: often they do not know, in operating terms, the behavior meaning of such commonly used words as participation, preparation, or listening. They commonly don’t know the fundamentals of civility in such behaviors as punctuality, use of communication tools, and discourse with teachers and peers. What, for example, are the boundaries of acceptable response when a peer makes a point you find offensive? Such skills are critical keystones of success in today’s collaborative workplaces. You can create simple activities to help forge these understandings; and you can focus on the how-to of specific skills, such as reading a textbook or listening for and understanding another’s point of view. Create a T-chart to show visually what “active listening” sounds and looks like in behavior terms. It takes five minutes to construct with student input, is a great opportunity for humor and easy participation; it can focus on any skill you need to develop. The instructor should be able to develop such a chart; but it has the most powerful effect if students develop it in class, with the instructor prompting and students modeling some of the skills.  



This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.


Michael Dabney
Director, Teaching and Learning Center
Hawaii Pacific University

Author: francine_glazer

Dec 08, 2010

The Last Day of Class

The last day of class rapidly approaches (at least on the New York campuses)! The way students feel about a class greatly influences their retention of the material and whether they will ever take another, similar class. Make the last day of class one that leaves students with good memories of your discipline.

Here are some things to avoid:

  • Above all, resist the temptation to cover that last little bit of material! Students will not retain it past the final exam, almost guaranteed. Also, rushing to cover a few more items demonstrates that a professor did not plan very well, since closure, review, and reflection are key activities for learning.
  • Don't end class with those dreary student evaluation forms! Don't plan student presentations for the last day (may be too late for this semester) – it's high-pressure for the students, and frankly, sitting through one presentation after another can be pretty dull especially when they're more worried about their finals. Don't cancel class, but do make it worthwhile to attend.

Here are some things to try:

  • Use the last day to help students reflect on their semester, to consider how what they learned in your class fit in with everything else they did. For example:
  • Use the syllabus as a tool for overall course review. Or, give a “simulated” exam and have students work in groups to answer the questions (be careful with this, because students may expect the real exam to be exactly like the review one). Ask students to share some ideas about how they prepare for final exams and handle the stress of exam week.
  • Ask students to create a flow chart or concept map to describe relationships among the concepts in your class and to identify some outside ideas that also relate.
  • Ask students to write a letter to someone who will take the course next year. They should provide an introduction and describe good learning strategies for the course. Seal the letters and don't look at them until grades are in. Deliver the best ones to students at the start of the next class.
  • Ask students to work together to write a concise and complete response to the question: “What is __________?” Fill in the name of your discipline, the class, or another relevant concept.
  • Have a discussion on what worked and what didn't work in the class. This will need to be handled carefully since grades are still to come. Make sure to focus the discussion on learning, not on what people “liked” or didn't like.
  • Talk about yourself and how the class has fit into your research interests or other aspects of your professional life. If you have carefully maintained neutrality on hot-button issues all quarter long, this is a very good way to leave the students with a sense of where you stand and why you do what you do. One good example is an astronomer who, on the last day, told stories about his country's traditional religious beliefs about the origins of the universe and then talked about his personal journey to science.
  • Congratulate students who are graduating and if they're comfortable, have them talk briefly about their plans. Congratulate everyone on having completed the semester successfully.
  • And of course, food is always a good send-off. If you're up to it…provide cookies. Or better yet, ask the students to bring in a favorite dessert to share.



To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted, with permission, from a similar post at Cal Poly Pomona.


Victoria Bhavsar
Program Coordinator
Faculty Center for Professional Development
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Author: francine_glazer

Nov 30, 2010

Encouraging Student Attendance

As the semester progresses, faculty members often see a noticeable decline in attendance. In fact, estimates in large classes suggest that over 60% of students deliberately cut them. Empty seats (and sadly, empty minds) are an issue, but there are some things you can do.

Some Things to Try:

  • Make the class informative, interesting, and relevant. Add variety and entertainment to lectures, such as animations, slide shows, demos, video clips, music, and guest speakers.
  • Post outlines—not the complete notes—on your course web page or in Blackboard, so that students know what to expect. They can use them as a guide for taking notes and not as a substitute for attending class.
  • Use supplemental illustrations and examples that students can’t get any other place other than in class.
  • Give exam-directed problems in class.
  • Count class participation toward the final grade.
  • Give students a topic to think about for the next class discussion or a puzzle to solve either for fun or credit.
  • Give regular pop or announced quizzes. Give quizzes at the beginning of class to encourage timely arrival and to get feedback on assigned reading. Alternatively, give quizzes at the end of class to test comprehension. 
  • Give more scheduled exams covering less material.
  • Give weekly in-class assignments that can be done in 20-30 minutes that give students the chance to apply what they have learned. Students can work individually or in pairs. Give students credit for completing assignments, but don't grade them.
  • Collect homework and give students credit for handing it in. You don’t have to do this every day to encourage attendance.
  • Establish a policy that grades will be lowered according to the number of sessions missed.

Some additional ideas for larger classes:

  • Use personal response systems (“clickers”) to encourage attendance and pair-related problem-solving. Some systems, such as Poll Everywhere, lets students use their cell phones to respond, instead of a clicker.
  • Put students in large classes into groups of four using playing cards. You can have up to 13 groups, Aces through Kings, and the suits can designate the individual identities within the team. Team folders can be used for classroom management and accountability purposes. All teams are responsible for turning in the group activities in the team folder, and any team member could be called on for group reports based on their playing card suit within the team folder.



To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.


Barbara Millis, Ph.D.
Director, Teaching and Learning Center
University of Texas at San Antonio

Author: francine_glazer

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Jamal Richardson Jamal Richardson
Campus: Old Westbury
Major: Architecture, B.S.
Class Of: 2015
Vincent Sadusky (M.B.A. ’96) Vincent Sadusky
Class of 1996
Profession: President and CEO of LIN Media
Giovanni Santamaria Giovanni Santamaria, Ph.D.
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department: Architecture
Campus: Old Westbury